Articles in Travel

Corn grows in fields in California's Central Valley with large stacks of hay in the background. Credit: Deborah Madison

I grew up on the edge of California’s Central Valley. Although I’ve lived in New Mexico for the past 25 years, I often make the drive back to California. When I do, I cross the mountains at Tehachapi, descend to the valley floor at Bakersfield and am then faced with a choice: go up the fast, crowded Highway 99 or cross over to Interstate 5 for a less-frantic drive.

Invariably I choose the former. For years, I loved to be on that rough, fast road. It was familiar, and it felt good to be out of the desert and in that vast, edible valley. But lately I see it differently: a free view of agribusiness, a lesson in its features.

Agribusiness central to region

Driving up Highway 99, the names of towns roll over me, old familiars. They have their slogans, their welcoming gates and arches, and bits of history too. McFarland possesses The Heartbeat of Agriculture. Delano, the onetime home of Cesar Chavez, has two prisons and 29% unemployment. Tulare, its namesake lake once the largest freshwater one west of the Great Lakes (it’s now dry), is the home of the World Ag Expo and an agricultural museum. Fresno is hot and huge. I once lived there for three days before knowing I couldn’t, despite my affection for writer William Saroyan and his Armenian family who made a life there.

Somehow I feel I’ve had something to do with many of these places, whether knowing a good farmer near Fresno or marching with the United Farm Workers in Davis.

Occasionally, I get off the freeway and drive into the smaller towns. They are mostly narrow. Even in more middle-class towns, you have to drive only a block or two before you come to an almond-hulling yard next to a two-story house, orchards directly beyond. But despite all the food that grows in the Central Valley, there’s few places to eat except chain restaurants, unless you happen to get off in a mostly Mexican town, where you might find something good — and real.

The smaller towns are often very poor — much poorer than I remember from trips years ago. In the summer, you see people stooping to pick low-growing crops in the hot sun, scarves wrapped around their faces to protect from the wind, the brutal valley heat and, quite probably, traces of pesticides that burn the skin. But at other times of the year, there’s no one in the fields, so you have to wonder about employment — who is picking the food, where are they during the winter and how do they live? This valley has produced great wealth, but it’s far out of reach for the many who work in agribusiness.

Produce packinghouses

Other sights on the drive north from Bakersfield include enormous packinghouses for Halo tangerines, Sun World Peppers and other foods. You’ll see John Deere outlets, signs for tarps and tie-downs and yards of pallets, irrigation pipes and tractor parts. Billboards carry advertisements for welding services, residual weed control, trucking services and pesticides (“Stop This Bug From Killing California Citrus”) as well as the frequent reminder that “Food Grows Where Water Flows.”

Enormous silos are filled with feed and grain. The town of Ceres is introduced by its handsome, old, smaller silos, but after driving through it, I didn’t feel much connection to the Roman goddess of grain. When the silos were built, though, someone must have had her in mind. Herds of Holsteins stand in dirt under the shade of enormous sheds. They are fed from troughs, and there’s no grass in sight. These operations look industrial, but if you leave the highway and crisscross the valley, you see that they are family farms, albeit large ones. You can also see enormous fields of corn and gargantuan stacks of hay. Despite the drought, water is gushing from standpipes to irrigate fields of corn and alfalfa.

There are airfields for crop dusters, signs for full-service spreading and spraying, pumps, irrigation systems. You see gondolas for cotton and others for grapes. But you can’t see much of the almond orchards, vineyards, olive trees and other crops until you’re well out of the southern part of the valley. When orchards do come into view, you probably have no idea you’re looking at almond, walnut, pistachio and pecan trees unless you grew up there. Without signs, our ignorance remains intact.

World Ag Expo

One February, I was driving up Highway 99 during the World Ag Expo, so I exited in Tulare and went to see what it was about. In part, it’s a trade show, with enormous and amazingly expensive equipment on display. There are seminars too and domestic programs for the wives. The speaker that year was Oliver North. The previous year it was former President George W. Bush, which suggests the nature of big ag’s political alliances.

The 560-page catalog Ag Source gives insight into the business of farming — the equipment needed along with its size and capabilities. An ad for vineyard/orchard removal shows a bulldozer pushing over a large tree and promises efficient brush, stump and green-waste grinding. “Deep ripping” of land can be had for $300 an hour. Wells can be dug, and there are services that provide workers for harvesting cotton, garbanzos, garlic and other annual crops, as well as the perennial nuts, stone fruits and grapes. There are machines, trucks and tractors from small to enormous, from not too expensive to more than $300,000.

The fields you see as you drive by look innocent enough — plants growing in large areas that are no longer punctuated by the farmhouses with dense shade trees one used to see. The scale of everything needed to make California agriculture happen is supersized. If small farms are what you’re familiar with, the scope involved in agribusiness is beyond comprehension. And if you’re unfamiliar with agribusiness, for the price of a tank or two of gas and one or two days, it will reveal its many faces to you. Do it before it all reverts to the desert it is.

Main photo: Corn grows in fields in California’s Central Valley with large stacks of hay in the background. Credit: Deborah Madison

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Syrah grapes at Lake Chelan Winery's vineyard near Manson, Wash. Credit: Roger Ainsley

If you live in Seattle, you summer at Lake Chelan.

It’s a requirement of residency, along with buying your pearl barley at the co-op and stoically facing down nine months of gloom each year. You load up the Subaru Outback and make the 180-mile trek across the Cascade Mountains to a narrow glacier-fed lake that cuts into those peaks for 50-plus miles. There you swim, boat and bake — or burn — for a few of the inland region’s 300 days of sunshine a year.

And increasingly, you travel from winery to winery, tasting local bottlings that are expanding in number and quality.

Summertime on Lake Chelan in eastern Washington state, and the office is many miles away. Credit: Roger Ainsley

Summertime on Lake Chelan in eastern Washington state and the office is many miles away. Credit: Roger Ainsley

Wine grapes have been grown on the lakeshore since the late 1800s. But Chelan is still an infant among American wine regions when it comes to commercial production, going back less than two decades. The 24,040-acre Lake Chelan American Viticulture Area — the 11th AVA in Washington state — is only 5 years old. It remains part of the 11-million acre Columbia River AVA, one of the powerhouse regions in a state that ranks 2nd only to California in U.S. wine production.

Lake Chelan Valley’s unique properties — including the lake’s cooling effect that helps counter eastern Washington’s relentless heat — have been attracting winemakers and growers, sandwiched among the area’s traditional apple orchards. From a handful a decade ago, the area now has more than 20 wineries with an upstart temperament and, sometimes, a quirky sense of humor. (The Hard Row to Hoe winery takes its name from an enterprising oarsman who nearly a century ago carried workers across the lake to an equally enterprising brothel.)

The lake’s wineries are bottling a wide range of grapes from Chelan and the broader Columbia River region, from Syrah to the obscure Picpoul.

Charlie and Lacey Lybecker know about both grapes — and about pursuing the dream of making wines on a small scale in a corner of Washington wine country.

The Lybeckers are in their sixth year of producing wines, for the past three years from Cairdeas Winery on Highway 150 near the town of Manson. Their operation says family owned and operated, down to 2-year-old Eugene in his father’s arms as Charlie passed through the tasting shed on a recent afternoon.

Cairdeas, which means friendship, goodwill or alliance in ancient Gaelic, is a dream still in the midst of being fulfilled for Charlie, 34, and Lacey, 31. They produced their first bottles in their home in West Seattle and were looking to relocate to eastern Washington wine country when Lacey came to Chelan on a business trip.

Getting in while Lake Chelan Valley’s young and growing

Two wines from Lake Chelan: 2010 Whistle Punk from C.R. Sandidge, a big, jammy blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec; and Cairdeas Winery's 2013 Southern White, which includes Grenache blanc, Roussanne and Picpout. Credit: Roger Ainsley

Two wines from Lake Chelan: 2010 Whistle Punk from C.R. Sandidge, a big, jammy blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec; and Cairdeas Winery’s 2013 Southern White, which includes Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Picpoul. Credit: Roger Ainsley

“As soon as we saw Lake Chelan, it was like there’s no other option,” says Charlie, who studied winemaking at Seattle’s Northwest Wine Academy. “It was really appealing to us to get in while it’s still young and see the valley grow and help it grow.”

Cairdeas reflects their passion for Rhone varietals — Syrahs, Viogniers, Roussanne — with the grapes coming from around the Columbia River AVA, some from Chelan. Their method for sourcing grapes is straightforward: When they taste a great wine from the region that reflects the style they are seeking, they find out where the grapes came from and go knocking at the grower’s door.

By next spring, however, about half of their six acres near the lakeshore will be planted with their own Syrah.

“There are some very high-quality grapes coming out. I think people are really experimenting a lot and seeing what types of grapes grow really well here,” Charlie says. “For my personal taste, I think the Syrah from Lake Chelan is absolutely the best.”

And then there’s Picpoul, an obscure grape that Charlie has used to advantage in his “new favorite white wine right now,” Cairdeas’ Southern White. “It’s an extremely acidic grape by itself but has great flavors and we use it as a blending grape,” he explains. The result: a bright wine with a broad palette of flavors that could work in place of Sauvignon Blanc with a simple grilled chicken.

The Lybeckers hope to tap in to Lake Chelan’s natural advantages, including as a wine tourist destination. As Lacey notes, the lake comes ready made with tourism infrastructure — lakeshore hotels, golf courses, water sports and winter snow skiing — that some Washington wine regions had to create from scratch.

Their goals are at once ambitious and limited: Having grown from producing 250 cases in 2009 to slightly over 2,000 this year, they figure on topping off at about 4,000 cases. Then build a new tasting room facing the lake. Add a picnic area and a pond. Maybe offer up farm dinners.

“We are always going to be a very small family winery,” Charlie says.

Adds Lacey: “We want to make sure we always have our hands in the process.”

Main photo: Syrah grapes at Lake Chelan Winery’s vineyard near Manson, Wash. Credit: Roger Ainsley

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Golden yellow plantain chips are part of the Onam feast in India. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran

Thousands of years ago, pioneers among the central Malayo-Polynesian-speaking populations are believed to have traveled across the Indian Ocean and brought plantains, water yams and taro to India. Now, they have become central to the vegetarian cuisine in the Kerala region of southwest India.

Plantains are a variety of bananas from the plant Musa paradisiaca, which have thicker skins than regular bananas. Plantains are also sometimes called cooking bananas. Even when ripe, they are not very sweet, and they are not eaten raw.

The plantain rules at Kerala’s most important festival, Thiruvonam (or Onam for short), celebrated in late August or early September (depending on the lunar calendar) by Hindus, Christians and Muslims alike. The big event at Onam is the sadya (feast), which is served on fresh, green banana leaves around noon. Although rice is the centerpiece of the feast, several dishes both sweet and savory are prepared with plantains, each with its own taste and texture.

In every cuisine, there are certain dishes that make the menu more complete and more festive. They may not have the status of a course in and of themselves, but without them, the meal would lose some of its festive appeal. Two signature dishes of Onam Sadya are the deep-fried, salty and crispy golden yellow plantain chips and their sweet counterpart, sarkkara upperi, thick slices deep-fried and drenched in jaggery syrup. No matter what the shape, these crunchy morsels taste simply delicious. Locally called upperi, but better known as banana chips, it is the favorite snack of Kerala and provides the crispy crunch to traditional feasts.

And then there is kaya mezukkupuratti, cubed green plantains cooked with salt and turmeric and then pan-fried over low heat in coconut oil until they fully absorb the flavor of the curry leaves and oil. It’s a dish that’s as unfussy and simple as you can imagine.

Plantains useful in curries

There are two types of curries made with just plantains for the Onam feast. They are also found in the signature mixed vegetable dish aviyal. One of the curries, varutha erisseri, is made by cooking chunks of green plantain in a sauce of golden brown toasted coconut. It has a complexity and aroma peculiarly and delightfully its own. The word “curry” often evokes a sense of tropical spiciness. Kerala’s cuisine is known for its variety of spicy curries, but there are also some mildly sweet, tropical fruit curries that are cooked in a mellow coconut and yogurt sauce.

The fruit curry kaalan is made by cooking ripe plantain slices in a thick coconut and yogurt sauce sweetened with jaggery and garnished with mustard and fenugreek seeds and fresh curry leaves.

Steamed ripe plantains are another must at the Onam feast. And, finally, rounding out the menu is a delicately smooth and creamy pudding — pazza pradhaman — made with homemade plantain jam cooked in coconut milk sweetened with jaggery and garnished with crushed cardamom and toasted coconut pieces.

Though not necessarily a part of the Onam feast, other plantain treats can be found in Kerala: sun-dried ripe plantains and banana fritters made with thin ripe plantain slices dipped in a mildly sweet batter and deep-fried.

Plantain Chips

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 45 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 5 minutes

Yield: 20 servings

Making deep-fried chips at home is not a difficult task. Thanks to food processors, slicing is a breeze. It is important to use oil that can be heated to high temperatures. The oil must be well heated before adding the sliced plantains for frying or otherwise, oil seeps in and will make them soggy. Hot oil sears the surface to a firm crispiness. For serving at feasts, they are generally quartered lengthwise and then cut crosswise into thin triangular slices. To serve as a snack, they are cut as full rounds or as half rounds. But no matter what the shape, these crunchy morsels taste simply delicious.

Ingredients

  • 6 firm green plantains
  • 6 cups vegetable oil
  • ½ cup concentrated saltwater (*see directions below)

Directions

  1. Peel off the thick green skins from the plantains, and wash them to remove any dark stain from the outside. Pat them dry with paper towels.
  2. When making the smaller, triangular chips, halve the plantain lengthwise, and cut each piece lengthwise again. Then cut each piece crosswise into thin slices. For the round chips, cut the whole plantain crosswise into thin rounds. A food processor comes in handy for cutting them into thin rounds. Fit the processor with the 2mm blade and slowly feed the peeled plantains through the top. This blade cuts the plantains evenly.
  3. Heat the oil in a heavy wok or deep-frying pan to 365 F.
  4. When the oil is hot, spread the plantain pieces evenly in the oil and deep-fry until they are golden and crisp, about 5 minutes.
  5. Add a teaspoon of concentrated saltwater to the oil, and cover the pan with a splatter screen. The water will really splatter and make a lot of noise.
  6. In a minute or so, when the water has stopped sputtering, remove the cover. By now, all the water should have evaporated, and the crispy fries will be golden and evenly salted.
  7. Drain well, and store in airtight containers. The best way to drain deep-fried plantains is to use a cake cooling rack placed over a cookie tray. The excess oil will drip through the cooling rack and fall onto the cookie tray.
  8. *Add one tablespoon of salt to a half-cup of water, and stir well. If there is no salt sediment at the bottom, add more salt, and stir until there is some salt residue left at the bottom and the water is saturated with salt.

Main photo: Golden yellow plantain chips are part of the Onam feast in India. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran

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The duck is prepared table side at La Couronne. Credit: La Couronne

In the town of Rouen in Normandy, France, there is a dish that should not be missed. It is canard a la rouennaise a la presse — pressed duck. Here is how my husband and I discovered and enjoyed this culinary experience this summer.

Rouen is a charming historic Norman town 80 miles north of Paris with a well-preserved and meticulously reconstructed (from war damage) old-town district. The Seine flows through town, dividing the historic section and the postwar new one.

This summer we visited the town to see the Cathedral Notre-Dame of Rouen, which inspired Claude Monet; learn the history of Joan of Arc in the place of her death; and take long walks from one historical site to another through narrow streets and small plazas. And, of course, we were ready to savor some good, local meals to complement our time in Rouen. Canard a la rouennaise a la presse was the natural first choice. We made a reservation at La Couronne, taking note of the warning in a guidebook about the price of the dish — “if you can afford it.”

La Couronne is housed in a beautiful half-timbered inn claiming to be the oldest inn in France. It was transformed into a restaurant in the 19th century. When the present owners, the Cauvin family, took over the restaurant in 1989, they did research on the building and found evidence that the space they use as a wine cellar dates to the 12th century.

Entering this old establishment with a dark wood ceiling and walls and windows enclosed by heavy drapes made us feel we were transported to the age of Joan of Arc. An elegant maitre d’hotel, Dominique Boucourt, ushered us to our table, and without hesitation we ordered the canard a la Rouennaise a la presse and good Bordeaux.

Table-side preparation adds to showiness of pressed duck

Canard a la rouennaise a la presse, which was quaintly translated as “squeezed duck in Rouen style” on the English menu, was invented at the beginning of the 19th century by executive chef Henri Denise at L’Hotel de la Poste in Duclair, near Rouen, according to Sacha Cauvin, the son of the current owner and manager of the restaurant. Paul Hamlyn, publisher of “Larousse Gastronomique: The World’s Greatest Culinary Encyclopedia,” writes that “the recipe for pressed duck owed much of its immediate success to the Duke of Chartres, who commended it highly in Paris.” In Paris it became famous, but its ancestral home is Normandy.

Canard a la Rouennaise a la presse from La Couronne. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

Canard a la rouennaise a la presse from La Couronne. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

While nursing a glass of wine, I realized our duck dish would be mostly prepared and served at our table, because at a distant table I could see Boucourt in action — carving the duck, pressing the carcass, cooking the fillets, preparing the sauce and serving the dish to a young couple mesmerized by the smooth operation.

Boucourt returned to our table with a side table full of cooking equipment — a chopping board, knife, tabletop cooker and machine called la presse used to squeeze the blood and juice from the carcass. He proudly presented us a very lightly oven-baked, plump Rouen duck, and then the show began.

He first removed the breast and legs from the body, removed the skin from the breast and then cut the meat into slices. Every procedure was done with such professionalism and speed that my sipping of wine stopped just so I could pay close attention. Boucourt moved on to cooking the sliced breast meat in a saucer over the stove on his table. Flamed cognac was added to the fillets. After setting the cooked breast meat aside, he filled the inside of the presse with the duck carcass. He closed the lid and screwed down the pressing element, and the blood and juices ran down into a silver bowl. He then placed another cooking saucer over the fire and poured in red Burgundy. When the wine began to simmer, he added the blood and duck juices. A chunk of butter followed, and the sauce was cooked down. The flame flickered up, and the aroma of the fragrant sauce hit our noses and made our stomachs growl. Boucourt finished the sauce with a little salt and pepper, and the previously flambéed duck slices were added to the sauce to flavor them.

Within a few moments, the beautifully presented dishes were served to us. The meat itself was flavorful and tender, and the strong but delicately aromatic, rich blood-wine sauce was heaven sent as the perfect accompaniment for the duck. While enjoying the dish, Boucourt’s finely tuned, flawless preparation flashed back to my mind. This year is his 33rd serving canard a la rouennaise a la presse, the longest such tenure in the history of La Couronne.

Some of the staff at La Couronne, including maitre d'hotel Dominique Boucouat (at right). Credit: La Couronne

Some of the staff at La Couronne, including maitre d’hotel Dominique Boucourt, bottom right. Credit: La Couronne

The La Couronne kitchen uses duck from Duclair, 11 miles west of Rouen. This duck originated in and near Duclair, and breeding standards for these birds were established in 1923. This is not the highly bred, much heavier variety known as “Rouen duck.” That is a different bird. Ducks from Duclair are slaughtered at the age of 10 weeks using a method that keeps the blood inside the body.

Using blood in food preparation is not a practice of the Japanese kitchen that is my own discipline. When I prepare duck, I take particular care to remove the blood. So I thank Rouen, La Couronne, Boucourt and canard a la rouennaise a la presse for providing me this precious experience and new knowledge that is now a part of my cooking knowledge and life.

The recipe presented here is not for the Rouen pressed duck, but for duck cooked the Japanese way. This is certainly different from canard a la rouennaise a la presse, but is an excellent easy way to prepare and enjoy duck as an appetizer course.

Mushigamo (Steamed duck)

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 40 minutes

Yield: Makes 6 appetizer-size servings

Ingredients

  • ½ cup sake
  • ½ cup mirin
  • 2 tablespoons usukuchi shoyu (light-colored soy sauce)
  • 2 tablespoons shoyu (regular soy sauce)
  • 1 large boneless half duck breast
  • Hot mustard paste for serving

Directions

  1. In a saucepan, combine the sake, mirin and both of the shoyu and bring the mixture to a simmer. Transfer the liquid to a steamer-safe container large enough to accommodate the duck.
  2. In a heated skillet, add the duck, skin side down, and cook until the skin is golden. Turn the duck over and cook until the other side is golden.
  3. Add the browned duck to the prepared liquid in the container. Transfer the container to a steamer and cook for 12 minutes. Remove the container from the steamer, and remove the duck from the cooking liquid, reserving the liquid in the container.
  4. Insert a grilling skewer through the duck breast and hang the breast over a bowl for one hour to allow any blood to drain from the meat for disposal. Return the duck to the cooled cooking liquid and refrigerate overnight.
  5. The next day, remove the duck from the cooking liquid and slice thin. Serve the duck in six portions each with a dab of hot mustard paste.

Main photo: The duck is prepared table side at La Couronne. Credit: La Couronne

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Liz Crain is author of the

When Liz Crain moved to Portland, Ore., in 2002, the food scene there was just starting to foment. In 2004, after meeting illustrator Brian Froud at a Powell’s Books event, she decided to see where her own passion took her. Crain quit her day job and committed to food writing. She began amassing bylines in the Portland Tribune, Willamette Week, Northwest Palate and the AOL City Guide.

A decade later, Crain is the author of the second edition of the “Food Lover’s Guide to Portland,” the seminal guide on Portland food culture out this month from Hawthorne Books. Known for her aversion to being wined and dined by PR folks, she also co-authored “Toro Bravo: Stories. Recipes. No Bull.”

Crain spoke to Zester Daily contributor Emily Grosvenor about the new “Food Lover’s Guide,” now in its updated second edition, and the constantly evolving food scene in one of America’s most exciting food cities.

This food guide is really different in how it is structured. Why did you take this approach?

Portland food culture is so unique. A book about it should be as well. I like all sorts of food writing, but my favorite focuses on the people and processes behind food and drink. I want to learn the how-to and get an eye into the culture of it. “Food Lover’s Guide to Portland” celebrates local producers and purveyors — butchers, distillers, coffee roasters etc.  — with a lot of details about how their fine foods are cultivated and/or crafted. Throughout the book you’ll find Q&As with folks in the Portland food scene that I admire, behind-the-scenes stories about their businesses and essays on everything from making your own local fruit wine and crabbing on the coast to harvesting eel-like lamprey at Willamette Falls.

The first edition of your “Food Lover’s Guide to Portland” came out in 2010. What has changed on the Portland food scene in the years in between?

So much. There’s more of just about everything. Sure, there have been closures but many, many more openings. There were a few years when I lived in Portland, from roughly 2005 to 2008, when I felt like I really had a handle on the food scene and that I’d been to most places worth their salt. These days, pretty much on a weekly basis I’ll hear about a food/drink spot that someone loves that I’ve never been to or maybe even heard of that’s been open for months.

Alcohol production is going crazy here. There are so many new distilleries, breweries, hard cideries, urban wineries. There are also a lot more urban homesteading businesses or businesses catering more to that: chicken keeping, beekeeping, goat keeping, canning, pickling and preserving. I dig it. I have a large vegetable garden, make my own wine, cider, miso and more. I don’t have chickens, but I’m really glad that my neighbors do.

Tell me about a classic day in the life of a Portland foodie.

I’ll tell you about a summer weekend this past June. My friends’ daughter, Elise, was about to graduate from Portland State University and her folks visiting from out-of-town made a reservation at Pok Pok to celebrate. The 12 of us sat upstairs at the private outdoor balcony table as the sun set. It was a magical night of passing plates of Pok Pok’s crazy tasty wings, clay pot prawns, spicy flank steak salad, and sharing sips of the house drinking vinegars (Thai basil, pineapple, raspberry) and cocktails and listening to Elise talk sweetly about her post-graduation plans.

The next night I got together with friends for our third “cook the Toro Bravo book” dinner. I made plum wine sangria with plum wine that I make every year, based on Toro’s white wine sangria recipe, and grilled corn with cilantro pesto. Others made Toro’s sautéed halibut cheeks, sautéed spinach with pine nuts and golden raisins, hazelnut ice cream and much more. We cooked, ate, laughed, listened to the cookbook soundtrack and had an all-around great time as we do.

On Sunday my friend Erin and I hacked away at my Little Shop of Horrors backyard — a vine in a neighboring yard takes over my backyard every spring/summer. Afterward we cleaned up and made salame rolls with preserved lemon, Castelvetrano olives and pickled peppers folded into the cream cheese to take to The Last Hoot — a huge potlucky music-filled day and night with all kinds of tasty homemade food and drink. All of that in one weekend. Portland life is so very sweet.

Food carts have made such a big impact on Portland’s contribution to the national food conversation. But media coverage seems to have peaked on the subject. Can you reflect for a moment on what the food cart scene looks like at this moment?

Food carts are a much talked about part of the Portland food scene, but I honestly don’t eat at them all that often. When I worked downtown for a few years I did because I was really close to the Southwest 10th and Alder pod. There’s so much to choose from there. I go to them now and again and have some favorites (for example, I love Himalayan Food!), but I’m a bit of a crab when it comes to carts. I want street food to be very specific/honed, cheap and fast. Nine dollars for a mediocre sandwich that takes 10 minutes to make? No thank you. That said, there are some very tasty carts and I think that they’re a great incubator. A lot of Portland brick-and-mortar businesses have spawned from them. Brett Burmeister has championed Portland’s food carts for years and he was generous enough to write the food cart chapter in the second edition of my book. Check out his site if you’re hungry to learn more about Portland food cart culture.

What do you see as the most exciting new developments in the Portland food culture this year?

Every year I co-organize the Portland Fermentation Festival, which Ecotrust hosts, with my friends David and George. In 2009, the inaugural fest, a fellow named Nat West, whom my ex-boyfriend tattooed, came up to our table where we were sampling hard cider that we’d made from the Gravensteins in the backyard. He tried it, liked it and then gave us a couple bottles of his hard cider that he’d made in his basement from apples gleaned from around the state and in Washington. It was super yummy, and Nat and I became friends. Fast forward to the present and Nat is now owner of Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider.

Nat has put Portland on the map for super tasty and creative hard ciders. We now have an Oregon Cider Week in Portland, Portland Cider Summit, all kinds of other cider appreciation events and goings-on and many new professional cider makers that Nat has paved the way for.

Do you think there is a Portland ethos in how the makers approach food?

I think that most successful Portland food and drink businesses are driven more by passion and curiosity than the bottom line. Of course, you need to turn a dime but profit isn’t the primary drive. I also think that the culinary cross-pollination in this town is outstanding. There are all kinds of events that celebrate food in a wider cultural context that are super unique and fun. Some of my favorites: Disjecta’s Culinaria dinner series, Pickathon, Live Wire + Toro + Tobolowsky dinner, My Voice Music + Toro dinner. Great food and drink doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and I think it should be celebrated and coupled as much as possible with other meaningful art and culture.

And who do you see as the standout people in town who you think are accomplishing this feat with gusto?

There are just so many, but I’ll choose one: Earnest Migaki of Jorinji Miso, who, in honor of full disclosure, is a good friend of mine, and makes the most delicious local miso. Well, he makes the only local miso and it’s crazy good. He makes traditional misos as well as more unusual ones, such as chickpea and lima bean, all of which are organic and GMO-free, which is not the norm in this country.

I started making miso for myself because of Earnest and I now have 4- and 5-year-old misos that have been getting better/richer/darker every year. Miso is like whiskey — it takes a loooong time to ferment and age so you have to have patience.

Main photo: Liz Crain is author of the “Food Lover’s Guide to Portland,” now in its second edition. Credit: Faulkner Short

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Sweet cassata Siciliana cake. Credit: Cesare Zucca

Menfi, an engaging Sicilian town located southwest of Palermo and northwest of Agrigento, is known for its ceramics, the oil made from Nocellara olives and its viniculture. Only a few miles from the deep blue Mediterranean Sea, Menfi also carries the allure of the local food that combines traditional products with a simple yet delicious art of cooking.

Hungry for those Sicilian specialties? Here are six reasons Menfi stands apart from its neighboring towns.

1. Go spiny

My driver, Nino, passionately recounted details about the carciofo spinoso (or spiny artichoke), whose exterior bracts have a base color green with shades of violet and large golden spines. The Slow Food movement has placed this special artichoke on the list products worthy of protection. These ‘chokes are greatly aromatic, crispy yet delicate and delicious eaten raw, grilled, canned or cooked-through as a caponata and paté. Considered a medicinal plant for centuries, rich in antioxidants, it boasts a high percentage of cynarin, a polyphenol able to promote liver function and to improve bile activity.

2. Street food 

It’s a Sicilian tradition. Nino directed me to Signor Pino, Menfi’s most respected street vendor, who usually parks his cooking trailer in Piazza Vittorio Emanuele. At the top of the choices is the pane cà meusa, (spleen sandwich). It is a soft panino stuffed with small bits of previously boiled beef spleen, fried in a little bit of lard and served piping hot with a generous squeeze of fresh lemon. “The darker the spleen, the better the taste,” said Pino (aka Mr. Panelle from the very popular panelle, a type of fritters made from chickpea flour). Spleen is rarely on the menu, and it tastes a little bit like liver or kidney. Its soft pulp crumbles in your mouth like a blood sausage. Most either love it or hate it. For the record, I so loved it that I had two.

The Last Fisherman grilling sardines. Credit: Cesare Zucca

The Last Fisherman grilling sardines. Credit: Cesare Zucca

3. Giovanni, the Last (or the best?) Fisherman 

Menfi inhabitants call him “Ultimo Pescatore.” Giovanni Tarantino fishes at night or in the early morning after studying the moon. “A weaker moon is better, sardines are scared of the light! I choose the beaches of Porto Palo or Selinunte, I drop the net and wait. To prepare them, I usually skewer and grill over coals with a pitch of oregano. Hey, I am about to make a pasta with sardines and wild fennel, would you like to have a try?”

You bet I did. Legendary Sicilian hospitality exemplified.

4. Low libido?

Sicilians are ready to share a tasty secret. Take a sea urchin without poking your fingers, cut it in two, squeeze a little lemon and indulge in this delicacy, considered an aphrodisiac since the days of the ancient Greeks.

In the vicinity of Menfi, the morning markets offer succulent sea urchins to be eaten raw on the site. I loved their creamy sweetness that I found more similar to mussels than oysters. In Menfi a restaurant called Vittorio’s uses only female urchins colored in purple, green and brown to make a great pasta sauce.

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Raw sea urchins. Credit: Cesare Zucca

5. Don’t call them pizza

I had my first encounter with a slice of sfincione accompanied by a glass of the well-balanced Chardonnay by Planeta. Sfincione comes from the Latin spongia, meaning sponge, exactly the way its dough should be: soft and spongy, then topped with an intense sauce made of tomatoes, onions, bread crumbs, caciocavallo cheese and olive oil. Delicious.

In the nearby city of Sciacca, I tasted the tabisca saccense, a special kind of “pizza” stretched to a 23-inch oval shape, topped with roasted tomatoes, grated pecorino cheese and lots of onions. Finale touch: one black olive in the middle.

6. Have a glass

Since 1995, Menfi has been host of Inycon, a three-day wine festival, the which is oldest in Sicily. Blessed with consistently bright sunshine, Sicily’s classic Mediterranean climate is ideally suited to the production of excellent wines. Inycon offers a marathon of wine and food workshops. It features the cookingof Sicilian chefs, visits to wineries, walks through the vineyards, even great rides by horse or bycicles. The piazza hosts several wine tastings showcasing the production of local vineyards, including Planeta, Settesoli and Donnafugata. 

Evenings are magic. I loved the old courtyards in Vittoria Street, all decorated with lamps, candles and fabrics and surprisingly transformed from the neighbors into small restaurants, where often the chef is the real nonna (grandmother)living in the building. Everywhere is an array of food tasting, from the porchetta to pate’ tapas, from the sweet cake cassata siciliana (where else?) to seafood couscous. Great bread and local extra virgin olive oils will abound in their basic majesty.

These six good reasons should be added to the main one: The incomparable welcome that the inhabitants of Menfi will reserve to you making your visit preciously worth.

Main photo: Sweet cassata Siciliana cake. Credit: Cesare Zucca

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Baked goods from eastern Turkey's firin. Credit: David Hagerman

Bread is to Turkey as rice is to China. Once upon a time most of the country’s commercially sold breads were made in firin, or wood-fired stone oven bakeries. Today urban redevelopment, gentrification and customer preference for the convenience offered by grocery stores and hypermarkets have rendered firin nearly obsolete in many cities and towns in western Turkey. But in the country’s eastern half, from the provinces bordering Syria in the southeast and heading north to the Black Sea coast, firin (the term refers both to the oven and the bakery) remain a source of daily bread and a center of community life.

You’ll often know a firin by the stack of firewood outside its front door. Ovens are heated directly by fires built inside, or indirectly via fireboxes. In some parts of eastern Turkey, firin feature a tandir in addition to, or instead of, the standard stone oven.

Firin range from pocket sized to expansive. In Van, a city in Turkey’s far east, tiny Kucuk Yildiz (“Little Star”) packs mixing, proofing and shaping areas in two low stories stacked above the wood oven, which sits in the middle of the bakery’s approximately 10-by-12-foot ground floor. Unbaked pide (plain flatbreads) and corek (oily and flaky flatbreads) slide down into the oven, and when the breads are finished they’re stored stacked against the firin’s window.

What comes out of a firin depends on where it’s located. Pide are common to much of eastern Turkey, but they vary greatly in size and shape, from Diyarbakir’s huge puffy trapezoids to Tokat’s thin oblongs. On the Black Sea, corn bread and heavy loaves of koy ekmegi (“village bread”), made with unbleached flour and marked by the chard leaves baked into their base, are mainstays, and in the southeast lavash — for wrapping the ubiquitous kebab — is common.

Many firin switch up their offerings depending on the time of day. Simit and morning breads, like the large envelope-shaped flaky breads called kete in Kars and the gently spiced coiled buns baked in Antakya, may give way at lunchtime to pide and, in the southeast, lahmacun or katikli ekmek (flatbreads with a thin shmear of spicy cheese). As late afternoon approaches, some firin in Sanliurfa turn out sugar-sprinkled flatbreads, while in Adiyaman the sugar is supplemented with soft cheese.

Firin for the community

Firin are not only bakeries, but community ovens as well, to which homemakers and esnaf lokantasi (“tradesmen’s restaurants”) pay a nominal fee (less than U.S. $1) to cook their own foods. In mid-morning, restaurant staffers arrive with pots of stew and trays of meat and vegetables; come late afternoon, sons and daughters ferry in pans of fish fillets seasoned with herbs and kirmizi biber (crushed red pepper), potatoes layered with bell peppers, tomatoes and onions or pans of white beans with bits of meat and tomato. If a firin is located near a butcher a homemaker might call in a order — 10 pirzola (flattened lamb chops), for instance — that the butcher will season and send to the oven.

Finished dishes are set out ready for pickup on the firin’s marble counter or wooden cooling rack, draped with a large pide that will keep the meal hot. That pide will also serve as a potholder for whomever is carrying the dish home.

Some firin deliver — by bike, car, truck and wheelbarrow. During Ramadan, Van’s Kucuk Yildiz packs boxes of corek to send by bus to Istanbul, for migrants who couldn’t imagine a pre-dawn meal without their home city’s beloved breakfast flatbread.

Main photo: Baked goods from eastern Turkey’s firin. Credit: David Hagerman

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Colorful labels from Macia Batle. Credit: Sue Style

Ever heard of Gorgollasa? Prensal, perhaps? Try Callet? Or maybe Manto Negro? Welcome to the distinctive native grapes of Mallorca, the largest of Spain’s Balearic Islands, which basks out in the Mediterranean some ways south of Barcelona.

Wine-growing started here with the Romans and continued at a steady pace until the end of the 19th century, when the vine-destroying phylloxera louse laid waste to Europe’s vineyards. Viticulture on Mallorca succumbed too and lay stunned, licking its wounds, for the better part of half a century. In the 1970s, when Spain embarked on its dismaying sellout to mass tourism, the island’s vineyards flickered back to life. Mass tourism requires — along with oceans of beer — mass-produced wines. Mallorca’s wineries obeyed the dictates of the market, confining themselves (with a few notable exceptions) to producing undistinguished plonk.

Mallorca transforms to tourist destination rich in wine culture

Hordes of northern Europeans continue to land on the beaches by the millions each summer, for sure. But in the past 20 years, an alternative touristic offering has developed, aimed at a different kind of traveler. In the once seedy, down-at-the-heels streets of Palma, the island’s capital, exquisite patrician palacios have evolved from dilapidated family homes to chic town hotels. Inland, deliciously well-appointed casas rurales (country hotels) have sprung up amidst the silvery olive groves and almond and apricot orchards. Hikers and bikers relish the challenges of the mountains of the Serra de Tramuntana, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011. And as upmarket tourism has taken root, so too has the demand for better-quality wines, most of them grown in the foothills of the Tramuntana range, with peaks that rear up like jagged vertebrae from southwest to northeast.

If you are up for a vinous adventure and enjoy straying off the usual well-worn paths to taste the fruits of unusual local grapes, you’re going to love exploring Mallorcan wines.

The island has about 40 working bodegas (wineries) today. Here are a half-dozen whose wines grabbed my attention on a recent visit. Check Wine Searcher for suppliers near you, or contact locally based Cellers Artesans d’Europa (cellersartesans@gmail.com), which ships worldwide.

Bodegas Ribas in Consell is the oldest winery on Mallorca, established in 1711 and still owned and run by members of the Ribas family. The 13th generation is represented by brother-and-sister team Xavier and Araceli, whose wine studies took them first to Priorat, Spain (Catalunya), followed by New Zealand, California, France and Argentina. The family is famous for championing indigenous vine varieties, including the almost extinct Gorgollasa, and the 40-hectare (99-acre) vineyard boasts some impressively gnarled old Prensal and Manto Negro root stocks. Their fresh, mouth-filling, no-barrique blanc (white), made from Prensal plus a little Viognier, slips down as a treat at the beach with a plate of grilled sardines, while red Sió partners the lightly pigmented Manto Negro grape with Syrah and Merlot, bolstered by a discreet hint of oak.

Close by in Santa Maria del Camí is Macià Batle, one of the largest bodegas, with about 100 hectares (250 acres). It was founded in 1856 and has seen impressive modernization and investment in the past five years. If I lived on the island, my go-to white would be the entry-level blanc de blanc, a golden, aromatic, crunchy combo of Prensal, Chardonnay and a little Moscatel. Their wide range of reds (sporting lurid labels, including one designed by artists Gilbert and George) successfully combine Manto Negro with international varieties like Syrah, Cabernet and Merlot in varying proportions.

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A selection of Can Majoral bottles. Credit: Sue Style

Vinyes Mortitx is situated on the dramatic, winding road up to Pollensa in a tiny, sheltered valley, which was formerly planted with kiwis and avocados. In 2002, these were uprooted in favor of 15 hectares (37 acres) of vines, both island and mainland varieties. Flaires, a pretty, blush-pink, low-alcohol rosé from Monastrell, Merlot and Cabernet, makes a fine summer aperitif. Come fall, look out for Rodal Pla, a robust but discreetly oaked Syrah/Cabernet/Merlot blend.

Tiny Son Prim (8.5 hectares, 21 acres), owned and run by the Llabrés family and situated between Inca and Sencelles, gets my vote for some of the island’s most original, keenly priced, Mediterranean-inflected wines. The bodega majors on Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot, with a little input from Manto Negro. Of their wines (they do both single varietals and blends), I particularly favored the Merlots: firstly a fragrant, gently blushing white and then an alluring, curvaceous, characterful red.

Mesquida Mora is a new winery set up by Barbara Mesquida, one of the few female wine makers on the island. She recently struck out on her own with 20 hectares (50 acres) of local and international varieties, which she farms biodynamically with minimal intervention in the vineyard and little or no sulfur added in the cellar. Look for Acrollam (Mallorca, spelt backwards), a deep golden mouthful of Prensal with Chardonnay, or Trispol, a dense ruby-red combination of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and the rare, rustic Callet.

At Bodegas Can Majoral in Algaida, brothers Biel and Andreu started as hobby winemakers in 1979, gradually increasing their holding to its current tally of 17 hectares (42 acres) and converting to organics along the way. They combine an acute sense of terroir with an unshakeable belief in the indigenous Mallorcan varieties and their potential to produce quality wines. The tongue-twisting Butibalausí comes in white and red versions, the former a sprightly, easy-drinking drop made from low-acid Prensal boosted by Chardonnay and Parellada, one of the grapes traditionally used for cava. If you rejoice in the resurrection of threatened indigenous rarities, try to track down a bottle of their Gorgollasa, a distinctive, highly aromatic red wine which they produce in tiny quantities from just 1 hectare (2.5 acres) of their vineyards.

Main photo: Colorful labels from Macia Batle. Credit: Sue Style

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