South Austin Citrus Battle

16 02 2009

Though the journey was not far in terms of miles, the world of tastes we experienced Saturday night was vast.  On Valentine’s Day we came together for a culinary adventure — the second Iron Chef Challenge with our friends, Abe, Erin, Rob, and Amanda.  This time, the theme ingredient was citrus — perfect for February.  Each couple offered an appetizer, an entree, and a dessert showcasing the theme ingredient.  Our gracious hosts, Abe and Erin, set the stage beautifully.

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Rob and Amanda presented the first appetizer — a seared scallop encrusted with lemon, lime, and orange zest served with a grapefruit gastrique. 

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The scallop was cooked perfectly and the citrus flavors were nicely balanced.  It was a delicious start to the night.

Next, Chris prepared our appetizer —  a small piece of sashimi-style tuna topped with a green apple, wasabi, lime, and ginger mixture, and then a small dollop of yuzu kosho mixed with chopped roasted onion and miso paste.  It was one perfect bite, full of flavor.  Delicious.  My camera does not do justice to the dish.  I must work on this.

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The third appetizer of the night was Abe and Erin’s — olive oil-poached shrimp with avocado and cucumber, lime, and grilled poblano pepper salad.  The shrimp was cooked perfectly and very well-balanced by the creaminess of the avocado and cool tartness of the salad. 

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Round one — a strong three for three.

Next came the entrees.  Rob and Amanda presented their dish first and it was spectacular.  Two citrus-crusted lamb chops served with a blood orange polenta heart and a blood orange and fennel relish.  Outstanding!

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After this course, I suppose I was too excited by all of the great food to continue shooting.  You’ll have to imagine what the next several dishes looked like. 

I presented the next entree — beef carpaccio served with arugula and a naval orange, red onion, and kalamata olive salsa (with paprika, cayenne pepper, and cumin).  I encrusted the beef with crushed black peppercorns, crushed white peppercorns, coarse salt, and crushed fennel seeds and let it sit for one hour.  I seared the beef on all sides for one minute, then chilled it and put it in the freezer for an hour.  I then sliced the beef as thinly as I could and pounded it out even flatter.  I poured the juices from the salsa on the arugula and tossed, then mounded a small bed on each plate.  I topped the arugula with a scoop of the salsa, then surrounded it with slices of carpaccio, a few Parmesan shavings, and a few blood orange “fillets.”  I paired this dish with grapefruit-rosemary daquiris. 

Abe and Erin presented the next entree — kobe beef in a lime, soy, and brown sugar crust served with fresh green beans.  The beef was heavenly…sweet and tangy, though not so much so that it masked the flavor of the beef in any way.  This dish, by the way, won a side-award for “best masking of citrus flavor, thereby giving the chefs a break.”

And finally, the desserts.  In this round, Abe and Erin went first.  They served a delightfully tangy lemon sorbet served in a hollowed out lemon, topped with a raspberry sauce, and two lemon shortbread cookies.  Oh my.  It was fantastic.  I remembered to photograph this one a little late…

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I did, however, get this shot of the cookies when I first arrived…

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Rob and Amanda served dessert next — individual lemon budinos topped with freshly whipped cream.  The texture of each pudding was sublime…on top, almost like a souffle, and creamy and soft on the bottom.  The lemon flavor was mellow and comforting, and the cream added just the right balance.  Wonderful.

Finally, we presented out dessert — two small lemon cakes served on a lemon and rosemary syrup topped with freshly whipped cream. 

All in all, the night was just fantastic.  We all mastered the art of the portion size and were able to enjoy each dish to the fullest.  We explored the tastes of lemons, limes, oranges, blood oranges, sour limes, Meyer lemons, and yuzu with scallops, shrimp, tuna, beef, and lamb with, in my opinion, exceptional results.  We will be hosting the next challenge, and I must (a) remember to shoot each dish, and (b) more importantly, work on my macro shooting. 

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Testing the Top Ten Hikes — East Texas, here we come.

9 02 2009

Chris recently came across an old issue of Texas Monthly magazine that featured an article on the “Top Ten Hikes in Texas.”  Never ones to shy away from ranking our favorite restaurants in a given city, our “top five” albums we’d take with us to a deserted island, or anything else capable of being ranked and, of course, debated, we decided that one of our goals for 2009 would be to do each of these hikes and see what we thought.  After reviewing the list, we decided the Kirby Trail in the Big Thicket National Preserve would be a good one to start with, due mainly to the fact that if we waited until it got any warmer, the mosquitoes would likely be so thick out there they may in fact carry us away.  So, in late January 2009, we loaded up the mule (our Forester) and drove east.

We left Austin around 6:30 or so on a Saturday morning and headed toward Houston, passing straight through along I-10 to where the refineries start popping up all around, on into Beaumont, then turned north along 69 toward Kountze, Texas.  Before this day I had never heard of Kountze, though I am told I have family from the Woodville area, another 30 or so miles to the north.  We arrived in Kountze around 10:30 and, after stopping to fill up with gas, headed straight for the Big Thicket National Preserve.

We stopped first at the visitor’s center — a nice building full of information about the preserve, books and souvenirs, clean restrooms, and friendly staff.  We talked with a ranger about the best places to camp, and he directed us to an area off the Sandhill Loop (part of the trail system in the preserve).  There are no campsites in the preserve, so you just have to go in and register for a back country permit and then head out.  While Chris read about the park, I enjoyed the calm and cool weather from the rocking chairs on the front porch.

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A nice touch.

We then got back into the car and drove another half mile or so down the road to the Kirby Trail trailhead and prepared for the 2.5 mile hike.  The hike is an easy loop that takes you through a dense forest of hardwoods and pines and a fascinating environment of Baldcypress swamps and baygalls.  The trailhead is easy to spot…

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Parts of the trail are like boardwalks over swampy ground.

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This is a Southern Magnolia…I’ve never seen Magnolia trees grow so tall and straight up like these.

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This is a Loblolly Pine, another of the common trees in the preserve.

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Here are a couple of shots of the baygalls we walked past…

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The little stumps poking out of the water are called knees, and are thought to help anchor the Cypress trees.

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We also encountered trees growing in all kinds of shapes and sizes, such as a rhinoceros.

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Or these…

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After we finished the loop, we decided to head back to Kountze for some lunch before heading out with all of our gear.  We went to Caroline’s Quality Bar-b-q, and it was a delight.  The little building is right on 69 and has exactly three tables inside. 

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Caroline took our order at the cash register and we could immediately feel that great East Texas hospitality.  I ordered the three meat plate (brisket, pork ribs, and chicken) and Chris just got the brisket plate.  We sat down at the only empty table and within a few minutes, a different woman brought out two plates and asked which was which…after setting down the brisket plate in front of Chris she looked at me with a bit of disdain and said, “You gonna eat all this?”  I looked at my plate and noticed it was piled high with brisket and ribs (no chicken) and said, I’m gonna try!  She came right back with another plate and said “and who had the chicken?”  I raised my hand and she gave me another look…”you really gonna eat this?”  It was a LOT of meat, plus beans and potato salad.  I really wanted a good sampling of the barbecue, though, so I felt I HAD to order three meats (I had actually tried to get the sausage too, but they were all out).  I knew I had my work cut out for me.  The brisket was my favorite — they smoke their brisket for thirteen hours, and the flavor was deep.  I could cut it with my plastic fork.  They serve their barbecue with a thick, slightly sweet sauce that I enjoyed, though Chris prefers a vinegary sauce to dip the meat in, if any sauce at all.  The ribs were incredibly tender — meat fell right off the bone.  The chicken (I requested dark meat) was juicy and delicious.  I also thought the sides were fantastic (made eating all of the meat all the more difficult).  The beans had a nice sweetness to them, and the potato salad was light and fresh.  Needless to say, though I tried my hardest, I could not finish.  Caroline brought me a box for my leftovers (while there was no way I’d be able to take my leftovers on an overnight hike, I simply could not leave them on the table).  Here are my leftovers (and really, I ate a LOT!  the portions are really big!!).

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After lunch we headed back out to the Kirby Trail, but this time loaded up our packs and instead of looping back around, took a left at a bridge and continued on toward the Sandhill Loop.

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We took the Sandhill Loop and started wandering off the trail somewhere around the first or second “L” looking for a good spot to set up our tent.

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Chris marked the campsite on his GPS device…

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Happy with our choice, I set up our tent and we relaxed with some wine (yes, I backpacked with wine) and enjoyed the weather for a bit.  Dinner came from a bag…a Mountain House vegetable lasagna.  To be honest, we were quite pleased with dinner…it really was not bad at all, and nothing beats a hot dinner when it’s chilly outside.  Once the sun went down completely it got even colder, so we decided to turn in early.  Really early (I’m not even sure if it was 8pm yet).  We stared at the stars from the tent for a bit, then eventually drifted off to sleep.  By 2am, Chris was wide awake.  I suppose we had basically gotten a full night of sleep.  He woke me up and told me he was going to get out, make some coffee, and sit outside for a while.  I was not ready to get up (it was still cold and dark) so I stayed in the tent. 

I heard him rustling around a bit, then I noticed what seemed like a bright flickering light through the tent.  That did not seem right to me, so I called out to Chris and asked if everything was okay.  His response was simple:  “No…I think you should probably get out here.”  I jumped out of my sleeping bag, out of the tent, and into my boots and saw a fire!  Apparently, we had a bit of a burner malfunction, and when he tried to ignite the burner flames shot out of the entire canister (even though it worked just fine for dinner).  The burner fell over on its side as he jumped back to avoid burning his arm, and the fire spread to the leaves, pine needles, sticks, etc., all around…and quickly!  We tried dousing it with what little water we had left but that did nothing.  We threw a pot down on the burner but it did nothing to stop the flames.  I was really surprised at how quickly the fire spread and for a few seconds seriously feared we had started a forest fire (though, to be honest, it was probably only a few feet)!  Chris, thinking quickly, grabbed a big stick and cleared a perimeter around the fire so that it could not spread any further, and it finally began to burn out.  We stood and watched as the flames from the canister got smaller and smaller and smaller.  Once it was out, we looked at each other, then at our watches (it was 2:45 am).  It was the middle of the night, but we were wide awake…out of water…so no coffee…we decided to hike back.  Luckily it was not too difficult finding the trail again, and once on the trail it was an easy hike back.  We were back at the car around 3:15 or so, and back home by 7:45 in the morning.  This really was not how we had envisioned the camping trip to go, but it was still fun and we later got quite a few laughs out of the “incident.” 

Now, back to the top ten list.  The best thing about this hike and the preserve in general was the environment.  The mix of trees and swamp was pretty cool — I’ve never seen anything like it.  The hike itself was very easy, though, and there weren’t any grand vistas.  My biggest complaint, however, was that it did not seem remote enough.  Throughout the night we both woke up off and on due to the sounds of dogs barking, gun shots, and other unidentifiable noises.  We also seemed to be right underneath a flight path.  Civilization felt too close.  The only wildlife we spotted were birds and squirrels.  At night we only heard crickets and deer snorting.  It is, however, a beautiful part of the state, a part I had never seen, and a reminder that the Texas landscape includes so many different environments.  That in and of itself is pretty cool, and one of the reasons I love living here.





Istanbul, the final destination

4 02 2009

Istanbul is wonderful, and my sad lack of notes in my travel journal is a sign that I was savoring every moment and didn’t want to stop for too long to write it down.  I loved being in Istanbul.  I wanted to try living there.  It’s beautiful, everywhere we went the people were friendly, the culture and history is fascinating, the food is delicious.  And lest you worry about the lack of content in this, my final post on our Europe 2006 trek, I surely made up for the dearth of words in photographs.

We stayed at the wonderful Dersaadet Hotel, a reconstructed 19th century Ottoman Mansion, in the center of  Istanbul (Sultanahmet).  The owner and staff were extremely friendly and helpful — in fact, on our last night there (we stayed five nights) they upgraded us to a larger room.  My favorite part of the hotel was the rooftop terrace where we had breakfast every morning and often returned to in the afternoon for tea.  The views from the terrace were amazing.  We slept with our window cracked the first night and the sound of the early morning call from one of the nearby minarets is something I will never forget.  I took this first set of photos from the rooftop terrace.

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A driver from the hotel met us at the airport and drove us to the hotel.  We arrived around 8 or 9 in the evening.  We were hungry for dinner but also a little tired out from our day of flying (we flew on Olympic Airlines from Rome to Istanbul with a long layover in Athens…but hey, my first “trip” to Greece!  I made a point of ordering Greek airport food…I will say this.  It definitely beats a lot of American airport food I’ve tried…) so we asked the hotel owner to recommend someplace close by where we could find dinner.  We ended up at Doy Doy across the street.  You have to walk up several flights of stairs, first through the ground floor (I’m not even sure this was part of the same restaurant), then through the smoking lounge, then you arrive at the rooftop where the restaurant is located.  We shared lamb kebabs and flatbread, lentil soup, and a hearty farmer’s salad of diced cucumbers, diced tomatoes, cubed cheese, fresh herbs, and a light lemon and oil dressing.  It was great…and filling!

We did a lot of walking in Istanbul.  On our first full day, we went to the Blue Mosque…  

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…and Topkapi Palace, built by Mehmet II between 1459 and 1465.

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Our first night, we ate at a restaurant called Develi, also recommended by our hotel.  They even arranged a ride to and from the restaurant for us.  In some ways it reminded me of going for dim sum, as waiters would bring dishes by and you would just say yes or no (I said yes a LOT).  We loved the little bowls of cheese, onions, and herbs on the table.  We also ate quite a lot of meat.  I remember everything being great and the rooftop terrace was very pleasant.

The next day we saw the Hagia Sofia, a structure more than 1400 years old.  It was built over two earlier churches and inaugurated by Emperor Justinian in 537.  In the 15th century the Ottomans converted it into a mosque.  Inside it is a truly amazing and beautiful sight to see…

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Afterwards we went to the Basilica Cistern.  The cistern was built under Justinian in 532.  The Ottomans did not even know the cistern existed for a century after the conquest, and only rediscovered it after people were found collecting water, and even fish, by lowering buckets through holes in their basements.  The Medusa head bases are in a back corner of the vault, and are evidence of Byzantine plundering.  They are also really cool.

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We walked around afterwards until we found good spot for a Turkish coffee and kunefe, the delicious sweet cheese pastry.  In fact, I very much enjoyed the sweets in Turkey and sampled them often.   

We spent the next day shopping.  We walked around the Sultanahmet some, then over to the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar.  While I found the two bazaars to be a visually stunning and beautiful, exciting place, I somehow did not take any photographs.  I also did very little shopping and left that up to Chris.  I am simply not good at negotiating and, quite frankly, I can’t stand it.  Chris, on the other hand, thrived on it and we found all kinds of goodies to bring home.

That night we had dinner on another rooftop terrace above a hotel, and for the life of me I cannot remember the name.  I remember that I had grilled fish and Chris had lamb, but I don’t remember it being especially great.  I will never forget our waiter, however…he was so cute!  You could tell he really enjoyed speaking English with us (even though I had really been trying hard to pick up more than just a few Turkish words!) and after every other sentence, it seemed, he’d exclaim “High five!” and hold out his hand for a slap from each of us.  It was great!  The funniest part of the meal came at the end.  We both ordered Turkish coffees with our dessert, and the waiter set one down in front of Chris, and one in front of me.  Mine, however, was completely wrapped in a paper napkin (saucer, cup, and all) that was twisted at the top.  He looked at me and said “a bomb!”  He then proceeded to pull out a lighter and light the little twist on fire so that the napkin flamed out revealing my coffee.  He was very proud.  It was really too funny. 

On our last day in Istanbul we walked along the Eminönü — the port area where ferries depart for trips along the Bosphorus.  Here we found some fantastic fish sandwiches.

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We left Istanbul on a 5am flight, which meant leaving our hotel around 3am or so.  Another couple at the hotel was also headed to the airport, so there were four of us in the car plus the driver.  The one odd thing we experienced occurred on this drive.  We were on what felt a little like a highway (at least it was a multi-lane fast-moving roadway) and we encountered a roadblock.  At this roadblock, officials (soldiers?) looked in the car and appeared to ask the driver for papers.  The discussion became quite heated between the driver and the officials.  Or course I had no idea what was going on.  They let us through, though, and we made it to the airport in plenty of time.  And thus began our journey home.  Three and a half weeks, five countries, more photographs than I know what to do with, and memories to last me a lifetime.  But really, this trip only whetted my appetite for travel.  I am hungry for more.

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Next-to-the-last stop, Rome

3 02 2009

We arrived in Rome late at night on the 12th of September, 2006, and made our way on foot from Termini train station to our hotel, the Hotel Montreal.  It’s right by the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore…

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and across the street from a coffee shop with “Illy” in the window (much to Chris’s excitement) and a barber shop where he later had the best shave of his life.

We spent five nights in Rome and I lapsed a bit in my note-taking.  I did manage to write down most of the highlights.  It was great to spend more time in one place…we did not feel rushed to fit in a million different things every day.  That being said, I’m sure I did not write down a lot of great experiences, but perhaps those gaps will be filled in by my photos.

On the 13th, we woke up, had a little breakfast at the hotel, then went to the coffee shop across the street and people-watched for a while.  The day was fairly relaxed — I even had time to find a laundromat and wash our clothes. 

That evening we set out on the “Dolce Vita” stroll (described in Rick Steves’ Italy book).  We walked from our hotel to the Spanish Steps, then to the Piazza de Popolo (the “starting point”) and walked down the Via del Corso to the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II.  It was fun to look in the windows of all the fancy shops. 

I took this shot not too far from our hotel.

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We decided to fuel up for our walk by enjoying a little gelato in the Piazza…

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By the time we made it to the monument, the sun was beginning to set.

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We had dinner that night at the Trattoria der Pallaro and it was great — and fun.  They have no menu, they just start bringing you food and wine.  We had a white wine, lentils and prosciutto for an appetizer, arancini (fried risotto balls that I cannot get enough of), pasta with mushrooms and a fabulous eggplant, and then veal steaks and potato chips.  For dessert we had a ricotta tort and juice.  This place was comfortable, even homey…and I loved waiting to see what they would bring out next. 

The next day we went to the Vatican and met up with Raul, our tour guide.  We called a company from our Rick Steves’ book (we found this book invaluable in Italy) to find him.  At first I was very opposed to doing the tour guide thing.  I have been very tired of seeing those groups of tourists go by with all of their little headsets, blindly following someone with a flag, getting in my way…but I am actually very glad we did.  For some place like this with so much history, it was perfect.  He was able to point out all kinds of little details and tell us about them…and I actually learned so much.  First we toured St. Peter’s Basilica… 

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I can’t resist photographing a member of the Swiss Guard.  I’m sure everyone does…but the uniforms are just too fantastic.

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Then we toured the Vatican Museum…

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I cannot remember the details, but this was, I believe, some of the original floor…

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This really impressed me because it was just a painting…

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Later that afternoon we went to the National Museum of Rome.  It has an amazing collection of ancient Roman sculptures, frescoes, mosaics and coins.  These were the highlights for me…

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We had dinner that night at a place near our hotel (it had started raining and we did not want to go far) — Ristorante del Giglio.  It was…not so great.  Almost had an institutional feel.  I did not take notes of my meal.

The next day we decided to tour the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and Forum area.  Based on the grand success of our tour with Raul, we joined another tour group.  This tour guide — and I can’t recall her name — was not so good.  She was an American who had moved to Rome a few years earlier.  She was quite annoying, actually.  At one point she spoke one of my favorite lines of the trip:  “Look at this little crescent moon shape…a friend of mine always used to say it’s like a chessy cat.  I don’t know what a chessy cat is but that’s what he told me!”  Still, I learned a few things, and we did take in some amazing sights.  Chris, as usual, supplemented my history lessons with tidbits he had read.  These are sights we have all seen, but I would be remiss not to include at least a few…

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Later that night we had dinner at Ristorante il Gabriello.  The small, cute dining room felt like a cozy cellar.  We asked for the chef’s menu and were treated to an amazing meal.  We started out with a mixed seafood appetizer — two types of smoked fish and cold prawns, then an octopus and potato dish, a plate of asparagus and salamis, and then pasta with mushrooms and clams.  Next they brought us veal and a roasted fish.  Dessert was a chocolate tort served with a delicious cream or mousse of some sort.  Fantastic.

The next day, the 16th of September, Chris decided to spend a day filming, as he had forgotten to bring tapes with him two days earlier on the trip to the Vatican, and he forgot his camera all together on the trip to the Forum.  So, I went off to wander.  That night we had dinner at Ostaria da Giovanni ar Galleto on the Piazza Farnese.  The restaurant was in the corner of a quiet, peaceful piazza, and dinner was good — I won’t say it blew me away, but it was good.  Chris had the gnocchi and I had the carbonara.

In the six days we spent in Rome, we walked all over, we drank a lot of espresso and a lot of wine, and we ate well.  The sights were amazing, and the sense of age and of history was immense.  Our next and final stop would add a historical piece tied in many different ways to several stops throughout the trip — Istanbul, once the capital of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, and the Ottoman Empire.