Articles in Travel

L. John Harris' Broom Ballet. Illustration credit: L. John Harris

La Vie en Rose: Île Saint-Louis, one of two small islands floating in the middle of the River Seine and hyped in travel literature as “a peaceful oasis of calm” in the heart of busy Paris, is anything but. A tourist mecca, bien sûr (of course), filled with snazzy shops and restaurants — and home to the legendary Berthillon ice cream — the scene is more Coney Island fun park than Parisian island oasis.

Our Café French lesson today takes us to the island’s trendiest cafe, Café Saint-Régis on Rue Jean du Bellay. Just across — via the Pont Saint-Louis bridge — from Paris’ other natural island, Île de la Cité, where Notre Dame resides in all its gloomy Gothic glamor. The Café Saint-Régis is what I would call faux belle, refurbished to evoke the gaudy Art Nouveau atmosphere of Belle Epoque Paris, with gaudy prices to match. It can be, like the island itself, cloying.

Living in a Parisian broom closet

Whatever joie de vivre Parisian cafes provide their devotees — like me — I’m just not buying it today at the Saint-Régis. Lest we forget, cafes have their dark side: Revolutions and assassinations have been plotted, even launched in Parisian cafes throughout history, and the despair-laden philosophy, Existentialism, was hatched in Jean-Paul Sartre’s favorite cafes after World War II.

My dark mood today is more ennui – that perfect French word for melancholy — than despair. I’ve been staying in a very small apartment on the island — much smaller than the rental agency photos indicated. So I vegetate (call it work) in the island’s cafes to escape domestic claustrophobia, something apartment-dwelling Parisians have been doing for centuries.

The only joie of note at the Saint-Régis today is triggered by my waiter waltzing (literally) around the cafe with his broom — a  push broom, a smaller version of the broom type we use in the U.S. for exterior cleanups. I could write a whole treatise on France’s bizarre broom methodology: In short, the French push, they don’t sweep!

A broom ballet on Rue Jean du Bellay

Googling broom history and etymology — in both French and English — I come across our lesson’s homophones, le ballet (the dance) and le balai (broom), identically pronounced — bal-ai.

Illustration credit: L. John Harris

Illustration credit: L. John Harris

Aha! My waiter, dressed in formal cafe black and white, is executing un ballet de balai – a broom ballet. Ennui morphs into bonheur (happiness).

But back at the apartment, my mood darkens again. The sight of the kitchen push broom leaning against the wall triggers gloom, not cafe joie. Maybe this is just a case of generic Island Fever (la fièvre de l’île), or the oppressive weight of French history that floats over the island like a giant bejeweled crown.

A whole lot-a Louis going on

Everywhere you go on Île Saint-Louis there are references to King Louis IX, the island’s beloved Saint Louis. Bridges, streets, hotels, churches and cafes carry the name or variants. Even the word régis in Café Saint-Régis, means “of the king.” My corner cafe/brasserie where I go for my morning petit déjeuner is Le Louis IX. It was Louis XIII in the 17th century, dubbed “the Just,” who developed the island’s urban plan — it had been a cow pasture — and named it in honor of Saint Louis.

À propos royal sobriquets, several of the 18 Frenchmen who have served as King Louis have earned less-flattering nicknames. In the ninth century there was “the Stammerer” (Louis II), in the 10th “the Lazy” (Louis V) and in the 12th, “the Fat” (Louis VI). You could say that the French have had a love/hate relationship with their mostly House of Bourbon Louises.

Shrimp Louis. Illustration credit: L. John Harris

Shrimp Louis. Illustration credit: L. John Harris

Honestly, I’m surprised there was never a “Shrimp Louis.” The likely candidate would be King Louis XVII, son of guillotined King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Never attaining the throne after the revolution, the Dauphin died in prison at age 10. He didn’t live long enough to earn a snappy moniker.

Speaking of salads

If I thought my one-bedroom apartment was small, I was corrected at a dinner in the chambre de bonne (maid’s quarters) of Paris guidebook author Annabel Simms, an English expat. Her book, “An Hour From Paris,” is a perennial seller in Paris and is designed to take tourists out of crowded Paris for memorable day trips.

The fifth floor studio walk-up on the island’s main drag, Rue Saint-Louis-en-l’Île (of course), is equipped with a tiny wall-mounted kitchenette — two burners, under counter fridge and sink. “And,” Simms boasts, “no microwave!” Simms, who is currently working on a cookbook geared to simple French apartment cooking, serves me her version of Elizabeth David‘s “Salade Parisienne,” from “French Provincial Cooking” (1962), composed of fresh vegetables, hard-boiled egg and slices of room-temperature roast beef, dressed with a vibrant vinaigrette. Simple, delicious and perfect for a warm summer night.

The conversation drifts toward my host’s mixed reviews of her island oasis lifestyle. She’s been living frugally and productively on the pricey Île Saint-Louis for more than 20 years and avoids the expensive touristy spots like Café Saint-Régis. “I love their baby Spanish sardines served in the tin with the lid rolled up,” she admits, “but I’d rather go to the cheaper Café Lutèce next door with its terrace facing north towards the Seine and the quieter right bank.”

The next day, back for a farewell crème at Café Saint-Régis before heading back to the States, I ponder Simms’ somewhat cloistered life on Île Saint-Louis. It’s telling that over the course of decades on the island, Simms has built her career as a writer in Paris based on a book that encourages tourists to get out of Paris. After only three weeks here, I’m ready to get out, too. Or is that just my Île Saint-Louis ennui speaking?

Main illustration: “Broom Ballet.” Credit: L. John Harris

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Cape cod cranberries. Credit: Barbara Haber

You may find yourself far from home on Thanksgiving, even out of the country, as your work calls you away or alluring travel opportunities arise. Since this holiday is distinctly American and celebrated with family and friends, being away can bring on loneliness, but these feelings can be overcome, especially if you throw yourself into cooking a Thanksgiving meal.

Even before getting into the kitchen, I love this holiday because it is just about food and people. I don’t have to run around stores in search of gifts or listen to “Jingle Bells” and other tiresome seasonal tunes being played over and over wherever I happen to be. Religious services related to specific creeds are not part of the tradition either. That is important because the holiday is deeply American and includes diverse citizens who may have on their menus lasagna or egg drop soup in addition to the usual turkey and trimmings that have come to symbolize the feast.

Suggestions to ward off Thanksgiving melancholy

When far from home, especially outside the country, Thanksgiving takes on even more meaning just because it is so essentially American and has little relevance elsewhere. Here are suggestions for heading off forlorn feelings on this special day, with food inevitably playing a central role.

If you are cooking, be sure to invite friends and neighbors who are most likely to appreciate your efforts. American acquaintances far from home will be thrilled to be invited and so will locals who may be curious about the holiday and eager to participate in it.

How to adapt to a Thanksgiving meal abroad

When planning the traditional meal, be flexible about your ingredients, as you think through what is available. Do not expect to find a huge and reasonably-priced turkey outside the U.S. An American friend living in northern France shelled out a fortune on turkeys one year because she was entertaining other displaced Americans and wanted to serve familiar dishes. My thought would be to avoid huge expenses by dolling up what you have at hand. Get local chickens or ducks, but serve them with the holiday stuffing you love. As far as I know, sweet potatoes will be available in markets around the world, so this mandatory side dish can be pulled off, though possibly without the marshmallows, if that is your custom.

The traditional cranberries may be difficult to find. They are native to New England where Thanksgiving had its origins. It is no accident that Ocean Spray, producers of all things cranberry, is located in southern Massachusetts not far from Cape Cod. If you can’t find cranberries abroad, you may have to make a sauce or relish with other tart berries — gooseberries in England, lingonberries in Scandinavia, currants in many other places, figure it out. No need to be literal-minded in preparing the meal, and you might even want to be thought of as ingenious. Your reality is that you are in a foreign country while preparing a quintessential American meal. Dig deeper into the meaning of the holiday by remembering that it celebrates the harvest, and by using available local produce you can bring out the symbolism as well as the spirit of Thanksgiving.

To some, attending a high school football game Thanksgiving morning is part of the tradition, but you are unlikely to find that outside of the U.S. Check out the availability of a local sporting match. A soccer game might be fun, or better yet, if you really want to include a traditional Thanksgiving Day ritual, call up the Macy’s parade on YouTube. A full three hours of the previous year’s parade slicked up and beautifully produced by NBC is at your fingertips, complete with gargantuan floats, massive cartoon balloons and Broadway hoofers. It is uniquely American.

Navigating family tradition

Not to be forgotten is that Thanksgiving is a family event, and family relationships are generally loaded. In my case, whenever I got together with an older brother, no matter how old we were, we would revert to being 8 and 13 years old again. It took me years to realize his customary teasing was his peculiar way of expressing love. Importing a special relative to join your Thanksgiving away from home is a sure-fire way to transplant a key part of your tradition.

Short of that, create dishes that will remind you of certain relatives. I had an aunt, now gone, who every year would bring a bowl of creamed onions nobody liked. I sometimes work up a small batch in her honor, and still nobody likes them, but that’s what tradition is all about.

Finally, video calls now allow us to hook up with the voices and images of family and friends no matter where we are. While this way of exchanging excited Thanksgiving Day greetings brings comfort and happiness to some, others may find that the sight of unavailable loved ones just brings on sadness. To offset this, have in view an array of Thanksgiving Day pies, for I have never known a thick apple pie bursting with fruit and juice that failed to bring cheer.

Main photo: Cranberries can be especially difficult to find for a Thanksgiving away from home. Credit: Barbara Haber

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Coppa Cafe’s bounty of locally foraged mushrooms includes king boletes, aspen boletes, blewits, slippery jacks, oysters, velvet-footed beeches, corals, lobsters and what might be a relative of the very rare Caesar’s mushroom. Credit: © Seth Joel

A popular guidebook advises “fussy big-city epicureans” to tone down their expectations for dining in Flagstaff, Ariz. Time for a rewrite! Husband and wife Brian Konefal and Paola Fioravanti are the classically trained, sustainability-minded chefs who are changing minds at Coppa Cafe, starting with everything from fresh bread and ponderosa pine-infused butter to pasta flavored with mesquite.

After years of training in Europe, followed by a stint under chef Daniel Humm in San Francisco and New York City, Konefal decided in 2011 that it was time to bring Fioravanti — a pastry chef whose own impressive résumé includes a gig with Joël Robuchon — back to his home state of Arizona to start a restaurant featuring locally sourced food. Their Flagstaff bistro is not, however, in the historic downtown area so popular with tourists. It is tucked away in a strip mall along South Milton Road — the main drag through town leading from Interstate 40 to the Grand Canyon. In short, Coppa Cafe is a discovery.

The larder and the grow room

At 7,000 feet above sea level, the local ecoystem has posed challenges for indigenous people and settlers for millennia. The weather is cool and even cold eight months of the year, and Konefal summed up the harsh reality of the Flagstaff winter as his predecessors might have: “If we have no larder, we have no kitchen.” In the storeroom that he keeps at 65 degrees, he dries, smokes, brines, pickles and ferments foods to preserve them at the peak of their freshness.

Konefal started with what he knew: the 18-month process of air-curing pork shoulder in the Italian style to make coppa, also known as poor man’s prosciutto — and so the cafe was named. Then he added a chorizo-style sausage using native Navajo-Churro sheep instead of pork. His Coulommiers cheese, customarily made with cow’s milk, is here made with goat’s milk because goats thrive in the backyards of the Colorado Plateau. Meanwhile, Tammy Kelly of  Kelly Beef, who raises grass-fed beef in the Williamson Valley north of Prescott, supplies choice cuts for Konefal’s diced steak tartare.

But the chef has learned to be sensitive to the production capacity of independent suppliers. For example, when I visited Coppa, quail was off the menu because his quail breeder was on vacation for three weeks. And when he ran into difficulty sourcing microgreens such as the sweet pea tendrils and sunflower sprouts he uses to add tang, crispness and surprise to his dishes, he started to grow his own indoors. In a perfect demonstration of his commitment to local and sustainable ideals, Konefal gives 40 pounds of compost a week to an innovative local company called Roots, which makes the super-premium organic growing medium that he then uses to tend his greens.

Locavores and foragers

Other organic produce comes from local farms connected through the Flagstaff CSA, from tepary beans and Hopi corn to nopalitos (cactus pads) and the earthy, nutritious greens known as lamb’s quarters. But in their search for ingredients, the couple spreads their net far and wide. Longtime Flagstaff residents who consider locavorism a necessity rather than a fad come to Coppa to share their own work. They’ve planted fragrant red roses for Fioravanti to use in sorbet and dropped off elderflowers to decorate her most popular dessert, the Raspberry Dome. Recently, Konefal was delighted to be given a pale-pink jam made with Queen Anne’s Lace and is incorporating it into a new dish. He has been invited to pick peaches in the abandoned orchards at Lee’s Ferry, a 19th-century settlement across the Colorado River 120 miles north of Flagstaff. And when we met, he was waiting for a call from Sedona to let him know whether wild blackberries were ready for harvest. Friends and family contribute too. Konefal’s brother, who owns local hot-sauce and mustard company RisingHy, lends his resources, and his mother helps pick olives from the ornamental trees planted all over Phoenix. A family friend recently sent preserves made from the prodigious bounty of the fig tree in his garden.

Such forays into foraging are not without risks. For instance, the warm days, cold nights and monsoon rains of late summer provide the perfect growing conditions for innumerable varieties of wild mushroom — not all edible. Konefal recalled the moment earlier this year when he believed he had found a highly prized Caesar’s mushroom (Amanita caesarea), but those mushrooms are not known to exist in the United States. So was it the Amanita jacksonii (sometimes called the Slender Caesar)? Or one of the 10 toxic species of Amanita? It proved to be nontoxic, and he has taken  to affectionately calling his new ingredient the Amanita caesarea Coppa — while keeping its growing location a closely guarded secret.

At 34, Konefal still has the infectious enthusiasm of a schoolboy. Standing in front of a table of colorful screwtop jars, Konefal discussed the ancient chemistry of preserving fruits and vegetables. He inspected his kombucha culture, tested the progress of the vinegar he was making with orange and yellow baby carrots, and checked a jar of mustard seeds fermenting with lemon. But his face lit up as he swirled a dun-colored liquid around in a white plastic bucket — the makings of hard cider featuring apples scavenged from the tree by a nearby Discount Tire outlet. A perfect local concoction — in this case designed to sustain the chef himself through a long winter of hard work. Even as we left the dark, cool storeroom and stepped into the blazing Arizona sunlight, Konefal turned back: “Oh, hang on — I forgot to ‘burp’ the tomatillos.”

Main photo: Coppa Cafe’s bounty of locally foraged mushrooms includes king boletes, aspen boletes, blewits, slippery jacks, oysters, velvet-footed beeches, corals, lobsters and what might a relative of the very rare Caesar’s mushroom. Credit: © Seth Joel

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Castel del Monte in Puglia, Italy. Credit: Rosemary Gregory

Wine production in Puglia has undergone an extraordinary transformation in the last decade or so. The original focus of the region was to provide wines for blending, to mask the deficiencies of more famous names from further north (Chianti and Valpolicella come to mind). Once the DOC laws were tightened up, however, that market was lost and farsighted winegrowers saw that something had to be done if the region was to have a future.

They began to appreciate that they had grape varieties with an original and distinctive character of their own. The first time I went to Puglia, about 20 years ago, it was almost impossible to find a bottle of Primitivo, one of the most important grape varieties of the heel of Italy. People were only just beginning to realize that Primitivo was the same thing as Zinfandel; Carole Meredith had not yet completed her research linking it with Croatia, across the Adriatic sea. Now, it is firmly established that Tribidrag is the parent of Primitivo and Zinfandel.

But Puglia is not just Primitivo, which is its most expressive in the hills of Manduria and Colle di Gioia. There is also Negroamaro, a rich red variety with intense black fruit, and ripe flavors, grown extensively in vineyards around Salento in the central part of the heel of Italy. Further north, adjoining the Abruzzi, where I recently spent a couple of days, you find Nero di Troia, also called Uva di Troia (named for the village of Troia, not the Troy of Greek legend).

The key DOC for Nero di Troia is Castel del Monte, which takes its name from the 13th century castle built by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, not to defend anything, but to assert his authority. It is dramatic and awe-inspiring, even on a rather grey autumnal day, with the white stone fading into the grey sky. It was often used as a hunting lodge and for that reason, falcons feature in the local iconography.

Il Falcone is the name of a groundbreaking blend of Nero di Troia with Montepulciano, which has been made by Rivera since 1971. They were one of the first to bottle their wine in the region when the prime focus was bulk wine. The estate of Conte Spagnoletti Zeuli was another pioneer, again first bottling their wine in the early 1970s. Today they produce Il Rinzacco, a finely crafted Nero di Troia that is fermented and aged in oak. A vertical tasting of five vintages showed wines with elegance and fine tannins, and none of the heady alcohol levels that you can find further south.

Cefalicchio's vineyard in Puglia. Credit: Courtesy of Cefalicchio

Cefalicchio’s vineyard in Puglia. Credit: Courtesy of Cefalicchio

Puglia wines are relative newcomers

The other two estates that I visited are relative newcomers to the market and classic examples of just how much Puglia has developed over the last few decades. They may be old families with a history of farming olives and vines for several generations, but only as the demand for bulk wine has disappeared have they put their wine in bottle. Torrevento started bottling in 1989, and Cefalicchio decided to build a cellar in 2001.

Nero di Troia is quite unlike any of the other red grape varieties of Puglia, in that it is refreshingly low in alcohol. Primitivo, on the other hand, is characterized by a high level of alcohol. Geography explains the difference. Puglia is 400 kilometers long but only 50 kilometers wide (about 240 by 30 miles), so that most of the vineyards are relatively close to the sea. The relatively shallow Adriatic has little effect on temperatures, but it does bring wind that cools in summer and brings snow in winter. Winters are much cooler in northern Puglia than at the bottom of the heel. And Nero di Troia ripens much later than Primitivo and Negroamaro, withstanding well the searing heat of August. It has big berries and is a tannic variety with a lot of juice, but may lack acidity. The best wines have some appealing fruit, violets and red berries.

Torrevento’s cellar, where French oak barriques sit opposite modern concrete vats. Credit: Courtesy of Torrevento

Torrevento’s cellar, where French oak barriques sit opposite modern concrete vats. Credit: Courtesy of Torrevento

Since 2011, Castel del Monte boasts a DOCG for wines made from Nero di Troia alone, that are riserva and therefore can only be bottled after two harvests. These include Torrevento’s Vignale Pedale, which comes from one large plot of vines, and Ottagono, which is another smaller individual vineyard. Both have the benchmark characteristics of fine Nero di Troia, with a firm tannic structure balanced by elegant fruit.

Inevitably, Puglia has not avoided the temptation to plant the so-called international varieties, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, even though their suitability to the warm southern climate is highly questionable. You only have to compare Cefalicchio’s Totila, made from Nero di Troia blended with 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, with its pure Nero di Troia Romanica, which is so much more satisfying and Italian in flavor. Of course, there are parallels to be drawn with the success of the so-called super-Tuscans, but happily Puglia is coming to value its own indigenous varieties, as Tuscany has done. As Puglia comes of age, it will realize that Nero di Troia, Primitivo and Negroamaro can stand alone. Do go and try and them. You will be richly rewarded.

Main photo: Castel del Monte in Puglia, Italy. Credit: Rosemary George

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White truffles for sale at the Alba White Truffle Fair. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Truffles and sex go together like Maria Callas and opera — and the good news is it’s a splendid year for the voluptuous white truffles of Alba, Italy. The bad news, it’s a poor year for that other essential component of northern Italian seduction, the equally famous Barolo and Barbera wines of Piedmont. It’s a yin-yang thing, a fine equilibrium that dictates the fortunes of hunters, gatherers and growers.

A cool, damp autumn seems to encourage the underground growth of Tuber magnatum pico, but it does little to create a superlative vintage in the immaculate vineyards that cover the rolling, UNESCO-listed slopes of the Langhe-Roero hills. And vice-versa.

Either way, the landscape is at its loveliest in the misty, fading light of a crisp fall day, the gardens bright with the last of the summer bedding. Vineyards glow like jewels: garnet, ruby, topaz and citrine. Yet every sweet hillside is also covered with a hard geometrical pattern of furrows and grooves like a giant corduroy blanket; a goldmine of viticulture exploited down to the very last grape.

Piedmont region’s wines

It took the vision and commercial acuity of the “Barolo Boys” about 50 years ago, to bring prosperity to the area by modernizing and merchandising the local wine until it became one of the most desirable labels in the world.

At the 84th Alba White Truffle Fair, which runs until Nov. 16, the talk was of truffle and wine harvests. The air was heady with the intriguing pungency of the former. The intense, head-spinning fragrance of truffles permeated the huge, packed tent. The truffle was in use everywhere, in salamis, sauces, creams, pasta, oils, cheese.

Tempting, but I was advised by one local that most products had little to recommend them. “Truffle oil is popular, and relatively cheap, but it is not the correct experience of the white truffle. It’s like buying out-of-season fruit.”

Her words regarding truffle oil were echoed by Carlo Petrini, president of the International Slow Food Movement, who recently wrote, “Let us stop coming up with new systems for preserving it so that it can be exported around the world. Lovers of good food can come here to eat what little there is, fresh, fragrant and perfumed. Let us stop, above all, palming off to a naive public that plethora of ‘truffle-flavored’ products engineered from synthetic chemicals.”

Truffle mythology is powerful; truffle actuality even more so.

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White truffles for sale at the White Truffle Fair in Alba, Italy. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Truffles as precious jewels

Top specimens were displayed under glass domes like precious jewels by truffle hunters. Daily prices can be checked on Tuber.it’s website. There are rumors of secret trading rooms, as well as midnight alleys, where the best-of-the-best would be sold to serious traders and shipped directly to Moscow and Tokyo, New York and Monte Carlo.

I held a lumpy, ugly white truffle the size of a grapefruit in the palm of my hand. There was no mistaking the intoxicating aroma and the exotic thrill that comes from possessing something, dug like a dirty diamond from the chocolate-colored earth and ancient oak trees, worth hundreds of dollars.

Prized white truffles, unlike black ones (Tuber melanosporum), cannot be farmed or cultivated. Although the white are also found in various parts of northern Italy, it is the charming, medieval town of Alba in Piedmont that propelled the strange underground mushrooms to worldwide fame.

It was at the first Alba White Truffle Fair 85 years ago that the trade was formalized. In a brilliant marketing coup, they later presented the first of many world-famous celebrities with an outsize truffle. The first, in 1949, was actress and international sex symbol Rita Hayworth, a fitting recipient.

It takes considerable expertise to properly assess the truffles: Their qualities are based on a matrix of color, shape, size and olfactory sensations — and personal preference.

Natale Romagnolo, a fifth-generation trifulau, or truffle hunter, and judge, described how truffle hunting is a passion verging on “illness.”

“You can say a truffle is simply a mushroom in the ground, but you don’t just buy a mushroom. … You buy something that relates to emotions and to women. It’s about good food, good wine, good company … ” he says, with a knowing glance.

Truffle hunting dogs

Truffles, known as “grey diamonds,” are hunted mostly at night with dogs, unlike the pigs used in other parts of Europe. Truffle dogs are highly valuable. And many of them are trained by Giovanni Monchiero at the Truffle Dog University in Roddi, established more than 130 years ago. Holder of the title, Magnificent Rector, Monchiero explains that he usually trains “taboj,” or mutts, not hunting dogs, which would be distracted by the presence of wild game. The key qualities he looks for in truffle-hunting dogs are obedience, a good sense of smell and stamina. Training takes time, love and care. It is a partnership between man and dog.

Eating the white truffle

» White truffles should never be cooked, rather simply shaved over the dish of choice. Black truffles are, by contrast, better cooked.

» In Piedmont, to allow the truffle to best express its complex, intense and overwhelming aroma, you'll find it used with fairly neutral dishes, such as tajarin (tagliarini or very thin and soft, golden noodles made with egg yolks), risotto, polenta or fried eggs. It also can be shaved over assone -- a raw heritage-breed Piedmontese beef, chopped with knives by hand -- or over fonduta, a fondue made with Fontina cheese.

In the grounds of the distinguished Cerreto vineyards, Monchiero demonstrated how his bright-eyed dog, Lila, could scent a ripe truffle from 50 yards, make a high-speed dash and start scrabbling like a four-legged excavator through the tawny leaves to unearth it. To stop her from eating or damaging the truffle, he had to dash after the dog, wrestle her out of the way, and then patiently unearth the precious lump with a specially designed hoe.

Time is of the essence. A mature truffle has a fleeting moment of perfection, starting to deteriorate every hour it is out of the ground. Many have tried to describe their aroma: the words used are honey, fermentation, garlic, hay, spicy, wet ground, ammonia. Nothing quite captures it. Perhaps the real magic is in our minds, and the pleasure it gives us.

In La Piola in Alba, as my plate of tajarin is covered in an abundant shower of shaved white truffle that flutters down on the pasta like greedy moths, I reflect on the words of the French writer Colette: “If I can’t have too many truffles, I’ll do without truffles.”

Main photo: Alba white truffles for sale at the Alba fair. Credit: Clarissa Hyman


Truffle lore

» Large truffles are not necessarily any better than small ones, but they are easier to shave over dishes.

» The best way to transport a truffle is covered in paper or a damp cloth and placed in a glass container. This way it may keep for about a week. Some suggest rice, but that can dry out the truffle.

» Despite the Latin name, the truffle is not a tuber but a mushroom that grows underground in symbiosis with the host tree roots.

» There are many different trees that host white truffles including various types of oak, poplar, willow, linden and hazelnut.

» The white truffle cannot be frozen as it will lose its perfume completely, and it ferments if kept in oil. Dehydrated truffles — experiments are going on in order to lengthen the shelf life of the truffle.

» The white truffle season in Piedmont runs from Sept. 21 to Jan. 31, and is at its peak in November. There are many truffle fairs across the region, but the Alba Fair is the main one of international standing.

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Sign on Fior di Latte window. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

It wasn’t much more than 100 years ago that Boulder, on the storied Colorado foothills, was a lively frontier town at the gateway of the Rockies, a bustling supply base for miners venturing into the mountains prospecting for gold and silver. Today, the city of Boulder, still possessed of the pioneer spirit, is a mecca for a different kind of trailblazer, the American artisan.

If the early settlers had meager materials with which to found a cuisine, their descendants raise heritage wild Russian boar, East Friesian dairy sheep and Italian honey bees. They have learned about wine in Friuli and cheese in Tuscany, but they haven’t forgotten their heritage. They’re breeding bison, eating knotweed and foraging for mushrooms in the hills.

It’s not surprising that this is where Chefs Collaborative, a group of chefs, food producers, and movers and shakers in the food industry, would choose to meet for their annual summit, themed “Moving Mountains, Scaling Change.”

Flying over Boulder, the high plains conjured wild mustangs and Spaghetti Westernsa change of scenery from the sultry beaches of Rimini, where I had just been two weeks earlier for the Gelato World Tour finals. Still running on gelato fumes, I was now in for three heady days of meeting and eating, Colorado style. We talked hogs. We talked beef. We talked sheep. We talked chicken. We talked humane ranching; grass-fed, sustainable animal husbandry; natural curing; GMO and factory farming. We talked how to distribute small-scale harvests and handcrafted foods to a wider public. Generally, we celebrated food.

But the gelato gods weren’t done with me. Taking a breather from our think tank, we ventured onto Pearl Street in Boulder’s colorful historic district, where a shop window with this inscription caught my eye:

“We promise to never serve you gelato that wasn’t made today.”

The real stuff

I knew that could mean only one thing. Someone who had learned the art in Italy was making the real stuff — silky, small-batch, gelato from scratch — in this Colorado town.

We wandered into the shop, Fior di Latte, and sure enough, the gelatière, Bryce Licht, told us that he and his wife had learned the art in Italy. Five years ago, he left his native Boulder for the Veneto on a research grant. At first he studied marketing. Then, he said, he fell in love with Giulia De Meo, a Venetian. She taught him how to cook genuine Italian food. Gelato was their obsession. “We decided to start our own business and apprenticed with gelatièri who had shops in Treviso,” he said. “One of them was the Italian gelato champion in 2011. We got to see behind the scenes … and we fell in love with the business.”

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Bryce Licht, gelatière. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

The couple moved back to Boulder and immersed themselves in the local food scene, selling their gelato from a cart at the farmers market and supplying neighborhood restaurants. They lucked out again when they found a sliver of a space in which to set up shop in the hub of the hip main street.

As we talked, I scanned the pans overflowing with delicious-looking fruit, nut and chocolate gelatos when my eyes pounced on a mound studded with fresh pear. Could it be? Yes! With my first lick, I was transported back to the Lido in Venice, where an old man with a gelato cart had piled spun frozen pear ambrosia onto cones for my little girls and me one summer many years ago. I’ve been yearning for that elusive flavor ever since.

Seasonal fruit

While I scarfed down the gelato, Licht explained their obsession with using fresh seasonal fruit whenever they find it.

“I saw local pears at the farmers market, and so I’m making gelato with them now,” he said. “Soon it’ll be pumpkins and butternut.”

Fior di Latte's pear gelato. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

Fior di Latte’s pear gelato. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

Fior di Latte will offer two varieties. One is a pumpkin and Chinese five-spice with star anise, cloves, cinnamon, Sichuan pepper and fennel. The other is more traditional in Venice. “It really tastes just like a delicious pumpkin with no added spices other than [sugar] and a pinch of salt,” Licht said. “Of course, the pumpkin is fresh.”

The couple source all their supplies carefully. “We use only natural ingredients, no exceptions. Anything that doesn’t live up to these standards is just not gelato,” Licht said. He also said they use pistachios from Sicily, hazelnuts from Piemonte and almonds from California and toast them before blending them into a paste.

Eating the pear gelato, Italy and Colorado merged. It was both the essence of what I had eaten in Venice so many years ago, and the stuff of what those of us at the summit saw as the way forward. It embodied, I realized, two sides of the same cone.

 Main photo: Sign on Fior di Latte window. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

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Bottles of olive oil. Credit: iStockPhoto

I brought a jug of dark green Sicilian olive oil, freshly pressed from a friend’s farm, back to my home in the hills along the border between Tuscany and Umbria. “È buono,” said my neighbor, Arnaldo, when he tasted it. “It’s good but … non ė genuino.”

Non ė genuino – it’s about the worst thing an Italian can say about another Italian’s food, whether oil, cheese, wine or pork ragù. It translates as “it’s not the real thing,” but what it really means is, “This is not the way we do it here, not the way our forebears have been doing it since Etruscan times, and not, in fact, the right way.”

In this case, caro Arnaldo, I beg to differ. What I had offered was a fresh-tasting oil made from Nocellara del Belice olives, picked green and pressed immediately, radiant with the almond-to-artichoke flavors characteristic of that varietal, which is grown mostly in and around western Sicily’s Belice valley. Moreover, it was lush, verdant and fresh from the press — I knew because I was there when it happened.

This encounter led me to think about the astonishing variety of foods that proliferate throughout the long, skinny, undulating boot that is Italy, and about the intense pride each region, each province, each little mountain village or coastal fishing port takes in its own traditions.

Italians, it almost goes without saying, invented the locavore phenomenon — and invented it a long time ago. It’s what makes a culinary tour of this remarkable country so seductive and astonishing.

What makes olive oils great?

But it’s also a trap of deception. A New York Times reporter — who happens to be a friend of mine — fell into that trap recently when writing about Umbrian olive oil. “Our oil,” her informants told her (I’m extrapolating), “is not like that sweet Tuscan oil. Our oil has character!”

Sweet oil? Tuscan? Really? Peppery, fruity, bitter, complex — these are the characteristics I taste in a well-made Tuscan oil. But not sweet.

Umbrian olive oil can be, and often is, excellent. The main local cultivar is Moraiolo, which is high in antioxidants that give it an overwhelming intensity, so much so that producers blend Moraiolo olives with others to calm that muscular quality. But Umbrian olive oil is also hard to distinguish from Tuscan oil. In fact, I would argue almost all high-quality central Italian oils — made from a mix of olives (Frantoio, Leccino, Pendolino and Moraiolo are the usual blend); often grown at high altitudes; usually harvested when still immature and pressed immediately thereafter — typically share certain acerbic flavors and peppery aromas that are redolent of freshly cut grass, artichoke or tomato leaves. I doubt most North American consumers, even well-educated ones, confronted with a selection of oils from Umbria and Tuscany, could tell them apart.

There are, I’m told, more than 500 olive cultivars grown in Italy, some of them widely known and grown such as Leccino, universally valued for its resistance to low temperatures, and some of them only from very specific regions, like Dritto, an olive that appears to be exclusive to the Abruzzi, or Perenzana olives from northern Puglia. With the spread of olive culture to other regions of the world — California, Chile, South Africa, New Zealand — some of these cultivars are being grown far from their native soil, and the oil made from them often suffers as a result — non ė genuino!

Or at least that’s what Italians believe, and my heart — and my palate — agrees. The best oils taste of that elusive characteristic called terroir — a combination of environment (soil structure, altitude, climate, weather), variety and technology, both traditional and modern, adjusted to match time-honored local tastes. In Provence, for instance, local taste demands a fusty flavor, the result of anaerobic fermentation in the olives, producing an oil considered defective elsewhere.

But I also believe North Americans are fortunate not to be trapped in the locavore delusion. We have access to olive oils from all over Italy, indeed from all over the world. How to deal with that abundance can be a problem, but it’s a problem we should welcome. Unlike those Umbrian producers, we can buy an Umbrian oil and a Tuscan one and taste them side by side, along with one, perhaps, from Puglia, or Sicily, or even from Verona in northern Italy. Or indeed Tunisia or Spain or New Zealand.

The tree said to be the oldest olive tree in Umbria, Italy. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

The tree said to be the oldest olive tree in Umbria, Italy. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

The revolution starts here

Now I’m going to tell you something radical: I have tried to love olive oils from retail outlets across the entire U.S., but with few exceptions, I have almost always been disappointed. Many retailers simply don’t recognize the importance of harvest dates or the critical significance of maintaining oils in dark, cool environments. They display bottles under shop lights in order to entice customers, and they’ve paid top dollar for oil when it first arrives on the market, so even if it stays around a while, the price still has to reflect their costs.

So more and more, my advice is to go to online distributors, many of whom get their oil directly from the producer and most of whom keep their precious bottles warehoused in a dark, cool environment. Here are a few I recommend; I’ve also noted where there are retail stores. Note that the first three sell only Italian olive oils; the rest carry a variety from many other areas, including California:

Main photo: Bottles of olive oil. Credit: iStockPhoto

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The Humboldt Highball cocktail alongside a bottle of Byrrh and a glass of the aperitif at Denver's BSide. Credit: Ruth Tobias

No, Byrrh isn’t some murky variant spelling of beer; in fact, it’s wine. More precisely, Byrrh Grand Quinquina — to use its full name — is a French aperitif that’s been showing up in bars around the United States after gathering dust in obscurity for decades. Based on the red wines of Roussillon, France, as well as fortified grape juice, it’s flavored with a blend of botanicals, primarily cinchona bark (which contains quinine — hence the name), to strike a refreshing balance between fruitiness and bitterness.

Thanks to Eric Seed of Haus Alpenz — the cool kids’ importer these days — Byrrh is now available in nearly all 50 states. The more I began to spot it on cocktail menus around Denver, where I live, the more curious I grew as to its allure and applications. Three local bartenders were gracious enough to explain it all for me.

The patio pounder

For Alexandra Geppert, who handles operations at The BSide — a funky, free-wheeling new hangout in Denver’s Uptown — Byrrh’s raspberry and nutty flavors lend themselves to easy-breezy libations such as the Humboldt Highball, which also contains simple syrup, lemon juice and club soda.

Featured on the late-summer drink list, it drank like a zippy pop that, she joked, “You could have 40 of in one sitting.” But for cooler weather, Geppert suggests deepening the flavor with a distinctly herbal liqueur. Here is BSide bartender Daniel Bewley’s recipe:

Humboldt Hibyrrhnation

Yield: 1 serving

Prep Time: 2 minutes

Ingredients

A Byrrh cocktail from Bistro Vendôme in Denver. Credit: Ruth Tobias

The Byrrh Martini, left, and Black Spring from Bistro Vendôme in Denver. Credit: Ruth Tobias

2 ounces Byrrh

¾ ounce Leopold Bros. Three Pins Alpine Herbal Liqueur

½ ounce lemon juice

½ ounce simple syrup

Club soda

Directions

1. Shake the first four ingredients together in a cocktail shaker. Strain over ice into a Collins glass. Top with club soda.

Geppert also loves to fancify the tavern tradition of a shot and a beer chaser by offering a more cultivated pairing: “a craft beer and a taster.” To that end, she proposes sipping a glass of Byrrh, with its round mouthfeel, alongside a contrastingly “crisp beer, maybe one with a little bitterness.”

To that end, she proposes sipping a glass of Byrrh, with its round mouthfeel, alongside a contrastingly “crisp beer, maybe one with a little bitterness,” say a blonde ale or a pilsner.

The neo-martini

At Bistro Vendôme, a beloved French fixture in downtown Denver, bartender Jason Morden has been having a field day with Byrrh for the past few months. He recommends drinking it over ice with lemon zest before dinner, because “citrus really makes it pop”; afterward, he might pair it with a bit of milk chocolate.

And because to his palate “it’s reminiscent of Vermouth Rouge,” he also considers it “an amazing counterpart to gin.” Here’s his “hot and boozy” twist on a martini:

Byrrh Martini

Yield: 1 serving

Prep Time: 2 minutes

Ingredients

2 ounces dry rye gin

1 ounce Byrrh

½ ounce lemon juice, plus peel for garnish twist

Directions

1. Shake gin, Byrrh and lemon juice together in a cocktail shaker. Pour into a martini glass and garnish with a lemon twist.

The rye sidekick

You’ll notice that the gin in the previous cocktail is made with rye, the spiciness of which nicely balances the sweetness of Byrrh. Morden uses that to his advantage in another cocktail, this one based on rye whiskey:

Black Spring

Yield: 1 serving

Prep Time: 2 minutes

Ingredients

1½ ounces rye whiskey

1 ounce Byrrh

1 ounce amaro-style bitter

2½ to 3 ounces ginger beer

Luxardo cherries

Directions

1. Over ice in a Collins glass, stir the first four ingredients together. Garnish with Luxardo cherries on a toothpick.

Meanwhile, Kevin Burke — beverage director at sibling hot spots Colt & Gray and Ste. Ellie — compares Byrrh favorably to another fortified wine, Dubonnet Rouge. “With a lot of products, some cocktail types get up in arms that the European version is different than the American one,” he said. (Take absinthe as a prime example.) “Unfortunately, Dubonnet falls into this category for me. So when I see Dubonnet called for in a recipe, I have found great success in substituting Byrrh.” For example, “it shines in a Deshler Cocktail, which is great when you’re in the mood for a Manhattan but also want something new.”

Word to the lightweight: Burke likes a high-proof rye in the following recipe. Sure, “Rittenhouse 100 or Wild Turkey 101 will do in a pinch — but Willett 110 Proof or Thomas H. Handy Sazerac is worth the splurge.”

Deshler Cocktail

Yield: 1 serving

Prep Time: 3 minutes

Ingredients

1¼ ounces high-proof rye

1¼ ounces Byrrh

¼ ounce Peychaud’s Bitters

1 teaspoon Cointreau

Orange twist for garnish

Directions

1. Chill a small cocktail glass.

2. Add cracked ice to a mixing glass, then add all ingredients except the orange twist and stir for 30 seconds. Strain into chilled cocktail glass.

3. Pinch the orange twist over the drink to express oils, then add and enjoy.

Main photo: The Humboldt Highball cocktail alongside a bottle of Byrrh and a glass of the aperitif at Denver’s BSide. Credit: Ruth Tobias

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