Posted by: oysterculture | May 9, 2009

Princess Bona Maria Sforza

Princess Bona Maria Sforza (from

Princess Bona Maria Sforza (from

Once upon a time, a long time ago, there lived a princess who did her part in adding a bit of culture to the Polish court.  Princess Bona Maria Sforza was born in Vigevano near Milan in 1494 to her proud parents; Gian Galeazzo Sforza of Milan and Isabella of Naples – and if she needed to further cement her rank in society, her aunt was Bianca Maria Sforza who in 1493 married the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, and her namesake grandmother was Bona of Savoy.  In 1518 she was married off to Sigmund, King of Poland and Grand Prince of Lithuania.

Polish historians credit her with introducing the art of cooking to Poland and, for that time, many new and exotic produce that her gardeners cultivated: asparagus, broccoli, and tomatoes. 

As niece of the empress, Bona was a patron of Renaissance culture, which thanks to her, thrived in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.  She also influenced the Polish and Lithuanian cuisines by introducing many new dishes to the Commonwealth.  These influences included a profusion of strange new condiments and spices, and increased focus on food ornamentation gold and artificial colorings.  New flavorings included the addition of marzipan and almonds, all for the purpose of strategically showcasing the wealth of the high nobility, rather than any real flavor enhancer.  In farmer’s markets to this day, bundles of salad greens that are called wloszczyna or “italian things” are available for purchase.  

Unfortunately when she was distracted by court intrigue and the like, things did not go so well.  When her died, she sided with many the Catholic in Poland opposing her son King Sigmund II Augustus’ marriage to the Lithuanian Calvinist, Barbara Radziwill, and was suspected of poisoning the new queen, who died shortly after her coronation.  In 1556, upon her return to Italy, her private secretary, Gian Lorenzo Pappacoda, poisoned her.  Pappacoda apparently acted on behalf of Philip II of Spain, who wished to avoid repaying his sizable debts to the Polish queen.


Poland is located in Central Europe and is bordered by Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, and the Baltic Sea. Poland is the 9th largest country in Europe and the 69th in the world.  Poland’s population stands at around 38 million.  

The Poles speak a Slavic language, but maintain a fondness for English (the most popular foreign language in Poland).  More than 60% of the population lives in cities, with several cities with populations in excess of 500,000 (Warsaw, the capital, is the largest at 1.7 million inhabitants, Krakow (Cracow), Wroclaw, Poznan, Gdansk to name a few) 

Poland’s national culture emerged as combination of Latin and Byzantine influences and further absorbed flavors from the numerous European occupations, throughout its history. Customs, traditions and mores display a diverse mix of the East and the West. 


 Paper cut outs from Poland is renowned throughout the world for their artistic ingenuity. Folk cut outs is one of the indigenous art style and found mainly in non-urban centers. The cut outs are used primarily for Christmas and Easter home decoration. An interesting take of this art form is the wafer cut outs; flour and water are the basic materials out of which Polish women, devoid of any training, shape designs of astonishing beauty.  Wood work, leather work and ceramics are also common, as is amber jewelry.  The craftsmanship is awe inspiring and very different than you can find elsewhere.


Poles are gregarious and love to show affection during interaction. The word “czesc” is Polish for “hi”.  The first few minutes of any meeting is spent in greeting each other and shaking hands. Familiarity is expressed with embraces and pecks on the cheek. 

The prefix Pan (Mr) or Pani (Ms) is the safest way to address someone who is Polish. This should be accompanied by the first name, of course.  Using the surname is seen as a slight even when a Pan/Pani is placed before. 

Ty” is polish for “you”. If one is allowed to call the other “Ty”, it signals that the relationship is close and informal.  

Unlike many other cultures, it is not the birthday that is important, but  the name day (the patron saint’s day as opposed to birthdays), and is celebrated with the same fanfare as a traditional western birthday.  To avoid awkward situations, check the calendar for the date. If you miss the actual day, you can “make up” for the omission within the “octave” (i.e. the next few days).

Eating and Drinking

Bruderszaft is a fraternal toast, a sign of camaraderie, and declining it can be viewed as an insult. Relationships become more cordial after this ceremony and people graduate to using first names.  Bruderszaft is two people raising toasts simultaneously with arms interlocked and downing their drinks together. The last part is an exchange of kisses and a “Call me Jack,” – “Call me Oyster”. 

Polish cuisine and dining table etiquette reflects the warmth in the Polish character. Having a meal with one’s family is not just about the food – it is celebration.  Guests are always welcome.  Breakfasts are generally heavy with vegetables and cold cuts of meat.  Dinners only more so.  Cold cuts and sausage, frequently grilled, are also a mainstay. 


photo from

photo from

Polish cuisine has both influenced and been influenced by the cuisines of surrounding countries.  Polish kitchen are a mixing bowl of influences from primarily France and Italy, but also: Turkish, Armenian, Lithuanian, Cossack, Hungarian and Jewish.  Poland is a carnivore’s paradise, especially if you like pork.  

Polish cuisine starts with the soups, and here’s a sampling to whet the appetite:

  • flaczki or flaki – pork or beef tripe stew with marjoram
  • czernina – duck blood soup
  • rosól – clear chicken soup
  • chlodnik – cold soup of soured milk, young beet leaves, cucumbers, beets, and chopped fresh dill
  • barszcz – popular Slavic beet soup 
  • zupa grzybowa – mushroom soup
  • zur – soured rye flour soup with white sausage and/or hard-boiled egg


Some main courses include:

  • bigos – it is a stew of sauerkraut and meat, that improves with reheating
  • pierogi – these small boiled pastries are filled with sauerkraut or mushrooms, meat, potato.  A bit of vanilla might be added. In the US, these little bites of flavor might also be pan friend, and I’ve even seen where people grill them.   
  • zapiekanka – fast food sandwich  


Desserts to expect

  •  pączki – a rich jelly doughnut
  • gingerbread  

As the Polish would say, “Jedzcie, pijcie i popuszczajcie pasa”… “Eat, drink and loosen your belt

Posted by: oysterculture | May 7, 2009

Friendship Day

Friends_award_with_heartLast month, Jenn at Breadplusbutter kindly recognized me with a friendship award.  I wracked my brain to come up with someway to creatively insert this recognition and show that I really deserved it, I lost count of the times I stopped started, deleted my way through a multitude of ideas.  Then it hit me, duh – its about friendship – nothing could be simpler.  In Jenn’s case, she is a relatively new, blogger, but if measured in blog years (number of posts), she would now be a distant ancestor of mine.  She is wonderfully creative and generously shares her ideas; something I aspire to.

I think I struggled with this post is that the rules are about recognizing blogs thats show friendship and paying it forward, but when I think of friendship its looking back and actions and words.  In which case, I would share this award with everyone who takes the time to read my blog, and believe me I appreciate that, as I have written some doozies.  I also am grateful for everyone who makes this more of a dialog by responding and offering ideas and suggestions, to me that is what makes this medium so rich.  I look forward to the responses and the ideas that come from gaining new perspective.  I started this blog to write about topics that interest me, and hoped to find others share the same curiosity.  I consider it a gift, because I now have a ready made excuse for all my research “that it is for my blog”.  I’ve also developed some real friendships and made some virtual friendships real.

Along with the award comes the following description:

“These blogs are exceedingly charming. These kind bloggers aim to find and be friends. They are not interested in self-aggrandizement. Our hope is that when the ribbons of these prizes are cut, even more friendships are propagated.”

It also says : “Please give more attention to these writers. Deliver this award to eight bloggers…”

I am always excited to discover so many people who love food, travel and culture as much as me.  So given the intent of this award to propagate friendships, I want to raise awareness to these bloggers: 

Zerrin at Giverecipe has an incredible site devoted to Turkish food.  I feel like I am taking a master’s class in Turkish food and culture when I visit her site.  She has it set up by food types, posts helpful hints, and includes great little cartoons that shed light on cultural aspects of Turkey and some of the reasons it is unique.

Yukari at Tokyo Station – Japanese Food – Food Lover’s guide to Tokyo.  Japanese food by a wife of a Tsukiji. fishmonger.  Let me just say that the photos and the write-ups have me frequently checking airfares to get me back to Japan.  Let’s just say, she’s no slouch in the kitchen:   Yukari trained as a baker and chef at the French Culinary Institute and as a sommelier with the American Sommelier Association.  She is a food and travel writer based in Tokyo and New York City.  Her first book, “Food Sake Tokyo” will be published the spring of 2010.

Manu at toutd1formage is a cheese lover in Paris, and frankly who would not want that enviable role.  The blog is in French but its easy to switch to English or other language for further exploration.  I like to practice my French so keeping the blog in its native language is half the appeal for me.

Foodilicious Malaysia shares some incredible recipes from her country, along with wonderful ideas and encouragement.  I am tempted every time I stop by.

Kate at Dirt Cake has an incredibly beautiful blog full of color, flavor and inspiration.   Given her calling as a pastry cook you might guess the concentration on her blog.

Steven at The Warmest Room in the House has a great blog and book that has garnered considerable recognition, called The Warmest Room in the House  (you were expecting something different maybe?  ;))  I’ve only recently discovered the blog, after posting a comment on a recipe, Steven was quick to come back with suggestions on further improving the dish.  

Kim at OrdinaryRecipesMadeGourmet has a way of digging up all the recipes of my youth, or should have been by the looks of them.  A recent posting of chicken fried steak has a lot of fond memories for me, and was a wonderful tribute.  She generously shares the recipes of her kitchen and that of her mothers.

Andrea at RunnerBeans is a relative new comer to blogging, but her stories of adventures around San Francisco, growing a vegetable garden and discovering wonderful new recipes strike home are well worth a read.  

Friendship Day:

In honor of this blog, I thought wouldn’t it be cool if there was a Friendship Day, and promptly googled “international friendship day”.   To my astonishment such a day exists, and is apparently adopted in several countries, but specifically mentioned in India and the US.  I confess I never heard of Friendship Day in the US; could this be the one holiday that Hallmark overlooked?

In the US, this celebration has been going on since 1935, and is celebrated on the first Sunday in August (I’ve been very remiss).  One website claims, and I’m thinking some serious exaggeration is going on:

“People in US celebrate this occasion in a very colossal way. The spirit of celebrating this day is prominent in youngsters as well as the elders. They find it an opportunity to thank their friend for their selfless support and care. The spirit of celebration seems to dominate the entire city. People are busy finding gifts for their closest chums, just to convey the warmth of their heart to their friends

Most of the people love to visit their habitual hangouts and plan a special dinner or lunch with their friend. The restaurants are well decorated and offer special delicacies on the occasion. The confectioners and bakeries find it a special festival to display all the varieties available. Markets also adopt the theme of friendship. They are flooded with Friendship Day cards, toys and chocolates. The choice of celebrating varies from person to person. The entire country participates in the race of celebrating the day. The atmosphere it creates and provides is perfect one to sing the glory of true friendship.”

I have no idea where the author is referring to in the US, because I have never seen anything like what is described here.  Not that it is not a good idea, just that it has not caught on yet.  


Winnie the Pooh (photo from

Winnie the Pooh (photo from

Just a random point of trivia, in 1997, the United Nations named Winnie the Pooh as the World’s Ambassador of Friendship.


Apparently, friendship holidays, abound all with prescribed dates.
National Friendship Day is on the first Sunday in August
Women’s Friendship Day is on the third Sunday in September
International Friendship Month is February 
Old Friends, New Friends Week is the third week of May


So I’m either early or late , but Happy Friendship Day!

Posted by: oysterculture | May 3, 2009

Something Fishy

Raw fish has found its way into many cuisines, and recently after reading a post on poke, I played a bit of a game with myself of trying to think of as many such dishes as I could.  My only rule being,that no heat was involved, but “cooking” in acidic mixtures make the cut. Per Harold McGee, in his incredible tome On Food and Cooking, the reason for this popularity of raw fish is that the meat is relatively tender and naturally savory. 

Cultures developed dishes around the least unadulterated form of protein – raw fish plus the incorporation of local ingredients.  The results are delightfully diverse, but each method of preparation showcases the natural deliciousness of the fish in its most basic form.  

Sushi and Shashmi 

Sushi from Ebisu at SFO

Sushi from Ebisu at SFO

The traditional form of sushi is fermented fish and rice, preserved with salt in a process can be traced to Southeast Asia, where it remains popular today.  Sushi literally means “it’s sour”, reflecting roots in fermentation.  The history of this food is facinating, at least for me and several recent books touch on this subject:  The Sushi Economy by Sasha Issenberg and The Zen of Fish by Trevor Corson. 

The sushi that springs to mind today, has little resemblance to the original version, the closest version to the original that the Japanese  have is called funazuchi.

What we consider sushi was invented at the end of Edo period in Edo (1800’s). This sushi might be considered one of the earliest forms of fast food.  It was meant to be eaten with one’s hands along a roadside – kind of  the equivalent of a Japanese style taco truck.   

Cervice (Latin American)

This popular citrus-marinated seafood appetizer is found throughout Latin America, and its appeal is felt well beyond these geographical borders especially as interest in Latin American cuisine grows.  The fish used in this dish can include fin fish or shell fish, and while the fin fish is usually raw, the shell fish may be cooked.  While the origin of the name is still subject to debate; agreement that cervice was first developed in Peru seems established.  The assumption being that Peru, substantiated with evidence of fishing going back to the pre-Colombian period, has a strong history of fishing – at least longer than its competitors for the claim.

Ceviche is fish marinated in a citrus-based mixture, with lemons and limes being the citrus most commonly used. In addition to adding flavor, the citric acid causes the proteins in the seafood to become denatured, which pickles or “cooks” the fish without heat.  

Regional Variations

Panama cerviche - photo from

Panama cerviche - photo from

In Panama, ceviche is prepared with lime and lemon juice, chopped onions, celery, habanero pepper, and sea salt.  The ceviche is served with little pastry shells called “canastitas.”  

In Peru, it is composed of chunks of raw fish, with lime or lemon juice though sometimes bitter orange, sliced onion, and minced chilies are tossed in. The mixture is served with cancha (toasted kernels of corn), chunks of corn-on-the-cob, slices of cooked sweet potato and/or white potato, and yuyo (seaweed).  Many Peruvian cevicherías offer a small glass of leche de tigre or leche de pantera as an appetizer, which is a small quantity of the marinade.  I wonder if that is the equivalent of a shot of liqueur that “puts hair on your chest”?  

In Ecuador, shrimp ceviche tends to be made with ketchup or tomato sauce.  It is served in a bowl with toasted corn kernels as a side dish (plantain chips or chifles, and popcorn are also common accompaniments).  A spondylus (type of clam) ceviche, a delicate clam only found in certain parts of the Manabí province, is a rare treat. The Incas referred to the spondylus as the food from the gods.

In Chile, ceviche is often made with fillets of halibut or Chilean sea bass, and marinated in lime and grapefruit juices, as well as finely minced garlic and red chile peppers, with the addition of  fresh mint and cilantro.

In Mexico and parts beyond, it is served in cocktail cups with crackers, or as a tostada topping and taco filling.  The marinade includes salt, lime, onion, chile, avocado, cilantro, and parsley, with tomatoes are often thrown in for good measure.

In Cuba, ceviche is often made using mahi-mahi, squid or tuna and prepared with a mixture of lime juice, salt, onion, green pepper, habaneros, and a bit of allspice. 

In Costa Rica, the dish includes marinated fish, lime juice, salt, black pepper, minced onions, cilantro and finely minced chilies. It is usually served in a cocktail glass with soda crackers on the side.  Popular condiments are tomato ketchup and tabasco. 

Italy has something similar with its pesce crudo.  The fish is dressed in lemon juice and olive oil, with raw anchovies being a favorite. 


Gravlox is a Scandinavian dish of raw salmon cured in salt, sugar, and dill. Gravlax is traditionally served as an appetizer, sliced thinly and accompanied by hovmästarsås (also known as gravlaxsås), a dill and mustard sauce, served on bread, or with boiled potatoes.  If you have never made gravlax before, its a tasty dish to make and worth the effort.  Forgoing the traditional accompaniments, I serve my gravlox thinly sliced and topped with some fresh cream cheese and minced red onions.  A few times I got fancy and made some savory waffles, subtly flavored with curry, as an accompaniment that proved to be very popular. 

gravlax - photo from

gravlax - photo from

Around the Middle Ages, fishermen made gravlax by salting the salmon allowing it to lightly ferment by burying it in the sand above the high-tide line. The word gravlax comes from the Scandinavian word grav, literally “grave” or “hole in the ground”, and lax (or laks), which means “salmon”, thus gravlax is “salmon dug into the ground”.  Not the most appealing of names but somehow it stuck.

Today fermentation is no longer used in the production process. Instead the salmon is “buried” in a dry marinade of salt, sugar, and dill, and cured for a few days. As the salmon cures, by the action of osmosis, the moisture turns the dry cure into a highly concentrated brine, which in Scandinavian cooking is incorporated as part of a sauce. This same method of curing can be used for any fatty fish, but salmon is the most common.   This is a preserving method still used for preparing hákarl (“putrified shark”) in Iceland, rakfisk (“rotten fish”) in Norway, and for surströmming (“soured herring”) in Sweden.  I am all for description names, but I think it can be taken to the extreme.

Poke and Lomi

poke - photo from

poke - photo from

Sapuche in his outstanding blog, The World Tastes Good has a wonderful detailed description of this native Hawaiian dish that Chef Sam Choy calls “Hawaii’s soul food.”  According to some of the websites I reviewed, local residents insist a party just isn’t a party without it, and seafood lovers around the world are adopting it as their own, experimenting with local ingredients to create new and delightfully unique versions.  Hawaii has at least one festival each September to celebrate its beloved poke.  

Poke means to slice or cut.  It usually consists of bite-sized pieces of raw, fresh fish mixed with seaweed and kukui nut relish. Today’s poke aficionados incorporate a range of ingredients, including all types of seafood, herbs, spices, nuts, marinades, fruits, vegetables, seasonings and tofu.

Try this poke recipe that Choy presented on ABC’s “Good Morning America” with Chef Emeril Lagasse.   The directions could not be simpler; combine the ingredients, mix well and chill.  Ingredients might be another story – folks living in Hawaii definitely have the edge.


  • 1-¼ # fresh ahi tuna, cut into bite size cubes
  • ¼ c yellow onion, minced
  • ¼ c green onion, minced
  • 3 T limu kohou (a reddish-brown seawood)
  • 1 T ground innards from roasted kukui nuts, also know as inamona
  • 2 tsp. sesame oil

Lomi is another Hawaiian preparation technique, that involves taking a piece of fish and first massaging it between the thumb and fingers to break down the muscles before salting.  This extra work makes for a softer texture.  From what I’ve found, salmon seems to be the fish of choice for this technique.  I’ve seen this food referenced as lomi or lomi-lomi, meaning massage in Hawaiian.


Hwedupbap  is a traditonal Korean dish of raw fish, vegetables and chogochujang sauce.  All the sites I found were passionate about this dish.


Kinilaw is a Fillipino raw fish salad, specifically a Visayan regional specialty.  A dish, based on my perusal of various websites, that incites strong passions and opinions among its loyal fans.  I even found a kinilaw locator for the US.  The blog, Market Manilla, has a wonderful step by step approach to making this dish.  This dish is similar to cervice but instead of the acid from citrus fruit “cooking” the fish.  Vinegar made from sugarcane, coconut, or nipa palm is the source of acidity.  Like cervice, other local ingredients are added.  Apparently, a version called “jumping salad” also exists, where tiny shrimp or crabs are sprinkled with salt and lime juice and eaten alive while moving.


Come on – this one was a gimme.  Raw oysters have been celebrated and consumed by people of all walks of life, the world over.  Never eaten a raw oyster? – no problem, here’s an easy crib sheet on the method.  Care must be taken with selecting the delicacy as it should be alive just prior to consumption.  If an oyster is found that cannot be open, they must be avoided.  Oysters being filter feeders literally suck in their environment so they are very sensitive to their habitat and if something bad exists there, it gets passed on in the eating of the oyster.

Oyster consumption is believed to have been around since prehistoric times, given the evidence produced by the middens found.  (Middens are piles of waste, and in this case it is the discarded shells of the oysters.)

Eating oysters has been likened to enjoying wine; the variety and environment imparts its stamp on the taste, texture and enjoyment of each oyster.  


Is it possible that these various cultures spontaneously developed similar means of treating the raw fish?  Maybe, but most likely the method was advanced as countries conquered counties and people took with them a taste for the familiar.  How did the migrations of these recipes occur and in what direction?  Maybe the topic for another post, I’d love to develop a visual that tracks foods and they change and develop around the world.  I also recognize that what is included here is only a sampling of raw fish recipes that exist – Thai and Tahitian cuisine both have raw fish salads.  If you have any other recipes, please pass them along.

chalon-around-the-bendRobert-Gilles of Shizuoka Gourmet commented on my recent post of Dijon and Creme de Cassis that I was remiss in not including his hometown of Chalon-sur-Saôn, which is close to Dijon.  I intend to correct that oversight.  When my husband and I traveled through Burgundy, we had a mission – we were stalking the Tour de France (TdeF) and checked out strategic stages – we were the extreme groupies.  We may not have rented campers but I have trekked up a “beyond category” slope to secure a good viewing location.  While our primary focus was the TdeF, we could not help but be distracted by the incredible cultural and culinary bounty this region offered.  A post on this region is definitely in order, but for now, the focus is deservedly on Chalon-sur-Saône.  The photos of this town were generously provided by Robert-Gilles.  The Tour de France photos are by yours truly!

chalon-5-1Before we continue, Robert-Gilles left me some cryptic hints that I’ll share – they whetted my appetite to further educated myself on Chalon-sur-Saône.

-The first camera and photography were invented in Chalon sur saone! Check Musee Nicephore Niepce.
-Major company: Areva (formerly Framatonne) which produces 74% of electicity in France.
-Rue de Strasbourg across island in the middle of the saone river: 20 restaurants!
-La Maison des Vins where you can buy and taste all wines of the Cote Chalonnaise.
There is plenty more!


Chalon-sur-Saône is a short trip south of Dijon, through some lovely countryside.  

History and Culture

chalon-church-with-half-timber-bldsThe town, was the birth place of several influential individuals including: Nicéphore Niepce, who invented photography ; Vivant Denon, an artist and diplomat who developed the Louvre around the time of Napoleon, and let’s not forget Robert-Gilles, educator, photographer, and culinary explorer who seeks to educate the world on the bounty of Japan. 

Chalon-sur-Saône is a culturally significant town recognized for it has many places of interest:

  • Museum Denon with over 2 million pictures
  • Museum Niepce contains the first camera
  • “Espace des Arts” (an entertainment and creation place)
  • “Abattoir” (one of 6 national centers for street show production)
  • the Conservatory of Music and Dance
  • Saint Vincent Cathedral
  • the Exhibition Hall 

Another offering for which Chalon-sur-Saône is famous is its Carnival. For almost a century, it has been one of the most famous carnivals in France.  It is mainly distinguished by the “gôniots” – characters created in Chalon; kings in crazy or burlesque disguises. Every year, over 10,000 visitors attend this wonderful event.    


chalon-skip-dinnerAll signs point to Strasbourg Street – this is the destination for food lovers.  If  there is one fact that has universal consensus on the internet, this is it.  [Robert-Gilles claims over 20 restaurants reside on this street of culinary paradise.]

Here is a sampling of the fare you might find should you visit Chalon-sur-Saône, note that these dishes are typical of the region. (This sampling of cuisines is taken from the Chalon website.

Burgundy snails: You cannot leave the region with out sampling some.  As my three-year old niece says “Oh-la-la”  These little critters live in the vineyards feasting on grape leaves all summer, and spend their winters hibernating under the roots of the grapes  They are usually harvested shortly before they go into hibernation. 

Oeufs en meurette : the expression “en meurette” refers to the sauce prepared with red wine and spices and thickened with butter and flour.  For this dish, the eggs are poached in a wine sauce that is considered one of the great classics in French cooking.

chalon-courtyard-diningPôchouse: a delicious fish stew made with freshwater fish in white wine.  The recipe looks simple and delicious.

Epoisses: the oldest and most delicious Burgundian cheese was created by Cistercian monks in the 16 th century.  I need to dedicate a post to this cheese, it has to be my favorite.  My notes from the last tasting include that it is a cow’s milk cheese with small amounts of rennet, washed rind cheese (with liqueur).  It is commonly served with a teaspoon, given it runny nature.  I recently saw this cheese listed on one of those top 100 foods to try before you die lists – I heartily endorse this idea and suggest you run, do not walk, to your nearest cheesemonger. I am not alone in my infatuation with this cheese; I have good company – Brillat-Savarin called it the “king of cheeses”.

Other cheeses you may find in this region include Bleu de Bresse, Saint-Marcelin and Rigotte de Condrieu, all from cow’s milk, and Picodon is a goat cheese.

Le jambon persillé: sometimes called Easter ham as it was only served at Easter. It is consumed cold with an aperitif or as a starter, and roughly translates to jellied ham with parsley.

Kir: the famous elixir is composed of (créme de cassis)black currant liqueur and aligote (white wine); in a kir royal the aligote is replaced by crémant de Bourgogne – a sparking wine of the region. This drink is a standard for the region, and after one taste it is easy to see why.


TheCôte Chalonnaise” region, is classified as “appellation contrôlée” or AOC, and is rich with vineyards, producing sought after chardonnay and pinot noir wines – in the communities of Mercurey, Givry, Rully or MontagnyCôte Chalonnaise is a subregion of the Burgundy wine region of France, and lies to the south of the Côte d’Or, but does not include any Grand cru vineyards.  Like the Côte d’Or, it is on the western edge of the Saône river valley, overlooking Chalon-sur-Saône.  To the north, across the River Dheune, lies the Côte de Beaune, and to the south is the Mâconnais.

chalon-grapes  Villages and appellations

Each village has its only special wine associated with it, so it pays to stop at more than one to discover each unique offering.  Robert-Gilles mentioned La Masion des Vins in Chalon as a single source to sample as an alternative, but if you have the opportunity to explore the vineyards it should not be missed.

  • Buzeron is the only communal AOC for Aligoté still wine.
  • Rully is known for its white wines and as a center for Crémant and Bourgogne sparkling wines; it has 23 premier cru vineyards.
  • Mercurey is the largest producer of the area, mostly reds – with 30 premier cru vineyards.
  • Givry is mostly red wines and had 17 premier cru vineyards.
  • Montagny produces only white wines and has 49 premier cru vineyards.

My husband is a sports fanatic and one sport he introduced me to, as a spectator, is road bike racing.  I’ve learned to love the sport and appreciate the nuances, and not to mention the talent and stamina involved.  When we debated where we wanted to go to France, we reached the serendipitous decision to check out the TdeF along with the culture and culinary scene of some of the countryside.   The Tour de France is rich with history and pageantry.  This event is engrained in the French culture – for weeks at a time people uproot themselves and follow the tour around the country in little campers they pull behind their cars.  This country is mad for bicyles, I read somewhere that is a bike and a car were to tangle, the laws favor the cyclist.  

Type of race

To appreciate the Tour de France, you need to know it is one of the grand annual stage races (it takes place over multiple days in July), as compared to other famous races such as Paris-Roubaix are a single day race.  It covers more than 3,500 kilometres (2,200 mi) throughout France and bordering countries.  The race usually lasts 23 days and premier cyclists from around the world line up to attend. The race is broken down into day-long segments, called stages. Individual times to finish each stage are totaled to determine the overall winner for the race. The rider with the least elapsed time each day wears the famous yellow jersey.  The course is tweaked each year but it always finishes in Paris.  It is one of the triple crown of such races, the other two are Italy (Giro d’Italia) and Spain (Vuelta a España)  but the Tour de France is the oldest and most prestigious.

It is possible to win the race without winning a stage, but rare.  The number of stages vary, but the number sticks to around 20 is common, with a total length of ~ 3,500 km (2,200 mi)!  The race alternates between clockwise and counter-clockwise circuits of France.  The New York Times said that the “Tour de France is arguably the most physiologically demanding of athletic events.”  The effort was compared to “running a marathon several days a week for nearly three weeks”, while the total elevation of the climbs was compared to “climbing three Everests.” (and you wonder why they eat over 10,000 calories per day)  The number of riders varies annually, but typically the race starts with 20 to 22 teams, each with nine riders, and it is by invitation only.  I say starts, because from day one, riders constantly drop out of the race.  Each team, named after its sponsor, wears a distinctive jersey.  One of the first things I needed to understand to really appreciate this sport, is that it really is a team sport.  

Riders are judged by accumulated time, known as the general classification, or GC for short.  The rider leading in this category wears the cherished yellow jersey.  Riders are often awarded time bonuses in addition to prizes, so they commonly make last minute sprints to gain those valuable extra points.  

Stages run the gamut from flat to undulating to mountainous.  The type of terrain favors certain riders, some make a living as a time trialists, while others are climbing specialists.  Riders generally start each day in a pack, but stages may include time trials for individuals or teams.  The overall winner is usually something of a generalist with a mastery of the mountains and time trials because the race is designed not to favor a specific style.  Although, it was rumored that when Lance was on his winning streak the course designers tried to design a race that targeted his weak points.



 How the Tour Started

L’Auto began to promote the Tour de France as a way to show up the rival race Paris-Brest et retour organised by Giffard.  The idea for a round-France race came from L’Auto‘s chief cycling journalist, Géo Lefèvre.   L’Auto announced the race in January 1903.  They planned a five-week race, but this idea proved too daunting – only 15 riders entered.  Desgrange trimmed the time to 19 days, with the added incentive of a daily allowance.  He attracted 60 entrants; not just professionals, but amateurs too.  The demanding nature of the race, sparked the public’s imagination. 

The Route

Initially, Desgrange worried he asked too much of the bikers, at that time his route included one mountain pass.  The racer rode, or more accurately walked, first the col d’Aubisque and then the nearby Tourmalet.  Both climbs were mule tracks – an incredibly challenging feat for heavy bikes lacking gears.  The men rode with spare tires draped around their shoulders and their food, clothing and tools in bags that hung from their handlebars. The eventual winner told waiting officials that they were “killers” (assassins).   Based on that feedback, Desgrange included the Alps in the route in 1911. 

Passes such as the Tourmalet, made famous by the Tour, attract amateur cyclists in summer to test their fitness on roads used by champions. The difficulty of a climb is established by its steepness, length and its position on the course. The easiest climbs are graded 4, the most difficult are a catagory 1, and the exceptional (such as the Tourmalet) as beyond catagory, or hors catégorie.  Famous hors catégorie peaks include the Col du Tourmalet, Mont Ventoux, Col du Galibier, the climb to the ski resort of Hautacam, and Alpe d’Huez.  

The Tour originally ran the perimeter of France.  Cycling was an endurance sport and the organisers realised the sales would climb by creating supermen of their riders.  Night riding was dropped after the second Tour in 1904, because of rampant cheating when judges could not see the riders.  This change reduced the daily and overall distance but focused the emphasis on endurance. Desgrange said his ideal race would be so hard that only one rider would make it to Paris.

The Riders

Throughout the history of the race, riders have had a variety of alliances, either individual members, part of national teams, or as sponsored riders.  The race organizers have experimented with all the combinations before settling on the sponsored team approach in 1969. 

Classification jerseys

I have to say really understanding this section interested me as I knew at a superficial level what the jerseys stood for, but knowing the details makes appreciating what the riders are trying to do easier.  Every racer dreams of glory in the TdeF with podium girls kissing each cheek and wearing the yellow jersey as their goal.  However, three other significant competitions within tour are also prized: points, mountains, and best young rider.  The leaders of each competitions wear distinctive jerseys, awarded after each stage. When a single rider is entitled to more than one jersey, he wears the most prestigious and the second rider in the other classification wears the second jersey.  The overall and points competitions may be led by the same rider: the fastest rider wears the yellow jersey, and the rider second in the points competition wears the green jersey.

The Tour’s colors were adopted by other races and thus the colors significance has broad meaning within cycling, e.g. the Tour of Britain.   The Giro d’Italia differs only in awarding the leader a pink jersey, being organized by La Gazzetta dello Sport.  The jersey is pink for the pink pages of the paper.

Overall leader

The maillot jaune or yellow jersey is worn by the general classification leader.  This is the jersey to take home!

Points classification

The maillot vert (green jersey) is awarded for sprint points. At the end of each stage, points are earned by the riders who finish first, second, etc. Points are higher for flat stages, as sprints are more likely, and less for mountain stages, where climbers usually win.  There are five types of stages: flat, intermediates, mountain, individual time tria and team time trial stages. 

In case of a tie, the winner is determined by the following criteria:  the number of stage wins determine the green jersey, then the number of intermediate sprint victories, and finally, the rider’s standing in the overall classification.

King of the Mountains

The King of the Mountains wears a white jersey with red dots (maillot à pois rouges). The competition gives points to the first to top designated hills and mountains.  The year we watched the lead contender was French so this jersey was very popular among the spectators.  I wanted very badly to score a hat from the schwag wagon, but it was not meant to be.

Other classifications

The maillot blanc (white jersey) is for the best rider under 25 on January 1 that year.  Also known as the “best young rider”

The prix de la combativité goes to the rider who most energizes the day, usually by attempting a breakaway. The most combative rider wears a number printed white-on-red instead of black-on-white next day, and is recognized throughout the Tour.

The team prize is assessed by adding the time of each team’s best three riders each day. The competition does not have its own jersey but since 2006 the leading team has worn numbers printed black-on-yellow. The competition has existed since the start of the Tour races.


Riders start most stages together, exceptions include the time trials. The first kilometres, the départ fictif, are a rolling start without racing, with the real start, départ réel, announced by the waving of a white flag.

Riders can touch and draft off of other riders, but not push or nudge. The first rider to cross the finish line wins. Generally a breakaway from the peloton occurs and one or two riders finish ahead of the pack – followed by the peloton finishing en masse – all credited with the same time.  It is very important for the riders not to slip off the back, as they loose that advantage.  This decision to award the same time avoids the carnage that mass sprints pose.

Time bonuses are often awarded to the first three at intermediate sprints and stage finishes. Riders who crash in the last three kilometres are credited with the time of the group they were with.  This prevents riders being penalised for accidents that do not reflect their performance on the stage, given that crashes in the final kilometer can be unavoidable. The final kilometre is indicated by a red triangle – the flamme rouge – above the road.

Stages in the mountains almost always cause changes to the rankings in the general classification. On ordinary stages, most riders can stay in the peloton; during mountain stages, riders string out, and the time trial specialist may lose 30+ minutes.  The mountains often decide the Tour, and these stages bring spectators who line the roads by the thousands.  I think one of the reasons for this is that you can actually see the riders, on the flat stages they whiz by you so fast, they are just a blur and a gust of wind.  If you are at the top of the hill and can watch them climb you appreciate the incredible effort being put forth.

In an individual time trial each rider rides individually against the clock. The first stage of the tour is often a short trial, a prologue, to decide who wears yellow on the opening day.

There are usually two or three time trials . One trial is often a team time trial. Traditionally the final time trial has been the penultimate stage, and determines the winner before the final ordinary stage which is not ridden competitively until the last hour.  A team time trial is a race against the clock.  The team’s time is that of the fifth rider.  Riders more than a bike-length behind their teams are awarded their own times. This trial has been criticised for favouring strong teams and handicapping strong riders in weak teams. 


Farmers build dioramas out of hay or mowed into the fields, depicting bicycles and “vive le tour.” 

The excitement shoots to a crescendo before the crowds see the racers as the publicity train passes by, blaring music and tossing hats, souvenirs, sweets and samples.  They know that after this train comes the cyclists. As word passes that the riders are approaching, fans sometimes encroach on the road until they are an arm’s length from riders.

Customs & Quirks

The riders temper their competitiveness with a code of conduct. It is unsporting to attack a leading rider delayed by misfortune. Attacking in the feed zone is also bad form.  Not sticking to customs leads to less than friendly relations.

The poor rider number 13 is allowed to wear one of his numbers upside down.

Some Bike Racing Terms – taken from The Tour of California Site  (another great stage race)

Abandon. When a rider quits during a race.

Attack. A sudden acceleration by a rider to move ahead of another rider or group “He’s on the attack”

Bonk. Total exhaustion caused by lack of sufficient food during a long race or ride.  This one usually hits you like a brick wall – its suddenly and you just cannot recover

Bonus Sprints. On each stage, race organizers designate several locations along the route where bonus points are given to the first three riders that cross the line. These sprints create a “race within a race” during each stage.

Breakaway. One or more riders who sprint away from the peloton in an effort to build a lead. Competing riders in a breakaway will often form uneasy alliances, working together and drafting to increase or maintain their lead – strategy is key. Those alliances break down, though, as they approach the finish.  A team leader in a breakaway with multiple teammates has a decided advantage over a rider who with no support.  Someone who led this effort might be awarded the prix de la combativité.

Bridge. A rider or riders who sprint away from the main group of riders, or peloton, and catch the breakaway.

Broom Wagon. The vehicle that retrieves racers who abandoned the race.

Caravan/Race Caravan The official and team support vehicles in a race. Each team has a car in the official race caravan. The team cars follow the peloton and riders will often go back to their team car for food, extra clothing, or to speak to their team director.

Col. A mountain pass or climb, such as ‘Col du Telegraph’.

DNF. Short for “Did Not Finish”

Domestique. A rider whose main job is to help the team leader win the day’s stage, or the entire race. A domestique may pull the leader up to a breakaway, or pace them up a steep climb.  If a team leader gets a flat, a domestique may even be called upon to give up their front or rear wheel and wait for the team mechanic, saving the leader precious seconds.

Drafting. One or more riders ride single file behind another rider, taking advantage of that rider’s slipstream. By doing so the rider behind has less of a headwind and gets a breather. In a crosswind, riders may ride in a diagonal line, instead. Drafting is the lynchpin of most bicycle racing tactics. See also paceline.

Drop/Dropped. When a rider has been left behind by another rider or group of riders.  He falls back and cannot catch up.

Echappee. The cyclist who escapes from the pack. The ‘escapee’.

Echelon. A staggered, long line of riders, each downwind of the rider ahead, allowing them to move considerably faster than a solo rider or small group of riders. In windy sections where there are crosswinds, a large peloton will form into echelons.  Watching this take place is similar to watching geese fly when then string out and can form that “V” pattern.

Equipe. A cycling team.

Feed Zone. A designated area along the route where riders can grab “musette bags” filled with food and drinks as they ride by. 

Field Sprint. A mass sprint at the finish among the main group of riders in a road race.

Gap. The amount of time or distance between a rider or group of riders and another rider or group of riders.  This is really a case of “Mind the Gap” as the larger it is indicates how far behind the rider is.

General Classification (G.C.). The overall leader board in the race, representing each rider’s total cumulative time in the race. The rider with the lowest time is number one on the G.C.

Gruppetto. A group of riders that forms at the back of the peloton in the mountain stages and ride at a pace that allows them to finish just inside the time limit. (see Time Cut.) Usually the gruppetto is comprised of sprinters and other riders who are not climbing specialists or race leaders. Gruppetto is Italian for “a small group”

Jump. A quick acceleration, which usually develops into a sprint. 

King of the Mountains. The KOM is the fastest climber in the overall standings. King of the Mountain is awarded to the racer who is awarded points based on the many KOM sprints in the Tour. Look for the KOM jersey in the race. 

Lead Out. A racer’s teammate(s) form a paceline in front of the leader, pulling hard for the finish. The supporting cast (domestiques) pulls off one at a time, leaving the leader rested and fast for the last sprint. Leadouts typically happen right before the finish line or sprint.  This is part of the strategy and teamwork I alluded to earlier.

Mechanical. Slang for a problem with the bicycle. “He had a mechanical.”

Mountain Climb Classifications. Large mountain climbs are normally classified according to their difficulty. Category 4 is the easiest, followed by Categories 3, 2, 1, and the Hors-Categorie (which is the hardest). Mountain climbs are classified according to their length and the average gradient of the road’s incline.

Off the Back. When a rider or riders cannot keep pace with the main group and lag behind.

Off the Front When a rider takes part in a breakaway.

Paceline. A formation of two or more riders who are drafting. Typically, racers take turns doing the hard work at the front of the line.

Peloton. The main group of racers. With its dozens of colorful jerseys, maneuvering for position and breakneck speeds, the peloton can be quite a sight. Also called the pack.

Prologue. One type of beginning for a stage race, which is a relatively short time trial.

Road Rash. Skin abrasions resulting from a fall or crash onto the road.

Schwag. The free stuff competitors get when they race. May include water bottles, jerseys, food, or more expensive toys.

Slipstream. The area of least wind resistance behind a rider.

Sprint. A quick scramble for the finish line or a mid-race king of the mountain or other competition. A professional road race sprint is fast, furious and tactical. Watch for riders to jockey for the second or third spot, or organize leadouts by their teammates.

Squirrel. A small rodent, but also a rider who is erratic and ‘squirrely’ when riding in a group.

Team Leader. The rider for whom the team supports in order for the leader to win a stage or race

Technical. A descent or other portion of a race that is twisty, steep or otherwise challenging from the point of view of bike handling.

Time Cut. Mostly applicable to the Grand Tours. On each stage all riders must finish within a certain percentage of the winner’s time to remain in the race. Those who are unable to make the cut are disqualified from the race

Time Trial. Often called the Race of Truth, a time trial pits a rider or a team against the clock. Individual time trials are grueling affairs, with each rider expending maximum effort.

Train. A fast moving paceline of riders

Velo. French for “bicycle” 

Wheelsucker. A somewhat dated term for someone who, while riding in a paceline, doesn’t take a turn at the front of the line.  

Posted by: oysterculture | April 28, 2009

Special Ingredients: Nigella


Nigella seeds from Penzey's, called by their Russian name

Nigella seeds from Penzey's, called by their Russian name

Nigella is another ingredient that does not get the respect it deserves.  I am convinced this lack of use in the United States, at least, is due to the fact that it has numerous aliases, making it challenging to find, much less get, the spice you intend – unless you know what to seek. 

Some English names that are mistakenly applied to nigella:

  • Black caraway  is another name as it is used with caraway, in Jewish rye breads)
  • Black onion seed (because of the similarity to onion seeds); but there is no relation between nigella and this plant  
  • Black sesame seeds
  • Black cumin (as in Bengali kalo jira), but this is applied to a different spice
  • More rarely, there is confusion with ajwain (a future post will be dedicated to this wonderful spice), which in some languages has similar names

 In English, Nigella sativa seed is variously called fennel flower, nutmeg flower, Roman coriander. The scientific name is a derivative of Latin nigellus or niger “black”. 

In English-speaking countries with large immigrant populations, it can also be known as: 

  • askalonji (Hindi कलौंजी kalauṃjī or कलोंजी kaloṃjī)
  • kezah Hebrew קצח)
  • chernushka (Russian) – probably coming from the Armenian emigrant population
  • çörek otu (Turkish)
  • habbat albarakah (Arabic حبه البركة ḥabbatu l-barakah “seed of blessing”)
  • siyah daneh (Persianسیاه‌دانه siyâh dâne)
  • كلونجى in urdu

Nigella sativa has a pungent, bitter taste.  They are vaguely triangular shaped (hence the misnomer “black cumin”) and, when rubbed, smells like oregano. It has a slight oniony taste, which led to that confusion association as  black onion seeds.  

Today, the plant is cultivated from Egypt to India.  From Iran, nigella use spread to Northern India, particularly the Punjab and Bengal regions, where the spice is mostly used for vegetable dishes.  Like many other Indian spices, nigella develops its flavour best after short toasting in a hot dry pan, or with a bit of oil.  In the Indian states of  West Bengal, Orissa and Sikkim, and Bangladesh, a spice mixture made from five spices is very popular: Panch phoran, better known by its Hindi name of  panch phoron.  This mixture is used both for meats and vegetables. The composition commonly provided is equal parts nigella, fenugreek, cumin, black mustard seeds and fennel.  Panch phoron subtly flavors foods, and  is always fried in oil before use.  

Nigella sativa is thought to be mentioned in the Old Testament’s book of Isaiah, where the reaping of nigella and wheat is contrasted (Isaiah 28: 25, 27).   Nigella was believed to be a traditional condiment of old, and its seeds were extensively used to flavor food.”  It is assumed that it has been in use for over 2,000 years.  Archeological evidence about the earliest cultivation of nigella “is still scanty”, but the seeds were found in several sites from ancient Egypt, including Tutankhamun’s tomb.  Although its exact role in Egyptian culture is unknown, it is known that items entombed with a pharaoh were carefully selected to assist him in the after life.

The Arabs have a proverb: “In the black seed is the medicine for every disease save death.”  Herb guru Jim Duke, author of the CRC Handbook of Medicinal Spices, notes that nigella seeds have strong anti-microbial properties.  In the Middle East, the spice is incorporated in treatments for a staggering array of ailments, from eczema to asthma and cardiovascular disease.  Oh, yes, and nigella repels moths.

Nigella Lawson (photo from

Nigella Lawson (photo from

Naturally, the other Nigella—Lawson, that is has recipes using nigella seeds, including Nigellan Flatbread (How To Be a Domestic Goddess).  

Its flavor and texture lends itself to a variety of savory baked goods.  A type of naan bread called Peshawari naan is generally topped with nigella.  Other uses include: 

added to vegetables, curries, pickles, chutneys, spice mixtures, 

incorporate into sauces, broth and soups, 

roast and sprinkle on cucumber and red onions, 

combine with fennel, cumin, mustard and fenugreek seeds to flavor sour (tomato, yogurt) sauces

 I could not add any recipes that beat what is found in these two wonderful Turkish food blogs that included nigella in some recent recipes.  Its hard to improve upon perfection:

 SpiritedMiuFlavor’s  Ozge had a  favorite recipes that incorporates nigella: Pogaca.  

Zerrin of GiveRecipe provided a savory pastry recipe.

Posted by: oysterculture | April 23, 2009

Where the water buffalo roam

Water Buffalo (photo from Wiki)  

Water Buffalo (photo from Wiki)

When I learned that buffalo mozzarella was made from the milk of water buffalo, it did not cause me to pause.  I did not even stop to consider, goodness, there are buffalo in Italy – no mention in any guide book.  No, it took being nearly laughed out of the room for the fact to hit me smack in the head.  It was not until I smugly informed my husband and brother how”buffalo mozzarella” had acquired its name and nearly got ridiculed for my attempts at culinary education that it dawned on me.  Wow, water buffalo roam in Italy.  Wait a minute,….WATER BUFFALO!   An animal definitely not native to Europe – so where the heck did they come from?  Why are they there?  (Hint, a bit of research alludes to an epic romance, that only Shakespeare could conjure up)

Cheese is generally made from the milk of three different animals: cow, sheep or goat.   Mozzarella is an exception, requiring the milk of the water buffalo, and hence the reason it commonly goes by the name buffalo mozzarella.  (Although you can find “mozzarella” style cheese made with cow’s milk – it is not the same).   

Anthony and Cleopatra (photo from wonderousbenefitsofaloe)

Anthony and Cleopatra (photo from wonderousbenefitsofaloe)

Legend has it that 2,000 years ago when Rome was considered the center of the world, and Julius Caesar its ruler – Rome conquered Egypt.  Egypt’s wily queen, Cleopatra beguiled Anthony as he assumed control of the country for Rome.  It was amore, and part of the wooing, I image, required many a day floating on barges on the Nile, idly nibbling local delicacies.  Picture fingers dangling in the water as you drift serenely on a barge nibbling the goodies proffered – figs and bits of luscious cheese.  One such cheese was made from water buffalo milk.  Understandably, Anthony became a big fan of this cheese and sent water buffalo back to Caesar with instructions on cheese making.  No surprise, this  cheese became an overnight sensation (salted caramels might be a good comparison).  The Italians quickly adapted the water buffalo to life on the plains between Rome and Naples.  

The mozzarella style of the cheese,that we know today, was said to be the result of some cheese curds accidently falling into a pail of hot water at a cheese factory near Naples.  I love happy consequences!  Given the unique source of milk, true mozzarella can not be duplicated anywhere else.  Although, a mozzarella style cheese exists, and is made with cow’s milk and it is called Fior di Latte.  After World War II, Mozzarella di Bufala was discontinued for a time when the retreating Nazis destroyed the water buffalo herds.  The Italians eventually acquired more of the animals from India.  Of the two cheeses, the one made from water buffalo milk is generally preferred; considered the finer and sweeter of the two.

Fresh mozzarella is generally white, but may vary seasonally depending on the animal’s diet.  It is classified as a semi-soft cheese, and due to its high moisture content, it is traditionally served the day it is made, as it does not keep well.  But storing the cheese in brine or in vacuum-sealed packages extends its life. Low-moisture or smoked mozzarella (affumicata) can keep refrigerated for up to a month.  Generally the lower the moisture content, the longer the shelf life.  


Mozzarella is produced from the milk of the domestic water buffalo. After curdling the product is drained and the whey discarded. The cheese is then stretched and kneaded to produce a delicate consistency — this process is generally known as pasta filata.  “The cheesemaker kneads it with his hands, like a baker making bread, until he obtains a smooth, shiny paste, a strand of which he pulls out and lops off, forming the individual mozzarella.”  Traditional shapes include a ball or a plait (treccia).  In Italy, a “rubbery” consistency that can be found in some US mozzarella is not satisfactory; the cheese is expected to be softer.

The name “mozzarella” is derived from southern Italian dialects, was the diminutive form of mozza (cut), or mozzare (to cut off) derived from the method of working. Other theories describe its origins as a minor preparation of “scamozza” (Scamorza cheese), which probably derives from “scamozzata” (“without a shirt”), alluding to the fact that these cheeses have no rind.

Variations on a Theme (types of mozzarella you might find)

  • Ciliegine  – “Cherry Size”  
  • Bocconcini – Bite Size”  
  • Ovoline – “Egg Size” 

Naples, Italy

Naples (photo from ultimateitaly)

Naples (photo from ultimateitaly)


Naples (Italian: Napoli, Neapolitan: Napule) in Italy, is the capital of the region of Campania. The city is known for its rich history, art, culture and gastronomy, all play an important role throughout its existence; it is over 2,800 years old.  Naples is halfway between two volcanic areas, the volcano Mount Vesuvius and the Phlegraean Fields, sitting on the coast by the Gulf of Naples.  Founded by the Ancient Greeks  Neápolis (New City), held an important role as part of the Roman Republic.

Naples is one of the world with greater density of cultural resources and monuments who includes 2800 years of history: the most prominent forms of architecture in Naples are from the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque periods.  A striking feature of Naples is the fact that it has 448 historical churches, making it one of the most Catholic cities in the world.  The historic city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Naples was the capital city of a kingdom which bore its name from 1282 until 1816 in the form of the Kingdom of Naples, then in union with Sicily it was the capital of the Two Sicilies until the Italian unification.

After Rome and Milan, it is the third largest city in Italy, and the 15th largest in Europe. In the central area, the city itself has a population of around 1 million people–the inhabitants are known as Neapolitans.  

A strong part of Neapolitan culture which has had wide reaching effects is music, including the invention of the romantic guitar and the mandolin as well as strong contributions to opera and folk standards.

Nibbles of History

The city became an ally of the Roman Republic against Carthage; the strong walls surrounding Naples or Neapolis as it was known, stopped Hannibal from invading.  The city was greatly respected by the Romans as a place of Hellenistic culture: the people maintained their Greek language and customs; elegant villas, aqueducts, and public baths.  A theatre and the Temple of Dioscures were built, and powerful emperors vacationed in the city including Claudius and Tiberius.  

It was a cultural powerhouse during the Baroque era as a home to artists including Caravaggio, Rosa and Bernini, philosophers such as Telesio, Bruno, Campanella and Vico, and writers such as Battista Marino.  

During the time of Ferdinand IV, the French Revolution made its way to Naples: Horatio Nelson, an ally of the Bourbons, warned the city against it. However, Ferdinand was forced to retreat and fled to Palermo, where he was protected by the British fleet.  Naples’ lower classes the lazzaroni were Royalist, and favored the Bourbons; in the ensuing mêlée, they fought the Neapolitan pro-Republican aristocracy sparking a civil war.   

Naples (photo from lonelyplanet)

Naples (photo from lonelyplanet)

Ferdinand IV was restored as king; however, after only seven years Napoleon conquered the kingdom and instated various Bonapartist kings including his brother, Joseph Bonaparte.  With the help of the Austrian Empire and other allies, the Bonapartists were defeated in the Neapolitan War and Bourbon Ferdinand IV once again regained the throne and the kingdom.  

Naples was the most bombed Italian city of World War II.  Though Neapolitans did not rebel under Italian fascism; Naples was the first Italian city to rise up against German military occupation.  The symbol of the rebirth of Naples was the rebuilding of Santa Chiara which was destroyed by an Allied air strike.  Naples has some residual issues, with high unemployment and waste management issue.  The later of which is attributed to the Camorra organised crime network. 

Food of the City

Pizza of course, but beyond that as you might imagine, some seafood comes into play.  Vermicelli with clams and mussels is a favorite, as is Italian style fritters with squid and mullet.  The city is justly famous for its seasonal sweets:  struffoli (cookies made with Strega liqueur, honey and candied sprinkles), seppole (cookies made from black cherry liqueur, fried or baked for St. Joseph’s day) cassate (cakes make from ricotta cheese, almond paste, and chocolate), monachine “little monks” …..  These delicious nibbles are accompanied by coffee or a variety of liqueurs such as limoncello and nicillo (walnut flavored).   

Oyster’s Fast, Easy, Freewheeling Pasta

Serves 6

  • 1 # pasta – I use fuselli
  • 2 T olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic roasted, or saute a med sized onion
  • 3T roasted tomatoes stored in olive oil
  • 1/2 c black olives
  • 1 roasted bell pepper, skinned, and diced
  • 1 T capers, drained
  • 3/4 c smoked mozzarella, diced or shredded
  • 1T freshly chopped rosemary
  • 1T fresh basil, chiffonade
  • salt and pepper

Cook the pasta according to directions.  

While the water for the pasta is coming to a boil, roast the garlic and peppers.  Warm the oil in a large pan and add all the ingredients except the pasta, cheese, herbs and spices.  When the pasta is cooked, toss with the ingredients, add the herbs and season to taste with the salt and pepper.   Sprinkle on the cheese prior to serving.

Note:  These ingredients are staples in my kitchen and I mix and match depending on my mood.  This pasta is quick and the smoked cheese adds a nice flavor.  I’ve tried adding the cheese to the batch and mixing it in that way.  Definitely works, but it can result in cheese clumps, which I am certainly not adverse to, and in fact make a point of having them end up in my portion.  =) Its just that the distribution is not the most equitable.

Posted by: oysterculture | April 18, 2009

Seasonal Cheeses: Goat and Sheep

When I attended my cheese school classes at the San Francisco Cheese School, I learned that goat and sheeps cheese were seasonal, and that fact surprised me.  Maybe it shouldn’t have, but it did.  I suspect it did because sometimes I feel so far removed from the source of my food, on any given day, I can find feta in any market in my neighborhood, along with countless other varieties.  In any event, I promptly forgot it, only to be reminded on a recent trip to the Harley goat farm in Pescadero, CA and an article in the Oreganian talking about this very fact.  

The reason the cheese is seasonal is that lambs and sheep only have young seasonally (twice a year), and they only lactate to feed their young.  Once the young are weaned, no more milk production until the next season.  Ah, you’re catching on – lactating is the means by which we get the milk for making all that wonderful cheese.  

Pescadero Goat Farm

Pescadero Goat Farm

The annual milking season for sheep is only seven to nine months.  Cows breed year-round ensuring a constant milk supply so there is no seasonality associated with cow’s milk cheese.  But sheep and goats are seasonal; they naturally breed from late summer into fall as days become shorter.  Pregnancy lasts five months and lambing and kidding occurs from late winter into spring.

a whole lotta goodness

a whole lotta goodness

Generally, lactation cycles are seven months for sheep and ten months for most goats.  Milk volume drops off towards the end of the cycle, ceasing in the winter.  This dry period allows the animals, and by association, the cheese makers to have a well deserved rest before the process resumes in February.  Farmstead cheesemakers have no free time once this season begins, this intense work really shows they are in this business for the love of their craft.  The animals are milked twice daily, and cheese production: ladling, curing, packaging is done by hand.   

Two components of milk are fat and protein (casein), together are referred to as “milk solids.”  Solids concentration is highest in the weeks immediately following birth and toward the end of lactation when milk is less abundant but more concentrated. This means the richest, creamiest cheeses will be in spring and fall.

Haley's Goat Farm

Haley's Goat Farm

Milk reflects what the animals eat. Spring milk hints at the pasture and woodland forage, with bright and grassy flavors. Cheese made from summer milk, though less rich, contains floral qualities from the variety found in the summer.  Fall milk is back to grassy, herbal flavors from months of pasture and woodland grazing, and winter milk is dense and hearty with nutty flavors from dry or fermented fodder.

Before buying cheese, you should be familiar with a few terms you are bound to encounter. “Artisanal” cheese is made by hand, usually in small batches from milk generally comes from a community or cooperative of farms.  Cheese made in this fashion typically has a more consistent taste as the differences between farms are averaged out.  “Farmstead” artisanal cheeses are made from milk “donated” by the animals on the farm – so milk is from the same herd.  Cheese taste may vary from year to year assuming that the diet differs on which the animals graze.  Most aged artisanal cheeses are “raw milk.”  Many cheesemakers believe raw milk brings depth and individuality to the finished cheese.  Cheese mongers will say that there is a difference between raw and pasteurized – not that one is better – just different, and it comes down to personal taste.  US federal law requires that all raw milk cheeses be aged at least 60 days, during which enzymatic changes occur that inhibit the growth of potentially harmful bacteria in the milk.  Anything younger must be pasteurized.  European and other nations’ laws are different, so taste varies between cheese in the US and elsewhere.  One theory is that in the US, pasteurization, is a flash method, and the milk is quickly brought up to an extremely high temperature for a brief amount of time.  This is done to maximize the quantity of milk going through the process.  However, some experts say that by slowing the process down and slowing raising the temperature to a lower number but for a longer period, the change in taste might not be that extreme.

In early spring, fresh, un-aged cheeses appear, with tangy flavors and textures ranging from fluffy to creamy. Think of ricotta, chevre and fromage blanc. (Note: these cheeses are relatively easy to make at home)  There is a reason they pair so well with the spring bounty.  Next are the soft-ripened and surface-ripened cheeses, tasting of spring grass and sweet milk that include brie and other bloomy white rind cheeses.   

If you buy an aged cheeses, remember if a raw milk cheese is made in April, it will not arrive in the shops until at least  June, depending on length of aging.  Check out the same cheese aged to different degrees; a cheese aged a year or more has nutty, earthy flavors.  I was blown away the first time I had an aged gouda, especially when compared to a fresher version.  It was like tasting two entirely different cheeses.   

Thanks to the newspaper article in the Oregeonian by Peg Chiarpotti, a Portland freelance writer, here’s a great list of US cheeses to enjoy along with notations of the times they are at their best (some may be found year round). The fresh cheese are available in the spring, and the aged are found in the fall and winter.

Black Sheep Creamery:
fresh cheese, plain and flavored / spring, fall

Ancient Heritage:
Valentine / spring, fall

Cypress Grove:
fromage blanc / spring, fall
chevre, plain and flavored / spring, fall

Cowgirl Creamery:

fromage blanc / spring, fall
St. Pat / spring

Fraga Farms:
organic chevre, plain and flavored / spring, fall

Jacobs Creamery:
mascarpone / spring, summer
cream cheese, plain and flavored / spring, summer
ricotta / spring, summer

Juniper Grove:
fromage blanc / spring, fall
fresh chevre, plain and flavored / spring, fall
surface-ripened chevre / spring, summer

Mejean / spring
Cardabelle / spring
Le Roi Noir / spring
chevre / spring, fall
Larzac / spring, fall

Oregon Gourmet Cheese:
raw milk camembert / spring-early fall

Pholia Farm:
Wimer Winter / late winter-early spring
Hillis Peak / fall-spring
Elk Mountain / winter, spring

River’s Edge:
flavored chevre tortas / spring-fall
Confetti Moons / spring-fall
Sunset Bay / fall-spring
St. Olga / spring-fall

chevre, plain and flavored / spring, fall

Willamette Valley Cheese Co.:
Perrydale / spring, fall
Borenkaas / spring, summer

Willapa Hills Farmstead Cheese:
Willapa White / spring, fall
ricotta / spring, fall
Fresh With Ewe / spring-fall

Cheese to look forward to
Alsea Acres:
fromage blanc / late spring, fall
ricotta salata / summer
feta / summer
flavored chevre tortas / summer

Ancient Heritage:
Scio Heritage / late spring, fall
Rosa / summer-early winter

Black Sheep Creamery:
Mopsy’s Best / late spring, summer

Cowgirl Creamery:
Pierce Point / fall, winter

Fraga Farms:
organic feta / summer
organic goat cheddar / summer

Estrella Family Creamery:
Killeen / summer
Old Apple tomme / late spring, summer
Bea Truffled / late spring-fall
Vineyard tomme / winter (very limited)
Jalapeno Buttery / winter

Larkhaven Farm:
Rosa Rugosa / spring-fall

Causse Noir / fall, winter

Juniper Grove:
Tumalo tomme / fall, winter

River’s Edge:
seasonal crottin / late spring-winter

Pholia Farm:
Covered Bridge / late spring-early summer

Chevre Late Harvest / winter

Rogue River Creamery:
Rogue River Blue / fall, winter

Tumalo Farms:
Nocciola / late fall, winter
Truffleur / winter

Willapa Hills:
Ewe Moon / summer, winter

Some European cheeses:

Appenzeller (Switzerland): winter, spring

Camembert de Normandie (France): late fall-early spring

Gruyere (France): fall, winter

Manchego (Spain):
summer, winter

Pont L’Eveque (France): summer, fall

Roquefort (France): fall, winter

Stilton (England): fall, winter

I do not know about you, but knowing my cheese is seasonal, and knowing the reason why makes me feel more connected to my food and environment.  I have a renewed appreciation for my cheeses as a result.

Chocolate – Goat Cheese Fondue with Fresh Fruit:

From Laura Werlin’s Cheese Essentials – makes 2 cups

  • 16 oz bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
  • 8 oz semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
  • ½ c + 2T heavy cream
  • 8 oz fresh goat cheese
  • strawberries and bananas for dipping

Combine chocolate, cream and cheese in medium sized heavy sauce pan.  Cook over low heat stirring constantly until chocolate has melted, transfer to fondue pot and serve with fruit.  Enjoy!

Posted by: oysterculture | April 16, 2009

Sardanian Maggot Cheese (Casu Marzu) – yes that’s right

photo from     

photo by

Here is a specialty of Sardinia Italy that I leave for braver souls than me – and I’ll usually try about anything.  It may be a specialty, but my Western sensibilities are squealing in disbelief.  Casu Marzu, also known as the walking cheese, is not your average cheese lover’s cheese. The name of this Sardinian specialty literally translates to “rotten cheese.” If that fact is not enough to scare you away, how about a few thousand wriggling maggots?  Yes, I wrote maggots… thousands of them, so many that you have to protect your eyes when eating this cheese as they like to jump about.  Their  jumping is a good thing, you want that, because if they’re not moving that means the cheese is bad – decayed to a point too toxic for humans. 

Casu Marzu is a Italian traditional cheese produced only on Sardinia from Pecorino (Fiore Sardo) cheese.  Pecorino is typically soaked in brine, smoked, and left to ripen in the cellars of central Sardinia. But to produce Casu Marzu, cheese makers set the Pecorino Sardo outside – uncovered – so flies (the Piophila casei, if you must know) better access to lay their eggs inside of it. The cheese emerged through centuries of artisan production using first wild, (read by accident) and now deliberate, addition of larvae from the cheese fly which can also found in other high protein/high cholesterol foods like smoked meats and dried fish.  Enzymes produced by the larvae confers to the cheese a uniquely viscous texture and pungent taste. 

As the eggs hatch into thousands of white, transparent maggots, they feed on the cheese, producing enzymes that promote fermentation and cause the fats in the Casu Marzu to decompose.  Sometimes, cuts are made into the rind of Pecorino Sardo and already-hatched maggots are introduced into the cheese; accelerating the process.

How does Casu Marzu taste?

Casu Marzu is a local delicacy in very high demand. It is supposedly a very pungent, super soft cheese that oozes tears (lagrima), and tends to burn the brave taster’s tongue.  I had a French cheese burn my tongue, but no maggots were involved.

Some say Casu Marzu tastes like an extremely ripe Gorgonzola – of course, minus the savory blue veins and with the addition of a whole lot of larva. One piece of Casu Marzu may be populated by thousands of (living) maggots.

Is Casu Marzu dangerous?

Casu Marzu has been declared illegal and non-compliant with EU hygenic standards. It is banned by Italian health laws and not sold in shops. In addition to numerous anecdotal reports of allergic reaction (including burning, crawling skin sensations that last for days), there is a risk for enteric myiasis, or intestinal larval infection.  

Once ingested, it’s possible for the Piophila casei larvae to pass through the human stomach without dying (sometimes stomach acids just is not enough). In that case, the maggots make themselves at home in the intestines for awhile. They can cause serious lesions through intestinal walls, resulting in, shall we say, some potentially nasty problems.

Despite the health warnings, people in Sardinia say they’ve eaten Casu Marzu for hundreds of years with nary a problem. In fact, the Italian cheese is often brought out for special occasions like birthdays, bachelor parties, and weddings. According to folklore, Casu Marzu is even an aphrodisiac.  Why are these sorts of foods always aphrodisiacs?

Casu Marzu buying & serving tips

Casu Marzu cannot be legally sold in Italy, but shepherds produce it in small quantities for the black market. It’s often kept under the table, for only the most trusted customers. Selling or serving is punishable by a hefty fine.

If you find yourself with strong stomach and a local Sardinian connection, Casu Marzu may be procured – for about twice the price per pound as regular Pecorino. It’s generally served with thin slices of bread (pane carasau) and a strong, red wine called Cannonau.

One final note of caution, some people wear eye protection when eating Casu Marzu: the maggots are known to jump as high as six inches and of course they launch themselves straight for the eater’s eyes.  At a minimum, make a maggot sandwich and shield your eyes with your hand, or wear goggles as you take a bite.

Buono appetito!  I elected not to include a recipe.  

Another post in a series called, Food that makes you say – “huh”

Posted by: oysterculture | April 14, 2009

Food blogging and making virtual friends the real deal

Just a little view on my morning run

Just a little view on my morning run

One of the things I love most about food is that its appreciation goes beyond culture or geographical boundaries unlike, say NASCAR or yodeling.  I reguarily connect with people who live several time zones away as we share our passion of food and culture.  Phyllis at Me HUNGRY was kind enough to pass along the Sisterhood award, letting me know she liked what I produced in my posts.  A suggested action of the recipient is to identy other blogs they enjoy so others might learn of some new sites.

Thanks Phyllis!

Thanks Phyllis!

I love passing along wonderful finds so, here is a list of some relatively recent discoveries.  These bloggers focus on the food scene in my adopted town – San Francisco and surrounding area.  My transition into the food scene was certainly aided by what I gleaned from their posts.  I am confident you will find much of interest as well – even if you are not in the Bay Area.

Food Gal – Food Writer, Carolyn Jung writes about food and wine discoveries in the Bay Area and beyond.  I love what she writes and half the time I find myself wishing I was perched on a stool or hovering in the background as she writes her reviews or works her magic.  I’ll repeat my offer, if her husband is ever tied up – long bike ride, whatever and she needs someone to hold her pencil at these food events, I’m there to lend support. 

 Joanne Weir – Joanne is a chef, cooking instructor, and cookbook writer extraordinaire, and, oh yeah – she has her own TV show.  Several of her cookbooks are prominently displayed on my  cookbook shelf.    They are readily identifiable because of the worn edges and food stains, and comments on the recipes – I use them – a lot!  I know I can make any recipe in her books and it will be spectacular, if not – user error has got to be the issue.  She started her career at Chez Panisse, a Bay Area restaurant institution (Alice Waters, anyone?).  Her blog is a bit of everything: musings, culinary happenings, her work, and some wonderful new recipes.  I’ve also had the good fortune to take a few of her classes.

Cooking with Amy– A Bay Area food blogger and writer (she has her own cookbook) that unearths more reasons for me to find excuses to dash out and investigate yet another Bay Area culinary gem.  Following Amy’s blog allows me insights into other aspects of the Bay Area food scene. 

Beurre Monte–  This blog dishes on food and restaurants, its random musings are a toss up.  You never know what to expect, which is the fun of stopping by. 

Kitchen M– A great Bay Area blogger that provides many delicious and diverse dishes to try.  Made all the more tempting by the wonderful photography that accompanies the recipes.

One Bite at a Time– A wonderful read and the photography is phenomenal.  Isabelle has an exhibit coming up in a favorite boulangerie of mine, that I cannot wait to check out.  Isabelle’s blog was also a write in on the list of 50 best blogs the Independent featured a while back.

Lick My Spoon – Stephanie sometimes ventures farther afield, but I love learning that she has passed through my ‘hood and gave it a nod of approval, making sure that the world knows what a true culinary mecca this town is. 

Dandy Sugar– This blog is chock full of tempting recipes accompanied by some equally yummy looking photos, which I know will get me in trouble.  However I am powerless to resist the draw to this site.  I kept this blog here, even though technically DS has moved to LA, I still enjoy her work and want to recognize her efforts.

TableHopper – while not strictly a blog, Marcia’s weekly e-column is a source of information on the happenings in the restaurant and food scene is fantastic!  I feel like I have peered behind the curtain, and am indeed in the know.  

Other great Bay Area Resources:

Bay Area Bites– The blog is through KQED, and is the rants and raves of Bay Area Foodies and Professionals.  A thoroughly fun read! 

 71 Miles – if you feel compelled to take a day trip around the Bay Area have I got a site for you.  This is one great resource.

view of Marin through the Bridge (Ft. Baker)

view of Marin through the Bridge (Ft. Baker)

The Bay Area, in its wonderful bountifulness, has some famous food bloggers: Becks and Posh, Chez Pim, 101 Cookbooks.  This place is not short on people passionate about food, which has made my transition so much easier, and my running so much harder.

Phyllis’ action got me thinking – we’ve connected through our love of food and we’ve never met, but yet, I look forward to her posts – my mid week hump day would not be the same without “Weird Wednesdays”.  I often found myself wishing I could meet my new found virtual friends in person – go beyond the virtual connection to a physicial one.  I am always grateful when people contribute comments to my blog, hear what I have to say, and develop a real dialog about something I am passionate about.  For those of you that went out of your way to secure a WordPress account to add comments – thank you – I am touched, and love that we share common interests that allow us to connect even though we are literally worlds apart.  For the record, I had no idea that WordPress made it so difficult. 

Back to my desire to connect with my newfound virtual blogging friends.  I  was lucky enough to do just that.  Adrienne of  Gastroanthropology had mentioned she was coming back to her Bay Area home and suggested we hook up for lunch.  I was thrilled with that suggestion as I enjoy Adrienne’s posts and understand and share her passion of food sustainability. 

I was prepped to show you what a worthy food blogger Iwas – I recharged the batteries on my camera, had a note book for comments on our meal.  None of these tools of the trade ever emerged from my cavernous purse.  Adrienne and I started talking and it took off from there.  We enjoyed a nice leisurely meal, compared notes on dining in San Francisco and London and had an ideal foodie food feast.  Game over – there was a whole lot of  food conversation going on, and then unfoturnately, like all good things it had to end.  She had to prepare for her next dining adventure at Zuni’s, I believe, and for me it was back to the computer.

Starting this blog has opened up a new world for me, its allowed me to connect with people of different backgrounds and cultures and share a common love of food and learning, and best of all I feel I made some new friends in the process.

carrots from Mariquita farm my CSA (photo from

carrots from Mariquita farm my CSA (photo from

Carrots are some of my favorite vegetables.  We get them regularly in our CSA (consumer sustainable agriculture) box, and they look and taste delicious.   The carrots from my CSA are colored so much deeper and richer, that I am accustomed to.   The farmers keeps the greens on top and they almost look like an inverted bouquet; a far cry from the sanitized carrots in a plastic bag of my youth.

Did you know that carrots were not always orange?  Those wonderful colored carrots found in gourmet grocery stores and farmers markets that are white, red, purple – just about any color other than orange may be considered true carrot colors.  Apparently in a burst of marketing genius to honor their leader, William of Orange, the Dutch cultivated the carrot to grow in that lovely color of orange.  Given the newly devised specimen offered a few advantages such as it tasted better, and it did not leech its color onto cookware;  it was quickly adopted by Western cooks as the carrot of choice.

Some proponents argue that the Dutch stealthily created the orange carrot to nationalize this popular vegetable.   A more plausible belief is that Dutch horticulturists found a mutant orange colored carrot variety, and through selective breeding developed a consistently orange carrot.  Along the way, with a little help from cross-breeding, they refined and intensified the orange color we know today.  

The carrot is a root vegetable with a crisp texture when fresh. The edible part of a carrot is a taproot, which is a domesticated form of the wild carrot  native to Europe and southwestern Asia.  This biennial plant grows a rosette of leaves in the spring and summer, while building up the stout taproot that stores enough sugars for the plant to flower in the second year.  The flowering stem grows to about 1 metre (3′) tall, with white flowers that produce a fruit called a mericarp.

Uses and nutrition

The possible ways to eat carrots seem endless: raw, boiled, mashed, sliced, diced, sauteed, sweet to savory … baby food to pet food.   The carrot gets its characteristic bright orange colour from β-carotene, which is metabolised into vitamin A in humans.  Note the other colored carrots do not have this level of β-carotene so do not offer the same nutritional benefits – this was another reason that the orange carrots of today were readily adopted.  Carrots of all colors are also rich in dietary fibre, antioxidants, and minerals.  Lack of Vitamin A can cause poor vision, including night vision, but vision can be restored by modifying the diet to include Vitamin A. 

Close Family Members

In early use, carrots were grown for their aromatic leaves and seeds, not their roots.  Some relatives of the carrot are still grown in this manner such as parsley, fennel, dill and cumin.  Parsnips as you might have guessed are also a relative.

Fun Carrot Facts

  • The world’s largest carrot was grown in Palmer, Alaska by John Evans in 1998, weighing 8.6 kg (19#).
  • The world’s longest carrot recorded in 2007 was 5.839 meters (19’~2″) by Joe Atherton, UK
  • Holtville, CA calls itself the “Carrot Capital of the World”, and holds an annual festival devoted to the carrot. 
  • The wild ancestor of the carrot most probably came from Afghanistan.
  • Carrots were first grown as medicine, not food.
  • Carrots produce more distilled spirits than potatoes.
  • Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny, did not like carrots.
  • Too many carrots can cause hypercarotenemia, a condition in which the skin turns orange. 
  • The urban legend that says eating large amounts of carrots will allow one to see in the dark stemmed from stories of British gunners in World War II who shot down German planes at night. The legend arose during the Battle of Britain when the RAF circulated a story about their pilots’ carrot consumption to cover up the use of radar in engaging enemy planes.  The rumors reinforced German folklore and encouraged Britons—looking to improve their night vision to eat the vegetable.

all shapes and sizes

all shapes and sizes

Carrot cultivars are grouped into two classes, eastern carrots and western carrots.  

Eastern carrots were domesticated in Central Asia, probably in modern-day Afghanistan, around the 10th century.  Eastern carrot are commonly purple or yellow, and often have branched roots. Their purple color comes from anthocyanin pigments.  

Western carrots came later than Eastern their brethran.  While orange carrots are the norm in the West, other colors including white, yellow, red, and purple – all of which existed first.  However, given oranges enormous popularity, these varieties are raised primarily as novelty crops.  Western carrots are commonly classified by their root shape:

  • Chantenay carrots are shorter than other cultivars, but have greater girth, sometimes growing up to 8 cm (3″) in width. They have a broad top tapering to a blunt, rounded tip. They are commonly diced for use in prepared foods.
  • Danvers carrots have a conical shape, having well-defined shoulders and tapering to a point at the tip. They are somewhat shorter than Imperator cultivars, but more tolerant of heavy soil.  Danvers are often puréed as baby food. They were developed in 1871 in Danvers, Massachusetts.
  • Imperator carrots are the most common carrot sold in U.S. grocery stores; their roots are longer than other carrots, and taper to a point.
  • Nantes carrots are nearly cylindrical in shape, and are blunt and rounded at both ends. Nantes are often sweeter than other carrots. 

Carrot Top Soup

Serves 4  (recipe from Local Flavors by Deborah Madion)

  • 1 bunch small to medium sized carrots with tops and roots
  • 2 T butter
  • 3 T white rice
  • 2 large leeks, white part only
  • 2 sprigs thyme
  • 2 T chopped dill, parslet, celery leaves or lovage
  • salt and pepper
  • 6 c homemade vegetable stock


Pluck the lacey leaves of the carrot greens off their stems, so you have between 2 -3 cups, loosely packed.  Wash, then finely chop and grate the carrots.

Melt butter in stock pot.  Add carrot tops and carrots, rice, leeks, thyme and dill.  Cook for several minutes, stirring occassionally, season with 1 ½ tsp salt.  Add the stock.  Bring to boil, and simmer until rice is cooked ~ 15 minutes.

Season to taste and serve.


Amsterdam is one of my favorite cities.  For me, a big part of the appeal is the ability to walk  from one neighborhood to another and see the flow and changes. I’ll never forget my first visit, exiting from Centraal station to a nippy sunny day and seeing all the bicyclists.  I also got my first glimpse of the very impractical, circular bike for six.  

photo from vituraltourist

photo from vituraltourist

Amsterdam is the capital, and largest city of the Netherlands, located in the western part of the country.  Its name is derived from Amstel dam,  which indicates the city’s origin: a dam in the river Amstel where the Dam Square is today.    Amsterdam became one of the world’s most important ports during the Dutch Golden Age because of its innovative trading ideas. During that time, the city led the world in finance and diamonds.  In the 19th and 20th centuries, the city expanded, adding new neighborhoods and suburbs.  Amsterdam’s main attractions, include its historic canals, the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, Anne Frank’s House, its red-light district, and its many cannabis coffee shops, draws 4.2 million tourists annually, making it the 5th busiest tourist destination in Europe.

 The river Amstel terminates in the city center into numerous canals before winding up in the IJ.  Amsterdam is justly famous for these canals, allowing it to thrive at only 2 meters above sea level.

Amsterdam is intensely urbanized area with 220 square kilometers of land, the city has a population density of 4,457 inhabitants and 2,275 houses per square kilometer.  With Amsterdam Centraal railway station as the epicenter, the city fans out from here.  Within easy walking distance from the station is the oldest area of the town known as de Wallen (the quays) and contains the city’s famous red light district.

De Wallen, also known as Walletjes or Rosse Buurt, is designated for legalized prostitution and is Amsterdam’s largest and most famous red-light district.  It consists of a network of roads and alleys containing several hundred small, one-room apartments rented by female sex workers who offer their services from behind a window or glass door, typically illuminated with red lights. The area has numerous sex shops, theaters, peep shows, museums, and the cannabis coffee shops.  On my first visit, I had no idea what to expect, and I thought there would literally be flashing lights alerting me to the fact that I was entering the red light district.  I found no such thing.  Instead, it slowly dawned on me that I in the midst of the district while taking a stroll after dinner, when the tableaux in the windows got to be very interesting.   To say, I had never seen anything like this in the Midwest was an understatement, and it also served as a lesson that I really needed to pay more attention when I strolled.

This rapid transition from one neighborhood to the next reinforced for me how compact these cities really are.  Growing up in Rochester, Minnesota, home of the Mayo Clinic, we had many visitors from Europe, and it was obvious that we operated based on different geographical scales.  Several visitors expressed their desire  to drive to Disneyland for the weekend, only to report back that they made it to Missouri before giving up.  


The end of the 19th century is sometimes called Amsterdam’s second Golden Age.  New museums, a train station, and the Concertgebouw were built, as the Industrial Revolution reached the city. The Amsterdam-Rhine Canal was dug to connect Amsterdam to the Rhine, and the North Sea Canal gave the port a shorter connection to the North Sea (much like the connection allowing Duluth, Minnesota to be recognized as the farthest removed ocean port in America). Both projects dramatically improved commerce with the rest of Europe and the world.  


a favorite and much used souvenir from Rijksmuseum

a favorite and much used souvenir from Rijksmuseum

If you know one thing about the Dutch, know they have a long, passionate and tulmultous relationship with tulips.  Well, really, who could blame them?  Tulips were introduced to Europe in the mid-16th century via the Ottoman Empire, and became very popular in what is now the Netherlands.  Tulip cultivation started around 1593 after the Flemish botanist Charles de l’Écluse accepted a post at the University of Leiden and established the hortus academicus.  There, he planted his tulip bulbs—sent to him from Turkey by the Emperor’s ambassador to the Sultan —which could tolerate the local climate, and soon after they gained popularity.

The flower rapidly became a coveted luxury item and status symbol, and a profusion of varieties followed. They were classified in groups; one-coloured tulips of red, yellow, or white were known as Couleren, and considered relatively ho hum.  It was the multicoloured Rosen (red or pink on white background), Violetten (purple or lilac on white background), and, to a lesser extent, the Bizarden (red, brown or purple on yellow background) that sparked unheard of zeal.  These spectacular and highly sought-after tulip bulbs would flowers with vivid colors, lines, and flames on the petals, as a result of being infected with a tulip-specific virus known as the “Tulip breaking virus”, a type of mosaic virus.

Growers named their new varieties with exalted titles. Many early forms were prefixed Admirael “admiral”, often coupled with the growers’ names—Admirael van der Eijckwas perhaps the most highly prizedof the fifty odd varieties so  named.  Later varieties came with even grander names, derived from Alexander the Great or Scipio, and not to be out done even “Admiral of Admirals” and “General of Generals”.   Many of these varieties are no longer around as quality was fleeting and suspect.

Tulips grow from bulbs, and can be propagated through both seeds and buds. Seeds from a tulip will form a flowering bulb after 7–12 years.  When a bulb grows into the flower, the original bulb disappears, replaced by a clone bulb and several buds.  Properly cultivated, these buds become bulbs of their own.  Tulips bloom in April and May for only about a week, and the secondary buds appear shortly thereafter.  Bulbs can be uprooted and moved between June to September, and the actual purchases (in the spot market) occurred during these months.

During the rest of the year, traders signed notarized contracts to purchase tulips at the end of the season ( in finance terms these contracts are called futures contracts).  Thus the Dutch, who developed many modern finance techniques, created a market for tulip bulbs.   Short selling was banned in edict 1610, and this demand was reiterated on a few subsequent occassions.  Short sellers were not prosecuted under these edicts, but their contracts were deemed unenforceable. 

As the flowers gained popularity, professional growers paid increasingly higher prices for bulbs with the virus.  By 1634, in part because of French demand, speculators entered the market.  In 1636, the Dutch created a type of futures markets where contracts to buy bulbs at the end of the season were exchanged. Traders met in “colleges” at taverns, and buyers were required to pay a 2.5% “wine money” fee  per trade.  No deliveries were ever made because of the market collapse in February 1637.  The Dutch derogatorily described tulip contract trading as windhandel (literally “wind trade”), because no bulbs actually changed hands.   (Is it just me, or does this story have some parallels to today’s housing market?)


Dutch cuisine like English cuisine has a bad rap. Dutch national dishes tend to be ungarnished, hearty, and wholesome — solid stuff, but, well – bland.   A perfect example is erwtensoep, a thick pork-accented pea soup that offers warmth against cold Dutch winters.  Similarly, hutspot a stew of  potatoes, carrots, and onions is straighforward nourishment. Hutspot main ingredient – the potato – along with some good stories insures its continued popularity.

Seafood, as you might imagine  is a big deal.  You can expect to find, depending on season,  Zeeland oysters and mussels (Zeeuwsoesters and Zeeuwsmosselen), and herring pickled or “new” – fresh from the North Sea and eaten raw.  If you happen to be in Holland for the start of the herring season in June, try a “green” (raw) herring with onions from a fish stall, or haringhuis. Look for signs that say “Hollandse Nieuwe” (Holland’s New).  Great excitement surrounds the season’s first catch, divided between the queen and restaurateurs amid spirited competition.  At fish stalls, you can get snacks of baked fish, smoked eel, and seafood salads – perfect for a make shift picnic.

The Indonesian rijsttafel is Holland’s favorite feast; it has been ever since sea captains introduced it to the wealthy Amsterdam burghers in the 17th century. The rijsttafel (literally, “rice table”) originated with Dutch plantation overseers in Indonesia, who liked to sample local cuisine.  It became a tradition upheld by Indonesian migrants to Holland who opened restaurants and, knowing the Dutch fondness for rijsttafel, shrewdly made it a standard menu item. Rijsttafels are only a small part of an Indonesian restaurant’s menu, and there’s a trend among the Dutch to consider them as “just for tourists”.  However, rijsttafels remain popular, and many other ethnic restaurants have adopted the idea.

The basic concept of a rijsttafel is to graze and appreciate the blending flavors and textures.   A simple, unadorned bed of rice is the foundation of all the dishes.   The dishes are small and the portions are based on the number of people expected to share.  The idea is to sample many things, not fixate on a single item.  Also, an Indonesian rijsttafelhas no separate courses. Once your table has been set, all the dishes arrive simultaneously, like a culinary tidlewave, and the diners are expected to plot their own course through the meal.

Among the customary dishes and ingredients of a rijsttafel are loempia (Chinese-style egg rolls); satay, or sateh (small pork kebabs, grilled and served with spicy peanut sauce); perkedel (meatballs); gado-gado (vegetables in peanut sauce); daging smoor (beef in soy sauce); babi ketjap (pork in soy sauce); kroepoek (crunchy, puffy shrimp toast); serundeng (fried coconut); roedjak manis (fruit in sweet sauce); and pisang goreng (fried banana).

You may be surprised at the number of Indoneasian restaurants, but remember the long history that binds these two countries.  A fact I was grateful for as I consumed many wonderful plates of nasi goering on my visits.  This interest in Indonesian is no different that the British obsession with Indian curry.

A few traditional options

Croquetten — Fried croquettes of meat, prawns, or gooey cheese.  They’re are at their best when served hot and accompanied with mustard for dunking.  They do not warnl you, but  they are also addicting. 

Pannekoeken & Poffertjes — These Dutch pancakes are the equivalent of French crepes, and they’re served flat on a dinner plate, topped with powdered sugar, jam, syrup, hot apples, or in typical Dutch style with hot ginger sauce. Less common are pannekoeken with meat. Poffertjes are small fried-pancake “puffs” coated with powdered sugar and filled with syrup or liqueur.

Hutspot— A stew made of beef ribs, carrots, onions, and potatoes, often mashed together. This is a dish with historic significance, particularly for the people of Leiden: It’s the Dutch version of the stew found in the boiling pots left behind after the Spaniards were evicted after a long siege during the Eighty Years’ War.  It was also popular during World War II as the pototaes, a key component, were hidden by virtue of the fact that they grew underground.

(great starter list on foods from Frommners


classic blue and white Dutch pitcher

classic blue and white Dutch pitcher

You have only to start walking in any of the neighborhoods to experience Amsterdam’s rich architectural history. The oldest building in Amsterdam is het Houten Huys at the Begijnhof.  This building was constructed around 1425 and is one of only two existing wooden buildings, and a rare example of gothic architecture in Amsterdam.  In the 16th century, brick replaced wood buildings, following the Renaissance architectural style recognized for their façades which end at the top in a stairway shape – common in Dutch Renaissance style.  

At the end of the nineteenth century, the Jugendstil style became popular (similar to Prague) and many new buildings were constructed.   The last style that was popular in Amsterdam before the modern era was Art Deco, with Amsterdam’s version called the Amsterdamse School.  

The old city’s center is the epicenter of all the architectural styles before the end of the nineteenth century.  Jugendstil and Art Deco are mostly found outside the city’s center in the neighbourhoods built in the early twentieth century.  To me this architecture is very unique and I really enjoyed heading to the suburbs to check out the buildings out first hand.


Like all Dutch municipalities, Amsterdam is governed by a mayor, aldermen, and the municipal council.  But, unlike most other Dutch municipalities, Amsterdam is subdivided into fifteen stadsdelen (boroughs), a system that was implemented in the 1980s to improve local governance. The stadsdelen are responsible for many activities that had previously been run by the central city.  Local decisions are made at borough level, and only affairs pertaining to the whole city, such as major infrastructure projects, are handled by the central city council.  

I am not certain Amsterdam is the only exception, but it is certainly unique in that, while the Dutch capital city, Amsterdam is not the seat of government.  The Parliament and the Supreme Court are located in The Hague, along with the foreign embassies.  


In 1578 the previously Roman Catholic city of Amsterdam joined the revolt against Spanish rule.  In line with Protestant procedure of that time, all churches were “reformed” to the Protestant worship. Calvinism became the dominant religion, and although Catholicism was not forbidden and, the Catholic hierarchy was prohibited, leading to schuilkerken, covert churches, which hid behind seemingly ordinary facades.  As they became established, other Christian denominations used converted Catholic chapels to conduct their own services. The oldest Church of England building outside the United Kingdom is at the Begijnhof.  

In the second half of the 17th century, Amsterdam experienced an influx of  Jews from Central and Eastern Europe, which continued into the 19th century.  The first who arrived were refugees from the Chmielnicki Uprising in Poland, and the Thirty Years War. They not only founded their own synagogues, but influenced the ‘Amsterdam dialect’ adding a large Yiddish local vocabulary.  Amsterdam’s nickname of Mokum, the Yiddish word for the Hebrew makom (“town”), is evidence of this integration.  Most recent religious changes in Amsterdam are due to immigration from former colonies.  Islam is now the largest non-Christian religion.  Although the saying “Leven en laten leven” or “Live and let live” summarises the Dutch and especially the Amsterdam open and tolerant society, the increased influx of many races, religions, and cultures after the second world war, has occasionally strained relations.  With 176 different nations represented, Amsterdam has more nationalities than any other city in the world. 


The Rijksmuseumhouses the largest (at ~ 1 million) and most significant collection of classical Dutch art.  When most people think of this museum, they think of Rembrandt, whose work is predominantly displayed here.  Rembrandt’s masterpiece the Nightwatch is one of top pieces of art of the museum, like Mona Lisa is to the Louvre.  Van Gogh lived in Amsterdam for a short while, so there is a museum dedicated to his early work.  The museum is housed in one of the few modern buildings in this area of Amsterdam.  The Van Gogh museum is the most popular museum in Amsterdam.  Next to the Van Gogh museum stands the Stedelijk Museum which is Amsterdam’s largest modern art museum.

If you are traveling to Europe this summer, consider Amsterdam.  If you go, be sure to eat your carrots, as you can expect to do a lot of site seeing =^).

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