After welcoming in 2017 with some mulled wine and a song and waving goodbye to the turbulence that was 2016 you now frantically hit the gym to shed off that unwanted festive frump. January is the ‘reset’ to a new year where one (namely, me) begins with good intentions and a list of resolutions only to chuck it in by mid-Feb and creep back into a more comfortable routine.
Not being overly keen on self-delusion, and even less so on jogging, I’ve decided to start as I mean to go on with my third instalment of the Culinary Quest and another delectable selection of Europe’s finest cuisine. With a hard-boiled Brexit looming ahead I intend to feast as long as my dwindling pound-sterling will carry me. If ‘Brexit means Breakfast’ then I’m going back for seconds before they throw me out the door.
Mussels from Brussels
With the theme of ‘exercise’ playing on the mind I am drawn to my first clamed cliché. A far-cry from the spinning scissor-kicks of Jean Claude Van Damme, Brussels’ famed mussels are an affordable and tasty treat after a day of exploring the staggering architectural beauty around the city centre.
Walking down the atmospheric alleys filled with restaurants and eateries galore you are spoilt for choice as to which spot to spend your euros. Almost everywhere sells mussels. It has become a tourist-trap staple and, when I last checked, business is still booming.
Having found one spot which suited my purse as well as my hankering for sea food I chose a seat facing the bustle of the crowds and proceeded to absorb the evening’s atmos. The setting was good fun. The service was bog-standard, and the price was affordable. But what about the food? Being a fan of sea food and having eaten mussels several times before I was neither in shock nor ecstasy. The bivalve molluscs were fine. The sauce in which they bathed was like a pale broth and also tasted fine. No complaints all-round. The most exciting factor of the meal was the sight of the giant bucket in which they were served. Although the quantity did not equal full-to-bursting I felt satisfied in the knowledge that I had eaten ‘Mussels in Brussels’ and moved on towards the famed Delirium Tremens bar for a ‘boot’ of their finest Belgian beer to wash it all down. As a lovely German man once told me: “Fish have to swim”.
Bucket and spade? Mussels from Brussels (circa 2015). Photo by Steph.
“Eviva España” Eviva Paella!
From Belgian food to a Belgian pop song my tenuous link to my next European dish could not have been more seamless. Paella is a dish to be shared but give me a portion for two to myself any day! When strolling around Valencia and admiring the splendour of the city’s variety of historical and modern buildings I happened upon a restaurant in the corner of the Plaça de la Verge, overlooking the square and its fascinating fountain. The February wind was chill, but the Spanish sun was shining and I was determined to eat a paella.
I chose a combination of sea food and ‘Valenciana’, which, according to this particular restaurant, was chicken. Although I prefer sea food over all I was not disappointed by the chicken. And since paella originates from Valencia, why should I be? The rice was flavoursome, and the chicken was tender. My only regret was only buying a single portion, but not wanting to look greedy in front of the handsome, tightly-trousered, Spanish waiters I savoured my dish and gently sipped my Spanish lager whilst admiring the view.
A paella in the sun at Plaça de la Verge, Valencia (circa 2016). Photo by Steph.
With the likes of Sunny Beach resort, Nessebar’s old town, and the Balkan Mountains you cannot say that Bulgaria doesn’t have variety along the coast of the Black Sea. From clubland extravaganzas to traditional folk nights it has a plethora of attractions to suit all tastes. Having experienced both the seedier sides of the Sunny Beach clubbing area and the picturesque villages within the mountain range I can safely say that taste is one thing of which Bulgarian food has in abundance.
With a side of deliciously simple Schopska salad, Kvarma is one such tasty dish. As with many Balkan dishes pork is a key ingredient as well as a rich tomato-based sauce and vegetables. Slightly spiced and served in traditionally hand-painted Bulgarian earthenware for the tourists Kvarma is not limited to one method. Indeed, many restaurants have their own take on the presentation and some serve it with an egg broiling on top of the hearty stew. Each version I had was a delight and I savoured every mouthful.
However, along with all the good places to eat come the bad. Sunny Beach has its fair share of dodgy eateries and, unfortunately for my friends and I, we happened to stumble over one. The Kvarma had everything right. It tasted good, it looked good, and the price was good. But as the evening rolled onward my friends began to drop like flies as their bowels loosened past the point of no return. Thankfully, they were saved the embarrassment of being caught short without a loo, but it was a close call! With my cast-iron gut I was spared the horror.
If you are going to sample this dish, be careful where you eat. The line between pleasure and pain is thin. Or perhaps it was the Rakia.
Heaven or Hell? Delicious Kvarma (circa 2012). Photo by Steph.
The hills are alive with the sound of thigh-slapping, beer-slurping, strudel-scoffing, and picture-snapping. Or at least they are when I’m taking a hike. Austria’s mountains, villages, and regal cities are a sight to behold. And after a trek around Salzburg, Innsbruck, Lintz, Graz, Vienna, and even a jaunt to Arnie’s home village of Thal to see the Arnold Schwarzenegger Museum, it remains one of my most favourite budgeted trips to date.
After asking a local man where he would recommend a decent, traditional meal I found a seat in an acclaimed restaurant and made my order. If you’re planning on visiting Austria’s majestic capital then Wiener Schnitzel should be on the cards. Named after the capital itself it is a truly Austrian experience, which means ‘meat’. With Austria on the border with Bavaria you can imagine the similarities in culture. Not only in beer and food but also in atmosphere. Granted that Vienna is one of the richest and most expensive cities in the country, and the price of my schnitzel was no exception to extravagant cost, but the sense of a hearty mountain meal is maintained by the size of the portion. And in my case; thank god! My limited expenditure meant I couldn’t splash out on a side of potatoes, but the schnitzel was mine. A pork chop fried in breadcrumbs with a slice of lemon. It tasted exactly as it looked. Simple and unsurprising. It was pleasant save for the amount of salt of which there was plenty. Now I understood the inclusion of the lemon. By the time I had finished I was parched and gasping for a glass of water. I made do with sucking the lemon dry.
All-in-all, it was fine. Not the best I’d ever eaten, nor was it the worst. But it satisfied another tick on the Austrian bucket list.
Salty Wiener Schnitzel (circa 2014). Photo by Steph.
If you’ve resolved to becoming a conscientious healthy-eater, sweating it out at the January gym and sacrificing pork pies for green salads to reach that bikini-body then I say, good on you! Keep at it, and you’ll get there. If you’re not quite trading in the remote control for the dumb bells yet then I say, enjoy yourself in moderation. Over-indulgence can not only spoil your waistline but also your appreciation. And despite some of the shocks and horrors of the previous year there is still a lot we should appreciate and love in Britain, Europe, and the world. Nothing is for granted, so make the most of it, and all the best for 2017!
Featured image (circa 2016). Photo by Steph.