No prizes for noticing that I haven't blogged for a couple of months - well, I've got a good excuse - well, for some of that time at least. As many of you know, I have just had a wonderful trip to Europe, thus managing to escape a good chunk of this New Zealand winter. Add to that a couple of weeks before I went away of being "too busy" to blog, and then coming home and taking a couple more weeks to get back into regular routines - you know how it goes - "I'll start blogging again tomorrow", but tomorrow keeps becoming the next day and the next day and so on. Not being a natural writer, I have found it surprisingly difficult to get back into it - I know that once I sit down and just start to write, things will start to unfold, but somehow I have been a bit afraid to just sit down and get started, as though I don't know where to begin. But anyway, enough excuses, here goes ...
So what exactly have I been doing while I was away? I began my trip with several days in Barcelona (quite possibly my favourite city in the world, so far) - an opportunity to shop, to enjoy great food and make daily visits to La Boqueria market (absolute foodie heaven) (you can see more of my photos from La Boqueria here) ...
... to enjoy the cultural and artistic history of this wonderful city, including a visit to the Fundacio Joan Miro (a museum housing an extensive collection of the works of Joan Miro, one of my favourite artists) ...
... and, on my last evening in Barcelona, take in a cooking class at Cook & Taste. As well as a tour of the market, we cooked a typical four course Catalan meal which included Chupito de Sopa de Tomate al Aroma de Idiazabal (shots of tomato soup flavoured with idiazabal smoked cheese), Tortilla de Patatas y Pan con Tomate (potato omelette with tomato bread), Paella de Marisco (seafood paella) and Crema Catalana (Catalan cream) - yes, I promise to share some of these recipes with you in the future. The cooking school kitchen is lovely, and our tutor, Ignasius, was immensely knowledgeable and informative, as well as being very warm, friendly and entertaining. The other students (mostly from the US, but surprisingly also another couple from New Zealand) were equally friendly and amusing. In groups of 3 or 4 we all got a hands-on turn at cooking one of the courses, and then we all got to eat together the meal we had created. The food was delicious, and there was plenty of good Spanish wine to wash it down with. All in all, this was a wonderfully fitting way to end my stay in this beautiful city.
From Barcelona I travelled to Athens for a night, and then on to the island of Paros for a four week yoga intensive with Graeme and Leonie Northfield, which was the whole purpose of my trip. It is almost impossible to put into words what a deeply profound experience this was, and I am not even going to try.
I can, however, tell you this. I have been privileged to have Graeme and Leonie as my teachers for several years now. I appreciate enormously the vast amount of experience they each have, and the knowledge and wisdom that they bring to their teaching. I appreciate their passion for teaching students to develop a practice which is both safe and which will endure. I am grateful for the wise and intuitive way in which they have guided my practice, helping me through injuries, and encouraging and leading me forward when the time is right. Most of all, I'm incredibly grateful for their warmth, love and compassion. And they're also good fun ...
I'm also incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to practice with some of the most wonderful people I have ever had the privilege to meet, and who I now feel I can call friends. Fellow students who, despite coming together as strangers, opened their hearts and without reservation offered love and support for each other when it was needed. I could not help but feel very humbled.
But, enough, I know you just want me to get right to the food! The first thing I can tell you is that the Greeks really, really know how to do vegetables and this is a great place to dine out for a vegetarian. All the cafes and tavernas I dined in had probably at least 20 vegetable dishes to choose from, and then several salads as well. Everything was fresh, in season, and simply but deliciously prepared - nothing "chefy" about this, just really simple, honest food bursting with flavour - special favourites were peppers and tomatoes stuffed with rice, wild greens simply steamed and served with loads of lemon juice and black pepper, artichoke hearts braised with broad beans, courgette fritters (I think these were everyone's favourites), and aubergines Imam (cooked in lots of olive oil and filled with tomatoes and feta). Of course no meal is complete without the ubiquitous Greek salad - we managed to have these on an almost daily basis without ever tiring of them.
We had regular group pot luck dinners - always celebratory affairs, with beautiful food, plenty of local wine, and of course much laughter.
We dined in beautiful tavernas so close to the water's edge that the fish could have almost jumped onto our plates - of course you nearly have to take out a mortgage to pay for the fish here! As fish stocks in the Mediterranean diminish, so the prices seem to escalate. From what I observed fish seemed to be usually served whole in restaurants, rather than by the fillet, and accordingly are charged by the kilo, with prices starting at 55Euros per kilo (that's NZ$110 per kilo - yes you are reading that right) and going up to around 110Euros per kilo (NZ$220 - gulp)! So if you're planning to eat seafood here, expect to have to really cut a lot of moths loose from your wallet. On the other hand, if you are happy to eat a little further down the food chain, you'll do yourself and the planet a favour. Seafood such as sardines and calamari are plentiful and sustainable, as well as tasting great -you could eat a beautiful dish of grilled sardines or calamari for around 7Euros a plate.
Although I have never been that much of a breakfast person, it was in fact breakfast that became my favourite meal of every day. As is so often the case, good food for me is as much about connecting with others as it is about what's on your plate. It became our morning ritual, having finished our yoga practice, to enjoy a refreshing swim, after which everyone would disappear to their rooms to prepare their breakfast, emerging a little while later to eat breakfast together in the garden - usually a bowl of thick, luscious Greek yoghurt; a mountain of fresh fruit (peaches, apricots, melons, cherries, strawberries were all very abundant); a drizzle of local honey and some nuts. It was fun each morning to peer into each other's bowls and see what assortment everyone had come up with. Breakfast was a leisurely affair - usually a couple of hours when we would sit and talk, laugh, occasionally cry - a time to share and support, and a time to plan the rest of the day - should we have a sleep first and then go to town for a coffee, or maybe go for coffee first and then sleep? - or maybe an excursion to the supermarket to get some ingredients for one of our potluck dinners is in order. Oh the tough decisions you have to make when you're on holiday!
Since I've returned home, I've found myself still needing to have my "Greek breakfast" and contemplate my day at a leisurely pace. I have never before been much of a yoghurt lover - I often use it as an ingredient, but seldom eat it straight. Oh, how my head has been turned since eating real Greek yoghurt! You can buy a variety of "Greek style" yoghurts here, but they're not quite the same - you can, however, almost approximate it: firstly, line a seive with a paper towel; at least 3 hours before you want to eat it (overnight is ideal) spoon a serving of yoghurt into the paper towel; set over a bowl (in the fridge) to drain. That solves the yoghurt issue, but what about the fruit? In the depths of winter here stone fruit, berries and melon are simply not an option. Yes, I guess you could have a selection of apples, oranges and pears - but, I'm sorry, they just don't do it for me. Although they are all fruits that I like to use in salads and sometimes even in desserts, but just as fruits for their own sake - no, not for me - I am without question a summer fruits girl. My solution is a dried fruit compote - full of peaches, apricots, figs, cherries and prunes, infused with lemon, vanilla and star anise, in a syrup thick with honey (for a New Zealand twist I used manuka honey) - topped off with a sprinkling of chopped pistachio nuts, I ended up with a breakfast that even in the depths of the New Zealand winter transports me back to Paros everyday, and helps me to to still feel connected to new found friends at far flung corners of the world.
And, of course, I strongly recommend good coffee on the side!
Dried Fruit Compote Recipe
Makes 6-8 generous servings
Click here for a printable copy of this recipe
There are no precise quantities required here - those given are approximate and should be adjusted to suit your personal taste
4-6 cups of dried fruit, whatever you like
I used approximately one cup each of dried peaches, apricots, figs, cherries and prunes
I also left all of my fruit whole, but if you like little pieces by all means go ahead and chop
For the syrup:
2 cups of cold water
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup honey (I used Manuka)
1 vanilla bean
2 star anise
3-4 strips of lemon peel (or orange would also be good)
Put the cold water, sugar and honey into a medium sized saucepan. Split the vanilla pod lengthwise, scrape out the seeds, then add the seeds and the pod to the pan, along with the star anise and the strips of peel.
Set the pan over medium heat and stir until the sugar and honey has dissolved and the syrup begins to simmer. Allow to simmer for about 5 minutes, then add all of the fruit to the pan. Allow to simmer gently over low heat until the fruit is just soft - around 15 minutes.
Remove fruit from the pan to a bowl, then continue to simmer the liquid for a few more minutes until it has a thick, syrupy consistency.
Remove pan from the heat and pour the syrup over the fruit. Cool completely and refrigerate overnight. (Of course you could eat this straight away, but I think leaving all the fruit to steep in the syrup overnight really allows all the flavours to develop and mellow out).
To serve - put a generous dollop of Greek-style yoghurt in the bottom of a bowl and drizzle generously with some of the syrup. Place a good serving of the fruit over the top and finish with a sprinkling of chopped pistachios.