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Whenever I mention Swiss wine — which I do at every possible opportunity — most people get a glazed look in their eyes. Some folks are unaware that wine is even grown in this tiny, mountainous, landlocked country. Those lucky few who have had the chance to taste a delicate Chasselas from Lake Geneva, say, or a smooth, plummy Merlot from Lake Lugano tend to get distracted by their high price and lament the fact that the wines are hard to find outside the country.
Besides, they may add, there are so many interesting — and more accessible — bottles out there waiting to be sampled, and the time and effort required to track down these expensive, elusive Swiss drops is just too much of a stretch.
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Bear with me: There are treasures in them there hills (make that mountains), and now is the moment to start discovering them. Why now, all of a sudden? Wine has been made in Switzerland — as in the rest of Europe — for at least 2,000 years, but it’s in the past 20 that there have been huge changes. Swiss winemakers have access to all the same kinds of recent technical advances that have benefited wine making all over the world. But a hugely significant — and specifically Swiss — development came in the 1990s, when restrictions on the import of foreign wines were lifted. At a stroke, that oh-so-comforting protectionist cushion was removed and winemakers were faced with serious international competition and forced to raise their game.
An introduction to Swiss wines
For Paolo Basso, Best Sommelier of the World in 2013 and a Swiss national, the key players in this story are the new generation of wine growers. “They are much more dynamic (than earlier generations),” he explained in a recent email. “They have studied viticulture and enology not just in Switzerland but also abroad, they travel widely and they enjoy discovering wines from other countries.” While they remain hugely proud of their deeply rooted wine making traditions and culture, this does not stop them from constantly striving for innovation and improvement.
Swiss vineyards are a magnificent patchwork of different climates and terroirs, which means there are always exciting discoveries to be made. At a time when more and more of us are interested in sampling curiosities and hunting down original wines that stand out from the crowd, these Alpine beauties press plenty of buttons. Basso concludes, with complete impartiality: “If the Best Sommelier of the World is Swiss, it’s because Switzerland has some of the best wines in the world!”
Here’s a selection of Swiss wines to put on your bucket list. The country’s calling cards, which together account for the majority of plantings, are Chasselas and Pinot Noir, but some of the most exciting finds come from grapes that are indigenous to Switzerland and seldom (if ever) found outside.
Chasselas (aka Fendant)
Switzerland’s signature white grape, known in the Valais as Fendant and in all other Swiss regions as Chasselas, gives delicately fragrant, low-acid, low-alcohol wines with a slight prickle. When made from the best genetic variants, planted in prime sites (such as Lavaux, recently designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, whose impossibly beautiful vineyards climb steeply up from the shores of Lake Geneva), and its vigorous growth carefully controlled, Chasselas can give wines of distinction and subtle depth. Most examples are floral, fresh and highly quaffable, making them the perfect aperitif wine.
Petite Arvine is one of Switzerland’s most thrilling white varieties, indigenous to the Valais region and to neighboring Valle d’Aosta (Italy), which has recently shot to stardom. It makes wines that vary from lip-smackingly dry with gorgeous grapefruit tones and a characteristic salty finish to luscious, highly concentrated, sweet wines from late-harvested grapes. Some of the most expressive come from the village of Fully near Martigny, whose biennial event, Arvines en Capitale, celebrates this unique variety. This distinctive white wine is perfect with raclette, preferably made using an aged alp cheese from the Valais.
Heida (aka Païen)
This is none other than the Savagnin grape of the Jura region (where it gives the famous Vin Jaune), which is now firmly anchored in the Valais region. When the wine is made in the upper part of the Valais region, where German is spoken, its name is Heida; further down the valley toward Lake Geneva, where French is spoken, its name is Païen. Grown in tiny — but steadily increasing — quantities, it gives full-bodied, spicy white wines of enormous distinction. The excellent Provins cooperative, which makes this bottle, recommends Heida with assertively spiced and seasoned dishes such as scallop carpaccio or fish tartare with coconut milk.
Another grape indigenous to the Valais, this ancient white variety is extremely rare: worldwide there are only 40 hectares (98 acres) grown, of which 35 hectares (86 acres) are found in the village of Vétroz, its spiritual home. The small-berried, late-ripening grapes give luscious, deep golden, honeyed wines of varying sweetness. In Amignes from Vétroz, the degree of sweetness is helpfully indicated on the label by a bee motif: one bee indicates an off-dry wine, two is sweeter and three bees is fully sweet. In August 2015 the winegrowers of Vétroz introduced a festival dedicated to “their” grape titled Amigne on the Road, with food and wine trucks serving local specialties and wines from 15 of the village’s wineries. Amigne is a delight served with a buttery, caramelized tarte tatin or enjoyed on its own, just for the pleasure of it.
The famous red grape of Burgundy, this is Switzerland’s most widely planted vine. In the French-speaking cantons it goes by its French name, while in the German-speaking regions it may be labelled Pinot Noir or Blauburgunder (“blue Burgundy”). It is grown in almost all regions, with cantons Graubünden in the east and Neuchâtel in the west both acknowledged centers of excellence. Today, thanks to the effects of climate change, ever finer, fully ripe examples are emerging from the more northerly cantons of Zurich and neighboring Aargau. At the Gasthaus Zum Sternen in Würenlingen, where this one comes from, they pair it with Suure Mocke, a fine dish of beef braised in red wine.
This is another characterful variety that came from the Valle d’Aosta region of northern Italy (where it is known as Cornalin). Arriving in the Valais via the Grand Saint Bernard pass during the 19th century, it made a niche for itself, while always remaining a bit of a rarity. In the past 20 years it has enjoyed a renaissance, joining the Valais’ other highly sought-after specialty grapes. It can be a bit of a country cousin, with a rustic character and pronounced tannins, but in the right hands and with careful vinification (including some barrel-ageing) it gives scented, cherry-red wines that can age with elegance. Try it with richly sauced game dishes (venison or wild boar) or roast lamb, or with a soft, washed-rind cheese such as Vacherin Mont d’Or.
The world-famous red grape arrived in Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, from Bordeaux, France, in 1906 and now occupies almost 90 percent of the region’s vineyard surface area. You can find it both as a single varietal and in a blend with other red grapes. Wine maker Ivo Monti of Cantina Monti (whose wines regularly sweep the board in the annual Grand Prix du Vin Suisse) comments that “Merlot is a great soloist, but if you add other varieties, you get the whole orchestra.” Tiny quantities are also vinified as white wine (the Merlot grape has red skins but white juice), labeled Merlot Bianco. Merlot pairs well with richly sauced meats, porcini mushrooms or — for a typically Ticinese match — a bowl of roasted chestnuts.
This relatively new variety, a Gamay Noir x Reichensteiner cross, was developed in the 1970s by Switzerland’s viticultural research station. It has been particularly successful in the Geneva vineyards where it is made as a single varietal, as here, or blended with its sibling grape Garanoir. Its early ripening, bluish-black grapes give deeply colored, supple, spicy wines, which would match well with pinkly roasted duck breast or beef in a red wine butter sauce.
Sourcing Swiss wines
In the United States (Madison, Wisconsin): Swiss Cellars.
In the United Kingdom: Alpine Wines.
In Canada: Swiss Wine Imports.
Alternatively, consult www.winesearcher.com for your nearest local supplier. Better still, visit Switzerland and explore the vineyards yourself, using the free app supplied by Swiss Wine Promotion body, Vinea.
Main photo: A patchwork of Swiss vineyards in the Valais, near Chamoson. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style
The restaurant was nothing special, just a small room with a couple of low tables and stools. There was no menu, nothing to indicate what was being served. But next to the door was a wide basket piled high with fresh rice noodles, and behind them I could see steam rising from a large soup pot. And in Yunnan province, in southwestern China, that means one thing: breakfast noodles.
I hurried in, took a seat at an empty table and shook off my coat, wet from the heavy morning fog. The proprietress, a young woman whose face was rosy from standing over the steaming pots all morning, asked what I wanted in my soup, and I pointed to some things that looked particularly delicious — some fatty stewed pork, a heap of thin rice noodles, some bright green chives. In just a couple of minutes, the soup was ready. I added a handful of pickled mustard greens and a small spoonful of dried chili flakes in oil and took a sip. The flavor was rich and bright, sour and spicy, and somehow both comforting and exotic all at once.
Starting the day with noodles
I would say that the noodles were a perfect antidote to the cold, wet weather, but the truth is that those noodles would have been fantastic in any circumstance. In fact, I’ve enjoyed similar noodles for breakfast on hot, muggy days down by the Chinese-Vietnamese border and on a cool, crisp morning near Tibet. And in every case (and every temperature) they were the perfect way to start the day.
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Eating noodles for breakfast is common all across East and Southeast Asia. In Japan you can have asa-raa or “morning ramen,” in Vietnam pho is a reliable way to start the day, and in Malaysia there’s stir-fried mee goreng. But there’s something about the combination of meat, pickles and chilies in Yunnan’s noodles — not to mention the wide array of different rice and wheat-based noodles you can choose to put in your soup — that makes it one of the most addictive and satisfying breakfasts I’ve ever had. Everywhere I’ve traveled in Yunnan, I’ve started my mornings with noodles from that town’s busiest stand, hole-in-the-wall or restaurant, and every single time I’ve been blown away by the flavor.
It’s been a few months since I last traveled to Yunnan, but thankfully those morning noodle are not hard to make. Whenever I feel like I need a little help waking up, or I just want something hearty to start the day, I make them for myself. All it takes is a few ingredients and about 15 minutes, and I can have a breakfast that is both a little bit exotic and immensely comforting.
Yunnan-Style Noodle Soup
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes
Total time: 15 minutes
Yield: 2 large portions
4 cups prepared broth (preferably pork or chicken)
6 ounces ground pork (about 3/4 cup)
3 ounces vegetables, like Napa cabbage, sliced crosswise into 1/8 to 1/4-inch strips (approximately 1 1/3 cups’ worth)
1/2 cup Chinese pickled vegetables, ideally mustard greens or daikon pickles
2 1/2 cups fresh or parboiled rice or wheat noodles
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup fresh herbs, ideally flat garlic chives or scallions, cut into inch-long pieces (mint and cilantro also work well, and multiple herbs can be used in combination)
Black Chinese vinegar and dried ground chili in oil, for serving
Heat the broth in a pot large enough to accommodate all of the ingredients (including the noodles). Meanwhile, in a separate pot, bring 4 cups of water to a boil and blanch ground pork for 5 seconds, breaking up the meat with chopsticks or a spoon, then drain it and set it aside. The meat will still be pink, possibly even red in some places.
Beginning the soup
When the broth is boiling, add the pork, cabbage and half of the pickles to the pot. Return to a boil and cook 2 to 3 minutes, until stem parts of the cabbage begin to soften slightly.
Adding the noodles
Add noodles and cook until semisoft (timing will vary depending on type of noodle being used). When noodles have softened, add 1/2 teaspoon salt and mix into broth, then top noodles with the remaining pickles and chives or scallions, if using. Cook another 30 seconds, and remove the soup from heat.
The finished product
Divide the soup into deep bowls and top with any delicate herbs, like mint or cilantro. Add vinegar and chili to taste.
Main photo: Breakfast noodles are served in Yunnan province, China. Credit: Copyright 2015 Josh Wand
With Europe on edge after the bombings in Paris, it is good to be reminded of the joy of sharing a meal with strangers. But what happens when you don’t know anyone at a dinner party, not even the host?
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During a recent evening in Brussels, I rang the doorbell of a complete stranger’s home promptly at 7 p.m. His ground-floor apartment was in an art nouveau-style row house built in the 1930s. The door opened, and Maher, an Egyptian political science Ph.D. candidate at Ghent University, gave me a warm welcome. (He, like other hosts of such dinners, chooses not to publicize his full name.)
I was the first to arrive for his “Egyptian Evening” (dinner and a movie), and as I took off my coat in the entryway, I resisted the temptation to blurt out that famous quote from “A Streetcar Named Desire”:
“I’ve always depended on the kindness (and in this case, the cooking skills) of strangers.”
BookaLokal — a new dining experience
Maher is just one of nearly 1,000 BookaLokal hosts in 47 countries, in more than 100 cities around the world. BookaLokal is a group dining website. To sign up for a dinner, go to bookalokal.com, choose which city you wish to dine in, browse the dinners, choose one and pay online.
The site was founded in 2012 in the Brussels kitchen of Evelyne White, a 32-year-old harpist, travel enthusiast and former investor from New York. I got to ask her a few questions before the dinner. Here’s what she told me about this unique dining experience.
How did you come up with the idea for BookaLokal?
Evelyne White: “I was inspired by the success of ‘sharing’ companies like Airbnb. If people can open their homes to strangers, why not open their kitchens and dining room tables?”
How does BookaLokal differ from other group dining sites?
Evelyne White: “BookaLokal has the widest range of hosts, from amateur hosts to professional chefs. Whereas some of our competitor sites only allow top chefs to join the site, we believe the best experiences can sometimes come from people like you and me, who are just passionate about hosting and meeting new people.”
This was certainly true of Maher, who is also the former editor-in-chief of The Daily News Egypt. He was an engaging host who gently steered us through the evening as if we were all old chums. We were a cozy group of eight in all (if you include one guest’s toddler), who hailed from countries such as Egypt, Portugal, Turkey and America.
Meals made with love
The homemade dinner, served buffet-style, was simple and delicious: baba ganoush and pita bread; vegetables (peas, zucchini and carrots) cooked in tomato sauce and flavored with pepper, cinnamon and lemon juice; and kebab halla (beef cooked in creamy onion sauce) served with rice.
After serving ourselves, we settled down in the darkened living room to eat our dinner in front of “Ana Hurra” (“I Am Free”), an entertaining, thought-provoking Egyptian feminist film from 1959, which Maher projected on his living room wall.
Maher isn’t the only host with creative dining ideas: From a recent look at what’s offered on the BookaLokal website, choices include “Dinner Served on a Vintage Boat, Docked in the Amalfi Harbor,” Amalfi, Italy ($55); “Pig Roast and Comfort Food,” Washington, D.C. ($50); and “Dinner Inspired by Famous Food Quotes,” given by a former opera singer in New York City ($100).
A variety of venues
In addition to dinner, some hosts provide a variety of other eating and drinking experiences, such as “Seville Tapas and Wine Tour,” Spain ($50), and “Indian Buffet and Bollywood Dance Lesson,” Belgium ($42).
Worried about language barriers? Languages spoken by each host are listed on their profile page. Maher speaks English and Arabic; Ester, who lives in Rome, speaks Italian, English and Spanish.
“Our hosts come in all shapes and sizes,” said White. “We have culinary students, experienced host families, supper club organizers, and people with a passion for sharing their culture and connecting with new people.”
What are BookaLokal’s plans for the future?
Evelyne White: “Although BookaLokal started as a social dining site (a place to meet new people), we are seeing increased interest in private dining. If a host serves amazing Portuguese food for groups of six to 10 guests, why not book the host for a dinner with your own group of 10 friends?”
After the Egyptian film, we helped ourselves to more wine and Egyptian black tea (with cloves), and had a relaxed discussion about the film, women’s rights and Egyptian politics. Talking with people you don’t know within the confines of dinner at a stranger’s house is oddly liberating — perhaps similar to the surprise and delight of striking up pleasant conversations with strangers on an airplane. BookaLokal is a great dining choice for tourists visiting a new country, expats living abroad, and anyone interested in being inspired — and maybe even transported to another culture — by good food and stimulating conversation. As the Egyptian evening came to an end, I was reminded of another quote, this one from Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savairn’s book “The Physiology of Taste” (1825):
“Let the progress of the meal be slow, for dinner is the last business of the day; and let the guests conduct themselves like travelers due to reach their destination together.”
Main photo: The “Dinner at the Artist’s Home and Studio” in Amsterdam ($37 per person) featured ciabatta with salmon, crème fraîche, horseradish and dill; lasagna with pancetta and artichoke; and affogato al caffè. The hostess’s apartment is on the ground floor facing the IJ harbor, and when the weather is nice, she serves dinner outside on the quay. Credit: Copyright 2015 www.petrahart.com
Every time I come back to Italy, which I do as often as I can, I learn something new. Take pasta, for instance.
The subject is very much on my mind these days because I’ve just published, with my daughter Sara (chef-owner of Porsena Restaurant in New York), a book called “The Four Seasons of Pasta,” in which we present recipes for pasta around the year. A few of the recipes are for handmade pastas, but most are for the kind of pasta we’re familiar with in Italy — so-called pasta secca or pasta asciutta, the boxed pasta that Italians eat happily and eagerly every day of the year.
The best pasta is made from durum wheat
Pasta is truly a marvelous food product — healthy, tasty, easy to prepare, loved by almost everyone, young or old, gourmet chef or harried home cook, and to my mind the single greatest contribution Italy has made to the modern table. It comes in a dozen or more different brands and hundreds of shapes and sizes, but its greatest virtue is that, if it’s made in Italy, it’s made from hard durum wheat, one of the most protein-rich of all grains. A cup of cooked pasta contains more than 8 grams of protein and, depending on the sauce that accompanies it, is low on the glycemic index, with a good amount of fiber and more than 15 different vitamins and minerals, some of them, admittedly, in small quantities.
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Pasta can be made fresh or it can be dried — but whatever the form, it is cooked by boiling or steaming over water, i.e., it’s not baked and it’s not fried. Theoretically, it can be made with almost any flour, but wheat flour is far and away the most typical. That’s because when wheat flour and water are mixed together, gluten develops, and it’s gluten that gives elasticity and extensibility, two characteristics fundamental for both bread and pasta.
But what about that gluten? I have friends who swear that a gluten-free diet has led them to lose weight, gain friends, improve their digestion and their disposition, and generally make life better — I have enough friends who swear this to want to pay some attention myself. But (you knew this was coming, didn’t you?) I have failed to find any hard evidence for the claim that gluten is responsible for their former woes. (I’m not speaking of those with celiac disease, a well-recognized condition that can be deadly if not identified and managed — but only about 1 percent of the U.S. population is diagnosed with celiac disease.)
Some have suggested that so-called gluten intolerance has nothing to do with gluten itself but is instead related to modern wheat and the way it is grown. Others have speculated that it has something to do with modern bread — which would omit pasta from the list of suspects.
In any case, I’m not here to argue with you. If you feel you can’t tolerate gluten, all I can say is too bad for you because you are missing out on one of life’s greatest and easiest pleasures — a steaming bowl of pasta topped with a sauce that might be as complex as a meaty Bolognese ragu or as simple as aglio-oglio-peperoncino (garlic, extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of red chili peppers). I call it the little black dress of the food world, to be dressed up or dressed down, as often as you wish.
A fresh take on pasta for Thanksgiving
My latest discovery in the ever-unfolding world of pasta is a dish our friend chef Salvatore Denaro calls amatrigialla. No, not amatriciana, the quick-and-easy Roman trattoria dish that we know and love — and included in our book. But faced with a crowd of hungry olive pickers, for whom amatriciana is an ideal lunch, and equally faced with an inexplicable dearth of tomatoes in the farmhouse pantry, Salvatore said, why not squash, which was available in abundance. So we peeled and seeded the available squash, which came in several varieties, and chunked it up so it would cook quickly in the big black-iron skillet, and amatrigialla (gialla, or yellow, from the bright colors of the squash) was born.
Might I add that this would be a terrific take on traditional squash for a Thanksgiving table? Use any good squash available (butternut, delicata, Hubbard) or pumpkins made for eating, not for Halloween (cheese pumpkins, rouge vif and the like). Long, hollow bucatini are traditional for Roman amatriciana, but you could use any robust pasta shape, including spaghettoni, penne rigati or rigatoni.
Here’s how to do it:
Prep time: About 15 minutes
Cook time: About 15 minutes
Total time: About 20 minutes, with some cooking done during the prep
Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 medium yellow onion, finely sliced
2 ounces pancetta or bacon, diced small
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 small dried red chili pepper, crumbled (or a pinch of crushed red chili flakes)
3 to 4 cups squash or pumpkin cubes, about 1 inch to a side
One sprig fresh rosemary, leaves only
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
About 1 pound (500 grams) pasta, preferably imported artisanal
Freshly grated aged pecorino cheese for serving
1. Combine the garlic, onion and pancetta with the oil in a skillet and set over medium heat. Cook gently, stirring occasionally. When the meat just begins to brown along the edges and render its fat, add the chili and stir in, then add the squash cubes and the rosemary leaves.
2. Stir to mix well and add a very little boiling water — a tablespoon or two, just enough to keep the squash from sticking to the pan. As the squash cooks down it will soften and release some liquid, but if necessary, be prepared to add a little more boiling water from time to time until the squash is softened. This should take about 20 minutes. When done, remove from the heat and add salt and pepper to taste.
3. Meanwhile, bring about 6 quarts of water to a rolling boil. Add salt and the pasta, stirring it in well. As soon as the water comes back to the boil, start timing the pasta, following the directions on the package but testing at least 2 minutes before the prescribed time.
4. As soon as the pasta is al dente, drain it and turn immediately into a warm serving bowl. Pour the sauce over it and serve, turning the pasta and sauce together at the table and passing the grated pecorino.
Main image: Delicata squash pair nicely with pasta for a Thanksgiving dish. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins
It doesn’t matter where you live or what language you speak: Good food can bring strangers to a table and, in a short period of time, make them friends. But in Palmar Grande, a town in the Dominican Republic, it’s doing something even more powerful: It’s creating social and economic change.
In this country, 40% of the populace lives below the poverty line, and the average household income is below $6,000. For a group of 30 women who needed to work but didn’t want to leave their families in search of jobs, the solution was to band together: In 2008, they created Chocal. Cacao is a primary crop for area farmers, so making chocolate seemed a natural choice. Along with ready-to-eat artisanal sweets, they sell bolas, which are used to make hot chocolate, and even tropical wines in flavors like cherry, star fruit, tangerine and, of course, cocoa. I met many members of this women’s collective when visiting the area as a guest of the cruise line Fathom.
The nuts of chocolate-factory work…
Their rustic facility may not have the polished image that one typically associates with chocolatiers. It’s located off the beaten path on the island’s north coast, where travelers by foot and horseback comprise a regular portion of daily traffic. But it’s obviously loved and cared for, and the aroma of roasting cocoa beans lets you know you’re in the right place.
Making chocolate is nowhere near as glamorous as it sounds. Far from the shiny, modern kitchens of television cooking shows, Chocal has only basic machinery; much of the work is done the old-fashioned way. A group of gals sorting cocoa beans by hand while keeping a watchful eye on the roasting machines is the closest thing you’ll find to an assembly line here.
…And the bolts
The aluminum-like foil to wrap chocolate bars is cut by hand, using a sturdy piece of cardboard as a guide to ensure the size is right. After the foil covers are folded around hand-molded rectangular blocks, a decorative wrapper is secured in place by a steady pair of hands wielding a glue gun. The women smile as they talk about their work, and even if you don’t understand a word of Spanish, it’s obvious they love what they do.
Some are here five days a week, others are part-time; Chocal isn’t the type of business that’s run by crunching numbers. When a big order comes in, many will pick up weekend shifts. And the night before an order ships, it’s not unusual to find all the women working late. When help is needed, whether on the factory floor or in the office, someone is always there.
Measuring sweet success
To an outsider, the odds of Chocal’s success might seem slim. Some of the women — who range from about 30 to over 50 years old — are unable to read or write, and none had culinary training when they began the company. But throw the classic business model out the window, and what’s left is a group of women who believed chocolate could be used to cultivate their community. “We wanted to change our quality of life,” founder Noemi Crisostomo told me through a translator. At 38, the mother of three children ages 15 to 22 has gone from unemployment to co-ownership in record time.
Over a decade, the collective has grown at a healthy pace. When it began, the women volunteered their time; today they receive wages, but a majority of their profits is being used to pay back a government loan that allowed them to renovate their facilities and invest in some machinery to improve production. Still, the pay they do receive is helping to make big changes in their lives and the lives of their families. Crisostomo is one of two of the women now studying at a local university; another’s son is also enrolled thanks to earnings from Chocal. Cement has replaced dirt in the floors of many of their homes. Their kitchens are stocked with better food, and their kids have new books and clothes for school.
A new opportunity for growth
Their sweet goods are now stocked on the shelves of a major local grocery chain. But growth means expanding into new markets and developing the flexibility to respond to increased yet still fluctuating demand. Chocal may have found a way to deal with both in cruise line Fathom.
The connection makes great business sense. Fathom is reinventing the idea of a cruise vacation by adding volunteer opportunities to the package. When travelers arrive at Amber Cove, the Caribbean’s first new cruise port in nearly a decade, they won’t flock to the beach — they’ll head to Chocal’s kitchen to help make chocolate.
With activities like sorting through cocoa beans and tempering chocolate, this field trip for ship guests sounds like a cooking class, but it’s actually a sweet community-service project. Chocolate-making cruisers have the potential to boost Chocal’s production and push an ambitious group of remarkable entrepreneurs to the next level of success.
Of course, after a day of rolling up their sleeves and creating chocolate confections, the travelers turned freelance chocolatiers are sure to buy a few bars to take home. (I know from experience that it’s hard to resist.) As more cruise ships dock here, more tourists buy chocolate. It’s a vacation sugar rush that’s good for everyone involved.
Main photo: Inspecting cacao beans at Chocal. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann
Few of the commuters, shoppers and office staff in Manchester’s city center in northwest England know the roof of their historic cathedral is also home to around a quarter of a million workers.
They might feel some concern if they learn these other drones are, in fact, bees. Or they might marvel at the thought of “rus in urbe,” the rural pursuit of beekeeping in the crucible of the world’s great 19th-century Industrial Revolution. They might marvel as well as at the heavenly quality of the honey produced in these sacred surroundings.
Up on the roof
The project to keep bees on the leaden roof of the cathedral, which has medieval origins, was originally encouraged by its dean as part of the “Dig the City” urban garden initiative in 2012. The project has grown each year, as have the honey yields.
For the greater good
Honorary Canon Adrian Rhodes tends his hives with all the devotion of a biblical shepherd for his flock. In the fascinating structure of bee society, he sees some parallel with medieval monastery life where one person reigned supreme, all had their allotted jobs, the community came first and individuals would sacrifice their lives for the greater good — just as a bee dies once it has stung.
It is a recent calling for the former hospital chaplain and psychotherapist of international standing known as the “Canon Apiarist,” who also keeps bees and makes honey at his suburban Manchester home.
A modern twist
Urban and suburban beekeeping is a relatively modern activity but one that increasingly makes sense as monoculture, chemicals and loss of habitat, such as wild meadows and hedgerows, dominate the agricultural landscape.
And, according to Rhodes, city bees provide the best honey.
Sweet treat for bees
Honeybees can fly up to a kilometer from their hives, and inner-city Manchester provides fine foraging. Many canals and railway lines, remainders of extensive Victorian industrialization, have untouched verges. Allotments also provide some of the best hunting grounds, and in return the bees pollinate the produce.
Add to that roof gardens, window boxes, parks and tree-filled squares, and Rhodes’ “ladies” have no need to roam far from home. One lime tree in flower, he explains, can have as much potential as an acre of field. And, although the invasion of the Himalayan balsam plant is cursed by many, it is a sweet boon to the honeybees.
‘You can’t run away’
The cathedral runs a program to help the long-term unemployed, and Rhodes mentors a trainee beekeeper to help him or her learn important life skills.
“You’ve got to turn up on time, take orders and show patience, courage and calmness. The bees must always come first,” he says. “When you get thousands of them buzzing around you, it can be a bit scary but you can’t run away or abandon them. You have to complete the task and learn how to think under pressure.”
Calm above the city
It’s not just the trainees who take away these life lessons. As Rhodes says, “Beekeeping teaches me to take time out from a busy life, and gives me a calm moment out of time.”
It may also be the effect of the aromatic church incense smoke he uses to distract the bees when he needs to lift the frames from the hives.
The honey may be blessed, but collecting it can also be a blessed nuisance. The hives have to be secured against wind (highly problematic on a building whose ancient structure is under government protection), and the heat off the lead roof can also cause the beekeeper problems in summer.
A lack of water supply on top of the the building makes it even more complicated. Access by narrow Harry Potter-style stone spiral steps is also a problem, especially when it comes to removing the honey-dripping frames for extraction. A good supply of plastic bags and a chain of volunteers is the answer.
The extraction is done in the cathedral, where they also jar and label the “Heavenly Honey.” It is neither pasteurized nor heat-treated, simply filtered, and the jars are sold to the cathedral community at a modest price, although there are plans to sell online.
The city’s symbol
Coincidentally, the civic symbol of Manchester is a bee: It reflects a city that is industrious, hardworking, innovative and community-minded, part of a region that also saw the birth of the great cooperative movement in 1844 to provide an affordable alternative to poor-quality and high-priced food and provisions.
The canon apiarist’s bees are part of a proud tradition.
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Main photo: Honorary Canon Adrian Rhodes with his beehives on the roof of Manchester Cathedral. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman
It’s once again time to greet the coming of winter with rounds of sugary treats, pranks, parades and parties. Yes, Halloween has arrived.
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Our sugar-sweet revelry hasn’t always been the standard, though. Centuries ago the ancient Celts marked the end of the harvest season and start of winter not with tricks and ghoulish outfits but with a sacred observance known as Samhain. On that day they held feasts, lit enormous bonfires and made sacrifices of crops and livestock to protect them during “the darker half” of the year. Believing that the doors to the afterlife opened Oct. 31, they also saw Samhain as the time to communicate with the dead.
As time passed and the pagan Celts converted to Christianity, their sober holiday took on a new name and a few new traditions. All Hallows’ Eve kept the fall fare and communing with spirits, but it replaced the fiery activities with bobbing for apples and lighting lanterns crafted from root vegetables.
Over the years All Hallows’ Eve evolved into a day of tricks and sweet treats. However, if you crave a more authentic, wholesome Halloween, feature an assortment of harvest foods and activities at your next holiday fete.
Pumpkins have a storied history
Who hasn’t helped a family member or teacher turn an everyday pumpkin into a spooky jack-o’-lantern? In America carving a pumpkin borders on a rite of passage. The ritual stems from the “neep lanterns” of medieval Europe. Made from hollowed-out potatoes, turnips, rutabagas and beets, these lamps were placed on gravestones and in the windows of homes to welcome back deceased family and friends.
While the exteriors of the vegetables beckoned the dead, the interiors appeared at seasonal, medieval feasts. Leftover potatoes were made into such Irish specialties as champ and colcannon — a mixture of potatoes, cabbage and onion, while turnips and rutabaga were simply mashed and served.
When Halloween washed up on American shores, the root vegetables were swapped out for plump pumpkins. The seeds, rather than the flesh, of the pumpkin were what people consumed. Roasted in the oven and sprinkled with salt, pumpkin seeds remain a mainstay of Halloween gatherings.
A spicy Halloween treat
For a spicier take on the usual roasted treat, preheat your oven to 350 F. Evenly spread 3 cups roasted pumpkin seeds over a shallow baking sheet and toast for 10 minutes. Note that if you are using seeds taken directly from a pumpkin, you will need to roast the seeds for 90 minutes at 250 F before moving onto this step.
As the seeds are toasting, melt 1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter. Place the butter, 2 tablespoons light brown sugar, 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom and 1/4 teaspoon allspice in a large bowl and stir until well combined. Add the hot pumpkin seeds, toss to coat and allow the seeds to cool before serving.
Apples also played an important part in Samhain. The Celts believed that, based on the number of seeds it contained, a sliced apple could predict marriage and wealth. This soothsaying evolved into the British game of unmarried people attempting to bite an apple floating in water to determine who would be their spouse.
Along with bobbing for apples on All Hallows’ Eve, the Irish played snap apple. In this game partygoers tried to bite an apple suspended from a doorframe or tree limb. Whoever bit or ate the entire apple first won.
To add an American twist to snap apple, dangle a caramel, rather than plain, apple from the string. Hard, glossy candy apples work, too, but prove a bit more painful to the teeth.
In addition to acting as prognosticators and games, apples were a staple of autumn meals. They were eaten raw as well as boiled, mashed or baked in breads, cakes, dumplings and pies. Placed between wooden presses and squeezed of their liquid, they were drunk as juice and cider. In modern times they serve an even sweeter role, starring in the aforementioned caramel and candy apples.
Beyond pumpkins and apples
No celebration of the fall harvest would be complete without a nod to grains. Porridge, flat bread, buns and the unleavened, pan-fried bread of wheat and barley called bannock were among the early grain-based fare.
While porridge and bread may not impress 21st century Halloween guests, spicy barmbrack will. Reminiscent of fruitcake, Irish barmbrack contains cloth- or paper-wrapped objects — a coin, ring, dried bean or pea — said to predict the future of those who find them. For original Halloween fun, add fortune-telling bread to your menu.
The same can be said of cookies cut out in the shapes of ghosts, pumpkins, witches, cats and other scary creatures. When the American custom of trick-or-treating began in the late 1930s, children often received homemade pumpkin-shaped cookies. To spruce up this traditional sugar cookie, add two teaspoons of almond, lemon or orange extract to your dough and swap out that tired pumpkin for an array of unusual cookie cutters.
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 40 minutes
Total time: 70 minutes
Yield: One 8-inch, round loaf
3/4 cup dark raisins
1/4 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup roughly chopped dates
1 1/4 cups hot black tea
Dried bean, ring and penny (optional)
Parchment paper (optional)
1/4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1 large egg, at room temperature
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/3 cup milk, warmed slightly
1.Place the raisins, cranberries and dates in a medium bowl. Pour the hot tea over the fruit and set aside. Allow the fruit to steep for 20 to 30 minutes.
2. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease and line an 8-inch cake pan with parchment paper and set aside. If adding favors to the bread, tightly wrap the dried bean, ring and coin in separate strips of parchment paper and set aside.
3. In a large bowl whisk together the sugars, flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice until well combined.
4. In a small bowl mix together the egg, melted butter and milk.
5. Make a well in the flour mixture and pour the liquids into the center. Using a spatula or spoon, mix the dry and wet ingredients together.
6. Drain the dried fruit and add it to the dough, stirring well to combine. Spread the dough evenly in the pan. If using the optional favors in the bread, stick them into the dough now and place the bread into the oven. Lower the temperature to 325 F and bake for 40 minutes.
7. Remove the bread from the oven and allow it to cool for 5 minutes before removing it from the pan. Cool the barmbrack completely on a wire rack before cutting and serving.
Main photo: Skeletons in a Halloween-themed parade. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kathy Hunt
In the tradition of Bengali Hindus, the auspicious fortnight, or Debipaksha, ends on the full moon night with a prayer to Lakshmi, or Lokkhi in Bengali, the goddess of wealth, peace and prosperity.
In most parts of India, people pray to Lakshmi during Diwali. However, in Bengal, this is done during the festival of Kojagori Lokkhi Puja. This tradition dates back to an ancient king who had promised an artisan he would buy all his wares. The artisan had created an image of Alokkhi, or the anti-Lakshmi, and the king — not wanting to break his promise — bought the image, in turn bringing bad luck and financial distress to his kingdom. Finally, his queen kept a night vigil, fasting and praying to the goddess Lokkhi, who was pleased, and peace and prosperity were restored to his land.
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The festival of Kojagori Lokkhi Puja has been one of my favorites, mostly because of the silent power of this very domestic goddess, possibly an ancient measure of preserving the status of the homemaker. The goddess is of a silent and fastidious temperament and is said to favor a calm and peaceful household where there is no waste or turmoil.
The focus of this Puja is, therefore, on the peace and calm of the home and is usually done by the women in the household. In Bengal, a new bride or homemaker is likened to Lokkhi, with a hope of ensuring that careless treatment of her will bring bad luck to the household.
Lokkhi Puja is sandwiched between the flashy Durga Puja, a four-day festival of elaborate fanfare, and Kali Puja, the invocation of the powerful goddess of the night. Somehow these goddesses, with their multiple hands, weapons and fierce aspirations, seem too dramatic for me. The gracious Lokkhi, who stood on an open lotus (a common flower in Bengal) with her pet owl, seems approachable and very real.
In preparation for the festival
The first task for the festival, usually done the day before, begins with getting the Lokkhi figurines. However, unlike other figurines, the Lokkhi is never immersed in the Ganges. The morning of the puja begins with a scrupulous cleaning of the household, and I remember this being one of the days my grandmother woke me up early so as not to invoke the ire of the goddess, who is not partial to laziness.
The cleaned floors are decorated with alpona, or a traditional design made with rice flour paste that typically has a series of feet that enter the house and none leaving it. My grandmother would leave the rest of the design making to me (often shaking her head at my lack of symmetry in making these patterns), but made the decorations for the central prayer room herself.
Today, with my grandmother gone, none of the decoration happens, but I do have her silver Lokkhi, something she inherited from her mother-in-law.
The foods of the puja are slightly different from the traditional offerings of khichuri seen in other pujas. For Kojagori Lokkhi Puja, you typically see a repast of luchi, or puffed Bengali breads, and a variety of fried vegetables, most commonly potatoes and eggplants. While this may seem simple, eggplant wedges coated with salt, turmeric and cayenne and then deep fried to a soft and sensuous texture and enjoyed with crisp and puffy puris can indeed be something to appease a flighty goddess.
Other traditional offerings include coconut toffee balls, called narus, and various assortments of rice products, such as puffed rice, puffed rice coated with jaggery and, as in all occasions, rice pudding. In an agrarian economy where rice is the main product or crop, prosperity is indeed associated with rice, and it is considered unlucky to run out of rice in a household, probably accounting for my penchant for keeping at least one spare 10-pound bag around to this day.
The preferred flower for Kojagori Lokkhi Puja is the lotus, making it very difficult to procure unless you hit the flower shops first thing in the morning.
To help you bring some peace and happiness to your table, I share with you these recipes for coconut toffee balls, Bengali fried eggplant and potatoes, and my slow cooker rice pudding. As autumn turns into winter, may there be peace and prosperity in everyone’s life.
Narkoler Naru (Coconut Toffee Balls)
Recipe from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles”
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
Yield: 20 small balls
2 cups grated coconut (I use the frozen variety)
3/4 cup powdered jaggery (cane sugar)
1/2 teaspoon cardamom powder
- In a wok or skillet over very low heat, cook the coconut, stirring frequently, for 15 to 20 minutes. The coconut should begin turning light brown and aromatic and begin releasing some oil.
- Add the jaggery and continue cooking on low, stirring frequently, until the jaggery is melted and the mixture is well browned and very fragrant and toffee-like. Plenty of coconut oil should be glistening in the mixture.
- Stir in the cardamom powder and mix well.
- Remove from heat and let cool until the mixture is able to be handled.
- Shape the mixture into small balls. These balls keep well for a couple of weeks at room temperatures of up to 70 F or refrigerated. If refrigerated, they should be brought the room temperature before serving.
Begun Bhaja (Bengali Fried Eggplants)
Recipe adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles.”
When choosing an eggplant, pick with care because a seedy eggplant is a recipe for disaster. Ideally, pick a smaller, smooth eggplant that feels light and has shiny, dark purple skin. This recipe can also be used to cook potato slices.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
Total time: 35 minutes
1 medium-sized eggplant, about 1 1/2 pounds
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon red cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons rice flour (optional, but it gives it a nice crisp texture)
Oil for deep frying
- Cut the eggplant into slices or wedges and place them in a large mixing bowl.
- Add the turmeric, salt and red cayenne pepper to the bowl and toss the eggplant so it is well coated.
- Place the eggplant in a colander and let it drain for about 15 minutes.
- Spread the rice flour on a clean surface and lightly dip the outer flesh of the eggplant in the rice flour. The flour does not have to be even. It should be a light coating.
- Heat the oil in a wok. While the oil is heating, line a plate with plenty of paper towels.
- Carefully place a few of the eggplant pieces into the oil and fry for 3 to 4 minutes until very soft and golden.
- Drain the eggplant pieces carefully and place them on the paper towel-lined plate.
- Fry and drain the remaining pieces of eggplant.
- Serve hot with luchis (Bengali puffed bread) or rice and lentils.
Slow Cooker Saffron and Cardamom Rice Pudding
Recipe from “Spices and Seasons: Simple, Sustainable Indian Flavors”
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 5 hours (in a slow cooker)
Total time: About 5 hours
1/2 gallon half-and-half
3/4 cup short-grained rice, such as jasmine rice
6 green cardamoms, lightly bruised
3/4 cup raw turbinado or maple sugar (or more to taste)
1/2 cup chopped nuts such as pistachios or pecans (optional)
- Combine the half-and-half, rice and cardamoms in the slow cooker and set it to cook on high for five hours..
- After two hours, remove the slow cooker cover and give the mixture a good stir, ensuring the rice mixes well with the milk. Replace the lid.
- After another hour and a half, stir the mixture well. By this point, the rice should be fairly soft and meshing into the milk. Stir in the sugar and let the rice pudding continue cooking for another hour and a half.
- Stir well once it is done cooking. Discard the cardamoms if you wish. Let the pudding rest for at least 30 minutes and garnish with nuts before serving if you wish. Serve hot or cold, depending on your preference.
Main photo: Bengali Fried Eggplants, or Begun Bhaja. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rinku Bhattacharya