Articles in Travel
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.
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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
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.
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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 (email@example.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.
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
If a glass of ouzo and a chewy chunk of octopus is what comes to mind at the cocktail hour, you need a boat with a sail and a following wind to carry you round the Dodecanese, a string of volcanic islands that belong to Greece but are rather closer to Turkey.
Gastronomic delights on the little island of Lipso — if you’re not a yachtie, as many of the visitors are, you can get there on the thrice-weekly ferry out of Samos — are goat’s cheese and cephalopods, mostly octopus, or octopodi. Lipso’s cheese can best be appreciated in the form of pies, tiropita, available hot from the wood oven at Taki’s bakery on the harbor front of the island’s friendly little capital, Lipsi. Meanwhlie, the night’s catch of octopodi are visible throughout the day dangling suckered tentacles like reddish bunting from the awning of Nico’s ouzerie by the quay where the fishermen land their catch. Octopus, for the tender-hearted, are voracious carnivores whose favorite supper, also on the menu at Nico’s, is pipe fish, an eel-like creature no longer than your hand with a pointed snout and a luminous blue-green spine.
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As you might expect, there is more than one way to cook an octopus. There’s octopus simmered with tomato and onion; octopus salad; octopus frittered or fried; octopus preserved under olive oil with vinegar to eat with fat slices of just-cooked yellow potato; octopus cooked with big white beans; octopus stewed with red wine and the peppery oregano that grows wild on Greek hillsides. But the simplest and most delicious is octopodi cooked to order on the grill at Nico’s after the place opens for business at sundown, in the company, say, of a Greek family and friends celebrating a christening or wedding or just having a good time in spite of what’s happening with the European Union in Brussels and the government in Athens.
Octopodi as served at Nico’s is not for the squeamish. Which of course you’re not, or you wouldn’t be reading this. You will already have observed the evening’s menu dehydrating in the morning sunshine when you took your breakfast at Taki’s — open 24-7 because of the yachties — where your order might be Greek coffee (medium sweet), freshly squeezed orange juice and Lipsi’s speciality pita, a puffy open-topped tart filled with grated cheese set with egg. The bakery’s activities, you will observe from the video playing on the countertop, have been blessed by the Orthodox priest from the white-washed tourquoise-domed basilica on the hill where christenings and weddings take place, providing good business for the ouzerie and sharpening appetites for octopodi.
At sunset, when you take your place on one of the blue-painted chairs at a yellow Formica-topped table at Nico’s, your order is taken by a blue-eyed, bearded man with a profile straight off a Greek vase who slings one of the draped octopodi over white-hot charcoal and watches patiently till it sizzles and singes. Then he chops it into bite-sized pieces, drops them on a plate and plunks it down in front of you with a quartered lemon, a jug of ouzo and as many glasses as you have friends — of which you will have plenty if, like me, you’re recording the scene with sketchbook and paints. If your friends are happy and the ouzo flows freely, dancing will follow.
And no, I can’t provide a recipe for grilled octopodi with lemon and ouzo as prepared at Nico’s because preparing octopus is men’s business — so what do I know? You’ll just have to go there and order it yourself. What I can deliver, however, is instructions for octopodi ladolemono, octopus with oil and lemon as prepared by Lazarus, chef patron of the taverna of the same name on Ulysses’s island of Ithaca on the Italian side of the Greek mainland. It may not be the same, but it’s a start.
Octopus salad with oil and lemon
“As a woman,” explained Lazarus. “Octopus is not your business. But as a foreigner in need of instruction, I shall tell you. First, you must capture your octopodi. For a skilled spear fisherman such as myself, this is not difficult. Now comes the work. You must pick the creature up without fear and throw it 40 times against a rock. Less times are needed if it’s small, more if it’s large. First the flesh is hard, but slowly it softens. Now you must rinse it in seawater so that it foams. Unless you do this, it will never soften. You’ll know when it’s ready because the tentacles will curl. You must not take off the skin, as so many ignorant people do. The skin turns red when you cook it, and this is what tells you the octopodi is fresh and good. No Greek would eat an octopus which is skinned and white. To prepare it for a salad, put in a pan and cook it gently with a ladleful of sea water until it’s perfectly tender — allow 20 to 40 minutes. Drain it and slice it carefully into pieces — all of it is good. Dress it with the oil pressed from the fruit of your own olives, and squeeze on it the juice from the lemons from the tree in your own garden. Now you must shake over it a little of the oregano which you have gathered wild in the hills. Now all is ready. Set out the glasses with the ouzo and fetch water from the well, since you will also need to quench your thirst. Now you may call your friends, as many as are suitable for the size of your octopus. If you have too many friends, provide more bread and plenty of olives.”
Main illustration: The town is Lipsi in Greece. Credit: Elisabeth Luard
Say the word Malibu, and visions of bikini-clad women, surfer dudes and movie stars’ homes typically come to mind.
Now you can add vineyards with a view to the list of Malibu, Calif., attractions.
This month, the tony area will receive its Malibu Coast American Viticultural Area (AVA) classification, a process that took three years.
Malibu’s wine history begins in 1800s
“Now that we have a Malibu AVA, it gives us a sense of place and validates that we have a specific geographic area and we can reunite our group with a wine-growing history that goes back to 200 years,” said Elliott Dolin, proprietor of Dolin Malibu Estate Vineyards.
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Vineyards in the Malibu area were first planted by the Tapia family in the 1820s. “Between Prohibition and fires, the vineyards disappeared,” Dolin said.
Malibu’s viticultural history was revived in the mid-1980s by Santa Monica restaurateur Michael McCarty, who launched The Malibu Vineyards, and Los Angeles businessman George Rosenthal, who produced the eponymous label at his Malibu Newton Canyon vineyard. They were later joined by Ronnie Semler with his Malibu Family Wines at Saddle Rock Ranch.
Now Dolin is among 52 Malibu-based vintners farming wine grapes in California’s newly established AVA, which is comprised mainly of the Santa Monica Mountains. Some 198 acres of vineyards are planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Chardonnay. The appellation is 46 miles long and 8 miles wide, with elevations ranging from sea level to 3,111 feet atop Sandstone Peak. The two previously established minuscule appellations of Saddle Rock-Malibu and Malibu-Newton Canyon now come under the larger Malibu Coast AVA. About 30 wine labels are produced by the 52 growers.
But for tourists looking to visit wineries and tasting rooms, you’re out of luck. Because of state and county restrictions, Malibu does not have wine-production facilities with tasting rooms in the AVA. All the vintners custom crush their grapes in various Central Coast locations, and wines are sold through mailing lists and at retail stores and restaurants.
However, I discovered two places to savor local wines — Rosenthal Wine Bar & Patio on Pacific Coast Highway and Cornell Winery Tasting Room in Agoura. (Cornell is not an actual winery, but a wine bar and retail shop).
Perched on the western boundary above the Pacific Ocean, the Dolin estate is a seagull’s flight from Zuma Beach and sits on Zuma Mesa. The volcanic soil was called Zuma, hence the name of the beach, Dolin said.
Standing on the terrace of his Mediterranean-style villa, Dolin pointed to six other small vineyards around his property. The coastal weather is ideal for wine grapes. “We have cool fog in the morning, warm days and it’s cool in the evening,” he noted.
A native New Yorker, Dolin joined the Nashville music scene (he played electric guitar) and then turned to real estate development. He was introduced to fine wines through a dedicated wine group in Los Angeles and developed a love for Bordeaux and California reds. He and his wife, Lynn, purchased their 2-acre ocean-view property in 2001 and planted the vineyard in 2006. The Dolins hired Bob Tobias as their vineyard adviser, and he suggested a Chardonnay planting with the Dijon 96 clone.
Why a Chardonnay vineyard for a red-wine aficionado, I ask?
“Our best chance for quality fruit was Chardonnay, so decision was terroir-driven, not taste-driven,” Dolin said.
The first release in 2009 was made by Dolin himself at a custom crush facility in Camarillo. In 2010, Kirby Anderson — the former head winemaker at Gainey Vineyard — came on board as the winemaker, winning the Chardonnay a double gold in the San Francisco Chronicle’s wine competition. Currently the wines are produced at a custom crush in San Luis Obispo.
It’s a gorgeous Malibu afternoon, with clear skies, a gentle breeze caressing the vines planted just below the villa’s scenic terrace and the ocean in the distance. We savor the lush, round-mouth feel of the 2011 Chardonnay, which clearly says “California Chardonnay.” Barrel-aged for 13 months, the wine shows balance of fruit and acidity with oak playing a supporting role.
With his passion for reds, Dolin is expanding his 2014 portfolio, sourcing Central Coast Pinot Noir from such prestigious vineyards as Talley’s Rincon, Solomon Hills and Bien Nacido. We had a preview of this portfolio, tasting a salmon-hued 2103 Roséproduced from Central Coast Pinot Noir.
I later met with Jim Palmer of Malibu Vineyards at Cornell Winery. This not a winery but a retail shop and tasting room that specializes in Malibu labels plus wines made by small producers from Temecula to Monterey. It’s tucked away in the Santa Monica Mountains in the hamlet of Cornell.
The tasting room is adjacent to the popular eatery The Old Place, which was once the Cornell post office. A throwback to the Old West that has served as a backdrop to several Hollywood productions, this tiny oasis is wedged between Malibu and Agoura along Mulholland Highway and was part of the old stagecoach route, Palmer said.
In the mid-1990s, Palmer purchased his 4-acre Decker Canyon property 3 miles from the coast. Perched at an elevation of 1,500 feet, the vineyard is planted with Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot. His first vintage, a Syrah, was launched in 2003, and currently his annual production is a mere 400 cases.
Palmer poured the 2010 Sangiovese Vortex, a Super Tuscan-style Sangiovese blended with Merlot and Cabernet Franc — a sublime wine with balanced acidity and traces of cherry fruit. The fruit-forward style 2010 Syrah showed a hint of spice.
An accountant by profession, Palmer calls his wine business a one-man show. “By doing that, I can control all aspects of winemaking,” he said. “I also sell my own wine.”
Malibu may be renowned as a beach retreat for movie stars and billionaires, but it’s also gaining recognition for vintners growing grapes on small patches of vineyards and crafting very good wines.
Main photo: A selection of Malibu wines sold at the Cornell wine shop and tasting room. Credit: Mira Honeycutt
It wasn’t until we got off the ferry on North Haven, Maine, and started to move on island time that I realized just how badly we needed this break.
North Haven is tiny — roughly 12 miles long and 3 miles wide. It is situated in Penobscot Bay an hour and 10 minute ferry ride (and a mere 12 miles) off the coast of Rockland, Maine.
Our room at Nebo Lodge wasn’t quite ready, so we headed to one of the many beaches on the north side of the island.
Small-town Maine makes everyone feel welcome
North Haven is a place where everyone who drives, walks or bikes by waves hello when you pass on the road. And you wave back. It’s a place with public-access trails across someone’s gorgeous field where you are welcome to park and hike the mowed trail and climb down the ladder onto the secluded beach facing Camden Hills. It’s a place where you won’t see another living soul in sight when you reach the beach. Instead, you share the beach with 10,000 rocks (Maine’s famed rocky shoreline), two yellow kayaks moored to a tree and many seagulls.
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A long swim (yes, the water is icy) woke me up and made me feel so good I just kept swimming. Finally, I headed back to my towel to join my husband, and we fell into a deep sleep. Not even the annoying flies or brisk ocean breeze could wake us.
But when I woke and saw where we were (and did an internal check to see how good I felt), I couldn’t believe it was the same day, the same week or even the same month as the one I woke up to this morning.
We stopped in at the North Haven Oyster Co., but no oysters were to be had because of heavy rains. Try tomorrow, said the oysterman, who was slumped in an old chair smoking a cigarette looking like he didn’t have a care in the world.
When we checked in to Nebo Lodge, our home for the next two days, there was freshly made iced tea with lemon and fresh mint leaves as well as paper thin, almost lacy chocolate chip cookies waiting for us. Suddenly, still in my not-quite-dry bathing suit, I realized we were on vacation.
Nebo Lodge is owned by Chellie Pingree, who represents Maine’s 1st District in the U.S. House of Representatives. She’s a woman who fights hard to keep Maine’s food and farming traditions alive, among other important causes. She and daughter Hannah Pingree (also a politician) own the inn. Amanda Hallowell is the talented chef. The food comes from nearby Turner Farm — the island farm Pingree and her husband, Donald Sussman, own — where meat, vegetables, dairy and spectacular flowers are raised.
That night at dinner, at tables decorated with vintage flowered cloth tablecloths and tiny vases full of garden flowers, we sat outside on the porch, no mosquitoes biting our ankles, and started with seared padron peppers in olive oil and Maine sea salt — blistering hot and perfectly cooked. I also rolled up and devoured a Peking duck wrap, with house-pickled radishes, cucumbers and fabulous sticky rice and Sriracha. The harpooned swordfish came on a skewer with chunks of grilled bread on a bed of Israeli couscous. House-made ice cream with a salted caramel sauce ended the meal.
The next morning, we dined on fresh blueberry muffins, Turner Farm yogurt, cereals and fruit. A farm-fresh egg, yolk bright as a garden sunflower, was served with Turner Farm lamb sausage and house-made bread.
Over the next two days, we biked, swam, napped. We ate chowder and lobster rolls, fish sandwiches and ice cream cones. Two days of letting go, Maine style.
By the time we were on the ferry to return home, we were holding hands and smiling, ready to get back to whatever awaited us.
A classic Maine lobster roll contains fresh lobster meat tossed with mayonnaise and, sometimes, finely chopped celery. That’s it. The salad is stuffed into a buttered and grilled hot dog roll. You can do it the old-time Mainer way, but I happen to like my (slightly yuppie) version better, combining fresh-cooked lobster meat with just a touch of mayonnaise spiked with lemon juice, lemon zest, chives and scallions. And I like serving it on a piece of buttered, grilled baguette because I love the crunch and texture of French bread with the tender lobster meat.
- 2 one-pound lobsters, or 1 cup cooked lobster meat
- 1½ to 2 tablespoons mayonnaise (Use 2 tablespoons if you like it creamy, 1½ tablespoons if you like it less creamy.)
- 1½ teaspoons fresh lemon juice
- ½ teaspoon grated lemon zest
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh chives
- 1 tablespoon very finely chopped scallions
- Freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 2 three-inch pieces of baguette or crispy bread, or two hot dog rolls
- Fill a large pot with about 2 to 3 inches water and bring to a rolling boil over high heat. Add the lobsters, shell side down, cover and cook for about 11 to 13 minutes, or until a leg pulls out of the body easily. Remove from the boiling water and let cool.
- Separate the tail from the body. Using a fork, remove the tail meat from the tail. Crack the claws and remove the meat. Enjoy the bodies. Cut the tail in half lengthwise and remove the thin black vein. Coarsely chop the tail and claw meat and set aside.
- In a bowl, mix the mayonnaise, lemon juice, zest, chives, scallions and pepper to taste. Fold in the lobster meat. You can make the lobster salad several hours ahead of time, but not more than three to four hours. Cover and refrigerate.
- In a skillet, melt the butter over low heat. Cut the baguette pieces in half lengthwise and brown the inside of the bread in the melted butter until it just begins to turn golden brown. Alternately, melt the butter and brown the hot dog rolls until they begin to turn a golden brown, flipping them over so they get toasted and buttery on both sides.
- Divide the lobster mixture between the bread or the rolls.
To add more crunch or flavor to the lobster salad, you can also add the following: 1 tablespoon drained capers; 2 tablespoons finely chopped celery; lime juice and zest, instead of lemon; buttery, tender lettuce leaves; slices of ripe tomato; a strip of cooked country-style bacon; thin slices of buttery avocado; or very thin slices of red onion.
Main photo: A fish taco from Nebo Lodge. Credit: Kathy Gunst
Whether black as a shiny top hat, or dusted with fine white powder, salty licorice hits you with a blast. Sweet and salty and sour, it frankly takes some getting used to.
The Finns, however, adore salmiakki, as it’s called in their impenetrable language. It’s as much a part of the culture as saunas and Sibelius, Angry Birds and Moomins. A gift of the salty treat to a homesick Finn will bring tears to his or her eyes, in a reticent Finnish sort of way, of course.
Other northern European countries, particularly the Netherlands, share the partiality for both sweet and salty licorice. The Dutch, in fact, claim to eat the most amount of licorice (or drop, as they call it) per person in the world — nearly 2 kilograms a year.
Licorice textures, flavours
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Salty licorice can range in texture from fudge-like to hard, with varying degrees of chewiness and elasticity. Many forms have a powdery dusting on it as well. It can be used in liqueurs, vodka, chocolate fillings, syrups and ice cream (gray ice cream!), and found in a dizzying array of shapes, from diamond lozenges to balls, fish, rings, boats, skulls, cars, guitars and cute little animals.
The saltiness also varies from tart to tongue-numbingly sour. Fazer’s “Turkish Pepper Original®” is a hard, salty licorice with a fiery powder center — meant only for “real connoisseurs,” it warns.
The sharp, stinging taste comes from ammonium chloride, which also is used as an old-fashioned remedy for soothing coughs and reducing phlegm.
It was this salty variety that took me by surprise during a recent trip to Mikkeli, the center of the Eastern Finnish Lakeland region.
The town’s lively little marketplace included many vendors — some selling waxy siikli potatoes still coated in rich black earth, others intensely sweet Polka strawberries, and still others offering tiny vendace lake fish dipped in rye flour and fried in butter.
But there also was a licorice stall. Boxes of yard-long cables in fluorescent colors were arranged side by side: The many flavors included mint, strawberry, orange, toffee and banana as well as salty and sweet jet-black varieties.
Memories of licorice
The scene took me back to growing up in Lancashire, England, and going to the corner sweet, newsagent and tobacconist shop — a particularly British institution — for a twist of “Spanish,” a chewy, sticky bootlace of licorice that gummed up your back teeth. “Spanish” is widely believed to refer to the root grown by Spanish monks in North Yorkshire, but there is no evidence for this. Laura Mason in her book “Sugar-Plums and Sherbet: The Prehistory of Sweets” notes that Spanish licorice was apparently better quality than homegrown, and thus a likely explanation for the term.
According to Mason, Pontefract cakes are shiny round licorice coins embossed with a seal, dated 1760. That is when George Dunhill, an apothecary, improved upon the local licorice by mixing the extract with sugar and flour in proportions sufficient to make a palatable cough remedy in Yorkshire, an industrial region where the damp, chilly climate took a bronchial toll.
The eponymous “embossed cakes” are still made there today, although, sadly, no longer with locally grown roots.
Sir John Betjeman, one-time Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, was even inspired to write a poem about love and sex in the licorice fields of Pontefract — although the object of his affection probably never forgave him for describing her flannel-clad legs as the “strongest” in Pontefract.
The best licorice, such as the Finnish Panda All Natural licorice, is made simply, with molasses syrup, wheat flour, licorice extract and aniseed oil. Other good quality licorices use natural acacia gum as a thickener. You can now also buy organic licorice candy.
Licorice in cooking
Licorice has been “rediscovered” in Finland as a flavoring in new Nordic cooking (although whether Finland is Scandinavian, Nordic, Baltic or something unique unto itself is another story). Sensational licorice-spiced crème brûlée is one of the star turns at the excellent Ateljé Finne in Helsinki; and at the beautiful Russian-style Tertti Manor near Mikkeli, talented Jaakko Kinnunen offers an inspired juniper gravad lax with licorice sauce.
But it is the Finnish fondness for salty licorice that really made me blink. In Helsinki, there is a vintage kiosk that sells an extraordinary 91 varieties (precision is a national virtue in Finland) of salmiakki. It is, of course, called the Salmiakkikioski and a magnet for salmiakki-lovers seeking obscure varieties or powerful strengths they can’t get anywhere else.
The acidic, chemical edge of salty licorice inspires either love or hate. I was told that you had to keep sampling until the initial gagging reflex turns into a baffling compulsion to determine its place on the spectrum of deliciousness, and then press on to the final moment of resistance-is-futile surrender. That is when the polar opposites of saltiness and sweetness supposedly merge in Planet Candy satisfaction.
I’m still working on it.
- ⅛ cup (30 grams) strong licorice
- ⅓ cup (100 grams) sugar
- ¾ cup (2 deciliters) cream
- 6 egg yolks
- 1½ cup (4 deciliters) whole milk
- brown cane sugar
- Put licorice and sugar into a kettle and add cream. Cook over low heat until licorice and sugar have melted.
- Remove the kettle from stove. Mix in egg yolks and milk. Let it rest for about 30 minutes, pour into 5-ounce (1.5-deciliter) ramekins.
- Bake in the oven at 203 F (95 C) for about 30 minutes, or until custard is set. Cool and refrigerate for a few hours.
- Before service: If any condensation has formed on the surface of the custard, gently dab with a sheet of paper towel. Sprinkle a fine layer of brown cane sugar over the top. Caramelize with a chef's blowtorch. Let rest for about 10 minutes, serve.
Main photo: Licorice stand at a market in Mikkeli, Finland. Credit: Clarissa Hyman
If you grew up in the Midwest, you may associate beans with State Fair art — pinto, lima and kidney beans arranged in the shape of horses’ manes, grain silos and, in my case, portraits of past presidents. In the winter, beans bring to mind a batch of chili, where they simmer indiscriminately into that heartiest of comfort foods.
But when presented as a feature ingredient rather than as protein-rich filler, beans can serve as a culinary gateway into the territory south of our border.
Steve Sando founded the deluxe bean line Rancho Gordo in 2001 on the belief that beans hold unlimited potential, particularly when you dig into the heirloom varieties. He has built an industry around the diversity and flavor of these lowly legumes, reinventing their image and creating a consumer demand — in Mexico as well as the United States — that’s outpacing his inventory.
Finding heirloom beans
Mexico is where Sando, 54, discovers the majority of the heirloom beans sold through Rancho Gordo, which is based in Napa, Calif., everything from ayocote morado beans to rebosero beans. When cruising the local markets, he heads directly to the indigenous women, because he says they typically have the unusual beans. He estimates that these expeditions have led to the discovery of nearly 10 varieties that Rancho Gordo currently sells.
He grows each new variety in a trial garden in Napa, from where more than 80 percent of Rancho Gordo’s beans are distributed. A select portion are purchased directly from indigenous growers in Mexico in collaboration with an organization called Xoxoc, to ensure such farmers can survive in a global market that often favors volume over quality.
Now Sando is expanding beyond beans to include artisanal chilies and corn as well. These three comprise what he calls the “hot-button crops from Mexico that really define Meso-American cuisine.”
Basic to that cuisine are tortillas made from scratch. By providing American chefs with Mexican heirloom corn, Sando hopes to up Americans’ standards for tortilla freshness and authenticity. The real way to make tortillas, he explains, is to remove the kernel’s outer skin by soaking it in calcium hydroxide, then grinding the corn into flour to make a dough called “masa.” But an instant formula called “masa harina” is starting to become the industry standard.
In response, Sando formed a group called the Tortilla League to endorse restaurants that make traditional tortillas. So far, Rick Bayless, an accomplished American cook specializing in Mexican cuisine, and Diana Kennedy, author of “The Art of Mexican Cooking,” are both on board. Beyond this, Sando is selling chips and tostadas made from heirloom corn — but only locally, because these products, he maintains, are best fresh.
Rancho Gordo Bean Club
Patrice Boyle, owner of Soif Wine Bar and La Posta Restaurant in Santa Cruz, Calif., also supports Sando’s push for indigenous ingredients. Last year she accompanied members of the Rancho Gordo Bean Club on an intensive weeklong annual trip to a hacienda — a large agricultural estate — in Hidalgo, Mexico. They met indigenous farmers and learned how to cook authentic Mexican food. The group experimented with cactus salad, regional salsa recipes, fresh carnitas (shredded pork that’s been braised or roasted), handmade tamales and more.
“From a diner’s point of view, we are enriched when our diet has food in it that is real. Less processing is always better,” Boyle says.
Inspired by Boyle’s experience, Miguel Olvera, a 28-year-old chef living in Santa Cruz, went on the Rancho Gordo trip this year to reconnect with the ingredients and cooking techniques of his native Mexico. Now he’s more convinced than ever: Flavor is lost when you cut corners in the kitchen.
“The trip opened my mind,” he says. And changed his mind about the kind of restaurant he wants to open. “Before, I was thinking about something like what I work at now,” he says. “Fry the tortilla, fry the meat and make something fast.”
After a week preparing traditional food with indigenous ingredients, Olvera knows he could never be satisfied with anything less. He estimates it would take just three to four minutes to fry up a fresh order of tortillas if the dough were prepared ahead of time. “If you want to cook real Mexican food, you want to use real Mexican ingredients,” he says.
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Bean Club member Laura Tiffany, a real estate agent based in Minnesota, also went on this year’s trip. She pays $49.50 a quarter to belong to the Bean Club. This buys her six varieties of heirloom beans per quarterly package, plus the opportunity to engage with the indigenous farmers who are inextricably linked to these legumes.
Tiffany says her week at the hacienda, where she cooked on wood-fired stovetops, experimented with agave and cactus, brushed up on her Spanish and toured rural sites, was one of the richest experiences she’d ever had.
“They really want to share their life,” Tiffany says, referring to the two women who own the hacienda where she stayed, as well as the other growers on site. She explained that the relationships built through economic opportunities such as Rancho Gordo’s offer growers a dignified, sustainable means of preserving their traditional way of life.
The opportunity to challenge stereotypes on both sides of the border has become Sando’s top motivation for organizing the annual bean trip. He is also tickled that he may be introducing Mexicans to the bounty available in their own country.
“Five or six years ago, you really couldn’t find heirloom beans in Mexico City without really hunting,” he says. “Now there are a lot of modern markets that feature our beans, which makes my ego very happy.
Asked to share a favorite recipe that blends an indigenous American staple with an indigenous Mexican staple, Sando offered his take on that popular comfort food: chili. His version incorporates artisanal chocolate, another indigenous product he sources from Mexico. You can swap out the rebosero beans for whatever beans you like or have on hand, Sando says, but he likes the texture of reboseros. What’s more, he says, “I can picture the farmer who grows them for us, so I also have a sentimental attachment to their use here.”
- 1 pound ground bison
- ¼ cup olive oil, plus a little extra if needed
- 1 white onion, chopped
- 5 garlic cloves, minced
- ⅓ cup red chile powder
- 2 tablespoons dried oregano Indio
- 2 tablespoons ground cumin
- 2 cups water
- ½ tablet stone-ground chocolate, broken into pieces
- 2 cups drained, cooked rebosero beans
- 1 red bell pepper, roasted, peeled, seeded and chopped
- 1 yellow bell pepper, roasted, peeled, seeded and chopped
- 1 cup stale beer
- 1 tablespoon sal de mar (sea salt)
- In a large pot, cook the bison meat over medium heat, stirring and breaking it up with a wooden spoon and adding a little oil if the meat is particularly dry. When the meat is no longer pink, use a slotted spoon and transfer it to a bowl and set aside.
- Add the ¼ cup oil to the pot and sauté the onion and garlic over medium heat until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the chile powder and stir until a paste forms.
- "Fry" the paste for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the oregano Indio, cumin, and 1 cup of the water and mix well. Reduce the heat to low and cook for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Add the chocolate and stir until incorporated.
- Combine this mixture with the beans, bell peppers, beer, salt, remaining 1 cup water, and reserved meat. Stir well, taste, and adjust the seasoning with salt as needed, keeping in mind that the flavors will intensify as the chili cooks down.
- Cover partially, reduce the heat to very low, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the flavors are blended, about 45 minutes.
- Taste and adjust the seasoning again. If the chili is a little bitter, add sugar to smooth the flavors. Spoon the chili into warmed individual bowls and serve immediately, accompanied with cornbread.
- This recipe will appear in Steve Sando's cookbook "Supper at Rancho Gordo,'' which will be released in October.
Main photo: Laura Tiffany’s favorite breakfast dish at the hacienda in Hidalgo, Mexico: Chilaquiles verdes with chicken and a local farmer’s cheese, served with pinto beans, “frijoles de olla.” Credit: Laura Tiffany
We first discovered the food of Myanmar as armchair cooks intrigued by a cuisine, described by Mi Mi Khaing in “Cook and Entertain the Burmese Way” as “the best of Chinese and Indian cooking, but with a distinctive flair all its own.” After repeated trips to Myanmar, however, we would explain Burmese food differently: Indian lacking spice, Thai without fiery chili, similar to Chinese only via its stir fries, or perhaps a shared Yunnan influence with skewered and grilled pub fare. In other words, it’s unlike any other and deliciously unique.
For 20 years we traveled throughout Myanmar, later hosting food tours there, and eventually made a home in Asia. And we’ve never looked back.
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By Robert Carmack and Morrison Polkinghorne
We’ve tasted and tested almost every Burmese dish imaginable, supping with regional and capital cooks and learning in the most humble kitchens and 5-star sculleries alike.
Myanmar’s cuisine is a perfect fit for Americans. Granted, chili aficionados here will claim that hot flavors are passionately loved by all, but the general American palate seems drawn to the comforting, non-assertive tastes of Burmese dishes. There, the chili is long and mild, closer to a paprika, akin to the capsicums used in neighboring Yunnan province. Curcumin-rich Alleppey turmeric is a principal spice, while masala is the exception rather than the rule. And simple ground star anise acts as the “curry” seasoning for pork. Even salads — with the notable exception of Burmese Lemon Salad and renowned Pickled Tea Leaf La Phet — are infinitely less forceful than in neighboring Thailand. Vegetables and salads are commonly bound and melded with either besan (chickpea) flour or ground peanuts — depending on the regional crop.
The flavor of Burmese recipes are easy to recreate by merely — and gently — slow-frying onion, garlic and ginger in oil, then using the resulting emollient as a ubiquitous flavoring essence – both in curries and salads. Better yet, ingredients are easy to find in the United States, more so if there’s an Indian grocery in your neighborhood.
From armchair to actual traveler, our quest for authentic Burmese cookery continues. We find it as exciting as exploring the country’s awe-inspiring sites — from ancient Bagan to imperial Mandalay, to the temples and caves and floating islands of Inle Lake. The image of awakening to the golden rock, Kyeik Hti Yoe, sitting above the clouds will always linger in our minds, as will the vision of the volcanic plug, Mount Popa, with its golden temples crowning the top like a fairyland. But we equally savor memories of the simple peppery stocks of the country’s Rakhine seafood stew.
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Why Myanmar? Why Burmese?
Although Burma is the name commonly used by Anglo-Westerners, Myanmar is the term used by locals. “Burma” and “Burman” reflects the Bamar ethnic majority, not its other cultural groups. However, our recently released The Burma Cookbook celebrates all this nation’s diversity — historic and ethnic. We chose the title not as a political statement, but because our cookbook includes dishes of colonial Burma, as well as contemporary Myanmar. So you’ll find a recipe for Lobster Thermidor served at The Strand hotel for more than a century, but also a biryani rice that reflects the country’s Indian heritage, along with a “bachelor” chicken curry that can be traced back to larrikin lads absconding with a farmyard chicken and herbs grasped from a neighbor’s garden.
Main photo: Myanmar’s salads are infinitely less forceful than in neighboring Thailand. Credit: © Morrison Polkinghorne