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Awesome, Unique Wines Of Southwest France Image

It is not often that I visit a wine region that has grape varieties I have never heard of. But that happened in Gaillac, a small appellation in southwest France, near the city of Albi, that is best known for its associations with the artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and its dramatic red brick cathedral that looks more like a fortified castle. The wines of Gaillac are extraordinarily diverse, with a wealth of grape varieties peculiar to that region.

A range of styles

Clos Rocailleux, a 17-acre property, is planted with Mauzac and Len de l'El for whites and Duras, Syrah and Braucol for reds. Credit: Copyright 2016 Margaret Reckitt

Clos Rocailleux, a 17-acre property, is planted with Mauzac and Len de l’El for whites and Duras, Syrah and Braucol for reds. Credit: Copyright 2016 Margaret Reckitt

The wine styles range from the firmly dry, as well as sparkling, to the intensely rich and sweet, with rosé and lighter or richer reds, according to the blend of grapes. Most red Gaillac is based on Braucol, a grape variety not found elsewhere in the southwest, where it can also be called Fer Servadou or Mansois. It has some wonderfully fragrant fruit, with perfume as well as tannin. Duras is another important variety and is rich and sturdy, and has absolutely nothing to do with the nearby Côtes de Duras. You might also encounter Syrah, Gamay and Cabernet, but completely new to me was Prunelart.

For white wines, Gaillac Mauzac is the most important variety, but there is not just one Mauzac. The Plageoles family have seven different variations in their vineyards. In addition, they have Ondenc, another old traditional variety of the appellation, as well as Len de l’El and Muscadelle. There also is Verdanel, another original variety, which they are working hard to revive.

The charms of Gaillac, for the countryside is stunningly beautifully with gentle undulating hills and little villages, has attracted outsiders. An English couple, Margaret and Jack Reckitt, were looking for a vineyard — they had tried the Languedoc and were en route to Bergerac — when they stopped in Gaillac and found Clos Rocailleux, a 17-acre property planted with Mauzac and Len de l’El for whites and Duras, Syrah and Braucol for reds. Their first vintage was 2012 and they have quickly established a convincing range of wines. Their Mauzac Vieilles Vignes from 65-year-old vines grown on a rocky limestone plateau portrays all the character of Mauzac, with intense saline flavors and a firm sappy note. As Margaret explained, white Gaillac may be a pure varietal, but red Gaillac must always be a blend, so their reserve red comes from Syrah, Braucol and Duras, with firm peppery flavours.

Four generations of Plageoles

Four generations of the Plageoles have worked the vineyards in Gaillac. From left, Florent, Myriam, Bernard and Romain. Credit : Copyright 2016 Isabelle Rosembaum

Four generations of the Plageoles have worked the vineyards in Gaillac. From left, Florent, Myriam, Bernard and Romain. Credit : Copyright 2016 Isabelle Rosembaum

In contrast, the Plageoles have been in Gaillac for at least four generations. We met Florent; his father, Bernard, is approaching retirement and his grandfather, Robert, is generally considered to be the great pioneer of Gaillac, reviving many lost grape varieties and wine styles. The range of the Plageoles’ wines amply illustrates that. Altogether, they have 86 acres of vines in 50 different plots. Our tasting began with the wine that accounts for a quarter of their production, Mauzac Nature, which is lightly sparkling and gently sweet. The initial fermentation is stopped, leaving some residual sugar, and the wine is filtered à manches, an ancient technique. It is almost impossible to describe; Florent demonstrated it, showing us a piece of material that looked like heavy cotton baggy sleeves through which the wine is wrung. The wine is then bottled, but the fermentation starts again in the spring. The wine is not disgorged, so there is always a light sediment. And the taste is soft and honeyed.

Verdanel is an old variety, for which their first vintage was 2001, initially from half an acre, but they will have 2 ½ more acres coming into production this year. The flavors are crisp and fresh, with some herbal notes and firm minerality, wonderfully original and intriguing, and amply justifying a revival. There was also a sappy Mauzac Vert and a sweet late harvest Len de l’El made from passerillé, dried grapes; Muscadelle too was rich and honeyed. They have seven acres of Ondenc, from which they make three different wines, a dry wine, from grapes picked in mid-September; a sweet wine, from grapes that are dried on the vine until the beginning of October and a liquoreux, picked in mid-October

As for red wines, they prefer to label them by variety, despite the requirements of the appellation. We tried a Mauzac Noir, which was fresh and peppery; a perfumed Braucol , a sturdier Duras, which was firm and tannic, and Prunelart, a member of the Malbec family. Robert Plageoles saved it, taking cuttings from a vineyard that was going to be pulled up.

The Plageoles family have also maintained the tradition for Vin de Voile, from Mauzac, mainly Vert and Roux. They make a dry white wine that is put into barrels for seven years. The result is not dissimilar to an intense amontillado sherry, with dry nutty fruit and a long finish. It was a wonderful example of the vinous originality that you might encounter when you go off the beaten track in La France profonde.

Main photo: A vineyard at Plageoles estate. The wines of Gaillac are extraordinarily diverse, with a wealth of grape varieties peculiar to that region. Credit: Copyright 2016 Myriam Plageoles

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Jersey Royals Inspire British Summer Potato Frenzy Image

It might be raining, hailing or even snowing, but when Jersey Royal potatoes arrive in the shops, everyone knows it’s the unofficial start of the British summer. There’s always a mad dash to get the first batches of marble-sized Royals, thanks in part to a flurry of intense marketing not unlike that accorded to Beaujolais Nouveau.

Iconic Jersey Royal potatoes can only be grown in Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands that sit between England and France, and they boast a Protected Designation of Origin logo as proof of authenticity. Each Jersey Royal can be traced to its field of origin. Shallow-eyed with a fragile, golden skin and creamy yellow flesh, the chestnut-flavored taste of a true Jersey Royal is immediately distinctive.

Jersey is a singular place, a Channel Isle not even in the Channel, proud of its convoluted constitution and relationship with the British crown, its ancient independence and parish individualities. It’s an island as pretty as a postcard, yet with an air of suburbia. It’s an Englander’s dream of social order and old-style courtesies, but also une petite France — a little bit French — with roads signs in French and Jersais Norman names for places and people. It’s France without tears — and without the French.

The island’s steep, south-facing slopes, light and well-drained soil, and mild climate make it ideally suited for early potato crops, but sadly it is not uncommon to hear sighs of nostalgia that Jersey Royals are not what they used to be.

The island has only about a half-dozen commercial customers for the crop — the giant chains that buy 90 percent of the harvest. This creates particular pressures. Very few farmers use the traditional seaweed fertilizer known as vraic anymore; the use of artificial pesticides and fertilizers is high and most fields are covered with perforated polythene to force the potatoes ever earlier (a source of some environmental controversy).

Few farmers take the trouble or can devote the labor to hand planting and harvesting the steepest slopes, or côtils, which catch the morning sun like the best vineyards. However, if you can find them, these traditionally cultivated Jerseys will always stand out from the norm.

Local farmers also scorn the supermarket-led trend for “Baby” Jersey Royals — the earliest of the early are not always the best. A degree of maturity is needed to bring out the full, nutty richness, and many islanders prefer to eat their Royals later in the summer.

Jersey Royals: Where to find them, how to cook them

Jersey Royals are always clearly marked in the shops. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

Jersey Royals are always clearly marked in the shops. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

The dense but not overly waxy nature of these potatoes makes them best suited for boiling, frying, gratins and salads, because they do not disintegrate when steamed or boiled. The potatoes are best cooked with the skins on to preserve nutrients and flavor, and they only need a quick wash — scrubbing breaks the papery skin. At their finest Jerseys are true luxury ingredients, simply served with butter, mint and flakes of sea salt.

Indisputably, though, the best way of sampling the potatoes is via the island tradition of roadside farm stalls, where money is left in an honesty box — and no one abuses the system. As one islander explained to me, it is the best way of knowing you’re eating potatoes that night that have been picked the same morning. Slathered in sunshine-yellow Jersey butter, they’re rightly named: a royal feast, and a reminder that heaven can wait.

Here are three recipes that showcase what makes Jersey potatoes so special. Ninety percent of Jersey Royals are exported to the United Kingdom, but if you can’t get your hands on any, these recipes also work well with other varieties of firm and waxy new potatoes.

Posh Potatoes to Impress the Neighbors

Posh Potatoes to Impress the Neighbors. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

Posh Potatoes to Impress the Neighbors. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

These are retro favorites making a comeback. Instead of baking the potatoes, you can boil them, but the slightly crunchy skin that comes from baking them is rather good.

Prep time: 40 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

3 to 4 cups small new potatoes

1/2 cup sour cream

Small jar caviar, salmon or herring roe

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 400 F (200 C).

2. Place the potatoes on a lightly greased cookie sheet and bake for 30 minutes.

3. Cut each potato lengthways in half and let cool to room temperature.

4. Spoon a little sour cream onto each half and top with some caviar or roe.

5. Serve straight away.

The Most Popular Potato Salad in Finland

This is a simple but extremely delicious way to prepare new potatoes that originated in the Karelian region of Finland.

Prep time: 40 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

Yield: 2 to 3 servings

Ingredients

4 tablespoons butter

2 cups small new potatoes, boiled in their skins

Sea salt and black pepper to taste

2 large hard-boiled eggs, chopped

Fresh dill to taste

Directions

1. Melt the butter in a pan, then add the potatoes, salt and pepper. Stir carefully to coat the potatoes. If the potatoes seem too big for a mouthful, cut them in half.

2. Stir in the eggs and transfer to a serving dish.

3. Sprinkle with dill and serve either warm or chilled.

Pretty Pink Prawn and Potato Salad

Pretty Pink Prawn and Potato Salad. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

Pretty Pink Prawn and Potato Salad. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

This is a refreshing and light salad for summer days. Make sure the potatoes are nutty and well-flavored to get the full effect..

Prep time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Cooking time: 30 minutes

Total time: 2 hours

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

4 cups Jersey Royals or waxy new potatoes (peeled and/or chopped to your preference)

1 to 2 avocados, peeled and chopped (sprinkle with lemon juice to stop browning)

3 tablespoons mayonnaise

Half a small cucumber, peeled and sliced

Several radishes, thinly sliced

1 cup peeled, cooked small shrimp

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

1. Mix all the ingredients in a serving bowl and toss to mix well. Serve with a bowl of mayonnaise or a yogurt dressing on the side.

Main photo: The Most Popular Potato Salad in Finland. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman 

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America’s New Love: Celebrating Artisan Cheese Image

Fans squeal with delight, marked-up tickets show up online, people travel across the country.

The latest boy band? Broadway’s “Hamilton”?

No, these days all that excitement is for cheese. On the heels of a busy spring of cheese festivals and competitions that drew nibblers by the thousands, more summer events across the country will connect many more cheese lovers with the people who make their favorite food.

This isn’t grocery store sampling. At these events, mountains of cheeses await hungry visitors — some lavishly styled, some pulled from the 40-pound blocks that judges had been sampling earlier in the week. With a game plan in hand, cheese lovers head for their favorite cheddar or brie or a hard-to-categorize original creation by a favorite maker.

“American consumers’ education about cheese has just skyrocketed,” said Wisconsin-based Jeanne Carpenter, who has organized cheese festivals throughout the Midwest since 2009.  “They know what it is, they know the cheese-makers by name.”

In early April, a whopping 500 tickets were sold in two weeks to Chicago’s first-ever CheeseTopia, organized by Carpenter. The tickets sold for $75 a pop, but Carpenter, whose Wisconsin Cheese Originals organization has been hosting festivals and classes since 2009, said she saw CheeseTopia tickets for sale on Craigslist “for high amounts, which doesn’t make me happy, because I don’t like people scalping tickets.”

Cheese on the rise

Cheeses from around the world were available to be sampled at the World Championship Cheese Contest in March in Madison, Wisconsin. All were entered into the competition. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jane Burns

Cheeses from around the world were available to be sampled at the World Championship Cheese Contest in March in Madison, Wisconsin. All were entered into the competition. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jane Burns

Carpenter hosted her first cheese festival in Madison, Wisconsin. Held in the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Monona Terrace, it was designed to promote Wisconsin makers and educate consumers. It included seminars, tours and “meet-the-cheese-maker” receptions full of sampling.

“I had a hard time filling seats,” Carpenter said.

Now, Carpenter’s festivals aren’t the only thing moving tickets for cheese fans in Wisconsin. In March, the World Championship Cheese Contest in Madison quickly sold out the 500 tickets for its award ceremony and tasting event.

Cheese is creating a frenzy outside of America’s Dairyland. California’s Artisan Cheese Festival in Petaluma, California, home of Cowgirl Creamery, was held for the 10th time in March. There were three days of seminars, tastings and farm tours, capped off by 1,500 fans gathering under a big-top tent to sample cheese, cider, wine and beer, meet the producers, get books signed and watch demos. Also in March, the Oregon Cheese Festival had 4,000 attendees at its 12th annual event, sampling cow, sheep and goat’s milk cheeses made by Oregon creameries

And tickets are available for the annual American Cheese Society’s Festival of Cheese. The July 30 event, held this year in Des Moines, Iowa, charges $60 to sample the 1,500 cheeses entered in this year’s contest. Organizers expect 1,000 people to attend. On July 17, Shelburne Farms hosts the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival, which has sold out its 1,750 tickets the past three years and is expected to do so again this year.

Rock-star status

Cesar Luis, a cheese maker from Wisconsin, demonstrates how he makes his award-winning Queso Oaxaca at CheeseTopia in Milwaukee in 2015. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jane Burns

Cesar Luis, a cheese-maker from Wisconsin, demonstrates how he makes his award-winning Queso Oaxaca at CheeseTopia in Milwaukee in 2015. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jane Burns

At Carpenter’s events, she requires the cheese-maker to be present. People want to meet them, she said, and then they treat them like rock stars.

“I see women squeal like schoolgirls seeing the Beatles when they see Andy Hatch for the first time,” she said of Hatch, of Uplands Cheese Co. of Dodgeville, Wisconsin, who makes the much-celebrated Pleasant Ridge Reserve. “It’s so embarrassing for him, he just lets it pass and says, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’”

For Hatch, it just goes with the territory.

“Aside from occasional blushing, I do enjoy the general buzz at these events — the sense that cheese is something exciting,” he said. “It’s flattering that people go out of their way to pay money and stand in line to taste cheese and ask a few questions. If people are willing to do that, I’m willing to go out of my way to be there for them.”

Chris Roelli is a fourth-generation cheese-maker best known for Dunbarton Blue, the cheddar-blue he introduced seven years ago. He enjoys the events, though it’s a far cry from years of anonymous commodity cheese production of the early part of his career. Now people line up to talk to him.

“I never expected anyone to ever ask for my autograph,” said Roelli, whose eponymous cheese company is based in Shullsburg, Wisconsin.

The main event

Visitors to the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival last year got a chance to sample Eleven Brothers, an award-winning goat’s milk cheese made by the state’s Boston Post Dairy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sabin Gratz

Visitors to the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival last year got a chance to sample Eleven Brothers, an award-winning goat’s milk cheese made by the state’s Boston Post Dairy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sabin Gratz

While drinks and other local foods are often featured at these festivals, there’s no doubt cheese is the star of the show. At the contest events, displays resembling edible sculptures are made from the blocks used for judging. Veteran contest-goers bring plastic bags so they can take home what remains, knowing the blocks that made up the entries are just big chunks of cheesy leftovers. A plan of attack is necessary; it’s impossible to sample everything.

Carpenter’s event was in Madison for four years, but has expanded its reach. She moved it to Milwaukee last year, and 750 tickets quickly sold out. This year it traveled to Chicago, and next year will be in Minneapolis. From there, Carpenter said, she’s debating whether to keep it in the Midwest or go national.

People have come to her events from across the country, including a couple on their honeymoon and a woman from Nashville who has been at every event Carpenter has created.

“There are cheese groupies out there, I don’t know what else to call them,” Carpenter said. “It’s so cool that people care this much about cheese.”

Main image: A fan gets a chance to sample a blue-ribbon product from Carr Valley Cheese Co. of Wisconsin at the American Cheese Society’s 2013 Festival of Cheese in Madison, Wisconsin. Credit: Copyright 2016 Marie Ketring

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Sicilian Frittedda: A Riot Of Tender Spring Flavors Image

In the springtime in Sicily a simply named dish reveals an explosion of flavor that belies its satisfying complexity. It is a dish special with spring vegetables — fava, peas, scallions and artichokes — and called frittedda (or fritedda).

In western Sicily, where frittedda was born, it is served as a grape ‘u pitittu, a Sicilian expression that means “a mouth-opener,” a culinary concept much closer to a Middle Eastern meze than an Italian antipasto. Pino Correnti, a leading Sicilian gastronome, believes that the name of this preparation comes from the Latin frigere, because it is prepared in a large frying pan.

The young artichokes needed for this dish can be hard to find. They are very tender and have not yet developed chokes. Because this dish is affected by the age and size of the vegetables, you will have to judge for yourself the right cooking time and how much salt, pepper and nutmeg you want to use, so keep tasting. This is a good time to use a very good quality estate-bottled extra virgin olive oil from Sicily.

This is most definitely a labor-intensive preparation. However, it tastes so good and can last so long to be served successively as antipasti and side dishes that a Sicilian cook never shies away from the work. It is a time to grab a glass of wine and with a friend or lover shuck the pods of fava and peas.

Frittedda. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Frittedda. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Spring Vegetable Frittedda

Prep time: About 1 hour

Cook time: Between 1 hour and 1 hour, 40 minutes

Total time: About 2 hours, 45 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

1 pound fresh peas, shelled (from about 2 1/2 pounds of pods)

2 pounds fresh fava beans, shelled (from about 5 pounds of pods)

10 young artichokes, each not more than 3 inches long (if you use older artichokes, with fully developed bracts and chokes, cook them longer in Step 2)

Juice from 1 lemon

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/2 pound scallions, white part only, finely chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Freshly grated nutmeg

4 large fresh mint leaves, finely chopped

1 teaspoon red wine vinegar

4 teaspoons sugar

Directions

1. Rinse the peas and the fava beans and set aside. Trim the artichokes, quarter or halve, and leave them in cold water acidulated with the lemon juice until they are all prepared. In a large sauté pan (preferably a 14-inch sauté pan), heat the olive over medium-low heat, then cook, stirring, the scallions until soft, about 3 minutes.

2. Add the artichokes and cook for 5 minutes longer (15 minutes if they are fully developed globe artichokes), then add 2/3 cup hot water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the peas and fava beans. Season to taste with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes.

3. Moisten the vegetables with more hot water if they look like they are drying out. Cook another 20 to 40 minutes or until tender; keep checking. Stir the mint, vinegar and sugar together and then pour over the vegetables while still hot. Transfer to a serving platter or bowl and let it reach room temperature before serving.

Fritedda with spring vegetables. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

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Farm Life In The City? Welcome To Agritopia Image

We’ve all heard the saying “it takes a village.” But communities are drawn together for many reasons. Some cling tight to tradition with activities like barbecues and Fourth of July parades. Others share neighborhoods with backyards that spill onto golf courses, lakes and swimming pools. And then there’s Agritopia.

“If you live here, it just feels different,” business manager William Johnston said.

Cultivating an agrihood

Planted crops in the midst of Agritopia. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Planted crops in the midst of Agritopia. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

It is different. Located outside of Phoenix, in the little-known city of Gilbert, Agritopia is what’s called an agrihood, or suburban neighborhood planned around a working farm. Jim and Virginia Johnston purchased the farm in 1960. They built a home; grew crops, including cotton, wheat, barley, corn, alfalfa and sugar beets; and raised three boys. Time went on. The Johnston children grew up, and two continued the family farming tradition. The once-rural area surrounding the farm grew, and the third son, Joe, an engineer, got an idea to reinvent the place he called home.

“The kernel of the idea was in 1998, when I started thinking that I’d like to do a restaurant in our house that served produce from the farm: that was the ‘agri’ part. That was the extent of the idea,”  Joe said. “However, that idea was shortly followed by the notion that I’d like to live close to where I worked. That opened up a bunch of ideas, because we had a clean sheet of paper to design the kind of community we’d like to live in.”

Agritopia stretches 160 acres and has more than 450 houses. Four generations of the Johnston family, along with 1,500 or so other folks, call it home. At its center is the certified organic farm (where Jim and Virginia still live) and more than 11 acres of permanent urban farmland.

A cornucopia of crops

Romanesco broccoli, a favored neighborhood crop. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Romanesco broccoli, a favored neighborhood crop. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

“During the year we grow over 200 varieties of field and orchard crops,” William Johnston said. “It’s important for families to grow up together and understand food and farming.”

The farm bounty is diverse — and delicious. Along with Medjool dates and olive groves, there are citrus, apple, peach and plum groves. Other crops include cauliflower, Romanesco broccoli, herbs, a variety of lettuces and tomatoes of assorted varieties.

Enjoying the fruits of their labor

The local coffeehouse. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

The local coffeehouse. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

The same-day harvest is readily available to residents and Agritopia visitors. But how folks get their farm-fresh fix varies. What was once an old tractor building is now an airy cafe called The Coffee Shop. The Johnston family homestead has a new lease on life as a modern diner called Joe’s Farm Grill. Whenever possible, fruit, vegetables and herbs come from The Farm at Agritopia.

Then there’s The Farm Stand. Open 24 hours a day, the stand is not staffed. All purchases are made using the honor system. Grab what you want, put your cash or check in an envelope and drop it in the pay slot. And residents can grow their own bounty by renting one of the more than 40 plots in the community garden.

Rural life, redefined

Coming home to roost. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Coming home to roost. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

When most city slickers envision life on a farm, they think of solitude. At Agritopia, rows of vegetables sprout within view of homes and the neighborhood school. With the antics of school recess and chickens clucking in the background, a cozy neighborhood feeling prevails in this unique slice of Arizona farm country, where houses have front porches and streets are lined with trees and sidewalks.

“We like the fact that people can kind of just wander and feel that sense of exploration,” William Johnston said. “A lot of people compare it to Mayberry.”

Main photo: A citrus display at Agritopia’s farm stand. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann 

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Cape Town, Winelands Now Thrill Food Travelers Too Image

If you’re a globetrotter into fine dining, consider making your next destination Cape Town and its outlying Winelands, where an innovative eight-course tasting menu paired with wines will cost you about $60 to $80 for lunch, and $85 to $105 for dinner. Thanks to the dollar’s strength in South Africa, Americans are in for a feast of value in this scenic foodie haven, ripe with culinary talent and internationally acclaimed restaurants.

As for the tasting menus, you can expect the unexpected. You might find poached oysters with lemon, seaweed and apple at La Colombe; Cape Wagyu tongue with gnocchi, celery, carrots and celeriac at Overture; or light curry glazed kingklip (a local fish) at The Test Kitchen, cooked slowly at the table over curry leaves in concrete charcoal-filled bowls, and served with carrot cashew purée and carrot beurre noisette.

Joining the gastronomic scene

La Colombe, ranked in the World's 50 Best Restaurants, uses local ingredients. Credit: Copyright 2016 Micky Hoyle

La Colombe, ranked in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, uses local ingredients. Credit: Copyright 2016 Micky Hoyle

During the apartheid years, South Africa was shunned and largely cut off from the world, even in a culinary sense. But since Mandela’s presidency, it’s seen an influx of foreign chefs and cuisines. Many South African chefs have also worked in Europe and Asia, and returned all the better for it.

Today, Cape Town is a known pit stop on the gastronomic world map. The Test Kitchen, La Colombe and The Tasting Room have ranked in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, in various categories. Cape Town’s status as a world-class design city has also helped — it was World Design Capital in 2014 — with local talent behind great-looking dining spaces.

Fueling the scene is a flush of small growers and producers, offering chefs great produce, ethically raised meats, wild game, seafood and indigenous ingredients like sour figs, baobab, buchu and honeybush tea, along with a flurry of artisanal products.

“Overall, our fine dining feel is quite natural and organic when compared to other countries, with less rigid styling and a trend towards local ingredients and preparations, giving it a sense of place,” says Scot Kirton, head chef at La Colombe.

Local ingredients paired with wine

The Test Kitchen's pan-seared linefish with potato and snoek medley, black forest ham and fish jus roasted potato skin. Credit: Copyright 2016 Justin Patrick

The Test Kitchen’s pan-seared linefish with potato and snoek medley, black forest ham and fish jus-roasted potato skin. Credit: Copyright 2016 Justin Patrick

“South Africa doesn’t have a strong food heritage like the French, which means that our cuisine can be eclectic, with lots of people doing different things,” adds Luke Dale-Roberts, the British-born chef/owner of The Test Kitchen, located in the city’s revitalized Old Biscuit Mill warehouse complex. Foreigners also appreciate what Kirton calls “the South African knack for hospitality, in which even in the top tiers of fine dining, guests feel greatly cared for on a personal level.”

While the feeling is relaxed, with lunchtime guests sometimes even wearing shorts, few of these high-end restaurants are taking walk-ins. The Test Kitchen, ranked 28th in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2015, is currently taking dinner reservations six months in advance, although in August it will switch over to an online 30-day-in-advance booking system.

Wine is intrinsically part of local dining, with the closest vineyards 20 minutes from central Cape Town. While South Africa has a 350-year-old wine heritage, quality has improved dramatically in recent years, and there is a new posse of young and adventurous winemakers. This means great synergy and camaraderie between winemakers and chefs, who are sometimes even on the same property. Many of the Cape’s best restaurants are on wine estates, which doesn’t necessarily mean they only serve that estate’s wine; most have extensive wine lists, with excellent wines for as little as $15 a bottle.

Simple, seasonal and South African

The Tasting Room's Joostenberg vlakte duck, with boerenkinders puree. Credit: Courtesy of Le Quartier Francais

The Tasting Room’s Joostenberg vlakte duck, with boerenkinders purée. Credit: Courtesy of Le Quartier Francais

Despite global influences, many of the best chefs are expressing their personal experience of South Africa. Bertus Basson of Overture Restaurant, on a Stellenbosch wine estate, describes his food as “simple, fresh, seasonal and South African,” and creates dishes like West Coast Memories, with salmon, octopus, sout-vis (salted fish) and snoek.

In the idyllic Winelands village of Franschhoek, Dutch-born Margot Janse has been the chef at The Tasting Room at boutique hotel Le Quartier Francais for 20 years, and has set the local bar for ultra-creative tasting menus. Her food “celebrates South and Southern Africa through their ingredients and stories.”

Take her Joostenberg vlakte duck dish, for example, which she says “carries many stories.” The duck is farmed in an area where many Dutch settlers grew grapes and produced brandy. Janse steeps mixed fruit in brandy, like it’s done in Holland, but adds buchu — “one of our magical indigenous herbs.” After six weeks, it’s mixed with celeriac in a purée. The duck is baked in a salt crust made of hand-harvested Baleni salt mixed with kapokbos, another indigenous herb. The breast is served with the purée and crispy bits of neck and leg, and a grape jus. “It’s about the duck and its heritage,” she says. One dish of many in a new dynamic dining region.

Note: Prices are based on current exchange rates as of May 2016, of 15 South African rand to 1 U.S. dollar. Fluctuations may occur.

Main photo: The Test Kitchen’s blinissoise, with chilled blini creme, barbecued langoustine “en gele,” and a langoustine tataki with liquorice powder. Credit: Copyright 2016 Justin Patrick

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Prague’s New Cafe Revival Rooted In Its Rich History Image

Not long ago, a visit to Prague’s lovely cafes meant acrid coffee and stale dessert served with a side of surliness. The long half-life of Communist rule long obscured the appeal of Europe’s most gorgeous grand cafes.

It took a generation, but the cafes have experienced a rebirth — their own Prague spring — that make them as worthy a destination as the city’s long-hallowed beer halls. The coffee is good and the desserts are often excellent. You may even get a “thank you” from the server.

Obecní Dům

Touristy but stunning, the Obecní Dům café may be Europe's most beautiful. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

Touristy but stunning, the Obecní Dům Café may be Europe’s most beautiful. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

If you visit only one café, it should be the one in Obecní Dům, (“Municipal House”). Before this art nouveau masterpiece opened in 1912, Prague was not in Vienna‘s league when it came to cafe culture. But the locals made up quickly for lost time. The building has not one but three dining spaces, with soaring ceilings flooded with light that reflects and refracts through dozens of mirrors and glittering geometric chandeliers. Key meetings between the government and the opposition took place here in 1989, just before the collapse of the communist regime. Needless to say, the coffee and service have greatly improved since then.

Café de Paris, Hotel Paris

For an almost club-like art nouveau experience visit the Café de Paris at nearby Hotel Paris. Both the cafe and restaurant have been restored to their jewel-like fin-de-siècle splendor. There is a full menu as well as an eclectic mix of central European and French desserts.

Café Imperial

Walk east of the Old Town along Na Poříčí 15, past the ritzy new mall, retailers and fast food joints, until you reach the Hotel Imperial, built just before World War I. The spacious cafe feels like a Hollywood homage to orientalism:
The walls, columns and ceiling are covered with elaborate cast ceramic tiles. After World War II, the hotel was turned into a dormitory for communist union members, and the cafe degenerated into a shabby workers’ cafeteria. Today, the service is as efficient and professional as in any European capital and the cakes are delicious and fresh.

Café Myšák

When the Myšák pastry shop was revived, the architects looked to the sweet emporium's golden prewar past for inspiration. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

When the Myšák pastry shop was revived, the architects looked to the sweet emporium’s golden prewar past for inspiration. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

Sweet-obsessed residents generally head for Café Myšák in Prague’s centuries old “New Town.” When the cafe-pastry shop reopened in 2008 after a hiatus of almost 60 years, the local press was all aflutter: Would the new incarnation could stand up to its prewar reputation? Only fragments of the original decor remained and those have been augmented by a somewhat heavy-handed pastiche of 1930s decor. But luckily the old recipes stood the test of time, whether in the form of the artfully simple cream-filled pastry cylinders or the happy overkill of the signature Torte Myšák, in which layers of caramel and vanilla cream separate layers of a Sacher cake. And, oh yes, a cone of the homemade ice cream is worth grabbing even if you decide not to linger in the leather armchairs upstairs.

At Myšák, you will have to ponder long and hard whether to go with the ice cream or cake. Make life easy and order both. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

At Myšák, you will have to ponder long and hard whether to go with the ice cream or cake. Make life easy and order both. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

Café Savoy

As in Vienna, the coffee at Café Savoy is strong and delicious. And always comes with a glass of mineral water. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

As in Vienna, the coffee at Café Savoy is strong and delicious. And always comes with a glass of mineral water. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

If you are still able to walk after exploring the cafes on the right side of the Vltava river, there are several more on the left side worth the detour, particularly Café Savoy. It is one of the city’s oldest, established in 1893 though the current incarnation dates back to 2001. Here, beneath a tall neo-renaissance ceiling, you can peruse international newspapers while sipping on a Viennese coffee topped with a thick dollop of whipped cream. The apple strudel is almost as good as my grandmother made, and the Sachertorte would pass muster with a Vienna native.

Barocco Veneziano Café

Fifteen minutes away through the cobblestone maze beneath the castle walls, in a 16th century palazzo that now houses the exclusive boutique hotel Alchymist, is an adorable little cafe that feels like the sort of boudoir Marie Antoinette would have used to entertain her boy toy. The space is all sinuous baroque curves and suggestive paintings. The espresso is good here, but the sweet treats underwhelm.

Erhartova Cukrárna

Prague is home to many early modernist buildings, but none so sweet as Erhartova Cukrárna. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

Prague is home to many early modernist buildings, but none so sweet as Erhartova Cukrárna. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

Not so at Erhartova Cukrárna, on the same side of the Vltava River but far from the usual tourist haunts. Here, you are more likely to see local women of a certain age carefully deconstructing their slice of torte than chattering American expats. This is decidedly a pastry shop first and cafe second, though the space itself is a beautifully preserved example of the severe 1930s modernist movement called functionalism. The vast array of pastries and tortes behind the vitrine seem to have one function: tempt you to order another slice, perhaps with a scoop of the house made ice cream on the side. I’d start with the house specialty, the Erhart torte, a multilayered chocolate extravaganza enfolded in a robe of delightfully garish green marzipan.

The namesake torte at Erhartova Cukrárna is a delightfully gaudy confection of chocolate pistachios and marzipan. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

The namesake torte at Erhartova Cukrárna is a delightfully gaudy confection of chocolate pistachios and marzipan. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

You may be relieved to know, that from here, most streets lead downhill.

Main photo: Café Savoy’s eponymous torte is as tasteful and elegant as the restaurant itself. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

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Power Salads: 5 Ways To Transform Dinner Image

A large plate bursting with colorful plants and topped with a zingy vinaigrette — a big salad — has been part of my regular dinner repertoire for years. Happily, this concept is finally getting the love it deserves as a result of today’s increased focus on plant-based diets. Forget the naked salads of the 1980s, cruelly deprived of dressing. Follow these five tips and get creative to make salad the star of tonight’s supper.

Build your base: Salad greens, your way

Begin building your salad base. Lettuces are low in calories, so you can pile them on; their fiber and water content will help you to feel full. Greens are also loaded with vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients (health-promoting plant chemicals). Ditch iceberg, which lacks the bright flavors and myriad nutrients of other greens. There are so many fabulous lettuces out there — why not give some new ones a shot?

Romaine is a good starter, but there’s also spinach, arugula, mesclun, red leaf and beyond. Include cancer-fighting crucifers, too, like cabbage or kale, or fresh herbs. What’s in season? What works for you? Make it your own.

Top with veggies: Go for variety, color

Select whatever vegetables you like and make it your own: the more color and variety, the better. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dreamstime

Select whatever vegetables you like and make it your own: The more color and variety, the better. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dreamstime

You’ve got your salad base; now paint your palette with whatever veggies your heart desires. My salads feature whatever I have on hand: carrots, radishes, peppers, avocado, tomatoes, beets, sprouts, olives, artichokes, Brussels sprouts, onions — whatever. If you can find local veggies in season, your taste buds will thank you.

Personally, I’m obsessed with watermelon radishes and romanescu broccoli (aka, Roman cauliflower) — and don’t even get me started on sugar-sweet gold cherry tomatoes, which, come August, I pop into my mouth like candy. Variety and color are key: The more varied and brilliantly hued your veggies, the more nutrients you’re getting. (And, just for the record, while low-sugar veggies should appear most often on your salads, many big salads are wonderful with fresh fruits like citrus, pears, pomegranate and berries.)

Add protein power: Beans, pulses, legumes

It’s time to turn to the satiating power of protein. After all, you don’t want to finish your big salad still hungry and order a pizza. Most people jump to chicken, shrimp and steak to liven up their salads. As long as the meat doesn’t become the leading player, perhaps that’s what you’ll first choose to get a big salad into your dinner repertoire.

Yet soybeans (and their products, like tofu), lentils, chickpeas, pinto beans and the like are small packages with big nutrition. They include protein, as well as fiber, B vitamins, iron, calcium and potassium. They’re also low in calories and sodium — if you use canned, make sure to choose a no-salt brand — and are less pricey than animal protein.

Moreover, producing these plant foods is less taxing on our planet’s precious natural resources, and many enhance soil quality through nitrogen fixation. There’s a good reason it’s the International Year of Pulses, and most of us don’t eat the amount we should for optimal health.

Mix it up: Toss in whole grains

Mixed lettuces with quinoa, orange, walnuts, and chia seeds makes for a salad packed with vitamins and minerals. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dreamstime

Mixed lettuces with quinoa, orange, walnuts and chia seeds makes for a salad packed with vitamins and minerals. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dreamstime

Like pulses, whole grains are a nutritional powerhouse of vitamins, minerals and fiber — and even some protein — and create a pleasing texture and toothsome bite to your salad. Brown rice is a favorite of mine, especially when included with black beans for a big salad with a Tex-Mex twist. There are many different grains — think barley, quinoa, farro, oats and amaranth — to add intrigue to your salad; experiment to learn what you prefer.

Tossing whole grains into a big dinner salad is also a terrific way to use up last night’s leftover rice or pasta, too. While whole grains aren’t a regular addition to my salads, which tend be loaded up with veggies, beans and greens, a handful can make a tasty difference — especially if I’m having a craving for toasty homemade rye croutons.

Bring on the fat: Salad dressing and toppings

It takes only a few minutes to whisk up your own healthy salad dressing to top your big salad -- use whatever vegetable oil and vinegar you prefer. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dreamstime

It takes only a few minutes to whisk up your own healthy salad dressing to top your big salad — use whatever vegetable oil and vinegar you prefer. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dreamstime

It makes me sad when I think about everyone out there still shunning salad dressing, or opting for low-fat varieties, often packed with sugar. Yes, full-fat salad dressing is energy-dense: The main ingredient is oil, which has more than double the calories compared with carbs or protein (about 9 calories per gram versus 4).

So if you need to lose weight, you’ll want to keep the calorie content of dressings in mind — and save sumptuous dressings like blue cheese  and green goddess for special occasions.

Even so, science has shown clearly that certain types of fats are particularly beneficial to health. Diets rich in monounsaturated fats, like olives and olive oil, and polyunsaturated fats, like nuts, seeds and their oils, are both associated with decreased risk heart disease, especially when these foods supplant refined carbohydrates (like white bread, rice or pasta).

Moreover, the fat molecules in salad dressing help your body absorb the valuable (fat-soluble) nutrients in your meal. A drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar is my go-to dressing, but whipping up a simple vinaigrette at home is a cinch — try my maple-Dijon recipe — and can feature any combination of oil and vinegar that pleases. And, if your salad calls for crunch, scattering on a few nuts or seeds can take your big salad over the top.

Dinner’s ready. Season with sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste, and enjoy. With the first luscious vegetables of the season popping up in local farmers markets, now is the perfect time to celebrate the power of plant-based diets, your way.

Main photo: A spinach salad with strawberries, avocado and pine nuts is beautiful and delicious. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dreamstime

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