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Temple of Aphaia

Greece the land of Temples, the birth of democracy and mythology but also land of exquisite cuisine. I’ve spend a week in Aegina this summer, a small island, about 1 hour south of Athens by boat. This Island is a special one, first it’s home to the Temple of Aphaia, one of the best preserved doric temples in Greece. Plus since 1860, the island is a top producers of quality pistachios in Europe. Their pistachios are simply divine, they say sweeter than most pistachios, those trees are growing easily all over the island, although not so easily elsewhere in Greece or even Europe…

As soon as you touch land, in the harbour, you’ll see many stands of pistachios here and there. A pure pistachio heaven! They sell all kinds of products like; pistachio butter, pesto, paste, nougat, preserved in honey, candies, baklavas, etc. Plus those “nuts” (technically not nuts but seeds) are lower in fat, calories and higher in fibres than most, making it a great healthy snack!

For this travel/food post I simply wanted to share some of the delicious Greek specialities I’ve got to try while on my too short trip to Aegina. Some are well known worldwide, others less but always with interesting stories attached to each of them. Hopefully I can pick the curiosity, and give you the taste to Greek cuisine tonight, or even book a flight to Greece. A lovely place! It’s bold and aromatic cuisine that uses great products from their land and where tradition prevails.

 

Spanakopita (Greek Spinach Pie)

Spanakopita

This popular globally, spinach pie is simply delicious! A nice crunch to it filled with soft and creamy spinach. This phyllo savory pie is usually mixed with some ricotta or feta cheese, onion and spices. You’ll find it in any bakery around Greece, sometimes made with flaky dough instead of phyllo. It also come in different sizes and shapes. A great vegetarian snack!

 

Tyropita (Cheese Savory Pastry)

tyropitaBIte

This is the cousin from the above Spanakopita, quite similar in its form although the filling here is cheese. Usually a mix of feta, yogurt, butter and egg, and is usually eaten mid-morning since the Greek solely drink coffee for breakfast. It also could be made with whether many layers of phyllo sheets or flaky pastry (above picture is flaky pastry). A simple yet fulfilling breakfast or snack with a lovely flaky shell, yet creamy savory interior that is irresistible!

 

Dolmades

Greece specialities

These little bites or snacks are made of round grain rice, herbs enveloped in vine leaves and drizzled with olive oil. These can be eaten warm or cold, fresh or preserved in a can, vegetarian or meaty. The warm ones (with or without meat) are made from the fresh vine leaves and are seasonal, meaning you’ll find them solely in the beginning of summer throughout summer. They are preferred by far to the cold preserved kinds. However I didn’t get to try the fresh kind, just the “canned” ones and they were “in my book” delicious! I’m guessing I would probably lose my mind over the warm ones! Vine leaves have this certain perfume to it, which I personally dig, making this a “one of a kind” bite!

 

Moussaka

Moussaka

Often mistaken for a simple lasagna with eggplants instead of pasta, this is the dish every Greek grandma knows best. It’s a layer of nicely spiced meat, tomato sauce and eggplant true, although the topping is a velvety mashed potatoes top layer with cheese, gratin style! A pure delight, especially in the colder months, it’s the comfort food by excellence for Greek people.

 

Saganaki

Saganaki

This is a delight for any cheese lovers out there! A fried cheese made of hard yellow sheep (sometimes goat) cheeses called graviera, kefalograviera or kefalotyri depending where you are in Greece. All similar to halloumi cheese, a nice to grill cheese that won’t melt in the pan. It’s a popular meze (Greek Tapas) and often served with a squeeze of lemon. A fun squeaky texture, a great treat if you are not counting the calories.

 

The Greek Salad

Greek Salad

This one is a no brainer, everyone knows Greek salad… Although not everyone know that the authentic Greek salad comes with no lettuce and usually with a few extra green bell peppers. Without saying, Greek’s love their feta cheese, they serve their salad with a big brick of it with a few oregano dry buds on top. Those dry oregano buds are an explosion of flavor! To finish it up a nice fruity Greek olive oil. Impossible to get through Greece without trying one of those! Simply divine!

The Greek Coffee

As I’ve said earlier, Greek people don’t really eat breakfast, or they do although mid-morning after their coffee ritual, which is the first thing they do in the morning. There are two main types of coffee; one being the “Greek Coffee” a thicker espresso most of the time served with sugar (they ask for no sugar, little or full sugar) and the other is what you order to cool down in the afternoon; the ice cold Frappe. The authentic “Greek coffee”  is traditionally done over a hot sand base in a small bronze pot called briki, similar to Turk coffee, but don’t you dare say this out loud in Greece… or also done in a simpler briki over direct flame with a super fine coffee powder simply stirred with a touch of sugar and water. No filters needed in the Greek way of making coffee so there will be a deposit at the bottom of the cup, so never stir this coffee unless you like mouthfuls of sandy texture liquid.. The sugar being added during the cooking process there is no need to stir. Even for the dark coffee drinkers will need a touch of sugar in this one, since it’s extremely bitter otherwise. Similar to eating a big piece of 90% chocolate in one shot. The more foam on top the better, it’s supposed to bring prosperity and some say you can even read the future from this type of coffee… but don’t ask me how it’s done… that’s for other types of bloggers.

 

Frappe

The Frappe is made with Nescafe instant mix, whipped into a thick foamy iced coffee, this is what everyone needs under the Greek sun. So refreshing! It can be again ordered without, a little or full sugar, the more sugar you’ll ask for… the better the foam will be. Made in a “mixer” machine, this drink is essentially in every coffee shops in Greece and perfect to cool off after a day in the sun. Served to go or on the spot!

 

Tzatziki

Tzatziki

Who doesn’t know Tzatziki? Probably the first thing that comes to mind for many when thinking about Greece… A smooth, creamy and powerful dip! It can be served with any grilled meat like gyros or as a meze (tapa) with a warm pita bread. Traditionally made with sheep or goat milk, today the Greek yogurt is often strained cow milk like the ones we can find in many markets around the world (Total). However, in Greece, you’ll find many types of yogurt going from sheep yogurt with a crust on top to a more sour goat yogurt to the commercial strained cow milk yogurt we all know. So traditionally, the Tzatziki would have probably be made of this sheep or goat yogurt although nowadays it’s mainly done with strained cow milk. In other words, nobody really know for sure what exactly is “Greek yogurt” since there is many varieties of it. It goes as well for the tzatziki, being made with all the above and resulting in a different tastes. Most tzatziki recipes out there incorporate some mint or dill in the dip although this is not what most Greeks would do. They prefer a “herb free” plain yogurt with garlic, cucumber, a touch of olive oil and vinegar.

 

Paximadia and the many more Greek breads

Greek Shepherd's breads

Paximadia are twice baked breads made of barley rusk, invented by shepherd from Crete island a long long time ago. A great way to preserve the bread longer, yet keep all its nutrients. They woulds simply bake it twice and make it slowly until completely dry. I would personally call this bread a “tooth breaker” since they are really hard, but the trick with this particular bread is to soak them up in any liquid to soften them up before consumption (by any I mean, soup, water, oil, even wine). They’ve regained popularity in those last few years, now bakers make many variation of them some darker (just barley), some with sesame seeds, etc.

I’ve encountered many types of breads, some of which I couldn’t find their names, but one thing for sure, Greeks have a whole lots of different breads. Some breads are made with durum, corn, barleys or emmer flour and a mix of olive oil, milk, honey even cheese can be found in them. If you want to know more here is a lovely Greek Blogger with all the info (The Shepherd and the Olive Tree).

 

Seafood of all kinds

Of course, coming to Greece one will have to try some seafood! Greece having a lot of coastline, their diet is filled with seafood. Popular dishes are the grilled sardines, mini fried fishes, kalamarakia (squids) and also a another grandma favorite to make the psarosoupa (fish soup) all excellent! But the one thing I believe represent Greece seafood the most is the grilled octopus. It’s got a nicely crips exterior with tender flesh that is slightly smoky, a great meze to order.

 

Veggies

Fruit boat market

On Aegina island, they sell their veggies showcased in front of fishing boats, which is quite the show! They sell those long branches of dried oregano with buds and all the usual veggies. I believe Greece is great for vegetarian travellers, there are many vegetarian meze (tapa); like the roasted eggplant, fava (yellow pea puree), zucchini fritters, giant beans called plaki, stuffed tomatoes, etc.

Roasted garlic Eggplant

Oh! and I almost forgot to mention: Ouzo and Retsina wine is a must try.

Ouzo is an anise aperitif better served with ice cubes and a touch of water, restaurants in Greece serve it in small bottles. Ouzo is the drink of choice to mix up with a few Mezedes (Small plates).

Retsina is the common wine preserved in pots sealed with Aleppo pine resin, which gives it its particular woody taste. This way to preserve the wine, before actual barrels arrived, is from around 2000 years old. A technique and tradition they kept alive in Greece all those years.

There are so many more Greek specialities I couldn’t get my hands on like the Gyros, souvlaki, sheep/goat yogurt, Pastitsio (Greek lasagna)etc. I had to keep some for the next time I’ll go visit, hopefully soon!

Εις υγείαν

Specialities from the region of Picos de Europa, Spain is a world of its own. From the famous blue cheese Cabrales to the hearty stew “Fabada” you’ve got to come to discover some of the hidden gastronomic treasures of Spain.gastronomy of picos de europa, spain

PicosdeEuropaMAP.jpg

Picos de Europa is a small range of mountains in northern Spain a few kilometres away from the Atlantic ocean making it a “one of a kind” scenery with its 2000m high peaks perched right next to the ocean. It’s also the second most visited National park in Spain although its low season is fairly calm. The park is divided in between 3 regions; Cantabria, Asturias and Castilla y León each having their own gastronomic particularities.

Picos de Europa

Let’s start by talking quantities… being in a rigorous surrounding the locals diet is quite calorific and mainly consist of meat, beans and cheese. If you order any main dish at the restaurant, the odds are that you’ll get a gargantuan quantity. Except maybe for those avid hikers it’s a safe bet to recommend to share plates.

Liebana Valley, cantabria spain
Potes, Cantabria, Spain
Cocido Montañes and Lebaniego

The first stop is the beautiful little stoned village called Potes situated in the centre of the Liébana Valley in Cantabria where, among other things, grows chickpeas and beans of all kinds. The most popular winter dish around there is the famous Cocido Montañes (Mountain stew) which consist of white bean, collard green, pork pieces, chorizo and black sausage and also another similar stew called Cocido Lebaniego which is basically the same except instead of the white beans they use aboriginal chickpeas from the region. Both are equally hearty and delicious stews that will warm you up after a long day in the cold mountains. Usually served at the table in a big pot and a ladle, so you can serve yourself the quantity you need. Those two substantial stews are without a doubt going to give you that extra energy you need for your next day hike. A definite “”must try”  for beans lovers!

Orujo and wine

On the south east of Picos de Europa, around the Liebana Valley (Cantabria) they have, surprisingly, a Mediterranean microclimate. Thanks to its favorable climate they can grow all kinds of crops from wheat, corn, chickpeas, beans, apples, cherries, nuts and even olives but also vines. Of course, vines means also wine making but not just that it’s also making another speciality; the famous liquor Orujo. Similar to the Italian “grappa” or French “marc“, this strong drink is made out from the marc left from the wine production. Usually distilled in the region with an Arabic style stills or “potas”, which is a simplistic copper kettles installed over a food fire. A system from Greek origin and brought in Spain by the Moors and then the Christians took over the tradition and the Orujo was kept alive by the Monks. Then in the 19th century the liquor was banned through out Spain but the locals from the region would still be making their own batches with the help of a “mobile” still they would bring from village to village where the locals would give their grapes to distilled.

The production is fast and easy although the pronunciation of the drink can be quite tricky for an non Spanish speaker. The “j” pronounced like a deep “r” making it a festival of vocals in between “r”‘s ; pronounced “O-ROO-RO”. In rural establishments around Spain you’ll often get a bottle or two in the end of a meal to serve yourself a “Chupito” (shooter). This common “liquor” comes in many flavors and colors; the Orujo blanco is the pure one and quite strong with an average of 40% of alcohol and the flavored ones which are lower in alcohol and cut with whether a mix of herbs, coffee, honey, creme, etc.

A visit at the bodega de los Picos

Orujo.jpgThere is one little winery/distillery that makes interesting guided tours called Bodegas Picos de Cabariezo. They still hand pick all their grapes and still use an ancient still system from Arabic origin to make their high quality Orujo. They are proud of their products with reason, thanks to their geographic situation and their unique Mencia grape variety, they can make great products ranging from ice wines to full body wines. They also have a great variety of Orujos and this year they came up with a nicely done Gin made with special spices from the region. The guided tours can be done in many languages and they will let you know everything about the region, their production and even give you some tricks to test the quality of a Orujo. The tour ends with a nice degustation of their products paired with some nice cheese and marmalades.

Canónigo, the mother of all desserts
Canonigo cantabria casa cayo potes
Canónigo from Casa Cayo restaurant, Potes

Another highlight from the Liebana Valley in Cantabria is the fantastic Canónigo.  A type of fluffy meringue cake floating in a creamy custard with side notes of lemon and cinnamon topped with caramel. An almost “out of your body” experience if you have the sweet tooth! It’s quite similar to a French dessert called Île flottante but with a tad more aromatics. This smooth and fluffy dessert is typical and in pretty much every restaurant from the Liebana Valley, so make sure to keep some space for dessert if you pass by.

Blue cheese heaven

Spanish Blue Cheese PiconNext stop is the famous blue cheeses from the Picos de Europa, each region having their own variations; Cantabria has the Picón, Castilla y León the Valdeón and Asturia has the superstar of all Spanish blue cheeses el Cabrales and a newcomer called de la Peral. They are all fantastic blue cheeses aging in the caves with a perfect setup to produce a top quality blue cheese; a high humidity index, cold temperatures and natural Penicillium that gives the cheese it’s perfect marble blue color. Although the Cabrales, a protected denominacion de origin (DOP) is without contest the strongest and stinkiest of them all, a pure joy for blue cheese enthusiasts.

Cheese picos de europa

Those cheeses are mainly made of cow milk (more than 90%) with a finishing touch of wild goats milk and sheep’s milk. Originally created artisanally in the farmer’s stone cabins up in the mountains to preserve the milk collected from the warmer months. Later on, used to “camouflage” a piece of meat past its prime time… Today you’ll find many dishes in this region where those blue cheeses are involved like the escalopines al Cabrales (Beef Escalopes in Cabrales sauce), the tallarines al Cabrales (blue cheese pasta), tortos de maíz con Cabrales (*see below – a corn pancake with Cabrales and apple purée or caramelized onion), potato wedge with blue cheese sauce, etc.

Asturia the land of Cider

cidreguyAlthough its origin dates back from the Middle Ages in Cantabria, today’s production is mainly in Asturias which makes 80% of the cider in Spain. It’s practically impossible to pass by without making a stop at one of their many sidrerias. Restaurants around Asturias region are mostly called sidreria and wherever you’ll end up, you’ll get the “show” that comes with it. The art of pouring the cider in Spain is quite an event! The waiters pour it from the highest their arm allows it inside a much lower 45 degrees inclined glass. This method is help bring out the natural from the fermentation endogenous carbon and enhance all the flavors and aromas. It’s also imitating the way the fresh cider comes out from the barrels and recreate this thin foam.

In the Cantabria region they use a different method to serve cider. A system fixed often at the entrance of bars or on the tables themselves to serve the whole cider bottle with extra pression.

This special cider is called natural which means in other word; without added gas. However with the help of this special instrument you’ll get a few seconds of light bubbles and all the aromas you need. The cider here is nothing like any other you’ll find around the globe, it’s slightly frizzy and they don’t add any type of sugar or taste enhancers. Its feels and taste like it’s name: natural.

Fabada Asturiana

Fabada_en_cazuela_de_barro.jpg

This famous plate is known around Spain as “comfort food” by excellence or as they call it: un plato de toda la vida. Eaten mostly in cooler months, you can easily find cans of it in any supermarket around Spain. It’s a fast, cheap and fulfilling way to get through winter, plus it’s succulent. It’s name literally means “bean stew” and it’s an inevitable to try if you pass by Asturias. Fabada is quite similar to the Cantabria stews described earlier, the main difference here would be it’s color. The responsible is the added saffron or sweet paprika (pimentón dulce) giving it a richer color. It’s not a complex recipe, the importance to make a good Fabada lies in the quality of its ingredients followed by a nice long cooking session in a large clay pot. A definite pleasure for bean stew lovers.

Cachopo

Cachopo asturias gastronomy veal

The simplest description for this meal would be a two smashed veal steak filled with cheese and ham surrounded with a crunchy fried breadcrumb resembling a gargantuan schnitzel. And who doesn’t like schnitzels? It’s always coming in a “super size” format meaning you better share it between 3 or 4 persons. They do have different styles of Cachopo some with iberic ham or different style of cheeses and even non veal ones with pork or fish. You can find this dish only in Asturias and it’s usually paired with a nice cider! A dreamy fest for meat lovers.

Tortos de Maíz

tortodemais2

Another Asturian speciality is a small corn pancake fried in olive oil and topped with whether blue cheese, shredded chorizo, meat, egg, seafood or anything you’d like. Influenced by the Mexican panuchos mexicanos they are used in so many ways and terribly easy to make. A simple mix of corn flour, water and salt and there you have a nice gluten free base to anything you can imagine. This plate with a mix of Cabrales with apple purée and the other with caramelized onions was from a nice little village called Bulnes only reachable by funicular in the middles of the Picos de Europa. A must go to!

madrilenas picos de europa
Madrileñas (wooden shoes) from the region as a bread bowl

To finish this post on funny note! Here’s a nice welcoming goat from the Picos de Europa.

moody

Enjoy the ride!

Picos de Europa, Spain Food