Friday, October 28, 2011

The Croissant is Not French

As identifiable with France as the Eiffel Tower, the butter-rich croissant surprisingly is not French in origin.  The croissant’s ancestry can be traced back to 13th century Austria where it was then called a Kipferl.  The crescent-shaped Kipferl was brought from Austria to Paris in the mid-1800’s, but it wasn’t until the Boulangerie Viennoise (“Breadmaker from Vienna”) opened just after the turn of the 20th century that this morning pastry became a huge hit among the Parisians.   French bakers began immediately to make copycat products and named their version “croissant” in reference to its crescent (croissant) shape.   

Stay tuned for a future posting on my favorite spots in Paris for mind-blowing croissants. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Best of the Central Coast Tour

I’ve just returned from the Wine-Knows Tour to California’s Central Coast.   From Santa Barbara to Paso Robles, over 100 wines were tasted at 16 different wineries.   Although Rhone varietals dominated (Syrah, Grenache, Roussane, Marsanne & Viognier), we also had  many cool climate grapes such as Pinot Noir, Chardonnay & Gewurztraminer.  Cab and Zin, representing the warmer areas, were also sampled.

Best wine of the trip?   Piedrasassi’s 2009 “White.”  I was left breathless by this cuvee...and that's saying something considering the number of well-crafted wines I taste each year.  Made mostly from Sauvignon Blanc, it also has some Chardonnay and Malvasia in the mix.  Bottled in handmade glass from Italy, the celebrity packaging is fitting for this super-star.  While it’s the first vintage of this particular blend by winemaker Sashi Moorman, I hope it won’t be the last. This stunning wine is a steal at $42.  Piedrassasi is located in Lompoc’s “Wine Ghetto.”

Below are the best of the rest, all noteworthy, listed in alphabetical order, with the winery/tasting room location noted.

  • Alta Colina 2010 12 O’Clock High  (Paso Robles).  Succulent tropical mix with peaches & apricots in this primarily Viognier blend.  Made by a 3 generation family.  $28

  • Alta Maria 2010 Sauvignon Blanc (Los Olivos).  Loved the melon & citrus nuances and great finish.  $22

  • Alma Rosa 2008 Pinot Noir La Encantada Vineyard (Santa Rita Hills).  Winemaker Richard Sanford has created a terrific berry-cherry-spice-floral treasure. $43

  • Barrel 27---2007 Head Honcho Syrah (Paso Robles).  Plums & raspberries with an overlay of chocolate.   Good structure and finish. $28

  • Chamisal 2008 Califa Chardonnay (Edna Valley). One of my fave Chars---complex, luscious and a killer finish.  $38

  • Claiborne & Churchill 2010 Gewurztraminer (Edna Valley).  Best crafted dry Gewurtz in the USA.  $20

  • Holus Bolus 2010 Syrah (Lompoc).  It won’t be bottled for another few months, but this one is worth the wait.   $26

  • Jaffurs 2009 Grenache Blanc (Santa Barbara).  Only 300 cases of this tropical gem.  $30

  • Melville 2010 Verna’s Pinot Noir (Santa Rita Hills).  One of the winery’s most popular, this one is flat our delicious.  $26

  • Palamina  2010 Tocai Friiulano (Lompoc).  Apricot & citrus mixed with floral notes, it’s a perfect summer aperitif.   $18

  • Stolpman 2009 Hilltop Syrah (Santa Ynez Valley).  Harvested from the best blocks at the estate, you gotta love this one.  $48

  • Tablas Creek 2009 Espirit de Beaucastel (Paso Robles).  I admit that I’m a raving fan of France’s Chateau Beaucastel, but this American Rhone-blend is pure bliss. $55

  • Talley 2009 Rosemary Vineyard Pinot Noir (Edna Valley).   Layers and layers of fruit and earth with a superb finish.  $70

Friday, October 21, 2011

Chocolates Down Under

Those of you who love chocolates from Switzerland are going to go wild over Haigh's Chocolates. Producing chocolate since 1915, these Swiss-trained chocolatiers are still turning out la crème de la crème products.  Controlling quality is one of the major secrets to their success…all the way from roasting of their own cocoa beans to hand-dipping each fabulous morsel.  My fave was the Shiraz Truffle, but the Praline chocolate was a close second.

There’s only one negative---they are not available outside of Australia.  If you find yourself in Melbourne or Adelaide on the March 2012 Wine-Knows tour, we’ll be touring the factory and sampling.  If you can't make the tour, you can learn the secrets behind these fabulous delectables in their book for sale on Amazon.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Truffle---the World's Most Expensive Edible

October is the height of the white truffle season in Italy.  While both Italy and France have black truffles, the white truffle (tartufo bianco) is only present in Italy---specifically Northwest Italy in the Piemonte district.  Known as the “King of Truffles,” white truffles command approximately $3,000 per pound. One of the most expensive gastronomic items on earth, these culinary treasures are worshipped by chefs around the world. 

A truffle is an exotic fungus---a distant cousin of the wild mushroom. Unlike mushrooms, truffles develop entirely underground.  Root systems of trees such as oak, pine and beech form the perfect milieu for truffles.  When mature, truffles emit a mesmerizing aroma.  The white truffle, however, is the most prized variety because of its over-the-top musky fragrance.  Highly perfumed, it’s no wonder why this delicious white version of the edible was considered the “food of the Gods” by the ancient peoples.

Alba is Italy's white truffle capital and every weekend in October crowds of thousands converge on the town to attend their world-famous Truffle Market where tartufi bianco can be purchased in sizes varying from small walnuts to tennis balls.   There’s also tartufi pasta (fresh & dried), tartufi butter, tartufi cheese, tartufi oil & tartufi paste for purchase. A cornucopia of local food specialties such as wine-flavored salami, divine chestnut desserts, and an expansive variety of wild mushrooms from the nearby forests are available.  The superstar wine from the region, Barolo and Barbaresco, complete the food and wine lover’s nirvana.

To learn more about Truffles, Barolo and Barbaresco, join the 2012 tour to Piemonte where you’ll not only attend the enchanting Truffle Market but accompany a truffle hunter into the forests to hunt for the delicacy.

Buon Appetito!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Corsican Wines: a Well Kept Little Secret

Winemaker's daughter at Domaine Leccia

The most famous Corsican, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, may have been French, but until three months before his birth in 1769, the island was controlled under the rule of the Italians.  Italy still dominates in terms of Corsica’s wine scene as its grape varieties and winemaking traditions are Italian in origin.
Most of Corcica’s vineyards are located around the coast.  The leading grapes are Sangiovese and Vermentino.  There are 9 designated wine regions, the oldest of which is Patrimonio (1968).   It was here that I was based for 2 weeks, with day trips to the Cap Corse and Calvi wine regions.

I was most impressed by the island’s whites made from the Vermentino grape.  This varietal, which thrives on the Italy’s northwest mainland (Liguria & Tuscany), reaches super-star status on the island of Sardenia…just few miles from Corsica.  Currently one of the most popular white wine grapes in Italy, Vermentino is also catching on in the US.

So what is it about Vermentino that is so appealing?  Is it the subtle floral and fruity aromatics (think citrus, apricot, pineapple & tropical) that I love most?  Or is it the well-rounded mouthfeel that is beautifully balanced with a refreshing acidity?  Vermentino was a perfect match with Corsica’s shellfish, grilled fish or free range chickens.  And, Vermentino is often one of our "go to" wines wines on a warm day at our home near San Diego, California.

The following, listed in alphabetical order, stood out as the best of those wines that are exported to the North America:
·        Antoine Arena
·        Clos Nicrosi
·        Leccia

Monday, October 10, 2011

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Beer

OK, I admit it…..I know nothing about beer.  But, there are many savvy gourmands who love the stuff.   And, what I do know is that beer culture has moved way beyond fraternity keg parties and backyard family barbeques with mass-marketed canned brews of the 1970’s.  Upscale metropolitan restaurants catering to a dressed-up crowd are now expanding their offerings of expensive beers presented beautifully in designer stemware, paired with foods that amplify their taste.  Perfectly timed on the wave of this shift in beer culture is the The Oxford Companion to Beer.

Recently released by the Oxford Press, this mammoth undertaking by New Yorker Garrett Oliver, is encyclopedic in scope.  Like the changing restaurant landscape in relation to beers, it reinforces just how far the beverage has evolved, particularly in the United Sates.  The US, once the ugly step-sister of worldwide beer production, has moved to Cinderella status.  American micro brewers are now inspiring legions of suds lovers in traditional beer meccas such as England, Germany and Belgium.  Moreover, the renaissance in the US has surprisingly jump-started artisinal beer movements in places such as Italy, Mexico and Japan.
Mr. Oliver’s well researched compendium is a definitive resource which consolidates everything that is known about beer.  It’s not, however, just for beer lovers, but for amateur and professional brewers, as well as restaurants and their serving staff.  As with wine, knowledge about how and where the beverage was crafted, and the tradition surrounding the varying cuvees, is part of the pleasure of enjoying a bit of the brew. 

French and Italian foodie magazines along with their books on gastronomy now discuss beer, as well as wine lists.  The trend is continuing in Manhattan where upscale restaurants are beginning to offer <100 beers by the glass which are paired with everything from appetizers to desserts.   I’d say this is a trend to watch.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Eye Candy in Bellagio

Candy without calories?  Si signora!   I’ve got the perfect antidote for dieting on Lake Como---skip lunch (or dinner), hike up and down the town’s hillside streets and enjoy the cornucopia of eye candy in its many glorious shops. Whether you’re on a budget, or just paid a bazillion Euro’s for the lakeside villa next to George Clooney’s, there’s something for everyone. Here are a couple of boutiques that wowed me.

“In Bellagio” is a jewel-box of a store located in the epicenter of town at the intersection of the city’s two main shopping streets (stair-lined Salita Serbelloni and Via Garibaldi, the street above that parallels the waterfront).   The boutique features attractive hand-made items, along with gold, sterling and precious stone jewelry.  There is also a terrific selection of costume rings, bracelets and earrings that look as if they could easily be on a Milan designer’s runway.  Ask for Cristian or Luciana and you’ll be well taken care of. 

                                                         In Bellagio, Via Garibaldi 29

Azalea (31 and 41 Salita Serbelloni)

Fortuitously located across the stairs from the In Bellagio shop is another show-stopper that features the best of Como’s silk products.  Azaela, which has actually two shops on the staircase, offers slightly different products at each store.  Both, however, offer luxurious handmade scarfs, shawls and ties in an endless rainbow of colors, including a good collection by Missoni and Versace.  (At #41, be sure to ask for the Signora...versus the help you.  She is patient and offers a low-pressure approach).

Buon Appetito!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

A New Michelin Man

Many Americans think of the Michelin man as a rotund little guy made of tires—the logo for the Michelin tire company.  I’m talking about a different Michelin man…. one who has a profound international influence over fine dining.  Micheal Ellis is the first American appointed as Director of the well known foodie’s bible, the Michelin Guide.

Michelin Guides began in 1900 as a freebie offered to French motorists embarking on a trip.  It offered tips on where to stop in France for help with the car, information on how to fix a tire, maps, and lists of hotels.  In 1920 Michelin began including restaurants and started charging for the book.  By 1926 it introduced a star to denote a very special restaurant with outstanding cuisine.  In 1931, the guide morphed to its present day hierarchical rating of one, two or three star system for establishments of the highest culinary talents.

Few gastronomes know that in 1944 when American soldiers landed in France they had copies of the Michelin guide.  The publication had ceased production during the war, but a special reprint of the 1939 edition was given to our armed forces so that they could use the guide’s detailed maps, as road signs had been taken down. 

Michelin Guides are now in 23 countries and often exert a “make or break” situation for restaurants or chefs.  At least one French chef has committed suicide over the loss of one of Michelin’s prestigious stars.  Fortunes have been made or lost over stars.  Divorces, bankruptcies, restaurant closures have been caused by a demotion in the guide.

Mr. Ellis, a native New Yorker who speaks five languages, took over management of the guide in early 2011.  He has an especially tough job ahead as sales of the guides in the last several years have been steadily dropping.  The guide has not kept up with the technological revolution.  While its website was launched in 1997, it’s not the most user-friendly.  Furthermore, why pay $35 for a heavy book each year if all the updated information is at your fingertips?  Another challenge facing Mr Ellis is the changing mentality toward dining.  Michelin star restaurants are often perceived as stuffy and out of sync with the current movement toward simple, informal, affordable and healthy.

I’m toasting Mr Ellis with a glass of Champagne in hopes that he work some wonders to move the guides into their next chapter.