A Night On the Rock-Alcatraz Overnight

31 01 2013

While most people that were sent to Alcatraz wanted nothing more than to get off “The Rock” surprisingly when I was offered the chance to actually be stranded there overnight I jumped at it!  I first heard about the trip when I was working the annual Make-A-Wish® Wine and Wishes® event last year and thought it sounded amazing.  I remembered that the first time I’d heard the auction lot announced I remarked to Amy Currens how much I’d give to be able to spend a night on the ROCK.  It just goes to show what a simple intention can accomplish!

I have always loved Alcatraz from afar.  I went once as a child, but hardly remember, and ever since moving to San Francisco in 1996 I’d been meaning to visit.  It took until May of 2012 for me to do so when my brother Omar and his girlfriend Jess were in town.  We took off on a Wednesday to visit and really enjoyed a gorgeous sunny day on the rock visiting the sites and even taking what I thought was an amazing audio tour of the cell house.  I entered cell #9 in D Block, an isolation cell and said to my brother, “Oh my God, can you imagine spending the night in here?”  Clearly fueled by my addictive viewing of shows such as “Ghost Adventures” and formerly what was one of my favorites, “Fear” from MTV, all I wanted to do was head out and perform my own investigation.

Later in the year I was out and about visiting accounts trying to collect some information for Wines of Chile when I saw on Facebook that my buddy Hoss Zaré, Chef of Zaré at Fly Trap was around the corner from where I was enjoying a glass of wine (Bin 38) so I zipped on over to A16 and busted in on his dinner to enjoy some delicious wine and pasta.  At the end of dinner he said, “You wouldn’t want to be my sous chef for a dinner on Alcatraz would you?  It’s for Make a Wish®!  We get to stay the night!”

I could not believe my good fortune!

I rushed home from A16 completely elated to wake my husband tell him the great news!  His immediate reaction was, “Why?  Why would you want to do that?  Oh my God I would never do that!”  It had never even crossed my mind that someone would decline this once in a lifetime opportunity!  So although I was still extremely excited there was of course a bit of fear and nervous anticipation involved as well…

The next few weeks were spent bragging about my upcoming journey and doing some research!  I never knew how little I actually knew about the island I see so often from San Francisco’s many vantage points.  I found a great signed copy of Eyewitness on Alcatraz by Jolene Babyak all about Life on the Rock as told by the Guards, Families and Prisoners.  It gave me some great perspective on the prison and a unique vantage point.  As a fun picture book I bought Alcatraz History and Design of a Landmark by Donald MacDonald and Ira Nadel.  I also read and re-read the instructions from the National Park Service.  No alcohol (WHAT!?), no Sharpies (HELLO?  Two of my favorite things?!), bring a sleeping bag, no power, bring a headlamp.  Also Hoss told me to bring my guitar so I could play a song!

So the day of the journey I was scheduled to judge wine at the San Francisco International Wine Competition, but I zipped out early to be sure I wasn’t going to miss the boat.  Alcatraz Cruises does not wait on anyone whether you have reserved regular tickets or are on a special event.  Best parking for Alcatraz is Pier 29 next door (but the pier suffered a fire less than a week after our event, so check to make sure it’s operational again…)  I got to the dock in time to meet a fun group of the three chefs, Hoss and co-chefs Peter McNee from Poggio and Eric Arnold Wong of E&O Asian Kitchen and their sous chefs (actually legit sous chefs unlike me…although I can set a table and pour soup and whatnot).  Also attending were a group of mostly families and their kids, kids had to be at least nine to come and the families were all really excited with all their gear and sleeping bags and such.

Soon after we gathered we were met by Ranger John Cantwell.  Google the guy and you’ll find out how important he is, he’s worked on the island since he was a teen.  He rolled up on a bicycle relatively sweaty and boasting that he’d just rolled in from Monterey.  In our nervousness we believed him for about a half hour.  He immediately straightened us out by telling us he wasn’t there to offer up ghost stories, my impression is that he knows way to well how miserable it could be dealing with scared kids and adults overnight on the island, he likes his sleep.

There was quite a bit of loading onto a private ferry out to the rock.  We headed out and the day was sunny and gorgeous with some light wind, but overall a very warm day for June in San Francisco.  The journey was a short 10-15 minutes after which there was an equal amount of off-loading.  When we arrived the last daytime guests were leaving the island, there were about 600 more guests on the way for the night tours, but we felt special as they commented on our gear and sleeping bags.  We stored all the food at the dock area under the “Indians Welcome” sign and headed indoors for a short movie about the island.  As soon as it was over we loaded our sleeping gear into the Ranger’s truck, there’s no food allowed in your gear due to rats and mice that they’re careful to keep out of the cell house.  We started the long walk up the rock’s steep paths to the area by the lighthouse.  Our gear was taken into the cell house D Block, the area known for the worst prisoners, where we were told we would spend the night but choose cells later.  I expressed that I wanted #9, an isolation chamber aloud, just sayin’!  We hid our stuff on the upper levels of the block so as not to have it visible to the night guests and the group set out on our community service project to clean up the yard (originally the overnights started as a Boy Scouts program).  We picked up little pieces of paper and tried to avoid all the gull feathers (they gave us gloves luckily) and then John gave us a tour of the gardens and viewed some of the bird sanctuaries.  After our walk the group headed out for the audio tour of the cell block while the chefs and sous chefs ran down the hill to try to get the charcoal started so we would have dinner ready for them when they returned.

You can’t tell three ambitious top chefs from San Francisco to grill hot dogs and burgers, so for the group of 35 the chefs had some pretty extensive dishes planned, thinking we had something a bit bigger than the teeny grill we were presented with.  The grill was made by the last group of prisoners on the Rock.  Luckily the team are professionals and made it work, but it wasn’t the ideal condition to make an extensive meal!  Peter McNee made “Jail Birds” (quail in little cages grilled over the charcoal) served with fresh red cherries, arugula and almonds, and he even went on to make an amazing hot chocolate with whipped cream and a zabaglione atop strawberries for dessert!  A huge challenge and a lot of effort to do over a charcoal fire.  Arnold Eric Wong had amazing pulled pork with a selection of great sauces and fresh herbs served in traditional steamed Chinese buns.  The amazing thing is that they were steamed on location, once again over the open fire.  He also made a great Kombucha that paired perfectly with all the dishes and provided a great alternative to sodas.  Chef Hoss provided a selection of amazing pickles, white strawberries, fiddleheads, etc. and then presented a cold yogurt soup with raisins, nuts, rose and herbs.  The kids in the group were eager sous chefs asking for jobs at every turn, and even tray serving soups!  Then Hoss brought out his lamb shank meatballs, aka the “Ball and Chain” and he had dressed the part in black and white stripes!

While we enjoyed dinner we noticed the last boat leaving, all the workers, every last one, except for the one security guard and John were gone…  When dinner was done I grabbed my guitar and was invited to perform my “Pork Song” and then an encore of “You Gotta Go to Sea”, which was so fun, the Ranger held up a microphone for me and said, “Live from Alcatraz, Rebecca Chapa!”  Hoss provided cheesecake and then everyone milled about until we could clean up.  The greatest part was that the entire group cleaned up together, such an amazing group, we were all in this together, rather than workers and guests.  In a way, we had become a family!

Ranger John gathered us together and we set off on our special tour of the island and it’s normally off limits areas.  We visited the tunnel, industries area, the Morgue, Officer’s Club, Theatre, I think we really saw everything.  He had us traipsing all over the entire property on what was a pretty rigorous journey.  We ended at the Hospital where we were able to go into the isolation areas, rooms with floor to ceiling tiles and not much else but an observation window and a hole in the floor.  We also saw the Birdman of Alcatraz’s cell.  It seemed quite spacious in fact.  By this time we were all totally exhausted, I realized I hadn’t sat down for more than twenty minutes all day.  We gathered up our sleeping bags and gear and each of us took possession of a thin foam mattress pad to sleep on top of…  Folks began scrambling into the cells on the second and third floors of the cell block complete with lights, metal bunks that came out from the walls and in close proximity to each other.  I still had my sights on cell number 9 but was starting to reconsider, after all the talk of rats and mice and god knows what other creepy crawlies I didn’t love the idea of setting myself down on the floor in a room that was wall to wall metal with nothing to protect me and my foam mattress placed directly on the floor.  I edged over to cell number 1, still a floor away from the others but with a bunk and a light switch and also right next to the spiral stairs that lead to my friends in case I freaked out.  I was about to place my foam mattress down on the metal bunk when I noticed a puddle of water.  It seemed weird to me considering we were the only folks on the island since about 9 and it was 2 am, and it hadn’t rained in weeks.  So I took it as a sign that I was meant to stay in cell #9.  As I was arranging my bed on the floor of my cell a few of my cohorts came by to take my photo and tell me how crazy I was to want to stay there.  Ranger John came by and was really surprised that I had taken up residence there and so I told him about the water.  He was a bit flabbergasted when he saw it and then he just said, “Well someone must have spilled water and tried to dry it with his boot and walked away.”

Despite all my intentions to go roaming the cellblock and the island (which John said we had carte blanche to do) I got a bit freaked.  I imagined running into that security guard and losing my mind.  I was also totally exhausted physically from the strenuous day, so I lay down and asked the spirits to just let me stay there without being bothered.  It was weird because it really wasn’t a slumber party type atmosphere when we hit our cells despite all the kids, no laughing or boisterous talking, and all of a sudden just a lot of LOUD snoring.  I’d heard reports of this on the accounts of others who had stayed there, it just seemed to permeate the entire place, there is a ton of echo in there, but it was hard to tell if it was just our group’s snores.  The gulls are also really loud and make really weird sounds and then there is a constant drafty rattling of the windows and weird hisses, clicks, scratches and creaks continuously.  I ran my tape recorder for a quick bit and asked the spirits to let me know they were there if they wanted.  I told them I wasn’t going to listen to the recording now and to please not visit me that night.  I listened to it the next day and found that there was a loud laugh audible just after I said that.  And then nothing else.

Falling asleep after getting used to the noises was pretty fast due to my level of exhaustion, but I did awake at about 4 in the morning with terrible agonizing stomach pain.  I willed it away as I was not about to get up and go anywhere and was pretty much laying there petrified in what was almost total darkness, the reflection from the lights in the cells above providing only limited light at the front of my isolation cell’s open door.  After about a half hour of trying to calm my body and work through the pain I was able to get back to sleep.  7 am came quickly without any more interruptions and I was surprised to see the sun already well up in the sky, I had wanted to wake early to see it rise  We quickly went  through our morning routines and got ourselves gathered at the base of the lighthouse where John had told us to meet.  He did a once over of the cells (apparently there are occasions when overnight guests are too scared to use the restrooms outside of the cell block and dirty their cells, in which case he makes them clean them…)  All was AOK and John announced our special surprise which was that we could walk to the top of the lighthouse!  We had to take turns at the very top as it is really small and John was sure to warn us that the railing was pretty much rusted through so not to touch it. He didn’t have to warn me as I had my back plastered to the wall of the lighthouse the entire time and sidestepped my way around…  I was honestly more frightened up there than I was in cell #9!  They convinced me to climb a small ladder so I could touch the red light at the pinnacle of the island on top of the lighthouse and then I gladly scrambled back down to terra firma.

After a quick breakfast we were presented with our badges that commemorated our overnight on Alcatraz!  As we prepared to get on the ferry back to the mainland we saw an elderly gentleman being guided off the boat to the dock.  It was clear that he was someone special, both from the way that people reacted to his presence but also just from a great energy that he had.  Ranger John introduced us to Frank Heaney.  Heaney was hired in 1943 and was the youngest correctional officer ever on Alcatraz.  He worked for the infamous Warden Swope and during his watch no one ever tried to escape the rock.  His watch on the island ended during a stint in the Korean conflict as well as time spent working for the Albany Fire Department but the allure of the island would not leave him and he ended up returning as a National Park Ranger in 1974.  You can meet Heaney the third Saturday of each month in the bookstore where he is present for book signings of his book “Inside the Walls of Alcatraz”.

The entire journey was incredible and I returned to the wine judging somewhat filthy and pretty tired from my night on the rock but with fun stories for everyone.  Now when I look across the bay I feel a sense of recognition for the magical island that is so close yet so distant at the same time.  Alcatraz is a fun place to visit but I sure wouldn’t want to live there.

Advertisements




A Grateful Harvest: Scalloping in Nantucket

14 11 2012

So here I am in San Francisco waiting for Dungeness crab season to start tomorrow, but I really wish I was out east, in Nantucket to be precise.

I would like to call myself a scalloper… HA!  I have been scalloping exactly twice on what were sure to be the two nicest and warmest days of the season, so although I do appreciate the grueling nature of the industry there is no way I really understand the extent of the cold days with freezing icy wind gusting as the loyal scallopers trudge away to get scallops on your table.

My mother loves scallops, but as a kid I was never a fan, I found them chewy and mostly flavorless.  Most of the time you see scallops in a restaurant they are breaded, overcooked and way too big.  I was not intrigued by them until I worked at Rubicon and Jardiniere with Traci Des Jardins.  Des Jardins is famous for her truffled scallop dish, a heap of creamy and buttery mashed potatoes in the center, that relies on some amazingly flavorful tubers, surrounded in a delicate yet hauntingly flavorful truffle nage and finally garnished with a ring of golden seared scallops.  A “nage” by the way means “in the swim” how amazingly appropriate right?  Anyway the dish was and is absolutely delicious.  Another thing I learned about scallops around the same time was the term day boat, meaning that the boats harvesting the scallops return each day to port to offload them.  It’s a pretty important distinction as scallops do not live as long as clams or other shellfish once caught.  They must be shucked while live and either kept on ice of flash frozen which of course changes their delicate texture.  Having quality scallops as an ingredient of course makes the dish that much better.

Fast forward to last year, December 2011, when I had the opportunity to scallop with my friend Bruce, a commercial scalloper on Nantucket!  Nantucket Bay Scallops are famous internationally due to their very delicate texture and pure sweet flavor.  I find other scallops to be more neutral in flavor and with less of that fresh salty tang of the ocean.  With wine we talk about terroir, but oyster and shellfish purveyors and writer have now coined the word (not sure who to attribute it to, but it’s clever!) “merroir” meaning that oysters, clams and of course scallops taste distinctly different depending on where they originate.  Just like wine the maritime “weather” and climate have a lot to do with how the shellfish grows, the microorganisms, sea life and micro-elements and minerals in the water also affect the flavor in ways hard to define.  Since bivalves filter water to eat they are conduits of flavor even more than grapevines.  They really are made of the fine mixture of what the sea diffuses into them more than any creature I can think of!  As a result of the unique characteristics of Nantucket, Nantucket Bay Scallops garner a higher price per pound due to the limited supply.  The price varies annually but this year’s season opened paying scallopers $10/lb with retail prices ranging from $14-$17.95.

Nantucket regulates scallop fishing in order to preserve the next year’s harvest.  Many consumers actually scallop with their families but there are strict guidelines as to days allowed, quantities and permits are needed.  Also every scallop harvested either commercially or recreationally must have a raised annual growth ring to show it is one year minimum in age or fit a size requirement.  This ensures a healthy population to spawn for the next season.  Recreational scalloping starts October 1 annually.  During the season you will see entire families in their waders working the shallows with inter tubes that suspend wire baskets, raking in up to a bushel a week.  The commercial season begins November 1 and runs until March 31.  Scallopers can harvest up to five cases per day, which can bring in about $400 for that type of haul.  That said, the scallop season is what many commercial scallopers rely on as their only source of winter income, and there are days that are easy and scallops are plentiful, but there are days that are rough both in terms of weather and the catch.

Our day began very early as I was picked up before dawn to get out on the water.  It was unseasonably warm for December 2, which was also the first day of the annual Christmas Stroll.  We headed out in a truck with a big rusted out flatbed, no stranger to seawater.  I was outfitted in Grunden’s orange pants and some waterproof boots, a heavy sweater and Carhaart jacket, orange waterproof slicker, glove liners and large orange gloves and a warm hat as we set off from Nantucket harbor just before dawn.  Scallopers have to wait until 6:30am to start scalloping, so most like to be at the area they plan to dredge by then.  The cue to start is the horn of the first Steamship ferry as it leaves Nantucket for Hyannis at 6:30am.  The whistle blew and we started working.  The process is relatively simple but time consuming and takes a good deal of strength.  The dredges are released behind the boat in groups so as not to get tangled up and the boat moves slowly along as these weighted nets scrape the bottom of the harbor.   When it seems enough time has passed they are cranked up onto a sorting table and emptied of hopefully scallops.  When the first heaping dredge full of the sea came up and was dumped on the table it included everything imaginable, sea stars, eelgrass, rocks, clams, fish, mud all writhing around and soaking wet.  And the most amazing thing, as the first haul was emptied onto the sorting area, a heap of scallops chattered away as they snapped open and shut repeatedly in the early light of dawn.  It was my job to help sort through the mess and retrieve the scallops, all at the same time while checking to be sure they had the growth ring and were old enough.  I had trouble believing that normally Bruce does all of this solo, it’s a lot of work, and quite honestly having me there was more of a hindrance than help as he had to coach me quite a bit.  “Is this one old enough?  How about this one?”, I’d say to which he’d reply, “Make a decision!”  Master of efficiency, he commented that I should never have to touch one scallop twice, it either goes in the basket or over the side.  We took a pause after we had reset the dredges and he shucked one for me.   He turned the scallop smooth side down.  The smooth side is the one normally resting on the bottom on the sand, so it’s clean of algae or muck.  Grabbing the scallop knife from in between some of the worn wooden boards on the boat, he stuck the scallop knife between the hinges of the shells, slipped the knife all the way around while pressing it up on the top of the shell to unhinge the muscle as cleanly as possible, popped up the shell and discarded the ring of eyes around the edge, scraped off the internal organs and finally removed the bottom part of the muscle.  It was amazingly fresh and delicious, almost magical.  It could not have been a more perfect bite and moment.

We scalloped until about 9:30 which was not that long considering we were able to fill our 5 permitted boxes.  We headed back to the dock, unloaded and then headed to get a coffee and deliver the scallops to Nantucket Seafoods.  They have a small market but generally the scallops we harvested would be shucked that day and sent next day air to restaurants around the country.  Part of our batch was actually going to San Francisco!  I got home exhausted, took a nap, showered and headed into town for the festivities of Christmas Stroll.  The streets were aglow with lighted trees and every store was decked out for the holidays.  Scallop shell lights were hung all over the town and strands of them were for sale for about $100-$199 a strand!  I sat down at a wonderful upscale restaurant called The Pearl to get some dinner in the midst of a boisterous crowd of adults on a Santa crawl wearing hideous holiday sweaters.  On the menu there was a local Nantucket bay scallop trio of ceviche/crudo.  Remembering my first sweet taste of scallop that morning, I was mesmerized.  These could very well be the same scallops that Bruce and I had harvested just a few hours ago!  So I had to order them although they price made me cringe with a pang of guilt.  They arrived and had been handled in the most delicate way, taking care in all three preparations not to overshadow their texture or flavor.  I savored every morsel of what at most must have been four or five good sized scallops.  As I sat there fully engaged with the meal, I was struck by my incredible day, full circle from harvesting scallops that morning to sitting here with my glass of Gruner Veltliner and enjoying these delightful morsels in elegance.  $10 a pound and a lot of exhausting work for Bruce who was just at the beginning of a long and arduous winter of scalloping with many cold days ahead.  And here I was savoring a small dish costing if I recall correctly about $22-25, but crafted with the utmost respect and care.  I could not have been more thankful to enjoy both sides of the spectrum.  After I was warm with wine and my palate sated by scallops and other delicacies, I asked for the check.  After all my concern about the money I was spending after on my first humbling day harvesting scallops, I was told that some revelers I had befriended (not in ugly sweaters) had secretly paid for my entire meal and had already left.  So this Thanksgiving I will be toasting the fisherman and farmers who work tirelessly to bring food to our tables, all of those chefs and cooks who respectfully prepare those ingredients to give us great pleasure, and all of those who understand and remind me when I least expect it, that every moment of life is a gift.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

To watch a video of scallops snapping

To watch a video how scallops are harvested

To order Nantucket Bay Scallops http://nantucketseafood.net/  

More info on scallops http://www.nantuckettodayonline.com/novdec09/scallops.html

What to drink with scallops?  With lighter preparations scallops are great with crisp whites.  I would love something like a Gruner Veltliner from Austria for a scallop crudo or ceviche, or a Chilean Sauvignon Blanc if you are making something spicy or citrusy.  If the scallops are caramelized with a slightly sweet preparation try an off dry aromatic white like the Schlossgut Diel Riesling Classic from the Nahe in Germany.  The great thing is with richer preparations (think mushrooms, truffle, red wine beurre rouge, etc, you can even pair scallops with Pinot Noir.  I am hoping to find some good options this Friday at Farallon’s Pinot Fest!  The consumer tasting is Saturday for tickets and information http://www.farallonrestaurant.com/pinotfest.html





Dave’s Killer Bread

21 07 2012

The most random things show up at my house…  My husband hollered, “Were you expecting a box of killer bread?”

I went over and took a look and started laughing…  Looking back at me was a very unique and interesting logo on the box of “Dave’s Killer Bread.”  The label sported a swarthy and burly looking man drawn holding a guitar with a dark black mustache, a bit retro, Tom Selleck-esque with long wavy black hair.  Random indeed.  But I wasn’t about to throw it out!  So I opened up one package of four different types of bread.  At first it seemed basically like an upscale supermarket loaf but when I looked more closely there was a lot more to this bread than just that…

This bread was not white, each type was seeded and whole grain in different blends and actually when opened smelled great and very fresh and nutritious.  Powerseed was my favorite.  The breads are made from organic whole grains and all four were great, it just depends on your preference.  When I realized they were all good, and some of them great, I started to read about the company.  Apparently it started at the Portland Farmer’s Market and took off like wildfire.

The back-story behind the bread immediately drew me in…  Founder Dave Dahl has a goal, “to make the world a better place one loaf of bread at a time.”  You may at first think this is a marketing ploy, or that Dave is a hokey small town baker made it big.  Although Dave’s parents were bakers, he has not lead a quiet life behind the hearth, his path could not have been more different.  Dave shares his intimate story of being an ex-drug dealer turned entrepreneur and baker with anyone who will listen (his other tagline is “Just say no to bread on drugs!”).  Dahl spent over a decade and a half in prison recovering from drug addiction and serving for drug dealing, but found redemption in the art he was taught as a youth by ultimately returning to baking.  Dave’s family (brother and nephew) embraced his return as Dave now embraces those who have been formerly incarcerated by providing jobs for them at the company, over 25% of his 200 plus workers are ex-cons in fact.

There’s a great video on his site, “The Good Seed”.  Although the company has grown dramatically since the days at the Portland Farmer’s Market, and Dave doesn’t bake every loaf, if you believe that food can be imbued with good energy and positivity then you will want to try this bread.  Dave’s story is as inspiring as the bread is comforting.  If you don’t want to wait in line at Tartine or bake your own it’s a bread you can feel good about buying.

Available at Safeway

Follow Dave on Twitter @Killerbreadman

http://www.daveskillerbread.com/daves-story/video.html 

DavesKillerBread.com 503 335-8077





My Best Product Picks… Winter Fancy Food Show

18 01 2011

The San Francisco Fancy Food Show is almost done, only a few more hours to go! I spent five hours day one and three today tasting through as much as I could, hard work, really! I think I could not have eaten more cheese than I did yesterday. Overall there were a ton of great new products, but I have gathered some information about some of my favorites, so look for them! I am also mentioning some of my favorite products that even though they are familiar I had to sample again. Exciting trends and popular items I found were the ghost chile, single origin chocolate, tea made from chocolate, salumi, chocolate bars and truffles, and low calorie, dry sodas and beverages.

SPREADS, DIPS and SALSAS
Taste No. 5 Umami Paste www.laurasanttini.com
This was a real shocker to find, within the booth at Picadilly Imports is this gem, gorgeous packaging and a truly unique product. Umami is of course considered the 5th taste, a taste of savory deliciousness found in products high in glutamic acids, the artificial version being MSG. Here producer Laura Santtini has taken the products that are famous for being high in umami and combined them to create a paste that can transform a bland meal into something more savory. The paste includes tomato, Parmesan cheese and porcini mushroom and is in a tube perfect for smearing onto a cracker or using as a rub for fish or meats Another great idea is a squeeze tossed into pasta. On its own it was really good, and on a little cube of cheese also delicious, and shelf stable before opening

Mrs. Renfro’s Gourmet Salsa www.renfrofoods.com
I rarely if ever eat salsa in a jar, but just the other day my favorite Mexican market salsa even disappointed, I mean you just can’t get great tomatoes right now, so maybe this put me in just the right mood to dig the Mrs. Renfro’s Ghost Pepper Salsa! Also the ghost pepper, who knew? in 2007 the Guinness Book of World Records confirmed that the Bhut Jolokia is the hottest pepper ever, not sure why or how they did this, but… It has a kick very unlike most jarred salsas which I often find so dull and boring… I am sure that their other salsas must be great as well, but I am literally going out to buy this very soon. I think that it would be fantastic on eggs.

Original Glop www.glopiton.com
A Parmesan cheese and olive oil concoction that is ideal for dollops atop a burger or cracker. Truly delicious and they also make some other fun sauces.

Bella Cucina www.bellacucina.com
Numerous beautiful dips and delicious light crackers and the most beautifully decorated stand in the entire show.

CHEESE & CRACKERS

Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board www.eatwisconsincheese.com
Definitely search out the American Cheese Society with a big presence from Wisconsin cheeses, my favorite was the Bleu Mont Dairy Co. Reserve, you could really taste the milk and the grass that the cows fed on in this cheese despite the long aging time.

Redwood Hill Farm www.redwoodhill.com
I am a huge fan of Redwood Hill Farm’s goat cheeses, especially Camellia and Cameo, although I am usually not so into goats cheeses. These still have the goaty flavor (which I enjoy) but without the dry chalkiness. The Cameo has peppercorns and lemon verbena laid on top of the cheese for added flavor.

Cypress Grove www.cypressgrovechevre.com
Although most bee-line for the Humboldt Fog, I am less of a fan of that but a huge fan of the Lamb Chopper, a firmer cheese with a great nutty texture. Just delicious.

Rustic Bakery www.rusticbakery.com
Some of the best crackers out there, and luckily I had to keep moving because I could eat their cheese coins all day long.

Mozzarella Company Dallas Texas www.mozzco.com
This company has a really nice Scamorza and offered a really unique pairing of their blue with a ginger snap, it’s more of a dessert cheese, soft and spreadable rather than crumbly. Very tasty.

Comte www.comte-usa.com
One of my favorite French cheeses from the Jura, really simple nutty and delicious. I love to chop it into bite sized pieces and take it on trips for snacking.

Karoun www.karouncheese.com
I have always been a fan of Karoun string cheese, especially with caraway seeds, but now they also have Yanni, a grillable that’s less salty than Haloumi. Really tasty and they are a local producer here in Northern California.

CHOCOLATE & CARAMEL
CC MADE Artisanal Caramel www.ccmade.com
These amazing caramels and caramel sauces are not to be missed! Try a cone of caramel corn in one of two flavors, Pistachio Caramel and Spiced Almond Caramel or the Bitter Sea Salt caramel. Cassandra Chen and I worked together at Jardiniere and so I am so happy to have a chance to once again taste her creations! She’s a foodie and really knows flavor, so as a fun exercise she has also paired her caramel sauces with unique salts. She was also kind enough to give me tips on her favorite products in the room! CC Made is in the New Product area.

Bissinger’s Handcrafted Chocolates www.bissingers.com
I got drawn into this huge booth by the Muscat grapes soaked in Shiraz and covered in chocolate, like a grown up Raisinette, and then by the Lemon Ginger Yuzu Gummy Bear, delicious. Then I saw it, “Apple Ghost Chile Caramel” and was extremely intrigued. I had up to this point never heard of ghost chile

Moonstruck Chocolate Co. www.moonstruckchocolate.com
Single Origin Chocolate Venezuelan 39% and 74% and Dominican Republic 72% Chef Julian Rose is Master Chocolatier and Director of Research and Development. Their catalogs they have some really fun truffle like critters, a Toffee Pig, and Extra Bittersweet Lamb. Fortunato No. 4 is a bar made from Pure Nacional cacao, thought to be extinct but found in a remote canyon in Peru and Moonstruck is the exclusive retailer in the US. They also have Chocolate Cafes if you find yourself in the Portland area.

Dufflet Small Indulgences www. dufflet.com
Caramel Crackle almond and pistachio salty crispy crunchy snack and other crispy bark type chocolate snacks. Very tasty!

Fearless Chocolate www.fearless.chocolate.com
Raw Organic Chocolate, San Francisco Bay Area based. I recommend the Super Seeds Crunch 70% Cacao

MEATS
Olli Salumeria www.ollisalumeria.com
Made by 4th Generation Italian Salumiere Olli Colmignoli these salames are made with pork from pasture bred pigs on sustainable farms. The Lomo and Coppa were particularly good, my last bite yesterday and I have planned that it will be my first bite today. They are located in the new products room and are well worth a visit!

La Quercia Genuine Artisan Cured Meats www.laquercia.us
Owned by Herb and Kathy Eckhouse La Quercia specializes in amazing organic charcuterie products hand made using high quality base products. All the meats are great, especially their Berkshire Heirloom Prosciutto (the first and only organic prosciutto currently available in the US) and a great thing is their packaging has biodegradable interleaving.

Hudson Valley Foie Gras www.hudsonvalleyfoiegras.com
Do not miss this booth! Foie gras, rillettes and charcuterie abound, and perhaps you can talk to them about how you can help defend your freedom to choose because foie gras becomes illegal in 2012, I guess it’s ok since the world will have ended and what not…

ASIAN PRODUCTS
Yamamotoyama www.yamamotoyama.com
I have always been a fan of Yamamotoyama’s teas, especially their packets of easy to mix iced Japanese green tea (great to drop into any water bottle while you are travelling and don’t have time to make a coffee in your hotel room!) Today I tried an amazing and fun product, SushiParty, a soy wrapper in multi color (Sesame, Pink, Spinach Green, Paprika Orange, Original and Turmeric Yellow) that is ideal for wrapping just about anything. Today I had it with a much welcomed salad, but it could be a godsend when I find myself trying to deal with a Thai style shrimp wrap or some such thing. All are non GMO and naturally colored.

Sushi Now Instant Miso Soups www.sushinow.com
I love miso soup but I get really irritated at those plastic bags that you end up disposing of after 1-2 servings, and they squirm around my cabinets and fall out every time I go in there, so I was excited to see these fun soups in a nice recyclable plastic jar, add as much or as little mix as you want to balance the flavor to your liking. The traditional was the best and they do a Vegan Sesame that is made without the bonito flakes subbing mushrooms.

OILS & DRESSINGS
McEvoy Ranch Olive Oil and Olive Products www.mcevoyranch.com
A long time favorite oil of mine, the oil is delicious and they also have a line of soaps and lotions called 80 Acres. after a long hard day of tasting and eating nothing is more relaxing than massaging your tired sampling fingers with some of the McEvoy olive oil based body butter infused with Lemon Verbena. http://www.mcevoyranch.com

La Tourangelle California Gourmet Oils www.latourangelle.com
There wasn’t quite the same crowd surrounding Preeti Mistry as there was around Guy Fieri and the Ace of Cakes dude, but her Thai Carrot Ginger Soup was delicious, and vegan. Preeti was a contestant on Top Chef Season 6 and used the La Tourangelle Thai Wok Oil in the soup. Their avocado oil was delicious as was the pumpkinseed. Their nut oils are all made using local Northern California nuts and of course they have a delicious white truffle which I like to use on popcorn.

Briannas Fine Salad Dressings www.briannassaladdressings.com
These gorgeous packages are a standard on the shelf, but I had never tasted their Rich Santa Fe Blend, a subtle blend of peppers, but not spicy it would make a delicious dressing or marinade and it contains not fat at all! Their new Classic Buttermilk Ranch is tangy and tasty and the Dijon Honey Mustard more at home as a dip than a dressing, sweet and rich.

WATERS AND SODAS
Hint Water www.drinkhint.com
I am a big fan of flavored waters without any added sugar, and Hint has absolutely no sugar at all, it’s one of my favorite beverages because it has zero calories. Their flavors tend towards fruit based items, it reminds me of Smart Water before they started in a different direction.

Ayala’s Herbal Water www.herbalwater.com
Very similar to Hint Water in that these have no sweetener or colorings, but they are as the title suggests based on herbal flavorings, there’s a really exciting range of flavors, and two are actually sparkling, but my favorites are Lemongrass Mint Vanilla, Lavender Mint, Cloves Cardamom Cinnamon (very fall like!) and Lemon Verbena Geranium. I appreciated that the vendor took me through a “flight” of the waters from lightest in intensity to fullest, just like wine, and some of the flavors are reminiscent of wines, the Lemon Verbena Geranium reminding me of Gewurztraminer. These could be really interesting in a cocktail. They are USDA Organic certified and the water comes from a spring in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Also has zero sugar, zero calories, zero preservatives and zero artificial ingredients.

12 Beverage www.twelvebeverage.com
I was inundated with “low calorie”, no added sugar soda type beverages, but one that really stood out was 12 Beverage. They make an absolutely delicious “white” beverage with notes of fennel and ginger. No wonder it actually tastes good it was designed by Alfred Portale and David Burke, two New York chefs. The flavor is very adult and reminiscent of wine but a great non-alcoholic alternative. Not overly sweet either.

Duchess of Rutland Botanicals www.belvoircastle.com
I don’t want to get you too excited because these are not yet imported, but they are delicious sodas lightly flavored and not too sweet! Elderflower & Rose and Raspberry & Lavender.

TEA
Steven Smith Teamaker www.smithtea.com
It’s amazing how many of the best products I tried came from Portland. This tea was really amazing and if you ask nicely they may let you try some of their cool tea infusions. First they take local fruits, such as marion berries, and infuse them in water, then they make tea with that water, so it gives a very subtle fruitiness to the beverage. They were really delicious.

Mighty Leaf www.mightyleaf.com
A long-time favorite of mine they have some great flavors and now make larger tea bags for steeping iced tea in bulk. I take this tea with me whenever I travel, you’d be amazed at how relaxing a Southwest flight becomes when you smell their Jasmine brewing in your cup of hot water rather than crappy airplane tea…

Tisano www.eastblufftrading.com
Tea made from chocolate, it had a really interesting slightly earthy flavor. They served it unsweetened and it reminded me of buckwheat tea, it’s made from the husks of the chocolate and is supposed to be very healthy. They also make fantastic chocolate coated nibs, Kakosi nibbles.

OTHER
Ecotensil www.ecotensil.net
A few purveyors were decidedly annoyed when rather than asking them about their product I asked them about the cool Ecotensil, a tiny strip of heavy coated paper that you bend into a spoon shape, brilliant idea and 100% biodegradable and/or recyclable! They break down faster than corn based spoons and take up less room when shipped!

WHERE TO GET A DRINK!

Despite the plethora of great food it was hard to find any alcoholic beverages, unless of course you head to the Mexico pavilion where a party was going on… The Beemster Cow was dancing for producers of vegan food and folks were enjoying some of the great tequilas and mezcales. Premium Mezcales had a great lineup of products www.premiummezcal.com including an extra aged Mezcal. While over there check out Amate tequilas www.amate.com including their Grand Mayan and Quinta Esencia Agave Nectar They make a dark agave nectar with more flavor than most. www.quintaesenciamx.com

Other ways to get your drink on, Tortuga Rum Cakes is now making a rum flavored turtle chocolate, in keeping with the name (tortuga of course means turtle in Spanish the name Columbus gave to the Cayman Islands, like the little turtle shells sunning on the shore) and they have a delicious rum soaked cake in multiple flavors. www.tortugarumcakes.com The Perfect Puree of Napa Valley www.perfectpuree.com was making cocktails with Jenni and Marko Karakasevic of Charbay yesterday and today with H Ehrmann from Elixir and Square One.

If you are at the show don’t forget to stop by Jelly Belly for some dog food flavored jelly beans (kidding, but I did taste them) and to check out their cool jelly bean artwork!





Italy Day Six: Montefalco and Bevagna Redux

30 05 2010

May 30, 2010

Today we were greeted for our tour of Montefalco by an amazing tour guide, Annalita Pollicchia.  To explain how amazing she was I would have to add that I am currently eating traditional cookies from her hometown of Bevagna and her mother’s bakery.  Despite the rivalry between the towns of Bevagna and Montefalco, Annalita was still very fair in representing both cities fairly and in fact we spent a bit more time in Montefalco than Bevagna.

Bevagna (the city we visited earlier in the week, home to the Nocineria and Bottega Assu, was the second town on the Flaminia Road built after Spello and as such is considered a Roman town while Montefalco, built later in the Middle Ages, is from that time period.  Annalita described Montefalco as the “Balcony of Umbria” and spectacular views can be seen from all angles along the ramparts of this walled in town.

We got to town around 10 and the museum opened around 10:30 (i.e. 10:45 Italian time, add 15 minutes) so we grabbed an espresso and sat in the town square (unusual for a town square since it is round!) to see what life is like in the town on a Sunday morning. In fact it was rather quiet, but the coffees were great (four espressos and a plate of Italian style cookies for less than 4 Euros).  Then off to the 14th century church of St. Francis (San Francesco) where you can see the amazing frescoes painted by Benozzo Gozzoli as well as the “Nativity” by Perugino.  Apparently this cycle of frescoes was comparable only to Assisi but contains twelve images only.  The colors of these frescoes are really amazing and some criticize their restoration saying that they cleaned them too much and that the green colors are exaggerated, but the impact is significant.  Gozzoli was painting these in a much different style than the frescoes painted at the Basilica of St. Francis and so the figures are much more attractive and often blond and fair skinned which was the trend at the time.  The museum that houses these gorgeous paintings also houses the ancient monk’s wine cellar with channels cut into the stone to catch the wine as it comes out of the presses and collect it into a trough.  We strolled through the medieval town noticing the incredible pride people have in their flower pots that surround the entryways of their homes.


Off it was to Bevagna, where the two Roman churches face each other across the square.  Bevagna was a border town between the empire and the papacy and as such there are thirty-five churches within the town walls.  While the population has grown to 5,000 the space within the town has not really expanded, so these churches have been reused as supermarkets and cinemas over the years.  The church of San Silvestro built in 1197 was consecrated at the time by an emperor, which was a challenge and an insult to the papacy, so they basically abandoned it and used it as storage.  This luckily means that it is in very good condition.  It also features very unique architecture thought to be brought by the Benedictines as they travelled on their pilgrimages.

The area of Bevagna is fortunate to be at the confluence of multiple rivers and was able to sell their production of hemp, eggs, and bricks to neighboring towns.  Within the town there is an amazing excavation of the Coliseum area.  This former stadium was in ancient times closed and divided and turned into what we would today call work lofts, craftsman’s shops on the ground floor and living quarters above where they were safer from attack.  We visited this Casa Medioevalle with our guide Annalita who helped restore one of these ancient work residences with a friend.  Amazingly they have recreated a water wheel machine that would have either pounded materials to make mortar, felt or paper or run a wheel that would grind flour or olive oil (here the machine does both just to show us, but this would not have been the case back then).  Upstairs you can visit a traditional Roman home where the kitchen it attached to the rest of the room in order to conserve heat.  Hearty stews were made with small pieces of lard that hung from the rafters, in fact everything was hung, meats, cheeses, etc.  Bedrooms were painted bright colors in the spring since throughout the whole winter they burned animal fats for warmth, you can imagine the smell, and most had tuberculosis so they actually had a tiny bed where they slept sitting upright in order to prevent suffocation.  These structures actually date back to the 2nd century AD, it was really interesting to try to imagine life back then.

After our tours it was off to a picnic at Arnaldo Caprai to celebrate the day of Cantine Aperte for Umbria (May 30, 2010)www.movimentoturismovinoit  The winery was bustling with lots of people there to taste and eat and overall the crowd was very young and seemed very excited to be there.  It apparently happens around Italy offering a chance for tasters to visit wineries for the day.  We enjoyed some amazing super fresh mozzarella, like Burrata, but small, super orange and sweet yet firm melon and some amazing prosciutto.  Lunch was of course a repeat of these items plus a pasta with tomato and chicken livers, super al dente in texture and delicious, then grilled local lamb and sausages from Bevagna, and Chianina beef.  We tried some of the experimental trials at the winery, a Syrah, Petit Verdot and Tannat, all 100% and all really amazing.  I was a real fan of the Petit Verdot which although tannic was really delicious and not as herbaceous as you might imagine.

Lunch was followed by a jaunt through the vineyards, and then some time spent relaxing and investigating the local style as we spent some time watching the attendees and enjoying some Grecante.   Arnaldo Caprai winery also hosted a jazz concert with Marco Marconi which was a great endcap to the day as the sun set behind us.  A quick saber of some Billecart Salmon by Marco and then our journey was basically, and sadly, over.  We had a quick bite in Foligno and an interesting beer (!) called 32 Audace and now it’s off to the airport for the grueling journey home.

Hotel Villa dei Platani Viale Mezzetti, 29- 06034 Foligno 39 0742 355839 f 39 3281654025

Bottega di Assu Via Gabriele Crescimbeni, 3- 06031 Bevagna, 39 0742 360059

Arnaldo Caprai Loc. Torre- 06036 Montefalco 39 0742 378802 http://www.arnaldocaprai.it, imported by Folio Fine Wine Partners http://www.foliowine.com

Transportation in Umbria: http://www.Autonoleggio-Umbria.it Gianni 347 3236404





Journey to Italy Day Five: Perugia, Assisi and Montefalco

30 05 2010

A leisurely morning was spent at the hotel before we embarked to Perugia and met up with a tour guide who showed us the local sights there.  Sylvia, our guide showed us the sites and commented on the town that benefited from their proximity to the Flaminia Road, a Roman road and major connector between the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Adriatic over the Apennine mountains.  A unique sight within the town is a gorgeous fountain with carvings that depict the daily life of man at the base of the fountain.  To represent each month of the year there is a carving showing the activities such as pruning vines and tending sheep along to more intellectual pursuits towards the end of the year.  The idea is that over the course of the year through daily life humans move from action to intellect and eventually to spiritual enlightenment represented by the more saintly beings at the next level of the fountain.   The town church is modest compared to richer towns, with only faux marble columns and their one relic is the ring said to be that given from Joseph to Mary.  The town was so lacking in relics back in the day that they tried to actually steal the bodies of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Clare, but were unsuccessful.  Apparently relics were vital as they were a source of tourism, so without them your town suffered.

Perugia was a source of some of the best painters in Italy as home to both Perugino, Raphael and Pinturrichio.  The history of the town is rather violent as f conflict between the popes and emperor creating a great deal of turmoil over its history.  One leading family of the town, the Baglioni.  The Baglione family lived in this town but opposed the pope and as such he destroyed the towers that housed their family.  In its place a fortress was built where he sent delegates to control the town, but of course the locals of Perugia hated this as it was an insult and eventually also destroyed most of the fortress and in the process destroying much of their history.  We were shown the ruins of the ancient town that lie under the Piazza Italia as well as the escape route these delegates would take to leave town.  The weirdest thing is that you reach these ruins through a series of escalators, it feels like you are going into the NY Subway, but you are surrounded by ancient stonework.  Nowadays this leads to the underground parking structure (weird!).  One of the folks in our group got her dress caught in the escalator and luckily survived unscathed, but we joked that maybe this was the miracle the town was waiting for and she should sell them the pink shroud of life as their new relic.  We left the town hearing nothing about the chocolates that are named for the town but someone did ask Sylvia about the “Baci” made by Perugino, she said that basically the Baci was a great marketing idea since they used to call the little chocolates “fists”.  Really?

Off we headed for a quick jaunt to Assisi.  I could have stayed in that town all day.  While it seems a bit touristy it was really amazing to see all the incredibly narrow streets running throughout the town.  Our van driver expertly navigated some really tight turns, I wouldn’t even drive a Smart car through this town, it was crazy tight.  We visited the main Roman square where columns of the Minerva temple still sit.  Built in about 100 BC this site has always been a religious site despite the fact that the religion changed over time.  The city of Assisi was a bit smarter than Perugia and never adversarial towards Rome, which means that much of it is preserved.  This square also housed the market and the old metal measures used for silk and bricks can be seen on the wall next to the temple.  Assisi is famous of course for St. Francis, and also St. Clare, and the whole town’s names really resonate to me considering I am so familiar with California and the names of cities inspired by these saints, San Francisco, Santa Clara and even Los Angeles named for the church where Assisi found his inspiration, Santa Maria dei Angeli.  St. Francis was born at the end of the 12th century to an upper class family.  He had an easy life and was given the benefits of education and financial comfort.  He determined that he wanted to go to war at the age of 19 but was captured and imprisoned and his father bailed him out.  Then he decided to follow the Crusades, but got ill not far from home and again had to regroup.  It was at this time that he discovered his path and decided to live by the Gospel.  He had the benefit of being able to address the nobles as well as all levels of society and received entree to talk with the Pope due to his status.  The Pope was being challenged by the Emperor at the time and so the new Franciscan movement that St. Francis proposed seemed like a good option so he actually gave it his blessing.  The tenets of the religion 1. Poverty 2. Chastity and 3. Obedience to the Church, the last two are the longer lasting ideals…  St. Francis was of course also famous for his respect for animals and the environment, he spoke to all creatures calling them all brothers and sisters.  The Basilica of St. Francis is pretty incredible.  The top story is where the public would attend mass, the next level down you find a more spiritual chapel and at the bottom level is the area in which St. Francis is interred.  You can make an offering an buy a candle to be burned at a later time.  It was really moving.  Amazing also to think that here is the birthplace of a religion that ultimately spread across the world and brought winemaking to California with the Franciscan missionaries.  While they were apparently from Spain they evolved from the teachings of St. Francis, and as our guide said, really a missionary has no home but the figurative home of the church.

Off we went to lunch at Hotel La Bastiglia in Spello, a gorgeous restaurant with an incredible view where we dined on a panzanella salad, fresh ricotta, free range pork prosciutto, herbed pecorino cheese and those were just the starters!  I am getting used to this.  These were of course followed by Tagliatelle with Chianina beef as well as a “mixed grill” of pork, beef and sausage.  Just when I thought I could take no more in comes a molten chocolate cake that was incredibly decadent with strawberry sorbet.  We also met Marco’s amazing family including Arnaldo Caprai, he seems ready to take over now…

A quick jaunt through our local town of Foligno and a 20 minute power nap and it was back to work at Arnaldo Caprai where Paolo Biccheri led through a tasting of Montefalco Rosso and Sagrantino de Montefalco from numerous local producers.  My highlights were Tabarrini and of course Arnaldo Caprai.  Then we tasted seven of the latest new wines from Arnaldo Caprai and were met with a gorgeous sunset over the vineyards while we discussed their latest clonal trials.  They are working both with the traditional propagation of Sagrantino as well as using seeds to breed new clones in order to get the best vine material possible.

We headed off to the gorgeous town of Montefalco as the bats were coming out and the sky was a deep indigo and were greeted by Sylvia Santificetur and her husband Achille, who just happen to be parents of Maria Assunta’s grandson, the couple we met at lunch the day before.  They own Spiritodivino, a gorgeous restaurant that has been getting incredible press lately http://www.spiritodivino.net.  It was another one of those nights when the food and company were so wonderful it was hard to take notes, but highlights were an artichoke served with cauliflower puree and a poached egg as well as a 1996 Sagrantino de Montefalco.

Now it’s off to Montefalco and back to Bevagna for a tour and then onto the winery where they are having an open house and concert!





Journey to Italy Day Four: Umbria

28 05 2010

May 28, 2010

After some early morning blogging we headed off to Umbria in our “van”, a quick hour and fifteen minutes or so and arrived at the Hotel Villa dei Platani in Foligno http://www.villadeiplatani.com/it/camere_en.php, a really beautiful villa on the outside with swanky and trendy room furnishings inside.  Just about as different as you can get from the Grand Hotel Villa Medici, you could tell right away by the fancy lamp and very different fruit plate.

After a quick email check we headed out to meet Marco Caprai, son of Arnaldo Caprai in the nearby town of Bevagna.  This quaint Roman town is said to be the unique due to the two churches built facing each other, the first unfinished.  When we were greeted by Marco Caprai he told use we were going to go on a quick walk to get an aperitif, which of course doesn’t sound too bad after a long trip, but imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered that this “aperitif” was pork based!  On the way I could not help but notice a gorgeous little bottega with photos of Frida Kahlo in the window, luckily I saw Marco greet the owner so I anticipated our return.

I could tell the minute I saw the Nocineria (place where they sell “carne suina”, i.e. pigs) that I would love it because of my love of everything swine…

We entered and our senses were overtaken by the rich smell of all the hanging meats.  I was of course in hog heaven.  We were treated by a selection of items, Pancetta made from a slab of the pig that is salted and then rolled and wrapped in paper and hung to age, Lonza, the loin of the animal, Ciauscolo which is a fattier sausage, Porchetta, and my all time favorite, a dry salsiccia aged with Montefalco wine that had a much harder and chewier consistency and incredible flavor.  Owner Rosita Cariani is a fourth generation producer of these products while her partner whose name I did not catch is only third generation, so basically it seems that she is the boss of the place.  They noticed how excited we all were to taste and so they sliced thinly some Coppa di Testa, basically a head cheese usually made in winter that includes all parts of the animal, the guanciale (cheeks), head, gelatin, etc. along with garlic, orange rind, lemon rind and nutmeg.  They were sure to come out and show us the type of garlic, red garlic, which seemed to be very important to the production of this product.  It had a melt in the mouth texture and was just delicious, I think the reason I haven’t enjoyed many head cheeses in the past is the chunky fatty globules that don’t seem quite appetizing, but this texture was just perfect.  We ended it off with a well-aged pecorino, a sheep’s milk cheese aged and rubbed with olive oil.  And of course we had to accompany this with some Arnaldo Caprai Grecante.  The reception at this wonderful Nocineria was so warm and friendly, with that the wine and cheese and these amazing meats I would have been happy to stay there all day.  They also sold fresh cuts of Chianina beef and the local specialty, lamb.  When we shook hands I could not help but notice and feel comforted by the super soft buttery feel of these hands that not only butcher, but craft such exquisite and time honored recipes.  I have always loved salumi, but lately in San Francisco it has seemed overdone, but now I really understand the passion that is imbued in those who have visited an authentic Nocineria and understand their quest to emulate such a place.  It was truly magical.  And I was so proud to be wearing the jacket from my friend Stephen Gerike of the National Pork Board that features his own farm’s logo, Boris Max.  If you visit the store is called “Da Tagliavento”, Gran Maestro di Salumeria, Corso Amendola, 15/a Bevagna.

coppa di testa

Sad to leave the Nocineria, we stepped out to find that school had just gotten out for lunch break and little children were walking through the town excited to go and join their families for lunch.  This town of about 5000 inhabitants still operates much like it did in ancient times, and it was refreshing to see that this culture is still strong in Italy.  We headed over to La Bottega di Assu, the restaurant I had seen on the way in.

Upon entering you immediately notice the organized chaos of the place.  It is tiny with only about maybe 10 seats at three tables.  We combined two tables and began to admire the charm of Maria Assunta, the proprietor (Assu is her nickname) and the incredible surroundings.  Marco explained that this spot is the place to be in town, famous for local Umbrian dishes, wines, but also sort of a mecca of culture.  Stacks and stacks of books line the shelves as they intermingle with the bottles.  Under the bar that hosts black truffles, bread and prosciutto you find boxes of pasta and ceramic ware.  And the left wall is covered with a scrapbook of photographs of Maria and her family, including the apple of her eye, her 9 month old grandson, who also made an appearance during lunch when his mother and father came in to help with the lunch rush (there are also four outdoor tables).  The eye darts from photo to photo and book to book while Maria carves some prosciutto and serves water, some Franciacorta and hearty wheat bread.  Those that have seen my house  and office will understand how comforting that type of controlled chaos is to me, but it is clear that everything also has its place.  When we asked about some of the photos of the family she grabbed a book, seemingly at random, and pulled out a photo of her mother in 1955, pregnant with her.  Then she ran off to continue to cook, and I carefully filed said photo back in the book and replaced it.  The tables are complete with flowers and colored pencils in case you get the urge to draw, which I did, and music fills the air.  We had a simple local specialty, basically bruschetta or grilled bread doused in olive oil and nothing else.  Marco explained that the locals did not use salt in their bread because the popes started taxing salt, so salt was very valuable and they saved it for the salumi (which I thought was very reasonable).  We enjoyed a very nice panzanella salad with fresh mozzarella, lots of olive oil, tomatoes, olives, red peppers and celery, and then Marco tempted (and dared?) us to have a “little” bit of pasta which we enjoyed with guanciale (cured pork cheeks, kind of like a fresher version of bacon).  Maria zipped around and expertly served the table, throwing in a few comments here and there and when I expect I looked like I was about to burst she jokingly wafted a plate that was headed outside in front of my nose, teasing that it was coming my way.  Her smile and vibrant personality was both infectious and addictive.  I really felt like I had walked into an Italian version of the movie Chocolat, she could have easily inspired such a story.  From her photos you can tell that she has a mischievous streak and the glimmer in her eye just shows her zeal for what she does.  Another amazing meal.  We enjoyed Marco Caprai Montefalco Rosso Riserva with lunch, and I was not taking notes so I do not even know what vintage it was.  I do know that we had about four bottles amongst seven of us (it was one of those the wine just keeps coming deals) and we left the lunch happy and fulfilled.  We chatted outside with a bunch of folks, some from Memphis, some from Pennsylvania, the gentleman had just run into a former student.  It was like this place had a magnetic vibe to it.  Just an amazing time.

So off we went, fat and happy, to Arnaldo Caprai.  Boasting a very slick tasting room the place has a stunning view.  We were treated to a tour of the vineyards where experiments are being conducted on various vine trellising systems.  Of course we then enjoyed a tasting of their wines.  Two whites, Anima Umbria Grechetto IGT 2009 and Grecante 2009, followed by a red Anima Umbria Rosso 2007 made from Sangiovese (85%) and Canaiolo (15%) before we were presented with the blockbusters.  Montefalco Rosso 2007 was a mix of 70% Sangiovese and 15% Sagrantino a really chewy rich wine with great balance but a large expression of concentrated fruit.  This was followed by the Montefalco Rosso Riserva 2005, super dense deep and earthy with gum gripping tannins but this was no match for the Sagrantino di Montefalco Collepiano and the Sagrantino di Montefalco 25 Anni.  These wines are MASSIVE.  Full of tannin that takes over your entire mouth and won’t let go.  Tasting them without food was tough but luckily later in the evening we had the chance to taste older vintages with dinner, only then can you truly understand the purpose of these wines that adeptly navigate the rich Umbrian cuisine.  We finished the tasting with Sagrantino di Montefalco Passito 2006, a dried grape wine that is really intense.  Both sweet and still very high in tannins I could not imagine what pairing would match it.  Marco suggested it was a little wine to “drink alone during the day.”  But he also suggested it was great with dessert.  I thought perhaps cheese and luckily he wanted to prove me wrong which he did by bringing out some 12 month old Pecorino and a 36 year old Parmeggiano (I was happy to admit my error in the pairing but the cheese was amazing.)  He said that cheesemonger has a limited number of molds so the cheese is very hard to get.

We finished up and after a quick nap at the hotel it was back to eating.  We arrived at the beautiful Villa Roncalli where chef Maria Louisa created an exceptional meal for us.  We drank the Arnaldo Caprai Nero Outsider, a lush expression of Pinot Noir with an amazing Chianina meatball with capers and shaved parmesan on super fresh lettuce.  Monkfish with tiny slivers of zucchini and fried squash blossoms with Arnaldo Caprai Montefalco Rosso Riserva 1998 was amazing, but the Farro soup with many drizzles of olive oil and ricotta ravioli stole the show along with the Arnaldo Caprai Sagrantino di Montefalco 1997.  This was where it became evident that although the soup was super rich the wine just lifted it and made the meal work.  Amazing that such a huge wine could be a delicate foil for a rich dish, but the tannins wafted away and you found that you could not help but drink the wine, food, wine, food, wine, bite, sip, bite, sip, the way it was intended.  Pigeon was served with a thick noodle and then a lamb (I got the shank) but by that time I was done.  Until of course we were presented with more Sagrantino di Montefalco passito with one of the best desserts I have ever had, pears delicately poached with a semolina type cobbler type thing on them sitting in a bed of zabbaglione served with what to me tasted like an eggnog type ice cream, no doubt just a rich egg base with some nutmeg.  And just like Marco said, it was incredible with the passito, amazing!  To top off the evening their dog came by to say goodnight and we retired back to the hotel where I slept like a log.

Today it’s off to Assisi, Perugia and Spello!