Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Viva Croatia

I've arrived in Zagreb just in time for their national independence day. It was on this day many years ago that Croatians decided they were done with being part of Yugoslavia and declared their own country.

And like The 4th of July in America, everything is closed.

Today, Zagreb seems like a sleepy town. It's calm, quiet and relaxed. It seems like a nice place to live. Nik assures me that by tomorrow the frenetic craziness of life in the capital city will return, and what have been easy commutes across the city will become traffic gridlock best beaten by bicycle, foot or street trolley.

The only problem with today has been the blazing heat. Hot, humid, heavy - it's nearly unbearable, like an average summer day in Baltimore.

We start off by heading down to a city square where the official independence day ceremonies are taking place. There's lots of police, lots of military and lots of pomp and circumstance. After a moment of silence to remember those who gave their lives for Croatia's independence, we listen to the president of Croatia give a speech before heading to the grocery store.

I always find it interesting to visit the markets to see just what people are eating. Life in Zagreb is pretty much like everywhere else. The proximity to Italy means some really nice prosciutto but there's still a lot of packaged foods to go around.

Back at Nik's flat, Eva prepares us what is an "average" sized meal for Croatians. After meager eating in Copenhagen, I'm nearly shocked by the amount. Don't get me wrong, it's wonderful. But when you go from eating a bit of yogurt and granola in the morning to a large spread, it's surprising.

First course was a platter filled with fresh cherry tomatoes in balsamic vinegar, olive oil and basil, with olives, capers, baguettes, prosciutto, smoked cheese and local beer. To be honest, that would have been enough. It was delicious. But that was only the beginning.

Next up was a simple pasta salad with tuna and mozzarella. Tasty. Third course was the meat. The nice thing about Croatians is that they love their meats. No finicky tastes here, just large portions of meat. In this case, a platter of roaster pork loin and potatoes with just a touch of rosemary. For dessert, just a taste of chocolate napoleon wafers for good measure.

After a bit of lounging around the flat for digestion, I headed back to the hotel for an afternoon nap because of the stifling heat and then in the early evening we headed down to check out the action at Lake Juran.

Lake Juran is a state built lake that offers something for everyone. There are areas for windsurfing, sculling, exercising, mini-golf, beachfront, nude sunbathing, running, cycling - you name it, and this lake has probably got it. It's immense and it's complete with nightclubs for the evening hours. And since it's independence day, it was packed to the gills.

The best part of the lake are the women. Sitting there with a cold beer in hand, all the beauty of Croatia lies before you. It's a wonderful thing.

More to come.

Roundup Copenhagen

In the Mercedes leaving Copenhagen.

My week in Copenhagen is now past. I had a nice time in Denmark. One filled with twists, turns, surprises and friends old and new.

The worst part of the trip was the cost. There's no other way about it, Copenhagen is frakking expensive. More expensive than Paris. More expensive than Tokyo. About on par with Moscow. It's horrifically expensive and I don't look forward towards going back because of the cost. Five dollars for a Coke isn't unusual. Three dollars for a Snickers bar or tube of Pringles is about right. Ten dollars for a beer is the norm. A seven dollar espresso isn't worthy of a raised eyebrow.

Even the rather average meal we had by the canal cost nearly one hundred dollars for three courses. Never mind the cost of a taxi. They say everything in Copenhagen is nearby. Well, for roughly twenty dollars a cab ride from the DGI-Byen Hotel to Cafe Europa - it may be nearby but it certainly isn't "affordable." For twenty bucks, I can get from the Lower East Side to Central Park in New York City, or from downtown Baltimore to my home in the suburbs.

Even a simple hot dog on the street cost in the vicinity of five dollars - and I can't say it was that much better than a Sabrett on the streets of New York.

Another downside of the week (and also because of the cost of hotel rooms) was that our old barista crew from last year were now scattered all over the city. Combine that with larger entourages and the experience gets diluted. Last year, when everyone was staying at the same hotel and only had their coaches with them, the only choice was for everyone to get together and go out as a group.

This year, with both larger entourages and groups of friends, we found ourselves scattered about with Team Africa going one way, Team Mexico going the other, Sanders going off to meetings and myself running off with Sylvia, Adrianna and Ana for most of the week.

But it still was fun, just in a different way. Lots of events and parties to attend. Even the Ambassador from Mexico hosted a number of us at her house with an open bar and lots of finger foods. While I wished she offered us a traditional Mexican menu, the Danish inspired seafood and local produce menu was certainly delicious and I only wish that it wasn't a diplomatic event because I really wanted to chow down hard on the salmon, which necessitated the expensive dinner by the canal before missing the girl in the pretty floral dress at the Kontra party afterwards. Merde.

The just plain weird part of my week came early on while strolling along Istengade and being propositioned by a local hooker. I couldn't help but ask how much (500 Kroner) and kept on trucking after finding out the price. Turning the next corner, I was accosted by two undercover police officers who wanted to know who I was and what I was talking to that girl about. I got nothing to hide, so I told them she propositioned me for sex. They told me then that prostitution was legal in Denmark and that they were trying to get to the pimps. A bit frazzled, I thanked them for letting me go and went on my way with my bag of groceries.

It wasn't until later that it dawned on me that maybe they thought I was the pimp.

Imagine: me, a pimp. Well, maybe that wouldn't be such a bad thing...

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In spite of the terrible cold which rendered me chilly all week, I had a nice time in Copenhagen. Most of my time away from the World Barista Championship was spent walking and touring the city with the girls. Nyhavn, Christiana Free Town, The Little Mermaid. The Queen's Arrival. The Changing of the Guard. Falling asleep in a local cafe. Walking along the lakes. Arguing with Sylvia about who should do what and who did what wrong (I'll let you guess who was the wrong party). Good times. Fun times. Odd times. Sad times.

The Copenhagen adventure is over and now I move forward - even if it isn't with as an assured step as before.

Eating Europa

The 50 Kroner ($10) Cappuccino.

It's famous in the coffee world. It's even mentioned in the Time Out and Lonely Planet guidebooks. It's owned by the 2001 World Barista Champion, Martin Hildebrandt.

But as everyone in the know will tell you: don't got there for the coffee.

Take the cappuccino above. First off, it's pretty darn expensive by any standard. Ten Dollars. Yowza. For ten bucks, you'd expect cappuccino perfection. And while you get something that looks pretty with its' latte art, the rest falls flat. Drag a demitasse spoon through the foam and you'll see: it's a latte with that prerequisite micro-thin layer of foam.

If you're looking for a coffee mecca, there are other places to go - including Europa's sister company: Kontra Coffee.

But what you do go to Europa for, night after night after night, is the food.

It's truly delicious and exquisite. In fact, their smoked salmon salad is the best salad I've had anywhere.

Adriana and the Vegetarian Salad - King Trumpet mushrooms served with apples baked in thyme, mixed salad with Dijon sauce, organic lentils, grains beans & roasted nuts, honey glazed apricots, bread & butter. 135 Kroner (for the salad, not Adriana)

The girls and I made our first visit to Europa on my second night in Copenhagen. It was slightly chilly but they had blankets to warm the girls (none for me since I'm male and designed to suffer). While the girls had a beer each (42 Kroner), Adriana had the vegetarian salad (135Kr) while I had the Lamb Special (195Kr), the Ingefaer-lime Limonade (50Kr) and the cappuccino (50Kr.).

I tasted the salad and it was very good, but my lamb was beautifully done. Cooked au point to perfection and served with fresh greens, herbs, roasted potatoes, asparagus and the surprise sweetness of pomegranates. Amazing. Ingredients so fresh and alive that they popped on the palate. This is the kind of eating made for excitement.

The Lamb.

It was a lovely evening in the waning sunlight with good friends, but the lamb, a salad, a limonade, cappuccino and three beers cost me $120! I was quickly learning that Copenhagen was not going to be a visit on the cheap.

But the food was good, the company was excellent and I was still flush with cash.

Sylvia and The Bread.

As the week progressed, it seemed to evolve around Europa. At some point of the day or night, we would end up there. One night was a night of drunken debauchery as Holger celebrated Germany's victory in the Euro Cup. We would also end the week there for the WBC Barista Party where the staff would float around with trays of food (the lamb chops - yum!) and beverages.

It was then that I wished I had more time to chat with the cute server who was quite friendly and more than happy to bring me a Coke from the bar. Thank God for you and if you ever visit America, I will be a happy host and tour guide. You know who you are.

Something else I wanted to mention that was notable at Europa but not limited to Europa. Compared to the "Customer service at all costs" attitude in the United States, server attitudes in Copenhagen sucks. Perhaps it's the lack of a tipping culture or (as one friend put it) that Danes are just frank and matter-of-fact about everything that it comes off the wrong way, but I couldn't help but develop the impression that the presence of customers was just off-putting and a bit too much of an imposition on the servers.

Weird, but I was actually glad the tipping culture didn't exist because the tip would have been small indeed.

Shane, Imma, Sanders and John.

One of our excursions to Europa was after a cafe crawl with the African Contingent. Again, more amazing food. Sanders' description of the yogurt made it a "must taste" and it was truly special. Smooth, creamy, delicious and perfection with the maple syrup. God, I have to remember to do that at home.

It was good to catch up with returning champions Francis Njobu (Zambia) and John Muli Makaw (Kenya) who both had won their national championships for the second year running. It was also fantastic to meet Peter Musana, the first Ugandan barista champion. A truly pleasant and humble man to be around.

John, Claire and Francis, 2007/2008 Zambian Barista Champion.

The Yoghurt - strained with fresh fruit and maple syrup.

Smoked Organic Salmon Salad - smoked salmon serve with mixed salad with Dijon sauce, organic lentils, grains, beans & roasted nuts, smoked cream cheese, lime, fresh herbs, bread and butter.

Ever since I watched Shane and Drew order yogurt and fruit plates for breakfast in Minneapolis, I've been trying to think more carefully about what I eat, so I thought I would go for the salmon salad. I'm certainly glad that I did. Without reservation, that had to be one of, if not the best salad I've ever had anywhere. It was perfectly balanced with greens, grains, salmon and citrus. Unbelievable. I want to recreate it at home, it was that good. From now on, whenever another salad crosses my plate, this will be the benchmark I hold it to. Fresh, light, seasonal and filling. They offer two sizes and this one is the smaller. Can't imagine what it would be like to eat the larger serving.

Chicken Sandwich - organic rye bread, chicken marinated with basil vinaigrette, grilled pancetta, tomato, fresh herbs, curry sauce & mango chutney.

Chicken Sandwich - on organic wheat bread.

Burger Europa 1989 - slices of filet beef from Danish Jersey young cattle, matured by Europa 1989 standards, salad, tomato, pickled cucumber, barbecue marinated onion, cheese & grilled pancetta. Served with baked lemon marinated potatoes, fresh herbs, barbecue sauce & aioli.

At the end, if you ever make it to Copenhagen, it's worth eating brunch and lunch at Europa. In fact, if it should be a must. Start off the day with one of the two brunch selections (I would probably choose Brunch 2), then go off and walk around the city for awhile. Trek up to see the Little Mermaid. By the time you walk there and back, you'll be plenty hungry and then try the Organic Salmon Salad. Afterwards, take a stroll along the lakes and visit some shops in the north section of the city then walk back for an evening meal with the lamb, or whatever special they're running (it'll be worth it, guaranteed). Sit outside with some blankets, have a few beers and smoke a couple of Havanas and you would have spent the perfect day in Copenhagen.

It certainly will not have been cheap, but it will have been delicious.

Europa 1989
Amagertorv 1
1160 KĂžbenhavn K, Denmark
+45 3314 2889