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Sunday, October 25, 2020

Granada & Seville: Spain’s 2 Jewels

Granada’s Alhambra Palace is one of the architectural treasures of Europe

 A client who is coming on the Wine-Knows' Mallorca tour next year asked me recently, “Which city in Spain is your favorite?”   While I love Madrid, I immediately knew that my numero uno choice had to be either Granada or Seville.   But, which one?  Both are located in Spain’s southern Andalusia region which borders the Mediterranean.  Choosing would be very difficult.

The Alhambra can be seen from all over Granada

Granada is arguably one of Spain’s most compelling cities.  Located at the foot of the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountains, it was ruled by the Moors for over 800 years.  In fact, Granada was the last Moorish stronghold in all of Spain.  This city is world famous for its Alhambra Palace, a walled fortress that is one of Europe’s most breathtaking pieces of architecture.  But, there is so much more to Granada than this astonishing Islamic citadel.

The historic old town offers authentic charm

Granada has a palpable soul.  The city has an energy, especially the historic Moorish quarter that surrounds the spectacular hilltop Palace.   Known as the Albaicin quarter, think of it as an exotic Casbah with meandering cobblestone alleys, a mélange of intimate flamenco clubs, atmospheric Bohemian cafes… and then layer on seductive bars with twinkling lights, exotic aromas from both restaurants and homes, and a distant guitar serenading lovers.  Granada's old town is intoxicating. 

Seville seduces both the young and old

Seville, on the other hand, has been voted one of the globe’s Top 10 cities to visit.  It has an air of sophistication.  It’s passionate.  It’s also mucho romantico.  There’s no wonder why the city is the capitol of passion-based flamenco dancing, and one of the most loved by travelers in Europe.  Sevilla has all the trappings for allure, including horse-drawn carriages, quiet pedestrian-only cobblestone streets, a jaw-dropping flood-lit Gothic cathedral, and even its own spectacular Moorish castle.

Seville's cathedral will provide a jaw-dropping background for Wine-Knows’ dining

But, wait!  Seville has an added bonus….it is very near Sherry wine country.   In about an hour visitors can go from a coffee on one of Seville’s  plethora of dramatic squares to tasting a flight of wine in the Sherry countryside.

Moorish architecture mesmerizes in both Granada & Seville

Granada or Seville?   I choose both….as can you for Wine-Knows will be visiting both Granada and Seville next October, 2021.  Currently there are a few spaces available so check out these two astonishing gems on

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Mallorca's Healthy Mediterranean Diet

                     This Mediterranean island's cuisine & lifestyle embody healthy living

Mallorca is a mucho seductive island just off the coast of Barcelona.   This dreamy Spanish isle has a rich history involving the Phoenicians, Romans and Moors, and its cuisine reflects an interesting tapestry of all of these past conquerors.  But, Mallorca’s food is much more than its historical roots.  Its culinary profile closely parallels the Mediterranean Diet, one of the healthiest diets on the planet.


                      Agricultural villages such as this one are a mainstay in the island's economy

The word “diet” comes from the Greek word “diatia” which means way of life.  The United Nation’s cultural arm (UNESECO) considers the Mediterranean Diet to be part of Mallorca’s cultural fabric.   Foods and lifestyle are intrinsically linked in the Mediterranean Diet.   This means that one’s way of living (both physical activity and community/family connections) are equally important to the actual food one eats.

Amphora were used for centuries to transport olive oil & wine

There are four cornerstones of the Mediterranean Diet and Mallorca has them all.  First, the island’s cuisine features an abundance of fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains and fish. Secondly, little red meat is consumed and dairy products are used in moderation (local olive oil is used).  Thirdly, agriculture is a big part of the island’s economy.  In addition to olives, Mallorcans raise a plethora of crops such almonds, carob, figs, apricots, tomatoes, peppers and onions.   (There’s no need for a farmer to go to the gym or out for a run after a hard day in the fields).  The last foundation of the Mediterranean diet is wine.  Mallorca’s wine industry is undergoing a significant Renaissance.

Fruit & old-world décor provide an unforgettable backdrop at this restaurant

Wine-Knows’ October 2021 trip to Mallorca will feature a week’s stay at a swanky private villa----and there are only 2 remaining spots.  Why not join us for the Mediterranean Diet, sensational island scenery, and some killer wines from grape varieties that grow only on Mallorca?

Friday, October 9, 2020

The Other Bordeaux----Sauternes

                                        Sauternes are among the world's most expensive wines

The grape harvest for Bordeaux’s white and red wine finished some weeks ago, but it is just starting for Bordeaux’s prized sweet wines, Sauternes (pronounced sew TAIRN.)  Sauternes is some of the priciest wines on the planet (a bottle of an old Chateau Yquem sold a few years ago for $117,000---that's $26,000 a glass, or $2,200 a sip!)   One of the reasons is that the berries are picked one at a time, rather than one bunch at a time.  Let me explain.

                                 Sauternes is a wine district, a town, and a sweet wine

Known as “liquid gold,” Sauternes is pricey because of the labor intensive process required to make it.  Grapes for these sweet wines are hand-picked carefully by workers who have been trained to look for “botrytis.”   Known also as the “noble rot,” botrytis is a fungus that attacks very ripe grapes.   Typically, it does not attack the full bunch, but only certain berries.  Workers must often make several passes through the vineyards over a period of weeks, picking only the grapes that have been effected with noble rot.  In some cases one vine is necessary to make one bottle of the most expensive Sauternes.

                          Botrytis concentrates flavors & causes flavor, as well as aroma changes

So how can rotted grapes possibly make such a magnifique wine?   First, the botrytis penetrates the grape’s skin and causes it to lose nearly 75% of its water.  However, much more than dehydrating and concentrating the flavors, botrytis actually causes a chemical change in the grape’s aromas and taste profile.  Third, while all of the above is occurring, the fungus also increases the actual acid levels so that this sweet wine is not cloying sweet.

                            Damp & warmth together create the perfect storm for botrytis

The terroir of Sauternes is key to botrytis.  The fungus does not happen every year, but only when certain conditions in the environment occur at the same time.  There are two rivers, one cold and the other warm, that converge into one river near Sauternes.  The mixture of warm and cold creates a mist.   Providing the afternoons are warm, this mist in addition to the heat create the perfect milieu for botrytis to thrive. 

If you’re one of the lucky Wine-Knows joining the September 2021 trip to Bordeaux, you’ll have the opportunity to sample some of the world's most famous Sauternes.  The sweet life doesn’t get any sweeter than sipping a Sauternes at its birthplace.

Friday, October 2, 2020

Sicily’s Ferrari of Chocolate

                                      Modica chocolate is characteristically grainy in texture

Italy makes some of the world’s most delicious chocolate pleasures.   Among  the Italian chocolate elitists, is one that is located on the island of Sicily.  Known as Modica chocolate, the delicacy can only by law be produced in the town of Modica.  This “town of chocolate” uses an ancient Aztec technique that was brought to Modica by the Spaniards in the 16th century (Modica had a close connection with the Spanish Crown).  Modica chocolate is now protected by the European Union with a special designation PDI, which guarantees the consumer it’s the real deal.

                            Modica is replete with chocolate makers using the Aztec method

Wine-Knows was to have visited Modica today but COVID delayed our Sicilian journey until October 2021.   Next year we'll learn that chocolate is produced the same way that it was at the time when the Spanish conquistadors sailed to South America and discovered the culinary magic of the Aztecs.   The Aztec technique of “cold” processing is used in all Modica chocolate.  Typically, chocolate is produced using heat which makes it smooth, but the cold method produces a characteristic crunchy texture as seen in Modica chocolate. Another major difference of the Aztec-based tradition is that there is no added butterfat---the only fat present in Modica chocolate is the cocoa butter that is naturally present in the cocoa bean.

                      The 21st century has brought upscale packaging & dozens of flavors

The Ferrari of Modica chocolates is Bonajuto. The oldest firm in Modica, the family of this company has been making chocolate since the early 1800’s.  In 1920 Bonajuto won the Gold Medal at the International Exposition in Rome.  Fast forward a hundred years…Bonajuto, while based on tradition, has become innovation-driven, research- based, and ethics-centric (Bonajuto’s cocoa comes from certified plantations that do not use child labor and working conditions are protected and safeguarded.)

                  The ingot shape, popular in Modica, was used by the Aztecs to shape their gold

More than 500 years after the Spaniards first brought the cocoa bean to Modica, chocolate has become Modica’s black gold.  There are too-many-to-count chocolate shops in the town.  Chocolates come in every size and shape, with flavors such as cinnamon, chili, orange, sea salt, cardamom, ginger, marjoram, nutmeg, white pepper, and vanilla.   Many shops even sell frozen chocolates for tourists to buy, especially during Sicily’s hot summers.

Lucky travelers on Wine-Knows tour rescheduled for next year, October 2021, will visit Bonajuto for a tasting and tour of the facilities.    But, you don’t have to go to Sicily to buy Modica chocolates as they’ve become world famous.   You can buy Bonajuto online from many sellers in the USA.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Eat, Sip, Travel: Sicily

                                   Ortigia island is part of the mainland city of Syracuse

Wine-Knows was to have begun its Sicilian food and wine adventure a few days ago, but COVID changed our course. To honor what might have been , I'm writing this Blog.

We were to have started our journey on the historic island of Ortigia (one of ancient Greece's most important colonies), where timeless beauty   abounds : dazzling squares flanked by majestic Baroque buildings with elaborate rot iron balconies, and a labyrinth of pedestrian only alleyways lined with palaces and simple fishermen's homes that wind down to the emerald Mediterranean.  Joined to the mainland by a short bridge,  Ortigia is a deeply atmospheric place of myriad architecture styles and a tapestry of cultures. 

                                  Capers are much more intense tasting than caper berries 

Capers are an important part of the Sicilian cuisine. The caper bush grows wild here and Sicilian capers are prized by gourmet chefs around the globe. Capers appear in some form or another on every menu (from antipasto to pasta, and from veggies to meat dishes). Yesterday we were to have visited Ortigia's market to taste the difference between capers and caper berries: caper, the bud of a Mediterranean shrub, is more intense, while the berry (which is the actual fruit of the caper shrub) are much more delicate.   T he island's most prized capers are not brined but preserved in salt. 

       Eggplant is used in Sicily's famous caponata, as well its other signature dish, Pasta Norma

Caponata is one of Sicily's signature dishes.   There's something magical in the mathematics of this sweet and sour stew of eggplant, peppers, celery, capers, onions and onions:   the whole is better than the sum of its parts.   Something special happens when the sweet tomato paste melds into the red wine vinegar and coats the veggies like a yummy blanket.

                                  Cassata, Sicily's hallmark cake, is studded with candied fruits

Candying fruit in Sicily is an art form and citrus is one of the most popular.   Catholic nuns, who sold sweets to support their convents, introduced the candying process to Sicily.   The island's two most famous desserts (cannoli and cassata) both use candied fruits.

       These arancini filled with ooey-gooey cheese were to have been one of the appetizers last night

Oranges are so popular that they have given their name to one of Sicily's most traditional foods, arancini ( “little oranges") .     T hese golf ball rounds (think meat balls), are filled mainly with rice but often flavored with chicken, beef, or even vegetables. 

                Pastry shops are filled with stunning miniature marzipan “fruit” such as these

Another important part of Sicily’s gastronomy is the art of marzipan.   A delicious paste made of ground almonds and sugar (Sicilian almonds are unsurpassed in flavor), marzipan is a serious business in Sicily.  In addition to fruit, marzipan also comes in the form of other food products such as ears of corn, tiny pumpkins, and even carrots.  Like cassata and cannoli, marzipan came from the culinary tricks of nuns in Sicily’s convents.

                         Feudi di Pisciotto is a jaw-dropping 18th century wine estate

One of our stops for two nights was to have been Feudi di Pisciotto, a boutique hotel located on a historic 400 acre farming estate.   Producing some of southeastern Sicily’s best wines, this estate’s winemaker was to host us for a private tasting followed by this  dinner at Fuedi’s award-winning restaurant:

  • Seafood Couscous (in homage to Sicily’s Arab rule for centuries). Served with the estate’s top wine, Cerasuolo (a blended light-tannin red)

  • Grilled swordfish with grilled lemons & purple cauliflower, capers & estate olive oil.     Served with the estate’s Nero d’Avola named after Gianni Versace

  • Minature house-made cannoli filled with local ricotta, chocolate & candied oranges.    Served with the estate's dessert wine named after another famous designer, Gianfranco Ferrè
The tour has been changed to next October, 2021. At the moment there are two spaces available:

Long live Sicily!          

Monday, September 21, 2020

Who Invented the Deli? The Answer May Surprise You!

                                              Deli and Italy are for many synonymous

Italy is home of pasta, vino, salami, mozzarella, pesto, focaccia, prosciutto, parmigiano-reggiano, pepperoncini, panini, tiramisu…. and the deli, which sells all of these items.  The Italian deli is one of the greatest sensory shows on our food earth.  Pungent cheese mixes with the intoxicating smells of gigantic hanging hams just waiting to be sliced.  Lasagna fresh-from-the-oven causes a Pavlovian reaction.   Aisles are filled with a Noah’s ark full of olives, olive oils, capers, balsamic vinegars, and tins of San Marzano tomatoes.  And, let’s not forget the aroma of garlic---no vampire would get within 50 meters of an Italian deli.

  Labor-intensive eggplant parmigiana is  a perfect solution for Italians who don't want the hassle

Every city in Italy is replete with delis.  Their reputations are often based on their homemade ingredients which fill their display cases.  With both parents often working in Italy, the deli has become the Italian healthy version of fast food:  eggplant parm is a favorite item that can quickly be reheated.  Always popular meatballs, made from closely guarded deli recipes been passed down for generations, can become a speedy dinner by simply boiling water for pasta.   Many delis are also known for their seafood salad---calamari, shrimp and mussels dressed with olive oil and lemon (add a loaf of bread, and a bottle of wine and this makes a perfect dinner for time-bankrupt Italian households).

Eataly is a deli on steroids

There are many fabulous deli’s in Italy.   Eataly in Turin (the brand’s original location) is totally awesome.  This is a food emporium extraordinaire----a deli combined with a butcher shop, bread seller, seafood market, pastry shop, wine store, pizza parlor, foodie’s gift store, general grocery store, vegetable market, and a culinary bookstore. 

                               Peck has a nearly endless supply of gastronomic sweets

In my opinion, however, the ultimate deli in all of Italy is Peck in Milan.  Located not far from the city’s famous cathedral, Peck has always been my favorite for takeout. Many times over the years I have taken the train from nearby Lake Como to pick up ingredients for a picnic dinner on the terrace of my hotel in Bellagio.   Peck’s seafood salad with lobster and scallops is off the Richter scale.  If I’m feeling really decadent I buy a small slice of foie gras with truffles.  But, Peck’s also sells pieces of magnifico rotisserie chicken which I often pair with their pepperonata, a stewed mélange of multi-colored peppers with hints of anchovy, garlic, olive oil and a drizzle of good balsamic.

All of this time I have assumed that deli was an Italian word.  Wrong.   Deli is from the word “delikatessen,” a German word.  In 1700 the word was first used by a German food company that sold bananas, mangoes and plums it had imported from exotic places like the Canary Islands and China.  The company, Dallymar, is still in business today and remains the largest business of its type in Europe.

                      Like many things in Italy, it's all about the heart & soul of the owners

Although the word deli is not Italian, I think it sounds Italian.   That made me think of the Italian word “delicato,” which stems from a Latin word meaning “giving pleasure, delightful.”    So in my mind I’m going to keep my notion of deli as Italian.  While the Italians may not have invented the concept of a store selling a cornucopia of exotic foods, to me the delis of Italy give great pleasure and are a culinary delight.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Eat, Sip, Relax: Lake Como

                   This dream villa is one of the few on the entire lake that is directly on the water

An Italian friend sent me an email two years ago with photos attached exclaiming, “You have to rent this villa!”  She had seen it in an Italian magazine and knew I loved Lake Como.   I contacted the villa's owner immediately and the rest is least until Americans were banned from recently traveling to Italy.   I was to have spent two weeks here with two different groups of fellow foodies and wine lovers for some Italian-style dolce far niente (“the sweet do nothing life,” aka relaxation).   COVID-19 prevented us from traveling, but to honor what might have been, I'm cooking all the planned dinners at our home in San Diego.

Lake Como is replete with food specialties (and all can be easily procured in California).  Located in Italy’s Lombardy, there’s a cornucopia of local items that would thrill any gourmand.   Lombardy, Italy’s financial and industrial powerhouse, is one of the richest provinces in all of Europe.   It’s also a huge agricultural giant.  Finding high quality local ingredients for a magnifico dinner is as easy as saying “vino.”

                             Risotto Milanese uses the area's top-rated Carnaroli rice & saffron

Rice dominates over pasta in Lombardy and risotto is one of the area’s classical specialties.   The Po River, which traverses Lombardy, is the growing district for the most prized rice in all of Italy, Carnaroli  Tonight  I'm making a risotto Milanese (rice made in the style of Milan), an ethereal silky version made with saffron.

                                     Fresh funghi porcini on bite-size polenta with Tallegio

While risotto is very popular in the Como area, the nearby rugged foothills of the Alps lean often toward polenta.   The season’s first wild mushrooms from the nearby Alps were to have been available at the local outdoor markets.  No problem as I was able to track down some funghi porcini here in San Diego.  Last night in my appetizer I used polenta,  funghi porcini and Tallegio cheese.

              Tallegio & radicchio made for a great lunch  using leftovers in a sandwich

This cheese is one of Lombardia’s culinary super-stars.  Made from cow’s milk, it is a buttery and luscious decadence.   Although its smell is strong, the cheese’s taste is comparatively mild.   Tallegio melts beautifully, so it’s perfect for an ooey-gooey  warm sandwich.    

                    One of Lombardy's perfect bite desserts---figs stuffed with Gorgonzola

One of Lombardy’s greatest cheeses, blue-veined Gorgonzola, has already appeared on my table once this week stuffed in figs which have then been drizzled with Italian honey as a dessert.  

                                             Bresaola makes a perfect antipasto
A specialty of the foothills of the Lombardian Alps, this air-dried beef is immensely popular in the area of Lake Como.   Chocked full of flavor, the beef is first marinated in wine and spices prior to aging.  Sliced paper-thin like prosciutto, I used bresaola earlier this week in a simple but super yummy appetizer:  brescola, topped with olive oil & lemon juice, arugula, shaved Parmiggiano-Reggiano, and sea salt.  Delizioso.

                               Spicy mustard oil flavors this chutney-like condiment

This condiment is a classical Lombardian accompaniment to simple meat dishes… or even cheese.  Made from a cooked mixture of different fruit and mustard oil, it adds a zesty profile (think spicy salsa on tacos).  For anyone turning up their nose, don’t!   This stuff rocks.  I’ve purchased a small (and very pricey) jar on the Internet and plan to use it with a pork roast later in the week.

                                         Ferghettina is Franciacorta's best bubbly

I may have saved the best for last.  Franciacorta is a wine district located not far from Lake Como.  It produces Italy’s Lamborghini of sparkling wine.  Made in the same labor-intensive method used for Champagne, Franciacorta is expensive but is worth every Euro.   I’ve bought my favorite, Ferghettina Rosé, for tonight’s bubbles.    

Viva Lombardia  !    Viva Lago di Como !