Cruising around Ha Long Bay

A wonderful sunny morning greeted me when I took my shower. Imagine waking up to such a view every morning…

Most people onboard had booked the two-day – one night tour in Ha Long Bay. Since I had time and wanted to relax I had booked the 3 day tour. An Australian couple and I were the only ones who stayed on board after everyone else left for the morning program. While waiting for our day ship to pick us up, I went on the observatory deck and took some pictures.

      

The day ship would be our “home” until the late afternoon. We met our lovely guide and started with an excursion to a pearl farm. She showed us the different types of oysters used for farming with the Akoya being the smallest and the most common.

 Since they die when the pearl is removed they also breed them.

From the breeding station we walked to the “operating room” where they implant a small ball made from mother-of-pearl with a piece of membrane into the oyster. After five weeks the oysters get checked if they survived the operation. The success rate lies by 70%.

    

Before going into the customary shop she opened one oyster ready to be harvested and voilà:

The pearls can develop different colors depending on the mother-of-pearl inside the oyster.

The rest of the day was spent with relaxing. We went to one cove for swimming in the morning then spent the time until lunch reading or sleeping. Lunch was wonderful again and after that more sleeping, reading, swimming.

Mid afternoon we went kayaking where I noticed that I have no hand for it. I shared the kayak with the guide and she was definitely drenched by the time we returned. Nonetheless she abode with me and we went through a cave to an inlet where we saw lots of jellyfish. They just stayed in the inlet and didn’t go out in the ocean. I touched a couple and they felt very slippery. Also when you took them out of the water they dropped their long tentacles. But when you put them back into the water they could still swim. So no harm done.

On the way back to day boat we saw monkeys climbing overhead and jumping from tree to tree. I felt a bit like in a documentary. Such near contact to wildlife is usually not part of my daily life.

Upon our return to the cruise ship we found it empty. All the newcomers must be swimming at the beach. At dinner that evening I shared the table with the Australian couple but later I couldn’t be bothered with squid fishing. I already knew it would not be successful.

The next morning I woke early and got ready. We had a cave visit on our program at around 8am. The Surprise Cave was just a short boat ride away.

  Since most cruise ships were stopping here before heading back it was slow going to the cave entrance. But the view remedied it.

  

Once inside the cave I couldn’t stop taking pictures. It was divided into three chambers with the first one being the smallest one, getting ever bigger along the walk. The cave was set up for a one way visit with another view over the bay waiting at the end. Also a very clever thing with the amount of visitors here daily.

              

  

Back on board of our ship we had to check out of the room and get ready for a cooking class of fried spring rolls. The ones we were doing were filled with minced pork, onions, spring onions, coriander and a bit of chilies (probably more ingredients went in, but I can’t remember anymore). The chef was mixing the filling and we had to roll them tight, glueing the end with egg white to fix the paper in place.

While waiting for the chef to finish lunch I took my last pictures of the bay.

      

Shortly afterwards we had lunch and then we were back in the harbor, getting on mini bus that was packed to the last seat (here some of the smaller buses have an aisle in the middle which can be closed in case of necessity with an extra seat).

We had another stop at a shop with a bathroom on the way back to Hanoi where I saw this fruit vendor in the back. They sliced the fruits freshly in front of you and you got them in a small bag with a large wooden pick to eat.

Finally we were back in Hanoi on the way to the hotel.

I had time to re-pack my small backpack and look for some dinner. I decided on noodles with beef and herbs.

  

For dessert I had a plum lemon tea which had some jelly at the bottom.

I had just enough time left to take a shower, update the blog a bit and was then already on the way to the train station. Tonight I was going to Sa Pa. Yours, Pollybert

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A vegan cooking class

Last week my friend from Deli Bluem took me to a vegan cooking class organized by Muso Koroni. The chef was Justin P. Moore, known for his cookbook ‘The Lotus and the Artichoke‘ as well as for his travels. That was actually the reason she asked me in the first place to come with her. A fact that I had missed in my research about the chef and the organizer.

I went to the cooking class without any expectations or reservations. Food needs to be good, no matter from which ‘drawer” it’s coming from. The class was held at a rentable kitchen/dining room which had it’s own charm and vibe. When we arrived it already smelled amazing of all kinds of things.

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We had a five course meal with a salad as a starter, then soup followed by a Quiche and stuffed peppers and as a desert brownies. Sounds delicious, no? So let’s talk about how it turned out.

We started with the preparation for the soup. Everybody was chopping vegetables and I loved that it was a very interactive class not like the other one I attended in late summer. Justin told us that he has no professional training in the kitchen but learned cooking at home. Therefore his cooking style was quite interesting to watch (the roasting vegetables got checked by hand if they were done).

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After that we worked on the filling for the Quiche (sun-dried tomatoes, spinach), a sauce with smoked tofu and some kind of ‘cheese’. So of course it was not a real cheese but something similar in texture and look. Justin ensured us that it was the first time that he used it (why now, why with us?). Then we moved on to the stuffed peppers. The peppers were halved, then stuffed with a spiced rice filling and also topped with the ‘cheese’ and bread crumbs. Justin oiled the peppers inside and out before filling them and the oil really did a good job because the peppers didn’t burn or got dry!

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Then only the brownies were left to prepare. Since Justin is from the US I was expecting a lot from them. Personally to me the dough looked a bit too solid. Mine is always a bit more liquid.
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Then it was finally time to eat and we sat down with rocket salad with pears and caramelised walnuts.

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The salad was ok. I think the problem were the pears, they were probably to hard when bought and had therefore not enough taste. Also I found the caramelised walnuts to sweet and there was not enough acid in the dressing to balance this.

The soup meanwhile was the best course of the whole meal. Thick, hot and not too finely mixed so one could still feel the texture of the vegetables. Plus the balsamic and the caramelised sunflower seeds balanced each other nicely and the crunch of the seeds gave the soup some extra kick. Very typical for me that I only have the one picture of it.

All the while we were drinking some organic wine which was good, a bit on sweet side maybe but drinkable nonetheless. At last we made to the main course: Quiche and stuffed pepper. It was really nicely presented on the plate, even the vegan eats with the eye.
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The taste then was a bit off for me. The Quiche was too salty, the sun-dried tomatoes and the smoked tofu didn’t really go well together. Also the crust was too dry for me. I honestly miss the taste of butter in the vegan version. The stuffed peppers on the other hand were moist on the inside while the top was dry from the extra bread crumbs and the ‘cheese’. Plus the spiced rice lost almost all its taste in the oven (probably evaporated with the moisture of the pepper) and just tasted bland. Never mind, we still had one course to go. The brownies, next to the burger the best of what America has to offer!

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Justin had roasted some walnuts before and ground them himself. They and the vanilla made up this amazing smell. And then I took a bite and the brownie was chocolatey in taste but also a bit dry and over-baked. It didn’t have this gooey texture that I came to expect from a brownie. It was just another cake although with a lot of chocolate taste.

I don’t know if it is the vegan cuisine or the cook that made this is dinner a bit of a disappointment. I got surprised so often now by my friend’s vegan cooking that for me it is not about the label vegan anymore but the good taste of fresh ingredients. And this was not it. Still the company was pleasant and I only felt one weird vibe when I mentioned that I was eating meat and that I don’t think about going vegan at all (I think if looks could kill I should have died on the spot; I could see the accusation clearly in the eyes of this person: I am a murderer even though I don’t personally hold the knife). But what does it matter, I had a great time with my friend.
Yours, Pollybert

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PS: We later had a beer at the Vollpension dissecting the evening and the cooking in detail. Can only recommend the Vollpension, quite a relaxed crowd and good music!

 

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PPS: The next day I had an urge to eat meat at home which I rarely do. And I gave in! It tasted fantastic!

Cooking class with a substitute

For my birthday last year I got a cooking class voucher with a well know chef in Vienna, called Moerwald. This week I finally found the time to go and there was also a class available.

On arriving at the Kochamt in the Palais Ferstel I noticed right away that we were not going to cook with chef Moerwald himself, but with his second in command (ok, I don’t know where he stands exactly in the cooking hierarchy) Roland Huber. I can’t say I was disappointed by this change, he was quite easy on the eye.

A hostess greeted me with a glass of white wine in the open kitchen/dining room. The kitchen counter was already prepped for cooking and the table set for a total of nine guests.

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The theme for the cooking class was herbs and wild mushrooms. I could not imagine what we would be cooking (herbs and mushrooms are not substantial ingredients but more like a seasoning or garnish thing for me) but was ready to be surprised.

We started with the preparations for the dessert. Vanilla pudding made from scratch with apricots baked in a caramel-wine sauce with star anise and different herbs. We used basil, rosemary, thyme and mint.

While the pudding was cooling in the freezer and the apricots baking in the oven, we moved on to the meat for the main dish. Three thick-cut steaks (around one pound each) were quickly browned on each side, then shortly roasted in butter, herbs and garlic and only then put into the oven to roast at a low temperature to its pink perfection. We used a thermometer to get the correct core temperature of 52 degrees Celsius.

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After that we started with the appetizer, a leaf salad with marinated vegetables and garden herbs.

20130727-111558.jpgEveryone arranged its own salad, mine just didn’t come out any better. It tasted ok, for me there was just too much sugar and oil in the dressing. For non Viennese people: sugar is a staple ingredient in the salad dressing, it’s kind of an acquired taste. Personally I prefer the French dressing of Dijon, herbs the Provence, vinegar and oil.

We sat down with the salad and another glass of wine. Conversation was flowing, mostly about cooking, cooking shows and other food related topics. It was astonishing how young most of the participants were. Of the eight people we were in the end, five were easily under 25.

Next course was chanterelle goulash with Palffy dumplings. The Palffy in the dumplings means that they are made with brioche and not with bread. Therefore they have a sweeter taste which really went well with the smoked sweet paprika blend that we used for the chanterelle sauce.

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20130727-112709.jpgIt was very interesting to learn the dumplings are no longer cooked in a linen napkin but in plastic wrap. I was not aware that one can do that and that the plastic is not melting.

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The meat meanwhile was ready and resting outside. Our chef prepared an herbal pesto with lots of basil, parsley, rosemary and thyme, also walnuts and Parmesan. To give the meat more texture and to heat it a bit, it was put again into the frying pan where the herbs, garlic and butter were still left.

20130727-175507.jpg The fresh porcini were still waiting for their own roasting.

20130727-175641.jpgAnd here is the result.

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Last but not least the dessert, here all the stages of the preparation.

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20130727-180239.jpgFor decoration we used frozen herbs and edible flowers, slightly crumbled.

20130727-180453.jpgAnd voila, my plate.

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The food was excellent, the cooking class so-so. It was supposed to last four hours and I thought we would be more involved in the cooking process. Not just watching the chef cooking and trying to sell the products of the shop. Still, I had a good time.
Yours, Pollybert

PS: I finished ‘Life of Pi’ by Yann Martel. I liked it, a lot actually. But it is definitely a book which I should re-read in a couple of months. I am not sure I understood all the deep meaning behind it.
Therefore after ‘Pi’ I read a YA novel. ‘You against me’ by Jenny Downham deals with the difficult subject of rape and how it affects not only the victim and the aggressor but also the family of the two. Very well written as was already ‘Before I die’ from her.
I am now reading some chick lit. One needs something light and funny in between. It is ‘I heart New York’ by Lindsey Kelk and so far it is reading like a breeze. Also funny, I’ve laughed out loud a few times.