Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Basque Country of Northern Spain

Most culinary travelers when asked about favorite regions to explore seem to have Basque Spain at or near the top of their list. We arrive in Spain intent on finding what all the fuss is about.

Our guide is Sancho Rodriquez, editor of a Spanish surfing magazine and director of the "Surfilm Festibal". We met our friend Sancho through photographer and film maker Patrick Trefz who has documented Jim's artwork over the past several years. Sancho's father Jaime Rodriguez Salis and brother Telmo Rodriguez are renowned Spanish winemakers. With connections like this we are on our way.

Our base is the beautiful coastal town of San Sebastian

After all the constant travel Dave decided to take it easy and hang in San Sebastian as Jim and Katy made plans to meet up with Sancho and his girlfriend in La Rioja for an overnight visit to the Remelluri estate. Sancho's father Jaime Rodriguez Solis founded the winery in 1968 reviving a disused property that had seen wine production over several centuries. The site is located on the remains of a tenth century town and archeological digs have shown artifacts dating from Roman times through the Bronze age. We gathered that evening with several of Sancho's relatives and shared a home cooked meal prepared on the Remelluri hearth ,enjoying several outstanding family wines.

Sancho Rodriguez takes us on a tour of the family estate

Sancho as a boy, on a tractor during grape harvest

Stopping for a sip from the vineyard well

The Remelluri Estate Vineyard

Our next stop was a visit to Telmo Rodriguez winery located several miles down the road. Wine maker Telmo has been called the rockstar of Spanish wine. His unusual program includes a far flung 30 different wines made in 10 distinct regions of Spain. On a windy, chilly afternoon we pulled up for a tour of the winery. Telmo's winery, ultra modern but understated in design contrasted sharply with the history infused Remulluri estate. Sancho gave us a tour of the property greeting the busy staff with warm hellos.

Sancho explains wine production

inside the barrel room

On our way back to San Sebastian we stopped here for freshly baked bread

Returning to the coast it was time for some sightseeing before a night visiting several notable pintxos restaurants in San Sebastian.

Jim Denevan at the Eduardo Chillida sculpture garden

The next day we met Sancho and Luis Chillida for a private tour of the Chillida-Leku museum located just outside San Sebastian. The museum features the work of Luis' late father internationally renowned Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida.

The farmhouse gallery

Ancient farmhouse beams

Luis Chillida and Jim Denevan

After touring the impressive monumental works and garden we said our goodbye's and headed off for a lunch visit to Asador Extabarri where chef Victor Arguinzoniz cooks almost everything over specially constructed charcoal grills. Located high in the mountains in the beautiful town of Axte (very difficult to find) Asador Extabarri recieves a steady flow of international culinary pilgrims. We ordered from the tasting menu experienced a meal that was among the best of our trip. After savoring the experience we visited the kitchen; chef Victor and his sous chef generously gave us a thorough tour of the kitchen.

Asador Extabarri

The next day Sancho took time for a detailed exploration, showing some of his favorite sites including several scenic Basque farms located around the town of Irun on the Spain France border, followed by lunch at a traditional Batzoki (political clubhouse).

Several locations were deemed good table sites and we took notes regarding our anticipated return in September.

On our last full day on our scouting trip was capped with a visit to Mugaritz Restaurant located a short distance outside San Sebastian. Mugaritz has a reputation as one of the best restaurants in the world and we concur with that assessment. Our meal began with a visit to the kitchen where we received a full description of sourcing, technique and goals of the restaurant. Chef owner Andoni Luis Aduriz had the night off because of the imminent arrival of a new child so his able chef de cuisine directed our experience. The warmth of staff and passion and attention to the art of cooking at Mugaritz are truly remarkable. It was pretty amazing to dine at the best of the best with our partner in culinary exploration Sancho, a good friend of the restaurant and also a friend it seemed with just about everyone we came upon. All of us left with a feeling of having experienced something profound and unforgettable. It was the perfect ending to a very successful Outstanding in the Field scouting tour.

Scouting: Umbria

Our Umbrian hosts Federico Bibi and Jennifer McIlvane had a delicious and adventurous itinerary planned for us. Any thoughts of slowing down and staying in one place were put to rest as we immediatly headed out to visit several significant cultural sites. Federico for many years represented internationally the culinary heritage of Umbria. Jennifer, Federico's wife, is a chef and expat from Philadelphia. Together you could not ask for more in the way of thoughtful and knowledgeable guides and Umbria was ours.

Federico showed us around the Terre Margaratelli vineyard and winery where we sampled Federico's latest experiments. Federico is marketing director for the Terre Margaratelli winery.

We visited Fattoria Luchetti where we took a look at the enormous chianina beef and picked up some fresh items for a dinner party at the villa later that evening.

Chianina cow

Jennifer and Federico at Fattoria Luchetti

Back at the Trampetti Villa Dave turned some steaks cooking on the open hearth at a dinner party that included Federico, Jennifer and Italian friends

The next day it was time for more adventures. First up was a look around the olive trees at the Trampetti estate.

In the orchard

Federico checks out olives destined for Trampetti extra virgin olive oil. Trampetti is one of the best olive oil producers in Italy

Dave enjoys the view from the villa

Jennifer, Federico and Jim

Next stop was Porcetta di Costano known as the best porcetta truck in town where we ordered the specialty and drove up the hill to enjoy the view from the beautiful hill town of Collepino.

Dave savors an impossibly good porcetta sandwich

We climbed Mount Subasio high above the nearby town of Assisi. In the cloud tops we could see nothing and slowly descended the mountain where we visited a peaceful, contemplative monastery founded by St Francis of Assisi.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Poggio Etrusco, Near Montepulciano

On the way to Umbria we visited with Outstanding in the Field friend Pamela Sheldon Johns. Cookbook author Pamela operates Poggio Etrusco a small farm where she produces olive oil and leads food and wine workshops. Pamela participated as a guest food artisan at our legendary 2008 Art Dinner event in Florence.

Pamela welcomed us into the main house with freshly baked olive cake and tea. Mmmm. We settled in to the comfortable accommodations taking the opportunity to catch up on correspondence, do laundry and plan the coming days adventures.

Pamela and Dave

Saturday, January 16, 2010

From Field to Table: Chianti Classico and La Petraia

Heading south in in our avuncular Fiat Punto we are in search of La Petraia. Set among the mists in the Chianti Mountains the luxury agriturismo La Petraia is both spectacularly beautiful and just a little hard to find. After ups and downs and twists and turns in and through towering clouds we finally arrived at the property. Our previous destination Panzano in Chianti is a more down to earth area dotted with small towns and agriculture. At La Petraia we feel far away and much more elevated. Occasional estates, vineyards and forest are now the dominant surroundings. La Petraia is owned by Susan McKenna Grant and Michael Grant who purchased the property in the fall of 2000. The site had been abandoned as a working farm 50 years earlier. Susan and Michael brought it back to productivity with plantings of grapes,olives, vegetables and raising of heritage animals; all quality ingredients for Susan's work in the kitchen. Susan, a successful software entrepreneur turned accomplished chef is author of the award winning cookbook ''Piano Piano Pieno: Authentic Food from a Tuscan Farm''. As part of La Petraia's agriturismo programs Susan offers several culinary experiences. The 2009 program included a visit by noted author Michael Pollan as part of the ''La Petraia Sessions''.

After being greeted by Susan and Michael we were shown our rooms and took a few minutes to rest before a tour of the property. It was quickly apparent that at La Petraia the level of attention and quality regarding the guest experience is of the very highest level. Sometimes when traveling you come upon a place that is so special and unique you can imagine scuttling the rest of your tour and staying put. La Petraia is that kind of place. The accommodations, setting and experience are truly phenomenal, especially for a couple but since none of us had significant others along we could only think another day, another time, another visit.

A tour of the site revealed several rare heritage Cinta Senese pigs rooting in the duff, happily snorting and sniffing. As it turned out one of the pigs was experiencing it's last moments as our visit coincided with the scheduled slaughtering of a pig. The gathered farm professionals soon dispatched our pig with a well placed rifle shot and the transformation from field to table had begun.

We then scaled the tallest hill on the property to walk among the ruins of an ancient Etruscan town. With an amazing 360 degree view from our high perch, one direction revealed a sliver of the farm's vineyards and beyond, over several sets of hills the majestic tower in Siena. In the other direction the Arno River valley was seen surrounded by snow covered mountains.

Jim considered the possibilities of a late summer meal on a Tuscan mountain top.

La Petraia

Susan McKenna Grant and Michael Grant of La Petraia are from Canada

and notice Jim is wearing a t-shirt from UBC farm in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. UBC farm is the site of several Outstanding in the Field dinners.

Near the Etruscan ruins

Attractive fowl

Susan and Dave witness the slaughtering of a Cinta Senese pig

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Most Famous Butcher in the World

Our Euro scout continued onward to the warmer climes of Tuscany and the town of Panzano in Chiati where we met up with Dario Cecchini and his wife Kim at Antica Macelleria Cecchini. Dario's work was chronicled in Bill Buford's excellent book ''Heat'', and a memorable episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations. After a tour and a chat with Dario's wife Kim, who is originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, Dario appeared, greeting us with warmth, enthusiasm and a larger than larger than life charisma. We heard a detailed off the cuff diatribe on all that was wrong in the world of food as he busily chopped, wrapped, mixed and sliced, skills that evinced all in food and restaurants that is true and right. Right in his world and soon in ours as it was time for lunch. Dario operates three restaurants very close to his butcher shop: Solo Ciccia, MacDario and Officina Del Bistecca. MacDario (described here) is the lunch spot, a Tuscan riff on McDonalds and fast food. We sat down for a delicious not so typical burger washed down with a ''military'' Grappa, not bad. Young culinary interns Chris and Nicholas, hailing from Canada and France, came out of the kitchen joining us for lunch and soon we were animatedly comparing notes on culinary travels. After our afternoon lunch Kim sent us off to the nearby vineyard and winery of Fontodi where Silvano showed us around. Acclaimed Fontodi is a certified organic operation located in the ''Conca Di'Oro'' a natural amphitheater descending from just below Panzano in Chianti. Besides the vineyard and winery operation we also visited a part of the property where Fontodi raises a small herd of the famed and very large Chianina beef. After our eventful day we ascended to the town of Lamole and Casa al Prato a Tuscan mountainside hideaway owned by Dario's sister Marina Cecchini. Besides Marina's beautiful accommodations she also operates a small gift shop called bonheur located a few doors down from Mario's shop.

Antica Macelleria Cecchini

Kim and Dave at the butcher shop Antica Macelleria Cecchini


Dario expostulates while offering porcetta samples

Lunch Time at Mac Dario

Mac Dario burger with Pinzimonio on the side

Chianina at Fontodi Vineyard

the road to Lamole

Jim and Dario