Saturday, August 30, 2014

At Vermont Creamery

A detour off the I-89 takes me to Vermont Creamery. It smells of fresh milk, even outside. Goat milk, collected from local family farms. Cow milk, churned into cultured butter. The wafts of dairy and a the picture of an old 10-gallon milk container bring back memories of when I was young, helping out on a dairy farm pouring milk raw and foaming from the milking bucket into a container just like it. Peering through the glass window to look at a system of vats, drain tables, and cheesecloth bags, I listen to Aged Cheese artisan Joey Conner explaining the process of collecting, pasteurizing and culturing the milk before the resulting fresh cream is drained to separate whey from curds to the desired consistency. Or goes to the churner for butter. 

One of the first American cheeses I tasted when I moved to the States, was a Bonne Bouche. A fresh goat cheese from Vermont Creamery. A lover of aged, ripe artisanal cheeses, I was delighted with the rich savory soft goat cheese. It rapidly became one of my favorite cheeses, especially the riper one oozing deliciously under its wrinkled rind. Bonne Bouche ages on the shelves at Vermont Creamery for 7-10 days. After that, it continues to ripen in its individual little box for up to 80 days. A very young Bonne Bouche has deliciously firm snow-white fresh goat cheese, while one pushing the sell-by date, and my favorite, comes out runny and ripe. The wonderful characteristics of an artisanal cheese.
"wrinkles are beautiful", a ripe Bonne Bouche wriggled free from its little wood box and onto my cheese board
Goût de Terroir
Cheesemaker and co-founder of Vermont Creamery Allison Hooper learned the secrets of artisanal cheesemaking in France (Brittany). Impressed with the notion of goût de terroir, the "taste of a place" became one of the most determining elements in cheesemaking at the Vermont Creamery. Quality starts with the origin of the product, or in this case the milk: goat or cow, milk comes strictly from selected local family farms, in a region abundant in green, seasons and fresh air. And my god, it is green, Vermont. I drove the I-89 from the Canadian border down to New Hampshire and green was all we saw. Green mountains, green pastures, green shores around rivers and lakes reflecting green.

The cultured butter produced at Vermont Creamery is rich: it contains 86% butterfat, the kind that makes you purr. Making cultured butter started with an old churner found abandoned in a farm field. The old churner with its big moving blades operated until just three years ago, when it was replaced with a modern churner to meet growing demand for the rich golden pure butter goodness. It comes unsalted, lightly salted, salted with grey Baltic sea salt, and one that had my son imagine hot homemade pancakes, and me seared bison steak: a butter enriched with pure maple syrup.

For the size of its market today, Vermont Creamery is a small operation, and a substantial part of the process is still done by hand. Proud of their artisanal fresh goat cheese, their rich cultured butter, what the company seems most proud of is the fact that for more than thirty years and counting, it sustains a solid local network of small farms and creamery artisans.
Vermont Creamery has a small team of creamery artisans. Here the butter man carefully
hand-packages a new batch of Vermont Creamery 86% cultured butter 
butter goodness under a checkered cloth: you want it, I know you do
Geotricum-rinded Cheeses
Vermont Creamery was the first to make “geo-rinds” (using pasteurized milk) in the States, and have perfected it in their aptly named Bijou (made in the style of crottin de Chavignol, a young Bijou has a creamy texture, and as it ages it gains in sharpness), Coupole, and of course, my favorite Bonne Bouche. Geotricum is a fungus, or yeast. It creates that wrinkled rind around the cheese that comes with blemishes, blots, and a moldy-looking appearance. None of it harmful, it adds to the flavor and overall delicacy of the cheese. You'll find this kind of cheese all over Europe, many of them in fact made from raw milk. In the US, any raw milk product is bound by strict regulations, including artisanal raw milk cheeses. To me it doesn't make sense why you would restrict artisanal raw milk cheese, yet have processed cheese with the taste and texture qualities of candle wax so unrestrictedly available by the buckets. Not to end on a rant, thank cheese heaven for the cheese artisans around the US dedicated to making good quality cheeses.

Vermont Creamery is a Certified B-Corp: Be The Change, these are small corporations that "meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. Read more here

Further reading
Developing Geotricum-rinded Cheese In The States (by Allison Hooper, VC cheesemaker and co-founder)

You may also like
A Short Story Of Alpine Cheese
Slow Shepherds And The Cheese Resistance
Dreaming Of Cheese: Dutch Artisanal Cheeses

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Lean Goat Marries Full-Bodied Priorat

You are what you eat. It goes for goat, too! Just had goat from a local farm in the Quebec Laurentians. Gone was the odoriferous quality I came to associate with goat meat. Grass-fed, this goat meat was tender in taste and smell, and rightfully so likened to veal by its farmer.

Don't get me wrong. Even with a certain rankness, I've had some wonderful goat. Simmered in a spicy curry. Gentled with ginger, sweet soy, chili and lime in my favorite Indonesian Satay Kambing. Whole goat roasted asado in front of a blazing wood fire, and served in crispy thin slices. Goat just had this undeniable taste, I thought.

Natural Taste
Not the goat meat I bought at La Maison des Fermiers in Saint Jovite (Quebec). It looked lean and smelled fresh. Putting it to the test, we simply grilled the delicate rack of goat in all its naturalness. It was velvety tender with a pure red meatiness that I'd place between veal and venison. Rubbed with Moroccan spice and braised slowly, the goat shanks came out falling off the bone, deliciously meaty and amazingly: very little fat.

La Maison des Fermiers in Saint Jovite (Quebec) sells local farmers specialty meats, eggs, and dairy products. Their blackboard lists oie, canard, bison, and chevreau. Translating the bunch for the benefit of my son, I had some fun explaining also the variations of "chev" as in cheveaux, cheveux, cheval, chevreuil, chevreau, and how not to mix up horse and hair at the hairdresser. We tried goose burgers, bought duck legs for confit, and of course: the goat meat from their own farm nearby in the Laurentian mountains.
What's in a wine label
Red ants crawling all over the black and white label. I thought of The Label Project I participated in: how important is the label in choosing a wine. It isn't, well, not if you know what you want. Priorat is a small wine region inland from the Catalonian coast in northeastern Spain. Known for its full-bodied wines, it is a wine that swirls wonderful with rustic meat dishes. Locking flavors quite happily, the match between Formiga DOG Priorat and my braised goat was no exception (tasting notes here).

Moroccan Spice Braised Goat Shanks
recipe for 4
4 goat shanks
1 large onion
2-3 cloves of garlic
1 can peeled cherry tomatoes
1 glass red wine
2 tsp coarse salt (or to taste)
1 tbsp olive oil

spice mix
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp coriander seeds
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
1/2 tsp ground paprika
1/2 tsp black peppercorns
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp fennel seeds
  • preheat the oven to 350F
  • lightly toast the seeds (coriander, cumin, peppercorns, fennel) and pound fine. Mix all spices together. You may need all (store the rest)
  • rub the spice mix and coarse salt onto the shanks. 
  • heat the olive oil in a casserole (ovenproof with lid), and brown shanks on all sides. Careful not to burn the spices. 
  • take the shanks out, and gently soften the onions in the same pan. Add ginger and celeriac after about 5 minutes, cook for another 2 minutes
  • turn up the heat, add the red wine, reduce to half the amount
  • add the cherry tomatoes, bring to a boil and add the shanks
  • Cover and cook in the oven for 2-3 hours, or until meat pulls easily when you tear it with a fork. 
I served the shanks with creamy polenta, roasted rainbow carrots and New Zealand spinach fresh from a local farmer in the area.

Monday, August 18, 2014

With A Belly Full Of Cheese Around Vanoise

Seasonally speckled with fresh morel mushrooms, the bubbling pot of Fondue Savoyarde was an open invitation to overeat. We dipped bread, pulled strings of melted cheese, peeped over the rim of the fondue pot to locate a good morsel of morel mushroom, and we indulged like there was no hiking the next day. The local herbal liqueur, Génépi (pronounced it sounds like JennyPee) helped ease the overeaten fullness, but didn't do my legs any favors the next morning on the mountain trails of Vanoise National Park.

The hike up from Pralognan to the Col de la Vanoise starts with a relentless, steep climb. It pulverized my wobbly legs, but the reward was some of nature's best Alpine scenery of rocky mountains, snow-covered peaks, glacier lakes, and dreamy meadows where marmots whistle and Bouquetin (Alpine Ibex) graze. I had booked our refuges in the Vanoise in advance, to be assured of a meal and a spot on the family-style bunk-beds in the authentic small, stone hut. When we dumped our stuff in the first night dormitory room, I shrugged at the narrowness of my allotted sleeping space. At the end of a long mountain walking day, a bed is a bed.
We snacked on chunks of Beaufort and Abondance we'd bought before departure from Pralognan. And salami we sliced with a pocket knife. I was never one for trail mix. We even brought a baguette that was crusty and smelled alluringly the day we got it at the boulangerie, but squashed against our sweaty backs all day, the leftover came out crumbled and stale the next day. Every night at the refuge, a satisfying dinner was served: a hearty soup, a "plat du jour", cheese, and a dessert. A bottle of wine on the table, a digestif to seal the deal. Soon as dinner was over, the dining room cleared and it was off to bed, finally allowing the eyelids to do what they'd been begging to do since the soup: shut. 

Up from the trail on a grassy slope one day, some people stood bent over low bushes. They were picking wild blueberries. Tiny and oh so delicious, we joined the foraging for a short while before we trudged on. We had a long, long trail ahead. Around every rocky curve we looked hopefully across. Could we see our next hut perched in the distance? The trail meandered around many curves and cliffs more before we did. And even then, it was never "as the crow flies". Tired to the bone, we arrived at La Dent Parrachée, and kicked off our hiking boots to cool the steaming hoofs in the open mountain air. After a refreshing shower, beer in hand and breathtaking view to take in, the throbbing legs were soon forgotten. The final struggle that day was to remain awake through dinner, and then crash for a good night sleep. That evening, a group with young children arrived quite late, when everyone else was already down to dessert. I remember my brother looking up, expressing dismay: how can we, adults, go off to bed when kids are still out there eating, looking all chipper and awake. We tried to sit up straight, smile, and pretend not to be overwhelmingly tired. It was a lost battle. I did hear them shuffle quietly to the dormitory later that evening. Worse, they were up and done with breakfast before we even emerged.

This multi-day hike was done several years ago, and for me personally it was one of the most strenuous hikes I have ever done (with the exception of Hiking in the Annapurna). We did a 4 day/3 nts loop hike, starting and finishing in Pralognan-la-Vanoise. We walked past Col de la Vanoise to stay overnight at the Refuge d'Entre Deux Eaux. From there, we walked a long, long day to Refuge de la Dent Parrachée. We spent a final night in Refuge du Col de la Vanoise before descending back to Pralognan. 

Fondue Savoyarde
A cheese fondue made with cheeses from the Savoie and the Franche-Comte, like Abondance, Beaufort, Comte, and French Gruyere and Emmenthal (the latter two are made in the style of, and named after the original Swiss cheeses). A regional wine made to match the richness of cheese fondue is Vin de Savoie Apremont.
One of my favorite dishes to eat in the Savoie region, it is a dish of sliced potatoes, hearty bacon, onions, and topped with a thick layer of local Reblochon. The dish is served hot, with the cheese melted all over and into the potato mixture underneath
Tarte aux Myrtille Sauvages
An open shortcrust pie filled and baked with delicious wild blueberries

Refuges in the Vanoise here (including maps and links to the refuges mentioned in this post)
Vanoise hiking loops here (including trail maps of the area described in this post)


This is a post in a series Hiking And Eating In The Alps. Also in this series is A Short Story of Alpine Cheese (a walk to a traditional Alpage de Beaufort in the French Savoie).

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Hiking And Eating In The Alps

You can hike across the Alps, never bring a rucksack picnic or overnight-hike food, and still eat very well even at high altitude. On a gastronomic trail map, you could start your day with Weisswurst and a beer in the Bavarian Alps, nibble on cured meats, good butter and dark sourdough bread in Tyrol, dip into a veritable cheese fondue in Switzerland, fill up on carbonade and polenta in Val d'Aosta, and end your day with tarte aux myrtilles sauvages and an artisanal Génépi in the SavoieSpanning across eight different countries, the Alps are a hikers' paradise with hundreds of miles of trails, passes, and footpaths cutting through spectacular high mountain scenery. Some of them are as old as when Hannibal crossed the Alps with his elephants. Yet what makes the Alps such a splendid region for mountain walking in MY book, is the authentic culture and Alpine cuisine you come across as you tramp the trails.
Part of that Alpine culture are the Alps' authentic mountain huts, where weary hikers can rest, eat, and even spend the night. These huts champion their Alpine heritage: built to last with sturdy dark wooden beams and thick stone walls, they're often in a panoramic position, affording views that both take your breath away, and let you catch it again. Traditional foods and local gastronomy thrive here. The common denominator is hearty comfort food aimed to restore your energy levels. Each country has its own specialities. Potatoes, for instance, are a main ingredient in many a dish, but they'll be grated into rösti in Switzerland, cooked down in a Gulash soup in Austria, mashed and rolled into gnocchi in Italy, and sliced and topped with speck and melted cheese for a tartiflette in France. 

Over the years, we've been to the Alps for hiking and eating many, many times. First as a couple, with my brother, and later with our son. In fact, part of the Vanoise loop done first with my brother, we did a couple of years later with both brother and son, spending a hiking night at Refuge Plan du Lac. Treasured memories retraced make even better memories to last.

In a series of posts Hiking And Eating In The Alps, I look back on some of my favorite hiking trips in the Alps, based on criteria of stunning Alpine scenery, unique moments, great food, and beautiful memories. They are a random selection of short stories. The first story describes an adventure in the land of Beaufort cheese: A Short Story Of Alpine Cheese, and coming up are Vanoise, Gran Paradiso, and Tyrol Sud and Austrian. Links to mountain huts and maps are included where possible. Hope you will enjoy my series of little ad hoc epicurean hiking adventures in the European Alps!

In the series Hiking And Eating In The Alps:
With A Belly Full Of Cheese Around Vanoise (A multi-day hike that started off with a belly full of Savoie cheese fondue.
A Short Story Of Alpine Cheese (a delightful walk up to a traditional Alpage de Beaufort in Savoie)
Well-thumbed and smudged, Walking The Alpine Parks of France and Northwest Italy (1994 edition) has been our guide on many of our mountain-walking trips. Preparing an Alpine walking trip starts with the fun of tracing your trails on the map. Maps and guide books are also a perfect excuse on a steady climb to pause and "get your bearings"

Saturday, August 2, 2014

With A Pitchfork In My Kitchen

Birds and butterflies frolic around the flowers in the garden. At night, fireflies come out and dance above the blueberry hill. Vegetables grow healthy here. Black kale, rainbow chard, patty pans, yellow beans, green cabbage, kohlrabi, potatoes, beetroots, tomatoes from deep red to bright orange, aromatic herbs galore, even edible flowers. It all grows free for the picking and digging just outside my kitchen. That's farmers' hospitality for you.

There is a portrait of Abraham Lincoln on the wall in the living room. A smile confirms my unspoken question. Lincoln is a family name and traces back to the great Abe. It is a lovely house, charmingly decorated with paintings, family heirlooms and memorabilia, and our home for the week. We're in Sedgwick on the scenic Blue Hill Peninsula in Maine. Settled in 1763, the tiny town retained much of its rural character with all but a couple of clapboard houses, a post office, and a town landing on a pretty inlet.
With a pitchfork we dig out horseradish root from underneath the leafy green bush. I stare wantingly at another lush green plant. Its roots are among my favorite tubers: jerusalem artichokes, but they're not yet in season. Even the potatoes are so new, they're practically skinless. I walk around looking at vegetables, and my mind spins: Ribollita with the black kale? Patty Pan Squash Risotto? Stuffed squash flowers? Chard Stalk Crab Cakes? I feel like a kid in a candy store.
The edible flowers are the best treat. They lift a dish from simple to natural art. I use the flowers in a petite salade with the tzatziki I made. It has cucumber, beetroot, horseradish, chives, garlic, and yogurt (recipe here). A vivid color itself, garnished with yellow edible flowers, oak leaf lettuce, and cherry tomatoes, the tzatziki almost looks too good to eat. 
We pick a kohlrabi. I braise it with black kale, garlic, and tomatoes, and love how well it combines with the crispy skin-fried Arctic Charr. We bought the fish in nearby Stonington on Deer Isle, a typical Maine fishing village with clapboard houses, lobster cages, and boats bobbing in the natural harbor.

Not a day goes by without something picked and cooked in my Maine kitchen. Kohlrabi and kale yesterday, today has us picking fresh sage for the slow-roasting pork shoulder poked with orange peel and fennel (recipe here). Outside, bees are busy collecting nectar, keeping the farmer happy harvesting their natural honey. I have a jar of farm honey in my kitchen, and we drizzle it with lip-licking anticipation over the handpicked wild blueberry pancakes I just made, using eggs laid by one of the free-roaming chicken that managed to steer clear from the hungry fox roaming at night.
Armed with a pitchfork and small digger, we stroll down to the beach at low tide to go clam digging. We have to dig deep in the coarse dark sand, but are rewarded with some big clams. Lifting seaweed, I discover black mussels clinging to the rocks underneath, and we end up with a bucket full of clams and mussels to go back to my kitchen. Cleaned, steamed and chopped, the clams join a concoction of onion, fennel, kohlrabi, and new potatoes, simmering with lovage, bay leaf and cream. Clam chowder doesn't get any better (recipe here). The mussels steam open in white wine, a few twigs of thyme, and garlic so fresh and juicy, it cracks rather than crushes under my kitchen knife. Chopped ripe tomatoes and shredded basil complete the super-fresh vino-steamed mussels. Life is oh so good in my Maine farm kitchen!
Beach-Dug Clam Chowder (recipe here). See the steam rising up from this bowl of deliciousness?
In My Kitchen is an inspiring series initiated by Celia @ Fig Jam And Lime Cordial (link). I could not resist this In My Kitchen post, given the range of fresh produce I unexpectedly found in my (holiday) kitchen.

The farm is called New Moorings and we found it through AirBnB (link here). Doug and Angie know what good, honest and sustainable farming is all about. They also know true hospitality, sharing farm and house in the most generous way.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Summer Red & Refreshing

Living close to local farms as a teenager in the Netherlands, seasonal harvesting jobs were a way to earn some money. Beans, sugar beets, corn, whatever was in season (and wasn't harvested mechanically) had me and my brother on our bicycles off to the farmers' fields to help with the harvest. Summertime planted us in the strawberry fields, where we sat on our knees, moving down the rows of strawberry bushes all day picking ripe strawberries. Payment was per full box picked, so any you ate, or time you took to rest, meant less money in your pocket. The very first time I went, I ate too many, and moved too slow. In no time, I was well behind in my row, and at the end of the day, I had not even 10 "box slips" compared to the 50 or more of others. That didn't happen again. Every day, my hands still smelled of strawberry even after a shower, and after a week, the sun had colored my face just about as red.
Summer has been in full hot swing for weeks and weeks here in Houston. Strawberry season was celebrated earlier in the summer, with strawberry festivals adding live music to the sweet scent of ripe red summer kings. Big now (and quite literally so) are watermelons: colossal green oblongs girdling juicy red flesh. Nothing beats a slice of fresh watermelon on a hot summer day, when its free-run juices bring relief to a parched palate.

It's a coming and going of strawberry and watermelon in my kitchen this summer. Little strawberry custard tartlets, my SummerFLing strawberry-lemonade cocktail with gin and campari, strawberry risotto, gallons of the best thirst-quencher: fresh watermelon juice, and a new popular summer soup in our house: watermelon gazpacho.

Also popular at our lunch or dinner table is this refreshing summertime salad. Strawberry and watermelon combine with beetroot and fresh herbs, a hint of lemon and the crunch of sea salt flakes. Once you've tried it, you'll be making it all summer long.

Strawberry, Watermelon & Beetroot Salad
(serves 3-4 as appetizer)
1 cup strawberries, quartered
1 cup diced watermelon
1 cup julienne-cut raw red beetroot

1 tbsp handful fresh mint (small leaves)
1 tbsp handful fresh basil (small leaves)

1 tbsp lemon oil (homemade or store-bought, or use olive oil + a sprinkling of grated lemon zest)
1 tsp white balsamic vinegar
a good sprinkle of sea salt flakes
1/2 cup good quality crumbly goat cheese (optional)

How easy is this salad? Just build the layers: beetroot first, strawberry and watermelon next, herbs and raw onion and crumbled goat cheese divided on top. The lemon juice, sea salt and citrus oil are sprinkled over the salad very last minute. Serve as is for prettiness, but toss before you eat to infuse all the flavors.

ps. instead of goat cheese, try this watermelon, strawberry & beetroot salad alongside smoked salmon, or even better: with your own cured Pacific wild salamon (recipe here).

Or try the strawberry, watermelon & beetroot salad as a garnish with watermelon gazpacho for a beautiful flavor range of summer red.

Watermelon Gazpacho
1 cup chopped watermelon
1 cup peeled tomato
1/2 cup chopped fennel
1/2 cup chopped cucumber
1/2 cup chopped onion
juice of 1 lemon
1 garlic clove
1/2 serrano chili peper (or other green chili)
salt/pepper to taste

Whizz all in the blender, taste and adjust if needed, et voila.
Simple and in Season - enter your post on
This recipe was inspired by a series initiated by Ren Behan's Simple & In Season, and My Custard Pie.

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Monday, July 14, 2014

A New Love, Peruvian Tiradito

Any raw-fish lover is bound to be smitten with even the most basic concoction of raw fish, lime juice, chili pepper and sliced red onions. I have tried different versions of ceviche, including some that had as much to do with ceviche as coconut-based fish stew with bouillabaisse. It may be disputed where ceviche originated, but ceviche is considered a national dish in Peru. Yet until recently, I never really knew the full range of flavors of a Peruvian ceviche, let alone taste a Tiradito. Until I booked a table at Latin Bites Cafe.

In the domain of Peruvian born, raised, and culinary educated chef Roberto Castre, I had a Peruvian Cebiche that presented an exhilarating range of flavors and textures. Fresh and pure, the flavors connected naturally, like pieces of a puzzle. The well-shaped quenelle of sweet potato, its sweetness destined to counter-balance the acidity. The choclo (big Andean corn kernels), fried yucca dice, crispy calamari, tender morsels of octopus, and raw sliced red onions, all had a textural dance with the velvety soft fish, each adding its own flavor to the spectrum. A pleasant heat came from Peruvian chili pepper aji rocoto. And the rich, creamy and lime-juicy marinade was good enough to slurp on its own.

Not just the Cebiche had me hooked. At Latin Bites I also found a new raw fish love: Tiradito. "Italians have carpaccio, Japanese have sashimi, Peruvians have tiradito" it says on the menu.

The Passion Fruit Tiradito came as a stunning contemporary creation of thin sliced Hamachi floating in a creamy, silky smooth leche de tigre, deliciously yellow from the infusion with fresh passion fruit. Again here, the dish was a fresh and pure build-up of flavors and textures. Pleasing to the eye just as much as the palate, the dish was garnished with a colorful combination of sweet potato puree, crispy quinoa, the crunch of fresh radish, big yet tender choclo, and micro greens. Chef Roberto Castre's saporous Passion Fruit Tiradito single-handedly sold me on Peruvian cuisine.

Leche de Tigre is the Peruvian name for the citrus-based marinade that cooks* the raw fish in both ceviche and tirado. It translates as "tiger milk". Any Leche de Tigre varies with each creator's influence. Some emulsify with (olive) oil, others add evaporated milk for creaminess. Some add fish stock, or pureed fish to make the marinade, or even add different flavor ingredients to the mix. Latin Bites, for instance, makes a Botija Leche de Tigre (made with Peruvian olives), and of course the one I lapped up by the spoonfuls: Passion Fruit Leche de Tigre.

*the cooking is not done by heat: it is a chemical reaction between citric acid and raw fish that causes fish meat to feel and look cooked.
Peruvian Pisco Sour
"Ce pisco, c'est le plus beau jour de ma vie" (Captain Haddock).
Pisco is the grape-based spirit produced in the wine regions of Peru and Chile. Mixed with lime juice and simple syrup, the Peruvian Pisco Sour is a tempting cocktail enriched with a dash of angostura bitter and crowned with foamy whipped egg whites. At Latin Bites, it is one of eight (!) Pisco-based cocktails, including one that infuses refreshing cucumber with a kick of Aji pepper heat. What a place! Divine food, cocktails galore, a chef with an artistic flair for presentation, and an ambiance that made us feel relaxed, Latin Bites Cafe put a big smile on my face.

Menu and details of Latin Bites Cafe: I've tried only a fraction of a menu where practically everything was speaking to me. I'll be back.

I will be going to the 2014 Salone del Gusto in Turin (October). One of the cooking sessions I'm attending is about Peruvian Cebiches. More to talk about later!

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Sunday, July 6, 2014

A Short Story of Alpine Cheese

Something writhes on the cheese board with the ripe, oozing Reblochon. You can barely see them for their white, almost translucent tiny wiggly-worm shape, but there they are. Two of them. Maggots. We've stopped for lunch in a thick-walled stone chalet with a rustic but not unpleasant barnyard smell high above Orcieres on the edge of Les Ecrins in the French Alps. Not at all fazed by our startled expressions, the hut keeper flicks them away with an encouraging "c'est bon." Scrutinizing the Reblochon for any more maggots, I do try the cheese. It looks and smells too good not to. Its runny ripeness drapes deliciously over the crusty bread and erases any remaining thoughts of maggots. 

Hiking in the Savoie is like following an epicurean cheese trail. Here and across the border into Switzerland is where traditional Alpine cheeses like AbondanceBeaufort, Tomme de Savoie, GruyereEmmenthal, and Reblochon are made. Chances are you come across an alpage: the high Alpine pastures where huge cows with big bells around their necks defy gravity. Most just ignore you, quietly girdling their tongue around the fresh grasses, abundant with wildflowers and herbs. They chew slowly, almost as if they're reflecting on the aromas these Alpine grasses are going to give their milk. Every now and then, one of them looks up with beautiful dark eyes, sounding off a "moo" that echoes in the mountain air. The bells around their necks clunk as they sway gently, a sound so synonymous with the Alps for me. Caked cow pats dot the trail, and the smell is almost invigorating. 
Cows are herded up to the alpage at the beginning of summer, where they graze freely until the days shorten, and temperatures drop to announce the end of summer. Every day, the cows are gathered for milking at the alpage barn. Traditionally, the alpage was also the location where the cheese was made, distinguishing between summer (alpage) and winter (barn) cheese. Alpine cheeses like Gruyere and Emmentaler today are largely made by cooperations in the valley. In the Beaufortain, however, the old traditions of making cheese up on the alpage remain. We visited an alpage de Beaufort in the Tarentaise (Vanoise) near Bourg Saint Maurice. It is an easy walk up from the parking lot in beautiful scenery. Vast vistas, rolling meadows, climbing rocky trails. Closer to the alpage barn, the smell of dairy becomes more pervasive. It is a sweet and sour milk smell that mingles with the herbal and grassy air all around. If "rustic" needed a smell definition, this would be it: a melee of fresh grasses, dried cow pats, raw milk and clean mountain air. It is the aroma you find in authentic Alpine cheese, made with the milk of cows nourished an entire summer on the Alps' green goodness. We took a tour of the cheese making facilities at the Beaufort Alpage, and learned a little more about the process of making Beaufort. How the milk is collected in big "tubs", stirred, and heated gently. The curds separating from the whey are collected, strained through cheese cloth, and pressed into moulds to harden. The hardened cheeses are then moved to shelves in a dark, thick-stoned barn to ripen. This, of course, is the briefest of summaries of how Beaufort cheese is made. You can taste and buy the cheese directly from the alpage. To taste alpage Beaufort right there, with the big brown makers of the milk grazing not a stone's throw away, is one unforgettable experience. 

The Alpage de Beaufort we visited was a Fromagerie des Alpages de La Plagne, near Bourg Saint Maurice in the Tarentaise. Read more about the Beaufortain here and Beaufort cheese making here (website in French). If you visit the Savoie, make sure you try at least once a Fondue Savoyarde: made with traditional cheese like Beaufort, Comte, and Abondance, it often has Savoy's white wine Apremont at the basis, and in season you might just be lucky enough to find a Savoyarde cheese fondue enriched with fresh morels. 

This story is a pre-taster of a longer post "Vanoise to Val Gardena: Hiking and Eating in the Alps" coming up next. 

Two other Cheese Stories you may like:
Slow Shepherds and the Cheese Resistance: authentic, artisanal cheese from various regions in Italy discussed at the Salone del Gusto 2012

Dreaming of Cheese: the passion of a cheese connoisseur and delicatessen shop owner in Amsterdam as he explores artisanal cheese making in collaboration with Dutch organic dairy farmers.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Discovering Slow Houston: Fat Cat Creamery

A couple of years ago, on a trip to the Venezuelan Andes, I found myself staring at an ice cream menu of hundreds of flavors at Heladeria Coromoto in Merida. Among them some seriously fishy flavors, including salmon, sardines, chipi chipi and cuttlefish. A quick google reveals that with nearly 900 flavors, this legendary Merida ice cream parlor still churns out "the most ice cream flavors in the world".

In the tiny little pastry kitchen of Houston's Fat Cat Creamery, artisan ice cream maker Julia thinks about her weirdest ice cream and says "probably a ham and pineapple ice cream I made for Christmas once". Our group sounds a collective hum of appreciation, mimicking a mental taste of that ice cream.

Fat Cat Creamery in the Houston Heights is not about score boards of flavors, neither in record numbers nor outlandish combinations. Fat Cat Creamery is about the best handmade ice cream from great, local ingredients. That is not to say their flavors are straightforward. The Milk Chocolate Stout, for instance, leans on the bold flavor of a Texas dark beer to intensify the chocolate.

You can't swing a cat in that kitchen, yet everything is made fresh in-house, from the custard to the waffle cones. The kitchen smells of fresh baked chocolate brownies, laced with wafts of sweet dairy and toffee. At any given moment something bubbles on the stove: a fresh strawberry jam, melting chocolate, simmering chai. The recipe book is ready on the spotless clean counter, ingredients are arranged efficiently on overhead shelves. The sweet smells grow even stronger when the waffle-maker presses down hot on the homemade batter. We gather around the centerpiece ice cream machine, and watch as a fresh batch of the Fat Cat's popular salted caramel ice cream fills up a container. Slow in the making, the machine churns about a gallon per 8 minutes.
The Fat Cat uses 2000-3000 eggs per week. The eggs come from The Barry Farm where the Fat Cat adopted its own free-running happy hens. It is a community-support effort: the Barry Farm provides the fresh pasture for the hens to roam, and the "sponsors" receive fresh eggs delivered weekly. The moment the eggs come in, they are separated. The egg whites are sold on, wanted by local weight trainers for energy smoothies. The collected egg yolks are used to make custard, which is then stored in the chiller to use when ready. Chef Julia is thrilled with what she calls her "miracle machine". This machine makes the life of an artisan ice cream maker a little easier: it emulsifies fresh egg yolks, milk, heavy cream, sugar and a pinch of salt, into a great custard.

The milk used is whole milk from Texas grass-fed cows, and pasteurized at low temperature. This so-called low temp pasteurization yields a full-flavored, rich milk. It does make your ice cream taste even better.

Fat Cat Creamery is a really cute place to have an ice cream. It is easy to find (for Houstonians: on a corner lot of 19th and N Shepherd), with ample parking and even an outdoor terrace. The Fat Cat also shares the love of handmade ice cream around Houston. It's on the dessert menu at Downhouse. The Fat Cat has its paw in Saint Arnold's Brewery Root Beer Float. You can get it at Revival Market. Or from food trucks Htown strEats and Bernie's Burger Bus. Check their website for a full listing and more information:

I visited the Fat Cat Creamery as part of a food education event organized by Slow Food Houston. For more information:

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Sunday, June 15, 2014

Hot Springs, Red Earth, and The Turquoise Trail

Four days in and around Santa Fe.

I fell in love with New Mexico. Four days was all it took. It is the enchanting landscape, the red earth, the snow-peaked mountains in the distance, the adobe houses with their turquoise touches and bundled red chiles hanging from the beams. From the plane, descending into Albuquerque, the landscape looks vast, empty, and arid, except for the green belt on either side of the meandering Rio Grande. It is heavily overcast, and raining, which is extremely unusual, or so we are told by everyone we meet. The locals relish this rain: the land needs it.

The first stop is Ojo Caliente, an hour onwards from Santa Fe. The road forks in Espanola, and we branch off the wrong one. We are well on our way to Taos before we notice, and pull into the parking lot of the visitor center for the Orilla Verde/Rio Grande Gorge. The ranger behind the desk ever so kindly guides us on the map to a road that will take us through the mountains' spectacular scenery to our destination. It is a road that hugs the Rio Grande, until you cross it on a low bridge. Despite the rainy cold, the river is busy with white water rafters and kayakers. After the bridge, the road climbs, crosses the high plains, and connects with the road we were supposed to be on. Shortly after, we arrive at the Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort & Spa, where we spent the night. It is one of the oldest natural hot spring resorts in the USA, dating back to the 1860s. The waters pouring straight from the mountain into the pools are naturally hot, sulphur-free, and rich in natural minerals: Lithium, Iron, Soda, and Arsenic. In keeping with the historic hotel and bath house tradition, the rooms in the main hotel have no private bathroom (other than a toilet and sink). The idea is that you use the bath house facilities, and soak in the natural hot springs, have a mud bath, a steam bath, sweat it out in the sauna, and hang in the hammock gazing at the infinite sky. It beats any private bathroom.
For the energetic (and those dragged along), there are various hiking trails. We follow the one that leads to the archeological site of an ancient pueblo, dating back to the 13th Century: the Posi-Ouinge Ruins. The area is strewn with pottery shards, collected and displayed on barren rocks to be admired by passers-by. It is a place to contemplate and imagine: the views take you far across the landscape, and you can imagine hunters on distant mesa tops, villagers going down to the river below, dwellings where you are standing right now. We walk back via the arroyo (or wadi, as junior still calls it after his life in the Middle East). The gully is carved steep and deep into the soft rock wall. My geologist cannot resist and neither can junior: the two drift off to look at the outcrops, and terminology flies as they discuss the presence of igneous, metamorphous and sedimentary rock in and among the layers ("strata, mom") of conglomerate rock. This volcanic region must be geology heaven, but I urge them on. Bandelier National Monument is waiting. Reluctantly, they leave the outcrops behind, and I can tell from the body language that plans are being made to return for a full-on geology trip.

Several years ago, we visited the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde. It is probably why it feels deja vu when we enter Bandelier National Monument. Or maybe this is a flash of a happy memory, when junior was still a baby and stared at the rocks from his elevated backpack carrier position. Bandelier National Monument is a beautiful canyon where cliff dwellings and petroglyphs draw visitors on a pleasant loop walk to peek into ancient living quarters carved into the soft rock. The archeological sites of Bandelier are best enjoyed at leisure, climbing the ladders to sit in one of the cave dwellings. Stare at the cliff face to discover ancient drawings. Human history here in this territory of mesas and canyons goes back more than 10,000 years, and it is good to pause and feel the breeze of old cultures circle your mind.

We stay two nights in Santa Fe, meeting friends for dinner at La Boca for the first night. It is a cool place. Intimate enough, pleasantly decorated. We occupy a large table right in the middle, and take our time eating through the tapas menu. I found the restaurant browsing through Farm To Table New Mexico. It is also how I found our restaurant for the second evening: La Casa Sena. It is a charming place, residing in an old hacienda adobe. Dating back to 1868, it is one of the oldest remaining houses in Santa Fe. The entrance is through a courtyard oozing with atmosphere, as does the restaurant with its thick walls, high ceilings and dark wood. The food is fresh and local, the wine list extensive.

Santa Fe's old town has charm and history, and its streets are made to be explored on foot. As for me, I feel quite drawn to Canyon Road with its myriad of art galleries and boutiques on either side, all housed in a small adobe-style or colorful cottage. Many have a dreamlike garden full of art sculptures that are open to stroll in. We lounge a long time on the lovely patio of El Farol on Canyon Road, where we indulge liberally in the tasty tapas menu. We happily spoon a delightfully chunky, refreshing gazpacho, relish the delicate flash-fried avocado with its contrasting lime yogurt sauce harboring a hint of green pepper, nibble on fried chorizo and sliced pork loin with marinated black figs, and dip crispy calamari in the accompanying romesco and aioli.
The Museum of Indian Arts & Culture is one of the museums on Santa Fe's "Museum Hill". It is an inspiring museum that exhibits the arts, cultures, and lifestyle of the Pueblo people. One of the highlight is the pottery gallery. In a 20-minute video, you can watch legendary pottery artist Maria Martinez at work. The video follows the artist (well into her 80s at the time of filming) as she collects sand, honoring the land in the traditions of her people. She makes the clay by hand, like a dough. She takes a piece, sets it before her, and starts shaping and molding her famous pottery. Her hands move swift and expertly, making it look ever so easy. The video details the processes involved, including the intricate building of a blazing hot fire, just long enough to create the prized pitch-black pottery. Wandering down to the current exhibition of Turquoise, Water, Sky: The Stone and its Meaning, we are again enchanted by a video of an artist at work. Sitting among a collection of natural turquoise in all shapes and forms - from rough and uncut, to polished and set - we gain a little insight into the work and artistry involved to shave, sharpen, polish and set a turquoise gemstone.

We travel back to the airport in Albuquerque on our last day via the Turquoise Trail. It is a scenic byway that takes you past and even through historic mining towns. Some are veritable ghost towns, others have capitalized on past and present, and "boom" once more. Cerrillos is an example of the first: it has a "mining museum", an odd treasure trove of artifacts and antiques found in and around the mines and mining community, from gold machines, saw heads, and wanted-posters to chuck wagon skillets, water troughs, and a mind-boggling variety of barbed wire, amulets, drill bits, bottlenecks (literally), and horse shoes. The dusty Front Street with its saloon and general store is still erect, and served as decor in Young Guns. We stand in the middle of the washboard dirtroad, and pretend to be Rango versus the Rattlesnake.

Madrid, a little further on the Turquoise Trail, is a revived old mining town, and many of its historic clapboard cabins and stores are renovated and now house shops and galleries. Madrid is home to one of the true classic locomotives used in The Lone Ranger, and also served as the backdrop for many a Hollywood movie, including Paul (a scene filmed in the Mine Shaft Tavern) and Wild Hogs with John Travolta. Madrid is a perfect little town for roaming around, and popping into an odd store here and art gallery there. When I sit on a bench in one of the galleries gardens, I hear a couple passing me by talking agitatedly and I pick up the word "snake". I see the lady gesturing in the general direction of a bush not far from where I am sitting, and I am out of the garden.

Just before we finally head for the airport back home, we drive up the winding road to the Sandia Crest for a view of the surrounding area. At 3255 meter (10678ft), the air is a tad thin, but on this gorgeous clear day, it is also crisp and affording hundred mile-views in every direction. Albuquerque is spread out below us, a mile or so straight down. I feel a little sad, looking around: I don't want to leave just yet.

links to some of the venues, places and restaurants mentioned in this post:

In My Kitchen: A Taste of the Southwest is my previous post zooming in on some of the region's fiery flavors, as found not only when tasting, but also in a gorgeous new book: Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations. Find the link here.

Hope you enjoyed this post! I sure enjoyed writing it, traveling to New Mexico again through my mind's eye. There is so much more to see and do, and I can't wait to travel to New Mexico again. What is a must-see/do/taste for a next time?

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