An Amazing Meal and Delightful Stroll in Baschi

Life In Umbria, Italy

During my time in Umbria I had the opportunity to enjoy a number of absolutely fantastic meals.  The local tourism board wined me and dined me until I was bursting and could barely move.   Needless to say it was a great chance to engage with Italian food in a way  I had not previously experienced.  As a lactose intolerant traveler with a light gluten allergy, Italy had always been a culinary destination I eyed with suspicion.  Granted, most of the food I enjoyed on this trip wasn’t the usual low-cost eats and street food that aligns with my budget, but it still managed to completely change my relationship with Italian food.  Of the places which treated us to a meal, the absolute best of the lot was Sala della Comitissa in the small picturesque town of Baschi.

Sala Della Comitissa Menu

The restaurant sits near the far point on a hill that looks out over the nearby valley. Access is gained through a long stairway off a small street that is just wide enough for a car to carefully navigate. The entrance is simple, clean, and cozy. With less than 15 tables, Sala della Comitissa makes no pretense about the experience they offer. Their aim is a cozy, elegant meal prepared and served with care and love. Some of the sparsely decorated stone walls are laden with old swords, candles and other distinctly medieval decorations. Others are painted in a natural beige plaster which helps highlight the beautifully set tables that fill the room.

Eating in Umbria

While relatively new, the restaurant was opened in 2010, the approach to tradition and culture is not.  Each table has three types of chairs at it.   Of these, one is gilded and ornate.  This chair is reserved for the guest of honor.  To further allow for guests to honor members of their group, two other chairs offer a second level of distinction in the form of arms, while the remainder of the chairs are comfortable and elegant but lack both the arms, ornate gilding, and rich upholstery of the seat of honor.

Eating in Umbria

Our meal started with a delightful toasted bread with a rich liver pate alla grappa and crushed hazel nuts. The pate was creamy, pungent and awash in flavor.

Eating in Umbria

Next up was a fresh and wonderfully healthy/velvety carrot and ginger puree with rosemary and olive oil-flavored croutons.  This dish was a universal hit around the table and it was fun to watch each of us eye our empty cups strategically, carefully analyzing if  (and hoping that) we’d missed a small spoonful that might be reclaimed.

Eating in Umbria

This was followed by a light and flavorful zucchini flan served with gently salted, perfectly ripened tomatoes, olive oil and crushed fennel. The small flan (though I’m likely misnaming it) was surprising in both its creaminess and lightness. Where I expected it to be dense its texture had more in common with whipped cream. Unfortunately, due to the high dairy content, all I was able to do was sample the dish. Luckily, in anticipation of my cursed lactose intolerant limitations they had a special surprise in store for me.

Eating in Umbria

In place of the dairy-heavy third dish, the chef prepared this special salad for me. What I initially thought was a purely vegetarian (and blissfully dairy free) plate ended up actually being a succulent mixture of shaved wild boar (what looks like cabbage), fresh oranges, olive oil and what I believe was fresh orange all topped with fennel. While I enjoyed all of the plates I had over the course of the meal this one was definitely the most surprising. The flavor was fresh, slightly zesty and simultaneously sweet and salty due to the wild boar. It lit my palate on fire and prepared it perfectly for the next course.

Life In Umbria, Italy

Before we dove into the next course, however, our host graciously invited us into the kitchen for a quick peak. The kitchen is small, cozy, and has just enough room for the three people who were hard at work on the meal. It was clean, orderly, and the focus on quality and freshness was obvious. Greeted with gracious smiles, the kitchen staff was in the midst of preparing a special type of traditional spelt pasta.

Life In Umbria, Italy

The spelt pasta dates back to ancient Roman times and was served with fave beans, little tomatoes, salted ricotta cheese, bacon and a fresh sprig of parsley.  The relatively neutral/subtle taste of the spelt highlighted the flavor of the fave beans, tomatoes and bacon creating a well balanced meal that was both delicious and felt slightly earthy and organic.

Eating in Umbria

This plate was followed by a more easily recognizable ragu.  The traditional ragu was based on the chef’s grandmother’s recipe and featured tagliatelle pasta accompanied by meat raised and butchered nearby.  It is worth noting that all of the ingredients used over the course of the meal were local and seasonal.  The plates we were served were designed to represent both Umbria and the area’s seasonally native foods. It showed in the freshness of the ingredients, their complex flavor, and the well rounded design of the meal as a whole.

Pork Neck in Baschi

Starting to feel more than a little stuffed, the final main course was served.  As a major fan of meat in general I was excited for the opportunity to try what the menu informed us would be pork neck-bones cooked and served in a light sauce with fresh pepper. The pork was so tender it virtually melted on my fork and as you might expect was jam-packed with flavor.  I traded my usual large fork-fulls for small delicate cuts to make each piece last as long as I could.  The neck meat was served with a mixture of local greens.  While they tasted a bit like well-buttered spinach, I believe it was a mixture of wild greens harvested and then steamed for the meal

Desert in Baschi

While the others were served what was by all accounts a wonderful local interpretation of the traditional zuppa inglese I dove into the house’s interpretation of traditional specialty pastries.  These were super sweet, light, and the perfect way to round out what had been a positively delightful meal.

Eating in Umbria

Now one thing I haven’t given nearly enough attention to – but which savvy observers may have noted on the menu – was the wine.  Each course was accompanied by a different local wine! Each of the wines was everything you would expect from a well-selected local Italian wine and went wonderfully with the meal.  The final wine, however, was the one that really caught my attention.  The Calcaia Dolce 2006 from Orvieto was, we were told, a mold wine. Yep, that’s right, mold.  An incredibly potent and sweet wine with an almost brandy or mead-like flavor and feel. The candy wine comes from grapes which are left to ripen on the vine to the point where a special type of grape mold called ‘noble rot’ sets in.  This helps with the fermentation process and results in a sweet desert wine that is the perfect way to round out a meal.

Life In Umbria, Italy

As we carefully stood to thank our hosts for their wonderful hospitality I think more than a few of us secretly loosened our belts a notch. The meal had lasted for three hours and we had delighted in every second.

Life In Umbria, Italy

As we made our way back to the bus we slowly meandered the streets of Baschi. The town embodies the picturesque nature that marks the region and despite a light rain was alive with people going about their daily business.

Life In Umbria, Italy

Situated on a hill, the views out over the nearby fields, forests and countryside quickly left me feeling like I was walking through a dream. Everywhere I looked I was greeted by fairy-tale images which seemed more like the fanciful oil paintings of blissful life in small-town Italy than reality.

Life In Umbria, Italy

With lungs full of fresh humid Italian air I found myself humming happily to myself as I snapped photos and walked the length of the town which took all of five minutes. Once back at the main road we climbed back on the bus and headed off to our next destination for the day: Orvieto…but that’s a story for tomorrow!

What is the best Italian meal you’ve had? Where was it?

Three Fantastic Places To Eat in Istanbul

Turkey-2187

Istanbul is a vibrant city full of surprises. One of those surprises is the food. With a decent exchange rate for most North Americans and Europeans it is possible to eat like a king in Turkey on a relatively reasonable budget. As a budget traveler visiting from Denmark where food is ridiculously expensive I decided to splurge a bit. Luckily for me, I was able to connect with a good friend who had already scouted out the city. He introduced me to three restauraunts which were absolutely delightful!  Prices for these meals averaged between 20 Turkish lira ($11 USD) and 30 Turkish lira ($17 USD) with a drink. While far more expensive than the 3 lira ($1.70 USD) kebabs which were available, for what we got, the price was a bargain compared to other European destinations.

Ciya - Great Eats

Ciya Restaurant – Asian Side

Pronounced Chia, this delightful restaurant is located on the Asian side of Istanbul about five minutes from the main ferry dock.  A series of several restaurants, Ciya‘s claim to fame is its amazing regional delicacies from throughout Turkey.  Concerned that traditional foods were being lost, or were unavailable outside their native region, the founder of the restaurant set out to catalog and share Turkey’s rich (and incredibly diverse) culinary palate with Istanbul’s natives and visitors alike.  The relatively small restaurant’s walls are decorated with articles from many of the world’s top food columns offering high praise for the freshness, variety and flair of the Turkish food the restaurant offers.

Turkish Cuisine - Istanbul

Despite displaying food in a semi-buffet style format it is all extremely fresh and cooked on the spot in an open kitchen located right as you enter the eating area. Situated across from the stoves and a wide variety of warm foods the staff has set up a cold food buffet with a wonderful mixture of fresh greens and rich Turkish deserts.

Turkish Cuisine - Istanbul

In addition to being fresh, all of the food is awash in color and well presented. Eager to dive in we cast off our jackets, scarves, gloves, hats, and gear (It had been snowing all day) and started to make the difficult decisions about what to eat. The way this restaurant works is based on weight. You pick what you want to sample from the wide variety of choices available, and then a waiter or waitress will weigh it before delivering it to your table.

Turkish Cuisine - Istanbul

As our selections arrived at our table Galen and I quickly realized we had run out of room. The only solution? To dive in and start eating! Despite the time of year (February) ingredients were fresh, the veggies were crisp, and each dish offered distinct flavor and a wide variety of tastes from the sharp sweet-tartness of pomegranate seeds mixed with green olives to the smoother taste of stuffed eggplant. The restaurant boasted a great mixture of local business people and tourists which maintained its relaxed and enjoyable ambiance.

Turkish Cuisine - Istanbul

We rounded out our meal with a complimentary spiced tea with crushed almonds.  It had a rich sweet flavor and absolutely intoxicating aroma. Drinking it was a little bit of a challenge as is usually the case when drinking something with a bit of a crunch – but it served as the perfect preparation before we suited back up and dove into the arms of the waiting snow flurries.

Turkish Cuisine - Istanbul

Istanbul Culinary Institute

Located just around the corner from Galata Tower, Istanbul’s Culinary Institute is an absolute delight.  With a very clean/modern design and layout it has a fun but quirky ambiance.  We ducked in for dinner and despite my initial apprehension over what I expected to be expensive food and tiny portions, I was pleasantly surprised.  Be forewarned that the restaurant has limited seating so grabbing a table in high season may be difficult. While the individual plates were reasonably priced, the wine tended to be expensive by city standards.  They also offered a set menu which looked fantastic, but was also more on par with the pricing you would expect in this style and genre of restaurant.

Turkish Cuisine - Istanbul

Did I mention that the decorations were entertaining?  Perhaps I should have said slightly disturbing.  While we got a good laugh and solid head tilt out of the artwork on the walls, it may be a bit over the top for some diners.  Especially those who lean towards a vegan disposition. As an interesting side note, all of the diners in the restaurant appeared to be American.  I heard the gentlemen at the table next to us (what appeared to be a group of American politicos from Washington DC) declare that he had been told the trip to Istanbul was worth it for the food at the Institute alone.  High praise indeed!

Turkish Cuisine - Istanbul

I honestly don’t recall what exactly I ordered.   If memory serves, it was a mixed stew that combined lamb and chicken.This is what arrived and I can tell you that it was delicious, if not earth shattering.  The broth was delicious, the potatoes wonderful, the onions sweet as candy.  The chicken was tender and flavorful, however the lamb was nowhere to be found.  Given it was one of the specials they were offering that evening I’m unsure if it just didn’t make it onto the plate or I misunderstood and the offering was lamb OR chicken stew. Regardless, I obviously was happy enough with what arrived that I couldn’t be bothered to seek clarification.

Turkish Cuisine - Istanbul

This was one of the evening’s other specials.  It was an interesting mixture of tortilla, fresh fruit and meats. The combination was the type you would never expect to work well when read aloud on paper, but which makes for a delicious combination in practice.  As an interesting and random side note – I tried putting a banana in a stew once (similarly inspired), unfortunately that didn’t turn out anywhere near as well as the succulent treat the Culinary Institute prepared for us. Perhaps that’s why I’m a travel blogger and not a world class chef.   But to get back on topic – portions are as shown in the pictures so plan accordingly.  For those looking for a fun and tasty evening on the town – definitely consider Istanbul’s Culinary Institute as an option.  That said, I don’t think I’d fly all the way from D.C. just to try it out – the hole in the walls around Istanbul have much more enticing culinary surprises for those with the time and energy to ferret them out.

Turkish Cuisine - Istanbul

Ficcin – Istiklal Avenue

Located on one of the many side streets that splinters off of Istiklal Avenue, Ficcin is an interesting restaurant that occupies a series of small store spaces along the street. Waiters duck in and out moving from one restaurant location to another.  As you can see in the photo below the small location we were in only had room for three tables and a small bar.  The kitchen was located just around the corner. This added quirk definitely ads to Ficcin’s charm.  As far as I can tell there’s no real difference from room (location?) to room, so find one that has a free table and have at it!

Turkish Cuisine - Istanbul

The food was largely traditional Istanbul cuisine. The menu was in Turkish so deciphering just what exactly was offered was a bit of a challenge, but there seemed to be a wide assortment of options conveniently priced so that you could easily combine several  into a meal that perfectly suited your mood.

Turkish Cuisine - Istanbul

One of the things I absolutely love about Mediterranean countries is their usage of rice.  While plain rice with a touch of salt and butter is great, mixed rice or flavored rice served as a stuffing is something I can eat until I lapse into a food coma.  I opted for a mixture of stuffed vegetables, though which vegetables I ended up with I’m not exactly sure.  I believe one was a tomato, two were eggplant, and as for the third? No idea.  They were delicious and every bite was loaded with flavor.  The biggest problem I ran into was forcing myself to take small bites.

Turkish Cuisine - Istanbul

For a bit of added substance I accompanied my stuffed surprises with a bowl of beans and lamb.  Apparently beans are one of the things that Istanbul is famous for.  As a result, you’ll find varied been dishes on many of the menus around the city.  It is even possible to find restaurants that specialize specifically in bean dishes.  A bit unusual as a flagship food, but after sampling a variety of different bean plates, one I’ll happily look forward to on my next visit.  This particular dish had a slight kick to it which spiced up the flavor of the beans and highlighted the lamb chunks which were tender and melted apart at the light touch of my fork.

Istanbul is a wonderful culinary city with a wide variety of ethnic foods and flavors.  The prices are reasonable, the food is almost always brilliantly presented and awash in flavor. It is also an extremely lactose-intolerant friendly city.  So, if like me, you have trouble with moderate-high levels of dairy don’t fret!  You’ll find lots to eat!  I hope you enjoy your visit, and that this post has ignited your curiosity – or dare I say hunger – for Turkish cuisine.

Have a favorite place or dish you discovered during a visit to Istanbul?  I’d love to hear about it!