Lunch at Mercato Testaccio (Roman Testaccio Markets) in Rome, Italy

There’s no greater way to get to know a new city than by visiting its markets. That’s why whenever you watch travel/food documentaries hosted by renowned chefs like Anthony Bourdain, their first stop is always at the local markets. That way, you get to see what’s in season, what sells, what’s popular, the different spices used…it’s like a crash course in learning about that country’s food culture.

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We had been enjoying visiting markets around Europe, and Rome was no different. We stayed just about half an hour’s walk away from the New Rome Testaccio Markets (the old market was moved to this location about four years ago), and stopped in one morning to pick some fresh meat and produce for home-cooked dinners in our Airbnb apartment. Needless to say, we also took the opportunity of having lunch at some of the many little shops at the market!

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Mordi & Vai is the famous sandwich shop that everyone goes to visit when at the markets. Some people even make a special trip to the Testaccio markets to try their signature sandwiches. As you can tell from the various printouts plastered over their shopfront, they’re so famous that they’ve been written up in almost all of the Roman food columns.

What’s all the fuss about though? Basically, they keep it simple. There’s up to a dozen different pre-cooked sandwich fillings, from meatballs in tomato sauce, to marinated artichoke, to pulled pork, to a slow-cooked beef. When you order the sandwich, that’s literally all you get in the sandwich – just the single filling with no additional salad garnishes or anything like that. It’s very simple, and very focused on highlighting the one key ingredient.

Panino con Allesso (sandwich with slowly cooked tender beef), 3 Euro
Panino con Allesso (sandwich with slowly cooked tender beef), 3 Euro

I ordered their signature sandwich, the Panino con Allesso with slow-cooked beef and spinach. When making this sandwich, the chef actually takes the bottom half of the panini and soaks one side of it with the beef gravy in the pan – why use butter or other sauces when you have a ready-made tasty sauce right? The sauce along with the incredibly tender beef is one of the real highlights of this sandwich. It’s a perfect snack-size sandwich at only 3 Euro, but a bit too small for a full meal.

Carciofi alla Romana (Roman Style artichokes, steamed with white wine, garlic and parseley), 4.50 Euro
Carciofi alla Romana (Roman Style artichokes, steamed with white wine, garlic and parseley), 4.50 Euro

K ordered the Carciofi alla Romana (Roman-style artichoke sandwich) after seeing all the giant displays of artichokes in stalls all around the market – seasonal produce is where it’s at! For this sandwich, a whole steamed marinated artichoke is taken and placed on the bottom half of the panini before being squashed to fit the sandwich, and layered with some thin slices of parmesan cheese. It’s such a simple concept that works incredibly well – I only wish that we had such beautiful fresh artichokes available in Australia (for a more reasonable price!).

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Our next stop was at Food Box, a small stall with a unique range of South-American inspired delicacies, salads, paninis and locally-made soft drinks and juices. I wouldn’t be surprised if they have a philosophy centred about using local and organic products with zero-waste – it seemed to be quite earth-friendly in its own way.

Porchetta focaccia, 5 Euro
Porchetta focaccia, 5 Euro

We stopped here because K’s eye was caught by a massive haunch of roast porchetta with amazing crackling and shimmering fat in the display window. Next to it was a pile of focaccia and a sign: “Porchetta focaccia, 5 Euro”. Once he saw that, we decided to round off the savoury component of our lunch with a porchetta focaccia to share. Now this takes a little while to prepare as they have to move the haunch into the kitchen to cut off slices for the sandwich, and they need to toast it as well.

It’s well worth the wait. The focaccia bread is simultaneously crispy and soft. The porchetta is layered in the sandwich so as to give you a bit of everything in every mouthful – some crunchy crackling, a bit of soft pork fat, and some lean salty meat. It’s a real winner, and one I would rush back to the markets for!

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Lunch isn’t complete without a sweet treat, and Scaramure Patisserie offered up a wide range of delectable goodies. From cakes and slices to cookies and muffins, there’s a wealth of sweet treats to be found.

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Once I saw their ‘Choco Kebab’ machine though, I was hooked – what else could I possibly have ordered? A huge chunk of milk and white chocolate rotating on a spit, that you shave chunks from to include in various desserts? It’s pure genius!

Choco Kebab, 3 Euro
Choco Kebab, 3 Euro

We got our Choco Kebab shavings in a crepe with lashings of Nutella and whipped cream. This is very much a ‘novelty factor’ dessert choice as it’s nothing out the ordinary with a limper-than-preferable crepe. As a vehicle for delivering chocolate kebab shavings to my mouth though, it was more than sufficient.

The Rome Testaccio Markets are well worth a visit if you’re ever in Rome – the produce on offer is many, varied, fresh and seasonal, and it’s a great way of learning about Italian cuisine. Don’t forget to stop by some of the sandwich shops for a meal while you’re at the markets – Mordi & Vai is a must, as is the porchetta focaccia at Food Box.

The Rome Testaccio Markets are located on Via Galvani in Rome, Italy. The closest Metro stop is Piramide.

Camden Markets and the Cereal Killer Cafe, London England

There’s a lot to love about the central areas of the city of London. Amazing skyline along the river, restaurants, cafes, theatres, shops, nightlife… there’s always something to do, something to see, and something to eat. If only London was cheaper, I could definitely see myself living there!

There’s lots to love outside of central London though, and the northern area of Camden Town is particularly well beloved by cool young millenials.

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Camden Markets are full of market stalls catering to various sub-cultures – gothic, steampunk, hippie, retro vintage, and more. There are stalls selling souvenirs for tourists, many second-hand bookstores, and food stalls as well.

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You can definitely spend hours just wandering around the markets exploring the different stalls. I loved looking at all the vintage tea sets and browsing through the shelves of the second-hand book stalls.

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I got hungry before long though and we decided to settle for getting some lunch from one of the food stalls on the north side of the market. There are other options though if you’re looking for more variety – a wealth of Asian cuisine in the centre of the market, and a million food trucks and temporary food stalls set up in an area by the Camden Lock.

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A Mexican food stall looked like the best of the options on the north side of the market – a vegetarian quesadilla for myself and a taco bowl salad for K which was actually presented in two taco shells rather than an actual taco bowl! The quesadilla and the tacos were quite flavourful and highly cheesy, but I think the real highlight were the corn chips which were so crunchy that it tasted as though they were freshly fried.

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However, forget the Mexican food. The real highlight of our visit to the Camden Markets was visiting the Cereal Killer Cafe for dessert. You’ve no doubt read various condemnatory articles about the ridiculous Gen-Y hipster-ness of this concept. A cafe that serves cereals from around the world and charges over $5AUD per bowl for the privilege? It’s an incredibly overpriced first-world concept but I’m going to be honest – it appealed to the over-privileged hipster in me!

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They’re not lying when they say that they offer a wide range of cereals – interestingly, healthier cereal options are few and far between as they cater to the nostalgic sweet dreams of millenials as they offer the most chocolatey, marshmallowy, honeyed, sugary cereals to be found. Their suggested themed cereal mixes (‘chocopottomus’, ‘double rainbow’, ‘feckin nut case’, mint choc cHipster’, ‘miss american pie’) speak for themselves.

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Beside cereal, they also offer other naughty ‘breakfast’ treats – poptarts, cereal-flavoured lip balms, and more. Their primary market is catered to throughout the cafe as well – the walls are decorated with Spice Girls wallpaper, Billie Piper and other 90s pop stars blast from the stereo, decorated cartoon lunchboxes line one wall, and old CRT TVs play 90s shows such as Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Millenials yearning for the innocence of their 90s childhood is who they’re targeting, and they’re doing it well.

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We were there for dessert, and I needed to choose one of their over-the-top hot chocolate concoctions once I saw the picture – this is a Stacked Peanut Butter Hot Chocolate. Served with overflowing whipped cream, a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, puffed peanut cereal bits and rivers of chocolate sauce, I really shouldn’t have been surprised that I developed a sugar-related headache soon after I had this hot chocolate!

Structural integrity unfortunately is not a strength here – the hot chocolate quickly melts all the other elements and before long you end up with a sticky chocolate and peanut pond on the plate.

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We finished off with one bowl of sugary dessert cereal to share – a bowl of Unicorn Poop. This is made up of Ricicles, Party Rings, Marshmallow Fluff, marshmallows, hundreds and thousands and semi skimmed milk. Colourful it is and sweet too…I suppose that unicorn poop really would taste like this!

Visiting the Cereal Killer Cafe would only make sense if you’re a young person in your twenties and thirties with a healthy amount of disposable income, a yearning for the innocence of childhood, and an irrepressible sweet tooth. It’s something you might visit once to say that you’ve been there, and you’ve ticked it off your ‘food fad’ list of must-dos.

I did note with interest however that they hold parties and functions in the cafe after hours – this would be the type of place that I would want to hold a retro nostalgic 30th birthday party…which eep, is coming up in November for me!

Cereal Killer Cafe is located in Camden Markets and also in Brick Lane.

DIY Picnic Lunch in Beautiful Paris

What does your ideal day in Paris look like? Some might talk about shopping along the Champs-Elysees, or a visit to Disneyland, or spending the day absorbed by history, art and architecture in the Louvre. While I enjoy all of those things, I think the best day that K and I spent in Paris was one where we didn’t have much planned at all, and just took some time enjoying some fantastic culinary treats by creating a DIY picnic lunch.

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We started off by getting off the Paris Metro at the stop Saint-Placide. As soon as we exited the station, we saw two fantastic little shops in front of us – one of them was a boucherie charcuterie called Maison Verot, by Gilles Verot. We were drawn in by the glossy terrines in the front window, and further captivated by the blocks of pate and rows of cured meats in the shop. We had to buy something for lunch, and their offerings seemed as good as any – so $20 Euro later, we walked away with a hefty chunk of Pate de Campagne and Confit Provencal.  We didn’t eat it all for lunch though, saving the $13 Euro worth of Confit for dinners and lunches later in the week!

Maison Verot is located at 3 Rue Notre-Dame des Champs, Paris.

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Right next door to Maison Verot was the third best patisserie in France and Paris…as demonstrated by the signage out the front! While the pastries and tarts at Boulangerie Thevenin were very tempting, I had other plans for our dessert and so we just stopped in to buy a fresh warm-from-the-oven Ancienne Baguette for only about $1.50 Euro.

Boulangerie Thevenin is located at 5 Rue Notre-Dame des Champs, Paris.

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As a big fan of matcha and green tea in all its forms, I’d long had it on my list to visit Sadaharu Aoki while we were in Paris, and so we walked ten minutes up the street from Saint-Placide station to their store. They’ve made a name for themselves as specialists in matcha desserts and chocolates, and I found it difficult to choose just the one treat to try! At approximately $5 Euro per individual dessert (cheaper for some pastries, and up to $50 Euro for some boxes of chocolates), we bought just a few treats for our lunch – photos later!

Sadaharu Aoki is located at 35 Rue de Vaugirard, Paris.

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Ten minutes walk away from Sadaharu Aoki is the beautiful Jardin de Luxembourg. It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon when we arrived, and many local Parisian families were out in force enjoying the sunshine from the hundreds of deck chairs that are located around the pond in front of the Luxembourg palace. Young kids had their sailboats out on the water, and the whole scene was one of laughter and happiness. It was here that we found some space to sit down and assemble our picnic lunch.

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First we unwrapped the thick slice of Pate de Campagne that we had purchased from Maison Verot. You could smell the meatiness and spices of the pate as soon as we unwrapped the greaseproof paper, and it was difficult to resist simply biting into the slice of pate by itself!

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The wonderful thing about baguettes (particularly the harder/crunchier ancienne-style baguettes) is that they actually taste better when you rip into them with your bare hands, rather than going through the rigmarole of cutting slices of it with a bread knife. That makes it all the better for constructing a DIY picnic lunch. So, we tore the baguette into two pieces for the both of us, gingerly tore up the pate into pieces, and constructed our own Pate de Campagne Sandwiches. The crunchy and sour baguette really helped to enhance the softer meatier pate (especially as we’d bought such a thick slice!), and I scoffed down every last piece of my sandwich with delight.

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After virtually inhaling my pate sandwich in less than five minutes, I took some time to allow my stomach to rest before turning my mind to dessert and the treats we’d bought at Sadaharu Aoki. The first, a matcha almond croissant. The matcha baked into the croissant was very subtle, and it was really only the powder sprinkled on top that gave it a stronger tea kick. This probably makes it more palatable for most people as the sweeter almond dominates the croissant, but I would have personally preferred a stronger matcha flavour throughout the pastry.

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Two more desserts from Sadaharu Aoki, shared between K and I. He’s a big fan of yuzu and so chose the lemon yuzu tart, and I chose a matcha and dark chocolate layered cake called the ‘bamboo cake’. The yuzu tart had just the right amount of alcoholic booziness, with a crumbly sweet shortcrust pastry that helped to sweeten the tartness of the citrus. I was a big fan of the bamboo cake as well, with just the right amount of subtle strong matcha and sweetness in the dark chocolate.

After a short break in the Jardin de Luxembourg, K and I walked on to Notre Dame Cathedral. With a long line of people waiting to get into the cathedral, we decided to skip touring the interior and walked on to the Marais district of Paris. It’s a busy district full of shops, and many Parisians were out that day doing their weekly shopping, having a coffee at the café, or simply window-shopping in one of the many boutiques.

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We joined them, wandering the streets for a few hours and ducking into shops to browse through some interesting items by local designers. I felt the need for a treat before long though, and we happened across L’Eclair de Genie by Christophe Adam, a little patisserie specialising in eclairs and chocolate truffles.

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While I was sorely tempted by some of the chocolates on display, and many of the other take-home items as well (who doesn’t need yet another jar of chocolate spread for brioche?), I knew that we had already over-indulged in sweets that morning at Sadaharu Aoki…so I restricted myself to just the one eclair.

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I chose the fig éclair – available only when figs are in season. K chose a hazelnut/praline éclair, very fancy with its thin sheets of chocolate and meringues on top. I have to say that of the two, I preferred mine as a lighter and fresher éclair as K’s éclair left a heavier creamier aftertaste on the palate. Unfortunately, they weren’t quite up to the standards of the Pierre Marcolini eclairs that we had in Brussels!

L’éclair de Genie by Christophe Adam is located at 14 rue Pavée, Paris.

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Of course, we didn’t eat our eclairs like common plebeians on the side of the street. Paris is full of beautiful old buildings, reinvented as public spaces. There are hundreds of little landscaped courtyards around the city which are open to the public for them to stroll in, take a seat, and enjoy a picnic treat. We had our eclairs at the Musee des Archives Nationales, but there were many other places around the Le Marais neighbourhood that we could have visited.

And there you have it – my idea of a perfect day in Paris. It’s all about indulging in some house-made specialities in a range of boucheries, boulangeries and patisseries, and enjoying the fruits of your shopping in one of Paris’s many beautiful public spaces.