Articles in Travel

The Christmas market in Antwerp, Belgium. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kathy Hunt

In spite of recent tragedies and unrest in Europe, a beloved, centuries-old tradition continues this holiday season. From the United Kingdom to Eastern Europe and myriad countries in between, the annual outdoor Christmas markets are now in full swing.

Beginning in the early Middle Ages, the original markets were established to provide meat and other provisions for Christmas dinner. Some, such as Striezelmarkt in Dresden, Germany, lasted only one day. Others, including Christkindlmarkt in Vienna, Austria, stayed open through Advent. Today, they generally run from mid-November to Jan. 1.

Although dozens of cities host seasonal bazaars, several stand out for their old-world charm, delicious foods and exceptional handicrafts. You can banish the thought of buying tchotchkes mass-produced in faraway lands. The specialties offered at these markets are local and handcrafted.

Vienna, Austria

The Christmas market in Vienna, Austria. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kathy Hunt

The Christmas market in Vienna, Austria. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kathy Hunt

In Vienna, roughly 20 Advent fairs dot the cityscape. However, if you want to experience a market in all its glittering glory, head to the 19th-century Rathausplatz, or Town Hall Square. At Rathausplatz, twinkling lights, carolers, puppet shows and a young, blond woman playing Christkindl, the market’s Christ child, join 150 merchant stalls in celebrating the season. As of Nov. 19, as an act of European solidarity, the square’s towering Christmas tree now displays the blue, white and red colors of the French flag.

With Vienna’s ornate, neo-Gothic city hall, or Rathaus, looming behind them, shoppers stock up on wooden toys, glass ornaments, beeswax candles, candied fruits, roasted chestnuts and glasses or 750-mililiter bottles of weihnachtspunsch. Comprising red wine, brandy, rum, oranges, cloves, cinnamon and other spices, this heated punch is a warming, seasonal treat.

Prague, Czech Republic

The sweet pastry trdelnìk is commonly on offer at Christmas markets in Prague, Czech Republic. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kathy Hunt

The sweet pastry trdelnik is commonly offered at Christmas markets in Prague, Czech Republic. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kathy Hunt

The striking Czech Republic capital of Prague sponsors five Christmas markets. One of the largest takes place in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, World Heritage site of Old Town Square. Surrounded by Baroque and Gothic architecture, a medieval astronomical clock and the imposing, 14th-century Church of Our Lady before Tyn, this is an especially festive event. Solo musicians, folk bands and choirs perform daily. Horse-drawn carriage rides; a nativity scene; stabled sheep, donkeys and goats; and an enormous Christmas tree enhance the merry mood.

Similar to the other Prague markets, Old Town Square vendors showcase Bohemian crystal, garnet and amber jewelry; carved wooden toys; ornaments; marionettes; and sundry Czech goods. They also provide ample opportunities to nosh on grilled sausages, potato pancakes, deep-fried flatbread called langos and the sweet pastry known as trdelnìk. Coiled around a metal spit, rotated over an open fire until browned and then rolled in a mixture of sugar and nuts or cinnamon, trdelnìk is a must for hungry patrons.

Cologne, Germany

The Christmas market in Cologne, Germany. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kathy Hunt

The Christmas market in Cologne, Germany. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kathy Hunt

While Dresden’s Striezelmarkt may be the country’s oldest, Germany boasts of an array of atmospheric marketplaces. This includes the seven Weihnachtsmarkte of Cologne.

The grandest happens in front of the 13th-century Roman Catholic, Gothic cathedral and UNESCO World Heritage site, Cologne Cathedral. More than 160 wooden stalls filled with German lacework, blown glass, nutcrackers, leather goods, woodcrafts, roasted nuts, bratwurst, beer, mulled wine, gingerbread and fruitcake line the cathedral square.

Along with regional crafts and cuisine, the Cathedral Weihnachtsmarkt contains western Germany’s largest Christmas tree. Roughly 82 feet tall, this Nordmann fir shimmers with more than 50,000 LED lights. For a bird’s-eye view of the sparkling tree and city, climb the 553 steps of the cathedral’s south tower. The brave can take in these breathtaking sights from a 328-foot-high observation platform.

Stockholm, Sweden

Stockholm, Sweden’s first holiday market occurred on Stortorget in the city’s Old Town, or Gamla Stan, more than 500 years ago. Located outside the Nobel Museum near the Royal Palace, today’s Christmas mart features authentic Swedish pottery; glassware; knitted accessories; mulled wine, or glögg; pepparkakor, or ginger cookies; saffron buns; elk meat; and reindeer sausage. Whatever you do, just don’t tell children where the sausage came from.

In addition to these locales, travelers will find charming, historic expos in Amsterdam, Netherlands; Antwerp, Belgium; Barcelona, Spain; Budapest, Hungary; and Copenhagen, Denmark, among others. Some, such as the market in Frankfurt, Germany, date back hundreds of years. Others, such as in Manchester, England, have existed for merely a decade or two. All include the traditional foods and arts of their regions.

Main image: The Christmas market in Antwerp, Belgium. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kathy Hunt

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With Europe on edge after the bombings in Paris, it is good to be reminded of the joy of sharing a meal with strangers. But what happens when you don’t know anyone at a dinner party, not even the host?

During a recent evening in Brussels, I rang the doorbell of a complete stranger’s home promptly at 7 p.m. His ground-floor apartment was in an art nouveau-style row house built in the 1930s. The door opened, and Maher, an Egyptian political science Ph.D. candidate 
at Ghent University, gave me a warm welcome. (He, like other hosts of such dinners, chooses not to publicize his full name.)

I was the first to arrive for his “Egyptian Evening” (dinner and a movie), and as I took off my coat in the entryway, I resisted the temptation to blurt out that famous quote from “A Streetcar Named Desire”:

“I’ve always depended on the kindness (and in this case, the cooking skills) of strangers.”

BookaLokal — a new dining experience

This "Sumptuous Spice: An Indian Home-Cooked Dinner" in Boston cost $35 per person. The hostess, Raka-Larissa, Indian-born and raised in London, now lives in Boston and is a biological scientist by day and a passionate home cook by night. One recent out-of-town guest wrote a long review of her "Sumptuous Spice" dinner on Raka-Larissa’s BookaLokal page, noting, “It was apparent that the food was cooked with love.” Credit: Copyright 2015 Angel Leung

This “Sumptuous Spice: An Indian Home-Cooked Dinner” in Boston cost $35 per person. The hostess, Raka-Larissa, Indian-born and raised in London, now lives in Boston and is a biological scientist by day and a passionate home cook by night. One recent out-of-town guest wrote a long review of her “Sumptuous Spice” dinner on Raka-Larissa’s BookaLokal page, noting, “It was apparent that the food was cooked with love.” Credit: Copyright 2015 Angel Leung

Maher is just one of nearly 1,000 BookaLokal hosts in 47 countries, in more than 100 cities around the world. BookaLokal is a group dining website. To sign up for a dinner, go to bookalokal.com, choose which city you wish to dine in, browse the dinners, choose one and pay online.

The site was founded in 2012 in the Brussels kitchen of Evelyne White, a 32-year-old harpist, travel enthusiast and former investor from New York. I got to ask her a few questions before the dinner. Here’s what she told me about this unique dining experience.

How did you come up with the idea for BookaLokal?

Evelyne White: “I was inspired by the success of ‘sharing’ companies like Airbnb. If people can open their homes to strangers, why not open their kitchens and dining room tables?”

How does BookaLokal differ from other group dining sites?

Evelyne White: “BookaLokal has the widest range of hosts, from amateur hosts to professional chefs. Whereas some of our competitor sites only allow top chefs to join the site, we believe the best experiences can sometimes come from people like you and me, who are just passionate about hosting and meeting new people.”

Engaging hosts

This "Chocolate Making Class" held in Washington, D.C., cost $60 per person. Guests learn about the history of chocolate and how to make their own truffles and chocolate lollipops from Ismael, a professional chocolatier and culinary and pastry chef who speaks Arabic, French and Spanish. One reviewer, who attended on Valentine’s Day, called it a "great date night." Credit: Copyright 2015 Meira Neggaz

This “Chocolate Making Class” held in Washington, D.C., cost $60 per person. Guests learn about the history of chocolate and how to make their own truffles and chocolate lollipops from Ismael, a professional chocolatier and culinary and pastry chef who speaks Arabic, French and Spanish. One reviewer, who attended on Valentine’s Day, called it a “great date night.” Credit: Copyright 2015 Meira Neggaz

This was certainly true of Maher, who is also the former editor-in-chief of The Daily News Egypt. He was an engaging host who gently steered us through the evening as if we were all old chums. We were a cozy group of eight in all (if you include one guest’s toddler), who hailed from countries such as Egypt, Portugal, Turkey and America.

Meals made with love

At the "Egyptian Evening" dinner in Brussels (which cost a mere $17 per person), guests served themselves at the buffet. Credit: Copyright 2015 Diane Fresquez

At the “Egyptian Evening” dinner in Brussels (which cost a mere $17 per person), guests served themselves at the buffet. Credit: Copyright 2015 Diane Fresquez

The homemade dinner, served buffet-style, was simple and delicious: baba ganoush and pita bread; vegetables (peas, zucchini and carrots) cooked in tomato sauce and flavored with pepper, cinnamon and lemon juice; and kebab halla (beef cooked in creamy onion sauce) served with rice.

Learning experiences

For the "Egyptian Evening" dinner, guests and host ate while watching "Ana Hurra" ("I Am Free"), an Egyptian feminist film from 1959. Credit: Copyright 2015 Diane Fresquez

For the “Egyptian Evening” dinner, guests and host ate while watching “Ana Hurra” (“I Am Free”), an Egyptian feminist film from 1959. Credit: Copyright 2015 Diane Fresquez

After serving ourselves, we settled down in the darkened living room to eat our dinner in front of “Ana Hurra” (“I Am Free”), an entertaining, thought-provoking Egyptian feminist film from 1959, which Maher projected on his living room wall.

Maher isn’t the only host with creative dining ideas: From a recent look at what’s offered on the BookaLokal website, choices include “Dinner Served on a Vintage Boat, Docked in the Amalfi Harbor,” Amalfi, Italy ($55); “Pig Roast and Comfort Food,” Washington, D.C. ($50); and “Dinner Inspired by Famous Food Quotes,” given by a former opera singer in New York City ($100).

A variety of venues

In addition to dinner, some hosts provide a variety of other eating and drinking experiences, such as “Seville Tapas and Wine Tour,” Spain ($50), and “Indian Buffet and Bollywood Dance Lesson,” Belgium ($42).

Worried about language barriers? Languages spoken by each host are listed on their profile page. Maher speaks English and Arabic; Ester, who lives in Rome, speaks Italian, English and Spanish.

“Our hosts come in all shapes and sizes,” said White. “We have culinary students, experienced host families, supper club organizers, and people with a passion for sharing their culture and connecting with new people.”

What are BookaLokal’s plans for the future?

Evelyne White: “Although BookaLokal started as a social dining site (a place to meet new people), we are seeing increased interest in private dining. If a host serves amazing Portuguese food for groups of six to 10 guests, why not book the host for a dinner with your own group of 10 friends?”

After the Egyptian film, we helped ourselves to more wine and Egyptian black tea (with cloves), and had a relaxed discussion about the film, women’s rights and Egyptian politics. Talking with people you don’t know within the confines of dinner at a stranger’s house is oddly liberating — perhaps similar to the surprise and delight of striking up pleasant conversations with strangers on an airplane. BookaLokal is a great dining choice for tourists visiting a new country, expats living abroad, and anyone interested in being inspired — and maybe even transported to another culture — by good food and stimulating conversation. As the Egyptian evening came to an end, I was reminded of another quote, this one from Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savairn’s book “The Physiology of Taste” (1825):

“Let the progress of the meal be slow, for dinner is the last business of the day; and let the guests conduct themselves like travelers due to reach their destination together.”

Main photo: The “Dinner at the Artist’s Home and Studio” in Amsterdam ($37 per person) featured ciabatta with salmon, crème fraîche, horseradish and dill; lasagna with pancetta and artichoke; and affogato al caffè. The hostess’s apartment is on the ground floor facing the IJ harbor, and when the weather is nice, she serves dinner outside on the quay. Credit: Copyright 2015 www.petrahart.com

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Inspecting cacao beans at Chocal. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

It doesn’t matter where you live or what language you speak: Good food can bring strangers to a table and, in a short period of time, make them friends. But in Palmar Grande, a town in the Dominican Republic, it’s doing something even more powerful: It’s creating social and economic change.

In this country, 40% of the populace lives below the poverty line, and the average household income is below $6,000. For a group of 30 women who needed to work but didn’t want to leave their families in search of jobs, the solution was to band together: In 2008, they created Chocal. Cacao is a primary crop for area farmers, so making chocolate seemed a natural choice. Along with ready-to-eat artisanal sweets, they sell bolas, which are used to make hot chocolate, and even tropical wines in flavors like cherry, star fruit, tangerine and, of course, cocoa. I met many members of this women’s collective when visiting the area as a guest of the cruise line Fathom.

The nuts of chocolate-factory work…

Arriving at Chocal's roadside facility. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Arriving at Chocal’s roadside facility. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Their rustic facility may not have the polished image that one typically associates with chocolatiers. It’s located off the beaten path on the island’s north coast, where travelers by foot and horseback comprise a regular portion of daily traffic. But it’s obviously loved and cared for, and the aroma of roasting cocoa beans lets you know you’re in the right place.

Making chocolate is nowhere near as glamorous as it sounds. Far from the shiny, modern kitchens of television cooking shows, Chocal has only basic machinery; much of the work is done the old-fashioned way. A group of gals sorting cocoa beans by hand while keeping a watchful eye on the roasting machines is the closest thing you’ll find to an assembly line here.

…And the bolts

An assortment of Chocal candy bars. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

An assortment of Chocal candy bars. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

The aluminum-like foil to wrap chocolate bars is cut by hand, using a sturdy piece of cardboard as a guide to ensure the size is right. After the foil covers are folded around hand-molded rectangular blocks, a decorative wrapper is secured in place by a steady pair of hands wielding a glue gun. The women smile as they talk about their work, and even if you don’t understand a word of Spanish, it’s obvious they love what they do.

Some are here five days a week, others are part-time; Chocal isn’t the type of business that’s run by crunching numbers. When a big order comes in, many will pick up weekend shifts. And the night before an order ships, it’s not unusual to find all the women working late. When help is needed, whether on the factory floor or in the office, someone is always there.

Measuring sweet success

Noemi Crisostomo, founding member of Chocal. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Noemi Crisostomo, founding member of Chocal. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

To an outsider, the odds of Chocal’s success might seem slim. Some of the women — who range from about 30 to over 50 years old — are unable to read or write, and none had culinary training when they began the company. But throw the classic business model out the window, and what’s left is a group of women who believed chocolate could be used to cultivate their community. “We wanted to change our quality of life,” founder Noemi Crisostomo told me through a translator. At 38, the mother of three children ages 15 to 22 has gone from unemployment to co-ownership in record time.

Over a decade, the collective has grown at a healthy pace. When it began, the women volunteered their time; today they receive wages, but a majority of their profits is being used to pay back a government loan that allowed them to renovate their facilities and invest in some machinery to improve production. Still, the pay they do receive is helping to make big changes in their lives and the lives of their families. Crisostomo is one of two of the women now studying at a local university; another’s son is also enrolled thanks to earnings from Chocal. Cement has replaced dirt in the floors of many of their homes. Their kitchens are stocked with better food, and their kids have new books and clothes for school.

A new opportunity for growth

Tempering chocolate. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Tempering chocolate. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Their sweet goods are now stocked on the shelves of a major local grocery chain. But growth means expanding into new markets and developing the flexibility to respond to increased yet still fluctuating demand. Chocal may have found a way to deal with both in cruise line Fathom.

The connection makes great business sense. Fathom is reinventing the idea of a cruise vacation by adding volunteer opportunities to the package. When travelers arrive at Amber Cove, the Caribbean’s first new cruise port in nearly a decade, they won’t flock to the beach — they’ll head to Chocal’s kitchen to help make chocolate.

Volunteer vacationing

Amber Cove. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Amber Cove. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

With activities like sorting through cocoa beans and tempering chocolate, this field trip for ship guests sounds like a cooking class, but it’s actually a sweet community-service project. Chocolate-making cruisers have the potential to boost Chocal’s production and push an ambitious group of remarkable entrepreneurs to the next level of success.

Of course, after a day of rolling up their sleeves and creating chocolate confections, the travelers turned freelance chocolatiers are sure to buy a few bars to take home. (I know from experience that it’s hard to resist.) As more cruise ships dock here, more tourists buy chocolate. It’s a vacation sugar rush that’s good for everyone involved.

Main photo: Inspecting cacao beans at Chocal. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

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The López de Heredia winery in Rioja, Spain. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

On a late summer’s weekend in Haro, in the heart of Rioja, northern Spain, a remarkable event took place. La Cata del Barrio de la Estación was an uncommon show of solidarity among seven of Rioja’s leading wineries. The point of the weekend was not simply for the bodegas to show their wines in a spectacular series of tastings (“cata” means wine tasting), but also to shine a spotlight on the famed Barrio de la Estación, the historic area surrounding the town’s railway station where some of the region’s top wineries are clustered.

The idea was dreamed up by British Master of Wine Tim Atkin together with Guillermo de Aranzábal, president of La Rioja Alta, one of the oldest (established in 1890) and most esteemed wineries, and head of the association designed to develop tourism in the famed station area. De Aranzábal approached his fellow winemakers, who jumped at the idea. Within a year of the initial informal discussions, the fully fledged project was in place.

The event opened with cava and selected wines served in the impressive cellars of Bodegas Roda, flanked by massive oak casks, one of the defining features of Rioja. Afterward, some of Rioja’s finest wines were showcased at the gala dinner prepared by Michelin-starred chef and local hero Francis Paniego, as well as at the professional tasting staged at Bodegas Bilbainas the following day. Over the course of the weekend, all seven wineries opened their doors and cellars to the public. In brilliant September sunshine, some 5,000 people wandered from winery to winery (all are within walking distance of one another), glass in hand, eager to sample this extraordinary lineup of Rioja wines. The weekend was declared a resounding success by all concerned — the wineries, the local tourist authorities and the general public — and there are rumors (and hopes) that it may become an annual event.

Wines shown at the professional tasting ranged in age from 1981 to 2013, while those tasted in-house were of the latest vintage to be offered on sale. Below is a selection presented by the seven participating estates. Rioja of this quality is widely exported. Check wine-searcher for your nearest supplier.

Bodegas Bilbainas, Viña Pomal Gran Reserva

Viña Pomal Gran Reserva from Bodegas Bilbainas. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Viña Pomal Gran Reserva from Bodegas Bilbainas. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Bodegas Bilbainas was founded in 1901 and occupies pride of place right beside Haro station. In 1997 the estate was acquired by the Catalan-based Codorniú group, which has invested handsomely in both hardware and oenological expertise. Viña Pomal is its signature brand, made principally from Tempranillo with a little added Graciano for color and aging potential. Gran Reservas are aged at least two years in American oak, a further year in oak casks and three more years in bottle. Garnet-red tinged with russet, richly perfumed, supple and elegant, this is a wine to have and to hold.

López de Heredia, Viña Tondonia Reserva

Vina Tondonia Reserva from López de Heredia. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Vina Tondonia Reserva from López de Heredia. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

López de Heredia, just across the tracks from Bodegas Bilbainas, is the station’s oldest winery, established 1877. They make classic, traditional-style Rioja presented in bottles clad in the characteristic gold wire netting that was originally designed to prevent tampering and fraud, now purely decorative. Viña Tondonia is its 100-hectare (250-acre) vineyard, planted in 1914 and responsible for impressive, deep golden white wines, significant reds and some rosé. Red Reservas blend Tempranillo with Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuelo and are aged six years in American oak. They are vibrant in color, supple and beautifully textured with good acidity and firm tannins auguring long life.

La Rioja Alta, Gran Reserva 904

Gran Reserva 904 from La Rioja Alta. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Gran Reserva 904 from La Rioja Alta. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

La Rioja Alta, founded at Haro station in 1890 by five families from Rioja and the Basque Country, is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year. Another classic bodega making touchstone Rioja, it is responsible for a range of impressive red wines (no white) destined for long aging. Gran Reserva 904 (Tempranillo and a little Graciano) is fermented in stainless steel and aged four years in small, used barriques, made in-house by the firm’s own cooper from imported, all-American oak staves. With its cherry-red color,  intense bouquet and jammy fruit, it’s smooth and powerful — a wine for fall, perfect with lamb braised in red wine or a rich mushroom risotto liberally seasoned with black pepper.

CVNE, Contino Reserva

Contino Reserva from CVNE. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Contino Reserva from CVNE. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

CVNE, which stands for Compañia Vinícola del Norte de España (usually styled Cune for simplicity), was set up by the Real de Asúa family in 1879. It remains in family ownership, run today by the fifth generation, and is famous for dovetailing the best of ancient and modern Rioja. Contino comes from Tempranillo grapes (plus Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano) grown in a single 62-hectare (150-acre) vineyard situated just outside Haro. Fermented in stainless steel, the wine spends two years in used oak barrels (40 percent American, 60 percent French) and at least a year in bottle before release. Rich ruby and silky-smooth, it’s an intense mouthful of long-lasting pleasure.

Roda, Roda I Reserva

Roda I Reserva from Bodegas Roda. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Roda I Reserva from Bodegas Roda. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Roda is the new bodega on the block, arriving at Haro station in only 1987. What the estate lacks in antiquity it amply compensates for in terms of excellence, and it has made an immediate impact with its modern Rioja wines, made exclusively from own-grown, indigenous grapes (Tempranillo, Garnacha and Graciano) and given extensive oak aging in a purpose-built, temperature-controlled barrel room, which is carved straight from the rock face. Roda I, closed with a black capsule, is 100 percent Tempranillo, aged 16 months in French oak barriques and given another 20 months in bottle before release. Bright cherry with a lively fruit nose and rich, plummy depths, it’s a wine to curl up with in front of the fire.

Muga, Prado Enea Gran Reserva

Prado Enea Gran Reserva from Muga. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Prado Enea Gran Reserva from Muga. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Muga joined the other bodegas in the Barrio de la Estación in 1932 and makes super-classic Rioja characterized by long fermentations followed by extensive oak aging and long spells in bottle. Prado Enea, which comes from selected high-altitude plots, is an exemplary Gran Reserva that majors on Tempranillo with 20 percent Garnacha and a smidge of Graciano and Mazuelo and spends three years in oak (French and American) and three more in bottle. Deep ruby in color with a brambly nose (blackberries at end of summer), it has mellow spice flavors and enormous elegance and grace –- a  wine to cellar whatever the vintage (it’s not made every year), and to enjoy with favored, wine-loving friends.

Gómez Cruzado, Honorable

Honorable from Gómez Cruzado. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Honorable from Gómez Cruzado. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Gómez Cruzado was founded by exiled, Mexican-born aristocrat Don Angel Gómez de Arteche, who began making and bottling his own wines here in 1886 (a rarity at the time — most wines were sold in bulk). In 1916 the estate was acquired by a local nobleman, Don Jesús Gómez Cruzado, who gave it its present name. The smallest bodega in the Barrio, it has made giant strides in recent years under the supervision of consultant winemakers David González and Juan Antonio Leza. Honorable comes from one of the estate’s prime parcels of vines, many of them aged more than 50 years, mainly Tempranillo with the other three varieties present in small quantities. Black cherry jam hues with loads of ripe red fruit and good acidity to give it backbone, this is truly an honorable wine from an estate that’s moving up.

Main image: The López de Heredia winery in Rioja, Spain. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

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An aerial view of the Tokyo Dome at night. Credit: Copyright Lukas/Wikimedia Commons

If you want to be savvy when you travel to Japan, know that there’s an unwritten code that applies to everyday routines. For example, wearing the wrong slippers outside your hotel will draw shocking stares. Here are six tips to help you save face while traveling around the country.

Bars: City vs. country

Traditional cocktails are serious business here; no strawberry margaritas. And the size is usually 5 to 6 ounces. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

Traditional cocktails are serious business here; no strawberry margaritas. And the size is usually 5 to 6 ounces. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

Don’t plan on having a before-dinner cocktail hour when you are staying at Japanese inns in the countryside, whether traditional or modern. Bars, if they exist, probably won’t be open until 8 p.m. or later — after the dinner hour. The inns don’t take notice of the usual Western predinner cocktail, and I’m not sure why. In major cities, however, hotel bars always open before dinner.

Also, Japanese country inns usually serve a fixed multicourse dinner featuring local ingredients. Often the first group of dishes — the appetizer — is served with an aperitif, such as plum wine. This is a “welcome” drink on the house. After the meal, you may find a bar open. It will be crowded with other guests. What they are doing is called a ‘nijikai,‘ a “second-round” party after dinner. Those who want more after-dinner fun gather in these usually dark and sometimes smoky bars for drinks, chats and, sometimes, alcohol-infused singing.

Wear your yukata, or kimono-style gown

This lively yukata comes from a ryokan in the Akan National Park in Hokkaido. The design is influenced by the Ainu culture of the indigenous population. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

This lively yukata comes from a ryokan in the Akan National Park in Hokkaido. The design is influenced by the Ainu culture of the indigenous population. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

A Japanese inn offers men and women a yukata, or a kimono-style gown. You’ll find it in your room. Today some Japanese inns may offer guests a colorful and sometimes nontraditional choice: a top and loose pants. Guests at the inn are encouraged to shed their street clothes and don a yukata. You can go everywhere in the hotel wearing one, including to the dining room and even outside for a stroll. The yukata is very comfortable. But after wearing one for dinner five consecutive nights at several inns, I tired of it.

At my sixth dinner, I wore my travel dinner “uniform”: a casual dress. It was fine, and I did not feel out of place. When you put on a yukata, there is one rule that you must never ignore: After putting your arms through the sleeves, always place the right-hand side of the fabric over your body with the left side of the yukata on top. Doing the opposite — right over left — is reserved for wrapping the dead before cremation.

Women tie the yukata’s obi belt that secures it over the waist line and men place the obi a bit lower, over the hip bone. Don’t worry if the obi seems too long; arrange it so the knot is in front for women, and at the back for men. And one word of caution: Don’t try to run anywhere when you’re wearing a yukata! You’ll expose your legs (and maybe more?) and you might trip, too.

Different slippers, different functions

Toilet slippers often have a "WC" logo mark on them. Make sure to wear them only in the toilet, and leave them where they belong. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

Toilet slippers often have a “WC” logo mark on them. Make sure to wear them only in the toilet, and leave them where they belong. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

At Japanese inns, you may be asked to take off your shoes when you enter. The inn may store your shoes at the front door. Instead, you’ll be given a pair of slippers, and they become your “in-house” shoes. At some inns, they’ll ask you to remove shoes only when you enter your own room. In that case, take off your shoes and leave them in the entry foyer of the room. Then use the in-room slippers you’ll find there.

However, if the room floor is covered in straw tatami mats, no slippers are worn; only bare feet or socks are acceptable. Most of the time, I ignore the in-room slippers and walk in my bare feet regardless of the floor covering, since it’s always impeccably clean.

And there’s one more wrinkle: There’s an additional pair of slippers for guests in the toilet area. These slippers are designated for use in this space only. In Japan, clean areas and unclean areas are strictly separated. So don’t forget to take them off when you’re not in the loo, and never walk out of your room wearing your toilet slippers. People will stare.

Don’t fold those train tickets!

Hold onto your tickets after boarding without bending or mutilating them, no matter what happens or how long your journey takes. It’s the system bequeathed by the British, who built the first railways in Japan.

You need your ticket when you enter the platform and the train and you’ll need it again when leaving the platform or station. At Japan Railway stations, you can buy a card, called Suica, and load money onto it to buy tickets, similar to a MetroCard in New York City. Put it in your wallet as the Japanese do. At the station, just touch your wallet at the ticket gate and, after it reads the built-in chip, the automatic gate will open.

When you leave, do the same thing. The fare is debited from the card, and the amount of cash remaining on your card will flash briefly at the exit gate. Cards can be reloaded with more funds, and they also may be used on non-Japan Railway trains and subways. You can even use the card for purchases at station kiosks and convenience stores. It is a marvelously efficient and easy-to-use system.

Get out your hankies

I stopped using my handkerchiefs after I moved to America. When I make a trip to Japan, one lucky representative is chosen to accompany me. Credit: Copyright 2015 HIroko Shimbo

I stopped using my handkerchiefs after I moved to America. When I make a trip to Japan, one lucky representative is chosen to accompany me. Credit: Copyright 2015 HIroko Shimbo

When you land in Japan, one of the first things you should do is buy a couple of inexpensive handkerchiefs. You can find simple handkerchiefs at convenience stores and more expensive ones at department stores, including international designer brands. When you eat at casual restaurants, they may serve a wet cloth, oshibori, but no paper or cloth napkins. The oshibori is too wet to put on your lap. The handkerchief is perfect for such duty.

For reasons that are not at all clear, soba and udon noodle shops do not supply napkins of any kind, so your handkerchief will be quite handy after slurping a bowl of the delicious noodles. A handkerchief is also very convenient for wiping away sweat if you’re out and about during the steamy, sweltering Japanese summer. One thing a handkerchief is never used for in Japan: to blow your nose.

Stay to the left side, mostly

The population may be homogeneous, but when it comes to where people stand when on an escalator, the country is divided. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

The population may be homogeneous, but when it comes to where people stand when on an escalator, the country is divided. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

For the most part, Japan adopted British norms of pedestrian and vehicle traffic flow. Therefore, we drive on the left and even walk on the left. When it comes to escalators, it is not so straightforward. In Tokyo, we stand on the left side and let the hurrying people pass us on the right. In Osaka, this becomes the opposite; stand on the right. A nationwide survey found that 57% of the population follows the Tokyo way, 13% the Osaka way, 9.2% depend on the local situation, and 12.3% simply do not let other people pass. So observe and do as the locals do in each part of Japan you are visiting.

Main photo: An aerial view of the Tokyo Dome at night. Credit: Copyright Lukas/Wikimedia Commons

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Pumpkins and gourds on display at the Circleville Pumpkin Show in Circleville, Ohio. Credit: Copyright 2015 courtesy of Circleville Pumpkin Show

Summer may have ended, but I’m not stowing away my suitcase just yet. It’s time, once again, to hit the road and check out the nation’s fall food festivals. From celebrations dedicated to cranberries, garlic and pears to events honoring fried chicken and chowders, I’m looking forward to sampling scores of local specialties. Why not grab that overnight bag and head out to explore some of the best American food festivals, too?

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Main photo: Pumpkins and gourds on display at the Circleville Pumpkin Show in Circleville, Ohio. Credit: Copyright 2015 courtesy of Circleville Pumpkin Show

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The

As the 72nd Venice Film Festival opens in September, a platoon of celebrities are gracing the city. Would you fancy a drink with stars such as Mark Ruffalo, Stanley Tucci, Robert Pattinson, famous actresses such as Bérénice Bejo, Jennifer Jason Leigh or the legendary director Brian De Palma? How about a glass of Krug Grand Cuvée with Johnny Depp? That could happen after the premiere of “Black Mass,” the true story of the infamous murderer and mob boss Whitey Bulger.

Where? At the exclusive PG’s Restaurant, the culinary sanctuary belonging to the Design Hotel Palazzina G. It’s Philip Stark’s celebrity-filled — and nearly impossible to find — hotel in Venice.

To get there, reach San Samuele Piazza, then head out on an adventure to a small calle. Your destination is Ramo Grassi 3248, but you won’t find a name or a sign — just look for the bull. He’s fiercely looking at you from above an anonymous door. That’s the entrance.

The hotel is such a Depp favorite that he rented an entire floor while shooting “The Tourist” five years ago. This time, the stars will be here not on location, but for the Venice Film Festival.

The aim of the festival is to raise awareness and promote the various aspects of international cinema as art, entertainment and industry. In the past edition of the festival, 7,300 journalists and critics were accredited. This year more than 100 new films are expected to be screened. There will also be retrospectives and tributes to major figures to pay tribute to and help further an understanding of the history of cinema.

But you don’t have to be a celebrity or critic to experience the creativity of PG’s 28-year-old chef Matteo Panfilio, who was born in the province of Alessandria, where he studied, was nurtured and inspired by his family’s great love for cooking. In 2006, upon completing his studies, he left for London, where he had the opportunity to work with starred chefs such as Alberico Penati, Tristan Mason and Tristan Welch. Back to Alessandria, he opened his own restaurant La Locanda dei Narcisi. Matteo arrived at the PG’s in October 2014.

His style is inspired and guided by great Italian, French and Japanese cuisines, with meticulously prepared dishes and low-temperature, slow cooking methods.

Fish and sweets

Scallops with beetroot jelly, cream of licorice and coffee powder. Credit: Copyright 2015 Laure Jacquemin

Scallops with beetroot jelly, cream of licorice and coffee powder. Credit: Copyright 2015 Laure Jacquemin

Fish reigns here. There is capesante (scallops with beetroot jelly, cream of licorice and coffee powder) baccalà (creamed salt cod, caramelized red onions and polenta chips) Champagne risotto (with sea urchins and prawns tartare) tuna fillet (with pistachio crust, goat cheese and a merlot reduction).

These are just some of the offerings on the young chef’s menu, and that doesn’t even include what Matteo is really passionate about: sweet delights like babà (wild berries, Champagne sabayon) or sorbetto all’albicocca  (creamy saffron, anisette and white peach sorbet).

Two ways to learn

Learning from Matteo Panfilio with the "Eat & Learn" experience. Credit: Copyright 2014 Claudio Sabatino

Learning from Matteo Panfilio with the “Eat & Learn” experience. Credit: Copyright 2014 Claudio Sabatino

Panfilio loves to share his passion by offering two unforgettable cooking lessons: “Eat & Learn” and “Culinary Experience.”

During “Eat & Learn,” Matteo will reveal secrets and provide explanations, putting on a real show of creativity in which you will plunge into the art of Italian cooking by learning and preparing outstanding dishes.

The cooking demonstration and dinner last approximately 2 hours. It costs €100 (approximately $113) and includes a gift: a special book from the chef. (The classes must be paid in euros.)

To market with the chef

The "Culinary Experience" includes a trip to a Venetian fish market Credit: Copyright 2014 Claudio Sabatino

The “Culinary Experience” includes a trip to a Venetian fish market Credit: Copyright 2014 Claudio Sabatino

If you choose the “Culinary Experience,” you will venture with Matteo in a three-hour morning tour through the aromas of the Mercato di Rialto, the market that has always been the commercial heart of Venice. In its two buildings overlooking the Grand Canal, the Campo de la Pescaria (fish) and the Erberia (fruits and vegetables), you can find the best bargains in action seeing the skilled tradesmen.

Before returning, you will stop at one (or two…) traditional osteria (wine bars) for a typically Venetian ritual: a glass (or two … ) of wine and some traditional small appetizers called cecchetti. In the evening, you are expected at the beautiful 7-meter long kitchen counter for a 3-hour cooking lesson. There you will prepare, under Matteo’s guidance, a four-course tasting dinner using the ingredients bought at the market. The cost is €480 (approximately $546) for two people, €200 (approximately $227) for each additional person.

PG’s Restaurant is definitely a straordinaria life experience.

A culinary sanctuary

PG’s Restaurant. Credit: Copyright 2012 Cesare Zucca

PG’s Restaurant. Credit: Copyright 2012 Cesare Zucca

 Main photo: The “Eat & Learn” experience with Chef Matteo Panfilio. Credit: Copyright 2014 Claudio Sabatino

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The Biryani cart offers flavor-packed kati rolls. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicole Litvak

New York City is a prime destination for gastro-tourism. It is home to some of the greatest chefs, restaurants and culinary schools in the country. The variety, the deliciousness, the sheer volume of good food here is incredible.

There are more than 24,000 restaurants in New York City, according to the Department of Health. While the quantity is impressive, the quality is as well. I’m not sure if it’s something in the water, or if cooks in New York City are just better, but you might be hard-pressed to find a bad meal in this town.

In the spirit of pursuing good food in unconventional ways, here are 16 street eats that capture the diversity and scope of NYC cart food. I invite you to transcend the halal cart and the hot dog, and join me for homemade tamales, fresh-cut durian, hibiscus doughnuts, and yes, a hot buttered lobster roll.

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Main photo: The Biryani cart offers flavor-packed kati rolls. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicole Litvak

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