Melbourne Food and Wine Festival – Balinese “Market Tour to Plate” Cooking Class

Turmeric galangal spiced king prawns with betel leaves and nasi goreng - Balinese 'Market Tour to Plate', Spice Bazaar

I’m probably one of the few remaining Aussies that has yet to visit Bali. It’s a place that I’m hoping I’ll get to experience in the future but in the meantime, the Balinese “Market Tour to Plate” cooking class which was part of the recent Melbourne Food and Wine Festival programme, gave me the opportunity to indulge in Balinese cuisine without physically leaving the city limits.

The event had been originally designed to meet at the Footscray market, to walk through the myriad of stalls and shops to familiarise ourselves with the key ingredients and produce used in Balinese cooking. However as luck would have it, a deluge of torrential rain was forecast during the time we were to walk from the market towards the Spice Bazaar Cooking School in nearby Seddon. So the day started a little later than previously scheduled, in the warmth of the cooking school, where we were greeted with a glass of Wood Park Prosecco upon arrival.

Our hosts, Pat and Jill, introduced the menu and proceedings for the day whilst we enjoyed sampling some traditional Balinese snacks of rice crackers, accompanied with satay sauce, spicy sambal olek and sambal hijau, and delicious, warm corn fritters served straight from the stove top.

Ingeniously, Pat and Jill recreated the semblance of a market by carefully curating the spices, herbs, vegetables and ingredients typically found in the cuisine and in the selected recipes that we would be attempting to recreate during the class.

The first dish to be prepared was the Lamb Rendang (Rendang Daging) which naturally needed the longest time to cook. Cooking in teams of four to five, we set about the task of preparing all the individual ingredients in order to create one of the first spice pastes of the day.

Lamb Rendang spice paste - Balinese 'Market Tour to Plate', Spice Bazaar
Lamb Rendang spice paste – Balinese ‘Market Tour to Plate’, Spice Bazaar

Once the paste had been processed with the aid of a blender and quickly heated in a pan, it was time to add the coconut milk and meat and leave the dish to slowly cook for the next few hours.

With the lamb slowly simmering on the stove, the next order of business was to create another type of spice paste for the Balinese spiced pork dish (Be Celeng Base Manis). Creating a simple paste of shallots, garlic, ginger and oil, the colourful paste slowly transformed into a thicker and darker colour once the pork, kecap manis (sweet soy sauce) and soy sauce was added to the pot.

This dish also required two to three hours of cooking time on a gentle simmer, allowing us to leave the pork to develop further and turn our hand to another recipe.

Having completed the preparation of the meat dishes in the banquet, it was time to concentrate on cooking the fish and seafood components of our meal. The next recipe also involved creating another spice paste, but as it was intended as a marinade for the prawns, there were four times as many ingredients than the previous dish. With everyone contributing to the blender with the fresh roots and rhizomes typically found in Asian cuisine, we got to work on slicing quantities of turmeric, galangal, ginger, lemongrass, garlic, shallots and chillies before adding the dry spices.

Once the paste had been processed, it required a longer cooking time than its predecessors in order to thicken and soften before being added to the prawns. While the paste was developing, we had an impromptu lesson in removing the entrails and outer shell of the prawns before threading them onto skewers and immersing them in delicious paste so as to let them marinate before our scheduled lunch.

And so we progressed onto the last but not least main dish of the day, Kaffir Lime Ginger Snapper cooked in banana leaf (Pepes Ikan). In order to prepare the dish, Pat demonstrated how to transform a rigid banana leaf into a flexible sealing agent, simply by placing it over a naked flame to release its fibres. By preparing another paste to act as marinade, each team got to work in preparing their banana leaves and fish fillings, ready to create a series of parcels for cooking. The beauty of these versatile fish parcels is that they could be either steamed, baked or barbecued as desired.

As the saying goes, “many hands make light work” and rather than individually preparing all the accompanying dishes and sauces for our banquet, the tasks of preparing the mango salsa and mango coulis, the fried Tempeh with sweet soy sauce (Tempe Kering Teri) and the green papaya salad were allocated amongst the three teams to prepare in readiness for lunch.

With the heavy rain beating against the windows and the tempting aromas of succulent lamb, pork and prawns filling our nostrils, there was one last dish to prepare before sitting down to a delicious five-course banquet – which was none other than the ubiquitous Indonesian dish of Nasi Goreng. Aside from finely chopping shallots and garlic to mix with the cooked rice, the complicated aspect of this dish was creating a thin omelette in a wok over high heat, and then dice and fold through the rice mixture.

As the time approached 3pm, everyone was well and truly ready to start plating up their dishes, commencing with the Turmeric galangal spiced king prawns served on top of fresh betel leaves and accompanied by the just-prepared Nasi Goreng. Naturally there were a lot of murmurs of appreciation as the beautifully presented prawns and nasi goreng made its way to each guest.

The beauty of this special event was being able to enjoy our prepared dishes with matched wines produced by Wood Park Wines, from the north-east Victorian wine region. The selected wine match for this particular dish was the ‘Monument Lane’ Roussanne (2015) from the King Valley. Roussanne is a French white varietal from the Northern Rhone area that few winemakers in both the Rutherglen and Alpine wine districts have been growing for the past decade. With aromas of green melon and fresh citrus on the nose, the creamy, soft texture of this wine was a welcome reward for our cooking endeavours and an excellent match for the oven baked prawns and crispy elements of the rice.

No sooner had the first glass of wine been depleted, Pat arrived at the table ready to pour the selected wine for the next dish which as ‘The Kilnhouses’ Semillon (2014) from the township of Porepunkah in the Alpine Valley. With a crisp, fruit driven character, the honeyed sweetness and creamy texture complemented the fruity sweetness and thicker texture of the mango coulis and soft fish. This dish was also visually spectacular in its colourful array and the added novelty of eating straight off a banana leaf gave it a sense of Balinese authenticity.

My heart leapt with joy as the selected wine changed from white to red when Pat started to pour the ‘Myrrhee’ Merlot (2013). Carefully matured in French Oak barriques over a twelve month period, this beautifully intense coloured purple-red wine, had rich dark fruit characteristics and a fine, medium-bodied tannic structure. The silky, smooth wine cut nicely through the soft-textured spiced pork and crispy, crunchy tempeh accompaniment. This dish was delightful with its rich, spiced gravy; melt-in-your-mouth pork; and soft bok choy and turmeric rice.

Balinese spiced pork, wilted bok choy and crispy tempeh - Balinese 'Market Tour to Plate', Spice Bazaar
Balinese spiced pork, wilted bok choy and crispy tempeh – Balinese ‘Market Tour to Plate’, Spice Bazaar

Believe it or not, there is still another dish to be served as Pat pours a unique offering of ‘Reserve’ Zinfandel (2013) from the King Valley wine region. Zinfandel (or ‘Zin’ as it is more affectionately known) is a red grape varietal that is commonly grown in North America although it is starting to gain some traction in Australia. In warmer climates, this grape exhibits blackberry, star anise and peppery characters although in cooler climates (much like North-East Victoria) the wine displays rich red fruit flavours of cherry and raspberry with hints of spice. What was interesting about this wine was its rich, syrup-like consistency, similar to that of a  fortified wine. The multi-faceted and complex wine was a perfect foil for the spiced and meaty flavours of the slow cooked Lamb Rendang. Accompanied with steamed rice and a flavourful green papaya salad, this dish was my highlight for the afternoon. The flavours and textures in the salad were a total revelation, from the inclusion of roasted peanuts and crispy shallots, to the finely shredded, fresh fruit which instantly became a match made in heaven with the rich lamb and full bodied wine.

After consuming four beautiful dishes over the course of an hour, a few people were starting to flag, unaware that the final dessert dish of Black sticky rice with palm sugar and salted cream (Burbur Injun) was also just about to be served. It makes sense that a fortified dessert wine of “Rutherglen” Muscat should be selected as a match with such an elegant dessert. With luscious aromas of raisins, dried figs and candied peel (think rich Christmas pudding), the syrupy, sweet texture of the wine matched the creaminess of the rice pudding and the thick coconut cream. I’m very much looking forward to attempting to cook this dessert for my next dinner party.

Black sticky rice with palm sugar and salted cream - Balinese 'Market Tour to Plate', Spice Bazaar
Black sticky rice with palm sugar and salted cream – Balinese ‘Market Tour to Plate’, Spice Bazaar

And just like that the party was over, with everyone fully sated from the numerous but delicious Balinese dishes consumed over the course of an afternoon. This class was an excellent way to gain an unique insight into a lesser-known cuisine and to also enjoy a select offering of some excellent wines from a regional boutique wine producer. Truth be told, this event has more than piqued my interest in exploring Bali as a potential culinary destination and I’m looking forward to perhaps discovering more of what this place to offer on one of Pat and Jill’s specialty food tours to the area.

Athens Walking Tours: Greek cooking class in an Athens tavern

Spanakopita

I like to try and take a cooking class whenever I travel, endeavouring to learn and understand more about the cuisine of the country that I’m visiting. But I must admit that after holidaying around Europe and eating at numerous restaurants for breakfast, lunch and dinner over the past eight weeks, I’m not entirely sure if I can remember how to cook. So with an equal sense of trepidation and excitement, I arrived at the Diavlos Tavern in the heart of Athens, eager to escape the late-afternoon thunderstorm and ready for my three-hour cooking lesson in Greek cuisine.

After meeting cooking instructor Fofi Olympidou outside the restaurant, our group of seven participants who were all coincidently international travellers like myself, went upstairs into a private room where the table had been laid with our individual workstations and aprons. I must admit that this is only the second cooking class that I’ve undertaken where you are seated for the entire session and my relaxed holiday vibe loved it!

Fofi started the session with an introduction to Greek cuisine and challenged us as to what our own understanding of traditional Greek fare was. For as long as I can remember I had somehow associated baklava with Greek food, probably because I see it served in Greek pastry shops and Greek restaurants back home in Melbourne. Fofi corrected that perception by commenting that baklava was actually a legacy from the Ottoman Empire, which has been assimilated into Greek cuisine, but is not considered to be traditionally Greek.

The traditional Greek menu for the evening was to be zucchini balls, tzatziki, dolmades, Greek salad, spanakopita, roast lamb with potatoes followed by a Greek yoghurt dessert. I’ve never prepared any of these dishes at home so I was really looking forward to participating in the end-to-end cooking process, all the way from the beginning to eating and enjoying the final result.

As per Greek tradition, we started with an aperitif of raki made from grapes, complemented with mezze, which is a term used to describe small serves of food to accompany drink. It was rather nice to begin the evening with something other than ouzo as aniseed is not my favourite flavour and I’ve been served quite a few glasses of this aperitif during my time in Greece. The raki was quite smooth to drink but with a powerful finish that you typically get from beverages with 45 per cent alcohol volume. I took note of Fofi’s advice to take small sips and enjoy with the mezze of bread, feta cheese, tomatoes and olives served on the table.

The dish taking the longest time to cook was the roast lamb with potatoes, which needed to be baked in the oven for approximately an hour and a half, so this naturally was the first recipe to be prepared for the evening. Fofi explained that sheep and goats are quite prevalent in the mountainous areas of Greece, therefore lamb is a meat that features predominantly in Greek cuisine. With one portion of lamb given to each one of us, we carefully followed Fofi’s verbal instructions by making several cuts into the meat and then filling each hole with a sliver of garlic, pinches of dried oregano, salt and pepper before placing back into the baking tray. Take careful note of the container of olive oil in the photos above which is almost full at this point in the evening.

Rather than getting up and washing our boards and utensils in the kitchen, there were bottles of vinegar and paper towel on the table that we could use to wipe down our individual preparation areas and knives, before starting to peel and cut potatoes into small portions for the next part of the dish. Topped with a dressing made from lemon juice and mustard, Fofi generously added more salt, pepper and oregano to the baking tray before liberally applying olive oil over the lamb with a little water and then covering in preparation for roasting.

With the lamb whisked away to be cooked in the oven, the next part of the lesson was to start the spanakopita which is a classic Greek dish not dissimilar to a cheese and spinach pie. Most of us are typically accustomed to buying and using ready-made sheets of filo pastry to make spanakopita at home, but Fofi assured us that it was relatively quick and easy to make our own pastry for this recipe.

Combining a simple mixture of flour, water and olive oil together in a large bowl, the dough began to take form and surprisingly a KitchenAid or Thermomix was not required other than some old-fashioned elbow grease. Most of us were given a small ball of dough to roll and then flatten into a circular shape that would be used to cover the base of the pie dish, which I must admit wasn’t an easy feat to achieve sitting down.

The next step was to start to chopping the herbs and vegetables for the filling and then spread over the pastry base before covering with the two remaining discs of pastry that had been set aside. One of the key ingredients of spanakopita is feta cheese which is traditionally made from either sheep or goats milk. Rather than cutting the cheese in preparation for the filling, Fofi gave some excellent advice on how the cheese should be grated instead so as to control the residual liquid content, in addition to some great tips for removing the excessive salty flavour typically found in purchased feta cheese.

Fofi demonstrated everything so beautifully, including cutting the top pastry layer into equal portions neatly without breaking through into the filling beneath. With a quick milk wash before being placed in the oven, another dish had been completed and all in the space of 15 minutes. Many hands make light work but I’m pretty positive it would take me five times as long to achieve a similar result in my own kitchen, but definitely worth a try at home.

The next dish to be prepared on the evening menu was the ever popular dolmades which I enjoy eating but have never made from scratch. Dolmades, or stuffed grape vine leaves, can be made with meat and rice, however the traditional version we were making had a rice and herb filling. Fofi first demonstrated how to lay the leaf on the board followed by the wrapping process before letting us reciprocate. My first dolma wasn’t too bad considering but the quality improved markedly with each new attempt. Once the saucepan had been filled with our own contributing efforts, Fofi added water and a few glugs of the obligatory olive oil to the dish before sending it downstairs to the kitchen to cook during the remainder of our lesson.

While there is a lot of meat in Greek cuisine, Fofi explained that stuffed vegetable dishes and the use of vegetables as an accompaniment to each meal, are also key to traditional Greek cooking. The next dish of zucchini balls is a popular inclusion on mezze platters and entrée courses and relatively simple to prepare. Apart from grating a few zucchinis and chopping spring onions, it was a matter of adding eggs, flour, herbs and cheese to create a dough-type mixture. The hard part of rolling the individual balls and deep-frying in olive oil (of course!) was best left to the kitchen staff down below!

The perfect accompaniment to crispy zucchini balls is naturally tzatziki, which is a mixture of thick Greek yoghurt, shredded cucumber and garlic. Because of its cool, creamy texture tzatziki is often paired with rich meat dishes or fried foods for added flavour and to assist with digestion, however it is also commonly served as a dip. The most identifiable ingredient in tzatziki tends to be the presence of finely minced, raw garlic and so for the quantity we were preparing to be served with our evening meal, everyone at the table was each given a glove of garlic to peel and chop for the bowl. When all the ingredients had been included, Fofi poured a very healthy amount of olive oil into the bowl before combining everything together into a smooth consistency. As if by magic, the first batch of zucchini balls arrived at our table, in time for us to try with the just finished bowl of tzatziki.

While we were busy devouring the zucchini balls and tzatziki with a glass of Greek white wine, Fofi started to prepare and cut the ingredients for horiatiki, or what we commonly refer to as a traditional Greek salad. This dish is essentially a meal in itself, consisting of tomatoes, cucumber, Kalamata olives, sliced red onion and capsicum (bell pepper), topped with feta cheese, dried oregano and olive oil, although variations of this salad will occasionally include capers.

Fofi explained that horiatiki served in restaurants should have a large slice of feta cheese on the top, as a way of demonstrating to the patrons that the cheese served in the salad has been freshly cut from the block and has not been recycled from a previous dish. Good to know!

Olives and olive oil are essentially the heart and soul of Greek cuisine. Olives are generally served at every single meal in Greece, even breakfast! Greece is the third largest producer of quality olive oil after Spain and Italy but is largest consumer of olive oil in the world. This fact has been well and truly demonstrated throughout the entire evening, as the olive oil container is now empty with Fofi continuing to generously pour any remaining liquid over the salad as a dressing.

And so now we had arrived at the final dish to be prepared for the evening, a Greek yoghurt dessert. According to Fofi, a good quality Greek yoghurt must have at least 10 per cent fat content – if it doesn’t, its not Greek yoghurt! Greek yoghurt is considered to be good for the digestion, particularly after consuming rich meat or fried foods, therefore it tends to be served with fresh or preserved fruit (which is also referred to as spoon sweets in Greece) for dessert.

This dessert is also a simple dish to prepare – strained Greek yoghurt, a can of sweetened condensed milk, grated rind and juice from a lemon, all combined together with a whisk. I don’t think I’ve ever made such an easier or tastier dessert in less than 10 minutes.

It’s hard to believe that three hours have already flown by and while the class was fun and informative, the real action begins as we head downstairs into the restaurant terrace to consume all the dishes that we had helped prepare.

Our banquet-style dinner started with the freshly made horiatiki, followed by the zucchini balls and tzatziki dip, and the dolmades. The new batch of zucchini balls were more crispier than our first sample, no doubt from having benefited from a longer stint in the deep-fryer, matched nicely with the sharp and creamy tang of the tzatziki.

Fresh out of the pan, the warm dolmades were glistening in the candlelight, with a sleek sheen from its prolonged olive oil bath. The texture of the cooked rice combined with the moist grape leaves and the soft, subtle flavour of dill was absolutely delicious and I started to question whether I would ever consider purchasing dolmades again.

The same could also be said for the next course of spanakopita, with the crispy, thicker-style pastry that we had helped to prepare. The crunchy and crisp texture of the pie pastry was definitely more flavourful than its commercial counterparts and almost a complete meal in itself.

Then the main course of roast lamb and potatoes that I had been eagerly anticipating arrived at the table. The slow-cooked meat and soft, lemon and herb-flavoured potatoes was definitely a highlight but it was certainly a struggle to consume my allocated portion of lamb following all the previous courses. And by way of demonstration that Greek yoghurt is the answer to all digestive ailments, the chilled sweet yoghurt dessert was served at the conclusion of the evening.

I can’t remember attending such an informative cooking class and preparing a range of delicious recipes with a simple list of ingredients and relatively easy cooking processes. With everything demonstrated and explained so effectively, I’m looking forward to going home again and preparing my own traditional Greek dinner for my friends and family.

http://www.athenswalkingtours.gr/Cooking-Lessons

https://www.tripadvisor.com.au/AttractionProductDetail?product=2906COOKING&d=265865&aidSuffix=xsell&partner=Viator

 

My Big Fat Greek Waistline – A culinary odyssey around Greece from A to Z

I love Greek food. One of my fondest childhood memories is smashing plates on the floor at Albury’s only Greek restaurant with my family. And while that restaurant’s existence was unfortunately unable to rival that of the Parthenon, my love for Greek cuisine continues to endure.

The Parthenon, Acropolis in Athens
The Parthenon, Acropolis in Athens

I recall on my previous visit to Greece sixteen years ago that there was a lot of pastitsio on the daily menu, primarily because it was cheap and ready made. On this trip however I was intent on reacquainting myself with some of Greece’s other well known dishes, and looking forward to trying new ones. The following is not a definitive list of Greek cuisine but just a small foray into the food I enjoyed on my holiday, using the Greek alphabet as my guide:

A is for Anise which is the predominant flavour found in the traditional Greek aperitif of ouzo. Whilst my palate is still yet to appreciate the distinctive taste of anise, in many of the restaurants that I visited during my holiday, legendary Greek hospitality ensured that a shot of ouzo was placed in front of me before I started my meal. It feels somewhat appropriate to begin with an aperitif before I eat my way around Greece. Opa!

B is for Bougatsa. (You probably thought that I would say baklava and yes, I definitely ate plenty of that as well, but I’ve been reliably informed that baklava is not traditionally Greek but rather a legacy from the Ottoman Empire).

Bougatsa is a pastry that can be either sweet or savoury, consisting of warm semolina custard or soft creamy cheese between layers of filo pastry. If I was down to my last Euro, I would probably buy a tray full of this … or a glass of wine. It’s a tough call. Let’s just say that my heart would skip a beat whenever I saw this at the breakfast buffet.

C is for Cheese. Whilst there are many varieties and differing textures of cheese found in Greek cuisine (Feta, Haloumi, Graviera, etc.) my favourite cheese dish would undoubtedly be saganaki. Traditionally served as an appetiser, this dish derives its name from the small frying pan in which Kefalograviera cheese is quickly cooked over a high heat and served with fresh lemon. Have your knives at the ready so you can successfully fight off your friends for a portion while it’s still hot.

D is for Dolmades. Served hot or cold, dolmades are grape leaves stuffed with rice and fresh herbs (usually dill, which is my favourite herb) although they can also be filled with minced meat and rice. Deceptively small, dolmades are almost a meal in themselves and are always a hit when they appear on a mezze platter.

Dolmades
Dolmades – stuffed grape leaves

E is for Eggplant which is the main ingredient in one of my favourite Greek dishes, moussaka. Moussaka is a layered pie made with sliced fried potatoes and eggplant, tomato-based sauce, spiced minced meat topped with béchamel and cheese. The more memorable versions of moussaka that I enjoyed had identifiable hints of cinnamon and nutmeg in the meat filling. But not even the best Greek chefs can compete with my sister Nicole’s version because hers is always made with love.

F is for Fava. Fava originates from the island of Santorini and is a warm purée of cooked yellow split peas topped with finely chopped red onion. It can be served as an appetiser, mezze or accompaniment to the main meal and is really quite tasty. Although be aware that it is made with a healthy dose of garlic, so in conjunction with the fresh onion topping, you are guaranteed to repel any vampires and gypsies in your immediate vicinity for at least 48 hours.

Fava - a puree made from yellow split peas
Fava – a puree made from yellow split peas

G is for Gyros. Pronounced with a “Y”, the word “Gyro” means “turn” in Greek referring to the meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie (generally pork or chicken) which is then carved from the spit and served wrapped in pita together with cucumber, tomato, onion, tzatziki and chips inside. Gyros are the ultimate Greek version of fast food and I found a couple of great places selling these in Athens for only 2-3 Euros a piece.

H is for Horiatki or what you and I commonly know as a traditional Greek salad. This is essentially a meal in itself, consisting of tomatoes, cucumber, Kalamata olives, sliced onion and capsicum, topped with feta cheese, dried oregano and olive oil. Sometimes variations of this salad will also include capers. I recently learnt that Greek salad served in restaurants should have a large slice of feta cheese on top in order to show the patrons that the cheese used in the salad is freshly cut from the block and not recycled from another dish!

I is for Ithaka, which is a poem written by the Greek poet, Constantine P. Cavafy. While you can’t physically eat the Ithaka, if you read this poem and digest the words you will find your soul nourished and your perspective renewed, particularly if you are still travelling. I had the privilege to hear the Ithaka at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, beautifully narrated in English by Sean Connery and accompanied to music by Greek composer Vangelis. It was especially poignant being in the final days of my holiday and feeling somewhat fatigued, listening to the Ithaka revived me again.

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National Archaeological Museum in Athens

J is for … The letter “J” in the Greek language doesn’t actually exist as it originates from the Latin or English alphabets. It has a few different sound variations when incorporated into the Greek alphabet but many Europeans pronounce “J” as “Y”. Therefore my “J” equivalent is “Yamas!” which is an abbreviation for the Greek phrase “To your health!” or “Cheers!” which I ended up saying quite often on this trip. Yamas!

K is for Kebabs which is a general term describing skewered food such as souvlaki, a popular Greek fast food consisting of grilled small pieces of meat such as chicken or pork (or vegetables). It can also be served on a full plate with chips or fried potatoes and pita. One of exciting things about ordering souvlaki is that no two dishes are ever the same!

L is for Lamb. One of my favourite movie quotes comes from My Big Fat Greek Wedding – “What do you mean he don’t eat meat? That’s okay. I make lamb”. While there are many variations on how lamb is cooked in Greek cuisine, I found it very hard to pass by the oven-baked lamb (kleftiko) with potatoes whenever I saw it on the menu.

M is for Mezze or a Mixed Grill platter. Why settle for just one dish when you can try new things and enjoy smaller samples of all your favourites? Better still, food always tastes better when shared and enjoyed with friends.

N is for Nutella … or is it? The Greeks have their own version of chocolate hazelnut spread called Merenda and many of the hotels in Greece have large bowls of this available on the breakfast buffet. My friend Julie was accustomed to mixing spoonfuls of hazelnut spread into her yoghurt each morning while I just ate a spoonful of it every now and again because it’s awesome.

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Greek hazelnut and cocoa spread

O is for Octopus. The Hellenic Republic, which is another name for Greece, is surrounded by four different bodies of water (the Aegean, Ionian, Cretan and Mediterranean seas) so it’s little wonder that fish and seafood play a prominent role in Greek cuisine. Octopus is usually served grilled or marinated and features as part of a mezze or main meal. Squid (or calamari) is also a favourite often arriving on your plate battered and fried, but there is also plenty of fresh fish, mussels and shrimp readily available at most restaurants. It’s not unusual to see a multitude of sardines and anchovies as well as whole bream, snapper and mullet trying to avoid eye contact as you pass by the display case.

P is for Pita. There is something unique and special about Greek pita – a little smaller and softer in texture than its foreign counterparts – it tastes more like bread and is usually my downfall when brought out to the table, especially accompanied by eggplant dip or an olive tapenade. Some Greek restaurants in Australia also lightly fry the pita in a pan with olive oil before serving … extremely dangerous for the waistline.

Q is for … actually there is no such letter in the Greek alphabet! There are 24 letters in the Greek alphabet as opposed to the 26 letters in the English alphabet. A big thank-you to my friend Kiri for being my online Wiki expert for all things Greek!

R is for Rizogalo or rice pudding. When I first saw small bowls of this at the breakfast buffet, I thought “Seriously?” and avoided it like the plague. Then one particular morning I decided to try some and didn’t look back. Commonly sprinkled with cinnamon, the version I bought at a local bakery in Athens tasted like a cross between a warm baked custard and cream brûlée. Yummy!

S is for Spanakopita. My Mum makes spanakopita regularly at home in Australia, which essentially is a savoury pastry or pie, very similar to a borek, with spinach and feta cheese filling. The handmade filo pastry often used in Greece is a little thicker than the commercial version bought from my local supermarket back home in Melbourne, but no matter where you eat spanakopita, it’s delicious especially when eaten with a salad.

T is for Tzatziki which is a mixture of yoghurt, shredded cucumber and garlic that often accompanies grilled meat dishes or is served by itself as a dip. It’s cool, creamy with a bit of a tangy, sharp finish from the added vinegar or lemon juice but like most things, a little bit goes a long way.

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Tzatziki with zucchini ball

U is for Ubiquitous and what could be more prevalent in Greek cuisine than olives and olive oil. Travelling around Greece, you will see olives on the breakfast buffet; olives and olive oil in your salad; olive groves as far as the eye can see; your food swimming in a sea of olive oil; souvenirs made from every conceivable part of an olive tree; olive motifs on every menu, napkin and tablecloth in addition to the cans of olive oil and vacuum-sealed bags of olives in gift shops just begging to be taken home. Greece is the third largest producer of quality olive oil after Spain and Italy but is the largest consumer of olive oil in the world. So embrace your inner Greek and immerse yourself in the olive universe!

V is for Vegetables. Don’t be fooled by the plethora of meat and seafood dishes in Greek cuisine as there are a number of excellent vegetable dishes on every menu. Tomatoes and capsicum (peppers) stuffed with rice is known as Yemista and is not only delicious but also filling. Another one of my favourites is stuffed cabbage rolls which is called Lahanodolmades, although it does contain minced meat so not strictly vegetarian. Typically there is also okra, zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes and potatoes served as a side to every meal.

W is for Wine (not Windex!). Greece is known for producing some excellent wines and the house wines served in most tavernas and restaurants is not only drinkable but also extremely cheap. Wandering around Athens over the weekend, I happened to discover some very chic and beautifully designed wine bars hidden in the backstreets near my hotel, serving amazing wines by the glass. Make sure you try assyrtiko which is a white grape varietal indigenous to the island of Santorini. The 2011 Karipidis Syrah from the Thessaly region was also a standout favourite of mine. Yamas!

X is for Xynotyri. Erin, our tour director, ordered this for us to try in a lovely little taverna on the island of Rhodes. Xynotyri, which literally means “sour cheese” is an unpasteurised whey cheese made from sheep or goat’s milk. The fresh goat’s milk cheese which we enjoyed had a creamy, thick yoghurt consistency and was used as a spread although as this cheese matures, it becomes hard and flaky but supposedly has great health benefits.

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Xynotyri from Oionos Greek Taverna, Rhodes

Y is for Yoghurt. All thoughts of going on a diet are dismissed when you see very large bowls of Greek yoghurt containing at least 10 per cent fat content every morning for breakfast. Usually the yoghurt is so thick and creamy that you need some serious muscle power to shake just a dollop into your own bowl. Greek yoghurt is apparently good for the digestion particularly after consuming rich meat or fried foods. Often served as a dessert with preserved fruit or whipped together with cream, good Greek yoghurt is one of those universal substances that seems to appear at every meal.

Z is for Zucchini. Whether it be deep-fried zucchini balls (kolokythokeftedes), pan-fried slices of zucchini or stuffed zucchini, the Greeks know how it make this vegetable taste just that little bit better.

And so now I have come to the end of my own culinary odyssey and time in Greece. Although I’m looking forward to going home and practising some of the recipes I learnt at a cooking class in Athens, a recent visit to the historic site of Olympia and hearing about the ancient gymnasium and athletic rituals has inspired me to start training for the 2020 games!

Real Food Adventure – Macedonia and Montenegro

Homemade baklava and hot tea at Duf waterfall - Real Food Adventure Macedonia and Montenegro

I confess – I love food and I’m often guilty of having more than my fair share. I can conquer a buffet like no one’s business but I have to tell you that as I write this post, the prospect of going downstairs to meet my tour group for breakfast is making me ill. I don’t think I can eat anything, anymore. I’ve just done a few squats to make sure the pants still fit and I’m thinking about ringing my personal trainer (at 3am his morning, of course – not that I’m vengeful or anything) and begging for forgiveness and some mercy for when I return home.

The first sentence of the trip notes for this 10-day amazing culinary odyssey around Macedonia and Montenegro says that no one leaves this real food adventure hungry. I don’t think I fully understood the ramifications of that statement until I had the chance to experience this unforgettable foodie adventure around the Balkans for myself. Like my previous post the trip notes fall somewhat short of what actually took place but that’s because we did SO MUCH MORE than what can be put into words, but that hasn’t deterred me from trying to describe what happened on the tour …

Day 1 Skopje

Real  – I’ll be the first to admit that I know next to nothing about Macedonia, or its capital Skopje for that matter, but that’s the primary reason why I signed up for this trip, so that I could learn more about this incredible country. Skopje was actually the birthplace of Mother Teresa and there are plaques and a museum celebrating her life and legacy.

Adventure – This first day of the tour is a chance to become more acquainted with the city and discover the famous landmarks on my own, before meeting the tour leader and the rest of the group in the evening. Skopje could be described as a strange amalgamation of socialist Russia and moorish Turkey – hammans and mosques are easy to identify from a distance but there are several stately new government buildings and a multitude of bronze statues also competing for immediate recognition within the city square.

Food – At our welcome meeting, Jane (pronounced Yann-eh), gave an overview of our ten-day trip and then took us for a short walk to a restaurant area only a couple hundred metres from our hotel. As soon as we sat down, there was wine on the table and food started to appear in front of us. A delicious mezze consisting of a variety of several different types of cheese, accompanied with dips, grilled vegetables and bread. Thinking that this was dinner, I was full after sampling a little bit of everything on the plate, only to learn that there were another two courses still to come. Okay – it’s a food adventure and things just got real!

Day 2 Leunovo

Real – This morning we met our driver Igor, who appears to hold an honorary doctorate in Tetris, as he somehow manages to load a dozen oversized suitcases into the back of a small minivan. Today’s journey begins at the Stone Bridge, one of Skopje’s most recognisable landmarks, where Jane gives us a brief overview of the city as we make our way towards the entrance of the Old Bazaar.

Food – Our breakfast today comes courtesy of a tasting trail around the Old Bazaar, starting with borek and yoghurt at a small cafe. After trying a few types with different fillings, Jane also bought a few pastry cakes filled with chocolate or jam to try. Naturally, the next stop is to sit in the sun at a Turkish tea house and enjoy a few different drinks before moving onto the Bit-Pazar to shop for a few items for lunch.

Food – The Bit-Pazar is one of the biggest green markets in Skopje, located at the north entrance of the Old Bazaar. This is where Macedonian cuisine comes to life with fresh peppers and tomatoes as far as the eye can see, marinated olives of every variety, mountains of black tea and spices bought and weighed on scales, large mounds of white cheese of every consistency and much, much more. We had the opportunity to sample a few different types of the all-important cheese before buying our favourites for lunch.

Food – Located in the heart of the market are two brothers who have recently returned from Germany and have opened a small kiosk, making delicious wraps which we ate in total silence because it was just that good. Making our way back to the bus, we stopped at a local kebap shop to use the facilities. While we were waiting for the amenities, the owner kindly brought a plate of hot kebaps out to us to eat, straight off the grill.

Adventure – The Matka Canyon is rated as the top attraction to see or visit in Skopje. The Matka Lake is one of the oldest artificial lakes in Macedonia and is popular for fishing, swimming, cave diving and kayaking. Today’s adventure is a leisurely boat cruise on the lake with its stunning blue-green water, including a visit to the the Suva section of the Vrelo Cave, noted for its unusual stalactite and stalagmite formations.

Food – The best thing about being on a food adventure is that meals are not always served in a formal setting. Jane and Igor had arranged a magnificent barbeque picnic lunch for us at a secluded spot on the lake and all we had to do was kick back and enjoy a glass of wine or two while lunch was being prepared. These guys definitely know how to cater for a crowd – there were fresh salads made, grilled chicken and sausages, and they even brought along the hand wipes and seat cushions for added comfort. Lunch was a lot of fun in a lovely setting and it was so enjoyable that we didn’t realise that the boats had forgotten to pick us up again until much later in the afternoon, naturally when all the wine and beer had run out.

Real – En route to our next next destination, we stopped in the town of Tetovo to see the painted mosque Sarena Dzamija. Originally built in 1438 by two sisters, this mosque was later reconstructed in 1833 and has beautiful bright, floral decorative glaze and paintings which were created using more than 30,000 eggs. I can honestly say that this mosque is truly spectacular and definitely worth a look inside.

Food – Arriving in the small village of Leunovo in the early evening, our food and most of our home-stay accommodation is provided to us courtesy of residents, Danny and Tina. It’s hard to believe that we need to eat again, but our hosts have kindly prepared a magnificent meal for us to enjoy outside, underneath the stars.

Dinner in Leunovo - Real Food Adventure Macedonia and Montenegro
Dinner in Leunovo – Real Food Adventure Macedonia and Montenegro

Day 3 Ohrid

Food – This morning we’re back outside at Danny and Tina’s enjoying mekici or Macedonian fried doughnuts, with jam, cheese and coffee for breakfast. The doughnuts are heavenly but there is so much food on this trip that it is almost a struggle just to eat one!

Adventure – Not long after leaving Leunovo, we see the stunning view of St Nikolas church, which now lies abandoned near the shores of Mavrovo Lake. The pressure is on to get that perfect shot for our screen savers, blogs, Instagram shots, Facebook posts and Twitter feeds!

Abandoned church of St Nikolas in Mavrovo Lake - Real Food Adventure Macedonia and Montenegro
Abandoned church of St Nikolas in Mavrovo Lake – Real Food Adventure Macedonia and Montenegro

Real – The monastery of Saint Jovan Bigorski (St. John the Baptist) is an Orthodox monastery originally established in 1020, although a fire destroyed some of the complex in 2009. The monastery has a collection of a number of holy relics which a many pilgrims come to see, however the wooden hand-carved iconostasis at the front of the chapel is also a stunning and magnificent work of art.

Adventure/Food – After our monastery visit, we get to stretch our legs again and walk a few kilometres uphill to visit Duf waterfall (yes, it’s pronounced “doof”). Following the marked trail, it was great just to walk in the cooler mountain air and take pictures of the verdant greenery and listen to the sound of running water. Jane had mentioned that there was a “coffee shop” at the end of the trail which kept us all moving. The waterfall is located within a national park and not otherwise accessible except on foot. Somehow our clever-thinking tour leader had organised a friend to meet us at the waterfall where there was a thermos of tea made from thyme and camphor, hot coffee and delicious homemade baklava (made with cow’s fat, no less) waiting for us. So having finally burnt off the breakfast calories, I ended up consuming nearly a thousand more!

Food – With a bit of exercise under our belt, it’s time for some lunch. Nearby in the village of Jance is Hotel Tutto which is owned and operated by Tefik “Tutto” Tefikovski, a pioneer of the slow food movement in Macedonia. After living and working in Europe, Tutto returned to his home town to build his own hotel and restaurant, keen to promote the culinary traditions and produce of the Radika Valley region. The valley is home to approximately 40,000 sheep and renown for the variety of mushrooms that grow there in season. One of the first dishes that Tutto introduces to us is ajvar (pronounced “ivar”), a delicious paste made from roasted red peppers, often served as a side dish or spread and is very popular in Macedonia. It usually takes five kilograms of red peppers to make just one jar of ajvar. The process is quite lengthy and time-consuming, taking several hours of roasting just to produce a small quantity. In jest we asked Tutto whether there was a Thermomix version available and duly received a blank look in reply.

Food – I’m not a fan of mushrooms and while Tutto was displaying them to us and preparing the next course, I was wondering how I could politely refuse as I was sitting right up the front. The mushroom stalks had such a meaty texture that curiosity got the better of me and I tried one … and it was incredibly delicious. I just got that one taste because the pan returned back empty! Our “lunch” was a veritable feast as Tutto kept cooking a number of dishes to try, including a number of different salads, grilled beef chops and dessert. Halfway through our lunch a German camera crew appeared to film Tutto cooking for us … who knows I might be appearing on an Al Jazeera television segment soon!

Adventure – Having sat and watched Tutto prepare numerous courses for our consumption, one of the women from the kitchen came to teach us how to roll the dough to make our own pastry pie. After indulging in several glasses of wine it was no mean feat to replicate the perfect circle that our instructor had demonstrated but I think I managed it in the end! So after arriving at Hotel Tutto at 12.30PM, we departed from the restaurant for the town of Ohrid at 5.00PM. I think I might like this concept of “slow food” …

Day 4 Ohrid

Adventure – Today we have the opportunity to take an optional excursion to visit the St Naum monastery and then enjoy lunch in the small fishing village of Trpejca, following a short boat cruise across Lake Ohrid.

Real – The monastery of St Naum was founded in 905 A.D. and gets its name from the medieval saint who founded it. It’s a popular tourist destination for visitors to Macedonia, noted for its architecture, artisan and historical significance. The hand-painted frescoes and dome inside the church are well preserved and quite captivating.

Adventure – Thankfully the weather held out for our boat cruise as we followed the lake shore. There were dark, stormy rain clouds above the mountain ranges surrounding the lake that looked ominous but otherwise it was relatively smooth sailing. After 45 minutes we arrived at Trpejca, which has its own secluded beach area, and is becoming an increasingly popular destination for visitors because of its private locale.

Food – Lunch had been arranged for us at a family-owned restaurant in Trpejca which specialises in serving fresh trout caught from the lake. The owner’s 86 year-old mother was still in the restaurant keeping a quiet eye on things! It was the perfect Sunday lunch sitting outside, enjoying a glass of wine with a view of the water. Lunch consisted of shopska salad, makalo (garlic spread), cheese, grilled trout and chips followed by pancakes with chocolate sauce.

Adventure – Arriving back in Ohrid in the mid-afternoon, Kym, Jann, Greg and I were keen to explore the old town a bit further, and Jane kindly obliged by guiding us up to King Samuel’s fortress where we could see panoramic views of the city and lake below and hear about its military history. We then followed Jane down the opposite side of the hill to capture the stunning view of the Byzantine Church of St. John, situated on the cliff over Kaneo Beach. I kept thinking that I would never have discovered this part of Ohrid if Jane hadn’t decided to accompany us on a private tour of the old town.

Food – Walking along the lake shore, we stopped by a restaurant along the waterfront for a glass of Macedonian bijelo vino (white wine) and local bar snacks to relax and watch the setting sun.

Food – No less than 30 minutes after arriving back at the hotel, it was time to get back on the bus and travel to the village of Kuratica to enjoy dinner in the mountains. Our host for the evening was Goran and his family, who welcomed us into a purpose-built private dining area with a glass of his famous home-brewed rakija which is made from nettles. With 50 percent alcohol content, it was perfect for a chilly evening in the hills but I wisely limited myself to just the one glass. The regional delicacies served for evening included edible snails foraged from the forest, cheese pie and slow-cooked pork with mushrooms, followed by chocolate cake. Somehow I couldn’t bring myself to try the snails but was more than happy to sample dessert.

Day 5 Bitola

Food – Breakfast this morning was an assortment of borek and pastries from a bakery located in the local market of Ohrid. Being a sunny Monday morning, the market was thriving with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables and all manner of produce to purchase, including jars of the much-coveted ajvar.

Real – After the market visit, we left Ohrid and drove to the village of Brajcino, passing through the town of Resen, located equidistant between Ohrid and Bitola. Situated near Lake Prespa, Resen is well known for the quality and unique taste of the apples grown in the numerous orchards planted throughout the area.

Apple orchards in the Resen region - Real Food Adventure Macedonia and Montenegro
Apple orchards in the Resen region – Real Food Adventure Macedonia and Montenegro

Food – Later in the morning we arrived in the quaint village of Brajcino, where we are introduced to Milka who lives on a small acreage of land near Lake Prespa, located relatively close to the border of Greece. Carp caught from the lake is considered to be the regional speciality and Milka demonstrated a recipe that she typically prepares for our fish lunch. With the carp in the oven, we kicked back with bijelo vino, helped prepare a salad with a few items bought at the market in Ohrid and had another opportunity to practice rolling the perfect dough to make a pie.

Day 6 Dihovo

Adventure/Food – This morning we met Jane early in the hotel lobby in search of the local breakfast specialty of tripe soup. Not that I was particularly keen to partake but I did want to see what it looked like. Despite wandering through the city square and enquiring at a few cafés, the supposed local specialty didn’t appear to be on the regular breakfast menu. Jane did however find a restaurant that had fantastic homemade soups for breakfast but unfortunately the waiter on duty was more than a little slow on the service aspect which meant that timing for the morning activity had to be changed to accomodate our meals.

Real – After breakfast we met the rest of our group for an orientation tour of Bitola, a city of 75,000 people, it is the second largest in Macedonia, located only 14 kilometres away from the border crossing with Greece and surrounded by a number of prominent mountain ranges. Previously known as “Manastir”, Bitola was part of the Ottoman Empire from 1382 to 1912 where Turks were the majority in the city. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was once stationed in Bitola for a period of time. Bitola has a long history of being a strong trading centre and many cultural organisations and consulates are still located there today. A world-class film festival celebrating the work of cinematographers is held in the city centre every year, bringing celebrities from all around the globe.

Food – Our walking tour of Bitola brings us into the Old Bazaar where the buying and selling of goods continues to be in the lifeblood of the city. It was fascinating to see an old Turkish hamman at one of the entrances to the market now surreptitiously transformed into a supermarket. Everything is for sale in the Old Bazaar – even plastic soft drink bottles filled with pigs fat!

Real – Near the outskirts of Bitola are the remains of the ancient Greek city of Heraklea Lyncestis, later occupied by the Roman Empire. I’ve personally seen the handiwork of a few Macedonian concreters throughout my lifetime and the restoration efforts applied at Heraklea appear to have utilised the same modern day techniques. While there are a few tonnes of concrete poured throughout the ruins, particularly the amphitheater, the tiled mosaics are quite spectacular.

Food – Located on the opposite side of Bitola, in the foothills of Mount Pelister, we drive to the small village of Dihovo for our included lunch and visit to a local beekeeper for a masterclass. Our host at Villa Dihovo was away supervising the current wine vintage when we arrived so we enjoyed a short walk through the village to see the apiary. The first order of business was to put on protective sleeve suit complete with hat and enclosed veil. After that challenge was successfully completed we gathered around one of the hives to learn about how honey is made and extracted, the life and times of the average honey bee followed by an elusive search to locate the Queen bee (the one wearing a spot of blue on her wings). Following our tutorial we got to taste some of the produce and different flavour combinations. My favourite was the creamy, crystallised honey very similar to the one that my late Grandfather used make from his own hives.

Food – Arriving back at Villa Dihovo we met our host Pece Cvetkvski, who kindly took a chosen few down to his cellar to learn more about his wine production and local produce. An amazing banquet of homemade sausages, salads, cooked meat and stuffed vine leaves had been laid out when we made it back upstairs, accompanied by Pece’s homemade pinot noir.

Food – It’s our last evening in Bitola and while we were definitely not hungry after our late lunch, I did want to visit a unique wine bar located in the main square that specialises in Macedonian wines, just so I’m prepared for tomorrow …

Day 7 Skopje

Real/Adventure – When I first heard at the tour briefing that we would be visiting a couple of wineries hosted by an expert in Macedonian wines, I thought all my Christmases had come at once. Now looking back in hindsight, if I had to describe what this day was like, it can be likened to visiting two sets of relatives on Christmas Day and having back-to-back feasts served with free-flowing matching wines. Our group left Bitola mid-morning gradually making our way to the Tikves wine region, arriving at the Popova Kula winery just before midday. Here we met Alexandra, our hostess during our visit at Popova Kula and were also formally introduced to Ivana Simjanovska, who is a wine judge, co-author and publisher of the Macedonian Wine Guide. Popova Kula literally means “Pope’s Tower” which once stood as a distinguishing landmark in the Demir Kapija valley where the winery is situated. A 17-metre replica tower now features prominently at the front of the vineyard as well as in their logo design. Following a short tour around the winery and cellar door area, we are ready to start sampling our selected wines.

Real – Macedonia is very much a part of the “new world” when it comes to wine, yet the paradox is that wine has been produced in this region for a number of centuries dating back to a period B.C. Ivana gave a fascinating overview of the history of Macedonian wine including a discussion on the nationalisation of all wine production after the Second World War and how Macedonian wines are now in a period of renaissance, with a renewed focus on producing high quality wines rather than large yields. As a result these wines are starting to achieve international recognition and accolades.

FoodStanushina is a unique Macedonian grape variety that Popova Kula specialises in utilising in their own signature wines. Ivana chose a Stanushina Rose 2015 with a striking salmon pink-orange colour and soft aromas of fresh strawberries as the first wine to drink. With a dry, medium finish, the flavour of wild strawberries complemented the Macedonian salad that was matched with the wine. The next wine paired with the salad was a Zilavka 2015 which had a pale green straw colour, herbaceous aromas of cloves, sage and thyme, together with subtle citrus notes on the nose. A clean, dry, medium finish and fresh lemon flavour on the palate.

Food – Looking very much like Christmas dinner, the next course served was a delicious dish of pork stuffed with plums matched with a “Perfect Choice” Vranec 2013. Ivana specifically selected the 2013 vintage as there was heavy rainfall recorded during the 2014 vintage. Deep, rich ruby red in colour, Vranec displays blackberry fruit on the nose with hints of vanilla from the American oak barriques used during the maturation process, complemented with aromas of white pepper and tobacco. This wine had a lovely, smooth, soft tannic mouthfeel and plenty of fruit-driven flavour.

Real/Adventure – The next winery was located in a different part of the Tikves region, about 20-30 minutes drive away from our first stop. The Stobi winery is a top producer of Macedonian wine despite only being in operation since 2009, making it the youngest winery in the country. Our visit included a tour of the fermentation facility and education about the production process before concluding at the cellar area where the barriques are stored.

Food – Jane had casually mentioned during a previous conversation that the food at the Stobi winery was exceptional and that we should really wait to eat at this restaurant. The problem with this plan was that it was now 5PM when we sat down in the restaurant to eat the “second lunch” and this is where the Macedonian hospitality came out in full force, with no less than five dishes put on the dining table before us to eat.

Real – Ivana had rejoined us at the head of table and talked a little bit more about the wines she had selected for our meal:

Rkaciteli 2015: Rkaciteli is a grape variety that originated in Georgia and was brought to Macedonia 40 years ago. It produces high yields and the resulting wines were principally exported to Russia. This wine is light-bodied but with a balanced structure. There are aromas of lemon citrus, green grass and jasmine subtly complemented with flavours of honey, apricot nectar and citrus on the palate. This wine pairs well with salads, smoked meats and cheeses.

Chardonnay 2014: Pale yellow straw in colour but also displays a slight green hue. Ripe tropical fruit aromas predominantly of kiwi fruit married with lemon/lime citrus on the nose and palate.

Syrah 2011: My favourite grape variety … now we are talking! This wine had been maturing in French and American oak for a period of 15 months. Lots of spice and pepper savoury notes with hints of vanilla typically associated with the integration of the wine with oak barriques. A combination of black fruit and savoury notes on the palate with a medium, dry finish. Lovely flavour and texture.

Aminta 2013: This wine is an amalgamation of equal quantities of Vranec, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, separately maturing in French oak barriques for 18 months before bottling. Beautiful ruby red in colour, the Vranec brings a powerful black fruit structure to the wine, Merlot adds elegance and softness and the Cabernet contributes pepper and savoury characteristics. A nice full bodied wine with 14% alcohol content. A very elegant wine from an excellent vintage.

Real – The poor restaurant manager was a little distraught when there was so much food left untouched on the table and wanted to know what was wrong. The meals were absolutely delicious and of the highest quality but the quantities served were more than my ever-expanding stomach could accommodate and I am certainly capable of eating vast amounts of food. So just like Christmas, we rolled back on the bus to Skopje with full bellies, happy vibes and ready for bed.

Day 8 Kotor

Real – When you sign up for a multi-country tour, long periods of road travel are sometimes inevitable and today’s journey is expected to be an eight-hour marathon bus trip. We say goodbye to Macedonia and make our way to Montenegro, passing through Kosovo and Albania en route. Kosovo has a deep admiration for Tony Blair and Bill Clinton of epic proportions, so much so that numerous children born after the war were named after these two statesmen. In a small regional town, we drove past the newly opened “Bill Clinton Sports Stadium” so it’s absolutely true!

Adventure – Our first stop for lunch was in picturesque Prizren (affectionately mispronounced as “Prison”), the second largest city in Kosovo well known for its Ottoman architecture, particularly the Sinan Pasha mosque and Old Stone Bridge.

Food – Prizren has a distinct cafe culture with lots of young people enjoying coffee and conversation in the city square. From one of its famed qebaptore (barbecue restaurants) in the Old Bazaar, I ordered the mixed qebap plate for lunch which cost only 3EUR and it was absolutely delicious!

Qebap plate - Real Food Adventure Macedonia and Montenegro
Qebap plate – Real Food Adventure Macedonia and Montenegro

Adventure – The best laid plans can go horribly pear-shaped on holidays, even on organised tours. Shortly after crossing over into Albania the tour bus experienced engine failure so we had an unscheduled coffee stop in the town of Kukes to rectify the issue. After getting back on the road again, the problem reoccurred so we found ourselves at a rest stop that looked like Albania’s homage to Las Vegas, complete with a dedicated wedding chapel and replica Universal Studios signage, while waiting for a replacement bus to come from Skopje. There are worse places to be stranded so with a fully stocked bar on hand and obliging waiter, we kicked back with several G&T’s and a marathon game of cards.

Real – Three hours later our new vehicle arrived looking more like a mobile disco than a transit bus and we were finally on our way again after spending considerably more time in Albania than originally planned. Just after 10PM and only 60 kilometres from our intended destination, we had another unexpected delay when we encountered a roadside accident and waited another 30 minutes for the police and ambulance to clear the road. After more than 12 hours since leaving the hotel, we finally reached the beautiful Old Town of Kotor in Monentegro close to midnight. I’ve never been so happy to arrive at a hotel in my entire life.

Day 9 Kotor

Real – I love James Bond movies, especially “Casino Royale” which was supposedly set in Montenegro (and which might have given me more impetus to take this tour!). Montenegro, which means “Black Mountain”, is a small sovereign state with only 700,000 inhabitants and has been touted as one of the top world destinations to visit. The beautiful Old Town of Kotor has historic cathedrals and churches, a myriad of winding alleys and numerous cafes, restaurants and tourists yet no matter how far I walked, I never did manage to get a glimpse of Daniel Craig.

Food –  The village of Njegusi, located high in the mountain ranges above the town of Kotor (about 900 metres above sea level), is renown for its smoked dried meats and artisan cheeses. Its location made for an interesting trip, given that we had to slowly climb up the dizzy heights of Mount Lovcen, in a small bus on a narrow, winding road. Eager to get some fresh air and stretch the legs, we made a beeline to see the hams drying in the rafters of the smokehouse. In the building next door a small batch of Vranec grapes was currently going through the process of being transformed into wine so we had a look around to see how the vintage was coming together. Platters of smoked ham and beef, cheese, olives and bread were served for our enjoyment together with the customary alcoholic drinks and all the while I was thinking that it’s not even 11AM and here I am drinking shots of rakija and glasses of wine. This tour is starting to wear me out!

Adventure – Given our very late arrival into Kotor the night before, I decided to skip the olive oil visit and spend some time meandering around the Old Town in the afternoon and do some sightseeing before the next cruise ship arrived into port. It was a lot of fun exploring the labyrinth of alleys and wandering into the cathedral without large crowds obstructing the entrance.

Food – There’s lots of places to grab a decent cup of coffee in Kotor but as a popular tourist destination, the price of food and wine (which is now charged in EUR) is astronomical compared to Macedonia and definitely not of the same quality. Our last dinner together was at a restaurant that supposedly specialises in seafood yet the mussels I ordered looked like something John West had rejected a decade ago. Although the fillet of bream was nicely cooked it also came with a hefty price tag. I guess that is to be expected if you hang around the playground of the rich and famous.

Day 10 Kotor

This trip has had so much to offer in terms of amazing food, generous Macedonian hospitality, great wine, fabulous weather, an excellent and dedicated tour leader and driver, beautiful scenery and fun friends to share it all with. Thanks Jann, Greg, Steve, Chris and Kym for being my Intrepid family for the past three weeks and being part of my Real Food Adventure odyssey through the Balkans.

Real Food Adventure - Macedonia and Montenegro
Real Food Adventure – Macedonia and Montenegro

This is where the diet finally starts. You might heard of the song “I lost my heart in San Francisco”? Well my version goes something like “I lost my waistline in Montenegro”. Our tour leader, Jane, keeps telling me that I should be hungry for this tour and that I needed to starve for one month before coming on this trip. I think the opposite is true for me and I’ll need to starve for TWO months afterwards BEFORE I am brave enough to see my personal trainer again. Oh wait … I’m now off to Germany, the land of roasted pork knuckle, wurst, potatoes, sauerkraut, pretzels and Riesling … Okay, I guess the diet will have to wait a few weeks more … Bon appetit!

Real Food Adventure – Slovenia and Croatia

This post is a parody or tongue-in-cheek version of Intrepid’s trip notes for the Real Food Adventure of Slovenia and Croatia, which is an exciting new addition to their unique culinary travel program in 2016.

It is not intended to be a slur against, or criticism of, the Intrepid company or its tour leaders and is entirely reflective of my own experiences on this journey. I loved my tour and the friends and memories that I have made on this particular trip. I am grateful to Intrepid for hosting these culinary adventures and creating the framework which allowed me to explore and experience a part of the world that I thought I would never have the opportunity to see through my own eyes.

That being said, there are trip notes … and there are trip notes. I thought I would compare and contrast my experiences against the current version of the trip notes available for the Real Food Adventure of Slovenia and Croatia.

Slovenia

Day 1 Ljubljana 

Intrepid: Welcome to Slovenia. Known as ‘Europe in Miniature’, tiny Slovenia has a huge heart and a wealth of diversity. The soaring Julian Alps capture a touch of Switzerland, the radiating coastline oozes Mediterranean charm, and Bled’s island church appears to have come straight out of a fairytale. This small country is home to a surprisingly complex cuisine, divided into 23 culinary regions by local ethnologists. Best known for hearty, alpine stews, goulash and sauerkraut, Slovenia also boasts wonderful cakes and strudels, not to mention the culinary treasures found in the coastal Karst region, including teran wine, prsut (air-dried ham) and sensational olive oils. Your adventure begins with a welcome meeting tonight at 6pm.

Picturesque Ljubljana is perfect for starting a food odyssey, with a surprisingly diverse food scene that belies its size – great local eateries, progressive modern restaurants, street food, cafes and cake shops. Toast to your trip with a glass of Slovenia’s national drink: schapps (snopec in Slovene). This fruit-based liqueur comes in a variety of flavour incarnations, although the local favourite is viljamoka, flavoured with Williams pear. Your leader will suggest a great eatery in the heart of the city to sample some delicious traditional dishes.

My version: A day to explore the beautiful city of Ljubljana on your own before meeting your tour leader and fellow travellers at the 6pm. Although Slovenia is a country that boasts 24 gastronomic regions and nearly 190 characteristic, recognisable local and regional dishes, you will need access to the hotel’s wifi capability to ensure that you familiarise yourself with these specialties during your own free time. Take advantage of the opportunity to visit the Ljubljana Castle and discover for yourself why the name Ljubljana means “beloved”. Enjoy a delicious goulash matched with a red wine from the region (self-selected and at your own expense) in a nearby local cafe.

Day 2 Ljubljana

Intrepid:  Get to know this fairy tale city on a breakfast food tour. Savour delicious pastries, cheeses and charcuterie, and in the Central Market discover the importance of apples and especially honey – there are more than 9,000 beekeepers in Slovenia! Along the way, learn a little of the city’s history and culture. Stop at the city centre Prešeren Square, dedicated to the Slovenian romantic poet, France Prešeren. With views of the Triple Bridge and Ljubljana Castle on one side, and a magnificent Franciscan church on the other, you’ll feel like you’ve just walked right into a scene from a beautiful postcard.

In the afternoon, take a public bus to Bled (approximately 1 hour). Situated on stunning Lake Bled at the edge of the Julian Alps, there are many outdoor activities to get the blood pumping in Bled: rafting, caving, canoeing, and swimming, to name a few. But you’ve come for one reason – a delicious cream cake called kremna rezina (kremsnita to the locals). It’s thought to have been invented in the kitchens of Hotel Park in 1953 by Ištvan Lukačevič, chef of the hotel’s confectionery store. Since its invention, more than 10 million kremsnita have been baked at the hotel’s patisserie. Tuck in to your own slice to find out what all the fuss is about. Return to Ljubljana by early evening.

Included Activities – Day Trip to Bled;  Bled – Kremsnita Tasting; Ljubljana – Tasting Trail
Accommodation – Hotel
Meals – 1 breakfast

My version:  Slovenia is a charcuterie connoisseur’s idea of heaven – abundant offerings of cured meats, salami, cheese – all available from the hotel’s breakfast room. After breakfast, your tour leader will take you on a stroll through the city centre where you have the opportunity to learn a little more about the city and its more familiar sites, including Preseren Square and the stunning Triple Bridge. You have no less than 30 minutes at the Central Market to wander around the stalls and purchase local fresh produce. Your induction tour ends at a popular eatery that specialises in Slovenian food – try pumpkin seed oil, goats cheese flavoured with tarragon, chilli or pepper, pate, pork crackle and a smear of pork fat – enjoyed with a glass of Slovenian wine.

In the afternoon, get acquainted with the locals and enjoy a public bus trip to the town of Bled in the north of Slovenia to try the fabled dessert, kremsnita. With a couple of hours free time available to explore, why not climb the hill to visit Bled Castle with its stunning views of the lake below or for a mere 4EUR, jump on the touristic mini train and feel the wind rush through your hair as the conductor races around the lake at breakneck speed and skips all the scheduled stops. As the sun sets, take a short bus ride to the village of Lesce for dinner at the renown “Sova” restaurant to indulge in its eclectic cuisine which is a marriage of both new and old. Return to Ljubljana by train, just in time to pack your bags for the next day’s early start.

Croatia

Day 3 Motovun

Intrepid:  Travel by public bus to Piran this morning (approximately 2 hours). Piran is a stunning coastal town, located near the border of Italy and Croatia. The region is renowned for it’s production of fantastic quality olive oils, wine (especially the distinctive teran and refošk), as well as a cured ham called prsut. This is air-dried in the cold, dry wind known as the bura, which sweeps down to the coast from inland. Sample all of these local specialties and more on a tasting tour of the town, culminating in lunch at a charming tavern. Next, head to the nearby salt pans of Piran. Here, salt is still manually harvested with traditional tools according to a seven centuries’ old process. Cross the border into Croatia and continue on to Motovun by private vehicle (approximately 1 hour), arriving in the early evening. Motovun sits on the top of a cone-shaped hill, 277 metres above sea level, surrounded by the romantic and natural diversity of the bountiful Mirna River Valley. The town grew around a core settlement surrounded by well-fortified walls, and its Celtic origin name comes from the word ‘Montona’, which means the ‘town on the hill’.

Included Activities – Piran – Tasting Trail including lunch
Accommodation – Hotel
Meals – 1 breakfast, 1 lunch

My version: This morning, bid a fond farewell to Ljubljana as you drag your oversized luggage across town to the bus station to catch the 8am public bus to the stunning coastal town of Piran. Here, you will be met by a local driver, who will kindly store your luggage as you take an orientation tour of the city. Both you and the tour leader will be pleasantly surprised to discover local producers selling a variety of salami, cured meats, cheese, fruit, olives and pastries and kindly offer you samples to try before purchase.

Relax by the Adriatic Sea as you enjoy a beverage at a cafe along the foreshore. Take a short drive to the Secovlje salt-pans to learn about the manufacture and production of Mediterranean salt. After exiting through the gift shop, you will be driven to the village of Dragonja near the Croatian border, to enjoy a lesson in wine tasting and try award-winning wines produced by Ingrid Mahnic, along with a hearty four-course lunch.

The afternoon continues with a short visit to a restored torkla (olive oil mill) however while there will be no olives or olive oil available to try, a visit to the toilets are an absolute must if you have “sampled” several glasses of wine during lunch. Have your passports at the ready as you will now cross the border into Croatia and shortly arrive at the charming historic town of Motovun, situated at the top of a hill. Be rewarded with stunning picturesque views of the valley below and the setting sun, as you skilfully drag both your jostling suitcase and armful of wine and food purchases up 500 metres of steep, centuries-old, uneven cobblestone paths into the village and then up several flights of stairs into your apartment accomodation. Take in the scenery and the opportunity to try some more local wine.

Day 4 Motovun

Intrepid: Croatia has long piqued the interest of curious travellers searching for sunshine, sand and scenery, with charming cobblestone towns and World Heritage sites. Recently it has gained recognition as an exciting food and wine destination, with the region of Istria leading the charge as the culinary capital of the country. Motovun is one of the best preserved medieval Istrian towns in Croatia, with houses scattered all over the hill and a spectacular view of Mirna River Valley. Motovun Forest is the best place for hunting the famous Istrian truffle, and the nearby village of Livade is considered the truffle capital of Istria. Take a walk through the nearby woods with an experienced truffle hunter, and learn how to sniff out a truffle and about this intriguing vocation. Then enjoy a tasting of regional specialties including truffles (of course), olives and honey. Spend the afternoon at your leisure. The medieval charm of the town is still found in its well-preserved architecture, so explore Motovun’s winding cobbled lanes, discovering churches, towers and the municipal palace, or enjoy a glass of wine at Josef Ressel Square.

Included Activities – Motovun – Truffle hunt & tasting
Accommodation – Hotel

My version: The valley surrounding the town of Motovun is well known for its production of teran wine and abundance of black truffles. Treat yourself to a delicious breakfast of scrambled eggs with black truffles for 40HKR. You will need sports shoes or something similar to be able to participate in this morning’s truffle hunting activity with local truffle hunter Miro and his dog Bella. Wander past small plots of olive groves, grape vines and fruit trees as you head further into the forest in search of the elusive truffle.