Carnival season in Crete: Fat Tuesday & Smoky Thursday

April 1st, 2007

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Just turning the corner along Rethymnon’s Venetian harbor, a strong gust of wind almost caught me off balance - and with this surging spring wind, I caught a heady whiff of grilled meat. Overhead, holiday lights outlined masks strung across streets in the town’s old quarter. Music blared as costumed kids paraded in clusters or holding a parent’s hand. We stepped aside as Smoky Thursday crowds ambled past, young revelers behind masks. In all parts of Greece, we were told later, high-jinks and heaps of meat on the grill are the tradition on this Thursday before Shrove Tuesday. Both are days of (over) indulgence before Lent’s long privation, the forty days leading to Easter when no meat can be eaten. For devout Greek Orthodox practitioners, no cheese, nor any oil pass their lips during Lent. The practice is Orthodox, but the carnival atmosphere (dampened by a light rain) in this busy port on Crete’s north coast had a decidedly Venetian air - not surprising after four hundred years of Venetian occupation. We ducked into one of the snug bars near the harbor for a warming nip of raki and noted locals sipping the same clear alcohol distilled from grape must. Drummers marched past, masks appeared and vanished in the narrow streets, and a throng of teenage boys in wild, colorful wigs pranced along, (partially) disguised. We walked back to the hotel, past the cybercafé now filled to overflowing under a broad awning’s protection from the rain - I noticed that the pink and blue “wigs” were taking a cyber break.

But spring in Crete means more than Carnival antics and the hiss of meat on the grill. During a weekend at the eastern edge of this long, mountain-ridged island, we spent a day with friends, driving along steeply winding roads into the hills above Agios Nikolaos. Wild almond trees in bloom sponged soft pastel tints across arid, rock-strewn pastureland. We paused as sheep scampered across the road; villages were silent, shuttered. One might wonder if anyone lived there. Artemis was driving, and rolled down the window to ask directions of a woman dressed in black. “You lookin’ for greens?” the old woman spoke first. “You know where to find ‘em?” Their short conversation gave Artemis directions to a taverna, but yielded no secrets about where to find ‘horta’, the wild spring greens so prized to fill flaky pita (pies) as well as to keep for medicinal uses. We drove on to a smaller village for lunch in a simple taverna with no sign posted outside - one has to know the lay of the land for lunch in these hills.

Settling into our places at a pine table, I asked “What’s for lunch?” The house specialty, I was told: boiled goat. Not kid, nothing like cabrito (kid, a favorite for Mexican Easter feasts) that I had tasted, just the long-simmered goat. The cook and his wife seemed to be eagerly awaiting our arrival. First, a flotilla of plates arrived for us to share and sample: eggplant salad, a dish of dakos (barley buns moistened with olive oil, then spread with crushed tomatoes and crumbled feta cheese), pickled octopus, herbed beans, country bread and succulent black olives. Then, a bowl of broth before the main course was set before us all: a platter of steaming meat and carrots. The first bite was surprisingly tender, definitely delicious. A side of macaroni and a dish of greens came around, a light red wine was poured again, and I thought: Ah, spring in Crete, prefect timing for a memorable lunch of boiled goat!

Fresh spring flavors & cook-it ideas

March 31st, 2007

Cook-it is a fat file, an ever-expanding collection of new variations on old themes -  both in my laptop and, well, as paper clippings.  Ours will never win prizes in a ‘paperless office’ competition.  Nor will the shelves hold any more cookbooks, but here we are with another little stack for the groaning boards.  On a theme of Chill-it, this time I popped for fresh ideas on sorbets and ice creams in a tidy volume by Shona Crawford Poole, simply:

ice cream, published by Conran Octopus in a revised edition, 2001. This indispensible guide to simple ices, frozen yogurt and fruit gelatos also includes basic sauces and crisp tuiles to serve on the side. I found this treasure while browsing in a Volos bookstore, and keep it close at hand.

Crazy Water Pickled Lemons, a rich collection of Mediterranean recipes by Diana Henry is another recent addition to the shelf - though it is more often on the kitchen counter.  Published by Mitchel Beazley in 2002, this well organized read offers a fresh look at culinary traditions surrounding the ‘Middle Earth Sea’.  Seemingly complex dishes become approachable, quotations enrich recipe pages, and Jason Lowe’s photos seem to call out: bon appétit!

eggs by the master chef, Michel Roux, is a how-to that inspires one to whip up an eggy Easter soufflé of cheddar, tangy spring sorrel and savory anchovies. The range of recipes doesn’t stop at the brunch menu, but takes you right through to cinnamon ice cream for dessert.

The Illustrated Greek Wine Book by Nico Manessis, second edition, deserves a place in the wine-lover’s collection of references.  Published by Olive Press Publications (in Corfu), it is a compact, stiff paperback book to update travelers on progress in Greek wine making.  In fact, use it as a guide to Greek geography: the terrain, products and people in profile - to read on the way, or on the way back to Greece.

Spring markets, a first taste of Greece

March 19th, 2007

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A recent whirl south took us to Crete, then on to Athens and central Greece. And what was our first stop in Athens? The city’s huge Central Market, even late on a Saturday morning is in constant motion. Flanking the hall’s front doors are aisles of butchers’ stalls - all hung and strung with sides, hinds, heads and tails of beef, pork, mutton and lamb. There appears to be a customer for every morsel, including sheep heads threaded on a skewer; nothing goes to waste. But in the center of this hubbub, under the sky-lit roof, one finds fish and shellfish fresh out of Mediterranean waters. As we arrived, fish vendors were still wheeling in tubs of fish, misting their glistening displays and hawking scaly creatures of all sizes. Slabs of tuna and swordfish, red rock fish (the Greek names are, well, Greek…), and many little slivers of fish akin to smelt - ready to be fried or grilled. This is a kalamari afficianado’s (for language soup!) dream market, for all sorts and sizes of octopus and squid. These tentacled delicacies sell out fast, so a shopper is advised to arrive early.

Directly across Athinas street from Athens’ Central Market, a pedestrian passage is lined with vendors of fruits and vegetables. Shoppers fill their sacks with just-picked oranges, long cucumbers, zucchini and tomatoes - and the season’s first strawberries. We retraced our steps back through the market hall, and exited by way of side doors (wondering what people were eating in a spare and bare, smoky-windowed café in a rear corner of the hall) and found ourselves surrounded by a completely different arrary of products. Here we found cheese sellers, and along the same crowded walkers’ passage, we admired Greek olives large and small, oily or brined - too difficult to resist. This is where to find the eastern Mediterranean’s best dried fruits, as well as stalls selling only nuts. Only nuts? The Greeks top the list of European nut consumers, just one of the reasons a great selection is found here. Turkish pistachios, Greek walnuts, peanuts, macadamias and almonds are sold in natural, salted or spiced variations. A big sack of California almonds sat in a row with all the rest. I was amused, watching a young man take an almond out of an open sack: he showed it to his bright-eyed, toddling daughter, then popped it into her mouth. She bit, both grinned and continued, hand in hand, on their rounds.

Inside the almond story: a Volos adventure

February 24th, 2007

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He waved an arm toward the valley beyond us, saying… “About 1,500 hectares in almonds here, along with olive trees and some pasture”. The sheep behind me, bleating in an off-key chorus, were the only other beings that I could see for miles around. Our guide, George, was at the wheel after this ‘vista stop’ on a morning’s tutorial. The subject: almonds. The place: central Greece, a five hour bus ride north of Athens. And the season: February, when almonds begin to bloom. This professor of Pommology at the University in Volos is an expert on the almond and all sorts of other fruits and nuts. His father and grandfather had large fruit groves and worked the land in these temperate valleys; I was in good hands to learn more about this Mediterranean ingredient. Studies that George (Dr. Nanos) and his colleagues had done on irrigation in almond groves and other production research were posted on the internet, and led me to contact him about a possible visit. The adventure was lined up for the second week in February, a bit early for full almond blossom time. What luck- trees were in full boom two weeks early! Ater our three days in almond heaven, my head was spinning with not only facts, but strong visual impressions of stunning settings: mountains silhouetted against the horizon, tidy harbors in the foreground, and rich valley land stretching in between crossroads and villages. There is more to this almond adventure, not to mention the gooey pastry-sampling story to be told.

2007: cook/travel/eat/learn

January 23rd, 2007

Early in the year, my thoughts turn to travel. In fact, my thoughts revolve around travel, cooking and…learning most of the time! Skimming through websites of cooking classes, I came to a full stop on two, one north and one south. In Normandy, classes run in the home and kitchen of well known author Susan H. Loomis have taken on tempting variations for the spring season. The first week in April (just before Easter) she offers cooking classes in tandem with a poet. Classes with James Navé, founder of the Writing Salon and well known for both his readings and poems, are woven into a week of cuisine and conversation. Could be a scintillating combination! Classes are kept to just seven participants; more details can be found on the website, www.onruetatin.com

When I say south, I do not exaggerate: go to Apulia, on the heel of Italy’s elegant boot to find a lively cooking school in Lecce. There, Silvestro Silvestori’s school holds classes for the week, the weekend, and even one-day classes on a special-request basis. It just takes one visit to the website, www.awaitingtable.com to gather that this is not only a dynamic cooking school, but that the historic setting is remarkable - and the Apulian cuisine quite a diverse mix of specialties from the sea and earth. For more information, a message to Silvestro at info@awaitingtable.com will answer queries on their plans and projects this year. The November Olive Harvest Week is a most appealing course, spending time with the olive harvesters, cooks and in local markets. More information on this location in southern Italy is only a tap away. I am tempted to travel south (in grey November, why not?) to cook, eat, learn - and relax!

A little grateful munching

December 31st, 2006

In these last hours of 2006, I am awash with gratitude. There are so many kind, generous and talented people to thank - the eGullet Society for Culinary Arts & Letters and the Culinary Trust top the list, as these culinary wizards waved their magic wand in my direction. The grant to research and finish the Ah, Almonds book has been a great help, spurring me on. Their generosity made travel to Spanish Catalonia possible last September. In Reus, I spoke with Mr. Barriach, director of the almond processors, Morella Nuts. He spoke of his concerns and of the role his Morella research team is playing in collaboration with Califronia Almond Board researchers on almonds’ nutritive role in fighting ‘the obesity epidemic’. During that busy week, Carme Ruscalleda - a three-star Michelin chef on the Costa Brava - enthusiastically shared her ideas along with clever twists on Catalan traditions using almonds. I had asked for a short interview, but after two hours we shook hands and agreed to meet again! These are but two of the high points of the travel and research in Catalonia. There are numerous individuals to whom I am grateful (as I munch on a few paprika-roasted almonds -yes, from Casa Gispert in Barcelona) and look back on 2006. My daughter, Julia, introduced me to Olympe Versini during a memorable autumn dinner at Casa Olyme in Paris - Merci, Julia! An interview with this Corsican chef will appear on vagabondgourmand in upcoming months.

During a thoroughly relaxing Noël in south eastern France, I spent an afternoon at La Fenière in Lourmarin, learning about les Treize Desserts, the finale of a Provençal Noël feast. I want to thank Reine Sammut for taking time to talk with me about her favorite variations on the almond theme. The frosty Calissons d’Aix glacées that topped off our La Fenière lunch were just a sample of this well known chef’s inspired interpretations of sweet Mediterranean traditions. Our welcoming Noël hostess in Apt, Mme Virginie, graciously let me restore my sleep bank and offered support through the weeks since my mother’s passing. To all of these kind individuals, and to Michel - chief proof-reader, chef extraordinaire and the driving force on yet another project - I am ever grateful.

Merci et Bonne Nouvelle Année 2007!

Wrapping up Flavor

December 15th, 2006

Another year of tasting and traveling is almost behind us. The packages have been wrapped and sent to our near & dear ones in distant spots around Europe and North America, but I’m still subject to last minute gift ideas - an almond torrone or perhaps a Spanish fig cake might delight a special friend. Delinostrum to the rescue! Ordering gifts of food specialties from their web site, www.delinostrum.com takes the hassle out of shopping and shipping. The quality of their products is always high, and the range is very well chosen. This is my quick-shopper stop for Spanish almonds, with a tantalyzing selection of artisanal torrones (a Spanish almond and honey confection), and packets of Marcona and Llarghetta almonds straight from my favorite foodie nook in Barcelona: Casa Gispert. If I can’t zip south to the Catalan capital, Delinostrum saves the day, just short of the real experience of poking around in the ancient grocery while the aromas of roasting almonds or coffee fill the air. Almonds only begin the list of Delinostrum shipable specialties…their olive oils and vinegars are excellent, too.

For Italian food specialties, I turn to www.gustiamo.com, whose site is a wonderland of products and information. For Sicilian sweets and jams or the lightest, sweet loaves of Panettone, this is an excellent gift source. If not for Christmas, gustiamo’s savory and sweet temptations solve the hostess-gift puzzle. Beatrice Ughi, whose spirit and savvy shines through in the gustiamo forums, is the manager and contact at gustiamo. Gifts are dispatched with alacrity from gustiamo’s warehouse in the US. It is difficult to choose with such a wide range of specialties. Any (or many!) would be a great introductory taste for friends planning travel to Italy in the upcoming new year. And why not sample a special morsel while toasting the old year and ringing in 2007?

Markets in Paris - a Sunday treat!

October 16th, 2006
Sundays in Paris begin with a stroll through the market! On a recent weekend in the City of Light, three very different markets offered us a range of seasonal specialties. In brief, I recommend…. 1) Saint-Eustache/Les Halles, in the shadow of Saint-Eustache church, this rather small but condensed market brings back to life the neighborhood ambiance of the former grand Halles market (on a much smaller scale!). Find your way to the 1st arrondisement early enough to enjoy a good selection of fresh fruits and cheeses. By 1:00, vendors are busily dismantling their stalls. 2) Beauvau Market Hall on the Place d’Aligre is the hub of a market that sprawls through adjoining streets in the 12th (Metro: Ledru Rollin). If you love middle eastern cusine, this is the place to shop. Lebanese breads bake on domed griddles, and plump fresh dates (looking more like gigantic grapes) glow in the autumn sunshine. Pomegranates, neat rows of pears and colorful spices are great temptations in a setting that feels more like a souk than a Paris street market. Inside the Beauvau hall, I always stop at a corner stall, Sur les Quais (tel: 01 43 43 21 09) for oils, olives and all sorts of tantalyzing spices: try their own delectable tomato caviar! 3) Marché Auguste-Blanqui is just off the place d’Italie at rue Barrault. Among my Sunday discoveries were the Vergers de Picardie from Douilly, selling many varieties of apples, pears and their own cider. Further along the aisle, I stopped at the Carpentier family stall for cheese (from Camembert to Cantal) as well as wines. This large stall is also at the Neuilly, Fosses la Chapelle, and Pontoise markets. But on Sunday, when the crowd is a mix of serious shoppers and families with kids in tow, these are three of my favorite spots to shop. A few other notable Sunday markets are: Marché Enfants rouges in the 3rd, Marché Monge in the 5th on Place Monge, Marché couvert St-Germain in the 6th, Marché couvert Europe in the 8th on rue Corvetto, and Marché Alibert in the 10th next to the hospital St-Louis. In some of the markets, the local ‘Mairie’/town hall has a table with information on markets as well as other points of interest in the quarter. For a more complete list, check the site: www.paris.fr/marches_parisiens

Tomato Caviar slathered on turkey steaks

October 11th, 2006

What’s for supper when we’ve just come home from Paris?
A quick stop at the butcher and baker, dig through the bag of market treasures, and a supper solution (c’est évident!) is: turkey breast steaks briefly braised under a mantle of tomato caviar (from a vendor in the Beauvau market),on the table in about 30 minutes:

2 shallots, trimmed and sliced, 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 teaspoon sugar

2 turkey steaks, paprika (LaVera from Spain, or sweet Hungarian), sea salt

tomato caviar, 1 or 2 tablespoons each steak; 3 tablespoons white wine to deglaze pan

In a cast-iron skillet, heat the olive oil and cook the shallots until they are wilted (not browned), sprinkle the sugar over them and push to the side of the skillet. Add a bit more olive oil, sear the turkey on one side, sprinkle each top with 1/2 teaspoon paprika, and turn to sear the seasoned side. Reduce the heat a bit, spread tomato caviar on top of each steak, cook for 5 minutes. Pour a little white wine into the sides of the pan to moisten the meat and deglaze, cover and cook over low until done - not more than a dozen minutes; sprinkle all with sea salt. To serve, scoop the shallots out onto each plate, carefully lay the hot turkey steaks on top with a drizzle of pan juices on the side. Camargue rice or organic brown rice is a good match for the turkey. Variations on this theme are many: try chicken breast steaks, veal, or thick pork chops (cooked longer).

Market day, every day in Pisa!

August 26th, 2006

When in Pisa, see the Leaning Tower, the famous Torre pendente. But the trick is in the timing - better early in the morning than in the noonday heat. Arriving with throngs of other travellers in high summer, we gazed, amazed, roasting with all the rest: Pisa’s splendid marble Duomo and the majestic, round Battistero are indeed wonders to behold. This assembly of architectural wonders are clustered together on a flat field, called the Camposanto. It may have been a distortion of the hard, shimmering Tuscan sun, but it even seemed that the elegant Baptistry was at a slight tilt. Someone in the crowd behind me, perhaps a bit tired of the scene in general, piped up:  “What else is there in Pisa?”

I was looking for a market and signs that life goes on beyond tourist zones, so we returned to Pisa on a cooler morning to see more of this important Tuscan city. Italian towns often hold their market day once or twice a week – or even once a month for antique markets. Waves of flapping, pointed-edged skirts and fringed tablecloths frequently dominate weekly markets, interspersed with house-wares and fishing tackle. Pisa has an arcaded space for the shirts, jeans, pots and pans, but an adjacent open air food market dominates the Piazza dele Vettovaglie, supplying shoppers with fruit and vegetables every day. The vendors’ stalls are spread across an intersection of walking streets at the heart of Pisa’s old town, tucked in between the university buildings and the banking and shopping arcades.

In the middle of the Piazza, I took a deep breath: melons lined up shoulder to shoulder, trays of just-picked peaches and little green local pears, ‘Pere Cosce‘, perfumed the air. Come closer for a sample sliver of sun-ripened melon, Grazie! Vendors arrange red bell peppers, onions large and small, fringy fennel bulbs, and perfect oval tomatoes – all in rows and ready to grill for antipasto platters. Fragile zucchini blossoms are sold on a few stalls, others display new garlic and potatoes. The Tuscan passion for parsley can be satisfied with healthy bouquets of prezzimolo. Ever on the move, I settled for a chunk of foccacia and a box of plums, then continued to explore this historic city.

Pisa’s past as a major maritime power, the rival of mighty Genoa in the 13th century, set the city apart, not only in commerce but as a crucible for artistic activity. Influential architect and sculptor, Giovanni Pisano was the first in a line of Pisa’s artists who worked in Italy’s early gothic era. The city of over 90,000 people is still a busy crossroads (the airport close to the center now has connections to New York), continuing in its tradition of trade and industry.

This quick taste of Pisa acted as an appetizer – our next visit will be on a Wednesday to take in a farmer’s market with more medieval ambiance, set in Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II.

What else is there is Pisa? Beyond the tower and impressive Piazza dei Miracoli, dip into Pisa’s history, stroll under the arcades and along the Arno, cross the broad Piazza dei Cavalieri to a neighborhood trattoria on a summer day….and don’t miss the market!

Notes: The city literally lights up in the middle of June with a festival for Pisa’s patron saint, Rainier, with Luminara.  Lamps and candles light the Arno, and torches line the streets where music and dancing precede a splash of fireworks against the summer sky.  Also note that Pisa has a monthly antiques market (along with Arezzo, is one of the best spots for Tuscan collectibles and antiques).

Best Bites, Pisa: I studied the menu posted outside Osteria dei Cavalieri, just a few steps from the historic Piazza. It was appealing, but crowded with locals in mid-July, graduates celebrating their last day at the university.  Instead, we booked a table at La Clessidra (The Hourglass), via Santa Cecilia 34, a quiet wine shop serving honest (and inspired!) dishes paired with Tuscan wines.  A memorable primi (first course) combined paper-thin slices of smoked tuna, surrounded by carrot ‘spaghettis’ ribbons, all subtly dressed and topped with chopped almonds. We will return – in a cooler season – for more bites of Pisa’s inventive cuisine.

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