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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 !

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Eat, Sip, Relax: the Italian Riviera

I planned to be on Italian Riviera this week with three friends for a week of R&R at a glorious villa with forever views...until the EU banned Americans.   To honor this "lost week," I am writing about the experience I was to have had....and am spending the week cooking meals to pay hommage this trip. 

 Extending from the French border to Tuscany, the Italian Riviera was to have been a perfect spot to overcome jet lag.   With the exception of the Cinque Terre and the city of Genoa, this 200 mile coastline (known as Liguria to Italians) is dotted with romantic fishing villages, sandy beaches, and dramatic rocky cliffs.  Hillsides are covered with basil, rosemary, thyme and marjoram…all of which provide the fragrance of the Ligurian kitchen.  While we’ve come to relax, we're all serious foodies who have also come to partake of the region’s delicious cuisine and its glorious white wine, Vermentino.

                    Trofie, a hand-rolled twisted pasta, with pesto is a classical Ligurian specialty

One of the foods that places Liguria in Italy’s Gastronomic Hall of Fame is pesto.  Pesto was invented in Liguria and the region’s small leaf basil has a cult following.
Is this local basil variety the reason why pesto always tastes so better on the Italian Rivera?   Or, is the reason the fact that many Ligurian chefs add walnuts to the mix of pine nuts?   Liguria’s prized olive oil (used by many Michelin star chefs) may also have a bearing--it’s much more delicate and sweeter than other Italian oils.  Perhaps, however, it’s the Riviera's drop-dead gorgeous seaviews and smell of the cool Mediterranean air that make eating a bowl of pesto pasta so pleasurable? 

                                            Foccaceria's often specialize in certain toppings

A close runner-up for catapulting the Italian Riviera into Italy's shrine for gastronomy is focaccia.   Like pesto, focaccia has Ligurian roots.  Visit the town of Recco and you’ll be welcomed by a huge sign proudly declaring it the place where focaccia was first created.  Walk into a foccacceria and one often finds a mesmerizing selection (the best are cooked in wood-fired ovens) such as carmelized onion, olive, cheese, fresh Ligurian anchovies, sun-dried tomato…and of course, pesto.

                           Nightly "aperitivos" on the villa's terrace will have to wait for another time

The perfect pairing for both pesto and focaccia is a glass of Vermentino.  I’ve written too many articles to count on this seductive Ligurian white varietal.   Reminiscent of a Sauv Blanc without the grassy herbaceous notes, Vermentino offers a luscious citrus profile...mixed with stone fruit (think peach), floral scents, and a characteristic almond nuance.   Vermentino screams the Italian Riviera.

                                      Amaretti are small, addictive almond biscuit-like treats

Ready for a delectable Ligurian dessert?  One of the most famous Italian sweets is amaretti.  In my mind, Liguria’s rendition is the best because it’s softer and moister than the harder, dry varieties from neighboring districts.  One of the most famous makers of amaretti in all of Italy is the Sassello company.  Located in Liguria, Sassello has been making amaretti since 1860.  These amaretti are easily recognized by their colorful paper coverings with fringed-edges, and their attractive Art Noveau tins.

Viva the Italian Riviera!  Liguria ! 

Friday, August 28, 2020

Tasty Tapenade

                         Tapenade served with local Pastis at Julia Child’s villa in Provence 

I am a raving fan of tapenade.   A popular olive spread in the south of France for centuries, typical Provençal tapenade is made with olives, olive oil, anchovies, capers, garlic, and herbs of Provence---all pulverized into a puree of spreadable yumminess.  Although it’s closely associated with Provence today, the first tapenade just might have been invented by the Italians.

Olive spreads have been referenced in ancient Roman cookbooks for nearly 2,000 years.  A written recipe for an olive-caper spread appeared in 150 BC in a book written by Cato (a Senator and historian in the Roman Empire).   Currently in Italy, an olive spread is often used on a panini in northern Italy.

               Sun-dried tomato, artichoke, fennel & eggplant are only a few tapenade flavors  

Tapenade, however, remains a classical food item associated with Provence.  While the traditional recipe features tiny Niçoise olives (a varietal from the area of Nice, it’s small but packs a punch for flavor), tapenade can be made with any varietal of olives.  Go to an outdoor market in the south of France and you’ll often see tapenade vendors selling their spreads in a huge variety of flavors other than the one made with Niçoise olives:  green tapenade made with green olives, Kalamata olives, mixed olives.  There are also non-traditional tapenade in every flavor of fruit and veggies possible.  Tapenade has become synonymous with an olive base spread in which anything else can be added.

                                           Dried figs add an unusual nuance to tapenade

One of my favorite recipes is from David Lebowtiz, an American foodie living in Paris.  His rendition uses dried figs.
Another fave is Wolfgang Puck who uses both black and green olives.  I really like the depth of flavor of this one.  Add a log of goat cheese and some magnificent bread….voila!

Wine-Knows will be conducting a tour in 2022 to the estate in Provence where Julia Child wrote her iconic cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  One week in 2022 is sold out, but we've added a second week.  This second week is now available for viewing on our website:

Bon appetit !

Friday, August 21, 2020

7 Don’t Miss Sicilian Wines

                             The island's volcanic soils are responsible for lavish complexity  
Sicily is a treasure trove on so many levels.  Not only does it offer some of the best preserved Greek temples in the world, ancient Roman mosaics, stupendous natural beauty, and an intriguing cuisine, but Sicily also produces world-class wines.   The island’s volcanic soil creates wines of great depth and complexity.  Here are seven of my favorite wineries.

                           Pisciotto's up-market boutique hotel is out of a Hollywood movie-set

Feudi di Pisciotto
An ancient winery from the 1700’s, this farm estate (“feudo”) is a perfect example of modern meets traditional.  Now a destination location right out of the set of a James Bond movie, you can imbibe, dine, and then overnight in its historic rooms.   But, the winery’s intense and concentrated wines are the real star of this show. 

Fave:  Their Cerasuolo (a blend of Nero d'Avola and Frappato) is Bond-worthy.

                       The Princes of Butera estate will host Wine-Knows for a private lunch

Feudo Principi di Butera    
This historical hilltop castle belonged to Sicily’s first Prince.  Today, the 1,000 acre estate produces award-winning wines of elegance from both indigenous as well as international varietals. 

Fave:  Their Syrah is a prince!

                          Wine-Knows will enjoy a private dinner at the estate of the fleeing queen

One of Italy’s most iconic wines, Donnafugata is easily recognized by its famous label, a woman’s head with a shock of windblown hair.  The woman is the Queen of Naples & Sardinia who in 1805 fled from Napoleon’s invading troops and took refuge in Sicily.  Donnafugata literally means the “woman in flight.”   

Fave:  Mille e Una Notte, which translates to a million and one nights.   I'll bet a million to one that you'll love it.

                            Arianna Occhipenti is one of the island's foremost super-stars

This is another female-centric brand but rather than a fleeing Queen, this winery has a female owner and winemaker (not that long ago this was an oxymoron in Sicily).   Highly respected by international wine lovers and wine critics, Occhipenti produces some gorgeous wines.

Fave:  Frappato, a light-in-tannin summer red, is a heavy hitter for complexity.

                            Passopisciaro pulled out the red carpet for Wine-Knows' last tasting

With grapes literally grown on the slopes of Mt Etna, these wines offer exceptional character and finesse due to their unique volcanic terroir.  Think earth-shaking fruit meets seismic minerality.    

Fave:  Contrada Sciaranova is a seductive red with a long finish.

                               Planeta is one of the most respected wine families in Italy

The Planeta family is the mover-and-shaker wine family of Sicily.  Owning >1,000 acres of vines spread across the island’s most prestigious wine districts, Planeta is synonymous with quality, innovation, and business acumen.  

Fave:  Etna Bianco, a white from grapes grown on the volcano Mt Etna, just might cause the earth to move.

         The Cusumano brothers, who founded their winery in 2001, are the new kids on the block 

The Cusumano family has been making wine for generations, however, as a winery they are a bambino (opened in 2003).   Now one of Sicily's iconic producers, Cusumano owns 1,000 acres of vineyards spread across the island, and exports to 60 countries.    

Fave:  Etna Bianco Alta Mora, a white grown on the slopes of Mt Etna---it will knock your socks off.

If you’re joining Wine-Knows in Sicily this autumn you’ll visit all of these wineries.  Moreover, in addition to dining in the castle of Feudo di Principi Butera, you’ll be staying on the charismatic Feudi Pisciotto estate, Planeta’s wine property overlooking the sea, as well as the Planeta family’s former palace in the heart of downtown Palermo.

Friday, August 14, 2020

Sicily: An Exotic Foodies’ Paradise

           Ingredients in Sicily's signature cannoli were brought by the Greeks, Arabs & Spaniards

The Mediterranean’s largest island….and perhaps the most beautiful….is a mecca for food lovers.  The original fusion cuisine, Sicily’s food is an interesting tapestry reflecting its diverse conquerors.  Greeks, Arabs, Romans, Normans and Spaniards have all left their culinary footprint and created one of the world’s most fascinating cuisines.  Many of the foods classically associated with Italy such as pasta, ricotta, mozzarella, gelato and even wine grapes are thought to have been brought to Italy via Sicily.

                          Sicily's Greek temples are some of the best preserved in the world

The Greeks first arrived in Italy 750 BC on the island of Sicily.  They founded the city of Syracuse, a city-state that became one of the most powerful in the entire Mediterranean.  Food items were brought by the Greeks such as wheat, figs, pomegranates, capers and olives---unknown to the island at the time, these foods remain an important part of Sicily’s profile today.  The Greeks also brought the know-how for turning goat and sheep milk into a cheese that closely resembles modern ricotta.  Last, but not least, the Greek explorers introduced grapes and developed a considerable reputation for Sicilian wines in the centuries leading up to the birth of Christ.

                        The Arabs brought many food items but also the concept of antipasto

Fast forward nearly 1,500 years and the Arabs arrive Sicilian shores.  The Arabs left a profound imprint on the island’s gastronomy.   Water buffalo was introduced to Italy first by the Arabs in Sicily----this buffalo milk is still required in making Italy’s authentic mozzarella.  Arabs also brought rice and sugar cane, both of which became cash crops for Sicily and remain staples in any Sicilian kitchen.   Gelato also owes its origin to the Arabs, as does possibly pasta.  Many food historians believe that Arabs, who had acquired the method of pasta-making from the Chinese, created the first pasta in Sicily.

Most importantly, however, the Arabs brought with them advanced irrigation techniques that turned a dry island into a fertile garden of Eden.  Orange and lemon orchards (what would Italy be without Limoncello?) that are seen throughout Sicily today owe their heritage to the does Sicily’s ubiquitous eggplant, melon, pistachio and pine nut.

Citrus, brought by the Arabs, grows throughout the island in rich volcanic soil

While the Arabs introduced a plethora of new foods to Sicily which then worked their way up through Italy, some of the greatest Arabic gifts to Sicily’s culinary scene are spices.  Saffron, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg were all introduced first to Italy via Sicily.   Some of Sicily's most decadent pastas feature saffron.   The island's most epoch desserts are laced with cinnamon, cloves or nutmeg.

Next, the Normans discovered Sicily in the 11th century.  Their genius of preserving fish transformed Sicily's sardine industry.  Five hundred years later the Spaniards arrived with tomatoes, peppers and chocolate brought back from their discoveries in the New World.  All of these three remain a fundamental part of Sicily’s culinary fabric.

                                 Spaniards brought tomatoes from the New World

Modern Sicily has a different gastronomic profile from mainland Italy.  Out of all of its many past invaders, the Arabs have exerted the most dramatic influence on Sicilian cuisine.  This island is a treasure trove for foodies seeking an exotic epicurean adventure.  If you’re coming with Wine-Knows this autumn to Sicily, you are in for a serious culinary treat.

Buon appetito !

Friday, August 7, 2020

Birthing a Watermelon Cocktail

One of my dearest friends has a milestone birthday this weekend.  Friends are flying in from all over the country to help her celebrate at a swanky estate she’s rented in Carmel Valley.   I’ve offered to cook one of the dinners and in consultation with the birthday girl, a Vietnamese menu was chosen (several of us were in Vietnam recently with Wine Knows).   To kick off the evening I decided to concoct a Vietnam-inspired cocktail to honor her.  

Red is a sacred color in the Vietnamese culture---their symbol of luck, happiness, celebration, and love (it’s no surprise why the flag of Vietnam is red).  Hence, when creating a recipe for the aperitif, summer's luscious watermelon immediately came to mind. The birthday girl loves Aperol, so I decided to incorporate this vibrant orange-red aperitif into the cocktail to intensify the watermelon color.  She also adores bubbly drinks as well as Rosé, thus I elected to combine both in the form of a sparkling Rosé.

Ginger and lemongrass are classical flavors found in Vietnamese cooking.  To get these flavors well incorporated, I decided to infuse vodka with ginger and lemon grass. Concerned about the drink's alcohol content (especially in the heat of summer), I chose to offset it by adding some sparkling water to the drink.

Here’s the aperitif which I named “Carolini” in honor of the birthday girl, Carolina.  

  • 1/3 cup thinly sliced ginger (more for decoration)
  • 3 stalks of crushed lemongrass---white part only (use tops for decoration)
  • 1 cup of good quality vodka
  • 5 cups of ripe, seeded watermelon
  • 1 cup of Aperol
  • 1/2  bottle of sparkling Rosé


1.  One week in advance, place ginger and lemongrass in a clean glass jar.  Pour over vodka.  Seal and store for a week.   Strain before using.

2.  Place watermelon in a food processor until it is liquefied.  Strain and discard any solids.

3.  Make sure all ingredients are well chilled on the day of serving. 

4.  A few hours prior to serving pour all (with the exception of the Rosé and water) into a large pitcher.

5.  Just prior to serving, add the bottle of sparkling Rose and stir.

6.  Decorate with shaved ginger, or a stalk of lemon grass, and/or mint with a slice of watermelon  (serve in either a martini glass or high-ball glass filled with ice).

7.  Party!

(Serves 10 thirsty women.)

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Veraison is a Term You Should Know

  Veraison is one of the most important parts in the life cycle of a grape 

During a February walk with a group of Wine-Knows through a New Zealand vineyard, the winery's owner pointed to his vines and proudly exclaimed, “Veraison has already begun.”   I assumed this was a term known to most wine lovers, but I was wrong as there were many perplexed faces among the group.  Veraison, a French word that has been adopted by the global wine world, is one of the most important moments in a wine grape’s annual life-cycle.

Veraison (pronounced ver ay son) marks the onset of ripening.  It is most noticeable in red varietals as grapes turn from green to red.   White grapes, on the other hand, change from green to a golden color and become more translucent.  This veraison process typically occurs about 30-70 days before harvest, depending upon the type of grape as well as the weather. As the above photo demonstrates, not all individual grapes go through veraison at the same time….the process can take several days for the entire bunch to turn its final color.

But there is more to veraison than just the grapes changing color.  The grape also begins to change from a hard pellet to a softer berry.  Inside the berry sugar levels also begin to rise.  From veraison to the actual harvest, these sugars will continue to dramatically escalate, while at the same time the grape's acids will correspondingly decline. 

Veraison should be coming soon to many vineyards in the northern hemisphere.  Raise your glass for a toast…..the 2020 vintage is on it’s way!

Friday, July 17, 2020

France’s Secret Coastal Villages

Can you keep a secret?   I have four very special French villages that I would love to share, but have concerns about them remaining off the radar screen.   Three are located right on the sea, with the fourth positioned on a hilltop a few miles inland.  All are dripping with charm, but haven’t yet been spoiled by hoards of tourists.  All of them are unknown to most Americans.

St Jean de Luz:

                          St Jean’ de Luz's scenic harbor protects its fleet of fishing boats

The first hush-hush spot is St Jean (prounounced “john”) de Luz.  Located near the border of Spain and France on the Atlantic sea, St Jean de Luz is a Basque fishing town with both a sizable harbor and an amazing sandy beach.  Streets in the center are all pedestrian-only, making it the perfect venue to leisurely stroll and soak up the pretty town's Basque-influenced architecture.

St Jean de Luz has a significant tie to European history.  King Louis XIV chose St Jean de Luz as the location of his marriage to Maria Theresa of Spain in the 17th century.  This political marriage was one of the most important as it brought an end to a bitter war.   In the 19th century, the town became a fashionable playground for high-society.  Today, it’s just a sleepy fishing village.


                      Deserted beaches & a castle on the sea make Collioure a compelling choice

Collioure is the second charmer.  This postcard-perfect village is also situated near the border of France and Spain, but on the Mediterranean Sea.   With a population of only a few thousand residents, Collioure is famous for its anchovies and local wines.   There are also five beaches from which to choose.  By all rights they should be packed, but they amazingly are only filled with French families during July and August. 

The coastal village’s wondrous light and highly photogenic pastel colored homes have also made it a draw for artists over the last few centuries.  Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse were a few of the great painters who were inspired by Collioure’s seaside castle, medieval streets, and its lighthouse-church.


                                                       Night or day, Cassis enchants

The third village, Cassis, is pure magic.  Located <20 miles from Marseille (but a world away) this place is seductive seaside splendor at its best.  It reminds me of a beautiful woman who doesn’t know she is beautiful; Cassis is a stunner that is humble, gentle and gracious.  Like Collioure, it is surrounded by vineyards so visitors are offered a rare chance to experience delightful wines that rarely leave the area.  Similar to St Jean de Luz, Cassis also is an active fishing village but on a much smaller scale.

Cassis is overlooked by the ruins of an alluring centuries-old chateau, but the real beauty is the town’s calanques. The calanques are narrow inlets framed by steep limestone cliffs.  The United Nation’s cultural arm has bestowed upon these calanques their coveted World Heritage Site (UNESCO) award. 


                                   Biot oozes authentic charm from a by-gone era

The last of these special French villages is Biot.  Positioned on a hilltop overlooking the French Riviera town of Antibes, Biot is just a few miles inland from the sea.  This tiny medieval village is the real-deal.  While the surrounding hills are replete with expensive villas owned by wealthy foreigners from around the globe, pedestrian-only Biot offers a true slice of authentic Niçoise life that is becoming more and more difficult to find on the tres sophisticated Riviera.  Walk through the simple village and you’ll find clothes-lines filled with laundry strung between buildings.  Cats wander the narrow cobblestone streets and local children play stick ball.  Amidst this all there is French music coming from the centuries old dwellings, as well as delectable scents of Niçoise cooking wafting from kitchens.

Besides authenticity, Biot has an added bonus.  Its artisanal glass blowing factories are worth the journey alone.  While the unique “bubble” glass has become quite pricey, a visit to see how these works of art are created is free.  Another compelling reason to journey to Biot is the Fernand Léger museum located within walking distance of the medieval hilltop village.  Léger, a contemporary of Picasso and Chagall, was a gifted artist and his museum is remarkable.

Remember, mum's the word.  Keep these little gems our secret.