Thursday, March 31, 2011

Freaky Fruit in Barcelona

Oh my god, is it hot here! There were record breaking temps in LA today, 92 degrees I think – and Riverside is EVEN HOTTER than LA! It definitely hit 100 at some point. So I think I will be hitting the gym this evening for a date with the treadmill, otherwise I may be at risk for heatstroke if I run outside. (In other news, it’s snowing in New York. WTF weather??)

Speaking of warm places (OK, bad segue, but whatever, my brain is fried from the heat), I wanted to continue my espousing of European outdoor markets by talking about La Boqueria, the famous market in Barcelona, right off the Ramblas (it’s actually a covered market, but is open on the sides). While Borough Market is great, it is most definitely a gourmet market – you won’t find a lot of people doing their regular shopping there, partially because of the expense and partially because it’s only open three days a week. La Boqueria, on the other hand, is open all day, every day. I was only in Barcelona for a few days on vacation, so I didn’t get to explore other markets and can’t speak for the price of goods compared with other ones that are in a less-touristy area. Being smack in the middle of Barcelona’s tourist-town I’m sure drives the prices up. But, my gosh, was it gorgeous! Naturally there’s an abundance of meat and fish stalls (lots and lots of ham and other pork products, of course – vegetarians and kosher Jews may lose a few pounds vacationing in Spain). The seafood was especially interesting: I went there early one morning before the crowds descended, and the fishmongers were unloading the day’s catch. Everything was so impeccably fresh – which makes sense considering Barcelona is a coastal city - that some of the creatures were still alive and kicking. Literally – I was almost hit in the face by a particularly rambunctious shrimp that sprang at me when I leaned in to get a closer look. It was so, so cool, but I must admit the smell made me a little woozy.

There are little tapas bars scattered throughout the market where they prepare food right from the stalls – at an exorbitant price, of course, but you know it’s fresh so it’s gonna be good. I had my first taste of razor clam: freaky looking, like fat worms kinda, but tasty nonetheless. And the paella was amazing, naturally. There’s a lot of tourists at these places naturally, but I also heard quite a bit of Spanish and Catalan being spoken, so it seems the locals like them too. I’m sure the people manning the stalls eat there for a considerable discount, at least.

Besides the meat and fish, La Boqueria also contains bakeries, candy stalls with every kind of chocolate and nougat imaginable, it seemed – I loaded up on some fruit jellies in all kinds of interesting flavors, and polished off the bag in about a day and a half – and fantastic fruit and vegetable stalls. These were especially interesting because at the fruit stands, the salespeople blended up juices made up of whatever fruit they had on offer in all different combinations. I saw literally hundreds of permutations of fruit juice, conveniently lined up in plastic cups on shelves of ice in front of the fruit displays, straws already in place. You just grabbed whatever you wanted right from the ice, and the turnover is so high they never get a chance to get cold. I had a juice made from just one fruit, and I am still frustrated about it because I have absolutely no idea what it was! It was brilliant purple – like, almost alarmingly purple – with little black seeds. I think I saw some whole ones too, and there were definitely some cut up in the plastic bowls of fruit salad also on offer. It tasted a bit melony, so I think it was some sort of melon, but all the labels were in Catalan, and sometimes Spanish, but never in English. Not a problem for the less exotic produce of course, but alas, I may never know what that glorious juice was made from. It may not even have an English translation for all I know. Sigh.

Upate: By googling the words "purple," "fruit," and "la Boqueria," and doing a bit of Interner sleuthing, I have discovered the identity of the mystery fruit (and no, I don't know why I didn't just use Google earlier, either). It's called a Pitaya, or "dragonfruit," according to my source for all knowledge, Wikipedia, and it's the fruit of a type of cactus native to Central and South America, also grown in Asia, Hawaii, Israel and Australia (not sure where mine were from). It's got deep red skin with these green leafy looking things on it, and either white or purple flesh with lots of little black seeds, and a taste "reminiscent of watermelon." Definitely what I ate in Barcelona. Mystery solved! Thanks, Internet!

I did actually encounter one other type of outdoor market in Barcelona during my stay, located right on the pedestrian thoroughfare known as Las Ramblas: outdoor pet shops. Not kidding. Every day hundreds of cages appear on the street with all kinds of little critters on sale, from your typical rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters to turtles, birds, lizards and occasionally more exotic rodents, like some sort of chipmunk-looking thing whose label was, again, only written in Catalan and the shopkeeper didn’t know the English translation. It was cute, but probably didn’t taste as good as my purple juice. There were also lots of chickens and pheasant-type things. Not sure if those were meant as pets or as supplements to whatever you picked up at the nearby Boqueria. My friend who I was with looked it up in her guidebook and it said this was a popular place for parents to bring their children to buy pets. Weird.

Oh, and lest you think I am completely biased toward Europe’s markets, know that I have had some great experiences with farmers markets in the U.S., which I shall tell you about in a future post. Now I’m off to the gym, and then I’m going to submerge myself in ice water until this heatwave breaks.

Monday, March 28, 2011

To Market!

Only one more week and I’ll be on my way to the Netherlands! Todd arrived at our apartment in Maastricht today and from his description it sounds gorgeous. It’s a pretty new building as far as Europe goes (late 1800s, I think), and not cheap by any means, but its right in the old part of town, near the medieval center. I can’t wait to explore, and as it’s a pretty small city that should be easy to do mostly on foot. Which is good because (gasp!) I don’t know how to ride a bike! And I know a total of about three words of Dutch, and can’t pronounce any of them. I am woefully unprepared for this trip, I know (though most everyone apparently speaks English, so I should be ok there at least).

One thing I am quite excited about is the four different outdoor markets Maastricht has to offer. Outdoor markets are a very European thing, and they are all over the place in London, where I enjoyed exploring and discovering new ones. The U.S. has its share of outdoor farmer’s markets, but while in London every market had at least a few food stalls and stands with fresh produce (the variety on offer depending on the market’s size), most of them, like the famous Portobello and Spitalfields Markets, are similar to flea markets, offering a range of goods from clothes and jewelry to books and antiques, even electronics and pet supplies. Some, however, focus entirely on food. Needless to say these were my favorites, and I was lucky enough to have a small food market set up for most of the year in the square near my student housing every Saturday morning.

As any Londoner who is into such things will tell you, however, the greatest food market in the city (and the greatest market I have been to yet, anywhere) is Borough Market, under the London Bridge on the south side of the River Thames. Open every Thursday, Friday and Saturday, the thing is huge, with probably over a hundred vendors selling gourmet food of every kind imaginable. Most of it is pretty expensive, but it’s good quality and usually sourced and produced from within the UK, and the best part is that almost every stall hands out a plethora of samples. I confess that, being on a tight  budget, I rarely actually bought anything: instead I roamed the market and stuffed myself on tidbits of cheese, sausage, jams, Middle Eastern dips and spreads, chocolate, and numerous other goodies (this is where I first tried blood sausage, and like it!). Yes, I am a shameless freeloader, but what can I say, most poor college students are! I did usually spring for a cup of hot and spicy mulled wine, however (still usually the only way, besides sangria, that I enjoy red wine, and especially delicious at nine or ten in the morning!), as well as my favorite candy, good versions of which I have only found at London food markets: Turkish delight. Those of you who have read and/or seen The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe will know what I’m talking about: it’s a chewy, jelly-type candy, softer than a gummy candy but firmer than gelatin, coated in powdered sugar to keep it from sticking together and commonly rose-flavored, though at Borough Market there were two stalls selling it in a wide variety of flavors. I usually stuck to citrusy types like lemon, orange and pomegranate. Delicious! It was also fun just to wander around and look at all the cool things on offer, some of which is quite exotic: the fish stall with all kinds of odd creatures, impeccably fresh, the meat stall with wild game like whole rabbits and pheasants hanging, a stall specializing in ostrich products (!), and another selling burgers made out of bison and wild boar and venison. Very cool stuff hard to find anywhere else.

One week my parents and sister came to visit, and on Friday I took them to Borough. My mom and I shared a falafel wrap for lunch, while my sister and my dad tried a sausage roll and a meat pie (forgot what kind, chicken or pork or something). I bought a box filled with different kinds of Turkish delight for Steph, and then we loaded up on bread and cheese for later snacking in their hotel room (there are several bakeries that have stalls there (one has giant brownies, like really, the size of bricks, only much tastier), as well as cheese stalls, all of which are excellent. However, there is a permanent cheese store down one of the streets near the market called Neal’s Yard Dairy, which has several other outposts, and is one of the best cheese stores I’ve ever been in. Their cheese is worth a splurge, with some interesting varieties, and the staff is very knowledgeable and helpful. Update: They actually got started in Covent Garden, where their original store still is, and also export their cheeses overseas, including to Cow Girl Creamery in the San Francisco area. Good news for us West-Coasters! I also know that Whole Foods, at least the one near my parents' home on Long Island, carries a few selections).  We actually ended up losing part of our purchase when we left a bag somewhere during the rest of the day’s travels, which was distressing, but we managed to hold on to the best stuff, including a jar of the most intense fish pate I’ve ever tasted. I forgot what vendor it came from – maybe someone with Italian products? Or Spanish? – but only my dad and I liked it (both of us being fans of really fishy stuff, apparently), so we barely made a dent in it and after they left I enjoyed it in small doses for another month or so.

Having access to markets like that is one of the things I miss most about London, so I am excited to go and see what Maastricht has to offer. Of course these markets will be much smaller but who knows? I might find some great stuff, and this time I’ll actually be able to afford some of it!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

A Practice Run, or A Top Chef Surprise

So, I was going to officially start this blog when I arrive in the Netherlands, but I had kind of an exciting meal recently and wanted to share, plus I am bored (and completely stressed about packing, and therefore procrastinating). So, let’s just call this a practice run, shall we?

My little sister is on her spring break and flew out from New York for a four-day visit. Steph is two years younger than me and in her last year at Binghamton University, also my alma mater. She’s studying Biology and is gonna be a zookeeper! Isn’t that neat? So I figured – Riverside not being the most exciting place on the planet, and the weather being uncharacteristically dreary here this week – what better diversion than a trip to the zoo? But not just any zoo: the crème de la crème, San Diego! Of course Steph was psyched, so the day after she arrived we got an early start and drove down for a parent-sponsored two-day trip to the San Diego Zoo.

Friday, March 25, 2011


Hello, everyone! Or anyone. Welcome to my blog, the latest in the hundreds of thousands out there. Thank you for taking the time to check out this little fledgling.

I am starting this blog as I way to practice writing and perhaps get some use out of my expensive English degree, and to get some thoughts down at what I am hoping will be something of a turning point in my life, though admittedly my life as already had several of those, I just haven’t caught onto the whole blogging thing til now. I am at a point in my life where I am in a bit of limbo, not really sure what lies in the future, but I am hoping whatever it is will be fun and interesting, and if it is it will be documented here, on this site. Honestly, I am a bit nervous, as I don’t really have any other plan than to put my thoughts out there and am just hoping I end up with enough things to say to keep you interested and coming back for more.

Though I am a native New Yorker, I am currently posting from Riverside in Southern California, and in a few days I will be doing so from Maastricht, the Netherlands, where I will be living for the next few months, following around a man who I love (I’ll do a post about our slightly bizarre story another time). We’ll do lots of traveling, lots of eating of lots of good food (some of which will hopefully be made by me; I’m into food but am new at cooking, and still working on it), and I at least will be hopefully be doing lots of running, including a marathon in May (my first ever!). So I guess you could say this blog will center around those three things of interest of mine – traveling, eating, and running - and also around my stumbling attempts at creating a life for myself and my newfound best friend and boyfriend. I’ll document our life, its ups and downs and adventures, in Maastricht, and then continue once we’re back in California, when we intend to move to Los Angeles so that I can find a job (another new thing for me: job hunting, that is, and something else I am distinctly nervous about, as I don’t have much of an idea of what I really want to be when I grow up).

So I hope you will join me and see where this blogging thing goes. See you in Maastricht!