Articles in Travel
There is prosciutto and then there is culatello.
Proscuitto is ubiquitous. It’s draped over melon or paired with figs or mozzarella in restaurants everywhere. You can buy imported Proscuitto di Parma at Whole Foods at $31 a pound for a bone-in leg or on Amazon for $15.
Massimo Bottura serves culatello. At Osteria Francescana, his Michelin three-star restaurant in Modena that topped the 50 Best Restaurants for 2016, it appears as an appetizer, paired with Campanine apples, mustard and crunchy “gnocco” bread.
And not just any culatello. Chef Bottura procures his culatello exclusively from Massimo Spigaroli’s Antica Corte Pallavicina, an inn and working farm one hour’s drive from Modena. You’ll find that same culatello at Alain Ducasse’s Sporting Club in Montecarlo and Bombana in Hong Kong. But nowhere in the United States. The closest you’ll get is Zibello fiocco (culatello salami) for $40 a pound.
Prosciutto versus culatello
Culatello (“little backside” in Italian) is the fillet of the pig’s hind leg from which prosciutto is cured. Both are salted and left to sit for two months, which draws out the blood and kills bacteria. The process predates the Romans, and except for the introduction of nitrites, which further inhibit bacterial growth, it hasn’t changed much since. Proscuitto is then hung in a cool place for anywhere from nine months to two years, while culatello is encased in a pig’s or cow’s bladder and hung for 18 to 27 months.
All proscuitti are not created equal. Only a dozen designations are protected by the EU and stamped PDO or PGI, which guarantees they come from a particular region and, more important, are cured only with sea salt and no nitrites. All are produced in northern Italy. They vary in taste and texture depending on the terroir and the pigs. San Daniele, with its dark color and sweet flavor, is from Fruili. Parma pigs are fed whey from Parmigiano Reggiano, lending Proscuitto di Parma a nuttier flavor.
Culatello is more high-maintenance. Spigaroli’s black pigs are kissing cousins to the acorn-fed pigs that give us Jamon Ibérico. It cures throughout the cold damp winters in the Po Valley just south of Cremona. The difference between prosciutto and culatello is subtle, but profound.
In the sun-filled dining room at Antica Corte Pallavicina, Spigaroli’s prized culatello is presented for a tasting beneath three celadon cloches. Each conceals pink-mahogany curtains of culatello. The first two, from white pigs, are aged, respectively, 18 and 27 months. The familiar salty-sweetness of prosciutto gives way to a leathery richness. The older culatello is nuttier. The black pig culatello is smokier, with black cherry notes and a velvety texture. Between pigs, we cleanse our palates with hunks of crusty country bread and glasses of Trebbiano, served with pickled vegetables and fiocco, the chewy-soft salami made from the trimmings and the fat.
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Antica Corte Pallavicina commands several acres close to the Po, encompassing Spigaroli’s restaurant, the hotel, a cooking school, a farm, a parmesan factory and culatello cellars. Al Cavallito Bianco, a more casual osteria, is run by Spigaroli’s brother Luciano. If you snag one of the six rooms, you can meet the pigs and tour the Parmigiano fattoria and culatello caves, which were built in 1320 by the marquesse di Pallavicina for precisely that purpose.
The Spigarolis’ great-grandfather went from a sharecropper at a nearby pintador belonging to Guiseppe Verdi to tenant farmer at Pallavicina. Their father was born there in 1916. But by 1990, when the sons purchased the property, it had fallen into ruins. The extensive restoration combines rustic charm with modern conveniences. The original, ox-sized fireplace dominates the dining room, where a wall of glass doors opens onto a trellised patio. A massive decommissioned steel stove functions as a serving station.
Going to the source
After consuming feather-light tortelli, stuffed with ricotta from Spigaroli cows and Spigaroli spinach — glistening with Spigaroli brown butter and showered with Spigaroli Parmigiano — we tour the caves, down a dungeon’s stairs to the dank cellar. The culatelli, white with mold, hang from the ceiling, encased in pigs’ bladders like ghostly chandeliers. Misty air wafts in from the Po. Such cellars are increasingly rare. The EU frowns on such conditions as potentially unsanitary. Because of that flavor-enhancing mold, the FDA forbids importing it to the United States. You’ll have to go to the source.
You’ll find yourself in food heaven. Emilia-Romana is Italy’s Burgundy; Bologna, its Lyon. You won’t find a better spaghetti carbonara than the one at Pizzeria delle Arte in Bologna, spiked with guanciale, creamy with Parmigiano and egg yolks the color of navel oranges. Massimo Bottura celebrates that same Reggiano in his Five Ages of Parmiagiano at Osteria Francescana.
Our last dinner, in Milan, we sit next to three Italian businessmen. “What brings you to Italy?” one wants to know.
“We came for the culatello.”
“Ah.” He smiles. He understands.
Main caption: Chef Massimo Spigaroli and his team show off their prized culatello. Credit: Copyright 2016 Antica Corte Pallavicina
A wave of new, summery drinks is taking over Korea. Marketed almost exclusively toward women, the fruit-flavored sojus and alcopops are low in alcohol, high in sugar and raise some interesting questions about how women are perceived and marketed to in a country that still has some of the worst gender-equality outcomes in the world.
Soju is similar to vodka, but with about half the alcohol content of most spirits. It is extremely popular in hard-drinking South Korea — especially among men. Keen to tap into the female market, soju makers have for years been lowering the alcohol content and experimenting with different, sweeter varieties to attract women.
Capturing the market
But it hasn’t really worked until last year, when soju maker Chum-churum started a revolution with Soonhari, a citron-flavored soju. Now, the country’s major soju producers, Chum-churum and Jinro, are falling over themselves putting out new versions of fruit-flavored drinks to capture the market. Grapefruit, apple, pomegranate, blueberry and citron are just some of the choices available. Most of them have between 11 and 14 percent alcohol, as opposed to the 17 to 21 percent in regular soju.
“I like the fruity soju,” says Kim Hyeon-seo, a clerk at a 7-Eleven in Ilsan, a city just north of Seoul. “It has more flavor than pure soju, and the alcohol level is lower than regular soju.” She says they sell a lot of flavored sojus, mostly to young women.
A sweeter flavor
Lee Young-jin, the manager of Hanshin Pocha bar in Ilsan, says they sell plenty of the fruit sojus. “Before flavored soju, people just drank the regular soju,” Lee says. “We’d sell six cases of it a day. But with the new soju, we sell eight or nine cases.”
He says a table with three women will often put away eight or nine bottles of flavored soju, as opposed to only two or three of the regular kind.
Along with these fruity sojus are new alcoholic sodas like Brother Soda and Iseul Tok Tok. Both are 3 percent alcohol by volume, thanks to a white wine base, but you would never know from tasting them. Brother Soda tastes exactly like cream soda. Iseul Tok Tok tastes like “2%,” a popular peach-flavored soda in Korea. You can’t taste a hint of alcohol in either.
Lim Jongwoo, a waiter at Yaki Hwaro Galbe, says the sodas are almost entirely consumed by women. Lim says he doesn’t drink them, because “the alcohol level is very low.”
At a nearby table, Kang Yujin, 27, says, “I like the taste, its sweet flavor. Sometimes I drink regular soju, but mostly the flavored one.” She says that she’ll usually drink two bottles in one night.
Targeting the trendsetters
Daniel Gray, who runs food tours of Korea and the food blog “Seoul Eats,” says the companies are marketing toward women because they “have most of the buying power in Korean society, and tend to make the trends and influence the market on what to buy.”
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Gray notes this isn’t the first time flavored sojus have been introduced — previous attempts over the last 10 years, including cucumber and green tea-flavored sojus, died quickly. He predicts that once the trend recedes, Korea will be left with only two fruit-flavored sojus, probably grapefruit and citron.
James Turnbull, an expat Briton who has written extensively about gender in Korea, thinks the advertising campaigns for the new sojus are overly “cutesy” and reinforce a trend in Korea called “aegyo,” where women try to be attractive to men by acting like young children. This contrasts with mainstream soju ads, which in the past decade, Turnbull says, have been emphasizing an extreme sexuality.
Park Solmin is a 23-year-old professional woman and is the exact target the soju makers have in mind. But she has a problem with how the ads reinforce a traditionally Korean view of gender. “They’re going to try to appear a very pure and weak image of a woman,” she says. “They’re trying to show it’s OK for those women who are trying to be very girlish, very typically weak.”
Park admits, though, that the flavored drinks do taste much better than traditional ones.
As a middle-aged man, Turnbull admits he’s hardly the target for these new drinks. But he also admits he likes them, and wonders why they only market to women. “I think a lot of guys like them, because (regular) soju tastes like crap,” he says.
Main photo: Soju makers in South Korea are targeting women with fruit-flavored drinks. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner
Italy’s beautiful Lake Iseo is the venue for artist Christo’s latest project, “The Floating Piers,” a 52-foot-wide, 2.7-mile pathway on the water from the town of Sulzano to the Monte Isola island, continuing along pedestrian roads from Peschiera to Sensole, then reaching to San Paolo Island. The project runs through July 3.
The artist describes the sensation of strolling along the floating piers as “walking on the back of a whale” and, yes, it is a long walk indeed.
If you are lucky enough to experience this, you’ll probably be hungry after your walk. There are many osterias along the lakeside promenade where you can enjoy the traditional dish of manzo all’olio di Rovato, or Rovato beef in oil. (Rovato is a small town located in the Franciacorta hills, close to the lake.)
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At the time of the Republic of San Marco, the meat market in Rovato, in northern Italy, was the most important one on the route from Venice to Milan. Merchants coming from Liguria used to bring the typical products of their land, such as oil and anchovies, which are central to this beef dish.
The dish can be accurately dated to the second half of the 16th century, when the recipe was written down by a noblewoman, Donna Veronica Porcellaga. It has been a family recipe for five centuries, handed down from one generation to the next, so that each family has its own version. It consists of three basic ingredients: olive oil, anchovies and the lean meat called cappello del prete (priest’s hat), usually used for bollito misto. Garlic, bread crumbs and some vegetables are also added. According to experts, the trick is to sear the beef quickly on the sides so it cooks slowly and remains tender, keeping all the juices in.
Rovato beef reinvented
Just like art, this 500-year-old recipe can be made in the traditional spirit — or it can be revisited with an innovative twist, as Christo does with his projects.
Three local top chefs have different takes on it.
Stefano Cerveri from Due Colombe in Borgonato di Cortefranca keeps alive the family tradition and remains faithful to Granma Elvira’s cooking, a classic version dated 1955 and enriched with a spoon of acacia honey.
Matteo Cocchetti from Dispensa Pani e Vini Franciacorta serves a slightly nontraditional dish, a beef filet cooked at low temperature with dried lake sardines and parsley sauce.
Finally, Vittorio Fusari, born and raised between the Franciacorta wineries, is a true philosopher when it comes to local cuisine. At magnificent Palazzo Lana Berlucchi, he serves an innovative version, vacuum-sealing the meat and slowly warming it up to 125 F, then taking off the packaging and slowly cooking it in his own extra virgin lemon-flavored olive oil at 150 F. The meat lies over a green bed made with broccoli, spinach and chicory, and served with baguette-shaped polenta, green sauce, fresh anchovies and pressed olives.
“I believe that a traditional recipe may be changed only if you respect it, know it well and love it,” says Fusari, “and that’s exactly the opposite of demolishing it.”
Cooking Time: 3 1/2 hours
Total Time: 4 hours and 20 minutes
Yield: 4 Servings
3 pounds of lean meat
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
9 tablespoons butter
3 anchovies in oil
6 fresh leaves of spinach
1 pound whole-grain wheat flour
3 garlic cloves
4 cups warm water
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1. Saute the anchovies in butter, adding the chopped onion and the garlic cloves.
2. Cut the meat long, making two pieces, and brown the pieces in the pan for 10 minutes. Add about 4 cups warm water and slow-cook the meat for at least three hours, removing the fat that comes to the surface.
3. Halfway through, add the oil. Mix a handful of cornstarch with a little water and add it to thicken the sauce.
4. Remove the meat and cut it into slices of about 3 inches. Strain the sauce into another saucepan, add the carrot and finely chopped spinach and, if necessary, a teaspoon of cornstarch to thicken further.
5. Serve accompanied by polenta or a steamed potato.
Main photo: Matteo Cocchetti’s innovative version uses lake sardine, beef filet slowly cooked and parsley sauce. Credit: Copyright 2016 Arianna Mora
A battle is raging over where to buy your fish in Seoul, and the outcome will determine the fate of one of the city’s most iconic food markets and tourist destinations.
The sprawling Noryangjin Fish Market, on the south banks of the Han River, has been where fish sellers, buyers and simply the curious have been congregating since 1927. It’s also one of Seoul’s top tourist destinations.
Conan O’Brien visited, and played with the squirting “sea penises” on American TV. A thousand Chinese tourists visit a day, according to Seoul’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper. Fox News rated it the third-best food market in the world, and when Conde Nast Travel ran a photo essay of the best markets in Seoul, 10 of the 20 photos were from Noryangjin.
Battle to remain open
Today, though, the market is quiet. There is graffiti on the top floors that reads “Demolition.” On the main floor, the fish sellers are wearing red vests that read “Together we fight.” Banners hang from the walls, and there is a militant atmosphere throughout the market.
Parent company Suhyup wants the fish sellers to move across the street to a new market. The new market is smaller than the old one, fully indoors and air-conditioned, and resembles a department store. It is also mostly empty, since most fish sellers refuse to move there, despite orders from Suhyup.
“After they built the whole new building, we didn’t get any notice or have any meetings,” said one fish seller, who refused to give his name but has been selling fish at Noryangjin for 30 years. “On March 16, 2016, we got a notice to move. After we checked the new site, we saw it didn’t match our needs, so we chose to stay and fight.”
Mixed reactions to new
Suhyup says the old building, now 45 years old, is unsafe and unsanitary. But fish sellers have a litany of complaints about the new building, chiefly that the allocated lots are too small. They say the floors are slippery (I almost fell twice), the aisles are too narrow, the rents are too high, they weren’t properly consulted and, most important for visitors, that it lacks any of the atmosphere the old building has.
The corporation, meanwhile, says the fish sellers were perfectly well consulted, rents and lot sizes are the same, and everyone signed an agreement to move as far as back as 2009.
“We have to face the fact they’re not going to rebuild the traditional site,” says Song Young-hi, a fish seller of 39 years who reluctantly moved to the new building. She complains the lots are too narrow, and that it’s “almost impossible” to display the fish. Still, she doubts the company will back down, and she has to make a living. “I have to do what I have to do,” she says. The dispute is now with the courts.
Modern, but will tourists come?
A favorite activity among tourists at Noryangjin is getting the fresh seafood cut up right in front of them and served in one of the market’s many restaurants. In the old building, all the restaurants have been shuttered and sprayed with graffiti, their electricity and water shut off by the company. In the new building, the restaurants are open, but with fewer customers.
Stella, a tourist from Toronto who didn’t want to give her last name, bought fish at the new market to eat at one of the second-floor restaurants. But she said she would rather have gone to the old market, and was under the impression the old one was closed.
“My friends showed me pictures of the old one. It seemed to have more choice,” she says.
In the old market, Achuko and Yoko from Japan look at crabs and discuss the two markets. “I like the new market,” Achuko says. “It’s so clean.” But, she adds, “It’s impossible to move all of [the fish sellers] there.”
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She admits the old market is more traditional. “The old one is cheaper and a bigger market,” Achuko says. “So Koreans like this style, I think.”
Jang Han Gi is a fish seller who splits a 24-hour shift with his brother. It’s hard work, but after 25 years, he’s used to it. He says there’s no way he’s moving to the new market.
“The customers prefer the open site and the open style of this building,” Jang says.
Jake Yoo, a local tour guide, agrees. He says there just isn’t time to visit both markets on a tour, and the old one wins with tourists, hands-down. “This is traditional-style here, and it’s better.”
Main photo: Fish sellers, in the old market, wear red vests that read “Together we fight.” Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner
“Never throw out leftover bread!” our Milanese mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers used to exclaim. Milanese cuisine has its roots in simpler traditions, and that includes reusing old bread to make exquisite dishes.
So if you happen to have bought too much bread, you have two options: Freeze it while still fresh and then remove it a few hours before use, or listen to my granny and try one of these six Milanese dishes.
Paan triit maridàat
This is a legendary peasant soup described in the 1450 cookbook by Maestro Martino, “The Art of Cooking.” Making the soup is simple: Boil broth, pour in bread crumbs made from old bread and cook for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, whisk eggs with grated Parmesan cheese, add a spoon of butter, pour into the broth, mix and serve. In Milanese dialect, the name means married bread crumbs, because the bread, tired of being left alone, has mated with the egg.
Stale bread and water are the inexpensive ingredients for this basic, frugal soup, exceptional for its goodness and simplicity of execution. Pieces of bread are soaked in cold water for a couple of hours (michetta is the best bread, but you can use any other kind). Then add butter, oil and salt and boil. To make it tastier, Granny used to add some beef bouillon and serve with parmesan. Variations and additions are accepted, like the use of chicken or meat broth instead of water, a beaten egg that is stirred in or a garnish of dried bay leaf. But the concept of a simple food remains the same.
That pink and juicy mortadella (Italian bologna) is the main star of these oval-shaped patties, made with milk-moistened bread, eggs, chopped parsley, grated cheese and garlic, then seasoned with a pinch of grated nutmeg, salt and pepper. Mix all the ingredients, dip in bread crumbs and fry with a little olive oil and a bit of butter for a beautiful golden color.
The Milanese frugal cooking tradition continues with the combination of stale bread and leftover bollito misto (mixed boiled meat), or any other kind of meat, such as sausage, wurst or salami.
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Today, these meatballs are often brought to your table as a welcome pre-appetizer, or you can find them as street food. They are similar in preparation to polpette, but are walnut sized, rolled in bread crumbs and then deep-fried with sage and butter.
You can make a no-meat version, choosing to enrich these fantastic tidbits with fillings such as smoked cheese or fried zucchini.
This is a wonderful alcohol-drenched pudding, named after the British Queen Charlotte, who apparently loved to have apple trees in her garden. Charlottes are usually more complex, but the Milanese version is all about simplicity. Once the bread’s crust is eliminated, the inside is used to line the bottom and the sides of a butter-greased mold. The center is filled with apples, raisins, pine nuts, zest of lemon, white wine and sugar, and baked for an hour at 350 F. Respecting the tradition, I like to serve it in a flamboyant manner, so I sprinkle it generously with rum, light the top and impress everybody with a restaurant-like, flaming dessert!
Torta di pane della Nonna
This “Grandma bread cake” has a comfy and genuine flavor. The stale bread is cut into small pieces, mixed with raisins and left to soften in warm milk for 15 minutes. Then it is coupled with sweet cocoa, pine nuts, egg, butter, cinnamon, lemon peel and some amaretti biscuits. This mix is cooked for 50 minutes at 325 F. To check if it is ready, I do like Grandma used to do — insert a toothpick in the middle. If it comes out clean, I take it out, let it cool down, dust the surface with icing sugar and serve. Buon appetito!
Main photo: Repurpose old bread into polpette, made with Italian bologna. Credit: Copyright 2016 Cesare Zucca
Fans squeal with delight, marked-up tickets show up online, people travel across the country.
The latest boy band? Broadway’s “Hamilton”?
No, these days all that excitement is for cheese. On the heels of a busy spring of cheese festivals and competitions that drew nibblers by the thousands, more summer events across the country will connect many more cheese lovers with the people who make their favorite food.
This isn’t grocery store sampling. At these events, mountains of cheeses await hungry visitors — some lavishly styled, some pulled from the 40-pound blocks that judges had been sampling earlier in the week. With a game plan in hand, cheese lovers head for their favorite cheddar or brie or a hard-to-categorize original creation by a favorite maker.
“American consumers’ education about cheese has just skyrocketed,” said Wisconsin-based Jeanne Carpenter, who has organized cheese festivals throughout the Midwest since 2009. “They know what it is, they know the cheese-makers by name.”
In early April, a whopping 500 tickets were sold in two weeks to Chicago’s first-ever CheeseTopia, organized by Carpenter. The tickets sold for $75 a pop, but Carpenter, whose Wisconsin Cheese Originals organization has been hosting festivals and classes since 2009, said she saw CheeseTopia tickets for sale on Craigslist “for high amounts, which doesn’t make me happy, because I don’t like people scalping tickets.”
Cheese on the rise
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Carpenter hosted her first cheese festival in Madison, Wisconsin. Held in the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Monona Terrace, it was designed to promote Wisconsin makers and educate consumers. It included seminars, tours and “meet-the-cheese-maker” receptions full of sampling.
“I had a hard time filling seats,” Carpenter said.
Now, Carpenter’s festivals aren’t the only thing moving tickets for cheese fans in Wisconsin. In March, the World Championship Cheese Contest in Madison quickly sold out the 500 tickets for its award ceremony and tasting event.
Cheese is creating a frenzy outside of America’s Dairyland. California’s Artisan Cheese Festival in Petaluma, California, home of Cowgirl Creamery, was held for the 10th time in March. There were three days of seminars, tastings and farm tours, capped off by 1,500 fans gathering under a big-top tent to sample cheese, cider, wine and beer, meet the producers, get books signed and watch demos. Also in March, the Oregon Cheese Festival had 4,000 attendees at its 12th annual event, sampling cow, sheep and goat’s milk cheeses made by Oregon creameries
And tickets are available for the annual American Cheese Society’s Festival of Cheese. The July 30 event, held this year in Des Moines, Iowa, charges $60 to sample the 1,500 cheeses entered in this year’s contest. Organizers expect 1,000 people to attend. On July 17, Shelburne Farms hosts the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival, which has sold out its 1,750 tickets the past three years and is expected to do so again this year.
At Carpenter’s events, she requires the cheese-maker to be present. People want to meet them, she said, and then they treat them like rock stars.
“I see women squeal like schoolgirls seeing the Beatles when they see Andy Hatch for the first time,” she said of Hatch, of Uplands Cheese Co. of Dodgeville, Wisconsin, who makes the much-celebrated Pleasant Ridge Reserve. “It’s so embarrassing for him, he just lets it pass and says, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’”
For Hatch, it just goes with the territory.
“Aside from occasional blushing, I do enjoy the general buzz at these events — the sense that cheese is something exciting,” he said. “It’s flattering that people go out of their way to pay money and stand in line to taste cheese and ask a few questions. If people are willing to do that, I’m willing to go out of my way to be there for them.”
Chris Roelli is a fourth-generation cheese-maker best known for Dunbarton Blue, the cheddar-blue he introduced seven years ago. He enjoys the events, though it’s a far cry from years of anonymous commodity cheese production of the early part of his career. Now people line up to talk to him.
“I never expected anyone to ever ask for my autograph,” said Roelli, whose eponymous cheese company is based in Shullsburg, Wisconsin.
The main event
While drinks and other local foods are often featured at these festivals, there’s no doubt cheese is the star of the show. At the contest events, displays resembling edible sculptures are made from the blocks used for judging. Veteran contest-goers bring plastic bags so they can take home what remains, knowing the blocks that made up the entries are just big chunks of cheesy leftovers. A plan of attack is necessary; it’s impossible to sample everything.
Carpenter’s event was in Madison for four years, but has expanded its reach. She moved it to Milwaukee last year, and 750 tickets quickly sold out. This year it traveled to Chicago, and next year will be in Minneapolis. From there, Carpenter said, she’s debating whether to keep it in the Midwest or go national.
People have come to her events from across the country, including a couple on their honeymoon and a woman from Nashville who has been at every event Carpenter has created.
“There are cheese groupies out there, I don’t know what else to call them,” Carpenter said. “It’s so cool that people care this much about cheese.”
Main image: A fan gets a chance to sample a blue-ribbon product from Carr Valley Cheese Co. of Wisconsin at the American Cheese Society’s 2013 Festival of Cheese in Madison, Wisconsin. Credit: Copyright 2016 Marie Ketring
If you’re a globetrotter into fine dining, consider making your next destination Cape Town and its outlying Winelands, where an innovative eight-course tasting menu paired with wines will cost you about $60 to $80 for lunch, and $85 to $105 for dinner. Thanks to the dollar’s strength in South Africa, Americans are in for a feast of value in this scenic foodie haven, ripe with culinary talent and internationally acclaimed restaurants.
As for the tasting menus, you can expect the unexpected. You might find poached oysters with lemon, seaweed and apple at La Colombe; Cape Wagyu tongue with gnocchi, celery, carrots and celeriac at Overture; or light curry glazed kingklip (a local fish) at The Test Kitchen, cooked slowly at the table over curry leaves in concrete charcoal-filled bowls, and served with carrot cashew purée and carrot beurre noisette.
Joining the gastronomic scene
During the apartheid years, South Africa was shunned and largely cut off from the world, even in a culinary sense. But since Mandela’s presidency, it’s seen an influx of foreign chefs and cuisines. Many South African chefs have also worked in Europe and Asia, and returned all the better for it.
Today, Cape Town is a known pit stop on the gastronomic world map. The Test Kitchen, La Colombe and The Tasting Room have ranked in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, in various categories. Cape Town’s status as a world-class design city has also helped — it was World Design Capital in 2014 — with local talent behind great-looking dining spaces.
Fueling the scene is a flush of small growers and producers, offering chefs great produce, ethically raised meats, wild game, seafood and indigenous ingredients like sour figs, baobab, buchu and honeybush tea, along with a flurry of artisanal products.
“Overall, our fine dining feel is quite natural and organic when compared to other countries, with less rigid styling and a trend towards local ingredients and preparations, giving it a sense of place,” says Scot Kirton, head chef at La Colombe.
Local ingredients paired with wine
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“South Africa doesn’t have a strong food heritage like the French, which means that our cuisine can be eclectic, with lots of people doing different things,” adds Luke Dale-Roberts, the British-born chef/owner of The Test Kitchen, located in the city’s revitalized Old Biscuit Mill warehouse complex. Foreigners also appreciate what Kirton calls “the South African knack for hospitality, in which even in the top tiers of fine dining, guests feel greatly cared for on a personal level.”
While the feeling is relaxed, with lunchtime guests sometimes even wearing shorts, few of these high-end restaurants are taking walk-ins. The Test Kitchen, ranked 28th in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2015, is currently taking dinner reservations six months in advance, although in August it will switch over to an online 30-day-in-advance booking system.
Wine is intrinsically part of local dining, with the closest vineyards 20 minutes from central Cape Town. While South Africa has a 350-year-old wine heritage, quality has improved dramatically in recent years, and there is a new posse of young and adventurous winemakers. This means great synergy and camaraderie between winemakers and chefs, who are sometimes even on the same property. Many of the Cape’s best restaurants are on wine estates, which doesn’t necessarily mean they only serve that estate’s wine; most have extensive wine lists, with excellent wines for as little as $15 a bottle.
Simple, seasonal and South African
Despite global influences, many of the best chefs are expressing their personal experience of South Africa. Bertus Basson of Overture Restaurant, on a Stellenbosch wine estate, describes his food as “simple, fresh, seasonal and South African,” and creates dishes like West Coast Memories, with salmon, octopus, sout-vis (salted fish) and snoek.
In the idyllic Winelands village of Franschhoek, Dutch-born Margot Janse has been the chef at The Tasting Room at boutique hotel Le Quartier Francais for 20 years, and has set the local bar for ultra-creative tasting menus. Her food “celebrates South and Southern Africa through their ingredients and stories.”
Take her Joostenberg vlakte duck dish, for example, which she says “carries many stories.” The duck is farmed in an area where many Dutch settlers grew grapes and produced brandy. Janse steeps mixed fruit in brandy, like it’s done in Holland, but adds buchu — “one of our magical indigenous herbs.” After six weeks, it’s mixed with celeriac in a purée. The duck is baked in a salt crust made of hand-harvested Baleni salt mixed with kapokbos, another indigenous herb. The breast is served with the purée and crispy bits of neck and leg, and a grape jus. “It’s about the duck and its heritage,” she says. One dish of many in a new dynamic dining region.
Note: Prices are based on current exchange rates as of May 2016, of 15 South African rand to 1 U.S. dollar. Fluctuations may occur.
Main photo: The Test Kitchen’s blinissoise, with chilled blini creme, barbecued langoustine “en gele,” and a langoustine tataki with liquorice powder. Credit: Copyright 2016 Justin Patrick
Not long ago, a visit to Prague’s lovely cafes meant acrid coffee and stale dessert served with a side of surliness. The long half-life of Communist rule long obscured the appeal of Europe’s most gorgeous grand cafes.
It took a generation, but the cafes have experienced a rebirth — their own Prague spring — that make them as worthy a destination as the city’s long-hallowed beer halls. The coffee is good and the desserts are often excellent. You may even get a “thank you” from the server.
If you visit only one café, it should be the one in Obecní Dům, (“Municipal House”). Before this art nouveau masterpiece opened in 1912, Prague was not in Vienna‘s league when it came to cafe culture. But the locals made up quickly for lost time. The building has not one but three dining spaces, with soaring ceilings flooded with light that reflects and refracts through dozens of mirrors and glittering geometric chandeliers. Key meetings between the government and the opposition took place here in 1989, just before the collapse of the communist regime. Needless to say, the coffee and service have greatly improved since then.
Café de Paris, Hotel Paris
For an almost club-like art nouveau experience visit the Café de Paris at nearby Hotel Paris. Both the cafe and restaurant have been restored to their jewel-like fin-de-siècle splendor. There is a full menu as well as an eclectic mix of central European and French desserts.
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Walk east of the Old Town along Na Poříčí 15, past the ritzy new mall, retailers and fast food joints, until you reach the Hotel Imperial, built just before World War I. The spacious cafe feels like a Hollywood homage to orientalism:
The walls, columns and ceiling are covered with elaborate cast ceramic tiles. After World War II, the hotel was turned into a dormitory for communist union members, and the cafe degenerated into a shabby workers’ cafeteria. Today, the service is as efficient and professional as in any European capital and the cakes are delicious and fresh.
Sweet-obsessed residents generally head for Café Myšák in Prague’s centuries old “New Town.” When the cafe-pastry shop reopened in 2008 after a hiatus of almost 60 years, the local press was all aflutter: Would the new incarnation could stand up to its prewar reputation? Only fragments of the original decor remained and those have been augmented by a somewhat heavy-handed pastiche of 1930s decor. But luckily the old recipes stood the test of time, whether in the form of the artfully simple cream-filled pastry cylinders or the happy overkill of the signature Torte Myšák, in which layers of caramel and vanilla cream separate layers of a Sacher cake. And, oh yes, a cone of the homemade ice cream is worth grabbing even if you decide not to linger in the leather armchairs upstairs.
If you are still able to walk after exploring the cafes on the right side of the Vltava river, there are several more on the left side worth the detour, particularly Café Savoy. It is one of the city’s oldest, established in 1893 though the current incarnation dates back to 2001. Here, beneath a tall neo-renaissance ceiling, you can peruse international newspapers while sipping on a Viennese coffee topped with a thick dollop of whipped cream. The apple strudel is almost as good as my grandmother made, and the Sachertorte would pass muster with a Vienna native.
Barocco Veneziano Café
Fifteen minutes away through the cobblestone maze beneath the castle walls, in a 16th century palazzo that now houses the exclusive boutique hotel Alchymist, is an adorable little cafe that feels like the sort of boudoir Marie Antoinette would have used to entertain her boy toy. The space is all sinuous baroque curves and suggestive paintings. The espresso is good here, but the sweet treats underwhelm.
Not so at Erhartova Cukrárna, on the same side of the Vltava River but far from the usual tourist haunts. Here, you are more likely to see local women of a certain age carefully deconstructing their slice of torte than chattering American expats. This is decidedly a pastry shop first and cafe second, though the space itself is a beautifully preserved example of the severe 1930s modernist movement called functionalism. The vast array of pastries and tortes behind the vitrine seem to have one function: tempt you to order another slice, perhaps with a scoop of the house made ice cream on the side. I’d start with the house specialty, the Erhart torte, a multilayered chocolate extravaganza enfolded in a robe of delightfully garish green marzipan.
You may be relieved to know, that from here, most streets lead downhill.
Main photo: Café Savoy’s eponymous torte is as tasteful and elegant as the restaurant itself. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl