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 11, 2012
Where men have gone, two things have almost inevitably tagged along: rats—and grapevines. The one sneaked aboard the first boats to America, living on crumbs and destined to swarm a whole new hemisphere as surely as the Europeans themselves. The other was packed along in suitcases, lovingly so, and with the dear hope that it would provide fruit, juice and wine just as readily as it had in the motherland. And the grapevine did. When the Spaniards hit the Caribbean and spread through Mexico, vineyards grew behind them like cairns marking the trail of a shepherd. Vitis vinifera struggled in the muggy Southeast, but Mexico and Texas became centers of wine production, as did California, south to north along the Catholic missionary route. Meanwhile, the common grape went about rooting itself in the rest of the world. Just as the Phoenicians had introduced the species to Sicily and the Iberian Peninsula millennia ago, sailors of more modern days brought their wine vines to southern Africa, Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand. The species thrived in Chile, produced super crops in the Napa Valley and gained fame in the Barossa Valley of Australia.
Like rats and men, V. vinifera had conquered the world.
Today, the expansion goes on. New wine industries are growing in old places like Central Africa and India, while old industries are being newly discovered in Baja California and Texas. In China, ballooning into a hungry giant in a capitalist world, winemakers are cashing in on the thirst for the world’s favorite funky juice. And in England, they’re cashing in on the grape-friendly effects of global warming. From the high mountains of the Andes to the scorching plains of equatorial Africa, grape wine is flowing from the earth. Following are a few places where tourists might never have known there was wine to taste.
North Carolina. Once among the leading wine-producing regions in America, North Carolina saw its industry wither when Prohibition kicked in, and for decades following, it lay in ruins, grown over with tobacco fields and mostly forgotten. But now, North Carolina wine is making a comeback. Twenty-one wineries operated statewide in 2001, and by 2011 there were 108. Many make wine from a native American grape called muscadine, or scuppernong (Vitis rotundifolia). The drink is aromatic and sweet—and supposedly dandier than lemonade on a warm evening on the porch swing. But familiar stars of the V. vinifera species occur here, too. RayLen Vineyards makes a knockout Cabernet-based blend called Category 5, named to honor the high-octane cyclone that was bearing down on the coast just as the family was bottling a recent vintage; RagApple Lassie‘s red Zinfandel is tart and zesty like the classic Zins of California; and Raffaldini Vineyards and Winery runs the tagline, “Chianti in the Carolinas,” with Sangiovese and Vermentino its flagship red and white. A good starting point for a tasting tour is the city of Winston-Salem, gateway to the Yadkin Valley wine country. Also consider visiting the Mother Vine. This muscadine grapevine first took from a seed circa 1600 on Roanoke Island. Generations of caretakers have since come and gone while standing guard over the Mother Vine, whose canopy has at times covered two acres and which barely survived a clumsy pesticide accident in 2010 during a roadside weed-killing outing by a local power company. Want to taste the fruit of this old lady? Duplin Winery makes a semisweet muscadine from vines directly propagated from the Mother Vine herself.
China. In parts of China’s interior wine country, grape varieties that evolved comfortably in sight of the Mediterranean Sea shiver as autumn plunges into the sub-Siberian winter. To keep their vines from dying, Chinese farmers must knock them over after harvest, bend them to the ground, bury them under 15 inches of dirt and hope to see them again in the spring. The method, though laborious, seems to work well enough, and the wines of the central province of Hebai have spawned the flattering regional nickname “China’s Bordeaux.” But the nation’s modern wine industry took a humiliating hit in 2010 when six people were detained in connection with the discovery of dangerous chemicals—used for flavoring and coloring—in a number of big-name Hebai wine brands, including Yeli and Genghao. Around the nation, retailers cleared their shelves of suspect bottles—many falsely labeled as high-end products, and some containing just 20 percent real wine. Worse, some wine bottles (2.4 million per year) from the quote-unquote “winery” Jiahua Wine Co. contained no wine at all—just a masterly handcrafted mélange of sugar water and chemicals. But thirsty travelers must have a drink now and then, and if you’re not in Rome, well, you might just have to drink what the Chinese drink. Thankfully, this country knows wine. Really. Evidence of indigenous winemaking dates back 4,600 years, prior to V. vinifera‘s appearance, and today China is gaining a reputation as a producer of serious wines. (“Serious” is the oenophile’s way of saying “good”—though one must note that “playful” wines can also be good, if not serious). Consider Chateau Junding, Changyu Winery and Dragon Seal, among other wineries.
Baja California. From the tip of the Baja peninsula to the United States border, vineyards grow in desert canyons watered by springs and shaded by date palms and mango trees, and travelers who inquire with locals may easily find themselves soon enough in possession of a Pepsi bottle freshly filled with two liters of red, semi-spritzy, alcoholic juice. But it’s in the northern valleys of Guadalupe, San Vicente and Santo Tomás that tourists find the serious stuff—wines so fine and fussy they demand glass bottles with corks and labels. In fact, among the sorts of people who talk about particularly great vintages of the 1960s, and certain Pinots that are just peaking, or whether a Bordeaux might benefit from being “laid down” for a few more years—the wines of Baja are gaining a classy reputation. The fierce heat of Baja’s summers is the driving force behind a range of excellent red wines. Look for Rincon de Guadalupe’s Tempranillo, a jammy, forceful wine with some delicious upfront scents of bacon and smoke. And the Xik Bal Baja Cabernet Blend is as vigorous and elegant as the prized Cabs of the Napa Valley. Want a white wine? The Nuva, from Vinicola Fraternidad, is a fruity, fragrant combo of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Moscato de Canelli. For a taste of history, visit Bodegas de Santo Tómas, the oldest winery in Baja. You might also try and track down a bottle of Criolla (also called Mission), the first grape variety the Catholic missionaries introduced so long ago.
India. Grapevines enjoy a winterless wonderland in the tropical wine country of India. That is, they would enjoy it if their keepers didn’t induce the dormancy of the deciduous vines by hacking them down each spring. “See you after the monsoon,” says the farmer to his stumped vines, and he walks away with his rose clippers to tend to his cashew and mango trees. If he didn’t cut them back, the vines would thrive all year and even produce two crops—each a halfhearted, diluted effort from the vine, which really needs several months of hibernation each year to perform best. And when the rains have passed, buds sprout and blossom, and as the leaves unfold into the sunlight, miniature bunches of grapes appear and begin their steady surge toward ripeness and the season of harvest—which, in this topsy-turvy tropical land, happens in March, even though it’s north of the Equator. Bizarre. Sula Vineyards is one of the more famous wineries in the state of Maharashtra, with Shiraz, Zinfandel, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc among its main varieties. Other nearby sipping sites along the Indian wine-tasting trail include Chateau Indage, Chateau d’Ori and Zampa Wines. But things don’t smell quite like roses in India’s wine country. Though production grew steadily for years, with Maharashtra’s wine grape acreage ballooning from roughly 20 in 1995 to 3,000 in 2009, the market took a hard hit in 2010. Bad weather and economics were the main culprits, though some reports say the industry is stabilizing again. Still, Indians seem not to be developing a taste for wine like Westerners have. While per capita wine consumption runs 60 to 70 liters per person in France and Italy, according to this article, and 25 liters in the United States and four in China, the average Indian drinks between four and five milliliters per year—just enough to swirl, sniff, taste and spit.
Next time, join us as we explore more unlikely regions of wine.
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).
August 10, 2012
Where does a traveler go to best taste the foods and flavors of a region? Local restaurants? Not me. Because when a dish arrives at the table in a fine restaurant, it is more often the artful work of a chef, not the pure product of the land, and I don’t know about you, but I travel to experience a place, not its chefs. When I visit the East Coast of America, I want a steamed lobster, plain and simple—not shredded and rendered into a bisque, or folded into a delicate soufflé. And when I visit Southern California, I want to see the avocados, whole and complete, one variety beside the next, not whipped into some unidentifiable frothy salad dressing or blended into ice cream. And when I travel to Turkey, I want to eat Turkish figs, fresh off the branch as the tree offered them—not wrapped in bacon, doused with oil, stuffed with cheese and grilled. And in Alaska, there may be no better summertime dinner than a steak of salmon, grilled over open flames and drizzled with lemon—no fancy kitchen tricks required.
No, it doesn’t take a culinary college graduate to make good food. The land does it for us—and here are a few walk-around festivals this summer and fall, each starring some of the world’s greatest ingredients.
Tomatoes. The 16th Annual Sonoma County Heirloom Tomato Festival arrives on September 14 for a two-day gala at Kendall-Jackson Winery in Fulton, California, where visitors will meet 175 varieties of tomatoes that have almost slipped to the wayside in the shadow of Romas and other dominating commercial varieties. Tasting opportunities will abound for those interested in discerning the subtle and dramatic differences between varieties, while local star chefs will also get their hands on a few tomatoes for a competitive cook-off. In Valencia, Spain, meanwhile, the annual giant tomato fight arrives again on August 29 as thousands of revelers engage in La Tomatina. There is less food at this event than there is tomato smashing, stomping and squashing, plus half-naked wrestling in freshly pulped tomato sauce.
Figs. In Fresno, California, heart of America’s fig-growing industry, the 11th Annual Fig Fest comes this Saturday, August 11, on the front lawn of Fresno State University. The gathering will feature farmers, each at their own stalls and each showcasing the fruits of their mid-summer labors for guests to see and taste—like the Calimyrna, black mission, Kadota, brown Turkey, panache and other varieties of fig grown in local orchards. Wine and fig-based hors d’oeuvres can also be sampled, while a “Fig Feast” later in the evening at the Vineyard Restaurant will present the sweet and squishy fig in a fine-dining context. I’ll sate myself with unadulterated figs on the university lawn, thank you—though I’ll venture to guess (and correct me if I’m wrong) that those who buy the $75 meal ticket will find figs wrapped in salted swine and grilled.
Oysters. Any seafood fan knows that the best oyster is a raw one, slurped down minutes after being shucked from its shell—and oyster lovers at the annual International Oyster & Seafood Festival in Galway, Ireland, held the last three days of September, will find no short supply of their favorite cold and clammy mollusk. Events at the the festival include an oyster- shucking contest (watch that knife!) and Irish dancing. And don’t mark my words, but I would bet that somewhere in that three-day spell you could find yourself a pint of oyster stout. We just missed another oyster fest in June in New Orleans, as well as in Arcata, on the wild, black bear-trodden North Coast of California. Pencil them in for next year.
Wild Salmon. In British Columbia more than anywhere else, perhaps, a sharp line separates farmed salmon from wild. The former is abundant, cheap and likely a direct cause of the decline of some wild salmon populations—and proceeds from the annual Wild Salmon Festival of Lumby, British Columbia, held each July, go toward restoring local salmon-spawning habitat. As the event’s website poignantly states, “This festival honors the Wild Salmon who still come here to spawn and die.”
Mangoes. A festival each July in Coral Gables, Florida, features all things mango in one of the only American states where this tropical rock star of fruits can thrive. Florida farmers grow unique local varieties that festival visitors may taste nowhere else. In Guam, a celebration each June in the village of Agat showcases the island’s summer mango harvest with tastings, music, two- and five-kilometer runs and plant sales.
Watermelons. Festivals for America’s favorite and clumsiest fruit abound each summer. In Hope, Arkansas, watermelons take the stage this weekend at the 36th annual Watermelon Festival. Other similar festivals occur in Fair Bluff, North Carolina, in Carytown, Virginia, and in Mize, Mississippi. Throughout the Old World, too, summertime festivities honor the big juicy fruit, native to Eurasia. Upcoming is the annual watermelon festival in Salamanovo, Bulgaria, while the one in Beijing, China, came and went in late May.
Avocados. The Hass is the king of commercial avocado varieties, but hundreds of others can be found in Central American forests, in smaller orchards in California and Florida, and in government tree collections—like the experimental orchard at U.C. Irvine, where we just missed the annual walk-around-and-taste tour of the 80-variety avocado grove. But yet to come this year and early in 2013 are the avocado festival in Carpinteria, California, from October 5 to 7, next February’s avocado festival on the Big Island of Hawaii, where 200 varieties of avocados grow on local farms, and still another festival next April in Fallbrook, California. At each event there is sure to be mountains of guacamole—and even avocado ice cream.
Maine Lobster. We missed this one by a week—but pencil the Maine Lobster Festival into your 2013 calendar. Here, at Harbor Park in Rockland, the East Coast’s favorite crustacean will be served up in almost every manner. Consider getting to know the lobster first with a whole steamed two-pounder before moving on to more complicated dishes, which will be served by competing chefs in the lobster cook-off.
Mushrooms. They rise unpredictably from the mossy forest floor, in dark, damp places, and in a vast array of colors, shapes and sizes—and the fact that some wild mushrooms are gourmet-grade edibles stirs fascination in millions of human admirers, who wait for them aboveground, frying pans greased to go. And so it’s hardly a surprise that countless fungus festivals celebrate wild mushrooms. In California’s Mendocino County in November, the annual Wine and Mushroom Festival spotlights one of the world’s most productive mushroom hotspots. Visitors will see and taste such culinary stars as the porcini, chanterelle, morel, lobster and black trumpet. Other annual mushroom festivals occur in Madisonville, Texas, Boyne City, Michigan, and Telluride, Colorado. And the world’s favorite underground mushroom, the white truffle, stars at the 82nd Annual International White Truffle Fair, which runs October 6 through November 18 in Alba, Italy.
Zinfandel. The largest single-variety wine tasting in the world, held each January in San Francisco, is a celebration of the Zinfandel grape, but just as much, it is a celebration of California itself, producer of virtually all the Zinfandel wine in the world. This Croatian-native grape variety makes a distinctively sharp and peppery red wine, which may owe its unique qualities in part to the chemistry of California soil. Scientists have found compounds of marine origin in the skins and juice of Zinfandel grapes—delivered, so the theory goes, from ocean to inland valley via migrating Chinook salmon, which die after spawning and whose carcasses were historically hauled from the rivers by bears and eaten in the state’s future vineyards. Taste a Zinfandel today, and you’re tasting California of yesteryear.
Yogurt, garlic, apples, wild game, olives, durians, cheese, jackfruit—foods of almost every sort are celebrated by the people who love them in the lands that produce them. So tell us: Which great or off-the-beaten-path food festivals did we leave out?
August 7, 2012
No lake is more lake than Lake Baikal. Set deep within the Russian subcontinent, Baikal is the deepest, oldest and most voluminous of all lakes, a superstar of superlatives in hydrology, geology, ecology and history. The lake is more than 5,300 feet deep (exact figures vary) at its most profound point, which lies about 4,000 feet below sea level. With 12,248 square miles of surface area, Baikal averages 2,442 feet deep—its crescent moon-shaped figure a vast rift valley that first appeared about 25 million years ago through the divergence of the planet’s crust. Today, Lake Baikal contains some 20 percent of the earth’s lake and river water, making this Russian giant comparable in volume to the entire Amazon basin. So huge is Baikal that it reportedly takes an average of 330 years for a single water molecule to flow through it, from inlet to outlet. Lake Baikal features 27 islands, including one 45 miles in length called Olkhon, while in and around Baikal live more than 1,500 animal species, about 80 percent of which live nowhere else on the planet.
The most famous of these animals may be the nerpa, the only exclusively freshwater seal on the planet. The nerpa numbers an estimated 100,000—a comfortable and well-adapted population of animals whose presence in interior Russia has stumped evolutionary biologists, who aren’t certain when or just how the animals came to be so far from the open ocean. Guided tourist outfits can provide visitors with views of the animals, though the seals are generally skittish around people, who have long hunted them for pelts, fat and flesh. Brown bears and wolves dwell near the lake, too, occupying the top tiers of the Siberian food chain, as do a variety of deer, birds, rodents and smaller predators.
The first European to visit Lake Baikal may have been Russian Kurbat Ivanov, in 1643, though local lore claims that Jesus took a short walk to Lake Baikal and back during his days of desert wandering. Today, a wilderness of forest, plains and semidesert surrounds Baikal in the grand landscape of Siberia, though development along the shores of the lake occurred last century with the building of several urban and resort communities. Ugliest, perhaps, among the defilements of Baikal’s coastline is a paper mill that discharged pollutants into Baikal for years before being closed in 2008 on grounds of ecological protection. But the mill reopened in 2010, supposedly using cleaner and safer practices than previously. Meanwhile, local conservationists have other causes of concern. They have, for example, resisted plans to build a uranium plant in the nearby city of Angarsk. And they raised a stink when a petroleum development company called Transneft nearly built an oil pipeline that would have passed within 3,000 feet of Lake Baikal, threatening its waters with leaks and spills. The planned pipeline route was eventually changed. Tourism development is a minor itch in comparison, though it may produce eyesores like the hotels and vacation communities of Listvyanka, a popular winter and summer tourist town.
If you visit Lake Baikal, remember that winters here are frigid and icebound, with continental cold snaps bringing temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit and producing a layer of surface ice as thick as two meters. Summertime is friendlier, offering long, long days and superb opportunities for hiking, biking, camping and fishing. Along the lake’s northern shore, the Frolikha Adventure Coastline Track leads 65 miles through the wilderness. How to reach Lake Baikal? Try the legendary Trans-Siberian Railway.
Other Weird Waters
Dead Sea. Almost nine times as salty as the ocean, with a salinity level of about 30 parts per hundred, the Dead Sea—the lowest point on earth—is inhospitable to nearly all living things, but it’s a blast to bathe in. The water’s salt-boosted density is so great that people endowed with a generous layer of body fat can hardly swim and may merely flail over the surface as if they were crawling across a sandy dune. Better not to try and, instead, just turn over on your back and enjoy the bizarre wonder of a lake in which it may be almost impossible to drown. The Dead Sea’s surface lies 1,378 feet below sea level, and it is 1,083 feet deep. This just in: Life-forms have been found associated with freshwater springs at the bottom of the Dead Sea. Time for a name change?
Lake Titicaca. At 12,500 feet above sea level in a high valley in the Andes Mountains, the giant Lake Titicaca is the loftiest lake commercially navigable by large boats and contains more water than any other lake in South America. Its two main ports are Puno, Peru—a beautiful old town steeped in Incan history—and Challapampa, Bolivia. Isla del Sol is an island on Titicaca’s Bolivian side. Strewn with ruins but without a single paved road, this large island is an adventurer’s playground. Get yourself a fishing rod and a canoe, and go.
Melissani Cave Lake. Locals allegedly knew about the Melissani Cave Lake in Greece all along, but if they did, the world never heard about it until 1953, when an earthquake caused a collapse of rock, exposed the crystal-clear lake and brought sunlight and color to its waters for the first time. The lake has since gained fame—and it happens to be located on the island that Homer named as the home country of Odysseus.
Wuhua Hai Lake. Widely lauded as one of the most beautiful lakes on earth, Wuhua Hai is located in Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve, in the high mountains of Sichuan, China. The waters are emerald blue and clear as air, and over the shallow lake bed lie scores of sunken logs visible from above the surface. Forested mountain slopes rise from the lake’s shore, and wild pandas dwell in the woods.
Plitvice Lakes. A chain of 16 lakes connected by streams, caves and waterfalls, the Plitvice Lakes of Croatia gleam in a spectrum of blue to azure colors and demonstrate beautifully what water, nature’s finest sculptor, may make of a soft basin of limestone. The dense green woods surrounding the lakes are home to bears, wolves, eagles and numerous other creatures protected in this national park and Unesco World Heritage site.
Aral Sea. A reminder of the devastating effects of agriculture gone haywire, the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan has just about dried up since 1960. The two rivers that fed this once-giant inland sea (330 rivers feed Baikal, for comparison) no longer get there, diverted to fields instead. And while the Aral’s blue ovoid shape still appears on most world maps, cartographers must surely soon realize that the sea, once one of the largest and most productive inland waterways and fisheries, has all but dried up, sacrificed over a mere 50 years for the sake of local cotton and rice.
Salton Sea. This lake in southern California’s Imperial Valley is another testament to sloppily conducted water projects—but unlike the diminishing Aral, the Salton Sea was born in the wake of a breach in a diversion canal in 1905. For years the Salton Sea was a productive fishery, but today its increasingly saline waters are so polluted that huge fish die-offs keep the shores littered with decay and rot, and fishermen are advised not to eat the corvina and tilapia they catch.
Lake Karachay. Don’t visit this lake—ever. Just read: Set in the Ural Mountains of western Russia, Karachay has been called the most polluted place on the planet, teeming with radioactive waste and particulates that you want nothing to do with. What a wonder that before the age of modern progress, one could drink from this poisonous cesspool.
So, which ones did we miss? Tell us about more watery wonders in the comment box below.