The food of the south of Spain exemplifies the Mediterranean diet. Various types of seafood dominate the cuisine when it comes to the protein. This includes a lot of oily fish like tuna and anchovies. Pork and chicken come a distant second to seafood followed by beef which is not usually eaten. Vegetables, olive oil and legumes such as lentils, chickpeas and beans form other key building blocks of this cuisine.
The supermarkets are filled with a higher proportion of fundamental foods which form the building blocks for cooking a meal instead of pre-prepared, processed foods or meal shortcuts. This makes the Spanish diet very healthy.
Eating out is mainly about tapas. It’s about having a small plate to nibble on with a small drink. It is less about filling up with large meal than about connecting with friends and family. This too is very healthy as plenty of research shows that having meaningful connections in life is a key to a happy and healthy life.
The famous soup of Andalusia is the Salmorejo. This can be considered a cousin to the famous Spanish Gazpacho. Salmorejo is a cold, tomato based soup which also incudes bread and olive oil. Bread is not used as an ingredient in Gazpacho. Salmorejo has the same refreshing, cooling, tanginess similar to Gazpacho but is made creamier and more filling with the bread blended through. It’s a smart way to use up leftover bread. Ancestors of this soup can be traced back to the Roman Empire where a tomato-free version of this soup existed. The tomato was a much later addition once they were introduced to Spain.
Another classic on the Iberian peninsula are the legs of ‘jamon’ or ham. In many restaurants, specialist shops and even in the local Aldi, there are legs of ham strung up. These vary in price but are usually quite expensive. They are delicately sliced into the thinnest layers and arranged carefully into plates for tapas or to be sold in smaller portions.
Often when one speaks to a person from the UK who has been transplanted to another country, they will reminisce about how nice Christmas is “back home”. When asked why, the best they can articulate is that Christmas is a bright spot in a dark winter. This sounds utterly depressing coming from many sunny, summer Aussie Christmases. I was therefore keen to see what the fuss is about!
Christmas in the UK is like Christmas on steroids! There are a LOT of decorations and lights up. All the main shopping streets and fancy shops like Harrods, Fortnum and Masons and Selfridges compete with their Christmas light and window displays. These draw the crowds. Walking around in the evening in prime locations whether on the streets or in these major shops is a desperately slow affair as you have to constantly negotiate the throngs of people. The window displays in particular are really special, interesting and well thought out. Lots of restaurants and businesses will decorate both the interior as well as the exterior, usually with an arch of foliage, flowers and decorations over the entrance. It is all a lot of effort!
There are many Christmas markets dotted around London in the Christmas period. Some of the smaller markets will have crafty, small business type stalls whilst the big Christmas markets e.g. London Bridge, Leicester Square etc. will have what looks to be franchised type stalls selling the same commercialized items at every market e.g. Christmas baubles. In every Christmas markets, you can be assured to get mulled wine, churros, bratwurst in a bun, hot chocolate and the other usual suspects. So although the markets are pretty and well decorated, they can get a little repetitive if they are selling the same kinds of over-commercialized junky things. It was all still a sight to see and added a lot to the festive feel around town.
It seems like many households decorate a real tree. Real Christmas trees (instead of plastic trees) are sold in lots of places and it was not uncommon throughout December to see someone lugging home a huge tree on their backs.
Onwards to the highlight of Christmas, the main Christmas meal! For most families, the usual suspects will be on the table. Roast gammon or ham, roast turkey or chicken, brussel sprouts, roasted potatoes, “snips” (parsnips), swedes, carrots, bread sauce and gravy. A nut roast is a delicious addition to reduce meat consumption. Most of the vegetables will be coated in duck fat for extra deliciousness! The UK classic of “Pigs in Blanket” will also be lurking about during Christmas time. These are tiny sausages wrapped in streaky bacon and are delicious. The Scottish refer to these as “Kilted Soldiers”. A variation is “Devils on Horseback” which are prunes wrapped in streaky bacon. Also very fatty, salty, sweet and delicious! For dessert, the Christmas pudding is brought out after being doused with alcohol and set alight. It is usually served with brandy butter, a strange whipped “sauce” of butter, icing sugar and brandy.
Strangely, the famous UK roast accompaniment of Yorkshire Puddings are not part of the Christmas meal despite the meal being very roast-like.
Following somewhat in the Christmas theme is mention kindness. In our time in the UK, we have found everyone to be warm, welcoming and kind. Worthy of mention are the medical staff working for the NHS. There are constant reports of the system being in disarray and staff being overworked and burnt out. In my experience, whilst the systems and processes could be improved, every single individual I dealt with within the system was kind, professional, competent and did their best for me. This covers doctors, nurses and general staff.
The Royal London Hospital is a maze and as I was negotiating the various turns and signage to get some blood tests done, the signs stopped. I stopped too, looking around confused, clutching my blood test request stickers. I didn’t even have to ask when a kindly staff member just told me where I needed to go as if he read my mind. I wonder how many times he has done that and they really need an extra sign in that spot! Unfortunately, the blood test signage led you straight into the area where the samples are being taken without directing you first to the required sign-in station. The nurse there re-directed me to the sign-in area. I suspect she has to give the same redirection to almost every new patient. Despite how annoying that must be, she was patient as it was quite a complicated route to find the sign-in area. At the sign-in area, there was someone to assist people with the sign-in touch screen and various directions. Her job must be incredibly repetitive but nevertheless, she did it with patience and good cheer. Potentially, there could be some small improvement in the signage but to be honest, considering how maze-like the place is, confused people are unavoidable.
This is not saying that the system is perfect because it is far from perfect. For example, the wait for medications at the hospital pharmacy was at least an hour. Waiting was not an issue for some but I felt for the mother of the young disabled toddler. An hour was just too long to wait. They would return the next day for their medications but with a disabled toddler in tow, this was no small ask. However, considering the sheer volume of people that they service, I suspect that the pharmacists behind the counter rarely get moment to sit or eat during their shift. The NHS has it’s problems but despite all the many frustrations that these problems cause, the individuals working within the system still work everyday maintaining, as best they can, a good level of service, kindness and professionalism. It is to be applauded.
For those wishing for a white Christmas in London this year, it was not to be. The snow came a week or so before Christmas. It was quite a lot of snow and it lasted for a few days. It was really rare and magical! You can hardly believe these photos are of London!
Hope that you and your loved ones have enjoyed a lovely Christmas and 2023 is good year for all.
I love to eat and I love food so when an opportunity arose to see one of the world’s most famous celebrity chefs speak at the Royal Festival Hall in the Southbank Centre, London, it was too good to pass up. The location itself right on the Thames is wonderful. Exiting Embankment Tube Station and seeing the Southbank Centre on the opposite bank and the dome of St Paul’s cathedral lit up in the night is exquisite!
The big question is, can a 2 hour show talking about food, without any prospect of eating any food, be engaging and entertaining . The theatre was about 90% full and there were plenty of groups of friends, mostly groups of ladies who had come together.. They were armed for the show with their wines (in plastic cups for safety). Judging by their chatter and laughter in the bathroom after the show, they had a great time and were very jolly from the drinks!
I was seated very far back so despite the promise of some test kitchen action, I could tell I was much too far back to get even one molecule of delicious food aroma. The only “cooking” done in the test kitchen was really just the addition of some condiments, oils and sauces to some pre-cooked eggplant.
Yotam Ottolenghi is a really well known chef of Middle Eastern Heritage who has released several books and has a number of restaurants throughout London. This Middle Eastern heritage permeates through his vegetable heavy recipes. His recipes are delicious but somewhat complicated and time consuming for the weeknight cook. He is married to a man from Northern Ireland, Karl, but despite this, he is an absolute favourite amongst the ladies. Noor Murad is a chef from Bahrain and heads up Ottolenghi’s Test Kitchen.
Together, they led us through this evening. First, they discussed the various chapters of their new book, Extra Good Things. The concept of the book is about having flavoured oils, condiments, crunchy additions, sauces, etc. to add that something special to your dish. These “extra good things” can be made, kept and used to jazz up other dishes in the coming days, thereby adding flavour with no extra work. There was some audience interaction during the show with the use of a QR code and some audience voting. They also added some condiments to basic cooked eggplant to show how adding condiments can elevate a simple dish. This added a lot of levity because one of the audience members who got to try the dish was an absolute die-hard fan. She told Ottolenghi that she had written many love letters to him and he had changed her life. At the end, she went in for a number of hugs. It was awkward and very funny.
What food inspiration did I gain from the night?
To Ottolenghify a dish is to add a twist to a basic dish e.g. by adding more seeds, salsa, feta, herbs, flavoured oils, lemon etc.
Shanklish are balls of strained yoghurt, like labneh, with flavourings stirred through and then left at room temperature for about 5 days to develop a blue cheese funk. (I’m not convinced on this one!)
Green Tahini – a blend of parsley, lemon juice, tahini and garlic. Sounds yum!
Tomato sauce with cumin, chilli and cinnamon to make an eggplant parmigiana pie with a kataifi topping.
Dukkah to add crunch such as on baked root vagetables with harissa chickpeas.
Crispy garlic for the flavoured oil and the texture of the fried garlic.
Rocket pesto – for a dish of pasta and beans with a shower of grated haloumi over the top. Haloumi as the new parmesan!
Caramel clementine dressing with the blackened chicken. The clementines adding the freshness to the rich dish. (The quality and sweetness of the clementines or mandarins you can get in the UK is extraordinary so I can believe that this would be a heavenly dish!)
Zaatar tomatoes which have been confit in balsamic vinegar and spooned over polenta.
Smoky chipotle oil made with smoked praprika, chipotle flakes and galic
Meringue roulade made with brown sugar for extra chewiness and filled with caramelised apples flavoured with vanilla and bayleaf.
It turns out that one of Ottolenghi’s favourite cuisines is Malaysian cuisine. He said that one of his dessert island dishes is Nasi Lemak, coconut rice with all kinds of toppings. (I didn’t realise that one could choose more than one dessert island food. Seems like cheating!) His favourite store bought biscuit is a milk chocolate digestive. He was silent for ages before answering this audience question. I suspect it has been a very long time since Ottolenghi has sampled a store bought biscuit!
The evening was very amusing at times because there would be a lot of detailed discussion about a particular dish or perhaps a photo on the big screen. Sometimes, the audience would let out a audible moan that vocalised their of longing and desire for the food, their frustration at being unable to eat it at that very moment and their admiration at the concept.
Yotam Ottolenghi was asked what he was serving on Christmas day. It turns out Christmas is the one day he is not allow to Ottolenghify the food as his Irish husband wants a traditional Christmas of his youth. Poor Ottolenghi has to make it through the Christmas meal with his homemade chilli sauce to add some spice to his plate. He seemed very anti-gravy. He said it was a sin to cover up all your good work on the plate with gravy.
It was a fun night. It’s always interesting to see how food is such a reflection of a person’s heritage, memories and life experiences. I enjoyed being in the Royal Festival Hall and I love any talk about good food. It does pale to the eating of food though. Does it make me want to try some Ottolenghi recipes? Maybe. I still do think they are overcomplicated but I will definitely take aspects of them for inspiration.
Travelling through Europe is an expensive affair. The accommodation costs, the transportation costs, costs to see various sights and then on top of all that, you have to eat as well! Food offers a window to understanding a place and the people so whilst it is good to save money, it should be balanced with trying to experience the local cuisine. Here are some tips on how to eat cheaply in Europe.
Get off the main tourist strip – Rule number 1 to reduce the cost is to steer clear of the main tourist areas. If a shop or restaurant appears to be catering predominantly to tourists, there is a good chance the food will be subpar and pricey. Look for places where working class or local families might eat in districts where the local people live and work.
Look for marked down items in the supermarket – This hardly warranted a separate point except that we were in Carrefour in France and spotted some marked-down beignets with a chocolate filling. These were so divine and memorable, they had to get mention. These tasted amazing despite the fact they were marked-down in price. I assume they were not fresh. They tasted fresh to me which makes me wonder how heavenly, freshly made, warm beignets would be.
Germany is a great place for cheap food – Due to the number of Turkish migrants, the Turkish food in Germany is outstanding. It’s fresh, good quality and of a very high standard. We were in a touristy square in a German city and bought a falafel wrap from a street food van. This was expected to be average because buying food from a touristy location usually results in bad food. On the contrary, the dough was pulled and shaped right then and baked in a wood fired oven to make the wrap! The fillings were tasty and fresh. I had never seen wraps being made fresh before but it is not uncommon in Germany.
Breads dominates German cuisine. Their breads are usually dense, dark and filling. Sandwiches, baguettes and rolls made of these types of breads are found everywhere e.g. train stations and they make for a healthy and filling meal at low cost. Another favourite from the bakery is their freshly baked pretzels. They seem plain but are delicious, not too unhealthy and relatively cheap.
Try to eat healthily – The strong temptation on holiday is to indulge all the time. If you are on a short holiday, that’s OK. If you are on a longer trip, it’s best to eat in a more balanced way whenever possible.
A restaurant is not your only option – Restaurants in Germany expect you to purchase a paid drink when you sit to eat. Restaurants in Italy will charge you a cover charge (coperto) and sometimes a tourist surcharge (maggiorazione) of up to 15%. Both will not give you free tap water. On top of this, there will be an expectation that you tip. With all these costs adding up, it’s important to remember that a restaurant is not the only option to get some food. Takeaway places e.g. kebab shops are much more reasonably priced and there are healthy and filling options. Similarly, you can go to a hole in the wall place or a street food stall / van. Markets often have food options and of course, you can always go to the supermarket. It’s often nice to pick up a few things and head to a park or local square to eat and watch the world go by.
Use the local supermarket – If you have a choice, choose a larger supermarket vs a small one. It is likely to be cheaper. We ate many supermarket meals when travelling Europe. For less than price of 1 course for 2 people in a restaurant, we could easily buy 3 courses and some fruit in a supermarket for 2.
Perusing the local supermarket gives an insight to what the local population eat. For example, French people don’t eat instant noodles for there were none to be found. The cheese section in a French supermarket is humongous. In the German supermarkets there were a lot of mayonaise-heavy salads and spreads in toothpaste like containers. These were all for bread!
Eating from the supermarket is not necessarily substandard from eating at a restaurant. We found, especially in France, the quality at the supermarket was extremely high. The fresh produce was beautiful and flavoursome and even the microwave meals were truly delicious! Unfortunately, this could not be said for Germany. Strangely, the savoury food from the supermarket was all very salty. I suspect the expectation is that the food would be accompanied by bread which would balance out the salt.
A hot weather favourite of ours are yoghurt drinks. These are not common in Australia but widely available in Europe. They are tangy and refreshing on a hot day and more filling than just juice or water.
Fill up if it’s free – Nothing is actually free but if your accommodation comes with breakfast included, make sure you eat lots!
Look for Lunch Time Menu Deals – These might be called Menu Del Dia or Menu Du Jour or Formule. These are usually multiple courses and can include a drink. These deals are only available at lunch time, so when travelling, make lunch your restaurant treat meal and do a supermarket dinner to save money.
If you see Plat Du Jour (plate of the day), this is often a good deal too.
Another memorable lunch menu meal was partaken in Bilbao. It was entree, mains, dessert and a whole bottle of wine per person for about 16 euros! It was also an interesting insight into Basque cuisine. The Basque are a separate ethnic group that live in parts of France and Spain. They speak their own language and have their own cuisine. I had Mimitako, a tuna peasant stew that they ate on fishing boats and red fish with garlic oil. I like the use of potatoes in the Mimitako. Real food for working class people always had carbohydrates because they are a cheap and filling way to stretch a meal.
Restaurant Selection Impacts the Price – If you go to a fancy steak or seafood place, your price per head will be inevitably high. Choose a more modest place, for example a place specializing in French galettes, a cute brunch cafe or humble “mom and pop” eatery for a more reasonable price. Asian and Ethnic food places can also work out cheaper.
The UK Supermarket Meal Deal – British people eat a lot of sandwiches. Almost every supermarket change has some version of the meal deal where you get a sandwich/baguette/wrap, a snack and a drink for between 4 to 6 pounds. It’s very good value. There is an astounding variety of sandwiches, most of which cannot be found on the supermarket shelves in any other country. Some examples include coronation chicken, egg and cress, cheese and pickle and ploughmans. For a snack you can even get a Scotch Egg which is a hard boiled egg, coated in sausage meat and a crispy bread crumb. A Scotch Egg is very British!
Get a Restaurant Discount – When in Europe, you can use websites like TheFork to book restaurants at a discount. With discounts up to 50% off, this works out to be very good value! In London, you can even eat at a reduced price at brand new restaurants when they are doing their soft launch. This is a testing phase where the new restaurants are ironing out their issues. You can find these new restaurants offering discounts on the Soft Launch website.
In Toulouse, the local specialty is cassoulet, a peasant sausage and bean dish. We managed to found a restaurant specializing in cassoulet with a 50% discount on TheFork. What a great deal! We also had a delicious duck breast dish with an extraordinary pepper sauce at the same restaurant.
Not all supermarkets are the same – Supermarkets are aimed at various parts of the demographic and can therefore be at different price points. If you shop at Waitrose or M&S in the UK vs Lidl, Aldi or Iceland, you will have a much high bill. Our favorite and consistently the cheapest is Aldi. It’s nice that it’s always good value but another selling point is that it has only one product of any type of thing in the store. For example, if you want a can of chick peas, there will only be one brand to choose from. Multiply this for all the different types of products in the store and you have an experience where you can do your shopping with a lot less decision fatigue. You spend less time comparing prices on the same item across different brands.
Aldi was actually started by two brothers. They did very well together up to the point they had 300 stores. Then they had an argument about whether cigarettes should be sold in the store. They could not reach an agreement so they split Germany down the centre into Aldi Nord and Aldi Sud and operated their own stores each. As they expanded internationally, the world was also split into Aldi Nord (north) and Aldi Sud (south). Instead of letting an argument break down the family business, these brothers just split up the world and got on with it.
Whilst it is important to watch the pennies when travelling, be careful that it doesn’t take away from the joy of having new experiences and trying new cuisines. Enjoy your travels and eat good food!! Good food is a joy!
If you are the type of person who finds eating too time consuming and you consider food only to be fuel for your body, consider these liquid food substitutes. These are definitely not for me because if food has to be labeled “This is Food”, I’m not really sure it is.