Episode 372 – Cooking In Other People’s Kitchens

Fortunately, I have never had to actually cook on one of these!

Until 2022 (this year), all of our long-term stays have been in North America, in places with North American-style kitchens.

That means we’ve had relatively few really “interesting” cooking experiences, if you discount the condo oven in Surfside Beach, South Carolina, that exploded a tempered glass baking dish full of lasagna because (as we discovered after buying an oven thermometer that we now carry with us) EVERY temperature setting over 250F on the dial generated 525F.

Across North America, kitchens are to some extent “standard”.

We’ve always had a stove and oven; sometimes electric and sometimes gas, sometimes glass-topped, sometimes solid elements, and sometimes rings; sometimes with the added bonus of being convection, or self-cleaning; sometimes integrated and sometimes wall mounted. There have always been exhaust fans above the stoves.

We’ve always had a full-sized refrigerator with a freezer compartment, although “full-sized” has varied from fairly narrow white enamel models to gleaming stainless steel ultra-wide, double door, ice-making, water-dispensing behemoths (thanks, Jan!)

We’ve almost always had a microwave oven, coffee maker, kettle, and toaster. Sometimes – as in the wonderfully equipped Collingwood condo to which we’ve returned 3 times – there are bonuses like blenders, panini presses, cappuccino makers, and electric hand mixers.

Our North American kitchens have come stocked with cookware, dishes, and utensils too, and this is where we’ve seen the biggest differences. What people see as “basic” supplies is determined, we assume, by their own cooking styles. That same Collingwood kitchen has absolutely amazing heavy duty pots and pans: a full size range of steamers, pasta pots, and sauté pans, with ovenproof handles and self-venting glass lids, as well as tempered glass oven dishes that can be used for baking. There are plates; bowls; coffee AND espresso cups; wine, beer and cocktail glasses; serving dishes and glass salad bowls; lots of cutlery; several cutting boards … and a fully stocked spice rack. It’s the best equipped kitchen we’ve rented to date, and made our long stays there a pleasure. It even has a garlic press!

Collingwood. Check out the spices!

And yet, I still supplemented it with my own perfect stainless steel pie pan and wooden rolling pin (each more than 40 years old, and two of the very few things we kept after selling everything else we owned), and my own set of chef’s knives, which are rolled up in a canvas carrier along with my favourite chef’s apron and a sturdy whisk.

When we stay in a place for a month or longer, which is most often our routine, I generally buy a couple of dish towels and a pair of oven mitts. It just feels good to start out with a brand new clean set of each. Plus, worn oven mitts, in particular, are easily overlooked when a rental unit is cleaned, and the risk of burnt fingers is not one I need to add to our travels.

We’re at the point now that I’d also say that, with VERY few exceptions, I also always buy a couple of inexpensive – but sharp – paring knives for each rental. As son #2 would confirm, dull knives are the ones that cause the most kitchen injuries.

This year, for the first time, we’ve had long stays in Europe and England, and have just begun another in Mexico, which has given me a whole range (no pun intended) of new kitchen experiences.

European and Mexican kitchens are definitely different from those in North America!!

Berlin’s cute little kitchen had only a 2-burner solid burner stovetop, a microwave (which I never did figure out), no oven, a tiny fridge, and a single sink. However, there were enough pots and pans , prep dishes, colanders, and utensils to allow us to create simple dinners. There was a drip coffee maker, stovetop espresso maker, a French press, and a 2-slice toaster. The pantry contained a start-up amount of coffee (thank you, Frau Thimm!), oil, vinegar, and a decent variety of spices. There were also a couple of refrigerator storage containers for cheese, cold cuts, etc since single-use plastic bags are not readily available in Europe. Unrelated to cooking, but very much related to cleanup, there were also enough soap, detergent, various cleansers, sponges, and paper towels to get us through our entire 4 week stay. It was “klein aber fein”, as Germans say. Small but nicely done.

Berlin: the tiniest of our kitchens. The entire refrigerator is behind the door under the coffee maker. Not many knives, but they were all capable of cutting. The cupboard on the right is pantry/storage. The clothes washer in this case was in the bathroom, not the kitchen.

Vienna had a 4-burner induction stove-top, a microwave (that again went unused), again no oven, an even tinier fridge, a single sink – but a dishwasher! – pots and pans, but no prep or storage dishes at all, and not even a can opener (there was a wine bottle opener though, thankfully). There was a pad-type coffee maker and an espresso maker, but no coffee pads (yes, an “a” not an “o”) or any start-up items. That said, we’re always happy to buy oils, spices, soaps, paper products, etc and leave the unused portions for the next guest, as long as there are nearby grocery stores – which there were here in abundance. The lack of prep bowls, colander/strainer and storage containers was easily fixed at the local Lidl grocery – and our host even reimbursed us for them – but this was the first time we’d had to supply our own garbage bags!

Vienna. Two paring knives added to the kitchen. Note the similarity to the Berlin kitchen. Both are IKEA! The cupboard on the right, from top to bottom, holds storage, fridge, and clothes washer.

I think the difference in the 2 places was likely related to their “usual” type of renter. Our Berlin apartment got used longterm during Covid, and even before that generally hosted people who stayed for a while and cooked at least some of their meals. Pasta is a staple everywhere, hence having a strainer/colander as a basic item. I’m guessing that the Vienna apartment being in a young, hip neighbourhood probably meant the kitchen rarely got used beyond making coffee and chilling drinks, so there’d be no “cook” to suggest what was missing.

In our interesting little apartment in Trieste, I was pleasantly surprised to find not only a gas stove, but a full-sized oven. No microwave this time, but that’s never an issue for us – nor for most Italians, who regard zapping food as sacrilege. HOWEVER, getting appliances to actually do anything was a whole different adventure: everything seemed to need to be “activated” before it would work, and there were no instructions left behind (well, there were instructions for the washer – laundry adventures are a whole other blog – but not for the actual model or brand that was installed in the kitchen).

Trieste. Trial and error allowed us to figure out the switches in the top photo. The other “interesting” thing was that the glass doors which lifted upward did not “stay” open, so accessing dishes was always a two-handed job if we didn’t want to get our heads bonked by a cupboard door. We bought two coordinating red-handled paring knives to use and leave behind.

We had a full-sized YELLOW refrigerator though!

Our stay in Greenwich England was a full month, so I specifically looked for a flat with an oven, expecting that in England I might be able to find some nice ready-to-bake pies. Our flat’s kitchen had everything I needed – except sharp knives (2 more bought and left behind).

Greenwich. Ted was absolutely thrilled to see a toaster on the counter, having done without for our 2 months in Europe.

Our “kitchen adventure” in Greenwich was a water leak under the sink. It’s interesting what short-term renters don’t notice, or notice and don’t tell the landlord about. Our lovely host walked us through the flat when we arrived quite late in the evening, but there was no reason to immediately use the kitchen other than to make a cup of tea. On our first morning in the flat, I reached under the sink to get dish liquid, and the exterior of the bottle was wet … as was everything else under the sink. The plastic tub containing dish and cleaning cloths was heavy with water – about 1/4 full of liquid , and everything in it was soggy; some items had started to mildew. Our poor landlord knew nothing about it, and assumed it must be a brand new leak. He quickly arranged a plumber but, as it was the weekend, I took everything out of the cupboard and dried it all (well, threw out all the mildewed things) while Ted tried to isolate the location of the dripping water. That done, we put the plastic tub under the leak, and kept an eye on it over the next few days. In 48 hours, about a cup (8 oz/225 ml) of water had collected, indicating that the amount of water I drained and cleaned up represented weeks of leaking. At any rate, we got a quick chat with a lovely plumber, and a new faucet.

It was nice to return to a Canadian kitchen for the month we spent in BC with son #2’s family. Although the kitchen in the in-law suite of their new home has fairly basic older-style appliances (e.g. a stove with coil elements), there was no learning curve involved in using anything. We also had a dishwasher for the first time this year – and realized that with just 2 of us we really don’t need one.

British Columbia. The small and large islands in our BC kitchen were some of our additions to the unfurnished space.

Our brief stay in a Toronto AirBNB demonstrated just how good a tiny kitchen can be when efficiently designed. It had a place for everything, including a large Lazy Susan in the corner cupboard for pots, and even featured sharp knives!

Toronto. Tiny perfection.

Mexico was a whole different experience. When we arrived, the kitchen in our historic (1860) townhouse was in a bit of disarray: broken or abused small appliances, a rusted gas range, a missing clothes washer, grimy cupboards, and the ubiquitous dull knives. BUT, within 2 days our landlord had rectified all of that (except the washer, which was on a delayed delivery schedule), including replacing the coffee maker, toaster, kettle, knives … and even the entire gas range! Electricity is frightfully expensive in Mexico, so stoves are gas, which is honestly most cooks’ dream. The new range even came with a grill plate – I’m in heaven.

Top: a tempered glass shield protects the elements when not in use.
Bottom: the griddle optimally gets placed on the 2 centre burners that are of uniform size. The front right burner is specially designed for wok-shaped (round bottom) pots, so that heat is distributed evenly instead of just on the bottom.
It’s not a kitchen that would appeal to everyone. The 130 year old tiles and baseboards show their age in discolouration, the piping looks old (because it is!), and the painted wooden drawers and cupboard doors stick in the high humidity of Merida, but it is charming, and with its new appliances it is a great space for cooking. Added bonus: the fabulous spice rack visible on top of the gleaming new microwave oven. Chris couldn’t have known, but it’s exactly like the spice rack I so loved in Collingwood!

We certainly haven’t experienced all the possible options, but I’ve been able to prep decent meals everywhere we’ve stayed, and that’s really what’s important.

I won’t be booking any accommodations with wood stoves though.

5 comments

  1. Hi Rose – I am impressed that you have such a responsive landlord! It’s really great that he wanted to make things right for you.

    I’m wondering if your place comes with a installed filter to make drinkable tap water. Or, perhaps the tap water is already potable.

    Just curious.

    Jeff Barnes

    Like

    • Very old piping, which brings in chlorinated “city water” – not drinkable. We use 20 litre jugs of filtered water, which get delivered 6 at a time (our landlord covers that cost within our rent). I should say that this is one of the pricier Merida 2 bedroom options, given its uniqueness.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s