Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Smitten with Schmitten

Now this is a white Christmas (Kitzsteinhorn)
We've skied some pretty amazing resorts while living in Austria -- Bad Gastein, Stubaier Glacier, and Bad Kleinkirchheim -- but nothing quite like the two in Kaprun:  Schmitten and Kitzsteinhorn.  Kaprun is a quaint Austrian town situated on a lake -- Zell am See -- featuring year-round recreation:  365-days-a-year skiing (glacier skiing at Kitzsteinhorn in the summer), mountain biking, hiking, climbing, swimming, and paddling.  I'm not sure if it was because several inches of snow fell during our three days of skiing or because the terrain was unlike anything I'd skied in Austria (certainly a combination of both) since Schmitten is, at least for now, my favorite resort in Austria with Kitzsteinhorn a close second.  The terrain at Schmitten reminded me a lot of the terrain at Snowbird, Utah:  easily accessible and extensive off-piste terrain, steep groomers, and trails unlikely to see a snow cat all season.  Great terrain and fresh snow = great turns. 

Let it snow!  Let it snow!  Let it snow!
We arrived in Kaprun on Friday evening, skied Schmitten on Christmas Eve, headed over to Kitzsteinhorn on Christmas Day, then hit up Schmitten again the day after Christmas.  We were hopeful and optimistic that we'd arrive to decent snow conditions but were prepared to turn this ski vacation into more of a apres ski vacation -- this hasn't been the snowiest winter in Austria -- so we were pleasantly surprised when we arrived to lightly falling snow that progressively got heavier as Christmas Eve wore on.


On Christmas morning it was sunny, clear, and crisp with several inches of fresh snow...a Christmas miiiiiirrrraaaacle!  (And for the second consecutive year:  last year we also woke to fresh powder on Christmas day.) 
Fresh tracks accessible from a t-bar.  Go figure.
Praise Father Christmas!
Hurry, fresh tracks await!
I'm trying to go that way really fast but I think something -- a snow-covered rock? -- is in my way
This is one reason to be smitten with Schmitten...
...and this another.  The reason, in fact.
Not so graceful tumble in the powder but I skied out of it.  Really.
About to carve up these slopes like a Christmas turkey!
And the chicken, too!
A wonderful Christmas break even if the Abominable Snowman had taken up residence just outside our apartment:
Don't try anything, Mr. Snowman.  We know how to carve.

Frohe Weihnachten aus Österreich!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Patatas Bravas & Mashed Potatoes

This year Lisa and I celebrated Thanksgiving twice:  the first being the Sunday prior when we prepared a traditional mini-Thanksgiving feast and the second being Thanksgiving day when we wandered around Barcelona.  Our pre-Thanksgiving feast featured all the usual items (albeit in smaller quantities) -- slow-cooked turkey breast, mashed potatoes & gravy, green beans with slivered almonds, made-from-scratch cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie -- whereas our actual Thanksgiving meal was a couple rounds of mojitos, some sangria, a small bag of potato chips, and, eventually, several tapas dishes.  And instead of cold and dreary weather in Vienna, it was sunny and warm in Barcelona.  The sunshine alone was reason enough to pour forth the gratitude on this Thanksgiving weekend... 
Dusk settling over Barcelona harbor
Then there was the overflowing-with-mint mojito.  Thank you, Cubans.
Mintiest mojito I've ever had
And the indulgent, greasy goodness of a bag of potato chips:  Thank you, American chef behind the creation of the modern-day potato chip.
Potato chips, mashed potatoes -- I suppose either one will do for Thanksgiving day
And thanks to those who didn't openly ridicule our fashion faux pas:  twinners!  
Lapping it up on the tiled, sinewy bench surrounding the Banc de Trencadis at the Park Guell
Also a nod to that which inspired such architectural brilliance from Antoni Guadi:
The La Sagrada Familia Cathedral anchors the city and is still under construction after more than 100 years
This facade is the real deal
The interior of this cathedral rivals that of any other cathedral in the world
Lastly, thank you, Spain, for the genius behind combining fruit and wine and bringing chocolate back to the Old World. 
A (nutritious!) meal in a glass...
Moderately spiced patatas bravas complimenting a sweet and fruity sangria
Spanish hot chocolate so ridiculously thick and sweet...
...it's served in a mini-mug with a spoon.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Österreichische Biere!

"He was a wise man who invented beer." ~ Plato

Virtually every country seems to have at least one -- sometimes several -- locally brewed beers.  To paraphrase Frank Zappa, a real country has a flagship beer, airline, perhaps a football (soccer?) team, and maybe a stockpile of nuclear weapons, although at the very least, it needs a beer.  And Austria (a real country -- woohoo!), fortunately, has quite a few beers...which we set out to sample and test our skill in identifying which-was-which with several of our friends.  The setup of our beer tasting-testing party was simple:  every person would be allowed to sample/taste each of the beers then when they were ready to move onto the testing, another person would retrieve a list containing a random shuffling of the order in which the beers should be tested.  I created each beer-testing sequence using the random number generator from Stata (a statistical program I use) -- you can find the program I wrote here -- then I compared each sequence to all the others to verify that no two sequences were the same.  (And I wonder why progress on my dissertation is so s-l-o-w??)  The six beers Lisa and I chose for the party are among the more popular in Austria -- Gosser, Ottakringer, Puntigamer, Schwechater, Stiegl, & Zipfer -- and some of which a few of us were confident we'd be able to easily identify and distinguish from the others.  Turns out our confidence was grossly misplaced:  the overwhelming majority of us came up with just one correct answer.  Oh well, at least it was a reason to stock our fridge with 72 half-liter (~17 ounce) cans of beer! 

Friday, November 11, 2011

This Bud's For You

And you, you, and you...although the Bud we're talking about is the original (real) Budweiser brewed in České Budějovice in the Czech Republic.  The original Budweiser Beer was founded in 1785 and then in 1895, a separate group of Czech brewers founded another company -- named Budvar -- that also brewed and exported a beer by the name of Budweiser. This second company is the one brewing, bottling, and distributing the beer known as Budweiser to most of the world, the United States and Canada excepted.  (In the US and Canada, Budweiser Budvar is sold under the label Czechvar.)  If you want an Anheuser-Busch Budweiser in a European country (except for the UK), you'll have to look for the beer labeled as "Bud".  Fortunately for Lisa, me, and two of our friends, we weren't drawing such distinctions while at this brewery:  we just followed the tour guide around and praised all things lager. 
"I love you, Budweiser Budvar."  "No, I love you more."
So much love to go around...sampling the beer in the lager cellars before it's bottled.
Our weekend trip to the Czech Republic, however, was more than just a tour of the Budweiser Budvar brewery:  we spent most of it in Český Krumlov -- a quaint, historic town about a three hour drive from Vienna -- wandering around, eating, and shopping.  A leisurely weekend, to be sure.
Flesh-feast for one!
Wandering the cobble-stone streets.
Český Krumlov
"WWJD -- What Would Jesus Drink?  Glühwein!"

Monday, October 31, 2011

Pasta in Toscana

Lisa and I love to eat.  And to cook.  Both the eating and the cooking, however, have taken on larger roles in our lives in the last year or so for a couple of reasons.  First, eating -- as an activity and a means of sustenance -- seem more important and less compartmentalized here in Europe and two, we've gravitated more toward the 'real food' and sustained agriculture views articulated by Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and the like.  I remember reading somewhere (probably the NY Times) that Americans spend a much lower proportion of their income on food relative to their European peers and that this may not, actually, be a good thing.  Now don't get me wrong -- I'm certainly not implying that food insecurity and going to bed hungry is in any way a good thing -- but when an entire generation has been raised on mass-produced, low-cost, high-sugar, high-sodium, barely-qualifies-as-food (Doritos!), you develop a new appreciation for what you put into your body (and how you do it) when you move to a part of the world where eating is an experience -- not just a means to an end.  For example, when you dine out here in Austria (and the surrounding countries) and reserve a table, you essentially own that table for the entire evening.  You can enjoy a leisurely three- or four-course meal over the course of a few hours with no pressure, implied or not, to leave as soon as you finish.  Turning the table as quickly and frequently as possible isn't (yet?) the predominant restaurant business model.  Digression aside, though, the dining & shopping experiences Lisa and I are having here in Austria coupled with our changing views on eating and it how it figures into our lives (and that of the larger world) have dovetailed into expanding how and what we cook -- and eat.  And we do that by way of cooking classes. 

The first class we took together was in Istanbul -- a single evening affair where we learned to make, among other items, red lentil soup, imam bayildi (eggplant braised in olive oil with onion & tomato), and dolmasi (vine leaves stuffed with minced meat).  In the second class we took, however, we upped the ante:  we registered for a two-day Italian cooking course in the Chianti region of Tuscany where, in addition to the cooking, you also stay with the Italian family in their house out in the Tuscan countryside.  The cooking school is called Toscana Mia, is run by two fifty-something sisters (Simonetta & Paola), and has been featured in several travel publications, Budget Travel among them.  We arrived late one afternoon, deposited our things, wandered around for an hour or so, then settled in for a "light" dinner:  several types of cured ham (man on pork love!), an array of cheeses, salad, and -- of course -- Chianti to drink. 
The Tuscan countryside
The next two days were structured essentially the same:  breakfast with the family in the morning followed by 3-4 hours of hands-on cooking with the instructors preparing 4-5 different recipes.  Lunch was what the class prepared.  We prepared many dishes, although the standouts were the bruschetta, made-from-scratch spinach and ricotta cheese ravioli, roasted pork, tiramisu, salsa al aglione (spicy tomato-based sauce), and biscotti.  This was an Italian food-lovers paradise. 
Tiramisu batter:  a dollop for me, a dollop for the pan... 
Mad tomato chopping skillz!
Rolling out pasta dough prior to...
...running it through some sort of pasta-dough flattening contraption...
...before cutting and folding it into spinach-and-ricotta cheese ravioli!
Day one was also a birthday celebration (of sorts) since there were a handful of us in the class with birthdays in early-October.  A round of peach-gelato infused Prosecco for everyone!
Lunch was followed by an excursion to a winery...
I don't think I'd be very productive if I were a vintner...
"If God forbade drinking, would he have made wine so good?"  ~Cardinal Richeleu
Day two:
Lisa is the more experienced, skilled, and resourceful cook between us...
...whereas maybe I should stick to eating.
"You may have mocked me before, made-from-scratch Pici pasta, but you're no match for me now!"
Lisa and I posing with our Italian/Tuscan cooking guides at the end of the two days...
"We have confidence in your future cooking endeavors, Lisa, although Clint we aren't so sure about."

Monday, October 24, 2011

Wandering Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre ("the five lands") is a beautiful and rugged stretch of coast along the Italian Riviera composed of five villages -- Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, & Riomaggiore -- that, along with the surrounding hillsides, form the Cinque Terre National Park.  The villages are largely devoid of large-scale corporate development and infrastructure so getting around the region is best by footpath, train, or boat.  (Lisa and I drove to the southernmost village -- Riomaggiore -- rather than take a train since our two-and-half days in Cinque Terre were part of a week-long road trip that included Cinque Terre and Tuscany.)  We arrived in late-afternoon then wandered down to a rocky alcove to lounge around while the sun set. 
Sun setting over the Mediterranean
"I could get used to this!"
"And I to this:  Aperol Spritz and potato chips!"
The primary footpath connecting the five villages -- Sentiero Azzuro -- is suppose to take about five hours to walk although when we were there, the leg between Manarola and Corniglia was closed due to a landslide so hikers were directed on a detour that added one to two hours to their journey.  Most of the trail between Riomaggiore and Monterosso is pretty tame, especially the paved section between Riomaggiore and Manarola. 
The southern terminus of Sentiero Azzuro
Once you leave Manarola, the trail starts to ascend the cliffs overlooking the villages and sea... 
Manarola
View to the south
View to the north
...and continues its up-then-down meander through Corniglia, Vernazza, and then eventually to Monterosso al Mare. 
Vernazza in the background
Afternoon sun over the Mediterranean
View of the Cinque Terre coastline from the northern end
Lisa and I also hiked the following day -- approximately 20 miles -- on a ridge-line trail high above the coast. 
Some of the trail signage we encountered
Looking back from the trail
Looking forward from the trail
Dusk settling upon the Italian Riviera
Another stellar sunset
Our destination on the second day of hiking was Levanto, the first town north of Monterosso:. 
The best beach among all the towns we'd wandered through
And when we arrived, we promptly seated ourselves at the nearest beach bar and ordered a couple of drinks.  No better way to conclude two days in Cinque Terre than this:
Paradise