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?
May 15, 2012
If it looks like a black truffle, and if it cost you $1,500 a pound like a black truffle—it may actually be a Chinese truffle.
That’s because fraudulent vendors here in France’s Périgord region, where I’m shacked up for a week in a village on the Dordogne River, sometimes sell lookalike truffles from China as the real thing, which is loved as an aromatic addition to meat, egg and pasta dishes. They mix the imported coal-colored nuggets, of the species Tuber indicum, into baskets of genuine Périgord black truffles, or Tuber melanosporum, and sprinkle them with cheap but aromatic truffle oil to fool buyers into handing over big bucks for the bland imposters.
It’s a fraud of which hunters and buyers are well aware. The landlord of our rental house, Jean Claude, is a truffle hunter. Each fall and winter, he slogs across his property through the mud, his dog Ceci leading the way as she sniffs out the treasures. Jean Claude says Chinese truffles find their way illicitly into local restaurants and markets. Other times, people buy them knowingly, paying about $100 for honestly labeled T. indicum, even though the mushrooms are essentially worthless. In Italy, the sale of Chinese truffles is illegal, even if they are legitimately labeled. By many opinions, the Chinese truffle has no rightful place in the realm of fine European cuisine—but its presence here is prominent. According to experts, between 20 and 30 tons of Chinese truffles are sold in Europe each year.
Recently the situation has gotten much worse: Chinese truffles have been found growing semi-wild in Italy. French truffle expert Claude Murat made this discovery in 2007, when he was working at the University of Torino. Murat received a call from a suspicious farmer in Italy’s Piedmont region in 2006 who explained that he had planted a grove of young hazelnut trees a decade before, believing them to be seeded with spores of T. melanosporum. Buying inoculated “truffle trees” from specialized nurseries is common among European landowners wishing to cultivate black truffles. But, 10 years after planting the trees, the man had not harvested a single truffle, and Murat, then in his post-doc years, came to investigate. What he found generated a quiet rumble of hysteria among truffle farmers and hunters and the moneyed foodies who buy, cook and eat the black truffle: Chinese truffle mycelium established among the roots of the farmer’s trees.
“We thought it might have been a mistake, so we tested it a second time and we found it was definitely Tuber indicum,” said Murat, now the engineer of research at the National Institute of Agronomic Research (INRA), in Champenoux.
Murat says that lab tests conducted by him and his colleagues indicate that the Chinese truffle is a tougher, more adaptable species, more competitive and more tenacious, and when the two have been placed together in a controlled environment, T. indicum has won, he says. But the matter gets more serious than a simple one of habitat competition. T. indicum and T. melanosporum are genetically similar enough that the two can interbreed, posing the risk that the two species may merge into a hybrid that lacks the fetching attributes of the Périgord black. Moreover, the invasive species also has a wider range of genetic variability than the Périgord black, which could allow it to adapt dangerously well to a new habitat.
“There is the chance that Tuber indicum could replace Tuber melanosporum,” Murat said.
Already, T. melanosporum is undergoing tough times. For reasons uncertain, the annual harvest has declined from more than 1,200 tons in 1900 to less than 100 tons today. In the most recent winters, truffle hunters unearthed as little as 20 tons. Experts suspect that modification and disruption of the black truffle’s forest habitat is the main factor in the decline.
Murat says that in Piedmont, there are very few black truffle plantations from which Chinese truffles could spread across the landscape, and so far, T. indicum has not been found growing wild in Europe anywhere outside of the single Italian plantation.
“But if they get into a region in France, like the Périgord, where there are many truffle plantations, it could be a serious problem,” he said.
And for a taste of truffle trivia: The truffle oil that many of us keep in our cupboards (not all of us can afford truffles, okay?) and use to impress dinner dates is usually a product of exquisitely exacting chemistry labs, where experts have learned to duplicate the molecule 2,4-dithiapentane that produces the entrancing scent of wild truffles—especially the Italian white truffle, or Tuber magnatum. This lovely molecule—one of my personal favorites—occurs naturally in wild truffles. Some purists argue that test tube truffle oil is fake—but is it really? Because for my unwitting dinner guests, a whiff of that stuff takes them straight to the Périgord faster than a flight on Air France. Ignorance and truffle oil are bliss.
May 11, 2012
Ernest Hemingway popularized the cosmopolitan lifestyle of idleness, coffee shops and people-watching on the noisy boulevards of Paris. The author wrote some decent books in the process, but I still think Hemingway missed out every day that he wasn’t walking or cycling through the forested hills of the Périgord, the large agrarian region just east of Bordeaux and north of Spain and famed for its wild truffles, cottage fois gras industry and pre-modern cave art. There is a cafe here in the village of Saint Julien de Lampon, where we have a house for a week, and we can sit there if we like, watching the church tower and the villagers coming and going from the butcher shop, but I’ve got better ideas for the next six weeks that I’ll be traveling here, like these:
Search the shallows for pike. They’re as big as logs, mean as crocs and hungry as bears: northern pike. These spectacular predators eat ducks and rodents and will attack other fish their own size or greater, and they live in the Dordogne River. In his college days, my dad spent some time canoeing in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters, where he and the boys went skinny dipping in pike-populated waters and jokingly called it trolling. Here, I’m keeping my shorts on when I go swimming. Probably the best way to see a pike is to peer off bridges into the slow current or stalk along the bank while watching the sloughs and backwaters for what seem to be submerged logs drifting upstream. I’ve already seen several near the village. Climbing out on horizontally leaning tree trucks and looking straight down on a slow pool for 30 minutes is a good method—and when you see one of these monsters drift past in the Dordogne, you can be sure that you’ve met the king. Or maybe you haven’t—because we just read in the papers that a local angler caught a 100-pound wels catfish recently, and the wels isn’t just a duck-eater; supposedly, it has swallowed children.
Ride a bicycle. They’ll hit you with extra luggage fees at the airport for daring to bring a bike overseas (and if you’re especially lucky, like me, they’ll leave it in London overnight), but once you’re rolling on the solid ground of France, a bicycle will set you free. A vast network of small, smaller and smallest roadways crisscrosses the nation. Many are paved paths hardly wide enough for a Fiat that lead through the woods and past forgotten farm houses and crumbling chateaus, along rivers and up mountainsides. Forget your map and just keep rolling–and if the road turns to dirt, don’t stop. It may even disintegrate into a rutted wagon trail or footpath, but almost without fail, just when you thought maybe you were in fact lost, the trail will dump you out again onto the highway. In this scheme of exploration, there is rarely backtracking or getting truly lost. Instead, one becomes familiar with a rare but thrilling déjà vu sensation—after a hungry day of pedaling in circles on unmapped roads—of winding up by accident right back again where you started.
Walk into a Cave. People have been doing it for millennia here, and in many nearby grottoes the paintings of pre-modern people remain on the walls. My nephew, who is seven, can paint better than they did, but to see bison, mammoths and bears scrawled by human hands 150 centuries ago is an awesome reminder of the reality of a history most of us only know from textbooks. The Lascaux, Pech Merle and Cougnac caves are three of the most famous. Lascaux, closed to the public, is only viewable via a reproduction of the original art, while at Pech Merle, you can see the real thing—plus animal bones and human footprints.
Tour the farmers markets. French chefs have taken crocks of credit over the years for wowing diners with their classic sauces, bricks of pate, rustic soups, wild game and pastries—but let’s face it: It’s the open air farmers markets where French food really comes from. Even the tiniest villages here host weekly assemblies of gritty-fingered peasants selling their cherries, beets, potatoes, walnuts, berries and greens. In Saint Julien there is a regular paella vendor, and makers of cheese, sausage, fois gras and wine do business here, too. Yeah, you could eat yourself ill at any local restaurant, where roughage from the garden and stewed potatoes soak in butter and duck fat. I say forget dining out, because no meal here is more gratifying than one cooked at home from a canvas sack of market goodies and eaten on the lawn until the sun sets at 10. The Saint Julien market arrives each Thursday. Souillac’s market is Friday. Sarlat, the nearest big town, has its market on Saturdays and Wednesdays. In, Gourdon, a medieval town on a hilltop, market days are Saturday and Tuesday.
Buy bulk wine in a plastic jug. Fine restaurants in America are now serving wine on tap for $4 a taste, but in reasonable France, they’ve been selling table wine in bulk for ages. In the rear shadows of many wine shops (behind all the labeled commercial bottles), you’ll find a spigot coming off a barrel of some local plonk, offering perfectly decent if cheap wine by the pint, liter or gallon. Fill your jug, screw on the cap and go find a bench along the bike path or a grassy knoll above the river.
Hunt the cep. Europe’s favorite wild mushroom floats in three sing-song syllables off the tongues of Italians, but in France, the porcini is just the cep. No matter. This renowned mushroom is the same across all Old World borders—fat pig-like stumps with white stems and tawny brown caps that bulge from the leaf litter beneath chestnut trees. That blue and beaten-up Renault parked at the edge of the forest? That’s probably a cep hunter’s. Follow quietly, track him down and discover his secret patches. Better not collect your own unless you really know your shrooms, but there’s no harm in taking a walk in the woods—though you’re wasting your time if you look up. Other fungi hunting opportunities: Its season is the winter, and if you come here in December, remember that the Périgord black truffle grows among hazelnuts and oaks. You’ll need a good dog to sniff them out, although some walkers watch for vertical columns of tiny flies just above the ground—often a clue that a cluster of the world’s most pungent mushroom is hiding below. Warning: Truffle patches are often on private property, and truffle hunter landlords may shoot trespassers.
Go to Spain. The cheese is just as smelly. The rustic country cuisine is by and large the same. The people, like their French neighbors, live by espresso and wine. But the crowds are less and cost of living about half. The mountainous border along the Pyrenees is just 200 miles south of here, and three days ago as my plane landed in Toulouse, I caught sight of these peaks, still buried in snow in this exceptionally late-blooming spring. Even Hemingway ditched his beloved France for Spain. Soon, so will I.
December 6, 2011
Some underground objects in Croatia will detonate at the slightest touch: landmines.
Other underground objects just smell. When journalist Lucy Burningham went to Croatia in 2007, she went looking for truffles. The Portland-based beer, food and travel writer was doing research for a book she’s writing about truffles of the world. She spent two weeks in northwest Croatia’s Istria peninsula, where she explored the local oak forests with pen and pad, fringed the secretive clan of local truffle hunters and, as she now concedes, poked her nose where not everyone wanted it.
“As a journalist working on a story about truffles, it felt like risky business,” Burningham said. “There’s a lot of cash flowing around, there’s a black market, and I felt like I was entering a world where I wasn’t wanted.”
Most truffle hunters aren’t lawbreakers. They are simply protective of their patches, which may be family-owned and passed along from generation to generation—the foundation of a wholesome industry across Europe. But lookalike truffles are sometimes falsely advertised and illegally sold, and in the dark woods of Europe and in the high-stakes marketplaces, strangers and foreigners are not always to be trusted. Burningham didn’t speak the language in Croatia, and she had just one local contact in the truffle-hunting underworld. The man, hardly a Luddite of the woods, carried four cell phones and seemed to be always negotiating a sale through one of his market connections. He served as her guide, and on one occasion as he drove into a remote truffle patch in the woods, he asked Burningham, seated shotgun in the Fiat, to cover herself with a blanket and hunker down and pose as a sack of potatoes.
“No one wanted to see an international journalist poking around in the forest,” Burningham explained.
Burningham observed the white truffle’s prominent place in Croatia’s culture and cuisine. She saw, too, that Croatian people object to the white truffle’s reputation as the “Alba truffle,” which suggests that this aromatic mushroom, Tuber magnatum, is an Italian specialty. In fact, though France and Italy have gained reputations for having the world’s best truffles, Burningham’s book project was conceived in Oregon, in the woods surrounding Portland, in the heart of North America’s very own truffle country.
Throughout the Pacific Northwest, three species of highly valued, highly aromatic, native truffles grow naturally in the soil among Douglas fir trees, though relatively few people know it. Burningham caught wind of Oregon truffles in 2006. Today an increasing number of chefs, gatherers, retailers and entrepreneurs of many makes are catching on. Though the industry struggled for several decades, demand is now growing, and prices have shot up from about $50 per pound wholesale five years ago to about $250 per pound today.
Truffle season is now in full swing, and those interested in unearthing their own truffles should contact the North American Truffling Society, a group of enthusiasts who meet in Corvallis, Oregon to discuss, study, hunt and eat truffles. The Cascade Mycological Society may also be able to help. The upcoming Oregon Truffle Festival, scheduled for January 27 to 29 in and around Eugene, will offer another opportunity to experience Oregon’s best-smelling mushrooms, both on the plate and in the woods.
Truffle hunting, whether in Europe or America, is usually conducted with truffle dogs, the best of which can smell underground truffles from 150 feet or more away. Only four such dogs, trained and certified through local truffle dog training programs, exist in Oregon, according to Leslie Scott, a managing partner of the truffle festival, where at least one of these dogs will be meeting and greeting guests. (Though truffle pigs still dwell in the lore of old European truffle hunting, the keen-nosed animals posed a problem for truffle hunters as they often attempted to eat the prize. Dogs will merely sniff out the fungus and gladly take a pat on the head in reward.)
Meanwhile, the Perigord black truffle is now under cultivation worldwide in orchards of hazelnut and oak trees “infected” at their roots with the mycelium of T. melanosporum. These orchards lie in furtive locations in California, Tennessee, North Carolina, Oregon, Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, Argentina and other places. Most are young and still maturing into production, and tourist hunting opportunities for the black truffle will likely grow more common in the near future. The Italian-Croatian truffle has not been successfully cultivated, but some landlords lucky enough to own a white truffle patch among their hardwood trees do host visitors to dig up this most expensive of fungi.
What’s a truffle good for? T. magnatum is favored for shaving over pasta or poached eggs. It is almost never cooked, and the raw aroma of this critter is so powerful, so intoxicating, so mesmerizing that it is said to drive some people—and female pigs—mad with lust. I’ve only smelled it once, in an Italian restaurant in San Francisco. The chef emerged from the kitchen with a freshly imported truffle on a silver platter, and the smell seemed to hit me like a gust from 25 feet away. If I’d been wearing a tie I think it would have blown up in my face, so powerful was that aroma. T. melanosporum, the black Perigord truffle, is considered almost as good as T. magnatum but is quite different and is often cooked into sauces and meats. Among the New World truffles, the Oregon black (Leucangium carthusianum) may smell like pineapple, wine and chocolate—a truffle that does well in creamy desserts. The autumn Oregon white (T. oregonese) bears similarities to its European counterpart, as does the spring Oregon white truffle (T. gibbosum). Each is piney, musky and garlicky. A favored trick with white truffles, from the Old World or the New, is to place one in a Tupperware along with an egg. The aroma will creep through the egg’s shell and flavor the yolk and the whites.
Almost wherever one goes, truffles can be found. Thousands of species grow worldwide. Most have no culinary worth. Some carry a respectable price tag, like the prized Saudi desert truffle—and just a few are valued like gold. Still others have no aroma or flavor at all but look enough like the coveted species of Europe that fraudsters slip them into the market and draw illicit incomes. T. indicum, for instance, is a worthless lump of a mushroom native to eastern Asia and which looks almost identical to the Perigord black truffle (T. melanosporum). The presence of imitation Chinese truffles in France and Italy has recently become an ecological problem: the species has found its way into the soil and established itself, posing a new threat to the already declining populations of native black truffles. Mixed deviously into a batch of the real thing, fakes add precious weight to a sale that can draw almost $1000 per pound from buyers who assume the product is legit. (T. magnatum draws even more money, often several thousand dollars per pound.)
All of which should make for some good adventure reading, and we hope that Burningham will have a book chapter in which our heroine visits China and follow her nose into the black market for false truffles. She notes that doing so “will probably be even sketchier” than snooping around Croatia.
Safer, surely, to stay home—but sometimes there’s no resisting the truffle.