Madrid, Spain: The Ultimate Tapas Crawl!

My love affair with Spain and Spanish cuisine began many years ago when I was a student and spent a year abroad studying in Spain.  Since that time I have returned to this beautiful country for many visits and tried as many tapas as my tummy would allow.  Madrid, Spain is, in my opinion, one of the great capital cities of the world, well worth a visit for its historical importance, amazing museums, parks, warm people, culture, and of course, food and wine! Whether you are on a short layover, or visiting for several days, one of the must-do activities here is a tapas crawl, or as the Spanish call it, “un tapeo”.

What are “tapas”?

Tapas are small portions of (usually savory) dishes including cured meats, cheeses, salads, fried goodies, seafood, and other tasty bites, usually served with a drink.  What began as a tradition in the south of Spain has now become commonplace all over the country; the tapas crawl, or tapeo, where friends make a night of hopping from one tapas bar to the next, enjoying a drink and a tapa (or more) at each place.  The tapas crawl may function as a snack to tide one over until dinner (Spaniards typically do not eat dinner until around 10 pm or sometimes later), or may end up being a “nomadic” dinner.  Traditionally tapas are consumed with a drink while standing at the bar, although many tapas bars now offer indoor tables or outdoor terrace seating for groups for a small surcharge.  To a tourist, a tapas bar may be intimidating, as during peak evening hours (after 9 pm), they are often loud, crowded, and have one daily menu scribbled on the wall chalkboard only in Spanish.  But please do not let this deter you from enjoying one of the greatest things about visiting Spain!  Reference my tapas cheat sheet later in this post 🙂

Folklore surrounding the origin of “tapas”

No one can be sure how the idea of tapas came about, but there are several fun stories that have been told to explain their origin.

One legend involves King Alfonso X, El Sabio or “The Wise One,” who made sure that Castilian taverns serving wine always accompanied it with something to eat so that the clients would not get too drunk and rowdy by drinking on an empty stomach.

Another story claims that while on a long trip, King Alfonso had stopped to rest in the town of Ventorillo del Chato in the southern province of Cádiz, and he ordered a glass of sherry. There was a gusty wind, so the innkeeper served him his glass of sherry covered by a slice of ham to prevent the sherry from getting sand in it. King Alfonso liked it, and when he asked for a second glass, he requested another tapa (which means ‘lid’ or “cover”).

Another common explanation is that an object (such as a piece of bread) would often be placed over a drink to keep the fruit flies from getting in it; at some point it became common to add a snack to the cover.

Whatever their origin, tapas are oh-so-delicious and Madrid is the perfect place for you to get your feet wet and embark on an epic tapas crawl that will have you coming back for more!

Do I have to pay for tapas?

It depends- mainly on what city you are in and what kind of bar it is.  In the most traditional tapas bars, you order a drink and a tapa is given to you by the house along with your drink (the house decides what the tapa will be).  As long as you keep ordering drinks, they keep giving you another tapa.  This is common in the city of Granada.  However in most large cities, Madrid included, usually you must order a tapa and pay for it.  The menu will usually be on the wall or on a card.  The portion sizes vary depending on the bar; some will have a small (for one person) portion or “pincho”, or they may offer a “ración” which is a larger plate made to share.  Sometimes you can also order a half portion or “media-ración”.

Tapas Bar Etiquette 

For an authentic tapas bar experience, stand at the bar with the locals, don’t be shy!  Sometimes a few items will be on display under glass at the counter; its ok to point to an item to ask for it if your Spanish is not great.  Look for the menu typically on the wall above the bar (and sometimes also posted on a board outside the entry).  Order your drink first; then once it arrives you will know whether or not the house will give you a tapa.  Assuming they don’t, choose an item from the menu.  When you are ready to order, you will need to get the attention of the bartender; be assertive, or you may never get served.  It’s ok to say “Perdona” or “Por favor” to get the bartender’s attention.  They usually have napkins at the bar or give you one with your tapa.  You may see locals throwing the napkin or toothpick on the floor after eating their tapa.  This is actually acceptable; it is considered unsanitary to put trash back on the bar.  It is considered bad form to order food at the bar and take it to a table.  So if you are planning to sit at a table you should request it first and order from there.  Some tapas come served with a toothpick or skewer through them (for example the “pintxos” which are typical Basque-style tapas) and these are kept on your plate so that at the end of the night the house can count how many tapas you had in order to charge you correctly.

Tapas Cheat Sheet

In case your Spanish is not great, here is a cheat sheet for some very commonly served tapas in Spain.

  • Tortilla española– Spanish omelette (yes in Spain, tortilla means omelette) the clear winner as the most common tapa in Spain,  pie-shaped omelette made with potato and usually a little onion for flavor
  • Aceitunas– olives
  • Anchoas– anchovies
  • Atún– tuna
  • Almejas– clams
  • Calamares fritos or calamares a la romana– fried squid rings
  • Caracoles– snails
  • Champinoñes– mushrooms
  • Charcutería– cured meats
  • Empanadillas– meat or seafood pies
  • Ensaladilla rusa– potato salad with lots of mayo, peas, and carrots, and plus/minus tuna
  • Espinacas– spinach
  • Frito– fried
  • Gambas– shrimp
  • Gazpacho– cold tomato soup (usually with a good amount of olive oil & garlic)
  • Jamón– cured ham
  • Mejillones– mussels
  • Morcilla– blood sausage
  • Paella– saffron rice dish with meat or seafood
  • Patatas bravas– fried potatoes typically served with a spicy sauce or a garlic mayo
  • Pescaditos fritos– fried small fish
  • Pimientos de Padrón– fried small green peppers, some are very spicy
  • Pulpo– octopus
  • Queso manchego– classic Spanish sheep milk cheese
  • Sardinas– sardines
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“Tortilla Española” or Spanish Omelette, the quintessential Spanish tapa, served at nearly every tapas bar

My Preferred Madrid Tapas Crawl

First, these are the places that I have been to and keep coming back to because of certain dishes they offer that are delicious and noteworthy.  However, a tapas crawl by nature can be very spontaneous, and that is a large part of the fun.  So take this as your guide, but by all means, if a bar looks inviting to you, go in and try it out!  Especially if its packed with locals, they know what they are doing 🙂

Your starting point and home base for this crawl is the centrally-located Puerta del Sol, a city square that is worth a visit in its own right. (See map at the end of this post).   It is lively almost every night, with great people-watching, and also within walking distance of all of the bars and restaurants in this post.  I like to stay in a hotel near this square, but if you are staying elsewhere in the city, you can take the metro to the “Sol” metro stop to reach the square.  The goal is for you to try some of the major Spanish tapas staples and a few special dishes that are made very well at these locales.  So vamanos a tapear! (that’s right, tapear is a verb in Castilian Spanish that means “to go eat tapas”).

  1. Enrique Tomás– This is a chain found all over Spain, but even though I typically avoid chains, this one is special in that their main item is ham.  And not just ham, but the delicious and sought-after Spanish delicacy known as “jamón ibérico” or Iberian ham.  The most special of the Iberian hams sold here is the “pata negra” a cured ham that is melt-in-your mouth good.  I was actually never a big fan of ham until I tried this.  Wow!  It’s so good that I always buy a package of it at the duty-free shop at Barajas airport so that I can eat one last taste before I land back in my country!  But don’t get too full here; we still have many stops, so if you are with a group, share a “ración”, if by yourself, consider ordering a “media-ración”.  This is also a good place to try a combo plate with the jamón and the queso manchego (cheese), another great Spanish staple.
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    Carving the Pata Negra

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    Menu page from Enrique Tomás

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    Jamón Ibérico

  2. Mercado de San Miguel (San Miguel Market)-  The nice thing about this market is that you can come here throughout the day (whereas many tapas bars do not open until after 8 or even 9 pm).  You could come here for a snack anytime during their open hours.  This is why I like to hit it early during my tapas crawl, before some of the other bars are open.  (the same principle goes for Enrique Tomas, which stays open throughout the day).  This market is a foodie’s playground, so it’s really up to you to choose your tapas.  I would recommend taking a nice stroll around the market to see everything first before you decide what to get.  Personally, my favorite things to eat here are the seafood dishes (Crab Crab Crab! is on your left as you first enter the market) but everything I have tried here has been amazing.  For example, I usually get a couple of the King crab legs upon arrival.  Then head to the wine bar for a nice glass of Cava (I get the Brut Nature which is the most dry Spanish sparkling wine, for those who don’t like sweet drinks, pairs well with salty tapas).  I love the stand that sells fried squid and other fried treats located in the middle of the market.  The fresh squeezed juices are also wonderful if you are looking for a non-alcoholic drink.  Vermouth is a very common draft drink in Spain, and can be found here at the bar as well as at most of the tapas bars.  You can choose a dry or a sweet Vermouth.  Other treats here include caviar, super fresh produce, paella, a large assortment of cheeses, hams, nuts, dried fruits, tortilla espanola, and shellfish and other amazing fish dishes.
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    King Crab Legs & Cava

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    Crab Crab Crab! One of my favs

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    Fresh produce

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    Spanish cheeses

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    Fresh seafood

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    Turrones, typical Spanish candies

  3. La Oreja de Jaime–  This small mom & pop restaurant is very authentic and to be honest, it’s so family run, that they close down in August to be on vacation at the same time as everyone else in Spain.  So I hope your trip is not in August!  This place is known for their fried shishito peppers, or “Pimientos de Padrón”.  They are crispy, spicy, and overall delish.  However, my friend and I discovered another amazing dish here, which are their (seasonal) razor clams or “Navajas” (see photo).  It was my first time trying these and as a shellfish lover, I was enamored.  The fried pig ears are their house specialty and the reason for their name (the word “oreja” is Spanish for “ear”).
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    Padrones- fried shishito peppers

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    Navajas- Razor clams

  4. La Casa del Abuelo– There are several locations of this locally owned restaurant, but this original location is my favorite.  They are known for their specialty- “Gambas al ajillo” or garlic prawns.  These are so simple and yet so remarkable!  They are made to order and served sizzling hot in a ceramic dish along with crusty bread to dip in the garlicky slightly spicy oil sea of deliciousness.  If you try them once please try them here.  I have also tried their other dishes and have not been disappointed by any of them (great fried shrimp, wonderful gazpacho, the list goes on).
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    Gambas al ajillo, the house specialty garlic prawns

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    Grilled langostines

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    Spanish olives

  5. Txakolina Pintxoteca Madrileña– We are now changing our location to a street called Calle Cava Baja, a street that is great for tapas bar hopping.  This restaurant specializes in the Basque-style tapas known as “pintxos”.  These are beautiful to look at and even more fun to eat.  They are always served with a toothpick or skewer through them on top of a thick piece of crusty bread.  I have a couple of favorites here, including one that has smoked salmon, crab, and gulas which are tiny fish.  Codfish is a big staple here and theirs is fantastic.  They also serve draft beer, wine, and vermouth.  Although I’m a major wine lover, I will often get a small glass of beer here, as it pairs well with these tapas.  To order a beer, ask for “una Caña” either small “pequeña” or large “grande”.
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    Smoked salmon with crab and tiny fish “gulas”

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    Basque tapas “pintxos”

  6. La Taberna del Tempranillo– located further along on the Calle Cava Baja, this wine and tapas bar specializes in Spanish wines.  They also have ridiculously good food, with daily specials listed on the chalkboard above the bar.  They are traditional in the sense that, after I order my glass of wine, they give me a small tapa on the house.  So if you are still full and waiting a little while before our next stop, take advantage of the super cool old school wine bar atmosphere here and enjoy your glass of wine slowly to make room for a little more food.  If you are new to Spanish wines, you are in for a treat.  Spain has the world’s largest acreage of vineyards, and comes in third in terms of actual hectoliters of wine produced annually (over 37,000).  There are many distinct wine regions located around this country, although perhaps the best known and most-exported wines of Spain are those from Rioja and the sparkling wines known as Cava.  The bartenders here are very knowledgeable and can guide you in choosing a wine based on your preferences; also, most of the bartenders speak great English.
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    Menu of Spanish wines

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    That’s right, it’s Wine O’Clock!

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    Daily food specials

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    My glass of Priorat served with a house tapa

  7. Chocolatería San Ginés– if you are ready for some sweets, this will be your next stop; but if its the weekend and you are not ready to hang it up; you can carry on with your crawl enjoying savory treats and then save this as your last stop.  They stay open late on weekends, as they should.  Their specialty is “Churros con chocolate” which is a “churro”, or fried cinnamon-sugar coated oblong pastry, accompanied by “chocolate” which is a thick, hot chocolate drink (almost a pudding as thick as it is) which you are to dip your churro in.  This is the traditional food to be eaten at the end of a long night of drinking.  In fact, Spaniards are known to stay out until the wee hours on weekends enjoying the bars with their friends, and hit the churro stands as the last stop (not uncommonly as “late” as 7 am).  Some believe that “churros con chocolate” can prevent or cure a hangover.  I’ll let you decide if that’s true 😉
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    Churro and chocolate

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    My company for churros 🙂

  8. Llao Llao Yogurt– Ok, this one’s a freebie.  I admit, frozen yogurt is not a tapa.  But because I visit this yogurt shop every time I’m in Madrid, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give it a mention.  This is a chain, but I have only seen it in Spain.  For those of us who love FroYo, it’s got to be on the short list of places to hit for a yummy afternoon snack.  The yogurt is very tart but not overwhelming, similar to Asian-style froyo.  They have all kinds of great toppings, my fav of which is their Nutella sauce.  This is perfect in the summer, as Madrid can get quite hot.  They also stay open pretty late to accommodate the after dinner crowd.  Their staff wears black shirts reading “Volverás por mi sabor” meaning, “you will be back for my flavor”…. so true!  I go to the one closest to Puerta del Sol, but you can find many locations around town.
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    Yogurt with my fav topping

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    yes, Llao Llao yogurt man, I will be back!

  9. La Mallorquina– Also not a tapas bar, but this is a very famous and great local bakery right on the Puerta del Sol square, a good place to stop during the day (they don’t stay open late) to buy a pastry for breakfast or some cookies (which are sold by weight not number).  I like to buy cookies here and keep them for my breakfast before my flight home, since I usually have to head to the airport early in the morning before the cafes open or hotel breakfast service begins.

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    Cookies sold here by the kilo or by the grams

I hope this serves you as a good start to your tapas crawl adventures in Madrid!  The best part of all is trying new things when you see something that looks and smells good.  As they say in Spain, “Buen Provecho” (Enjoy your food!) and “Buen Viaje” (Good travels!).  Cheers!

~Holly

 

 

 

The Dreamy Dolomites

One of the places that has long been on my bucket list to visit is the Dolomites. I probably would not even have been aware of this region if it weren’t for modern technology and social media. One day while scrolling through my Instagram feed, I caught a glimpse of some amazing photos of the most breathtaking mountain landscapes, and an infinity pool with a view of these same mountains. That was enough to get me started on researching the area and booking my next trip.
Located in Northeastern Italy, near the Austrian border, the Dolomites are some of the most beautiful and dramatic mountains in the world. Their rock type, dolomite, is different from the rest of the Alps, and has a characteristic blend of white, pink, and gray in vertical walls arising from the green valleys. This mountain range was named after Dolomieu, a French mineralogist who first described the rock type in the late 1700’s. The mountains in this region are easily accessible, thanks to a system of rail lines, parks, roads, and lifts.
Fast forward to the day I finally arrived to this mountain paradise. It took me a bit of travel to get there; as I had flown from Dallas to Milan first (with a stopover in Miami) and from Milan took the Trenitalia to Verona, from Verona to Bolzano (more on this city later), then from Bolzano to Merano. What a pain! Why, you ask, would I travel so long?! I will show you why… see below 😊

In my Instagram feed I had seen photos of this infinity pool overlooking the mountains…. To be honest I was ready to go through hell and high water just to swim in that pool (pretty genious marketing from the hotel eh?). And it turns out, the train travel really isn’t bad at all. I had the option to rent a car and drive myself from Milan to Merano, but knowing how bad a driver I am, how crazy the Italian drivers can be (sorry guys), and the fact that in winter there is snow and ice on the narrow winding mountain roads, the easier (safer) choice was to take the trains. Personally, I love riding the train; for me its relaxing to look out the window at the scenery and let someone else handle the driving. And the trains there are quite efficient, so not much drama involved. The only snafu I ran into was when I almost took the wrong train in Bolzano (platform 1 is not the same as platform 1A!), but thanks to the help of a good sumaritan, a panic attack and delays were averted. “Buon viaggio!” he shouted to me as I scurried off to get on the correct train 2 minutes before departure. Whew! I will write more about using the trains in Europe in another post.

I had arranged with my hotel to have a private taxi driver pick me up at the Merano train station. As soon as I arrived, upon exiting the train platform I spotted my driver Stephan, holding a sign that said “Miramonti”. Into his clean and comfortable Mercedes van we went, and spent the next 20 minutes together as we climbed higher and higher along the narrow single-lane winding road making our way to Avelengo. Stephan took the tight turns with the precision of a pro, at times passing other cars on the two-way traffic road, making me glad once again that I was not the one driving…wheeee! My ears popped and my heart pounded during the ascent, as I realized I was really finally here in this breathtaking place that had been on my bucket list for so long. We passed apple tree groves, beautiful castle-like houses, and small churches perched on picturesque mountainsides. Then at a gorgeous spot just past the Saint Kathrein Church, we arrived at the Miramonti Boutique Hotel in Avelengo.

I was warmly greeted at the reception, and was given a glass of Prosecco as a welcome drink, which I enjoyed while staring in amazement at the panoramic view of the dolomites from the terrace. Next, I was shown to my room, where my luggage was already waiting. Room 203 was a gorgeous room bigger than most Manhattan apartments, with a separate sleep and study area, a well-equipped bathroom, and best of all, a private terrace with its own jacuzzi for my private use. The room had sleek modern décor, and the mini-bar was well-stocked with local south tirolian wines, beer, mineral water, juices and snacks.

Since I had been traveling on the train all day and had not eaten lunch yet, arriving around 3:00pm, I was hungry. I visited one of the three hotel restaurants and had a plate of cured meats to tide me over until dinner. This plate had two local antipasti- Speck (cured pork ham) and “Hirsch-schinken” which is deer ham. Both were delicious, and I would soon discover that Speck is very frequently used in the local cuisine. (More on South Tyrolian Cuisine up next).

South Tirolian Culture & Cuisine
If you are coming from another place in Italy, on your arrival to the Dolomites/ South Tyrol, your first thought might be “We’re not in Kansas anymore”. (Or, we are not in Italy anymore basically!). This is because you have now entered a region that feels a bit more like Austria than Italy. The people who come from this area speak German and the signs on the roads will be in both German and Italian. There is some history to explain this… At the end of World War I, the region was ceded by Austria to Italy; Austria’s South Tirol became Italy’s Alto Adige. Mussolini did his best to suppress the Germanic cultural elements and praise all things Italian, even giving each town an Italian name. Over the years secessionist groups have rallied for more autonomy, with some success. Gradually, Rome has granted increased local control of the region’s daily operations, education, roads, water, communications, etc.
Not surprisingly, the local cuisine centers around a more “Alpine” style and takes advantage of the local offerings in terms of meat/wild game, cheeses, produce, and grape varieties (yay, wine!). One thing you will notice when traveling in Italy and in most of Europe, is that the menu offerings will represent local specialties using locally available, meat, fish, game, and only produce that is in season. In the U.S., this represents the “locally sourced” “farm-to-table” concept; but here it’s just the norm.

Now for a few Tirolean foods not to miss! Speck, is a raw ham smoked for 5 months and served thinly sliced as an antipasto; you will also find it in other dishes to add flavor for example to soups, or in dumplings (Specknodel, see photo below). If you enjoy prosciutto, you will enjoy this (maybe even more, I could not get enough of it!). Canederli are large dumplings made with bits of speck, liver, spinach, or cheese, and may be served in a soup broth or with butter and cheese. I tried these at more than one restaurant, and really loved them in broth as the ultimate warm comfort food on a cold snowy day. For me it was reminiscent of a matzo ball soup; but not at all kosher given the speck.
Wild game is a big part of Tirolean cuisine, and even if you aren’t the adventurous type of eater, do give it a try. You will be surprised by how “not gamey” these dishes will be. Selvaggine (wild game) may be capriolo (fawn), Cervo (venison), or camoscio (chamois/antelope). One of the most tasty antipasti I tried was a deer ham (Hirsch-schinken); if you didn’t tell me it was made from deer (cervo) I would never have known, so delicious! You will encounter game in pasta dishes as a meat sauce (ragu), stuffed in ravioli, or roasted or grilled and served with a rich sauce (spezzatino).

Whatever you do, do NOT skip dessert! The strudel reigns supreme in this region, and the apples are freshly picked from the local orchards. Depending on the season, the cakes and pies will be filled with locally grown fruits and nuts. Who can really resist a piece of warm strudel served with a side of vanilla gelato?!

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Deer burger with crispy Speck and black mustard

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Dumplings (Canederli) (spinach, cheese and pumpkin, Speck)

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Local pastry at Miramonti afternoon tea

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Top: Apple Strudel, Bottom: Specknodel in broth

Surely with all this amazing food you will be thirsty! Not surprisingly, beer is popular here and you will enjoy the local brand, Forst, brewed in Merano. As a wine lover, I was super impressed with the wines I tasted from the area, so much so, that I will write a separate post about South Tirolean wines. Suffice it to say that you will have many excellent choices, which include Magdalaner, Lagrein scuro, Gewurztraminer, and Weisburgunder, in addition to sparkling varieties such as the Arunda Rose Brut. Please stay tuned for my upcoming post about south Tirolean wines, a must-read for wine lovers.

The Miramonti Boutique Hotel
As mentioned above, I picked out this hotel kind of on a whim, as it looked so inviting in the photos I saw online. I am soooo glad I decided to splurge and indulge in this whim. WOW!
I usually try to be budget conscious when traveling in order to be able to do more things in more places; so for me this was a little more than what I would normally spend on a hotel. Do check their website, as they have promotions that you may be able to take advantage of with discounted pricing. But that said, this is the kind of place you go to treat yourself, to relax, unwind, and really disconnect from your hectic everyday life. Not only is it located in one of the most beautiful, peaceful, breathtaking places I have ever seen; but it also offers the kind of warm, welcoming hospitality you expect from a boutique hotel and spa. I could not have been happier with every detail of my stay. From the moment I arrived, I knew that everything would be taken care of. The food at the 3 restaurants was 5/5 stars, with each dish as beautiful in presentation as it was delicious. I especially looked forward to breakfast each morning, with my own freshly brewed carafe of coffee, homemade whole milk yogurt, berries from the local forest, house-made muesli, pastries, locally-made cheeses and cured meats including speck. The staff took every opportunity to make me feel welcomed. The housekeeping staff even left fresh flowers in my room each day, and made the bed in an artful way making a little fan of the extra blankets. And the owners, Klaus and Carmen, make an effort to meet each guest personally and even do activities with the guests such as wine tasting and snow shoeing.

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Relaxation area at the hotel spa

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Outdoor terrace

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View from my terrace with private jacuzzi

During my stay at the Miramonti, the front desk staff arranged several activities for me. They set up a massage for me at the hotel spa and left a note to remind me of the appointment time in my room. They also reserved a spot for me at the wine tasting with Klaus, the owner. And they even called to reserve horseback riding at the stable located next door at the Hotel Sulfner.
Miriam was the massage therapist at the hotel spa and she did a fantastic job on the Verbena Porphyry massage, making sure to check with me from time to time to ensure I was still comfortable (this massage uses oil and hot stones, super relaxing!). The hotel also offers an on-site gym, a dry and moist sauna, two different relaxation rooms with views of the Dolomites, afternoon tea with complimentary sweets (get your strudel here!), and that out-of-this-world infinity pool that got me there in the first place- so worth it! I think I spent several hours in that pool, only getting out when I had stage 5 prune fingers; it was just so perfect. The pool is heated, and they have designated kid splash times. If you’re looking for a little quiet adult time, not to worry; they have you covered. Oh and don’t forget, there are a few rooms which include your own private jacuzzi on the terrace, which I took full advantage of; so keep this in mind when booking.

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It doesn’t get better than this! 🙂

 

I did the Forest walk (the hotel provides you with a map and the trail is well-marked) which was also a must-do activity. One thing I did not do which is offered as part of your hotel stay, is visit the Meran Thermal Baths; I will definitely hit this next time. The Miramonti will give you a ticket to use during your stay. Other available activities in the immediate area include hiking, skiing, snowshoeing, and many fine dining opportunities. You can also visit the city of Merano and do some strolling and shopping there.

https://www.hotel-miramonti.com/en/home.html

Before I knew it my 3-night stay at the Miramonti was coming to an end; but I was able to squeeze in a one-hour horseback riding session at the stables next door before leaving Avelengo. After that the staff at the Miramonti gave me water for my journey, and the always punctual (early) Stephan arrived to drive me to the Merano train station where I would embark on my next adventure, to Bolzano. During our ride down the mountain into town, Stephan even gave me some restaurant recommendations for Bolzano which were on point. If you prefer not to drive yourself, he is an excellent and professional driver in the Merano area that I would definitely recommend. www.taxistephan.eu +393477523424

Horseback Riding in Avelengo
My last activity before leaving Avelengo was a once-in-a-lifetime privately-guided ride through the mountains, thanks to the horse stables at the neighboring hotel, Hotel Sulfner. The Miramonti staff kindly arranged my appointment, and it just happened by chance that I was the only person signed up for that time slot. So, I ended up going on a ride with Katia as my guide, and we spent an hour riding along the narrow path up and down through the mountain forest. To be quite frank, this ride is not recommended for inexperienced riders. It involves steep, narrow riding paths, (at this time of year snow-covered and icy), and even though the horses are very tame and well-trained, one mistake or spooking of the horse could result in unfortunate consequences. Norbert, the director of the stable, even told me, despite my past riding experience, “you are not very good rider! You can walk but not trot! Normally, you cannot go; but because you are lonely, we make exception”. Lost in translation LOL, but I know what he meant. I was the only rider, and we would go slowly and carefully. This was ok with me, as I wanted to take in the beauty of the forest and the fresh snowflakes as they fell on us. It all felt so surreal, like I was in a storybook; or better yet, a poem. I couldn’t help but recall the Robert Frost poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening as my little horse Francisca so carefully carried me on our journey through the woods. If you are an experienced rider, this should be on your list. If not, you can still stay at the base of the mountain and get some lessons in.

The horses we rode are a breed called Haflinger, and this breed is native to South Tyrol/ Alto Adige. They were bred for mountainous regions, which explains why they can skillfully and gently navigate the steep icy paths of the mountain forest with ease. Interestingly, all purebred Haflinger horses must be able to trace their lineage back to one stallion named Folie (thought to be a colt which resulted from crossing an Arabian stallion with a mountain pony from Austria and Northern Italy). Haflingers are always chestnut in color, have a small but solid build, and are known for their good temperament (some call them the “golden horse with a golden heart”). My horse Francisca had a wonderful temperament indeed, and was impressively athletic in her ability to balance even on the steepest winding and slippery pathways. Not sure if there are any horse lovers reading this, but if you are one, you will adore this breed and this experience!
Contact: Norbert Walder at Reiterhof Sulfner +39 339 5030381
www.reiten-in-hafling.com

Bolzano
This beautiful town of approximately 100,000 is the perfect place to land if you are relying on the trains, as I did. If you are arriving by train, be sure to get out at the Bolzano station (not Bolzano Sud). The train station is centrally located very near to the main town plaza (Piazza Walther/Waltherplatz). There is a tourist information center on the side of the square.

From Bolzano you can take the trains to other towns in the region, such as Castelrotto and Merano, and you can also take a lift from Bolzano to the top of the mountain for a ridge walk. This region is busy for tourism during hiking season (mid-June through mid-October) but is busiest during ski season (December through Easter). For an excursion in the surrounding area, take the cable car from the Bolzano train station up to Ritten Oberbozen, to enjoy the beautiful landscape and a bit of “alpine chic”. Wineries that you may visit in Bolzano include Abtei Muri Gries, Pfannenstielhof, and the Cooperativa Winery St. Magdalena of Bolzano.
I spent two nights in Bolzano and enjoyed a very leisurely pace there. I spent most of my time strolling around, doing a little shopping, and a lot of eating; savoring the local specialties which I would soon be leaving for a more traditional “Italian” style cuisine when I headed south. Two of the highlights of this town were my visit to the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, and the walk along the Talvera promenade. Other sites to see in Bolzano include the open-air produce market at Piazza Erbe/Obstplatz (get a bratwurst & pretzel at the little stand here), the Cathedral (Duomo), the Dominican Church, the main square (Piazza Walther/ Waltherplatz), and the Runkelstein Castle (which you can walk to with a stroll down the Talvera promenade).

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Piazza Walther, Bolzano

A good day walking around could start out with coffee/breakfast at one of the many cafés at Piazza Walther, followed by a visit to the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, which will place you right near the Via dei Portici, a very nice shopping street with many international as well as Italian brand stores. Some recommended shops to visit include: Parfumerie Thaler, Maximilian Boutique, and Victorienne Boutique; all of these are located in the Lauben Arcaden. Here you will also find more than one shop where you may buy Speck, Hirsch-schinken, and other local specialty foods that are vacuum-sealed to take home.

Museums to visit in Bolzano include the Messner Mountain Museum, and the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology. The South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology is the home of the corpse of Otzi the Iceman, whose body was frozen in a glacier in the mountains on the Italian/Austrian border for more than 5,000 years. I visited this museum, and can tell you it is well worth the 9 euro admission ticket. History was my least favorite subject in school; but despite this, I found this exhibit fascinating. I do not want to spoil it for you, but I will tell you that even if you are not an archaeology or history buff, you will still enjoy this museum. The sensational story alone about how Otzi was discovered by a German couple in 1991, and the events that followed had me hooked. At first, they thought they had stumbled across a hiker who had gotten lost and frozen to death. But after years of further investigation using technology, carbon dating, and the analysis of the articles that were found along with Otzi’s body (his entire outfit, gear, hatchet, shoes, tools, etc.) the researchers realized that they had in fact the mummy of a man who was alive some 5,000 years ago (between 3350 and 3100 BC). The more questions they were able to answer, the more questions came up about how Otzi perished, and what life was like during his time. There was some debate about what to name the mummy, and finally the nickname “Otzi the Iceman” won, making these remains seem less grotesque and more media-friendly. Keep this museum on your list for Bolzano sites!

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This is how researchers imagine Otzi would have looked when he was alive

The Talvera promenade is a wonderful place to enjoy a leisurely stroll and some good people-watching. You can start this walk just west of the Museum of Archaeology, heading north and following the river. You will have some nice views of vineyards and the Maretsch Castle to your right. When you reach the bridge of St. Antonio, cross it and keep following the river to see the Runkelstein Castle (after about 20 more minutes walking).


Eating in Bolzano was another highlight of this town. A few restaurants to consider trying are Italia & Amore, Wirtshaus Vogele, and Laurin Restaurant. I loved my dinner at Vogele, which was packed with locals and offers an authentic south Tirolean menu. I had their specknodel in broth followed by a local river trout served with seasonal veggies; simple and delicious! Another fun restaurant is Gasthaus Batzenhausl, a historic spot, as it is Bolzano’s oldest inn. It has a casual atmosphere, a lengthy beer list, local wines, and hearty dishes such as the braised lamb shank which I enjoyed one day for lunch (a fancy looking dish that only cost around 14 euros).

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Local river trout at Vogele

All in all, if you enjoy a mountain landscape and amazing panoramic vistas, great food and wine, outdoor activities and a relaxed atmosphere, put the Dolomites on your list, you won’t regret it.
Buon viaggio and Cheers! 😊

 

 

Featured Restaurant: Ristorante Al Porto, Milan

During my recent visit to Milan, Italy, I asked a friend who is a Milan native for a restaurant recommendation.  He did not hesitate to send me to Ristorante Al Porto, a delightful seafood restaurant located near the Piazzale Antonio Cantore, about a 25 minute walk or 10 minute taxi ride from the city center (Piazza del Duomo).  As I entered the restaurant I realized that I may have needed to reserve ahead (but didn’t), as it was quite full of customers (always a good sign!).  However, thankfully the kind hostess, Signora Barbara, was able to offer me a seat at the raw bar, which ended up being the best seat in the house!  Where else do you get to watch as the chefs skillfully prepare each plate of “crudo” one at a time?  It was immediately obvious to me that the seafood there was as fresh as it can get, as I drooled over the beautiful display of oysters, sea urchins, langostines, sashimi grade fish, and accompaniments.  I knew I was in for a treat.

The ambiance of the restaurant is such that although you know its a bit high-end based on the menu offerings,  it is very relaxed and unpretentious.  I love this type of restaurant, where I know I can enjoy my food along with the other customers who are there for the food and not to “see and be seen”.

First things first- wine!  The hostess promptly offered me several choices of wine by the glass, and recommended a lovely white to pair with my seafood dinner.  It was an Italian wine from Tuscany, Sauvignon Melaia.  It had a mild acidity, and was very light and easy-drinking, pairing well with my meal.

Now to the food, oh the food!  As a first plate I ordered the shrimp cocktail (cocktail di gamberi).  It consisted of small very tasty shrimp dressed in a creamy dressing.  I was not expecting the sauce, but it was very good, slightly tangy and not too heavy so as to allow the flavor of the shrimp to dominate.  The shrimp were very clean-tasting, sweet, and tender; exactly how shrimp should taste.  For my second plate I ordered the spaghetti with clams and dried fish eggs (spaghetti alle vongole con uova di pesce essiccate).  This dish was amazing, as the pasta was cooked perfectly al dente, the clams were juicy and perfectly steamed, and the dry fish roe surprises by adding an unusual brininess and slight granular texture to the dish.  Is your mouth watering yet?!  Or as the Italians say, “mi viene l’acquolina in bocca”.   My only regret was that I was too full to order more of the first and second courses; next time I will definitely order the “crudo misto”, a gorgeous dish pictured below.

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Shrimp Cocktail

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Spaghetti with clams & dry fish eggs

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Crudo Misto

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Massimo “Max”

It would be a sin if I had skipped dessert, so I had to take one for the team ;).  While observing the food preparation throughout dinner, I had my eye on something special.  Massimo, or “Max” was carefully and artfully making individual panna cotta one by one as the customers ordered it.  It was difficult to decide between the one with fresh berries or caramel, but I chose the caramel because it also came with fresh strawberries on top.  A win-win!  This dessert was as delicious as it was beautiful, see photo below.   They even gave me a selection of sweets compliments of the house, and wrapped it for me to take home for breakfast the next morning!

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Caramel Panna Cotta

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Mixed sweets from the house

To summarize, I highly recommend this restaurant to anyone who loves fine dining and seafood.  You cannot go wrong here, with the combination of ambiance, superior quality food, customer service, and kind staff who will treat you and feed you like royalty.  Don’t miss it when you visit Milan!  Buon appetito and cheers! 🙂

https://www.ristorantealportomilano.it/

 

 

The Proper Storage of Cheese

Have you ever bought a beautiful wedge of cheese, wrapped it in plastic wrap and left it in the fridge, only to come back a week later to discover it has gotten dry, crumbly, and tastes like plastic? Such a disappointment, especially when you were looking forward to enjoying the cheese and may have spent a pretty penny on it. We are here to help! Here are some tips to help you keep your living, breathing, sweating cheese in its happy place before you eat it and go to your happy place 😊
1.) Don’t overbuy– Only buy as much cheese as you can eat in a week. Otherwise you are at risk of regretfully having to throw out the less than fresh leftovers. It means you may shop a little more frequently, but its worth the trouble since cheese tastes best fresh.
2.) Preventing mold– you can rub the cut surfaces of cheese with olive oil or vegetable oil to help prevent mold. If mold does grow, it will grow on the oil, which can be wiped off and the cheese rinsed under warm water.
3.) Eat cheese at room temperature– it will taste better this way! Unwrap the cheese and allow it to breathe out of the fridge for one hour before serving.
4.) Consider using cheese paper– yes, that paper you’ve passed by many times at the local market, wondering if you should try it; but, nah… it’s a little pricey. They also make cheese storage bags made from the same “formaticum”- a two-ply material consisting of a wax-coated paper and a thin porous polyethylene plastic that allows moisture to wick but not totally escape. Your cheese needs to breathe and it needs moisture to avoid drying out. I have personally tried these papers and I have to admit, I love them! Especially for specialty cheeses that I bring home from my travels, it keeps them from taking on a plastic flavor. Be sure to date the cheese on the label of the paper or bag. As an alternative to purchasing cheese paper, you can instead first wrap the cheese in wax or parchment paper, then place it in a partially sealed plastic bag. Be sure to use a new paper each time you unwrap the cheese and re-wrap to store it. This is because the cheese will sweat on the paper, decreasing its wicking ability.
5.) Store cheese in the vegetable crisper section of your refrigerator. This area tends to maintain a more stable cold temperature.

If you happen to be in the Dallas-Fort Worth Area, and want to try some cheeses from around the world, check out the Scardello Cheese shop located on Oak Lawn Avenue (they also have a smaller location in the Dallas Farmer’s market). This delightful shop features an impressive selection of both domestic and imported cheeses, as well as wine that you may order by the glass or purchase as a bottle to take away. They let you try samples of the cheeses, and offer a delicious and imaginative lunch menu. I love this place for a girls lunch; it is quiet and intimate so you can catch up without having to shout across the table. Oh, and yes, they carry cheese paper! My favorite cheese recently purchased there was their L’Amuse Gouda. I asked for something with some nuttiness to it, and this delivered with an amazing slightly crunchy texture, a hint of butterscotch, and smooth finish. Have you ever wondered what makes some aged cheeses have a little bit of crunch or tiny white crystals in them? Lance, the cheesemonger at Scardello explained to me that these crystals are actually either tyrosine or calcium lactate crystals (aged Gouda has both). Cheese crystals form when protein chains in aging cheese begin to break down. Many people confuse cheese crystals with mold or yeast growth. However, crystals are not harmful and in fact add a little extra crunch and complexity to the cheese flavor. Scardello Cheese also offers cheese classes, a cheese club with monthly deliveries to your home, and cheese trays for your next get together. So grab your favorite bottle of wine and find an excuse to host a wine & cheese night ASAP. Cheers!

http://scardellocheese.com

The 411 on Truffles (the fungi)

Sought after by gourmet chefs, cherished by foodies, hunted by pigs and dogs; for decades, truffles have been the subject of myths and thought to have magical qualities. Perhaps because these delicious fungi are unique in their flavor and aroma, and exquisitely finicky, making them difficult to cultivate. Truffles are ectomycorrhizal, meaning they require a symbiotic relationship with the roots of specific trees to live. They occur in the wild in areas where the ideal conditions exist in terms of humidity, temperature, soil acidity, and tree roots species. Truffles are indigenous to the northern and central Italian regions of Umbria and Tuscany.

Truffle Varieties

There are three types of truffles commonly found which are differentiated by the season in which they grow to maturity. White truffles are pungent and are found from September to December; black (winter) truffles (tuber melanosporum vitt) are earthy and found from December to early March, and the delicate aromatic burgundy truffles are found from September to December. Summer black and white truffles can be found from May to August.

How are truffles hunted?

The “original” truffle hunters were pigs, however the pigs had a tendency to eat the truffles. Today there are dogs which are specially trained to hunt truffles, and in Italy these pups are rewarded with bites of parmigiano regiano cheese. The traditional truffle hunting dog is the Lagotto Romagnolo, however any intelligent and motivated dog breed with a good nose can be trained to hunt truffles. There are even schools in the United States which offer such dog training.

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Lagotto Romagnolo, a truffle hunting dog

Why are truffles so expensive?

Because truffles are only available a few months out of the year, and are finicky in their growing conditions, they tend to be pricey. So far attempts to cultivate them have been disappointing; although they have finally had some success in Australia.

How to use truffles in cuisine

Fresh truffles should be cleaned with a dry toothbrush. Use a metal slicer to thinly shave truffles over pasta, risotto, eggs, or polenta. Resist the urge to cook them! Cooking will destroy their delicate flavor and aroma. When not in season, you can still get some delicious truffle flavor by seasoning with truffle salt or truffle butter (read the ingredients). But buyer beware– products labeled as “truffle oil” very often are made with chemicals that mimic the aroma of truffles but are not made with actual truffles.

Where can I buy some truffles or truffle products before I leave Rome???

Finally, I get to tell you about my favorite gourmet food shop in Rome, Italy. Volpetti, located in the Testaccio neighborhood of Rome, is a foodie’s paradise (as is the neighborhood, which is full of delightful family run restaurants with authentic Roman specialties, plus a bustling food and produce market- the Testaccio market). Not only does Volpetti carry fresh seasonal truffles, but they also have an impressive selection of gourmet food products, highly-rated Italian wines, pasta, biscotti, parmigiano regiano and other aged Italian cheeses, prosciutto di San Daniele, and balsamic vinegars that are aged to a sweet honey consistency. If you happen to be a truffle-aficionado, there is one cheese that you must try at Volpetti- their pecorino with black truffle. It. Will. Change. Your. Life. Volpetti is located about a 5 minute walk from the Piramide metro station (metro line B).
www.volpetti.com

 

I had the good fortune to meet the owner of Volpetti during my last shopping binge, and he was kind enough to educate me about the different truffle varieties. Matteo Tomljanovich has been in the food industry for a number of years, and brought his entrepreneurial spirit to the Volpetti shop in 2015 when he bought the store from the Volpetti family. In addition to running the salumeria, he has revamped the family’s restaurant located next door, reopening it as the Taverna Volpetti. The restaurant and wine bar (in the former Volpetti Piu cafeteria space) serves a buffet lunch with daily specials cooked to order, and serves aperitivos and dinner in the evenings. I had their pasta carbonara for lunch during my last visit, which was cooked perfectly al dente and had a melt-in-your-mouth carbonara that left me dreaming about it for days thereafter. Hit up Taverna Volpetti for lunch, then take your shopping bags over to Volpetti to get your favorite gourmet foods vacuum-sealed and ready to take home on the plane. Their cheeses will keep in their vacuum-sealed packages for up to 3 months in your refrigerator.
www.tavernavolpetti.it