When asked about the best chocolatiers in the world, many people think of northern Europe: France, Switzerland, and Belgium. But enter Spain, whose Cacao Sampaka has redefined the traditional gastronomic experience of cacao. Owned by Albert Adrià, the former pastry chef at El Bulli and brother of Ferran of Tickets & 41º fame, its whimsical chocolatiers have made traditional, handcrafted chocolates cosmopolitan. They have redesigned ingredient pairings to create unique flavor experiences; gone are the ganaches and nougats in place of unorthodox, almost schismatic, ingredients. From curry to parmesan to wasabi to balsamic vinegar, these Spanish chocolates exhibit the infinite creativity in the art of chocolate making. Creations of single bean origin – Tanzania, Ecuador, and Madagascar – sit aside those with ingredients of Indonesian origin – clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg – in a display of chocolates that would please the exquisite palate of even the most discerning of chocolate lovers. While many would call this a gourmet chocolate shop, gourmet is too mediocre. It is simply sublime.
I spent a very long time in the academic world – 25 years to be exact. Although I read a lot of fiction in high school (at the fault of Chamblin Bookmine in Jacksonville, Florida), once I got to university, that all but stopped as I delved into the “literature” of my discipline – history. That meant many, many historical monographs. Along the way in my two-and-a-half-decade foray into academia, I did do a bit of “promiscuous reading” of novels, but there was never enough time because of teaching and research. Fast forward from 1989 to 2014 when I left that world behind and took off for DC. It was time to start reading fiction again, so I went to Politics & Prose, the mothership of books. I was excited at first, but that excitement soon turned to an overwhelming sense of frustration because I didn’t know where to begin. I had sold my entire academic library just before I moved to DC, so I had no books at all. Should I go for the classics? Should I read the Man Booker Prize or Pulitzer Prize or the Nobel Prize winners. Or should I go back to my old favorite of mystery novels. It was just too much, so I left the store and went next door to Comet Ping Pong and got a pizza and a beer instead. I had to clear my head. What to do about this dilemma – a total book nerd not knowing how to jump back into the game of reading for fun. And then it hit me: library book sales. I would leave what I read up to the randomness of people donating the books they’ve read to the library. And it worked. At fifty cents a pop, I have built up a nice little library of fiction books since that afternoon inoculation of pizza and beer.
I’ve read perhaps a hundred and fifty books since I arrived in DC in 2014, all of them procured from library book sales or the Little Free Library on my block. Most of them have been fantastic, but there were a few duds. Surprisingly, one of these duds was Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Goldfinch. I got 13 pages in before I couldn’t take it anymore. The prose was just hideous. Anyway, I digress. The point is that my latest read – Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene – is one of the best books I’ve found in my “let the universe decide” quest for books these days. I must admit that I knew of Graham Greene, but this is the first of his books I’ve read. And what an introduction it was. And a humorous one to boot. It is the story of Henry Pulling, a retired bank worker who spends his days tending his dahlias until he reconnects with his long lost Aunt Augusta at his mother’s funeral and learns that his mother may not have been his mother after all. From there, the adventures begin. Aunt Augusta, a crass and bold septuagenarian, has lived all over Europe for half a century, working in the theater world where she has collected a group of friends who have a penchant for breaking all kinds of rules. Aunt Augusta is enamored of Henry and persuades him to leave his boring life of dahlia tending and travel to Brighton, Paris, Istanbul, Argentina, and Paraguay. Along the way he meets a disparate cast of characters that includes war criminals, CIA agents, hippies, con men, shady bankers, and an actor who is way past his prime in acting, but certainly not in the art of the flimflam. Ultimately, this is the story of a man who is reborn in middle age and comes to realize that the boring world of the bank and dahlias has not been at all fulfilling. In Greene’s version of planes, trains, and automobiles, Henry comes alive as he crisscrosses countries with Aunt Augusta, the both of them often running from the dodgy deals in which she and her friends have engaged over the years.
I recently found myself wandering the streets of Groningen in The Netherlands on a cold December day when I came upon The Pancake Ship. Yes, The Pancake Ship. The Dutch pannenkoeken are far from the typical Bisquik pancakes and maple syrup we Gen-Xers grew up on; rather, they are as big as a charger plate and just a bit thicker than a French crèpe, and the Dutch top them with everything, smoked fish included. The extensive menu at The Pancake Ship cuts across sweet and savory, but if you go for the savory – with meat or cheese or both – be forewarned that the fries and salad are served not on the side, but on top of the pancake. This is a purely logistical presentation as the pancake is so enormous that it hangs off the edge of the plate. The savory pannenkoeken here are a triple layered concoction of heartiness that are best eaten with a pint, or maybe a half pint, of the local beer. If you go for one of the sweet versions, know that the sugar level is high, but oh so worth it. And get a beer with the sweet ones as well. In fact, always get a beer.
Once the pancake extravaganza was over, one of the owners asked me where I was from – an innocuous question I’m often asked when traveling. I told her that I live in DC, but I grew up in Florida. And then the most unexpected thing of the day happened. She began to reminisce about living in Daytona Beach, Florida, when she was in her teens. She talked of crusin’ the main drag and on the beach in a convertible with the radio blaring. I myself have done the same thing, so the bonus part of The Pancake Ship turned out to be a bit of nostalgic chatting about old Florida.
Fancy a fab cup ‘o’ joe on quirky furniture that spans decades of styles? Welcome to the “Best Little Coffeehouse in Utrecht” — The Village Coffee & Music. Grab a hand-crafted cup of coffee or a decadent hot chocolate, relax on vintage comfy chairs, and check out the art-lined walls. This is a great joint for relaxing…and listening to The Cure & The Smiths. They may look like hipsters here, but I do believe there’s more than a bit of Gen-X going on.
I love computers, but not as a gamer or coder or programmer or anything of the sort. I love them from a historical point of view. The history of computers is a fascinating one. I used to love the Computers & Business Machines exhibition at the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, but when the newly renovated museum reopened after years of being closed, this wonderful display of postwar technological history was gone, with just a fraction of its items being relegated to a much smaller exhibit on technology in general. I was rather dismayed.
So I was thus most happy to discover the Computerspielmuseum in Berlin, which details the history of computer gaming and contains an archive of 20,000 games that are currently being digitized. The museum’s collection of gaming devices is not enormous, but it is varied and illustrates how the original form and design were so simple compared to today’s complex systems. As someone who remembers the first Atari system hitting the market, I’m constantly amazed at the complexity of today’s gaming systems.
Any gamer will love this museum. Go forth and play!!