Articles in Travel
February 1973. My mother and I step out of the plane in the Yucatan. Atop the mobile staircase a blast of hot air slaps my face. I detect the scent of corn, burning wood and flowers. I’m 13 and it’s my first time in Mexico, the country that would become my own.
We’ve landed in Mérida, capital of the Yucatan, a torpid, provincial city of faded glory. Cortez and his conquistadors had little interest in the hot, sparsely populated region where little grew and gold and silver weren’t to be found. Riches were made in the 19th century when it was discovered that henequen, used for rope, could be produced here. Many Lebanese immigrants, versed in shipping skills, arrived and ran the haciendas.
Tips from Zester Daily's Nicholas Gilman
World War II brought acrylics to replace the henequen, and carriages turned back into pumpkins. But Mayan culture endured, as ruins were unearthed and marketed. And a few years ago foreigners found that the glorious mansions of those henequen days could be bought for a song and revamped. Now tourists and locals alike stroll down Merida’s streets, and gussied pastel facades, the colors of Necco wafers, reflect the harsh tropical sun. Palm-leafed plazas provide respite from the heat.
We check into our colonial-style hotel and then walk down the street. The driver of a horse-drawn carriage beckons. We ride up to the Paseo Montejo, a grand boulevard in the Parisian tradition, lined with glorious French-style mansions, all faded, some abandoned. Forty years later most are gone, victims of callous development.
The sun is setting and we’re hungry. So we enter a typical white-table-clothed middle class restaurant, with aire acondicionado, promising platos típicos. My mother, an artist who had lived in Mexico, orders sopa de lima and tacos de cochinita in her somewhat clumsy Spanish. Having grown up in New York City, surrounded by ethnic cuisine and its purveyors, I’m eager to taste the “real thing.”
Sopa de lima at la Reyna Iftzi. Credit: Nicholas Gilman
Discovering sopa de lima
The sopa de lima arrives. A bowl of steaming soup! How illogical, I think, scalding soup in a hot climate.
Little did I know, at that time, how small a part logic plays in Mexican life. The soup is a rich chicken broth any Jewish grandma would be proud of, loaded with shredded meat and perfumed by toasted strips of tortilla and slices of lima, a heady aromatic citrus native to the region. Its exotic scent, so very Mexican, became an indelible part of my psyche at that moment. A sip today conjures magical worlds for me as Proust’s madeleines did for him. At our meal pallid bread is served (that’s what they thought all gringos wanted), but I request tortillas, which makes the waiter chuckle. But he brings them, my first taste of the real McCoy.
Yucatecan food can be magnificent. And the celebration of its brilliant complexity is in a revival. From market stands to highfalutin experimental restaurants, the eating out scene in Merida is hopping. Like all Mexican regional cooking, it is a true fusion of traditions, in this case primarily Mayan, Spanish, Lebanese and French. Nowhere else in the republic are these influences so obvious.
Pollo alcaparrado is chicken in a caper sauce, direct from Andalucía. Kibbeh (or kibi), Lebanese wheat dumplings, are sold here in markets just like they are in the Middle East. Pan de cazón, tortillas layered with shredded epazote-perfumed shark, refried black beans and chile-tomato sauce, is pure fusion, an adaptation of Spanish cooking style to local ingredients.
And then there’s the truly indigenous: the Mayan pib, a pre-Hispanic method of anointing, marinating and then roasting meat, fowl and fish. The settlers brought pigs, but local cooks quickly substituted them for regional game.
David Sterling, formerly of New York, teaches Yucatecan cooking at Los Dos Cooking School. He explains that “You have to remember that even just 15 or 20 years ago, this was still ‘the provinces’ — folks cooked and ate at home exclusively. The dining scene has changed dramatically during the last several years. There are more and more regional options too. In terms of quality. … in general it’s progressing, albeit at a glacial pace. I think that’s inevitable as Mérida continues to grow and more outside influences come in.”
Cochinita pibil, the quintessential Yucatecan dish, is suckling pig, slathered with a sauce made of achiote (annatto), sour orange juice, garlic, oregano, allspice and pepper, then wrapped in a banana leaf and slow roasted, preferably over coals. It is eaten as tacos, in soft corn tortillas, or tortas, on white flour rolls, with fiery habanero sauce. The Yucatan produces the most picante salsas in the country, if not the world. Today, few people make it at home, preferring to buy from the experts.
One locally famous stand appears Friday through Sunday in front of Panadería La Ermita in the plaza of the same name. Neighbors gather to eat there, fragrant meat heaped on fresh baked bread and spiked by pickled red onions. Some buy kilos to go. And everyone knows to come early, since by noon it’s run out.
Tamales, ubiquitous in Latin America, are sold in the market as they have been for centuries. Customers in the know vie for a place at the long table at Jugos Mario for hot tamales. Called tamal colorado, they are the regional variation on a theme. Corn masa is ground to a custard-like consistency and flavored with chile and achiote, then steamed in a banana leaf. A dash of habanero salsa adds fire.
At the other end of the spectrum, Ku’uk is a restaurant whose name comes from the Mayan word meaning “sprout.” It has done just that, sprouting like an experimental lab in a sea of conservative tradition. It’s the venue for young chef Mario Espinosa, an academy-trained veteran of Mexico City’s renowned, avant-garde restaurant Pujol.
Here, old-fashioned Yucatecan cooking is deconstructed and reinterpreted. The kitchen has a traditional pit oven for cooking “pib,” but contemporary molecular gastronomic trends are introduced as well. And although traditional ingredients are incorporated, they are reconfigured with the chef’s creative flair. The market favorite castacán (deep fried pork belly), usually eaten with a little salsa in tacos, is elaborated into “castacán, prawn, string cheese from Tabasco, fava bean broth and dried shrimp.” The breakfast standard chaya con huevo (eggs scrambled with the regional bitter green herb chaya) is refashioned as a “transparency of potato and herbs, egg cream, and chaya.” So, while one foot stays firmly planted in local culinary heritage, the other dances a postmodern rhumba.
As the food-minded public becomes aware of Mexican cooking in its intricate variety, regional adaptations will continue to be unearthed and celebrated. That’s a good thing.
And I, although intrigued by these recent developments, stay admittedly “in search of lost time” as I continue to seek out the best bowl of sopa de lima I can find.
Top photo: Chichen Itza. Credit: Nicholas Gilman
Think “State Fair,” the quintessential celebration of rural Americana as portrayed in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s eponymous musical film of 1945. That’s where I am for a moment when I enter the provisional arched gates of the annual mega-food event in Mistura, Peru. Missing are the rides, the games, the cotton candy, the stuffed animal prizes. But the atmosphere is familiar. Couples stroll placidly, hand in hand, directionless and contentedly sipping drinks. Spotlights shine on hawkers shouting invitations to passers-by. A joyous tranquility is in the air.
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Mistura is the most extensive gastronomic fair I’ve ever seen. It’s Peru’s most important cultural event, and should make every citizen of this brilliant but poor Latin American country proud. The pet project of star chef Gastón Acurio, it is now sponsored and funded by such diverse backers as the state and one big soft drink manufacturer that wants us to think it’s doing redeemable things as well.
Every September since 2008, several performance stages, a huge market featuring more than 300 stands and more than 100 food stalls are set up on an empty stretch of beachfront south of Lima’s center. Only Peruvian cuisine is featured. There’s also an Encuentro Gastrónomico for serious students: presentations, lectures and demonstrations that address the latest trends in the restaurant world, modern society’s relationship with food, and the importance of honoring the environment and its ingredients. It’s a proud celebration of peruanidad, the state of being Peruvian. Everybody from all walks of life goes — at least those who can afford the $6 (U.S.) admission. There were 300,000 attendees in 2012, more this year. And it’s all about food. Nothing makes people happier. Seeing it, talking about it and, of course, eating it.
A welcome message from star chefs
The Encuentro Gastronómico features star chefs and gastronomes from all over the Latino world who expound on their particular culinary identities. This year, the guest of honor was Chef Alain Ducasse, who kick-started the fair with a presentation on the importance of healthful eating, extolling the virtue of quality ingredients and the evils of junk food. We knew that. But it’s good to hear it from the mouth of a gastronomic demigod. Later, Acurio presented his new initiative called “Salsa,” which “aims to unite Latin American cooks and share experiences and knowledge.” Preaching to the choir? Perhaps, but necessary in a food world still dominated by Europe and the U.S.
The fair is divided into two main areas, the Gran Mercado and the food stalls. The market, under a huge tent, celebrates all products Peruvian. There are booths dedicated to quinoa (black, red and white), bread, chocolate, olives and, of course, potatoes. Hundreds of them, millions it seems. The vendors are men in brightly colored, hand-embroidered suits and women wearing traditional clothing, hair in braids, topped with what look like hipster hats. They offer purple, red, yellow and white potatoes, little black squiggly ones, large round polka-dotted ones. They’ve schlepped them from the far corners of the Andes in sacks. One proud indigenous lady, her pretty denim-clad daughter looking on, cuts open a yawar huayco to show me its royal purple interior — blue black juice drips down her weathered hand. I want to buy them all; airline/border restrictions hold me back, but I purchase a few kilos anyway.
Eater’s haven at Mistura
A light sea breeze starts to waft through the market tent, carrying with it the incense of the kitchen. The mundos (worlds), as the food stand areas are designated, gently beckon. My heart starts pounding. I need to eat everything. How am I going to do it? There’s no time, no stomach big enough. I’m afraid to blink, fearful it will all disappear. It’s a virtual eater’s heaven. Stands are divided by region. Mundo Amazónico offers various preparations of the freshwater fish paiche, fragrant tamales of rice seasoned with fresh turmeric called juanes, and to wash it all down the hot pink juice of the camu camu, a jungle fruit with a wildflower-like fragrance.
I forget that we’re not in Mexico and norte doesn’t mean the deserts of Sonora and Chihuahua. The north of Peru is warm and heavily influenced by indigenous culture. The signature dish of this area is seco de cabrito, a stew of goat flavored with black corn “beer,” cilantro, oregano, and fresh and dried chilies. The meat is tender and fragrant, like a mild Indian curry.
In the Mundo de Ceviche section I choose the busiest stand and order a classic tiradito de pescado: thin strips of flounder are showered with spiky leche de tigre, perfumy lime juice with a bit of ground fresh ají, a yellow chili. It’s like sashimi, softer and subtler than Mexican ceviche, masterfully made.
In Mundo Limeño I can’t resist sampling Doña Chela’s aji de gallina. The doña smiles maternally while efficiently ladling out Peru’s comfort dish to adoring fans. Chicken, cooked in beautiful hand-polished earthen pots, is bathed in a velvety cream sauce thickened with bread and augmented by mildly picante roasted yellow peppers. At this point I’m no longer hungry, but I get a plate anyway.
Peru’s lexicon of cooking includes what has been labeled Nikkei, the melding of Japanese and home traditions utilizing local ingredients. It is proffered at El Mundo Oriental, several of whose stands combine fresh fish corn, ají peppers, yucca and potatoes in new ways. Another popular food category here is chifa, a simplified Chinese adaptation of stir-frying that is found all over Lima.
A crowd magnet
I skip past the Mundo Oriental in order to leave room for grilled chancho, the most popular dish of all. In the Mundo de las brasas (world of the coals), long lines of hungry eaters wait patiently while workers stoke huge, medieval-looking wood fires to roast whole, midsized pigs. Pork-infused smoke permeated this crowded section — the sweet aroma turning even the head of a near-vegetarian. I wait until shortly before closing when I finally procure a plateful of the divinely tender chopped meat. My stomach says “enough already” but my senses reply, “Go for it!”
Peru is now in a gastronomic boom; its culinary traditions have become known around the world in recent years. Street and market food are unparalleled, comparable in scope and quality to that of Mexico or Thailand, and its burgeoning high-end restaurant scene, with its myriad fusions of deep-rooted traditions, is fascinating.
I leave happy, sated. That’s how a visit to a country fair should be.
Top photo: Potatoes add a splash of color at Mistura food fair in Lima, Peru. Credit: Nicholas Gilman
Even the most jaded of adults will stand outside the plate glass window of a chocolate shop and stare at the candies inside with the wide-eyed wonder of a child. On a recent trip researching a series of articles about Switzerland, I spent time with chocolatier Dan Durig who has two shops in Lausanne on Lake Geneva.
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To celebrate the holidays and the New Year, Durig generously shared an easy-to-make chocolate ganache. He also patiently allowed me to videotape him preparing his signature vanilla-scented ganache-filled chocolates.
Born into a family of Swiss chocolate makers, Durig learned the craft from his dad, Jean Durig. Growing up near Manchester, England, and vacationing with his father’s family in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, Durig lived comfortably in England and Switzerland. So when he was ready for a life change, relocating to Switzerland was easy to do.
Having always worked for his dad or other chocolatiers, he wanted to start his own business in Lausanne. In a quiet neighborhood within sight of Lake Geneva, Durig converted a branch office of BCV bank into Durig Chocolatier.
Locals told Durig the transformation of a bank into a chocolate shop changed the neighborhood for the better. The change was good for Durig as well. Within three years, his business was well established, he won several prestigious awards, he married and had a son. Putting together a team to work in the kitchen and in the front of the shop is, according to Durig, easier in Switzerland than other places because of the country’s well-established apprenticeship program. The clerks who work in the shop go through a retail management program. The chocolatiers learn their craft in a multiyear pastry apprenticeship based on the French model, combining four days of work with one day of school.
Made mostly by hand with the help of a few machines, Durig happily demonstrated how he crafts his chocolates. As he worked, two tempering machines that work 24 hours a day can be heard in the background, keeping separate batches of milk and dark chocolate at precisely the correct temperature. When melted without controlling the temperature, chocolate will cool and harden without its characteristic bright sheen and crispness.
Durig knows his chocolates are only as good as the ingredients he uses. To make his ganache, he sources high quality Swiss organic cream from local dairies and vanilla beans from Madagascar. He buys his cocoa and cocoa butter from quality, fair trade producers in Peru, Sierra Leone and Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic.
For best results at home, follow Durig’s lead and buy the highest quality chocolate and cream available. Chocolate should be made only with cocoa butter. Cream should not have any chemical additives.
To make the ganache-filled chocolates demonstrated by chef Durig in the video, purchase a candy-making mold in a restaurant or cooking supply store or online. Learning to temper chocolate is not for the faint of heart. Understanding that, Durig’s ganache recipe does not require tempering.
Durig Chocolatier’s Chocolate Holiday Ganache Squares
Using quality ingredients is essential in cooking, especially when making chocolates. After making the ganache, the chocolates should be stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container.
If served cold, the chocolates have a pleasing crispness. Allowed to warm to room temperature, they will have a melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness. I put the chocolates in individual paper cups for easy serving.
As a matter of taste, I added caramelized nuts to the ganache. A half cup of almond slivers tossed with 1 tablespoon of white sugar and toasted over a low flame added a pleasing crunch to the citrus and herbal notes.
Serves 24 to 36 (about 130 pieces, depending on the size of the squares)
For the mixed spice:
Durig buys his mixed spice ready made. Making your own is easy enough. Once prepared, keep in an airtight container. If ground clove and fennel are not available, grind your own.
1¼ teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground fennel
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground clove
For the chocolates:
500 grams (1 pint) cream
800 grams (28 ounces) organic dark chocolate (68% cocoa content), chopped into small pieces
10 grams (2 flat teaspoons) ground cinnamon
10 grams (2 flat teaspoons) mixed spice (see directions below)
100 grams (3 ounces) chopped organic candied orange peel
Organic cocoa powder for dusting
For the mixed spice:
1. Place all the ingredients into a small, electric grinder and pulverize into a fine powder.
For the chocolates:
1. Bring the cream to boil and remove from the heat.
2. Add the other ingredients to the cream and stir with a wire whisk until the chocolate is melted.
3. Pour into a 10-inch dish lined with baking paper.
4. Cool in the fridge for 4 hours.
5. Cut into ½- to ¾-inch squares and roll each square in the cocoa powder.
6. Set aside on a wire rack or sheets of waxed paper.
7. Keep refrigerated in an airtight container until ready to serve.
Top photo: Ganache-filled chocolates at Durig Chocolatier in Lausanne, Switzerland. Credit: David Latt
Being away from your family and friends while living overseas can make Thanksgiving one of the loneliest days of the year for a North American expat. For that reason, trying to prepare your family’s traditional Thanksgiving meal with turkey and all the trimmings becomes an obsession for many.
The sourcing of ingredients and having the right cooking equipment are the biggest obstacles to re-creating the typical dishes found on your family’s festive table. During my years living in Asia, I have prepared traditional Thanksgiving meals for more than 1,000 people from a home kitchen, but not without having to substitute ingredients, change cooking methods or simply break away from tradition. Here are some tips to assist you when thrown a culinary curve ball.
Roughly plan your menu at least a couple of weeks ahead of celebrating Thanksgiving. During your regular grocery runs, scout the shops and markets to see if any non-perishable, specialty items you will need are on the shelves. Purchase them if they are available, as other shoppers will quickly follow, looking for those same prized items. Check with market vendors to see if they will have certain items, and place an order with them to guarantee they are part of your holiday larder.
Locating a turkey, the centerpiece of a Thanksgiving meal, is of utmost importance for many expats. A few fortunate cooks may be able to purchase an expensive imported bird from a high-end grocer or from friends who have access to an embassy commissary, but most will have to search their local markets to see if any gobblers are for sale. Whether you are able find a local turkey or have to settle for some other type of fowl, make sure you clearly communicate with the market vendor that you want the bird to be dressed, i.e. de-feathered, eviscerated and head and feet removed. If you don’t, you may need to quickly learn some new butchery skills.
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If you are lucky enough to get a turkey, you next need to confirm that your oven, if you have one, can comfortably accommodate something this big. Most ovens sold in Asia are still on the small side to efficiently cook a large turkey.
It has been my experience that the turkeys, ducks, geese and even chickens in Asia have lived a roaming life resulting in strong, tough legs. Faced with these challenges, a day or two before Thanksgiving dinner, I routinely take the legs off, brown them with some onions, carrots, garlic, a pinch of cloves and black pepper and then braise them in water or stock for several hours until they are tender. The bonus of using this method is you can take the cooking liquid and reduce it to make a flavorful gravy. I then finish by roasting the breast in the oven. If you don’t have an oven, you can either poach or steam the breast.
If you are looking to change things up, you may want to entertain turning to a local favorite restaurant to help prepare a regional delicacy, such as a Peking duck, a roast suckling pig or tandoori turkey, to use as your meal’s centerpiece.
Trimmings and side dishes
Fresh cranberries most likely won’t be accessible to make cranberry chutney, but there are many local fruits that serve as good alternatives. Apples are currently in season, citrus fruits are making their way into the markets and pineapples or green mangoes bring a nice acidity to the meal. The key is to ensure that the flavors of your chutney compliment the menu and you create a balance of sweet and tart flavors.
Asian markets may lack the root vegetables — parsnips, turnips, celery root — that signal a fall harvest, but there are some fantastic substitutes. Broccoli, bok choy and a host of greens in the cabbage family are good stand-ins for Brussels sprouts, while the varieties of sweet potatoes and yams you find locally are excellent replacements for the orange-fleshed sweet potatoes you may be accustomed to.
If your stuffing gets its crunch and flavor from celery, look to vegetables like kohlrabi, celtuce or Chinese celery instead. Head to a nearby five-star hotel to purchase multigrain bread for your stuffing or, for a gluten-free alternative, use cooked local brown rice.
What about dessert?
No Thanksgiving meal is complete without a pie or two. Nuts such as walnuts, cashews, peanuts or a combination of the three will ease your regret at having no pecans for your pie. Likewise, pumpkin pie elicits oohs and ahs from its devoted following. Canned pumpkin is a challenge to find, and there tends to be only one type of pumpkin available in the markets. To make your own pumpkin purée, peel the pumpkin, roast, steam or boil it until tender, then drain and purée. I find the pumpkin can be a bit watery, and it is best to cook the puree over medium heat on the stovetop for about 10 minutes to reduce the moisture content. The purée is now ready to use for your pie recipe.
It’s still Thanksgiving
The most essential ingredient of any Thanksgiving larder is the people around your table. You may not be able to have immediate family fill the seats, but you can include new, close friends with whom to share your family’s traditions. Ask your guests to bring a dish from their country to add some of their culture to your feast.
Carrying family traditions abroad is a great way to re-create a semblance of “home” to celebrate Thanksgiving, but trying to prepare an exact replica creates added stress and increases the likelihood of failure. Be open to tweaking the dishes with accents from your travels or flavors of your current culinary environment or those of your guests. I can assure you that these creative menu changes bring lasting memories and may even create new traditions that will appear on your table at future celebrations.
Top photo: Fresh foods you find at your local market often make suitable substitutes for traditional Thanksgiving ingredients. Credit: Cameron Stauch
When my husband was invited to practice his art of painting in rural — the word was emphasized many times in the acceptance letter — Ireland, we jumped on it and decided to go right away rather than wait until summer. Our stay was from Halloween to Christmas, covering the major holidays, which were pretty much nonexistent for us that year.
Winter is perhaps not the most perfect time to be on the rough and wild Atlantic coast of the Emerald Island — which, as you quickly come to understand, has to do with the copious amount of rain that falls. It was cold. And damp. Our cottage was stone, and there were gaps in the ceiling that allowed a view of the sky. My husband’s studio was heated, but for me, getting warm and staying that way was the challenge of each day. The recipe called for lots of hot water and alcohol.
Finding warmth in Ireland
Here’s how it worked. First, we were told not to use hot water unless it came from the night storage, a concept we found hard to follow but eventually understood: Electricity is cheaper at night than during the day, so water heated at night is more economical than water heated during the day. So I started the day by submerging myself in water that was as hot as I could stand and staying there until I really couldn’t stand it anymore. Then I dressed in an infinite number of layers that padded me like the Michelin Man, but they kept me warm until noon, when I repeated the process.
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About 3 p.m., when the light caved, I joined Patrick, my husband, in the pub across the street from his studio, where I had a hot whiskey with lemon and clove — divine because it warmed my hands as well as my insides. Then maybe I had a second one just to seal in the hint of warmth that I was sure was coming on. These drinks were pretty mild as alcohol goes. Even two weren’t nearly as strong as the real Irish coffee I had in a pub in a nearby town, where the combination of caffeine, sugar, booze and cream was simultaneously such an upper and downer that your day was done by the last sip. By comparison, the hot whiskey was like tea.
When we returned to our cottage, it was dark outside and cold inside. The first task was to light a peat fire in a fireplace that would never become hot it so dwarfed our expensive bundles of peat logs. There was a heater on one wall, which, if you leaned against it, could make a small portion of your bottom warm, but that was the sum total of its effectiveness.
Because cooking dinner helped produce some warmth, we headed to the kitchen. When Patrick would get a bottle out, it wasn’t that nicely chilled red wine temperature we’ve come to appreciate, nor was it frozen. But it was so frigid you might want to wear mittens to handle it. The wine glasses, too, were like bowls of ice. So we lit the burners on the stove, placed the bottle and glasses among them, and waited until the bottle felt right. By then the glasses would be, too, and dinner would be nearly prepared. We ate it huddled against the big metal fireplace that at least suggested coziness.
Finally, I’m ashamed to say, the best part of each day came, and that was getting into bed and lying on the enormous heating pad that worked like a reverse electric blanket: warming the bed rather than lying on top of you. Finally, here was warmth, and it stayed — regardless of the wind and the rain, which sounded like it was shot from nail guns. While in bed I read a lot about the famine years and tried to comprehend how people could be this cold and starving and yet continue on, while I was being such a wimp about it all.
Christmas in Dublin
By Christmas we were in Dublin, which felt very far from County Mayo in every way. The hotel room was warm; people were festive and jolly; the food was varied and good; there were amazing cheeses to be found; and a farmers market was filled with treats. The pubs were bustling, and there were warm cobblers with cream or mushrooms on toast for breakfast. I’ve never loved Christmas that much, but in Dublin it felt like a real celebration, with music on the streets and a big feeling of happiness in those around us. Of course, that’s when the Celtic Tiger was a big glossy cat, but it was last year, too, when we were there and the economics were quite reversed.
By far, the best holiday scene was one I had the good fortune to happen upon, and it had nothing to do with food. I was walking down a street when I noticed at least a 100 Santas standing together in front of a rather grand building. They were talking and smoking in their Santa outfits. That alone was quite something to see, and I would have been utterly content if it went no further. But then all at once the door of the building opened, and the president of Ireland, Mary McAleese, stepped out, and all the Santas burst into boisterous song: “We wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year!” And they cheered the president in her red dress, and I think they might have tossed hats into the air.
Top photo: County Mayo, Ireland. Credit: Deborah Madison
There’s no shortage of wineries in Piedmont, Italy. Some, especially those that make blockbuster Barolos and Barbarescos, are grand and world-famous. Their wines feature on top restaurant wine lists and take pride of place in the cellars of wine collectors the world over. Securing an appointment to visit requires a personal introduction and/or a certain chutzpah, with fluent Italian a distinct advantage.
On the other hand, for every grand and famous estate, there are a half-dozen pocket-sized domaines, known only to a few cognoscenti. They specialize in gem-like wines made in tiny quantities, which they nurse to maturity with tender loving care. Many of these smaller, lesser-known wineries welcome visitors — including English-speaking ones — by appointment, receiving them with simplicity and rare generosity of spirit.
Cascina Fontana in the village of Perno, perched on a ridge in the misty Langhe hills just south of Alba, falls neatly into this gem-like category. It is headed by Mario Fontana, the sixth generation of his family to make wine here, together with his wife, Luisa, with help from mamma Elda and occasional aid from sons Edoardo and Vasco. With just 4 hectares (9.8 acres), Mario makes the four classic red wines of the Langhe region: Barolo and Langhe Nebbiolo, both from the Nebbiolo grape, as well as Barbera d’Alba and Dolcetto d’Alba. He describes his wines as “genuine, natural, true expressions of nostro territorio — our land and our culture.”
Weather makes or breaks Italian winery owner’s spirits
I visited in May this year and found the usually cheerful Mario looking uncharacteristically glum. “It was a long winter, followed by a miserably cold, wet spring,” he admitted.
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They finished harvesting at the end of October and a delighted Mario was able to report by mail that after all those anxious moments earlier in the year, he was overall quite satisfied with the vintage. But it’s early, he admitted. “I always remember what my nonno (grandfather) Saverio, my greatest teacher, used to say to me: ‘The grapes are harvested in fall, but the race is not over till the final lap is completed.’ ”
On that May visit, gathered around the huge oak table in Mario’s newly converted tasting room with a group of wine-loving friends, we tasted the results of earlier vintages that had completed their final lap.
First came Dolcetto, bright, pretty, thirst-quenching and (at 12.5% alcohol by volume) relatively low in alcohol — perfect with a simple salad of vine-ripened tomatoes and local mozzarella with home-made grissini. Next came Barbera d’Alba, a blooming delight, deliciously fruit-driven and just right with slivers of air-dried sausage from the local butcher.
Mario’s Langhe Nebbiolo, which (like his Barbera) spends a year in small oak barrels, some of them new, is a proper wine, not just (as is too often the case) a poor relation of Barolo that didn’t quite make the cut. Finally, with a steaming plate of manzo brasato al Barolo (beef braised in Barolo) made with love by Mario’s mamma, we worked our way around several vintages of the eponymous wine, each one elegantly structured, beautifully balanced, understated and oozing with class.
Cascina Fontana wines are imported into the United Kingdom by Berry Bros. and Rudd, wine merchants by appointment of the Queen and the Prince of Wales. Check Wine Searcher for stockists in the U.S.
Top photo: Grapes growing at Cascina Fontana. Credit: Kim Millon
Provence in the south of France has certainly gotten all the glory with its jet-setter reputation. After all it has the Riviera with Monte Carlo, St. Tropez and Cannes while its neighbor to the southwest Languedoc seems like a distant cousin.
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Most people probably can’t name any place in Languedoc. However, Languedoc offers some delights for the non-jet-setting crowd. It’s quieter than Provence, it’s beautiful, and one can encounter food as good as — and some would say better than — in Provence. That’s impossible to judge of course, but I do find myself often leaning to certain dishes rather than the popular tapenade from Provence.
One such dish is a great salad from Languedoc called anchoïade, a tomato and anchovy salad that is a celebration of land and sea. As its name indicates, the star of this salad must be the local anchovies that are salted directly off the boats coming into the small ports of Languedoc or the Côte Vermeille in Roussillon.
For this reason your typical oil-soaked anchovies in little cans will not do. For this dish to be anything remotely notable you’ll need nice plump, silvery, salted anchovies. Anchovies like these are sold by the Sicilian firm Agostino Recca available at the grocery and gourmet food section of Amazon.
Because the tomatoes are equally important, I call for specific cultivars that I either grow or like, but you can use any kind of homegrown or farmers market-type ripe tomato, heirloom or not, as long as they’ve got full flavor. Anchoïade can refer to a kind of vinaigrette that has anchovies in it or to this salad.
Anchoïade (Tomato and Anchovy Salad)
Serves 4 to 6
16 salted anchovy filets, rinsed
1½ pounds ripe Principe Borghese or Early Girl tomatoes, quartered
3 to 4 ounces imported green olives (28 to 32)
2 large eggs, hard-boiled, shelled and quartered
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
¼ cup very finely chopped red onion
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. Soak the anchovies for 2 hours in water. Remove and pat dry with paper towels.
2. Arrange the tomatoes, olives and eggs on a platter. Drape the anchovy fillets over the tomatoes artfully.
3. Make the vinaigrette by whisking together the olive oil, vinegar, mustard, red onion, salt and pepper.
4. Dress the tomatoes, without tossing, and serve.
Top photo: Anchoïade salad with anchovies and tomatoes. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
L’orto del professore, the professor’s garden, is riotous, an unruly tumult of beans and squashes, tomatoes and peppers, cabbages, kale, lettuce, cucumbers and wild things, too. When I visited il professore a few weeks ago at his home near Piazza Armerina in central Sicily, there were green beans twining up poles and low borlotti bush beans (the kind that, when dried, get turned into zuppa di fagioli); there were climbing squashes, long, pale, snake-like squashes — Sicilian favorites called cucuzza – and big, round pumpkins in various shapes and shades of yellow-stained orange; there were eggplants and tomatoes and cabbages and peppers in all sizes and degrees of heat.
Everything grew together in helter-skelter fashion, and there was also growing everywhere a surfeit of what you (and I) might call weeds — but they all had names and they all had purposes, from familiar purslane, growing close to the ground, so healthy and delicious in salads, to tall plants of amaranth with their graceful pink flower stalks laden with seeds. There was also lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album), nettles and mallow (Malva sylvestris), all valuable sources of food for anyone who knows what he’s about.
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And the professor knows what he’s about. He is a noted gardener, forager and expert on all manner of living creatures, but especially those that grow in the ground. My friend Salvatore, himself no mean forager of wild greens, always tries to spend time with the professore when he’s visiting his native Sicily from Umbria, where he’s lived the last dozen years or so. It was Salvatore who took me to meet the professore after a morning during which the two genial gentlemen had rambled through the pine forest above Piazza Armerina, looking for mushrooms but without notable success. Salvatore had supplied the professore last spring with seeds of cavolo nero, a type of kale that’s a foundation of wintertime tables in Tuscany and Umbria, and now he wanted me to see how the plants had done in the unfamiliar environment of central Sicily. In brief, they had done spectacularly well in this hotter, drier climate, growing thick, dark, blistery, blue-green leaves that, when stripped of their tough central stems, would be steamed or fried or added to soups.
It’s sometimes hard for outsiders to understand the kind of niche levels of consumption that exist in Italy. It’s fewer than 400 miles from Salvatore’s garden in Umbria to the professore’s in central Sicily, and yet cavolo nero is as exotic in Sicily as some Chinese herb might be in New England. Just as no one in Umbria would think of using the fragrant dried oregano that is so ubiquitous in Sicilian cooking, so no one in Sicily, as far as we could tell, had ever tried to grow cavolo nero. (In U.S. markets, where it’s been appearing for several years now, cavolo nero is sometimes known as Tuscan kale or lacinato kale.)
Is there religion in a garden’s riotous profusion?
I admired the professore’s success with cavolo nero, but I was more interested in the garden as a whole and its riotous profusion. I can’t think when I’ve seen a garden that looked more undisciplined, even abandoned. Used to the trim and tightly weeded rows of a New England vegetable garden, I was undone by what looked like an uncontrollable wilderness. And yet the plants were healthy, with no trace of bugs or diseases. As we stalked through bean patches and clambered over pumpkin vines, it suddenly struck me. “This is a very Catholic garden,” I said. What did I mean? “Well, it’s wide open to anything and everything, saints and sinners alike.” (At least that’s how I see it.) The professore laughed. “I’m not a Catholic,” he said. “I’m somewhere between an atheist and an agnostic.” “So was my father,” I replied, “but he had a thoroughly Protestant garden, straight rows, tidy, neat, disciplined.”
Can that be? Is there really such a thing as a Catholic garden or a Protestant garden? It’s fun to think about, and maybe there’s a bit of truth in it. We continued our banter as we made our way back to the house, where a lovely lunch awaited us — pasta with tenerumi, fresh from the garden; a sweet-and-sour braise of rabbit with caponata, that great Sicilian combination of eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, onions, garlic and olive oil (talk about Catholic!) on the side; and a dessert of simple slices of chilled melon. All prepared by the professore’s wife, whose 94-year-old mother, a testament to the virtues of this Mediterranean, fresh-from-the-garden diet, joined us at the table.
Now, you may be asking, what exactly are these tenerumi? Tenerumi are the tender (tenere — get it?) green leaves and budding tips from that same cucuzza squash, the long, snake-like squash I mentioned earlier that is such a favorite in Sicily, and, like the oregano I also mentioned above, quite unknown in more northern parts of Italy. The squash itself is a summertime favorite, harvested when young then chunked and stewed gently with other vegetables. It’s considered cooling, according to the Doctrine of Signatures, which goes back to Hippocrates, if not earlier. But the leaves and tender shoots of the plant are also edible, and indeed prized in Sicily, and they were growing all over the professore’s orto, putting out delicate white flowers. (The white flowers mean that technically this is a gourd not a squash, which has yellow flowers.) I’ve seen tenerumi leaves sold in New York City Greenmarkets and I imagine they’re probably seasonally available in other parts of the country as well. They are deliciously refreshing and slightly astringent and, when cooked with pasta, make an exciting and unusual first course. The professore’s wife prepared her tenerumi by slicing the leaves and part of the stems, discarding any tough or wooden stem ends along with the tendrils, which won’t soften with cooking. You should have about 4 cups of fresh sliced tenerumi for the following recipe.
Could you make pasta con tenerumi with other types of squash leaves, too? I don’t see why not, as long as they are not too big, old, tough or covered with prickles. The leaves and shoots of young zucchini and other types of summer squash would be just fine, but I wouldn’t use the big, old, hairy leaves of pumpkins or hard winter squash. You can also order seeds for cucuzza from Growitalian.com (search for zuchetta) and plant them in your garden next spring, just like zucchini. Harvest the squash (sorry, gourds) when they’re not more than a foot long, and pull off the leaves and tender shoots whenever you feel the urge — you can go on with this all summer long.
Pasta Con Tenerumi
This makes enough for 4 servings — and note that it’s more of a soup than a pasta and should be eaten with forks and soup spoons.
2 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more to garnish the bowls
About ½ pound small cherry or grape tomatoes, halved or quartered
1 small fresh chili pepper, seeded and chopped (or to taste)
A big bunch of tenerumi leaves and shoots, prepared as above, to make 4 cups
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
6 cups of water
1 pound spaghetti, broken into 1-inch lengths
Cheese to grate over the top (pecorino Siciliano or Parmigiano-Reggiano)
1. Add the garlic and oil to the bottom of a 3- to 4-quart stock pot and set over medium heat. Cook, briefly stirring, until the garlic has softened, but do not let it brown.
2. Stir in the halved or quartered tomatoes and the chili pepper and continue cooking, stirring until the tomatoes start to give off juice and the bits of chopped chili have softened.
3. Add the cleaned tenerumi leaves along with a generous amount of salt and black pepper. Stir very well to mix all the ingredients together, then add about 6 cups of water and bring it to a simmer.
4. Let the liquid simmer for about 15 minutes, or until the leaves are tender but not falling apart. While the leaves are cooking, break the spaghetti into approximately 1-inch lengths.
5. When the leaves are sufficiently cooked, stir the pasta into the pot along with another pinch of salt. Let it cook till the pasta is done — approximately 8 minutes, or according to your own preference.
6. Serve immediately in soup bowls or on plates. Add a generous dollop of extra virgin olive oil to the top of each serving along with a handful of freshly grated cheese. This is often served in summertime at room temperature, but in the chilly days of autumn I prefer it as the professore’s wife served it — hot from the pan.
Note that some people like to add a potato or two, peeled and cubed, right at the beginning, along with the tomatoes.
Top photo: The professore in his garden, holding up one of the cucuzza squashes he grows. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins