Chilaquiles Rojos

 

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Chilaquiles are a traditional breakfast dish throughout Mexico, and as such, they vary from region to region and home to home. The baseline dish consists of fried strips of tortilla cooked with a sauce and cheese. They can be made with a green tomatillo salsa, red tomato salsa or a mole sauce.  They originated as a method of using up stale tortillas, much like panzanella in Italy and fatteh in the Middle East. I have been making these semi-regularly for brunch and occasionally dinner over the past few years, and they are truly one of my favourite things to eat. While this may not sound like a ringing endorsement, they remind me of the nachos that I used to have as a child in an American theme restaurant in Dublin, which I still remember vividly 25 years later. They have a wonderful combination of crunch and softness. Whenever I have a tortilla or two leftover at the end of a pack, I chop them up, stick them in a zip lock  bag and freeze them until I have accumulated enough to make a batch.

This recipe is basically a template that you can build on with whatever meat or vegetables you want to add, although it’s also great without any additions. I have sometimes added a handful of finely chopped spinach to the sauce, or mixed some roasted cubes of sweet potato in between the layers. Pulled pork or fried chunks of chorizo would not go amiss. Add more cheese if you like, or scale it down if you’re attempting some semblance of healthy eating.  The sauce can be made a day ahead and refrigerated or frozen so that it can be put together quickly for breakfast. I have also used it as a sauce for baked beans. The one shortcut I have tried and do not recommend is baking the tortillas. They don’t puff and crisp the same way, and end up tasting greasier than if they had been fried. You don’t need to deep-fry them, a thin layer of oil is enough to get the right effect.

Serves 2 very hungry people.

Ingredients

  • 1 tin of tomatoes
  • 1 bunch of fresh coriander
  • One shallot or half of a red onion
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 1 chipotle in adobo plus two teaspoons of the sauce
  • Honey to taste
  • 4-6 large corn or flour tortillas, cut into triangles
  • Neutral oil
  • 1 tin of black beans
  • 50-75g grated melting hard cheese like cheddar or gouda
  • 40g feta, crumbled (optional)
  • 2 avocados
  • 1 lime or lemon
  • Sour cream, creme fraiche or yoghurt

Method

  • Preheat the oven to 200C.
  • Make the sauce by blending the tomatoes, most of the coriander leaves (reserving a handful for the avocados), the shallot, cloves of garlic and chipotle with a stick blender until smooth.
  • Add some honey to bring out the sweetness in the tomatoes, and season with salt as required. You can either cook this sauce down a bit for 5-10 minutes in a saucepan on a low heat, or use it as is.
  • Heat a large frying pan to a medium-high heat and coat the bottom with a thin layer of oil.
  • Fry the tortilla triangles in batches, turning them in the oil and leaving them until pockets of air have appeared and they are crispy and lightly golden brown.
  • Season them with some salt, and leave on a piece of kitchen paper to cool.
  • Once all of the tortillas are done, put a layer in a heavy casserole pot or ovenproof dish.
  • Cover with 2 tablespoons of sauce and spread with a spatula to evenly distribute over the tortillas.
  • Drain the beans and add a handful of beans and a sprinkle of mixed cheese on top of the tortillas and sauce.
  • The sauce/bean/cheese ratio will depend on how big your pot is, and how many layers you can make.
  • When you reach the top, cover it with a final layer of grated cheese and stick it in the oven.
  • Cook for 10-15 minutes until everything is bubbling and the cheese is melted. You can also stick it under the grill for a minute or two at the end to melt and crisp a bit more.
  • While the chilaquiles are cooking, scoop out the avocado flesh and roughly dice.
  • Chop the remaining coriander leaves.
  • Season the avocado with lemon and salt to your preference, then mix in the coriander.
  • Serve the chilaquiles warm with avocado and sour cream.

The best pintxos in San Sebastián

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San Sebastián has pretty much been done to death by food writers and bloggers, but with good reason. There is really nowhere comparable, and I have eaten my way around a lot of great European, North American and Australian food cities over the last decade. I have never found anywhere where every restaurant could provide at least one outstanding dish, as well as many excellent ones, for under a fiver. While eating at a bar counter with a stranger’s elbow lodged in your rib as you spill dish after dish down your front may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, even people on a budget can get to try cooking from  incredibly talented chefs. Pintxos start at around two euro, and a glass of txacoli is in the same range.

So with that in mind, here are my favourite dishes or pintxos bars from five days and nights of eating everything humanly possible in San Sebastián. We tried to hit most of the best known places, but missed out on trying the cheesecake in La Vina and the tortilla in Bar Nestor. We tried the anchovies in Txeptxa but since I really just don’t like anchovies, it didn’t make the cut but if you do like them, it’s definitely worth a visit.

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Ganbara – Grilled mushrooms with egg yolk

Ganbara is the grand dame of San Sebastián pinchos. It is pricier than the rest, with luxurious ingredients and a strong focus on pastry. Possibly the most Instagrammed dish in San Sebastián is the wild mushrooms grilled with egg yolk (hongos a la plancha). At close to €20 for a small racion, this is by far the most expensive dish that we tried, but it was utterly perfect. The mushrooms were delicate with a rich meaty texture, and the raw egg yolk brought the dish together. I am completely phobic about eggs but somehow I managed to both eat and adore this dish. Ganbara is always a popular spot with tourists and with foodie tours, but we managed to snag a rare corner bit of counter on a Wednesday lunchtime to try this.

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Anything meaty at La Cuchara de San Telmo

La Cuchara de San Telmo is legendary for its rich meaty dishes like foie gras and beef cheek. On our two visits, we managed to try both of these, plus the duck ravioli with mushrooms and jus (pictured above), the crispy pigs ear with romesco, and a racion of morcilla. With the exception of the morcilla racion, all of these were priced at around €4.00. La Cuchara de San Telmo is a sweaty and tense experience. Two men on either end of the counter take orders sporadically and you try to carve out a bit of space to wait. Food tends to come in waves, so you’ll see portions of foie gras fly out, followed a few minutes later by beef cheeks and so on. If you’re unlucky, you can be waiting ten minutes for each dish. It’s one of the few places that doesn’t have pintxos on the bar, and it’s full of other foodie tourists elbowing each other for counter space. The best move is to bring food onto the little square outside, away from the fray.

Braised Veal Cheek with Red Wine and Orzo Risotto with Idiazabal at Bora Berri

I didn’t manage to get a picture of these dishes, but being totally honest, they were not the most photogenic. Borda Berri has a similar vibe to La Cuchara de San Telmo, which makes sense since its chef came from there, with a list of small hot pintxos at about €3-4 euro a go and no pintxos on the counter. The creamy orzo risotto (risotto de puntalete) with local sheep’s milk cheese was a standout dish, as well as the veal cheek braised in red wine (carrilera de tenera al vino tinto) were standouts. I think these dishes are pretty similar to the ones at La Cuchara, but the space is slightly less hectic and sweaty, and I thought the veal cheeks were better seasoned here.

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Spicy tomato mussels, patatas bravas and squid bravas at La Mejillonera

La Mejillonera is essentially a Spanish version of a chip shop. It serves a few fried dishes instantly at a counter, and has a constant turnover of mainly local customers. There are photos displayed above the counter of the five mussel dishes, patatas bravas, and different squid dishes available. Uniformed men take your order, shout it down the counter with a dramatic emphasis and a minute later you are presented with your food. Mussels in a spicy tomato sauce (mejillones al tigre), deep fried squid with aioli and bravas sauce (calamares bravas), and fried potatoes with the same aioli and bravas sauce (patatas bravas) are essential to try here, and can be seen dotted up and down the counter. You can get a double portion of the bravas for €3.50, mussels for €3.80 and a half racion of calamares for around €5. This is the perfect place for a quick lunch break from the Concha beach, which is just a few minutes away.

Chorizo Croquetas at Bar Gure Txoco

Over the river in Gros, things are a little quieter. Bar Gure Txoco has a huge selection of croquetas to choose from, but our favourites were the chorizo ones, which managed to combine spiciness and sweetness with the creamy bechamel perfectly. They’re a little pricier than most croquetas in San Sebastián, at €2.50 for two, but totally worth it. This is a good spot if you want a break from the slightly relentless Old Town atmosphere.

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Kokotxas, and really anything at Zeruko

Zeruko is a modern, award-winning pintxo place with efficient staff, and often a bit more space than the others. The counter is groaning with excellent pintxos, and they also have a long list of hot pintxos to order from the kitchen. The standout dish was the kokotxas (part of a hake’s throat, I think) which come on a little skewer over a hot grill with some bread and a green sauce. You turn the kokotxas skewer yourself, ten seconds on each side, place it on the bread, and douse it in a sauce from a test tube. I was too busy timing and grilling to get an actual photo. We actually didn’t find this dish on the menu, so I’m not sure what its proper name is, but you will see it at every table so just point and ask for it. It costs €5.50, but is very much worth it, particularly as they have trimmed away a lot of the fat you normally get with kokotxas, leaving a lean and sweet skewer of fish without the weird gelatinous mouthfeel that other kokotxas dishes had. I also loved the goats cheese with foie gras and honey pintxo on the bar, and the sea urchin with avocado.

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Octopus with potato soup and bacon at Casa Urola

Like Ganbara and Borda Berri, Casa Urola is a stalwart of San Sebastián food tours, and we saw loads of groups during our evening there. With a decor that looks like a living room on Desperate Housewives, it does not look anything like what I’d expect from a cutting-edge pintxos bar, but everything we tried was glorious. It is one of the few places with proper tables and chairs in the bar (there is also a dining room upstairs offering similar food at a huge mark-up). If you hang around long enough, you can snag a seat and work your way through the whole tapas menu. The hot dishes are worth the wait, and the staff are great at wrestling through the crowds to give them to you. The food is elegantly presented like an amuse bouche in a Michelin restaurant, but at the same San Sebastian prices of less than €5 a pop.

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Mackobe with Txips at A Fuego Negro

A Fuego Negro is a more recent arrival on the San Sebastián pintxos scene, with an interior like a Nu-Metal band’s fast food franchise. The menu is displayed through a series of illustrated placards on the wall above the bar. The staff here are extremely efficient and manage to stay in a good mood despite the constant pressure. There are different small dishes at between €3 and €6, as well as larger portions of things like fried wild chicken for around €15 to €18. It may seem a bit unadventurous for San Sebastián, but there is a reason everyone around you is ordering the Mackobe, a miniature Kobe beef burger with banana chips.

 

 

 

Pintxo-pote, San Sebastián

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Pintxo-pote is a Basque institution. A selection of bars offer a drink and a pintxo for a small fixed price, usually €2, one night each week. In San Sebastián, the main pintxo-pote scene is on Thursday nights in Gros.  The hub is around Plaza Cataluña, Bermingham Kalea, San Frantzisko Kalea and Zabaleta Kalea.It starts at 19:00 and goes on until around 23:00, or until the food runs out, whichever happens first.

Most bars have signs outside saying they offer pintxo-pote, and some have signs saying they very definitely do not. You can usually tell which is which anyway by the crowds and debris outside. These are not the high-end basque pintxos that tourists elbow each other for in the Old Town, but there are some pretty tasty things on offer. The pintxos are lined on the counter of the bar ready to go. The drink on offer is generally wine, beer or cider.

I have zero photos of our pintxo-pote crawl. Trying to take anything close to a half-decent photo holding a flimsy plastic plate and being jostled by surfers and students is tricky, but here is a round-up of our pintxo-pote experience.

The first thing to be aware of is that the wine on offer is usually pretty disgusting. Sadly, txacoli is rarely part of the deal. The cider and beer, on the other hand, were good everywhere we tried them. Basque cider is light, slightly effervescent and crisp. Sticking with beer and cider is also a smart idea if you’re planning to try a lot of places, and don’t like waking up the next day in a bush with croquette crumbs across your cheeks and grease-smeared hands.

We started in La Plata, just off Plaza Cataluña. The options here were pretty good, and we settled on a squid ink croquette, and some sort of delicious chewy pastry filled with melted cheese that looked a little like a doughnut. This was a stalwart of pintxo-pote spreads as it turned out. They tend towards the stodgier end of things, presumably to soak up all the alcohol. Next up was Bar Mendi on San Frantzisko Kalea which offered the standard bread pintxos, as well as small plates of paella, patatas bravas and ensaladilla rusa. We went for a plate of bravas, and a pintxo with ham, goats cheese and crispy onion. We then moved on to Bora Gerri, on Kalea Bermingham. This had a selection of deep fried things like croquettes and prawns on skewers, as well as some bread tapas, so we went for three prawns on a skewer, and some txistorra sausage on bread.

At this point we needed a break and a sit-down, because unlike most of the crowd, we are not in our twenties anymore. The streets had become a sea of discarded plastic plates and cups, the pavements filled with inebriated students smoking a seemingly endless amount of roll-ups. Fortunately, we spotted Essencia wine bar on Zabaleta Kallea, a glorious place with a giant list of wines by the glass, and, unusually for San Sebastian, a great sherry list too. We decided to go for one more pintxo-pote, which ended up being a fairly lacklustre empanadilla at Bar Labrit opposite, before calling it a night.

Pintxo-pote offerings do not match the kind of gourmet pintxos you get in the old town, but this is the Basque Country, so they are still way better than what you should be able to get for this price. San Sebastián can be a pricey place, but a night out and a meal for €10 is an offer that can’t be missed, and an experience you won’t get in other regions of Spain.

 

 

Pea and Pistachio Chelow Rice

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Lately, I have started to experiment with different ways of cooking rice. I’m in my thirties, so it seems like the right time. I can no longer get away with experimenting with blue hair, cocktails made from whatever bottles of drink were left behind from the last party or unsuitable romantic partners, so I have to make my own fun and embrace my sad hobbies. This chelow rice is a traditional Persian dish from Greg and Lucy Malouf’s beautiful book Saraban and it’s simply a foolproof way to cook perfect rice. There are quite a lot of instructions, and it’s a bit more complicated then your standard plain boil approach, or even Anna  Jones’ lovely ‘high heat, low heat, no heat’ method, but it is worth it for the fluffy but defined rice with the slightest bite that it yields. You can just use the method to make plain rice, with the butter and oil, and it will still be an outstanding dish.

Serves 4-6 as a side dish

Ingredients

  • 300g basmati rice
  • 2 tablespoons sea salt
  • 350g peas
  • 70ml rapeseed oil
  • 1 large Spanish onion, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon flour
  • 1 bunch of dill, chopped
  • 100g pistachio nuts
  • 40g unsalted butter
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1 strip of lemon peel
  • Neutral oil e.g. sunflower or rapeseed

Method

  • Wash the rice in cold running water, and then leave to soak for 30 minutes in a large bowl of lukewarm water, stirring occasionally with your hand to loosen the starch.
  • Strain the rice and rinse again with warm water.
  • Boil two litres of water in a large saucepan, add the salt and then the rice.
  • Boil, uncovered, for five minutes.
  • Quickly blanch the peas in boiling water in a separate pan for thirty seconds then drain.
  • You can test the rice by biting into it, it should be soft on the outside but still hard in the middle.
  • Drain the rice in a sieve and rinse with warm water, then shake and toss it a few times to try and drain as much water out as you can.
  • Melt the butter in a small saucepan and add two tablespoons of warm water.
  • Heat the saucepan again over a medium heat and add the oil and two teaspoons of water (be careful, it might spit a bit).
  • When the oil begins to sizzle, carefully spoon in a layer of rice to cover the base.
  • Quickly mix the peas with the remaining rice and then gradually, spoon by spoon, build a pyramid of rice over the base of rice in the saucepan.
  • Poke five or six holes into the pyramid using the handle of a wooden spoon to allow the steam to escape.
  • Sit the garlic and lemon peel on top of the rice.
  • Drizzle the melted butter and water evenly over the rice.
  • Wrap the sauce pan lid in a tea towel, being careful to tuck it in so none of the towel ends up burning on your stove, and cover the pan with it.
  • Leave the rice on a high heat for two to three minutes until steam is escaping from the sides of the pan, then turn the heat to low and leave for 40 minutes without opening the lid to check on it.
  • Meanwhile, season the flour with salt and pepper, toss the onions in it, and fry in a tablespoon or two of neutral oil over a medium heat for 20-25 minute until golden brown and crispy.
  • When you are ready to serve, put the saucepan into a basin of cold water to separate the crispy rice from the pan.
  • Stir through most of the pistachios and  the chopped dill, saving a bit of both for the top.

 

Hotel de Goudfazant, Amsterdam

imageI had almost given up on casual dining in Amsterdam. While its fine dining scene is as good as any, I have had many mediocre and overpriced meals in Amsterdam’s mid ranged spots. Despite being cutting edge for design and culture, it lacks behind a bit in the culinary scene. It’s currently reaching peak dirty burger, with doughnuts, fermentation and nose to tail likely to make landfall next year. To avoid disappointment, I tend to go back to old favourites like Worst Wijn Cafe and De Kas time and again. Now, Hotel de Goudfazant can be added to that select list.

imageI had heard lots of good things about it, but its location in an industrial estate in deepest darkest Amsterdam Noord, a ferry ride away from the main part of the city, was off-putting. I’ve read five or six travel articles screaming the virtues of Noord in as many months, so I finally summoned up the added energy to brave the five minute free ferry journey from behind Centraal Station (I know, I’m a trailblazer). Hotel de Goudfazant is located in an old car factory, on a quay facing the city, about 20 minutes walk through 1960s housing blocks and deserted industrial estates. It’s not actually a hotel, but is named after a line in a Jacques Brel song.  There is a lot going on in Noord at the moment, but Hotel De Goudfazant is still off the beaten track, a few kilometres in the opposite direction from the hubs at A’Dam tower and the NDSM Wharf. You’d never find it if you didn’t know it was there, but when we arrived late on a Friday night, it was heaving with people.

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On offer is very reasonably priced French inspired menus, with three courses coming in at 31.50. While nothing on the menu is going to come as a surprise, with starters such as terrine, a charuterie plate, and fish soup, each course we tried was perfectly executed and made with outstanding ingredients. I started with the classic beetroot and goats cheese starter, with whole roasted beetroot complimented with slices of candied beetroot, piped goats cheese, thin slices of crisped sourdough and a base sauce of caramelised onion and orange. Himself picked out a perfect chicken liver and pistachio terrine, which was chunky, slightly falling apart to the touch and served with relish and cornichons.

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Every single table around us had a roasted poussin on it, so I had my order set only to discover that it was sold out and instead, I panic ordered Angus beef with polenta dauphinoise. I have a pretty high standard for beef, coming from Ireland, and there was no price supplement for the order, so I did not expect anything outstanding. Fortunately, I was wrong.  The beef came in thick, tender, pink slabs with a rich jus. It had an incredible flavour, and was probably the best steak I have had in a restaurant. Polenta dauphinoise was in fact deep fried balls of cheesy polenta, and the dish was finished with a slice of braised chicory because somewhere in Amsterdam there has to be a rule that everything comes with chicory. The lamb with broad beans and and aubergine was an equally lovely cut of meat. We finished off with an orange blossom parfait, and an excellent cheese board of French cheeses, including a French gouda gris.

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I have no idea how they can afford to offer a menu like this at a price like this, but they are certainly not cutting costs on the quality or provenance of their ingredients. They also had a reasonably priced wine list, with some lovely natural wines. The staff are friendly, professional and knowledgable, happy to talk you through the wine list and the menu in English or Dutch. This is the best value dining I have found in Amsterdam, and combined with the great view and lively space, it is well worth the detour.

Hotel de Goudfazant, Aambeeldstraat 10H, 1021 KB, Amsterdam 

 

 

Heron and Grey, Dublin

imageHaving a view of a fortune tellers stall from your seat is not usually an auspicious start to an evening of fine dining. However, despite a visit from Michelin within a few months of opening, Heron and Grey is definitely not your average fine dining establishment. Following in the footsteps of Canteen and Fish Shop,they are located in Canteen’s old spot in Blackrock Market in deepest, darkest South Dublin . They serve a five course (really nine courses) explicitly seasonal set dinner menu for 48 euro a head, with a shorter two or three course lunch menu. What is particularly unusual is that they have managed to do this without, on the evening I visit, any meat, and with only one fish course. While this is business as usual for me, for my parents and brother, it’s a bit of a change. This innovative (for Irish palates) approach could be because head chef Damien Grey hails from Australia. Front of house is provided by Andrew Heron (hence the name), who does a great line in friendly banter combined with an encyclopaedic wine knowledge.

imageI had looked at the menu in advance, which follows the ever popular list three ingredients with no description format, and honestly, there was not a single thing on it which I would have picked out myself given the opportunity. So it was doubly impressive that this was one of the best meals I have had in years. One of the great things about Heron and Grey is the size. The kitchen was literally five feet from our table, so any query we had about the meal or how a dish was prepared was happily answered by the chefs as we worked our way through the meal. We started off with freshly cooked bread and whipped pine needle butter. I’m not sure pine needles and butter needed to be introduced, but it was certainly an interesting flavour. We then moved on to the first dish, burnt goats cheese with tempura courgette flower,  lemon gel, chipotle mayonnaise, and a black garlic puree. The overall effect was rich, but cut through with the lemon gel for balance. Impressively, the chipotle did not dominate the more subtle flavours of the goats cheese and courgette flower. It was my parents first introduction to chipotle, having been immune to the burrito wars of the past few years in Dublin, and it’s safe to say they were converts. Our next course was a tasty cauliflower cheese dish in a glass bowl, with pickled shallot, and blow torched on top to finish. This was the only one of the four cheese involving courses which my cheese fearing brother couldn’t manage, and we battled for his portion. image

Next up was a dish of black Russian tomatoes with salted cherries, wasabi creme fraiche, wasabi snow and a tomato consomme gel. Gels and snow feature heavily here. Following this was a delicate plate with fennel cured diced corvina with fish roe, yuzu curd, crisped skin and a squid ink rice cracker which was a particular favourite, even for a fish sceptic like myself. I had no idea Ireland even had corvina, a fish more typically found in Pacific waters, nor had I ever seen it on a menu here, but apparently it was freshly caught off the south coast. The strong marine flavours from the squid ink, roe and corvina were balanced perfectly with the creamy yuzu curd to make a light but satisfying dish. This was followed (I know, it really was 9 courses) with a palate cleansing puree of pear and liquorice with a chardonnay vinegar reduction to add a little bite. Our next course was a comforting portion of aged rice risotto with olive oil and parmesan, and a garnish of pickled enoki mushrooms and crisped quinoa, grains and fennel seeds. We were then provided with a cheese course consisting of a dab of soft Crozier Blue cheese on a homemade lavash bread with red currant.image

We switched from our Albarino and Syrah at this point to the impressive dessert wine list complete with Muscat, Sauternes, a red dessert wine, tawny port and Pedro Ximenez. Even with so many courses, and varying appetites in the group, we left comfortably full, which is an impressive achievement that many tasting menus cannot claim.  Our final two courses were a coconut creme with pineapple marinaded with rum and spices with a coconut snow, and a final secret dessert of chocolate mousse, praline crisp and a chocolate which we were told they had made once for a particular diner, and had been so popular they decided to serve every night. This sums up the whole experience really. Heron and Grey is a warm, generous kind of a place, without a hint of pretension despite all the gels, snows and Michelin worthy cooking.

Heron and Grey 

Blackrock Market, 19a Main Street, Blackrock, Co. Dublin.

Ph: 01 212 3676/ 087 608 3140

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A Brief Guide to Alsace, France

IMG_0632Alsace is an odd region. Tossed between France and Germany for a few hundred years, it’s a little bit of both and neither. It’s mainly known for its wine, choucroute, and as the spiritual home of the great Parisian brasseries, established by Alsatian refugees in the Nineteenth Century. Despite its traumatic history, the region has a chain of dozens of perfectly preserved medieval villages and towns, stretched at intervals of a few kilometres along the 180km Route Des Vins between Strasbourg and Colmar. We used Colmar as our base for exploring the biggest cluster of villages which ring around the city over three days. Alsace can be more than a little bit twee at times, but when you are walking around the empty streets of a perfectly preserved medieval village like Bergheim or sitting in a vineyard watching storks swoop among the vines, it feels like stepping back into another age. It’s also a dream come true for anyone who is really interested in wine.

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I have to say that Alsace was not the culinary destination I had hoped for.I have read a lot about the amazing Alsatian food culture but didn’t see much evidence of it. In Colmar, we struggled to find a restaurant that served anything other than overpriced choucroute and tarte flambé. There is only so much sauerkraut a person can take, and I had expected a mix of traditional and more innovative spots, but didn’t find them. A lot of our meals ended up being in our apartment and comprised of local Munster cheese, terrines and rilletes bought from local shops together with baguettes. This is pretty much my dream meal, and handy for the budget, but not what serious foodies might be looking for on holidays.

IMG_0659Colmar is not your typical city break kind of city, it is quiet with no cafe/bar culture of note. Despite both France and Germany being known for this, it seems to have bypassed Alsace. Except for a few dodgy looking clubs and Irish pubs, Colmar is deserted after dinnertime. There is a strange reluctance about local wine. Restaurants rarely tell you anything more about the wine they serve than the grape variety, and we found one wine bar in the whole city.

This is maybe because Alsace seems to have a very casual relationship to wine. In all my travelling in France, Italy and Spain, I have never seen a place where wine is so much a part of the fabric of the region. Everyone makes it. Really, truly everyone. We passed through villages where every second house was selling its own bottles of Riesling and Pinot Blanc. All of the land, from small gardens, to the hillsides and fields between villages, is covered in vines. Any notion you have of wine tasting as an elite activity will be put to rest pretty quickly when you taste a glass of cremant given to you by a man in mud covered wellies, which you enjoy with a view of his tractor. Wine making is very traditional here, with most winemakers being the same family operation that has been around for hundreds of years, and outsiders frowned upon. With all that in mind, here are a few of the things we picked up from our trip:

Food:

Restaurant Edel, Eguisheim

This was the meal of the trip. Foie gras tarte flambé. It was everything I never knew I wanted. The restaurant is attached to a butchers shop on one of the main squares in Eguisheim with a view of a church spire with nesting storks who periodically swoop over the square. There is a large terrace to sit and enjoy the food with a glass of local wine. Tarte flambé is an Alsatian pizza dish made with creme fraiche, onions and lardons of bacon that is served absolutely everywhere. Here it was served with chunks of pan fried foie gras, many many many pieces of foie gras, far more than should be possible for the price of 14 euros. It should have been too much, and for lesser mortals, it might be. But for me, it was perfection. Himself had an equally excellent pie of duck confit, foie gras and cepes (also 14 euros) which could also be bought to bring home from the butcher shop. We genuinely contemplated cycling out across the fields from Colmar to Eguisheim again that night to go again, before discovering it only opens during the day, and was closed the following two days.

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Wine Bar Un des Sens, Colmar

This was the one wine bar we found in Colmar, located up a dark windy cobbled road that was completely deserted. They have lots of Alsatian wines by the glass and bottle, and a selection of small plates for around 10 euro to go alongside. You have to order something small to eat to order wine, it seems to be a licensing requirement. We ordered a charcuterie plate and a vegetarian plate, and two glasses of white wine from Eguisheim. It’s a cosy, friendly kind of place to while away an evening and try some great local wines.

Le Comptoir de Georges

Another restaurant attached to a butchers shop, we almost didn’t go in due to the deeply tacky decor, as exemplified by the white glitter stag who presided over our meal from a window ledge. They serve a reasonably priced selection of local specialties with a few bistro classics thrown in to the mix. While my rabbit leg with mustard was fairly average, the steak tartare with frites that himself ordered was perfect. It was served as a generous helping of freshly chopped, grassy beef topped with an egg yolk, and surrounded by baby gem leaves filled with chopped cornichons, capers and shallots, so you could mix it up exactly how you wanted. There is a canal side terrace that was too cold when we visited, but would be perfect in summer if you want to escape the watchful gaze of the nine plaster of paris wild boar who adorn the main dining room.

Wine Tasting

Almost every village we went to had dozens of winemakers offering wine tasting. This can be literally in a shed next to someones house, or a proper bar. Usually you wander in to an empty room and wait for someone to realise you are there. With one notable exception in Eguisheim, you won’t be charged for tasting 2-3 types of wine, but etiquette dictates that you should buy a bottle at the end. The average price for a bottle of Riesling or Pinot Blanc is usually about 7 euro, with late harvest (Vendange Tardive) Riesling and Gewurtztraminer going up to the mid twenties and beyond. Edelzwicker, a random blend of leftover grapes usually used by Alsatians for cooking with, is best avoided.

The best wine tasting experience we had was at Achille Thirion, in the cave on the edge of Orschwiller (they also have a shop in the centre of Saint Hippolyte). We spent almost an hour there being guided through the entirety of their wine list by a lovely sommelier from Quebec, who gave us an amazing overview of how wine-making in Alsace works, the subtle differences between the grapes at different elevations and the harvests. We ended up leaving with about ten bottles to bring home with us. Another lovely one to visit is Bruno Sorg, a slightly pricier (although still very reasonable) cave in a sixteenth century courtyard in Equisheim, that had a wonderful Gewurtztraminer. Domaine Hueber et Fils, on the Rue de Colmar between Beblenheim and Riquewihr, offered some lovely pinot noir, to the soundtrack of some truly awful house music and a snoring Alsatian dog.

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Villages to visit

The villages are usually only two or three kilometres apart, and it can be  difficult to distinguish between them. Our favourites from the trip were largely the predictable tourist ones like Eguisheim, Kayserberg and Riquewihr. If you are in high season I imagine they are swarmed with other visitors, so quieter villages could be worth exploring. Bergheim is a  medieval walled town near Ribeauville with some interesting looking restaurants (they were all closed when we visited), and a ring of kitchen gardens below the walls. Mittelbergheim seemed more like a hilltop village in Provence, with a long street of peaches and cream coloured house. It also appeared to have the highest concentration of wine producers of any village. Barr had a lovely feel of faded grandeur, although it was a complete ghost town when we visited on a Saturday afternoon, with a single bakery providing the only sign of life while its restaurants and shops remained closed.

Cycling

The Route Des Vins has an accompanying cycle path with good signposting, that goes along smaller roads and lanes off the main route. Most of the villages are mainly at the  base of the foothills, so the cycle routes are quite easy for beginners to manage, with very gentle slopes and a lot of flat stretches. Cycling also means you can actually drink some of the wine you are tasting, without resorting to the inelegant spit bucket discretely placed on the side of the bar. Eguisheim is a completely flat 7km cycle from Colmar, but we also made it as far as Riquewihr, which was a little more challenging at 25 km with a steep final ascent. We rented city bikes from Velodocteurs at Colmar train station for €8 per day.

Things to avoid

Visiting between October-April – We went in March and it very much felt off season. We went through entire towns where every restaurant, cafe and shop was closed, on a Saturday afternoon. While it was evocative to walk through deserted villages, it was also annoying if you wanted to actually see and do anything in particular. The tourist towns like Kayserberg and Ribeauville were still busy but a lot of smaller villages were just completely closed down.While I think it probably gets very busy in summer, there would definitely be more to see and do in April/May or September/October than off season.

Sundays and Mondays – Everything but the most touristy of tourist shops shuts. Restaurants, shops, supermarkets, museums, towns. Everything. The only exception to this is specially designated tourist towns like Eguisheim and Ribeauville.

Obernai – I do not understand how this town is listed in all the guides, it was charmless and filled with tacky souvenir shops, with none of the beauty of places like Riquewihr or Eguisheim.

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Chickpeas and Kale

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I know, a recipe called chickpeas and kale is the kind of thing you will only click on in the depths of January guilt. It sounds bland, and unnecessarily wholesome. But bear with me. I had seen the recipe for chickpeas and spinach in the Moro cookbook dozens of times while leafing through it. And I had ignored it. Every single time. It sounded boring, it didn’t involve cheese or tahini and I worked off the logic that there were so many amazing recipes in there, there also had to be some duds. I was wrong. Every recipe Sam and Sam Clarke turn out is consistently wonderful, and often deceptively simple. When this recipe appeared on Food52’s Genius Recipes column, and again on Smitten Kitchen, my interest was finally piqued.

I’m trying to get back into the swing of cooking quick and easy work meals after a long Christmas break, and this recipe fit the bill. I adapted it extensively from the original, using a different spice combination, white wine vinegar instead of red, kale instead of spinach and added some tomato sauce (inspired by Smitten Kitchen). It’s easy, wholesome and inexpensive to make, which is perfect for January cooking. You can prepare the bread paste in the advance and keep it in the fridge, so the whole thing can be assembled in about ten minutes. When I first cooked this it was at the end of a twelve hour working day which had been followed by a cheeky pint. Every route to my house from work involves passing at least one chipper so I felt like I should get a medal for cooking this at 9:30pm.

I can’t properly articulate why this recipe is so good, because I can’t wrap my head around it. It’s some magical alchemy involved in the combination of the sharp vinegar, rich breadcrumbs, earthy chickpeas, mineral kale and the, well, garlicky garlic. This is a recipe I can see myself making again and again.

Makes two generous main course portions.

Ingredients

  • 75g slice of bread, torn into small cubes
  • 3 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 2 teaspoons Herbes de Provence
  • 1 teaspoon caraway seeds
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1 teaspoon mild chili flakes, like aleppo chili.
  • 1 1/2 tablespoon red or white wine vinegar
  • 200g kale washed, with the spines removed and leaves torn into small pieces
  • 2 x 400g tins of chickpeas, drained
  • 2 tablespoons ,of any basic tomato sauce, passata, or 2 teaspoons tomato puree mixed with two tablespoons of water
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • Olive oil

Method

  • Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat.
  • Add the bread cubes and fry until golden, turning frequently.
  • Add the garlic Herbes de Provence and spices and cook for one minute more, stirring frequently.
  • Remove from the heat, and blend in a pestle and mortar, or with a stick blender together with one tablespoon vinegar to form a paste.
  • Wilt the kale in batches in a hot frying pan with a little bit of water  to prevent burning and a sprinkling of salt, then leave aside.
  • Add the bread paste to a frying pan together with the chickpeas and tomato sauce and cook for 5 minutes over medium heat to combine well.
  • Add the wilted kale and cook for a few minutes until heated through and well combined.
  • Top with smoked paprika and serve warm.

Tuscany Part Two: Chianti and San Gimignano

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Travelling Around Tuscany

One of the many reasons I picked Tuscany for a week long visit, was how easy it was to get around by public transport, at least from the major cities. We managed a week long round trip involving Florence, several Chianti towns, Certaldo, Siena and Lucca, all through buses and trains, and ended up spending around 60 euro on transport the whole week.

On our third day in Florence, following a tip from the Guardian we took a bus from central station for a few euro, and an hour later found ourselves in Panzano, in the heart of the Chianti countryside. The route took us through the most postcard perfect Tuscan landscape (after about 20 minutes going through some dreary Florentine suburbs) and brought us back through Greve, the epicenter of the Tuscan wine and food scene. It was the perfect day trip to allow us to actually get to try some of the wine, and not have to worry about spitting it out, or windy country roads.

Getting from town to town once outside the cities was tougher, and to get from our second base of Certaldo to San Gimignano by public transport would have taken over an hour and a half, involving two connections, despite being only 12km. So instead, we cycled. It was entirely uphill on the way out, and there were tears (mine), blood (mine) and a monstrous amount of sweat (both of us) involved, but now that I can blank out that bit, and the memory of shrieking every time I saw a dead snake on the road, it was one of the highlights of the trip.

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Panzano

Panzano is the tiniest of tiny villages, which can be entirely circumnavigated in about five minutes, which makes the amount of people at Dario Cecchini’s trio of restaurants, the target of our visit, even more impressive. Cecchini is a celebrity butcher (yes, there is such a thing) and a graduate from the Michael O’Leary school of PR. In the BSE crisis in 2001 he held a funeral for the Bistecca di Fiorentina, the region’s signature dish, and his butcher shop still displays its tombstone on the outer wall. He was holding court in the butchers shop when we arrived, to a soundtrack of 80s hair metal, with his staff handing out glasses of red wine and crostini topped with flavoured pork fat.

We made our way upstairs to his packed budget endeavour, Mac Dario (one of three meat themed restaurants he has on site). Getting a burger in Tuscany seems like a weird thing to do, but it’s raved about all over food websites and blogs so that was what we went for. The region around Florence prides itself on its beef, though it’s maybe harder to impress an Irish person on that front than most. €10 buys you sage roasted potatoes, a rosemary breadcrumb coated burger, and homemade mustard and ketchup, all of which were lovely, if not perhaps quite living up to the hype. There was a €20 set menu that looked more interesting, but way beyond our appetite. The budget restaurant is based exclusively outside on a terrace, with a slightly less than scenic view over a car park before the hills appeared in the distance. After ordering and devouring our food, we noticed plenty of more savvy customers ordering bits and pieces from the €20 menu, like plates of steak tartar, and Tuscany tuna (a raw pork dish). If I were to go back, this is definitely what I would do, or go to one of the more upscale restaurants on the site. At the end of the day, a burger is a burger, and Tuscany has a lot more to offer than that.

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Greve

Greve is the base camp for exploring Chianti, a small surprisingly modern town filled with wine shops, centered around the lovely and more authentic looking Piazza Matteoti. After a lap of the town we settled on Antica Macelleria Falorni, which claims to be the oldest butcher shop in Italy, and which is still run by its founding family. This was not the old fashioned wood-panelled butchers that you imagine every Tuscan village has, but rather a modern, well-oiled and very clearly tourist aimed machine. Set over three shop fronts in the square it featured a butchers shop, restaurant, cheese room, and wine tasting machines. To buy food you ordered from the counter and waited with a ticket for your meal, to buy wine you bought credit on a card, which could then be used to fill a glass from the different machines that allow you to try tastes, half or full glasses of local wines. There was an extensive butchers shop with lots of different cuts and pieces of cured meat, vacuum packed and ready to go in your suitcase. We ordered a plate of different local pecorino cheeses, and set about tasting the different wines. This was not what I pictured when I ventured into the countryside, and I’m sure the naked commercialism and tourist driven outlook of the place might put a few people off, but for me it was a lovely place to spend an afternoon sampling wine and local specialties.

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San Gimignano

San Gimignano is the most touristy of the touristy Tuscan hill towns, with crowd pullers such as not one, but two medieval torture museums. That being said, even on a sunny Saturday, after that vicious uphill cycle, it was impressive. It’s not a town for eating on a budget, and every restaurant was pretty crowded, so we wandered around before settling on a pretty average cheese and boar prosciutto sandwich from one of the many delis with a stuffed wild boar outside. A word to the wise, most bread in Tuscany is pretty bad, at least the standard bread that gets left on your table, or used to make most sandwiches. It is dry, sliced country loaf style bread, entirely devoid of salt and much flavour. Cordelia would never have said “I love you as much as meat loves salt” if she had tried this monstrous bread. To make up for this, for dessert, we managed to avoid the massive queue for Dondoli gelato on the Piazza Cisterna, the world champion gelateria for several recent years. There are a wealth of flavours on offer, and te staff move so quickly you don’t get to read them all before deciding, so we ended wildly gesturing at three different types to try. The guy in front of us ordered just vanilla gelato, and I am still disappointed in him two months on. We tried a combination of orange, mascarpone, amaretti biscuits and something else called Michele, and a mixture of marsella wine and nuts (I think, it’s been a while). While I have to go on record as saying it was not as good as Talento Gelato in Arbour Hill, it did make me understand the obsessive love of gelato that tourists in Italy espouse on their return.

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Crispy Spiced Chickpeas

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After many years as an atheist, I recently found myself at mass. Afterwards, I was struck by how automatically the responses and prayers came back to me and my similarly lapsed family after years of neglect, buried somewhere in a part of my brain that could be dedicated to more practical things. We have so many of these automatic responses in our head. If you ask any Irish person of my generation, they will be able to reel off, word for word, the instructions given to us in our end of school aural Irish exams. And if you tell someone that you don’t eat breakfast, they will automatically tell you that it is the most important meal of the day. I know this, because I have heard that phrase more times than I can count.

I have never warmed to breakfast. I don’t like eggs or milk or any of those healthy sensible things that people start their day with. No matter how many berries, spoonfuls of honey and sprinkles of cinnamon you put on porridge, it is still just dressed up cardboard paste to me. What I do like are breakfasts that are indistinguishable from lunch or dinner. After the amazing fatteh I had in Berlin, I started thinking about how I could adapt a meal like that into a healthy, portable work breakfast, and came up with the idea of oven roasted chickpeas.These chickpeas gave the crunch I liked in the fried bread from fatter but not the fatty heaviness. Topped with some greek yoghurt mixed with tahini, a squeeze of lemon juice, and some torn up mint leaves, they make a simple breakfast. 

The trick is to get the plumpest chickpeas you can find, the ones that have been slightly overcooked so they are starting to split. Chickpeas from a jar are good for this, also the cheaper supermarket brands like Lidl. The plumper the chickpeas, the crispier the outside coating becomes, I can’t explain why. I like to make a big batch, which can be stored in an airtight container in a fridge for 5 days or so. This makes four breakfast servings, or you could mix them with chopped tomatoes, cucumber, fresh mint, dill and yoghurt dressing to make Morito’s famous crispy chickpea salad.

Ingredients

  • 2 x 400g tins of chickpeas, drained
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon each any combination of: smoked paprika, turmeric, ground cumin, mixed spice, garam masala (about four teaspoons of spice in total)
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Method

  • Toss the chickpeas in oil, then the spices, salt and ground pepper.
  • Roast in the oven at 200C for 30-40 minutes until crisped and browned.
  • Keep for up to five days in an airtight container in the fridge.