Articles in Travel

Nonna Italia's Pizza Baby. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

I’m sipping a local rosé at a corner table in Nonna Italia ristorante, not far from the ferry stop in the charming old town of Stresa, on Lago Maggiore, Italy. Stresa is north of Milan in lake country, the beautiful region known for mountain vistas, ancient villas and George Clooney’s pad, even though George is at Como, one lake over.

Donato and Roberta Tagliente are the owners of this friendly spot that gets more crowded than a jar of Italian anchovies. During the week, come early or late and dine comfortably; weekends are a madhouse, especially in August, when Nonna Italia is open daily and outside tables spill into the narrow cobblestone walk street.

Nonna Italia

Via Garibaldi 32

Stresa, Lago Maggiore, Italy

Telephone: 03 23 93 39 22

info@nonnaitalia.net

www.nonnaitalia.net

Summer hours (June through September): Open seven days, but closed for lunch Mondays and Tuesdays except for August, when it is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week.

Winter hours: Closed Tuesdays and for two weeks during Christmas and the New Year holidays.

Pizza Baby for kids and kids at heart

Friendly servers Maya and Alice (fluent in several languages) effortlessly take care of everyone, even though the place is packed with people downing pizzas, risotto and their famous “mixto” plate of three local cheeses, jams and honey, prosciutto, coppa and pancetta with gnocco fritto, fried and lightly salted pizza dough squares, instead of bread.

About 15 years ago, when Puglia-born Chef Donato had a tiny takeout pizza stand, he came up with the idea of a child-friendly pie that invited grumpy kids to dig in with a grin. Pizza Baby was born. He’s now a local celebrity (watch out, George) at 2-year-old Nonna Italia, where children clamor for a sun-shaped pizza with a smiley face.

Don’t get me wrong, this pizza is definitely not just for kids. Donato starts with Italy’s best 00 flour and lovingly forms each ball of yeasty raised dough by hand. Pizza Baby is the same size as a regular pizza, but Donato clips the 14-inch circle of dough with a pizza wheel in 1-inch cuts around the edge in eight evenly spaced spots.

He then brings the dough between two cuts together and pinches it tight to form a triangle; he does this eight times around the pie, finally gently pulling at the points to nudge the dough into a neat circle. The same intensely delicious tomato sauce that’s used for all the restaurant’s pizzas is ladled on top and spread around. Donato then generously covers the sauce with local mozzarella like a heavy winter snow on nearby ski slopes; a paddle slides underneath, and in a flash it’s into the hot oven. A few minutes later, a golden crust with slightly charred edges and bubbly, melted cheese lets you know that the pie is done.

Again using the paddle, Donato slides the pizza onto a serving plate. Now for the fun part: He affectionately arranges two black-olive half eyes, a cherry tomato nose and a curved slice of cucumber for the sun’s bright smile.

As I bite into one of the super-crispy, slightly thick and oven-charred raised triangles, I notice how the yeasty dough’s air pockets add to the sublime texture. This is definitely a flavorful pizza for grownups who love a great crust. Happy faces all around.

View the videos below to see how easy the process is to make the sun shape, and then try your hand at making a Pizza Baby at home. Preheat your oven to the highest setting, and then place the rack and a cookie sheet (or, better yet, a pizza stone) at the lowest level. Use homemade or purchased dough and sauce, and have the few toppings at hand.

Main  photo: Nonna Italia’s Pizza Baby. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

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Bruschetta with Umbrian olive oil. Credit: Sue Style

Little, landlocked Umbria is not the obvious choice for those looking to vacation in Italy. For many people, all roads lead to Rome. For others it’s the Amalfi Coast, or Tuscany, the Cinque Terre or even Puglia. But Umbria has many trump cards and plenty to recommend it, especially in summer. Here are five reasons to place the region high on your bucket list.

Because it’s not Tuscany, though it’s right next door

If you’re the kind to prefer the challenge of crab to the sweet simplicity of lobster, then you may be one to favor Umbria over its better-known neighbor. Umbria is Tuscany’s country cousin, gently rustic with a clutch of unshowy, medieval hilltop villages — think Montefalco, Spello and Bevagna — set in rolling green countryside and framed by swathes of silvery olive groves and holm oak forests. It has fewer busloads of tourists and more mindful travelers (like you and me).

To feast on summer truffles

Known locally as scorzoni – the name evokes their rough, almost warty peel (avere la scorza dura means “to be thick-skinned” — these fragrant tartufi are harvested by faithful truffle hounds between May and August. Summer truffles are not so crazily scented (nor as crazily priced) as their winter or white counterparts, but they still pack a seductive punch. Buy them fresh or put up in jars from any of the tiny Aladdin’s-cave delicatessens that are such a tempting feature of Umbria’s towns, packed with strings of sausages, red onions, peppers, hunks of local cheese, bags of pasta and other delights.

At La Vecchia Farmacia just through the Porta Vecchia leading into beautiful, earthquake-ravaged Nocera Umbra, la mamma does a mean antipastone (jumbo-sized antipasto) of local cured meats, melon, sharp sheep’s-milk cheese with crunchy honey and a succulent truffle omelet thrown in as a wild card, followed by strangozzi, robust ropes of typically Umbrian pasta showered with tartufi.

For the exciting wines from Umbria

Italy has a dizzying number of grape varieties, few of them household names and many barely known outside their immediate vicinity. Umbria has its fair share of these strictly local varieties, which are well worth seeking out.

Grechetto was used traditionally in white blends, but is increasingly made as a varietal. The resulting wine can be anything from pale straw colored to a deeper gold with citrus-like, peachy aromas and a good backbone because of its naturally high acidity.

 

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Summer truffles in a jar. Credit: Sue Style

With Trebbiano Spoletino, things get even more interesting. Not to be confused with boring old Trebbiano (aka Ugni Blanc) from anywhere else, the Spoletino variety gives honeyed, golden wines of distinctive character and a mind of their own. Traditionally in Umbria (and still today in some wineries), Spoletino vines were planted at the foot of mature trees, up which they clambered — they were known as vigne maritate, vines that are “married with” the trees.

The Umbrian red to look for is Sagrantino, distinguished and meaty with deep color, pronounced cherry and blackberry flavors and good tannins: a wine to have and to hold.

Taste a selection with a simple meal at Il Pinturicchio in Spello, whose owner, Mirko Trippa Buono, is a member of the Italian Sommeliers Association. Or for a lesson in what’s on the move in the Umbrian wine world, book a tasting at Arnaldo Caprai, a large (336 acre, 136 hectare) winery with a slick, state-of-the-art tasting parlor and wine shop outside Montefalco, where Marco Caprai has made it his business to explore and experiment with these age-old Umbrian varieties, especially Sagrantino, and bring them to their fullest expressive potential.

For a drop of Umbrian DOP olive oil

The region’s gorgeous, herbaceous extra virgin oil is pressed from Moraiolo, Frantoio and Leccino olives. The area between Assisi and Spoleto is regarded as one of the best sub-regions in the Umbria DOP (protected designation of origin), and you’ll find countless places dotted along the Strada dell’Olio (olive oil route) where you can taste and buy EVOO, ready for drizzling over your next batch of bruschetta.

Le Case Gialle above Bevagna and Marfuga in Campello di Clitunno are two of the top, prize-winning producers, both of them with an agriturismo (farmhouse bed and breakfast) attached. Also worth a visit is the Fondazione Lungarotti belonging to the eminent Lungarotti winemaking family in Torgiano, which includes both a Museum of Olives and Oil (MOO) and a Wine Museum (MUVIT).

For the spirituality

Most people flock to Assisi, but it can be quite a challenge to keep hold of the spiritual dimension there, surrounded as you inevitably are by the nervous chatter of umbrella-chasing tour groups. An early morning visit will spare you the worst of the crowds and give you a few quiet moments to enjoy the superb scenes from the life of St. Francis frescoed onto the walls of the Upper Church.

For an altogether different experience, seek out some of the smaller, out-of-the-way abbeys such as the 12th-century Abbazia di Sassovivo outside Foligno, famous for its Romanesque cloister of double columns decorated with marble and mosaic motifs, still a working monastery of the Piccoli Fratelli di Gesú and a haven of peace and tranquility. In the corner of the tiny garden stands a statue of the Virgin. Beside it a sign reads, in Italian, “This space set aside for private prayer,” and then — in English — “No picnic please!”

Main photo: Bruschetta with Umbrian olive oil. Credit: Sue Style

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Hüseyin Aksoy makes akide at the Istanbul Culinary Arts Center. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

Inside a weathered storefront surrounded by hardware shops, colorful gems gleam in the dim light — large jars full of hard candies flavored with sesame, cinnamon, rose, orange, bergamot and lemon.

Proprietor Hakan Altanoğlu and his forefathers have been making and selling the Turkish candy called akide şekeri at this shop in Istanbul’s Fatih district since 1865, but the bite-size treat’s history goes back to the glory days of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The empire’s elite Janissary soldiers “presented the grand vizier, other dignitaries and their own officers with gifts of akide sweets as a symbol of their loyalty to sultan and state,” a tradition deriving from an alternate meaning of the candy’s name, writes Mary Işın in her book “Sherbet and Spice: The Complete Story of Turkish Sweets and Desserts.” Akide then became, as it remains today for many,”the sweet of choice” at circumcisions, weddings and the Şeker Bayram (literally, “Sugar Holiday”), the three-day festival that will mark the end of Ramadan this year from July 28 to 30.

In the early Ottoman days, the candy, whose name derived from the Syrian Arabic word (akîda) for “to knot” or “to thicken,” was made from grape juice, boiled down into a thick, malleable molasses. Today, the typical sweetener is refined sugar, and much akide is machine-manufactured, but a few traditional şekerci (Turkish candy-makers) continue to make it the same laborious way it’s been done for centuries.

Hüseyin Aksoy and another Turkish candy-maker roll and cut the akide.

Hüseyin Aksoy and another candy-maker roll and cut the akide. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

Showing off a burn scar on his arm that he says dates back to the 1970s, longtime şekerci Hüseyin Aksoy stirs a wooden spoon through a copper pot of boiling water and sugar — with just a pinch of cream of tartar —in the kitchen of the Istanbul Culinary Arts Center (YESAM), occasionally sweeping the inside of the pot with a wooden brush to prevent burning. (This is also a good technique to use when making stews, notes YESAM coordinator Banu Özden.)

When the sugar mixture has reduced to his satisfaction, Aksoy carries the copper pot over to a spotless marble slab and pours its contents out onto the smooth surface to cool, periodically poking at the sticky edges and flipping them over with a spatula. With the candy still as hot as 70 degrees Celsius, he winces slightly as he folds in a small bowlful of flavoring — some lemon salt and lemon oil, ground to paste with a mortar and pestle; or perhaps some mastic resin.

Made from the gum of the mastic (mastiha) tree, the resin’s piney flavor is an acquired taste but one important to many Turkish desserts. Another traditional flavor that has, thankfully, gone out of fashion is musk, a secretion of the musk deer imported from Nepal and Tibet. One of the most popular varieties of akide in Ottoman times, musk, Işın writes, was “appreciated as much as a mark of wealth and power as for its fragrance.”

Back at YESAM, the real show starts. Aksoy takes the multicolored lump that has resulted from his folding and kneading, drapes it over a rounded metal bar, and then begins to pull the ends like taffy, tossing them back over the bar repeatedly until the candy gets thicker and its color transforms from glistening caramel speckled with white into a glorious opaque blonde hue.

“The more you do it, the more your hands and fingers get calloused to the heat,” he explains, laughing a bit as he admits that when he was learning the trade 45 years ago, he once dropped the hot candy during the pulling process. “The master şekerci‘s wife hit me with a broomstick for ruining the batch.”

Turkish candy akide comes in such flavors as sesame, cinnamon, rose, orange, bergamot and lemon.

Akide ready to sell. It comes in such flavors as sesame, cinnamon, rose, orange, bergamot and lemon. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

Next, Aksoy presses out a sheet of the newly blended mix, adds a layer of unflavored candy he’s kept in reserve, and rolls the two into a thick cylinder. Tugging at one end of the tube, he pulls out thin ropes, cuts them off with scissors and passes them to an assistant to roll into smooth dowels. The whole process must be done quickly, or the candy’s consistency becomes too hard to be useable. Taking a handful of the now-firm candy sticks, Aksoy taps them level on top of a square metal bar set above a bowl, then strikes them rapid-fire with one edge of his scissors to produce tiny cylinders of the finished akide, each with a golden roll of color inside.

Though each of the four to five 10-kilogram batches of akide that Aksoy makes every day yields more than 1,000 candies, a machine can turn out 2,500 kilos daily. He insists the taste and consistency of machine-made akide just isn’t the same as handmade, but şekerci like Aksoy and the Altanoğlu family are part of a dying breed.

“Young people aren’t learning this trade anymore; they don’t like the work, and there are other options for them now,” Aksoy says. “After us, there won’t be any more şekerci.”

Main photo: Hüseyin Aksoy makes akide at the Istanbul Culinary Arts Center. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

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Expats often pack their suitcases full of their favorite foods from home. Credit: Cameron Stauch

Home away from home. World Cup fans can think back to the lands of their ancestors and use food to recall family memories. But what happens when you’ve moved overseas, specifically to Asia? Inevitably one of the first lists you start is the food you need to pack so you can bring that “taste of home” with you. For my wife, a specific brand of tea tops the list.

We have moved to major tea-producing countries in recent years, including China and India, yet she insists on bringing a stash of her favorite tea, arguing the tea bags of the same brand in our new home are simply not the same. And I have to admit, she has a point — manufacturers use different formulas for the same product to cater to local preferences and tastes.

I can guarantee that in the luggage of most expats moving between countries is some food item. These products often reveal a glimpse of the simple things that matter in your life, things you feel you cannot live without. Among your clothing purchases, hard-to-find toiletries and other belongings, there’s a treasure trove of goodies, such as wine gumdrops, marshmallow Peeps, Easter chocolates or your family’s homemade preserves or chutneys.

As you unpack your shipment, you may wonder what made you decide to bring certain items. One friend shared how puzzled she was that she had purchased a large quantity of Rice Krispies and marshmallows, as she did not regularly eat either. A few months later, she realized she thought she would have a regular craving for Rice Krispies squares.

As you settle into a new country, exploring local food markets and tasting new dishes are invaluable ways to learn about the culture and place you now call home. As exciting as this is, it can be a challenge for many to eat unfamiliar foods at every meal.

During the early days of what can be a stressful transition, or when you have a bout of homesickness, it’s natural to turn to the food that nourishes your soul, that you feel keeps you centered and provides you with the comfort of  “home.”

Expats look to friends, family to deliver their favorites

When family or friends visit, they become food mules, transporting ingredients you can use to prepare a treasured dish. Sometimes they may be hesitant, as my Mexican friend explained when she shared the difficulty of acquiring freshly ground masa because relatives were concerned immigration authorities would think it was cocaine.

Others will go to great lengths. I was privileged to share a meal at a friend’s house of  “imported” Canadian beef that was frozen, wrapped in newspaper and packed in a visitor’s luggage for the 24-hour trip. It arrived fully frozen.

In talking with my expat friends, I’ve discovered that the longer you live overseas, the smaller and more focused your must-have food list becomes. It’s not that your cravings disappear. Many are simply satisfied on vacations or trips home. Rather, as expats, we learn to adapt our wants, finding somewhat suitable substitutes and becoming more resourceful or simply making do. You also learn that the limited space in your (or your mules’) luggage is valuable and reserved only for prized essentials.

Although more specialty shops are opening with a limited selection of imported goods, allowing expats to more easily access essentials like olive oil, olives, cured meats, cheeses, chocolate and occasionally specialty grains and flours, often the products are of average quality, sometimes stale and cost anywhere from two to five times the price you pay at home. Another challenge is they are not regularly stocked, and when they are sold out it may not be available for another few months or longer.

It’s that time of year when many of you are in a state of transition and thinking about what to bring with you to your new home. Apart from reading expat blogs or talking to acquaintances who have lived in your new country, the best resource to find out what staple ingredients are available is to consult a cookbook about the food of the country you are moving to. A quick read of the glossary and pantry section will give you a good idea of items you can easily and affordably purchase.

Below is a list of what I like to call “expat pantry essentials” — items either hard to find or that tend to be really expensive when living in Asia. Use it as a guide to help you focus your needs as you prepare for your move overseas and so you don’t question why you bought it when you finally unpack.

Expat pantry essentials

Baking essentials

The greatest complaint I hear from expats is that their baking recipes do not work. Sometimes it has to do with poor-quality ovens, but I think most of the time it has do with the ingredients. Baking powder can be bought virtually everywhere, but the chemical composition of the ones overseas can be quite different than the ones you may be used to.

  • Baking powder
  • Baking soda
  • Real vanilla extract
  • Dry yeast
  • Chocolate chips (cut-up chocolate bars are great alternatives.)
  • Dried fruits (specifically currants, cranberries, pears, apples)
  • Food coloring/dyes for icing
  • Sprinkles for decorating cakes

Spices

Coriander, cumin, cinnamon, black pepper, turmeric and cardamom are generally available. If they are only found whole, they can easily be ground to make a powder. The spices and spice blends below are much harder to find.

  • Saffron
  • Dukkah
  • Zatar
  • Smoky paprika/pimenton
  • Kosher salt/Maldon-style sea salt
  • Indian spice mixes or specialty spices (garam masala, chaat masala, amchur powder, anardana powder)
  • Fenugreek seeds
  • Dried fenugreek leaves (methi)

Chilies

Chilies may not seem an obvious choice, but each chili has its own unique flavor profile. This is particularly important when trying to make dishes with a Latin American flavor.

  • Chipotle chilies in adobo sauce or dried
  • Jalapeño chilies in brine
  • Dried chilies from the southern U.S., Mexico, Latin America and India

Grains, pulses and specialty flours

These items tend to be much more expensive than in your home country, especially if they are organic. When not regularly purchased by other expats, there is a greater chance of them sitting on the shelf becoming stale.

  • Quinoa
  • Farro
  • Freekah
  • Flax seeds (whole or ground)
  • Chia seeds
  • Hemp seeds
  • Pulses/lentils (Du Puy lentils, urad dal, black beans)
  • Rye flour
  • Bean and nut flours (chickpea, hazelnut, chestnut)
  • Masa
  • Gluten-free flour mixes

Bottled products

Red, white, and balsamic vinegars are available. Specialty vinegars are not. Natural syrups are much more expensive. You may be able to find one or the other with marmite and vegemite, but lovers of each will tell you they are not the same. Scandinavians need the occasional taste of pickled fish.

  • Pomegranate molasses
  • White balsamic vinegar
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • Maple syrup
  • Agave syrup
  • Molasses
  • Natural peanut butter (low sugar; but a homemade version can easily be made)
  • Marmite
  • Vegemite
  • Herring

Coffee and specialty teas

A comforting, familiar cup of coffee or tea each morning often helps prepare you for the challenges ahead in your day. Bringing your favorite from home eases the daily transitions.

  • Coffee (specialty/decaffeinated)
  • Rooibos tea
  • Preferred tea brands from home
  • Herbal teas

Specialty alcohol and bitters

Traditional liquors such as vodka, gin, rum, bourbon and cognac are typically available. National liquors such as aquavit, arak, pisco, schnapps, slivovitz, tequila or bitters will be much harder to find. A packed bottle or two and duty-free purchases are typical  for the expat.

Seeds for vegetables and herbs

Small seed packets of hard-to-find vegetables such as kale, Swiss chard, assorted lettuces or Mediterranean herbs such as rosemary, thyme, oregano, lavender, sage, tarragon and Italian parsley are invaluable if you have an area to plant a small garden because it will be rare to find such ingredients in local markets.

Main photo: Expats often pack their suitcases full of their favorite foods from home. Credit: Cameron Stauch

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Santiago de Compostela food market. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

We had arrived at Spain’s Santiago de Compostela, the destination for thousands of religious pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, and I was ready to crawl on my hands and knees. “Please,” I begged, “can’t we go before we check into the apartment?” Like so many believers since the early Middle Ages, I was finding it hard to control my fervor. Yet the cathedral, however lovely, held little interest for me. It was the central de abastos, the food market, one of the finest I’ve seen in Spain, of which I’d been dreaming since my first visit, many years before, to this whitewashed Galician mecca. Spain’s culinary culture has become trendy: Regional Spanish cooking is all the rage in chefs’ circles. The hype has sent many travelers to marquee gastronomic areas such as Catalunya and the Basque country, elevated by Ferrán Adrià and Juan Mari Arzak, but few visit the northwest: Asturias, Cantabria and Galicia. Pity, because there are great things to eat everywhere on the Iberian continent.

Artisanal products are proudly grown and sold in the smallest of aldeas — tiny villages. These hamlets continue to hold weekly street markets while larger towns and small cities usually have central market buildings. But U.S.-style supermarket culture is insidiously gnawing at gastronomic tradition. Watch out for Walmart-like multinational chain-store monsters that swallow old markets and advance culinary mediocrity. Local governments, in their zest to placate gourmands and support small agribusiness, build, redo or re-create old-time markets. But they don’t always do it right. Cavernous, sterile spaces are a turnoff and remain empty of produce and shoppers. Museum-like antique buildings are turned into upscale “gourmet” halls for tourists. Perceived convenience, cleanliness and free parking win over time-tested outdoor shopping. Some markets have attempted to lure newer generations with upscale temptations like wine bars and restaurants. This can work, if the balance between the old and new is right.

Pulpo vendor. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Pulpo vendor. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

The market at Santiago is housed in four attractive stone naves built in 1941. Open at both ends, they are modern but reminiscent of the gothic buildings that surround them. They go well with the surrounding cobblestoned streets and whitewashed houses. The long halls, lined with permanent stalls, are divided into the local food categories: fish, meat, vegetables and sundries. Outside, elderly vendors trek in from surrounding country towns to sell fresh cheeses, grelos (a green similar to kale), potatoes or flowers. The market area is also home to food stalls where anything purchased will be cooked for a small fee. Vendors proffer local delicacies such as pulpo a la gallega (octopus), and there are a few upscale dining and shopping options too. The meat nave features rows of carnicerías selling vibrant crimson slabs of pork, beef and lamb. One vendor offers preformed “gourmet” hamburgers, shrink-wrapped to go. Inside the seafood building, which smells as fresh as a day at the beach, fish glisten and gleam like the baubles at Tiffany. Spotted red mero compete with maragota; silvery merluza and shiny metallic sardines shimmer. The hideous monkfish, in Gallego, the regional language, is known as peixe sapo (toad fish); it’s common and goes for a third of its price at Paris markets. Navajas (razor clams) emerge from their shells, peering this way and that, and then retreat, seemingly frightened by the thought of the olive oil and garlic in which they will soon be bathed. Large centollo crabs stretch their legs lazily. A heavyset, ruddy-cheeked fishmonger named Rosa, her hands rough from decades of saltwater and scales, doles out a kilo of precious percebes (barnacles), whose sweet, oyster-like meat, quickly boiled and pried out of its shaft, is a much-appreciated delicacy.

 

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Local cheeses. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Along the outside wall of nave 4, specialty shops sell bacalao (salt cod) in dozens of forms, fresh baked bread, olives and olive oil. A spice vendor’s vast array includes a fragrant blend used in zorza, a local pork stew. Quexos María José sells local cheeses, such as the aptly named soft, white tetilla – shaped like a breast. Facing the shops is a row of older men and women whose only language is Gallego; Castilian Spanish is returned with a blank stare. They sell small plants ready for home gardens: peppers, onions and luscious local potatoes. I buy a bag of the latter to sneak home for my victory garden.

Miguel Otero. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Miguel Otero. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

The market is a perfect blend of old and new, both practical and luxurious. But little by little it loses customers. In the market’s central plaza, Miguel Otero runs O Viñateca do Mercado, a small bar and shop specializing in local wines. “We get a lot of tourists nowadays,” Otero says as he pours glasses of crisp, fruity Albariño to accompany the plate of pulpo a Dutch couple has purchased. “But locals tend to be older — young people are gravitating toward the supermarket down the street. We’re hoping my type of business, catering to a more sophisticated crowd, will bring them back.” All of Santiago’s vendors sell the best in their categories. The market is an inspiration to anyone who loves to cook and eat. I leave with a half kilo of odiferous clam-like berberechos, a quarter of those pricey percebes, some fillets of monkfish, a bag of deep green Padrón peppers, a couple of sundry chorizos, a gorgeous rustic bread made with cornmeal, a tetilla cheese, a generic bottle of Albariño and a bag of potatoes with the earth of Galicia still on them. A magnificent supper soon follows, a great memory to fill my dreams of this nearly perfect market until I return. Main photo: Santiago de Compostela food market. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

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The Café des Musées in Paris. Credit: Marguerite Thomas

From the nondescript exterior of the Café des Musées in Paris, you wouldn’t expect it to be one of the city’s best bistros. Yet inside you’ll find plenty of conviviality and good cheer, and a simply stunning Champagne, Drappier Brut Nature, being poured by the glass.  Even on a chilly rain-swept evening such as the one I experienced last month, a visit to this restaurant and a glass (or two, or more) of this sensational wine will be sure to warm body and spirit alike.

That the Café des Musées serves such an exceptional Champagne is a testament to the French approach to Champagne in general.  There, unlike here in the United States, Champagne is first and foremost a wine, not a luxury product, and should be enjoyed like all wines—without snobbery or pretense, but with good will and joie de vivre.

Drappier Brut Nature is a non-vintage, non-dosage wine. The first designation means that, like most Champagnes, it is a blend from multiple harvests, the winemaker’s goal being not only to display quality but also to maintain consistency. Wherever and whenever you drink it, a non-vintage Champagne should taste much the same as the last time you had it.

In the case of this particular wine, it will taste completely dry, “non-dosage” meaning a Champagne deliberately crafted without the sugary syrup that most winemakers add to their cuvées in order to soften and, yes, sweeten them. Because the Champagne region lies at the northernmost geographical limit for ripening grapes, wines there are naturally high in acidity, leaving a tart impression that sometimes can turn unpleasantly sour.

In recent years, due in part to improved winemaking but even more to a series of quite warm summers, dosage levels have gone down in Champagne, with the amount of sugar used now being roughly half of what it was 15 to 20 years ago. Entirely non-dosage Champagnes remain, however, quite rare. The base wine in them needs to be exceptionally good. Sugar can conceal faults, but its absence will magnify them. No matter how much the region’s climate has changed, these Champagnes still run the risk of tasting harsh and acerbic. That’s why only a handful of producers even try to make them.

Drappier’s Brut Nature tastes flawless. Surprisingly rich on the palate (surprising precisely because of the absence of sugar), it is enticingly aromatic and very yeasty in the finish. Made with 100% Pinot Noir, most of which comes from Drappier’s home vineyard in the village of Urville, it exhibits a depth of flavor typical of wines made with that grape variety but unexpected in a non-dosage Champagne.

Decant this Champagne

I would advise decanting this wine because it will really come into its own when in contact with air. The two glasses I had at the start of dinner at Café des Musées came from an open bottle, in fact a magnum, so had been exposed to plenty of air before being served. My enthusiasm for them surely was due in part to that interplay of wine and oxygen, a chemical exchange that helps the wine develop a softer, more appealing texture and a more complex so compelling bouquet.

Drappier Brut Nature Champagne. Credit: Paul Lukacs

Credit: Paul Lukacs

Much of my enthusiasm, though, surely also came from the situation. This was my fourth dinner over the years at this restaurant, and as with my earlier visits, I was enthralled. Although it’s located on the edge of the hip Marais district, the Café des Musées is no gastronomic temple, and its menu is anything but cutting edge.  Instead, this is the place to go for traditional French bistro fare — juicy steak frites, spicy andouillette, “black pork” loin, steak tartare and the like.

As that list suggests, the menu here is a carnivore’s dream. While the house-smoked salmon is some of the best you’ll find anywhere, and the chef always offers at least one fish as a main course, you’ll want to go only if you can bring a hearty, meat-eating appetite. Portions are large, the atmosphere joyous. You’ll be sitting close enough to a fellow diner to bump (not just rub) elbows. So long as the Champagne keeps flowing, however, no one will much care.

So reserve a table the next time you are lucky enough to be in Paris. And toast your good fortune with a glass of Drappier Brut Nature. Then hum this song. Though in reality spring in Paris tends to be wet and chilly, Vernon Duke and Y. A. “Yip” Harburg got the sentiment just right:

I never knew the charm of spring
Never met it face to face
I never knew my heart could sing
Never missed a warm embrace
Till April in Paris . . .

Drappier Brut Nature is imported into the United States by, among others, A. Hardy USA.  It retails for roughly $50 a bottle.

Café des Musées is in the third arrondissment, at 49 rue Turenne, 75003 Paris. The telephone number is 1 42 72 96 17.  (Dial 330 before the number if calling from the United States; dial 0 if calling from within Paris.)

Main photo: The Café des Musées in Paris. Credit: Marguerite Thomas

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A hot noodle dish from Honey Pig in the Koreatown section of Los Angeles. Credit: W.F. Tierney

People like chef-entreprenuer David Chang of Momofuku and Lucky Peach fame rave rhapsodically about ramen. These days, ramen is way more than the cheap stuff in a bag that has kept generations of college students alive.

My recent journey on what I call the Ramen Road begins in Gardena, Calif., near my old hometown in the South Bay area of the Los Angeles region. Gardena has a large Japanese community, and the Marukai Japanese market is practically the epicenter. When I lived in the area, I would go to Marukai often, bypassing the food court and heading straight for the Japanese hardware section for items such as barbecue supplies. Then I would hit the tea aisle and the fish counter, which smells like the sea. It turns over tons of fresh fish every day.

Can’t-miss tasty ramen dishes

But when I read a Los Angeles Times article by Jonathan Gold about his favorite ramen dishes, including one from Ramen Iroha in Marukai’s food court, I knew I had to go. Make a right turn as you enter the front door, and Ramen Iroha is there. Gold raves about the black ramen, which gets its color from a combination of soy and black beans. My own preference is for the delicious red ramen, made with a spicy red chili oil.

From Gardena, I went south to Orange County. A few years ago, I made one of the culinary discoveries of my life, almost by accident, when I stumbled upon Diamond Jamboree in Irvine. I was totally unmade by what I found.

Diamond Jamboree is a sprawling center anchored by an HMart, the Korean chain. On this Sunday night, it was teeming with Asians of every ethnicity. Why? You can find nearly all types of Asian foods there, from noodle shops to sushi to dim sum to shabu-shabu. Almost all of it is wonderful. There’s even a great bakery with a long line snaking out the door at 9 at night.

The statue in front of Ajisen in the Diamond Jamboree complex. Credit: W.F. Tierney

The statue in front of Ajisen in the Diamond Jamboree complex in Irvine, Calif. Credit: W.F. Tierney

One shopfront that won me over was Ajisen — in part because of the statue in the entryway that looks like a transgendered Bob of Bob’s Big Boy. But Ajisen, a casual chain with outlets in the United States, Japan and several other countries, also has great noodles. It serves about 20 types of ramen, with everything from pork to eel.

Tokyo Table also serves up some decent ramen. The last time I was there I had a spicy chicken ramen that was delicious. But the nod goes to Ajisen, if only for the plethora of choices.

Diamond Jamboree, like Marukai, is now a real destination for me when I travel south from the Los Angeles area. If you don’t live in Southern California, Hotel Terrace Drive in Santa Ana is a convenient place to stay during a visit. The roadway is one long arc of middle-tier hotel chains just off the 55 Freeway at Dyer Road. It’s an easy drive over to Diamond Jamboree, which is on Alton Parkway, just past Von Karman Avenue. Use the parking structure, or you will be cruising the main lot for half an hour.

Ramen by way of Koreatown

On another recent trip to Los Angeles, I had lunch at Honey Belly in Koreatown. The eatery is on Eighth Street near Harvard Boulevard. All the signage is in Korean, so look for a storefront with a big, fat, smiley pig.

Korean noodles aren’t exactly the same as ramen, but they are close enough. The noodles are a bit thinner, but for most people they are indistinguishable from ramen. Honey Belly is a traditional Korean barbecue place, but I’m visiting for the noodles.

The menu is almost entirely in Korean, and it includes only two noodle dishes, one served cold and the other served hot. I went with the hot one. I asked my server to transliterate the name of the dish for me so I would remember. She frowned a little and then wrote down Jang Kook Soo Den.

Marukai market. Credit: W.F. Tierney

Marukai market in Gardena, Calif. Credit: W.F. Tierney

The soup that came out was delicious, chicken broth based with noodles of course. It also included meat (either beef or pork), tofu, jalapeno and enoki mushrooms. There were also small plates of ban shan, spicy pickled bean sprouts and very good kimchi. It all added up to a delicious meal.

So get out there on the Ramen Road and eat your noodles. You will feel better for it.

Main photo: A hot noodle dish from Honey Belly in the Koreatown section of Los Angeles. Credit: W.F. Tierney

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Japanese-influenced ceviche with weakfish. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

Five years ago, I visited Peru and tasted ceviche, the national dish of raw fish cured in citrus juice, for the first time. I am a trained sushi chef and the author of a definitive book on Japanese sushi, but this meal was a revelation. The combination of lime juice and chile pepper with firm-tender cubes of a local white fish was strange, but utterly refreshing.

Ever since that meal in Peru, I have wondered again and again whether ceviche could be related to sashimi, the Japanese dish of sliced raw fish. (Sushi is raw fish combined with rice.) Both preparations are popular menu items today in high-end restaurants around the world, with creative interpretations that extend well beyond Japanese or Peruvian cuisine. Japanese celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa launched his restaurant career with a sushi bar in Peru, where he developed his signature style blending South American and Japanese takes on seafood.

Ceviche and sashimi were born in countries that share a similar geographical blessing. Warm and cold currents blend along the coasts of Japan and Peru, allowing high-quality plankton to flourish, and in turn, nourishing the fish to produce exceptionally tasty seafood.

At a time when not much ice was available and no refrigeration system existed, early residents of both countries devised these ways to enjoy good quality seafood longer and more safely. According to Claudio Meneses, a Peruvian with a great depth of knowledge on Peruvian gastronomy, ceviche originally was developed before the Spanish conquest, as a way to prevent rapid spoilage of fresh fish. In this original method, fresh or dried salted seafood was cured in tumbo (banana passionfruit) juice or chicha, a fermented beverage made from corn, along with aji chile and sometimes local aromatic herbs. The word “ceviche” is said to be derived from the Quechua word “siwich,” which means fresh fish.

Although people sometimes say that ceviche is “cooked” in the citrus juices, this curing technique does not kill the parasites that are common in even the healthiest of marine and freshwater fish. Therefore, like sashimi, ceviche must be made with absolutely fresh seafood of the highest quality.

Ceviche for lunch

“Peruvian cevicherías, that is, restaurants that specialize in ceviche, only open for lunch because fish used for ceviche traditionally had to be picked up from the fish market the same day it was going to be served,” Meneses said. “While this is not exactly true today, tradition has kept and so far I only know of one cevichería that opens for dinner.”

Japanese sashimi preparation can be traced to nama-su, which appeared around the 14th or 15th century. “Nama” means fresh or raw, and “su” means vinegar. Seafood for nama-su was pickled in vinegar with ginger or wasabi, or in ume plum-infused sake (rice wine) before serving. All of the pickling ingredients had anti-bacterial functions. The Japanese, like the Peruvians, cured fresh seafood to prevent spoilage and extend its life as a food source.

As time passed and world commerce increased, the transformation of sashimi and ceviche was peppered with foreign influences, political changes and technological advancement. The first change in ceviche preparation came when the Spanish brought bitter orange trees to Peru in the 15th century. Bitter orange quickly replaced the local fruit juice as a curing ingredient.

Kozue sashimi

Modern Japanese sashimi at Kozue restaurant at the Park Hyatt, Tokyo. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

In Japan, commercial production of shoyu, Japanese soy sauce, began and shoyu became widely available by the middle of the Edo period (1600-1868). Shoyu, which is high in sodium, was perfect for curing and preserving fresh tuna and skipjack tuna. Both are naturally dark in color, so the soy sauce does not affect their appearance. Shoyu also changed the way to eat raw fish in Japan. The umami-rich, savor of the shoyu, which masks any fishy taste, improves the overall flavor of raw fish.  It therefore became an indispensable condiment to accompany sashimi. After World War II, more dramatic changes occurred in the Japanese sashimi kitchen. The refrigeration system introduced from America, efficient ice-making technology, development of high speed transportation networks and improved methods of fish catching and slaughtering allowed Japanese chefs to serve most seafood for raw consumption as sashimi at any place across the country, including areas far from the water.

From Japan to Peru

And then these developments in Japan began to influence ceviche in Peru, where the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw an influx of Japanese immigrants. By the 1970s, Japanese chefs living and working in Lima introduced modern Japanese sashimi preparation to Peru and these techniques migrated to the Peruvian ceviche kitchen. The Japanese chefs introduced a new way to cut ceviche seafood, in thin slices rather than the traditional cubes. This type of ceviche, known as tiradito, takes less time to cure because the large surface area and the thinness of the slices allow the marinade to penetrate more quickly. This resulted in the development of more subtly and interestingly flavored ceviches.

So although they originated on different continents and evolved in different ways, sashimi and ceviche were created around the same time for similar reasons — to make the most of a bounty of delicious fresh seafood. And over the years, these historical cousins have become even closer relatives as the culinary world has globalized.

This realization encouraged me to try to make my own ceviche dish, which I want to share with you. I happened to find a very good quality weakfish (sometimes called sea trout, though it is not a member of the trout family) locally and sustainably harvested in the northeastern U.S. by Blue Moon Fish, an operation on Long Island, N.Y. You can use any very fresh white fish available in your area. I recommend that you purchase the whole fish, so that you can confirm the freshness of the fish by looking at its eyes, which should be naturally bulging and not collapsed, and stomach, which should not be distended. You can find detailed filleting techniques in my book, “The Sushi Experience.” If you cannot find fresh fish in your area, then professionally frozen fish sold as sushi fish can certainly be used.

Hiroko's Sashimi-Influenced Ceviche

Prep Time: 35 minutes

Cook Time: 10 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

  • 1½ pounds weakfish or other locally available, high-quality fresh fish
  • Sea salt
  • 1 garlic clove, chopped fine
  • 1 yellow or red fresh cayenne pepper or other fresh chile pepper, chopped fine
  • ½ red onion, sliced into fine thin rings, soaked in cold water for 30 minutes, then drained
  • 1 lime
  • 2 tablespoons coriander leaves

Directions

  1. Scale, clean, bone and skin the fish. Rinse the chopping board frequently during this process to remove any scales and blood attached to the chopping board.
  2. Fillet the fish, removing both the belly bones and center bones. You will have two back fillets and two belly fillets.
  3. Slice each fillet as thinly as possible and place the fish slices without overlapping on a large, clean serving platter.
  4. Sprinkle little sea salt over the fish. Garnish it with the chopped garlic and chile. Squeeze the lime juice over the fish. Decorate the fish with the onion and coriander leaves.
  5. Serve immediately.

Main photo: Ceviche with weakfish. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

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