We began the year 2017 without definite plans. Perhaps we could plan our calendar way in advance as some ‘type A’ people probably do, but what’s the fun in that?
Sometimes, we’re just hanging around our Naples, Italy apartment and, all of a sudden, the spark of travel shoots across our brains and, on a whim, we decide to fly to South Africa for two and a half months. And so began the year.
Best of 2017
We visited London three times and experienced Oktoberfest during our second visit to Bavaria in one year. And we finally made it to Africa where we saw the big five animals during three safaris.
Most important, we made new friends all over the world both in and out of the travel blogging community.
With so many great experiences under our belts, it’s hard to pick favorites. Life isn’t always easy. With that in mind, here are our top food and travel experiences in the year that was:
Meal of the Year – Gostišče Grič in Horjul Slovenia
We were skeptical when we arrived at Gostišče Grič, Luka Košir’s chalet compound located in the undulating Slovenian hills an hour outside of Ljubljana.
The restaurant’s wood-paneled dining room resembled a beer hall and a starter of strückli left us cross-eyed and wondering why we trekked all that way by bus through the chilly Autumn drizzle. Then we tasted the food.
Like a gastronomic thunderbolt, Chef Luka sent us out a series of courses in rapid succession starting with a cheese course that was as much a feast for the eyes as the mouth. The best, most luxurious Eggplant dish of our lives soon arrived followed by a series of wonderful courses that left us screaming for more.
We’re talking about locally caught Rainbow Trout with tomato pie and nasturtium cream, Pumpkin Soup (made with local pumpkins from the Gostišče Grič garden), Veal Loin coated in ash and, as a topper, homemade Ricotta Ice Cream, served on a gorgeous wood grained plate lovingly made by Košir’s father, with caramelized pears.
When most people think the best restaurant in Slovenia, they think about Ana Roš’ Hiša Franko. But quietly, under the radar, Luka Košir is serving some of the best food in all of Europe.
Best Pizza – Pepe in Grani in Caiazzo Italy
“Is there really that much of a difference from one pizza to the next?”
The statement above (which we heard during a recent conversation) immediately elicited laughter from us. The fact is that there can be huge differences between ordinary pies and the ones we ate in Italy’s Naples and Caiazzo.
During our one month residency in Naples, the ground zero of pizza, we ate a lot of pies at stalwarts like 50 Kalo and Antica Pizza da Michele. The singular ingredients and care that these pizza institutions use in preparation of their pizza elevate their pies above the rest of the world.
However, and it was inconceivable to us until we tasted them, Caiazzo pizzaiolo Franco Pepe’s pies stand even one stratum higher at his pizzeria Pepe in Grani.
For Pepe it all starts with the dough – a fermented living thing that almost jumps out of the special wooden vessels that he uses to hold it. Pepe then adds hyperlocal ingredients like mozzarella di bufala and tomatoes from the province of Caserta to create the closest thing to pizza perfection we’ve ever tasted.
Best Place to Drink Wine – The Cape Winelands in South Africa
We found ridiculously cheap everyday wines along with unheard of prices for age-worthy vintages in the Cape Winelands, especially in Stellenbosch. These wines included big, rich oak-aged Cabernet Sauvignons and floral, minerally Chenin Blancs and Chardonnays.
We could have happily quaffed these gorgeous wines while sitting at a steel table under fluorescent lights in a room adorned with ceiling tiles. However, it’s worth mentioning that the Cape Winelands may be the most beautiful place on earth to drink wine.
Sunsets featuring craggy, misty, fogged peaks create an incomparable show most nights. Drinking wine in the Cape created incomparable memories for both our eyes and tastebuds… and the Cape Winelands food is great too!
Most Beautiful Area with a Nightmarish Reputation – Transylvania
Transylvania has a beauty that matches areas like the German Rhineland, the Smokey Mountains and the Pacific Northwest. Not only did we appreciate the region’s landscape, but we also enjoyed some of the best traditional Romanian food at restaurants like Casa Terra in Făgăraș during our stay in Transylvania.
Transylvanians are so proud of their DIY food culture that it’s rare to find a yard without a garden filled with fruits and vegetables. Our Airbnb host even gifted us with freshly picked strawberries from his grandmother’s garden.
Forget about the stories of Dracula. Transylvania is a gorgeous place and probably one of the best places to eat traditional food in Romania and all of Eastern Europe.
Best Gelato – Bologna Italy
Yes, we know that there is great gelato all over Italy. We’ve tasted great cones in Rome, Naples and as far south as Basilicata. (Though we’ve heard legendary stories about the gelato in Sicily, we’re saving that experience for a future excursion.) But there’s something special about the gelato in Bologna.
Bologna has the best gelato we’ve ever tasted and lots of it. When we returned to La Grassa (The Fat One, as Bologna is often called) after a seven-year hiatus, we expected to eat great gelato at one or two great gelaterias. Instead, we found at least six parlors that had better gelato than any we’d previously tasted in our lives.
In Bologna, gelato merchants serve a dreamy product made from the world’s finest gelato ingredients. Standouts were the rich, creamy dense chocolate gelato at Cremeria Santo Stephano, the unique flavors and granitas (along with convivial atmosphere) at Galliera 49, and the decadent brioche sandwich at Stefino.
If you travel to Bologna, you will surely enjoy wonderful food including handcrafted pastas like tagliatelle, classic cured meats like prosciutto and mortadella as well as legendary cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano. Don’t forget to save room for the city’s fabulous gelato!
Kitschiest New Year Celebration – Tallinn Estonia
After a cold Christmas in Helsinki, we planned to fly South to Italy. To our surprise, flights on Christmas day are expensive in Europe. We had to find someplace nearby to camp until New Year’s Day, and Tallinn, Estonia fit the bill.
We didn’t know much about Tallinn before our arrival. To our pleasant surprise, Tallin’s food scene exceeded our expectations and the city was a great place to be during the holiday season.
When the opportunity arose for us to attend a local cabaret show at the Park Inn by Radisson, we jumped at it. The kitschy NYE entertainment transported us back to the communist 1980s as the Viru Cabaret players strutted their finely tuned feathered stuff across a small dance floor while we enjoyed a fine meal of paprika chicken and stewed pork.
The touring Viru cabaret, which performs at multiple Tallinn locations including the infamous Viru Hotel, originally formed out of a need to entertain foreigners during the Soviet era. Soaking in a night of high kicking entertainment and champagne at a show of classic kitsch was a memorable way to start the new year.
Best Rendition of a National Dish – Black Risotto at Dubravkin Put in Zagreb Croatia
During our two-month sojourn, we dined at Dubravkin Put based on a number of recommendations and glowing reviews about the restaurant and its female chef, Priska Thuring. We’re pleased to report that those reviews were justified, with one dish standing out above all – the Black Cuttlefish Risotto.
Risotto at other Zagreb restaurants just wasn’t the same. Dubravkin Put’s risotto was jet black with a fatty richness exhibited in its glossy finish. Chunks of tender cuttlefish greeted our mouths with every bite along with al dente grains of rice cooked tender but never mushy. Though the black risotto colored our teeth a distinct onyx color, we couldn’t stop smiling.
Dubravkin Put’s welcoming manager, Marin Čale, confided that the restaurant’s black risotto was better than any you’ll eat by the sea. After tasting the heavenly black rice and returning for more, we believed him.
Best Vegetable Preparation – Cauliflower Shwarma at Berber & Q in London UK
When we were children, cauliflower was one of those vegetables that many in our generation refused to eat as children. Our mothers always seemed to boil the vegetable to bland submission causing it to emit a dank smell that repulsed us. We’ve since embraced the joy of eating cooked veggies like asparagus, broccoli and even cauliflower.
The chefs at London’s Berber & Q Grill House roast cauliflower over an intense wood-fired grill and serve the resulting Cauliflower Shwarma beautifully adorned with flowers and with a spicy sauce. Meaty and wonderfully charred, this cauliflower Schwarma could almost convince us to give us meat. Almost but not quite.
Ironically, our photo of Berber & Q’s Beet Salad was a finalist in the City of London’s #MyLondonDish contest. That dish was good too, but the Cauliflower Shwarma is the one that gets our vote.
Most Outrageous Brunch – The Petit Dejeuner at the Grand Hotel in Rimini Italy
Warning! Come hungry if you decide to attend The Petit Dejeuner at the Grand Hotel Rimini, the yearly epic food event that’s part of Mossimo Bottura’s Al Meni food fest in late June.
During our visit to Emilia Romagna, this grandiose brunch was the epic Italian food fest of our dreams. Tables filled the hotel’s expansive lawn, each topped with tempting food and drink.
Highlights included giant slices of t-bone bistec a la fiorentina, scoops of artisan gelato, wedges and cuts of local cheese and salumi, tall glasses of wine, macaron towers, fancy pastries and, if that wasn’t enough, a cornucopia of seafood, risotto and pasta.
To be clear, there was nothing petite about this brunch!
We walked out wishing we had tried more food but knowing that we couldn’t. That the event is held at the legendary five star Grand Hotel which is featured in the Federico Fellini film, Amarcord, only added to the drama and fun. To us, this is what food travel is all about.
Best Coffee City – Cape Town and Bucharest
We drank a lot of coffee in 2017 (some would say too much). We got caffeinated in such great cities as Naples, Prague and Budapest. However, in our minds, two cities stood out but for totally different reasons – Cape Town and Bucharest.
The Cape Town coffee scene boggled our minds with the number of shops roasting and serving their own beans. Many cafes feature roasting machines just by the barista stations.
Cape Town has more than 50 coffee roasters producing beans that range from good to great in quality.
Bucharest, unlike Cape Town, has a limited number of local roasters, though the good ones are really good. In Bucharest, we fell in love with the cafes themselves.
Many of the Bucharest cafes are situated in grand, interbelic buildings with beautifully decaying architecture and crazy fast internet. We could have happily spent hours in these coffee houses, which is exactly what we did.
Best Bucket List Adventure (If We Had a Bucket List) – Safari in South Africa
Unlike most people, we generally abhor the concept of a bucket list. Though we understand that there are certain must-see locations and experiences that travelers have in their lives, we don’t like to over obsess about what we have and haven’t seen.
We would rather cherish the places and experiences in the moment while creating quality memories. In other words, we’re generally slow travelers who like to go with the flow.
While in South Africa we decided, on a whim, to explore the possibility of going on a safari. It was our South African “When in Rome…” moment.
As fate would have it, we took three safaris!
Each safari offered a uniquely immersive experience that left us beyond satisfied with our time in Africa’s southernmost country. Going on these safaris unleashed the adventure travelers within us while giving us a taste of luxury style in the bush.
Best of all, we got to see the big five animals up close and personal.
Best Blast from the Past Meal – Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal Canada
Returning to favorite restaurants often results in disappointment for us. Chefs change like the wind and restaurants often lose their luster. We’ve been let down more than once. So, we made our reservation at Au Pied de Cochon with mild trepidation.
As soon as our first course arrived, we knew that we were in for a culinary journey through the Quebecqois food that put Chef Martin Picard on the map. After we inhaled a French Onion Soup flavored with chunks of cured pork, we plowed through PDC’s signature Plogue à Champlain (buckwheat pancake with maple syrup and foie gras) and a Cured Foie Gras & Boudin Tart.
However, the lowly named Maple Pudding Chômeur (unemployed man’s pudding in English) was the highlight of the dinner and a PDC classic. After we finished the moist maple-licious pudding, we scraped every last bit of the syrupy sauce with our spoons.
About the Authors
Daryl & Mindi Hirsch
Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on the 2foodtrippers website and YouTube. The married Food and Travel content creators live in Lisbon, Portugal.