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August 22nd, 2007

on the road: Canet d’Adri


Kilo loaves of pa de pagès cool in a Canet d’Adria, Spain, bakery © Jeff Koehler

Canet d’Adri is a tiny village inland from the Costa Brava where one of Eva’s sisters lives. It’s a village with “four houses” as they say in Catalan. But there is a wonderful fourteenth-century church and a bakery with a massive wood-burning oven. The only ritual – obligation! – of the day for us when we stay is walking to buy bread. And one of day’s few decisions is which bread to buy: a massive round kilo loaf of pa de pagès that has been left to cool in the massive wooden cabinet drawers (their edges dusted with years of flour)? A half-kilo loaf? One of the skinny long, baguette-like loafs?

Today, like most days, it’s a kilo pa de pagès. At lunch and dinner there is pa amb tomàquet, the slices of bread, thick as a thumb and as big as a plate, rubbed with ripe garden tomatoes and slathered with plenty of olive oil. Whenever I do this in Canet I am always chided by my brother-in-law Xicu for never using enough tomato or oil. What is this? Maybe that’s how they do it in Barcelona, but not here, he says grinding another half-tomato across his slice and then pouring olive oil over it until the bread is almost spongy. Like this. Now taste it. See?

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August 15th, 2007

on the road: Istanbul


Istanbul viewed from a ferry crossing the Bosphorus © Jeff Koehler

On Sunday I took the ferry across the Bosphorus from the European side of Istanbul to Karaköy on the Asian side where the strait opens wide-mouthed into the Sea of Marmara. The ride is short (just twenty minutes) and scenic and perfect to enjoy a simit (bread ring) covered in sesame-seeds and a tulip-shaped glass of çay (black tea) – two simple pleasures that always evoke my first trips to Istanbul a dozen years ago.

In Karaköy, I spent some hours browsing the small streets behind the Mustafa Iskele Mosque that are crowded with fishmongers, spice shops (to buy sumac, gum mastic, and black cumin seeds), yoghurt and cheese shops, greengrocers, bakeries (including my favorite, Eser Ekmet, across from the Armenian church), and dozens of bookshops.

I’d come, though, to eat lunch at Yanyali, perhaps the city’s best lokanta (a basic restaurant where the days dishes are laid out to chose from). In 1919, at the very end of the Ottoman empire, a man called Fehmi Sönmezler approached one of the palace chefs to open a restaurant. Eighty-eight years later the same traditional dishes are being prepared with the same exacting standards of quality and freshness. The extensive, rotating menu shows off the breath and wealth of traditional Turkish cuisine.

But I was at Yanyali (and, indeed, Istanbul) specifically for the rice dishes – domlas (rice-stuffed vegetables), pilavs, and a handful of milky rice-based desserts.

The founder’s grandson, the friendly, thirty-something Ergin Sönmezler, greeted me as I entered (we had met the previous day), and led me through a meal that included a dozen different dishes – all but one with rice.

There were various dolmas (cold ones stuffed with rice, pine nuts, and currants, warm ones with rice and meat), and a couple of pilavs. The iç pilav was superb, the rice studded with pieces of lamb liver, tiny currants, and pine nuts, and delicately seasoned with black pepper, allspice, and a pinch of cinnamon. The grains were individual and fluffy and glistened with oil and butter. Perfect.

What’s the trick? I asked. There is no trick, Ergin said. It’s technique. Pilav was an exam dish for Ottoman palace chefs. It’s how you can tell a good restaurant – if the pilav is good, the restaurant is good.

Two desserts at Yanyali – firin sütlaç, a creamy baked rice pudding, and zerde, a celebratory saffron-colored (milk-less) rice pudding that is always served at weddings and boys’ circumcision ceremonies – meant no room for a beloved simit on the ferry back. But a glass of tea? Always.


Eser Ekmet bakery, in Kadiköy, Istanbul © Jeff Koehler

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August 15th, 2007

on the road: Sinarcas

Tía Encarnita

Tía Encarnita adding rice to the paella © Jeff Koehler

Sinarcas is a tiny, picturesque Spanish village surrounded by fields of grapevines and cereals an hour inland from Valencia. Both of my mother-in-law’s parents are from Sinarcas and she spent her childhood shuttling between here and Barcelona. There are still plenty of aunts and cousins in the village, and when my wife and two girls and I visit we spend much of our time going from house to house, meal to meal. And at lunch time that means paella.

There is but one paella in Sinarcas – a wide pan of golden rice studded with rabbit, chicken, snails, local purple-marbled green beans, and garrafons (large lima beans) – cooked over vineyard cuttings.

Our first lunch – and first paella – was prepared by Tía Encarnita under the watchful eye of her sprightly, 95-year-old mother, Tía Angelina.

Tía Encarnita’s husband Nino, with a soggy, unlit stub of cigar clenched in his mouth, prepared the fire in the corral – a large, enclosed but open-air garage space that, until recently, had been the domain of chickens and the place where a pig was butchered and preserved (mostly into different types of sausages) each winter.

Once the 18-inch-wide pan was laid on the iron fire stand and flames were licking over its edges, Tía Encarnita took over, tending the paella with a practiced hand while I took notes on her steady stream of advice (how best to prepare snails, which rice to use, when to add the pimentón). Tía Angelina came and went, checking the paella, tasting it at one point, but saying little about it.

Just as the rice was about done, my youngest daughter, Maia, wandered over and said, I’m hungry. When Tía Encarnita whisked her off to the kitchen for a quick snack, Tía Angelina shouted to her daughter something to the effect of, The paella is done! It’ll burn! It needs to come off!

I realized that it was in the village where my mother-in-law learned one of her favorite sayings: Rice waits for no one. (Or, as the Catalan saying goes, Arròs covat, dóna’l al gat. Literally, Overcooked rice, give it to the cat.)

Nino slid carrying hooks into the handles and lifted the pan off the flames. I very quickly photographed it and then it was hurried to the table. We took up our spoons and dug in to the perfect paella – tender, flavorful grains, and a thin layer of slightly caramelized rice called socarrat - directly from the pan. The only noise was the scraping of spoons.

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August 15th, 2007

on the road: Alexandria


A man flicks a shrimp at cars passing by the fish market in Alexandria, Egypt © Jeff Koehler

Alexandria is a true sea city, fifteen miles long and not much more than a mile deep. From above, the city’s port looks like the tail of a fat cartoon whale, with the near symmetrical western and eastern harbors. The former is filled with cargo ships and large vessels, the later with green and robin egg-blue fishing boats.

Walking through the Anfusi, the dusty, crowded fishermen’s quarter sandwiched between the two harbors, I am reminded of arriving here the first time back in 1992 on a ship from Crete. (After a year in Africa I returned to the U.S. but, just months later, found myself back on a familiar hotel balcony.) There was pleasure then as there is now of wandering lost in the din of the city, letting the edges of familiarity drop away among the loud rasp of Arabic, the graceful curves of door arches, the smell of apple-scented tobacco and baking bread and crushed coriander – as calls to prayer float through the city like smoke. At Anfusi’s northern edge the streets open to the fish market. Men stand on the edge of the road holding up sea bass and prawns for passing cars and taxis. Someone absently flicks water on a tray of red mullet, another, in yellow rubber boots, holds a large pale shrimp in the palm of his hand, flicking its tail like a well-oiled jackknife.

There is pleasure, too, in eating familiar dishes, though this time I don’t live solely on kushary – a strangely delectable mix of two types of macaroni, rice, lentils, tomato sauce, a bit of chili sauce, and topped with chewy, sweet fried onions – and bowls of fuul midamess, fava beans mashed with onions, tomatoes, and spices, scooped up with pieces of round flatbread. This trip there is also plenty of stuffed vine leaves, kobeba (fried cracked wheat with lamb meatballs), rice sayadeya (amber-color fisherman’s rice), shrimp and cuttlefish baked in the oven with tomatoes, onions, and plenty of spices, grilled quail, pigeon stuffed with rice and with frik (green wheat), creamy rice pudding, and an even creamier mohalabiyya made with crushed rice and rice flour.

I go to Cairo for a final version of stuffed pigeon at the magnificent Abou El Said. Between Alexandria and Cairo run two roads of equal length, one through the edge of the silted Nile Delta, congested and slow, with its rice and cotton fields and web of brown canals. The other, straight and fast, is the Desert Road – once through the desert, but now filled with the green, canal-fed agricultural land. Buses pass wailing their horns, flashing their headlights, trucks with loads of onions and melons. Pigeon cotes sprout up in tight pairs, weighing down garages and shops. Phallic and made of earth, with holes and protruding stick perches, the cotes look like they belonged more in Mauritania or Mali.

Getting to Cairo is easier than getting out. In the morning a massive sandstorm blows up, the khamaseen, the weather going from pleasant to 90-some degrees in hours as the sand moves in, filling the air with a fine dust, giving the sky a buttery metallic glow. Quiet, hot, almost claustrophobic. You can hardly breathe. Everything is shut up. Sand swirls around your feet. Driving slowly out to the (closed) airport for my flight home, the city trails off at the length of a football field, a bit more perhaps, the buildings fading to warm gold.

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August 15th, 2007

recipe: Maltese Rabbit with Olives

This Maltese rabbit and olive dish has become one of our favorites at home this year. It’s adapted from Matty Cremona’s A Year in the Country: Life and Food in Rural Malta, a lovely illustrated book published in Malta by Proximus Publishing, in 2003.

Maltese Rabbit with Olives

Serves 4 to 6

6 tablespoons olive oil
Flour for dusting
1 whole rabbit, cleaned and cut into 10 or 12 pieces
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup wine vinegar
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 onion, sliced into hawkmoons
1 stalk celery, finely chopped
2 carrots, sliced into thin discs
1 tablespoon capers, rinsed of brine
1 1/2 cups whole olives, rinsed of brine
1 small sprig rosemary
2 bay leaves
1 1/2 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup white wine

In a large, heavy-bottomed casserole, heat the oil over medium heat. Dust the rabbit with flour and fry until golden. Sprinkle with sugar and cook until it’s dissolved. Pour over the wine vinegar and allow it to evaporate and slightly caramelize. Cover the pan, remove from heat, and set aside.

In another small frying pan, heat the remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat and cook the garlic, onion, celery, and carrots with the capers and olives until the vegetables are soft, 10 to 15 minutes.

Return the rabbit to low heat, spoon over the aromatic mixture the rabbit, add the rosemary and bay leaf, and cover with the stock and wine. Simmer, partly covered, for 60 to 90 minutes, until tender. Add more stock if it threatens to dry out.

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August 15th, 2007

savor: Egypt/ Alexandria

Midan Saad Zaghoul
Ramleh Station

Perhaps the most beautiful of the old Greek cafes that hark from (and back to) a time when Alexandria was a great cosmopolitan city. Faded, perhaps, in its role as a center of Alexandria society but not in its stunning allure: recent restoration work shows off the delicate, gilded turn-of-the-century details of the high-ceiled rooms. Best for an mid-morning or mid-afternoon tea and honey-soaked pastry, or perhaps a late dessert of rice pudding. Lovely.
Try: the silky rice pudding topped with shredded coconut, raisins, pistachios, and a few almonds.
Linger over coffee: and read Lawrence Durrell’s enchanting Alexandria Quartet.

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August 15th, 2007

savor: Egypt/ Alexandria

48 Safar Pasha Street

In the dusty middle of the densely-populated fishermen’s quarter of Anfusi is the meat equivalent of Kadoura: known by shopkeepers and taxi drivers as the best for charcoal-grilled meats. It’s massive and rambling, and appears to have taken over various buildings in the courtyard whose front walls have simply been sheered off to accommodate more diners. Big spreads of delicious “salads” followed by grilled meats (or fish). Very local, boisterous, and fantastic. Not a tourist in sight. Inexpensive.
Finding it: isn’t easy. Take a taxi and prepare to think that even the taxi is lost.
To go with your meat: ruzz bram, rice cooked in a rustic clay dish.
Bread: comes out smoking hot directly from the oven, still puffed and perfect.

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August 15th, 2007

savor: Egypt/ Alexandria

33 Bairam al-Tonsi Street (off the Corniche)

In Alexandria, go for the seafood. But where? Locals will tell you the best in town is at Kadoura. (Tourists claim the Fish Market across the Corniche is the best; it’s at least much more expensive. As one local woman put it, “People go to the Fish Market for the views and Kadoura for the food.”) The crowds of Alexandrian families and Cairene ones who’ve come up for the weekend say it all. Chose from the iced display of fish and shellfish - red mullet, crab, sea bass, squid, bluefish, jumbo prawns - downstairs from the guy in white rubber boots (you pay by weight), tell him how you want it cooked (grilled? in the oven with onions and tomatoes?), and then climb the stairs and find a table. A spread of “salads” – hummus, baba ghanough etc – comes while your order is being cooked to perfection.
Excellent: Cuttlefish baked in the oven with plenty of onions, tomatoes, and earthy spices.

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August 15th, 2007

savor: Egypt/ Cairo

25 Talaat Harb Street

El Abd is a traditional Egyptian pastry shop for all manner of rich “Oriental sweets” - semolina cakes and cookies and layered, honey-soaked phyllo pastries stuffed with crushed almonds or pistachios. From early morning until late at night there is a crowd queuing or selecting or waiting as their purchases are placed in white boxes and tied with delicate pink ribbon (or pink boxes in yellow ribbon). They also sell all sorts of salty nuts and seeds by bulk.
Before visiting someone: get an assorted box of sweets to take as a gift. Appreciated, but also proper etiquette.
Get a bag: of small, hard dried watermelon seeds to munch on as you stroll Cairo.

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August 15th, 2007

savor: Egypt/ Cairo

15 Hoda Sharaawi Street

Cairo’s most famous restaurant. Tourists love it – but so do locals. Standard Egyptian dishes done reasonably well in a quirky but comfortable place. Opened in 1959 and little changed between my first visit in 1992 and my latest this spring. Best bets are the smaller dishes – tahini, baba ghanoug, tamiyya, and fuul.
Try: fuul with dekka and a squeeze of lemon.
Eat everything: with plenty of warm pita bread.
The beer: 500 ml bottles of Sakara Gold.
For a faster meal: go around the corner to Felfela Take Away for excellent shawarma in soft buns.

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All text and images are ©Jeff Koehler 2007-2009 and cannot be used without his written permission.