Friday, November 25, 2011

On Turkey, White Truffles and the River Thames

Before we get into the meat of this two-fold November post...A bit of background.

First tidbit you should know.

Thanksgiving means many things - loving family, mountains of tasty food, friendly natives, a federal holiday - but in my world and for the past 13 years it means that PinotFest is done, finished, over, wrapped up tight as a turkey carcass before roasting. PinotFest, for those of you who may not know, is the annual 2-day tasting/celebration of west coast pinot noir the weekend before Thanksgiving at Farallon restaurant. It's kind of a big to-do. It's kind of a lot of work. And it's kind of my baby, conceived in 1999 while hiking in Santa Barbara County. Happily, as of this writing, the 2011 rendition is now one for the record books. It was a good one, to boot.

Big segue...Second tidbit you should know.

I used to hate the wines of Barbaresco and Barolo, that lauded duo of historic reds from northwest Italy. Okay maybe hate is a strong word; I didn't understand them and thus didn't really care for them. Tannic, tarry, screechy, acidic, brutal on the palate and needing decades to soften: I used to hate them (oops...didn't get them) until I actually went there, travelled to the source.

Then everything changed.

I have my friend Chris Durie to thank for that, for my metamorphosis when it comes to nebbiolo, the grape responsible for the great red wines of Piemonte. He was the acting General Manager of Farallon many moons ago, and he knew of my distaste and confusion and utter dislike (misunderstanding). To make a long story short he somehow convinced Mark Franz, the owner of Farallon, that after PinotFest 2004 and during the slowish week of Thanksgiving, said GM (him), the wine director (me) and the lead sommelier (Stephen) should travel to Piemonte for five days. All three of us at once: gone. A wine trip. An education. You know: experience the vinous and gustatory delights of the region (and convert me).

It was a fantastic trip, and an eye-opening one. A gluttonous, debaucherous five days (spell-check says debaucherous is not a word, but it should be). The winery visits were an A-list of top-notch producers: La Spinetta, Moccagatto, Scavino and Sandrone, to name a few. The luncheons and dinners were delicious, over-the-top, and most of what we ate was covered with a snowfall of freshly dug-up, local white truffles (at ristorante Tornavento in the hilltop village of Treiso, even shaved on a dessert of mascarpone panna cotta...totally mind-bending).

Well, the plan worked. I came back a changed man; so much so that, two years later, I booked my own return to the region after another PinotFest was under my belt. And on the flight back I scheduled a brief layover in London, a city I had never before visited.

Final segue.

To date I've spent two remarkable Thanksgiving holidays over yonder, and I'm looking forward to the third, whenever that opportunity arrives. In my mind the memories are now all beautifully connected, permanently cemented, this traditional trio of turkey, white truffles and the River Thames. Indelibly. And to this day, whenever I start to balance the books on PinotFest I automatically start dreaming about Europe, about northwest Italy, about the hills of Piemonte and the homely, heady, glorious (and gloriously expensive) white truffles buried underfoot. Oh, and the wines...some of which I now adore.

All-righty then, I think you're up to speed. Onto the Thanksgiving-related meat of the matter: one short remembrance and one poem. The first piece, the travelogue, is from that second romp in 2006. I actually met up with my buddy Chris again; he was back in Italy with his girlfriend Lynne and a few days prior to our rendezvous proposed to her. Now happily married five years, I was the first to see the ring on her finger.

Needless to say, we were all in a celebratory mood.

*  *  *  *  *

Across the Pond

The fog – la nebbia in Italian – is so thick we cannot see the fabled Langhe Hills that surround our small Piemontese hotel, Argaturisimo Cascina Barac, let alone the snow-covered Italian Alps that I know loom far in the distance. We cannot see the gold and burgundy colored nebbiolo vines, now void of fruit, that carpet the undulating Barbaresco landscape in every direction. Hell, we cannot even see the edge of the patio. All is still, a curtain of fluffy white. We are socked in.

Staring out the large glass windows – snug and cozy, sipping coffee and nibbling a freshly baked hazelnut torte – I resign myself to the foggy autumn weather, so typical of the region that the local grape is named after it. La Nebbia. Nebbiolo. Then, literally in the matter of a few short minutes, right before our gaping mouths and unbelieving eyes, the rising sun sears though the cloak of fog. Like magic, like a soft white cotton sheet lovingly and quietly pulled from a sleeping nude, la nebbia weakens, the contours of the hills emerge and sunshine wins the morning embrace. Pausing between bites we are presented suddenly with a cloudless sky dyed robin’s egg blue, with an earth all matte green and ochre and brown and brick red, with a startlingly clear and crisp Wednesday painted in the unabashed colors of possibility.

*  *  *

Musky, earthy, sexy, unmistakable and unforgettable: the aroma of tartufi bianci, white truffles fresh from the forests of Alba and shaved paper thin, soars up from my plate of warm cardi Gobbi.

It is the second time in as many days I have feasted on this most local of delicacies – braised cardoons napped with creamy, eggy, cheesy fonduta – but the first time I have done so under the arched brickwork of a restored, 10th century abbey. My traveling companions Chris and Lynne, along with our host Giorgio Rivetti and his sidekick Signor Cocito, are just beginning a lengthy, lovely meal at da Guido, a Relais and Château property in the Monferatto hills. The restaurant is lauded, one-star Michelin territory and we are dining with a rock star Italian winemaker, so we are being treated like royalty, thoroughly enjoying the surroundings, the food and the impeccable service. Beneath the candlelit, vaulted ceiling, delivered seamlessly to a table dressed in fine beige linens, course after course of sumptuous fare arrives: delicate, house-made sausage nestled on a bed of silken, bright orange pumpkin soup; a poached egg drizzled with fonduta and more shaved tartufi bianci; seared filet of beef, and of course, the agnolotti di Plin. Ahhh…this is what we remembered, what Chris and I have talked about since our last November trip here two years previous. The agnolotti. Bite-sized, tender, ethereal half moons of fresh pasta dough filled with a subtle trio of ground meats: they practically melt in my mouth. We sample them “a la fume” as does Signor Cocito: bare naked, no sauce, divine, served simply on a pearly white plate and covered by a soft white napkin to keep in the aroma. Behold, the eating orgy that is an autumn visit to Piemonte is now in full swing, accompanied by bottle after bottle of killer wine to wash it all down: 1996 Champagne Egly-Ouriet (made from 100% pinot meunier), 2001 Cocito Barbaresco, 1998 La Spinetta Barbaresco Gallina, 1997 Barolo Cannubi.

We’re back, and loving it.

*  *  *

The Ligurian seaside city of Savona is a disappointment, I quickly conclude. Late November is obviously not the optimum season for enjoying the area’s Mediterranean charm, and the coast away from town is immediately a bit more appealing, but still the blatant industrial silhouette of massive gas pipelines and towering container cranes makes it hard not to think of the Port of Oakland. The messy web of railroad tracks and urban construction makes is hard to imagine a leisurely stroll. The rocky beaches and trash, the fetid canal that runs through the tiny hamlet of Breggegio and the armloads of laundry suspended from private balconies makes it hard to imagine a lovely destination. But the small, cozy enoteca we discover - including a bottle of bubbly Franciacorta, plus multiple plates of local cheese and salumi delivered by a handsome young Italian man - has me warming up to the place. After a gauzy pink and orange sunset over the turbulent turquoise sea, after a simple salad of tender octopus and green beans, a succulent spiny lobster tail, and after more Ca’ del Bosco rosé with our Thanksgiving dinner at Ristorante Claudio (also 1 Michelin star), the place has grown on me.  But not that much.

*  *  *

We are seated at a white foldout table in the restaurant’s employee lounge – Chris, Lynn and me – sipping grappa and talking in English, French, and Italian to Davide, the obviously passionate, talented and cerebral chef of Combal.Zero. We have just tried a cyberegg. I have just enjoyed one of the finest meals of my life, an impromptu luncheon that has wowed not only my taste buds but also my eyes and nose and brain. It is a brilliant meal, and by the time we leave to stumble briefly around the Musei dell’Arte Contemporanea our faces are plastered with big unbelieving smiles.

Combal.Zero is sleek and ultramodern, all glass and polished marble and Zen-like simplicity; in that familiar Italian fashion plopped right next to the ancient, red brick edifice that houses the museum. Our intended plan was to take in a brief meal before taking in the art. Instead three hours have passed and we’re still inside the restaurant. Instead we are discussing the physiology of taste, the way in which flavors are delivered to the mouth, the critical but oft-overlooked tempo of a meal, and the differences between the three menus (classic, traditional, and conceptual) offered at Combal.Zero. We have ordered very traditional, regional food, the chef mentions. I think back to the risotto course. Traditional or not, it is the most delicious bowl of risotto I’ve ever tasted: perfectly al dente grains of rice suspended in creamy, starchy stock, drizzled with fonduta and accented with an earthy dollop of black truffle compote. As I accept a second pour of grappa from the restaurant’s lovely sommelier I swear I can still smell and taste it, and think back to the other courses as well. A quirky, amusing pea soup served in tall, pastel-hued, plastic parfait glasses. Each glass is plugged on top with a Styrofoam to-go cup, and each cup contains a fritto misto of various herbs and Parmesan shavings; open the top and pour the crunchy mix into the soup. My entrée is local snails, quickly poached, sautéed and dressed in a bright green persillade, nestled atop dreamy polenta. Pavé of braised, roasted and pressed oxtail for Chris, and an obviously well conceived vegetarian plate for Lynne. A trio of local cheese, accompanied by a glass of slightly sweet Recioto di Soave. Clear acrylic towers displaying multiple dessert treats of fruit and chocolate. We sip on Champagne Gosset Brut, 2004 Moccagatta Dolcetto d’Alba, and a savory 2000 Rinaldi Barolo: the wines, especially the Barolo, are perfect. And I cap it all off with a 15-euro espresso (about $22 dollars) made from Kopi Luwak coffee beans; beans that have been ingested and then, shall we say, expelled by an Indonesian civet. I'm not really sure what the process does to the beans, and who knows how much the poor schmuck is paid to retrieve the caffeinated treasure from the animal’s poop, but the espresso is (and at over $200 a pound should be) well...good.

*  *  *

Cybereggs. Chef Davide brings in a bowl of ice water. Floating on the surface are small clear plastic balloons. Each balloon is actually two, one wrapped up inside the other. The inner balloon contains the conceptual “yolk” of Campari, the outer balloon the “egg white” of lemon-lime soda. Davide demonstrates. Holding the cyberegg by the stem, he places it in his mouth and with his tongue squeezes until it pops. We do the same. The liquid, first the soda and then in quick succession the Campari, bursts in a little one-two cocktail bomb. Chef Davide offers three different versions at Combal.Zero: the aperitif concoction we try, a savory selection, and a dessert confection of chocolate and hazelnut. There you have it. Cybereggs.

*  *  *

I am standing on a bridge over the River Po. Around me the frenetic Piemontese swirl of Torino, still seemingly dressed up and elated from the 2006 winter Olympics, lights up the cold night air.

The juxtaposition of modern and ancient is remarkable. Electric trolleys trundle past the vast, colonnaded piazza by our Hotel Alpi Resort. SmartCars the size of my living room sofa navigate the narrow, cobblestone streets. A 300-year old, hilltop convent across the river is encircled with a hundred floating neon blue rings. Magically suspended in the dark, they look like a colony of donut-shaped extraterrestrial spacecraft hovering in reverent attendance. Beneath my feet the hard, worn gray stone of the 18th century span meets my 21st century shoes, and beneath both the black artery of water quietly flows as it has for millennia. A silent but powerful sense of history seeps into my being like the river toward the sea. Torinium, the ancient pre-Roman settlement on the banks of the River Po, emerges from the past. Torino, the first capital of unified Italy, follows. My arrival, just hours ago and just for one short night, is next. The present pauses briefly as I try to capture for a lifetime the surrounding view, the feeling of simply being here, then it marches toward the future as I turn and walk off the bridge into town.

*  *  *

In the space of just over thirty-six hours I am confronted with a London of clear starry skies, Orion and the Big Dipper, a cream-colored moon, warm sun, cool shade, puffy cotton ball clouds, fog, hail and rain, a biting wind, thunder and lightning, a double rainbow, and a blazing neon sunset of pink, orange, red, purple and blue. Undeterred I walk through it all until my feet ache, from Westminster Abbey to the Tower Bridge and back, soon understanding what inspired the moody, wall-sized landscape paintings of Constable, Turner and other British artists of the time.

*  *  *

Room after room of modern art - Cubism, Abstract Expressionism, Surrealism, Dadaism, Op Art, Pop Art - assaults me at every turn. It’s who’s who on a masterpiece scale, the paintings and sculptures and works you see in art history books, inches away from my gaze, and I am utterly blown away. Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon, Frank Stella, Georges Braques, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollack, Roy Liechtenstein, Joan Miró, Igor Kandinsky, Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, Marcel Duchamp, Alexander Calder: The Tate Modern, on the south bank of the Thames, is living up to its lofty reputation. And it’s absolutely free.

*  *  *

The pub scene. 4:30 PM, Sunday. The Royal Borough of Kensington. I search and search for a place to sit and sip a Guinness and plan out my last evening but every single joint is packed to the gills, bursting at the seams, three deep at the bar, smoky, noisy, elbow-to-elbow locals reveling with their compatriots. My but these Londoners do know how to enjoy a pint!

*  *  *

I am supping on Dover sole in London…Somebody pinch me! Simply and perfectly grilled, beautifully bronzed to the eye: a whole, sweet, tender fish served with a gleaming silver cruet of sauce béarnaise, a netted lemon half, and a side dish of bright green mushy peas tasting of springtime. A glass of white Burgundy from the Côte de Beaune completes the culinary tableau. Preceding this archetypal selection is lightly dressed crab from Cornwall, fried sprats with tarragon mayonnaise and a glass of Chablis. Following is a pear and chocolate steamed pudding and a big pot of black tea. I am feeling like a million bucks, surely consuming as many calories and, due to the weak American dollar, probably spending that much on dinner. Outside the snug confines of the restaurant, beyond my linen cloaked tabletop of J. Sheekey, the chilly streets of the West End throng with the warm accents of a hundred different languages, course to the bursting with a world wide selection of humanity. They are laughing and smiling, arguing and kissing, gay, strait and not sure, alone or in groups, consulting maps and searching for landmarks, walking with the determined purpose of a local or weaving with the fuzzy abandon of one too many pints. I join them after dinner, sated and supremely content, for a final stroll from Trafalgar Square down to the River Thames, to a last and final peek at the crescent moon above Big Ben.

*  *  *

At 36,000 feet above sea level United flight #955 soars across Greenland, back toward San Francisco. I am curled up in my seat as best I can, trying to get comfortable, trying not to think of how much travel time remains. Snippets from the past couple whirlwind days in Piemonte and London punctuate my trying-to-sleep-can’t-sleep airborne limbo. The alarming amount of non-stop drink and rich food makes me think briefly of my liver and cholesterol count. The volley of back-to-back time changes and lack of sleep makes me dread the re-entry. Ouch, I'm gonna be whooped! But the remembrance also induces a smile that bubbles up through my comatose haze.

Raising the shade and peeking out the window I notice the sun trying in vain to set as the plane races westward. It skims the horizon but never quite disappears. Like total darkness sleep remains futile but, thankfully, more armchair adventure is within reach. In my seat front pocket is a copy of The Devils Teeth, a first person account of life among the Farallon Islands’ great white sharks. Opening the book and diving back in I am instantly transported from the narrow streets of Europe to a wild, windswept world 27 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge; from the comforts of civilization to a violent world of danger and death, of wheeling birds and acrobatic sea lions and apex predators 20 feet long, of obsession and nightmares and deceit and natural history and scientific research. I devour the words like the soulless subjects of the book devour an unsuspecting elephant seal. Time flies. Hours later the sun is back up, it’s somehow earlier in the day, and a stunning bird’s eye view of the islands themselves, the rugged California coast, and the Bay Area greets my return back to Earth.

Peter J. Palmer
November 2006

*  *  *  *  *

And now for something completely different.

Gobble Gobble

As Thanksgiving Day passes
Our butts fill with gasses
We look back on how much food we ate

Out the stove comes a bird
And with nary a word
(Some more wine?) Stuff from early ‘till late

Try a leg with a yam
Turkey’s better than ham
And with cranberry sauce it’s just great!

‘Nother leg?  ‘Bout some breast?
Eat it all, take no rest
You can always have more half past eight

You want white?  Take some more
We’ve got dark meat galore
So now fret not, you’ll lose all that weight

Oh yeah gnaw on the wing, baby
Gorge like a king!
Wave a drumstick, share some meat with your mate

Whoops!  I stepped on the neck
Here kitty-kitty...wait a sec!
Someone'll eat that (we're in a feeding frenzy state)

Please here take home a thigh
Some puff pastries and pie
Sleep tomorrow, you’ll recuperate

The next day make some soup
Use the left over carcass goop
The liver, kidneys and heart
Until Christmas you’ll fart
Come the New Year, you’ll still flatulate

Happy ( BURP! ) Holidays

*  *  *  *  *

Okay then, that's a wrap.
Hope y'all had a lovely Thanksgiving.
Peace out.