Food, Living

Coimbra, Portugal – An unexpected pleasure!

When I travel I am always looking for that one place that will beckon me to stop moving and stay a little longer.  It’s usually a small town, void of ‘hop-on hop-off’ buses or Michelin-rated restaurants, just something about the people that makes you slow down and pause. In Italy it was a place called Bevagna, in Mexico it was Mazunte and in Portugal it was Coimbra.

library-coimbra-interiorThe country’s former capital is home to the oldest university and has a mind-blowing library with an outstanding rare books collection, including several versions of The Bible form the 14th century.  One of the biggest “enemies” of the books is, apart from the humidity and temperature differences, the moths that feed on paper. The bookcases are made of oakwood which, apart from being extremely dense (making it difficult for the bugs to penetrate), has a scent that repels them. The books have yet another ally in this daily fight for conservation: the interior of this book temple houses a colony of bats which spend the night eating any insect that appears, thus freeing the books from their attack.

The Machado de Castro Museum was stunningly beautiful and while I usually tire quickly of religious art these pieces were so breathtaking that they seemed to transport you to another time, they beckoned silence and awe. The museum is built over a Roman crypt that you can visit- cool underground tunnels and arches.

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During my stay I had the privilege of participating in a private cooking workshop at the Escola de Hotelaria e Turismo. I inquired at my hotel and the owner went above and beyond in making this happen. I arrived at the school and was welcomed by the administrator and introduced to Chef Emanuel and his students Raquel and Rita. Chef explained the dishes we would be preparing; duck rice, octopus, bacaloa (cod), pork, Portuguese gazpacho, lemon rice pudding… just to name a few.  We worked in the commercial kitchen of the cooking school- all gleaming stainless steel and lots of space. The duck rice was phenomenal- rice that is cooked with duck stock and served with shredded roasted duck meat. The tender octopus was served with oven-roasted smashed potatoes and topped with a few splashes of olive oil and sea salt.  The rice pudding dessert was the perfect amount of sweetness and the creaminess contrasted perfectly with the bright lemon flavor. All served with delicious wine of course. Beyond the food, I loved the chance to talk with Raquel and Rita and to learn more about their lives in this region and what they hoped to do once they finished school.

Hands down this was the highlight of my journey!

Where to stay in Coimbra:  http://www.theluggagehostel.com/en/Utilities/Homepage.aspx

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Food, Living

Cooking Class in Marrakech

You may think you have never taken a cooking class but I bet you have. Maybe you didn’t learn to make gnocchi while you traveled through Italy or handmade tortillas in Mexico, but I am sure you have shared kitchen secrets. Your first teacher was likely your mother inviting you to mix the batter as she made oatmeal cookies, your father teaching you to flip a pancake on a Sunday morning and later your college roommate showing you how to make the perfect margarita. Food is the common denominator, a meal shared is the ultimate communication.

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A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of taking a cooking class in Marrakesh at Faim D’Epices. My instructor Ilam, a lovely young woman originally from Meknes (land of olives and wine) led me through the making of a beef, pear and orange tagine (a slow-cooked stew done stovetop in a clay pot), a traditional wheat and semolina bread and msemens (Morocco’s equivalent to flour tortillas).

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The Faim D’Epices Cooking School is located about 30 minutes from the center and after you have traipsed through Marrakesh’s busy Medina (old town) the open landscape is a welcome change with orchards of orange trees and friendly dogs to welcome you.

During the class we were taught how to check the authenticity of saffron- rub a piece on white paper and the color should be yellow, never red. Saffron is the highly prized dried stigma of the crocus flower, it takes over 70000 blossoms to make a pound of saffron, making it the most expensive spice in the world.

We were also taught about argan oil. The argan tree is only found in a small region of southwestern Morocco and has not been successfully transplanted anywhere else. The argan tree has the amazing quality of pulling water from the ground and in the driest areas you will see everything brown except for the green of the argan tree. Because of this, goats have been known to climb the tree and eat the leaves. To check the authenticity of your oil you can put it in the freezer. Different oils freeze at different temperatures so they will separate and you will be able to see if your oil is pure.

18767221_10158757557275243_1599565076_oThe highlight of the class was the opportunity to meet Ilam. When touring Morocco most of the Moroccan people you interact with are men. Most of the waiters, tour guides and even hotel staff tended to be men, so I really appreciated the chance to chat with Ilam over lunch.

Overall a great experience!

 

Cooking classes in Marrakesh: http://www.faimdepices.com/

Cooking Classes with me in Huatulco, Mexico: http://www.huatulcocookingclasses.com/