I’ll save you my lame reason of being too busy at uni to blog, though it has been truthfully the reason and I am very sorry about it.
Nevertheless, I come back with much excitement to share with you my latest ‘school project’. No, I’m not becoming a chef. If anything, weird eating habits have taken me further from the kitchen…but I digress.
6 weeks ago, I along with 4 other students started a course in Online Journalism at the University of Westminster, without the slightest idea about web building. And yet, here we are launching our very own website!
And, what else was to be the common thread between a Spaniard, a Japanese, an Indian, a Vietnamese and a Chinese ? Why, London, of course! and being the ‘hungry’, pocket-torn student journalists that we are, FOOD!
So we came up with the idea of embarking on journeys to explore London through food, affordably- everything from the latest happenings in the culinary scene, to quirky food concepts, and the gastronomic culture of the city that we’re all taking on as students for the first year.
Espadrilles – the chic fabric flats/heels with roped soles that have many summers over taken American fashion scene by storm and revolutionized wedged-shoes across the world. While many know these shoes are originally Spanish, few could imagine that in the early 14th century, these soles started out as being the common peasant footwear.
“Antigua Casa Crespo” it reads, with 1881, clearly imprinted on the plaque outside the vintage, wooden doors. I was in Spain, determined to find an espadrilles-maker and here I was standing in front of the most famous and one of the oldest ones in Madrid.
–Me: Elisa, I want to go buy espadrilles!
– Elisa: Espadri-what???
– Me: You know, espadrilles, Spanish people are famous for making them!
– Elisa: *WTF are u talking about look*
Okay, so no one I knew in Madrid had the slightest idea what I was referring to. Espadrilles were just so popular back in the States, and I figured the word must have come from the Spanish – considering the shoes are from there.
Turns out, history has it a bit different than that. In the 14th century, these flats were first recorded as being made in parts of the Basque Country in the south of France and Catalonia. The word “espadrilles” comes from the French word “espadrille“. The root of the word is “espart” which means the wiry type of Mediterranean grass that was used to form the sole of the shoes.
Yet, as production of the worker/peasant footwear grew in popularity across Spain in the next centuries, Spanish people used their own word “alpargatas” – which means a type of wired-sole sandals. Hence, the complete confusion with my Spanish mate :))
So then, how exactly, did the Spanish-popularized shoes come to be known internationally under a French/Catalan-originated name?
Sure, you could say, that it was because these shoes were first made in these regions.
But then again, it was Castañer – a Spanish alpargatas maker established in 1776 that *quote* propelled the shoes into the world of fashion * when he and his wife introduced the “laid-back glamour” shoes to Yves Saint Laurent.
My hypothesis, since I have yet to find anywhere else, why these shoes are not more known as “alpargatas” is that it was introduced to Yves Saint Laurent – and naturally, a Frenchman (and a fashionable, chic one to boot) does what he does best- speak and keep his “français” , if you will.
Alpagatería Hunt !
Once Elisa had determined exactly what it was that I wanted, we were off with her 2 friends Elena and Ana to search for this age-old alpargatas maker or alpagatería, where apparently, Queen Sofia and other members of the Spanish Royal Family have regularly visited every summer.
“Antigua Casa Crespo” sits on the quiet but chic Calle de Divino Pastor in the Malasaña neighborhood. The shop has quite the complicated opening times schedule and hence, it wasn’t too big a surprise that we were greeted with closed wooden doors. After all, this was a summer wear, and who was I to expect anything, wearing three layers of coat, standing outside a sandal-maker in the middle of December?
“I’m not going to get to see this shop“, I disappointingly thought to myself, when the bold Ana makes a go for it, as she starts ringing the bell. Much to our surprise, minutes later, a man came running down the street, spills out a series of Spanish, disappears through the door, and seconds and a few shackling of wooden panels later, we were inside the charming little shop.
The generous señor who came to our rescue is Maxi Garbayo – the fourth generation of a family that has been making alpargatas since 1836. Maxi’s great grandfather Gregorio Crespo started the alpagatería and with the tradition of children taking their mother’s surname in parts of Spain, the family business went under Maxi’s grandmother maiden name Garbayo.
In the 1970s, Maxi’s father Martin Garbayo introduced a colour-assorted catalogue for his shoes, and created a craze in Madrid, where alpargatas had always been black and white.
I hadn’t a clue what Maxi was saying, through his speed-of-lightning Spanish (not that I would understand normal-speed Spanish either *_*), but I could tell from his tiny puff of laughter that he thought I was just this weird Asian in his shop curious about things like how many shoes he makes an hour or where the cords come from.
You’d think a shop made for queens and royals would be way out of your league, but with 6.50 Euro flats and heels at 29 Euros, the shop is quite the quality bargain for anyone looking for handmade espadrilles/alpargatas.
“Business is getting difficult”, Elisa translates Maxi’s words, “I need to keep prices down because Chinese manufacturers are now making these shoes at mass at half the price, sometimes even less. I can’t compete with that” .
Maxi no longer makes these shoes and neither do his children, they rather only manage the store. One of Maxi’s siblings still make the shoes, with each pair of flats taking around 10 minutes and heels taking several hours to a day.
Leaving the shop, with my new black alpargatas heels ready for next summer, I start to think that perhaps that was how so many different alpagaterías had died out, purely against the rough competition from cheaper imported counterparts. And yet, at least for this roughly-180-year-old shop, perhaps the presence of annual royal support and the sheer passion of people for hand-made, traditional espadrilles and alpargatas will keep it going?
Let’s hope so 🙂
Here are more pics of the shop and my Spanish friends! (The pics are not really good quality, since I had only my phone 😦 sorry!)
No, it’s not just the 1992 film with sizzling Spanish couple Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz. It’s thin slices of delicateness tucked neatly within the embrace of a golden, crispy loaf of bread, fanned out across a plate on every other table in tapas bars, wrapped with a bow in your most prized Christmas baskets.
In Spain, it is not just ham, it is a way of life.
Legs here, legs there, legs everywhere!
Never had I seen so many legs – hanging on the wall, above the bar, from the ceiling – some naked, some clothed colorfully, others fashioned in “panty hoses” – all pigs’ legs. Anthony Bourdain has after all once described jamón as being “pornographically delicious“.
Even the name jamón – pronounced like a whispering roar from your throat : “harrrr-mon“, sounds sexy!
If you are ever in Madrid, and are up for a visual as well as a literal feast of the “sexy legs“, make a quick visit to Museo del Jamón. Now Prado, Bosco and Goya can wait, for this is a museum of ham, for crying out loud! – also a chain resto where a lot of the older locals gather to grab a drink and a “bocadillo de jamón” (bread with jamón) for no more than 2 to 3 euros.
This “museum” features a eat-in section, a bar and also a deli shop, where butchers are ready to cut fresh slices of jamón for you. Lunch hour – 2pm to 4pm – the bar is packed, bustling waves of chits chats and loud crunches of bread and jamón being devoured, vibrate along the walls of ‘legs’.
(There are plenty more local and small tapas bars with great jamón, at times, free with a drink. Do discover more at Tapas Talk)
Jamón: Gourmand or Gourmet?
The dried, cured legs of ham may be generally renowned worldwide as Spanish ham, but there are a range of different types of Jamón, categorized mainly by the type of pig and also how long the legs are cured for. The two most popular are:
– Jamón Serrano: the every-day GOURMAND cheaper ham, made from Landrace white pig breeds and cured for shorter amounts of time (with the shortest still around 9 months)
– Jamón Ibérico de Bellota: the famous GOURMET expensive ham, made from Iberian black leg (pata negra) pigs.
Why are these black pigs so special, you ask?
+ Well, for starters, each pig is reserved 2 acres of land (London renters, be envious!) for ample free-ranging.
+ They are raised only in unique old-growth oak forest areas of Western Spain
+ They have a special diet of bellotas (acorns), herbs, wild mushrooms and grasses
+ Each pig’s leg is cured for a minimum 2 years before going onto the market
These factors make this type of ham rare and the most expensive in the world, with a 7-kg leg retailing for as much as 1,800 GBP (!!!)
A countryside butchers’
Akin to the differences between a smartly-dressed, chic urbaner and a simple chap from the countryside, the “legs” in the village of Candelario bear a stark simplicity and barrenness in comparison with its well-clothed, Museo del Jamón counterpart.
A step inside this building, and the whiff of cured ham, slams itself up your nostrils and you find yourself in a daze, before making out the hundreds of legs hung one row on top another. The building itself is uniquely designed to feature few, strategically-placed windows to ensure the best curing conditions.
But it is here, where black pigs are brought in and cured for years at a time, the oldest leg possibly in its 16th or 17th year. The taste of a 2-year leg, in all of its chewiness and savoriness, contrasts its bare and greasy appearance.
A short ride from Bejar (more than 130 miles NW of Madrid) – where my host family is from, Juan Garcia Gomez butchery might not be from the most famous of jamón regions in Spain, but it certainly was the closest I got to tasting gourmet jamón – a pack of 12 slices cost 12 Euros (and that’s only the 2-year cured ones)
But I must say, at this very shop, I discovered that I loved Lomo (another type of cured ham) with its subtle blend of chewiness and fat much more than I do Jamón, which I found to be quite intense and gamey on the palate. But of course, it is for each to taste and each to judge…a “tiny” fan of beer, I think I haven’t done the ham justice, in not accompanying it with a pint or two.
21 million. That’s the number of kilos of Jamón the Spanish consumed in 2009. If my two-week journey proved anything, it was that this dried, cured ham was everywhere, a culinary giant in whom many Spaniards take great pride.
There was even a national television campaign promoting different qualities and price ranges of jamón in Spain – with the motto: “There is a ham for everyone”
This is not to say that all Spaniards are madly in love with it. Take Elisa – my Madrileña friend for instance, she hates jamón with a passion.
Enjoy some more pics of Museo del Jamón and the butchers in Candelario!
Late October of last year, floods swept through this little village and landslides buried its once charming winding routes in 14 feet of mud. I was devastated. It was, after all, my favorite destination in Europe.
Today, I came by a recent CBS report on the small town and how it’s picking up the pieces, recovering after a year. I became nostalgic and found myself spending hours, digging through the memoires of my trip there in 2008.
On the Road this week is dedicated to the village of Vernazza.
A tucked-away gem
It is one of those places where sun streaks fill your room with warmth, waking you up each morning. You would head for your window to take in the ocean breeze, and as you rub your sleepy eyes away, blurs of colors would pop into vision, before dispelling into a clear, panoramic view of a perfect seaside village, painted picturesquely across the horizon.
This is Vernazza, the 4th of 5 Riviera villages perching on coast-side cliffs in Italy’s northwestern region of Liguria- facing the Tyrrhenia Sea.The village collective is known as Cinque Terre (Italian for Five Lands) and while I believe it’s a popular summer getaway for Italians, it still remains quite off the beaten track for tourists.
A journey well worth it
After experiencing France’s smooth TGV trains, the bumpy journey on Italy’s crowded local train, where the farthest thing you could see was a co-passenger’s nose hair, was in short, memorable.
To get to Cinque Terre, my study abroad friend, Amy and I, took a 2.5 hour train ride from Nice to Genoa – the capital of Liguria. Another hour landed us in La Spezia, from where it would be possible to take another more local train to any one of 5 villages. We chose Vernazza to be our base, not because it was recommended, but more so for the fact that it was reviewed as being one of the quieter and more isolated of the 5.
All I can remember is the expression of disbelief on Amy’s face, standing there with her huge, 3-week-packed, 4-wheel suitcase, as a local man pointed up an endless flight of stone steps and said: “Only 400 steps!“.
It took 30 minutes, but we heaved our way through the maze of stairs, barely squeezed our luggage through a tiny red door into our rented room, before standing mouth-opened upon looking out the window. A mosaic of colorful houses tucked between the ocean on one side and slopes of cascading vineyards, akin to Asia’s stairs of paddies on the other, the village clings onto seemingly impossible cliffs.
A village of warmth
It is one of those places where every neighbor knows the next, people pat your shoulders as you take a stroll down its steep alleys, and at times, creepy old Italian men approach you, in open-arm- I-haven’t-seen-you-in-years gesture: “Ahhhh Bellissima“. Not many people spoke English, but the smiles were almost contagious.
Down at the beach tucked neatly in the moon arc that is Vernazza, dozens of cats lay lazily, sunbathing while nearby, groups of fishermen peer out to the waves, anticipating their next trip.
It was April, the perfect time to be in Vernazza, perhaps not for a swim yet, but definitely to avoid the crowds of sunburnt Italian tourists, and take in the simple charm and warmth that so characterize this place.
Picking up the pieces
It was heartbreaking to watch how the flood had ravaged Cinque Terre and Vernazza in particular, but today, also very heartwarming to know that the village is slowly shaking itself out of the rubbles.
Do find out more about the ongoing recovery efforts of Vernazza and the Cinque Terre villages at:
My memories attach me most to Vernazza, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t discover the rest of the villages: Monterosso, Corniglia, Riomaggiore and Maranola, as well as the beautiful region around La Spezia. The hikes between the villages are intense but your destinations reward you with beyond anything you could imagine.
My mind turns to the refreshing delights of my days in Saigon…and how I thirst for just a sip of that goodiness right now.
Now, you may have heard of or be like me, have many times over, in your life, turned into an utter fool for “Chè”, not the tea, but the dessert. It could be anything from well-cooked green beans soaked in sugar to a blend of syrup-drowned fruits, nuts and jelly,served either hot or iced. The topic of this much loved dessert would take countless days to cover, since it could be practically any number of combinations of sugar-related dishes in Vietnam.
In Saigon, however, amidst the culinary adventure on which I and my palate fully and ever so often engage and yet fail to fully report on, I discover a genre of ‘chè’ known as ‘sâm bổ lượng” – Pardon my Vietnamese, linguists out there, but my rough understanding after enjoying this once or twice, is that it’s a ginseng drink that is absolutely scrumptious and healthy, and it gives you a boost on metabolism.
No, it’s not “Redbull” in disguise. From my conversation with the vendor who happens to be of Chinese ancestry, this type of dessert is a Chinese treat brought to the southern metropolis by communities moving southward to settle. Beyond simply cooking different types of fruits and jelly, and letting it candy up and soak in sugar syrup in the case of many types of typical Vietnamese “Chè”, this ginseng refreshment uses ingredients that would be more known to Vietnamese people in a mixture of Chinese traditional medicine such as: ginseng, dried seaweed, ginko nuts pearl barley, dried dates, dried longans…etc (Below is a sample of some ingredients) .
This makes it all sound so healthy…and my so far-done research of this drink is way too scattered to affirm this…yet my palate and I will attest, the ginseng flavored syrupy broth, coupled with the subtle differences in texture and taste of the ingredients involved, makes this drink definitely a worthwhile delight to try out. I find that it doesn’t have the ‘heaviness’ or ‘overwhelming sugary’ feel of some other types of Chè that includes further extraction of the fruits and beans into the broth. In contrast, it’s light, only slightly sweet, savory in texture, and refreshing in taste. It’d become nothing short of a culinary enigma if I attempt to describe any more.
But, if you ever head over to district 1 in HCMC, a block or two away from Ben Thanh Market, down to Nguyen Thai Binh street during late night….it’s completely deserted, with the exception of this cart. It’s a very eye-catching cart indeed…plastered with what I see as stained-glass paintings (I could be completely off)…
These carts, the owner, in his 50s and a 3rd generation Chinese expat, says are typical for vending desserts and other goodies back in the heyday of the “Cho Lon” – Chinese-populated era of Saigon. His cart dates back to the 1930s, I believe and his family has been in the business since he can barely remember. After the passing of his wife, my friend shares, he had been fully dedicated to perfecting the trade, all from the comforts of this cute little cart, amidst the bustling chaos that is Saigon life.
He’s a journalism story in the making and I have plans to learn more about this man and his cart, of which I’ll share, and yet I digress, as this post is about FOOD…Anyhoo, it’s roughly around 175 Nguyen Thai Binh I think, a cart with aluminum cylinders of brewed delights ready to be mixed in with a range of different ginseng and sugar syrup. I’ve only had the drink several times, not nearly quite enough, but what I can definitely notice is the clarity and lightness of the broth here compared to the place I tried in District 5 – Chinatown. How I would fly to Saigon just for a glass right now…!!!
PS: updates will be given to fill apparently huge gaps in the knowledge that I have about this delight. From what I know, Sam Bo Luong is but one…as this cart alone features many other types of ‘che” known through names that I fail to register in my head…ones that even include full eggs boiled in sugar (sounds weird yet enticing). For now, just take it from me that Sam Bo Luong is amazingly the best summer refreshment I’ve enjoyed so far, and you should go try it! Enjoy!
What is it that pops into your mind at the mention of : “London” ?
It might be the iconic Big Ben, the Buckingham Palace, the Tower Bridge, the abundant museums, the Thames river, the immobile Queen’s guards, or the many red double-deckers that dot the streets.Quite shamefully, I have yet to truly discover any of these and after 6 weeks of being here, today was the first time, I actually caught a glimpse of Big Ben.
This past weekend, nevertheless, I finally embarked on a touristic attempt : taking a tour. This wasn’t your conventional double decker sight-seeing tour, but an aptly and appealingly named package called “The Alternative London Walking Tour“ . A 2- hour walk on a pay-what-you-like basis, this tour won’t bring you through the regal city centre , but instead, will weave you through the lesser-seen backstreets of London’s East End.
Here boasts one of the most vibrant and diverse street art scenes in the world
It serves as an urban canvas for famous artists like Banksy and Ben Eine. The tour guide (pictured above), a graffiti artist himself, leads our group of 15 through street branches and alleyways off of Brick Lane – the prominent vein of East End.
You might think of street art as the hiphop culture-inspired type of modern graffiti. In Vietnam, I know that many consider it vandalism and the farthest thing from being art. But London’s East End, opening its wall (legally) to the imagination of many, offers so much more than just graffiti and perhaps, even redefines the concept of graffiti altogether. Its walls are plastered with everything from detailed fine-art masterpieces to massive stick figures, using every artistic influences you could possibly think of: spray-paint cubism, stencil art, …mere scribbles! It is an urban gallery and for me personally, as visually engaging and even at times more exciting than a stroll through an actual museum.
Our artist tour guide noted something very fascinating to me, and that is, East End is an open gallery, in every sense of the word. It’s open to interpretation, it’s open to the simplest to the wildest of ideas, and it’s even open to modification. Once you set your art onto the streets, it’s for the world to ponder on, love, hate and even change.
This neighborhood, the guide shares, owns its bustling and multi-faceted nature to a history dotted with different waves of immigration.The French Huguenots first came in 1650, commencing a lively textile and crafts industry in the area. 200 years later, the industry would be inherited shortly by the Irish and then prominently by Ashkenazi Jews. The end of the World War II era saw the British government opening up its immigration policy as a revival tactic, through which Brick Lane became home to generations of Bangladeshis until now.
Fun fact: Brick Lane is curry capital of the UK, with a total of 52 curry shops on a single street.
The Brick Lane Jamme Masjid mosque on the corner of Fournier Street and Brick Lane is perhaps the most concrete proof of the area’s diverse history, being the only building in the world that has, in its history, been a protestant church, a Wesleyan chapel, a Methodist chapel, a synagogue and now a mosque.
A multi-cultural centre of communities developing and struggling through their settlements in the UK, the streets here in East End, by the 80s amd 90s, had become a space of expression, where generations of people addressed their feelings, discontent or the social challenges they face in society – with the most obvious being issues of racism and discrimination. From being an outlet of social stress, it now has been branded as an artistic venue – where street artists from all over the world, inspired by their urban environments, come to play.
It was an overall visual treat and a tour that, more or less, revealed the backside of London’s portrait – a side less common to the world, you could say. On a side note, it did take place on one of the coldest days I have experienced in London of yet and we had to give up 2/3 of the way after walking in the painstakingly rainy and humid cold for over an hour. I’ll save more on the tour in our next attempt in the spring and also the amazing vintage markets and gastronomical variety in the area for another post. For now, I leave you with some snapshots of East End’s colorful street art. Enjoy!
***This post contains some notions and photos that may be offensive and downright gross to some. Please be advised!
I mean, really, if you wanted to, you could literally “eat your heart out”.
A cake exhibition of the same name in London this weekend enticed me by the word “cake” alone, but that was well before I knew that along with the “heart”, i could add to the delectable batch, anything from fingers, brains, feces, and oh of course, the occasional STD warts.
Grossed out? Continue to read, you should not – because this is the farthest thing done to the notion of “cakes” from what you could ever possibly fathom: A bakery showcase inspired by human diseases! The above picture is only the beginning, and yes, it’s all EDIBLE. If you can stomach this, then let’s get anatomical *_*!!!
This is definitely where you should be if one lazy Saturday morning, you suddenly have the appetite for some prostate cancer truffles or just fancy a sip of urine sample and quick breakfast with blood marmalade drizzled on toast. The gruesome showcase, in its second year here in London, is the fruit of Miss Cakehead (aka Emma Thomas) – a PR manager known across UK for her provocative food creations.
To top it off, the showcase unraveled in the Pathology Museum of St.Bart’s Hospital – possibly the last place on earth to work up an appetite, considering the endless jars of actual, donated body parts around you. Aptly situated for the theme, you could say, but definitely not the candy my eyes were hoping for.
Once you can get past the squeamish effects of the 2nd or 3rd cupcake adorned with moles, chlamydia, and genital warts, you truly start to appreciate the craftsmanship behind some of these creations – sugar spinning body parts and the most grotesque of diseases into an artform. Beyond the shock of it all, it’s an event aimed to provoke and educate. I would sum the message up as : “You are what you eat“. If eating some chocolate cigarette butts and a blackened lung doesn’t get you to think twice about your next drag, then well, I guess…you have a pretty tough stomach 😀
And perhaps the most curious bit of all, did I try any? Because I think to myself everyday, “yummm, syphilis cupcakes!!“, lol. Well, I don’t really have a sweet tooth and I do have a knack for eating with my eyes, so I wasn’t exactly free of all reservations. I did, however, give in to curiosity in the end. All creations were being sold with funds going to charity supporting the treatment and research into the portrayed diseases. You had an anatomical chocolate cake selling at £350 but considering our modest student pockets, we opted for the £3 “fecal samples” and the £2 “kidney” macaron.
Let me just say: sh*t has never tasted so good *_*!
Here are a couple of snaps from the exhibition, I would advise you to not press your nose against this one.
*NOTE: I just found out that an exhibition of the same concept took place in London in early October, but with meat and it was to promote Resident Evil – it was called the Human Flesh Meat Market , Sweeney Todd much? so you can decide if it’s too gruesome before checking it out here! Enjoy!