The 7 Most Ridiculously Delicious Things I Ate This Christmas

7 Best Christmas Vacation FoodsThe Spanish truly deserve a prize for how many crazy huge, fantastically raucous meals they can fit into one holiday season. Here in Madrid the cenas to celebrate Navidad start the first weekend in December and become ever more frequent as the actual holiday approaches. By mid-month every lunch and dinner Thursday through Sunday has a decidedly festive feel and ends with extra-friendly dos besos and emphatic exclamations of “Feliz Navidad! Feliz Año! Feliz Reyes!”

For me, this tasty tradition coupled with my holiday trips to two Christmas wonderlands (aka Prague and Vienna) made for a ridiculously delicious month.  This year my holiday meals spanned six restaurants (eight including my elementary school cafeteria and the kitchen in my Madrid apartment) and seven Christmas markets across three countries. It included three 5+ course Christmas meals, dozens of new ingredients and untold bottles of wine. Needless to say, I ate fantastically well this Christmas.

While nearly every meal was packed with goodness, there were seven dishes that sent my tastebuds into full-blown celebration mode. Varying from high-class cuisine to street food, imaginative to traditional, here are the seven most delicious dishes I had the sweet, sweet pleasure of tasting this Christmas. 

7. Sauerkraut and sausage potatoes at the Wenceslas Square Christmas market in Prague

Christmas Market Potatoes

I am not and have never been a potato person. In my family and in Spain potatoes are relegated to the role of  meat accompaniment. They are the white mountain of fried, mashed or scalloped starch that fills up the rest of the plate. Then I went to Prague and discovered the true awesomeness that potatoes can be. In the huge cast iron skillets of Prague’s Wenceslas Square Christmas market potatoes reached their full potential.

The intoxicating aroma of sausage, sauerkraut and spices floating up from six steaming skillets envelops the dozen or so market stalls on each side of this potato goodness. Rather than Spain’s fried slivers, Prague’s potatoes were halved, boiled and left peel-on. They were doused in spices, cheese and a sweet, tangy sauerkraut and slow-cooked into a mess of goey perfection. I opted for half sausage-and-sauerkraut potatoes and half cheesy potato dumplings. I will never look at a potato the same way again.

6. Beef carpaccio with lemongrass and a mango foam at Sticker in Madrid

Beef Carpaccio with Mango Foam

When eight food bloggers, guides and entrepreneurs celebrate Christmas dinner together there better be some downright stellar dishes. Madrid’s new gastropub, Sticker, did not disappoint for the Madrid Food Tour team’s holiday dinner.

Our six-course tasting menu was packed with creative adaptations of traditional Spanish favorites, like a Manchego cheese yogurt with cured ham dust and a peanut-crusted poached egg over chips. But by far the most tastebud-tantalizing moment of the meal was the beef carpaccio, or rather the bright yellow dollops of mango foam atop it. The espuma was both tart and sweet; it was light as air and melted in your mouth like good dark chocolate. I’m not much of a beef eater, let alone raw beef, but I’d take a plate of carpaccio any day just to get another taste of that mango goodness!

5. Homemade market-fresh sliders at my apartment in Madrid

Homemade beef sliders

After eight days of traveling, my sister and I were more than ready for a nice home-cooked meal. With no specific menu in mind, I took her to El Mercado de Maravillas, Madrid’s fresh food wonderland. Weaving through mountains of vegetables, glaciers of seafood and brightly lit displays featuring every conceivable part of a cow, pig or goat, we searched for something to tempt our growling stomachs.

We loaded up on leeks, carrots, strawberries, cheese, membrillo (a thick jam-like brick made from quince fruit). On a whim we picked up some ground-just-for-us beef. Two days later, after freezing our faces off at the Three Kings Day parade, we huddled back into my kitchen to turn our ultra-lean, utlra-fresh Spanish beef into some super American sliders. Dividing the ground beef into two bowls, Lisa seasoned her half with soy sauce, pepper and “secret ingredients” she declined to share with me. I sprinkled my half with basil, thyme, black pepper and olive oil and tucked a small square of aged Manchego cheese in the center of each little patty.

For toppings we caramelized onions, wilted spinach and toasted garlic in olive oil. By the time the table was set we had created a choose-your-own-adventure slider extravaganza with enough flavor to rival our fancy Christmas Eve dinner. Good things happen when Lisa and I cook together.

4.  Seared scallops on a mango and Thai basil salsa at Coda in Prague

Christmas Eve Scallops

For Christmas Eve we decided to go all out. I wasn’t buying a cross-Atlantic plane ticket to see my family, so instead I decided to buy an ultra-fancy dinner to ring in the holiday. After weeks of research we decided on Coda Restaurant in Prague. The seven-course Christmas menu sounded spectacular, the atmosphere looked adorable and the price was stomachable.

When we walked in on a rather frigid Christmas Eve there was a fireplace crackling, a pianist playing and a plate of Christmas cookies waiting on our table. Yep, good decision. With the help of our waitress, we chose a stellar Gala sauvignon blanc, my first Czech wine, to accompany our meal. And then began the parade of scrumptiousness… My “International Christmas Menu” included, and I quote:

  • Pan seared fresh scallops served with fresh mango & Thai basil salad and homemade chili jam
  • Farmer’s smoked trout ravioli with a light horseradish sauce
  • Traditional fish soup with bread croutons
  • Homemade orange sorbet
  • Roasted & sliced juicy beef tenderloin with truffle rissoto and foie gras sauce
  • Traditional plum jam ravioli served in plum brandy glaze with butter roasted breadcrumbs

My sister will tell you the trout ravioli was life changing. But that’s only because she has a shellfish allergy and could not partake in the pure ecstasy that was the seared scallop – chili jam combo. The mango salad played third wheel to the glorious marriage of spice and silky seafood that was blossoming between the scallops (my favorite food) and the chilies (um… yum.).

3. Pork Sausage and sauerkraut at U Tri Ruzi in Prague

Czech Sausage and Sauerkraut

As a rule, I never go to the same restaurant twice while exploring a new city. U Tri Ruzi in Prague not only forced me to break my own rule, but it shattered my stereotypes about sausage (hot dogs disguised as something edible), sauerkraut (rotten), fish soup (creamy blandness) and non-wheat beer (hop-tastic).

One bite of their thin pork sausages dipped in homemade whole-grain mustard and topped with a pinch of perfectly tangy, sweet sauerkraut and I vowed to never hate on German food again. It was real meat bursting with flavor and spices. We Americans need to come up with another name for those nasty putty-logs we call “sausage.” This was too heavenly to even share the same word.

2. Sausage sandwich at the Republic Square Christmas market in Prague

Christmas Market Deliciousness

Minutes after stepping off the airport bus into downtown Prague and we found ourselves smack dab in the middle of a Christmas dream. Toys, candies, food and mulled wine peaked out from the openings of tiny wooden houses strung with garland and lights. The smell of roasted nuts, cinnamon, cider and sausage wafted around us. Our resolve to first drop our bags off at the hostel before going Christmas market exploring evaporated instantly.

The smell of pure heaven drew me in toward one of the first stalls at the Republic Square market. Somehow without using one correctly-pronounced word of Czech I managed to order a sausage sandwich. The vendor sliced the thick sausage lengthwise and seared it on a hot skillet, adding a delectable crispiness to the center. Then he threw the two juicy sausage slices onto thick, crusty bread, added two lines creamy red sauce, and a couple tomato slices and asked for the equivalent of about 3 dollars. It was easily the best $3 I spent in the Czech Republic. I think I devoured the entire saucy mess before we even got to the table.

1. Giant apricot jam filled donut at the Schönbrunn Christmas market in Vienna

Best Donut in the World

You really can’t go wrong with a jumbo donut. But this face-sized creation went above and beyond where any American donut (or Spanish donut or any donut I’ve ever tasted) has ever gone before. Besides its fantastic size, this riesenkrapfen achieved the ideal balance of crisp crust on the outside and fluffy heaven on the inside.

When my sister and I ordered our most excellent dessert, the vendor pulled out the still-steaming donut, pumped it full of sweet-but-not-too-sweet apricot jam and covered it with a healthy dousing of powdered sugar. My new life goal: to install one of these donut stalls on my balcony. Holy donut heaven!

Now, excuse me while I go for a run….

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Thanksgiving in Spain: A Madrid Scavenger Hunt

I have a whole new appreciation for cranberries. And also red currants, for that matter. Which, although they are red and round and relatively cranberry-shaped and might have been on the “arandanos/cranberries” shelf at Corte Ingles, are actually nothing like cranberries.

These Aren't Cranberries

This is one of the manyyyyyyy fun little lessons I learned this year while attempting to bring all the goodies of my family’s traditional Thanksgiving dinner to a table halfway around the world. My American amiga and I invited my Spanish roommates and neighbors to celebrate their first Thanksgiving with us on Saturday (seeing as we all had to work Thursday and Friday). We promised them an authentic American holiday, and, by dios, we were going to give them all the deliciousness of a true American Thanksgiving! Pulling that off in a country were pumpkin is usually pig food and pecans don’t even have a word in Spanish took a bit more planning than just scratching out a grocery list. It was more on the scale of a city-wide scavenger hunt mixed with an opening hours roulette. The first hurdle on our list of Turkey Day adventures: find a whole turkey.

In Spain, the big box buy-everything-you-could-ever-want-at-one-time American-style stores are just beginning to pop up in the commercial (read: accessible by car only) parts of town. Being carless and having a mild obsession with food markets, food quality and freshness I was determined to get our turkey from a stand-alone butcher shop, or carneceria. Why I decided to chose a butcher that was 10 metro stops away from my apartment… well, that just adds to the adventure, right?

Weighing the Turkey

Hauling our 13-pound raw turkey 30 minutes down Madrid’s brown line turned out to be massively worth it. Señor Pavo, as the butcher told me, was raised on a farm near Zaragoza (a city in Northeastern Spain). He was butchered on Thursday, driven to Madrid on Friday and we ate him on Saturday. Hellooooo fresh! When I first spoke to the smiley, cleaver-waving butcher about our Thanksgiving experiment, he immediately picked up the telephone to call his farmer. The farmer vowed to find us a reasonable-sized turkey after my eyes bulged at the butcher’s 7-kilo suggestion. Fourteen pounds, apparently, was small. “But it’s Thanksgiving!” the farmer told the butcher, “She’s supposed to have a giant turkey!” The 6.5-kilo (13lb) pavo we ended up with was one of the smallest he had. The butcher later told me that turkeys from this farm get as large as 23 pounds!

With the most important part secured, I moved on to the sides and stuffing. Cornbread mix was my next target. Last year while living in the rural Northwestern province of Galicia I attempted to make cornbread (an ingredient for my stuffing) from scratch. It was, to say the least, a massive fail. This year, in a city of 3 million where Taste of America stores and Corte Ingleses exist, I had high hopes of having help from Mrs. Jiffy. I was wrong. I could buy gingerbread mix, funfetti cake mix, crepe mix, Aunt Jemima pancake mix, wheat bread mix and Duncan Hines double chocolate brownie mix. But nowhere in Madrid (that I could hunt down) sells cornbread mix. Our stuffing would just have to go without.

Thanksgiving Stuffing

After similarly unsuccessful city-wide wild goose chases for crystalized ginger (yes, it was a castillo en el aire kind of dream to begin with) and some serious price-gouging on pecans, yellow cake mix, karo syrup and pumpkin spice, we decided to drop all of the above from the menu. No pecan bars for us this year. But not to fear! We would still have my aunt’s famous apple pie and Maureen’s aunt’s infamous pumpkin-ginger pie. Also impossible to find were fresh cranberries, although we didn’t realize that until the night before our cranberry sauce was to make its Thanksgiving debut. While unloading the jumbo bags of supplies Maureen brought, I spotted some small, red  definitely-not-cranberry berries. Apparently the signs had been switched at Corte Ingles. Instead of “arandanos rojos” we ended up with “grosellas” aka red currants. Oops! We dashed down to the grocery store, bought some dried cranberries and tossed them in a bowl to rehydrate overnight. Crisis averted? As my Andalucian-accented roommate would say, “ma o meno.”

Mercado de MaravillasThe week leading up to our cook-a-thon I was exploring Madrid’s top food markets for a post over at the Madrid Food Tour blog. Amid the insane variety of random (and apparently edible) items at the Mercado de Maravillas I found almost all of the fresh ingredients on our list: gorgeous brussel sprouts, ecologically-produced apples, ridiculously flavorful sausage, sweet potatoes the size of my forearm, adorable little cheery tomatoes and unfairly good goat cheese. I was in market food heaven. The sausage-selling man told me all about how much his daughter loves America (she is working in New York). The ecological fruit and veggie people described the flavor profiles of their three types of tomatoes and helped me pick out the perfect pie-making apples. This, to me, is how grocery shopping should be. Each item we bought for our Thanksgiving meal had it’s own story, it’s own history and knowing those made each dish that much more delicious. That is, after all, what the first Thanksgiving was all about right?

Will the ingredients gathered (or at least we thought) Maureen and I invaded the kitchen Friday night to begin our two-day cooking adventure. The pies came first.

Thanksgiving pie crust making

What I imagined would be a quick two-hour pie making sesh turned out to be an all night pie creating extravaganza. At 1:30 am we finally pulled the last pie out of the oven and fell into bed.  Señor Pavo joined the sleepover and spent the night on my balcony. There was no way he was fitting in the fridge.

Sleepover with Señor Pavo

Saturday morning started off as all Thanksgiving days should. With mimosas. We encountered our first hiccup approximately 5 seconds after we began. We had the turkey. We had the oven. But we had no way to get said turkey into said oven. In our haste to gather ingredients, we might have forgotten to buy a pan…  Maureen frantically searched the grocery store, the convenience store and finally the everything-you-could-ever-need Chino store for a pan, while I got to work on the stuffing. Shee finally found a pan just barely big enough to fit the turkey and just barely small enough to fit in the oven. Señor Pavo made it into the oven with literally centimeters to spare on all sides. Thank the pilgrims we didn’t end up with a 13-kilo turkey!

The next five hours were a blur of chopping, sipping, laughing and explaining as my roommates and neighbors trickled in and out of the kitchen to check on our progress. Around 2 p.m. we convinced them to partake in the traditional Thanksgiving morning mimosas and before we knew it the guys were taking turns making Cava and OJ runs. I don’t think I want to know how many empty Cava bottles ended up in our recycling that afternoon…

Cooking Thanksgiving Dinner

While Maureen and I were basting turkey and stirring cranberries, my piso-mates were (unbeknownst to me) preparing their own slice of magic in the neighbor’s spacious salon. Since my apartment doesn’t have a dining room, we had asked the neighbor guys if we could have the eating part of Thanksgiving in their grande salón. Being amazing as they are, they erected a huge table and together with mis compis laid the most perfect table for our celebration, complete with starry tablecloths and candles.

When at last we decided (guessed) that our turkey was ready, a flurry of table-setting, food carrying and cork popping ensued. The second the turkey hit the table phones flew into hands as every single member of our 11-person feast snapped photos. I have to admit. It was a beautiful sight!

Our Thanksgiving Turkey

Then, we dug in. Plates filled, glasses emptied and the room filled with the rumble of mixed-language chatter and bilingual “yums and ñums.” Looking out over the scene with a ridiculously juicy, flavorful bite of turkey in my mouth all I could think was que perfecto. After an enthusiastic round of seconds, I proposed a toast to the gracious and truly amazing friends who gathered to eat our odd (to a Spaniard) food and celebrate our 100 percent American tradition. We then went around the table and each person said what they were thankful for. Some of the Spaniards made a valiant attempt at saying their piece in English while some of the Americans gave it a go in Spanish. It was a massive collision of cultures in the best kind of way. And I couldn’t help but wonder… hope… if next year we would all be sitting around the same table, raising our glasses to Spainsgiving 2.0.

Spainsgiving 2013

Escaping Madrid’s Puente Madness in Alcalá de Henares

Madrid this weekend was a madhouse. The streets of the city center were clogged with impermeable human traffic jams. The metro was so packed that security guards blockaded the entrances, only allowing 50 people at a time to enter. And the narrow, weaving streets of downtown were parking lots of honking cars inching closer and closer to each others’ bumpers.

This was Madrid on Puente, aka a three-day weekend. As Friday was Spain’s Constitution Day, a national holiday, nearly the entire country (seemingly) flocked to the streets of their capital city to stand still in the middle of the sidewalk and admire the Christmas lights or ram their strollers through packed crowds over the toes of innocent bystanders.

Feliz Navidad in Alcalá de Henares

Needless to say after a day of this madness, I beelined for the first cercania train OUT of the city. Thirty minutes later, far from the insanity of celebrating Madrileños, I disembarked into the town of Alcalá de Henares, aka the birthplace of “Don Quijote” author Miguel Cervantes.

Don Quixote statue in Alcala de Henares

Alcalá is the second-largest city in the province of Madrid after the capital city itself, although you’d never know it by the quiet quaintness of the town center, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Walking toward the central plaza (Plaza de Cervantes), my friend and I joked that the tinsel-style Christmas trees hanging across the avenue were straight of A Christmas Story. We ate our words as soon as we enter the Christmas heaven that was Plaza de Cervantes.

Plaza de Cervantes in Alcala de Henares

Lining the plaza were wooden Santa’s elves’ type houses selling everything from chocolate-dipped churros to knitted slippers. A train blaring Christmas music circled a giant decorated Christmas tree (made of actual branches, not metal lights like Madrid’s tree). And lights were draped from tree to tree around the plaza.

After frolicking through the plaza and admiring the Cervantes statue (in which he is perfectly brandishing his feather pen!) we headed for lunch. Alcalá is known for it’s tapas culture. Like in Galicia and Granada, tapas bars in Alcalá give you a free small dish with every wine or beer you order. Unfortunately, when the price is free the quality is also on the low side. Not in the mood for a flurry of fried potatoes and sausage, we set off in search of a more sit-down style meal.

The Best Restaurant in Alcala de HenaresThanks to the advise of a fantastically helpful and friendly Alcalá native, we wove back into the antique kitchen utensil decor of Mesón las Cuadras de Rocinante. Like the majority of the restaurants throughout the city, las Cuadras was absolutely packed when we arrived around 3:30 pm for lunch. Every table was taken and the bar area was shoulder-to-shoulder with people sipping a caña (and it’s free garbanzo-bean stew tapa) while they waited their place at one of the red-checkered tables.

One hour, a glass of wine, and about a dozen near-disastrous collisions with the two frantic waiters later, we were finally able to claim a table. Within minutes, the bright tablecloth disappeared under cazuelas of meatballs and vegetable pisto, a basket of bread and its accompanying olive oil, a plate of seared mushrooms topped with cured jamón, and a dish of delicious semicurado cheese.

It was everything I love about Spanish meals. Every item was simple, yet inexplicably packed with flavor. They were cooked to perfection, in a way that spoke to the centuries of history and practice that went into each dish. And they were presented without flourish, allowing the downright deliciousness of each plate to speak for itself. Our feast, along with two glasses of wine, set us back a mere 17 euro each.

Delicious Lunch in Alcala de Henares

The most important part of the day completed with massive success, we set of to explore the two main sites of Alcalá: the house where Cervantes was born and the insanely beautiful Universidad de Alcalá. Unfortunately, our late lunch meant that we missed the last tour at the Cervantes house by 15 minutes (it started at 5:30pm) AND the final guided tour of the University (which started at 6pm). Guess we will just have to make another day trip to Alcalá!

Universidad de Alcalá

The University of Alcalá

45 Hours in Porto, Portugal (aka ‘More Port Wine, Please’)

Portugal, in my opinion, is one of the most perplexingly over-looked travel destinations in Europe. Bold statement, I know, but my third and latest rendezvous through the dusty old streets of Spain’s western neighbor absolutely confirmed it. Portugal’s food is more delicious than Britain’s, its cities are more colorful than Spain’s,  and its sweet wine is more scrumptious than Germany’s. Not to mention a three-course Portuguese meal sets you back less than 20 euro and a night at some of the highest-ranked hostels in Europe clocks in at even less!

Porto, Portugal

So with a three-day weekend looming thanks to Spain’s celebration of All Saints Day, I booked a whirlwind weekend in Porto, Portugal, the country’s second-largest city and (more importantly) the hub of Portuguese wine production.

Despite the fact that D.C. and New York are father apart than Porto and Madrid, getting from the Spanish capitol to the Portuguese port is frustratingly difficult. This may be the only time America beats Europe at public transportation. Unlike my East Coast cities, there are no direct trains between Madrid and Porto. And while it takes a mere 5 hours to go by car (the same amount of time it takes a bus to go from D.C. to NYC), it takes nearly 10 hours for ALSA to roll the 560-odd kilometers from Madrid to Porto. Only three airlines (Iberia, TAP Portugal and RyanAir) fly nonstop between the two cities and of those only the ultra-budget, less-than-cozy RyanAir offered holiday-weekend flights at less-than-extortionist prices. RyanAir for the win, again.

An overhead bin fiasco, two checked carry-ons and a parade of duty-free perfume later, we touched down in a rainy, grey Porto. It was 10:30 a.m. on All Saints Day (or The Day After Halloween as we call in it in the States) and we had been in Portugal for less than an hour when we discovered the first of many pleasant surprises in Porto. Halfway through the hedge-maze that is the Carregal Gardens, we spotted our hostel. Tucked between brightly colored buildings with balconies overflowing with ferns and flowers was The Wine Hostel, without question one of the nicest hostels I’ve stayed in throughout Europe. Upon opening the door we found blue painted tiles and boxes of dusty Port bottles lining the staircase. Instead of numbers, each room is named after a type of Port. Our bright and airy six-bunk room was “Late Bottle Vintage,” a term I would come to appreciate during the follow day’s winery tour.

Porto, Portugal

Bags stowed and stomachs screaming we braved the wind and rain in search of breakfast. Five minutes and as many map consultations later we reached the oldest cafe in Porto, Cafe Progresso.  The menu was surprisingly modern for a café that celebrated its 114th anniversary last month, sporting the word “Brunch” at the top and “scrambled egg” not far below. After a month in Spain where eggs are strictly relegated to the afternoon hours and  brunch is a distant concept, Progresso was quickly making my life.

The Oldest Cafe in Porto

Food requirements filled, our next stop was the third most beautiful bookstore in the world, Livraria Lello. Despite crowds of revelers, the century-old bookstore is spectacular, with a huge central staircase that looks like something straight out of Cinderella, or, perhaps, Harry Potter. Rumor in Porto is that J.K. Rowling, who began writing the Harry Potter books while teaching English in Porto, based the grand Hogwarts staircases off of the huge, winding centerpiece staircase at Livraria Lello’s, where she is also rumored to have scratched out a few pages in the upstairs cafe.

One block down from the packed bookstore was an equally impressive gem, this one’s shelves filled with every imaginable Portuguese-made product from chocolate “Bomboms” to brass horns.  We spent nearly an hour sifting through tables piled with soaps and and books, clocks and kitchen cutlery at A Vida Portuguesa, a two-story shop dedicated to selling only items made in Portugal.

A Vida Portuguesa

A Vida Portuguesa

Brass horns for sale at A Vida Portuguesa.

A Vida Portuguesa

Fantastically colorful soap lined that counters at A Vida Portuguesa

With Porto a sure winner in the “gorgeous shops” category, we climbed — and yes, climbed is absolutely the right word; Porto is insanely hilly — over to the Sāo Bento train station to see how the city fared in the art department.

The station’s main hall is decorated on all sides with pearly-white tile painted in brilliant blue depicting everything from daily farm life in 18th-century Porto, to the timeline of transportation from horses to steam engines.  The hall is impressive, to say the least, but more so for me was the story of how it was made. The architect, as our walking tour guide later informed us, was fresh out of college when the king commissioned him to create Sāo Bento Station.  He worked on the building for eleven years, laying tile after the king who began the project was killed and through the revolution that overthrew his successor and ended the Portuguese monarchy. If only those tiles could talk…

Sao Bento Train Station

Those blue tiles, or azulejos, speckle the city with bursts of color. With the spitting rain and thick grey cloudy skies, the streaks of blue along the giant stone buildings gave the city an almost- eerie melancholy feel that was ironically juxtaposed with springy palm trees and vibrantly happy-colored houses.

Two Churches in Porto

Day two in Porto was dedicated to my two favorite things: eating and drinking. For lunch we stumbled upon a tiny restaurant tucked into a corner among the maze of tiny streets behind the Ribeiro, or riverwalk. Low wood-slatted ceilings and dim recess lighting gave the feeling that we were dining on board a private yacht. White and blue china painted in the same style as the city’s azulejos clinked throughout the tiny space, further adding to the upscale yachtiness of the place.

We skipped the three-course menu featuring bacalao, Portugal’s most famous dish, and opted instead for a quick and fancy lunch of Porto’s traditional soup (a thick potato broth with kale-like leaves) and a simple salad (lettuce, big chunks of tomato, olives and onion all drenched in olive oil). You’d have thought we were eating naked. The chef, who happened to be having lunch with his wife at the table next to us, chastised the waiter for not bringing us our food before realizing that we’d received all that we’d ordered. The cooks and wait staff in the kitchen took turns peering through the small window to catch a glimpse of the locas who had ordered only primer platos. The blasphemy of our meal was sure to ignite at any moment a riot among our fellow diners. Thus we high-tailed it out of our little corner of lunch luxury the second our painted china plates were cleared.

Traditional Port Wine Boat on the Duoro River

Across the Duoro River and comfortably far away from the perplexed restaurant staff, we set out for the main event, Port wine tasting. Choosing from the dozens of wine cellars at random, we ended up at Ferreira, one of the oldest cellars in Porto. While waiting for the English tour to begin, we strolled down to a bodega that served tastes of Ports from a conglomerate of cellars. Port wine is stronger and sweeter than your typical table wine having been fortified with Brandy at the early stages of fermentation. As we would later learn in the wine tasting of all wine tastings, the Brandy used in ports has a super high alcohol content (more than 70 percent), which stops the fermentation of the grapes’ natural sugars into alcohol. Depending on the type of Port and the desired sweetness level, the Brady is added at different times. The earlier in the  process that the Brandy is added, the sweeter the Port will be.

Our first two tastes were white ports,  the Burmester ‘extra-dry’ which had a strong Sherry flavor, and the Barros ‘semi-sweet’ which, as Maureen described it, tasted like a warm fire at Christmas (I’d say it’s more caramelly toast). Next we explored the difference between “Tawny” Port, which is aged in small oak barrels allowing the wine to oxidize slightly and thus turn a caramel-rust color, and a “Ruby” Port, which is aged in huge oak barrels for fewer years and thus maintains its ruby-red color. The verdict for me: Ruby Port all the way. The Ruby maintained many of the robust, fruity flavors of typical red wine but enhanced those flavors with an intense, yet smooth sweetness emblematic of Port wine.

Armed with our four exploratory tastes and an utterly basic understanding of how Port is produced, we set off on our tour of Ferreira, a company that has been producing Port wine longer than the United States has been an independent nation. We strolled through dimly-lit cellars filled with giant barrels of meticulously aging Port while our appropriately-named guide Fabio explained why the floor was made of wood blocks rather than tile (two reasons: 1) to cushion the barrels so they don’t break when rolling them across the floor and 2) the wood acts as air conditioning; if the temperature starts to rise, they douse the wood floors with water, the evaporation of which keeps the cellars cool and slightly humid).

Port Wine Tour at Ferreira

We saw giant French Oak vats where nearly 11,000 liters of Tawny Port was getting a weeks-worth of large-barrel aging before being bottled. We filed past pyramids of 350-pound barrels of the sweetest type of Port wine, Lagrima (which translates to “tear”) as Fabio informed us that the wine got its name because its sweetness caused it to run slowly down the side of the glass, like tears sliding down a face. We saw bottles of vintage Port from the 1800s, stacked on their sides awaiting the day their flavors will finally “mature” (because apparently 100 years isn’t quite enough). And finally we sat down to taste the Ferreira wine ourselves, a bright red Ruby and golden sweet Branco Lagrima.

Tasting a Ruby Port at Ferreira

After a long, hard day of wine tasting we were in desperate need of some stellar Portuguese food at my new favorite restaurant. After experiencing the wine tour of all wine tours I didn’t think it possible to fit in an “everything I want out of a restaurant” dinner into the same day. I was wrong. At Casa Santo Antonio I had to make two decisions: what type of wine I wanted to drink and when I was too full for more delicious tapas-style traditional Portuguese dishes. That, in my opinion, is how every restaurant should be. No stressing about what to order or post-plate remorse about whether I ordered the right thing. At this Porto gem of a restaurant I was worry free and ravishingly expectant. I had no idea what our most adorable waiter Nelson would bring us next, only that it would undoubtably be ricisimo.

The parade of deliciousness started out fresh with Galician-style dense bread, garlic-marinated black olives, curried cooked carrots and jumbo pickled corn kernel-type things that I can never remember the name of. Fried bacalao (cod fish) fritters of joy followed with a side of perfectly spiced and scrumptious beyond it’s simplicity red beans and rice. Next we devoured a fava bean-chorizomurcillo stew that was even more flavorful than the picture leads on.

Fava Beans and Chorizo

And as the grandest of grand finales to this most amazing meal, Nelson brought us pork cheek in an olive oil-red wine- clove sauce. It was, without question, the tenderest, most melt-in-your-mouth meat I have ever tasted. This one dish freed cloves from their corner as a Christmas-time cider adornment and propelled them into ‘fascinating spice I can’t wait to add to everything’ status, a title they will have to fight with cumin over. We decided it’s worth another RyanAir flying adventure to Porto solely to taste Santo Antonio’s pork cheek one more time…

The most delicious meat ever made

3 Reasons Why Madrid Is Actually Food Heaven

During my Summer spent in Texas, the first question I was always asked after telling someone of my plans to move back to Spain was, “What is it about Spain that you love so much?” My reaction was always the same: the food. Or more accurately, the culture that surrounds creating and eating food. In Spain “slow food” is not a fad, it’s the norm. Lunches here are hours-long affairs and serving day-old bread is sin. In the rural garden-filled hills of Galicia (my home for the past school year), farm-to-table wasn’t the restaurant’s advertised enticement, it was the diner’s unwritten expectation, one I came to cherish.

Fresh Galician Food

The freshest of meats from the carnecería in Sarria.

Moving to the 4-million-strong metropolis of Madrid this year, I feared my days of abundant food freshness were over. I’ve been a Madrileña for less than two weeks and already any and all of my food fears have evaporated. Madrid is not only a mecca of fruit stands and bakeries, but a foodie treasure chest bursting with traditional tapas bars, specialty restaurants and coffee-conscious cafes. Madrid, I am coming to find out, is the melting pot of Spain’s culinary excellence. In other words, it is food heaven. Don’t believe me? Here’s proof:

Exhibit A: Squid for Lunch. Claro!

Picture two American roommates in their early twenties planning a dinner with friends. What will the menu look like? As an early-twenties American, I can tell you from experience it will likely include ground beef or pan-grilled chicken, perhaps some pasta, probably a salad or maybe some homemade (and by ‘homemade’ I mean from-a-box) brownies.

Two days ago I experienced the same sort of meal with two twenty-something Spaniards. After some rapid-fire Spanish debate over what to fix, my new amigos announced it was time to ir al supermercado. At the corner market, my fearless masters of delicious cuisine marched straight up to the seafood counter, flagged down the haz-mat-style suit wearing attendant, and asked for three gooey, floppy, football-sized squid — well, technically cuttlefish — as nonchalantly as if they were ordering sliced turkey from the deli.

Package-o-fresh-squid in-hand, they strolled over to the fruteria next door to pick up fresh sprigs of parsley and cilantro, informing me that fresh herbs were clutch to making the family recipe’s sauce delicioso. An hour of kitchen-clanking and taste-testing later, my new meal-preparing role models laid a steaming pile of perfectly seared squid pieces on the table next to a dish of boiled new potatoes, a carafe of bright-green parsley-cilantro sauce and two plates of pan-fried Chanterelle mushrooms.  One bite of the crisp, yet succulent squid bearing a hint of the tart, garlicy punch of the green sauce and I floated off into Spanish food heaven…

Exhibit B: Viva la Vida, a Vegetarian Buffet

In a country where your typical bar has cured ham legs hanging from the ceiling and the “vegetarian” menus feature five kids of tuna, there exists the unimaginable: a plaza of not one, but two vegetarian restaurants. Ironically enough, these unexpected changes of culinary pace are nestled in the heart of one of Madrid’s oldest neighborhoods: La Latina.

Spanish Vegetarian Buffett

I stumbled upon the first and most impresionante of the veggie eateries last week while in search of a tasty-looking lunch spot. Inside I discovered everything I could want in a Spanish-style vegetarian restaurant. Lush green vines blanketed the ceiling and Chinese lanterns hung over the bar. Bowls of flowers floated on tables between flowy-skirt wearing diners. Along the black wall, buffet tables overflowed with vegetarian fare with a decidedly Spanish flare.

There were whole-wheat croquetas and meatless albondigas (meatballs). A clay pot of cold gazpacho was nestled alongside salads with bright red tomatoes, blocks of feta and dried dates. Every dish was bursting with color and flavor. I loaded as many kinds of exotic veggie goodness onto my plate as possible, awaited my glass of accompanying white wine, looked out over the Plaza de Paja and dug into veggie heaven…

Exhibit C: The Tomato Man

There are three fruterias between where I’m staying and the metro which means every day I’m torn between the green-and-yellow striped melons at the cavernous self-serve Rosa’s, the 2,35/kilo neon-green figs at Tomate’s and the so-purple-they’re-black bunches of grapes at Un Dia.  Trying to cover my bases, I decided to hit up each store and compare quality, variety and price. Five seconds after setting foot in Tomate and I realized not one of those three standards mattered.

The jolly round man that runs the smallest of the three produce stores, Tomate, hopped up to greet me the second I entered his shop. I asked for a quarter-kilo of figs (my new fruit obsession) and then stood dumbfounded in front of a table of six types of tomatoes. “Which is the best?” I asked after he’d carefully placed about a dozen small figs into a clear plastic bag. “These,” he said without hesitation, pointing to the least-red bunch of lopsided tomato-like forms. “They are ugly, but they are the most sweet, the most tasty.” He plucked the reddest mound from the table. It was relatively nice-looking on the top but squished on the bottom. “Eeh! Esta mal,” my tomato guru grunted, snatching instead a yellowish-red one and placing on the register with my figs.

Skeptical that such a bland-colored vegetable could be as rico as the brilliant red variety sitting next to it, I headed to the back to find a suitable salad back-up. “Toma! Probalo!” Tomato Man shouted across the store, a dripping hunk of the slightly-squished tomato extended in my direction. I rushed over before the waterfall of tomato juice could coat the entire register. Slurping, I shoved the chunk of light red flesh in my mouth. A symphony of sweet, garden-fresh flavor enveloped my tongue and I drifted off into this-is-what-real-veggies-taste-like heaven…

Delicious Tomatoes

Heavenly tomatoes on an ultra-fresh salad!

Pintxos: The Haute Couture of Spanish Tapas

Best Pintxos in BilbaoOne of the first and most important words I learned upon moving to Spain was “tapas,” those often bite-sized morsels of delectable Spanish cooking that proliferate in the country’s montón of bars and cervecerias. Minutes into my first night of tapeando and I was infatuated. Tapas are small enough that I could try four or five different dishes in one night (#win); they are varied enough that no matter if I was sipping a Cruzcampo or savoring a Rioja the flavors paired delightfully, and they were cheap enough (especially here in free-tapas Galicia!) that I had no remorse going out fo tapas as much as humanly possible!

But this weekend as I explored the wonders of Bilbao and San Sebastián in the Basque Country, my beloved tapas met their match. Forget tapas. I’m over tapas. Bring on the pintxos!!

Pintxo is the Basque word for tapa, but this northern province has translated far more than the letters to arrive at their version of the Spanish staple. Where tapas are versatile, representative and convenient, pintxos are unique, daring and tantalizing. The Basque Country has taken traditional tapas and turned them into avant-garde works of both visual and culinary art, defying the simplicity of typical Spanish food and daring to mix, match and creatively stack the best flavors of this delectable cuisine into tiny masterpieces of flavor, spunk and excitement.

Here are the six most mind-blowingly awesome pintxos I had the distinct pleasure of devouring in Bilbao and San Sebastián. Somehow I think my next Tortilla Española here in Galicia is going to seem wildly lacking…

1. Toasted cracker topped with goat cheese and tomato marmalade, garnished with sesame seeds.

Tomato Jelly and Goat Cheese Pintxo

Where to get the deliciousness: In the heart of San Sebastián’s pintxo land, just south of Mount Urgull (which I highly recommend climbing!) is a long, narrow bar called Txalupa, where the pintxos are plenty and the bartenders are friendly.  Calle Fermín Calbetón nº 3  in  San Sebastián

2. Calamari piled on crusty bread

Calamari Pintxo

Where to get the deliciousness: In the heard of Bilbao’s old town is the city’s main plaza, ironically called “Plaza Nueva.” The entire square is bordered by pintxos places and is packed during the afternoon and evening pintxos hours. We stopped in to Victor Montes to snag this scrumptious bit of squid. Plaza Nueva, 8  in Bilbao.

3. Garlicky grilled mushrooms

Grilled Mushroom Pintxo

Where to get the deliciousness: Calle Somera in Bilbao’s Casco Viejo was on hoppin when we strolled over to Motrikes Saturday night around 9 p, (prime pintxos time!) While many of the bars along that route are geared more toward the younger drinks-rather-than-dinner crowd, the mushrooms at Motrikes  make it 100 percent worth adding to any pintxos evening. Calle Somera, 41 in Bilbao

4. Roasted zucchini, eggplant, fried cheese, lettuce and mushroom veggie burger on a dense, seedy wheat bun. 

Veggie Burger Pintxo

Where to get the deliciousness: Kuku Soak, also in Bilbao’s Casco Viejo region has hands-down the most creative and exciting, if not the best pintxos we tried in the entire city. Barrenkale Barrena, 18 in Bilbao

5. Marinated sun-dried tomatoes, creamy sharp cheese and membrillo topped with red currants.

Sundried tomato, cheese and quince pintxo

Where to get the deliciousness: Berton gave Kuku Soak a run for it’s money in my best pintxos of Bilbao competition. Both this daring delicacy and the roasted mushroom and serrano ham number that I tried were ridiculously tasty and refreshingly creative. Calle Jardines, 11 in Bilbao

6. Stewed veal in a red wine reduction

Red Wine Stewed Veal Pintxo

Where to get the deliciousness: La Cuchara del San Telmo was without question the best pintxos bar of the trip. This melt-in-your-mouth veal was one of about a dozen pintxos available, all of which looked positively amazing. Unlike most pintxos bars, La Cuchara serves their pintxos  hot and therefore does not have them displayed on the counter. Judging by the jam-packed bar, no one in San Sebastián holds that against them. Calle del Treinta y Uno de Agosto, 28 in San Sebastián

The Art of the Go-To Restaurant

Matias PizzaThere are few things in life that stress me out more than choosing a restaurant (a fridge full of fresh– aka soon to be not fresh — vegetables would definitely be in the running). Ask me what country I want to visit next, if I want to quit my grown-up job to go frolic (ahem, teach) in Spain or what I want to do with my life and I’ll give little pause. But ask me where I want to go for lunch in a new city and I’m thrown into a tailspin of questions that can’t possibly be sufficiently answered by glancing at a menu outside.

I’ll wander for an hour hoping to stumble upon the perfect equilibrium between hole-in-the-wall authentic but not too dingy and modernly elegant but not too pricey. I’m intrinsically driven to try new things, but there are times when, especially after living in a city for a few months, I’m just in the mood for a place I can count on to be delicious, friendly and comfortably fabulous. Sometimes, I just need some stress-free food.

Trudys

My first stop on every trip back to Austin: a Trudy’s Mexican Martini!

In my hometown of New Braunfels my tried and true go-to is Gruene River Grill (rustic, riverfront, ridiculously delicious Italian margaritas and shrimp wontons). Austin has two go-tos, one for breakfast (Juan in a Million, obvs.) and one for drinks (Trudy’s, someone dame una Mexican Martini por favor!). In Sevilla it was El Tren for coffee (hello free, dependable wifi) and Marcos for dinner (bowl-licking Italian in an ancient arched setting). And in D.C., the candyland of restaurants? Tryst (scrumptious, reasonable, unassuming, close to home and everything I’ve ever wanted in a coffeehouse).

Matias cappaccinoSince unpacking in Sarria I’ve been on the hunt for the perfect sitio to add to my go-tos. The title is a tricky one to bestow. It must be delicious without being pretentious, comfortable without being drab and friendly without being pesky. Turns out, my stress-free eatery was one of the first restaurants I tested out in my little Northern pueblo: Matias Locanda Italiana. One sip of a Matias cappuccino and I was enamorado. One bite of their homemade brick oven-baked pizza and it became my new gold standard of thin crust. The ethically Italian, functionally world citizen, trilingual owner is charming, inviting and hilarious. He takes care of his regulars and has no qualms with me taking up the corner table with hours of typing and free-wifi browsing while savoring nothing more than one of his spectacular coffee creations.

Nestled amid albergues and touristy tapas joints, Matias brings authenticity to the old part of town that usually bustles with pilgrims stopping off for a bite along the Camino de Santiago. It’s the beacon of deliciousness at the top of a seriously steep hill, one I’m more than willing to climb for a scoop of their chocolate mousse (who needs a novio when you have this sinful mousse, Mr. Matias informed us during our last visit). Sarria may be known for it’s pulpo, but it’s these Italian plates of joy that drag me away from my estufa amid the rain and wind of Sarria’s wintery Spring.

Matias Chocolate Mousse

Matias chocolate mousse: my new Spanish novio

What is your go-to restaurant? How did you discover it?

‘Feria Gastronomica’: Spanish for ‘Heaven’

Galicia Gastronomy Fair

One of the three delicious local wines I tasted during the “show cooking” demonstration.

This weekend I died and went to heaven. I apologize for the cliche, but in this case, trust me, it’s appropriate.  Let me paint you a picture… In the southern Galician town of Ourense lies a massive convention center that is cutely named “Expourense.” Last week this dreary, grayish metal beast of a building played host to food heaven. Booth after booth piled with regional wines, traditional tapas and artisan cheeses stretched as far as my hungry eyes could see. Chefs gave cooking demonstrations while tuxedoed waiters passed out tastes of their creations. Photographers, writers and food lovers swirled their tempranillos and moseyed from display to display. White linen tables stood clustered into makeshift restaurants, awaiting the joyous ritual of Spanish lunchtime. It was a paradise of flavor and I had but five hours to devour its wonders.

Asturian Cheese Table

I’ll take one of each please!

My first stop at the “Xantar” Gastronomic Fair was the Asturian cheese table. Stacks of cheese rounds in sizes ranging from a fist to a serving platter enticed me from all sides of the table. Atop each stack stood a small plate piled with tiny bites and behind each heap were the artisan cheesemakers themselves, each dressed in the traditional garb of their region. I started fresh and worked my way to strong, falling in love with Asturias with each morsel. As a slice of queso fresco melted over my tongue, a woman wearing a dress that looked like the lovechild of lederhosen and little house on the praire explained that this 100 percent cow’s milk cheese was aged only one week and got it’s pinkish-orange color from a hefty dose of spicy paprika. Farther down the table a young man with a Peter Pan hat introduced me to cider cheese. Picture cold, refreshing beer brewed solely from apples (aka cider) infused into a smooth brie-like cheese. I could almost feel the effervescence from the bright, sparkling cider as I sucked every drop of flavor from my tiny tasting bite.

Piles of dark red chorizo from Asturias’ southern neighbor, León, enticed us away from the cheese heaven. After marveling at the distinctly smokier flavor of León’s chorizo (compared to the Galician sausage I’m used to) we stumbled into a free “show cooking.” A young, slightly nervous chef was explaining to a crowd of about 20 feria-goers seated before his cooking-show style kitchen the proper way to scrape a thin layer of cooked egg from the underside of a cake pan, where he had apparently cracked it and backed it into a see-through sheet.

Moments after settling into our chairs (plastic lawn chairs classed up with linen slip covers) the first of our three wine glasses was filled and a bite-sized sample of the chef’s egg creation paired with tuna (from a can, as it always is in Spain) and drizzled with cauliflower purée.

Galician Gastronomy Fair Show Cooking

Thin sheets of egg sandwich tuna and peppers. Cauliflower purée ties it all together!

Show Cooking Dish #2

Soft organic cheese rolled in dried, roasted tomato and presented on a wheat cracker stick.

Show Cooking Taste #3

This apple sorbet was made using liquid nitrogen and soda water!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next up was what looked like a mushroom but which was actually a smooth, smokey ball of cheese rolled in roasted, spiced and dried tomato flakes and served on a bready wheat cracker stick. This little appetizer packed a serious punch of flavor! Delicious. Next came the manzana sorbet, which the chef created by slowly pouring liquid nitrogen into a huge metal basin filled with about two cups of an sweetened apple mixture. With smoke billowing out of the bowl and cascading down the table the man explained that this light, refreshing dessert would be served in a nerf football-sized white chocolate egg which he had painted with dark chocolate. Ummmm, yes please.

Thus three glasses of wine and three interesting tastes later we sauntered over to wine tasting row, which led us to tapa land and, ultimately, sea food corner. While admiring a table showcasing Galicia’s marisco specialities (sea urchin, barnacles, crab, eel, etc…) Kassandra and I almost took out a passerby when one of the lobsters started walking off it’s plate! Then the razor shell clams started poking in and out of their shells. We scurried away before the eel could start slithering across the table…

Typical Galician Seafood

Galicia is known for it’s amazing (and rather unique) seafood. It’s completely common to find whole eel and octopus at the grocery store!

After a handful of rather adventurous samples including cured river eel (delicious!), sea urchin paté (less delicious) and barnacle paté (literally taste like a mouthful of dirty ocean water) we began to notice that the crowds around the booths had dissipated into the makeshift restaurants. So with already-full bellies we set off in search of a menú. An enthusiastic (and rosy-cheeked) recommendation from a friend we made on the bus, we settled for the epic lunch menú of a local Ourense restaurant. While the waiter assured us it would be no problem to share a menú, I don’t think the concept of sharing made it all the way to the kitchen. This was, without question, the largest meal of my life. Without further ado, I present to you our lunch:

Epic Galician Lunch Part 1

First first course: this flakey ceviche-filled pastry paired perfectly with our crisp Albariño wine. I say ‘first, first course’ because while the menu gave me the impression would could choose one from a selection of four primero platos apparently I was wrong…

Epic Spanish Lunch Part 2

Second first plate: While it is typical to serve bread at every meal in Spain, this place went a tad overboard, presenting us each with a whole loaf. And, obviously, a plate of cured jamón as well.

Epic Spanish Lunch Part 3

Third first course: Raxo. This typical tapa is made from the same ground pork as chorizo, only this one has a much stronger flavor and even more spices. It is one of the only Spanish tapas that I don’t like.

Epic Spanish Lunch Part 4

Fourth first course: Pulpo with potatoes. A platter of boiled octopus doused in spicy paprika, salt and olive oil usually constitutes a meal in of itself. Not today! Apparently in this meal-size time warp it is a mere appetizer. So full already…. but it’s sooo good!

Just to recap, we’ve now devoured half a bottle of wine, half a loaf of bread, ham, seafood pastries, ground pork and boiled octopus. And that was just the so-called “first plate.” Now it’s time for the actual meal….

Epic Spanish Lunch Part 5

Second Course: Beef steak (chuletón de ternera). This not only looked like a work of art, but tasted like one. It was crispy on the outside and ridiculously tender in the center. So lean, yet with so much flavor!

Epic Spanish Lunch Part 6

Dessert: Tarta de Caramelo. I didn’t think I could eat another bite, but when this slice of beauty changed my mind. It was like tiramisu topped with a dense chocolate cake and slathered with coffee-infused caramel.

And then I died happy…

Falling in Love with Paris, 8 Bites at a Time

The Sun Shines over Paris

Paris, where beauty, history and heavenly food abound.

Paris is a city I couldn’t help but fall in love with in that sappy, gushing, overly-romantic kind of way, the  kind that happens with one trip-over-yourself glace in every romantic comedy. It’s a city that has perfected all of my favorite things: chocolate, croissants, chocolate-filled croissants, cute cafes, flower-filled parks, fascinating history and specialized food markets.

On my first trip to Paris three years ago, I climbed the Eiffel Tower (yes, literally climbed the 669 stairs), biked the Tuileries Gardens and strolled Champs-Elysées. With the touristy must-sees already guarded in my memory, my second trip to Paris was all about staying off the beaten path. With the help of my good friend and lifelong Parisian, Claire, I delved into Parisian cuisine like a local, buying thick slices of scrumptious smelly cheese from a fromagerie, feasting on classic French dishes from hole-in-the-wall cafes and brasseries and devouring mouthwatering pastries from local boulangeries. While nearly every stop was scrumptious, when in Paris one must be choosey. Therefore, here are the top eight items I am already longing for from my four-day food excursion in Paris.

8. Macaroons from Gérard Mulot

Macaroons at Gerard Mulot

With more than a dozen flavors to chose from, selecting these hazelnut and nougat macaroons was rough but deliciously rewarding.

The windows of Gérard Mulot are sparkling with the promise of happiness, showcasing bright red and white trees of macaroons, neatly-arranged piles of chocolate bonbons and baskets brimming with perfectly-floured baguettes.  Upon entering, my attention was immediately captured by a long, glass counter covered in a rainbow of macaroons. After struggling to choose between the 15 flavor options (spice cake or orange-cinnamon anyone?) I settled on a classic nougat and a Nutella-esque hazelnut. GREAT decision.

Where to find this deliciousness: Gérard Mulot has three locations- 93, rue de la Glacière, near the Glaciére metro stop. 76, rue de Seine in the Saint-Germain des Prés region of the city and 6, rue du Pas de la Mule next to the Chemin Vert metro stop. 

7. Bordeaux at La Fourmi Ailée

Perfect Parisian Café

This nook of a cafe is nestled just across the river from Notre Dame and is the perfect place to warm up with a glass of wine, coffee or tea.

After a museum-filled morning and a long and chilly stroll around Notre Dame all I wanted in the world was a cozy café to curl up in with my newly-purchased book. Conveniently located two blocks from the Shakespeare & Co. book store (which I highly recommend perusing) I came across the ideal afternoon resting spot, La Fourmi Ailée, or “The Winged Ant” (whose menus for some reason say Les Zéles de la Fourmi, or ‘The Zealous Ant”).

Not in the mood for another 4-times-as-expensive-as-Spain espresso, I asked for a glass of their house Bordeaux  Not only was my globe-shaped glass filled nearly to the brim, but the elixer inside was everything I want from a house red: smooth and smokey with hints of cherry and blackberry and a slight tannin-y finish. Not too fancy and not too pricey, but still tasty.

Where to find this deliciousness: Near the Saint-Michel metro stop at 8 Rue du Fouarre

6. Sunday Night Dinner supplies from the neighborhood markets

Parisan Cheese

Three slices of heaven served with fresh baguettes,  tomato tarts, lettuce hearts salad with homemade vinaigrette and cold prawn salad. Sunday Night Dinner of champions!!

Sprinkled throughout the residential streets of Paris are some of the city’s most prized possessions, or at least what I believe should be considered Parisian treasures: specialty markets. There is the fromagerie filled with more types of cheese than I’ve tasted in my lifetime, the boulangerie that is bursting with the day’s fresh-baked and unimaginably amazing baguettes and the marché which is brimming with counters of seafood salads, pickled artichoke hearts, vegetable tarts and cured meats.

Each shop carries only its specialty. For a diversified meal multiple stops are a must. But biting into that artisan baguette and precisely aged goat cheese and freshly crafted tart I vowed to avoid one-stop shop supermarkets and opt for the master crafts at local specialty shops as much as possible.

Where to find this deliciousness: all over Paris! 

5. Crepes from Le Petit Jocelin

Best Crepes in Paris

This spinach, tomato and cheese filled crepe was unlike any I’ve ever tasted. It was heaven in crepe form.

There are crepes and then there are crepes. This work of art from Le Petit Jocelin was the real deal: a lightly crispy wheat crepe robustly stuffed with melt-in-your-mouth cheese, tomatoes that actually taste like tomatoes and bright green spinach.   In typical French fashion we washed down our crepes with French cider, served here in painted clay pitchers and drank out of small matching bowls.

Where to find this deliciousness: 20, rue Odessa in the Montparnasse area. 

4. Chocolate-Coffee cookie from Laura Todd

Espresso-Chocolate Cookie from Laura Todd

Warm, melty and miraculously coffee-flavored, this Laura Todd cookie was one for the record books.

It may look like your average chocolate-chip cookie, but this Laura Todd creation is a work of culinary genius. It somehow melts on your tongue without being warm, envelops you in flavor without being too sweet and is chock-full of dark chocolate chips without being overpoweringly chocolatey. It is, without question, one of the best cookies I’ve ever eaten. And considering my insatiable sweet tooth, that is saying something!

Where to find this deliciousness: Nestled along one wall of La Grande Epicerie du Bon Marche, a stunning and massive market filled with all the amazingness that French cuisine has to offer. Near the Sèvres Babylone metro stop at 38, rue de Sèvres. 

3. Croque Monsieur at L’Escurial

Croque Monsieur from L'Escuria

All other croque monsieurs are impostors. This crispy, creamy all-around amazing sandwich is the real deal.

I have tasted an array of croque monsieur in Spain and America but after one bite of the sheer joy pictured above, I decided those foreign impostors should be outlawed or at least forced to call themselves by another name. This croque monsieur, a staple item on most Parisan lunch menus, from L’Escurial in the “gay” area of Paris was an entirely new firecracker of flavor. Hiding beneath the thick layer of  toasted-on-top, creamy-inside cheese were two slices crisp bread, layers of ham and even more smokey cheese. Please import this most perfect lunch to Spain!

Where to find this deliciousness: In the Marais neighborhood – 29, rue de Turenne

2. Brunch at Bioboa

Pancakes at Bioboa

These thick, sweet and fantastically flavorful pancakes were a scrumptious French take on the American classic.

Spain’s one downfall: there is no brunch. I made up for months of brunchlessness at Bioboa, where their prix fixe brunch menu rocked my socks off. The extravaganza begins with a still-warm-from-the-oven basket of baked happiness which includes pain au chocolat, croissants, chocolate cake-bread and lemon coffee cake accompanied by your choice of fresh-squeezed juice and coffee or tea.

Next comes a French omelet (aka scrambled eggs) and smoked salmon which is followed by thick, sweet positively delightful pancakes (accompanied by British maple syrup!). A pistachio-almond yogurt parfait finishes off the meal. And then I died happy.

Where to find this deliciousness: 93 rue Montmartre, between the Bourse and Sentier metro stops.

1. Pain au Chocolat from Eric Kayser, aka the “Favorite Bakery,” (or any boulangerie for that matter!)

Almond, Chocolate Croissant

This almond-chocolate croissant from Eric Kayser may just be the best breakfast in existence.

Chocolate-filled croissants are, in my opinion, the elixer of the Gods. They are my Achilles heel of desserts and the one item that I can’t help but tasting from every bakery in which I encounter them. Paris, without question, is the magnificent queen of croissants. Here, the magicians that call themselves bakers somehow create croissants that have both a crisp exterior and a fluffy interior, they are both airy and dense, rich yet light. And the fine people at Eric Kayser are, in my opinion, the masters. This boulangerie was my daily dose of good morning (and often afternoon) joy, but just about any bakery in Paris will serve you up an amazing pain au chocolat. Prepare to have your life changed.

Where to find this deliciousness: Eric Kayser has spread his baked-good happiness across 11 locations in central Paris. My location of choice was 18 Rue du Bac, just across the river from the Louvre. 

Which Parisian slice of joy is your favorite? Any typical French dishes I missed?