Let’s Talk About Speck, Baby

There were two things on offer pretty much every day during my hiking trip in the Dolomites:  Strudel and Speck.  Considering I don’t generally have a sweet tooth, there were days I passed on the Strudel (oh, the horror!), but I never missed an opportunity to indulge in Speck.

Simply Speck
Simply Speck

Speck is a smoked and cured ham from the province of Alto Adige (also called South Tyrol) in northern Italy, bordering Austria. The meat comes from the hind leg of a pig (as does Prosciutto) and is rubbed with spices, such as juniper, rosemary, salt, pepper, and bay leaf, and dry cured for three weeks before being smoked and aged.

After a little research, I found out that the smoking process is very gentle for Speck, and is done at carefully controlled temperatures so that the meat remains sweet while taking on the mild smoky flavor. Smoking takes place over several months for a few hours at a time. This is some high maintenance ham!

Speck ages for six months in ventilated rooms that let the Alpine air in, helping to mellow and balance the flavors.  If you’ve breathed in that Alpine air yourself, you can just imagine it soothing the meat and making it taste better. Speck has an “IGP” (Indication of Geographic Protection) for Alto Adige, which means that how it’s made is carefully regulated.

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Alpine Air for the win!

Just like the Dolomites, Speck combines the traditions of Northern Europe, where hams are more heavily smoked, with the Mediterranean, where hams are subtler in flavor. It’s truly the best of both worlds.  (To eliminate any cultural confusion, in German Speck generally refers to pork fat, or lard, and is not the same as Italian IGP Speck.)

Speck is insanely delicious, and can be found at restaurants and rifugios* all over the Dolomites. I had it simply sliced thin with rustic mountain bread and served with cheeses and vegetables, on pizza, cooked in pasta and risotto, and in the heavenly bread dumplings called Canederli. It adds much more flavor than Prosciutto, but doesn’t overwhelm as much as bacon.  Believe it or not, you can find it on Amazon, and I am sure you can purchase it at specialty stores in your area. I myself am dreaming of adding it to a mushroom frittata next weekend. Buon Appetito!

*Side Note:  Rifugi are mountain huts, mostly owned by the Italian hiking organization (Club Alpine Italiano) and family run, where you can stop in for an espresso or a beer, sit down for a hearty meal, or reserve a bed for the night. Most are only accessible via foot. These are not your average base lodge cafeterias. The food here is varied, and you’re sure to get a soulful, satisfying meal and friendly Alpine hospitality.

One Enchanting Day in Verona

I spend a fair amount of time on the road for my job, but for the past ten days I have been traveling for vacation.  The main event of my trip was a group hiking excursion in the Dolomites, in the most northern part of Italy, bordering Austria. Before and after, I spent a day each in Verona and Venice on my own.  Far too much happened to document the trip in one blog post, so let’s first talk about Verona.

I had seen pictures of Verona, a town in the Veneto region of north-east Italy, from many of my wine colleagues who travel to the wine expo, Vinitaly, every year in April. I was enamored with the alley ways, piazzas, and seemingly endless array of wine bars and restaurants in this small medieval town.  When I figured out that Verona was about half way between Milan, where I was entering Italy, and Bolzano, where I was to start my hiking trip, I decided to spend a day and night discovering what it was all about.

I arrived to Milan on my overnight flight from New York and immediately made the two hour journey to Verona.  My hotel was just outside the historic center of Verona (Centro Storico), just a short walk to the Arena and Piazza Bra, the main Piazza (or square) in Verona. Enchanting and busy — but not overrun — Piazza Bra beckons you to sit in the park, or at an outdoor cafe, and just daydream while gazing at the Arena, a still-functioning Roman amphitheater featuring operas and other performances.  This area is especially enchanting at night, under the lights of the Arena.

From Piazza Bra, I strolled down Via Mazzini, the busy pedestrian shopping street, to Piazza delle Erbe. Strolling is serious business in Verona, so I quickly had to leave my New York pace behind, and saunter past everything from Gucci to Sephora at a snail’s pace on my way to the second most popular square in Verona. Here you will find colorful architecture, flower boxes, outdoor stalls selling everything from fruit cups to hats and scarves, outdoor cafes, and the Torre dei Lamberti. You can climb the Torre (tower) for beautiful views of Verona, or just wander around the square. I was in awe of all the photo opportunities this tiny square offered, and finally had to take a seat by the fountain and simply take it all in.

One of the biggest tourist attractions in Verona is Juliet’s Balcony, of Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ fame. The irony is that Shakespeare’s play does not take place in Verona, and there is no balcony in the actual “balcony scene”.  Furthermore, there was never a Juliet, since she is a fictional character.  Still, I went, I took a picture of the balcony and the Juliet statue, and watched the mob of star crossed lovers (i.e. tourists) cover the walls with tiny love notes on sticky pads. I must admit to getting caught up in the forged emotion of it all.

There are certainly other sites to see and things to do in Verona, but I was wonderfully content wandering down alleys lined with bicycles and greenery, flowers and taverna’s, just knowing that eventually I would come full circle and back to one of the piazzas.

I ended my day with dinner in a lovely taverna, Taverna di via Stella, as recommended by one of my colleagues. I started off with an appetizer special of salad with bresaola (an air-dried beef originating in northern Italy), followed by stuffed duck with polenta. Polenta is a specialty here as well, also originating in the northern part of Italy.  I washed it all down with a Valpolicella Classico Superiore from the producer Speri, one of the oldest winemaking families in the Veneto region. I scraped my plate down to the last bit of polenta, accepted a complimentary limoncello from my waiter, and was off to bed to stave off the possibility of jet-lag. Molto Bene! Bellissimo Verona!

How to have Good Manners at a Wine Festival

Event/ Marinne Corps community services 11th annual Wine FestivalI’ve worked at my share of consumer wine tastings – and there’s no sign of that part of my job ending – so I thought I would try and help ALL of us by publishing a post on wine festival manners. This is more a chain of thoughts rather than a well-structured list, so I would encourage anyone with further tips, or even questions, to chime in.

Let me start by saying that, as for most occasions in life, if you use decent judgement and act like a considerate human, everything should go well at your next wine tasting event. But it does help to keep in mind a few specifics:

Do not wear fragrance of any kind. Wine tastings are meant for people to smell, taste, and enjoy wine, not for them to drown in your “signature scent”. Any perfume, cologne, lotion, or hairspray with a strong fragrance should be 100% avoided. Lingering odors get in the way of tasting wine because our sense of smell is strongly linked to what we taste.

Don’t arrive at the tasting table chewing gum or drinking coffee.  Any strong taste that is left in your mouth right before tasting wine will interfere with your wine tasting experience.

Drink lots of water.  It’s important to hydrate when you are tasting (or drinking) a lot of different wines. You will thank me later.

Speaking of tasting (or drinking), it’s okay to drink the wine instead of spitting it in the provided bucket (more on that later). I don’t have to tell you to take your time and “drink responsibly” though, do I?

Make sure to eat enough before and/or during the tasting. Having a full stomach will enable you to taste (or drink) more wine without feeling tipsy. Having bites of crackers, bread, or cheese every so often after tasting a string of wines, will cleanse your palate and get it ready for the next wines.  Food will cleanse your palate more effectively than water alone.

Speaking of water, do not rinse out your glass with water every time you taste a new wine. If you taste the wines in a meaningful order (the person pouring the wine should lead you through this way), there is no need for a water rinse in between. The next wine should be sufficient to eclipse the taste of the previous.  If you are tasting red wines, and you move on to a table to taste white wines, feel free to ask for a small wine rinse from the pourer.  This will be more effective than water.

It’s okay to spit the wine out, or pour any extra in the spit/dump bucket.  If you drink every wine at the festival, your evening will end quickly.  No one should be offended if you taste and then spit the wine out (it’s what the pros do). If you are not comfortable with spitting, feel free to pour the wine that is left in your glass in the dump bucket and move on to the next.

While we are on the subject, please do not spit the wine back in your glass and then dump it. I’ve seen this far too many times. It’s disgusting in a public setting and just don’t do it.

Offer your opinion and ask questions about the wine you are tasting. You are here to learn, and talking and asking questions is appreciated. That being said, don’t try to act like the big wine expert dropping knowledge on everyone and taking up all the air at the tasting table.

Discard preconceived notions and try something new.  Tastings are meant for you to discover what you like. Don’t wrinkle your nose and say, “I don’t like Chardonnay”. There are many different expressions of grapes like Chardonnay.  Taste it, and you might be surprised.  Otherwise, the worst that can happen is that you confirm your suspicions and dump the wine out.

Attempt not to go straight to the VIP table.  I get it. You want to get your money’s worth and have a chance to taste the pricey stuff.  If there’s a big line at all the VIP tables, stop at another table on the way.  Not all good wine is pricey!

Don’t move your glass around when the person is pouring.  Lifting your glass, or lowering your glass, mid-pour is not helpful.  Talking to your friend and moving your glass side to side is simply annoying.  If you get a splash of wine on your arm at this point, it’s all your fault.  Similarly, yanking your glass away because you only want a small pour is bad news.  Use your words and ask for a small pour, please.

Don’t set your glass down on the table. This is more of a suggestion, but it’s easier to pour for you if your glass is not down on the table in front of a wall of wine bottles. Your wine glass can also get confused with someone else’s glass if you lose track of it.

Swirl the wine in your glass.  Give the wine a gentle swirl in your glass to release the aromas and flavors. Don’t swirl too vigorously, especially if you are new to this, as the person next to you might get a Cabernet spritz in the eye.

If you want to look like a professional, hold your wine glass by the stem. This is the proper way to hold a wine glass, and it will keep your hand from changing (warming) the temperature of the wine in your glass.

Try not to think of these tips as “rules” but rather a means to a more enjoyable time. Wine tasting is meant to be fun and being armed with a little know-how will make for a better experience for everyone. Cheers!

**What did I miss? Comment with a tip or a question.**

Hiking & Wine in the Dolomites

alto adige

I can hardly believe my trip to the Dolomites is coming up in June. I’ve always dreamed of visiting the Dolomite mountains, which are in northern Italy, in the region called Trentino-Alto Adige, near the border of Austria and Switzerland. The area is known for skiing in the winter months, and hiking in the spring and summer. I have my plane tickets, global entry card, and hiking boots, as well as my Backroads hiking trip reservations, care of my trusty travel agent at Go Your Own Way Travel. The few things left to do include brushing up on the Italian (and German) language and studying up on the wines of the region. Also, getting in a few hikes before the trip might be a wise idea.

Trentino-Alto AdigeTrentino Alto Adige breaks out in to the mostly German speaking Alto Adige in the north and the Italian leaning Trentino in the south. I’ll be meeting my fellow hikers in Bolzano, which is in the north and is the capital of Alto Adige, also known as South Tyrol or Südtirol.  For perspective, Bolzano is about a three-and-a-half-hour trip from both Milan and Venice.

As I read about the difficult grape growing conditions in Alto Adige, due to the steep slopes and mountainous terrain in the region, I can only imagine I’ll be earning that glass of wine at the end of each day of hiking. As in many other European wine regions, the vineyards are planted on the slopes along a river, here the Adige River, and the best wines come from grapes planted at around 1,500 feet. At this altitude, the grapes are high up enough to get the benefits of the varying day to night temperatures but are not so high as to be overly exposed to frost.

Alto Adige is in a unique position, where the Alps to the north protect vineyards from cold winds, and the open valleys to the south enable the warm air in from the Mediterranean. There is plenty of sunshine (300 days per year!) but also ample spells of rain to benefit the grapes.

There will be a great variety of wines to try because Alto Adige grows not only more well-known international grapes, such as Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Riesling, Pinot Blanc (Weissburgunder in German) and Gewurztraminer, but also lesser known grapes prominent in Germany and Austria, including Kerner, Muller Thurgau and Sylvaner.  These grapes all make white wines, which is what Alto-Adige’s cool climate excels at. There will be reds to sample too, including Pinot Noir, and the local stars, Lagrein and Schiava.

I have tried wines from Alto Adige in the past, with delightful results.  For instance, I had never even remotely enjoyed a Pinot Blanc (or Pinot Bianco) until I drank one from Alto Adige. I always found Pinot Blanc to be flat and bland and, in comparison, Pinot Bianco from Alto Adige is bright and flavorful. Pinot Grigio from Alto Adige seems to have more character to me as well. Lately I have been trying to seek out Kerner, in anticipation of my trip, which is a hybrid of Schiava and Riesling, and beautifully aromatic.

In terms of the reds, I had never heard of Schiava until about five years ago, but once I discovered its bright red fruit and slight tartness, I was hooked. Lagrein I always found to be like Merlot, but I have not had one in ages.

I look forward to doing more exploring of the wines before my trip, and of course during my hiking and wine experience. I’ll report back; and I’m sure you’ll hear all about the food from this hungry hiker as well!

Georgia On My Mind

I attended a dinner featuring Georgian wine and food earlier this week. No, not the Atlanta, Georgia-Georgia, the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. While there has been some buzz about Georgian wines over the last few years, I didn’t really know what to expect. Admittedly, I also did not know much about the country itself.

A Little Bit About Georgia (The Country)

Georgia became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991. The country is located on the Black Sea, bordered by Russia, Armenia, and Turkey. In square miles, it’s slightly smaller than Ireland, and the population is 4.3 million (Ireland’s population is 4.7 million). The terrain is mountainous, with many varying types of soils and climates. The Georgian language is very difficult for outsiders (it even has it’s own alphabet); other languages, such as Russian, are also spoken. Agriculture, including tea plantations, orchards, and vineyards, is an important part of the economy.

Winemaking in Georgia 

Winemaking in Georgia goes back 8,000 years (seriously, that is not a typo). The tradition of making wine, however, did not go uninterrupted.  Assaults and invasions from neighbors, including the Greeks, Romans, Turks, and Arabs, at different points during Georgia’s turbulent history, had natives escaping their vineyards to safety. They did, however, preserve cuttings from their vines, helping to keep tradition alive.

The biggest difference between winemaking in Georgia, and winemaking anywhere else, is the use of giant clay pots, called qvevri (pronounced with a “k”). Although some Georgian winemakers currently use stainless steel tanks and oak barrels to make and store wine, the traditional method values the qvevri. These egg shaped vessels, similar to amphora in other wine regions, can hold as much as 10,000 liters of juice (more than 13,000 bottles of wine). In the time-honored method, the entire winemaking process takes place in the qvevri, from fermentation (turning the grape juice in to alcohol) to aging. The qvevri are not used to transport wine, as they are buried underground to stabilize the temperature.

The Grapes of Georgia

There are more than 500 grape varieties grown in Georgia. Some of the most common include:

  • Saperavi – A bold, dark red grape, and one of the few grape varieties that has red skin and red pulp (in most instances the pulp, or juice, inside the grape is clear).
  • Rkatsiteli – A white grape that results in full bodied wines with fresh acidity.
  • Takveri – A red grape used for dry, sparkling, and dessert wines.
  • Mtsvane Kakhuri – A white grape that produces dry, crisp wines.
  • Kisi – A white grape that produces amber colored wines with ripe fruit and floral notes.

Fermentation in qvevri is a natural and gradual process, where the juice of the grapes stays in contact with the skins for longer than in modern winemaking processes. This gives the wines a deeper color, and the whites can look almost amber. The whites I sampled tasted fresher than the color led me to believe they would. They were medium to full-bodied due to the lengthy skin contact, but were still refreshing, especially with the flavorful Georgian food. The reds were rustic, to be sure, but I could taste the pure fruit without any oak to mask the authenticity. Many of the wines are not yet imported so there is no real point in naming names.

The Foods of Georgia

The Georgian cuisine has been influenced by many cultures, such as Iran, Asia, and Turkey. Bread and dumplings, fresh cheeses and vegetables, pickles and oils, all taste unique based on the herbs and spices from the region, including coriander, mint, fennel, garlic, bay leaf, and clove, among others. At Oda House, a wonderful and traditional Georgian restaurant in the East Village, NYC, we sampled: Pkhali (chopped and minced eggplant, spinach, and leek with ground walnuts and spices); Lobiani (bread filled with mashed pinto beans); Imeruli (cheese bread); three preparations of Sulguni cheese (fresh, smoked, and with mint); and the ‘fan favorite’, a beet salad with parsley, prunes, chopped walnuts & mayonnaise-sour cream sauce. All of it was crazy delicious and well suited to the wines.

Books, Resources and Places to Try Georgian Wine & Food

Oda House  Restaurant NYC

Tasting Georgia: A Food and Wine Journey in the Caucasus by Carla Capalbo

Wines of Georgia Website

Where to drink and buy Georgian Wine

I’m excited to try more wines from the region, and I’ll certainly be back to Oda House to sample more of the unique and flavorful food.

High on High Street

IMG_0793The first stop on my latest wine road trip was to the home of the Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles. Soon after I arrived and checked in to the Kimpton Monaco, I made my way past the vendors hawking championship gear on Market Street, towards High Street on Market.

High Street on Market is part of the High Street Hospitality Group, which also owns a.kitchen+bar and Fork in Philadelphia, and High Street on Hudson in New York. I have eaten at Fork, which was excellent, and High Street on Market is Fork’s more casual cousin.  High Street is open all day, from coffee and pastries to cocktails and pasta. My memory of Fork was that everything was exceptionally flavorful, so I was ready to have my taste buds roused once again.

I ordered a glass of Folk Machine Chenin Blanc, a Loire-inspired white from Mendocino, California, from the all-American wine list while I looked over the menu. Mineral-driven, citrusy dry white wines are my jam, so this was the perfect choice to fire up my appetite. A lot of things on the menu sounded to me as if they wouldn’t go well together, so I solicited the help of my server. Once he convinced me that it was okay to eat chow-chow alongside wild boar ragu, I was ready to order.  I started with the sunchokes, a dish from the section of the menu called “snacks”.  Sunchokes are one of those things that call to me from any restaurant menu. A root vegetable from the sunflower family, they have an umami flavor and a crunchy bite. These came roasted, with a texture that reminded me of eggplant, with slices of crisp, raw sunchoke mingled in.  Delicious.

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Clockwise: Crispy Broccoli, Pasta with Wild Boar Ragu, Sunchokes

My selection from the “plates” part of the menu arrived with my sunchokes. I chose the Crispy Broccoli with Chow-Chow and Scallion. The dish arrived looking like a giant tempura chia tree but the combination of flavors was so addicting that it was difficult to put my fork down. Chow-chow is a sort of fermented relish and it balanced out the lightly fried crunchiness of the broccoli very well. I took a break from my broccoli to order a glass of red wine in anticipation of my pasta course. This time I chose a spicy Cabernet Franc, in keeping with the Loire-inspired theme, from Ravines winery in the Finger Lakes, NY.

My pasta dish was Burnt Grains Campanelle, which is a bell-shaped pasta made from burnt wheat. The nutty-flavored pasta was dressed in wild boar ragu and parmesan. The dish was really rich, perfectly seasoned, and ridiculously flavorful. I overheard the ladies next to me talking about how their pastas had more flavor than most pastas. If I had heard that at any other time, I may have rolled my eyes, but as I dug in to my Campanelle, I knew exactly what they meant.

You may have noticed that I don’t have much of a sweet tooth so I didn’t even deign to look at the dessert menu. Instead I finished my glass of wine and took the long way back to the hotel, to walk off my very filling but heavenly tasting meal.

High Street On Market

308 Market Street Philadelphia, PA 19106
(215)625-0988

Hungry Girl, Hungryroot

I am by no means a vegetarian. But most meal services I have tried (especially the ones that don’t require 40 minutes of prep work) offered up flavorful proteins with bland side dishes and lifeless vegetables. I can cook a piece of chicken or roast some pork pretty easily — I’m not THAT lazy — but I am at a loss for quick, satisfying sides with the exception of roasting a few vegetables. That’s why I decided to try Hungryroot, a plant based meal service that delivers a variety of products with recipe ideas for quick and easy breakfasts, lunches, sides, mains, and even desserts.

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My first box included things like banana bread overnight oats, lemon artichoke quinoa bowl, sweet potato ribbons, kalebeet blend, chickpea alfredo, and black bean brownie batter. All this and more, with enough for two portions of each, for $65. This may seem pricey, but I know myself and I recognize the fact that if I stop in to Whole Foods to pick up a few avocados, I’ll emerge with $80 worth of groceries. Every. Time.

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Just a few of the items in my delivery.

The box arrived well packed with ice and included a recipe book with simple steps to make seven different dishes.  The packaging itself is bright, whimsical, and just plain adorable. All the products are gluten free and dairy free with no trans fats, no preservatives, limited added sugar, and low sodium. I don’t have a thing against gluten, or dairy for that matter, but I am happy to indulge in a healthful way — and nothing will stop me from putting an egg on it.

Upon opening the box, the first thing I did was prepare my Banana Bread Overnight Oats for the following morning.  All I had to do was stir in some almond milk and yogurt, shake in a little cinnamon, and put it in the fridge to be ready in time for breakfast. It’s not that difficult to make overnight oats in general, I’ll admit, but this was effortless and the end result was delightful.

The first dinner “recipe” I tried was the Sweet Potato Pad Thai. The instructions had me heating olive oil in a skillet, adding the provided sweet potato ribbons and pea snaps, mixing in some prepared Thai peanut sauce, and finishing up with a pinch of salt and pepper. Voila, dinner is served.  In the interest of full discloser, I cooked up a chicken sausage and served it alongside the Sweet Potato Pad Thai. The meal was enjoyable and satisfying.

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Hungryroot Recipe Book

The second “recipe” I tried was for lunch — the Lemon Kale Caesar Salad. Again I had to break a big sweat in the kitchen mixing the kalebeet blend with the lemon artichoke quinoa bowl, and mixing in some chickpea alfredo sauce.  The salad was creamy and bright and I devoured half of it and was surprisingly full.  Today, I am going to add a hardboiled egg to the leftovers. Because I am crazy like that.

So far, I am very pleased with the products, the flavor, and the ease and flexibility of the meals. I even tried a spoonful of the Black Bean Brownie Batter (you can bake it, but why bother?) and it was dangerously delicious. I don’t have a sweet tooth per se, but sometimes you need a little treat, and this was not overly sugary because the sweetness comes from almond butter.

Hungryroot is a subscription service, but it is easy to manage your deliveries. This is important for me because I travel so much. It’s also very easy to customize what’s in your box so you can always be trying new things, or stick to some of the products you loved in past deliveries. I will keep it up when I’m in town, and probably continue adding in a little protein as well. Tonight, it’s Deconstructed Carrot Shephard’s Pie… Bon Appétit!