The Most Scenic Place to Fly-Fish in Southwestern France

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The Most Scenic Place to Fly-Fish in Southwestern France

January 30, 2019

They come for the wine. And for the foie gras, the confit, the scenery, the chateaus and the black truffles. But increasingly, visitors to the hilly, castle-packed department of Dordogne also come to fly-fish its namesake river and its many tributaries.

The Dordogne River, France’s fifth longest, flows west for more than 300 miles from near the hot-springs spa town of Le Mont- Dore through many gorges, valleys and villages until reaching the Gironde Estuary just north of Bordeaux, in southwestern wine country. It’s a wide, fast river, especially in its upper reaches near the towns of Argentat and Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne, where it’s more reminiscent of western U.S. fly-fishing destinations such as Montana’s Madison than of France’s northern rivers, like the slow-moving Andelle of Normandy. As the English angling writer Charles Rangeley-Wilson wrote of France’s northern chalkstreams: “These are rivers that Eisenhower, Hemingway and Ritz fished.

And of course they flow through French countryside, French villages, past cafés and restaurants and, in the case of the one where I’m sitting right now, the grounds of a private manor where you can stay on the top floor with views to the silent woods all around, and be absurdly well fed, wined and watered.”

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A trip to the Dordogne Valley offers equal or better opportunities to be well fed and well wined; there’ll just be fewer Brits around when it happens. Not that the Dordogne is tourist-free. It’s far too beautiful for that, and also too close to Burgundy’s wine country. Still, like most of France, the farther you get from Paris, the less touristy it becomes.

If you like to combine fly-fishing and food, then France is a logical choice. But for hardcore destination anglers, the country may sound like little more than a vacation trade-off—a way to appease the spouse’s desire for luxury and a good pinot, while still providing the angler an opportunity to “wet a line while you’re there.” But don’t be mistaken; France has a strong tradition of fly-fishing and fly-fishermen. I witnessed both firsthand as guide to the world’s most decorated competitive fly-fisher—France’s three-time World Champion Pascal Cognard—in the 17th World Fly-Fishing Championships, held in 1997 in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Cognard and his comrades have excelled in world competitions ever since, in part because they simply have a lot of exceptional home water in which to practice, including the Dordogne.

The mainstem Dordogne is big water, and if it were in the U.S., it would undoubtedly be fished from a driftboat. But in France, it is most often accessed by wading, walking the banks or by renting a canoe. “Most fishermen on the Dordogne chest-wade and do ‘the heron,’” says Nick de Toldi, owner of Gourmetfly, a French field-sports tourism company, referring to an angler who stands in the water and waits motionless, like a heron. “The strong current prevents you from covering big distances while wading. No one floats here in boats like in America, but some guide friends of mine have done it while visiting Montana and came back impressed by the technique. They spoke many times of adapting it here but it remained a mere project.”

Perhaps American driftboat manufacturers should look at expanding to southwest France. In the meantime, canoe rental operators along the Dordogne Valley provide a popular alternative. “A reader once asked me, if I were to bring a spry, 73-year-old grandmother to Europe, where would I go?” famed Europhile Rick Steves once wrote. “My response: I’d take her for a float down France’s Dordogne River in a canoe. I can’t think of a more relaxing way to enjoy great scenery while getting some exercise. And you can pop ashore whenever you like.”

Like Mr. Steves, fly-fishers have figured out that canoes are the tool of choice on the Dordogne. “Taking canoes is very common, because most companies allow you to rent upstream, drift down and get picked up by the canoe rental people to take you back to your car,” de Toldi says. “My brother has done it several times with a fly rod, but more to stop under cliffs of otherwise difficult access points than to fish as the boat drifts down.”

As the most famous waterway in the region, the main Dordogne can get crowded with canoes and kayaks in the summertime. Hitting one of its many smaller tributaries offers a more intimate angling experience, with clear, spring-fed runs surrounded with hatches of various mayflies and caddis. But that doesn’t mean they’re easy rivers to fish.

“You could compare the upper Dordogne to the Henry’s Fork [of the Snake River in Idaho],” says Cyril Kamir, founder and manager the popular French online fly-fishing magazine, LeMouching, who has fished the Dordogne region several times. “It’s a broad river, up to 120 feet wide, with many weeds and big trout. Due to the many little currents, you have to fish with very long leaders—16 feet is not unusual. The Dordogne always has a lot of fish, but they are difficult to catch, partly because there are a lot of water-level variations from the dams upstream. But it’s a good way to improve your fishing. I love it best in early and late season, when there are fewer people and lots of grayling and trout.”

According to Kamir, many French fly-fishers consider there to be two Dordognes. “No one fishes the lower Dordogne,” Kamir says. The anglers’ Dordogne is the upper or “Haute Dordogne,” near the charming, riverside towns of Argentat and Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne. This area includes the Vézère River, a 130-mile fly-fishing-friendly tributary of the Dordogne that is home to 25 prehistoric cave systems containing numerous cave paintings dating back nearly 20,000 years. Both the Vézère and the Dordogne are home to several medieval castles along their banks, and UNESCO recently named the entire region, all 15,000 square miles of it, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage site.

Within this area, you’ll find three of the Dordogne’s most famous tributaries—the Cère, the Maronne and the Doustre. The Cère flows 75 miles through the departments of Lot and Corrèze, entering the Dordogne on river left near the town of Bretenoux; the Morrone is a small stream with good mayfly hatches and big trout that could be mistaken for a river you might find in the Adirondacks of New York; and the Doustre is a small, sometimes technical river in a gorgeous setting. All three have dams, so anglers must be careful to keep a watchful eye on flows.

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Mayfly hatches on all Dordogne Valley rivers start with March browns in spring and generally end with the last caddis hatch in September. Browns, rainbows and grayling are the main species, though several area lakes also have pike and carp. As for techniques, most rivers are great for dry flies by mid- summer. In early season, streamers are effective, but many Dordogne locals consider streamer fishing to not be fly-fishing, so be prepared for that discussion if you are a diehard streamer fisherman. Sight nymphing is not easy in most places because of the weeds, but usually works fine with an indicator.

What better way to celebrate that symbiosis than with rod in hand and wine in belly, doing “the heron” along the Dordogne River?

History Lessons

There are two important UNESCO sites in the Dordogne region and both are worth a visit. The first is the Vézère Valley, which was designated a World Heritage Site in 1979 due to its vast collection of vivid, colorful cave paintings. The Lascaux Cave, near Montignac, is easily the most famous of the valley’s 147 sites, with numerous large-animal paintings that are thought to be more than 17,000 years old. An 18-year- old discovered Lascaux in 1940, but visiting the caves became so popular that they were closed to the public in 1963 and a replica containing the main sections of artwork (Lascaux II) was built less than 700 feet away.

The second UNESCO designation occurred in July of 2012, when the entire Dordogne River basin was designated a Biosphere Reserve, the largest such reserve in France. The designation came largely because of socio-economic aspects, the beautiful scenery, the balance between economic development and conservation, and the extensive plant and animal biodiversity found there, including its 39 different species of fish.

Fishing Guide

The rules for fishing in France are complicated and ever evolving, but no more so than in parts of the U.S. Each of the country’s 101 departments (roughly equivalent to counties in the U.S.) sets its own laws, so for the most up-to-date info, it is best to contact one of the major fly shops, such as La Maison de la Mouche, which has operated in Paris since 1934. No matter where you fish, you’ll need a license. A full- season license costs around 70 euros; and a weekly (sometimes called a “Holiday License”) costs around 40 euros. In 2007, many regions also started selling daily licenses, but those often didn’t allow fishing until after May, and you’ll sometimes need another license if you move to another region.

Trout season in France begins the third Sunday in March, and generally closes by the third Sunday in September, except in and around some of the mountain regions, which remain open through mid-October. After this, you can still fish for grayling or other “course fish” (carp, pike, bass, etc.— basically, anything other than trout or salmon). This late- season fishing is especially popular and productive in the Dordogne and parts of the Massif Central in south- central France.

Lastly, waters in France are divided into First Category (lakes or rivers dominated by trout and salmon, where only one rod is allowed), and Second Category, which are lakes and rivers dominated by anything else. Second Category waters allow up to four rods, and up to two hooks each.

Explore Paris’ Centuries-Old Love of Chocolate

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Explore Paris’ Centuries-Old Love of Chocolate

January 25, 2019

“There’s no city in the world that loves chocolate more than Paris, and the passion Parisians have for it is one of those very rare ones that just grows deeper and more intense as time goes by,” observes French master chocolate-maker Nicolas Berger. Berger is well placed to comment on Parisians’ inexorable love of chocolate, too. He runs Le Chocolat Alain Ducasse – Manufacture à Paris, the small, intoxicatingly scented workshop with exposed brick walls in a former eastern Paris garage near La Bastille that is the French capital’s very first bean-to-bar atelier. This game-changing business opened in February 2013 and was conceived by gastro-entrepreneur and ardent choco-phile Alain Ducasse and Berger, who formerly worked as chef patissier at Ducasse’s restaurant at the Essex House hotel in New York City and then at Restaurant Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée in Paris.

“From the very start, many of our customers came daily, and just a few days after we’d opened we were getting people from the 16th Arrondissement (an affluent district on the opposite side of the city from their 11th Arrondissement location) and the suburbs. In Paris, it’s pretty obvious there’s sort of an informal chocolate tom-tom that keeps people who love it up-to-date on the very latest openings and creations even before they’ve been picked up by the mainstream press,” says Berger, whose own taste for chocolate dates “back to my cradle.” His parents are pastry chefs who ran a shop in a town outside of Lyon, and Berger says he was helping out in the kitchen as soon as he could walk and remembers being especially fascinated by watching chocolates being dipped.

But what is it exactly that makes Parisians so insane for chocolate? “Paris is a profoundly epicurean city,” says Berger, “So Parisians proudly share a culture of connoisseurship, along with an insatiable curiosity about all and any fine food stuffs.” Like chocolate.

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This explains why Ducasse’s new bean-to-bar operation was so immediately tantalizing to Parisian chocolate-lovers. To launch the atelier, Berger shopped for antique chocolate-making machinery all over Europe—many of the machines best-suited to small-scaled quality chocolate manufacturing are no longer made—and then scouted suppliers of the world’s finest and rarest cocoa beans. Now he roasts his own cocoa beans daily on the premises, joining a tiny elite band of French producers who start from scratch, including Ber- nachon in Lyon and Stéphane Bonnat in Voiron, a village outside of Grenoble. “Cocoa beans have the same gastronomic eloquence as grapes, which means that they offer a powerful expression of the land and climate from which they come,” explains Berger.

Evaluating the production of Ducasse’s new atelier during a comprehensive tasting of their ganaches (a mixture of chocolate and cream), dark chocolate and milk chocolate in September 2013, the esteemed Le Club des Croqueurs de Chocolat, a very serious association of Parisian chocolate lovers founded in 1981 by food critic Claude Lebey, rated the new atelier’s chocolate as “very promising.” Ducasse’s single-origin chocolates have also received high marks from such exigent Paris-based chocolate experts as cookbook writer Trish Deseine and blogger David Lebovitz.

French Heritage

Indigenous to Central America and first introduced to Europe by the Spanish conquistadors, who discovered it during their conquest of the Aztec empire in what is now Mexico, chocolate is generally believed to have been brought to France by the Spanish-born Princess Anne of Austria when she married King Louis XIII in 1615. Consumed in both liquid and solid form, it immediately became a favorite delicacy of the French court for its taste, rarity and reputed aphrodisiac qualities.

Bayonne in southwestern France was the original center of French chocolate production when Jewish chocolate makers and merchants fleeing the Portuguese Inquisition of 1536 settled there, but it was in Paris that chocolate emerged as a luxurious public indulgence. Louis XIV appointed a valet in the Queen’s household, David Chaillou, to open the very first chocolate shop in Paris on May 28, 1659.

Located on the rue de l’Arbre Sec in the 1st Arrondissement, Chaillou’s shop enjoyed a monopoly on the preparation and sale of chocolate beverages and sweets that lasted nearly 30 years before competition arrived on the scene. By 1689, other pioneering chocolate shops had opened in the heart of the city, including Rere on the rue Dauphine and Renard on the present-day quai de Conti.

Even as its popularity grew in the court of King Louis XV, where Queen Marie-Antoinette had her very own private chocolatier (chocolate-maker), chocolate retained its rarified status as an elite luxury until after the French Revolution. With the end of French court life, chocolate, along with many other luxury goods and services, suddenly became more widely available to the general public.

In 1800, Sulpice Debauve, the former royal pharmacist to King Louis XVI and the personal chocolatier to King Charles X, opened a chocolate shop on rue Saint-Dominique, in Saint-German-des-Prés. It’s still around today: Debauve moved to its present location on rue des Saints-Pères in the 7th Arrondissement in 1818. That same year, Debauve began a partnership with his nephew, August Gallais, also a chemist. Together they produced and sold “health chocolates,” which were variously made with almond milk, vanilla and orange-blossom water, or ingredients like Icelandic lichen, a combination believed to be beneficial for treating chest ailments.

In the early 19th century, chocolate was often used to make bitter medicines more palatable and was widely believed to bring good health and vitality to those who ate it regularly. So widespread was the Gallic association between chocolate and good health at the beginning of the 19th century that the famous French epicure Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin puckishly summed up his country’s love of chocolate with the adage, “What is health? It is chocolate!”

Chocolate Artisans

Industrial advances in chocolate manufacturing and the expansion of cocoa-bean production in France’s vast African colonial empire—the Ivory Coast, a former French colony, remains the world’s largest cocoa bean-producing country today with almost 40 percent of the world’s annual crop—made chocolate an affordable daily pleasure for the French by the end of the 19th century. Paris, however, maintained its proud tradition of elegant chocolatiers of the highest quality, including such still existing producers as Foucher, which was founded in 1819 and is still excellent, and La Marquise de Sévigné, which was born in the Auvergnat spa town of Royat and today is more commercial than artisanal.

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Deprived of good chocolate during World War II, Parisians fell in love with it all over again during the 30 years of post-war French prosperity known as Les Trente Glorieuses, the 30 glorious years. It was against this backdrop of an insatiable hunger for luxury that chocolatier Robert Linxe, the French Basque chocolate maker whom many consider to be the father of modern French chocolate, opened the estimable but now gone Marquis de Presles boutique in 1955.

Serious chocolate eating in Paris had previously been largely confined to the Christmas and Easter holidays, but Linxe made the pleasure mainstream by creating a line of boldly flavored ganache chocolates, including his signature Zagora (flavored with fresh mint leaves). His idea was that eating quality chocolate should be an accessible year-round pleasure. After selling his Marquis de Presles business to caterer Gastron Le Nôtre in 1977, Linxe opened his first La Maison du Chocolat the same year, ushering in the new era of craft chocolate in Paris.

La Maison du Chocolat, which re-codified Parisian chocolate as a daily luxury in both gastronomic and visual terms—its packaging is as elegant as its Paris boutiques—is now under the direction of pastry chef and chocolatier Nicolas Cloiseau, who became head chef of the group in 2012. And now Alain Ducasse has raised the local chocolate bar with his Right Bank atelier and just opened Left Bank boutique in the heart of Saint-Germain-des-Pres. Bon appetit.

The 19th Century English Tradition That’s Still Alive and Well

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The 19th Century English Tradition That's Still Alive and Well

December 28, 2018

They say in England that they won the Second World War because of the cup of tea. Even today, whenever there is a crisis—from the family pet passing away to affairs of national security—someone usually pipes up and says, “I think I’ll put the kettle on.” “Crisis tea” is served very strong in a heavy mug with milk and a spoonful of sugar.

Of course there is another more refined tea that the English also do rather well. The delightful, delicious tradition of afternoon tea takes place sometime between midday and early evening, and usually consists of several tiers of finger sandwiches, petite pastries and scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam. Tea leaves are brewed in a bone china teapot and strained into equally delicate teacups.

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With endless leisure time, fine crockery and meaningless tittle-tattle, it may be no surprise that the privileged classes invented afternoon tea. In the mid-19th century, Anna Maria Russell, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, found herself becoming moody during the long afternoons between meals. To stave off hunger pangs she created a late-afternoon refreshment. At first, the duchess allegedly secreted herself away in her bedroom with a tray of tea and cakes but in time invited friends to join her. Eventually, afternoon tea became a London fashion. Now it is a national institution.

Sanderson London

The Mad Hatter’s tea party in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland inspires the most fun and frivolous afternoon tea of all. Menus hide in vintage books. Paper crowns top teapots. Want sugar with your tea? Open a musical box to find a pirouetting ballerina as well as sugar cubes.

Guests here are encouraged to first try teas by smell: sniff five little glass decanters of loose-leaf tea, all named after characters in the book, before choosing. Blends include Cheshire Cat and White Rabbit. The signature Alice Blend is a black tea with blackcurrant, vanilla, caramel, citrus, bergamot, blue cornflowers and blue mallow flowers. Detailed descriptions of each tea are on a set of playing cards.

Dainty savories include a smoked salmon, quail egg and caviar Scotch egg; a ham and smoked applewood croque monsieur; a Cornish crab and herb éclair; and a cucumber and cream cheese finger sandwich on fresh lime bread. Sweets include a chocolate log shaped like a blue caterpillar; coffee macaroons modeled on the white rabbit’s pocket watch; marshmallows resembling toadstools; a red velvet ladybird cake; and a potion of passion fruit and coconut panna cotta in a bottle tagged “Drink Me.” Tall grass growing in a teacup disguises carrot-shaped meringues. It all becomes “curiouser and curiouser.”

The setting is alfresco in the heart of Fitzrovia, served in the hotel’s inner courtyard even in winter, when they pitch a marquee and fire up the stoves. Overall, it’s a tumble-down-the-rabbit-hole treat.

The Berkeley

Here the fickle, fashion-forward Prêt-à-Portea changes every six months, inspired by the new season’s collections at London Fashion Week. The cover of the menu reads “WORK IT” in fluorescent-pink capital letters, and you almost feel like strutting around the Caramel Room with its Art Deco mirrored walls and bold graphic styling.

The pastry chefs create fabulous little cakes: Dolce & Gabbana’s pink rose dress from their “Viva La Mama” collection becomes a lychee and almond mousse upon pink pâte sablée with rose detailing; Valentino’s Rockstud striped bag is made of Victoria sponge with cranberry compote; Alice Temperley’s flutura skirt becomes a gianduja chocolate supreme on sablé Breton glazed with chocolate miroir and a bright blue chocolate flower; Moschino’s quirky nu-rave dress is a cream and orange financier and coconut savarin; and there is Fendi’s double-breasted chocolate biscuit coat with red icing. The waiter brings photographs of the runway shows to explain the interpretation from catwalk to cake stand. Sweet, loose-leaf tea pairings include jasmine silver needle, and blackcurrant and hibiscus. The savory treats ooze originality, too, and, when it’s time for those, some guests request an equally savory tea flavor such as Monkey Picked Iron Buddha or Phoenix Honey Orchid.

Tea is served in the cozy Caramel Room immediately opposite The Blue Bar, one of London’s coolest addresses for cocktails. Stay long enough, finish your last cup of tea, then walk across the lobby and order your first glass of Champagne.

Shangri-La Hotel at the Shard

This is the one to top, in more ways than one. Up on the 35th floor of The Shard, one of Europe’s tallest buildings, the contemporary TĪNG Lounge serves afternoon tea overlooking some of London’s most beloved landmarks: St Paul’s Cathedral, The Monument to the Great Fire of London, the River Thames and Tower Bridge.

It is a clever team whose tea can match the peerless panorama. An Asian-inspired menu replaces finger sandwiches with plump prawn dumplings; steamed gyoza; Scottish salmon with wasabi and ginger; and a Cornish crab brioche with a curry zing. Don’t fret—there are still some classics, but a double cheesecake is steeped in citric yuzu juice, and instead of strawberry jam with the scones, it is tropical mango jam.

Traditionalists may prefer the English afternoon tea, which also has some inventive creative touches like raspberry, lychee and rose macaroons, and a peanut, salted caramel and chocolate tart. There are black, green, oolong, white and fruit teas, as well as the light aromatic Signature Afternoon Blend. Book a table for shortly before sunset so you can see the view in daylight and then watch the city’s lights turn on as darkness descends.

The Lanesborough

The talk of the town, this grand dame has recently reopened after an 18-month renovation by late interiors maestro Alberto Pinto. Located between Knightsbridge’s seductive stores, Buckingham Palace and Hyde Park, afternoon tea is served at the Lanesborough’s restaurant, Céleste. A tea sommelier is on hand. The classic Regency-style room comes with ceiling roses, English crystal chandeliers, fresco paintings and layers of gold leaf.

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Upon being seated, three tiers of delicacies swiftly arrive, including finger sandwiches that are simple but spot-on: egg mayonnaise and cress; smoked salmon and cream cheese; and ham and cheddar. With a light touch, pastry chef Nicolas Rouzaud makes a madeleine with fresh ginger; a hazelnut truffle with praline crémeux and Jivara mousse; and an éclair with almond cream Chantilly, strawberry and fig. There are plain and fruit scones served with jam or lemon curd, and the rich, clotted Devonshire cream is accented with gold leaf. Bespoke tea blends include a Darjeeling first flush and a rare unprocessed white tea, although many opt for the Lanesborough Afternoon Tea, a blend of black and green leaves.

Tea time here may seem exceedingly English, but the poised service is decidedly more French and piano tunes are of the Great American Songbook, from George Gershwin to Cole Porter, which somewhat relaxes the formality. Pianist Brian Morris, a longtime Lanesborough loyal, has played here for more than 20 years entertaining royalty and celebrities. He delights in requests; ask for “When You Wish Upon a Star,” one of his favorites.

Fortnum & Mason

This is the perfect pairing of pedigree afternoon tea with souvenir shopping. Food emporium Fortnum & Mason has blended tea and imported loose-leafs for more than 300 years. These combine in a bewildering array of fine teas sold in Fortnum’s elegant tin caddies and a similarly extensive menu served in the Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon, reopened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 2012 to commemorate her 60 years on the throne. On Fortnum’s fourth floor, this old-fashioned afternoon tea is how the properly posh do it: quietly, without pretension and just a little bit shabbily (think prep school common room rather than penthouse). The menu does not veer from the traditional. Finger sandwiches include smoked salmon; coronation chicken; cucumber with mint and cream cheese; and Wiltshire roast ham with honey mustard. Scones are served with Somerset clotted cream and fruit preserve.

Fortnum’s also serves high tea, which focuses more on savory than sweet, and a tea with vegetarian treats. In the second-floor parlor, children can have a tea of their own with jammy dodger biscuits, ice cream, floats and cakes. But other than the unwavering tradition, the real reason to come here is for the food halls on the lower floors. Pick up Fortnum’s Royal Blend Tea of low-grown Flowery Pekoe from Sri Lanka or the Royal Blend created for King Edward VII in 1902. With the last season of Downton Abbey upon us, this old-school, gimmick-free tea is the perfect way to live out our Downton dreams with a final flourish.

One of the World’s Best Winemaking Regions Is One of the Oldest

Douro-Hero

One of the World's Best Winemaking Regions Is One of the Oldest

December 28, 2018

No landscape in the world expresses the idea of mind over matter more powerfully and poignantly than northern Portugal’s Douro River Valley. Over the course of centuries, human grit, gumption and genius have completely transformed the valley’s almost-vertical hills of gnarled schist into terraced vineyards. Humans have massaged the hills’ coarse granite and slate soils into yielding the wines used to make the region’s signature product, Port. Port is the most storied of fortified wines, which differ from standard wines because a grape spirit, or brandy, is added during the production process. Adding the spirit during, and not after, fermentation kills off the active yeast cells and leaves the wine with high levels of residual sugar, making it sweet and strong in alcohol—Port’s special character.

In 2001, UNESCO recognized the uniqueness of these landscapes when it classified the Alto (upper) Douro Valley as a World Heritage site. UNESCO specified that the upper valley constitutes “an outstanding example of a traditional European wine-producing region” that’s been growing grapes for over 2,000 years. The group also noted, “The components of the Alto Douro landscape are representative of the full range of activities associated with winemaking—terraces, quintas [wine-producing farm complexes], villages, chapels and roads.” More simply said, the visual harmony of this countryside quietly exalts with its aura of peaceable permanence. Staring out over such well-groomed and -tended vineyards is profoundly soothing, too. Subliminally, they convey a gentle definition of eternity based on a profound respect for nature transmitted from one generation to the next. There have been vineyards here since almost the founding of the Roman Empire.

This bucolic backdrop makes for an unlikely setting for a revolution, but during the last 30 years a wave of change has jolted the valley’s conservative and genteel traditions of Port production. The bold band of winemakers who launched the charge still leads it. They came together in 2003 and christened themselves “the Douro Boys.” Their shared goal was to put the unfortified wines of the Douro on an equal footing with Port. The wines had the pedigree to achieve a level of recognition appropriate to their inherent quality. And they have. Today the region is rebooted; the Douro’s unfortified wines are on par with the best vintages of Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Piedmont and other storied Old World wine lands.

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Consider that wines from one or more of the Douro’s quintas have made it onto Wine Spectator’s “Top 100 Wines of the Year” list every year for over a decade. This feat casts them as rivals of the Pauillacs, Gevrey-Chambertins, Châteauneuf-du-Papes and Barolos. The highest Douro Valley unfortified wine score to date? Wine Spectator rated a 2011 vintage Quinta do Vale Meão 97/100. From the magazine’s tasting notes: “A lush, seductive red, filled to the brim with an array of dark fruit and kirsch flavors, accented by plenty of cream and spice notes. Silky tannins and molten chocolate hints add richness. The long finish echoes with mineral and white pepper. Best from 2015 through 2022.”

During the recent week I spent among the Douro Boys—men, really—as a fledgling but eager student of Douro Valley wines, I’ve never met a more passionate, worldly-but-earthy and intelligently innovative group of winemakers. Each one taught me something different about the essential character of Douro wines. All of them exemplified the same consistent elegance, charm and graciousness as the superb quaffs I sampled.

The “Boys” are a convivial group of cousins, brothers and friends, and did not jump into winemaking on a whim. Between them, they represent five of the most respected wine estates in the Douro—Quinta do Vallado (Francisco Ferreira and João Alvares Ribeiro), Niepoort (Dirk Niepoort), Quinta do Crasto (Miguel and Tomás Roquette), Quinta Vale Dona Maria (Cristiano van Zeller) and Quinta do Vale Meão (Francisco Olazabal). Although descended from some of the most famous Port-making families in the region, none of these men find their ardor for making unfortified wine incongruous with their families’ history. “Innovation is actually very much a part of our heritage,” observed the amiable Cristiano van Zeller when I visited him at Quinta Vale Dona Maria, where he makes wine from 50-year-old vines on property that has been in his wife’s family for 150 years. The Wine Advocate’s Robert Parker said of the Quinta do Vale D. Maria 2009, “It will be a contender for wine of the vintage” and rated it 96 points.

“From generation to generation, we have been documenting every single square foot of this valley, because even if they are just a few feet apart, different parcels of land can produce wholly different wines,” van Zeller said. “This is why we have to mix and match different barrels from different plots to get the right balance in a wine.”

“Everything changed in 1986 when Portugal joined the European Union,” explained Carlos Raposo, the brilliant young cellar master who oversees production as part of his collaboration with winemaker Dirk Niepoort at the latter’s Quinta de Napoles vineyards. The EU abolished the monopoly that funneled Ports produced in the Douro region to the big Port houses that blended, matured and marketed them from their cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia across the river from Porto. “Wine producers were finally able to bypass the houses founded by the English and Dutch Port merchants and were free to sell independently,” Raposo said.

To appreciate the magnitude of this change, it helps to know a little bit about the history of winemaking in the valley of the Douro River, which originates at Picos de Urbión in Spain and then flows 557 miles west across northern Portugal before reaching the Atlantic Ocean at Porto. Archaeological evidence indicates wine has been made in the upper valley since the Bronze Age some 3,000 years ago, but the region’s vineyards really thrived when Portugal became part of the wine-loving Roman Empire in the 3rd century B.C. What sealed the fate of the Douro as a producer of fortified wine for centuries was a series of treaties signed between England and Portugal that gave Portugal privileged access to the lucrative British market.

The 1703 Methuen Treaty put Portugal on a preferential basis in supplying Britain through lower tariffs on wines from Portugal than those from other countries. After a quality scandal in the region in the early 1700s caused Port sales to plummet, the Marquis de Pombal, a Portuguese nobleman, founded the now legendary Douro Wine Company to regulate the Port trade. The company, for the first time, officially delineated those regions of the valley that had the legal right to call their fortified wine “Port.” (The Douro is one of the three oldest established wine appellations in the world.) The thriving commerce between England and Portugal led to the establishment of a community of English and other European wine brokers in Porto, and the founding of the great Port houses, which enjoyed a monopoly some winemakers describe as quasi-feudal with the quinta producers until 1986.

“In 1987, when Dirk told his father that he wanted to buy the 70-acre Quinta de Napoles and begin producing wine, the older gentleman first thought his son had taken leave of his senses, but eventually he came around,” explained Raposo. “After several years of hard work, Dirk’s Redoma wines showed everyone the incredible potential of the Douro to produce unfortified white wine, which surprised everyone, because almost none had been made here in the past—the Douro was considered red-wine territory par excellence. Niepoort whites are made with local varietals like rabigato, codega do larinho and viosinho. These grapes come from very old vineyards planted in mica schist soils at high altitudes, which yield delicate mineral-rich wines of great complexity.”

It isn’t just the grapes and terroir, the French idea of a very specific geographical place. “We still work according to traditional methods, including crushing the grapes by foot in large, open, waist-high stone tanks called lagares,” said Raposo, who worked at wineries around the world before joining the Niepoort winery. “The reason we work this way is the foot never crushes the grape pips [seeds], releasing bitter oils the way that mechanical presses do, and the granite used to make the lagares gives the wine more character, too.”

On a chilly autumn afternoon, a fire crackled in the fireplace of the elegant dining room at Quinta do Vale Meão. August oil paintings on the walls and silver-framed family portraits on the sideboards brought generations of family to the table even though today’s owner, Francisco Olazabal, entertained a single guest—me—for lunch. The meal began with a soothing country soup made from potatoes, stock and turnip greens.

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A main course of braised partridge hunted by the host in the surrounding hills followed. The succulent bird was served with a Quinta do Vale Meão 2013, an elegant red wine made from touriga nacional, touriga franca, tinta barroca and tinta roriz grapes grown on the estate. “This wine shows off the best elements of New and Old World style. You’ll find it’s full- bodied and fresh without any cloying jaminess,” said Olazabal, and he was right.

For the Douro, Olazabal’s estate is relatively recent. The 650- acre quinta was founded in 1877 by Antónia Adelaide Ferreira, his great-great grandmother. “She was from the Ferreira Port family, and her plan was to create a model vineyard. Almost all of the grapes grown here were sold to Ferreira to make Port until 1998, when my father resigned as director of Ferreira to dedicate himself to producing great still [unfortified] wines on the estate,” Olazabal said. “My great-great grandmother was sort of a visionary,” he added, explaining that the quinta lies on a geological fault with two distinctly different soil types: schist in front of the house and granite out back. “She knew this, and by buying this land she gave us great tools, because different grapes prefer different soils,” he said.

“We’re quite different from other Douro producers, because our vineyards are young and vinified according to individual parcels and then blended,” Olazabal told me while we visited his recently renovated aging cellars, where the air smelled deliciously of dried red fruit, especially cherries. “The real genius of the new Douro wines is that they can present such a strong sense of terroir but also be discreetly modern.”

While Olazabal maintains individual parcels of varietals, the other Douro estates still use the traditional local “field blend” system of grape growing. In this, different varieties are planted in a single parcel and picked at the same time. “These parcels are so precious that we have catalogued every single vine in case we need to replant. There are some dozen different grape varieties in those parcels, and together they make magic,” Miguel Roquette told me as we stared out over the vineyards that produce the grapes from which his family’s most highly lauded wine, the Quinta do Crasto Vinha Maria Teresa, is made. (Wine Spectator awarded the 2005 and 2011 vintages 96/100 and the 2007 vintage 95/100, while Robert Parker rated the 2001 as 95/100, the 2003 as 96/100 and the 2005 as 94/100.) Until I actually tasted the 2005 vintage in a Porto restaurant a few days later, the most interesting thing about my visit to Roquette’s estate was botanical.

“Come, Alexander. It’s important that you see this. This will tell you more about what makes the Douro the Douro than anything else,” Roquette said. I followed him into the dark on a cool, autumn night with a fine sliver of a new moon in the star-studded sky above. Using his cellphone, he lit the way through the gardens outside of the family house on the farm. “Here we are,” he said, shining the light on an amazingly long, thick and gnarled slate gray root exposed in the side of a snaggly cliff. “The vine that sent down that root is at least a hundred feet above us on the hillside. Do you feel the power in this root, the obstinacy of nature? This is the Douro, a harsh place where the vines struggle but end up producing some of the world’s best grapes, from which we’re now making some of the world’s best wines,” said Roquette, sounding as awed as if he were seeing the root for the first time.

This is why you might honestly say that the Douro is living up to its name, since “douro” means “golden” in Portuguese, and this wine region, at once venerable and brilliantly avant- garde, is clearly just on the cusp of a new golden age.

Experience Florence Like a Local

The Ultimate Guide to Florence

November 16, 2018

What I love most about Florence is that it was the birthplace of the Renaissance, the time period from the 14th to 17th centuries that was the crucible of modern European culture,” says Silvia Ponticelli, 49, and a charming and impressively erudite Florence native who holds a degree in art history and attended an interpreter’s school before deciding to become a professional tour guide 16 years ago. “I like to share my passions with people,” says Ponticelli, who speaks four languages (Italian, French—her mother is French— English and German) and has a wonderful sense of humor.

“A city like Florence, which has over 61 different museums and so many other extraordinary things to see and do can be a bit overwhelming. So I’m here to help craft perfect days or weeks in the city in such a way as to avoid the malady that befell the great French writer Stendhal.” 

Stendhal, the pen name of 19th century French writer Marie-Henri Beyle, author of the famous novel The Red and the Black gave his name to the mild psychosomatic illness, Stendhal’s Syndrome, he experienced while visiting Florence in 1817. As he explains in another one of his books Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio, following a visit to the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, where Michelangelo and Galileo are buried and the walls are covered with frescoes by Giotto, “I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty… I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations… Everything spoke so vividly to my soul.” 

In plainer words, poor, old Stendhal was just plain floored by the aesthetic richness of Florence, a reaction Ponticelli says she’s witnessed many times. “This is why I advise people that it’s better to enjoy a smaller number of special, carefully chosen experiences than to think that you see everything during a single visit to the city. I’ve lived here all of my life and I’m still discovering new things!” she says. Here is a selection of her Florence favorites.

Favorite Work of Art 

The Michelangelo Crucifix in the Basilica di Santo Spirito. “The year 1492 was very important in Florence, because Lorenzo the Magnificent, the great statesman and patron of the arts, died. This meant Michelangelo lost his patron, which is why he moved to the Basilica di Santo Spirito, where he did anatomical studies on corpses brought to the church for funerals. The knowledge of the human body he gained is powerfully expressed by the remarkably lifelike wooden crucifix he produced while he was living at the church,” says Ponticelli.

Tip for Museum Visits

“Few people know that both the Uffizi Museum and the Accademia Gallery can be visited outside of their normal opening hours. These special hours are announced as ‘news’ on the websites of the respective museums,” she advises. 

Hidden Places

“I like to create itineraries that include a mixture of venues. So after museums and churches, I’ll take people for a walk to the Giardino Bardini, a beautiful Italian garden that just recently opened to the public. There’s a spectacular view over the city from this garden, too.”

Favorite Artisans

Lastrucci: Mosaics made with semi-precious stones. “This is a typical Florentine handicraft,” says Ponticelli. “The mosaics are made today in the same way that they were when they were chosen by Grand Duke Cosimo I to decorate the Medici chapels. These mosaics are meant to last forever. They work by commission, and what I most enjoy about visiting the studio is to see the way they work. There are only two or three apprentices in the studio, so this is a craft that may disappear one day.”

Ippogrifo: Hand-made etchings. “Etching was the first way of printing beautiful images,” explains Ponticelli. “At Ippogrifo, you see the whole process of creating an etching. First, a copper plate is coated with protective wax, then the artwork is drawn in the wax. Next the plate is immersed in acid, which consumes the exposed copper to create the etching plate. It’s an absolutely fascinating process.”

Galleria Romanelli: Bronze sculpture and statues.This studio produces statues by using the traditional lost wax technique. You can see the whole process in their atelier, where they work with molten metal. It’s very dramatic.”

Paolo Penko: Jeweler.Paolo Penko is a craftsman who is often inspired by the art of the Renaissance in his jewelry designs. He is a master goldsmith known for working in white and yellow gold together, which is part of the great jewelry making tradition of Florence.”

This Beautiful Spanish Island is a Local Favorite

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This Beautiful Spanish Island is a Local Favorite

November 12, 2018

The Mediterranean Sea does not want me to go swimming. Walking down a staircase carved out of a cliff, the waves below are undeniably angry. If the swells were smaller, I’m sure there’d be dozens of swimmers waiting to dive off these steps directly into the water. Instead, I have the cliff to myself. Waves crashing into them spray me, even though I’m standing 15 feet above. It’s magical, in
a mysterious, moody way.

Mallorca has hundreds and hundreds of miles of coastline. In the western Mediterranean, nestled off the east coast of Spain almost equidistant between Barcelona and the northern shore of Algeria, the island is famous for its beaches, aquamarine waters and sheltered harbors. It has more beaches than anyone seems to have been able to count—I ask around and get answers from “about 100” to the very specific “218.” There are white sand beaches, dramatic beaches perched beneath cliffs, beaches you can only get to by boat or by foot, long beaches, beaches at the end of dead-end roads, beaches where celebrities like Claudia Schiffer or Michael Douglas hang out (both own homes on the island) and secret, little-known beaches.

During my week on the island—my very first time there—I spend, in total, less than half-a-day on beaches. And I don’t care. By day three the island has so engaged me, I start to plan a return trip. At least I think it will be just a trip, but the locals warn me that it could turn into something else.

“Be careful,” says Rory Lafferty, founder of the Vespa rental company Bullimoto, in Sóller and Palma and formerly of Sussex, England. “We came here for my sister- in-law’s wedding, stayed for five days and decided to give up the UK and move here.”

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That was in 2011. My tour guide around Palma, the southern city home to half of Mallorca’s population, had a similar story. Teresa Solivellas, who, with sister Maria runs Ca Na Toneta, a restaurant their parents opened 20 years ago in Caimari, an unassuming village on the southern slopes of the Serra de Tramuntana mountains says, “This is not the Caribbean. Mallorca has millennia of history shaped by its complex landscape.”

One of the 151 Balearic Islands—only five are inhabited—Mallorca is a geological, archaeological
and cultural playground. Bronze Age tribes lived here
and conducted primitive trade around the western Mediterranean. The island was under Phoenician and then Carthaginian rule in the 8th and 7th centuries B.C. For five centuries, the Romans, who founded the city that grew into Palma, ruled. Next came Vandals, then Byzantines and, at the end of the 8th century, Moors. In 1229 the Catalan King Jaume I conquered the island and gifted it to his youngest son as an independent kingdom. Independence lasted
only briefly. Within a century the island was forcibly re- incorporated into the Kingdom of Aragon and, in the 15th century, made part of Spain. Fast-forward 300 years to the 18th century: The island is still Spanish, but in constant fear of raids by North African pirates.

Mallorca’s is a knotty history, to say the least. Traveling the island—driving, biking or hiking—you see evidence of all of these cultures: Bronze Age rock temples, Phoenician citadels, well-laid Roman roads, graceful Arab arches
and the Gothic Le Seu cathedral in Palma, which took more than two centuries to construct and was finally consecrated in 1601.

“Our history is a crazy one and doesn’t always feel so much in the past,” says Pep Solivellas, cousin of Teresa and Maria and, with his father and brother, the maker of the olive oil, Oli Solivellas, served at Ca Na Toneta. “I think there are olive trees up in the mountains here from more than 2,000 years ago,” he says.

The oldest trees in Pep’s 21-acre Oli Solivellas grove
were planted in 1999 but the land has been in his family “since ancient times, I don’t even know how long,” he says. While we talk, we sit in his kitchen and he shows me how to smash a tomato onto a slice of fresh bread, sprinkle it with salt and drizzle it with olive oil for the ultimate local’s breakfast. The olive tree—gnarled and sculptural—that greets visitors to his farm is about 600 years old, but isn’t original to the property. “It was transplanted from the mountains,” Pep says. “All of the ancient olive trees you will see around the island—in Palma, on the plains, on golf courses—are originally from the mountains. People moved them down to be decorative. They’re beautiful, aren’t they?” Yes, but all of Mallorca’s landscape is beautiful.

On the flight into Palma, I pressed my face against the window. Below, the Mediterranean was dozens of different shades of azure. Sunlight glimmered off the tops of rolling waves and strips of sand of varying sizes popped into and out of view. Before I could even begin to count them, they, along with the sea, were gone. Snaggly, forested, wild mountains, the Serra de Tramuntana, replaced them.

As historic as they are rugged, the range is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Beneath my window it exploded, almost directly from the sea, up several thousand feet. 
No foothills temper this range as it runs for 50 miles
along the island’s northwest coast. And then, as quickly
as the Tramuntanas appeared, they were gone and we touched down in a flat plain dotted with windmills. If
sea, mountains and plains are not enough variety, the passenger next to me told me about Cuevas Drach, a series of underground caves with millions of stalactites and an underground lake on the island’s southern coast.

“Mallorca is its landscape and its landscape is a diverse mix,” Teresa says. “The mix explains us—our lifestyle, 
our gastronomy.” As eloquent and impassioned as Teresa’s words are, Maria wants to explain in greater detail. “You must eat,” she says. “I explain Mallorca with its flavors.” Okay!

Absolutely everything on Ca Na Toneta’s menu is
grown raised or caught locally. Pep makes the olive oil. 
His traditional Mallorcan oil is guaranteed through the Protected Designation of Origin “Oli de Mallorca” and sold in gourmet shops around the island and at the family farm. The sisters’ mother Catalina, the restaurant’s original chef, grows much of the produce in a garden a 5-minute drive from the restaurant. The menu changes weekly. “There
is no compromising on ingredients. Except for coffee, chocolate and sugar, its only Mallorca flavors,” Maria says.

Six courses—including cuttlefish and hake and rosemary, artichokes, unleavened bread made from grain endemic to the island and pork loin—and a bottle of wine later, I have 
a burgeoning idea of the island’s flavors, and full awareness that I’ve just had one of the best meals of my life. Maria’s food is rustically delicate. I’ve never before been a fan of cuttlefish—bitter and tough—but Maria slices it paper thin to add a lovely texture and saltiness to her fish soup with watercress. Dishes are beautiful, but not fussy. Flavors are simple, but strong. The first time I had a truly farm-fresh tomato, it was revelatory. Every dish at Ca Na Toneta is like that.

Leaving, I can’t help but wonder if the meal, and the restaurant, is a dream. There are certainly restaurants
that enjoy being off the beaten path, but the Solivellas sisters seem to actually be hiding. Caimari has a population of around 700. When I leave the restaurant, only a few streetlights illuminate the town’s cobblestone streets, which are so narrow I have to pull my car’s side mirrors in or risk scraping them on centuries-old buildings on either side of the road.

“It is not very touristic. It is not rich or fancy,” Teresa says of Caimari. “It is one of the places that is deep Mallorca.” If Caimari and Ca Na Toneta are deep Mallorca, I want more. I start by hiking up to the 2,800-some foot Coll de l’Ofre, in the Tramuntana Range at the back of the Biniaraix Gorge. “These mountains dominate our landscape and this area of them is the most special,” says the guide I consult at Hiking Mallorca.

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Many villages tucked between the Tramuntana Range, “mountains of the north wind,” and the sea cascade down hillsides in a series of terraces ending just above precipitous drop offs. The range is the island’s heart and backbone but also a geologic noose, separating the towns and villages in the north from those in the south. Several peaks are more than 4,000 feet tall and often snow-covered in winter.

Until 1912, when the first safe route through the mountains was completed (it had 13 tunnels and took seven years to build), the north was more influenced by France than by the rest of Mallorca. France was easier
to get to than Palma. If you had to go to Palma, a boat was the safe option. There was an overland route, a narrow path up and over the Coll de Sóller, but at its best it was harrowing and at its worst, dangerous. A road elsewhere in the range built in 1932, Ruta de Sa Calobra, is, to this day, considered among the most dangerous drives in Spain. It is also considered one of the world’s great road bike rides, if you hit it when there’s little car traffic. Professional cyclists often train in Mallorca before
their race season starts in early spring. Sa Calobra’s eight miles—it dead-ends at the sea—include 50 curves and no tunnels. (The former allowed the latter.) One turn curves 270-degrees and then goes under itself. From top to bottom the elevation change is 2,200 feet. Thankfully my walk up to the Coll de l’Ofre is not dangerous, although the elevation gain is about the same as Sa Calobra.

Leaving Biniaraix, a French-feeling village above the bigger and even more French-influenced town of Sóller, the path is a tidy cobblestone with a border of boulders. 
The Hiking Mallorca guide says the uniqueness of the Biniaraix Gorge is how well-preserved its dry stone trail
is. This hike is only one part of the longer, multi-day Dry Stone Trail. Formally known as GR221, that trek is, without question, the island’s most famous long-distance walk. The Dry Stone Trail name comes from how the trail was constructed, without the use of mortar.

When the cobblestones start switch-backing to climb
up the gorge, stone stairs appear. You would think such
a well-constructed and orderly trail would make for comfortable hiking. My feet, in thin-soled running shoes and unaccustomed to walking on stones, no matter how smooth, disagree. The beginning of a blister festers on the ball of my right foot. I keep waiting for the stonework to end and the trail to turn to dirt. The effort behind building such a trail for any serious distance is unimaginable. But one mile and 600 vertical feet up the trail is still stone. Two miles and 1,500 feet and there’s no dirt yet in sight. When I begin to feel fatigued, I remind myself what I’m doing is nothing compared to the labor it took to make the trail. Dry stone is among the longest-lasting types of construction, but building it is backbreaking labor.

Dry stone structures—terraces, roads and fences in addition to trails—are visible throughout Mallorca’s mountainous northwest. Arabs are credited with introducing the agricultural technique of dry stone terracing to the island in the 10th century. The provenance of the Dry Stone Trail itself is murky, but most people agree it’s a route that has been used for centuries. I’ve only been hiking it for an hour, and it feels like centuries. This is only partly because of my sore feet. Mostly it’s because of Mallorca.

Nearly at the top, the breeze smells of rosemary and piñon and my only visible companions are wild goats scampering between exiguous holds on the craggy cliff walls on either side of the gorge. The nooks and crannies between the stones beneath my feet are full of fallen Mallorquina olives, ripened to a dark brown after they weren’t taken in the most recent harvest. Nowhere ahead or on any of the peaks that rise above is there any sign of modern civilization. I’ve hiked back in time. Or maybe I’ve just found one of the rare places in the world so connected to its landscape, time becomes irrelevant.

Bite Into Rome with One of Italian Food’s Leading Experts

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Bite Into the Best Food in Rome with an Italian Food Expert

October 17, 2018

How did a nice girl from suburban New Jersey grow up to become one of the world’s leading experts on Italian food and cooking? “My mother shopped at seasonal farm stalls and is an amazing cook, and my Sicilian-American father has always been in the restaurant business,” says Katie Parla, 36, whose beautifully photographed Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavors and Forgotten Recipes From an Ancient City, was published by Clarkson Potter. It’s a cookbook, a gastronomic tour of Rome, which Parla has called home for 13 years, and a favorite of chef Mario Batali, who wrote the introduction.

“As a kid I was spoiled at the table. Mom, whose family is from the Italian region of Basilicata, made great pasta sauces, but I was a New Jersey kid who loved spending time at her dad’s restaurant, because it meant all the Shirley Temples, chicken fingers and curly fries with extra cheese sauce I wanted,” explains Parla with a laugh.

Parla’s conversion to serious gastronomy began in 1996 when she visited Rome, her first trip abroad, as a 16-year-old high school student studying Latin. “I knew from the first day I arrived that Rome was where I belonged,” she says. She returned to New Jersey and, concurrent with her high school classes, began taking Italian language lessons at the local community college and art history classes at Rutgers, a short train ride from her home. She continued to pursue art history, with a focus on Roman antiquity, at Yale. “I spent my college summers in Rome on research grants, and the food was a total revelation to me. I identify as an Italian-American, but the food I’d grown up eating had nothing to do with the Roman kitchen, so I found it both fascinating and delicious,” says Parla.

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In 2003, Parla moved to Rome full time and began teaching history at a local boarding school. In 2004, she founded a company specializing in small-group private tours of Rome with gastronomic and cultural themes. The same year, she began writing and editing guidebooks to the city for the Rough Guides, Time Out, Dorling Kindersley, National Geographic, Fodor’s and other publishers. She became a certified Italian sommelier in 2006 after completing the sommelier training course run by FISAR, the Italian Federation of Restaurant and Hotel Professionals, and in 2008 she completed her M.A. in Italian Gastronomic Culture and founded her website, katieparla.com, where she’s “the best friend you wish you had—the one who grew up in New Jersey so she’s fun and easy to talk to, but she’s lived in Rome for 13 years and knows all the best places to go for food, and more importantly, cocktails.”

“One of the questions I’m asked most often is what is the best food market in Rome,” she says. “I send people to the Trionfale market (Via Andrea Doria 41, Monday-Saturday) in the Prati neighborhood near the Vatican, because it has over 200 stalls and offers such a spectacular array of seasonal produce.

Many of the vendors are farmers, and you find foods here like nettles and wild greens that you don’t see at other markets. The fish mongers are outstanding, too, since what they sell is locally landed.” Instinctively generous, Parla shares an assortment of her other favorite Roman addresses on the following pages.

For all the Roman Pasta Classics: Flavio al Velavevodetto

Flavio al Velavevodetto may have only opened in 2009, but its atmosphere and décor give it the feel of a long-established institution. The historic feel is only amplified by its location—it’s built into an archaeological site. I visit Flavio’s cavernous dining rooms for all the classic pastas: carbonara, gricia and amatriciana, each studded with bits of cured pork jowl and liberally dusted with Pecorino Romano cheese.”

For a timeout from pasta: Mesob

“Whenever I need a break from pasta and offal, I hop on my bike and pedal to the Via Prenestina in eastern Rome where a converted garage is home to the Ethiopian restaurant Mesob. Owner Kuki Tadese serves family recipes—richly spiced stews and simmered vegetables—on sheets of sourdough flatbread at wicker tables in the traditionally decorated dining room.”

Best Roman Style Quick Bite: Mordi e Vai

“At the edge of the Testaccio Market, Sergio Esposito and his wife Mara serve family recipes like simmered beef and stewed tripe on locally baked bread. Although the concept of serving portable versions of Roman classics might not seem innovative, it is a total novelty for Rome and Mordi e Vai perfectly balances the local need for authentic flavors with the demand for a quick, affordable dining option.”

Best Gelato: Al Settimo Gelo

“There are more than 2,500 gelato shops in Rome but singling out the best is easy. Only a handful use all-natural ingredients and Al Settimo Gelo is among this small but important crew. The pistachio, hazelnut, chocolate, almond and zabaione flavors are extraordinarily rich and creamy on their own, but benefit from pairing. Thankfully, each small cup or cone comes with at least two flavors.”

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Discover Roman Jewish Cooking: Nonna Betta

“Amidst the Jewish quarter’s many mediocre dining options, Nonna Betta dutifully reproduces the delicious dishes that owner Umberto Pavoncello grew up eating just a few buildings away. Nonna Betta serves all the local Jewish classics—fried artichokes, marinated zucchini, anchovy and endive casserole and ricotta cake—and is the only place in central Rome where these traditional items are executed with care.”

Best Sunday Lunch: Tavernaccia da Bruno

“You’ll be hard pressed to find a place with nicer staff or more comforting food than this family-
run trattoria in Trastevere. Founded in 1968, Tavernaccia da Bruno serves a mix of soulful Roman classics and slow-roasted meats. On Sundays, they also serve fabulously rich, béchamel- laced lasagna baked in a wood-burning oven.”

Best Roman Breakfast: Roscioli Caffe

“Romans aren’t known for their breakfast culture—a cheap espresso/pastry combo is the standard—but when the historic Roscioli baking family opened this café-pastry shop in central Rome they changed the game by offering coffee made from custom-roasted beans and carefully crafted, butter-based sweets, both a rarity in the Italian capital. I visit daily for a caffè doppio (double espresso) and maritozzo con panna (a sweet bun filled with whipped cream).”

Best lunch near the Vatican: Pizzarium

“Just a few blocks from the Vatican Museum’s entrance, pizzaiolo Gabriele Bonci transforms pizza by the slice, Rome’s ubiquitous fast food, into a gourmet experience. His dough develops exceptional flavors and aromas through slow, cold fermentation and is topped with seasonal produce from biodynamic farms and cheeses and cured meats culled from Italy’s top artisans. I never miss a slice of the surprisingly light potato and mozzarella pizza.”

Where to eat off-ally Roman: Cesare al Casaletto

This neighborhood trattoria, which is known for its delicious fried starters and traditional pastas, is my top spot for offal in Rome, and of course Rome is one of the most offal-loving cities in the world. The rigatoni co’ la pajata (pasta with suckling calf intestines), fegatelli di maiale (grilled pig’s liver) and trippa alla romana (tripe stewed with tomatoes, pecorino and mint) are refined in spite of their humble ingredients, and if you’re not up for an organ recital, the braised oxtail is superb, too.”

Best new style Roman cooking: Mazzo

“Francesca Barreca and Marco Baccanelli opened their 10-seat neo-trattoria in Rome’s eastern periphery in 2013. The couple got their start hosting pop-ups and doing performance cooking, but they have settled into restaurant life, teasing Roman flavors into new forms like simmered lamb and pecorino croquettes, or oxtail terrine.”

Bordeaux’s $93M Wine Center Takes Global Approach to Education

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Bordeaux's $93M Wine Center Takes Global Approach to Education

October 16, 2018

When the dramatic $93 million multimedia Cité du Vin (City of Wine) opened on the banks of the Garonne River in Bordeaux this June, it signaled an epic shift in the way the world’s most famous wine-making city thinks about wine. For centuries, the feeling of Bordeaux’s wine culture has been that connoisseurship is the prize of hard-earned and exigently disciplined study; it was a privilege neither accessible nor comprehensible to all comers. La Cité du Vin takes a dramatically friendlier and more inclusive approach to both consuming and understanding wine. It is designed to be as rewarding for the novice as it is for the expert.

It also provides previously flummoxed travelers and wine pilgrims with a glamorous 21st-century focal point for their interest in wine. Though Bordeaux has always had a variety of fine wine bars and other places in which to buy or sample wine, and a small wine museum—the charmingly musty Musée du Vin et du Négoce—visitors to the city never had an oenological epicenter to visit. Until now.

Designed by architects Anouk Legendre and Nicolas Des- mazières, founders of the Paris-based architectural firm XTU, the Cité du Vin is a horn-shaped, 180-foot-tall, 10-story metal- and-glass structure perched on the banks of the Garonne just north (and pretty much out of sight) of Bordeaux’s exquisite 18th-century heart. Marvel at its exterior and then head inside, where 19 permanent spaces, many of them interactive, cover various wine themes. The center has three tasting laboratories that include specially designed multisensory experiences for a total immersion in wine; a viewing platform; a boat dock from which to embark on visits to the wine chateaux up and down river; a temporary exhibition center; a wine bar and snack bar with an outdoor patio; a wine cellar with more than 800 different wines, including 200 from France, and a panoramic restaurant on the seventh floor that offers a superb variety of wines by-the-glass.

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Photo Source bordeaux-tourism.co.uk

“La Cité du Vin is transformational for Bordeaux,” says Sylvie Cazes, president of the Foundation for Wine Culture and Civilizations, which operates La Cité du Vin, and the doyenne of one of the most famous wine-making families in the region. Her company, the Domaine Jean-Michel Cazes, owns a variety of the most prestigious vineyards in the Bordelais, including Chateau Lynch-Bages and Chateau Les Ormes de Pez, along with Le Chapon Fin, one of the city’s oldest and most distinguished restaurants.

The project originated in 2008 under the auspices of Bordeaux’s then mayor, Alain Juppé [France’s former prime minister]. “He recognized that wine tourism was vitally important for Bordeaux, both for economic reasons and also as an affirmation of the city’s viniferous identity,” explains Cazes. In 2009, a feasibility study group was created and the results were presented to the Bordeaux Interprofessional Wine Council and other partners in the project, including the Aquitaine region of which Bordeaux is the historic capital.

“The guiding idea for the project was the decision that the content of the cultural center would be international, or treat the wines of the world and not just the Bordelais or other regions of France, and this was overwhelmingly approved by all of the partners in the project,” Cazes says. “The point of La Cité is to present the complexity of wine in an appealingly simple way.”

What she found more delicate to expound upon during a recent pre-opening chat was the extent to which this decision was strikingly radical; Bordeaux is a city fiercely wedded to tradition. Or it had previously. One well-known local wine- maker observes, “There was a fair amount of pretty strident back-and-forth with regard to what the aims of the Cité du Vin should be, with some of the old guard insisting that it should be a showcase for Bordeaux wines, and this makes
the final decision on the pedagogy of La Cité that much more surprising and innovative.”

The center also amplifies the new urban boldness of Bordeaux, which was an aristocratic sleeping beauty of a city before Alain Juppé launched a wholesale renovation of the town. Under Juppé, Bordeaux got a new tramway system with discreetly chic forest-green carriages, carefully cleaned thousands of its darkened facades and also re-landscaped its river embankment. Formerly the riverbanks through the city were an ancient venue of commerce or, more recently, a busy roadway. Today they are a stylish promenade of gardens and bike paths and walkways. Then, too, Cité du Vin will accelerate a shift in the city’s center of gravity—from its traditional core around the Palais de la Bourse and the Opera northward to Bassins à Flot, a rapidly developing new neighborhood in a former docklands district.

Where the Cité du Vin succeeds immediately is that a visit to the permanent exhibit will be just as interesting for you as for your 12-year-old. This is because the lighting and graphics of the displays are sophisticated and modern, but warm and approachable. Similarly, the themed content is presented in a layered, didactic way that achieves just the right pitch of seriousness without ever becoming academic or too complex.

The exhibit includes a section devoted to drinking responsibly. “The place that wine occupies in different cultures varies a lot, so of course we address the possible dangers of alcohol and drinking responsibly,” Cazes says. This message is communicated with great Gallic subtlety at the module “The Chair of Despair,” a reference to the most common result of overdrinking, the hangover. The stop includes an actual Chair of Despair, where you sit alone and listen as artists and poets who drank too much tell their woeful tales of the damage it did them. It is certainly thought provoking.

London-based Casson Mann, which specializes in the design of museum interiors and exhibition spaces, conceived the displays and content of the center in collaboration with the Cité du Vin’s staff. Visitors are taken through time and space with a state-of-the-art, hand-held, infrared audio guide that detects their location and automatically launches the appropriate content as they explore the civilizations of wine.

The first stop of any visit, “World Tour of Vineyards,” includes a short film shot from a helicopter by the same production team on five continents. The only continent where wine is not produced is Antarctica. Shown on three huge screens, it conveys the universality of wine and also highlights the dramatically different geographical and climactic regions where it’s produced. (Annually, La Cité showcases three temporary exhibitions and a different wine region. “The first guest of honor is Georgia, which has been making wine since 7 B.C.,” Cazes explains.)

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Next up, “The Terroir Table” introduces the concept of winemaking’s geographical specificity. Where grapes are grown affects the flavors of the wine made from them. French winemakers cherish terroir, and it is also the natural structure upon which the classification of French vineyards is officially based. To wit, a great winemaker will have an encyclopedic knowledge of the differing personalities of the grapes produced by every square foot of his or her vineyards, and this knowledge underpins the blending that creates a truly magnificent wine. Terroir explains why French wines are marketed and sold according to the geographical regions from which they originate and are named for the farms where they were produced instead of by grape variety (cépage). New World wines made in North and South America, Australia, New Zealand and Africa are often described by cépage.

“Our approach at La Cité du Vin is reportorial,” Cazes explains. “So there are no judgments offered in terms of different wine-production methods. It is our intention that the Cité become a place where people make connections and that it should be a place of learning, sharing and having a good time,” she says.

Answering a question about how La Cité du Vin addresses the qualitative differences between the world’s wine-producing regions, she continues, “I think that it’s in every winemaker’s best interests to sell to the most educated consumer possible.”

The “Terroir” segment is ultimately one of the most important. It’s comprised of video interviews with winemakers from 10 renowned wine regions, including Spain’s Rioja and Australia’s Barossa Valley, who explain how the geographical and climactic conditions in their particular area impact vines. This may sound dry but their passionate knowledge makes it extremely interesting.

Subsequent modules cover grape varieties, the wine trade, wine in history, wine in art and wine in love, or as part of the art of seduction. The most interactive exhibit is “The Five Senses Buffet.” Here, everyone becomes an expert-in-training on the “nose,” or scent, of wine. A series of glass bell jars contain different products wine experts commonly use to describe the perfume of a wine, including flowers, strawberries and wood shavings. Squeeze the rubber bulb attached to the display and you get a bracing burst of the scent of the product displayed.

At the end of the average two- hour-long visit to La Cité du Vin’s permanent exhibition, odds are you’ll be ready for a nice glass of wine. The Belvedere, on the eighth floor and the entrance to which is included in the ticket price, offers a selection of quaffs by the glass. For a more formal and meditative viniferous experience, book a table at Restaurant le 7, which has an expectedly excellent wine list. For a final surprise, stop by the wine shop. Run by Régis Deltil, a famous wine merchant from nearby Pessac, three-quarters of the wines on sale here come from countries other than France.

Two Gorgeous Islands on Croatia’s Exclusive Dalmatian Coast

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Two Gorgeous Islands on Croatia’s Exclusive Dalmatian Coast

October 15, 2018

As a New Englander, I’ve been collecting islands all my life. The ones I first fell for were close to home. We went as a family to Nantucket, a misty, sail-shaped, moor- covered patch of sand some 14 miles off the coast of Massachusetts. We also vacationed on smaller, quieter islands like Block Island (off the coast of Rhode Island) and Swan’s Island and Isle en Haut, both adrift in Maine’s island-speckled coast.

Thirty-some years ago, I did my junior year of college abroad and lived in London, the vibrant capital of an island nation and also a jumping-off point for getaways to nearby islands like the Isle of Wight, the Scilly Islands, and the Channel Islands. That January, trying to escape the gray skies and damp of London’s winter, two friends and I set out for islands farther afield—Greek islands in the Mediterranean Sea. We expected to find sunshine, wear T-shirts, and maybe even take a swim. But it turns out Greece in winter was barely warmer than Scotland. Broke and chastened by our mistake, we sullenly boarded a train back to London. Thankfully we weren’t so sullen we didn’t talk to fellow passengers.

A pair of Yugoslav Australians on the train were traveling to Split, Croatia. Split, on the Adriatic Sea, they told us, was a fascinating city—Roman ruins, constant sunshine, and good wine. And warmth. The Aussies were getting off the train in Novska and driving to Split in a Volkswagen van borrowed from an aunt. Did we want to come? We could stay with them at a relative’s house, a big place by the sea with beautiful views. Of course we said yes. Walking around Split a couple of days later, the sun so relentlessly toasted the town’s old streets that we were in T-shirts by noon.

Another day, an uncle of our generous new friends said he’d take us to the island of Hvar (pronounced Hwahr) on his fishing boat. He described it simply: “It’s so beautiful it will take your breath away.” We only got to see Hvar from a distance though. Marshal Josep Broz Tito, President for Life of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, was vacationing on a nearby island and the country’s coast guard wasn’t letting boats through. They turned us around. The back- up plan was the best consolation prize I’ve ever gotten: We spent the day in the delightful town of Primošten, some 35 miles up the coast from Split. Here we picked up a chicken and several bottles of Babić, a hearty red produced nearby in stone-walled vineyards (that are currently being considered for listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site). After a swim at Mala Raduča, one of the best beaches in Croatia, we found a quiet cove, put ashore, and had a picnic. We ate fat olives, sharp ewe’s milk cheese, just-baked bread, Croatian ham, and, over a driftwood fire, spit-roasted the chicken and grilled the sardines we’d netted that morning.

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When we had to return to London for the start of the next semester, I left the southern Dalmatian Riviera amazed by the fuzzy, yellow mimosa bushes flowering around Split’s train station. I was determined to come back.

I was, of course, far from the first traveler to fall in love with this littoral. When the first rail lines opened from Vienna and Budapest to the Adriatic port towns of Rijeka and Opatija during the second half of the 19th century, the spectacular beauty of this craggy coastline quickly captured the sun-starved subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The cerulean waters and gentle climate were irresistible. The charm and history of handsome old cities like Split and Dubrovnik offered sophistication.

The most powerful testament to the allure of the Croatian coastline predates this first rush of modern popularity by more than a millennium, however. Roman emperor Diocletian had the vast and varied territories of the ancient world’s largest empire—including much of Britain, Spain, Egypt, and Greece—at his disposal, and chose to retire to what is today Split. Diocletian ordered his retirement villa built there on the water’s edge. (He was the first Roman emperor to abdicate the throne voluntarily.) Diocletian’s palace—“villa” doesn’t do it justice—was completed in 305 A.D. It survives today as one of the best- preserved Roman palaces in Europe and includes both Diocletian’s original residence as well as other structures added over the ensuing centuries like a cathedral, a baptistery created from one of the palace’s original temples, and three 3,500-year-old sphinxes brought to Split from Egypt for the emperor. (If time allows, Split’s Archaeological Museum displays a superb collection of Illyrian, Greek, and Roman artifacts—an elaborately carved, 1800-year-old Roman sarcophagus, a Greek sacrificial altar dating to the 4th century B.C., and gold Roman jewelry from the 4th-7th centuries A.D. Much of the collection was discovered during excavations at Salona just outside of the city.)

Split is also the hub of the ferry and catamaran network linking Croatia’s islands to the mainland. From the Italian border in the north to the Montenegrin border in the south, the Croatian coastline is more than 1,100 miles long.

Only seven months after my promise to return, I was back in Croatia exploring its more than 1,200 islands. An Italian couple taking a two-month-long yachting vacation along the coast hired me as an English tutor for their two children. We spent two weeks between the two islands the couple told me they liked best, Brač (“pronounced Bratch) and Hvar. “They go together like salt and pepper,” said Alessandra, the woman who hired me. These sister islands share a common history— Illyrian, then Greek, then Venetian rule—but are different in terms of their atmosphere, topography, and the visitors they attract. “Brač is primal, rough, and essential, while Hvar is lively, sexy, and fun,” Alessandra said. Both are relaxing in different ways. Brač’s relaxation is in its slow pace; Hvar’s in a day spent on the beach.

That summer I circumnavigated both of these islands by boat several times. With my 13- and 15-year-old charges as guides—they already knew these islands like the backs of their hands—we toured the islands by motor scooter and did long hikes. I helped them with the intricacies of J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye; they taught me these two islands so well I still don’t need a map when I return today, which I regularly do. Both Brač and Hvar are reached by boat from Split. If you get an early start, you’ll have plenty of time to discover each in one day. Or both on two different days. Among the hundreds of inhabited islands off the Croatian coast, these two are true gems.

Brač, the third largest of the Croatian islands, is plump and leaf-shaped, rugged and rustic, and has always earned its keep from hard work. Archeological evidence shows humans lived here during the Paleolithic era. During Illyrian, Greek, Roman, and Venetian rule, Bračians were fishermen and sailors; tended olive groves; worked vineyards, at least until phylloxera destroyed most of them in the 19th century; and mined the beautiful, creamy white limestone the island is made of. At quarries, miners cut the stone into blocks and sent them to the mainland as building material. (Sixteen centuries after being used to build Diocletian’s palace, Brač limestone was used to build the White House. Nearly two centuries after that, Brač stone was used in the construction of the United Nations Secretariat Building in New York City.) Brač’s most famous beach, Zlatni Rat, is famous not for celebrity-spotting like Hvar’s beaches are, but for its geomorphology. Changes in tide, current, and wind transform the shape of the spit at the center of the beach.

Supetar, on Brač’s northern coast and the island’s biggest town (pop. about 3,500), rolls down and around gentle hills blanketed with pine trees and wild herbs like rosemary and thyme. It’s peaceful and idyllic. The intimate harbor front, where ferries from the mainland dock, is edged with the island’s creamy white stone and plump palms whose shaggy crowns are often filled with twittering starlings. It was often the cheerful chatter of these birds that woke me in the morning during my summer on the yacht teaching English. Awake, I’d have a quick coffee in one of the cafes overlooking the port and its small, colorful fleet of fishing boats before heading to a bakery for several loaves of fresh bread.

Bistro Palute (Put Pasike 16), one of the places I liked to linger with a novel when I had an occassional afternoon off, is still in business today. Much of Supetar looks the same as it did those many decades ago. The parish church of Mary Annunciation was built in the 18th century. Its pipe organ dates from 1737 and, with a little luck, you might show up during a service when it’s being used. Next to the church, there are some early Christian mosaics from the 6th century.

Konoba Vinotoka is the village’s best restaurant, whether you choose its cozy, whitewashed tavern with a wood-burning fireplace or the large, modern, airy dining room with views over the town. The same menu is served in both and the catch-of- the-day options are always impeccably fresh, because they’re what local fishermen brought in that morning. I’d start with a plate of Croatian prsut, the country’s rich, savory country ham, and then go for grilled dentex (crimson sea bream), served here with spinach and potatoes.

If you’re lucky, you’ll be served by Bubi, a young waiter who speaks perfect English and has an irrepressible desire to share his love of Brač. Most recently when I ate here, I almost missed my return ferry because of Bubi. When he insisted on serving a complimentary plate of pastries with my coffee at the end of the meal, I insisted on knowing more about the sweets and the conversation became very engrossing.

As cute as Supetar is, Bol, a village on the island’s southern coast that’s long been an artists’ colony, is an operetta set come to life. And the drive there—twisting through a rural, mountainous countryside dotted with small, stone bunje shelters dating back to prehistoric times, and tiny villages (the whole island only has 14,000 permanent residents)—is the stuff car commercials are made of. The landscape is a patchwork of silvery-green olive groves, vineyards, and scrub forest with live oaks and pines. Along the way are two stops, each with a serious sense of place: the village of Škrip and the Blaca Hermitage.

Škrip is the oldest continuously inhabited settlement on the island, and it’s a moody, mineral-hard place. Literally. The homes here are built entirely from stone—both walls and roofs. The Museum of the Island of Brač is in Škrip, and the whole village feels a bit like an open-air museum. Walk around, dodging the donkeys and sheep of the village’s contemporary residents, and see remnants of 5,000-year-old walls built by Illyrians and the island’s largest Roman cemetery. Archeologists believe that buried somewhere near the cemetery are the ruins of a Roman temple.

Compared to Škrip, Blaca Monastery is modern: it was founded in the mid-16th century by Glagolitic priests fleeing the Ottoman invasion of the Croatian mainland. For several years they lived in caves carved out of the cliffs here, but eventually began building the monastery still standing today. The last priest of the order died in 1963 and the monastery has been preserved as a museum since. Its library has more than 8,000 volumes, there is an impressive armory collection, and the monks’ cells and a schoolroom for local kids look like they were used only yesterday.

From Blaca, meat-lovers and adventurous eaters should head to the village of Donji Humac where Konoba Kopačina serves the best version of Brač’s signature dish: vitalac. Cooked over a wood fire in a big open hearth, vitalac is a spit-roasted preparation of lamb’s offal wrapped in caul fat. The restaurant also does less exotic grilled dishes like lamb chops, sausage, and fish, and its terrace has beautiful views over the countryside.

Just before the road begins a series of hairpin curves that zigzag down to Bol, keep your eyes peeled for a view of Zlatni Rat, the geomorphing beach. The cobalt-blue waters of the Adriatic lap at both sides of its arrowhead- shaped, white-sand spit. Just beyond it, built right up to the water’s edge, is Bol. If you want a swim before exploring Bol, look for the sign that indicates the Zlatni Rat parking lot. The beach is about a 10-minute walk.

Bol’s most interesting attraction, aside from Zlatni Rat and the town itself, is the Branislav Dešković Museum, housed in a Renaissance villa on the harbor-front. The museum is named for a Croatian sculptor, but displays more than 300 works by dozens of Croatian artists active in the 19th and 20th centuries. Dešković was best-known for capturing the expressions of animals, and there’s a bronze of a hunting dog just inside the front entrance to the museum. The English-speaking docents are friendly, but they’re no Bubi.

If plump and rugged Brač is a loving babushka, Hvar is a supermodel—long and thin and, thanks to its popularity with Dalmatian nobles in the 18th and 19th centuries, cultured with an aristocratic gloss. (In 1869, Empress Elisabeth of Austria visited and liked Hvar so much she helped finance the construction of the Hotel Palace.) In the island’s main port and biggest town, also named Hvar, buildings date to Venetian rule. Today, during the summer, yachts fill the harbor, and the café terraces around the port are packed with a glamorous, international crowd that has included Beyonce, Tom Cruise, and Oprah.

Depending on the season and the direction of the wind, it’s possible you’ll discover Hvar’s signature scent before you actually arrive on the island. The perfume of the lavender fields planted along the main road that runs from Hvar Town east sometimes wafts out to sea. Otherwise, the breeze coming into the harbor may be laced with the fragrances of pine trees or fig leaves. Whatever scent is in the air, the arrival of every ferry has an opulently festive feel. Passengers on foot and in cars, impeccably dressed, spill onto the stone-edged wharf and air kiss friends accessorized with bright silk scarves and oversized sunglasses, or quickly pop into one of the cafes that line the eastern edge of the port.

While Brač is an island to explore, Hvar is an island to be. To do this, you don’t have to leave Hvar Town, which is one of the most beautiful and best-preserved port towns in Croatia. If Bol is an operetta set, Hvar is an elegant open-air baroque salon perfect for wandering—there are boutiques, restaurants, and museums. The Venetians rebuilt the town—the earliest settlement of note in the area was Roman—in the early 1600s, adding the Pjaca, a rectangular stone-paved main square that is still the area’s heart, and in miniature, recalls some of the refinement of Venice’s Piazza San Marco. At one end of the Pjaca is the harbor and an old arsenal building whose second floor is one of the oldest Baroque playhouses in Europe. The main market and Saint Stephen’s church are at the other end of the Pjaca. You’d think St. Stephen’s Dalmatian Renaissance exterior its most remarkable asset, until you step inside and see artwork that predates Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Bahamas: the 13th-century icon The Madonna and Child and a 15th-century pieta.

Out of the square, wander the narrow lanes of Groda, old town, and make the hike up to the Fortica. Venetians built the Fortica with the help of Spanish engineers in the 1550s; today it has superb views over town. I never look down on the flotilla of yachts, each grander and more gilded than the next, without feeling an affectionate nostalgia for the handsome, white, mahogany-trimmed 1930s yacht that first brought me here more than three decades ago. Notwithstanding my New Englander’s preference for things both simple and plain- spun, I love gawking at this mid-summer magnificence. In both human and nautical terms, it’s one of the best shows to be found anywhere in Europe.

After looking at this show, become part of it. People come to Hvar for the same reason they go to Saint-Tropez—to be a part of one of the world’s most stylish beach scenes. As in Saint-Tropez, the owners of the extravagant craft anchored in the harbor spend their days at glamorous beach clubs.

Hula-Hula Hvar has a party vibe with piped music and a gorgeous young crowd tossing back Austrian sparkling wine. Built in 1927, Bonj les Bains was recently renovated and is more formal. Rent a cabana with chaise lounges and an umbrella here, swim off the pier, book a massage, and tuck into a plate of spaghetti with lobster sauce in its restaurant. Afterward, bring the best of Hvar and Brac together: punctuate the deliciously lazy hours of a long, nose-stuck- in-a-novel afternoon with a plunge into the Adriatic and a glass or two of Stina Winery’s Pošip, a white wine made in Bol of Bračian- grown grapes.

Author Frances Mayes Explains Why Tuscany Tastes Better

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Author Frances Mayes Explains Why Tuscany Tastes Better

September 12, 2018

It’s summer in Tuscany and Frances Mayes, author of Under the Tuscan Sun, is shopping at a fruit stand in her adopted home of Cortona. “Are these plums local?” she asks the elderly woman at the stand as the sweet scent of the fruit perfumes the air. “Oh no, signora,” the vendor apologizes. “They’re from Castiglion Fiorentino,” which is 5 miles away.

This exchange reveals Tuscans’ preference for hyper-local food, one of the essential qualities that make the region’s cuisine so heavenly. Italians in general and Tuscans in particular revere simple dishes made from ingredients found near (or at) their homes, but their appreciation for food goes deeper than taste.

In Tuscany, food isn’t just something to eat—it’s something to do with family and friends: harvesting wild mushrooms, picking olives, canning tomatoes, sharing bowls of pasta, and gathering for dinners where everyone helps cook and conversation flows into the night. “There is an intense passion for local food, and it’s particularly focused on what you can find yourself,” Mayes told me last fall. “And that’s what I see that is so different from living [in the United States].”

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“In Tuscany right this minute [early October] everybody is out looking for the mazza di tamburo, the mushroom of the moment. That means drumstick—it’s shaped like a drumstick with a long stem and a big, flat head. You find them on your own land and saute them with garlic,” Mayes says. Italians “don’t even want them on pasta—they just want them on little crostini because they so want to taste this wild mushroom. In the spring it’s strange things like green almonds. Everybody loves crunchy green almonds before they turn into a nut. To me that’s very much an acquired taste, but local people like them.” Foraging for food, she says, is “profoundly different” than shopping at Whole Foods.

These days, Mayes, who grew up in Georgia, divides her time between an estate in North Carolina and her home in Tuscany. Both homes have names: Chatswood, a 4,500-square-foot Federalist farmhouse built in 1806, was once an inn and is steeped in Southern history; Bramasole, named for the big Etruscan wall near the house, is the Tuscan villa that Frances and her husband, Ed, began refurbishing in the early 1990s and where they’ve spent much of the past 25 years.

Located a couple of miles from town, Bramasole is an imposing three-story stone house in classic Tuscan peach- orange hues that glow in the setting sun. It’s approached by a path flanked by roses, sage, and rosemary. The land on which it sits, a plot that would take “two oxen two days to plow” as stated in the property’s ancient deed, is lined with olive trees.

“When I came here and got out of the car the first time, a real estate agent said, ‘Bramare, to yearn for; and sole, sun— something that yearns for the sun,’” Mayes told me when I interviewed her in 2003 for my book, A Sense of Place, a collection of interviews with travel writers. “That just really hit because metaphorically I was hoping for a connection with the light, something transformative, something big.” The locals thought Mayes was nuts to buy the house because no one in Cortona wanted it. “Now they say to me, ‘I could have bought that house.’ ”

Under the Tuscan Sun, Mayes’ 1996 memoir about restoring Bramasole, had an initial print run of 5,000 copies and quickly leapt to the top of the best-seller lists where it stayed for years. “The expectation I had of it was of course minimal because I had only published books of poetry before then. You don’t know when you write a book whether it is going to sink or swim,” she says. It swam, of course, and has been translated into 52 languages, selling millions of copies and becoming a film of the same title starring Diane Lane.

To mark the book’s 20th anniversary last fall, Broadway Books published a special paperback edition with a new afterword by Mayes in which she speaks of how gathering for meals helped make her part of the local community. Calling herself a “product of a lavish Southern table,” Mayes writes, “Food was the defining point of turning me half-Tuscan. The life around the table reminds me of the South. Every time I pull up my chair to a friend’s table I know that I am home.

Relaxation around food is extraordinary. No need to ask if you can bring an extra guest or two. Throw in another handful of pasta; grab a chair. … Just found mushrooms translate into an invitation to come on over.”

Part of the tremendous response to the book was based on the leap of faith Mayes took, leaving a comfortable life in the U.S.—she’d been a professor of poetry at San Francisco State University—and starting anew in Tuscany. “I think she is beloved for many reasons,” says Elaine Petrocelli, owner of Book Passage, which operates three independent bookstores in the San Francisco Bay area. “Her tales are both fascinating and accessible. She followed her dream to live in Italy, and then as she became part of the fabric of her new Italian community, we laughed, cried, and cheered.”

Early on, Mayes connected with her neighbors by collecting food. Foraging in Italy is seasonal, Mayes says, and part of what knits together Tuscan communities: “In August everybody is out looking for wild fennel” which is when wild blackberries are also at their peak. At other times of the year it’s wild lettuces or purslane, an herb that “grows between the cracks of stones. It’s great in salads and is supposed to be good for your liver.”

Gardening is a big part of Italians’ approach to food as well. “Everybody who has even a little plot is growing some food, particularly in the summer, [such as] tomatoes and basil. I’m in rural Tuscany, and everybody still has a garden. Part of this wonderful aspect of connection with the land is that it’s very involved with the generosity I’ve always experienced among the Italians. When you’ve got your garden, you share it, and people share with you: ‘I’m bringing you figs, you’re bringing me melons,’ that kind of thing.” Sometimes Mayes finds food on her doorstep— squashes one day, bags of spinach the next—and doesn’t even know who left them.

Harvests bring out the best in the community. “The biggest thing of all is the olive harvest. Anyone who can has an olive grove—or their uncle does or their cousin or their friend. Being able to take for granted the most sublime olive oil in the universe is just such a gift and part of that great heritage of connection with the land,” Mayes says. “We pick mid-October. We make lunch, everybody gathers at a rickety old table; they even bring their coffee pots and put them on little burners. There’s a lot of storytelling, a lot of singing and whistling—you’re picking all day and you get really tired, and you’ve got crates and crates of great olives.” The harvest from each tree after pressing produces about a liter of olive oil.

“You go to the mill and that’s another big community thing,” Mayes says. “People are visiting at the mill and getting their new oil. It’s just such an amazing life around food; everybody talks about food. They take a very high level of quality of ingredients totally for granted. They just have no idea what they’ve got.”

In the U.S., where a half-century ago Wonder Bread, Velveeta cheese, and canned string beans were the norm, the trend today is toward artisanal food. Far more Americans now appreciate organic vegetables, fine chocolate, premium coffee, craft beer, whole-grain breads, and non-processed cheese. But in Tuscany, Mayes notes, eating quality food has long been a way of life for just about everyone.

“Things taste better” in Tuscany, she says. “I’ve never figured that out. Even getting apples from the farmer down the road [in North Carolina], compared to the apples in Italy, they just don’t have the depth of flavor. I don’t know why. I guess it’s the Tuscan sun. We found that with so many things—it’s just the flavor in the fruit particularly—you just want to cry.”

With her husband Ed, Mayes is co-author of The Tuscan Sun Cookbook, published in 2012. She includes two recipes from the cookbook in the 20th anniversary edition of Under the Tuscan Sun: one for Baked Pasta with Sausage and Four Cheeses, another for Massimo and Daniela’s Wine Cake.

In the cookbook, she includes a passage from Every Day in Tuscany, her follow-up to Under the Tuscan Sun, simply and poetically evoking a sense of kitchen spirituality. “The choreography of the kitchen—I peel, you scrape, wine spills, bag splits, beans simmer, sink slurps, petals fall, flours drifts, crust splits, aromas spread, lights flicker, chocolate melts, … and dough rises in soft moons the size of my cupped hand as planet earth tilts us toward dinner.” And in the cookbook she writes, “Etruscan tombs from 800 B.C. show men and women reclining around the banquet table. Their archaic faces reflect the joys of dining that are cherished in Italy—and have been forever.”

It’s worth noting that Under the Tuscan Sun opens with a worker at Bramasole asking Mayes: “What are you growing here?” She replies, “Olives and grapes,” and he says: “Of course olives and grapes,” as though that’s the most obvious thing in the world. Then he tells her: “Grow potatoes. They’ll take care of themselves.” Five summers later, she writes, digging up the potatoes is “like finding Easter eggs. … Just a rinse and they shine.”

Today at Bramasole, Frances and Ed grow eggplant, parsley, “five or six different kinds of herbs, tomatoes, fennel, carrots, and radishes.” And “we have tons of lemon trees—that’s my favorite ingredient in the kitchen. It’s such a luxury to have endless lemons all summer.”

In Tuscany food isn’t just enjoyed—it’s honored. The sagra is a uniquely Italian festival, a big community meal in celebration of a particular ingredient or product in its season. In autumn there’s a sagra for chestnuts and another for porcini mushrooms, Mayes says, and the sagra for the cherry is in June. There’s even a sagra for wild boar. “All around Tuscany if you see a sign that says sagra, something ’s about to be celebrated. You see the signs posted outside towns: the sagra of the tomato, the sagra of the snail—we have that in Cortona in the spring. People are out on the old castle wall in the middle of the night picking these snails—it’s intense.”

Of course not everything that Tuscans enjoy on their plates is local. At Camucia’s farmers market near Cortona, shoppers find produce from throughout the country, such as artichokes. “As soon as they’re in season in the south of Italy, big trucks come up in the night and sell the artichokes at the market.” The medieval market has changed in one aspect since Mayes arrived in the early 1990s: “I know a lot of the Italians aren’t running the stands—it’s people from other countries. But other than that it’s still the same market.”

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Farmers markets remain a locus of community where people meet and greet, Mayes says. “Old men from the country come in with their tweed suits and stand around while the women shop.” The love of community has much to do “with the strong influence of the piazza in rural Tuscany, and the rest of rural Italy as well,” she says. “The piazza is still that place where people gather. They’re talking about recipes—they’re shopping. Food is so paramount, it’s just what they talk about. So when they get together in the piazza, you hear, ‘well no, you don’t put it in the oven; you grill it.’ When you’re standing in line at the meat market somebody is always going to ask you what you’re going to do with what you’re buying and will offer how they’d do it, which is much better.”

When I first met Mayes in 2003, she and Ed surprised me by picking me up at the train station, about three miles from Cortona. Ed drove assertively, Italian style, while Frances pointed out historical sites: “That’s where Hannibal defeated the Romans in 217,” she said, pointing to a valley below. In Cortona, Frances took me to the Teatro Signorelli, a historic theater. She said she loved Audrey Wells’ film adaptation of her book, even though it took liberties with her story. Walking along the narrow streets, we stopped to chat with a florist, then had a simple yet richly satisfying pasta lunch. To complete the meal, the osteria’s owner brought us each a chilled glass of sea-green alloro (bay laurel) liqueur, a gesture emblematic of the generosity Mayes so eloquently evokes in her books. Then she gave me a tour of Bramasole, showing me a fresco they uncovered during the renovation.

Today, Mayes still sees many visitors gazing up at her home from outside its walled garden. “Sometimes I open the window in the morning in my nightgown and I think, oh God, there are 40 people down there,” she says.

What’s next? Mayes just completed a novel scheduled for publication in spring of 2018 called Women and Sunlight about three women who are slated to go into an active retirement community. Instead, they decide to take off together and lease a house in Italy. “It’s about reinvention of yourself later in life,” Mayes says. There’s also a book about 100 secret places in Italy coming, which Mayes realizes means the places she includes will no longer be secret.

More than a quarter century after arriving in Tuscany, Mayes remains propelled by curiosity and eager to explore. When she arrives in a new place she doesn’t rely solely on guidebooks. “I walk and walk and walk,” she says, and she starts conversations with locals, asking where they eat or where they’d go on a special occasion. “I think it’s fun to follow your nose and try and make a discovery, not just go where Mario Batali said he went. Look at the menus posted on the streets—look inside the door.”