We Blame Oktoberfest!

Hi everyone

To all our loyal followers you may have noticed that this week we have not posted a blog. Well a little something called Oktoberfest got in the way. You know, the world’s largest fair, where they consume close to 10 million litres of beer, 2 million bratwurst sausages, 400,000 chickens and 800 full oxen, or there abouts.

We will be back next week, but in the meantime thought we would share some of our photos from the festivities…

Prost!

 

At the main entrance to Oktoberfest grounds

At the main entrance to Oktoberfest grounds

The giant ferris wheel offers great views over the grounds

The giant Ferris Wheel offers great views over the grounds

Views from the ferris wheel the following morning

Views from the Ferris Wheel the following morning

Advertising in the U-Bahn

Advertising in the U-Bahn

First beer officially at 10:33am

First beer officially at 10:33am

A sense of the size of the Augustiner Beer tent

A sense of the size of the Augustiner Beer tent

Getting into the spirit of things...

Getting into the spirit of things…

Nothing beats drinking beer in traditional costume

Nothing beats drinking beer in traditional costume

 

Safe travels everyone!

N&D

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Das Schnitzel Kaiser

Walk into just about any restaurant, pub, or beer hall in Germanic Europe and there is sure to be one staple on the menu, the schnitzel. In fact the schnitzel and its various incarnations can be found all around the world. Veal, pork, chicken, turkey even fish and vegetables can all be given the schnitzel treatment.

In Australia it takes the form of the mighty chicken parmigana, a breaded chicken fillet, covered in Parma ham, tomato sauce and melted cheese. In the USA there is a hotdog chain called Wiener Schnitzel, but for the real deal or as I like to call it,  “Das Schnitzel Kaiser” or ‘The Schnitzel Emperor’ we have to head to the source where it all began – the Austrian capital of Vienna.

Now before we dive in and devour our schnitzel it is worth mentioning there is some controversy over the schnitzel’s origin. Most agree that the schnitzel recipe was bought to Vienna by Austrian General Joseph Graf Radetzky, a man more famous for the musical piece composed bearing his name by Johan Strauss Senior than any military victory he ever achieved. While down in Milan he discovered the Cotolleta alla Milanese and upon his return to Vienna the Emperor Franz Joseph, asked for the recipe.

Another story believes it originates from the Byzantine Empire, where in the 800’s Emperor Basilieios insisted on eating meat covered in sheets of gold! As you can imagine this practice was frightfully expensive so the sheets of gold were replaced with the golden coating of breadcrumbs. Regardless of the origins, Vienna is where one must head for the perfect Wiener schnitzel.

Wiener Schnitzel is the national dish of Austria, and the term Wiener schnitzel is rigidly protected. To call your schnitzel a Wiener schnitzel it must be veal, any other meat and you may refer to it as the Wiener Style, the Wiener Art or the Wiener Escalope, but not, repeat not a Wiener schnitzel.

This way to schnitzel heaven

This way to schnitzel heaven

Just like the Emperors of old, there is one Vienna institution that towers above all others in the culinary world of the schnitzel, a restaurant called the Figlmüller. In this small little restaurant nestled in the back alleys of St Stephens Cathedral, Figlmüller has been dishing out world-renowned schnitzels since 1905. So popular has it become that literally just around the corner a second restaurant was opened in the early 2000’s and every night people hungrily wait in line to try this enormous piece of history.

Natalie with her monster Schnitzel

Natalie with her monster Schnitzel

Painstaking attention to detail and schnitzel pride come to the fore to feed the starving masses a schnitzel that is the size of a pizza. Every cut of meat in hammered out by hand with a mallet until it is wafer thin and roughly 30cm in diameter. It is then shallow fried in three different pans until a golden colour. So particular are the chefs at Figlmüller only one type of bread roll is used to supply the breadcrumbs. It is served, hanging off the plate with a slice of lemon and that’s it! If you have room the traditional accompaniment is either a small green salad or a side dish of delicious Germanic potato salad, but again only if you have room.

A German friend once told me there are two ways to tell if you have the perfect schnitzel. Firstly, when you cut into the schnitzel there should be a small air pocket between the breadcrumbs and the meat, and secondly believe it or not, is to place a napkin on your schnitzel and then sit on it! That’s right, if you sit on your schnitzel and no oil soaks through the napkin you have the perfect meal. If you do decide to test this theory out on your next visit to Vienna, don’t blame us if you are asked to leave!

People lining up on a rainy night in Vienna

People lining up on a rainy night in Vienna

Whether you get oil on your trousers or not, Figlmüller regularly wins awards for it’s schnitzels, and the huge lines every night come rain or shine to try Austria’s National dish can’t be wrong. Figlmüller truly is ‘Das Schnitzel Kaiser’.

– Dean

Hometown Tourist: Mind The Gap, Fine Dining on a Victoria Line London Tube

Ask any Londoner and everyone has an opinion about the tube. Increased travel costs, tube strikes, signal failures and closures due to maintenance works, we have a love hate relationship with the world’s oldest underground system. However fine dining on the tube? You have to be joking!

Well, Alex and the team at Basement Galley turned a disused London icon into an amazing pop up restaurant experience.

As we continue to explore our hometown and uncover quirky and different experiences around London, Natalie had booked the Underground Supper Club and had cryptically only told me that ‘we are going out on Saturday night’.

Whilst we walked from the Blackhorse Road tube station on the Victoria Line, I wondered where Natalie was taking me. We arrived, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, but the treasure trove of the (currently) closed Walthamstow Pumphouse Museum awaited. A miss match of semi restored London Routemaster buses, fire trucks, Bedford lorries and old military trucks greeted us, and our restaurant for this evening, a former Victorian Line tube carriage was parked up ready for boarding. This was a playground to be explored!

Not your standard restaurant entrance

Not your standard restaurant entrance

I won’t lie, when we arrived at the barbed wire gates behind which sat the skeletons of these trucks, trains and buses and Natalie proudly announced ‘We’re here!’ I was a little sceptical. I truly wondered where she had brought me. However as soon as the staff greeted us, we could tell we were going to be in for a unique experience and a great night.

It was a beautiful spring / summer evening as we milled around nursing a G&T and explored the yard of old relics. Chatting to a local enthusiast, we loved hearing all about his restoration projects with two Routemasters taking all his spare time. One had been ‘rescued’ and when he found it there was a tree growing off the back platform – he had his work cut out!

One of the Routemaster London buses currently being restored

One of the Routemaster London buses currently being restored

At just gone 7pm,we were invited to ‘mind the gap’ and board our tube carriage. Head Waiter Chi welcomed us to the Underground Supper Club before Head Chef Alex introduced himself and explained some of the history of the Basement Galley and the idea behind their pop up restaurants.

The tube carriage set for dinner

The tube carriage set for dinner

What followed was without doubt one of the most enjoyable dining experiences we have had in London. Five courses of Alex’s finest creations, with each course raising the bar, all set in the unique ambience of the tube.

Dinner is served...

Dinner is served…

The menu for these evenings changes monthly, with refinements made each time they host evenings. It was one of these experiences, much like the Melbourne Tram Car Restaurant, where you sit back and ‘think how did they produce this in that tiny kitchen’! Alex’s small team were busy bustling away in the museum cafeteria. The results of which would not have looked out of place in a Michelin-Starred restaurant. The joys of a supper club mean, generally speaking, you eat a set menu and mingle with other diners. Out of five courses the only thing Natalie and I left on our plates was the duck bone. Alex is a graduate of the Le Cordon Blue School in Paris and trained with some of France’s top chefs. Fuse this French cuisine with some Heston Blumenthal style ways of combining flavours, and the results were magnificent. Whoever knew that Green Pea soup could hold such hidden surprises (I can’t spoil the surprise!), that Kohlrabi made a great substitute for mash and that strawberry and black pepper are a match made in heaven, to name but a few.   The whole package was just brilliant, and we loved Alex’s idea of teaming up with other local specialities and business such as coffee served from local Camden coffee company ‘Black Sheep Coffee’.

Local Camden coffee provided by Black Sheep Coffee

Local Camden coffee provided by Black Sheep Coffee

The one thing that struck us was the incredible passion everyone had for their job. From the drinks and wait staff who mingled, chatted and appeared so proud to be involved, to the amazing food Alex and Christelle (Sous Chef) had created in the primitive museum cafeteria kitchen. That love and passion really shone through.

Head Waiter Chi, Natalie, and Master Chef Alex

Head Waiter Chi, Natalie, and Master Chef Alex

Now I know what you are thinking, how do we experience this for ourselves? Sadly the Underground Supper Club is coming to the end of the line. In two weeks time Alex and the team host their final weekend in the disused carriage. Following this they have some other exciting projects up their sleeve and plan to ‘pop up’ in other new settings around London.  Never has the term, ‘quit while you are ahead’ been so true. We can’t wait for their next restaurant to ‘pop up’! Our advice, if you haven’t done so already, is to sign up to the mailing list. Who knows where we may meet and in what unconventional setting in the future!

–       Dean and Natalie

You all know how much we love trains

You all know how much we love trains

P.S At the time of writing there were still some seats available for the final Friday evening of their last weekend (30th May 2014). You can buy your Travelcard for dinner here.

 

Dinner with Tang Jun – Chinese hospitality at it’s best

Catching up with friends, work colleagues, or local contacts is one of the real highlights of life on the road. Whether it is something pre-arranged or a random coincidence it gives you a feeling of normality that constant travelling often lacks. So when we arrived into Chengdu we were both quite excited about meeting up with Tang Jun.

First things first, neither Natalie or I had ever met Tang Jun before, but we were put in contact with him by one of our close friends and one of Natalie’s work colleagues. Tang Jun also helps out Natalie’s work, Oasis Overland, with organising things in China for their huge Silk Road overland adventure. We had swapped several emails and had decided to meet up on a Saturday night to go out and experience real, local, traditional Chengdu Hot Pot.

Tang Jun and his wife Wendy picked us up from our hostel and we drove down to a street filled with restaurants, “Look for a full restaurant and you know it is a good one”, Tang Jun told us. We pulled up out the front, Wendy ran in and quickly from the doorway waved us all in. With one table left there was no waiting time, a rare occasion in Chengdu on a Saturday we were told.

As we walked in, it was almost as if everyone stopped and stared, Natalie and I were the only non-locals in the whole restaurant, and this was definitely somewhere off the beaten track. We sat down, drinks were ordered, we made a toast (the first of many!) and then Tang Jun explained what traditional Sichuan Hot Pot was all about.

The town of Chongqing is most famous in China for its hot pot with Chengdu a close second. It is basically a silver bowl full of chilli, black peppercorns, several different types of oil, and even more chilli. As it boils away you then put different types of meats and vegetables into the broth and cook them to your liking. Each person has a small bowl in front of them that you fill with sesame oil, chopped garlic and coriander. The sesame oil we were told stopped your stomach getting ill from so much chilli. “You must understand, hot pot is not the healthiest meals for you”, Tang Jun laughed.

Now this is where things got interesting, a huge simmering cauldron full of a bubbling red hot liquid that looked that it had come from the bowels of hell was placed in the middle of the table. In the center was a smaller pot of clear liquid that appeared to have a full fish inside it. Natalie is without doubt one of the most intrepid travelers I have ever met, but there are a couple of things she doesn’t deal with too well. One is dead animals, two is overly spicy food, (China has helped her change her tune a little), and three is random off cuts of meat. So it was hard not to chuckle when first the pot came out and all you could see was chillis boiling away and a dead fish in the middle, but this was followed by a procession of plates of various meats and vegetables to dip into boiling bubbling broth.

Tang Jun emptied a few plates into the broth and told us they needed a little longer to cook than some of the others. He then said to me, “Try this one Dean”, “What is it?” Natalie asked, “Ha ha I will tell you once he has eaten it!”, Tang Jun responded. It was actually pig intestines and I must admit it I quite liked it. We were then treated to pig’s throat, ox stomach, meatballs, beef, what looked like spam and several types of vegetables. As the broth continued to boil away the colour got deeper and the taste got hotter.

Credit where credit is due Natalie tried everything that Tang Jun presented her with and didn’t bat an eyelid (even the fish which she hasn’t eaten for years and was more of a challenge than the offal). Even as the broth got hotter and hotter Natalie kept going, at one point I turned to Tang Jun and said, “You have made my wife do things tonight I could only dream of!” I was a very proud husband to say the least. Perhaps the spiciest little beast was the cauliflower – somehow it absorbed every chilli and spice in the pot and left even me reaching for the water!

It really was an amazing meal, all the dishes tasted great and true to form, the sesame oil negated some of the nasty effects of seriously hot and spicy food. Sadly Tang Jun was not feeling the best that night but promised to be on better form in a couple of nights time when he insisted we go out for drinks. Wendy drove us home and we reflected on our awesome local dining experience.

Two nights later we got the call to jump in a taxi and meet Tang Jun at his favourite bar, The Traveler Bar, owned by a close friend of his Mr Liu. We began with a few local beers and were introduced to the Chinese art of cheers-ing. In China you seem to cheers for everything and everything, I think it is an excuse to get drunk as quick as possible.

We were joined by a couple of his work colleagues, a young girl called Candy who had just joined the business and then his work partner or boss, we never did work it out, Mr Liu (yes another one but no relation) arrived and then the party really started. We upgraded from reasonably low alcohol Chinese beers to extremely strong Bavarian wheat beer, the best you can get, we were told.

We toasted to just about everything, new friends, old friends, the two of us being married for eight months, to China, to Tibet, to Oasis Overland and everything in between. We learnt that the host will always clink his glass lower than yours as a sign of respect, and when someone fills up your glass you tap the table with closed fist, imitating a sign of respect to the Emperor when he was in disguise travelling around. As we meet up on the 30th of December, and we were spending New Year’s Eve on a 44 hour train ride to Tibet at midnight we then toasted to ‘Happy Last Day of the Year’. For us this night was our New Year’s Eve.

When we were sufficiently drunk to our hosts liking they piled us into a taxi back to the hostel. We may have only spent two nights with Tang Jun but by the end of it we felt like we had known him for ages. His hospitality was amazing despite our pleas he would not accept any contribution towards our dinner or our night of drinking, we were his guests in his city and country. We have been lucky to do so many amazing things on this journey already, but our two nights with Tang Jun will live on in the memory for a long time to come. As I said at the start, meeting up with friends, old or new, during your travels is always a highlight.

– Dean

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Eating Our Way Around China

Trying the various foods of the countries you visit is one of the real highlights of travel. Certain dishes are synonymous with some countries, such as steak in Argentina, curries in India, (which I can’t wait for), and pasta in Italy. So it was with great excitement, and a little trepidation that we arrived into Beijing.

One thing that Asia has that Russia And Mongolia were lacking was street food. Having both backpacked around South East Asia before we were hoping that China would be the same. For the budget minded traveller or those on a prolonged adventure like us, street food is your best friend.

As we do, once we arrived in Beijing we hit the ground running. On our first night we headed up to the Drum and Bell towers to hunt down a small little bar nestled between the two, have a drink to celebrate arriving at our most Easterly point overland and stare upon the beautifully illuminated towers to toast our success. Well that was the plan.

Sadly for whatever reason the towers were not lit up, but undeterred we stumbled upon a small hole in the wall bar to have a drink. It was about the size of a broom cupboard but at about a pound per beer how could we say no. Luckily the night wasn’t a total loss because not far away was our main aim for the night, a street called “Ghost Street”.

Ghost Street was originally home to a small evening fresh food market, and the silhouettes of the vendors against the lantern lights made them appear like ghosts. Now a days the street is a strip of flashing neon, red lanterns and dozens of restaurants specializing in hot pot cooking. We walked the entire length and the choice was endless! You could tell which restaurants were the good ones as there were huge crowds waiting outside, huddling under gas burners snacking on sunflower seeds while they waited for their table to be called.

We finally settled in for our first local food experience. One thing we had heard about China was how spicy everything was, and that they eat EVERY part of an animal and tonight proved to be the case. The menu contained what Natalie described as ‘every type of offal’, from turtle heads, chicken gizzards and feet, sharks fin and Ox intestines, it was there. You can imagine Natalie’s face with some of the options!! We ordered a tame beef dish and a “dry pot” potato dish. Both came out sizzling hot and smothered in loads and loads of chilies. Now I love spicy food but even for me this was hot! By the end of the night neither of us could feel our mouths and we made mental notes to avoid any dish with the word “spicy” in it in the future.

Following day as we explored the Forbidden City and numerous city parks we our first street vendor experiences. As you leave the Forbidden City you are instantly accosted by hawkers selling everything from tuk-tuk rides, scarves, Chairman Mao figures to all different types of food. It was these hawkers that drew our attention. On the back of a bicycle was a foam pyramid full of skewers of various fruits covered in a type of toffee. I can’t lie, I really wanted to take a photo of this guy’s bike so Natalie bought one as I snapped away a few photos. Wow! These little things became one of our favorites. Kiwi fruit, mandarin, small miniature apple like fruits and cherry tomatoes all dipped in a hard toffee. They would become our staple afternoon snack when sugar levels were low and energy levels flagging in the afternoons.

That evening it was time to splurge. Early on in the journey we had promised ourselves to blow the budget so to speak and go out and celebrate making it from London to Beijing overland, and if you are going to splurge in Beijing it means one thing…. Duck!

Peking duck is the signature dish in Beijing, and there is one restaurant that towers above the rest, the Qianmen Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant, established in 1864 and the most famous restaurant of it’s type in the city. Everyone from Fidel Castro, Pele, Sir Edward Heath and George Bush Senior to this night, The Smart Way Round have dined here. The restaurant was not only enormous but also beautiful, and looked like something straight out of the movies. We ordered our half duck with pancakes and eagerly awaited our dinner.
To make the experience all the more special, the restaurant sends a chef out to your table and freshly slices the duck up for you while you watch. The waitress then showed us how to construct your pancake using chopsticks and you are good to go. We persevered but decided that the ‘rolling with your fingers’ technique that we adopt at home is more efficient! While Peking Duck in Beijing is probably very different to what you may have experienced back home we both agreed it was well worth it!

Over the next few days we continued to try various street meals. Every morning for breakfast I would grab a plastic bag of steamed pork dumplings from a vendor near our hostel. Ten dumplings for a pound, what an awesome breakfast! By the end of our time in Beijing he would see us coming and greet us with a smile and my dumplings ready to go. Natalie tried various different things over the days including a deep fried bread stick and a pancake mixed with a fried egg, something that looked almost like french toast and some leaf vegetables. Street food was definitely the way to go.

We also fell upon a fantastic little local hole in the wall restaurant we ate at regularly for dinner. Not only was the food amazingly tasty but also incredibly cheap. A large beer (630ml) was only three Yuan or 30 pence! In fact our dinners were regularly coming in at around three to four pounds a night for two people. We were also quite the attraction, with locals asking for us to pose with them for photos and on our last night the whole family thanking us and saying good bye!

Our next stop on our China adventure was the stunning little town of Pingyao. From the moment we jumped off the train we knew we were in a small town, and it really felt we were off the beaten track. As we walked around the UNESCO Heritage listed streets the restaurant signs advertised ‘Assorted Cats Ears’, ‘Dog Meat Casserole’, ‘Sliced Donkey Meat’ and the ‘Clear Cooked Bulls Penis’. With so much choice we were never going to go hungry. We did try some fantastic corn cobs from a street vendor, bought some tasty apple chips and I tried a pretty forgettable steamed bean curd wrapped in a cabbage leaf. Needless to say, many of these options are slowly turning Natalie more and more vegetarian!

An overnight train has now bought us to the town of Xian, right in the heart of Shanxi Provence. Their specialty here is a 3.8m long noodle served in a soup or broth of your choice. That’s the great thing about Asia, if you are willing to go and look for it and prepared to go local you can enjoy some of the best food you will eat and eat for a fraction of the cost. Too many travellers (and we saw a lot of it in Beijing) only eat in their hostel or hotel because they serve “Western” food, but to get a real flavor of a city or country you have to hit the streets. China has been incredible so far, and one of our next blogs will be about what we have been up to, but for now we are of in search of 3.8m noodles!

Don’t forget to check our Instagram account for photos of our adventures in China. Thanks for the feedback to let us know Instagram is posting to Twitter and Facebook. See you all on The Smart Way Round….

– Dean

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