June 13, 2013 § 1 Comment
Regional cuisine is a concept that should be no surprise to anyone; after all, food (like humans, animals and microbiota) is as unique as the place that it came from. Globally, food cultures exist by region, state, city, neighborhood and family. In October I was lucky enough to serve as an International Delegate at Slow Food International’s biannual Terra Madre conference held in Turin, Italy. Like the United States, and virtually everywhere else on earth, Italy’s regional cuisine varies based on geography.
Terra Madre, a food-centric celebration with over one hundred-thirty countries, was insane; the entire experience a revelation. It was there that the concept of eating traditional foods – that are whole, nourishing, adhere to cultural culinary practices and that protect and restore communities and their surrounding environments – really began to resonate with me.
Rich cured meats, pungent fermented cheeses, smoked fish, organ pates, heirloom vegetables, saccharine desserts and glutenous breads are just a few nourishing traditions I encountered. With Terra Madre comes Salone del Gusto. Salone del Gusto is a concentration of Italian regional specialties spread throughout a refurbished Fiat factory in Turin. Below you’ll see two men carrying a heavily marbled cured specimen (possibly salami or bresaola) spanning at least fifteen-feet. I’m convinced that one must be in Italy to see such a sight. Along with the cured meets, Italian desserts populated nearly every region represented at the gathering. Rhode Island (my home) has a robust Italian population, much of which inhabits our capital city’s gem, Federal Hill, the home of exceptional Italian food. I’ve tasted some delicious cannoli, a Silician pastry, but never anything like the little tubes of sheep’s milk ricotta that I tried at Salone del Gusto. Between constructive workshops and meetings, a handful of delegates explored Alba’s annual white truffle festival. While in Alba we were submerged in the slow food culture that makes Italy so appealing . At a humble market nestled between the town’s church and several cafes we bought some of the highest quality food I’ve ever tasted and sat in the piazza enjoying our findings.
Terra Madre was a clash of all things culturally relevant; traditions, environment, family, religion, livelihood, art and education. And, it’s especially important to note that food was the conduit that connected such diverse people from every corner of the earth.Only through Slow Food. Sometimes I miss the important things because I’m rushing off to accomplish something else. Sound familiar? If so let food act as the anchor that grounds you, that slows you down. As you grow, prepare, cook and share food realize, as I did at Terra Madre, that food not only nourishes our cells, but also feeds our soul.
October 9, 2012 § 1 Comment
For those of you who don’t like to read (or don’t like to read my writing) this post is for you. Santorini was bittersweet. It was the last island we visited, so to maximize what we saw, we spent our time AVT-ing around the island. Unfortunately, I accidentally deleted some of our (Shann and my) best pictures of Oia, so most of these picture are from Thira, the island’s main town. But, Oia was like nothing I’ve ever seen; a small city crowded with cafes, restaurants, eclectic art shops, homes of locals and (my highlight) an aged Greek woman selling plump figs. My favorite part of the town was Ammoudi bay, a hidden inlet at the base of steep rocks that separated the village from the ocean. Ammoudi bay was dotted with seafood restaurants selling the freshest fish imaginable, bright boats, electric blue water and an incomparable view of the sunset.
Anyway, I’ll stop now. Keep in mind that Santorini was, at one point, a volcano. Enjoy the pictures.
Exactly two weeks until I’m in Turino, Italy savoring Slow Food’s international Terra Madre conference! IF you have any tips or suggestions for what I should see while visiting the Piemonte (foot of the mountain in Italian) region please let me know.
August 22, 2012 § 3 Comments
From Athens we shipped out on an overnight ferry to the southern most of all of Greece’s Isles: Crete. Drawn to the island for its mountainous terrain, thriving local cuisine and its burly edge I appreciate Crete the most now, sitting here, wondering if I’ll ever have the opportunity to traverse it’s bountiful hills again.
Getting to Crete (economically) required us to take an overnight ferry that docked in the new port of Chania (Xania, pronounced han-yah) at dawn. In Chania, Crete’s most charming port city, we were greeted by the luminescent colors of the morning sun and a quiet bus stuffed with both travelers and locals.
At six in the morning Chania was otherworldly, with character so bold it was nearly tangible. Woven between the intimate B&Bs, humble taverns and homes were narrow alleyways with curves and secrets as bountiful as a woman’s body. Aside from the few learned locals who seemed to know that the site of the rising sun igniting the city’s old port was worth experiencing, the alleys were silent. With a few hours before we were able to retreat to the room to catch up on sleep we stumbled upon the ultimate
breakfast food: bougasta.
Bougatsa is so heavenly its characteristics should never be verbalized, but for the sake of those who have yet to have the experience I’ll try my best. Bougatsa begins with practice and practice leads to perfection. Perfection seems to be necessary when crafting the fragile layers and layers and layers of filo pastry that embrace myzythra, a soft Cretan cheese. As if that’s not enough, when warm out of the oven the filo becomes saturated with a buttery oil from the heated cheese, then is sprinkled with cane sugar and cinnamon. Surely now you might understand why words lack the meaning to accurately describe bougatsa. For twenty-two years, Bougatsa Chania, the place we found the filo pastry, has been turning out this indulgent sweet served with Greek Coffee or espresso, every day from dawn to noon. Visiting the humble bakery to eat with the locals felt authentic – and yes we went back for more.
Crete has more local specialties than we had time to try but we did enjoy a fair share of raki, tzatziki, paximadi, stewed rabbit and goat, fresh sea food and my (our) favorite, a meze called staka. Staka, made from slowly heating goat’s cream while mixing it with flour to form a roux-like consistency, is an appetizer served with bread for dipping. Its rich buttery flavor makes staka irresistible; with each bite the oil that has separated from the curd coats your lips while its milky aroma soaks into the pads of your fingers until you realize you’ve completely wiped the plate clean. Staka is dangerously delicious. I’ve already decided that when I come across fresh goat cream, staka is how I will use it.
Staka was first introduced to us at Xani, a bustling restuarant with live music and a staff composed fully of family. Throughout my entire life, I’m not sure I’ve eaten more than a handful of meals that could compare with the freshness, the quality and the intense flavor of the food we were served here. We started with a dark Cretan Syhra and a plate filled with creamy staka at which point I was sure it couldn’t get much better – boy was I wrong. After the staka we were served fragrant goat stifado (goat braised in wine with vegetables) with a hunk of bread for soaking up the juices. After the goat we finished with the restuarant’s specialty, rabbit stifado. The rabbit, slow cooked in a tomato and red wine sauce, was served with the request that we eat it using only our hands and that we had to be sure to suck all of the meat off the bones. Yes, we’re American, but come on, you don’t have to beg us to indulge.
After a few days in Chania, we left to explore Rethymno, a city nestled between snow capped mountains and the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean. There we toured a fortress that started as a temple of Apollo, morphed into a place of protection for the Venetians then was seized by the Turks. From the fortress grounds there was a panoramic view, so we took in what we could then headed down to the port where we were bombarded by somewhat aggressive male waiters. The enthusiastic restaurant staff danced and sang and shouted greetings in every possible language to encourage those who passed by to stop and dine with them. So, although they were probably all great places, we headed away from the port to a small tavern that caught our attention when we first arrived.
Lunch was better than I expected. We were served traditional meze consisting of apaki (smoked Cretan pork), cheese flutes, tzatziki, stewed black eye’d peas, dolmas (grape leaves stuffed with rice and meat with lemon sauce) and dakos (twice baked barely rusk bread) topped with myzythra (local soft cheese) and tomato, with an enormous Greek salad. Rethymno was nice, but I preferred Chania.
Our last full day in Crete was spent hiking the Samaria Gorge, an eleven mile stretch through the White Moutains. The trail begins outside the village of Omalos and concludes in Agia Roumeli, a fishing village perched on the Libyan Sea. The hike was long and the terrain fluctuated based on our elevation. We began in fragrant pine forests, descended through the abandon village of Samaria to rocky water-filled canyons and finished when we hit the hot sea swept streets dotted with family-owned taverns. Upon arrival to Agia Roumeli it wasn’t long before our relaxing hike turned to anarchy as we realized that the only ferry back to the bus we needed to get to Chania arrived at the bus station after the bus was scheduled to leave. It took a bit of communication and a whole lot of trust, but we finally decided to believe what the locals were telling us; that the bus always waited for the ferry.
Thankfully, they were absolutely right, so while we waited for the ferry to arrive we enjoyed house specials, a Greek salad flecked with rose petals and outstandingly fresh fish with capers and stewed summer vegetables, from a curiously under the radar tavern.
Fatigued we headed back to Chania and caught the next possible bus to Heraklion, Crete’s largest port city, where we took a ferry to Santorini. Heraklion was the most metropolitan, but I have to say, at seven in the morning, the old port was surprisingly peaceful as it hummed with fishermen who were busy loading and unloading their boats.
Crete treated us well; the food was hyper-local, the people were kind and the sights were incredible. However, if I were to do it again I would rent a car and give myself more time on the island.
August 2, 2012 § 32 Comments
Greece gets all of the oohs and ahs when I share my travels, and with good reason. Athens acted as the take off point where our Boston flight connected to our Tel-Aviv flight so my time there was a bit segmented.
Despite our time limit Shann and I were able to visit the Acropolis, a rocky hill on which the Parthenon is located. Like the astounding view from the Acropolis, the Parthenon, the Theater of Dionysus, and the Erechtheion were beyond impressive.
Some time during our few hours in the city we visited the main market in Plaka, the city center of Athens. The market was relatively small but boasted the best (and least smelly) collection of pristine seafood I’ve ever seen. Red mullet, sardines, octopus, sea urchins, clams, mussels, squid and a cornucopia of other creatures were splayed on beds of ice mounted in front of prideful vendors. As if the Mediterranean seafood was not enough, the nuts, legumes, lentils and dried fruit proved why the Greek diet is considered one of the best in the world.
After some trekking we were ready to eat so we headed back to a tall staircase that was nestled between more taverns and cafes than anyone could imagine. There we ate at Sissifo’s Tavern and were not at all disappointed. To quiet our stomachs that were still sour from the thought of airplane food, we indulged in grilled octopus (a local specialty), eggplant stuffed with soft cheese and basil, vine leaves in a lemon sauce and boiled wild greens drenched in extra virgin olive oil topped off with crusty bread and a couple glasses of the house red.
Aside from the food, Athens did not strike me as memorable until I spent the night. With the mass amounts of tourists, the daylight hours felt a bit artificial. After dark the artificial Athens dissolved into the beauty we found roaming the back allies hoping to stumble upon a quality spot to get drinks and dinner with the locals. Quickly I found myself wishing we had more time in the city.
It was then, our only night in Athens, that I tried Moussaka, a Greek specialty with some serious competition behind it. Moussaka is a compilation of fried eggplant and ground meat topped with a fluffy Bechamel sauce. Each tavern claims they make the best Moussaka, and each time all you can do is smile, nod and tell them you’d like to judge for yourself. The Moussaka we had in Athens was the only Moussaka we ate, but I bet it was just as they said it was; easily the best in all of Athens.
June 18, 2012 § 2 Comments
Tel-Aviv is a Middle-Eastern city with European flare. The food is amazing and as in any city there is a whole spectrum of different cuisines, some traditional others more creative. Because of the many ethnicities, religions and the traditions that come with them, creativity thrives in the city’s food, in the culture and in the people.
Our time in Israel concluded with just a few days to explore the beaches, markets, cafes and cuisine of Tel-Aviv. Earlier in the trip we had been tipped off to Mizlala, a cutting edge restaurant at the heart of the city.
Mizlala was impressive from the start; taking the place of bread were puffy peanuts in their shells served with a helping of grainy flur de sal for dipping. The menu, broken up into four parts took careful deliberation before we finally choose what we would eat and drink. We chose a Rioja to pair with our adventurous dishes of Cubana (a brioche-like Cuban bread made with lard), Palestinian tartar (chopped rump steak, crude tehina, pine nuts, yogurt, broad beans and cumin), calf brain mafroum (wrapped in potato, hummus chickpeas & pepper harissa) and slow cooked veal plate (veal cheek) with ratte gnocchi, baladi spinach & forest mushrooms. After our meal we ordered the cacao and nuts ice cream sandwich served with toffee ice cream and chocolate whip. Dessert was perfect in taste, texture and temperature (imagine warm, crunchy cacao cookies with cold ice cream, nuts and cloud-lite chocolate cream). So delicious.
The food at Mizlala definetly reflected the necessary hybridizations present in Tel-Aviv between the various religions and cultures. Tel-Aviv is a city I’ll rush back to (in large part due to the aforementioned creative hybridizations). The streets are lined with cafes where people sip cappuccinos and Turkish coffee, the beaches are dotted with paddle ball players and guitarists and the market, Carmel Market, is a feast for the senses. The most intriguing thing about the city is that every Friday night on Shabbat, the beginning of the Jewish sabbath, all of this modern life comes to a halt for a day of rest. In fact, the best time to visit the central open-air market is of Friday afternoon before sundown when everyone is scrambling to buy the last of what they need before Saturday’s Shabbat when the market is closed.
At the market in Tel-Aviv (which was more chaotic than the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem), fragrant spices are guarded by vendors shouting prices in Hebrew. By showing just a bit of curiosity the vendors will pour some of their favorite spice mixtures into the palm of your hand for sampling. I happily left with 400 grams of sumac and 400 grams of za’atar, sesame seed halva, dark chocolate dip, tahina and a platter of baklava, kataifi and borma.
As if being in another country, Tel-Aviv serves as a haven for those looking to escape the religious and political heat that is present throughout the volatile regions of Israel. I found it to be a space for creating culture; art, music, food etc that I greatly recommend visiting (not just for the food).
June 1, 2012 § 3 Comments
Jaffa, a scanty port city abuting Tel-Aviv, is thought to be one of the oldest ports in the world. As the story has it Noah’s (Noah’s Ark Noah) son, Japheth, discovered it in the wake of the infamous flood.
Perched on Israel’s west coast overlooking the Mediterranean it was once a primary port for the country. However, with the explosive growth of Tel-Aviv and the convenience of Haifa, it was merged with Tel-Aviv creating what it referred to today as Tel-Aviv-Yafo.
Aside from the numerous years the port has seen, and the biblical characters it has harbored, Jaffa, a mainly Arab city has some damn good, classic Middle Eastern food. After wondering through uneven streets of the somewhat tattered city Shann and I were immediately seduced by the doughy aroma of a nameless hole in the wall bakery we later found out was called Said Abu Eiafia & Sons.
Supposedly, the bakery is legendary. According to our Lonely Planet guide book it was Jaffa’s first bakery, established in 1880. The accuracy of the previous statement is unknown, but I have to say the hot za’atar coated pita was nothing like I’ve ever had before. First off, pita in the US is a complete (how to say this relatively nicely) failure. Here the bread is thick yet it maintains a surprising fluffiness.
While chewing his hot pita Shann assured me that this was proper, fed me a bite and encouraged me to go for it. Well, let’s just say that Shann’s was the unadulterated version of what I ordered: a fragrant za’atar frosted pita covered with tangy labneh and ripe tomatoes. To savor every bite I had to sit down. As a side note, if you’ve never eaten or cooked with za’atar, wild thyme also known as hyssop, you really must try it (as a dip mixed with olive oil).
After I finished eating, we continued to explore Jaffa. We walked from the old port through unmarked allies to a market flung with huge carpets, costume jewelry, old televisions, used furniture and piles of trinkets and around ottoman inspired neighborhoods until we arrived at Jaffa’s new port.
After hours of wondering we watched the sun drop below the horizon and headed back to the old city for an Arab dinner full of colorful salads, tahina laced dips, intensely spiced kabobs, falafal and of course, pita.
This was my first time experiencing classic Israeli dinning. First, the server brings five to ten different salads, consisting of a variety of pickled vegetables, herb salads, brined vegetables, babah-ganoush (here it was made with smoked eggplant and mayonnaise), hommus, tahina, and Turkish salads (think Middle Eastern salsas) with pita for dipping. After the salads, the main course is served and then to conclude there is baklahva (baklawa in Arabic) with mint tea or Turkish coffee.
Let’s just say I’ve yet to leave anywhere hungry.
May 27, 2012 § 5 Comments
If my feet could talk, they would still be cursing me from the journey they endured pounding limestone streets during our stay in Jerusalem. Shann and I were lucky enough to snag two nights at his great aunt’s apartment in the German Colony, Emek Refa’im, a bit more than a mile south of the Old City.
Upon arrival we were fatigued and looking for something quick to eat. Wondering down the bustling streets of the secular city center we stumbled upon rows of vendors auctioning off their classic Middle Eastern street food. Pickled aubergine (eggplant), Israeli salad, red cabbage salad, hommus, tahina and hot pita filled my plate. Shann went for an ethnic dish piled high with couscous, curried chickpeas, onions, cauliflower and carrots served next to sumac, cumin and clove spiced ketzitzot (meatballs). Cheap and satisfying.
At the heart of Israeli cuisine is a secret reviled with experience alone – with heavy preparation (pickling, spicing, smoking, etc), flavorful vegetables are consumed in abundance. Maybe you knew this, but I didn’t completely realize it until being immersed in Israel’s food culture. After eating we were ready to go. With a smidgen less than two days in a city that couldn’t comprehensively be covered in a year, we worked hard to hit the sites that interested us the most.
Our first night we were able to glimpse at the Western Wall. The Western Wall, known to many as the Wailing Wall, is the Jewish holy site. The wall, built some 2000 years ago, is the last piece of a Solomon’s holy temple that is intact. After the temple was destroyed, only the Western Wall, which now borders the Muslim Temple Mount and Dome of the Rock, stood strong beckoning Jews from around the world to some pray at its stone base.
The sight is inspiring; men and women, separated by a lone fence, stand, hands on the Jerusalem stone, praying earnestly. People make pilgrimages here to stick their prayers, etched on tiny pieces of paper, in crevasses between the massive stones.
The sun began to set, so we stole a glimpse of the Dome of the Rock, wondered the narrow alleyways of the shouk (market) then headed to a small cafe for mint tea to plan for the next day.
The next morning Shann was craving borekas, the soft-cheese stuffed filo dough pastry, topped with sesame seeds, that his Circassian-Israeli grandmother used to whip up in her humble kitchen. Shann typically doesn’t get too excited about food, so when he says he wants something I know he means it. The hunt was on.
The “hunt” wasn’t much of a hunt; Shann’s great aunt tipped us off to a small bakery where we would be sure to find the best borekas around. After my first bite I understood; with its sweet airy dough and lightly salted cheese I’m surprised he had never mentioned them before. However, they did nothing to satiate us, so we stayed a bit longer…
As if borekas weren’t enough, we sampled rolled pastries stuffed to the brim with bitter chocolate, a leek and Gruyere omelet and the traditional Israeli shakshuka; eggs baked into savory concentrated tomatoes, chopped onions and an herb filled skillet.
Israelis really know how to serve a meal; not only do you get what you ordered, but what you ordered is accompanied by small plates, mezze. At breakfast, which at this bakery/cafe was more eastern European than Middle Eastern style we were given cheeses, pesto, tapanade, olives, “sours” (aka pickles or other pickled vegetables), and a loaf of dark fresh-baked bread. While sampling the meal accompaniments, I discovered Labneh, which I have had before but didn’t know exactly what it was. Labneh is a thick strained yogurt-derived cheese that has its roots in Lebanon. It’s flavor is sour and pungent, it’s texture is bodacious, it tastes good on everything (from eggs to chocolate pastries) and I know I’ll be attempting to churn it out when I come home.
Feeling ready to take on the densely packed city we headed to the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem’s city center. The market was by far my favorite market (including markets in Italy and in Mexico) that I have yet to wonder. Its sprawl occupied over two streets and every adjacent alleyway. Early morning to sunset before Shabbat, men stand behind their displays of brined olives, aromatic spice mixtures, honey saturated sweets, clean cut meat, iced fruit and coffee drinks, vine leaves, seasonal fruits and vegetables and their collections of yogurt, tahina and legume based dips and spreads making sales that quickly satisfy the schools diverse customers milling over the market’s plentiful offerings.
Halvah, a confection popular throughout the Middle East always seems to court me. Why? Well, it is a mixture of tahina, a sesame seed paste known as tahini in the states, sugar and nuts. Its crumbly texture makes it all the more inviting, but I have to take caution, it’s quite saccharine.
After the market we returned to the old city through the Jaffa gate, navigated through the shouk’s persistent vendors who sell everything from decorative rugs to jewel toned beads, then walked the Via Delarosa. The Via Delarosa is the path that Jesus walked to carry the cross to his Crucifixion. At nearly every corner along the path of Calvary there are stations marking a place of significance. Above is where (according to the Bible) Veronica, a women in the crowd used her shroud to wipe blood from the torn flesh on Jesus’s face. This was station six, my favorite station.
At the base of the seventh station an Arab woman sat selling vine leaves (top right), mint (top left), cilantro (beneath mint), squash (beneath cilantro), raw green unhulled chickpeas (right of squash), purslane (bottom left) and sage (bottom right) while mingling with familiar women who passed by.
After finishing up in the old city we made our way to the archeological excavations of the City of David to trek through Hezekiah’s tunnel, an underground waterway where water from Gihon Spring has continued to flow for the last 3000 years. Above is a small wadding pool that was mostly like used as a cistern to collect the water that flows through the tunnel. We capped off the day with a walk through the Israeli Museum to see the Jerusalem model and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Last, we indulged in a multi-course dinner at the best restaurant in the city, chef Moshe Basson’s (founder of Slow Food Israel), Eucalyptus.
Jerusalem is teeming with life, a fact that is reflected by it’s vivacious cuisine, color splashed alleyways and the deep tolerance knitted into the city’s Jewish, Muslim and Christian inhabitants. It has only been a few days since we left the city and I already want to go back. Jerusalem is mystical, it exudes a magnetism that entices the religious, the spiritual and the secular alike. I know I will return, both to eat more and explore further.