Sustainble Farming Program in Uganda Offers Hope and Help

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (BINP) in Uganda is well-known throughout the world as the home for nearly half of the world’s population of critically endangered mountain gorillas. However, gorillas are no longer the only entity on Uganda’s endangered list. Bwindi’s local people have also felt the brunt of years of illegal logging and other activities which have slowly degraded the area.

Fortunately, the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park was established as a national park in 1991, and was initially designed to protect both its treasured gorillas along with its precious and deteriorating forestland, and as of today, the program has been a great success. Yet, while the park itself has benefited from a surge in tourism (thousands of visitors pass through the park every year on pricey gorilla treks), Bwindi locals have not been able to reap much financial benefit from the increased tourism, which in turn, has caused considerable conflict amongst the community.

Much of this socioeconomic dichotomy has been contributed to revenue loss due to the procurement of food products designed for local lodges and restaurants coming from outside the area (as far as a ten hour drive away). Considering the most common livelihood for locals is subsistence farming, and that the area’s soil is extremely fertile, developing a farmer’s association where locals could gain cash income by supplying fruits, vegetables and other products to a growing tourism industry seemed a natural solution.

Thus, the Bwindi Advanced Market Grower’s Association (AMAGARA, which means ‘life”, in the local language Rukiga) was born, and it has been evolving ever since.

Situated only four kilometers from the BINP gate, visitors can get a firsthand glimpse at the association’s gardens, which boasts everything from fiery red chili’s to sweet honey (harvested from their own bee hives). Guests of AMAGARA can take a personal tour led by on-site team members which offers education on how the association operates and how a wide range of growing techniques are taught to local farmers. Cooking classes featuring the traditional cuisine of Uganda are also offered daily, and are led by the institute’s professionally trained chef, Moses, who shares his personal recipes and cooking tips, including a few rather interesting twists on classic dishes.

An on-site garden shop sells a wide selection of gifts including packaged honey and tea from Bwindi. Purchases from the garden shop directly support the work of AMAGARA as well as that of the local community.

For traveler’s looking for a complete African Mountain Gorilla safari, Volcano Safaris, a company that specializes in great ape ecotourism and who is a well-known leader in its industry, has recently partnered with AMAGARA. As part of their gorilla trekking safari, which already includes tracking in the BINP and lodge accommodations, guests can also tack on a visit to AMAGARA when staying at the Volcanoes Bwindi Eco-Lodge. The lodge, which overlooks the forest, features eight bandas and utilizes only local materials and solar energy. Meals are prepared on-site and highlight produce purchased directly from AMAGARA.


Lady in the House: Chef Anne-Sophie Pic’s Simple Elegance

As someone who has done her fare share of cooking, I have mad respect for anyone undertaking the daily grind of working in a professional kitchen, let alone running one. Yet as a woman, I can’t help but revel just a wee bit more in the achievements of the many female chefs out there who are gaining the culinary respect they so deserve.

Take Chef Anne-Sophie Pic, for example, of the newly opened, Anne-Sophie Pic at the Beau-Rivage Palace at the Lausanne hotel in Switzerland. Not only was she born with plenty of solid cooking genes (she’s the daughter of Chef Jacque Pic and the granddaughter of Chef Andre Pic, who are both award winning culinarians in their own right), she is currently the only female chef in France to earn three Michelin stars.

With a penchant for creating exquisite dishes plucked straight from the water, Pic’s vision is both elegant and understated. Whether you’re going a la carte or savoring a multi-course “Pic Collection”, Chef Pic reinterprets many classic, regional French specialties with her own unique refinement and flair.

Fresh crab and Aquitaine caviar is accented with “flaked crab jelly” while a ubiquitous slab of foie gras is roasted and topped with a black cardamom peach jam. Pic’s grandfather’s recipe for crayfish tail gratin is honored as is her father’s exercise in gastronomic indulgence, sea bass topped with either 20 grams of golden Osetra caviar from Iran or 30 grams of Aquitaine caviar.Seasonal and regional specialties also make frequent appearances, especially as they relate to Pic’s signature seafood dishes. Wild, red mullets are served with smoked Agria (a type of potato) gnocchi’s “cooked in hot embers” while roasted John Dory is accented with a creamy broad bean ravioli and “foamy milk” infused with rum from Martinique.

Desserts, courtesy of award-winning Chef Patissier, Philippe Rigollot, make for a sumptuous ending and boast whimsical titles like “Raspberry and the Mexican Tarragon Flower” consisting of a raspberry/tarragon sorbet topped with crystallized, candied raspberries.

A meal at restaurant Anne-Sophie Pic at the Beau-Rivage Palace doesn’t come cheap (the chef’s seven course tasting menu will set you back roughly $300 per person), yet guests are not only offered exquisite cuisine, they are treated to a refined service at every stage of the meal that is described on the website as having “the lightest touch”.

While pricey dinners might appear to be a thing of the past, especially during an era of lay-offs and foreclosures, I believe a dining experience at the Beau-Rivage is worth saving one’s pennies for, even if it’s simply to support one of the world’s great, female chefs.


Eco-Friendly HALL Wines Earns Gold LEED Certification

The first time I tasted HALL Cabernet Sauvignon, I will nibbling a cheese plate bar side at Fleming’s Steakhouse and Wine Bar. After asking our bartender sommelier for his recommendation for a big, hearty red, he poured me a taste of the 2005 HALL Cab. Is that black cherry I’m getting? Or perhaps a little oak mixed with leather and currants? I’m certainly no wine expert, unless you consider drinking lots of the stuff a special skill, yet even I could tell there was something very special about this wine.

HALL wines, which has two wineries, one in St. Helena, California and the other in Rutherford, has not only received exceptional scoring for many of its wines, including 97 points from Wine Enthusiast for the 2006 HALL “Exzellenz” Cabernet Sauvignon, but has just received the prestigious LEED® (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold Certification for its Napa St. Helena location making HALL the first winery in California to earn this designation.

With state-of-the-art facilities, including many sustainable design elements such as radiant flooring, solar energy, as well as usage of recycled and local building materials, HALL is leading the industry when it comes to working to solve environmental challenges. Owner Kathryn Hall, whose family has been growing grapes in California since 1972, along with her husband Craig, have made it their personal mission to leave minimal carbon footprints when it comes to the art of great winemaking, establishing them as leaders in environmental preservation.

As Kathryn herself puts it, “At HALL wines, we grow our own grapes and craft our wines, and so we are obligated to ensure the health of the land, as well as that of the greater Napa Valley ecosystem.” Keeping in mind that HALL’s grapes encompass over 500 acres, this is both a great commitment and an accomplishment.

Visitors to the winery can get an up-close-and-personal look at the winery’s dedication to the environment with complimentary LEED® tours being offered each day through the end of August. For those who are unable to make a trip to the winery, visiting HALL online offers a firsthand glimpse (with videos) into the LEED® certification process led by owner Kathryn Hall along with President Mike Reynolds and architect Jarrod Denton.

Yet, for a true taste of what HALL has to offer, both for sustainable wine growing practices as well as the palate, I encourage you to get a bottle for yourself (which can be purchased on HALL’s website or at a variety of wine shops). And, don’t worry, you don’t need to be an expert in order to properly enjoy a glass of their award-winning wines, but it would behoove you to join Kathryn in her vision of an environment supported by earth-friendly wine production.


Mile High Dining Club: Air France

Welcome to the first installment of the Mile High Dining Club where I’ll be exploring and reviewing all things delicious (and perhaps not so) in the air, on the tracks, and on the ground.

As airlines continue to cut more services, the bygone Pan American days of bottomless champagne, caviar and carving stations of roast beef have unfortunately fallen to the wayside as more travelers now find themselves packing cold cheese pizza, cinna-buns and bagel sandwiches into their carry-on’s in an attempt to avoid spending more money while on board. Some food experts even argue that “complimentary” first and business class meals no longer offer anything edible of note other than, “the dreadful food in the sky”. Certainly, the culinary times are-a-changin’ due to economic woes, so is it still possible to enjoy a decent meal while in the air?

Let’s take a look at one of the more respected airlines for foodies– Air France.

It’s well known that the French have it going on when it comes to cooking, and my experience while dining on-board an Air France flight mostly held its ground to this effect. Recently, I booked an overnight flight from Washington to Paris in the airline’s Affaires (business class) cabin where the uber-spacious seats convert to semi-flat beds and little extra’s such as mini Clarins moisturizers, feather pillows, and drawstring bags for your shoes, make red-eye travel a lot less painful.

Dinner started off with an aperitif of salted cashews and a glass of Ayala Brut Majeur champagne, which like all of Air France’s wine selections, was chosen by sommelier, Olivier Poussier. After being presented with the Affaires in-flight menu, which typically offers a four-course option including an hors d’oeuvre, main course, cheese course and dessert, I moved on to a glass of white Bordeaux (Chalonnais Rully Rodet, 2006). Note: Air France’s economy class also offers aperitif, Champagne, and Olivier Poussier chosen wines along with a choice of two hot meals as part of their on-board service.
First course was a classic cold duck foie gras accented with onion compote and served over butter lettuce. Simple, yet delicious. A nice addition were the mini bottles of extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic for drizzling, yet the accompanying baguette was disappointing. Hard, crumbly and dry, even smothering it in French butter couldn’t save it. After sampling some seriously tasty, crusty baguettes while jaunting throughout France, I’ve just got to call out a French airline for serving crappy bread. Non bon, people.

Second course was a platter of beef tenderloin in a mushroom cream sauce served with broccoletti and mashed potatoes. While the meat appeared properly cooked on the outside (nice grill marks) the inside was substantially undercooked. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m a rare meat girl all the way down to the moo, and filet mignon is designed to be served rare to medium-rare, but this slab of beef was about as raw as it gets. Too bad I couldn’t send it back to the chef for a few more minutes on the grill, but the fact is, airlines don’t have a lot to work with, especially when you consider that many meals travel up to twenty-two hours from kitchen to plane. With this in mind, the broccoletti was outstanding–al dente and crisp, as if it had just come out of a pot of boiling water, so kudos for that success.

Cheese consisted of perfectly sweaty, room temperature Fourme d’Ambert, Cabecou and Camembert along with a few pieces of fruit, and was an excellent match for the 2005 Jean Guyon Cru Bourgeois Superieur. Dessert held its own as a raspberry mille-feuille, although it tasted ever-so-slightly freezer burned.

In all fairness, I have to add that reviewing an airline’s in-flight dining cannot be held to the same standards to that of a restaurant. For starters, airline food is often cooked, chilled and then reheated on the plane versus being prepared a la minute, and you probably won’t be seeing any celeb chefs plating up their specialties along with the flight attendants. The fact is, airlines have many things working against them when it comes to preparation, yet luckily it isn’t all bad as many airlines are changing their culinary tune when it comes to pleasing their passenger’s palates.

Sure, the meal I had on board Air France wasn’t Chez Panisse nor was it trying to be. However, for an in-flight dining experience (cue endless pours of amazing French wine) Air France was pretty darn tasty, and I’d be happy to eat and drink my way across the Atlantic with them anytime.


Element Hotels: made for do-it-yourself foodies

Back in 2006, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Inc. made a bit of history when it launched the first hotel brand that requires all of its hotels to pursue LEED certification. Element Hotels, which are designed for longer stays and come complete with multi-purpose, modular furniture, flat-screen televisions and fully equipped ENERGY-STAR appliances are not only aesthetically appealing, but are also about as eco-friendly as anyone can get.

Yet, it’s their flagship culinary program in partnership with Whole Foods that makes a stay at Element Lexington truly value-added, especially for health conscious foodies. Along with the hotel’s many delicious amenities, which include a “Rise” breakfast bar, featuring an array of healthy options from hot sandwiches and smoothies to a complimentary “Relax” evening reception (occurring four nights a week) complete with savory appetizers, beer and wine, Element Lexington will offers Whole Foods cooking demonstrations for its guests right on the premises.

Cooking classes will take place twice a month, and will feature five Whole Foods fresh ingredients or less, so guests will be able to easily recreate these meals back in their rooms. After the cooking class is over, attendees then have the opportunity to purchase a “Meal-in-a-Bag” (for $15.00 or less for two servings) to cook on their own, making both shopping and cooking a breeze. Additionally, guests will get to take home co-branded recipe cards and special coupons to be used at the Bedford Whole Foods. For those wanting to shop for themselves, a special shuttle from the hotel will run several times weekly to the grocery, and for folks that don’t have that kind of time, ingredient order forms will be provided to have groceries delivered and even unpacked in guestroom kitchens.

In keeping with all things organic, Element Lexington has also planted a vegetable garden on the property which boasts in-season delights such as Roma tomatoes, basil, cantaloupe and cucumbers. Produce and herbs from the garden will be used for both Rise breakfast menu items and the Relax evening reception along with the weekly outdoor summer BBQ featuring organic meats, garden burgers and soy hotdogs grilled up each Wednesday by the general manager of the hotel.

Yet, the culinary perks don’t stop here. “Restore”, Element’s on-site organic pantry, offers healthy on-the-fly snacks 24 hours a day, and twice a week guests can ride the hotel’s complimentary shuttle to the local farmer’s market in order to pick up their own produce. And, it won’t be difficult to work off all those calories since Element offers an array of complimentary wellness programs including bikes to borrow, running maps, a full-service fitness center and an all-saline, chlorine-free pool.

Clearly the culinary landscape for travelers is forever changing and evolving, with more of us, especially business travelers, seeking healthier, budget-friendly accommodations that allow for independence along with a sound commitment to the environment. With this in mind, it’s nice to see the hotel industry starting to respond.