February 14, 2013
First, there was sugarcane juice. Then came distilled cane liquor, dribbling out of a steel pipe.
And somewhere in between was the stuff I was interested in: fermented sugarcane juice touched by the ethanol-making labors of airborne yeasts and containing 8 to 9 percent alcohol by volume. But fully fermented cane drink with 8 or 9 percent alcohol by volume is not easy to find in Ecuador. I have been on the lookout for this stuff since Day 1 in Ecuador a month ago, when I began seeing extensive sugarcane fields, and I have yet to land a used plastic soda bottle filled with the beverage. The clear liquor—90-proof stuff, or thereabouts—whether commercially bottled or sold out of kitchens in Inca Kola bottles, is easy to find. Ditto for the raw, algae-green juice, which comes gurgling out of hand-cranked cane grinders on street corners in almost every town and is sold for 50 cents a cup.
The only way to go from raw, sweet juice to hard, throat-raking liquor is to ferment the juice’s sugar using yeast, then distill this sugarcane “wine” into the hard stuff. In Vilcabamba, at last, I knew I was getting close to this almost theoretical product when, in a grocery store, I found homemade vinagre de cana. Vinegar, like hard booze, is a product derived directly from fully fermented juice, or malt water like beer wort. So a local household, it seemed obvious, was engaged in the cane juice industry.
“Who made this?” I asked the clerk.
She directed me to a home several blocks away where, as she said, a man fermented cane juice and sold a variety of cane-based products. I cycled over, but the man’s wife answered and said they only had distilled liquor, which may be called punta or traga. I bought a half liter for $2 after making sure that it was safe to drink. I mentioned the tragic scandal in 2011, when dozens of people died from drinking tainted distilled alcohol. “We drink this ourselves,” the woman assured me.
Before I left she said that in the next village to the north, Malacatos, many people grew sugarcane and made traga and that I could find fermented juice there. But I had already done the Malacatos juice tour the day prior, while riding through on my way to Vilcabamba from Loja, without luck. At every juice shack I visited, the proprietor said they had none but that they would make some overnight and that I should return in the morning. They all spoke of a drink called guarapo—fermented cane juice.
This sounded almost right—but not quite. Because I know from experience making beer and wine that it takes a solid week or more for a bucket of fruit juice or sugar water to undergo primary fermentation, the vigorous bubbling stage that turns 90 percent of a liquid’s sugars into ethanol. Brewers and winemakers cannot make their products overnight.
I learned more about this matter in Vilcabamba’s eastern outskirts, just outside the entrance to the village zoo. Here I found a woman selling cane juice under the business name “Viejo Luis,” who, it seemed, was her husband. I bought a liter of juice, then was treated to a taste of guarapo fermented for one day—a sweet-and-sour rendition of fresh cane juice. At the risk of sounding crass, I got straight to business: “Does this guarapo have alcohol?” I asked. Yes. “How much?” A tiny little bit. “I want more.”
To better explain myself, I asked the lady to tell me if this was correct: “First, there is juice. Then, you ferment it to make alcohol. Then, you distill it to make liquor.” She nodded and smiled with a genuine sparkle, pleased, I think, that I recognized the labors of her business. “OK, I want the middle juice—the juice with alcohol. Not fresh juice, and not punta.” She nodded in understanding and said that if she were to leave this one-day fermented guarapo for another week, it would contain as much alcohol as a strong beer. She even said she would sell me a liter for $2—if I came back the next weekend.
This wasn’t possible—but she did have another fermented product ready to sell—chicha de hongos. That translates into, roughly, “fruit beer of fungus.” She poured the thick, viscous drink through a sieve and into my plastic bottle. I had a taste immediately and complimented the rich and buttery green drink, tart like vinegar, and teeming with an organism she said was tivicus but which most literature seems to present as tibicos. This fungus-bacteria complex turns sugary drinks sour, thick and soupy and allegedly provides a wide range of health benefits. She assured me it was an excellent aid for facilitating digestion.
Meanwhile, I hatched a plan. I took my liter of Viejo Luis’s cane juice to the village bakery. “Can I have just a tiny, tiny, tiny pinch of yeast?” I asked in Spanish. The young man came back with a sack the size of a tennis ball. “That enough?”
Plenty. I took the gift and, on the curb by the plaza, sprinkled a dusting of yeast into the bottle. It came to life overnight. I reached out my tent flap in the morning and unscrewed the cap. It hissed as compressed CO2 exploded outward. It was alive! First, there had been juice—and in a week, there would be sugarcane “wine.” I tended the bottle through many rigorous days, of bus travel and shuttling luggage into hotel rooms and cycling over high passes with the bottle strapped to my pannier. Every few hours for days I gingerly loosened the cap to release the accumulating CO2, the telltale byproduct of sugar-to-ethanol fermentation (methanol, the dangerous form of alcohol that infamously makes people blind or kills them cannot be produced through fermentation). Finally, after five days, I lost my patience. The bottle had been falling off my bike every few hours for two days as I bumped along the dirt road between Cuenca and Santiago de Mendez, in the low Amazon basin. The juice was still fermenting, but I was ready to drink. I gave the bottle an hour in my hotel room so that the mucky sediments could settle to the bottom, then drank. The stuff was a grapefruit yellow now, with a bready, yeasty smell and a flavor reminiscent of raw, green cane juice but less sweet and with the obvious bite of alcohol. I had done it—connected the dots and found the missing link. Or, that is, I had made it myself.
Quick Cane Trivia
- Sugarcane is native to Southeast Asia.
- Consisting of several species, sugarcane is generally a tropical plant but is grown in Spain, some 37 degrees from the Equator.
- Sugarcane yields more calories per land surface area than any other crop.
- Sugarcane first arrived in the New World with Christopher Columbus on his second voyage across the Atlantic, when he sailed to the West Indies in 1493.
Other Local Wines to Taste in Ecuador
If you should visit Vilcabamba and have any interest in wine and fermentation, spend 20 minutes in a small store and tasting bar called Vinos y Licores Vilcabamba. The shop specializes in locally made fruit wines—including grape, blackberry and papaya. The shop also sells liquors made using cane alcohol and a variety of products, like peach and cacao. Most of the wines here are sweet or semi-sweet—and you can put up with that, go in, meet owner Alonzo Reyes and enjoy a tasting. He may even take you to the rear of the facility and show you the fermenting tanks, containing more than 5,000 liters of wines, as well as the cellar, where scores of three- and five-gallon glass jugs contain maturing wines.
The Name of a Dog
I must concede that I spoke a few days too soon in last week’s post about troublesome dogs in Ecuador and the owners that sometimes neglect them. I joked about the unlikelihood that a scruffy street mutt down here might be named Rex, Fido or Max. Well, 11 kilometers south of Sucua on the Amazonian Highway E-45, a dog came trotting out to meet me in the road. Its owners called it back. Its name? Max.
November 8, 2012
Ever since Sean Connery first strode onto the screen in 1962 as a dapper secret agent with the code name 007, the world has been riveted by the character called James Bond. He has grace, confidence, delivery and deadly power—and he also travels. Dr. No, the inaugural film in the series, featured the gleaming waters and blazing beaches of Jamaica. The next year, From Russia with Love took audiences farther afield to Turkey, the Balkans and Venice. Through the ’60s, Bond’s creators drilled audiences with film after film, almost every year, as James Bond appeared in such places as Egypt, the Bahamas, Amsterdam, Japan, the Alps and Portugal. All the while he wooed sizzling exotic women and outsmarted absurdly wicked villains. Though Bond’s was a dangerous world of spies, gold, weapons, ninjas and nuclear war, he swaggered fearlessly through it, from one fantastic landscape to another.
In 1960, fewer than 2 percent of Americans had traveled abroad by air—and many who watched Bond do business in one thrilling place after another were enthralled.
Perhaps, millions pondered, America was not enough.
Through the 1970s air travel become mainstream, replacing trans-Atlantic ocean liners. Europe was suddenly just hours away, and Americans began turning up in numbers throughout the world. By the 1980s, the airline age was in full swing, and with the rise in global travel, James Bond tourism attractions would begin to appear. Consider Khao Phing Kan: After it was featured in 1974′s The Man with the Golden Gun, this beautiful Thai island became a hot tourist attraction and even gained the popular nickname “James Bond Island.” And in the 1980s the very abode in Jamaica where author Ian Fleming dreamed up the Bond world opened as the luxurious GoldenEye Hotel.
Bond’s association with travel and place would solidify through the years. Most recently, with the British release last month of the 23rd Bond film Skyfall, travel agencies and publications have pushed a flurry of James Bond tourism campaigns. Forbes Magazine recently listed the best luxury hotels at which James Bond ever spent a night; on November 2, DesMoinesRegister.com named the best places for following in Bond’s footsteps; a Caribbean “adventure tours” company called Island Routes features a “007 Thunderball Luxury Tour“; a Japanese tour agency is promoting a 13-night Bond-based itinerary inspired by 1967′s You Only Live Twice”; and VisitBritain, the tourism agency of James Bond’s home country, is hinging a fresh tourism push on the hype surrounding Skyfall.
With the American release of the new film this weekend, starring Daniel Craig in his third venture as 007, the James Bond film franchise turns 50 years old. The immortal spy has now traveled in 50 countries and logged 180,000 miles of air travel, by the Huffington Post‘s estimate. Surely, Bond has out-traveled virtually all of us in a world often depicted as absurd and cartoonishly implausible. Yet Bond’s world is the real world, and where he has gone, his fans are sure to follow.
These are just five of the most beautiful sites where the world’s favorite spy has done business.
James Bond Island, Thailand. Classic James Bond met classic Thailand in the 1974 film The Man with the Golden Gun. Actor Roger Moore, who had by then replaced Connery as the dashing spy, pursued Bond’s nemesis Francisco Scaramanga to Khao Phing Kan, a pair of craggy islands draped in greenery that jut like monoliths from a placid turquoise sea. It is the Thailand of a million tourists’ dreams—of a coastline so stunning it looks at times more like a computer-generated dreamscape than a real product of time, water, jungle and geology. Bond was there in its virgin days, before the crowds, and before it became known as James Bond Island.
Contra Dam, Ticino, Switzerland. The opening scene of GoldenEye featured Bond, played by Pierce Brosnan, taking a dizzying leap from an enormous dam in what would later be voted the greatest film stunt of all time. The Contra Dam, also called the Verzasca Dam or Locarno Dam, is located in the Swiss Alps on the Verzasca River. Tourists may visit the dam—and those with a heart for first-class spy-style adventure may even bungee jump off the face. The top of the dam is 720 feet above the stream below, making it one of the world’s highest bungee jumps.
Gibraltar. In 1987, the famed rock set the stage for the opening scene of The Living Daylights, in which Timothy Dalton as Bond leaps off a cliff and onto the roof of a runaway Land Rover in one of the finer Bond action sequences. The scene, actually filmed through repeated runs on the same short stretch of road, ends with a turn off a cliff, a parachute leap, a fiery explosion and a suave Bond-style landing on a yacht.
Meteora Agia Triada monasteries, northern Greece. In the 11th century, Byzantine hermits perched upon the spectacular pinnacles; in the 1300s and 1400s, the monasteries were built; and, in 1981, popular fame finally arrived for the monasteries of Meteora with the Bond film For Your Eyes Only. James Bond was still in his Moore days when he scaled the limestone cliffs to reach the lair of villain Kristalos. Today, rock climbing is one of the attractions of Meteora.
Green Grotto Caves, Jamaica. The 1973 Bond installment Live and Let Die leads our spy into the voodoo world of New Orleans and the thug lairs of New York. Finally, Bond enters the Green Grotto Caves of Discovery Bay, Jamaica, where he deals appropriately with the villainous drug lord Kananga. The caves, which lead for a mile underground and are inhabited by several of Jamaica’s 21 bat species, have been used as a hideout for escaping slaves, as a stash for weapons smugglers and as a storage depot for rum handlers. Stalagmites, stalactites, sun holes in the ceiling, a subterranean tidal pond and green algae coating the walls create the incredible beauty of the caves. Also featured in Live and Let Die was Jamaica’s Falmouth Crocodile Farm, where Bond ran across the backs of a line of lounging crocodiles to reach safety. The farm, also known as the Falmouth Swamp Safari, is now a tourist attraction that, like so many others on earth, flaunts the fact that, once long ago, James Bond was here.
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?