Articles in Travel
L’orto del professore, the professor’s garden, is riotous, an unruly tumult of beans and squashes, tomatoes and peppers, cabbages, kale, lettuce, cucumbers and wild things, too. When I visited il professore a few weeks ago at his home near Piazza Armerina in central Sicily, there were green beans twining up poles and low borlotti bush beans (the kind that, when dried, get turned into zuppa di fagioli); there were climbing squashes, long, pale, snake-like squashes — Sicilian favorites called cucuzza – and big, round pumpkins in various shapes and shades of yellow-stained orange; there were eggplants and tomatoes and cabbages and peppers in all sizes and degrees of heat.
Everything grew together in helter-skelter fashion, and there was also growing everywhere a surfeit of what you (and I) might call weeds — but they all had names and they all had purposes, from familiar purslane, growing close to the ground, so healthy and delicious in salads, to tall plants of amaranth with their graceful pink flower stalks laden with seeds. There was also lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album), nettles and mallow (Malva sylvestris), all valuable sources of food for anyone who knows what he’s about.
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And the professor knows what he’s about. He is a noted gardener, forager and expert on all manner of living creatures, but especially those that grow in the ground. My friend Salvatore, himself no mean forager of wild greens, always tries to spend time with the professore when he’s visiting his native Sicily from Umbria, where he’s lived the last dozen years or so. It was Salvatore who took me to meet the professore after a morning during which the two genial gentlemen had rambled through the pine forest above Piazza Armerina, looking for mushrooms but without notable success. Salvatore had supplied the professore last spring with seeds of cavolo nero, a type of kale that’s a foundation of wintertime tables in Tuscany and Umbria, and now he wanted me to see how the plants had done in the unfamiliar environment of central Sicily. In brief, they had done spectacularly well in this hotter, drier climate, growing thick, dark, blistery, blue-green leaves that, when stripped of their tough central stems, would be steamed or fried or added to soups.
It’s sometimes hard for outsiders to understand the kind of niche levels of consumption that exist in Italy. It’s fewer than 400 miles from Salvatore’s garden in Umbria to the professore’s in central Sicily, and yet cavolo nero is as exotic in Sicily as some Chinese herb might be in New England. Just as no one in Umbria would think of using the fragrant dried oregano that is so ubiquitous in Sicilian cooking, so no one in Sicily, as far as we could tell, had ever tried to grow cavolo nero. (In U.S. markets, where it’s been appearing for several years now, cavolo nero is sometimes known as Tuscan kale or lacinato kale.)
Is there religion in a garden’s riotous profusion?
I admired the professore’s success with cavolo nero, but I was more interested in the garden as a whole and its riotous profusion. I can’t think when I’ve seen a garden that looked more undisciplined, even abandoned. Used to the trim and tightly weeded rows of a New England vegetable garden, I was undone by what looked like an uncontrollable wilderness. And yet the plants were healthy, with no trace of bugs or diseases. As we stalked through bean patches and clambered over pumpkin vines, it suddenly struck me. “This is a very Catholic garden,” I said. What did I mean? “Well, it’s wide open to anything and everything, saints and sinners alike.” (At least that’s how I see it.) The professore laughed. “I’m not a Catholic,” he said. “I’m somewhere between an atheist and an agnostic.” “So was my father,” I replied, “but he had a thoroughly Protestant garden, straight rows, tidy, neat, disciplined.”
Can that be? Is there really such a thing as a Catholic garden or a Protestant garden? It’s fun to think about, and maybe there’s a bit of truth in it. We continued our banter as we made our way back to the house, where a lovely lunch awaited us — pasta with tenerumi, fresh from the garden; a sweet-and-sour braise of rabbit with caponata, that great Sicilian combination of eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, onions, garlic and olive oil (talk about Catholic!) on the side; and a dessert of simple slices of chilled melon. All prepared by the professore’s wife, whose 94-year-old mother, a testament to the virtues of this Mediterranean, fresh-from-the-garden diet, joined us at the table.
Now, you may be asking, what exactly are these tenerumi? Tenerumi are the tender (tenere — get it?) green leaves and budding tips from that same cucuzza squash, the long, snake-like squash I mentioned earlier that is such a favorite in Sicily, and, like the oregano I also mentioned above, quite unknown in more northern parts of Italy. The squash itself is a summertime favorite, harvested when young then chunked and stewed gently with other vegetables. It’s considered cooling, according to the Doctrine of Signatures, which goes back to Hippocrates, if not earlier. But the leaves and tender shoots of the plant are also edible, and indeed prized in Sicily, and they were growing all over the professore’s orto, putting out delicate white flowers. (The white flowers mean that technically this is a gourd not a squash, which has yellow flowers.) I’ve seen tenerumi leaves sold in New York City Greenmarkets and I imagine they’re probably seasonally available in other parts of the country as well. They are deliciously refreshing and slightly astringent and, when cooked with pasta, make an exciting and unusual first course. The professore’s wife prepared her tenerumi by slicing the leaves and part of the stems, discarding any tough or wooden stem ends along with the tendrils, which won’t soften with cooking. You should have about 4 cups of fresh sliced tenerumi for the following recipe.
Could you make pasta con tenerumi with other types of squash leaves, too? I don’t see why not, as long as they are not too big, old, tough or covered with prickles. The leaves and shoots of young zucchini and other types of summer squash would be just fine, but I wouldn’t use the big, old, hairy leaves of pumpkins or hard winter squash. You can also order seeds for cucuzza from Growitalian.com (search for zuchetta) and plant them in your garden next spring, just like zucchini. Harvest the squash (sorry, gourds) when they’re not more than a foot long, and pull off the leaves and tender shoots whenever you feel the urge — you can go on with this all summer long.
Pasta Con Tenerumi
This makes enough for 4 servings — and note that it’s more of a soup than a pasta and should be eaten with forks and soup spoons.
2 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more to garnish the bowls
About ½ pound small cherry or grape tomatoes, halved or quartered
1 small fresh chili pepper, seeded and chopped (or to taste)
A big bunch of tenerumi leaves and shoots, prepared as above, to make 4 cups
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
6 cups of water
1 pound spaghetti, broken into 1-inch lengths
Cheese to grate over the top (pecorino Siciliano or Parmigiano-Reggiano)
1. Add the garlic and oil to the bottom of a 3- to 4-quart stock pot and set over medium heat. Cook, briefly stirring, until the garlic has softened, but do not let it brown.
2. Stir in the halved or quartered tomatoes and the chili pepper and continue cooking, stirring until the tomatoes start to give off juice and the bits of chopped chili have softened.
3. Add the cleaned tenerumi leaves along with a generous amount of salt and black pepper. Stir very well to mix all the ingredients together, then add about 6 cups of water and bring it to a simmer.
4. Let the liquid simmer for about 15 minutes, or until the leaves are tender but not falling apart. While the leaves are cooking, break the spaghetti into approximately 1-inch lengths.
5. When the leaves are sufficiently cooked, stir the pasta into the pot along with another pinch of salt. Let it cook till the pasta is done — approximately 8 minutes, or according to your own preference.
6. Serve immediately in soup bowls or on plates. Add a generous dollop of extra virgin olive oil to the top of each serving along with a handful of freshly grated cheese. This is often served in summertime at room temperature, but in the chilly days of autumn I prefer it as the professore’s wife served it — hot from the pan.
Note that some people like to add a potato or two, peeled and cubed, right at the beginning, along with the tomatoes.
Top photo: The professore in his garden, holding up one of the cucuzza squashes he grows. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
You’ve heard of Positano, of course; Amalfi and Ravello, too, no doubt. How about Furore? Maybe not. Don’t worry; you’re not alone. Furore, Italy, is a just a little bit of a place, a random collection of houses, vineyards and lemon groves strung out across a series of near-vertical terraced slopes perched precariously above the shimmering Amalfi Coast.
Even residents describe it as “un paese che non c’è” — a village that’s not really a village. So why mention it? Because Furore is home to the Marisa Cuomo boutique winery, which, as Carla Capalbo observes in her vade mecum “Food and Wine Guide to Naples and Campania,” has become “synonymous with the rise in quality of — and interest in — the Costa d’Amalfi DOC wines.”
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Wine has been made for centuries up in this rugged hinterland of the Amalfi Coast, but it was of inferior quality, sold in bulk and never destined to stray far from its homeland. Marisa Cuomo and her husband, Andrea Ferraioli, both from local winegrowing families, recognized the potential of the terroir and also of the indigenous grape varieties planted here, some of them unique to the area. About 20 years ago they resolved to take the village’s winegrowing in a new direction. “They put Furore on the map,” confirms their daughter Dorotea Ferraioli, who is responsible for marketing and also for tours and tastings. “They wanted our little paese to be known worldwide.”
Why it works in Furore
Realizing that the only way to go was up, they decided to focus relentlessly on quality. They improved practices in the vineyard, invested steadily in the winery, carved a breathtaking cellar straight out of the rock face behind the house and hired an enologist to oversee winemaking. They began to bottle all their own wines and to age some of them in small oak barrels and proceeded to market them with flair to an eager public — Italians first, swiftly followed by an international audience thirsty for wines from the much-loved, much-visited Amalfi Coast.
Today the winery works with 20 hectares (50 acres) of vines, planted on vertiginous slopes all the way from Furore round to Vietri. The vineyards in and around Furore are wholly owned; the rest are worked by the winery in a cooperative arrangement.
You need to see the vineyards above Furore to understand the extreme challenges involved in working this terrain. The vines, almost all pre-phylloxera and ungrafted, are planted at the foot of the walls that prop up the steeply stacked terraces, at altitudes ranging from 100 to 750 meters (328 to 2,460 feet) above sea level. Their branches sprawl out horizontally along pergolas made from long, tapering poles, which are cut from the chestnut trees that proliferate high in the Monte Lattari way above the village.
Training the vines along pergolas in this way, explains Dorotea, is not just a picturesque regional tradition; it’s also the most convenient solution, perfectly suited to the rigors of the terrain while making the most of the limited space available. The branches provide a dense canopy of leaves beneath which the grapes dangle, protected from the relentless sun. On the ground below, zucchini, pumpkins and other vegetables flourish gratefully in the shade. Two crops are thus grown in one tiny, precious, precarious space.
The winery makes white, rosé and red wine from a whole bunch of little-known, indigenous vine varieties that are still part of Italy’s precious heritage. Top of the white range is the barrel-fermented Fiorduva (“flower of the grape”), a fragrant blend of Fenile, Ginestra and Ripoli, three varieties unique to the Amalfi Coast. Furore Bianco, described by the sommelier at the Casa Angelina restaurant in nearby Praiano as “semplice ma non banale” (“simple but by no means ordinary”), comes from Falanghina and Biancolella grapes, both typical of Campania. Rosé and reds are made from Piedirosso (“red-foot”) and Aglianico in varying proportions.
Next time you’re on vacation in Positano or Amalfi, look out for Marisa Cuomo wines. They’re are widely available in restaurants, bars and shops along the coast. Best of all, find your way up the winding road to Furore and pay the winery a visit (from January to August only). Then look out for the wines when you get back home. (Wines are exported to the U.S., Canada, Japan and Switzerland). When you’ve tracked down a bottle of Fiorduva or Furore Rosso Riserva, uncork it, close your eyes, picture those dizzying slopes and sun-baked terraces, take a gentle sniff, breathe in the scents of the Amalfi Coast and remember the sheer back-breaking labor of love that has gone into the bottle.
Top photo: Grapes growing at the Marisa Cuomo winery in Furore, Italy. Credit: Cantine Marisa Cuomo
Five years ago at a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco, Turk Murat Demirtas ate a meal that changed his life. It wasn’t beef with red peppers or kung pao chicken that moved the Istanbul resident, who was vacationing in the United States at the time, but what came after: a fortune cookie.
“‘What is it?’ I asked my friends. I had never ever seen this product! Then I opened it and read my fortune: ‘Your new business will be successful,’” Demirtas told us recently in the front office at ForFun, his small fortune cookie factory — Turkey’s first — in Istanbul’s chichi Nisantasi district.
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A lawyer specializing in copyright and branding, he saw great potential for the novelty food in his own country, one with a historical affinity for fortune telling. In the Ottoman era soothsayers advised sultans in Topkapi Palace. Today Turks still practice kahve fali, or fortune telling from coffee grounds. After returning home, Demirtas shared his hunch with his American partner (and now fortune cookie fortune translater) Douglas Groesser, a teacher at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, and founded ForFun Fortune Cookie in 2009.
Demirtas’ road from lawyer and dance teacher (infectiously enthusiastic, he moonlights as an instructor of salsa, samba and belly dancing) to fortune cookie maker was anything but smooth. When he tried to purchase equipment from Boston company Sci Technology, whose president invented the world’s first fully automated fortune cookie machine, he was refused.
“They didn’t trust me,” Demirtas says, but then Groesser’s mother stepped in. After a few phone calls on his behalf the company relented.
So he and Groesser spent a week in Boston training to use the machine. “Crazy! It’s very complicated!” Demirtas said. The partners then placed their order and returned to Turkey. There, the government denied their application for a license to manufacture.
It took six months to convince the licensing bureau, whose officials couldn’t comprehend that a food containing paper, such as fortune cookies, would be safe to eat.
A new recipe for Turkish fortune cookies
Local ingredients presented the next obstacle. In addition to white sugar, Sci Technology’s recipe calls for corn flour and cornstarch, ingredients expensive in Turkey that Demirtas had to replace with wheat flour to bring costs under control. The new batter was so sticky that it gummed up the machine. Finally Demirtas and Groesser flew Sci Technology founder Yongsik Lee to Istanbul, where he worked with the duo to tailor the local batter to the machine’s requirements. The unintended result is a better fortune cookie, crisp and delicious compared with America’s spongy, artificial-tasting one.
ForFun’s 2009 launch — the biscuits come in chocolate, strawberry and zade (plain, or vanilla) flavors — brought new challenges. Like Demirtas, most customers had never heard of the fortune cookie. Some popped the entire thing in their mouths, paper fortune and all, which prompted Demirtas to redesign ForFun’s packaging. The box now prominently features the phrase “kir, bak, ye” (crack, look, eat), which is a clever play on kurabiye, the Turkish word for cookie or biscuit.
Demirtas also had not taken into account the Turkish tendency to take a fortune literally. “Turks love fortunes because we know that if you really believe what you read, it will happen,” Demirtas said. But that also meant that his cookies’ fortunes shouldn’t be too cryptic, vague or negative. One customer called ForFun to complain after opening a cookie with a fortune advising “Be careful.” Another, after reading “Just wait,” for three hours refused to leave her table at the restaurant where she had opened her cookie.
Now the cookies contain more propitious snippets. Demirtas’ current stock of fortunes — about 1,000 in total — comprise passages from Buddha, Mevlana and Greek philosophers, phrases suggested by friends and dance students, and simple directives. One of the most popular: “You need to go to the beach.”
Demirtas’ initial impulse was on the money. ForFun, which distributes to grocery stores, restaurants and other businesses (in Laleli, an Istanbul neighborhood with a large Russian population, pharmacists give the cookies away with prescriptions), and fills custom orders, boasts a yearly production of about 500,000 cookies. With customers all over Turkey, Demirtas is thinking about purchasing a second machine to increase production.
But one thing the business isn’t immune to is politics: June and July protests in Istanbul and other Turkish cities buffeted sales. They’re coming back slowly, said Demirtas, who blames continuing concerns among Turks about possible military action in Syria.
Top photo: ForFun fortune cookies in Turkey. Credit: David Hagerman
Imagine being 7 years old and being offered an array of cookies and cakes for breakfast every morning. For my son Liam, that was one of the highlights of accompanying me on a six-week long research trip through the European Mediterranean the summer after he finished first grade. I also took my best friend’s 20-year old daughter Rachel, Liam’s beloved babysitter, so he would have somebody to play with. Nonetheless, it was sometimes not very much fun for him to be dragged from one place to another just so his mom could find and eat great food. Liam has always loved great food too, but constant traveling can be hard for a 7-year-old.
It was all worth it for him, though, when we arrived at Il Frantoio, an old olive oil farm that is also an azienda agrituristica, or farmhouse hotel, in the southern Italian region of Apulia. Il Frantoio is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Every room in the elegant house has been lovingly restored by the owners, Rosalba and Armando Ciannamea. Wherever your eye turns, it falls on something pleasing to see. Olive groves, some of them more than 500 years old, with beautiful, huge trees, stretch for miles within the whitewashed walls of the property. Armando produces several different olive oils, and the farm also produces wheat, fruit and vegetables, everything organic.
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The beauty of the place and the unforgettable dinners may or may not have been lost on Liam. What he will always remember about Il Frantoio is that they served cookies for breakfast. Every morning, when you cross the quiet courtyard and enter the dining room, you encounter a lace-covered buffet with bowls of fruit from the farm’s orchards — plums and peaches, apricots and nectarines in summer, apples and pears in the late fall — and baked goods from the kitchen — several varieties of cookies and cakes, breads and pastries made with flour ground from Il Frantoio’s own heirloom wheat; homemade jams and honeys. Pitchers of fresh orange and grapefruit juice are covered with handmade lace doilies to protect them from flies. Needless to say, Liam woke up early every day and couldn’t wait to get to breakfast. He always went straight for the cookies.
Italian Butter Cookies with Anise and Lemon Zest
Makes about 4 dozen cookies
180 grams (6 ounces) unsalted butter, preferably French style such as Plugrà, at room temperature
125 grams (⅔ cup) sugar
55 grams (1 large) egg
1 teaspoon finely chopped lemon zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons aniseeds, crushed in a mortar and pestle
275 grams (2¼ cups) unbleached all-purpose flour
5 grams (1 rounded teaspoon) baking powder
1 gram (¼ teaspoon) salt
1. In a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter with the sugar until fluffy and pale, about 4 minutes. Scrape down the bowl and beaters. Add the egg, lemon zest, vanilla and aniseeds, and beat together.
2. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. On low speed, beat into the butter mixture, just until combined. Gather the dough into a ball, then press down to a 1-inch thickness. Wrap tightly in plastic and refrigerate overnight or for up to 3 days, or place in the freezer for 1 to 2 hours. Alternatively (if you don’t want to roll out the dough), remove spoonfuls of half of the dough and plop them down the middle of a piece of parchment paper to create a log about 2 inches in diameter. Fold the parchment up around the log to and refrigerate for 2 hours or longer. Repeat with the remaining dough.
3. Preheat the oven to 350 F with the rack adjusted to the lowest setting. Line baking sheets with parchment.
4. Cut the dough into 2 or 4 pieces, and roll out one piece at a time on a lightly dusted work surface, or preferably on a Silpat, to about ¼-inch thick. Cut into circles or shapes, dipping the cutter into flour between each cut, and place 1 inch apart on the baking sheet. Keep the remaining pieces of dough in the refrigerator or freezer.
5. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, turning the baking sheets front to back halfway through. Remove from the oven and cool on a rack.
Note: You can brush the cookies before baking with a little egg wash if you want them to look shiny.
Chocolate Walnut Biscotti
Makes about 4 dozen biscotti
125 grams (1 cup, approximately) unbleached all purpose flour
120 grams (approximately 1 cup, tightly packed) almond flour
60 grams (approximately ½ cup) unsweetened cocoa
10 grams (2 teaspoons) instant espresso powder or coffee extract
10 grams (2 teaspoons) baking powder
4 grams (1/2 teaspoon) salt
55 grams (2 ounces) unsalted butter
150 grams (approximately ¾ cup, tightly packed) brown sugar, preferably organic
110 grams (2 large) eggs
10 grams (2 teaspoons) vanilla extract
100 grams (1 cup) walnuts, chopped
1. Preheat the oven to 300 F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment. In a medium bowl, mix together the flour, almond flour, cocoa, instant espresso powder if using, baking powder and salt.
2. In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar for 2 minutes on medium speed. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and the beater with a rubber spatula and add the eggs, coffee extract if using and vanilla extract. Beat together for 1 to 2 minutes, until well blended. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and the beater. Add the flour mixture and beat at low speed until well blended. Add the walnuts and beat at low speed until mixed evenly through the dough. The dough will be moist and sticky.
3. Divide the dough in two and shape 2 wide, flat logs, about 10 to 12 inches long by 2 ½ inches wide. The logs may spread while you bake, so it’s best to place them on two parchment-covered sheets. Place in the oven on the middle rack and bake 40 to 45 minutes, until dry, beginning to crack in the middle, and firm. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 20 minutes or longer.
4. Place the logs on a baking sheet and carefully cut into ½-inch thick slices. Place on two parchment-covered baking sheets and bake one sheet at a time in the middle of the oven until the slices are dry, 30 to 35 minutes, flipping the biscotti over after 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
Top photo: The breakfast table at Il Frantoio. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman
Seated in the center of a jai alai court, surrounded by men in berets and young girls dressed like extras from the old TV series “Little House on the Prairie,” I began tasting my way through 21 sheep’s milk cheeses while people sat in the bleachers to watch. No, this was not a dream, though it was the closest I’ve ever come to an out-of-body experience.
But first, a little backstory.
Since becoming a food writer more than 10 years ago, I’ve visited Spain’s Basque Country often and have forged many wonderful friendships. This summer, after confirming I’d be returning in September to write two articles for Saveur, I began contacting the folks I knew. Days later, an email popped into my inbox from Jesús Mari Ormaetxea, the “grand master” of the Idiazabal Cheese Association in Ordizia, inviting me to be a judge for the village’s annual cheese contest, to take place during my stay.
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Recalling the fun I’d had several years earlier as a judge for a snail contest in another Basque town (don’t ask), I accepted immediately. It wasn’t until later that the panic set in, right around the time I started receiving file after file from Ormaetxea — among them, an 18-page dossier on the contest; a 32-page full-color PDF file on Idiazabal cheese; and my formal invitation signed by the head judge and chef, Juan Mari Arzak, the father of Spain’s modern culinary renaissance. So hey, no pressure.
I already knew the small town was famous for its weekly farmers market, and agriculture and shepherding have been a part of life in the area for centuries, with Idiazabal being one of its most famous food products. The documents also informed me that 2013 marked the 40th official year of this event, though Ordizia has been staging cheese competitions since at least 1904. To enter the contest, participants have to be shepherds who produce their cheeses artisanally, using milk from their own herds.
Riding to the event from Bilbao with a friend and fellow judge, journalist Mikel Zeberio, I breathed a sigh of relief when he said there would be more than 20 others on the panel with us. Maybe I wouldn’t single-handedly destroy this longstanding celebration of cultural pride with my relative inexperience.
In the car, Zeberio explained we’d be scoring the entries on a scale of 0 to 10, evaluating eight different traits: shape; rind; color (of the interior); quantity and quality of the “eyes” or holes (which can reveal production defects); texture; aroma; taste and aftertaste. The points awarded in the various categories would be weighted according to the attribute’s overall importance when tallying the score for each cheese.
Holding court while cheese judging in Ordizia
Every Basque town worth its sheep’s milk has its own frontón, a court where jai alai (a sport these people invented) and pelota (the basket-less version) are played, watched and wagered upon. A center of community life, it’s the ideal spot for this type of gathering — bleachers included, wagering optional.
When we arrived, we were divided among seven tables, six of which featured three judges apiece — a journalist, cheese expert and chef-restaurateur — while the seventh table comprised top dignitaries, including the high-profile Basque chefs Martín Berasategui and Pedro Subijana. My charming colleagues at Table 5 were Hilario Arbelaitz, chef of the Michelin-starred Zuberoa near San Sebastián, and Monica Castillo, proprietor of Vintage, a wine bar in Vitoria-Gasteiz.
All told, 53 Idiazabal cheeses were submitted for consideration. In the first round, each table was asked to choose the best two (out of seven or eight) to advance. Later, all the judges would taste and score the 14 finalists.
In case I needed further proof that these people were not playing, the official ballot looked like a cross between a baseball scorecard and an SAT answer sheet. Each cheese had its own row of empty boxes printed above perforated lines so the scores could be torn off and collected. There would be no changing your mind once you’d written down your numbers (which were imprinted on a carbon copy under the main ballot for good measure). I’m not going to lie: This may have been when I started to sweat. Sure, I was familiar with Idiazabal, but would I be able to distinguish among so many iterations of the same product?
After the audience filed in, a woman began reading bios of all the judges, working her way down the row over and over, calling to mind that episode of “The Brady Bunch” where the mom tells the kids not to play ball in the house. Though the emcee’s tone was cheerful, I couldn’t help but feel a little like a suspect in a police lineup. It seemed odd that anyone would want to watch people sniffing and tasting dairy products for three hours, but it made more sense when I learned the winner would take home 1,550 euros (about $2,100).
As we began evaluating the contenders, I was surprised by the variation; some cheeses were overly acidic, others smelled too much of the barnyard, and a few were grainy and dry. In the end, my favorite did not take first place, though the winner was among those I had rated most highly. For his achievement, Ricardo Remiro Agirre earned a large golden trophy, the prize money and 5,000 “Champion of Ordizia” labels to affix to his cheeses.
Looking back now, I have many memories from that unusual day, but the most humbling was watching the five finalists collect their awards. A few pumped their fists, one was nearly in tears and Remiro Agirre beamed with pride as he walked to the podium with his wife and two small boys in tow. While the local press snapped photos and the audience hooted, the older son looked down at his feet. Upon closer inspection, though, I spotted the hint of a shy smile on the boy’s face. At a time when so many food traditions are disappearing, I hoped the events of the day might inspire that child to take up his father’s craft.
Top photo: Fifty-three Idiazabal cheeses — some smoked, others not — were entered in the competition. Credit: Iñaki Hidalgo, Ayuntamiento de Ordizia
“X Friggere,” in all caps, read the sign over the freshly picked olives on a market stall in the Pugliese town of Martina Franca: “For frying.”
Olives for frying? Fresh from the tree?
It was the weekly open-air market, and the plump, black olives were going like — well, I could say they were going like hotcakes, but hotcakes might not sell so well in Martina Franca. In any case, they were selling fast and furiously.
If, like me, you’ve had the unhappy experience of biting into a freshly picked olive right off the tree, you’ll know nothing compares with the horrible, bitter, astringent taste that fills your mouth. Ptew! It’s an automatic rejection — you spit it as far as it will go, the only reaction possible. And then you wonder who on earth was the first person to discover that lusciously sweet olive oil could come from such yucky fruit.
So what’s with fried fresh olives? I knew what I was doing, and I bought 2 kilos, almost 4½ pounds, at a fire-sale price of 4 euros — about $5.20 a kilo.
Fried olives from a top chef
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I knew only because I had experienced fried olives just the previous evening with chef Domenico “Mino” Maggi and his wife, Carole, at their engaging trullo complex in the nearby town of Locorotondo. Along with Martina Franca, this is the heart of the Valle d’Itria, in the center of Puglia’s long peninsula, where the curious domed trulli, built of layered slabs of local white limestone and looking like nothing so much as a set for “The Hobbit,” are the architectural feature of note. Mino and Carole actually live in their own trullo amid a cluster of 10 — the others are rented out as self-catering apartments.
Mino, who is a noted chef, teacher and worldwide ambassador for Pugliese cuisine, often gives cooking classes for guests in an open-air kitchen at the center of the complex, surrounded by their olive groves and vineyards. I’ve worked with Mino many times in the past, at the Culinary Institute of America in California and also on culinary programs in Puglia. (You can see him in action in this video shot by the Culinary Institute of America team.)
But that night, we were relaxing with a glass of wine when Mino jumped up and declared, “I have to prepare you an aperitivo.” He whipped out a skillet and set it over a flame, adding a healthy glug of his own olive oil and a couple of smashed cloves of garlic. Then a couple of peperoncini — little hot red chili peppers (also from his own garden) — went in, along with a couple of bay leaves and a bowl of those olives, fresh, black, plump and almost bursting with oil. Together it all simmered on the stovetop while we watched in fascination. “Yes, indeed,” Mino said, “they are fresh olives. Not cured at all. Right off the tree. They’re called Nolche, or sometimes Amele — because they’re sweet like apples.” And in some places, I learned later, the olives are called Termite.
Mino explained what he was waiting for: “Once the olives are disfatte,” he said, using a wonderful Italian word that means they are still distinctly olives but have collapsed and fallen in on themselves from the intense heat of the pan, “once that happens, you add just a few chopped pomodori a pennula.” These are small, intensely flavored local tomatoes, the kind smart cooks can keep hanging in a cool pantry all winter long. He shook the pan a couple more times, tossing it with that confident motion chefs master early on in their careers, and then he turned the whole of it out into a bowl for our delectation.
With some miniature blobs of burrata, the deliciously white and creamy cheese of Puglia, and good durum-wheat bread to dip in the juices, the olives were extraordinary. You could still taste the bitterness, but just as an underlying layer, a hint actually, beneath something strange and sweet and hugely rich.
Now, I will give you the recipe, but it is not something you can do in your own home kitchen, especially if you live anywhere east of California, and even in California you would be stretching it. That’s because not just any olive will do. No, it must be this peculiar and particular variety that, as far as I know, is only available in Puglia and a few other parts of southern Italy and Sicily. And you can only do it at the peak of the season, that is, at the end of September and through October.
So the first step of the recipe is to get yourself a plane ticket next September to Bari, the Pugliese capital, and then find a local market. Or better yet, rent a car and drive out to delightful Martina Franca, where the local market day is Wednesday, or Locorotondo, which has its market on Friday mornings. Buy a half-kilo (that’s about a pound) of olive per friggere, making sure you get good, sound, ripe olives. This should make enough for an appetizer for 4 to 6 people.
1 pound (½ kilo) ripe, fresh, black olives for frying
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, preferably Pugliese
2 garlic cloves, unpeeled
2 or 3 small, dried red chili peppers (more or less to taste)
2 bay leaves, preferably fresh, chopped
½ teaspoon sea salt, or more to taste
4 or 5 small, very ripe cherry or grape tomatoes, preferably pomodori a pennula, halved or quartered
Crusty bread, torn into pieces, for dipping
1. Rinse the olives in a colander to get rid of any dust and toss gently. Spread them out on a kitchen towel to dry.
2. Set a skillet large enough to hold all the ingredients over medium heat and add the olive oil. As the oil heats, smash the unpeeled garlic cloves with the flat blade of a knife and cut each one in two lengthwise.
3. Toss the garlic halves into the hot oil and let sizzle, turning frequently until they start to brown on all sides.
4. Stir in the chili peppers and bay leaves. (If the chilies are large, break them into smaller pieces; if they are too spicy, shake out the inner seeds and discard them before adding to the skillet.)
5. Add the olives and the salt and cook, turning, stirring and tossing while the olives simmer in the oil. (Think of the skillet as a wok — in fact, a wok would be a great implement for this.)
6. When the olives have started to collapse and fall apart, toss in the tomato pieces and continue cooking and tossing until the tomatoes too have disfatto, collapsed and released their juices into the olive mixture.
7. Serve in bowls or on deep plates, with plenty of bread pieces for sopping up juices. If you have a good source of burrata, it’s a fine accompaniment — but so is regular mozzarella, the kind that comes dripping with whey.
Top photo: Olives at the market with a sign indicating they are for frying. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Grand Forks is a small middle-American town in North Dakota that was pinned onto the pop culture map last year by a single restaurant review in a local newspaper. When an earnest review of an Olive Garden restaurant went viral on the Internet, the seasoned reporter who penned the story was probably the most surprised of all.
At age 87, columnist Marilyn Hagerty has been reporting stories of local interest in the Grand Forks Herald for 56 years. But that March 2012 review won her recognition beyond her hometown audience. The compilation of her work spanning 26 of those years, entitled “Grand Forks: A History of American Dining in 128 Reviews,” is the delightful result of her overnight success.
My affection for this new book does not stem from defending against supercilious foodies who derided her Olive Garden review, nor jumping on the bandwagon of those who backed her up, like the culinary master of sarcastic retort, Anthony Bourdain. It is much more personal than that. I like her writing style and I can identify all too well with her subject matter.
ZESTER BOOK LINKS
By Marilyn Hagerty
For starters, Hagerty’s first-person voice is full of next-door neighbor character that makes this book fun to read. It’s not often that I break into a chuckle when I’m deep into a cookbook. With every review, she paints a clear picture of the setting, the food and her “Constant Companion,” her meat-eating husband of 64 years. It’s clear from her uncluttered prose that she must have been drawn more to Hemingway than Jane Austen in her formative years. Food journalists everywhere should take a lesson from this.
Describing a local burger joint in 1987, Hagerty wrote:
“You give your order at the counter. They ask your name. You take a seat. They call your name. You pick up your burger and proceed to an extensive topping bar. You take your malt — in the metal can. You eat your burger, your fries and your malt. This is a happy place. This is Topper’s.”
Over the years, Hagerty visited and ate at every local eatery within driving distance of her small hometown, starting with mom-and-pop places popular in the mid-20th century and gradually shifting to well-known national chains and fast-food outlets. Sadly, updated annotations to the reprinted reviews reveal that many of the independent establishments, like Topper’s, are no longer in business. It’s a sign of the times in much of the country, but not everywhere — as I can attest.
‘Grand Forks’ a reminder of home
I spend my summers in a place eerily similar to the Grand Forks of Hagerty’s early work. These places still exist. I live down the street from purely local eateries such as Wimpy’s coffee shop and Bunny’s Custard. There is no McDonald’s, no Starbucks and no other ubiquitous brands unless you count the Subway franchise that pays rent to the corner gas station. Most mom and pop restaurants in town have been in business since I was too young to order on my own.
But years ago, I moved away to expand my culinary horizons and gain exposure to other life experiences. It was not until I had the privilege of reading through Hagerty’s disarming book that I looked at my own backyard in an entirely different light.
In succession, her reviews paint a disappearing landscape of regional fare, blanketed over by the monotonous menus of the chain restaurants. Although it may have been an unintentional long-term project, Hagerty’s new book documents this glacial shift. Some books enlighten because they broaden your horizons. This one simply shined a light on what was already within eyesight and reminded me to enjoy it while I still can.
Top photo composite:
Author Marilyn Hagerty. Credit: John Stennes, Grand Forks Herald
Book jacket courtesy of Ecco Books
René Redzepi had an idea three years ago: He wanted to create a food symposium inspired by the famous Roskilde Festival, which is North Europe’s biggest music festival with a strong identity and sense of community.
After three years of running the MAD symposium — “mad” means food in Danish — I think Redzepi got what he wished for. It was two days of food and love in a rock ‘n’ roll setting under the theme “guts.”
On a Sunday morning, I drove out to an old military area. The area is undeveloped and has this urban charm: Old warehouses mixed with areas of wild meadows leading up to the waterfront with a view to central Copenhagen. It’s quite spectacular.
On an open field, the MAD team had put up a circus tent. In this setting and under the open sky, about 500 people from around the world were gathered — all connected somehow to the food industry. It was a beautiful summer morning. In the middle of an urban meadow, Redzepi greeted the entire group of guests one by one, followed by Danish breakfast and coffee made by some of the world’s top baristas. It was walk the talk from the very beginning. Here was the best coffee I have ever had at any symposium or conference along with a great Danish breakfast of rye bread, cheese, yogurt and, of course, a Danish. It was a convincing start.
MAD Symposium is a celebration of food
The symposium was two days of talks, food, movies — a celebration of the world of food. After breakfast you entered the circus tent, which was dark and had Metallica aggressively coming out of the loudspeakers (not surprising when David Chiang is co-curating). A giant black spotted pig hung from the ceiling, and there was a big wooden butcher’s bench. You kind of knew what was going to happen, but then not at all.
In comes Dario Cecchini. He runs a butcher shop in Panzano in Chianti, Italy, called Antica Macelleria Cecchini. Dario the butcher has a long line of butchers in this family. He also has stories to tell, real stories about eating, respect, love and death. He does that in a dramatic manner and in beautiful Italian, opening up the pig and taking out the guts. Now and then he stops the beautiful stories and his lovely wife translates this butcher prose into English. Listening, you are really touched and you understand why cooking is about life.
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Then he finishes the whole performance with a recital from “Dante’s Inferno” with a deep, clear voice. At that point, tears are quietly running down my cheeks.
On the first day, lunch was cooked by Kamal Mouzawak and the women from Souk el Tayeb, where they cook in the restaurant Tawlét that connects with the market. They had traveled from Beirut, Lebanon, to Copenhagen to cook our lunch and, thus, share the local customs and dishes they cook for their families in their daily lives. We ate a buffet of dolmer, baba ghanoush, hummus, breads, salads with lentils, parsley, pomegranate, sumac and other spices. It was real home-cooked food done with a lot of love.
The other real high point of the conference for me was Margot Henderson. Margot’s husband, Fergus Henderson, gave her such a lovely introduction, saying she was the best cook he knew. With the danger of sounding a bit too hippie-like, at this symposium there was love in the air!
Margot Henderson gave an insight into female cooking and described the differences between female and male cooking: why nourishment is part of female chefs’ cooking, and how male chefs are often driven by prestige and technology. How can anybody think it is better to confit a duck leg in sous-vide rather than fat, as we have done for decades? It is a relevant question.
Also at the symposium, Diana Kennedy gave a talk about her life and ways in Mexico, and Vandana Shiva gave a very thoughtful and important speech about seeds and biodiversity. Redzepi interviewed Alain Ducasse and could not hide his excitement about being on stage with his all-time hero. Christian Puglisi told his story about opening up his restaurant Relæ in a rough neighborhood — which in the first year got one Michelin star and is now 90% organic.
Lunch the second day was also spectacular. Those in attendance came out from the dark tent and walked under the blue sky, and there Mission Chinese Food chefs cooking on woks and serving plates while the Smashing Pumpkins played loudly from the sound system. Right there and then, time was dissolved and all my years in the kitchen became present. Such energy from a bunch of young and upcoming American chefs from San Francisco and New York on a field in Copenhagen gave an instant feeling that the world is really present and everything is possible. Ten years ago, nobody in Denmark would have believed this could happen in Denmark. It just proves there is so much we don’t know, even in the food world.
Every single time I have dined at Redzepi’s Noma I have left very happy, thinking “This is one of the best restaurant meals I have ever had.” Running Noma is one thing, but I really understand Redzepi’s dream: to use his position to create the MAD Symposium, bringing people from around the world together for a conversation about how we can get a better life through food. From a small, insignificant corner of the world, where we do not talk loudly about each other’s success, I really congratulate Redzepi on his dream to create the MAD Symposium. I felt I was part of it for two days.
Top photo: Butcher Dario Cecchini at the MAD symposium during his demonstration. Look closely and you might see René Redzepi in the background near the far left. Credit: Trine Hahnemann