Friday, September 28, 2012

England - London (otherwise known as, the city of amazing food and over-excitement)

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I was rather pleased to read some of the comments on my last post, which suggested that I put aside my efforts at containing excitement and let my enthusiasm for London bubble over. 

Readers, it may be bubbling.

Just off Trafalgar Square

I love England. I have never lived there outside of infancy, and appreciate that visiting somewhere, even if for extended intervals, is not the same as living and working there. Nonetheless - I love it. I love London particularly. Our approach to Gatwick Airport on Sunday afternoon, over oh-so-green fields, saw me leaning over Mr Bite to peer out the window in glee.

Moving through passport control on my British passport, and then onto a train to London Bridge, saw me smile even more widely, despite the cold and rainy weather. We timed our visit to coincide with England's wettest autumn in 30 years, and some parts of the country received 6 months worth of rainfall in 24 hours. A wet 12'C was certainly a shock after the sunshine of Spain and Portugal, but it wasn't enough to dampen our enthusiasm.


Canary Wharf by day

Our London accommodation, another apartment (the smallest to date, given London being London!), was at Canary Wharf. We picked the location primarily because the apartment was there, but it proved to be a wonderful place to stay. 

After sleeping in a loft in Madrid, we got to sleep in a magical trundle bed in London

The high rise office buildings were offset by the wharfs and docks, there were great transport connections, and underneath the tube and Docklands Light Rail stations was a sprawling shopping complex with just about everything you could possibly need or want.

Looking out from Canary Wharf at night

Including, to my complete and utter joy, a whole heap of food.

Itsu snacks...note the chocolate coated edamame beans!

There were cafes and restaurants and supermarkets galore, including lots and lots of coffee shops, where I could place my order in English and know what I was ordering; multiple frozen yoghurt shops; multiple vegetarian-friendly cafes and restaurants; and multiple Asian-inspired shops, including Itsu, with its wonderful range of snack foods and a great vegetarian-friendly main menu.


More Itsu snacks...

There was also a Marks and Spencer's food hall, which is possibly my first English food love. They have the most wonderful salads and wraps and fruit and I could eat them almost endlessly without getting bored.

Sorry about the photo quality...edamame bean salad with chilli and coriander dressing

Figs (Turkish rather than British, I must admit...), plums, apples...

To top everything off, there was a Waitrose supermarket of Amazingness.


I hyperventilated in Waitrose.

So many new-to-me products!

And plain, tart frozen yoghurt that one could take home!

And lookee the wasabi chocolate!

When I found their vegan and raw food aisle, I nearly lost all capacity to speak.

Raw vegan chocolate truffles!
And raw vegan chocolate bites!
And vegan flax crackers of wonderful flavours!

Mr Bite decided, sensibly, to leave me at the shops whilst I toured and giggled inwardly and took photos and bought so much food (details will have to come in a separate post). He went to our apartment to read up on results from the Western Australian Football League grand final, which his (and thus my) team won for the second year in a row. All in all, therefore, it was a great afternoon for us both :-)

We ate at home that first night, drawing on some of the food purchased earlier in the afternoon - a Waitrose cheese and onion pastie for Mr Bite, a Marks and Spencer's 'nutty grain and vegetable salad' for me (quinoa with lentils and almonds and vegetables, plus a soy and ginger dressing), and asparagus and carrot for us both.



Delicious.

The next day, I managed to shift my focus away from food and onto the city as a whole. It is, of course, a wonderful city.


We spent some time in the City area of London, which includes Chancery Lane and the Inns of Court. These are featured in the 16th century books of C. J. Sansom, which I read and loved over the last year. It was rather fun walking the streets he refers to, and history drips from every corner.


We also went up Monument, on the edge of the City, which was built to commemorate the Great Fire of London in 1666. It has 311 spiral steps to the top, and good views from the top.


Good views were also to be found from the new Emirates Air Line cable car, which crosses the River Thames.

Cable cars as seen from below...

This is actually the third cable car we have done on this trip (!), but we were very glad we did it. It beat the Madrid and Porto ones in length and views and even in price, as if you have a London Oyster (travel) card it costs only slightly more than a standard ride on the tube.

...and in the air.

London also saw us visit the Wellcome Trust Collection, a small, free museum of medical history and curiosities, and the Churchill War Rooms, part of the London Imperial War Museum. I am not usually very enthused by war museums, but would wholeheartedly recommend the Churchill one. The War Rooms were the headquarters for WWII operations and are located underneath the government and prime ministerial buildings in Westminster. They are set up as they were then and provided a great insight into WWII.

As Mr Bite had never been (I don't know how), we did an additional, brief museum stop at the Science Museum. It is far too big to see in brief, but entertained us for an hour and whetted Mr B's interest for a proper visit in the future. To our amusement, a heat imaging camera also provided confirmation that my hands are dead with regard to circulation. They radiated no heat whatsoever.

Note the person with blue hands...

Our final day in London was spent as a day trip to Rye, in East Sussex, to see my grandparents. It is an incredibly quaint town, and one that is so quintessentially English it sometimes doesn't feel real.


We are now in York and I see my posts becoming more and more belated as our last week of holiday and honeymoon stretches ahead of us. I plan to spend the next week soaking up every minute of this country, and hopefully not too much of its rain!

Do you have a country or city that you love above all else?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Portugal - Porto

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As I alluded to in my first Portugal post, we liked Porto more than we liked Lisbon. For a start, we liked it immediately - already a step ahead! - with our arrival being characterised by the River Douro sparkling in dazzling sunshine. From then on, the city remained attractive, with a small but nicely set out centre and the twisting, steep roads that seem to characterise Portugal. It is not a city I could see myself living in, but it was a city I was pleased to visit.

River Douro, looking across from the Ribeira district that is the front of Porto's core centre

Porto is a port town in both sense of the word. It has a lot of port of the alcoholic variety, and historically it served as a ship hub. The town still revolves around the river, and we were fortunate to be staying right on it, in an apartment three floors up and only half a block back from the water. The above picture was taken from our window.

By virtue of being in the 'old' Ribeira district (a World Heritage Site), the apartment was not new but it was spacious. Given that Mr Bite had three days to fill independently while I was at my conference, we wanted something that was more than a hotel room and it definitely filled that requirement.


On our first afternoon, we walked through the main centre of the town, guided by only the vaguest of plans and being happy to take left or right turns on whim. We saw more tiled walls, impressive architecture, and scenic streets.




We were also amused to discover a rather quaint food hall within a shopping arcade (containing, you may note, our Porto Wok to Walk).


Wednesday was our one joint full day, and we were fortunate to have more sunshine. We decided to hire bikes, and had a hugely enjoyable three hours riding along the river and then the coast, before having a Subway picnic lunch and following bike paths back through the city. It was great fun and I will definitely keep bike hiring in mind as a holiday activity for future trips.

Coastline of Portugal


Subway salad wrap - carrot seems to be absent in Porto Subways, but corn and oregano were available

In the afternoon, we walked to the other side of the river, and then took a cable car ride up to the top of the central bridge.

More panorama playing - looking back at the main city centre

The cable car was long enough to be a ride, but not so long it lost novelty value before the end. The views were wonderful too.

The cable car route...

...and up the top.


My conference also went well, providing the sort of renewed work focus and energy I need every now and then, and had a worthy and full programme. Nonetheless, I am glad to be back on holiday! 


We are now into our second full day in London, and I am so delighted to be here, truly my favourite place in the world, that I am in a constant state of slight over-excitement. I shall try to moderate it into a coherent post eventually :-)

Those of you who loved Lisbon - have you visited Porto?
And has anyone else used biking as a way to explore a new city?

Saturday, September 22, 2012

European food I - a catch up

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I am pausing from my sight seeing travel posts to try and catch up on some of the snacks and meals that haven't yet been mentioned. Squeezing food and sights into single posts has proved tricky, and the food side is easier for me to remember and post at leisure.

Before starting, I should mention our approach to eating on holiday. We tend to mix self-catering with eating out whenever possible, and definitely prefer picnic-style or casual cafe lunches to formal restaurants at lunchtime. We also carry snacks with us wherever we go (Mr Bite always has biscuits, for instance), because we have learnt through experience that we are liable to walk for hours and then think about lunch, meaning that by the time we actually find somewhere it can be 2.30pm with blood sugar levels dropping fast.

Yoghurt-topped, fruit containing Digestive biscuits. I ask you, why can't Australia have these?

For me, this is also the first overseas trip where I haven't eaten meat. Two years ago, I still ate chicken on occasion and fish and seafood quite freely. These days, my eating doesn't fit neatly into a category, but at home I tend to describe myself as 80% vegan. I don't really think that veganism is something you can dip in and out of, but that term is the best I have come up with to describe my eating preferences. The non-vegan 20% consists of dairy intermittently, about two serves of fish a month, occasional honey, and the odd trace of egg.

I decided ahead of this trip that I would be a vegetarian with vegan preferences for the purpose of travelling overseas. The idea of eating fish of unknown origin, unknown storage method, and unknown preparation method did not appeal. At the same time, I didn't want to complicate our eating efforts by strictly avoiding dairy and egg in countries with unfamiliar foods and languages. I know it is possible to do so, but as I am not strictly vegan at any time, travel seemed an occasion for flexibility.

I haven't tried this yet, but I am extremely excited to do so...

Mr Bite, who eats chicken regularly at home and red meat occasionally, also drops those products whilst travelling. This is due to some questionable experiences in the past with hygiene / food preparation, and means that he is a vegetarian who also eats fish when on holiday. It makes eating out slightly simpler, even if his food preferences tend to include tuna and cheese and egg whereas mine do not.

Enough, however, of words...here are some of our previously unmentioned, but nonetheless memorable, food experiences to date.

(More) Madrid frozen yoghurt.


This came from the same market-based store of my first Madrid frozen yoghurt. It included the same slightly tart base, this time with cherry sauce and chocolate coated sesame seeds.

Seriously good.

Pizza.

This is an easy fall-back for us and featured the night after our fancy vegetarian restaurant in Madrid. It was a sort of his and hers swap, in terms of dinner selection!


Mr Bite had a tuna pizza, which he declared to be good, and I had a vegetarian that featured artichokes, mushroom, zucchini, eggplant and tomato. The base was gorgeously crispy and whilst there was a tad too much cheese for my liking, the surplus was easily removed.


Lindt mousse chocolate.


I don't know why we don't have this in Australia (or perhaps we do and it's just not in Western Australia?). It contains milk, but the outer chocolate is dark enough to offset the milkier mousse within, and it had the truffle-like filling that I love in chocolate.


A bit melty when travelling, but that's all the more reason to eat it quickly.

Self-catering meal number 3.

Our first self-catered meal in Madrid, the night of our arrival, was soup and bread. We also had a tomato-based pasta with chickpeas (me) and tuna (Mr B) in the middle of our week there. 

On our last night, in an effort to use up food and try out newly found tofu nuggets, we had a slightly random combination that I will not even attempt to name - self-catering meal number 3 is as good as it gets.



Mr Bite's plate featured pasta in vegetable soup, with a side of a few tofu nuggets. Mine had more tofu nuggets, a smaller amount of pasta, and soup in a mug. We both had raw carrot eaten whilst the nuggets and pasta were cooking. Not exactly gourmet cuisine, but enjoyable!


The tofu nuggets were different to any I've tried in Australia, tasting ever so slightly of falafel in their flavouring and being nicely coated but still more tofu than crumb.

Kari's dress shopping purchases.

You may remember that I mentioned a shopping trip on our last afternoon in Madrid. I had vague ideas about a summer dress. Instead, I bought a scarf and then found a large supermarket and a smaller vegan-friendly food section within Madrid's largest department store, El Corte Ingles. 

Dresses were forgotten and instead I purchased these:


The Lindt chocolate, also pictured at the top of this post, is yet to be eaten. The 87% cocoa dark chocolate with vegan white mint chips has been eaten, and was delightfully dark as well as delightfully minty. 


The freeze-dried pineapple made me thirsty, as freeze-dried fruit is wont to do, but made for an enjoyable snack on our train ride to Porto.

Fruit.

This has featured all through our travels, with summer fruit being in season and just incredible. I have had peaches, plums, nectarines, pineapple and mango to date. Even the 'boring' fruit, like apples and pears, has tasted better than Australia's fading winter crops.


Wok to Walk

Oh, Wok to Walk. We first stumbled on this in Lisbon, and have managed to eat it twice in the past week. The company is a European-based franchise that started in Amsterdam in 2004. The stores aim to provide fresh, nutritious food quickly, made in front of you, and made to your specifications. It is a bit like an Asian subway, but better. We loved it and I would happily swap Australia's Wagamama stores for some Wok to Walk branches.

Mr Bite's egg noodles with tofu and vegetables in black bean sauce

The menu is designed to be a 3-step process. Pick a base, pick toppings, and pick a sauce. Mr Bite has ordered the same combination twice, with egg noodles with vegetables, tofu, and black bean sauce.


I have pretty much ordered the same thing twice too. The first time I had their vegetable base, which is number 7 above, with tofu and soy sauce. The second time I had the vegetable base with tofu, extra brocolli, and sweet and sour sauce. Both were amazing. In the picture below, it is ALL vegetables and tofu. I was in heaven.

One of the best dinners I have eaten on this holiday, despite it being completely un-European

I would like a spicy sauce that isn't super hot or coconut-based (their spice options at the moment) but really, I love the menu concept too much to complain.


Lemon and coconut sorbets.

These were a Madrid purchase, on a hot afternoon when we had walked for some hours. Mr B is quite a fan of lemon sorbet, and I was caught up in the novelty of a coconut variety - not something I had seen before.

Lemon sorbet

The lemon sorbet was very lemony, tart first and sweet second, and I think it has satisfied Mr Bite's lemon taste buds for some time.

My coconut variety was incredible, with the texture and consistency of sorbet but added creaminess from the coconut component and an eating experience that straddled sorbet and ice cream.

Coconut sorbet

I loved it and am keen to try and recreate it at home.

And there we have it - a lot of food! If you could pick one item, what would you pick?!