Tag Archive | "Italy"

Grated Expectations: The Parmesan of Parma, Italy

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Parmesan in Parma

Parmesan in Parma

by Kim D. McHugh

(Photos courtesy Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano, YouTube clip courtesy Walks of Italy)

Overshadowed by Rome, Venice, Milan and Florence, Parma hasn’t found its way to many travel itineraries. As a food enthusiast, I was drawn to this lesser-known destination like paparazzi to a movie star.

Before my journey I wasn’t very adept at distinguishing one grated cheese over another. If I could assign blame for my unsophisticated palate, it would lie on my grandfather who spent the better part of his career working for Kraft Foods in Chicago. My idea of good Parmesan cheese was stuff shaken from a shiny green cylindrical can—and if it was good enough for J.L. Kraft, my grandfather’s boss—it was good enough for our family.

 

On a tour of a cheese house on the outskirts of Parma, I was about to taste the error of my ways. Traveling the countryside, passing farm after farm, I was reminded of the cornfields of Illinois where I grew up. However, most of these fields were home to hay and grasses that I later learned were fed to the cows that produce the milk that becomes the cheese.

Harvested green and rolled into dozens of wheels around 10 feet in diameter, the grasses were now a golden hue and ready for delivery to the dairies. Not 20 minutes ago I was in a bustling city of 400,000 plus residents and now I was in rural Italy where farmhouses were a half-mile or more apart, separated by huge squares of hayfields as far as the eye could see.

Stirring the cheese

Stirring the cheese

Now inside the cheese house, I study a man who is standing waist high to the edge of one of eight enormous copper cauldrons. He was gently stirring a concoction of whey (a fermenting agent), rennet (a coagulating agent) and two purposely-different batches of cow’s milk.

Collected from the Po Valley, considered Italy’s most fertile farmland region, the milk came from cows whose sole purpose is to produce milk for the creation of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Half the milk had been gathered the day before and, thanks to a natural separation process that occurs overnight, it was absent cream, which was removed to make butter. The other half was fresh, still warm from the morning milking.

Working with a stainless steel whisk resembling a giant eggbeater, the man stirred busily, separating the curds from the whey.

Out of sight below the copper funnel was the gas-fired heat source, which slowly brought the mixture to a temperature of 120 degrees. Up until the 1960s open fires that made the facilities very smoky, and the job of whisking the ingredients quite dangerous, heated the vats.

After 15 minutes a woman wearing a white lab coat appeared next to the vat. Dipping in a ladle, she retrieved a sample of the cheese to be, eyeing it to see if it was fermenting and coagulating properly. It was and the process continued.

Appearing next was a cheese expert from the Consorzio del Formaggio (the Cheese Consortium and the Italian equivalent of our USDA), an organization created for the quality control of cheese.

A second-generation cheese master, the youthful looking man was very knowledgeable about cheese making. He, too, dipped a ladle into the vat. He sniffed the mixture, checked for the proper consistency, and then gave the batch the thumbs up. At that, two men approached the cauldron, gathering a white mass that was on its way to becoming the famed cheese. They separated it into two pieces, each weighing about 80 pounds.

The pieces were placed in cheesecloth tied to a long wooden pole. This action allows the cheese to be suspended in the liquid remaining in the vat and for the next five minutes the cheese continued to ferment.

Once removed the pieces were wedged into round Teflon molds about the size of a Tupperware cake preserver, where they drained for 10 minutes or so. They were then transplanted into metal molds, where they were branded with the number of the cheese making plant, as well as the month and year of production, and the dairy so the cheese can be tracked as it continues to age.

The cheese wheels were placed in a cooling and drying room where they’d remain for two to three days before being submersed in a saline bath. For the next 22 days they’re turned every two to four hours to assure a thorough salt exposure, which helps the rind form properly. At the end of the brining period, the wheels are removed and stacked with thousands of other wheels in a drying room.

To be deserving of the Parmigiano-Reggiano moniker (and to be exported as such), the wheels must age for 24 months. Wheels labeled stravecchiones have been aged four years and are exceptionally good.

With the exception of not having an open fire under the copper cauldron Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is produced much like it was about 800 years ago when Benedictine monks invented the process. Through the centuries, cheese makers have remained loyal to the practice of not using chemicals and automation, instead relying on fresh milk and noble traditions passed along through generations of artisans.

P-R Wedge w GrapesNibbling bits of cheese, I browse the cooler for the bounty I’ll take home. As I ponder my selection I’m introduced to two men and a boy about 12 years old. I’m told through a translator that they are the grandfather, the father and the son/grandson, cheese makers all, who operate this facility. Today they produced 32 wheels of cheese, which is about average.

Collectively, the 500 plus facilities throughout the region annually produce some three million wheels of which approximately five percent makes it to the United States.

When buying the golden delight, look for the oval firebrand on the rind that reads Parmigiano-Reggiano or the dot pattern bearing the same name, two identifiers that guarantee that consortium experts have certified the cheese as the real McCoy.

To the senses, the relatively low fat, easy-to-digest cheese typically has a sharp, buttery flavor accentuated by the effervescent “fizzing” found in small white spots throughout the wedge. These spots are flavor crystals created by a natural concentration of amino acids and they basically give the cheese a little extra kick when it hits your tongue.

The tour concluded, I head back to Parma, weighed down with about 14 pounds of shrink-wrapped cheese so I can safely get it through Customs. When I get home I’m tossing that shiny green cylindrical can in the trash.

 

Details: To arrange a tour, log on to http://www.parmesan.com/craftsmanship/touring-a-parmesan-cheese-house/. Tours take around two hours and there typically isn’t a charge. Make a point to contact the provincial office about 30 days in advance so they can assist in arranging your tour.

Villa accommodations can be found here: www.vrbo.com, www.homeaway.com (browse Italy), and www.italianvillas.com.

To buy 100 % Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, shop Costco, a specialty food store (e.g. Whole Foods, Sprouts, Trader Joe’s) or go online to places like www.zingermans.com, www.murrayscheese.com and www.igourmet.com.

 

 

Kim McHugh, a Lowell Thomas award-winning writer, has been skiing for 40+ seasons. His articles have appeared in SKI, Hemispheres, POWDER, Colorado AvidGolfer, Luxury Golf & Travel, RockyMountainGolfMag.com, The Washington Post, The Toronto Sun, The Denver Post and Tastes of Italia.

Kim McHugh, a Lowell Thomas award-winning writer, has been skiing for 40+ seasons. His articles have appeared in SKI, Hemispheres, POWDER, Colorado AvidGolfer, Luxury Golf & Travel, RockyMountainGolfMag.com, The Washington Post, The Toronto Sun, The Denver Post and Tastes of Italia.

 

 

Romantic Lake Como for the 99 Percent

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The city of Como, on the shores of Lake Como

The city of Como, on the shores of Lake Como

By Beverly Stephen

We didn’t really need George Clooney to tell us Lake Como is romantic. Greta Garbo made the point in 1932 in the movie “The Grand Hotel.”  And so did the 19th century composer Franz Liszt who declared that “the story of two happy lovers” should be set there. Lake Como is the ideal setting for a fairy tale wedding, a honeymoon,  an anniversary celebration, possibly even a proposal.

Lake Como, ringed by stately Italian villas the color of faded terra cotta and burnt ochre, is touted as a playground of the rich and famous. Celebrities are spotted at Villa d’Este, the Grand Hotel Tremezzo, or the villa of a Russian oligarch. But does one have to be rich to take a romantic getaway at  Lake Como? Actually, no!

We were visiting the Milan Expo about an hour’s train ride from Como, and I thought it would be nice to surprise my gentleman friend with a romantic weekend for his birthday.  A little research revealed that there are a number of moderately priced hotels and Airbnb  rentals available. We checked into the Hotel Metropole Suisse,  (150 to 300 Euro) a quaint hotel dockside on the main square in Como. The same family has owned the hotel for 200 years and fronts on the lake, offering sweeping water views. It will appeal to veteran European travelers who appreciate old-fashioned furnishings and hefty brass keys. Those who enjoy up to the minute renovations might find the Palace Hotel just across the square more to their liking.  It’s moderately priced at 150 to 380 Euro , but belongs to the Villa d’Este group. If you’ve recently won the lottery, by all means check into Villa d’Este itself which starts upwards of 700 Euro. But whether you’re a platinum card holder or a struggling student, the beauty and the history of this fabulous northern Italian lake region are yours for the asking.

Villa Melzi

Villa Melzi

Boats serve as buses plying the waters day and night. Slower tour boats take two hours to travel the length of the lake while hydrofoils can make the trip in half that time. We crossed the street and hopped one of the hydrofoils to the magical village of Bellagio, 18 miles north of Como, to visit the spectacular gardens of Villa Melzi. Though it’s not available for weddings, many brides pay a fee to use the grounds as a backdrop for photos and it’s not hard to see why. In the spring, the gardens are ablaze with blossoms of azaleas and rhododendrons and the mild subtropical climate supports an amazing variety of flora and fauna year round. The charming village of Bellagio is lined with dockside cafes and picturesque steep steps climbing up the hillside. It’s tempting to settle in for the afternoon.

Dis Moi Oui nook at Grand Hotel Tremezzo

Dis Moi Oui nook at Grand Hotel Tremezzo

But we had made a reservation to lunch at the Grand Hotel Tremezzo, a short 20 minute boat ride across the lake. It would be an economical way to visit the hotel, enjoy its panoramic view, and to sample the cuisine where  the famed Italian chef Gaultiero Marchesi consults with executive chef Osvaldo Presaggi. We were barely seated before the waiter brought us Prosecco to toast our own story. I had a silky vitello tonnato studded with  capers and my friend the homemade tagliatelle.

After lunch, we took a little spin through the hotel to admire the striking juxtaposition of contemporary furnishings in the classical building, the elegant Greta Garbo suite, and, yes, more acres of gardens.  And so devoted to romance is the hotel that there’s even a secluded proposal nook in the garden called “Dis Moi Oui”  (French for “tell me yes”), named for a famous engagement ring. The T Beach Club pool literally floats in the lake and its T Bar can be an appealing perch for an aperitivo. The hotel property borders on the 20 acres of magnificent gardens of  Villa Carlotta, one of the few other villas open to the public.

On the return to Como, the boat passes by one stately villa and diminutive village after another. One cannot miss the beautiful Villa Balbianello, the setting for a “Star Wars” episode and a James Bond classic “Casino Royale”.  Surely we had arrived in Paradise.

Lake Como

Lake Como

We headed back to our hotel’s lively Ristorante Imbarcadero for dinner. The convivial dining room was crowded with tables of obvious regulars. We began with fresh seasonal asparagus drizzled with olive oil and paper-thin Carpaccio topped with a tangle of shaved fennel. We couldn’t resist two classics—veal cutlet Milanese  and veal scaloppini a limone. Both were perfectly cooked. Since we were already in something of a restaurant time warp, we finished up with the iconic Italian dessert, tiramisu. So ubiquitous was tiramisu in American restaurants in the 80s and 90s that Nora Ephron gave it a cameo in her romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle. Tom Hanks’ character, worried about getting back into the dating scene after several years,  and being confronted with some exotic sexual practice, presses his friend to tell him what tiramisu is. “Some woman is going to want me to do it to her and I’m not going to know what it is,”  he pleaded. Little did he know that is just a deliciously simple espresso soaked ladyfinger & mascarpone delight.

The next day it was time to do some sightseeing in the town of Como. Of course, it has a Duomo. What Italian town of note doesn’t? It’s quite striking and if you had never seen Milan’s towering structure you would be sure this was a stairway straight to heaven. The magnificent structure begun in 1396 took some 300 years to complete. And it supports some 2,000 stautes. Interestingly, the most prominent statues are those of two pagan native sons of Como, Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger. There are other significant churches and museums to explore as well, including one devoted to Alessandro Volta, the inventor of the electric battery, who was also born in Como.

Over the years, Como’s main claim to fame has been silk. The secrets of silk production were imported to Italy from China after the year 1,000 and became the mainstay of its economy. The business of actually raising the silk worms was stopped after World War II and ironically the yarn is now imported from China. But Como is still the leading manufacturer of Italian silk and the favored source for designers from Giorgio Armani to Ralph Lauren. Those interested in the whole process from worm to woven scarves should visit the Silk Educational Museum. Shopping opportunities for silk ties and scarves, some at bargain prices if they’re not sporting designer names, also abound. The renowned Ratti even has an outlet store.

Bar Ceccato

Bar Ceccato

A perfect place for an early evening aperitivo is Palace Hotel’s Garden Bar Ceccato, which offers panoramic views of the lake is frequently booked for wedding receptions.

Sales manger Fabio Griffini joins us for a Prosecco and expounds on the ever expanding wedding business in Como. One of his clients, a wealthy Texan, is booking rooms at both Villa d’Este and the Palace Hotel, some 70 rooms in total. He also recounts stories of Russian extravagance. A bride’s father was footing a bill for one million Euro. The groom’s father, not to be outdone, threw another million Euro into the pot. The venues were so hard pressed to spend such vast sums that they staged concerts with famous expensive singers.

But romance doesn’t always have to be so expensive. A charming California couple we met dockside had rented a modest apartment on Airbnb for their honeymoon. Having been a student in the area years ago, the bride was enthralled by its romantic aura. The groom, who makes cured meats for a hobby, was equally enchanted because all his recipes come from Italy.

Como itself has another recipe in its repertoire Griffini tells us. When the April to October tourist season ends, the town switches gears from leisure to business conferences. We would be happy to return any time for work or pleasure. Our only regret is that we weren’t able to spend more time on these sparkling shores.

Beverly Stephen, the former executive editor of Food Arts magazine, is currently an independent journalist and consultant specializing in food, travel, and lifestyle. She began her career as a newspaper columnist and reporter with the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Daily News.

Beverly Stephen, the former executive editor of Food Arts magazine, is currently an independent journalist and consultant specializing in food, travel, and lifestyle. She began her career as a newspaper columnist and reporter with the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Daily News.

 

 

Burano

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Burano by Deborah Loeb Bohren
Burano by Deborah Loeb Bohren
All images copyright Deborah Loeb Bohren: http://dlbohren.zenfolio.com/
All images copyright Deborah Loeb Bohren: http://dlbohren.zenfolio.com/

by Deborah Loeb Bohren

Not unlike Joseph’s fabled coat of many colors, the houses of Isola di Burano, a small island in the lagoon just north of Venice (www.isoladiburano.it), are more colorful than a 64 ct. box of Crayola Crayons.

Originally a fishing village dating back to Roman times, Burano became known for producing extremely fine, intricate lace by hand beginning in the early 16th century. Today however, most visitors come to Burano to feast their eyes on the architectural rainbow of square two and three story houses that blanket the island. Some say the tradition of painting each house a unique color – no two adjacent houses are the same – originated as a method of defining property limits. Others say the practice developed so that local fisherman could find their way through the dense fog that often envelopes the island. However, locals like to spin the tale that each house was painted a different color to help sailors who may have had a bit too much to drink make their way home to the right house. The houses range from bright and bold freshly painted colors (right up to the rooftop satellite dish) to muted, faded and peeling but, in every case, the color palette of the island is guaranteed to surprise and delight.

DLB-Self-Portrait-Potter-150x150Deborah Loeb Bohren is a fine art and travel photographer.  Photography has been Deb’s passion since her father put a camera in her hand when she was only five years old.  Today she combines that passion with her love of travel, using her camera to capture the intersection and interplay of light, line and color to create visual stories from the flea markets of Paris to the dunes of Morocco and from Machu Picchu to Havana and beyond. She lives in New York.

Letter from Rome: Hotel de la Ville Roma Redux

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InterContinental De La Ville Roma

InterContinental de la Ville Roma

By Marc Kristal

The tourist’s week I spent recently in Rome was – as it always seems to be in that unusual city – a dream of perfection. The sun came out every day and turned my scarf and gloves unnecessary. The low winter sun made silhouettes of the stone pines in the Borghese Gardens; I inhaled the aroma of dry wood and heard the bambini scream with pleasure as they painted their mouths with gelato. A mischievous waiter, seeing me unhappily seated at a two-top beside a banquet of two dozen raucous revelers, discreetly included me in their wine service. In the Coliseum, selfie sticks – lances of the 21st-century Centurions! – flailed against the gas-flame blue of the sky. I even made a discovery: the Roman street musicians are the best in the world (their secret: they don’t push).

The only disappointment I encountered, alas, was in the Romans themselves. Again and again – and from people well integrated into the country’s la dolce vita class – I heard the same sobering incantation: ‘There is no future for us in Italy.’ The economy, the corruption, the Mafia, the political paralysis, the pessimism and the cynicism, always waxing and waning in the rhythms of Italian life, seemed to have reached critical mass. The coffee was perfect, the monuments still melted your heart, but the dominant mood was disperazione. The consensus was absolute: Everything had to change.

InterContinental De La Ville Roma

InterContinental de la Ville Roma

So it may seem counterproductive for me to advocate for the maintenance of the status quo at InterContinental De La Ville Roma, a storied dowager with one of the best locations in the city, on Via Sistina near the top of the Spanish Steps. My advocacy may seem especially strange as, some seasons ago, in these very same e-pages, I remarked on how run-down the hotel had become and called for a make-over. I’ll stand by that. There is a fine spider’s web of fraying elegance overlaying the place: the carpets, drapes and fabrics need replacing, the corners of wallpaper have curled and paint is scuffed and faded, and I hesitated before flinging my jet-lagged carcass onto the sketchy bedspread (though only briefly). But this is cosmetic stuff – essential, expensive, but not radical. What the De La Ville Roma needs to avoid is a gut renovation that replaces its idiosyncrasy with the modern-day luxury of minimalist decoration, incomprehensible lighting systems, and neo-Bruce Weber art, the luxury that screams, look how global I am, look how much money we spent. No, the old-school charm of the De La Ville Roma, with its strangely shaped and arranged guest rooms, indifferently decorated terraces with their gobsmacking views, legendary Nero-esque breakfast buffet, opera-set décor, relaxed and clubby lobby bar, its quiet and anonymity and Roman everydayness, its resolute unhipness, and almost comically friendly and attentive staff, all of whom seemed to have been shipped over from the set of an Ernst Lubitsch comedy – all, all of this must stay the same.

A room with character at the InterContinental De La Ville Roma

A room with character at the InterContinental de la Ville Roma

Call me sentimental, but remember, if you will (actually, if you can), the Beverly Hills Hotel before it closed for a big makeover in 1992. It was somewhat shabby and out of date, a condition famously symbolized by the fact that the rooms had window-unit air conditioning rather than central air. If you were a snob or a square, those window units were a liability, but the hotel’s cooler contingent saw them as key icons of the hotel’s appeal, part of its hipster semiotics, along with the swank signage and banana-leaf wallpaper. When the place reopened a zillion dollars later, there may have been central air, but the place was chill in Fahrenheit only. It was the Beverly Hills Hotel in quotes, its soul and savor extracted – the hostelry version of a Stepford Wife. (The same thing happened, by the way, to the Beverly Wilshire, were you could at one time find John Wayne peeling the hookers off of his arms in the El Padrino bar, and a pre-face lift Warren Beatty feeding movie-star catnip to the checkout girls at Brentano’s bookstore. Sic transit gloria glamour.) Death By Renovation: Do we want to see the same fate befall the De La Ville Roma?

Lobby of the InterContinental De La Ville Roma

Lobby of the InterContinental de la Ville Roma

In fact, while other great Roman hotels have been ‘upgraded,’ and new places have come on the scene, the De La Ville Roma remains layered with its suave history. During the Roman Empire, the land formed a part of the Gardens of Lucullus, developed by the great general and politician whose name is synonymous with extravagant gourmandizing; beginning in the sixteenth century, a monastery occupied the site, and what is today the hotel’s inner courtyard functioned as a cloister. In 1924, the Hungarian architect József Vágó combined the multiple structures into a hotel – which quickly became one of Rome’s most prestigious – and its modern life began: the hotel’s back door made it a popular choice for philandering politicians, and the place became a favorite among film stars, rock musicians, and supermodels. And it’s comfortable: With 192 rooms (24 of them suites), the De La Ville Roma isn’t especially large, and the public spaces, though mostly high-ceilinged, are intimately scaled, which offer the hotel the welcome flavor of a private villa, a quality enhanced by the multiple terraces and balconies.

Dining terrace at the InterContinental De La Ville Roma

Dining terrace at the InterContinental de la Ville Roma

The availability of the outdoors, the curiosity encouraged by the terrace-ringed communal courtyard, give the De La Ville Roma a distinct companionability, a sense of community echoed in the second-floor outdoor dining terraces and the Emperor’s Terrace, the rooftop bar/restaurant that opens in the warm months.

I know. My Italian friends are right. The nation needs to change – to confront, and vanquish, the liabilities that have beavered away at its greatness and now threaten to drive out its best and brightest daughters and sons. But a second visit, and perhaps my own maturation, has reminded me that some things should be eternal. Rome is one. And the world beyond the revolving door at Via Sistina 69 is another.

Visit the InterContinental de la Ville Roma 

Marc Kristal is an architecture, design and travel writer. Kristal, a contributing editor of Dwell and a former editor of AIA/J, and has written for The New York Times, Architectural Digest, Elle Decor, Wallpaper, Surface, and numerous other publications. In 2003, he curated the exhibition ‘Absence Into Presence: The Art, Architecture and Design of Remembrance’ at Parsons School of Design, and in 2009 he was part of the project team that created the award-winning Greenwich South planning study for the Alliance for Downtown New York. His books include Re:Crafted: Interpretations of Craft in Contemporary Architecture and Interiors (2010) and Immaterial World: Transparency in Architecture (2011), both from The Monacelli Press. Also a screenwriter, Kristal wrote the film Torn Apart.  He lives in New York.

Marc Kristal is an architecture, design and travel writer. Kristal, a contributing editor of Dwell and a former editor of AIA/J, and has written for The New York Times, Architectural Digest, Elle Decor, Wallpaper, Surface, and numerous other publications. In 2003, he curated the exhibition ‘Absence Into Presence: The Art, Architecture and Design of Remembrance’ at Parsons School of Design, and in 2009 he was part of the project team that created the award-winning Greenwich South planning study for the Alliance for Downtown New York. His books include Re:Crafted: Interpretations of Craft in Contemporary Architecture and Interiors (2010) and Immaterial World: Transparency in Architecture (2011), both from The Monacelli Press. Also a screenwriter, Kristal wrote the film Torn Apart. He lives in New York.

ExperiencePlus!

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The Interview: Maria Elena Malpezzi-Price of ExperiencePlus!

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Interview by Everett Potter

This month, we’re giving away an amazing bike trip in Italy with ExperiencePlus! (you can enter here). Rick Price and Paola Malpezzi-Price founded the company that would become ExperiencePlus! in 1972, an eternity ago in the world of adventure travel. Italy was and is their specialty, but today the company offers biking trips to two dozen destinations and is owned by their daughters, Monica Malpezzi-Price and Maria Elena Malpezzi-Price. I caught up with Maria Elena at the Adventure Travel World Summit in Kilarney Ireland last fall to ask her about ExperiencePlus! and its continuing role as an adventure trailblazer.

Back CameraYour parents were adventure travel pioneers when they founded ExperiencePlus! in 1972. What do you and your sister do to keep their original vision alive, even as you deal with a new generation -or two-of travelers? 

From the beginning, and still today, the emphasis has always been about combining the advantages of a bicycle, a human powered vehicle that is independent so you can start and stop when you want for photos, gelato, coffee and more gelato. The two wheeled pace is slow and yet you can travel significant distances.

What we find has changed is how people decide where to go and when.  We have developed shorter and longer tour options for most of our trips.  Most itineraries now have a 7 or 8 day option and a 10 – 12 day extended option so that we can accommodate different needs for different travelers.  We also find that more people want to just travel with their friends or on their own schedule so we found ways to easily set up custom dates or private trips within our schedule.  There are certainly differences in the newer generations but we find that ultimately the desire to explore and the delight people have in exploring by bike hasn’t changed that much.

Biking in Northern Argentina with ExeriencePlus!

Biking in Northern Argentina with ExeriencePlus!

 

You’re based in the US and your sister is in Italy. Is that a competitive advantage when it comes to planning and running trips? 

We definitely find that having a solid base in North America, where most of our travelers come from, and then another headquarters where most of our trips are operated helps us in terms of logistics, staffing, trip development and overall quality control. It actually mirrors how we grew up, part time in the United States and part time in Italy and so for us it seemed like a logical way to maintain our “split identities.”

What is the most under rated ExperiencePlus! destination for biking?

Northern Argentina, around the Salta area, is likely not on the top list of cycling destinations for most people, but we have found a fabulous combination of diverse scenery, breath-taking landscapes, friendly and welcoming people, good roads and great food.  We started running trips in Chile and Argentina about 10 years ago and although we don’t offer as many dates as we do in Europe, we are seeing an increase in interest. They are great “winter” destinations for those of us in the Northern hemisphere and although they have a slightly different character than our European trips, the beauty of the regions and the interesting history make up for that. After all, if we can pedal the vineyards in Italy and France, why not Chile!

Biking in Spain with ExperiencePlus!

Biking in Spain with ExperiencePlus!

For riders who’ve done some of the classic rides in France and Italy but want that special mix of old Europe, great food and scenic countryside, which destinations might you suggest?

I’m partial to our cycling tours in Spain because in my days as a tour leader I spent most of my time there.  Whether it is our bicycle tour in Andalusia (a harder trip), or pedaling the Camino de Santiago, or our easier Catalonia tour north of Barcelona, Spain always seems to surprise people with its history and interesting food.

Wine tasting in Bavaria with ExperiencePlus!

Wine tasting in Bavaria with ExperiencePlus!

Another destination is Germany. Germans travel by bike more than almost any European nation and so their own network of roads and streets and bike paths are incredibly friendly to cyclists. Our bike tour in Bavaria often receives high praise from longtime customers who have cycled all the “classic” destinations because of its picturesque towns, great routes and good food. The trip follows Germany’s historic “Romantic Road” and in fact, it has even been called by some of our senior guides – who are not even German! – as one the prettiest tour that we have.

 

You mark your routes with chalk dust? Who came up with this great idea? Does it really remove the need to look at a map? 

Our father, Rick Price, came up with this idea in 1986 or 87.  It is considered by many of our travelers’ one of the biggest advantages of traveling with ExperiencePlus!  Anyone who has cycled in a local charity ride or even just with a group of friends knows the feeling of having to navigate with a group of cyclists.

Chalk marks show the way with ExperiencePlus!

Chalk marks show the way with ExperiencePlus!

Imagine a family road trip when your GPS is broken and you aren’t sure whether you should go right or left at the next intersection. There are multiple opinions, arguments and the feeling like you are just going around in circles. Our arrows take all of that anxiety away and truly allow for people to ride at their own pace and they do in fact remove the need for a map. Of course, Rick was also a geographer and so we still provide very good marked maps for every day! The arrows are “chalked” each day by one of our tour leaders who rides out in front, usually an hour or two before others leave.  They are not permanent and they aren’t paint.  One of the beauties of the arrows is that we can really take people on small tiny back roads that would otherwise be hard to explain with cue sheets or with maps.

Any new destinations for 2015 or 2016?

One of the key design principles we work on for all of our itineraries is that people can ride from point A to point B without getting into a vehicle unless they want to! In fact, the allure of being able to say you cycled from point A to point B is part of what gave way to our ExpeditionPlus! trips in 2006 when we first ran a tour from St. Petersburg, Russia to Istanbul, Turkey.  Since that first Expedition trip we have developed other continental scale 30+ day Expeditions and almost every year we design a new one. Our 2015 Venice to Kalamata Expedition tour sold out within 2 weeks.  For 2016 we are reimagining the Eastern European expedition, this time from Tallin, Estonia to Istanbul, Turkey and we are also looking at a Scandinavian or Rhine River to Danube River Expedition.

ExperinecePlus! in the Dordogne region of France

ExperinecePlus! in the Dordogne region of France

Most cyclists don’t fall into the “I want to cycle 2000 miles over 30 days” camp and most of our trips are perfect for the recreational cyclists. So we have designed some exciting new tours that are meant to more of an introduction to cycle touring, called Sightseer Tours. These tours still include cycling every day but they also have more options for half day activities off the bike and the cycling is on quiet roads and bike paths. For 2015 we have two such trips: a Veneto and Lake Garda tour as well as one along the Loire Valley in France.

And where are you off to next?

I’m headed to Italy in February for a conference and to also have some meetings with our guides and guide selection as we plan for the season. But in April I’m very excited to be on our inaugural tour in the Alentejo in Portugal. My sister Monica has some plans to go out and scout some new tours, either in Southern Italy or the new bike and barge tour.  We seem to never have a shortage of places to go, just a shortage of time!

 

Visit ExperiencePlus!

Read a blog post from Rick Price about the founding of the company.

Swiss Trains & the Italian Lake District with National Geographic Expeditions

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itinerary-header

Swiss trains?

The best in the world.

National Geographic Expeditions?

A guaranteed way to enjoy group travel with an expert who takes you inside a destination.

So I’m thrilled that National Geographic Expeditions has asked me to take two groups of travelers on National Geographic Expeditions trips to Switzerland next summer.

On Swiss Trains and the Italian Lake District, you’ll experience the Alps and the beautiful lake of Northern Italy, as well as ride on some of Switzerland’s legendary trains, including the Glacier Express and the Bernina Express.

From the twisted peak of the Matterhorn to the breathtaking vistas of the Bernina Pass, you’ll soar high above Zermatt in a gondola, and enjoy a choice of hikes, walks, and tram rides through beautiful mountain landscapes. Then cross the Alps into Italy and cap off the trip on the shores of stunning Lake Como.

Departure dates are July 10-19, 2015 and July 24-August 2, 2015.

Visit National Geographic Expeditions to learn more

Vivacious Vinegar: Italy’s Balsamic

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Balsamic vinegar casks in Modena

Balsamic vinegar casks in Modena

by Kim D. McHugh

Photos courtesy Acetum – Balsamic Vinegar of Modena P.G.I.

I’m standing in an acetaia, Italian for “vinegar room”, watching as Giovanni Cavalli, the proprietor of this balsamic vinegar producing facility in Reggio Emilia nurtures his batches. Essentially a large villa, the two-story stone structure was easily 100 years old, unobtrusively blending in with similar villas in this farming community 16 miles east of Parma.

Stored in an attic in a series of aged wood barrels, some of which are more than 100 years old, the balsamic vinegar is maturing, a process that will take at least 12 years, and up to 30 years. The outside temperature on this June day is pushing 90 degrees. In the attic, it is 115 degrees—just the way aging balsamic vinegar likes it.

In this environment the fermenting process required to make this revered liquid revs into high gear, accelerating the ingredients toward qualifying as Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio-Emilia or Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of the Reggio-Emilia region of Italy.

Equidistant from Milan and Bologna, Reggio Emilia is in the north central part of the country in the Po River Valley, a region known for its agricultural prowess. Besides being recognized for producing the world’s best balsamic vinegar, the region is also famous for Prosciutto di Parma (the ham of hams) and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

Caprese salad with balsamic vinegar

Caprese salad with balsamic vinegar

Prior to visiting Mr. Cavalli’s attic, I thought all wine vinegar was created equal. Not so. In fact, the production of balsamic vinegar in Italy is serious business, so much so that the country has a consortium that decides if the prized condiment is worthy of its seal of approval. To guarantee quality, a law was passed in 1986, and in 1987, a Ministerial Decree was announced so that the centuries-old methods employed for crafting this beloved vinegar would be preserved and regulated.

Those wishing to commercially bottle vinegar must submit it to a tasting commission whose members are registered master tasters in one of Italy’s two recognized consortiums; consorzio balsamico tradizionale of Reggio Emilia and consorzio balsamico tradizionale of Modena. Participating in a blind taste test, the tasters rate the balsamic vinegar for certain characteristics, including taste, aroma and visual appeal. If the vinegar scores enough points, it passes, receiving a red, silver or gold sticker of quality and also the Denomination of Controlled Origin (D.O.C.) title.

Pumpkin ravioli with balsamic vinegar in Modena

Pumpkin ravioli with balsamic vinegar in Modena

The law, the decree and the nod from the consortium notwithstanding, Mr. Cavalli told me that producers are respectful of the time-honored tradition of making balsamic vinegar the way it has been produced for more than 1,000 years. Historians have discovered ancient tomes referencing the gastronomic potion dating to 1046, the year Holy Roman Emperor Henry III traveled from Europe to Rome for a coronation. During his travels, it is believed he procured a bottle of the stuff from Bonifacio, Marquis of Tuscany and father of Countess Matilde di Canossa.

Since that time, kings, emperors and the noble families of Europe have kept a private stock of balsamic vinegar, first enjoying it for its perceived, if not real, medicinal value. In the 1800’s, the vinegar was used to enrich the dowry of noble women that were to be married. Today, the very best balsamic vinegar can fetch upwards of $500 for a very small bottle. Continuing my attic education, Giovanni explained how his balsamic vinegar is made.

First, sun ripened Trebbiano, Spergola and Occhio di Gatta grapes, grapes specifically grown within the province, are harvested. Careful not to subject them to the stress of mechanical pressing, they are hand-crushed, producing a liquid called must. The must is cooked down for upwards of 30 hours to sterilize it, prevent fermentation, evaporate some of the moisture content, and to concentrate the sugar.
Once cooled, the must is transferred to five or six wood barrels, each one smaller than the first, and the aging process begins. Yeast is added to start the alcoholic fermentation process, which is followed by acetic oxidation (the evaporation of oxygen) and the eventual transformation into vinegar. In a year’s time, 10 to 25 percent of the vinegar will evaporate and the barrels have to be filled, although no barrel is ever filled completely so further evaporation and condensation can occur.

Starting with the smallest barrel, all the barrels are topped off with vinegar from the preceding barrel, continuing on to the largest barrel. Finally, each barrel receives and infusion of new must, and the process continues annually. In accordance with the guidelines established by the consortiums, balsamic tradizionale can’t be sold in Italy as such unless it is at least 12 years old. However, because there are no such regulations in the U.S., it’s easy to be tricked.

The first giveaway is the price. For a 100 milliliter bottle of D.O.C. Red Seal produced by Cavalli cav. Ferdinando, expect to pay between $60 and $125 ($100 or more for Silver Seal, north of $200 for Gold Seal). A knock-off or look a like brand at your local supermarket costs around $10, $18 and $26 respectively. Another red flag is consistency. Balsamico traditionale is thick, yet silky, like maple syrup, while most mass-produced balsamic vinegar has the consistency of water.

Lastly, before it is corked, a representative of the consortium who seals the bottles with a wax crest supervises balsamico traditionale. The imposter often has a screw off cap. After examining each barrel, Mr. Cavalli reached for a small bottle whose contents contained 12-year-old balsamic vinegar. Nursing half a dozen drops onto a small spoon, he invited me to taste it.

I drizzled the heavenly liquid on my tongue and, though I can hardly consider myself a connoisseur, the harmony of sweet and sour was undeniable. It was rich, buttery and absent the acid bite of faux balsamic vinegar. Mr. Cavalli shared 18-, 25- and 30-year-old samples with me, and each was more delightful than its predecessor. With the attic tour complete, I joined Giovanni in his shop, walking out with a half dozen bottles of balsamico traditionale.

Returning to my rented villa to join my wife, I could hardly contain my enthusiasm. We spent the rest of our vacation searching out restaurants that served the delicious liquid. Since returning from the Reggio Emilia region, we break out the coveted elixir on special occasions, giving a nod to craftsman like Giovanni Cavalli who keeps the tradition alive.

Details:
To arrange a tour contact www.balsamico.it, www.balsamicotradizionale.it, www.acetum.it and www.emiliaromagnaturismo.com.

For villa accommodations, surf www.italianvillas.com, www.homeaway.com or www.tuscanynow.com.

To find balsamico traditionale, stop by your local gourmet food store or go online to www.modenafinefoods.com, www.cybercucina.com or www.thefind.com .

 

McMugShot 2   Kim D. McHugh is a Lowell Thomas award-winning writer and member of the Golf Writers Association of America. His articles have appeared in SKI, RockyMountainGolf.com, Hemispheres, Colorado Expression, Tastes of Italia, Luxury Golf & Travel, Nicklaus and Colorado AvidGolfer.

The Interview: Kathy Bechtel of ItaliaOutdoors Food and Wine

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Biking in Asolo with ItaliaOutdoors Food and Wine

Biking in Asolo with ItaliaOutdoors Food and Wine

By Ed Wetschler

Most European bicycling trips range from sag-wagon easy to blisteringly hard, but a single ItaliaOutdoors Food and Wine trip often features both extremes, and the same goes for the company’s hiking and skiing vacations. Wondering how they manage that, we sat down (on proper chairs, not bicycle seats) for a chat with co-owner Kathy Bechtel.

Kathy Bechtel of ItaliaOutdoors Food and Wine

Kathy Bechtel of ItaliaOutdoors Food and Wine

EW: What’s your elevator speech about what makes Italia Outdoors Food and Wine unique?

KB: We talk with each guest, learn what their hopes are, and we work to make it all happen. We accommodate different fitness levels and interests, and my business partner, Vernon McClure, and I personally lead the trips. For every custom trip we create a unique itinerary. I’m working on one now that includes experts who want to ride 60-90 miles a day, and mellow riders who may be done at 30 miles.

EW: How can you manage a trip whose participants have such a wide range of skills?

KB: We don’t ride as a group, unless that is what the group wants. We supply maps, GPS units, and everything you need to ride at your own pace. Those who wish to race along, can. Those who wish to stop, visit a church, take a picture, enjoy a snack, can do that. If you wish to ride more, we map out another loop.

We do have a vehicle for support, but it doesn’t follow the participants. If someone on a bicycling trip needs to call a sag wagon, than the operator did not design a good route for that individual. Of course, if you have mechanical problems or are exhausted, give us a call and we’ll find you.

Chefs on Bikes Tour from ItaliaOutdoors Food and Wine

Chefs on Bikes Tour from ItaliaOutdoors Food and Wine

EW: You emphasize cuisine. Doesn’t every bike tour operator do that?

KB: Yes, but when companies run groups of 20 or more, the dining options are limited. Our tours include eight participants, maximum, so we’re more flexible. We can even make changes at the last minute if, say, everyone is dying for a good pizza (which seems to happen every trip). Many tours control costs by offering a fixed menu and not including wine. Our guests choose from the menu, and I order local wines so we can taste and learn while we eat. Also, I’m a chef and cooking instructor, so we have real discussions about food. On our culinary bike tours, such as “Chefs on Bikes,” participants actually get to cook.

 

Vernon McClure of ItaliaOutdoors Food and Wine

Vernon McClure of ItaliaOutdoors Food and Wine

EW: Is Vernon also a chef?

No, Vernon is a former Airborne Army Ranger and Head of Recreation Programming for U.S. service personnel in Italy. He lives in Italy now and is a certified mountain guide as well as a skiing, snowboarding, scuba-diving, and sailing instructor. He’s an expert in program design and risk management, has designed bicycle tour itineraries, and has a BA in history and Italian studies, and an MA in European literature. He’s also a master at maintaining bicycle equipment.

EW: That’s all?

KB: [Smile] That’s all.

On the slopes in Italy with ItaliaOutdoors Food and Wine

On the slopes in Italy with ItaliaOutdoors Food and Wine

EW: ItaliaOutdoors Food and Wine also offers ski trips. Why might someone book an organized ski trip instead of just traveling alone or with friends or a spouse?

KB: Exploring a new ski area, especially in Europe, can be intimidating for people unfamiliar with the area. A good tour operator will choose the best ski area for the trip – and for each day – based upon snowfall, weather conditions, and crowds. Participants also get the benefit of local guides.

Singles enjoy group trips because they can find other skiers with similar abilities. Couples with differing levels of expertise like groups, too, because they can split up, with each skiing at their preferred pace. And from a safety perspective, I always recommend skiing with a partner, especially when you’re unfamiliar with the area.

EW: Kathy, if you wanted to wow me with your own cooking, what would be on the menu?

KB: The dishes most people love are the simplest. My favorites? Risotto – a straightforward technique, with the right rice, and you can make it so many ways; seafood, mushroom, peas, sausage, radicchio. Also, I like to braise pork in milk. Two inexpensive ingredients, a bit of time, and it’s fantastic. The sauce gets all brown and chunky and delicious, and it doesn’t look at all like milk.

Visit ItaliaOutdoors Food and Wine

 

ed  Ed Wetschler,  Associate Editor of Everett Potter’s Travel Report, also serves as Caribbean Editor of Recommend magazine and Executive Editor of Tripatini. He has written for The New York Times, Delta Sky, Frommers, Gadling, bank magazines, and other print and new media. He is a past chair of the Northeast Chapter of SATW and former editor-in-chief of Diversion magazine who can navigate Greenwich Village without a GPS. In a previous life he played backup piano for Jay and the Americans as well as The Toys, whom he considers the consummate interpreters of Mozart.

She Said, She Said: Venice

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Venetian Gondola. Photo by Jenny Keroack

By Geri Bain and Jenny Keroack

Inspired by the grand tours of aristocrats past and the more recent adventures of TV’s Gilmore Girls, 18 year old Jenny Keroack proposed that she and her mom, travel writer Geri Bain take their own grand voyage. This summer the two set out to share as much of the Old Worldas thirty days would allow, recording their favorite places and activities along the way.  Jenny’s are in italics while Geri’s are in regular type. Read about their adventures, explorations and all the schleps in between. The following is their installment, logged from Venice.

 

The train fromVienna toVenice only runs straight through at night, but we’d read that the seven-hour daytime train/bus trip was worth taking in daylight. Seeing the tiny villages nestled into deep river valleys and cliff-top castles, we agreed.

 

Londra Palace Hotel. Photo by Geri Bain

 

Settling in: Arriving in Venice, we found our way to Venice’s mass transit, the canal-cruising waterbuses, or vaporettos, and 20 minutes later, were thrilled to see the Hotel Londra Palace. Our Biedermeier-decor room felt quite elegant with its fabric-covered walls, lovely brocade work, high ceiling and marble bathroom. Our first floor balcony provided wonderful views of the lagoon and the lively waterside boulevard, the Riva Degli Schiavoni. The hotel has hosted many luminaries. In fact, Tchaikovsky composed the first three movements of Symphony No. 4 when he stayed here in 1877. We loved that St. Mark’s Square and the Bridge of Sighs were steps away and that water taxis stopped right at our front door, and we especially appreciated our concierge, who mapped out the perfect walking tours for us each day.

 

Piazza San Marco. Photo by Jenny Keroack

 

San Marco Square. Piazza San Marco, famous for its beautiful architecture and outdoor cafes, is far from your average European town square. During the day, you’ll find people taking pictures of their children and loved ones feeding and, in many cases, covered in pigeons. Venice is a city that truly celebrates its rats with wings. Off to the side, bands play and dancing in the streets is encouraged. The music continues well into the night; it may be a tourist trap, but having a drink on the square is an only-in-Venice experience and well-worth doing. The two most historic, Il Caffé Florian and Grancaffé Quadri, date back to the 18th century. Just be prepared for the persistent hawkers and even more persistent Italian gentlemen– especially if you’re a girl on your own.

Do Leoni Restaurant. Photo by Geri Bain

 

Food: It was hard to go anywhere without being tempted by wonderful things to eat. But then what would you expect? After all, this is Italy, and a seaside city at that. Fresh seafood was plentiful and Venice has some interesting ways of preparing it. I loved sarde in saor (sweet and sour sardines). And Jenny loved the seafood ravioli. Our favorite meal was on the terrace at Do Leoni at our hotel, where planters created a buffer between us and the passing parade of tourists and entertainers and we enjoyed the modern twist on classic Venetian dishes. And of course, there was always gelato and pizza by the slice for quick pick-me-ups  as we explored.

 

Shopping along Calle Larga XXII Marzo. Photo by Jenny Keroack

 

Shopping. In the tradition of its over 1000 years as a trading center, Venice still offers a diverse shopping scene, from the shops on the ancient Rialto Bridge to the high-priced boutiques of Calle Larga XXII Marzo. My favorite item to look for in Venice was jewelry. While famous for their masks, lace, and blown glass, Venetians also sell fine silver jewelry, much of it crafted right in the city. My mom got textured silver earrings from the craftsman himself at La Foglia D’Oro and I found a locket on a velvet necklace from Israel at Michal Negrin. For clothes, check out Coin, a Venetian company with top brands from all over Europe. Since Venice is basically a city of tourists, stores are found everywhere and stay open late. A piece of advice: if you see something you like off the main streets, get it or forget it. Venice is a maze and you may not find your way back.  

 

El Museo della Musica. Photo by Geri Bain

 

A Vivaldi Museum: Walking across San Maurizio square (Campo San Maurizio), strains of lovely music came from what looked like a neoclassical church. It was the former San Maurizio church which now houses El Museo della Musica (Music Museum). Admission is free, and inside, we enjoyed recorded music by Venice-born composer Antonio Vivaldi while perusing a small but fascinating collection of centuries-old stringed instruments and Vivaldi memorabilia. Interpretive panels provided detailed information in English and Italian about the composer and his times. A low-key gift shop offers CDs, books, and tickets for performances by a professional ensemble, Interpreti Veneziani, at the nearby, art-richChurch ofSan Vidal. We didn’t have time, but serious Vivaldi aficionadas may also want to visit the church he attended, La Pieta, with a small exhibition open by appointment only.

 

Bridge of Spires, a.k.a Ponte delle Guglie, leading to the old Jewish Ghetto. Photo by Jenny Keroack

Jewish Ghetto. My main purpose in going to the Ghetto Vecchio (Jewish quarter) was to find the architecture and landmarks described in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Locals tried to help, pointing us towards their two oldest bridges and the old town square. We also saw tall, skinny buildings, much like the one where Shylock and Jessica would have lived. However, for those who are less enthusiastic about Shakespearean plays, there are some actual historical destinations. Those interested can join a tour of the quarter’s synagogues and visit  the Museo Ebraico (Jewish Museum) to learn why so many Jews lived here, in Europe’s first ghetto, starting in the 1500s. In fact, the word “ghetto” comes from the Venetian word geto (foundry), for the iron works located on this island before Jews were required to live here. Getting there is pretty walk from center of town; we stopped at a lively street fair along the way, and the ghetto area has some traditional restaurants, like Gam Gam, which was recommended by several locals.

 For more information on Italy and Venice, visit http://www.italia.it or  http://en.turismovenezia.it/.

 

Next stop: Barcelona

Geri Bain (right), a widely published travel writer and editor, has written about more than 60 countries and contributed to publications including inc.com, N.Y. Daily News and Robb Report. While travel editor at Modern Bride magazine, she wrote an acclaimed guide to Honeymoons and Weddings Away. She is a past president of the New York Travel Writers Association and former editorial director of Endless Vacation magazine.

18-year-old Jenny Keroack wrote for the Observer Tribune from 2009 to 2012 and her work has appeared in the Riverdale Press, Elegant Lifestyles and other publications. She was a researcher/blogger for the N.Y. League of Conservation Voters last summer and is now studying political science at theUniversityofChicago.