Articles in Travel

Harp Bar in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

The wee city of Belfast, Northern Ireland, as its feisty residents describe their capital city, punches above its size. The Titanic was built here; Van Morrison was born here; “Game of Thrones” is filmed here. Wow. The litany of “firsts,” as recounted by the inimitable Billy Scott, cabdriver and tour guide, during a word-packed, whistle-stop zip around the muscular mercantile city, ranges from the invention of air conditioning and tonic water to the Massey Ferguson tractor. The city’s history is charted in the exuberant and vivid wall murals found on every spare gable end.

There is no lack of business acumen and ambition in the province of Ulster. Belfast’s 19th-century City Hall, awash with Italian marble, is still a striking monument to aspirational can-do spirit, and the superb Titanic museum is a tribute to epic shipbuilding skills and a tragedy that still grips the world. Add to that a hugely hospitable city that is vigorously redefining itself after the Troubles and a flourishing food-and-drink scene that boasts a wealth of native talent and artisan producers. Alongside the traditional breads and Ulster Fry gargantuan breakfasts, there’s now top-class game, beef aged in Himalayan salt, handmade butter, heritage potatoes, Armagh apple juice, watermelon pickle preserves, organic smoked salmon and the most delicious yogurt made by an aristocratic Marchioness.

Throughout 2016 Belfast and the rest of Ulster will celebrate the best from the lush countryside, wild hills and clear waters of Northern Ireland. Let’s raise a glass. With enough Dark and Stormies down the hatch you’ll soon be talking the talk, even if you’re too banjaxed to walk the walk.

Eating in Belfast

Cod, fennel, black olives, mussels and sprouting broccoli at Ox in Belfast. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

Cod, fennel, black olives, mussels and sprouting broccoli at Ox in Belfast. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

Ox: The Michelin star gained last year by Belfast-born Stephen Toman and Brittany, France, native Alain Kerloc’h typifies the new-look city. A spare Scandinavian look informs the interior, and the exciting, seasonal dishes indicate the influence of Parisian superstar chef Alain Passard, who has autographed the kitchen wall in approval.

Deane: Restaurateur Michael Deane dominates the local scene with his collection of restaurants that range from the sophisticated Michelin-starred Eipic to the relaxed vibe of Deanes at Queens, near Queen’s University, where the vegetables may be served in outsized money-box ceramic pigs and the fries are triple-cooked.

The Bar and Grill: This is an informal grill-room offspring of fine-dining James Street South. Don’t miss Hannan’s Himalayan salt-aged steaks cooked on the Josper grill, plus baked Alaska for dessert!

Wolf and Devour Street Kitchen: The brand-new pitch for the funky mobile canteen on the riverside already has lines for its signature Wolf Burger made with Hannan’s heritage beef, grilled halloumi wraps and sweet potato fries.  The breeze may be a tad Baltic, as they say, but it sharpens the appetite for the impeccably sourced produce and spot-on dishes served in biodegradable packaging.

Drinking in Belfast

A cocktail made from ShortCross Gin. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

A cocktail made from ShortCross Gin. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

The Merchant HotelGinnaissance has hit Belfast big time, and one of the best is locally distilled ShortCross Gin, made with botanicals and spring water from their own estate. When it’s gin o’ clock, head for the cocktail bar of the five-star Merchant hotel, housed in the grandiose former headquarters of the Ulster Bank.

Duke of York: One of Belfast’s most famous pubs crammed with a museum-worthy collection of memorabilia, the place can get so packed you may end up supping your “bevvy” on the cobbled street strung with fairy lights outside. The old advertising signs and mirrors, great Guinness and Irish whiskeys, plus live music (Snow Patrol first played here) and brilliant atmosphere sum up the Belfast zest for the good life.

Harp Bar: In the sister bar to the Duke of York, also in the Cathedral Quarter, there is probably the world’s most extensive collection of Irish whiskeys on display, including rare bottles by distilleries long forgotten. Live music also pulls in the crowds.

The John Hewitt: Run by the Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre, this fine public house, named after the late poet and socialist, offers artisan craft brews, good food and free, live music. It has an unbeatable cultured and artsy atmosphere — plus a not-for-profit glow from the open coal fire.

The Crown Liquor Saloon: Probably the most famous pub in Belfast, this fabulously ornate Victorian gem is actually owned by the National Trust. The period gas lighting, enclosed “snugs,” or private booths, and ornate tiles, carvings and etched glass are wonderfully preserved, as are the original gunmetal plates for striking matches and the antique bell system. This is an unmissable pit stop.

The Spaniard: Famous for its wide range of rums, this tiny, packed bar is an iconoclastic home to Hispanic curiosities and a candlelit shrine of religious kitsch.

Shopping in Belfast

St. George’s Market: Producers and street food vendors come every Thursday through Sunday to the huge historic covered market. Among the best buys: fruit and vegetables, flowers, fish and great locally made fudge.

Sawers: Northern Ireland’s oldest deli is crammed with virtually every product known to man, and then some. Belfast’s rival to F&M stocks hibiscus flower syrup and Sicilian almonds along with Loch Neagh eel, innovative Suki teas, Ditty’s oatcakes and fabulous Fermanagh black bacon. They also sell sandwiches the size of doorstops.

Avoca: The Belfast branch of this gorgeous Irish lifestyle emporium does not disappoint with its range of household objects, kitchen wares, fresh and specialty foods, and excellent cafe and restaurant.

Main image: Harp Bar in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

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Podere Forte's vineyards offer breathtaking views of the hilltops of Rocca d’Orcia and Castiglione d’Orcia. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

If you think of Tuscany and its wines, it is the famous names that immediately come to mind: Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Bolgheri. But Tuscany is so much more than those. There are all manner of lesser-known wines off the beaten track.

I recently spent a couple of days in the Orcia valley, an area sandwiched between the vineyards of Montalcino and Montepulciano, with a river that rises at Monte Cetona and flows into the Ombrone. The Orcia DOC was recognized in 2000, and in 2004 the whole valley was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

As for most of the red wines of Tuscany, Sangiovese is the dominant variety, often blended with the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. There are now about 40 wine estates in the 13 villages of the Orcia valley, with an impressive level of quality and just waiting to be discovered. Here are five that are well worth the detour.

Fattoria del Colle

Fattoria del Colle, near the village of Trequanda, produces three red wines and Vin Santo. Photo courtesy of Consorzio vino orcia

Fattoria del Colle, near the village of Trequanda, produces three red wines and Vin Santo. Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

This is the property of Donatella Cinelli and Carlo Gardini. Donatella’s family has long been part of the wine scene of Montalcino, with her brother now running Fattoria dei Barbi, but Fattoria del Colle is where Donatella makes her mark outside Montalcino. She has about 81 acres of vines near the village of Trequanda and makes three red wines, not to mention Vin Santo, which is an essential part of every classic Tuscan estate.

Leone Rosso is Sangiovese with 40 percent Merlot, making for riper, fleshier flavors. Cenerentola, or Cinderella, is Sangiovese with 35 percent Foglia Tonda, an old Tuscan grape variety that almost disappeared. Donatella has played a large part in its successful revival. And then there is Il Drago e le Otto Colombe, a blend of Sangiovese with some Merlot, as well as 20 percent of an Umbrian grape variety, Sagrantino. The name of the wine refers to the fact that the estate is run by women, the doves, with just one man, or dragon, Donatella’s husband, Carlo. It makes an amusing aside. But Donatella has a serious focus; a fellow winegrower described her as the anima, or driving force, of the Val d’Orcia.

Podere Forte

Podere Forte’s cellar is state-of-the-art, with vats for microvinifications and a serious selection of barrels. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio vino orcia

Podere Forte’s cellar is state-of-the-art, with vats for microvinifications and a serious selection of barrels. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

This is a relatively new estate, in Tuscan terms, for it was created in 1997 by Pasquale Forte, a businessman from Calabria. From one small purchase in 1997, he has developed a 416-acre estate, including 25 acres of vines (in addition, there are olive trees, extensive woodlands and land for rearing animals).

Sangiovese is the core variety, with some Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Merlot. They aim for self-sufficiency and even have a restaurant, the very stylish Osteria Perillà, in the nearby village of Castiglione d’Orcia, where you can enjoy the produce of the estate. They are moving toward biodynamic principles and paying enormous attention to the condition of the soil, with advice from the leading expert in the field, Claude Bourguignon.

A drive around the vineyards offered breathtaking views of the hilltops of Rocca d’Orcia and Castiglione d’Orcia, with the autumn sunshine reflecting on golden vines. The cellar can only be described as state-of-the-art, with several sorting tables, vats for microvinifications and a serious selection of barrels.

They make three wines. Petruccino, a blend of 70 percent Sangiovese and 30 percent Merlot with 14 months’ oak aging, has a ripe fleshiness from the Merlot, balanced with freshness from the Sangiovese. More serious is Petrucci, a pure Sangiovese, described as their flagship wine, with aging in new oak. The third wine of the range is single-vineyard Guardiavigna, from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. The 2010 was drinking particularly well, with elegance and balance.

Olivi-Le Buche

Olivi-Le Buche produces a wide range of wines from an eclectic selection of grapes. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio vino orcia

Olivi-Le Buche produces a wide range of wines from an eclectic selection of grapes. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

This estate was developed by Giuseppe Olivi, who produces an eclectic range of wines from an equally eclectic selection of grape varieties, namely Sangiovese, the key Bordeaux varieties, Syrah, and Pugnitello, another Tuscan variety that has been revived in recent years. His flagship wine is I Puri, a varietal wine that changes from year to year, depending on which grape variety is the absolute best in that particular vintage. In 2009 it was Merlot and in 2010 Sangiovese, with a fine expression of the variety. Unusually for the Orcia valley, they also have some white varieties, Verdicchio, Viognier and Sauvignon, making a fragrant white wine with some stony minerality.

Podere Albiano

The wines from Podere Albiano make a convincing range of wines that illustrate the characteristics of the Orcia valley. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio vino orcia

The wines from Podere Albiano make a convincing range of wines that illustrate the characteristics of the Orcia valley. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

This is an enchanting spot, with views of Monte Amiata and the small town of Pienza. The almost abandoned property was bought in 1999 by Ada Becheri and Alberto Turri, and they began planting vines in 2002. Until 2008, they merely sold their grapes and did some experimental microvinifications. The following year, they built a neat compact cellar and now they make a convincing range of wines that amply illustrate the characteristics of the Orcia valley, with Sangiovese, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot in varying proportions. Oak aging is essential to them all.

Citto, from all four varieties, is elegant and cedary; Ciriè is Sangiovese and Merlot, with some fleshy fruit; Tribòlo is a pure Sangiovese, and a riserva, which requires 24 months of aging. In fact, it has spent 30 months in small barrels, with some lovely elegant sour cherry fruit and just the right amount of oak. And finally there is Albiano, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with just a touch of Petit Verdot. This is riper and immediately more international in flavor, while still retaining the benchmark elegance of Podere Abiello.

Marco Capitoni

Two large amphorae in Marco Capitoni’s cellar are used for experimenting with Sangiovese. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio vino orcia

Two large amphorae in Marco Capitoni’s cellar are used for experimenting with Sangiovese. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

Marco’s first vintage was 2001. He has developed the vineyards of an old family estate to make two wines: Capitoni, which is a blend of 80 percent Sangiovese with some Merlot, and Frasi, which comes from a 3.2-acre vineyard planted in1973 that is mainly Sangiovese, with Canaiolo and Colorino. The three varieties are all mixed up in the vineyard and consequently fermented together, then aged in large wood for two years. A vertical tasting of Le Frasi from 2010 to 2005 illustrated the vintage variations. But the first things you see in Marco’s cellar are two large amphorae, for he is experimenting with Sangiovese in amphora.

The flavors are fresh and perfumed, with elegant red fruit and potential, rather like Val d’Orcia, which is a sleeping giant waiting to be discovered.

Main photo: Podere Forte’s vineyards offer breathtaking views of the hilltops of Rocca d’Orcia and Castiglione d’Orcia. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

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Stay healthy when you set sail. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

It’s hard to go hungry on a cruise. In fact, the all-inclusive eats and, often, all-inclusive drinks are a big part of the allure of cruise travel. On just about every ship sailing the seas, there’s food for the taking from bow to stern: from pasta and pizza to curries and what seems like a never-ending dessert selection, there’s something for everyone. These days, that’s even true for those on special diets. Whether you’re looking at a menu or walking the buffet line, healthy choices can be found; sometimes they’re just harder to see.

Special diets

Guilt-free sweet rolls for breakfast. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Guilt-free sweet rolls for breakfast. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas ship dedicates a corner of the daily menu in the main dining room to explaining special diet options. Various icons indicate dishes that adhere to an assortment of dietary needs, including gluten-free and lactose-free items. Then there’s the Vitality option, a three-course meal of 800 or fewer calories; the ShipShape Fitness Center offers corresponding Vitality daily workouts to help keep passengers’ nutrition and weight management on track during vacation. (Some classes are complimentary, while others require an additional charge.)

Devinly Decadence is a specialty restaurant open for complimentary breakfast, lunch and dinner on Quantum and Anthem of the Seas. Devin Alexander, author of eight cookbooks and the chef for NBC’s “The Biggest Loser,” has brought her take on healthy cooking to the high seas. Breakfast options include skinny takes on typically indulgent favorites like “no-sin-a-buns” and “banana mania” muffins. All entrées, including popular comfort foods like beef stew and chicken enchiladas, are under 500 calories each.

The fresher, the better

Vitamin shots to start the day. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Vitamin shots to start the day. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

On the AmaWaterways river cruise line, healthy eating isn’t defined by calorie counts; it’s about fresh, local ingredients and their preparation. Through recipe adaptation, favorite dishes can be healthy, address growing dietary concerns (gluten-free and lactose-free dining in particular), and still taste great.

Every morning at breakfast aboard AmaSerena, AmaWaterways’ Healthy Corner offers the expected selection of fresh fruits and yogurts. But its Vitamin Shot of the Day can offer a sweet boost that’s strong enough to keep you away from the tempting pastry table. Every day the chef whips up a new blend of fresh fruit shakes: One morning you might wake to a blend of strawberry, kiwi and bananas, the next a mix of apricots, plain yogurt, bananas and sparkling water.

Snacking at sea

Carved or not, fruit is your friend. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Carved or not, fruit is your friend. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Special diets are a great tool, but they don’t replace smart choices. Think about how you eat at home to help you stay on track. If you don’t usually snack between meals, try not to do it at sea; a bite of this here and a taste of that there have a way of adding up quickly. But if hunger sets in and your next meal is still hours away, don’t just grab what’s easy. Steer clear of confections and baked goods like cookies and pastries, and do your best instead to grab something that’s good for you.

Fruits and veggies are your friends. On the typical weeklong sailing, Freedom of the Seas serves cruisers 40,000 pounds of fresh fruit and 70,000 pounds of fresh vegetables. Aboard the AmaSerena, fruit is always available in the main lounge. And the selection goes beyond a simple bowl of apples: Think three tiers of ripe and fragrant choices that, depending on the day, can include apricots, peaches, citrus, green grapes, red grapes and bananas.

Drink … a lot

It looks healthy, but watch that booze. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

It looks healthy, but watch that booze. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Drink a lot, but choose your hydration method carefully. Drink water instead of soda, sweet tea or lemonade. Keeping a water bottle handy can help keep you sipping smart.

When choosing cocktails (it’s vacation — you know you’re going to have them), try not to overdo it. You don’t want a collection of colorful paper umbrellas before you make it to dinner.

Sitting down to dinner

Dinner and a show. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Dinner and a show. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Going out for dinner is always fun, but servers on cruise ships take the experience to a whole new level. After one night, along with your name, they somehow also manage to remember how you take your coffee or the fact that you dislike lima beans but love peanut butter.

So enlist their help in making your calories count. As surprised as they may be, let them know that you plan to stay strong and pass on the bread. And there’s no rule that you have to order an appetizer, entrée and dessert. One night maybe skip the appetizer or order an appetizer instead of an entrée. Get creative. I’ve never met a cruise server who didn’t aim to please.

On Carnival Cruise Line, the floor staff even sings and dances between courses. Diners are encouraged to join in, so take advantage of the opportunity to burn some calories during dinner.

Browsing the buffet

Decadent chocolate crêpes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Decadent chocolate crêpes. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Buffets are standard operating procedure on large cruise ships. But you should resist the urge to dig into the first dish you see. Take a spin around and check out all of the choices before you pick up a plate; make a point to look for salads and vegetables. Opt for smaller portions. If you really like a particular dish, there’s plenty more waiting. At the buffet aboard Royal Caribbean, healthier options are marked with the same Vitality logo used in the ship’s main dining rooms.

Be choosy. Pizza doesn’t typically taste any different on a cruise ship than it does at home, so spend your calories on some truly vacation-worthy eats like freshly prepared sushi or a cooked-to-order breakfast chocolate crêpe.

Just desserts

One won't hurt. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

One won’t hurt. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

You’re on vacation. It’s OK to indulge a little. The pastry chef aboard Un-Cruise’s Safari Explorer puts out a plate of cookies every afternoon; one won’t do you in, but a handful is a different story.

Make smart choices throughout the day, and there won’t be any reason to feel guilty when you dip your spoon into the gooey center of a famous Carnival Warm Chocolate Melting Cake. Mixed by hand and cooked to order, each Carnival ship serves an average of 900 per day. All those cruisers can’t be wrong.

Main photo: Stay healthy when you set sail. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

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Waiters, whose every move is choreographed, serve diners at Ultraviolet. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicholas Gilman

I arrived in Shanghai dreaming of dumplings but instead was invited, by a generous friend, to a quixotic culinary experience that took much time to digest. Ultraviolet is a high-end restaurant-cum-theatrical show. It’s a self-described “multimedia experience” staged for a moneyed audience of 10 in a closed room whose environment is meticulously controlled.

The group was led into the dining hall and held captive at a large table for what seem like an eternity, like an existential scenario from a Buñuel film. A couple dozen tiny, refined plates from a never-changing menu were prepared and served, one after another, by waiters whose every move was carefully choreographed and scripted. Each dish, paired with a drink, was accompanied by projected images, music, even piped-in aromas, all feeding on a philosophical theme. The exhausting show took hours. Awards have been garnered — for the food anyway — which, by the way, is very good in a global, Noma/Bullí sort of way. The theatrical aspect is more dubious. It skirts the edge of ridiculous while managing to keep its intellectual head above water.

Chef Paul Pairet’s creation

A dish unleashes a cloud of white gas as it is served. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicholas Gilman

A dish unleashes a cloud of white gas as it is served. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicholas Gilman

It’s no accident that talented French chef Paul Pairet has brought this over-the-top evening of pseudo-avant-garde sensory incitement to Shanghai, one of the most unashamedly commercial cities in the world. Here, in the center of shopping and money, it makes sense. “Why not?” cry critics and gastronomes alike.

All encompassing, audience-involved theater is nothing new. From Strindberg’s difficult-to-perform “A Dream Play” to Antonin Artaud’s “Theater of Cruelty,” a theoretical, unrealized experiment in avant-garde spectacle in which the performers would attempt to assault the senses of the spectators, artists have been attempting to expand theater beyond the stage. But never has audience participation been brought to this level, at least in a restaurant. The attempt to juxtapose high-end dining and individual introspection was, at times, jarring.

A parade of images

The table at Ultraviolet is, naturally, shrouded in a purple hue. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicholas Gilman

The table at Ultraviolet is, naturally, shrouded in a purple hue. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicholas Gilman

While we ate, a parade of images, meant to evoke collective memory, were projected on all four walls. They ranged from spooky to comforting to, at best, beautifully and playfully nostalgic. Charlie Chaplin’s shoe-eating scene from “The Gold Rush” was shown in its entirety while wintry dishes were served. Manet’s “Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe” was recalled during the “picnic.”

Walls were plastered with hundreds of images of Asian dry noodle soup packages (evincing laughter from the several Asians present) while a high-falutin’ version of that fast-food classic was served. Moving images on the wall made the room seem to rise and fall: At one point we dropped into a Dante-esque netherworld as the scene around us fell away. I’m not sure if the bourgeoisie, whose foibles were often brought to the fore — Chaplin, a running leitmotif of fast food — was being patronized or burlesqued. But one did have the sense that this Frenchman is well aware of what he is doing, deconstructing and commenting on the classic multi-course meal.

Then there’s the food

A faux breakfast is one of the many tiny, refined plates served. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicholas Gilman

A faux breakfast is one of the many tiny, refined plates served. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicholas Gilman

What do I remember of the food? Little more than theoretical insider jokes that tasted good. One of the very first courses was entitled “Paloma” — it was a light sweet-sour salad of pomelo served in a vitrine which, when lifted, unleashed a cloud of white gas — the dove of peace? The Mexican song “Cucurrucucu Paloma” was heard in the background.

Next a single oyster, dressed with caviar, pepper, lemon and sea foam, was offered while the walls become a calm ocean. At a “picnic,” for which the table was covered with synthetic turf, a dish named “fish Tupperware,” dressed in mayo, recalled simple American/English food, while projected images harkened back to a long-forgotten country outing of the 1920s. Henry Mancini’s campy theme from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” accompanied a faux American “breakfast” — a fitting, albeit ironic, paean.

Pairet, who is obviously trying very hard to do something new, an admirable but nearly impossible goal nowadays, has been quoted as saying that “pretension is my worst enemy” — in which case the enemy lurked behind every carefully constructed shadow. He tries hard to pair food with feeling, to create “edible theater.” I appreciated the effort. I enjoyed the evening immensely, and ate and drank very well indeed, but instinctively resisted the artifice intended to carry me to higher (or lower, for that matter) emotional planes.

In this sense, the experience did not coalesce. Critic Richard Gilman (who happened to be my father) wrote, referring to the avant-garde theater of 50 years ago: “It may be that nothing will come forward as new, unassailable creation. It is surely true that any art comes to find that its own historical momentum becomes the enemy of its renewable prowess.”

I’m not sure if we are heading down a creative cul-de-sac in the increasingly global gastronomic world. I hope not.

Main photo: Waiters, whose every move is choreographed, serve diners at Ultraviolet. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicholas Gilman

The author wishes to thank Jeffrey Merrihue and www.foodiehub.tv who sponsored this trip to China and Ultraviolet.

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Freshly milled oil. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

It’s an old story — you’ve heard it before, and not just from me — but it’s coming around again. Predictably, just as U.S. specialty markets begin to trumpet the arrival of fresh new-harvest, extra virgin olive oil comes the warning that it ain’t what it seems.

According to journalist Tom Mueller, speaking on the popular CBS News program “60 Minutes,” an astonishing 80 percent of the extra virgin olive oil sold in the United States does not meet the standards for extra virgin.

That statement requires some clarification. To be characterized as extra virgin, legal parameters must be met. They are set by the International Olive Council, and they are liberal. The oil, for instance, must have only 0.8 percent free oleic fatty acid and a peroxide content of 20 milliequivalents, or meq.

But there’s more. To qualify as extra virgin, an oil must be free of defects, with perfect flavor and aroma. And that’s where a lot of extra virgin oil on sale in the U.S. falls down, usually because it is too old (Unlike wine, olive oil does not improve with age.) or has been exposed to damaging light, heat and/or atmosphere. The finest extra virgin will deteriorate very quickly. I know firsthand because once in Tuscany I deliberately exposed a glassful of extra virgin, milled just days earlier from my own olives. Within a week of exposure, it was unrecognizable, pale in color and with almost no flavor or aroma except for the slight development, as yet inchoate, of rancidity.

Much of the 80% of substandard extra virgin oil cited by Mueller (if indeed the figure is accurate, which I tend to doubt) was probably legally produced, bottled and shipped. But once it left the producer’s hands, all bets were off.

Buyer beware

An olive tree. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

An olive tree. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Let me give a disturbing example: In my local Whole Foods I bought a bottle of oil from a Sicilian producer whom I know well, one who makes his award-winning product with scrupulous care. And it shows: The oil has a robust flavor you associate with new oils made from barely mature olives and picked just 12 to 24 hours before pressing. Yet, the oil I purchased was pale yellow, indicating exposure to too much light, and it was unmistakably rancid, so much so I had to spit it out at the first taste.

So buyer beware, or caveat emptor, as they said back in Rome.

The conclusion of this somewhat misguided “60 Minutes” report was simple: The problem with Italian olive oil is a creation — like so many Italian problems — of the Mafia, a catch-all for everything wrong with Italy. And we Americans, who sometimes seem to fear the Mafia as much as we fear ISIS, certainly don’t want to give any support, financial or otherwise, to the dons. So should we all stop buying Italian olive oil?

Hang on a minute. If Italy is ground zero for olive oil fraud, the country is also recognized as ground zero for fraud protection, with not one but three national police forces responsible: the Carabinieri (like state police only national), the Guardia di Finanza (the tax police) and the Corpo Forestale, park rangers who also have the responsibility of investigating counterfeit foods and pursuing anti-Mafia activities. It was the Carabinieri in Turin last November who charged seven top olive oil companies with commercial fraud, among them Carapelli, Bertolli, Sasso and Coricelli. All were accused of selling as extra virgin, at extra virgin prices, oils that barely qualified as second-tier virgin, resulting in a 30% rip-off on the price.

Do the names sound familiar? They should. All these brands are in wide distribution outside Italy (as well as within), and especially in the U.S. through supermarkets and big-box stores. Although media have targeted the brands as “Italian,” in fact Carapelli, Sasso and Bertolli, which all began life a century or more ago as Italian family companies, are now owned by the Spanish multinational Deoleo. On its website, Deoleo promotes itself as “the world leader in the olive oil market.” That’s no stretch — Deoleo owns seven of the most widely sold olive oils in the world, including the abovementioned.

As frauds go, I have to confess, I don’t find this one all that shocking. Selling oil that barely reaches the cheap virgin qualification as more expensive extra virgin? It’s a bit like selling cheap toilet water as Chanel No. 5, and it’s tempting to fault consumers for their ignorance. If you can’t tell the difference between eau de toilette and a Chanel classic, it’s your problem, honey, not mine. Nonetheless, fraud is fraud. While this may be fairly entry-level fraud, it is still deceptive. And illegal. And possibly dangerous to the health of people who consume a great deal of what they believe is heart-healthy extra virgin olive oil.

The core of the problem is that, even in Italy and other regions known for producing fine oil, most consumers, including experienced chefs, have little or no idea what top-quality extra-virgin olive oil ought to taste like. Here’s a simple tip: It should leave your mouth feeling clean, not the least bit greasy, and it should have the fresh, herbal fragrance and flavor of just-cut grass. You’ve never actually tasted fresh-cut grass? Get out there behind the lawn mower and try it. It’s not going to kill you!) The flavor and aroma of fine, fresh olive oil can get a lot more subtle than that, and experienced tasters will detect nuances, from roasted nuts to citrus to green tomatoes and tomato leaves, but basically if you keep in mind the adjectives fresh, grassy, herbal, clean, you’ll be on the right track.

What to look for in olive oil

Quality olive oil abounds, if you know what to look for. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Quality olive oil abounds, if you know what to look for. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

A well-made olive oil will have a good balance of three basic characteristics: the fruity flavors of sound, healthy olives, and the bitterness and piquancy (pepperiness) that are indications of the presence of antioxidants that make olive oil the fat you want on your table for all its great health benefits. What should be avoided is oil that has a flat, tired flavor, that tastes of rancidity, that leaves your mouth feeling coated with fat or that tastes like a jar of commercial tapenade that was opened three weeks ago and got lost in the back of the refrigerator.

Fortunately, now is a perfect time to educate your palate with the outstanding flavors of fresh, well-made olive oil. From the Mediterranean — especially Italy — and from California, producers are rushing olio nuovo, new-harvest oil, to market. It is expensive, but worth investing in, if only to give you a firm base-line sense of what excellence is all about. Once you’ve tasted it, you will never again mistake bad oil for good.

Here are just a few I have tasted and liked. Please note these are not by any means the extent of fine extra virgin olive oils; these are specifically new oils that I have tasted recently.

From Gustiamo in New York:

Pianogrillo from Sicily, $38.25 for 500 milliliters.

Tratturello from Molise, $44.50 for 750 milliliters.

Rio Grifone, organic from Tuscany, $39.50 for 500 milliliters.

From Market Hall Foods in Oakland, California:

Séka Hills, top-ranked Californian oil, $18 for 250 milliliters.

Titone, award-winning Sicilian organic, $28 for 250 milliliters.

Olio Verde from Sicily, single cultivar, nocellara del Belice, $38 for 500 milliliters.

From Olio2go in Fairfax, Virginia:

Capezzana from Tuscany, $44.50 for 500 milliliters.

Frescobaldi from Tuscany, with the prestigious Laudemio seal, $32.95 for 250 milliliters.

Villa Zattopera from Sicily, single cultivar, tondo Iblea, $36.95 for 500 milliliters.

Direct from the producer, California Olive Ranch:

COR Limited Reserve, $19.99 for 500 milliliters.

Main photo: Freshly milled oil. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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Seared Maine sea scallops. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

There’s a phrase Mainers use when they really, really like something: “Wicked good,” they say. Right now they’re saying that about Maine sea scallops, harvested from the cold, clean waters in the state’s deep bays and around its widely scattered islands.

These are scallops from day-boat fishermen, who forage only inshore (within 3 miles of shore), leaving port before dawn and returning in the early afternoon with their 10- to 15-gallon allotment of fresh-shucked scallops. (A gallon of scallops weighs about 9 pounds.)

The season for these beauties just opened, and, with luck and a little help from Mother Nature, it will last through the winter, providing sweetly succulent seafood with a flavor and texture that put scallops high on a gourmet’s pinnacle. Unfortunately, they are also in short supply and the catch is tightly regulated. Maine sea scallops represent just about 1% to 1.5% of all the scallops consumed in the U.S. each year. Back in the 1980s, Maine fishermen harvested 4 million pounds of scallops annually, but that figure declined to an all-time low of just 33,000 pounds 10 years ago. Now, thanks to a combination of efforts from fishermen, along with the Penobscot East Resource Center, a prominent fisheries NGO, as well as the state’s Department of Marine Resources, the scallop population is being restored to sustainable levels, and a project is underway to give Maine sea scallops the same cachet as Maine lobster, a recognizable and sought-after treat for a festive winter table.

What makes Maine sea scallops so desirable is both their texture and flavor. That requires a brief lesson in physiology. The part of the scallop we consume is the adductor muscle, which connects the two shells of this bivalve. Most bivalves — clams, mussels and the like — are immobile, sitting in one place throughout their entire life cycle, patiently waiting for food to float by. But scallops are unusual in that they actually swim, clapping their shells together to propel themselves away from predators as their adductor muscle grows into a meaty chunk, as tender and tasty as filet mignon. As for the flavor, Maine sea scallops have a distinctive sweet nuttiness that experts say comes from the cold salt waters in which they thrive. Unlike scallops from other areas, they are as tasty raw as they are seared in a skillet or baked in a sea pie.

Moreover, because this is entirely a day-boat catch, the scallops arrive in port within hours of harvest and are usually shipped out within a short time frame, as fresh as a Maine morning. Deep sea scallop fishermen pack their catch in ice and frequently also in a solution of sodium tripolyphosphate. Scallops are like little sponges, absorbing moisture and, of course, increasing in weight. These deep sea scallops are sold — or they should be sold — as “wet” scallops, and they are to be avoided. If you try to sear off “wet”scallops, they exude a milky liquid into the frying pan and will never brown properly. Consumer alert: Even if you can’t find Maine sea scallops, you should only buy “dry” scallops, which have not had anything added to them.

Once you have the best-quality scallops in your kitchen, you should use them quickly, within a day or two. In Maine we often freeze scallops in order to prolong the season, but otherwise, we eat them raw (a squeeze of lime juice, a pinch of chopped green jalapeño and a little fresh cilantro will give them a delightful Mexican touch) or we cook them up in a variety of simple ways. Here is one, adapted from my “New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.”

But first, a couple of tips in the kitchen:

  • Be sure you get dry scallops.
  • Remove and discard the thick, opaque bit attached like a strap to the side of the muscle — it’s tough.
  • Dry the scallops thoroughly with paper towels before you start to cook.
  • Don’t crowd the scallops when you sear them — they need plenty of room to brown perfectly.

Seared Maine Sea Scallops in a Tomato-Pepper Gratin

Seared Maine Sea Scallops in a Tomato-Pepper Gratin. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Seared Maine Sea Scallops in a Tomato-Pepper Gratin. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Ingredients

About 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil, divided

1 cup yellow onion, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, finally chopped

1 sweet red pepper, cored, seeded and slivered

4 to 6 canned plum tomatoes, drained and chopped (1 ½ cups)

1 tablespoon mild Spanish or Hungarian paprika

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/2 to 3/4 cup dry white wine

1 1/2 pounds “dry” Maine sea scallops

1/4 to 1/2 cup instant flour (Wondra, for example)

1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

1/2 to 3/4 cup fine dry bread crumbs

Directions

  1. In a deep skillet, combine 2 tablespoons of olive oil with the onion and garlic and set over medium-low heat. As the vegetables start to sizzle and soften, lower the heat and stir in the pepper slivers.
  2. Stir to mix well and let cook until the pepper slivers are soft, then stir in the tomatoes, paprika, salt and pepper and let cook 4 to 5 minutes longer. If the vegetables start to stick to the pan, add a couple of tablespoons of wine to loosen them.
  3. When the vegetables are done and have reduced to a thick sauce, set aside. (These steps can be done well ahead.)
  4. When you’re ready to continue with the recipe, lay the scallops out on paper towels and pat dry on both surfaces. Turn on the broiler.
  5. Sprinkle the flour on a plate.
  6. Smear about half a tablespoon of oil over the bottom of a gratin dish or another type of shallow baking dish.
  7. Add 3 tablespoons of oil to another skillet and set over medium heat. When the oil is very hot, dip each scallop in the flour, dusting both sides lightly, then add to the hot oil. Sear on both sides until golden-brown, turning with tongs — about 2 minutes to a side.
  8. As the scallops finish cooking, remove each one to the oiled baking dish. (You may need to add more oil to the skillet before you finish with all the scallops.) Ideally you will cover the bottom of the dish with a single layer of scallops.
  9. When all the scallops are done, add 1/2 cup wine to the skillet and boil rapidly, scraping up any brown bits, then stir the tomato-pepper mixture into the wine and cook briefly, stirring to mix well.
  10. Spoon the hot sauce over the tops of the scallops, then top the sauce with a combination of chopped parsley and bread crumbs. Dribble a thread of olive oil over the top, using about 2 tablespoons of oil, no more.
  11. Transfer the dish to the broiler, keeping it 3 to 4 inches from the source of heat, and broil until the top is lightly browned and sizzling, about 5 to 7 minutes.
  12. Remove and serve immediately.

Where to find Maine sea scallops

Fresh Maine sea scallops. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Fresh Maine sea scallops. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

You can get Maine sea scallops, fresh or frozen, from the following locations. Note that prices vary depending on the harvest.

  • Stonington Seafood, Stonington, Maine: Flash-frozen fresh. 207-348-2730.
  • Downeast Dayboat Scallops: Fresh scallops. 207-838-1490.
  • Port Clyde Fresh Catch, Port Clyde, Maine: Fresh and frozen. 207-372-1059.
  • Ingrid Bengis Seafood, Stonington, Maine: Supplies chefs and restaurants only (for example, French Laundry, Blue Hill Stone Barns, et al.), not private customers, with fresh diver scallops. 207-367-2416.

Main image: Seared Maine sea scallops. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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The iconic Katz’s Delicatessen is known for its sandwiches -- and a starring role in a movie. Credit: Copyright 2013 Thomas Hawk

Boasting 567 entries, “Savoring Gotham: A Food Lover’s Companion to New York City” serves up a feast of foodie knowledge for the Gotham native and novice alike.

savoring

"Savoring Gotham: A Food Lover's Companion to New York City"

Edited by Andrew F. Smith

Oxford University Press, 2015,

760 pp

»  Click here to buy the book

Edited by Andrew F. Smith and featuring the writing of more than 150 contributors, the tome includes entries on notable foods and beverages, restaurants and bars, historical sites and events, cuisines, personalities and brands from throughout the city’s five boroughs.

“Mention New York City food, and most people think of the white-hot restaurants of the moment, with their media-savvy celebrity chefs, glittering patrons and sky-high prices. Upscale restaurants have long been an exciting part of the city’s foodscape, but they are at one far end of the broad, colorful spectrum of New York eateries,” Smith says in an introduction. “Inhabiting the starry heights are temples of haute cuisine, such as Per Se and Le Bernardin; at the low end are hot dog carts and old-school Mexican taco trucks. In between, over the past 300 years, have been all kinds of eating places: cafeterias, diners, luncheonettes, drugstore counters, fast-food chains, delis, cafes, coffee shops, juice bars, doughnut shops, ice cream parlors, cocktail lounges, dive bars, and corner sweet shops, not to mention theater snack bars, supermarket delis, farmers markets, social club dining rooms, kiosks and vending machines. Today, New Yorkers have more 50,000 eating places to choose from.”

Combining food history with current culinary trends, the text richly explores New York City’s diverse food cultures, as well as its contributions to global gastronomy. A hefty volume that even dons a New York bagel on its spine, it makes for a smartly dressed member of any foodie library sure to be referenced again and again. (Full disclosure: I am one of the book’s contributors.)

Here’s just a taste of “Savoring Gotham”:

Baked Alaska

Although named for the 49th state, baked Alaska had its roots in New York City. Credit: Copyright 2012 VXLA Photo

Although named for the 49th state, baked Alaska had its roots in New York City. Credit: Copyright 2012 VXLA Photo

A delightful amalgamation of dessert foods, baked Alaska is a sponge cake topped with ice cream and covered with delicate peaks of meringue, browned in the oven. Although named for what would become the United States’ 49th state, baked Alaska found its name in New York City. The igloo-shaped dessert was first christened in the late 19th century by Charles Ranhofer, French chef de cuisine of Delmonico’s, one of New York’s most prestigious restaurants from 1837 to 1923. Baked Alaska’s naming was purportedly to honor and commemorate the United States’ purchase of Alaska in 1867.

Eggs Benedict

Eggs benedict may have originated at Delmonico's or The Waldorf in the 1890s. Credit: Copyright 2010 Ariel Dovas

Eggs Benedict may have originated at Delmonico’s or The Waldorf in the 1890s. Credit: Copyright 2010 Ariel Dovas

Whether topped with ham, bacon, salmon or spinach, all signs point to New York City as the origin of brunch favorite eggs benny. While it is unknown for which wealthy Benedict the dish was named, the velvety and savory dish probably originated at Delmonico’s or The Waldorf in the 1890s, though New York’s Hoffman Hotel and Union Club both lay claim to it as well.

Ellis Island Food

The first meal for many immigrants may have been a box lunch at Ellis Island. Credit: Copyright 2005 Wally Gobetz

The first meal for many immigrants may have been a box lunch at Ellis Island. Credit: Copyright 2005 Wally Gobetz

What did the millions of immigrants who entered the United States at Ellis Island between 1892 and 1924 eat for their first meal on American soil? Most likely they purchased a boxed lunch for 50 cents or a dollar, depending upon the size. Some boxed meals included roast beef, ham, cheese or bologna sandwiches, while others featured foods like a loaf of bread, sardines, sausages, apples, bananas, pies and cakes.

Fraunces Tavern

Fraunces Tavern is still a restaurant, as well as a museum, in the financial district. Credit: Copyright 2011 Dan Nguyen

Fraunces Tavern is still a restaurant, as well as a museum, in the financial district. Credit: Copyright 2011 Dan Nguyen

By the mid-18th century, taverns increasingly served as centers of community life. In fact, General George Washington dismissed his troops at the end of the Revolutionary War at Fraunces Tavern. Built in 1719, the tavern is now a museum and restaurant in the financial district open for Gothamites and tourists alike to visit.

Hellmann’s Mayonnaise

Richard Hellman began his food career between 83rd and 84th Streets in Manhattan. Credit: Copyright 2005 Thomas Edwards

Richard Hellman began his food career between 83rd and 84th Streets in Manhattan. Credit: Copyright 2005 Thomas Edwards

The creamy roots of America’s best-selling mayonnaise are also in Gotham. While Richard Hellman began his food career with his wife running a delicatessen between 83rd and 84th Streets in Manhattan, he also developed the first shelf-stable mayonnaise. He began selling it in 1912 in glass bottles affixed with a label featuring three blue ribbons to indicate its “first prize” quality, which can still be found on supermarket shelves today.

­Jane Nickerson

The New York Times' first food editor was Jane Nickerson, from 1942 to 1957. Credit: Copyright 2009 Scott Beale/Laughing Squid

The New York Times’ first food editor was Jane Nickerson, from 1942 to 1957. Credit: Copyright 2009 Scott Beale/Laughing Squid

Often overshadowed by her successor, Craig Claiborne, Jane Nickerson was The New York Times’ first food editor from 1942 to 1957. Her daily column was titled, “News of Food.” Writing with a strong sense of ethics and news, her reviews paved the way for the Times’ expanding food coverage.

Manhattan Clam Chowder

Manhattan clam chowder is known for being made with tomato broth, rather than milk. Credit: Copyright 2011 Julia Frost

Manhattan clam chowder is known for being made with tomato broth, rather than milk. Credit: Copyright 2011 Julia Frost

Although its name might suggest otherwise, Manhattan clam chowder actually has no real connection to New York City. An important dish in early American cuisine, chowders made effective (and delicious) use of New England’s plentiful seafood resources. Manhattan clam chowder’s defining (and highly contentious) characteristic is its substitution of tomato broth for milk.

Katz’s Delicatessen

The lines are always long at the popular Katz's Delicatessen. Credit: Copyright 2010 Scott Beale/Laughing Squid

The lines are often long at the popular Katz’s Delicatessen. Credit: Copyright 2010 Scott Beale/Laughing Squid

Well-known as the location of Meg Ryan’s famous faux orgasm in “When Harry Met Sally” (1989), Katz’s was founded a century earlier in 1888. Serving sandwiches topped high with cured meats, Katz has been turning swift and savory business ever since. Figures from the 1950s claimed the deli served more than 10,000 sandwiches a day. Today, Katz’s is even open all night long on weekends for those looking to order “what she’s having.”

Main photo: The iconic Katz’s Delicatessen is known for its sandwiches — and a starring role in a movie. Credit: Copyright 2013 Thomas Hawk


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“Tours,” as the Tram Experience calls them, run Tuesday through Sunday, and cost 98.50 euros (six-course menu), and 119 euros (seven-course menu, only on Fridays). Credit: Copyright 2015 Eric Danheir

Brussels has one of the largest tram networks in the world, but there’s one tram ride in the city where it’s not the journey, nor the destination that pleases — it’s the food.

To paraphrase the Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte, “This is not a Tram.”

Indeed, this is not a restaurant, either — this is the Tram Experience, one of the hottest gourmet dining tickets in town.

A dining adventure

People book tickets for the Tram Experience to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and even Christmas day. At least two marriage proposals have been made on board. Credit: Copyright 2015 Eric Danheir

People book tickets for the Tram Experience to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and even Christmas day. At least two marriage proposals have been made on board. Credit: Copyright 2015 Eric Danheir

“Eating out is the national sport in Belgium,” writes Bill Bryson in his book “Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe.” This small European country, about the size of Maryland, has 127 Michelin-starred restaurants, with 24 in Brussels, compared with 20 in Berlin and 14 in Milan.

But increasingly, the residents of this cosmopolitan city are eager to try fine dining in novelty venues, especially restaurants with a view.

The Tram Experience serves up a two-hour gourmet meal, during which guests can take in the scenery as they ride through Europe’s de facto capital in a souped-up tram from the 1960s, fitted with four ovens and two induction plates. Another popular haute-view experience is Dinner in the Sky, where starred chefs, cooking facilities, guests, food and table are suspended by a giant crane high above Brussels’ Arc de Triomphe.

The concept of the Tram Experience’s quirky, moveable feast is simple: Serve up some of the world’s finest restaurant meals, created by chefs from around the globe, on board one of the city’s most humble and historic people-movers.

World-class cuisine

Chefs from Belgium and all over the world are tapped to develop a six-course menu (three appetizers, starter, main course, dessert), to be faithfully reproduced in the tram’s tiny kitchen area, down to the last garnish, by chef Denis Roberti and his team. Credit: Copyright 2015 Eric Danheir

Chefs from Belgium and all over the world are tapped to develop a six-course menu (three appetizers, starter, main course, dessert) to be faithfully reproduced in the tram’s tiny kitchen area, down to the last garnish, by chef Denis Roberti and his team. Credit: Copyright 2015 Eric Danheir

This year’s theme is “Lady Chefs,” and the night I went, the Japanese and Swedish-inspired menu — including a starter of scallop sashimi and a main course of venison and lingonberry — was from Sweden’s Frida Ronge, head chef at Restaurant vRÅ in Gothenburg.

The Tram Experience is the brainchild of Olivier Marette, project manager for gastronomy at Visit Brussels, the city’s tourism agency. Online booking opened in early 2012, with no advertising, and in three days, around 6,000 tickets were sold, forcing the computer booking system to crash.

Two hours of bliss

Word of mouth has been key to the success of the Tram Experience. The black-and-white tram is instantly recognizable to passersby on the streets, who often wave as it rattles and rolls though some of Brussels’ iconic neighborhoods. Credit: Copyright 2015 Eric Danheir

Word of mouth has been key to the success of the Tram Experience. The black-and-white tram is instantly recognizable to passers-by on the streets, who often wave as it rattles and rolls though some of Brussels’ iconic neighborhoods. Credit: Copyright 2015 Eric Danheir

Customer satisfaction is extremely high, with 97% of customers who gave online feedback saying they would recommend the experience to others. One woman wrote, “My husband is a tram driver in Antwerp, and it was to celebrate his birthday. He enjoyed the experience very much and was very happy to chat with the tram driver…!”

As for minor complaints, some people thought the two-hour journey was too short, so eventually the Friday itinerary was changed to a seven-course meal lasting nearly three hours.

But no matter what the night or the occasion, “the star of the journey is always the food,” said Mr. Marette.

The comfort of good food

During Brussels’ recent lockdown, the Tram Experience was cancelled Friday-Sunday, but currently, the entire city—including this charming “meals on wheels” Brussels attraction—is almost back to normal. Credit: Copyright 2015 Eric Danheir

During Brussels’ recent lockdown, the Tram Experience was canceled Friday-Sunday, but currently, the entire city — including this charming “meals on wheels” Brussels attraction — is almost back to normal. Credit: Copyright 2015 Eric Danheir

My husband and I, and our good friends Chris and Karen, booked tickets weeks in advance and were looking forward to this playful, almost childlike culinary adventure. On the night, however, our mood was dampened by global, and very real, adult fears: Terrorists had attacked Paris the night before, at venues that included restaurants and bars.

Parisians eventually found some solace by flocking to buy copies of “A Movable Feast,” Earnest Hemingway’s affectionate portrait of the city, including its bars and cafes.

“We ate well and cheaply and drank well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other,” he wrote in the book, published posthumously in 1964.

The following weekend, Brussels itself was in lockdown, and the Parisians’ rather eccentric cousins, just north of Paris, were tweeting cat photos — one cat was drinking Belgian beer, another was dressed up as a burrito, for example — in support of an official police force request not to share police movements in Brussels on social media.

The police responded to the levity by tweeting a photo of a bowl of cat food: “For the cats who helped us last night … help yourself!”

Main photo: “Tours,” as the Tram Experience calls them, run Tuesday through Sunday and cost about $107 (98.50 euros) for a six-course menu, and $130 (119 euros) for a seven-course menu, only on Fridays. Credit: Copyright 2015 Eric Danheir

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