Thursday, December 30, 2010

Wine for a New Year Nubbin

Family: wonderful, terrible, comforting, agitating, funny, loving, maddening, and sometimes just plain odd.

I spent a long Christmas weekend with Steve, my sister and her family, and my parents. I'm not quite sure what happens when we all get together, but we seem, more often than not, to wind up in hysterics over the strangest things.

This time, it all started with a bread nubbin. What, you may ask, is a bread nubbin? Well, I'll tell you: my mother had a loaf of bread on the counter. It was one of those crusty loaves with the split top, and there was a bump of raised hard crust on the side of the split. My mother, for reasons I did not comprehend felt the need to shave this piece of crust off.

I'm not making this up. She took the loaf of bread over to the sink and with a very sharp knife, shaved off this bread crust. This poor discarded piece of crust became known as "the nubbin". When I asked my mother why she had felt so compelled to perform this "nubbin-ectomy", she said that she didn't want anybody to break a tooth on it.

Who on earth, I asked, could break a tooth on a piece of bread. I was then informed that my father had once broken a tooth or lost a crown on a piece of marshmallow, or something like that, so, you know, you can never be too careful.

Maybe it was being around my sister, which can tend to make me get a bit punchy, or maybe it was the fact that it had been a while since I'd had a good belly laugh, but I could not stop laughing about this bread nubbin, and began to think of all the different recipes you could make with said nubbin.

There was lamb with bread nubbin, Chicken and Dubbins (a combo of dumplings and nubbin), and a Nubbin Pot Pie. It was Steve, however, who proved himself Master of the Nubbin, with his suggestion of Chicken McNubbins.

Nubbins aside, this was one of the nicest visits I have had with my family in a long time, and it made me start thinking thoughts that are perhaps better suited to Thanksgiving, but nonetheless...

It is almost the last day of the year, and it is naturally a time to think back on the year that just was, and to think ahead about the year to come. Maybe this is a product of getting a little bit older, but I find myself feeling very lucky and thankful to have the simple things in life: friends, family, health, a home, jobs.

We are taught in this country, to always want more, more house, more car, more money, more more more. But recently, we have had a few loved ones experience illness in themselves and in their families; a friend who lost her mother to cancer, another friend whose mother is fighting the disease, and a beloved member of our own family who is sick herself.

These events reminded me that, really, less is more. It is the simplest things in life that matter the most: the love of family, of a spouse, time spent with friends, any day being healthy, another day lucky enough to be alive, the enjoyment of a beautiful day, a delicious meal, a wonderful wine.

All of these things are extraordinary gifts, and are to be savored, and appreciated, and wished-for. So for 2011, that is what I wish for myself and for you: more of these simple, and simply wonderful things.

My Wine for a New Year Nubbin is not a wine, but rather a liqueur. Domaine Canton Ginger Liqueur. This stuff is delicious: sweet and gingery and perfect for the end of a meal. It is made from a blend of macerated Vietnamese ginger, herbs and spices which are blended with Cognac. It has a lovely ginger flavor without being hot or spicy.

It's delicious on its own, but would also be yummy added to a pomegranate cocktail, a Cosmo, or a Moscow Mule with vodka, ginger beer and lime.

Here's to a Wonderful 2011; nubbins for everyone!!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Wine for Apartment-Hunting

Ahhh, the joys of looking for a place to live. There is nothing more delightful than sifting through Craigslist apartments, trying to decipher the language of lies, and get a reasonable idea of what we might actually be seeing.

Anything called cozy is, of course, going to be the size of a closet. Period details mean that your bathroom will be tiled in bright pink and green and won't have been updated since 1950. If it has character, you are in big trouble, as this means that the apartment will have horrible airplane carpeting, wood-paneled walls, a smell of cats, and sinks in every room of the house, including the closets.

Rents here have gone up significantly, and to get a place comparable to the apartment we had before we left will cost us $300-$400 more than it would have when we first moved here in 2007. Purchase prices however have come down, and since mortgage rates are so low, we have started thinking about buying a place instead.

This brings with it a whole new set of issues. Mortgages are hard to get, and it is often necessary to put down a large chunk of money. This is problematic for a few reasons, not the least of which is that we are considering buying something in earthquake country, and it is horrifying to think that a person could sink several hundred thousand dollars into something that could shake and shimmy its way into the ground.

Earthquakes aside, there is also the question of where to live. The area in which we live now, and the area we know and like the best is, of course, one of the most expensive areas in the city. We will be much more likely to get more for our money and explore buying in less fancy areas.

The problem with this is that less pricey areas are often less pricey for a reason. I hate to be a snob, but I'm afraid I just might not be an urban, up-and-coming grungy-area kind of gal. I like feeling safe where I live, and I have been scared off of a few areas after hearing some of my friends stories.

One such story involves an area of Noe Valley near The Mission. A female friend of mine returned to her rental house, and went to the little cubby below the stairs where the trash barrels live, to find a man lying unconscious inside. Actually, at the time she didn't know he was unconscious; she thought he might in fact be dead.

She ran back inside her house and called 911, who suggested that she go back and first stick her face in this man's face to determine if he was alive or dead, and second, if he turned out to be alive, to stick her mouth on this man's mouth and perform CPR.

This advice is insane on so many levels that she almost lost her mind. She pointed out that this man could be faking unconsciousness in order to attack her once she got closer; this man could be a drug-crazed lunatic who would attack her when she got closer; or he could be riddled with diseases which she would then catch when performing mouth-to-mouth.

When she pointed all of these things out to the brain-trust on the other end of the 911 call, she got essentially no response other than that she should go see if the man was alive and then perform CPR. My friend being a lawyer, she then pointed out that the horrible suggestion she was being given was potentially opening up the city to a massive lawsuit.

The person on the other end of the phone then apparently added a few IQ points and decided to send the police over. When the police arrived and they attempted to revive the man, my friend discovered how smart she really had been to refuse the 911 operator's advice. This man was in fact in some sort of a psychotic drug-state and he woke up and began to lose his mind and flail around and attack anyone and everyone in sight.

What was the police comment to my friend after this incident? That my friend needed a better lock on her garbage cubby door.

In this same neighborhood, this same friend also witnessed an accident of a getaway car driven by some kind local gang drug-lords. This is a story for another day, but suffice it to say that after this last incident, she and her husband moved away from this lovely neighborhood.

It is stories like these that sour me a bit on the idea of living in the up-and-coming parts of town.

Oh well, what can we do? We take our time, I guess; we look around; we avoid garbage cubby-holes, and we try to make our current temporary apartment as cozy and holiday-festive as possible.

And what better way to feel cozy and festive than with a nice, warming port? Specifically a 1983 Ramos Pinto Vintage Port. Alan opened a bottle of this at Masa's, and it is a lovely, smooth, rich, sweet delight, full of fruit-cakey flavors of blackberry, black cherry, cassis, chocolate and tobacco.

What a wonderful way to end a holiday meal. The best part about this delicious port is the fact that you can buy it online on wine.com for $36.49. That's right, this baby is a bargain that tastes like a luxury item. It makes me want to curl up with a snifter in front of a fireplace. If only we could find an apartment that has one...

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Wine for the Love of Bond

It seems that every few weeks, there is a James Bond movie marathon on television. I am a big fan of the Bond movies, both new and old, especially the old. These movies are so delightfully irreverent, so silly, and they got away with so many things that could never be gotten away with today.

A woman named Pussy Galore? Dr. Goodhead? Miss Sitonmy Face? (ok, I made that last one up). Does it get any better? Daniel Craig was such a dark, brooding, and real Bond. Sean Connery was its polar opposite: handsome, yes. Debonair, of course. But he treated everything with a sardonic smile and a wink, as if he, too, knew it was all a bit ridiculous.

Most recently , I watched YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE. If you haven't seen this movie in a while, I recommend an immediate rental of it.

This movie has more fab and inexplicable moments of political incorrectness than one person can handle.

For starters, James Bond's adventures take him to Japan, where he must go undercover as a Japanese fisherman. This leads to multiple moments of camp wonderfulness as Bond is transformed into a Japanese man.

How, you may ask? First, he is bathed by many scantily-clad Japanese women, then he is given big bushy black eyebrows, followed by a straight black wig. And viola!! James Bond has turned Japanese! No one even questions the authenticity of this six-foot-tall man who speaks English with a Scottish accent. And why not?

Well, he has a shaved chest! He has thick black eyebrows! And straight black hair! Of course he's Japanese!

To complete the charade, Bond is also given a beautiful Japanese bride, whose name is Suki Yaki (ok, I made that name up).

One day, Bond and his fake bride discover that an evil man carrying a white cat has taken over the inside of a dormant volcano and turned it into an evil lair and launch site for his missiles. She and Bond decide they are going to hike the 10-miles, or whatever it is, to infiltrate this volcano-launch-pad.

What does she choose to wear for this undertaking? Pants? Hiking Boots? A warm jacket? Don't be absurd!! This is a Bond movie! So she wears what any smart woman would wear to hike up a mountain: a white bikini and white pumps!! What else?!

She then spends the next hour running around in this outfit, until Bond sends her back down the mountain to get reinforcements. When she returns with help, has she changed clothes? Maybe put on something a little warmer, more sturdy, something with, say, a little more coverage? Of course not, you dingbat!! Why would she do that?

I must say that Bond's outfit is not much better. He wears clothes that Daniel Craig would not be caught dead in. It is a pair of light blue pants, a loose blue turtleneck, and a hood. Seriously, a hood. It looks like what knights wear under their armor. It looks like a large pair of Underoos. All that's missing is a big B on the front.

What a pair they make: Bond in his black wig, eyebrows, and hood running and fighting the enemy with his bikini'd bride! Does it get any better than this?!

So let's toast to James Bond together. My Wine for the Love of Bond is a Patrick Bottex "La Cueille" Bugey-Cerdon. This is a fabulous French sparkling wine, made from the Gamay grape. This bubbly is a gorgeous rose-petal pink color, with a rich sudsy mouthfeel and a slightly sweet palate of tart strawberry and raspberries.

It is fun, luxurious, festive and delicious. And the fact that you have to pop the cork makes it ripe for any number of dirty innuendo, making it just perfect for the James Bond in us all.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Jury Duty

Yesterday I had to report for Jury Duty. I seem to get called for Jury Duty an average of six times a year. Technically I know that is not possible, but it seems, still, to be true. Just when I have been dismissed from a case in one court, I get called to appear for another.

I'm not sure why this happens, but there do seem to be certain names that never get called and other that are called repeatedly. I did serve on juries, once in Los Angeles and once in Brooklyn. The Brooklyn case was one where guilt had already been decided, and those of us on the jury were tasked with deciding a dollar amount for damages. The case in LA was a DUI that was being contested, and our deliberations lasted for about 3 days, which was absurd. In the end, we wound up with a mistrial because this one dufus on the panel refused to listen to reason.

The process of deliberating with those people made me want to rip my own head off and go bowling with it. Most of them were incapable of following the judge's instructions, and the guy who caused the mistrial admitted that he was probably wrong, but he just wouldn't change his mind on principle. Nothing to do with the facts of the case, he just didn't want to change his vote, even though he knew he should. That experience did make me wonder if the system really works at all.

The case I was in jury selection for yesterday involved art forgery, which I actually think might have been a fascinating case. But I felt torn between being interested in the case itself and dreading the thought of being in a courtroom for the next two weeks or longer, and dreading most of all, the idea of having to deal with deliberations.

Not only that, but having just started two news jobs, I was loath to have to immediately be absent from them.

The pool of potential jurors was an interesting petri dish: professional, unprofessional, and people whom you wouldn't want to sit near on the bus. One guy sitting next to me sat with his eyes squeezed tightly shut, breathing heavily through his nose and rocking slightly. I couldn't tell if he was putting it on to try and get out of service, or if he was genuinely a little off.

Then there are the folks who belong to the "Department of Irrelevant Information" and choose to take any question asked by the judge and use it as an excuse to share personal anecdotes or opinions that had nothing to do with anything.

"I saw some sculptures once, and I didn't think they were very good!", "My blood glucose drives me crazy!" "I once met someone who had a postcard of a badger on his fridge", "I like prunes!". Very, very important information.

In the end, I was dismissed, I think because told them that I am friends with a woman who works in the prosecutor's office at the courthouse. I will wait for next week, when my next summons is sure to arrive.

My wine recommendation for today is not, in fact, a wine at all, but rather a liqueur, and aperatif which I bought in Prague, a little delight called Becherovka. The precise ingredients of this concoction are apparently such a closde secret that only three people in the world actually know the recipe.

The flavor of it is unlike anything I've ever had before: slightly sweet with delicate flavors of clove, cinnamon, allspice, and anise. In Prague they drink it with tonic and ice, but as I am not a big fan of tonic water, I either have it with soda, or by itself on the rocks. It is a nice, winter-time drink with all of those mulling spice notes. It might even be nice as a kind of toddy with hot water and lemon or orange.

Anybody else out there ever had Becherovka?

Monday, November 29, 2010

ooops

Saturday was my second shift at Masa's Restaurant, and since Alan, the Head Sommelier there, was out-of-town, I got to try my hand at quite a bit of table-side service. Overall, I really enjoyed it, and I had fun explaining the different wines which had been selected to accompany each course.

There are three different menus at the moment, all prix-fixe: a four-course, a seven-course, and a seven-course white truffle menu. The selections of wine are as varied as the menus themselves, and I really enjoyed sharing some of the quirks and special aspects of the different wines.

There were, of course, a few whoopsies perpetrated by me:

First, I was asked to bring a Coke to a woman at one of the tables. For some unknown reason, I poured the Coke into a glass, and then decided to bring her both the glass, and the bottle with the remaining soda in it.

As soon as I placed both the glass and the bottle down on the table, I knew it was wrong. It just looked wrong. When do you ever see a bottle of soda left on the table at a fancy restaurant?! But once I had put it down, I had to walk away. I couldn't very well take it back, or draw her attention to the fact that the very small glass (for which we were probably charging her $10), barely held three-quarters of the bottle of soda.

So I just had to leave it there, and, once she had drunk some of the soda in her glass, I was able to empty the bottle and take it away. Plus, it was a very small, glass bottle, it's not like I left a gigantic two-liter bottle of soda in the middle of the table so that she and her date were having to look over it in order to see each other or anything. But still....

The biggest whoops, though, came when I opened a very nice bottle of Pinot Noir which a man and his wife had brought in with them. Before I went to pour the wine for them, I was obsessing about remembering to pour lady first. So over I walked to their table, and poured a glass for her and a glass for him.

Feeling pleased with myself, I walked back to my station behind the bar. Only then did I realize that I had forgotten to do the most basic part of the wine-pour at the table: the taste. I had completely forgotten to pour a small amount of the wine into one of their glasses so he or she could taste the wine and make sure it was to their liking.

In service, forgetting to do this is tantamount to just plopping down the bottle on table, putting two giant straws in it and telling them to have at it.

I am beyond happy that Alan was not there to witness my little blunder. The best excuses I can come up with are that 1. I was nervous, and 2. I was used to doing the pourings for the wine pairings with each course, and for those you don't offer a taste, you just pour the wine directly into the glass, remembering to always pour ladies first.

Oh well. This is why I am an unpaid intern at the moment. I return for another shift this week to pour again.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Wine Shadow

Well, I am happy to report that my first evening as a "vintern" at Masa's Restaurant went very well. The place has a cosy, sort of old-world elegance to it, without being stuffy. Luckily, the place is small, so the staff is relatively small and, I am happy to report, extremely nice. I think they fight the stuffiness by having a younger waitstaff, which brings a lightness to the atmosphere. They laugh a lot and don't seem to take themselves too seriously.

This atmosphere is definitely fostered in large part by Alan Murray, their Head Sommelier. He also seems to be manager, and does everything from serving wine and making mixed drinks, to helping to seat new guests and even taking their coats. Everybody helps everybody and pitches in to lend a hand wherever help is needed. I like that philosophy, since it them seems to avoid any notions of superiority, of "I don't do THAT, that's YOUR job".

The wine list is, to say the least, overwhelming. At 800-strong, it would be a major feat to try to memorize it, so at this stage of the game, I'm not even going to try. Since the food is French-inspired California cuisine, the wine-list is heavily French-based, with a large number of wines from Burgundy.

But Alan has fun with his wines, and he seems to enjoy presenting wines that are a bit on the funky side, a bit unusual. One such wine was a wonderful gem from the Loire region of France, a Christian Venier "Les Clos des Carteries" Cheverny 2009. This wine is made from the Sauvignon Gris grape, and if you're like me, you have probably never heard of the Sauvignon Gris grape, but here it is!

The varietal is thought to be a clonal mutation of Sauvignon Blanc, and the flavor it imparts is somewhere between Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris. This wine was absolutely delicious: delicate apple notes with a gorgeous floral bouquet of honeysuckle and chamomile. If you have the opportunity to try this wine, please do. It's a lovely discovery.

Other fun wines Alan introduced me to on my shift was a wine from Corsica, a blend of Grenache and Sangiovese; a lovely crisp white from Northeast Italy, very close to the Slovenian border; and a white from the Jura region of France (located between Burgundy and Switzerland), a blend of Savagnin and Chardonnay, with an oxidative quality that gives it a slightly sherry-ish flavor.

The fun thing was getting to taste so many wines throughout the course of the evening, since Alan himself tastes every bottle he opens. So what Alan tasted, I tasted! He also did a comparative wine-pairing tasting with me in a down moment. He had been pairing the roasted Hearts of Palm with a German Riesling, and wondered if he might try pairing it with a dry white instead. So we tasted the salad with the dry white, and decided it just didn't work. Somehow the flavors were just wrong together.

But when we tried it with the Riesling, it was like a little bit of magic: suddenly the flavors in both the wine and the salad were amplified. That's the joy of pairing, and the challenge. It really is trial and error much of the time. You don't know until you taste the two together.

One more fun fact I learned: wines, especially those that can age for a long time, will cycle in and out of drinkability. I mean, I knew, of course, that wines can often improve with age, but i always thought of it as more of a linear progression, that a wine would just keep improving with every year. But apparently that is not the case; it is more of an ebb and flow rather than a straight line.

For example, the 2005 Burgundy wines that had been tasting delicious in the last few years are apparently now "shutting down" a bit; the flavors are just not there at the moment, to the point where Alan is thinking of removing them from the wine list. But in another 3 years or so, according to Alan, those wines will cycle back around to being drinkable again, with even more complexity of flavor then they had before.

That is one of the things I love about wine: it is a living, breathing organism in its way, and it grows, changes, flourishes, and even languishes at different times in its life.

The biggest challenge of the evening was in the "shadowing" element of what I am doing. How to shadow without menacing, without breathing down someone's neck. Plus, people are constantly moving around the floor with trays of glasses, stacks of plates, etc. and it took a lot of focus to find some place to stand where I was not in the way of anybody, not right over Alan's shoulder, not making the diners uncomfortable, but was also close enough to be able to hear what Alan was saying.

I think I managed to find a decent balance; at the very least he invited me back, so it must have gone all right. This Saturday I will return, and Alan will actually not be there, so I may have more opportunity to pour wines myself and really be a part of the evening. I am looking forward to it.

Because of Thanksgiving, I will not be writing a post on Thursday (unless I find myself inspired by massive amounts of Turkey, pie and vino), but will return on Monday. In theory.

Have a wonderful holiday everyone. Let me know if you have any yummy wines with your vittles.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Wine for Starting Something New

Tomorrow will be my first day doing a "Vinternship" at Masa's Restaurant in San Francisco. A "vinternship" is a winey way of saying an internship. Restaurants will give a person like myself a chance to watch and maybe even experience service as a Sommelier in a fine-dining establishment. They won't be paying me, and I am guessing I'll be there one or two shifts a week for the next month or so.

To be honest, I am not entirely sure what this particular vinternship will entail. I will be going in tomorrow to work out the details. I am both excited and petrified. I have, of course, forgotten everything i learned in my extensive wine class, and feel that I can no longer remember varietal characteristics, or the names of famous vineyards in famous wine regions.

I have begun reviewing all of my wine notes, while imagining that when I walk through the door tomorrow, the head Sommelier will begin peppering me with questions ("Quick, name all the Grand Cru vineyards in the Cote D'Or!!"), shoving wines under my nose ("Quick, what is it??!!") and forcing me to saber open Champagne bottles for tables of thirsty guests.

Hopefully, none of this will actually happen, but I always get freaked out when I start something new, especially when I am not exactly sure what that new thing will actually be like. Plus I have the added pressure of believing that I must always immediately be perfect at everything I do, even when I have never done it before.

I think I was brought up, or else my personality just led me, to believe that failure and mistakes were unacceptable and shameful. But of course it is from failing and making mistakes that we learn the most, and get better. It's impossible to succeed without some measure of failure; and it is these initial struggles that make the successes that much sweeter.

So with that in mind, I am going to go to the restaurant tomorrow saying to myself that I am where I am, I am there to learn, and they are lucky to have someone willing to volunteer her time and services. Plus, the Head Sommelier at this restaurant was one of my teachers at my wine course, so he knows what I know as far as theory, tasting and service.

So, my wine for starting something new is a Hannah Nicole Vineyards 2009 Viognier. Hannah Nicole was a new winery to me, and Viognier is a lesser-known varietal, so it seemed an appropriate wine for this post.

Viognier is a common varietal of the Northern Rhone in France, and it also grows very well here in California. I helped pour this wine last night with my friend Mike who is one of their sales reps, and it was a big hit. People kept coming back for more.

This wine is light and refreshing, with a fruity nose and palate of apple, nectarine, grapefruit, star fruit, white flowers and vanilla. Viognier is one of my favorite varietals, and this wine is a lovely representation of it. You can buy it on the Hannah Nicole website for $20 a bottle, or if you live in San Francisco, you can buy it at The Jug Shop on Polk Street.

This is a lovely wine to drink on its own as an aperatif, or with a fruit plate, or some light cheeses. The people at the event last night were drinking it with sushi, and they said it paired really well with that, too.

Plus, if you bring this wine to share with friends over dinner, you will most likely be introducing people to a type of wine they have never had before, which I always think is fun. 'Tis the season for trying something new, I say.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Travel Book List

I thought I would share my reading list from when we were on our travels (June-October). I absolutely love reading books, and this trip gave me an opportunity to read a lot. When we were staying in the cabin at Melkevoll Bretun in Norway, we both read for hours every day, and I think we read five books each over the course of those 12 days.

I love getting book recommendations from people as well, so please feel free to share any recent favorite reads of yours in the comments section.

BOOK LIST:

Acqua Alta & two others in the Commissario Guido Brunetti mysteries series by, Donna Leon

Spies of Warsaw and The Foreign Correspondent by, Alan Furst

Changing Places by, David Lodge

The High Window by Raymond Chandler

Unseen Academicals by, Terry Pratchett

City of Thieves by, David Benioff

Billion Dollar Brain by Len Deighton

Child 44 by, Tom Rob Smith

Peyton Place by, Grace Metalious

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by, Stieg Larsson

Jaws by Peter Benchley

Gorky Park by, Martin Cruz Smith

River of Love by, Barbara Cartland

Lush Life by, Richard Price

Dune Road by, Jane Green

Royal Flush by, Lynda La Plante

Almost Dead by, Lisa Jackson

Open by Andre Agassi

As you probably can see, by the end of the trip I kind of just started reading trash, books that had been left behind by previous people in the places we were staying. But there was just a point where all I wanted was to read something easy, fun and escapist; page-turners with a lot of exclamation points.

Of all of these books, I have to say that City of Thieves by David Benioff was my hands-down favorite. So beautifully written, I couldn't put it down.

I really love Alan Furst's writing, but his endings baffle me. They feel like he was writing away, and then suddenly either decided he was bored with the story and characters or he just had no idea what to do with what he had created , so he just suddenly wrote "And then they all died." Or "and then, they all moved to France and ate cheese. The End" As a reader I was left wondering what had just happened and why the book had ended 100 pages too soon.

The Raymond Chandler was another favorite; no one can turn a phrase or create a metaphor quite like him. And those dames....

I think Jaws may possibly be one of the worst books even written, and I am amazed at how it was turned into such a terrific film.

Finally, I know Len Deighton is not as famous here as he is in the UK, but if you like Cold War spy novels, you must give him a try. I firmly recommend the ones that feature Bernie Samson. There is a series of nine books in sets of three: Berlin Game, Mexico Set, London Match; Spy Hook, Spy Line, Spy Sinker; Faith, Hope & Charity.

Now it's your turn: have you read any of the books on this list? Any other faves you think people should know about?


Friday, November 12, 2010

Starting Over

I know, I know, I was supposed to write this post yesterday. What can I say-life is just unpredictable! This is how I keep you on your toes.

We moved on Tuesday to our third and (hopefully) final temporary apartment, which is a vast improvement over our last two temporary apartments. It is, in fact, around the corner from where we used to live, and I still, when walking or driving by my old building, feel an incredibly strong pull to go inside. My brain still very firmly believes that that is home, and that all of our things still remain in our apartment, just waiting for our return.

We also bought a car, and on Wednesday we went to pick it up from the dealership in San Jose. Buying a car is always a little stressful, worrying that you have paid too much, been taken advantage of in some way, and there are always the little surprises; the features you were told the car had it, in fact, does not have...so it goes.

Overall we are happy with the car, a one-year-old VW Golf TDI, a diesel. This is to atone for our former days as planet-killing-Range-Rover-owners.

Additionally, I have been interviewing for wine jobs, and I have a couple of interesting prospects, but since everything is not final, I will wait to get specific.

I have found it to be an interesting and challenging experience, these interviews. Actually, not the interviews themselves, but the kinds of jobs I am interviewing for.

It is hard, starting an entirely new career at 38 years old. And while I know and believe that it is never too late in life to re-invent yourself and to start over, explore new paths in life, it has been a bit of a blow to the old ego to find out that my salary will be little more than a number just north of minimum wage.

It is hard not to hear the hourly rate and think "Holy crap, I have a Master's Degree and THAT'S all I can earn??!!"

But as with everything, you have to start somewhere, and really, apart from my class and a little bit of sales experience, I have almost no job experience in the wine industry. I worked in coffee shops in Los Angeles, but never restaurants; nor have I ever worked in a wine shop or winery.

So to the back of the line I go; starting at the very beginning. Someone once said it's a very good place to start. And truth be told, I am excited at the prospect of some of these jobs; excited to be in new environments and learn new skills; to be in a place where I can be exposed to wine varietals and producers from all over the world.

I met up with a friend of mine the other night who had been applying for admin jobs a while back, jobs for which she was way overqualified. She said she actually had to tell the people interviewing her that she knew she was overqualified but she was willing to do the job anyway. I think these days a lot of people find themselves in that boat.

Perhaps ego gets in the way. If we can remove that inner voice that says "I'm too good for that" maybe there is some thing to be learned. For me of course I have everything to learn, once I get over what my ego believes the low hourly pay is saying about me as a person.

I have to start at the beginning, and learn, taste, meet people, and see where it all leads.

I have no wine recommendation today because my reflux unfortunately is acting up a bit, and wine is one of the worst things for it. I know technically I don't have to drink the wine in order to taste it, but there's just no way I'm going to open up one of my own bottles, taste the wine and then spit it out. I just can't do it! Could you?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Walk This Way

I confess I cannot read, hear or speak that phrase "Walk this way" without thinking of that movie, I think it was YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN with Gene Wilder, in which the hunchback butler says "Walk This Way", and the person following him mimics his slouching, lumbering walk, and how funny my whole family and I found it.

My father thought it was so funny he decided to repeat the phrase, and often. Unfortunately, he never repeated it right, and wound up saying "Walk Like This", which, you know, doesn't quite deliver the joke.

But that is beside the point. I bring up walking because I recently heard a slightly unbelievable but true story on NPR. Oxford Street in England, a very popular shopping and business thoroughfare, apparently has issues with pedestrians. The people who are there to browse and window shop walk too slowly, looking around, and gumming up the works, getting in the way of the business people who are trying to actually get from one place to the next in a timely manner.

By way of a solution, some sort of group, maybe a city office, is trying to create two lanes of traffic on the sidewalk: a lane for slow walkers, and a lane for fast.

As a former New Yorker, and a person who generally walks quickly, I kind of love that idea. Nothing used to drive me more insane than getting stuck behind people who were walking so slowly through the streets of Manhattan that they were essentially going backward. I would rush past them, muttering something like "Stop Dawdling!" or "Good God, Man, get out of my way!!!".

I do enjoy the image of this white line drawn down the middle of the sidewalk with the lanes indicated by signs saying something like "The Move-it-or-Lose-It lane" and the "Thumb-up-Ass" lane.

The NPR reporter took the whole thing very seriously. How, he wondered, would it be enforced, these two lanes? Who would be the judge of what was a fast pace and what was slow? I have to admit, those are good questions.

Would London actually pay police officers to stand on the sidewalks and time people? Measure their actual walking speed? Give tickets for walking fast in the slow lane and slow in the fast lane? Undercover cops who would disguise themselves as fast walkers and tackle anyone walking too slowly in the fast lane, or trip someone walking too quickly in the slow?

The best part of this, however, was when the reporter introduced a representative from the All-England Pedestrian League. That isn't the actual name, but it was something like that, and it is an honest-to-goodness organization that exists only to champion the rights of pedestrians, and they are vehemently opposed to these sidewalk lanes, because they are staunchly against anything that infringes on a pedestrian's right to walk on any part of the sidewalk they please.

I'm sorry, but are they serious? This is an actual organization with actual paid employees who sit around all day and worry about people who....walk??!! This could only be thought up by a person who has drunk one too many pints of lager and eaten one too many fried food items.

What's next? The League of Tooth Fairies (although, actually, for England, that might not be such a bad idea); The Organization of Feet-Pickers; The League of Women Tooters; The Anti-Parking Space Association (for those who object to parking spaces because they should be allowed to park wherever they like); The Anti-Red-Light-League ("Nobody tells me when to stop and when to go!!!); while they're at it, why not object to lanes on streets and freeways ("Lanes?! We don't need no stinking lanes!).

Sorry, I'm ok, really. What do you think?

Do you find some of these organizations as insane as I do?

Would you object to a sidewalk with a fast and slow lane? Are you a fast walker or a slow one? Are you one of those people who think you walk fast, when in fact you walk so slowly you might as well be standing still? Do you find yourself walking with someone who suddenly shakes you to make sure you are, in fact, still awake?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Wine for Bundt-Cake Madness

I know, I know, I was supposed to write this post yesterday. I know! I don't know what happened. I am having a consistency issue at the moment, and I apologize. Maybe I'm adding too much water...

Anyway, I recently returned from a visit with my sister, brother-in-law, niece and nephew in Los Angeles. The visit happened to be over that wonderful ode to candy, Halloween. I love a holiday that is all about getting and eating as much chocolate as possible.

Of course, the whole costume thing is fun, too, I suppose, especially if you are one of those people who is super creative and able to come up with a really original and unusual costume. I alas, am not one of those people. The most I ever managed in the way of a costume was wearing a full set of scrubs and doctor's mask, simply because my father used to bring loads of scrubs home for all of us to wear as pajamas.

This year I told my sister I was going to be going as "woman in very old pair of jeans". That's about as good as it gets on my end, I'm afraid. My niece went as a pink fairy, complete with wings, and my nephew wore one of the Halloween costumes my mother made me when I was young, a black and white cat costume with a pin-on tail and hood with ears. The costume is essentially a dress made of striped fabric, but with the hood up and black nose and whiskers on his face, he looked adorable. People on the street, however, thought he was supposed to be a zebra.

Trick or Treating in Santa Monica is not what I grew up with. For starters, it starts at about 4pm, in blinding daylight, and takes place on the business street, Montana Avenue, which is full of shops and restaurants. Kids and their families walk in and out of these stores, and are given candy, just like they would be at a house. This trick-or-treating is obviously geared toward younger kids who go to bed early, but for me, it's still a bit odd.

My trick-or-treating memories all involve dark streets, cold, crisp New England air, the shuffle of dried leaves underfoot, and knocking on the doors of people's homes, never quite sure what they would be giving out. And always, in every neighborhood, the one or two houses of people who were felt to be either mean or crazy; houses that were often dark and uninviting, houses at which we were uncertain whether or not to knock at all.

There were always the houses that were known, every year, for passing out the best candy, and then there was also....the raisin house. You know the house I mean. The house that handed out those little red boxes of Sun Maid raisins. Myself and everyone around me would watch those raisins fall into our bags in slow-motion, expressions of frozen horror on our faces. It was like watching someone throw a flaming turd in there, such were our expressions.

Did anyone ever actually eat those raisins? Mine were the only thing that ever lasted longer than a week, and they would sit, forgotten, at the bottom of my trick-or-treat bag until the following year, when out of curiosity, I would open the box to see that they had shriveled even more than normal and were now as hard as if they had been actual rabbit turds left out to dry for a year.

The best part of this Montana Ave store halloween were the bakeries who, instead of handing out candy, gave samples of their wares. There must be at least 85 bakeries and cupcake stores on Montana, many of which are new and trying to lure new customers. One such shop was a new bundt-cake store, and they had set up tables outside the shop with plates and plates of cake samples. Beautiful, neat squares of cake with swirly dollops of frosting on top.

These cakes were delicious: red velvet, pumpkin spice, chocolate, and white chocolate raspberry. I'm not exaggerating when I say there was a small stampede of adults charging forward to get at these cakes. I don't know what it is, but free cake samples seem to turn grown men and women into animals, pushing, shoving, stuffing their faces like they've never seen food before.

By the end of the day, that cake stand was in shambles, trodden chunks of cake ground into the sidewalk, frosting smeared in the hair of the poor woman cutting the samples, those neat squares of cake giving way to large chunks hastily cut with what must have been a spoon. I think eventually, that woman just gave up and threw whole cakes into the crowd, letting people just stick their faces into the cake-pans and fight it out for themselves. It was like a scene from Quest For Fire. It was cake-madness.

I could go on and on about this, but I will stop myself now because I do, in fact, have a wine recommendation for you! This is another wine for which I wrote tasting notes on TheWineSpies.com, and which happens to be on sale today only, on their website.

Let me say before I go any further, that although I write tasting notes for The Wine Spies, I do not make any money off of their wine sales, so when I suggest a wine to you that they happen to be selling, it is genuinely because I think the wine is terrific and the price, for you, is right.

Today's wine is a Summers Estate 2006 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley. This is a really lovely wine, and again, Peter, it fits the bill as far as being fruity and full-bodied without being bitter or overly tannic or acidic.

This wine has a beautiful purple berry color, an amazingly layered nose and palate of fresh and stewed blackberries, ripe black cherry, currant, dried cherry, sandalwood, cinnamon and chocolate. It's got a wonderfully smooth mouthfeel, a nice juicy acidity with very subtle tannins. It's a nicely balanced wine, too, with a medium/long finish of fruit, wood and spice. The wine retails for $59 but Wine Spies are selling it today for $39. It's a great holiday wine, with all that stewed fruit and spice.

Let me know if you try it!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Post Postponement

Hello all!

I am in Los Angeles at the moment, and will return one week from today with a new post and wine for you!

Have a great week!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Wine for Pad Thai

As I mentioned yesterday, a reader, Kiki asked for a suggestion for a good wine to drink with Pad Thai.

I actually have two suggestions for this, depending on whether you want to go the complimentary route or the contrasting one.

This simply means that you can choose a wine that is going to have some similar flavor notes to the food that you're eating, or else choose a wine that provides a contrasting element to the food.

In the case of Pad Thai, if I was looking for a complimentary wine, I might go with something like the Kim Crawford 2009 Sauvignon Blanc. This New Zealand wine has a lot of nice tropical notes like grapefruit and pineapple, but it also has a very strong green, grassy component to it as well, and since many Pad Thais have a strong green flavor from lemongrass and scallions, the green in the food and the green in the wine will go nicely together.

Plus, this particular vintage of the Kim Crawford is lighter than the one I tasted from 2007, so it will be refreshing and won't overpower the food. And I just last week bought a bottle of the 2009 at Trader Joe's for $14.99!

If, however, you want to try a contrasting wine, I would suggest an off-dry, or slightly sweet Riesling. Since some Pad Thais can be quite spicy, a slightly sweet wine will help cool the heat, and the acid in the Riesling can be a nice way to clean away some of the oiliness that can linger in some Pad Thais.

A nice one to try is Willi Schaefer Riesling Graacher Domprobst Kabinett Mosel 2007. It has some nice minerality combined with honey, nectarine and pear. And it retails for $24. If you go to Trader Joe's though, they have a pretty decent selection of Rieslings, and if you want to try a slightly sweet one, just ask someone who works there which ones are off-dry and they should be able to point you in the right direction.

Let me know what you try, Kiki!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Apartment-of-Same-Lock-Mildew-Bed-Hairs

Today we moved from one temporary furnished apartment to another temporary furnished apartment. We will be in this temporary furnished apartment until November 9th when we will move into yet another temporary furnished apartment. We both desperately hope that that temporary furnished apartment will be our last.

I hate the first night in a new place. Let me say that again: I HATE the first night in a new place. I didn't used to, but after moving from one place to another, repeatedly packing and unpacking, adjusting to new beds, new pillows, new showers, new layouts, and new noises since June, I now find each new move unbearable. I cannot express how much I long for an apartment that is full of our own things: furniture, photos, bed linens, towels, books, etc.

This current apartment is very nice, quite large, in a part of town we really like, with a dishwasher and washer/dryer in the apartment. But when it comes down to it, it's not home, and I think when one is not settled in a living situation, one cannot be settled in life.

So we are home but not home. There is a smell in this apartment, like an old musty cellar, where rugs have gotten wet and dried again. I have about 6 candles burning throughout the apartment in an effort to banish the smell.

And I cannot understand why, in furnished apartments and many hotels, it is impossible to find a bed that does not have other people's hair in it. It baffles me. Needless to say, I re-washed the sheets and comforter cover.

We were supposed to move in yesterday (Sunday), but we had a bit of an adventure upon moving in which forced us to have to return to the previous temporary furnished apartment for one more night.

What happened was this: Steve had been given the keys to the outer door and apartment the day before. I had actually never seen the apartment. Steve came and looked at it without me one day when I was busy, and he saw it and he said that it was good.

We entered the building and climbed the stairs (multiple bags in tow) to the third and top floor. We tried the key. Nothing. We wiggled it. We jiggled it. We sang to it. Nothing. We surmised that she must have given us the wrong key.

Did I mention that it was a Sunday and that it was also pouring with rain outside?

Suddenly Steve wondered if maybe he had the wrong apartment, and if it was actually the apartment on the second floor into which we were supposed to be moving.

"You have been here before, yes?" I asked him.

He assured me that he had, but suddenly, in that moment, he doubted himself and wondered if maybe he had the wrong floor. Luckily, there are only two apartments to choose from.

Steve went downstairs and tried the key in the lock to the other apartment, and lo and behold, the door popped open. This would have been wonderful had it not been for the two half-asleep and bewildered people who were actually living in said apartment.

The male of the couple started yelling: "Who are you? What are you doing? Get out! Just get out!"

Steve apologized profusely and tried to explain, but the man continued to lose his mind.

"God damn!!" we could hear him shouting and stamping around. Have I mentioned he was kind of a big guy?

His female counterpart then opened the door and the two of them looked out at us as if we were a couple of ax-murdering-circus-freaks, and we tried again to explain what had happened. The lady-friend seemed calm about it all, but the guy still continued to stomp around in the background, cursing and shoving hunks of raw meat into his mouth.

We called the rental office and informed them that we had been given the keys to the wrong apartment. It was then that we were informed that no, we hadn't been given the wrong key, both apartments have the same lock, and therefore, the same key that works on one apartment will work on the other.

Well then it was our turn to lose our minds. Both apartments have the same key??!!! What is this, BIG LOVE, where we're all just one big happy family who just can waltz in and out of each others' homes whenever we like?!

How would I ever sleep knowing that Thor, the moody giant downstairs could just enter my home whenever the whim took hold of him, say, for example, if he smelled pie?

And isn't it, oh I don't know, ILLEGAL, to not have a separate lock for each apartment?!

My friend in the Sheriff's department informed me that, why yes, indeed, it is illegal, so Steve called the owner of the building and informed her that we weren't moving in until she changed the lock.

And you'll never guess what she did....she argued. She protested. She claimed it was fine, that it had always been like that, and that (and this one is my favorite) she knew the people downstairs and they were nice. NICE?! Isn't that what people said about Jeffrey Dahmer?

The man downstairs, she informed us, is a baseball player! As if that made anything better. Then all I could do was imagine this guy coming after us in a roid-rage swinging a baseball bat.

Steve essentially informed her that she was an idiot, and once he dropped the phrase "Our friend in the Sheriff's Department says...." she quickly changed her tune.

So now, here we are. Temporarily.

On another note:

My loyal reader Kiki asked for a recommendation for a wine to accompany Pad Thai.

Since I have babbled so much today, however, I will wait and answer that question tomorrow.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Wine for Making Progress






Well I am happy to say that things are looking up after one week back in San Francisco. The jet-lag seems to be gone, so we are no longer looking at each other across the table at 8pm with our eyeballs spinning around in our heads, desperately trying to stay awake. This is a major coup.

We have found other places to live, all temporary furnished apartments, and though it still involves a couple more weeks of moving around from one place to another, at least we have an idea of where we will be laying our heads for the next month or so, which is greatly comforting.

Add to that a few glimmers in the job department, and things are looking decidedly...brighter.

I am once again writing tasting notes for wines that are being sold on a very cool website www.thewinespies.com

The Wine Spies features and sells a different wine every day at considerable discount, so it is worth checking back in with them daily to see what they are offering. I will also alert you here if I feel there is something particularly yummy coming up, which is exactly what I am going to do now!

On Friday, October 22, the Wine Spies will be offering Balance by Heath Dolan, a 2007 Mendocino County Red Field Blend. There are quite a few cool things about this wine:

The first is that it is made by Heath Dolan, son of Paul Dolan, the pioneer of biodynamic farming and winemaking.

The second is that the wine is made from biodynamic grapes. Biodynamics takes organic a step further, whereby in addition to not using chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, it also strives for harmony with the land, nature, and in some cases, the phases of the moon. It seems to me that biodynamics is about having that close relationship with the land and what you are growing in it and producing from it.

The third cool thing about this wine is that it is delicious, which ultimately, is the most important element of all. This wine, as the name suggests, is beautifully balanced, with subtle tannins, juicy but understated acidity, a lush round smoothness in the mouth, and a lovely nose and palate of blackberry jam, black currant, raisin, cinnamon and dried plum.

You can certainly drink this wine alone or enjoy it with a juicy grilled steak or lamb chop. At $20/bottle on The Wine Spies it's lot of wine for the money.

Let me know if you try it!

Peter, you asked me for a rich fruity wine without any bitterness, and I think this wine really fits the bill. I contacted a wine shop in Fort Greene to see if they sold it and they don't, so I will try to come up with another option for you that doesn't have to be ordered online.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Help Me to Help You, Help Me to Help You!

First of all, let me apologize for getting off to a bad start this week. I promised a new post yesterday, but I didn't deliver.

I blame it on the fact that we are still very stressed out and distracted while we look for a place to stay. We have somewhere we're staying now, and then we have another place to move into on November 9, but between October 24 and November 9....nada.

Maybe we can stay with you, huh? What do you think? What's two and a half weeks among friends, right? We're delightful, I promise!

In any event, I have a new mission and I would like you all to help me with it. While I am looking for a job, I want to try and keep myself sharp, wine-wise and that's where you come in.

Tell me your wine needs...and I will strive to fill them! Tell me what you're looking for and I will find it for you!

Looking for wines under a certain price point? Wines for a splurge? Wines from a certain country or a specific varietal, or both? Looking for a wine to go with certain foods, occasions? Wondering what to serve at Thanksgiving or the holidays? Or looking for a wine gift for someone else, or for yourself?

Let me know and I will see what I can do! I will be your wine finder!

Either send me an email or post your request in the comments section.

Help me to help you, people!

Friday, October 15, 2010

The New Schedule

Now that we are back and no longer in trip-mode, the blog will return to its previous schedule:

New posts on Mondays and Thursdays with a wine recommendation on Thursdays.

Stay tuned!

We're Baaack

Hello to you from surprisingly warm and sunny San Francisco!

We have arrived home in the middle of a mini-heatwave, and I must say, it has been kind of nice, all the sun and warmth. I think the wave is over as of today, however, and the temps will return to more normal 60's, which are also nice in my opinion.

I am happy to say that it is lovely to be back in San Francisco. I really do love this city, and it has been fun to wander through our favorite neighborhoods and feel the comfortable familiarity of everything.

The trip now takes on that strange hazy quality, where it almost feels like it never happened, though i still have so many amazing memories.

The temporary apartment, I am happy to say, has been just fine. Everything seems new and clean and thus far, there have been no major noise issues, and it is located a couple of blocks from Fillmore Street, which is loaded with shops and restaurants.

Things are still on the stressful side. On top of the whole having-no-jobs extravaganza, we also have to figure out where we are going to live as of next Sunday. This temp apartment is too expensive to stay in for long, so we are trying to figure out what our next move should be.

Really we want to stay in San Francisco, but obviously rents here are high, and we don't really know what we can spend per month since we currently have no income and don't know what our income will be once we do have it. Since we don't know where we will be working, we also don't know where would be best to live as far as commuting goes. Plus, there's the issue of signing a one-year lease when we don't know if we will be able to stay here, say, if we can't find jobs here and have to move elsewhere.

We looked at a place in the North Bay, in San Rafael, about 20 miles north of SF. This has the advantage of being much cheaper and designed for more short-term stays, plus we can rent furniture which means leaving our things in storage for a bit longer and not having to move it twice.

The disadvantages of this are that it's very suburban, so there's no walking down the street to get a coffee, and if we wind up working in the city, the commute could be a bit of a pain, and the apartments all have that cookie-cutter, pre-fab thing happening. But, there is a washer/dryer in the unit and a second bathroom, all of which, to me, are heaven on a stick.

Nothing is perfect and we will figure it out, obviously. Hopefully. We will, right?

Monday, October 11, 2010

And Now, The End is Near....








Well, I can't believe it, but today is the final day of this incredible trip.

We spent a wonderful weekend in Monaco, sitting outside the cafe looking at the casino and the Hotel de Paris, people and car watching. I was alarmed by the number of men wearing pink pants and either sweaters tied around their shoulders or white scarves. It's a look, that's for sure.

Now we are in an airport hotel in Paris, waiting to fly back to San Francisco tomorrow.

I would be lying if I didn't admit that we are pretty petrified about going back. I think I am literally sick with worry, and I basically haven't eaten anything other than crackers and rice since Friday morning.

We have a place to stay, at least, when we get back, a corporate apartment in Lower Pacific Heights. Steve made the mistake of going online and looking at reviews of it and apparently they weren't good. I think the word "dump" was used several times. It doesn't inspire confidence.

We will try and find someplace better as soon as we are back, though it is hard to know what to look for in an apartment when we're not sure where we'll be working and what kind of money we'll be earning.

I keep telling myself to take nice deep breaths and trust that everything will work out. Send us positive vibes if you can-we'll need them!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Grappa-Fest 2010






Welcome to Grappa-Fest. Every night, at about 10pm, Luciano knocks on everyone’s door and invites us all into the veranda for shot glasses of his homemade grappa and Vin Santo.

Without a doubt Luciano (left) and I have a little Italio/Americana love-fest going on. This morning he even went so far as to pull fresh figs off the tree near our room and give the to me. If that ain’t love, I don’t know what is.

Luciano, without a doubt, is an Italian man through and through, and he LOVES women, so all of us ladies here get showered with attention every night, as does Luciano. His face went beet-red last night as the three women at last night’s Grappa-Fest all had our picture taken with him.

Carlo (his son) said last night that Luciano would rather arrive for Grappa after Carlo and Isa have left. Because then he gets all the attention for himself!

He has had a pretty amazing life, Luciano. He was a share-cropper when he was young, and then when communism infiltrated, he became a paid worker, and then a landowner, and is now the owner of Cretaiole as well as the family farm in Pienza.

There is definitely a very different idea of family here. It is much more traditional, much more communal. The men are still very much in charge, and Luciano and his wife, Carlo, Isa and their two kids, plus Carlo’s sister and her fiancĂ©, all live together at the family farm. I think if my family tried to do that, there would be physical violence after about two weeks!

It has certainly been nice to be a part of it, though, even for two short weeks. The day before yesterday we helped out with the grape harvest here at Cretaiole, and lunch was a massive affair, with everybody gathered in the verandah for a meal of pasta, sausage with chick-peas, plum cake and of course wine and vin santo! It was such fun to be a part of a big extended family meal like that, and we just had the feeling that that is something they do all the time.

Back to the evening Grappa-Fest, though. I somehow, have become the official translator; me with my ten Italian lessons back in May!! But I will say that I am amazed at how much my Italian has improved in these two weeks of just talking every day with Luciano, dictionary in hand.

I could never have improved this much by just taking classes or listening to CDs. There is no substitute for conversation, talking with him about the grape harvest, food, the weather, the cats stealing the steak, his cruise to Dubai, Steve’s and my travels. I feel like I have gotten a year’s worth of Italian lessons in two weeks!

In addition to being in charge of the family, Luciano also tends to his animals (pigs, chickens, rabbits), the garden, makes prosciutto, pecorino, red and white wine, grappa and vin santo. All at 70 years old.

We have eaten some extraordinary tomatoes and zucchini from the garden, and the day before yesterday he pulled a fennel bulb straight up from the ground and told us to eat it with oil, salt and pepper. The fragrance of that fennel was not to be believed. And the tsate of it, light and sweet, but full of that anise yumminess. It has made me hope that Steve and I might be able to get some kind of apartment with some kind of a yard one day so we can try to grow some of our own veggies.

Luciano has also brought me and Steve fresh eggs, straight from the chicken’s butt as well as this amazing fresh ricotta cheese. I have never tasted ricotta like this before in my life, so fresh and light. This is probably because I’m always buying fat free ricotta at home, which is like silly-putty.

Well no more! I have been converted. This ricotta is amazing on pasta, and, if you can believe it, Nutella!

When Luciano suggested ricotta and Nutella for dessert I thought he was out of his mind. Who would ever add cheese to my beloved Nutella? But then I decided to try it. I mixed equal parts Ricotta and Nutella in a bowl (maybe adding a little more Nutella), stirring until it was as smooth as I could get it. And I tasted it.

It was delicious. Somehow the ricotta lightened the Nutella, made it almost fluffy. But after a night in the fridge, it became this rich, dense delectable treat. Steve said it reminded him of a Toblerone.

I strongly urge you to try it, but do yourself a favor, don’t use low-fat or non-fat ricotta. Go for the good stuff! You won’t be sorry.

Big Daddy Steak-Stealer







These are the cats. The sweet, cute, precious farm cats. They run around the farm and the grounds surrounding Cretaiole, chasing bugs, mice and people to their heart’s delight.

They stand outside our door in the evening, meowing to be let in. They sit with us outside while we chat, eat, drink and read. They cuddle up, sit on laps and purr, taking us ever more off our guard.

And then….they strike. A huge chunk of pecorino cheese that Isa left out getting ready to take home? Gone. Taken away by one kitty and munched on.

The steak that Scott left sitting by the grill while he waited for the coals to be ready? The Big Daddy cat jumped up onto the table, grabbed that hunk of meat in its teeth and dragged it off behind the bushes.

From inside our apartment we heard Scott yell “You little shits!” When we came out to see what was going on, we saw two of the other cats hovering outside the bushes while from inside we could hear the sounds of Big Daddy growling that strange kitty yowl-growl while he devoured that raw meat like he had never seen food before.

Periodically, one of the other cats would risk sneaking in to try and grab a bite from Big Daddy.

Within a few minutes, that steak was history, as was Scott’s dinner plan.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Truffles








On Friday we had the chance to go truffle hunting with Massimo (left) and his two truffle dogs.

This entails walking through the woods behind Massimo and the dogs while they sniff and root around. Truffle dogs apparently take about two years to train, and it was fun to watch them nosing around.

The only problem was, this is the beginning of white truffle season and there just weren't many truffles to be found. Plus this was the first time Massimo led a group of peole around with him and the dogs and I think the dogs found us very distracting. Especially once they realized there wasn't much happening in the way of truffle-finding and decided it might be a better idea to just kind of run around, roll around in the scent of dead things and chew on an old deer skull.

At some point Massimo decided to give the dogs a little morale boost, and he asked Steve and the 11-year-old in the group to bury a previously found truffle that he had in his pocket, so that the dogs could have the satisfaction of actually finding something.

As I mentioned, there were two dogs with us. One of these was an old female dog, called Nice (as in Have a nice day), and the other, a young male dog, called J. Well J was definitely the faster of the two, and he kept finding all the truffles that Massimo had us bury. J was then beyond happy, and would run to Massimo for his affection and treat.







Nice had already started to get a little depressed that she wasn't finding anything, but when the young upstart started getting all the truffles and attention, that proved just too much for her to bear. Tail deep between her legs, she dramatically walked into the brush a little ways away from us and lay down. She wouldn't move, she wouldn't acknowledge petting, she wouldn't take a treat. She just lay there, with baleful eyes and sulked.

It was so hard not to laugh at how sweet it was. So dramatic, so calculated, so clearly done for our benefit. After a while, Massimo rolled her over, rubbed her belly at which time she seemed to decide she had milked it enough and she got up and trotted along with us again, tail wagging. A lady knows to never overplay her hand.

Pici Party







On Thursday after our wine tasting, we returned to Cretaiole for a class on how to make Pici, the local pasta, followed by a group dinner.

Let me just say that I am normally not a fan of trips where groups activities are organized, partly because normally when we take a week-long vacation, we like to just relax and keep to ourselves a bit, but at this time in our trip, it has been fantastic to have all these pre-decided group activities to attend.

Everything is voluntary, so nobody has to participate in anything they don't want to, but it has been really nice after so long by ourselves, to take part in things with other people. And as I have mentioned, Isabella, Carlo and Luciano have been wonderful. They are so energetic, passionate about sharing their lives with us, and about sharing what they love so much about this part of Italy.

Plus Luciano has been the best Italian teacher I could ever have had. He speaks slowly, using the simplest of words, always brings his dictionary, corrects me occasionally in the gentlest of ways, and most of all, he lets me make mistakes. As long as he can understand what I'm trying to say, it's all right if I've used the wrong conjugation or agreement. Especially since I can only speak in the present tense! But as long as I clarify today, tomorrow or yesterday, we're ok.

Anyway, back to the pici class. Pici, as I mentioned, is the local pasta, and it is kind of like a very long, very thick and chewy spaghetti. Pasta in Italy is a whole different animal to what I have tasted in The States; thick and chewy, cooked in water with a whole lot of salt. Isabella laughed at us Americans when we said we cooked pasta with no salt or a pinch of salt. She said you need "a bunch" of salt, and that if salt was so bad for you everyone in Italy would be dead. I have to say, she has a point there.

To make the pici, Isabella dumped out mounds and mounds of flour, and then scooped it out to make an oval wall of flour. Into the middle of this well she added a dozen eggs, water and olive oil. The original poor peasant recipe contained only water, but now they add eggs. The oil was added for us amateurs, to make the dough easier to work with.

She then blended the eggs, oil and water, while incorporating flour from the sides of the wall. The biggest challenge with this part, she said, is not breaking the flour-wall too early and having eggy water pour all over your floor.

After a little while, the mess of liquid and eggs became more solid and she was able to break the wall and incorporate the rest of the flour. Then she started kneading the dough in a way that of course looked simple, but once she partitioned the dough into four sections and gave us a try at kneading it ourselves, proved to be difficult.







Here we are with Phil, Ellen, and our dough baby. I'm afraid this might be the only baby our parents get from us!! Once the dough has reached the right consistency, it is pressed down into a slightly flat oval, then strips are cut. Holding the strip the left hand, you take your right hand and begin rubbing the palm across the dough, hard, while moving to the left. This is supposed to yield long, round strips of pasta, which are then coiled loosely, dipped in cornmeal to avoid sticking and placed in boiling water.

This is, of course, easier than it sounds, and to get a uniform length of pasta is almost impossible. We wound up with think, fat worms, or strands so thin they broke as soon as we picked them up, or lengths of twisted pasta link coils of rope.

In the end, however, they all tasted delicious. Isa boiled them and served them with her pasta sauce made from veal, beef, tomato paste, onion, carrot and celery ( I think that's what she said was in it), and Carlo grilled us up a massive amount of home-made sausage and ribs.

They were the most delicious sausages and ribs ever. The thing I've learned the most about Tuscan food is the simplicity of everything. Most dishes contain only a few ingredients, intended to highlight each ingredient rather than obscure. So bruschetta is simple bread and tomato, sometimes with basil or rubbed with garlic. RUBBED with garlic, not drowned in 15 cloves so that you can't taste anything else.

Pasta dishes are super simple as well, not overburdened with sauce, and often just sprinkled with pecorino and pepper. The sausage Carlo made contained meat, fat, salt and pepper, and nothing else. The ribs were just ribs, sprinkled with a lot of salt and rosemary.

Starting a meal with bread, olive oil and balsamic vinegar? Doesn't happen. I haven't even seen balsamic here. The bread is made for dipping in the sauce of whatever else you've eaten and that's it.

And the pasta here, so much better than any I've had anywhere else; so dense and chewy, even the dried pastas are better. I don't know why it's so different. Is it the amount of salt in the water? The cooking time? I will have to experiment at home.

Fattoria del Colle








On Thursday we went to visit a wonderful winery, Fattoris del Colle in the town of Trequanda.

The woman who runs it, Donatella Cinelli Colombini, inherited the estate in 1998, and decided then and there that she was going to make her own wine. The next thing she did was revolutionary: she hired a female winemaker after which she decided to hire and all-female staff.

Thus, she now has the only winery in Italy completely run by women. I find this very cool, and also a little sad that in this day and age it is still such a rarity.

We had a tour of the lovely property followed by a tasting of four of their wines. My favorite was the 2005 "Cenerentola" ( which means Cinderella) Orcia DOC. The tech sheet for this wine draws similarities between the wine and the fairytale, saying "Both have step-sisters who are older and more famous. The step sisters of the iwne region are Nobile de Montepulciano and Brunello di Montalcino who are on either side of the Orcia DOC region."

The wine is a blend of 65% Sangiovese, and 35% Foglia Tonda. The latter grape has apparently been in disuse fpr along time, but Donatella decided to bring it back. According to Donatella, the Foglia Tonda gives power and the Sangiovese gives elegance.

I thought the wine was just lovely, full of dark red and black fruit, chocolate-covered cherry, violet potpourri, bramble and tobacco with a nice tannic/acid balance with a medium/long finish. Lovely to drink alone or with food like pasta with wild boar or rabbit sugo.

Reality Setting In

Now that we have out tickets back to San Francisco, reality is, unfortunately setting in. We are trying to be here in Tuscany in the moment and not worry too much about what awaits us when we go home, but it is challenging, to say the least.

The realization that we have NOWHERE to go when we get back is a little alarming. We have some wonderful friends who have offered us their guestroom for a few days, but I am loathe to take them up on their offer. They are some of our closest friends in San Francisco, and I want to continue being the people they want to see, not become the people they want to get rid of!

We are trying. long distance, and with no phones and sporadic internet, to find a corporate apartment for a week or two when we get back while we look around to find a short-term furnished rental which we will stay in until we find jobs and decide where in The Bay Area we actually want to live.

This is, needles to say, a lot to think about, and sometimes it catches up with us and sort of freezes us in our tracks. To not have jobs or a home, two major things that bring people a feeling of security and well-being, we are without.

I feel confident that things will work out fine, and I am trying to just relax, have faith, and just enjoy our last few weeks of travel. Wine helps with this, more than I can say.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Wine For My First Harvest








Wednesday I participated in my very first grape harvest, and I have to say, I thought it was glorious.

Cretaiole had already planned a group visit to Icario Winery in Montepulciano for today, and the night before we found out that they were going to be harvesting the grapes and we were invited to join in.

We got very lucky in that the sky was clear and blue, but the temperatures were only in the sixties, so we didn’t roast. The Aussies in the group were telling us about their experiences of harvesting in Australia in temperatures of 110 degrees, and let me tell you, it did not sound fun.

We arrived at the vineyards, were taken by truck down to the vineyards and, armed with a plastic bucket and a pair of shears, we were sent out into the rows. These grapes don’t grow too low, so while there was some bending over required, there was not so much of it that you feared you might never stand up straight again.

The grape we were harvesting was a varietal I had never heard of before, but which they told us was usually grown in Northern Italy. Icario uses it in their entry level wine, blending it with Sangiovese.

I didn’t think about it while I was working, but afterward, Steve mentioned that it was therapeutic, working in the vineyard, and I have to say I agree with him. You can’t think too much when doing the work, you just get into a groove and move from bunch to bunch, cutting, looking to see if there is any mold in the grapes and either cutting it away or discard the bunch, place the bunch in your basket and move onto the next.

Periodically, the tractor advances through the rows and people riding along with it collect your basket, dump the contents into a big tray, and return the basket to you to be refilled.





There is something so beautiful to me about those bunches of grapes, so dark purple and full to bursting. The weight of them was something I didn’t expect, some of the fruit so ripe that it burst when you touched it. And the sweetness of them. Not cloying, but just so wonderfully….ripe. Like no grape I have ever tasted before.

After about two hours, we were taken back up to the winery itself where we saw the trays of grapes that we had just picked get poured out into a long tray which jiggles the clusters of grapes toward the de-stemmer, where the grapes are separated from their stems, partially crushed and funneled into large stainless steel tanks where they will begin the period of maceration (where the juice and skins and seeds all soak together to impart color, flavor, tannins, structure to the wine. Then fermentation will begin.

I will have to try to get a bottle of the 2010 wine when it is released, so I can drink it and say, “I picked this fruit!”

From there we were led to a long table where we had lunch and of course, some of Icario’s wines.

Lunch was pecorino cheese, prosciutto, salami, and bruschetta with what may have been the best tomatoes I have ever tasted. I am not a fresh tomato lover normally, but these were extraordinary: deep, ripe red, sweet, and mixed with fresh basil and olive oil.

I have noticed in Italy that none of the bruschetta we have eaten has contained any garlic, which I think is lovely. Bruschetta in The States is always screaming with garlic, and I think all it does is mask the taste of the tomatoes and olive oil. It is very possible though, that if a restaurant is using un-ripe tomatoes that maybe they need that garlic to mask the flavor.

The first wine we tasted was their white, NYSA 2008 Bianco Toscano, which is a blend of 60% Pinot Grigio, 30% Gewurztraminer, and 10% Pinot Nero (Noir) vinified to be white instead of red.

This was one of the most interesting white wines I have ever had. It is aged in oak barrels which imparts its dark color, and the little bit of Pinot Noir in it gives it a lot of oomph and body. I also found it fascinating that this Italian winery s making a white wine from grapes which I would much more readily associate with Alsace than with Italy.

The first whiff of it, when it was very cold still, yielded a lot of golden delicious apple and grapefruit pith and peel, but as it warmed up, the sweet scent of honey, caramel and apple cider started to dominate. On the palate, the apple was strong,er than the citrus, and a caramel/butterscotch flavor lingered.

We also sampled one of their reds, the Vino Nobile de Montepulciano 2007, which is a blend of 80% Sangiovese, and 20% Colorino, Canaiolo and Merlot. This wine was much more what I ave come to think of as a Tuscan wine, with black cherry, red cherry smoke, leather dried and stewed fruits, violets and that light tinge of iron all emerging.

It was an absolutely lovely day.

My New Diet Plan

I have been thinking quite a lot about food and diet lately. Partly because we have noticed that in Italy, it is impossible to get any other type of cuisine other than Italian. No Chinese, Thai, pub, American (whatever that is!), Indian…nothing.

Apparently, Italians just have no desire to eat anything other than Italian food, and when they travel abroad, they only want to eat at Italian restaurants!

I find this hard to grasp, since one of the great things about travel is getting to eat local food. More than that, though, is the idea of variety. I don’t want to eat the exact same type of food day in and day out. No matter how much I may love pasta or pizza or risotto, I just can’t eat it all day every day. After a while I want something that tastes totally different: sushi, or stir-fried noodles with tofu and broccoli, or steamed dumplings with soy sauce. Yum…

The other reason I have been thinking about food and diet is because of all the weight I have lost since starting this trip. I have been thinking about gaining and losing weight, and why at some times it is easier to lose weight than at others.

As I have already mentioned, I am sure that a lot of my weight loss has to do with no longer taking the anti-anxiety medication. I really believe that another reason why I have lost so much weight, is that I just don’t care about it right now.

We are always talking about the mind-body connection, and I think there is a lot to be said about the idea of “letting go” when it comes to weight loss, mentally more than physically.

In the US we are so obsessed with being thin, with losing weight, with not eating one food item or another. The guilt and shame so many of us feel when we eat something “bad” for us is astounding, and I think those bad feelings cause our bodies to clench, to clamp down, to hold onto weight.

How many times have I been out to dinner or lunch with friends and had the ordering and eating process become a discussion of what we shouldn’t order, shouldn’t have eaten. How often have you yourself been to a restaurant and agonized over what you “should” order vs. what you really wanted to order?

So often it seems that we feel we need to be punished for eating, for enjoying any food other than lettuce? For me. Certainly, this feeling like I have done something wrong when eat pasta only gets me on a loop of eating something, feeling bad about it, and then eating more because that is how I cope with my bad feelings! I know I’m not alone in getting stuck on that loop.

Right now, and indeed for this whole trip, I just don’t care about what I weigh, or how much I eat. If I want gelato, I eat gelato. If I want pasta, I have pasta. I eat what I want when I want . And there is something about this mental letting go that I think has allowed my body to let go as well, to regulate my cravings and body weight in a more natural, balanced way.

It used to be that I couldn’t have a jar of Nutella at home because I would sit by myself and eat the whole jar in two days, with a spoon, I kid you not. And the guilt I felt doing that….monumental. I felt like the worst person in the world; a fat, greedy, no will-power person. I would feel like I had just done one of the worst things a person could do.

Now, I have had a Nutella jar around for ever, and it is only partially eaten. Somehow, I have managed to remove all judgment of what I eat and how much I eat of it, and it’s like I have therefore removed the temptation. I have suddenly made the Forbidden Fruit unforbidden. Want Nutella? Then eat Nutella, who cares?! And as a result, I don’t really want the Nutella so much anymore. Or I can have a little taste and be satisfied, and not feel that I have just done something terrible by eating it.

Here food is life, it is community, it is social, it is family, and there is no shame in the consumption of it. Shame made me heavy, freedom from that shame has made me lighter, literally.

That in and of itself could be the most valuable insight gleaned from this trip, and I hope with all my heart that I can hold onto this mentality, because if I can, it will change my life.