SPAGHETTI CARBONARA at the Torino airport; steak-frites at the Toronto airport. Hunger is the best sauce, someone said (I've seen this attributed to both Plato and Cervantes, and would love to have been at a symposium with the two of them hashing things out). Twenty-four consecutive hours in airports and airplanes leads to hunger and its other sauce, boredom. The food on the airplanes was mediocre, but lunch, a plate of spaghetti carbonara, wasn't bad — thank you, Torino.
A glass of white wine
At Toronto's Logan Airport my plane was delayed, and the check-in attendant suggested whiling away another forty minutes at dinner. The only possibility seemed to be a 12-ounce beefsteak and a pile of okay French fries. Could have been worse.
ANOTHER RESTAURANT on the list provided by the chef at La Baritiera the other night, this was engaging, sophisticated, and downright comfortable. The moment I sat down I looked Barack Obama in the eye — he had an Americano in his hand, and was smiling, and I thought he was the kind of guy and this the kind of place that would be a perfectly natural fit. A comforting thought these days.
I wasn't all that hungry, having spent Happy Hour down the street with a huge platter of goodies to go with my Negroni. So I settled for —
But first, the amuse-guele: a marvelous version of baccala, thick (in fact gooey) and dusted with chili powder. Brilliant.
Next came, of course, crudo di fassone three ways, on a piece of cold black slate. The pure form is on the left; on the right is a looser texture. I asked the waiter if the difference was simply a question of the quantity of fat, and he said No, c'e un tipo di salsiccia: but it was clearly veal, not pork, and I didn't see anything susagelike about it…
Then plin d'ortiche e seirass, the Piemontese pinched ravioli, tiny and delicious, filled with nettles and the local version of ricotta, and full of umame, since this version is garnished with seaweed and combined with that baccala.
I wasn't going to have dessert, but how to resist Bavarese di finocchio, sorbetto della mela verde, sedano e biscotti di Refrancore? The Bavarian recalled the texture, but certainly not the taste, of the baccala opener; it was topped with a light green-apple sorbetto and garnished, as you see, improbably, with slender stalks of celery (it tasted like Sardinian celery, but must have been local) and a dusting of powdered biscotti. Again, brilliant.
Barbera Brezza, Casale Monferrato, 2014
Biodynamic and "natural" wines, more successful in the Barbera, I think, than the Grillo.
Ristorante Consorzio, Via Monte di Pista 23, Torino
I ASKED THE CHEF at La Baritiera a couple of days ago where I should eat in Torino, and he gave me four recommendations. I ignored the list yesterday in favor of a return to a previous success, but determined to check his list today. Only one of the four was open on a Sunday night, so off I went to the Mole Antioniellana district, clear across town again. (The Metro makes this fairly easy.)
I ate light, from a menu that in fact offers few choices. But how interesting these choices are! After an amuse-bouche involving orzo, tiny bits of ham and peach, a light balsamic sauce and a few chives, I began with
Ventresca tonno / ciliegie / zenzero
Tuna belly, lightly flavored wiith ginger, seared barely cooked, and served with cherry compote. This seems rather a Japanese dish: pure, restrained, but sophisticated, and carefully presented.
I asked for a white wine. Dry or sweet, the waitress asked. A young man brought a bottle, poured a little, and invited me to taste. What is it, I asked. Taste first; I'll explain later. I approved the wine, sound but a little musky, and he divulged the label: Bourgogne aligoté.
My secondo was
Petto d'anatra / pesca / rabarbaro
and turned out to be equally Japanesey, at least as I see things. Again, the duck was seared to perfection. It was in big chunks, and set off my bits of peach which had somehow been "turned," trimmed into little spheres, like melon balls. The rhubarb was stems, no more than a half-inch wide and perhaps three inches long; and it had been blanched so that it was tender but kept its slightly astringent flavor.
My red didn't satisfy me, and I asked if it were typical of its label. Why? Is there a problem? I handed my glass to the wine fellow, who sniffed it, went back inside (I was dining on the sidewalk terrace), and brought another bottle of the same wine. I've made enough wine to know what "brett" is, the dread dirty-socks aroma and flavor that can infect certain wines.
All the wines here are apparently these newfangled "natural" wines, made without sulfur, left on the lees, allowed to go through secondary fermentation in the bottle. I think this eventualiry is a mistake. Biodynamics should only be allowed to go so far.
We had quite a little convesation about all this, and then the fellow brought me a third glass, by far the most interesting of them all, an orange-colored wine, very fruity, tasting almost of rhubarb; a wine that would have been perfect with the duck.
And then when I declined dessert a fourth glass of wine appeared, the first from this part of Italy, a Barbera, "natural" of course with qualities that masked the varietal at first; but it came through after a while, bringing notes of licorice with it…
All in all a most interesting evening.
Péssico, Nicolás Martas (Crianza), 2014
Ansonica, Societa Agricola Santa Maria in Montalcino, 2015
Barbera del Monferrato Superiore, Tenuta Migliavacca, 2013
Gaudenzio, Via Gaudenzio Ferrari 2H, Torino; 011 8600242
DINNER WITH MY Mompantero friends again, this time in a Slow Food-recommended spot up in the hills in a little town not far from tonight's hotel.
There was no menu, and I'm afraid I zoned out in all the Italian spoken between the waitress, the cook (an acquaintance of Andrea's of course, as everyone in the valley seems to be), my friends… consequently, and particularly since I'm writing this a couple of days later, I'll have to rely on the photos, which aren't as good as they might be.
We ate on a porch outside, beginning a little after eight, enjoying the evening breezes, and began with a series of antipasti:
And then went on to a beautiifully prepared risotto, flavored with erbette — little herbs of some kind cut from the garden.
We had to have a pasta, of course: fortunately a small serving, as everything had been on this fixed menu:
Bigoli, I would say it was, in a fine tomato sauce with a disscreet hint of meat.
By now I was intetested in eatling lightly, so for a secondo I chose (as did Andrea) another simple course, zucchini blossoms, battered and deep-fried.
Like the antipasti, the dessert seemed a little fussy in its presentation — lavorato, overworked. No denying it was good, though:
little servings of puff-paste (on the left) and apricot mousse, with good pastry cream and the obligatory dusting, in this case cocoa.
The dinner was long, the courses small, yet we were quite satisfied and had a fine evening. We did have to send back the first wine we'd ordered, a Timorasso that was both maderized and corked. Otherwise it was a fine evening.
Two years ago we found by chance an osteria here that we liked very much, and I decided to return today — for two reasons: to see if it (or I) had changed; and to see what difference would be made by my eating their alone, instead of with the elegant, good-humored woman I've been missing so terribly this last month.
I entered the restaurant promptly at eight o'clock, when it opens for service. This is absurdly early for an Italian restaurant, and for quite a few minutes I was of course alone, facing a television screen I managed to ignore.
I opted for only three items:
Acciughe al bagnetto con crostini di pane e riccioli di burro
Insalate di lattughe, mozzarella, speck, uovo sodo e paté d'olive
Carne cruda alla Piemontese con sedano, noci e scaglie di grana
I chose the anchovies to report on them to Giovanna who adores the Roman version. These were marvelous, the "pesto" thick and strong and substantial. You spread a good quantity of butter on a slice of bread, then heap on the salty anchovy smothered in its sauce, and the whole thing becomes a perfectly integrated thing. One of the Hundred Plates for sure.
The salad was as described, tender yet meaty lettuce standing up well to all the other things, dressed with only salt and olive oil (I forwent the vinegar on offer) and, of course, the healthy serving of olive paste seen at center.
I thought the cruda could have been better: it was a little to cold, as if just brought out of the refrigerator. (Well, it was early in the evening.) I liked the balance, though, between the sweet Piemontese beef, the chopped celery (a fine idea), the finely minced walnuts (ditto) and the Parmesan. This was a big serving and took some time to get through.
Couldn't resist dessert, a simple, pure panna cotta drizzled with caramel.
Favorita; Nebbiolo d'Alba, both in caraffa, both from Azienda Agricola Figlli Manera (Alba), both very nice
DINNER OUT ALONE tonight, for the first time in weeks, perhaps months. I love my wife, but a part of me enjoys eating alone in a restaurant. Perhaps it's because on those few occasions I'm in an interesting place, literally and figuratively.
I broke down and bought the Slow Food Osterie Italiane 2016 app to check what might be available, but got sidetracked when Google Maps turned up something that sounded familiar within walking distance of my cheap hotel.
A twenty-minute walk took me there, through countryside, then village. The place looked familiar too, though I didn't see the dining room, choosing instead to eat outside under an enormous lime-tree.
No menu: The waitress mentioned an antipasto possibility, and I agreed, with a nice glass of white wine in my hand, and dinner began.
There were in fact five antipasti::
Sausage: rather loose, coarse-ground, pork of course, tasting a bit of andouillette, nicely balanced
Salad: orzo with strips of red and yellow pepper softened a la grecque and a few thin strips of sliced roast beef
Frittata cut into little squares
Cold sformato of celery root
Zucchini and sliced onion softened in an agrodolce
Pasta? My waitress then asked: Yes, please, agnelotti filled with meat ragu, cooked to exactly the right point, dressed (as I'd asked) simply with butter and sage.
Secondo? Yes, please: sliced roast beef with cipollini, subtly flavored and colored with carrot. This was delightful, sweet with onion and carrot, the thick reduction easing substantial slices of beef.
I had no room for a dolce, I regret to say. This was very likely the best meal I've had in weeks.
Malvasia di Veneto in bicchiere
Dolcetto d'Alba in caraffa
Antica Trattoria La Stellina, Via Carlo Emanuele I, 17/B, Bruzolo (TO), Italy; 347 59 21 415
DINNER OUT TONIGHT with my Piemontese friends in a neighborhood restaurant outside of Susa.
Entering the restaurant I remembered having eaten there well three yesrs ago —and, as it turns out, almost identically: I opened with melon and prosciutto, then went on to braciola di maiale. As before, this was a thin pork chop, generous in size, simply cooked with only salt and a quarter lemon to flavor it.
I added a very discreet drizzle of very piquant chili pepper-infused olive oil, as the cook is Calabrian.
Roero Arneis, Parvo, San Silvestre Cantine, 2013 (a little too old); Dolcetto, Manfredi (Langhe), 2014: delicious.
Ristorante Rocciamelone, Monpantero, Susa
DESSERT in town: gelati al limon, crema, and fior di latte, with fine panna montata.
DINNER TONIGHT WITH friends in their home in this rustic village above Susa. Maria Teresa is a Pugliese and learned cooking well from her mother: we had a delicious tomato sauce with diced potatoes in it, on pasta; a beautifully browned frittata; green beans with tomatoes.
Dessert came from the grocery store: lemon gelato "popsicles" whose sticks are made of licorice, delicious —licorice is a Puglian digestivo.
Grignolino, then Bonarda da Piemonte, Tenuta la Pergola, 2014; very nice.
AFTER TWO OR THREE weeks eating in Savoie, with lots of sausage and of course the remarkable Beauforts, tommes, and reblochons, it is a pleasure to be once again in Italy. The cuisine of Piemonte can be just as heavy — after all, this was once Savoy too — but there's a deftness, a lightness, a sharp edge that I love, and that is quite missing across the border.
I lunched a bit on the heavy side, I suppose, beginning with the typical antipasto of this area — Bruschetta with anchovies In green sauce (parsley, bread, hot chilli pepper, garlic); Vitello Tonnato; Tomino (delicious ricotta) with Red Sauce (vinegar, garlic, bread, ketchup); Salame Cotto; Tongue with green sauce.
After this, spaghetti with Sicilian pesto, which involves almonds, tomato, garlic, and basil. E basta cosi.
Arneis del Langhe, 2015
Dinner was simpler: a plate of gnocchi di ricotta; a mixed salad; gelato al limon, and the rest of the bottle of Arneis. Delicious.
Ristoranta affitacamere al Cantoun, via Ramats 12, Chiomonte (TO), Italy; 0122 54339
WHAT A HILARIOUS dinner tonight! every restaurant was packed, even the most informal. Nothing for it but to eat out of the grocery store. But we have a couple of first-class chefs among us, so that shouldn't be hard.
Kees found a grocery store; it promised to stay open until seven. He ran into a woman we'd met a few days earlier: she was eating in a restaurant, but her gite had a self-cater kitchen she could use.
We looked for it in her gite but could find no one to allow us to use it. Leaving the gite we noticed a farmer adding oil to his tractor looking at us oddly. Are you the owner of the gite? Yes, what can I do for you? Can we use the kitchen? Well, are you staying there? No, but a friend is, and she's not using the kitchen, may we use it in her place? Well, all right, just leave it clean…
We rush back to the grocery store, which is of course locked up tight as a tick. I can't understand it, Kees says, I'm sure she promised…
I notice a guy watering flowers outside the store. Is this you store? Yes, why? Well, could you open it for just a few minutes, so we can buy some things?
He calls his wife, who opens the shop. A jar of nettle soup. Another jar of sausage in vegetables. A bottle of wine. Some terrine. Have you any bread? Sorry, no, you have to go to the boulangerie; it's closed.
Kees: Well, our hotel will have a loaf of bread. He goes in to ask for it, and is denied. He gets really angry. You cannot deny us bread, he says; you are a hotel; we are your guests; your town is built on hospitality and tourism; you canNOT deny us bread. They finally, grudgingly, give him a loaf.
We go back to the gite. The kitchen is locked tight as a tick. We despair. Outside, three women drive up in a car. Do you have something to do with this gite? Conversation and explanations ensue. The agent is summoned. The kitchen is opened. Kees gets to work. We eat and leave the kitchen clean.
DINNER today in another mountain refuge in the Parc national de la Vanoise. Lunch had been provided by the prejvious day's refuge de Rosuel: a little box of couscous, sliced ham, a stick of cheese, four inches of baguette, an apple, a couple of commercial madeleines, a candy bar. I saved half for tomorrow's lunch.
Dinner here began with a big bowl of carrot and potato soup into which we were invited to melt a good-sized slice of tomme, then continued, unusually for these refuges I think, with a bowl of white rice onto which we ladled — blanquette de veau! The French lady across the table was as surprised as I at the appearance of this old-fashioned lamb stew, and seemed to enjoy it as well as I.
Dessert: a cup of custard and a curious cookie-thing made apparently of chocolate-covered wheat flakes.
LUNCH AND DINNER today in this mountain refuge in the marvelous Parc national de la Vanoise. Lunch was delightful, light, and nourishing: a simple omelet nature, a green salad, and a glass of rosé.
Dinner, taken demi-pension along with perhaps twenty other overnighters in the dormitory, was more robust, as is suitable for long-distance ramblers: carrot soup; sliced roast pork with potatoes cooked with onion and lardons; panna cotta. Very satisfying
Grenache/Syrah, Les Centenaires (Camargue), 2015; pleasant
ONE OF US felt the need to try a one-star (Michelin) restaurant in the area, so — there being four of us now to share taxi fares — we took a cab out and up into the country to a ski station to find ourselves in a modern dining room with a fine view and a menu offering both local and classic French cuisine.
A little tired of cheese by now I opted for the plat du jour, Gigot aux flageolets, roast leg of lamb with little green beans. With that, as you see, small potato croquettes and sliced cucumber.
The lamb was reasonably good though innocent of salt and barely touched by garlic. The flageolets had been cooked, I'm sure of it, in unsalted water, not stock. The potatoes were fine.
Dessert was an apricot cloafoutis-like tart, garnished with a spiral of whipped cream and a squiggle of raspberry coulis. All in all, a routine dinner.
WHAT AN INTERESTING day in this mountain tourist town! Street parade; musicians and dancers from manyy countries, Euro Cup final — but this blog's about Eating.
But where, in a town you don't know, to eat; especially when you're in the company of two friends who are excellent cooks and in fact chefs themselves? We sauntered up and down the street, then settled for one that seemed modest in its ambitions, likely satisfying in its performance.
Here I had Tartare de boeuf Charolais au couteau preparé, with a nice little green salad and a small bowl of very good house-made potato chips.
I prefer my Tartare in the classic style: a mound of chopped (or, better, scraped) raw beef surrounded by little piles of capers, chopped shallots, perhaps chopped gherkins, and topped with a raw egg, with some mustard on the side.
This was served already mixed. The beef was good, and undoubtedly knife-minced, not ground; and the other ingredients were certainly there, in the right proportion. Nothing to complain about, and good salad and chips.
TEN HOURS on the trail today and still no place to sleep. We quit for a beer in the town of Valeran, then called a taxi to take us to a gîte Jim had found, in the town of Le Mouliin. But there are no restaurants here!
Our host, Didier, offered to drive us up to a nearby place, though, which turned out to be the refuge we'd stay in a few days later. Dinner service was over and all the randonneurs had gone to their beds, but the cook was willing to serve us the menu du randonneur, the rambler's menu: a nice green salad with delicious lettuces and tomatoes, nicely dressed with mustard vinaigrette; slices of jambon cru, and a small ramekin of tartiflette, ubiquitous in Savoie: layers of potato, Reblochon, and Beaufort, all melted together in the oven.
AFTER A SHORT HIKE and a mediocre tartelette aux myrtilles we walked on to this fromagerie which I recalled with great pleasure from a trip eight years ago, and we stepped in to buy a good-sized slice of Beaufort. I noticed the woman running the place, who I remembered, was wearing a Slow Food apron, and we looked at the kitchen and the menu, and sniffed the delightful scent; then decided to stay the night.
Dinner was in fact very good, shared with a team of extreme foot-racers (night, 35 hours, etc.) who were out scoping the course they'll run round Mont Blanc in late August.
We had lentil soup -- you see Jim reaching for his in the photo -- followed by boeuf Bourgignon with lovely soft polenta, and potatoes Dauphinois, and cheese (the sacred trio here: Reblochon, Beaufort, Tomme de Savoie), and a fine apricot tarte. I slept well in my silk sleeping-sack…
Refuge du col de la Croix-du-Bonhomme, Savoie, July 7, 2016—
DINNER IN A NOISY mountain hikers' refuge tonight, seated with fourteen assorted Japanese tourists intent on walking the Tour du Mont Blanc. In these refuges you eat demi-pension, taking what's served, hoping for the best.
Tonight was, I thought, pretty good: Lentil soup; beef carbonnade with polenta, dessert of some sort I forget — I write this days later.
Mondeuse, Obstinée (Savoie), 2015: a little bitter, serious and hard, good
Les Contamines-Montjoie, Haute-Savoie, July 6, 2016—
I REMEMBERED THIS TOWN as having provided the worst meal of my month on the GR5 back in 2008, and was determined to do better this time. We dined in
a restaurant recommended to us by the proprietor of a cheese-and-sausage shop, a Norman who seemed to know his stuff.
We'd already noticed the restaurant: Curt said we should eat there, as restaurants with dogs in their names were generally superior to their neighbors. (I wondered if I'd ever before noticed a restaurant named for a dog: but then, I'm not a dog person.)
My first course (entrée) was simple enough to choose: tarte a la tomate confite et son pesto de roquette, a grilled stewed tomato on a thin pastry shell, dotted with pesto, served with a roquette salad.
Next (plat principal), paillard de veau au grill, sauce au foin. Who could resist grilled veal scallops with hay sauce? The veal was nicely cooked, perhaps a tiny bit dry, and its thin, focussed, flavorful jus really did taste a bit of the scent of dried hay. I suppose they infuse a bit of hay in the sauce, then strain it out. It gave the veal a gout de terroir, a taste of the country we''ve been walking through; and it was resourceful and imaginative and delicious; and I liked it.
Côtes du Roussillon, Le Grill de Mas Cristine, 2015
NOT A WALKING day, for reasons that have nothing really to do with eating every day. A train-and-bus day, resulting in lunnch in Samoëns; dinner a few miles away in les Houches.
Lunch was something I was craving, something I really like, one of the Hundred Plates: Greek salad. The lettuce was superb, that substantial, silky, tasty thing that has to be grown in good soil, tended carefully, not over-watered — and a good varietal to begin with.
There were also of course "Greek" olives, that eggplant color, good-sized, flavorful; and bits of raw red onion, and little cubes of feta, and very tasty tomatoes — tomatoes have been uniiformly good these last few days.
Roussette de Savoie, Jean Perrier et fils, vintage?
Dinner was a little strange, in our hotel, whose restauurant looked about as good as any other we saw in the village.
There I had the plat du jour, gnocchi de pomme de terre aux épinards, (fabrication artisinal), sauce Gorgonzola. The gnocchi themselves were very nice, but the sauce seeemed to me a little bit gluey.
Dessert was a clafoutis, with cherries as is proper, and served with whipped cream (I really should say creme Chantilly) and pastry cream (I really should say creme patissiere), and it was delicious.
Perhaps my third meal in Switzerland. The first was not very good, thirty or forty years ago; the second was very good and the most expensive I'd ever eaten, at Girarrdet.
Tonight we ate in a mountain refuge, where perhaps twenty of us slept in bunks in a single room, and ate a teble d'hôte dinner: Lamb in red sauce, elbow noodles, grated carrot salad on the side. Again, I'm writing a few days behind; sorry, I don't recall the dessert.
I write this an eventful week later, and find I have no recollection of the meal except that we had guinea hen, one of my favorites. This is really unfortunate, as the cooking here, like everything else about the place, is very good; the hotel as a whole is memorable.
I give you as example this photo of the sitting room: quiet, sunny (south-facing), comfortable, old-fashioned. Or the view out our bedroom window,
Looking north up the road leading toward the Chalets de Bise.
As I think I said previously, Madame works the reception, tends bar, and waits on table: Monsieur is the capable cook. When we checked out I asked Madame about the place. It is indeed on the site of an old watermill; the miillrace and some of the equipment is still visible.
The place has been in Monsieur's family for three hundred years, and has been a hotel much of that time. It is small, quiet, modest, and very good. I'd like to return in twenty years to see what the son, who's helping all round, will do with it…
FRIDAY NIGHT: A "Martini" before dinner. I asked Madame for a "martini americain," and she had no idea how it was done. She got down a bottle of red Martini vermouth; I pointed at the white. A little bit of that, I said, and (pointing at a bottle of Gordons gin) the normal amount of that . Ice cubes. The result was not a Martini, but it was very nice.
Then dinner: a ham-cheese gratinee with green salad; a pork chop smothered in good milk-based gravy, broccoli on the side; local cheese (Reblochon, Abondance, tomme); creme brulee: very good. I love provincial French mom-and-pop hotels. Mom waited on us; pop cooked.