on cuisine, class, and change

kolache_Prague

When I was planning my 2011 visit to the Czech Republic, I dreamed of kolache bakeries on every corner. I thought I would eat some schnitzel with gravy, some stroganoff with rice, some goulash with potatoes, and all of the soft and sweet breakfast pastries I could ever want. Feeling homesick for Texas, I was beyond excited to have some familiar, authentic Czech cuisine.

When I arrived in Prague, however, I quickly learned that my expectations were a bit… off. I only found one koláče bakery in the entire city—and trust me, I had to hunt for it. (Meanwhile, the koláče bakery in Hukvaldy strictly served unfamiliar pizza-sized versions.) I saw no sign of schnitzel nor stroganoff. I ordered my hovězí guláš with a side of bread dumplings. Most frequently, I dined on a dish I had never even heard of in all my years: svíčková, which consisted of braised beef, a sort of sweet gravy, cranberries, and whipped cream. On more than one occasion, Seth enjoyed a whole fried trout. But the most surprising discovery of all was the exorbitant amount of Neapolitan-style pizza.

When I was growing up, the majority of my friends ate very “American” family dinners of chicken pot pie, meatloaf, or pot roast. My friend Ashley, whose mother was from Scotland, often helped her mom make bangers and mash or shepherd’s pie. My friend Kathryn, whose maternal grandparents were from Italy, attended weekly pasta al pomodoro dinners with her extended family. When I had the pleasure of staying at my grandmother’s house over the weekend, I ate one of my favorites—veal schnitzel (which my grandmother lovingly dubbed “chicken fried steak”) with brown gravy and a side of white rice. At a young age I was well aware of heritage cuisine, so I assumed that while Ashley’s family’s food was distinctly Scottish and Kathryn’s family’s food was distinctly Italian, my family’s food was distinctly Czech. It was not until I visited the Czech Republic that I learned that our food was not really Czech at all.

Last night while watching a season-two episode of “The Sopranos,” I was intrigued by a scene on cuisine and class. Italian-American Paulie visits the Motherland for the first time, and he is uncomfortable with the local cuisine. Having eaten veal parm, baked ziti, and cannelloni his whole life, he is displeased with the seemingly foreign cuisine in front of him. Linguine with clams and squid ink? I’ll pass, he thinks. He calls the waiter over to the table. “Can I just get some macaroni and gravy?” Realizing that the waiter is confused, a dining companion looks at Paulie and says, “He doesn’t know what you say.” Paulie looks at his dining companion incredulously. “Gravy! Gravy! Tomato sauce!” he says with emphasis. The dining companion and the waiter go back and forth, while a third customer mumbles with frustration and annoyance, “And you thought the Germans were classless pieces of shit!”

When Paulie’s Sicilian family emigrated to New York sometime during the Great Wave of 1880-1920, they brought with them their peasant foods: pasta, rice, gnocchi, bread, and tomato sauce. When they realized financial success in America, however, they continued their economical methods of cooking out of tradition and familiarity. Thus their recollection of Italian food was essentially stuck in a particular moment in time; what they perceived to be authentic was no longer so. One hundred years later, many so-called “old school” Italian-Americans still consider the more delicate, labor-intensive counterparts of their contemporary cuisine—for example, baby octopus, beef sirloin carpaccio, and agnolotti—to be little more than trendy distractions.

bandeja paisa

I predict that in one hundred years, Colombian-Americans will experience the same bewilderment and difficulties in trying to accept their native country’s evolved foods. In Colombia pechuga a la plancha (grilled chicken breast), pollo al horno (baked chicken), chuleta de cerdo (pork chop), sobrebarriga (flank steak), and higado (liver) will no longer be accompanied by today’s beans, rice, salted potato, plantain, and yucca; it is possible that they will not be served at all. In a century’s time the factors that currently prevent Colombia’s cuisine from developing—that is, rampant poverty and inadequate infrastructure—will likely fade. Poor Colombians will get richer and winding roads will get straighter, thus (literally) paving the way for more seafood, produce, and plant protein. Meanwhile, those immigrants who set up shop in Miami will raise their kids on familiar meats and starches, and in turn their kids will raise their kids on familiar meats and starches, and so on until traditional Colombian cuisine becomes inauthentic and modern Colombian cuisine becomes unrecognizable. The bandeja paisa—Colombia’s national dish, at a mere 60 years old—will long remain a fixture in Colombian-American homes, despite its irrelevance in the urbanized Motherland.

parque simón bolivar

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The month before Seth and I left for Texas was largely uneventful. Well, I guess I shouldn’t say that; we both made a lot of headway in our personal projects—Seth with his parking graphics and I with my essay—but in exchange we had to put our city explorations on hold. So for our first weekend back we decided to keep our laptops shut and instead visit the biggest park in the city, Parque Simón Bolivar.

Including the neighboring Parque de los Novios and Biblioteca Virgilio Barco, the Parque Simón Bolivar extension spans nearly 1000 acres, making it 148 acres larger than New York’s Central Park extension. Seth and I spent the majority of our time in the Parque Central. We strolled around a manmade lake where people rented paddle boats and swung about helplessly in the water. Sitting on the shore, I felt like I was in a live-action version of Seurat’s Un dimanche après-midi à l’île de la Grande Jatte, only Colombian.

home brunch

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Saturday was our portfolio kickoff, so to get us going Seth and I woke up early to prepare a satisfying pre-work brunch.

We munched on crêpes with leeks, Greek yogurt, and chives; home fries; a Finnish baked pancake with strawberries; and of course, berry mimosas. We were stuffed.

The next day our last Macbook charger died, so I had to semi-sprint to the “Mac Store” after today’s lunch break to buy a replacement. After spending COP$190,000 (US$100) on this technological necessity, I am sad to reveal that our dining-out budget has been sacrificed. In other words, you can expect more home-cookin’ blog entries in the month of June.

villa de leyva

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After our week-long vacation in Salento, Seth and I promised ourselves we would spend more time exploring Colombia. Thus we decided to spend our most recent puente (May 11-13) in Villa de Leyva, a small colonial town about three hours outside of Bogotá. (You might recognize the town’s name from the painting that we gifted my mom and Ken for Christmas!)

Seth and I woke up early on Saturday morning, took the Transmilenio to the Terminal Norte, took a second bus to Tunja, then took a third bus to Villa de Leyva. Just as our last collectivo began to shake from the transition between the smooth, paved roads of the highways to the rocky, raw “roads” of Villa de Leyva, a fellow passenger yelled, “Bienvenidos a Boyacá!” Everyone laughed.

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We arrived in the center of the town around two, found our hostel near Parque Nariño, and immediately set out in search of lunch. Since the weather was nice, we chose a restaurant in the interior courtyard of Casa Quintero, an open-house collection of eateries and boutiques on the southwest face of the Plaza Mayor. At Tierra Buena we enjoyed flavorful (!) dishes of trucha Villa de Leyva (trout with green olives, onions, and plenty of cilantro) and pechuga con jalapeños y cilantro while sipping on a pair of cervezas bien frias. Just as our food arrived, clouds suddenly began to collect and rain began to pour. While the rest of our dining companions sought the warmth and dryness of the indoors, Seth and I remained outside, huddling under our big red umbrella and listening to a couple of gringo guitarists practice their evening set in English.

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After lunch we snapped some photos in the plaza, strolled along the roughly cobbled streets, and ducked into some artisan shops. We stumbled upon one particularly well-edited boutique which offered only the most beautiful mochilas Arhuacas and handmade jewelry. I wondered why the shops in Bogotá were not as carefully curated.

On Saturday evening we found another courtyard collection of eateries and boutiques, so we decided to sit down for some red wine and live music. Rain began to pour (yet again), but Seth and I were able to find a table under a covered patio next to a warm fireplace. Al fresco dining is surprisingly hard to come by in Bogotá, especially outside the luxury zones of the Zona G and Zona Rosa, so we were especially thankful to have two consecutive affordable experiences.

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The next day we woke up before seven and walked the town in search of breakfast. We decided upon a particular outdoor cafe that I had researched called El Patio Van Gogh. The restaurant/hangout was basically an open lot, which had been dotted with a small outdoor kitchen and a series of picnic tables. Seth and I both ordered the Changua Boyacense, a breakfast soup which consisted of milk, two eggs, almojábana, queso paipa, and cilantro pesto. Served with a hot cup of café con leche, it was by far the most delicious breakfast I had eaten in all of Colombia. I was in culinary heaven.

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Bellies full, we began our six-kilometer hike to El Fósil, a museum with an almost complete, 120 million year-old kronosaurus fossil on display, in the same place in which it was found in 1977. Along the way we were surprised by how much the weather and scenery changed. During our short hike we traveled from the slightly humid climate of Villa de Leyva to an extremely hot and dry, desert-like landscape. I was glad to have my new Colombian fedora with me, even if it was only wide enough to shield my face—not my shoulders—from the sun’s intense rays.

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We explored the museum for a bit, then sat down for a snack of longaniza con plátano maduro. We then continued along the path to the Estación Astronómica Muisca (El Infiernito). The Spanish named the Muisca Astronomic Observatory—basically, a Stonehenge lite—”Little Hell” because of its many phallic monoliths, a tribute to male fertility.

Sweaty and sunburned, Seth and I walked back to town and prepared to go out for drinks and dinner. We chose a combo boutique/restaurant on one of the two exclusively pedestrian streets, ordered a bottle of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, and relaxed. Post wine, we were hankering for some complex carbohydrates and cheese, so we walked to a little Italian restaurant, La Ricotta, for a calorie fest. Shortly after scarfing down a bowl of Tagliatelle della Zarina (tagliatelle with salmon, vodka, paprika, and pomodoro), I was ready to call it a night.

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On Monday morning we returned to El Patio Van Gogh for a tropical breakfast of assorted fruits before boarding a direct bus back to Bogotá. Our trip to Villa de Leyva was exactly what we had wanted it to be: relaxing but slightly eventful. We came home with satisfied stomachs and fond memories.

To see more pictures from Villa de Leyva, click here:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/aclearglimmer/sets/72157633552077266/

 

[Tierra Buena: Casa Quintero, Plaza Mayor, Villa de Leyva-Colombia]

[El Patio Van Gogh: Calle 13, Villa de Leyva-Colombia]

[La Ricotta: Carrera 10a # 11-49, Villa de Leyva-Colombia ]

diana garcia: chef en movimiento

The weekend of May 4-5 brought Bogotá a welcome slice of sunshine. It seemed as if the supposed rainy month had lasted at least two, so Seth and I jumped on the unexpected opportunity to dine al fresco.

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Although we had been there before, we chose to have lunch at Restaurante Diana Garcia, a continental restaurant with a covered patio just outside the Zona G. I pass Diana Garcia every morning on my way to work, and every morning it taunts me with its sweet smells of baked goods. If it’s not La Hamburguesería or Crepes & Waffles, though, my coworkers are simply not interested; I instead resolved to drag Seth on my quest to get to know this adorable alcove.

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Seth was not disappointed. The first time we decided to have lunch at Diana Garcia, we both ordered wraps—he, the chicken melt and I, the French wrap. The second time, we both ordered sandwiches—he, the house spin on a chicken salad sandwich (triple de pollo en pan de miga) and I, the house interpretation of a BLT (California). Served on bright white plates, the food is reminiscent of that of a spa—clean, colorful, and quasi-healthy. It is the perfect “ladies who lunch” spot, minus the mimosas.

[Diana Garcia: Carrera 7 # 70-94, Bogotá-Colombia]

la xarcuteria

la xarcutería

For our day off (May Day!) Seth and I did a little bit of work and ate a lot of food. This afternoon’s excursion was to La Xarcutería, an American expat-owned sausage shop near Centro Andino. We had been meaning to stop by for months, but for some reason we never quite got around to it. Around noon, however, we noticed that the city’s near constant rainstorms had come to a pause, and if we did not leave our apartment right then we were going to miss out on tasty treats yet again.

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La Xarcutería is small but inviting, as its walls are covered with bright blue paint and niches full of pickled vegetables. Our hostess led us to a couple of seats on the bench and brought us two Bogotá Beer Company premium lagers. We sipped and skimmed the menu. As soon as I read aioli de ajo (garlic aioli) my heart leaped. I ordered the boudin blanc (veal and pork sausage with arugula and—you guessed it—garlic aioli) with a side of papas fritas, and Seth chose the queso con hierbas (pork sausage with cheese, grilled tomatoes, and basil) with a side of fried cauliflower. As we munched on our delicious sausages, we noticed that all of the restaurant’s clientele was either American or English-speaking Colombian. A woman sitting next to me ordered the house cheeseburger, cooked medium-rare—a dead giveaway that she was not a “true” Bogotano. The owner stopped by the tables of people he recognized, but sadly he left us alone.

La Xarcutería was our fourth gastronomic adventure in the past month but only the first for which I was fully prepared. I did not take my camera to Zona G’s Julia, where Seth and I celebrated my soon-to-be-published essay over pizza and Chianti, nor did I take it to Zona Rosa’s India Gourmet or Flor de Loto, where we satisfied our spicy food cravings. Since returning from our vacation in Salento I have grown especially lazy with my documentation, but in the coming months I will try to make a conscious effort to photograph my day-to-day life.

[first photo courtesy of La Xarcutería]

[La Xarcutería: Carrera 15 # 83-52, Bogotá-Colombia]

eje cafetero: day 6: cascada santa rita

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For our last day in the Eje Cafetero, Seth and I had big plans; we were going horseback riding! Since we had opted to walk to the Reserva Natural Sacha Mama on our second day and through the Valle de Cocora on our fourth, we had severely limited our destination options. I then remembered a poster I had spotted upon checking into La Serrana, so I decided to give it another look. It was an advertisement for a tour to the Cascada Santa Rita courtesy of Omar Hernández and his finest caballos.

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By ten o’clock, Seth and I were saddled up and on our way. Señor Hernández led us first through Salento, then downhill on a windy road, over a river and through a forest, eventually to the waterfall. He gave us time to climb down, swim around, and snap some photos. Although I was quite terrified of my horse for the first leg of our three-hour jaunt, I became much more comfortable and confident for the second. I even led the pack for a while, initiating trots here and there. My horse Estrella was very patient, if a little shy, and not once did she eject me from her back or send me rolling down a muddy slope!

Seth and I asked to end our tour in Salento so that we could grab some lunch. We stopped at Brunch for one last American food fix. I ordered a BLTA with actual crunchy bacon (!), while Seth devoured a plate of hot wings. For dessert we topped off with a chocolate and peanut butter brownie doused with hot fudge. I had heard several rave reviews about this brownie, and after eating dry, stale imposter after dry, stale imposter in Bogotá, I was not the least bit disappointed. Just as we were leaving the restaurant, we met a young couple from Wyoming who sat at the next table. Trey and Aubrey were in Salento for the week, but like us Trey was preparing to return to Bogotá for work. We exchanged contact information and promised to meet for a beer sometime.

We returned to La Serrana and lounged in the hammocks until dinner. Since many of the travelers that we had met were also leaving town the next day, Seth and I decided to enjoy one last supper with everyone at the hostel.

Dinner consisted of beef kebabs with red bell pepper; cucumber, tomato, and onion; hummus; tzatziki; and many glasses of Chilean wine. Seth and I met two girls from the south of Norway, Miriam and Hilda, who were vacationing in Colombia for a couple of weeks, but I spent most of the meal talking to a girl from Scotland named Emily, who had just moved to the States but was vacationing in Colombia for a month. When I told Emily that I had visited Scotland as a kid, her ears instantly perked. “Where did you go? Did you like it?” and then, cautiously, “…How was the weather?” I elaborated that I had spent most of my time in St. Andrews and a little town somewhere outside of Aberdeen called Oldmeldrum to visit family friends. Well, it turned out that she used to work in Oldmeldrum. While I could not for the life of me recall said friends’ surnames, I gave Emily all of the information I had. She was now living in Mobile, Alabama with her Houstonian boyfriend, so we mused about possibly running into one another again in the future.

Throughout the evening Seth and I also talked with Julian and Stephen, the usuals, and with Trey and Aubrey. The wine and conversation lasted until about midnight, and afterwards everyone said their goodbyes and went to bed.

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My time in Salento was definitely one of my more tranquil travel experiences. I did a lot of fun things, met a lot of good people, and got a lot of deep sleep. As much as I would love to return, I have many other Colombian sites that I must get to know. I might not ever visit Salento again, but I will always have memories.

To see more pictures from Salento and the Eje Cafetero, click here:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/aclearglimmer/sets/72157633191260038/

[Brunch: Calle 6 # 3-25, Salento-Colombia]

eje cafetero: day 5: salento

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On Wednesday Seth and I awoke with sore calves and achy feet. We decided to take the day easy, starting with two cups of hot coffee and a big, leisurely breakfast. Alongside my usual fried eggs and pan de queso paipa I ordered a glass of mora (Andean blackberry) juice blended with farm-fresh milk. It was one of the most delicious drinks I had ever tasted. We relaxed, sipped our coffee, and ate, occasionally pausing to chat with other travelers who passed by our table. Once most of our fellow lodgers had fled the hostel to participate in various Salento-area activities, Seth and I each slipped into a hammock for some quality reading time.

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That afternoon I got a little antsy for some activity myself, so I convinced Seth to walk to Salento and climb the 100 or so steps to the town’s viewing point, Alto de la Cruz. Compared to those at the Valle de Cocora, the views at Alto de la Cruz were not anything special. We descended only minutes after we arrived, ready to explore the artisan markets and (maybe) spend a little money. In one of the Calle Real shops I spotted the most covetable and finely crafted mochila Arhuaca, but at COP$300,000 it was significantly beyond my price range. Moments later I was thisclose to impulse-buying a black, white, brown, and beige mochila Wayúu, but I resisted because I reasoned I could score a better deal back in Bogotá.

After looking at all of the bright and beautiful things, Seth and I had worked up a bit of an appetite. We tucked into a misnamed “beer garden” in hopes of scoring an imported lager, but as soon as we took a glance at the menu our spirits deflated. Despite the twenty-something plaques on the wall—one dedicated to Murphy’s Stout, another to Heineken, and so on—the establishment offered only Colombian beers, and not the good kind. We ordered two Club Colombias and were quickly on our way.

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For dinner we stopped at a cute little Colombian/Mediterranean/Indian restaurant I had noted on Trip Advisor. We ordered a Chilean Cabernet at market price and two pizzas—one with tandoori chicken and another with pepperoni (!), jalapeños (!), and red onion. From Restaurante La Eliana‘s balcony we were able to enjoy gorgeous views of the sunset and the company of two adorable cocker spaniels. (At one point during dinner, I not-so-secretly shimmied away from the table to pet the pups and accidentally let one out of the gate. So there I went, chasing a pudgy puppy down a slow Salento street. Oops.)

We returned to the hostel immediately following our meal. The wine and pizza sent me into a blissful slumber.

[Restaurante La Eliana: Carrera 2 # 6-45, Salento-Colombia]

eje cafetero: day 4: valle de cocora

Although our plan was to take the third day a little easy, it was only easy by comparison. The fourth day, on the other hand, was the toughest yet, a day jam-packed with ten solid hours of hilly hiking.

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After breakfast Seth and I walked to Salento in hopes of flagging down a jeep that would drive us to the Cocora Valley. Once our driver had crammed ten people inside his vehicle (plus one, a certain Seth, hanging outside), we were on our way. Twenty minutes later we arrived in Cocora, a tiny town with a giant landscape. We immediately headed toward the Reserva Natural Acaime, a natural reserve about 4.8 kilometers from where we disembarked. Of the three principal hiking trails in the Valley, the Acaime route is the easiest; however, that is not to say that it is easy. Due to its steep slopes, sporadic rain, slippery mud, and not-so-stable bridges, most tourists opt to ride a horse instead.

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Seth and I completed the trek through the cloud forest on foot. We finally arrived to our destination about three hours after we had started, and we were beyond ready for a little snack. With the COP$4000 entrance fee, the reserve offered complimentary chocolate plus the option of a COP$1000 block of queso. We embraced the warm drink and fatty sustenance, admired the hummingbirds, and lamented the number of visitors. Seth and I were tired and cranky from our hike, and it seemed unfair that so many other people were able to benefit from the reserve without really working for it. Since we were not rewarded the peace and quiet for which we were hoping, we decided to move on.

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As I previously mentioned, the hike from Cocora to Acaime was quite steep and slippery, so Seth and I were not so keen on taking the same route downhill to the base. We feared that one or both of us would fall, twist an ankle, and be incapacitated for the rest of the trip. So instead, at the advice of the woman manning the reserve, we continued upward 1.8 km along a different trail to the Montaña viewing point. The path was everything I had wanted in a hike—serene, soothing, and intimate. This route was steeper and in some ways more difficult than the first, but because horses were not allowed beyond a certain point it was much less wet and muddy. Once Seth and I had lost the crowds and the sounds, he asked that I sit down in the middle of the forest and allow the fog to surround me. I sat as silently as I could and listened to the calls of the birds and the trickling of the rain. I don’t know if I had ever felt as calm as I did during those few minutes.

When we got to the end of the Montaña route, we saw a beautiful house. A Dutchman and his chatty Colombian “primo” met us at the viewing point, where we signed the owner’s registry and talked about our travels. “You have to visit Medellín,” he told us. “It’s so much better than Bogotá.” We assured him that we would.

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From the Montaña, Seth and I could have continued another 6.1 kilometers to the next destination, Agua de Estrellas, but a) I was not hardcore enough to do so and b) we were running out of daylight.

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SONY DSCAfter taking a few moments to catch our breath, we began our descent into the Valley. On the way down we encountered many photo opportunities, so what should have been a ninety minute walk took us somewhere between two and three hours.

Having snacked on little more than hot chocolate, cheese, and trail mix throughout our hike, we were famished by the time it was over. We thought we could squeeze in a quick meal of trout with mushrooms before catching the last jeep to Salento. Dinner was delicious, and on our ride back into town we met an American expat named Michael, who was working as a history teacher in Cali. He offered to host us any time we were in his neck of the woods, and since our apartment is almost too small to host anyone, we offered to take him out for a beer if he ever found himself in Bogotá.

Over the previous evening’s dinner at the hostel, Seth and I had made plans to watch the Colombia-Venezuela football match with Julian, Stephen, and Victoria. Well, we were both dirty and running tragically late, so we opted to rush back to the hostel for a super quick shower and then walk back to Salento (again!) to try to find the group. Lucky for us, the tall Irishmen were not hard to spot at all, and we were able to enjoy the second half of the game, which unfortunately resulted in a 0-1 loss for Colombia.