Cochon 555 Pork Competition Turns Five, Kicks Off February 17 In Atlanta

baconMuch ado about pork products is made on Gadling, with good reason. Even if you’re sick to death of pork-centric eateries, and lardo this and sausage that, it’s hard to deny the allure of the other white meat (I can’t tell you how many vegetarians and vegans I know who still have a jones for bacon).

For those of you wanting to attend the ultimate porkapalooza, get your tickets for Cochon 555, a traveling, “National Culinary Competition & Tasting Event Dedicated to Heritage Pigs, Family Wineries & Sustainable Farming.”

The 10-city tour kicks off February 17 in Atlanta, and will include stops in New York; Boston; Chicago; Washington, DC; Miami; Vail; Seattle; San Francisco; and Los Angeles, before culminating in the dramatic Grand Cochon at the FOOD & WINE Classic in Aspen on June 16. Notice that Colorado gets two Cochon visits? The South isn’t the only place that appreciates pork.

Cochon was created by Taste Network’s Brady Lowe to raise awareness about, and encourage the sustainable farming of heritage-breed pigs. At each destination, five celebrated local chefs must prepare a nose-to-tail menu using one, 200-pound, family-raised heritage breed of pig. Twenty judges and 400 guests help decide the winning chef. The 10 finalists will then compete at the Grand Cochon for the ultimate title of “King or Queen of Porc.”

Depending upon venue, attendees can also expect tasty treats like Heritage BBQ; butchery demonstrations; mezcal, bourbon, whiskey and rye tastings; specialty cheese sampling, cocktail competitions; a Perfect Manhattan Bar, raffles, and killer after-parties.

For additional details and tickets, click here. Partial proceeds benefit charities and family farms nationwide.

[Photo credit: Flickr user out of ideas]

FOOD & WINE Classic In Aspen Tickets On Sale Now, Discount Before March 15

aspenSeems like just yesterday Gadling was announcing the 30th anniversary of the prestigious FOOD & WINE Classic at Aspen, and already the next is almost upon us. Have you scheduled your annual cholesterol screening yet?

This year, from June 14-16, Food & Wine magazine will celebrate 31 years of incredible food and drink in one of the most glorious locations in the Rockies. Join the nation’s top chefs including José Andrés, Jacques Pépin and Marcus Samuelsson, as well as internationally renowned winemakers, master sommeliers, brewmasters, mixologists and food crafters at the most legendary culinary event in the nation.

The three-day weekend also features over 80 cooking demos, wine and interactive seminars, panel discussions, tasting events and classes on food and wine pairing, as well as twice-daily Grand Tastings featuring over 300 winemakers, craft brewers, distillers and specialty food vendors.

New this year are “DIY Sausage” from offal king Chris Cosentino; a “‘Top Chef’ Leftover Challenge” with Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons; “Next Superstar Value Wine” by wine expert Mark Oldman; “Great Cocktail Party Drinks” with über-mixologist Jim Meehan and F & W editor Kate Krader, and “Dim Sum at Home,” with Andrew Zimmern.

Tickets for the FOOD & WINE Classic in Aspen are $1,150 before March 15, and $1,250 thereafter. There will be also be a la carte ticketed events, including the Last Bite Late Night Dessert Party; additional details will be released in March. To get your tickets (hurry, hurry; it’s always a sell-out), click here.

[Photo credit: Food & Wine magazine]

Why Mexico Isn’t Central America, And Other Things I Learned From Writing A Book About Cheese

cheeseExactly one year ago, I was embroiled in final edits on my first book, “Cheese for Dummies.” It’s a 408-page, comprehensive primer on all things cheese, including an extensive geography section.

I was reviewing the “America’s” chapter, when I saw that my editor had taken the liberty of relocating Mexico from North America, and lumped it with Central America. Baffled, I spent the next hour researching, then polled my Gadling teammates; we are, after all, a well-traveled bunch. The consensus, of which I was already certain from years spent backpacking throughout Latin America: my editor was wrong, wrong, wrong.

It was at the urging of my Gadling colleagues, with whom I engaged in a lengthy discussion about the topic at hand, that I decided to write this article. They thought it raised some interesting arguments about geopolitics and cultural differences within a given region, and found it fascinating that cheese was the conduit. As Heather Poole put it, “Maybe you thought your book was about cheese, when really it’s about the people who eat cheese.”

Before my editor would concede, I had to present a compelling argument as to why there’s no way in hell Mexico is part of Central America. That’s like saying all Latin American countries are the same. Yes, there’s a common language in most instances, but the dialectical differences, indigenous languages and slang are vastly different.

Colonization may also play a commonality in most Latin countries, but the indigenous cultures and various immigrants differ, which can be seen in language, art, folklore and cuisine. There are also extreme variations in geography (known as terroir, in food or wine parlance) and climate, often within the same country.

Dairy wasn’t a part of traditional Mesoamerican culture. The Spanish conquistadors brought cows, sheep, and goats to the New World and introduced dairying and ranching to Mexico. Besides the Spanish influence, in more recent times, cheesemaking throughout Mexico, Central and South America is believed to have been inspired by immigrants from Italy, and Northern and Eastern Europe.cheeseWith regard to cheese, the majority of Latin America (which, for the purposes of this article, refers to Mexico, Central and South America) produces and eats cheese as a subsistence food in rural areas. Most families own a single cow, or sometimes goat, and rely upon the animal’s milk as an essential source of protein. Urbanites, regardless of social class, have access to the same crappy processed cheese we do here in the States; specialty cheese shops are a rarity in most of these countries, for various socioeconomic reasons.

Peru and Bolivia, which suffer from extreme poverty and are largely rural, primarily produce fresh, simple cheeses like queso fresco. These cheeses can be consumed quickly due to the lack of refrigeration, and provide an immediate source of nutrition and income. Venezuela and Brazil, with their largely tropical climates, also rely upon mostly fresh cheeses, some of them highly salted for preservation. Cheese production in Central America is also mostly about fresh cheese, the result of poverty and climate.

Argentina, a more industrialized nation, is one of the world’s leading producers of Parmesan, an aged cow’s milk cheese that approximates Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano. This is due to Argentina’s large population of Italian immigrants. Aged cheese production is only feasible if there’s a facility to store it as it matures, and, usually, an additional source of immediate income – such as fresh cheese.

Ecuador (photo at right), which has a high proportion of Swiss immigrants, also produces a handful of aged, alpine-style cheeses, in addition to fresh cheeses (being on the equator, much of the country is tropical rainforest and not conducive to aging dairy products).
milking
Mexico is one of the few countries in the America’s that has a long, distinguished cheese history, and is one of the world’s largest consumers of cheese, despite a relative lack of diversity in styles and varieties. In recent decades, an artisan cheese movement has developed, and parts of Querétaro, Chiapas, Tabasco and Michoacán are major cheese-producing states. Oaxaca, Mexico’s culinary capital, is the producer of one of its most famous cheeses, Queso Oaxaca, a string cheese also known as quesillo. Cotija, from Central Mexico, is the country’s most renown cheese.

Any book on food, regardless of topic, is going to acknowledge differences due to the terroir and microclimates of a given region. Northern Italy, for example, produces rice and dairy in its lush pastures and fields, while drought- and poverty-stricken Southern Italy has a notable absence of cow’s milk, because sheep fare better on sparse vegetation. As in the North, pasta is also a staple, but it’s eggless.

Writing a book on cheese taught me far more than just how to argue with my editor about where Mexico is located. I learned more about world history, geography and politics in the year it took me to write my book than I did from 12 years of school and earning two degrees.

History has always been my poorest subject, and I’ve only ever been able to learn it by traveling. I was staggered by how much knowledge I’d gained just from writing about cheese.

I think two of the most visible examples of what cheese has taught me came shortly after I submitted my manuscript. I was watching “Jeopardy!” with a friend, and answered a question – that would previously have left me scratching my head – by screaming out (correctly), “What are Visigoths, Alex!” My friend stared at me, flabbergasted.

The other incident occurred during a discussion with some friends about why Spanish cheese doesn’t have a greater foothold in the U.S. (something that’s rapidly changing, by the way). I explained that it was the cumulative effect of the Spanish War, two World Wars, and Franco’s rule, which suppressed the country’s agricultural and commercial progress.

It’s not my intention to sound like an obnoxious smartypants. I’m just incredulous that something as simple (yet complex) as fermented milk made me a more educated, well-rounded person. I’ve always believed that travel is the best educator, but by writing a book on a seemingly limited topic, I’ve also learned that food is, indeed, more than just mere nourishment.

[Photo credits: cheese, Flickr user marimbalamesa; spray cheese, Flickr user xiaming; milking, Laurel Miller]

The Spirit(s) Of Christmas: Great Distilled Gifts To Give

bourbonThe holidays are stressful for many reasons, one of which is gift pressure. Host(ess), Christmas and Hanukkah gifts, gifts for neighbors, obligatory “thank you for the great mail delivery/haircuts/massages gifts.”

You know what makes for a thoughtful gift that reduces stress? A bottle of something delicious. Unless, of course, your intended recipients don’t/aren’t old enough to drink. I can’t help you with that. But I can provide you with a list of great, small-batch spirits to give to those who’ve been appropriately naughty or nice this year:

Black Maple Hill Small Batch Bourbon
This stuff sells out quick, so when you see it at your local liquor store, snatch it up right quick. The bourbon lover in your life (I would gift this to myself, hint, hint) will savor the vanilla, clove, licorice, black cherry and petrol notes. Made from sour mash, and aged for eight years in white oak, this heavenly elixir is made by Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, Ltd., which specializes in producing small-batch bourbons for brands that include Noah’s Mill and Willett.

Leopold Bros. Three Pins Alpine Herbal Liqueur
One of Colorado’s top distilleries is this family-owned Denver company. They make a mean gin and whiskey, as well as other spirits, but Three Pins is a ski-town favorite. Made from a proprietary blend of over a dozen herbs and regional alpine flowers blended with spices and other botanicals, it’s slightly sweet and syrupy, with refreshing citrus and herbal notes. Use as you would Benedictine – as a digestif, to add depth to a cocktail, or as a surprisingly compatible pairing with a mellow blue or goat cheese.

Ron Zacapa
If someone on your list has the hots for rum, this is the gift that will keep on giving far longer than its under-$40 price tag would suggest. A premium Guatemalan sipping rum made with high-elevation-grown estate sugar cane, Zacapa is made according to the same Sistema Solera process used in sherry production. The rum is blended and aged in American whiskey, sherry and Pedro Jimenez wine casks of varying ages. The result is a rum with deep, complex aromas and flavors reminiscent of raisin, honey, spice and oak. If your recipient is extra special, get them the Ron Zacapa 23 (as in years). Simply luscious.

Crop Vodka
I’m not a huge fan of vodka, but was pleasantly surprised by the cucumber and tomato flavors from this certified organic brand from Minnesota. Lovely on the rocks, in a gimlet or Bloody Mary, or with a splash of tonic, these refreshing garden varieties are like summer, er, distilled in a bottle.

Sombra Mezcal
Mezcal is the new tequila (technically, tequila is mezcal; both are made from blue agave, but tequila is produced in designated regions within Jalisco state). Or, look at it this way: it’s the Scotch-drinker’s white spirit. Smoky, peaty, and world apart from the firewater swill with the worm in the bottle, today’s premium mezcal’s are often sourced from single villages located near the small distilleries. Sombra, produced in Oaxaca with high-elevation, estate-grown agave, is oaky and smoky, with notes of spice and pineapple. Masculine and sophisticated; serve with a smoking jacket or … velvet slippers?

[Photo credit: Flickr user fd]

The New Reno: Yes, Virginia, There Is Gentrification

renoI’m going to go out on a limb here, and say that Reno has historically not been one of my favorite places to visit. But I spend a fair amount of time passing through, because my brother and his family live nearby, in the ski town of Truckee. Flying into Reno is convenient for anyone wanting to visit Lake Tahoe.

For years, my brother, Mark, has been telling me that Reno is undergoing a renaissance of sorts, what with the implementation of Wingfield Park – the city’s kayaking park that runs through downtown – and the Truckee River Walk with its galleries, cafes, and brewery. But don’t worry: Reno is still The Biggest Little City in the World, rife with the requisite prostitutes, crack houses, tattoo parlors, pawn shops and all the unsavory characters one would expect to find.

Yet, I discovered a younger, gentler, hipper Reno over Thanksgiving when I was in Truckee. Reno is trying to dial down its hard-core gambling, all-you-can-eat, come-all-ye-societal-fringe-dwellers rep. The most noticeable change is the gentrification underway along the South Virginia Street Corridor, the major north-south business artery. The street is paralleled to the east by a mix of decrepit and charmingly restored Victorian and Craftsman homes. Housing, Mark says, is ridiculously affordable.

I did a book signing over the holiday off South Virginia at a bustling new cheese shop, Wedge. A lovely addition to the area, Wedge has an excellent selection of domestic and imported cheese, as well as house-made sandwiches, specialty foods and primo charcuterie. Want a good, affordable bottle of wine, some soppressata, and a hunk of award-winning, Alpine-style cow’s milk cheese from Wisconsin? Wedge has it.

When Mark and I arrived at the shop, he commented on how much the area was changing, citing the soon-to-be-open wine bar, Picasso and Wine, next door. The employees cheerfully agreed that there were lots of exciting developments underway, but that “there’s a crack house just two doors down.” They weren’t joking, either. We were parked in front of it.renoClose to Wedge is Midtown Eats, an adorable, farmhouse-modern cafe, and Crème, a sweet breakfast spot specializing in crepes. Get lunch at popular soup-and-sandwich spot Süp, imbibe (and eat) at Brasserie St. James brewery, Craft Beer & Wine, and mixology geek faves Reno Public House, and Chapel Tavern (over 100 whiskeys on shelf!). Making dinner in your rental ski cabin or condo? Visit the Tahoe area’s only Whole Foods.

If you’re in need of some sweet street-style, hit Lulu’s Chic Boutique or Junkee Clothing Exchange. If it’s your home that’s in need of an inexpensive upgrade, Recycled Furniture is the place. As for those tats and street drugs? You’re on your own.

Future plans for the South Virginia Corridor include greater emphasis on facilitating more pedestrian-friendly walkways, public spaces featuring art installations, fountains, and benches, and street-scaping. Gentrification may not always be welcome, but for Reno, it’s the start of a whole new Big Little City.

[Photo credits: Reno, Flickr user coolmikeol; bike path, VisitmeinReno.com]