Chef Massimo Spigaroli and his team show off their prized culatello. Credit: Copyright 2016 Antica Corte Pallavicina

There is prosciutto and then there is culatello.

Proscuitto is ubiquitous. It’s draped over melon or paired with figs or mozzarella in restaurants everywhere. You can buy imported Proscuitto di Parma at Whole Foods at $31 a pound for a bone-in leg or on Amazon for $15.

Massimo Bottura serves culatello. At Osteria Francescana, his Michelin three-star restaurant in Modena that topped the 50 Best Restaurants for 2016, it appears as an appetizer, paired with Campanine apples, mustard and crunchy “gnocco” bread.

And not just any culatello. Chef Bottura procures his culatello exclusively from Massimo Spigaroli’s Antica Corte Pallavicina, an inn and working farm one hour’s drive from Modena. You’ll find that same culatello at Alain Ducasse’s Sporting Club in Montecarlo and Bombana in Hong Kong. But nowhere in the United States. The closest you’ll get is Zibello fiocco (culatello salami) for $40 a pound.

Prosciutto versus culatello

Vertical Tasting of Spigaroli culatello at Antica Corte Pallavicina. Credit: Copyright 2016 John Pleshette

Vertical Tasting of Spigaroli culatello at Antica Corte Pallavicina. Credit: Copyright 2016 John Pleshette

Culatello (“little backside” in Italian) is the fillet of the pig’s hind leg from which prosciutto is cured. Both are salted and left to sit for two months, which draws out the blood and kills bacteria. The process predates the Romans, and except for the introduction of nitrites, which further inhibit bacterial growth, it hasn’t changed much since. Proscuitto is then hung in a cool place for anywhere from nine months to two years, while culatello is encased in a pig’s or cow’s bladder and hung for 18 to 27 months.

All proscuitti are not created equal. Only a dozen designations are protected by the EU and stamped PDO or PGI, which guarantees they come from a particular region and, more important, are cured only with sea salt and no nitrites. All are produced in northern Italy. They vary in taste and texture depending on the terroir and the pigs. San Daniele, with its dark color and sweet flavor, is from Fruili. Parma pigs are fed whey from Parmigiano Reggiano, lending Proscuitto di Parma a nuttier flavor.

Culatello is more high-maintenance. Spigaroli’s black pigs are kissing cousins to the acorn-fed pigs that give us Jamon Ibérico. It cures throughout the cold damp winters in the Po Valley just south of Cremona. The difference between prosciutto and culatello is subtle, but profound.

A tasting

Fourteenth century charm meets 21st century gastronomy at the dining room at Antica Corte Pallavicina, the inn and working farm on the River Po. Credit: Copyright 2016 Antica Corte Pallavicina

Fourteenth-century charm meets 21st-century gastronomy in the dining room at Antica Corte Pallavicina, the inn and working farm on the River Po. Credit: Copyright 2016 Antica Corte Pallavicina

In the sun-filled dining room at Antica Corte Pallavicina, Spigaroli’s prized culatello is presented for a tasting beneath three celadon cloches. Each conceals pink-mahogany curtains of culatello. The first two, from white pigs, are aged, respectively, 18 and 27 months. The familiar salty-sweetness of prosciutto gives way to a leathery richness. The older culatello is nuttier. The black pig culatello is smokier, with black cherry notes and a velvety texture. Between pigs, we cleanse our palates with hunks of crusty country bread and glasses of Trebbiano, served with pickled vegetables and fiocco, the chewy-soft salami made from the trimmings and the fat.

Antica Corte Pallavicina commands several acres close to the Po, encompassing Spigaroli’s restaurant, the hotel, a cooking school, a farm, a parmesan factory and culatello cellars. Al Cavallito Bianco, a more casual osteria, is run by Spigaroli’s brother Luciano. If you snag one of the six rooms, you can meet the pigs and tour the Parmigiano fattoria and culatello caves, which were built in 1320 by the marquesse di Pallavicina for precisely that purpose.

The Spigarolis’ great-grandfather went from a sharecropper at a nearby pintador belonging to Guiseppe Verdi to tenant farmer at Pallavicina. Their father was born there in 1916. But by 1990, when the sons purchased the property, it had fallen into ruins. The extensive restoration combines rustic charm with modern conveniences. The original, ox-sized fireplace dominates the dining room, where a wall of glass doors opens onto a trellised patio. A massive decommissioned steel stove functions as a serving station.

Going to the source

Spigaroli culatello ages in the cellars built in 1320 by the Marquesse di Pallavicina. Credit: Copyright 2016 John Pleshette

Spigaroli culatello ages in the cellars built in 1320 by the Marquesse di Pallavicina. Credit: Copyright 2016 John Pleshette

After consuming feather-light tortelli, stuffed with ricotta from Spigaroli cows and Spigaroli spinach — glistening with Spigaroli brown butter and showered with Spigaroli Parmigiano — we tour the caves, down a dungeon’s stairs to the dank cellar. The culatelli, white with mold, hang from the ceiling, encased in pigs’ bladders like ghostly chandeliers. Misty air wafts in from the Po. Such cellars are increasingly rare. The EU frowns on such conditions as potentially unsanitary. Because of that flavor-enhancing mold, the FDA forbids importing it to the United States. You’ll have to go to the source.

You’ll find yourself in food heaven. Emilia-Romana is Italy’s Burgundy; Bologna, its Lyon. You won’t find a better spaghetti carbonara than the one at Pizzeria delle Arte in Bologna, spiked with guanciale, creamy with Parmigiano and egg yolks the color of navel oranges. Massimo Bottura celebrates that same Reggiano in his Five Ages of Parmiagiano at Osteria Francescana.

Our last dinner, in Milan, we sit next to three Italian businessmen. “What brings you to Italy?” one wants to know.

“We came for the culatello.”

“Ah.” He smiles. He understands.

Main caption: Chef Massimo Spigaroli and his team show off their prized culatello. Credit: Copyright 2016 Antica Corte Pallavicina

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Caramelized onions make any burger better. Credit: Copyright 2016 Lynne Curry

At a time of year when most people are fixated on berries and peaches, corn and tomatoes, it’s also the season to get excited about onions — not just any old allium but a heritage sweet onion harvested by hand in Walla Walla, Washington.

Walla Walla Sweets are the unheralded heirloom stars of summertime. Juicy, mild and sweet, they are at their best in all of the great (and easy) meals of the season: grilled with sausages, caramelized for burgers, sliced raw for salads and more.

Fresh and delicate in terms of both flavor and handling, Walla Walla Sweets are in season right now — and with a very limited supply from a handful of family growers, they won’t last long.

Older than Vidalias

Long before Walla Walla became renowned as an American Viticultural Area, this valley in southeastern Washington was the agricultural hub for a surprisingly sweet onion brought to the region from Corsica by a French soldier named Pete Pieri. According to all accounts, Pieri immigrated to Walla Walla with the seed in the late 19th century and began cultivating it commercially in 1900.

Grower Michael Locati’s great-grandfather, Joe, worked for Pieri for four years before going out on his own in 1909. He joined other Italian immigrant families, mainly from Milan and Calabria, who settled in this valley to become small-scale produce farmers, cultivating a seasonal onion now known as the Walla Walla Sweet.

Four generations later, Michael — along with his father and uncle — grows these heirlooms on 60 acres of Locati Farms and co-owns a packing and shipping arm called Walla Walla River Packing Co. Despite these modernizations, this is the same specialty onion, hand-selected by the family for over a century.

That’s a fair bit longer than that other famous sweet onion, Vidalia, a hybrid cultivated in Georgia since the 1930s. The Walla Walla “still has that heirloom genome,” said Locati.

Onion botany

A field worker harvesting onions by hand. Credit: Copyright 2016 Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Committee

A field worker harvesting onions by hand. Credit: Copyright 2016 Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Committee

It’s natural to think that sugar content is what makes Walla Walla Sweets exceptional. Not so. Their mildness has to do with the fact that they contain about half the amount of pyruvic acid that gives yellow storage onions their bite and makes you cry.

“This geographical area is very low in natural sulfur,” Locati said. The sulfur content in the soil is a catalyst to the production of pyruvic acid, he explained. “So these naturally low sulfur soils allow for these onions to be really sweet.”

Walla Walla Sweets are planted in early fall. They overwinter in snow-covered fields, then sprout and additional onion starts are transplanted in the spring. By mid-June, harvest has begun and continues through late August.

“Onions are ready when the leaves start laying down,” said Dan McClure, who began growing organic Walla Walla Sweets in 2007 with his wife Sarah. The couple currently raises over 800 tons on 27 acres at Walla Walla Organics and plans to scale up production, although the labor is even more arduous than many other crops.

Why’s that?

“No mechanical process yet exists that won’t damage them,”  McClure said. Nearly as large as softballs and weighing up to two pounds, these globular onions are delicate, with thin skins and a high water content that make them prone to bruising.

So workers harvest them entirely by hand. Carefully packed into boxes, the onions are then cured just until the necks dry out and the outer layer of turns amber. Still, they have a short shelf life — a couple of weeks at most, according to McClure.

Endangered onions?

For a community once famous for this varietal, it’s a big blow that acreage has dropped within the past five or so years from 1,000 acres to about 500, according to Kathryn Fry-Trommald, executive director of the Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Committee.

Compared to Vidalia’s 15,000 acres, this onion market is small potatoes. Urban sprawl (“there’s a Wal-mart now where there were onion fields,” said Fry-Trommald), consolidation in agriculture and labor pressures are all factors, as is the fact that many of those “old Italian families” are no longer in farming.

Another major threat is the competition from hybrid sweet onions — some mechanically harvested and higher in pyruvic acid — grown from Arizona to Texas. These are available year-round at much lower prices than Walla Walla Sweets.

In 1995, after discovering that other Washington-grown onions were being sold as counterfeit Walla Walla Sweets, the growers obtained a federal marketing order to protect this specialty onion, in the same way that heritage foods from Italy must be certified as locally grown and packaged.

For farmers like Locati and McClure, it’s hard to earn a living with a seasonal, fresh market onion. But they say the process of hand selection and hand harvesting is worth it for the allium’s singular qualities. There’s no sharp bite, and it has a complex flavor all its own marked by a startling sweetness.

While you don’t have to try Michael Locati’s method of tasting them raw in the field, this is a true “slicer” for using raw in salads and salsas or on burgers and sandwiches. You can grill, roast, sauté, or caramelize Walla Walla Sweets, too — just don’t wait.

Ways to cook and use sweet onions

Onions caramelizing in the pan. Credit: Copyright 2016 Lynne Curry

Onions caramelizing in the pan. Credit: Copyright 2016 Lynne Curry

Grill: Use a grill basket to cook large sliced or chopped onions on a hot grill until nicely charred. Toss and continue grilling until softened and translucent. Alternatively, grill thick onion slices on a well-scraped grill grate until grill marks appear; flip and cook the other side until soft and translucent. Toss onions with sliced and grilled zucchini, portabello mushrooms and red peppers seasoned with salt and pepper, a splash of olive oil and balsamic vinegar for a side dish with grilled steaks, chicken, pork chops or fish.

Roast: Place trimmed and peeled whole onions into a greased roasting pan. Rub well with olive oil and season with salt, pepper and fresh thyme. Roast at 425 F until brown and fork tender, about 1 hour, and serve with roast pork or beef.

Sauté: Slice peeled onions thinly. Heat a sauté pan over high heat with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add the onions and season with a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring, until they soften and begin to brown. Add 1 bunch fresh, washed spinach or chard, another pinch of salt and ground pepper. Cover and let steam until the greens are wilted. Remove the cover, stir well and serve as a side dish with grilled meats or fish.

Caramelize: Slice peeled onions thinly. Heat a sauté pan over medium-high heat with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add the onions and cook, stirring, until they soften. Add a large pinch of salt, reduce the heat to low and continue cooking, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan every 15 minutes until the onions turn very soft, like jam, and the color of brown sugar, about 1 hour. Serve on hamburgers, grilled cheese sandwiches or pizza.

Main photo: Caramelized onions make any burger better. Credit: Copyright 2016 Lynne Curry

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Grilled chicken and vegetables over rice. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

As the calendar starts to reach the other side of July, we are well into grilling season, enjoying the smoke and fire of the grill on longer relaxed evenings. Vegetables, red meat and seafood all work well with the sensuous kiss of fire, but when it comes to grilling, chicken is my personal workhorse.

I find chicken a way to showcase many flavors. A good, healthy marinade is all it needs to make it the star of the season. Add to it your favorite assortment of market veggies and you are in business.

To keep your chicken dishes interesting, you’ll need some serious flavor options up your sleeve. Keep in mind, though, that you do not necessarily need to restrict your options to chicken breasts. You can also try drumsticks, wings or even boneless, skinless chicken thighs.

Marinating at least four hours will ensure a well-seasoned piece of chicken that is perfect over a salad or with your favorite grain, and the leftovers can be added to a simple green salad.

Here are a dozen seasoning ideas and three recipes to get you started on a mix-and-match journey. These ideas fall into three basic categories: sweet and savory; yogurt-based; and olive oil, garlic and seasonal herbs. For vegetarians, these seasoning ideas and recipes will also work well with your favorite fleshy vegetable — think eggplant– or even tofu, so you can also enjoy the fire and smoke of the summer season.

A touch of sweetness

  • Sriracha, Mustard and Maple Chicken Kebabs: Sweet and spicy flavors come together in this dish. See recipe below.
  • Chutney Spiced Marinade: Combine 1 cup of your favorite chutney (such as tomato or tamarind) with 1 tablespoon of freshly grated ginger, 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper and 1/2 cup chopped mint or cilantro. Blend to a smooth paste and use as a marinade for up to 2 pounds of chicken.
  • Apricot Sage Marinade: Combine 3 tablespoons apricot preserves, 2 cloves garlic, 1/4 cup olive oil, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 or 2 jalapeños to taste and 1/4 cup chopped oregano. Blend into a puree and use as a marinade for up to 2 pounds of chicken.
  • Maple-Red Pepper Marinade: Combine 1/4 cup maple syrup, 1 1/2 tablespoons red pepper flakes, salt to taste and 1/3 cup olive oil. This will marinate up to 2 pounds of chicken and would also work well for shrimp or tofu.
  • Soy, Ginger and Brown Sugar: Blend 3 tablespoons grated ginger, 1/4 cup soy sauce, 1/4 cup brown sugar, 1 tablespoon sesame oil and 1/3 cup olive oil to make a flavorful marinade. You can also use this as a basting sauce if you do not have time to marinade the chicken.

Yogurt-based marinades

  • Chicken Tikka Kebabs: Make a double batch to use in a salad. See  recipe below.
  • Garam Masala Marinade: Combine 3/4 cup Greek yogurt, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 2 tablespoons freshly grated ginger, 1 1/2 tablespoons garam masala and 1 tablespoon sugar and salt to taste for up to 2 pounds of chicken.
  • Mint and Cumin Marinade: Combine 3/4 cup plain yogurt, 1 cup mint leaves, 2 cloves garlic, 1 tablespoon powdered cumin, 1 1/2 teaspoons turmeric, 1 teaspoon red cayenne pepper and salt to taste. Marinate up to 2 pounds of chicken for at least two hours.
  • Ginger and Smoked Paprika:  Combine 1/2 cup yogurt, 1 tablespoon paprika, 1 tablespoon ginger and 1 teaspoon pink salt. Marinate 6 to 8 drumsticks for at least three to four hours.
  • Malai Kebabs: Combine 1/4 cup sour cream, 1 tablespoon garam masala and 1/4 cup cashews and toss with chicken. Serve with freshly chopped mint.

Oil-based marinades

When in a hurry, seasonal herbs and olive oil combine for tasty marinades. Here are a few favorites.

  • Ginger and Lemongrass: For a touch of Thailand, whisk together 1/3 cup of extra virgin olive oil, 1 tablespoon lemongrass paste, 2 tablespoons fish sauce, 1 tablespoon brown sauce and 3/4 cup of chopped Thai or regular basil. You can also add 2 tablespoons sriracha and 1/4 cup coconut milk depending on your tastes.
  • Mint and Black Pepper: Blend together 1/3 cup of extra virgin olive oil, 1 cup of mint chutney and 1 1/2 tablespoons black pepper and salt to taste.
  • Mock Tandoori: This dairy-free version marinade is great if you want the flavors of tandoori without the yogurt. Combine 1/4 cup olive oil, 2 tablespoons garam masala powder, 1 tablespoon ginger paste, 1 tablespoon powdered cumin, 1 tablespoon powdered coriander and salt to taste.
  • Herbs of Valhalla: This marinade highlights the profusion of summer herbs. Combine 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil; 1 serrano pepper, stem removed (and seeded if you prefer a milder flavor); 2 cloves garlic; and 2 cups mixed herbs, such as chives, cilantro, basil and mint and blend into a paste.
  • Lemon Herb Chicken Kebabs: Combining lemon juice, olive oil and a few basic spices is all you need to create a flavorful meal of chicken and squash. See recipe below.

Sriracha, Mustard and Maple Chicken Kebabs

Sriracha, Mustard and Maple Chicken Kebabs. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

Sriracha, Mustard and Maple Chicken Kebabs. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cook time: 15 to 20 minutes

Total time: 45 to 50 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

1/3 cup sriracha

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger

2 tablespoons maple syrup

1 teaspoon salt

2 pounds chicken, cut into 2-inch pieces

1 nectarine, stoned and cut into eighths

1 medium red onion, cut into eighths and separated

2 tablespoons olive or mustard oil

1 teaspoon nigella seeds

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro

Directions

1. Mix together the sriracha, mustard, ginger, maple syrup and salt and toss the chicken into the mixture. Let it rest for 30 minutes.

2. Skewer the chicken with the nectarine and red onion.

3. Brush well with the oil and grill for about 12 to 15 minutes, turning frequently.

4. Remove from the grill. Sprinkle with the nigella seeds and cilantro.

5. Serve with rice or warm pita.

Lemon Herb Chicken Kebabs

Lemon Herb Chicken Kebabs. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

Lemon Herb Chicken Kebabs. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 1 to 2 hours (plus  time to marinate)

Cook time: 30 minutes

Total time: 1 1/2 hours to 2 1/2 hours

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

1 1/2 pounds of boneless, skinless chicken thighs

4 tablespoons minced garlic

1 tablespoon freshly ground cumin

1/2 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon red cayenne pepper

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

2 to 3 tablespoons lemon juice

Salt to taste (about 1 1/2 teaspoons)

3 to 4 zucchini, cut into 1/3-inch (1-centimeter) slices

1 tablespoon finely chopped oregano, plus more for garnish

1 tablespoon finely chopped thyme, plus more for garnish

Lime or lemon wedges to garnish

Directions

1. Cut the chicken in 1 1/2 -inch chunks and place in a mixing bowl.

2. Add in the garlic, cumin, black pepper, red pepper and olive oil.

3. Stir in the lemon juice and salt and toss well to coat and mix the ingredients.

4. Stir in the zucchini and the oregano and the thyme and set the mixture aside for 1 or 2 hours at room temperature (up to 65 degrees) or refrigerate longer or overnight.

5. When you are ready to cook, remove the chicken from the refrigerator and thread onto skewers.

6. Prepare a grill and place the skewers on the grill and cook for about 15 minutes, turning the skewers every 4 to 6 minutes, allowing the chicken to turn crisp at spots and cook through. The zucchini will also soften and turn darker at spots. Baste and brush the chicken with olive oil while cooking.

7. Remove the skewers from the grill. To serve, remove the chicken and zucchini from the skewers, garnish with additional herbs if desired and serve with the lime or lemon wedges.

Chicken Tikka Kebabs

Chicken Tikka Kebabs. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

Chicken Tikka Kebabs. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

You can watch a  video for preparing this recipe.

Prep time: 4 to 6 hours, including marinating time

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: About 6 hours

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

1 cup low-fat yogurt

1-inch piece ginger

3 cloves garlic

2 to 3 green chilies

1 tomato (optional)

1 teaspoon dried fenugreek leaves (kasuri methi) (optional)

4 tablespoons tandoori masala

2 teaspoons salt

2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces

Cooking oil or spray

1 medium sized red onion, sliced

For garnish:

Sumac

Lemon or lime wedges

Directions

1. Place the yogurt, ginger, garlic, chilies, tomato, fenugreek, tandoori masala and salt in a blender and grind into a paste.

2. Mix the paste with the chicken and set aside at least two to three hours but optimally four to six hours.

3. Skewer the chicken onto bamboo skewers.

4. Place a grill pan on the stove (this is what I use on weeknights, a regular grill or broiling works well as well) and spray evenly with  cooking spray.

5. Place the chicken on the grill pan and cook 7 to 8 minutes and turn. (The chicken should have golden brown spots across the chicken.)

6. Cook another 5 to 7 minutes.

7. Add the sliced onion to the grill pan and toss for 2 to 3 minutes until they are slightly sautéed.

8. Sprinkle with sumac and serve with lemon or lime wedges.

Main photo: Grilled chicken and vegetables over rice. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

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Soju makers in South Korea are targeting women with fruit-flavored drinks. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

A wave of new, summery drinks is taking over Korea. Marketed almost exclusively toward women, the fruit-flavored sojus and alcopops are low in alcohol, high in sugar and raise some interesting questions about how women are perceived and marketed to in a country that still has some of the worst gender-equality outcomes in the world.

Soju is similar to vodka, but with about half the alcohol content of most spirits. It is extremely popular in hard-drinking South Korea — especially among men. Keen to tap into the female market, soju makers have for years been lowering the alcohol content and experimenting with different, sweeter varieties to attract women.

Capturing the market

Grapefruit, apple, pomegranate, blueberry and citron are just some of the choices available in the new sojus and alcopops. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

Grapefruit, apple, pomegranate, blueberry and citron are just some of the choices available in the new sojus and alcopops. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

But it hasn’t really worked until last year, when soju maker Chum-churum started a revolution with Soonhari, a citron-flavored soju. Now, the country’s major soju producers, Chum-churum and Jinro, are falling over themselves putting out new versions of fruit-flavored drinks to capture the market. Grapefruit, apple, pomegranate, blueberry and citron are just some of the choices available. Most of them have between 11 and 14 percent alcohol, as opposed to the 17 to 21 percent in regular soju.

“I like the fruity soju,” says Kim Hyeon-seo, a clerk at a 7-Eleven in Ilsan, a city just north of Seoul. “It has more flavor than pure soju, and the alcohol level is lower than regular soju.” She says they sell a lot of flavored sojus, mostly to young women.

A sweeter flavor

Soju makers have rolled out a line of lighter, fruit-flavored drinks. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

Soju makers have rolled out a line of lighter, fruit-flavored drinks. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

Lee Young-jin, the manager of Hanshin Pocha bar in Ilsan, says they sell plenty of the fruit sojus. “Before flavored soju, people just drank the regular soju,” Lee says. “We’d sell six cases of it a day. But with the new soju, we sell eight or nine cases.”

He says a table with three women will often put away eight or nine bottles of flavored soju, as opposed to only two or three of the regular kind.

Along with these fruity sojus are new alcoholic sodas like Brother Soda and Iseul Tok Tok. Both are 3 percent alcohol by volume, thanks to a white wine base, but you would never know from tasting them. Brother Soda tastes exactly like cream soda. Iseul Tok Tok tastes like “2%,” a popular peach-flavored soda in Korea. You can’t taste a hint of alcohol in either.

Lim Jongwoo, a waiter at Yaki Hwaro Galbe, says the sodas are almost entirely consumed by women. Lim says he doesn’t drink them, because “the alcohol level is very low.”

At a nearby table, Kang Yujin, 27, says, “I like the taste, its sweet flavor. Sometimes I drink regular soju, but mostly the flavored one.” She says that she’ll usually drink two bottles in one night.

Targeting the trendsetters

Soju, always popular in South Korea, is now making inroads among women, too. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

Soju, always popular among men in South Korea, is now making inroads among women, too. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

Daniel Gray, who runs food tours of Korea and the food blog “Seoul Eats,” says the companies are marketing toward women because they “have most of the buying power in Korean society, and tend to make the trends and influence the market on what to buy.”

Gray notes this isn’t the first time flavored sojus have been introduced — previous attempts over the last 10 years, including cucumber and green tea-flavored sojus, died quickly. He predicts that once the trend recedes, Korea will be left with only two fruit-flavored sojus, probably grapefruit and citron.

James Turnbull, an expat Briton who has written extensively about gender in Korea, thinks the advertising campaigns for the new sojus are overly “cutesy” and reinforce a trend in Korea called “aegyo,” where women try to be attractive to men by acting like young children. This contrasts with mainstream soju ads, which in the past decade, Turnbull says, have been emphasizing an extreme sexuality.

Park Solmin is a 23-year-old professional woman and is the exact target the soju makers have in mind. But she has a problem with how the ads reinforce a traditionally Korean view of gender. “They’re going to try to appear a very pure and weak image of a woman,” she says. “They’re trying to show it’s OK for those women who are trying to be very girlish, very typically weak.”

Park admits, though, that the flavored drinks do taste much better than traditional ones.

As a middle-aged man, Turnbull admits he’s hardly the target for these new drinks. But he also admits he likes them, and wonders why they only market to women. “I think a lot of guys like them, because (regular) soju tastes like crap,” he says.

Main photo: Soju makers in South Korea are targeting women with fruit-flavored drinks. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

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Apricot Tart with Redcurrants or Alpine Strawberries. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Apricots — the gorgeous, golden fruit that is blushed with pink by the early summer sun — arrived in Europe from the East, China, perhaps, or India. Later they made their way across the Atlantic to the New World in the pockets of 17th-century English settlers.

Apricots are now firmly established in continental climates on both sides of the pond — Mediterranean regions and California are noted producers — that offer the right combination of cold winters and intensely hot summers. Right now, in central Europe, my favorites are coming in from Switzerland’s Valais region, where they bask in the sunbaked foothills of the Alps on the southern side of the River Rhone.

Sometimes — though not reliably — apricots are fine to eat raw, with the advantage that the pit or stone comes away cleanly from the flesh. You don’t even need a knife: Just pull apart the two halves with a gentle tug, and the pit will come free.

All too often, though, they are either unripe or woolly. These are the ones to use in jam, or baked in a tart or baked in the oven with sugar and spice. You can compensate for their lack of ripeness by judicious sweetening, while woolliness works just fine in jam.

If your visit to the farmers market this week yielded an abundance of apricots, or you’ve been the lucky recipient of a tray of ripe fruit from a neighbor whose tree has fruited bountifully this month, turn them into jam, or bake them in a fragile pastry shell or poach them in juice with a scattering of fragrant cardamom seeds and serve them cold with ice cream.

Apricot Jam With Lavender

Apricot Jam with Lavender. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Apricot Jam With Lavender. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

This lightly set jam sings of summer. Apricots, especially if fully ripe, have little pectin of their own. For this reason, it’s best to use quick-setting jam sugar with added pectin, which ensures a good set in a shorter cooking time, thus preserving all the jam’s fresh fruitiness.  

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes to bring up to a boil plus 5 to 10 minutes fast boiling

Total time: 30 to 35 minutes

Yield: Makes eight 1-pound (450 gram) jars.

Ingredients

4 1/2 pounds (2 kilograms) apricots

3 pounds, 5 ounces (1.5 kilograms) quick-setting jam sugar with added pectin

Juice of 1 lemon

8 fresh lavender sprigs

Instructions

Put a saucer in the freezer for testing the jam later.

Cut apricots in half and remove the pits (stones). Cut in half again if very large.

Place apricots in a large preserving pan with the sugar, lemon juice and lavender sprigs. Stir to mix well and leave for a few hours or overnight until the juices run and the sugar is dissolved.

Bring the mixture up to a boil, stirring. From the moment it reaches a vigorous boil, count 5 minutes (be careful it doesn’t boil over — reduce the heat a little if necessary). Then start testing for a set: Remove the saucer from the freezer, pour a little into the saucer, let it cool slightly and then draw your finger through the jam: A distinct channel should form, and remain formed. If it does, setting point has been reached; if not, give the jam a little longer — up to 5 minutes more — and test again.

Once the jam has reached setting point, transfer it into warm jam jars, cover tightly and label.

Apricot Tart With Redcurrants or Alpine Strawberries

Fresh apricots are the perfect choice for a seasonal dessert. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Fresh apricots are the perfect choice for a seasonal dessert. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Apricots make plenty of juice when baked, so take a page out of the Swiss bakers’ books: Sprinkle a layer of ground nuts in the bottom of the pastry to give a waterproof layer, as well as great flavor and texture.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: Makes 6 servings.

Ingredients

2 pounds (1 kilogram) apricots

1 8-ounce (225 grams) ready-rolled round of puff pastry or pie crust, or 8 ounces (225 grams) puff pastry or pie crust

A little butter for the pan

3 tablespoons ground almonds or hazelnuts

3 tablespoons granulated or light brown sugar or to taste

5 to 6 spays of redcurrants or a handful alpine strawberries for garnish

Icing sugar to dust the tart

Instructions

Cut the apricots in half, remove the pits (stones), then cut in half again if very large.

Lightly butter a 12-inch (30-centimeter) quiche pan with removable base

Unwrap the round of puff or pie crust (or roll out the puff pastry or pie crust to a circle slightly larger than the quiche pan) and lay it in the buttered pan, pressing it gently into the corners with lightly floured knuckles.

Prick the pastry bottom with a fork and sprinkle with the ground nuts.

Arrange the apricots tightly in the pan in concentric circles, facing upwards, setting them up pertly like little cocked ears.

Sprinkle the fruit with sugar.

Heat the oven to 400 F (200 C) and bake the tart for 30 to 35 minutes or until the fruit is tinged with gold and the pastry golden-brown.

Remove tart from the oven and set it on a rack. Let it cool.

To serve, remove the outer ring from the pan, leaving the tart on its base, and place the tart on a serving plate. Garnish with redcurrant sprays or alpine strawberries and shake some icing sugar on top through a sieve or tea strainer.

Baked Apricots With Orange Juice and Cardamom Seeds

Baked Apricots with Orange Juice and Cardamom, Ice Cream and Chopped Pistachios, Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Baked Apricots with Orange Juice and Cardamom, Ice Cream and Chopped Pistachios, Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

If you find the apricots scored at the farmers market are a little tart or not especially well-flavored, here’s the way to go: Cut the fruit in half, bake them in orange juice with a sprinkling of sugar and some cardamom seeds, and serve well chilled with a sprinkling of chopped pistachios and lightly sweetened crème fraiche or vanilla ice cream.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 15 to 20 minutes

Total time: 20 to 25 minutes

Yield: Makes 6 servings.

Ingredients

2 pounds (1 kilogram) apricots

1 cup (250 milliliters) orange, grapefruit or pink grapefruit juice

6 to 8 cardamom pods, split, seeds only

4 to 5 tablespoons brown sugar

Vanilla ice cream or crème fraiche for serving

2 to 3 tablespoons chopped green pistachios (optional, for garnish)

Instructions

Cut the apricots in half and discard the pits (stones).

Arrange them in one layer in a large ovenproof dish, cut sides down.

Pour on orange juice and sprinkle with cardamom seeds and sugar.

Heat oven to 425 F (220 C).

Bake the apricots until soft but not collapsed — 15 to 20 minutes depending on ripeness.

Remove from the oven.

Tip the juice into a shallow pan and boil down hard to reduce by half.

Pour reduced juice back over the apricots, let cool and then refrigerate.

To serve, arrange 3 to 5 apricot halves (depending on size) facedown in small bowls and spoon some juice over. Place a blob of crème fraiche or a scoop of ice cream in the middle and sprinkle with chopped pistachios if wished.

Main photo: Apricot Tart With Redcurrants or Alpine Strawberries. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

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Main photo: Benvenuti winery is located in the quiet Istrian village of Kaldir, where the Benvenuti family grows three grape varieties, including Malvasia. Credit: Courtesy of Benvenuti winery

In northern Croatia, a younger generation of wine growers is pushing the boundaries with innovative interpretations of their indigenous variety of Malvasia, a versatile and diverse wine.

Malvasia is a highly original grape variety, but also a very confusing one, as it is also the synonym for numerous other quite unrelated grape varieties. In the index of that authorative tome, “Wine Grapes,” by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz, there are no less than 77 entries for Malvasia, and that is not including Malvasije, or Malvoisie! But true Malvasia, Malvazija Itarksa or Malvasia Istriana, depending on whether you are speaking Croat or Italian, really comes into its own in Istria, in northern Croatia.

Contrasting wines

Although they have been grape growers for three generations, the Benvenuti family only started making and bottling their own wine in 2003. Credit: Courtesy of Benvenuti winery

Although they have been grape growers for three generations, the Benvenuti family only started making and bottling their own wine in 2003. Credit: Courtesy of Benvenuti winery

My first introduction to Malvasia Istriana was over lunch in the attractive hilltop town of Motovun, fresh off the plane from London, and accompanying a plate of wild asparagus risotto with Istrian ham. It was a delicious combination and the wine demanded further investigation, so a few days later we tracked down Albert Benvenuti in the nearby village of Kaldir. He asserted firmly that their Malvasia is not related to any other Malvasia. His simplest wine is fermented in a stainless steel vat, with selected yeast, and given a little lees stirring, but no skin contact. It was fresh and fragrant with herbal notes, and a touch of minerality on the finish.

In contrast, Anno Domini comes from 70-year-old vines, and is only made in the best vintages, most recently 2013. The juice is given 15 days of skin contact and is fermented and then aged in large Slavonic oak barrels for two years. It was much more intense, with body and structure and an underlying richness with some dry honey, combined with some firm saline notes. The grapes are picked slightly later for this wine, with a lower yield, and fermented with indigenous yeast. The contrast was palpable, and both were delicious. Benvenuti’s family, although they have been grape growers for three generations, really only started making and bottling their own wine in 2003. Albert observed that bottling wine in Istria is a relatively recent development, only in the last 25 years.

A perfect climate

The wines made by Kabola Winery spend 12 to 18 months in Slavonic oak barrels, for a textured wine. Credit: Courtesy of Kabola Winery

The wines made by Kabola Winery spend 12 to 18 months in Slavonic oak barrels, for a textured wine. Credit: Courtesy of Kabola Winery

More insights into Malvasia Istriana were provided by Marino Markežič and Marko Bartovič at Kabola outside the village of Momjan. Marino talked about the climate; the sea is close by and they feel the sea breezes during the day and the mountain air at night, so the diurnal difference can be as much as 18 degrees. Annual rainfall can also vary considerably. He makes a sparkling wine that is a blend of Malvasia with 10 percent Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, so that it is  fresh and lightly herbal.

Markežič talked about the versatility of Malvasia with food. Malvasia is considered to be a semi-aromatic grape variety, and Markežič’s simplest Malvasia is fresh and floral, with a refreshing sapidity on the finish. Malvasia l’Unico is more serious. It is given two to three days’ skin contact before pressing and a fermentation in wood, and then spends a minimum of 12 months on the lees in Slavonic oak barrels. The oak is well integrated, and the wine is rich, textured and characterful. Finally, there is Malvasia Amfora. The grapes, with skins but no stalks, spend six months in amphora before pressing and then a further 12 to 18 months in large barrels. The color is orange amber and the flavors rich and honeyed, balanced with some tannin, and texture and considerable length. They were three highly individual wines.

Aged in acacia

At Koslovic, with its stylish cellar and tasting area, wines are aged in acacia barrels. Credit: Courtesy of Kozlovic winery

At Koslovic, with its stylish cellar and tasting area, wines are aged in acacia barrels. Credit: Courtesy of Kozlovic winery

At nearby Koslovic, with its stylish cellar and tasting area, Antonella Koslovic added further insights. Some of their wines are given skin contact and lees stirring, depending on the vintage, and maybe aging in large wood, but they do not want their wines to be too heavy. Their oldest vines, from the Santa Lucia vineyard, were planted in 1962 and they make a special selection in the best years, with some oak aging, after five days of skin contact. The Akacia cuvée is just that, Malvasia aged in acacia for eight months, for acacia barrels are produced in Croatia. There is a long maceration, which makes for an intense amber color, and the palate is rich and buttery with dry honeyed notes, balanced with acidity.

Antonella added that her husband, Gianfranco had written his university thesis on acacia barrels. Other nuances can be achieved by blending both later and earlier picked grapes, or indeed a wholly late harvest at the end of September rather than late August. Antonella proved conclusively that Malvasia will age in bottle by showing us 2006 Santa Lucia. The wine had spent six months in wood, both 300 hectolitre barrels and 225 litres barriques. It was amber gold, with a dry honeyed nose, while the palate was an intriguing combination of herbal fruit and firm acidity, with notes of maturity and a wonderful intensity. It made a perfect finale to the discovery of Malvasia.

Main photo: Benvenuti winery is located in the quiet Istrian village of Kaldir, where the Benvenuti family grows three grape varieties, including Malvasia. Credit: Courtesy of Benvenuti winery

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Yucca flower gratin. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

With its widely recognizable dagger-sharp leaves, the yucca plant (Yucca spp.), offers up a particularly tasty food in its flower petals. Yucca, not to be confused with yuca (Manihot esculenta), is native to arid regions of the Americas, and is popular as a water-wise ornamental plant elsewhere.

In traditional dishes, yucca flowers often appear paired with eggs. The flavor of yucca flowers is akin to artichoke, which makes them an interesting springboard for cooking. In an attempt to re-create the flavors of stuffed artichoke, I’ve found it worthwhile to serve yucca flowers as a gratin topped with a crunchy layer of seasoned bread crumbs.

When harvesting yucca flowers, select ones that are newly opened and appear unblemished. Pass over any flowers that are wilted or appear to have been taken over by insects. Foraging wild foods is not unlike selecting produce at the market in that you look for foods that are in good condition. You can pick more than one yucca flower per plant, as it won’t cause significant damage. Yucca is a sturdy plant with a large taproot. Keep in mind, however, that certain animals feed on yucca flowers, and they are a habitat for yucca moths. I like to shake each flower after I’ve plucked it to free any moths that might be inside.

Yucca flowers can cause throat irritation in some people if eaten raw, so it’s likely best to use them in cooked preparations, particularly if you are new to the plant as a food. Traditionally, yucca petals are removed from their reproductive parts. To prepare yucca flowers for cooking, simply strip the petals from the pistil and stamen.

For a girl growing up in a hot stretch of the prairie in the Western United States, yucca plants were always a part of the tableau. As a kid, I learned early on to play carefully when there were yucca and cacti around, so as not to get hurt. It wasn’t until I was an adult and began foraging in earnest that I discovered those plants that were as familiar to me as the backs of my hands were also edible.

Yucca flowers. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Yucca flowers. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

I’ve been working with my own local yucca, Yucca glauca, also known as Great Plains yucca, for many years, especially enjoying the flowers. Unlike some species of yucca, Great Plains yucca develops nonfragrant flowers, the petals of which are quite waxy in texture when raw. I’ve enjoyed the flowers of yucca in more traditional preparations with eggs, as well as in soups and stir-fries. Until recently, my favorite way to prepare yucca flowers has been to steam the petals, and then preserve them as one would an oil pickle like artichoke hearts.

This year, while reading an older cookbook about Mexican herbs, I caught sight of one short sentence that instructed to add a spoonful of flour to steamed yucca flowers, and pan-cook the mixture as patties. I tried this method and was slightly off-put by the glueyness created by the flour. However, the flavor of the yucca in flour, particularly where it had browned, was undeniably good.

The next day, I took the recipe in a slightly different direction. I seasoned steamed yucca petals well with salt, pepper and onion powder. Then, instead of adding flour and attempting to make cakes, I added dried bread crumbs, and put the crumble into a hot pan coated with some oil. Once browned, the yucca and bread crumb mixture was easily the best yucca preparation I’d tasted. The flowers were still succulent and sweet, and their slight bitterness was enhanced by extra savory flavors added through the golden bread crumbs. This preparation of yucca flowers can be used in a number of ways. It’s good enough to stand alone as a side dish, and it makes an excellent pasta topping. My favorite way to use yucca flowers sautéed with bread crumbs is to make quesadillas with queso Oaxaca.

I’ve also used the crunchy bread crumb and yucca combo successfully in a dish that comes as close as I can to turning yucca into stuffed artichoke — yucca flower gratin. You can always tell I’ve been binge-watching Jacques Pepin when I have the urge to stuff all of my wild edible plants into a gratin. Nobody at my table complains, however, because gratins are both classic and a tastebud-friendly way to serve foraged produce.

Yucca Flower Gratin

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

6 cups yucca petals

1 1/2 cups fresh bread crumbs

1 shallot, minced

1/2 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese

3 teaspoons chopped fresh herbs such thyme, parsley and chives

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese

Directions

1. Begin by steaming the yucca petals just until they turn translucent and pale green, 1 to 2 minutes. Let them cool to room temperature.

2. In a bowl, combine the bread crumbs, cheese, herbs, garlic powder, salt and a little freshly ground black pepper using a fork. Add 2 tablespoons of oil and continue stirring the mixture until the all of the bread crumbs appear to have been coated with the oil.

3. Heat a skillet over medium. Add the remaining tablespoon of oil. Sauté the minced shallot for 1 minute, then add the steamed yucca petals and a sprinkling of salt.

4. Add a large handful of the seasoned bread crumbs to the yucca petals, about 3/4 cup, and continue cooking the yucca, stirring frequently and scraping up stuck bits as needed, until they take on a deep medium brown color. Because the yucca is already cooked, you are simply looking to add a layer of flavor through the browning achieved by the Maillard reaction.

5. Remove the yucca from the heat. Evenly divide the browned yucca between four lightly greased 8-ounce ramekins.  Top each ramekin full of yucca with what remains of the seasoned bread crumbs.

6. Place the ramekins under the broiler of an oven just until the bread crumbs turn an irresistible shade of brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes before serving.

Main photo: Yucca flower gratin. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

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Burgundian Caroline Parent-Gros, whose family has spent 14 generations in the wine business, believes the family's best wines are ahead of her. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Baker

They say you can never step into the same river twice, and I recognized the truth in this statement on a recent return to Burgundy, France.

It’s been 20 years since I first stumbled across this glorious culinary corner of the world, which sparked an enthusiasm for wine. But the current is always rushing, the banks shifting, the river changing course.

Some things seem eternal: Pommard and Volnay are still sleepy little stone walled villages, Beaune is the vibrant wine capital, and the wines and the congregation of tiny producers who make them continue to be unparalleled.

But change is afoot. On April 27 of this year, the region was hammered by a spring frost, the latest in a string of devastating weather events. Year after year, it seems that Burgundy’s notoriously capricious weather grows more volatile, and the littlest producers are hit the hardest by the changing climate. One wonders how they will survive.

The vineyards around the Château du clos de Vougeot are among the most prized in the world, but in recent years the weather has driven smaller yields. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Baker

The vineyards around the Château du clos de Vougeot are among the most prized in the world, but in recent years the weather has driven smaller yields. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Baker

Scrappy farmers, prized wines

Burgundy is a tiny sliver of a wine region, crammed into the east-facing slope of a low-slung ridgeline running south from the city of Dijon. Burgundian wines are the world’s most prized and expensive. Yet the people who make the best of them are the smallest producers, scrappy farmers rich in precious parcels of vineyard land but poor in cash flow. These small vignerons could sell their plots for a fortune — and some of them do — and live out the rest of their lives in luxury. But thankfully most choose to work the land and farm grapes, bottling their own small allotments in the tradition of their parents and grandparents.

I explored a corner of this life in my novel “Vintage” and the last time I walked the stone walled vineyards and cobbled streets of Pommard and Volnay was in my imagination. Now I’m back in the real Burgundy, reevaluating what I imagined while interviewing winemakers for a documentary about this current difficult year.

Some of the producers have lost 90 percent of their 2016 crop. Other recent harvests have borne less fruit due to hail, storms and violent swings in weather. If you study the records, you can see a dramatic shift in harvest dates. In the past it was normal for harvest to begin in October or November. 2003 saw the first ever August harvest. More have followed.

Wine producers look into the future

In the vast network of cellars of Francois Parent beneath the street of Beaune, two years’ worth of wine fit into a space that used to hold only one.

Thierry Violot-Guillemard manages his family's estate with his son; he wonders if small producers can survive in the new normal of Burgundy's changing weather. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Baker

Thierry Violot-Guillemard manages his family’s estate with his son; he wonders if small producers can survive in the new normal of Burgundy’s changing weather. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Baker

Caroline Parent-Gros manages sales and marketing for the family estates. Her forefather, Étienne Parent, supplied wine to Thomas Jefferson; America is still their biggest export market. But now with less wine to sell, that legacy may be in jeopardy. When asked about this year’s slim harvest, she says, “I think that we can face another year … but maybe not one more.” Still, she remains optimistic. “You always expect to make the vintage. Even if you have some great and exceptional wine, you always expect something like the jackpot.” She believes her family’s best wines will still be made in the future.

Thierry Violot-Guillemard is a scrappy farmer who oozes Burgundian character, from his gnomish ruggedness to his broom of a mustache. He’s survived years of bad harvests and a crushing motorcycle accident that has required dozens of surgeries. But even that didn’t slow him down. He produces sought-after wines from his home and facility from the tiny town of Pommard. Though he expresses doubt that small producers will be able to survive another 40 years, he’s grooming his son Joannes to take the reigns of the family business. The legacy will continue.

Thiebault Hubert is a Volnay vigneron with a sunny disposition and a deep commitment to the terroir of his family’s vineyards. To preserve it, he’s turned to soft-touch biodynamic practices, eschewing chemicals and tilling the rows with horse and plow. He believes that to survive, small producers must adapt. “We know that we will actually, maybe never produce the quantities that we produced 15 years ago,” he told us. But he sees a silver lining, as the scarcity of fruit will drive a greater focus on quality.

Thiebault Hubert believes smaller yields are here to stay, but he also feels this will drive even better quality. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Baker

Thiebault Hubert believes smaller yields are here to stay, but he also feels this will drive even better quality. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Baker

Burgundy’s survival

Burgundy is not the same place I visited 20 years ago. And some day hail cannons may sound from the hillsides, disrupting a pleasant stroll through leafy vineyards. But Burgundians will survive. That’s something I learned from the Burgundian characters I wrote about in “Vintage.” And from the real people on whom they are based.

Fact and fiction may not always meet up. The Burgundy I wrote about is different from the one I see now. But somewhere in a vineyard, or in a dark, damp cellar, fact and fiction come together as they always must. Burgundy, and the spirit that drives it, is forever.

Main photo: Burgundian Caroline Parent-Gros, whose family has spent 14 generations in the wine business, believes the family’s best wines are ahead of her. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Baker

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