Monday, December 31, 2012

A New Year And A New Cycle

The year of 2012 brought lots of  unexpected situations and dramatic events but as I learned from traditional Mayan teachings in Chichen Itza, that cycle has ended and a new cycle of more peaceful energy is arriving. I look back on my 2012 travel adventures with gratitude and anticipation for even more excitement and new explorations in 2013 and I wish the same for all of you.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Feasting On Fried Pickles

 For me, one of the joys of travel is uncovering local delicacies. Discovering new and unusual dishes supplies just as much fun as exploring new destinations. So when I visited Greenville, South Carolina for the Euphoria food and music fest, I didn't expect much food discovery since I'm very familiar with Carolina cuisine. From shrimp -n- grits, to Hoppin John and Benne wafers, I thought I'd tried it all.  Then I heard something about fried pickles. They fry everything in the South and I've heard of fried pickles but I never actually tasted one. I was immediately directed to Carolina Ale House to sample this local specialty.

I'm not a huge pickle fan and don't eat a lot of fried food but I couldn't pass up the chance to taste something new. I envisioned whole dill pickles battered like hush puppies but that's not what I was served.

I was presented with a plate of delicate dill pickle chips, fried into crunchy goodness. I planned to try  just a few since I had already been wallowing in Southern food wizardry at Euphoria.  They tasted spicy and sour and salty. I munched on a few and a few more. And a few more. Between a discussion with my friend and Southern food expert Andre, on whether chips or spears were better or whether the correct term for this snack is "frickles,"I polished off the entire plate.  I didn't think I'd like them that much but fried pickles are another food discovery that I'm glad that I experienced. Have you discovered any new food on your travels?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Passports With A Purpose Taste Harlem

I'm excited to be participating in the Passports With A Purpose fundraiser again.  This year, the travel bloggers fundraiser is raising $100,000 to build two wells in Haiti with The raffle prizes will earn  money for two rural communities to enjoy the basic benefit of clean water. My prize is again a generous donation from Taste Harlem for two tickets for a two hour food tour.  The $110 value will supply heaping portions of soul food classics like chicken and waffles, shown above.

Short ribs, collard greens, mac n cheese and candied yams will also be on the menu. If you win the tickets, go on an empty stomach and be prepared to stuff yourself silly.

The tour also features interesting tidbits about Harlem music, history and culture. You'll pass historic murals, churches and museum, learning about the vibrant neighborhood's storied legacy. Even though I've experienced the tour many times, it never gets old. The food is always great and Harlem is always exciting.

The tickets are good for a year, based on availability and require a week's notice. If you live in New York or plan on visiting, the tour is a great cultural experience that also gives back. I'm proud to be involved in an event that raises awareness and funds for communities in developing countries. Please consider donating $10  for a  raffle ticket, you'll be entered into a raffle for each prize you select.

Monday, November 19, 2012

St. George Oyster Harvesting

Along the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Florida, St. George Island unfurls with long stretches of pearly sand and serene landscapes. I visited this hidden, 22-mile barrier island expecting the unspoiled beauty but I also discovered a very distinctive, old school lifestyle that includes oyster harvesting.  Oysters can only be harvested manually in St. George so the surrounding Apalachicola Bay is dotted with small boats like the one above.

These oyster boats haven't changed much since they were developed 100 years ago.  The wooden structure measures 20-23 feet and are equipped with  a small cubicle to protect against the sun, a culling board to separate the oysters and long, 12-feet tongs used to rake the shellfish from the oyster beds onto the boats.

Oyster harvesting is often a family business, I spotted many husband and wife teams out on the water, patiently culling oysters, piling them into 60 pound sacks that go for approximately $25 each.  Oysters from the Florida Gulf Coast provide about 80%  of the State's supply and 20% of the country's. I don't eat shellfish but oysters were everywhere in St. George, especially on the beach shores. I went home with a two pound sack of my own, filled with pretty shells, a lot of them iridescent oyster shells bleached by the sun and colored by sea plants.

Monday, November 5, 2012

A Sip of Cuba

I long to visit Cuba and experience the vibrant culture I love so much. My plans haven't arrived just yet so the next best thing after regularly bathing in Cuban rhythms, is dipping into Cuban cuisine. I visited Chicago's newest Cuban restaurant, The Lazy Parrot and discovered a few Cuban delicacies that I had never tried, namely Ironbeer. The name doesn't sound very appealing but when the owner and his cute daughter assured me that it was "the national beverage," I was intrigued.  Apparently, the soda was developed in Cuba in 1917 and contains a secret blend of fruit, herbs and spices that no one can ever put their finger on.

The soda's story of  a mule-driven wagon carrying the soda to popular Havana cafeterias is quaintly written on the back of the can. Only now, the soda is manufactured in Miami, where the original family was exiled. The muscleman logo doesn't hoist the 500 pound weights in the original logo but the flavor is said to be the same. I'm not a big cola fan and I figured the caramel -colored soda would taste something like a cola so I ordered Coco Rico, a coconut flavored soda, instead. I love coconut in all forms but after a sip of my husband's Ironbeer, I forgot about Coco Rico.  I was hooked on Ironbeer. The flavor is hard to describe but it tastes similar to cream soda, which I also love. The coconut soda was good but Ironbeer was great. The restaurant serves a range of Cuban sodas, including Jupina a pineapple soda, Materva, a soda made from yerba mate and Quinabeer, which tastes like champagne cola.  But I couldn't pull myself away from the Ironbeer, which I sipped under a mural of a Cuban sunset.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The World's Smallest Police Station

I've seen a lot of strange sights during my travels and the phone booth/police station that I visited on my recent trip to St. George Island, Florida, counts as one of them. Clearly, the little town of Carrabelle right outside of St. George, which consists of a few streets and this police station, does not experience much crime. Before the phone booth, the police phone was a simple call box bolted to a building. That call box served as the police headquarters until they were plagued by tourists making unauthorized long distance calls.

So in 1963, they erected a phone booth under a chinaberry tree. This booth and bench currently provides the local police with all they need to regulate crime. I am not making this up. The phone booth has been featured in Ripley's Believe It Or Not and the Today Show. I squeezed into the booth and it is a tight fit. I don't think Carabelle police eat many doughnuts or other stereotypically fatty foods popular with the police. Stay tuned for other fascinating sights from my St. George trip.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Ground Cherries & Chocolates in Montergerie

I love discovering exotic fruits on my travels. It brings a whole other aspect of exploration to the experience. I didn't expect to find any unusual fruits in Monteregie but once I stepped into the bucolic beauty of Au Domaine des Petis Fruits, I realized that this small region holds many surprises. The first was the heart shaped pond that decorates the estate, shown above.

Flower beds landscaped into hearts was another unexpected treat.

Fields of blueberries and cherries for picking were lush and fragrant but I was puzzled when our host asked if we liked ground cherries. Ground cherries? Um, cherries that grow underground? Never heard of them. I learned that the golden cherries have to be picked underground and are covered with a thin, paper-like skin. They tasted sweet with a slight tart undercurrent. Visitors come from all over Quebec to pick the delicate fruits. They have to be instructed on how to pick them without disturbing the plant.  I was excited to discover a fruit that I had never seen or tasted but I was even more excited to learn that the farm also features a chocolatier.

Handmade Belgian chocolates are the centerpiece for Chocolatier Ody but they also sell  handmade ground cherry, strawberry and blueberry jams.

The array of  chocolates, filled with the farm's cherries, blueberries and of course, ground cherries, dazzled me.

But the showstopper was this champagne filled truffle, oozing with champagne and creamy Belgian chocolate. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

Vineyard Beauty

I spent a lot of times in vineyards this summer. I never planned it, that's just where my travels led me.  In Monteregie, I strolled  through about six different vineyards, each with a different atmosphere. I realized that just like my favorite beaches, vineyards offer tranquil meditation. They are very peaceful, with just a few birds to join you.  Have you discovered an unexpected relaxation spot during your travels?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Butterfly Dreams

The province of Monteregie is nicknamed the "Garden of Quebec" for a very obvious reason.  The area is filled with lovely pastoral landscapes of vineyards, orchards and artisan farms. But an unexpected bit of bucolic wonder was the butterfly aviary tucked inside of Ferme Guyon farm and horticulture center.

A hundred species of butterflies float around in the specially created ecosystem and I tried to spot as many as I could. It was tricky, they fly away quickly and their wings blend in with plant leaves.

After a few tries, I discovered that it's best to sit still and let them fly near you.

Before I knew it, a toffee-colored butterfly was relaxing on my purse.

And then another came to rest on my bright blue pants leg. As visitors bustled around  furiously snapping pix, I grabbed the best images of all just by being still. I think there's a lesson in that somewhere...

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Expanding Experiences With The Passport Party Project

Volunteering and giving back has always been an important part of my life. I've participated in several travel blogger charity events but I don't think I've experienced so much glee to give back as I did at The Passport Party Project.  The event is a global awareness initiative that gifts 10 passports to undeserved girls in 10 cities across the U.S. Travel blogger Tracey Friley of One Brown Girl gathers travel bloggers in every city to volunteer and guide girls into the expansive world of traveling.  So it was a given that when the event landed in my city of Chicago, I was totally there.

The party kicks off in the morning and we lined a table with supplies to create personal travel vision boards.

Of course, no party is complete in my book unless there is quality sugar involved.  These cupcakes represent a range of flavors and nations.

We provided encouragement for the girls with tales of our travels, a show & tell session and lots of silly  travel photo ops like the above pic.

This is my travel vision board, with a beautiful image of the Taj Mahal and India as the focus.

Jazmin won the travel vision board contest with a panorama of images showing South America, Europe and Asia. She won a bright yellow suitcase to start her travels in style.

The girls did an impressive job of designing exciting travel vision boards that displayed their destination dreams. It was so inspiring to watch them realize that the whole world is a possibility for them. Expedia sponsors the event and each girl was supplied with a passport photo, a passport form and a check to apply for their passport. I felt that I was given so much by just being around all of  the enthusiasm and hope for travel. Traveling broadens perspectives and exposes you to so many rich experiences. I was honored to be a part of the Passport Party Project. Helping to influence girls to open up their world views is a powerful task. We ended the party with an essential element for any global event- a conga line.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Monteregie Culture In A Bottle

Canada is famous for its sweet and smooth ice wine but in Monteregie, I discovered that there is also ice cider. And not the kind that is basically apple juice. Rolling up into La Face Cachee de la Pomme (The hidden side of the apple) cidrerie, I was greeted by apple orchards covered with rosy apples. Some varieties, like Fuji and Gala, stay on the trees until January, so that the cold and wind whip the insides into a concentrated taste. The frozen apples are picked when it's about 15 degrees below zero and the insides have been dehydrated and all that's left is nectar.

Aged ice cider is stored in these barrels, La Face Cachee is a pioneer in ice cider and produces 10 different varieties.

The founding president of La Face Cachee, Francois Pouliot, ditched his film video career where he worked with musicians like Celine Dion, to develop ground-breaking ice ciders. The ciders or apple ice wines as they are sometimes called, range from 8% -18% alcohol levels and must meet strict standards to qualify as ice ciders.

Inside the tasting room, this illustration shows the different flavors such as cheese, pear, apricot and cinnamon, that apple pairs well with

According to Francois, the best pairing for ice cider is firm cheese. We tasted a dizzying range of ice ciders and the sweet notes do offset firm cheese very well, particularly goat cheese and firm cheddar. La Face Cachee ciders have been featured everywhere from El Bulli to presidential receptions, they even makes an appearance in that quirky Quebec green sangria. Neige Premiere is the most popular and award-winning, created from a  sweetly acidic blend of Macintosh and Spartan apples. This was my favorite as well, it tasted like a lighter version of apple brandy.

When I asked him to explain the significance of ice ciders, Francois summed it up with this: "It's the best of our culture in a bottle."

Friday, September 7, 2012

A Quebecois Taste of Spain & England

Noted for its free-spirited blend of cultures, Canada is a country that I always enjoy visiting for that very reason. But I have to admit my surprise when I rolled into the village of Hemingford in the rural region of Monteregie, Quebec, to discover that a British pub was the most popular dining spot. Quebec is so very French that I didn't expect such an Anglophile outpost. Equipped with stocks of ale (listed in French of course) and legendary fish and chips, I thought Witsend  Resto Pub was a quaint anomaly in a haven of French culture.

Then I spotted this sign, above. I'm a big fan of sangria but never in all of my travels, have I ever heard of green sangria. The waitress shot me an incredulous look. Apparently, green sangria is the thing in Quebec and I was missing out.

What makes the sangria so quintessentially Quebecois is the little fact that it's made from apple ice wince harvested at an orchard just a few miles away. The taste was smooth and fruity with a little more kick than regular sangria.

Sipping the green sangria with the most perfect plate of fish and chips I've tasted outside of London, I chuckled at the quirky scenario. Spanish sangria and British fish and chips wasn't what I expected in  Francophone Quebec but  I really enjoyed the mix of culinary cultures. Have you ever discovered unexpected cultural mixes during your travels?