Articles in Travel

Find your style: Shoot what you enjoy. Experiment with lighting, lens, shooting positions, subjects and situations until you find a style that expresses how you feel about food. Credit: Copyright David Hagerman

How many times have you been inspired to photograph a dish only to find that the image captured on your camera’s LCD screen is nowhere near as beautiful, or appetizing, as the dish sitting in front of you? Unwilling to give up you shoot another, and another — until your dinner companion, or a waiter, taps you on the shoulder and says, “You better eat that before it gets cold.”

Great food photography is mostly about technique, and with a little practice you can master the basics. Once you’ve developed technical skills, add inspiration and passion (because every photographer should love his or her subject). You’ll be amazed at the results.

To advance your food photographs, check out the slideshow.

More Zester Daily stories with slideshows from David Hagerman:

» A professional’s tips for shooting photos of markets

» The heart of Lao cuisine

» Food and the open flame

» Endangered Thai treasure

Main photo: Find your style: Shoot what you enjoy. Experiment with lighting, lens, shooting positions, subjects and situations until you find a style that expresses how you feel about food. Credit: Copyright David Hagerman

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Setting up snack plates in Helsinki. Credit: Heidi Uutela/Restaurant Day

Burgers grilled over an open flame in Moscow. A five-course meal cooked in a Williamsburg loft. Vietnamese spring rolls served in a Helsinki train station. A Belgian waffle bar set up in Berlin. These are just a few of the concepts behind hundreds of restaurants scheduled to pop up on Feb. 15, for one day only, as part of what organizers call the “world’s biggest food carnival.”

The now-global event sprouted in Helsinki, where a group of friends, frustrated with the red tape required to establish a restaurant, launched a social-media campaign to get people in Finland to join them in creating temporary eateries for a single day. That first Restaurant Day in May 2011 included 45 restaurants. The most recent, in November 2014, encompassed 1,698 in 35 countries (mostly in Western Europe).

“There was such huge media interest in the first event, we knew we were onto something big, and the international potential became apparent very fast,” says Restaurant Day co-founder Timo Santala, who leads a team of volunteers that promotes and supports local restaurant hosts through a “Restaurant Day Ambassadors” network, a mobile app, and a website in 17 languages.

Kathryn Sharaput, a pastry chef in Montreal, learned about Restaurant Day on Facebook, and first participated last summer, serving up homemade ceviche in a local park.

“I really enjoyed actually getting to talk to the people I was cooking for – trading stories about food, travel and recipes,” Sharaput says, adding that the event also helps bridge the “disconnect between people and their food — where it comes from, how it’s made and who’s making it.”

Restaurant Day, held four times a year, is part of a larger trend toward eating experiences that are more innovative, intimate, ephemeral — or all three. Food trucks ply the streets of many major cities, while small supper clubs hosted by chefs are an increasingly common phenomenon. Websites like EatWith and MealTango connect food-lovers with people who want to cook and host meals in their homes.

But Santala says Restaurant Day’s spontaneity, public nature and amateur spirit set it apart. To join in, all hosts need to do is add a short listing to the global map for the next event and prepare some kind of food or drink to sell or give away. Utilizing public spaces is encouraged, and unlike Sharaput, most participants are not culinary professionals.

“Restaurant Day puts the spotlight on ordinary people: Boy Scouts, school classes, grandmothers, anyone who wants to create new experiences around food for other people,” Santala says. “That’s what makes it exciting; it’s a way of democratizing the food business.”

For many hosts, it’s also a way of creating community, whether by supporting local businesses, raising money for charity, advocating for a cause or introducing their neighbors to the tastes of their home country.

One host in Prague who goes by the alias “Psychologie chuti” (Psychology of flavor) decided to sell her Parisian-style macarons – in 15 nontraditional flavors ranging from mulled wine to jasmine – inside a favorite local café. “I always notice almost no one else goes there, which makes me sad,” she says. “So I tried to let other people know about it by setting up shop there and it was awesome!”

For Marte Munkeli, the leader of the Norwegian Vegan Society, Restaurant Day is “a great opportunity to promote veganism in a fun, non-preachy way.” The group has served vegan sandwiches, soups and cakes at previous events and plans to cook meat-free “chili sin carne” in February.

Sasikala Anbarasan, a biotech researcher in Espoo, Finland, says Restaurant Day offers a way for her to show Finns that “Indian food doesn’t just mean chicken tikka masala and naan.” She donates a share of the profits she makes from cooking a “typical Tamil menu” — including South Indian specialties such as idli, a savory cake made from black beans and rice, or sambar, a tamarind-flavored vegetable stew — to an organization that helps orphaned children in that region.

Korea-born SuJin Jung says she finds a cultural element lacking in the Korean restaurants of her adopted home city of Montreal. So when she and her friends decided to make bibimbap for Restaurant Day last November, she says they “didn’t just serve the food, but tried our best to explain the culture behind this dish” – a rice bowl with various toppings, all of which have traditional symbolic meanings.

Living abroad for the past 13 years, Rashmi Ahuja has likewise been disappointed by most Indian food she’s found in other countries. “I was looking for something that reminded me of my mother’s food, something that satisfies your soul,” she says. Ahuja started teaching herself to cook some of the dishes she remembered from home, sharing them first with friends and family, and then hosting her first Restaurant Day in November 2012 in Helsinki, a year after moving there. She has now participated six times, making Mumbai street food, Indian-Finnish fusion and other recipes based on a specific region or ingredients.

Sharing a passion for food culture with the locals

“It’s a way for people like me who are passionate about their food culture to share it with local people,” she says. “The food that we eat gives an insight into our personalities and how we were brought up and tells a lot about us and our cultures.”

For the next Restaurant Day, Ahuja plans to make daal roti (lentils with flat bread), an Indian staple. Around the world, hundreds of other food lovers are also thinking about what culinary experiences they might like to share with their neighbors.

“Even though the basic concept stays the same, the individuals who participate decide what Restaurant Day looks like, so each time it’s completely different,” says Santala. “It’s all about just digging in and enjoying what comes along.”

Main photo: Setting up snack plates in Helsinki. Credit: Heidi Uutela/Restaurant Day

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The Lakes Distillery is among the first to use both copper and stainless steel in the distillation process, which they believe helps the malt develop greater character. Credit: The Lakes Distillery

The mizzle had become worse. The combination of velvet mist and silky-soft drizzle was fast turning into a full-fledged downpour. In other words, it was starting to chuck it down in the way it only can in the land of the Romantic Poets, of lakes and mountains, fells and rivers, and of silence and overwhelming natural beauty. No matter. Inside the newly opened Lakes Distillery, we were aglow with The One, the Lake District’s latest gift to mankind.

A unique, artisan blend of four British whiskies — from Scotland, Ulster, Wales and England — the pale amber liquid had a touch of smokiness, a long finish and a nutty, spicy-sweet quality that justified the award of a Silver medal in both the 2014 International Wine and Spirit and the Hong Kong International Wine and Spirit competitions.

Although Scotland will be forever associated with whisky, it is no longer automatically in the pole position. The whiskey list at The Lakes Distillery bistro is a revelation: a premier league roll call from countries as disparate as Japan and Sweden, Tasmania and India. In fact, whiskey can be made anywhere the key conditions can be met, but it is the water used in the distillation process that really gives the spirit its transcendent quality. And water comes no purer than from the fast-flowing River Derwent near Bassenthwaite Lake in the Lake District National Park.

Whiskey-producing country

Add to that crisp, clean air, high rainfall, peaty foothills and rugged Cumbrian mountains and it is not hard to see why it is prime whiskey-producing country, said Paul Currie, managing director and founder of the Lakes Distillery. Currie, part of a Scotch whisky dynasty and founder of the Arran Distillery, has been joined in this venture by master distiller Chris Anderson.

It has been a dream come true for the pair to create a new whiskey in a part of England just south of the Scottish border.

Saints, sinners and smugglers all play their part in the history of this spectacular region. Illicit whiskey distilling, in particular, was once widespread: The verdant green hills and valleys provided ample cover for smuggling activity to and from the ships docked at Workington, located about 25 miles away. Rivers such as the Derwent acted as the trunk roads of the day, transporting people and goods. Lancelot “Lanty” Slee was a 19th-century local farmer and smuggler who notoriously supplied the local magistrates with moonshine from his “not-quite-legal” stills.

The new distillery is housed in a renovated Victorian model farm that dates to the 1850s and was built to be both beautiful and functional. The main barn houses the mash house and still house dominated by burnished copper stills, and an old cattle shed has been converted into the warehouse where the spirits mature in high quality casks. The company is proud to be a “green” distillery: The process is entirely natural using only grain, yeast and water and emits no damaging effluent. By-products are used for animal feed and soil improvement.

Lakes Distillery spirits

In two years’ time, the first bottles of The Lakes Single Malt will be ready for sipping. Currie promises the spirits will be lightly peated, more similar to the whiskies from the highlands rather than, say, Islay.

Alongside the signature whiskey, they also distill The Lakes Vodka and The Lakes Gin. The latter contains Cumbrian juniper and a mix of traditional gin botanicals as well as bilberry, meadowsweet, hawthorn and heather — all foraged on local fells — plus, of course, the crystal-clear water of the River Derwent.

I wish I could have been present at the branding meeting when they came up with the name The One. It must have been quite a eureka moment. It may be the distillery’s first, but it won’t be the last.


 Whiskey Notes

  • Increasingly artisan whiskey makers are of the opinion that it is not so much a question of age in a product, but of the quality of the spirit, the skill of the distiller and the nature of the cask in which it is matured.
  • Don’t hesitate to add a splash of water or soda to your whiskey. It may have gone out of fashion, but it opens the flavor.
  • Try “The One” with game, such as pheasant or venison. It makes a splendid match with Rannoch Smokery’s Pressed Game Terrine, according to Rosemary Moon, a specialist whiskey and food writer.

 Main photo: The Lakes Distillery is among the first to use both copper and stainless steel in the distillation process, which they believe helps the malt develop greater character. Credit: The Lakes Distillery

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The cluster of eighteen Faroe Islands is situated in the North Atlantic, between Great Britain and Iceland. Thanks to the Gulf Stream, they don’t suffer from very cold winters. Credit: © Carla Capalbo

Unspoiled, undiscovered and unusually beautiful, the Faroe Islands combine breathtaking scenery with a unique food culture. Situated in the North Atlantic, far above Scotland, these islands were colonized by the Vikings and for centuries isolated from the rest of Europe. (Officially, they belong to Denmark but have a quite separate history.)

Until recently, the islanders survived by eating sheep, fish and sea birds. Almost no fruits or vegetables — apart from potatoes — were cultivated on the Faroes, so the meat and fat of the whales they caught provided a life-saving source of vitamins. Unlike other parts of Scandinavia, the Faroe Islands rarely freeze in winter, so the islanders’ only way to preserve these precious meats was to hang them to dry in the moist, salty air — away from insects — in a process of natural fermentation. To the non-Faroese, their distinctive, pungent flavor may be an acquired taste, but it’s an integral part of the islands’ culinary identity.

The fresh seafood found in the pure ocean waters around the islands is undoubtedly some of the world’s finest. Faroese langoustines, mussels and crabs are without rivals for their sweet, tender meat. Salmon is farmed in the spacious fjords and complements the wild fish that’s featured in local restaurants. Some of these have taken an active role in the new Nordic cuisine that includes wild and foraged local ingredients. So the Faroes are an exciting destination for foodies, especially those who like to hike, fish or go kayaking surrounded by puffins and seals.

For the rest of the story, please follow the slideshow below.

Main photo: The cluster of 18 Faroe Islands is situated in the North Atlantic, between Britain and Iceland. Thanks to the Gulf Stream, they don’t suffer from very cold winters. Credit: © Carla Capalbo

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If you’re up to the challenge, start out by trying Vegemite on a slice of hot toast. Credit: iStock / Ben185

To the Vegemite virgin, the dark brown paste may look like axle grease and smell like rusty nails, but to many an Aussie, the salty spread is comfortingly delicious, as well as essentially synonymous with Australia itself. It’s a common joke that Vegemite is an Antipodean baby’s first solid food. It’s also routinely cited that Vegemite can be found in the cupboards of at least 80 percent of Australian homes. What’s more, traveling Aussies don’t leave home without it.

Primarily a yeast extract that remains after the beer brewing process, Vegemite contains few calories and no fat, but a fair amount of sodium. A rich source of B vitamins, which play a role in metabolizing macronutrients and in producing energy in the body, Vegemite has routinely been promoted for its purported health benefits. In the late 1930s, its advertising even featured an endorsement from the British Medical Association for its B vitamin content. Although less “veggie” than its name might imply, Vegemite is vegan, vegetarian, certified kosher and certified halal.

Vegemite was developed as a copy of a British product, Marmite, a spread of similar texture and flavor — though it’s best not to say so to a Vegemite die-hard. In the early 1920s, Fred Walker, an Australian entrepreneur, engaged Dr. Cyril P. Callister, one of Australia’s first food technologists, to develop the product. After considerable experimentation, Callister developed Vegemite in 1923. Based upon a mutual interest to develop cheeses with a longer shelf life, Walker later combined forces with American cheese producer James Kraft, forming the Kraft Walker Cheese Company in 1926. This partnership eventually resulted in an American company owning Australia’s national food, though Vegemite has always been produced in Australia and from mostly local ingredients.

Despite Vegemite’s widespread popularity today, in its early years the spread was slow to entice Australian appetites, as Marmite held on to a significant portion of the market share. According to Vegemite’s heritage website, however, by the early 1940s Vegemite had become a “staple food in every Australian home and in every Australian pantry.” Over the course of the 20th century, the spread would become an Australian icon.

Try Vegemite this Australia Day

Australia Day, marked each year on Jan. 26, is a national holiday celebrating the day in 1788 when Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet of 11 convict ships from Britain arrived at Sydney Cove. Kraft attempted to cement the connection between the holiday and Vegemite in 2012, the year of the spread’s 89th anniversary. That year, Kraft rebranded Vegemite jars “Australia,” though retaining the recognizable red and yellow color palette.

One way for an American to celebrate Australia Day is to try Vegemite. The strange truth you’ll have to overcome, however, is that most non-Australians absolutely despise the stuff. With an Australian father, I grew up eating Vegemite and love it, but have yet to convert a single American friend to its delightful, savory charms. Part of the issue is likely a case of mismatched expectations, since Vegemite looks like chocolate, but tastes like, well, straight up saltiness.

A more apt description of Vegemite’s flavor profile might be umami incarnate. Despite appreciation for other foods boasting savory, umami flavor — from bacon to Parmesan, soy sauce to mushrooms — most non-Aussies just can’t handle Vegemite. Though Oprah claims to like it, a popular video circulated last year in which 10 American children tasted Vegemite for the first time with dismal results: no tears, but lots of squealing. Suffice it to say, none of them gave Vegemite their kid seal of approval. In 2011, President Barack Obama confessed to then-Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard that he found the spread “horrible,” disappointing Vegemite lovers. In 2012, singer Niall Horan of the group One Direction echoed this sentiment when he tasted Vegemite toast live on Australian television only to spit it out and later share on Twitter, “Can clearly say vegemite is horrible!”

A ‘culturally specific food’

In 2003, psychology researchers Paul Rozin and Michael Siegal quantifiably confirmed the oft-stated assertion that only Australians enjoy Vegemite. From a survey of 202 participants, the authors concluded, “The eating of this food product and especially the enjoyment of it are specifically linked to Australian birth and ancestry.” They also asserted, “This sticky brown paste remains a candidate for the most culturally specific food.”

Australians know best about Vegemite. Credit: Emily Contois

Australians know best about Vegemite. Credit: Emily Contois

The deck may be stacked against Vegemite, but if you’re up to the challenge, start out by trying Vegemite on a slice of hot toast, which is the way most Australians enjoy it at breakfast. Spread the toast first with butter, allowing it to melt in, and then evenly spread a thin layer of Vegemite. A common mistake for first-time Vegemite tasters is to slather it on too thickly like one would peanut butter or a chocolaty spread, an amount unpalatable to even most devoted Vegemite enthusiasts. Recipes from Vegemite’s website suggest you jazz up your Vegemite toast with tomato, egg, cheese or avocado.

If you’re ready to try Vegemite at every meal, you can make turkey burgers, seasoned with Vegemite, onions, rice wine and a touch of sugar, for lunch. Then you can try Vegemite flavored couscous or sweet potato and rosemary pizza with a Vegemite sauce for dinner.

You just might find that you love Vegemite. If nothing else, it’ll be your saltiest Jan. 26 on record.

Main photo: If you’re up to the challenge, start out by trying Vegemite on a slice of hot toast. Credit: iStock / Ben 185

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Cafe Triode manager Yo Endo pours a glass of wine at the cafe. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

Yo Endo would be the first to tell you he doesn’t know a lot about wine. What he does know is how to sell things. His last job was marketing tennis equipment, which took him to Los Angeles and Las Vegas; great restaurants — and wine, of course.

Today, Endo manages Cafe Triode, a cozy restaurant near the giant Tokyo Dome, home for Japan’s beloved Giants baseball team. The surrounding neighborhood is best known for the ultra-luxury La Qua spa, sporting goods stores, used bookstores and inexpensive restaurants catering to baseball fans and university students.

I stumbled onto the café while looking for a quiet escape from the rain during a business trip to Japan’s capital. Endo took my dripping umbrella and escorted me to a small wooden bar near the back. A hunk of Serrano ham anchored one end of the bar, and soft jazz played.

Women in Japan’s workforce is growing

Traditionally, the after-hours scene in Japan has been dominated by izakaya bars catering to salarymen. Beer, sake and whiskey are the favored drinks, and the vibe is usually loud and smoky or expensive — or all of the above.

Cafe Triode offers moderately priced wine, tasty nibbles and jazz — a perfect place for happy hour with girlfriends. And that’s exactly what Endo is aiming for.

Though Japan lags behind much of the developed world in female employment, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pledged to increase the percentage of women in the workforce. This includes providing more affordable childcare and encouraging companies to adopt family-friendly policies, such as flexible work schedules.

It also means finding a place for those women to unwind after a hard day at the office. “There’s an increasing need for working women to have a girls-only night out for a drink to strengthen their solidarity,” Chikako Hirose, a spokeswoman for Pronto Corp., recently told Bloomberg News. Pronto is reportedly expanding its Di PUNTO chain of wine bars to at least 26 outlets by the end of 2015.

There are other reasons the wine industry is chasing the female market. Women in Japan still make most of the household buying decisions, and they are more likely than men to attend wine tastings and classes, according to a report released last year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Agriculture Service. Sixty percent of Japan’s wine experts are women.

Old-world wines dominate this market. Although Japan buys wine from 55 countries, just 10 account for about 98 percent of the imported volume, according to the USDA report. Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are the favored varietals. Sparkling wine is also growing in popularity, and “wine on the rocks” is being touted as a refreshing alternative on a hot summer’s day.

Endo sees these trends at Cafe Triode, where the majority of his customers are couples or young female professionals. When he first opened his café, his wine list included a range of wines divided by country, varietal and price. But he discovered most of his young customers would spend a long time agonizing over the menu and then end up somewhere in the middle, where they would have just a few bottles to choose from.

Cafe Triode still sells bottles of wine for as much as 19,000 yen ($159) but now offers a large selection of wines for 4,100 yen ($34) a bottle. During my visit, that included two California Zinfandels from Peachy Canyon and Ravenswood chosen by Endo’s wine broker.

American wines are slowly finding a market. In 2013, the United States held an 8.6 percent value share of Japan’s imported wine, up from 7.7 percent the previous year, according to the USDA. But U.S. vintners face significant barriers. A stronger dollar and high import duties push them into a higher price bracket, and Japanese consumers prefer wines with a lower alcohol content than most American wines offer.

By offering a “Reasonable Selections” list representing many different varietals and wine-growing regions, Endo hopes he can encourage wine newbies to experiment. “Everyone finds it very easy to make a choice, and it’s also easy to control the budget,” he said.

Armed with a glass of the house red wine (600 yen or $5), I turned my attention to Cafe Triode’s multi-page English menu, which married two of my favorite cuisines: Japanese and Italian.

Meat platter is most popular on menu

The most popular menu item is the Triode assorted meat platter delivered on a large wooden board with five types of meat (1,950 yen or $16.35). Other tantalizing offerings include dumplings made from fish and shrimp wrapped in yuba (tofu) skin (1,190 yen or $9.98), codfish and scallop pie (1,190 yen or $9.98) and Tajima beef rump steak (1,500 to 1,800 yen or $12.58 to $15.10 per 100 grams). Tajima is the strain of black Japanese Wagyu cattle that produce the famous Kobe beef.

The grilled duck salad from Cafe Triode. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

The grilled duck salad from Cafe Triode. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

Endo, an easygoing man with an impish smile, started me out with a fig paired with a dollop of mineoka dofu. This delicate palate cleanser, made from an ancient recipe developed by Buddhist monks, isn’t tofu. It’s actually made from milk, arrowroot starch and sesame paste. Rich and creamy with just a hint of sesame, I resisted licking the tiny pottery dish and settled on the Saikyo-yaki (Kyoto-style) grilled duck salad (980 yen or $8.22) for my entrée.

Working out of a kitchen the size of my bedroom closet, Chef Yoshimi Imazu quickly worked his magic, preparing paper-thin slices of Parmesan cheese and duck marinated in a sweet white Saikyo miso on a bed of crisp greens.

My visit to Cafe Triode was just another reminder that you can travel well in Japan without breaking the bank. That, combined with that tasty salad, was enough to lure me back one last time before I left Tokyo.

Main photo: Cafe Triode manager Yo Endo pours a glass of wine at the cafe. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

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Manarola, on the Italian coast

It doesn’t take a large area to find a wide variety of food specialties, and five neighboring Italian coastal villages provide just that.

My destination was Cinque Terre, a short piece of the Ligurian coastline, just west of the border with Tuscany. Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore are five multicolored borghi (villages) overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. They are pretty close to each other, a few minutes distance by car or train. Better yet, a boat, weather permitting, will take you back and forth, making an unforgettable five-stop mini-cruise. If you like to hike, you can also reach them via a beautiful trail and enjoy spectacular sea views.

Food-wise, besides the classic products of Liguria, such as olive oil, pesto, walnut sauce and different varieties of focaccia, each “terra” (village with its surrounding land) has its own culinary specialties.

1. I did it! I ate the eyes!

It happened at the Trattoria dal Billy in Manarola. I was enjoying the antipasto di pesce, a 12-item platter of warm and cold fish, when the chef proudly showed me the catch of the day: a superb branzino (Mediterranean sea bass). How could I say no to such a beauty?

It was served with roasted potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and garden herbs, a perfect combination of the best the sea and the land could offer. Then the chef came back at my table, checked that I was enjoying it and insisted that I eat the fish eyes. Well, I closed my eyes and ate them. I had a pleasant surprise, they were not at all slimy, as I expected. They were more like a zesty touch that added a great seasoning to the delicate taste of the fish.

2. Fried goodness on the road

While in Cinque Terre, I loved to get lost in the windingsmall streets and passages called caruggi, where street vendors cook fried calamari, squid, shrimp and sardines, often sided by stands selling local vegetables. They were fried to perfection, wrapped in paper and garnished with a slice of lemon. Hot, crunchy and tasty. You eat them on the road.

3. Grazie Nonna!

“We have a surprise for you,” said Marzia Vivaldi and Luca Natale, the promoters of the Parco Nazionale Cinque Terre. “We will take you to the great restaurant Aristide (Via Discovolo, 138 Manarola), where Nonna Grazia will show you how to prepare her famous muscoli ripieni (stuffed mussels).” Nonna (Grandma in Italian) welcomed me with the most adorable smile and explained her secret recipe:

“It simple and easy. I make the stuffing with leftover bread, mussel meat, eggs, Parmesan, parsley and mortadella. I fill up the mussels, I cover with a generous fresh tomato and basil sauce, then I bake it. That’s it!”

As an Italian, hearing seafood and cheese, not to mention the addition of meat, mixed together, seemed somewhat heretical, but what a fantastic result.

4. Anchovies, what a treat!

Following a secular tradition, anchovies are caught with a seine net and a fishing lamp, then hand-processed within two or three days, carefully stratified in jars, pressed and covered with brine, making them tender and tasty, and allowing a perfect preservation. I tried them served with local olive oil, oregano, focaccia bread and butter. They were accompanied by a glass of Cinque Terre, the famous white wine of the area that requires mountain climbing abilities to produce, given the steep incline on which the grapes grow facing the sea.

5. Sciacchetrà: It’s time to toast

Imagine a secret bottle kept in the cave for years (sometimes more than 30). It’s the rich and velvety wine called sciacchetrà. This aged treasure resurges in occasion of a wedding as the greatest gift that the family of the groom could offer to the bride’s family. I had the privilege of opening a bottle that was more than 10 years old. It reminded me of a rich passito straw wine, sweet and liqueur-like. The color is intense: from golden shades to amber. The taste is a fruity, floral bouquet that is reminiscent of a Mediterranean garden: scents of nuts, apricot jam, nectarine, vanilla, chestnut honey and spices.

Grand finale: A dream accommodation

I ended my visit in the other location making up part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site: Porto Venere, a colorful and elegant resort with a delightful port. I followed the recommendation to have a candlelight dinner at Palmaria, the restaurant on the terrace of the magnificent renovated Grand Hotel, once a convent and now reopened as a four-star classy destination that offers impeccable service.

The restaurant’s view was spectacular. So was the menu. I obviously went for fish. I tried the most tender seared scallops with a baby potato cream and the exquisite Gran Bollito di Pesce a delicate boiled sea bass and shellfish stew, served with handmade mayonnaise.

You can visit the beautiful Cinque Terre in few days. A great period for trekking is from March to September. The right time to taste the unique cuisine … any day of the year!

Main photo: Manarola, one of the villages of Italy’s Cinque Terre. Credit: Cesare Zucca

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Kangaroo meat is sold at an Australian deli. Credit: Emily Contois

Eating more kangaroo meat likely ranks low on the list of food resolutions eaters have considered taking up in 2015. But should it?

“I, at first, didn’t tell them it was kangaroo.” So said the cheery Foodies’ Dream Tour guide at the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne, Australia, about cooking “roo” for her sons. She assured our small group that the trick is in the cooking. Pop it on the barbecue for two to three minutes on one side, she instructed, with a quick sizzle on the other, and you are sure to enjoy a tender, juicy and flavorful bite of roo. “Truly superb,” she crooned.

Although cooking instructions vary from chef to chef, the key advice for preparing kangaroo is to avoid overcooking it, which can lead to a dry and all-too-chewy result. The risk is higher with kangaroo, which is a remarkably lean red meat that is low in saturated and trans fat, while offering up robust servings of iron and B vitamins. From animals that roam freely in the wild, kangaroo meat is free-range and not farmed — though the Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia refers to kangaroo meat production as “harvesting,” which conjures a strange image in one’s agrarian imagination. To top off the list of its health benefits, kangaroo is considered ecologically friendly, especially compared with beef and lamb, since kangaroos require less water and produce less methane. Plus, their paws are kinder to the rangeland’s topsoil than cattle hooves.

Increasing sales

As our tour guide shared her cooking tips, she gestured to a nearby stall that has been selling kangaroo meat at the market for decades. Although the distinctly Aussie protein has not been popular in its homeland, the market has seen increased sales in recent years. Woods Aussie Deli in the market is well known for its kangaroo “jerkey,” lesser versions of which can be found at convenience stores and souvenir shops. Butchers in the meat hall and specialty shops in the Dairy Produce Hall (also known as the Deli Hall) at the Queen Victoria Market sell fresh and frozen kangaroo in vacuum-sealed pouches. Packaged kangaroo meat is also widely sold throughout Australia in the refrigerated meat sections of large chain grocery stores, such as Coles and Woolworths.

Restaurants in Australia, often though not always those that cater to tourists with “bush tucker” menus, also serve up kangaroo. Renowned chefs have even supported the Australian government and the Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia to promote consumption of the hoppy marsupial. In 2008, six of Sydney’s top chefs — Tony Bilson, Jean-Paul Bruneteau, Sean Connolly, Darren Ho, John Leong and Ray Kersh — conducted a master class at a “Taste of Kangaroo” event attended by 150 members from the food and hospitality industry and food media. These chefs’ creations are now freely available in the pamphlet cookbook “Roocipes,” which features 80 kangaroo recipes.

Among the roocipes is Connolly’s kangaroo tartare, which serves kangaroo loin minced and raw at its best and juiciest, flavored with a concoction of Dijon mustard, tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce and a dash of Tabasco. A French chef devoted to Australian cuisine and native ingredients, Bruneteau has developed 16 recipes using kangaroo, including braised kangaroo shank, which calls for roasting several shanks, cut short, with root vegetables for 10 hours. At Little Truffle dining room and bar at Mermaid Beach, chef Daniel Ridgeway serves up multiple kangaroo dishes, including Flower Kangaroo, in which he folds a rich blend of kangaroo loin and egg whites through cream and braised kangaroo leg, piping the final seasoned mixture into picturesque zucchini flowers.

Eating roo, or not …

Despite its nutritional benefits, ecological profile, chef endorsement and increasingly haute allure, kangaroo meat consumption has been slow to take off among most Australians. Kangaroos have hopped across the Australian landscape for more than 100 million years and, as part of a traditional diet, Aboriginal people have consumed them for close to 60,000 years. Regardless of its ancient origins and heritage consumption, however, kangaroo meat is often negatively associated with pet food and roadkill, as cars pose the greatest threat to the animals in the wild. Indeed, much of the barrier for kangaroo meat in Australia is cultural, as the animal serves as a national emblem, appearing on the country’s coat of arms and as a symbol throughout popular culture.

The kangaroo meat industry also refers to low consumption as the “Skippy Syndrome,” referencing the television show “Skippy the Bush Kangaroo,” an animal program similar to “Lassie” and “Flipper,” which contributed to the national perception of kangaroos as cute, cuddly, friendly and wholly inedible. The kangaroo industry tackled the syndrome head on in 2005 with a culinary naming competition, seeking a title that would help kangaroo meat eaters forget Skippy the way venison assists deer meat lovers to shun thoughts of “Bambi” while enjoying their meal. Top submissions included kangarly, maroo, krou, maleen, kuja, roujoe, rooviande, jurru, ozru, marsu, kangasaurus, marsupan, jumpmeat and MOM (meat of marsupials). Australus was declared the palatable new moniker, though it has yet to make it into circulation.

As kangaroo consumption remains relatively low in Australia, the majority of the meat is exported, mostly to Europe and Russia, where it is an affordable meat option. Kangaroo meat has even bounded its way onto U.S. menus. In 2013, kangaroo steak (described as “tender like a sweet filet mignon”) became a surprise top seller at Hell’s Kitchen in Minneapolis. At The Thirsty Koala, an Australian-themed restaurant in Astoria, N.Y., chef and co-owner Katherine Fuchs reports that kangaroo burgers, sliders and steaks outsell their beef counterparts. You can also bite into a juicy kangaroo burger at Crazee Burger in San Diego.

Will 2015 be the year you try roo?

Kangaroo Tartare

Sean Connolly’s Kangaroo Tartare recipe appeared in the kangaroo cookbook “Roocipes.” Connolly is a chef at both Sean’s Kitchen and Astral Restaurant in Sydney. Recipe courtesy of the Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia.

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 French baguette

Salted butter

400 grams kangaroo loin minced

50 grams shallots finely chopped

50 grams gherkins finely chopped

10 grams parsley chopped

4 egg yolks

1 teaspoon tomato paste

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

Dash of Worcestershire sauce

Dash of Tabasco

1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika

Freshly ground black pepper

Salt to taste

Directions

1. Thinly slice French baguette.

2. Spread each slice with salted butter, and bake in the oven until golden brown.

3. Place all the other ingredients in a stainless steel bowl.

4. Gently fold together with a metal spoon.

5. Serve with the crisp ficelle (baguette) croutons.

Main photo: Woods Aussie Deli in the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne, Australia, sells kangaroo “jerkey.” Credit: Emily Contois

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