“Lovely day for a Guinness”

As I mentioned in a previous post, Sláinte, the Guinness Storehouse was one of my favorite attractions in Dublin. I would highly recommend, nay require, that any visit to Dublin be accompanied by a tour. For a mere €13 (student price) we had an entire days worth of entertainment, learning, and of course drinking.

Freshest Guinness possible, straight from the Storehouse

Freshest Guinness possible, straight from the Storehouse

The storehouse is easy enough to find; ask anyone in Dublin and they can probably give you directions. A city bus drops you off almost in front of the old Storehouse, which is no longer an active site in the brewing process and has been transformed into a museum and showcase for all things Guinness. You arrive at St. Jame’s Gate and begin the tour with a walk through the winding streets of mini-factory town.

St. James Gate, Dublin

Guinness Gates

The abandoned industrial feel of the area provides a great build-up to the actual tour, which has the same feel all throughout. You enter through the atrium, which is designed to look like a giant pint glass going up to the 7th floor of the Storehouse and would hold over 14 million pints of Guinness if filled. Immediately you see walls lined with all the styles of bottles Guinness has ever used in their nearly 250 years of brewing. Then, behold, right in the center of the atrium floor, under a giant circle of glass, is the actual land lease that Arthur Guinness signed in 1759 securing St. Jame’s Gate as the home of Guinness for 9,000 years. Here, on this monumental spot, you can wait for a free guided tour that begins about every 10-15 minutes or proceed onward on your own.

Guinness Lease, circa 1759

The tour takes you through the main steps of brewing beer and, in a manner reminiscent of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, there are mazes of walkways, a room filled with barley (which you will be picking out of your clothing, shoes, and hair for days to come if your friends are as immature as mine), and even a waterfall. Of course its all educational – there are interactive displays for each of the 4 main ingredients that goes into Guinness (water, yeast, hops, and barley) which show where they come from and how they are used to make the magical beverage known as Guinness.

Guinness Barrels

So, along the way you learn about the barley and hops growing process, where the water comes from, how it is mixed and stored and fermented, and the history of beer brewing. You also learn how coopers (barrel makers) play an important role in the brewing process, as well as the farmers, workers, and brew masters.  There’s working models of the old machines used in the fermentation process, and a walk inside a giant barrel reveals a looping video explaining the brewing process from the head microbiologist Master Brewer himself.

Guinness Machines

A few floors up the focus shifts to the transportation of Guinness, and as a quote painted on an exposed steel girder explains, “The story of transporting Guinness stout is the story of transportation itself”.


As it turns out because it is exported all around the world, Guinness played a large role in some parts of the Industrial Revolution and the development of transportation technology in the 20th century. There are lots of great artifacts from the trains, planes, ships, and trucks that have all worked to transport this fine beverage all around the world.

After this, you enter the tasting room, where attendants present each visitor over the age of 18 with a mini-pint of Guinness fresh from the keg line and guaranteed to be served at the optimal temperature and pressure, just to get you warmed up for the actual regular-sized pint you can get at one of two places in the factory. The 4th floor offers the chance to learn to pour the perfect pint and you get an awesome frame-worthy certificate upon completing this feat. According to the official guidelines, a pint of Guinness should take about 120 seconds and should be the product of a “double-pour” to ensure the proper volume of stout is added to the glass. This specialized pouring process sparked the famous Guinness advertising slogan “good things come to those who wait”.

And something else you will learn straightaway while touring the Storehouse – the Guinness company is the master of advertising. By the end of the tour I was thoroughly convinced that I should definitely be drinking more Guinness in my daily life. They have had some really great slogans and mascots over the course of their history, not to mention the famous “harp” logo.  In the early 20th century it was a popular argument that Guinness was good for you because dark beers had been suggested to slow the build-up of plaque in the arteries, so “Guinness for strength” and “a Guinness a day” were common slogans.

For Strength!

The company no longer makes claims about the health benefits of their beverage, but the classic advertising slogans remain. My favorite marketing for Guinness is the zoo animals of the 1930’s, which prominantly feature Gilroy the zookeeper and the “Guinness family” of mascots, including the kangaroo, seal, ostrich, lion, and perhaps most famously the toucan.

Guinness Toucan

Lovely Day for a Guinness!

Think of any advertising scheme and Guinness has probably employed it at some point in the past couple hundred years. And the Storehouse features a large advertising museum which houses examples of many of the interesting ads that have promoted Guinness over the years – this was actually more interesting than it may sound because some of the ads are pretty hilarious and outlandish by today’s standards (and some are just plain politically incorrect as well).

Politically Incorrect Guinness Ad

Upon reaching the very top of the Storehouse tour, you find yourself in the Gravity Bar, the top of the pint glass structure, where you can also get your complimentary pint of Guinness if you didn’t get it at the Perfect Pouring Station earlier. The Gravity Bar offers a complete 360-degree view of Dublin and the surrounding countryside and is the perfect finishing touch to the tour (unless you count hitting up the bars of Dublin for more Guinness after leaving the Storehouse like we did).

This was the view of Dublin as seen from the Gravity Bar of the Guinness Storehouse, 360-degree views from the 7th floor!

This was the view of Dublin as seen from the Gravity Bar of the Guinness Storehouse, 360-degree views from the 7th floor!


I feel like most places I go, I have a pretty good idea of what the destination has to offer. Between reading travel books and just generally browsing the internet about my next adventure, I’ve usually had a decent impression of where I am going. To my happy surprise, this was not the case with Dublin, Ireland.

The River Liffey at night was so still and serene, at least until 3 drunken Irish men asked if I needed a hand jumping in.

The feel of Dublin was not at all like other European cities I have been to – it didn’t really seem like the major touristy city one might expect. You could go from residential areas to historic district to college campus to tourist hotspot in a 5 minute walk. There aren’t obnoxious retailers everywhere in the streets trying to sell you anything they can with the words “Dublin” or “Ireland” plastered across it (although there definitely are a few shops around the city to quell your souvenir-buying urges). And in general, I have felt less like a tourist and more like a member of the city than anywhere else I’ve gone. Not to say that Dublin doesn’t have its great attractions: visiting the Temple Bar area is a must and the city has numerous museums and monuments to check out.

Dublin is also a city that is very proud of its rich heritage of great literature, and there are dedications to authors such as Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Bram Stoker, James Joyce, and others everywhere.  Nearly every city street has a statue commemorating a famous cultural or literary figure.  And nearly every statue has an alternate (slightly offensive) nickname, that for some reason always rhymes.

Officially she is named Molly Malone, from an old Irish folk song of the same name.  Unofficially, she is called "The Tart with the Cart".

Officially she is Molly Malone, from an Irish folk song.
Unofficially, she is called “The Tart with the Cart”.

Officially, this is James Joyce.
Unofficially, Dubliners call him “The Prick with the Stick”.

Dublin was surprising in more ways than just its unique city layout and feel, because I thought it would be more of a major metropolitan city than it seemed.  However it was only about a half an hour bus ride from pure countryside, complete with sheep as far as the eye can see.

Countryside and Ruins

Before going to Dublin, even after doing all my research, I didn’t know that there was a 400ft spike called the “Spire of Light” built on top of the old Nelson Pillar.  I knew about the Pillar because it was bombed by the IRA in 1966 and is the subject of quite a few Irish songs. As it turns out, the Spire is almost as unpopular as the Pillar was (probably why its not well known) and I didn’t meet a single resident of Dublin who seemed to like it. The fiery old Irishman named Seamus who ran our hostel said that the only thing he disliked more than the Spire was when people added blackcurrant flavoring to Guinness, which apparently ought to be considered the 8th deadly sin.

Officially named, “The Spire of Light”.
Unofficially called: “The Stiletto in the Ghetto”, or my favorite, “The Stiffey over the Liffey”

Seamus also told us not to miss out on getting as much Guinness as we could while we were in Dublin, and that it goes great with any meal! He needn’t have worried, because the one thing we knew we were absolutely going to do in Dublin was tour the Guinness Storehouse. It was my favorite experience of Dublin – not just because I like Guinness Stout (a lot), but because it was like an alcohol-filled, adult version of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate factory, complete with winding walkways, waterfalls, and even a glass elevator that takes you to be served free beer.

Freshest Guinness possible, straight from the Storehouse!

This was the view of Dublin as seen from the Gravity Bar of the Guinness Storehouse, 360-degree views from the 7th floor!

While Dublin wasn’t what I was expecting, it is still a city with a lot to offer and 4 days wasn’t nearly enough time to do half the things we wanted to, which is okay I guess because that’s a pretty good reason to go back someday soon.

P.S. Sláinte is a drinking toast in Ireland, and literally means “health”.

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”

It is a universal standard that no matter where you travel to, for whatever reason, the first thing people will ask you about is the food. It goes without saying that most places have a lot more distinctive food than the US, because we have a wide variety of everything. If someone asked me what the food was like in America, I wouldn’t really know what to say. But it’s pretty easy to talk about food in other countries because its more of a specialty there – Italian pasta is unbeatable, I’ve only ever ordered fish & chips in England, Guinness is best drank in Ireland, and the presence and quality of guinea pig kabobs is far higher in Ecuador than the US.

Yes, I said guinea pigs, I couldn’t help it, I love telling people I ate one of those evil furry little creatures that bit me every time I ever tried to pet one as a child. But, seriously, Ecuadorean food is great, so much focus on fresh fruits and vegetables, and the traditional cuisine is rich, filling, and yet still healthy. There were fruits and vegetables that I never even knew existed in the world, and something that I found incredibly thrilling as a traveler was simply wandering fruit markets looking for foods I hadn’t tried yet. My favorites were guanabana (soursop), mora berries, and a ridiculously fun-to-eat fruit called granadilla.

The first time I got one of these, I had no idea how to eat it – you crack it open and eat the fruit-seed pods (that look disturbingly like fish eggs) without eating the white inner part of the shell. They are absolutely delicious and are equally fun and time-consuming to eat!

And the best part about food in Ecuador is this: hunger didn’t seem as big an issue as it might have in similar countries, because the government places a high priority on the availability of food for everyone, and healthy food is cheaper than unhealthy or “fast” food.

More widely available that anything else in a local market, is fresh fruit of all shapes and colors

More widely available that anything else in a local market is fresh fruit of all shapes and colors

For comparison:

  • A full meal at basic restaurant (soup, avocado slices, potatoes, corn, steak, sometimes juice): $2.00 – 3.00
  • A combo meal at McDonalds in Quito: $5.00+
  • Bottle of Coke: $1.50
  • Bottle of Water: $.50

And these healthy differences in Ecuadorean food are a concrete part of governmental policy that have been in the country’s Constitution since 2008. Food Sovereignty, as it is called by the members of the Via Campesina (Peasant’s Way), is the people’s right to define their own food system and have access to healthy, local foods.  This social justice group also focuses on environmental policy and indigenous and women’s rights.

The Food Sovereignty policy

  • supports small farmers and encourages local production and sales
  • works to prevent runaway prices of food products
  • ensures that animals intended for human consumption are raised in a healthy and humane way
  • promises that in case of anthropogenic (human-caused) or natural disasters, the government will step in to ensure that people in need still have access to food
  • and it deals with many other issues as well, ranging from sustainable growing practices to standards set on international foods that are imported

So basically, the government works to ensure that all people have access to healthy and fresh food, and also that food is grown as environmentally-friendly as possible. And this always makes me wonder, why can’t the American government get their act together and have policies like this? Give subsidies to healthy food and tax unhealthy fast food, instead of vice-versa?

As a poor college student – about to get poorer as graduation time approaches – I know all too well that an entire meal at Wendy’s can cost as little as $3.00, but a salad at Wendy’s is double that? A bag of chips costs ~$2 but a bag of apples costs $5? It’s not fair that Americans of lower socio-economic status are forced to buy unhealthy food because they can’t afford anything else, putting them at risk of health complications that arise solely out of their economic standing. The reason our economy is this way in regards to food is probably a complicated mess of politics, economics, and a deep-rooted tradition of what Americans view as a typical diet or their right to consume whatever they want (and undoubtedly a little bit of corruption in the policy-making sectors). There is no quick fix to a problem such as this one, but an increased focus on sustainable food production and a commitment to ensure healthy food for all seems like a good start?


Now, I know I just talked a lot about healthy food and healthy food is great! But, I leave you now with a recipe for deep fried de viento empanadas, a specialty of Ecuador that I was luckily enough to try at an indigenous music festival.  Here’s the recipe, a little rough as it is translated into imperial measuring units from my memory of an old Ecuadorean lady yelling it at me because she thought that would make me understand her better:

  • ~2 cups flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3 oz butter
  • 1/3 cup water

You also need:

  • Cheese for inside the empanadas – there is really only one kind of cheese in Ecuador, a fresh, moist, white cheese that has no other name than simply queso, so I would suggest any white, weak cheese – I used mozzerella.
  • Oil to fry them in – vegetable, sunflower, or canola oil probably work the best
  • Sugar to sprinkle over tops

When I made this recipe, I altered the flour and water a little bit to get the right consistency – this recipe is traditionally used in a high altitude, so that might make a difference or I didn’t get the measurements just right.

  1. Mix flour, salt, baking powder, butter, and water until a soft dough forms.
  2. Take a small ball of dough, depending on how big you want your empanadas to be, and flatten into a circle.
  3. Fill half the circle with cheese and press together, ensuring they are sealed tightly.
  4. Fry in oil until golden brown, flipping halfway through (about a minute per side).
  5. Remove from oil and sprinkle with sugar, allow to cool, and enjoy!
I watched these cook before my very eyes.  De viento empanadas - cheese filled, sprinkled with sugar.

I watched these cook before my very eyes. De viento empanadas – cheese filled, sprinkled with sugar.

“Life finds a way”

I realize I have been doing a lot of archaeology posts recently, so I have been trying to come up with something a little different this time and an idea came to me while I was watching “Jurassic Park” the other day (I’ll explain later), so here goes.

I’ve been asked a few times what my favorite thing about Wales was, and people are surprised when I always mention a hydro-electric power plant. I’d say that’s completely understandable, sounds pretty boring to me too. But Dinorwig Power Station really is worthy of the list (I believe it is pronounced day-nor-wig, but Welsh pronunciation is some of the most confusing collection of rules I’ve ever encountered, so all bets are off).

It is located in Northern Wales, in Snowdonia National Park, inside a mountain named Elidir Fawr. It is also sometimes also called Electric Mountain for obvious reasons. At a glance, this is why its really really cool:

  1. Except for the water reservoirs, it was built completely underground in order to preserve the natural beauty of the National Park. The cables that transmit power from the plant were also buried for 4 miles leaving the plant in order to prevent unsightly transmission towers. Score 1 for the environment!
  2. It is a hydro-electric plant meant to take the burden off nuclear and fossil-fuel burning plants by providing a renewable energy source. Score 2 for the environment!
  3. It is built from an abandoned quarry that was expanded with over 10 miles of underground, two-lane roads. It features the largest man-made cavern in Europe and was the largest civil engineering project by the UK government at the time.
The 6 turbines are housed in a cavernous room that is 170ft x 600ft large (nearly 2 football fields!)

The 6 turbines are housed in a cavernous room that is 100ft x 600ft (nearly 1.5 football fields!)

The people of Wales are certainly proud of Dinorwig, so much in fact that it is a tourist attraction. It is accessible from the Electric Mountain Centre, which also has a coffee shop with some of the worst coffee I have ever had the pleasure of drinking. Though I was dissatisfied with the level of commercialism involved in the site – the Dinorwig Electric Gift Shop seemed excessive – it was pretty cool to see something so nerdily scientific receiving such positive public interest.

One of the few photos of the inside of the plant, taken from their website: http://www.fhc.co.uk/dinorwig.htm

One of the few photos of the inside of the plant, taken from their website: http://www.fhc.co.uk/dinorwig.htm

Visitors can don a hard-hat and ride a minibus through the caverns and expansive underground tunnels, feeling as though they are actually on their way to see a secret base of a James Bond villain. I visited as part of an environmental class and it was truly an awe-inspiring sight – I wish I had some amazing photos to include, but out of a necessity to protect certain technology, visitors must check everything in a locker before departing on the tour. So here’s a Bond villain base.

This is actually a pretty fair likeness of the caverns in Dinorwig, minus the helicopter.

This is actually a pretty fair likeness of the caverns in Dinorwig, minus the helicopter.

The tour begins with a video that gives you a basic overview of the plant, which also takes place in a dark cavern with rows of seats with metal railing – I was quite certain I would soon learn I was actually in Jurassic park and that the bars were going to snap in place and the ride would head toward the mountain (which is actually full of dinosaurs). My daydream about this had just ended when our tour guide made a Jurassic Park reference – the water reservoirs for the plant were built to be absent of fish, but somehow now they are both full of fish… life finds a way.

The video room looked just like this, I swear.

The video room looked just like this, I swear.

The main function of Dinorwig is to aid in the supply of power to the national power grid by stabilizing the amount of energy at any given time and also to provide extra energy when needed. The balance of power in a national grid is extremely important – let it go too high or too low and rolling blackouts occur, much to the dismay of the general populous. Dinorwig can respond to fluctuations in the power grid and go from completely off to fully functioning in 12 seconds – fastest in the world. (Similar hydro-electric plants in the US have reaction times of over 4 minutes). Once on, it can run full power for 6 hours and if needed, could supply power to all of Wales.

It generates power by using gravitational potential energy of a water reservoir to spin its 6 turbines, each of which weigh 450 tons and are capable of 500rpm. When powered, the water in Marchyn Mawr is drained down into the mountain, through the turbines and into the lower Llyn Peris reservoir. In 5 hours of a fully-operational state, the amount of water that will run through the turbines is equal to the amount of water that is consumed by all 8 million of the inhabits of London in one day.

The downside to a pump-storage power plant is this: it cannot generate any power if all of the water is in Llyn Peris – the water must be above the turbines, in the Marchyn Mawr reservoir, otherwise there is no gravitational energy to power the turbines.

So one might ask, how exactly does it continue to produce power if it uses all the water in 5 hours? Well, here’s where it gets tricky. And a little controversial. The plant must pump all of the water back into the higher reservoir, reversing the turbines to act as pumps. And working against gravity means this actually takes more energy than it gained from the potential energy of the water falling. How then does the plant operate?

Opponents of hydro-electric plants (who usually happen to be proponents of nuclear or fossil-fueled plants) argue that they are more power-costly to use due to this energy imbalance. And technically they would be, except the power that they use is power that is generated but would be wasted anyway.

Nuclear power plants must run at the same power-output 24/7, whether or not the power is needed. So at night, when the demand for power is much less, the same amount of power is being produced. This creates a demand for a place to get rid of this excess, lest it overload the power grid. But during the day it still needs help when everyone is watching television or playing countless hours of video games. So Dinorwig steps in a provides the additional power needed in the day by draining the water reservoirs and generating electricity. Then, it uses the unwanted electricity that is produced at night, that needs to be consumed somehow anyway, to perform the energy-intensive re-pumping of the water back into the reservoir so it is ready for the next day’s use.

So yes, admittedly the hydro-electric plant is not perfect. It only operates at 75% efficiency, consuming more energy than it can produce – BUT if it did not exist, another type of plant would have to operate during the day anyway to aid in the stabilization of the national power grid and somehow the excess power produced at night would still have to be consumed.  So overall, though it is technically inefficient, its inefficiency comes at a time of day when power suppliers are looking to get rid of excess energy and  it is the best option available when considering its less-polluting impact on the environment and its long-term potential (the water will always be there, but we all know the coal won’t be).

And on that note, I would like to leave you with a photo I took the day I toured Dinorwig, of Snowdonia National Park.  Natural beauty indeed.

Those sheep in the foreground, that simply reside in Snowdonia must be some of the happiest sheep on the planet.

Those sheep in the foreground, that simply reside in Snowdonia, must be some of the happiest sheep on the planet.

If you would like to learn more about the specifics, here is their website: First Hydro Company, Dinorwig Power Station

“Without ice cream there would be darkness and chaos”

Even though its turning winter time in Michigan right now and I definitely saw snowflakes yesterday, I am still currently craving gelato – the extremely tasty Italian version of ice cream.

I used to work at a gelateria – a shop that sells gelato – and I got accustomed to constant access to free gelato.  It was the coolest job, at first: I worked with my three best friends serving (and sampling) gelato, espresso, and other delightful Italian baked goods.  Then we realized the bosses were greedy and stupid, I devolved into hiding sprinkles in inaccessible places throughout the shop, and we all quit at the beginning of the summer.  We’ve never looked back, except when we go back on someone’s birthday when there is free gelato to be acquired, and then we always end up missing the stupid place.  Lots of funny stories and awesome desserts were had.  But damnit, most of all, I miss eating gelato everyday.

Of course this American made gelato, though good, was no match for the real deal I had in Italy.  Authentic Italian gelato is unbeatable, I believe partly because the dessert is all Italian – gelato comes from the Latin word gelatus, meaning frozen, and some of the earliest frozen desserts were served in in the Roman empire.  Romans, and Egyptians, would often bring back ice and snow from mountains to make frozen treats for the wealthier citizens.  But the first official batch of “ice cream” isn’t thought to have originated until much later, in the 16th century.   Bernardo Buontalenti is credited with first making ice cream for the Medici Family in Florence, and obviously it has been a popular treat ever since.

A combination of Cocoa and Mint Chocolate Chip gelati, from the town of San Gemini, Italy.

When I worked at the gelateria, a lot of people – a lot – would always ask what made gelato different than regular, American ice cream.  So I consider myself to be a bit of a pro at the following explanation:

  1. Gelato is served at a warmer temperature than ice cream: Ice cream is served cold enough to give one a severe case of “brain freeze”, something that gelato doesn’t do because it is warmer – this also means that gelato doesn’t freeze your taste buds like ice cream can do, meaning you actually get to taste more of the gelato flavor.
  2. Gelato is more dense than ice cream: Ice cream tends to be about 25-35% air as a result of the churning process, whereas gelato is only about 10%.  This is not necessarily a bad thing because I love fluffy ice cream, however more air does mean less flavor.
  3. Compared to ice cream, gelato is made with more sugar and less fat: This is great because not only is it a proven fact that sugar makes everything taste better, but fat actually makes you taste less of it.  Fat molecules can coat your taste-buds and dilute the gelato flavor, so less of it means you taste more of the gelato.  Plus, gelato being lower fat also means you don’t feel as bad about eating way more of it.

So, conclusion: gelato is a tasty tasty frozen treat that everyone should try, no matter the time of year.  My recommendation is nocciola or hazelnut, a classic Italian flavor that shouldn’t be missed!

What’s Coming Soon:

Just another typical archeology post … or is it?

“It’s Pimm’s O’Clock!”

In order to carry on with the British theme, along with the fact that I will be 21 in 10 days, Pimm’s No. 1 Cup seemed like a good next topic.

Besides Guinness, it was my beverage of choice throughout my whole English study-abroad experience.  Probably because it’s just so. damn. classy.  It is a “fruit cup” liquor drink because it is meant to be mixed with fruit into a number of different cocktails.

  • The standard, English-style, is mixed with lemonade
  • You can bulk up the alcohol content by mixing it with champagne
  • You then add strawberries, oranges, lemons, mint leaves, and cucumber pieces.

It is the favorite drink of University receptions, summer parties, and quintessentially-British sporting events such as Wimbledon. My first drink of Pimm’s was indeed on the cloister lawn of Magdalen College during our welcome reception, promptly followed by 4-5ish more of said drinks at dinner.

James Pimm first made this now-famous drink in 1823.  It is based on gin, and can I just say, that whoever decided that they should make a liqueur from the juniper plant must have already been drunk.  I accidentally ordered Pimm’s on ice once (minus the lemonade and fruit), and it was not the tasty beverage I was anticipating but instead just plain, slightly gross gin with a unique flavor as a result of extra liquors and herbs added to enhance flavor and “digestion”.

The gin-based Pimm’s is Pimm’s No. 1 Cup, and in the past there has also been a No. 2 Cup, No. 3 Cup, and so on until No. 6 Cup, with varying liquor bases.  Currently only No. 1 Cup (gin), No. 3 Cup (now called Pimm’s Winter, brandy-based), and No. 6 Cup (vodka-based) are sold, but No. 1 is by far the most common and the only one I have ever actually seen.

I was told by an Oxford professor that nowadays only 6 people ever know the full recipe of the various liquors and herbs at once – however, he had this slightly annoying habit of making up interesting facts to see if anyone was actually smart enough to call out his bullshit.  And he was so damn knowledgeable about EVERYTHING that we usually believed him.  I searched around on the Internets for an answer to the validity of his claim and couldn’t find any evidence of such secrecy within the Pimm’s Company, so I do suspect that this was just another of Dr. A’s “I’m-just-testing-your-critical-thinking-skills” games.  But, if anyone knows more, I would love a comment about it!

I leave you now with a recipe for PIMM’S NO. 1 CUP, my personal favorite. (Straight from the Pimm’s website!)

1 part Pimm’s No. 1
3 parts chilled lemonade
Mint leaves, cucumber, strawberries, and orange pieces

What’s Coming Soon:

The tastiest addition yet!

“There stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore”

This summer I had the great honor of being able to study abroad at Oxford University. Of course with this sort of trip, you always get the same standard questions from friends and family upon your return to the good ole states:

Did you eat fish and chips? – Well, duh, yes
Did you mean the Queen? – Well, duh, no
Does it really look like Hogwarts? – Yup!
What was your favorite place that you saw? – Okay, okay, this one I can actually answer…

And my answer is always a tie between 2 places – Snowdonia National Park (which has enough unrealistically beautiful sights to match its unrealistically magical name) & the Tower of London.

To me the Tower of London was a highlight of my trip because I think the gory history associated with it is pretty interesting, and it had a lot of other interesting surprises. First off, the Tower of London is not even on a hill nor is it a tower! I also was not expecting to see a 530-carat diamond that day, but as it turns out the Tower is where the Crown Jewels are displayed when the royal family isn’t using them for dress-up. And I also saw a flock of ravens that are officially enlisted in the Royal Army, which is something you don’t see everyday.

The Tower Ravens are probably some of the most spoiled birds on earth – there is an elite Yeoman Warder (the official guards of the Tower of London) whose sole job is to take care of the resident ravens. He is known as the Ravenmaster, and after visiting London I have decided to add this job to my list of potential future careers (sadly, it doesn’t seem very likely). The ravens live off a carefully maintained diet of fresh fruit, cheese, and select raw meat, and have snacks of blood-soaked biscuits. Each lives about 40 years, and is individually named and have enlistment papers from the Royal Army.  They are unofficial guards of the Tower of London and in order to maintain the highest quality of ravens in the Tower, they can even be dismissed from the Tower for “conduct unbecoming a Tower resident” – i.e. when they attack tourists or “leave their posts on the Tower”.

Tours of the Tower were led by Yeoman Warders, also known as Beefeaters, and our particular guide was full of interesting facts about English history, and lots of jokes about America. He introduced the Ravens as such:

“It is a legend that if there are ever any less than 6 ravens living in the Tower of London, the crown will fall and Britain with it. Now, of course we Brits aren’t so superstitious as to believe that sort of rubbish, so we keep 8 ravens here just to be safe.”

And so there are always at least 6 ravens in the Tower. The origin of the myth is unclear, but there are several hypotheses.

1.  The leading idea is that they had always lived on Tower Hill – a hill near the Tower of London’s castle walls and the actual place of most executions attributed to the Tower.  Supposedly, the ravens were drawn to the area by the smell of blood from executions of political prisoners. They slowly began to inhabit the Tower during the reign of King Charles II (1660-1685). Apparently they caused so much trouble for the astronomy telescope there that the resident astronomist asked to have the Ravens removed, but harming a raven is bad luck so the observatory was moved instead.

2.  After the London Fire, ravens were rampant in the city as scavengers and people began harming them out of spite. Charles II believed that it was a bad omen to exterminate all the ravens so he had 6 moved to the Tower in order to protect them and to prevent all ravens from being killed in London, and they have stayed ever since.

3.  However, it is likely that the myth of the ravens originated much sooner during Victorian times to dramatize the grisly history of the site. The first real depiction of Tower ravens wasn’t until late 1800s, and it is interesting to point out that the era leading up to this time was when Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” was published and ravens were becoming trendy pets to have in Western high society.

No matter the origin of the superstition, it is clear that the ravens are now a fully fledged part of the folklore of the Tower of London, having served as unofficial spotters for enemy planes during The Blitz of World War II, raising awareness of wildlife conservation issues, and entertaining the countless tourists who visit the site every day (like myself, who spent a solid 20 minutes trying to coax one of those stately ravens from a nearby tree with a Wheetabix bar, while my friends pretended not to know me from a sufficiently far distance.  Needless to say that living off their royal diet of fresh meat and bloody biscuits meant they didn’t really take a liking to my offering, which is essentially horse food marketed for human health nuts).

What’s Coming Soon:

In keeping with the current British theme, this is a fun one for sure.

“Anything is good if its made of chocolate”

Do you ever have the sense that chocolate just tastes better in the wintertime? It might be due to all the awesome holiday packaging and special varieties (red and green mint m&ms ftw). Or maybe it is because we associate it with things such as holiday parties and peppermint mochas. Well here’s another, perhaps more scientific reason: the recipe is actually different for many candies in the winter, and thus they are purer chocolate.

In America, the differences are subtle – Hershey’s adds a minute percentage of baker’s wax to their summer candy bars and other chocolates to prevent them from melting as much and keep them all looking good. Because let’s face it, no one wants some melted, deformed Hershey bar right? Unfortunately, though in such small amounts its hardly noticeable, the added wax isnt exactly a flavor booster. However, colder weather in the winter negates the need for this additional ingredient. Thus, the wax can be omitted from “winter varieties” of Hershey’s, Nestle’s, etc. and they are smoother, creamier, and in general, more chocolaty.

What I find most interesting about this process is that barely anyone knows about this in the United States – companies usually don’t advertise “summer” or “winter” varieties of chocolate. Packaging and marketing remains the same throughout the year, and it generally goes unnoticed that anything changes. But take a country that really takes it chocolate seriously, like Italy, and it is a whole different story.

I remember one of our advisors in my Italy group remarking that he was sad the winter chocolates were not available while we were there. I had no idea what this meant, but never really got around to asking about it until the day we toured the chocolate factory in Perugia – the tour was awesome (read about it here!) but unfortunately the factory was non-operational. As it turns out, the factory shuts down in the summer because it is too hot to run the machinery. The only way to produce a Bacio candy that isn’t a melted glob of chocolate and hazelnut therefore would be drastically altering the recipe – and anyone who has ever tasted a freshly made Bacio understands that would be borderline sinful. So the factory is shut down during the hottest months of the summer until the weather becomes cool enough to properly produce Bacio once more. I am pretty sure an American company would/could never do this, so they change the recipes to accommodate year-round production and consumption. But I think some of our companies should get a little bit more creative with the way that they package and sell their products, so taste doesn’t have to be sacrificed for functionality of the product.

Take, for example, the Ferrero Pocket Coffee & Ferrero Pocket Espresso To-Go:

Ferrero Pocket Coffee is a dark chocolate candy, with real espresso inside. It is apparently glorious. And I can see why. What’s not to love about an edible container of coffee, especially when said container is made of dark chocolate? But I actually never got to try one because they are pulled from stores around the first of May and aren’t returned until around the first of October – omitting its sale in the hottest part of the year, when most people don’t really want a chocolate candy that is going to melt and ooze liquid espresso all over everything they own.

So, during the summer months, Ferrero has introduced an alternative to the Pocket Coffee – behold, the Pocket Espresso To-Go and all it’s glory. The idea is basically the same: it is a super convienant and tasty chocolate espresso shot. But this time the chocolate is melted into the espresso and the whole thing is in a mini plastic container that comes complete with a mini straw. It is honestly one of the coolest hidden treasures of Italy, and partially saved my life when we were all working in the fields on the farm.

Another interesting difference is that not only does the packaging and the product change, but it is kind of a big deal when the chocolates change out – there are sales and introductions of new varieties that occur, and acquiring the last of the smoother winter candy at the start of summer is something of a quest. We arrived in Rome just in time to see the last of the winter Kinder Sorpresa Eggs being sold in the grocery store down the street. These were soft chocolate and wrapped in foil and they were being replaced by harder chocolate in a plastic egg, which once again, better accommodates hot weather. Also, inside the sorpresa eggs are mini toys (very simple but also very amusing to a bunch of American college kids). It became kind of a fun game, like a treasure hunt, for us to search everywhere after that and see what candies were different and why. And you would be surprised what sorts of fun things you find on quirky quests for the perfect chocolate candy.

I guess I’m not really sure where I was going with this blog, because there isn’t really a point, argument, or purpose to this other than I think its really interesting. And I miss Italian chocolate. Also, you will soon learn, I love learning about little cultural facts and differences. I hope you do too.

*Fun Fact: I think it is interesting to note that while Kinder Chocolate is sold in America, Kinder Sorpresas are banned in stores because the US FDA bans the sale of any food that contains a non-edible substance, such as a toy, inside of it.

“It’s Chocolate. That’s Chocolate? Thats Chocolate!”

While doing my post-Christmas clearance scavenging with my mom a few weeks ago, I came across the most glorious clearance rack find in the history of clearanced Christmas candy finds.  What was this magnificent treasure?  Gift bags of a Perugina Chocolate Factory candy called Bacio.

The funny thing is that my mom didn’t quite understand why I ran down the aisle and scooped up every bag I could find.  I texted a couple of my Italy friends about my find and showed her their responses.  One response was:

“I just teared up.  I’ll love you forever if you share”

…and my personal  favorite response was:

“OH MY GAWD. I’ll buy some from you.  Get every bag and if you don’t share with me, I will cut you”

This was the response I expected from them (although for some reason, my mom still didn’t understand).  And the reason we were all overjoyed at mere clearance rack candy?  It’s because Baci (the plural spelling of a Bacio) will forever hold a special place in our hearts.  Here’s why: A free Chocolate Factory Tour, in the heart of a city famous for its classic Italian food culture, with unlimited samples.  Yup. You would freak out too.

The Perugina Chocolate Factory, its real name is actually Museo Storico Nestle Perugina, and it is located near the city of Perugia and gives free tours of their factory, museum, and store.  It is at this factory that they make their world-famous Baci Hazelnut Chocolates. Take finely ground hazelnuts, mix it with dark chocolate to form a truffle that is topped with a whole hazelnut, and then coat it in rich, dark velvety chocolate.  Wrap each truffle in a slip of silvery paper with a quote about love translated into 4 languages, and wrap again in the standard silver and blue foil embellished with a blue stars and a Griffin (the symbol of Perugia and the Perugina logo), and give it the name Bacio – which means “kiss” in Italian – and you have a recipe for one of the tastiest chocolates known to man.

From outside the factory is standard, industrial-looking and unimpressive.  Walk inside, and your impression turns a whole 180 degrees.  The lobby is decorated with retro chocolate and candy posters and the walls are hollow glass filled with cacao beans. (P.S. That is how I want to decorate my house one day, cacao bean pods everywhere, they are awesome!)  The receptionist’s desk has a massive bowl of Baci and other chocolates made in the factory.  We all hoard away a few, thinking we need to conserve the few free baci we might receive that day.

First stop on the tour: a movie theatre showing the history of the factory.  The film is old but there is an obvious new-addition to the film, a short clip at the end with a quip about how the factory is now owned by Nestle.  The narrator can’t seem to hide his disappointment in this obvious factory sell-out to increase marketing.  Something about the quality of this chocolate renders the advantages of a nationally known company useless and takes away from the quiet dignity of this once family-owned factory.  Lining each entrance and exit to the theatre, giant bowls of Bacio of course.

Leaving the theatre takes you to the Candy Museum, complete with a replica of the world’s largest Bacio –  it weighed 6.6 tons, stood 6.5 feet tall, and bolstered the factory’s fame as the largest, most famous chocolate producer in the country.  This is where the tour gets interesting, because there are little windows with sneak peeks into the factory and everything smells like chocolate.

The real fun begins with a tour of the actual candy making facility – sadly, we went in the summer and the factory was non-operational (I’ll write a post about why, coming soon read it here!).  Even the stationary, empty production room was reminiscent of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, and much like the story, there was an awesome prize at the end of the factory halls.

Our group was led into a weird sort of hallway, with awkward benches and more retro advertisements for the factory.  Then we spot it.  Low and behold, the whole back wall had a long bar with mounds of every kind of chocolate the factory made.  Milk chocolate.  Dark chocolate. White chocolate.  Orange chocolate bars.  Coffee-flavored chocolate.  The less popular fruit and coffee and toffee hard-candies.  And of course, Baci.

My Italy group took command of the tour group as we scrambled to get in line – 14 teenagers and 2 chocolate-loving advisors will win any foot race or shoving contest to get in line first for free chocolate.  We proved that fact, especially after most of our group went back for 3rds, 4ths, and dare I say, 5ths?  Wouldn’t you?  The chocolate seemed endless, and indeed there was so much there that everyone in our tour group, probably 25 or more people, couldn’t finish all the chocolate on the trays.  So what did we do when the tour guide came to whisk us away to the museum store, the last stop on the tour?  We did what any self-respecting person who had just spent 10 days on a very rural farm with little to eat and a 6km walk to the nearest town would do.  We shoveled the leftovers, most of them unwrapped even, into backpacks and made sure to scoop up every last chocolate bar in the place.  After all, we thought we would need that for the van ride to the winery.  Only later did we figure out that mixing a chocolate factory tour with a winery tour would be a slightly bad, awesome, indulgent, slightly-sickening day.

And that’s the awesome story about how a simple trip, filled with unexpected surprises and amazing people, has made me so obsessed with something I didn’t know existed a year ago.  It’s the little things that really make the good memories.  Or in our case, a chocolate-induced food coma in the center of an Italian slow-food city.

Oh, and just a quick little note, I of course ate a Bacio while writing this, for *ahem* inspiration… and this was my quote wrapped inside the candy, still as delicious as I remember it…

“Bacio non dato e sprecato; l’amore dev’essere assaggiato”
“Kisses kept are wasted; Love is to be tasted”

“You’ll be in my heart”

I have been thinking a lot about my future travels, which always leads me to think of past adventures: I went to Italy this past summer with some of the most amazing people I know and it was my first international experience. As a group, we are now all obsessed with Italy, to the point that we talk non-stop, repeating the same stories over and over when we are together. I am sure our other friends are probably so annoyed by us talking Italy every time we get together, but the experience was just so amazing we cannot help it. Really, we cannot stop ourselves, we have tried to reminisce less and it just does not work.

I think it is because our month-long immersion was so life changing and amazing to all of us for so many reasons. Our program leaders and advisors were amazing – we still invade their offices at the University on a semi-weekly basis just to talk and visit (and sometimes play pranks). And the friends family I made there will be a part of my life forever. The memories made while sleeping 6-to-a-room, on the floor, in a freezing cold Italian farmhouse will probably never grow old. And I sincerely hope they never do.

But by far the things that we talk about the most are all food-related. Wine. Coffee. Gelato. Pasta. Chocolate. Oh so much of these five things we consumed, and the adventures related to these things made our trip amazing. So first on the list is coffee.

Mention the name Tazza d’Oro to anyone in my group, and we all grow a little teary-eyed just thinking about the place that literally means “cup of gold”. It was the first authentic coffee shop we visited in Roma. And Sant’Eustachio holds a special place in my heart as well, being the last place I got real Italian espresso. I almost got a cappuccino at Fiumicino Airport because I was so sad to be leaving and in dire need of caffeine, but I just couldn’t let an airport coffee be my last in Italy. So I will forever remember my sugared cappuccino from Sant’Eustachio.

What is special about both of these places is, ironically, they are very close to each other – quite literally 230 meters apart. A mere 3-minute walk according to Google Maps. What’s better: they are both centered around Piazza della Rotonda, which to anyone who knows Roma as we do means you can see the Pantheon from their front doors.

I think this amazing view is really what seals the deal. Somehow, you just cannot hate waiting in line when you can stop and stare at one of the coolest buildings in Roma.

But there were definitely other perks: You could smell the espresso before you even walked inside.  When you did conquer the line, there were several gorgeous young male Italian baristas (baristos?) to greet you. Sant’Eustachios offered a signature drink, which is what you get automatically unless you order something different. Ladies and Gentleman: it was a sugared cappuccino, the most glorious coffee drink I will ever taste (besides the alcoholic-coffee-drink-we-acidentally-ordered-in-the-morning-in-a-museum, but that’s another story to be told). The cup was adorned with a yellow stag, and the rim was sugared much like a margarita glass with salt. Mix with an amazing cappuccino that leaves a few grains of cane sugar in the bottom of the glass and drink with good friends on the last night in Italy, and you have amazing memories that last forever.

What we really value about our experiences is the places that we can call our own, the places we all recognize and reminisce over as a group. Simple places like coffee shops. Or tacky souvenir stores. Seemingly forgetful places. But these are where we all bonded together, and now dream about. And you can be sure that when I make it back to Roma (yes, WHEN, not IF), I will definitely visit and perhaps never leave these places. Though simple and seemingly out of the way, nevertheless they are some of my favorite places in a place that now seems so far away.