Articles in Travel
In the United States, to “get your kicks” we’ve got Route 66. But in Italy, for an unforgettable travel experience follow the ancient Roman “Route” called Via Emilia. This easy-to-navigate highway starts in the northern section of Emilia-Romagna, connecting some of Italy’s most amazing sights with unique gourmet experiences. Click through this slideshow to discover what you’ll find along the route that connects cities rich in art, culture, history and sports cars with world-renowned food and wine.
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Main photo: Have a taste for incredible pasta? Follow Via Emilia in Italy to discover some of the best culinary delights of Emilia-Romagna. Credit: Copyright Emilia-Romagna Tourism Board
In the past few years, Denver — joined by its deluxe alter ego, Boulder, Colorado — has been at or near the top of so many national rankings, it would probably top the list ranking the lists themselves. It has consistently been named among the best (and fastest-growing) cities for millennials, for singles, for entrepreneurs, for outdoors enthusiasts, for beer lovers, you name it — and now that Denver is in the spotlight, its long-underrated dynamo of a dining scene is finally getting a chance to shine.
Here are just some of the kicks awaiting visitors in search of a Mile High culinary adventure. Or at least a cure for the munchies. Let’s face it: Marijuana legalization might have something to do with Colorado’s soaring profile.
It has stood at the edge of what’s now known as LoDo (Lower Downtown) since the fin de siècle — and Union Station‘s grand reopening in 2014 after a multimillion-dollar renovation marks the apotheosis of the neighborhood’s own comeback from late-20th century Skid Row into prime real estate.
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Some of the city’s most celebrated restaurateurs have set up shop on all sides of the magnificent Great Hall. At the casual end, there’s funky daytime franchise Snooze — where buttered-popcorn pancakes meet Thai-chili Bloodies — and Next Door, an ethicurean pub known for its beet burgers and kale chips. At the splashier end, Stoic & Genuine revels in a seafood repertoire that skews both wildly original — think miso-cured uni over kimchi granita — and classic, from clam rolls to caviar. Anchored by a gleaming deli and exhibition kitchen, Mercantile Dining & Provision turns out an ever-changing array of contemporary creations: highlights include exquisite pastas and anything featuring products from co-owner Alex Seidel’s Fruition Farms. And The Cooper Lounge, overlooking all the action, is as swanky a setting for cocktails as you’ll find in this dressed-down town.
Think of it as Union Station’s flip side: a gritty-chic urban marketplace that opened in 2013 along a still-gentrifying stretch of Brighton Boulevard with a roster of rising culinary stars and cult vendors. Now arguably the hub of the RiNo (River North) district, The Source is a one-stop shop for extraordinary beans (Boxcar Coffee Roasters), breads (Babettes) and beef (Western Daughters Butcher Shoppe), among other goods, that prove the word “artisanal” hasn’t lost all meaning just yet. It’s home to two beloved restaurants — the globally inspired Acorn and Comida, a modern taqueria/cantina — and ultra-cool cocktail bar RiNo Yacht Club. Capping it all off is the taproom of Crooked Stave, founded by a brewer whose experiments with brettanomyces and barrel aging have put it at the forefront of Denver’s world-class beer scene.
Breweries, breweries and more breweries
Speaking of beer: If ever there were proof that statistics don’t tell the whole truth, consider that Colorado, with about 250 craft breweries (or 6 per 100,000 adults), ranks “only” third in the nation. After all, that figure comes from the Brewers Association, which happens to be located not in California (first) or Washington (second), but in Boulder — the outgrowth of an earlier organization started by association president Charlie Papazian, aka the godfather of American home brewing. Papazian also founded the nation’s largest craft-beer showcase and competition, the Great American Beer Festival, held annually in Denver. It’s worth noting, too, that a fellow local microbrewing pioneer, Wynkoop co-founder John Hickenlooper, is now governor.
Of course, the ultimate metric of achievement becomes evident to anyone who spends even a short time here: the presence of a taproom on every other street corner, each with its own niche. For the most up-to-date and comprehensive information on breweries large and small, check out Westword’s Beer Man column and the Fermentedly Challenged blog. But some of my favorites include Diebolt and Prost for traditional (read: Eurocentric) styles, Former Future and Coda for adventurous tastes, and Renegade and Station 26 for sheer high-energy atmosphere.
One of Colorado’s most renowned (and widely distributed) envelope-pushing brands, Avery Brewing Co., recently opened a state-of-the-art, city-block-sized facility complete with sit-down restaurant and gift shop at the northern edge of Boulder. It’s a must for any suds buff — as are much smaller but no less superb breweries such as the chef-run BRU and the locals’ secret, J Wells — but it’s just the tip of the Berkeley of the Rockies’ gastronomic iceberg. To name some solid candidates for the connoisseurs’ to-do list: splendid sandwiches and specialty goods at gourmet shop Cured. Tea at the jaw-dropping Dushanbe Teahouse, an architectural masterpiece built by Tajikstani craftsmen. Genuine farm-to-table feasts at Blackbelly or Black Cat Bistro — both labors of love by chefs who really do run their own farms. Exquisite Japanese bites at the twinkling izakaya called Amu, wood-fired pies at the mod-rustic Basta, displays of Old World oenophilia at PMG. And as for Frasca Food and Wine — suffice it to say that chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson and master sommelier Bobby Stuckey’s mecca of Friulian cuisine continues to earn the accolades it rakes in nationwide (and beyond).
If it’s teeming diversity you crave — admittedly not Boulder’s strongest suit — Aurora, on Denver’s eastern border, is your destiny (along with Federal Boulevard, thronged with Vietnamese and Mexican kitchens). Though it feels like a suburb, it’s actually Colorado’s third-largest city and a center of immigrant life. Here, sharp-eyed explorers will find Korean, Thai, Middle Eastern, Indian, Sudanese and Hawaiian restaurants lined up in strip malls one after the other; they’ll find ramen and barbecue and tacos galore — and they’ll encounter the most random of surprises to boot, like soul fast food (Kirk’s Soul Kitchen) and a biker bar that serves Chinese eats (Piper Inn).
On that note, long before Denver had a culinary leg to stand on, it boasted watering holes whose potent mix of Wild West grit and urban grime earned them a place in, variously, Jack Kerouac novels, Tom Waits songs and one particularly infamous Playboy article. It still does. And although a whirlwind tour isn’t for everyone, here’s the itinerary any counterculturalist at heart should follow. Start at Charlie Brown’s Bar & Grill or My Brother’s Bar to hang out where Kerouac, Neal Cassady and other Beat legends once drank. Catch some live jazz at El Chapultapec, the 80-year-old remnant of an era when the Five Points neighborhood was known as the Harlem of the West. Or simply cruise East Colfax Avenue: Though in the throes of change, it’s still an embarrassment of divey riches. There you’ll find Pete’s Satire Lounge, where an as-yet-undiscovered Bob Dylan used to perform, as did the Smothers Brothers; not far away, PS Lounge illustrates the power of kitsch to bring all walks of life together. Meanwhile, situated at the western end of the 26-mile-long avenue, Casa Bonita may not be a dive, but it’s got cliff divers, among other carnival attractions parodied in a famous “South Park” episode.
Casa Bonita is strictly a sightseers’ stop, but you’ll have no trouble finding terrific Mexican eateries on just about every corner of this city (to pinpoint just a few admittedly downscale gems: El Taco de Mexico, El Original Tacos Jalisco, Tarasco’s, Chili Verde and La Calle Taqueria y Carnitas on West Alameda Avenue). Many of them will offer green chile; the sauce/stew is as traditional here as it is in New Mexico, though the Colorado style is thicker and often includes tomatoes with the chiles, pork, onions, garlic and so on. Cruise down Federal Boulevard in summer and you’ll see the roadside roasting stands hawking Pueblo (as well as Hatch) chiles by the bushel. Of course, Colorado lamb and beef are even more famous, as is Rocky Mountain trout — but locals equally covet Olathe corn, Palisade peaches and Rocky Ford melons in season. For a taste of the bounty, head to farm-centric fixtures such as Beast + Bottle, The Kitchen and Old Major.
Where a local focus and a cosmopolitan outlook come together, you’ll find Denver’s most distinctive dining and drinking spots. Take Beatrice & Woodsley, combining eye-popping decor designed to evoke a mountain cabin with a fascinating menu that simultaneously reflects the agrarian past and a global future. At Lower48 Kitchen, up-and-coming chef-partner Alex Figura takes a similar approach to yield some of the most exciting food around. Visionary restaurateur Justin Cucci is building an empire on extraordinary ambiance as well as consciously sourced contemporary cuisine, with venues housed in a former gas station, mortuary and brothel, respectively; the latter, Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox, emits a dazzlingly risqué vibe. Jim Pittenger of Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs has rightly garnered national attention for his reindeer, rattlesnake and other wild sausages, with wacky toppings to match. Same goes for Sean Kenyon, bartender-owner of Williams & Graham, a celebrated rendezvous for cocktail aficionados. And then there’s Work & Class: its exuberant yet intimate atmosphere and Latin-influenced comfort food will linger in your mind long after your visit.
The great outdoors
With its enviable high-desert climate (not to mention the Rocky Mountains in its backyard), Denver is an obvious draw for outdoors enthusiasts — and an ideal site for seasonal festivals and markets of all kinds. Food-truck chasers mustn’t miss Civic Center EATS, where mobile specialists in everything from pierogi to Popsicles gather in the namesake park twice a week from May through October. The Big Wonderful is its even-hipper counterpart, bringing to a vacant lot in RiNo not only trucks but also stalls selling gourmet pantry products and household goods, a live-music lineup and a full bar. The Denver Flea hosts similarly massive bashes with food, booze and arts-and-crafts vendors a couple of times a year. In a Larimer Square courtyard, the pop-up Le Jardin Secret proves as charmingly chichi as it sounds. And — to return once again to Denverites’ favorite subject — themed beer festivals are a near-weekly occurrence. But be warned: They often sell out in no time.
Main photo: Stoic & Genuine at Denver’s Union Station. Credit: Copyright 2015 June Cochran
Cooking over an open flame under star-filled skies can evoke romantic thoughts: The life of the cowboy, though dusty and hard by day, becomes almost blissful under the glow of the moon. When you’re surrounded by nature and all the fresh air you can inhale, food just magically tastes better, or so the home-on-the-range story goes. But fast-forward to the modern-day chuck wagon: You, standing at your outdoor grill, staring at a piece of raw meat and a burning fire. Things can quickly go up in flames.
The simple truth is that barbecue — the kind you want to sink your teeth into — takes talent and skill; luck and courage can only get you so far. Like many home cooks, I consider the grill a backyard basic, but my comfort zone is in the kitchen. So when I was invited to attend BBQ Bootcamp at The Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort, I packed my bag and headed south to Solvang, California, with mustang speed.
Forget workouts at a gym: At this boot camp, the heat of multiple grills are what make you sweat, and instead of lifting weights, you’ll be faced with meatier challenges, like squeezing tongs around pieces of meat that could feed small families and mixing custom spice blends. Neither of which, by the way, is easy.
If you’re a nervous Nellie in the kitchen, the drive to The Alisal should help you relax. The route takes you through the windmill haven of Solvang, also known as Little Denmark. Founded in the early 1900s by Danish-Americans, it’s a good place to get a sugar fix. Solvang Restaurant on Copenhagen Drive has a take-out window, making it way too easy to grab an order of aebleskivers and go. Hard to pronounce but fun to eat, these pancake-doughnut hybrids are traditionally served with raspberry jam and powdered sugar; still, the à la mode option is hard to pass up. Wander a while if you want — you’re only a couple minutes away from the ranch. But you don’t want to be late for dinner.
Vacation on a working ranch
The “I’m on vacation” feeling should sink in when you turn into The Alisal’s long, sycamore-lined driveway. Barnyard animals linger, horses munch happily on what seem to be never-ending stretches of green grass, and the sight of a pay phone outside the lobby makes you laugh — until you check for what is a most likely a nonexistent cell-phone signal. The front desk has change if you need it (along with mugs full of Tootsie Roll Pops).
At 10,000 cattle strong, The Alisal is a working ranch; the 73 cottage-style rooms and suites are just a small portion of this scenic Central Coast property. But it’s one with a dress code. Comfortable play clothes are encouraged by day, but come dinner, bandannas get left in the dust. Men don jackets, while women and children put on party duds.
Old West style
Cowboys might consider their retirement options after spending a night in one of The Alisal’s cottages. Old West linens gussy up beds made of tree branches. Fireplaces burn wood delivered by the morning maid. There’s no need to set out on the range for necessary supplies; all you need is a key to the door (a real metal one, not a plastic card). BBQ Bootcamp students receive a welcome basket loaded with gourmet grilling rubs and libations to help prepare for the meaty workshops ahead.
BBQ Bootcamp is a joint effort between Alisal executive chef Pascal Godé and Frank Ostini, chef-owner of the nearby Hitching Post II, which gained fame after the release of the Academy Award-winning movie “Sideways.” The two chefs focus on the art of Santa Maria-style grilling, a different beast than its well-known Southern cousin.
Mastering open-flame cooking
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Grilling over a hot fire cooks foods more quickly than do the low and slow methods often used in the South — and here’s where much of the trouble begins for novices. Meat that’s burned on the outside yet raw on the inside is too often what sends the uneducated back into the kitchen.
On the first night of BBQ Bootcamp, professionals man numerous, monster-sized, wood-fired grills, offering tips and techniques as they cook everything from beef tri-tip and New York strips to artichokes and bacon-wrapped scallops. Lecturing is limited and notetaking is not a necessity. All students receive a Bootcamp bible of sorts. Along with expected recipes, the spiral-bound book gives a comprehensive yet understandable overview of the differences between wood, gas and charcoal grilling. In this stretch of the world, adjustable, wood-burning iron grills are the apparatus of choice, and red oak is the preferred fuel for the fire.
Relax, eat and drink. Tomorrow, the work begins.
Rise and shine
When the alarm goes off, bootcampers have to resist the temptation to linger or their ride to breakfast will leave without them. Clothes that can get a little dusty are essential, and you’ll understand why when you arrive at the barn. Once you’re saddled up, the commute to breakfast begins. There are no traffic signals to slow you down, just fast-moving deer and the occasional bovine roadblock to distract you.
The buffet is loaded with all sorts of good grub, ranging from fruit and pastries to hash browns and biscuits and gravy. The griddle is manned by a resident pancake artist who dishes up flapjacks (sometimes bigger than your plate) that make even mom’s seem suddenly ordinary. But be careful not to overindulge: The ride back to the ranch may shake up your breakfast a bit. “There’s a reason they call it horse riding, not horse sitting,” says Dick, an Alisal wrangler with 35 years of experience under his shiny cowboy belt.
You’ll have just enough time after your morning ride to take a power nap or play a game of horseshoes; then the afternoon spice-blending workshop begins. A pinch of this and a pinch of that: The formula doesn’t sound so hard until you’re standing in front of a table with 30-plus seasonings to choose from.
“Steak can take heavy spices,” says Godé, adding, “Go lighter on fish. You want to taste your halibut. You want to taste your salmon.” Purchasing spices from a reliable source to ensure their purity and freshness seems to be the golden rule.
Manning the grill
When Alisal’s pleasant-sounding dinner bell rings loud and clear on day two, bootcampers won’t hear it, because they’ll already be grillside, heatedly plotting their first move. Amid the basting and flipping, their nervousness will be eased by grill masters standing by and an endless flow of locally brewed Firestone Walker beer and wine from Ferguson Crest (a Santa Ynez Valley winery founded by Pat Ferguson and his daughter Fergie — yes, that Fergie).
When it’s all said and done, wannabe cowboys and cowgirls might truthfully do more eating than barbecuing, but there will still be plenty of stories to tell when everyone sits down for the night — home on the range not by a campfire, but poolside with heat lamps.
The next BBQ Bootcamp is set for Oct. 28-30, 2015. Giddy up!
Main photo: Steaks on the grill at The Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann
Traveling to Europe this summer? If your plans include Italy, Germany, France, England, Spain, Sweden, Belgium or Denmark, Zester Daily’s community of food writers knows a few restaurants you won’t want to miss. These are our favorite spots — our personal bucket list of dining destinations we share with our closest friends.
The most important thing for us is the food. It has to be exceptional. But we also love beautiful places and nice people, so rest assured that our favorite spots will feed you body and soul. Alfresco dining ranks high on our preferences. And we are equally fond of the culinary extremes of cutting-edge innovation and home-spun comfort. We celebrate cultural traditions wherever they are delivered with care and an emphasis on freshness and flavor.
As you chart your European vacation, allow for side trips to these delightful dining rooms. Some will dazzle you. Others will enfold you. None will disappoint. Happy travels!
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Main photo: High on a peak in the Dolomites — accessible only by gondola, horse-driven carriage or skis – sits Gostner Schwaige, a rustic cabin where chef Franz Mulser serves exquisite South Tyrolean cuisine. Credit: Copyright 2015 South Tyrol Marketing Corporation
Before the advent of TV’s “MasterChef,” master chef Michel Guérard was already on the gastronomic front lines. He was one of the key activators of the nouvelle cuisine movement in France in the 1970s, which refreshed France’s culture of heavy, rich dishes, and has been pushing for light, healthy, seasonal food ever since.
Today, he continues that commitment in the cooking school he’s recently opened on his estate.
Teaching chefs to cook for health
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At Les Prés d’Eugénie, Guérard also runs several hotels, restaurants and a treatment center.
Food as a cure for what ails us
Guérard has always believed that we truly are what we eat, and that food — fresh, light food — can cure us from many of the illnesses that beset the modern world.
The cooking school is aimed at professional chefs and at people preparing food in schools, hospitals, homes for the elderly and for others with special dietary requirements. It brings together current knowledge on key medical problems – such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease — and proposes eating plans for each. The teaching focuses on cuisine that is both healthy — with reduced calories, fats and sugar — and pleasurable, in what Guérard calls cuisine minceur.
“You must never compromise on flavor,” says Guérard. Situated in a luminous, state-of-the-art kitchen overlooking the gardens of Les Prés d’Eugénie, l’Ecole de Cuisine de Santé offers professional courses for groups of up to 10 cooks for one or two weeks.
Beyond a diet of grated carrots
“When I started observing what the patients who came for the thermal cures were eating, I too was depressed by the heaps of grated carrots that were placed before them, topped at the last moment with improvised dressings,” Guérard says.
“I saw an opening for a new kind of healthy cuisine that could inspire people with special needs in their diets to look forward to eating, and to make profound changes in their eating habits that would remain with them for life.”
In his spiced crab on grapefruit jelly with citrus mousse, Guérard demonstrates some of his core principles: that seafood and meats can be cooked without fats, butters or creams to produce vibrant dishes. Even dishes on the three-star Michelin Grand Table menu are cooked with natural flair and a light touch. For example, fresh herbs and citrus notes add zest and flavor to shellfish without leaving the diner feeling heavy.
Slimming cuisine based on research
Cuisine minceur is not achieved by simply reducing fats, sugars and calories. It is based on experience and nutritional research. After Guérard published his first book on the subject in the mid-1970s, “La Grande Cuisine Minceur,” he was approached by the Nestlé group to help them develop a line of frozen foods that would reflect the healthy approach of his new cuisine.
“I was fortunate to continue this consultancy for 27 years, and thus to have access to the latest scientific research into diet, nutrition, physical exercise, thermal treatments and every aspect of this discipline,” he says. “And throughout, I never lost my conviction that pleasure must always play an important part in eating, no matter what the calorie count!”
You can eat dessert on a diet
The desserts at the restaurant and in the cuisine minceur cookbooks have also been overhauled. (No surprise there, for Guérard is a master pastry chef who won the Meilleur Ouvrier de France, which honors the creative trade professions, for pâtisserie in 1958). Each dessert recipe comes with a calorie count that varies depending on which sweetener has been used, be it sugar, honey, fructose, xylitol or aspartame. Most three-course meal combinations total less than 600 calories, so they are well suited to those who are cooking for the popular 5:2 diet (in which people are limited to 500-600 calories for two days out of seven). For those who want to learn more about Guérard’s cuisine, his seminal cookbook has recently been translated into English. “Eat Well and Stay Slim: The Essential Cuisine Minceur” offers full instructions for dozens of his delicious dishes.
A dynamic and lasting legacy
Guérard has never abandoned his commitment to lighter, healthier food, as the new cooking school attests. Today, his philosophy is bearing fruit as the word about cuisine minceur and its methods spreads within the food community in France and beyond. It’s a fitting legacy for such a dynamic grand master, whose revolutions in the kitchen continue to impact on our eating habits, every day.
Main photo: Chef Michel Guérard. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo
At a time when sea stocks are widely under threat, savvy chefs are turning their attention to the gourmet potential offered by freshwater fish. And when the catch is from Lake Garda in this glorious region in the north of Italy, where the scent of Mediterranean citrus meets sweet Alpine meadows, it gives the food-loving traveler even more reason to visit a place whose classical beauty captivated German novelist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe among many others.
Popular holiday destination
Garda has long been a popular holiday destination for both the families of Verona, many of whom have elegant holiday villas strung out along the shore, and for northern Europeans coming south to seek tranquility in the sun, crystal clear air, and bracing mountain and water pursuits.
It’s a heady, romantic destination with a Grand European Tour history although today’s visitors are less likely to be found sedately sketching castle ruins and more likely to be jogging, playing golf at world-class courses, paragliding, diving, sailing or simply having a zen moment on the shore of Italy’s largest lake.
Fishing on Lake Garda
For centuries, fishing was one of the mainstays of Gardenese life. From a peak of 700 fishermen earning their living from the lake in the 19th century, there are now only about 120. Although fish stocks are plentiful, some diners still need to be persuaded to try an alternative to the variety of fish that arrive from the nearby Adriatic and Mediterranean seas. Some small-scale fish farming also occurs: in the Trentino foothills of the Dolomites, the family-run Trota Oro farms trout, char and chub, which they also sell smoked and marinated.
Fish & Chef is an annual gastronomic festival of cookery shows and gourmet meals held in the early summer and designed to highlight the produce of the region. Michelin-starred hotels and restaurants participate in friendly competition and tickets to the gala dinners are quickly snapped up by enthusiastic locals and visitors alike.
It’s a recognition that increasingly, chefs from both Garda and the rest of Italy and Europe are exploring the exciting possibilities of cooking with environmentally friendly freshwater fish such as rainbow trout, pike, carp, perch, bleak, tench, char and freshwater sardines. If lucky, you may find some rare brown trout, although the fishing is subject to tight restrictions.
Fish & Chef competition
At this year’s festival, the sixth, Chef Marco Sacco of the two Michelin-star restaurant Piccolo Lago in Verbena created a stunning arrangement of sushi for the Fish & Chef gala dinner held at the lovely Hotel Regina Adelaide hotel in Garda. And at the Aqualux Hotel, Bardolino, pale, lean chub took a star turn served three ways with cucumber, watercress and crème fraiche at a dinner cooked by Dirk Hoberg of the two Michelin-star Restaurant Ophelia on Lake Constance, Germany.
On a more quotidian level, nearly every trattoria and osteria serves a version of bigoli con sarde — rough-edged, soft wheat pasta with a sauce based on freshwater sardines preserved in oil.
Everyman’s version of bigoli con sarde
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Ironically — and sadly — the most iconic product of Lake Garda no longer exists. Garda lemons were once famous throughout Europe for their alleged medicinal properties, acidity, thin skin, intense perfume and flavor, but the variety was lost when the last trees failed to survive a particularly cold winter in the 1980s. Even before then the writing was on the wall for the most northerly growing citrus region in Europe, an improbable industry created by a determination that has been called “a dogged madness.”
Lemons were brought to Garda by monks in the 13th century. They grew well in the Mediterranean-style microclimate and in the 17th century the construction of vast lemon houses or “limonaia” made this the most northern commercial lemon-growing region in Europe. The towering, terraced structures of wooden beams, stone pillars and glass sheets were designed to protect the fruit from winter frosts. Disease, competition from the south, some exceptionally cold weather and the discovery of synthetic citric acid, however, would later destroy the industry.
Lemons of Garda
The original variety of Garda lemon is also virtually extinct, grown only by a few private citrus enthusiasts. Most of the lemons sold in the region come from Sicily and southern Italy or are a modern hybrid, but the tradition of using lemons in conserves and limoncello lives on.
Thanks to the mild microclimate, Lake Garda is also the most northerly region in Europe to produce olive oil. The extra virgin is characteristically delicate and fruity, and is protected by the Garda DOP mark. “Molche,” the residue from olives after they have been pressed, is traditionally used in bread and cakes.
Olive oil cake
One of the stellar olive oil labels in Garda, indeed in Italy, is the boutique olive oil farm of Ca’ Rainene. The award-winning range includes Garda Orientale, extracted from a blend of indigenous olives — Casaliva, Lecino and Pendolino — grown and pressed on their own land. Medium fruity, with perfectly balanced bitter and pungent components, it has a delicate almond note typical of the Garda cultivars. The farm also produces Drizzar, made solely with olives of that name: Fruity and complex, it is superb with fish, game and vegetables.
The hills north of Verona are the land of Valpolicella, but closer to Garda the classic wine to look out for is Custoza, a full-bodied white wine usually drunk young but that is starting to be appreciated when a little older. Bardolino is a light red wine and Chiaretto, the rosé version. There are 80 types of soil in the region that make for extremely “fresh” wines, perfect as an aperitif or to drink with fish.
The last word should go to Goethe: ” … I wish I could get my friends beside me to enjoy together the scenery that appears before me … the beautiful Lake Garda. …”
I’ll raise a glass of Custoza to that while I work out the Italian for “Gone fishing.”
The shores of Lake Garda
Main photo: For a Fish and Chef gala at the Aqualux Hotel in Bardolino, Italy, Chub cooked three ways, with cucumber, watercress and creme fraiche, as served by Dirk Hoberg of the two Michelin-star restaurant Ophelia on Lake Constance, Germany. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman
La Vie en Rose: Our Café French™ lesson today takes us from the luxe cafes of the Belle Epoch (1871-1914) to the louche cafes of its shadowy underbelly, the demi-monde, or “half-world” of bohemian poets, avant-garde artists, students, prostitutes and hustlers of every stripe. These cafe styles straddled the cultural divide between bourgeois respectability and decadent debauchery in fin-de-siècle Paris.
From the late 17th century onward, perhaps in response to Francesco Procopio’s invention of Café Procope (1676) as a showcase for Parisian glamor, fashion and style, the more subversive functions of the cafe as a public forum for radical political, philosophical and artistic thinking found caffeinated expression, even scandal and revolution, in Paris’ growing inventory of cafes.
Coffee as aphrodisiac
In pre-Procope Paris, coffee was primarily an exotic Oriental beverage with powerfully stimulating properties, mostly served in private homes. Doctors of the period even prescribed coffee as an aphrodisiac. Thus, the first cafes to emerge served as platforms for amorous as well as artistic and political liaisons.
By the 19th century, the entry of elegant women from the finest Parisian salons into cafe society proved to be one of the most profound social advances credited to Parisian cafe culture. Women, respectable or not and everything in between, entered at both ends of the spectrum, from high to low. From the chic cafes lining Baron Haussmann’s Grands Boulevards to the seedier cafes filled with artists and poets on both banks of the Seine, Paris’ internationally notorious filles de joie plied their trade to a hungry clientele.
Voulez vous poulet avec moi ce soir?
In French, the terminology we generalize in English as prostitutes (hookers, whores, call girls, street walkers and tramps) is far more nuanced and hierarchical, from the lowest pute, poule (chicken), morue (cod) and grue (crane) to the top of the line courtisane, whose many virtues are brilliantly portrayed in Susan Griffin’s “The Book of the Courtesans: A Catalogue of Their Virtues” (2001).
Veritable celebrities, les courtisanes were also known as cocottes, grandes horizontales and demi-mondaines. Slightly lower in status, perhaps, were the poules de luxe (expensive chickens) and the belles de jour (“afternoon delight”), though I claim no authority in these saucy parsings.
The overlap between sexual and physical hunger is quite literal in French. A cocotte is both a courtesan and a shallow baking dish. Though not to be confused with a coquette, a flirtatious girly-girl decked out seductively in fashionable accessories, both cocotte and coquette derive from “cock” (coq in French), a chicken and a seducer.
Gourmandise and Gourmandine
Perhaps the least known conflation in French of nutrition and procreation — life and more life — are two related words, gourmandise and the more obscure gourmandine.
Gourmandise in English and French is derived from gourmand, which can mean gluttony (greediness) or an appreciation of refined food (delicacies). Older than “gourmet” (early 19th century), “gourmand” (late 15th century) shares etymological links to the Old French gloton.
Note that gluttony is one of Catholicism’s seven deadly sins. The meaning is nicely explicated by Saint Thomas Aquinas in his list of variations: eating too soon, too expensively, too much, too eagerly, too daintily, too wildly. I haven’t seen a better definition of our contemporary term in English for excessive gastronomical enthusiasm: foodie.
Gourmandine, a corruption of gourgandine, is yet another quasi-gastronomic synonym for prostitute, mostly found in French literature. In her book on the birth of Paris as the luxe capital of the world (“The Essence of Style,” 2005), Joan DeJean points out that “gourmandine” was also the name of a new (early 17th century) bodice that revealed a woman’s undergarments (lingerie). Her book cleverly connects the birth of haute couture in the court of Louis XIV to the evolving function of the cafe as a showcase for coquettish (if not “cocottish”) women and their seductive à la mode fashions.
Couture, Coco and Colette
The word “couture” is interesting in this context. It means “stitched together” (seam), and contains the root “co” which, as we saw in our previous Café French lesson, indicates in Latin, “with.”
Ironic that arguably the two greatest French women of the arts to emerge in the Belle Epoch period were both “cos”: Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883-1971) and Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954). Never mind that they are co-Gabrielles, too. Their celebrated lives (and romances) bridged that same cultural divide we began our lesson with — the moral depths of Paris’ demi-monde and the dizzy heights of bourgeois Parisan luxe.
Ironic also that couturier Chanel, whose dessins modernes liberated women from their gourmandines, earned a double “coco” (child slang for little chicken) as a nickname. Was this a reference to a lyric from the popular song she notoriously sang as a young cabaret singer, or her experience as a young cocotte (her first marriage was one of convenience, as English would have it), or her early years as an industrious seamstress?
Like Coco, our second French “co,” the proto-feminist Colette, spent her early years as a performer. Colette’s most popular novels in English are “Gigi” and “Chéri,” both centered on the lives of cocottes or ex-cocottes. By the end of her life, Colette was living in a glamorous Palais-Royal apartment overlooking Paris (next door to Jean Cocteau!) where kings and queens had lived centuries earlier.
Of course, semantic analysis can’t always explain the fickle and often funny trajectories of history’s ironic narratives; nor why words, like memories, are created, vanish and, on occasion, return. Hard not to conclude, while nursing a grand crème at Café de la Mairie on Place Saint-Sulpice, where world cinema’s “Belle de Jour,” Catherine Deneuve, often strolls past, that the spectacle we call history is merely our vain attempt at explaining a vast unfolding of incomprehensible coincidence.
Main illustration: Café French: La Cocotte, La Coquette, Coco And Colette. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris
China Ranch is a thriving oasis of boutique date palms that began with the whimsical planting of an ornamental garden nearly a century ago. To the casual traveler driving north from Baker to Furnace Creek in Death Valley National Park in California, it is nearly invisible; you must look out for the signs for the Old Spanish Trail and follow it into a steep canyon, through bare, rough hills and exhausted talc and gypsum mines. There, watered by a creek running south to the Amargosa River, is the improbable sight of 1,500 fruit-bearing trees.
China Ranch 100 years ago
In 1920, Vonola Modine moved with her husband from nearby Shoshone to the property then also known as The Chinaman’s Ranch after an industrious, possibly mythical Chinese rancher called Ah Foo. She wanted some trees to line their new roadway and ordered seeds from the date industry burgeoning near Mecca in the Coachella Valley. They arrived in a wooden box by rail. She had never seen a date palm nor tasted a date nor heard the old adage that the fruits “like their feet in water and their heads in fire.”
The Modines wound up selling China Ranch shortly after the palms were planted. For the next 50 years, successive owners’ attempts to establish hog, sheep and alfalfa farms all failed — even as the original date palms flourished into magnificent trees. In the 1970s, Vonola’s relatives by marriage, the Brown family, repurchased the land — and in 1989, Brian Brown, her grandnephew, realized he had the “water and fire” to create the perfect conditions for a viable date farm. He and his wife, Bonnie, began focusing all their efforts on developing and expanding the garden.
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China Ranch today
The original seeds sent to China Ranch were brought to California by agricultural pioneers bearing offshoots from Algeria, Iraq, Tunisia, Baluchistan, Morocco and Egypt. But date palms grown from seeds never replicate the parent plant, so the trees in the original grove yield hybrid dates that are unique in the market. Brown has continued to reproduce these happy accidents, including the dark, moist Black Beauty; the sweet Gourmet; and the soft, caramel-colored China Ranch Hybrid. The Browns also introduced new date palms and now have 15 varieties such as Dayri, Halawy, Bahri, Hayany and Khadrawy growing on 25 acres. Their crop is in sharp contrast to that of the huge commercial enterprises, which tend only to produce the Medjools and Deglet Noors that your grandmother served at Christmas.
Brown works eight days a week: It is hard physical labor, from trimming the crowns, and battling 4-inch thorns to clearing the offshoots and pollinating the female trees by hand. And help is scarce in the harsh Death Valley environment. There are no palmeros, as the skilled workers who have enabled date production in the Coachella Valley for nearly a century are called, here. Some dates are harvested in the khalal stage, just before they ripen, and others at ripeness; the entire harvest period extends from August to February. The work during these six months can be punishing; in late summer, the temperature can soar to 120 F and the black flies bite through your clothing.
The fruit of family labor
Then the picked fruit must be sorted. Perfect specimens are for eating, while the funky-looking ones are for cooking, eventually macerated to produce a date paste used by bakers, raw-food chefs and upscale Las Vegas restaurants that value local sourcing. And thanks to the wild success of the cookbook “Jerusalem” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, home cooks are in hot pursuit of ingredients such as date molasses too. Specialty-food agents come to China Ranch in search of unusual dates to supply stores all over California, while employees at the ranch store make converts of casual visitors with cool, thick date shakes and date-nut bread baked daily from Bonnie Brown’s secret recipe. Bonnie also runs an eclectic retail shop and an online mail-order operation that ships gift boxes of fresh dates all over the country.
The farm has an unexpected sideline as well. The Dayri palm, originally from Egypt, puts out long, straight, symmetrical fronds that make perfect lulavs, which are used in the Jewish celebration of Sukkot. For the past seven years, rabbis have come from as far as New York to select and cut some 300 of these fronds. Despite their inconsistent harvest and light yield, Dayris will always be grown here.
Little did Vonola Modine know that her ornamental trees would be an inspiration to Brian Brown nearly 70 years after she planted them. She returned to China Ranch in 1991 to see the glorious mature palms that now line the path leading to the Browns’ great adobe home — and you should see them, too. The setting is bizarre, but the dates are sublime.
Main photo: The accidental oasis that is China Ranch date farm. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel