January is California Restaurant Month

california restaurantsAs a native Californian and longtime former Bay Area resident, I have to confess there’s no place like home when it comes to the American food/dining/wine scene (New Yorkers, feel free to sharpen your knives…).

California’s always been progressive when it comes to food and drink, from the early days of the vaqueros and Gold Rush-era San Francisco, right up to today’s never-ending parade of talented food artisans, chefs, farmers, and mixologists. It’s only fitting then, to feature a California Restaurant Month.

In January, the second annual statewide celebration is back and better than ever. Presented by Visit California, nearly 30 destinations across the Golden State are creating special restaurant week or month-long promotions and deals, including celebrity chef, prix fixe, and wine pairing dinners, and a series of “Dine and Drive Itineraries” that map out the culinary and scenic highlights of specific regions. Included are “Wine Country Fresh,” “Food Lover’s Classic Coast Drive: San Francisco to L.A.,” and “A Taste of San Diego.” Participating regions for events include cities and counties throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, Central Coast, and Northern and Southern California.

If you’re worried about the calories, California Restaurant Month also offers travel tips on where the best skiing, surfing, hiking, and other outdoor activities are to be found, regardless of your itinerary. And that’s the thing about California. As my dad always said, “What other state offers so much diversity?” Whether bagging peaks, scuba-diving, camping in the desert, or having a blow-out shopping spree is your thing, California’s got it.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Stuck in Customs]

Fine dining in Antwerp

fine dining in AntwerpFor such a small country, Belgium certainly has contributed to world cuisine. French fries, for example, are actually Belgian, making that whole “freedom fries” movement back in 2003 even stupider than it appeared. They also gave us Belgian waffles, although over here they’re called “Brussels waffles” after the capital. And let’s not forget about Belgian chocolate!

I’ve been exploring Antwerp, a wealthy city with hardworking inhabitants who like to splash out on fine food. Here are four restaurants worth a visit. Office casual attire is the rule here. Entrees range from about 15-25 euros ($20-28) except at Flamant Dining, where they’re a bit more.

My first night I dined at Brasserie Appelmans. This restaurant and absinthe bar only a few steps from the cathedral in the heart of historic Antwerp is popular with both tourists and locals. It’s strange to go from the Gothic spires and 17th century facades outside to modern minimalism inside. Through dim lighting you see a split-level plan with little décor besides mirrors, exposed brick and woodwork, and candlelit black tables.

For a starter I had an incredibly rich tomato soup with fresh cream and meatballs. It was almost filling enough for a main, but I managed a big bowl of Antwerp stew with veal prepared with Grimbergen Dubbel beer and served with thick-cut Belgian fries and salad of white cabbage, celery, and cherry tomatoes. After a long day’s walking and with the winter chill setting in for the evening, it certainly hit the spot.In keeping with the décor of the restaurant, the absinthe bar is dim and chic. It looks very popular and they had a large variety of absinthes but I didn’t partake. I can get absinthe at home in Spain and it’s not the thing to drink alone, certainly not alone in public. Both the restaurant and bar are busy by 7pm, as are many places here. Living in Spain I find Belgians to be early eaters!

Another fine restaurant is Felixpakhuis. Located next to the redeveloped docklands and the famous Mas Museum, it has a spacious and bright interior that gets quite loud as it fills up. Again bare wood and minimal decoration is the rule, although this time the colors are light instead of dark. For starters I ordered pumpkin soup with scallops followed by the Coc au vin. Both were well done and I appreciated the more casual atmosphere than you get in many high-end Belgian restaurants. While service was good at all the places in this post, the waitstaff at Felixpakhuis were the friendliest and quickest of them all. Make this your stop after seeing the Mas.

For those seeking the high end, try Flamant Dining, a restaurant on the first floor of the equally exclusive Les Nuits hotel. This is not a place you’ll stumble upon; locals have to tell you about it. It has a more intimate feel than the others, with a roaring fireplace and fine but minimal décor. I started with crispy goat cheese in a pig’s cheek spring roll with sweet red onion cream. For the main I had Australian filet pur grain fed with a pepper sauce, green salad, and Pont Neuf potatoes. Both were cooked to perfection, the pig’s cheek dissolving sweetly in my mouth. I found the pepper sauce a bit strong and overbearing on the excellent filet, but scraping a bit off solved this.

Another well-known and popular place is the Dome, which is a restaurant, a bistro, and bakery all within sight of each other. I had lunch at the bistro, a less formal and quicker option than the actual restaurant. A long aquarium took up one wall and windows took up much of the rest of the space, so between the fish and the Art Nouveau mansions outside I had plenty to look at during my meal. The chef brought out a series of small portions, including mackerel with mustard vinegar, scallops with pumpkin sauce and salad, spicy calamari (perhaps too spicy for some), and swordfish a la plancha with butter sauce. I’m a land lubber and rarely order seafood, yet I thoroughly enjoyed and finished everything. The restaurant, where you eat under a large neoclassical dome, is more formal and is hugely popular with the locals. The bread from the bakery is excellent.

The only criticism I have of Belgian cuisine from my limited experience on two trips to the country is that it’s too heavy. My appetizers were always too filling, yet too tasty not to finish. I saw very few small or light appetizers listed on menus, and when the hearty main course was set before me, all thoughts of dessert disappeared. Considering that many desserts included Belgian chocolate, this shows just how stuffed I was!

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Masterpieces in Silver!

This trip was partially funded by Tourism Antwerp and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.

Dropping the F-bomb: why “foodie” needs to go away

foodieLife used to be so easy. You ate to live. Then, man discovered fire and realized mastodon tastes a lot better with a nice sear on it. Around 500,000 years later, Homo foodieus evolved, and now it’s impossible to go out to eat without camera flashes going off at the tables around you.

Mercifully, there’s a Foodie Backlash taking root in America, and I feel the time is ripe (Did you see how I tossed two food puns into that sentence? Annoying, isn’t it?) to go public with my loathing for this odious word and the obnoxious behavior that too often goes with it.

I realize I’m setting myself up here. I’m a food journalist. Don’t I perpetuate all of this silliness, getting readers in a lather over the Next Big Food Thing? Don’t I eat at nice restaurants and drink expensive wine? Well, yes. And, no (and to that latter hypothetical question, less often that you’d think in this economy).

I like to think that through (most of) my work, I promote importance of understanding where food comes from, and urging localized food security. I’m concerned about protecting the environment, public health, and genetic diversity in plants and livestock; conserving natural resources, and finding more humane ways to raise and slaughter livestock.

Does that make me the culinary equivalent of Mother Theresa, or absolve me of my written transgressions that are less pure in culinary intent? Hell no; I can be a hedonist, too. But I’m trying to make a point here. I realize that my bordering-on-obsessive hatred of “foodie” is really about the culture it’s perpetuating. That said, the word itself is infantile, idiotic, and meaningless, and makes me want to poke my eyes out with a larding needle. Can’t people just say they love food?

My biggest issue with foodie as a concept is that it’s detrimental to the remarkable, burgeoning food culture we’ve finally achieved in the United States. In a mere 100 years, we went from agrarian society to culinary wasteland to possessing identifiable food regions. We established a world-class artisan food, sustainable agriculture, and fine dining scene in certain parts of the country.

What went wrong? We paid $200 (for a bottle of estate olive oil), and instead of passing “Go,” we became a cult of food elitists. It’s the antithesis of why many of us got into the food business in the first place. Yes, care about what you eat, but food shouldn’t have a sense of entitlement attached to it.

Do you really need to be on a first name basis with the person who sells you fava beans? It’s a wonderful thing to develop a relationship with local growers but the posturing and farmer name-dropping one-upmanship I’ve witnessed while working at farmers markets in recent years is over the top. Real supporters of sustainable agriculture–of real food–don’t go trolling for discounts or freebies, because they understand just how hard farmers work for a living.

In a perfect world, everyone should have access to fresh, wholesome, local, delicious food, especially children. Thanks to the good work of organizations like the Chez Panisse Foundation and the increasing number of school lunch programs, community gardens, and other food security initiatives across the country, this isn’t an impossible goal for Americans to achieve, nor is tackling our obesity epidemic in a one-two punch.

I’m not saying it’s wrong to spend disposable income, if you have it, on costly ingredients or dining out. But the fetishizing of food, the pissing contest that is the hallmark of the archetypal foodie is what I cannot abide. This is what’s at the heart of foodieism; the need to belong to a special club, with a language all its own. In our status-obsessed society, we need to separate ourselves from the plebes who think that the Olive Garden is serving “Italian” food.

Eating well (not necessarily synonymous with eating “expensively”) is one of the greatest pleasures in life, and cooking for other people and joining them at the table sustains us in ways that go beyond filling our stomachs. Every food lover (see? doesn’t sound so bad, does it?) has a deep, fundamental reason for why they’re so moved by the act of eating.

foodie
For me, it’s the cultural aspects of food, its intrinsic relationship to travel, as well as the people who grow, forage, raise, catch, and make food on a small, sustainable scale that I find captivating. These are things that I was fortunate enough to experience in childhood, and they made an indelible impression on me, as well as fostered my culinary career.

Good food–be it a ripe peach, a great street taco, or a lavish, multi-course meal–brings me joy. For what it’s worth, however, my parents aren’t “food people.” I grew up on a ranch, but I also ate a lot of frozen vegetables and TV dinners, because my mom had two kids to raise, dislikes cooking, and for her, the ’70’s with its advent of guiltless convenience foods was a godsend.

There’s also the bad manners perpetuated by foodie culture. On what planet is it okay to “just pop into the kitchen” during a packed dinner service to talk to the chef…especially when s/he’s a total stranger? Yet my boyfriend and I witnessed this scenario, while dining at a certain famous restaurant.

After three hours of listening to the ten-top beside us discourse on the merits of Brittany sea salt purchased at the source versus approximately 12 other kinds of hand-harvested salt, we were ready to clobber them. Look, if you want to spend your money on that shit and then have a debate about it, that’s your perogative. Just don’t hold a small, intimate restaurant as captive audience. Few things are more deadly boring than foodies in a feeding frenzy.

We watched their lengthy progression of courses congeal and grow cold as they scurried around the table snapping food porn. At meal’s end, the ringleader hopped up and made her foray into the kitchen. And, because it was a small, intimate restaurant and my boyfriend and I were seated nearby, we heard the following words come out of the mouth of the extremely irate sous chef who blocked her path: “Lady, we’re in the middle of fucking service. Get the hell out of here!”

Cue applause meter.
foodie
Foodies should also remember that while home cooking, traveling, and dining out most certainly give you an education about food, they don’t, in most cases, make you an expert. Yelp serves a purpose, to be sure, but it’s often a means of settling a score or self-promoting. Or, in the case of food blog reviews written by foodies (as opposed to, say, writers with actual journalism and culinary credentials, both) a way to say, “I’m a food writer too!” One food blogger I stumbled across while researching this story had written on a recent post, “I think [foodie] is a very serious title. It’s like calling yourself a writer or an artist. It means you have to have the knowledge, talent and experience to back it up.”

Um, please get over yourself. Knowing about food, winning a Pulitzer, being the greatest chef on earth…at the end of the day, it’s just effing food. Not the cure for cancer or achieving world peace.

I think esteemed food writer and author Amanda Hesser said it best when she was quoted in a Chicago Tribune article last year: “Having more people interested in good food is never a bad thing,” she said, but what she can’t abide is eating dinner with people who “only want to talk about food and every place where they ate, like, doughnuts or something, and where the best doughnuts are secretly found. Knowing a lot about food culture is a good thing. That cataloguing of food experience is becoming tiresome. I’m pro-food experts. I’m just not so sure I want to have dinner with them or have them judge me on the coffee I drink.”

Amen.

[Photo credits: mushroom cloud, Flickr user Juampe López, poster, Flicker user Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com]

A rural ride through Oxfordshire

Oxfordshire, Coxwell
Yesterday was my birthday, and now that I’m halfway to 84 I figured the best way to spend it was with other decaying leftovers from ages past. I mean medieval buildings, not my travel companions.

Oxfordshire offers plenty of hikes, historic buildings, and good restaurants. To celebrate my increasing decrepitude, some friends drove my wife and I from Oxford to the nearby village of Great Coxwell to see a rare survival from the Middle Ages–the Great Coxwell Barn. While there’s no shortage of medieval churches and castles still standing in England, there aren’t many well-preserved medieval barns. This one was owned by the Cistercian Beaulieu Abbey and was built around 1300 AD. It was part of a grange (farm) owned by the abbey and worked by lay brothers and servants. The barn stored the produce of the grange as well as the tithe of the parish farmers.

The exterior looks remarkably churchlike, while the interior is a vast open space with a slate roof supported by an impressive system of wooden posts, beams and rafters, all connected by pegs or slots and tabs. Metal was expensive back then, and not a single nail was used in the construction of this massive roof.

%Gallery-130852%Great Coxwell also has a small church that’s about a hundred years older than the barn. It’s just up the hill in the middle of a churchyard filled with moss-covered gravestones that centuries of weathering have pushed over into crazy angles. Just the thing to see on your birthday! On a happier note the churchyard is a managed wildlife area with a colorful variety of wildflowers. These folks are pushing up more than just daisies.

The church has been much restored but has some interesting early inscriptions and a tiny winding passageway behind the pulpit that I could barely squeeze into. Sadly it led around a single turn and straight into a wall made of rubble and mortar. My mind conjured up all sorts of legends and ghostly walled-up monks, but the more likely explanation for this barrier is that it’s to keep nosy visitors from going up the steps.

For lunch we visited The White Hart in Fyfield. This restaurant/pub (called a “gastropub” over here) is in the old Hospital of St. John the Baptist, built in the mid-to-late 1400s. The “hospital” was actually an almshouse, housing five poor people as well as a priest whose job it was to say masses for the benefactor. We ate in the main hall beneath old wooden beams. Beyond the bar was a huge medieval fireplace.

The food was as good as the atmosphere. Many of the ingredients are locally sourced, some from as close as their own garden. I had the slow-roasted belly of Kelmscott pork, apple, celeriac puree, carrots, crackling, and cider jus. Utterly delicious. For dessert I had a roast peach with raspberry sorbet, topped with a spider’s web of spun sugary something. Sorry, I’m not a foodie writer, just trust me that it was good. My companions’ meals looked equally good and we washed it down with real ale from the Loose Cannon Brewery from nearby Abingdon.

Not a bad way to grow older!

The number 66 bus runs regularly between Oxford and Fyfield. This bus stops at Faringdon, where you can take the number 61 to Great Coxwell.

Hiking through Spain’s Basque region

Basque
Most tourists who visit Spain stick to the central and southern parts of the country–Madrid, Granada, Seville, Barcelona, and the Costa del Sol. They generally skip the greener, more temperate north. If they head north at all, it’s to stop in Bilbao in Spain’s Basque region to see the Guggenheim.

Yet the Basque region has much more to offer. In Spain, it’s an Autonomous Community, something more than a province and less than a country. The Basques have never had their own nation but have a fierce sense of independence. With a distinctive culture and unique language, as well as a deep history and beautiful landscape, the Basque region rewards those who want to see more than the usual Spanish sights.

I’ve joined Country Walkers to hike through Spain’s Basque region and even pop into the Basque region of France. Every day I’ll be hiking through a different part of this varied landscape, meeting farmers, priests, chefs, and historians, while sampling the local cuisine. That’s the sort of tour Country Walkers offers: hikes every day, and then plenty of local cuisine and wine to get rid of the bad effects of all that unnecessary exercise.

%Gallery-123934%The first day’s hike starts at Retes de Llanteno, a village so small it doesn’t even have a bar. Anyone who has been to rural Europe knows exactly how small that is. It does have a lovely little church, however, with a bell tower covered in curling vines. As we unload our gear an old man standing by the road asks Josu, one of our Basque guides, where we’re headed.

“The Tower of Quejana,” he says. “We’re taking the old mule track.”

The old man looks surprised. Nobody uses that track anymore, and in fact Josu had to go along the trail a month ago and hack away the vines.

“My father used to use that track,” the old man remembers.

Josu explains to us that mule tracks used to connect villages, but in the age of the automobile that intimate connection has been lost. People are more likely to drive to the nearest big city than visit the next village over. He’s reopening the tracks in the hope of restoring that connection, as well as attracting hikers.

The rains and rich soil have covered up most traces of his work. We duck under branches and trip over creepers. The woman in front of me stumbles, sending a thorny branch thwapping into my face, then she slips and undercuts my feet. We both end up in the mud. I pick myself up and start to remove ticks.

Soon we’re through the woods and climbing up a steep, open field under a blue sky. The contrast with the dark, damp forest couldn’t be greater. We keep climbing, up and up, until we reach a high promontory with a sweeping view of the valley below in three directions. We’re only ten miles from the sea, and I think I can detect a salty tang to the cool breeze.

This was a Celtic hill fort during the Iron Age, before the Romans conquered the region. A double set of walls protected perhaps 300 people, and its position ensured a good view over the entire region. Forts like this are found on hilltops all over Europe. I visited a Pictish hill fort very much like it in Scotland.

“See that far mountain peak?” Josu says as he points to a distant summit, “That’s Anboto, a mountain sacred to Mari. She’s an old goddess who’s very popular with the Basques.”

The Basques may still honor an ancient goddess, but they’re good Catholics too, as we discover when we explore the hilltop. Little porcelain figures of the baby Jesus and Mary are preserved under glass bowls, left as offerings by devout hikers.

Another mile or so over rolling hills and we come to Josu’s home, where his wife Begonia has prepared a huge lunch of local cheeses, chorizo, freshly baked bread, and vegetables. There’s also a generous amount of txakoli, a sparkling white wine for which the Basque region is famous. Light and refreshing, it’s a good wine to drink while taking a break from a hike.

“People talk about the slow food movement, with all the ingredients coming from local sources,” Josu says with a shrug. “We just call that Basque food.”

This is hardly unique to the Basque region. One of the joys of traveling in Spain is trying out all the local specialties. Village butchers often have game shot the day before, restaurants in small towns serve vegetables taken from the back garden, and every region seems to have its own wine.

Stuffed and a bit buzzed, we put on our packs and head out to our goal–the medieval convent and fortress of Quejana. It was built by Pedro López de Ayala in the 14th century. He ruled the local area with an iron hand, and became famous as one of the pioneers of the Spanish language when he wrote some of the first poetry in the language. He also wrote a veterinary manual for birds and was an adviser to both Castilian and French kings. The alabaster tombs of he and his relations grace the interior of the chapel, and a soaring church with a grandiose gilt altar stands close by.

A climb up the tower that defended these lands gives a good view of the surrounding countryside. The green hills and thick forests are so unlike the common picture of Spain. The tower gives some insight into more recent Spanish politics too. During the 1970s the tower was crumbling. The government was still ruled by General Franco, the Fascist dictator who was the victor of the Spanish Civil War. Franco showed a rather medieval attitude to the Basques and is the cause of many of the political tensions today. He gave money for the tower to be restored, but the top part was rebuilt not as it would have looked when Pedro lived there. Instead, it was rebuilt to look like a Castilian tower.

In this part of Europe, you can’t get away from politics even at a historic site.

This is the first in a new series: Beyond Bilbao: Hiking through the Basque region.

This trip was sponsored by Country Walkers. The views expressed in this series, however, are entirely my own.