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Are olives an aphrodisiac? My research suggests they are not, but for Andrea Pupek and Fabio Cimicchi, they most certainly were. Andrea’s Global MBA thesis project, a comprehensive marketing plan for Fabio’s family olive oil business, resulted in love, marriage and now a vibrant olive oil export business, Caselle Italian Imports.
Andrea’s mother knew early on that Andrea would travel the globe when at 13 she became a student ambassador of People to People. Her parents provided her with roots and wings. Her roots were firmly planted in Western Massachusetts, and her wings took her to Italy.
Family’s pierogi ‘factory’
Andrea recalls the strong ties her family had to her paternal grandmother, her babci. Her favorite memory with her babci is what she calls “the Pupek family pierogi factory.” As with many family recipes, none were ever written for the pierogis. Andrea had the foresight when her babci started forgetting things at 92 years old to document and photograph the pierogi factory. A legitimate recipe now exists, and an indelible memory was forged between Andrea, her sister and their babci.
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Family values were the centerpiece of Andrea’s upbringing. Even after her parents divorced they continued to celebrate the holidays together. This exceptional situation of support, love and respect was one Andrea would find among the olive groves in Orvieto, Italy.
Andrea’s thesis work took her to Italy — to the Cimicchi family — to develop a business and marketing plan for the export of their olive oil. She never imagined that one of the Cimicchis would become her husband or that she would call Orvieto home.
The transition she says was easy.
Fabio’s family’s values echoed hers. His family is emotionally and physically close, resembling what one might imagine a prototypical, multi-generational Italian family to be. Sunday lunches are a ritual. It anchors the family solidly in their generational traditions of meals that are simple, but long and delightful. There are multiple courses that include some form of roasted chicken, potatoes and, of course, a homemade pasta dish.
Marriage of family traditions
At the holidays, Andrea integrated her family’s Christmas cookie-making traditions into the Cimicchis’ traditions. When Andrea and Fabio traveled to the United States for the holidays, she made sure to include one of the Cimicchi family’s Christmas Eve favorites – chocolate spaghetti – in her family’s festivities. Imagine spaghetti with olive oil, chocolate, walnuts and sugar paste. Now that’s a decadent tradition worth importing.
The love affair has produced much more than the fusion of family values and food traditions. It has also resulted in the creation of Caselle Italian Imports. The Cimicchi family owns more than 195 acres of land, planted with more than 2,000 olive trees.
Le Caselle is located the between Orvieto and Castel Viscardo in the Umbria region, which is known for its olive oil and is frequently referred to as the green heart of Italy.
The Cimicchi family’s ties to Le Caselle date as far back as the 1700s when the family came to care for the land under Knight Guiscardo, who was himself hired to protect the land for the church. The land changed hands a few times among a small group of families, but Fabio’s great-grandfather Alessandro ended up owning the majority of the original Castel Viscardo estate. In 1984, Fabio’s parents purchased the rest of the family land that makes up the original Le Caselle estate from Uncle Guiseppe Cimicchi, with the goal to produce wine and olive oil.
Family’s olive oils
The Cimicchis produce two types of olive oil for sale: Madonna Antonia, which is made from 100% moraiolo olives, and Olio delle Caselle, their signature Umbrian blend. The blend is a closely held, secret family recipe perfected over several generations, using just the right proportions of moraiolo, leccino, frantoio and rajo olives. Olio delle Caselle has a golden color with a tinge of green.
When tasting the olive oil, Fabio told me to slurp the olive oil along with some air. Adding the air emulsifies the oil and allows it to spread across your entire mouth for a full taste bud experience. The taste was smooth and fresh, with a little spicy aftertaste. Delicious. It is perfect on young greens and tomatoes, in salad dressings and soups, and as a dip for crusty Italian bread.
With the matrimony of Andrea and Fabio, and the loving support of close family friends, Caselle Italian Imports was born. Andrea put her masters thesis to work, sharing the amazing fruits of the Cimicchis’ labors with the wider world. Caselle Italian Imports also offers other Italian specialty products, such as traditional balsamic vinegar from Modena.
Main photo: Recently harvested olives from the Cimicchi family’s Le Caselle estate in Italy. Credit: Andrea Pupek
At times, just thinking about Halloween causes my stomach to lurch. No, it’s not the creepy costumes, scary movies and pervasive pranks that make me queasy with fright. Rather, it’s the mounds of sickeningly sweet, artificially flavored, mass-produced candies that show up in my house every Halloween season that give me tummy aches.
For as long as I can remember, Oct. 31 has meant collecting and eating gobs of individually wrapped, store-bought candy. Yet, there was a time when Halloween served reverent roles and featured much tastier and more nutritious foods than candy corn and peanut butter cups.
Halloween descends from harvest festivals, fall celebrations
During ancient times, Celtic tribes in what are now Ireland and other parts of the United Kingdom held annual three-day harvest festivals known as Samhain. Beginning at dusk on Oct. 31, these feasts marked the end of summer and the temporary abundance of foods, such as apples, potatoes, turnips, cabbage and grains.
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Along with celebrating the season’s bounty, the Celts used this time to remember and communicate with their ancestors. They believed that on Oct. 31 the doors to the afterlife opened, and on that night the living could interact with the dead.
Although by the 7th century the pagan Celts had converted to Christianity, many of their autumnal customs remained. On Hallow’s Eve or All Hallow’s Eve, which fell one day before the Catholic Church’s All Souls’ Day, Europeans remembered their dead by placing lighted candles on loved ones’ graves and in hollowed out beets, potatoes and turnips. The forerunner to the modern-day jack-o’-lantern, the “neep lantern” was said to symbolize a soul trapped in purgatory. They were placed in the windows of homes to welcome departed relations and friends.
Apples starred in harvest celebrations
Harvest fetes still took place in the Middle Ages. Apples remained a star of these occasions and were made into tarts, pies, breads, dumplings, puddings and cakes.
So plentiful was this fruit that people set out apples for the dead and used them to tell fortunes. If you saw two seeds in your apple, you’d soon marry. Three seeds indicated future wealth.
Potatoes were equally important to Hallow’s Eve meals. In Ireland and Scotland, colcannon — mashed potatoes, onions and cabbage — was such a popular Oct. 31 dish that the date became known as “Colcannon Night.”
On Colcannon Night, cooks hid small favors inside bowls of colcannon as well as in champ, potatoes mashed together with leeks and buttermilk. Supposedly, guests’ fates were determined by the tokens they found. If you received a dried pea in your serving of mashed potatoes, you’d have prosperity. Dig out a coin and you’d achieve great wealth. Unearth a thimble and you’d be destined for spinsterhood.
Nuts also acted as prognosticators. Before going to bed on Hallow’s Eve, people would mash together walnuts, hazelnuts, nutmeg, butter and sugar and consume the concoction in the hopes of having prophetic dreams. Earlier in the evening, they roasted walnuts or chestnuts over an open fire to determine the nature of future relationships. If the toasted nuts tasted bitter, they’d end up in an unhappy marriage. If the nuts seemed sweet, they’d have a pleasant spouse.
In addition to telling fortunes, food played a major part in the medieval act of “souling.” On Hallow’s Eve, the poor would travel from house to house, offering to pray for the souls of the dead. In return they requested soul cakes, small, spiced buns studded with currants and other dried fruit. Every household seemed to possess an endless supply of soul cakes. It sounds a bit like trick-or-treating, minus the sugary confections and pranks.
Irish, Scots brought Halloween to America
Although this holiday has a long, rich history in the United Kingdom, it didn’t permeate American culture until the mid-19th century. It was then that famines in Ireland drove millions of Irish immigrants to the United States. Wherever the Irish and, to some extent, the Scots went, Halloween, as it came to be called, went with them.
In America, Halloween took on new customs and flavors. Large, plump, orange gourds replaced turnips and other root vegetables in those hand-carved lanterns for the dead. At parties, apples took the form of entertainment, as in bobbing for apples, and in drinks, such as apple cider and juice. Guests no longer pulled tokens from bowls of mashed potatoes. Instead they pulled strands of boiled sugar and butter to make taffy.
By the end of World War II, Americans had largely abandoned plain apples, nuts and homemade Halloween treats for commercially produced candy. The sugar-corn syrup-wax combination known as candy corn became all the rage. So, too, did individually wrapped sweets. Unquestionably, the passion for store-bought goods continues to this day.
Rather than defy current customs, I’ll continue to stock up on bags of chocolate bars and gummy worms. However, I do plan on giving my belly a break and keeping my own stash of historic Halloween treats. At the top of my cache will be spiced nuts. Hearkening back to the tradition of eating walnuts and hazelnuts with nutmeg, sugar and butter, I created the following Nutmeg-Cinnamon Nuts.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes
Total time: 20 minutes
Yield: Makes 3½ cups
1½ cups walnuts
1¼ cups hazelnuts
¾ cup pecans
1½ tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons firmly packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon salt
⅛ teaspoon allspice
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
2. Spread the nuts over a large baking sheet and bake, tossing once or twice, for 10 minutes or until golden in color.
3. As the nuts are toasting, melt the butter. Place it along with the cinnamon, nutmeg, salt and allspice in a large bowl and stir to combine.
4. Once the nuts have toasted, add them to the bowl and stir until all the nuts are coated with the spice mixture. Cool to room temperature and serve.
Main photo: Nutmeg-Cinnamon Nuts. Credit: Kathy Hunt
Dried pasta can cost anywhere from $1 to $7 or more per pound. Pasta is just flour and water, so what, if anything, makes the expensive stuff any better? Is there a taste and texture difference between brands? Is artisanal pasta worth the price?
I traveled throughout Italy to find out, interviewing food bloggers, chefs, pasta manufacturers and home cooks. Every Italian I spoke with emphatically believed that he or she could taste the difference and that good pasta wasn’t cheap, but was worth the price. I listened to technical explanations of the difference between Teflon and bronze extrusion, the value of water, length and types of drying techinques.
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They were all convincing, but I was finally won over completely when I attended the food festival I Primi d’Italia, dedicated to Italy’s famed first-course specialties: pasta, risotto and polenta. The festival is held each year in Umbria, in the historic town of Foligno, which is completely transformed with tasting and demo stations in every piazza, courtyard and cobblestone street as it plays host to this delightful event.
I attended a workshop on how to evaluate dried pasta led by Gennaro Esposito, a two-star Michelin chef from Naples. He did a side-by-side test that highlighted the ways to tell so-so pasta from great pasta.
Try this at home
Try it yourself at home. It’s easiest to see the difference using spaghetti, so select an artisanal imported Italian pasta, and compare it to a bargain brand.
Fill two pots with the same amount of water and salt and bring to a boil. So that it’s a blind test, ask a friend to help so you don’t know which pasta is which. Have your friend put in the same amount of pasta to each pot. After a minute or two, stir the pastas and take a whiff of the water. Which pasta has a fresh wheat aroma?
- Once the pasta is al dente, drain, and test its ability to absorb sauce. Put a few strands of each into two different bowls with a little water and after several minutes note which pasta absorbed more water. That means it will better absorb sauce and is the better pasta.
- Then pinch both types of pasta between your thumb and index finger. The inferior pasta will be gummy to the touch and soft in the middle, while the better pasta stays al dente.
- Finally, taste each pasta plain, with no sauce. That should be enough to convince you!
Ways to Spot Superior Pasta
To learn how to spot superior pasta I visited Garofalo, a famed Naples pasta company, where I was taught that superior pasta, when raw, should be yellow (not white), it should smell like fine wheat, and it should break cleanly and easily—without scattering bits about.
When cooked, it should:
- Taste delicious, even without sauce.
- Have a lovely aroma, like crusty bread.
- Leave the cooking water clear and uncloudy.
- Stick to the sauce. If the sauce slides off, it’s a sign that the pasta was not properly dried. Pasta that is too slippery means that the past maker rushed the drying process using a high temperature, which causes the pasta’s starch to form a sort of glaze on the pasta, making it shiny and impenetrable for sauces.
- Remain firm the last bite. If left in a plate without sauce, it should not collapse and lose its shape.
To underscore just how important good pasta is, the team at Garofalo taught me a fabulous show-stopping recipe. It really underscores the characteristics of quality pasta — the ability to keep from getting mushy when cooked.
Bucatini Dome (Cupola di Bucatini)
It’s hard to top this dish for pure drama. The stately dome of pasta houses a colorful filling of string beans, carrots, zucchini and plenty of rich Italian cheese.
But don’t get intimidated. It’s actually quite easy to create. The trick is to use bucatini, which are thick long pasta that keep their shape as you coil them into the round dome cake pan. If you don’t have one, use a metal bowl instead. Don’t let lack of equipment keep you from tackling this architecturally magnificent — and delicious — dish.
Prep time: 40 minutes
Cooking time: 30 minutes
Total time: 70 minutes
Yield: 8 servings
14 tablespoons butter, plus more for the pan
5 slender zucchini (about 2 pounds), minced
3 medium carrots, minced
¾ pound haricot verts or very thin string beans, minced
1¼ pounds bucatini
2 eggs, beaten
½ cup grated pecorino cheese
¾ pound deli-sliced high-quality provolone cheese
1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Very generously butter an 8- to 9-inch dome-shaped oven-safe container such as a Pyrex or metal bowl.
2. Heat 2 tablespoons of butter in a large frying pan and add zucchini; fry until soft. Put the zucchini into a large bowl. Using the same pan, cook the carrots and string beans in 1 tablespoon of butter over low heat, covered, until tender, adding a few drops of water, if needed. Stir into the bowl with the zucchini until well combined. Set aside 1 cup of this vegetable mixture as garnish for later.
3. Cook the pasta in boiling salted water for ⅔ of the package’s recommended time. Drain and divide, putting ¾ of the pasta into the large bowl of vegetables and the remaining ¼ into a small bowl with 2 tablespoons of butter. Set aside; the small bowl, it will be used for the outer part of the dome.
4. Add 9 tablespoons of butter to the pasta-vegetable bowl and stir until the butter melts, then stir in the beaten eggs, pecorino cheese, and freshly grated black pepper. Using kitchen scissors, cut into the pasta mixture so it is broken up a little. Set aside.
5. From the plain buttered pasta, using one strand and starting in the center of the prepared domed container, twirl the pasta around itself to form a coil. Continue the coil with another strand of pasta starting where the last strand ended so it is in one continuous line; continue with additional strands until half way up the pan. Line the pasta with slices of cheese, pressing the cheese firmly against the pasta. Put in half of the vegetable-pasta mixture, pressing firmly into the bottom and sides of the bowl to remove any air pockets and densely pack the filling. Top with cheese slices.
6. Continue coiling the plain pasta around the dome to the top, adding a strand at the exact spot the last ended. Line the sides with more cheese slices and top with the remaining vegetable-pasta mixture and slices of cheese. Press the pasta down firmly with a spatula or wooden spoon. This is key to getting a nice compact dome that stays together nicely when sliced. Cut the remaining plain buttered pasta with scissors and press on top of the mixture.
7. Cover the bowl with aluminum foil and bake for 15 minutes, then remove the foil and bake uncovered for another 15 minutes, until golden and set. Let rest 10 minutes, then put a serving plate on top of the bowl, and invert it. Hit with a wooden spoon to help the pasta release from the pan, and, using the tip of a spoon or butter knife along the bottom edge of the bowl, begin to remove the bowl from the pasta. Serve garnished with the reserved cup of minced vegetables.
Main photo: Bucatini Dome houses string beans, carrots, zucchini and plenty of cheese. Credit: “Pasta Modern” by Francine Segan
I brought a jug of dark green Sicilian olive oil, freshly pressed from a friend’s farm, back to my home in the hills along the border between Tuscany and Umbria. “È buono,” said my neighbor, Arnaldo, when he tasted it. “It’s good but … non ė genuino.”
Non ė genuino – it’s about the worst thing an Italian can say about another Italian’s food, whether oil, cheese, wine or pork ragù. It translates as “it’s not the real thing,” but what it really means is, “This is not the way we do it here, not the way our forebears have been doing it since Etruscan times, and not, in fact, the right way.”
In this case, caro Arnaldo, I beg to differ. What I had offered was a fresh-tasting oil made from Nocellara del Belice olives, picked green and pressed immediately, radiant with the almond-to-artichoke flavors characteristic of that varietal, which is grown mostly in and around western Sicily’s Belice valley. Moreover, it was lush, verdant and fresh from the press — I knew because I was there when it happened.
This encounter led me to think about the astonishing variety of foods that proliferate throughout the long, skinny, undulating boot that is Italy, and about the intense pride each region, each province, each little mountain village or coastal fishing port takes in its own traditions.
Italians, it almost goes without saying, invented the locavore phenomenon — and invented it a long time ago. It’s what makes a culinary tour of this remarkable country so seductive and astonishing.
What makes olive oils great?
But it’s also a trap of deception. A New York Times reporter — who happens to be a friend of mine — fell into that trap recently when writing about Umbrian olive oil. “Our oil,” her informants told her (I’m extrapolating), “is not like that sweet Tuscan oil. Our oil has character!”
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Sweet oil? Tuscan? Really? Peppery, fruity, bitter, complex — these are the characteristics I taste in a well-made Tuscan oil. But not sweet.
Umbrian olive oil can be, and often is, excellent. The main local cultivar is Moraiolo, which is high in antioxidants that give it an overwhelming intensity, so much so that producers blend Moraiolo olives with others to calm that muscular quality. But Umbrian olive oil is also hard to distinguish from Tuscan oil. In fact, I would argue almost all high-quality central Italian oils — made from a mix of olives (Frantoio, Leccino, Pendolino and Moraiolo are the usual blend); often grown at high altitudes; usually harvested when still immature and pressed immediately thereafter — typically share certain acerbic flavors and peppery aromas that are redolent of freshly cut grass, artichoke or tomato leaves. I doubt most North American consumers, even well-educated ones, confronted with a selection of oils from Umbria and Tuscany, could tell them apart.
There are, I’m told, more than 500 olive cultivars grown in Italy, some of them widely known and grown such as Leccino, universally valued for its resistance to low temperatures, and some of them only from very specific regions, like Dritto, an olive that appears to be exclusive to the Abruzzi, or Perenzana olives from northern Puglia. With the spread of olive culture to other regions of the world — California, Chile, South Africa, New Zealand — some of these cultivars are being grown far from their native soil, and the oil made from them often suffers as a result — non ė genuino!
Or at least that’s what Italians believe, and my heart — and my palate — agrees. The best oils taste of that elusive characteristic called terroir — a combination of environment (soil structure, altitude, climate, weather), variety and technology, both traditional and modern, adjusted to match time-honored local tastes. In Provence, for instance, local taste demands a fusty flavor, the result of anaerobic fermentation in the olives, producing an oil considered defective elsewhere.
But I also believe North Americans are fortunate not to be trapped in the locavore delusion. We have access to olive oils from all over Italy, indeed from all over the world. How to deal with that abundance can be a problem, but it’s a problem we should welcome. Unlike those Umbrian producers, we can buy an Umbrian oil and a Tuscan one and taste them side by side, along with one, perhaps, from Puglia, or Sicily, or even from Verona in northern Italy. Or indeed Tunisia or Spain or New Zealand.
The revolution starts here
Now I’m going to tell you something radical: I have tried to love olive oils from retail outlets across the entire U.S., but with few exceptions, I have almost always been disappointed. Many retailers simply don’t recognize the importance of harvest dates or the critical significance of maintaining oils in dark, cool environments. They display bottles under shop lights in order to entice customers, and they’ve paid top dollar for oil when it first arrives on the market, so even if it stays around a while, the price still has to reflect their costs.
So more and more, my advice is to go to online distributors, many of whom get their oil directly from the producer and most of whom keep their precious bottles warehoused in a dark, cool environment. Here are a few I recommend; I’ve also noted where there are retail stores. Note that the first three sell only Italian olive oils; the rest carry a variety from many other areas, including California:
- www.olio2go.com, retail store at 8400 Hilltop Road, Fairfax, Va.; (703) 876-4666.
- www.gustiamo.com, mail order only; (718) 860-2949.
- www.dipaloselects.com, retail store at DiPalo Fine Foods, 200 Grand St., New York, N.Y.; (212) 226-1033.
- www.markethallfoods.com, retail store at Rockridge Market Hall, 5655 College Avenue, Oakland, Calif.; (510) 250-6000.
- www.cortibrothers.com, retail store at 5810 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento, Calif.; (916) 736-3814.
- www.zingermans.com, retail store at 422 Detroit St., Ann Arbor, Mich.; (734) 663-3354.
Main photo: Bottles of olive oil. Credit: iStockPhoto
No, Byrrh isn’t some murky variant spelling of beer; in fact, it’s wine. More precisely, Byrrh Grand Quinquina — to use its full name — is a French aperitif that’s been showing up in bars around the United States after gathering dust in obscurity for decades. Based on the red wines of Roussillon, France, as well as fortified grape juice, it’s flavored with a blend of botanicals, primarily cinchona bark (which contains quinine — hence the name), to strike a refreshing balance between fruitiness and bitterness.
Thanks to Eric Seed of Haus Alpenz — the cool kids’ importer these days — Byrrh is now available in nearly all 50 states. The more I began to spot it on cocktail menus around Denver, where I live, the more curious I grew as to its allure and applications. Three local bartenders were gracious enough to explain it all for me.
The patio pounder
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For Alexandra Geppert, who handles operations at The BSide — a funky, free-wheeling new hangout in Denver’s Uptown — Byrrh’s raspberry and nutty flavors lend themselves to easy-breezy libations such as the Humboldt Highball, which also contains simple syrup, lemon juice and club soda.
Featured on the late-summer drink list, it drank like a zippy pop that, she joked, “You could have 40 of in one sitting.” But for cooler weather, Geppert suggests deepening the flavor with a distinctly herbal liqueur. Here is BSide bartender Daniel Bewley’s recipe:
Yield: 1 serving
Prep Time: 2 minutes
2 ounces Byrrh
¾ ounce Leopold Bros. Three Pins Alpine Herbal Liqueur
½ ounce lemon juice
½ ounce simple syrup
1. Shake the first four ingredients together in a cocktail shaker. Strain over ice into a Collins glass. Top with club soda.
Geppert also loves to fancify the tavern tradition of a shot and a beer chaser by offering a more cultivated pairing: “a craft beer and a taster.” To that end, she proposes sipping a glass of Byrrh, with its round mouthfeel, alongside a contrastingly “crisp beer, maybe one with a little bitterness.”
To that end, she proposes sipping a glass of Byrrh, with its round mouthfeel, alongside a contrastingly “crisp beer, maybe one with a little bitterness,” say a blonde ale or a pilsner.
At Bistro Vendôme, a beloved French fixture in downtown Denver, bartender Jason Morden has been having a field day with Byrrh for the past few months. He recommends drinking it over ice with lemon zest before dinner, because “citrus really makes it pop”; afterward, he might pair it with a bit of milk chocolate.
And because to his palate “it’s reminiscent of Vermouth Rouge,” he also considers it “an amazing counterpart to gin.” Here’s his “hot and boozy” twist on a martini:
Yield: 1 serving
Prep Time: 2 minutes
2 ounces dry rye gin
1 ounce Byrrh
½ ounce lemon juice, plus peel for garnish twist
1. Shake gin, Byrrh and lemon juice together in a cocktail shaker. Pour into a martini glass and garnish with a lemon twist.
The rye sidekick
You’ll notice that the gin in the previous cocktail is made with rye, the spiciness of which nicely balances the sweetness of Byrrh. Morden uses that to his advantage in another cocktail, this one based on rye whiskey:
Yield: 1 serving
Prep Time: 2 minutes
1½ ounces rye whiskey
1 ounce Byrrh
1 ounce amaro-style bitter
2½ to 3 ounces ginger beer
1. Over ice in a Collins glass, stir the first four ingredients together. Garnish with Luxardo cherries on a toothpick.
Meanwhile, Kevin Burke — beverage director at sibling hot spots Colt & Gray and Ste. Ellie — compares Byrrh favorably to another fortified wine, Dubonnet Rouge. “With a lot of products, some cocktail types get up in arms that the European version is different than the American one,” he said. (Take absinthe as a prime example.) “Unfortunately, Dubonnet falls into this category for me. So when I see Dubonnet called for in a recipe, I have found great success in substituting Byrrh.” For example, “it shines in a Deshler Cocktail, which is great when you’re in the mood for a Manhattan but also want something new.”
Word to the lightweight: Burke likes a high-proof rye in the following recipe. Sure, “Rittenhouse 100 or Wild Turkey 101 will do in a pinch — but Willett 110 Proof or Thomas H. Handy Sazerac is worth the splurge.”
Yield: 1 serving
Prep Time: 3 minutes
1¼ ounces high-proof rye
1¼ ounces Byrrh
¼ ounce Peychaud’s Bitters
1 teaspoon Cointreau
Orange twist for garnish
1. Chill a small cocktail glass.
2. Add cracked ice to a mixing glass, then add all ingredients except the orange twist and stir for 30 seconds. Strain into chilled cocktail glass.
3. Pinch the orange twist over the drink to express oils, then add and enjoy.
Main photo: The Humboldt Highball cocktail alongside a bottle of Byrrh and a glass of the aperitif at Denver’s BSide. Credit: Ruth Tobias
Two women sit facing each other on a rug as they chat and roll out rounds of bread dough using thin batons of wood. Beside them, another woman stretches a dough circle further as she holds it over a wood-burning, dome-shaped griddle, or saç, turning it around and around until it’s firm, crisp and golden. The result is a stack of paper-thin flatbreads known as yufka.
Down the street, their neighbors mix a fiery chili and cheese paste that will top katikli ekmek. These smaller, thicker circles of dough are baked on their sides in the cylindrical tandir oven, resulting in crunchy, spicy breads that look like mini pizzas. The breads will accompany a lunch eaten under the trees in the Turkish village of Defne, said to be the very place where — in Greek mythology — the maiden Daphne was turned into a laurel tree to escape the affections of Apollo. The village is still famous for its highly scented bay leaves.
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Our meal is arranged in a colorful display of dishes. They include local green olives cracked and drizzled with pomegranate syrup; a memorable aromatic salad of fresh mountain thyme leaves; hummus made from just-ground sesame seeds; stringy cheese to eat with pickled walnuts and candied orange peel; cucumber and tomatoes; and a salty goat’s yogurt that is made just once a year — and keeps for months.
Partaking of this idyllic feast, it’s hard to imagine that just 25 miles away, on the other side of the mountains to the east, the fighting in Syria is continuing. We’re in southeastern Turkey, in the large province of Hatay, whose capital city, Antakya, is on a level with Aleppo. I’ve come to this southern part of Anatolia to attend the Mediterranean Culinary Days, an event organized by the governor of the province, Celalettin Lekesiz, with the Hatay City Innovation Platform.
“We are making a bid for Hatay to be included in UNESCO’s Cities of Gastronomy, and we’re holding this three-day food festival to celebrate it,” the governor explains as he greets us. The event features many aspects of Hatay’s local food culture and also showcases the cuisine of 17 Mediterranean countries through demonstrations and meals prepared by cooks from the participating nations.
Hatay is no stranger to this kind of multiculturalism. The ancient city of Antioch-on-the-Orontes lies beneath modern Antakya and was known for its religious and ethnic tolerance.
“This area was conquered by 12 civilizations, including the Hittites, Greeks, Byzantines and Romans,” Lekesiz notes. “It has long been home to large Jewish and Christian populations, who live peacefully alongside Muslims here. We are proud of that and want to build on this important heritage.” The city has recently restored what is believed to be the very first Christian church: a lofty vaulted space in a natural cave carved out of the mountain above Hatay.
The Mediterranean’s most iconic plants forge another bond between its communities. In the extensive mosaic floors from ancient Rome on display in Antakya’s magnificent Archaelogical Museum, it’s easy to spot the plants we’re familiar with today that define so much of the area’s food culture: grapevines, olive trees and pomegranates.
These and other local edible plants are to be found in abundance in the city’s colorful covered market, or bazaar, situated in the old part of Antakya near the river. Rosy pistachios have just been harvested and are on display with sweet walnuts in heaped baskets. Shiny jujube fruits vie for space with tiny okra, white eggplant and fresh mint.
Spice stalls not to be missed
The spice stalls are irresistible. I filled a suitcase with little bags of freshly ground paprikas in different “strengths”; a piquant chili and tomato paste called domates salçasi that adds exoticism to any dish; fragrant coriander and pearly sesame seeds; dried white mulberries; and the most surprising of all, strings of dried, hollowed-out eggplant shells resembling Hawaiian flower garlands. These last for months and can be soaked in water, stuffed and baked for out-of-season eggplant dishes.
A trip to the bazaar would not be complete without a slice of Hatay’s favorite dessert, künefe. People come from all over Turkey to taste this delicious, unusual tart. The best are cooked over wood embers in wide copper baking rounds at special shops in and around the market. A layer of mild, stretchy cheese is sandwiched between two layers of buttery chopped kadayif, vermicelli-like strands of filo pastry. The kadayif is made in separate stalls near the bakeries, by cooking runny strings of batter on a circular griddle that looks like a DJ’s giant turntable. As the dough firms, it’s scooped off the heat and set aside.
The trick with cooking künefe is to know when the bottom layer of kadayif is golden brown and has fused — like a cross between pommes Anna and shredded wheat — into a crisp, even layer. That’s when the pie is flipped over and cooked to golden on the other side. While still hot, a mild sugar syrup is ladled over the künefe before it’s cut into pieces, sprinkled with chopped pistachios and served. Unlike many desserts of the region, künefe is never overly sweet; it’s a rare and wonderful speciality that deserves to be better known, as does the culinary culture of Hatay.
Main photo: Turkish women in the village of Defne in Hatay province roll out the dough for yufka flatbreads. Credit: Carla Capalbo
“Please taste our bottarga,” the Armani-clad saleswoman said in the sophisticated produce boutique in Via Cavour in Cagliari, Sardinia’s harbor capital.
Like all the islands of the Mediterranean, Sardinia, a region of Italy, has never lost its individuality in food ways, including a version of North Africa’s couscous, fregola, and bottarga, a salt-cured, sun-dried mullet roe whose origin is said to be Tunisia.
My visit was in mid-October of last year, and the Sardinian sky was blue but the wind was icy — a reason to take shelter in a shop that most surely sells overpriced foodstuffs to tourists.
I had no intention of spending my euros on fancy olive oils or walnuts preserved in honey. But bottarga is another matter.
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Proffered with smiling courtesy on the blade of a cut-throat knife was a translucent reddish sliver of the real thing — a dehydrated, wax-coated, double-lobed egg sac of gray mullet, a middle-sized, torpedo-shaped, blunt-nosed, small-mouthed, seaweed-eating, opportunist bottom-feeder that floats amiably around harbors and yacht basins throughout the Mediterranean (and, incidentally, on the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S.). The rest of the fish is good eating, but the prize is the roe.
I tasted the bottarga, and the sliver covered no more than the tip of the tongue, but the flavor was concentrated, powerful, pungent, salty and sweet like caramelized sea spray. The texture was silky and chewy, like toffee.
Whatever the cost, I needed to have more. That’s what umami does to you — well, maybe not everyone, but anyone who’s ever tasted a perfect truffle fresh from the earth on a Tuscan hillside or eaten caviar from a silver spoon on a millionaire’s yacht. See what I mean?
“It’s — well, delicious,” I said. The woman nodded. “Of course,” she said.
She knew I was hooked. No need for her to explain that it was the new season’s supply. That the dealers come from the mainland and by Christmas it’ll be gone. That I’ll find it in other places — Sicily and Corsica, Italy; Greece; Turkey; and, of course, Tunisia — but this is the best.
I buy it. Of course I do.
So how do the Sardinians themselves like to eat their bottarga?
The woman in Armani smiles. “Perhaps with carta di musica, the thin pita breads we make in Sardinia. But for myself, I like it grated on the pasta instead of cheese. Or over a risotto or a bowl of fregola, Sardinian couscous, when the fishermen’s nets are empty. And it’s good on a salad of orange and raw onion, or with a sauce of dried figs or pistachios. Sardinian cooking is very practical. We use what we have. But best of all I like it like this — straight from the knife.”
Bottarga can be bought whole or grated in a jar, in which case you can be sure it’s dried stock from last year. In cooking, treat it as you would well-aged Parmesan — for finishing and adding a little protein to grain dishes. You can use it to prepare taramasalata, but it’ll need a good whizzing with water to soften it before proceeding with your usual recipe.
Fregola With Soffritto and Bottarga
Fregola, Sardinia’s large-grain couscous, is toasted for additional shelf life and is uneven in size and color. It’s traditional in the southern region around Cagliari (you won’t find it in the north) and has a deliciously caramelized flavor that perfectly complements the sweetness of the fish roe. If you can’t find fregola, use pasta rather than another kind of couscous.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
Total time: 25 minutes
Yield: Makes 4 servings
1 medium onion, finely slivered
2 to 3 garlic cloves, crushed and chopped
4 to 5 tablespoons olive oil
10 ounces fregola
3 to 4 ounces (1 wing) bottarga
Salt and pepper
1. Cook the onion and garlic very gently in the oil till it softens and gilds; take your time and don’t let it brown. This resulting mixture is the soffritto. Season the soffritto with salt and pepper.
2. Meanwhile, cook the fregola (or pasta) in plenty of boiling, salted water till tender — about 10 to 12 minutes — then drain and fork it up to separate the grains.
3. Toss lightly with the soffritto and top with fine shreds of bottarga. Finish with chopped parsley and a few drops of lemon juice.
Spaghetti With Dried Figs and Bottarga
This very Sardinian combination of dried fruit and fish can be used to dress any pasta. In winter, a salad of orange segments and raw onion can be finished with bottarga.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
Total time: 25 minutes
Yield: Makes 4 servings
2 to 3 dried figs, soaked to swell
4 to 5 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
10 ounces spaghetti
1 wing of finely sliced bottarga (or 2 tablespoons grated)
1. Dice the figs and cook gently in olive oil until they soften to a cream. Season with pepper and a little salt and reserve.
2. Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti in plenty of boiling, salted water till tender but still a little firm in the middle, then drain, leaving it a little damp. Toss the figgy sauce with the spaghetti in a warm bowl and top with the bottarga.
Linguine With Pistachios and Bottarga
This is a simple combination of homegrown Sardinian ingredients. If the bottarga is very hard, soften it in a little hot oil before you use it as a dressing.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Total time: 20 minutes
Yield: Makes 4 servings
4 to 5 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 garlic clove
2 ounces shelled pistachios, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
12 ounces fresh linguine
Salt and pepper to taste
3 to 4 tablespoons grated bottarga
1. Heat the oil in a small frying pan and fry the garlic clove till it takes a little color and perfumes the oil.
2. Add chopped pistachios and stir over a gentle heat till the nuts are lightly toasted. Stir in the parsley and remove from the heat.
3. Meanwhile, cook the pasta in plenty of boiling, salted water, drain and transfer to a warm serving bowl.
4. Toss the pasta with the pistachio dressing, season to taste with salt and pepper, and finish with grated bottarga.
Main illustration: Bottarga. Credit: Elisabeth Luard
Macuncu are lollipop crafters, twirlers of stretchy, sweet, colorful syrups that are pooled in a deeply wedged tin that rests atop a folding tray. Their storefront is the street. Their shingle is a signature pull of glistening fruit and herb-stained syrups. It takes maybe 90 seconds for a macuncu to make a macun — a lollipop of Ottoman origin that dates back half a millennium.
I connected with that tradition last summer when I met Banu Özden of Yemek Sanatlari Merkezi, the Culinary Arts Center of Istanbul. At the time, I was curating a collection of international food craft tools. Özden was presenting an extraordinary visual archive of vessels and tools used by Istanbul’s street vendors over the past 200 years. I was thoroughly taken by the design ingenuity and material variety of the vendors. It seemed right to launch a series on food craft tools with this gem from the storied city that straddles two continents.
A SLICE OF LIFE
A series on international food craft tools
Next: Cane pressing tools, a profile of an American sugarcane mill
“It’s not taffy, it’s sticky stuff,” says Elchin Orer, an Eskişehir-raised, Washington, D.C.-based artist and interior designer, correcting my shorthand for macun. “It’s more of a heavy syrup that stays on the stick while you lick it. Kids love it. The vendors used to set up outside of school and we’d get one stick for 5 cents.”
Turkish yarn purveyor and master knitter Aylin Bener of İzmir agreed. She recalled the macuncus being as much a part of the school day as classroom instructors. “When school let out, he was there. Same vendor, same place, at the same time, every day. You don’t ask questions, you just expect him to be there to give you sweets!” To talk with Turks of a certain generation about macun is to understand the fleeting transaction as a total sensory experience. Buying macun and watching it crafted from a pinwheel of glistening sugar was as much fun as eating it.
A macuncu’s actions are like a conductor’s — rhythmic and knowing. With a syrup pull, called macun mablağı, in one hand and a wooden lollipop stick in another, macuncus lift, dollop, spin, pull, dip and repeat until their customer has the macun of their choice. No clunky globs, just elegant lines of jewel-toned syrups forming a corkscrew of up to five distinct tastes. Perhaps a crimson swirl made from cornelian cherry juice rests under a limey emerald twist — both topped with a glossy ivory spiral that’s heady with cinnamon or rose.
The ingredients for macun are quite simple: caster sugar, water, cream of tartar, citric acid and “the aromas” — which are usually spices or fruit essences. And, when needed, food coloring — often still naturally derived, though some vendors use synthetic colorants. The sugar, water, cream of tartar and citric acid are stirred together over a low heat until the sugar melts and the mixture begins to bubble. The heat is then turned off and an aroma and a natural coloring are added and mixed thoroughly. The whole sticky batch is then poured into one of the five sections of the macun tray. This process is repeated by the macuncu until his tray, his macun tepsisi, is filled with the flavors he wants to offer.
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The tools of the itinerant macuncu are equally as simple: a tray, a holder, syrup pulls and candy sticks. The trays, called macun tepsisi, are large metal rounds several inches deep. As Özden explained, macun trays always have six sections: five that are triangular and form the syrup compartments and one small center bowl that cradles a lemon half. Originally they were produced by Ottoman coppersmiths who finished them in a customary tin dip (tinned copper).
Nowadays, given the rise in food service regulations, the glut of factory-prepared sweets and the decline of macuncus, Özden said that the macun tepsisi are almost always stainless steel, produced to code by just a handful of stainless-steel kitchen-supply manufacturers.
The syrup dipsticks — the macuncu’s conductor batons are called macun mablağı and they range from pantry butter knife to intricate wood-handled stainless-steel skewers depending on the location, means and style of the macuncu. Finally, before a freshly swirled macun is handed over to a customer, it is passed over a juicy lemon half at the center of the tray both for the tart flourish and to tighten the syrupy swirls.
The history of macun
While it is nostalgically recollected as an after-school treat (and now a touristic event), macun’s origins are medicinal. Much like an amaro or an herbal electuary, the original, “supreme” macun candy, mesir macunu, was a vehicle for a potent blend of curative digestive herbs, with the sugar acting as a preservative. A true elixir, it was a remedy for all that ailed one.
According to history, legend and Ottoman pharmacopeia, Hafsa Sultan, the mother of Suleiman the Magnificent was afflicted with a mysterious illness, incurable by court physicians, masseurs, cooks, the clergy. … Finally, a local pharmacist created mesir macunu, a special mix of herbs macerated in a sugary paste. The ambrosial medicine cured Hafsa Sultan.
Both the Queen Mother and Suleiman became evangelists of mesir macunu, and they began a tradition that continues today (the 474th Annual Manisa Mesir Festival took place in the spring of 2014) of preparing enough mesir macunu for their subjects’ well-being. Recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the festival involves a bevy of chefs replicating (by the ton) the ancient recipe of 41 spices and herbs. Once mixed, the mesir macunu is cut and wrapped by a designated team of women who then pass the candies along to imams that bless the candy before it is tossed to crowds from the Sultan Mosque’s minaret and domes.
Certainly, the street-side version, made with flourish and attention to craft, is as good for the daily spirit.
Main photo: Macun. Credit: Wikimedia / Nosferatü