07 March 2011

Eating my way across Europe, part II

Café Norden's Caramel Latte

As you'd expect, when you visit so many great countries, you get exposed to a lot of really great food, and this trip was no exception.  I found a fabulous and super sexy resto-café in Copenhagen, called Café Norden, that serves a killer mushroom pasta with grilled chicken, or, if you're only in the need of a hot drink to warm you up, sit back in one of their pillow-lined window banquettes and enjoy a caramel latte that had me drooling while I watched them make it... thick, homemade caramel, smeared around the inside of a tall glass mug, a shot of espresso, topped off with some frothy steamed milk and served with a couple of delicious chocolate almond cookies.... it's the perfect way to warm up if the wind has gotten to you.  If you ever find yourself in Copenhagen, I highly recommend you stop in at Café Norden.

Dutch Stroopwafel 
Delft was where I finally tasted my first stroopwafel, a thin, crisp waffel, halved and then glued back together with a cinnamon-caramel syrup.  I have seen these for sale in gourmet markets locally, but my friend Nicolette, who was born in the Netherlands, says that the ones here just don't taste the same, so I decided it was better to wait for the real deal.  What I didn't know, until I tasted one, was that there was cinnamon in the syrup, which gives it a unique and pleasant flavour that I wasn't expecting.  I also learned that these are best served fresh and warm, when the syrup is nice and gooey, and that a small stroopwafel is more than enough of a sugar-buzz for the average adult.

les gaufres des Liége.... pure heaven!
Belgium - home of the Belgian Waffle.  Naturally I had to try a gaufres liégeois, especially when my chocoholic friend Kerrin said that she loved these even more than she loves chocolate.  Whoa - that's really saying something.  Luckily, gaufre vendors are not hard to find.  The first one I tried was au naturel and fresh from the iron - so hot in fact, that I had to keep my gloves on to keep from burning myself.  Ohhhhh myyyyy..... I knew immediately why Kerrin says she loves these so much.  This is unlike any waffle, Belgian or otherwise, that I have ever had.  For those of you who only know waffles from breakfast-all-day diners, you are seriously missing out.  The most noticeable difference is the large pieces of pearl-sugar strewn throughout the waffle.  When the waffle is baking on the iron, these chunks of sugar melt and caramelize and create... magic.  While savouring each bite, I was admiring the texture and crumb of this decadent treat, and that's when I noticed the second difference; these had to be made with yeast!  The food-geek in me noticed that the crumb was more similar to that of a dinner roll than it was to the typical breakfast waffle I'm familiar with.  Sure enough, one mention of this to Kerrin and she immediately sent me this link to a recipe.  Bingo!  I know what I'm making when I get back to my waffle iron!  

the crumb texture of gaufres liégeois - you don't get that crumb without yeast

Many vendors also offer a variety of toppings for their gaufres, but, having tasted them on their own, I feel it would be a crime to hide these babies under a mound of whipped cream and chocolate (I can't believe I'm saying it either), though judging by the crowds, scarfing them down on the street, I might be alone in that thinking.  Ironically, I also saw gaufres de Liége being sold at many places in Florence, Italy - which is how I learned that these are only good when they are fresh and warm.  My craving suckered me into buying what had to be 3-day old waffles, re-heated in a microwave... lesson learned!  Let's just say that the pigeons in Florence aren't quite as discerning as I am (Kerrin: ahem... told ya so)

Pierre Marcolini in Brussels

Besides waffles, Belgium is most often associated with chocolates, and Brussels has more than it's fair share of chocolateries.  Sadly, not all of them are worthy of mention - too many chocolate shops have popped up in the tourist zones, cashing in on the action by selling what, in my books, equates to overly sweet brown wax, completely lacking in chocolate flavour.  However, true chocoholics need not worry - there are a number of shops that feature high-quality, gourmet chocolate creations; Pierre Marcolini, Wittamer, Neuhaus and Mary Chocolatier, to name a few.  I spent my fair share of € in these shops, selecting a passionfruit caramel here, a pistachio nougatine there, walnut marzipans, gianduja truffles... decadently dark and chocolatey morsels drawing me in from display counters.  While Brussels wasn't my favourite city among the twelve I visited, it has a lot to offer the chocolate-loving traveler.

Mary Chocolatier
Nantes, in the Loire region of France, a charming and vibrant city filled with ancient cathedrals alongside imaginatively modern buildings, and home to my friend and fellow food blogger Jamie of Life's A Feast.     It was a great treat to see Jamie and have a "girl's day out" of window shopping, good conversation, and getting to know this beautiful city.  As Jamie's birthday was just a couple of days away, we had an additional excuse to go out for a nice lunch to a restaurant that she and her husband enjoy going to.   Pizzeria Pinocchio is a quaint little place that served me the best pizza I have ever eaten in my life.  Thin, crispy crust, baked in a traditional wood-fired oven, with flavourful toppings... it was pizza perfection.  After lunch, we did some window shopping in a few of Nantes' fantastic kitchenware shops, checked out macarons at a local pâtisserie and bought a few kouign amanns to sample - a first for both of us (sorry folks - I dropped the ball, so no pictures).  I only wish I had known a bit more about these caramelized butter and pastry cakes before we had bought them - then we'd have known that they should be heated up and served warm, rather than cold like we had them.  Not only were they very sweet, but they were extremely sticky & chewy - almost to the point we feared we'd each lose some teeth!  Now that I've learned where we went wrong, I can imagine how decadent these traditional Breton cakes would be, served fresh from the oven.

Nantes - ancient and modern side by side

After a visit to her gorgeous apartment, and getting some much needed puppy love from their Boston Terrier, Marty, I finally met her charming husband, JP, and the three of us headed out for a wonderful dinner.  The plat du jour was a fantastic calamari dish unlike anything I have ever had - it was tender and so flavourful, and served as you would a pasta, tossed in a delicate sauce.  Great food, great wine and great conversation with two really great people... it was a perfect evening and just what I needed after 10 days of traveling alone.  The one thing I hadn't foreseen about my trip, was how much I would miss good conversation - something that consists of more than ordering dinner or checking-in at a hotel.  With our stomachs very full from dinner, Jamie & JP walked me back to my hotel and we said our good-byes and parted ways... for now at least, as I get to see Jamie again in a few months at From Plate to Page in Germany!!

The next morning, the pace of my trip thus far was staring to take it's toll on me.  I felt tired and achy all over, and I wanted nothing more than a couple more hours to snooze in bed, but I had a train to catch - one of the few I had booked in advance.  After trying to soothe my muscles with a hot shower, I found myself in one of the few hotel rooms on my trip that didn't have a hair dryer.  Ugh.  Fine.  I crammed a hat on my wet hair and headed off to the station to catch my train back to Paris.  As it turns out, most major train routes in France seem to pass through the City of Lights, and when I changed trains in Paris I would be departing from a different station than I arrived at.  Well, darn.  If you didn't know this already, Paris happens to be my favourite city in the whole world, so of course I took the opportunity to spend the night here before heading off to my next destination.  When I arrived at gare Montparnasse, with my wet-hair-hat-head, I was welcomed by the most brilliant business idea ever - The Beauty Bubble!  Let's face it, everyone has, at some point in their life, arrived after a long day of travel feeling less than stunning, and the French have come up with the perfect solution.  For just €10, you can get a haircut or blowdry and style in about 10-15 minutes, and then be on your way feeling like a million bucks.  Well, I whipped my hat off and plopped myself down in that chair faster than you can imagine, and 10 minutes later, left with my sleek and freshly styled do with a spring in my step.

Beauty Bubble at Gare Montparnasse
One short metro-ride to my hotel to drop off my bags and I found I had the energy to go for a stroll and find a place for dinner.  Now, in Paris, you don't have to wander far to find a café, so I only went a block or two before I found myself with dozens of choices at hand.  Seeing places I've eaten at before, and some I hadn't, I decided on the latter, and grabbed at table at Les Éditeurs.  With it's beautiful, cozy decor and a relaxing vibe, I knew I'd made the right choice.  I ordered the risotto champignons and was absolutely blown away.  Of all my trips to Paris, I think this was the best meal I've ever eaten there.  It was incredibly creamy - almost like eating a savoury rice pudding - and so flavourful.... I was in heaven.  And on top of all that, my waiter was downright cheery and even asked how I was enjoying my meal - something that doesn't typically happen in France.  While I've never really experienced the "rude" French reputation the nation has been saddled with (with the exception of one particularly snooty shop owner in le Marais), I've always found French waiters are usually polite and efficient, and damn good at their jobs - a completely different breed from the saccharine-sweet and bubbly wait staff you often get in North America.  I stayed for a while, basking in the glow of a truly divine meal, ordered a coffee to follow my dessert of ananas gratinée (in a word: decadent!), before slowly wandering back to hotel for some sleep.  After all, I had an early train to Zurich to catch in the morning!

les Éditeurs risotto champignons

For the rest, you'll just have to wait for Part III!
(I'm such a tease!)


Les rêves d'une boulangère (Brittany) said...

I can't believe you were able to notice that they were made from yeast! That is the sign of a good cook!

Darren said...

An awesome post Julia. My mouth is watering for any one of the delicious treats you describe... even a pizza would be good now... after a month in India, I could use a change. Waiting patiently for the next installment... xo