Chronicles of a writer abroad


Sweet escape

I didn’t make any resolutions for the New Year (except for a kind of vague optimistic pledge to do everything better!) but I find even without specific goals, January puts me in a navel-gazing, self-improving kind of mood.

There are many potential targets for melioration: my housekeeping habits, my sleep hygiene, my work ethic. But my thoughts keep returning to my diet.

I have Facebook friends who regularly post material intended to shame and scare people into eating the same way they do (which lately seems to consist of pretending you can only access caveman fare). They post things like “How Cola Begins To Kill You The Instant You Swallow,” with figures showing how each organ is being overworked and corroded and generally just completely annihilated by sugar. Presented with such posts, I either immediately ignore and dismiss them, or I give them a cursory look to ascertain that something is misspelled or poorly written and that I’m safe in dismissing the source as uneducated and unknowledgeable (snotty, yes, but desperate times…).

More and more, though, it’s in the news, it’s being spouted by reliable sources: Sugar (especially in its refined and added forms) really is bad for you.

It’s hard for me to hear, given that my life is fuelled by things ending in -ose. Fructose, glucose, sucrose, dextrose, lactose: they’re dear, lifelong friends. My childhood home was always full of sugary things: monochrome peanut-butter sandwich cookies, factory-perfect ridges decorating their surfaces; cartons of Neapolitan ice cream, the strawberry segment a lurid artificial pink; delicious homemade cakes and pies to mark our many birthdays. One of my favourite pastimes as a pre-teen was going to the house of my friend J, whose family had a gas oven which was great for baking. We would have “bake-offs” wherein we evaluated the merits of different cookie recipes and techniques. In those days, a lot of cookies were eaten in the pursuit of Truth and in the name of Science.

I remember when another (European and svelte) friend had me over to her apartment, and her mom had baked something which was sitting on the counter. “Do you feel like eating something sweet?” she asked. I stared at her, thinking it was the craziest question anyone had ever asked me. In my mind the question was never do I feel like something sweet. It was how often am I allowed ?

During my undergrad degree, I took a nutrition class. We learned about balancing carbs and fats and proteins, and I’m sure there was a specific caution to avoid too much added sugar. But after the final exam, I forgot all of my learning except for this: the brain runs on glucose. It needs sugar to operate. I would remember this fact, cling to it, while tossing cookies into my cart or whipping up a batch of brownies during midterms, thinking I want my brain to operate extra well, so

My next misstep as regards sugar involves becoming a distance runner. Not only does running 20 miles tend to make you feel that you’ve “earned” dessert, but marathon runners also revere sugar as prevention against “hitting the wall” (which I thankfully have yet to do). So in addition to ingesting too much sugar on a daily basis, I  was also squirting concentrated forms of it into my mouth during long runs.

Then I moved to Switzerland, a sugar-bomb of a mistake that I think needs no further explanation.

A couple weeks ago, we were having dinner with a friend, and I mentioned having eaten a peanut-butter-banana wrap for lunch (it’s one of my go-to lunches lately: smear peanut butter on a tortilla, add a banana, roll it up, and voila: lunch is ready in 30 seconds). Our friend said “Hm, I would never eat something sweet like that for lunch.” And I thought: that’s not something sweet…something sweet is the chocolate or whatever I eat afterwards. And I heard how bad it sounded.

Looked at one way, my day is a sine wave of sugar highs and lows; a series of carb cravings and fixes. But maybe it doesn’t have to be this way. I always thought I had a friend in -ose, but when I consider some other words that end this way…

  • Bellicose
  • Comatose
  • Grandiose
  • Lachrymose
  • Morose
  • Necrose
  • Overdose

…I can’t help feeling discomfited.

I’m not about to become a Sugar-Nazi anytime soon. There’s no way I’m giving up fruit or milk or other naturally sweet things. But it might be worth seeing what life could be without the chocolate, the desserts, the lumps added to coffee and oatmeal. If you’ve had similar struggles or successes with cutting down sugar, I’d love to hear about it…

(Today’s brain activity brought to you by Post-Prandial Apple, filling in for Lindt Infiniti Fondant.)



Vienna Part I: What we ate

I have a special fondness for Austria. Perhaps that’s because it was the first European country Stelian and I visited, back in 2006. But it also has a lot going for it — nice people, gorgeous Alpine scenery, spoken German that is clear and resembles that in my lesson books (this last being something I really appreciate since living in Switzerland).

And let’s not forget the amazing food. During our recent three-night stay in the nation’s capital, we didn’t eat anything that disappointed us, which is rare, since we tend to have hit-and-miss experiences as we try out new places on trips. So let’s kick off the Vienna series with a recap of some of our delicious meals and snacks, shall we?

For the evening of our first full day, I made a dinner reservation at Figlmueller, based on the advice of our guidebook. When we arrived at the appointed time, we saw a long line running out the door and onto the street, which is always a good sign. The restaurant’s menu is built around its famous pork schnitzel (need I remind you that Wiener Schnitzel originates in Wien, the German name for Vienna?). In Figlmueller’s version, 250 grams of meat is pounded flat and then breaded and fried into an enormous schnitzel:

Stelian's dinner - a ginormous, plate-overlapping schnitzel with a side of potato salad. He would like you to know that he exercised restraint and did not finish it.

I had the chicken version, which was a little more reasonably-sized, but also incredibly delicious.

The restaurant only carries Austrian drinks, so this was the perfect opportunity for us to try an Almdudler.

This is Austria’s national soft drink (like Rivella is Switzerland’s). We both enjoyed it — it is a carbonated, herbed lemonade that tastes something like Ginger Ale.

The next day, we had lunch at Trzesniewski — another Vienna institution, one that gets very crowded at midday. The deal here is that they offer a couple dozen varieties of small, open-faced sandwich (the red one below shows the full size) and you pick and choose the ones you want. Most are based on eggs, mayo, and relish. The partially-eaten plate below includes relish-tomato (red), egg-and-relish (green and yellow), egg-and mushroom (grey and yellow), and cream-cheese-horseradish-carrot (white and orange). Not pictured is Stelian’s favourite, liver paste, which he ate three of. All of the sandwiches were delicious, and a fun way to try a variety of different Austrian flavours.

On our final night, we tried Tafelspitz, or boiled beef, which is one of the most famous Austrian dishes. For this we went to Plachutta, again on the advice of the guidebook, and we were again very happy with the choice. Here is the set-up:

In Tafelspitz, beef is boiled in broth with root vegetables. We were given the choice of noodles or strips of pancake (and chose the former, the latter striking us as too bizarre) and the broth was ladled onto these for the first course (see Stelian’s bowl above). After the soup, our waiter fished out the beef and plated it alongside the excellent creamed spinach and roasted potatoes. The beef tastes rather like pot roast (a comparison I would not have been able to make before I learned to cook it a few months ago), and is meant to be eaten with the apple and cream-chive sauces on the far left of the picture. I would label this a must-do in Vienna, and it will certainly be a do-over if we go back!

And so, that’s it…no, don’t despair, I’m kidding. I would never forget to talk about dessert. I would, however, forget to take pictures of it, since I usually devour it within seconds of it being placed in front of me (hey, it’s all a part of marathon recovery). I did manage to snap a picture of this slice of Sacher Torte when we were halfway into it, though:

We ate this at Demel, one of Vienna’s most famed coffeehouses — we might have gone to the Sacher Hotel, where the cake originated, but Demel is also celebrated for its cake. This was our second time trying Sacher Torte, Austria’s beloved chocolate-cake-with-apricot-jam-under-the-icing confection: we also sampled it in 2006. Both of our experiences with it have been somewhat anticlimactic — it’s nicely flavoured, but is also a fairly dry cake. It’s still very good, just not the blow-your-mind good that you might expect based on all the hyperbole and history surrounding it.

Other dessert highlights on our trip included an unbelievably good apfelstrudel drowning in vanilla sauce, a delicious almond/Amaretto cake, and an ice-cream dessert with apricot puree at the centre (the Viennese are very fond of  Marille, or apricot, in desserts).

I’ll get my pictures organized and be back soon with a link to an album and more tales of Austrian adventure!


Barcelona Part I: Losing my appetite, feasting my eyes

I went to Barcelona with two main things in mind: food and architecture. Natural scenery, too, as a kind of afterthought: I knew that the city’s port was probably pretty, and we planned to make a day trip to the mountains. But really, the goals were to eat and be wowed by Gaudi’s creations.

I had some nervousness about the eating situation. Friends who’d visited the city told me that in Barcelona, lunch and dinner were late (with restaurants typically opening for lunch around 1 or 1:30, and for dinner around 9 pm). I am a person who considers 7 p.m. a lateish dinner time necessitating a snack several hours beforehand. So we planned to cope by doing as the Spanish do, and eating a big meal at lunch that would see us through to the evening dining hours.

On our first full day, therefore, we enjoyed a delicious three-course lunch, consisting of a starter salad, a main-course meat dish, and a dessert. It was delicious; we were stuffed. Afterwards, though, a strange thing happened: my appetite never returned. When dinner rolled around I didn’t want to eat it. On the next day and the ones that followed, I wasn’t interested in lunch or dinner, though I made an effort at both.

Perhaps I contracted some very mild virus or food-borne illness whose main symptom was disinterest in food. Or perhaps my stomach just went on strike due to the new and unaccustomed schedule. Either way, it was a very regrettable thing to befall a person in a foodie city – especially since not only was the quality of the food high, but the klein aber fein principle did not apply — portions were huge, in some cases ridiculously so (not just in my estimation; Stelian, still in possession of his usual voracious appetite, could not finish some of his dinners). Now that I’m home, of course, my appetite is back to normal.

All of this is to explain why I won’t be waxing poetic about the world-famous tapas and seafood: because I didn’t eat much of it. Nevertheless, for anyone who happens to be going, I present this as a recommendation of a place with a lovely atmosphere, nice servers, and where the food I managed to eat tasted really good.

Now that’s out of the way, we can talk Gaudi. This aspect of the trip was everything that I had hoped it to be, and I left Spain not only with great memories and cherished pictures of the sites that I saw, but a fascination with the man himself.

So let me take a moment to introduce Antoni Gaudi, especially since I plan to devote more posts than this one to his masterpieces. This man epitomizes devotion to one’s work. He was born midway through the 19th century, and after receiving his degree in architecture in the 1870s, he was first allowed to design small things, like some of the city’s lampposts; later he moved on to more important buildings and acquired a wealthy benefactor, one Count Guell, who commissioned him for, among other things, a mansion and a park. By the turn of the century, he was working fervently on the Sagrada Familia, a project whose completion he knew would not occur in his lifetime. He never married and apparently displayed little interest in women. He also took few pains with his appearance, so that when, in 1926, he was struck by the tram that would kill him while crossing the street near the Sagrada Familia, he was assumed to be a beggar and not given immediate aid.

Let’s have a look at Gaudi’s magnum opus, then. The first stone of the Sagrada Familia (or, in English, Church of the Sacred Family) was laid in 1882, and the current estimate is that the work needed to fully realize Gaudi’s vision will be completed in 2026. There is something so cool about visiting such a monumental site and knowing that it is, in fact, still being developed, day by day — there are still towers going up and sculptors chipping away. Also, the church’s completed Nativity façade is one of the most visually stunning things that I have encountered in my travels (though Stelian and another male tourist standing near us came to a mutual assessment that it was “too busy” for their taste). But I’ll cease chattering now and let you take in this wonder too.

Church entrance/Passion façade

Detail of Passion façade


Inside one of the church's towers

Nativity façade

Detail of Nativity façade

As indicated, more posts on this great city are forthcoming! But for those eager to see all the pictures now, please visit my Picasa album here.


Adventures in Cozonac-making

A little pre-ramble: Thanks for all the nice comments on the anniversary post. After I published it, WordPress informed me that it was my 100th post — a pretty cool achievement (and coincidence), I’d say. And today, January 4th, is the anniversary of starting my blog — its first birthday! So here we go — on to post #101 and another year of living and blogging in Switzerland.  

Cozonac is a Romanian bread traditionally eaten at Christmas and Easter. It is sweet and rum-flavoured, with a swirl of either a walnut-based or Turkish delight-based filling decorating each slice. It is the perfect bread that needs nothing on top; it is delicious with milk, and highly addictive. Stelian has been eating it every Christmas of his life; I’ve been eating it every Christmas since meeting him and his family. So when we didn’t return to Canada for Christmas this year, we mourned its absence. That’s when I decided, hey, I’m an intrepid hausfrau — I should take matters (in this case, wads of dough) into my own hands.

Stelian’s mom is the cozonac master — hers loaves always look perfect and taste glorious, so naturally, it was to her that I should have gone for the recipe. The only problem with that is that like many highly skilled bakers, she does not need a recipe, and works with the dough pretty intuitively, sensing when it needs more or less of something. I, on the other hand, am scared as heck of breadmaking, and I can sense the needs of dough about as well as I could those of a baby crocodile. I needed step-by-step, no-deviation-allowed instructions.

Luckily, through the magic of the internet, I was able to find a recipe in English and bossy enough to be suitable for a beginner. And the result? After several hours spent mixing, kneading, rising, rolling, and filling, we had this!

I am still pretty flabbergasted at the idea that something so amazing came out of my oven. Here’s the inside view:

The one on the left is the walnut-raisin filling; the right has Turkish delight and raisins. They were both so, so good — the air bubble in the lefthand loaf did not affect its deliciousness, and I was assured by Stelian’s mom that this just sometimes happens.

So, not bad for a first attempt, and the proof of success is in the fact that the 2 of us ate nearly 2 full loaves of this in 3 short days.

So there you have it…another way in which we are becoming fat, and another reason for you to come and visit. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go run on the treadmill forever.


Worms & thanks

Happy Thanksgiving, my dear Canucks!

Now, I’d like to ask you something, and I’d like you to please answer honestly. Aren’t you a little tired of eating pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving dinner dessert year after year? I mean, sure, it’s delicious, but how about trying something different for a change? How about finishing your Thanksgiving meal with one of these:

What’s that you say? You’d rather not, because it looks weird and scary?

Well, I decided, in the name of intrepid blog-reporting, to go for it. Okay, it was mostly because I wanted to join in on Thanksgiving, and because there are no pumpkin pies or cans of pumpkin puree in Switzerland, so if I wanted a pie I’d have to hack up my own gourd. And that…just seemed like too much work. Especially when Stelian is not a big fan of the orange stuff.

So instead, I decided to indulge in what the Swiss eat at this time of year (meaning fall, because today is not a holiday for them). What you see in the picture above are vermicelles – worm shaped strands made from a paste whose main ingredient is chestnut. Here you see them in a tart, but they also appear atop cakes. The tart form seemed more pure to me, so I opted for it.

I imagine that this dessert is really fun for kids to eat, for a few reasons. First of all, these strands are named after worms, they look kinda like a pile of worms, and you can pick them apart with your fingers and do all kinds of weird things with them. Secondly, because they’re very sweet. When eating them, I detected a slight chestnut flavour, but also the presence of butter, flour, and a looootta sugar. (N.B.: that is not a complaint, unless you are my dentist, in which case, I did not approve of the sugar content, and brushed my teeth immediately afterwards).

So, they were good — not knock-your-socks-off great, but solidly good, and I’m very happy to have had an excuse to try them, because it was a lingering item on my “to-do while in Switzerland” list. Now, I’m off to try to walk off some of the sugar and capture some fall colours on my camera.

Before I go, though, let me say that although we are not doing much to celebrate this holiday (apart from eating tarts with lower-than-usual guilt levels), we are feeling thankful. Thankful to still be on this amazing expat adventure, and thankful for our amazing families, far away though you may be.

Enjoy the holiday, everyone!


A grocery store gamble

One of my favourite things about living in a foreign country is that when you go to the grocery store, you are faced with things like this.

This would be a seasonal food item — one that is so well-known that the company producing it can sell it in an opaque sac with no description of what it is (except the “mit honig” or “with honey”). I knew that it was bread of some kind (this is what “Brot” means, and I was also in the bread section), but I couldn’t remember “Magen” (which will be revealed below), and the general sense of being excluded from something that everyone else is familiar with niggled at me. I decided to risk a few francs and gain some culinary education.

So, what was inside the bag?

Imagine, if you will, a gingerbread-flavoured and slightly dry Timbit with a honey glaze. Mmm.

So, score one for experimentation. I’m glad I didn’t realize beforehand that the literal translation of Magenbrot is “stomach bread” (since it is believed in this part of the world that spices like ginger and cloves are good for your stomach). The name doesn’t do much to entice. But I suppose it is, in the end, as irrelevant as the opaque bag — these things fly off the shelves, despite bad packaging or bad names, in a country with strong traditions.

On another food-related note: if you’re in the mood for a laugh, read the reviews/comments on this recipe for Salted Water. This is perfect satire, encapsulating all of the types of annoying comments one normally sees on recipe sites.

P.S. My blogs now come to you from my shiny new Mac. That’s right, I’ve crossed over. Still taking in how pretty everything is!

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Kristen and the Cheese and Chocolate Factories

Hi there — after staying quiet for a few days, I’m back with lots to tell you. Yesterday we visited two Swiss factories. It was a thoroughly enjoyable day, but also a pretty long one, since these factories were located in or near Gruyères, which is a 2.5 hour trip from Zürich (by train-bus-train).

Our group decided to visit Gruyères (in the French part of Switzerland) because we wanted to hike, and there are nice trails (or wanderwegs, as the Swiss call them) here. We also went there because thunderstorms were forecasted, and I don’t think I’ve mentioned it yet, but Switzerland knows how to throw a heck of a thunderstorm. Last week, for example, we had thunder, lightning and driving rain for about four hours continuously — I never knew this to be possible, since the Toronto boomers I grew up with were typically over in less than an hour, and Vancouver rarely had thunderstorms.

Anyway, Gruyères was a good option because if the weather forecast was borne out, we could visit the factories instead of being lightning poles on the wanderweg. And indeed, it was already raining by the time we arrived, so we ducked into the Gruyère cheese factory, which had a restaurant where we ate a cheese-filled lunch while sitting by the restaurant’s one all-glass wall and watching a typically fierce storm play out.

After lunch, we toured the factory. In retrospect, I might have reversed the order of the activities — the factory would have been an excellent way to whet one’s appetite, but having just eaten my fill of cheese, I was not as enthralled by it as I might have been. Each visitor receives a sample pack containing three pieces of Gruyère cheese aged 6, 8 and 10 months, but sadly I had no appetite for it at the time.

The factory — or at least, the part on display from above — basically consists of one room, in which a giant vat of cheese-coloured liquid was stirred continuously without any appreciable change during the time that we watched. And to the right of the vat are some drums containing cheese that is undergoing some kind of draining/hardening process…the floor below them was collecting the run-off. Mmm — Rivella, anyone?

The more impressive part of the factory, in my opinion, was the cellar, which consisted of several rows like this one.

Jeeze Louise, that's a lotta cheese

One member of our group had a Rick Steves guidebook, which advised us that a highlight of this factory tour was seeing a robot moving up and down the rows, “lovingly flipping and rubbing the cheese.” Well, naturally this phrasing conjured up all kinds of fantastic notions in our heads (mine, at least) so that when we did see this robot doing its thing, we (I?) were struck by its disappointing lack of anthropomorphic qualities. It is an impressive system, for sure, but I think Rick Steves’ ghostwriter (surely he doesn’t actually author all his books?) suffered from a wee attack of hyperbole when writing that particular description.

Happily, the weather cleared up completely during our tour, so afterwards we hit the Chemin de Gruyère, which is a famous hike in Switzerland, also known as the “Chocolate and Cheese Trail.” After about an hour of gorgeous views like this one…

…we arrived at Maison Cailler, in the lovely little town of Broc.

Isn't it just how a chocolate factory should look?

Cailler factory backdrop (complete with stylish European ladies)

By the time we arrived at the factory, we were sweaty and had rediscovered our appetites. It was shortly after four, and though the factory was supposed to be open until six, we were advised that there were already too many groups in queue; they were very sorry, but they could not admit us. Luckily, two other Canadians in our group (one of whom hails from Montreal) were able to use their French to wheedle the chocolate factory agent into a concession: “fine, but you are the last group we are letting in.” Whew! We were happy and grateful, and not even bothered by the fact that we’d have to wait an hour and a half before our tour (tip: it’s probably best not to come here on a partially rainy Sunday!).

The wait was well worth it. This factory’s entrance fee was 10CHF, and the value for money was pretty incredible. The first part of the tour consisted of a 20-minute walk through different rooms that, using audio recordings and impressive moving visual displays, educated us about the history of chocolate in general and the Cailler brand in particular (Fact: Cailler is owned by Nestle, that giant Swiss conglomerate also familiar to you North Americans). I haven’t been to Disneyland, but I’m confident in my assessment that this is the type of production that you find there.

Next, we wandered through a section that was more like a chocolate museum. Some highlights:

I think it would help if I could stick my head in one of these whenever I feel sad.

Many posters like this one gave reasons that one should eat chocolate. However, I wonder about their inclusion of the mirror (in which you can see my legs reflected). Is this a subtle way of reminding people to limit themselves?

I cannot express how much I love this -- video surveillance of the room where the "secret recipes" are kept.

Finally, we passed by part of an automated assembly line — Stelian was impressed by its robotic components, including an arm that picked up the pieces at lightning speed.

We got to sample the finished product of this line, and I thought, well, that was a pretty complete tour. We passed through a hall where you could leave comments (and where other people’s were tacked on the wall) which was, for me, a definite indicator that it was over. I was happy and satisfied. But then we walked into the room. It was a large room containing trays of every kind of chocolate that Cailler makes, and you could stay as long as you want and eat as much as you wanted — the only rule was that you couldn’t leave the room with chocolate in hand. I’m sorry that I was too awestruck to take any pictures of this. I ate a few samples and then forced myself to leave, but some of our friends stayed for a while longer and certainly got their money’s worth.

This is why I’m falling more and more in love with the French part of  Switzerland: they have a wonderful sense of humour (clearly, they wanted you to think the tour was over before the hitting you with the grand finale. Oh, and there was a fat mirror outside the factory exit :)), they offer such delicious food, and their scenery is all yeah, and I don’t even have to try to look this good.

In addition to all this, I’ve come out of this weekend with my eye on a new dream job.

Come on — who wouldn’t want to work at the Chocolate Center of Excellence? French Switzerland, once again,  je t’aime.