December 6, 2012
The start of the northern meteorological winter on December 1 will bring with it short days of darkness, blistering cold and frigid blizzards. For many people, this is the dreariest time of the year. But for a small niche of water-happy athletes, winter is a time to play, as ferocious storms send rippling rings of energy outward through the ocean. By the time they reach distant shores, these swells have matured into clean, polished waves that barrel in with a cold and ceaseless military rhythm; they touch bottom, slow, build and, finally, collapse in spectacular curls and thundering white water. These are the things of dreams for surfers, many of whom travel the planet, pursuing giant breakers. And surfers aren’t the only ones with their eyes on the water—for surfing has become a popular spectator sport. At many famed breaks, bluffs on the shore provide fans with thrilling views of the action. The waves alone are awesome—so powerful they may seem to shake the earth. But when a tiny human figure on a board as flimsy as a matchstick appears on the face of that incoming giant, zigzagging forward as the wave curls overhead and threatens to crush him, spines tingle, hands come together in prayer, and jaws drop. Whether you like the water or not, big-wave surfing is one of the most thrilling shows on the planet.
The birth of big-wave surfing was an incremental process that began in the 1930s and ’40s in Hawaii, especially along the north-facing shores of the islands. Here, 15-foot waves were once considered giants, and anything much bigger just eye candy. But wave at a time, surfers stoked up their courage and ambition. They surfed on bigger days, used lighter and lighter boards that allowed swifter paddling and hunted for breaks that consistently produced monsters. One by one, big-wave spots were cataloged, named and ranked, and wave at a time, records were set. In November 1957, big-wave pioneer Greg Noll rode an estimated 25-footer in Waimea Bay, Oahu. In 1969, Noll surfed what was probably a 30-plus-footer, but no verified photos exist of the wave, and thus no means of determining its height. Fast-forwarding a few decades, Mike Parsons caught a 66-foot breaker in 2001 at Cortes Bank, 115 miles off San Diego, where a seamount rises to within three feet of the surface. In 2008, Parsons was back at the same place and caught a 77-footer. But Garrett McNamara outdid Parsons and set the current record in November 2011, when he rode a 78-foot wave off the coast of Portugal, at the town of Nazare.
But these later records may not have been possible without the assistance of jet skis, which have become a common and controversial element in the pursuit of giant waves. The vehicles first began appearing in the surf during big-wave events in the early 1990s, and for all their noise and stench, their appeal was undeniable: Jet skis made it possible to access waves 40 feet and bigger, and whose scale had previously been too grand for most unassisted surfers to reach by paddling. Though tow-in surfing has given a boost to the record books, it has also heightened the danger of surfing, and many surfers have died in big waves they might never have attempted without jet-ski assistance. Not surprisingly, many surfers have rejected tow-in surfing as an affront to the purity of their relationship with waves—and they still manage to catch monsters. In March 2011, Shane Dorian rode a 57-foot breaker at the famed Jaws break in Maui, unassisted by a belching two-stroke engine. But many big-wave riders fully endorse tow-in surfing as a natural evolution of the sport. Surfing supertstar Laird Hamilton has even blown off purists who continue to paddle after big waves without jet skis as “moving backward.” Anyway, in a sport that relies heavily on satellite imagery, Internet swell forecasts and red-eye flights to Honolulu, are we really complaining about a little high-tech assistance?
For those wishing merely to watch big waves and the competitors that gather to ride them, all that is needed is a picnic blanket and binoculars—and perhaps some help from this swell forecast website. Following are some superb sites to watch surfers catch the biggest breakers in the world this winter.
Waimea Bay, North Shore of Oahu. Big-wave surfing was born here, largely fueled by the fearless vision of Greg Noll in the 1950s. The definition of “big” for extreme surfers has grown since the early days, yet Waimea still holds its own. Fifty-foot waves can occur here—events that chase all but the best wave riders from the water. When conditions allow, elite surfers participate in the recurring Quicksilver Eddie Aikau Invitational. Spectators teem on the shore during big-swell periods, and while surfers may fight for their ride, you may have to fight for your view. Get there early.
Jaws, North Shore of Maui. Also known as Peahi, Jaws produces some of the most feared and attractive waves on earth. The break—where 50-footers and bigger appear almost every year—is almost strictly a tow-in site, but rebel paddle-by-hand surfers do business here, too. Twenty-one pros have been invited to convene at Jaws this winter for a paddle-in competition sometime between December 7 and March 15. Spectators are afforded a great view of the action on a high nearby bluff. But go early, as hundreds will be in line for the best viewing points. Also, bring binoculars, as the breakers crash almost a mile offshore.
Mavericks, Half Moon Bay, California. Mavericks gained its reputation in the 1980s and ’90s, during the revival of big-wave surfing, which lost some popularity in the 1970s. Named for a German Shepherd named Maverick who took a surgy swim here in 1961, the site (which gained an “s” but never an official apostrophe) generates some of the biggest surfable waves in the world. Today, surfing competitions, like the Mavericks Big Wave Contest and the Mavericks Invitational, are held each year. The waves of Mavericks crash on a vicious reef, making them predictable (sandy bottoms will shift and change the wave form) but nonetheless hazardous. One of the best surfers of his time, Mark Foo died here in 1994 when his ankle leash is believed to have snagged on the bottom. Later, the waves claimed the life of Hawaiian surfing star Sion Milosky. A high bluff above the beach offers a view of the action. As at Jaws, bring binoculars.
Ghost Trees, Monterey Peninsula, California. This break hits peak form under the same swell conditions that get things roaring at Mavericks, just a three-hour drive north. Ghost Trees is a relatively new attraction for big-wave riders. Veteran surfer Don Curry says he first saw it surfed in 1974. Decades would pass before it became famous, and before it killed pro surfer (and a pioneer of nearby Mavericks) Peter Davi in 2007. For surfing spectators, there are few places quite like Ghost Trees. The waves, which can hit 50 feet and more, break just a football field’s length from shore.
Mullaghmore Head, Ireland. Far from the classic Pacific shores of big-wave legend and history, Mullaghmore Head comes alive during winter storms in the North Atlantic. The location produces waves big enough that surfing here has become primarily a jet ski-assisted game. In fact, the event period for the Billabong Tow-In Session at Mullaghmore began on November 1 and will run through February 2013. Just how big is Mullaghmore Head? On March 8, 2012, the waves here reached 50 feet, as determined by satellite measurements. A grassy headland provides an elevated platform from which to see the show. Bundle up if you go, and expect cold, blustery conditions.
Other big wave breaks:
Teahupoo, Tahiti. This coveted break blooms with big swells from the Southern Ocean—usually during the southern winter. Teahupoo is famed for its classic tube breakers.
Shipsterns Bluff, Tasmania. Watch for this point’s giants to break from June through September.
Punta de Lobos, Chile. Channeling the energy of the Southern Ocean into huge but glassy curlers, Punta de Lobos breaks at its best in March and April.
Todos Santos Island, Baja California, Mexico. Todos Santos Island features several well-known breaks, but “Killers” is the biggest and baddest. The surf usually peaks in the northern winter.
There is another sort of wave that thrills tourists and spectators: the tidal bore. These moon-induced phenomena occur with regularity at particular locations around the world. The most spectacular to see include the tidal bores of Hangzhou Bay, China, and Araguari, Brazil—each of which has become a popular surfing event.
November 20, 2012
Thanksgiving dinner may be the supreme all-American meal, and it’s surely one of the most satisfying feasts that ever has come across a table. It’s starchy, greasy and meaty; it’s both savory and sweet; it’s massive—and usually a sure recipe for leftovers. One could argue that a table set for Thanksgiving lacks in nothing. But we could likewise make the case that a Thanksgiving dinner is one of the most predictable buffets of Americana. Mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie and, of course, an absurdly overweight turkey all have their rightful places on the Thanksgiving table. But would it entirely upend a revered culinary tradition to add a little exotic variation to the feast? From turkey to pumpkin pie, Peru to Tahiti, these dish-by-dish suggestions will spice up this Thursday’s banquet with some global flair and fare.
French duck. Turkeys—especially monstrous ones so fat and fleshy they cannot fly—are as American as apple pie, Chevies and suburbs. While Europeans have gained a taste for our largest native fowl, other birds have traditionally taken the seat of honor at their dinner tables. In much of France, the bird of choice is the duck. Now be warned: Most of the guests on your invite list have been waiting all year for their turkey, and if you screw it up they might mob you—so only replace the turkey for a small or particularly adventurous crowd. Ducks are only a fraction of the size of a Thanksgiving turkey, often with far less meat and a thick layer of fat. Don’t expect much leftovers, even if—as might be wise—you serve two ducks. To cook, try this: Brown some hand-sized cuts of the duck with shallots and onions in a Dutch oven over a medium flame. Then add Belgian beer, dried fruit and dried herbs, put on the lid and bake for two hours. Or you might spice up the bird with ginger, green onions, garlic and sesame oil for an Asian presentation.
Peruvian mashed potatoes. The origin of Solanum tuberosum, Peru is home to thousands of varieties of potato, some of which are available in America and, mashed with milk and butter, can add color and flavor to what may be the blandest dish on the table. For a dramatic presentation of mashed potatoes, try a purple potato. In taste and texture, the dish will be negligibly different than the one you grew up on. If you wish to take the same concept a step further, separately mash and season a batch of yellow potatoes. Then, fold the two mashed potato purées together in the serving dish, leaving layers of color.
Nigerian yams. Almost everyone loves yams on Thanksgiving—or at least they think they do. Because “yam” is a misnomer commonly applied to the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas), another Peruvian native. You want a real yam? Then look straight to western equatorial Africa, where four-foot-long tubers weighing as much as 100 to 150 pounds are a staple carbohydrate for millions. The vegetable, which is celebrated with annual festivals, consists of multiple species in the genus Dioscorea. Africa’s white yam (D. rotundata) is the most popular and important species, and, like sweet potatoes, may be baked or boiled for starchy, semisweet results. Yams are grown throughout the Caribbean where African cultures took root (sorry) several centuries ago. Some are exported, and in the United States this huge vegetable is available in some Caribbean and Asian supermarkets.
Belizean baked plantains. The sweet syrup that leaks from the splitting skin of a hot baked yam—I mean, sweet potato—is one sure signature of the fourth Thursday in November. But along the belt of the Equator, an abundant local alternative produces a similarly delicious result: a baked plantain. This banana-like fruit, though often eaten as a savory starch source, can be left to ripen until black in the skin and soft in the flesh, which will by now be sweet and sticky. Cooking plantains as a sweet potato alternative is a cinch: Put them in a metal baking dish and bake at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 or 20 minutes. When that syrup starts bubbling, the plantains are done. To serve, peel open the fruits, and the steaming flesh will fall onto the plate. Now, season as you would a yam—or melt coconut oil onto the fruit for a stronger exotic accent. Plantains grow throughout the tropics, but I name Belize as the origin of this dish simply because that’s where I first learned to make it.
Turkish fig-and-cranberry chutney. Messing around with the cranberry sauce is not as likely to draw unfriendly fire from expectant diners as, say, replacing the turkey with a scrawny avian cousin, so take this idea as far as you want. Following a Turkish theme, add dried brown figs—a major product of the nation—to your usual cranberry sauce recipe. Then, go incrementally further, ingredient at a time, to make a spice-laden chutney. Simmer the cranberries in a cup of fortified red wine (a.k.a. Port) and begin adding elements of the East: Dice and toss in the figs, some lemon and orange zest, garlic, ginger, cloves and cumin. Sweeten with honey and, after the stew has cooled, garnish with chopped mint and serve.
Tahitian stuffing with breadfruit (or taro) and coconut. Your guests may sulk at the sight of a nontraditional stuffing, so approach this idea cautiously. The theme takes us to the Pacific islands, where, lacking the culture and systems of grain cultivation, many societies rely on breadfruit as a major carbohydrate source. Cooked in its earlier stages of ripeness, this round, green, thick-skinned treefruit somewhat resembles a pineapple, but the fruit inside is as starchy and savory as bread or potatoes. Cooking breadfruit is easy; grilling or broiling thick slices with a little olive or coconut oil is a simple method. The challenge, however, may be finding the things, as our blog “Food and Think” reported three years ago. If you can’t find one of these exotic fruits, go underground for a similar result with taro, a starchy tuber of the tropics and also grown in Tahiti. Peel and halve the roots, then bake until steaming and tender. Use the breadfruit or taro as the bread in your favorite stuffing recipe. If you want some tropical sweetness in the dish, you can add cubes of fresh coconut and pineapple.
Italian porcini-chestnut gravy. Where chestnuts fall, porcini rise. That’s because Italy’s favorite mushroom happens to prefer the roots of the chestnut tree as its mycorrhizal companion, and for one who wakes early to beat the competition, a walk in the woods in November can provide a double whammy of wild gourmet loot. The mushrooms are considered relatively unmistakable, with no dangerous look-alikes (but if there’s any doubt, throw it out) and chestnuts, well, they’re as easy to harvest as pine cones. At home, de-husk the chestnuts, bake and peel. Using a blender or a hand potato masher, make a smooth paste using half the batch. Coarsely chop the rest of the chestnuts. For the mushrooms, brush off the grit, slice and dice, then sauté in olive oil until brown. Make the gravy as you normally would, using bird broth as the base and the chestnut mash as a thickener in place of flour. Add the porcini and chestnut chunks halfway through the simmering process.
Moroccan pumpkin pie. You might not subject each pie on the table to exotic experimentation, but try this idea for one: Follow your favorite pumpkin pie recipe, but reduce the quantity of molasses and make up the difference using purée of Medjool date, a variety believed to have originated in Morocco. The date is the world’s sweetest fruit, with up to 80 percent of its mass being sugar, meaning you can expect a rather seamless swap. Additionally, coarsely chop a handful of dates to fold into the pie mix. Sprinkle the pie with toasted almonds and orange zest, and you’ve got a North African rendition of America’s most sacred pie.
November 2, 2012
This is the first in the series “Faces From Afar” in which Off the Road profiles adventurous travelers exploring unique places or pursuing exotic passions. Know a globetrotter we should hear about? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Before leaving home, many travelers research ahead on key points of their destination. They investigate whether a nation is safe for visitors, what the weather will be like, if camping out will be an option and what the local cuisine will have to offer. But Lindsay Gasik and Rob Culclasure planned their year-long Southeast Asian itinerary based primarily on one entirely different question: Will there be durians?
For this young married couple from Oregon has an uncanny taste for this spiny-husked, famously fragrant tree fruit of Southeast Asia. Often described as redolent of onions, gym socks and gasoline, the durian is most famous for its smell. But those who love durian often characterize its aroma as one of pineapple, vanilla and almond—and the custard-like flesh within the fruit’s five interior chambers may drive durian devotees into mild frenzies of pleasure, and even lure some fanatics halfway around the globe. Gasik, 23, and Culclasure, 29, are now in their 11th month of pursuing and studying what Southeast Asians call the “king of fruits.” Last month, they entered the durian-thick forests of Borneo, where the fruit, which includes numerous species of the genus Durio, is believed to have originated. Prior to Borneo, the pair had zigzagged and island hopped on a strategic route that began in Sumatra and led them to Java, Lomboc, Bali, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. Like many tropical regions, Southeast Asia is a complex landscape of microclimates, and travelers on the move can, with just a little foresight and planning, expect to encounter ripe durians every single day of the year. And for being a tiny pie slice of the world’s population, Southeast Asia is heaven.
A century and a half ago, traveler and naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace praised the durian as “a new sensation worth a voyage to the East to experience.” “[I]ts consistence and flavour are indescribable,” he wrote in his 1869 book The Malay Archipelago. “A rich custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but there are occasional wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, sherry-wine, and other incongruous dishes. Then there is a rich glutinous smoothness in the pulp which nothing else possesses, but which adds to its delicacy … it is in itself perfect … and the more you eat of it the less you feel inclined to stop.” Indeed, some durian fans are so inspired by the rare qualities of durian that they go to extremes: They eliminate nearly every other food from their diet, call themselves “durianarians,” and, as they often describe the lifestyle, “follow the durian trail” through Southeast Asia.
But Gasik and Culclasure still eat a varied diet, with about half their calories coming from daily durian, and while their trip is largely a pursuit of a raw, fragrant pleasure, it is also a focused academic venture. Gasik is writing a book about the trip called Year of the Durian, which she hopes will be finished in about a year, and the pair has not just followed the durian trail but gone well off the beaten path to meet durian farmers, taste rare heirloom varieties and interview scientists and fruit breeders with a stake in the export-driven commercial durian industry. As Gasik said during a recent telephone interview, “We’re seeing different cultures through the lens of the durian.” The couple has, for example, made sharp observations of the different ways in which varying nations appreciate durians. They largely dismiss Thailand, the world’s leader in durian production and export, as a relevant nucleus of sophisticated durian culture. The country’s many durian farmers produce only several main varieties, and a durian tasting tour here may quickly grow monotonous.
“But when we crossed the border into Malaysia, it was a game-changer,” Culclasure said. “They have a totally different appreciation of durian there.”
For one thing, Malaysia produces hundreds of kinds of durian, from major commercial types to unusual village varieties that grow nowhere else. Many are readily available. And it’s in Malaysia and Indonesia where one finds remarkable parallels between the Western world’s appreciation of wine and Southeast Asia’s appreciation of durian: Just as particular vineyards may become famous and produce supremely expensive wine, certain durian trees may become widely known for their outstanding fruits, which sometimes are sold in advance for hundreds of dollars each. And just as older grapevines produce finer, more concentrated wines, durian trees supposedly produce better fruit with each successive crop. And just as oenophiles may take pride in their ability to describe the subtle characteristics of a wine, durian aficionados strive to develop their tasting vocabulary. And just as tourists in the rural outskirts of Napa or Bordeaux go wine tasting, tourists in the farm country of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines go durian tasting. Stalls along the roadsides may offer “flights” of durian, often served on an all-you-can-eat basis but also carefully structured around the subtle properties of each durian variety such that the lighter, more delicate durians are eaten first and the richer, denser fruits last.
Gasik and Culclasure have been familiar with frozen durians, imported from Thailand, for several years. Such durians are of the the ubiquitous Monthong variety (of the species D. zibethinus) available in Asian specialty markets in large cities worldwide. But while frozen durians do provide a taste of what this fruit can offer, the fruits—generally about five pounds—often pale in aroma, texture and flavor. By contrast, eating a tree-ripened durian just minutes off the branch is a culinary experience so potent that durian lovers may place it on their Things-I-Must-Do-Before-I-Die list. But it wasn’t until 2011 that Gasik and Culclasure began to ascend into such heights of durian fanaticism. They attended a raw foods yoga retreat in New York State called the Woodstock Fruit Festival. To kick off the gathering, the leader ordered a thousand frozen durians to last the week. The Oregonians became enraptured by the fruit. Even several months later, as Gasik recalls, “durian was all Rob could talk about. He wanted to go to Asia and live there, following ‘the durian trail’ that we’d heard of from durian veterans.” And when January came, they did just that—and the Year of the Durian began.
Now, after 300 days on the road, Gasik and Culclasure have their favorite durian varieties, including the coveted Red Prawn, the Arancillo, and the orange- and red-fleshed varieties of D. graveolens, a unique species they encountered in the Philippines. Gasik wrote on her blog that one Graveolens variety “tasted like bubblegum rolled in blue cheese.” The legendary Musang King is also one of the very best—”at least number two,” according to Gasik. They have also encountered oddities like a thornless durian variety in the Philippines with a hide as smooth as a cantaloupe, a durian in Java that weighed more than 20 pounds, another described by a friend that weighed about 30 pounds, and a virtually odorless durian—the result of a decades-long breeding project in Thailand. Now, there remain about two months of durian hunting for the Americans before they leave Southeast Asia. They have talked about visiting Zanzibar, where durians have been introduced, but are more likely to go next to Papua, Indonesia, to pursue a variety known as the Rainbow durian.
Their journey can be followed via their blog, “Year of the Durian.”
October 17, 2012
Today we continue on the thread we left dangling a week ago—of unexpected places to find locally made wine. We looked at Baja California, China, India and North Carolina—each of which offers wine-tasting trails for unknowing tourists who might have been bracing themselves for a dry vacation. This time, we find a surprise wine industry in America, unlikely vineyards bearing the heat of the tropics, and grapevines planted by experimental winegrowers nearly two miles above sea level.
Kenya. For decades, travelers to Central Africa were content to spend their days watching some of the most spectacular animals on the planet. As of recently, tourists can also go wine tasting, for vineyards are now growing in Kenya, almost smack on the Equator, on the shores of Lake Naivasha. The industry here dates back to 1985, when an experimental winery released 4,400 bottles of the nation’s first grape wines. Since then, local wine culture has not exactly flourished but has continued in a wavering, uncertain path. Several wine labels have appeared, and the industry has been troubled by everything from tropical diseases, muggy air and seasonal rains to the difficulty of correctly spelling complicated grape names. “Cabrenet Sourvignor,” “Chardonney,” “Cheny Blanc” and “Chaney Blanc” are all named in a single 2008 article about Kenya’s wines at allAfrica.com. But the arrival of seasoned wine pro James Farquharson in 2007 at Rift Valley Winery may have marked the beginning of better times. A winemaker trained in South Africa, Farquharson immediately ripped out 70 acres of struggling vines in the Lake Naivasha basin, imported new rootstock from home and started fresh under the label Leleshwa. In 2008, the property’s vines produced 10,000 bottles of wine, and subsequently production exploded: in 2010, Farquharson reeled in a bumper crop amounting to 88,000 bottles (although that’s because the exuberant plants produced two crops that year, something that grapevines may do in the tropics), and Rift Valley Winery has said it has plans to boost its bottle yield into the millions within several years.
Texas. They say that red wine goes well with beef—and in Texas, grapes grow among the cattle herds. In fact, the Lone Star State has been a home to winemaking for centuries. One of the first vineyards in America was planted here by Franciscan priests around 1662. Today, the wine industry of Texas includes eight American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), shared by 190 wineries at last count. Among these is Becker Vineyards, the first winery to grow both Viognier and Roussanne grapes in Texas. Becker’s wine is mostly grown in the Texas Hill Country and the High Plains AVAs, with an emphasis on grape varieties of France’s Burgundy, Bordeaux and Rhone Valley regions. In Fredericksburg, in the Hill Country, Pedernales Cellars focuses on Tempranillo, the superstar grape of Spain, and also makes a Merlot, a port-style sweet wine and a sort of spiced wine called Glögg, popular as a holiday drink in Sweden. And representing the Texas High Plains AVA is, among others, Caprock Winery, known for Roussanne—its flagship white—and its heavyset Tempranillo. And while the industry is thriving by all accounts, Texas’s wine country amounts to just a drop in the bucket of American wine production. While California makes more than three billion bottles of wine each year, Texas produces just 16 million.
Israel. Even Greece, France, Italy and Spain only adopted the wine grape in relatively recent times—but in Israel, the world’s favorite juicy fruit is truly at home. For this is old Bible country, and according to at least one written document, wine was flowing here perhaps 4,000 years before Jesus was born, even if drunkenness was condemned. Today, 300 Israeli wineries collectively make 35 million bottles each year—enough wine to fill 53 Olympic-size swimming pools. The five appellations include Shomron, Samson, Judean Hills, Negev and, the most reputed of all, Galilee. Located in the northeast of Israel, the Galilee appellation includes two of the nation’s best grape-growing regions, the Upper Galilee and the Golan Heights, where vineyards dwell at some 4,000 feet of elevation. Though the nation was once home to a variety of indigenous grapes, the era of Muslim rule, which began in 636 and continued in waves for several hundred years, squashed the local culture of winemaking, which came to a halt in the eight century. As this article tells the story, “Vines grew old and handsome on the plateaus of the Golan Heights and in the desert oases to the south, but they were not propagated; no loving hands cut and cloned the favored cultivars of the country. … [H]eritage grapes melted into the wild. The genetic material remains in the wild grapes of the land, yet it is essentially lost.” Oh well. The superstar French grapes would probably have taken center stage anyway, and today Cab, Pinot, Merlot and Syrah are alive and well in Israel’s wine country. Want to take a tour? Go with a guide—or wend your own way. Tourist-friendly tasting destinations include Golan Heights, Tishbi and Carmel wineries.
Japan. Wine grapes were born in Asia Minor. Many varieties went west and assumed star status in France and Italy. A few wound up rooted in Muslim soils and were either relegated to raisin-making duties or destroyed entirely. And a few varieties went east. Of these, one traveled so far that it could travel no more, and it made itself at home in Japan: the Koshu grape. Eventually, this variety became the source of a traditional white sweet wine of the same name. Though the world’s wine cognoscenti reviled Koshu for years as simple, sugary rotgut, wine connoisseurs have more recently decreed that, whoops, we were wrong—Koshu is actually good. It’s an unlikely and abrupt turnaround—but it’s true. Even the New York Times has reported that Japan’s native wine is gaining a place at posh tasting bars and has become the cherished craft of a handful of Japanese wineries, each striving to create an export market for high-quality Koshu. But don’t wait. Go get it at the source. In the Yamanashi Prefecture, south of Tokyo on the main island, you’ll find Katsunuma Winery, Grace Winery and Chateau Lumiere. Each features a selection of table wines as well as some of Japan’s most highly regarded Koshu.
More Wines from Weird Places: The Short List
England. In England, winemaking traditions have waxed and waned with natural climatic cycles, like the Little Ice Age and the Medieval Warm Period (a boom time for local wines). Now, temperatures in England’s southwest have increased by about 3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1961—enough to allow a resurgence of production. Today, more than 400 wineries are in operation, and in this corner of the globe, the weather forecast is bright and sunny.
Morocco. The fermented juice of the grape is a forbidden pleasure for 98 percent of the mostly Muslim Moroccan population. Yet winemaking is legal in Morocco, and the wine is said to be perfectly good—though it takes a tourist with a keen nose to find it.
Thailand. Where Western winds blow, wine seems to grow. And in Thailand, touched in recent times by the strong influence of global tourism, several wineries have appeared in the past 15 years or so. Thai wine is made using both the local Pok Dum grape as well as classic varieties from Europe. This review says the Siam Winery Pok Dum wine carries notes of seaweed.
How High Can You Grow? Grapevines are marvelously adaptable and can grow from sea level to lands far, far above—but how far above? The Wine Institute of California has reported the Shadow Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard in San Diego County to be the state’s highest, at 4,400 feet above sea level—but that’s nothing. As reported above, Kenyan vineyards lie at 6,500 feet. Wine grapes in Colorado are doing their business at up to 7,000 feet. But it’s in the Andes where California-based wine star Donald Hess, of the Hess Collection, has ditched the competition in the valleys below. At Hess’s Bodega Colomé in Argentina, wines are made from grapes grown as high as 10,200 feet above sea level in Argentina’s Calchaqui Valley. These go unchallenged as the highest vineyards in the world.
October 3, 2012
Where would we be without snakes? Rodent populations might boom, the native bird assemblage of Guam would probably remain mostly intact today and 100,000 people every year would not die of venomous bites. As we can see, snakes bring both good and bad to the world we share with them. But mostly, these reptiles have been cast in the role of evil.
It’s easy to see why, if we just take a glance at the scariest of the lot—the venomous snakes. Indeed, it might take a very persuasive herpetologist on field sabbatical in Ecuador to convince the locals that the pit viper of his thesis focus is anything but a device of the devil. Throughout the New World tropics, roughly 2,000 people die every year from the bite of the pit viper (Bothrops atrox), known also as the fer-de-lance. Its close cousin, B. asper, goes by the same common names and is comparably devastating and said to be so aggressive it will chase people, bent on sharing some of its powerful venom. And in Africa, the black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) seems so wicked it’s absurd: It is the fastest snake in the world and can slither more swiftly than the average city cyclist pedals to work; it is the second-longest venomous snake, growing to 14 feet; it may strike a single victim repeatedly like a psycho with a butcher knife; its venom is so potent it can kill a horse—and a person in just 30 minutes; and, in bite victims who go untreated, the mortality rate is—get this—100 percent. In other words, nobody—that’s nobody—on a trek in the wilderness of tropical Africa, hours from the nearest doctor and without antivenin, survives the bite of the black mamba. As locals say, this snake delivers the “kiss of death.”
Stories of such creatures can leave indelible impressions on the tender minds of men—so indelible that no matter how plain and obvious it is that the harmless gopher snake—or king snake, or rat snake—is a peaceful friend of society that wants little more than to eat a rat (a job that somebody’s got to do, and how grateful we should be that snakes have volunteered), many people still call snake control and removal experts when one appears on their property. Forgive them, Mother Nature, for they know not what they do. Now, whether you love them or hate them, here are a few iconic species to watch for when traveling, from those wickedly venomous to those worth learning more about before you cast your judgment.
Reticulated python (Python reticulatus). Probably the longest snake in the world (if not the heaviest), the reticulated python of Southeast Asia is also an occasional man-eater and a popular pet. (Go figure that one. I’ll stick with my yellow Lab.) Recently, a 25-footer weighing 350 pounds was named the largest snake in captivity—but just how big the largest “retic” ever to have lived might never be known. In 2003, one snake was reported to be 49 feet long and weigh more than 900 pounds. Only when journalist John Aglionby of The Guardian made a trip to see and measure the creature, being kept in a cage in a village in Java, was its real size revealed: 23 feet. Why should we believe an English journalist and not the keeper of the snake, you ask? Come on. Forty-nine feet? Anyway, read Aglionby’s article, which explains the difficulty in measuring large, coiled-up snakes. Worthy to note when discussing the biggest snakes is that between 1997 and 2002, the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society offered a $50,000 reward to anyone who could produce a 30-foot snake. The prize was never collected.
Ashe’s spitting cobra (Naja ashei). And you thought camels were nasty for spitting in strangers’ faces (they’re actually belching up their cud). Well, the spitting cobra doesn’t just spit; it spits venom. And since the venom is harmless to intact skin, the mean evolutionary tactic behind this nasty habit seems to be, precisely, to hit the victim in the eye, which can cause permanent blindness. Ashe’s spitting cobra is the largest of the dozen or so spitting cobra species, which live in Africa and Asia. N. ashei, first named only in 2007, reaches nine feet in length, has been seen eating five-foot-long puff adders (another deadly venomous snake) and, like all the spitting cobras, can also inject venom by biting. And while we’re discussing cobras, the king cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) can grow to twice the length of the Ashe’s spitting cobra and may administer, in one bite, two-tenths of an ounce of venom to its unfortunate victim—enough to kill an elephant. The species acts aggressively when cornered or when guarding a nest, in which the females lay their eggs, but does not commonly attack humans.
Green anaconda (Eunectes murinus). It is the biggest of the boas and perhaps the bulkiest of all snakes, but the South American green anaconda’s pop culture reputation as a killer may be entirely undeserved. The snake, which gives live birth to 20-inch babies and can reportedly grow to 28 feet and 280 pounds (according to the San Diego Zoo), is relatively sluggish and does not, with any regularity, attack humans.Yet people hate the creatures. Just check out the comments following this blog post about a pregnant anaconda killed by South American villagers. The author of the post questions why the animal was killed. Scores of readers responded like raving idiots at a public hanging. One argued that with 70 baby snakes inside her, the big snake was a population bomb about to go off and would have left the village crawling with hungry anacondas. And another reader said, “[W]e don t need snakes on this world.they are dangerous. i hate the snakes it s the animal of the devil…” Well spoken. Thank you. Next! “[T]hat thing could kill a horse.” No, it probably couldn’t. Next! “How could it possibly have been pregnant? It’s a SNAKE, snakes are REPTILES, and reptiles LAY EGGS!!!” Obviously not a herpetologist. Next! “[S]nake’s aren’t nice animals…there more like monsters who just wanna eat.” Brilliant. Next! “Either you eat the Anaconda, or the Anaconda eats YOU !” All right, all right! Order! In fact, there is no documented case of an anaconda killing a human.
Beaked sea snake (Enhydrina schistosa). Though the Australian inland taipan tops the list of the world’s most venomous snakes, the beaked sea snake isn’t far behind. Rated as the world’s sixth most venomous snake, it is considered the most dangerous sea snake. Its fangs may measure just four millimeters, and surfers and divers wearing wetsuits may be protected, though just barely, from this animal’s bite. Yet nine of every ten people killed by sea snakes are killed by the beaked sea snake, which is said to be easily provoked and very aggressive. It inhabits shallow, murky waters in Australia and much of the Indian Ocean, often among mangrove roots. Wading fishermen are frequent victims.
Santa Catalina Island rattlesnake (Crotalus catalinesis). If the flared hood of a cobra is the icon of danger in the heat of Africa and Asia, then the sound of a rattlesnake giving its warning might be that of the American desert. Which makes the rattlesnake without a rattle a riddle of evolution—though scientists have supposed that its rattleless tail may be a result of evolving on an island mostly absent of other creatures to communicate with. Otherwise, the Santa Catalina Island rattlesnake is a rattlesnake in every way—from head almost to tail. It is a dwarf among rattlesnakes, however, reaching a maximum size of just 28 inches long. It is also endemic to (that is, entirely limited to) the single Sea of Cortez island on which it lives, and—with just 100 square kilometers to call its own—the species is critically endangered. Predation by feral cats is a considerable threat.
Sobering facts about snakebites: In 2011, the BBC reported that snakes bite as many as 5.5 million people every year, killing at least 100,000. In India alone, the article stated, a million people may suffer snakebites every year. The Indian cobra, Russell’s viper, saw-scaled viper and common krait are the main perpetrators in India, while the king cobra tends often to be wrongly blamed. In sub-Saharan Africa, carpet vipers, black mambas, puff adders and boomslangs are snakes to be feared. In Australia, the snake blacklist is long and frightening, while in Europe vipers are the main culprit, and in North America, rattlesnakes. What to do if bitten by a snake? Antivenin is said to be the only reliable treatment, unfortunately. According to the 2011 revision of Where There Is No Doctor: A Village Health Care Handbook, the wound of a snakebite victim should be firmly wrapped in a bandage before the person is carried on a makeshift stretcher to the nearest doctor. “If you can, also take the snake,” the authors advise, as identifying the needed antivenin can otherwise be difficult. And things not to do after receiving a snakebite? Cutting the flesh near the wound, applying ice, trying to suck the venom out of the bite and having a beer (as alcohol can reportedly make symptoms worse).