Sunday, October 27, 2013

Prosecco is CROATIAN in Origin !

DNA technology is responsible for apprehending criminals, curing diseases that were once thought incurable, as well as finally putting to rest the misleading origin of many of the world’s wine grapes.  Prosecco, an increasingly popular Italian sparkling wine, is one of the latest to have its birthplace accurately identified…and it’s not Italy!

First things first.  Prosecco is the name of the grape, but it’s also the name of the bubbly.  This wine comes from the hills outside of Venice.  A few years ago, this area was granted a special status (DOCG) by the Italian government.  Similar to the Italian wine laws that protect the coveted Barolo, Barbaresco and Brunello de Montalcino, legally only grapes from the Prosecco area can be used to make the sparkler.  The law is meant to protect “knock-off” bubblies from being called Prosecco. 

Now, back to the DNA findings.  The Prosecco grape has been shown through genetic analysis to come from Croatia…probably the Istrian Peninsula which is contiguous with Italy.  (After World War I Istria actually became part of Italy, but it was given to Yugoslavia post World War II.  Yugoslavia was later carved up and the Istrian Peninsula became part of Croatia.)   Prosecco’s Croatian origin has caused quite a scandal in the European Union (EU).   The new Italian wine laws granting a protected place of origin (DOCG) to Prosecco have mandated that Croatia’s “Prosec” (a sweet wine) must change its name to something else as it’s too similiar to the protected name of Prosecco.  How ironic is that?  The grape ends up being Croatian by birth, but the Croats have to change the name of their wine to accommodate Italy’s wine laws.

The 2014 tour to Croatia has the option of starting in Venice.  Come have a Bellini (Prosecco mixed with peach juice)  with us on the Grand Canal, and then we’ll hop a short ferry to the Istrian peninsula where we’ll sample their Prosec….and we’ll certainly not touch the subject of EU politics.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Sicily’s Fall Harvest—a Bounty for Wine & Food Lovers

Fall's plethora in Palermo's most famous outdoor market

October is idyllic in Sicily.   While summer is Dante’s inferno-hot and mega-crowded---especially in popular tourist spots---October brings cooler temperatures, as well as significantly fewer crowds.  The grape harvest begins in August and the picking continues through September.  In October wineries are in full swing with the new vintage—for an oenophile, it’s the perfect time to visit.  If you’re coming on the 2014 October tour we’ll be staying at one of Sicily’s most revered wine estates and we’ll have ample opportunity to watch up close all of the processes involved in making a wine.  But, wine is just one of the many culinary abundances of Sicily in the fall months.

Sea salt from Sicily is highly-prized.  The harvest begins in August and continues through early October.  Fall also is the season for Sicily’s pistachio and hazelnut harvest...these nuts frequently appear in Sicily’s traditional handed-down-over- generations dessert recipes.   But, perhaps the most famous of all of the Sicilian food products produced during the fall months is its olive oil.  The group visiting Sicily with Wine-Knows next year will be staying on an olive estate, and you will have the option to participate in the harvest and make the oil.

Sicily’s fall vegetables read like a who’s who of its gastronomic world.  Eggplants, onions and an array of peppers in red, oranges and yellow compose the holy trinity of fall dining.  One of the island’s most famous dishes is caponata (the Sicilian version of ratatouille.)   Sicily’s rendition includes capers, another jewel in the island’s culinary crown.  Sicilian capers, preserved in local sea salt, are coveted by Michelin star chefs around the globe.   Last, we can’t discuss Sicilian cooking without discussing tomatoes.  Early fall brings over-flowing market stalls full of vine-ripened heirloom tomatoes.  Late fall ushers in the year’s crop of sun-dried tomatoes that are used throughout the other seasons in many of Sicily’s classical dishes.

Stay tuned for the upcoming blog posting on Sicily’s capers.…once you’ve tasted their salted version, you’ll never return to the brined capers popular in the US.

Viva Sicilia!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Cork v Screwcap---New Zealand Takes the Lead

We’ve all been there:  a special bottle of wine---ceremoniously opened for a special event.  BOOM!  The wine smells horrible with an unmistakable odor of mold.   The culprit is tricholoranisole, more commonly known as TCA.  In short, the wine is “corked.”   TCA is caused by defective corks and it is estimated that somewhere between 5-8% of wine has some degree of this cork taint.  New Zealand winemakers, however, have bucked a huge tradition by switching to screw-caps…even on their premium wines.

Screw-top enclosures have been used on food products since the 19th century, but they weren’t used for wine bottles until the 1950’s.  A few Australian wineries were among the early adopters, but the adventuresome New Zealand wine industry was the first to adopt screw-caps in masse.  Market-conscious American vintners are still testing the treacherous waters of public opinion.  The tradition-driven French are less receptive, as are most Europeans.

Is this resistance all about tradition?  Some of you might be thinking “No, it’s because the slow passage of oxygen through a porous cork allows the wine to age better!”  Others might be pondering that the metal of the screw-top could react with the wine and create problems.  Neither of these has been proven to be true.

Flying in the face of tradition, for the last 10 years the Kiwi’s have been leading the effort to convert to screw-caps.  Currently, over > 90% of New Zealand’s wines are made with metal enclosures.  The country has been on the cutting edge of debunking the myth that screw-caps are substandard.  There are plenty of studies now that offer ample evidence that spending money to seal wine with anything other than a metal cap is a significant risk.  New Zealand has also discredited the argument that screw-cap use is economically motivated as screw-cap equipment requires a significant financial investment.

As there is a lack of data on the ability of wine to age over decades with a metal cap, no one knows for sure what the long term effect of screw-tops will be.  Personally, I will gladly follow Chubby Checker’s  “Let’s do the twist!”

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Croatia---the New Tuscany

                                                       Croatia or Tuscany?  Croatia!
First the bad news: Croatia is no longer a best-kept secret.  But, the good news is that it if you’re a lover of Tuscany, you’re going to fall head-over-heels for northern Croatia.  I find Croatia’s Istrian peninsula (which borders Italy) has a Tuscan feel reminiscent of the Tuscany I found during my first visit in the mid-1970’s…before this spectacular countryside became the darling poster-child of all of Italy.  Much of the Tuscany I loved is no longer.  Istria, however, catapults me back to the Tuscan countryside of 40 years ago with its jaw-dropping rolling hills dotted with castles, boutique wineries, artisanal olive oil producers, and a flourishing foodie scene---all with significantly fewer tourists and surrounded by a blow-your-mind coastline of epoch beauty. 

Like Tuscany, Istria has a long tradition of wine-making.  Similarly to Tuscany, it focused for years on quantity rather than quality.   In Italy, the change came in the 1980’s as the Tuscans began experimenting with international grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, and adopting stringent quality control practices.  In Croatia, the quality initiatives didn’t begin until post-communism in the 1990’s, when a wave of young Croatian winemakers began pushing the envelope.  Applying the latest wine technology, hiring well-known international wine consultants and reducing their yields, the Croats started winning international awards paralleling what the Tuscans had done earlier.

The same can be said for olive oil, another staple of Tuscany. The Istrian peninsula has always depended on olive oil for its cuisine, but, like its Tuscan counterpart following World War II, the quality could have been better.    In the last 20 years, >145 olive oil producers have sprung up in Croatia’s Istria…most of them small-scale, but all focused on the best extra-virgin oil.

Croatia’s breathtaking seaside is not the only added bonus when compared to Tuscany.  The Istrian peninsula has a magic gastronomic bullet that Tuscany does not---the much coveted white truffle.  Referred to as “white diamonds” in the culinary world, white truffles do not grow in Tuscany (black truffles, which are present in Tuscany, are much inferior to the white).

Now that the secret is out, I hope that you can join us on our trip to this special part of Croatia before the hordes of tourists change it like they’ve changed my beloved Tuscany.  Check it out at

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

One of the World’s Most Expensive Spices

                                                      Green cardomom is the highest quality

I’ve just spent 10 glorious days on a foodie’s trip in Turkey.  While I’ve always been a raving fan of cardomom (also spelled cardomon), I was reminded during this decadent tasting journey of how much I adore the spice.  It was used throughout the country in their cuisine in everything from coffee to desserts, and many dishes in between as a savory component.

Cardomom is an intensely aromatic, complex, and utterly beguiling spice that is indigenous to India.   It is often one of the secret components in India’s most flavorful curries.  The Scandinavians (who were a strong maritime power during the time when Constaninople was the center of the universe and the epicenter of world’s spice market), use cardomom in many of their sweet breakfast breads, cookies and other baked goods.  I first learned to appreciate the spice over 30 years ago in a Middle Eastern cooking class where it was a component of a rice dish, as well as the baklava.

On a recent visit to Istanbul’s fascinating Spice Market I saw an array different types of cardomom.  It was here in speaking with a vendor that I learned that cardomom seeds come from a plant that belongs to the ginger family.  Prices clearly indicated that the green cardamom was the most valuable---when I smelled it I knew why as the green seeds were much more pungent.  Black seeds, although aromatic, didn’t deliver the complex profile of the green.   Ground cardamom could be purchased, however, it quickly looses its flavor so it was not recommended by the spice merchants. 

Looking for cardomom in the US?  If you live in a large metropolitan area, I suggest a Middle Eastern market where the seeds are likely to be fresher since the spice is frequently purchased for their cooking.  Do keep in mind that cardomom  is surpassed in cost only by saffron and vanilla---but a little goes a long way so the cost is really negligible considering the  flavor it provides.  

If you’re wondering what to do with  cardamom, just substitute it in lieu of cinnamon.  With the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, for example, it could easily be used in a pumpkin pie, or for that matter in a home-made cranberry sauce or chutney.   Once you’ve smelled cardamom and tasted it, there will be no turning back.