About Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa is the editor of the travel sites Jessie on a Journey (http://jessieonajourney.com) and Epicure & Culture (http://epicureandculture.com). Along with blogging at We Blog The World, her byline has appeared in publications like Huffington Post, Gadling, Fodor's, Travel + Escape, Matador, Viator, The Culture-Ist and many others. After getting her BA/MA in Communication from the State University of New York at Albany, she realized she wasn't really to stop backpacking and made travel her full time job. Some of her most memorable experiences include studying abroad in Sydney, teaching English in Thailand, doing orphanage work in Ghana, hiking her way through South America and traveling solo through Europe. She has a passion for backpacking, adventure, hiking, wine and getting off the beaten path.


Latest Posts by Jessica Festa

Crazy Flavors Homemade Ice Cream, Brooklyn Style

August 1, 2014 by  

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3-OddFellows-by-kathyylchan-1024x689

The first thing that will jump out at you when visiting Brooklyn’s OddFellows Ice Cream Co. website is their array of quirky flavors. It isn’t everyday you see flavors like Tobacco Leaf Smoked Chili Huckleberry; Beet Pistachio Honey Goat Cheese; Coconut, Cream Cheese & Carrot Cake; and Sesame Kumquat Pumpernickel.

That being said, what makes OddFellows isn’t just their atypical offerings, but their methods of production. Opened in June 2013, OddFellows Ice Cream Co. caused a stir from the beginning. Within two months of opening, they’d been voted Best Ice Cream in New York , one of the eight Best Ice Cream Shops For Kids In New York City by Timeout New York and one of New York City’s 10 Tastiest Summer Treats by Forbes Travel Guide.

So, what makes OddFellows so addictive?

“We’re making ice cream from scratch which is a very rare thing,” explains co-owner Mohan Kumar. “Not too many people are doing this in the country and only a handful are in NYC. Typically people who claim to sell homemade ice cream are buying their ice cream base from a creamery or farm and are adding in things like chocolate chips. We’re going the extra step and making our own base ice cream. Our dairy comes from New York-based Battenkill Valley Creamy, and we source produce locally as much as possible.”

inside oddfellows

Not surprisingly, chef and co-owner Sam Mason, the mastermind behind all this sweet genius, has experience in New York City restaurants as a pastry chef at WD-50 and working under renowned chefs like Alain Ducasse, Jean-Louis Palladin and Paul Liebrandt. He brings the creativity and culinary skills he’s honed now to OddFellows, where he does things with ice cream most shops wouldn’t even be able to imagine.

Most notable is Mason’s unique freezing techniques, which he incorporates into a number of flavors. For example, one of their most popular flavors is Peanut Butter and Jelly. While it may sound simple, Mason freezes jelly with liquid nitrogen and then shatters it before folding it into peanut butter ice cream. Another flavor using a similar method is the Neapolitan, with chocolate and strawberry ice cream frozen, shattered and folded into the vanilla for a treat that looks marbled and tastes like you’re eating ice cream within ice cream (because essentially, you are!).

Since opening they’ve created and sold 110 flavors of homemade ice cream, a number most ice cream shops don’t reach in their lifetime. Keep in mind, they only put in the case what’s meets their standards, and if they test out a new flavor and it doesn’t, it doesn’t get sold. At any given time you’ll find 12-14 ice creams on the menu, which changes seasonally.

classic waffle cone

OddFellows also offers one sundae each season. While most ice cream shops consider a sundae a platter of ice cream scoops with blobs of whipped cream and messy fudge, OddFellows takes a more thoughtful approach, each ingredient carefully curated and laid out. For example, their winter Mast Brothers Hot Fudge Sundae — a collaboration with the local Master Brothers Chocolate — featured three scoops of chocolate chunk ice cream sitting on a bed of chocolate soil and topped with fluffy chocolate cake, chocolate-infused whipped cream, chocolate beads, and a drizzling of salted caramel and hot fudge. Another collaboration sundae they offered was a beer sundae with Brooklyn Brewery, made with three ice cream flavors: Black Chocolate Stout, Amber Ale and Pretzel. From there, layers of chocolate covered pretzels were added as well as a topping of beer foam instead of whipped cream.

“It’s kind of become a thing where local businesses approach us to collaborate on a sundae,” laughs Kumar. “In the future we’d like to partner with a cafe to do a coffee sundae.”

Not surprisingly, OddFellows receives a large number of adventurous guests looking to try the most bizarre flavor on the menu; however, there are also people interested in having a high-quality chocolate chunk or mint chocolate chunk because it’s what they like.

ice cream cone

“We want to create the best ice cream we possibly can,” explains Kumar. “We want people to enjoy and fall in love with ice cream more than they ever have. Everyone always has a sweet spot for their childhood ice cream shop, and we want to recreate that. It’s great having small children in the neighborhood have us be their first ice cream. Hopefully they’ll remember us.”

Photos courtesy of OddFellows Ice Cream Co. This article originally appeared on Drive the District.

 

Sweet Nectar in Fort Lauderdale Florida is a Must For Your Next Visit

August 1, 2014 by  

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menu

In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, when exploring the Las Olas restaurants scene, make sure to stop by an artisanal venue worth the trip in itself: Sweet Nectar Charcoal and Spirits. After walking along the beachfront and seeing so many chain restaurants, it was a joy to discover Las Olas, filled with boutiques, art galleries, local businesses, ambient wine bars and innovative restaurants. To me, this boulevard provided an immersive experience into the local culture through art, local design and artisanal eats.

After wandering the street and doing some research of my own, I stumble upon the menu of Sweet Nectar. Charcoal-grilled Florida snapper? Ahi Tuna carpaccio with black truffle chimichurri? Lobster popcorn? Sounds interesting.

As I approach the indoor/outdoor restaurant I see locals gathered around the bar watching a game, friends sitting under dangling potted plants eating at rustic wooden tables off of wobbly plate and cast-iron skillets. In this farm-feeling space there’s also an industrial vibe with long dangling bare bulbs and exposed brick.

Sweet Nectar

Sitting outdoors at Sweet Nectar. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.

I choose to sit outdoors so I can enjoy the ambiance of Las Olas with its cobble-lined streets, palm trees laced with white Christmas lights and fashionable sidewalks that give this boulevard the nickname “Style Mile.” There are also a few quirky local characters roaming around, humanizing the almost-perfect setting.

The focus of the menu is southern-style tapas with globally-inspired sauces. Their specialty is charcoal-grilled meats and vegetables on lump wood charcoal, which brings out the aromas and flavors of the dishes cooked due to the extra smoke produced (which also makes them better for searing). In fact, right on the menu it states “Cooking over charcoal makes your food taste like bacon. Let us repeat that: blah blah charcoal blah blah BACON.”

It’s obvious from the menu that the chef might be a bit eccentric — and I mean that in a good way. Even beyond the menu, the restaurant features touches like Mason Jar potted plants in the bathroom, tin/steel wash basin sinks, a long communal picnic table to encourage interaction with strangers and atypical dishes served on pretty much anything other than your typical plate. Talking to the director of operations, I learn the decor was hand-curated and took the owners about six months to find all the pieces they wanted, with furniture made by hand. All the wood used throughout the space — including the wooden serving ware — is reclaimed wood from a local Indian reservation swell.

“What makes us different from everyone else is the focus we had when we designed and created the concept, which was meant for locals,” says Peter Cumplido, who along with being the chef is Sweet Nectar’s director of operations. “People tend to forget that this is still a neighborhood, so we offer happy hour 4 to 7 pm everyday, brunch Saturday and Sunday, and weekly and daily specials. We also decided to make great and different food and real craft cocktails using only fresh ingredients and making everything in-house.”

As it is my first time dining I decide to try much more than I can possibly ever eat (and then have tasty leftovers for tomorrow). My waitress is a friendly woman from Israel, who is great at helping me to choose a diverse selection of some of their best offerings. The menu is broken up into sections: Snacks, Charcoal Grill, Raw Bar/Oysters, Aged Assortments (charcuterie), Shared Plates, Lunch and Sweets. I decide on two snacks to start that seem unusual: the Lobster Popcorn and Chorizo Stuffed Dates. From there, I move over to white meat with a Coal Fired Pterodactyl (turkey) Wing, and then decide on a salad of Spanish Octopus with Watercress.

As you can probably assume from the name, Sweet Nectar specializes in craft cocktail, served in Mason Jars, no less. This is a hard pick, as the venue makes their own nature-inspired syrups in-house, some of which include coriander/fennel seed, filthy black cherry, honey, fresh mint and cardamom/black pepper.

While I am first thinking about the “Mountain Berry Shrub,” made with 44 North Huckleberry Vodka, Rhum Clement Creole Shrub, house-made black berry syrup, fresh lemon, ginger beer and rosemary, my eyes then wander to the “Grandpas Apple Pie.” This drink features Michter’s Rye Whisky, Old Smoky Moonshine, Rhum Clement Creole Shrub, bitters and muddled orange.

At that moment the manager stops by the table. I point to the drink. “What does this taste like?”

“It tastes like apple pie at first. Then you get a kick of moonshine in the end that makes you think, “Yup, Grandpa must have made this!” he explains. As I love apple pie and to actually taste my alcohol when I’m drinking it, this is what I settle on. Once I have my first sip I realize I made an excellent choice, the perfect mix of summertime pastry and nostalgia-inducing flavors.

lobster popcorn

Lobster Popcorn. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.

It doesn’t take long for my snacks to arrive. Compared to the tapas I’m used to getting in New York City, these are pretty hearty portions — three bulging dates and a big box for the lobster. I’ll tell you now the Lobster Popcorn is possibly the best things I’ve ever eaten, starting from the unusual presentation. It’s served in a square movie theater popcorn tub filled with fresh butter popcorn about 3/4 of the way and topped with deep-fried lobster coated in batter. On the side, a honey truffle oil adds a sweetness to the salty and savory mixture. I can really taste the quality.

Says Cumplido, “We get deliveries every day and use the freshest ingredients, hand selecting everything from local farms as much as possible. We strive to serve the best ingredients money can buy. Even if it costs us a bit more our guest, locals, and regulars appreciate it.”

chorizo stuffed dates

Chorizo Stuffed Dates. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.

The Chorizo Stuffed Dates are also a treat, covered in Swiss cheese and sitting in a roasted red pepper sauce. As soon as I bit into one it is like a performance of flavors, the first act the chewy melted cheese, the second the salty meat and the third a bursting of sweet fruit, the whole while each taste accented by the sweet tang of the pepper.

turkey leg

An enormous charcoal-grilled turkey leg. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.

The next course is served on a butcher paper-covered cheese board, a massive turkey wing coated in a thick sweet yet spicy habanero glaze. Tender meat is enveloped in a crispy skin, with the sugar of the sauce causing an almost addictive response to my system.

salad

Spanish octopus salad. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.

Finally, the Spanish Octopus with Watercress. The dish has very fresh, Mediterranean flavors, simple and light. While the watercress adds a bitter, vegetal touch, tender seafood and plump and soft white beans offer an array of enjoyable textures.

“I traveled all over the world before the opening of Sweet Nectar, seeing different types of ingredients and cuisines,” explains Cumplido. “When I created the concept for this restaurant I wanted food that I enjoyed eating while growing up, with a modern twist paired with the food I loved during my travels.”

If you’re a regular reader of Epicure & Culture you know that we’re not the type of people who skip dessert. So, despite being ready to burst, I order not one, but two sugary items. It is hard to choose with options like table-side-prepared S’mores, a root beer float made with Dr. Browns soda and a chocolate and Nutella fondue; however, I decide to choose one dessert I always love — bread pudding — and another the waitress promises will be something completely out of the norm — Sweet Nectar Apple Pie. While I’d had apple pie plenty of times — in fact I was essentially drinking it now in my cocktail — she assured me this was not what I was used to.

bread pudding

Sweet Nectar’s bread pudding. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.

The bread pudding is big enough to be a meal. Made in-house with croissant bread for a lighter yet still satisfying consistency and topped with peanut butter fudge ice cream, it reminds me almost of a chocolate chunk cinnamon roll. While I could have finished the entire thing, I knew my stomach would hate me so I ate a quarter of it and brought the rest home for the next day. While not the healthiest breakfast, I know I’ll end up eating it the next morning. Fattening, maybe, but oh so satisfying.

apple pie

Sweet Nectar’s unusual but delicious apple pie. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.

When the apple pie comes out I immediately know the waitress was correct in saying it was atypical. Served on a cheese board, one side offers finger-sized chunks of doughnut crust while the other houses two small Mason Jars, one containing house-made apple pie filling and the other cinnamon ice cream. It is a do-it-yourself treat with the same flavors; however, because they are separated end up being lighter but more concentrated.

I leave the restaurant feeling satisfied, not only with the food, but that I am able to navigate away from the Outback Steakhouses and Bubba Gumps to find a place dedicated to quality, innovation and locally sourcing that locals eat at too. If you’re heading to Fort Lauderdale and love food and drink, this is a great spot to begin your exploration of the city’s culinary culture.

las olas

The ambient Las Olas lit up after dark. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.

Post-Dinner Exploration

If you’re going to feel stuffed somewhere, Las Olas is the perfect place, as right after your meal you can wander the boulevard, gallery and boutique hopping. While you don’t really need a guide for this, as simply walking around will lead you to numerous worthwhile stops, there were a few spaces that I recommend that are less than a 10-minute stroll from Sweet Nectar. First of all, Forre & Co makes for an interesting gallery stop, with abstract and fine art works in mixed mediums by global artists.

I really love the pieces by Steve Hix, a photographer who plays with color and group formations taken from an aerial perspective. Another gallery I recommend is the Wentworth Gallery, with a nice collection of Peanuts pieces and food and drink-inspired Godard paintings, like a sexy-legged chocolate-covered strawberry drinking a glass of Champagne. Art Connection sells a mix of acrylic paintings, candles and soaps, while M R Mctigue & Co is an antique shop that’s been in operation since 1927. These are just a few of the many worthwhile offerings on Las Olas Boulevard.

Have you visited Fort Lauderdale? What is your favorite dining experience in the city?

Top photo credit: Sweet Nectar Charcoal Grill & Spirits menu and chorizo-stuffed dates. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.

 

 

Fun & Artisanal Ice Cream Goes Quirky In Brooklyn

July 31, 2014 by  

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The first thing that will jump out at you when visiting Brooklyn’s OddFellows Ice Cream Co. website is their array of quirky flavors. It isn’t everyday you see flavors like Tobacco Leaf Smoked Chili Huckleberry; Beet Pistachio Honey Goat Cheese; Coconut, Cream Cheese & Carrot Cake; and Sesame Kumquat Pumpernickel. That being said, what makes OddFellows isn’t just their atypical offerings, but their methods of production.

Opened in June 2013, OddFellows Ice Cream Co. caused a stir from the beginning. Within two months of opening, they’d been voted Best Ice Cream in New York. So, what makes OddFellows so addictive? “We’re making ice cream from scratch which is a very rare thing,” explains co-owner Mohan Kumar. “Not too many people are doing this in the country and only a handful are in NYC. Typically people who claim to sell homemade ice cream are buying their ice cream base from a creamery or farm and are adding in things like chocolate chips. We’re going the extra step and making our own base ice cream. Our dairy comes from New York-based Battenkill Valley Creamy, and we source produce locally as much as possible.”

inside oddfellows

Not surprisingly, chef and co-owner Sam Mason, the mastermind behind all this sweet genius, has experience in New York City restaurants as a pastry chef at WD-50 and working under renowned chefs like Alain Ducasse, Jean-Louis Palladin and Paul Liebrandt. He brings the creativity and culinary skills he’s honed now to OddFellows, where he does things with ice cream most shops wouldn’t even be able to imagine.

Most notable is Mason’s unique freezing techniques, which he incorporates into a number of flavors. For example, one of their most popular flavors is Peanut Butter and Jelly. While it may sound simple, Mason freezes jelly with liquid nitrogen and then shatters it before folding it into peanut butter ice cream.

Another flavor using a similar method is the Neapolitan, with chocolate and strawberry ice cream frozen, shattered and folded into the vanilla for a treat that looks marbled and tastes like you’re eating ice cream within ice cream (because essentially, you are!). Since opening they’ve created and sold 110 flavors of homemade ice cream, a number most ice cream shops don’t reach in their lifetime. Keep in mind, they only put in the case what’s meets their standards, and if they test out a new flavor and it doesn’t, it doesn’t get sold.

At any given time you’ll find 12-14 ice creams on the menu, which changes seasonally. classic waffle cone

 

OddFellows also offers one sundae each season. While most ice cream shops consider a sundae a platter of ice cream scoops with blobs of whipped cream and messy fudge, OddFellows takes a more thoughtful approach, each ingredient carefully curated and laid out. For example, their winter Mast Brothers Hot Fudge Sundae — a collaboration with the local Master Brothers Chocolate — featured three scoops of chocolate chunk ice cream sitting on a bed of chocolate soil and topped with fluffy chocolate cake, chocolate-infused whipped cream, chocolate beads, and a drizzling of salted caramel and hot fudge.

Another collaboration sundae they offered was a beer sundae with Brooklyn Brewery, made with three ice cream flavors: Black Chocolate Stout, Amber Ale and Pretzel. From there, layers of chocolate covered pretzels were added as well as a topping of beer foam instead of whipped cream. “It’s kind of become a thing where local businesses approach us to collaborate on a sundae,” laughs Kumar. “In the future we’d like to partner with a cafe to do a coffee sundae.”

ice cream cone

Not surprisingly, OddFellows receives a large number of adventurous guests looking to try the most bizarre flavor on the menu; however, there are also people interested in having a high-quality chocolate chunk or mint chocolate chunk because it’s what they like. “We want to create the best ice cream we possibly can,” explains Kumar.

“We want people to enjoy and fall in love with ice cream more than they ever have. Everyone always has a sweet spot for their childhood ice cream shop, and we want to recreate that. It’s great having small children in the neighborhood have us be their first ice cream. Hopefully they’ll remember us.” Photos courtesy of OddFellows Ice Cream Co. This article originally appeared on Drive the District.

 

Traveling with a Conscious Through India’s Kerala

July 31, 2014 by  

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canal route

We’re currently cycling from Kochi to Thattekkad, a 60-kilometer (37-mile) journey that immerses me in the local culture of the canal villages. Sure, a bus would be a quicker option, but this wouldn’t allow me to share a smile with the women washing clothes in the canal, smell the fragrant tapioca and nutmeg growing on the sides of the road, watch teenagers do backflips off bridges into the flowing waters, wave to grown men walking goats and tending to cows, or chat with a group of women burning grass to clean up the roads.

And when a young boy of about seven years runs out onto the road carrying a tray of fresh fruit to give me, expecting only a smile and hello in return, I know I’ve made the right decision. These experiences aren’t faded by smudged plexi-glass, and I don’t need them explained to me on a microphone by a bored tour guide. They’re all mine to interpret and cherish.

india children

Children along the Canal Route

Cultural Immersion In Kerala

My time traveling through Kerala isn’t about doing things the easy way or viewing culture as if it were a movie on a screen; it’s about immersing myself in local culture — discovering it with every single one of my senses — and leaving the smallest carbon footprint possible in the process.

The area I’m cycling resides in the foothills of the Western Ghats, an ancient mountain range older than the Himalayas and one of the most important places in India due to its rich ecology and biodiversity. Along with being home to 24 endemic bird species — some of which include the Malabar Great Hornbill, White Belly Treepie and Nielgerie Fly Catcher — the area boasts having the richest bird life on the Indian Peninsula. Moreover, there are a large number of habitats: hills, highlands, deciduous forest, wetlands and mashlands, to name a few. And you can’t forget the thousands of medicinal plants in the area, which contribute to the Kerala Ayurvedic treatments that are so sought-after in the state.

sunrise

Sunrise at the Hornbill Camp

The Hornbill Camp

This rich biodiversity is something I get to experience at the endpoint of my cycling trip (at least for Day 1, anyway): the Hornbill Camp. Not only is the camp committed to ecology through serving Indian meals made with local ingredients, using furniture and decor crafted from local woods, and limiting their use of plastic, but they’re also located on the same property as an organic plantation and directly across the river from the Thattekkad Bird Sanctuary, home to over 260 bird species. The onsite activities I take part in allow me to taste, see, smell, touch and hear Kerala even deeper, like a guided naturalist hike through the plantation and a bird-watching kayaking tour on the River Periyar. By the time I leave, I’ve learned what spice is best for an upset stomach (nutmeg), how locals cure a toothache (with clove) and where the Snakebird gets its name (it has a very long neck).

Silent Valley National Park

Hiking in the Silent Valley National Park

Trekking Through Silent Valley National Park

The stay reminds me why it’s so important to travel in a sustainable manner, and I’m grateful the next day my Kalypso Adventures tour has me scheduled to hike through the Sacred Valley National Park from Munnar — a trek that begins at 1500 meters (4,920 feet) in altitude and goes to 2600 meters (8,528 feet)– instead of taking a narrated car ride (although there is a Nascar-style jeep journey involved to get to the hike’s starting point). In the foothills of the Western Ghats, in a place known for the ability to hear nothing but wildlife in it’s valley, we hike through high-altitude organic tea gardens, sholas (high altitude rain forests that provide water to all the lakes of the state), grassland and pine forest until we reach our campsite at the Rhodo Valley Camp, located at an altitude of 2,200 meters (7,216 feet). It’s true pop-tent camping, warming our hands by the fire and gazing up at a star-filled sky so clear you feel like you’re looking through a telescope.

meesapulimala

The view from atop Meesapulimala

High Peaks And Organic Tea

Trekking through the endless rows of tea, dark green leaves rolling up and down over textured hillside, is just the beginning, as culture meets sustainability once again the next day when we trek from the camp to Suryanelli, ascending the second-highest peak — Meesapulimala — in the Western Ghats. Along the way, I get to visit the world’s highest organic tea garden, Kolukkumalai, at 6,500 to 8,000 feet (1,982 to 2,439 meters). The tea is picked only by women as they have softer fingers less likely to damage the leaves, which are grown without the use of pesticides. The tea trees form perfect terraces in the sides of the mountains, adding contrast to the predominantly green landscape.

tea pickers

Tea pickers in the world’s highest organic tea gardens.

While all the tea trees are grown from the same seeds and appear similar to the naked eye, closer inspection shows the leaves differ in shape, size and shade of green. This combined with the individual production process is what determines whether a tea is black, green, white or oolong. Continuing our descent into the tea estate, we come to a building with a light green room that is the factory, and for 100 Rupees (about $1.60 USD) I’m able to see how the organic tea leafs are dried, withered, centrifuged and made into small, crispy tea bits.

Anaerangal Camp

Anaerangal Camp

Anaerangal Camp

This is the exact tea I sip that night at my eco-lodge, Anaerangal Camp, which sits at an altitude of 1,600 meters (5,249 feet). From the patio of my simple but comfortable cottage tent, I can see mountains shrouded in mist peeking out over well-manicured bushes, appearing so otherworldly I’m not sure if I’m looking at heaven or Earth. Near to the clouds, serenity washes over me, as the sound of honking tuk tuks and speeding buses is replaced with the chirping of birds and occasional rooster crow.

cardamom plantation

Cardamom plantations litter the Cardamom Route

Cardamom Hills

Along with tea, Kerala is also know for its Cardamom Hills, which I experience on a bicycle ride on the 91-kilometer (57-mile) Cardamom Trail. The route is lush with cardamom estates — as well as black pepper, coffee cherries and banana trees — adding a sweet and spicy scent to the air. Cardamom is an important spice in Indian culture, used in cooking and teas and known for its health benefits, such as aiding in arthritis, digestive issues, and tooth and gum infections. As I cycle, cardamom pickers smile and wave, and I get the chance to break open a cardamom seed and smell it up close, the juice leaving its Christmasy aroma on my fingers.

Anaerangal Lake

View of Anaerangal Lake from the Cardamom Route

The steep up and down journey is full of spice gardens as well as small towns filled with fruit stands selling dangling bananas, biscuits and sugary sodas, tea shops, and locals waving from the sidewalks in colorful saris and white mundu garments. There’s also time spent cycling around the crystalline Anaerangal Lake, or “lake where the elephants come down,” surrounded by lush hillsides littered with fruit and spice plantations, tea gardens and silver oaks. If you want to spot an Indian elephant, this is a great place to try.

Kathakal

Kathakali. Photo courtesy of ramnath bhat.

Kumily

My homebase for the evening is a town known for its aromatics: Kumily. On every corner shops offer organic spices, curative herbs and Ayurvedic massage. This is also where Kathakali, a classic Kerala dance form, can be enjoyed. I experience the art form for myself at the Mudra Kathakali Centre, witnessing a performance without words. Originating in the first half of the 17th Century AD and performed only be men, stories are enacted through ornamental costume, elaborate makeup, precise hand gestures, dramatic facial expressions and rapid eye movements that evoke feelings. Traditionally, there are 101 stories and 24 precise hand gestures, each with its own unique meaning. With the purchase of a ticket, viewers are helping this tradition live on.

massage

Massage. Photo courtesy of gaelx.

Ayurvedic Massage

I also get to sample Kerala’s health and wellness culture through traditional Ayurvedic massage, which incorporates locally sourced healing herbs and spices to cure physical and mental ailments. These are diagnosed using the five senses, and work to balance the body’s life energies (doshas). As mentioned above, Kerala is known for its abundance of curative plants that decorate the landscape, making it a very special place in India to get this type of treatment. During a traditional massage, you’ll undress completely and be rubbed down with curative oils, which work their way into the skin to perform their necessary function.

Dewalokam

Lush jungle and mirror rivers at Dewalokam.

An Organic Farmstay

My next cycling adventure brings me deeper into this culture, and also works my fitness as it’s 102 kilometers (63 miles) away: Dewalokam. An organic farm homestay, the property grows every fruit, vegetable, spice and herb found in Indian cooking and medicine you can think of: turmeric, cinnamon, clove, allspice, cardamom, ginger, mango, jackfruit, starfruit, custard apple, pineapple, long beans, and much much more, all grown in an organic manner without the use of pesticides or chemicals. I learn how allspice can be used in place of almost any spice, and custard apple helps with symptoms of chemotherapy. While cinnamon can help with stomach bugs and cancer prevention, it also adds a sweet yet spicy flavor to food. Then there’s turmeric, which helps with arthritis and pain relief, it’s ginger-like flavor and vibrant yellow color can enhance almost any dish. These are a few of the lessons I learn on a guided walk of the property.

Spice garden paths

Spice garden paths at Dewalokam

I’m further brought into sustainably delicious Kerala culture through a cooking demonstration, where I watch Chef Sudhish make two tasty dishes: Vegetable Makni and Tandoori Chicken. The Vegetable Makni may look simple on your plate, but it actually contains 10+ spices sourced from the property: clove, star anise, cinnamon, turmeric, chili, cumin, cashew and other aromatics. These spices are sautéed in vegetable oil with onion and garlic and combined with the produce for a traditional Kerala cuisine at its freshest. The Tandoori Chicken is also marinated in a number of property-sourced ingredients, like turmeric, ginger, cumin and even yogurt made from milk from their very own buffalo. It’s a pinkish-red color as it is dipped on an enormous skewer into the tandoor, an extremely hot oven that can heat up to 480 °C (900 °F).

Tandoori chicken demonstration

Tandoori chicken demonstration

That night’s dinner is served under the stars, which shine bright in this nature-ladden area, located away from the lights of the towns and cities. Wine is passed around the table, as our servers set us up with extra buffalo yogurt, grilled buffalo cheese and basamati rice, as well as the main dishes I saw being prepared and mint chutney. I chat with the other guests — a mother and daughter from London, a honeymooning couple from Denmark and a German couple who had visited less than a year ago and loved it so much they returned — asking them about their travels through this naturally fragrant, wildlife-rich state.

candles

The group lights candles for a fun and whimsical experience before dinner.

We share stories, seeing many of the same places but interpreting them through our own unique lens. That’s what is great about travel. Two people can do or see the same exact thing, but experience it in two completely different ways. For me, my time exploring Kerala in a sustainable fashion has allowed me to interpret the nature-rich destination in such a way I can feel the pulse of the city by bike, interact with locals, smell the sweet fruits and wander medicinal gardens in a truly immersive fashion. In essence, Kerala’s been able to leave its footprint on me, without me leaving mine on it.

 

All Things Tea in Japan’s Kansai Region

July 30, 2014 by  

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bento box

From the high-quality green tea of Uji to the rich soba culture of Izushi to Osaka’s hearty soul food, Japan’s Kansai Region is made to be explored through the tongue. While many may associate Japanese food with rice, sushi and miso soup — which are all important parts of Japanese cuisine — it’s not as simple as that. And if that’s all you eat during your travels, you’re missing out on a slew of delicious opportunities. Here’s what Epicure & Culture suggests:

Local Guide Recommendation: For a certified Japanese, English and Spanish speaking guide Epicure & Culture recommends Michiko Moriwaki (moriwaki.michiko (at) gmail (dot) com). Not only is she extremely knowledgeable on the Kansai Prefecture, her upbeat demeanor and passion for showing guests a good time lead to an extremely enjoyable experience.

green tea

Green tea. Photo courtesy of Barta IV.

Green Tea In Uji

While you’ll find green tea all over Japan, Uji, located on the outskirts of Kyoto, is particularly well-known for the curative drink. You can take the West Japan Railway Company (JR West) Nara Line to Uji Station, and from there it is easy to walk around the explore the city. Wander the streets around the station, like Ujibashi-dori and Byodin Omote Sando Streets, and find endless opportunities for green tea ice cream, green tea baked goods, green tea sake and complimentary green tea tastings.

For this I recommend Nakamura Tokich, open since 1854 and housed within a historical building over 200 years old — with many of the rooms and accents preserved for viewing. They also have green tea-infused foods as well as an outdoor garden where you can sit and sip your drink. For something refreshing, Masuda Tea Store Kyoto serves Uji’s “best green tea ice cream,” at least that’s what the locals say. In the sweet treat green tea naturally blends with the sugar of the ice cream, perfectly diluting but preserving the earthy taste.

For some cultural immersion, a Japanese tea ceremony at Taiho-an (2 Ugi-Ttogawa) is an incredible experience for only $5. You’ll not only sip matcha (high-quality powdered green tea) made with grace and care, but will learn the importance of the tea ceremony, it’s meaning, how to properly sip a cup of matcha at a ceremony and how the elements of the room are chosen in accordance with the seasons.

Bonus Recommendation: A bento box at Kyouryouri Tatsumiya Restaurant (Tel: (0774) 21- 3131) offers the chance to sample 30 different Japanese delicacies as well as miso soup and rice seasoned with ground green tea. Located on the Path of Ajirogi (the river path), you’ll enjoy views of the Uji River while you eat.

soba noodle

The soba master showing the class the perfect soba noddle. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.

Soba Noodle Making

You can’t visit Japan without sampling soba, and learning how to make this culturally-important dish is a truly worthwhile culinary experience. Izushi is one Japanese town renowned for its unique soba culture, different from other places in Japan. In fact, it has its own name: Izushi Sara Soba. With an advance reservation made through the local tourism board one can take a soba-making class at Irusaya Restaurant (98-10Uchimachi) in Izushi, located in the Hyōgo Prefecture less than two hours from Osaka and about two-and-a-half hours from Kyoto.

During the class, which is in Japanese so a local guide is recommended for translation purposes, you’ll begin with a flour mixture of about 80% buckwheat flour and 20% wheat flour and some water. You’ll strategically mix the ingredients with your fingers, rolling, kneading and cutting the dough before boiling it into homemade soba. The best part is eating the soba, as in Izushi they do this in a way different from the rest of Japan.

Along with eating the noodles cold and on many small Izushi-Yaki pottery ceramic plates (instead of one large dish), a dipping sauce is made by taking soba sauce (soy suace, mirin and dashi) and adding in either minced green onion and wasabi, a raw egg or yam puree. Once the meal is complete, this sauce is combined with the water used to boil the soba for a digestive-helping soup.

To reserve this experience, you can have your hotel call +81-796-21-9016 (Toyooka Tourist Association) or email kankou@city.toyooka.lg.jp.

ryokan food

One of the many dishes served during my ryokan meal. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.

Ryokan

A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn, typically located in a scenic area with natural landscapes. Here you’ll sleep in a room with tatami flooring, sliding doors, futon-style bedding, low tables with cushion seating and a closet with kimonos and slippers to wear both in the room and around the property (and often around the town). Public baths are typically part of a ryokan stay, allowing guests the chance to bathe with others in hot curative waters. According to Michiko, there are many accounts on how public bathing — not actually used for bathing but for for relaxation and health — became part of the culture. The most popular is that a Buddhist monk happened upon some wounded animals who were in hot springs. When they emerged they were cured of their ailments, and the monk realized the waters were special, and that people should be using them, too.

Not only is the room and public baths an important part of the experience, but also the food. Typically, meals are included in the price of a ryokan stay, and are traditional Japanese style with a number of courses featuring a variety of Japanese tastings (kaiseki).

Japan’s Kinosaki area is one of the most popular places in the country for hot springs and ryokans, and one recommendation is Nishimuraya Hotel Shogetsutei. At the luxury ryokan, meals take about 90 minutes and showcase the highlights of the region in small courses (kaiseki-style): Japanese sea bass, Tajima-gyu beef, Matsuba crab, taro root, Chinese cabbage, pink sweet potato and lots of fresh local seafood. Some dishes are served cold, others are served already prepared and others you’re brought a hot pot or plate with for cooking yourself. Rice and bamboo sakes enhanced the meal.

Shabushabu

Just saying the name will make you smile. Shabu-shabu is a DIY-style dish where thin slices of beef and other dishes — like pork, long green onion, Chinese cabbage, enoki mushroom, crab, pumpkin, glass noodles, octopus, prawns and more — are cooked in a boiling hot pot. The “shabushabu” is derived from the sound you make as you swish the proteins and produce around with your chopsticks in the bubbling liquid quickly to cook it.

We suggest savoring shabushabu in Kyoto’s famous Gion District, specifically at a restaurant called Gion Gyuzen (323 Gionmachikitagawa, Higashiyamaku). Not only is the dinner high-quality here — as well as adventurous at times…jellyfish anyone? — but the dessert is out of this world. While you may be tempted to order the “hokey pokey flavored ice cream” (huh?), go with their decadent banana crepe filled with sweet vanilla ice cream, a thick layer of whipped cream, a full banana, and ribbons of chocolate and caramel syrups.

Sample Traditional Osaka Specialties

Traveling from Kyoto to Osaka you’ll notice a complete shift in culinary philosophy. While in Kyoto the focus of food is the beautiful presentation and showcasing the seasons, Osaka is more practical, crafting dishes that are filling and taste good. Have a true bite of Osaka was at Fuku Ebisu (7-6 Soemoncho Tyuoku) where you can try regional specialties like takoyaki, giant octopus fritters drenched in a barbecue like sauce with about 30 other ingredients. The dish features contrasting textures, crispy on the outside, yet creamy and oozing filling on the inside.

There’s also okonomiyaki, which is like a pancake-meets-omelet topped with anything from cheese and corn to shrimp, pork and bonito flakes as topping that melt onto the concoction as it grills right on your table. Shown in the video above you’ll see tonpeiyaki — similar to okonomiyaki — a cabbage and pork-filled omelet topped with rich sweet and savory sauce, mayo and bonito flakes that melt while it’s grilling.

sake tasting

Sake-tasting in Nara. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.

Visit The Birthplace Of Sake

In Nara Town, located less than an hour from Kyoto and Osaka, one will find a number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, classic Edo Period-style buildings, and, as told by multiple sources, the birthplace of sake. During Nara’s time as Japan’s first international capital from 710 to 784 sake was brewed in the imperial palace, and was eventually made in the local temples. It was in Nara, according to Sake World, that the ideas of using both koji rice and the straight rice, fermenting in different stages, pasteurization, filtering and making a yeast starter began.

At Harushika Sake Brewery (24-1 Fukuchi in-cho, 81-742-23-2255) one can do a tasting of high quality sakes — probably better than what the monks were drinking in ancient times — and have been doing so since 1884. Their philosophy is “Polish the rice, the water, the technique and the mind.” For 500 Japanese Yen (about $5) you’ll get a locally hand-made tasting glass and the option to try five different sakes, each very different the last.

A typical tasting includes an extra dry crisp sake with stone fruit aromas, a dry yet fruity seasonal sake, a light slight warm Gold Medal-winning sake, a sweet wooden barrel-fermented sake and a fizzy cloudy sake where the yeast was still alive in the bottle. Each sip is smooth and refreshing, and for those who have only ever had cheap sake, quite a surprise.

Fun fact: Koji Rice, which is infected with Aspergillus Oryzae mold, is imperative for the making of sake as it breaks down rice starch into sugar, which then gets fermented into alcohol.

Kushiage

Kushiage. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.

Kushiage With A Side Of Chocolate

While Japanese dining is generally healthy, there is one style of dining that packs on a bit more calories — but is worth it. Kushiage refers to eating deep fried foods on a skewer. Although the restaurant typically prepares these deep fried delicacies for you, there’s an eatery in Osaka’s Minami neighborhood, located near Namba Station, that provides more of a do-it-yourself experience: Kushiya Monogatari (Nanbanaka 2-10-70, Nanba Parks 6F). Raw beef, mushrooms, shrimp, salmon, chicken tenderloin, sweet potato, squid and more are showcased behind sliding plastic casing you can open and put on your plate.

Once your dish is topped with raw proteins, you’ll choose your sauces — there about about 10 options — and create two bowls of wet flour and yam mixture as well as breading. In the center of your table is oil and baskets for you to deep fry your own skewers and be a chef for the day. When you feel fried out, fruit, raw vegetables, pastas and salads offer a fresher taste, while gelatins, an ice cream sundae station and decadent chocolate fountain with marshmallows, pretzel sticks and donut bites sweeten the experience.

Yakiniku (Korean-Style Barbecue)

You may be thinking, “Why would I want to eat Korean barbecue when I’m in Japan?”.  Actually, yakiniku is an important part of Japanese culinary culture, as it takes the Korean-style of cooking and puts a Japanese spin on it with the local ingredients and is a typically dining style of the Japanese. During the Korean War, Korean restaurants in Japan were divided into North Korean and South Korean, while yakiniku remained as the one way to eat both. What’s interesting is that in many other countries like China and Taiwan people refer to yakiniku as Japanese barbecue, although in Japan this is debatable. Wherever you believe it originated, there’s no denying the Japanese love it, and rightly so.

One recommended venue to savor yakiniku is Kisshan (Namba dining maison 8F) in Osaka, where for about $50 you’ll grill your own meats and vegetables over a griddle heated by wooden charcoals in a private room. Savor beef tongue, Kuroge Wagyu beef, chicken, pork, onion, peppers and yams hot off the flame. There are also already prepared dishes like kimchis, bibimbap (mixed rice with vegetables) and, to end the experience, a sweet vanilla custard pudding. This restaurant is within Namba Station.

Have you visited Japan’s Kansai Region? What’s your recommended epicurious experience? Please share in the comments below.

*Featured image courtesy of William Cho

 

New York City for Foodies: Restaurants Without the Snob Factor

July 30, 2014 by  

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The Ellington

New York City gets a bad rep for having some pretty pretentious restaurants. But the truth is, there is an array of delicious venues offering sophisticated settings with inviting atmospheres. Whether you’re looking for a great date spot, a memorable meal or a place to spend time with friends, the following NYC restaurants offer the aesthetics without the stuffiness.

The Ellington

For a truly unpretentious dining experience that also features delicious food, The Ellington offers a country kitchen–meets–shabby chic ambience and a menu of homemade dishes. The owners felt that the neighborhood had been waiting for a bar and kitchen that could offer a mix of American comfort food and European cuisine. Because owner Glenda Sansone’s family background is a mix of European and American, it was easy to meld the flavors of the two cultures.

Dishes are simple—a scotch egg served with chilled English mustard; a flatbread with homemade fig jam and fresh ricotta; cumberland sausage with mashed potatoes, onion gravy and braised red cabbage—and add to The Ellington’s cozy neighborhood hangout ambiance.

It’s the type of place that isn’t trying to top the trends, but rather create a space that people return to based on flavorful feel-good meals, extremely friendly service and affordable menu items (entrees range from $9 to $21). And because they’re a neighborhood restaurant, they source locally when possible. For example, their English sausage, pork pies and scotch eggs are delivered every other day fresh from Myers of Keswick, a British grocery store in Manhattan.

Almayass

“When the hanging leaves dance to the rhythm of a delicate breeze”—that’s the essence of the Lebanese Arabic word Almayass. So it’s fitting that the restaurant offers authentic Lebanese dishes as well as meals influenced by the restaurant family’s Armenian heritage. The upscale yet laid-back setting will makes you feel like you’re in an Armenian home with lively colours and artwork by Armenian artists.

Credit: Almayass

Come hungry, as portions are generous and their menu is extensive, featuring salads, kebabs, hot appetizers, cold appetizers, grilled seafood, marinated meats and much more.

We recommend sampling one of their traditional Lebanese dishes, like the fattoush salad made with tomato, fresh mint, purslane, cucumber, radish, sumac, parsley, fresh lemon and olive oil dressing with fried pita bread; kebbe naye, a spiced fresh tartar meat with crushed wheat; or a chicken kebab served with fresh garlic paste.

And no meal at Almayass would be complete without sampling one of their many delectable hummus varieties, containing added ingredients like Spanish pine nuts, diced filet mignon and Armenian beef sausage. While they have an extensive wine list with varietals from all over the globe, we recommend opting for a bottle from Lebanon to really get a taste of the culture (they have over 20 Lebanon vintages!).

Sotto 13

Located on a quiet street with a residential feel, Sotto 13 is a warm and sophisticated space serving up Italian-style tapas, wood-fired pizzas, Italian wines, craft cocktails and delectable dishes with surprising flavor combinations.

As soon as you walk in, you’ll be warmly greeted by your host, with management and staff taking good care of you throughout your dining experience. It’s the type of place where you become friendly with your servers and feel like family by the time you leave.

Credit: Sotto 13

Some top menu choices include crispy wild mushroom pizza with three cheeses and truffle oil; grilled octopus served on top of fingerling potatoes with a side of pesto sauce; wood-fired oven meatballs with creamy ricotta; and a selection of decadent dessert pizzas.

The space is filled with modern artwork, a pristine marble bar, plush banquettes, a skylight that floods in light during the day, candlelit tables at night and a menu filled with satisfying dishes that are also affordable (everything on the menu is under $20). They also serve a budget-friendly brunch on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., where for $29 you can enjoy two tapas and one side dish, or your choice of wood-fired pizza with unlimited brunch cocktails.

For some fun, opt for their Do-It-Yourself Prosecco Bar, where you can make your own Prosecco cocktails using fresh juices, liqueurs and add-ons like fresh fruit and candied ginger. On Wednesdays, don’t miss their happy hour from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. for half-price drinks and free tapas.

Junoon

For a bit of spice in your meal, Junoon is a contemporary Michelin Star modern Indian restaurant offering impeccable service, fresh seasonal dishes, great deals, and an impressive selection of over 750 wines, and an introduction to pairing wines with aromatic spices.

The menu features traditional Indian dishes that showcase the diverse cooking styles and ingredients throughout the country— flatbreads, the generous use of dairy and central Asian influences from the north; spicy vegetarian dishes heavy on coconut and curry and rice from the south; and fresh seafood from the coastal cities—all with global touches.

For example, their fluke tadka, a dish of raw fluke topped with mustard seed and curry leaf, sauteed in green chili oil, features a Japanese influence, while the saag paneer is a poached paneer gnocchi with spiced spinach puree and Omani lemon crisp, is inspired by French cooking.

Credit: Junoon

Junoon is passionate about sustainability so you can expect organic and ethically-sourced ingredients in your meal. While Junoon may be an upmarket establishment, its main objective isn’t to make patrons feel like they’re dining in the hippest restaurant in NYC, but to introduce them to classic Indian hospitality, spices, dishes and innovative ways to present and pair. Don’t leave without exploring the Spice Room, where you can view the exotic herbs and spices they craft into special blends. Tip: Those on a budget should visit during lunch, when for $25 you can enjoy an appetizer, main course and non-alcoholic beverage.

Victor’s Cafe

New York’s oldest Cuban restaurant opened in 1963, and since then, the family-owned and -operated Victor’s Cafe has been a place where patrons go to hangout (one regular has been there everyday for 11 years), locals go to experience the flavours of Cuba, and tourists can experience an NYC tradition frequented by celebrities like Barbara Walters, Liza Minelli and Pitbull.

Despite the big names, you don’t need to be on the “A List” to be treated like family, as the Del Corral-Zaldivars are passionate about making everyone feel at home—Victor’s granddaughter Monica manages the restaurant with the help of her mom, Sonia. Over the years, traditional family recipes have been revamped to be healthier and also reflect what Cuban food may have been if the country had evolved with the times, with an emphasis on staple ingredients enhanced by herbs and spices.

Credit: Victor's Cafe

Some must-try traditional dishes on the menu include ropa vieja, a slow-braised and pulled skirt steak in garlic, tomato, onion and pepper sauce; camarones encillados, pink shrimp, creole sauce, boniato mash and boniato crisps; and lechon asado, a Cuban-style roast suckling pig. Pair your meal with a “Victor’s Signature Mojito,” crafted with fresh lime, sugar cane, simple syrup and Atlantico rum for an upmarket twist on the classic Bacardi.

For a traditional ending with a Victor’s spin, the “Vitico” takes a customary Cuban after-dinner espresso shot and adds Voli Espresso Vanilla Vodka and blue agave. And because the establishment has three different dining rooms, you can choose to kick back in a Moroccan-inspired lounge, a bright Havana-style lounge with colorful murals and large tropical waving fans; or a private art deco room with a mural of Santiago de Cuba commissioned by Victor.

 

 

5 Things For Your Must Do South Africa List

July 29, 2014 by  

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safari

 

South Africa has much to offer travelers: quality wine, exotic wildlife, farm-to-fork food, natural beauty, a rich culture and, possibly the number one reason to visit, diverse adventure. Whether you’re interested in interacting with predators, hang-gliding over mountains, jumping from the world’s highest bungy or having a serene balloon experience, you can find it in South Africa. To help you plan an adrenaline-pumping itinerary, here are some essential South African experiences for the adventurous traveler.

1. A South African Safari

It’s one thing to view a predator behind bars in a zoo; it’s another to be so close to them you can see their sharp teeth while they devour a 2,000-pound buffalo. A South African Safari takes you from simply viewing wildlife as a bystander to being immersed in it, seeing daily life in the bush for these exotic creatures. For most, the main goal is spotting the Big Five, a title referring to the most difficult animals to hunt on foot. This includes the African elephant, Cape buffalo, lion, leopard and rhinoceros.

Typically, safari camps are all-inclusive with delicious meals and the accommodation class of your choosing. Along with jeep drives, bush trekking is often part of the experience, meaning you’ll be venturing into the wild on foot to seek out these potentially life-threatening animals. Just make sure for this adrenaline rush you don’t go without an armed guide. For your best chances of seeing animals head to Kruger National Park, touted as having the highest concentration of wildlife in Africa.

table mountain views

Table Mountain views. Photo courtesy of South African Tourism.

2. Hang-gliding Over Table Mountain

One of South Africa’s most surreal adventures can be had in Cape Town: hang-gliding over Table Mountain, one of the New7Wonders of Nature. This flat-top summit sits shrouded in clouds and flanked by dramatic peaks along the Table Bay Harbour coast, with an elevation of 1,084.6 meters. Lion’s Head is the launch site for the flight, where you’ll literally don wings and fly over peaks, beaches and city for an aerial view of the destination. Instead of using power, the aircraft uses “ridge lifts” from the mountains to propel you.

For those who prefer land, hiking up Table Mountain is also an option. There are over 900 routes to choose from, including both day and multi-day hikes and climbs. Most visitors choose Platteklip Gorge as it’s the most accessible while still providing a steep two- to three-hour uphill challenge. Another popular route is Skeleton Gorge to Maclear’s Beacon, which takes you through indigenous forest to the mountain’s highest point, with an optional reservoir beach detour along the way. And for the truly adventurous, Hiddingh-Ascension offers a rugged and remote challenge through Table Mountain’s more untouched wilderness.

crocodiles

Photo courtesy of Cango Wildlife Ranch

3. Crocodile Cage Diving

The Cango Wildlife Ranch in Oudtshoorn offers a lesser-known activity for daredevils: cage-diving with crocodiles. Thrill-seekers contained in a bite-proof cafe are lowered into a pool to get close to 4-meter long, 410-kilogram Nile crocodiles. These ancient reptiles are known for their aggressive nature, razor-sharp teeth and varied diet as they’ll hunt and eat just about anything (including you if you’re not careful!). And while at first this may seem less scary than shark diving, these crocodiles have a bite pressure of over two tonnes per square inch — four times as hard as a great white shark! Think about this while you’re underwater and the crocs are staring you in the eye and trying to stick their noses in the cage.

hot air balloon

Photo courtesy of South African Tourism

4. Flying On A Hot Air Balloon Safari

For something exciting that’s a bit less intense, a sunrise hot air balloon safari over the Magaliesberg Ranges and the Cradle of Humankind allows you to experience the thrill of flying in a serene manner. The balloon reaches heights over 1,800 meters depending on the wind conditions, allowing you to take in colorful crop circles, the Magalies Dam and River and the surrounding peaks while keeping your eyes peeled for South Africa’s exotic wildlife. The experience ends with an expansive Champagne breakfast.

bungy jumping

Photo courtesy of Face Adrenalin

5. Conquer The World’s Highest Bungy Bridge Jump

Bloukrans Bridge in Tsitsikamma is officially the world’s highest bungy bridge jump at 216 meters, allowing you to free-fall over the Bloukrans River. There’s no doubt this attraction will leave you with butterflies and sweaty palms as you propel yourself off the edge, going against your natural instinct to keep yourself alive. That being said the company has a 100% safety record; not to mention the views of the surrounding South African wilderness will help you forget your fears.

What, no shark cage diving? Most of you probably have heard South Africa has some of the world’s best shark cage diving — and it does; however, in my opinion it’s not the most ethical or authentic adventure experience one can have and it doesn’t feel right to recommend such an excursion. Andrew Evans of Intelligent Travel wrote a very insightful article on this, which you can read by clicking here.

My trip to South Africa was sponsored by the South African Tourism. Top photo courtesy of South African Tourism.

 

Novelist Scott Bergstrom’s WWII-Era European Passport Collection

July 29, 2014 by  

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polish passport

The Polish passport that started Mr. Bergstrom’s unique collection

It started with the passport of a young Polish woman named Zofja. Scott Bergstrom, author of the novel The Cruelty, discovered it in an antique store in Austria and bought it for a few euros.

“I remember thinking it was odd and a little tragic to have something so personal sell for so little,” he notes.

Today, Scott has over thirty official passports, ID cards and journals in his rare historical documents collection. Most are from Europe, dating from the 1920s to early 1950s, representing a time of unprecedented growth and innovation as well as the deadliest military conflict in history. Each document is unique with an individual story to tell. A few have family photos tucked inside and some may be the last remaining record of a life once lived.

As Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” Here Scott talks about why our stories are important and his personal quest to ensure the lives glimpsed in these documents are never forgotten.

Why this collection?

I’m fascinated by history, and more specifically, political history. All these documents represent in some way the intersection of the individual and the state. When I first started collecting these, what struck me was that no two can ever be alike. There are many Romanian passports but only one issued to this particular person; only one with this specific history of entry and exit stamps. That was critical: the idea that every document is different.

colorful diary

Colorful diary from Mr. Bergstrom’s collection

What about this time period interests you?

The Second World War reorganized the world, and it was also a time of great ideological struggle. Communism, capitalism, and fascism were all brought together in this great conflagration and these individuals were caught in the middle.

Where do you find the documents?

Usually in secondhand stores throughout Europe. You can pick them up for almost nothing. Some of them I’ve found tucked into old books at these stores. Very occasionally I’ll buy one off of eBay, but it’s far more fun to discover them organically in some little crate tucked into a junk shop’s back room. I feel like I’m rescuing these documents from being lost forever.

czech diary

Czech student’s diary

Where is the most unusual place you’ve discovered one?

There’s a junk shop in Prague run buy a strange old man who speaks something around seven languages. His shop is more of an attic with items spread around without any organization whatsoever. There are no price tags, he makes up a price with every item and every customer. There I found a student’s diary from the 1930s written in a strange rural Czech dialect. It was mostly about the girl’s life, but it also contained recipes for herbal medicines and tinctures. There were also dried cuttings from the plants she referenced.

NKVD agent

NKVD agent ID card

Which documents resonate with you most?

I have an ID card from an attractive NKVD agent—that’s the forerunner to the KGB. There’s also a Bulgarian passport featuring a stamp from a Nazi border patrol that with a prominent swastika and the German word for “Invalid” in big bold letters. But the most compelling has to be a diary of an ordinary German woman. It spans the years 1942-1957 and is a meticulous record of her experiences during the war and her life afterward. From what I’ve been able to translate, there are no extraordinary revelations in it, but it’s all heartfelt and deeply personal.

bulgarian passport

Bulgarian passport

Why do our stories matter?

Our individual stories and narratives fill out our understanding of history. In school we learn about events and ideas—but these events and ideas impose themselves on the lives of real people. In a sense, individual stories are the only kind of history we can say is truly real. The rest is just abstraction.

When I see the passport of a Bulgarian man traveling from Vienna to Bucharest to Trieste, we don’t know whether he was traveling for work, to see a lover, or to find his family. What we do know is that the journey was fraught with all sorts of political peril. What kept him awake at night? The threat of a Luftwaffe air raid? That his girlfriend or boyfriend had been arrested? Or that he might not make an important sale? In the end, we have no idea. All we can do is fill in the gaps with our imagination.

How do you plan to display the collection?

I’m working to publish all the documents online. Hopefully the public will set upon them like locusts and provide not just full translations, but any additional information. The ultimate goal would be to find the rightful owners of these documents. I’d happily give each and every one away if I knew it was going back home again.

nazi letter

Nazi letter

Are you planning to try to contact the families?

I would love nothing more than to return these documents to the descendants of the people to whom they belonged. I feel like I’m just keeping them from harm until their rightful owners show up. This is particularly the case with the diary of the German woman. It simply must be important to someone out there.

What do you hope people take away from this collection?

The notion that history doesn’t exist in a vacuum. These ideas and long-ago events impacted individual lives. Especially in the United States, we feel removed from the vagaries of history, that history is something that happens to someone else. But here are the counterexamples, the men and women and children whose lives were upended by history.

*All photos courtesy of Scott Bergstrom from his collection

Contributed by Abby Sugrue, a travel blogger, documenting her misadventures on her site, Breakfast Included.

 

 

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