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Estonia’s Culinary Traditions: Naturally Sophisticated

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Old Town, Tallin

Old Town, Tallin

By Marian Betancourt
Wherever you live in this small country of just over a million people, you are near the birch and pine tree forest stretching to the sun and covering more than half the country. That forest is wired, by the way, because this is a land of sophisticated techies, who invented Skype, whose national elections are done from home computers, and where kids learn how to code software as soon as they go to school.

The cuisine, fashioned around products of a rich and fertile land, is just as sophisticated as are the people who defeated their foreign occupiers by singing and joined the EU in 1991. But let’s back up a few centuries. Estonia was part of the Hanseatic League during the Middle Ages and because of all the trading among the Baltic countries, enjoyed products and spices from all over the world, which they often used to enhance their own food. Over centuries of occupation by others, most recently, the Soviets, their national cuisine was replaced by the products of the occupiers. Now the focus is back on its own culinary heritage. In fact, with its “Flavors of Estonia” program the country promotes culinary arts and introduces itself as a land of good food.

Even in the forests of Estonia, you can find an internet connection.

Even in the forests of Estonia, you can find an internet connection.

My first introduction to Estonian food was in a New York restaurant with a young Estonian chef, Andrey Korobyak, who learned his craft at his country’s culinary school and best restaurants. He prepared a dessert with kama, a finely milled mix of roasted barley, rye, oat, and pea flour. This was a base for a rich yet airy blend of yogurt, ginger, vanilla and whipped cream, presented on a stone tray surrounded by tufts of moss, reminiscent of the forests of Estonia. Kama, I later learned, was created in the Middle Ages from what was left on the old mill floors and given to the poor people. Today, of course, it is the go-to food for Estonians to mix with yogurt and berries for a quick snack.
The Soul of the Meal
Jätku leiba means “May your bread last,” which is the Estonian equivalent of bon appétit. When an Estonian asks what they can bring to dinner at a friend’s house, the response is always, “Bring the bread.” In Tallin’s Medieval Old Town, a UNESCO world heritage site, there is a street called The Bread Passage, which has always been lined with bakeries.

This black leavened rye bread that is baked daily into a variety of shapes and sizes, is beloved by Estonians and Leib ja Aed, one of Tallin’s top ten restaurants takes its name from this staple, which is considered the soul of the meal. At this charming Old Town eatery it comes to the table with a little pot of butter, while you wait for your mushroom ragout with local kale, or pan fried perch with parsnip cream and leek sauce. With the bread and butter in most homes and restaurants, is another product of the forest, butter knives made from juniper, which is endangered in most of the world but grows here in abundance.

 

Estonia's beloved  black leavened rye bread.

Estonia’s beloved black leavened rye bread.

Foraging is a Family Affair
Some foodies may think foraging was invented by the chef from the famous Copenhagen restaurant, but it has always been a way of life in Estonia, whose forests are veritable Gardens of Eden full of berries, nuts, sorrel, wild thyme and 30 different kinds of edible mushrooms. (There are so many wild berries that while a tour bus driver waited for his group to return from a walk in the forest, he picked a hatful of blueberries.) At Tallin’s Kaks Kokka (Two Chefs) restaurant, wild herbs are used to create the soul-satisfying Green Forest Soup with a base stock of Jerusalem artichokes and wild herb puree, of nettles, dill oil, and ramps. At Neikid restaurant just outside Old town, a crème brulee flavored with fresh mint got a “wow” response from diners.

 

Foraged mushrooms.

Foraged mushrooms.

Foraging for mushrooms such as chanterelles and porcini in August and September is viewed as quality time spent with friends and family. “We rarely come back from the forest without some of these things,” an Estonian woman told me. Every household has wicker baskets, and children are taught in school to identify edible mushrooms and how to pick them so they don’t harm the roots.” You will find these mushrooms on many restaurant menus. For example, at Noa, recently named the country’s top restaurant, a remarkable place on the edge of the Baltic with a view of the Tallinn skyline, chanterelles in a butter and wine sauce are tossed with pasta.

 

Noa's dining room.

Noa’s dining room.

“We love our gardens, too,” the woman told me, and many Estonians also have greenhouses for year-round vegetable growing.
The Baltic Riviera
Saarrema, the largest of Estonia’s islands, is often called Spaarrema for its many spas. Its The main city, Kuresaar, has been a spa town since 1840, when people came for the mud baths and Czar Alexander liked to pop over from St. Petersburg for the Spring Ball. This is a popular destination of international visitors, many arriving by yacht. Some even decide to stay permanently as did Bill Moschella a retired American FBI agent. He opened La Perla, an Italian restaurant and uses local lamb for his lasagna rather than the traditional beef. (Moschella is a wonderful host and loves to regale his guests with stories from his FBI years.)
The island is abloom with apple and juniper trees, as well as grazing cows and sheep, for this is an important dairy and meat farming area, that celebrates its local food each September at the toidufestival.

Estonian fishermen.

Estonian fishermen.

Fishing is for sport as well as supplying the restaurants, where you might enjoy flounder smoked in apple wood and alder. The restaurant at the Georg Ots Spa, (named for a beloved Estonian opera star), served smoked trout gently grilled with onions and red pepper. And here was my next chance to enjoy a kama dessert, this time with sea buckthorn sorbet, rye bread crisps and a fresh mint sprig. Sea buckthorn berries grow wild here and are used to add a delicious lemony tang to sauces and cocktail mixers.

 

A kama dessert.

A kama dessert.

Another ex-pat, Martin Breuer, left his business career in The Netherlands to create Estonia’s first boutique hotel eight years ago on the small island of Muhu. Padaste Manor, the only five-star hotel outside Tallin, is a restored 16th century estate with 23 rooms among the buildings, with a focus on simple luxury. Once occupied by the German and then Soviet armies, it also served as a fish distribution center, then a home for the elderly until 1980 when the roof collapsed. Breuer said trees were growing through the windows when he first saw it, but he loved the soul of the place.

 

Padaste Manor.

Padaste Manor.

For the past three years, the resort’s restaurant, Alexander, has been Estonia’s top rated restaurant (nudged down a notch this year by Noa). Chef Yves Le Lay, focuses on terroir and seasons with products from the island’s farmers, hunters and fisherman.

 

Needlefish with carrots at Padaste Manor.

Needlefish with carrots at Padaste Manor.

Dinner is a ten-course tasting menu that changes daily. Fresh baked black bread is kept warm on a tray of hot rocks. The island’s beef tartare is accompanied by local green tomato; just-caught needlefish may be served with sea buckthorn sauce and baby roasted carrots. The annual fall mushroom weekend allows guests to join the resort’s horticulturist and chef to forage for mushrooms, and then participate in a five course tasting menu with these mushrooms.
Reluctantly, I took my leave of this lovely and surprising country and headed to the Tallin airport, where, much to my delight, I discovered a lending library. It was furnished like a living room with comfy chairs and shelves of books that travelers could take with them, and where they could leave behind the books they had finished. But why am I surprised? With one of the highest literacy rates in the world, Estonians love books. For the journey home, I also stocked up on some Kama bars, Estonia’s healthier and tastier answer to our Milky Way.
For more information about Estonian cuisine, visit www.visitestonia.com/en/thing-to-see-do/eat-drink , the food blog: www.nami-nami.blogspot.com, and www.toidufestival.com.

 

Marian Betancourt has written about travel and food for Associated Press, American Heritage, Travel & Leisure, Irish America, and many others. She is the author of several books, and has co-authored two regional cookbooks based on her travels. She is a contributing editor for Promenade magazine and lives inNew York City. Visit www.marianbetancourt.com

Marian Betancourt has written about travel and food for Associated Press, American Heritage, Travel & Leisure, Irish America, and many others. She is the author of several books, and has co-authored two regional cookbooks based on her travels. She is a contributing editor for Promenade magazine and lives inNew York City. Visit www.marianbetancourt.com

The Interview: Alexander Lobrano, Hungry for France

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Photo credit: Steven Rothfeld

Photo credit: Steven Rothfeld

 

Interview by Everett Potter

The writer Alexander Lobrano has lived in Paris for three decades and his latest book, Hungry for France, is a culinary love letter to his adopted country. It’s much more than a logical follow up to his earlier book, Hungry for Paris (which was just released in its second edition). This is a lively and opinionated hybrid, a mash up of travel book, cookbook, memoir and even coffee table tome, thanks to Steven Rothfeld’s wonderful color photographs. It’s a highly selective guide to restaurants, regions and specialties but also a road map for some of the newest culinary trends in a tradition-bound country.

Lobrano was the late Gourmet magazine’s European correspondent and writes now for the likes of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Saveur, Travel & Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, The Guardian and Everett Potter’s Travel Report.

In short, he is a born storyteller, and his vignettes take you into his life even as he’s waxing poetic about the world’s best butter (Bordier), stating his personal belief for where the south of France really begins (Valence) or talking about buying a five franc tie from Monoprix on his 20th birthday so he could dine in the tony surroundings of Le Chantecler at the Hotel Negresco in Nice.

The recipes – for curried pork in cider sauce, buckwheat crepes with salted caramel, chard-roasted salmon with fennel salad, and apple-apricot strudel tartlets, etc – are a delicious addendum to each chapter. I spoke with him recently about the new book.

The idea of traveling from region to region of France, dining as you go, remains one of the most inviting travel experiences that I can think of. Do you see Hungry for France as a companion for such travelers, a sort of culinary road map for such excursions?

Yes, very much so. The reason that I wrote this book was to share a deeply meditated list of my favorite addresses in France after having lived, traveled and eaten from one end of this beautiful country to another over the course of nearly 30 years for reasons both personal and professional. As someone who travels constantly, I’ve come to understand that what food-loving travelers to France want most is a carefully curated menu of superb addresses rather than a phone directory length lowdown. Looking at long lists, or sifting through all of the information available on the internet I always find myself thinking, oh, dear, this is really time-consuming and how do I know which places are really good? So Hungry for France is the little black book I’d give to my closest friends, but it’s not really a guidebook either. Instead, with its gorgeous photographs and terrific recipes, it’s a combination dream book, cookbook, memoir and gastronomic primer, since I celebrate and explain the food of France region by region.

Alexander Lobrano. Photo credit Steven Rothfeld.

Alexander Lobrano. Photo credit Steven Rothfeld.

I was going to ask you how long it took you to write this book but I guess the answer must be the 30 years you’ve spent in France. That said, was there some hard travel and research during the past couple of years to produce this labor of love?

My gastronomic knowledge of France is thirty years deep, but since I really focus on the remarkable new generation of chefs, food producers and hotel keepers who’ve emerged in France, a lot of travel was necessary for simple reason that I worked by a process of elimination. Since I wasn’t writing a restaurant directory, but rather a gastronomic gazetteer of my favorite places in France, I had to be ruthless. And to say that the travel was very much a labor of love is to put it very mildly. It took over two years to do this book.

You say in your introduction that “France still has the finest and most deeply rooted culinary culture of any country in the western world, and can also stand up to challenges from any other place on the compass.” Is that a red flag to all the France bashers out there who think it’s lost its culinary supremacy?

William Randolph Hearst proved a longtime ago that nothing sells better than a story about smashing or slashing a sacred idol. So kicking France in the shins re. the quality of its gastronomy has been a great print lede and SEO website bait for at least ten years. The reality of what’s happened is considerably more nuanced. For starters, one can eat well almost everywhere now, which means that France is perhaps a neck or two above the crowd, rather than on a misty peak of absolute supremacy. And if there’s no doubt that the French food chain has been hit by the noisome effects of industrial catering, supermarkets and the same things that have diminished the quality of food almost everywhere, what’s different in France is that the French retain an intense exigence based a real historical knowledge of cooking and their country’s best produce when they sit down at the table. This enlightened gastronomic culture isn’t elitist either—almost everyone in France could name a couple dozen cheeses and tell you where they’re from, for example. Then, too, French produce actually is extraordinary–take fish, for example. Here there’s an expression that I’ve never seen anywhere else in the world–“de ligne,” as in “bar de ligne,” which means line-caught sea bass, or fish caught by an individual fisherman on an individual fishing pole, since the French consider that this fish is higher quality than that which is landed in nets. The same is true of butter, vegetables, meat, everything–the language of food in France is hugely rich with phrases and designations that signal a specific type of quality. And finally, the quality and seriousness of French culinary education, or cooking schools, is point blank the best in the world. So if you can get a really lousy pizza in a shopping center in suburban Paris like you can get a really lousy pizza in suburban Madrid or Houston. What you won’t find in these other places is the same exalted caliber of excellence that informs French food.

You make the point that “the talent pool in urban France is deeper and more cosmopolitan than it’s ever been in the country’s history. Hundreds of ambitious young cooks from all over the world, but especially Japan.” Japan? Tell us why.

There’s always been a seriously love affair between France and Japan for a variety of reasons. Both cultures exalt the aesthetics of daily life, prize refinement and subtlety, and adore good food. So France continues to attract ambitious young Japanese chefs who come in search of the holy grail of the greatest western gastronomy, and once they’re here and have done an apprenticeship or two, they often chose to stay on, because life in France is so pleasant, the produce is so good, and the French provide an ambitious chef with such a demanding but receptive audience at the table.

Photo credit: Steven Rothfeld

A restaurant in Bordeaux. Photo credit: Steven Rothfeld

I almost get the sense that gastronomic traveling through the various regions of France, whether it’s Normandy, Provence or Burgundy, is akin to traveling in different countries, because each region is so distinct and so proud of what they have. Is that a reasonable comparison?

Very much so, because every region’s history and geography determine what you find on the table. They’re lots of invisible gastronomic frontiers in France, too, perhaps the most famous being between those parts of the country that love butter and those that prefer olive oil. This was pretty much defined by the Roman occupation of Gaul, but olive oil is now popular Lille in the same way that butter is well-liked in Nice. Still, every region’s vividly different history and geography explains the menu in any restaurant.

Auberge des Templiers, Loire Valley. Photo credit Steven Rothfeld

Auberge des Templiers, Loire Valley. Photo credit Steven Rothfeld

One statement I like is “I’d defy you to find another country anywhere in the world where you can so reliably find a spectacular meal—at all levels of the food chain—in its most remote and forgotten villages.” Give us an example of one of those forgotten villages and restaurants.

Two of my favorite restaurants are in tiny little places–Auberge La Prieure, which is in the minuscule village of Moirax just outside of Agen in the southwest, and La Grenouillere, a spectacular auberge in La Madelaine-sous-Montreuil in the north of France.

Was there a single big lesson that you learned while writing Hungry for France?
I came away humbled by the passion and seriousness of the hundreds of chefs, food producers, bakers, butchers, hotel keepers and others that I met during my travels. I was also reminded of how much the French love to share everything that’s wonderful about their country with foreigners. Contrary to what some people may think, they’re extremely generous and gracious.

Plates of oysters, Cancale. Photo credit Steven Rothfeld

Plates of oysters, Cancale. Photo credit Steven Rothfeld

Your life may look to some like an endless array or champagne, oysters and foie gras. Perhaps it is. But what is the biggest misconception that people have about what you do for a living?

I became a food writer because sharing and discovering food it’s the fastest way to understand where you are and who you’re with. Food is a deeply serious subject, so the idea of the over-fed restaurant critic who subsists on luxury produce like foie gras and Champagne is light years from the life I live. Of course I love Champagne, foie gras and oysters, but I’d be miserable if I were confined to the highest end of the French food chain, especially since street food, family cooking and comfort food–choucroute garni in Alsace, for example–is often the best eating to be found wherever you go not only in France but any country.

Finally, give us a Sunday meal you might prepare at home from a couple of the recipes in Hungry for France?

I’d go for the pan-roasted chicken with garlic and vinegar, the potato and cepe mushroom gratin and a strawberry tart–easy but delicious recipes that will leave you with some left-overs with which to see in the week.

 

Alexander Lobrano will be reading from Hungry for France at French Institute Alliance Française in New York on June 3.

Visit Alexander Lobrano’s website.

 

Travels with Larry Olmsted: 10 Great American Barbecue Joints

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Hot Rod's Real Pit BBQ, Wharton, NJ

Hot Rod’s Real Pit BBQ, Wharton, NJ

By Larry Olmsted

America’s love affair with barbecue has never burned hotter than right now – and the opening of new specialty barbecue restaurants where you’d least expect them is fanning the fire.

Not too many years ago if you wanted truly great barbecue, it usually meant traveling to one of the hotspots of the cuisine, Kansas City, Texas, the South, or California’s Santa Maria Valley, home to its own regional spin on ‘cue. If you lived in places like New Jersey or Boston or the affluent ski town paradise of Telluride, Colorado, you were simply out of luck.

All that has changed, and today you can get world class barbecue in most parts of the country, from coast to coast, as the fervor of this delicious cuisine has spread like gospel, prompting everyone from celebrity chefs to self-taught smokers to master the arcane art and bring honest to goodness barbecue closer to home.

Here’s my list of the 10 best barbecue joints across the US …

 

DSC_0067-150x150    Award-winning travel journalist Larry Olmsted is a Contributing Editor to US Airways Magazine and Cigar Aficionado Magazine and “The Great Life” columnist for Forbes.com

SLIDESHOW Paso Robles: California Wine Country’s Next Big Thing

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Paso Robles: Photos by Karen Glenn, Words by Tom Passavant
Paso Robles: Photos by Karen Glenn, Words by Tom Passavant

Paso Robles is California’s third largest wine-growing region, where deals are still struck with handshakes, and where winemakers gather to share gossip and loan equipment to the guy whose tractor broke down. Visitors who drop by a tasting room are likely to run into the winemaker, the owner, and probably their dog.

Paso Robles now includes over 200 wineries. At Halter Ranch, Winegrower Mitch Wyss (opening photo) oversees 20 grape varietals, most bound for the ultramodern winery tucked into a hillside.

Paso’s rolling hills used to be under the sea (the ocean’s just a few miles west), and some vineyards are famous for soils composed of marine fossils. Some west side Paso vineyards even have fossilized whale bones.

The area is famous for Rhone varietals like syrah and grenache, as well as cabernet, made by such illustrious labels as Saxum, Tablas Creek and Justin. That said, Paso’s “heritage grape” is zinfandel, like these at Steinbeck Vineyards.

Despite its recent boom in winegrowing, Paso Robles is still firmly devoted to traditional farming and ranching. Everything from almonds and figs to strawberries and tomatoes flourishes here. This tomato salad features local goat cheese and mint

Paso’s flourishing new food culture extends to goats and goat cheese. A morning or afternoon at Happy Acres, where you can milk the goats and blend your own fresh goat cheese, is a hit with kids—and grownups, too.

Happy Acres counts some 200 goats in its flock, and they all seem to love nibbling on peanuts. Or possibly your shoelaces. Their milk, by the way, is turned into some spectacular ice cream, available at the dairy.

Where grapes grow well, can olive trees be far behind? Pasolivo’s orchards, set in a beautiful shady dell among the twisty roads of west side Paso, yield excellent oil.

Going to the source is always best. Visitors to Pasolivo can watch the olives being crushed in the fall, and then sample some oils blended with other local products.

Some people (including famous chefs) think that Bill and Barbara Spence grow the best tomatoes in California at Windrose Farm. We won’t argue, but don’t miss their apples and spectacular semi-dried smoked tomatoes, either.

California’s Central Coast is not all rustic farms. Hearst Castle is just 45 minutes from Paso Robles. Try to sign up for an evening tour if possible, or go late in the afternoon when the fog starts swirling around the Moorish towers.

William Randolph Hearst’s modest swimming pool is just like the one you inflate for your kids in the back yard. Too bad no one is allowed to jump in anymore, though it certainly is tempting after a glass or two of pinot noir.

Sunset Magazine’s Western Wine Awards were held on the pier at Pismo Beach, and showcased wines from all over the West Coast. This dish of local lamb on a risotto cake helped all those cabs and syrahs slide down easily.

The main event was Sunset’s Savor the Central Coast, a food and wine extravaganza that should be on every hungry (and thirsty) traveler’s fall schedule. Not only can you sample dozens of wines, you can also buy them on the spot

Savor the Central Coast differs from other top festivals in its emphasis on food production, with a two-acre kitchen garden, gardening demonstrations and a produce showcase selling local vegetables.

Savor the Central Coast is held at the historic Rancho Santa Margarita, which dates to 1787, when its produce helped feed the nearby Spanish mission. This beautifully restored barn is used for cooking demos at the festival.

 

Cat Cora was one of the high-profile chefs offering cooking demos at the festival. Local beef, oysters, cheese, and even beers made guest appearances in the dishes.

Paso’s dining scene naturally focuses on beef, but there’s lots more, with restaurants like The Artisan and Villa Creek joining Thomas Hill Organics and the historic dining room at the Paso Robles Inn.

The Paso Glow dinner, held outdoors on the town’s shady central square, evokes a kinder, gentler era. Winemakers at each table—we struck gold with Adelaida Cellars’ Terry Culton– offered generous pours of their best bottles.

How to enjoy both the stunning scenery and the abundant wines in the hills around Paso Robles? Book a tour with The Wine Wrangler, Coy Barnes. The Wine Wrangler

Anita Stewart, Founder of Food Day Canada

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Dining at the Wickaninnish Inn in Tofino, British Columbia

 

Interview By Everett Potter

On July 30, 2011, chefs, farmers and backyard barbecue fans will celebrate Canada’s bounty by cooking, eating and raising a glass at Food Day Canada. This is a nationwide event that was created by culinary activist, educator, and writer Anita Stewart. For more than 25 years, Stewart has been a tireless speaker and advocate for Canadian farmers, fishermen, chefs and restaurants. In her 14 books, she’s tapped into the culinary history of this vast country, from the French cuisine in rural Quebec and the food of First Nations’ communities to chic restaurants in Vancouver and Toronto. Long before the term “locavore” was in vogue, Stewart was all about local, regional and seasonal. As Food Day Canada approaches, she took a few minutes to talk about the big day and her work.

Anita Stewart

 

Everett Potter: Anita, what will happen on Food Day Canada ?

Anita Stewart: It’s the largest locavore celebration in Canadian history.  It’s a big, continent-wide party that is driven by the participation of an invited community of great chefs.  Many of them are the innovators and opinion leaders, the food voices that make a difference. In most cities I have the A list restaurants. Others are not famous nor renowned but are deeply committed to their regional community of producers.  On Saturday, July 30th, they virtually join hands, cook Canadian, and tell the world. The menus are posted at www.fooddaycanada.ca .

There’s also a public component. After all, public involvement is where it began with the World’s Longest Barbecue, which I organized in 2003. Over the years, the menus have been posted from the high Arctic to B.C. Gulf Islands to rural Atlantic Canada.  You know I like to say that there’s Mother’s Day and Father’s Day and Valentine’s Day, they are all about the eaters. Food Day Canada is about the producers and the ingredients and the chefs, a real time for them to strut their stuff.

 

Newfoundland

EP: Give us an idea of the kinds of events that will occur on Food Day Canada.

AS: Events are just now being developed but I do know for sure that the chefs of St John’s Newfoundland will greet the sunrise on Signal Hill at 5:37 a.m. Signal Hill is one of Canada’s National Historic Sites, the reception point of the first transatlantic wireless signal by Guglielmo Marconi in 1901. So the chefs, lead by Roary MacPherson a born and bred islander, will kicking off Food Day Canada before  heading back to the Sheraton St. John’s to serve forth a typical Newfoundland breakfast complete with salt fish and baked beans and scrunchions.They are donating most of the $10 cost to the St. John’s food bank. Then Food Day Canada follows the sun with restaurant events all across the nation and finally ending at The Wickaninnish Inn with a Dungeness crab boil on Chesterman Beach in Tofino.  (FYI…The Wick, has just been named as the #1 Top Resort in Canada, #1 overall top Accommodation property in Canada and the Inn’s Ancient Cedars Spa was also voted the#1 Best Hotel Spa in Canada and #3 Best Hotel Spa in the USA and Canada in the  2011 Travel + Leisure Magazine’s World’s Best Awards.) There will be food events at a dozen or so of our National Historic Sites as well, such as Fort Louisbourg in Nova Scotia.

 

Chef Norman Laprise and business partner Christine Lamarche of Montreal's Toque

EP: How many restaurants are participating and what are they doing for Food Day Canada?

AS: About 290 and I am still adding them so we are looking at 300.  Even though I have been traveling and eating my way around Canada for three decades, a lot has changed.  We have an incredibly dynamic food community. I have asked them to do what they”re most comfortable with, from a small prix fixe to a longer menu in honor of Food Day Canada. Some are student run, like at Benchmark at the Canadian Food and Wine Institute in Niagara, where the food is paired with the medal winning wines, which are also produced by students. There will be an amazing picnic on the rocky headlands of Ferryland lighthouse which, by the way, is the most easterly point where there’s foodservice in Canada.

 

Chef Nick Nutting of the Wickaninnish Inn, British Columbia

EP: How aware are Canadians — and Americans, for that matter — of Canada’s bounty and abundance?

For both Canada and the U.S., food is so elemental that’s it’s been traditionally taken for granted.  However, the good news is that times are changing and we are wisely exploring our own food sheds. We wonder, we question. Suffice it to say that we’re getting there.    But we have a long, long way to go.  And this is the journey that I want to encourage and perhaps, for a while yet, lead.

 

Visit  Food Day Canada

 

Letter from Hawaii: Another (Delicious) Side of Maui

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Darren Strand with a Maui Gold pineapple

Story by Tom Passavant

All photos by Karen Glenn

 

What would it take to tear you away from Maui’s gorgeous beaches? If you love good food, especially of the local and sustainable variety, I can now suggest several dozen reasons to put down the tanning lotion and pick up a knife and fork.

Maui is home to a booming food scene centered on the truly vast array of things that can be grown, caught, raised, and created on its 729 square miles—the second largest of the Hawaiian islands. In just six days recently, we tasted everything from the expected pineapples and macadamia nuts to local lamb, goat cheese, strawberries, and honey. We had out-of-season mangoes that were heartbreakingly luscious. And unexpected treats like egg fruit, chocolate sapotes, Surinam cherries, and Maui coffee. There was even a local organic vodka called Ocean, made with sugar cane and distilled sea water. When we return next year we might even get to sample Maui-produced blueberries and—believe it—olive oil.

To understand all this, a little geography lesson is in order. Maui is dominated by 10,023-foot Haleakala, a dormant volcano. Occasionally there is snow on top. Want to grow cool-weather crops like grapes? Just head up the fertile slopes. Need more rain for your bananas? Go east, towards the rainy windward coast. Now add a growing number of chefs dedicated to doing business with local farmers and fishermen, a vibrant Slow Food chapter putting on regular tastings and tours, and you’ve got one tasty food scene.

Local ingredients at the Flatbread Company

 

We started on the north shore, a few miles east of the airport, in the funky crossroads village of Paia. Once a town built on sugar cane, it’s now a seriously laid-back refuge for surfers and stoners. (I can’t vouch for the pakalolo, but the waves here are awesome, dude.) We could easily have spent a relaxing week here, inspecting the growing number of excellent art galleries and restaurants. Flatbread Company (808/579-8989), which pulls beautifully-charred pizzas out of its wood-burning oven, won a Friend of Agriculture award for using local ingredients. They even make their own chocolate sauce from Maui cacao. Across the street is the even more causal Paia Fish Market (808/579-8030), where the ultra-fresh catches of the day—often snapper, wahoo, and tuna—are charbroiled and served up as soft tacos or burgers. The Paia Inn (808/579-6000), set smack in the center of town, looks like a place cobbled together by footloose hippies, but has stylish suites and highly professional service. “When the owners built this place, they put in double-glazed windows and poured sound insulation between all the walls,” says Carly, one of the charming hosts. Paia Inn also has some freestanding bungalows running down to the beach.

After a peaceful night, we headed upcountry in search of the obvious: pineapple. A century ago, Maui was practically synonymous with pineapple. Today, smaller producers determined to offer a quality product can still make their mark. At Hali’imaile Pineapple Company, president Darren Strand told us that 70% of their sales are within the state of Hawaii. That said, if you send in an order from anywhere in the country, Darren or one of the other owners will go out in the field and pick an extra sweet, low-acid Maui Gold pineapple for you, then ship it via FedEx.

Surinam cherries

 

A few miles east is Makawao, an old ranching town that’s recently become a charming blend of upcountry and upscale. There are some fine women’s clothing boutiques and, every Thursday morning, a farmer’s market in a vacant lot on Baldwin Avenue. Maybe a dozen vendors show up with coconuts, papayas, bananas and—new to us–Surinam cherries. Our small bag of the tart, peppery fruits came from a Summer of Love veteran who grew them in her front yard. Makawao also boasts one of the best restaurants on the island. The two-year-old Market Fresh Bistro (808/572-4877), with a chef from New York’s Union Square Café, has made a big impression on Maui’s local food scene. Dinner one night included roasted leg of lamb from the slopes of Haleakala and fresh swordfish over a bed of spring onion risotto. Do not miss this place.

The next morning we left the Paia Inn at 7 a.m. for the drive to Hana. The Hana Highway is every bit as beautiful as advertised, 36 coastline-hugging miles with more twists than a Dan Brown novel. Hana itself is a zero-stoplight blip, but we were headed another five miles down the even-hairier road to what promised to be tropical fruit heaven.

Lily Boerner of Ono Farms

 

Lilly and Charles Boerner have owned Ono Organic Farms ( 808/248-7779) for 35 years. Every weekday at 1:30, by reservation only, Lilly or her daughter Autumn conducts a tour and an extensive tasting of whatever is ripe on their 50 lush acres. Sitting on the covered porch of the charming wood home, my wife and I bit, sucked, slurped, and chewed our way through 15 different fruits as Lilly regaled us with facts about the farm and how each is grown: Apple bananas, far sweeter than the dull variety back home. Intense papayas. Eggfruit, a dead ringer for creamy yams. Custardy chocolate sapote. Soft white rambutan. Jackfruit, guava, mountain apple, cacao nibs, coffee beans, honey and jams. It’s the Garden of Eden, totally off the grid except for a phone line. Sign us up.

After the long drive back, we were happy to bed down at The Old Wailuku Inn at Ulupono (808/244-5897), a 13-room bed and breakfast that dates to 1924. The plantation-era main house has been tastefully updated, the beds draped with fine Hawaiian quilts. Owner Janice Fairbanks mingled with an eclectic array of guests during the justly-famous breakfasts. One morning over French toast we traded notes with Bonnie Friedman, who leads food tours to Maui restaurants and farms. She also offers personalized Maui restaurant guides called Cuisine Confidential, which I highly recommend ( 808/242-8383).

By now, Maui’s beaches were definitely calling us, so we pointed our rental car for the west side of the island. First stop: Yee’s Orchard in Kihei, to stock up on the most fragrant mangoes on the planet, then lunch at year-old Star Noodle in Lahaina (808/667-5400). Not for nothing has sleekly hip Star Noodle, set in an industrial park above town, been nominated for James Beard Awards this spring, for Best Chef and Best New Restaurant in the Pacific region. The array of share plates and noodle dishes included a sparkling salad made with local fiddle head ferns, old-fashioned “fried soup” with thick chow fun noodles, and the finest tofu dish we’ve ever tasted, broiled cubes with sautéed local mushrooms and red miso.

As for the sea and sand, we chose Kapalua resort, on the lush northwest side of the island, for its peaceful setting and what we’d been told was an array of excellent, local-centric restaurants. This sprawling resort, with two famous golf courses, centers on a Ritz-Carlton hotel (808/665-7231) that’s very un-Ritz like in both its laid-back demeanor and emphatic commitment to Hawaiian traditions and culture. “We try to balance culture, commerce, and trust,” said Clifford Nae’ole, the hotel’s Cultural Advisor. He leads free programs that offer insight into native Hawaiian traditions and beliefs, including a large burial site whose presence required the original hotel location to be moved. Added Nae’ole, “The most rewarding moments for me are when tourists ask questions.”

We didn’t have time to try all the Kapalua restaurants, but we couldn’t resist the Pineapple Grill (808/669-9600), which last year was named the best restaurant on Maui by Honolulu magazine. Highlights included a slab of supremely fresh ahi coated with pistachios and wasabi peas, served with sautéed mushrooms—an umami-rich combination perfect with a pinot noir from their deep wine list. Oh, and the most luscious pineapple upside down cake ever.

Peppers in the Chef's garden at the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua

 

But the real eyebrow-raising meal came at the Ritz-Carlton itself. The Banyan Tree dining room had been under the command of chef de cuisine Jojo Vasquez for just a few weeks, but he’d already made his mark. Dishes such as his ahi kampachi ceviche with green mango and coconut, and roasted hapu (a local sea bass) with island mushrooms and lemongrass foam showed both a delicate hand and a way with bold flavors. He’s planted a big new garden on the property, growing eggplants, peppers and lots more. “We’re about to convert a couple of the tennis courts to aquaculture, and raise fish,” he told us. Another net gain for food lovers.

For more information, consult the excellent website gohawaii.com/maui. Maui Revealed, by Andrew Doughty, is a very insightful guidebook that’s frequently updated at wizardpub.com.

 

Tom Passavant is a former editor-in-chief of Diversion magazine. Now a freelance travel and food writer based in Colorado and Hawaii, his work has appeared in Aspen Magazine, Gourmet, Four Seasons Magazine, Town & Country Travel, ForbesTraveler.com, Ski, Powder, Luxury Living, and many other places. He is the co-author of “Playboy’s Guide to Ultimate Skiing.” A former president of the New York Travel Writers Association, Passavant has won a Lowell Thomas Award for his travel writing and has served as judge for the James Beard Journalism Awards. See more of Tom’s work at TomPassavant.com.

 

Karen Glenn is a freelance writer, poet, and photographer based in Carbondale, Colorado. Her writing and photography have appeared in Diversion, McCall’s, Edible Aspen, Seventeen, Savvy, Good Food, Self, Aspen Magazine, The New York Times, Mademoiselle, and many other places. Her poem Nightshift was featured on NPR’s All Things Considered.

 

 

Letter from Paris: A New Edition of “Hungry for Paris”

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Our Letter from Paris columnist, Alexander Lobrano, is the author of  Hungry for Paris: The Ultimate Guide to the City’s 102 Best Restaurants It’s just been released in a new, updated edtion by Random House. Read the full story

Letter from Paris: The Last Good Brasserie in Paris?

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By Alexander Lobrano

Obsessively interested in good food, I always have the makings of at least one or two good meals on hand at home so that as someone who travels often, I never end up being forced to call out for a mediocre pizza or Indian food of unknown quality at the last minute. Read the full story

Smart Deals: Montreal’s “For Foodies” Package

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THE DEAL: Tourisme Montreal’s “For Foodies” package with nightly rates starting at $115 USD

WHAT’S THE DEAL: One of my favorite cities for dining (check out the new Brasserie t!, the affordable new spot from Normand Laprise, chef of the acclaimed Toque) has a fall special in more than a dozen hotels. The $115 USD is the going rate at Absolument Montreal B&B, but even pricier beds are now on sale: The Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth from $164 USD per night, the chic Hotel St-Paul  from $203 USD per night and the classic Le Saint-Sulpice Hotel from $212 USD per night.

DETAILS: Each hotel is also offering discount coupons at check-in (for complimentary treats at
popular Montr al eateries and savings on culinary classes) and free pubic transportation tickets. The offer is good through December 31, 2010.

INFO: Tourisme Montreal

Letter from Paris: Ralph Lauren in Paris, Cookshop in NYC

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Ralph Lauren Terrace

Ralph's, Paris.

by Alexander Lobrano

Ralph’s, Paris: An American in Paris

If I lunched there several times a few weeks ago, and generally found the food to be much better than expected (with the exception of the worst frites I've ever eaten in France), it took a trip to New York to really put Ralph's, the new restaurant in Ralph Lauren's new Saint-Germain-des-Pres boutique, into perspective. To wit, I think it's sort of too bad the powers that be didn't decide to do a modern American bistro in the idiom of the very pleasant Cookshop in New York City's Chelsea district instead of a pricey slice of up-market Betty Crocker vintage Americana.

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