Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Even though I’m a city girl, I love putting on my hiking boots and getting out into the countryside!

When I visited my girlfriend up in the Scottish Highlands, she booked us a special treat – to visit UK’s only reindeer herd living in the wild. More than 800 years ago, reindeer used to roam the island, but now they only live high up in the Cairngorms National Park where the herd are permitted to graze on over 10,000 acres on the mountainsides. Back in 1952, a Swedish couple re-introduced reindeer to Scotland by bringing over several Swedish reindeer to establish the herd.

Today, the Cairgorm Reindeer Centre in Glenmore is home to about 150 lively reindeer, but only a handful of older ones live at the centre. A daily guided tour takes you on a short hike up and down rocky paths and wet grasslands to where the rest of the reindeer live in the park. You’ll definitely want to make sure you wear layers to stay warm and have a good pair of hiking boots. Sometimes, the tour may be cancelled due to inclement weather or if the reindeer are too far away.
Once on the hill, we were free to interact with the reindeers, approach them slowly, pet their soft furs and even feed them. The friendly staff passed around handfuls of animal feed to us, and then the reindeers rushed toward anyone who had food. At first, I felt a little hesitant because the reindeer do have big mouths and soft noses, but as soon as they nibble in your hands, the sensation is more like a tickle. All I could do was giggle!

In fact, did you know that reindeers only have tiny teeth along their bottom jaw, and no teeth along the top, just a bony palate? We learned that these small teeth aid the reindeer in grazing on the tufts of wild vegetation, such as heather and grasses, on the hillsides.

During the winter months, the reindeer’s diet consists of up to 70 percent of lichen – a type of “reindeer moss” that grows even in the coldest environments. This is also the time of the year when the reindeer’s coats turn to a brilliant white in order to blend into their snowy surroundings. In fact, we saw some of the reindeer’s coats already turning white at the end of our September visit. The white really stood out against the bright blue sky that we got so lucky with because the next day was grey and rainy. So typical of the U.K.
Don’t worry, if you’re not able to do a guided tour, you can visit a few of the older reindeer that live at the centre, which is open from mid-February to early January.
After playing with the reindeer for nearly two hours, we headed for lunch at the nearby Rothiemurchus Centre, home to the Druie Café and Estate Farm Shop.  Both are open every day except Christmas Day. The café offers breakfast and lunch featuring homemade soups, sandwiches, scones, shortbread and cakes. The farm shop sells locally roasted coffee, leaf teas, artisan cheeses, Highland beef and venison, fresh and smoked fish, produce and other locally-made crafts. Everything looked truly mouthwatering! If you like simple, home cooking and fresh ingredients, the Druie café is a great place to try.
This trip marked my third time in Scotland – a country whose beauty continues to impress me.

Would you like to visit these reindeer in Scotland too?

Rothiemurchus is a privately-owned Highland Estate within the national park, northeast of the River Spey, that includes a 13th-century island castle, wildlife and Rothiemurchus forest covers an area of about 30 square km. This castle is located in the middle of Loch an Eilein, which means “Loch of the Island” in Gaelic.
My Traveling Joys

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

At the end of every year, I try to do a roundup post of my favorite meals from that year. Well, this post is a few days late.

If you’re a regular reader here, you’ll know that food is pretty much my life. I work as a professional pastry chef, enjoy cooking meals at home regularly and simply love eating out, especially when we travel. It’s not uncommon for me to plan entire trips based around where we are going to eat, drink or even have a coffee.

Yes, I’m a little bit OCD when it comes to our trip planning. Still, we seem to have a good time and eat well no matter where we are in the world.

Despite 2017 being a year that both hubby and I worked like crazy people most of the time, we also found enough time to take several trips and enjoy some special meals together.

Dinner in Dubai on the Beach
Back in October 2016, I booked a really good flight deal from London to Dubai via Emirates for travel in March 2017. I figured after several gray months in London, we would be pining for some sunshine. At the end of March, we celebrated our seventh wedding anniversary by eating along the beach in Dubai at FISH, located in the Le Meridien Mina Seyahi on Jumeirah Beach. The meal featured several mezes and a classic grilled fish, but the scene, the service (provided by two Turkish waiters) and the reminder of our Istanbul memories made this meal very special. I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect anniversary dinner!
Soaking up some sunshine at the Le Meridien Mina Seyahi on Jumeirah Beach.
A Girlie Girl Luncheon
Over the summer, an Aussie girlfriend came to visit us for her birthday, so I took her out for a fancy girls’ luncheon set in the elegant Petersham Nursery in Richmond. I’ve been dying to go here, but the vast greenhouse filled with garlands of colorful, blooming flowers, tatty bamboo shades and mismatched garden furniture means the nursery is definitely a girlie affair.

We kicked off our lunch with some fruity bellinis followed by fried zucchini blossoms (too large of a portion), mozzarella di Bufala with heritage tomatoes and nasturtium flowers, and char-grilled quail with peaches and fennel. All the dishes almost looked too pretty to eat! My favorite was the deconstructed Eton Mess with berries, meringue and rose petals.
After lunch, we had a wander through the summer flowers in the greenhouse and said hello to the nearby cows in the pasture.

Michelin-Star Lunch at Lyle’s
In September, another Aussie girlfriend and her husband came to visit. Since she is a fellow foodie, I surprised her with a multi-course lunch at Lyle’s, a Michelin-starred restaurant in the Shoreditch neighborhood of London.

We ordered six dishes to share: raw scallops with fairy ring mushrooms; girolles with an egg and salted gooseberries; sole fillets with fennel and brown crab; duck leg with pickled cherries; and lamb’s heart and liver with green strawberries. Every dish was meticulously plated with tiny garnishes of fresh herbs or sliced vegetables. We shared three desserts as well with the caramel ice cream and coffee meringue as the clear winner.
What’s wonderful about the exceptional service at Lyle’s is that the chef was willing to alter dishes for my friend since she has some dietary restrictions. Definitely a menu worth splurging for in London!

Turkish Dreams
As you may recall, in September, I had a wonderful foodie weekend in Bodrum, Turkey, and took part in the 3rd Annual Karaova Grape Harvest Festival. One of the trip’s highlights was enjoying a traditional köy kahvaltısı (village breakfast) with my new group of Turkish friends. You can read more about my experience at Etrim Doğa Restaurant & KöyKahvaltısı here.
A French Dinner Along the Thames
Later in September, we enjoyed a fancy French dinner at Le Pont de la Tour along the Thames in London. This elegant, 19th-century former tea warehouse alongside Tower Bridge was offering a special 3-course menu (plus a glass for champagne) for only £30 in cooperation with the Evening Standard, which usually offers restaurant deals a few times a year. What a bargain!

Although we had to wait awhile for an outdoor table, later we enjoyed stunning views of the City and Tower Bridge while eating our dinner. I can’t recall all the dishes we had now, but suffice to say, this restaurant is perfect for a special occasion.
A chocolate tart and a lemon curd/thyme shortbread dessert.
From our dining table, we saw the Tower Bridge open up to let a large ship pass through.
This was the first time I've ever seen the bridge open! 
Turkish-Cypriot Dinner
In December, we returned to Oklava with our German friends, who also enjoy food as much as we do. I like Oklava because Chef Selin Kiazim serves Turkish-Cypriot dishes that reflects her heritage. She also was a finalist in the 2017 series of Great British Menu, which I enjoyed watching, and she is one of the few female top chefs in London.

We shared several dishes including: spiced bread with date butter (sublime!), olives, grilled Cypriot hellim cheese, chili roast cauliflower with pistachios and red onion, lahmacun – flatbread with tomatoes and mincemeat and a vegetarian pide with cheese, kale, garlic and burnt cabbage. For dessert, we shared a generous portion of kunefe, my favorite Turkish dessert.
Festive Tasting Menus
We ended December with two tasting menus – one in York, UK, and the latter in Oslo, Norway.

In York, we dined at Park Restaurant, a Michelin Guide-recommended restaurant located in the Victorian-era Maramadukes Town House Hotel. While the service started a bit rough since the waiter seemed confused on how to make a basic martini, the delicious, well-plated food made up for the mistakes. By the end of the meal, we were on friendly terms with our server as he was doing his best to please us and served us a free round of drinks at the end. The Park offers a 6-course menu for £60 that also includes several amuse-bouche, so I think we ended up having 10 courses. I think the scallops and the duck breast entrée were my two favorite dishes of the night.
The Nordic countries are known for their Michelin Guide-starred restaurants, in particular, Noma in Copenhagen, which was ranked as the world’s top restaurant for several years. In Oslo, which has four Michelin-starred restaurants, we chose a less expensive option and dined at Arakataka, a modern bistro. Arakataka serves seasonal Nordic cuisine and offers a set menu of four courses for 495 krone (about £45).

Our main dishes were: salmon with dill oil and buttermilk, cod with sunchokes and duck breast with cabbage and lingonberries. For dessert, we were served sea buckthorn (a sour berry) sorbet with groats and a milky foam. This was one dessert that neither one of us liked. It was tart, gritty and just a bit strange. I’ll give Arakataka kudos for trying to use a lot of Nordic ingredients, but sea buckthorns should not belong in a dessert.
Overall, I can say that 2017 was a delicious year, and I can only hope that we have just as good of time in 2018 on our travels.

Happy eating in 2018!

Joy

My Traveling Joys

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Greetings from Sofia, Bulgaria! We are on the last leg of our holiday trip in Eastern Europe, and I thought I would share a few photos.

We decided to close out the year with a 10-day trip to three capitals – Budapest, Bucharest and Sofia. I think the trip has been a HUGE (bigly/awesome) success, and we really enjoyed Bucharest more than we thought we would.

Since we moved abroad in 2010, we’ve learned it is better to visit our friends and family members in the U.S. at any other time of the year than Christmas. In December, the flights are more expensive, the airports are chaotic, the roads are terrible, and we often have dealt with a ton of snow – like what the U.S. East Coast is getting the brunt of now. To make our expat lives easier, we visit the U.S. either in the spring or the fall. Next year, we might even make two trips as some family members are getting older and we want to spend some precious time with them.

Anyway, our first stop was in Budapest. We visited this lovely city twice in 2014, but haven’t been back until now. Funny enough, friends we met in Istanbul were spending Christmas there, so we met up to celebrate an expat Christmas together. We also were able to see some of hubby’s former Warsaw colleagues.
After three sunny days in Budapest, we flew to Bucharest with a 1-hour layover in Warsaw. We had just enough time to enjoy a plate of pierogies at the airport and buy some Polish kabanos sausages and Wedel chocolates.

Exploring Bucharest over two days meant discovering buildings that reminded us of the Barouque architecture of Paris, a few hints of Ottoman and Byzantine architecture and plenty of ugly, concrete Communist blocks too. Bucharest is definitely a city of contrasts. I’ll have to share more photos soon after edits. Also, Bucharest had a lovely and much-bigger-than-expected Christmas market!
From Bucharest, we decided to take a 10-hour train across the border to visit Sofia, Bulgaria. Buying the train ticket and the experience onboard was an adventure in itself, and a story I’ll need to tell in more detail later. At least we had a bag filled with wine and snacks for the journey.
One of the older Romanian trains. Luckily, this one was not our train. ;)
Sofia seems to have more Ottoman-era touches and plenty of Orthodox churches. Here a church, there a church, everywhere a church. Also, the city has a prettier feel than Bucharest…I’m guessing it wasn’t bombed as heavily as Bucharest was during WWII.
Inside Sveta Nedelya, an ornate Orthodox Church in Sofia.
I paid 5lev so I could take photos inside.
I’ll close for now as hubby is getting inpatient with me dealing with social media while we are on vacation. Ha ha!

Wherever you are, I wish you a wonderful New Year filled with adventure!
Joy


My Traveling Joys

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The days between late September and early November are the best times to catch autumn in its full autumnal glory here in London.

By late November, as I’m writing now, the city is grey, cold and nearly lifeless. The trees are bare, but at least the parks have plenty of remaining fall leaves for me to fluff up with my boots.
Between working full-time and often travelling, I feel like I missed most of autumn in London this year, but I managed to catch a few snaps on those days I did have time to explore my “hometown.”


Borough Market
Going to one of the local markets here such as the famous Borough Market means you’ll find plenty of British apples, pumpkins and squash during the autumn months. My husband’s colleagues requested an American apple pie so I obliged and made one on my day off. No rest for this pastry chef.
Bizarre Red Sun in London
Around 3 p.m. on October 16th, the skies clouded over and turned a bizarre, hazy orange color. I thought a zombie apocalypse might really be happening, but the change in atmosphere was the result of Hurricane Ophelia stirring up particles and possibly Sahara Dessert dust. I got lucky with these photos because that day was my day off and I was out with my good Canon camera.



Richmond Park
In late October, I finally got my husband to Richmond Park with me. We’ve never been together because I’m normally working on the weekends and he works weekdays. We got lucky with the weather so we decided to rent bikes for half a day and packed a small picnic in our backpack. We brought along one of my favorite Turkish wines from the Bozcaada island. 

I love Richmond Park, which served as hunting grounds to England’s former kings and is London’s largest royal park at 2,500 acres. There are plenty of red and fallow deer that roam here. Great for photo opps!




St. James Park
I rarely venture through this part of London because the hordes of tourists drive me crazy. However, our uncle was visiting so we took him by to see the Queen at Buckingham Palace and wandered through the pretty St. James Park.


Battersea Park
As city dwellers, Battersea Park has become our miniature version of NYC’s Central Park – the perfect place to relax or exercise in. The park has some lovely, old maple trees that turn such pretty autumnal colors.


Where did you celebrate autumn this year?

My Traveling Joys

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