Every year for the last 40 (at least), the Finnish society here in the DC area, Kipinäkerho, now called Finn Spark, has put on a holiday market. It is always held in Bethesda, Maryland, at a church in the woods (Finland has a lot of woods).
There is food to buy and food to eat there. I went to buy the Karelian pies and cardamom milk bread, pulla, (like challah) and the gingerbread… almost everything was sold out by noon. Those Finns get up early!
I also bought rye bread. Finnish rye bread is made from a mother yeast extracted from the air. This is not strong yeast so the bread is mild and flat. And dense. I recall chewing quite hard as a kid to eat this bread. Now as an adult, I love it even more because of the memories it brings me.
Memories are often the thing that makes a food delicious. Nostalgia is a strong ingredient.
There were also other things for sale, but I was less interested in those. They were giving away free cookbooks so I took one of those. Maybe I will try a recipe. But more likely, I will wait till next year to get more gingerbread. Or I can go into Mikko’s cafe in Dupont.
All five of the Nordic countries have holiday markets in the fall. I will have to catch them all next year.
One can tell that modern day Serbia was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, not only in the architecture, but also from the food.
There seemed to be a bakery or sandwich shop on every corner in Belgrade. We went to a modern one built in wood and with space to sit. Some of the ones I saw on the street seemed to be more of a walk up style.
The pastries were much like in the Viennese traditional (in Danish, danish pastry is actually called “Viennese bread” as that is where the traditional stems from). In a small town near the Hungarian border, I had a sandwich made with a simple unleavened flatbread.
There is quite a cafe coffee culture here as well but the local coffee was topped high with whipped cream. Reminded me of that time I had Sacher Torte and had to ask for it “mit schlag” — with cream.
Every culture has a dumpling and one of the dumplings of Serbia is called a “knedle.” It is a round fried ball filled with, traditionally a plum, but now made with chocolate and anything else one could imagine. The dough is boiled first and has the consistency of a matzo ball or thicker.
I was delighted to see “potage” on the menu because as I am a bit of history buff, I had seen shows about medieval cooking where everyday the peasants at potage which was anything they could find to add to their pot. In Serbia, it was a thin delicate soup. At the place we had it, it was served in mini cast iron pots. Adorable.
We had other soups as well that were simple hearty soup that for some reason is not so easy to find in many restaurants. At least not in Rome.
Another classic food is meat stew. Served with pasta and sour cream on top. Very hearty.
They have Greek salad here, but their Serbian salad is called “shopska” (spelled differently but sounds like that) which means “hat” because the salad of cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers, has a “hat” of shredded fresh cheese which is a bit like cream cheese.
Another food here is polenta (maize/corn) and I had it served as cakes topped with shredded meat. Before I lived in Colombia and Venezuela, I did not really like polenta or arepas or anything made out of cornmeal but now I have a hankering for it once in a while.
I like dairy products and one of the traditional types here is a cultured product that I think is made from the whey, a bit like kunefe in Turkey but more delicate. It was called “ayvar” and was served with toast and flossed pork.
As I hoped for, another local specialty is spicy pickled peppers, a bit like a banana pepper. One of the spiciest things I have tried in a while.
Then there is the rolled stuffed meat a bit like a chicken cordon bleu but this one was pork. The local slang term for it roughly translates to “a woman’s dream boyfriend” and it was about 10 inches long.
For dessert, one of the traditional items is called a snowball but it is more of a snow cloud or floating iceberg of meringue in custard.
Aside from traditional foods, Serbian food also includes pizza and gelato and all manner of international foods. More on that another time.
A danish is a pastry and my favorite one is not too sweet.
Normally, when I fly out of Copenhagen, I get a final danish at the airport. The bakery at the airport in Copenhagen is a branch of Ole & Steen, which is a franchise version of the old venerable Lagkagehuset (layer cake house).
But, New York City has four branches of this franchise! I had to visit.
Obviously, the dough and bread is different (like with NYC pizza, it’s the water, don’t ya know). The menu was also different. They still had my favorite pastry so I got two. My favorite is called “tebirkes” in Danish but they have changed it to “copenhagener” in English. It is in the first photo, covered in poppyseeds. It is a basic pastry with a subtle almond sugar paste layer inside.
The roast beef sandwich that I got was awesome with horseradish cream and rare pink roastbeef (a bit cooked in my photos because it traveled in a bag for six hours). I also bought rye bread and rye bread rolls. My eight rolls were so dense that they had to go to secondary screening at the airport.
Lake Como is becoming more famous for George Clooney than for its other attributes. I only saw it in passing on my way to catch another train. And then, in Tirano, we found an even better dish!
The little town of Tirano is a pitstop on the way to catch the Bernina Express, but maybe one should stay a while. We did not. We had an hour. We needed lunch. The tiny square near the train station had two eateries so we went to the nearest one. Little did we expect the food to be good.
The house specialty was homemade buckwheat noodles with cabbage, potato, and butter. It turned out to be the best dish of the whole trip.
As the restaurant is used to catering to tourists, I managed to get pineapple and ham added to my American pepperoni pizza. This would never happen in Rome! But, here in Tirano, we were two kilometers from Switzerland so the rules against pineapple on pizza don’t apply here.
The balsamic glazed steak was also something of a surprise. While we were still in Italy, we did feel some of the Teutonic sternness in our waitress. Maybe we are just oversensitive?
For those who visited or lived in DC back in the day, they will recall going down to Maine Avenue fish market to buy shrimp and seafood from the red roofed open air buildings sitting low down by the water. You could even get them pre-steamed with Old Bay Seasoning and ready to eat. The area was a bit run down and sketchy at night. It was a strange location in DC. But one went there for the shrimp. Or if you were eating at Philips.
Times have changed but the seafood stalls are still there. Other than that, it’s a complete make over. Now The Wharf is an entire outdoor boardwalk built for pleasure by the water. It is a new destination location in DC. If you come to DC, I recommend trying it out.
Go for the seafood, Gordon Ramsey’s sticky toffee pudding, and towers of seafood. If you are not into seafood, there are other options. Even the Irish pub is good!
Every country takes the food of their immigrants and makes it their own. In Italy, it’s “Italianized” and mild. In America, it is supersized. But, as the US is a country of many immigrants, the food melds and blends seamlessly across menus.
Case in point, I recently went to Pho-Cue in Atlanta, Georgia. It is a hipster vibe-y place that could easily be in Oakland, California, or London, England. The staff have tattoos and shaved manbuns. The food is a mix of Vietnamese food, pan-Asian food, and American barbecue.
The barbecue was too strong for the pho soup but I like that they tried. The banh mi sandwiches were gigonormous.
The best thing were the pork belly “chips” — because why not take a fatty pork belly and deep fry it? It’s almost the American way.
After living in Rome, it was nice to get both pho and barbecue of high caliber.
With those words, Augustus (as Octavian was known from 27 BCE) declared the Roman Empire’s conquest of Egypt. As I was considering the end of my Roman adventure, I felt like I needed to go to Egypt so see that important part of the Roman world. Although Rome is modern, it seems to live on as the Rome of 2,000 years ago. Back then, Alexandria was the Roman capital of Egypt. I hear that modern day Alexandria is a very mediterranean city. I did not go there. I went to Cairo.
Cairo reminded me a lot of Dhaka. But a scarier, more aggressive Dhaka. In Cairo, I could see how as a single woman, one would feel danger. I didn’t feel scared but I was also never alone. When my friend and I were in the souk, she wouldn’t let us go into the long narrow stalls because it was too dangerous. She made the vendors bring things out to the street for us to look at. Maybe I was more oblivious back then, but in Dhaka, I never felt that the men were too aggressive. They tended to want to take photos and stare but I was not too worried about getting mugged or molested. Maybe it’s my memory changing the reality or maybe I was more naive. I was also almost never alone in Dhaka.
The first day, my friend took me to the souk, the Khan el-Khalili market, as that was my wish. It was hot so that trip was fast. I got my postcards and we left. We ate lunch at a place in the souk. It is a very touristy place and my friend had to insist on some of the local dishes rather than the grilled meat platters being pushed on all the other tourists. I had the falafel which in Egypt is made with fava/broad bean rather than chickpea/garbanzo, and I had the baba ganoush, and the other dips. I liked the stretchy flat bread. There was always too much food and I could see that the Egyptians are extremely hospitable. The next day, we went to a cosmopolitan bakery in the Maadi and that was also nice. That neighborhood had the same dusty streets and dusty buildings of Dhaka.
The next day, the sun was out and the sky was a pale blue color. Sort of. Another Egyptian friend, Mohamed, a former colleague who had worked with me in Dhaka, and a colleague from that time picked me up with a driver for a day out. When my friend picked me up, he had to come in and have a bit of fruit and coffee. Hospitality is king. The day turned out to be like one of those days in Dhaka which went from 9 am to 11 pm. The driver was filled with facts and his English was good. I told him that he should be a guide. He said that he was! My friends had hired him for the day. We went to the Coptic Cairo (Old Cairo). On this street, there is a famous ruin from Roman occupation times, 2,000 years ago (30 BCE when Augustus conquered Egypt). The fort was built in Babylon and years later, the Hanging Church is built on top of the Roman fortress.
Finally, I had to see the pyramids. They recommended the ring road. The pyramids looked quite nice from the distance and from an air conditioned car. I remarked so. At one point, the guide slowed down so that I could get the ultimate photo of a lush green field, a camel and donkey under two palm trees, and in the distance, the only remaining wonder of the ancient world, the pyramids. For breakfast, around noon, we went to a place that my Egyptian friend chose. It was a place where they make “Egyptian pizza” or “fatayer” which is thin layers of dough with filling. One was with honey and others were savory. We had one with mozzarella, bell peppers, and thin slices of dried meat. Then we had another with smoked sausage. All beef. This dish is my favorite Egyptian food so far. The dough is fried in clarified butter and the pastry takes on the sheen of golden stain glass windows. Yummy.
Later in the day, Mohamed asked if we were ready for dinner. My other friend recommended “Hagooga” a local place. Very local. So new and local that even Mohamed had never been. We went around 6 pm and it was not to busy but most of the 40 tables inside were filled with families and others. Only Egyptians. We sat indoors. This restaurant was so local that even the locals ignored us, the only foreigners.
I got to try the famous “whisky” which is the salad dressing water from making the salad. We got the grilled meats, and other dips or “mezze” – not sure what it’s called in Egypt. I still preferred the breakfast pizza. At one point, Mohamed told me not to fill up on bread because we still had dessert. When were stepped outside, the courtyard was light with string lights and every table was filled with diners. There were twenty people waiting for tables. Another entertaining thing about Hagooga’s is that everything is branded with her smiling face and name. Even the brass lamps had her name stamped out.
Most of the local women I saw in Cairo had their hair covered. I asked if this was law and although it is not, they cover their hair. It is windy, sunny, and dusty in Cairo, so I could see why it would make sense to keep one’s head covered. My friend also told me that most of them go and have their hair washed once per week, so maybe that is another reason.
For dessert, we went into Rehab City, a gated city. It was like entering Miami. We went to an outdoor mall/market and Mohamed got us platters of sweets. I recognized baklava but I don’t know the names of the others. I teased Mohamed that this, the eating of dessert, was the most serious I had seen him all day. The weather was quite pleasant at this point and I can see why the Egyptians are night people. I also saw a chicken shawarma that was at least 200 pounds. After the sweets, Mohamed said that it was time for gelato. We protested but then he mentioned that they have mastic/mistica. I had to try it. I first tried mistica 20 years ago in Greece. In Greece, the mistica, a white honey like textured resin from a mediterranean bush, is served on a teaspoon in a glass of water. One licks a bit of the mistica off and sips a bit of water, each sweetening the other. This gelato was not like that.
Finally, the fun day out was over. Just like my tour of the ancient Roman empire, and Rome.
With the return of visitors to Rome, people are asking me for advice on where to eat. I tend to use Google reviews to look for places to eat. I try to avoid those that have under 4.5 stars.
First, my recommendations out of the famous places:
Pierluigi, Piazza de Ricci 144 (downtown Rome): it is on its own piazza and you can enjoy the people watching. It is a seafood restaurant, but it has the most delicious vegetarian pasta and tiramisu. You will need to make a reservation.
Colline Emiliane, Via degli Avignonesi 22 (near Piazza Barbarini): This place makes delicious food. It is the cuisine of Emilia-Romagna (Bologna, Modena, Parma, etc.). Small and with no outdoor seating. But, they have a window where you can watch the pasta being made fresh every day. You have to call to make a reservation.
Tonnorello (several locations in Trastevere): I thought it was a zoo eating there, way overcrowded and the same food you can get most places. If you go at 12:30 pm, you can probably get in to one of the locations.
La Matriciana (across from the opera house, near the Termini train station), Via del Viminale, 44: Classic place from 1870.
Then the less famous places:
Fuoco Lento, Via Flavia 63/65 (in Ludovisi/Sallustiano): Old school waiters, outdoor seating as well, never had anything bad here. It’s my “go-to” place. Open on Sunday night as well. Outside the touristy area so much easier to get a table.
Da Bucatino, Via Luca della Robbia 84/86 (in Testaccio): outside the tourist areas, has outdoor seating, and is an old school place.
Tratteria Valentino (not to be confused with Trattoria da Valentino on Via Cavour, which is also fine.), Via del Boschetto 37 (in Monti): great local place on a side street in Monti. Near Quirinale palace. Hidden in plain sight because they kept the old facade from when the space was a ice shop.
And the not famous:
Osteria del Rione, Via Basento 20 (near Villa Borghese): Just north of the Via Veneto neighborhood, this place is a real local place located in a basement. There is almost no other business on the street, an extremely limited menu (basically what Bruno, the owner, tells you he has), and a set menu for 10 euro.
Il Simposio wine restaurant, corner of Piazza Cavour, in Prati, but just across the river: They serve chocolate as a palate cleanser to desert. They also make good food and can also make all the old fashioned dishes. Actually, all restaurants can actually make the old fashioned dishes.
MiVa, Via Ezio 23: In Prati, away from the hordes. Modern Italian-American (in the sense that it’s like a place you would find in the USA) but of course does the classics as well. I like that they have chicken breast and avocado. Their semifreddi is excellent as is their apple pie.
Ristorante Pinseria Da Massi, Via della Scala 34: At the end or beginning of Trastevere. This is one of many good classic eateries in Trastevere. This places makes possibly the best spaghetti carbonara in existence… also, you can get fresh white (nothing but oil and salt) pizza fresh from the oven as your “bread.” Yum.
PRATI Rione Gastronomico, Piazza Giuseppe Mazzini 5: It’s far from the tourists but it’s a large space with plenty of room between tables, and the tiramisu presentation is a form for entertainment.
Forno Monteforte, Via del Pellegrino 129: Cafe, bakery, and oh so cute. Open all day and in a cute street. This is north of Campo di’ Fiore, and a whole world away. Grab breakfast, or sandwiches, or cocktails.
L’officina della pizza, Via Cicerone 22: One of the best places for pizza al taglio (by the slice). Located near a bus stop near Piazza Cavour, this place is open from around 10 (different on weekends) until 11 pm, or so. The most abundant variety, and homemade potato chips, sandwiches, and deep fried suppli (the Roman arancini), is around 1 pm. This is a must visit from many of my guests. The mushroom pizza and the fresh zucchini with stracciatella (the soft stringy creamy part of a mozzarella) are popular, but I like the ham and cheese.
Lastly, I recommend one place outside Rome (near the airport) Osteria dell’elefante, which I wrote about before.
Belgrade is one of the oldest continuously inhabited sites in the world. There is so much history before the war thirty years ago and the Romans 2,000 years ago. Just imagine. I did not spend my time being much of a tourist so my photos were mostly taken from the car (I was there to visit a friend).
Belgrade has everything you would want in a modern capital city. The new waterfront is becoming a megapolis worthy of any big city.
I was here to catch up with friends. Luckily we did this while eating good food.
The food was good too. I ate at two of the best restaurants in town, Madera and Langouste. Madera has all the old world charm and lovely garden access to the central park, but Langouste has the view over the Sava river.
I will write about the food I had at Madera later. The food at Langouste was French, of a sort.
The one thing that made Belgrade an unattractive city was the smoking. Smoking is even allowed indoors.
Luckily, you can easily get out to the fresh air of the countryside from Belgrade.
So I finally made it to Venice! There are many ways to get to Venice, from the train, car, boat, taxi, plane, and bus. I tried several times to get to Venice because everyone told me how amazing it was/is. This time, I told no one where I was going and went. When I landed, it was pouring with rain. My taxi driver had no umbrella. The rain splashed up my legs like clamoring cats.
I bought an umbrella for 10 euro. I found my hotel and they suggested I try their affiliate restaurant for an early lunch. As my room was not ready and I was already wet, I decided to go see this city of mystery and passion.
There were many small streets and many canals. No trees in sight. I walked around and through puddles taking photos that I hoped conveyed the specialness of the buildings and atmosphere of Venice. Finally, I had spent enough time so that I could go to lunch. It was a lovely quiet place off the main drag. As an appetizer, the chef gave me a “cichetto” (a small open faced appetizer like a tapa) or whipped re-constituted dried cod (baccalo) on a piece of baguette. I was surprised that the appetizer was warm. It was soft. I then had excellent pasta. I was the only customer in the restaurant but the Bangladeshi cooks and the Italian waiter ate their meals before starting their work shift.
Later, as I was finishing up, some Italian ladies came in bringing a cloud of perfume and shiny gold purses, to order their dinner for the pre-arranged dinner they had planned. I was a bit cold from being wet but as the sun came out, I felt that I needed to take a few photos with the blue sky as a background.
Then, I took a nap. Later, I went on a group tour of the canals including the grand canal. It was impressive. I was reminded of the days of the grand tour when everyone was on show. Today, the tourists are not as elegant as those tourists from the nineteenth century but if I squinted, I could imagine them swanning about in their puffy sleeves and silk stockings.
At night, I was abruptly jarred back to modern times as I tried to find a place to eat that was not touristy or unavailable. I kept getting lost and eventually found a place where they would let me eat. The Three Lions was filled with French, German, and American tourists, but the place felt a bit like a secret place nonetheless. The waiters spoke French and English and they were quite nice.
I went back to my fancy palace bedchamber and listened to the assignations on the street below as I drifted off to sleep.
The next morning, before dawn, I took a water taxi to the airport. At 140 (150 because it was night) euro, this was worth the private ride across the lagoon and into the svelte modern water taxi port at the airport.
So, now that I have seen Venice, what can I say? I saw it. It was lovely and it was easy to find streets all to myself. Would I say that one must see it? I guess so. But, I do not think I would go back.