Monday, November 28, 2022

Malta for Food-Lovers


Malta's  weather is a compelling reason to visit...even in late November

Malta was one of the last destinations on my bucket list.  As Malta has the warmest winter weather in Europe, I chose to recover from jet lag here for a week prior to flying to frosty Germany for the Wine-Knows’ Christmas Market tour.  I already feel at home on the island as its gastronomy (and architecture) reminds me of Sicily.   Maltese food, like Sicilian, has Arabesque influences but there are also nuances of France and Spain juxtaposed similarly to Sicily.  All of this makes sense when you examine the island’s history.

                                Dining al fresco for lunch is possible nearly year around

The island of Malta lies less than 60 miles from Sicily and roughly 175 miles from Tunisia.  Like much of the Mediterranean, Malta was first colonized by the Phoenicians who arrived 700 BC.   Sailing from what is now modern day Lebanon, the Phoenicians ruled Malta until 200 AD when the Romans sailed in and changed the balance of power.  A few centuries later the Moors (Arabs from northern Africa) appeared on Malta and ended up ruling the island for hundreds of years. In 1000 Malta became part of the large Kingdom of Sicily (which included much of southern Italy).  This was followed by a period of Spanish rule, but in 1530 Spain gave Malta to the Knights Templar, a Catholic military order charged with the care and defense of the Holy Land.

All of these colonizers left their marks on the culinary fabric of Malta with Sicily being the most dominant.  Sicilian influences are everywhere:

Maltese bakeries offer "kannoli" in all different sizes

~ Cannoli are synonymous with Sicily.  A tube shaped dessert, they are filled with ricotta, dried fruit and even chocolate.    

~ Pannetone, a dome-sized sweet bread popular especially during Sicily’s Christmas holidays, is in every store on Malta.  

~ Pasta in every size and shape appears on all menus. 

 

But, the Arab impact is also palpable:

                                  Pastizz is a Maltese national dish with roots in Arabic cooking 

          ~ One of the most popular foods on Malta is flaky pastizz.  Made from layers of phyllo pastry, it is filled typically with ricotta and curried peas.   Think of it as a savory baklava.  Pastizz is a national  dish available everywhere on the island…in pastizz shops, cafes, bars, restaurants and even sold by street vendors.

                               My ftira  was filled with tomatoes, capers, tuna & onions

          ~ There are many breads produced on Malta, but none more important than the ring-shaped ftira.  The name ftira is derived from an Arabic word meaning “unleavened bread.”  It’s so important to Maltese culture that it was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list recently.

          ~ Malta’s dishes are flavored with a treasure trove of spices brought by the Arabs, including cumin, paprika, curry and mint.

                     Platt Malti is a meze platter and tapas rolled into one yummy experience

          ~ Platt Malti isn’t a dish but a selection of small appetizers commonly known in the Middle East as meze.  This isn’t just a platter of food, but more of a social event and a key part of Maltese culture and cuisine.


The Spaniards also shaped Malta’s gastronomy.  Conquistadores brought to the island all of their New World culinary discoveries:

                  The Malta Chocolate Shop is all decked out with goodies for the holidays

          ~  Malta is thought to have been the first place after Spain (in all of Europe) that chocolate was tasted.      

          ~ Tomatoes are a huge part of the island's culinary landscape.  With the Malta’s moderate winter weather there are tomatoes still growing in some gardens.  Moreover, dried tomatoes are for sale in every shop.  Sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil are a common ingredient on a platt malti.


              Aljotta is a cousin of bouillabaisse....both were brought to Europe by Phoenicians

Let’s not, however, forget the Phoenicians who were the first to arrive.  The Phoenicians were responsible for bringing their ubiquitous fish stew to all of the Mediterranean.  The French call it bouillabaisse, but in Malta it’s referred to as aljotta.  Instead of pricey saffron, the Maltese version uses mint and lemon for final flavoring.

There are >200 bee keepers on this tiny island

Finally, Malta’s culinary profile cannot be discussed without speaking of the root of its name.   Malta means “honey.”   Considered to be some of the best in the Mediterranean, Maltese honey is unique because of the island’s abundance of wild thyme which lends a distinct flavor.  For certain there will be some in my suitcase.


Lovin' Malta!




Thursday, November 17, 2022

Charbono: Noah’s Ark of Nearly Extinct Grapes

               Charbono thrives in climates where there is a huge swing between day & night temps


Charbono has been declared an “endangered” grape by Slow Food.  (The Slow Food movement begin >30 years ago when an Italian food journalist took a stand against fast food by protesting the opening of McDonald’s in the heart of ancient Rome.)   A nearly extinct varietal, Charbono has become somewhat of a cult wine.   First, because it is produced in very limited quantities in the US.   Secondly, it has a loyal following of connoisseurs. 

 

In Argentina, however, Charbono is surprisingly the most widely planted red grape after Malbec.  In South America (above photo), Charbono is called Bonarda.  It was imported to Argentina by Italian immigrants.  In fact, this dark red grape is thought to have originated in Italy.

 

                             The Charbono grape is late ripening so it's one of the last picked


Charbono (aka Bonarda), is thought to have first been planted 3,000 years ago by the Etruscans in Italy.   Today, relatively little of the grape remains in Europe with the exception of the France’s Savoie region in the southeast.  Most of these grapes have now taken root in the New World with Argentina leading the production.

 

Currently there are fewer than 100 acres of Charbono grapes in California.   The most ideal location for the grape appears to be the microclimate of the Calistoga area.  Calistoga is about 10 degrees warmer than lower parts of the Napa Valley, but it’s the cooling nighttime fog brought in along the Russian River that makes this area ideal.  In Argentina, the Andes mountain vineyards also provide for hot days and cold nights.  Known as a “diurnal shift,” these dramatic differences between day and night temperature allow Charbono to ripen but to also keep its acidity. 


           In France Charbono is called Douce Noir & it is grown at the foot of the Alps

So what does Charbono offer in one’s glass?   Its color is a deep inky purple due to the large amount of dark pigments in the grape’s skin.  On the nose, think dark-red and black fruits (e.g. blackberries, cherries and plums) mixed with an interesting mélange of flavors such as licorice and tobacco---that can develop into leather or tar as it age).  In the mouth, the wine serves up flavors of black fruits, medium tannins, and a solid acid structure making it a perfect pairing for foods.


Here are my recommendations for Charbonos/Bonardas to try (listed in order of price):

  • Bodega Aleana El Enemigo Single Vineyard:  $20  (BEST BUY FOR QUALITY)
  • Hobo Wines Folk Machine (California):  $25
  • Familia Zuccardi’s Emma Bonarda  (Argentina):  $35
  • Robert Foley (California):  $45

Buy a bottle before it's too late!



Sunday, November 6, 2022

A Foodies' Calabria

 

                Tropea is famous for its stupendous beach and for its special shallot-like red onion

Calabria is a region I visited nearly years ago and have always longed to return.  I've just returned home after renting an apartment here for the week in the seaside village of Tropea.  Located all the way at the end of this boot-shaped country (on the western “toe”), Calabria offers >500 miles of dramatic coastline and a particularly strong food culture.  After a month of Wine-Knows’ trips in France, I was ready for some quiet R & R at the spiaggia (beach).

 

                 Onions and chilies are intricately interwoven in Calabria's culinary tapestry

Agriculture is a big deal in Calabria.  One of the poorest parts of Italy, Calabria’s fertile soil has been extremely important in feeding its population.  Calabria is Italy’s second largest producer of olive oil.  Not only is it a huge economic force in the region, but olive oil is one of the most important items in the Calabrian diet.  This oil has been essential in preserving food for the struggling population: vegetables, fish, and precious meat are all preserved in oil.  While many vegetables are grown, the showstoppers for me were the Tropean red onions, the Calabrese tomatoes, and the eggplant:  a kind of Holy Trinity for my week here.

    Swordfish is plentiful and is often served simply grilled & then finished with a splash of EVOO

Calabrian cuisine is simple and based mostly upon what people can grow or catch in the water or on the land.  As Calabria is surrounded on two sides by the Mediterranean, sea fare has been a popular source of protein.   Swordfish and sardines are mainstays, but clams and mussels are also prevalent.  Rabbit is a standard and is prepared endless ways:  rabbit stew (e.g. with onions, wine & wild herbs or with tomatoes & red peppers), rabbit sausage, braised rabbit with local wild mushrooms, and pasta with rabbit.

                  Bergamot, the flavoring in Earl Grey, is used in pastries & creamy desserts

While Calabrian cooking is simple, don’t mistake simple for mundane.  One of Calabria’s favorite condiments is its chili peppers.  Strolling through villages one notes strings of chilies hanging on balconies to dry in the sun.  Touches of this medium heat chili were present in many dishes throughout the week, adding an interesting depth of flavor and fruity as well as smoky tastes.  By the way, upon returning home I found that Calabrian chili has become so popular that Amazon offers >250 preparations, and Trader Joe’s carries it.  Also, Giada de Laurentis loves this chili….many of her recipes include Calabrian chili paste, and she uses them in her restaurants.

                          Licorice in Calabria is so special that it is protected by the government

Calabria's licorice is nearly sacred.  Both the root and extract have been granted a special protected status by the Italian Government, and only licorice grown in Calabria can be called D.O.P. (protected origin).   Licorice is used to amp up  Calabria's ice creams, cookies, cakes and many other sweets.  There's also a plethora of licorice-infused alcohols varying from digestives to sweet liqueurs. 


Viva Calabria!


Thursday, October 27, 2022

Why do Wines Have a Peppery Smell/Taste?

                   Syrah is one of the most well known grapes for its peppery characteristics

If you’re a Syrah lover (especially those produced in warm climates such as the Rhone Valley), then you’re most likely more than aware of this varietal’s pepper nuances.   There’s a scientific reason for this pepper and it has do with a chemical called rotundone.  This same substance, rotundone, not only appears in Syrah grapes but occurs in both white and black peppercorns.  Unlike many parts of a grape that are changed during the fermentation process, rotundone survives fermentation and ends up in your glass creating a spicy, peppery character.


Rotundone is a relatively newly discovered compound.   It was identified only fifteen years ago by researchers who were on a quest to investigate the science behind the peppery smell in wine.  The chemical, present in the skins of grapes, is found in miniscule amounts.  But, rotundone is such a  powerful aromatic compound that one teaspoon can cause an Olympic size pool to smell like the inside of a pepper grinder.


Both the white pepper smells of cool weather Syrahs, as well as the black pepper of Syrah grown in warmer terroirs are due to rotundone.   And, it’s not only limited to Sryah grapes.  In fact many varietals including Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Pinot Noir and even the white varietal Gruner Veltliner have been discovered to have rotundone.  Interestingly, the rotundone chemical is also present in marjoram and even some cocoa powders, and the smell is also present in well-aged leather.


Sunday, October 9, 2022

Are Michelin Stars Worth the Hype?

       Michelin stars used to be awarded for setting, tablescape, artwork, flowers, service & wine list

I was in France for >6 weeks  recently and dined at a series of Michelin star restaurants.  My mission was to answer the following question:   do these pinnacles of gastronomy still deserve my heart and my credit card?   Let me shed a little light on my quest.

The criteria for receiving a Michelin star has changed since my first star dining experience >40 years ago in Paris.  For example, ambiance used to be a big criteria, but the last ten years Michelin stars have been awarded to pubs, sushi bars, and even noodle joints.  Elements of fine dining, likewise, are no longer vital to receive a coveted Michelin star.  Food is the touchstone (regardless of setting) with items such as use of quality ingredients, the chef's mastery of culinary techniques, consistency of food, and value being some of Michelin's current star criteria.

This reversal in Michelin's star measures may explain why the last few years that my  Michelin star dining experiences have resulted in disappointment.   Beforehand, I have been wowed with luxurious trappings such as elegant floral arrangements, gorgeous china & cutlery, top notch stemware, flawless service, fabulous linens, and a mesmerizing wine list.  All of this was before I took my first bite.  In the past the food had nearly catapulted me out of my comfortable silk upholstered chair.  Over the past few years my experience at Michelin stars, however, have not moved me more than an inch or two…mostly because the chair was bare bones and not at all comfortable.

Over the course of 6 weeks I dined in two different one star Michelins, and two restaurants that had been awarded two stars.  All were luxurious old world dining experiences with all the bells and whistles for what Michelin stars used to be.  The cost for food varied from $150-300 per person (wine was extra).  I am happy to say, they were all worth the hype.   All were deserving of their catapulted ranking.  Food at all were the stars of the show, and the chefs were all pushing the creativity angle.  Service was superior.   Both  of the two star Michelins had wine lists that were nearly 100 pages.

All four restaurants were worthy of my credit card and my admiration.  I've listed the four below in the order in which I dined.  I would dine in all of them again in a heart beat.  I've also noted my remarks noting their most worthy features:

  • Restaurant Lalique, Sauternes (two stars).   MOST CREATIVE
  • Les Terrailiers, Biot (one star).  BEST VALUE
  • Des Rois, Beaulieu sur Mer (one star)   MOST DAZZLING SETTING
  • Chevre-D'Or, Eze (two stars)   MOST ENCHANTING




Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Favorite Outdoor Markets of Provence

              Provence's ethereal Cavaillon melon is a foodies' dream...you can smell it 50 yards away

The French Riviera is part of the larger region of Provence.  Nearly every town in Provence has a weekly market.  Vendors take their bounty to Vaison on Tuesday, Nyons on Thursday, Valbonne on Friday, and then to the grand-pere of them all, Isle sur Sorgue on Sunday.   Some, like Isle sur Sorgue, are huge affairs with tour busses full of mesmerized tourists jockeying with locals for a taste of the area’s famous Cavaillon melon.  Others, such as the Riviera's tiny Valbonne, are more intimate affairs that take over the small village’s central square turning it into a colorful theater stage filled with culinary gems & the area’s handicrafts.

              Shoppers in Vaison must cross this ancient Roman bridge to enter the city for its market

Vaison-La-Romaine

Located in the northern part of Provence (30 miles northeast of Avignon), Vaison makes my list because its a two-for-one:  significant Roman ruins plus a fabulous market.   As its name implies, Vaison was a famous “Roman” town.  Rich ruins of the Roman occupation dating before the birth of Christ marry with a charming medieval town to create a picture-perfect backdrop for the market.

 

Olive-centric gift shop in Nyons showcases products made from or about olives

Nyons

Not far from Vaison, is another market I really enjoy.  Nyons is the epicenter for Provence’s famous olive production.  In fact, these olives are so renowned that they have their own appellation (A.O.C).  While all Provençal markets feature the ubiquitous local olives, Nyons takes olives to an entire different level:  there are stalls specializing in EVOO cosmetics featuring a cornucopia of lipsticks, body creams, shampoos & conditioners, and soaps in every color of the rainbow.   Other sellers tantalize you with food products ranging from tapenade to an unforgettable multi-layer hot potato gratin oozing with cheese, carmelized onions, local olives and lardons (France’s bacon)---all cooked in a super-sized paella pan in a wood-fired oven.

 

        Tantalizing Provencal fabric abounds in the form of tablecloths, napkins, runners & placemats

Isle sur Sorgue

This town, called the "Venice of Provence," is enchanting.  Built along the winding waterways of the Sorgue river, Isle sur Sorgue is a cluster of small “islands” all connected to one another with tiny foot bridges.  Always on Sunday, this market is packed with weekenders who come for the city’s outdoor antique market and uber fresh local produce.   Word of warning:  go early (before 9).  The last time I visited it took nearly 30 minutes to find a parking place, and another 30 minutes to walk from the outskirts into the center.

Valbonne is tiny, but knocks it out of the park for an extraordinary experience

Valbonne

In some ways I’ve saved the best for last.  In spite of the fact that this is the smallest market of the four, in many ways it’s the most magical.  Located 10 miles from the Riviera's jet-set Cannes, Valbonne is a pedestrian-only town of 13,000.   The entire village is a medieval jewel box so it’s no wonder why it often used as a movie set (e.g. French Kiss with Meg Ryan).   Valbonne’s weekly market, held on the charming central square, also spills over onto the cobblestoned side streets and arcaded alleyways leading away from center.   Once you finish with the market, head to these charming backstreets where you'll see another side of the French Riviera.


 Viva Provence!

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

A Foodies’ Stroll Through Nice

                                 The Cours Saleya is Nice's epicenter for food-lovers


Tomorrow I'll arrive on the Riviera for two weeks at Julia Child’s villa with two different groups of food-lovers.
  One of the area’s foodie highlights is the historic center of Nice, just steps from its elegant beach promenade.  There’s no better place to begin a foodie trek than the Cours Saleya, the city’s open air market.  Since pretty much anything can be grown in the French Riviera’s favorable climate, the autumn produce here is a cacophony for the senses.


The Cours Saleya is filled with food stalls that have been owned by the same family for generations.   One of my favorite vendors is a woman selling socca, a crepe-like snack made from garbanzo beans.  While there are several folks selling socca, the best one is made from the lady who cooks it in a giant cast-iron skillet over a wooden fire.  Originally from neighboring Italy (the border is only twenty-something miles), socca has become a classical Niçoise specialty.


                                     Chevre is synonymous with the French Riviera

Provence is famous for its goat cheese and the Cours Saleya has every size and shape for sale, from small hearts to large pryamids, from small discs to big logs.  There’s goat cheese made with the herbs of Provence, or cheese covered with black ash to protect it during the ripening process.   Other renditions include those wrapped in aromatic chestnut leaves, or even chevre studded with Provence’s black truffles.

 

                  Olives were brought to Nice before the birth of Christ by the Greeks & Romans

The olive is the other classical food symbol of Provence’s Riviera and the Cours Saleya is replete with vendors selling everything olive.  Like goat cheese, olives come in multiple renditions from the colossal green picholine to the teeny-tiny  “Nicoise” varietal.  These petite olives are only grown in this area of France and are prized for their nutty, intense savory flavor.   Also, there are many merchants who will tempt you with samples of tapenade, a pungent olive paste.   Anything and everything goes here for tapenade:  there’s tapenade from every type of olive, but there’s also tapenade made with roasted artichokes & herbs of Provence, tapenade infused with dried tomatoes, tapenade with figs & rosemary, and tapenade mixed with grilled aubergines (eggplant).


                           The Alziari shop is like a museum paying tribute to the olive

A block or so from the Cours Saleya there’s another olive experience I recommend.   The Alziari family has been producing “Grand Cru” olive oil in Nice since 1868 and their retail shop is worth seeing.  More of a museum than a store, it’s chocked full of history.   Up until twenty years ago, olive oil was sold in bulk and shoppers brought in their own containers to be filled from a giant stainless steel vat in the store.  Today, Alziari has become an international upmarket brand and is sold in the US at high-end foodie retail shops and online.


            Located across from Nice's Opera House, Maison Auer deserves a standing ovation 

A one minute walk from Alizari will take you to the next must-visit foodie emporium, La Maison Auer.  This opulent jewel-box of a shop is the Versailles Palace of chocolate and candy.   Run by the same family for five generations, Auer has been making irresistible edibles since 1820.   Exquisite packaging makes for the perfect gift to bring a foodie friend back home.  

Next in this three-part series will be an article on the best of Provence's outdoor markets.