ROOT | VERSE

narratives of food, drink, & life

Tag: travel

Drinking Chocolate in Poland, or How to Survive a Thousand Winters

Krakow is a place that knows cold. In January, the mean temperature is 27 °F, and often the temperature dips far below that, especially in the evenings. The icy winters do little to cheapen the magic of this old city, however. All that is required to fight back the biting wind is a warm drink.
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A subtle, yet important, distinction is made among some between hot chocolate and drinking chocolate; the difference being that drinking chocolate is made with melted chocolate, rather than powdered chocolate, or some kind of watered-down concentrate. We’ve discussed warming beverages before, but this one takes the cake.
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At Nowa Prowincja near the old-town square in Krakow they serve a rich, buttery, hot chocolate that more closely resembles chocolate pudding than it does the thinned out excuse for hot chocolate in your average coffee shop.

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The chocolate is continuously slow-churned, giving it a richness that is surprisingly smooth, and makes the cold winter nights just slightly more bearable.

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Simply The Best: Hühner Haus

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Simplicity in food is an underrated art. For me, it is also the most important and abiding quality of my most favorite meals. How do we transform simple chords into new songs? I’ll forego sophistication for consistency on any occasion. Time and again I am drawn to places that provide very simple meals, but somehow do it better than everyone else. 

Rotisserie chicken restaurants dot the Berlin landscape with the same ubiquity that taquerias do in the mission district of San Francisco, or pizza parlors in mid-town Manhattan. Every place promises to be better than the rest, and city’s residents can easily be divided into hardline camps according to their gastronomic preferences. As far I’m concerned, there’s only one rotisserie chicken restaurant in Berlin. That restaurant is Hühner Haus. 

The chicken is perfectly seasoned, always fresh, and cheap. What makes Hühner Haus incomparable to any of its competitors however are the sauces. A creamy garlic and yogurt sauce, a curried garlic, mayonnaise, and curry ketchup each compliment the tender roast chicken in different ways. And that’s it. There is no need to embellish, or change a winning formula. In the span of a month I ate at Hühner Haus four times. Each time I received the exact same meal as I had at the previous visit. Which is harder than it looks. 

A Visit To The Naschmarkt

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Vienna’s most renowned open-air market, with over 100 stalls, has been in operation since the 16th century.

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Like so many of the markets of Europe that we’ve visited, the Naschmarkt is a very alive place, suffused with chatter and bargains, produce and wares.

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In the 16th century, the market was originally a place where people could buy milk bottles. Milk bottles in this era were made from the wood of the “Asch” tree, which later gave the market it’s original name: “Aschmarkt.”

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Now the Naschmarkt is home to spice sellers, fruit stalls, foodie restaurants, and even a craft vinegar vendor:

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And while the market is clearly a tourism destination for visitors to the city, it feels surprisingly less damaged by it than the old buildings near the St. Stephens Church, plastered as they are with advertising and neon signs.

Lángos: Deep-Fried Death Trap

Lángos.

The culinary equivalent of it sounded like a good idea at the time. 

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During our month long stay in Budapest, we ate this dangerous/amazing street food five times. Each time we did, the experience became both progressively better and worse.

There are Serbian, Czech, Polish, and other variations on Lángos but Hungarians are the progenitors of this amazing heart attack food.

Lángos is deep-fried bread essentially, with a yeasty dough that sometimes includes potatoes and sour cream which makes it almost like a mutant latke. The dough (roughly the size of a small pizza) is dropped into a vat of oil, and slathered with garlic sauce, sour cream, and mounds of cheese.

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The way people talk about Lángos in Budapest is similar to the way New Yorkers talk about pizza, which is initially what attracted me to it–that and the carnal grossness of the food itself. For such a simple set of ingredients there was an amazing amount of variation among the Lángos that we tried.

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In search of the perfect specimen, I found three major categories:

-The Death Cracker: with less yeast and no potato, this version was crunchy and oily. We found these at a couple of markets, none of which were recommended to us.

-The Nuclear Lattke: These contained mostly shredded potato, but were topped and prepared just as traditional Lángos is. Not the original, but satisfying nonetheless. This popular variation is sometimes called “Potato Lángos” or krumplis lángos

-The Last Supper: There are some Lángos that are softer..the dough is thicker, almost like a pizza crust. We found our favorite through our friend Kalman, who swore it to be the best, at the market on the Buda side of the city called Feny Utca Market.

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I now believe that in the manner in which cats are said to have nine lives, humans are given around five Lángos before the body revolts. Once the quota is surpassed, the territory is treacherous.  So choose your Lángos wisely, and the experience will be unforgettable.

Eau De Vie: Spirit Of The People

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(photo by @valerian_)

There is a poetry to distilling spirits. I learned this first hand when I spoke with Lance Winters of St. George Distillery for Hearth Magazine a couple of months ago. Distilling a particular fragrance of fruit down to its essence is no small feat, and the process of distillation is in itself a kind of editing–if you cut too much your result is harsh. If you don’t cut enough, there is no definition.

Eau de Vie,  or a fruit-distilled spirit, is fascinating because of how variable, personal, each regional form of can be. Each one says something about the person who made it, and as much about the person who drinks it.

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I am astounded by how pervasive homemade brandies are in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. In Montenegro and elsewhere they call it Raki, in Albania Rakija, in Hungary  Pálinkaand everywhere you go the methods and fruits are slightly different. One woman told me that her 85 year old grandmother insists that her continued good health stems from daily Pálinka shots. A coffee store owner (pictured above) in Belgrade pulled out a homemade bottle of Peach Rakija with our coffee orders one morning and poured us two glasses, insisting that it would settle our stomachs. I was getting a haircut in Buda and the hairdresser described with a gleam in his eye the Apple  Pálinka he distills in the wintertime for himself, and for his health.

I thought many times back to my conversation with Lance as I tried the varieties of Eau de Vie in the Balkans and surrounding countries. Some were viscous and sickly sweet, and others (one honey rakija in particular that I’ll never forget) shared more in common with Gasoline than fruit. But each said something distinct about the person, and the place from which they came.

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(photo by @valerian_)

Towards the end of our stay in Hungary I was fortunate enough to be invited to a screening of a documentary about an Hungarian immigrant who had moved to Colombia. In the absence of pears or peaches he and his wife distilled their own  Pálinka out of mangos. So for them, Pálinka said as much about where they came from, as it did about where they were now.

How many can say that about their drink of choice?