Monday, May 28, 2012

The Mediterranean’s Most Beautiful Walk?

Yeah, yeah I know this is a Blog about food and wine.  But, for those of us who like to eat and drink well and try to keep the pounds off, it only stands to reason that I include ways to do just that.  This 3 mile walk along a jaw-dropping part of Italy’s coastline is the perfect way to work off a plate of pasta or a gelato.

The route parallels the sea between Santa Margherita and Portofino.  You can start in either location, however, I prefer to begin in Santa Margherita for many reasons.  If you head out from Santa Margherita in the morning, the sun is behind you (start in Portofino, and you’ll be blinded by the sun the entire way).   Another bonus for beginning in Santa Margherita are the views of Portofino that you encounter as you approach this enchanting spot.  As the sea-hugging road snakes around inlets, at each bend there are picture-postcard-perfect vistas of the tony little village whose harbor is filled with mega-Euro yachts.  Starting in Santa Margherita, also allows you time to recupe from the walk at one of Portofino’s sidewalk cafes---a great place to people watch.

Along the way you’ll swoon over the drop-dead gorgeous villas.  This is some of the world’s most expensive real estate, but don’t expect flamboyant---it’s the old world money of quiet elegance.  Most villas are very secluded from the road, however, can be viewed along the twisting road at vantage points that show their multi-level backsides cascading down to the glorious sea.   Many have unobstructed bazillion Euro views of Portofino, including its castle, lighthouse, and the pastel array of homes that line the crescent shaped harbor.  Oh, yes, and front row seats for the sunset.

One of my fave spots on the walk is the captivating little cove of
Paraggi.  Just a half of mile from Portofino, it’s a world away.  This small hamlet is a truly Italian spot, without the hype of its world-famous nearby sister.  In some ways, I prefer it to Portofino.

Once you’ve replenished your fluids, do not leave Portofino without a 15 minute uphill walk to its castle (follow the signs for the lighthouse).  Most of the postcards of Portofino are taken from the back of the “castello.”

Coming on our Truffle Tour this fall?  You’ll have the opportunity to do this walk.  Don’t want to walk?  No problem as we’ll visit both Santa Margherita and Portofino.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Savannah’s Great Southern Restaurants

BLT salad with fried green tomatoes

While I have traveled the world over many times, I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve visited only twenty-something states in the USA.  To add a few more states, I’m currently on a three week journey to Georgia and the Carolinas. My best meals thus far have been in Savannah.  Both restaurants are on my do-not-miss list for foodies.

Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room has been on the cover of Time magazine with articles in Gourmet, Esquire, the New York Times and countless other venues.  David Brinkley featured it on his evening news broadcast.  Celebrity visitors have been innumerable.  With all of this hoopla, my expectations of this 65 year old bastion of southern cooking were high…and Mrs. Wilkes delivered.
The restaurant is only open for three hours at lunch.  The line starts forming well before the doors open and snakes down and around the block---this continues until the restaurant closes.  I don’t like lines but I have to admit this one was actually fun…we were surrounded by locals, as well as folks from all over the country, who make regular pilgrimages to eat this “old-time-family-style food”.  Their rich stories of prior meals at the restaurant served as the appetizer course.

Formerly a boarding house, Mrs. Wilkes pays homage to its roots and offers only community tables.  Awaiting us on our table was >20 side dishes which were all passed among the eight diners.  My favorites included the rutabagas, squash, succotash, collard greens and the freshly made yeast rolls.  Large platters of delicious, non-greasy fried chicken were presented, along with beef stew and pork covered with an excellent BBQ sauce.  Those who possibly had room for dessert were served either banana pudding or cherry cobbler.  

The 4th generation of Wilkes are now running the restaurant---they are armed with MBA’s from the South’s finest universities.  Let’s hope that they don’t change a thing.

I came to The Pink House by accident.  I had read several of its reviews and comments were hot and cold.  I wasn’t sure if it was a candidate until, by chance, I walked by the mansion.  A compelling building, this National Landmark (which had served as headquarters for Sherman during the Civil War) drew me inside like a bee to honey.  Once in the interior I knew I couldn’t resist its charms.  Beautifully coiffed, this southern belle had all the glitz and glam of pre-war Gone with the Wind. 

Although it was early afternoon, all dinner reservations were taken for the next two nights.  I remembered that there was a tavern downstairs where diners were accommodated on a first-come first served basis (and it offered the exact menu as the main dining room).  We checked it out---while not the elegant antebellum allure of the upstairs, it was nonetheless romantic in a different way---dark, candlelit, with wooden beamed ceilings….a place where Rhett Butler would have courted a lady.

Fortunately, we were able to snag the last table in the secluded downstairs that evening.  The wine list was comprehensive and very well chosen…even wines by the glass were a huge cut above the usual ones offered.  I highly recommend the fried green tomato BLT—this one, however, is not a sandwich but an ethereal salad.  One of the Pink House’s signature dishes, this salad should not be missed.  The she-crab soup, made from Atlantic blue crab, was one of the best seafood bisques I’ve tasted.  My husband’s bourbon molasses grilled pork tenderloin (accompanied by sweet potatoes with pecan vanilla butter and collard greens) was absolutely flawless---according to him “the best pork tenderloin I’ve ever had.”  That’s saying something as if it’s on a menu, there’s a 90% chance he’ll order it.  To complete a perfect package, the service was sublime.

There are no accidents in life…I was destined to dine at the Pink House.  Furthermore, I was so impressed with the southern style food of Savannah that I have decided that Wine-Knows must bring a group here.  Put it on your calendars….Savannah and Charleston in the spring of 2014!   And, stay tuned for the Charleston reviews…

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Bordeaux’s Wine Districts

The Bordeaux wine region covers a vast area, approximately 300K acres of vines, making it the second largest wine region in the world behind the Languedoc.  (Napa Valley, in comparison, has only 45K acres of vines.)  With 8.5K winemaking chateaux, Bordeaux is physically divided by the Gironde River and its tributaries, the Dordogne and Garonne, into the “Left Bank” and the “Right Bank.”  Both banks have sub-districts.

The Medoc, referred to as the Left Bank,  is the name used to denote the land located on the left side of the Gironde estuary.  The Gironde,  which empties into the Atlantic, exerts a powerful effect on grape growing.  In the case of its Left Bank, the soil as well as the micro-climate are dramatically impacted by the Gironde. 

The Right Bank is composed of two small wine areas, St Emilion and Pomerol.  Located on the right side of the Gironde, both of these districts are reigned by Merlot due to the clay soil.  Cabernet Franc is also prevalent, especially in Pomerol.  The climate and damper, cool soils of the Right Bank makes it difficult for Cabernet Sauvignon to fully ripen, hence, it is not used as often.

In contrast to the Left Bank’s large chateaux, the Right Bank’s St Emilion and Pomerol is composed of small producers.  Moreover, the Right Bank growing area is miniscule in comparison to the Medoc.  Similar to the Medoc, however, there is little white wine vinified in either St Emilion or Pomerol.

Graves, located on the Left Bank of the Garonne River, is directly south of the city of Bordeaux and encompasses the sub-regions of Pessac-Leognan as well as the sweet wine district of Sauternes.  The area is known for its intensely gravel-like soil brought down via the Garonne by glaciers during the Ice Age.  In fact, Graves in French translates to “gravel.”  Both red and white wines are produced.  Cabernet Sauvignon is the most prevalent red varietal.  Whites allowed by law include Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle.

Entre Deux Mers, the least known of Bordeaux’s wine regions, is named for its position between the Dordogne and Garonne Rivers (actually, the literal translation is “between the two seas.”).   The soil is alluvial, washed down from millenniums of sediment from the Pyrenees and Central Massif mountains.  One of Bordeaux’s largest districts, it produces mainly whites (most of which are sweet wines) although red is also vinified.   The area’s wine offers good value as prices are very fair and quality has been improving.

Coming on this Fall’s trip to Bordeaux?  We will visit all of the areas with the exception of the last, Entre Deux Mers.  Additionally, Wine-Knows will be renting wine-making chateaux in the Medoc, St Emilion and Sauternes.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

C'est Frommage

Choosing cheese in an upscale French restaurant can be a daunting task---it’s not unusual for a Michelin star restaurant to have 30 from which to select.  Charles de Gaulle 50 years ago quipped, "How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?”   Today, France has 350-400 distinct types of cheese and some claim closer to 1,000 when you consider the different varieties within each type.  Below are my strategies for navigating the cheese cart ("chariot de frommage").

            1.  Less is more.   There are many ways to spot a novice but one of the best ways to do so is by the number of cheeses that are chosen.  Watch the French---typically they select 3-5 cheeses---any more is considered gluttonous or wasteful as cheese (usually eaten with bread) is very filling.

            2.  Explore!   One of my worst “Ugly American” moments was at a Michelin star restaurant 10 years ago in Burgundy.   Also dining that evening was a couple from the USA---we had noticed them some tables away because they were loud, demanding and having difficulty with the menu choices.  When the enormous cheese cart was wheeled to their table I saw their “deer in the headlights.”  The waiter offered a detailed overview of the cheeses, then the customer said in a disgusting tone of voice that everyone in the restaurant heard, “Don’t you have any brie?”   Only wanting what one could purchase at home is a huge missed opportunity, in fact, I recommend that you don’t choose anything that you know. 

          3.  Mix or match?    Are you a lover of goat cheese like I am?  If so, you may want to choose a sampler of just chèvre.   One of my faves is any of the chèvre logs covered with black ash, but I’m also wild about Valencay from the Loire Valley (easily identified by its truncated pyramid shape), and Banon from Provence (a small disc covered with a chestnut leaf).   If you want a mixture, I suggest one of the pre-mentioned goat cheeses, accompanied by Cantal (a luscious semi-hard cow cheese from the mountains of central France) or Reblochon (a soft, rich cow cheese from the Alps), along with gold medal winning Petit Agour (a semi-hard cheese produced from sheep in the Basque region with nutty profiles).   Blue lover?  If you know Roquefort (made from sheep), try another of France’s many blues.

        4.  Communicate.   If you’re a beginner let the server know and ask him to select for you.  If you have preferences (e.g. cow, goat or sheep), let this be known as well.  No, you don’t have to speak French to do so…sign language works, and don’t forget that a smile can work wonders.

       5.  Watch the Clock.  Cheese should be eaten in order from the mildest to strongest.  Prior to choosing, ask the server to arrange them in order placing the mildest cheese at the top of the plate (12 position of a clock), ending with the strongest (e.g. blue) at the 9 position on the clock.

Bon appétit...and remember, be adventurous!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Red Wine and Your Health

You have probably heard that red wine is good for you, but do you know exactly how it benefits your health? Here are some reasons why a glass of red wine a day may keep the cardiologist away.

Morley Safer’s piece on “The French Paradox” (aired on '60 minutes' in 1991) rocked the wine world by suggesting that red wine was responsible for the low levels of heart disease in France.  The French diet is laden with high amounts animal fat such as butter, cheese and cream.  How could it be they had a lower incidence of cardiac illness?
There is now plenty of scientific evidence to support the connection between red wine and heart protection. Pigments located in the skin of the red grapes are responsible for this heart-friendly action. These dark colored pigments are now known to be antioxidants.  Resveratrol, one of the anti-oxidants found in grape skin pigments and in the grape seeds (which are present during the process of fermentation), has been found to have many pro-cardiac functions.   
Resveratrol is thought to act in several ways to prevent heart problems.  First, it reduces the risk of damage to the lining of blood vessels---a damaged blood vessel is much more prone to attract bad cholesterol.  When blood vessels fill with bad cholesterol, blood pressure increases.  Moreover, a cholesterol plaque can break off and cause a heart attack or a stroke.   Last, resveratrol also helps thin the blood. When the blood is thin, blood cells have less chances of clotting together, thus lowering the likelihood of a heart attack or a stroke.
Moderate consumption of red wine (1-2 glasses per day)  has also been found to reduce the risk of heart disease.  As white wine contains no dark colored grape pigments, regrettably it does not offer any heart protection.   Red wine lovers, here’s to your health!    

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Breathalyzers Mandatory in France

A nation of wine drinkers has been ordered to take a deep breath.  As of July 1, 2012 drivers in France must have a certified breath-analysis device on board.  Those who do not will be fined.  Unfortunately, the law doesn't appear to require drivers to ever actually use the breathalyzers that must be in their cars.

France is the first country in the world to legislate this requirement.  Legal blood alcohol limit in France is 0.05.  The U.S. is less restrictive at 0.08. Norway and Sweden, however, have an almost zero tolerance for driving and drinking---theirs is a whopping 0.02. 

What prompted this drastic measure?  Deaths from motor accidents involving alcohol are very high in France---about 30% of all road fatalities are alcohol-related. 

Renting a car this summer in France?   No worries about trying to find a breathalyzer.  Your car, by law, will come stocked with a disposable, one-time use gadget---- otherwise you won’t be allowed to drive it off the lot.  You can find the contraception’s 2 Euro cost somewhere in the fine print of your contract…probably for 25 Euro.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Barbera---the Other Red Wine of Piedmont

Barbera is a type of grape and a wine.  The varietal is grown in several parts of Italy, however, it reaches rock-star status in the northwest district of Piedmont.  Native to Piedmont, Barbera is often considered less prestigious than the area’s Barolo & Barbaresco (see my last BLOG posting).  Nonetheless, Barbera is an appealing alternative as it can be drunk much younger.

Barbera is a varietal of interesting contradictions.  Its skin is rich with dark pigments which results in deeply colored wine.  The first incongruity relates to its color;  looking at this very dark red wine one expects it to have lots of tannins (that mouth-puckering feeling of astringency), but, surprisingly, it has very few tannins.  Another contradiction is the grape has lots of acids (which result in a “crisp” taste to the wine).   High acids are more commonly found in white varietals.   If one were blind-folded and tasted Barbera you would think it was a white wine because on its low tannins and high acids (crispness), both associated with whites.  

I’m a raving fan of the Barbera varietal in Piedmont because of its rich berry-cherry and spicy flavors.  Also, due to its high acids, it pairs beautifully with the region’s hearty food.   It doesn’t age as well as its counterparts Barolo and Barbaresco, however, many Piedmont producers are now aging Barbera in wooden casks which imparts tannin to the wine---this increases the wine’s longevity, as well adds further complexity.