Articles in Travel
Cooking over an open flame under star-filled skies can evoke romantic thoughts: The life of the cowboy, though dusty and hard by day, becomes almost blissful under the glow of the moon. When you’re surrounded by nature and all the fresh air you can inhale, food just magically tastes better, or so the home-on-the-range story goes. But fast-forward to the modern-day chuck wagon: You, standing at your outdoor grill, staring at a piece of raw meat and a burning fire. Things can quickly go up in flames.
The simple truth is that barbecue — the kind you want to sink your teeth into — takes talent and skill; luck and courage can only get you so far. Like many home cooks, I consider the grill a backyard basic, but my comfort zone is in the kitchen. So when I was invited to attend BBQ Bootcamp at The Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort, I packed my bag and headed south to Solvang, California, with mustang speed.
Forget workouts at a gym: At this boot camp, the heat of multiple grills are what make you sweat, and instead of lifting weights, you’ll be faced with meatier challenges, like squeezing tongs around pieces of meat that could feed small families and mixing custom spice blends. Neither of which, by the way, is easy.
If you’re a nervous Nellie in the kitchen, the drive to The Alisal should help you relax. The route takes you through the windmill haven of Solvang, also known as Little Denmark. Founded in the early 1900s by Danish-Americans, it’s a good place to get a sugar fix. Solvang Restaurant on Copenhagen Drive has a take-out window, making it way too easy to grab an order of aebleskivers and go. Hard to pronounce but fun to eat, these pancake-doughnut hybrids are traditionally served with raspberry jam and powdered sugar; still, the à la mode option is hard to pass up. Wander a while if you want — you’re only a couple minutes away from the ranch. But you don’t want to be late for dinner.
Vacation on a working ranch
The “I’m on vacation” feeling should sink in when you turn into The Alisal’s long, sycamore-lined driveway. Barnyard animals linger, horses munch happily on what seem to be never-ending stretches of green grass, and the sight of a pay phone outside the lobby makes you laugh — until you check for what is a most likely a nonexistent cell-phone signal. The front desk has change if you need it (along with mugs full of Tootsie Roll Pops).
At 10,000 cattle strong, The Alisal is a working ranch; the 73 cottage-style rooms and suites are just a small portion of this scenic Central Coast property. But it’s one with a dress code. Comfortable play clothes are encouraged by day, but come dinner, bandannas get left in the dust. Men don jackets, while women and children put on party duds.
Old West style
Cowboys might consider their retirement options after spending a night in one of The Alisal’s cottages. Old West linens gussy up beds made of tree branches. Fireplaces burn wood delivered by the morning maid. There’s no need to set out on the range for necessary supplies; all you need is a key to the door (a real metal one, not a plastic card). BBQ Bootcamp students receive a welcome basket loaded with gourmet grilling rubs and libations to help prepare for the meaty workshops ahead.
BBQ Bootcamp is a joint effort between Alisal executive chef Pascal Godé and Frank Ostini, chef-owner of the nearby Hitching Post II, which gained fame after the release of the Academy Award-winning movie “Sideways.” The two chefs focus on the art of Santa Maria-style grilling, a different beast than its well-known Southern cousin.
Mastering open-flame cooking
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Grilling over a hot fire cooks foods more quickly than do the low and slow methods often used in the South — and here’s where much of the trouble begins for novices. Meat that’s burned on the outside yet raw on the inside is too often what sends the uneducated back into the kitchen.
On the first night of BBQ Bootcamp, professionals man numerous, monster-sized, wood-fired grills, offering tips and techniques as they cook everything from beef tri-tip and New York strips to artichokes and bacon-wrapped scallops. Lecturing is limited and notetaking is not a necessity. All students receive a Bootcamp bible of sorts. Along with expected recipes, the spiral-bound book gives a comprehensive yet understandable overview of the differences between wood, gas and charcoal grilling. In this stretch of the world, adjustable, wood-burning iron grills are the apparatus of choice, and red oak is the preferred fuel for the fire.
Relax, eat and drink. Tomorrow, the work begins.
Rise and shine
When the alarm goes off, bootcampers have to resist the temptation to linger or their ride to breakfast will leave without them. Clothes that can get a little dusty are essential, and you’ll understand why when you arrive at the barn. Once you’re saddled up, the commute to breakfast begins. There are no traffic signals to slow you down, just fast-moving deer and the occasional bovine roadblock to distract you.
The buffet is loaded with all sorts of good grub, ranging from fruit and pastries to hash browns and biscuits and gravy. The griddle is manned by a resident pancake artist who dishes up flapjacks (sometimes bigger than your plate) that make even mom’s seem suddenly ordinary. But be careful not to overindulge: The ride back to the ranch may shake up your breakfast a bit. “There’s a reason they call it horse riding, not horse sitting,” says Dick, an Alisal wrangler with 35 years of experience under his shiny cowboy belt.
You’ll have just enough time after your morning ride to take a power nap or play a game of horseshoes; then the afternoon spice-blending workshop begins. A pinch of this and a pinch of that: The formula doesn’t sound so hard until you’re standing in front of a table with 30-plus seasonings to choose from.
“Steak can take heavy spices,” says Godé, adding, “Go lighter on fish. You want to taste your halibut. You want to taste your salmon.” Purchasing spices from a reliable source to ensure their purity and freshness seems to be the golden rule.
Manning the grill
When Alisal’s pleasant-sounding dinner bell rings loud and clear on day two, bootcampers won’t hear it, because they’ll already be grillside, heatedly plotting their first move. Amid the basting and flipping, their nervousness will be eased by grill masters standing by and an endless flow of locally brewed Firestone Walker beer and wine from Ferguson Crest (a Santa Ynez Valley winery founded by Pat Ferguson and his daughter Fergie — yes, that Fergie).
When it’s all said and done, wannabe cowboys and cowgirls might truthfully do more eating than barbecuing, but there will still be plenty of stories to tell when everyone sits down for the night — home on the range not by a campfire, but poolside with heat lamps.
The next BBQ Bootcamp is set for Oct. 28-30, 2015. Giddy up!
Main photo: Steaks on the grill at The Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann
Traveling to Europe this summer? If your plans include Italy, Germany, France, England, Spain, Sweden, Belgium or Denmark, Zester Daily’s community of food writers knows a few restaurants you won’t want to miss. These are our favorite spots — our personal bucket list of dining destinations we share with our closest friends.
The most important thing for us is the food. It has to be exceptional. But we also love beautiful places and nice people, so rest assured that our favorite spots will feed you body and soul. Alfresco dining ranks high on our preferences. And we are equally fond of the culinary extremes of cutting-edge innovation and home-spun comfort. We celebrate cultural traditions wherever they are delivered with care and an emphasis on freshness and flavor.
As you chart your European vacation, allow for side trips to these delightful dining rooms. Some will dazzle you. Others will enfold you. None will disappoint. Happy travels!
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Main photo: High on a peak in the Dolomites — accessible only by gondola, horse-driven carriage or skis – sits Gostner Schwaige, a rustic cabin where chef Franz Mulser serves exquisite South Tyrolean cuisine. Credit: Copyright 2015 South Tyrol Marketing Corporation
Before the advent of TV’s “MasterChef,” master chef Michel Guérard was already on the gastronomic front lines. He was one of the key activators of the nouvelle cuisine movement in France in the 1970s, which refreshed France’s culture of heavy, rich dishes, and has been pushing for light, healthy, seasonal food ever since.
Today, he continues that commitment in the cooking school he’s recently opened on his estate.
Teaching chefs to cook for health
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At Les Prés d’Eugénie, Guérard also runs several hotels, restaurants and a treatment center.
Food as a cure for what ails us
Guérard has always believed that we truly are what we eat, and that food — fresh, light food — can cure us from many of the illnesses that beset the modern world.
The cooking school is aimed at professional chefs and at people preparing food in schools, hospitals, homes for the elderly and for others with special dietary requirements. It brings together current knowledge on key medical problems – such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease — and proposes eating plans for each. The teaching focuses on cuisine that is both healthy — with reduced calories, fats and sugar — and pleasurable, in what Guérard calls cuisine minceur.
“You must never compromise on flavor,” says Guérard. Situated in a luminous, state-of-the-art kitchen overlooking the gardens of Les Prés d’Eugénie, l’Ecole de Cuisine de Santé offers professional courses for groups of up to 10 cooks for one or two weeks.
Beyond a diet of grated carrots
“When I started observing what the patients who came for the thermal cures were eating, I too was depressed by the heaps of grated carrots that were placed before them, topped at the last moment with improvised dressings,” Guérard says.
“I saw an opening for a new kind of healthy cuisine that could inspire people with special needs in their diets to look forward to eating, and to make profound changes in their eating habits that would remain with them for life.”
In his spiced crab on grapefruit jelly with citrus mousse, Guérard demonstrates some of his core principles: that seafood and meats can be cooked without fats, butters or creams to produce vibrant dishes. Even dishes on the three-star Michelin Grand Table menu are cooked with natural flair and a light touch. For example, fresh herbs and citrus notes add zest and flavor to shellfish without leaving the diner feeling heavy.
Slimming cuisine based on research
Cuisine minceur is not achieved by simply reducing fats, sugars and calories. It is based on experience and nutritional research. After Guérard published his first book on the subject in the mid-1970s, “La Grande Cuisine Minceur,” he was approached by the Nestlé group to help them develop a line of frozen foods that would reflect the healthy approach of his new cuisine.
“I was fortunate to continue this consultancy for 27 years, and thus to have access to the latest scientific research into diet, nutrition, physical exercise, thermal treatments and every aspect of this discipline,” he says. “And throughout, I never lost my conviction that pleasure must always play an important part in eating, no matter what the calorie count!”
You can eat dessert on a diet
The desserts at the restaurant and in the cuisine minceur cookbooks have also been overhauled. (No surprise there, for Guérard is a master pastry chef who won the Meilleur Ouvrier de France, which honors the creative trade professions, for pâtisserie in 1958). Each dessert recipe comes with a calorie count that varies depending on which sweetener has been used, be it sugar, honey, fructose, xylitol or aspartame. Most three-course meal combinations total less than 600 calories, so they are well suited to those who are cooking for the popular 5:2 diet (in which people are limited to 500-600 calories for two days out of seven). For those who want to learn more about Guérard’s cuisine, his seminal cookbook has recently been translated into English. “Eat Well and Stay Slim: The Essential Cuisine Minceur” offers full instructions for dozens of his delicious dishes.
A dynamic and lasting legacy
Guérard has never abandoned his commitment to lighter, healthier food, as the new cooking school attests. Today, his philosophy is bearing fruit as the word about cuisine minceur and its methods spreads within the food community in France and beyond. It’s a fitting legacy for such a dynamic grand master, whose revolutions in the kitchen continue to impact on our eating habits, every day.
Main photo: Chef Michel Guérard. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo
At a time when sea stocks are widely under threat, savvy chefs are turning their attention to the gourmet potential offered by freshwater fish. And when the catch is from Lake Garda in this glorious region in the north of Italy, where the scent of Mediterranean citrus meets sweet Alpine meadows, it gives the food-loving traveler even more reason to visit a place whose classical beauty captivated German novelist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe among many others.
Popular holiday destination
Garda has long been a popular holiday destination for both the families of Verona, many of whom have elegant holiday villas strung out along the shore, and for northern Europeans coming south to seek tranquility in the sun, crystal clear air, and bracing mountain and water pursuits.
It’s a heady, romantic destination with a Grand European Tour history although today’s visitors are less likely to be found sedately sketching castle ruins and more likely to be jogging, playing golf at world-class courses, paragliding, diving, sailing or simply having a zen moment on the shore of Italy’s largest lake.
Fishing on Lake Garda
For centuries, fishing was one of the mainstays of Gardenese life. From a peak of 700 fishermen earning their living from the lake in the 19th century, there are now only about 120. Although fish stocks are plentiful, some diners still need to be persuaded to try an alternative to the variety of fish that arrive from the nearby Adriatic and Mediterranean seas. Some small-scale fish farming also occurs: in the Trentino foothills of the Dolomites, the family-run Trota Oro farms trout, char and chub, which they also sell smoked and marinated.
Fish & Chef is an annual gastronomic festival of cookery shows and gourmet meals held in the early summer and designed to highlight the produce of the region. Michelin-starred hotels and restaurants participate in friendly competition and tickets to the gala dinners are quickly snapped up by enthusiastic locals and visitors alike.
It’s a recognition that increasingly, chefs from both Garda and the rest of Italy and Europe are exploring the exciting possibilities of cooking with environmentally friendly freshwater fish such as rainbow trout, pike, carp, perch, bleak, tench, char and freshwater sardines. If lucky, you may find some rare brown trout, although the fishing is subject to tight restrictions.
Fish & Chef competition
At this year’s festival, the sixth, Chef Marco Sacco of the two Michelin-star restaurant Piccolo Lago in Verbena created a stunning arrangement of sushi for the Fish & Chef gala dinner held at the lovely Hotel Regina Adelaide hotel in Garda. And at the Aqualux Hotel, Bardolino, pale, lean chub took a star turn served three ways with cucumber, watercress and crème fraiche at a dinner cooked by Dirk Hoberg of the two Michelin-star Restaurant Ophelia on Lake Constance, Germany.
On a more quotidian level, nearly every trattoria and osteria serves a version of bigoli con sarde — rough-edged, soft wheat pasta with a sauce based on freshwater sardines preserved in oil.
Everyman’s version of bigoli con sarde
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Ironically — and sadly — the most iconic product of Lake Garda no longer exists. Garda lemons were once famous throughout Europe for their alleged medicinal properties, acidity, thin skin, intense perfume and flavor, but the variety was lost when the last trees failed to survive a particularly cold winter in the 1980s. Even before then the writing was on the wall for the most northerly growing citrus region in Europe, an improbable industry created by a determination that has been called “a dogged madness.”
Lemons were brought to Garda by monks in the 13th century. They grew well in the Mediterranean-style microclimate and in the 17th century the construction of vast lemon houses or “limonaia” made this the most northern commercial lemon-growing region in Europe. The towering, terraced structures of wooden beams, stone pillars and glass sheets were designed to protect the fruit from winter frosts. Disease, competition from the south, some exceptionally cold weather and the discovery of synthetic citric acid, however, would later destroy the industry.
Lemons of Garda
The original variety of Garda lemon is also virtually extinct, grown only by a few private citrus enthusiasts. Most of the lemons sold in the region come from Sicily and southern Italy or are a modern hybrid, but the tradition of using lemons in conserves and limoncello lives on.
Thanks to the mild microclimate, Lake Garda is also the most northerly region in Europe to produce olive oil. The extra virgin is characteristically delicate and fruity, and is protected by the Garda DOP mark. “Molche,” the residue from olives after they have been pressed, is traditionally used in bread and cakes.
Olive oil cake
One of the stellar olive oil labels in Garda, indeed in Italy, is the boutique olive oil farm of Ca’ Rainene. The award-winning range includes Garda Orientale, extracted from a blend of indigenous olives — Casaliva, Lecino and Pendolino — grown and pressed on their own land. Medium fruity, with perfectly balanced bitter and pungent components, it has a delicate almond note typical of the Garda cultivars. The farm also produces Drizzar, made solely with olives of that name: Fruity and complex, it is superb with fish, game and vegetables.
The hills north of Verona are the land of Valpolicella, but closer to Garda the classic wine to look out for is Custoza, a full-bodied white wine usually drunk young but that is starting to be appreciated when a little older. Bardolino is a light red wine and Chiaretto, the rosé version. There are 80 types of soil in the region that make for extremely “fresh” wines, perfect as an aperitif or to drink with fish.
The last word should go to Goethe: ” … I wish I could get my friends beside me to enjoy together the scenery that appears before me … the beautiful Lake Garda. …”
I’ll raise a glass of Custoza to that while I work out the Italian for “Gone fishing.”
The shores of Lake Garda
Main photo: For a Fish and Chef gala at the Aqualux Hotel in Bardolino, Italy, Chub cooked three ways, with cucumber, watercress and creme fraiche, as served by Dirk Hoberg of the two Michelin-star restaurant Ophelia on Lake Constance, Germany. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman
La Vie en Rose: Our Café French™ lesson today takes us from the luxe cafes of the Belle Epoch (1871-1914) to the louche cafes of its shadowy underbelly, the demi-monde, or “half-world” of bohemian poets, avant-garde artists, students, prostitutes and hustlers of every stripe. These cafe styles straddled the cultural divide between bourgeois respectability and decadent debauchery in fin-de-siècle Paris.
From the late 17th century onward, perhaps in response to Francesco Procopio’s invention of Café Procope (1676) as a showcase for Parisian glamor, fashion and style, the more subversive functions of the cafe as a public forum for radical political, philosophical and artistic thinking found caffeinated expression, even scandal and revolution, in Paris’ growing inventory of cafes.
Coffee as aphrodisiac
In pre-Procope Paris, coffee was primarily an exotic Oriental beverage with powerfully stimulating properties, mostly served in private homes. Doctors of the period even prescribed coffee as an aphrodisiac. Thus, the first cafes to emerge served as platforms for amorous as well as artistic and political liaisons.
By the 19th century, the entry of elegant women from the finest Parisian salons into cafe society proved to be one of the most profound social advances credited to Parisian cafe culture. Women, respectable or not and everything in between, entered at both ends of the spectrum, from high to low. From the chic cafes lining Baron Haussmann’s Grands Boulevards to the seedier cafes filled with artists and poets on both banks of the Seine, Paris’ internationally notorious filles de joie plied their trade to a hungry clientele.
Voulez vous poulet avec moi ce soir?
In French, the terminology we generalize in English as prostitutes (hookers, whores, call girls, street walkers and tramps) is far more nuanced and hierarchical, from the lowest pute, poule (chicken), morue (cod) and grue (crane) to the top of the line courtisane, whose many virtues are brilliantly portrayed in Susan Griffin’s “The Book of the Courtesans: A Catalogue of Their Virtues” (2001).
Veritable celebrities, les courtisanes were also known as cocottes, grandes horizontales and demi-mondaines. Slightly lower in status, perhaps, were the poules de luxe (expensive chickens) and the belles de jour (“afternoon delight”), though I claim no authority in these saucy parsings.
The overlap between sexual and physical hunger is quite literal in French. A cocotte is both a courtesan and a shallow baking dish. Though not to be confused with a coquette, a flirtatious girly-girl decked out seductively in fashionable accessories, both cocotte and coquette derive from “cock” (coq in French), a chicken and a seducer.
Gourmandise and Gourmandine
Perhaps the least known conflation in French of nutrition and procreation — life and more life — are two related words, gourmandise and the more obscure gourmandine.
Gourmandise in English and French is derived from gourmand, which can mean gluttony (greediness) or an appreciation of refined food (delicacies). Older than “gourmet” (early 19th century), “gourmand” (late 15th century) shares etymological links to the Old French gloton.
Note that gluttony is one of Catholicism’s seven deadly sins. The meaning is nicely explicated by Saint Thomas Aquinas in his list of variations: eating too soon, too expensively, too much, too eagerly, too daintily, too wildly. I haven’t seen a better definition of our contemporary term in English for excessive gastronomical enthusiasm: foodie.
Gourmandine, a corruption of gourgandine, is yet another quasi-gastronomic synonym for prostitute, mostly found in French literature. In her book on the birth of Paris as the luxe capital of the world (“The Essence of Style,” 2005), Joan DeJean points out that “gourmandine” was also the name of a new (early 17th century) bodice that revealed a woman’s undergarments (lingerie). Her book cleverly connects the birth of haute couture in the court of Louis XIV to the evolving function of the cafe as a showcase for coquettish (if not “cocottish”) women and their seductive à la mode fashions.
Couture, Coco and Colette
The word “couture” is interesting in this context. It means “stitched together” (seam), and contains the root “co” which, as we saw in our previous Café French lesson, indicates in Latin, “with.”
Ironic that arguably the two greatest French women of the arts to emerge in the Belle Epoch period were both “cos”: Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883-1971) and Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954). Never mind that they are co-Gabrielles, too. Their celebrated lives (and romances) bridged that same cultural divide we began our lesson with — the moral depths of Paris’ demi-monde and the dizzy heights of bourgeois Parisan luxe.
Ironic also that couturier Chanel, whose dessins modernes liberated women from their gourmandines, earned a double “coco” (child slang for little chicken) as a nickname. Was this a reference to a lyric from the popular song she notoriously sang as a young cabaret singer, or her experience as a young cocotte (her first marriage was one of convenience, as English would have it), or her early years as an industrious seamstress?
Like Coco, our second French “co,” the proto-feminist Colette, spent her early years as a performer. Colette’s most popular novels in English are “Gigi” and “Chéri,” both centered on the lives of cocottes or ex-cocottes. By the end of her life, Colette was living in a glamorous Palais-Royal apartment overlooking Paris (next door to Jean Cocteau!) where kings and queens had lived centuries earlier.
Of course, semantic analysis can’t always explain the fickle and often funny trajectories of history’s ironic narratives; nor why words, like memories, are created, vanish and, on occasion, return. Hard not to conclude, while nursing a grand crème at Café de la Mairie on Place Saint-Sulpice, where world cinema’s “Belle de Jour,” Catherine Deneuve, often strolls past, that the spectacle we call history is merely our vain attempt at explaining a vast unfolding of incomprehensible coincidence.
Main illustration: Café French: La Cocotte, La Coquette, Coco And Colette. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris
China Ranch is a thriving oasis of boutique date palms that began with the whimsical planting of an ornamental garden nearly a century ago. To the casual traveler driving north from Baker to Furnace Creek in Death Valley National Park in California, it is nearly invisible; you must look out for the signs for the Old Spanish Trail and follow it into a steep canyon, through bare, rough hills and exhausted talc and gypsum mines. There, watered by a creek running south to the Amargosa River, is the improbable sight of 1,500 fruit-bearing trees.
China Ranch 100 years ago
In 1920, Vonola Modine moved with her husband from nearby Shoshone to the property then also known as The Chinaman’s Ranch after an industrious, possibly mythical Chinese rancher called Ah Foo. She wanted some trees to line their new roadway and ordered seeds from the date industry burgeoning near Mecca in the Coachella Valley. They arrived in a wooden box by rail. She had never seen a date palm nor tasted a date nor heard the old adage that the fruits “like their feet in water and their heads in fire.”
The Modines wound up selling China Ranch shortly after the palms were planted. For the next 50 years, successive owners’ attempts to establish hog, sheep and alfalfa farms all failed — even as the original date palms flourished into magnificent trees. In the 1970s, Vonola’s relatives by marriage, the Brown family, repurchased the land — and in 1989, Brian Brown, her grandnephew, realized he had the “water and fire” to create the perfect conditions for a viable date farm. He and his wife, Bonnie, began focusing all their efforts on developing and expanding the garden.
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China Ranch today
The original seeds sent to China Ranch were brought to California by agricultural pioneers bearing offshoots from Algeria, Iraq, Tunisia, Baluchistan, Morocco and Egypt. But date palms grown from seeds never replicate the parent plant, so the trees in the original grove yield hybrid dates that are unique in the market. Brown has continued to reproduce these happy accidents, including the dark, moist Black Beauty; the sweet Gourmet; and the soft, caramel-colored China Ranch Hybrid. The Browns also introduced new date palms and now have 15 varieties such as Dayri, Halawy, Bahri, Hayany and Khadrawy growing on 25 acres. Their crop is in sharp contrast to that of the huge commercial enterprises, which tend only to produce the Medjools and Deglet Noors that your grandmother served at Christmas.
Brown works eight days a week: It is hard physical labor, from trimming the crowns, and battling 4-inch thorns to clearing the offshoots and pollinating the female trees by hand. And help is scarce in the harsh Death Valley environment. There are no palmeros, as the skilled workers who have enabled date production in the Coachella Valley for nearly a century are called, here. Some dates are harvested in the khalal stage, just before they ripen, and others at ripeness; the entire harvest period extends from August to February. The work during these six months can be punishing; in late summer, the temperature can soar to 120 F and the black flies bite through your clothing.
The fruit of family labor
Then the picked fruit must be sorted. Perfect specimens are for eating, while the funky-looking ones are for cooking, eventually macerated to produce a date paste used by bakers, raw-food chefs and upscale Las Vegas restaurants that value local sourcing. And thanks to the wild success of the cookbook “Jerusalem” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, home cooks are in hot pursuit of ingredients such as date molasses too. Specialty-food agents come to China Ranch in search of unusual dates to supply stores all over California, while employees at the ranch store make converts of casual visitors with cool, thick date shakes and date-nut bread baked daily from Bonnie Brown’s secret recipe. Bonnie also runs an eclectic retail shop and an online mail-order operation that ships gift boxes of fresh dates all over the country.
The farm has an unexpected sideline as well. The Dayri palm, originally from Egypt, puts out long, straight, symmetrical fronds that make perfect lulavs, which are used in the Jewish celebration of Sukkot. For the past seven years, rabbis have come from as far as New York to select and cut some 300 of these fronds. Despite their inconsistent harvest and light yield, Dayris will always be grown here.
Little did Vonola Modine know that her ornamental trees would be an inspiration to Brian Brown nearly 70 years after she planted them. She returned to China Ranch in 1991 to see the glorious mature palms that now line the path leading to the Browns’ great adobe home — and you should see them, too. The setting is bizarre, but the dates are sublime.
Main photo: The accidental oasis that is China Ranch date farm. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel
Fine dining in Cuba might sound like an oxymoron. For decades, wisdom has been that restaurants on the impoverished island were mediocre at best, and that a good meal was hard to find. This was true as recently as a couple of years ago. But, even before the island nation’s relations with the United States thawed, the gastronomic scene had been changing, and chefs have made huge strides in offering a wider range of quality restaurant options.
The Cuban government, in the desperate years after the Soviet Union pulled its support from the island, sanctioned the private ownership of small restaurants called paladares, which means “palate.” Situated in homes, these humble kitchens, limited to a few tables, provided simple criollo — traditional Cuban — food. The scarcity of all but the most simple meats, rice and beans, and a strict policy that forbade the offering of seafood kept them from competing with government-owned establishments.
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In 2012, however, the state relaxed the rules and paladares have moved up to the next level. While simple mom-and-pop places abound, a new crop of elegant venues for creative chef cooking have begun to challenge the island’s reputation for culinary blandness.
One of the first in this vein was La Guarida, located in the apartment in which the renowned film “Fresa y Chocolate” was filmed. Several dining rooms, filled with kitchy knickknacks and movie memorabilia bustle with locals and foreigners. The menu, which includes a small wine list, strives for international creativity but doesn’t always hit all the marks. Still, La Guarida opened to doors to wider possibilities.
Then Le Chansonnier arrived. Set in a late 19th-century mansion in Vedado, it was restored by chef and owner Héctor Higuera Martínez (who has since moved on to Atalier). The dazzling décor was decidedly postmodern. The small, astutely chosen menu featured duck, lamb and fish, all of whose sources were nearby and local by necessity. Patrons included government bigwigs, foreign visitors, journalists and a handful of locals with enough disposable income to afford the relatively steep prices.
Others followed in rapid succession. The ultra cool El Cocinero is perched on the roof of an extinct factory that houses a complex of galleries and boutiques. Casa Pilar oozes sophistication.
Doña Eutimia specializes in artfully prepared traditional dishes, as does Mamá Inés and Nao. O’Reilly 304 does home-style cooking in a laid-back boho setting, ’60s rock creating a funky and fun ambience.
Otramanera steps up dining in Havana
Most recently, in August of 2014, Otramanera, perhaps presenting the best cooking to date, was inaugurated. It’s set in a sleek ’50s ranch-style house, its chef trained in Catalonia.
But all of the chefs interviewed pointed out the daily uphill battle they face trying to keep stock of the most basic ingredients, as well as deal with less than expertly trained staff.
While perhaps it’s early to proclaim the birth of the “Nueva Cocina Cubana,” it seems clear that the dining scene in Cuba is in the midst of a revolution of its own.
Main photo: Otramanera’s dishes, prepared by chef Dayron Ávila, include fresh sardine fillets dressed in a fruity papaya salsa augmented with a cilantro purée and crowned with edible flowers. Credit: Copyright Nicolas Gilman
With winter still holding much of the country in its clutch, our thoughts wander to warmer climes — sandy beaches with picture-perfect palms swaying in the breeze. On this side of the world, nowhere answers that description better than the Caribbean islands.
And as thousands flee to the Caribbean for the heat and resort fun, culinary adventure tends to be low on the list. The sentiment is understandable. Except for a few islands noted particularly for their unique multiethnic, multi-ingredient styles of cuisine — here I’m thinking about Trinidad & Tobago, Puerto Rico, Cuba and French islands such as Guadeloupe — most visitors know island food only as the overpriced hotel fare that mimics mid-level American restaurant offerings.
So it was that on a recent visit to the tiny island of Anguilla in the Lesser Antilles that I was disappointed but not surprised to find what I thought was a lack of true, native food culture available to visitors. Not blessed with the abundance of produce or even seafood as many of its sister islands, Anguilla is most noted as a semi-private playground for the wealthy and perhaps the best historic example of the resort-type dining experience.
For Caribbean food in Anguilla, skip the resorts and hotels
As a food culture writer and a person of Caribbean descent, this wasn’t good enough. I set about trying to find hidden native food gems to which I could relate. I was fortunate to find some at the modest but lovely Anguilla Great House beach resort on Rendezvous Bay, an old-school West Indies-style hotel, where proprietor Will Fleming served me a traditional breakfast complete with fried salt fish, coconut dumplings and fresh avocado.
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But it was in my larger search for truly Caribbean meals that I was surprised at what I found: a vibrant food culture in the most unexpected place, and one that melded a modern culinary trend with the spirit of local culture and vibrancy. A burgeoning of food trucks — in the best Portland, Oregon, style — are helmed by native chefs trained at the island’s best resorts.
What visitors find at these establishments is an eclectic mix of Caribbean flair and world cuisines — everything from barbecue to Mexican to soul food to vegetarian fare. While nearly all the food is imported to the island via boat from nearby St. Maarten, many chefs make use of local seafood, particularly the abundant and succulent island lobsters. It’s not a surprise to see them turn up in everything from tacos to barbecue to soup.
Because Anguilla is small — its capital city, The Valley, can be traversed on foot in less than a half-hour — most food trucks remain in close proximity to each other. Not surprisingly, every third person is someone’s relative or cousin, which makes the island not only refreshingly friendly but immersed in a sense of hospitality that is clearly apparent in the careful preparation and presentation of the food at these roadside stands.
Perhaps best of all is that the food trucks of Anguilla are as equally democratic as their stateside counterparts: What you’ll find is freshly prepared food, unique in culinary styling, at reasonable prices — a great option for those hoping for a taste-filled Caribbean getaway that won’t break the bank.
The number of food trucks grows monthly, among them Meals on Wheels, Rawlie’s Food Van, Wendy’s Food Van and J & S Snoconette, while the early precursor to this moveable feast — the beachside snack stand — is still thriving. All the food trucks take U.S. dollars, as does most of the island. These were among my best finds:
Run by two former resort chefs, Hungry’s Food Van melds traditional island preparations with American food trends. While you’ll find goat soup, bull foot soup and conch soup, you can also choose from an extensive quesadilla menu with fillings ranging from smoked salmon to traditional cheese and vegetables. The best by far is the Lobster Quesadilla, which makes use of local lobster and is a steal at $14 featuring more lobster than any traditional New England lobster roll.
It’s worth a stop at Papa Lash’s not just for the popular Caribbean patties, a flaky turnover with a vegetable filling, but to meet the dynamic and friendly owner. With extremely reasonable prices, Papa Lash has long served the local foods to schoolchildren, natives and tourists alike.
Most Anguillans will tell you that if you want barbecue, go to Ken’s. The stand, which is strategically set in the center of downtown, is only open on weekends, and those in the know plan their end-of-week activities around opening hours. The ribs are what to order. Wash them down with a homemade ginger beer or sorrel (hibiscus) drink.
While a number of food trucks or “vans,” as they are called in Anguilla, focus on specialized food, such as Chanboo’s, which is noted for soul food, others, like Slyco’s Food Van, are similar to a diner or fast-casual restaurant, but with all the food made fresh to order. Burgers, fries, wings and pasta make up the menu. And you’ll find extremely reasonable prices — a hot dog is $2.50 U.S. and an order of Buffalo wings and fries is $6.
With each visit to a new food truck, I began to reassess my idea of “Caribbean food.” The fact is that the Caribbean, like America, is a settled land — in some cases voluntarily, but not in others. The people of the West Indies have long adapted to making do and making the best of what can be had. The Anguilla food trucks, with their eclectic fare, are doing just that, and made me realize I had found my real Caribbean fare after all.
Main photo: A traditional breakfast at Anguilla Guest House includes coconut dumplings, fried salt cod and fresh avocado. Credit: Copyright Ramin Ganeshram