Thursday, July 29, 2010

Una comida Perfecta !

Food is an integral part of travel! When we travel, we're eating out all the time. However, most of food we eat is mundane and easily forgotten. But once in a while, we experience a meal which is remembered, treasured and cherished for many years. I call it "the perfect meal". A perfect meal is not necessarily a gastronomic delight at a fancy restaurant. I have dined at a few award winning restaurants, but frankly none of them would make it to my list of a perfect meal. Of course the food has to be delicious and the ambiance appealing...but there's more to it.....

A good meal is more than just food. It's about love. It's about the company and sharing the food with the loved. It's about the vibe of the location and the culture that reflects in the food. It's also about the authenticity of the food and the passion of the chef. It must be accompanied with moments of joy and paired with the right booze.

I had a rendezvous with a perfect meal exactly a month ago - it was my second day in Spain. The company couldn't be better than of close friends  & the location better than Spain. I love the tapas tradition in Spain of going to a restaurant and sharing small snacks & sangria with a group of friends. Our meal was a tapas lunch at a traditional Catalan (region in Spain) countryside restaurant, on the outskirts of Barcelona.  During the forty five minute drive, we passed by quaint villages and charming casitas. The restaurant was perched on a mountain top, and as we neared the summit it almost turned into a dirt road. We were all starving, but our hearts assured us that the wait would be worthwhile !

As we entered the restaurant - we didn't notice a single tourist. It seemed like a family owned restaurant filled with Spaniard's enjoying their siesta time. I loved the aura of being in the hills, after aimlessly wandering around the crowded streets of Las Ramblas in Barcelona on the previous day. The restaurant wasn't very fancy but filled with character, rustic and full of old world charm. They had a working farm and a kitchen garden in the backyard and all the ingredients were locally sourced.

The lunch wouldn't be possible without Vishal - my friends cousin living in Barcelona who is very passionate about his food . Before meeting him, we thought "vegetarian tapas" was only an oxymoron ! But he guided us to this place and many other authentic eateries in Barcelona. After meeting him, we were dining like locals !

We ordered and re-ordered a lot of food and everything was crafted to perfection. A lot of it was a twisted version of Indian or Italian food but still very satisfying.  I've actually tried to pen down what we ate & this should be a good guide for adventurous vegetarians. After we learnt the lingo, we tried tapas at many other places in Spain, but none of them met the benchmark.

Gazpacho: Gazpacho is a chilled tomato soup. You then mix cut cucumbers, onions, peppers, vinegar and herbs in the soup.  It was healthy, refreshing and light !

Pan Con Tomate:  Spanish version of the bruschetta.  You basically rub a clove of garlic and a squeeze a ripe tomato smoothly but with energy over the house bread. Then you add some salt and olive oil. I enjoyed the do-it yourself part.

Patatas Bravas: The Spanish classic - fried potatoes in a spicy tomato sauce. I'm actually not a big fan of potatoes.

Champiñones al ajillo: Mushrooms lightly sauteed with garlic, olive oil & sea salt. They actually infused the olive oil on top of the mushroom. Another version is "setas al ajillo" which are wild mushrooms lightly sautéed in garlic and olive oil.

Esparragos Verdes a la Plancha: Grilled fresh asparagus with extra virgin olive oil and sea salt. This was my favourite tapas.

Pimientos Padron: Small green peppers from Padron (region in Spain) fried with extra virgin olive oil & sea salt. Gave me reminiscences of "vagharela marcha" in traditional Kathiawadi food.

Paella de verduras: A rice prepared with seasonal vegetables and white wine. It's almost a fusion between Indian biryani and Italian risotto. It was served on a huge platter - big enough for four people. We had put in the request for a vegetarian paella one day in advance. This was really the highlight of the meal, but we couldn't eat too much a lot since we were overstuffed with the tapas.

Sangria di Cava : Sparkling sangria, prepared with cava, fresh fruit and our special spirit mix.A perfect accompaniment.

"The time to enjoy a European trip is about three weeks after unpacking." ~ George Ade, Forty Modern Fable

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Up, Close & Personal

I never imagined safaris were addictive – until my trip to Kruger Park, South Africa. No sooner than I got back, the desire to go again was irresistible. So I visited Pench national park in India and was rewarded with my first wild tiger sighting. And now I can’t resist going back to other parks Africa again & get up, close & personal with the wildlife !

The ultimate safari experience is to stay in traditional tented camps. The camps don’t have any fences and are within amazing proximity to nature and wildlife. You sleep in a tent, under the trees with only the canvas between you and the bush. Hearing the hippos, lions and hyenas at the back as you go to bed is an unforgettable experience. During the migration season, millions of zebra and wildebeest arrive to share the fertile land with the permanent inhabitants.

While these camps never let you forget that you are in the wild, there is a wave of chic and contemporary glamping grounds in Africa. They offer a very bespoke experience as they are very boutique – usually only 10 tents.Each camp has a central mess (meeting) tent & its beautifully furnished with grand sofas, lamps, book and corner cabinets in old wood, chests and rugs. Meals are served alfresco or inside the mess and all guests are invited to sit together with the naturalist at dinner time.

It’s a unforgettable experience to wake up in your tent, being spoiled by your private butler and sipping early morning tea while being surrounded by the great migration !
Showcasing two of the finest tented camps in the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania - Lemala Camps & Asila Africa Camps. Both of them operate several campsites, so you can stay with the same operator as you move around the park. Remember that the Serengeti National park alone is 15000 square kilometers !

Lemala Camps

Lemala is a collection of seasonal luxury camps set in stunning wilderness areas. The owner of Lemala camps is a friend of mine, so I'm sure the camps will be friendly and hospitable like him :) . But without any bias, Lemala camps are situated in the most exclusive game viewing locations - probably better than any other camp or lodge in Tanzania. This is because Lemala camps are “mobile” so the camp actually moves each season depending on the wildlife in the area.

(All Images via )

 Asilia Africa

Asilia Africa also operates several luxury camps in Tanzania. Although their camps don't seem mobile like Lemala, they are in good game viewing locations & far away from the main tourist trails. Each camp has a different name but all are very intimate & personal. I especially liked the “Sayari” camp.



P.S. - Oberoi Vanyavilas  in Ranthambhore National Park has been rated as the No. 1 hotel in the world for 2010 by Travel and Leisure magazine - I couldn't disagree more. The Vanyavilas is an excellent property - but India should be renowned for its palace hotels and not safari camps ! In any case I would vote for the Taj Banjaar Tola in Kanha Park as the best safari lodge in India.

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover”
– Mark Twain

Friday, July 9, 2010

How much information is too much ?

The Internet has fundamentally changed the way we travel. In the 1990's, there were rarely any resources available to make travel plans, find information or make online bookings.  Travel research was  restricted to word of mouth, travel guide books and the conventional travel agent. However in the last decade, there has been a paradigm shift in the way people travel. Travel is definitely becoming less impromptu.

You can go anywhere in the world - without physically going there. You  know everything before your departure - what you will see, do, hear or eat.

The travel agents work profile has gone for a toss. Instead of giving useful travel advice, his sole means of survival is by finding you a quote lower than  the Internet.

Google the remotest island is the world and the results will make you feel it's right in your backyard. Login to facebook & there's a good chance a friend has already been to the destination and posted so many photos that you've already seen everything.

Hotel websites have scrupulous information. They mention everything -  the dimension of your room to the minutes it will take to get your ass to the beach. Review websites like tripadvisor take you one step further by giving you free advice on picking the best rooms in a  hotel or a warning on the number of cockroaches you are likely to spot in the room.

Technological tools are invaluable, and they help us eliminate the uncertainties we are likely to face. In fact, as a confession - I'm a big slave to all these Internet tools. But off-late I have been facing a dilemma.

I love to travel because of the adventure that bundles with it - seeing something new, eating something weird, meeting strangers, sleeping in unexpected places and doing everything possible that shocks me. With so much data at the doorstep, unexpected events hardly take place! The adventure is definitely diluted.

The internet is a boon for travel - almost impossible to avoid. But let's try and draw a line somewhere in order to arouse the impulsiveness in travel !

 “A good traveller has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” – Lao Tzu 

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