Sunday, October 28, 2012

Caramel Lovers' Nirvana

Dulce de leche (DOOL say day LAY chay) has become a vibrant part of American gastronomy.  Long before Haagen-Dazs introduced its dulce de leche flavored ice cream in 1997, I was head-over-heels in love with this seductive caramel-like sauce.  Starbucks jumped on the culinary bandwagon shortly afterwards when it began offering dulce de leche coffee.  In the last 15 years it seems like everyone from famous Michelin star chefs to America’s Girl Scouts (who introduced cookies with dulce de leche in 2009) have been enticed with the ethereal edible.

Made from cow’s milk and sugar that has been slowly cooked over hours, dulce de leche is an art form in South America.  It is served everywhere…and on everything from simple morning toast to cookies.  Elaborate cakes can be filled with it…or topped with it.  Children are often served the spread on crackers as an after-school snack.  Dulce de leche candy is sold in every store and at every street kiosk.  It can accompany a pie on the side, or can be incorporated within.  One of my faves, however, is right out of the jar with nothing else!

While dulce de leche is thought to have originated in Argentina, other South American countries, including Chile and Uruguay, claim birth rights. Other historical sources contend that it may have come from India thousands of years ago.  Moreover, many other countries in the world have their own versions.  France, for example, has confiture de lait.  Mexico’s rendition (made from goat’s milk) is called cajeta

Regardless of the origin, like many recipes, dulce de leche is thought to have been created by an accident when milk and sugar were left on the stove too long.  Those of you who will be joining Wine-Knows in Chile and Argentina in March 2013 will have numerous opportunities to sample this yummy culinary mishap.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

TORRONTES---the Next "In" Wine

Torrontes wine country near the Andes 

I’m just back from nearly two months in Europe and my focus has now turned to the upcoming Wine-Knows South American tour.  Today’s a warm day in San Diego and I’m opening a bottle of Torrontes from Argentina….the perfect wine after a tango, but in my case, the perfect wine for dinner after a long first day back in the office.

Torrontes is not grown in the U.S. so it was a pleasant surprise on my first trip to Argentina nearly ten years ago.  I’ve mentioned this white varietal several times in my BLOG, but I’ve never devoted an entire posting to it.  I’m long overdue as it’s a perfect dry wine.  We often serve it as an aperitif in our home…and, there are few wine lovers who leave without asking me to write down the name of the wine.  Furthermore, Argentina’s recent export statistics show that I’m not the only one in the States who is loving this varietal.

For years it was thought that Torrontes had been brought by Spaniards to Argentina, however, recent DNA evidence shows this is not true.  Research has shown that it is not related to its namesake in Spain, but is apparently a hybrid of Muscat, a wine that excels at beguiling, powerful aromas of flowers and white stone fruits…which gets me to my next point.

One of the big reasons I love Torrontes is its aromatics.  Put your nose in a glass and you’ll wonder why it’s not sold as a perfume rather than a wine.  Floral notes, along with with melon, orange citrus, peach and apricot are almost as seductive as a bottle of Chanel.  Moreover, the varietal has fairly good acidity (I can’t stand flabby wines), as well as a smooth texture and mouth-feel. 

The varietal is the new "in" wine.  The New York Times published last year a review of twenty Torrontes that their panel of wine experts had tasted.  Each time I visit a retail wine shop, I notice new producers of Torrontes.  Last month I attended the annual meeting of the Society of Wine Educators and what do you think the seminar speakers from Argentina were touting?   You guessed it...Torrontes. We’re heading to Argentina in March 2013 for the Southern Hemisphere’s harvest…guess what I’ll be drinking!

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Ferrari of Chocolates

Today I’m in Torino (Turin) with the Wine-Knows Truffle tour.  While Torino is actually 150 miles from the city where Ferraris are made, this morning our group is visiting the Ferrari of chocolates, Guido Gobino.  Signor Gobino’s artisanal chocolates have become almost as famous as the sleek and sexy Ferrari and, like the car, they command top price.

To enter the “workshop,” you must be buzzed in by security.  At first glance the retail shop in which you enter could be a high-end gift shop in Manhattan or San Francisco.  Well coiffed, attractive female employees (straight out of a Fellini movie) snap you back to reality with their freshly starched white labcoats and formal welcome.  The smell of chocolate is intoxicating.  Everywhere I turn, I’m surrounded by drop-dead gorgeous packaging.  All senses are on overload. 

On the tour of the actual factory with Gobino, we learn that his family has been in the chocolate business for nearly 50 years,….but it is Guido who took the company on an entirely different trajectory.  In 1996 he opened his “artisanal workshop.”  It was Guido who began researching the field of chocolate and who discovered ancient recipes from Torino.  It was Guido who changed the focus to use of local products (such as Piedmont’s famous hazelnuts).  And, it was Guido who pushed for impeccable quality standards…with the same attention to quality details that are involved in making a Ferrari.

Signor Gobino is one of a huge number of chocolate-makers in town.  Torino has been associated with chocolate for over 400 years.  For a chocoholic, Torino is mecca.  In Torino’s central shopping district you’ll find Gucci, Prada, Ferragamo…mixed in between chocolate boutiques (one of which is Guido Gobino’s) and classy, old-world cafes with frescoed ceilings (that offer several types of chocolate drinks…and of course, chocolates.)   Gobino has become a legend among legends.   In the 2006 Winter Olympic Games, he was appointed the “Ambassador of Torino.”  The Academy of Chocolate in London, honored Gobino with the world’s best chocolate praline award.

While Gobino has chocolate boutiques popping up like mushrooms, today we’re fortunate to be at his actual “factory” (aka workshop).  I thought I was on sensory overload when we arrived in the retail shop attached to the factory, but now after touring the factory I’m almost delirious…a very good delirious.  Gobino ended the morning with a private chocolate tasting for the Wine-Knows group.  A Ferrari or a piece of Gobino’s praline chocolate made with extra virgin olive oil and topped with sea salt?  Hmmm…I’ll take the Gobino!   

Saturday, October 6, 2012

BOLOGNA: Italy’s Ground Zero for Foodies

                                   Pasta Bolognese, one of the city's many specialties

If there ever was a town in Italy that could be considered the country’s gastronomic capital, it would have to be Bologna.  Located between Milan and Florence in the province of Emilia-Romagna, this place has everything for your last meal.  Pasta here  has become an art form;  always home-made, it is accompanied by the region’s world-famous Parmiggiano-Reggiano cheese and often includes another of the area’s culinary treasures…Prosciutto di Parma.  (Since this is a last meal, none of us should mind the added cream and butter that often accompany its rich cuisine). 

I arrived in Bologna a few days ago.  I had visited the city in the early 1980’s and fallenl in love with Emilia-Romagna cooking.  My husband, however, has never been.  To prepare him for our visit, I read Fred Plotkin’s description of the city from his book, Italy for the Gourmet Traveler::  Bologna is a sensual paradise of fragrances, flavors, beautiful smiling people who frankly love life and all the pleasures it offers.”  It’s all that and more.

Just as I remember, the entire city is a treasure trove for eating.   While I’m not a fan of salami, today I passed deli’s that had mortadellas that were a foot tall (mortadella is another specialty of the area, something like our bologna lunchmeat in the US only bounding with flavor…and minus the artificial fillers).  Pasta shops are filled with a mind-boggling assortment of fresh products in every shape and size. My favorites are the filled pastas…in Bologna they can contain meat, cheese or vegetables (as it’s autumn, many are stuffed with pumpkin).  Last night I had a “I’ve-died-and-gone-to-heaven” rendition of pumpkin raviolis with an ethereal sage infused cream sauce that was topped with generous shavings of Parmiggiano.   Pasta Bolognese (one of my husband’s faves in the U.S.), was birthed in Bologna.  The classical sauce, which involves various cooking techniques such as sweating, sautéing and braising, is complex… and turns a simple pasta into sheer magic. 

Balsalmic vinegar is another famous food product of Emilia-Romagna.  Produced in Modena (45 minutes), acteo balsamico is an extraordinary ingredient in the local cuisine.  Almost every store in Bologna sells it, but remember, almost every store in Bologna sells something to do with food.  This, however, isn’t just any acteo balsamico…there are precious bottles of vinegar which are more than a 100 years old; also, young ones that are only 40 or 50 years of age.  Ounce for ounce, they’re almost as expensive as a Mouton-Rothchild.  We purchased a truffle-infused balsamico that was 20 years of age.  My husband, a great chef, loves to use aged balsalmico in sauces at the very end to “finish” the sauce.

Never been to Bologna?  Are you a John Grisham fan?   Don’t miss his fun read on the city, Playing for Pizza.  Grisham lived in Bologna the year he penned the humorous book and many of scenes and characters will catapult you instantly to this paradiso for food-lovers.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Rhone’s Illustrious Grape Varieties

Northern Rhone  

While I love wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy, a Rhone just might be my first choice to accompany a special occasion meal.  One of my all time favorite wines to ever pass these lips was a La Turque by Guigal (I had it 12 years ago but can still recall that the earth moved under my feet.).   For the last few days, my husband and I have been in the Rhone finalizing details for the 2013 harvest tour for Wine-Knows Travel.

The Rhone Valley is France’s 3rd largest wine district (only the Languedoc-Rousillon and Bordeaux produce more wine).  The district is so large and diverse that it is divided into two separate regions.  The Northern Rhone is home to the world-class Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie wines (of which La Turque is one).  The Southern part includes the equally renown Chateauneuf-du-Pape vineyards. 

There are many grape varietals allowed by law in the Rhone, but three stand-out as the “holy trinity” of the Rhone’s reds:  Syrah, Greanache & Mouvedre.  Syrah is the grape with the greatest potential for quality in the Northern Rhone…most of its pinnacle wines (are crafted from Syrah as a single varietal wine, or from a blend in which a considerable percentage is Syrah (La Turque is >90% Syrah).  Grenache, more popular in the Southern Rhone due to its need for warm weather, is often blended with other grapes.  Mouvedre (frequently referred to as Mataro in the US), likewise, is often used for blending.  The grape, however, becomes perfection as a single varietal in the wines of Bandol (located in the southern-most Rhone on the Mediterranean Sea).  Other important reds grown in the Rhone include Cinsault and Carignan.  Both of these grapes are typically used in blends rather than single varietals

The Rhone isn’t just about reds…one of my favorite white varietals is Viognier.  This wine is luscious with seductive aromatics of white flowers, stone fruits and honey.  Roussane, an indigenous grape, is another personal fave.  In the Northern Rhone, Roussane reaches rock-star status.  Marsanne, which also originated in the Rhone, is often combined with Roussane for more complexity.  Clairette, a sun loving grape that is grown in the southern part, is also made into sparkling wine.  Muscat, which is similarly added to sparkling blends, is additionally vinified into a well known dessert wine, Beaume de Venise.

Provence, our home base on this trip as well as next year’s harvest tour, is located in the Southern Rhone.   This area of the wine district is a jewel-box filled with colorful outdoor markets and some of France’s best olive oil, hence, Provence is an added bonus for the gourmet traveler.   On the other hand, the region’s wines are so spectacular that one doesn’t hardly needs any additional reasons to visit the Rhone.