The Backpacker's Food Directory: Myths and changes in Cuba!
29.09.16

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Above photo: Two chaps mucking about with a trombone one night in Havana. Standard Cuba shinanigans.

Cuba is having a moment. It’s a destination now, what with the 'borders opening.' You know, because people want to go ‘before it changes.’ I most certainly did, anyway. So I flung myself at this Caribbean island, with its tales of music, cigars, rum and political heroes for just 6 days (with one day for travel) with an American friend of mine. For the record, 5 days is not enough time. It’s somewhere to be discovered and unravelled. In 5 days, I dunked my head in and tried to sniff up all Cuba was and what it might become in the future. And my overwhelming feeling to the statement above is ‘before it changes to what exactly?’

The mythical Cuba with its old cars and doe eyed Buena Vista Social clubs that we want to see was gone a long time ago (although the cars are still there). It HAS changed because change is inevitable and because Cubans are willing it to change with every fibre of their being. So, everybody, stop panicking. Cuba is still lovely. Just go to Cuba for these miraculous things that are there now and will probably always be there...

1. Ronerias
I would be letting the side down if I didn’t start this guide with a note about alcohol. It is quite literally easier to buy rum than it is to buy water. There are holes in the walls with hand painted signs above them everywhere you go called ronerias, stuffed full of alcohol. If you must insist on staying hydrated, ask to buy water at your hostel or pick some up from a restaurant. But, otherwise, drink ALL the mojitos. Try a drink called Canchanchara, which is Trinidad’s baby – it’s a mixture of ice, honey, rum and lime. We also had a cocktail on the first day that we never found again and that we dreamed about, called a Negron. It follows Canchanchara’s footsteps with its ice, honey, lime and rum, but also has Thai basil and tequila thrown into the mix as well. *Smacks lips*

2. Ropa Vieja
Most countries in Latin America have a version of this dish - slow roasted, pulled meat (usually beef or pork). But ropa vieja, or old clothes, is Cuba’s national dish and the country would not function without it. I like its name, it reminds me of all the washing hanging out of the knock down, peeling, ex-Colonial houses in Havana. I assume its called that because traditionally the meat starts its life as soup (imagine old-fashioned clothes in a big barrel of water, being stirred like soup). The soup meat is then recycled, shredded, mixed and braised in a sauce and kept for a few days. Ropa Vieja is the ultimate way to long out meat, I guess. Our favourite place for this was called Locos por Cubain Vedado, Havana – a tiny place that stuffs meals of monumental proportions on tiny plates on a tiny table on a tiny balcony.

3. Paladars
Cuba’s answer to supper clubs – when restaurants were not allowed in stricter times, the people took matters into their own hands and began to run paladars - these are not necessarily secret but secretive restaurants off the beaten track. There are lots of these in Havana but we really enjoyed a night at one in particular in Vedado, O’Reilly 304. Like most of the city, the building we arrived at was, at some point, extremely grand. Now, its rolling staircases, high ceilings and remnants of Grecian statues were crumbling and decaying, Communist slogans faded on the walls (but still very beautiful, like much of Havana). On climbing up the staircase we stepped into somewhere very smart indeed and ate an even smarter, very delicious meal. Up more stairs, we found a rooftop bar, that wouldn't have been out of place somewhere in Southern Europe.

4. Hospedajes
Don’t stay in a hotel. Really, don’t. We stayed at one all-inclusive on Playa Ancon, a dreamy beach actually stuck in some kind of 70’s time warp complete with leaky, damp beige hotels – we had a great time, drinking all the luminous alcohol and watching terrible hotel acts, but really. Don’t stay at a hotel. Instead, stay in a guesthouse or hospedaje. These are clean, cheerful, usually with a fantastic breakfast and by staying in them, you are supporting small businesses. We stayed at Lesyan’s guesthouse in Havana and enjoyed late night chats, cigars, a parrot and pirated versions of Hollywood films, colourful neighbours and KILLER mojitos. You can either find hospedajes when you get to Cuba or email in advance.

Hospedaje in Vedado, Havana: Lesyan Medina, lesyan@nauta.cu

5. Trinidad
We had very limited time in Trinidad, but I’m so pleased I went. A colourful, colonial town, cleaner and brighter than Havana, with music everywhere. Listen to live bands at Casa de la Trova or Casa de la Musica and head out to Disco Ayala – a club in a REALLY BIG CAVE! Eat at a place called La Botija, we only discovered this AFTER we had eaten a pretty mediocre meal (which, just to warn you, is very easy to find – you have to search hard for good nosh and go on recommendations).

I think Cuba demands a little bit more of an explanation from me than just a few short points. I was super mesmerized by the place. But it was hard. It’s expensive. You will get gringoed (screwed over) multiple times, even if you speak fluent Spanish. Internet is non-existent. For once, my breezy backpacker let’s-not plan-anything attitude almost didn’t work for the short a period of time that I was there. But that’s the way the country is, it requires a bit of work, and I loved it. And in a way, I didn’t mind getting gringoed. Many Cubans are frustrated and underpaid, with skills and brains and needs and they are simply not getting enough to survive on from their government. So tourists get swindled so people can, literally, eat (example - a lawyer in Cuba earns 15 dollars a month. A MONTH!) So I didn’t really mind.

I am in no rush to go back, though, any time soon though, not because I didn’t love it and not because I’ve seen enough, but I would like to go back to a Cuba in years to come when it has found its feet again, where people have a bit more freedom (and a few more funds). It IS such a rich place in so many other ways. Cubans think of each other as equal, there is a 50% female workforce, education and healthcare are free. There is so much beauty and culture, history and energy so I hope that this plucky country can push its way back to its heyday which, at present, is just crumbling further and further into the ground.

Photos and text by Julia Georgallis

The Backpacker's Food Directory: Sleepless and Full in Argentina
Monday 19.09.16

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(From the top; King Crab in Ushuaia, Fernet, The Perito Moreno glacier, tango in Buenos Aires)

My memories of Argentina are mainly associated with a total lack of sleep and an abundance of red things and carbohydrates – the red things mainly being red wine and red meat. There were literally days where I had steak for lunch AND dinner. In this hazy, meat induced dream that was the beginning of my haphazard wanderings around the Latin American continent, I ate to my heart’s content until I was no longer a pasty, skinny Brit who burned up too many calories by worrying about things and became a much fatter, browner, backpacker at the hands of empanadas and Malbec. Rather than travel the length and breadth of the country, I got a bit stuck in Mendoza and spent far too much time in Buenos Aires. There was also a trip to Iguassu Falls where we kept leap frogging over the Brazilian and Argentinian border and a week long excursion to El Calafate and Ushuaia in Patagonia. Here are the things that I ate during that happy month in Argentina.

1. Meat
I ate so much red meat that I was genuinely quite worried about my health. But then I just washed it down with some wine and forgot all about it. Here’s what I learned about being a carnivore in Argentina…
Blue Steak - If you ask for your steak blue, an Argentine will look at you as if you have four noses and six eyebrows – it’s horrifying to them. They cook their meat through. No blood in sight. As much as I love raw meat, I would recommend that you DON’T ask the waiter for this – Argentinian meat is tasty enough that it doesn’t HAVE to be raw and Argentinians know how to cook meat properly. So just go with it. One of my favourite steak meals was in Buenos Aires at La Brigada in the fab San Telmo district – a super simple place littered with football memorabilia and a very loud owner.
The Whole Hog - As an adventurous eater I always assumed that I had eaten most parts of the animal (brains, stomach, liver, the lot). However, I was wrong. One afternoon in Buenos Aires, we strolled up to a place called La Cholita in Recoleta and it blew my mind. We were served quite literally every edible part of the cow – my favourite being the intestines. It was phenomenal. A backpacker buddy and I also stumbled across a parilla (grill) night at America del Sur Hostel in El Calafate, deepest, darkest Patagonia. On a cold evening, we were cooked for by a giant, bearded man in the outdoors and couldn’t quite believe the quality of the meat we were eating.
Asado - Whatever you do, however you do it, MAKE SURE YOU GO TO AN ASADO (or, Argentinian barbecue). I don’t care how you manage it, just find an Argentinian and invite yourself along if you have to. Now, I thought I knew a thing or two about barbecues, what with the whole kebab culture that I grew up with, but no. Argentinians rival any Greek on this. Their asados are totally different. Just like with everything else, Argentines take their time – the fire is wood instead of charcoal, built up and moved around the fire pit over time to control the temperature of cooking. The one BBQ that my friend Fede (king of the Mendocine asado, I should add) cooked us went on for hours and he layered the steak with cheese, pasata and peppers. Nom, nom, nom.

2. Malbec in Mendoza
Ah Mendoza. It’s a funny place this, when we got there it was positively Autumnal. And, admittedly the town itself LOOKS fairly unremarkable. But, it is the spiritual home of Malbec wine, surrounded by rolling vineyards of varying sizes and calibres and it was one of those places where I just couldn’t leave. It is an earthy place and it feels vast, like a sort of drunk version of the wild west – the vineyards all have this feeling of newness. By a stroke of luck, I managed to be there during ventimia or the wine harvest celebrations. By two more strokes, I also ended up travelling with a sommelier AND a chef during this time, which meant that we were continuously plied with free wine by unsuspecting wine merchants. During harvest festival, the town turns into a wine fairground, with streets full of wine-tasting stalls and floats with grape harvest beauty queens throwing fruit for onlookers to catch in tall fruit baskets. If you can, visit during this time, as Mendoza is at its buzziest and you can sample ALL THE WINE at a much lower cost. During the rest of the year you can still cycle around drunkenly from vineyard to vineyard or get the tram that surrounds the city. My favourite vineyard was by far El Enemigo - it’s a boutique, quite bougie vineyard themed, bizarrely, on Dante Aligheri’s ‘Inferno.’ You can blend your own wine, eat delicious food and wander around looking at all their oldy worldy, but at the same time state of the art wine making techniques. We also did a pre-booked tour with Trout and Wine, which was fancy and pricey but well worth it. As an aside, you MUST visit a supermarket in Mendoza – the wine sections are ridiculous.

3. Mate
Like tea is to a Brit, mate is to an Argentine. But actually, when I think about yerba mate, this bitter green caffeinated herbal drink is so much more than ‘put the kettle on, love’ or ‘let’s get a brew on’. Much of Southern South America carts hot water flask and mate cups to drink on the go. There are even hot water dispensers in petrol stations. When we rented an apartment in Mendoza, one of our Mendocina friends brought over a spare mate cup of hers for us to have because – ‘you can’t be in a Argentinian house without having a mate cup… it’s just wrong,’ she said. So we Gringos became accustomed to boiling the water, topping the cup up, drinking the contents of the cup, passing it round (without touching the metal straw – this is heresy) and talking. Talking about all things. So try it! This special green herb that unlocks lots of conversations, fixes arguments and brings people closer together...

4. Dulce de Leche
I am obsessed with this. If dulce de leche was a person, I would stalk it. It is the most delicious bi-product of cattle farming ever. Literally meaning 'milk jam’ dulce de leche is the best sort of condensed milk I have ever eaten. And in Argentina, Uruguay, Southern Brazil and Paraguay, they put it in EVERYTHING. Alfajores, muffins, cakes, profiterols… the lot. And, quite rightly, too.

4. Alfajores
One morning I passed by a bakery window in Palermo, Buenos Aires when I noticed that they appeared to selling dulce de leche hamburgers. This would quite obviously stop me in my tracks due to my aforementioned addiction. Sadly, this was not the case – they were, in fact, alfajores de maizena – corn starch biscuits that looked like macaroons and filled with dulce de leche. These exist in two forms – the mass-produced alfajor that’s more like an oreo combined with a jammy dodger OR there are the alfajores you find in bakeries, particularly abundant in Argentina. The homemade, bakery kind are the best, with fally- aparty biscuits. Delish.

5. Empanadas
I always thought that the empanada might be a relative of the Cornish pasty (it looks pretty similar, after all), however it appears it would be the cousin of the samosa, brought to Argentina via Spain. You can find empanadas in much of Latin America, but Argentinians have really taken them under their wing. Every region of Argentina has special recipes for empanadas – seafood by the coast, lamb in Patagonia, even milk soaked rice up North. My faves were empanadas humitas - corn empanadas, sometimes combined with cheese or milk (I’ve put the recipe up on my last blog post).

5. Fresh pasta
Though Argentinians are hugely influenced by Italy, don’t expect Italian pasta in Argentina. Instead it’s a glorious homemade, stodgy type that you can get in some Italian restaurants. The sauces are always quite heavy handed and generally not as refined as Italian pasta sauces but the actual pasta is definitely worth eating. I would recommend going for flavoured pastas like spinach and not ordering a sauce, maybe just asking for a bit of cheese to top it with.

6. Fernet
Having lived in Italy, Fernet is this weird digestif that old Italians in tiny villages might drink occasionally if there’s nothing left to drink. But it’s a cult in Argentina. A bit like Jagermeister gone wrong, Argentinians drink it ALL THE TIME. And if they’re not drinking it, they’re wondering when they’re going to drink it next. To reiterate, it’s a weird, weird drink. And to mute the weirdness, it’s mixed with coke AND loads of ice, (because the taste of coke isn’t enough – it must also be ice cold to numb your tastebuds, I think). But as a dear Canadian friend of mine pointed out there are 5 stages of Fernet – You hate it, you tolerate it, you like it, you love it, you become an addict. For all my complaining, I got to love it. It becomes an easy drink to order and an easy drink to drink. I’ve started seeing it in the Duty Free at some British airports, so I assume it’s a trend that will wash up on our shores quite soon. Though we might be asking ourselves why we ever put up with it in 20 years time.

7. Patagonia
Our departure from Argentina imminent, a friend and I decided to catapult ourselves to Patagonia for a last, week long excursion to El Calafate (the glacier), Ushuaia (the end of the world) and Penguin Island (err… for penguins). A week is not enough. And surprisingly, the food at the last landmass before Antarctica was incredible...
King Crab - So when we got to Ushuaia we realised that we were surrounded by freezing water. And when I hear the words ‘freezing water’ I think of one thing – KING CRABS. The most expensive crab in the world, it turns out, is not so expensive in Argentina. So we walked into this tiny little place, El Viejo Marino by the sea overlooking all the big ships and the inky water and feasted on a 10 lbs crab with an endive salad. It was the mic drop of all meals.
The Chicken Incident - So, this is a weird one and I was debating whether or not to include this but it was too good not to. During the aforementioned parilla at America del Sur hostel, we were served a spatchcocked chicken by our hairy chef. When I ate a little bit of it I suddenly realised that I had, in fact, found heaven. In this piece of chicken. I don’t know what happens to the chickens in Patagonia. Maybe they run around and make themselves super tasty in all the cold air and then bathe in glacial waters. But whatever you do, just eat some grilled chicken in Patagonia and tell me whether or not it is delicious, because I’m not sure if I’m just being delirious.
Tea Rooms - We went on an excursion one day and visited some research centres for marine animals and on the way stopped at this delightful little tea room, quite literally in the middle of nowhere. I have no idea where I was, I had been napping and I awoke to all these beautiful lakes and crisp air. We sat inside the tea room and ordered an (admittedly overpriced) cup of tea and a slice of cake and all of a sudden I was homesick. I could have been in Wales or somewhere in the North. Forget about magic, tea and cake actually does have the power to teleport I think.
A Giant Ice Cube - When you say glacier, I say whiskey. If you do nothing else in Patagonia, go for a hike on top of glacier Perito Moreno. I have and never will see anything that takes my breath so completely ever again. When we got to the top, our mental guide chipped off some ice and pulled out his cold store full of WHISKEY. I suppose all the glacier is, afterall, is just one giant ice cube. It was definitely a well placed, well deserved stiff drink.

8. Buenos Aires
I'm going to end with a messy subsection, because to me, that is exactly what my memory of B.A was - a bit messy. My first stop on my 5 month trip was to this complicated, warm, sprawling metropolis. I will relay experiences in Buenos Aires as opposed to specific places, because there were just too many and too much. Here it goes, hold your breath - stuff your face full of profiterols at the Italian style bakeries, visit the ferias (or markets) in San Telmo on a Sunday morning, go for a hot drink in the old theatre in Recoleta that is now a bookshop/coffee shop, visit the stadium then enjoy a fernet whilst watching the Tango in La Boca, hang out in Palermo Soho, go for a chickpea pizza (an import from the Middle East) at 4 am at Pizza Guerrin and most importantly, make sure you go to Bomba de Tiempo at Konex so you can dance up the street feeling happy that you managed to get to this extraordinary place…

Phew. So there we have it. Sleepless and full in Argentina. I hope that it takes you as much by surprise as it did me, that you find many other foodie places worth talking about and that you travel happy through this wonderful country.

Photos and text by Julia Georgallis

Recipe: Alfajores y Empanadas de Argentina
23.08.16

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(Above left, my first alfajor. Above right, a batch of empanadas)

Here are the recipes for two delightfully doughy Argentinian snacks – savoury corn and paprika empanadas and fluffy dulce de leche and coconut alfajores… I've used corn flour for both these recipes, but you can use plain flour if you can't get your hands on the stuff.

Alfajores de Maizena
(Makes 16 alfajores)

For all intents and purposes, alfajores de maizena are a cross between a giant, Latin American macaroon and a dulce de leche burger. Literally the dream. Two corn flour biscuits sandwich a delicious filling, usually made from dulce de leche or some other kind of cream based sugary treat. They’re everywhere in Argentina (and South America for that matter but became fewer and further between once I left Peru. Usually I don’t like to publish complicated recipes – alfajores are not hard to make, but they ARE fiddly because they’re so delicate. However, the faff time it takes to make these is totally worth it because they’re delicious and you just can’t find them in the UK.

Ingredients:

For the dough:
230 g sugar
230 g butter
5 egg yolks
270 g corn flour
3 tsp of liqueur (I used amaretto, you can use whatever you like really, as long as it’s sweet and alcoholic)
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 tsp baking powder
A pinch of salt

For the filling:
Dulce de leche (A bit tricky to find, but it's worth hunting it out on Ocado or a speciality deli. You can also use caramel, but the Argentinian version is always better!)
Dessicated coconut


1. Whisk the butter, sugar, egg yolks, vanilla extract and liqueur together until light and fluffy.
2. Add the mix to baking powder, salt and flour and combine with a spoon. You should have a very fluffy, buttery dough that is quite sticky. It will be a bit difficult to manage, but don't panic.
3. Wrap the dough in cling film and put it in the fridge to set for at least an hour. I find it better to leave it overnight.
4. Once the dough is set, take it out of the fridge and roll into biscuit shaped rounds. As the dough is so buttery it tends to come apart so I have found that the best way to shape is to roll it into balls with your hands and squash it into a circle, then cut using a pastry cutter or cold glass. The rounds must be quite thick, I would say about 1 cm is perfect. If they are too thin, the biscuit will fall apart.
5. Line a tin with baking parchment and lay the rounds on. Bake at 190 C for 10 - 12 minutes. They will still be relatively raw, so on taking the biscuits out of the oven, wait for them to cool before moving them so that they don’t fall apart.
6. Add a thick layer of dulce de leche to every other biscuit, then sprinkle the dulce de leche with coconut.
7. Stick the un-dulced biscuits on top of the dulce de leched up ones.
8. Eat! And enjoy!

Empanaditas Humitas
(Makes 24 little empanadas)
Just as the alfajor reminds us of macaroons, empanadas, to me, are just more delicious South American Cornish pasties. These have corn and paprika in them, which are not a traditional Argentine recipe, but once you have the dough down you can pretty much fill them with whatever you like.

Ingredients:

For the dough:
600 g of plain or corn flour
300 g butter
150 chilled water
2 eggs
A pinch of salt

For the filling:
500 g of sweetcorn
A handful of spring onions
Paprika
Chilli, salt, pepper and any other seasoning you might like to put in.
1 red onion


1. Combine the butter and the flour until the mixture looks like crumbs.
2. Whisk together egg and water. Make a well in the middle of the mixture and, little by little, add the eggs and water to the middle until the dough has combined. Wrap the dough in cling film and put it in the fridge for an hour.
3. After it has chilled, roll onto a floured surface until it is quite thin. I would advice 2 mm thickness. If the dough is too thick, it will end up being quite dry.
4. While the dough is chilling, chop the onions and fry onions and sweetcorn together then season with lots of paprika, chilli, salt and pepper.
5. Cut into rounds, ideally using a glass tumbler width for small empanadas, although you can make them bigger.
6. Coat the dough with melted butter and add a teaspoon of filling.
7. Fold the dough over so that you end up with something that looks a bit like ravioli. Seal with a fork and coat generously with the remaining egg and water mixture so the empanadas are nice and shiny.
8. Place on a baking tray and bake for 12 - 15 minutes at 180 C or bake until browned and shiny.

Recipe and photos by Julia Georgallis

The Travelling Forager
06.08.16

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(Above photo: a picnic on the beach on an island in Sweden...)

I’m currently sitting in a field on an island in Sweden (sounds wanky doesn’t it?). Whilst I’ve been here, camping and cooking for 20 designers on holiday, foraging has been on my mind. We’ve been trying to use things that are around us for project ideas, food ideas and fun ideas. So I’ve been thinking about this verb – ‘to forage.’ Meaning ‘to gather, especially food.’ A word that has its roots in one of the oldest of human activities, when we were hunter-gatherers finding food from wherever we could. Unfortunately, nowadays, to me, the word ‘forage’ is just a bit… well it’s also quite wanky really. The extent of my foraging in normal life stretches as far as gathering some blackberries from the bush next to where I park my car which has probably been pissed on by a million foxes. I don’t need to forage. There is an abundance of food where I live in supermarkets and markets and because people I know grow things and give me the occasional courgette or fig or apple. So really, it’s a bit unnecessary. However. There is another definition of foraging. ‘To forage - (of a person or animal) search widely for food or provisions.’ It’s a good definition, possibly one that is far more modern. I can get behind this, as my main premise in life is to travel and cook. I am, as the phrase says, always searching far AND wide for food and provisions. Wherever I go, my memories of places seem to be marked by the food that I ate there.

I’m a pretty lucky eater – I was raised by an extremely foodie family who cooked delicious food. I’ve had the pleasure of eating at some of the most amazing restaurants in the world. But still, some of the best food experiences have been the most basic, and usually whilst travelling. Catching and eating blue crabs in Western Australian with my best friend, sitting on the side of the road with my housemate and her parents in Sardinia drinking wine from a tiny plastic glass and eating sea urchins, the lady cooking spring onions and potatoes by the side of Lake Atitlan, horsemeat and aubergine burgers at 3 am on New Years Day again in Sardinia (but this time sitting in a boot of a car because there was no room in the actual car), the best muffin I’ve ever eaten in Floripa when I was really hung over, picking mussels in Cornwall and eating them with a bit of freshly made bread, a pot of molten fondue eaten with crumbly bread and a killer red wine on Lake Geneva or a smoked fish picnic on a rocky beach one cold summer in Sweden - the list goes on and on and on. And it would probably be a really boring list for anyone else other than me, anyway.

So I always wonder why. Why can’t I just say that the fancy restaurants are the best? I’m not trying to be contrary on purpose. But I’ve decided that I think at the heart of it all lies spontaneity that occurred when we used to actually forage - the joy of accidental food. Though our digestive systems are hardwired to like routine, our brains perhaps don’t yet. And so, we go to the supermarket once or twice a week with our regular shopping list and we buy our normal things and we eat three times a day and it’s all very nice. But then you find that the chili plant you bought from Tesco’s has actually grown some knobbly red demonstration or you find yourself hungry in Patagonia and stumbling across a hole in the wall that serves the biggest King Crabs you’ve ever seen - things like that. It deviates from the path of normal eating and stimulates some other thing in your brain that is probably attached to the pleasure bit on your tongue. So I’m still going to go to fancy restaurants, I think. But. I might just end up enjoying that blackberry crumble laced with fox wee that little bit more.

Words and images by Julia Georgallis

Sharing in Argentina
Monday 18.07.16

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Photo: A boiling water dispenser at a petrol station on the border between Uruguay and Argentina

Like a good friend Argentina is a warm and generous place. It offers a lot. There are waterfalls and ranches and vineyards and glaciers and cities and lakes and snow and beaches. It's for the greedy traveller, activity wise. And also food wise. But aside from the quality of food, Argentina's food culture has so much behind it symbolically – it is what happens when you mix generosity with South American magic.

This magic comes, I think, from the presence of so much belief, not necessarily in religion, but in all the small things. A lot of the Argentines I had the pleasure of meeting were full to the brim of charming idiosyncracies and rituals about everything – from the ratios of Fernet (an Italian imported digestif that tastes a bit like Jagermeister, drunk in Argentina with ice and coke) to how much sugar you should put in your mate. Food rituals permeate everyday life – Take Gnocchi Day (Dia de Noquis), for example. On the 29th of the month many put some money under a plate of gnocchi, usually the largest denomination carried at the time, to give prosperity in the month ahead. Gnocchi Day is a clue about the cultural influences on Arg – let’s not forget that the country is a mixture of colonising Spaniards and fleeing post WW2 Germans and, as the allusion to gnocchi suggests, Italians. Throw in a dictatorial government and an ever fluctuating economy and you get a real need for some kind of stability, some kind of pleasure in things being just so.

Something that is distinctly NOT European, however, is yerba mate (prounounced matt-eh). Argentinians, some Brazilians, Uruguayans, Paraguayans, a hand full of Bolivians and Southern Chileans can be found, at most times of day, toting a hot flask, mate cup, metal straw and a pack of yerba. (There are even hot water dispensers in public places like petrol stations JUST INCASE.) With one of the main things about home that I really missed being tea, mate very quickly became a replacement. A green, bitter, caffeinated bunch of herbs (a relative of the holly, first harvested by the Guarani tribe), it’s a bit like green tea on steroids. Drunk by packing a gourd shaped mug with herbs, filling it with hot water and sipping on a metal straw (you aren’t allowed to touch the straw with your hands!) until the water is empty. Once you’re done, refill the water and pass it to your neighbour. Mate, many explained to me, is about sharing ideas. When you drink mate, you have to have a conversation, after all you’re drinking out of the same cup. It’s quite an intimate process and often leads to D&Ms, heated debates or revelations. In this respect, it’s a bit MORE than tea (I will probably be exiled for saying this). In the same way, drinking tea is about the process of making, especially when it comes to making it for others (Do you take sugar? How much milk would you like? Bag in or out?), but tea can also be enjoyed alone, as a break or as a mode of procrastination. Mate, however, cannot. It’s just no fun without the presence of others.

A great many things in Argentina are done in groups or in pairs, not because they need to be, but because of the gesture. It took me a while to realise that portion sizes in restaurants are very often for two. Like tapas or mezes, you don’t just go out for eating’s sake. You eat out for the shared experience. Birthdays are another cause for gestures, one of the most traditional forms of birthday cake being Choco Torta. Now, this cake is an assembly job that could give you a serious heartattack, but it’s delicious – comprised of a jenga like layer of chocolate biscuits, dulce de leche, cream and milk. But. It can’t be bought. It HAS to be made. Yet again, the gesture of making it for someone is what gives it significance. Otherwise it is just another pile of sugar and milk.

And so. From Iguassu to Patagonia. Yes, there was lots of delightful food, but eating in this big country is mainly about companionship as well as taste. And it can be said in many ways that this is the same the world over. For cups of tea, a round of mate, a glass of something strong or making someone a cake all mean the same thing. When you offer someone these things you are also offering the equivalent of a pat on the back, a cuddle, a handshake or a little bit of courage to welcome them in or send them, happily, on their way.

Text and images by Julia Georgallis

Recipe: When life gives your tuna... Make ceviche!
Tuesday 28.06.16

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On a hot day in the sleepy surfing town of Puerto Escondido, some friends of mine followed some dolphins and stole some of their snacks. These snacks happened to be 8 kilos of tuna. I decided to make a feast of guacamole, carpaccio and ceviche with this copious amount of fresh fish for the 20 people in our merry band of travellers. We ate everything with our hands and tortilla chips and washed it all down with beers. Here is a guide to recreating part of our fishy feast, complete with homemade nachos, ceviche and how to drink like a Mexican…

Homemade tortilla chips
(Makes 15 large tortillas or millions of small ones)
All tortilla chips are, unsurprisingly are dehydrated tortillas. Therefore you can either reuse any tortillas you have in your house and stick them in the oven for 7-10 minutes at full temperature until they are crispy and then break them up into small pieces. Or make them yourself. This is a faff, but the nicest thing about this is that you can stick whichever herbs and spices you like in them and make them extra tasty – and they have no nasties in them!

Ingredients:
700 g Corn flour
The most important part of this recipe is the flour – you will need to look for corn flour or, ‘masa harina.’ The biggest brand is called ‘Maseca.’ Tortillas and tortilla chips are made from corn and therefore are a great, gluten free snack, if you’re that way inclined. You can get the flour from South American supermarkets, Holland and Barrett or you can order it online. You can use other other flours, but they're not as... well... corny.

500 g Water

Spices – Add what you like – I like a bit of lime, paprika and salt but you can experiment. Rosemary tortillas anyone? Don’t put too much in, a couple of pinches of each is enough.


1. Mix the water slowly into the corn flour until it is the consistency of playdough. This particular type of flour dries out very quickly. You might need to keep adding more water. Keep the dough covered with a wet towel at all times, and keep your hands wet.
2. Shape. You would usually use a tortilla press to shape the tortillas but, in the absence of one, roll them into a ball, then roll out onto a floured surface so they are roughly 2 -3 mm thick. Personally, I like very small tortillas so I cut mine with pastry cutters, but you can also roll them out as big as you like.
3. Coat a skillet or non-stick pan lightly with some cooking oil (I always use rapeseed), and fry the tortillas on a medium heat for 1 or 2 minutes on each side.


Ceviche
(Serves 5-6 people as a light snack or starter)

Ingredients:
400 g Tuna (you can also use any other meaty fish like salmon, trout or white fish).
2 small Mangos, 2 red onions, 15 g of fresh ginger
Chilli flakes, salt, pepper, paprika
Lots of lime (You’ll need about 16 limes for this - you can use lemons a cheaper, more accessible alternative)


1. To prepare the fish: You must, must, must use sea-fresh fish or ‘sushi grade’ fish to make ceviche or you might give yourself something nasty. The best way to do this is to buy the freshest fish you can and pop it in the freezer over night. Defrost before use. The cold kills any bacteria on the fish.
2. Chop up the tuna, mango into cubes, dice the onion and slice the ginger into thin strips.
3. Mix it together in a big bowl.
4. Add a handful of chilli, a pinch of paprika and salt and pepper. In a separate bowl, squeeze all the limes and then pour over the fish and veg.
5. Cover the bowl and leave in the fridge for at least an hour. Season to taste.
6. Scoop it up with your tortillas and fill your bellies.

Drink like a Mexican
Mexican beer was good and refreshing and I also took to Tequilla’s tough little cousin, Mezcal. In Mexico, these two go together like ham and cheese. Here’s how to drink them.

Ingredients:
A bottle of Mezcal and a Pilsner-style lager, something quite light like Sol or Corona will do. Lime, coarse salt, chilli flakes and a pinch of pepper


1. Cut a lime in half and spread it evenly around the rim of the glass or bottle.
2. In a shallow plate, mix the salt, pepper and chilli flakes then either dip your glass into use a spoon to coat the rim.
3. Squeeze the lime into the beer and pour yourself a shot of Mezcal.
4. Drink the Mezcal (in Mexico, FYI, they sip it rather than shot it) and then wash it down with your spicy, salty beer.

Recipe & Image by Julia Georgallis

The Backpacker's Food Directory: A Mexican Food Safari
Tuesday 21.06.16

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(From the top: Crazy grains, a feast of cochinita pibil, a tortilleria, an agave mound to make Mezcal and a market stall selling grasshoppers)

I am disappointed in Julia of the Past. I am disappointed in her because she had very little faith in Mexican food. I was all for the occasional burrito, but I always associated it with those Old El Paso fajita ready mix boxes I used to buy in order not to starve to death when I first left home at 18. How very wrong I was.

As was the theme for my entire time in Latin America, I stayed for far longer than expected in Mexico. A 10-day stop over turned into a 5 week Odyssey. Part of this reason was the fun-factor, the second was that I could eat delicious food for very little money. Food varies from region to region - I explored mainly the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico City, Chiapas and Oaxaca and all of them introduced me to new ways of eating (and drinking). From cactuses to hibiscus tea, here are my 8 favorite foodie experiences and a restaurant guide (non of these have websites, some don't even have addresses so I've attached either the Trip Advisor page or Google Maps for addresses and reviews)...

1. Champulines
Champulines are fried grasshoppers coated in chilli. They are vinegary, crunchy and filling. One particular night, we gorged on these with beers, Mezcal and potato salad. Delish. You can buy them by the kilo in the markets, particularly the Mercado de Benito Juarez, Oaxaca City (If grasshoppers don’t float your boat, you can pick up other specialities at market like Oaxaca cheese and courgette flowers)

2. Cochinita Pibil
Marinated, soft pulled-pork, served with tortillas and often eaten with spicy, fermented wonderfulness like chilli and onion pickles. The first time I tried this was in La Popular, Oaxaca. This restaurant also serves other brilliant Mexican specialities like Tlyayudas. I also had a fantastic Yucatan-style cochinita meal at Manjar Blanco, Merida.

3. Spicy Street Fruit
In most parts of Mexico, you can pick up packs of fruit coated in chilli and doused in lime from street vendors. My two favourite chilli vs fruit combos were mango and a white yam called ‘jicama.’

4. Ceviche
If you find yourself on the coast, I highly recommend you find a local fisherman who will take you out on his boat to catch some fish. If this is not for you however, stuff your face full of ceviche instead – raw, lime coated fish. I particularly enjoyed El Camello Jr, Tulum and El Costenito Cevicheria, Puerto Escondido – both of these restaurants also serve tasty grilled fish options.

5. Drinking in Mexico
I fell in love with drinking Mezcal, Tequilla’s tougher cousin, with my beer in the evenings. I particularly enjoyed going on a Mezcal tour in Oaxaca – there are lots and I don’t think it matters which one you do, just make sure you go! La Negrita Cantina, Merida is a great Mezcaleria and also serves fun, complementary bar snacks and the before-mentioned El Popular in Oaxaca redresses itself at night and turns into a ravey Mezcaleria. When I wasn’t drinking Mezcal, beers coated in chilli or tequila, however, I looked for non alcoholic ways to quench my thirst, either with Horchata (which can be found all over Latin America) - a rice-milk with cinnammon drink. or Jamaica, a cold brewed Hibiscus tea with sugar. Occasionally, I was also sent to sleep like a child with raw hot chocolate. All of these had fewer consequences than their alcoholic relatives.

6. Cactus
Cactuses are magical things. They can kill you, send you on a trip or satisfy your hunger. I ate a copious amount of the nopi variety, mainly as a bar snack but, most excellently, in burrito form. I had very few burritos during my trip but Burrito Amor, Tulum made me crazy - It was so good I walked for 40 minutes in the baking sun to make sure that this was my last meal in Mexico.

7. Tarts
The most loveable street vendor I encountered was a middle aged man in a shirt who walked up and down La Punta beach in Puerto Escondido selling tarts. These tarts are in fact the best form of baked good ever invented – usually filled with pineapple custard, cheese custard or coconut custard with a shortcrust pastry. On several occasions they saved my life after long walks to various beaches, invariable walks of shame and as a post 18-hour bus journey snack.

8. Puerto Escondido & Mazunte
I left this one until last as it's pretty hefty - I got utterly stuck in the surfer vortexes that are the Oaxacan beaches. There are certain meals that I ate on this coast that will quite literally haunt me forever:
Siddharta, Mazunte - The meal that changed my life. Me and a friend ate here for two days in a row – don’t order anything else just order the rice bowl (either with chicken or squid). I cried myself to sleep at the memory of this meal every night for weeks.
La Olita, Zicatela. - Hands down the best tacos in Puerto Escondido. Cosy vibes, Frida Kahlo on the wall, delicious food. Stellar job.
Black Velvet Fish Tacos, Zicatela - Known locally just as ‘fish tacos’ and serves interesting versions of Mexican classics. I had a delicious (but slightly pricier) "rice ball." (There isn't an address for this place let alone a map - but it's a little way passed the main beach strip in Zicatela, walking towards Rinconada on the opposite side of the beach.)
Congo - This has nothing to do with food but it IS the funnest salsa club ever, open every Wednesday. Lols will ensue and you WILL dance your little socks off.
Palma Negra - This micro brand sells homemade palitas (Mexican ice lollies) with naughty AND healthy options. They have their own shop on Zicatela beach and also stock their ice creams in Moringa, La Punta beach.
Moringa, La Punta – A health shop selling homemade treats, fresh produce and skin care to all the yogis, backpackers and hippies that saunter through the door. (Located next to Frutas y Verduras)

So there you have it - that's my list. I would invite you to enjoy the places that I discovered on my trip, but also look forward to hearing about all the holes in the walls, street vendors and new food adventures you manage to stumble across! hello@thebreadcompanion.com

Photos and text by Julia Georgallis

La Gozadera y La Comida - Good Time Food
Monday 13.06.16

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(Above photo: Walk along a mountain path to a beach along the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Covered in cactuses with a deep, blue sea)

I was only supposed to be gone for a couple of months, maximum three, I thought to myself. “You’ll extend,” people told me. “You’ll never want to come back” others said. I didn’t believe them. I left an icy London day in early January, terrified, 10 kg backpack in tow and resolute that I would retreat to my mum’s house in North London 6 weeks later. 6 weeks turned to 3 months. 3 months turned to 5. And then all of a sudden it was the end of May and I was happily rolling around the Americas, bare foot, with barely any luggage, pretty much saying yes to every opportunity that came my way and going wherever the wind took me. And then the tug. The tug of home. Summer had started in Europe. I missed my mum. I missed my cat. I missed bacon butties and really bad Chinese food and most of all, I missed a really good cup of tea. Also, I thought it was about time I put some shoes back on. And so, from somewhere in Mexico, I booked my flight back, happy to return. Over the last week, when I tell people that I have been travelling for five months, solo, in Latin America a few have asked, “why did you decide to do THAT?” This to me, is a silly question. Sillier perhaps than working on building a business for a year, getting that business to a point where all is going well, then abandoning it, packing up your belongings into your dad’s garage and leaving the country indefinitely.

Because I’ve always seen the value in travelling and I am fortunate to have been to a great many places. From hanging out in Italy for 8 months, to trekking in the Himalayas, to spending time on a boat near some Southern Pacific island…. These are not degrees or mortgages or Swiss army knives, but they’re useful experiences nonetheless. I travelled this time to South and Central America because, after having studied a lot and working a bit, I was painfully aware that life does not always give us the opportunity to take off and be free. Plus I really like empanadas. Travel is at the heart of The Bread Companion’s story. Founding a mobile, micro bakery meant that I could drive around finding out new things about bread from different parts of this lovely country. All I was really doing was swapping my trailer for a backpack.

We live in a community where all actions must always be justified. So I justified my voyage. My premise for travelling, then, was to “find recipes and study grains.” For the first 3 days I did just this in Buenos Aires, traipsing around actively LOOKING for bakeries to review. These were massive disappointments. So I gave up and had a bloody good time instead. And then that became the reason for travelling. And do you know what? That decision has led me to return with hundreds of recipes. In search of good food seemed to come hand in hand with in search of a good time. La comida – the cuisine. La gozadera – the good time. They fit together perfectly. My plans flew out the window. My route became haphazard and illogical. I missed flights, I didn’t post any blogs, I never made it to where I was supposed to make it to, you haven’t heard from me in months! But it didn’t matter, because in the end, I achieved what I was looking for – a new perspective, new recipes, new ways of eating – and with this, as it so often does, comes new ideas about how life should be lived, as food quite rightly is intertwined with daily life and daily rituals.

I am back now, full of guacamole, my skin considerably darker and I am ready to share the experiences and recipes that have made me happy and will make you happy in trying them out with your own hands and eating them with your own mouths. This is what the core of my brand is and this is the spirit that I go into the next few months with – have the heart of an explorer when you eat. Eat different things, try making different things, look at things in a different way. And most importantly, when you eat something, especially if you yourself has made it, don't think of it as a carb or as a protein or as something that you should or shouldn't be eating - think of it as an adventure, as a 'gozadera' and enjoy it.

Photos and text by Julia Georgallis

The Topical Pie
Monday 30.11.15

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Photo: A mega pie, roughly about the same size as my own face, that was made during our mince pie making workshop at The London Artisan market, Brick Lane)

The first mince pie of the year is a monumental moment for me. It marks the start of my favourite season. I blahdy love Christmas and I blahdy love that weird and ambiguous filling and a lovely flakey pastry. But every year, without fail, I find myself at some point being baffled by them. I mean, what on earth even is mince? I’ve been chasing the myth of the mince pie around for a while now, trying to get to the bottom of this bizarre piece of pastry. A few weeks ago, I began my mince pie offensive by running a two hour mince pie making workshop in Brick Lane as part of The London Artisan market. I taught people about the ingredients of a mince pie and passers by decorated their pies with different shaped pastry before being baked in my mobile oven. But I also armed myself with the story of the pie and gave participants a little history lesson as well.

I have always assumed that mince pies were an invention of the Victorians because, in my head, the Victorians invented Christmas (which is not true, but I like to imagine that it was perpetually Christmas in the 1800s). But it goes back much further than that – the mince pie came about after those returning from the Crusades brought back spices and recipes from the Levant in the middle ages. Middle Eastern cuisine is not afraid of combining meat with fruit – a winning combination, I think – but this was very new to Britain. And so, the original mince pie did actually contain mince meat, as well raisins, sultanas, currents, cinnamon and cloves – all ingredients that derive from the gastronomically rich Islamic world.

It’s a bit unclear how the pie jumped from import to being eaten exclusively at Christmas, but I assume it is because of its decadence and therefore only eaten on a special occasion. Mince pies were also huge and square, eaten as a meal rather than as a sweet snack. The squareness of the old mince pie was supposed to represent Jesus’ crib (I feel like this is a pretty vague and quite catastrophic metaphor here, but oh well). In the late 1600’s however, Oliver Cromwell got the hump with the mince pie and decided that they were heretical symbols of Catholicism, so he banned them. What a spoil-sport. When they resurfaced a few years later, they were much smaller and gradually the meat disappeared. There is no real reason given as to why they shrunk, but I have decided that the reason for their diminutive size is because they were still slightly clandestine and I envisage some kind of mince pie dealer hiding them under his coat, trying to flog them on the pie black market (that is 100% made up, by the way).

So there you have it – the mince pie is a Middle Eastern import, did contain meat, and shrunk because of its clandestine activity. Now, I know I’ve darted around some big issues here, such as what the Crusades actually were, the horrible things going on in the Middle East at the moment (mega understatement, I know) and also the tensions in our own society between various religious communities. I’ve done that on purpose, because at the end of the day, I’m a baker from North London not a politician and, let’s face it, I’m talking about pastry here. But, one thing I do keep thinking, and it seems frivolous, is that the mince pie is actually very topical right now, what with its history of something that came directly out of a war between Christianity and Islam. So, when someone offers you a mince pie this year perhaps a nice way to look at it, is as an excellent collaboration between two quite literally warring worlds and as a symbol of inter-culturalism. Forget about your shwarma, the mince pie is very quickly becoming one of my favourite Levantine imports.

Happy Christmas everyone. And remember, give pies a chance. (Sorry, I just couldn't help myself).

Writing by Julia Georgallis
Image by Farida Farooqi

A Pot Full of Love - Designers on Holiday Part II
Thursday 08.10.15

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Images above from top to bottom: the volvo and three mattresses that were waiting for us on the first night, pea soup with knackebrod bruschetta, Rye bread dough and my feet, banana cake with cream and beer, more aggressive home brewed beer bottles, cup of tea, baked pears and a cinnamon bun, smoked fish we ate by the beach

I promised another blog about my dreamy Swedish summer project but it really has taken me a bit of time to get there. 3 months on, as the winter draws in, I find myself daydreaming about sleeping outside in a Swedish field. However, the thing that I actually miss the most is not the camping - it’s the cooking. Just to recap, Designers on Holiday was a project run by Featuring Featuring, a London design duo who selected a group of people with specific skills to build a camper’s paradise this summer amongst the poppies and high grasses of Gotland, Sweden.

Now, look, not to sound like a recluse but I live on my own AND work on my own, the point being that I don’t cook for many people very often. It's generally meals for one. I don’t even have a cat I can feed. So maybe you’ll be surprised to read that, as well as building a bread oven, my task on the island was to cook for 20 people, three times a day for two weeks. I went into this quite naively. I had heard stories about the inaugural Designers on Holiday the year before, where everybody lived off things in tubes and Swedish hot dogs. Now I love tube-food and a hot dog as much as the next girl, but I couldn’t imagine living off pickled herring and reconstituted fish roe for two weeks, not least because we would probably have come back with scurvy. So when I saw that there was an opening in the campsite for a mum and feeder, I decided to fill the position.

When we arrived in Gotland there was a volvo in a field, 3 mattresses and a community hall from WWII with a kitchen attached to it. Until the bread oven was built, I stationed myself in the hall’s kitchen. Cooking in someone else’s kitchen is funny at first. It’s like wearing someone else’s shoes. But the thing I immediately loved about this particular kitchen was its pots. Vast pots. Pots that I could have swum in. And so, I just needed a bit of time to accustom myself - then I jumped straight in (to the cooking, not the pots).

I’ve never cooked for that many people before. There were two key things that I learned almost immediately – one is to over season everything. The other is that the cheapest and easiest way to combat the hunger of a bunch of people who have been working outside all day is mainly with carbs and dairy. The produce was an absolute treat to cook with. The veg on Gotland, despite it being just from a supermarket, was knobbly, unperfect and fresh. The eggs and meat were given to us by Bokeslundsgården, a farm that supplies some of the best chefs in Sweden. And Gordon Bennett, the flour was amazing. Proper top banana flour. There was even a mill up the road from the campsite.

Working between the kitchen and my oven, spending my days thinking about what to cook next, I never got bored. And what I loved the most, was that despite all the space and all the places on the campsite people could have gone to hang out, the kitchen was always the place to be. I found that I knew exactly what was going on that particular day, even though I spent the least time outside (although having said that I did still spend quite a lot of time outdoors).

So because of the pot situation and the oven situation and sheer quantity of food to be cooked and people’s perpetual hunger, I got into a rhythm of cooking quite simple one pot dishes each day, followed by a baked dessert or dough related item (and there would usually be something green on the side). I enlisted people to chop and slice. My good friend Laylah gave me ideas for recipes and egged me on to season things more. After a while, we started to have the same thing for breakfast – a bircher muesli with cinnamon, honey and whatever fruit we could find with a lovely natural yog. We did revert to eating tubed and pickled things with glorious knackebrod for lunch, but it was great and scurvy free. And then at dinner, we’d all sit down together under a tree or out by the oven on a long table with candles and share what had happened during the day. Sometimes we picnicked on the beach, or built a fire and melted chocolate and marshmallows. But wherever we were eating, we were still sharing a big pot, a big table and a big adventure.

Writing & images by Julia Georgallis