At least while you’re taking them? My problem starts when I get home and can’t quite slough off the taking-it-easy attitude while simultaneously facing the mountains of work that have piled up during our absence. I’m sure some of that post-vacation exhaustion comes from the questionable habit of trying to see everything and do everything while traveling. More often than not, I return home needing a vacation from the vacation. And there you have it — my excuse of an excuse for not posting in 2 months. Bad, bad blogger.

Lagos beach, Algarve region

Yes, vacations. Nearly 23 years ago, I was working my way from the rains and blustery winds of Amsterdam toward the promise of Portugal’s sun-drenched shores when I happened across a Spanish circus, a handsome Italian boy, and his 6 elephants. Married the elephant keeper a few years later; never made it to Portugal. I’ve teased him for years that he owed me a trip there. In a few months, we’ll celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary, and this year seemed the perfect year to make that trip happen.

Ruins, Carmo Convent, Lisbon

Ruins, Carmo Convent, Lisbon

For the last two weeks in March, Portugal plied us with her pleasures. Lisbon’s castles and monasteries, Porto’s wine, the Algarve’s rugged coastline — we loved every bit of it. The Portuguese people were welcoming and friendly, patient with my limited Portuguese, and anxious to point out an obscure sight we may have missed or a particular specialty we ought to eat.

Quinta de Regaleira, Sintra

There was a lot of eating — and just as much drinking. According to my guidebook, the Portuguese have the highest consumption of alcohol per-capita in Europe. Immersing ourselves In that When in Rome spirit, we did our damnedest to keep up. Not certain we succeeded, but sure enjoyed trying. Our favorite place to drink? A neighborhood bar in Lisbon’s Alfama district. The whole place couldn’t have been bigger than 100 square feet, and the walls were lined with every type of alcohol made in Portugal (uncountable). The proprietress, a motherly 60-year old who stood barely as tall as her bar and spoke not a word of English, greeted us with a smile each night we passed by and was happy to pour us a shot or two or three of some previously-unknown libation such as ginjinha (jeen-JEEN-ya), a sour cherry liquer typical of Lisbon. Our favorite thing to drink? Port wine, of course, hands down. We’ve developed quite a liking for the stuff over the years, especially aged tawny, and we had no problem turning a good portion of our trip into a pilgrimage to the Douro river region, home of the port-wine trade for nearly 400 years and one of the oldest DOC regions in the world. (A few sentences cannot do the Douro justice — follow-up post coming soon.)

Tasting at Sandeman's

Of all the food we ate, my favorite was a dessert. (Is anyone who’s read a few of my posts surprised?) Pasteis (pas-taysh) de Nata, a lovely bite-sized egg custard tart. The original Pasteis de Belem is named after the town where it was created and its fame grew steadily after Portugal’s liberal revolution in the early 19th century forced the local monastery to find new ways to make ends meet. After visiting the nearby Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, we made our way to the pastry shop where I contentedly consumed 4 pastries in about 4 minutes. Crispy. Creamy. Flaky. Buttery. I regret not eating even more.  The bakery itself is a rabbit warren of a place – room after room after room of bistro tables and chairs to seat the masses that come from near and far to eat these delicacies. The “nata” version is available across Portugal, and we sampled them multiple times in every town we visited, but none compared with the original. Apparently, only three people in the world are privy to the original recipe.

Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, Lisbon

What’s a girl with an insatiable sweet tooth to do but get into the kitchen and bake? I downloaded two recipes I found online — an easier version with pre-made puff pastry dough and the custard made entirely on the stove top; the other with handmade dough and the custard an interesting mix of homemade syrup, hot milk, and half again as many yolks. I have yet to make my own pastry dough, so I tried the puff version. The custard turned out okay, but the pastry was way too… puffy. Though quick to make and certainly enjoyable, they were nothing like the pastries in Belem. The second recipe, found on David Leite’s  culinary site, seems much more promising. I see pastry making in my near future! And likely a blog post dedicated to these lovely little treats.

I wish I would have thought to photograph the originals…. too busy eating, I suppose. (The one culinary thing we did photograph was a chorizo sausage, flame-roasted per a grocer’s instructions, by igniting pure alcohol poured into a ceramic dish made just for this.)

Flame-roasted Chorizo, Lagos

Funny… I feel a hankering for something sweet coming on. With the promise of more posts to come (and a second promise to not wait two months to fulfill the first promise), I’m off to rifle through my baking cupboard.

A presto ~

Please Pardon my Absence

October 3, 2010

You’re right. I never mentioned that I was going on vacation. And, no, I did not fall off the edge of the earth as some of you asked, just the edge of the continent.

My husband’s mother and her best friend were visiting from Italy for the past couple of weeks, as they often do in September. Each year, I try to show them a part of America they’ve never seen. Although I have traveled this country extensively, sharing America’s beauty with those who have never experienced it is like seeing it for the first time. One year it was San Francisco and the redwoods. Another year, Las Vegas and The Grand Canyon. This year, Alaska!

Snowy Peaks by Helicopter

This wasn’t just our usual road trip (although we did put over 1000 miles on the car). Instead, we boarded a ship in Vancouver, Canada, and added another 2400 miles traveling through the Inside Passage on Alaska’s Marine Highway. Three-hundred-foot towers of ice calving into Johns Hopkins Inlet. Dozens of Dall’s porpoises frolicking alongside the ship. Glacial rivers coursing under their crystal shell and into a crevasse that turned from blue to black as it disappeared into centuries and centuries of ice. Brown bears. Humpback whales. Bald eagles. Otters, seals and sea lions.

Since pictures speak louder than words…

Sunrise Enroute to Juneau

Whale Watching in Auke Bay, Juneau

Humpback Whale Spouts

Mother and Baby Humpbacks

Chilkat Glacier

 

Crevasse on Chilkat Glacier

 

Ice Formations on Surface of Chilkat Glacier

Young Bald Eagle Learning to Fish

Bear Tracks!

Momma Bear...

... and Cubs

One of the highlights of the trip was Glacier Bay National Park and watching the Johns Hopkins Glacier calve into the inlet.

Johns Hopkins Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park

We were lucky enough to have some sun, but the air was cold enough that I had to wear almost every article of clothing I brought to keep the chill at bay.

Watching Johns Hopkins Glacier Calve

Although watching a glacier calve is an awesome experience, it is startling to see the difference in pictures a family member took less than 10 years ago, especially when you realize the very act of viewing it is contributing to the glacier’s demise.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9PM8FLet7Fw

Johns Hopkins Glacier has receded 65 miles since 1750.

Here’s a quick video with closeups of dozens of Dall’s porpoises racing and frolicking alongside our ship while traveling Alaska’s Marine Highway. When they first approached from the far side of the channel, it looked as if the water was boiling. As they drew closer to the ship, I could make out their dorsal fins. Then they curved and swam alongside, leaping and diving and playing for almost 2 minutes. Then, as if one of them called “CUT,” the porpoises dropped under the surface of the water almost in unison and swam off. Perhaps to catch their breath as they waited for the next ship…
Sorry for the clumsy shooting… just a tiny point a shoot.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cuGX3ozhhbA

The pristine lands, serene beauty, and magnificent creatures left me both thankful for the opportunity to experience these treasures and hopeful that they will remain intact for generations and generations to come.

P.S. I honestly did intend to post a recipe or two while traveling. And although we spent a great deal of time and energy eating, when not in the dining room or on excursions, I was far more focused on scanning the horizon for wildlife.

Perhaps my post on pesto was meant to be delayed. In a serendipitous stroke, my Alaskan traveling companions reside in a small, seaside town not far from Genova, the birthplace of pesto.

Angela and Marilena on Chilkat Glacier

What was in the works as one simple recipe has become two – the measuring cup method and the al’occhio (eyeball) method, complete with variations and additions.

A presto ~

Before I fell in love with food, I fell in love with elephants.

After all, I wasn’t kicking and screaming into the kitchen all by myself. Someone had to drag me, and that someone, as you may know, was my future-husband, Stefano.  What you may not know, is that someone – or something – was dragging Stefano. Elephants. Seven of them to be exact.

Stefano Cremonesi, Kathleen Cremonesi

Stefano & Kathleen, First Photo

A bit of back story: December, 1988 found me bumping around northeastern Spain on an old Bela Vega bus with a band of street performers and misfits looking for work in Catalonia’s orange groves. One night, the juggler saw a circus poster and decided he’d ask for a job – except he didn’t speak Spanish. I conjured the remnants of high school Spanish and waltzed with him into the big top. Next thing I knew, I was working in the cafeteria by day and dancing in a chorus line wearing a rhinestone bikini and my very own pair of ruby stilettos by night. Enter the elephant keeper, Stefano, and the seductive powers of his elephant troupe.

Elephants in Circus

Time for a Belly Rub

 

Twenty-two years later, our years in the circus are distant memories, but we will never forget the impact elephants had on our lives and the elephant-sized holes that remained when we walked away from these amazing beings. In 2008, while traveling in Thailand and Cambodia, Stefano and I knew we wanted to see elephants, and we knew we didn’t want to see them performing or painting or hauling tourists on jungle treks. In Chiang Mai, Thailand, we heard about Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary for rescued elephants.

The park is the dream of a very small woman with a very big heart. Sangduen “Lek” Chailert has saved over thirty elephants, one at a time, using a combination of volunteer labor, personal funds, and international donations to bring her forty-acre reserve to capacity. Her mission is to offer sanctuary, advocate for elephant rights and welfare, and educate Thai people and the rest of the world on the Asian elephants’ fight for survival. Here’s a great video of a few of the babies testing their authority with the pack of dogs who also make the park their home. Watch for the back leg kicks (aimed at both dogs and mahouts), and how the babies run and hide among the aunties when the dogs react. The woman with the hat is Lek, and her love and empathy for these animals is clear.

http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/news/1005nv01.htm

It can often take weeks or months for a position to open at the park, but the day Stefano and I inquired about volunteering, a couple of other volunteers had to cut their visit short. Kismet. By the following afternoon, my husband and I were knee deep in a remote river scrubbing 4,000 pound elephants.

Wanna Take a Bath?

We spent the remainder of our vacation living in a bamboo hut, mixing elephant food, bagging elephant dung (traded for produce with a local organic farm), and making time between tasks to inform day visitors of the park’s mission and encourage them to learn more.

 

Elephant Love

 

Isn't it Lunchtime Yet?

Observing these elephants interact freely with their family groups is heartwarming, and watching the babies tussle with each other in the mud pit is pure belly-laughing joy.

Mud Fight!

Working toward the success of Elephant Nature Park was both a humbling and empowering experience for Stefano and me. For twenty-two years, elephants have bound our hearts and fueled our dreams. Thanks to Lek and her park, we were finally giving something back.

We continue to support the park through small donations and encourage anyone who can spare a few dollars now and then to do the same. If you’re interested in helping, click on the video link above, and then click on the donation link. You can also visit http://www.elephantnaturepark.org. A little money goes a long way in Thailand, and for ten bucks, you can buy an elephant lunch.

Hmmmm… lunch. Somehow, it always comes back to the food.

Next week: Tiramisu!