Iran, part one

That first morning in Tehran, we stepped out into the street and I could smell bread. A friend’s father had told me about it: san-gak, sounds just like “saint jacques” (the French term for sea scallops.) I could smell it but I couldn’t find it, so we went to a nearby youth hostel for breakfast.

Naan-e-barberi baker in Tajrish market, Tehran

Naan-e-barberi baker in Tajrish market, Tehran

Fresh barberries, herbs, and chilis at Tajrish market, Tehran

Fresh barberries, herbs, and chilis at Tajrish market, Tehran

After that first day, spent exploring Tajrish market, I had a better idea of what a bakery should look like. We’d found a few in Tajrish – selling naan-e-barberi, and little cornmeal sesame muffins whose name I never managed to learn.

Sangak bread cooling in Isfahan

Sangak bread cooling in Isfahan

The second morning, I followed my nose and found the bakery, and let my male companion push his way into the Iranian line and claim one san-gak for our breakfast. He flicked the hot stones off the back of the bread as it cooled a bit on the metal rack before collecting his change and, following the local example, folding the bread into thirds and sticking it under his arm like a newspaper. We bought feta cheese and cherry jam from the corner store (“Hi! How are you today!” the shopkeepers recognized us from the day before…) and headed back to our apartment to have breakfast.

Sangak bakers in Isfahan

Sangak bakers in Isfahan

Saffron ice cream in Shiraz

Saffron ice cream in Shiraz

In Shiraz, we found the city’s best ice cream and I marveled at its elasticity. We met lovely CouchSurfing hosts who gave me the great joy of helping out in the kitchen – to decorate cardamom saffron rice puddings in celebration of Ashura, the holiday commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussein.

Decorating in Shiraz

Decorating in Shiraz

At Persepolis, our guide organized a picnic lunch. His wife’s Shirazi salad was the best I had during the whole trip.

Lunch at Persepolis

Lunch at Persepolis

In Yazd, we bought a whole box of baklava and snacked on it for days. The saffron rock sugar (nabat) was starting to work its charm on us, and by our final days in Iran, we’d buy a whole kilo to cart home and share with family and friends.

Baklava in Yazd

Baklava in Yazd

In Kashan, I’d learn how to make fesenjan from the mother of a Couch Surfer, who was just as excited to discuss cooking as I was – translated through the mind of our host. To be continued…

Setting the table in Kashan

Setting the table in Kashan

 

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Picking Pomegranates in Greece

“How does the dip get such a smoky taste? How can you mimic this at home?” I ask, baffled at how delicious simple things like eggplant dip, yogurt, and fried zucchini taste in this country.

“You have to put a couple of pieces of burnt wood in the oven – in the bottom, so that the eggplant gets the flavor of the smoke.”

Eggplant spread and sesame-honey cheese

Eggplant spread and sesame-honey cheese

Last week, I turned 30 – and one of my birthday gifts was a trip to Thessaloniki to meet family friends and eat our way through town.

The French fries are sprinkled with oregano. The cheeses are all names I’ve never heard of (except, of course, for the feta and halloumi) and are served baked with tomatoes, fried, or covered with sesame seeds and honey (we ordered two of those…) The smoked mackerel with red onions has the same deep wood flavor as the eggplant dip – not like the peppery kind I buy at home in Paris.

“What is this white stuff with the octopus?” thinking it was a sort of a labneh, the Lebanese cheese spread – the waiter looked at me and replied with a simple shrug. “It’s yogurt.” I had imagined I’d be wowed by the yogurt in Greece but this exceeded my expectations.

Grilled octopus with seaweed and yogurt

Grilled octopus with seaweed and yogurt

In one of the food markets, a sweet street dog sleeps in front of a stand of salt cod.

In another, fishmongers shout prices of neatly presented octopi – the legs rolled under the bodies so that the carcasses look like sweet seafood flowers.

Lunch in a market fish tavern brings a spare guitar; a bourgeois-looking man who could be a city council member takes up the opportunity to play with an excellent errant accordion player. The other diners sing along to well-known Greek folk songs.

An accordion player at lunch

An accordion player at lunch

Dinner in a rebetika tavern listening to sad folk songs, and a first taste of retsina – a white wine flavored with pine resin. An acquired taste, it goes well with the cold dishes we order first – some perfect tzatziki (“this one is mixed with garlic spread,”), more smoked mackerel, fava bean purée (served with a dash of capers – the perfect addition of salt to the smooth spread.)

Rebetika - Greek folk music - at dinner

Rebetika – Greek folk music – at dinner

Fava bean purée

Fava bean purée

During the day, we climb narrow cobblestone graffiti-ridden streets to the castle at the top of the hill. I admire the pomegranates bursting from trees on small front lawns of colorful urban homes.

Each tree I see, I hope to spy a fruit that I can pick without a ladder. Finally on a small square there is a public tree – with fruits so ripe they’ve burst open on the branch. I climb, grab my prize, and snack on it the rest of the way up the hill.

Pomegranate / Grenade / ρόδι

Pomegranate / Grenade / ρόδι

The icing on the cake was a Sunday morning post-hotel-breakfast treat at Hatzis (http://chatzis.gr/), one of the city’s famous pastry shops, for a buffalo milk and rosewater custard. “I can practically taste the grass the buffalo must have eaten,” the flavor is so surprising and unfamiliar to me.

Buffalo milk - rosewater custard

Buffalo milk – rosewater custard

FiorDiFesta

Last summer, Italy beckoned. The way simple things taste in Italy blows my mind. Pizza, ice cream, coffee, tomatoes, and cheese – all held up to their highest possible standard, excruciatingly delicious. Excruciating because I’ll ask myself “Why doesn’t it taste this good elsewhere?”

I wanted to find a food festival. A celebration of wine, cheese, a specific vegetable, whatever – my only criteria were that it happen sometime between late July and mid August. After various extensive Google searches, I came up with the Fiordilatte Fiordifesta: a festival celebrating the cow’s milk mozzarella “fior di latte” in Agerola, south of Naples.

What my Parisian-American food loving brain was expecting: a regional cheese festival with samplings from different producers, perhaps explanations of why their cheese tasted different from other cheeses, milk samples, etc. Maybe there would be a cow or two, a tasting flute, a wine pairing – you see where I’m coming from.

What we got: a charming town-fair atmosphere with carnival toys for little kids, Christmas-season style lighting in the streets, and glow-stick laden teenagers. (There was also a concert by Italian pop star Umberto Tozzi, but I didn’t learn who he was until we were in the school bus shuttle from the parking lot, and a friend who went to Swiss boarding school got to singing “Te Amo” with the driver…)

FiorDiFest_Teenagers

Since this was taking place in Italy, in the country’s foremost cow-milk mozzarella-producing region, there was also excruciatingly good fair food.

FiorDiFest_Signs

The food was extremely organized: it was not a sandwich OR pasta type of festival, it was a sandwich AND pasta AND mozzarella plate AND melon AND cake type of festival. Meal tickets were sold at €10 apiece, and stands were scattered throughout the town’s main street for each of the six courses (plus wine.)

FiorDiFest_Ticket

Having eaten an enormous lunch earlier that day, my travel companions and I all shared one ticket’s worth of food.

FiorDiFest_Secondo

The food looks simple but the thickness of the pasta, the quality of the cheese and the tomato sauce, even the fried cheese balls – this is not your average fair food:

FiorDiFest_Pasta

FiorDiFest_Sandwich

After dancing the night away to Tozzi’s 30 and 40 year old hits, we scurried back to the rental car and back down the hills to Naples.