Wet Hamburger – Istanbul’s Fast Food

If you happen to be in Istanbul, and you should help the fortune, try wet hamburgers – Istanbul’s fast food specialty. And please don’t judge a book by its cover. The wet hamburgers or ıslak hamburger in Turkish look as the name may suggest: quite nasty. There are no veggies inside, just lots of some special tomato sauce. They are soft, soaked… wet! But even though you have most probably already lost your appetite, consider that both the sauce and the meat are something what you will never get by McDonald’s. They are not industrially prepared and you can enjoy both the original taste of meat and tomatoes. It is not tastiness ‘made in biotech companies’. In the Old World artificial flavoring is still relatively unwelcomed. Not that impedes me to visit McDonald’s from time to time, but I can immediately notice the difference as soon as I get something more natural. As to the wet hamburgers, they seem to be popular in Istanbul among the locals and I had them more than once with my Turkish friends. It is not sophisticated food, but still good, convenient and somehow exotic.

I’ve found out that there is already a nice post about this specialty on the Lonely Planet website. One piece of information over there is however mistaken: you can find the wet hamburgers not only at the Taksim square. Among many places around Istanbul, good ones are also the burgers on the Bağdat Avenue/Caddesi, which is a very lively and posh street on the Asian side but astonishingly there are still no tourists over there.


The finest Byelorussian vodka with honey and chili

Plenty of average vodkas are about a spirit, which burns your mouth and makes you quickly drunk. There is really not much to enjoy unless you mix it with some other drink that covers the unspectacular taste. But also vodka may be a very differentiated product and offer everything from undrinkable cleaning alcohol to fine quality creations.

I like especially the sorts, which are naturally aromatized, stressing the adjective ‘naturally’. A good example is Bulbash (Бульбашъ) vodka with honey and cayenne pepper. A bottle of this golden spicy and fragrant spirit with a piece of red cayenne pepper on the bottom like a ship on seabed may both brighten a party and make every conversation more vivid. It may be drunk pure and probably it should, as smooth and aromatic as it is.

Finding Bulbash outside Belarus may not be easy, unless you are for instance in Russia. Fortunately there is a similar product of more available brand from Ukraine: Nemiroff. I saw their products in many country and they are really convenient, considering the quality.

Moscato d’Asti – drinking with your grandma

‘Moscato is Piemonte’s signature white grape, responsible for sparkling Asti and, distinctively superior, fizzy Moscato d’Asti, the epitome of sweet Muscat grapes in its most celebratory form’.

This is the opinion about Moscato d’Asti held by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, which can be found in their great ‘World Atlas of Wine’ (2010, p. 160). Knowing this wine by myself, I can’t help but defer to their judgment.

Moscato grapes originate most probably from the Eastern parts of the Mediterranean region and were brought to Italy by the Venetian. Their cultivation in Northern Italy is mentioned in numerous documents from the XVI and XVII centuries and the particular affection which the Piedmontese show for them resulted in the proud name of Moscato berries in the region: Oro delle Langhe, that is, gold of Langhe (hilly area of Piedmont famous for its wines, cheese, truffles and sweets).

The very color of these grapes may indeed resemble gold, especially in the sun of early autumn. The wine is somehow golden too. It’s sweet and aromatic, and low in alcohol, reaching only 4,5-6,5%. I guess this is the combination that made it to one of the favorite wines of my grandma. She finds a glass of this nectar comforting, especially after Sunday meals, and every time she enjoys it her eyes are lighten like little girl’s ones. As if she did something delighting but forbidden, or had some secret unshared with anybody.

If only I don’t confuse books and authors, Roger Scruton wrote in his ‘I Drink Therefore I am: A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine’ that Moscato d’Asti is also the wine of choice for his old aunties from London’s suburbs.

But now I’m running the risk to present this product as suitable merely for palates of more experienced generations. Well, this is of course not true. Let’s stress the ‘more experienced’ and trust that our grandmas and aunt know what is good. Fizzy and sweet, Moscato smells like a bunch of wild flowers: robinia, thyme, linden, gillyflower, bird cherry, or catmint. Any further honey plant might complement the list, as Moscato smells of honey, fresh liquid honey.

If you wish to enjoy during a meal, Italian Wikipedia, quite an inerrable source of information considering the media freedom in the Bel Paese, says that in the United States Moscato d’Asti is frequently paired with Indian cuisine. I have no clue whether it’s true or not, but I like the idea. The opulent, low in alcohol but high in redolence wine seems to be the right company for spicy and rich food, which fragrant by itself would dominate light whites we pair with pasta or seafood. Worth trying out!


Barolo chinato – vino da meditazione

Barolo chinato is another unusual kind of wine, or rather a product based on wine. In this case the noble Piedmontese wine of Barolo is first enriched with additional sugar and alcohol. After that there is a range of spices and herbs added and the mixture undergoes a process of maceration. Among them we may find bark of cinchona or quina tree, known as source of quinine, rheum’s and gentian’s roots, cardamom seeds, licorice, star anise, citrus peel, juniper, fennel, cinnamon, wormwood, clove, coriander, marjoram, and many more. The first ingredient is definitely necessary and the aromatized wine derives its name exactly from quina tree (in Italian: china). After the aromatizing process of maceration, wine stay for around a year in wooden barrels.

Barolo chinato was invented by a pharmacist and was initially used as digestive or, drunk heated, as remedy against cold. Nowadays people usually enjoy it after a meal, also as part of a dessert, for example, with dark chocolate, or as vino da meditazione. The latter term means literally ‘wine for meditation’. It is about a product which cannot be paired with a meal or drunk in larger quantities, for instance, during parties. Such wines are usually sweet, of liquorish consistence and higher in alcohol content. They are a particular experience and as such should be enjoyed in a ‘contemplative’ way… or, using the direct translation from Italian, meditated. An Italian sommelier, Mauro Mattei recommends for meditation, for instance, Vernaccia di Oristano, Sagrantino Passito and Barolo Chinato Cappellano:


Further wines fitting this philosophy are among others: Vin SantoRecioto della Valpolicella, Passito di Pantelleria, Aleatico dell’Elba, Moscato Rosa Trentino, Sagrantino di Montefalco Passito, or good fortified wines like Madeira, Port or Sherry.

Barolo chinato I would like to recommend here is from Terre da Vino, which offers good quality without burdening your budget.

When I opened the bottle a wave of scented comforting warmth befell my nose as if I were in a mountain cottage with a fireplace that’s devouring raisin of pine firewood. The opulent and sweet aroma reminded me of Belgian pralines’ milk chocolate, and immediately after that a myriad of spices and herbs appeared. I understood that the first impression had had nothing to do with raisin but rather with Christmas time, which I associate with the wooden cottage of my grandma. It was the smell of cloves and cinnamon from her pastries. But taste was more than sweetness, it was bitter too. A note of wormwood left an aftertaste I knew from my grandma’s house too: she used to give me wormwood infusion for problems with digestion.

The color is deep red with brownish reflexes, like a juice of ripe pomegranate. The round liquorish structure caresses the tongue and leaves on the palate taste of herbs, especially quinine reminding immediately of tonic water. It also seems to pinch your tongue, but it is more about the delicately bitter herbs than alcohol content.

Barolo chinato seems to be a product from some exotic end of the earth, where it could be one of inconceivable creatures, fascinating beasts and beauties, successful or unsuccessful crosses. It is an elegant creation for meditation on cold winterish days or as a remedy on one of gloomy autumnal evenings when your nerves are raw and cold lies in wait for you.

Guacamole – the simpler the better

Before I went to Mexico first time I had been convinced that my guacamole with garlic, scallion and parsley is really good. Then, I discovered the whole spectrum of recipes… better ones.

There is probably no need of telling more about the guacamole itself. This traditional Mexican sauce is well-known in Europe and in the USA it’s even more present in the kitchens than here.

The recipe I’m sharing here comes from my friend from East Lansing, Michigan, who is one of the best cooks I ever met.

You will need only four ingredients: avocado, lime, tomato purée and salt, although you may add also some freshly grounded black pepper. Below some explanations:

AVOCADO: Well, without avocado it won’t work at all. I don’t have any specific sort of avocado to recommend. Whether green or violet, as far as it’s ripe it will taste good!

LIME: Use rather freshly pressed lime and not lemon juice. The taste is really different. Be careful. It’s better to taste your guacamole a few times after having added some lime and before adding more than to put too much at once and ruin the whole sauce.

TOMATO: A little bit of sieved tomatoes makes your guacamole better. Tomato adds a sweeter note to the sauce and offers a counterbalance for the sour lime juice and the salt. One or two tablespoons of tomato purée (passata) should be enough for a sauce made out of one avocado fruit. Too much tomato renders the color undefined and guacamole can lose its appetizing fresh green character.

SALT: Some salt is necessary and you can use whatever salt you have, but consider that the quality of salt can really influence the final effect. My first pick is always fleur de sel (French for flower of salt). Usually I use Slovenian solni cvet from ‘Piranske Soline’. I mentioned it already in my post from October 24. There are also many other great products like ‘Sal de Ibiza’ (Spain) or ‘Sale di Cervia’ (Italy).

Mix it all together and enjoy!

If you wish to have something healthier than nachos, also Swedish knäckebröd (crisp bread or hard bread) works well.

Rías Baixas – Spain’s best whites

source: flickr, by Patricia Rueda

There exist some names whose sound is of particular beauty, even though they mean little or nothing to us and may come from languages we even don’t know. Of course, it is always an individual issue as that ‘beauty’ has something to do with our cultural and linguistic background or associations we have with certain name. For me, one of such names is Rías Baixas, pronounced more or less like ‘Ree-ass By-shass’, whereas the ‘x’ is more like the Polish ‘ś’ or the German ‘ch’ in the pronoun ‘ich’ than the ‘sh’.

Rías Baixas is a wine region in Spain, established as a Denominación de Origen (DO) in 1988. It is situated in the very Northwest of the country and has little in common with the Spain of our holidays. A ría is a topographic term describing a type of coastal inlets, a kind of quite shallow fjord. The term is of Galician origin and originally applied to the Atlantic inlets typical to the coast in Spanish Galicia, but rías can be found also in other regions like England or North Island of New Zealand.

I mentioned the Galician language (galego). It’s a Romance language spoken in the country of Lower Rias (i.e., Rías Baixas or Rías Bajas), most related to Portuguese. Madrid has a really colorful country to rule when we consider that after Spanish there are four co-official languages: Aranese, Basque, Catalan with its Valencian variant, and Galician, and further recognized and unrecognized ones which didn’t enjoy the status of co-official languages in their communities.

To see the linguistic map of Spain check: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/interactive/2011/jan/19/spain-languages-map-interactive

Such a fascinating cultural patchwork is visible in the world of Spanish wine too. Wine not only makes part of the respective regional culture, history and identity, but also reflects them in its style and taste. However, this is true only if we don’t get a bottle of some ‘globalized’ product from too modern wineries and varieties never grown in the area before. Chardonnay made with scientific precision, in a steel tank with some oak chips thrown inside won’t be an expression of the local culture and most probably can taste pretty the same whether from Italy, California, Australia or Hungary. But in Rías Baixas, there is the magnificent Albariño! This is the same variety like Portugal’s Alvarinho, but Galician whites made from these grapes have very little to do with vinho verde. In the majority of cases, it should be considered as a compliment.

Wines from the region are in my opinion the best whites in Spain. Every time I am looking for them in wine shops in Berlin (generally unsuccessful trials) sellers try to convince me that also a bottle from Rueda might be nice. After having believed them a couple of times and having brought such a substitute home, I need to say that they cannot compete in my house with whites from Rías Baixas, at least until someone makes me know some great Rueda white…

I don’t remember to have ever drunk bad wine from this Galician DO. Wines from Rías Baixas are either great or just good. No other options! Well, probably it is my style of wine and I got a little bit uncritical 🙂 Interestingly, these wines remained unknown outside of the region of their origin until the 1990s. Most producers are also small and don’t bring on the market enough cases to export them. Their creations land on Spanish tables, private ones or in good restaurants.

All the great Albariños I had were parts of awesome meals in good restaurants of Madrid and Barcelona. Unfortunately this happened in the times when I wasn’t maintaining a register of wines I liked. So, the first ones which came on the list are convenient supermarket wines (try to find an Albariño in a German supermarket!) drunk with friends during my Easter holidays 2011:

Santeiro, Albariño Cosecha 2009, Pazo de Señoráns S.L.

Abadia do Seixo, Albariño 2009, Bodegas Pazo de Villarei

Especially the second one proved to be a cheerful and charming company during that fresh and rainy spring in Andalucía.

The word ‘pazo’, to be found on the labels of each wine mentioned above, is a Galician word which means as much as ‘manor house’, it is a kind of traditional countryside residence. For me pazos, with their grey stonewalls amidst impressively rich green scenery, resemble more Scottish or English architecture than what I know from Catalonia, Andalucía or Castile.

Albariños are also worth of spending more, let’s say between $20 and $30 per bottle. But if you want to enjoy them with really tasty seafood where the hills surrounding you still hide many Celtic mysteries, go to Galicia… or at least take a good bottle to Scotland or Wales 🙂


Primitivo di Manduria ‘Quattordici‘, by Cantolio, Apulia, Italy

Honestly, I bought this wine because it was a new convenient Primitivo di Manduria I hadn’t known before. This DOC is for me one of the best in Southern Italy. The very name ‘Manduria’ sounds so exotic, almost like Manchuria. The most probable etymology of the former name is however mand-Uria, i.e., before Uria, the political center of Messapians – ancient inhabitants of the region (before Romans). Hence, there are no connections to China.

Concerning the variety – Primitivo, Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson write that it’s identical to the Californian Zinfandel. Primitivo arrived to the ‘heel’ of the Italian Peninsula from what is now Croatia, where it’s known as Crljenak, Pribridrag, Kaštelanac, or Starinski plavac. Altogether, quite an interesting DOC!

Cantolio’s ‘Quattordici’ is a varietal (mono-cépage), that means, it’s done exclusively out of  Primitivo grapes. The result is a silky but round wine, with fine tannins and aroma of wild berries and… This is the point of the post, which is more about ‘philosophy’ of wine drinking than the wine itself. I don’t remember how was the wine. Still, I’m sure it was a simple and well-done product, perfectly balanced: not too acidic, not too ‘bitter’, not to berry-ish, not too alcoholic, not too sweetish, and not too heavy. Doesn’t sound like a very professional description, does it?

That evening I had a friend of mine visiting me. No, I didn’t cook any filet mignon or deer goulash. We had some Austrian venison sausage and Ibores cheese. The wine was finished without us noticing it. We were just talking, laughing and drinking. In retrospect, I have to think about the ancient Greek tradition of symposium, drinking together in a cheerful atmosphere, discussing everything from philosophical problem to the latest rumors. In such a situation, wine is not a drink to be described, analyzed or criticized; it makes part of a feast, where not the wine itself but its stimulating effect is celebrated.

Stuart Piggot wrote in one of his books that he somehow differentiates between great wines to be contemplated and those he enjoys in the evening with his wife. The former are usually too complex to have more than a glass. Even though, just a glass is enough to meditate on wine’s color, smell, taste… in sum, its beauty. By contrast, the latter type of wine is not about perfection and too much complexity, but the bottle gets empty before you’ve even noticed. It’s a decent companion, which makes your evening nice without concentrating your attention too much on itself. What a selfless wine!

The ‘Quattordici’ belongs to the second category, the selfless one, perfectly suitable for any kind of ‘symposium’ 🙂


PS. The wine is bottled by the producer: Cantolio Vini from Apulia, but they do that for a renowned wine trader from Munich: Saffer. That’s why I guess that outside of Germany you shouldn’t expect exactly the same label.