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!





Journey to Italy Day Three Continued: Florence

27 05 2010

May 27, 2010 continued

So despite a lack of sleep I managed to get up on time and head off to meet the rest of our group at breakfast at about 8am and then head along in a Mercedes Benz “van” if you could call it that to Chianti Rufina.  There is a lot of diversity within what the consumer may just know as “Chianti” and Chianti has very little to do with the fiasco, or the woven bottle that you would put a colorful candle into.  The wines of Chianti have always had renown, partially due to the fact that this Tuscan wine growing area is very close to Florence, a major area for banking and a traditionally wealthy city.  Chianti Classico, the original area and a separate DOCG, is just one of multiple Chianti regions, for example Chianti Colli Senese (the area near Siena), Chianti Fiorentini (on the hills near Florence) and Chianti Rufina, not to be confused with the brand named Ruffino which is a totally separate thing.  Maybe I am tired…  It’s really not that confusing, it’s just that each of these regions has different characteristics that make the wines taste different so they are kept separate, the concept the French call “terroir”.  We headed out to Rufina which was an easy 30 km drive northeast of Florence, to Castello di Nipozzano which passed hands in 1877 to the noble family of Frescobaldi when Angelo de Frescobaldi wed Leonia Albizi.

First we visited the famed estate vineyards that range in altitude from the Arno River at 250 meters in elevation to the crest of the hill at 500m.  Soils change as you get futher from the river with sand close to the river, ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon, calcareous clay mid-slope, great for Merlot and the famed soil of the area, galestro, a schistous compressed clay soil towards the higher elevations, ideal for the picky Sangiovese.

Sangiovese is a difficult grape to grow as many California producers have noticed, due to the fact that it has a lot of vigor, it grows and grows, so rocky soils with less nutrients are ideal for it.  These vineyards are at the foot of the Appenine Mountains that run down the spine of Italy from North to South offering cooling air at night to retain aromatics and finesse in the wines.  We met with winemaker Niccolo D’Afflitto at the vineyards and he also guided us through the cellar explaining how he keeps the pumpovers in the winery under close guard by keeping the system closed and only adding oxygen as needed to retain aromatics.  He said he does not ever want to walk into the winery and smell wine, he would rather save that beautiful smell for the consumer when they open the bottle to enjoy it!

We entered the villa and were met by Leonardo Frescobaldi, the President and tasted through the Mormoreto 2006, 2007 and barrel samples of the 2008 and 2009.  The wines are a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot which seems strange until you learn that these grapes were grown on the property for ages.  Due to unfavorable relations between the Frescobaldi family and the Medici some Frescobaldis left Italy for a time and spent time in France.  One of these ancestors was famed for bringing back these grapes in the 1850s along with some Pinot Noir and Chardonnay now planted in the neighboring area of Pomino.  The Colors of the wines were intense hues of magenta and just as Niccolo had suggested the aromatics were astonishing.  Aromas of mulberry, blackcurrant, resinous herbs jump from the glass and despite the Bordeaux varieties have no resemblance to Bordeaux.  Lifted by vibrant acidity and balanced in their oakiness (the Marchesi de Frescobaldi says “If you like vanilla go buy a vanilla ice cream”) these are wines great for a meal.

We left our wines to open up with some more air and took our “van” up to the nearby estate Castello di Pomino.  This area used to be connected to the Chianti Rufina appellation but has no resemblance to it in either soil or climate.  Way back in 1715 it was demarcated as significant wine growing area, and in 1983 was separated from Chianti Rufina.  The Frescobaldi family are the largest landowners and producers in the region, so it is almost a monopole.

The minute you start winding up the hills to reach this region (a mere 15 minutes from Nipozzano) you feel like you are in a different country.  Leonardo Frescobaldi joked with us to be sure we had our passports!  It really did feel more like an alpine region as pines and different vegetation became visible.  Vineyards here sit at higher elevation, 400-750 meters, so different vines are at home here.  It is named after apples, grown here on the gravelly, acidic soils.  Of course with the different microclimate the grapes grown are also distinct including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Moscato.

Most exciting for me was the Vin Santeria, or the room where Vin Santo is produced.  Here they take harvested Chardonnay and Trebbiano grape bunches and hang them from wooden rafters with hooks.  The grapes stay there for about three months, in the fall and winter and most importantly this room is up high and has windows that are opened to allow for breezes, always strong in Pomino, to dry the grapes and also prevent spoilage.  After pressing the juice is put into exile in barrels (Caratelli sigillati) 2/3 filled where it ferments slowly.  They close these barrels with wooden tops and try to forget about them for four or five years (they cannot reopen these to check on the wine.)  When they revisit the wine it has evolved into a coppery toned elixir that is sweet (180 g/l residual sugar) and luscious.  We tasted a Chardonnay that they oak and lees stir to produce Benefizio and also a Pinot Noir out of barrel that had a tart cherry nose and a concentrated core of fruit but was unique to Pinot Noir from other wine regions.

After visiting the newly restored chapel frescoes we jumped back into our “van” and zipped back to Nipozzano where we enjoyed lunch with Marchesi de Frescobaldi and Tiziana Frescobaldi Board Member and Director of Press Relations.  We enjoyed a ricotta puff pastry on a bed of spinach drizzled with pesto, which was perfect with the Pomino Benefizio 2007, Capellini pasta with a simple and delicious tomato basil sauce, with Nipozzano 2007 Chianti Rufina Riserva (90% Sangiovese with the traditional grapes completing the blend) and then a Gallentine en Pollo (stuffed chicken) with rosemary potatoes and cauliflower with Montesodi Riserva Chianti Rufina 2007 (100% Sangiovese).  We finished with an almond cake and Vin Santo.

After saying goodbye to the family we toured the old wine cellar where the family’s ration of wines are stored in anticipation of their use when they are born and then headed back to Florence.

Upon entering the hotel I was met with the effusive smell of jasmine, did a quick change into shorts and FitFlops and hit the city of Florence hard (I only had three hours).  I made a bee line to the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella at 16 Via della Scala www.smnovella.com.   Santa Maria Novella is one of the oldest pharmacies in the world founded by Dominican friars after 1221 who made medications from the herbs grown in their gardens.  Amazingly it has been open to the public since 1612.  For anyone that loves perfume and scent this place is mecca.  When you open the doors you enter a marble corridor and are immediately greeted by an intriguing mix of aromatic essences all of which mingle into a unique scent reminiscent of light top notes of fields of flowers but also incense and heavier aromas.  The main room is gorgeous and impossible to capture on film despite the numerous tourists who are there trying.  It seems almost sacrilege to try to photograph this ancient site and the filtered light gives a very serene calm to the place.  Three rooms house the wares, one for the edible items, one for the home fragrances and accessories and the main room for the essential oils and perfume.  Scent strips are available and you can peruse the list in multiple languages and ask to smell anything you wish.

After enjoying Santa Maria Novella I hoofed around in search of leather goods and found them over at the boar where you can rub its snout.  I ended up walking all the way to Santa Croce and then walked across the Arno on the Ponte Vecchio, focal point of the city, over to Palazzo Pitti and Santo Spirito and then back across and yes, back to Santa Maria Novella to revisit an aroma and ultimately back to the hotel.

Dinner was at Cibreo where we were treated like royalty (I guess that is what happens when the Frescobaldi family makes your reservation).  Waiters here have no written menu but sit with your table for consultation, many extra dishes were brought to taste.  We drank Luce della Vite, a more modern style wine coming from the Montalcino area  and 2005 Mormoreto.  Dishes were too numerous to mention but the highlights included pickled carrots and zucchini, a flan with meat sauce and parmesan, spicy tomato aspic, a minestrone with amberjack (a fish) that was killer, and my entrée, rabbit in a dark chocolate sauce with spices including cumin and raw hazelnuts.  The dish was so intriguing and made me think of mole from Mexico.  It was truly delicious and made me wonder how these cultures melding created this dish that son of owner Fabio Picchi said has been passed down through his family for generations.

Overall it was a great day, fueled by adrenaline and vibrant sights and smells I never even lagged.  I tried to write when I returned to the room, but fell into a happy slumber and awoke this morning at about 5:25 eager to write and hearing all the glorious birdsong that’s just a bit different than that in the US.  Stepping onto the balcony I got a strong waft of the just extinguished waxy smell of the citronella candles on the cool morning breeze, kind of a mix of summer picnics and church.

Today we leave Florence and head to Umbria.

Cibreo Ristorante Via A. Del Verrocchio, 8 r Florence 055 234 11 00

http://www.frescobaldi.it

Santa Maria Novella Via della Scala, 16, Firenze http://www.smnovella.com





Journey to Italy Day One, Two and Maybe Three

27 05 2010

May 25-26, 2010

Always one to cut things close, I decided that it would be no problem at all to roll three projects into one the last two weeks of May.  That’s not including a huge tasting of 115 Ribera del Duero wines earlier in the month and multiple other business such as the launch of the SF Chefs 2010 website and ticket sales and a few wine buff commitments.  Overall I knew I was making the month insane for myself but I can’t very often say no and surely I was not going to say no to a trip to Italy to visit Luce, Frescobaldi and Arnaldo Caprai.

So May 18 is really when my crazy journey began.  I packed two suitcases (more like lots of planning and then tossing everything into two bags and hoping for the best)  one which traveled with me and the other that my husband was going to exchange with me later in the week (Southwest doesn’t charge for two bags!  I flew Virgin America to LAX).  I flew into LAX where I picked up a rental car for my journey to the Inland Empire to judge the Los Angeles International Wine Competition (May 18-21), stay the weekend and run the Los Angeles International Spirits Competition (May 23-25).  Both were a blast and filled with lots of partying and great people, and luckily my husband helps me with spirits so I was able to see him again (and exchange bags) before heading off, same day as the end of the competition, to LAX for my flight to Munich/Florence.  I arrived at the airport at 4:30 for a 9 pm flight (way too early in my opinion) and was greeted by the fact that there is very little to do at LAX Int’l terminal.  Had a wedge salad and a beer at the Daily Grill, it was acceptable only because of the double power outlet next to me and a friendly waitress, but otherwise uneventful.  At least LAX has free wireless out there.  In true Chapa fashion more beers were had at the airport bar to allow for plane sleep.

I flew Lufthansa, suspiciously comfortable and easy despite the lack of seat pockets for my stuff.  I watched the Princess and the Frog (made me cry when the firefly died) with my meal, enjoyed some Nero d’Avola/Syrah and dozed off watching Up in the Air.  I found myself rudely awakened by a jerky guy who decided he wanted to wake up the plane by opening his window shade, but luckily another 45 minutes later they were serving breakfast (finished watching the movie, all movies are available at your leisure and can be stopped or fast forwarded which was cool) and we were almost there.  Despite my aisle seat and no neck pillow I awoke all chipper and happy, so of course there would need to be some type of crazy twist right?

Got to Munich, relatively easy deplaning and rechecking and then I walked into their gorgeous terminal complete with luxury cars on display and boutiques, Kiehls, Jo Malone and MAC right when you enter, got some free lotion to revive my dried out body and then went to the pharmacy where they had my favorite shower gel, Korres Basil Lemon, which I have been missing since I forgot to pack it a week ago.  Things were great, I grabbed a Weissbier (ya gotta when you are only in Germany for an hour.)  So things were clearly too good to be true.

My flight was completely cancelled due to equipment failure so they are routing me through Bologna and then taking me on a ground transfer to Florence.  Only adds another three or four hours to the trip, but at this point does that really matter?

I am trying not to let it get me and instead I am taking the opportunity to explore the airport.  Nothing like the smell of the duty free store to refresh you after a long trip, wish I had my perfume books on hand so I could do some investigating.  The good thing about this airport is they may not have wireless but they do have the Allianz Arena, a news lounge open to all passengers where you can visit news sites.  Although I couldn’t get onto my Earthlink webmail, but apparently they think that Facebook and Twitter qualify as “News”.  I was able to connect to my friends/family although at first it tried to bump me off.  The keyboard wasn’t so easy to type on with the y and z interchanged and so while they had Word Press too I opted to write this on my laptop instead.   The also bump you off after about 20 minutes, but there seem to be plenty of terminals.

Another great feature of this airport is multiple free coffee and tea stations!  Although I had vowed to wait until Italy for a coffee, I have to say that automatic machine makes a mean espresso macchiato, so despite the 14 hours of travel I am still relatively awake and hopeful that this is an adventure not a debaucle through Bologna.  See you in Firenze.

May 27, 2010 1:33 AM

Well I finally made it to Florence after more than 25 hours of travel.  I arrived in Bologna around 10:30 and had to wait about an hour for a bus to take us to Florence which took at least an hour.  Of course there was no one waiting so I had to grab a cab and get cash before I made it to my hotel, Grand Hotel Villa Medici, but luckily the hotel was still open (at about 1am) and very friendly and I came up to my room to find a delicious fruit bowl and a bottle of Frescobaldi Bubbles.  I quickly jumped into my bathing suit and ran down to the piscine (pool) and hopped into some pretty cold but invigorating water.  That along with the bubbles is washing all the worries of my travel away, but I have an early day tomorrow so I must crash ASAP.   Grand Hotel Villa Medici was a palace in the 1700s and now as part of SINA Fine Italian Hotels it meshes historical ambiance with contemporary comfort.





New York

1 03 2010

I moved to San Francisco back in 1996 and since then my visits to New York have been infrequent.  I occasionally visit my family who still live in Rye about 45 minutes north of Manhattan by train, but usually once I am there I am held captive by my mother who does not want to share me.  So the rare occasion when I can actually stay in Manhattan and experience the unique feel of what we call “The City” is a real treat.

Recently I visited New York on business and was happy to stay in my favorite hotel, The Hotel on Rivington.  I would have to say that this hotel is not for everyone, but if it suits your sensibilities then you will be a loyal follower and anywhere else will seem really substandard.  What I like about it most is that the rooms (not the bar mind you) are very comfortable and unpretentious.  The furnishings are sleek and modern and the all black bathrooms while a bit trendy offers comfortable elegance.  The beauty of the space is that each room is weirdly different.  I have stayed in rooms where the shower has a clear window facing what appear to be lawn chairs that are set up facing said window.  Upon checking in I noticed this and when I returned to the room that night there was a small party on that rooftop as guys waited for new check ins who were perhaps not as aware as I was (they do offer a privacy screen which I promptly called for.)

The Tempur-pedic mattress and amazing soft and simple white bed linens and fluffy down comforter and pillows captivate you from the minute you check in as a video of sheets being manipulated in many ways that plays behind the front desk.  The bed is just plain sexy, and incredibly comfortable, but be forewarned that sometimes you may not even realize someone is sleeping next to you when you get an elbow to the eye in the middle of the night (I unfortunately know from experience and the black eye from my husband’s elbow in the middle of the night, of course I had to attend a wedding that day).

The best part about the Rivington is that when you leave you are smack dab in the middle of one of New York’s most interesting neighborhoods, the Lower East Side.  This area was settled initially by multiple groups of immigrants and is known for being a hub for American Jews.  For a very long time it seemed separate from other city neighborhoods.  When I was living in Manhattan in the mid 90s no one really came here but now it is the enclave of the hip and young urbanites.  Still you see the local culture melding with the younger people and the amazing thing is that despite the influx of trendiness there is a cohesive style to the area.  Somehow it all works and you find that it’s a great melding of both sensibilities.  Additionally it’s easily accessible to the East Village, SOHO and other fun neighborhoods to visit.

At the Hotel you are steps from Lower East Side culture as you hit the Essex Street Market.  Half of the market stalls remind me of markets I have seen in Mexico, but maybe cleaner.  Just the utilitarian products you would get from unique vendors, a butcher, a fishmonger, a sundries store, it’s amazing to see the locals shopping here for their daily foodstuffs.  Within this group are a few cool foodie places.  Saxelby Cheesemonger, a bakery, Roni Sue’s chocolates (I bought the bacon tea lollipops), a cupcakery and the pinnacle of the market at the far end, Shopsins General Store.  With about 4 counter seats and three two-tops in the restaurant the place is tiny.  They also serve at three additional two-tops in the front of the store.  I must say that I was incredibly intimidated after reading all the yelps.

They call Kenny Shopsin the “real” soup nazi.  But having come from a restaurant background I understand his issues.  It comes down to supply and demand.  He has limited seats and he is putting out an incredibly large and intricate menu and no he doesn’t really need to serve people that bug him.  There are tons of people wanting to eat there, so…  The rules are simple.  Don’t be an asshole, don’t bring more than four people total, don’t be overly touristy, don’t use your cell phone, don’t mess with Kenny or his son, order politely and know what you want and don’t ask a lot of questions.  I had the macaroni and cheese pancakes, maple glazed bacon and an Orange Julius.  I went at 10 on a Thursday and it was quiet with regulars and a few touristy folks (and by touristy I mean NYers who’d never been before).  Kenny is not a man of small stature, and he sits in a chair by the front of the stand basically completely blocking the entrance so he can watch over the whole operation.  He was nice enough to me and when I left and said thanks he said thanks too.  He was chatting up his equipment guy.  There was another guy at the bar and they spoke about politics.  He talked a bit about suck and blow and the difference and there were a lot of F bombs thrown about from Zachary in the kitchen to his dad in the chair.  He said “Jesus Zack, you’re F-in’ going to get us an R rating here!” as two elderly New Yorkers sidled in to a deuce and grinned.  I heard the wife tell her husband, “Now you cannot list every thing on the menu, behave!”, to which he replied “But honey there are seventy-two soups!  Seventy-two soups!”  I cringed when she asked questions about eggs and bread options but server Luke was very polite.  It was sadly extremely uneventful, no tears, no one thrown out, I wanted to return to see they mayhem at lunchtime.  My Orange Julius arrived in an icy silver shake can with a super duper bendy straw that had extra bend to it, fancy!  And it was delicious, frothy and light.  Soon a plate of curled bacon atop some lettuce came sizzling hot followed by my Macaroni and Cheese pancakes, they looked orangey as a thin layer of orange cheese glistened but when you sliced into them the bottoms were like regular pancakes.  It was much more about the cheese pancake combo and the macaroni was in the middle and not really a player except to add girth to the cakes. The top part was lightly crispy like that edge on a grilled cheese that scoots out the side of the bread and the cakes incredibly soft served with both maple syrup and hot sauce.  A decent combo!  The bacon was a bit too hot at first as the maple was almost candied and stuck to my teeth and then they became crispy little rings of pork, almost like pork rinds but meatier.  Really good.  All of this was $25 (I got a half stack of pancakes).  I cannot stop thinking about the hundreds of other amazing options waiting to be discovered there and can’t wait to return.  http://shopsins.com/shopsiteyellow/shopsiemenu.pdf

There are multiple options for food in the area, and just exploring the surrounding streets filled with boutiques and cafes is great.  I recommend a jaunt through Little Italy and Chinatown as well and of course hit your favorite deli before you head home.

Other great places to go:

FOOD SHOPPING

Essex Street Market 120 Essex Street at Delancey: Multiple Vendors

Roni-Sue’s Chocolates: #24 Essex Street Market http://www.roni-sue.com

Maple/Bacon Lollipops with fresh brewed smoked tea, and maple syrup, Absinthe chocolates, Buttercrunch and Bacon Buttercrunch, Pig Candy (Chocolate covered bacon), BaCorn (Caramel popcorn with bacon bits and chile pinon nuts)

Katz’s Delicatessen of Houston Street, Inc.: 205 East Houston Street corner of Ludlow 212 254-2246 http://www.katzdeli.com

I picked up a huge Corned Beef on Rye for the flight home with extra pickles (two kinds, I preferred the bright green ones, the others I think were more pickled and had more dill) and the sandwich lasted a good way through my flight.  The overwhelming pickle odor was probably not welcomed by my seat mate but he was already well into four scotches and three beers, so I do not think he noticed.

Russ and Daughters: 179 East Houston Street http://www.russanddaughters.com

If you don’t drop in here to buy bagels for your friends and family then you are heartless.  The bagels are cheap and they even offer ice to keep the cream cheese cold.  I tried not to be tempted by all the kinds of smoked fishes, pickle barrels, amazing looking foods.  Next time I will go there first.

Kamwo Herbal Pharmacy: 211 Grand Street 212 966-6370 http://www.kamwo.com

While traipsing around Chinatown in the snow I stopped in as I saw the amazing jars of tea from the street.  This traditional Chinese pharmacy offers all sorts of curative products and a large selection of teas.  I was most intrigued by the rolled balls of flowering tea, add them to a clear tea pot or crystal wine glass with hot water and they unfold into beautiful “flowers”.

Economy Candy: 212 254-1531 108 Rivington Street http://www.economycandy.com

Remind yourself of all your childhood memories at Economy Candy.  Want candy corn in February?  They have it.  They also have Halvah by the pound, and my favorite, Albert’s Ice Cubes (it’s all about the texture with these soft chocolatey squares) and if you can’t go they sell online.

Ferrara Cafe: 195 Grand Street between Mulberry & Mott

I always thought how funny it is that Chinatown and Little Italy are so close together both in New York and San Francisco!  To get your fix for Italian style pastries to go or eat in head over to Ferrara.  I took a selection of cookies home including the filled apricot cookies dipped in chocolate and rainbow cookies.  Fun to snack on on the flight home.

Vosges Chocolates: 132 Spring Street between Greene & Wooster

If you find yourself in SOHO on a snowy day what better spot than Vosges for a fancy hot chocolate.  La Parisienne (classic), Aztec Elixir (ancho & chipotle chili, cinnamon and vanilla bean with dark chocolate) and Bianca (Australian lemon myrtle, vanilla powder, lavender and white chocolate).  Then drop in to browse one of the coolest stores on the planet, Evolution Science & Art: 120 Spring Street 212 343-1114 theevolutionstore.com full of interesting bones, bugs, butterflies and taxidermy.

RESTAURANTS

WD-50: 50 Clinton Street 212 477-2900

Lupita

Chef Wylie Dufresne is more than your average celebrity chef.  I have been to the restaurant three times, and each and every time he has been at the helm.  You can see him immediately upon entering the restaurant standing in the doorway of the open kitchen in the back.  Known for his molecular cuisine he rides the line between outrageous and innovative and I have found that he is able to keep grounded.  What I mean is that even though the flavor combinations and the way they are delivered are very unusual the actual dishes are tasty and satisfying.  I enjoy sitting at the bar, and actually decided to eat there alone this time.  In the middle of my meal I was actually really happy that I opted to do so as the food really requires some attention, although it would have been nice to try more things.  I started with an amazing cocktail crafted by barman Tona, called the Lupita.  It was Cazadores silver Tequila, green apple, green tabasco and yuzu, and I noticed him adding a splash of St. Germain elderflower liqueur.  It was really tasty and not overly spicy but definitely had a kick.  For starters I had “cuttlefish, cashew, root beer, watercress”, you will find that most of the menu descriptions are vague such as this, but every server, runner, bartender knows the food expertly and describes it to you in advance if you wish or when they deliver the item.  This was actually cubes of cuttlefish stacked with gelatinous cubes of root beer and dollops of watercress sauce.  I really enjoyed it, but the texture might not be for everyone (I love having Ika sushi, so it suited me even though it was not raw).  Tona knows wine as well as cocktails and suggested I have the Thurnhoff Goldmuskateller from Alto Adige and it was perfect.  Next course was “cold fried chicken, buttermilk-ricotta, tabasco, caviar” an extra sent to me from the tasting menu.  The chicken was wrapped in a breading and the buttermilk-ricotta seemed like potato on top with a tabasco syrup and salty caviar.  It was delicious.  I took another suggestion for the entree, the Kamoizumi Red Maple Sake 2 year namazume (18.5% alcohol mind you) to have with the “scallops, pine needle udon, grapefruit dashi, Chinese broccoli”.  At this point I was waxing poetic and wrote in my notebook, “The pine-infused noodles taste like Christmas, I love it!  It makes me wanna cry or is it being in New York with 18.5% sake and a tequila drink and a wine.  The noodles are everything I hoped they would be.  This dish fulfills all my holiday memories without all the requisite pulling out the tree, cooking, baking, lights, stress, family.”  Seriously delicious and how do you make something taste like pine without crossing the line into cleaning products.  Ah.  By that time I was stuffed, and opted out of dessert sadly (I have heard they are as incredible as the savory courses) but was served a ball of sweetened condensed milk frozen and rolled in chocolate shortbread and a cocoa packet.  It was a gelatinous cocoa packet that when you bit into it was filled with crunchy cocoa pieces.  I can’t wait to return.

Pine Infused Udon

Schiller’s Liquor Bar: 131 Rivington Street 212 260-4555 http://www.schillersny.com

I arrived in Manhattan at 12:30 on a Sunday night panicking that there would be nothing to eat, but multiple restaurants in the area were open according to Yelp.  I still didn’t believe them and ran over to Schiller’s expecting to have to beg for food, but when I arrived it was bustling.  I had a hangar steak with Bearnaise sauce.  They have a great way to promote the wine selections,  1-Cheap, 2-Decent, 3-Good and the selections were great, but I had a beer.  It has a comfortable atmosphere and tasty food.

Il Buco: 47 Bond Street http://www.ilbuco.com

I took my friend here and she thought I was taking her on a wild goose chase as we passed all the Bowery restaurant supply stores with piles of old restaurant sinks and such lining the sidewalks.  Even as you approach the restaurant door it seems sketchy and then you are transported into the most gorgeous room.  It feels as if you just walked right into Nonna’s kitchen in the old country.  Farmhouse tables, chairs, mismatched and set in groupings that are not quite traditional.  We had the charcuterie and some amazing rose.  She ordered the Porchetta panini with fennel pollen, come to think of I forgot to taste it because I was so enamored by my gnocchi with lemon butter, and a chiffonade of mint and brussels sprouts.  A great way to prep for an eight hour meeting.

DBGB Kitchen & Bar: 299 Bowery 212 933-5300

Great bar scene and a beautiful dining room.  I haven’t explored the extensive sausage menu, but the food is great and they have an incredible selection of beers including one of my favorites, Hitachino Nest White Beer from Japan on tap.  Seasonal beer offerings are fun as well.

Bar Boulud: 212 595-0303 1900 Broadway at 63rd

If you must be uptown this is a great place to go.  Amazing food, a great prix fixe menu at lunch time, great wines, friendly service.  All that you could hope for.  I had a “juicy” ladies lunch here, so my notes are sketchy but it was great.  The pork rillettes were my favorite.

pork rillettes Bar Boulud

Rayuela: 165 Allen Street 212 253-8840 http://www.rayuelanyc.com

Great dinner here including cocktails by famed bar chef Junior Merino.  My entree was incredibly memorable, a corn arepa with duck.  Really amazing.

Mercer Kitchen: The Mercer Hotel, 99 Prince Street

After shopping in SOHO hit this trendy and classy restaurant at the Mercer Hotel.  Great food and great selection of wines from the Jean-Georges group Wine Director Bernie Sun.

Spitzer’s Ludlow & Rivington Corner 212 228-0027

Lots of great beers, friendly staff, comfortable bathrooms.  Great beer descriptions and friendly staff will find you your new favorite beer.  I discovered Ithaca Flower Power IPA (8%), I tried it because of the Ithaca/Cornell connection and it was delicious!  Kindly they list the alcohol percentage to prevent you from a hangover, the Samiclaus is 14% whereas the Hitachino a mere 5%.

Pegu Club: 77 West Houston Street

Possibly my favorite Manhattan cocktail bar.  Try the Earl Grey-tini.

Flatiron: 37 West 19th Street 212 727-7741 flatironlounge.com

Ok, my second favorite Manhattan cocktail bar, with ties to Pegu.  Creative drinks but be careful, some pack quite a punch.

The Summit: 133 Avenue C

Really friendly vibe without any attitude.  My friend who is not in the industry suggested we hit this relatively new spot before going to Sing Sing for karaoke (in a room, just the two of us, for THREE hours, does that reflect on how good the drinks were?  Perhaps.)  I was comforted at once when I saw Jill DeGroff’s book on the backbar and even more encouraged when I heard the clink of Kold-Draft ice in the glass.  He had the She Loves Mei She Love Mei Not (Barsol Pisco, muddled edible Ecuadorian rose petals, Szechuan peppercorn infused agave, fresh lemon, egg white) which was delicious and I had the Shu Jam Fizz (DH Krahn gin, apricot jam, fennel infused agave, peach bitters, fresh lemon, soda) which was AMAZING.  We noticed that each drink had an interesting and sometimes seemingly strange ingredient, but they clearly know what they are doing.





Nantucket Off Season

20 11 2009

bclosedI lived on Nantucket for two full summers, the last of which I stayed well into the fall.  I loved Nantucket in the fall, the golden leaves, the quiet beaches, the subdued nature of town.  But with the fall came perils, for example, almost daily I’d need to run down to the ferry to say goodbye to yet another comrade headed off island for the winter.  Restaurants grew slim as they pared down their hours, and worst of all I had to stop ordering Guinness.  It just took too long to pour and settle and soon I’d often find myself surrounded by a crowd of lusty but otherwise harmless scallopers.

I guess those fond memories inspired me to retreat once again to Nantucket in the fall.  Some folks we encountered were confused as to why we would want to visit when then weather was turning cold and grey, but it was sublime.

Nantucket is an island about 30 miles off the coast of Cape Cod in Massachussetts.  Known for a lucrative whaling industry, today the island remains a proud testament to tradition.  It’s cobblestone streets are mostly unchanged, and save for a Cumberland Farms and a Ralph Lauren outpost, most chain stores are shunned.  No stop lights and staunch dedication towards a traditional architecture means that most buildings look identical in their weathered grey shingles.  Nantucket looks pretty much like it did back in the day.  During the peak season (July and August) the town swells with visitors, but quickly the summer crowds and workers dissipate allowing one to appreciate a pristine and windswept vista in the late fall.  While late October can supply some pleasant Indian summer type days, by November the island gets colder and damper, but more serene.  Beach days become blustery rather than sunny.  Town is mostly shut down, few restaurants are open and those that are have limited hours, often seemingly determined by the whim of the owner on any given day.  Stores are open sporadically but the upside is the incredible sales, it seems the whole island is a bargain with room rates plunging and most retailers offering 20% on current issue items, but 50-75% on summer wares.

My husband and I headed out to the island by plane, a quicker and easier ride than the ferry since we flew east into Boston.  Off season can mean discounted rooms and a few of the larger hotels are really peaceful during this season.  The White Elephant is a quick but chilly walk to town near Brant Point.  Additionally they have just started renting their gorgeous White Elephant Hotel Residences which are available through December 6, 2009.  These are multi room apartments are outfitted beautifully and offer amenities including remote controlled fireplaces, kitchens with panini makers, wine cellars, amazing bathtubs, blue-ray, pretty much everything you need to enjoy Nantucket as if you lived there, also right in the heart of town.  Their Brant Point Grill stays open for most of the fall season and offers great food, but be sure to check exact dates.

Nantucket Christmas Stroll is another great time to visit but room rates bump up a bit due to the increased visitors.  It’s dreamy walking the streets decked out for the holidays and makes you think you have stepped back in time.  This year Christmas Stroll is scheduled for December 4 and 5, 2009.

Overall the island is always an amazing place to visit, but if you want to maximize your dollar and enjoy it without the mass of summer visitors and day-trippers then off-season is the way to go.

White Elephant Hotel Residences

http://www.whiteelephanthotelresidences.com/

View from The White Elephant

American Season’s Restaurant

80 Centre Street: Amazing.  The food is amazing.  I do not know what else to say!  The seasonal menu changes often and is uniquely not divided by appetizer/entree but rather by region into Pacific Coast, New England and Down South featuring dishes inspired by each region.  Lots of game and they also offer specials, and if the charcuterie is an option when you go do not miss it.  http://www.americanseasons.com/

Black-Eyed Susan’s

10 India Street: This small diner style spot offers some of the most amazing breakfast dishes.  I was incredibly fond of Susan’s grits, a small dish arrives making you wonder if it will be enough but the delectable combination of grits, ranchero sauce, cheese and hollandaise is just right, rich and delicious.  The Portuguese scramble with spinach, garlic and linguica is also a winner, hearty and delicious.  They are open for dinner too!  http://www.black-eyedsusans.com/

Easy Street Restaurant

Easy Street & Steamboat Wharf:  In all the years I visited Nantucket, it was not until this year that I stepped foot inside Easy Street Restaurant.  It always seemed a shame that such a convenient location had what was reputed to be sub-average food, but things have changed!  New ownership brings great food to a comfortable and convenient location.  We skipped the Lobster Trap this trip for a more reasonable New England Lobster Boil here.  For $20 you get a 1 and 1/4 lb. lobster, perfectly steamed, with drawn butter, Yukon gold potatoes and corn on the cob.  Wash it down with one of their selection of Oktoberfest beers and it’s heavenly.  Also do not miss the chowder, one of the best we had, as well as the  ridiculously priced 50 cent chicken wings.  I was frightened by the price but had to try them and they were deliciously crispy and seasoned well, quite a bargain really!  http://www.easystreetnantucket.com/

downeyDowney Flake

18 Sparks Avenue: If you want to see where the locals eat stop by the Downey Flake for a donut, breakfast and some coffee.  Owned by my friends and former managers from the Brotherhood of Thieves back in the day, Mark Hogan and Susan Tate offer truly reasonable fare at a great price.  The diner atmosphere is kitschy but its worth a trip and you can eavesdrop on how the scallop harvest is going.

LO LA 41

15 Beach Street:  The longitude/latitude coordinates of Nantucket this hot spot makes you feel as if you could be in SoHo.  Offering great Asian inspired food and a huge selection of sake and wine by the glass the atmosphere is chic without being pretentious.  http://www.lola41.net/inner.html

The Brotherhood of Thieves

23 Broad Street:  Although its not the same as I remember it, a visit to the island would not be complete without visiting the Brotherhood.  Although the food is lackluster, the curly fries are still good.  Similarly lacking is the extensive frozen drink selection I remember, but have a seat at the bar, grab a chowder and some fries and a beer and enjoy the dark wood and comfortable cozy atmosphere on a cold day.

Things to Do

Whaling Museum

A trip to Nantucket would not be complete without a trip to the Whaling Museum.  The forty-six foot skeleton of a sperm whale washed ashore on island on New Year’s Day and the gorgeous 1849 Fresnel Lens from the Sankaty Head Lighthouse are worth the visit alone.  Off season expect fun informative talks on topics such as the cranberry harvest presented by island locals.  They have a great gift shop too.  http://nha.org/sites/index.html

Drive out to Great Point

Rent a four wheel drive vehicle with an Oversand Vehicle Permit, deflate your tires and drive through the sand onto Great Point.  Off season you may see some locals fishing, or you may not see anyone the whole time.  We saw deer and a pod of about 30 seals dining at the rip of the point.  They peered over at us curiously and bobbed around in the water.

Visit Nantucket Vineyard, Triple Eight Distillery and Cisco Brewers

Sadly we heard that Cisco Brewers moved most of their brewing off island due to increased demand (always the dilemma, so successful that they cannot do it locally anymore), but that doesn’t make their beer less good.  A visit to the distillery/brewery/winery is always fun with sampling and tasting and sale of all their products.  Try to get some Pumple Drunkin Spiced Ale while it lasts, but for everyday I love the Whale’s Tale Pale Ale.  http://www.ciscobrewers.com/

Shopping

Nantucket Natural Oils (The Fragrance Bar)

5 Centre Street:  Maybe it is because I am a wine geek obsessed with the sense of smell, but I can’t help but gravitate immediately to Nantucket Natural Oils when I hit the island.  John Harding, the proprietor, crafts fragrances to rival those of the major perfume houses, but this is no infomercial “If you like Giorgio you’ll love X” type of place.  What is most special about the spot is the fact that all the products are made from 100% pure oil, rather than diluted with 80-94% alcohol and water like normal scents.  This means that they last longer on your skin AND in the bottle.  It is also a godsend for those that have encountered allergic reactions or professions where fragrance is shunned.  While I would refrain from wearing this to a wine tasting, Harding has first hand knowledge that nurses can even wear these essences without negatively affecting the hospital environment.  I know first hand that these oils do last.  I had a perfume made by Harding in Spring of 1995 which I wore all the time, I still had a half vial left when I inadvertently left the cap off and it seeped into my makeup pouch.  Luckily Harding has a system that remembers  each and every purchase so he was able to recreate this mix of Calyx with an addition of vanilla for me, now appropriately named Spring of ’95.  Whether it is for a custom blend or for a designer fragrance or aromatherapy mix this shop is not to be missed. Harding and his expert staff are happy to let you sample and smell to your heart’s content.  This year I bought some ambergris, an aromatic that comes from the regurgitant of whales after it has festered for years on the open ocean.  How appropriate for Nantucket right?  If you can’t make it to Nantucket you can find them online too!  Until November 20, 2009 they are having a buy one get one half off sale on fragrances, so buy some for yourself and a friend for the holidays.  https://nantucketnaturaloils.com/

Nantucket Bookworks

25 Broad Street: Borders and Barnes & Noble got you down?  This is the perfect remedy.  The Bookworks offers a great selection, great staff recommendations and even a pile of free books sometimes!  They also have a great selection of paper goods, toys, and tchotchkes.  Open seven days a week year round and often open as late as 10pm!  Great place to shop after your beer at the Broho (Brotherhood) nextdoor http://www.nantucketbookworks.com/

Cold Noses

Straight Wharf: A great spot to pick up a squeaky lobster for your furry friend.

Best of the Beach

Straight Wharf: Feels like summer all year long in this bright and airy shop featuring great pajamas, pretty housewares and aromatic candles.

Vis a Vis

34 Main Street: A very nice clothing boutique although not for the weak of wallet

The Hub

31 Main Street: A magazine and candy shop that also features gifts and postcards, the sign outside is where islanders share information about day to day activities.  Here’s where to find a winter rental, babysitter, carpenter, etc.

Nantucket Looms

16 Federal Street: Handcrafted items galore, gorgeous hooked rugs and weavings.

Nantucket Carving & Folk Art

167 Orange Street: Quarterboards, signs and amazing antiques out near the airport http://www.nantucketcarvingandfolkart.com/

The Sunken Ship

12 Broad Street: Although this corner is slightly desolate when the season is over and the Juice Bar is shuttered, the Sunken Ship is still a treasure trove for typical souvenirs, toys, and flags.   Always fun to browse.  http://www.sunkenship.com/

Epernay

1N Beach Street: Especially if you need to stock up your White Elephant Residences fridge you can drop into this cute shop only half a block away to see what they have available.  Selections are diverse and fun and reasonably priced.  You might find Amber Cantella holding free wine tastings at local restaurants like the Boarding House so you can try before you buy!  http://www.epernaywines.com/

Murray’s Toggery Shop

62 Main Street: The classic stop to buy Nantucket Reds paraphernalia.  “Reds” are a type of denim like fabric dyed a particular pink shade that fades to a gorgeous coral color and soft texture when washed multiple times.  Or of course the prepster in you may opt for the lobster pants.  http://www.nantucketreds.com/

Nobby Clothes Shop

17 Main Street: Need foul weather gear?  If there’s a Nor’easter on the way this is the place to go.  A great collection of Carhartt gear and everything you need to look like a scalloper.  http://www.nobbyshop.com/

Current Vintage Clothing Wine Home

4 Easy Street: If your significant other is sick of you shopping for clothes then come here and they can shop for wine at the same time.  They have an amazing selection of lesser known cult wines including Scholium Project!  Pretty cool to see that someone here knows what they’re doing.  http://www.currentvintage.com/





Napa Harvest

12 10 2009

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Napa Valley in the heat of harvest is something very special.  The last few weeks I have been spending some time in the valley, for the Staglin Music Festival for Mental Health, and classes for the National Pork Board and last week for Mastering Wine I at the Culinary Institute of America Greystone in St. Helena at the northern end of the Napa Valley.  The valley is absolutely bustling with the excitement of harvest and grapes are not the only thing being harvested!

While fermentations simmer and the threat of a big storm in the Bay Area looms, the last few weeks have been balmy and downright cool, a very unusual harvest, but as I reported to my class last week, it really seems that the grapes know what is best and man just has to be paying enough attention to do the right thing.  I remember being awakened on the day of the Staglin Benefit for Mental Health to the sound of thunder (my WORD!) and raindrops, so unusual for the valley.  I had heard that veraison (the point at which grapes begin to turn color and ripen) had been early, but this was truly unique, to have an overcast cool day for this event had not happened in the nine years I had worked it.  Overall the season was cool and in the last week I heard from many vintners that Brix levels (level of sugar at harvest) are lower than normal but with exceptional maturity.  This means lower alcohols with just as much flavor!  (to read more about why go to http://www.winebusiness.com/wbm/?go=getArticle&dataId=17093)  It just goes to show that sometimes the vines have forewarning as to when they should get their fruit ripe and hunker down for winter.  From what I hear many were spooked by the storm warning predicted for Tuesday and have harvested.  For Twitter updates head to @NVGrapegrowers to find out who is harvesting.

But Napa Harvest is not just about grapes!  One of my favorite things to do whenever I am in the valley is to hit the LMR Rutherford Gardens.  Operated by Long Meadow Ranch they are a produce pavilion right in the heart of Rutherford, across the way from Grgich Hills Winery on Highway 29.  While known for great wine and free-range beef the bounty at the gardens is the produce, and although summer is high-season, I love their fall offerings.  They have a newsletter that you can sign up for if you are interested in knowing what is in season in advance, but I prefer to be surprised!  Recently they had amazing nobby potatoes, five varieties of garlic, zucchini, an abundance peppers and possibly the last of amazing heirloom tomatoes.  If you hit the stand at just the right time you may be able to get some eggs!  I was lucky recently and grabbed a set of pullets, small sized eggs, in pastel colors that would put any Easter basket to shame.  And they were $5 a dozen and delicious!  Plus Long Meadow Ranch makes great wine!  They also offer jeep tours of their vineyards and cattle ranches!

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Further down valley I make another stop as I turn towards Sonoma onto 121 headed back to San Francisco, Stanly Lane Marketplace.  This country store has amazing coffee, they do a fabulous iced Americano that almost lasts until I drive over the Golden Gate Bridge.  They offer some foods and seasonal crafts from local artisans including adorable gourd art for Halloween.  Its a fun way to break up the drive.  They also sell used barrels and if you are lucky staves and barrel tops, which I am fond of (I make them into lazy susans).  In the same parking lot they have a farm stand offering produce from many Bay Area farms, and are nice enough to specify the origin of every piece of produce on its sign.  In the height of summer they usually have Brentwood corn and nice heirlooms, peaches and nectarines in season.  My favorite time of the year, though, is when they create their incredible field of pumpkins for Halloween.  It is awash in oranges but they also stock multiple heirloom squashes in an array of untraditional shapes and colors, at much cheaper prices than most markets.  Plentiful wheelbarrows are available for rides for the kids and the pumpkins.  Pigs are on view carousing over smashed gourds for the kids to watch (and smell).  This year I was super excited to see that they added a corn and sunflower maze to the scene.  At five o’clock as the sun was exhibiting a much different angle in the sky than usual, it really made it feel like fall.  Hurry!  These places shut down seasonally!

LMR Rutherford Gardens 1796 So. St. Helena Highway Rutherford  http://www.longmeadowranch.com/Gardens/Rutherford-Gardens

Stanly Lane Marketplace 3100 Golden Gate Drive Napa, at the corner of Stanly Lane and Hwy 121/12, Napa 707 253-7512

D&S Produce Stanly Lane Pumpkin Patch, at the corner of Stanly Lane and Hwy 121/12, Napa 707 480-4479

Wednesday, Thursday and Friday 10-6pm, Saturday and Sunday 9-5pm

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Vermouth? Really?

10 12 2008
Most folks see vermouth as that dusty bottle on the back bar that bartenders pretend to add to their martini, but vermouth has been totally underestimated! Vermouth is an aromatized wine, a lightly fortified wine with added botanicals. It can be either red or white.  The recipe is closely guarded by each vermouth producer, the formula for Martini & Rossi dates back to 1863 and there are as many as forty botanicals in each of their vermouth styles.  Martini & Rossi also does not pasteurize their vermouth, but only lightly filters it.  Martini & Rossi is also well known for its Asti Spumante, a charmat method sparkling wine from the town of Asti in Piedmont.  Made from Moscato and at about 7.5% alcohol it’s a lively floral white sparkler. 

My first wine trip was in fall of 1993.  I was just out of college and was fortunate enough to be invited on a trip to Piedmont by Carlo Petrini and Slow Food.  This was before most of us even knew of the Slow Food movement.  We were extremely lucky, the ten of us, as we had the chance to visit multiple producers and basically live in Piedmont for 21 days.  It was towards the end of our trip when we were told we were going to go to Martini & Rossi, producer of Asti Spumate and Vermouth.  Now I had heard of Martini & Rossi before, seen it on bars all over the place, and I have to admit I was a bit jaded by this point in the trip.  We had tasted unbelievable Barolos and Barbarescos from Ceretto, Chiarlo, Vietti, and many many more.  We had had dinner with Angelo Gaja, who said “The women will sit next to ME!”  We had been wined and dined and had eaten more meat braised in wine than anyone could imagine.  Brats that we were, we were tired and irritated to have to drive out of our comfort zone for this visit.

We couldn’t have been more wrong, and man was I humbled.  The property was exceptional.  They had an amazing wine museum, but best of all, before we knew what was happening, we were ushered in to a wood paneled room complete with a full bar.  Before our eyes appeared aperitifs, and one of these was vermouth.  Vermouth both red and white, can be a delicious start to a meal.  The pleasant bitterness piques the palate and prepares it for food.  We were immediately put in a better mood and became much more comfortable after sipping these drinks.  Then we were escorted into a gorgeous dining room where we were served the most incredible Fontina cheese soup, called Fonduta.  It was covered in white truffles and ladled into our bowls from a large tureen.  As I gawked at the many white truffles floating in my bowl out of nowhere appeared a gentleman with white gloves and epaulettes who proceeded to shave MORE white truffle into my bowl.  I waited an embarassingly long time until I realized that he would continue shaving until I asked him to stop, so, somewhat reluctantly, I asked him to cease shaving.  After lunch and a delicious Bricco del Uccelone Barbera, they served us one of the most ethereal wines on earth, Asti Spumante.  While we had tried many Moscato d’Asti along our route, a less bubbly version, this was my first real Asti Spumante.  The effusive aromas of white grapes and flowers filled the glass and the low alcohol enabled us to drink it very easily.  The fully sparkling nature of the wine again cleansed our palates.  Just when we thought it was all over, another door opened and we were brought back to the bar/study to relax with Port and after lunch drinks.  

The lesson learned was that sometimes what may seem at first mundane can be extremely pleasurable in the proper context.  The experience taught me to be humble in everything I do and to refrain from generalizations or assumptions that are unmerited.  So I urge you to go and toast humility with a Martini & Rossi Vermouth or their Asti Spumante, and remember how wonderful they can be.

Martini & Rossi Rosso with Orange

In a rocks glass pour some Martini and Rossi Rosso and add a splash of Orange Juice.  Seems simple, and it is, but it’s extremely refreshing and gets the palate excited for food.  For the holidays try variations such as adding some nutmeg, orange peel or spices.

Martini & Rossi Celebrity Crush

I tasted this at the Martini & Rossi Andy Warhol Martini Factory Party at Tales of the Cocktail.  1 & 1/2 parts Martini & Rossi Rosso vermouth, 2 parts cranberry juice, 3/4 part simple syrup, 6 raspberries, 12 fresh rosemary needles.  Muddle raspberry, rosemary and syrup in a shaker, add ice, vermouth and cranberry juice, shake and strain into a cocktail glass, garnish with rosemary sprig skewer with raspberries.