Holidays

Munching My Way Through Madrid…

It already seems too long since  myreturn from our Gourmet Madrid trip, but I can still taste the warm, gooey centre of freshly fried tortilla and the rich spiciness of Toledo wine. If you’ve never experienced this vibrant city, let me try to entice you with a little breakdown of what we saw, ate and drank…

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Tapas, Tapas, Tapas

Every major city in Spain may lay claim to having the best tapas, but the incredible diversity of offerings and value for money (providing you avoid the ubiquitous tourist traps) makes Madrid my firm favourite. We spent a lot of time in the Mercado de San Miguel, savouring traditional Vermut aperitivos, sumptuous jamón Iberico, and Madrid’s famous fiery potato dish, patatas bravas.

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Wonderful Wine

I always find that you get so much more from the experience of tasting wine if you have a little insider knowledge, so for our first day we spent the afternoon learning the basics with our slightly eccentric host Julián. In the basement cellars of Madrid we were shown all the tricks of the trade through a series of fun games and quizzes, leaving us ready to swirl, sniff and sip in vineyards like the pros. After this we all headed for a gourmet tapas meal with the best Sangria in town!

 

Carafes and Castles

Our fist vineyard venture took us into the mountains on the outskirts of the city and to some of the most impressive views around, which we got to enjoy at a custom built tasting area carved from the very rose granite which helps to make the wine so delicious. The bodega owners also run the local old Castillo, which just happens to be the sight of the signing of the marriage contract between Isabella of Castile and Fernando of Aragon which united the kingdoms of Spain. After a private tour of the castle we are treated to a homemade lunch in the old chapel – heavenly!

DSCN2224When visiting this area around Madrid you should never miss a chance to see the magnificent El Escorial monastery – part building of worship/part palace where the kings and queens of Spain have been buried for centuries in awe inspiring marble tombs. We had just enough time to admire the building and have a moment to get lost in the gallery of art treasures within before it was time to head back to the city for a taste of traditional Basque fare in one of Madrid’s favourite little family-run spots.

 

The Original Capital City

Today’s excursion was to the ancient city of three cultures; the former Spanish capital of Toledo. Famous for its unrivalled blend of Catholic, Islamic and Jewish architecture, as well as top notch steel and mouth-watering marzipan, this is a wonderfully eclectic place where you can wander the cobbled streets and come across cathedrals, mosques, and synagogues nestled between shops filled with swords, suits of armour and golden yellow almond creations!

DSCN2379As the former seat of power in Spain, naturally Toledo needed a good supply of wine (such an important life staple!) The wines of the area may have been overshadowed by the fame and popularity of Rioja to the North, but Toledo vineyards have history and the passion of family producers who have been harvesting for generations on their side. We visited one such vineyard, whose methods have changed little since the 18th century, when prestigious French architects were brought over to design the perfect winery. The fruits of their labour have been enjoyed by royalty, politicians and celebrities, and today by our little group of wine lovers. After a fascinating tour by wine expert Jorge, we are treated to glasses of 3 fantastic reds, the great value of which was such that several couples decided to buy additional suitcases for the journey home to accommodate as many bottles as possible!

 

Back to the Future

This evening’s meal saw us discovering the very best of Madrid’s new wave of modern, quirky cooking and tantalising twists on the classics. Abraham Garcia, the eccentric and very talented owner and chef, took us on a taste safari, from curried lentil and crab soup, through decadent porcini and foie sauce with freshly grated truffle, all the way to white and dark chocolate panna cotta with coconut and rum sauce… and even more in between! All washed down with fabulous local wine and a glass of cava and lemon sorbet – perfection!

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The Last Supper

Our final day was a chance to explore independently, with some choosing to visit Madrid’s iconic “Big 3” art galleries, whilst others strolled the bustling streets of unusual shops and lively bars. Our farewell lunch took place at a proper Spanish hour – 3pm. We headed for another great restaurant institution of Madrid, where the walls are crammed with bullfighting paraphernalia and family photos, and the atmosphere is like a large but cosy dinner party. The traditional jamón, Manchego cheese, rich croquettas, and gigantic, succulent steaks are like gourmet comfort food – it’s enough to make you feel like a true Spaniard! And hopefully, that’s exactly what the group came away with – a little taste of the real Spain, and in particular, Gourmet Madrid.

Categories: City Break, Food, Foodie, Holidays, Madrid, Spain, Tapas, Vineyard, Wine

Gourmet Madrid – My Love Affair With the Mercado San Miguel

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I have just returned from Drink Dine Discover’s inaugural trip to Madrid, a whirlwind of tapas and Tempranillo, history and jamón. If you have never visited Spain’s oft-overlooked capital and you consider yourself a bit of a foodie, then you need to get over to Madrid and explore the delights of eating and drinking in Europe’s city that never sleeps.

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Madrileños are often referred to as gatos by the rest of the country, cats who roam the streets at night and don’t return home until dawn. Even by Spanish standards the capital’s residents are extreme in their eating habits – dinner is regularly not served until midnight and topping into the abundant bars for a caña (small beer) and a tapa is a daily ritual. Life here seems to centre around socialising and for the residents of Madrid, socialising means one thing; eating out.

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To acquaint you with the Madrid philosophy when it comes to gastronomy, I would head first, as we did, to the Mercado San Miguel, a glass and wrought iron structure handily situated just off Plaza Mayor. I guarantee that any foodie walking in will feel like a kid in a sweet shop (quite literally at some of the chocolate stalls). Wander between fantastic displays of vegetables, cheese, fish and meats interspersed with bars and tasting stations serving beer, wine, vermut (the classic Madrid aperitif), sherry, Champagne and sangria with plates of delicacies made from anything and everything, all on offer under one roof. Open from 10am to 2am, this mouth-watering spot in the Old Town is so much more than simply a place to buy your groceries. Mercado San Miguel is a unique experience of social shopping, with tables and stalls in the centre and the buzz of people eating, drinking and chatting as they taste before, whilst and after they buy.

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After a few hours of acclimatising to the volume of Spanish conversation, the speed of service and abundance of regional flavours, you should be perfectly set up to explore the rest of the city’s gastronomic offerings. As they say in Spain; “que aproveche!”

Categories: City Break, DDD, Food, Foodie, Holidays, Spain, Wine

Top 5 German Christmas Markets

Christmas Market Gourmet Tour

It may only be September but I find myself already in hibernation mode, shying away from the cold, drizzly gloom outside. I am in serious need of some hearty, warming comfort food… and perhaps even a trip out of the country to search for it! After all, what could be more festive as we head into winter than a visit to the land of Christmas charm? I present to you, my favourite Yuletide spots in Germany:

1. Aachen

As the closest Christmas market to the UK, this ancient little spa town nestled on the Belgian border seems the logical place to start. Once the seat of Emporer Charlemagne, it still guards his treasures, from gold and jewels to the very buildings themselves – glorious examples of Medieval architecture, including the oldest cathedral in Northern Europe. With such a beautiful and historic setting, Aachen’s Christmas market couldn’t be better positioned, but it is its local delicacies that often steal the show. The speciality here is Aachen printen, a type of gingerbread exclusive to the town, which appears everywhere in an abundance of shapes and sizes.

Aachen Gingerbread (printen)2. Nuremburg

One of the most highly attended Christmas markets, Nuremburg’s pageantry and strict rules on authentic offerings gives the experience a very family-friendly feel. The main attraction is the Christkind, or Christmas Angel, a local girl chosen each year to open the market form the balcony of the Frauenkirche and to represent the spirit of Nuremburg’s Christmas celebrations.

3. Monshau

One of Germany’s best kept secrets, Monshau was awarded Most Beautiful Christmas Market in West Germany, and though small, this perfectly preserved little town certainly delivers as a truly quaint and festive market. I recommend checking out Monshau’s Christmas House; 3 stories filled entirely with decorations to admire and buy throughout the Christmas season.

Christmas Market in the Ahr Valley4. Dresden

Often cited as Germany’s oldest Christmas market with a history dating back to 1434, Dresden’s version even has its own name, Striezelmarkt. The name comes from the word Hefestriezel, a sweet delicacy which, centuries later, has become known as “Dresden Christstollen”. Today this local Christmas cake is the culinary focus of Dresden Christmas market, along with the world’s largest nutcracker and Christmas Pyramid!

5. Cologne

 

If you are still having trouble choosing just one Christmas market, then why not head for Cologne where an astounding 7 different markets are held each year! Whether you fancy the impressive backdrop of the Cologne Cathedral market, or the Cologne Harbour Christmas Market with it’s gourmet focus next to a chocolate factory, or even the cabaret and shows of Christmas Avenue, Cologne’s Gay and Lesbian Christmas Market, there’s something for everyone in Cologne!

 

Categories: Food, Foodie, Germany, Holidays, Wine

Germany: More than just Beer and Bratwurst?

Aachen Christmas Market

Over the last few months we have been busy researching and organizing our first wintery gourmet trip and as the seemingly inevitable washout August bank holiday arrived we were ready to launch Drink Dine Discover’s German Gourmet Christmas Markets. Germany may seem the obvious travel choice for a nation that inherited its love of Christmas from a German prince (thanks Albert!), but on closer inspection there are lots of surprises in store behind the wooden doors of those fairytale, snow-covered inns.

 

First up is our alternative to the usual Oktoberfest fare with our stay in the picturesque Aar Valley, not far from Cologne, where some of the country and indeed the world’s finest Pinot Noir is produced. Most people will not be too familiar with German wines, probably associating the country with aromatic whites such as Riesling or low-quality mass-produced semi-sweets the likes of Liebfraumilch. For the longest time, I quite agreed. I do like a nice dry Riesling, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not the stuff to warm your cockles in the depths of winter. So when I first met Anne, now our resident German wine expert, her love and knowledge of her country’s diverse and ancient wine production changed my attitude entirely. Pinot Noir, or Spätburgunder as it is known in Germany, is a real specialty of the Aar Valley, with its steep vineyards whose hilltops are crowned with castle ruins all along the river. Here the wines are red, rich and hearty and the perfect starting point for our tasting tour of seasonal game, family owned distilleries and freshly baked flammkuchen (a type of German tarte flambée).

Aachen Gingerbread (printen)As we move towards the Belgian border we will also travel through cosy villages that appear to be straight out of a Brothers Grimm tale, trying specially smoked fish by a wintery lake and learning about (and of course indulging in) scrumptious printen, a type of gingerbread only produced in Charlemagne’s favoured spa town, Aachen. Once the Coronation place of German Emperors, this picturesque little town still houses Charlemagne’s treasury, as well as one of the country’s best and most charming Christmas markets.

 

 

Ahr Valley in the WinterThough we are just scratching the surface of the wonderful richness of the German countryside, culture and cuisine, it has already become clear that images of frankfurters and flagons really are crude stereotypes. Though the beer is without question very good, and hearty plates of sausages and sauerkraut will no doubt make an appearance these are not the things that make Germany so rich and complex. I think perhaps Germany’s wealth lies in the surprising nuances and quirky traditions of its’ people, history and, of course, gastronomy, that only the inquisitive traveler experiences.

 

 

Categories: Christmas, Food, Foodie, Germany, Holidays, Wine

Top 5 Pre-Holiday Rituals

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On Wednesday I’ll finally be jetting off for a week in the sun before the summer is officially over. After months of envying my friends, it’s my turn to tease them with holiday countdowns and “this time next week’s…” Which got me thinking. Everybody loves to be on holiday. That period of time where you step out of the everyday grind, are actively encouraged to forget about work and frowned upon for checking your email. But how about the lead up to those blissful days of dedicated R&R? Call me crazy, but sometimes the preparation can feel just as good as the holiday itself…

1. Destination Research

Picking up every brochure you can lay your hands on, clicking on every holiday roundup article that pops into your inbox and trawling the weekend travel sections for inspiration. Although work often takes me back to Tuscany and Madrid, I love the feeling that I could go anywhere and do anything!

2. Booking Confirmation High

Your bank account may not be happy, but as soon as that confirmation email pops into your inbox, you just can’t stop smiling. It’s official, you are going to XXXX (hopefully somewhere scrumptious on one of our gourmet tours!) and now the countdown and planning can really begin, from what to take to what celebratory airport drink you’ll have pre-flight!

3. New Wardrobe

Last year’s summer holiday clothes probably still look great and you only wore them once, but there’s something so irresistibly decadent about having a brand new wardrobe (or even just a new bikini) to go away with. Your favourite sunglasses and floppy hat may be great beach staples, but you need to update the look with this year’s most stylish sandals and maxi dress, of course.

4. Attacking the Toiletries Aisle

Suddenly it seems imperative to own miniature versions of everything in your bathroom even though they will probably end up in your unlimited hold luggage. You also find yourself adding several different factors of sunscreen, an entire pharmacy of ‘just in case’ medication the kind of bright shades of make-up that you can only pull off in a tropical climate.

5. The Grand Packing of the Suitcase

Every summer clothing item you have ever owned is laid out in piles on your bed waiting to see who makes this year’s cut. Your Kindle is fully loaded with your top reading catch up list. Your passport and tickets are sitting impatiently on the bedside table. And, if you’re like me, you have a glass of wine in hand and Bob Marley in the background. Watch out hot, sunny holiday destination; I’m English, I’m fed up of rain, and I’m on my way!

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Categories: Holidays

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