Articles in Community
With Europe on edge after the bombings in Paris, it is good to be reminded of the joy of sharing a meal with strangers. But what happens when you don’t know anyone at a dinner party, not even the host?
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During a recent evening in Brussels, I rang the doorbell of a complete stranger’s home promptly at 7 p.m. His ground-floor apartment was in an art nouveau-style row house built in the 1930s. The door opened, and Maher, an Egyptian political science Ph.D. candidate at Ghent University, gave me a warm welcome. (He, like other hosts of such dinners, chooses not to publicize his full name.)
I was the first to arrive for his “Egyptian Evening” (dinner and a movie), and as I took off my coat in the entryway, I resisted the temptation to blurt out that famous quote from “A Streetcar Named Desire”:
“I’ve always depended on the kindness (and in this case, the cooking skills) of strangers.”
BookaLokal — a new dining experience
Maher is just one of nearly 1,000 BookaLokal hosts in 47 countries, in more than 100 cities around the world. BookaLokal is a group dining website. To sign up for a dinner, go to bookalokal.com, choose which city you wish to dine in, browse the dinners, choose one and pay online.
The site was founded in 2012 in the Brussels kitchen of Evelyne White, a 32-year-old harpist, travel enthusiast and former investor from New York. I got to ask her a few questions before the dinner. Here’s what she told me about this unique dining experience.
How did you come up with the idea for BookaLokal?
Evelyne White: “I was inspired by the success of ‘sharing’ companies like Airbnb. If people can open their homes to strangers, why not open their kitchens and dining room tables?”
How does BookaLokal differ from other group dining sites?
Evelyne White: “BookaLokal has the widest range of hosts, from amateur hosts to professional chefs. Whereas some of our competitor sites only allow top chefs to join the site, we believe the best experiences can sometimes come from people like you and me, who are just passionate about hosting and meeting new people.”
This was certainly true of Maher, who is also the former editor-in-chief of The Daily News Egypt. He was an engaging host who gently steered us through the evening as if we were all old chums. We were a cozy group of eight in all (if you include one guest’s toddler), who hailed from countries such as Egypt, Portugal, Turkey and America.
Meals made with love
The homemade dinner, served buffet-style, was simple and delicious: baba ganoush and pita bread; vegetables (peas, zucchini and carrots) cooked in tomato sauce and flavored with pepper, cinnamon and lemon juice; and kebab halla (beef cooked in creamy onion sauce) served with rice.
After serving ourselves, we settled down in the darkened living room to eat our dinner in front of “Ana Hurra” (“I Am Free”), an entertaining, thought-provoking Egyptian feminist film from 1959, which Maher projected on his living room wall.
Maher isn’t the only host with creative dining ideas: From a recent look at what’s offered on the BookaLokal website, choices include “Dinner Served on a Vintage Boat, Docked in the Amalfi Harbor,” Amalfi, Italy ($55); “Pig Roast and Comfort Food,” Washington, D.C. ($50); and “Dinner Inspired by Famous Food Quotes,” given by a former opera singer in New York City ($100).
A variety of venues
In addition to dinner, some hosts provide a variety of other eating and drinking experiences, such as “Seville Tapas and Wine Tour,” Spain ($50), and “Indian Buffet and Bollywood Dance Lesson,” Belgium ($42).
Worried about language barriers? Languages spoken by each host are listed on their profile page. Maher speaks English and Arabic; Ester, who lives in Rome, speaks Italian, English and Spanish.
“Our hosts come in all shapes and sizes,” said White. “We have culinary students, experienced host families, supper club organizers, and people with a passion for sharing their culture and connecting with new people.”
What are BookaLokal’s plans for the future?
Evelyne White: “Although BookaLokal started as a social dining site (a place to meet new people), we are seeing increased interest in private dining. If a host serves amazing Portuguese food for groups of six to 10 guests, why not book the host for a dinner with your own group of 10 friends?”
After the Egyptian film, we helped ourselves to more wine and Egyptian black tea (with cloves), and had a relaxed discussion about the film, women’s rights and Egyptian politics. Talking with people you don’t know within the confines of dinner at a stranger’s house is oddly liberating — perhaps similar to the surprise and delight of striking up pleasant conversations with strangers on an airplane. BookaLokal is a great dining choice for tourists visiting a new country, expats living abroad, and anyone interested in being inspired — and maybe even transported to another culture — by good food and stimulating conversation. As the Egyptian evening came to an end, I was reminded of another quote, this one from Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savairn’s book “The Physiology of Taste” (1825):
“Let the progress of the meal be slow, for dinner is the last business of the day; and let the guests conduct themselves like travelers due to reach their destination together.”
Main photo: The “Dinner at the Artist’s Home and Studio” in Amsterdam ($37 per person) featured ciabatta with salmon, crème fraîche, horseradish and dill; lasagna with pancetta and artichoke; and affogato al caffè. The hostess’s apartment is on the ground floor facing the IJ harbor, and when the weather is nice, she serves dinner outside on the quay. Credit: Copyright 2015 www.petrahart.com
It doesn’t matter where you live or what language you speak: Good food can bring strangers to a table and, in a short period of time, make them friends. But in Palmar Grande, a town in the Dominican Republic, it’s doing something even more powerful: It’s creating social and economic change.
In this country, 40% of the populace lives below the poverty line, and the average household income is below $6,000. For a group of 30 women who needed to work but didn’t want to leave their families in search of jobs, the solution was to band together: In 2008, they created Chocal. Cacao is a primary crop for area farmers, so making chocolate seemed a natural choice. Along with ready-to-eat artisanal sweets, they sell bolas, which are used to make hot chocolate, and even tropical wines in flavors like cherry, star fruit, tangerine and, of course, cocoa. I met many members of this women’s collective when visiting the area as a guest of the cruise line Fathom.
The nuts of chocolate-factory work…
Their rustic facility may not have the polished image that one typically associates with chocolatiers. It’s located off the beaten path on the island’s north coast, where travelers by foot and horseback comprise a regular portion of daily traffic. But it’s obviously loved and cared for, and the aroma of roasting cocoa beans lets you know you’re in the right place.
Making chocolate is nowhere near as glamorous as it sounds. Far from the shiny, modern kitchens of television cooking shows, Chocal has only basic machinery; much of the work is done the old-fashioned way. A group of gals sorting cocoa beans by hand while keeping a watchful eye on the roasting machines is the closest thing you’ll find to an assembly line here.
…And the bolts
The aluminum-like foil to wrap chocolate bars is cut by hand, using a sturdy piece of cardboard as a guide to ensure the size is right. After the foil covers are folded around hand-molded rectangular blocks, a decorative wrapper is secured in place by a steady pair of hands wielding a glue gun. The women smile as they talk about their work, and even if you don’t understand a word of Spanish, it’s obvious they love what they do.
Some are here five days a week, others are part-time; Chocal isn’t the type of business that’s run by crunching numbers. When a big order comes in, many will pick up weekend shifts. And the night before an order ships, it’s not unusual to find all the women working late. When help is needed, whether on the factory floor or in the office, someone is always there.
Measuring sweet success
To an outsider, the odds of Chocal’s success might seem slim. Some of the women — who range from about 30 to over 50 years old — are unable to read or write, and none had culinary training when they began the company. But throw the classic business model out the window, and what’s left is a group of women who believed chocolate could be used to cultivate their community. “We wanted to change our quality of life,” founder Noemi Crisostomo told me through a translator. At 38, the mother of three children ages 15 to 22 has gone from unemployment to co-ownership in record time.
Over a decade, the collective has grown at a healthy pace. When it began, the women volunteered their time; today they receive wages, but a majority of their profits is being used to pay back a government loan that allowed them to renovate their facilities and invest in some machinery to improve production. Still, the pay they do receive is helping to make big changes in their lives and the lives of their families. Crisostomo is one of two of the women now studying at a local university; another’s son is also enrolled thanks to earnings from Chocal. Cement has replaced dirt in the floors of many of their homes. Their kitchens are stocked with better food, and their kids have new books and clothes for school.
A new opportunity for growth
Their sweet goods are now stocked on the shelves of a major local grocery chain. But growth means expanding into new markets and developing the flexibility to respond to increased yet still fluctuating demand. Chocal may have found a way to deal with both in cruise line Fathom.
The connection makes great business sense. Fathom is reinventing the idea of a cruise vacation by adding volunteer opportunities to the package. When travelers arrive at Amber Cove, the Caribbean’s first new cruise port in nearly a decade, they won’t flock to the beach — they’ll head to Chocal’s kitchen to help make chocolate.
With activities like sorting through cocoa beans and tempering chocolate, this field trip for ship guests sounds like a cooking class, but it’s actually a sweet community-service project. Chocolate-making cruisers have the potential to boost Chocal’s production and push an ambitious group of remarkable entrepreneurs to the next level of success.
Of course, after a day of rolling up their sleeves and creating chocolate confections, the travelers turned freelance chocolatiers are sure to buy a few bars to take home. (I know from experience that it’s hard to resist.) As more cruise ships dock here, more tourists buy chocolate. It’s a vacation sugar rush that’s good for everyone involved.
Main photo: Inspecting cacao beans at Chocal. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann
Few of the commuters, shoppers and office staff in Manchester’s city center in northwest England know the roof of their historic cathedral is also home to around a quarter of a million workers.
They might feel some concern if they learn these other drones are, in fact, bees. Or they might marvel at the thought of “rus in urbe,” the rural pursuit of beekeeping in the crucible of the world’s great 19th-century Industrial Revolution. They might marvel as well as at the heavenly quality of the honey produced in these sacred surroundings.
Up on the roof
The project to keep bees on the leaden roof of the cathedral, which has medieval origins, was originally encouraged by its dean as part of the “Dig the City” urban garden initiative in 2012. The project has grown each year, as have the honey yields.
For the greater good
Honorary Canon Adrian Rhodes tends his hives with all the devotion of a biblical shepherd for his flock. In the fascinating structure of bee society, he sees some parallel with medieval monastery life where one person reigned supreme, all had their allotted jobs, the community came first and individuals would sacrifice their lives for the greater good — just as a bee dies once it has stung.
It is a recent calling for the former hospital chaplain and psychotherapist of international standing known as the “Canon Apiarist,” who also keeps bees and makes honey at his suburban Manchester home.
A modern twist
Urban and suburban beekeeping is a relatively modern activity but one that increasingly makes sense as monoculture, chemicals and loss of habitat, such as wild meadows and hedgerows, dominate the agricultural landscape.
And, according to Rhodes, city bees provide the best honey.
Sweet treat for bees
Honeybees can fly up to a kilometer from their hives, and inner-city Manchester provides fine foraging. Many canals and railway lines, remainders of extensive Victorian industrialization, have untouched verges. Allotments also provide some of the best hunting grounds, and in return the bees pollinate the produce.
Add to that roof gardens, window boxes, parks and tree-filled squares, and Rhodes’ “ladies” have no need to roam far from home. One lime tree in flower, he explains, can have as much potential as an acre of field. And, although the invasion of the Himalayan balsam plant is cursed by many, it is a sweet boon to the honeybees.
‘You can’t run away’
The cathedral runs a program to help the long-term unemployed, and Rhodes mentors a trainee beekeeper to help him or her learn important life skills.
“You’ve got to turn up on time, take orders and show patience, courage and calmness. The bees must always come first,” he says. “When you get thousands of them buzzing around you, it can be a bit scary but you can’t run away or abandon them. You have to complete the task and learn how to think under pressure.”
Calm above the city
It’s not just the trainees who take away these life lessons. As Rhodes says, “Beekeeping teaches me to take time out from a busy life, and gives me a calm moment out of time.”
It may also be the effect of the aromatic church incense smoke he uses to distract the bees when he needs to lift the frames from the hives.
The honey may be blessed, but collecting it can also be a blessed nuisance. The hives have to be secured against wind (highly problematic on a building whose ancient structure is under government protection), and the heat off the lead roof can also cause the beekeeper problems in summer.
A lack of water supply on top of the the building makes it even more complicated. Access by narrow Harry Potter-style stone spiral steps is also a problem, especially when it comes to removing the honey-dripping frames for extraction. A good supply of plastic bags and a chain of volunteers is the answer.
The extraction is done in the cathedral, where they also jar and label the “Heavenly Honey.” It is neither pasteurized nor heat-treated, simply filtered, and the jars are sold to the cathedral community at a modest price, although there are plans to sell online.
The city’s symbol
Coincidentally, the civic symbol of Manchester is a bee: It reflects a city that is industrious, hardworking, innovative and community-minded, part of a region that also saw the birth of the great cooperative movement in 1844 to provide an affordable alternative to poor-quality and high-priced food and provisions.
The canon apiarist’s bees are part of a proud tradition.
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Main photo: Honorary Canon Adrian Rhodes with his beehives on the roof of Manchester Cathedral. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman
New York’s Hudson Valley is fertile terrain for organic farmers. Organic is a gentler, more gracious way of farming, seemingly old-fashioned when compared to the prevailing industrial example, where chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides are used. When asked by those in corporate farming, “How are you going to feed the world?” Ken Kleinpeter of Glynwood Farm in Cold Spring, New York, speaks for many organic farmers when he answers: “I don’t have to feed the world, I have to feed my community, and someone could feed their community, and someone else could feed their community. That’s how we’re going to feed the world.”
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The free banquet for 400, held at the Garrison Landing on the Hudson River about 50 miles north of New York City, was the brainchild of Garrison locals Stacey Farley and Carinda Swann. “And it all started with the plates,” Farley says. “I looked around my kitchen and noted that none of my plates were made in the U.S.A. Seems like if we are going to all the trouble to grow organic fruits and vegetables and grass-fed meats locally for farm to table, why not serve this precious and delicious food on homemade ceramic plates!”
So local artist and potter Lisa Knaus set about over the summer teaching people in the community to make plates. The ensuing meal, served on the plates, included locally grown vegetables, homemade mozzarella, baguettes, chicken and fruit tarts. What ensued was a lovely, generous community meal, a summer’s last prayer before fall, and a gathering of people who will long remember its grace and beauty.
Main photo: Glynwood Farm provided the locally focused meal’s chicken, which was brined and peppered and simply delicious. Credit: Copyright 2015 Andrew Lipton
Would you like to reduce agricultural waste, save water, support innovation, lower your grocery bill and eat farm-fresh produce all at the same time? Imperfect Produce in San Francisco’s East Bay has you covered.
In “Wasted,” a report for the Natural Resources Defense Council, scientist Dana Gunder estimated that 40% of all the food produced in the United States is lost due to inefficiencies in the supply chain. Her analysis showed that, in the case of fresh produce, these losses occur before it even hits retail stores, the greatest percentage happening in the field and post-harvest in the packing sheds — primarily as a means of meeting customers’ “expectation of cosmetic perfection.”
Three committed food-waste experts — Ben Chesler, Ben Simon and Ron Clark — founded Imperfect Produce to reduce this waste by developing a supply and distribution network that brings physically “flawed” yet edible, in-season fruits and vegetables culled from packing plants directly to customers’ homes via a weekly delivery service. As the slideshow explains, it’s a perfect solution.
Main photo: Roopam Lunia, director of marketing at the company Imperfect Produce in San Francisco‘s East Bay, shows off an eggplant culled in the packing sheds. Promoters have struggled with descriptors such as “ugly,” “misshapen” or “funny-looking” — but how about “practically perfect”? Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel
From dining on a romantic island in the Venetian lagoon to feasting on handmade pasta in Bologna, northern Italy’s gastronomic capital, this list guides you to the best places to eat in Italy’s northeast. Award-winning food writer Carla Capalbo has spent more than 20 years eating her way around Italy and has uncovered its best-kept secrets, from new-wave pizza to the elegant restaurant of one of the world’s top female chefs. She’s brought together great food for every budget, from take-away noodles to three-Michelin-star refinement.
With this list as your guide — the first of a series — you’ll have a fabulous eating holiday in Italy — whether you go in person or just dream from your armchair.
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Main photo: At Venissa restaurant in Venice, fresh squid is served on a bed of black risotto. Credit: Copyright 2013 Carla Capalbo
Le Marche is an unspoiled, green and beautiful region in central Italy bordering the Apennines and the Adriatic with which even many Italians are unfamiliar. Although there have been attempts to designate the region as the “new Tuscany” or call the excellent wines SuperMarche (dropped because, hey, who wants to call a top-flight bottle supermarket?), Le Marche speaks for itself. And, what it says is good food and wine, medieval villages, ancient abbeys, silvery olive groves, golden fields of wheat and vineyards as straight as arrows streaking across the rolling hills.
As Federico Bomba, director of the innovative Bioculture app project, says, the landscape reflects man’s attempt to impose order and precision on a naturally unruly terroir. The recently launched app offers an English-language walking guide through the inland region of Le Marche that brings together digital technology, contemporary art and green lifestyle. Where a traveler once depended on Baedeker or Fodor’s, all they need now are a cellphone or tablet and a charger.
Using the app
Wine? Check. Art? Check. Walking shoes? Check. Mobile digital device? Check. Did I mention wine? Using the well-constructed app is easy, even for technophobes. Click on the location you are in either before or during the visit to map your route, read about the main points of cultural interest from medieval frescoes to chocolate box opera houses to esoteric museums, view original art works and videos that connect to the locale, listen to stories and contemporary sound compositions, and head for local organic vineyards, restaurants and agritourism farms.
Go on a cultural pilgrimage
Explore Le Marche, Italy
Sample the local foods
The entire trip takes three weeks, but the visitor can dip in and out of the route as they wish, sampling local food specialties on the way. It is a sophisticated yet accessible concept of “culture” that goes far beyond the mainstream.
One of the most memorable features of the app are the videos made by Carotti and Simona Sala that reference the interaction between locals and visitors in a witty, dramatic and often moving way.
Rachel Rose Reid, the only non-Italian artist among those on the app, is a gifted storyteller who took inspiration from the people and places she encountered. It is a moment of pure Marche magic to listen to her honied tale while sitting on a sunny hillside overlooking the famous Verdicchio vines and contemplating an artisan of The Mountain Beekeepers Cooperative at his work.
Organic food and wine production in Le Marche is amongst the most extensive in Italy. It is an instinctive harmony with the untouched, verdant landscape combined with pride in local traditions and concern for the future. The rugged, mysterious Sibillini mountains are broken with stretches of lush farmland spread out like geometric mosaics; there are breathtaking vistas, villages clinging to the top of precipitous hilltops, forests, farmhouses and pure white roads. Change comes slowly here and local traditions vary widely from village to village: There are more than 200 dialects in Le Marche alone, a reflection of the varied influences on the region for many centuries.
Aurora, the oldest organic winery in Italy, was started by a group of libertarian students in the 1970s who quit their jobs to return to working the land with eco-conscious respect for a sustainable future. Their aim was to create an independent and self-sufficient community in which they could convert social and economic ideals into concrete actions and projects. They were instrumental in founding Terroir Marche two years ago, an association of small organic and biodynamic wine producers committed to producing good, healthy wines at reasonable prices. As they say, “Each member has their own style, but we share certain principles: No one over-crops, for example, or makes thin, poor wines. We can’t reach perfection, but we’re trying. The key is to know your plants.”
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The app feeds the body as well as the soul and directs the traveler to organic agritourism inns, wineries and country restaurants where you can sample the superb white wines of the region as well as the gutsy, forthright reds that are a fine match for the robust food fortified with rosemary, tomato, wild fennel and garlic. At La Pietra Maula, a gem of an agritourism restaurant located in a hamlet of 16 inhabitants, oenologist Alessandra Venanzoni’s welcoming family aspires to run a “zero kilometers” restaurant using home-produced meat, salamis, fruit and vegetables as well as their own Verdicchio wine.
Meals, family style
The wine of Le Marche, as the app demonstrates so well, does not just encourage exploration of the flavors of local varieties but also the taste of local food, which is as immediately likable and unfussy as the people. Meals in Le Marche are always leisurely, convivial affairs.
End of a journey
My journey to the interior via the Bioculture app was a discovery of green Le Marche; blue Le Marche lies eastward, toward the Adriatic Sea. The region is a dichotomy between sea and land that defines the two separate personalities. Both beg to be explored further with wine, food, art and walks.
Main photo: Using the Bioculture app in the ancient hilltop town of Camerino. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman
Just like family members, Kelly Beef cattle are raised with care and love. At the Arrow T Ranch in the Williamson Valley outside Prescott, Arizona, Tom Kelly and his wife, Tammy, bring together their relatives to work and gain expertise in treating animals, and human beings, right.
Tom Kelly was born in northwestern Arizona, where ranches are measured in not acres but square miles. He always wanted to be a rancher. But he realized that the landowners were often “attorneys from Phoenix or Wickenburg” — in other words, well-to-do gentlemen farmers. So Tom became a lawyer in order to finance his dream of becoming a rancher — and succeeded. Now he produces 100% grass-fed beef in the old-fashioned way while making sure that skills and experience needed to raise cows is passed on to another generation.
Home on the (free) range
The cattle are raised on two different spreads. Their first year is spent on the Kellys’ La Cienega Ranch, 130 square miles of mountainous open range in the Mojave desert. The calves thrive in this uncontaminated habitat, grazing on 27 types of forage. When the animals weigh 450 pounds, they are moved to the lush subirrigated grassland of the Arrow T Ranch. For the past 70 years, the native grasses in these verdant meadows have been nurtured and the invasive grasses culled without pesticides or herbicides.
Herding day on the ranch
Late last summer, I joined Tom for a roundup — which might more accurately be called a “push-up” — to the sorting pens. For these events, Tammy’s brother, Kasey Looper, brings his wife, Tyler, and children Cole, 12, Rio, 10, and Sage, 8, to work alongside family friend Mark Mingus and fiancée Savannah Lindau. There are no clouds of dust, no thundering hooves. What appears to be a quiet Sunday ride with his young nieces and nephews is in fact a carefully choreographed dance, as their horses “push” the young cows in the right direction from a distance of up to several hundred yards; the movement is gentle rather than aggressive, because stressed cows are hard to handle and even tougher to eat.
When the cattle reach the sorting pens, Tom allows time for a family lesson. The children learn about the sorting process, which Tom describes as “a conversation and comparison of opinions” about the quality and potential of each calf. Some are returned to La Cienega as breeding stock and others enter the commercial beef pipeline — but the best calves are selected to remain on the grass, fattening up naturally for up to 18 months until they are ready to be sold. Cole is already acquiring the skills that must become second nature to every cowboy, such as “heading and heeling” the calf. As dad Kasey throws one lasso over the animal’s head, Cole quickly lassoes its two back legs, or heels, on his first throw, displaying the accuracy that is needed to do the job gently and safely for both the riders and the calf, which can now be branded.
Looking back, moving forward
As small-scale producers, Tammy and Tom are developing a following for Kelly Beef one client at a time. In her Prescott store, The Rancher’s Wife, Tammy explains the more-unusual cuts of meat, providing instruction and recipes to help customers make the most of the nutrient-rich, almost purple meat. Don’t assume that health-conscious urban foodies are their best customers: Locals who still have roots in the agricultural community buy half or a quarter of a calf, sometimes on the hoof. They value knowing every player in the supply chain and are comfortable cooking every cut of meat.
But the Kellys are not trying to return to a lost agrarian paradise; they are looking to the future. They believe the demand for grass-fed beef is growing and that “knowledge-rich farming,” to use a term coined by rancher-author Allan Nation, will lead a younger generation to good breeding and good grazing management. That much was clear from my visit to Arrow T, as I obeyed his instructions about photographing the roundup from my car discreetly: no raised voices, no sudden movements that might spook the herd. Next time, though, I want to be riding beside him through the thigh-high red-wheat grass, watching the cows stroll back to pasture.
Main photo: On the Arrow T Ranch near Prescott, Arizona, the eponymous family behind Kelly Beef raises 100% grass-fed cattle. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel