Articles in World

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

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

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

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

Eating in Belfast

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drinking in Belfast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shopping in Belfast

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

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

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

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

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Podere Forte's vineyards offer breathtaking views of the hilltops of Rocca d’Orcia and Castiglione d’Orcia. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

If you think of Tuscany and its wines, it is the famous names that immediately come to mind: Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Bolgheri. But Tuscany is so much more than those. There are all manner of lesser-known wines off the beaten track.

I recently spent a couple of days in the Orcia valley, an area sandwiched between the vineyards of Montalcino and Montepulciano, with a river that rises at Monte Cetona and flows into the Ombrone. The Orcia DOC was recognized in 2000, and in 2004 the whole valley was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

As for most of the red wines of Tuscany, Sangiovese is the dominant variety, often blended with the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. There are now about 40 wine estates in the 13 villages of the Orcia valley, with an impressive level of quality and just waiting to be discovered. Here are five that are well worth the detour.

Fattoria del Colle

Fattoria del Colle, near the village of Trequanda, produces three red wines and Vin Santo. Photo courtesy of Consorzio vino orcia

Fattoria del Colle, near the village of Trequanda, produces three red wines and Vin Santo. Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

This is the property of Donatella Cinelli and Carlo Gardini. Donatella’s family has long been part of the wine scene of Montalcino, with her brother now running Fattoria dei Barbi, but Fattoria del Colle is where Donatella makes her mark outside Montalcino. She has about 81 acres of vines near the village of Trequanda and makes three red wines, not to mention Vin Santo, which is an essential part of every classic Tuscan estate.

Leone Rosso is Sangiovese with 40 percent Merlot, making for riper, fleshier flavors. Cenerentola, or Cinderella, is Sangiovese with 35 percent Foglia Tonda, an old Tuscan grape variety that almost disappeared. Donatella has played a large part in its successful revival. And then there is Il Drago e le Otto Colombe, a blend of Sangiovese with some Merlot, as well as 20 percent of an Umbrian grape variety, Sagrantino. The name of the wine refers to the fact that the estate is run by women, the doves, with just one man, or dragon, Donatella’s husband, Carlo. It makes an amusing aside. But Donatella has a serious focus; a fellow winegrower described her as the anima, or driving force, of the Val d’Orcia.

Podere Forte

Podere Forte’s cellar is state-of-the-art, with vats for microvinifications and a serious selection of barrels. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio vino orcia

Podere Forte’s cellar is state-of-the-art, with vats for microvinifications and a serious selection of barrels. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

This is a relatively new estate, in Tuscan terms, for it was created in 1997 by Pasquale Forte, a businessman from Calabria. From one small purchase in 1997, he has developed a 416-acre estate, including 25 acres of vines (in addition, there are olive trees, extensive woodlands and land for rearing animals).

Sangiovese is the core variety, with some Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Merlot. They aim for self-sufficiency and even have a restaurant, the very stylish Osteria Perillà, in the nearby village of Castiglione d’Orcia, where you can enjoy the produce of the estate. They are moving toward biodynamic principles and paying enormous attention to the condition of the soil, with advice from the leading expert in the field, Claude Bourguignon.

A drive around the vineyards offered breathtaking views of the hilltops of Rocca d’Orcia and Castiglione d’Orcia, with the autumn sunshine reflecting on golden vines. The cellar can only be described as state-of-the-art, with several sorting tables, vats for microvinifications and a serious selection of barrels.

They make three wines. Petruccino, a blend of 70 percent Sangiovese and 30 percent Merlot with 14 months’ oak aging, has a ripe fleshiness from the Merlot, balanced with freshness from the Sangiovese. More serious is Petrucci, a pure Sangiovese, described as their flagship wine, with aging in new oak. The third wine of the range is single-vineyard Guardiavigna, from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. The 2010 was drinking particularly well, with elegance and balance.

Olivi-Le Buche

Olivi-Le Buche produces a wide range of wines from an eclectic selection of grapes. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio vino orcia

Olivi-Le Buche produces a wide range of wines from an eclectic selection of grapes. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

This estate was developed by Giuseppe Olivi, who produces an eclectic range of wines from an equally eclectic selection of grape varieties, namely Sangiovese, the key Bordeaux varieties, Syrah, and Pugnitello, another Tuscan variety that has been revived in recent years. His flagship wine is I Puri, a varietal wine that changes from year to year, depending on which grape variety is the absolute best in that particular vintage. In 2009 it was Merlot and in 2010 Sangiovese, with a fine expression of the variety. Unusually for the Orcia valley, they also have some white varieties, Verdicchio, Viognier and Sauvignon, making a fragrant white wine with some stony minerality.

Podere Albiano

The wines from Podere Albiano make a convincing range of wines that illustrate the characteristics of the Orcia valley. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio vino orcia

The wines from Podere Albiano make a convincing range of wines that illustrate the characteristics of the Orcia valley. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

This is an enchanting spot, with views of Monte Amiata and the small town of Pienza. The almost abandoned property was bought in 1999 by Ada Becheri and Alberto Turri, and they began planting vines in 2002. Until 2008, they merely sold their grapes and did some experimental microvinifications. The following year, they built a neat compact cellar and now they make a convincing range of wines that amply illustrate the characteristics of the Orcia valley, with Sangiovese, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot in varying proportions. Oak aging is essential to them all.

Citto, from all four varieties, is elegant and cedary; Ciriè is Sangiovese and Merlot, with some fleshy fruit; Tribòlo is a pure Sangiovese, and a riserva, which requires 24 months of aging. In fact, it has spent 30 months in small barrels, with some lovely elegant sour cherry fruit and just the right amount of oak. And finally there is Albiano, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with just a touch of Petit Verdot. This is riper and immediately more international in flavor, while still retaining the benchmark elegance of Podere Abiello.

Marco Capitoni

Two large amphorae in Marco Capitoni’s cellar are used for experimenting with Sangiovese. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio vino orcia

Two large amphorae in Marco Capitoni’s cellar are used for experimenting with Sangiovese. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

Marco’s first vintage was 2001. He has developed the vineyards of an old family estate to make two wines: Capitoni, which is a blend of 80 percent Sangiovese with some Merlot, and Frasi, which comes from a 3.2-acre vineyard planted in1973 that is mainly Sangiovese, with Canaiolo and Colorino. The three varieties are all mixed up in the vineyard and consequently fermented together, then aged in large wood for two years. A vertical tasting of Le Frasi from 2010 to 2005 illustrated the vintage variations. But the first things you see in Marco’s cellar are two large amphorae, for he is experimenting with Sangiovese in amphora.

The flavors are fresh and perfumed, with elegant red fruit and potential, rather like Val d’Orcia, which is a sleeping giant waiting to be discovered.

Main photo: Podere Forte’s vineyards offer breathtaking views of the hilltops of Rocca d’Orcia and Castiglione d’Orcia. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

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Stay healthy when you set sail. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

It’s hard to go hungry on a cruise. In fact, the all-inclusive eats and, often, all-inclusive drinks are a big part of the allure of cruise travel. On just about every ship sailing the seas, there’s food for the taking from bow to stern: from pasta and pizza to curries and what seems like a never-ending dessert selection, there’s something for everyone. These days, that’s even true for those on special diets. Whether you’re looking at a menu or walking the buffet line, healthy choices can be found; sometimes they’re just harder to see.

Special diets

Guilt-free sweet rolls for breakfast. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Guilt-free sweet rolls for breakfast. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas ship dedicates a corner of the daily menu in the main dining room to explaining special diet options. Various icons indicate dishes that adhere to an assortment of dietary needs, including gluten-free and lactose-free items. Then there’s the Vitality option, a three-course meal of 800 or fewer calories; the ShipShape Fitness Center offers corresponding Vitality daily workouts to help keep passengers’ nutrition and weight management on track during vacation. (Some classes are complimentary, while others require an additional charge.)

Devinly Decadence is a specialty restaurant open for complimentary breakfast, lunch and dinner on Quantum and Anthem of the Seas. Devin Alexander, author of eight cookbooks and the chef for NBC’s “The Biggest Loser,” has brought her take on healthy cooking to the high seas. Breakfast options include skinny takes on typically indulgent favorites like “no-sin-a-buns” and “banana mania” muffins. All entrées, including popular comfort foods like beef stew and chicken enchiladas, are under 500 calories each.

The fresher, the better

Vitamin shots to start the day. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Vitamin shots to start the day. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

On the AmaWaterways river cruise line, healthy eating isn’t defined by calorie counts; it’s about fresh, local ingredients and their preparation. Through recipe adaptation, favorite dishes can be healthy, address growing dietary concerns (gluten-free and lactose-free dining in particular), and still taste great.

Every morning at breakfast aboard AmaSerena, AmaWaterways’ Healthy Corner offers the expected selection of fresh fruits and yogurts. But its Vitamin Shot of the Day can offer a sweet boost that’s strong enough to keep you away from the tempting pastry table. Every day the chef whips up a new blend of fresh fruit shakes: One morning you might wake to a blend of strawberry, kiwi and bananas, the next a mix of apricots, plain yogurt, bananas and sparkling water.

Snacking at sea

Carved or not, fruit is your friend. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Carved or not, fruit is your friend. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Special diets are a great tool, but they don’t replace smart choices. Think about how you eat at home to help you stay on track. If you don’t usually snack between meals, try not to do it at sea; a bite of this here and a taste of that there have a way of adding up quickly. But if hunger sets in and your next meal is still hours away, don’t just grab what’s easy. Steer clear of confections and baked goods like cookies and pastries, and do your best instead to grab something that’s good for you.

Fruits and veggies are your friends. On the typical weeklong sailing, Freedom of the Seas serves cruisers 40,000 pounds of fresh fruit and 70,000 pounds of fresh vegetables. Aboard the AmaSerena, fruit is always available in the main lounge. And the selection goes beyond a simple bowl of apples: Think three tiers of ripe and fragrant choices that, depending on the day, can include apricots, peaches, citrus, green grapes, red grapes and bananas.

Drink … a lot

It looks healthy, but watch that booze. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

It looks healthy, but watch that booze. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Drink a lot, but choose your hydration method carefully. Drink water instead of soda, sweet tea or lemonade. Keeping a water bottle handy can help keep you sipping smart.

When choosing cocktails (it’s vacation — you know you’re going to have them), try not to overdo it. You don’t want a collection of colorful paper umbrellas before you make it to dinner.

Sitting down to dinner

Dinner and a show. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Dinner and a show. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Going out for dinner is always fun, but servers on cruise ships take the experience to a whole new level. After one night, along with your name, they somehow also manage to remember how you take your coffee or the fact that you dislike lima beans but love peanut butter.

So enlist their help in making your calories count. As surprised as they may be, let them know that you plan to stay strong and pass on the bread. And there’s no rule that you have to order an appetizer, entrée and dessert. One night maybe skip the appetizer or order an appetizer instead of an entrée. Get creative. I’ve never met a cruise server who didn’t aim to please.

On Carnival Cruise Line, the floor staff even sings and dances between courses. Diners are encouraged to join in, so take advantage of the opportunity to burn some calories during dinner.

Browsing the buffet

Decadent chocolate crêpes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Decadent chocolate crêpes. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Buffets are standard operating procedure on large cruise ships. But you should resist the urge to dig into the first dish you see. Take a spin around and check out all of the choices before you pick up a plate; make a point to look for salads and vegetables. Opt for smaller portions. If you really like a particular dish, there’s plenty more waiting. At the buffet aboard Royal Caribbean, healthier options are marked with the same Vitality logo used in the ship’s main dining rooms.

Be choosy. Pizza doesn’t typically taste any different on a cruise ship than it does at home, so spend your calories on some truly vacation-worthy eats like freshly prepared sushi or a cooked-to-order breakfast chocolate crêpe.

Just desserts

One won't hurt. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

One won’t hurt. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

You’re on vacation. It’s OK to indulge a little. The pastry chef aboard Un-Cruise’s Safari Explorer puts out a plate of cookies every afternoon; one won’t do you in, but a handful is a different story.

Make smart choices throughout the day, and there won’t be any reason to feel guilty when you dip your spoon into the gooey center of a famous Carnival Warm Chocolate Melting Cake. Mixed by hand and cooked to order, each Carnival ship serves an average of 900 per day. All those cruisers can’t be wrong.

Main photo: Stay healthy when you set sail. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

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A tasting of Blandy's Madeira wines. Note the difference in colors, depending on the grape variety used and the age of the wine. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

“Where are the vineyards?” I wondered aloud on a recent visit to Madeira, the small volcanic island belonging to Portugal, perched out in the Atlantic, about 400 miles off the coast of Morocco.

Wine has been the principal product of the island for more than 400 years. Its fame is such that you might reasonably expect on arrival to be greeted with wave upon wave of vitis vinifera, rather as you do when traveling through France’s Champagne region. On the contrary, what you mostly see planted on poios, centuries-old terraces stacked steeply up from the island’s coastal fringe, are verdant banana palms, their floppy green leaves rattled by the frequent winds that gust in off the Atlantic.

Hidden vineyards

Terraces planted with banana palms -- and a few vines -- above Camara de Lobos, Madeira. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Terraces planted with banana palms — and a few vines — above Camara de Lobos, Madeira. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

I did eventually spot some vines. The holdings are tiny and widely scattered, hanging on for dear life and threatened both by the bananas and the newly built houses and apartments that increasingly encroach on the available space. Trained in the traditional manner over wooden pergolas, the vines often have a crop of potatoes, cabbages, zucchini and beans planted at their feet to make full use of the scarce — and exceedingly fertile — ground.

Despite the near invisibility of its vineyards, Madeira’s wine remains one of the world’s leading fortified wines. Once highly fashionable and sought after, it was reputed to be George Washington’s favored tipple and was served at his presidential inauguration. The term “fortified” means the wine is bolstered by adding grape spirit, which raises its alcohol content (typically to 19% in the case of Madeira, as opposed to the usual 12% to 14% range for table wines), as well as giving it a longer life. Port, that other celebrated Portuguese fortified wine, gets a shot of grape spirit too, but there the similarity ends, because the grape varieties involved and — above all — the process employed in making Madeira differ in significant ways from those used in Port production.

A happy accident

Bottles of 1966 Madeira wine in Blandy's cellars. The grape variety (Bual), date of vintage and winemaker are stenciled in traditional style directly onto the bottles. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Bottles of 1966 Madeira wine in Blandy’s cellars. The grape variety (Bual), date of vintage and winemaker are stenciled in traditional style directly onto the bottles. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

The wine starts out life in the usual way, with the grapes picked in late summer, then crushed and fermented, and grape spirit added to arrest fermentation — so far, so familiar. From here, things start to get interesting. During its long journey to maturity, Madeira is exposed to the unlikely twin enemies of heat and air, to emerge not only unspoiled but with extraordinary added layers of flavor and complexity. As Richard Mayson puts it in his recently published book “Madeira: the Islands and Their Wines,” “Heat and air, both the sworn enemies of most wines and winemakers, conspire to turn madeira into one of the most enthralling of the world’s wines, as well as one of its most resilient.”

The discovery that wine could be heated and come to no harm — and even improved by it — was a happy accident. The island has always been strategically important for trans-Atlantic shipping, and over the centuries, countless vessels have paused here to restock with provisions before the long sea journey from Europe across the Atlantic to the Americas and beyond. Provisions always included casks of wine, which by the nature of things were exposed on board to great heat. When the ships berthed and the wine was found to be perfectly good — even better than when it departed — the shippers set about reproducing the same conditions in their cellars back home, placing the huge, wooden wine casks on the upper floors of their wineries to bask in the summer heat.

Worth the expense

Casks of Madeira wine maturing in the cellars of Blandy's, a leading Madeira producer. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Casks of Madeira wine maturing in the cellars of Blandy’s, a leading Madeira producer. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Nowadays, a faster (and cheaper) way to reproduce this step is to heat the wine artificially in large containers called estufas, but the finest Madeiras are still aged in wooden casks, heated only by the island’s year-round sunshine. This process, called the canteiro method, is lengthier and more gentle and gives the wines their characteristic, slightly caramelized, faintly smoky aromas with exotic hints of honey and dried fruits.

A premium bottle of Madeira is always expensive, because of the time and skill needed to nurse it to perfection. One consolation — and a considerable selling point — is that once the wines have survived the rigors of heating and oxidation, they are good to go for up to 100 years. Blandy’s, one of the top Madeira producers based in the capital, Funchal, still has a barrel of 1920 wine stored in its cellar, awaiting its moment.

Once bottled, Madeira can be opened and sampled, the cork replaced and the bottle stored upright in a dark place for weeks or months without the contents coming to any harm. “If ever there was a wine to take away with you to a desert island,” comments Mayson, “this is it.”

Today, the chief market for Madeira is France, followed by the island of Madeira itself. Portugal, surprisingly, consumes little Madeira, but the UK remains a big fan, with Japan, Germany and the U.S. not far behind. Check www.winesearcher.com for your nearest supplier.

Top Madeira producers (commonly known as “shippers”) include Blandy’s, Henriques & Henriques, Barbeito and H.M. Borges.

Main photo: A tasting of Blandy’s Madeira wines. Note the difference in colors, depending on the grape variety used and the age of the wine. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

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Waiters, whose every move is choreographed, serve diners at Ultraviolet. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicholas Gilman

I arrived in Shanghai dreaming of dumplings but instead was invited, by a generous friend, to a quixotic culinary experience that took much time to digest. Ultraviolet is a high-end restaurant-cum-theatrical show. It’s a self-described “multimedia experience” staged for a moneyed audience of 10 in a closed room whose environment is meticulously controlled.

The group was led into the dining hall and held captive at a large table for what seem like an eternity, like an existential scenario from a Buñuel film. A couple dozen tiny, refined plates from a never-changing menu were prepared and served, one after another, by waiters whose every move was carefully choreographed and scripted. Each dish, paired with a drink, was accompanied by projected images, music, even piped-in aromas, all feeding on a philosophical theme. The exhausting show took hours. Awards have been garnered — for the food anyway — which, by the way, is very good in a global, Noma/Bullí sort of way. The theatrical aspect is more dubious. It skirts the edge of ridiculous while managing to keep its intellectual head above water.

Chef Paul Pairet’s creation

A dish unleashes a cloud of white gas as it is served. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicholas Gilman

A dish unleashes a cloud of white gas as it is served. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicholas Gilman

It’s no accident that talented French chef Paul Pairet has brought this over-the-top evening of pseudo-avant-garde sensory incitement to Shanghai, one of the most unashamedly commercial cities in the world. Here, in the center of shopping and money, it makes sense. “Why not?” cry critics and gastronomes alike.

All encompassing, audience-involved theater is nothing new. From Strindberg’s difficult-to-perform “A Dream Play” to Antonin Artaud’s “Theater of Cruelty,” a theoretical, unrealized experiment in avant-garde spectacle in which the performers would attempt to assault the senses of the spectators, artists have been attempting to expand theater beyond the stage. But never has audience participation been brought to this level, at least in a restaurant. The attempt to juxtapose high-end dining and individual introspection was, at times, jarring.

A parade of images

The table at Ultraviolet is, naturally, shrouded in a purple hue. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicholas Gilman

The table at Ultraviolet is, naturally, shrouded in a purple hue. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicholas Gilman

While we ate, a parade of images, meant to evoke collective memory, were projected on all four walls. They ranged from spooky to comforting to, at best, beautifully and playfully nostalgic. Charlie Chaplin’s shoe-eating scene from “The Gold Rush” was shown in its entirety while wintry dishes were served. Manet’s “Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe” was recalled during the “picnic.”

Walls were plastered with hundreds of images of Asian dry noodle soup packages (evincing laughter from the several Asians present) while a high-falutin’ version of that fast-food classic was served. Moving images on the wall made the room seem to rise and fall: At one point we dropped into a Dante-esque netherworld as the scene around us fell away. I’m not sure if the bourgeoisie, whose foibles were often brought to the fore — Chaplin, a running leitmotif of fast food — was being patronized or burlesqued. But one did have the sense that this Frenchman is well aware of what he is doing, deconstructing and commenting on the classic multi-course meal.

Then there’s the food

A faux breakfast is one of the many tiny, refined plates served. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicholas Gilman

A faux breakfast is one of the many tiny, refined plates served. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicholas Gilman

What do I remember of the food? Little more than theoretical insider jokes that tasted good. One of the very first courses was entitled “Paloma” — it was a light sweet-sour salad of pomelo served in a vitrine which, when lifted, unleashed a cloud of white gas — the dove of peace? The Mexican song “Cucurrucucu Paloma” was heard in the background.

Next a single oyster, dressed with caviar, pepper, lemon and sea foam, was offered while the walls become a calm ocean. At a “picnic,” for which the table was covered with synthetic turf, a dish named “fish Tupperware,” dressed in mayo, recalled simple American/English food, while projected images harkened back to a long-forgotten country outing of the 1920s. Henry Mancini’s campy theme from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” accompanied a faux American “breakfast” — a fitting, albeit ironic, paean.

Pairet, who is obviously trying very hard to do something new, an admirable but nearly impossible goal nowadays, has been quoted as saying that “pretension is my worst enemy” — in which case the enemy lurked behind every carefully constructed shadow. He tries hard to pair food with feeling, to create “edible theater.” I appreciated the effort. I enjoyed the evening immensely, and ate and drank very well indeed, but instinctively resisted the artifice intended to carry me to higher (or lower, for that matter) emotional planes.

In this sense, the experience did not coalesce. Critic Richard Gilman (who happened to be my father) wrote, referring to the avant-garde theater of 50 years ago: “It may be that nothing will come forward as new, unassailable creation. It is surely true that any art comes to find that its own historical momentum becomes the enemy of its renewable prowess.”

I’m not sure if we are heading down a creative cul-de-sac in the increasingly global gastronomic world. I hope not.

Main photo: Waiters, whose every move is choreographed, serve diners at Ultraviolet. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicholas Gilman

The author wishes to thank Jeffrey Merrihue and www.foodiehub.tv who sponsored this trip to China and Ultraviolet.

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Harīsa. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Given how easy it is to make harīsa, the ubiquitous chile paste of North Africa, I’ve never had much use for those inferior tubes of the stuff. Harīsa is the most important condiment used in Algerian and Tunisian cooking, and you need to make this recipe and keep it in the refrigerator before attempting any other Algerian or Tunisian recipe you might have in my or others’ recipes.

It’s hard to believe that so essential a condiment could evolve only after the introduction of the New World capsicum after Columbus’ voyages. It’s thought that the chile entered North Africa by way of the Spanish presidios that dotted the coast in the 16th century or came up from West Africa overland from the Portuguese holdings there.

Harīsa comes from the Arabic word for “to break into pieces,” which is done by pounding hot chiles in a mortar, although today a food processor can be used. This famous hot chile paste is also found in the cooking of Libya, and even in western Sicily where cùscusu is made. In Tunisia it would be prepared fresh at home. The simplest recipe is merely a paste of red chile and salt that is covered in olive oil and stored.

Harīsa is sold in tubes by both Tunisian and French firms. The Tunisian one is better, but neither can compare to your own freshly made from this recipe.

I first became intrigued with making harīsa from a preparation made by Mouldi Hadiji, my Arabic teacher more than 30 years ago. I concocted this version, based on a Berber-style one I had in Djerba, from a recipe description given to me by a merchant in the market in Tunis, who unfortunately provided measurements that could last me a century (calling for 50 pounds of chile).

Tlitlu bi’l-Lahm (fresh pasta pieces with lamb in spicy harīsa sauce). Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Tlitlu bi’l-Lahm (fresh pasta pieces with lamb in spicy harīsa sauce). Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Some cooks also use mint, onions or olive oil in their harīsa. You also don’t have to use the exact dried chiles I call for, but at least one should be quite piquant.

Be careful when handling hot chiles, making sure that you do not put your fingers near your eyes, nose or mouth, or you will regret it. Wash your hands well with soap and water after handling chiles. After you make your first harīsa, with all the modern conveniences, I hope you can appreciate what exacting work this was, making it in the traditional mortar — 50 pounds of the stuff!

Harīsa

Prep time: 1 1/4 hours

Yield: 1 cup

Ingredients

2 ounces dried Guajillo chiles

2 ounces dried Anaheim chiles

5 garlic cloves, peeled

2 tablespoons water

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground caraway seeds

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground coriander seeds

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

Extra virgin olive oil for topping off

Directions

1. Soak the chiles in tepid water to cover until softened, 1 hour. Drain and remove the stems and seeds. Place in a blender or food processor with the garlic, water and olive oil and process until smooth, stopping occasionally to scrape down the sides.

2. Transfer the mixture to a small bowl and stir in the caraway, coriander and salt. Store in a jar and top off, covering the surface of the paste with a layer of olive oil. Whenever the paste is used, you must always top off with olive oil making sure no paste is exposed to air, otherwise it will spoil.

Variation: To make a hot harīsa, use 4 ounces dried Guajillo chiles and 1/2 ounce dried de Arbol peppers.

Note: To make ṣālṣa al-harīsa, used as an accompaniment to grilled meats, stir together 2 teaspoons harīsa, 3 tablespoons olive oil, 2 tablespoons water and 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley leaves.

Main photo: Harisa. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

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Freshly milled oil. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

It’s an old story — you’ve heard it before, and not just from me — but it’s coming around again. Predictably, just as U.S. specialty markets begin to trumpet the arrival of fresh new-harvest, extra virgin olive oil comes the warning that it ain’t what it seems.

According to journalist Tom Mueller, speaking on the popular CBS News program “60 Minutes,” an astonishing 80 percent of the extra virgin olive oil sold in the United States does not meet the standards for extra virgin.

That statement requires some clarification. To be characterized as extra virgin, legal parameters must be met. They are set by the International Olive Council, and they are liberal. The oil, for instance, must have only 0.8 percent free oleic fatty acid and a peroxide content of 20 milliequivalents, or meq.

But there’s more. To qualify as extra virgin, an oil must be free of defects, with perfect flavor and aroma. And that’s where a lot of extra virgin oil on sale in the U.S. falls down, usually because it is too old (Unlike wine, olive oil does not improve with age.) or has been exposed to damaging light, heat and/or atmosphere. The finest extra virgin will deteriorate very quickly. I know firsthand because once in Tuscany I deliberately exposed a glassful of extra virgin, milled just days earlier from my own olives. Within a week of exposure, it was unrecognizable, pale in color and with almost no flavor or aroma except for the slight development, as yet inchoate, of rancidity.

Much of the 80% of substandard extra virgin oil cited by Mueller (if indeed the figure is accurate, which I tend to doubt) was probably legally produced, bottled and shipped. But once it left the producer’s hands, all bets were off.

Buyer beware

An olive tree. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

An olive tree. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Let me give a disturbing example: In my local Whole Foods I bought a bottle of oil from a Sicilian producer whom I know well, one who makes his award-winning product with scrupulous care. And it shows: The oil has a robust flavor you associate with new oils made from barely mature olives and picked just 12 to 24 hours before pressing. Yet, the oil I purchased was pale yellow, indicating exposure to too much light, and it was unmistakably rancid, so much so I had to spit it out at the first taste.

So buyer beware, or caveat emptor, as they said back in Rome.

The conclusion of this somewhat misguided “60 Minutes” report was simple: The problem with Italian olive oil is a creation — like so many Italian problems — of the Mafia, a catch-all for everything wrong with Italy. And we Americans, who sometimes seem to fear the Mafia as much as we fear ISIS, certainly don’t want to give any support, financial or otherwise, to the dons. So should we all stop buying Italian olive oil?

Hang on a minute. If Italy is ground zero for olive oil fraud, the country is also recognized as ground zero for fraud protection, with not one but three national police forces responsible: the Carabinieri (like state police only national), the Guardia di Finanza (the tax police) and the Corpo Forestale, park rangers who also have the responsibility of investigating counterfeit foods and pursuing anti-Mafia activities. It was the Carabinieri in Turin last November who charged seven top olive oil companies with commercial fraud, among them Carapelli, Bertolli, Sasso and Coricelli. All were accused of selling as extra virgin, at extra virgin prices, oils that barely qualified as second-tier virgin, resulting in a 30% rip-off on the price.

Do the names sound familiar? They should. All these brands are in wide distribution outside Italy (as well as within), and especially in the U.S. through supermarkets and big-box stores. Although media have targeted the brands as “Italian,” in fact Carapelli, Sasso and Bertolli, which all began life a century or more ago as Italian family companies, are now owned by the Spanish multinational Deoleo. On its website, Deoleo promotes itself as “the world leader in the olive oil market.” That’s no stretch — Deoleo owns seven of the most widely sold olive oils in the world, including the abovementioned.

As frauds go, I have to confess, I don’t find this one all that shocking. Selling oil that barely reaches the cheap virgin qualification as more expensive extra virgin? It’s a bit like selling cheap toilet water as Chanel No. 5, and it’s tempting to fault consumers for their ignorance. If you can’t tell the difference between eau de toilette and a Chanel classic, it’s your problem, honey, not mine. Nonetheless, fraud is fraud. While this may be fairly entry-level fraud, it is still deceptive. And illegal. And possibly dangerous to the health of people who consume a great deal of what they believe is heart-healthy extra virgin olive oil.

The core of the problem is that, even in Italy and other regions known for producing fine oil, most consumers, including experienced chefs, have little or no idea what top-quality extra-virgin olive oil ought to taste like. Here’s a simple tip: It should leave your mouth feeling clean, not the least bit greasy, and it should have the fresh, herbal fragrance and flavor of just-cut grass. You’ve never actually tasted fresh-cut grass? Get out there behind the lawn mower and try it. It’s not going to kill you!) The flavor and aroma of fine, fresh olive oil can get a lot more subtle than that, and experienced tasters will detect nuances, from roasted nuts to citrus to green tomatoes and tomato leaves, but basically if you keep in mind the adjectives fresh, grassy, herbal, clean, you’ll be on the right track.

What to look for in olive oil

Quality olive oil abounds, if you know what to look for. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Quality olive oil abounds, if you know what to look for. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

A well-made olive oil will have a good balance of three basic characteristics: the fruity flavors of sound, healthy olives, and the bitterness and piquancy (pepperiness) that are indications of the presence of antioxidants that make olive oil the fat you want on your table for all its great health benefits. What should be avoided is oil that has a flat, tired flavor, that tastes of rancidity, that leaves your mouth feeling coated with fat or that tastes like a jar of commercial tapenade that was opened three weeks ago and got lost in the back of the refrigerator.

Fortunately, now is a perfect time to educate your palate with the outstanding flavors of fresh, well-made olive oil. From the Mediterranean — especially Italy — and from California, producers are rushing olio nuovo, new-harvest oil, to market. It is expensive, but worth investing in, if only to give you a firm base-line sense of what excellence is all about. Once you’ve tasted it, you will never again mistake bad oil for good.

Here are just a few I have tasted and liked. Please note these are not by any means the extent of fine extra virgin olive oils; these are specifically new oils that I have tasted recently.

From Gustiamo in New York:

Pianogrillo from Sicily, $38.25 for 500 milliliters.

Tratturello from Molise, $44.50 for 750 milliliters.

Rio Grifone, organic from Tuscany, $39.50 for 500 milliliters.

From Market Hall Foods in Oakland, California:

Séka Hills, top-ranked Californian oil, $18 for 250 milliliters.

Titone, award-winning Sicilian organic, $28 for 250 milliliters.

Olio Verde from Sicily, single cultivar, nocellara del Belice, $38 for 500 milliliters.

From Olio2go in Fairfax, Virginia:

Capezzana from Tuscany, $44.50 for 500 milliliters.

Frescobaldi from Tuscany, with the prestigious Laudemio seal, $32.95 for 250 milliliters.

Villa Zattopera from Sicily, single cultivar, tondo Iblea, $36.95 for 500 milliliters.

Direct from the producer, California Olive Ranch:

COR Limited Reserve, $19.99 for 500 milliliters.

Main photo: Freshly milled oil. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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Green and yellow plantains at Carniceria Mimi in Canas, Costa Rica. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

I was intimidated by plantains. Having eaten them in Latin American restaurants, I knew they were good when served with roast chicken, rice and beans. But seeing them in the market, I had no idea how to cook them. A trip to Costa Rica changed all that when a chef demonstrated how plantains are easy to prepare and delicious.

Like bananas, their sweet cousins, plantains are naturally fibrous and a good source of potassium.

Although they look like large bananas, they are not edible unless cooked. Primarily starchy, especially when green, plantains also have a stiff, bark-like peel. Delightfully easy to cook, plantains are used to create delicious side dishes.

Available all year round and grown primarily in the southern hemisphere, plantains are cooked in a great many ways — steamed, deep fried, sautéed, boiled, baked and grilled. The same fruit is prepared differently when it is green than when it is yellow or black. The first time I visited a Mexican market in Los Angeles, I noticed bunches of very large bananas with mottled yellow and black skin. I thought the blackened fruit was spoiled. In point of fact, when the peel turns yellow and then black, the starches in the fruit have begun to convert to sugars.

Plantains, yellow or black, will never be as sweet as a banana, but when cooked in this ripened state, they produce a deliciously caramelized side dish or dessert.

In his kitchen at Villa Buena Onda, an upscale boutique hotel on the Pacific Coast in Costa Rica’s Guanacaste Provence, Chef Gabriel Navarette demonstrated in a cooking video how easy it is to prepare plantains. In fact, they are so easy to cook, now that I am home, I make them all the time.

Chef Gabriel Navarette with a plate of patacones. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Chef Gabriel Navarette with a plate of patacones. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

The only difficulty with cooking plantains is finding a market that sells them. Not available in supermarkets in many U.S. cities, markets serving the Spanish-speaking community will have plantains. Seek them out because besides selling plantains, the markets will also be a good source of mangoes, papayas, tomatillos, chayote, fresh chilies, Latin spices and a good selection of dried beans and rice.

Navarette demonstrated how to prepare plantains three ways. He stuffed green plantains with cheese and baked them in the oven. He flattened green plantains and fried them twice to make patacones, thick, crispy chips served with pico de gallo, black beans, guacamole or ceviche. And, he caramelized yellow plantains to serve alongside black beans and rice on the wonderful Costa Rican dish called casado, which always has a protein such as chicken, fish, pork or beef.

Villa Buena Onda, or VBO as it is known locally, is an intimate destination. With only eight rooms, the hotel fells like a private home with a personal chef. The price of the room includes all three meals. Navarette and his fellow chefs make each dish to order.

Navarette studied at Instituto Nacional de Aprendizaje, a prominent school training professionals in many fields. He worked in resort and hotel kitchens, moving up the ranks from server to line cook, then as a sous chef and finally as the head chef at VBO for the past eight years.

Cooked yellow plantains. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Cooked yellow plantains. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

What attracted me to his food, as well as that of his cousin Diego Chavarria on the weekend and Rosa Balmaceda in the morning, was that each dish tasted home cooked but was plated in the most beautiful, five-star way.

Aided by César Allonso Carballo to translate, Navarette was happy to show me how to cook plantains. I was amazed at how easy they are to cook.

Cooking yellow plantains to use as a side dish or dessert is the essence of simplicity. Simply peel each plantain, heat a half-inch of safflower or corn oil in a carbon steel or cast iron pan over a medium flame, cut the plantain into rounds or in half lengthwise and then cut into 5-inch long sections, fry on either side until lightly browned, drain on paper towels and serve. All that can be done in five to eight minutes and the result is delicious.

The crisp and savory patacones are slightly more complicated to prepare but not much more so.

Patacones from the kitchen of Villa Buena Onda

Yellow or black plantains should not be used to make patacones because they are too soft.

In the restaurant, Navarette uses a deep fryer to cook plantains. That is fast and easy so he can keep up with the orders, but I discovered at home that by using a carbon steel pan I was able to achieve the same result using less oil with an easier clean up.

The oil may be reused by straining out cooked bits and storing in a refrigerated, air-tight container.

Enjoy the patacones with an ice-cold beer and, as the Costa Ricans say, Pura vida! Life is good because everything is OK.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 10 minutes

Total time: 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

2 green plantains, washed

1 cup corn or safflower oil

Sea salt and black pepper to taste (optional)

Directions

1. Cut the ends off each green plantain. Using a sharp knife, carefully cut along the length of the tough peel being careful not to cut the flesh of the plantain. Pry off the peel and discard.

2. Preheat oil in a deep fryer to 350 F or a half-inch of oil in a large sauté pan over a medium flame.

3. Cut each plantain into 5 or 6 equal sized rounds.

4. Place the rounds into the deep fryer for 3 to 4 minutes or until lightly browned. In the sauté pan, turn frequently for even cooking, which should take about 5 to 8 minutes.

5. Remove, drain on paper towels and allow to cool.

6. Prepare one round at a time. Put the round on a prep surface. Place a sturdy plate on top of the round. Press firmly in the middle of the plate until the plantain round flattens, then do all the other rounds.

7. Place the flattened plantains back into the deep fryer for 2 minutes, or 4 minutes in the oil in a sauté pan as before. Turn as necessary in order to cook until lightly browned on all sides.

8. Remove from the oil, place on paper towels to drain and cool.

9. Season with sea salt and black pepper (optional).

10. Serve at room temperature with sides of black beans, pico de gallo, sour cream or ceviche or all four so guests can mix and match.

Main photo: Green and yellow plantains at Carniceria Mimi in Canas, Costa Rica. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

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