Five easy ways be a philanthropic traveler

philanthropic travelVoluntourism is the newest warm fuzzy of the travel industry. Under ideal circumstances, it’s a sustainable, experiential way to see the world and give back at the same time. Whether you’re helping to build a new school or clearing a trail, a working holiday is, for some, the best possible expenditure of disposable income.

But there’s the rub. Along with multitudinous other factors that make voluntourism a dicey concept, it doesn’t come cheap. Some organized volunteer holidays cost as much as a luxury vacation or adventure trip of the same length. That’s great if you can afford both the time and expense, but many of us don’t have that option.

The good news? You can still be a philanthropic traveler regardless of your income, physical ability, educational background, or destination. Below, five easy ways to make a difference on every trip.

1. Donate.
Clothing, shoes, school supplies, basic medical supplies (Neosporin, aspirin, antidiarrheals, bandages), food (fresh fruit and dry goods such as rice, flour, or beans are often good choices, depending upon where you’re traveling; avoid processed foods and candy).

In regard to donations, I’ve found it’s best to do a bit of research beforehand (even if it just involves talking to some fellow travelers or travel operators in the region, or locals). You don’t want to inadvertently cause offense or shame by giving freebies; on the other hand, don’t be put off if you’re asked to help if you can. Some reputable outfitters may request that clients donate any unwanted items of clothing at the trip’s end. These items significantly help local communities (especially children) or the families of contracted staff such as porters or cooks. Donating gently used clothing and shoes is also a greener way to travel.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Visions Service Adventures]philanthropic travelAsk–tour operators, guides, community leaders–before donating medical items, even if they’re OTC; ditto food. Guidebooks, travel articles, and local travel literature often note what items are in short supply in specific destinations.

For example, when I did a farmstay on a remote island on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, my guidebook suggested I bring fresh fruit for my host family, as residents could only purchase it on the mainland. The farm patriarch also let me know at the end of my visit that any clothing donations for his children would be greatly appreciated. Depending upon your cultural and/or economic background, such a request may appear brazen or appallingly rude. Coming from a humble man whose entire family had welcomed me into their single-room home, fed me, and treated me as one of their own (rather than just a fast source of income), it was a request I was only too happy to honor.

2.Volunteer…for free
Voluntourism is something you can do yourself, assuming you ask permission when appropriate, and act in accordance with local and cultural mores (Behave Yourself! The Essential Guide to International Etiquette is an entertaining and informative book I recommend for all travelers). Whether you pick up trash on a beach, offer to work reception at a locally-owned backpacker’s for a few hours or days, or teach useful foreign language phrases to children, you’re giving back to that community.

I realize how colonialist this may sound, but the fact is, English speakers are in great demand worldwide. Even in the most impoverished countries or regions, locals who speak English (or French, Italian, German, etc.), no matter how rudimentary, can find employment or offer their services as guides, taxi drivers, hostel employees, or translators. Fluency in a foreign language(s) gives them an advantage in a competitive market. Think about it. It’s never a bad thing to learn a language other than your own, no matter who you are, where you live, or how much money you make.
philanthropic travel
3. Buy local handicrafts and food
Just like shopping your farmers market back home, buying local supports a local economy, and usually eliminates the need for a middle-man. A bonus: many specific destinations all over the world are famed for their food, textiles, woodcarving, pottery, etc.. Every time I look at certain items in my home–no matter how inexpensive they may be—I’m reminded of the adventures and experiences that led to their purchase.

4. Immerse yourself
You don’t need to “go native,” but the best travel experiences usually entail a certain amount of surrender to a place or culture. Learn a few key phrases in the local language or dialect; treat the people–even if they’re urbanites in an industrialized nation–with respect and observe their rules or customs when appropriate; be a gracious traveler or guest. Your actions may not provide monetary or physical relief, but giving back isn’t always about what’s tangible.

5. Reduce your footprint.
It’s impossible not to have a carbon footprint, and as recreational travelers, that impact increases exponentially. But there’s no need to eradicate “frivolous” travel; indeed, experiencing other cultures and sharing our own helps foster tolerance and empathy. Rather, we should be mindful travelers, and do our best to conserve natural resources and preserve the integrity of the places we visit. Just as with camping, leave a place better than you found it. Even if the locals aren’t putting these philosophies into practice, there’s no reason you can’t.

[Photo credits: schoolchildren, Flickr user A.K.M.Ali hossain;vendor, Laurel Miller]

South Australian cattle station debuts tasting room

Australian cattle stationThere was a time when Wagyu beef was eaten by only the most sophisticated of travelers. True Kobe beef is from Wagyu cattle that are raised in a very specific manner in the Hyogo Prefecture of Japan. Technically, Wagyu is the Japanese term for all cattle, and Kobe beef comes from a strain known as Tajima.

Kobe Wagyu receive massages to reduce stress and muscle stiffness, a summer diet supplemented with beer as an appetite stimulant, and regular brush-downs with sake (which is reputed to soften their coats, not act as some bizarre form of on-the-hoof marinade). At anywhere from $200 to $300 a pound, Kobe beef is the most expensive in the world.

Wagyu have been raised in the U.S. since the mid-seventies, but the market really took off in the nineties. Today, it’s not unusual to find “Kobe” steaks and burgers on menus, but it’s a bit of marketing hyperbole. It’s actually “American Wagyu,” or “American Style Kobe,” or “Kobe American Style.” It’s still great meat, but it’s not Kobe beef, and most American Wagyu are crossbred with Angus cattle.

What has all this to do with a South Australian cattle station, you ask? Australia has its own burgeoning Wagyu industry, and in May I visited Mayura Station, a full-blood Wagyu operation just outside the Coonawara wine region. I’m a longtime advocate of the farm-to-fork concept, and Mayura produces some of Australia’s best Wagyu beef, supplying an impressive roster of restaurants in Melbourne and Sydney, Penfold’s Magill Estate in Adelaide, and the Ritz-Carlton Singapore. As it happened, I’d tried Wagyu for the first time the week prior at Penfold’s, and it was delicious. But it was also obscured in sauce, and I didn’t have a real sense of what the big deal was. I was a bit skeptical, to be honest, so I made the trek out to Mayura to find out more.

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Australian cattle station

Mayura is owned and operated by the entrepreneurial de Bruin family, who first brought over live, full-blood Wagyu from Japan in 1998. Today, they have a sustainable operation that produces award-winning beef from one of the largest (1,700 head of breeders) full-blood herds outside of Japan. Most of the meat is exported to Southeast Asia and the UAE, but their newest business concept is likely to create a larger domestic fan base.

In May, Mayura debuted its tasting room, a professional demonstration kitchen equipped with a long counter in front of the flattop range. Visitors from all over the world can now let their tastebuds discover why Wagyu is such a big deal.

Explains manager Scott de Bruin, “We felt there was a strong need for visitors and valued clients to experience various cooking styles from a simple tasting ($80AUD/pp), through to a full degustation paired with local wines ($120AUD/pp). The tasting room is a serious take on the “paddock-to-plate” concept, designed to mirror a state-of-the-art Teppanyaki bar.”

I visited Mayura as part of a Limestone Coast excursion for Tasting Australia. The country’s largest food and wine festival, it’s held in Adelaide every other year. While there’s an emphasis on South Australia, which produces most of the country’s wine in its 16 growing regions (including designations within), it’s generally a celebration of all things edible and Australian. For one hedonistic week, there are tastings, pairings, classes, tours, dinners, seminars, demos, and a riverside “Feast for the Senses” with dozens of food stalls.
Australian cattle station
En route to visit some wineries, a group of us had arranged to visit Mayura and do a vertical (head-to-tail) tasting. The tasting room accommodates 14 to 40 guests by appointment (self-drive required if you’re not with an organized group, so call well in advance to see if you can fit into an existing booking). All visits include a tour to visit the cattle, so guests can learn more about the breed, industry, and Mayura’s animal husbandry practices. You can even buy packaged beef on-site, for domestic travel.

We were greeted by de Bruin and on-site chef Kirby Shearing. Our group of 14 lined up in front of the place settings running down the length of the demo area. A huge overhead mirror provided a bird’s eye view of Shearing, as he showed us the various cuts of beef we would be tasting, in order: tongue, flank steak, filet, bresaola (thin slices of air-dried beef), and strip loin. Then de Bruin talked about Mayura’s history and the Australian Wagyu industry.

The reason Wagyu is so tender (not accounting for feeding practices, which includes extra finishing time on a blend of specific grains) is because the cattle have a higher percentage of marbling, due to selective breeding practices over thousands of years. Most of the fat is monounsaturated, the meat high in conjugated linoleic acid, and Omega-3 and -6 fatty acids. Wagyu beef actually has myriad health benefits similar to those found in grass-finished beef. It isn’t aged the way some American beef is, because the fat will break down. The fat also dissipates throughout the meat as it cooks, making it more forgiving to work with.

Japanese beef is graded on a scale of one to five (highest), based on marbling, yield, meat color, firmness and texture, and fat quality. Wagyu should be at least 25% marbled fat (by comparison, USDA Prime meat must have six- to eight-percent, and our grading system doesn’t include a classification for Wagyu). Thus, Japanese A-5 Wagyu is considered primo, top-of-the-line. It should be tender, with lustrous fat and a sweet, fine flavor, even when eaten raw, as with a carpaccio.
Australian cattle station
Shearing started us off with a tasting plate of tongue that had been brined and poached. It was silky and mild, practically melting in my mouth. Next came flash-seared cubes of flank, a lean cut that is usually marinated, and cut across the grain to make it more tender. Not this steak. It was unctuously fatty, in the best possible way. Buttery. Juicy. Addictive.

Filet is already a rich cut, so I was especially curious to see how Wagyu compared to Prime.
The meat fell away at the touch of Shearing’s knife, it was so tender. Absolutely delicious, but as with regular beef, I prefer a ribeye or New York steak, because they have more flavor and a bit of chew to them. The flank steak had a little more complexity to it.

The bresaola was made from eye of round, and my least favorite, only because I’m not a big fan of the preparation. But the strip loin that concluded our tasting was a unanimous hit. While Wagyu is undeniably more subtle in flavor than standard grain- or grass-finished beef, it was deeply flavorful, and just slightly toothsome. Yet it still retained that glorious, fat-infused richness. Paired with a side of Shearing’s crisp, airy onion rings (his secret weapon: adding gin to his beer batter).

Our visit concluded with a tour of the open barns where some of the cattle were being finished on grain. They’re pretty things: Stocky and chocolate brown, with short horns that slant upwards. I was duly impressed with the property we saw on the tour. As a food and agriculture writer, it’s easy to tell when you’re dealing with a facility not on top of its sanitation or animal husbandry practices.

So here’s the thing about Wagyu…or Kobe beef. It’s pricey as hell, but get the good stuff, and it’s so rich, you can’t eat more than a few ounces. I now understand why true Kobe beef, and the cattle it comes from, have such a reputation. A little Wagyu goes a long way.

Getting There

The Limestone Coast is located in the southeastern part of the state. It’s a diverse mix of remote beaches and sand dunes, pine forest, ancient caves (including Naracoorte World Heritage Fossil Site, worth a visit, especially if you go caving), and farmland and vineyards. The adorable seaside town of Robe, in particular, is a great place to spend a weekend and feast upon the crayfish (actually spiny lobster) the town is famous for.

Of the Limestone Coast’s six wine regions, Coonawara is the most famous (primarily for its Cabernet Sauvignon). It’s a one-hour flight from Adelaide to the pleasant town of Mt. Gambier, famed for its stunning Blue Lake, which is actually a volcanic crater. Mayura, which is located just outside the town of Millicent, is a thirty-minute drive away (you can rent a car at the airport). The Barn in Mt. Gambier makes a good overnight base for Wagyu- and wine-tasting excursions. Just in case you return still hankering for a ribeye and a glass of red, The Barn Steakhouse wine list has over 400 selections from the region. .

Qantas and the South Australia Tourism Commission are giving away unlimited flights for two from Los Angeles to Adelaide for one year, in a contest running through December 31st, 2010. To enter, visit unlimitedflightstoaustralia.com.

Tasting Australia 2012 will be held April 26-May 3.

Chiloe: Chilean Patagonia’s emerald islands offer eco- and agritourism

I can’t remember who first told me about Chiloe, but I do recall that it was just a few weeks before my first trip to Chilean Patagonia. For a year I’d been planning an itinerary around my personal Holy Grail: rafting the thunderous Futaleufu River.

Located across the Chacao Channel from the bustling town of Puerto Montt in northern Patagonia, Chiloe is a 41-island archipelago. The largest of these is Isla Grande (“Chiloe island”), at 3,241-square-miles the second-largest in South America, after Tierra del Fuego. In 2009, Chiloe was ranked #3 on Lonely Planet’s “Best Places to Visit,” so it’s no longer a secret, but its relatively isolated location, sleepy pace, and often-tempestuous maritime climate tend to appeal to more intrepid travelers.

Chiloe was originally inhabited by Mapuche, Chonos, and Cunco indians, until the Spanish arrived in the mid 1500′s. The blending of indigenous and Catholic beliefs gave birth to superstitions and mythological creatures like the troll-like Trauco. These fanciful beliefs and icons are still a popular part of Chilote culture.

Located in Chile’s Lakes District–a breathtaking palette of cobalt-blue glacial lakes, emerald fjords, snow-capped volcanoes, and native alerce forest–Chiloe’s rural way of life is a direct reflection of its fishing and farming economies. While many of the archipelago’s 130,00 residents still subsistence farm, a low-key brand of eco-tourism has been steadily increasing in the last decade.

Flocks of sheep, not cars, clog the (frequently unpaved) roads, and ox carts, horse, and donkey are the alternate forms of transportation. Milk cans sit at the head of rutted driveways, awaiting pick-up from the dairy co-op. Brightly-painted palafitos (shanty towns on stilts) resemble children’s blocks, and colorful, handcrafted wooden fishing boats dot the coast or repose onshore. Many of the 150 Jesuit-built, 19th century churches are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Miguel A. Gallardo]

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Many visitors choose to sea kayak or do live-aboard boat tours of the fjords and inlets of the archipelago, which is perhaps the best way to take in the spectacular scenery and surrounding views of mainland volcanoes. Land tours, however, provide a more intímate cultural experience, especially for those wanting to experience Chiloe’s nationally-famed cuisine.
Chilean Patagonia has a strong European influence due to German, Swiss, French, Welsh, and Yugoslavian immigrants that arrived in the mid-1800′s to establish small farmsteads, which is reflected in the hearty regional food. Many farmers still make their own cheese, jams, and charcuterie, and keep bees. As a result, agriturismos (farmstays) have grown in popularity the last 15 years, which supplements the island economy.

The mystery acquaintance who suggested I visit Chiloe told me to contact Britt Lewis and Sandra Echegaray, the husband-and-wife owners of Ancud-based Austral Adventures. Britt is from the States, while Sandra, a chef, grew up on a farm in Peru. She prepares all of Austral’s land-based meals from Chiloe-grown ingredients, including potatoes (which originated on the island, not Peru, a fact that Chilotes are understandably proud of), as well as mussels, clams, fish, sea urchin, lamb, cheese, orchard fruits, vegetables, honey, seaweed, and foraged native foods like murta, a wild berry used in jams and sauces.

Austral specializes in eco-tours aboard Cahuella, a 50-foot wooden boat. Their six-day live-aboard trips around the archipelago’s fjords, and four-day journeys along the northern fjords of Parque Pumalin (across the Golfo de Ancud) are considered “one of the five unique boat journeys in the world,” by the U.K. Guardian’s travel section. The couple also guide personally-tailored land tours that focus on Chiloe’s culture, food, wildlife (which includes whales and penguins) and outdoor activities such as hiking and paddling. Austral provides guides on all of its tours “to enhance the cultural exchanges.”

After corresponding with Sandra, I immediately rearranged my itinerary, carving out five days on Chiloe. She made a plan to take me around the main island, where we would stay at several of her favorite agriturismos, and attend a curanto. This beloved Chilote social event is a shellfish, potato flatbread, and meat bake believed to have been inspired by Polynesian luau (via Easter Island). The food is traditionally cooked in a pit covered with seaweed or the leaves of nalca, an indigenous plant related to rhubarb. No curanto is complete without Chilote music and dancing, copious amounts of red wine, chicha (fermented fruit cider, usually apple), and pisco sours. If you’re traveling solo or as a couple, and can’t find a curanto to attend, look for a restaurant that offers “pulmay,” or “curanto en olla (in a pot).” It’s not the same experience, but it will allow you to try the foods for which Chiloe is famous.

Chiloe is connected to the mainland by ramps that have been built in the channel to form a motorway. The easiest way to get there is to fly from Santiago to Puerto Montt (LAN is the country’s main international and domestic carrier, but other domestic airlines include Aerosur, Aerolineas Star Peru, and Taca) then take a bus. There are terminals in the main towns of Ancud (North island), the capital of Castro (East coast), and Quellon (end of the road on the southeastern coast), but you can get off in any of the villages en route. Ancud has two bus terminals. Cruz del Sur, the long distance operator, is convieniently located near the Plaza de Armas. The municipal terminal is on the outskirts of town.

It’s about a 54-mile bus ride from Puerto Montt’s bus terminal to Ancud. Chiloe operates on a much slower pace than the rest of the world, but Ancud is a fairly busy, pleasant place to unwind for a couple of days. There’s an indoor marketplace where you can find produce, artisan foods, and handwoven Chilote wool sweaters. I spent night at the charming Hostal Mundo Nuevo, a Swiss-run place right on the bay. For dining, Sandra and Britt recommended Mascaron de Proa (65-621-979, and Casamar (65-624-481). Unfortunately, I didn’t make it to either due to time constraint and getting sidetracked by a nameless empanaderia off the Plaza de Armas.

The day after my arrival, Sandra met me and we rattled off in her pick-up to Tenaun, a one-street, 19th century fishing village on the eastern coast. Seaweed is a major part of Chiloe’s economy, used for culinary, medicinal, and agricultural purposes, and I watched a farmer planting pelillo (agar agar, a species used in processed foods ) on the tidal flats. Mainly, I just wandered the quiet streets, snacking on buttery plum kuchen (coffeecake) and enjoying the solitude. Tenaun is known for its UNESCO-designated church, Iglesia de Tenaún, but the village is lovely: lots of apple orchards, beehives, beached fishing boats, flower-bedecked cottages, and old Mapuche men on donkeys. I stayed overnight at Familia Vásquez Montana (owned by aforementioned seaweed farmer Guido Vasquez, and his wife/cook, Mirella; reservations required, (09-647-6750). Since my visit, however, it has expanded from four to 25 beds, and operates more like a hostal than family home. You can catch a bus from Ancud or Castro to Tenaun three times daily (one-and-a-half hours, approximately).

The next day, Sandra took me to lunch at Maria Luisa Maldonado’s agriturismo (09-643-7046), outside of village San Antonio. The adorably fiesty octogenerian is one of the founding forces behind Chiloe’s agriturismo movement, as well as a hell of a cook. She has four guest rooms (seven beds in all) on her farm, which also operates as an informal dining room for overnight guests and pre-booked visitors. We joined Luisa’s son and young niece for a gratifying meal of her farmstead cheese; cazuela Chilote, a rich, flavorful stew of grass-fed veal and vegetables from the farm, raspberry juice from fruit picked that morning, and panqueques con manjar- crepes with Luisa’s own luscious, caramelized milk spread. Heaven.

Another popular agriturismo is Los Senderos de Chepu, in the wetlands area of Chepu, outisde of Ancud. Proprietor Enriqueta Carcamo is the current president of Chiloe’s Turismo Rural association; she and her husband, Fernando offer cheesemaking and other farm activities, horseback riding, and meals sourced from their farm.

My most memorable meal on Chiloe, however, came the day Sandra took me to the home of her friends, Hugo and Wanda Brenni. Hugo, who is Chileno, is the founder of Berkeley’s 35-year-old La Pena Cultural Center (oddly enough, I used to live just around the corner). He started La Pena while working as a cook in the Bay Area, “to create an awareness of solidarity” during Chile’s period of dictatorship.

Hugo prepared our lunch from ingredients grown and foraged on the property or purchased from neighboring farms. While he cooked, Wanda, who is from the States, told me, “What’s amazing about Chiloe is you can just walk down to the beach and collect as many shellfish as you can carry, get king crab from the kids on the corner, harvest wild berries. The local people are so traditional, the soil is so rich…there is always food. That’s the miracle of this place.” We sat down to a lunch of roast duck with a piquant salsa de murta, freshly-dug fingerling potatoes, a beet salad, and Wanda’s sourdough bread, cultured from wild yeast. Miraculous, indeed.

Potatoes in Chile Sauce

Recipe by Sandra Echegaray, Austral Adventures

serves 8

2 lbs. waxy new potatoes, such as Yukon gold, cut into ½-inch cubes
olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Drizzle potatoes with olive oil and seasoning, and roast in a pre-heated 350-degree oven until cooked through. While potatoes are roasting, prepare chile sauce.

Chile Sauce

1 medium yellow onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
¼ cup olive oil
1-1 ½ cup dry red wine
4 tablespoon tomato puree
4 ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1 teaspoon fresh oregano leaves, finely chopped
2 fresh red chilies, minced
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
finely chopped Italian parsley, for garnish

In a medium size pot, sauté onion and garlic two tablespoons of olive oil for until tender, approximately two minutes. Add chilies and cook until tender. Add tomato puree, salt, and pepper, and sauté two minutes, stirring constantly. Add fresh tomatoes, half of the wine, and oregano. Cover and simmer the mixture at low heat for ten minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the rest of the wine, and continue to cook at low heat for 10 more minutes.
Just before serving, add the warm roasted potatoes. Serve immediately, garnishing with parsley.

[Photo credit: church, Flickr user James Byrum]

Chilhowie, Virginia: farmhouses and…fine dining?

Although I write about food for a living, it takes a lot to get me to make a pilgramage to a restaurant. For me to fly from Seattle to the East Coast, and then drive across a state (staying at a campground down the road from a correctional facility, en route), I need more than just the promise of a great meal.

Town House, in the far corner of southwestern Virginia, is that sort of place. Six hours drive from Washington DC, the acclaimed restaurant is located on quiet Main Street in rural Chilhowie (pop. 1,827). Twenty miles from both the Tennessee and North Carolina borders, Chilhowie is pure Americana. Pastoral imagery abounds: dairy cows grazing in rolling pasture, dilapidated barns and silos, weathered buildings shedding peeling paint. There are shady groves, creeks, wineries, mountain biking and hiking trails (this is Appalachian Trail country) and sleepy little villages. It’s like an episode of “The Twilight Zone;” where you’re driving along, and bam! It’s 1930. I’m originally from the strip-malled badlands of Southern California, so it’s easy to see why this region appealed to me.

In addition to the Appalachian Trail, there’s the Virginia Creeper Trail, Hungry Mother State Park (do names get better than that?), great fly fishing, a flock of community theaters, galleries, and museums in nearby Marion, Abingdon, and Bristol. It’s an absolutely beautiful, little-known part of the U.S.. But certainly, Town House isn’t the only rural destination restaurant (Virginia also has The Inn at Little Washington, and The Barn at Blackberry Farm is just outside of Knoxville, two hours from Chilhowie). It is, however, a lot more rural than most non-urban, fine dining destination restaurants.

I don’t give a hang about eating at a place based on its hipster credentials, or because it’s on the checklist of self-proclaimed “foodies (a term that needs to be banished from existence, in my opinion).” A dinner at Town House gave me an opportunity to explore the Virginia countryside, but I was also curious to see how chef John Shields was pulling off a somewhat eccentric menu in such a remote location. I also loved that he and his wife/Town House pastry chef Karen Urie Shields–who aptly describes her desserts as “whimsical”–develop their ever-changing menu around seasonal ingredients that are foraged, or sourced from local family farms and food artisans.

Destination restaurants have always intrigued me. It’s hard for a meal to live up to the hype, but sometimes, it’s about the experience as a whole. An absence of atmosphere and sense of place can kill a meal, even if the food is divine. I’ve also had bad food transformed by the right dining companions (I’m recalling a remote Tuscan osteria I ended up having to hitchhike to. The food was godawful, but what would have otherwise been an abysmal, depressing experience was turned into a wonderful night by the arrival of ten boisterous Icelanders who invited me to join them). Still, given the time, expense, and effort required to dine at a destination restaurant, there’s a lot of pressure on the chef and staff to execute nothing less than a stellar performance.

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The majority of Town House diners come from Roanoke or Knoxville (Roanoke is also two hours away, and has a small airport), or DC. Others, like my boyfriend and I, make a road trip of it. We drove down from northern Virginia, turning the six-hour drive into a three-day camping trip, broken up by an overnight at Town House’s sister property, Riverstead (276-646-8787). The two-bedroom guesthouse (there is no staff on-site, if these things matter to you) is located on a 30-acre hay farm, four-and-a-half miles from the restaurant. The painstakingly restored, 1903 farmhouse is a draw itself, and blissfully free of gag-inducing accoutrements like dolls, frilly, Victorian-era decor, and cutesy signage.

Earlier this year, thirty-three-year-old John was named one of Food & Wine magazine’s “Best New Chefs,” and he participated in June’s Food & Wine Classic in Aspen (a three-day bacchanal of seminars, tastings, demos, and more tastings). Yet he’s been drawing crowds with his “inspired cuisine” since he filled the chef position at Town House in 2008. Prior to that, the restaurant had a humdrum menu that John has described as “from another era.” He and Karen, 32, credit farmers and producers on the menu, which, ironically, is a rarity in rural areas. As John, an intense young man (the skater shoes and slightly baggy jeans he wears with his chef’s jacket are nothing less than endearing), explained to me, “People often comment on how it must be hard to get good products, living out here. We respond by saying, ‘Where do you think big cities get their food from?’”

As for why they left the big city to try experimental cuisine in rural Virginia, John says, “We knew it would be a challenge, but we never wavered with the menu once we moved forward. We stuck to our guns, because we believed a true identity was what would make this restaurant stand out. Our staff and employers are passionate, as well, so the biggest challenge has been the lack of dining options for us on our nights off! We’ve been most surprised by the amazing reaction people have had to what we’re doing.”

The couple met in the kitchen at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, where John was sous chef, and Karen was pastry chef. In 2005, John became sous chef at Alinea (he credits chef/owner Grant Achatz as his mentor). In ’08, Trotter hired John to run his (since closed) Las Vegas restaurant. It was while waiting for that restaurant to open that the Shields’ decided they were ready for something more low key. A “chef wanted” ad at Town House kept popping up on Craigslist, so they went to Chilhowie (they were initially unable to locate it on a map) to meet with owners Tom and Kyra Bishop. The rest, as they say, is history.

My boyfriend and I arrived at Riverstead just as a thunderstorm hit, which was great, because the two-story farmhouse is my idea of a slice of heaven. The expansive front porch affords a view of pasture and the neighboring farm, and a short path leads down to the South Fork Holston River. Waiting for us inside were Karen’s chocolate chip cookies, a full kitchen stocked with coffee and tea, and a note directing us to the refrigerator. There, we found part of our pre-checkout breakfast: Mason jars of freshly-squeezed orange juice, Karen’s farro (emmer wheat) cereal with dried cherries, and two soft-boiled eggs. The kitchen itself is a dream: robin’s egg-blue walls, commercial-grade stainless appliances, weathered oak butcher block, and vintage cookware displayed on the matching shelves. The living room is a bit more genteel, with antique rugs and original oak floors, and a sofa by the fireplace.

Our sunny room took up half of the second story. Like the rest of the house, it’s a charming mix of old and new: gleaming white bathroom with stainless fixtures, wood paneling, retro-black-and-white tiled floor, clawfoot tub, glass-encased shower, and two vintage-style sinks. A nightstand beside the plush, king-sized bed held a bottle of wine, and a glass dome-covered cheese plate. I work in a cheese shop, so I was thrilled to see a farmstead selection from nearby Meadow Creek Dairy. Their award-winning Grayson is a sticky, stinky, Jersey milk washed-rind with a luscious, buttery interior. It was accompanied by Karen’s panforte, a dense, chewy, sweet similar to fruitcake.

To fire up our appetites, we headed down to the river for a stroll, before consulting Riverstead’s thoughtful “local activities and attractions” sheet. We headed up to the Appalachian Trail entrance at Elk Garden for a short hike, and then drove back down through the picturesque “town” of Wilkinson’s Mill, with its wooden swinging bridge, abandoned buildings, and old timey convenience store.

At last, it was time for our dinner reservation. A major plus of staying at Riverstead is that you can have a glass of wine or five during your meal, because round-trip transportation to Town House is included. The restaurant is located in a 100-year-old brick building that once housed a dry goods store. The interior, with its dark, polished wood floors, tables, and chairs, faux tin ceiling (actually cleverly-disguised sound-reducing tiles) and contemporary art fixtures blends local history with minimalist modern design. Diners can choose a one-to-three-course menu composed of a la carte items, a $58 set four-course, or the $110 ten-course tasting menu, which offers a choice of starter, main, and dessert. We decided on the four-course (a hell of a deal, I might add). Wine is separate, but you can request they be paired with your meal.

Not every dish worked for me. A “soup of cherries” with bronzed sardine, sweet and spicy ginger, tomato, and “almond bread” (more of a foam) was just too out there for my liking. On the other hand, “scrambled egg mousse ” with smoked steelhead roe, birch syrup, sweet spices, and preserved ramp was delicate, decadent, and beautifully executed- an orgy of flavors and textures. Peekytoe crab roasted in brown butter with lime, salt cod, vanilla, and sea grapes came with ethereal puffs of caramelized onion, and lamb shank cooked in ash, with black garlic marmalade, salsify, and burnt onion was deep, complex, and soulful. It was while savoring that dish that it clicked for me; how John’s food fit into the context of this tiny corner of Appalachia. Not all of the ingredients are local, or even domestic, but even when he’s using something high-end, like foie gras, there’s an earthy sensibility to his food that somehow makes sense in Chilhowie.

We ordered both of Karen’s desserts, because they sounded so poetically strange: Powdered chocolates with steamed yuzu sponge, bergamot, and an “aromatic” salad of herbs, and the unexpectedly lovely combination of strawberry ice cream with braised artichoke and pink peony sorbet. Before we headed back to Riverstead, Karen stopped by our table with a still-warm galette of shallots and goat cheese (from local Ziegenwald Dairy) for our breakfast. After her desserts, a tart seemed deceptively simple, although great pastry is anything but.

That galette is one of the most outstanding things I’ve ever eaten. Buttery, caramelly, comforting. It may seem strange that a homely tart and a soft-boiled egg eaten over a sink were the highlight of my trip, but that’s the thing about destination dining. At its best, the place and the food are a reflection of one another.

Karen’s Hot Breakfast Cereal
Unbelievably easy, delicious, and nourishing, this is my favorite new breakfast for fall.

Serves 2-3

1 cup Anson Mills farro piccolo (If you can’t find at your local grocery or speciality food store, you can purchase it online from the online Town House shop or Anson Mills)
4 cup water
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 teaspoon grade B maple syrup
1/3 cup toasted sunflower seeds
1 cup of your favorite berry or other fruit, or dried fruit

Combine the farro with the water and bring to a boil. Simmer for 20-30 minutes until most of the water is evaporated. Meanwhile, toast the sunflower seeds at 350 degrees, for 10 minutes. Season farro with cinnamon, salt, maple syrup, sunflower seeds, and fruit. Enjoy warm or chilled.

My trip was sponsored by the Virginia Tourism Corporation, but the opinions expressed in this article are 100% my own.

Peruvian adventure travel and agritourism on Lake Titicaca’s Isla Amantani

While I sat at the table with her young son, Ayun, I watched Imeliana Calcin stuff wood into the stove. Although she’d greeted me at the boat dock in a skirt and faded t-shirt, she’d changed as soon as we arrived at her family’s tiny adobe house. Now, clad in the intricately-embroidered white blouse and headscarf for which the women of Isla Amantani are famed, she was preparing sopa de quinoa for our lunch.

I was on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, the
unfortunately-named, highest commercially navigable lake in the world. Amantani, like neighboring Isla Taquile, is a small, natural island (not to be confused with the famous, totora reed “Floating Islands” elsewhere on the lake) populated solely by subsistence farmers like the Calcin’s.

Since the mid-eighties, agritourism has helped provide income to the islanders. Visitors stay in modest guest rooms, or share a dwelling with families, joining meals and even helping with seasonal crop harvests, if they so desire. The islanders hold frequent dances to provide visitors a chance to interact with the communities, and learn more about Amantani’s culture.

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Otherwise, there’s no other real tourism infrastructure on Amantani-no restaurants, bars, or shops, although the locals sell their embroidery at the dock. The farmstays are arranged by tour operators in the lakeside city of Puno, or through adventure travel agencies such Northern California’s Bio Bio Expeditions, the company I booked with.

The residents of Amantani and Taquile speak Quechua, the language used by various cultural groups throughout South America. The islanders, however, are more closely related to the Aymara people of the Altiplano of the Central Andes. The approximately 800 residents eke out an existence by growing quinoa, trigo (emmer wheat), corn, potatoes, and oca (a type of sweet potato); and raising sheep, chickens, pigs, alpacas, and cuy (guinea pigs, a typical indigenous dish throughout Peru). They make a mild, salty queso fresco from the milk of their cows, and sun-dry part of their potato crop to make chũno, which can be reconstituted in soups and stews for sustenance throughout the harsh winter.
I first heard about the island the previous year, while running Chilean Patagonia’s wild Futaleufu River on a Bio Bio trip.

I was really impressed by Bio Bio’s genuine regard for preserving the ecological and cultural integrity of their host countries. After learning of my interest in agritourism, Peruvian guide Piero Vellutino told me about Amantani, and suggested I visit the following summer, during the dry season. Piero-whose family is famed for their whitewater expeditions and first ascents- is National Peruvian Kayaking Champion, and an all-around badass. He and his wife, Patty, are also the Peruvian base outfitter for Bio Bio. Their company, Terra Explorer Peru, is based in Cusco, and together, the companies offer customized cultural extension trips such as cooking classes and market tours, because, Piero explains, “that’s what makes places special and distinct from one another. Water is the same everywhere.”

I booked a trip with Bio Bio to run the Apurimac River and walk the Inca Trail, then added two days on Amantani-which has excellent sea kayaking, and plenty of walking trails. Due to time constraint, I was unable to sea kayak, and instead opted to focus on food. That’s how I ended up in Imeliana’s kitchen (which also happened to be her famiy’s dining and living room, as well as bedroom). Ayun and I snacked on choclo, boiled native corn harvested that morning by his father, Esmael. When he’s not tending to his crops, Esmael can be found down by the boat dock selling blended fruit juices from a collapsible table. Entrepreneurial spirit is a necessity to support his and Imeliana’s six children, but they were genuinely sweet, gracious hosts who made me feel a part of the family.

The Calcin’s live in Colquercachi community, the largest on the tiny island. Through sign language and rudimentary Spanish on both our parts, Imeliana taught me how to prepare the soup, and described typical meals- primarily some type of grain-based soup or stew, rice and boiled potatoes, and corn. When lunch was served-brothy soup augmented with greens, potato, carrot, and onion, accompanied by fried queso fresco, and sliced cucumbers and tomatoes- several of the children straggled in from school to pick up their lunch. Imeliana portioned their meals onto aluminum plates, wrapped them in cloth, tying the ends into a handle, and sent them on their way with a dazzling smile. The meal concluded with muňa tea, a mint-like herb prized for it’s medicinal properties.

After lunch, I hiked to Pachatata, the highest point on the desolate, nine-kilometer island. I passed women harvesting potatoes in brick-red dirt fields, and men carrying sheaves of trigo upon their shoulders. At the “summit,” there is a small temple used for private rituals and feast days. Spread out beneath me in all directions lay terraced farm plots, divided by low rock walls. Far across the lake, the snow-covered Bolivian Andes were visible. Amantani is wild, and lonely, and emblematic of a way of life that-for better or for worse- has changed little in thousands of years. It’s not a luxury holiday, but it’s a rich experience that helps preserve a globally vanishing way of life.

If you visit Amantani or Taquile, it is appropriate to bring a house gift such as fresh fruit, which is difficult to find on the island, or staples such as rice, sugar, or flour. Donated clothing for the island’s children is also appreciated.

LAN offers flights from Lima to Juliaca, which shares an airport with Puno (one hour by minibus). Alternatively, you can take a coach from Arequipa or Cuzco (five and six hours, respectively). If you’re traveling alone to Puno by bus, be sure to book a trip that gets in at a reasonable hour. I ended up arriving at 4am, and the Puno bus station (or any bus station, really) isn’t somewhere you want to be, alone, at that hour.

Sopa de Quinoa
Quinoa has been cultivated in the Andes since approximately 3,000 BC. It has a mild, nutty flavor, and is a complete protein (meaning it has all the essential amino acids). Substitute it for couscous or rice in soups and salads, or as an accompaniment to meat or vegetarian dishes. This recipe is actually one I obtained from a dairy I visited in Ecuador; it differs from Imeliana’s in that it contains…dairy. But it’s so unbelievably delicious, especially when made with pasture-raised eggs, and good-quality milk, butter, and cheese, that I had to include it.

Recipe courtesy of chef Jose Maria Pumisacho, Hacienda Zuleta

Serves four

2 cups quinoa
6 cups water
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 scallions, white part only, sliced
1/3 cup heavy cream
½ cup of milk
yolks of two large eggs
½ cup of grated, semi-firm cheese that melts well, such as Gruyere
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Put water into a stockpot, and bring to a boil. Lower heat to a simmer, add quinoa, and cover the pot, stirring occasionally. Cook quinoa for approximately one- to one-and a half hours, or until the grains are soft.
While quinoa is cooking heat an eight-inch frying pan over medium heat, add butter, and when butter is melted, add onions and cook until transparent. When quinoa is ready, add onions and half of the milk to the quinoa and bring to a boil for five minutes, then reduce heat and let simmer.

While quinoa mixture is simmering, add egg yolks, the remaining milk, cream, and cheese in a blender, and process for one minute. Add this mixture to the soup right before serving, and stir it into the soup. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve immediately.