Articles in Travel

If you’re up to the challenge, start out by trying Vegemite on a slice of hot toast. Credit: iStock / Ben185

To the Vegemite virgin, the dark brown paste may look like axle grease and smell like rusty nails, but to many an Aussie, the salty spread is comfortingly delicious, as well as essentially synonymous with Australia itself. It’s a common joke that Vegemite is an Antipodean baby’s first solid food. It’s also routinely cited that Vegemite can be found in the cupboards of at least 80 percent of Australian homes. What’s more, traveling Aussies don’t leave home without it.

Primarily a yeast extract that remains after the beer brewing process, Vegemite contains few calories and no fat, but a fair amount of sodium. A rich source of B vitamins, which play a role in metabolizing macronutrients and in producing energy in the body, Vegemite has routinely been promoted for its purported health benefits. In the late 1930s, its advertising even featured an endorsement from the British Medical Association for its B vitamin content. Although less “veggie” than its name might imply, Vegemite is vegan, vegetarian, certified kosher and certified halal.

Vegemite was developed as a copy of a British product, Marmite, a spread of similar texture and flavor — though it’s best not to say so to a Vegemite die-hard. In the early 1920s, Fred Walker, an Australian entrepreneur, engaged Dr. Cyril P. Callister, one of Australia’s first food technologists, to develop the product. After considerable experimentation, Callister developed Vegemite in 1923. Based upon a mutual interest to develop cheeses with a longer shelf life, Walker later combined forces with American cheese producer James Kraft, forming the Kraft Walker Cheese Company in 1926. This partnership eventually resulted in an American company owning Australia’s national food, though Vegemite has always been produced in Australia and from mostly local ingredients.

Despite Vegemite’s widespread popularity today, in its early years the spread was slow to entice Australian appetites, as Marmite held on to a significant portion of the market share. According to Vegemite’s heritage website, however, by the early 1940s Vegemite had become a “staple food in every Australian home and in every Australian pantry.” Over the course of the 20th century, the spread would become an Australian icon.

Try Vegemite this Australia Day

Australia Day, marked each year on Jan. 26, is a national holiday celebrating the day in 1788 when Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet of 11 convict ships from Britain arrived at Sydney Cove. Kraft attempted to cement the connection between the holiday and Vegemite in 2012, the year of the spread’s 89th anniversary. That year, Kraft rebranded Vegemite jars “Australia,” though retaining the recognizable red and yellow color palette.

One way for an American to celebrate Australia Day is to try Vegemite. The strange truth you’ll have to overcome, however, is that most non-Australians absolutely despise the stuff. With an Australian father, I grew up eating Vegemite and love it, but have yet to convert a single American friend to its delightful, savory charms. Part of the issue is likely a case of mismatched expectations, since Vegemite looks like chocolate, but tastes like, well, straight up saltiness.

A more apt description of Vegemite’s flavor profile might be umami incarnate. Despite appreciation for other foods boasting savory, umami flavor — from bacon to Parmesan, soy sauce to mushrooms — most non-Aussies just can’t handle Vegemite. Though Oprah claims to like it, a popular video circulated last year in which 10 American children tasted Vegemite for the first time with dismal results: no tears, but lots of squealing. Suffice it to say, none of them gave Vegemite their kid seal of approval. In 2011, President Barack Obama confessed to then-Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard that he found the spread “horrible,” disappointing Vegemite lovers. In 2012, singer Niall Horan of the group One Direction echoed this sentiment when he tasted Vegemite toast live on Australian television only to spit it out and later share on Twitter, “Can clearly say vegemite is horrible!”

A ‘culturally specific food’

In 2003, psychology researchers Paul Rozin and Michael Siegal quantifiably confirmed the oft-stated assertion that only Australians enjoy Vegemite. From a survey of 202 participants, the authors concluded, “The eating of this food product and especially the enjoyment of it are specifically linked to Australian birth and ancestry.” They also asserted, “This sticky brown paste remains a candidate for the most culturally specific food.”

Australians know best about Vegemite. Credit: Emily Contois

Australians know best about Vegemite. Credit: Emily Contois

The deck may be stacked against Vegemite, but if you’re up to the challenge, start out by trying Vegemite on a slice of hot toast, which is the way most Australians enjoy it at breakfast. Spread the toast first with butter, allowing it to melt in, and then evenly spread a thin layer of Vegemite. A common mistake for first-time Vegemite tasters is to slather it on too thickly like one would peanut butter or a chocolaty spread, an amount unpalatable to even most devoted Vegemite enthusiasts. Recipes from Vegemite’s website suggest you jazz up your Vegemite toast with tomato, egg, cheese or avocado.

If you’re ready to try Vegemite at every meal, you can make turkey burgers, seasoned with Vegemite, onions, rice wine and a touch of sugar, for lunch. Then you can try Vegemite flavored couscous or sweet potato and rosemary pizza with a Vegemite sauce for dinner.

You just might find that you love Vegemite. If nothing else, it’ll be your saltiest Jan. 26 on record.

Main photo: If you’re up to the challenge, start out by trying Vegemite on a slice of hot toast. Credit: iStock / Ben 185

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Cafe Triode manager Yo Endo pours a glass of wine at the cafe. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

Yo Endo would be the first to tell you he doesn’t know a lot about wine. What he does know is how to sell things. His last job was marketing tennis equipment, which took him to Los Angeles and Las Vegas; great restaurants — and wine, of course.

Today, Endo manages Cafe Triode, a cozy restaurant near the giant Tokyo Dome, home for Japan’s beloved Giants baseball team. The surrounding neighborhood is best known for the ultra-luxury La Qua spa, sporting goods stores, used bookstores and inexpensive restaurants catering to baseball fans and university students.

I stumbled onto the café while looking for a quiet escape from the rain during a business trip to Japan’s capital. Endo took my dripping umbrella and escorted me to a small wooden bar near the back. A hunk of Serrano ham anchored one end of the bar, and soft jazz played.

Women in Japan’s workforce is growing

Traditionally, the after-hours scene in Japan has been dominated by izakaya bars catering to salarymen. Beer, sake and whiskey are the favored drinks, and the vibe is usually loud and smoky or expensive — or all of the above.

Cafe Triode offers moderately priced wine, tasty nibbles and jazz — a perfect place for happy hour with girlfriends. And that’s exactly what Endo is aiming for.

Though Japan lags behind much of the developed world in female employment, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pledged to increase the percentage of women in the workforce. This includes providing more affordable childcare and encouraging companies to adopt family-friendly policies, such as flexible work schedules.

It also means finding a place for those women to unwind after a hard day at the office. “There’s an increasing need for working women to have a girls-only night out for a drink to strengthen their solidarity,” Chikako Hirose, a spokeswoman for Pronto Corp., recently told Bloomberg News. Pronto is reportedly expanding its Di PUNTO chain of wine bars to at least 26 outlets by the end of 2015.

There are other reasons the wine industry is chasing the female market. Women in Japan still make most of the household buying decisions, and they are more likely than men to attend wine tastings and classes, according to a report released last year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Agriculture Service. Sixty percent of Japan’s wine experts are women.

Old-world wines dominate this market. Although Japan buys wine from 55 countries, just 10 account for about 98 percent of the imported volume, according to the USDA report. Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are the favored varietals. Sparkling wine is also growing in popularity, and “wine on the rocks” is being touted as a refreshing alternative on a hot summer’s day.

Endo sees these trends at Cafe Triode, where the majority of his customers are couples or young female professionals. When he first opened his café, his wine list included a range of wines divided by country, varietal and price. But he discovered most of his young customers would spend a long time agonizing over the menu and then end up somewhere in the middle, where they would have just a few bottles to choose from.

Cafe Triode still sells bottles of wine for as much as 19,000 yen ($159) but now offers a large selection of wines for 4,100 yen ($34) a bottle. During my visit, that included two California Zinfandels from Peachy Canyon and Ravenswood chosen by Endo’s wine broker.

American wines are slowly finding a market. In 2013, the United States held an 8.6 percent value share of Japan’s imported wine, up from 7.7 percent the previous year, according to the USDA. But U.S. vintners face significant barriers. A stronger dollar and high import duties push them into a higher price bracket, and Japanese consumers prefer wines with a lower alcohol content than most American wines offer.

By offering a “Reasonable Selections” list representing many different varietals and wine-growing regions, Endo hopes he can encourage wine newbies to experiment. “Everyone finds it very easy to make a choice, and it’s also easy to control the budget,” he said.

Armed with a glass of the house red wine (600 yen or $5), I turned my attention to Cafe Triode’s multi-page English menu, which married two of my favorite cuisines: Japanese and Italian.

Meat platter is most popular on menu

The most popular menu item is the Triode assorted meat platter delivered on a large wooden board with five types of meat (1,950 yen or $16.35). Other tantalizing offerings include dumplings made from fish and shrimp wrapped in yuba (tofu) skin (1,190 yen or $9.98), codfish and scallop pie (1,190 yen or $9.98) and Tajima beef rump steak (1,500 to 1,800 yen or $12.58 to $15.10 per 100 grams). Tajima is the strain of black Japanese Wagyu cattle that produce the famous Kobe beef.

The grilled duck salad from Cafe Triode. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

The grilled duck salad from Cafe Triode. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

Endo, an easygoing man with an impish smile, started me out with a fig paired with a dollop of mineoka dofu. This delicate palate cleanser, made from an ancient recipe developed by Buddhist monks, isn’t tofu. It’s actually made from milk, arrowroot starch and sesame paste. Rich and creamy with just a hint of sesame, I resisted licking the tiny pottery dish and settled on the Saikyo-yaki (Kyoto-style) grilled duck salad (980 yen or $8.22) for my entrée.

Working out of a kitchen the size of my bedroom closet, Chef Yoshimi Imazu quickly worked his magic, preparing paper-thin slices of Parmesan cheese and duck marinated in a sweet white Saikyo miso on a bed of crisp greens.

My visit to Cafe Triode was just another reminder that you can travel well in Japan without breaking the bank. That, combined with that tasty salad, was enough to lure me back one last time before I left Tokyo.

Main photo: Cafe Triode manager Yo Endo pours a glass of wine at the cafe. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

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Manarola, on the Italian coast

It doesn’t take a large area to find a wide variety of food specialties, and five neighboring Italian coastal villages provide just that.

My destination was Cinque Terre, a short piece of the Ligurian coastline, just west of the border with Tuscany. Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore are five multicolored borghi (villages) overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. They are pretty close to each other, a few minutes distance by car or train. Better yet, a boat, weather permitting, will take you back and forth, making an unforgettable five-stop mini-cruise. If you like to hike, you can also reach them via a beautiful trail and enjoy spectacular sea views.

Food-wise, besides the classic products of Liguria, such as olive oil, pesto, walnut sauce and different varieties of focaccia, each “terra” (village with its surrounding land) has its own culinary specialties.

1. I did it! I ate the eyes!

It happened at the Trattoria dal Billy in Manarola. I was enjoying the antipasto di pesce, a 12-item platter of warm and cold fish, when the chef proudly showed me the catch of the day: a superb branzino (Mediterranean sea bass). How could I say no to such a beauty?

It was served with roasted potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and garden herbs, a perfect combination of the best the sea and the land could offer. Then the chef came back at my table, checked that I was enjoying it and insisted that I eat the fish eyes. Well, I closed my eyes and ate them. I had a pleasant surprise, they were not at all slimy, as I expected. They were more like a zesty touch that added a great seasoning to the delicate taste of the fish.

2. Fried goodness on the road

While in Cinque Terre, I loved to get lost in the windingsmall streets and passages called caruggi, where street vendors cook fried calamari, squid, shrimp and sardines, often sided by stands selling local vegetables. They were fried to perfection, wrapped in paper and garnished with a slice of lemon. Hot, crunchy and tasty. You eat them on the road.

3. Grazie Nonna!

“We have a surprise for you,” said Marzia Vivaldi and Luca Natale, the promoters of the Parco Nazionale Cinque Terre. “We will take you to the great restaurant Aristide (Via Discovolo, 138 Manarola), where Nonna Grazia will show you how to prepare her famous muscoli ripieni (stuffed mussels).” Nonna (Grandma in Italian) welcomed me with the most adorable smile and explained her secret recipe:

“It simple and easy. I make the stuffing with leftover bread, mussel meat, eggs, Parmesan, parsley and mortadella. I fill up the mussels, I cover with a generous fresh tomato and basil sauce, then I bake it. That’s it!”

As an Italian, hearing seafood and cheese, not to mention the addition of meat, mixed together, seemed somewhat heretical, but what a fantastic result.

4. Anchovies, what a treat!

Following a secular tradition, anchovies are caught with a seine net and a fishing lamp, then hand-processed within two or three days, carefully stratified in jars, pressed and covered with brine, making them tender and tasty, and allowing a perfect preservation. I tried them served with local olive oil, oregano, focaccia bread and butter. They were accompanied by a glass of Cinque Terre, the famous white wine of the area that requires mountain climbing abilities to produce, given the steep incline on which the grapes grow facing the sea.

5. Sciacchetrà: It’s time to toast

Imagine a secret bottle kept in the cave for years (sometimes more than 30). It’s the rich and velvety wine called sciacchetrà. This aged treasure resurges in occasion of a wedding as the greatest gift that the family of the groom could offer to the bride’s family. I had the privilege of opening a bottle that was more than 10 years old. It reminded me of a rich passito straw wine, sweet and liqueur-like. The color is intense: from golden shades to amber. The taste is a fruity, floral bouquet that is reminiscent of a Mediterranean garden: scents of nuts, apricot jam, nectarine, vanilla, chestnut honey and spices.

Grand finale: A dream accommodation

I ended my visit in the other location making up part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site: Porto Venere, a colorful and elegant resort with a delightful port. I followed the recommendation to have a candlelight dinner at Palmaria, the restaurant on the terrace of the magnificent renovated Grand Hotel, once a convent and now reopened as a four-star classy destination that offers impeccable service.

The restaurant’s view was spectacular. So was the menu. I obviously went for fish. I tried the most tender seared scallops with a baby potato cream and the exquisite Gran Bollito di Pesce a delicate boiled sea bass and shellfish stew, served with handmade mayonnaise.

You can visit the beautiful Cinque Terre in few days. A great period for trekking is from March to September. The right time to taste the unique cuisine … any day of the year!

Main photo: Manarola, one of the villages of Italy’s Cinque Terre. Credit: Cesare Zucca

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Kangaroo meat is sold at an Australian deli. Credit: Emily Contois

Eating more kangaroo meat likely ranks low on the list of food resolutions eaters have considered taking up in 2015. But should it?

“I, at first, didn’t tell them it was kangaroo.” So said the cheery Foodies’ Dream Tour guide at the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne, Australia, about cooking “roo” for her sons. She assured our small group that the trick is in the cooking. Pop it on the barbecue for two to three minutes on one side, she instructed, with a quick sizzle on the other, and you are sure to enjoy a tender, juicy and flavorful bite of roo. “Truly superb,” she crooned.

Although cooking instructions vary from chef to chef, the key advice for preparing kangaroo is to avoid overcooking it, which can lead to a dry and all-too-chewy result. The risk is higher with kangaroo, which is a remarkably lean red meat that is low in saturated and trans fat, while offering up robust servings of iron and B vitamins. From animals that roam freely in the wild, kangaroo meat is free-range and not farmed — though the Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia refers to kangaroo meat production as “harvesting,” which conjures a strange image in one’s agrarian imagination. To top off the list of its health benefits, kangaroo is considered ecologically friendly, especially compared with beef and lamb, since kangaroos require less water and produce less methane. Plus, their paws are kinder to the rangeland’s topsoil than cattle hooves.

Increasing sales

As our tour guide shared her cooking tips, she gestured to a nearby stall that has been selling kangaroo meat at the market for decades. Although the distinctly Aussie protein has not been popular in its homeland, the market has seen increased sales in recent years. Woods Aussie Deli in the market is well known for its kangaroo “jerkey,” lesser versions of which can be found at convenience stores and souvenir shops. Butchers in the meat hall and specialty shops in the Dairy Produce Hall (also known as the Deli Hall) at the Queen Victoria Market sell fresh and frozen kangaroo in vacuum-sealed pouches. Packaged kangaroo meat is also widely sold throughout Australia in the refrigerated meat sections of large chain grocery stores, such as Coles and Woolworths.

Restaurants in Australia, often though not always those that cater to tourists with “bush tucker” menus, also serve up kangaroo. Renowned chefs have even supported the Australian government and the Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia to promote consumption of the hoppy marsupial. In 2008, six of Sydney’s top chefs — Tony Bilson, Jean-Paul Bruneteau, Sean Connolly, Darren Ho, John Leong and Ray Kersh — conducted a master class at a “Taste of Kangaroo” event attended by 150 members from the food and hospitality industry and food media. These chefs’ creations are now freely available in the pamphlet cookbook “Roocipes,” which features 80 kangaroo recipes.

Among the roocipes is Connolly’s kangaroo tartare, which serves kangaroo loin minced and raw at its best and juiciest, flavored with a concoction of Dijon mustard, tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce and a dash of Tabasco. A French chef devoted to Australian cuisine and native ingredients, Bruneteau has developed 16 recipes using kangaroo, including braised kangaroo shank, which calls for roasting several shanks, cut short, with root vegetables for 10 hours. At Little Truffle dining room and bar at Mermaid Beach, chef Daniel Ridgeway serves up multiple kangaroo dishes, including Flower Kangaroo, in which he folds a rich blend of kangaroo loin and egg whites through cream and braised kangaroo leg, piping the final seasoned mixture into picturesque zucchini flowers.

Eating roo, or not …

Despite its nutritional benefits, ecological profile, chef endorsement and increasingly haute allure, kangaroo meat consumption has been slow to take off among most Australians. Kangaroos have hopped across the Australian landscape for more than 100 million years and, as part of a traditional diet, Aboriginal people have consumed them for close to 60,000 years. Regardless of its ancient origins and heritage consumption, however, kangaroo meat is often negatively associated with pet food and roadkill, as cars pose the greatest threat to the animals in the wild. Indeed, much of the barrier for kangaroo meat in Australia is cultural, as the animal serves as a national emblem, appearing on the country’s coat of arms and as a symbol throughout popular culture.

The kangaroo meat industry also refers to low consumption as the “Skippy Syndrome,” referencing the television show “Skippy the Bush Kangaroo,” an animal program similar to “Lassie” and “Flipper,” which contributed to the national perception of kangaroos as cute, cuddly, friendly and wholly inedible. The kangaroo industry tackled the syndrome head on in 2005 with a culinary naming competition, seeking a title that would help kangaroo meat eaters forget Skippy the way venison assists deer meat lovers to shun thoughts of “Bambi” while enjoying their meal. Top submissions included kangarly, maroo, krou, maleen, kuja, roujoe, rooviande, jurru, ozru, marsu, kangasaurus, marsupan, jumpmeat and MOM (meat of marsupials). Australus was declared the palatable new moniker, though it has yet to make it into circulation.

As kangaroo consumption remains relatively low in Australia, the majority of the meat is exported, mostly to Europe and Russia, where it is an affordable meat option. Kangaroo meat has even bounded its way onto U.S. menus. In 2013, kangaroo steak (described as “tender like a sweet filet mignon”) became a surprise top seller at Hell’s Kitchen in Minneapolis. At The Thirsty Koala, an Australian-themed restaurant in Astoria, N.Y., chef and co-owner Katherine Fuchs reports that kangaroo burgers, sliders and steaks outsell their beef counterparts. You can also bite into a juicy kangaroo burger at Crazee Burger in San Diego.

Will 2015 be the year you try roo?

Kangaroo Tartare

Sean Connolly’s Kangaroo Tartare recipe appeared in the kangaroo cookbook “Roocipes.” Connolly is a chef at both Sean’s Kitchen and Astral Restaurant in Sydney. Recipe courtesy of the Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia.

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 French baguette

Salted butter

400 grams kangaroo loin minced

50 grams shallots finely chopped

50 grams gherkins finely chopped

10 grams parsley chopped

4 egg yolks

1 teaspoon tomato paste

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

Dash of Worcestershire sauce

Dash of Tabasco

1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika

Freshly ground black pepper

Salt to taste

Directions

1. Thinly slice French baguette.

2. Spread each slice with salted butter, and bake in the oven until golden brown.

3. Place all the other ingredients in a stainless steel bowl.

4. Gently fold together with a metal spoon.

5. Serve with the crisp ficelle (baguette) croutons.

Main photo: Woods Aussie Deli in the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne, Australia, sells kangaroo “jerkey.” Credit: Emily Contois

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Malvasia vineyards and bougainvillea at the Capofaro estate on Salina

Sicily is famous for its distinctive wines and native grape varieties, particularly those that grow on volcanic soils. Nerello Mascalese, today’s most talked-about Sicilian red grape, only flourishes on the slopes of Mount Etna, Italy’s largest active volcano. The lesser-known Malvasia delle Lipari grows instead on the volcanic Aeolian Islands, where it’s made into a delicious and unique dessert wine that also goes wonderfully with cheese.

Malvasia delle Lipari Passito DOC is made from sun-dried grapes in several versions, from very sweet to drier. It offers orange and floral notes, toasted nuts and rich apricots to the nose and, at its best, enough acidity in the mouth to balance the sweetness and keep it lively and long. The volcanic soils often confer exciting, salty minerality.

The Aeolians are the archipelago that sits between Italy’s “toe” in Calabria and Sicily’s northeastern corner. You reach them by ferry from Messina. The cluster of eight small islands, known as Isole Eolie in Italian, was named for Eolo, the god of wind in Greek mythology. No wonder: The Aeolians are subjected to winds from all sides. The islanders’ rudimentary lifestyle of fishing and agriculture was dramatically captured in “Stromboli,” Roberto Rossellini’s 1950 black-and-white film starring Ingrid Bergman. It was set on the island of Stromboli, another of Italy’s three active volcanoes.

Islands at a crossroads of culture

Contemporary vine-growing takes place mostly on two of the other islands, Lipari and Salina, but the archipelago has long been linked to wine, as professor Attilio Scienza, Italy’s foremost viticultural historian explains:

“These islands played an important role in the history of wine. As Phoenician and ancient Greek ships traveled the Mediterranean, they stopped off here to stock up on food and this allowed for important cultural exchanges.”

Scienza was speaking at Sicilia en Primeur, the itinerant Sicilian wine event that this year was held on the island of Vulcano.

“We know that grapes were grown and traded here: Grape seeds from 6,000 years ago have been found in archaelogical digs on Lipari. Later, in the 6th century, an unusual sweet wine became famous on the islands. It was made when very ripe, sun-dried grapes were heaped into a high mound whose weight naturally pressed the juice from the berries. This wine was known to keep — and therefore travel — well and its fame spread throughout the Mediterranean.”

The family of vines called Malvasia grows throughout the Mediterranean, but the Malvasia now found on the Aeolian islands has a DNA very close to that of the original Greek Malvasia. Despite facing extinction after the phylloxera attacks of the early 20th century, today Malvasia is being made in sweet and dry versions by a score of producers on the islands.

“Mediterranean peoples have a different, more cyclical, history than other Europeans,” Scienza says. “Life on these islands has hardly changed in 3,000 years. Today, this archaic, heroic viticulture can teach us a lot about how to make wine while maintaining the landscape sustainably.” Malvasia vines are often still grown as free-standing bushes, ad alberello, in steeply sloping vineyards. Their long roots reach deeply down; it rarely rains on these islands.

A much-favored vacation destination

The Aeolians offer some of the Mediterranean’s most sought-after holiday destinations, so if you want to explore their viticulture peacefully, it’s best to avoid the August crush. Winemakers have more time in spring and autumn to show their vineyards and organize tastings. Book your visit ahead, as these tiny estates are usually worked by the owners.

I recently visited seven top Malvasia producers, most of whom are situated on Salina. I made my base at Capofaro, the luxurious resort owned by the noble Tasca d’Almerita family whose historic estate, Regaleali, is located in central Sicily. The hotel is surrounded by vineyards, and you can enjoy their fine wines at Capofaro’s restaurant.

The name most often associated with Malvasia delle Lipari is Hauner‘s, who was the first to revive this traditional wine. Carlo Hauner makes fine Malvasia in sweet and dry versions.

Like Hauner, Fenech and Nino Caravaglio are artisanal Malvasia producers who supplement their incomes with the other plant that loves these arid conditions, the caper bush. Their tiny, salted capers — the plant’s flower buds — are famous throughout Italy. You can sample and buy these producers’ delicious wines and capers from their small cellars. Barone di Villagrande is another enterprising estate on Salina that also makes native reds on Etna.

If you go to Vulcano island, make an appointment with Paola Lantieri to visit her lovely house and vineyard. She makes her passito from grapes sun-dried on the vine and on cane racks. The latest addition to the Aelioan wineries is Castellaro, a large, ambitious project on Lipari. Their state-of-the-art cellar and expanding vineyards promise well for these ancient islands’ continuing viticulture.

Main photo: Malvasia vineyards and bougainvillea at the Capofaro estate on Salina. Credit: Carla Capalbo

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Martin Donatsch

There is one big problem with Swiss wines: There is not enough to go around. There are just 15,000 hectares (about 37,000 acres) of vineyards spread over the whole country, and the Swiss drink most of their wines themselves, so that barely 1 percent of the country’s entire production reaches the export market. This means that the only way to really enjoy Swiss wine is to go there — but that is no hardship, as it is a breathtakingly beautiful country.

The train ride from Geneva airport to Montreux sets the scene. The track follows the edge of Lake Geneva, and on the other side there are steep terraced vineyards, tiny plots with stone walls that form the myriad appellations of the Vaud (one of the Swiss cantons, or states). The whole area is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

From Montreux, I ventured into the German-speaking part of Switzerland, with vineyards scattered all over the northeastern part of the country.  They account for just 17 percent of the entire production of Switzerland. Visiting a small handful of wine growers, various themes become apparent. Not only is production tiny — the average wine grower can easily earn a living from 4 or 5 hectares (10 to 12 acres) — but it is also fragmented. Martin Donatsch, in the area of the Graubünden Herrschaft, is not unusual in making 14 different wines from 6 hectares (15 acres). While it is true that some of the wines are variations of the same grape variety, nonetheless the attention to detail is breathtaking.

Burgundy-style winemaking

Donatsch’s neighbor, Georg Fromm, in the village of Malans, follows the Burgundian pattern, making a village Pinot Noir that is a blend of grapes from different vineyards as well as four Pinot Noirs that draw from four distinct vineyards. And he has only 4.5 hectares. The differences were subtle but apparent, as there are slight variations in the soil as well as the vinification. (Fromm is also known for superlative Pinot Noir in New Zealand.)

Donatsch, whose father was the first to plant Chardonnay in the area and the first to age his Pinot Noir in barrels — he was given two Burgundian barrels by André Noblet of Domaine de la Romanée Conti — also follows the Burgundian pattern with the equivalent of a village, premier cru and grand cru wine. These indicate, in rising order, the quality of the terroir and thus the potential of the wine. In Donatsch’s case, the wines are called Tradition, Passion and Unique. Their style was understated, delicious and age-worthy.

Winemaking at Domaine Donatsch. Credit: Nicola Pitaro

Winemaking at Domaine Donatsch. Credit: Nicola Pitaro

With such tiny amounts, production costs are high — we were given a figure of 30,000 Swiss francs (about U.S. $31,000) per hectare, which could rise to as much as 50,000 francs (about $52,000) in particularly challenging hillside conditions, and so inevitably prices are high, but no higher than for a grand cru Burgundy. Donatsch’s wines range from about U.S. $21 for a bottle of Tradition to $57 for the Unique.

Although all the wine growers that we met grew a diverse range of local and international grapes, most agreed that Pinot Noir is the most successful grape variety of the region. For my taste buds, it really came into its own in the Graubünden Herrschaft, the four villages of which Malans in the center, where the warm prevailing wind, the föhn, helps ripen the grapes. The soil is mainly limestone, like Burgundy, and the grapes enjoy the large difference between day and nighttime temperatures, which makes for slower ripening and fresher flavors.

Local varietals at risk

In addition to the more international varieties, Switzerland is also home to a number of endangered varieties, which could be at risk of disappearing. Erich Meier at Uetikon, near Lake Zurich, is a keen exponent of Rauschling. There are 9 hectares (22 acres) of Rauschling in the area, 23 hectares (57 acres) altogether in the whole of Switzerland; Erich has just 40 ares (1 acre). He ferments half the grapes in oak and half in tank to make a rounded, fruity white wine with well-integrated oak and a lightly salty finish with good acidity.

Completer was another grape variety that I had never heard of, let alone tasted. This might be explained by the fact that 10 producers have just 3 hectares of it. Happily, the Donatsch family is planning to extend its vineyards of Completer so that its future can be more assured. Martin Donatsch explained how it has a very high acidity and that in the past it used to be aged for several years in wood to soften the acidity, thus making for a very oxidative style. He has opted for a fresher style, a late harvest wine, in which he leaves a little residual sugar. Again the föhn helps the ripening process, by shriveling the grapes, and for Donatsch it has everything that you want in a white wine, minerality, fruitiness, elegance and alcohol. I found it very intriguing, with dry honey and good acidity and again, well-integrated oak.

At lunchtime in the Donatsch family’s wine bar, Winzerstube zum Ochsen, we enjoyed the 2009 vintage of Completer from a magnum. It was simply delicious, and yet another example of the extraordinary diversity and originality of Switzerland.

Main photo: Martin Donatsch stirs the grapes at his family’s winery. Credit: Domaine Donatsch

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A sign decorating Industrial Eats in Buellton, California. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

A life-sized sculpture of a cow and a sign reading “Dine on our Swine” should have stopped me in my tracks, because I don’t eat beef or ham.

But one look at Industrial Eats’ menu, handwritten on large sheets of butcher paper hung from the walls, revealed I was in the right place.

Industrial Eats, a 1-year-old eatery in Buellton, Calif., has become a must-stop on my visits to the Santa Ynez wine region on California’s Central Coast. The cavernous restaurant furnished with family-style dining tables prides itself on its butchery skills. But for diners like me, there’s plenty of fish, fowl and local produce. The food is simple, straightforward and utterly delicious.

Pizzas are topped with such ingredients as smoked salmon, burrata, mascarpone, Calabrian chile, kabocha and chestnut. The Not Pizza section of the menu contains items such as wild mushrooms; black kale and black truffles; fall veggies with dates and brown sugar; Swiss chard and spinach in Vadouvan curry; and other poetically named dishes.

Simple cooking yields delicious meals at Industrial Eats

Everything at Industrial Eats gets cooked in the igloo-style wood-burning pizza ovens, and local wines as well as sandwiches and an array of cheeses are also served.

“Cooking is way too fussy and food is too over-handled in most restaurants,” said chef/owner Jeff Olsson.

He describes his cooking style simply: “Ingredients go in a sauté pan with olive oil and spices, in the wood-burning oven and on the plate. It’s honest taste infused in our food.”

But is it really as simple as that?

It could be if we did all our cooking in wood-burning ovens. At Industrial Eats, that’s the mantra. You won’t find gas burners or pricey induction ranges here. Instead, ingredients are placed in an iron skillet that goes inside the pizza oven. Cooked in this simple, traditional style, the food tastes divine.

Olsson and his wife, Janet, met in New York 22 years ago. “I was washing dishes,” said Jeff, who moved up the ladder and worked as a chef in Washington, D.C., restaurants such as Red Sage and Nora, where Janet served as a manager.

Fifteen years ago, the Olssons opened New West catering, which they continue to operate in Buellton along with Industrial Eats.

A two-hour drive north of Los Angeles, Buellton is just off U.S. Highway101 near Solvang. The small town is best known for its ostrich farm, a string of auto dealers and Pea Soup Andersen’s Inn. The local barbecue hangout The Hitching Post II became a tourist haven after it was spotlighted in the award-winning 2004 film “Sideways.”

Although the film pumped up wine tourism in the region, Buellton remained a pass-through town for visitors. It lacked the wine-country charm of neighboring hamlets such as Los Olivos or Santa Ynez.

But not for long.

“Buellton has become gentrified in the last 15 years,” Olsson said. Prohibitive real estate prices and saturation in Los Olivos and Solvang drove people — including the Olssons — to rediscover Buellton. In the past few years, industrial spaces have morphed into cafes, eateries and wine-tasting centers. A distillery is soon to open near Industrial Eats, and the noted Alma Rosa Winery’s tasting room is also nearby.

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A plate of fall vegetables. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

Industrial Eats, though, is known for its butchery. “We do whole animals from Central Coast and Santa Ynez Valley,” said Jeff, who also offers hog-butchering classes at the restaurant. Fresh preserves, patès and handmade bacon are some of the specialties.

“I stay local as much as I can,” he said, noting, though, that meats such as wild boar and antelope are sourced from Broken Arrow Ranch in southwest Texas.

Next time you’re driving Highway 101, stop in downtown Buellton to savor the local flavors at my all-time favorite spot. Meanwhile, you can re-create these wintry Industrial Eats recipes at home during the holiday season.

Crispy Confit of Duck With du Puy Lentils

Crispy Confit of Duck With du Puy Lentils from Industrial Eats. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

Crispy Confit of Duck With du Puy Lentils from Industrial Eats. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

Prep time: 15 minutes, plus overnight for marinating

Cook time: 5 1/2 hours

Total time: About 6 hours, plus marinating time for the duck.

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

For the confit of duck:

6 duck legs (you can, in a pinch, use chicken as well)

2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced

4 shallots, peeled and sliced

2 sticks Mexican canella

4 ounces dried cherries, roughly chopped

4 sprigs sage

Zest of one orange

Kosher salt to taste

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 pounds duck fat (available at fine grocers or Hudson Valley Foie Gras)

For the lentils:

1 shallot, minced

1 clove garlic, minced

1 carrot, diced small

1 bulb fennel, diced small

1 knob butter

2 cups duck stock

2 cups du Puy lentils

Directions

For the confit of duck:

1. Place the duck legs into a large ziplock bag with garlic, shallot, canella, cherries, sage, zest, salt and pepper. Let marinate overnight in the refrigerator.

2. The next day, preheat the oven to 225 F. In a large pot or Dutch oven, melt the duck fat over medium heat.

3. Carefully empty contents of ziplock bag into that fat, ensuring the duck legs are fully submerged.

4. Cook in the oven for 3 to 5 hours, until meat is tender and falling from the bone.

5. Remove from oven and allow to cool slightly.

6. Carefully remove duck legs from fat and allow to drain.

7. Preheat 8-inch skillet over medium heat. Place duck legs, two at a time, in the skillet and fry until crisp and brown, about 4 minutes per side.

For the lentils:

1. Sauté  the shallot, garlic, carrot and fennel in butter till slightly caramelized.

2. Add the stock and lentils and bring to a boil.

3. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook until lentils are tender, about 30 minutes

Note: Serve the duck legs atop the lentils.

Fall Veggies With Dates and Ginger

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 35 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

2 parsnips, peeled and cut into bite-size pieces

2 celery roots, peeled and cut into bite-size pieces

1 butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into bite-size pieces

1 kabocha squash, not peeled, but seeded and cut into 1/2-inch wedges

1 pound baby Japanese sweet potatoes, not peeled, cut into bite-size pieces

4 shallots, julienned

1 clove garlic, sliced

1/4 cup olive oil

Salt to taste

1 cup Medjool dates

1 piece of ginger, peeled and julienned as finely as you can

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 450 F.

2. In a large bowl, toss the vegetables with the olive oil and season with salt to taste.

3. Spread the vegetables in a single layer on a cookie sheet and place in the preheated oven for about 15 minutes or until soft and golden brown.

4. Remove from oven and toss with dates and ginger.

5. Place back in oven for 5 more minutes.

Note: This can be served as a side dish with Crispy Confit of Duck With du Puy Lentils.

Main photo: Crispy Confit of Duck With du Puy Lentils from Industrial Eats. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

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Loire Valley landscape. Credit: Tim Teichgraeber

Chenin Blanc is like the name of a woman you met at a club a couple of years ago: It rings a bell, but you can’t remember much else. That’s been a problem for wine producers around the world for most of the past century. The white grape delivers a big crop but usually makes for a pretty average wine, be it from California’s Central Valley or South Africa.

Chenin Blanc is native to France’s Loire Valley, where vintners in Anjou and Touraine still regard it with the glowing eye of a proud parent, probably because they understand its heart of gold and true potential. When you raise it in the disciplinary schist and limestone soils of the Loire, you get a respectable wine, something with breeding and class. It can even age extraordinarily well.

What’s more, Chenin Blanc is a remarkably flexible grape that knows how to party. It becomes a great dry or off-dry white in Vouvray, a long-lived dry white in the tough schist soils of Savennières and a dessert wine in Coteaux du Layon. Pick it early, as they do in Saumur as well as Vouvray, and it can make a great sparkling wine, especially when blended with some Cabernet Franc or Chardonnay. Look, for instance, to the superb Domaine Langlois-Château (owned by Champagne house Bollinger) or Bouvet Ladubay, both in Saumur, or Château Montcontour in Vouvray. Priced between $10 and $20 per bottle, Crémant de Loire is an affordable alternative to Champagne for holiday get-togethers.

Tasting at Château Montcontour. Credit: Tim Teichgraeber

Tasting at Château Montcontour. Credit: Tim Teichgraeber

Saumur

Langlois-Château’s wines aren’t the cheapest from this region, but the estate controls the production process from beginning to end. The grapes are crushed at the winery and the pressed juice separated to be vinified and later blended, just as is done in Champagne. Frankly, the quality as compared to that of other Loire bubbly is evident. “It is slightly higher priced, but in the end we propose something different. We try to intend quality from the beginning,” general manager François Regis de Fougeroux said.

Bouvet Ladubay makes some terrific sparkling Chenin Blanc from vineyards situated on top of vast, old limestone quarries. This central part of the Loire Valley is popular with cyclists, and Bouvet offers a 2.5-kilometer (about a mile) bicycle tour of its wine caves. “Chenin Blanc has a very good expression here for sparkling wine,” deputy managing director Juliette Monmousseau said. “It is very minerally and has good acidity, which encapsulates what we need to make good sparkling wine.”

“Historically, the Loire was the highway to transport goods in a fast way from the center of the country to the Atlantic Ocean,” she said. “We really have no major industries other than tourism, wine, cheese and great food.” If you’re looking for some evidence of that great food, you’ll want to check out Juliette’s sister’s restaurant, La Route du Sel in Thoureil, a tiny town overlooking the river. You can’t beat the waterside tables for an outstanding outdoor lunch of local cuisine with wine.

Vouvray

A bikeable distance to the east is Vouvray, where estates such as Château Montcontour make sparkling and still whites from Chenin Blanc. “In France, when people think of Vouvray, they think of sparkling wine,” export manager Thibaud Poisson said. “In the U.S., they think of off-dry wines. But now dry, still white wines from Vouvray are becoming more popular.”

To the west of Saumur is Anjou, where Chenin Blanc remains the lead white grape. Here, however, the soils change to a rocky mix of granite schist and quartz, which naturally limits the productivity of the vines to net concentrated, very minerally and, in some cases, long-lived wines with exotic tropical fruit and citrus flavors.

Winegrower Patrick Baudoin. Credit: Tim Teichgraeber

Winegrower Patrick Baudoin. Credit: Tim Teichgraeber

Anjou

Anjou/Savennières winemaker Patrick Baudoin said that while the Loire Valley east of Saumur features white, limestone-based soils, the parts to the west are known for “Anjou noir” soils, named for their darker schist makeup. That soil difference resonates in the character of the wines. Baudoin’s are more concentrated and taut than those grown in limestone soils, with profound stone-fruit, pear, lemongrass and green-tea notes. And they’re built to last, with vibrant acidity, good body and just enough white grape-skin tannin to give them some longevity.

There are some great examples from California, such as Dry Creek Vineyard’s Dry Chenin Blanc, which displays a certain amount of class. But it’s not the ideal place to raise the grape. If you’re looking for more terroir-driven wines and greater variety, look to the  Loire Valley.

Main photo: The beauty of the Loire Valley landscape. Credit: Tim Teichgraeber

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