Déjà Vu Melbourne…

We were in need of a pre-winter break so we packed our bags & headed to Melbourne to catchup with several friends and, of course, eat & drink! Melbourne is not too bad a town to spend a week or two…I often say it is Australia’s version of San Francisco with an overall awesome, energetic & creative vibe across multiple fronts – food & wine, culture, music & art, history, etc…

And we could not have lucked out anymore with the weather as most days it drifted into the low 20’s with beaming sun & the bluest of skies. And since we are serious walkers, it made our exploration all the more enjoyable to be free of many layers & no rain gear.

The Big Metropolis; St. Kilda’s Luna Park; Shrine of Remembrance

One of our first target destinations was one of our regular favourites when we lived in Melbourne – the NGV (National Gallery of Victoria in Fed Square). A stunning space to have a wander and experience a serious collection of art – and about 95% is FREE! And if the NGV ticks your boxes, then you need to toddle over to the NGV International just a hop, skip & a jump down St. Kilda Road (and it’s FREE! – except for special exhibitions).

National Gallery of Victoria

National Gallery of Victoria International

Besides revisiting our old friend the NGV, we made a point of checking out some of our food stomping grounds that left us with a vey warm & flavourful memory when we departed Melbourne for the UK. We are not really the ‘fine dining’ types, but rather prefer excellent quality food, cooked well, in a relaxed setting & so our big splurge was to lunch @ Cumulus Inc. Andrew McConnell knows a thing or two about food & restaurants & this is our fave out of his bevy of joints (Cutler & Co, Builders Arms, Supernormal & Canteen, Marion, Meatsmith, Cumulus Up wine bar). And it is always a delight for us to be seated at the kitchen bar & get a first hand, close up & personal view of the food proceedings. We had some fun chats with the staff who, despite a busy lunch hour, had plenty of time to answer our questions and offer some insights into Cumulus Inc.

Cumulus Inc.

Bundarra Pork Cutlet & Pickled Witlof & Butcher’s Sauce; Tuna Tartare, Goat’s Curd & Crushed Green Pea

Excellent Juice from Stephen Pannell – Tinto

And of course when in Melbourne, you must visit the markets…it is a habit we have no matter where we be to have a good squizzy at the local market whether an established fixture (e.g., Queen Vic or South Melbourne or Prahran) or a farmers market (e.g., Vegout, Abbotsford).

Prahran Market

I was always impressed & amazed at the range of goods on offer at the Melbourne markets. I swear there is a better selection of European goods like olive oils, vinegars, olives, etc…in the Melbourne markets than I could ever find in most of Europe.

Queen Vic Deli Section

And of course where there is great food, there’s great drinks…so we made the rounds of most of my old wine haunts (Cloudwine – fave for hard to find vino & great prices, Prince Wine Shop, Blackhearts & Sparrows various establishments with extensive choices, The Wine House, City Wine Shop – small but excellent selection & food is great too & Wine Republic – amazing selection & best new find) & scooped up a solid half dozen (New Zealand’s limit) examples of Australian’s finest. Yum…

Melbourne’s Wine Stores…

Another Andrew McConnell joint – Marion Wine Bar

One of the things on our ‘To Do’ list was to have some top notch ethnic food as Lyttelton/Christchurch New Zealand is not as solidly blessed with such an extensive immigrant community as Melbourne does in spades.

We had an interesting Turkish dinner at Tulum with mates from Balaclava but one of our go to places is Don Don, a Japanese restaurant that is fast as and super cheap (by Melbourne standards) and damn good! I ordered our 2 lunches & before I could put my change back in my wallet, 2 steaming bowls were before me!

We had also read some good write-ups for a place called Paper Plate (Vietnamese) where the kitchen was manned by one of chef Geoff Lindsay‘s ex-fellas of Dandelion fame, but at a far cheaper price point. Super crisp & clean flavours – you could see & taste that everything was made from scratch…

Paper Plate in Richmond; Vietnamese Chicken Salad & Vegetarian Pho; Hanoi Beer

One Sunday morning we met some mates for breakfast @ Industrial Beans in Fitzroy – excellent food but busts the wallet @ $90+ for 4! But post breakfast, our friends said we had to see the mural of our Prime Minister (Jacinda Adern) painted on a silo in Brunswick. So we piled into their car & off we went…very touching & excellent job.

Industrial Beans & Grace, Fitzroy

New Zealand Prime Minister Mural in Brunswick

Melbourne Street Art; Melbourne’s Booming Skyline; Melbourne’s Infamous Laneways…

So if you have never been to Melbourne – GO!!!!! It is a city that has so many nooks & crannies to explore you won’t get bored…and if you do get bored of Melbourne, head out to the country to visit the Yarra Valley wine region or the wonderful Mornington Peninsula or hit up Daylesford or Kyneton for a savoury food experience.

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Tolosa Chuleta Fest – Yippee!!!

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Yum Yum Eat’m Up — Chuleta Fest @ Tolosa


WARNING: To all vegetarian and vegan folks, this post contains meat photos.

The Hounds had recently paid a visit to the Basque town of Tolosa to check out the famous weekly Saturday market (which we loved BTW) and we spotted some announcements regarding a Festival de Chuleta – a Steak Fest to put it simply. A few weeks later, I read in my regular Saturday El Diario Vasco newspaper a detailed article on said festival with loads of history, ticket details, etc…I decided – “I’m in on this deal”.

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Street Scenes Tolosa…

I made the tactical decision to catch a train to Tolosa so as not to put a cap on any potential fun by having to drive my 1975 Land Rover back home post visiting vino & chuleta heaven. Like many other things here in Spain, trains are sort of an approximation…más o menos. The web site said a train departed from the Irun station at 11AM, so got myself there by 10:30AM only to find there is no 11AM, there is a 10:53AM. Said train, according to the web site, would deposit me in Tolosa at 11:40AM…try 12:05PM. But no pasa nada – I was not in a hurry & still had a decent chunk of time to wander old town Tolosa.

Casco Antiguo (Old Town) is, like many other Spanish cities or towns, the best part of the town with narrow, cobble stoned, pedestrianised streets that simply reek with character & charm. The only negative or slightly creepy thing was that they had loudspeakers strung up & down every street, playing a very weird mix of traditional Basque music, which was then followed by a Heavy Metal tune…go figure.

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Old Town Tolosa…

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Lots of Tolosa Graffiti…And Hay Muchos Signs…

The Tolosa Chuleta Fest was started in 2006 to commemorate the 750th (yes, that’s right 750th) birthday celebration of the founding of Tolosa. Tolosa, over several generations if not centuries, has earned a well deserved reputation for expertise in all things grilled. The chefs who grill are called asadores in Spanish & the restaurants are asadors. And originally the meat used came from the ox, but has now shifted to beef and is called locally ‘vaca vieja’ or old/aged beef.

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The festival runs for 3 days (6th, 7th and 8th of December in 2016) and is housed in the ‘Tinglado‘ (translates to ‘shed’) which was constructed in 1899 & 1900 to be the new home to the Saturday weekly market. The Tinglado sits smack dab on the Oria River, with glassed walls providing a very up close & personal river view.

The Festival Folks had divided the Tinglado into 2 bits – a sweet, spacious dining room for the lunches & dinners and a casual pintxo & bar area for a bit of Chuleta Fest warmups. There were 5 or 6 stalls, each offering a different pintxo or two, and of course, a bar serving the usual suspects – vino tinto (Rioja) & blanco (local Basque star txakoli) , cerveza & cider.

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The Best Fest – Pintxo Alley. Bottom Right – Pintxo to Beat All Pintxos!

I started my festival warmup with the pintxo pictured above (slow braised beef in a pork bun with micro greens, pickled red onion & a secret sauce) which was SO delicious that I came within in inch of having another, but given I was only an hour or so away from a massive steak fest I decided to spread the wealth and sample a different taste treat.

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Top Left: Local Brew Called La Salve (Translates to ‘Hail Mary’); Family Who Made Da Vino; Chistorra (Basque Sausage); Grill’n Up Some Pintxos…

My second comestible treat came in the form of the locally famed chistorra, a Basque sausage that is often cooked up in some local cider. Again, a hit right out of the park – 3 different types of chistorra perfectly grilled with another secret sauce (pictured above). Excelente & washed it down with a local brew call La Salve (translates as ‘Hail Mary’ – cool).

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Chuletas de Vacas….The Star Attraction

When the clock struck 2, folks started queuing up at the dining hall entrance…tickets in hand and appetites, just like the charcoal, on fire. As we passed through the foyer entrance, we were greeted with a chuleta display to get the juices flowing and we could plainly see the asadores hard & hot at work.

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Table Is Set…Wine is Open. Ready, Set, Go!

We had 10 folks at our table – 5 native Spanish-speakers, 2 Americans from Denver speaking American, a couple from Holland (who live in France) & me. Besides the asadores hard at work, the Ibérico Jamón carvers were all non-stop knife action to repeatedly fill & refill our plates to kick off the luncheon with a bang. The jamón goes down SO easy & marries perfectly with a glass or two of red vino.

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First Up – Sliced Ibérico Jamón…The Good Stuff – Black Label.

Next up was the veggie portion of the fest – white asparagus in a tangy vinaigrette dressing (sorry, no pics…too busy eating & drinking) followed by cogollos de Tudela – Romain lettuce hearts. Perfect foil to the previous salty & savoury jamón flavours, and the beef that was to follow…a light interlude was mos def called for…

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Top Left: Dining Room; The Veggie Plate – Hearts of Lettuce; The Dining Room Cow

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All Fired Up & the Grilling Begins!…A Man & His Ox.

As you can see by the grilling photo above, the Spanish are generous with their salt. As many chefs & cooks will tell you, salting the meat generously prior to grilling or cooking works small wonders as does brining (particularly chicken, turkey or even pork). Despite what appears to be, to me, an excessive amount of the salty stuff, you could not in any way taste it on the finished steak.

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Turn Away Now Vegetarians…

So the goods get delivered, and they are oh, oh so good. Cooked (for me) just the way I like it, as I think many meats become totally devoid of flavour when singed to within an inch of their life – might as well eat your shoe. This was perfecto – a crispy, char broiled brown crust with a deep, deep red centre and flowing with good steak juices. The meat was well balanced with just the right amount of fat marbling (relative to the meat) which added delectable, flavourful bits to the overall flavour.

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Steak & Roasted Pimientos….

The plates of steak just kept coming – no one @ our table seem to be able to get enough chuleta, nor vino as our Spanish table mates kept hailing our waitress with ‘Más Vino! Más!’ & bottles magically kept appearing.

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Lonely Dessert Cheese Plate & Sweet Snack…

To say I had a good time would be the understatement of the day or week – our festive table was the last to leave the Tinglado & its merry surrounds…all happy campers toddling off home for a wee siesta…Great job Tolosa! Keep up the good work!

 

 

Paris Birthday Bash…The End.

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We’d been hoof’n it for several days now, so a ride on the Metro was in order to give our shanks’ ponies a wee rest. We’d read that dogs were allowed on the Metro…but they had to be in a bag. Ruh roh…so we brought with us an old, flexible overnight bag to see if Hound #1 was game. I won’t say he liked it, but there were no real complaints to be heard. He got a snack for being such a good boy…

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Metro Madness…Dog In Da Bag.

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We made a beeline that morning for a  market we’d read about in the 15th Arrondissement called the Rue de Grenelle Marché. Things looked initially bleak as we seemed to be walking forever and as yet no sign of market folks. But not to worry, you could not miss this market even if you were totally blind as this was HUGE!

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The Rue de Grenelle Marché – 15th Arrondissement

Located underneath a bridge or highway overpass, this market stretched for block after block with every imaginable food option on display, multiple times. When we travel to someplace like Paris it’s a dream to rent an apartment for a month or so to take full advantage of the markets food-wise and save your wallet a bit of pain from being forced to eat out. Though that said, the Paris markets we visited did not strike either of us as ‘cheap’.

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The Rue de Grenelle Marché – 15th Arrondissement

After satiating our market tastebuds @ Rue de Grenelle Marché, we wandered in a direction to have a halfway decent view (bit overcast & misty) of the Eiffel Tower – so Paris & French & oh so expensive. Along the way, we eyed a busy pedestrian street across the boulevard – let’s have a look…

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Rue Cler – O La La…Rue de Food & Wine

Rue Cler was not on our radar in any way, shape or form – but what a find! A lovely no-cars/motorbikes walkway with all the food & wine & sweet shops that Paris is renowned for and busy as. You have to say one thing for the Parisians, they do love their food and get out to support the small local shops in force. A lesson to be learned by the rest of the world…

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Pooped Pooch, Pooch @ the Palais Royal, Pooch @ the Louvre, Lovely Toulouse Latrec Metro

On Hound #2’s ‘I want to do this’ list was a visit to Montmartre & a climb up to Sacre Couer to hopefully have one of the best views of Paris you can have without paying 15 euros a person for. And it was (as the pic at the top of the Eiffel Tower will attest) – except for all the bloody tourists (including us). It is always sad to see such a historic & iconic area be overrun by tat & bric-á-brac shops, buskers & hustlers.

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Montmartre – Sacre Couer

Once we’d descended from the mount on high, a snack & a beverage seemed in order. And as it does not take to many steps to stumble on to a wine store in Paris, we ambled into Le Rouge et Le Verre. A bit of language confusion ensued but we finally sorted it out that, because of licensing, we needed to order some food to have some wine. No problema. Two glasses of a rich & savoury St. Joseph Rhone red were poured and a plat of charcuterie was delivered. We were now powered up to march on…

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Rouge et Le Verre Wine Store…Excellent Charcuterie Plate & Vino…Hound #1’s Cheated.

Our final day in Paris called for a bit of culture, so Hound #1 was left behind for s snooze and we hopped on the Metro headed for Musee d’Orsay. We like the Musee d’Orsay over the Louvre because it is a bit more manageable – and that’s not to denigrate the lovely Louvre. But when you have just an hour or two, Musee d’Orsay hits the right art spot.

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Musée d’Orsay

And we were not disappointed – we were some of the first folks in queue so we managed to have some sections of the museum to ourselves. An absolute fave was the mind-blowing Impressionists collection on display – all the boys & girls were there…Cezanne, Renoir, Manet, Gauguin, Cassatt, Rodin, Lautrec and my personal fave – Van Gogh. Had to be a couple of billion dollars of art in this one exhibition. And you can get so close & personal – see the brush strokes. Stunning.

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And post the museum, one more market to do – Place d’Aligre. This is a mixed market with half being food and the other half a flea market. I went for the food and Hound #2 was attracted to the flea. It is reputed to be one of the cheapest markets in Paris and it appeared so…but it is 100% fruit & veggies so you will not find cheeses or charcuterie or meat or fish here. But the street that the market is hosted on is another of Paris’s block of delectable comestibles. There is small but well stocked indoor market that covers all the bases and a stroll down either side of the street will bring you to several wine & cheese stores, butchers and fishmongers. We stocked up on some saucisson for the train ride home…

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Marché Place d’Aligre – 12th Arrondissement

Well that’s Paris and my & Billie’s 60th – it was a great combo!

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Paris Birthday Bash…The Middle…

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Day #2 in Paris happened to be my actual birthday but first, armed with a well researched but short list, we set off to find a decent cuppa Joe. Paris, despite its well deserved reputation for many of the finer things in life, struggles to cook up a decent coffee. Having lived in New Zealand and then Australia for a number of years, our coffee palates are finely tuned machines.

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Coffee and Port – What Could Go Wrong?

Out of 5 possible destination candidates, we fingered a place called Cafe Loustic in the 3rd Arrondissement. With their motto, “We aim to be one of the best espresso bars in the world”, ringing in our ears, we had to give it a go.

Well, not really a serious challenge to the baristas & cafes Down Under – they can sleep easy. And it was a strange vibe too — a bit aggro with a customer’s-not-always-right chip on the shoulder. The barista actually refused to make a requested coffee because they simply are not made that way if made correctly he said. Ouch.

But it was worth the visit as right next door was Portologia – a sweet establishment that was all about Port & related spirits and staffed by very kind & informative folks. One fella spoke no English but the other one did, so a fun Port discussion ensued. We mentioned we had just been in Porto and he queried us as to whether we had visited their sister store there & in fact we had! Small world…

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Birthday Lunch @ Richer

Next up was the Birthday Lunch – we had narrowed down the choices to a small few & at the top of the rankings was Richer in the 9th Arrondissement. The restaurant’s description banged all the right drums and after a speedy perusal of the outside menu, we went in.

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Birthday Billie Got a Few Table Scraps…

Paris, as many folks will know, is a wee bit on the pricey side for most things including food & beverages. You won’t break a sweat dropping €100+ ($167NZ, $109US, $154AUS) for an very average bistro lunch & vino. But Richer was worth every Euro and more. A place after my own heart and a menu very much in the same vein as my old place in Lyttelton New Zealand – London Street. A tres simple menu of 4 starters, 3 Mains and 4 desserts which clearly follows the maxim of doing a few things exceptionally well rather than a lot of things mediocre.

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From Top Clockwise: Noodles, Pumpkin Soup and Côte du Rhône.

My starter was, loosely translated by our waitress, as ‘noodles’. I wish more noodles came like this – a lighter take on a carbonara that had a hint of sesame with sweet fried shallot accents, a scattering of mushroom bits, sautéed seaweed and a perfectly cooked egg in the middle. I could have stopped here…Hound #2 opted for the pumpkin soup & we loved the way it was served with the actual soup being poured table side over the delectable bits which preserved their crispy texture. Our Côte Rhône Domaine des Espiers was a superb match…

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From Top, Clockwise: Dessert, Pheasant and Lamb.

For her main, Hound #2 chose a fowl that our waitress could only describe as ‘sort of like duck’ – good enough for us. We believe it was pheasant, but no matter as it was delicious whatever it was. Lamb was my plat du jour and a most interesting dish it was…slow cooked shoulder that was then shredded & reformed into a wee brick, topped with a crispy thin wafer and four tiny scoops of what I think was a beetroot/crème fraîche combo & a scattering of flavourful greens. And accompanied by roasted cabbage & melt in your mouth turnips. Estupendo.

Hound #2 declared her intentions to have dessert and so she did – a hard to describe light-as-air concoction that tasted amazing to me. For my dessert, I finished the Côte du Rhône…If in Paris folks, do yourself a favour and visit Richer or their other establishments – L’Office and 52. These folks know food and hospitality.

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A decent walk was on order post lunch, so off we went in search of another market on our list, Marché Saint-Martin in the 10th Arrondissement. Now we’re talk’n ‘market’ – a decent notch or two up from the Le Marché des Enfants Rouges as most stalls were here to sell food and not just feed your face.

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Top Left: Cheese, Fishies, Veggies and More Cheese.

We had in our possession a timely article from the Guardian’s Travel section on the up & coming area of Paris call South Pigalle. They were calling it the new ‘Soho’ of Paris so that scratched the right itch with us & off we toddled…

Our morning schedule always includes a coffee stop & we wandered the 3rd Arrondissement in search of another of our caffeine targets but stumbled across Café Pinson by accident – most pleasant place to kick up your heels and plan your next wander. We were soon struck with hunger pains that a croissant or pan au chocolate were not going to do justice to, so lunch was in the cards…

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L’Aller Retour’s Plat du Jour: Onglet (Hanger Steak)! Yay! Going, Going, Gone…

We had several options that were nearby but in our random walk we came across L’Aller Retour which by shear coincidence was the sister joint to the place we were trying to find. One glance at the plat du jour & the decision was made – Hanger Steak (Onlget in French)! And a price we could not quibble with – Hanger Steak, Fries & a side of veggies & glass of vin rouge for €11.40…Score! On to South Pigalle…

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KB Cafe & Corsican Joint

We once again, using our ‘trusty’ tourist map with nano font, got a wee bit lost but finally managed to track down one of the cafes our Melbourne mate Carolyn put us on to – KB’s  Coffee Shop. It looked sooooooo Melbourne-y and stood a good chance of passing the Melbourne taste test except….it was mid afternoon & they didn’t do decaf…Plan B was to stroll the foodie street Rue des Martyrs, do a spot of supply shopping and score a beverage. 100% success…

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Buvette – A Beverage & Dessert

Next on our South Pigalle list of to do’s was to track down a place called Buvette and other than the fact we were, by far, the oldest folks in the place, it was hop’n (they also have a New York spot). We managed to grab an outside bench to enjoy a glass of red (me) & a slice of lemon meringue pie (Hound #2).

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Paris Birthday continued….

Road Trip – León’s First Up…

As part of Hound #2’s birthday celebration, we sorted out a week long road trip to León, Porto and Burgos (in that order). León was our first stop, and what a great first stop it was. We were very blessed with some spot on info from the Restless Fork blog (and excellent weather), so armed with their secrets of León, we hit the streets…

 

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BPS – Billie Positioning System…

We undertook this journey in my 1975 Series III Land Rover (Gertie to us) which was a bit of a stretch for all involved, including Gertie. But she’s a trooper & got us there in the end…and we arrived to the most beautiful sunset which showcased one of León’s jewels, the cathedral.

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The Essence of Beauty…

And our great impressions continued with a warm, warm welcome at Le Petit León Hotel – located at the epicentre of the the old town action – just minutes away from the cathedral, tapas bars & restaurants and much of the old town sites…and a hop’n in house bar!

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Hotel Le Petit León…Perfecto.

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Le Petit León’s In House Bar….

We quickly got a bit lost in the crooked & narrow León laneways and somehow managed to stumble into La Despensa de Lorenzo as our first stop – and what a great first stop!

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La Despensa de Lorenzo – Fenomenal!

The place was chocka with León’s finest small goods (including a decent selection of local Bierzo Mencia vino), especially the cecina (the Spanish version of bresaola) which is what a good mate had ordered us to try. The shopkeeper was more than obliging, hoisting up 2 serious slices of cecina on some delicious bread. As we savoured those savoury bites, she continued to ‘force’ upon us various samples of their chorizo, salchichón and local cheeses – almost a meal all on its own. And not to be left out of the festivities, she insisted that Billie partake in the fun – lucky dog…

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La Despensa de Lorenzo – Gratis Nibbles…and Billie Too!

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Queso With A Sense of Humour…

Semi-satisfied, we pulled ourselves together and headed off in search of our long list of tapas bars par excellence. León is one of the cities in Spain where if you buy a beverage, your tapas is FREE! The tapas range all over the board from a bowl of potato chips or cocktail mix nuts to generous portions of sliced bread & charcuterie to tapas that clearly took some effort – like a gazpacho tomato soup with crispy shallots on top (El Colibrín Bar) or a steamy plate of paella (Camarote Madrid) or the calamare bocadillos (Monalisa).

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The Hummingbird Bar

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Selfie @ El Colibrín Bar – León

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Camarote Madrid – León

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Paella @ Camarote Madrid…

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Bar Correo – León…Super Wee Wine Bar & Friendliest Staff

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El Rincón del Gaucho – León…Packed with Locals & Excellent Tapas…

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Jamón, Jamón – León…Specialist in Tasty Charcuterie & Right Next Door To Our Hotel – Too Easy!

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El Tizón – León – Old School Tapas Bar…

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No Dogs Allowed Sign on Door – 10 Minutes Later Owner Waved Him In!

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Monalisa – León – Best Bocadillos Tapas of Calamare and Chorizo…

So if you have never been to León or had no idea you needed to go to León, go. You will drink good vino on the cheap and eat for pretty much free…and have a marvellous time strolling the old town neighbourhoods.

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León’s Stunning Architecture…

Cantina de Guadalupe – Hondarribia

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Cantina de Guadalupe, Hondarribia, Espana

One of the things that strikes you quite clearly here in Spain is how cheap it is to eat out. Whether you are partaking of an evening pintos stroll or diving into the Menú del Día as we did here at the Cantina de GuadalupeMenú del Día can be awesome value deals as the price usually is for a 3 course meal (entree, main & dessert) and includes water, wine (a bottle!) or beer or cider and coffee. Our lunch at the Cantina set us back €12 each, (€11 if you did not want to be seated on the outside terrace) which translates into $17NZ/AU, £8.6BP and $13US. I think you just might be getting a glass of wine in Melbourne at that price! And for the most part, at least in our limited experience, the food is damn good…

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Chorizo & Patata Sopa…

For my starter I opted for a more substantial dish — chorizo and patatas sopa (I am guessing that is what it was or could have been a stew) which was presented in its own serving bowl allowing me to refill my bowl until it was all gone…which it was.

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Ensalada Mixta…

Hound #2 went her usual healthy, wealthy & wise route and was presented with a ensalada mixta fresca that included some sweet tuna & a hard boiled egg…

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Pollo Asado – Estupendo!

I could not not try the Pollo Asado (Roast Chicken) and was rewarded with half a bird…Billie helped out. It was perfectly done & tasty and the patatas perfecto.

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Bistec con Patatas

And Hound #2 decided to get some serious sustenance under her belt and ordered the Bistec con Patatas – seriously large cut of meat for the price & well cooked and half ended up as Billie’s dinner…lucky dog.

The vino was the house tinto which was nicely chilled – wine, like the food here in Spain, is absurdly cheap. Not only when you are buying at the stores but also when eating out. I am not totally sure why that is – low taxes? cost of production? loss leaders? And it is not swill by any means – you often see or get very recognisable wines from some serious producers. Granted. these are not their aged, reservas but their crianzas or jóvenes (young wines) but they seem to bring a reasonable amount of effort & vinification knowledge to bear & make a decent quaffer. Most pintxos bars offer glasses of blanco, rosado and tinto at €1.30 to €1.80 – deal to make ya squeal!

We finished out lunch with a very nice flan – sorry, no pic – and a very decent cafe con leche.

We will go back…we actually tried last Sunday & they were fully booked out.

The Dorset Wine Company

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In our continual West Country quest for excellent independent wine merchants, we finally paid a visit to the Dorset Wine Company. By ‘finally’ we mean we had passed it several times which always seemed to be on a Sunday – the day they are closed. So much promise and potential could be seen through the front window, but no touch, no buy.DorsetWineStore

Our persistence paid off this time round and we were warmly greeted on a wet & windy day (what’s new?) by Jonathan Charles, the director & owner. He encouraged us to have a good wander and look around, so we did. Processing all of the information in a shop such as this can take numerous iterations. You start out modestly optimistic but also with a tinge of skepticism as we have had our wine bubble deflated before – all mouth and no trousers. But with each successive scan of the bottled shelves, it was our skepticism that got the boot and a mild wino delirium set in.

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The Dorset Wine Company has several attributes that lift it a number of rungs up the independent wine merchant ladder:

* For such a relatively small store it has an amazingly varied & diverse selection of quality wines from around the world as well as spirits (single malt headquarters) and ales. Each one seemed to be personally picked as Jonathan deftly answered just about every query fired his way.

* Along with the diversity of wine types & styles, there was also a very carefully designed and well thought out pricing structure. A plethora of good juice to choose from in the under tenner range and pretty much at every price point up from there. It rubs us the wrong way when a wine shop thinks any wine worth quaffing cannot be had for less than £25 (and you will find those at the Dorset Wine Company too BTW).

* And finally, the icing on the cake, a very knowledgeable wine merchant who is generous with his advice & guidance. That is the huge informational vacuum to be found in the supermarket wine section – if you can find anyone at all they are most likely there to just stack shelves and it might as well be baked beans as wine. But that’s been High Street’s problem for yonks where retail has been systematically reduced by the Big Boy Stores to pretty much a single factor – price.

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Our wallet was under some fiscal restraint post the holiday season so it was these 3 gems we picked up on Jonathan’s advice (he gave us lots more choices). The Gran Cerdo 2011 (Big Pig) is a ripe Rioja that pokes a bit of fun at the banks. As the label states it is “a great wine dedicated to the bank executives that denied loans to us on the basis that our wine is not seizable asset. One day, these greasy and sweaty corporate suits will find that the best things in life cannot be impounded.” Well said! The winemaker is Gonzalo Gonzalo – awesome name if not completely made up – and he’s firmly in the biodynamic crowd of winemakers seeking the purest or natural expression of his fruit using whole bunch fermentation, no filtration, no stabilization and minimal sulphur (great for you sensitive types).

The Planeta 2010 is a wine after my own heart as it is a blend of 2 hearty red grape varietals – Nero d’Avola (60%) and Frappato (40%) – that are grown in the Vittoria region of Sicily . A few words for this wine would be plush & lush & fresh with a generous splashing of all things fruit – strawberries,  cherries & raspberries.

And last but not least, the Guimaro Joven 2010 is the wine for you if you like them young, fresh & clean. “Joven” is Spanish for “young” and what that means is that the wine has seen little if any oak, or sin crianza in Spanish. Guimaro is one of the most respected winemakers in this region and this wine delivers with vibrant, pure fruit flavours with a decent dash of fragrant spices thrown in.