Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Elderberry Wine and Friends, South-West France

Not really cuisine from the far corners of the planet, but definitely a gastronomic triumph, and some might find it adventurous...

My best mate Perry's been cosying up for autumn and having some culinary adventures in his own kitchen in France, with the help of wood-burners (yes, plural) and Unglum the cat (whose fave food is tomatoes, by the way). Italian heart stew, pizza dough flatbreads puffed up over a barbecue for kebabs, Moroccan meatball and egg stew, blood sausage omelet and freshly-collected oysters have been some of the mouth-watering delights on the menu over the last couple of weeks.

This is the elderberry wine the dude's been working on for two months, after collecting the berries in his garden. Perry carefully completed each stage exactly by the book, to avoid the risk of his precious potion turning to vinegar instead of alcohol. Success! It was all worth it. Now he has litres and litres of potent, fruity wine to get through. Lucky he's got good friends to help him out! See tasting notes below.

The beautiful results of weeks of careful work.

"It tastes really fruity, but not in a dodgy way, a bit like really weak ribena, but it smells wonderful. I think it should become amazing, because everything I've read says it should be undrinkable before Christmas at the earliest - maybe it's just my vin de table standards! It is certainly pretty strong even at this early stage - all I had was the glass in the picture and I really felt the effect strongly as you can probably tell from my email." - Perry Lancaster

Friday, August 01, 2008

South American Food Adventure

Flying visits to Argentina and Uruguay, followed by full-on two month adventure from the south to the north of Brazil.

Watch this space!

I'm currently writing up the adventure from my notebooks, and you can follow the story in the posts below. More of the trip is added everyday, along with some of my thousands of photos. Would you like to know when it's the whole account is finished? Email foodadventureblogupdated@gastropod.co.uk

My time in South America is now an incredible set of memories, which I will treasure for the rest of my life. Everything - good and bad - happened in extremes. On the plus side were 1000s of caiparinas, wonderful rich fish dishes and fried piranhas (caught by us) in the Amazon. These joys were offset by a violent mugging, illness and visa problems - the perfect adventure cocktail!

The most incredible 'costella' - massive beef ribs cooked for hours over a fire. Mouthwatering. Regrettably, I only managed 4 helpings of the tender meat and crispy, salty, melting fat. Mmmm!

Me (2nd to left) and Biddy (right), with the completely lovely guys that ran our favourite cocktail stand, in Porto Seguro.

Here's a taster from my notes...

20/04/08, Iguacu Falls:

"I am stunned that it is only a week since I left Europe. Days of travelling and waiting about and limited computer access have meant a rather neglected blog. Nevermind.

I am finally enjoying chilling out in the sun, and write this from a youth hostel´s poolside, near the Iguacu Falls. We´ve been to some real backwaters, where tourists are unheard of, as well as some horrible, filthy, crowded, threatening towns. We´ve been cold, dirty, hot, sticky and dusty, as well as contented, delighted, hungry and stuffed. It has all been fascinating, but tiring, so it is a wonderful treat to be clean, by a pool and in tropical countryside. My only set of warm clothes - which I wore solidly all last week - are at the cleaners, and tomorrow I am off to see the falls from the Argentinian side, as well as white water rafting under and around them.

The Iguacu Falls, the next day - A-MAZ-ING!

"Today I got my first bit of sunning in, ate a clementine straight from the tree, saw bananas growing, and watched a tiny hummingbird!

Right gotta go. I´ve seen and tasted a lot more than this but will have to update the blog another time, because I´ve got some urgent caiparinas to attend to.

P.S. so far, pizza, pizza everywhere, with bready bases and the cheese only lightly melted. It´s often hard to find other local foods among the pizza joints.

...but the food became increasingly delicious as we got further north. To give you an idea of the distance we covered and of where I'm currently up to in my blog, below, our itinery was roughly:
Argentina - Buenos Aires =>
Uruguay - Colonia, Montevideo, Punta de Este, Treinta Y Tres, Melo =>
Brazil - Bagé, Porto Alegré, Foz d'Iguaçu & Iguaçu Falls, Sao Paulo, Belo Horizante, Ouro Preto, Rio de Janeiro, Ilha Grande, back to Rio, Porto Seguro, Itacaré, Salvador, Morro de Sao Paulo, Manaus & The Amazon, then finally back to Morro de Sao Paulo and Itacaré. We were so sad to leave! :'(

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Buenos Aires

Biddy, left; me, right.

After an eleven hour flight from Madrid, we landed in Buenos Aires late afternoon, to start begin our adventure...

We caught bus from the airport, across town, getting out and getting lost halfway to change buses. Scabby looking grassy ‘parks’ with kids playing football, stray brown dogs everywhere, districts of street sellers, and busy high streets. Nothing glamorous so far, and the Don Sancho Hostel was in dodgy-seeming back streets, with pavements covered in dog shit and broken slabs. The beds looked filthy, but the threadbare sheets were clean, and the inmates friendly.

The incredible view of the grid layout of BA and most other South American towns - we hadn't even heard about it before.

We showered and found our way through the dusk and trams, to an Italian bar, and sat outside to drink a litre of beer each. We didn’t realize that people normally share these large bottles. It was quite cold, but the chilly breeze would probably seem warmer during the day. We moved on to a restaurant selling local specialities (Pan Y Arte, Bar Resto, Boedo), which we had heard all about from an Argentinian student, who we had cross-examined on the plane. But the food was rather stodgy, not very exciting, not warmed right through, and all seemed to be based on the Cornish pasty (e.g. empanadas). Not quite the amazing Argentinian steak I had been salivating in anticipation of. The wine was good, though – Santa Julia 100% malbec, with blackberry, blackcurrent and violet flavours.

We shivered briskly back to the hostel.

Next morning was a delight! We got our coffee, bread and dulce de leche (or confiture de lait - the condensed, caramelized milk, that you would use for banoffee pie), and took them into the sheltered terrace area of the hostel. We managed to find a seat at the top of some steps, where we could soak up our first South American rays of sun. They were lovely and warm, and we felt that we had definitely ‘arrived’.

The terrace - where we had our first South American sun.

But out of the sun and shelter, the streets were damned cold! We only had one set of warmish clothes, which we had travelled in, so we started to feel a bit skanky. We trudged the streets, trying to avoid the shit, and bought little savoury pastries, from a fantastic bakery, and enjoyed them with a beer at a pavement café. The weather was closing in, and we wanted to see some of the glitz and grime that everyone seems to love about BA. We asked a local-looking girl who turned out to be a Londoner. She said that she hates the city, and is only there for the tango, but that there is one sight worth seeing; the massive cemetery. We found it on the map, and began the very long walk to get there.

The cemetery was indeed incredible.

We saw other sights, too, like a massive market selling expensive gifts. We got caught in freezing rain, and sheltered in cafes, and at the end of a knackering day, we finally made it through the wind, rain and dark, to a steak-selling restaurant (Los Portenos). Delicious, but nothing to write home about. Damnit!

We did enjoy the homemade chips enormously, the steak was tasty and juicy but overcooked, and more malbec (Estancia Mendoza) washed it down a treat. Very warming.

After showering at the hostel, we once again trudged wet, cold streets in search of the smoky, frisson-loaded tango bars of our imagination. We had directions to recommended quirky dens of dance, from friends who had been there, and the hostel was actually in the tango district. So it should have been quite straight forward. But we found nothing!! Nada! All the bars we had the details for seemed to have closed down, and everything else was shut. The streets were silent, apart from a few people who had come out to rummage through that day's bins for goodies. We asked various locals, but no-one could help us find our tango lair. No amazing steak, no sun, no tango – it was time to move on, and head north for warmth.

On the very long way back to the hostel, we kept an eye out for a hidden den or nice bar to warm up in, but didn't see any that were open. So we went to the only thing that was open; a weird cafeteria that had clearly not changed since being very trendy in circa 1982. We ordered a cognac for me and a Tia Maria for Biddy. They took AGES to arrive, and we were being cynical about the staff, who were fiddling about and didn't seem to know what they were doing. About 15 minutes later, Biddy was served the hugest Tia maria I have ever seen, and my absolutely massive glass of cognac arrived with the waiter heating it in a contraption, over a candle flame, and a doily around the base. We felt bad for being so negative about the waiters' apparent confusion, when it was actually just that they had a certain way to serve cognac, and they were making sure it was done properly. All that effort, and each drink only cost about £1.50. They were certainly warming.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Uruguay: Colonia, Montevideo, Punta del Esta, Treinta Y Tres & Melo.

Awesome countryside, lovely people, intriguing cowboys PLUS lush, fresh, local food and low prices!

We found the posh port district of Buenos Aires, where we were told we could get an excellent steak, amongst a forest of glistening skyscrapers. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the money for a pricey steak, and it was 11am, so we had an enjoyable milky coffee and mini croissant, sitting in proper hot sun, while we waited for our ferry to Uruguay. Ahhh at last! We hoped this was the start of solid sun for us!

Buenos Aires port


Uruguay was a different world to BA. We had no idea what to expect, but the cobbled streets, horse-drawn carts piled with firewood and ancient cars of Colonia were a joyous revelation. The El Viajero Hostel was lovely, clean, had tonnes of gorgeous original features and an old-fashioned ambience.

Uruguay was surprisingly and delightfully cheap and the food and was generally excellent. We opted for the Mercosur pavement café, and ate an extremely delicious pizza topped with a local mushroom (the memory of it makes my mouth water now), begetal, drank beer, and watched the fascinating Uruguayian world go by.

That evening, we went for a drink at one of the prettiest, quaintest restaurants, with ferns growing from its ancient walls (Pulperia de los Faroles), but the service wasn’t very welcoming, so we decided to go elsewhere for supper. We found the fantastic, bohemian El Drugstore, and had a night to remember.

Outside El Drugstore are a choice of colourful tables, including one set out in an ancient car. Needless to say, the few kilometres from BA to Colonia did not have an enormous impact on the climate, so we chose to sit in the cavernous warmth inside the restaurant. It had hugely high ceilings, exposed brick, and colours, patterns and posters everywhere, with the wonderful wood-fired stove as the main focus point, and little side rooms leading deep into the building.

Starting off with bread and herb-sprinkled butter, I was taken aback by the wonderful fresh flavour and creaminess of the butter. Luisa, who runs the restaurant, said that it was normal to have such fragrant, locally produced butter in Uruguay. Having lived in Portugal, she told us that she really appreciated coming back to Uruguay for the high-quality meat, dairy foods and bread, and that the difference is marked.

After spending ages over the highly confusing and massive menu, we chose a Uruguayan speciality for supper, chivito, which is mainly the collection of farmyard foods that you get platters of in loads of rural communities around the world. It included egg, ham, cheese, bacon, mirepoix in mayonnaise, palm hearts and salad. Biddy had chicken grilled with cheese and salad. All of it was nicely cooked and tasty.

Along with the food, we were drinking cheap jugs of rather moreish table wine. The speed at which we drunk it increased somewhat during the meal. Then the friendly Texan couple, Carmen and Bob (pronounced ‘Maaam’) on the next table started chatting to us. Actually, Maaam was born in Cuba and Carmen was originally from Honduras. They were clearly very tipsy and rapidly getting more so, and we joined the fun with more and more jugs of wine.

Then a guitarist/singer climbed onto a big block and started up with some impassioned latino tunes. The wine really enhanced the music. It also made Biddy very emotional when a very cute 4 year-old called Ely wanted to dance with us. He was the son of another American couple, who take Ely with them all around the world, on exotic and exciting trips.

Adorable Ely

Punta de Este:

We woke up with fuzzy red wine heads, not feeling to pleased with ourselves. After a restorative walk around the estuary, and an amazingly cheap Mercosur meal of beautifully cooked hake, fried in breadcrumbs and served with lush salad (with medicinal beer), we decided to move on. Colonia is very pretty but there isn’t an awful lot to do or see there for more than a day. We walked to the coach station and caught a bus to

The scenery from the bus was mainly pale green grassland, the odd large tree, and lots of flimsy-looking, squat buildings. As we got towards the centre of Montevideo, the architecture became grander and older. But when we got out and tried to follow a map to the youth hostel, we almost drowned in the hoards of people, heat and thick pollution. After 5 minutes of getting totally lost in this filthy, hectic shit hole, we went back to the bus station and caught another bus. If we’d had the time and money to give Montevideo a chance, we may have enjoyed exploring the colonial charm we had read about. But we didn’t.

A few hours later, and the next stop was Punta del Este, one of the throbbing surf capitals of the world, with stretches of skyscrapers, dunes, clubs and bars. We arrived well after dark, and after a local bus ride, we found ourselves in worryingly quiet streets, with closed shops and restaurants. It was really cold! We identified a chilly, dark sandy track with the youth hostel’s sign, and began the mini-trekk, past a ferocious and very vocal dog, until finally we arrived at the hostel steps.

The white and blue exterior of Hostel Manatiales hinted strongly at hot seaside resorts, but we had arrived just as the first cold spell of autumn had hit. The hostel was damp, mouldy and dirty, which would have been more bearable if it was warm. The staff were helpful, if incredibly slow (actually like slow motion), and the shy boy from reception took us (very slowly) up the road to the only place we might find something to eat – the whole town had shut down for low season.

A mile or so up a wide sandy track, flanked by large villas, we can to the local shop. The shy, slow boy translated for us, and we sat outside shivering over glasses of beer, while we awaited our metro pizza, which was all that was available, and sounded darned appealing to our cold, hungry tummies. Metros are sold by the metre, and we had ordered 50cm of the stuff, which was a lot. It was not a good pizza, but was enjoyable comfort food, with a sweet, bready base, sweet smear of tomato sauce, and piles of bland, too-sweet cheese - all lovely and oily, hot and filling.

Crossing Uruguay:

There was certainly more of a holiday atmosphere the next morning. We sat basking in the sun, drinking tea and coffee …for a frustratingly long time, until a dude on a moped finally arrived with the breakfast bread. These pretty white rolls were soft inside and delicious with dulce de leche. A local speciality, they are called galleta pan.

Galleta pan

We were so disappointed by our time (and bad timing) at Punta del Este, that we were pleased to be on the move again after breakfast, and relieved to be waiting for a bus in the sun (in view of thatched roofs), even if the breeze was pretty cool and strong.

After a short time on the road we were thoroughly enjoying the journey. The scenery was spectacular. We had hours of watching it go by, and never once felt bored. Vast grasslands dotted with enormous trees stretched into the distance. Copses of eucalyptus trees marked river and streams, and every few miles we passed a ranch. The grassland was divided into vast fields, containing buff cows, the odd horse, and emus! The biggest treat was spotting real-life cowboys, with leather hats, plaid shirts, pretty faces, and relaxed control over their livestock.

The pretty, run down little towns were almost entirely made up of mini one-storey buildings, and had a backwater, laid back feel. Everyone moved slowly. And the country is so small and under-populated that everyone knows everyone else, so that every time the bus stopped, whether in the middle of a prairie or in a village, everyone kissed the new arrivals ‘hello’, and began chatting loudly. We got stared at a lot, but the people were friendly to us, going out of their way to help, and to stop their children staring - we were becoming increasingly blond and tall compared to the locals, and it was very clear that we had moved off the beaten tourist track.

At Treinta Y Tres, we stopped to change buses, giving us time to enjoy an Ecuadorian band with American Indian style dress and dance, then a meal at the Cafeteria in the same square. I ordered ‘pulpo’, expecting octopus, but was happy with the nicely cooked steak and chips that arrived! Especially as prices seemed to be even cheaper in the interior of the country – a litre of beer was $1 US. It was also getting warmer as we moved inland, and we sat outside in the sun to eat.

Melo & Wild West:

The next leg of the journey was sadly mainly in the dark. We arrived at the town of Melo to find that all the accommodation had been taken by businessmen, who were converging there for a conference. We had taken a cab from the bus station, and agreed a price for being dropped off in town, but our driver took us from hotel to hotel without charging us more, and even ran into the hotels to ask them if they had a cheap room for us. He had an American wife, which seemed to increase his sympathy for us. We could only find one room in the whole town, which was very expensive. We had ummed and ahhed over whether to just sit on our rucksacks until dawn, in the bus station, but in the end we just took the room.

Despite the price and plush reception area, the room at the Crown Hotel was not very comfortable, and we were not very gracefully received (it was probably the rucksacks that did it). After a nice hot shower we put the same set of our warmest clothes on once again, and ventured into the chilly night. We found the Café La Rural opposite a cowboy’s shop (boots, saddles, hats and other leather goods). The waiter was so surprised to see foreigners, and so thrilled to be able to practice his English, that he gave us free olives and cheese with our beer, “Just to say ‘welcome’”.

We got up in good time the next morning – we were catching the bus to Brazil! We stocked our stomachs up on the standard hotel breakfast buffet, of coffee, bread, plastic cheese, cheap watery ham and fruit.

Unfortunately, the hotel did not accept the international debit cards that we offered (Visa and Maestro), so I had had to run around the streets like a panicked chicken, looking for a working bank machine. Meanwhile, Biddy ordered a taxi, because we would now be too late to walk to the bus station by the time I returned. Panting and sweating, I presented reception with the cash, and we dashed off to catch our bus.

The journey through the dewy morning was wonderful. We saw more ranches, hamlets, and more beautiful scenery. The journey looked short on the map, but took hours of frequent stops, on tiny, winding roads.

When we got to our destination, we were quite bemused. We thought we were going to a town on the border. We found ourselves in what appeared to be the set of a wild west film – a dusty, one-street town, with a couple of shops and bars in, and cowboys who didn’t look like they had much of a sense of humour. The ‘town’ was on a hill, and view of endless grassland from there was incredible, and all the more exciting, because all that grassland was in Brazil.

We hadn’t got any cash, because we hadn’t wanted to take any Uruguayan money out before entering Brazil, and we could not have withdrawn Brazilian cash in Uruguay. This was very stupid of us; there was no cash machine, and the bank didn’t take cards or exchange travellers’ cheques. We had not yet got our bus tickets to the next town (where we were assured there were cash machines), so we were pretty stuck. We had no way to pay for anything, and now way out of there.

Not knowing what else to do, we began counting out our change. And by an actual miracle, we had EXACTLY the money required for two bus tickets. What relief!

Now we had about four hours to kill, until our bus. We walked about, explored the only side street, watched cowboys lazily trotting about on their steeds and sat on a bench. It was about midday, and starting to get hot. We hadn’t eaten or drunk anything since the early morning, and had a long wait to go. We also needed a wee. I started nonchalantly looking through the pockets of my combats and bags. Incredibly, our luck for that day had still not been used up; I found the equivalent of about 20p. We went to a small deserted café. When the string-vested man came out, I somehow expressed our situation and asked if he could give us two coffees, despite having only enough for half of one coffee. He agreed immediately, and signalled that we should take a seat at a table. I felt guilty, because it was clear that these people were very poor and didn’t get much custom. Then he brought us a whole pot of coffee and a basket of bread! This was so wonderful, for a few reasons:

1. Drink and food.
2. The difficulties and rewards of that morning had felt like a ‘real’ travelling-type adventure.
3. The life enriching experience of being given more than we even hoped for, by someone who didn’t know us at all, and who has very little themselves.

Re-fuelled, we were pleased to find that the café had a toilet, so we left feeling very content.

Only another three and a half hours to wait.

More strolling about, more cowboys, more sitting on a bench. Time went slowly, but the surroundings were so alien to us, that we were happy just sitting there observing them. It got hotter and hotter, until we were able to sit sweltering in t-shirts, with our trousers rolled up, and our blue-white feet exposed to the sun for the first time on the trip. Ahhhhh! This was the travelling life!



At last, the ticket office opened. We put our clothes back on and hoiked up our rucksacks.

Monday, July 28, 2008

BRRRRAAAASSSIIIIIIIIWWW!!! (Brazil) 1st stop, Bagé

The bus slowly drove away from our Wild West town, trundling leisurely down the dirt road, past the border without stopping… we were there! We’d made it to Brazil!

After a short while, the bus rolled onto the smooth tarmac of the Brazilian highway. The prairie landscape continued, and two hours later we entered Bagé.

It was late afternoon, but still hot and very sticky in the town centre. It could have been a town anywhere, with shady squares, old stone buildings, and modern, scruffy-looking department stores. We were relieved to get to bank machines and internet cafés, and found the coach ticket office.

We’d planned to head straight up north, cross-country, to go to the Iguaçu falls, but there was no bus route to take us that way. We’d have to go East, to the nearest big city, Porto Alegré, to catch a connection. With our bus leaving the next afternoon, helpful locals directed us to a cheapish hotel.

Our spacious room at City Hotel looked out over the hazy rooftops, and we were exceedingly pleased to take off our sweaty clothes, have a shower, and put on clean clothes for the FIRST TIME on our trip! It was the first time it had been hot enough to wear anything other than our only warm outfits.

The view from our City Hotel window

We headed out for the evening, first of all stopping for a beer. We bought our drinks from a kiosk in a restful square, and sat at plastic tables. We were so excited that we were actually in Brazil, and the palm trees and warmth enhanced the satisfaction.

Bagé is a real backwater country town. Most people seem to be pretty impoverished, and we were very noticeable as strangers. Later on the trip, Brazilians were amazed that we'd been there (which made us feel like explorers, whilst they were just perplexed at why the hell we'd wanted to go there). We loved it. The locals were a colourful mix – not just in terms of the complete melting pot of Hispanic, white, black and everything in between, but also their clothes tended to be brightly coloured.

This is where we first noticed the female fashion for leggings (enhancing generally very large arses), teamed with huge, chunky platforms and piles of cheap bling. The large arses themselves are the fashion and without one, you just don’t have sex appeal. A couple of boys dressed like 50 Cent limped shadily about. Black and hispanicky-looking cowboys chinked around in their spurs, dressed in beautiful primary-coloured gaucho outfits.

I was mesmerised by the gauchos, who seemed to come from another world and era. Well they were mainly quite old, so sadly maybe Brazil is indeed loosing them to the past. But anyway, their fancy gathered trousers were tucked into knee-high leather boots, with immaculate shirts and string ties on top. Embroidered jackets and Brazilian cowboy hats finished off the look. Each cowboy had his own coordinated colour scheme.

After our beer, we walked around the town centre for ages, looking for somewhere to eat. There wasn’t much choice. There didn’t seem to be an eating out culture. We finally found a pizzeria, which was more expensive and clinical-looking than we would have liked. Bittencourt Pizzeria was empty when we got there, because we were rather early – we’d had a long day and hadn’t eaten since the border bread that morning.
The theme of the restaurant was that you pay one (big) price, and then you can choose whichever pizzas you want, or wait for the staff to come round with slices of all different ones. We thoroughly enjoyed gorging ourselves on the tasty pizzas, which were not amazing, but had been cooked in a proper pizza oven, from fresh dough. They served sweet pizzas for dessert.

Pizzaiolos at Bittencourt Pizzeria

As the restaurant filled up with diners, I began to uncomfortably realize that although most of Bagé’s population was quite dark, everyone in the restaurant was pale. I started to feel like a stupid rich bitch just by being in there, and got quite upset about the striking race divides between rich and poor. I’d have to get used to this…

When we left the restaurant, it was dark, and the streets were buzzing with people. We walked back towards the hotel, popped in to the hotel bar for a couple of flavoured vodkas, and then strolled the streets to take in the lively atmosphere. Students were touting for cash for the new term, and gangs of kids hung out around little food kiosks that had set up along the pavements - this was the local eating out culture. It was our first evening in Brazil, and it seemed that Brazil was brilliant!

Next Day:

The next morning, we had a several hours to kill before our bus to Porto Alegré, so we had great fun drinking milky coffees in the square and discreetly taking pictures of each other in an attempt to snap the gauchos in the background – people kept warning us to look out for dodgy people (by tapping their noses and raising their eyebrows) – we were being watched, so we didn’t want to act like even more obvious tourists by asking the cowboys to pose for the camera. Actually, people were staring a lot, and we did feel like targets, but what could we do, other than be careful?

We bought some delicious rotisserie chicken to eat on the go, and caught a bus through dusty streets, to the coach station on the other side of the town. We sat in the 1st floor station café for about 2 hours, people watching. Kids carrying their school artwork, other kids being chased by security, dolled-up women, taxi drivers in vests…

We bought fruit (including the nicest mango ever in the history of the world) and water for the journey, and joined the bus queue/crowd.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Porto Alegre - Hell & Heavenly Feijoada

We arrived late at night. Having phoned various guidebook hotels from Bagé, we were a bit worried about finding somewhere to stay - the places we'd called were either full or very expensive, and we had no idea how to find our way to the different areas of the city. We should have looked around at least a little bit, but we just went straight to the crap, over-priced dump over the road from the bus station.

Porto Alegre bus station

The greasy, string-vested man behind the desk gave us the key, and sent us up to our hovel. The sheets we were supplied with were worn so thin, that once we had put them on the narrow beds, you could see through them to the dirty bedding beneath. The dusty window over-looked a filthy alleyway, and we left it open due to the strong smell of gas in our room, that made us fear for our lives. We could hear shouting coming from everywhere, and the hooting cars on the road out front sounded like they were in the room with us. The light in the cold shower was activated by a switch that was located under the stream of water. Nevermind, we did find the room's ridiculousness quite funny, and we did manage a couple of hours' sleep.

Sadly, we were unable to take photos of the ‘hotel’ room, because it was so small, and the shower at such an awkward angle, that our standard-lensed cameras couldn’t capture the fun.

The breakfast wasn't bad, surprisingly: Plenty of milky coffee, delicious, sweet, tangy little bananas, ripe papaya, breads, cakes, ‘juice’ (squash), cheap ham and plastic cheese.

After breakfast, we went straight to the bus station, super-early, to find out about coaches to Foz d’Iguaçu, and buses to the pretty wine-producing villages that we’d heard about in the Porto Alegre area. We bought our tickets to Foz for early that evening, so that we could briefly explore the surrounding villages before leaving, without having to stay an extra night. But then the ticket seller noticed that we didn’t have visas. We were illegal immigrants, due to having crossed the border in the middle of nowhere. We had to go to the airport to explain ourselves and get a stamp, or we couldn’t travel.

Luckily, the airport wasn’t far, and the customs man only gave us a gentle interrogation, but by the time we got back, we were too late to take a trip into the countryside and get back before our Foz bus. We had to miss out on seeing the vineyards and amuse ourselves in the city, and, after BA, we had intended to avoid metropoli. But after a horrible, watered-down, sugary fruit juice in the bus station, we put our rucksacks in left luggage, and began to tramp the town. We were determined to make the best of it. For a few hours. Until we were utterly wilted by the awfulness of Porto Alegre.

Don’t get me wrong; as with Montevideo, I am sure that given time we would have uncovered many more hidden joys of the city, but our brief experience did not do the place justice (I hope). It was hot, sticky and filthy, impoverished and falling down. We walked past crumbling whorehouses (it was the houses that were crumbling not the whores - the young prostitutes seemed quite spritely, despite their rank living conditions) and charcoal-grey gutter kids lying ignored and unconscious on the pavement. Shops consisted of tatt-touters, selling useless Chinese junk. Obvious Criminals, who happened to be blond and blue-eyed, thought they could gain our trust through colouration and offers of ‘help’. Most people were over-weight to obese levels, and the only food we found was brown and deep-fried, whether it was sweet or savoury. The leggings and platforms were out in force, to accentuate the eye-watering arse sizes. Huge skyscrapers lay derelict, right in the city centre, looming over the shops and stalls. We completely exhausted ourselves trying to find something nice.

Thankfully, we actually did in the end; We found the excellent covered market, with amazing street performers doing somersaults through rings of fire outside. We couldn’t take photos, for fear of being mugged. There were pavement cafés along one outside length of the market (Ahhh! Beer! At last some decent refreshment!), fish stalls lining the outside of the port side, and all sorts of food stalls inside. I’d forgotten that Porto Alegre has a port until I was standing next to it!

We found a restaurant in the market, that reminded me of a Spanish taverna, with its high, tobacco-stained walls, busy waiters in aprons, dark wooden tables and locals enjoying leisurely meals together. Bar Naval serves beer on tap and has a very accommodating service.

Some handily English-speaking men on the next table tried to chat us up, to the amusement of the waiters. The pleasing result was a lot of help with the menu and a recommendation of what to do for the rest of the afternoon, and directions to the city’s massive Redenção park.

The food was comparatively pricey but very good indeed. And it was real food rather than deep-fried dough. We sampled some Brazilian delicacies, tasting a rich, smoky bean feijoada, with farofa (course cassava flour which soaks up and thickens sauces, and adds flavour, crunch and calories) and the fantastic acidic, firey and salty chilli sauce (Anyone know where can I buy this in the UK?). Some spice was very welcome after what was beginning to feel like days of bland stodge. We subsequently realized that the flour and the chilli sauce are permanently on almost every dining table, especially further north.

Feijoada & all the trimmings

The feijoada was like a rich, dark, smoky cassoulet, that contained black beans, smoked pork belly, beef, smoked sausage and what seemed to be an unsmoked sausage with a bone running through it – all absolutely delicious, and served with refreshing slices of orange, crisp salad, rice and greens. I tried to establish what the tender greens were; they’re called ‘couve’, but translations vary from general brassica to cabbage to kale. Kale seems most likely. We also had some delicately fried flat fish and a few chips! Cool lager washed it all down nicely.

We still felt like we were being watched and scoped out from afar, so still no photos, I’m afraid.

Back out into the hazy sun and humidity (smog, maybe,) we began once again to navigate the grimy streets and fried food stalls, until we found the park. What a relief! We spent a couple of peaceful hours watching families and groups of friends playing sports, walking dogs and drinking maté. There were also caged enclosures down paths, among the trees, which housed monkeys and exotic birds.

Finally, feeling exhausted, sweaty, filthy and greasy, we found our way back to the bus station, and caught our overnight coach to Foz.

N.B. As a big exception to my general blog rule, the photos in the post are not mine. While I was searching for them on the internet, I did find some very pleasant looking pictures of Porto Alegre, so maybe we just caught it on a bad day...

Friday, March 14, 2008

Filipino Food Challenge

Pirran enjoyed all sorts of cuisine in the Philippines. Here's what he had to say on Skype.
Pirran D: had korean last night - kimchi etc (remember me explaining that the other day?) - well with it came these delightful little things - dried whitebait style fish, v pungent and crunchy, but coated with chilli flakes and sugar - went very well with the meal. looking forward to suckling pig on a stick, which is apparently a delicacy here.
Gemma Driver: was wondering wen i'd get my 1st update!
Pirran D: went to an amazing buffet at the shangri la hotel. it was ridic. unbelievable. i gorged myself. oysters, smoked mussels, sushi, dim sum, peking duck, pork head, chicken feet, tempura, massive crabs and shrimp
then i started getting a bit full, so missed the main course out and had 3 desert rounds instead, including thai and filipino style stuff like agar agar, beans in syrup, purple yam. oh - forgot to say - fermented duck embryo is a speciality here. i shall try to try and report back.

Well, he did. "It looked f$$$ing rank! But I obviously couldn't not try it. It didn't taste too bad, but I couldn't finish it, just coz it looked so disgusting." Watch the video, of Pirran eating balut, Filipino duck embryo street snack delicacy, straight from the shell. Unfortunately for Pirran, this particular one was not fermented. Ah well, next time...