A decade of decadent eats

  • A traditional Swedish seafood dinner at Clarion Post Hotel in Gothenburg, Sweden. Staff File Photo/Andy Castillo

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  • Raw oysters scooped from the bottom of a bay in West Sweden. Staff File Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Staff File Photo/Andy Castillo—

  • Staff File Photo/Andy Castillo—

  • A roadside food cart in Santiago, Mexico. Staff File Photo/Andy Castillo

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  • A cheese plate in Moscow, Russia. Staff File Photo/Andy Castillo

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  • Fresh lobster in Digby, Nova Scotia. Staff File Photo/Andy Castillo

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  • Traditional Russian cuisine on a train from St. Petersburg to Moscow. Staff File Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Andy Castillo Staff Illustration/Andy Castillo

  • Traditional Japanese cuisine in Nagoya, Japan. Staff File Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Traditional Moroccan tomato soup at Aladin Restaurant in Chefchaouen, Morocco. Staff File Photo/Andy Castillo

Staff Writer
Published: 1/2/2020 9:17:57 AM
Modified: 1/2/2020 9:17:36 AM

In the last decade, from fried octopus in Moscow, Russia to “fika” in Gothenburg, Sweden — traditional coffee and a cinnamon bun — to flavorful tacos at Mesa Verde in Greenfield and dinner made over a campfire, I’ve enjoyed an estimated 10,000 meals (give or take a few thousand).

In all that eating, I’ve discovered a few things.

First, that food is intrinsically tied to experience.

My most memorable culinary endeavors in the last decade, for example, are also some of my most memorable cultural experiences.

Second, while I’ve tried many exotic dishes with nuanced and deep flavors, I find that I’m most often drawn to foods that are simple.

Third, through travel, I’ve learned that Western Massachusetts, which I call home, has a lot of great cuisine. The secret is fresh ingredients and a farm-to-table mentality.

Notably, many of my meals over the last decade were forgettable (not to say that they were particularly bad). But others, with bright flavors and tantalizing aromas, have been imprinted on my memory forever.

Manama, Bahrain, 10

If there’s one thing travel has taught me, it’s that the best cuisine is often found at unassuming hole-in-the-wall eateries.

I found this to be the case in the summer of 2013 at a quiet streetside restaurant amid the bustling middle eastern city of Manama, Bahrain.

There, I ate the best shwarma sandwich I’ve ever had.

While I don’t recall the restaurant’s name, I remember the sandwich — shaved lamb wrapped in khubz flatbread with veggies and french fries, smothered in housemade sauce. The mingling savory flavors were offset by interesting texture — the chewy wrap and the satisfying crunch of the French fries.

 

Bern, Switzerland, 9

A unique location and an interesting atmosphere can enhance the simplest of foods.

While traveling through Bern, Switzerland in the winter of 2014, for example, I accidentally boarded the first-class section of a train bound for Italy.

I was in my early 20s, footloose and adventurous, with a few dollars to my name, excited to see the world. Travel-weary and hungry, I tore off pieces of fresh bread I’d picked up at the train station and dipped them into a fresh jar of Nutulla. The simplicity of ingredients — soft bread, sweet spread — juxtaposed to the lavish leather seats and ambient music playing over speakers paired well. I enjoyed that upper-class break until a conductor redirected me to another car.

Rome, Italy, 8

Further along on that same 2014 Euro-trip, I missed a train in Italy and wound up stranded at an out-of-the-way station somewhere between Milan and Rome around 11 p.m.

Without anywhere to go, I wandered through a quiet adjoining town until I found a pizza joint that was still open. It was my first experience with authentic Italian-made pizza — two slices sandwiched together and served in a paper pocket. The crust was crispy and thin; the cheese was bursting with flavor and not too greasy; the sauce was earthy and magnificent. Combined with cool air and a late-night Italian street scene, it was perfect.

Capping that memorable night, later, I talked my way onto a sleeper train, where I slept in a hallway and awoke around 6 a.m. the next morning at the Colosseum.

Santiago, Mexico, 7

Near the end of my second trip to Santiago, Mexico, in 2015, while visiting El Rancho Del Rey, a home for street kids about 30 minutes outside of Monterrey, I stopped at a roadside food cart and had the best burrito of my life. The cook combined shaved beef with fresh veggies, refried beans and rice in a flour tortilla. While simple, the burrito burst with savory flavor upfront, then finished with a back-swing of heat.

Mexican food is my favorite cuisine — that food cart elevated my standards substantially. I don’t think I’ll ever top that incredible burrito.

Tangier, Canada, 6

Having been raised on a staple diet of peanut butter and pasta, my palate has expanded a lot over the last 10 years.

Most notably, I’ve learned to appreciate fresh seafood (from raw oysters scooped from the bottom of the ocean in Sweden and served alongside a locally brewed porter in 2016 to fresh sushi in Nagoya, Japan in 2018). While traversing through Nova Scotia, Canada, in May of 2015 with my wife, Brianna, I reached a pinnacle in my seafood journey.

We arrived late at Murphy’s Camping on the Ocean, a family-owned operation at the end of a road named after the owners.

Per tradition, everyone gathered in the evening for fresh mussels cooked over a campfire.

The saltiness of the mussels was offset by a robust and dry red wine we’d brought from home.

We shared dinner and stories that night with travelers from all over the world — I’ll never forget the crackling fire or the warmth of conversation as we looked out at the bay.

Tenerife, Spain, 5

A few years ago, in 2017, I was fortunate enough to explore Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands.

The landscape was Jurassic and wild; the cuisine was a melting-pot of influences — potatoes from Latin America, tapas from Spain’s mainland, native seafood that incorporates unique flavors, all made with island-specific ingredients including fresh fruit.

On my last night, the group I was with visited a local restaurant where I ordered a seafood dish with a side of potatoes, papas arrugadas, and mojo, a traditional sauce made from peppers, garlic and olive oil.

The sauce was sweet and savory — a perfect addition to the spicy potatoes and more mellow-tasting fish — solidifying my belief that Tenerife and its fresh fruit offers some of the best food in the world.

Barcelona, Spain, 4

Speaking of Spain and spicy potatoes, I’d be remiss not to include in this list patatas bravas, or cubed white potatoes fried in oil and served with a spicy sauce.

As someone of Irish heritage, I’ve always appreciated dishes that incorporate potatoes. Thus, discovering patatas bravas at La Paciencia, a small tapas bar in Barcelona, Spain, while traveling earlier this year with Brianna, was a pleasant surprise. I’m not a big fan of the idea of tapas in general (there’s usually just not enough food), but La Paciencia was an outlier.

For about 20 Euro each, our table was laden with dishes — fried chicken, squid, toast with tomato spread, meatballs and the patatas bravas, among other delicious dishes, all washed down by a carafe of sangria.

We lingered for hours, enjoying each other’s company and those fantastic spicy potatoes.

Chefchaouen, Morocco, 3

The chicken pastilla dish that’s served at Aladin Restaurant in Chefchaouen, Morocco is an easy addition to this list. A light and crispy pastry shell hides saffron chicken and a spicy omelet stuffing. It’s garnished with fried almonds, cinnamon and powdered sugar, making for a sweet and savory meal that has a unique depth to its flavor.

Brianna and I sampled our way through Morocco a few months ago and both selected this traditional dish as a highlight. On top of the flavor, Aladin Restaurant is situated in the heart of Chefchaouen, overlooking the old city and a breathtaking mountainside.

If you ever find yourself there, I recommend finding an open-air seat on Aladin Restaurant’s rooftop and ordering the chicken pastilla and Moroccan mint tea (which is also absolutely delicious). As you take your first bite, listen to the call to evening prayers as it echoes through the city’s iconic blue walls and savor the mingling flavors that can’t soon be forgotten.

St. Petersburg, Russia, 2

Most of my favorite culinary experiences have occurred on trains.

2019 was no different.

While riding on a sleeper train in September from St. Petersburg to Moscow, Russia, my roommate, a businessman traveling home after visiting family, bought me dinner, vodka and told me about his culture.

“If you’re traveling by train, you must have black tea with lemon. Only on the train,” he said.

Then he removed a bottle of Johnny Walker from his jacket pocket, took a swig and ordered dinner — caviar and toast, sauerkraut, sausage, pickles, ketchup and spicy mustard topped off with shots of vodka — “40 percent only. Not 38.”

Needless to say, it was a unique culinary exploration behind Russia’s dense cultural curtain that I won’t soon forget.

Florence, Massachusetts, 1

Food conveys emotion.

It’s a tangible link to past memories — made both on the road and at home. Memorable shepherd’s pies I’ve enjoyed over the last decade include many made by my mother and one from The Irish Cultural Center in West Springfield — perfectly baked with a crispy hard crust and a creamy center.

For me, shepherd’s pie has always been a link to fond recollections from my past. I ate the dish often at home growing up (with ground turkey, no corn), on birthdays and for special occasions. (Notably, some refer to this dish as “cottage pie.”) My family’s version is definitely American-ized — but it retains the bones. My great-grandparents brought the dish to America with them from Ireland during the great famine and, because lamb isn’t prevalent in the states, they substituted other meats. I grew up without a lot of money and, when I was young, ate primarily ground turkey because that’s what was the most inexpensive. 

This year, I began making the dish myself, trying to replicate the flavor palate of my childhood — easier said than done. After a number of failed attempts, however, I succeeded recently in achieving a pie similar to that which I grew up enjoying. The potatoes were fluffy; the gravy was thick; the ground turkey was savory.

For a second, I was transformed from my home in Florence to another time and place; I experienc ed the power of taste and tapped into forgotten memories from my childhood — unforgettable.

Andy Castillo is features editor at the Greenfield Recorder. He can be reached at acastillo@recorder.com.




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