Recently in Europe category

Chocolate That’s “Too Good To Use”

Once upon a time, I worked in a restaurant that was well-known for using ingredients of exceptional quality. The most magnificent fruits and vegetables would come barreling through our kitchen door every day, from plump, rare black raspberries to teeny-tiny wild strawberries, fraises des bois.

While I can’t really guess the psychology behind it, we would often treat these marvels like precious jewels, reserving them for the perfect moment.

Or we’d just forget about them, then throw them away.

Unfortunately, because they were so fragile, they’d often last no longer than a day or so, and we’d arrive the next morning to find they hadn’t been used the previous evening and had to be tossed. While I don’t want to apologize or make excuses for this inexcusable behavior, restaurants are odd places full of strange people acting unusual…and no, it’s not just the customers. There’s mis-communications, too much going on all at once, and frankly, things don’t always happen like they should. And don’t tell me that you haven’t let something accidentally spoil in under your eagle-eye either.

Because I’m not buying it.

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So one day, one of the other cooks started to dub things as they came through the door, “Too good to use.”
He used the phrase to refer to things that were so special, that we just couldn’t bear to use them. And soon, the rest of us picked up the phrase too, and when something beautiful would arrive, it became the joke to label it as being something that was “too good to use.”

So, last year when I led an Italian Chocolate Tour through Tuscany and Torino, we stopped at Slitti in the tiny town of Monsummano Terme. Although Slitti started out in 1969 as a coffee-roasting company, Andrea Slitti (the son of the founder) started applying his roasting expertise to chocolate-making and now Slitti is regarded as one of the top chocolate-makers in the world. After our visit, on the way out, Palmira Slitti (Andrea’s wife who runs the shop) pressed a jar of their Crema da spalmare al Cioccolato Fondente ricca di nocciole into my already loaded-up bag of chocolates with a cheerful ciao bella.

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When I got home, I put the jar on my kitchen shelf so I could admire it, and it sat there day-after-day. Each day I would gaze up, all glassy-eyed, imagining the chocolate-y goodness through the glass of the jar, and I could practically taste the tiny bits of roasted Piedmontese hazelnuts, embedded in a rich, dark chocolate paste that were speckled throughout.

One day I decided it was no longer “too good to use” and abruptly pulled the jar down from its perch, opened it up, and with knife poised, got ready to spread.

Ugh!
Instead of dipping into the tasty spread, I peered inside first and saw that the entire surface was covered with green, dusty mold. Ick! So at 6:30am, I had the unenviable task of cleaning moldy chocolate. Not a pretty thing to wake up to. I managed to get all visible signs of mold off, then I poured in a shot of Jack Daniels (which around here is definitely not too-good-to-use) and swished it around to kill any microscopic traces of green hairiness.

Thankfully I didn’t toss it, and the hazelnut-chocolate paste was the best I’ve ever tasted. Unlike commercial hazelnut and chocolate spreads, this crema da spalmare from Slitti was made from the best, just-blended chocolate imaginable, studded with the world-famous Piedmontese hazelnuts from Langhe. And I’ve been enjoying it for the past few weeks, the warm weather in Paris makes it the perfect spreadable (ie: heap-able) consistency for my morning toast.

So maybe you have something in your cabinet, something you picked up on a trip that you’re holding on to. Or do you have a bottle of wine you’ve been saving for a special occasion? Or is there something else that’s so special that you can’t bear to open it?

Do you have something that’s “too good to use”?


Slitti
Cioccolato e Caffè
Via Francesca Sud, 1268
Monsummano Terme
Italy
Tel: 0572.640240


Note: Slitti chocolate but you might want to try the Askinosie Chocolate-Hazelnut Spread, or try my Chocolate Hazelnut Spread recipe.

The Rules: Bringing Food Home From France

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“Can I bring it back?”

Answering many of the questions visitors have about what’s allowable to be brought back into the United States (legally), here are some articles and posts about what can and can’t be brought back into the United States:

Think Twice Before Stuffing Your Suitcase (USA Today)

-Transportation Security Administration

-Importing Food Products into the United States (FDA)

-Travelers Bringing Food Into the US for Personal Use (US Customs & Border Protection)



(Please note that rules and regulations are subject to change and revision, and it’s always best to consult with the US government websites for the most current information.)

Neal’s Yard Dairy in London

Disneyland is often called ‘The Happiest Place on Earth’.
I don’t know about that.

For me, Neal’s Yard Dairy is that place.

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I’d been anxious (well, more than anxious, practically hysterical) to visit them in London ever since I first tasted their cheeses, which are imported by my gal-pals Peggy Smith and Sue Conley at Cowgirl Creamery in the San Francisco bay area.

Neal’s Yard Dairy has been making cheese since 1979. The founder, Randolph Hodgson stated the cheesemaking operation in London’s Covent Garden. On their web site, he states “We didn’t know what we were doing and so we gave the customers a taste of everything and asked them what they thought.”

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And indeed, I was a bit startled when I inquired about a cheese and the affable salesperson (who wear knee-high white rubber boots and other cheesemaking garb) grabbed a knife, plucked off a nice slab, and handed it to me. When I wasn’t sure (yes, really), he repeated the process with several of the other cheddars (someone once asked why in France they don’t give tastes freely, and a French friend replied, with a bit of derision, and perhaps sadness, “That wouldn’t be ‘correct’.”

(Incongruously, the fellow who helped me at Neal’s Yard was French. Maybe he should come back and start a new trend?)

When I entered Neal’s Yard in Covent Garden, there were huge rounds of cheddar piled way, way up high.

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And Neal’s Yard cheddars are the best in the world.
The exteriors are covered with dark, dusky rind, but when cut open, the interior is revealed. The cheeses are a sunny, golden yellow, often with little streaks of blue mold running through. Dry and crumbly, they left an indelible sharpness when eaten.

My favorite was the Westcombe Cheddar which was well-aged and had a sweet-sharpness that I knew would be fabulous. And it was.

I think I tasted every cheese in the shop, at their suggestion, and I waddled out with lots of wedges of English cheese to bring home and savor. The best blue, I think, was Harbourne Blue, a rather crumbly sort of cheese, yet soft and tangy. I purchased a stack (well, actually about 7 stacks) of oatcakes which are the perfect vehicle for the blue cheese.

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I also loved the slightly dry Gorwydd Caerphilly. Even though I could barely wrap my tounge around the name, the cheese went down quite well. Both cheese, including the Harbourne Blue, I’ve been enjoying with a salad every day since I got home.

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On Saturday at Borough Market, across the Thames, locals line up outside Neal’s Yard for freshly-grilled cheese sandwiches made with Montgomery’s Cheddar, finely diced red onions, and heated on a griddle between pain Poîlane. The other option (which I passed on…how can I pass up a perfect grilled cheese sandwich?) was raclette. Ok, it was an easy decision: My fingers were so frozen that I didn’t think I could wield a fork properly and was afraid that most of it would end up on the ground. The sandwich was the prudent option. I would hate to waste a single, delicious morsel.

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Raclette is often made over an open fire. The ritual is a big, sexy affair. A huge slab of cheese is heated until super-hot and bubbling, then the hot, gooey stuff is shaved over a plate of sliced potatoes and gherkins (or cornichons, but it’s a relief to me typing in English and not having to code everything in HTML, so I’m using gherkins today.)

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I also brought back several blocks of Montgomery Farmhouse Butter, which boasts a whopping 85% butterfat (I think. I was in a butterfat-induced haze by that point.) I thought it would be tasty when spread over a warm, toasted crumpet, and sure enough, I was right. I ran out of crumpets at home before I ran out of butter and will have to make a batch to finish off the buttery block. I guess I wasn’t spreading on enough butter?

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If you’re interested in learning more about Neal’s Yard, I urge you to visit their website, which is full of excellent information and lots of terrific photos of the cheesemaking operations.

In the United States, Neal’s Yard cheeses are available at Cowgirl Creamery and Central Market stores. If your local cheeseshop carries any of their cheeses, don’t hesitate to bring a slab or two home.

You won’t be disappointed. Just make sure to pick up plenty of oatcakes, and perhaps some crumpets, as well.

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Neal’s Yard Dairy
17 Shorts Gardens, Covent Garden
and
6 Park Street, Borough Market
London

London Called…So I Went!

With the Eurostar, London is just a 2 ½ hour train from the Paris gare du Nord. Why wouldn’t you go for a weekend? I guess I could think of a million reasons why I haven’t been to London but none are very compelling. When an email from some friends who live in Hawaii announced they were coming for the weekend (which involved several flight across multiple time zones), I couldn’t come up with an excuse not to go and meet them.

People (myself included) often wonder why Europeans don’t travel more outside of their country (in fact, just a slim minority of Americans have passports) when Italy, Spain, and London are just a hop, skip, and a jump across the frontière.

So I found myself speeding Chunnel-ward for the weekend. In winter, London is bone-chilling cold. Truly. I was surprised it was so much colder than Paris. An icy-blast of wind ripped through whatever layers of clothing I was bundled up in. Another surprise was the cost of most things. A trip on the Tube was a startling 3 pounds (about $5). And although England is a nation of beer drinkers, most pubs only had French or Belgian beers.

Except for one woman I had a tangle with at Monmouth Coffee (who shall remain faceless and nameless…although the nice woman there gave me my coffee for free because the other woman was so nasty), the Brits were chipper, friendly, and witty. At the astounding Borough Market, the cheery vendors braving the cold were happy to chat and offer tastes. I had a cream scone, stocked up on cheese (more in a future post), and my first gooey Treacle Tart from &Clark’s, Sally Clark’s bakery that was deliciously sweet. Of course, I loved it.

And my dinner at Fergus Henderson’s restaurant St. John was great fun, a wonderful place. Instead of heaping on the pretense like so many other well-known restaurants, the room is block-white with pegs on the wall, like meat hooks, for hanging your coat. They’re the sole decoration in the sparse room which I believe was formerly a butcher shop as well.

We started with a big platter of rock-hard bones brimming with warm marrow, accompanied by warm grilled sourdough bread, coarse grey salt, and a garlicky parsley salad. Another salad was Shaved, Dried Venison Liver with Radishes, Capers, Soft-Cooked Egg, sauced with a warm mustardy dressing and that was followed by my main course of roasted Pintade, Guinea Fowl, with Braised Cabbage and Salt-Roasted Potatoes. Dessert was a Warm Treacle Cake for 2 that was big enough for 8 and tasted like an upsidedown cake without the fruit. It was served with a large pitcher of warm creme anglaise. We also had a decent, but unexceptional Date Cake with Spiced Ice Cream and Hot Caramel Sauce. A scoop of just-churned Chocolate Ice Cream with an unusual red dessert wine (whose name escapes me) was a nice finish to the meal, and it was all quite lovely.

Here’s some of the other things I found to eat in London:

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The Brits sure like their bacon, at Borough Market.
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I didn’t know what this was since the box doesn’t have much information. When I asked, I was told, “It’s a big block of sugar, covered with chocolate.”
Sounds good to me! And indeed it was. In fact, it was so delicous, I bought a few more to take home. As you can see, it’s like a big peppermint pattie. I’m going to crumble one into my next batch of brownies, if there’s any left.

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Is it almost Easter?
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This is Luis, who spends all day at Borough market slicing ham as thin as possible. He offered me a taste of the two he was working on that day and if you’ve never had real Spanish ham, it’s really incredible and puts all other hams out of business. The best is made from pigs which feed on wild acorns so the ham takes on a deliciously nutty flavor because of that. Food blogger Joanne, who I met up with, along with Jeanne, bought several slices for her lucky dinner guests that evening.

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I don’t know how they got the brownies to stack so tall, but they didn’t believe me when I requested the extra-large one, located near the bottom. My friend bought one, but neglected to share it with me so I’ll never know if they’re as good as the young bakers said they were. Still, that’s quite a tower.

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Sam, please explain your people.
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Apparently a good plate of Fish and Chips is rarely found in London. You need to travel to the smaller villages, I’ve heard. However in London we got a list of a few good spots, including North Sea Fish Restaurant (7-8 Leigh Street). Our taxi driver knew the address well, so we assumed that was a good sign. And we were right. It was great. A huge piece of cod and fries, accompanied by malt vinegar and homemade tartar sauce, enlivened with horseradish and capers.

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That’s an awful lot of beef fat, don’t you think?
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At the chic Harvey Nichol’s store near Hyde Park, I scanned the chocolate aisle looking for new taste treats. I passed on this one.

Rome, Italy

In Rome, I was happy to relax a bit in my friend’s apartment between eating and sightseeing. I had brought some books to read, but I was thrilled to discover on the bookshelf one book I’ve wanted to sit down and read for some time, but never got around to it…

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In between reading, I did manage a few spare moments to find some wonderful places to eat.. steering clear of any huge ships, of course.

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Little balls of risotto, rolled into neat rounds with a morsel of cheese tucked within. Called arancini, they’re meant to (kind of) resemble oranges…until you cut them open, of course. Finding melted cheese in an orange would be a rather unpleasant suprise, wouldn’t it?

One of the best things about eating out in Italy is there’s lots of salads and vegetables, and restaurants like Campana have a huge selection, and you’re welcome to help yourself (don’t worry…Mangia!…eat now, and worry about the bill later…it’s Italy!)

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Help yourself!…Antipasti at Campana.

Many guests come to Europe and are surprised there’s not more vegetables served when they eat out. The reason is mostly because preparing vegetables is very expensive: cleaning and cutting them, cooking them properly, then re-cooking them to order. It’s much more work than tossing a piece of meat on the grill and serving it with some frites.

The casual and rustic antipasti tradition in Italy means many small, family-owned restaurants have piles of vegetables and salads, and you just help yourself, but…be careful…there’s always another course on it’s way, but what a way to begin! Big platters of wilted chicory and spinach, grilled, thick slices of eggplant, sweet carrots spiced with red chili peppers, mushrooms braised in olive oil and herbs..eateat!

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Fettuccini alla Radicchio

A simple pasta of freshly-rolled egg noodles and wilted radicchio. I love cooked greens, especially if they’re slightly bitter and this simple bowl of pasta didn’t disappoint. (Ok, radicchio isn’t really a “green”, so what to call it?)

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Torta di Ricotta

Of course, I had a couple of desserts (it had been at least a few hours before hitting my first gelateria) and I had a nice, moist wedge of Ricotta Cake. Little pieces of candied citrus peel and I suspect a splash of liquor flavored this cake, and it was moist and simple. And utterly scrumptious.

I didn’t share. You wouldn’t have either.

Ristorante la Campana
Vicolo della Campana, 18
Tel: 06-68 75 273

Although pizza is decidedly Neapolitan, if you can find great pizza in Brooklyn and New Haven, Connecticut, you can find it in Rome. Unlike jumbo American pizza that’s meant to serve a hungry mob, Italian pizzas are thin-crust and prepared individually.

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It’s not burnt…it’s perfect! Pizza with wilted broccolini and salcicce (pork sausage).

My absolute favorite place to eat in Rome is Nuovo Mondo. The room has all the charm of a high-school gym: bright lights, Formica, and brusque servers who toss a few plates and forks your way along with a big pile of napkins (consider it a warning: Things Are Gonna Get Messy). Each time I ate here, I was the only non-Italian in the place.

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Thin-crusted pizza, with a handful of cheese, fresh arugola, and slices of bresaola, air-dried beef.

What incredible pizza I had here! Each is hand-rolled (not dramatically tossed…this ain’t the Food Network), topped with whatever’s been ordered, and baked in a blistering-hot oven for about 1 minutes. Afterwards it’s pulled out, slid onto a plate and the waiter rushes them to the table.

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Simply Supplì

While you wait, order a Supplì or two, and you’ll be rewarded with a plate of tender pellets of rice moistened with tomato then deep-fried. I didn’t see one table in the place that didn’t have a plate of these, and since Nuovo Mondo is also a birreria, I can’t imagine anything better with a bottle of icy-cold Italian beer, can you?

Nuovo Mondo
Via Amerigo Vespucci, 9
Tel: 06-5746004

Other fun places I love in Rome:

Porcellana 55
Via dei Coronari, 55
Tel: 06-68806053

A small, but nice selection of housewares.
I bought a fabulous fire-engine red espresso pot there. Features Alessi dinner and cookware.

Sermoneta
Via del Tritone, 168
Tel: 06-6795488

Old-world shop selling hand-sewn linen kitchen towels, fine tablecloths, napkins, and aprons.

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L’Albero del Cacao
Via Capo le Case, 21
Tel: 06-6795771

A tiny, delicious little chocolate emporium, featuring many of Italy’s best chocolates, including Slitti and Domori. And if you’re looking for some edible souvenirs of Rome, why not pick up a few made from white chocolate? (Although I can’t guarantee you’ll make it all the way home with them. I certainly wouldn’t have.)

Innocenti
Via della Luce, 21
Tel: 06-5803926

Amazing selection of biscotti (it’s a biscottificio, after all) with an astounding selection of sweets piled everywhere. The rather brusque saleswoman at the counter wasn’t very helpful (she complained about how fat Americans are… perhaps she couldn’t see very well behind her…her butt was nearly as wide as a Fiat.) Still, the service was worth braving for the terrific, crispy cantucci, biscotti, and amaretti, richly-scented with aromatic bitter almonds.

C.U.C.I.N.A.
Via Mario de’Fiori, 6
Tel: 06-6791275

Upscale housewares, you’ll find espresso makers, measuring cups, pasta-making tools, and examples of contemporary Italian and European kitchen design. Think lots of stainless-steel and glass.

Espresso di Roma: Sant’Eustachio

The famous Italian “30-Second Breakfast” of a espresso and a pastry, consumed quickly at the counter, before sprinting off on your Vespa, is one of the charms of Italy. The coffee is so good no matter where you go, from small corner caffès to trattorias and pizzerias, the end of a good meal is always punctuated with a shot of espresso. Each time I sip a tiny, sweetened ristretto (a very small, or “short” espresso), I can feel the tears welling up in my eyes (yes…really, I’m a romantic).

I stand at the counter while the barista lowers the handle on the powerful espresso machine, watching the thin trickle of aromatic liquid. The bartender loudly clanks the espresso saucer on the counter with a tiny spoon and perhaps a packet of sugar, then moments later presents me with a teensy cup of very hot, toasty and deeply flavorful liquid.

Just a sip or two, then it’s gone; the perfect espresso.

And in Rome, one must make the pilgrimage to the most famous espresso in the world… Sant’Eustachio.

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The espresso at Sant’Eustachio in Rome is so well-regarded that William Grimes of the New York Times advised those in the US seeking the perfect espresso, “…When the need for a real espresso becomes overpowering, buy a ticket to Rome, tell the taxi driver to head straight for the Sant’Eustachio cafe. The espresso will be perfect. A little expensive, but surely worth the trouble.”

The perfect espresso requires a few factors: the pressure of the machine, the quality and grind of the coffee beans, how often the machine is cleaned and serviced, the skill of the machine operator and many feel, most critically, the water used.

(And in spite of what many people think, there is much less caffeine in espresso. Unlike drip or plunger-style coffee, the coffee extraction for espresso is so rapid and powerful, there’s too little time for much caffeine to be extracted from the coffee.)

No one at Sant’Eustachio will reveal their secret for the crema that tops their espresso, which is a thick layer of frothy cream that floats on top of the espresso, which experts claim should float the sugar for exactly 3 seconds before it begins to sink in and dissolve.

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I have to admit, no one at my table was very impressed with the espresso or cappuccino at Sant’Eustachio. The famed crema sat on top of the coffee like a thick, cranky layer of froth that refused to budge, rather than the delicate layer of silky bubbles that beautifully frames the rich brown, steaming liquid pressed into the tiny cup. I tend to agree with those that claim the secret of San’Eustachio’s espresso is a tiny bit of bicarbonate of soda added to their water (since acid neutralizes the taste of bicarbonate of soda, the slightly-bitter espresso would indeed eradicate any trace of that ‘soapy’ flavor). That foam was suspiciously rich and stubborn and I had to press down on the sugar, and stir, to get it into the espresso.

And the coffee was pricey.
Most caffès charge perhaps 80 centimes (about $1) for an espresso at the counter, whereas here it almost three times the price.
But admittedly, no one here seems to stand at the counter…most opt for the tables in the lovely, placid Piazza Sant’Eustachio overlooking the church. An unusually quiet little square in the middle of Rome.

Sant’Eustachio
Piazza Sant’Eustachio 82
Rome
Tel: 06-6880-2048

L’As du Fallafel

A favorite quick-bite on the streets of Paris, at L’As du Fallafel.

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L’As du Fallafel is one of the few places where Parisians chow down on the street. Beginning with a fork, dig into warm pita bread stuffed with marinated crunchy cabbage, silky eggplant, sesame hoummous, and boules of chick-pea paste, crisp-fried fallafel. Spice it up with a dab of searingly-hot sauce piquante.

L’As du Fallafel: 34, rue de Rosiers, in the Marais. Open every day, except closed friday beginning at sundown, reopening for lunch sunday.

Tuscan and Torino Treasures

Having returned from my trip to Italy, narrowly escaping the hairy fangs of the too-vigilant EasyJet luggage police, I returned with a suitcase full of great Italian foods: chocolates from Amadei, and Domori, coffee (and more chocolate) from Slitti, jars of bittersweet chestnut honey, 12-year old syrupy Balsamic vinegar, luscious sun-dried tomatoes, and of course, bottles of fruity Tuscan olive oil.

Fresh Dried-Pasta
I’ve seen a lot of noodles in my time, but stopping in Pastificio Defilippis (via Lagrange, #39, in Torino) I had to take a moment to collect myself. Lining the walls were every kind of dried pasta imaginable, all made right there on the premises. Members of my group made a beeline for the pasta al cioccolato, but for some reason they ignored the coiled-up stewed eels available for antipasti.

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Mesmerized, I found these two pastas irresistible. One I nicknamed ‘bellybutton pasta’, which I had to translate for the pasta maker by lifting up my shirt (“Boys Gone Wild: Torino!”), and the other is a whole-wheat pasta. If you haven’t had whole-wheat pasta, it’s great tossed with fresh or good-quality tinned tuna, pitted olives, sun-dried tomatoes, finely-shopped anchovies, fresh thyme leaves, topped with crumbled feta cheese.

Cocoa Beans
Is chocolate good for your health? There’s no easy answer for that (although a simple yes would do.) Some research proves that the antioxidants in chocolate have health benefits. Yet a chocolate-maker that I know says most of the antioxidants disappear during processing.
What I tell people is that any health benefits in chocolate are likely found in the cacao beans. Either way, it’s unlikely you’ll get any health benefits from, um, say, Chocolate Cheesecake. Skip the ‘cheesecake’ part and just go for the chocolate.

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These are cacao beans from Domori that I was blogging about earlier. They are the best beans I’ve tasted.

Lardo
(If you’re kosher, or vegetarian, skip this section….)
I don’t know what prompted me to try lardo in the first place. It’s pork fat, thinly sliced, and served on warm toast with a flint of rosemary leaves. But it’s one of those things that if you eat it once, you’re hooked and you will never, ever get over the craving for. We don’t get Food Network in Europe, but it seems every time I see it in America, Mario Batali is going on and on (and on) about lardo.
The name alone is a blatant indication that it’s probably not good for you. But imagine grilled Tuscan bread moistened with just-pressed olive oil, draped over it are soft, rich and buttery slices of lardo. MMmmmmm….

Here’s a photo so you can avoid a similar fate:

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Formenton Garfagnana
I love polenta. And it’s impossible to find in France. You have to make do with instant polenta which isn’t bad, if you like baby food. At a lunch in a villa near Lucca, the chef gifted me a sack of artisan polenta, called formenton garfagnana. When I asked him what made it different from polenta, he began getting very excited, explaining it in detail, in rapid-fire Italian. I didn’t have the heart to interrupt and let him know that I had know idea what he was talking about, so I kept nodding, avoiding the deer-in-the-headlights look. So if anyone can edify us all, post it in the comments section here. (Preferably in English!)

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Chestnut Honey
Years ago I innocently dipped my finger in a jar of Italian chestnut honey, anticipating sweet syrup. Instead I recoiled from the bitter taste which lingered way too long in my mouth. Now that I’m all grown up and so much more sophisticated, I begin each morning with a smear of velvety, savory chestnut honey on buttered toast. Yum! Is this stuff good. It can be expensive in the United States, but in Italy, it’s common. Italians use so much of it that I even bought some from a street vendor in Pisa. I ended up lugging home in my carry-on enough jars of chestnut honey to last me for at least a year, I hope.

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Two extraordinary vendors in the Central Market in Florence will mail order authentic Tuscan foods directly from their stands:

And if you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can visit the warehouse of Village Imports, which has open warehouse sales throughout the year.