Saturday, 31 October 2009

Versalles – An Old Favourite

I have been eating at Versalles for more than 10 years now. I first discovered it whilst I was staying at a small hotel in central Medellin. The smell of those Argentinean and Chilean empanadas made sure I was a regular visitor.
From then on, whenever we visited Medellin to see family. I always made sure we ate a meal there.
Now, as we are living here, we really have no need to goto into the center. But if we are there, then lunch has to be had at Versalles.
The food is not amazing, not out of this world, but what they do they do it well. Plus the restaurant has a charm that is rarely found in the world these days.
The service is definitely old school. All the waiters wear white jackets and look as old as the place itself. I’m sure some of them have been there since day 1. But even for their age they flit between tables, picking up empty plates, delivering food, greeting customers like old friends. Some of the regulars I am sure are.
The walls have a scattering of photos of Argentinean writers, artists and intellectuals. The restaurant was at the forefront of an intellectual scene in Medellin in the 50’s. I’m pretty sure the décor is today as it was when it opened. Just a lick of paint every 10 years or so. Sometimes I close my eyes and apart from the accents I could be in a small family place in Buenos Aires.
What they specialise in apart from the empanadas is the milanesa. Theirs is a thin piece of beef, breadcrumbed and lightly fried until golden. This is served with some papas ala francesa and a tomato, onion and lettuce salad. Oils and vinegars are awarded separately. As you would expect to find in B.A. you can also have it with a sweet tomato sauce, which is the Napolitana option.
Their menu of the day is always : soup, grilled meat, rice, chips and a salad. Well we are in Medellin, and those Paisas love their carbs. You also get a juice, which changed daily, followed by a bowl of ice cream and a coffee. It is more than you would pay elsewhere, but you do get more, and hey, with great old fashioned service like this its well worth it.
It kinda reminds me of a little of the New Piccadilly that once stood the test of time in central London, until some greedy land developers forced them to close by upping their rent. I hope this does not happen here, as every city needs a place to remind you of a gentler time. And if any city needs that, it’s Medellin.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Fish by the Lake

As we only had orders to keep us busy for a couple of days last week. We decided to make the most of the free time. So we made a few trips around la zona to see this part of Antioquia. It’s amazing really, just by taking a side road you see a whole different landscape.
It was a glorious few days. The scenery in this part of Colombia is truly beautiful. Smaller and smaller country lanes took us deep into the countryside. Field upon field growing all manner of vegetables. Cows relaxing in the fields munching on the grass. Chickens pecking at the side of the road, and dogs sleeping in the middle of the road.
On one of these days we ventured to El Peñol and Guatape. The later is on the shore of a large lake. The small town gets jammed packed on the weekends with day tippers from Medellin. The town is famed for its watersports and its fish, either to eat or to fish.
On our hot sunny Wednesday, it was a little relaxed, but still quite a few people had ventured out there, like us to see the place with a more tranquil feel to it. These small towns that play host to the stressed city folk at weekends change personality over night. Monday to Thursday they are small, nothing happening towns. Come Friday night they are thronging with hordes of party revellers. Everything happens on the weekend. But it is nice to see the otherside of these pueblos.
As I said Guatape is famed for its fish, cheap fish at that, and there are many restaurants that line the shorefront. All have the same menu and prices (more or less). All feature heavily on trout and bagre. (Cat fish). But as we are still in Antioquia, grilled meats and frijoles have to feature on every menu. There is no escaping it.
After a more or less pleasant stroll through the village center, and trying to avoid the restaurant and boat touts. I’m not really into those short trips on lakes for 30 minutes anyhows. And doing it alone would have been really dull. The view from the shore was just as good.
As it was around lunchtime and my belly was telling me to eat. We stopped in one place called “Vaso e’ Leche”, just for the name really.
I went for the catfish, which came floured and fried. More than likely deep fried, as everything is here. Lina had the trout apanado, which is supposed to be like milanesa, but it was deepfried also. Ohh we are in grease heaven.
Deepfrying food is a non cooks way of cooking. It’s a lazy way out. Also so is over grilling meat. We were in a small place a few weeks ago, and the meat was so tough a filling came out. It was tougher than old boots. A phrase to which my dentist, did not understand or find funny.
The catfish actually had a nice flavour even though it was swimming in grease. If I can find some here I will def buy some. But I think a quick grilling will do it justice.
On the route back we saw lots of handmade stalls set up to sell freshly caught fish to those weekend trippers. The few we saw that had fish for sale looked quite fresh, but in this heat, they must spoil quite quickly.
Next time we go, bring the cool box.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Alberto Lechona – Where pigs goto heaven.

We were told about this small joint, which has been sitting in the same spot since 1974 serving wonderful plates of lechona. Which is a Spanish/Latin version of the Italian Porchetta, or my favourite the Balian Babi Guling.
So after a small shopping spree buying the necessary bits and bobs for our home cooking business, we stopped there for a small lunch.
They sell the Tolima version of lechon. The pork is served mixed with rice and a small salad, with a delicious crispy piece of skin on top. You can either buy a pound or half pound of meat. As my belly is growing at the moment and I am trying to stop it reaching out so I can not see my feet, I opted for the half pound version. The waiter looked at me if I was some sort of nancy boy.
Lina had a (large) Tolima tamale. She got a respectful nod form our waiter. The Tolima version of the tamale comes with more meat, less maize. The Paisa version is the opposite. It came with mixed meat of pork (of course), chicken and a boiled egg, which had all been steamed inside a banana leaf.
I like eating tamales, and I helped Lina finish hers, but after a while the maize just gets to me. I think I’m anti-maize, which explains why I’m not a big fan of arepas.
My lechona was perfect. Nice soft meat, crispy skin and was the perfect size, even if the waiter kept giving me dirty looks as he walked past. No tip for you.
So when instead of having one of those huge hamburgers or hot dogs on La Ochenta late at night after a few beers in Medellin, I will be heading to Alberto’s for some delicious porkie treats.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

A Midweek Weekend Away Part 2 - Santa Fe De Antioquia

Santa Fe de Antioquia used to be the former colonial capital of the state of Antioquia. It was founded over 450 years ago.

We stayed here for about a week 10 years ago. Not doing a lot, as there really isn’t that much to do. It’s a weekend getaway for those stressed out souls of Medellin.

We were in need of a few days of peace and quiet. Somewhere to relax and forget about making empanadas and chutneys for a few days. As we had a big order for a delivery on Tuesday, we decided to head to Santa Fe on Thursday. Stay for 2 nights and head back and work our arse off for 3 days.

Santa Fe hasn’t changed that much since we were last here. Just more people were here. The vast majority of the buildings are still standing from the colonial era, and the local council has done an excellent job in keeping the town looking as it did several hundred years ago. Well that’s why people come here.

Santa Fe is in a valley and is a lot lower than Medellin. It is hot and humid. The area produces a lot of great fruits, and these can be brought from stalls that line the road coming into Santa Fe.

So in a hot, humid place every hotel worth its banana has a swimming pool. This is what we or Lina was craving. We felt like a splurge and stayed at the former Governors mansion. It turned out to cost half of what we thought it would. Excellent news. It had air-conditioning and a swimming pool. Sorted.

The plaza is full, and I mean full of bars, restaurants, shops and stalls selling local products like tamarind, to which they make into small sweets coated in sugar.

As we are still in Antioquia the array of eateries all had the same food on their menus. Grilled meats, fish, beans and rice. No matter how far we travel we still can’t get away from it. As with most places in the world that caters for tourists. The food was pretty bad. Colombians seem to have this thing for over cooking their meat. I was pretty scared eating some ribs as I had just had a filling. Eating tough meat on one side of your mouth equals a sore jaw.

We did find one place that did some well cooked food. Even if it did include beans and rice. I was expecting a small piece of tongue, but to get the whole thing with beans, rice, platano, egg and arepas left me feeling like a bloated cow for the rest of the night.

Even though we were kinda sick of the sight of empanadas, we did eat a few of them here. But we opted for what is known in Colombia as “Empanadas de Iglesia” They are nothing special, it’s just they are cooked by old women in front of a church. Hence the name. The old lady had 3 different ones. A cheese filling, a chicken filling and a meat filling. So we brought one of each. As I said they are nothing special, but it was nice to sit in a small plaza feeling the late afternoon sun on our faces.

On Friday and Saturday nights, Santa Fe changes from a small quiet colonial town into a full on party town with the arrival of hundreds of people from Medellin. All the locals are out and about in their best clothes flirting with the new arrivals to see if they can have an even better weekend. A lot do.

It was interesting to see the two sides of Santa Fe from Thursday night to Friday night. It’s a shame we don’t have many of these places that are within a short distance of London. A few places spring to mind but not too many. Brighton being the best of the bunch.

There are a few more towns we shall be visiting over the coming months. But Santa Fe I am sure is the best one in Antioquia.

A Midweek Weekend Away Part 1 - La Carretera Fantasma

We decided to have a couple of days off last week. We were in desperate need of getting away from it and resting. When you are dreaming of chutneys it’s time to escape for a bit. So we decided to head to the former colonial capital of Antioquia. A day of sitting around a swimming pool was in mind.

We’d been there before which was about 10 years ago. Then there was only one route. A three hour journey up, up, up, up, up the mountain and then down, down, down, down the other side.

The people who lived on this route, made some money every weekend selling drinks, food to the weary travellers who were passing by.

Several years ago, the Government of Antioquia decided to build a 4.6km tunnel through the mountain. This cut the journey time to down to just over an hour. This has made a big difference to everyone’s lives. Some good, some bad.

The people of Santa Fe and the pueblos around, and also the travellers who goto the zone for the weekend are benefiting from the tunnel for the obvious reasons.

The people, who have lost everything, are the people who live on the old route. Lost everything they did.

We decided to go the old route to Santa Fe. Mainly as we have a car, and we can stop anywhere. The views on this route are truly spectacular. You have undisturbed views of the valley below. This I remember looking out of the bus window in awe at the beauty of the landscape.

As we started out accent up this winding road. We noticed very early on the lack of traffic. No buses, no cars, no nothing. Not even really any people. It was a weird beginning.

As we proceeded upwards, the road got steadily worse. It is apparent that since the tunnel has been built, no one has been to repair the road. Most of the way it was kinda like being off road. God I’d wished we’d brought that 4x4. Our little Twingo was not enjoying this journey. At one point, half the road had fallen down the mountainside. Some nice chaps had put a few stones around the edge to warn us of the perilous drop. Scary.

There used to be many shops, restaurants, and bars selling lots of lovely stuff for us weekend trippers to refresh ourselves on this journey. Unfortunately, now all those places are now well and truly closed. It was like being in a horror film. We saw so many dilapidated buildings, and others in desperate state of repair. So glad the car never broke down, as I could imagine mad, desperate locals would jump out from the bushes and strip the car bare and leave us with a mad desperate rush to reach civilisation before sunset. Thankfully it never happened.

The lack of people was also evident. It’s as if a lot of people just got up and left. Don’t blame them really. Maybe everyone just moved to the tunnel area. As I imagine a healthy supply of food establishments were there.

When we reached the top and hit the toll. Amazing that there is one there. We asked them how many cars they had had this day so far. We were the 2nd car to pass through. Noone comes this way anymore. They must spend more in wages than they actually make in toll fees. The three staff looked desperately bored.

The route down was just as depressing as the road up. Thankfully the landscape was still amazing. We stopped a few times to marvel at the countryside. So beautiful. It amazes me that places that have had civil conflict have some of the most beautiful countryside in the world. Kashmir springs to mind.

Finally we started to hit civilisation and things went back to normality a little. A few stalls selling fruits, which the zone is known for. Then we joined the road from the tunnel, and hotels sprang up everywhere. All with pools. A hotel in this region without a pool is a dead deal.

We were pretty hungry and thirsty by now, but as we were nearly in Santa Fe we decided to get a bite in the town itself.

We saw a lot of “For Sale” signs on the route. I wonder how many people have deserted their fincas on the old route, or whether they still go there.

If you are looking for a small house in the style of the area, and are desiring serious peace and quiet, then this area is for you.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Lunch at Mondongo’s (again) – Bandeja Paisa.

For some reason, we never managed to eat breakfast today. We were in a rush to get a delivery down to Medellin before 11am. So by the time we dropped off our consignments to their relevant places, we were famished. Where to eat was the burning question. As we were quite close Poblado, and hadn’t eaten at Mondongo’s for quite a while. Well it was a set deal.
I was starving. You could be mistaken that you were hearing a storm coming. No it was my stomach screaming for food.
So it was not going to be the baby portion of their fabulous tripe stew for me, but a Paisa portion. But I felt like a change, as Lina was having the baby portion, I could steal off her plate. So I wanted to see what else they did. I felt like a bandeja paisa.
This I have to admit was not one of the better ones I have had. The minced meat was so finely ground that it was really dry. And how I crave for somewhere to serve me a fried egg that still has a runny yolk. The beans were ok, needed a bit more salt but ok. All in all I’d give it a 6/10.
What I enjoy about eating at Mondongos, apart from eating mondongo. Is people watching. And as we were in the affluent area of Pobaldo, the people are more fun to watch.
Medellin is well known as being the plastic surgery capital of Latin America, and I’ve seen all types of implants here. But to see a 14 or 15 year old girl fresh from the surgery with two black eyes and a heavily bandaged nose really took the biscuit. Is vanity reaching an ever decreasing age here. Maybe it was a present for her Quince años. Beats a trip to La Costa I suppose.
I also noticed a lot of men eating the mini portion of mondongo, and their female companions eating the full blown gut busting portion. Maybe the men are becoming a little vain themselves and dieting now. Where as the women know they can just goto a surgery and have it trimmed off. Maybe this is a public version of matriarcado.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Home Business

We have been out here in Colombia for 4 months now. When we first arrived we kinda had a plan for what we were going to do, which was to open a small place, only serve meals at lunchtime, something relaxing. But as we have found the rents here in this area are very very high.

We found one place, that was very popular in the mid 90’s, so we called the agency and was told the rent was 800,000 pesos a month, about £250. One day we were passing and dropped in to look at the place. We met the owner, had a look around. It was the perfect size, about 10 tables inside and out. Small kitchen, but large enough for what we were planning. Now, I seem to have this power here. I am able to increase the price of anything, just by my presence. He saw me and increased it by 200,000 pesos a month. It was a shame at the time, but I’m kinda glad he did it. The reason is, the zone we live in is really only busy on Friday evenings to Sunday afternoons, or Monday afternoons if it is a long weekend. The rest of the week the area is very very quiet. So you only have 3 days a week in which to make a ¼ of your monthly profit. Hard work. If it is raining, then you are buggered as no one comes up here. So for that I’m glad he was greedy. 4 months later the place still isn’t rented.

The other plan we had, was to cook for people in their homes. The original menu I had to scrap as the majority of the ingredients I couldn’t get, or if you could it was not a regular thing and they were very expensive. So we put together a second menu, using ingredients I could get hold of regularly. We however got a little side tracked. I made a few chutneys to go with the homemade charcuterie plate I devised. A tomato de arbol (look it up) and a mango chutney. These, some people tried and really liked, and wanted to buy. So we made some more and more. Then we made some different ones.

We then made some empanadas in the Argentinean style. These are slightly different from the empanadas they sell here, which either contain minced beef or chicken (or the lack of). Ours are from Cordoba. They contain minced beef, cooked with spices and onions. Then assembled with boiled egg, sultanas and green olives. Very delicious I can tell you.

These sold really well.

So I thought I’d go a bit Middle East, and made some hummus, falafel and pita bread. These starting selling well also, but all on a small scale. Mainly, as we live outside the city in a small house with a very, very small oven. So large scale isn’t going to happen here.

We were then put in contact with a friend of a friend who runs a business making food for cocktail parties, office meetings etc etc.

So we are now supplying her with some bits 3 times a week for office meetings or refrigerios.

It’s becoming obvious that where we are living isn’t working properly. As I said earlier we are living in a small house, 45 minutes outside the city, with a very small oven. So if we want to expand, we have to do two things.

1. Move into the city.

2. Buy a proper oven.

These cost about 500,000 pesos (£150). So not too expensive, and it will pay for its self after a short time. So that is not the problem.

I am so enjoying living here, even with my moaning. But do I want to live here for the long term. Prob not. But as I always say, We’ll see….