Cantina do Spade: My favourite Venetian restaurant

IMG_6793I’m by no means qualified to say it’s the best restaurant in Venice (you’d have to be there a pretty long time to make that call), but I’d definitely put money on this one coming close.

IMG_6788I ate a lot of really shit food in Venice. I’d been told to avoid eating any where near anything touristy, and that advice certainly did hold. I had also learned that it is, in fact, possible for italians to screw up pizza. After so many dismal meals I tried my utmost to find the most quaint, authentic looking little spot, well off the beaten track. Cantina do Spade was it, catching my eye mostly because of the plate of seafood risotto and wine for €9 advertised outside.IMG_6789

It was a truly delicious meal, a great price, fantastic wine and everything else coming out of the kitchen looked fabulous. The sole downside of the experience was the old man knocking back grappa at the counter hassling me for being there alone, as though I hadn’t noticed I was in a city almost entirely crammed with couples! Or perhaps it was the drinking alone in the middle of the day part… Hypocrite.

Berenjenas Fritas con Miel

My slightly less glamorous attempt

My slightly less glamorous attempt

The first time I tried this simple yet amazing spanish tapas creation was at Casa Marcos in Villaverde, Fuerteventura, at what is currently still my number one restaurant in all of Europe. The place was pure magic, in so many ways. Great food, decor, service, wine, prices, sizes, oh and did I mention? The food was amazing.IMG_5017 (480x640)

One of the items we ordered, on the recommendation of the waiter (who I think was also the owner) was ‘Berenjenas Fritas Con Miel’ – also known as fried eggplant with honey. More than just a mere “what do you recommend,” the whole service model was for the waiter to bring out a chalk board of their (continually changing) menu items, put it on a chair and talk you through each one. More than just translating what they were, it was a conversation about exactly what we felt like and what each meal was and very nearly a counselling session on our culinary hopes and dreams. You could imagine if it was a concept restaurant somewhere like L.A. he’d be wearing a name badge that said “Food Consultant.” Luckily for us we were on the very definition of a dessert island (there’s actually only sand on the beaches because it gradually blew over from Africa).

That's the look you get when you know you're about to have an amazing feed

That’s the look you get when you know you’re about to have an amazing feed

So we indulged in some delicious, slightly crispy, fried eggplant slices, drizzled with tasty local honey. Having never been the greatest fan of eggplants, I was pleasantly surprised at how tasty and yet simple it was.

I was reminded once again of this dish more recently at a tapas restuarant in Copenhagen called “El Porron.” The food was great, and is once again restoring my faith in Spanish food (until that restuarant in Fuerteventura I’d been rather quite disappointed in Spanish Cuisine). Equally tasty (and filling me with nostalgia for the extremely relaxing time I had in the Canary Islands), I decided that now that I have my own kitchen, the budget for experimental cooking and a stocked pantry for what feels like the first time in over a year I’d hunt down a recipe and try them out myself.

Actually my first attempt was “how hard can it be? Fry a slice of eggplant, put honey on it.” But alas, there is more skill required, as I ended up with a pile of eggplant-y mush covered in honey. As it turns out you have to get the moisture out of the eggplant slices, and put a little flour on them first. The trick to removing the moisture is to either just squeeze them out, or to sprinkle some salt over them and leave them for and hour on a paper towel (the salt draws the water out) and then squeeze them. Another recipe also suggested soaking them in milk to ‘remove the bitterness’ and then ringing out the slices.

Lucky for me one eggplant is about 3 portion sizes, so got two more chances to redeem myself. I tried the milk option next, which didn’t really work that much better I thought, and then the salt option. I learnt that you really should be careful to sprinkle as little salt as possible – I overshot the mark on one of the eggplant slices and felt like I’d bitten into the ocean when it was time to eat them. But as far as getting crispy eggplant slices, it was definitely the best method.

Next, dip them in flour (I used buckwheat flour to keep it gluten free, which worked fine) and then fry. I also used coconut oil, which I think works pretty well for the sweet/savoury combination. Finally, place on a paper towel to soak up excess oil, then drizzle with honey when you serve. Apart from waiting for the slices to dry out (which can be hurried along by just skipping the salt and ringing them out) it was quick, easy and super delicious. It seems the flour really is necessary, and perhaps wheat flour would have been more effective, but a gluten free alternative worked perfectly fine.

Verdict: Easy, novel and tasty. Nostalgia made it even more so.IMG_5021 (640x480) IMG_5019 (640x480)

356. Grand Place

IMG_5820 (640x480)The tourist hub of Brussels, Grand Place is definitely a site worth seeing. Though only briefly and whilst holding on to all your valuables. The whole area was a pedestrian zone completely filled with cafes, bars, shops, and basically all things Belgian and touristy. Turn in any direction and you will easily spot waffles, frites, moules frites, Belgian Beer, including the very close Delirium, hosting the best beers in the world (I’m still sceptical), and a tonne of chocolate/sweet shops. Writing that wee list has made me realise how well I did at the culinary bucket list that is Belgium (how they are not all obese I’ll never know). The Mannekin Pis is also handy. Other cool things in the city are a train ride away though unfortunately.

I was lucky enough to see it both when the flower carpet was happening, and without. It seemed to me to be halfway between the buildings along the canals of Amsterdam and the rest of Brussels being more like Vienna. A good combo I thought, though the side streets were definitely more fun:

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352. Belgian Waffles

The magical waffle itself

The magical waffle itself, in all its sugary glory

My first belgian waffle was just the most amazing thing ever. I didn’t realise that proper belgian waffles are actually made from a ball of dough, rather than a batter like pancakes. It makes for soft, stretchy, sugary, slightly chewy deliciousness. I was surprised in its quality, being from a festival stall, where generally the monopoly factor means all the food is crap.

Problem was, I wasn’t sure if I was being the most objective judge of taste, seeing as how it was 1:30am at a music festival. At that time/place anything could taste that amazing!

So of course I had to make another go at it. The bar had been set high, so I tried out some waffles at one of the Häagen Dazs cafes that seemed to be all over Brussels with people always sitting outside eating tasty looking waffle creations. Sadly it was really average (although the icecream was tasty) and I decided I should probably give up on my dream of ever enjoying a waffle as much. Unless I can somehow recreate the same combination of extreme hunger, slight drunkenness, the end of a great day of music and really low expecations of the food I was about to get…

Looks can be deceiving

Looks can be deceiving

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Redemption

349. Brusselicious 2012 in the Brussels Park

As part of the Brusselicious Food festical, a bunch of artists had made huge displays on a number of fixed, food related shapes in the Brussels park. For example there were mussels, chocolates, chips etc, with different artist’s creative impressions. It was quite cool, but a shame I went there as it was getting dark as the photos don’t quite do it justice!

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346. Belgian/French Fries

IMG_5766 (480x640)Belgium is apparently famous for its “French” Fries, or “Frites,” given they originated there. I had heard most of the touristy places were quite hit and miss, and had read many a blog providing directions to obscure spots where you can find the best ones. But I thought to myself, how hard is it to make some fries? It reminded me of a certain friend who gets a little nervous about whether or not he is going to get a good meal whilst travelling, and he really likes his food. So whenever he tried something different or new, he would always get fries on the side, saying “You can’t f*ck up fries!”

To be fair the, the typical fries belgium is famous for are double fried which apparently adds to the deliciousness. The ones I tried were just from a little stall near the main square and were pretty tasty. I particularly enjoyed the millions of sauces available, treating myself to the recommended curry sauce, and my trusty old favourite, aioli. ‘Fraid you just can’t beat a good aioli, and it was the winner on the day!IMG_5768 (480x640) IMG_5767 (640x480) IMG_5765 (640x480)

345. Moules Frites

Belgium is a fantastic place to go for cuisine. Managing to be famous for Chocolate, Fries, Beer, Waffles and in Brussels, Mussels and Fries or Moules Frites.

All around the market square there are plenty of restaurants with deals going on. I’d just made a friend in my hostel which was handy, because I wanted to go sample the Best Beer In The World but wasn’t sure how appropriate it was to go on my own! After a few large pints it was definitely time for a feed, and what better opportunity to tick off this culinary bucket list item, At the restaurant we picked, which had a deal going for €8 for mussels, fries and a glass of wine, we were promptly seated at the tiniest little romantic date sized table and served a shared bowl. Mildly awkward given we’d only just met, but hilarious none the less! I was also greatly entertained by the fact that this city was famous for its mussels, and yet they were the tiniest most flavourless muscles I’d ever had, in comparison to what I’m used to in New Zealand anyway! But then again that could have had something to do with the price we were paying.IMG_5236 (640x480) IMG_5239 (640x480) IMG_5238 (640x480)

335. Tapas Heaven

Barcelona proved to be really disappointing as far as cuisine goes. Being a big paella fan, I had sort of made an assumption that like most countries, there would be some great local cuisine to try. As it turned out, Barcelona was choc full of tourist trap style restuarants. Our one attempt at paella turned out to essentially be very dry, microwave reheated rice that was so flavourless it may as well have just had yellow food colouring in it. No saffron to be found there! (which, to be fair doesn’t actually make the rice go yellow, so if you see a yellow paella it will usually just be flavoured with tumeric and thus not be very authentic). Aside from that, local food seemed to just be baguettes with various cured meats in them (AKA not very exciting). Special commendation, however, is awarded to spanish fritatas (potato omelette), often also found in a baguette. Being essentially a carb sandwich, it was definitely a one-time thing, though.

Just as I was about to give up all hope on Spanish food (somewhere between my really average empanada experience and being stuck at Barcelona airport with nothing but dry baguettes. Actually I’m still not over my crap empanada. I mean really, how can you screw up a pie?!), we discovered the most amazing, heavenly, delicious, excellent, [insert adjectives conveying deliciousness and awe here] tapas restaurant in Vilaverde. From goats cheese stuffed bell peppers to super tasty egg plant fritters, to local seafood, the entire menu (which turned up on a giant blackboard  in the seat next to us, and was recited/translated by the restaurant owner), an entire world of gourmet creations I have never seen anywhere else was opened up for us. The fact that most of the meals were meals I’d never actually eaten was particularly novel, as for the most part when you eat out, although a meal is delicious it is usually just a variation on a theme you have encountered many times before. Later on in Corralejo we found another excellent Tapas restuarant

Being the chief export, goats cheese was a huge recurring theme in many of the meals, and it was actually a lot more delicious than anticipated! Most of my previous goats cheese experiences have involved a wierd musty aftertaste, but that was pleasantly lacking in Fuerteventuran goats cheese which was more like haloumi than any goats cheese I’ve ever tasted.

331. Azul Fit Yoga Retreat

Fuertevntura

At last, about 28 hours later than expected, we arrived in Fuerteventura and headed to the “Azul Fit” yoga retreat. It consists of a small villa about 30mins or so out of Corralejo, the main town on the island. We wound up there after we went in search of somewhere we could chill out by the beach, do some surf lessons and easily/cheaply fly there between leaving London and heading to Brussels for a music festival. Claire and I also happen to be growing yoga fans, so when we discovered this place we were quite excited!

It turned out to be just the most amazing and relaxing week I have ever had. Despite intermissions of rather gruelling surf lessons, mountain biking and volcano climbing, there was plenty of time for sunbathing by the pool and book reading. By the end of the week we had built up to doing about 3 hours of yoga and pilates per day, and coupled with the delicious, healthy organic food on offer I cannot recall a time in my life when I have felt healthier! It was just the recharge we needed after the dramas we had had, and a great escape from being in big cities. As Claire and I took up every opportunity to adventure around and do activities, we realised we most definitely were living up to the adventurous kiwi stereotypes! Travel is fun and I’ve loved seeing so many great places that I’ve heard so much about, but I definitely came to the realisation that my idea of a holiday involves as few people and as much nature as possible!

The staff there were also absolutely fantastic. They even let us stay an extra night for free because of our delayed flight which was really sweet and totally unnecessary. It was quite a small, intimate place, and we got on really well with all the girls there (it was all girls that particular week, and not many males in general, usually). The main chef, Jo, made the most amazing, delicious meals, all of which were vegetarian and easily gluten/dairy free. It was really inspirational in terms of creative items on the menu that were really tasty and left me feeling really great by the end of the week. She sent us some of her recipes from the week which I have since made with great success, and she now has a cookbook available which I will most definitely be purchasing once I’m done travelling around. It was a great reminder of the huge difference I feel when I cut out gluten and dairy especially…

I definitely couldn’t recommend the place any higher, it was such an awesome way to relax and unwind, particularly if yoga/surfing/mountain biking is your thing. And compared to its rivals in places like Bali, it was a really cheap offer. We actually mentioned that to the owners, but they were more concerned with being accessible to more people than pitching themselves to the Eat-Pray-Love crowd and charging through the roof. Oh and did I mention how lovely they were?IMG_5090 (480x640) IMG_5089 (480x640) IMG_5088 (480x640) IMG_5086 (640x480) IMG_5084 (480x640) IMG_5083 (640x480) IMG_5081 (640x480) IMG_5079 (640x480) IMG_5031 (640x480) IMG_4923 (640x480) IMG_4910 (640x480)