Saturday, January 25, 2014

La Fiorita Brunello and the hot date at home

“Shall I open the wine?” my friend asked as he began preparing a magnificent dinner for two.  I was about to jump in the shower. “No that’s okay.” I had only been thinking of not getting started on this bottle as an aperitivo – I wanted to make sure we saved it for the duck confit to come. 

The wine in question was a lovely bottle of 2007 La Fiorita Brunello di Montalcino. By the end of the night I had learned two things.  One – that I don’t drink enough Brunello.  And two – that this was a wine that needed to breathe to be fully enjoyed. 

After I primped for a “hot date at home,” I stepped into the kitchen on improbable stilettos, breathed in the wonderful scents, and tipped small pours of wine into tall stemware.  And that’s when the grainy tannins and the tightness hit me.  This wine needs oxygen!  I spun the stems of our glasses.  He sipped and liked it.  “It will improve,” I assured him.  “It needs to breathe.” 

There was no decanter in the rustic kitchen that weekend, but I spied a large Mason jar and unceremoniously dumped the lovely Italian into it.  Dinner was almost ready, and I wanted oxygen to start doing its work on the wine for as long as possible.

Throughout the candlelit meal of duck confit with white truffle, mixed green salad, haricot verts, and potatoes gratin, I poured small portions of wine and spun the glasses each time – willing it to evolve. 

At the end of an exquisite dinner, I poured two final glasses of this King of Wines from that lowly workhorse of the kitchen, the Mason jar.  We adjourned from the table and curled up on the couch.  A roaring fire cast dancing lights on the bowls of our glasses.  I crossed my fishnet-clad legs and took a sip.  I smiled at my companion.  “Now,” I declared, “it’s perfect.”

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Farm to fingers - visit to Carlingford Oyster Farm

Everyone knows that the shorter the distance food travels, the fresher it is when you take a bite. My visit to Carlingford Oyster Farm gave me a rare treat of dining on oysters just pulled from salt water. 

The visit was arranged by Failte Ireland for a dozen bloggers who had been in the country for TBEX. As we gazed out on an inlet at low tide, the water dark on the slick gray sandbanks, we were welcomed by the farm's co-director, Kian Louet-Feisser.  The oyster farm is in northeast Ireland in the compact village of Carlingford, which boasts an 800 year old Norman castle, some very cute pubs, and a lovely Georgian inn and restaurant, the Ghan house.  Kian - a tall, affable man with zero pretension - explained that they purchase young Pacific oysters (faster growing and more disease-resistant than Atlantic ones) from a hatchery in Normandy, France. The French merchant was there on the day of our visit. "Go on, ask him something," Kian encouraged our group of mostly North Americans. "He's got a lovely accent," completely unaware of how charming we found his brogue.  Kian scooped a handful of baby oysters out of a flat black mesh bag and passed them around. At four months, they were slightly smaller than dimes.  The farm was started by Kian's father, who, now in his 70s, has begun a new project of raising oysters from 20 day old larvae.  They are so small at that stage that a million fit into a tablespoon. We saw them at one month - specks as small as a newborn's fingernail- resting on black rubber disks.  Kian waved a long arm at his dad, who was standing on the back of a flatbed truck, "Keeps him out of trouble." The patriarch laughed, his wildly curling gray hair a testament to a life lived in the winds of the coast.

These bivalves grow at different rates- it takes between 2-5 years for them to mature- so the same age oysters will range in size.  Therefore, much of the work at the farm involves "grading" the oysters - sizing them with a mechanical sieve. Those large enough are stored on land in saltwater tanks, the rest go back in the inlet. Kian explained, "It takes a year to grade all the oysters we have. It's like painting one of those large American bridges - by the time you're finished you have to start again." When they reach the weight of 80-100 grams, they're ready for market. He then led us to the cement building where mature oysters were resting in tanks of flowing salt water.  Kian pulled out a shallow plastic bin with lumpy shells that held the promise of an early evening snack. 

We followed him to the gravel outside and huddled closely to watch him demonstrate proper opening technique - moving the knife gently back and forth until the hinge clicked open and then wiggling the blade up the side of the shell. Then he cut the meat away from the underside and began handing them out.  We took the shells eagerly in hand, upending them to slurp the oysters, salt water running off our chins and fingers. Around that time, Kian's wife Mary strode forth, her light blond hair stirring in the breeze as she set a picnic basket of Prosecco on quickly-created table of crates.  She passed out glasses of Italian sparkling wine, the bubbles delightfully washing down the salt water-washed flesh of generously sized oysters.

The darkening sky signaled it was time for our visit to end.  We toasted to the generosity of Kian and Mary and to the pleasure of farm to finger dining on the shores of Carlingford, Ireland. 

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Crunch & fizz - fried chicken and Cava

Recently I received inspiration - not quite divine, but close - to cook homemade fried chicken in my very own West Orange kitchen.  Now, this lady has barely deep fried in her life, so it was all or nothing tonight at home on my range.

I got ready for a messy (five prep bowls and lots of scattered flour) night of cooking, and I carefully followed the recipe for buttermilk-brined fried chicken.  A dozen organic chicken legs were battered and coated in seasoned flour.   A couple inches of oil was heating up in my dutch oven.  And a just-bought bottle of Cava was cooling down in my freezer.

It occurred to me recently that Cava, with its delicious fizz and lovely acidity, was a great beverage to wash down the crunchy goodness of fried chicken. I was drinking solo tonight, so frugality pressed me to discover the best, least expensive Cava I could find.  I'm fortunate to have a well-stocked wine shop right down the road, and I found the inexpensive yet quite satisfying Conde de Caralt, a traditional method bubbly for under $10 - now there's a feat that's hard to match, as most cheap bubbles have CO2 added to the tank.  Fried chicken is one of the least pretentious foods, and this good quality Cava is a great match, both on the palate and in the pocketbook.  

As it turns out, frying is messy but it's not that hard.  Bake a pan of cornbread, steam some asparagus, and you've got a dinner to look forward to.  My dining companion declared it "marvelous."  At 14, she was a bit young for the Cava, so she would have to wait to learn how delicious it all was washed down with some of Catalonia's magic bubbles.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Croatia's De Gotho Grasevina a Tropical Treat

My journey to Croatia to speak at the International Wine Tourism Conference was a lovely first trip to this Balkan land.  Seeing the old Hapsburg-influenced capital in snow was among the memories I treasure, as was staying in the Regent Esplanade Zagreb, a historic luxury hotel built solely to provide

 accommodation for travelers on the famed Orient Express.

But one treat that I didn't have enough of was drinking the local wines.  IWINETC is truly an international event, and there were wines from around the world to enjoy.  A snowstorm shut down our scheduled winery visit, so I left the country feeling like I wanted to learn - and taste - more of this land's vinous creations.

Luckily, I came home with a bottle of white Croatian wine - the 2012 De Gotho Grasevina.  Grasevina is the most planted white grape variety in Croatia.  It is the Croatian name for the same grape called Welschriesling in central Europe.

As soon as I pulled the cork, fruit aromas came wafting out of the neck when I lowered my nose to it. In the glass, the aromas of tropical fruits, including lychee and pineapple, were abundant.  The wine is a lovely light gold color, and the mouthfeel is medium weight.  I really enjoyed that - despite the plush tropical and citrus fruit on the palate - the wine has a zippy acidity.  This is a spunky wine that is enjoyable with many foods or on its own.  It paired perfectly with a chicken in a lemon parsley sauce that I picked up for dinner.

Next year's IWINETC is in Georgia, whose wines I already know offer many delights and surprises. As for me, I'll look for the opportunities to taste more Croatian wines here at home, as my bottle of Grasevina is almost gone.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

A tale of two wine makers – Red Hook Winery

On one of summer’s last evenings, I took a quick ferry ride across the East River with dozens of travel bloggers on a #TravelMassive meetup and docked in Red Hook.  Yes, yet another up and coming Brooklyn neighborhood with "handcrafted this" and "analog that."  Just kidding, I do love this borough.

After a four minute stroll that took me next to crumbling parking lots and urban-renewal gardens, we entered Red Hook Winery.  This place – one of three Brooklyn wineries – had been on my list to visit for a while.

When you enter the cavernous space, you feel a warm and welcoming presence that includes both the exposed wood beams and clever light fixtures crafted from barrel staves and the attractive staff of very Brooklyn 30-somethings.

I was served by GM Darren, who gave me the lowdown on the winery.  The place is five years old, a working winery that only uses New York State grapes – lots of Long Island and Finger Lakes, too. But it gets more interesting.

There are two California winemakers responsible for the wines.  The pair split the grapes that come in and do what they want with them.  If you want to know whose wines you're tasting, Foley’s have labels with a small griffin on the label while Abe’s look like a geometry diagram that resembles a scallop shell. 

I tasted a straight-ahead Finger Lakes Riesling from Napa winemaker Robert Foley’s portfolio.  It was not the most thrilling of Rieslings – a bit short on the palate - and I’ve had many better from the region, but many of the guests at the event loved it, so there you go. 

Then, there were the wines from Abe Schoener. I was immediately fascinated when Darren told me, “This is an off dry Chardonnay Sauvignon Blanc blend.”  Wait a minute.  Who does that?  As it turns out the “off dry” part was not intentional. Abe uses native yeasts, and, finicky creatures that they are, they did not fully ferment the wine – therefore leaving some sugar in the wine.   Hearing Darren discuss Abe’s winemaking style, he seems to favor almost no intervention (no filtering, no racking), so this wine – which can never be replicated as it was a product of chance – was stuff that happens when you take a calculated risk like using native yeast instead of buying yeast which you know will go all the way.  Thing is – the wine was great.  The sugar was barely perceptible on the palate, but seemed to add a nice weight to the wine.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially with super selection of Stinky’s cheeses that were offered.  Abe’s red – Rebirth from the Sea – is a classic Bordeaux blend of 45 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 45 percent Merlot, and 10 percent Cabernet Franc.  I loved its savory notes, including the mushroomy aroma I sometimes perceive on Long Island Merlot.

New York City heavily subsidized ferry service to Red Hook to help the neighborhood recover after Sandy, which hit hard here.  While the service will discontinue for the winter season, right now it’s still a great way to come over to the area, which also boasts a chocolate factory, fun restaurants, galleries, and just a cool over-all vibe.  Tastings at Red Hook are $5 for three wines and $12 for six (including a dessert wine.)  Seems like a pretty fun neighborhood to spend the afternoon, and I’m looking forward to coming back.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Sushi Dai at Tsukiji Market Tokyo

The guidebooks tell you to get to Tsukiji fish market early.  What they don't tell you is to watch out for motorized carts whizzing past you from all directions at breakneck speeds.  So, step carefully when you go, but if you are in Tokyo, by all means - go.  
While we struck out trying to find the tuna auction - too intimidated by the traffic and chaos of the warehouse, we struck gold in the  market area when we chose to eat at Sushi Dai.
At about 7:20, I decided it was worth it to wait in one of the long lines for sushi breakfast.  My daughter had no choice but to follow suit.  
And then, we met the Canadians behind us, a father and teenage daughter from Toronto who would feel like old friends three hours later.  
The sun rises early in Tokyo, so by 7 am, it's as high as full noon back in New York, and it is merciless.  The Japanese custom of bringing umbrellas out in sunny weather made perfect sense to me now, as I felt the UV rays penetrating my wimpy Irish skin.  My daughter and I took turns exploring the shaded side alleyways of the market and bought three cold drinks during the wait.  She wasn't pleased, and wanted to bail.  So did the Canadian dad.  But the Canadian daughter and I wanted this experience.  Maybe waiting for the sushi place with the longest line makes you feel like you're accomplishing a great feat. Like climbing the mountain to meet the oracle. Or, in the words of Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own "it's the hard that makes it great." Actually, it's the fish that makes it great. The freshest sushi in the world. When we were in the final stretch of the very slow moving line, a petite Japanese woman with a small notepad stepped out to take our order - she offered us the 2900 yen meal and we upgraded to 3900 for both of us. Eighty dollars worth of the world's best sushi - bring it!
When it was finally our turn, we stepped into the tiny restaurant, where diners sat,  elbows touching, an L shaped counter with 12 small stools.  There were three sushi chefs behind a glass window of fresh fish. The reddest tuna I'd ever seen was behind the glass in front of where I sat.
"Where you from?" ask the chef closest to us. "New Jersey," I replied. "Ah, New Jersey, it's close to New York." "Yes," I nodded smiling.  "PGA is near there." "Oh, the golf, yes."  He smiled and nodded, all the while scooping warm rice and shaping it with his fingers, adding a smear of wasabi and placing a generous slice of fish on it.  Laying it onto the counter shelf in front of me, he pronounced: "Red snapper."  Thus began our sushi feast - "Horse mackerel."  My daughter and I exchange glances and dug in, using our chopsticks to shove pieces of raw fish as long as a finger into our mouths.  Next came glistening tuna, a luscious slice of spanish mackerel, fresh salmon roe that burst in our mouths as we bit them - "This is really good," declared my daughter munching on fish eggs.  The chef informs us, "These are fresh, most are frozen."  We nod and chew.  I tell him my daughter likes to draw Manga. He's delighted, "Which one?" I see she is too shy to speak up, so I offer, "Pokemon." He laughs heartily, "Oh Pokemon!"  We laugh, too.  He slaps a decapitated squid and puts it on rice, its tentacles curl back up as it sits in front of us.  Nothing is too weird for us to eat, and we pop it into our mouth, followed by creamy yellow sea urchin sushi.  Sea eel comes out, which has a surprisingly firm and unslimey texture "Tastes like chicken," my daughter decides - I don't concur, but it doesn't taste like the fish we've had so far. 
My daughter is getting full as tuna and cucumber sushi rolls are placed in front of us. It's no problem, as I can carry on for both of us.  The other diners who came in with us have finished, but with our upgrade, we get two more. I ask about a type of shrimp, and the second chef down pulls it up with legs and head still on - it's large and looks delicious and I nod.  A minute later, the raw shrimp is in front of my, its soft
body tastes clean and delicious on top of the warm rice with a small dip in soy sauce - which by the way, we are barely using. The fish tastes so fresh and clean and we appreciate it unadorned for the most part.  My daughter gets to chose a last piece, but she hands that honor over to me and I chose a final fatty tuna - a wonderful thick slice of rich fish.  And,  just like that, the best sushi meal of our life was over, and we were once again out in the hot Tokyo streets. 

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Toasting the Fourth with Ronco Blanchis Collio

Summer whites means more than shoes, dresses and bags. For wine lovers, summer is the time to pull out those well-chilled bottles for drinking solo or with seafood and other lighter fare.
This fourth of July weekend I scored an invite to a Brigantine shore house, and I brought a bottle of wine I had procured on my trip to Friuli with a contingent of bloggers from the International Wine Tourism Conference.  
I proved my merit as a house guest with a bottle of Ronco Blanchis Collio.  According to the winery's website, the wine is (in my translation of their Italian) "a harmonious blend of Friulano, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc... intensely perfumed with fruit and flowers... with structure and complexity." All true! 
On a warm July afternoon after a day at the beach, my first sip of Collio made me cock my head in interest.  I tasted tropical fruits like lychee as well as ripe peaches.  There was a rich mouthfeel and refreshing acidity as well.  I poured a glass for my wine loving friends, who enjoyed it as well.  We all toasted to a Happy Fourth of July, then sat to down a steaming bowl of paella, consumed on the second story deck with glasses of Collio.  Spanish food, Italian wine - it was an American melting pot of a feast, and a fitting finish to a perfect summer beach day.