Food & Wine

Yep, that’s a Christmas mug in the picture below. In May. And it’s filled with bacon grease…a little trick I learned from my early childhood. And one reinforced from my dip into the Paleo diet waters. I’ll just say, IT FLAVORS EVERYTHING! So I thought it was the perfect way to start off this post. If you don’t know the glories of cast iron cooking, bacon grease in a coffee mug, or the finer revelries of Southern cooking, this post will probably be lost on you.

So…the bacon grease. I just remember there always being a cup of it next to my grandmother’s stove. I mean, bacon and eggs were a morning staple so it was in ample supply. And a spoonful of this artery-clogging goodness made its way into many dishes, from cornbread to casseroles. It adds just the right amount of smokiness and fat to every dish. And so, I’m returning to those roots and I’m shocked to say, my cup runneth over (that means I make too much bacon). And I add a spoonful of it into just about everything.

So on to cast iron. I inherited (or maybe I just stole it from my mother’s kitchen) my grandmother’s cast iron skillet. And it’s become the one pan I cook everything in. It’s enjoyed decades (I’m guessing roughly 70 years) of seasoning. For you non-Southerners, THIS is why you don’t ever wash a cast iron pan. The pan holds onto (in a good way) all of the flavors of its past, imparting a tiny bit of them into every dish you prepare in it. Using soap and water washes away all those bits of flavor and all of those memories. I think it’s akin to painting over your family photos. No matter how embarrassing, let those crusty bits shine! I just give mine a good old scrubbing with water (some dishes require a bit harsher scrub) and finish it off with a drop of oil to keep it fresh and seasoned for my next use.

In my minimalistic ‘don’t be a hoarder and hold on to random shit’ days, I may or may not have thrown out my great grandmother’s cast iron dutch oven. I knew it was valuable, and remember “claiming” it among my mother’s kitchen goods, but it was old, and rusty, and unkempt. There was a grossness factor to it but had I taken the time to scrub it down, I’m quite sure I would have found immense value in it. Regrets and lessons learned.

If you’ve never taken a stroll through a Southerner’s pantry, I encourage you to plan a trip. You’ll be amazed and awe-inspired with plenty of “what is this?” and “what the heck is this used for?”. 

It wasn’t long before my mom’s recent illness that we were reorganizing her pantry (at 78 years old, she had held onto most of her kitchen gadgets over the years including a syrup dispenser she used at Howard Johnson’s with my dad on their honeymoon, I digress…) and I came across a wood router-type contraption that looked like it belonged in my husband’s toolbox rather than the kitchen. So I Marie Kondo’d it. No joy for me. Days later, my mom asked me where I put her creamed corn shucker (so that’s what that was!). Apparently it brought her great joy. Another family heirloom that in my desire to not appear on Hoarders one day, I tossed.

My kitchen today is a mix of the old and the new. My grandmother never served anything in its original container; even jelly at breakfast was in a beautiful glass dish. The older I get, the more I seem to be returning to my roots in the kitchen. I’ve been toying with trying my hand at canning and preserving veggies and I know my mother had some weird devices sterilize jars. As everyone seems to be downsizing and minimalizing these days, it’s important to think about the joy something could bring you in the future. What I wouldn’t give to have that cast iron dutch oven back today. And my mom’s creamed corn shucker thingamajiggy.

My kids are hungry. But they can’t afford to eat. This was happening long before the current economic crisis. My daughter, a long-time vegan, is a budding microbiologist who desperately wants to eat healthy but…college bills. She makes her own nut milks and cosmetics because she wants to be clean and sustainable. But have you seen the price of clean ingredients? (Just switch out the french fries for broccoli at any restaurant and you’ll see the upcharge.)  My son, an Olympic weight lifter, needs to consume a lot of calories to fuel his sport. But he chose to live in New York City so buying food on his budget is more challenging than paying his rent (and you can only eat those massive Chipotle bowls so many days a week). Throw in the busy-ness of their career-upstart lives and it’s almost impossible for them to eat in this modern world. As a resourceful mom, I’ve spent countless hours researching meal delivery services and so-called online healthy markets but they’re simply not affordable for Millennials. 

Many in this generation are eschewing our processed, fast food culture but we’re not giving them many (affordable) alternatives. Both of my kids love to cook but planning and prepping ahead just didn’t make their gene pool (just ask the slowcooker I gave my daughter for Christmas last year – that is still in the box). I researched all the popular meal delivery services, like vegan favorite Purple Carrot (which I once gave my daughter as a gift and got addicted to myself). In my quest to eat healthier, I’m actually trying it again – I can throw in chicken slices or shrimp for my meat eater husband. But at roughly $12 a serving, it’s not doable on a mommy-funds-my-college-lifestyle budget.

And then there’s my growing boy who at 25 eats like 5 teenagers. So I researched meals for athletes and sure, they’re out there, just not in the quantity and price range he needs. I looked at the traditional companies like Blue Apron and Home Chef but he’d need two servings per meal just for himself. Again, not feasible. All I wanted were affordable, easy-to-prepare meals for my kids.

If I lived closer to them, I’d gladly prepare their meals. I mean, I did this for my ailing dog for three years. Solutions lie in a deeper understanding of the problem (and its implications on our future health as a society) but also in a return to simplicity – habits like shopping at farmer’s markets and good old-fashioned food prep. But those require a paradigm shift. Food deserts are a serious problem but I would submit there’s another type of food desert happening in this generation. They want to eat healthy but those with non-traditional diets just can’t afford to. 

Wine tasting in Italy is fun

Last fall, I convinced my husband that he really needed to experience Umbria and more wine tasting in Italy. I had traveled throughout the region when we lived in Italy, but he had never seen the true Italian countryside. So we set off to tour a few wineries in the region and received the VIP treatment. As we all know, Italians are passionate – they are passionate about love, their food, their fashion, but I got to see first-hand just how passionate they are about their wines, especially those who produce the great wines of Italy.

I promised my husband that wine tasting in Italy would be a truly memorable experience. Our tour began at Roccafiore in Todi, where the winery’s commitment to sustainability is evident, as the parking area overlooks a field of organic vineyards and dozens of solar panels. Roccafiore, launched in 2000, is a real blend of technology and traditions. The company goes to great pains to maintain the traditions of Italian vinology but employ some of the latest technology (especially where sustainability is involved) to produce great wines.

Our hostess Laura is studying to be a sommelier so her detailed knowledge of the wine-making process was a highlight. We were fortunate to be at Roccafiore in mid-September as grapes were being harvested – all by hand. We tasted the Grechetto and Moscato grapes fresh off the vine, and watched as the workers poured barrels of grapes into the presser to extract the juice. We then moved to the main production facility underground, another Roccafiore tradition of maintaining original winemaking standards. As the grapes are processed through the pressing machine, the juice falls directly into tanks below ground, using gravity to move the musts and skins from the upper floor to the lower floor – again, part of Roccafiore’s commitment to maintain the traditions and best practices of wine production. Laura walked us through a labyrinth of underground rooms as she explained in great detail the different storage and fermentation processes (practicing for her sommelier exam, I’m sure).

Our tasting of Roccafiore wines took place in the winery’s very modern and industrial commercial building, where they host special events from art exhibitions to winemaker dinners to weddings. Laura also has a culinary background so her knowledge of food/wine pairings was a great compliment to the tasting experience. My favorite wine was the Rosso Roccafiore, a 100% Sangiovese, but the FiorFior, a 100% Grechetto, was a close second. I could easily drink these every night of the week. Prova d’autore, a blend of 40% Sagrantino, 30% Montepulciano, and 30% Sangiovese, was intense, but definitely requires the appropriate food pairing to appreciate it the most. The winery’s luxury resort, Roccafiore Residence and its famed FiorFior restaurant are located on a hill just a quick drive from the winery.

We had another tour scheduled for our wine tasting in Italy at Lungarotti was scheduled to begin at 10:30 and I was a bit concerned about getting in the mood for wine that early. But the initial wine tour, led by the most gracious Grazia, took well over an hour but was so detailed and educational, that I wanted more. (Grazia actually visited the winery with her school when she was only six years old and today, leads the company’s hospitality efforts). The tour led us through rooms full of casks, maceration tanks and French barriques. With so many varietals of grapes being harvested – Sangiovese, Canaiolo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Nero, Colorino and Syrah as red varietals with Trebbiano, Grechetto, Vermentino, Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio as the whites – organization is definitely key. The highlight of the tour was the visit to the winery’s safe, where vintages leading back to the winery’s opening in 1962, are stored. Some years, there were only four bottles remaining (a good year) and other years, there were dozens of bottles in the bin. They’re stored, sold and enjoyed for special occasions with some bottles commanding upwards of $1,000 a bottle.

Founded by Giorgio Lungarotti, the company is now led by his daughters Chiara Lungarotti and Teresa Severini, while his wife Maria Grazia runs the foundation. We were quite fortunate to meet both Chiara and Teresa who are actively involved in the day-to-day activities at the winery and resort. After learning so many fine details of their wine production and the passion poured into making Lungarotti wines, I was excited for the tasting.

We started with the Torre di Giano and Torre di Giano VIP. The VIP was my favorite of the whites, with 70% Trebbiano and 30% Grechetto. But the Aurente (derived from the Latin word for gold) intrigued me to the point that I’m still wanting another taste of it a week later. It’s a deep and rich gold wine with 90% Chardonnay and 10% Grechetto. It was definitely one of the most interesting wines I’ve tasted and I think I’ll be ordering more because I’m so curious to have it again.

Then, we moved on to the reds, the Rubesco, Rubesco Reserve (my favorite) and the Sagrantino (my husband’s favorite). We didn’t taste the San Giorgio (50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Sangiovese and 10% Canaiolo) but according to Grazia, this wine is drinkable for up to 50 years. (Note to self: taste this on your next visit!)

We then ventured to my new favorite town in Italy, and one I plan to revisit with more time, Torgiano. Grazia treated us to a lunch at Le Melograne, the restaurant at their 5-star spa resort, Le Tre Vaselle, where the chef personally gave us his menu recommendations. Our time was limited so we missed a visit to the Wine and Olive Oil Museums, but they will definitely be on our next itinerary, as will the resort’s spa where guests from all over the world come for vinotherapy treatments. We also took a short drive to Poggio alle Vigne, the country house set among the Lungarotti vineyards which is a popular destination wedding spot. Torgiano is a popular shopping destination for cashmere, so Lungarotti also arranges cashmere shopping tours as part of their packages. (Note to self: don’t miss the cashmere next time I go wine tasting in Italy)

How to go wine tasting in Tuscany

I love wine and I love to travel. So what could be better than combining the two with wine tasting in Tuscany and Umbria? Just like culinary travel and adventure travel, wine travel is gaining popularity. Wine travel offers enthusiasts the opportunity to truly experience the wine production process, and if you travel at the right time of year, to actually be part of harvest and production. As a former Italian expat, I was excited to go back “home” and tour some of the luxury wineries and resorts for wine tasting in Tuscany and Umbria and experience some wine tastings in Italy.

When people think of Italian wine and wine tasting in Tuscany, their first thought might be the robust Chiantis. Having lived in Italy, I kind of felt “been there, done that.” But on my return, I was excited to learn, and taste, how Tuscany is embracing luxury wine travel.

My adventure in wine tasting in Tuscany began at the Baracchi estate, which sits high above Cortona, up narrow, winding roads that even our GPS couldn’t keep up with. It was a constant barrage of “turn right”, “turn left”, “turn right”, as we made the hairpin turns. But the views of the Valdichiana Valley, when we arrived at the top, were all worth the nauseating drive.

Founded by Riccardo Baracchi, the winery is a small, boutique producer of one of the region’s only sparkling wines and some fabulous blends. We were greeted by Benedetto Baracchi, son of the winery’s founder, who started our tour in the sparkling wine room where the Baracchi Brut Trebbiano Metodo Classico is produced. A single worker was painstakingly turning each bottle ¼ turn, as he does daily for 45 days, to allow the sediment from the Trebbiano grapes to settle at the top of the bottle. There, it is ultimately frozen and forced out. As a small producer, Baracchi takes great care and pride in this hand-processed production of one of the region’s only sparkling wines. Our tour ended with a tasting of the sparkling wine, paired with pecorino cheese produced at the resort. I enjoyed the Brut Trebbiano Metodo Classico tremendously, perhaps because I could really respect the great care taken in its production.

Guests of the winery stay at the luxury Il Falconiere resort, part of the prestigious chain Relais & Châteaux, located just beyond the vineyard. There the resort’s traditional Etruscan spa is the spectacle. This resort truly felt like an escape, perched high on a hilltop, surrounded by lush vineyards. I wanted to plant myself at the pool adjacent to the spa and just waste the afternoon sipping wine and enjoying the view. Instead, we were then treated to lunch at the resort’s outdoor café where the weather was perfect but views of the surrounding vineyards and valley were even more perfect– location, location, location. It’s one of the best places to stay if you’re planning wine tastings in Italy.

Cortona’s most popular resident, Frances Mayes of “Under the Tuscan Sun”, is prevalent throughout the resort. Silvia Baracchi hosts cooking classes at the restaurant and at their cooking school, Under the Tuscan Sun. Baracchi produces a number of wines from Sangiovese, Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet  and Trebbiano grapes, in addition to olive oil and my husband’s favorite, grappa.

I lived in the north of Italy, Milan, and saw much of the country, but didn’t truly experience Umbria until this trip. When people plan wine tastings in Italy, they don’t often think of Umbria as a region to explore. The tiny rural town of Todi is home to Roccafiore, a winery committed to sustainability and producing organic wines. Roccafiore is a real blend of technology and traditions, as the company goes to great pains to maintain the traditions of Italian virology, but also employs some of the latest technology to produce great wines, sustainably. We were fortunate to be at Roccafiore in mid-September, as grapes were being harvested – all by hand. We tasted the Grechetto and Moscato grapes fresh off the vine, and watched as the workers poured barrels of grapes into the presser to extract juice. We then moved to the main production facility underground, another Roccafiore tradition of maintaining original winemaking standards. As grapes are processed through the pressing machine, juice falls directly into tanks below ground, using gravity to move musts and skins from the upper floor to the lower floor – again, part of Roccafiore’s commitment to maintain the traditions and best practices of wine production.

The tasting room is housed in a modern, industrial building, where they host special events from art exhibitions to winemaker dinners to weddings. Roccafiore produces a number of wines from Sangiovese, Grechetto, Sagrantino, and Montepulciano. The winery’s luxury resort, Roccafiore Residence, and its famed FiorFior restaurant are located on a hill, just a quick drive from the winery.

Our next stop was Lungarotti, near one of my new favorite towns, Torgiano. Our hostess, Grazia, actually visited the winery with her school when she was only six years old and today, leads the company’s hospitality efforts. It’s these types of personal stories and connections that fuel my love for travel.

Lungarotti produces a number of wines – Sangiovese, Canaiolo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Nero, Colorino and Syrah as red varietals with Trebbiano, Grechetto, Vermentino, Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio as the whites. The highlight of the tour was visiting the winery’s safe, where vintages leading back to the winery’s opening in 1962 are stored. Some years, there were only four bottles remaining (a good year) and other years, there were dozens of bottles in the bin. They’re stored, sold and enjoyed for special occasions, with some bottles commanding upwards of $1,000 a bottle.

I was surprised by how different the wines tasted between Umbria and Tuscany, despite using many of the same varietals. I still think of Lungarotti’s Aurente (derived from the Latin word for gold), a deep and rich gold wine with 90% Chardonnay and 10% Grechetto.

We enjoyed a decadent lunch at Le Melograne, the restaurant at Lungarotti’s 5-star spa resort, Le Tre Vaselle.  Our time was limited, so we missed a visit to the Wine and Olive Oil Museums, but will definitely visit on our next trip. We also took a short drive to Poggio alle Vigne, the country house set among the Lungarotti vineyards that is a popular destination wedding spot. Torgiano is a popular shopping destination for cashmere, so Lungarotti also arranges cashmere shopping tours as part of their packages. (Note to self: don’t miss the cashmere next time.)

While living in Milan, I spent many weekends exploring the small enotecas and private vineyards throughout Tuscany. On this visit back, I was interested in seeing a boutique winery, enjoying a few wine tastings in Tuscany and learning more about how Tuscany is embracing luxury wine travel and wine tourism.

If you’re looking for an authentic Tuscan wine tasting experience, I recommend the Baracchi winery and resort. The Baracchi family is very passionate about their wine business but also about ensuring that guests have the most luxurious experience at their resort. The drive up to the Baracchi estate reminded me a bit of the Road to Hana as we winded and twisted up the narrow roads to Cortona. The GPS was a constant barrage of “turn right”, “turn left”, “turn right”, as we made the hairpin turns. But the views of the Valdichiana Valley when we arrived at the top were all worth the nauseating drive. We were greeted by Benedetto Baracchi, the son of the winery’s founder, Riccardo Baracchi, and joined a small group tour. Baracchi is a small, boutique producer so the tour was brief but offered us a very personal glimpse into this family’s pride and passion. We first visited the sparkling wine room where the Baracchi Brut Trebbiano Metodo Classico is produced. A single worker was painstakingly turning each bottle ¼ turn, as he does daily for 45 days, to allow the sediment from the Trebbiano grapes to settle at the top of the bottle where it is ultimately frozen and forced out.

As a small producer, Baracchi takes great care and pride in this hand-processed production of one of the region’s only sparkling wines. Our tour ended with a tasting of the sparkling wine paired with pecorino cheese produced at the resort. I enjoyed the Brut Trebbiano Metodo Classico tremendously, perhaps because I could really respect the great care taken in its production.

But the real highlight was our visit to the luxury Il Falconiere resort located just beyond the vineyard where the resort’s traditional Etruscan spa is the spectacle. This resort truly felt like an escape, perched high on a hilltop, surrounded by lush vineyards. I wanted to plant myself at the pool adjacent to the spa and just waste the afternoon sipping wine and enjoying the view.

We were then treated to lunch at the resort’s outdoor café where the weather was perfect but the views of the surrounding vineyards and valley was even more perfect. Location, location, location. Being in Cortona, the Baracchis have capitalized on the success and recognition of “Under the Tuscan Sun” by Frances Mayes. Silvia Baracchi hosts cooking classes at the restaurant and at their cooking school, called Under the Tuscan Sun. The resort’s restaurant also boasts a selection of dishes inspired by “Under the Tuscan Sun.” We tasted the winery’s most popular wines with each course of our meal. We started with the Ardito, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, a great peppery wine to wake our tastebuds. Throughout the rest of the meal, we tasted the single grape Smeriglio wines include a Syrah, Merlot and Sangiovese. A beautifully prepared dessert plate was presented at the end of the meal but we opted for espresso instead of grappa, especially given the winding drive home.

I’m an adventure traveler. Or I should say a foodie adventure traveler. I love exploring new places through the food. So when I was invited to spend a week in Burgundy France at a cooking school, I jumped at the opportunity. I’d be learning classic French cooking techniques, including all those classic French mother sauces, along with exploring the local foods and wines of the region. And in true empty nest style, my husband, a non-cook, tagged along.

Now that our kids were out of college, it was a great chance for the hubs and I to explore a new country. Despite living as expats in Italy, we had not spent much time in France so this was going to be an excellent mid-life adventure. We’d be staying in a tiny hamlet in Burgundy, Marigny le Cahouet, as guests of Katherine Frelon, in her gorgeous chateau, La Ferme de la Lochere.

We flew into Paris and rented a car for our drive to Marigny le Cahouet. We drove through the bucolic Bourgogne countryside, passing sleepy little villages and miles and miles of farmland. I could not imagine what the next few days had in store for us, but I was never more excited.

Our itinerary for the week can best be described as perfect, exposing us to food, flavours and sites of the Burgundy, France. Each day would entail a local foodie adventure – to a goat farm for cheese-making, a local artisan bakery and the famed Dijon market, designed by Gustav Eiffel.  And to fully appreciate the delicacies of the region, the week included a visit to Burgundy’s only snail farm, complete with its electric fence to keep the critters from escaping.

When we returned in the afternoon, we cooked alongside Katherine in her gourmet kitchen and learned the intricacies of French sauces, artfully butchered meats and elegant cheese platters. At night, we’d enjoy a multi-course dinner paired with a selection of Burgundy’s best wines. Perhaps my favorite meal of the trip was Katherine’s Beef Bourguignon, a homey, comforting dish iconic for this region of France.

Our menus for the week included multi-course selections such as these:

soupe e l’oignon
boeuf bourguignon au joue
pomme de terre dauphinoise
et carottes
plateau de fromage
regal de Bourgogne, chaource et valençay

or this:

terrine de fois gras
poire poché au sirop d’éspices
pot au feu
légumes de automne
plateau de fromage
fleur de maquis, bleu des causes époisses
crépe sujette et soufflée de crépe aux chocolat

La Ferme de la Lochere offers true luxury accommodations for up to 10 people. You can also rent the entire villa and hire Katherine as your personal gourmet chef for your stay.

Brendan, of Wine Liaisons, is the perfect guide for exploring the wine of Burgundy. His humour, coupled with his knowledge of the region and relationships with local wineries, is an experience not to miss. Brendan says, “there are no winemakers in Burgundy, only farmers.” The farmers of Burgundy tend to their grape crops unlike any others. Brendan teaches his guests how to truly enjoy wines, saying, “The wines are not prepared for you. You must adapt to the wines.”

I’ve always associated Burgundy with deep red wines, but was surprised to learn that Burgundy is really regarded for its whites. Burgundy’s Aligoté wines are crisp and light. What was once a “throwaway” grape planted on undesirable land has now been refined as the perfect lunch or early afternoon wine. Burgundy’s Chardonnay grapes produces some of the finest Grand Cru and Premier Cru wines in the world. The king of whites, Meursault, is produced in the commune of Meursault in Côte de Beaune.

Brendan offers a number of specialised tours covering the entire region of Burgundy. He prefers to take his guests to the family wineries for a truly authentic experience.

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