‘Tis the season to pick strawberries. Last week I went headed to New Market with my friend and her almost three-year old to have a berry picking adventure. We went to North Alabama icon Brown’s Farm and it lived up to my high expectations. It had a restroom, very important when traveling with a toddler. That was our first stop. Our second stop was a cute, little cabin to buy jams, honey and to get our strawberry picking buckets. Buckets in hand and hats on head we headed to the fields and started eating… I mean gathering strawberries. Some of us were a bit better at collecting strawberries than others, but there was a particular member of our picking party that ate far more than he put in the bucket.Please note the very emptiness of his bucket! Eventually he realized that strawberry picking was very similar to Easter Egg hunting and got onboard. The fields were nice, accessible and the attendant pointed us the best section to pick berries.After buying store-bought berries I sometimes I forget how strawberries are supposed to taste: sweet and juicy with a hint of tartness at the very end. In other words perfection. We picked for about an hour and had three very full buckets of nature’s candy, but as it approach noon it got hot and we started to wither. We didn’t bring lunch with us, but the farm had a lovely covered picnic area.I fully planned to come up with a recipe for the strawberries but we ate them all before I had a chance. Sometimes it’s just best to eat them as is.
Over the Christmas holidays my husband, my sister-in-law and I jetted away for a whirlwind, two day trip to London. We were going to spend several days in the city, but (London Fun Fact) the trains shut down on Christmas Eve Eve (Dec. 23rd) so we shortened the trip.
Since we only had two days we hit the highlights and stuck to the most stereotypically touristy parts of London: Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, fish and chips, tea, etc., but it was still immensely fun.
Now let’s be honest, Great Britain isn’t exactly known for their culinary prowess. True they have tea, scones, and fish and chips, all of which are lovely, but they also have a mysterious, slightly scary, tar-like substance called Marmite, which I’ve gathered you eat on toast (Is it like jam or closer to peanut butter?) and Stargazy Pie, which maybe delicious, but honestly just looks terrifying. (Are you supposed to eat the fish heads?) My point being, I had very mixed expectations when it came to English cuisine.
I am happy to report that most of the dishes were wonderfully delicious and I would eat them again. That being said, I played it pretty safe and avoided the fish head pies and jellied eels (look it up).
In the morning went sightseeing, shot the obligatory photo at Big Ben, toured Westminster Abbey with an audio recording by Jeremy Irons (fancy), complained about the pesky tourists (Wow, Americans are SO loud! Sorry rest of the world), and in general enjoyed this wonderful, exciting city.
When we finally decided to stop for lunch we had no plan, so we picked the first interesting place we across: Westminster Arms. Apparently we picked well because in addition to being frequented by politicians and journalists, it has also been visited by Desmond Tutu, Angelina Jolie and Bill Clinton. All of this I learned after I got back to the States.We walked downstairs to the crowded restaurant portion of the pub and I fully expected to be turned away or a long wait.
“Are you here to eat?” asked a man brusquely. He definitely seemed like the owner, so from henceforth I will refer to him as such.
“Yes” I answered. I reined in my Americanness and said it with polite, deference rather than the exuberant, enthusiasm I’m used to in the States. Polite, deference would never fly at T.G.I.Fridays. They waitstaff would harass you until you faked absolute bliss to be eating artichoke dip. Being an American can be exhausting, who wants to be that upbeat and energetic all the time.
The owner walked up to a table filled with pint sipping patrons and said to the people “These people are eating, you need to leave.”
My husband and I were shocked, but the people seemed to take it in stride, got up and headed upstairs so we could take their table. I guess it is tavern protocol.
I ordered the most tourist dish possible, fish and chips, which was more for the mashed peas than the fish and chips. I’ve tasted canned Mushy, which I wasn’t a fan off, but it made me want to try the real stuff. As I suspected, real mushy peas are delicious! Of course the fish and chips were also wonderful. My husband went for the second most touristy dish, bangers and mash, which was also quite good. I’d like to visit again and try something less obvious, but overall everything was well-cooked and plated. The tavern itself was nice with booths, tables and a bar at the front. Everything was covered in wood and complimented with appropriate art and decor.
The ladies’ toilets were also an adventure. There was a sink with two facets: one for hot water and one for cold water, but none for comfortable temperature water. I’ve been told this is fairly common in Great Britain, but this was the only sink I encountered like this, granted I was only there for 2 days.The restroom also had charming wall art to keep you entertained during your visit. I’m not sure what ‘cor scrummy’ means but I take it to mean something good. ‘Sexy’ maybe, ‘tasty’, it’s possible. If anyone knows please feel free to educate me.
Today is the day that the three wise men FINALLY showed up to bring baby Jesus some sweet swag. In various parts of the world this is celebrated by eating a cake that has a trinket baked inside of it. The person that finds the trinket, without eating/choking on it, is dubbed king, given a paper crown and a year’s worth of bragging rights.
This year I spent Christmas in France with my husband and in-laws so so we celebrated Epiphany a bit early with Galette des rois (King Cake).
The french version of King Cake is lovely, with a buttery, flakey phyllo housing sweet frangipane. The trinket or fève is of a nicer caliber than the misshapen plastic Jesus that typically adorns the American versions and can come in a variety of shapes and themes.
My mother-in-law has collected fèves most of her life and has a impressive collection tucked away in a coffee tin. Over the years people have added to her collection and she now has hundreds of miniatures. There are nativity sets, Disney Characters, monuments, barn yard animals, 1920’s actors, books, etc. I love looking at the every Christmas when we visit.
I ate my slice fastidiously, confident that THIS year I had the fève. No fève. But no one got it, so we had to try again later than night at dinner.
I carefully ate tiny bits, not wanting to break or swallow the ceramic prize. And the Queen was…
My husband. Every freakin year!
The prize was an adorable ceramic book: Le Diamant de la Couronne (The Crown Diamonds.
But it wasn’t a totally loss for me. After careful consideration and dagger looks from his wife, my husband dubbed me Queen of the King Cake and I got to wear the crown for a bit.
It’s good to be Queen!
If you want to make your own King Cake you can get my recipe from last year. It is simple and easy because I am a lazy chef, but it was pretty tasty if I do say so myself.
It is said that the goddess Aphrodite aka Venus was born after Cronus castrated his father Uranus and threw his … um … er… ‘member’ into the sea. (ouch!) Sea-foam formed where Uranus’s genitals fell into the water and from this foam Venus sprang forth, fully formed and a goddess to be reckoned with.
I don’t believe the craft beer, Heady Topper, has quite as dramatic of an origin story, but the beer is as revered, loved, and sought-after as the great Venus herself. I recently had the pleasure of encountering this highly ranked, elusive beer while on a trip to see my family in upstate New York.
While in New York, I was posting various photographs of local brews to my Instagram account and a friend jokingly commented that if I wanted to bring her back a souvenir, she would love some craft beer.
“What do you want?” I asked.
“Heady Topper if it’s available! Never had it.. only heard the folklore,” she said.
Sure, why not, I thought. Little did I know the journey she was sending me on. The ‘folklore’ comment should have been my tipoff.
Over the next couple of days, I glanced at the grocery store’s beer selection but didn’t see anything, so I decided to research it. It was then that I learned how complicated it was to get this beer.
Heady Topper was ranked by Beer Advocate as the # 1 beer starting in 2013. It is currently ranked # 2 on the list, but could move back to the number 1 spot at anytime. It is hard to get because it is a world-class beer that is only distributed in Vermont. Heady Topper often sells out within the hour and people wait in long lines to get it. There are even a story of 1 can of beer selling for as much as $42. After learning all of this, I was ready to throw in the towel and just send my friend a post card, but my Dad got quite inspired about getting his hands on some. We had a trip planned to Burlington, so he started watching the brewery’s website to see where Heady would be distributed.
He learned that it would arrive at City Market on Tuesday.On the big day, we got a late start and didn’t get into Burlington until 12:30 pm. I figured we had missed out, but then we saw this sign.The most important part of the sign was that the beer wouldn’t be brought out until 2pm, so we hadn’t missed out! My father was very excited and after a visit to customer service to inquire about the appropriate Heady purchasing protocol, he promptly got in line. I kept on asking if he was sure he wanted to wait for an hour for a beer we’d never even heard of a week earlier, but he was adamant that he was in it for the long haul.
My mother and I went across the street to a local bookstore as my father bonded with his line-mates. Some were newbies like himself, but others were Heady fanatics that raved about how much they LOVED this beer.
At one point, a woman came by and observed the growing line of Heady shoppers.
“You know, there is perfectly good beer that you don’t have to wait in line for!” she exclaimed. She shook her head at their ridiculous fanaticism.
As she walked away the man behind my father said, “That used to be me, wondering why someone would stand in line for beer. Then I had Heady and now here I am, standing in line.”
By 2pm, over 50 were waiting for the beer. There was no limit on how much a customer could purchase, so everyone had to hope the person in front of them didn’t buy everything. My father was 5th in line, so he was able to get his prize quickly: a case of Heady Topper.
My mother and I met with him at a nearby restaurant to celebrate his victory. I noticed that the menu featured another beer from The Alchemist brewery so I ordered it.
“I’m sorry,” said the waitress. “We’re all out, but we do have Heady Topper.”
“Perfect!” I said, and my mother, father and I all ordered some.
On the ride home to New York, a double rainbow smiled down upon us. Heady Topper IS magical!!
On my recent trip to Japan, I visited the village of Tanabe specifically to tour the shinto shrine of Kumano Hongū Taisha. As we walked up the 158 steps to the shrine we noticed many people carrying tiny, white packages covered in red writing. We finally asked a woman what was in the package and she told us they were umes, a fruit similar to plums. She enthusiastically explained that the temple was having a ume festival at that very moment and directed us to a table covered with the packages. We noticed a crowd gathering at the entrance of the shrine so we walked over to investigate. To our delight there was an elaborate ceremony going on to kick-off umeshu or ume wine season. In the states we call umeshu plum wine, but apparently this is a misnomer. Umes are similar to plums, but not actually plums. Here is a diagram explaining.
We respectfully stayed in the back of the shrine watching the festivities, but I suppose our obvious tourist appearance made us stick out and several people came up to us to ask where we were from and if we were enjoying the ceremony. This drew more attention to us and a short time later two Japanese news stations came over with cameras and started interviewing our friends, Matthieu and Barbara, who speak Japanese. My husband and I were pretty glad to not be able to speak Japanese in that moment. My interview would have been sad and short, “hello”, “I’m sorry” and “thank-you very much”.Unfortunately our lack of speaking/understand Japanese did not help us escape media coverage. We soon found ourselves being handed boxes of umes and through gesturing were asked to join the ceremony by pouring the fruit into a large bucket. We stood in a long line of people solemnly pouring boxes of plums, that aren’t really plums, into a container as cameras and microphones captured every moment. As I stood in line, acutely aware of the cameras focusing on me, I wondered why I had worn such an ugly shirt that day and why hadn’t I bothered to slap a little bit of lip gloss on. The day before, when there was no national coverage of my vacation, I was so pulled together. Jeez. Despite my nerves and insecurities I was quite honored to be asked to participate in such a formal ceremony. I managed to get my umes in the container without tripping over myself or spilling any on the ground. After successfully placing the umes into the barrel (under the scrutiny of spectators and cameras) we receded to the back corner of the shrine to watch the rest of the festival. Many people spoke, which of course I couldn’t understand and men in suits lined up and poured alcohol over the umes and carried leaf covered branches into the shrine. There was even a beautiful dance performed by two women in kimonos and headdresses. They danced with bells, making them ring only at specific moments. I had no idea what was going on, but despite this it was stunning and I actually felt moved by the elegance of it all. Toward the end of the ceremony the head priest of the shrine brought us gifts for attending the ceremony. I couldn’t believe it! At this point I desperately wanted to be able to speak Japanese to so I could fully express my gratitude. I bowed and say “Doumo arigatou gozaimasu” over and over, but that didn’t quite convey my gratitude at people’s amazing generosity and kindness. The ceremony ended with everyone toasting with a small glass of plum wine. I learned that Japanese for ‘Cheers’ is ‘Kanpai’ which literally means empty cup.A baby at the festival over indulged and passed out. Ha ha! Just kidding. She was playing with an empty cup and fell asleep, but I thought it was a funny picture.
Later that evening we enjoyed a glass of the wine in our hostel. Kanpai!!When I got home to the states I bought some umeshu at the grocery story. It made me all weepy and nostalgic for Japan. It is delicious and if you haven’t tried it I highly recommend giving it a go, especially the Choya brand. Their website has many delicious cocktails to make with it, though I like it just straight and chilled.
I have been a bad blogger and not posted in over a month. I know, I know I’m breaking the first rule of blogging, post consistently, but I swear I have a good excuse! My husband and I spent the last three weeks in Japan and we have been far too busy site seeing, eating new foods, getting lost, struggling to communicate, and changing our world views to bother with blogging.
The trip was an amazing adventure, especially ordering food with a VERY limited understanding of Japanese and only pictures or plastic displays of fake food to guide us. Despite our limitations, we loved (almost) everything we ate. Of course I was a total tourist and took photos of most of my dishes.
Most of the time we had no idea what we were eating. This was the ‘light’ vegetarian lunch on our excursion to Mt. Fuji. They brought us a tray covered with tiny bites of food we did not recognize. Our lunch conversation went something like this:
Olivier: What do you think this is?
Me: … eggplant … maybe.
Olivier: Do you think it is a mushroom or something?
Me: Well just try it and see.
Olivier: You try it.
Me: You try it first.
Olivier puts the unidentified object in his mouth and slowly chews.
Olivier: I still have no idea.
Me: What do you think this sauce goes with?
Olivier: Maybe the pepper?
Me: Which thing is the pepper!?
It was fun though!
When in doubt go with noodles! I really tried to make a point to eat lots of different foods while in Japan, but the noodles were so delicious that I kept on ordering them!
There were numerous varieties and each time I ordered a noodle dish it was a different experience. I even got pretty proficient eating them with chopsticks.
The gyoza or pan fried dumplings were heavenly. They were much lighter and tastier than American version, pot-stickers. I’ve been craving them since I’ve been back. Guess I’ll have to learn how to make them. Sushi from a sushi-go-round!! The sushi was delicious, but I especially love the process of looking at all the little plates of fish float by you on a conveyor belt and deciding what you want. There was the added element of suspense when you saw something you wanted on the opposite end of the restaurant and you had to wonder if you would get it or another patron would snatch it up before it made it to you.
The color of the plate determines the price of the sushi. So smart!
As you can see we tried lots of different things! This was for 4 people though, not just me.
We did eat a ‘western breakfast’ several times, which were delicious. But we never really got the hang of eating eggs with chopsticks.
If you get really desperate for a hot meal on the go there are vending machines that dispense fried food. We never got this desperate.
Every dish we ate was well prepared and presented. Even the little mom and pop shops, fast food restaurants and the 7/11 the food was pretty good food.