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O.J.’s Jell-O Judge, a Recipe That Requires Trial and Error Image

During the first O.J. Simpson trial in 1995, I was working at the Los Angeles Times, about three blocks away from the L.A. County Courthouse. Once in a while I would wander up there to gawk at the sidewalk circus that was in progress.

One fellow in the colorful crowd was selling an amazing souvenir of those days: a plastic mold you could use to reproduce the face of Superior Court Judge Lance Ito in gelatin. As I like to say, there’s always a food angle.

Several members of the trial’s cast of characters used it as a springboard to fame: the late attorney Johnny Cochran, police officer Mark Fuhrman, party pal Kato Kaelin (not that much fame, in retrospect) et al., including Robert Kardashian, of course, who bequeathed us a pack of telegenic daughters the world might otherwise never have heard of. Judge Ito took a more dignified route and continued an honorable career on the bench.

The gelatin mold looks kind of like the judge, but not exactly. It’s based on a life mask of the owner of SKS Sibley Co., which mostly makes molds for Halloween purposes such as brains, hands and eyeballs. At any rate, it looked enough like the Honorable Ito that people recognized the resemblance at the time. The mold came with a pair of glasses made from construction paper, which were not really very close to what the judge wore.

Of course I bought a mold. Shortly afterward, the judge expressed a desire that the maker cease and desist, or something to that effect, so it has become something of a rarity.

That day I took it back to the Times Test Kitchen and we made it following the accompanying instructions. They created gelatin with a color a little like a flesh tone, more orange than one might like for the purpose, except perhaps on the Jersey Shore. The hair? More of a problem. The idea was to use food coloring (gelatin is food, people), but black food coloring is hard to find. Blue with a few drops of red gave a very deep purple hue that read close enough to black for the gag to work.

It takes a long time for the gelatin to set, but the next day we had it ready, and we proudly carried it all around the Times building to show it off. Everybody found it highly entertaining … everybody, that is, except the City Desk people who were covering the trial. They didn’t get it at all.

Today with O.J. nostalgia in full bloom, I dug that mold out, a little surprised to find that I’d hung onto it through the years and that I still had the recipe for the quasi-flesh tone gelatin. I had to make new fake glasses, of course – construction paper is less durable than plastic. So here it is, one for the “Remember Those Fabulous Nineties?” book.

By the way, here’s the gelatin recipe that came with the mold. You can use it whenever you need a flesh-colored dessert. In the absence of a suitable mold, you might chill it in custard cups and then paint eyeballs or something when you unmold them.

 

Quasi-Human Gelatin

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 7 hours, 10 minutes

Yield: One face mold’s worth, 9 ½ cups

Ingredients

    For the Gelatin
  • 3 (6-ounce) packets of peach-flavored gelatin
  • 4 cups boiling water
  • 1 cup cold water
  • 1 (12-ounce) can nonfat evaporated milk
  • 3-4 drops of green food coloring
  • For the Fake Hair Color
  • 6 or 7 drops blue food coloring
  • 3 or 4 drops red food coloring

Directions

  1. Dissolve the gelatin in the boiling water.
  2. When dissolved, stir in the cold water and the evaporated milk.
  3. Add three drops of food coloring – if the color is still too peachy try another drop.
  4. Refrigerate until quite firm, seven hours or more.
  5. After the gelatin is firm, squeeze the blue and red food coloring in a small bowl and stir. If it doesn’t look black enough for you, doctor it with more drops.
  6. Apply the blackish coloring carefully to the appropriate areas of the gelatin with a small brush.

Main photo: Twenty years after the O.J. Simpson trial, Charles Perry digs out his Jell-O mold of  Superior Court Judge Lance Ito to revive an unlikely recipe. Credit: Charles Perry

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Bold Olive Oils Meet Peppery Steak For Quick One-Dish Meal Image

After tasting many of the Puglia’s big, herbacious olive oils on a recent trip to Italy, I was keen to use them at home in New York. In the heat of the summer, with the arugula in my garden ready to pick, an Italian-inspired beef salad seems just right for a one-dish meal that is satisfying, easy and shows off the oil in a simple dressing.

From steak au poivre to steak salad

Now, when I want to be grilling outdoors as much as possible, I am reminded of steak au poivre, which today seems out of fashion. (It’s a recipe with a fiery kick, so easy to make that I once cooked it regularly in the galley of a sailboat.) The French original is pan-roasted in butter, treated to cream and cognac, and ignited. This slimmed-down version, seared over charcoal and sliced thinly, is layered over a bed of greens and boiled potatoes and dressed with the oil, lemon — both juice and zest — and the requisite dollop of Dijon. The perfect natural green is arugula, with its peppery bite. For a soft contrast, use a layer of buttery-fleshed fingerling potatoes. Then, capers with their spikes of flavor are scattered over all.

These bold extra virgin olive oils, with their scents of chicory and marjoram, temper the sting of the pepper, the acidity of the lemon, the tang of the mustard, the briny bursts of the capers, and bring the components together in a dish that gives new meaning to meat and potatoes.

 

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Herbs and aromatics for the steak salad. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

Peppery Steak, Potato and Arugula Salad

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 30 minutes

Yield: 4 or 5 servings

The salad is particularly tasty made with charcoal-broiled beef cuts, including flank, strip or shell steak. Sear it well on both sides, but take care not to overcook it. Cold boiled or roasted beef can be substituted, but won’t have the peppery bite. You can use leftover potatoes if you have them available, or boil fresh ones in the time it takes to cook the meat.

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons, or to taste, whole peppercorns
  • 1 pound flank, strip, shell or other boneless steak, whole, about 1-inch thick
  • 1 pound small fingerling, Red Bliss or new potatoes, scrubbed
  • 4 ounces fresh arugula, washed
  • For the dressing:
  • 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, or more, to taste
  • 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest
  • 1 generous teaspoon Dijon-style mustard
  • 1 large clove garlic, smashed
  • fine sea salt to taste
  • For the topping:
  • 1 tablespoon drained small capers, or coarsely chopped large capers, or 12 caper berries
  • 1 teaspoon fresh parsley or chives, minced (optional)

Directions

  1. On a cutting board, spread out the peppercorns between two pieces of wax paper. Use the dull side of a meat mallet, or a rolling pin, to gently crush them. The peppercorns should be cracked, not ground. Press them into both sides of the steak.
  2. Prepare a charcoal or a gas grill, or preheat a broiler. Sear the meat well on both sides, cooking it through to the desired doneness. Transfer it to a cutting board and allow it to rest for 10 minutes. Using a sharp chef's knife, cut it across the grain into very thin slices.
  3. While the meat is cooking, cover the potatoes with cold water and bring to a boil. Cook over medium heat until tender but not mushy. Drain and immerse in cold water to cool. Drain well and slice into approximately 1/8-inch rounds.
  4. Blend all the dressing ingredients. Toss the arugula lightly with 1 tablespoon of the dressing and arrange the greens on a shallow serving platter. Arrange the sliced meat and potatoes over it, and dab with a little more of the dressing. Scatter the capers on top. If you are using parsley or chives, sprinkle 1 teaspoon over the potatoes. Pass the remaining dressing and additional olive oil at the table.

Main photo: Peppery Steak, Potato and Arugula Salad, adapted from “Antipasti: The Little Dishes of Italy” by Julia della Croce. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

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2 Quick And Easy Appetizers Made With Grilled Shellfish Image

Grilled shellfish always make the best appetizer. Once the grill fire is going there are a wide variety of things you can do with shellfish that cook quickly, make minimal mess, are wonderful for satisfying hungry party guests, are ridiculously easy and, most important, are delicious.

In these two examples, one with oysters and one with shrimp and scallops on skewers, everything is assembled simply. When planning portions, I generally figure on three oysters per person and one brochette of shrimp and scallops per person with one shrimp and one scallop on it. Remember, these are appetizers so there is no need for tons of food — that will come later. The instructions below assume you have made a grill fire first.

Shucking oysters

If you are not adept at shucking oysters (see my video) and if no one is around to open them you can cheat a bit by washing the oysters very well, which you should do in any case. Next, place them into a pot with a half-inch of water, cover, and turn the heat to high. All you are trying to do is get the oysters to relax a bit, not to open them or steam them, so this might take only a minute or two. Remove the oyster shells and, with an oyster knife or handle end of a spoon, pry them open completely, leaving the oyster in its shell, and then follow the recipe.

For the shrimp, the ideal size is medium, about 41- to 50-count per pound. Of course, if you have access to fresh shrimp with their heads (that is, never frozen shrimp) by all means use them, removing the shell but keeping the head on. Frozen shrimp should be defrosted in the refrigerator.

Oysters creole. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Oysters creole. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Too many people buy frozen shrimp as if all shrimp are the same. They’re not, so look at the package to see where they originate. My personal preference is large and extra large shrimp from India or Bangladesh. I’m not sure what they’re doing to make them taste better, but they do. Shrimp from Mexico, Vietnam, and Ecuador are pretty good, too, and I always love Florida rock shrimp but not for this preparation.

For the scallops, you’ll want to use the large sea scallops rather than the tiny bay scallops that cook too fast.

Oysters Creole

Yield: 6 appetizer servings

Ingredients

½ cup (1 stick) butter

2 tablespoons Creole seasoning, such as Tony Chachere’s or Paul Prudhomme’s

24 oysters, shucked

Directions

1. Melt the butter and stir in the Creole seasoning.

2. Shuck the oysters and arrange them on the grill. Spoon some seasoned butter over each and cover the grill. Grill until some of the butter is bubbling, then spoon the remainder on and continue grilling, covered, until the edges of the oysters begin to curl slightly. Remove and serve.

Grilled Skewers of Scallops and Shrimp

Make sure the scallops and shrimp on the skewer don’t touch.

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 pound medium shrimp, shelled

1 pound sea scallops

Juice of 1 orange

½ cup dry white wine

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

¼ cup finely chopped fresh oregano or 1 tablespoon dried

Freshly ground black pepper

6 (10-inch) wooden skewers

Directions

1. Place the shrimp and scallops into a 9-by-12-inch ceramic or glass baking pan and add the orange juice, white wine, olive oil, oregano, and pepper to taste. Leave to marinate in the refrigerator, covered, for 2 hours. Remove from the refrigerator 15 minutes before grilling.

2. Skewer the shrimp and scallops so they don’t touch, reserving the marinade. Place onto the grill and cook, turning occasionally, until the shrimp are orange and the scallops a light golden brown, about 20 minutes. Baste with the marinade during grilling. Serve hot.

Main photo: Grilled skewers of scallops and shrimp. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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3 Florence Favorites When Looking For The Perfect Panino Image

Florence’s favorite street food is the panino and, with so much to do in Tuscany’s capital city, it’s the perfect meal while sightseeing. There are many good sandwich shops throughout the city with crunchy bread and local ingredients. Francine Segan, Italian food expert and author of two books on Italian cuisine, shares three of her Florence favorites.

All’Antico Vinaio

Via de’ Neri, 65R

Near the Uffici and Ponte Vecchio

Tourist spots typically don’t interest me. But I happily join the queue at All’Antico Vinaio — Florence’s famed panino spot — every time I visit town. The hype is well-deserved. Daniele Mazzanti and his son, Tomasso, take great pride in making astonishing sandwich ingredients: spicy eggplant, artichoke cream, porcini puree, ricotta with truffles and luscious spreadable pecorino cheese. They have many tantalizing cheeses and a staggering assortment of top quality salami. As Florentines, they favor Tuscan ingredients but also seek out the best from other regions too, serving Umbrian black truffle spreads and salumi from Norcia, that region’s renowned center for all-things pork.

All’Antico Vinaio maintains a mind-bogglingly high level of quality despite a well-established tourist following from around the world. The place has been written about in hundreds of publications.

The bread alone is worth the visit. Its schiacciata is another thing that distinguishes All’Antico Vinaio from all the other panini shops. Marvelously chewy, with that special aroma that only comes from “madre lieveto,” or mother leavening, the bread is left to rise five hours. It’s made exclusively for All’Antico Vinaio by a nearby family-owned bakery that par-bakes the bread in a wood-burning oven with the final baking done on site so that it comes piping hot every 30 to 45 minutes throughout the day. It’s so fragrant, you’re almost tempted to skip the sandwich fixings.

When I asked Tommaso how many loaves they use in a day, he looked surprised by the question, saying, “We’re never had time to count them!”

With so many ingredients, the panini combos are endless. There are suggested sandwiches such as Mondiale, a fan favorite made with creamy scamorza cheese infused with truffles, truffle spread, prosciutto Toscano, arugula, tomatoes and a drizzle of oil. If you can go only once during your stay in Florence, be sure to try the award-winning Favolosa, with artichoke puree, pecorino cheese, spicy homemade eggplant, and sbriciolona, a Tuscan fennel-studded salami.

The friendly, patient staff is willing to make sandwiches with whatever fillings you’d like, but I highly recommend you just say, “fai te” or “surprise me,” which lets the panino maker create a fantasy sandwich for you.

There’s always a line, so go early.  All’Antico Vinaio opens at 10 a.m., and you’ll beat the crowd and get more of their time and attention. I’d even recommend this place for breakfast AND lunch. The staff is so jovial that it creates a really fun environment, making this a great spot to meet other travelers.

Be sure to order a glass of serve-yourself wine, a bargain at just 2 euros. The generous panini cost 5 euros and can easily feed two. All’Antico Vinaio also offers snack rolls filled with porchetta or other meats for 1.5 euros that are called “fermino,” or little stoppers, because they stop hunger..

 

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The award-winning Favolosa panino, with artichoke purée, pecorino cheese, spicy homemade eggplant, and sbriciolona, a Tuscan fennel-studded salami. Credit: Francine Segan

Semel

Piazza Lorenzo Shiberti 44/r

Near the Sant’Ambrogio food market

A favorite with locals, this tiny shop is named after a type of crunchy Florentine roll, semelino. The standout feature here are the interesting, unusual sandwich ingredients like octopus, codfish, duck, rabbit, deer, wild boar or slow-simmered donkey. The creative panino combinations are exquisitely balanced and a true gourmet delight: pecorino cheese with pears and walnut puree, salami with fig and balsamic vinegar, and anchovies with slices of oranges and puntarelle, Tuscan greens. My favorite the day I visited was “gnudi,” small ricotta and spinach dumplings simmered in duck ragù.

The owner, Marco Paparozzi, and his nephew always wear shirts and ties, even on the hottest days, and serve delicious local wines. But don’t hesitate to ask for a glass of free water, which the owner whimsically calls “the mayor’s water.” An average panino costs 4 euros.

Open only from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., the menu changes frequently, so be sure to visit often! You could be 10 feet away and not spot this tiny locale, so be sure to ask a local where it is.

Trippa Pollini

At the corner of Via de’Macci & Borgo la Croce

Panini filled with tripe, or more specifically “lampredotto” — the cow’s fourth stomach — can be found on virtually every street in Florence.

The lampredotto is slow-simmered in celery, carrots and onions, then sliced onto a roll that is dipped into the tripe-cooking pot. Traditionally, the only seasonings are salt and pepper, but nowadays most street carts offer “salsa verde,” a green sauce of minced celery, parsley, garlic and oil, and even hot chili seasonings.

Over the course of two days, I tried six carts. My favorite was Trippa Pollini, run by Sergio Pollini and his son, Pier Paolo Pollini.

Main photo: At All’Antico Vinaio, you can get grated zucchini on your panino. Credit: Francine Segan

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‘Shadows In The Vineyard’: A Must-Read Vintage Thriller Image

Aubert de Villaine is a rare wine character. The gatekeeper to the most celebrated wines in Burgundy — Domaine de la Romanée-Conti — de Villaine works in the service of his vines. His wealth and power are obscured by frayed tweed jackets and mud-caked boots.

When you meet him, there is no hint of the haughtiness typical of lesser lights in the wine world. Neither is there the equally off-putting salesman’s instant friendship. A private man, de Villaine maintains a surprisingly low profile for someone with his influence.

Knowing this, I am all the more astonished by the intimacy of the story Maximillian Potter tells in “Shadows in the Vineyard: The True Story of a Plot to Poison the World’s Greatest Wine.” Potter’s unprecedented access to the great vigneron and the people closest to him imbues the book with the spirit of its two main characters, bringing both de Villaine and his vineyards to life as no one has.

This is a thriller, complete with a blackhearted criminal and a scheme so frighteningly sinister it is nearly unbelievable. Unable to put it down, I read it in one sitting.

Lesson in the ‘Shadows’

Potter deftly delivers everything you need to know about winemaking, the French Revolution, de Villaine’s family, the birth of the American wine movement and Burgundy’s history to keep you turning the pages to learn more. When you close the book, you will want to pull a cork as an act of homage and celebration.

My favorite chapters focus on de Villaine’s ancestor, Louis-François de Bourbon, who began the family wine dynasty in the pre-revolutionary intrigue of the court of King Louis XV. From that vantage point, Potter pulls the threads with which he weaves the modern drama that took place in the dark of night on the hillside of La Romanée-Conti vineyard.

In my home, I have two giant bookcases filled with wine books, at least 200 volumes. As a wine writer, I have at least perused nearly every wine book written in the last couple of decades. I keep the ones with information I might need in the course of my work.

“Shadows in the Vineyard” goes on a separate bookshelf, one reserved for books I’ve enjoyed and want to either read again or pass along to friends. This is a book for anyone who loves a well-told tale. It also might turn you into a wine lover.

I worked with Potter at Premiere magazine when he was a fresh-from-college assistant to the editor. He went on to become an award-winning journalist, writing for Philadelphia and GQ and working as an editor at 5280: The Denver Magazine, Men’s Health and Details. He is now a senior media consultant to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.

The dogged journalist with an open heart I met 20 years ago is in evidence on every page of this, his first book. It is a feat he accomplishes without once getting in the way of the story he tells. Bravo, Max.

Main photo composite:

Maximillian Potter. Credit: Jeff Panis

Book cover: Credit: Courtesy of Hachette Book Group

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Silk Road Summer Bean Salad Is Perfect For Picnics Image

No American picnic is really complete without a bean salad. Black beans, green beans or kidney beans, often blended with garbanzos and onions in a light vinaigrette, make for the dreams of many a midsummer picnic. These salads complement roast meats like nothing else and are light, quick and healthy additions to any meal.

Roast meats in the form of kebabs and chops rule menus across western, central and southern Asia. With these kebabs come rice, bread or naan, and usually a light vegetable or bean salad. My favorite of these salads comes from Pakistan and uses garbanzo and northern white beans in a sweet-and-sour vinaigrette of grape-seed oil and white vinegar seasoned with a bit of sugar, black pepper and chilies. Other ingredients include onions, tomatoes, red bell peppers and cilantro. Variations on this theme can be found on stops along the Silk Road with a different combination of beans or lemon juice in place of white vinegar.

Pakistan had an important place on the Silk Road connecting the overland routes with the maritime sea routes. An often-used north-south route running the length of the country connected the Southern Silk Road at Kashgar, China, with Pakistan’s port in Karachi. From Karachi goods could be shipped southeast to Goa, west to ports in Persia or Arabia, up the Red Sea to Egypt, or down the coast of eastern Africa. The road between Kashgar and Karachi is still there today, at least as far as Islamabad, in the form of the Karakoram Highway.

Karakoram Highway. Credit: Laura Kelley

Karakoram Highway. Credit: Laura Kelley

The earliest parts of the Silk Road also ran through northernmost Pakistan and connected the jade mines in western China to the lapis mines in northeastern Afghanistan. Trade in those minerals across the Badakhshan corridor began more than 4,000 years ago. So, from the second millennium B.C., the time of the Indus Valley Civilization, goods from across the region were flowing through Pakistan along with people, cultures and ideas. To this end, the city of Taxila, just west of Rawalpindi and Islamabad, was the site of one of the world’s earliest “universities” where, since the sixth century B.C., learned men traveling the Silk Road came to study.

The Silk Road and Pakistani food

In addition to their ideas, the people traveling the Silk Road also brought their food cultures. Modern Pakistani cuisine is a unique blend of influences from India, western and central Asia, Arabia and the Levant states of the Middle East. The foods from Pakistan’s Sindh and Punjab provinces are most closely related to Indian food, and the curries and other dishes can be quite spicy. Dishes from Pakistan’s two western provinces have commonalities with cuisines of Afghanistan and central Asia. Given the historical importance of the port at Karachi, there are also a few Southeast Asian and Pacific influences, evident in a big way in the use of coconut products, and lime instead of lemon, especially in the south.

The Pakistani Mixed Bean Salad is probably of Arab or Levantine origin given the number of similar salads from those regions. Those salads, however, usually use lemon juice as a souring agent and often contain kidney beans or broad beans, either alone or in combination with other beans. The use of vinegar instead of citrus for souring is probably a Central Asian influence, although it is difficult to be certain.

Chickpeas have been part of the human diet since Ancient Mesopotamian times and believed to have originated in Syria or southeastern Turkey based on the number of wild related species known from these areas. They are rich in protein, carbohydrates and soluble fiber as well as potassium, phosphorus and calcium.

A great deal of the salad’s special flavor comes from grape-seed oil in the dressing. This oil, often extracted after processing for winemaking, is light and sweet and brings the flavor of the grape arbor. A very high flashpoint makes it great for braising and cooking because it’s so difficult to scorch. It also is high in polyunsaturated fats, with 1 tablespoon accounting for 19% of the U.S. recommended daily requirement of vitamin E. It is available in most Persian and Mediterranean markets as well as many large grocery chains. Don’t substitute it, unless there are no options. The added flavor is worth going out of your way to make the purchase.

This salad is moderately spicy when made, but it mellows a lot after marinating. I like to prepare it in the morning, or by noon, and let it rest in the refrigerator for two to three hours. It’s best chilled, but not too cold, so consider taking it out of the fridge and letting it sit at room temperature before serving.  I have never met anyone who doesn’t like this salad, especially when it complements steak, chops or other grilled meats.

Pakistani Mixed Bean Salad

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

Total time includes at least 2 hours to allow flavors to blend.

Ingredients

  • 1 (15-ounce) can northern white beans or butter beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1 (15-ounce) can of chickpeas, rinsed and drained
  • 1 large onion, peeled and diced
  • 1 medium red pepper, cored and minced
  • 2 medium tomatoes, chopped
  • 2 green chili peppers, minced
  • ⅓ cup white vinegar
  • ⅓ cup of grape-seed oil
  • 1 to 1½ tablespoons sugar
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 medium bunch fresh coriander leaves, minced

Directions

  1. Combine beans, chickpeas, onion, red pepper, tomato and chili peppers into a large bowl. Then whisk together vinegar, oil, sugar, salt and pepper and when well blended, pour over the bean mixture. Mix well.
  2. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. Just before serving, fold in fresh chopped cilantro leaves and stir gently.

Main photo: Pakistani Mixed Bean Salad. Credit: Sasha Martin

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The London Shop That Inspires U.S. Artisan Cheese Image

Back in the late 1970s, the cheese industry was just that: a commodity-style big agriculture business. Over the past 40 years, however, an offshoot of wholesale cheese manufacturing began to bloom, giving birth to the robust artisan cheese movement we know today. One little shop in London is, in part, responsible for this transformation.

Neal’s Yard Dairy, originally tucked into a charming courtyard in Covent Garden, is widely recognized as one of the finest purveyors of farmstead and artisan cheeses in the world, but its path to getting there started in an unassuming storefront, selling bulk cheeses of unclear origin.

Cheese shop seeks out handmade cheeses

In 1979, recent food science graduate Randolph Hodgson stumbled upon a job in Neal’s Yard Dairy’s fledgling London cheese shop. The dairy made several fresh cheeses as well as crème fraiche and Greek-style yogurt. Hodgson procured additional cheeses from a wholesaler to round out its offerings but found he knew very little about their sources. This made them difficult to sell in the method that the shop employed — offering detailed tastings to customers.

A farmstead cheese called Devon Garland arrived one day from Hilary Charnley, which was intriguing to Hodgson because now he could put a cheese with a cheesemaker. He went to the farm to learn more, and Charnley suggested other local cheesemakers to visit in the area. Suddenly the door opened up to new opportunities for both Neal’s Yard and farmstead cheeses from the British Isles. He came back laden with cheeses from the Devon countryside and, in the process, learned more about how cheese is made, aged and handled.

From there, Neal’s Yard Dairy grew to include more handmade cheeses from the United Kingdom and Ireland, and the backrooms and bowels of the store became areas for maturing and storing the cheeses. Each cheese was prominently labeled with the name of the cheesemaker and where it was from. Knowledgeable cheese mongers waited on each customer, finding out what they liked and giving them tastes of whatever they wanted to try.

Because the cheeses are properly pampered, the freshness and flavor is unparalleled. “Neal’s Yard Dairy has played a critical role in supporting and promoting fine British cheese,” cheese expert and food writer Janet Fletcher said. “I think of it as a highly reliable brand. Randolph Hodgson has been a tireless advocate for traditional methods and quality, and his influence has been enormous. Montgomery’s Cheddar, Colston Bassett Stilton, Lincolnshire Poacher, Duckett’s Caerphilly … a lot of these classic British cheeses would not be known in the U.S. if not for NYD.”

But Hodgson did far more than just find great cheese made down on the farm. Neal’s Yard Dairy was, and still is, committed to preserving and promoting traditional cheeses as well as improving the public’s awareness and appreciation of them. The goal has always been to create a market for these heritage cheeses and support a livelihood for the people who make them. And it is precisely this model that encouraged others to jump into the artisan cheese business — making, selling or both.

Sue Conley and Peggy Smith from Northern California’s Cowgirl Creamery spent time at Neal’s Yard before they opened their operation. In fact, the first time they actually made cheese was at the dairy. It was 1995, during a visit to learn about all the facets of the business: cheesemaking, retail, aging and wholesale.

 

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Cheeses at Neal’s Yard Dairy in London. Credit: Brooke Jackson

“A light went on for us during that trip,” they write in their recent book “Cowgirl Creamery Cooks.” “We looked at each other and said, ‘We could do that too — we can find cheesemakers in California and create a venue where their products can be sold!’ ”

With the increased focus on slow food and the diversification of the dairy industry in many countries because of the low cost of milk, more people are making cheese than ever before. Twenty years ago, the U.S. had about 75 artisan cheesemakers; now they number in the hundreds. Likewise in the British Isles, where a massive artisan and farmstead cheese revival began in the latter half of the 20th century with more creative dairy people hopping on the bandwagon each year.

Neal’s Yard Dairy has encouraged many of these folks and helped them learn their craft. That influence has spread across the pond, according to Fletcher. “The cheesemakers that NYD nurtured have certainly inspired our [U.S.] cheesemakers,” she said.

Cheese lovers visiting England must make a pilgrimage to Neal’s Yard Dairy, a temple to all things that really matter about cheese. Stepping into the shop near Covent Garden (a second store is located at the Borough Market), the unmistakable barnyard aroma of cheese surrounds you, and wheels and wedges of the stuff create turrets and towers on every available surface. Cheese mongers slice tastes of anything you take a fancy to, and the quality and freshness rate among the top taste experiences for any cheeses sampled. The Colston Bassett Stilton, a cheese I’ve eaten often, had a cleaner flavor and creamier texture than I’d ever encountered, and several cheddars sampled were superb.

Although it may be foolhardy to assume Neal’s Yard Dairy is responsible for the explosion in artisan and farmstead cheesemakers in Britain and the U.S., its continued influence on this burgeoning business is undeniable.

Main photo: Cheese at Neal’s Yard Dairy. Credit: Brooke Jackson

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Tasting Tuscan Chocolate: Tips From The ‘World’s Best’ Image

Willy Wonka might not agree, but not all chocolate is created equal. To find out what makes the difference between a $1 candy bar and an artisanal, single-origin chocolate, I went to Tuscany, Italy, to tour the headquarters of Amedei, a four-time winner of the Oscars of chocolate — the coveted Golden Bean award. There I went on a guided tasting of chocolate that Food & Wine Magazine calls “the world’s best.”

My visit began with a tasting of the various Amedei products, including tiny bars called Napolitains, assorted handmade pralines, and finally the best hot chocolate I’ve ever tasted, dense and rich with a hint of toasted almonds.

Amedei is the only Italian chocolate company that supervises chocolate production at every stage, from growing the cocoa bean to the finished product. During the visit, Cecilia Tessieri, owner of the Amedei chocolate company, explained chocolate’s complexity and gave an insider’s peek at how the pros taste chocolate.

Chocolate tasting tips

Tessieri says that to truly appreciate fine chocolate, you must use all five of your senses.

See. Start with your eyes. Great chocolate should have a nice sheen, but not be too glossy. Too glossy means that instead of using only expensive cocoa butter, less costly vegetable oils were added.

Hear. Break off a piece. Do you hear a snap? That’s a sign that the cocoa butter was properly crystalized.

Smell. Fine chocolate offers lovely complex aromas, and depending on where it’s from, may show off hints of toasted almonds, honey or dried fruit. Defective or lesser chocolate smells burnt or metallic.

Touch and taste. Put a small piece of chocolate onto the center of your tongue, but don’t chew! Fine chocolate has multiple flavor levels and chewing doesn’t allow time for them to reveal themselves. Cocoa butter is solid at room temperature, but soft at body temperature, giving us the chance to experience the silky feel of the chocolate as it melts in the mouth.

How chocolate is made

The visit continued with a video on harvesting chocolate and then a tour through Amedei’s facility for converting cacao beans into award-winning chocolate. “It all starts with the cocoa beans,” said Cecilia, holding a handful of aromatic toasted cocoa beans. A single cacao tree bears about 30 usable pods each year, yielding roughly 1,000 cacao beans, enough for about 2 pounds of chocolate.

The mature pods are handpicked and then carefully cut open so as not to damage the beans, which must remain intact to maintain a full chocolate flavor.  When a cacao pod is first opened, it has no hint of chocolate fragrance. Instead, the white fruit pulp has a lovely peach and tropical flower aroma and a fruity tart-sweet flavor.

The pulp and the beans are pulled out of the pod and placed in a container, often a simple wooden box lined with banana leaves, where it is left for seven to nine days. The beans ferment in the pulp’s juices, infusing them with additional flavor. They are then spread out to dry in the sun for about a week where they are gently turned, often by women on tiptoe, in what Cecilia calls the “the cacao dance.”

When the beans arrive at Amedei, Cecilia begins the process of converting these precious cacao beans into chocolate.

1. Cecilia does a “cut test,” slicing a sample of the beans in half to confirm their quality. Cacao beans must be perfect to be included in Amedei chocolate—uniform and smooth.

2. Then they are roasted in special proprietary indirect fire equipment.

3. After that, the concasseur, or nibbing machine, separates the husks from the beans to obtain tiny bits of cacao beans, the “nibs.”

4. Next, the nibs are ground into a thick paste called cocoa mass. I tasted the warm, fragrant mass and found it perfect, but Cecilia explained that it was still too acidic and dense. The missing crucial step is called “conching.” a slow, gentle grinding process lasting 72 hours that results in a silky smooth chocolate with perfect flavor. Finally comes tempering, melting the chocolate to just the right temperature to crystallize the cocoa butter. At this stage, the chocolate is ready to be made into the various Amedei products.

 

Cacao pod

Cacao pod
Picture 1 of 6

Mature cacao pods are hand-picked and then carefully cut open so as not to damage the beans. Credit: Amedei.

From around the world

Cru, a French term meaning “growth,” refers to wines from a particular area. Since the ’80s the term is also used with other products that change flavor depending on where they’re made, including beer, whisky and chocolate.

“Chocolate can taste very different depending on where it comes from,” explains Cecelia during our tour. She scours the globe in search of the very best tasting beans. She illustrated those differences in a guided tasting of Amedei’s Cru line, which includes chocolates made exclusively from cocoa beans from various countries, explaining the special aroma and taste of each:

Grenada

Delicate, creamy taste with a lovely long-lasting finish.

Madagascar

Smells like hot chocolate with hints of lavender and herbs.

Rich with lovely hints of citrus and mint that almost tingles on the tongue.

Ecuador

Delicate roasted cacao aroma and the intriguing scent of a forest in the fall. The taste is just as complex, with a sequence of flavors revealing themselves, from green tea to pistachio and almonds to tropical fruit.

Jamaica

Fabulously complex aroma of dates, figs, apricot jam and ginger with a touch of carob, olives and freshly cut wood. The taste delivers all that the aroma promises, with the tang of candied orange peel and jam and richness of butter. Deep dark chocolate taste, yet not at all bitter.

Trinidad

Gourmet aromas of cocoa powder, Cuban cigars and a summer garden filled with fresh tomatoes with a taste of walnuts, vanilla and sweet persimmons.

Venezuela

Delicate aroma of sugar, warm melted butter, dried fruit and sandlewood. Naturally nutty taste of hazelnut, walnut, almond and cashew with slightly spicy hints. Intense flavor that is long lingering and rich.

Groups of at least four, and up to ten guests, can schedule a tour of Amedei in Italy. For information and reservations, go to their website, call 011-39-0587-48-4849 or e-mail office@amedei.it

There is one Amedei store in the United States, so if you can’t get to Italy, you can visit their shop at 15 East 18th St. in New York City, which features daily free samplings.

Torta Tenerina is a five-ingredient flourless chocolate cake. Credit: Francine Segan.

Torta Tenerina is a five-ingredient flourless chocolate cake. Credit: Francine Segan.

Torta Tenerina (5-Ingredient Italian Chocolate Cake)

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 55 minutes

Yield: 8

This flourless cake has a crisp, macaroon-like top layer and a dense, incredibly moist center. As the cake cools, it collapses just a little, creating a pretty webbing on the delicious crust. It’s made with only five ingredients, so be sure to use only quality chocolate like Amedei. A must-try classic! Recipe is in "DOLCI: Italy’s Sweets" by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2011)

Note: The cake's total time includes 20 to 30 minutes of rest time.

Ingredients

  • 7 tablespoons, 3 ½ ounces, unsalted butter, plus more for the pan
  • 7 ounces dark chocolate, 70% cacao or higher, preferrably Amedei
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 2 tablespoons potato or cornstarch

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch spring form cake pan .
  2. Melt the butter and chocolate in a small bowl, either in the microwave or over a saucepan of gently boiling water.
  3. In a large bowl beat the sugar and egg yolks with an electric hand held mixer until creamy and pale yellow. Add the chocolate-butter mixture and beat until creamy. Add the potato starch and mix until well combined.
  4. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff. Slowly, using a spatula, fold the egg whites, a little at a time, into the chocolate mixture until combined.
  5. Spread the batter evenly into the prepared pan. Bake for about 20 minutes, until just set in the center. Don’t over-bake.
  6. The cake will continue to set as it cools. Allow it to rest for about 30 minutes before cutting it until it collapses and the top crust cracks a bit.
  7. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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