P is for Pizza, Pasta and Pigging Out

Look at that menu. I mean really look at it. As if choosing a pizza isn’t difficult enough without three folded pages of small print selections. Just in case you were wondering and don’t possess my inquisitive procrastination skills to justify counting how many pizzas there actually are on that menu, I’m happy to inform you that there are eighty seven.

87!!

I’m not the first, and I certainly won’t be the last, to declare that Italians know how to cook a good meal. I mean, hello, any country that can even think of 87 pizza toppings, clearly knows what they’re doing. They’ve got skills I tell you.

Now before we begin, let’s get a couple of things straight. I love food. Eating to me is less a survival skill than it is an activity I look forward to participating in several times a day. With food comes cooking, which I love, and socialising, which I love, and just the general enjoyment that comes with eating yummy yummy things.

Fact number two. I am a fussy eater. This presents a slight problem for someone that likes to eat several times a day. I never got over that phase where you stick your nose up at vegetables and poke around at lumpy mashed potato. Yep, I’m one of those. 

My host mum serving up her amazing lasagne. Love her.

So, to find a place where I can pick anything from a menu and 99.9% of the time immensely enjoy it, is no small victory. But it is a victory that Italy can claim as its own.

I’m always very spoilt in Italy.  The benefit of staying with host families and friends, is that you get cooked everything traditional style. Every time I visit my host mum, Marilena, she makes a point of cooking me the local dishes and Italian faves. Lasagne, Gnocchi with Ragù, Pizza, Bean Minestrone, and my favourite, Cappellacci di zuca – a kind of ravioli filled with pumpkin and served with ragù. Buonissimi!

This trip was no different, and I’m sure the scales can prove it.

Home made salami chillin' out in the garage

What I did during my week in Italy was determined according to a well-thought out plan of what food I needed to eat and where: Marilena told me which days she wanted to cook me her specialities; two special trips were made into town to an amazing pizza place called Arcabaleno, which sells hot squares of pizza for about 1 Euro wrapped in paper ready for you to eat standing up there and then; I met up with a friend at a restaurant well known for its Cappellacci; and I even made a trip out to the Italian countryside while my High School friend, Maurizio, and his family made me home made pizza, topped with the home made salami they had hanging in their garage.

It really doesn’t get more authentic than that.

One night I met up with a group of friends at a bar for what they call an aperitivo. Basically what this involves is complimentary snack food on the basis that you’ll be buying drinks. Now, I’m not talking peanuts in a cracked bowl. I’m talkin’ smoked salmon, olives, prosciutto, fresh bread, cheeses, pieces of pizza and savory pastries.

My mouth is watering just thinking about it.

This is what cappellacci di zucca looks like. Thanks to Google for the image (it never stayed on my plate long enough to get a photo of my own)

Needless to say, I pigged out in Italy. The flavours and the care the Italians put into their food is evident in the enjoyment one experiences at every meal. On serving, the cook always waits in anticipation for appraisal, but I personally have never had to force a polite “it’s delicious” without genuinely meaning it. In fact “it’s delicious” would be an understatement for most of the meals I’ve had the pleasure of feasting on in Italy.

Like I said, they’ve got skills.

I have tried to replicate recipes back home, but they just don’t have that same oomph about them. I can only conclude that a) I’m a terrible cook or b) I need to go to Italy more often. It’s a tough call, but I’m leaning towards door number two.

Either way, I ate my way through Italy. Many a time I had pizza cheese dripping down my chin and pasta sauce splashed on my cheeks. I inhaled every meal like it was going out of fashion and whilst my table manners were probably appalling as I spoke with my mouth full, there simply was no time to concentrate on anything else but devouring and savouring that mouthwatering food.

And I’m happy to say that the Italians, they love it. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing someone enjoy something you’ve created from scratch. And in that, I’m more than happy to oblige.

Buon appetito!

Maurizio's Dad making pizza bases

Very excited about the lasagne I'm about to inhale

Being served pumpkin gnocchi with ragù

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K is for Krakow

When my friend, Hayley, and I, were looking at places to visit during our travels, Krakow was not the first place that came to mind.

I had never been to Poland, and neither had she, but when we realised we were practically on its doorstep in Germany we made a last minute decision to spend a few days there. Our primary point of interest was Auschwitz, but of Krakow – the nearest city to Auschwitz – we had absolutely no idea what to expect.

After boarding the plane in Berlin we spent about half an hour getting over the fact that the woman with garish blue eyeshadow, in jeans, a puffer jacket and wearing a bright hot pink cap, was actually our air hostess. Oh and look, there’s another one. Though we had booked with Air Berlin, we assumed Air Niki and it’s fashion forward hostessed were partner airlines. Gulp.

Welcome to Krakow! We were told that temperatures are known to reach -20, so we considered ourselves lucky

At any rate, after some deliberation we came to the conclusion that yes, we were on the right plane, no, we were not going to die, and holy crap, we’re going to Poland where we don’t speak the language or know anything about the country.

With this in mind, on arrival we found the first strangers that spoke English and, naturally, agreed to walk with them down a deserted unlit road in the middle of the night to find the nearest “train station” (I use air quotes because it wasn’t so much a train station as a bus stop next to what looked like train tracks). Admittedly, this wasn’t the smartest of moves, but fear not. Our new found friends were the loveliest Irish couple you could meet on a deserted road in an unknown country. And really, if you can’t trust an Irishman then surely the world is doomed anyway.

By the looks of the overgrown weeds sneaking over the train tracks and that eery silence you get when you just know there’s no train coming for a good long while, we agreed that we could potentially be waiting for some time. It was at this point that a taxi drove up, assumedly anticipating hopeless travellers such as ourselves, and offered us a lift into town at a very reasonable price. A price that was later revealed to be ridiculously high for Poland, but never mind.

Krakow by night

We arrived in town safe and sound and said farewell to our Irish companions. To get to our hotel we had to walk through the centre of town, and thank goodness we did.

By night it was breathtaking.

The Christmas markets were still out, as were the festive lights that lit the cobbled streets. People were gathered in friendly groups around food stalls and warming themselves with mulled wine. It wasn’t busy, but neither was it empty. The main square felt as if it were a large garden party, where everyone knew each other and all were just casually catching up on the latest gossip or taking pleasure in good food. They walked around serenely, admiring markets and chatting away in Polish. The atmosphere was wonderful.

Most of our time in Krakow was spent wandering around that main square and down the streets that snaked off it. The old town reminded me of Edinburgh, with its beautiful architecture, cobbled streets and historically preserved character. I was enamoured by the statues that stood tall outside churches and was captivated by the legend of the city being built on the ashes of a great dragon.

Grilled cheese at the markets

During one of our trips through the markets we noticed everyone walking around eating these odd little pastry-looking things. Now, I’m willing to admit I’m a fairly fussy eater, which means I’m not one to jump at trying new foods. But Poland had worked its magic on me and I decided to try one, with no way of asking or understanding what it was. It turned out to be grilled cheese. So simple, and so delicious. It came served with cranberry sauce, and I have no idea if it is particular to Krakow or Poland, but it comes highly recommended by this fussy eater.

After that I tried everything, and surprisingly liked everything. It wasn’t difficult to do when prices in Poland are ridiculously cheap. And I mean cheap. One night we ‘splurged’ at a fancy restaurant, buying the most expensive thing on the menu, which also happened to be the best piece of steak I’ve ever had. It still only came to $10.

Schindler's Factory

We also partook in one of the free walking tours of the Jewish Quarter, where we were taken to Schindler’s Factory, places which were used in the film Schindler’s List, as well as to Synagogues and a particularly heartbreaking square, where the Jews had been rounded up before being taken to concentration camps or to be killed.

We were shown a building at the corner of the square that used to be a pharmacy. During WWII the Germans told all the Poles to move from the quarter so they could contain the Jews there. The Pole who owned the pharmacy requested that he stay under the premise that he could help the Germans with medical supplies, but really so he could help the Jews. We were told that he would regularly bare witness from his shop window to Jews being shot in the square, and even more tragically as they were taken away and asked to leave their belongings behind with no idea that they would never be returning to collect them. He wrote a book called Cracow Ghetto Pharmacy, which I have yet to read but which I hear is quite a moving account of one man’s attempt to aid a few.

Empty chairs stand in this square in the Jewish ghetto Podgorze to represent the Jews that once gathered here to be taken either to concentration, working or death camps. They were told to leave all their belongings behind. There are 68 chairs, each representing 1000 Jews. 68000 Jews used to live in Krakow; there are now only 200.

The square is now a memorial to all those who suffered there.

What I found amazing was that the Jews were once treated very well by the King in Poland, before it was infiltrated by the Germans who spread lies and encouraged the Poles to disassociate from them. Of course its proximity to Auschwitz is an unfortunate reminder of what took place there less than 70 years ago, but in a city where 68,000 Jews used to live happily, there are now less than 200. Two hundred! The mind boggles at the ramifications that still echo from the brutality that took place during the Holocaust.

Despite this tainted part of Poland’s history, it far from dampened my visit there. On the contrary, I felt it a very friendly and cheerful place and could have hugged each and every one of them that spoke perfect English, which was practically all of them.

Krakow was definitely the surprise treasure of the trip. It came second only to Edinburgh of my favourite places and I only wish I had spent more time there to discover its secrets. But really, what better excuse than to one day return?

Also on Krakow and Poland:

A is for Auschwitz
C is for Castles

Love padlocks on a bridge in Krakow

You can't see it in the photo, but it was snowing!

Beautiful architecture and statues in Krakow

An angel outside Wawel Castle

More statues in Krakow

Another delicious Polish delicacy. Pancake type ravioli filled with potato and cheese, and served with sour cream and little bits of pork crackling.

More snow that you can't actually see

Streets of Krakow