Dinner. It’s lovely to eat, but the ratio of time is about 4 to 1 of preparation and table. The pleasure needs to be in the kitchen. What are we doing in the kitchen? Fiddling with groceries on their way to the table. So I’ll talk mostly about groceries here, since that’s what I like best. So there!
We’ve been here fall, winter and spring. Unlike our experience a couple of dozen years ago, the fruit has been various throughout the seasons — apples, oranges, bananas always pretty good, berries variable, melons very good, and the cost of all seasonal. If you’d rather buy an avocado than a car, it’s yours. The same is true of veggies — zukes are somehow always good, lots of them coming from Africa in the winter, I guess. The local spring greens of a surprising variety start to arrive in the south from February or March and northward from March and April. The affordable winter lettuce must come from greenhouses. Arugula hits the shelves like a spring rain. Radicchio and endive are a bit expensive, but still worth it to my mind.
Let me get some order in this. Salad, done. Standard vegetables: everything is like the U.S. Frozen peas and beans are great. Onions, potatoes, shallots (!), mushrooms (watch for forest-picked mushrooms usually from stands on the roadside), carrots, and cabbage are routine and good. I may have mentioned the asparagus arriving in a flurry. They’re really keen about produce as it comes to market through the season for good reason.
Because I can’t speak the language, I look for my meat in packages. Our butcher in Lisbon, whose shop was literally on the ground floor of our apartment building, insisted that he could speak enough English that we could get what we wanted. It had never occurred to me that ground beef for hamburgers might be different from ground beef for meatballs. He had the best cheap wine too.
Similarly, the fish mongers were wonderful. I was astonished watching a woman in a normal store cleaning whole squid. Sorry to say, but I was too timid to venture beyond recognizable fish. Once you get to a fish market here, you’ll understand what I mean by “normal” fish. That said, I had a squid ink risotto that I know I could make if I could get the ingredients.
Sliced meats of a million sorts are usually sold in 100 gram portions. The same goes for dips and olives and dozens of other treats. Again, look up the local phrase “one hundred grams” in Google Translate and point. They will understand when you gesture for more.
Bread is a fraught topic. In fact, it’s not an issue. Outside of the German-speaking countries the bread is mediocre. We didn’t even find very good Italian bread in Trieste. You can pick from bins or cello-wrapped loaves if you want. The women (truly, always women) behind the bakery counter will halve most loaves for you and often slice them, too. It’s a matter of point and nod or ask for a bit of English. I’ve never had an uncomfortable interaction, but I have sometimes ended up accepting what didn’t surprise me to be not quite what I’d hoped for.
Let me revise my assertion that only German-speaking bakers are any good. We were in Greece on a special bread-making day (“a special bread-making day”? yeah, sure, why not?) that featured an incredible big thin loaf of white bread with lots of sesame seeds sprinkled on it that sustained us for days. We found a loaf full of seeds and nuts at Veritas, an organic shop in Barcelona, so good that I mourned when we’d finished eating it.
Wassa Brot crackers are usually available. I love the British cracker Tucs, but sadly it uses palm oil, so I shouldn’t eat them.
Sweets and baked goods are fantastic and dependent on their origin. Honestly, although everyone says that they are traveling for high cultural experiences, they’re really in Europe to eat. The reason to eat lunch and dinner late in Barcelona is to snack at 11 and 4. Sure, visit the Temple of Hephaestos in Athens, so you can cross over for something in the cafes adjacent to the site. I don’t mean some modest cookie; order a small plate of grilled sardines and a glass of wine or a couple of chicken and spinach filo pastries to tide you over until dinner several hours later. The Viennese museums all have cafes. My suggestion is that you are visually tired after an hour or so, but a snack can give you a second hour of viewing. You can pretend to pretend to come to the cultural site for the coffee but really come for the coffee.
Our soups are usually based on chicken broth from inexpensive parts — backs and wings, boiled for a short while with onion and carrot, cooled, cleaned, the bones returned to the pot and the bits of flesh set aside and usually used in a chicken stew.
The electric mixing wand we bought in Barcelona has saved its cost three times a week making vegetable soups.
All up, as usual success is in the planning. One bowl for salad and pasta? Make the salad and move it to the salad plates. One element boils, the others only warm? Use the tea kettle to boil the water for the peas. And one time I ended up boiling eggs in the tea kettle!
Oh, here’s something.
What we traveled with (or here’s pretty strong evidence that my suggestions are not particularly sensible after all) as we went from one kitchen to another:
Small French press, bag of coffee, bag of black tea, some packets of herb tea, carton of goat’s milk, small cheese grater, head of garlic, bottle of olive oil, usually a chunk of pecarino cheese and a bit of butter (there’s a dangerous substance to carry around–I once had a pat of butter melt into my shirt pocket!), measuring spoons, packets of oregano, basil, whole black peppers and sugar, a lemon, a couple of empty plastic bags, and as snacks on the road a couple of mandarin oranges, some peanuts, some digestives biscuits (McVite’s were the favorite).
What we found at our destination apartments:
Dish soap, liquid bath soap, salt, pepper (not always), pasta (often), sugar, one beer and one wine (not always), coffee, tea, herb tea, tp (two rolls usually)
[EE: this may be the last of George’s missives on fun in the kitchen in Europe! Laundry tips may follow!]