Articles in Travel

Bitter oranges in Greece. Credit: Rosemary Barron

A winter stroll through Athens is a joy. The cool, breezy air is filled with an exquisitely heady perfume from the hundreds of citrus trees shading the city’s squares, gardens and boulevards. Dusty, heat-wilted summer foliage is long gone. In its place are lush, deep-green canopies of scented leaves, waxy-white flowers and beautiful oranges.

Throughout Greece’s grim economic crisis of the past five years, these lovely trees have produced their annual bounty for the beleaguered people, with bursts of sunshine in the gloom. So why are the oranges left mostly ungathered, in a country where cooks are well known for their imaginative frugality and their ability to create feasts from foraged foods?

The bitter orange

The highly aromatic bitter orange (citrus aurantium, or Seville orange) that provides Greece’s city landscapes with such color and beauty can’t be eaten without some preparation. Native to Southeast Asia, the bitter orange (nerantzi, in Greek) is a hybrid, a cross between the pomelo (citrus maxima) and the mandarin (citrus reticula), and is thought to have arrived in Europe in the late 16th century. The tree was a favorite of the medieval Italian courts, so it’s possible that it was brought to Greece by the Venetians, who made fortunes exporting Greek fruits, honey and wine. Or perhaps later by the Ottomans, who also appreciated the bitter orange’s perfume and prettiness.

Medieval Greece was no stranger to aromatic oils, fruit-based sweetmeats and the taste of sour. In classical antiquity and later in Byzantium, the citron (citrus medica, native to Persia) provided both. But the bitter orange, with its thinner skin and greater beauty, soon replaced the incongruous-looking citron. It had the advantage too of a reputation as a folk remedy for fevers, an antiseptic and an aid to digestion, and could more successfully cope with colder temperatures than the less-hardy sweet orange.

The powerful fragrance of the tree’s leaves and flowers were, and still are, highly valued in aromatology and the fruits’ peel in confectionery. When dried or candied, it flavors sweets, pies, savories and salads. Best of all, it is turned into a delicious γλυκό του κουταλιού (literally, “spoon sweet”), and offered to guests as a way of saying “welcome, it’s good to see you.”

Tasting a crisis

Artists Persefoni Myrtsou and Ino Varvariti — spurred by their city sensibilities and personal experience with the economic crisis — decided to explore the connection between these plentiful urban citrus trees and the changing landscapes of peoples’ lives. Early in 2013, they collected oranges from trees in locations to which the Greek people feel emotionally linked.

Nerantzi glyko, or bitter sweet orange. Credit: Rosemary Barron

Nerantzi glyko, or bitter sweet orange. Credit: Rosemary Barron

In Athens, they chose Syntagma (the central square); Plaka (the old quarter, below the Acropolis); Mitropoleous (the old market neighborhood); a new, but now-closed shopping mall; and a neighborhood recently settled by immigrants. In Thessaloniki, they gathered the fruits from Ano Poli, or “Upper Town,” the old, Ottoman-era city. Then they prepared a glyko (sweet) from each harvest.

Myrtsou and Varvariti took the sweetmeats to an art exhibition in Berlin and to a gastronomy symposium on the island of Crete, and invited everyone to sample them. The artists found that, although the rituals and symbolism for the Greeks of glyko had to be explained in Germany, this opened a dialogue on both the economic crisis and Greek food culture. In Crete, a relatively wealthy region of Greece, the interest was in the varying flavors and the plight of the city neighborhoods.

Glyko: a sweet hello

Did the sweets taste different from one another? Yes, they did. But the differences were subtle, and reflected only the bitter orange tree’s admirable hardiness (it fruits even in poor soil, and without much care) and ability to change itself (when planted near another citrus variety).

City dwellers are, with good reason, nervous about locally foraged foods, and Athens’ car pollution is notorious. But this alone can’t be the reason the oranges are being left to rot, when so many people are hungry, and need a feeling of community more than ever. For Myrtsou and Varvariti, their work has created new relationships, as the offering of such beautiful sweet treats to others never fails to do, and has given them new avenues to explore in their quest for the taste of the crisis.

Bitter Orange Sweet

Serve nerantzi glyko in a small bowl on a tray, with glasses of water and small cups of Greek coffee. Each guest takes a spoon and a scoop of the sweet and syrup and wishes the host “happiness and good fortune.”

There are plenty of modern uses for these lovely sweets too. Serve them with a classic Greek almond or walnut cake, madeira cake, rice pudding or ice cream, or as a pick-me-up at the end of the afternoon. You can substitute other oranges, tangerines, lemons or small grapefruits for the bitter oranges.

Makes 32 single-piece servings


4 large, organic bitter (Seville) oranges, or other suitable citrus fruits

Sugar, the same weight as the peel

Strained juice of half a lemon


1. With a hand grater, gently grate the oranges. This removes some of the bitterness of their peel.

2. Cut the peel of each orange into 8 vertical segments. If there is a large amount of white pith, scrape off some of it with a small knife or spoon.

3. Weigh the peel and measure out an equal quantity of sugar; set aside.

4. Transfer the strips of peel to a large saucepan, cover with cold water, bring to a boil, and simmer for 5 minutes. Drain and repeat the process. Drain, cover with cold water and set aside 2 hours. Drain and pat dry with paper towels.

5. Roll up each strip of peel and secure with a toothpick.*

6. In a heavy saucepan or syrup pan, add the sugar and ¾ of its volume of water and slowly bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Simmer 5 minutes, then add the rolls of peel.

7. Simmer uncovered for 45 of 60 minutes, or until a needle will easily pierce a roll.

8. Remove the peels from the syrup, shaking excess syrup back into the pan. Let cool and discard the toothpicks (the peels won’t unravel).

9. Add the lemon juice to the syrup and boil until it just reaches the light thread stage (220 C) on a sugar thermometer, or coats the back of a spoon.

10. Transfer the rolls of peel to a clean glass jar, or several jars, just large enough to hold them and cover with the syrup. Tightly cover the jar(s).

* If you make a larger quantity of sweets, they take up less room in the pan if threaded on a string. Thread a large needle with thin kitchen string and tie a large knot at one end. Roll up each peel segment and thread onto the string, passing the needle through the roll so it won’t unravel. Thread no more than 16 rolls onto the string, and tie the ends together to make a garland. Simmer until cooked in the syrup, then carefully pull out the string. The rolls will remain intact.

Top photo: Bitter oranges in Greece. Credit: Rosemary Barron

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Cooking Iranian food, zereshk polow (barberry rice), for an event in Istanbul celebrating immigrant traditions. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

Sara moves around the large kitchen with laser-like focus, filling a tea glass of water to add to a heaping pot of saffron rice with one hand while sautéing a pan of tart, red dried berries, walnuts, raisins and slivered almonds with the other. The resulting dish, zereshk polow (barberry rice), is a popular one in Sara’s home country of Iran, but not so easy to make in neighboring Turkey, where she is living as a refugee.

“Iranian basmati rice is longer than Turkish rice and the grains stay separate better,” Sara says through a translator. (She did not want her last name used while her application for asylum is pending.) The rice has been imported from Iran, along with the barberries, saffron, lentils, dried lemons (limoo amani), dried mint and other ingredients for the traditional Iranian feast she’s preparing for a few hundred curious Istanbul residents.

The meal, co-hosted recently by the International Organization for Migration’s Turkey office and the food website Culinary Backstreets, was organized as part of an annual event celebrating the culture and cuisine of migrant communities in Turkey.

Food is “a way of [creating] communication among communities and understanding of each other,” says Nil Delahaye, a project assistant at IOM-Turkey, which works on emergency refugee assistance, resettlement programs and other aspects of migration management. While raising awareness about the challenges facing migrants, the organization also hopes to help create a more “positive image of migration for both hosting countries and migrants,” she adds.

According to Ansel Mullins, co-founder of Culinary Backstreets and a longtime Istanbul expat himself, “Refugee communities in Turkey are almost invisible even though some have been here for years. Organizing these events with migrant cooks is a statement, a way to say that migrants are here and have something to offer.”

‘Migant Kitchen’ events

Before the Iranian feast in November, Culinary Backstreets had organized “Migrant Kitchen” events with IOM last year that brought unfamiliar tastes from Cameroon, Liberia, Ethiopia and the Philippines to Istanbul palates. They have also exported the concept to Athens, Greece, where Nicolas Nicolaides, an Istanbul-born Greek who’s working on a Ph.D. in history at the University of Athens, has helped organize a lunch series of free meals cooked by Ghanaian, Congolese and Egyptian migrants.

The financial crisis and high levels of unemployment in Greece have “created new tensions; racist incidents and xenophobic extremism have been steadily increasing recently,” Nicolaides says. “We felt that at a difficult time like this, these [lunch] events provide a strong bridge between the immigrant communities and Greeks.”

Though both Greece and Turkey see large inflows of migrants, foreign cuisines — other than increasingly global foods such as pizza and sushi — are not well known in either country. But for the migrants themselves, foods from home are a lifeline.

“We talk to members of migrant communities about what they do when they get together and it’s always about food,” Mullins says. African migrants in Istanbul’s Kurtuluş and Feriköy neighborhoods have created informal restaurants and supply chains in order to enjoy foods they couldn’t otherwise get in Turkey. “It’s amazing how well organized the food connections are here,” Mullins notes. “When we were putting together the Ethiopian meal last year, the cook made a call and 15 minutes later we were off to buy seasoned, clarified butter [niter kibbeh] and other key ingredients from a mysterious spice vendor who had carried them to Turkey in a suitcase and sold them to us through the window of a taxi cab.”

Sara adds slivered almonds from Iran to the zereshk mixture. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

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Sara adds slivered almonds from Iran to the zereshk mixture. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

Sara bought many of the ingredients for her Istanbul meal at an Iranian supermarket in the city’s Aksaray neighborhood where, she says, “the prices are twice what they are in Iran, but you can find anything.” The pickings are slim, however, in the southern Turkish city of Adana, where she and her husband, brother and two young sons must live while waiting for their asylum request to be processed. (Turkey requires refugees and asylum seekers to live in “satellite cities” spread around the country, rather than in major hubs such as Istanbul.)

There are no places to buy Iranian food in Adana, and little if any support or opportunities for refugees, Sara says. A group of 20 to 30 Iranian families — all Christians like Sara, who says she left Iran because of her religion — meet each Wednesday for a prayer service that rotates among members’ homes. Afterward, that week’s host serves an Iranian meal for everyone. “I cook different things every time, whatever I have the ingredients for,” says Sara, who hopes someday to open a restaurant and write a book about Iranian food.

Asked what foods she most misses from home, Sara rattles off a long list — reshteh (thin noodles), kashk (a drained and dried yogurt), and the coriander, leek chives and fenugreek harvested in Iran’s mountains and used to make ghormeh sabzi, an herb stew. When her parents came to visit her in Turkey last year, she says, they brought along two bags of hard-to-find ingredients.

“People can be eating on newspapers on the floor, but they’ve got to have those preserved lemons that give the dish its kick,” Mullins says. “Even for migrants in desperate circumstances, some things just can’t be replaced or sacrificed.”

Top photo: Sara prepares zereshk polow (barberry rice) in Istanbul. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

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Chichen Itza. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

February 1973. My mother and I step out of the plane in the Yucatan. Atop the mobile staircase a blast of hot air slaps my face. I detect the scent of corn, burning wood and flowers. I’m 13 and it’s my first time in Mexico, the country that would become my own.

We’ve landed in Mérida, capital of the Yucatan, a torpid, provincial city of faded glory. Cortez and his conquistadors had little interest in the hot, sparsely populated region where little grew and gold and silver weren’t to be found. Riches were made in the 19th century when it was discovered that henequen, used for rope, could be produced here. Many Lebanese immigrants, versed in shipping skills, arrived and ran the haciendas.

World War II brought acrylics to replace the henequen, and carriages turned back into pumpkins. But Mayan culture endured, as ruins were unearthed and marketed. And a few years ago foreigners found that the glorious mansions of those henequen days could be bought for a song and revamped. Now tourists and locals alike stroll down Merida’s streets, and gussied pastel facades, the colors of Necco wafers, reflect the harsh tropical sun. Palm-leafed plazas provide respite from the heat.

We check into our colonial-style hotel and then walk down the street. The driver of a horse-drawn carriage beckons. We ride up to the Paseo Montejo, a grand boulevard in the Parisian tradition, lined with glorious French-style mansions, all faded, some abandoned. Forty years later most are gone, victims of callous development.

The sun is setting and we’re hungry. So we enter a typical white-table-clothed middle class restaurant, with aire acondicionado, promising platos típicos. My mother, an artist who had lived in Mexico, orders sopa de lima and tacos de cochinita in her somewhat clumsy Spanish. Having grown up in New York City, surrounded by ethnic cuisine and its purveyors, I’m eager to taste the “real thing.”

Sopa de lima at la Reyna Iftzi. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

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Sopa de lima at la Reyna Iftzi. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Discovering sopa de lima

The sopa de lima arrives. A bowl of steaming soup! How illogical, I think, scalding soup in a hot climate.

Little did I know, at that time, how small a part logic plays in Mexican life. The soup is a rich chicken broth any Jewish grandma would be proud of, loaded with shredded meat and perfumed by toasted strips of tortilla and slices of lima, a heady aromatic citrus native to the region. Its exotic scent, so very Mexican, became an indelible part of my psyche at that moment. A sip today conjures magical worlds for me as Proust’s madeleines did for him. At our meal pallid bread is served (that’s what they thought all gringos wanted), but I request tortillas, which makes the waiter chuckle. But he brings them, my first taste of the real McCoy.

Yucatecan food can be magnificent. And the celebration of its brilliant complexity is in a revival. From market stands to highfalutin experimental restaurants, the eating out scene in Merida is hopping. Like all Mexican regional cooking, it is a true fusion of traditions, in this case primarily Mayan, Spanish, Lebanese and French. Nowhere else in the republic are these influences so obvious.

Pollo alcaparrado is chicken in a caper sauce, direct from Andalucía. Kibbeh (or kibi), Lebanese wheat dumplings, are sold here in markets just like they are in the Middle East. Pan de cazón, tortillas layered with shredded epazote-perfumed shark, refried black beans and chile-tomato sauce, is pure fusion, an adaptation of Spanish cooking style to local ingredients.

And then there’s the truly indigenous: the Mayan pib, a pre-Hispanic method of anointing, marinating and then roasting meat, fowl and fish. The settlers brought pigs, but local cooks quickly substituted them for regional game.

David Sterling, formerly of New York, teaches Yucatecan cooking at Los Dos Cooking School. He explains that “You have to remember that even just 15 or 20 years ago, this was still ‘the provinces’ — folks cooked and ate at home exclusively. The dining scene has changed dramatically during the last several years. There are more and more regional options too. In terms of quality. …  in general it’s progressing, albeit at a glacial pace. I think that’s inevitable as Mérida continues to grow and more outside influences come in.”

Local specialties

Cochinita pibil, the quintessential Yucatecan dish, is suckling pig, slathered with a sauce made of achiote (annatto), sour orange juice, garlic, oregano, allspice and pepper, then wrapped in a banana leaf and slow roasted, preferably over coals. It is eaten as tacos, in soft corn tortillas, or tortas, on white flour rolls, with fiery habanero sauce. The Yucatan produces the most picante salsas in the country, if not the world. Today, few people make it at home, preferring to buy from the experts.

One locally famous stand appears Friday through Sunday in front of Panadería La Ermita in the plaza of the same name. Neighbors gather to eat there, fragrant meat heaped on fresh baked bread and spiked by pickled red onions. Some buy kilos to go. And everyone knows to come early, since by noon it’s run out.

Tamales, ubiquitous in Latin America, are sold in the market as they have been for centuries. Customers in the know vie for a place at the long table at Jugos Mario for hot tamales. Called tamal colorado, they are the regional variation on a theme. Corn masa is ground to a custard-like consistency and flavored with chile and achiote, then steamed in a banana leaf. A dash of habanero salsa adds fire.

Going upscale

At the other end of the spectrum, Ku’uk is a restaurant whose name comes from the Mayan word meaning “sprout.” It has done just that, sprouting like an experimental lab in a sea of conservative tradition. It’s the venue for young chef Mario Espinosa, an academy-trained veteran of  Mexico City’s renowned, avant-garde restaurant Pujol.

Here, old-fashioned Yucatecan cooking is deconstructed and reinterpreted. The kitchen has a traditional pit oven for cooking “pib,” but contemporary molecular gastronomic trends are introduced as well. And although traditional ingredients are incorporated, they are reconfigured with the chef’s creative flair. The market favorite castacán (deep fried pork belly), usually eaten with a little salsa in tacos, is elaborated into “castacán, prawn, string cheese from Tabasco, fava bean broth and dried shrimp.” The breakfast standard chaya con huevo (eggs scrambled with the regional bitter green herb chaya) is refashioned as a “transparency of potato and herbs, egg cream, and chaya.” So, while one foot stays firmly planted in local culinary heritage, the other dances a postmodern rhumba.

As the food-minded public becomes aware of Mexican cooking in its intricate variety, regional adaptations will continue to be unearthed and celebrated. That’s a good thing.

And I, although intrigued by these recent developments, stay admittedly “in search of lost time” as I continue to seek out the best bowl of sopa de lima I can find.

Top photo: Chichen Itza. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

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Potatoes add a splash of color at Mistura food fair in Lima, Peru. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Think “State Fair,” the quintessential celebration of rural Americana as portrayed in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s eponymous musical film of 1945. That’s where I am for a moment when I enter the provisional arched gates of the annual mega-food event in Mistura, Peru. Missing are the rides, the games, the cotton candy, the stuffed animal prizes. But the atmosphere is familiar. Couples stroll placidly, hand in hand, directionless and contentedly sipping drinks. Spotlights shine on hawkers shouting invitations to passers-by. A joyous tranquility is in the air.

Mistura is the most extensive gastronomic fair I’ve ever seen. It’s Peru’s most important cultural event, and should make every citizen of this brilliant but poor Latin American country proud. The pet project of star chef Gastón Acurio, it is now sponsored and funded by such diverse backers as the state and one big soft drink manufacturer that wants us to think it’s doing redeemable things as well.

Every September since 2008, several performance stages, a huge market featuring more than 300 stands and more than 100 food stalls are set up on an empty stretch of beachfront south of Lima’s center. Only Peruvian cuisine is featured. There’s also an Encuentro Gastrónomico for serious students: presentations, lectures and demonstrations that address the latest trends in the restaurant world, modern society’s relationship with food, and the importance of honoring the environment and its ingredients. It’s a proud celebration of peruanidad, the state of being Peruvian. Everybody from all walks of life goes — at least those who can afford the $6 (U.S.) admission. There were 300,000 attendees in 2012, more this year. And it’s all about food. Nothing makes people happier. Seeing it, talking about it and, of course, eating it.

Folk dancers at the Mistura food fair. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Folk dancers at the Mistura food fair. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

A welcome message from star chefs

The Encuentro Gastronómico features star chefs and gastronomes from all over the Latino world who expound on their particular culinary identities. This year, the guest of honor was Chef Alain Ducasse, who kick-started the fair with a presentation on the importance of healthful eating, extolling the virtue of quality ingredients and the evils of junk food. We knew that. But it’s good to hear it from the mouth of a gastronomic demigod. Later, Acurio presented his new initiative called “Salsa,” which “aims to unite Latin American cooks and share experiences and knowledge.” Preaching to the choir? Perhaps, but necessary in a food world still dominated by Europe and the U.S.

Quinoa vendors at Mistura. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Quinoa vendors at Mistura. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

The fair is divided into two main areas, the Gran Mercado and the food stalls. The market, under a huge tent, celebrates all products Peruvian. There are booths dedicated to quinoa (black, red and white), bread, chocolate, olives and, of course, potatoes. Hundreds of them, millions it seems. The vendors are men in brightly colored, hand-embroidered suits and women wearing traditional clothing, hair in braids, topped with what look like hipster hats. They offer purple, red, yellow and white potatoes, little black squiggly ones, large round polka-dotted ones. They’ve schlepped them from the far corners of the Andes in sacks. One proud indigenous lady, her pretty denim-clad daughter looking on, cuts open a yawar huayco to show me its royal purple interior — blue black juice drips down her weathered hand. I want to buy them all; airline/border restrictions hold me back, but I purchase a few kilos anyway.

Eater’s haven at Mistura

A light sea breeze starts to waft through the market tent, carrying with it the incense of the kitchen. The mundos (worlds), as the food stand areas are designated, gently beckon. My heart starts pounding. I need to eat everything. How am I going to do it?  There’s no time, no stomach big enough. I’m afraid to blink, fearful it will all disappear. It’s a virtual eater’s heaven. Stands are divided by region. Mundo Amazónico offers various preparations of the freshwater fish paiche, fragrant tamales of rice seasoned with fresh turmeric called juanes, and to wash it all down the hot pink juice of the camu camu, a jungle fruit with a wildflower-like fragrance.

Ceviche. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Ceviche. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

I forget that we’re not in Mexico and norte doesn’t mean the deserts of Sonora and Chihuahua. The north of Peru is warm and heavily influenced by indigenous culture. The signature dish of this area is seco de cabrito, a stew of goat flavored with black corn “beer,” cilantro, oregano, and fresh and dried chilies. The meat is tender and fragrant, like a mild Indian curry.

In the Mundo de Ceviche section I choose the busiest stand and order a classic tiradito de pescado: thin strips of flounder are showered with spiky leche de tigre, perfumy lime juice with a bit of ground fresh ají, a yellow chili. It’s like sashimi, softer and subtler than Mexican ceviche, masterfully made.

In Mundo Limeño I can’t resist sampling Doña Chela’s aji de gallina. The doña smiles maternally while efficiently ladling out Peru’s comfort dish to adoring fans. Chicken, cooked in beautiful hand-polished earthen pots, is bathed in a velvety cream sauce thickened with bread and augmented by mildly picante roasted yellow peppers. At this point I’m no longer hungry, but I get a plate anyway.

Peru’s lexicon of cooking includes what has been labeled Nikkei, the melding of Japanese and home traditions utilizing local ingredients. It is proffered at El Mundo Oriental, several of whose stands combine fresh fish corn, ají peppers, yucca and potatoes in new ways. Another popular food category here is chifa, a simplified Chinese adaptation of stir-frying that is found all over Lima.

A crowd magnet

I skip past the Mundo Oriental in order to leave room for grilled chancho, the most popular dish of all. In the Mundo de las brasas (world of the coals), long lines of hungry eaters wait patiently while workers stoke huge, medieval-looking wood fires to roast whole, midsized pigs. Pork-infused smoke permeated this crowded section — the sweet aroma turning even the head of a near-vegetarian. I wait until shortly before closing when I finally procure a plateful of the divinely tender chopped meat. My stomach says “enough already” but my senses reply, “Go for it!”

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Roasting pigs for grilled chancho. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Peru is now in a gastronomic boom; its culinary traditions have become known around the world in recent years. Street and market food are unparalleled, comparable in scope and quality to that of Mexico or Thailand, and its burgeoning high-end restaurant scene, with its myriad fusions of deep-rooted traditions, is fascinating.

I leave happy, sated. That’s how a visit to a country fair should be.

Top photo: Potatoes add a splash of color at Mistura food fair in Lima, Peru. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

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Ganache-filled chocolates at Durig Chocolatier in Lausanne, Switzerland. Credit: David Latt

Even the most jaded of adults will stand outside the plate glass window of a chocolate shop and stare at the candies inside with the wide-eyed wonder of a child. On a recent trip researching a series of articles about Switzerland, I spent time with chocolatier Dan Durig who has two shops in Lausanne on Lake Geneva.

To celebrate the holidays and the New Year, Durig generously shared an easy-to-make chocolate ganache. He also patiently allowed me to videotape him preparing his signature vanilla-scented ganache-filled chocolates.

Born into a family of Swiss chocolate makers, Durig learned the craft from his dad, Jean Durig. Growing up near Manchester, England, and vacationing with his father’s family in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, Durig lived comfortably in England and Switzerland. So when he was ready for a life change, relocating to Switzerland was easy to do.

Having always worked for his dad or other chocolatiers, he wanted to start his own business in Lausanne. In a quiet neighborhood within sight of Lake Geneva, Durig converted a branch office of BCV bank into Durig Chocolatier.

Locals told Durig the transformation of a bank into a chocolate shop changed the neighborhood for the better. The change was good for Durig as well. Within three years, his business was well established, he won several prestigious awards, he married and had a son. Putting together a team to work in the kitchen and in the front of the shop is, according to Durig, easier in Switzerland than other places because of the country’s well-established apprenticeship program. The clerks who work in the shop go through a retail management program. The chocolatiers learn their craft in a multiyear pastry apprenticeship based on the French model, combining four days of work with one day of school.

Made mostly by hand with the help of a few machines, Durig happily demonstrated how he crafts his chocolates. As he worked, two tempering machines that work 24 hours a day can be heard in the background, keeping separate batches of milk and dark chocolate at precisely the correct temperature. When melted without controlling the temperature, chocolate will cool and harden without its characteristic bright sheen and crispness.

Durig knows his chocolates are only as good as the ingredients he uses. To make his ganache, he sources high quality Swiss organic cream from local dairies and vanilla beans from Madagascar. He buys his cocoa and cocoa butter from quality, fair trade producers in Peru, Sierra Leone and Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic.

For best results at home, follow Durig’s lead and buy the highest quality chocolate and cream available. Chocolate should be made only with cocoa butter. Cream should not have any chemical additives.

To make the ganache-filled chocolates demonstrated by chef Durig in the video, purchase a candy-making mold in a restaurant or cooking supply store or online. Learning to temper chocolate is not for the faint of heart. Understanding that, Durig’s ganache recipe does not require tempering.

Durig Chocolatier’s Chocolate Holiday Ganache Squares

Using quality ingredients is essential in cooking, especially when making chocolates. After making the ganache, the chocolates should be stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container.

If served cold, the chocolates have a pleasing crispness. Allowed to warm to room temperature, they will have a melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness. I put the chocolates in individual paper cups for easy serving.

As a matter of taste, I added caramelized nuts to the ganache. A half cup of almond slivers tossed with 1 tablespoon of white sugar and toasted over a low flame added a pleasing crunch to the citrus and herbal notes.

Serves 24 to 36 (about 130 pieces, depending on the size of the squares)


For the mixed spice:

Durig buys his mixed spice ready made. Making your own is easy enough. Once prepared, keep in an airtight container. If ground clove and fennel are not available, grind your own.

1¼ teaspoons ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground ginger

½ teaspoon ground fennel

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

¼ teaspoon ground clove

Baking paper

For the chocolates:

500 grams (1 pint) cream

800 grams (28 ounces) organic dark chocolate (68% cocoa content), chopped into small pieces

10 grams (2 flat teaspoons) ground cinnamon

10 grams (2 flat teaspoons) mixed spice (see directions below)

100 grams (3 ounces) chopped organic candied orange peel

Organic cocoa powder for dusting


For the mixed spice:

1. Place all the ingredients into a small, electric grinder and pulverize into a fine powder.

For the chocolates:

1. Bring the cream to boil and remove from the heat.

2. Add the other ingredients to the cream and stir with a wire whisk until the chocolate is melted.

3. Pour into a 10-inch dish lined with baking paper.

4. Cool in the fridge for 4 hours.

5. Cut into ½- to ¾-inch squares and roll each square in the cocoa powder.

6. Set aside on a wire rack or sheets of waxed paper.

7. Keep refrigerated in an airtight container until ready to serve.

Top photo: Ganache-filled chocolates at Durig Chocolatier in Lausanne, Switzerland. Credit: David Latt

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Durig Chocolatier in Lausanne, Switzerland. Credit: David Latt

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Fresh foods you find at your local market often make suitable substitutes for traditional Thanksgiving ingredients. Credit: Cameron Stauch

Being away from your family and friends while living overseas can make Thanksgiving one of the loneliest days of the year for a North American expat. For that reason, trying to prepare your family’s traditional Thanksgiving meal with turkey and all the trimmings becomes an obsession for many.

The sourcing of ingredients and having the right cooking equipment are the biggest obstacles to re-creating the typical dishes found on your family’s festive table. During my years living in Asia, I have prepared traditional Thanksgiving meals for more than 1,000 people from a home kitchen, but not without having to substitute ingredients, change cooking methods or simply break away from tradition. Here are some tips to assist you when thrown a culinary curve ball.

Plan early

Roughly plan your menu at least a couple of weeks ahead of celebrating Thanksgiving. During your regular grocery runs, scout the shops and markets to see if any non-perishable, specialty items you will need are on the shelves. Purchase them if they are available, as other shoppers will quickly follow, looking for those same prized items. Check with market vendors to see if they will have certain items, and place an order with them to guarantee they are part of your holiday larder.

Turkey hunting

Locating a turkey, the centerpiece of a Thanksgiving meal, is of utmost importance for many expats. A few fortunate cooks may be able to purchase an expensive imported bird from a high-end grocer or from friends who have access to an embassy commissary, but most will have to search their local markets to see if any gobblers are for sale. Whether you are able find a local turkey or have to settle for some other type of fowl, make sure you clearly communicate with the market vendor that you want the bird to be dressed, i.e. de-feathered, eviscerated and head and feet removed. If you don’t, you may need to quickly learn some new butchery skills.

If you are lucky enough to get a turkey, you next need to confirm that your oven, if you have one, can comfortably accommodate something this big. Most ovens sold in Asia are still on the small side to efficiently cook a large turkey.

It has been my experience that the turkeys, ducks, geese and even chickens in Asia have lived a roaming life resulting in strong, tough legs. Faced with these challenges, a day or two before Thanksgiving dinner, I routinely take the legs off, brown them with some onions, carrots, garlic, a pinch of cloves and black pepper and then braise them in water or stock for several hours until they are tender. The bonus of using this method is you can take the cooking liquid and reduce it to make a flavorful gravy. I then finish by roasting the breast in the oven. If you don’t have an oven, you can either poach or steam the breast.

If you are looking to change things up, you may want to entertain turning to a local favorite restaurant to help prepare a regional delicacy, such as a Peking duck, a roast suckling pig or tandoori turkey, to use as your meal’s centerpiece.

Trimmings and side dishes

Fresh cranberries most likely won’t be accessible to make cranberry chutney, but there are many local fruits that serve as good alternatives. Apples are currently in season, citrus fruits are making their way into the markets and pineapples or green mangoes bring a nice acidity to the meal. The key is to ensure that the flavors of your chutney compliment the menu and you create a balance of sweet and tart flavors.

Asian markets may lack the root vegetables — parsnips, turnips, celery root — that signal a fall harvest, but there are some fantastic substitutes. Broccoli, bok choy and a host of greens in the cabbage family are good stand-ins for Brussels sprouts, while the varieties of sweet potatoes and yams you find locally are excellent replacements for the orange-fleshed sweet potatoes you may be accustomed to.

If your stuffing gets its crunch and flavor from celery, look to vegetables like kohlrabi, celtuce or Chinese celery instead. Head to a nearby five-star hotel to purchase multigrain bread for your stuffing or, for a gluten-free alternative, use cooked local brown rice.

What about dessert?

No Thanksgiving meal is complete without a pie or two. Nuts such as walnuts, cashews, peanuts or a combination of the three will ease your regret at having no pecans for your pie. Likewise, pumpkin pie elicits oohs and ahs from its devoted following. Canned pumpkin is a challenge to find, and there tends to be only one type of pumpkin available in the markets. To make your own pumpkin purée, peel the pumpkin, roast, steam or boil it until tender, then drain and purée. I find the pumpkin can be a bit watery, and it is best to cook the puree over medium heat on the stovetop for about 10 minutes to reduce the moisture content. The purée is now ready to use for your pie recipe.

It’s still Thanksgiving

The most essential ingredient of any Thanksgiving larder is the people around your table. You may not be able to have immediate family fill the seats, but you can include new, close friends with whom to share your family’s traditions. Ask your guests to bring a dish from their country to add some of their culture to your feast.

Carrying family traditions abroad is a great way to re-create a semblance of “home” to celebrate Thanksgiving, but trying to prepare an exact replica creates added stress and increases the likelihood of failure. Be open to tweaking the dishes with accents from your travels or flavors of your current culinary environment or those of your guests. I can assure you that these creative menu changes bring lasting memories and may even create new traditions that will appear on your table at future celebrations.

Top photo: Fresh foods you find at your local market often make suitable substitutes for traditional Thanksgiving ingredients. Credit: Cameron Stauch

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County Mayo, Ireland. Credit: Deborah Madison

When my husband was invited to practice his art of painting in rural — the word was emphasized many times in the acceptance letter — Ireland, we jumped on it and decided to go right away rather than wait until summer. Our stay was from Halloween to Christmas, covering the major holidays, which were pretty much nonexistent for us that year.

Winter is perhaps not the most perfect time to be on the rough and wild Atlantic coast of the Emerald Island — which, as you quickly come to understand, has to do with the copious amount of rain that falls. It was cold. And damp. Our cottage was stone, and there were gaps in the ceiling that allowed a view of the sky. My husband’s studio was heated, but for me, getting warm and staying that way was the challenge of each day. The recipe called for lots of hot water and alcohol.

Finding warmth in Ireland

Here’s how it worked. First, we were told not to use hot water unless it came from the night storage, a concept we found hard to follow but eventually understood: Electricity is cheaper at night than during the day, so water heated at night is more economical than water heated during the day. So I started the day by submerging myself in water that was as hot as I could stand and staying there until I really couldn’t stand it anymore. Then I dressed in an infinite number of layers that padded me like the Michelin Man, but they kept me warm until noon, when I repeated the process.

About 3 p.m., when the light caved, I joined Patrick, my husband, in the pub across the street from his studio, where I had a hot whiskey with lemon and clove — divine because it warmed my hands as well as my insides. Then maybe I had a second one just to seal in the hint of warmth that I was sure was coming on. These drinks were pretty mild as alcohol goes. Even two weren’t nearly as strong as the real Irish coffee I had in a pub in a nearby town, where the combination of caffeine, sugar, booze and cream was simultaneously such an upper and downer that your day was done by the last sip. By comparison, the hot whiskey was like tea.

When we returned to our cottage, it was dark outside and cold inside. The first task was to light a peat fire in a fireplace that would never become hot it so dwarfed our expensive bundles of peat logs. There was a heater on one wall, which, if you leaned against it, could make a small portion of your bottom warm, but that was the sum total of its effectiveness.

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Contributor Deborah Madison's wine-warming system while in Ireland. Credit: Deborah Madison

Because cooking dinner helped produce some warmth, we headed to the kitchen. When Patrick would get a bottle out, it wasn’t that nicely chilled red wine temperature we’ve come to appreciate, nor was it frozen. But it was so frigid you might want to wear mittens to handle it. The wine glasses, too, were like bowls of ice. So we lit the burners on the stove, placed the bottle and glasses among them, and waited until the bottle felt right. By then the glasses would be, too, and dinner would be nearly prepared. We ate it huddled against the big metal fireplace that at least suggested coziness.

Finally, I’m ashamed to say, the best part of each day came, and that was getting into bed and lying on the enormous heating pad that worked like a reverse electric blanket: warming the bed rather than lying on top of you. Finally, here was warmth, and it stayed — regardless of the wind and the rain, which sounded like it was shot from nail guns. While in bed I read a lot about the famine years and tried to comprehend how people could be this cold and starving and yet continue on, while I was being such a wimp about it all.

Christmas in Dublin

By Christmas we were in Dublin, which felt very far from County Mayo in every way. The hotel room was warm; people were festive and jolly; the food was varied and good; there were amazing cheeses to be found; and a farmers market was filled with treats. The pubs were bustling, and there were warm cobblers with cream or mushrooms on toast for breakfast. I’ve never loved Christmas that much, but in Dublin it felt like a real celebration, with music on the streets and a big feeling of happiness in those around us. Of course, that’s when the Celtic Tiger was a big glossy cat, but it was last year, too, when we were there and the economics were quite reversed.

By far, the best holiday scene was one I had the good fortune to happen upon, and it had nothing to do with food. I was walking down a street when I noticed at least a 100 Santas standing together in front of a rather grand building. They were talking and smoking in their Santa outfits. That alone was quite something to see, and I would have been utterly content if it went no further. But then all at once the door of the building opened, and the president of Ireland, Mary McAleese, stepped out, and all the Santas burst into boisterous song: “We wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year!” And they cheered the president in her red dress, and I think they might have tossed hats into the air.

Top photo: County Mayo, Ireland. Credit: Deborah Madison

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Grapes growing at Cascina Fontana. Credit: Kim Millon

There’s no shortage of wineries in Piedmont, Italy. Some, especially those that make blockbuster Barolos and Barbarescos, are grand and world-famous. Their wines feature on top restaurant wine lists and take pride of place in the cellars of wine collectors the world over. Securing an appointment to visit requires a personal introduction and/or a certain chutzpah, with fluent Italian a distinct advantage.

On the other hand, for every grand and famous estate, there are a half-dozen pocket-sized domaines, known only to a few cognoscenti. They specialize in gem-like wines made in tiny quantities, which they nurse to maturity with tender loving care. Many of these smaller, lesser-known wineries welcome visitors — including English-speaking ones — by appointment, receiving them with simplicity and rare generosity of spirit.

Cascina Fontana in the village of Perno, perched on a ridge in the misty Langhe hills just south of Alba, falls neatly into this gem-like category. It is headed by Mario Fontana, the sixth generation of his family to make wine here, together with his wife, Luisa, with help from mamma Elda and occasional aid from sons Edoardo and Vasco. With just 4 hectares (9.8 acres), Mario makes the four classic red wines of the Langhe region: Barolo and Langhe Nebbiolo, both from the Nebbiolo grape, as well as Barbera d’Alba and Dolcetto d’Alba. He describes his wines as “genuine, natural, true expressions of nostro territorio — our land and our culture.”

Weather makes or breaks Italian winery owner’s spirits

I visited in May this year and found the usually cheerful Mario looking uncharacteristically glum. “It was a long winter, followed by a miserably cold, wet spring,” he admitted.

The vines were barely starting into growth, and there were serious concerns about whether the grapes could ever reach full ripeness after such a slow start. And then, as if by magic, toward the end of June, it seemed as though a switch was flipped. The weather finally sorted itself out, and Piedmont enjoyed a sun-bathed summer with long hot days throughout July and August and the necessary and welcome cool nights that help to make good grapes great.

They finished harvesting at the end of October and a delighted Mario was able to report by mail that after all those anxious moments earlier in the year, he was overall quite satisfied with the vintage. But it’s early, he admitted. “I always remember what my nonno (grandfather) Saverio, my greatest teacher, used to say to me: ‘The grapes are harvested in fall, but the race is not over till the final lap is completed.’ ”

On that May visit, gathered around the huge oak table in Mario’s newly converted tasting room with a group of wine-loving friends, we tasted the results of earlier vintages that had completed their final lap.

Cascina Fontana vintner Mario Fontana. Credit: Kim Million

Cascina Fontana vintner Mario Fontana. Credit: Kim Million

First came Dolcetto, bright, pretty, thirst-quenching and (at 12.5% alcohol by volume) relatively low in alcohol — perfect with a simple salad of vine-ripened tomatoes and local mozzarella with home-made grissini. Next came Barbera d’Alba, a blooming delight, deliciously fruit-driven and just right with slivers of air-dried sausage from the local butcher.

Mario’s Langhe Nebbiolo, which (like his Barbera) spends a year in small oak barrels, some of them new, is a proper wine, not just (as is too often the case) a poor relation of Barolo that didn’t quite make the cut. Finally, with a steaming plate of manzo brasato al Barolo (beef braised in Barolo) made with love by Mario’s mamma, we worked our way around several vintages of the eponymous wine, each one elegantly structured, beautifully balanced, understated and oozing with class.

Cascina Fontana wines are imported into the United Kingdom by Berry Bros. and Rudd, wine merchants by appointment of the Queen and the Prince of Wales. Check Wine Searcher for stockists in the U.S.

Top photo: Grapes growing at Cascina Fontana. Credit: Kim Millon

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