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A Calvados by any other name….

To anyone following the saga, our little bottle of distilled apple happiness made it to Ohio.

To celebrate, we finally cracked open our liquid lovelies and sampled side-by-side: the Calvados we procured on Ernie’s quest, an apple eau de vie from Brittany (a “calvados” that can’t be called calvados because it wasn’t made IN calvados…it would have to be called “Côtes d’Armor” which, while poetic, sounds like something that would include vanilla, strawberries and honey…*), Oregon’s Clear Creek Distillery eau de vie, and to mix things up, Laird’s applejack.

Not to be all francophile, but the U.S. contestants were so far in the basement we didn’t want to sip them with a ten-foot straw. As a cocktail mixer, if the somewhat caramel / vanilla flavor of the Applejack doesn’t interfere, we actually preferred its taste…not to mention price…over the Clear Creek offering.

But did we LIKE the two bottles we’d schlepped (and when I say “we” I mean K) back from France? Both bought at small farms with hand-written signs pointing up their driveways?

Oh HELL yes.
I mean, oh enfer oui.

They were very different but both delicious. The “Quest Calvados” has a darker color and quintessential Calvados nose of apple and brandy, with a hotter finish. The “Fine Bretagne” has an amazing apple nose, and is completely smooth going down. Though not sweet, it has an aspect of sweetness on the tongue. While both are excellent for sipping, only the heat of the true Calvados would suffice for a trou Normand.

K, the traditionalist, preferred the Calvados. bb, the diplomat, wouldn’t declare a favorite, b2 held off on a pronouncement…I suspect so that he’d have to come back to try them again. And wishy-washy me didn’t have a favorite: different drinks for different moods.

To do a true scientific test, we’d need to buy a few Calvados’ of different ages (I thought the quest bottle was an eight-year-old, but it’s hors d’age, which Wikipedia tells me means aged at least six-years), and a few bottles of Fine Bretagne, to see if the differences are truly regional or just age, distiller style, barrel wood, etc.

Next time. Next quest……

*Côtes-d’Armor, a department (like a county) in Brittany, has nothing to do with love nor armor. It’s derived from ar mor, which means “the sea” in breton. Makes sense. Here’s a shot from our walk less than ten minutes from where we bought the Fine Bretagne apple eau de vie.

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Le Cannonball Run – the Calvados Connection

As I write, a small lonely bottle of Calvados sloshes its way cross country in the back of a UPS truck. Will it make it intact? Will rough treatment do it in? Will its liquid state make it suspect, leading to its destruction at the hands of the ATF or homeland security, hauled away on the last leg of its long journey?

Plucked from an apple orchard in the brilliant green and yellow Norman countryside where it was grown, distilled, and aged to eight years, it made the journey to Paris with a few of its brothers in the back of a rental car. Wrapped tenderly in dirty socks, scarves and coats cast off in the early spring heat, it was gently nestled into luggage, dragged across cobbles to the #68 Clichy bus, to l’Opera and the Roissybus, to CDG and into the hands of uncaring baggage handlers, into Iceland, over the pole, and landing in the Pacific Northwest to become a US citizen. One bottle stayed in the rainy NW, while the other still has 2,400 miles to travel, over mountains, across prairies, past cornfields…into the open arms of its adoring new papa.

How did this intercontinental adoption story start?
As with all great love stories of the 21st century, it began with the internet.

Obsessively planning (as I do) for two weeks in France led me to the Chowhound board (of course…the first stop for food obsessed travelers to get a local community’s first-hand advice and opinions), and searches for Bayeux / Normandy / Caen led me to this August 2010 cry for help:

Alert: I am in need of a favor from anyone traveling to Bayeux
To whom it may concern;
There is a farmhouse (dds note: more like an impossibly ramshackle chateau) outside of Bayeux where I bought a bottle of Calvados some time ago. I am now down to my last glass and I am in desperate need. I know precisely where the farm is but I am unable to contact the owner as he speaks no English. For anyone traveling there from the States, please help me procure another few bottles. If you are interested or able to help, I will happily furnish you with the requisite info and capital. If you are unfamiliar with the area, I can also provide you with some favorite places in the area and meals that I enjoyed.
My sincere thanks! E. Diamond

Several Chowhound posts ensued, with helpful advice, possible couriers, aborted trips and Google satellite identification of the farm. Six months later I happen along. (You can see the whole string on Chowhound here.) Hmm, think I. Our Normandy/Brittany to-do list looks something like this:

Cancale Oyster

– Mont St. Michel
– Calvados
– Omaha Beach
– Oysters
– Scallops
– Galettes de Pleyben
– Salt-marsh lamb

Calvados is already on the agenda, maybe I can help.
I fell in love with Calvados as a college freshmen in a basement restaurant in Les Halles—I even remember the glassware: tiny white ceramic cups, akin to a thimble-sized sake set. “Down the hatch!” says Dad, “To burn a hole and make way for the rest of meal.” It was smooth and appley, and the taste coupled with the surprise and ceremony of this fiery amuse bouche cemented the Trou Normand in my memory and affections.

This was 1981, and let me tell you, Calvados was cheap back then. Maybe it was the franc-to-dollar rate, maybe it was more commonly produced, maybe we were drinking younger stuff, but even back in the States I remember being able to buy it for the price of a mediocre brandy. Fast-forward 30 years and our classic cocktail habit (see Dr. Cocktail, see Boozehound) had us scouring Oregon liquor store shelves for Calvados again, only to find $70 French stuff and more affordable but not-quite-right Clear Creek Distillery apple eau de vie (sorry guys, I respect what you’re doing but you still have a ways to go, imho) made right in our own back yard.

So of course, E. Diamond’s request caught my eye.

“I’ll take the recommendation and the adventure on,” says I, “but selfishly, we may not be able to give your bottle any precious luggage space, since I anticipate stuffing our extra suitcase with cheap eau de vies of varying fruits, Galettes de Pleyben (a story for another post), and calvados.” “No worries,” says E., “do what you can. Enjoy, take some pics, and eat here, here, here and here.” (All his restaurant recs were closed on the Wednesday night we were in town…of course…oh those wacky French. But I’ve posted his email below, for anyone else traveling to Bayeux.)

Vente de Vieux Calvados, AOC

After a beautiful albeit drizzly night in Bayeux (where we broke into an okay but young Calvados from Honfleur), we piled into the car, wrinkled directions clutched in sweaty fists, four navigators hollering directions to one poor, mussel-poisoned driver. “It says exactly three miles from where the D6 and the N13/E46 intersect, on the left.” “Yeah but I googled it and only saw a farm on the right there. Maybe it’s 3 kilometers.” Maybe it’s on the right.” “Wait! There’s a bunch of trees!” “No, those are elms.” “Okay, we’re at 3 km…nothing here.” “Wait! There it is there it is! On the left! We’re at exactly three miles! There’s an orchard! Here’s a sign!” <with tortured pronounciation…> “Vente de Vieux Calvados A.O.C a la Ferme >>>”

You’re right Ernie, we never would have been brave enough to get out of the car if not for your instructions.

Ramshackle, deserted, and save for THE sign, no sign of Calvados. But then the door opened, a sweet old dog trotted out, followed by a woman in her rubber boots, motioning us in while she changed into her slippers, and the 10 a.m. Calvados tasting ensued. It was everything I remembered and everything our local apple eau de vie is not, though with the weak dollar, it also wasn’t cheap at 30 euro a pop. In non-existent French my sister and I tried to convey the story of who and what brought us to her doorstep: food obsessions, a complete stranger seven states away, Chowhound, Google satellite…. Lord only knows what she understood, though the internet made it through the translation somewhere (her children use the internet, but not she, oh heavens not she).

Madame Calvados

Et voila, the deed was done, handshakes were made, did we want more to drink?, and back out into the light we stumbled. Adventure complete, a fun form to our French wanderings, and now all that’s left is to wait patiently to see if the-little-bottle-that-could finishes its journey intact. Ernie, let me know when it arrives, and we can raise a glass simultaneously on nearly opposite ends of the country. Maybe the old dog at the Calvados farm will prick up his ears, and Mme. and Mssr. Calvados will grow restless in their sleep, dreaming of strolling in an American apple orchard.

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Bernard’s Postcard from Paris

Here’s how it goes in Paris. We remember the sour faces when we were young, and remember the changes after the turmoil of ’68. Those “young” people, now 60, have raised a generation, and what a difference! And then I look at us…returning in our 70s….

QUESTION: What happens in Paris when rain quits, drops stop, puddles dry, and sunshine explodes over the city of light? What happens in Paris when the spirit of winter retires and the spirit of spring arrives smiling and bright?

ANSWER: From nowhere people appear like blossoms on naked branches, from everywhere like green leaves on hibernating trees. In the midst of this fantasy, how to imbue the magic and join the festival of color and dance and extravaganza?

By taking to the streets old man! Bathe in the Paris fountain of everlasting youth, a Shangri-La youth still young at 900 years!
Walk! Walk along Boulevard de Clichy, but don’t stop for a dozen oysters at Wepler’s sidewalk cafe. Continue past the Moulin Rouge toward tawdry Pigalle down the four-lane park dividing cars and buses and raging motorcycles.

Find a street going south toward the center, always the center.
Maybe rue des Martyrs with Montmartre and the mushroomed domes of Sacre Coeur at your back, among mouthwatering, nose-tempting, eye-pealing shops—bright red strawberries neatly arranged in vertical boxes, cheeses of every region, color and odor, meats bold and red or subtly shaped, folded, encased in unidentified membrane, restaurants new and brash of plastic and neon or old and warm with scripted paneling set in shining walnut frames that say history, continuity, tradition.

Or perhaps sur le rue d’Amsterdam, cleaned up since Jacque Brel sang about it at the Gare St. Lazare,

Or turn left on rue Clichy at the corner near our apartment, pass theaters, wine shops, boutiques,

Always heading to l’Opera or Rivoli or the Louvre, Concorde, Tuileries among sun happy crowds walking with a spring or sitting-sipping in cafés released from the cold hold of winter rigor. Infused with heated vigor, the world opens like overenthusiastic tulips, pistils shooting skyward.

And if you’re lucky, pass through passages with exotic ware into tiny squares you’ve never stumbled on: this restaurant, that café or the other bistro tempting you with tongue teasing tidbits.

But you have already stopped for lunch or coffee or beer to see what world passes by when you look.

Later sated, arrive at the river or perhaps Place St. Eustache, at the foot of a monumental church, filled with families sitting on grassy steps watching children kicking balls or just running for the joy of running,

Or a grassy tree-lined confine like Place des Vosges. Having stood in long lines to pick up a falafel in the Marais, spread out now in view of Victor Hugo’s home and not far from the intimate “hotel” filled with work by Picasso.

That’s when you might decide to head home: by bus through the crowded ways you’ve already passed, by speeding through dark tunnels of the Metro, or if your “dogs aren’t barking” you might just rewind the experience on foot.

Because finally, in the end, the heart of Paris for any visitor, is in the character of his sole.

Bernard della Santina
(aka Dad)

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Ernie Diamond’s Bayeux Restaurant Recommendations

Addendum to the Calvados Connection, via email before the trip

DDS: Am I right in thinking (if you know, or have an opinion) that the place to eat in Bayeux is Le Pommier?

E.D.: Le Pommier was very good. I was trying to do the local thing as much as I could so I had the tripes a la mode du Caen there. Fantastic. I must say, though that if you are looking for good food and a quirky setting, Fringale is excellent. It is very casual and rustic in all the right ways. When we were there, the crowd was very small and so the owners spent as much time in the dining room with us as in the kitchens. I had the Andouillettes du Troyes (there are many different kinds of andouillettes) when I was there and won major points for my selection. The owner and I had a very impassioned pantomime conversation in equally broken French and English about andouillettes following the meal.

My meal at La Rapiere was good, very good actually but I didn’t find as many local (read rustic) offerings on the menu as I wanted. I did, however have a slice of foie gras from a terrine that was the inverse of the foie to bread ratio you generally see here; the foie was as big as a piece of texas toast, the bread came in the form of three small dominos. Outrageous.

In order of ambiance, from nicest to casual, it went;

In order of preference, from favorite to least, I may inverse the order. I liked Fringale. I desperately wanted to get to La Table du Terroir but wasn’t able.

If you are looking for provisions in Bayeux, there are two very good charcutiers in town. Just ask around, you can’t go wrong with either. My very first move when I arrived was to buy boudin noir, a bottle of cider and some pommeau (apple juice fortified with calvados). Boudin noir, by the way is very good cold. Oh! Just remembered! You may be able to find jars of babas au calvados, which is babas (little cakes) soaked in a syrup of sugar and calvados (think baba au rhum). These were an absolute treasure. They can be found in those clamp top mason type jars around town, maybe even at the charcutier. Save room for at least one jar as a souviner. I held mine for as long as I could before succumbing to temptation. They are dessert and a stiff shot all in one.

As far as cider, it is for sale everywhere as you might expect and the best kinds are cheap, local and light. If you snoop around, you will probably be able to find farms that sell it for far far less than what it is sold for in the stores and cafes. Not to be too gross here but if you drink solely cider, as I did then your pee will smell like apple skins. :) Don’t kill the messenger! It’s an interesting phenomenon! Cost from local producers might top out at four euro for a 750ml bottle. I paid almost half that for bottles that were still sticky from filling. The good stuff is only 3-4% alcohol, sometimes less so drink up!

(DDS: And so we did. Our favorite was the less sweet Brut, with a seriously funky smell that offset the apple sweetness. Fantastic! We paid about 4 euro a bottle and it was about 5% alcohol.)

On to calvados! The place was DEAD when I arrived. Don’t be put off if there is no one around or things appear closed. When we finally got the attention of someone, he was in the garage and came out covered in grease. I am still unclear if he was the owner or a caretaker or what but he happily let us in, showed us around and poured us samples (of which he took one or two) before selling us a bottle.

I hope you find this helpful. I LOVED my trip to Bayeux. It is a beautiful town in a fantastic setting. The best thing you can do there is get yourself hopelessley lost and then look around for good food. You can’t help but to find it.

— Ernie Diamond

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This is Me on Brevity

I talk too much. I definitely eat too much. And I write too much.

Back in July I vowed to do shorter posts. Heh…see the novellas that ensued. But since the excess of Christmas looms, let’s try this again. We rented a cottage on Hood Canal for Thanksgiving. It was adorable, well appointed, a great deal and takes dogs.

BB did the bulk of the cooking, and I’ll respect his first rights to blog fodder as he brags about his insane short-ribs, lamb shank pasta, turkey and mashed potatoes. Much of them are already here at Eat. Think. Drink. but I think he should brag some more. If nothing else, about w’s crazy pumpkin cheesecake and ginger snaps.

I just wanted to share two things:
1) The grilled stix lunch / app we put together, inspired by snax at Biwa and Tanuki. Simple, quick, all using some combo of: lime, fish sauce, garlic, brown sugar, chili, soy. Pretty unanimously I think they ranked: pork belly #1, quail #2, tofu #3, scallops #4. Last-minute-pickled Japanese turnips, turnip tops and Chinese spinach added a bit of acid. Together, they were a nice complement to refreshing beverages provided by our in-house mixmasters.

2) The oysters, we plucked off the beach just steps from the cottage. The triplet we threw back.

The bowl we ate. At 10 pm. After a huge dinner. (Tides were super high during the day, so we had to wait til night.)

That’s cool: a dip in the icy waters and a salty slide down our throats is just what we needed to chill out between heated rounds of Mille Bournes.

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Fifteen Friends, Florence, Felcetto, Food and Fun (among other things)

Nope. I didn’t just get back from Italy. [Dammit.] But my sister and her group of college friends did, and she’s in charge of this week’s guest post. rsz_chiantilaundry
Italy was wonderful. We spent the first three days with two other couples hiking the Cinque Terre trails. Though they can be hiked in a day, it’s a great place to unwind from traveling, and more days means more time to eat seafood, drink the local white wine and fill up on pesto. We next sped through Pisa, picked up a car in Florence, and finally, met up with the rest of the group for a week in Chianti.

kitchenThe farmhouse was rustic but perfect: the kitchen large enough to all cook together. We ate well out as well as in, going to the butcher and farmer’s markets for amazing meat and produce. We took side trips to neighboring San Gimignano, Montalcino, the Church at Saint Antimo, and Florence, but much got left undone, like hiking trails through the villages from Gaiole to Sienna, leaving some for the next trip back.

Cinque Terre
Vernazza Vernazza is all that it’s billed to be, with its pastel buildings, clear water, blue and white fishing boats “parked” in the harbor, barrels of fishing nets alongside the narrow streets where cars aren’t allowed except the delivery trucks early in the mornings before most tourists have arisen. English was more prevalent than Italian, which was a little disconcerting, but that made it an easy entrance to the culture and language. Early on, we observed that the “thing to do” was to bring a bottle of wine to the harbor (perhaps even a picnic) so, like good tourists, we followed suit. The weather was perfect, giving us a beautiful show both evenings as well as a swim on the last.

The Millers and Lambertys had already checked into their modest but clean and perfectly located rooms (Francamaria Rooms, 70 & 80E). Our room was down the alley a bit, also clean, small and all we needed (BBGemmy, 70E). Breakfast was supposedly included, but we were up and out earlier than our hosts, so we were never able to take advantage.

Our first dinner was at Gianni Franzi, which seems to have a monopoly on the town square overlooking the water. Portions were tiny but the food was outstandingly fresh. Was it because we’d been on planes, trains and automobiles for 24+ hours, or that the food in Italy is simply better? It turned out to be the most expensive meal of the trip, partly because we were ripped off by three grappas for 18E and because the cover charge was 3E pp. Such was our introduction to the practice of the copertino.
IMG_2945– Salted anchovies
– Fresh anchovies
– Mussels
– Octopus and potatoes
– Pesto pasta (ugly quills)
– Fish ravioli with ink pasta
– Pesto ravioli
– House wines, white and red

We hiked from Vernazza to Corniglia (not the town to stay in; something like 400 steps from the train station to the village, cute but not as much personality as the others). We had a coffee and continued on to Manarola (Ed note: where K and I stayed in 2001) where we decided to have lunch. Starving, we almost made the “mistake” of eating on the waterfront. Instead we had a beer (always a good choice) with some nuts and crackers, to think about our options. With something in our tummies we were able to hike up the narrow streets looking for a place called Trattoria del Billy. With a name like that, we were unsure of what to expect. Though not cheap…or easy to find…it was worth the effort.

As they were telling us the catch of the day, we had to wait a few minutes. New, fresher fish was on its way up the hill from the harbor, and it remained to be seen what was included. “It will be here in a minute….”
We sat on the terrace overlooking water, hills and town, enjoyed our wine, and listened to…a train? No, rolling thunder. Fortunately, the enormous umbrellas protected us from the downpour as we enjoyed a delicious meal served by Billy himself…aged 60? …running up and down the two flights of stairs from the kitchen to the terrace. He served, sang, and told stories of being born and raised in the hills around us, and about the snails they would pick after rains such as this, to cook up and eat.

– Mussels in white wine
– Grilled eggplant and zucchini
– Black (squid ink) pasta with all kinds of shellfish as below
– Pasta of the sea
– Mixed grill of seafood including variety of whole fish and shellfish razor clams, mussels, vongole, etc. BilliSeafood

On the short walk to Riomaggiore we shared a pint of limoncino…for dessert. At Riomaggiore we had a round of beers to celebrate a successful hike and looked for the ferry to return us to Vernazza, to get a waterfront perspective of the villages clinging to the cliffs. Though we saw it running along the coast it never came into our teeny, rocky cove, perhaps due to the wind, so we trained back to Vernazza, bought some wine and watched a spectacular sunset show: thunderheads mixed with orange sky and the setting sun’s rays.

A “light” dinner was at the unlikely named Blue Marlin. The food was reasonably priced and very, very good. Scott chose it because of all the Italian kids hanging out and eating. Some may argue, but I thought this was the best pizza of the trip. For 60 E, for six people, we had:
– 2 Margarita pizzas
– 2 prosciutto crudo
– 2 mussels a la marinara (not the freshest, but we were forewarned it was the bottom of the barrel)
– 3 salads
– 2 liters of vino rosso


The next day we headed to Pisa enroute to Florence. Checking our bags at the bagliagi deposito, we wandered the city, had some cappuccini, ate a few panini, took pictures at the leaning tower, duomo, baptistery…it was more beautiful than I remembered in spite of the overcast, drizzly day and our slightly hung over states from the six bottles of wine the night before. Hmm, and the two at lunch. And the limoncino, and the beer…. In addition to the tower, I highly recommend using the beautiful bathrooms at the train station. Seriously, pay the .60, it’s well worth it!

Amassing in Panzano and the Podere Felcetto
The Kulies will have to tell their own story, but suffice it to say they had an adventure finding our house, Podere Felcetto, in the wilds of Chianti (outside the village of Panzano). Jet lagged, they picked up their car, started driving…and driving…four hours on the Autostrada, 11 euros of tolls, their incomplete directions eventually got them “home”, bobble headed, but the first to arrive.

After stocking up on fresh mortadella and a couple salumi and bread in Pisa for the trip to Florence (Ed note: what is that, Cyn, like a whole hour and a half? Good thing you weren’t without some cured meats to sustain you!), we were back on the train. In Firenze we met the Fransons and separated into a bus group and a rental car group. By the time the drivers had rented the car, found the farmhouse, unloaded, picked up beer, wine and a few other staples at the local co-op, the bus-ers were having beers on the square. (Even after a two-hour wait no thanks to a bad schedule.)

Around this time, we got a call from the missing Heynes and Estrems. Their rental car had broken down an hour outside of Rome, just before Spoleto. They were stranded on the side of a busy highway for hours, trying to get help. Thanks to Mark’s gentle nature, Debbie’s refusal to accept anything less than a final destination of Panzano and Estrem’s support of each of those approaches, they were loaded on a flatbed truck, girls in the cab, boys in the car on the flatbed, wound back through the precarious roads to Rome, handed a different car, turned back around and headed north again.

ButcherPanzano We weren’t sure if it was the right thing to do at this point, but we had 9 pm dinner reservations at the famous Butcher of Panzano’s (Dario Cecci) Solociccia restaurant for 30E pp. Since we had no food and it was too late to cancel, we stuck to the plan. And we’re glad we did; what a show! Well worth it: course after course of food, wine from their own vineyard, and good cheer continuously flowing.

First, we met Dario at his butcher shop, where he served us very good Chianti from his vineyard, lardo bruschetta, and fresh bread with olive oil with his special salt. We were then welcomed across the street into his new and modern restaurant. The 15 of us settled into our private room just off the kitchen and started with raw vegetables in baskets and cups of their own flavored salts, ground to a fine, fine grain.
CarpaccioMeatballs Then the courses started flowing: smoothly, efficiently, and with perfect timing:
– Fagioli (best white bean ‘soup’ we had all week)
– Slices of bread with generous portions of Bolognese, dubbed by our table, (forgive the sacrilege) Sloppy Joes
– Raw beef meatballs (crudo) flavored with olive oil, salt and pepper
– Deep fried eggplant, zucchini, fennel, carrots (not the best)
– Braised beef and cabbage stew, slow, slow, slow cooked. Great flavor
– Olive oil cake! So good!
Digestivo– A selection of four “military digestivi”, including grappa, amaretto, licorice and…hmm…oddly fuzzy at this point.
– Bottomless carafes of wine which we expected to pay for after the first few complimentary, but no, they were all included. (Ed note: In the future, when hit with a reservation from Minnesotans, they’ll know to tack on a surcharge.)

Though the food wasn’t all spectacular, it was good, plentiful, fun and well worth it. For the next people who go, it may be worth paying the 55E pp for the beef dinner across the street and up the stairs, on a deck facing the city parking lot.

Sunday in Panzano and Greve
The next morning was the Panzano Farmer’s Market: artichokes, a vast variety of fresh greens, fruits, fruits and more fruits…I could have spent hours at one stall alone. It was organized chaos: take a number and watch the show. We didn’t have a plan for the day but figured we could just ‘get shit’. We were going to buy prepared meats from the large food cart which had chickens of all sizes on the rotisserie, stuffed rolled porchetta, fried or roasted coniglio (rabbit) but Roberto of our farmhouse told us we shouldn’t buy the meat at the market. If we wanted chicken, we were to go to the butcher in the old center of town. And with chicken? No pasta! It MUST be roasted potatoes! Okay, okay!

Why would we want old, mass-produced chicken when we could get young fresh locally grown ones from the market, we wondered? But going against our instincts, we took his advice and located the Macelleria de Checcucci. The chickens were really yellow, the skins were dry (I always have to wash and dry a chicken for 24 hours in the States before seasoning it to roast, but already dried out chicken?). They had the heads on, the feet on and were filled with pin feathers. But we finally decided, once again against our better judgment, hell with it, we’re in Italy, ‘when in Rome’…so we bought three chickens. (Or was it four?) They asked how we were going to cook them. Roast? No, a la griglia. Would we like them to spice them? Um…sure? They took them in back and we waited…then smelled something. Ah! That oh-so-familiar smell from my childhood days of singed pin feathers. Then they split them in half, sliced into the breast, smashed the halves to flatten slightly and filled the meat with their own herb-flavored salt. How glad we were we hadn’t walked out of there chickenless!

Wall of ProsciuttoWe then went to Greve for wine tasting on the square (also stipulated by our farmhouse “general”, Roberto), while some had beers and pizza in the square. We went to the fantastic, not to be missed, Antica Macelleria-Norcineria Falorni. Go there for the viewing and the wine tasting adjacent to the place, though the little macelleria down the street has better cured meats

Back home, outdoors on the beautiful terrace overlooking the vineyards and old building on the faraway hilltops, we had a family meeting over antipasti and vino and prosecco to discuss who wanted to see what on the trip. We made our choices, slimmed down the list and assigned days. Scott made-do with a small grill and no charcoal for the chickens, while we roasted the flavorful potatoes, fresh artichokes, and a mixed green salad with four kinds of lettuces. We dressed the salad as we would every night at the table with olive oil and flavored salt we’d purchased at Dario Cecci’s. Some added balsamico, others didn’t. A FINE, Sunday dinner on the terraces of Podere Felcetto, Panzano en Chianti!
Monday in Panzano, SanGimi & Radda
Monday started out warm and rainy, and by early afternoon it was blustery and COLD! Poor Pete was sick in bed, some went to San Gimi and others kept it local. We thought we’d check out a few local villages in Chianti, but only got to Radda in Chianti. We walked the cobblestone streets, appreciated the view, and when it started pour, found a warm and cozy restaurant in the old part of town. The smells coming out of La Peghera di Baccio increased the rumblings in our tummies. By this time it was 2 pm and they were slammed but happened to have enough space to seat us. The owner and other help were scurrying around, taking care of three large tables in two separate rooms, running up and down the stairs from the kitchen to the dining rooms. Service was uneven, the food took too long, they were apologetic, they forgot to bring my soup, (I didn’t need it) but what we did get was superb and we weren’t disappointed. It was rainy and cold outside, cozy and warm inside, with no agenda. Prices were typical (soups and salads 5 E, Antipasti and primi: 7-8 E, Secondi 12-16 E):
– Pulpi carpaccio with some sort potato tartin. Simple and delicious, in part, thanks to the amazing, local olive oil
– Pasta al funghi, mushrooms were not the most flavorful
– Zuppa di Fagioli, scrumptious!
– Lasagna, scrumptious!
– Ensalata Mista

HomeCookingAfter a couple beers at the local bar/restaurant and a visit to the Radda co-op to stock up on more groceries, we took the craggy hilltop, scenic route home…unintentionally: rocky dirt roads across the hilltops looping around past a cypress-lined driveway to an estate called Camprollo (some locals stopped on their way by as we were taking pictures and gave us the name as if it were to mean something to us?) down past Montefioralle into Greve. We got home about the same time as the San Gimi group, made fresh pasta…YUM!…which we served with shredded leftover chicken, stewed fresh tomatoes, sautéed onions, zucchini, garlic, basil, rucola and grated, aged pecorino. YUM! And, green salad. YUM!

Tuesday around the Podere Felcetto
AlbolaVineyardGary had kindly used one of his connections to set up a private wine-tasting and tour of the Albola estate, a popular imported Chianti wine. Before departing, ever mindful of our next meal, we quickly skewered lamb on rosemary branches and left them to marinate for the day with some olive oil and salt. The tour was informative and beautiful of a grand and ancient estate with gorgeous views of the surrounding Chianti countryside with a warm sun in spite of the cool air. The wine was extremely good, it was accompanied by platters of meats and cheese, olive oil and bread, and the tasting was a great thing to do early in the week so everyone could establish what characteristics we liked, and learn about what we’d be drinking all week long.
LambSkewersWe had planned to hit another winery, Verazzano, which was highly recommended by the del Mastio’s (farmhouse owners). By the time we found it and got there, however, we realized it was a huge tour bus destination. Spoiled by Gary’s fine, private tour, we simply looked around then took off. A stop at the ‘leather factory outlet’ in Greve was also a bust, but it was a wonderful day nonetheless.

With head chef Debbie in the kitchen, Scott back at the grill, and a dozen willing assistants, we had grilled skewered lamb, grilled eggplant piled high with barely cooked sautéed zucchini, tomatoes, peppers and herbs, starting of course with a ubiquitous antipasti of cured meats, sheep cheeses of various ages, prosecco and wine. Another delicious meal.

Wednesday, from Panzano to Florence
We took the bus from Panzano to Florence (minus poor, sick Pete and Beth), splitting up after touring Santa Maria Novella by the station. Scott and I searched for and found the two food markets: Mercantale Centrale where we shared a bowl of pasta and meat sauce and the Market at San Ambrogio which was closed by the time we got there. We shared a tomato soup and bitter green salad at the café of El Cibreo, to check out if we should suggest coming back with the gang on Saturday. The answer? Yes. We loved the Piazza San Spirito outside the San Miniato but, unfortunately, Denise’s ‘free and fab’ church was closed for renovation. When it re-opens it should be even more fab…but maybe not free…. This side of the Arno seemed to be the place to be in the evening; especially on a Saturday night. Unfortunately, we never made it back…something for next time.

BaldiBack in Panzano, we went to the Enoteca Baldi for beer and wine…and eventually dinner. The pizza place we’d hoped for was closed on Wednesdays. On Monday it had appeared closed, when really, it just hadn’t opened yet. Enoteca Baldi was JUST what the doctor ordered. Delicious, aromatic, fresh, creative cooking, friendly and welcoming by the owner/chef. Some of our favorites:
– Bruschetta mista: chicken livers, tomatoes and olive spread
– Herby and fragrant white beans and sausage,
– Panini of tomatoes, basil, mushrooms, cheese
– Salad piled high in the same style as the Panini with melted cheese

Thursday in Panzano, Montalcino and Castellino
SantAntimoInterior While some went to Castellino and others to Radda, Kim, Scott and I went to Montalcino and the Abbey of San Antimo, where we arrived in time for the 12:45 Sext service. Upon entering the old, Romanesque chapel, we could still smell the incense and candles from the 11:00 mass. After a 20 minute service of Gregorian chanting (them, not us) we wandered and appreciated the columns, almost pagan in their design, and the grounds. It’s a wonderful, self supporting abbey with vineyards, grazing cattle and its own town built up around the castle. If we weren’t starving (as always) (Ed note: What, no cured meat and fresh bread in your pockets? Shocking!) we could easily have spent more time checking out the monastery complex and little town. Bring a snack/picnic, come for the mass and tour the grounds and castle. Or, better yet, stay in the rooms, join the brothers for a meal, and visit Montalcino from there! (Ed note: This is one of my all-time favorite churches, and certainly the plainest. Its butter-soft walls seem to glow, the crucifix over the altar is rough-hewn and primal, and the carvings are, as Cyn said, practically pagan. This place is the epitome of calm.)

Our meal in Montalcino was one of our best in Italy. (Ed note: So jealous. Loved the town, but when we stayed overnight everything seemed closed.) Trattoria l’Angolo is a tiny, cozy, fragrant (aren’t they all?) place with mostly Italian speaking people. It used to be called Trattoria Sciame (Ed note: Monkey?! Really? Excellent.) The large group next to us had all ordered grilled steaks.
– Antipasti platter of bruschetta and prosciutto
– Scott splurged and ordered the special of the day, tagliatini with tartufo bianco, fresca, thinly sliced and generously scattered all over his plate along with a glass of Brunello.
Kim and I took it down a notch (not much) by splitting the
-Strozzapretti (“priest stranglers” pasta) with Brunello bolognese sauce (8E) and
– Mixed grill of meats charcoal grilled pork chop to die for, chicken, sausage, beef fat and gristle on a skewer that only I could appreciate (12E)
– House wines, 3E for ¼ liters, 7E for a glass of Brunello
– 2pp copertino for a total bill of 70 E

We walked around town, visiting the ramparts, climbing to the top for spectacular views of the surrounding Montalcino countryside (Kimmer, I owe you for that, BTW), tasted/bought Brunello and some vino rosso from the area, visited a couple churches and made it back to Podere Felcetto in time for happy hour before heading in for pizza (finally!) at Conca del Oro.

ConcaPizza2Conca del Oro
, according to some, is the best pizza in Italy (I maintain my vote for Blue Marlin’s pizza). We proceeded to eat our way through the menu of pizzas ranging from 8-16 E. The chef was “trained and certified in the methods of Italian pizza making”. Crusts were chewy, almost hard and….tough? (Ed note: Curious as to how you’d rate it against Apizza Scholls’ crust?) The best part, imo, were her home made desserts that she gave us compliments of the restaurant. They were so good, we ordered two more of each: a flourless chocolate torte and a custard in a cheesecakey, eggy crust to die for.

Friday at the Podere Felcetto in Panzano and Lucarelle
The last day was slated to ‘hang out’ in the area, and we tried out a restaurant recommended by a fellow tourist at the Butcher of Panzano: Osteria le Panzanelle in the nearby village of Lucarelle. Outstanding!

Rabbit – Eggplant rolls with cheese, tomatoes and capers
– Crostini misti
– Sformatino di cavolfiore (warm cauliflower torte)
– Fagioli all olio
– Insalata mista
– Patate fritte
– Spaghetti with sausages and wild mushrooms was the best mushroom flavor I’d tasted to date. First time I wasn’t disappointed by the lack of wild mushroom taste
РLasagne with a ragu and cheese so chewy and wonderful with a rich b̩chamel
– Roast Coniglio (rabbit) con olive, capers and anchovies, KILLER good!
– 3 liters house red
– Copertino 2E pp, 7 E pastas, 6 E wines / liter, 3-5 E sides

One of the wines we really liked at Enoteca Baldi was from La Massa, right down the road from our house. But because of the sudden cold snap, they were too busy harvesting to give us a tour. They don’t make a business of doing tours, but maybe next time?
BisteccaFiorentinaWe wandered around Panzano, bought a few more veggies for a last “light meal” in the farmhouse kitchen. Ha! Somehow, we found ourselves back up to Macelleria de Checcucci, purchasing three-3 inch thick bistecca to make Bistecca Fiorentino
– Antipasti misto and prosecco
– Leftover roasted potatoes and rosemary
– Huge salad with par boiled string beans
– Steak
– Vino rosso
– Biscotti, vin santo, limoncino

Last Day, in Firenze
ChiantiPathWe said our goodbyes to the famiglia del Mastio and off we went on another adventure: three cars following each other, making moves through the autostrada, incomplete directions, and high hopes that we’d all end up at the hotel together to check in, drop off bags, return the cars to the airport and get back into Florence in time to catch lunch at the Mercato.

Florence Miraculously, and with minimum fiasco, we did. We saw sunset atop the Piazzale Michelangelo, had wine and beer on the south side of the Arno, Teri and Kim went to the Uffizzi, Teri managed to keep from melting at the Hemingway Tea Room / bar (which she strongly recommends). We shopped at the artisan market set on the Piazza della Signoria Saturday afternoon (recommended) and, finally, ate at the Trattoria El Cibreo, which surpassed expectations. It was a five star meal for a three star price (284E for eleven people; unbelievable). We were served with cheer, humor, efficiency and aplomb. They included extra plates of menu items to ‘sample’, such as a fish soup, the likes of which I’ve never tasted – even the expensive soup de poisson in the south of France – and complimentary desserts in addition to the five we ordered. And no coperti!
Antipasti 6E
– Insalata Trippa: vinegar and olive oil, cooked with onions, cold
– Crostini di Pate
– Gelatino di Pomodoro two more gratis!
Primi 6E
– 2 Polenta alle erbe Verdi
– Minestrone di pane
– 2 Minestrone di pesci
– Fish stew, gratis!
– Zuppa di Funghi with the most mushroom flavor of the week!
Secondi 14E
– Cold veal loaf with pistachio
– Chicken…something…
– Eggplant parmesan
– Rich wine sauce and squid w/pasta
– De-boned and stuffed chicken leg
– Cold chicken loaf
– Chocolate torte
– Cheesecake
РBavarian cr̬me coffee custard
РBavarian cr̬me vanilla custard
– Panna Cotta
– Chocolate pudding
– 2 additional desserts, gratis
– 4 liters of wine, 3 of water

Deemed by many their best meal ever. What an end to a wonderful trip to Italy. And Scott and I weigh in at less than when we left. I was going to say, perhaps it’s the fact that we were eating fresh and unprocessed foods…but can we really call all that salumi unprocessed?

Thanks, everyone for being such a fun, loving, (and fun-loving), game, go with the flow, ‘we’re in Italy!’ jump in with two feet, make the most of it, group of great friends. Thanks Denise, for your recs of Enoteca Baldi, El Cibreo, Piazza Santo Spirito, Santa Maria Novella, Abby de San Antimo, Marcellario in Greve, and all the others too!)

And thanks Cyndi, and for letting us live vicariously…and Beth for the extra photos!

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What I Did on my Summer Vacation (Seattle Tourist Tweets)

Yeah, this falls under “unclear on the concept”.

Problem #1: Half my Twitter followers (ascetics / vegetarians / intellectuals), only do it because @Havi put me on a list. And I can guarantee they don’t want their iPhones gummed up with endless tweets of my eating excesses.
Problem #2:
I can’t manage to do a post shorter than a thousand words. As Havi says, “I feel compelled to write 10 pages about everything.”
Problem #3: It takes me ten ridiculous days to write a post.

So instead of a post I saved up unsent tweets. Ha! So there! (But the laugh’s on me because it still took 10 days to get this up. Sigh.)

Space Needle through the eyes of Gehry & Paul Allen.

Space Needle through the eyes of Gehry & Paul Allen

7 Starbucks in 4 block radius and nary a food cart to be found. Not an auspicious start. (the linked pic was snapped 2 days later)

Researching Seattle from the room instead of out exploring. Duh. And on the iPhone to-boot rather than paying $9.95 for access that’s only valid til 3 pm.

5 more Starbucks spotted on the way to a corner grocery.

Bud and peanuts await mah man’s return for swanky cocktails en suite. V nice 10th floor corner room at the Paramount. Recommend, aside from the annoying connectivity (even the iPhone needs continuous log in).

img_0947Finally out in the world! Tom Douglas’ Serious Pie for meh flatbread pizza (good sausage/pepper, bland-ola tomato/basil). This is no Apizza Scholls. Fabulous branding/graphics, convivial, and 3 excellent starters though…

…1) artichokes, proscuitto, baked egg; 2) duck proscuitto, pickled apricot, arugula; 3) baby lettuces, radish, muscatel vinaigrette. I’d recommend for the salads, vibe, pizza as a snack, and e-z proximity to downtown.

Breakfast a bust. Typical in-room coffee (can you say “coffee-mate”? mmm. When I open MY hotel, the honor bar will be stocked with free cream). Llandro “bakery” and cafe across the street has no baked goods to speak of.

Out in the 3-D world. Hooray! Belltown is deserted and more…barren?…than expected. So many “For Lease” signs, ouch.

There’s Lola, Dahlia Lounge, Flying Fish, but I’ve got my eye out for Macrina Bakery recommended by a local friend…voila. Adorable.

img_0953Small cappucci off to a shaky start, though it would be a good tiny latte. Coffees in Seattle? 4. Great coffees? 0.

Semi-related pet peeve: not correlating # of shots with the size of the cup / milk. Especially places that should know better (Pdx Bar-cough-ista).

Hmm, sandwiches were recommended but I’d rather sample more variety. Quiche velvety, liquid-feeling eggs that hold together beautifully. How’d they do that? Piadina (proscuitto & cheese in toasted flatbread) so-so. Indifferent service but nice stop.

Help…too…bright…need shade…forgot my sunglasses. Curse you Seattle and your blue skies. (ed. note: #seattlerainconspiracy)

Walkin’ walkin’ walkin’

My Sculpture Park Tour:

Ellsworth Kelly: “I’m not interested in the texture of a rock, but in its shadow.” Excellent save on explaining that rust stain (been living with a public art conservationist too long). The “stain” is great, actually, and intentional I think…

img_0969Rawhrrr! Calder’s Eagle eats the Space Needle. “Help! We paid $16 to get up here and now I’m being…a-a-aiyee!” Chomp chomp chomp.

img_0970Oldenburg (and Coosje van Bruggen)’s Typewriter Eraser. If you’ve used one of these raise your hand. Time for the nursing home for us. “Racing” down to erase the freeway and cars.

img_0961Love the Sculpture Park, but the red chairs are my favorite thing. What a bumpkin.

Walkin’ walkin’ walkin’

Piers to my right, freeway, parking structures and self-storage to my left cutting off town from the water. Like the Embarcadero pre-quake.

Good God! 20-story cruise ship dwarfs everything in the bay. It’s too easy to heckle the snaking line of cruisers waiting to get back on, so I’ll resist. Mostly. (Honey, pour a gallon of aloe on that expanse of sunburn and maybe spend tomorrow in the casino.)

Walkin’ walkin’ walkin’.

img_0975Finally, a free bus the last 6 blocks to Pioneer Square. Blessed shade. Bricks, ivy, trees, this is how I pictured Belltown for some reason. More “For Lease” signs but a great stop for a cool beverage. #Sanbitters.

img_0972A crochet lesson. “Hey, I’ve never done this before!” as I’m busted taking his pic. I’m not here to judge you, sir.

I resist going into Grand Central Bakery, despite the inviting ivy-covered walls. img_0971

International District looks bleak. Too tired to see if I’m missing some magical street so it’s Uwajimaya and out. Even I can’t muster up the appetite for kalua pork at Aloha Plates or noodles at Samurai. What good is an enormous belly if it can’t rise to the occasion?!

Four hours to get here, three minutes to free-bus it home through the tunnel. Sweet.

Poor monorail, so worn and dated. Seattle Center public spaces not bad on a warm evening. I wander as K and the convention ‘swells’ swill drinks at a $50 gala.

Conference tidbit: In what area of life besides green awareness would “sustainable” be an acceptable goal? “How’s your marriage?” “It’s sustainable.” “Excellent.”

img_0984Chef Ken-san Yamamoto, marry me? Geoduck & shitakes in butter…[insert Homer’s drooling sound] Tempura shrimp heads! Toro! Sake! Hamachi! Amaebi! Ikura…and another Hamachi for dessert.

4 W Roy
Queen Anne

Thank you Yelp. I take back all the bad things I was saying about you.

We should have bbq pork bao for breakfast every day. Is there something about the water in Portland that renders them impossible to make? Even this day-old guy is spectacularly yummy. Like a donut…with meat.

With two special exhibition galleries closed for changeover, the SAM seems like the perfect size for 3 hours. Intriguing contemporary, quality “old stuff” without the filler (IMO) of PAM.

dogtagsArtist Do-Ho Suh’s “military dogtag” robe spectacular. I love this whole contemporary section.

Titus Kaphar exhibit an oversized gem of wit and tragedy.

Why an atheist is so drawn to the religious paintings of the Renaissance is a conundrum worthy of some prayerful meditation.

Wall-filling South African video “Shadow Procession” riveting. “Things that seem whimsical, incidental, inauthentic may be trusted to provide entry into the heart of one’s material.” William Kentridge, artist.

From the visually stimulating SAM to Cafe Campagne’s palate stimulating oeufs en meurette. Sublime poached eggs on brioche, a-swim in a sauce of pearl onions, pancetta, wine and emulsed foie gras.

The less said about the sad croque monsieur, the better. Fortunately the eggs and accompanying pommes frîtes to swab up the sticky, rich leavings are (rich) enough for two. #didImentionit’srich?

img_1005 Fortified, we enjoy the new downtown library. Agreed: the atrium is spectacular & the womb-like meeting room floor interesting. K admires the moxy, I worry about how this slanty / slopey / tilty building will wear.

I seem to have shaken off my identification as a San Franciscan. Comparing Seattle more often to Pdx, and home is coming off very favorably. That’s a nice realization.

If a martini says, no returns on the menu, how stupid does one have to be to order it?

About to embark on a $3.50 (non-happy-hour) martini. Hold me, I’m scared… [real tweet]

“The Dan” is on the sound-system, penants on the ceiling, the hair is big, and the world’s cheapest martini ain’t bad. 3 big olives, too. [real tweet]

Kaya Korean: A tragedy in 2 acts. The Hero? Spectacular meat at good prices. The downfall? Hubris (appalling service leads to missing panchun & lack of flavor.) The victims? 4 of us who drove to fumbuck Aurora on a rainy night. SO sorry, J&J!

(Ed Note: Frustrations just taken out in a Yelp review; must save others from a similar fate. Will probably get hate mail. I should write a letter to the Seattle Weekly, too…their rave is what steered us wrong.)

Steak, pork belly, and a few kalbi. How could something so right turn out to be so wrong?

Steak, pork belly, and a few kalbi. How could something so right turn out to be so wrong?

We try to salvage the night with much-vaunted donuts at Dahlia Lounge. Coconut pie more successful. Comfy space to relive the evening’s indignities.

013 Brunch at Tilth nearly washes away the bad taste of last night. Charming, light yet flavor-packed, first good coffee I’ve had in Seattle. Very good, and they left the pot. The kitchen was backed up and we didn’t even care.

010Sous vide eggs on a crab benny…scrumptious. French toast more like mini squares of unctious bread pudding…perfect to share. Even the oatmeal was delicious. Oatmeal, for crying out loud.

This is where J wanted to eat last night. Guilt over Kaya settles even deeper.

Pike’s too crammed; should have come at 7 am. I recall my 16-year-old self’s visit here in minute detail. If only I’d known what to do with the bolt of energy that hit me as I wandered the food-laden halls lo those many years ago.

Delighted to see friends on Bainbridge Is. I feel like I’m in a Crate & Barrel photo shoot: beautiful people, charming children, glorious old farmhouse dusted lightly with impeccable taste. Even the neighborhood dogs gather here to play.

Dinner at Quinns, brother (literally) to Restaurant Zoe. Nice gastro-pubby (loud) space, the beer list and our waiter’s vast knowledge of said list truly impressive. Not a wrong note on the menu, but execution….

Good/competent. Ribs tasty but overcooked, mussels fine, boar sausage bizarrely dense, cobb with creamy egg and pork belly great. (I’ve had more eggs this trip…all delicious. Could it be the barometric pressure? Seattle sous vide au natural…)

If there’s a next time we’ll try the steak tartare and sloppy joe. Worth another trip for that and beer. Appreciate our thin, healthy local friends’ ordering compromises; left to our own devices we’d be dead under the table.

Saw my first twirling pasties at the Pink Door! And at my advanced age…sad really. Drinks pretty awful. Oops, another ferry to Bainbridge missed.

Heading home. The seats are hard but the view lovely from the top deck of Amtrak’s Coast Starlight. [real tweet]

Damn you bus #70 and your screwed up schedule! It’s too hot to be dragging a suitcase a mile down SE 17th.

img_1061PigCat Pale (deLIcious!), home-made challa, & a happy dog, all thanks to @ezra_brooks, @richardMiller & @Havi. #BestHomecomingEver [real tweet]

I’m giving Seattle a B / B-. I give MY visit to Seattle a B/B-. There are treasures a-plenty to be savored, I’m sure. Will try again (and next time I won’t fight restaurant recs just because they sound too predictable).

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A Tale of Two Visits: 24 Years, 4 Tacos and a Burrito


The real reason for the drive to San Francisco was to visit a dear friend of…ack…24 years…in the hospital. So my days were spent at surreal Laguna Honda, a sprawling long-term care hospital, hospice and rehab center for the uninsured on the western slopes of Twin Peaks. It’s the oldest nursing home in the state, pre 1906 earthquake, and it looks it. Most of the complex is condemned (which doesn’t stop it from being fully inhabited): peeling paint, gorgeous old tilework, stairways to nowhere, WWII missiles (5’ tall steel oxygen tanks on refrigerator-bearing dollies) lining the halls and wheelchair-bound, panhandling patients assembled along the walkway to the parking lot. It’s Terry Gilliam’s Brazil meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.


But the therapy-giving, shit-swabbing caregivers have hearts of gold and probably work for lower wages than a Nordstrom perfume sprayer (without the clothing discount), and where would the indigent and uninsured go otherwise? I’m glad they’re there for you Yona, and I hope you get the hell out of dodge soon.

Every day as I stopped by Tower Burger for Yona’s daily milkshake (Mitchell’s ice cream, but only chocolate, vanilla and strawberry, no avocado, tamarind or purple yam here) I resisted the lure of the organic Niman Ranch burgers that Yelpers seem to love. After all, I had to save my appetites for burrito testing. It’s been many years since I’ve known the best haunts for Mission carne asada and carnitas, and after six years in Portland it seemed high time to reacquaint with my addiction.

As I awaited my first burrito on a warm, slightly foggy Thursday afternoon, I did the math on the big burrito test and realized it wasn’t going to add up. There was no way to cover enough ground detouring through the Mission from the East Bay (homebase) to Twin Peaks (hospital) three days in a row. Especially at odd hours: a super burrito, even shared, takes some serious appetite. Even the rip-off $8.50 burrito at Pancho Villa, which was shockingly slender…no bigger round than my wrist…was too big to eat alone if I was going to taste anything else in the name of scientific research.


With JP’s help, we split two tacos and the burrito, and readjusted the test. Though the Mission burrito is still my great love, with limited opportunity to taste, we’d have to make tacos the testing ground. Price aside (double the price of memory, though I admit I’ve officially become my mother, who refuses to pay more than $24.99 for a double motel room because “that’s how much they’re supposed to be”) Pancho Villa still got our disgusted thumbs’ down. The carne asada wasn’t bad, with a bit of smoky char and lots of salt, but the al pastor was mortifying: bits of dry pork overly spiced with cumin and chile powder to make up for the total lack of fire-kissed flavor. The saving grace was the salsa bar, even salsa fresca, which is portioned out like gold in Portland but is self-serve at every self-respecting taqueria in SF.

For my second opportunity I picked two of the most highly rated Yelp spots, which were also conveniently located across the street from one another. Taqueria San Jose (2830 Mission, see photo left) had the requisite, abundant, serve yourself salsa bar and excellent $2.45 tacos. Foregoing another al pastor tragedy (“Duh” Rule: no rotisserie, no al pastor) we stuck to one asada and one carnitas. The beef was probably slightly better at PV but the carnitas here were delicious (chewy, crispy, moist) and the tacos overall superior. Across the street at La Taqueria the $3.50 tacos were somewhat less traditional. (Overly) large and stuffed, the carnitas had a very pure, clean pork flavor, but without the crispy edges of San Jose. No salsa bar and lackluster salsa threw my vote across the street, though JP gave it the slight edge. We both agreed that a trip back for the insanely large, golden-bubbly-crisped quesadilla was the way to go.

Overall, I was glad not to have been leading a group of out-of-towners for “awesome” Mission food. And it was a good exercise to readjust my yardstick. Though I’ve never been proud of being a snob about PDX Mexican (and Chinese) food, it had never occured to me it was misplaced snobbishness.

So did I come home disappointed and unsated? Or did I perhaps have an ace in the hole? Was there some secret spot, some unexpected venue, that had kept my illusions of The Perfect Burrito alive all these years?

Call out the trumpets. Cue the fanfare. Saddle up the white horse…

Marin delivered where the Mission failed.


Um, excuse me, what did you say? Marin County? Home of hot tubbing yogi-wannabes, mountain-biking cell phone talkers, and formerly liberal multi-millionaire lawyers?

The very one. Nestled under the 101 freeway in San Rafael shines a burrito beacon in the form of Taqueria San Jose (no relation, I don’t think, to the Mission’s San Jose). $5.50 brought forth the burrito of my dreams. The size of a small child, with a thin layer of cheese fused to the steamed tortilla, carnitas simultaneously crisp, clean, flavorful and porky, perfect proportions (aka not too much) pintos and rice, and fresh lettuce, salsa fresca, guac and sour cream oozing forth. Two meals, easy, one if you’re making up for some indignity suffered in your youth. Though carnitas was the clear winner, the carne asada was deemed worthy of a gold star as well. The salsa bar, though fewer choices than the other SJ, had the two I crave, fresca and tomatillo, and the chips were warm and fresh.

Ahhh. Finally. Sweet release, though not in the “Mission-ary” position I’d expected. Yona was on the mend, and though my assumptions had been rocked a little bit, I could now face the 11-hour drive home with a smile on my face and a half a burrito belted into the passenger seat.

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My Thoughts are in Italy

A love of Italy (and some genetic roots) have kept my thoughts close to those affected by the earthquake this week. I’ve followed it on the radio and hadn’t seen images until I searched online; if you’re not saturated, here’s a poignant slideshow.

The nearest I’ve been to L’Aquila was a prosciutto pilgrimage to Norcia, an hour or two north through the rugged mountains. That 2001 three-week visit took us from Umbria through Emilia Romagna, and cemented my undying love and appreciation for the country, its people, and all things Italian.

It’s such a cliché. News flash! Middle-aged woman loves Italy. Whoa! No freaking way!

The transcendent, deceptively simple, micro-regional food. The rainbow of ochres embedded in weathered textures of tile and rock. The man-made treasures, by turns soaring and quietly pious, from the polished perfection of Ravenna’s mosaics to a seemingly endless treasure trove of worn frescoes. Gardens etched out of tiny plots of land, brimming with lemons and towering artichokes, temples of a different sort, and perhaps a more direct means of worship.

Italy: the home of my favorite meal, favorite church, favorite picnic, favorite ‘drinking beers standing on the sidewalk’ afternoon. Home to the waiter who changed into work-clothes between courses to serve us lunch…when the restaurant didn’t actually open til dinner. It all boils down to the warmth and generosity of the people—people who will communicate through any means necessary, and who, if I may make a sweeping generalization, seem to understand grace at a cellular level.

Compared to the tsunami or Katrina this earthquake is small potatoes. But this week, memories of just-caught cozze, frizzante mornings and spontaneous home-made lemoncello and grappa tastings are mingling with recollections of walking home to the Haight after the ’89 SF quake. Wading through a Union Square drenched in shattered glass, joining clusters around car radios, moving with the crowd of silent walkers spilling west, north and south from downtown, gathering breath before hustling under an overpass, cresting Buena Vista to see the smoke and fires pouring up from the Marina… But all I faced was an entry system that relied on electricity, a collapsed chimney across the street resting heavily on someone else’s car, a broken vase with rancid water. We spent our evening drinking on a friend’s stoop (vodka tonics, if I recall), shaken, freaked out by the pitch dark and thumping helicopters overhead, and sick for those in the Marina and under the collapsed concrete of the east bay. But we still had a place to sleep, to work, to live. Our shallow roots were undamaged.

Hearing today that a friend’s family is actually from L’Aquila cements my sorrow at what they must be suffering. Her relatives have been accounted for, so they’re “lucky”. But their homes are destroyed, their 4hproscuittobusinesses gone, their town extinct…in 30 seconds…and this in a land where roots run generations deep.

I keep thinking that the act of caring enough can psychically absorb a piece of their shock and trauma. Stupid, really. But until something more useful comes to mind, I’ll pay homage thinking of unprepossessing Norcia with its squat, cement buildings, graceful and functional fountains, women in silk stockings taking their passeggiata with suited beaux of 40 years. Truffles and cured meats aside, this isn’t a spot on a tourist map, just a town where people work, eat, sleep, laugh, live and die. Perhaps a bit like L’Aquila.

by Billy Collins

How agreeable it is not to be touring Italy this summer,
wandering her cities and ascending her torrid hilltowns.
How much better to cruise these local, familiar streets,
fully grasping the meaning of every roadsign and billboard
and all the sudden hand gestures of my compatriots.

There are no abbeys here, no crumbling frescoes of famous
domes and there is no need to memorize a succession
of kings or tour the dripping corners of a dungeon.
No need to stand around a sarcophagus, see Napoleon’s
little bed on Elba, or view the bones of a saint under glass.

How much better to command the simple precinct of home
than be dwarfed by pillar, arch, and basilica.
Why hide my head in phrase books and wrinkled maps?
Why feed scenery into a hungry, one-eyes camera
eager to eat the world one monument at a time?

Instead of slouching in a café ignorant of the word for ice,
I will head down to the coffee shop and the waitress
known as Dot. I will slide into the flow of the morning
paper, all language barriers down,
rivers of idiom running freely, eggs over easy on the way.

And after breakfast, I will not have to find someone
willing to photograph me with my arm around the owner.
I will not puzzle over the bill or record in a journal
what I had to eat and how the sun came in the window.
It is enough to climb back into the car
as if it were the great car of English itself
and sounding my loud vernacular horn, speed off
down a road that will never lead to Rome, not even Bologna.

*I found this forgotten Billy Collins poem in my Italy notes as I was looking for a photo to include. It’s like Collins was on my trip, and in my head for weeks after our return.

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2/5: Toe jam and innards…it’s a good thing.

Went for a country drive through the Drome (with two blind people stuffed into the backseat of our rented Toyota Yaris), the dramatic landscape accented by fast-moving clouds. Fifteen shades of beige, rocky fields with small bunches of new lavender starting to bush out above the furrows, wheat, a few vineyards for Clairette, then fruit trees in the higher plateau, backed by striated cliffs with flat tops, backed further by craggy snow-capped mountains.

p10402631It looked bleak and freezing out and the wind was blowing, but it was strangely warm, having switched from a frigid north wind to something blowing up from Algiers.

As we’ve done throughout most of the trip we had our main meal midday, today in the shadow of the cathedral in Die (pronounced Dee, thankfully). It was a warm and charming place where we’d hoped to meet up with Manouche’s brother, an old hippie, ex-chef/restauranteer, and apparent all-around character.

B2 and Manouche had sweetbreads in a creme fraiche sauce, M. with a side of ubiquitous frites and dad with a beautiful (and massive) plate of veggies: endive, ratatouille, zuke, string beans…. The French don’t share bites and pass plates around, more on that later, and Dad, guarding his personal space like a longtime resident of San Quentin apologized between bites that no one was getting a taste of his (though he was strangely generous with his greens). I was torn between outrage and pleasure that he was enjoying it that much. I love sweetbreads, but like foie gras, I want a taste, or an appetizer, not a full plate. And it’s a sad fact of life in the US that you’re only going to find sweetbreads on the menus of fancy restaurants, not some casual lunchtime place in the shadow of a 16th century church.

A light midday repast of rognons in phyllo and mustard cream.

A light midday repast of rognons in phyllo and mustard cream.

B1 had kidneys (sorry to the faint of heart for our penchant for odd cuts of meat) in a crisp phyllo drenched with an ambrosial mustard cream sauce, and I the full menu for a mere 13 euro: dressed frisee topped with a poached egg wrapped in an eggy crepe (I’ve decided everything is better with a poached egg); chicken leg and thigh in a half french (creme fraiche and butter) half morrocan (bitter lemon and cumin) sauce that was utterly unique to my tastebuds, overcooked but tasty zucchini, so-so apple / pear tart, and a personal pitcher (two glasses) of ridiculously good vin rouge du maison.

I swear most days we only eat one meal a day…though I’m still managing to feel sausaged into my baggy jeans. With my heart out so much and the b’s inability to walk much, this has definitely been a most sedentary trip. Even by my standards.

Afterwards, for a bit of exercise (heh) we went to a caveau to taste and buy their local specialty, Clairette du Die. By chance, the caveau we selected had a petite musee complete with 70’s store mannequins dressed in peasant garb attending to the various stages of growing, bottling and consuming the local sparkling wine. Usually fairly sweet (my preference) from being mixed with Muscat grapes, the Clairette Brut alone was surprisingly good…toe jammy and just how b2 likes his champagne.

Blasting from the motion-detection speakers, in what Manouche cackled was a heavy local accent, long-sideburned, lifesized Malibu Ken #1 bellows: “Beh…I am the bottler. Without me there would BE no wine!” “But without me,” says the pinafored peasant woman, “no one would get any work done!” So true, but so hard to take seriously with her bright blue eyeshadow and Farrah Fawcett hair.

As in Vacqueyras, tasting was free and copious, and the bottles were all under 7.50 e.

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