In the United States, to “get your kicks” we’ve got Route 66. But in Italy, for an unforgettable travel experience follow the ancient Roman “Route” called Via Emilia. This easy-to-navigate highway starts in the northern section of Emilia-Romagna, connecting some of Italy’s most amazing sights with unique gourmet experiences. Click through this slideshow to discover what you’ll find along the route that connects cities rich in art, culture, history and sports cars with world-renowned food and wine.
July Fourth begs for a magnificent grill party. It’s summer, it’s a great celebration of the nation’s birth and everyone is outdoors and in party mode. Why hold back on July Fourth? Why not grill everything? With a couple of days’ planning, you can really do something amazingly and deliciously different.
Here are four great ideas for the barbecue. There’s no reason why you can’t do all of the these dishes, although it does require that planning. You will have to consider how many people you’re cooking for, think about how large your grill is and make plans for placing all the dishes on the grill.
Getting organized for easy grilling
Colorful peppers on the grill. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright
There’s something else many people forget when they grill, but it makes everything easier. Remember to set up a little work station next to the grill to put foods that are cooking too fast, spatulas, mitts and your drink. Even a crummy card table will do. When building your grill fire, remember to pile up the coals to one side of the grill so you also have a “cool” side to move food that is either cooking too fast or is flaring up.
Grilled pork chops are a popular dish in the summer in Greece. In this recipe, though, they are cut quite thin, so you might want to buy a whole loin and slice it yourself or seek out “thin-sliced pork chops,” which many supermarkets sell. In any case, it works with any thickness of chop.
The pork is marinated in garlic and oregano and then grilled until it is golden brown with black grid marks. Then sprinkle the whole oregano leaves on top. You can serve this with a grilled vegetable platter.
You may have heard of the pasta dish called penne all’arrabbiata, angry pasta, so-called because of the use of piquant chiles. This is chicken arrabbiata. It’s “angry” because it is highly spiced with cayenne pepper.
Getting spicy with ‘angry chicken’
Chicken Arrabbiata (angry chicken). Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright
This chicken gets grilled so if you use the breasts instead of the thighs it will cook quicker. You can leave the chicken skin on or remove it. Crispy skin is delicious, but trying to get the skin crispy on a grill is tricky because of flare-ups. You’ll have to grill by means of indirect heat, pushing the coals to one side.
Many people shy away from grilling whole fish for a variety of reasons. One way to make grilling fish easier is to place a rectangular cast iron griddle over a portion of the grilling grate and cook the fish on top.
If you do that, the griddle must be on the grill for at least 45 minutes to get sufficiently hot before cooking. I suggest several fish below, but it all depends on what’s locally available.
Finding the right fish for the grill
Blue mackerel and idiot fish (kinki fish). Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright
Parsley-stuffed grilled porgy and mackerel are two small-fish dishes ideal for a fast grill. You may not necessarily have these two fish available, so use whatever is the freshest whole fish of like size.
I like the contrast between the mild tasting white flesh of the porgies, also called scup, and the darker, denser meat of the mackerel. Because 50 percent of the weight of a whole fish is lost in the trimming these, 4 pounds of fish will yield 2 pounds or less of fillet.
But you can use any fish: The red fish in the photo is a Pacific fish called idiot fish, kinki fish, or shortspine thornyhead (Sebastolobus alascanus). It has delicious soft flesh.
Complementing with the right grilled sides
Peperoni in Graticola (Grilled red, green, and yellow peppers) Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright
I think it’s always nice to have grilled vegetables with any grill party. Grilled red, green and yellow peppers make a very attractive presentation. Their flavor is a natural accompaniment to grilled meats. The charred skin of the peppers is peeled off before serving, leaving the smoky flavor. You don’t have to core or halve the peppers before grilling.
1. Mix the olive oil, garlic, onion, oregano, and salt and pepper to taste in a 9-by-12-inch ceramic or glass baking pan. Dip both sides of the pork chops into this mixture and then leave to marinate in the refrigerator, covered, for 4 hours, turning several times. Remove the pork chops from the refrigerator 15 minutes before grilling.
2. Prepare a medium-hot charcoal fire or preheat a gas grill for 15 minutes on medium high.
3. Remove the pork chops from the marinade and discard the marinade. Place the pork chops with any marinade ingredients adhering to them on the grill. Cook, turning only once, until golden brown with black grid marks, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle with the whole oregano leaves. Serve hot.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 25 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
1 small onion, chopped fine
3 tablespoons tomato paste
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 1/2 pounds boneless chicken thighs or breasts (skinless, optional)
1. Prepare a hot charcoal fire to one side of the grill or preheat one side of a gas grill on high for 20 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, in a bowl, stir together the onion, tomato paste, olive oil, cayenne, and salt and pepper to taste until well blended.
3. Flatten the chicken thighs or breasts by pounding gently with the side of a heavy cleaver or a mallet between two sheets of wax paper. Coat the chicken with the tomato paste mixture.
4. Place the chicken on the cool side of the grill, and cook until the chicken is dark and springy to the touch, turning once, about 20 to 24 minutes (less time for breasts). Baste with any remaining sauce and serve.
Main photo: Grilled Pork Chops Oregano. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright
Call it the ideal summer quaff for India Pale Ale lovers: This beer packs hop flavor, yet you can drink a few at a time — and still mow the lawn. Meet Session IPA: It delivers flavor characteristics similar to a standard IPA, but it’s less boozy than American and Imperial IPAs — by as much as half — maxing out at 5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). It’s an American phenomenon.
Session IPA is the fastest-growing style in the U.S. craft beer market. At the end of 2010, three Session IPAs were available on U.S. supermarket shelves. By mid-May 2015, that number had grown to 43, market researcher IRI said. What happened? IPA lovers increasingly wanted a beer that delivered lots of hop flavors — but not all the booze. “People were saying: ‘Why does it have to be over 7 percent all the time?’ ” said Jeremy Kosmicki, brewmaster at Founders Brewing Co., a Session IPA pioneer.
By definition, Session IPA ranges from 3.7 to 5 percent ABV. “The trick is to get enough body and backbone to balance out the hop aromas, while keeping the alcohol level down without tasting thin or watery,” said Jack Harris, co-owner of Fort George Brewery.
Click through the following slideshow to find 12 Session IPAs worth trying.
La Vie en Rose: Paris is known as the City of Light. But it’s also the city of waiters, and neither the Eiffel Tower nor the Arc of Triumph nor Notre Dame Cathedral — and its gaggle of roofline gargoyles — is more identified with Paris than the garçon de café.
La Vie en Rose
One in a series of graphic explorations of French language, food and culture
This black-and-white terror serves croque-monsieur, a coupe de champagne, café crème and a whole lot of attitude on almost every street corner in the city.
But he may be at his most formidable at the classy corner cafe, Les Deux Magots, on Boulevard Saint-Germain in the sixth arrondissement. With its dramatic terrace view of L’Église Saint-Germain, this go-to cafe is the perfect spot from which to muse on this often-misunderstood Parisian serveur (waiter) and his unique contribution to French culture.
Can the garçon be arrogant? Yes! Even nasty? Mais oui. Nevertheless, in all his guises through three centuries of French cafe history, this fellow is always efficient, knowledgeable and never boring. He is often as satisfying as the food and beverage he serves (or more so).
But, le garçon, or at least his persona, is in jeopardy. As reported on Feb. 19, 2015, in the Wall Street Journal, the City of Light’s official tourism office is bent on making this paragon of professionalism “nicer.” To what end? To please tourists, bien sûr (of course).
If the garçon is destined for an attitudinal makeover, it will be, it seems to me, a more fraught transformation of Paris than Baron Haussmann’s demolitions and reconstructions in the mid-19th century under Napoleon III. With Haussmann in charge, Paris lost, tragically, much of its medieval heritage and charm, but gained much more, I believe, in the way of hygiene (a new sewer system) and urban splendor — the grand boulevards, broad sidewalks, parks and the elegant stone apartment blocks we know and love today.
With the proposed sweetening of the garçon, the traditional Parisian cafe may gain tourist lucre, but at the risk of losing its Gallic sizzle, in no small part the gift of the garçon’s trademark sass.
When the dandy meets the butler
The cafe garçon is, after all, intentionally monstrous. A clever, almost Frankensteinian construct, he combines the self-absorbed fastidiousness of the Parisian dandy and the haughty solicitousness of the British butler. The garçon’s costume is no accident.
It was designed in the early 19th century to both function and impress. His many-pocketed black vest holds money, les additions (cafe checks), pens and service accessories such as corkscrews and crumb scoopers. The still-popular bow tie adds a touch of fin de siècle panache. With his spotless white apron (less common today), the garçon appears simultaneously hygienic and striking, even sexy, like a chef de cuisine in his crisp whites.
The mastery of this well-trained professional — of his body, of his trays piled high and of his affect — impresses and, yes, intimidates, but at the same time, seduces. He is better dressed and knows more than his customers about classic French food and wine, and he knows it.
The gargling gargoyle
Is there not, in fact, something about the cafe garçon that evokes that other fearsome Paris “gar,” the gargoyle (gargouille in French, pronounced “gar-GOO-ya”) Think about it: Both are “in service,” one to the secular cafe and one to the sacred church. Both guard their respective terrains jealously. And like the garçon, the gargoyle is a construct, a combination of hoary Gothic chimera and drainage technology — the first deflecting the devil, the second the rain.
Both the French and English words — gargouille and gargoyle — derive from the Old French gargole, which means gutter or waterspout and throat. Which is how gargoyles function at the roofline of large, usually religious, structures: Water from the roof flows through gargoyle’s body, exits the throat and is dumped on the ground several feet away from the structure’s foundations. This protects a church’s mortared stone walls and spiritual purity from the ill effects of “dirty” water.
Rabelais’ literary giant, Gargantua
There is no direct etymological connection between garçon and gargouille. “Garçon” appears in French sometime between 1100 and 1300 — as the Old French garçun, from a proto-Germanic word — and refers to a boy of low class or a young servant. The lowly garçon becomes a waiter in the late 18th century with the rise of the Parisian cafe and restaurant.
The “gar” of gargoyle is from the Latin root and means chatter, or the sounds that come from the throat or gutter. This gives us “gutteral” and “gargle.” And, of course, Gargantua, the young giant in Rabelais’ 16th-century novel. At birth Gargantua cries out for “drink, drink, drink.” His father, Lord Grangousier, noting his son’s huge anatomical features, exclaims . . .
Que GRAND TU AS & souple le gousier;” that is to say, “How great and nimble a throat thou hast.” — “The Works of Rabelais” (Bibliophilist Society, 1950)
And so he becomes Gar-gan-tu-a, and the basis of our English word, “gargantuan.” It takes the milk from 17,913 cows to satisfy the giant baby’s thirst.
When Rabelais’ epic satire takes the growing giant to Paris, Gargantua is irritated by the swarms of people gathered around him as he leans up against Notre Dame Cathedral. The young giant proceeds to relieve himself and drowns 260,418 Parisians. Protective gargoyles notwithstanding, Gargantua then steals the bells of Notre Dame, which he uses for a necklace around the neck of his giant horse before returning them.
Hommage au Garçon. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris
Hommage au garçon
If after 500 years we are still amused by the outrageous exploits of Rabelais’ trouble-making Gargantua, why can’t we embrace, after 300 years of evolving French cafe culture, the classic, snooty garçon de café as he is? Instead of softening the garçon, let’s cast him in hard, eternal bronze.
Sitting on the terrace at Les Deux Magots, sipping on a coupe or nursing a crème, one can imagine a statue of the garcon de café, a gargantuan vertical gargoyle, spouting water into a broad pond located in the place just outside the entrance to L’Église Saint-Germain. Vive le garçon! Vive le café! Vive la France!
Main illustration: The garçon de café and the gargouille d’Église. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris
You open an old cookbook and out flutters a fragile, stained piece of notepaper. On it there is some spidery handwriting in fading blue ink for a long-forgotten cookie from a long-forgotten aunt in a long-forgotten language. Or perhaps, like Budapest-born Tomi Komoly, you have a carefully bound journal filled with exquisitely rhythmic italic notations. Hastily scribbled or meticulously inscribed, old family recipes are a gift from the past. But bringing them back to life in modern kitchens can present today’s cook with some unexpected problems.
Tomi Komoly’s grandmother’s recipes were handwritten in old-fashioned German and Hungarian. Credit: Copyright Tomi Komoly
When Komoly, who now lives in the United Kingdom, took the task of painstakingly transcribing, testing and updating many of his Austro-Hungarian grandmother’s recipes, he encountered a number of unforeseen problems. Not least, the recipes were written in a narrow, cursive script in old-fashioned German and Hungarian often using the shorthand style of a culinary expert for whom the manuscript was more aide-memoire than intended manual. It took him more than six years to translate and edit — and enter the mindset of his late grandmother to identify the many details and techniques she would have assumed needed no explanation. Sometimes, with heirloom recipes, it is what is left out that is as important as what is included.
Concessions to modernity
Modern labor-saving devices such as food mixers or electric grinders — unheard of in prewar Budapest — can also have an effect on a recipe. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman
The aim of recipe rescuers is always to be as authentic as possible but, as Komoly found out, there have to be concessions to modernity. Today’s cooks may not have the stamina of their ancestors, but few would want to turn back every clock. As Komoly says, “Granny used to laboriously beat the egg whites with a little whisk or large fork, but I use a machine except for rising dough, which I prefer to feel by hand.” Ready-made noodles, dried yeast and strudel dough are also innovations that prove that progress can mean just that.
Advances in cooking equipment
Gugelhupf, or “Kuglof,” made in a traditional mold with tapered sides and a funneled center. Credit: Copyright Tomi Komoly
Technical advances can also affect the success of updating recipes: Even the material out of which cooking tins and utensils are made may alter cooking times, and when all the cooking and baking was done on a wood-fired, cast-iron stove with hot plates, as with Komoly’s family, oven temperatures and timings can be another source of error. As he says, “How do you interpret instructions such as ‘Do it on a high flame’ or ‘Bake until it is ready’?” In addition, in quite a few recipes I had to work out the sequence of adding ingredients by patient trial and error. Luckily, on the whole, Granny was very reliable, so I didn’t have too many disasters.”
Our kitchens today also boast luxuries unheard of in prewar Europe, or available to only a few, such as refrigeration. As Komoly recalled, “We would get great blocks of ice delivered, we never had a fridge. Or we would keep food in winter on the floor of the freezing, unheated bathroom.” Restoring old recipes in light of the “new” technology means you may have to expect new timings, new procedures, new methodology.
Account for changing ingredients, tastes
In baking, varying egg sizes can often make a difference in the end result. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman
Family recipes often are short on details, especially when orally transmitted, but even when written, many instructions can be vague to the uninitiated. Often, cooks would vary the way they cooked and baked according to whim, the weather and whether or not certain items were available.
“Although many recipes had quantities, in those days they didn’t specify things they would take for granted, such as the size of eggs. I came to the conclusion, for example, that over-egging a cake really doesn’t hurt too much,” Komoly said. “I’ve also had to play around with sugar quantities; there’s a massive difference in our tastes these days. I found I only needed about two-thirds of the original amount.”
Short on details
Fresh cherries are particularly popular in Austro-Hungarian baking. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman
A rose is a rose is a rose, but the saying does not always hold true. Take a cherry, for example. There are sweet ones, sour ones, red ones, black ones and unique regional varieties that add different dimensions to a dish. Fresh produce was usually a given: In Hungary, Komoly’s grandmother would assume the fruit and nuts were there for the taking from the family’s own trees, but a stale supermarket walnut or hazelnut can turn yesterday’s delight into today’s disaster.
Cooking vs. baking
Many heirloom recipes are imprecise in their instructions, dealing mostly in “handfuls” and “pinches.” Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman
There’s many a recipe handed down from generation to generation that involves good old-fashioned instructions such as “Take a pinch of this” or “Add some of that.” In many Italian-language cookbooks, recipes often include qv (quanto vale — how much you want) or qb (quanto basta — as much as it needs) in the instructions. The size of a “handful” may not matter too much in general cooking, but baking is more of an exact science than a free-form art.
A century of changes
Even basic ingredients, such as this widely used variety of Italian flour, can vary from era to era, country to country. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman
Another problem, common to all who undertake the rescue and restoration of heritage recipes, are ingredients. Soft cheese, butter, flour, chocolate and so on may not always be the same as those used a century ago. Take flour, for example. Italian heritage recipes use different types of flour to those we are accustomed in the United States and United Kingdom. Komoly encountered the same difficulty, “The flour we used in Hungary was quite different, but most UK flour is highly refined. Eventually, I found that if I made a cake with a large percentage of flour, it was best to use a ‘strong’ Canadian flour.”
Komoly is also fortunate in that he can still recall helping his grandmother in the kitchen — always rewarded with a lick of the spoon or bowl — as well as being able to hold in his memory the taste of the end products.
Having survived the Holocaust, his grandmother, Vamos Kathe, relocated to Nairobi. Her recipe book was a precious reminder of a lost world, inscribed with the words, “With God’s Help.” He must have been listening.
Total time: 1 hour 20 minutes to 1 hour 30 minutes
Yield: 8 servings
2 tablespoons (15 grams) plain flour
9 tablespoons (125 grams) butter or margarine
1 whole egg
6 tablespoons (80 grams) superfine sugar
About 4 cups (500 grams) cherries, unpitted
4 egg whites
2 tablespoons (15 grams) powdered sugar
1 cup (70 to 80 grams) bread crumbs
1. Mix the flour, butter and egg with 4 tablespoons (60 grams) of the superfine sugar and roll out to about 1/4-inch (7 to 8 mm) thick and transfer into a 12-by-8-inch (30-by-20-cm) baking tray. Alternatively, just place in the middle of the tray and “pat” until it is spread evenly over the whole area.
2. Bake in a moderate oven 350 F (175 C) for 35 minutes. (It may take less time, so if it smells like it is burning, it may well be!)
3. Pit the cherries and drain the fruit of all excess juice and spread evenly after scattering the bread crumbs over the pastry. Sprinkle the remaining superfine sugar on top. (If the cherries are very sweet, then you may not need the extra sugar. CH)
4. Beat the 4 egg whites with the powdered sugar until very firm, spread over the cake, and bake for another 15 minutes or until lightly browned and semi-hardened. Allow to cool, cut into squares and serve with whipped cream.
5. Instead of the bread crumbs, ground walnuts or hazelnuts could also be used.
Main photo: Hungarian Cherry Pie, cseresznyès lepèny, served with whipped cream. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman
Watermelon’s dribble-down-your-chin deliciousness adds an exclamation mark to any summer picnic. Memories of seed-spitting contests followed by a run through the sprinklers are the essence of childhood.
But there is so much more to love about watermelon. It is summer’s most versatile food. Dress it up or keep it simple. Soups, curries, salsas and salads; watermelon’s savory sweetness deserves a place at every meal. Let your imagination go!
Whether you use the fruit in cocktails, healthy smoothies or a simple Mexican agua fresca with watermelon juice and a squeeze of lime, drink in the goodness of watermelon.
Check out these 10 killer ideas; you will never see watermelon the same way again.
Walk the farmers markets and enjoy a grand show of summer’s bountiful harvest. Leafy greens have reappeared along with all manner of beans and peas. Stone fruit, including peaches, nectarines, cherries, plums and pluots, are available in abundance. They are perfect to make fruit salad cocktails, a delicious way to celebrate summer’s bounty.
Sun-loving Spaniards created sangria, probably the best-known alcoholic-fruit beverage. The inspired combination of wine (tart), fruit (sweet and acidic) and spirit (sharp) creates an umami of flavors that delivers a satisfying punch.
Getting creative with fruit infusion
Bing and Rainier Cherries at the Sunday farmers market in Pacific Palisades, California. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt
Infusing spirits is another way to complement the heady flavors of vodka, gin, tequila, scotch and bourbon. Taking a familiar spirit, say vodka, and layering on fresh-from-the-farm ingredients adds unexpected brightness.
Some enjoy an edgier infusion, using vegetables, herbs and greens such as cucumbers, rosemary, basil and lavender, and those are all good. But my palate prefers sweet to savory when it comes to cocktails.
Walking past farmers stalls and seeing mounds of Valencia oranges, pink grapefruit, tangerines, Blenheim apricots, doughnut peaches, Santa Rosa plums, white and yellow nectarines, and Bing cherries, I begin thinking about throwing a party and inviting friends to have my favorite cocktail that celebrates the season.
Choosing fruit flavors and textures for cocktails
Peaches and yellow nectarines at the Sunday farmers market in Pacific Palisades, California. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt
Use any fruit you enjoy. The goal is to create a flavor-texture contrast that combines acidity with sweetness and soft with crunchy as in a mix of grapefruit, cherries, apples and peaches. Experiment and be bold when you choose fruit for your cocktail. Mangos, papayas, pineapples, guavas and persimmons are also good.
Adding a pinch of cayenne gives the cocktail an appetizing heat.
Peel and section all citrus, removing the peel, pith and membranes to create what are called suprêmes.
Stone fruit should be firm but ripe enough to eat. Do not use overly ripe fruit. Cut and discard any brown or damaged areas.
Getting the most flavor into your fruit salad cocktails
Sections of a grapefruit for Fruit Salad Cocktail. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt
Stone fruit should be pitted, except for cherries. With peaches and nectarines, using a pairing knife, cut away the dark areas around the pit and discard.
Peeling the fruit is a matter of taste. Personally I prefer to peel apples, peaches, apricots and nectarines to maximize the flavor transmitted from the flesh of the fruit to the wine or spirit.
Cut all fruit into dime-sized pieces.
Because the fruit flavors dominate the cocktail, there is no need to use premium wines or spirits.
Using just the right timing and sweetener
Fruit Salad Cocktail in a large blue pitcher. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt
Using sugar is a mater of taste. If the fruit is especially sweet, sugar may not be needed. Artificial sweeteners should not be used. Taste and decide at the end if the cocktail needs the added sweetness of sugar.
Red wine is preferred, but white wine can be used. Because the fruit adds sweetness, use a dry wine.
Add the fruit one hour before serving. Any longer and the fruit will turn unpleasantly soft.
Put an espresso spoon or other small spoon into the glass when serving the cocktail so the fruit can be eaten before, during or after consuming the wine or spirit.
2 Fuji apples, washed, peeled, cut into quarter-sized cubes
2 nectarines or peaches, washed, pitted, peeled, cut into quarter sized cubes
12 Bing cherries, washed, stems and pits removed, quartered
1/4 cup white granulated sugar (optional)
1. In a large pitcher, mix together the wine, brandy, lemon juice and cayenne (optional). Cover and refrigerate.
2. Using a sharp knife, peel the tangerines, oranges and grapefruit, removing and discarding the peel and rind. Cut the sections free from the membrane. Hold the peeled citrus over a bowl to catch the juice. When all the sections have been removed, squeeze the membrane to capture the last bit of juice. Discard the membrane.
3. An hour before serving, cut up and add the orange and grapefruit suprêmes, citrus juices, apples, nectarines and cherries to the wine and spirit mixture. Stir well.
4. Taste and add sugar (optional) if needed. If sugar is added, stir well to dissolve.
5. Refrigerate and serve ice cold.
6. Use a ladle to fill glasses with a good amount of the fruit. Top off with the wine and spirit mixture. Place an espresso or small spoon in each glass.
Main photo: Fruit Salad Cocktails with espresso spoons. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt
“Oysters are the canaries in the coal mine,” a fourth-generation oysterman once told me as we slogged across the mud flats of Willapa Bay in Washington. The grower was giving me a tour of his vast oyster beds that emerge as if by magic during every low tide. Oysters can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day, and the quality of the water they process affects their health … and their flavor. Healthy oysters mean a healthy environment, and when they struggle, they can indicate something dire for the habitat as a whole.
The oyster I swallowed had the precise taste of a clean, deep breath of Pacific Ocean air. It was what a gorgeous coastal landscape photo might taste like were it a flavor of ice cream. I understood why M.F.K. Fisher wrote that they were, “more like the smell of rock pools at low tide than any other food in the world,” and why that is a good thing. Then as I grew to understand that these creatures seemed specifically designed by nature, a benevolent creator or both for the task of pairing with splendid wines, I was hooked.
The only thing that remained was how to open the damn things. If you’re daunted by the process as I was, then this quick-start guide tooysters and wine will help you find, pair, unlock and swallow a magical taste of the marine environment, and then chase it with a sip of the best flavors that terrestrial geography has to offer.
Where to find oysters
Whoever sells you oysters is required to keep the tags documenting their origins on hand. Ask to see it and snap a photo to capture the details. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Baker
You can find them at your local supermarket seafood counter. You buy them live, but given the complexity of unlocking them from their secure and encrusted boxes, how do you tell if they’re fresh and have been handled with care?
“Look for a place that sells fresh fish,” says Jaret Foster, chef/owner of Oyster Social, a pop-up mobile raw bar in Portland, Oregon. Look for a counter that sells fish that look and smell fresh, with no fishy odor or bruised flesh. Whole fish should have clear eyes and bright red or pink gills. If the owners take pride in their fish, then the odds are good they’re selling quality oysters.
Restaurants and seafood purveyors buy oysters in mesh bags that are marked with the date of harvest and the location. Ask to see the tag and snap a phone picture for reference. Like great wines, oysters taste like where they come from, so explore the regional differences. The Pacific Northwest, the Atlantic and Gulf are three broad domestic regions to check out, and there are dozens of locales nestled within these.
Finally, shells of fresh oysters should be sealed tight. No gaps or openings. A good proprietor won’t sell you oysters with open shells. If they’re difficult to open, you’re on the right track. This, of course, presents another problem that we’ll tackle later.
Gather the gear
Everything you need to tackle oysters: a dish towel, mignonettes, an oyster knife and a bottle or three of your favorite wine. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Baker
If you’re serving oysters raw, you can do the work of opening them for your guests or share the fun. A good oyster knife is critical, but a screwdriver will work in a pinch (and the experience will drive you to find a good knife all the sooner). Crushed ice is important: From the moment you buy them at the market to when they’re waiting to be shucked and served, oysters should always be kept cool or on ice. Carry a small cooler bag to the market with you. Your vendor will provide the ice.
Mignonettes — fresh dressings — should be prepared in advanced and ready to roll. They can be as simple as lemon juice or your own creative dressing. A dish towel will help you hold the shell and protect your receiving hand from the dull knife blade. Work gloves on your receiving hand are an option to help you grip the shells, which can be both jagged and slippery.
Add a cutting board and a glass of wine and you’ll be geared up to swallow some sea.
A note on mignonettes
Jaret Foster, chef/owner of Portland’s Oyster Social, recommends eating the first oyster of the day unadorned, or with just a sip of wine to chase. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Baker
A good mignonette, a sauce or condiment for your oysters that is usually made fresh, can heighten the experience. I recommend avoiding jarred cocktail or hot sauces until you get a handle on the flavors of these slippery little critters as these sauces can overwhelm the freshness, but there’s no reason not to prepare some creative mignonettes. Recipes abound that feature rice wine vinegar, shallots, ginger, juniper, cucumbers, lime and more. A pair of options are included below.
Foster follows the rule of always eating the first oyster of the meal unadorned to experience its inherent flavor grounded in the region where it comes from.
And when it comes to oysters and wine, mignonettes are optional. In fact, a good wine sipped as a chaser can be considered a sort of mignonette in and of itself, and you may pick your wine style specifically for this task.
Find the right wine
Sommelier Jess Pierce of Brooks Wines and Jaret Foster of Oyster Social teach a seminar on pairing oysters and wine overlooking the Brooks vineyards in Amity, Oregon. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Baker
If you’re eating the oysters unadorned, then a bracing Alsatian-style Riesling is hard to beat. The eye-watering brightness and acidity can act as a dressing. At a recent oyster workshop led by Oyster Social’s Foster, Jess Pierce of Brooks Winery presented the guests with a selection wines ranging from magnificent dry Rieslings to Pinot Gris and dry Muscadet.
“Oysters show their terroir well, so why not pair them with wines that do the same?” Pierce said as she poured wines framed by views of the vineyards where they were grown. More and more domestic producers are making Rieslings and Gewürztraminers in the dry, acidic Alsatian style, though they’re far from the only wine options.
Champagne and sparkling wines provide a lively way to begin any meal, and their acidity and effervescence complement the fresh earthy, tidal flavor of oysters. A transparent Chardonnay that really shows its minerality, like Chablis, is another great match. Laura Anderson, who runs Local Ocean Seafoods, known for its hyper-fresh menu and location directly across from the fishing fleet in Newport, Oregon, likes to pair half-oak, half-steel Chardonnays from Oregon’s Ribbon Ridge AVA: “I look for a crispness and minerality to balance with the wildness of the oysters,”she says.
The old saw is to drink white wines with shellfish, but there’s no need to limit yourself. Reds can work just fine. A light, slightly under-ripe Pinot Noirfrom a cool year in Oregon, New Zealand or Burgundy won’t break the bank and a bright, tart swallow is the perfect way to chase a glistening mollusk down your gullet.
Other reds to try include a cru Beaujolais or Gamay. Look for wines from places by the ocean, like Sicily,” Pierce says. Locals there drink their local reds and whites alike with menus largely driven by the sea.
Finally, it’s always good to look to the classics. M.F.K. Fisher claims that an Alsatian Pinot Blanc is the perfect wine match in her gorgeous treatise on bivalves, “Consider the Oyster.”
The art of the shuck
So you’ve got the gear, found your oysters and bought the wine: Now how do you unlock the things without slicing off a thumb or crushing the shell and spilling the flavor-infused liquor?
1. Wrap your passive hand in the dish towel. A glove will improve your grip. Oysters have a top and a bottom, so you want to hold the cup-side facing down.
2. Locate the hinge at the back of the shell if you can’t find a seam along the side. Insert your oyster knife into the hinge and twist like a key. It’ll take a try or three, but you should be able to create a gap and slowly work the two halves of the shell open by twisting the knife and working around the edges.
3. After pulling the top off, slide your knife along the roof of the top shell to cut the oyster’s adductor muscle.
4. Try not to spill the “liquor,” the silky juices inside the shell that pack much of the flavor. You’ll want to swallow that with the oyster.
5. Don’t worry about chips, cracks and bits of shell … you’ll make a mess, especially at first. Practice and plan to spend time tidying up. Study the process by hitting YouTube or state wildlife and extension offices in places where oysters are grown. They all offer plenty of advice to help get you started.
That’s pretty much everything you need to get started with oysters and wine. They’re both amazing natural products that have an unmatched ability to express flavors from where they are grown. Eating a clean, flavorful oyster is a small sort of tribute to ocean health. It is my hope that these tips lead you more quickly to your own oyster epiphany so that you aren’t required to pull on waders and slog after a spry oysterman through the drizzle … mud sucking at your boots until your hips and back ache, the stiff bay breeze whipping you … before you can appreciate the full glory of these tasty little bivalves and begin to care about where they come from.