Articles in Travel

At The Vegetarian Butcher in Netherland’s The Hague, the only thing they sacrifice is your prejudice. It’s a snappy marketing slogan and deliberately provocative in its contradiction, but it lays it on the line: As the downside of meat-eating is increasingly understood, this is an alternative for the concerned carnivore who still wants the sizzle without the self-reproach or sacrifice.

The guys at The Vegetarian Butcher, the first of its kind in the world, have taken fake meat to a new level. Their success is measured in part by an expanding international market, a large new factory to manufacture their innovative plant-based products and a wave of successors in Canada, Australia and, most recently, Minneapolis.

Imitation may indeed be the sincerest form of flattery in the field of imitation meat, but it would be hard to beat The Vegetarian Butcher’s meat-alike products. As research and development chef Paul Bom emphatically says, “We are producing food that tastes really good. Even Ferran Adria was convinced he was dealing with high-class chicken thighs. We are not a vegetarian butcher, we are The Vegetarian Butcher.”

A fresh take on a butcher shop

The exterior of The Vegetarian Butcher's shop. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

The exterior of The Vegetarian Butcher’s shop. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

At their flagship “concept” store, designed to reference a traditional Dutch butcher’s shop with blue and white tiles and marble tops, art nouveau logo and classic delivery bike propped outside, do not expect to see rows of pink lamb chops or hefty ribs of beef. The art of replicating meat does not stretch to include bones and joints: instead products, both raw and ready-made dishes, are neatly packaged in chilled containers. The range, from chicken shawarma to smoked bacon strips, minced “meat” to fish-free prawns, is largely based on lupini (or lupin), a legume that grows well in the Netherlands. Other components in their unique formula include soya (free of genetically modified organisms) and other pulses, grains and vegetables. Most products are organic, some vegan; others may contain egg whites.

The firm was started in 2010 by Jaap Korteweg, a ninth-generation farmer, in the wake of various food disasters such as swine fever and mad cow disease. Last year, he won the title of Best Dutch Entrepreneur, and he and his staff have also gained awards in the national “golden meatball” competition and for their vegetarian smoked eel salad.

Reasons to not eat meat are well documented: health, environmental damage, animal welfare, agricultural sustainability and the like. What is refreshing, however, is the acceptance by The Vegetarian Butcher that you can have your steak and eat it too.

Many of their customers are not hard-core vegetarians or vegans. They simply want to cut down on their meat intake and satisfy a craving without actually eating animals. As Bom says, their aim is to “infiltrate” the normal world. “We want to take vegetarian food out of the green corner and make it gourmet and sexy.” They also, I might add, make it fun.

After initial resistance, Dutch butchers now sell their products alongside “real” meat to encourage people to eat better quality, albeit less often. It also solves the common problem of feeding the one vegetarian at the dinner table — especially when it’s hard to differentiate. In fact, it is not the genuine independent butcher who has to worry but the large industrial food producers responsible for the reconstituted rubbish that goes into many mass-produced meat products.

Should veggies, however, be perpetuating a meat-eating practice? There are those who believe faux meat encourages the acceptance of the unacceptable, or who prefer to simply replace meat with grains and greens.  “Yes, some vegetarians have a problem,” Bom acknowledged, “but in our experience it’s a very small percentage. We’re only giving them another eating option, a way of eating more protein in their diet.”

All the feel of meat, without the meat

Paul Bom, the research and development chef at The Vegetarian Butcher. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

Paul Bom, the research and development chef at The Vegetarian Butcher. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

Meat analogues are not new, but previous products have largely tasted awful or simply functioned as a vehicle to carry other flavors. As for tofu and tempeh, they were never meant to fill in for meat, Bom said. At The Vegetarian Butcher, the mind-set is altogether different.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, of course. And when put to the taste test, I was truly amazed. I cannot swear I would never be able to mistake it for heritage breed, slow-reared chicken and meat, but it was certainly was a more than acceptable everyday substitute.

Starting with The Vegetarian Butcher’s new line in development, teriyaki beef strips made — astonishingly — with carrots, potatoes and yellow peas, I was immediately won over by the succulence and satisfying chew. The MC2 Burger was juicy and savory and the sausages disconcertingly good. The Fish Free Tuna was a piquant spread, although more crab-like to my mind. The realistic, fibrous and juicy Vegan Chicken Chunks — they even have a touch of bronzing — are the flagship product, best used in salads, pita bread, stir-fries and curries.

The Vegetarian Butcher has modest ambitions — to be the biggest butcher in the world. It’s typically tongue in cheek. Veggie tongue in veggie cheek, of course. And, judging by the brand’s success to date, it’s going to be a plant-based future.

Main photo: The Vegetarian Butcher’s MC2 Burger. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

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Mexican chef Luís Chiu tries a bevy of dishes during his culinary tour of Chengdu. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicholas Gillman

I never dreamt the busy chef and owner of the finest Chinese restaurant in Mexico would want to go back to China with me. I had invited Luís Chiu on a guided culinary tour of Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan province of China, sponsored by www.foodiehub.tv. But Luís, who is Mexican of Chinese ancestry, was eager to expand his knowledge of the country and cuisines of his ancestors — so he accepted my offer.

There has been a Chinese community in Mexico since the 19th century, when workers came to build railroads; others arrived in search of a better life. Entrepreneurial Chinese, many versed in American-style “fast cooking,” opened eateries specializing in the kind of light, quick meals they knew how to produce. Breakfasts of eggs, pancakes and pastries, accompanied by coffee served with frothy hot milk, were the specialty. And faux Chinese dishes, such as fried rice and chow mein, were also offered. These cafes de Chinos became an important part of Mexican urban lore — a few remain today. Luís Chiu’s family owned several of these cafes through the years, and he grew up in and around the food business.

Eating in China

Luís Chiu at his restaurant, Asian Bay, in Mexico City. Credit: Photo courtesy of Asian Bay

Luís Chiu at his restaurant, Asian Bay, in Mexico City. Credit: Photo courtesy of Asian Bay

The first dish we ate, at a humble stall, was spicy beef meatballs, bathed in a brick-red oily sauce made aromatic by fresh, numbing Sichuan peppers, dry red chilies and bean paste. We quickly got used to this ubiquitous flavor combination. We later gorged on handmade noodles, ma po tofu with pig’s brains, spit roast rabbit, mutton kebabs, and oily, fiery hot pot. All were astounding.

We visited the local wholesale spice market. Piles of Sichuan peppers in varying shades from brownish green to deep brick red perfumed the air with their particular aroma — they made my eyes water but Luis´ tears were real. He was overjoyed to be in the midst of this epicenter of a cuisine he loved.

I interviewed chef Chiu back in his kitchen in Mexico City, after he’d had time to reflect on his experiences in China.

Nicholas Gilman: Do you feel more Mexican or more Chinese?

Luís Chiu: I’ve taken the best of both Mexican and Chinese culture. I feel more Chinese with the family, our customs, the way of being with each other. When I go to China I feel I don’t quite belong: The way of acting and thinking is totally different. I know I’m not Chinese, but I feel close to the culture, traditions. But when I’m with my Mexican friends, I’m 100 percent Mexican — I love going to soccer games, for example.

The best of both worlds

Luís Chiu tries the kebabs at a street stall. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicholas Gilman

Luís Chiu tries the kebabs at a street stall. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicholas Gilman

N.G.: How did you become interested in traditional Chinese cooking?

L.C.: There were no regional Chinese restaurants in Mexico, so I saw an emerging market for more sophisticated people who were ready for “the real thing.” I went to Shanghai to study, and in 2011 I opened Asian Bay.

N.G.: What was your impression of Chengdu?

L.C.: I had been to other places in China, which were more westernized. I was impressed by how much old stuff was preserved. I loved the teahouses, markets and how there’s even street food. What struck me about Sichuan is that the people are very warm, as if they were Latino. They smile, greet you, chat with you, ask where you’re from. And especially, they are so proud of their culinary traditions. It’s like Mexico in that way. I was especially impressed by what love people have for their food. How there were lines of people to buy those bao, (steamed pork-filled buns) or to eat dumplings, noodles. How they look at you when they serve the dishes — they’re not so used to seeing foreigners, so I really think they wanted to impress us.

N.G.: Would you tell us something about what you ate?

L.C.: The ma-la was so strong, like nothing I’ve ever tasted! (He was referring to the combination of “ma,” the numbing of the peppers, and “la,” the spiciness of the chilies.)

Lessons from the trip

Chef Luís Chiu looks over the offerings at the spice market in Chengdu. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicholas Gilman

Chef Luís Chiu looks over the offerings at the spice market in Chengdu. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicholas Gilman

N.G.: And what about the spice market?

L.C.: I was so impressed with that market because we wanted to see the “raw China,” and there it was — nothing Western, another world. Spices we’d never seen. And those chilies that came originally from Mexico. I really had no idea what all these things taste and smell like because imported products are of such low quality. Here it was the epicenter of this food.

N.G.: What, ultimately, did you learn from this journey?

L.C.: I left with more questions than I came with. It makes me want to delve even deeper into this complex cuisine. It’s kind of like Mexican cooking in the sense that ingredients are combined to create totally new flavors, like alchemy. They’re powerful, exciting. The journey made me realize that to cook food even if it comes from your own tradition, you have to know that culture from the inside. So to attempt to reproduce something when you are home is a real challenge. It can’t come from the heart if it’s superficial, if you don’t know the original.

Main photo: Mexican chef Luís Chiu tries a bevy of dishes during his culinary tour of Chengdu. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicholas Gilman

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Main photo: Contestants battle with eggs last Easter Monday in the town of Fanano, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Each year on Easter Monday, residents of Fanano, a picturesque hill town in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, arm themselves with hard-boiled eggs to do battle in the village square. Young and old alike participate in this centuries-old tradition that started in the sixth century as a way for townsfolk of all social levels, nobility and commoners, rich and poor, to compete on a level battlefield for a day.

Eggs have long been a symbol of Easter and even back in pagan times were associated with new life and springtime. Eggs were especially highly valued as food in medieval times, so winning an egg was considered quite a prize, with the poorer folks hoping their winnings might feed the family for several days.

Cracking Contests

Brightly colored Easter eggs are distributed to townspeople in Italy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Brightly colored Easter eggs are distributed to townspeople in Italy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Young and old alike today compete in this ancient “Cracking Contest” — Coccin Cocetto. How do you play? Each participant puts an egg onto a long wooden board and gathers round. A designated person randomly selects eggs from the row and distributes them to the first two contestants, who square off and bang their eggs together. The person whose egg cracks first loses. The winner takes possession of the broken egg, and then battles the next opponent. One contestant must hold his egg still, while the other hits it. Who gets to hit is determined either by a coin flip or by shooting odds or evens.

“It isn’t about luck,” explained Massimo, a dapper resident who has been playing, and often winning, for over 60 years. “You can win if you are the one holding still or hitting. Each has a technique.” He then went on to beat this author six times in a row, alternating between being the hitter and the hit-ee!

Most locals bring their own hard-boiled eggs to the event, but the town graciously provides colorful eggs free of charge for anyone who didn’t bring their own.

While in Fanano, you can continue the medieval theme with a visit to the town’s lovely 11th-century Montefiorino Fortress and exquisite ninth-century Romanesque church. There are also lovely trails for hiking and biking nearby. After you’ve worked up an appetite, be sure to stay for lunch or dinner.

Like all food in Emilia-Romagna, the local fare is indescribably delicious. Traditional dishes include crescentine, the area’s famed flat bread; gnocco fritto, fried squares of dough; and rosette, rolls of fresh pasta filled with cheese and topped with meat sauce.

The day after Easter, called Pasquetta or Il Lunedi dell’Angelo, “Angel’s Monday,” is a day off throughout Italy, and Italians traditionally go on picnics. Typical picnic foods include raw fava beans eaten with pecorino cheese and casatello, savory bread filled with proscuitto and cheese topped with hard-boiled eggs still in their shells. Celebrate spring with basotti, a traditional Emilia-Romagna dish made with egg noodles

Basotti (Crunchy-Tender Pasta Squares)

An easy to assemble Basotti recipe is made with egg pasta. Credit: Courtesy of Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes of Italy (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) by Francine Segan

An easy-to-assemble Basotti recipe is made with egg pasta. Credit: Courtesy of “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes of Italy” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang), by Francine Segan

Courtesy of “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes of Italy” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang), by Francine Segan

This recipe is simple to assemble, but must be made with egg pasta, either fresh or dried. You’ll only need 1/2 pound of pasta, as egg pasta expands as it bakes and absorbs the cheese and broth. Speaking of broth, since it provides most of the flavor, it’s best to use homemade.

Prep time: 5 minutes
Bake time: 40 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

10 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons finely ground bread crumbs

1/2 pound egg tagliolini or another very thin egg noodle

About 2 cups grated Grana Padano or other aged cheese

Nutmeg

4 cups rich pork, beef or chicken broth, preferably homemade

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 400 F. Generously butter an 8 x 15-inch metal baking pan and sprinkle with bread crumbs.

2. Put half of the uncooked pasta in the pan and top with 5 tablespoons of very thinly sliced butter, 3/4 cup of the grated cheese and 1 tablespoon freshly grated nutmeg. Add the remaining pasta, in a thin scattered layer, on top. Top with another 5 tablespoons of very thinly sliced butter and more nutmeg.

3. Bring the stock to a boil. Ladle over the pasta until just covered. Sprinkle with 3/4 cup grated cheese. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until firm to the touch.

4. Raise the oven to 475 F.

5. Top pasta with 1/2 cup grated cheese, and bake for a few minutes until crispy on top.

Main photo: Contestants battle with eggs last Easter Monday in the town of Fanano, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

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Red snapper ceviche at Paladar Vistamar. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Havana is back in the news. For more than half a century, Cuba has been off limits to Americans. With the reopening of the American Embassy in August 2015, tourists are flocking to Havana. The city is bustling with new restaurants, hotels, clubs, bars and paladars, the uniquely Cuban restaurant created in a family’s home.

The paladar movement began after the Soviet Union stopped subsidizing Cuba in what is called the “Special Period,” when the economy suffered greatly. The government experimented with private enterprise and allowed a few private citizens to turn their homes into restaurants.

In 1999, we ate at La Guarida, a paladar on the third floor of a dilapidated building with an auto repair shop on the bottom floor. Walking up the curved staircase, we passed tiny apartments, their doors open to allow for the circulation of air.

Made famous as the location for the classic Cuban film, “Strawberries and Chocolate” (“Fresa y chocolate”), La Guarida was a restaurant created inside a small apartment. Customers ate in what had been the living room. Another room had also been cleared of its furniture to make way for a dozen small tables and chairs. Plates of chicken with rice and vegetables were served, and I remember we were charged for bread. All in all, the food was good but not special except that by 1999-Havana-standards, the quality was very good.

Fast forward to 2015 and a return to La Guarida found the restaurant in the same peeling, dilapidated building. Cars were still parked inside the building on the ground floor and the restaurant was still reached by climbing up the broad staircase to the third floor.

But La Guarida no longer looked like a family’s apartment. The restaurant now takes up the entire floor with a large kitchen, sleek modern bathrooms and large, expansive rooms decorated with crystal chandeliers and quality paintings. Sitting in any of the dining rooms or the small bar, you could imagine you were in London or New York. The menu no longer has home-cooked favorites such as chicken with rice and vegetables. La Guarida’s fine-dining cuisine would be easily found in Paris or Berlin with prices to match.

A dining room at La Guarida. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

A dining room at La Guarida. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Like La Guarida, many paladars no longer look like private homes. Paladar Vistamar is in an upscale neighborhood of 1950s modernist houses. Located on the second floor, the restaurant occupies what was once the living room and terrace. The dining areas are framed by a floor-to-ceiling glass wall on the ocean-facing side of the building. Eat outside on the covered terrace and you will have the best view of the ocean and the pool below.

When we had lunch on a sunny, clear day, the ocean still churned from a storm that had passed over the island the night before. Waves crashed against a concrete retaining wall and swept across the pool.

Pork, chicken and rabbit were on the menu, but given the proximity to the ocean, we chose seafood. A red snapper ceviche was fresh and bright. A green salad with freshly cooked shrimp and lobster was beautifully presented, although foreigners were advised to avoid eating leafy greens because of problems with the quality of the water. On the advice of the waitress, we ordered sides of the delicious, soupy black beans and steamed rice or as they are called here Moors and Christians (“moros y cristianos”). To finish the meal, a light flan with fresh fruit was served as dessert along with cups of Cuban espresso.

For Americans, a stay in Havana always involves conversations about the current state of relations between the two countries and what will happen when the embargo ends.

Walking around the tourist areas of Old Havana (La Habana Vieja), you might be tempted to believe that Cuba has returned to a capitalist culture. That would be a mistake. Havana is a city living in two worlds. In the tourist sections of the city, capitalist-socialism is very much in evidence. Wide boulevards have been recently paved. Hotels are being constructed within sight of José Martí Square in Old Havana.

Chef Boris Panta in the kitchen at Paladar Vistamar platting red snapper ceviche. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Chef Boris Panta in the kitchen at Paladar Vistamar platting red snapper ceviche. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

The other Havana is a few blocks from the neighborhoods visited by foreigners. On those streets, the pavement is potholed and the buildings are in a state of decay. Of course there are beautiful suburbs outside of the Old City and Central Havana. But most of Havana suffers from the effects of poverty and the consequences of the embargo.

Part of a larger complex, El Cocinero is next door to one of Havana’s cultural sensations, Fábrica de Cubano Arte, known locally as F.A.C. or Fábrica. An artist collective originally subsidized by the Cuban government, Fábrica is the ultimate hyphenate. Café, art gallery, screening room, lecture space, dance hall and bar, the expansive former peanut oil factory has dozens of rooms that are filled every night by hundreds of young Cubans. When you visit El Cocinero and after you have eaten and enjoyed one of their delicious, light-as-air piña coladas, definitely follow the music to Fábrica where you can dance until 3:00 a.m.

Since the “Special Period,” paladars have blossomed into a subculture and have transformed the Havana culinary scene. Now the paladar is an iconic feature of the new Havana as much as the 1950s American cars that are everywhere in the city. As you make a shortlist of paladars you must visit on your trip to Havana, Ivan Chef Justo deserves to be at the top of your list along with La Guarida. The handiwork of two chefs who used to cook for Fidel Castro, Ivan Chef Justo is a soulfully curated vision of a traditional paladar. Family photographs line the walls along with portraits of 1950s Hollywood celebrities. Relying on small private farms for their ingredients, Ivan Chef Justo, like many paladars, is pursuing a farm-to-table program long popular in the United States but new in Cuba.

The sign on the outside of the paladar La Guarida. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

The sign on the outside of the paladar La Guarida. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

When we ate at Ivan Chef Justo, we were part of a large party. We were served family style with large platters filling the center of the table. Lobster stew with carrots, mashed yucca, Moors and Christians, roast chicken and, my favorite, roast pork with crispy lacquered skin, were eaten with relish.

During our week-long stay in Havana, we ate most of our meals in paladars. Talking with other travelers, we heard about their favorite paladars and we told them about ours. If you have friends traveling to Cuba, ask them which paladars they enjoyed and check La Habana online (www.lahabana.com). Because the more popular paladars are booked months in advance, email the hotel concierge to request reservations so you don’t miss out. And bring a lot of American dollars to exchange for the local currency called C.U.C.s (“cukes”) because, as of this writing, American and European credit cards are not accepted inside Cuba.

Paladars of Havana:

  • El Cocinero Paladar (Calle 26, Vedado, between Calle 11 and 13,  +53 7 832 2355)
  • Fábrica de Cubano Arte (Calle 26, between Calles 11 and 13, Equina 11, Vedado,  +53 7 838-2260)
  • Ivan Chef Justo (Aguacate 9, Esquina Chacon, close to the Museum of the Revolution in Old Havana, +53 7 863-9697 and +53 5 343-8540)
  • La Guarida (Concordia. No. 418, between Gervasio and Escobar, +53 7 8669047)
  • Paladar Vistamar (Avenida 1, 2206, between Calles 22 and 24, Miramar, +53 7 203 8328)
  • Rio Mar (Aveneda 3rd and Final # 11, La Puntilla, Miramar,  +53 7 209 4838)

 

Main photo: Red snapper ceviche at Paladar Vistamar. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

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A traditional potjie is made with tough cuts of meat, then layered with hard vegetables. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone

South Africa’s potjie — the country’s iconic three-legged cast iron pot and culinary workhorse — is a centuries-old piece of cooking equipment experiencing a contemporary revival now in its fourth decade.

In recent years, the potjie has almost taken on the power of a magic cauldron in South African society: It’s the place in which a hearty one-pot meal (called potjiekos) is cooked over an outdoor fire and over which people of all backgrounds enjoy being together outdoors. Yet while potjiekos is today a beloved ritual that even inspires contemporary chefs, for generations it was significantly overlooked.

Iron pots a tradition

South Africa’s potjies, being sold at a market, are centuries-old pieces of cooking equipment. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone

South Africa’s potjies, being sold at a market, are centuries-old pieces of cooking equipment. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone

Outdoor cooking was a tradition in South Africa before colonial times, with the country’s indigenous people cooking in clay pots over open fires. According to author and potjie expert Dine van Zyl, “The Dutch settlers brought iron pots to South Africa from Europe, where they had been hung from hooks over fireplaces. These Afrikaners hung the pots from their wagons when they trekked … the potjie was their whole kitchen. When they camped, they’d make a fire and cook whatever they had; some salted meat and maybe some dried apricots. They’d also use what was available … seafood if near the coast, or game if they were in the interior.”

Everything changed with the advent of the stove, about 100 years ago. “People could easily cook in their kitchens and no longer needed potjies. The pot was used only nostalgically, on hunting, fishing or camping trips, or it sat on a front stoep (veranda), planted with a geranium.”

Then, in the ’80s, Van Zyl had an aha moment. While living on a farm without electricity, she was forced to turn to a potjie pot over an indoor fireplace. One night, friends joined her and they made a potjie outside. “I looked at my friends singing, dancing and cooking under the stars and I realized that potjiekos gives South Africans exactly what they want and need. It’s much more than cooking,” she said. “If you want to only cook, you do it on the stove.”

Van Zyl wrote the first book on potjiekos in 1983, which led to a popular revival that hasn’t stopped. “One wonderful thing about potjies is that they got men cooking. For the first time ever, men and women sat around the fire together, cutting up the meat and the vegetables.”

A potjie is traditionally made with tough cuts of meat, often lamb or beef neck or shin, or oxtail. The meat is seared first in the hot pot, then onions and spices, followed by a small amount of liquid are added. Then the layering up begins: first the hard vegetables like carrots and potatoes, then those requiring less cooking time, like green beans and cabbage — all vegetables that have been collectively cut up around the fire. The lid goes on and the pot simmers and steams unstirred for several hours, while everybody socializes.

As for the no-stirring rule, Van Zyl says it’s a tradition based on sensible cooking. “While the different components should all be perfectly cooked, which is why it’s layered, it’s nonsense that it must look like a cassata,” she said. “While you don’t mix it, toward the end you can ‘pull it through’ — place your spoon at the bottom of the pot and gently lift some of the meat and gravy to the top. Otherwise it becomes a mess when people start digging.”

Tradition gets a modern twist

Chef Bertus Basson judges a potjiekos during a competition of "The Ultimate Braai Master." Credit: Courtesy of "The Ultimate Braai Master."

Chef Bertus Basson judges a potjiekos during a competition of “The Ultimate Braai Master.” Credit: Courtesy of “The Ultimate Braai Master.”

Now, the tradition is fueling one of South Africa’s hottest chefs. In his mid-30s, Bertus Basson is chef patron of acclaimed Overture Restaurant in the Cape Winelands. His tasting menus are sophisticated and distinctly modern South African, rooted in local flavors and sensibility. While Overture and a second restaurant, Bertus Basson at Spice Route, are indoor kitchens, Basson’s creativity is stoked by outdoor fire and smoke. He often hits the road with outdoor pop-ups, and he is a regular judge on The Ultimate Braai Master, a grueling 60-day outdoor cooking reality TV show going into its fifth season.

Which is why it’s not surprising that potjie will soon be on Basson’s menu. When an easy dining annex to Overture is completed, it will feature open pit cooking with an installation of potjie pots. Basson is also hitting the festival circuit with a mobile spit fitted with potjie hooks.

“I grew up with potjies. My favorite was my father’s lamb shin pot braised in a little Worcestershire sauce and beer,”  Basson said. He is quick to point out that when talking potjies, the layering method is the traditional Afrikaner way; it’s only one way to use a potjie pot. “South Africans of all backgrounds are cooking with potjie pots, whether Afrikaans, black African, or other, and what they cook and how they cook it differs. In addition, there are three-legged pots and also flat-bottomed pots, which are used for baking — my mom makes a kick-ass apple tart in hers. Potjies have survived generations. In fact, it’s traditional to pass on the pots, which just get better with age.”

In a country with a history of division, shared traditions are important. “Chefs have a responsibility to help South Africans celebrate our food and what we are, which can ultimately break down barriers,” said Basson.

Main photo: A traditional potjie is made with tough cuts of meat, then layered with hard vegetables. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone

 

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A crate of Ojai Pixies ready for purchase. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Beaches and show biz bring coastal Southern California its fame, fortune and visitors. For many they represent the epitome of California living. But head inland and you’ll find that agriculture is the star of the show. Even though farm country isn’t Hollywood, it has a way of making its own magic. Get your hands on an Ojai Pixie and you’ll understand what I mean.

No, I’m not talking about a cartoon fairy with sparkly dust. I’m talking about Pixie tangerines. Approximately 25,000 Pixie trees are rooted in Ojai Valley, about an hour and a half north of Los Angeles; their fruits make up less than 1% of the state’s tangerine crop, yet slowly but surely they’re making a name for themselves in faraway places.

The roots of Pixie pride

A Pixie fresh off the tree. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

A Pixie fresh off the tree. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Sweet, seedless and easy to peel, Pixies typically begin ripening in March and hang around through May or June. Folks here love these tasty fruits so much they host a four-week festival dedicated to celebrating their natural sugar rush: April is Ojai Tangerine Pixie Month, when Pixie pride is at its strongest and tastiest.

A tour around Friend’s Ranch will teach you everything you ever needed to know and then some about Pixies. Five generations of Friends have lived and farmed in Ojai (and the sixth is currently growing up in the orchards, where they spend time playing and tasting).

A grower’s glory

In the groves at Friend's Ranch. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

In the groves at Friend’s Ranch. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Family members Emily T. Ayala and her brother George Thacher take visitors of all ages into the orchard to taste the very sweet fruit of their labor. Guests are invited to pick off the trees and taste as they learn about the Pixie and what makes it different from other tangerines. Seedless and a snap to peel, Pixies can vary in size and appearance, but in general they are small, 1-3 inches, with easily separated segments. “We won’t pick it if it doesn’t taste good,” says Ayala.

Getting messy is encouraged. Thacher carries a handy backpack with everything you could possibly need for your time among the trees, even baby wipes to tackle the inevitable sticky fingers.

“It’s just a fun place to be,” he says.

Pixie tangerine dreams

A visual feast of Ojai fruits and flowers. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

A visual feast of Ojai fruits and flowers. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

For such a little fruit, it seems to have brought the community of Ojai together in a big way. Take a walk through its small downtown and you’ll see signs everywhere: in clothing stores and boutiques, book stores and restaurants, tabletop displays that include tangerines mixed in with the flowers. 

Every chef at every restaurant has a favorite way of showing off the fruit. Family-run Knead Baking Co. is famous among locals and tourists alike for its citrus syrup cake with fresh Pixie juice. Throughout April, Ojai Valley Brewery’s White Pixie Ale will be poured at Azu California Tapas.

If you want to try your hand at creating a Pixie-inspired dish, you can juice up a weekend getaway with a cooking class at the Lavender Inn, where you’ll prepare such dishes as citrus-marinated whitefish crudo and tangerine chicken. Save room for the Pixie-fennel shortbread served with tangerine-orange curd. Ojai’s Mediterranean climate is ideal for picnics, so after your lesson, you can enjoy your creations at a table in the inn’s sunny garden.

As good for cocktails as cuisine

Sunshine in a glass. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Sunshine in a glass. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Craft cocktails at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa take on a citrus theme all season; from whiskey and gin to tequila and vanilla-flavored vodka, it’s amazing what happens when you add a little squeeze of tangerine juice. The Pixology Cocktail Class includes a demonstration and sampling of two cocktails, including margaritas that pack a tasty punch. Pixies have also squeezed their way into the resort’s spa, where Pixie Tangerine Body Scrub and a pampering Body Polish Spa Treatment are available from March through June when the tangerines are harvested.

Drinking in the view

A view of the Ojai Valley. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

A view of the Ojai Valley. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Work off all those Pixie calories with a power hike; Shelf Road is a quick 15-minute walk from downtown. The 1.5-mile trail is mostly level and easy to walk, run or bike and delivers great views. Expect a friendly dog or two. Citrus trees hang over the trail fences and all fruit in reach is fair game: Peels scattered along the way prove outdoor enthusiasts eat well along the trail — as everywhere else in Ojai.

Note: Dana’s trip was hosted by the Ojai Visitors Bureau, but as always her thoughts and opinions are her own.

Main photo: A crate of Ojai Pixies ready for purchase. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann 

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A barrel of Vin Jaune is carried through the streets at the opening of La Percée. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Every year since 1997, a merry band of winemakers and faithful volunteers have staged a Bacchanalian winter wine festival in the heart of France’s Jura region. Known as La Percée du Vin Jaune, it’s the moment when the new vintage of the Jura’s famous Vin Jaune (literally “yellow wine”) is unveiled.

Made from the distinctive Savagnin grape using a process akin to that used for making sherry, protected from spoilage by a shroud of yeast and tucked away in cellar corners throughout the Jura, the wine slumbers in its barrel for more than six years. When ready to be bottled, the precious wine is drawn off from beneath its yeasty layer, transferred into stout little bottles called clavelins, labeled and released onto the market. At the opening of La Percée, a barrel full of wine is hoisted onto the shoulders of strapping young vignerons and carried through the streets. After a series of florid speeches in honor of the famous wine, the barrel is ceremonially broached, the golden liquid bursts forth, glasses are waved wildly in the air and the festival is declared open.

Better with age

Some grand old bottles of Vin Jaune are sold at auction each year at La Percée. This one, from 1928, went under the hammer at $500. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Some grand old bottles of Vin Jaune are sold at auction each year at La Percée. This one, from 1928, went under the hammer at $500. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Some of the year’s Vin Jaune will be squirreled away in cellars where it will live to a grand old age. A 1928 bottle went under the hammer at $800 (€720) at last year’s traditional auction of old bottles. Much, though, will be uncorked as soon as released. The best and most typical way to enjoy this distinctive wine is alongside a pungent hunk of aged, salt-speckled Comté. In the Jura, they splash it liberally into the legendary dish Poulet au Vin Jaune et aux Morilles, a triumph of local cuisine in which a Bresse chicken is bathed in a delectable creamy, mushroomy sauce, which is enlivened with the famous yellow wine.

Many people expect Vin Jaune to be sweet. In fact, it is shockingly dry — think Manzanilla sherry rather than tawny port. Seasoned tasters invoke spicy, nutty flavors and praise its structure, complexity and longevity. Vin Jaune virgins are more likely to pull a funny face, like the apocryphal Yorkshireman on holiday on Spain’s Costa del Sol upon meeting his first olive. They are caught off guard by its dryness and find disconcerting hints of curry, resin or boot polish. It’s definitely an acquired taste.

A festive celebration of Vin Jaune

Members of Les Ambassadeurs des Vins Jaunes, elegantly clad in the colors of the famous wine, lead the procession at La Percée. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Members of Les Ambassadeurs des Vins Jaunes, elegantly clad in the colors of the famous wine, lead the procession at La Percée. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

For stores that stock Vin Jaune in your neighborhood, consult www.winesearcher.com.

While the Percée is a (fairly) serious affair in which the new season’s wine is honored first by the local bishop and then introduced to an expectant audience, this is chiefly a pretext for a joyous winter street party. Throngs of people are bused in from all over the Jura; many more make the trek from Lyon, France, or neighboring Switzerland. There’s even a handful of visitors from the United Kingdom, United States, Japan and China, curious to sample this extraordinary wine.

Because the Percée is held on either the last weekend in January or the first in February, the weather is always freezing, so everyone is swaddled in warm clothes. Some wear full fancy dress, others have mad hats. All are bent on having a good time, sampling and buying wine from the 70 wine growers whose stands are dotted liberally around the town.

Tasting time

Selected bottles of Vin Jaune assembled for tasting at the 2015 Percée. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Selected bottles of Vin Jaune assembled for tasting at the 2015 Percée. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

A modest entrance fee buys a 4-ounce glass and a booklet of 10 tasting tickets. Thus, it’s quite possible to down an impressive quantity of wine between midday, when the festival opens, and 6 p.m., closing time — and many do. Happily, leaving the event under your own steam is not just discouraged, it’s impossible. Fleets of shuttle buses ferry people in from neighboring villages and towns, a precaution designed partly to keep cars out of the small towns and tiny villages that play host to the festival (the venue changes every year) and partly to keep well-lubricated merrymakers from taking the wheel afterward.

It would be an exaggeration to say sobriety is the order of the day. Yet the Percée is famously good-humored rather than rowdy, a popular festival in every sense (drawing 40,000 visitors this year). After this year’s event, held Feb. 6 and 7, in Lons-le-Saunier, the extraordinary festival that takes months of planning and countless hours of volunteer labor will take a two-year break. This will allow the organizers and winemakers to regroup, take stock and consider whether the festival in its current format best serves the reputation of the unique wines of the Jura region. One thing is for sure: If and when the show returns in 2017, it will be wearing new clothes.

Main photo: A barrel of Vin Jaune is carried through the streets at the opening of La Percée. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

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

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

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

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

Eating in Belfast

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drinking in Belfast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shopping in Belfast

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

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

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

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

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