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Archive for the ‘Roses’ Category

My  first experience of Broadway was the musical Grease, starring an as yet undiscovered John Travolta.  At the intermission,  I confessed to being taken aback by his suggestive and enthusiastic pelvic gyrations.  Vulgar I think was the word I used.   An elegant lady  of a certain age (ironically, likely my age now) looked down her well powdered nose at me and remarked with that distinctive New York  disdain:   “my dear, you are either very young, or  you’re not from New York!”.

Well, she was right on both counts:  I was 15 when I first visited the city of dreams and  it was love at first sight.    Noisy, crowded, polluted, even dangerous, whatever the downsides to this urban environment, New York offered a world of possibilities, experiences, and potential.  Born and raised in small Northern Ontario towns,  I embraced the city, in concept and reality:  years later, when I read that Bangkok was the “the Mount Everest of Cities”,  to be attempted by only the most intrepid of urban adventurers, I extended my stay from 2 days to a week!

So I had spent a week in  Mexico City almost exactly 4 years ago (on my way to San Miguel de Allende and beyond) , but given that I did not speak Spanish, the boutique hotel staff spoke no English to aid me and I had read recent reports about personal crimes (kidnapping & robbery), I scuttled back to the confines of my hotel room every night as the sun was setting. Cowardly I suppose, but considered prudent.   During the day, I went to outstanding museums, enjoyed fabulous lunches, rambled through the parks, took the tourist bus  and vowed to come back to explore this fascinating and vibrant city when I was better prepared or in company.

And so when my friend Raven emailed with the good news that Michael and Valarie Coon, also friends and proprietors of The Inside Route and Casa de Cocinas, were leading one of their well-regarded culinary tours to Mexico City, I was among the first to hit the “yes” button.  The 3 day itinerary hit all of my urban appreciation buttons:  markets, museums and a hi/low mix of restaurants that would give us an overview of the food scene in D.F. (District Federale).  My fellow travellers were an affable, eclectic mix but united in our love of all things food:  conversation during the journey went back and forth between discussing their most recent visit to the famed French Laundry in Napa California to the joys of digging clams out of the beach in Maine. My kind of people.

Our 3 day trip could realistically only be an overview:  would you presume to know all the culinary and cultural  landscape of New York or London or Paris in just a few days, or even in a few visits?  Mexico City is the biggest city in the world, but as you stroll from café to boutique shop to museum in the desirable residential neighbourhoods of Polanco, Condessa, or Zona Rosa, it feels approachable and surprisingly human scale.  There are over 160 museums, one for every niche, including the new Mucho Mundo Chocolate Museum which naturally was on our agenda! And from taco stand to trendy bistro, the food is spectacular:

If anywhere could make the Paris and New York food scenes look stagnant, it’s Mexico City.  The nation’s cuisine has even been awarded Unesco World Heritage status – a global first.  July 13 BA High Life 

Here are a few of my  highlights.

MeroTero  Amsterdam 204. Colonia Condessa.  It ranked #26 out of  Latin America’s Top 50 Best Restaurants, and is one of only 5 Mexico City restaurants on that list.   The braised pork cheek with lentils was succulent and full of deep Unami flavour:  the warm almond cake was the best of three excellent desserts and will live in my gustatory memory for a long time.

Gabriela Cámara, the star restaurateur behind Mexico’s impossibly hip seafood shack Contramar, is tackling a new protein. Its name derived from the Spanish words for fish and bull, MeroToro is the Slow Food queen’s take on surf and turf. Still, expect a similar combination of refined food in an informal  setting. Cámara’s executive chef, Jair Téllez, combines the flavours of Baja with the best possible ingredients—admirer José Manuel describes the restaurant’s short seasonal menu as “Mexican cuisine in a Mediterranean style” (entrée, $15-$26)  Conde Nast Traveler

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El Huequito.  Bolivar 58

On an episode of “No Reservations”,  Anthony Bourdain  judged them “shockingly good” and “head & shoulders” above other tacos al pastor he has tasted.  Now all of us in the group, having read  at least “Kitchen Confidential”, conceded that while his arrogance is  palpable, his palate cannot be doubted.  The shaved pork was tender and succulent not greasy at all, the sauces were smartly tangy  and I pretty much ate everything on my plate. Yes, that entire plate.

Delicious Tacos al Pastor

Delicious Tacos al Pastor

Maximo Bistrot Local. Tonala 133, Colonia Roma,  http://maximobistrot.cm.mx

The chef is Eduardo Garcia, formerly of the esteemed Pujol, and  he spent a stage at Manhattan’s Le Bernardin.  I have been to Le Bernardin for lunch and it was one of the finest meals that I have ever enjoyed anywhere.  I can still remember swooning over the personal box of macaroons. A very popular and busy bistro, Maximo experienced some infamy as a result of the spoiled daughter of a very senior bureaucrat  throwing a tantrum when denied her desired table. Her threats to have “my daddy close you down for health violations” were recorded on the smartphones of  disapproving dinners, and the aforementioned bureaucrat lost his job. Class tinged scandals aside, the food is sublime:   the asparagus with hollandaise, a poached egg and truffle was textbook in execution and exquisite in taste.  It is a classic bistro that really delivers on the promise of fresh food, sourced from the markets daily and prepared simply and carefully and perfectly.  Of all the places we dined at, this one is on “my must return to” list.

Aqua y Sal Cebicheria:  Compos Eliseos, 199-A Polanco.

So much of what passes for ceviche in Mexico is just cooked seafood in a sweet tomato sauce, which very likely started life as ketchup.   This popular restaurant offered a dizzying array of ceviche choices, from the Pacific coast to the Veracruz to the Yucatan, all with distinct and sophisticated flavours.  Ok, I’ll go back to this one too.

Cebiche Brunch

Cebiche Brunch

Markets:

We strolled throughout the Mercado San Juan, the so called “Chef’s Market” where we oohed and ahhed over the fresh earthy morels, caressed the baby vegetables (before we were gently told not to), and happily grazed on  plentiful free samples of aged manchego and Iberico ham.

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Our last 2 markets were my favourites:  first up, the fabulous Jamaica de Mercado  where I bought an armful of fragrant Casablanca lilies, 20 lavender tinged  roses and 2 bunches of astalomeria, all  for less than 20$. We marvelled at the range and quantity of flowers, the imaginative and massive arrangements, and wondered where they were going, who was buying them, and how did they move all of this product every day so it was fresh and fabulous every morning?  I could have stayed for another hour but I was filling up the back of the bus already. Flowers, like food, a personal weakness.

Our last stop was the  sprawling Nueva Viga Fish Market, the second largest in the world after Tokyo.  The variety was  overwhelming but on Michael’s advice, we stayed in one long aisle and went down to the end, taking note of products and prices before making our purchases on the way back.  For me,  2 kilos of fresh  head-on gigantic shrimp and 2 dozen small clams found their way into the ice packed coolers that the Coons thoughtfully provided.  3 hours later back in San Miguel, the clams were sweet and briny in a delicious  pasta al vongole.    The next day, the shrimps were marinated in a bath of olive oil, a little anise liquor, white wine, lots of garlic, lemon juice, coarse salt and a pinch each of sweet smoked Spanish paprika and red chilli flakes.  A couple of minutes on the plancha on each side and these beauties were bronzed and on the plate. I would have taken a photo but by the time we looked up from eating,  there was nothing but shells left 😉

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Oh yes, they tasted as good as they look!

Oh yes, they tasted as good as they look!

My ability to take photos with my iPhone is pretty limited, so I enclose a photo gallery taken by my talented new friend Nancy Gardner.  Enjoy! And book a trip to DF!

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Solo dining is an oxymoron in the Chinese culture. Food at mealtimes is meant to be shared and so a person dining alone is an oddity. The nearest nod to an accommodation that I have observed after a month in China is the large bowl of noodles, vegetables and sometimes meat which can be had almost everywhere. However, a bowl of steaming hot broth, while wonderful and warming during the cool, crisp days of early spring, does not seem so appetizing now that the weather has turned warm. And I like the variety offered by the multiple courses of a typical Chinese meal. But it does seem excessive and frankly wasteful since I can rarely finish even one of the plates offered.

The meal you see above was my attempt at a “modest” dinner. I did not realize that the “duck” meant a variation on Peking duck, with the traditional treatments of separate meat, crispy skin, the pancakes for wrapping, and couscous? Yes, the latter was unexpected. Since I had also ordered rice as the starch. A warning for diners in China: unlike in North America, serving staff will not tell you if you have ordered too many courses, how large the dishes are in volume or if your meals come with a starch accompaniment or component so ordering an additional noodle or rice dish is not necessary. Just tuckin and enjoy.

However, they will emphatically make their feelings known if you order too little! I happened on a mid sized respectable looking restaurant in the town which was home to a series of Buddhist grottoes I had toured that day. It had real cloth table clothes and napkins, as real cloth as polyester can be, and that is generally my hurdle for a dinner spot. (My standards have fallen somewhat since going on the Silk Road! Or perhaps just adjusted to my circumstances. ) Tired and dusty, I was looking for a little sustenance before heading back to my equally tired hotel . So I ordered from the illustrated menu, what looked like a half of a roast chicken or duck and some cold buckwheat noodles as an appetizer course. Well, she threw the order pad down in a huff, went off on a rant to the back office, and the next thing I knew there were 5 Chinese people, including the imposing lady owner herself, standing around my table, all trying to tell me the error of my ways.

First, they were pointing at the chili peppers in the noodles, making blowing noises, indicating heat I assumed. I nodded that yes, I understood heat, and that was OK. They made those universally understood, tsk tsk sounds, since I clearly did not know what folly I was about to commit. They then turned to a page with other meat dishes pointing emphatically at what looked like pork in a sauce of some kind. OK, I can go along with the recommendation of the house, and tried to turn the page back to the roast chicken, to indicate that I would have pork instead. No, no, no, more finger wagging, and turning the pages of the menu to the soup page. Dinner is not dinner without soup apparently. I was given a choice of two, and then I naturally picked the wrong one, and was corrected with more emphatic pointing to the other more robust choice. Well, this was 5 on 1 in a foreign country. I conceded to their greater wisdom, closed the menu to indicate agreement, which resulted in satisfied nods all round. Sino-Canadian negotiations round one successfully concluded.

The buckwheat noodles, while served in a chili oil vinaigrette, did not come with the chili peppers promised in the photo. I could see how this was going to go. It was fine regardless. The roast chicken was an entire bird, with crisp mahogany skin and globules of golden fat I tried hard to avoid. Sweet and sour pork, naturally, was that extra meat dish I needed to have. It must be the fall back dish of choice whenever a Caucasian happens by. It was more sweet than sour, being heavy on the corn syrup which was literally laced across the generous pile of pork ribs like spun sugar. And then a full sized tureen of tomato soup. The Chinese grow allot of luscious, rich red, densely fleshed tomatoes which are appearing in the markets now: none of those came near this soup during its creation. It was reminiscent of Heinz but then again, that might have just been the amount of salt and sugar I tasted, both of which are used with a heavy hand in China.

So while I was picking my way through my 4 dishes, owner lady hawk eyed one table over, an earnest young man came and sat down opposite me, and asked in not so bad English, if I liked his city. Well, this posed a wee bit of a conundrum, because frankly, his city, like many polluted post industrialized cities in China was the civic equivalent of a junk yard dog. Dirty, ill kept, smelly, noisy are few of the adjectives that readily came to mind. I chewed slowly and thoughtfully, as I crafted a diplomatic response. His hometown did have 3 redeeming qualities. The Longman grottoes of Buddhist art that I (and 2000 Chinese tourists) had seen today. It holds a famous annual Peony Festival, and large hanging banners with photos of that gorgeous flower in all variations were still hanging from street lamps. And as an effort in civic beautification, there are roses planted among the public thruways: showy floribundas were heavy with pink, red, yellow or orange blossoms in the median of every 4 lane road way and pink carpet roses filled the spaces defining the on/off ramps. So I was able to say in complete honesty that I thought that all of the the flowers of his town made a very beautiful impression, and I liked them very much. Sino-Canadian relations remained positive at the conclusion of discussions. And I think that the staff enjoyed the soup too.

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One does not readily equate a large, resolutely commercial city like Beijing with tranquility and natural beauty. But that is what you find easily within the numerous parks which punctuate the urban core. Many of the parks were the work of long dead emperors and are laid out in patterns which follow the ritual processions for sacrifice and worship of long forgotten gods. That form results in long winding pathways, and streams and fish ponds wreathed with willows. Formal flower beds are carefully planted and assiduously attended by large busy teams of gardeners. The largest and most elaborate is of course the Summer Palace, which I spoke about in an earlier post. These photos of flowers and kite flyers were taken in Ritan Park. Ritan Park is the oldest park in Beijing and its name means “sun altar” or temple. If you are so inclined, you can join local people at 6 am here, practicing the martial arts of Wushu: you would be familiar with its most common form, Tai-Chi.

Spring in northern China brings peonies and wisteria blossoms, both fragrant and extravagant harbingers of summer roses to come. The peony is one of the most iconic flowers in Chinese art (the other, and more prized historically has been the chrysanthemum, a symbol of long life). The peony is the symbol for nobility, female beauty and fertility, quite fitting to this season of renewal and rebirth.

Of course, I speak of food as well as flowers!

After a visit yesterday to a very good local market, I prepared the evening meal focusing on the first of the season, locally grown produce. Waxy new potatoes tossed with the most pungent mint and rich Irish butter, firm fleshy stalks of asparagus gilded with just a hint of that butter and lemon, and a salad of mixed baby greens with sweet cherry tomatoes. There was some protein in there too; medallions of pork tenderloin in a mustard sauce. And the fridge is full of containers of large juicy strawberries picked by my hosts over the weekend. I can honestly say, my cooking talents aside, that the asparagus was the best example of that grassy, succulent vegetable I have every enjoyed. Fingers crossed for a few more weeks of harvest!

You will note that I said that in Beijing one can find natural beauty: I did not say nature. One of the pronounced cultural differences between us is the almost incalculable value we in the West place on the experience of nature. We seek out nature when we need to be revived, energized or renewed, depending upon our urban malady of moment. For some, we feel closest to the transcendent, a sense of something larger than ourselves, however we define it, only in the presence of nature.

In China, not so much. Nature is that which needs to be, and indeed, must be, controlled, harnessed and mastered. It is emphatically not better left untouched. Better to be bent to one’s will. As I understand it, native Chinese here do not take a walk in the woods, hike in the hills, camp under the stars, or even dine alfresco. In such an ancient civilization, there has been a lot of mastering of nature over the centuries. Given the drive and ambitions of this country to be once again a dominant world power, there will be a lot more. It is not simply a need for ever more resources and power to fuel its exponential growth, although that is an imperative: it is also part of an aesthetic that prefers the tamed to the wild. Yet, there have been parts of China preserved as wildlife sanctuaries or protected zones for species unique or at risk. So perhaps there is a shifting of sentiment, but I do not believe that underlying difference in our perspective with respect to the intrinsic value of nature for its own sake has changed.

The title of this post deals with Roses, although I have not mentioned them yet or included pictures. Roses are the next wave of flowers to bloom here – and I expect a truly breathtaking display. Multiple rose buds on small, large and climbing plants are appearing everywhere – in parks, beside the roadways, ringing public buildings. Roses from China were introduced to Europe in the late 18thC, and they are said to have revolutionized the world of roses. Almost all of what we love about roses: richness in colour, unfurling shape, repeat blooming, and intensity and range of fragrance, we owe to the China genes. I am giddy with anticipation.

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