Late to the Table: A Culinary Walk Through Tuscany
Let me be upfront: I never read Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun. Never saw the movie. I’m unaccountably indifferent to pasta (and Italian food in general, if truth be told). Yes, I missed the boat completely on the raptures of Tuscany.
Friends who’d spent time in the popular Italian region said this was a gap in need of remedy. Stat.
So I booked a culinary walking tour of Tuscany, offering hillside rambles and an abundance of wine. Now THAT’S something I could commit to…
I’m here on the water’s edge of what’s considered to be the most beautiful Old Town in Greece. From my vantage point, I see a Venetian lighthouse standing sentry over a narrow harbour entrance and a Turkish mosque – now serving as an exhibition hall – opening its doors to the morning air.
This is Chania, second-largest city on the island of Crete, where the architecture provides just a sliver of insight into a turbulent history…
In Search of Venetian Fare
When you visit the magnetic city of Venice, two things are for certain:
1) You will get lost.
Wander just a few steps off the tourist trail, and soon you’ll be mired among the tangle of tiny bridges and meandering canals. GPS is marginally useful here (notice the number of visitors staring mystified at their phones) and paper maps become a test of both puzzle-solving and visual-acuity. This, despite the city’s efforts to label every bridge, canal, and alleyway and to post periodic arrows pointing toward Piazza San Marco or the Rialto Bridge.
(But embrace the bewilderment and wander anyway – it’s part of the enchantment. You’ll find your way eventually. It’s an island, right?)
Profiles of Kerala
The screen door creaks a quiet complaint as I ease it shut and slide into a rattan chair. Beneath the low-thatched eaves of my cottage, I ponder the trees emerging from the morning mist and warm my hands gratefully on my coffee glass. According to the card on my nightstand, the brew is podi kappi, “the traditional black coffee of the local people in the High Range area”. I only know it is hot and dark and redolent with cardamom, cumin, and fenugreek. As caffeine and sun make inroads on my hazy dawn, a soft hoot emerges from the canopy: an unseen langur monkey alerts his family to my presence.
The “High Range” peaks where I sit are the Western Ghats, a spine of mountains dividing the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu in southern India. For the past days, I’ve been exploring the Kerala side, entering the region like legions before me through the port city of Kochi…
A Calgary Kind of Craving
CALGARY. You may know it as the gateway to the Canadian Rockies and home to that annual celebration of cowboy culture called the Stampede. But this city of 1.2 million outgrew those boots a long time ago.
While the pull of the mountains is as strong as it ever was and the pancake breakfasts still proliferate in July (though they might be called a “PhoDown” or an “Agahan” – or offer halal meat instead of bacon), Calgary’s emerging East Village development has shone a spotlight on the riverfront and energized the city core. The New Central Library promises to be an architectural icon when it opens in 2018 and the stunning National Music Centre has proved since its 2016 opening to be a crucible of creativity for musicians of every flavour. Few other cities offer such a collaborative environment, say visiting musical artists . Visiting chefs say likewise.
You’d be forgiven if you didn’t know that Calgary is a great food town. It’s kind of a well-kept secret.
Except to those who’ve been paying attention… (Taste and Travel International, Spring 2018) READ MORE
Snapshots of Croatia
I’m not really sure what brought me here to Croatia. Maybe it was the country’s position at the crossroads of a complicated history (from Greek colony through Roman, Venetian, and Habsburg Empires – and, of course, the Yugoslavian experiment).
There were those glossy travel photos, too: sparkling harbours, craggy mountains, and romantic walled cities, scarred but enduring beyond the 1990’s Balkan Conflict, known in Croatian parlance as “the Homeland War”.
But it was Croatia’s food culture that definitely sealed the deal… (City Palate, March/April 2018) READ MORE
Passion for Perigord
It’s 9:30 AM and I’m elbow-deep in foie gras in a château in southwest France. Not literally to the elbows, mind you, but I’m as up-close-and-personal as I’m likely to get, thrilled and terrified in equal measure as I tease vascular tissue free from the prized duck liver. Despite the cooling armour of the castle’s thick walls, the foie gras seems to be melting under my fingers and I’m beginning to sweat. My mentor, Chef Thierry Meret, reassures me with his usual bonhomie – and a shot of plum brandy… (Taste & Travel International, Winter 2018) READ MORE
FEEDING THE COMMUNITY: A Spunky Start-Up Tests the ‘Waste Note, Want Not’ Philosophy
Each day in Calgary, an unconventional legion of volunteers fans out across the city. They slip into the back doors of restaurants, bakeries, food markets, and coffee bars, to emerge minutes later, perhaps with a carload of day-old bread, or containers of cooked pasta, or bins of shelf-weary produce and dairy. In SUVs and hatchbacks and Uber-donated rides, they deliver their cargo to agencies that serve our most vulnerable citizens, converting leftover food destined for the landfill into hot lunches for kids, meals for the homeless, sandwiches for women fleeing domestic violence — the list goes on. (City Palate, Nov/Dec 2017) READ MORE
Following Vernon’s Culinary Trail
When I came in search of food experiences in British Columbia’s North Okanagan Valley, I didn’t expect to find myself HERE.
Pine forests tumble down the Monashee mountains and cottonwoods throw shadows over the canoe, as I float with seven other paddlers down the Shuswap River. Other shadows flit below the water: Chinook and Sockeye salmon returning to their birthplace to spawn. A Bald eagle whistles from a tall snag, but before I can locate his partner, my guide, Charles Ruechel, sounds his call to stroke hard on my side of the canoe. By the time we clear the “sweeper” – a tree laid low over the water – we’ve left the eagle behind. No matter. Minutes later, another eagle splits the October sky. (Taste & Travel International, Summer 2017) READ MORE
Croatia’s Pelješac Peninsula
If I could design a perfect day in food-travel heaven, this would be it:
A gentle hike on a mountain trail, overlooking vineyards heavy with fruit. A meet-up with a winemaker and a lingering visit to his cellars and tasting room. Perhaps a breezy float on the bay to take the heat out of the day. Then a long picnic lunch of shellfish just plucked from the sea.
Lucky for me, today IS that day. (Taste & Travel International, Spring 2017) READ MORE
From the semi-circle of garden chairs arranged under a ficus tree, I can just pick out the corner of a swimming pool edging out into the lawn. Birds trill and hoot their unfamiliar tunes in trees frothed with pink blooms. Beneath the ficus, our host takes his place behind a table laid with a propane stove and an assortment of cooking pots. The call to prayer rises from an unseen minaret and someone hands me a Kingfisher beer.
Welcome to my cooking class in Delhi… (City Palate, March/April 2017) READ MORE
A Little Mexican Cooking in Puerto Morelos
To duck beneath the arches of the breezy hacienda terrace of Casa Caribe is to escape instantly from the sun-baked attractions and adrenalin-soaked adventures that are the core of a Mayan Riviera experience on Mexico’s Yucatan coast. Beneath the high ceilings of this unassuming guesthouse, the smell of coffee wafts past a mural of Mexican lovers in a jewel-toned landscape and white wicker chairs beckon from across the cool terracotta tiles. Round tables set with notebooks and pens cluster before a long demonstration counter of pastel blue. Atop the counter’s creamy-white tiles lie platters of market-fresh tomatoes, onions, and limes; a bowl of chiles in various hues; a bouquet of cilantro next to a pig-snouted molcajete (mortar). The stage is set for our one-day class at the Little Mexican Cooking School in the village of Puerto Morelos. And when Chef J. Salvador Fernandez Tamayo invites us “to return many centuries with [him] to discover what is Mexican food”, the transition to another place is complete. (Taste & Travel International, Autumn 2016) READ MORE
The Allure of Les Alpilles
“It’s a virus,” says Jean-Benoît Hugues, as we gaze over the olive trees twinkling silver in the breeze beneath a hot September sky. “It gets in your skin. And it pulls you back”.
We are standing on the terrace of Moulin CastelaS, Hugues’ state-of-the art olive mill poised on the chalky southern flanks of Les Alpilles – the 25-kilometre-long range of limestone peaks that rise sharply from the Rhône valley in southern France. Here, Hugues and his team introduce visitors to the subtleties of olive oil tasting and terroir, and conduct tours through the mill that produces AOP-designated cold-pressed virgin oils, as well as tapenades and spreads.
The “virus” of which he speaks is the call to the land that pulled Hugues and his wife back from the U.S. to their native Provence in 1997 to take stewardship of these centuries-old groves. But it’s an affliction clearly shared by the local chefs, producers, and officials who cluster below the terrace… (Taste & Travel International, Summer 2016) READ MORE
SURINAME. It’s a name that draws a blank from even the most well-travelled. Call it the former Dutch Guiana, and some can place it in the western hemisphere: a wedge pencilled off the northern reaches of the Amazon rainforest; a mangrove-armoured coastline, barely accessible but for the rivers that pierce their way to the Atlantic. It’s a country in South America, but not of it – peopled originally by the Caribs and Arawaks, mostly bypassed by the Spanish, and thus sharing little, culturally, with the majority of the continent. Instead, the vagaries of history brought Dutch plantation owners and West African slaves to its shores; after abolition, workers from India, China, and Java. Centuries of mingling and mixing have created a true cultural pastiche – and a unique cuisine to match. (Taste & Travel International, Winter 2016) READ MORE
Sifting Through the Camargue – A French Tug-of-War
“I’m such a Mediterranean girl,” she says, leaning confidentially over her wineglass. The comment takes me aback, made as it is by my local host, drinking a local Cotes-du-Rhone. The Rhone River provides the view, with nary a beach in sight.
We are in Arles, after all, ensconced solidly in Provence, a town known for the Roman arena that sits at its heart. A place where pilgrims begin their long trek to Santiago de Compostela; where Van Gogh created many of his most famous works; a corner of the French “golden triangle” that includes Avignon and Nimes. (Taste & Travel International, Summer 2015) READ MORE
Hot Eats in San Diego
Some food tours are all about discovering a regional cuisine. Others provide a gateway to understanding local culture.
And some are just about who’s the brightest kid on the block doing great things with food.
Bite San Diego’s Downtown/Little Italy tour is all about the latter -which could explain why the majority of the fifteen folks who’ve turned up for today’s tour actually live within an hour’s drive…
“Do you always do this tour at night?” I shout.
My voice is lost in the din as a motorbike threads the gap between my guide, Cyrus, and me, and I’m forced to repeat the question when I catch up to him in an alcove minutes later.
“Yes, usually at night,” he smiles. “So that visitors are able to get the full atmosphere.” I take in the crush of shoppers and diners, awash in the fluorescent light and savoury aromas spilling from the open shop fronts into the ancient lane. And I have to concede: Cyrus has got the “atmosphere” part nailed.
A New Orleans History Nosh
Shaking out our umbrellas, we follow the barkeep’s nod toward a cayenne-walled room, where a dozen damp tourists mill around a man in a red felt fedora. A single long table set with white linen dominates the windowless space. Among the framed black-and-white photos that line the walls, a small plaque tags this “The Mystery Room”.
And the mystery? Why, it’s a former Prohibition-era speakeasy, says the behatted Naif Shahady. Of course! This is New Orleans – we’d expect no less…
Blame it on the heat. Or a case of bad timing.
Or too many years of anticipation since I first heard that sweet ditty in French class – “Sur le pont d’Avignon/ L’on y danse, l’on y danse…”.
But the Avignon that first unfurled before me – its broad avenue lined with international chain stores , its sidewalks and central square chock-a-block with English-speaking river cruisers – was not the Avignon I’d signed up for. Where were the narrow, winding medieval streets? The cozy cafe-dotted squares, where local patrons discussed the day’s news over glasses of espresso or Chateauneuf-du-pape?
In the distance, even the famous bridge seemed a mite underwhelming. (Taste & Travel International, Summer 2015 -column) READ MORE
Food from the Heart: Grand Cayman
“I quit my job in the banking industry to do what I love.”
A risky venture, you’d think, in any case. But here on Grand Cayman Island, that Caribbean jewel of offshore financial services, the decision seems – well – counterintuitive, to say the least.
Skirting Fame in Savannah
First lesson learned from Georgia’s Savannah Taste Experience: it doesn’t pay to be famous.
An explanation, possibly, for the name of this “Famous & Secret East Side Food Tour”? Or perhaps an oblique reference to that 1994 expose of Savannah society, John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil ?
Neither, it seems. The anti-fame credo stems from Savannah’s tendency to lose track of its historic celebrities, dedicating elegant city squares to their memory but burying them in squares named for others, and in some cases, misplacing remains altogether. “Don’t ever die in Savannah”, concludes our history maven, Charlotte, tongue firmly planted in cheek. (Taste & Travel International, Summer 2014) READ MORE
Authentic Athens: A Food Foray
Location: Athens, Greece. Activity: an Athens Food Tour. Our first stop: the Church of Agioi Theodoroi.
Wait – what?
An 11th Century Byzantine chapel is decidedly NOT your typical food tour venue. But I’m learning quickly that this is not your typical food tour.
Take the rendezvous point, for instance. Conventional wisdom would have us start in the serpentine streets of old Plaka – Athens’ charming tourist haven at the foot of the Acropolis. But we meet Vicki, our guide, outside Panepistimio metro station near Psyrri – the still-gritty neighbourhood of central Athens that is currently reclaiming itself as a lively food and entertainment district.
“Plaka is nice, but we Athenians leave it for the tourists. Psyrri”, says Vicki, “we keep for our ourselves”. (Taste & Travel International, Spring 2014. p.1) READ MORE (Taste & Travel International, Spring 2014, p.2) READ MORE
Taste & Travel Journal: Mumbai
As financial capital of India and home to Bollywood, Mumbai has long held a cosmopolitan outlook on culture and food. When the heat begins to fade from the day, the 3.6-kilometre promenade along Marine Drive is where Mumbaikars come out to play…
Why Go? When it comes to physical endowments, Canada’s third-largest city has won more than her share of the global lottery. The North Shore mountains tumble into her harbour, and sandy beaches fringe the absinthe-tinted towers of her city core. Here, the appetite for outdoor pursuits is as strong as that for the toothsome bounties of her river delta. As Canada celebrates its 2017 sesquicentennial, Vancouver intends to be the country’s premier aboriginal culture destination, showcasing First Nations’ contributions to the city’s thriving cultural scene. (Food & Travel UK, May 2017) READ MORE
Tasteful Tours: Culinary Adventures Under the Sun
Sampling local food and drink is an easy (and oh-so-delectable) way to delve deeper into a culture. On your next sun-destination escape, tickle your taste buds and learn from local foodies with one of these accessible offerings. (WestJet Magazine – formerly up! magazine – Dec 2014) READ MORE
Toasting the Family Tree: Grand Bahama Island
When did choosing the winter escape for your modern family get to be such a challenging proposition?
Seems there was a time when the ideal sunshine getaway was a simple triangulation of travel budget, holiday allocation and beckoning beach. But with your family tree sprouting in new directions, training all those branches in a singular route to the sun poses a serious test to your role as head arborist. Sure, the 17-year-old is content to toast on the beach and shop for eye-candy. But the twins need concerted distraction from their electronic devices. Aunt Allie and Uncle Vinny proudly tout their status as adventure junkies. And while Grandma and Grandpa may chafe at the recent hits to their vigor, their vim remains staunchly undiminished. (Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec 16/2013) READ MORE