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Making Perfect Espresso at Illy

When I told a friend that I was going to Italy to learn how to make coffee, she responded, “You just dump the coffee into a filter and pour water over it. What else do you need to do?”

Well, since you asked, plenty.

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Illy barista Giorgio Milos shows off his skill, and one of my first efforts to match his

First of all, there’s an important distinction between ‘brewing coffee’ and ‘extracting espresso’.

Brewed coffee is steeping ground beans in hot water, which any fool like me can do, whereas making espresso involves a couple of crucial steps and the deft use of a high-pressured machine combined with several specific techniques. It’s not easy to make the perfect espresso, but anyone can make a pretty decent one, even using an inexpensive home machine.

And how do you know what a good espresso is?

It’s a very tiny cup of deep-brown liquid, just a couple of sips, not bitter-tasting, but rich, complex and lingering, which endures on your tastebuds for 10-15 minutes afterward—one singular, perfectly-extracted shot of true Italian espresso.

I was really anxious to visit Illy, since I’ve been having trouble getting just the right little shot to taste good at home. Mine was either too watery, or bitter and virtually undrinkable, even though I was using a very powerful espresso maker. But I was also curious why the espresso in Italy tastes so much better than it does anywhere else, even in the humblest caffè. So when Illy invited me to come to their roasting plant and Università del Caffè in Trieste, I cleared my calendar and jumped on a plane.

So what did I learn at Illy?
I learned that anyone, even me, can pull a great cup of espresso at home.
Here’s the 1, 2 and 3′s of it…

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Moreno Faina shows off a perfect crema while a barista keeps the Illy staff fueled all day long

1. Start with good coffee.

This seems like a no-brainer. But I have a friend who said his vinaigrettes never tasted as good as he’d like them to. When I pointed out that you can’t make a good salad dressing with crappy olive oil from Trader Joe’s, neither can you make a good cup of espresso unless you start with good coffee beans correctly roasted and packed.

Continue Reading Making Perfect Espresso at Illy…

Taillevent, Illy, Chez Dumonet, and O-Chateau Wine Tasting

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Taillevant & Le Cave Taillevent

Last month I had a fabulous lunch at Taillevent, the recently-demoted three-star restaurant, courtesy of some good friends from the states. But if our lunch was any indication, I don’t know who’s plucking the stars. And at 70€ it’s the deal of the decade: Three courses and lots of little extras. Plus they were very pleased to substitute any of the desserts which didn’t appear on the fixed menu for the selection offered. And to make the lunch even more special, another recent guest kindly bought me a bottle of lovely champagne…what’s not to get all starry-eyed over?

But whether or not you can make it to Taillevent, the restaurant, you should definitely visit their wine shop in the main Printemps department store. Run by Alison Vollenwider, with the help of Stéphanie (aka la petite), this wine cave is one of the most interesting in Paris.

Alison trained as a sommelier at Windows On The World with famed wine expert Andrea Immer, then worked in Bordeaux as a sommelier before settling here in Paris. Stop by and say hi—you’ll find plenty of reasonably-priced wines, starting at less than 10€, and lots of good advice from Alison. She’s friendly and knowledgeable…what more could you want from a caviste?

Update: Alison is now a proud mom and no longer working at Le Cave Taillevent.

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Illy

Ever since I got my new espresso machine, I’ve been trying to learn as much about the complex art of making espresso as possible.

Continue Reading Taillevent, Illy, Chez Dumonet, and O-Chateau Wine Tasting…

Allegedly The Birthplace of Kouign Amann

Anyone who uses iPhoto probably remembers your first thrill of plugging in your digital camera and magically, with no effort at all, having your photos automatically downloaded for you. Then they’re neatly filed on your computer so you can view, cut, or paste your memories until your heart’s content.

It’s great for the first few times, but once you’ve hit a certain number of photos, in my case the 1k mark, things start to slow w-a-a-a-y down, making it necessary to either burn them onto disks like the old days (iPhoto’s dirty little secret, forcing us to resort to ‘outdated’ technology…bad Apple!)
Or sadly, just to delete them.

So I spent my weekend going through my older photos and realized that I never wrote about one of the most special places in France: Locronan, allegedly the birthplace of my beloved Kouign Amann.

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Note I used the word ‘allegedly’.
I’d been told by several French folks that the town is famous as the lieu de naissance of this buttery cake. But when I asked at the Office de Tourisme, the woman there had no idea what I was talking about. And wasn’t all that interested in pursuing it with me either. So I’ll let someone out there do the research since I’m too involved in burning photos onto disks all weekend. But even though Locronon may not the be the birthplace of this famous Breton Butter Cake, it’s certainly become the epicenter for lovers of butter & sugar bound-together.

Although the town is teeming with tourists who come to gawk at the granite buildings and churches, the town is also teeming with other fans of the sweet-stuff: les guepes, or yellowjackets.

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Every bakery had swarms of the lil’ stingers flying all around, hundreds of them are everywhere, feasting their wings off on the sugary treats and tartlets for sale, like the rhubarb ones above. The women who work in the bakeries must’ve made some top-secret pact with the bees since they showed no fear of them and would swat ‘em away while packing up tarts and cakes. We decided to use the bees as a guide and follow their advice, since they’d probably know which was the best Kouign Amann in town. Like truffle hunters use pigs and dogs, this pastry-hunter decided to follow the bees, and I reasoned the places with the most yellowjackets would have the best pastries.

Continue Reading Allegedly The Birthplace of Kouign Amann…

We Love Jam

As you can imagine, after living in San Francisco for almost twenty years, I have some pretty wacky friends. While I don’t want to recount everything that happened back in the days of free-love, many of us have grown up and gone on to tastier things.

One friend has a wildly successful cheese shop. Another opened a bakery , a chocolate factory, or became wine importers…and more folks I knew opened bakeries, and ice cream shops, and chocolate shops, and bread bakeries, and…(hey…someone remind me why I moved…)

But who was lovin’ the apricot jam?

As it turns out, my friend Eric was, using the organic Blenheim apricots from one very old tree in his backyard.

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A recent issue of Food+Wine called it “…simply the best jam we’ve ever tasted.” And one of their editors liked it so much that he’s now the first person on their waiting list for it. Sounds like it’s (almost) jam worth moving back for.

So if you’re interested, visit We Love Jam and get yourself on that waiting list!

Paris Restaurant Round-Up

I got a very cute message lately from a couple who had come to Paris and followed some of my restaurant suggestions. But it got to the point one evening here they were undecided where to go one night, and her husband said, “I don’t care. Let’s just go anywhere that chocolate-guy says to go!”

I was glad to be of service, but I like being known as ‘that chocolate-guy’ just as much.

But frankly, I don’t go out as much as most folks imagine. I love going to my market, talking to the vendors, and coming home with something new that I’ve never tried before, like the chervil roots I bought the other day, which involved a rather detailed, lengthy conversation with the vendor.

I mostly cooking all the fine things I find here and learn about. So when I do go out, I want it to be good…no, I want it to be great…and I find the best food in Paris is classic French cuisine; confit de canard, steak frites, and coq au vin. When you find a good version, I don’t think there’s anything more satisfying. Especially if it’s accompanied by good friends.

And, of course, a few obligatory glasses of vin rouge.

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So here’s a round-up of places I’ve eaten lately.
There’s a few you might to want to bookmark for your next visit, as well as one or two you might want to avoid.

Continue Reading Paris Restaurant Round-Up…

Cooking On Rue Tatin: Part 2

Since man, and woman, cannot live by chocolate alone (although wouldn’t it be nice if we could?), our group spent the rest of our time slaving away putting together sumptuous meals, and learning about wine the hard way: by tasting it.

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One of my favorite snacks of the class On Rue Tatin turned out to be these golden-brown, eggy gougères enriched with gruyère cheese and a dusting of freshly-toasted, fragrant cumin powder.

While it was a bit chilly to sit out in the garden overlooking the cathedral, enjoying our apéritifs and goûtes, we had plenty things to cook up indoors…

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Continue Reading Cooking On Rue Tatin: Part 2…

Baking Class On Rue Tatin: Butterscotch Pecan Cookie Cups

What do you get when you take eight dedicated bakers, put them in a country kitchen (one that’s professionally equipped), and put them to work for three days of cooking and baking with chocolate?

You get a whole lotta chocolate!

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If you didn’t come along on my three-day cooking class with Susan Loomis at her home On Rue Tatin, here’s a run-down of our week…

Continue Reading Baking Class On Rue Tatin: Butterscotch Pecan Cookie Cups…

Balsamic Vinegar in Modena, Italy

The hardest part about sampling so much good food is that it’s almost impossible to go back to eating the everyday stuff.

I challenge anyone who’s flecked a bit of fleur de sel across their food to go back to ordinary table salt. I took one taste of the cloud-like, billowy chocolate-enrobed marshmallows from Pierre Marcolini and now I can’t seem to get enough.

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A special bottle used to evaluate ‘Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale’


My first experience with real, true balsamic vinegar goes back to the time I worked with Paul Bertolli at Chez Panisse. Every so often he’d ask me for the key to the liquor cabinet (which, for some reason, I was entrusted with) and he’d pull out his little dark bottle of brown, viscous syrup.

A breathless hush would fall over the kitchen, and he would tenderly drip a few precious drops onto the dinner plates with great reverence. Although that liquor cabinet got pilfered on perhaps one too many occasions, mostly involving after-work fresh fruit daiquiris for the staff (I was definitely not the person to entrust with the key), I never did touch that little bottle.
It scared me.

So when planning my visit to the Emilia-Romania region, I decided I would be so close to Modena, it would be a shame not to visit and see what all the fuss was about. I sent a message to the Consorzio Produttori Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena who was happy to provide me with a glimpse of the process of making traditional balsamic vinegar.

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Giovanna uses a glass tube to demonstrate the varying thickness of her vinegars

I could not have been luckier to spend the morning with Giovanna Cati-Barbieri and her husband Giorgio, who may be the tallest man in Italy. Giovanna took me up to their cellar where rows of barrels are lined up, where her vinegars are aged and stored. In fact, tucked away in the attics of many residents of this city are similar wooden barrels, some hundreds of years old, where families privately make their own batches of vinegar, as they’ve been doing for generations.

Traditional balsamic vinegar is not to be confused with industrial balsamic vinegar, the acidic brown water that costs 2 bucks at the supermarket. It’s like comparing Ye Olde Log Cabin to pure, deep-dark maple syrup: there’s simply is no comparison. Giovanna, like others in town, follows traditional methods to make her balsamic vinegars, a process that’s strictly regulated and has both DOC (Denominazione di Origin Controllata) and DOP (Denominazione d’Origine Protetta) designations which ensure the 80 member consortium of local producers follow specific quality-assured guidelines.

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Rating the vinegar

You need to have a lot of patience to make true balsamico and many of Giovanna’s barrels are stamped with her daughter’s name in hopes she’ll carry on the tradition. Although you can find balsamic that’s younger, only balsamic vinegars that are aged 12 or 25 years get certification. And as those of us getting into our advanced years, there’s certainly a good argument for the gifts that age has bestowed upon us. But more importantly, aside from the certifications and designations, these balsamic vinegars are without a doubt one of the best-tasting things you’re ever liable to put in your mouth.

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Gorgeous bottles of balsamic aged in cherrywood

The process of making balsamic begins in October of each year with just-picked Lambrusco and Trebbiano grapes. If the grapes sit for any period of time, they’ll begin to ferment, so they’re cooked right away, but to a temperature no higher than 194 degrees (90 C), which is enough to release their juices but not to cook away any of the flavor. This year, 2006, was exceptionally good for the grapes, since the heatwave concentrated the natural sugars in the grapes.

Once the grape must has been cooked, the juice is cooled, filtered, then stored in barrels, which are never filled more than 3/4′s full. Giovanna uses many different types of wood, mostly castagno but also ginepro (juniper) and ciliegia (cherry), to make special reserve vinegars, since the wood imparts a fine flavor to the balsamico.

As the vinegar ages and evaporates over the years, the vinegar gets transferred from the large ‘mother’ barrel to smaller ones, gradually and systematically, over a period of several years. If you’re lucky, some day you’ll get a chance to taste vinegar that’s over 100 years old. It’s a rare treat.

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Judy Francini, the Divina Cucina, shows off a bottle of 100-year old vinegar in Florence

As Giovanna explained, “Balsamico is a life philosophy” since the techniques get handed down by word-of-mouth, and it takes more than just reading a recipe to know how to make the vinegars; when they must be decanted, how to monitor the evaporation, and evaluationing the vinegar at various times throughout the aging process. Giovanna also explained that the barrels are used like a dowry, handed down to daughters from generation-to-generation. She’s hoping her daughter will want to carry on the tradition as well. I hope so too.

Afterwards, Giovanna led me through a tasting of her vinegars, starting with a 12-year old bottle designated by a white cap, which was grape-y, tart, and pungent-sweet. It would be perfect to drizzle over carpaccio or shards of aged Parmesan cheese. Her 25-year old with a gold cap, was far fruitier, stickier, and with less acidity and more beguiling complexity.

Then she brought out the big guns: a tray of very special bottles, including her 25-year old reserve balsamic aged in cherry wood, which I immediately envisioned dripping over a vanilla-flavored panna cotta, then I tasted another 25-year old balsamic vinegar aged in juniper wood barrels, which she said should only be served over something “very important”, like venison or red meat.

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So good drizzled over sliceds of rare beef at Ristorante Vinicio

After several delectable spoonfuls, I was starting to swoon, wondering why I had lived so long without making aceto balsamico an essential item in my pantry? Well, I’m sure it had something to do with the cost; a small bottle will set one back at least $25. But since you’re just using just a few drops at a time (don’t you dare mix it into salad dressing), maybe ½ teaspoon, it’s merely a few cents per serving. So I tucked several bottles, packed very well, in my suitcase which thankfully made it back to my Parisian pad in one piece.

In spite of the price, a stingy few drops are all you need to make a very big impact. And never mind the photo…I asked them to keep pouring, feigning trouble with my camera, so they’d keep the precious liquid flowing. But I do recommend for newbies to try a bottle that’s at least 12-years old, as there’s a substantial difference between a thin, rather uninteresting 10-year old balsamic vinegar and a luscious, velvety 12- or 25-year old. The consortium of balsamic producers use a special bottle, designed by race car designer Giugiaro, to designate the provenance of their vinegars. Incidentally, it’s the same creative team that designs cars for a well-known, very famous Italian factory nearby, too.

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Freshly-churned vanilla gelato is the perfect foil for the tart-sweet taste of balsamico

The sad news is that now I’ve developed a taste of the good life, especially for true aceto balsamico, and have been tipping it over everything around here. But balsamico is also good with fresh figs, soft young goat cheese, shards of pecorino or Parmesan cheese, dark chocolate, gnocchi, and tortellini filled with sweet butternut squash.

Acetaia di Giorgio
Via Cabassi, 67
Tel: 059/333015

Visits can be arrange by telephone or through their web site and Giovanna speaks English. Reasonably-priced, secure international shipping is available as well.

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If you haven’t spent all your euros on vinegar, stop here on your way out of Modena

Modena

To learn more about balsamic vinegar in Modena, visit the web site for the Consorzio Produttori di Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena.

Modena is a easy train ride from Florence, and the trip takes about 20 minutes making it a perfect day excursion. To visit the balsamic producers, call in advance and you’ll need to rent a car or take a taxi. The New York Times recently wrote an excellent article about the region as well.

Another, larger producer of traditional balsamic vinegar is Acetaia Bompana. Visits can be arranged in English or French as well.

Be sure to visit the Mercato Coperto Albinelli. This wrought iron-covered daily market is a must-see and is one of the best in the world. Open until 2pm.

Hotel
Hotel Centrale
Via Rismondo, 55
Tel: 059/218808

Modest lodging, smack-dab in the center of town, on a quiet street.

Restaurants

Ristorante Vinicio
Via Emilia
Tel: 059/280313

Gran Caffè
Piazza XX Settembre, 34
Simple, contemporary foods. Great lunch spot for pasta and salads, with wine bar for early evening drinks. Next to market.

Trattoria da Omer
Via Torre, 33
Tel: 059/218050
Pastas and simple trattoria fare.

Ristorante da Danilo
Via Coltellini, 31
Tel: 059/225498
Regional cuisine, including bollito misto, boiled meat dinners, dished up almost tableside. The ravioli di zucca, plump squash ravioli, are excellent.

Hosteria Giusti
Vicolo Squallore, 46
Tel: 059/222533
Tiny salumeria with a few tables hidden in the back.