Overlooking a volcano

Meet Yoshi. One of the unfortunate things about visiting a place far away is that there are always things you regret not doing. Below is the best photo of Yoshi I have. Like so many other wonderful people we’ve met in our travels, we didn’t take enough pictures of or with him. Viewed in a positive light, it’s one of the millions of reasons to see these people again.  Notwithstanding there are qualities within this photo I’d never have captured had I known I would forget to take a few more. 

I like the following photo of Yoshi. But before you look at it I want to try and describe the man himself. I understand you never fully know a person, however a some you can learn a lot from someone that is willing to open their doors and let it all hang out so to speak. Sure, in Japan it’s a culturally significant act. If you’re going to be a host, you’re going to be the best damn host there is and that means opening up your life just a little bit.

But people will surprise you when you least expect it. In Japan, the level of hospitality that we experienced, its something that will make you feel like you’ve never felt before. Here in the states we’re all so afraid of letting people in, letting people get close. And the Japanese, in our films and books and history, have this reputation of being stand-offish. There oceans of books about the closed society that is Japan. Some would say the glimmer that Yoshi shared with us was more to show that the Japanese are extraordinary and unique, but I would argue he did it to show us how similar we are and how culturally unique we all are.

There is much to be gained in letting your guard down and opening up your trust. I’m still learning. Hopefully by the time I lay to rest for good, I’ll understand how all this works mostly. Yoshi brought me and I think us both closer towards opening our hearts fully. We spent a little over four days with Yoshi and I grew to respect and love him as a friend and wise soul. It’s not just that he took in complete strangers and hosted them in such a welcoming and open manner, it’s that he did it with pride and caring. Hospitality with no-expectation of anything in return.

It wouldn’t be such a big deal and I don’t think I’d go on about it so much if I felt I could encounter it a little more here in the states. But I remain a skeptic, an un-trusting, fearful, questioning American at heart. But this man let us into his life, his home and showed us the beauty, joy and delight that can be lived in a very unique culture that began hundreds of generations before ours. In turn, he shared with us his respect and value of some of our very own cultural values that are questioned and frowned upon by people within our very own borders and shared with us his delight for the exceptional nature of our own country and that its position in the history of the world isn’t something to be taken lightly or belittled as much as we do.He taught us respect. Respect is not something that is permanent. It’s hard gained and a long and winding road. The potholes are huge sometimes and it could use a good paving. He showed us we could be the pavers or the ones driving over without slowing down. That was in our hands.

Yoshi is man that stands tall at around 5 foot 7. Every move seems deliberate, unsentimental and unwavering. Here he stands in front of a roadside egg vending machine. They aren’t the eggs he usually buys, but something of a novelty that he wanted to share with us. Us being interested in food. The sun in Kyushu is unrelenting at times and Yoshi is always prepared. Khaki safari shorts, cut just above the knee hung loosely over his energetic, seeming, thirty’ish frame. His golf shirt, collars thankfully cuffed where they belong, curled and resting on his tense shoulders, his sunglasses firmly concealing his glimmering eyes. His corporate hat pulled just over his brow, brim slightly curled from moderate wear. Gold bespectacled sunglasses flash the likeliness that the Kyushu day will blast us with its direct sun and dehydrate us with its steamy sea breeze. Skin a tanned hide of restful exertion in the South Japanese sun. Kagoshima like the Florida of his dreams. Snow falls infrequent and for brief moments at best.

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The Bagel Lady of Beijing: Part One

Since we’ve returned from our travels abroad, it’s been a whirlwind month of reflection, visiting friends and planning our future. One of the main reasons we set out into the great blue yonder was to gather inspiration for a few ideas that have been rumbling around in our heads. We wanted to visit people on the other side of the world who had similar values or intentions. While we were on our way, Tracie’s sister Sannie emailed us and reminded us that since we were headed to Hong Kong we should really try and meet up with King and Margaret, Tracie’s aunt and uncle’s close friends. Sannie gave us the number and while we were there we called them and asked if they wanted to meet up.

As you know , one thing led to another and King and Margaret pointed us in the right direction for several people to talk to and visit with during our trip. They understood our intentions for the future and got our vision. Like that they put us in contact with Lejen Chen, the Bagel Lady, in Beijing, China. They told us we should look her up when we got there and Margaret even sent off a polite introduction via email. But Beijing was a long way off from Hong Kong. So, we didn’t move too much towards setting up our meeting. We kind of put it off. And that’s too bad, because we only had one lovely day with her. One day was enough, however, to give us a new perspective of what Beijing could be.

We’d been down and out on Beijing. Hating it, in fact. It’s huge. Everything is built to intimidate and control. It all started with the Forbidden city some 600 years ago. To give you an idea of how huge it is, we spent a whole morning there and we only got to the interior wall of the palace – we didn’t even make it to the living quarters. And there are wide expanses of granite or slate pavement that batters your knees and sears your brow. I can imagine a little bit how it must have felt to foreign dignitaries that arrived at the gates. Awestruck is an understatement.

But there is this emptiness to Beijing’s scale and growth. While the history is there in the Forbidden city and other sites around the city, it’s also crumbling as you head to the metro. Vast blocks of centuries-old neighborhoods are leveled while you sleep off your dumplings from the evening before. We wondered if there was any kind of cultural preservation. It seems that everyone and everything is all about making the fastest buck. Nothing slows down. Its all crushing, bearing down on you, hard to breathe.

Then we received a phone call from Lejen, that she was back in town and was going to be available one of the days we had left before we headed out of China. So Tracie put her head down and mapped out a course of action for navigating the Beijing bus system to make our way out past the 3rd ring road where Lejen’s restaurant, Mrs. Shanen’s, sits.

Interior Dining Room at Mrs. Shanen’s

It’s in a mostly expatriate area. I mean, who else would be looking for a bagel? Not the Chinese you’d expect, but she has built a local clientele base, some of whom have “pioneered different preparation techniques” from frying to dredging in sesame paste and butter1. The restaurant is a roadside cafe sitting out in desolate surroundings amidst new outcroppings of expat gated communities and industrial parks. Never judge a book by its cover or its location.

The dining room was one of the most relaxing we set foot into in China. She’s definitely created an oasis in the middle of a desert. It has the vibe of quiet and ancient meditation while still maintaining a upbeat contemporary European look. Step in from the road to fresh lemonade, Arnold Palmers, grass fed burgers, chocolate cake, bagels, Fair Trade coffee and delectable Chinese teas.

Lovely tea sets rest during a lull on the service station shelves

 

Tracie’s Lemonade

My Arnold Palmer

There is nothing like stepping out of the Beijing heat into a quiet American style cafe. Forget the culture shock of China, welcome to the culture shock of little America in China. But Mrs. Shanen’s and Lejen Chen are beyond satisfying an expatriate community in China. They are also enriching a culture that seems lost and a partial reflection of what it could be. Lejen has found a way to fill a need and spread little flowers while she does it, figuratively and literally.

Mrs. Shanen’s is one part of Lejen Chen and her husband Shan En ventures into bringing wholesome good food to Beijingers, expats and locals alike. She launched the bagel factory back in 1996 and has grown the cafe and now is successfully running an organic farm and CSA to boot. As we left the cafe to go visit the farm I remarked on a room off to the side that seemed setup just for kids and she said “Yea, we’re thinking of turning that into a pizza joint…maybe.”

1In
the Industrial Back Alleys of Beijing, a Little Bit of Gotham, Any
Wu, April 19, 1999 Nytimes. 
http://www.nytimes.com/1999/04/18/business/business-in-the-industrial-back-alleys-of-beijing-a-little-bit-of-gotham.html?scp=1&sq=lejen%20chen%20bagels%20in%20back%20alley%20of%20beijing&st=cse

 

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A Turkish Food Primer: Börek and Beyond

What is a börek? Put simply, it is a savory pie: a filling, usually of cheese or meat, is sandwiched between sheets of thinly rolled-out dough. It is baked, or pan-fried, or deep-fried, which allows the ingredients to combine in a delectable marriage as the filling melts, blending to a creamy consistency inside a crisp casing of pastry.

“Simply Sensational”, Berrin Torolsan. p. 346. Istanbul: The Collected Traveler: An Inspired Companion Guide. Ed., Kerper, Barrie.

I couldn’t really have described it any better. Some mornings we’d smell the rich scent of börek wafting down the alleys and we had to find our way to the nearest börekçi (shop that specializes in making börek) and fill up on an entire bag’s worth of them. They’re best when freshly made – when you bite into them, there’s a crisp airiness that I still dream about. I was especially fond of the cheese and spinach ones, but there were plenty of other fillings like ground lamb or potatoes or straight cheese. They’re made from yufka, thin unleavened sheets of dough similar to phyllo, so their shapes and sizes could vary widely. We saw cigar shaped ones, puffy ones, triangle ones – each börekçi had its own specialties.

In Eskesehir we were quite lucky to try çiborek, a variant on börek that apparently came from the nomads in Central Asia. They seem like a cross between a flaky pastry and a dumpling, filled with minced beef and onions, and comes burning hot out of the fryer. When we bit into it, meaty-fragrant juice leaked out and scalded our tongues but at the same time we couldn’t eat them fast enough because they just tasted so good.


çibörek – eating nine of these is considered a normal portion!

Another savory bread-based snack that we encountered was gözleme. It’s a thin dough that’s rolled out by hand and cooked on a saç, a convex shaped griddle/oven with a flame underneath. Yufka is also traditionally made on a saç, but yufka is much thinner while the gözleme dough is more the consistency and thickness of lavash.


woman making gözleme by hand

Once the dough is almost done cooking, fillings such as cheese and spinach are placed in the center and the dough is folded up to contain the filling. By far the best one we had was at Bugday‘s organic market in Istanbul on Saturdays, as it was made freshly by hand. We found gözleme at every café in every bus station and town we visited, but often they had been sitting there for hours and were rather soggy. So we recommend a trip out there to try some.


gözleme

Bugday organic market
in its 4th year!
Saturdays
Sisli neighborhood, Bomonti, close to old Tekel Beer factory

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A Turkish Food Primer: Bread

So now you have all these meze on your table – what do you eat it with? Bread, of course! To say that Turks “like” bread is the understatement of the year. We had bread with literally every meal of the day, every day. Early one morning on the farm we were on our way to the fields in a cart attached to the back of a tractor. Suddenly the farmer pulled over and ran into the corner store. We realized, oh, he’s grabbing a huge loaf of bread to go with breakfast! (What do the girls we’re working with buy? Lollipops.)  We observed a few types of bread (ekmek) that  seemed to be most common: giant loaves of white bread similar to scali bread, pide, which is similar to pita but without the pocket, and lavash, which is a thin type of flatbread that’s slightly thicker than pide.


Bread and Water

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A Turkish Food Primer: Mezeler

On our return Stateside we’ve been cooking all our meals from scratch – partially because we don’t have a lot of money right now, we’re sick of eating out at restaurants, and we wanted to try to make some of the dishes that we’ve eaten on this trip. We’ve been reflecting a lot on Turkish food in particular because generally it doesn’t require any crazy ingredients or specialized equipment. So for the next few posts we’ll share what we observed about food while we were in Turkey and present some recipes.

One aspect of Turkish food that I fell in love with is the meze (plural: mezeler). Mezeler consist of small plates of food, similar to tapas, that are eaten at the beginning of lunch or dinner as appetizers, or can make up the entire meal if enough dishes are ordered. At many restaurants, the waiter wheels out a cart loaded to the brim with dishes wrapped in saran wrap for you to ogle, prod and salivate over.


at Değirmen Restaurant

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Shades of Green

We’ve spoken with loads of people about Ireland and they all say “It’s really green!” Having come off a week of traveling there and visiting with friends we can confirm the rumors are true, it is really green! Of course there is more to Ireland than shades of green, but one of the things that really drew me into the place while we were there was being surrounded by it all the time.

As you may have noticed a running theme in our travels, we really have utilized our friend and family network on this trip. Down to the wire it has been the case. We’ve moved legs of the trip around, changed direction, got new ideas about things to do, and really remained flexible. Well, we made friends with a lovely woman from Northern Italy named Alice on the Sustainability Study Trip in Thailand. Alice having read our post about us visiting Francesco in Italy dropped us an email saying how nice it sounded to visit with him again and it was a shame we weren’t heading to Ireland on this trip as she had space and time at the moment to show us around a bit. Well, we emailed her right back and told her we probably could make it happen since we had recently finished our time on the farm in Turkey and were looking forward to a bit of a cooler climate.

Besides not putting Ireland on our original agenda, since it was geared towards mostly Asia based traveling, Ireland had never really crossed our minds as a place to visit. Way back I have Scottish roots, but as far as I can recollect, NO Irish. Tracie even remarked on our way back to Germany, that it had never really even crossed her mind as a place to travel. The thing we both knew was whenever Ireland has come up the recollection that it is a really green place always sends visions of rolling hills, spring rivers and frolicking sheep through the head. One month after scorching hot temperatures in Turkey and a “yes, please” wasn’t so hard to come up with to Alice’s invitation to come visit.

It turns out, Alice’s boyfriend, Paul hails from a small West Cork Village and knows a crap load of fun and interesting facts about Ireland and Cork County, where they live and we spent the bulk of our time traveling around with them. You could spend weeks just in Cork County and not see or do everything that sounds even a hint interesting.

Alice and Paul know the skinny on all things about food in the area and in just a few days time, in between seeing the countryside and stuffing our faces we were starting to feel that the country was so rich it deserves another three or four visits. “Mom would love Ireland.” became the mantra. So, Mom we have to come back with you and show you around.

Early on in our travels Tracie’s sister Lannie had sent us a link from The New York Times’ website about an interesting sounding farm and restaurant called Ballymaloe, “Reclaiming Ireland’s Culinary Heritage, One Roast Lamb or Sponge Cake at a Time”

Ballymaloe and Darina Allen are to Ireland what Alice Waters is to the United States both have all but single handedly lead the movements in their respective country to save the food cultures of their countries. Alice lead the flag and brought Carlo Petrini’s Slow Food movement to the U.S. And Darina heads it up in Ireland.

We skimed over the article and said amongst ourselves, “wow, cool…too bad we don’t know anyone in Ireland…” and headed into Singapore and then Thailand. Eventually, over conversation at lunch or dinner one day, Ballymaloe came up and we asked her if she knew where it was. She said it was near her home in Ireland. We put that in the back of our mind and somehow, when Alice suggested we come visit, it came rushing back. Ballymaloe was one of the last places we visited with Alice, but one of our favorites.

It’s not the easiest place to find. Signs appear and dissapear and the Irish roads are meant to be navigated only by locals like Paul. But Paul was bringing home the bacon and Alice an Italian ex-pat and two Americans were left to find our way. When we were nearly there we took an accidental detour to explore the glimpse of what appeared to be a lighthouse and seashore rising up out of the barley fields. We head down the road to investigate.

The Beach of Ballycotton

After being mesmerized by the lovely view of the shore and lighthouse, we felt a bit lost so we pulled over and asked a young man working in a lawn near the road. He sent us in the right direction and after another stop and request for directions we were on our way.

The road down to the Ballymaloe House, restaurant and cafe took us through a long green abutted driveway, over a small cattle guard into view of the Ballymaloe House a Norman Castle from around 1450. A Castle as a restaurant and hotel overlooking a stunning view of Ireland’s rolling hills and dales. Not a bad place to spend a few days or share a nice lunch and with grumbling bellies we set off for their cafe, tucked behind a general store loaded with Irish goods and a cook’s dream of culinary tools and resources.

The menu, a chalkboard of the days specials hadn’t even been posted and we sat patiently, placing our drink order, to see what delights awaited. Just behind our table the counter struggled with a load of homemade goodies. Alice settled for a sampling of those while Tracie and I opted for more savory options. Hers was a salad of Smoked Mackerel over a bed of freshly picked field greens and mine was the most elegant rendition of a quiche, a Leek and Cheddar tart, I’ve ever had. That’s right Thomas, Ireland has kicked your ass.

My tart quivered with Irish cream, milk and the finest farmhouse cheddar with rustic perfectly braised stalks of leeks careening into every fork full. At Ballymaloe, I could tell, it’s all about the ingredients. I was delighted to see Chef Keller’s Bouchon cookbook resting in their bookstore and chuckled to myself seeing how the finest and freshest ingredients could trump even the most revered chef’s attempt at the best quiche in the world.

Tracie’s salad held forth more subtle surprises as the flakes of locally caught and smoked mackerel crumpled into the greens which were delightfully evenly dressed and seasoned simply with oil and lemon. Alice’s sampling of desserts disappeared before I had a chance to nibble so we settled for a few for ourselves.

As usual my first pick was ordered by my lovely wife so I settled for simplicity in a cake, a cupcake topped with a fresh field strawberry. Coming from the home of the cupcake battlefields brought a little bit of New York back as I sunk my teeth into a slightly drier than I’d have preferred attempt of a vanilla cupcake. Perfection in one thing a day is good enough for me and the best cupcakes back home would be there waiting to fill the void left that day. Tracie’s apricot vanilla custard was as much a quivering success at a pie as my own tart and we all left with full bellies and warm hearts as we headed down the road to check out the Ballymaloe Cookery School, Garden and Farm.

In Ireland, signs lie. Ours said that the farm and cookery school were only a two miles down the road. The road was a narrow meandering jaunt that was peppered with cars swerving to avoid us as we tried our best to stay out of there way. Tracie and Alice plodded ahead as I lingered behind snapping off a few nice looks at the farms and fields that smashed us up against the road.

By the time we reached our destination, we had taken on the dull headed worn fatigue of those that have bitten off more than they can chew and grabbed a bit to drink before we paid the small fare and headed to explore the lovely English styled gardens and impressive organic greenhouse.

Legs tired from the “two mile walk” we managed a ride from a lovely couple visiting from Los Angeles, U.S.A. And winced and held our breath as the gentleman meandered from left to right forgetting from time to time that the Irish drive on the left. As oft repeated, we said to ourselves as we drove away “My mom would really love Ireland.”

Ballymaloe House, Farm and Cookery School

 

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Two Lumps, Please

One of the things I am missing the most since we've left Turkey is çay – pronounced “chai”. Çay at its most basic is black tea, but at the same time it's so much more than that. If there's one thing I had to pick to represent Turkish culture as we've experienced it, it would be çay. 

To make çay, a double boiler consisting of two stacked pots of differing sizes is employed. The bottom larger pot is filled with water and brought to a boil. Some of the boiling water is poured into the smaller pot on top that contains the tea leaves. The heat is kept high as the tea leaves steep and the water continues to boil. After a few minutes this thickened tea liquor is poured into small tulip-shaped glasses, and the strength of the tea can be adjusted individually by adding more hot water from the bottom pot. Çay is served extra hot, always in small glasses, a ceramic dish and a spoon, with sugar cubes on the side, and never with milk.

People drink çay all the time. At five in the morning on the farm we'd be greeted by the clink-clink-clink of a spoon being stirred in a glass in our next door neighbor's kitchen. You can while away the hours on a one lira glass of çay in a cafe while playing backgammon with a friend or reading the paper, we saw scores of old men in every town passing time that way. We'd drink it with lunch, breakfast and dinner. We'd drink it at in between times, and were offered it every time we visited someone's house. We'd watch men with trays filled with those tulip-shaped glasses weave their way through the crowd in the bazaar in Istanbul, delivering it to each shop. We drank it (yes, in tulip-shaped glasses) on the twenty minute commuter ferry past the Golden Horn while watching the sun set.

To be honest I didn't get it at first. I thought, “it's so hot, why would you want to drink tea?” And the first time I tried it, I wasn't thrilled with the taste. Because it's been steeped for so long the tea ends up being rather bitter. And ran counter to everything the tea lady in Beijing told us about making tea! But çay is everywhere, you can't avoid it. Two sugarcubes seemed to mellow it out a bit, and after a while we got addicted. It's actually refreshing when it's hot out, and I always looked forward to having some çay with a meal, especially breakfast. (Have we talked about Turkish breakfast yet? Bread, cheeses, olives, honey, cucumbers tomatoes, boiled eggs? Still my favorite.) Perhaps we also got hooked on the ritual as well. We'd get mesmerized by the clinking of the spoon and watching the sugarcubes dissolve into the tea. It's a social glue, a way to kill time while waiting for the dolmuş, stretching out dinner just a bit more, an excuse to people watch, a moment of relaxation.

We ended up liking çay so much that we stuffed an entire “crystal” tea set into our backpack. Next time we'll have to figure out how to bring one of those double boilers home.

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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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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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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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