Food Friday: Historic Pastries in Villa de Levya

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Delicious treats from Villa de Leyva. I swear we ate real food while we were there — but you wouldn’t know it from my photos. Clearly I have my artistic (and gastronomic) priorities in order.

25 Reasons Why I Love Bogotá

About four months into living in another country is when one allegedly hits that first real “low” of culture shock. It takes different forms and manifests in various ways for different people, of course — I’m overall a pretty upbeat, cheerful person, so anytime I don’t feel like hugging half the city is a warning sign for me. Luckily, this is fairly uncommon, and I usually just blame my bad-mood days on the rain, PMS, a painfully crowded bus or the fact that I cannot get my sixth-graders to shut up for two minutes, for the love of god.

Personally, I have yet to really hit that all-out valley of crap feelings — and, barring some sort of traumatic event, I’m not entirely sure I ever will, at least not completely. It’s barely been five months, and I already feel so at home here, in so many ways. The difference between how I feel at five months in Bogotá (blissfully happy) and how I felt at five months during study abroad in Buenos Aires (oh my god get me on a plane I miss baseball season and walking down the street without people saying creepy shit to me more than anything in the world) is just astronomical. I know this is blasphemy and everyone loves Buenos Aires and yay you can totally function there without even really speaking Spanish and blah blah blah etc., but all I can speak for is my own experience. While I’d love to go back and visit all of the parts of Argentina I didn’t get a chance to see the first time, I don’t think I’ll ever be tempted to live there again. The way I feel here right now, they’ll be dragging me out of Colombia kicking and screaming in December, if I end up leaving at all.

But back to the culture shock for a minute. Last weekend I was talking with a few friends about how a lot of us volunteers — who all arrived here at the beginning of January —  are probably going through similar low points around the same time. Living abroad, it’s even easier to feel isolated than it is at home; or to think you’re the only one feeling the way you are; or feeling a lot of pressure to keep up a happy facade, whether it’s for friends and family or because everyone else seems happy and you don’t want to be the only Debbie Downer of the group. This is normal, but it’s not positive. We all have bad days, but we also all have reasons why we came here, and reasons why we haven’t left yet. And those bad days are the times when it’s most important to remember those reasons.

One of my friends already wrote a very entertaining blog post about some of her favorite things in Colombia, and another excellent gringa blogger in Colombia has a really delightful list of reasons to love Bogotá. Encouraged by these ladies’ efforts, I want to toss my own hat into the ring. You can call it copying — I call it inspiration. Everyone else is talking about what they love about Colombia, and I just don’t want to be left out!

just, you know, about 40% of the time

See? It doesn’t rain ALL the time!

So, ladies and gents, in what I expect may be somewhat of a continuing series:

25 Things That Make Me Never Want To Leave Bogotá

1. No matter where I am in the city, I can see mountains. It is impossible to overstate how beneficial this is to my mental and emotional health.

2. It is totally socially acceptable for adults to walk around eating all kinds of sugary treats.

3. People stop to help other people change their flat tires. In the middle of the street. At 11:30 at night.

4. Crepes & Waffles. Oh my god, Crepes & Waffles.

5. At most tiendas (and grocery stores), a beer costs about US$1.

6. Random people at bars will buy you a beer, invite you to join them at their table and talk to you like they’ve known you for years.

7. Everyone has a finca outside the city. And they all want you to visit. You could spend months just finca-hopping every weekend.

8. Walks of shame do not visibly exist here (or are at least extremely covert), because tons of women are normally walking around in dresses and heels on weekend mornings.

9. People drink hot chocolate at breakfast and dinner.

10. Colombians will invite you to their birthday parties after knowing you for exactly two hours — or to their weddings after two months.

11. You can buy a cup of strong, dark coffee on pretty much any street corner in the city, for about 25 cents.

12. Also lollipops, if you’re into that.

13. When the guy at my favorite local bakery calls me “amor,” it actually does make me feel just a little more loved.

14. There are dogs everywhere. Everywhere. And they are beautiful.

15. Passengers on crowded buses will happily pass bus fare and change back and forth between fellow passengers and the driver.

16. The cops posted at every TransMilenio station are basically unofficial travel agents in flourescent jackets. The only things I’ve ever seen them do are text, give people directions and occasionally ask random people for identification if they’re feeling especially bored.

17. People keep their horses in the strangest, most surprising places. Like the field next to the Éxito on my walk home from school. Or their back yards.

18. Eggs are fresh, delicious, cheap and probably came from the chicken strolling down the sidewalk outside the store.

19. Reading is considered a worthwhile and normal use of personal time.

20. They have beer towers in more than a few bars. I missed you, college.

21. If you’re an hour late arriving somewhere, it is perfectly acceptable to blame it on the traffic, even if it’s not true. Everyone will understand.

22. Sundays are exactly the way Sundays should be: lazy, quiet, with empty offices and full bike paths and cafés. You can even get away with walking around in sweatpants on Sundays.

23. There is some sort of holiday almost every week. Most of them are celebrated on multiple days, and they often involve presents.

24. For some reason, stilts are really popular here. At almost any kind of large public event, there are guaranteed to be people on stilts. I think I’ve seen more stilts in my five months here than the rest of my life prior to this year.

25. Teenagers are not too embarrassed to be seen in public with their parents. Sometimes they even hug them.

#26: Chocolate-covered strawberries. They have stores specifically for these treats. I’m never leaving.

Food Friday: Cake or Death? Colombia Chooses Cake.

suck it, people who wait in those long lines in new york

The cupcake trend has even made it to Bogotá! Her bakery is actually only about 10 blocks away from me -- I have yet to visit, for fear that I may attempt to move in there.

Let’s talk about CAKE, baby….

Seriously. Let’s talk about it. Because they do cake like it’s their job here (even the people for whom it is not their job). Colombians love their desserts — which, now that I reflect upon it, may have a lot to do with why I’m falling in love with this country so quickly. I’ve found that dessert only tends to hasten the seduction process. But putting aside the psychological effects of chocolate for a moment, Colombia really is a country of glorious sweets, and there’s something for pretty much every palate, whether your idea of a perfect post-dinner snack is a bowl of fresh papaya or a just a container of arequipe and a spoon. Sure, the helado might not be quite as rico as in Buenos Aires, but there’s just as much of it, and you hardly notice the difference once it’s covered in chocolate sauce and sprinkles.

oh hey chocoflan, i see you back there

This is why I never end up eating actual lunch on weekends. It's not my fault that my ears are just fine-tuned to the siren song of sugar.

And the bakeries! There are bakeries practically everywhere — it seems like you can hardly walk three blocks without stopping to peer in the window of a pasteleria to admire the piles of merengones (fluffy meringues in a dozen different flavors, so delicious they’ve converted even this non-meringue-fan) and elaborate cakes decorated for every possible occasion. Want a mora (blackberry)-flavored cake to celebrate a holiday, or a massive icing-slathered construction for a quinceañera? Bogotá bakeries can make it happen.

nom, and so forth

The cake for our friend Brighid's birthday. Nothing says "feliz cumpleaños" like a pile of fruit and frosting.

Oh, and remember how we discussed the fantastical cornucopia of fruit available here? Well, the all-powerful cakemakers are well aware of the amazing range of flavors they have to work with, and they make excellent use of them. I’ve seen cakes in every flavor from orange to banana to maracuyá (passionfruit). The motto seems to be: if it grows here, let’s make a cake with it! And that, my friends, is a motto I can definitely live — and eat — with.

pretty sure nobody who comes to usaquen is on a diet

I will have one of each, please. (And this photo doesn't even include the Oreo cheesecake. Oh yeah. There was Oreo cheesecake.)

Food Friday: Jet Chocolate!

So I’m testing out this new idea, in which I will attempt to write something about Colombian food every week or two. Because I know how much you (by which I mostly mean I) like food! And we’re picking Fridays because alliteration. So there.

Considering that it is essentially its own food group in my diet, and given how much of it I received yesterday, it’s inevitable that I begin with chocolate — specifically, Jet Chocolate. Jet is probably the most popular brand of chocolate in Colombia. In fact, it’s produced by the National Chocolate Company, which we don’t even have in the U.S. (yet. We don’t have it YET. Still waiting on those Oompa-Loompas to show up). Jet bars come in just about every possible size, from tiny two-square bites to giant ones bigger than my hand, filled with strawberry or arequipe flavoring. [Side note: arequipe is a sweet, sticky, caramel-like substance, kind of like the Colombian dulce de leche. I’ll get to it sometime soon, don’t worry.]

it's like a staircase of deliciousness

A helpful comparison, for those of you for whom chocolate size matters.

too bad these have all been eaten already

A few different sizes and types of Jet bars: plain, strawberry, and arequipe.

The bars, always wrapped in shiny blue paper with the little airplane logo (get it?), are your typical mass-produced milk chocolate bars, nothing special flavor-wise. HOWEVER. There is something truly, gloriously, incredibly magical about Jet bars. Something that makes them better than any other milk chocolate bar I’ve ever seen or consumed in my life. Something that creates in me the uncontrollable desire to buy EVERY JET BAR EVER. Something that is undoubtedly making their marketing people terribly and deservedly rich.

Can you guess what it is?

Día de la Mujer: Flowers and Chocolate, with a Dash of Feminism

So today, March 8th, is International Women’s Day — known here in Colombia as Día de la Mujer. As you may or may not know, the holiday started back at the beginning of the 20th century, as a sort of combination of the socialist labor rights and women’s rights movements. Following the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and ongoing strikes and protests by Russian women during the 19-teens, the international community finally began to pay marginally more attention to women’s demands for equality. Since the end of WWI, International Women’s Day has spread across the globe, and is now an official holiday in more than 25 countries, and celebrated unofficially in many others, including Colombia.

good job being born! have this chocolate!

All the swag I got today, just for having a uterus. Good work, X chromosomes.

Here, Día de la Mujer is kind of a like a combination of Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. Women receive gifts like candy, flowers and small stuffed animals — or, in the case of one of my fellow teachers, a terrifying 8-inch-tall pen shaped like a rabbit. Walking around town today was pretty charming, because practically every female person over the age of about 10 is carrying at least two flowers and probably some other kind of gift. It’s an especially great day to be a female teacher, with all the kids running around school giving  teachers candy, flowers, cards and other presents — kind of like reverse Halloween for grownup ladies. I think I collected like ten candy bars over the course of the day (needless to say, most of them didn’t make it to tonight intact), as well as some very lovely flowers and a personalized card from one of my seventh-graders (who even spelled my name right! A miracle!).

But wait! It gets better!

Of antisocial waiters and unexpected pig bits

Considering how much I love eating, I suppose it was only a matter of time until I submitted to my overwhelming desire to resort to the loved-yet-feared Food Blog Post. Since I expect this to be somewhat of a recurring theme over here in arepa-land, I’ll keep this contained to some specific foods, instead of trying to write about All Of The Foods. Also because if I write too much more about food, it’s going to make me hungry again, and I am pretty much out of food in my kitchen and entirely unwilling to dash to the grocery store amid the softball-sized raindrops out there. So! Onwards!

rats, with wings

Some historic buildings, and less historic urban fowl, in La Candelaria's Plaza de Bolivar.

As I’ve mentioned, La Candelaria is the old, historic, touristy, university-student-filled, kinda-sketchy-at-night neighborhood in Bogotá. In addition to its well-deserved reknown for its colonial architecture, the president’s house, and a certain wonderful church that looks like it’s made of candy, Candelaria is also the place to go for somewhat overpriced but allegedly authentic and entirely delicious Colombian (or, more accurately, Bogotana) food.

In the past two weeks, I’ve hit up Candelaria for food twice, with vastly different experiences and somewhat different results. Spoiler: in the end, it was all delicious. But, as usual here, there were a few bumps along the way.

Rewind about two weeks to a Saturday afternoon, when a friend and I had an intense craving for ajiaco, which is probably Bogotá’s most famous dish. It’s a thick stew made with chicken (or not, if you’re one of us weirdo veggies); three kinds of potatoes, including one that is native only to Colombia; half an ear of corn on the cob; and topped with capers, cream, white rice and avocado, which are brought out on a platter with the soup and are meant to be added at the table. Ajiaco, with chicken or without, is DELICIOUS. It is exactly what you want on one of Bogotá’s (constant) rainy afternoons, and it is filling as nobody’s business. If you’re going to be eating ajiaco, you pretty much have to plan to eat nothing else for the rest of the day, because your stomach will be busy churning all those potatoes around (and being blissfully happy about your gastronomic and life choices).

Here’s the thing, though. Ajiaco is lunch food. It is not dinner food. In the States, we’re generally pretty open to people playing around with food conventions: changing orders, places that only sell cereal, the glorious phenomenon of breakfast-for-dinner, etc. Here, not so much. Apparently when you’re a waiter at one of these tourist traps who is probably (and somewhat justifiably) sick of people doing horrible things to your language, two gringas strolling in and ordering ajiaco at 6:30 on a Saturday night is just too much to bear. But, since you’re Colombian, and Colombians are masters of indirect passive-aggression when it comes to things like this, you will initially offer no hint of malice. Indeed, you’ll quickly offer the menus, take the order with minimal judgment apparent on your face and bring out the tasty bowls of soup and plates of accessories in what seems like record time.

Then you will proceed to ignore your customers. Forever. You will resort to such measures as standing in the entrance with your back to the restaurant, hiding behind the counter to eat your dinner and looking at the ceiling or ground every time you pass near their table so as to make the goal of eye contact impossible. You will do this for nearly an hour, at the end of which time said gringa customers will be so tired of trying to catch your eye to ask for the check that they will simply get up and pay the other server standing at the counter — after briefly considering whether an attempt to flee the premises will finally merit your attention. You will not even look at them as they leave. When you leave work for the night, it will not occur to you that there are any flaws in your customer service skills.

nom nom nom

Chocolate, bread, butter and cheese: my idea of a complete, balanced breakfast. Or lunch. Or dinner.

So. Never going back to THAT place. I apologize for not taking any photos of the tasty ajiaco, but I was intimidated by the waiter’s less-than-accommodating attitude.  I had much better luck when I returned the next weekend, closer to mid-afternoon on a Sunday. We went a few doors down from the place with the hateful waiter, and tucked ourselves into a table in the back of the restaurant, which is one of four nearly identical restaurants perched in a row on a small side street directly off of La Candelaria’s Plaza de Bolivar. As we were in the center of traditional food, we had no choice but to order chocolate santafereño completo (Colombian hot chocolate). They’re big fans of hot chocolate in general here, and it’s hard to go wrong with a drink make of the best food in the world, but the chocolate completo is something special. It arrives at the table on its own small platter, surrounded by slices of bread, butter, an almohabana (sweet cornmeal roll) and a slice of cheese, which tradition dictates that you submerge into the chocolate. Like a good tourist, I tried it, but found that as much as I love both chocolate and cheese, I think I’ll generally try to keep them separate from now on. It’s not that it tasted bad (it’s hard to go wrong with either of those things), but they don’t really gain anything from the combination.

oops

You can barely even see the pig's feet! They obviously belonged to some pretty sneaky pigs.

And then there was the food. Again, feeling adventurous, but not up to the challenge of tackling another bowl of ajiaco, two of us opted to try to the caldo de frijoles, which is essentially just a big bowl of beans and some veggies — or so I thought. Turns out this particular antioqueño recipe comes with some very special extra flavoring, in the form of pezuñas (pig’s feet). Whoops. Vegetarian fail. For the record, I didn’t even know what pig’s feet looked like, much less how they tasted, but now I can at least attest to the former: weird, bony and incredibly fatty. I ended up quarantining the pig’s feet and still ate my weight in a very satisfying bowl of beans, but I’ve certainly learned not to assume that just because my Spanish is pretty good, I won’t still get fooled into ordering the occasional bowl of beans with pig’s feet.

Oh, and Happy Leap Day, y’all! Hope your respective celebrations are free of unwanted meat-bits (but filled with the wanted kind)!