You were always there waiting.

You could have just came out and told us …

You could have,
If you had it in you…
If you had it in you,

You would have told her you loved her.
If you had it in you…

You would have thanked her for her love.

When we left you feeling dejected.
She took you in and loved you, kept you feeling protected.

You loved her and took her in when she least expected.

You could have waited a bit longer.
Perhaps we’d have made you stronger?

Just a little longer…

We would have waited if we’d known.

We would have waited if we’d known.

If we had known you would slip away.
That the days would slip away.

We would have waited if we’d known.

Because we went away.

We would have waited if we’d known.
Postpone.

And we liked to think you were ours…

Sitting there waiting…
Watching the cars.

Acting like it’s your throne,
Our little home.

We used to think you acted like us.

You pouted and sighed at us.

You walked around and sat and stared at us.
Sometimes in mock imitation of us.

And while scratches that you’ve made in our skin will cover over and disappear.
The scratches that you rent in our hearts leave us here in tears.

You will always be there waiting.
We would have waited if we’d known.

You can’t take time back.
We can’t bring you back.

A life with distinction in character…
Our little man Dexter.

http://www.flickr.com/groups/dexterthewondercat/pool/show/

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The hidden ones are best.

Ten days after arriving at Değirmen Farm, the day we are leaving in fact, we take a walk with Tarik, the farm manager, and the agricultural students. The afternoon was a hot one and we had been lounging around since lunch hoping to see something else besides the hours we had already spent toiling in the fields. And it was the hottest time of the day, too hot for our old bodies we decided. Much to our delight our hopes would bear fruit.

I had a suspicion that Tarik and the group were spending the majority of the day talking about techniques and methods used on the farm because after we came back to the staging area. We had seen Tarik and the students returning from the fields with a bag of soil, so after lunch I asked them what the bag of soil was all about.  

Turns out that the group had spent the morning learning about how Tarik tests and monitors the soil and the bag of soil was to be taken to the University for analysis. We didn’t learn how Tarik tests his soil or what the group learned as a whole that day as our Turkish and their English just weren’t that good. But it got me thinking I could at least tag along on the rest of their excursions that day and see what I could gain from watching. When I saw the group head to the fields I knew it was our last chance.

We headed out to the vegetable fields that are just beyond the staging barn (draw a map of the farm). We had been to this area of the farm a few times. We’d harvested zucchini (kabak) and cherry tomatoes there just a few days before. This field sits between another vegetable field, divided by a row of fruit and nut trees  to the left (southwest) and grapevines and fig trees to the right (northeast). The rows that we harvested were between what looked like rows of vegetables gone to seed and weeds to the left and beyond the fruit trees and other vegetable field and the fig trees to the right.

One day when we’d nearly exacerbated the supply of zucchini from the main weeded rows I noticed that there were some in the weeds. I poked my head and hands in there and retrieved a nice one and noticed that there were other plants mixed in. It wasn’t the usual organized group of vegetables that I’d become accustomed to. I saw tomatoes, eggplant and melons. I thought they were abandoned and put it in the back of my mind to ask about it when I found a chance. The Turkish beckoning of “Gel! Gel! Wine!” turned me back from further investigations that day. So, when we headed directly into that field with Tarik and his students I got excited.

Up until that moment I had started to lose faith that the farm wasn’t interested in finding alternative ways of growing vegetables and that they were primarily focused on increasing yields of their organic fields from some fairly traditional and conventional practices. While Değirmen Farm is certified organic and obviously following biological ideas and processes for raising fruits, vegetables, grains and animals,  they sow large fields of the same vegetable. They have nice organized rows and try to maintain that through tilling, hoeing and weeding. They don’t really use straw to cover the earth. They irrigate all their rows with drip hoses. The use lots and lots of heavy machinery. They use hired hands that they work very very hard and I doubt pay very much.  It is a 300 Hectare farm. I just counted 103 fruit and vegetables that they grow on the farm and that doesn’t even include the products they produce from those.

Backbreaking Work

What they grow…

In general, while in awe of their production output, I was starting to think they weren’t looking or researching into any of the methods that we had seen in use or read about in theory during our travels. I was getting judgmental and thinking that our visit was never going to yield us any new information about organic farming. I was thinking that was it was a nice reality check on what the work on a farm can really be like, it isn’t at all like anything I would want to do myself. Nor will it ever be, but at least it could use some ideas I cared about.

Then Tarik started picking tomatoes and passing them around. Not ten feet away were organized staked and tied traditional rows of cherry tomatoes, but right here in front of me was this snaking mess in four feet of weeds and somewhere in there he had plucked these delicious orbs and handed them to us. I bit into one. Sweet, sunny, tender, light snap, melting flesh. I looked at Ebru, one of the agricultural students, and said “It’s better than those…” and pointed to the regular rows. She looked at me seeming to not understand. “The same…” she said. “No, they’re different…taste again…hold on…” So, I walked over to the regular organic rows of tomatoes and found the ripest one I could find. Then I walked over to the buried treasures and found one of comparable size and color. I didn’t have a knife so I bit it in two and handed her the rest. I did the same with the other. I told her to taste them side by side. She smiled. It is better. Wow.

Heirloom Varieties of Tomatoes

Hungarian Variety

This is what I’d been looking for. Did I have to go half away around the world to find it? No, in fact I’d first seen it back in California nearly 6 years ago at Bob Cannard’s farm in Petaluma, California. Beautiful, perfect vegetables growing amidst the weeds. What a concept I’d thought back then and proceeded to spend the next six years cooking my brains out unable to find that delight in taste in the basic form again. So, finding it here in Turkey after several weeks of working in what seemed to be very conventional ways of growing organic vegetables I found my hope and delight again.

It turns out that this was Tarik’s experimental field. He was testing new seeds and new techniques, his lab to test ideas for future plans for the farm. Now we’re getting somewhere, I thought. In this field he had at least eight varieties of tomatoes, several varieties of zucchini, coriander, melons, cape gooseberries, tomatillos, and more than I could find out from my limited Turkish. Tomatillos for God Sake I said. Tarik asked me what I knew about them and what we do with them and I tried my best to explain through our little phrasebook, his dictionary, and Ebru’s limited translation ability how to make a Salsa Verde (need to write my recipe up for that eh?). He was growing something he didn’t even know how to use. That is adventurous and the kind of risk taking that could lead to good things.

We walked back to the staging barn and I took a few photos of the varieties of tomatoes and Tarik began sorting them and splitting them open to seed save. Here we had the end of our trip and it wasn’t by speaking the same language that we ultimately figured out some of the most interesting workings of Tarik and the Değirmen farm, it was simply by observing. Only by paying a little more close attention did we discover that even in Turkey farmers are looking for new and different ways of producing organic vegetables. No one thinks they have it right. No one settles for what they are doing. As a farmer, you are constantly looking at your fields, your yields and your practices to see what works.

Tarik Seed Saving

That’s why it is so surprising to me still that all around the globe farmers continue to turn to big businesses and large universities to tell them what works in their fields. Sure they have lots of money and land to conduct vast experiments and intensive research on increasing yields. But the real knowledge comes from working in the field and paying attention to what you do and how the land responds to your actions and what yields the best result for your farm. After several weeks I hadn’t seen any evidence of Tarik doing this in the fields of Değirmen farms. From the field workers’ perspective, their method was still very hard and intensive on the worker and the land. Working on the farm is backbreaking and seemed like there was no hope for change on this farm.

But after seeing that one test patch of vegetables I know Tarik is headed down a hopeful path. I can envision that there is hope even on large scale organic farms to do something different, something that can make healthier food, richer soil and open doors to new kinds of work on the farm.

Seeds drying

After our jaunt out to the fields Tarik let me walk through his seed saving storage area and showed me the variety of seeds that they saved and some of the Organic “products” they use on the vegetables to ward off pests and increase fertility. I saw a bottle that I’d seen dumped into a large water tank and sprayed on the fields earlier in the week and asked what it was. He rifled through his dictionary to no avail. He said a word that sounded sort of like “..neem?” Yes. Neem. Neem was and is used in some farm by nearly every organic farmer I’ve ever met. One farmer in Thailand chopped the leaves of the living plant and mixed it directly into the composting process to ward off pests.

Next, he handed me a cryovac’d package of pepper seeds and said “..you take, we trade…” Of course, even on a farm as large as the Değirmen farm, the farmer recognizes there are other ways, other seeds, other places and other things to learn and the best way to do that is by sharing and trading knowledge. Full circle from Jo’s field in Northern Thailand we come back to the same idea, that diversity benefits from conservation and conservation arises out of the desire and will to see another species grow and thrive and foremost to pay attention to what is going on in the world around you. Farmers like these are saving the world one seed at a time.  We look forward to adding our seeds to the world.

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Widening the circle: Friends of friends of friends in Istanbul

As we ride our train away off to Eskişehir, Istanbul remains one of the most remarkable places in our travels. I know that sounds kitschy and cliché but go to Istanbul. Check out some of the tourist attractions and then figure out how to navigate the buses, trams, ferries a bit and head out into Istanbul proper. Meet somebody. Take a chance. It’s so easy to do in Istanbul, you just have to try.

We lucked out and found a cheap accommodation in the bustling European neighborhood of Beyoğlu (pronounced: Bay-oh-loo). A Turk, a Greek and a Hungarian all came together and built an upcoming and busy little hostel called the “Stray Cat Hostel”. You might think of the band but it actually references the cats that wander in from time to time off the city streets. If you don’t mind them, in general the cats are a clean bunch, then it’s a great place to choose as a homebase to explore the city.

Sadath, Maya and Chris were always near when a question arose or we just needed to know something practical about how to get to a local site. Tracie and I, as usual, were always challenging the limits by asking about areas not even on the tourist maps. We lucked out and visited places that most tourists would never see. That’s partly because we really aren’t tourists and partly because we are a fortunate pair.

At the Stray Cat Hostel you can choose to get up and head out as early as you please or wake up in the leisurely way that is Istanbul and rise in time to catch a Turkish breakfast from 9am to 11am. For us it turned out to be filled with a trove of remarkable individuals, many we spent countless hours passing the morning and evenings discussing our “plans of action” present and future. The Stray Cat hostel provides just enough amenities and space to sleep well, get ready for your day and get the information you need to enjoy the delightfully European city with an Islamic flare. Anyone willing to step out and off the tourist map just needs to come armed with a little information and a few questions to get Sadath going.

Of course we checked out some of the most intriguing sites of Istanbul but there are enough to keep you busy for a lifetime. Mission bound as we have been we set our sights to find out about volunteering for a farm stay somewhere in Turkey. Before we left the states we had found an organization called Buğday (Pronounced: Boo-dye-meaning wheat in Turkish) but the majority of their information seemed to be in Turkish so we opted to procrastinate and head to Turkey before we really got our nose into planning. This lead to a lot of down-to-the-wire communication and coordination that eventually cleared into clouds with silver lining. We finally got in touch with the right person, a gentleman named Victor Ananias who has been working with the organization for over twenty years. Victor told us to come find him at an upcoming Saturday organic market close to the Osmanbey Metro stop.

We set out late on Saturday morning and eventually found the market. The way it works when you want to find something, not just in Turkey but any country that has a foreign language you don’t know, is to copy down the words as best as you can and show them to people. One person sends you to one corner with some hand gestures and tells you to ask again when you get there. And you do, and eventually you find it. We ended up at a crossroads of a road and what seemed to be a walled parking lot and a Turkish woman overhead me saying that “…I don’t know if this is a road…” that it was. This took us across to another road where a bicycle bound Turk asked in Turkish if we knew where the market was and switched to English when we looked perplexed. We told him no and he said he’d ride down and check. He waved us to the right place.


Once we arrived we found the Buğday information table front and center and managed to track down some people that knew where Victor was. We sat down at a table and met a Woman named Gizem and a woman named Esra that both spoke English and were chatting with a Turkish friend that was there to play saxophone for the market’s 4th anniversary. Gizem it turns out was the communications director of the organization and Esra was on the board, so we’d stumbled into the hands of the right people. Victor was also there and we talked to him intermittently until he got up to greet a few people that had come to visit with him. Victor was a busy man and the charismatic and intellectual leader of the organization and was being beckoned at every turn.

But Esra and Gizem had dropped in just to hang out and celebrate the market’s 4th anniversary and welcomed us with some local food and flavor. We quickly all hit it off, them recounting how our blog had made the rounds in the office, which explained while they shook their heads yes as we introduced ourselves to them and we all settled down to talk. We chatted about everything and nothing and eventually Esra declared it was time that they (Gizem and Esra) figure out who we should try to volunteer with as it seemed Victor had his hands full with just saying hello to everyone that had come to celebrate the market’s four years of success and hard work.

Esra and Gizem quickly settled on a woman named Gürsel Tonbul (Gew-sel Tahn-bull) and her farm and restaurant near a city called Izmir. When Victor finally was freed up they mentioned this to him and he explained her requirements and some things we could do to try and set it up and then we launched into a short history of his experience with the organization. The market itself, thriving over the past years took six years to build via the bureaucratic layers as they are and continues today as one of the four examples of organic markets for the ordinary consumer in Istanbul today.

Victor recounted how Buğday began as a restaurant, as he was a cook for many years who traveled the world learning many ways of vegetarian cooking. He decided to open a organic vegetarian restaurant to help educate and spread the word about sustainable ways of living. He figured a restaurant could be one of the most direct ways to connect with people and eventually, eight years later, the restaurant spawned an organization that works to connect people of all levels of experience and profession to organic and sustainably raised foods. They also provide trainings on sustainable living and much of there work is hands on learning. Not only did his early ideas sound akin to our own, but his passion and sense of direction radiated from his being and he quickly helped us realize we’d stumbled into a group of golden individuals. Our luck had come again.

Not only were we lucky to meet Victor, but we were lucky to meet Gizem and Esra. We chatted about the World Cup as it seems it had taken two more victims, both of their husbands, Esra’s from France and Gizem’s from the United States. Both were home separately watching the game while we shared Gösleme in an organic market. When we finally all decided that we’d better explore the market and say our goodbyes Esra invited us to join her, her husband Damien and friends for a dinner later in the week. We said yes and exchanged information.

A few days later we were standing in her kitchen looking south out the kitchen window into the Sea of Marmara and North into the Bosporus. You could stand in one place in the kitchen and see both. That evening we met her friends she’d grown up with since middle school and we chatted about food ad life and ate food, drank wine and enjoyed the evening. We all sat around the table at one point and Esra declared that this wasn’t the “real” Istanbul and let out a shriek of laughter. But for us it was Istanbul is nothing if it isn’t diverse. We experienced the streets and the mosques by day and the European blend of partner pair ups at a party like this. Istanbul is truly a city where cultures and continents collide.

Take the fact that a simple email to my sister, who has a Turkish friend that she hasn’t seen in over a decade, whom we’re on a train heading towards. We called up Nusret and he not only welcomed our visit to his home in Eskesehir, but seemed genuinely determined to help us find our way in this vast beautiful land that is Turkey. He even went as far as to call up his brother who live in Istanbul who then offered to come welcome us to Istanbul, Hosgeldiniz Istanbul! We called up Selvet and he arranged to pick us up the next day for lunch.

Selvet showed up right on time the next day. He whisked us off to a lovely fish restaurant in his neighborhood near Levent that sat overhanging the Bosporus. We chatted about our ideas for farming and his life. After lunch, gracious of another host that brought us to another beautiful place in the world I sneakily paid for lunch, much to my regret. Selvet boiled at the server in Turkish about how a Turkish host was supposed to pay and we left under a weight of silence.

I felt terribly bad for having insulting him, that wasn’t my intention. It began to clear up a bit after I re-iterated our thankfulness at his welcoming us and the fog cleared and he announced we’d share dinner together too. He took us to his house where we relaxed for the remainder of the afternoon chatting about ideas about life. He told us about his business, his farm and his family and we told him about our ideas for our project. We finished off the day watching Japan lose to Paraguay in the quarter finals of the World Cup and then set off to a lovely dinner that served up fare from his hometown area Adana. After stuffing ourselves fully he took us up and over the mountain back to our cozy little hostel.

Despite ourselves, things work out. Despite our inability to speak or read Turkish we saw things and went places few tourists from other countries have or will. Over the course of the previous week we finally figured out that the bureaucratic way is not the favored way of making connections in Turkey and that meeting and talking to people is the best way to operate. We got in touch with Gürsel Tonbul who welcomed us to come visit and told us where and how. So, now we’re nearly to Eskisehir, and by the time I post this we may already have come and gone from there. But we travel in a familiar landscape into friendly hands thankful for the goodwill that truly fills the globe.

 

 

 

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More on the Food of Italy: Milan and Lake Como

Tracie and I happened upon a couple of really great finds in Milan on the first three days we were there. One night, we took my friend Peter’s recommendation and dropped in to a Birreria and Osteria called La Libera that served up a terrific seasonal fare. I had one of the best Cottoletta alla Milanese that I’ve had at that restaurant. It was served on the bone and the loin portion of the veal had been pounded about 3mm thick. It was served with a side of lemon and a small salad. Tracie had god knows what as mine was too good to even pay attention to what she was eating beyond our initial saluté and diving into our plates and vino.

When we ventured out to Varenna and Lake Como we found a hidden treasure up a cozy little alley just beyond the boat docks. We walked past and saw a nice contemporary dining room set subtly back off the corridor, we only looked because there was a little table set for two outside the door and beautiful flower arrangements that the wife and owner of the Chef was watering at the time. We were famished as we’d spent a good part of the day wandering up and down and staring at the beautiful streets and alleys that make Varenna the quiet and charming gem that we hope it will remain. If you are ever in the Lake Como area head to Varenna and Varenna Mon Amour.

There we sat down for lunch the chalkboard out front mentioned a special priced primo and secondo for about 20 Euros. We found a menu full of seasonal delicious sounding options yet the menu remained simple and of a manageable size, so rather than sticking to the special we chose a la carte. We made our selections and dove into the bread basket filled with a nice variety of breads: pane integralé and the ubiquitous white bread but nicely hand shaped.

For primi, of all things, since I was overwhelmed with lobster trim from Per Se everyday back in the states, I chose a lobster dish. It had Pacherri di Gragnano pasta, which is like a very large rigatoni. The Chef chose to serve a half a lobster seemingly chopped up with no regard, but as you dig in and used the gleaming custom pliers and meat picker tools provided one gets an idea that this Chef is not your ordinary Italian Chef. Every knife cut in the lobster was deliberately placed for ease of access to meat. A feat only a lover of lobster could accomplish. This opened up the shell to allow for even and complete saucing of the meat. The meat melted in my mouth like a warm piece of butter. Tossed into it all with the generosity of a farmer sharing his first harvests were plump cherry tomatoes and crisp broad beans. Simple traditional fare served up with a style and sense of care that would put most Chefs in the states to shame.

Tracie’s choice of a broad linguine pasta, handmade in the restaurant, was cooked al dente and carefully tossed with perfectly cooked scallops, giant cherry tomatoes and topped with farmer’s mâche that tasted of the earth like no other mâche I’ve tasted. Somehow, we both managed to finish these generous primi piatti and loosened out belts for the next round. The moment they arrived we knew somehow we’d manage. My calamari and Tracie’s monkfish both exploded with the flavors of a well seasoned grill. This guy knew not only how to cook fish he knew how to make love to your mind with them.

As we sat there in their dining room, a stone’s through from the lake, we knew our choice of Varenna as a quick retreat from the busy streets of Milan had been well placed. We set out that first afternoon on the shores of Lake Como with fat bellies and sated hearts. We’d be back one night for dinner. I wanted to set all the clocks forward. Sleep for days, do anything to bring the next meal at Varenna Mon Amour closer.

A few nights later, sadly we chose another restaurant for that evening’s dinner, we made our ways down the coastline and back up the steps to Varenna Mon Amour. Because when you think you have a good restaurant you don’t want to give it up. You want to explore, to test, to feel it out, to see if it can turn those feelings back on inside you again. For a second time we sat down to a glamorously affordable meal. Glamorous because we felt like VIP’s from the flavors and presentation but managed to walk away without an empty wallet. I wanted blood this time and went straight for a ribeye like cut seared on the charcoal grill to a perfect medium rare and garnished with a heaping mound of vibrant flowery pink peppercorns and rosemary. Nearby sat a carefully piled medley of summer vegetables. As the beef melted in my mouth our hearts began to soar.

Tracie opted for local fare and tried a sardine like fish fresh from Lake Como. Pan fried and then oven roasted with a dash of vinegar and olive oil. It was all draped with fresh herbs and bursting forth from the parchment cartouche aromas of fried fish, crisp summer veggies and the astringent waft of vinegar drifted from her plate to mine. Our eyes were filled with anticipation. As we let our wine breathe, a Refosco from Venezia, we dug into our main courses. This time we’d held back and only ordered an appetizer and a secondo each saving room for the brilliant desserts that we’d spied a few days before resting on the tables nearby.

That evening sits in a place in the minds eye. A place where colors and aromas and the gentle clink of wine glasses resides. We past the evening making new friends with a lovely Italian couple to our left, the husband a cinematographer with an ear problem and the wife with a knack for languages. She claimed her German was better than her English, but we chatted away from a few tables across and discovered that the restaurant was new to the area and that the chef was a friend from childhood. Later on as our bellies filled to capacity the chef came out and he told us about his life and how he came to have this treasured little location tucked away in the alleys of Varenna. He’d plied his knife on the shores of many countries and every dish struck a beautiful balance between the rustic seasonal traditions of Italy and the sweeping breadth of his career of over fifteen years in the kitchen.

Looking back this remains the best restaurant that we chanced upon in our travels this time in Italy. Other would come, but this remains our favorite. Its hard to beat the walks and view around the restaurant and the lulling pace of Varenna life is hard to pull away from as well. Some would say Varenna’s too sleepy of a town and we would say fine, keep your Bellagio and your Menaggio. We’ll always have our Varenna.

As we set our sights back on Milan, to join back with our friend from the states Peter, before we set out for the countryside, we looked back on our stay as a lovely quiet rest. In Varenna, we buried the dust and grime of the Beijing city streets. In Varenna, we put behind us the shock of Asia and headed back into the warmth of our western heritage.

Here’s a brief interlude of our meals in Varenna. Somehow I failed to take photos of food in Milan.

Back in Milan, Peter whisked us over to his apartment, with high hung ceilings and wall of ten foot windows overlooking a lovely yet boisterous courtyard, to a local delight that we couldn’t find on our own. Over fifty years ago a man by the name of Luini arrived from southern Italy and opened the doors of his restaurant to share the rich goodness of panzerotti. Made from dough similar to pizza dough, filled with an unfathomable variety of fillings they are fried up and served to clamoring throngs of Milanese. We shoved past the crowds surging into the building into the Piazza and found a bench to sit down and share a small variety of fillings: spinach and ricotta, tomato sauce and mozarella, prosciutto and salame, and funghi. From there we zipped along the Milan streets and happened upon his favorite gelateria and shared bites of lemon basil, pistachio, nocciola, and blackberry.

That evening we set out for a quiet Osteria just outside of the old part of Milan, Osteria dei Fauni ( Via Turati, 5 in Segrate, about 10 minutes east of Milan ). Peter had mentioned the place weeks ago when I’d asked him about places to visit or possibly stage. He had spent several days a week over a few months working with the Chef Michael his new friend from Philly who had married an Italian woman and was currently cooking up a storm in this quiet yet sadly empty little gem. The proprietor has an astute palate for wines and wanted to create a place that challenged traditional boundaries of Italian Cuisine. Michael took the challenge and with a staff of one serves up some maddeningly inventive and delicious takes on traditional Italian fare.

To start, Tracie chose a mouth watering terrine of a burrata garnished with anchovies. I never would have thought this would have worked, but here it was and it all came together perfectly. Peter and I settled for a mixture of Salume. Michael’s wife, who was our server, had mentioned a guanciale that Michael had house cured and we selected that with a few other choices. Tracie’s dish was the star of the first course but our appetites weren’t sated as we settled in for our second course.

For my second time in Italy shoved my way into a plate of Cottelleta alla Milanese. Michael’s was a contemporary take on ‘a la meuniere’ style. The crust crackled and crunched in a way that only Japanese Panko can and my teeth sunk into a tender perfectly cooked pork loin, thin but with enough to bite, and the juices of the finest Italian pork mingled delightfully with drips of butter that unfamiliar to the Italian kitchen somehow forced their way onto the plate. Later that evening when I remarked on his use of butter he smiled and told me it was so important in his cooking style that it was the only thing his Italian cooks couldn’t understand and that when he returned from a short vacation once, he returned to find the mound of butter that he’d mistakenly ordered to be delivered the day before his departure untouched and waiting for his gentle hand.

Peter’s choice raised their eyes and received an “are you sure?” with his deliberate and quick “I’ll have the Cavallo…” His loin of horse seared a dripping rare arrived to all of our delight. We each took a bite with Peter devouring the rest and found the meat deep with richness yet without a hint of distinction beyond a slight more bite to set it away from the beefiest beef. The evidence that Michael’s time in the kitchen was long and steady came true when he came and sat with us as we finished our last bites. His presence is one of a cook. Large high shoulders, slightly sloped but grown strong from years bending over a chopping board and reaching from burner to pass to put out food to tenuously anxious guests. We chatted for over an hour and his eyes filled with hope and cheer as he recounted stories and shared his dreams of owning his own bakery soon and unleashing his talent on the world.

Once again a dreamers table, we sat talking about our accumulated dreams and goals of opening various forms of restaurants, bakeries and farm to table ideas. All different, all possibilities hanging in the air. I could hear times gear grind slower as we passed the torch of sharing our various ideas. Time is always seeking change in the ticking and pointing and measuring and stretching as the physicality of the possible hangs in the mind. As we finished our last glass the clock surged back into gear and we slumped off to our beds where the light in our heads flashed. Italy is a place that sometimes seems dreamlike, unbelievable and yet it’s there. When you visit you can’t help but wonder what it would take to get people to leave. It seems a perfect place wherever you are.

We finished off our stay the next day at the beach at Finale Liguria a few hours outside of Milan and came back to Peter’s where I made my first attempt in months to share the love that I’ve received from countless kitchens all over the world. And then we were off again. We set our sights and taste buds for the Calvi’s in the town of Varzi southwest of Milan.

 

 

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Istanbul and a evening of Classical music…

As Americans, we are used to having tons of stuff. When we left the states we were very selective about the stuff that we brought. I’ve often bemoaned the amount of crap that we’ve lugged across the world, but people are always remarking on how little luggage we brought. Last night was one of those nights that I wished I had just one more thing with us. I wish I’d brought our Mini-Disk recorder. Then I could have posted the sonorous beauty that we experienced at one of the concerts at a music festival here in Istanbul. Organized by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts back in June of 1973, this year marks the 38th year of it’s inception.

We rubbed elbows with the Istanbul bourgeoisie last night, me in my Birkenstock sandals, jeans and a wrinkly linen shirt and Tracie in a lovely linen dress. Fifteen minutes before the performance began I bought a ticket for a glass of Turkish Malbec and began to warm up to the atmosphere. Tracie could only take a sip as she’s nursing a small cold. The wine was filled with mellow tones of walnut and cherry goodness. The bells chimed ten minutes and then five minutes prior to seating and we all began our lulling march to the toilets and to our seats inside Aya Irini (Hagia Irene) which sits in the outer courtyard of Topkapi Palace. Originally an Orthodox Christian Church, it was built sometime in the 4th century, commissioned by Constantine I, burned down in 361 and then restored by Justinian in 537. We sat there underneath the only example of a Byzantine church that retains it’s original atrium. The dome sat high in front and above us and reverberated the sounds of Mendelssohn, Chopin and Beethoven.

According to one of the books we’ve been reading about Istanbul, Istanbul: The Collected Traveler, An Inspired Companion Guide, Edited By, Barrie Kerper , Constantine the Great’s tomb is somewhere within the church itself. We looked and couldn’t find it, but knowing it was there added emphasis to the chill I felt on the back of my neck at the crescendos.

There is something unique about listening to classical performances, the sense of timing, the teamwork and the giant intellect that created the pieces all comes together in a group of musicians hands. All of their experiences and yours seem to hang just above your head, filling the room with dreams, memories and hope. Sharing all of that in such a place, is something that will always stay with us. To experience this all in such a central place to European and World history brings to life those composers that lay at rest yet still stir our imaginations.

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Istanbul, Turkey

We arrived in Istanbul, Turkey a few days ago. It’s been days filled with frequent yet short thunderstorms. We’ve wandering around some of the major tourist areas without visiting inside any yet. We’re crossing our fingers for nicer weather in a day or two.

We have eaten some terrific food all of which is far surpassing Italy in variety of flavors and textures in one meal. I’ve posted a few of the photos from the past few days and we’ll let them speak for themselves for now.

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Ciao Italia!

Maybe we mentioned that we really hit it off with an Italian back in Thailand. Tracie and I chatted with Francesco and another varied group of new friends which included a delightful Italian woman, Alice; a Frenchman,Sebastian;  a Russian, Alex; Jules, an Indonesian and of course a number of Thais that lived and worked on the farm and a few Americans, French and Canadians passing through. Several times a day over breakfast, lunch and dinner we ended up chatting with Francesco. We all worked on various aspects of volunteer work at Pun Pun throughout our stay there from watering the farm to seed saving and shared stories throughout the day and over the delicious and exciting meals of one another’s travels and dreams of the future.

One day, over a meal, it came up that Francesco had a farm back in Italy. I think we had been talking about earthen building and he was talking about which technique interested him for building an earthen  barn for his horse back home. He said it was a shame that we didn’t have Italy on our itinerary and that it would have been great to have us come and cook with his mother and aunt in their home kitchen. We mentioned while we hadn’t planned to go, our itinerary was up to us and open-ended and we probably could find a way. I mean, it’s Italy, right? Italy, farming, food, more adventure and a place to learn more, that fits into our mission for this trip. So, we told him that and he said, “..then you must come…no, you must come…you can come and cook with my mother…”  

Weeks later amidst the turmoil of Beijing we finalized the last of the when, where and how of Italy and set off for Milan. We were set to meet Francesco about a week out and decided to head to the Milan area where my friend Peter from NY was living and hopefully we would get a chance to see him as well. So, like that we shifted things around for the hundredth time it seems and headed somewhere we didn’t expect.  Francesco and his girlfriend were away when we arrived, so in the meantime we explored Milan and then headed out to Lake Como and basked in the glory of the Italian way of life. Ciao, Italia!

It’s funny, because up until like a day before we met up with Francesco, we weren’t certain it was all going to work out. While a wonderful and charming individual, and possible one of our luckiest finds on the trip, Francesco is more than anything Italian, and things tend to hang in the air a bit and succumb to discussion before ever finally being settled upon. So, the day before we finally got in touch with him over the phone and made arrangements for travel to his hometown and pickup from the bus stop.
Once, we sat down in his Fiat Panda 4 x4 and headed over to his home, the mystery of Francesco that had built up in our minds began to unravel and the treasures of the Calvi family began to unfurl.

We dropped our bags that day and headed out just to visit and feed the animals and water the plants at the farm or cantina as they kept referring to it here. Because, of course, on the farm there sits a cantina, where the wine is made. In the Calvi’s case it’s a two story rock house, built over a century ago by his great grandfather and used in generations since in continuation of their family tradition in making their own wine and caring for and raising their own food.

The Calvi’s farm is a bit over 3 ½ hectares, it doesn’t sound like much and many would probably think it isn’t, but it’s more than enough for this small family to keep a lovely vegetable garden, grow grapes, care for a vast array of fruit trees and raise chickens, ducks and a horse.  Francesco just wanted to show us around that day, kind of get us the feel for their farm.

He showed us his beautiful horse of 19 years Artu, who had rolled around in the mud that afternoon after Francesco washed and brushed him before we arrived. He walked us over to their vegetable garden and we helped out with watering a bit. His brother Giovanni had just started a spiral shaped design garden bed where he was practicing the principles of bio-dynamic farming to raise some of the vegetables for the season to come. Then walked us over to his own area where his girlfriend, Chiara, and he had started their own plot, having just returned to Italy after a long trip abroad.

After, the garden, we walked across the fields to see the full breadth of the property. A small grove of grapes grows just above the vegetable garden, about ten rows deep, enough to make wine to last the family over a year. A few fields seeded with hay for the animals and laying low for the plans ahead. A gentle jaunt and we were down in a forested creek area where he shared a wonderful sala he was building. He was amidst constructing the platform for retreat from the hot days under the sun, or simply to retreat and meditate on the life rushing around him. We sat there for a bit listening to the light wind rustle the leaves above and the lull of the spring nearby, settling our souls down into our stay.

Next, we were off  across the field where we happened upon one of the many cherry trees and within moments Francesco was up in the tree ripping fresh ripe cherries from the tree. Cherries that burst forth the fragrance of Italian hillsides and floral bouquet of the ripest summer. The flavor was sweet balanced by a bitterness and slight acidity that kept us as reaching for more. From there, we took a lolling walk across the span of trees and listened carefully as his spoke of all the varieties. Peaches, Pears, Apples, Figs, Walnut, and Almond.

That evening was meet the family night. As we alighted up the stairs Francesco, grin a mile wide, braced us with a “…are you ready to meet the family?”  We were of course, actually I was elated with anticipation with meeting the Calvis.  Francesco had been up until our arrival a bit of a mystery in the background department. While we stayed with Peter, on the day we left he had become so concerned that we were heading into the arms of a serial killing stranger that he told us his apartment was ours if we needed a place to escape. Of course, we knew Francesco it’s just what he did for a living and pretty much all of his past that we were clueless about. He’s one of those humble people that actually don’t talk about themselves all the time. It was his heart and open arms that attracted us to visit and it was his family’s open arms and welcoming table that let us know we were safe and at home.

That evening we sat down to nettle lasagna made by Francesco’s mother Carmen. Wait, saying that lasagna was made by his mother may not really get across the the full effect. They harvested the nettles from the family farm, Carmen made the pasta and the nettle filling and the bechamel sauce that gorgeously blanketed the perfectly cooked noodles. We shared wine that Francesco’s dad Pepimade the previous year and finished it all off with a lovely torte she had also made earlier that morning.

The next few days we helped, but mostly watched, Francesco build his platform down in his forest by the stream and finished off our days off weeding, building trestles, picking cherries and watering the garden before setting off for delicious meals whipped up by Carmen. Every time we all sat down, the conversation around the table always wound back around to…”ok, what are we going to eat tomorrow for lunch, what for dinner…?” I joked with Francesco about it at the table when I was listening to his family I could only understand about 10-15 percent of what they were saying so I said “…I’ll bet your talking about what to cook for tomorrow, right?”  He laughed and said they were and then his Mom was curious what we were laughing about and he explained it to her and she said “…Well of course! We have to plan what to shop for and what to pick from the garden!”

I can’t stress how central food is to the Italian day. I mean, you can count on one thing in Italy when you are traveling if you want to eat lunch, you better do it when everyone else is or you won’t be eating for a long time unless you can cook somewhere for yourself.  Lunch is from about 12:30 to 1:20 or 2pm. After that it’s shuttered grates and closed shops. It’s like the whole country goes on break for two or three hours.

And staying with Francesco was no different, every day we met around the table at the same time 1pm. Carmen would always time it to be done right as Pepi walked in the door. It was crazy.  And everyone ate at home generally; the only two times that we ate away from his house for lunch was once on the second day of our visit and once when we traveled for two hours to spend the day at the river, both of those days we picked up Salame and Prosciuto from a local butcher, bread and gathered fruit that we picked from the farm.

On Friday evening of the second night of our stay with the Calvi’s on our way back from the farm we ran an errand to get a specific cut of meat (brasato) from a particular butcher that Carmen had requested for our planned  team ravioli production for Sunday morning. That evening she seared it off and started the cooking, a short two or so hours, just until tender. That was put in the cooler for the next two days. On Sunday morning, we started ravioli production. This commenced around 10:30AM, we had to have lunch on the table by 12 on Sunday, I mean come on it is a day of rest. I walked into the kitchen and Carmen had already measured out the dry ingredients and mounded them on the table for the pasta and I caught her as she was cracking the few last eggs into the mountain of flour (these recipes follow people).

She mixed about a kilo worth of pasta dough, working the whole for about fifteen minutes. Then Carmen showed me how to take the Brasato that she’d braised and minced it down super fine and added  some of the braising liquid to taste, a few eggs and a good helping of Parmesan and I mixed it into a velvety farce for our ravioli to come. We spent the next forty minutes or so and made about 300 Brasato Ravioli, a specialty of Liguria, as nearly all the dishes Carmen shared with us were, rolling out the pasta paper thin and filling them full of the farce. By 11:50 the raviolis had hit the pot and the sugo was already done. She had even made a Porcini and tomato sugo especially for Giovanni, Francesco’s younger brother who is a vegetarian.

I feel like with Carmen’s Ravioli, I just barely am starting to understand the meaning of what it is to make great pasta and great ravioli. And I’ve made pasta for years now. In fact, everyday I learned something new about cooking and about myself and my relationship to cooking for others. I could cook with Carmen for years and learn something new everyday. Now, you probably would love to hear about all the other food she cooked, all the textures, all the subtle changes in flavor and the bright and freshness of it all, but my eyes are tiring as I expect yours are as well so I’ll try and list everything she made for us: Cotoletta di Milanese, Risotto di Milanese (rabbit liver and peas – amazing, truly), nettle lasagna, Brasato Ravioli, lentil soup, Torte di Ciocolatto , Torte di Albicoca (Apricot), nettle noodles, and i’m sure I’m forgetting something.

The food was amazing! And everyday we spent some time at their lovely farm. Even after spending a whole day at the river, we took a back road to the farm to feed the animals and water the garden. That day, Carmen and Pepi were both already there and had watered some of the garden. After we helped out with the rest we walked over to help Carmen and Pepi cherry pick. Pepi has got to be in his late sixties. The man hopped up into a cherry tree like he was a ten year old. Mind you he’s probably been picking from these very trees for years, but he made me in my silly sandals feel like an invalid. My extra height and weight only served to make me dangerous in picking cherries from up in the tree and I resorted to reaching at them from the ground.

When time came to leave and say our goodbye’s, as I gave Carmen a hug, I felt like I was saying goodbye to an Aunt I wasn’t going to see for a while. She seemed to have a bit of glassy eyes and we were sad to go too. Serendipity brought us to Francesco and the Calvi family and well wishing and a lot of love sent us away.

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Shanghai with no expectations, Part One.

It’s not often one gets a chance to stay in a Tibetan home-stay on the Northwestern edge of Sichaun Province in the Wild West of China. It’s even less often that you then travel across country by train and sleeper car by way of a two days of travel and land in a luxurious “serviced” apartment of someone you’ve only heard about and emailed with, but apparently that is what is possible in this day and age of internet and meeting up with friends of friends. It’s made us realize just how small this world truly is, where a couple from Brooklyn, NY, can travel nearly around the world hosted by a diverse crowd of welcoming strangers.

So, into Shanghai we arrived with little expectations. Sure, some had told us it was too shih-shih and others had labeled it boring. But, after traveling through Hong Kong and Singapore, we figured we should give one of the most important port cities in modern history a chance.

While we were staying with Tracie’s Aunt’s friends in Hong Kong, they mentioned their mutual friend Rose that we should try to meet up with if we had a chance in Shanghai. King said, “..Rose is kind of a foodie…she knows a lot of great places and is always the one I call up when I have questions about where to eat…I think you’ll like Rose…”  We put her in the back of the mind and headed for Southwest China. Our mission was China and Food with a capital F. Sichuan treated us well and when we headed back East we crossed our fingers and hoped for the best.

Before landing in Shanghai, we spoke with Rose only once. We said, “Hi Rose, yea, this is Wayne and Tracie and we’re leaving Jiuzhaigou today and we hope to arrive in Shanghai in two days.” She said, Oh, ok, well you have my cell, call me when you get into Shanghai and I’ll email you all the information for how to get to my place.

We took a flight out of Jiuzhaigou, one of the smallest airports I would expect fromChina and landed in Xi’an. We hopped on a bus from the airport to the main rail station and haggled with the masses and managed ourselves some soft-seat sleepers on the overnight to Shanghai. Way easier than last time. We knew what to do: we wrote down the Chinese characters for everything and when pronunciation failed the flash of the ol’ script got us on our merry way. Well, not exactly, we had to linger around for 3 and a half hours for our next train, so we wandered around the station (loaded with our bags) and finally found a place to eat. It was ok, nothing compared to food in Sichuan and we marched back to the station, dodging a few pick-pockets here and there and settled into a cozy soft-seat waiting area.

As an aside to my aside, I’m sitting on a nice train blazing through Japan, on a bullet train. I mention this because one of the things we’ve learned in our travels is whenever you can upgrade or find a way to travel in a better class it is always worth it.

Our ride from Xi’an was one of the more interesting of the trip. We found our soft seat sleeper seats and waiting for us on the lower bunk of our companion seats was a dapper looking older Chinese guy, had to be in his late seventies. He was relaxing, shoes off, black-satin-socked feet gently crossed and half-dangling off the mattress. His grin met my Nei Ho Ma? And we were on our way.

Getting into the car, not only had I spied the old man relaxing, but I’d noticed a 2/3’rds empty bottle of white liquid, the label was in Chinese, so I couldn’t make it out. Probably some rice wine I murmured to myself. Indeed it was. After some initial warming up and friendly conversation, him trying to figure out what we were saying, he slapped down the cap to his tea bottle – the ubiquitous Chinese warm tea bottles that are all over the country. He then leaned over, as the bottle was near my side and nabbed the bottle and filled the cap to brimming and pushed in my direction. “Uh..oh…it’s begun…” I though to myself and then murmured to Tracie.

About five shots and bags of fiery peanuts later, a new younger gentleman joined our cabin and the evening set down beside us as we eased on into a gentle overnight haul across the continent. We only awoke to a late night crashing about as the old gent moved on and a new one settled all of his accoutrement in. We crushed back into sleep only to be torn awake from the mad slumbering snores of our new neighbor and managed to drift off for the last remaining hours of darkness.

We awoke in the morning to some polite conversation with our bear of a sleeper and the younger quiet  one we’d met the day before. He had shared that he knew a little English and helped the way before our snooze with smoothing over our wretched attempts at Mandarin with the old guy and spent the better part of the day chatting away. He treated us to a large, yet mediocre meal in the train car later in the day (he apologized himself for the substandard state of affairs) and then said goodbye a few stops later.

After that we were on our own until we arrived in a mess from western China. An overnight train away left us dreadfully unprepared for our arrival. We smelled. Not only had we just been on a train for two days with no shower, but in the Tibetan homestay it was really cold, so showering wasn’t exactly on the priority list there, nor was washing the clothes. We needed both.

A few hours later, showered and changed into our cleanest clothes, we met Rose for the first time. We settled down for a bit and chatted about our dreams, our hopes and our travels and she told us about a house guest she’d recently had through and that we’d just missed her. Her name was Fuschia and she even had brought some cheese from England with her.

Stop. We were like, wait a minute. Did you just say Fuschia? Is her last name Dunlop? “Yea, why do you know Fuschia?” No, but we’ve read her book. Her book was such an inspiration for coming to eat in China and to think, we just missed her. How funny, how small this world is of ours.

So, we sat down to some Stilton from Neal’s Yard and some Yak milk cheese (which was reminiscent of Parmesan) by way of an English writer and cook in Shanghai, China. We knew right then and there, that we’d really lucked out in meeting Rose. After sharing the cheese and other snacks we all headed out for dinner. Rose had plans, but still managed to walk us around a bit and show us some of the places nearby. She left us to take our pick.

The next day, we woke a bit later and she was already out for work, but the night before she’d shared some of her favorite places to go for lunch and a suggested a couple of “sieu long bau” places downtown. For breakfast, we headed right downstairs where every morning there was a plethora of nice french pastries, Chinese pastries, cereal, yogurt, fruit and as much espresso as we could drink. Holy God! Thank you! We had tea for nearly a month and it was getting old. Every time we tried some other snack drink or breakfast drink they were disgustingly sweet and indeterminate of origin, so our love affair with coffee resumed.

We wandered around Shanghai that first day at a leisurely pace. The weather was a bit rainy and we were a little sad to see rain here as well after being in the cloudy city of Chengdu and then Northern Sichuan for so long. We wandered over to the Shanghai Museum, which to our surprise and delight was free. There we saw many wonderful exhibits, surprisingly one of our favorites was about “ethnic-dress”. There were beautiful handmade cloths and masks, knives and then on another floor we wandered through furniture from the Qing and Ming dynasties.

For lunch we went to Jia Jia Tang Bau (I think the literal translation is: Excellent Family Soup Dumplings). There we started with an order of steamed Pork and Chicken dumplings (12 per order) and individual bowls of soup. The soup was a light chicken broth with a fine julienne of seaweed and egg crepe. A light and refreshing start to a surprisingly delicate week of food. Despite contributing to our not so delicate weight gain, Shanghai is something more refined than the rest of China. I wouldn’t say snobby as some would, but it is where elegance never seemed to leave China.

The dumplings were so good we ordered another set, this time a crab roe and pork, which was a nice take on surf and turf, but our favorite was the pork and chicken. If you go, make sure you order the ginger and vinegar on the side. When you drape a few strands of the ginger, lightly painting the dumpling with vinegar you get a balanced explosion you’ll never forget.

Just across the street, literally, right across the street Rose had mentioned were the pan-fried version of Soup dumplings. I said to Tracie “Let’s just go take a look and see how they are…” Four more dumplings later, and these were twice as large as the steamed we said to each other, ok, we have to stop. But oh man was it worth it.

In the afternoon we dragged ourselves back to the apartment and checked our email. Rose had sent us a “..I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve booked you for dinner the whole week…”. Hell no we didn’t mind. That night we met her for a lovely European style dinner, where we all shared a nice bottle of Shiraz and we devoured our respective contemporary takes on french preparations of old standbys. Braised lamb, roasted quail, and a steamed fish. The dinner was pleasant and the company was even better. To top it all off it had one of the best nighttime views of The Bund. All this and it’s only a day into Shanghai. More to come.

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The Sleepiest Big City You’ll Ever Meet

Maybe we wouldn’t have ever to been to the sleepy yet crashingly vibrant city of Chengdu in Sichuan province of China if we’d never read Fuschia Dunlop’s book “Shark Fin Soup and Sichuan Peppers: A Sweet and Sour Memoir of Eating in China”. And we would be kicking ourselves all the way to our graves had we known what we missed.

Remember how we took a painstakingly long train trip from Guangzhou in South China all the way to Chengdu in the South West? We still haven’t told you anything about the city that brought us across a continent.

Food is at the heart of any journey through China. Sitting here with a stoutly stretched belly in Shanghai, I look back with warm heart and fondness of our stay in Chengdu. While we used the city as a base for several ventures, the main reason we headed there is because we both read Fuschia’s book. Tracie read it before we even set foot abroad and I finally tucked it safely into the Pun Pun Cafe library shelves when we set out from Thailand to Hong Kong. I cannot underestimate the importance of her introduction to Chinese food, and China itself has influenced our own thinking about food and eating. It has been like we strolled into a secret room and found the rock that opens a lost lit tunnel.

Chengdu, a city of 11 million by my last check on Wikipedia (that’s almost twice as big as New York by population!), holds surprises at every turn, tearing down old buildings and back alleys and throwing up high-rises to house untold millions.

Thankfully life still churns. We stayed on a hip and happening street in a just as stylish hostel, the Loft hostel, where young Sichuanese with new found disposable cash spend it lounging with Westerners from across the globe. The Loft hostel sits on Xiatongren Lu. It’s a hotbed of young meets old, where you can rise at an easy hour of 9am and lounge around and watch the street vendors ride by, pitching everything from knife sharpening and shoe shining to fresh veggies and handmade noodles. Or you can pull yourself into one of any number of  “Foreigner Friendly” restaurants and find loads of young locals looking cool and living large eating Chengdu variations of Pizza and Hamburgers.

We felt lucky with that street. We ate our first hot pot on our first night, leading to hot pants for me the next day walking through the Panda reserve (hot going in and hot coming out). We drifted on down the street and shared a bowl of hand-pulled noodles the next. We spent hours every day just absorbing the street life and were surprised to see just how diverse a street could be, our little piece of Xiatongren Lu not excluded.

Our second day we spent partly ferried outside of the city to do the touristy thing and see the Panda Reserve. Cute pandas! Once we got the pandas and the hot pot out of our systems, we headed back and spent another leisurely day walking around the city. Chengdu is somehow a huge city where you can while away the hours. The parks are full of young and old alike. On the streets past lunchtime, one is bound to find a vendor napping, a group of older Chinese arguing over mahjong or a group of middle aged businessmen discussing terms over tea. Teahouses, hot pot, “xiao chi” (small eats), taxis, bicycles, strolls, cats on leashes, dogs unleashed. Any afternoon and every corner.

Chengdu is China’s south and its west, it holds the cusp of the Wild West at bay, while the southern pace, that seems to float across the belly of the world, hovering just above (and perhaps below) the equator. When things get steamy, or chilly and dreamy, people turn to one another and the foods they can talk about over the day’s business or play.

One day, we happened upon Chengdu’s People’s Park. It was mid-week, I think it was a Tuesday, somewhere in the middle at least. Every foot of the park was swirling with activity. Impromptu Sichuanese operas alight in every nook and cranny, speakers cranked to drown out others near and far. Tiled circles and squares overflow with people dancing. Lines drape for meters in the trees, encumbered with poetry bashes, done up in Chengdu style, where lashings of calligraphy screech off in varied size and form. Men stroll about with their bird cages for a walk. Ear cleaners chime their tines plying for business. The people are everywhere and the people’s park it is.

Just today we strolled through the same named park here in Shanghai, and while there were people doing their exercises and others putting their kuai up against a game of chess or cards, there wasn’t the same density, the same vibrancy to the park. Chengdu is the hot and the cold, the yin and the yang of our trip. The differences are clear – the Sichuanese live their lives on the street.

In fact, one of the best meals we’ve had in the country and the best Sichuan cooking by far we found in a back alley, tucked under the eaves of a glowering and looming new high-rise. A young lady, face-covered, brow sweating, flames lapping, poured over her woks and stoves, served up the best spicy green beans and fish-scented pork we’ve had to date. Construction workers loomed and settled in from their long haul of a day to the best and cheapest meal in town.

Like much of our trip, we would have never found it were it not for someone else that had blazed ahead. Only the night before Tracie had come upon a post on EatingAsia.com where the joint was highly lauded and vaguely located. While the young chef didn’t really bat an eye at my anglo-foreign-ness, her dining room was littered with faces in awe at another visit from the little-seen “white devils”.

In Chengdu, we met up with the “Ma” and the “La” and the “Oui Jiao” that Fuschia Dunlop describes so well, that sensation that binds your mouth, lips to cheek, to back of the throat, with numbness, opened us up to flavors and sensations we’d never met before. No place in the world have I had that taste before and as the lifeforce of the city itself, it takes to the streets and wafts around every corner, calling you back.

We based many of our regional trips around Chengdu. It became our hub of the province. And an easy hub to lean back on. The pandas were near, while a longer bus ride took us to the hailed ancient wares of “Sanxingdui”, where recently un-earthed bronzes, jade and clay date from as far back as 7000 BCE.
Only later to visit a living museum, where modern chinese roam the ancient remains of a vibrant and growing city of Lanzhong.

What the people of Chengdu miss out in sunny days, beating London with more cloud covered days a year, they make up for in loads of charm, hospitality, and sense of life. The chillies and peppercorns lend warmth when its cold and damp, and the tea houses keep the dull-drums away. But danger creeps in new forms everyday. Rubble encircles and interleave the city as high-rises tower and dwarf the lazy streets and avenues. All too near is a dread and the sense of a quickening to the overall pace of life. Hope floats in the rituals of the city, the overflowing parks, the calling of the traveling vendors, the roar of the hot pots, wherein living life in the streets gently keeps some of the sprawling “China Today” development at bay.

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China The Great

So, far we’ve traveled from the sleek megalopolis of Hong Kong,
through the exponential bleary eyed industrial giant Guangzhou and
moved through the hills and fields and vast countryside of Southern
China where every inch of space is jam packed with farms or new
buildings. We have been in constant motion since we arrived, as it
seems most of its inhabitants are as well. China is a strange place to
talk about because it is somewhere in between what we would expect
from our early industrial age in the late 19th century and the early
20th century and yet it lands somehow in the here and now moving at an
untenable pace towards a future ripped from a an early 90’s Science
Fiction novel.

In the streets, people drive like they just found keys on their
sidewalk, tried a few cars and drove away never looking back. They
drive as if they haven’t the slightest idea that there is such a thing
as danger. Yet, in the city, in the countryside, in China, danger
lurks far and near. I get the sense that every trip’s survival is
given up to the gods or pure luck. And from my western perspective
their approach to buildings and architecture does not stray far from
their driving sensibilities, where functionality towers over fine
tuned controls or a sense for aesthetic appeal.

In the architecture of the cities that we have ventured there seems
not a hint of attention to detail or deliberate care taken towards
location, function or form. New buildings scream up out of piles of
rubble surrounded by shacks or rough hewn houses that hold together
just long enough to finish the enormities that bury them in shadows as
time goes on. It often seems, not only that they build or make
something because they can but also because someone told them it would
be good.

Cut across the countryside as we did on the road heading to Jiuzhaigou
National Park and at every turn there are buildings that seem merely
functional and semi-durable at best. China’s push to bring its peasant
class to wealth and prosperity is evident everywhere we have been yet
so lies the consequences of the rampant pace and drive of the
development.

On the road to Jiuzhaigou National Park we passed town after town
under major upgrading or building vast sprawls of new buildings and
infrastructure. The road follows river after river through the
mountain, perhaps the same river, and all along spaced at what seemed
like every ½ kilometer we would come upon vast spans of rock quarrying
and sorting. Quarry and cement factories spring up not just along the
river but in the river. They move mountains, carve them up and divvy
them out. This part for brick, this for road, this for farmland. There
seems to be no controls, no rules, and no regulation. As we passed up
higher into the ravines of the mountains, the water would go clearer
with little to no quarrying going on, only to find that they were
streaming out f the bellies of the great water-power turbine stations
all along, where clean water goes in and warm water comes out.

Stupefying beyond belief everywhere the growth is seemingly limitless.
China’s resources are vast but the effects are visible to the naked
eye, to our lungs, our skin, our bellies. Towns are buried in hues of
either dirt and smoke, pollution, or a combination thereof. Brick
crawl out of the crags in mountains and valleys,from town to town,
thrown up easing ready access to building materials. In the west, they
literally build a brick factory and then pour out bricks and throw up
vast rectangular structures. Rectangular windows, flat roofs with zero
drainage, large tiles are spread across their facades like icing.
Buildings sit awaiting companion buildings’ completion, aging,
greying, sucking in the deep residues of pollution all easily absorbed
into the shoddy workmanship and roughly finished materials. It is as
if an entire country said “It works, who cares what it looks like?”

This attitude permeates the landscape and the culture, a nonchalance,
or lack of concern beyond their familiar ties seems the most obvious
difference between the western culture we grew up in and the child of
the Communist Cultural Revolution that China has become. It is almost
as if generations of people, and we are talking billions of people
here, lost their sense of pride for their work and decided that they
would be OK with just getting it done, getting it done as fast and
with whatever means possible. You see it in their skyscrapers, their
new bridges, their “Ancient Chinese Town” revivals, everything feels
halfhearted. It as if the United States all walked into Walmart and
outfitted our entire nation. Looking back at the USA from here, it
seems we are all too close to falling over the edge there ourselves.
We see how quickly a culture is subsumed in the move and push to move
forward. It’s as if we’re witnessing the Industrial Revolution for the
first time ourselves. Forget your history books children! Want
excitement, want to learn about how a country leaps into the 21st
century, take a train or bus trip through China.

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