When I reminisce about this last trip to Italy, I’ll think of the usual “Italian” things: great scenery, excellent food, and fun people. But one of my fondest memories will be my tour of the MD discount grocery store in the Rome suburb of Fiumicino.
It was our second to last day in Italy, and the last we were staying near a major city. I wanted to go to a grocery store to pick up a few small items that are hard to come by in Serbia, like anchovies, salted capers, and taralli, which are basically Italian pretzels that I have a terrible obsession with.
Over breakfast, I innocently asked the B&B proprietors about a nearby grocery store. A long discussion followed, but it was mostly in Italian. Muz had to take over-he speaks Italian and I do not-and somewhere in the conversation, it was decided that the Signore at the B&B would drive us to a nearby discount store and help us with our selection. This seemed unnecessary, but I learned a valuable lesson: if you ask a question about food in Italy, it will be taken very, very seriously.
Signore and I walked into the store while Muz kept the dog outside. He proceeded to examine goods and read their ingredients out loud: “Farina, aqua, sale…” Then he would suddenly proclaim, “no!” and put it back. He did this several times, without explanation.
When he liked an item, he would throw it in the cart. Cheese, olive oil, and endless boxes of pasta were given his approval. He selected at least two, and sometimes five of each item that met his mysterious criteria.
I picked up a bag of polenta and was promptly given a lesson in proper stirring, right in the middle of the aisle; Signore rotated his arms wildly and people ducked to avoid his movements. When we reached the anchovies, he piled six jars in the cart. I made a joke about him liking them as much as I do, and he said, “No, this is all for you.”
I looked at the cart. It was full. Muz was not going to be pleased, and I wasn’t even sure how it would fit in the trunk around all our luggage. I protested that I just wanted a few items, but he shook his head-a gesture of ten thousand words. In a tone usually reserved for children, he said, “This is food for 15 days.”
I wasn’t sure if he thought Serbia was a foodie wasteland, or if this was considered a normal jaunt to the grocery store. But I didn’t remember where to return most of the items, and we were running late. Also, I was kind of curious about the pasta; he said it was the best in Italy. I gave up, gave in, and hoped that Muz would find trunk place for our specially selected items.
My Italian grocery shopping lesson was complete. Signore was a wonderful teacher, and a smart man. As we unpacked our seemingly endless supply of groceries, I thought, “I can’t believe I only bought two bags of tarelli.”
Muz is a man of many talents. Cooking is not one of them. In the ten years we’ve known each other, he’s never prepared a meal that didn’t involve sandwich bread or a Foreman grill. So when he suggested we take a cooking class in Lucca, I happily agreed. A little voice in my head whispered, perhaps husbands can change-maybe he’ll start to cook!
We booked a day of sightseeing and cooking with Gianluca at the International Academy of Italian cuisine (link here.) We started our day at the markets around Viareggio, a seaside town, while Gianluca told us the finer points of buying fresh produce.
After exploring our options at several shops, we settled on fish and fresh seasonal vegetables. When we asked what we were making, Gianluca simply held up the bag and said we’d figure it out. It was a perfect lesson in great cooking-focus on the best ingredients for delicious food.
Along the way to the culinary institute, we stopped at the San Martino villa and winery for a quick tour and tasting. We bought several bottles of their Lucchesi Bianco, a full-bodied white with an unusually golden hue and complex flavors. (I can’t believe I just wrote that. But that’s what it tasted like, I swear.)
After lunch at a hidden gem of a restaurant, we found ourselves at the cooking site. Though the academy offers classes for novices, it’s also a professional school for international chefs. I believe they also rent rooms to chefs and agrotourists. But we weren’t there to check out the lovely decor. Giancarlo put us to work.
We chopped and stirred and simmered while he showed us how to filet the fish. (Some things are best left to experts.) Then he announced that we needed to make pasta dough. Say what? Doesn’t it come in boxes, all neatly prepared for us? But Gianluca doesn’t roll that way.
Making the dough was deceptively simple: it’s about 100 grams of flour and 1 egg per person, mixed and kneaded until smooth and springy. But when we asked how to determine the correct thickness of rolled dough, he said, “oh, you will know after the first few times.” This presumed a lot about our ability to make pasta without professional supervision. But thanks for the vote of confidence!
Despite my assistance, the pasta and the rest of the meal (salad, fish filet, lemon custard tarts) was excellent. I may even try to make my own pasta again, since I could clearly taste the difference. As for Muz, well, he was the one taking all of these pictures while the rest of us worked. So now he’s got a taste for Italian cuisine, but no hands-on experience. Have I been deliciously duped? Maybe. But that meal was worth it.
If you’re interested in a cooking class near Lucca, contact Gianluca through the website link above. He normally focuses on cooking classes rather than an overall Tuscan foodie experience, but he might do it again (if we didn’t scare him off). He’s a delightful person and willing to answer any questions about cooking or Tuscany-highly recommended.
RHOB’s 5 stages of reading travel articles about Belgrade
- Pleasant surprise: “Oh, look, a travel article about Belgrade!”
- Curiosity: “I wonder what the author thought of the people, food, music, scenery…”
- Hope: “Perhaps I will learn about something new.”
- Disappointment: “This is…alarmingly similar to every other Belgrade article.”
- Frustration: “Did this person just copy the last article I read? It looks like the writer blindly followed his guidebook. This is cliched, hackneyed crap. If someone offered me money to write about travel…” Mumbling and sighing ensues.
Reading Belgrade travel articles is like Groundhog Day: it’s the same experiences/language, again and again. Sure, some repetition is necesary-there should be discussions of Kalemegdan or Ada-but the impressions are usually the same. “It’s nice. The women are pretty.” I wouldn’t mind if a writer hated Belgrade, as long as his experience wasn’t passive or totally cliche, like “There’s more to Belgrade than its war-torn image.” You get the idea.
So I’ve decided to do something about it, and I hope my BGD readers will help. Here’s the first installment of
Travel Writing Tips for Belgrade
Part 1: Dining.
Readers, if I have to read about Iguana one more time, I’m going to scream. Look, I like Iguagna-it has nice food, it’s on the water and has live music. What’s not to like? But it’s one of the ONLY places mentioned in articles.
There are tons of other restaurants with a fun atmosphere and good food. Here’s my short list: Lorenzo and Kakalamba, Public Dine and Wine, Whatever @ the Corner, Restaurant 27 (though that’s a bit in the ‘burbs). Communale is also nice, and it’s even owned by the Iguana people-give it a try! There are surely other great places, but I wouldn’t know because people rarely write about them.
Now, let’s talk about Serbian food. Almost every article goes to a place on Skadarlija. I don’t blame them for this; it’s a very pretty street, and the live music is nice. Personally, I think the “Big Three” Serbian restaurants there are touristy and overrated. But I can’t deny that it’s a lovely street to linger on during a warm afternoon or evening. So in addition to Skadarlija, please go to another kafana: Vuk, Srbksa Kafana, Cucina Kafana, Kalenic Kafana…the list goes on.
The chances that a travel writer will actually read this post are slim, I know. But perhaps my Serbian readers can help me out. What restaurants are writers missing out on? And what, if anything, would you change about travel writing in Belgrade?
For many Christians, Lent is a sobering period; a time for sacrifice, self-reflection and repentance. But if you’re vegetarian or vegan in Belgrade, it’s the best forty days you’ll enjoy all year. Don’t put away those mardi gras beads, herbivores! Laissez le veg temp rouler: make like a tree and leave for the nearest Belgrade kafana.
Lent is one of several “fasting periods” observed by the Serbian Orthodox Church (and other orthodox churches). Fasting makes me think of starving in a desert or that awful pepper/lemon juice diet. In Serbia, it just means being vegan: no meat, eggs or dairy. Some websites claim that people abstain from alcohol too, but my unscientific polling of local bars has proven otherwise.
If you’re looking for a vegan meal during lent, keep your eye open for the word “posna,” meaning lenten. Many restaurants will feature a posna menu or are more willing to adapt a dish for this purpose. This menu, from a kafana on Makedonska, features soups, pitas (vegetable pie), and what I interpret as muchkalica, which is a pork and and pepper stew (but sans pork, I presume.)
Not only will your arteries thank you for a posna meal, but you may earn the right to pass through the pearly gates. According to the Serbian Orthodox Church website, “Abstinence from foods (fasting) alone is a means of attaining virtue.” Though I suppose this only counts if the vegetarian is a member of the Orthodox Church. Oh well.
For any Beogradjani and visitors looking for veggie foods during and after Lent, I highly recommend the delicious take-away spot Lila, on Palmoticeva 5. They also deliver and have a menu in English. Finding Lila was like finding a unicorn drinking champagne out of the holy grail, after winning a lifetime supply of awesome shoes.
I never thought I’d say this, but thanks to Lila, I’ll be partying like it’s Lent all year long.
My Serbian is slowly getting better. I only know this because I’ve recently realized that my grammar over the past three months was terrible. Laughably terrible. So Serbians, thank you for your understanding. We’ve still got a long way to go, but I appreciate your patience.
Still, I’m certainly no expert (or even intermediate) in Serbian. The simplest words will leave my mind when I need them the most. Sometimes I come up with a similar word. My charade skills are quite handy. And when I’m really desperate, I start speaking English.
Or I use the speak-and-say approach. Last week I was at the butcher shop, trying to order ground turkey for chili. I even wrote the phrase down in case I forgot the words. But the butcher didn’t have any ground turkey. I decided to get ground beef instead, but I couldn’t remember the word for beef. I could remember the word for veal, but honey, RHOB doesn’t put veal in chili. And I wasn’t going to go back home, look it up, and return to the shop.
The butcher didn’t speak English. I took a deep breath. There was only one thing I could think of. With a straight face, I said, “Mooooooo. Ne junjetina (veal).” Bless this butcher, because he simply nodded, showed me a cut of beef, and proceeded to grind it himself. We both pretended that this was a totally normal transaction. And yes, I am giving him all my business from now on.
I couldn’t remember the Serbian word for beef, but I did successfully (and inadvertently) use the correct word for Moo. It’s basically the same (muuu). Other animal sounds differ. For instance, frogs in Serbia say “krik” instead of “ribbit.” Don’t say RHOB never taught you something useful!
I’m not going to resort to animal sounds if I can help it, but it’s yet another reminder that I’m a long way from the basic Serbian skills I thought I would have after four months here. Like I said, Serbians, thanks for your patience. We’ve got a long way to go…
Though I’m back under the grey skies of Belgrade in winter, I had to post this summery photo of the Dutch Reformed Church in Franschhoek, South Africa. The Dutch Reform Church was built in 1846, and is reportedly the oldest building in town.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t much information about the church, but the town was settled in 1688 with the help of French Huguenots. The Huguenots arrived (with the help of the Dutch) after they were expelled from France by Louis XIV because of their Protestant faith. Louis’ loss soon became South Africa’s gain: the Huguenots brought their knowledge of winemaking and love for great food, and Franschhoek is now known for its incredible wineries and fine restaurants.
Of course, we couldn’t just rely on our guidebook for this information, so we had to sample the ginger chocolates at Huguenot Fine Chocolates, explore wineries and have lunch at the amazing La Petite Ferme. The service was gracious, the food was outstanding, and the wine was worthy of yet-another-cheesy-photo:
You can’t say RHOB doesn’t do her research.
If there’s ever a sequel to Eat, Pray, Love, it could be set entirely in Vienna. The churches, the food, and the city itself (with Muz, of course) are worthy of a book and movie. Since blogs are the lazy man’s novel, here’s my version.
The praying part I already covered, so I’ll skip that (that was my least favorite part of the book anyway). Let’s go right to eating, shall we?
We went to Vienna as part of a Christmas market tour in Europe. The markets are beautifully lit and feature kiosks selling goods, mulled wine and food. We bought a mug of gluhwein and started food shopping. Spiced bread and sweet dumplings satisfied our sweet tooth, but we also loved the savory and salty kartoffelpuffer. It’s basically a McDonald’s hash brown to the 10th degree.
Vienna was freezing, so we decided to move our food tour indoors. We first visited Greichenbeisl, a 500-year old restaurant. The name of the place has changed through the centuries, but the great service and delicious house wine made it eternally excellent. We would have stayed for dinner (the food looked great) but decided to save our calories for Vienna’s famed desserts.
Two shops are often cited as must-visits for dessert: Sacher and Demel. Both are known for their sweets. They’re also known for suing each other to determine who could sell the “original” sachertorte, a chocolate cake with apricot jam.
Dessert settled by lawsuit? This warmed our cold little Juris Doctorate hearts. Sacher won the lawsuit, so we decided to go there first.
The verdict? It was nice but not exceptional. We preferred Sacher’s history to its cake. Eduard Sacher opened the hotel in 1876. When he died, his 21-year old “Real Housewife” Anna turned it legendary. She opened discreet dining rooms for men and their “dates” and entertained aristocrats with a cigar in her mouth and pugs by her side. If you want to enjoy Sacher, skip the pastry, drink in the Blue Room, and imagine the illicit meetings and raunchy parties of its past. Save the pastry for Demel-because you’ll need the room.
Demel was our last stop before leaving town. The pastry case looked so amazing, we couldn’t decide which two desserts we wanted. So we got three.
The verdict? Heavenly. These were the best desserts I’ve had in a long time. Belgrade has great sweets so consider this high praise. We stuffed ourselves silly and left Vienna before we ate ourselves to death.
Vienna-a city where you’ll eat things you love-and pray that your pants fit the next morning.