Monthly Archives: February 2013

Chapada Diamantina treks

Mark’s first blog post!

Besides the food at Alcino’s, Chapada Diamantina national park is also renowned for some rewarding treks. The park has steep gorges, wide valleys, towering cliffs, extensive caves and around 300 waterfalls. As with everything in this country, the park is big, so we were only able to touch the sides of this beautiful place.

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We ‘warmed up’ with a day long minibus tour of some highlights of the park. Our companions were a British and Australian group doing a seven month overland tour of the whole of South America. It wouldn’t be our choice to spend so long on a bus with 20-odd complete strangers but they seemed to be getting along. Highlights were some stunning caves, with monsters lurking in the shadows…

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…and the sunset.

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Leila almost missed it as she was taking flying lessons and had to climb back up.

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We then found a local guide, Yuri, to take us on a three day trek: hard enough to test our stamina, and yet not break our uninitiated muscles. After a bumpy and sometimes fairly hairy ride on the back of a motorbike, the trek began with a 2 hour steep climb in the midday sun. Our water quickly finished and we were glad to reach the river on the other side of the ridge. All the water in the park is drinkable, despite its seeming muddy brown hue. In fact, the colour is derived from the tannins in the plant matter in the soil, so the water is rich in minerals. Good for anaemics and pregnant ladies apparently, though why they’d put themselves through a tough climb to get at it I don’t know.

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The jungle that we trekked through was a gardener’s dream; there seemed to be every type of fern and cacti. And there were butterflies in their millions, all flying the same direction – where were they all going?

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But the highlight was the waterfalls. There is something quite magical about a tumbling waterfall in a secluded gorge with just the three of us to admire it. Unfortunately we have no photos of the most spectacular one as it required leaping over boulders, climbing up slippery rock faces and swimming through deep pools to reach, so the camera got left behind.

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Whilst the distances were not long, the terrain (near vertical gorges and boulder strewn river beds), the heat and sleeping on the rocks took it out of us.

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So we were delighted by the finale to the trek, a stunning pool with a natural waterside and a friendly rasta selling ice cool beer under the shade of a tree.

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Ta-da!

Ta-da!

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Mark and our guide Yuri

Alcino’s legendary breakfast, Lencois, Bahia, Brazil

As soon as my friend Maxine heard I was going to Brazil, she kindly sent me a wealth of info and advice from her own travels. She was especially adamant that I should experience one thing in particular – the legendary breakfasts at Alcino’s pousada in Lencois, the gateway to Chapada Diamantina national park.

Maxine’s recommendation wasn’t just because she knows me, my voracious appetite and willingness to travel far for exceptional food. Alcino and his breakfasts are renowned in Brazil and beyond. People travel for hours to stay at his small, chic yet welcoming pousada, and claim the breakfast is better than any other in the world, scorning famous names like the Ritz. Friends we met in Rio and Salvador were instantly jealous that we would be staying there. One proclaimed that the 7 hour bus journey from Salvador to Lencois would be worthwhile for breakfast at Alcino’s alone, even if we didn’t bother with the region’s main attractions of magnificent waterfalls, jungles and hills.

Upon arrival, knowing we would be feasting on the Breakfast of Breakfasts in a few hours, Mark and I went to bed as giddy as children on Christmas Eve. We had purposefully planned little else; Alcino’s website asks his guests to forget about two things – dieting and haste. My kind of guy…

It didn’t disappoint – every detail was glorious. The table was laid elegantly with china hand-painted by Alcino and a large platter piled with freshly cut fruit at the centre.
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As well as cooking and ceramics, another of Alcino’s talents is horticulture. At the back of the pousada is a large orchard where all sorts of tropical fruits grow, which invariably end up on the breakfast table.
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An assortment of home-made jams, jellies and chutneys were offered to accompany fresh, hot rolls, cakes and breads. We also had a few different flavoured salts, home-made herb butters, ricotta, mozzarella, and yoghurt to play with.
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Soon a steady procession of little plates started filling every spare bit of tablecloth. Many dishes seemed surprising choices for breakfast, but worked well.

We had kibbeh flavoured with mint and stuffed with oozing cheese:
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Pastry tart with cashew fruit and nuts
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Circles of squash topped with blue cheese and a zesty orange glaze
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Plus much more we were too busy enjoying to photograph: perfect scrambled eggs, curls of ham, sticky banana and chocolate squares, spiced poached apples, toasted granola, manioc pizza, etc etc.

All this was washed down with plenty of fresh juice (forget boring orange – at Alcino’s you get things like acerola or umbu juice), fine loose leaf teas and high quality coffee.

Not your typical backpacking fodder at all but Mark and I justified the extravagance because we were about to head into the jungle for a three day trek, where meals would be simply fuel and only what we could carry. This was definitely the right decision – the trek was incredible and allowed us to see some absolutely tear-jerkingly beautiful sights, but tough. Our guide told me I was “very strong” but the combination of the heat, steep climbs, heavy backpack, sleeping on rocks and drinking river water nearly broke me!

If you’re going to Lencois (or anywhere vaguely close) I highly recommend you visit Alcino – it’s a well deserved treat to offset the bootcamp-like bits of trekking in the stunning Chapada Diamantina.

(We paid 200 Brazilian reals for a double room at Alcino’s, which includes his legendary breakfast).

http://www.alcinoestalagem.com/

Salvador, Bahia: sights and bites

The word “carnival” derives from the Latin words meaning “meat” and “goodbye”. The festival always precedes the fasting and frugality of Lent and is seen as a last chance to indulge in feasting, drinking and general revelry. Sounds good to me!

Many people told me Salvador’s carnival is the “melhor do mundo” – the best in the the world. One day I will experience Rio’s famous sambadromo offering to make my mind up but for now I am firmly Team Salvador – it’s more about getting involved with dancing behind the thumping “trios” crawling slowly along the circuit than watching performers at a distance. And the setting is ideal, particularly the Barra route which is right next to a stunning beach.

Mark and I decided to join in as “pipoca” (meaning popcorn because of how you look jumping around on the street) rather than paying a premium to be part of the roped-off blocos following the artists or the fixed camarote venues along the sides. I’m so glad we did – we had a blast at the centre of the action, for free! Although it was busy, the crowds were not at the mosh pit levels we were warned to expect. Frankly it was nothing compared to the London rush hour commutes we are used to and of course everyone is in great spirits! We were careful with safety though, taking no valuables, just a bit of cash (and with cans of beer just 1 Real – around 30p – we didn’t need much!)

Sadly this means we have none of our own pictures but we made friends with some seasoned Carnival goers, including one who hid her camera away from thieves in her underwear and snapped these:

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Carnival during the daytime is a lot less chaotic, letting us take in more of the former capital’s beautiful colonial and Baroque architecture, especially where we were staying in the historic centre of Pelhourinho:

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Of the five days we spent in Salvador over Carnival weekend, we took some time off to recover, rest our tired dancing feet and explore other aspects of the city and coast. We visited the “Mercado Modelo” market with unusual fruits, ceramics and live animals for sale.

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Fresh cashew fruit

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Mark had to drag me away from a brilliant wooden spoon shop before I bought the lot (here I am debating which to buy – I ended up with the normal-sized reddish one)

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We visited the “Igreja São Francisco” church to check out the baroque style, Portuguese tiles and impressive gold decorations.

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In the spirit of Carnival, we made sure to feast well. Here are some of the food highlights which made us salivate in Salvador:

Moqueca
One of my favourite Bahian specialities, moqueca is a spicy stew packed with African flavours. It is cooked with dendê (palm) oil which gives it a rich red colour and a distinctive taste. Typically it includes seafood such as siri (crab) or dourado (catfish) added to a base of onions, peppers and coconut. Often served in enormous portions enough for 2+, in large clay pots which give the dish its name.

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Vatapá
Mark’s favourite, an unusual dish made from toasted cashews ground to a sticky paste with coconut and dried shrimp. Reminded me a bit of Mexican mole.

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Acarajé
Bahia’s quintessential quick street food snack, although ironically very labour intensive to make. Beans are mashed with onions and spices, formed into patties and then deep fried for a crunchy coating. It is served stuffed with tiny dried/smoked shrimp (eaten shells and all), vatapá and salad. Acarajé is sold in squares and on street corners throughout Bahia and is a favourite of the region; we were told that a new McDonalds was forced to close after it failed to compete with a popular acarajé stall on the same road!

Feijoada
Practically Brazil’s national dish, feijoada is a flavourful, hearty peasant-style meal made with beans and smoked/dried meat, often pork. A stodgy bowlful would be the perfect thing to warm you up on a cold evening in the UK but it is equally good as a weekend lunch with caipirinha as they have it here.There are thousands of versions and family recipes; we have enjoyed feijoada made with sausage, pork knuckle, and various bits of offal.

Accompaniments
“Manioc mush” is a bit like sweet potato or swede mash and served with many dishes e.g. moqueca. Farofa is toasted manioc flour mixed with onion, bacon or other flavourings and sprinkled liberally over meals as a popular condiment to add flavour and crunch. Arroz (rice) and feijão (beans) seem to come as standard with many dishes.

Mangoes
Oh my god, the mangoes. I always thought the best in the world were Alphonso mangoes from Pakistan but Brazil boasts a staggering range of the fruit in all different shapes, sizes, fragrances and colours. Some have delicate, thin skins which you can bite into like an apple. This guy was the size of my head and perfectly sweet, soft and ripe throughout – no stringy bits whatsoever.

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Now, post-carnival, we are heading to Lencois to get back to nature with some trekking at Chapada Diamantina National Park.

Rio bites

Of course one form of tourism which can be enjoyed whatever the weather is the gastronomic variety. We packed a lot of food & drink into our time in Rio, including:

Açai
I’m starting to develop an addiction to this delicious, refreshing dish. The dark purple “superfood” berry from the Amazon is frozen and then blended along with another native fruit, guarana, to make a smooth, sorbet like dish which is eaten with a spoon. You can get lots of extras mixed in to make all sorts of interesting and nutritious snacks, like granola, bananas, honey, ginseng etc. The stained, Joker-esque mouth you’re left with is all part of the fun. London needs this!

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Chlorophyll
Mark’s “suco” or fresh juice of choice. Faintly medicinal taste, like mouthwash, but he swears he can feel it doing him good.

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Bolinhos and caipirinhas

Man, caipirinhas here are STRONG. The combo of caçhaca, lime and sugar sounds basic but something magical must happen when they get together. Halfway through my second I was swearing that I had never had so delicious a cocktail but frankly I was too pissed to make a sound judgement (still, win win). Bolinhos are a classic Brazilian bar snack ideal for lining the stomach and soaking up the booze – hot fritters with a variety of fillings e.g. salt cod or shrimp, not unlike arancini.

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Here’s an awesome sandwich which also helped mop up excess cachaça:

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Churrascaria and picanha

The Churrascaria Palace (http://www.churrascariapalace.com) was recommended to us by our new friend Chris, a Londoner who moved to Rio some years ago. Dozens of waiters crowd around, brandishing giant swords or trolleys holding chicken thighs, sausage, various cuts of beef, lamb, pork, chicken hearts and more. Meanwhile you can help yourself to all sorts of salads, sushi, sashimi, oysters, hot dishes like moqueca (seafood stew). The highlight was Brazil’s favourite cut of beef, picanha, which is juicy, fatty and flavourful.

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Pão queijo

Little balls of cheesy bread served everywhere as a classic snack or accompaniment to coffee. Chris told us a funny story; “pão” pronounced the Portuguese way (sounds something like a nasal “powng” means bread. “Pao” is slang for cock, so you get a lot of tourists asking for cheesy cock, fresh cock, hot cock etc.

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Fruit

Açai is just the start; the sheer variety and quality of fruit available in Brazil is staggering. I literally skipped with glee around market stalls carrying mouthwatering piles of familiar (yet, obviously, far more fragrant and tempting than in the UK): mango, guava, papaya as well as Amazonian specialties I had never seen before such as fresh cashew fruit.

Tapioca

Brazilians make crepe like pancakes with tapioca and stuff it with cheese, ham and sweet fillings like chocolate and banana for a snack.

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Confeteria Colombo

This 19th century Belle Époque cafe in the heart of Rio’s Centro district is such a must-see that the road signs direct you to it. The high ceilings, large mirrors and vast glass cabinets holding fine crockery, bottles and cakes provide a grand setting for coffee. Or in our case, an ice cream dish topped with “threaded egg yolk” which was a bit like custard noodles.

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All you can eat/per kilo

At these places, quality varies enormously but quantities are always enormous. I may well be too, by the time I return to the UK…

Writing from Salvador where after just 24 hours we have sampled several Bahian specialties – update to come soon!

Rio sights

After flying long haul from LHR, Mark and I had just three full days in Rio de Janeiro before we headed off to Salvador, Brazil’s former capital in the north east of the country, in time for Carnaval.

In those three days we had just one brief afternoon of the glorious blue skies and scorching heat we dreamt of to keep us going through a dreary, grey, rainy British winter. The rest of the time we experienced a dreary, grey, rainy Brazilian summer.

Sorry to be so British and harp on about the weather, but it really showed how something as simple as rain or shine can set the tone for a whole city. Gloomy drizzle seemed to turn the bright, upbeat attitude of typical “Cariocas” down a notch. People make fun of Brits for whipping off their tops and dusting off the barbecues as soon as the clouds part but I’m sure most cultures would be the same if they battled with that climate. Conversely, Ipanema beach was deserted at the first sign of less than perfect weather and the volleyball-playing body beautiful crowds returned as soon as it was restored.

Luckily the vivid colours of Escadariade Selarón are vibrant even under clouds. A Chilean artist has covered around 215 steps with thousands of tiles from around the world, including Kazakhstan evidently. Niiiiice!

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Many of Rio’s sights depend on clear weather to ensure the famous views are at their most stunning. Unfortunately, this was our view from the top of Corcovado, home of the iconic Christ the Redeemer:

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(The map in the foreground helpfully shows us what we should have been looking at. Ha bloody ha.)

Although we did get to see the statue’s face and a tiny sliver of the bay below when a chink in the clouds momentarily appeared:
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We fared a bit better from the top of Pão de Açúcar, Sugar Loaf – no pink and orange sunset but when the sky darkened, the lights from the city below gradually flickered on, twinkling prettily:

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Mark made a friend

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Best of all was where we found ourselves during the few hours of bright sunshine and blue skies, the top of the Vidigal favela above Ipanema beach. This favela has been pacified so it was very safe to visit – although the motorbike taxis to get us to the top and back down again, not so much…)

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And the paradisiacal Jardim Botanico, where I embraced my inner hippy and hugged a vast tree:

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We will probably return to Rio in a few weeks to experience more than just three days of such a unique city – and will hopefully get a chance to revisit some of the sights in perfect conditions.

For now we are looking forward to an amazing Carnaval in Salvador – we found out that Psy is in town so we will be doing the Gangnam Style dance with a few hundred thousand others on the beach front tomorrow – YES!!

(Note: after much debate, we decided Salvador would be the setting for our first ever Brazilian Carnaval experience; the more laid back, street party spirit of celebrations in the Bahia region had more appeal than the expensive and enclosed Sambadromo in Rio – although one day a return visit to experience both is a must! We arrived in Salvador yesterday – update to come soon.)

Farewell to London, for now! (favourite lunch spots)

One of the reasons I’ve taken the plunge to finally start a blog is because… drumroll… I am leaving London to go travelling for six months! I am so excited – I will be spending time in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Tahiti, Easter Island, New Zealand, Australia and Vietnam. My bags are packed ready for my flight this Sunday, 3rd February.

In a way it’s a shame that I didn’t start the blog sooner because I have had some incredible and “bloggable” foodie experiences in the past year or two. London is a giant playground of new openings, pop-ups, and trends – I’m so grateful that I’m able to be in the middle of it all. I wish I could split in two so half of me could stay here and get involved with all the exciting things bound to happen on the London food scene while I’m away.

But naturally, I will be eating my way around the world and can’t wait to explore all sorts of new foods and trends which I will share here.

The weeks leading up to my departure have been an excellent excuse to bid farewell to my beloved city by re-visiting “old favourite” restaurants and finally going to others I’ve been keen to visit.

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Me, stuffing my face.

So I thought I’d post about some of my everyday favourites as a tribute to my hometown.

Luckily, it’s rich pickings where I work in Shoreditch, east London and obviously my workmates and I have done plenty of exploration and research to find the best lunch spots:

Dishoom

The day Dishoom opened its East London outpost was a joyful one. As well as excellent lunches (faves include Murgh Malai roll and House Black Daal) I’m often there for post-work cocktails or breakfast meetings fuelled by bacon naan rolls and chocolate chai.

Pilpel

Don’t be scared of the queues – the Pilpel team are Olympic-level quick at assembling the impressive array of tasty, crunchy falafel, fresh salads, houmous, veggies and extras. I go for falafel in a container with all the salads, chilli sauce and brown pitta.

Pho

Once upon a time I used to handle the PR for Pho and it’s a credit to them that although I must have eaten there a hundred times, I still love it. Go for spicy Bun Bo Hue noodle soup, crunchy Goi Ga salad and pork spring rolls. 

Whitecross Street Market 

I love walking around this market and seeing what sights and smells draw me in. There are dozens of stalls serving all kinds of things – hotspots are Luardos for burritos, The Wild Game Co and Sunny’s Olive Tree salad bar.

Farmers’ market in Broadgate Circle 

Only around every other Thursday, don’t miss out! A place to pick up lunch as well as fresh farm groceries to take home.

Banh Mi 11 

The lovely Anh and her team have been rocking up at markets around London to sell their legendary feather-light banh mi baguettes. Their first shop on Great Eastern St is awesome – some of the best Vietnamese summer rolls, banh mi, pho, salads and juices around. And they’re dog-friendly which is great news for Flossy the office pug!

Chilango

Again I must declare that in a former life I used to work with the Chilango guys on their PR, during which time I ate pretty much all of London’s burrito offerings in the name of research. I maintain that a Chilango burrito is pretty perfect and their latest shop is a welcome addition to Spitalfields. Poncho No 8 around the corner is good too.

Brick Lane Beigel Shop

Some people may prefer an American-style toasted bagel but for many, a sweet, chewy beigel filled with smoked salmon & cream cheese or hot salt beef, mustard and gherkin hits the spot.

Big Apple Hot Dogs

 Abe and his dogs are stuff of street food legend. A “Big Frank” with onions caramelised in thyme, yes please!

Orange Buffalo

New York style fried buffalo wings from happy chickens served with wicked hot sauces and beautiful blue cheese dip. Owner Mike is lovely too!

Poppies

 Sometimes only fish & chips will do. This place is hard to beat.

Verde & Company

For the literary types among you, this gem is owned by author Jeanette Winterson (it’s a bit of an in-joke that the display almost always includes oranges). Serves salads and sandwiches made with artisan ingredients.

What are your favourite places for lunch in London? What would you miss if you were off travelling? Any foodie and/or travel tips for me before I jet off??

Comments appreciated — thanks!

(NB: I originally wrote a version of this blog post to appear on the website of my employers Palm PR)