Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Santorini Island

The plane zipped down descending upon an endless blue sea dotted with ceremonious cruise ships approaching a series of black beaches and island life. Yes, Santorini awaited us. No agenda’s to be had, no sights to see and really nothing to do except for break out the bathing suits, the flip flops, and a few Euros to buy some beer. It seems fitting that we left the island life for our last few days of the trip. Oddly as it sounds, vacation can get tiring in an excessive way. You know, figuring out where to eat, figuring out how to get to the next amazing sight and figuring out how much money we have left. We stuck to a strict budget and have had to keep a close eye on it the last few days. Santorini would not fail us. We found greatness in humble offerings and excellent value in our time spent lying on the beach watching the waves crash and letting the scorching volcanic sand tango with our toes.

We would stay at the Santorini Palace Hotel which sounds a lot fancier than it actually it is. The best part about our room was the great balcony looking over the Caldera Sea and the paintings decorating the space as well. I had a great plan that would be legendary of sorts, but was unfortunately quelled by my better half. I was planning to heist one of the canvases, but I lacked the proper tools to do so. I thought it would be a great story to tell of this particular painting of the traditional Grecian seascape. On the other hand, the room had its negative aspects. For instance, the unforgiving bed that wound my back like a spring coil and its equally uncomfortable pillows that felt like a sack of soggy cardboard, or how I thought the sun rose in the east when it actually rose inside our room evidenced by the godly illumination inside our room at 5:30 in the morning, or the questionable capacity of our toilet. I am not accustomed to this part at all and don’t ever look forward to having to do this again. If you are not sure what I’m talking about, I mean after going “bad” bathroom you have to put the dirty toilet paper in the little waste basket next to the toilet for housekeeping to judge and for my wife to smell. This was new for me and made me thankful for efficient plumbing. All in all, these little hiccups would not hold us back from enjoying the greatness this island has to offer.

We have used planes, trains, cars, buses, bikes, boats, and our legs on this trip. We had one more mode of transportation to conquer – the scooter. We got a sweet 80cc fluorescent yellow Peugeot big enough for two and a silver and red helmet that were too big for both our heads. We head our quickly to the west side of the island in order to see one of the best sunsets in the world. We buzzed up and down the peaks and valleys and unknowingly arrived at our destination. We found a spot along a white fence standing along a rocky cliff as we made our space amongst a crowd of about 20 watching nature at its best. Embraced, we watched the burnt orange sun plummet beneath the rocks changing the sky color to glorious reds and purples. A few pictures and one more hug and we were off to dinner to a remote seaport village down some rocks weaving around tiny waves. We were greeted by the joyous Greek contingent serving fresh seafood by the kilo moving us to order our favorite catch of the day. Normally this would be a great experience for me, but I couldn’t get over the fact that we had very little gas left in the scooter, nightfall was a ½ hour ago, the temperature was dropping and that we were in the middle of nowhere. Nicole tried to make me feel better, but she couldn’t. The beer didn’t help, neither the grilled octopus, nor the whole fish that was perfectly grilled and served to me head on and bone in. It was sweet, it was extraordinarily fresh and it was full of flavor.

The gas thing was weighing in on me pretty hard as I bounced possible solutions off of Nicole. We agreed to get a taxi to bring us back, but I suspected that we had just enough gas to get to the nearest gas station and if this gamble did not pay off we would be screwed. After prying the wait staff for information about the local gas station they decided to get involved. A few giggles and hand signals later, one of the kitchen staff appears out of the back room with an empty water bottle and what looked like a siphon. Here is that hospitality thing kicking in again. They were laughing because this guy was going to siphon gas out of his buddy’s car in order to give us just enough to make it home that night. Nicole and I were so happy and so excited that this stress escaped us. We thanked God and we thanked these guys endlessly. I could finally enjoy this great restaurant, the baklava, and the ouzo. We left there with a great photo of that memorable and helpful crew.

There were many great things about Santorini - the locals, the beaches, and the food. I don’t think we had one bad meal there and helping in that feat would be our good friend Edy at Mythos Café. We visited him 4 times in our short stay there trying various items of his menu while taking pleasure in his outlook on American life, Greek life, drinking, kids and food. At Mythos we enjoyed ham and cheese crepes and omelet’s, strawberry cream and nutella banana crepes, Greek salads, pork, chicken and lamb gyros, frappes, fresh juices, spanokopita, tiropita, and plenty of gin and tonics and martini-sprites.

The beach offered some great eats as well. We had briny lamb and rice dolmades, crispy breaded and perfectly seasoned keftedes, and a rich and creamy eggplant salad dip laden with fruity olive oil while taking in the topless sun bathers, the shameless Speedo wearers and the sea swaying just a few feet away.

Even our last night, which is always so crucial for us to pick a great place, was outstanding. We went to a small taverna where the host practically begged us to come in helping us take our helmets off and park our scooter. The setting was laid back, but the food was serious. Someone’s yaiya (grandma) really taught these guys to cook because the food had some real soul. The saganaki (fried cheese) was thinly battered and deep fried arriving to us light and crispy with a molten filling. A light squeeze of lemon juice and I was reaching an orgasmic state. Nicole’s mousaka was served in a rustic clay pot filled with creamed potatoes, rich béchamel sauce, ground beef and roasted eggplant. There was just enough nutmeg to give this dish enough dynamics to make it memorable. My dish was simple, but it was something I was searching for my entire time in Greece. After eating out almost every day and night for the last month or so, we desire certain things like Mexican food and Sushi…no, seriously, a home cooked meal…something Mom or Grandma would cook and that is exactly what I got. My lovingly braised lamb, meat melting off the shoulder bone, dripping into the tomato orzo providing the perfect foil for the rich and gamey flavor of this humble cut of meat. It takes time and effort to braise properly and this chef not only infused aromatics and seasonings, but also his heart…and I was reaping all the benefits of his passion.

Well, one more day left. Nicole and I head back to Athens for a night’s stay just to pack, have one more walk in the Plaka, and have one more Greek salad and one more gyro. We will talk about our favorite moments, our trying moments and our funniest moments. We will be sad to end this life that we adapted to so easily, but at the same time we look forward to our upcoming challenges and of course visiting our very much missed family and friends. I think we’ve changed a little, not only in girth, but in our outlook.

I thank all those that read the blog and came along with us on our trip. I hope it was enjoyable for you all to read and I can’t wait to see you all. The donkey (Nicole’s nickname for me as she sympathized for me carrying around the entire luggage for the last month) is retiring until at least next year. We’ll see most of you in less than a day.

I will most likely do an exit blog so look out for that one.

See you all soon!!

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Athens and the Food of Greece

Our last leg of our trip is upon us and it is sad to see it coming to a close. We went at this trip with everything we had, putting a lot on the line. Nicole found a way to step away from work for a month and is unfortunately faced with the fact that her computer broke down within the first day of our travels. Who knows what her work has in store for her when she returns. And me, I had a secure job and built myself a home at the Getty and I decided to let that all go in order to pursue this goal that Nicole and I shared for the last 2 years. You ask if there are regrets. I only have one answer….not one. This trip has not only taught us about culture, history and cuisine, but also about us, our relationship, our goals and our desires. This trip carries a price tag, but in my mind and in my heart it has been priceless.

Athens and the island of Santorini may be our last stop, but it is definitely not the end of our experience, our eating and our fun. Nicole and I have been looking forward to this part of the trip for some time now. The excitement of our arrival fills our minds as we patiently wait for our plane departure and share our last plate of Iberico Jamon. The thinly sliced cured ham, salty and buttery with a nutty background takes front stage to the toasted baguette dunked with olive oil and manchego cheese. This would be our only food until our arrival in Athens 8 hours later so we ate big.

I sensed landing in Athens was a small victory for Nicole. Her eyes lit up and her big beautiful smile became a permanent fixture on her face when the airplane’s tires touch downed. We practiced Greek phrases all the way from Rome as Nicole would be the lead communicator on this leg of the trip.

Our arrival at the Grand Bretagne Hotel in downtown Athens was inspiring. That is, it inspired me to work my butt off to get this rich. Nicole and I were definitely out of place in this hotel (aahh, the beauty of Amex award points), but as my good buddy Pete said “Just pretend you’re in the entertainment business” so we did as we sucked down champagne in our VIP reception and followed our “butler” to our suite. Crazy huh?!

We got to business opening our automatic curtains, eating fruit from the basket the hotel provided and munched on the various chocolate truffles. This was definitely high style and one in which we were afraid of getting used to.

We received a phone call from Nadia. She is the cousin of Nicole’s best friend Kathreen and she would kind of play host to us while we were in Greece. We met with her very close by at the Benaki Museum which displayed Greek and Roman antiquities. Sound familiar? They happened to be serving dinner that night from their balcony with a view of the lit up Acropolis. That’s right, 2500 years of history as our back drop for our buffet style dinner.
We were greeted by astounding Greek hospitality by Nadia and her boyfriend Vangilles (I don’t know how to spell that name, but apparently it is popular over here). Hospitality in Greece is something to be documented. It seems that almost everyone wants to go out of their way to comfort us, give us something or offer help and this is not solely from Nadia and her friends. This is from strangers as well. A funny story, we were underground finding our way on the metro and we must have looked lost, but we weren’t. A young man randomly approached us and in his best English asked if he could help us find our way. In typical defensive Los Angeles fashion we sternly answered “No” and wondered to ourselves what he wanted from us. Man we felt like idiots after that encounter.

Back to dinner. Things started slowly as Nicole’s Greek was getting warmed up and the same could be said for our Greek hosts and their English. They both spoke perfect English, but when not in practice one begins to question their command of a foreign language. Vangilles even wondered if he spoke English like a Russian – hilarious joke by the way!
Nadia put me on the spot a little and told the caterer, who happened to be her uncle, that I was a chef so the back story of all our great conversation was if I enjoyed all the food. Luckily I was hungry, but in all seriousness the food was great. We had a crunchy beet salad tossed with balsamic vinegar, Nicole’s favorite, Greek Salad and a stringy zucchini salad toss with fresh herbs and sautéed prawns. Greek salad is a little different here and it is much better. The main difference being the lettuce. Here the peasant version of Greek Salad is huge chunks of sweet tomatoes, sliced red onion, green pepper, kalamata olives, a slab of moist and salty Feta cheese and an agreeable Greek olive oil. I would call this harmonious and a dish that we would eat with lunch and dinner for the rest of our stay in Greece. The second courses were small red peppers stuffed with braised chicken and finished with a spiced Hollandaise sauce, tender roasted lamb leg and tiny nickel sized dolmades (grape leaves stuffed with lamb and rice) with thick and creamy Greek yogurt. What an excellent start to an all ready exciting part of our travels. The food was great, the view was great, but most of all the company was great. Nadia and Nicole caught up on old times and some current gossip while Vangilles and I found a bond that all men are able to find no matter the language barrier: sports, stupid jokes and hot actresses.

Athens is more than the capital of Greece. It is a metropolis, a city on top of a city. Houses and apartments are stacked next to each other, behind each other and on top of each other from the city center to the ocean and up the rising mountains. It is so concentrated you would think that this was the only part of the country to house all its inhabitants. In a way it is. There is a small unemployment problem in Greece and to work you have to be in Athens so that is why there is so much concentration in one area. But please, don’t get me wrong here. The congestion does not take away from the sheer excitement and life that this city contains. This place moves, but with a village flair and is filled with commercial offerings rivaling the best that L.A. has to offer. This is a big city with big city aspirations, but I think the people of Athens are still grounded and hospitable to remember their roots and their predecessors. Evidence lies in things like the Acropolis, Zeus’ temple and the hospitality that was mentioned before.

The next few days would be an all out onslaught of history, Greek cuisine and culture. We spent our first day visiting the archaeological sites of the Parthenon, Zeus’ temple and other parts of the Acropolis. This was definitely an all day affair and quite the workout on this hot day climbing to the highest point in Athens. Luckily, Nadia was an art history major and had actually been on a few archaeological digs herself. This was the way to take a tour of a major part of not only Greek history, but civilization’s history. She walked us through each monument of beautifully preserved marble pillars and statues and explained each one’s significance to the entire site. I have absolute admiration and respect for the buildings in my presence. Each felled column or standing arch represented ingenuity, drive, passion and ambition of the people of that time and all those that would follow.

There are few things that I’ve learned on these travels. One is that I can actually identify quite a bit when it comes to food and to reading menus, but the other is how much I actually don’t know. It seems that when we read and we travel we are supposed to know more, but honestly, I keep learning how little I do know. Arguably, this is one of my favorite parts of the trip even over all the food. The rich histories that surround each country dictate how a country ends up developing to our current state. To learn how many times Greece has had to defend its state, to learn about Spain’s dictatorship, to learn that French was at one time the international language and all the other large and little things about European history. It has truly been inspiring.
My appetite grew to immense amounts after this tour. You had to know what was on my culinary agenda – gyros! We walked through the Plaka, or town center, and found a small little café called Petros that happened to be Nadia’s favorite. The lamb was marinated with a thick garlic marinade and was stacked on top of each other until it formed a 3 foot high stack of lamb that was slowly roasted on a vertical rotisserie. They shaved the meat placed it in a crisp toasty pita and finished with red onion, French fries, and the creamy garlicky cucumber yogurt sauce tzatziki. They say this is not healthy fare, but I tell you what, for 1.75 Euro this fast food will blow away any Mickey D’s or Carl’s Jr. back home.

The next few days would be filled with dolmades, feta cheese, tiropita (baked cheese in filo), spanokopita, melitzanosalata (roasted eggplant with yogurt, garlic, onion and olive oil), Greek salad, gyros, souvlaki (basically kebabs), grilled vegetables, fried calarmi, taromasalata, lukaniko with lemon (grilled country sausages), and frappes. And we were fortunate enough to be invited to a dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Pappas, members of our church, who treated us to Taverna food with keftades (meatballs), souzoukikia (meatballs braised in tomato with cumin), and braised rooster with orzo.

The food has been outstanding, the company amazing and I still can’t get over how kind and gentle the general population has been. We have shopped and have been greeted with almost perfect English everywhere we’ve been. Although, the biggest surprise has been Nicole’s Greek. I didn’t even know she understood how much she does and the locals really appreciate when she speaks Greek to them. She is still a little shy with it, but with a 1 month stay in Greece I bet Nicole would be half way fluent.

I will have to get to our walk through the bar district on a Friday night at a later time. I need to get back to enjoying the island life of Santorini.

Until later…..

Gaudi and the last day in Barcelona

Our last day in Barcelona was well spent walking through the many mazes the streets have to offer. I am sure if I was at home this scenario would have really gotten under my skin, but here, in the wake of our travels, life has changed a bit for Nicole and I. The stress level is down, I am sleeping a full night’s sleep and not even once have I prepared a task list for myself for the following day. I guess this is what vacation is supposed to be about. The occasional mishap with the day’s travel plans and even over paying for little things still beats that daily grind that we all sign up for and try to enjoy. That being said, I have to be honest here…I miss the work I do. I am enjoying myself thoroughly and have adapted to this lifestyle of travel seamlessly, but I truly miss my craft and cannot wait to get back behind the fiery coals of kitchen life.

Nicole sipped on her mango zumo as we headed to the Gaudi Cathedral. This is an unfinished piece of work that he spent the last 43 years of his life working on. Spanish officials estimate that the project will not be finished until the middle of the 21st century, but when it is done, it will be the largest cathedral in the world. We took various pictures from a multitude of angles, but after reviewing these up close and personal photos, not one displays the detail and the life that was spilled into this work.

We enter from the back of the cathedral greeted by life size engravings in the entrance’s concrete of gospel stories. For example, Jesus chained to a post as he is getting whipped and Simon helping Jesus by carrying the cross. On the surface, this outdoor entrance tells a story, but the reality lies in the facial expression of each engraved figure. It is so real, the emotion, the eyes….all this in concrete and there we are asking ourselves if those are real tears dripping from those faces.

Upon entering the cathedral we are greeted by an all out assault of construction. Scaffolding consumes the interior as we are neatly escorted beyond the hard-hatted workers and into a foyer that tells a little history behind the project. I can’t help but noticing a beautifully spiraled staircase leading into the attics of the church. These stairs poured out of the ceiling like water flows down the smooth rocks of a small Asian bamboo garden. These graceful stairs were more viscous than solid making them one of the most memorable pieces of construction that I have ever seen.

We backed ourselves to the main entrance and were again awe stricken. This is the part that if you are ever in Barcelona do yourself a favor and see this in person. It is no wonder that this great architect died working on this project. The amount of detail in his design is gigantic. We are talking a whole different level of work here. Sparrows, blooming flower varietals, jewels, and other small displays all engraved into this church front. It was absolutely breath taking. Up close the detailed work is life like and I can only imagine the amount of artists it took to get as much as they all ready did. I feel like they would have had to employ the entire city’s artist community and more. The cool part, from far away, all this detailed work protruding from the foundation wall causes the entrance to appear that it is drooping. Almost like something you would see in a Tim Burton creation. Truly special.

We wanted to make our last dinner in Spain a casual one so we set out to a small café in the Gothic center. We were sat outdoors surrounded by brick road and brick buildings with concrete gargoyles staring down at us. We had a court jester of sorts tossing fire sticks behind us in search of a Euro or two and a good musician soothing us with his saxophone.
Salad was on the agenda for me. It arrived with a mix of vegetables like carrots and haricot vert, some crisp romaine, tomatoes and grilled corn. This is just what I wanted on this warm evening and finally I got a salad that was tossed with some sort of vinaigrette rather than the standard drizzle of olive oil. Nicole had a beautiful eggplant terrine that was enhanced with sweet red pepper custard and all topped with an enormous chunk of goat cheese and drizzled with concentrated aged sherry vinegar. The cheese was unnecessary, but regardless, we considered the dish a success.

Nicole was filled at this point because of her large appetizer portion, but went for a few bites of her shellfish risotto anyway. She fished out the seared cuttlefish, prawns and mussels and took a few spoons of her perfectly cooked rice swimming in a lusciously reduced fish stock. I had taken a chance and had the Catalan sausage. This type of sausage ranges from house to house and my version was made of pork trimmings, pork fat, paprika, garlic and blood. At first I was a bit afraid, but I must tell you this was quite delicious. The spices and the pork meld beautifully and when paired with grilled asparagus, mushrooms and a poached egg, well, it is hard to leave the table hungry. Let’s just say I was satisfied and the crème caramel that Nicole and I shared for dessert was pure gluttony.

Next stop….Athens…..

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Barri Gotic, La Boqueria and Restaurant Moo

Days are starting later the more we head south in Europe. We haven’t waked this late since making our recovery from jet lag in Holland or maybe it is the Cava we were drinking last night. Cava is the Spanish version of sparkling wine and the Spaniards claim is superior to their neighbor’s Champagne. I am not sure I agree with this, but the Cava wasn’t bad. Due to its highly acidic nature it is important to drink the cava while indulging in some sort of good eats as well.

The Barri Gothic was on the agenda for today. We would take ourselves on a long adventure matriculating through the intricate circuit of narrow alleyways and corridors that make up this old neighborhood. Architecturally, Barcelona is as diverse as they come. The many styles that make up this city create an amazing identity that has been unrivaled in the other cities we have visited and that is saying a lot. The buildings are old and have so many influences from the neo-classic look of the buildings in “The Triangle” to the influences of famed architect Antoni Gaudi and his unfinished masterpiece La Sagrada Familia and, of course, the chilling gothic and medieval buildings left in the Barri Gothic. Today, the Barri Gothic is filled with a wide array of shops, bars, small cafes and restaurants. In fact, some of these bars and restaurants have been around since the 17th century! The alleyways are dark and a little dreary with gargoyles protecting almost every building, but the streets are tourist ridden and filled with some of
Barcelona’s prime food hot spots filling the area with light.

We strolled the Gothic taking in all the sites and poking our heads in and out of the shops buying a few souvenirs. We had a strange breakfast that day opting for a zumo made of kiwi, banana and orange juice which was quite refreshing on this warm day and then chased it with cinnamon ice cream and a Belgian style waffle slathered with the creamy and chocolaty Nutella spread. If it weren’t for all this gluttonous eating we probably would have lost 10 pounds on this trip. We are averaging about a 5 mile walk per day and walking is what we would do as we searched out La Boqueria market.

Simply said, this market was amazing. I have never seen anything like this. I know I haven’t traveled the world, but this has to be one of the greatest on Earth. We turned down a large corridor off Las Ramblas, passed through the stained glass modernista entrance and fell into a large village of food stands bustling with chefs, tourists, and abuelitas searching for the best Barcelona has to offer. The area is huge, about 20,000 square feet, and vendors sell everything that represents all that is best with Catalan ingredients. We passed through the huge displays of seafood finding 6 different kinds of prawns, lobsters, 4 different kinds of clams, mussels, 3 types of snails, monkfish, hake, scorpion fish, sardines, anchovies, salted tuna roe and, of course, bacalla which seems to be a staple in Catalan cuisine. We passed through many exotic produce stands selling the best the season had to offer like apricots, cherries, lots of white asparagus, and bales of dried chilies on the floor and hanging from the ceilings. We came across a mushroom forager who had at least 15 pounds of summer truffles residing on his counter, chanterelles, enormous porcinis and even had a small section of edible insects like grasshoppers, crickets, and scorpion candy. Further on we pass by the legume vendors with their chickpeas, lentils, white beans, nuts, and dried fruits. They also sell artisanal cheeses and charcuterie. We see various types of chorizo and famed blood sausages hanging in front of the butcher’s tired faces. Despite all this, the most amazing part was the meat section. Again, I am faced with an enormous contrast to our American eating habits. We have to be the only country that wastes animal product because we saw customers actively purchasing the stomach lining of cows, lamb brains, bull’s testicles, the entire pig’s head and even asking the butcher to split the lamb’s head in half with eye balls and everything. Seeing their butchers at work was another sight. Imagine a 60 year old woman manipulated at 30 pound cow’s liver slicing off the most perfect medallions while preparing the ban saw to trim down a quarter hind of lamb. I was impressed by these women butchering meat and fish as I believe this is a profession mostly dominated by men state side. These sights blew me away to say the least. So now it was time to eat.

La Boqueria contains many tapas bars that create their menus based on what the market has to offer that day. We were on a mad search for a place called Pinotxo Bar, but were unable to find it so we settled down at another busy stand. I asked the cook to prepare us 3 of their best tapas, but he was apprehensive on what to choose so it didn’t make for the most adventurous experience. He brought us this wonderful mild and salty chorizo that were about the size of my pinky and were dripping with bright orange oil flavored with smoked paprika. He then passed along some plain roasted chicken wings that were marinated with turmeric, garlic and salt. We could have done without this choice and had the grilled calamari with garlic and parsley oil that our neighbor was drooling over. Lastly, he brought over a zarzuela which is a Spanish seafood stew. This was full flavored and tasted completely fresh. Squid, cuttlefish, hake, mussels, clams and prawns all lovingly braised in a seafood tomato broth and drizzled with a fruity and peppery Spanish olive oil. You better believe that I was mopping up that sauce with a baguette. Two beers later and we were off for a long walk to try and burn calories for our dinner that night and, of course, our daily siesta.

We were running late for our well anticipated dinner at what is said to be one of the best restaurants in all of Spain – Restaurant Moo, run by famous chef Joan Rocca. I have seen this restaurant in every travel publication that we have read about Spain and there was a huge feature about the chef and the restaurant in a chef publication called Art Culinaire.
We walked into this ultra chic and modern restaurant and felt like we were back at the trendiest hotel restaurants in Hollywood. Dark lounge furniture contrasted with Asian décor and growing beyond a Plexiglas window was a real bamboo garden. The service was friendly and professional and they accommodated us in almost perfect English. Staying with tradition, the chef has compiled a menu that is made up of ½ portions so that the diner can try many things, much like a tapas bar except that this was in a formal setting. Nicole ordered 2 items, a cheese plate and a dessert. I ordered 4 items and a dessert. Nicole suggested that we change our order because they would not be able to serve us correctly since I had a total of 5 items and she 4. I argued that this is a professional restaurant and I am sure that they have done this a million times before….they know what they are doing. Guess who was wrong here?

The first course arrived and we could tell they all ready had things mixed up. Nicole suggested to the waiter that we split a first course so that the service would not be off, but apparently he decided not to listen to us. Instead he brought out my Smoked Pigeon Carpaccio with Juniper Ice Cream with a theatric effect. The plate arrived covered in a glass dome and then the server unveiled the ploom of olive wood smoke that was encapsulated under the plate cover. The aroma filled the surrounding air making our table the current attraction. Nicole’s dish was equally, if not more impressive. She had a beautifully composed appetizer of blanched white asparagus mirrored by shelled long tender and salty razor clams rounded out with a fluffy green asparagus espuma hinted with lemon. This dish was not only clever in its presentation, but harmonious in flavor and texture.

Second course is where things got messy. It is not that the food was bad in any way; it was that they served it wrong. Now I was served another harmonious dish of Dublin Bay Prawns with a licorice-curry sauce dotted with lobster roe and asparagus tips. I thought this might be too assertive, but the prawns were as sweet as I ever tasted and balanced out the one two punch of the salty roe and the spicy licorice-curry sauce. Nicole was then given her “main course”, a duck breast sous vide with roasted beets and blood orange. The duck’s skin was crispy, but the meat itself had a raw look to it. However, one bite and I knew this meat had been cooked at a low constant temperature for a long period of time because of the tenderness of the meat. My teeth could’ve taken a day off with this one. It was excellent, but then as luck would have it the kitchen made a crucial error. They must have left a piece of sinew in that is between the tenderloin and the breast meat and Nicole found herself chewing on the untenable for quite a while. Without the sinew part this dish was definitely a winner. The problem with this course was that Nicole would have to watch me eat to other dish with nothing in front of her when this could have been all avoided had the waiter listened to us or knew what he was doing.

The next two dishes arrived quickly and I would eat them and share them quickly so that Nicole would not be left without food for long. We asked for the cheese plate sooner, but the chef refused saying that it must be served with dessert. My sea bass came with green beans and a ginger broth. The flavors all worked, but seemed way too ordinary for a restaurant like this. It took subtlety too far and was unimpressive. My “veal” was next and was very tender, practically melting in my mouth. The problem was that this was not veal. The meat was red and perfectly cooked, but in my experience, I have never seen veal that looked this way. I am pretty sure that the kitchen was misleading their guests with this one. Again, it was not bad, but it was not what it should have been.

Finally, Nicole’s next course, the cheese plate, and my dessert, breaded toffee with caramel ice cream, arrived. We expected the cheese plate to show off the great varieties of Catalu?a or Spain, but instead Nicole received three versions of France’s Comte cheese. This was definitely a letdown and it was oddly accompanied by paper thin shavings of button mushroom and one large red grape neatly sliced in half. My dessert was tasty, but the disappointment with the service and the cheese plate began to take precedence.

Nicole’s dessert arrived, and to our dismay, I was left staring at her eating. The timing by the service was so bad that it ruined the experience. The strawberry tartare with strawberry sauce and goat cheese ice cream was excellent and highlighted some very flavorful and sweet strawberries, but at this point we wanted just wanted to leave.

We paid the bill and asked for a call for a taxi. To top it off, this snobby and trendy restaurant told us none were available and to wait on the street to pick one up. I think the kitchen did well, but did not live up to the hype. However, the service failed that restaurant and for 3 Michelin stars one has to think what it really takes to get that king of rating. I would have traded our paella night over that expensive meal anytime.

We’ll catch up with the rest of Barcelona a little later.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Barcelona Days

First off, let me get this train ride from hell off my chest. We have embraced European culture, acclimated ourselves to the customs of each country we have visited, and have done our best in speaking the native language. However, one thing I am having a difficult time with is adjusting to the evasive disregard of personal space. I will explain in just a bit.

After learning that the train ride from San Sebastian to Barcelona was going to be 10 hours rather than the 4 we assumed it would be, we decided to rearrange our travel plans so we would not lose a day in Barcelona. We felt that since I was so sick in the Basque Country, we did not want to miss anymore than we needed to in Barcelona. We examined travel schedules and noticed an overnight train leaving at 11pm and arriving the next day at 9am. We also noticed that this train had a 1st class and beds. Another point we noticed that there was a bus that left to Barcelona, but it only took 7 hours. We thought about taking the bus for the shorter travel time, but figured it would be too uncomfortable. Plus, our previous train rides up to this point were great. I reserved our tickets in 1st class, opting for individual seats rather than beds in a shared compartment, assuming we would have our two seats with a table in front of us like we did in the past. The process was easy as my command of the Spanish language has gotten better with each day we have spent here.

Nicole and I patiently await our train and notice the depot loading up with cross country travelers with the same idea as us. A long trip overnight equates a good opportunity for shut eye. We hear the whistle of the train and the chugging as this old and tired locomotive with three attached carriages labors toward us and screeches to a stop. The train is beat up, marred with scratches, paint peeling away with paper signs attached to each coach letting us know where to enter. This train looks like it was at once the pride of the Spanish railway system, that is, during the industrial revolution!

Nicole and I enter the last coach and notice that we are to share a compartment with other travelers sitting across from each other. It is not what we expected, figuring we would have 2 seats side by side, but this seating situation has not been bad in the past. We greeted our two Spanish speaking Asian travel companions with a simple hello, but could all ready feel their animosity that we have invaded their territory. The train begins to roll away. The Asians start frantically adjusting their seats trying to get comfortable. They are moving from one seat to another, placing their feet on the seat across from them and then covering their faces with clothing to block out the light. It hasn’t even been 5 minutes and they are going crazy. Ten minutes later the whole drama starts again, but this time they are muttering in Spanish that they wish Nicole would sit in another seat so that they could both lie down and be comfortable. You see, they figured out that they could recline their seats completely flat so that their upper bodies could be completely horizontal. One was able to put her feet up on a chair across from her, but the other had to share leg space with Nicole and this bothered her.

Nicole asked if she should move across from me to end it all and I said, “NO!” First off, these ladies had zero concern for the fact that we all have to share a mutual space uncomfortably with our legs intertwined. Why should they be able to be the most comfortable and without any thought of how we felt or own level of comfort. I would not compromise my position.
To add to the melee, we picked up another passenger in Pamplona. Now we have 5 passengers in a place that is big enough for 3. Imagine that and I am sick as well. I decide that I’m going to leave the light on and read because everyone wanted to sleep. Plus, I was sick so I thought coughing would get them to leave, but neither method worked. The train attendant shut off our lights while I was in mid-sentence and they opened the window to combat my cough. We were stuck together for the next 9 hours.

Well, as it turned out the 2 Asians and the girl from Pamplona all had a pleasant train ride lying back in their seats tangling their legs with ours. One girl was so out of it she was even snoring! As for Nicole and I, we got a little sleep, sitting vertically, and I developed some kind of muscular atrophy in my leg from not being able to move for 9 hours. I felt like I was confined in one of those magician boxes except the magician forgot to perform the magic to allow me to escape. I cannot tell you how relieved I was to get out of that train. Nicole and I were ecstatic that we would never have to see those obnoxious people ever again as well. Now that is off my chest, I can get to what is important – Barcelona.

Barcelona Days…mmm, I am beginning to breathe through my nose, my cough is thinning out, and my eyes are losing their gloss of fatigue and I owe to the life that the city of Barcelona has pumping through its streets at 9 in the morning. During travel we learn so much. Now, you can call me na?ve, but I was never aware that Spain fell under the Franco dictatorship for over 30 years and did not become a Democracy until the early 70s. Also, that the country was separated into various self governing states (much like the US) that fell under the democratic eye of Spain itself. When we were in Basque they spoke Euskera and now that we are in Barcelona, the capital of Catalu?a, they speak Catalan. It is similar to Spanish with French under tones while riddled with the letter “x” taking the place of the Spanish “ch”. Just like we found with the Basque, Catalu?a thrived with its own identity and culture created by the people and the cuisine of the region.

After that train ride anything would have been a welcomed change, but Barcelona was the perfect remedy. Our hotel was located on El Ravla or Las Ramblas Street the main artery of the city that fed life to the neighboring “barrios” like Barcelonata, Barri Gothic, and L’Eioxample. Las Ramblas was all ready alive with tourists, lazy shop owners, street performers and many street vendors selling everything from soccer gear and post cards to chinchillas, turtles, parakeets, goldfish, and other farm animals.

Food was a priority at this point. There were plenty choices of tapas bars selling breakfast so we entered one with the best prices. The restaurant was larger than most with a few wicker tables scattered across the dining room and a long bar serving as the centerpiece of the room. The place was busy with tourists and a lot of English speaking people who were noticeably not accustomed to the relaxed service standards that the Spaniards have. Nicole and I quickly ordered. I had the “English Breakfast” of two fried eggs, bacon, toast, French fries, cappuccino, and zumo. Zumo is the Catalan word for juice and is huge in this area. You can find zumo on almost every block and all varieties. Freshly juiced mango, kiwi, orange, guava, passion fruit, banana, pithaya and any other fruit you could imagine. My breakfast was delicious and familiar, two things I needed while my last bits of frustration from our train ride vented. Nicole tried the Tortilla Espanola. This is basically cooked potatoes in an egg custard and baked. Real similar to a frittata or a quiche without the crust. Nicole added a little salt to bring up the entire dish, but I don’t think she was completely happy with the meal. However, egg was accompanied by toasted bread that was rubbed down with garlic, olive oil, and fresh tomato. This toast, pa amb tomaquet, is truly Catalan.

After breakfast we tried to visit the famed La Boqueria market that I have read countless articles about, but discovered that it was closed. To our surprise, we found out that it was closed for a religious holiday that wasn’t even really a religious holiday. What happened was that the actual religious holiday coincided with an appointed government holiday so they just added on one extra holiday for everyone to enjoy. I have been flabbergasted, yet envious, by the low key approach that the Spaniards take to work. Between the mid day siesta, 24 vacation days per year, arbitrary holidays and annual restaurant closures one can understand the general upbeat feeling this city has.

We tried to explore, but our fatigued bodies could only take so much. We headed back to the room and had an extra long siesta…so long that it took us right into dinner time around 9pm. Based on the great advice of our concierge and Nicole’s desire to find the best Paella that Spain had to offer, we walked to a restaurant called Neysras. There was an upscale feel to this casual restaurant as it was nicely decorated by rustic brick walls, mahogany wood tables and various wine bottles filling up the shelves. Again, a long bar filled with platters of tapas served as the centerpiece of the restaurant.

Our waiter was a happy guy from Brazil with a refined technique when it came to service. He delighted us with his jokes and liked the fact that I ordered in Spanish even though he asked me, “Was that Portuguese?” Nicole and I were in dire need of vegetables, but all they had was a salad of mixed lettuces and a few tomatoes. We tossed that with a little olive oil, salt and pepper and paired with a small tapa of white anchovies and marinated olives.

The main course arrived and our smiles were big. Our waiter conducted his table side service so that Nicole would get all the great pieces of seafood including a huge langoustine. Nicole ordered the paella and I the fideua. Having worked at 2 Spanish restaurants I have had extensive experience cooking paella and it is tough job to execute properly. I enjoyed the paella I cooked while working at Basque and didn’t think one be better. Nicole has ordered lots of paella in her past and has never been truly happy, but this time we would both be blown away. The saffron rice’s aroma was intoxicating and was loaded with flavor cooked with a rich seafood stock and peppered with little bits of tender and salty jambon. The paella represented a taste of the Mediterranean with mussels, clams, langoustines, prawns, and small chunks of scorpion fish. The portion was large, but between us both it was so perfect that we did not leave one grain of rice behind.

The fideua was equally as great. Fideua is basically paella, but instead of saffron rice it is prepared with short and thin pieces of toasted spaghetti. The pasta is cooked in a paellaera, which is a round and shallow cast iron skillet, and is part crunchy, part tender, and filled with the taste of the rich and flavorful seafood stock.

This meal catapulted to the top two meals we’ve had so far. It was flavorful, perfectly seasoned, executed properly, the service was friendly, the price was reasonable and it screamed Catalu?a. Late dinners mean a late start to the night life, so Nicole and I scurried across town to the Flamenco show. Flamenco is a dark story of hurt told through the signature taps, stomps, snaps of fingers and facial expressions. The dance is accompanied by heartfelt and painful chanting and beautiful and sexy string guitars. We had such a great time with this Flamenco performance that was spilling over with such drama, pain and passion – so much so that I had to find a way to buy a Flamenco cd the next day.

Barcelona Days continue….

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

San Sebastian

San Sebastian
I have a lot of catching up to do. We haven’t had internet and I have been horribly ill the last few days. Nicole hasn’t been her most healthy either. The fever has been chilling and the cough unproductive. My throat scratches and burns and I think I have forgotten what it is like to be healthy. I will battle this out that and continue to eat and walk my way through Europe.

Our next stop is San Sebastian, a small seaport village in the Basque Country of Spain just a few miles south of the border of France. I have anticipated a visit to this area ever since I fell in love with the Spanish cuisine while working at the restaurant Basque in San Francisco. The excitement lives in both Nicole and I as we both understand the culture a little bit more in Spain as well as having better command of the language. The only monkey wrench is that in the Basque Country they speak their own language. This is the only surviving language that pre-dates Latin and is called Euskera. However, we later discovered that only about half of the population uses the language (although there is a revival as seen in store front signage) and that Spanish dominates everyday conversation. We felt a little bit more at ease.

San Sebastian is the capital of the Basque Country, but still remains a tiny city. What San Sebastian lacks in population and size it more than makes up in cultural identity and history. If you want a visual, watch the movie Bourne Identity and the opening scene when he arrives into port with the Spanish fisherman you will see the seaport of San Sebastian. El Parte Viaje (Old Town) is a string of narrow, cobblestone alley ways interconnected by an immense amount of Pintxo Bars (pronounced “peencho”). Pintxos are what the Basque call Tapas. Small little plates of food made with the area’s most unique ingredients like Piquillo Peppers, Boquerón’s (marinated white anchovies), olives, guindilla peppers, and thinly sliced and cured Iberico Jamon. This you could get everywhere as every single eatery in town had at least 10 ham legs hanging from the ceiling with hoof and all.

Nicole and I quickly checked into the famed Maria Cristina Hotel and headed into town. My first sight of a Jamon hanging from the ceiling grabbed my attention and we entered. This was like a six year image in my head coming to realization. I have always been enamored with Spanish cuisine and used it quite frequently in my own cooking and now my fantasy of tasting it first hand was about to come true. You could only imagine my excitement and I think Nicole got a good laugh seeing me like this.

The bar’s décor was simple, painted plaster walls with old pictures of Basque men in their traditional berets. The ceiling hung low with uneven and sunken wooden beams making it appear they had been weathered by the nearby ocean air. The bar was trimmed with classic brass ornaments and the floor was littered with cigarette butts, crumbs of bread, toothpicks, and small pieces of crumpled white paper. We noticed the locals eating their pintxos, sipping their beer, sneaking a hit of their cigarette in between bites and then confidently throwing their trash on the floor. We could not believe this…it was absolutely customary to leave all your trash on the floor of the restaurant!

It was our time to grab a few pintxos and beer. Nicole and I indiscriminately chose a few items. We ended up with a fried bacalao (salt cod) stuffed piquillo pepper that was topped with a squid ink sauce, a jamon, pepper, and egg tosta topped with a white anchovy fillet, an octopus skewer that was marinated in smoked paprika and Spanish olive oil, a tosta topped with sliced tomatoes, white anchovy and a white onion puree, another tosta of salmon, hardboiled egg, plain whipped cream and shrimp, a skewer of green olives, pickled guindillo peppers and cured anchovy and then finally a plate of a soft sheep’s milk cheese that was topped with membrillo. Membrillo is like a jam made of quince which is like a cross between an apple and pear. The dream became reality and it was not disappointing. All the flavors hit and even those that I questioned were tasty.

Now I was ready to soak in the rest of the Basque culture, but the cold and the sickness were too much. Adding to the demise was the unforgiving rain. It poured and poured and poured. We ran back to the hotel, set up shop and took a siesta.

Nicole’s throat was hurting and I couldn’t stop coughing, but we hoped the rest would make us feel better and it did enough for us to get out that night for dinner at 10:30pm.
We made it to a famous Basque chef’s, Martin Berasategui, casual restaurant called Bodegon Alejandro. The restaurant was in the basement of an old house and again the décor very simple. The servers were simply dressed in black t-shirts and black jeans….real casual, but the food was serious. Nicole and I were beginning to see a pattern of the Basque taking their food to a different level. Even the more casual and lower end restaurants paid attention to their ingredients and how they combined flavors. Creativity is essential when so many places are serving the same style of food.

We could only order the three course menu at this restaurant due to its structure. Nicole started with a sublime risotto that was cooked and seasoned perfectly with a seafood stock and little chunks of sautéed Iberico Jamon, topped with grilled cuttlefish (similar to squid), and her bowl garnished with a brush of squid ink. Nicole loved the food, but became upset with the squid ink usage. It somehow got on her hand, which then got on her glass, the table and then it consumed her napkin. That ink is surely potent. I had a sauté of wild asparagus, potatoes, and octopus that was brought together with a smoked tuna broth. I like octopus, but here they leave a big portion of the “suckers” on and right beneath the “suckers” is a layer of gelatinous fat. The texture of this “fat” is what doesn’t appeal to me. I cut around it to get to the meat of the octopus. To me, this dish was a definition of textural play in cuisine. The octopus was pleasantly chewy, the asparagus crunchy and the potatoes soft. Each ingredient was then harmoniously gathered with the smoky flavors of paprika and the tuna broth.

At this point, Nicole and I were satisfied and it bothered us a bit to know that we had 2 more courses coming. If we were at home, we would have asked to have our stuff packaged to bring home with us, but this isn’t the case. My steamed codfish arrives bathing in a buttery white wine sauce that was shimmering with shiny clams, potato slices and a lot of parsley. Nicole’s sea bream (similar to striped bass) was served “a la plancha” (meaning from the grill). It was whole, head, eyes and gills. We both did our best to finish our plates because the taste was there, but our appetites weren’t.

We battled the rain and waddled into bed to end the night, but the sad part is that is where we would stay. Nicole felt better, but my sickness got worse. I was weak, achy, shivering and sneezing. I was so disappointed that I couldn’t get out there, but there was no way. The entire day would be lost as well as the better part of the next day resting in bed, watching CNN World News and learning how much the world really hates the U.S. and our president. It is actually quite sad. I even had to cancel a reservation at the famed restaurant Arzak that I made reservations at 3 months ago.

Our last day in San Sebastian was upon us and I wanted to get out a little. We had a late train that night to take us to Barcelona so we needed something to do for the whole day. We headed to Bilbao which is an hour and a half bus ride south of San Sebastian. It is basically the commercial and industrial hub of the Basque Country, but also home to the Guggenheim Museum. We took the ride, high on Dayquil and cough drops, and checked out the museum. The museum was an amazing piece of architecture, but the current exhibit was horrible. The artist displayed huge pieces of steel on a wall and broken concrete stairs on the floor, numbered them, scribbled some illegible writing next to them and called it art. There were 3 floors of this bull crap. As if I wasn’t sick enough, I put myself through this torture of viewing this and even listening to what the artist had to say about each piece. This was annoying and quite offensive that we had to pay 15 Euro each for our entrance. I do appreciate art, but I could not accept this form to be categorized that way.

I got my appetite back, but I needed something mellow and something from home, something that wouldn’t challenge my taste buds, but more importantly the condition of my stomach. Nicole needed something decidedly American as well. Now I am embarrassed to admit it, but we almost were tempted for McDonalds which we did not want to do. Miraculously, a Subway appeared so we entered, got our American fix and were good for another 2 and a half weeks of experimental eating.

We had time for one last meal in San Sebastian before our night train left at 11pm. I was feeling a little better so we tried a small restaurant near the station. We should’ve passed on the meal. Nicole ordered a “Russian Salad” and received potato salad and then ordered Shrimp in garlic sauce and received 6 miniscule shrimp loaded with oil that were mushy. That’s right mushy. Mushy to the point that the gag reflex kicked in. It was disgusting. I ordered the 20 euro grilled prawns thinking I would get a full dinner out of it and all I got were 4 prawns with the shell on. They weren’t bad, but they were a lot of work and they did not come with anything else. In fact, we got the bill I noticed we got charged for the bread that was placed on our table at the beginning of the meal!

We were 1 hour away from what would be the worst train ride I have ever experienced. Stay tuned for that one!

Monday, June 4, 2007

Bordeaux

“What do you mean a reservation?” This is how our morning started at the train station in Tours as we headed to our next destination in the south of France, Bordeaux. Nicole and I invested in the famed Euro Rail pass that has been beneficial except for the fact that on certain trains you have to pay an additional fee for a “reservation”. If you ask me, this is a bunch of Euro-trash, just like you have to pay the cab driver to put luggage in his trunk, just like you have to pay the cab driver for the time/distance he drove to come pick you up, and just like when you get charged for the complimentary bread when you are eating at a restaurant. I guess these are rules we need to get used to in the next few weeks.

Anyhow, this whole reservation thing was a mess as I dashed around central station speaking the best French I could in order to find the information we needed. The train leaves at 10:27am and I am stuck in line 6 people deep with 10 minutes to spare. One thing I’ve learned about the French is that there is no rush. There is no rush to get out of the way when you are carrying 3 large suitcases with no maneuverability and there is no rush for prompt service. It seems like the only time there is a rush is when they are trying to cross the street and the walking light is red. No one on this continent seems to give a damn about the most remedial traffic law out there. Oh well, “when in Rome”, now Nicole and I are guilty of that same crime. Tick, tock, tick, and tock the clock winds to 10:24 and I have reached the front of the line. I’ve promised myself I will run to the train at 10:25 to meet up with Nicole and all our luggage.

“Bon Jour”, the lady behind the counter says.

My time is up, but I have to give it a shot…I say, “I need a reservation for Bordeaux”.

She says, “The train doesn’t leave for another hour”.

“No…it is leaving right now!” I can’t argue with her, so I gather my backpack loaded with 20lbs of electronic equipment, 2 laptops, cameras, chargers, books, etc. and sprint my fat butt back to the train with all the grace of a sea turtle. I can see Nicole’s eyes widening through the train window as the whistle blows for departure. “Push it! Push it!” and my foot lands on the steel grated step of the train coach. I calmly gather myself, wipe the sweat off my forehead, flop down next to Nicole and say, “We need a reservation”.

Bordeaux is about a 3.5 hour train ride south of Tours through the countryside of France. Nicole reads and naps as I quietly work on the computer trying to map out parts of our future. The train attendant makes his approach and asks for our tickets. When I got on the train, I told Nicole that we need to play dumb and act real American when they ask for our tickets. I found out that in addition to our Euro Rail pass we were going to have to pay 100 Euro for our reservation. That’s like $150 US!

“Tickets?” I show him our passes, but he asks for more. I simply tell him that I don’t speak French and Nicole starts talking to him in complete sentences in English to further confuse him. We go on and on with him for about 5 minutes, really not trying to understand him at all. Finally, Nicole scribbles something on a piece of paper “TGV, always reservation” and shows the man. He smiles, and thankfully, let’s us pass. What a relief to catch a break from a nice Frenchman.

We arrived in Bordeaux which was a bustling city filled with gridlock and a seedy feel to it. The streets were littered, the buildings dreary and the walls painted with graffiti. This was a shock to me because beneath the surface I could scratch out the foundation of the traditional French pageantry that has defined most other cities in France. It seems a little disappointing that they let this area go. It also didn’t help that a dense black cloud had just consumed the last bit of sunlight. Nicole prepared the umbrella for a fight that it would eventually lose.

The hotel was located on the main street of shops and restaurants. It was only accessible by foot so Nicole and I had to lug the bags about 200 more yards. It wasn’t that bad, as we are always excited about our next venture. The hotel was a little creepy. It reminded me of a horror movie. I quietly examined the old and aloof helper at the desk, a spiraling staircase rising 5 stories with a red carpet bleeding down each step, and the classic molding on the ceilings that screamed mystery. Our room was tiny, probably the size of a traditional walk-in closet at home. No worries though. We wedged our bags between the wall and the bed and headed out for exploration. We saw many of the same things like the rest of France like the brasseries, cafes, chocolate shops, and bread shops. The prices on everything were still high. It was on this walk that we decided our excitement for Spain was a priority and that we would cancel our second night in Bordeaux, which meant canceling our trip to the famed St. Emilion wine region, and get a head start on San Sebastian.

A small café jumped out at us because of the food we saw on other patron’s plates. Nicole and I both ordered specials for the day. Nicole tried the beloved Croque Madame and I had Curried Chicken Brochettes. One thing is that in Europe one expects small portions or basically little value for what you pay for. I will argue that point. We have received some of the largest portions during our travels and most have been bigger than the U.S. version. The lemon and curry marinated chicken was skewered and then breaded and deep fried. I thought this was a great concept and something that I might borrow in the future. This came with a baguette, a beautiful salad tossed with balsamic reduction, pancetta, duck prosciutto and a chuck of foie gras pate. It also came with a shooter of tomato gazpacho as well as the largest fruit salad I have ever received. It included banana, grape, kiwi, cantaloupe, raspberry, watermelon, honeydew, pineapple, strawberry, mango, and passion fruit. Pretty extensive. And if that wasn’t enough, it was all topped off with a chocolate covered pretzel. I just got full thinking about that meal again.

We took a long walk after our meal, which has been such a delightful routine that we are considering doing the same when we get home, and decided to shut it down for the night. We packed up and prepped ourselves for an early morning departure.
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