Gusta: your online community for food events, worldwide

food eventsWhat happens when two former food-loving Airbnb.com employees get together and create a company? You get Gusta, an online global community of chefs, venues, food enthusiasts, and events.

Founders Chris Collins and Carly Chamberlain wanted an outlet for world and armchair travelers to find out about food events and dining locales in specific regions, and enable them to purchase tickets or make reservations directly from their site.

How it works: industry peeps go to Gusta and post events for supper clubs, food tours, food trucks, cheese shops, wine bars, cooking classes, pop-up and traditional restaurants, food festivals, event spaces, or any other creative food endeavors. You go to Gusta, create a free account, select your city of choice, and see what’s going on when you’re in town.

Just looking for a great meal? Use Gusta to find, review, and book dining experiences in your home city and when you travel. Want to automatically receive a $10 coupon for any one event posted on Gusta? Click here. Happy holidays!

Tasting gourmet Dutch cheese in Amsterdam

Dutch cheese
I’m addicted to it. Every time I’m in Amsterdam the first thing I do is get some to satisfy my craving. I couldn’t think of a trip to Amsterdam without it. Yeah, you know what I mean.

Eating Dutch cheese!

I’ve always wondered why some countries get famous for certain foods. Why is Belgian chocolate so great? Why do the Dutch make such fine cheese? Why aren’t the Dutch the chocolate experts and the Belgians famous for cheese?

While in Amsterdam I went to a Dutch cheese tasting at the Reypenaer Cheese Tasting Rooms, the shop and showroom of one of the nation’s leading cheese manufacturers. They hold hour-long cheese tasting classes most days, where you get to taste a variety of cheeses and learn about the process of making them.

This class will teach you all you need to know to be a bore at cocktail parties. For example, most of us know that aged cheese is more flavorful, but why is that? As cheese ages it loses moisture, and moisture dilutes taste. As cheese ages, calcium and salt will form crunchy little white crystals called cheese crystals. This is a sign of maturity in a cheese. Very large crystals are a sign of well-aged cheese.

Some cheese has holes in it. This is caused by gas produced by bacteria. One would think that flatulent germs would be a bad thing, but as anyone who has eaten holey cheese knows, it has a sweet flavor that’s quite pleasant.

Local conditions affect the flavor, and this is one of the reasons The Netherlands is one of the leaders in the cheese industry. Warmth and humidity makes cheese mature more quickly. The Dutch region of Beemster is considered one of the best regions for cheese because its between to stretches of water.

The grass the cows, sheep, or goats eat is also a factor. For example, some cheese is only made with milk produced from animals eating grass in springtime because this is the richest and most lush grass of the year. Weather conditions affect dairy farmers almost as much as they do crop farmers. The rainy dutch weather ensures rich grass most years. England and Ireland have lots of rainfall too, and so it’s no surprise they have some excellent cheeses.

When tasting cheese, slice it thin as that allows for more oxygen. Drink some water between each sample to cleanse your palate. It’s best to sample both with and without wine. During the tastings we tried different wines and ports with different cheeses. I found that the flavor of all but the most mature cheeses was drowned out by the strong flavor of port. Lighter wines allow for the flavor of the cheese to come through, and the right combination of wine and cheese improves the taste of both.

The cheese tasting class was a great way to spend a rainy Dutch afternoon, and of course everyone ended up buying something in the shop! So if you’re at a loss for something to do while waiting for Amsterdam’s nightlife to kick in, stop by and learn something about Dutch cheese.

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

Coming up next: Down-home cooking in Amsterdam!

This trip was partially funded by Amsterdam’s Tourism and Congress Bureau and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.

October is American Cheese Month!

cheeseIt’s amazing it took this long, what with national hot dog month, ice cream month, and clogged artery month (okay, I made that one up), but now we have a new reason to check in with our cardiologists.

The American Cheese Society ACS) has announced the launch of American Cheese Month, an annual celebration of America’s artisan, farmstead, and specialty cheeses, and the farmers, cheesemakers, distributors, retailers, cheesemongers, chefs, and educators who make up this growing community. And I joke about cardiologists; cheese consumed in moderation is an excellent source of protein, calcium, phosphorous, and vitamins B12 and D, and an important part of maintaining bone and dental health.

American Cheese Month will be held annually each October, with special events, farm tours, and promotions in cities across the country. The goal of the month-long celebration is to raise awareness about the quality and diversity of American cheeses (from the milk of cows, goats, sheep; even water buffalo), as well as to increase support for family farms, traditional cheese production methods, and sustainable production and farming methods. Proceeds from select American Cheese Month events will support the American Cheese Education Foundation.

In the last decade, North American artisan cheesemakers have become serious contenders with those in Europe, and the excellence of American artisan cheeses is now recognized worldwide. The American public’s passion for cheese is also booming, as evidenced by the increase in cheese shops, books (Shameless self-promo moment: I’m currently co-authoring Cheese for Dummies in collaboration with Culture: the word on cheese magazine and its co-founder Lassa Skinner. It will be out in March, 2012) classes, workshops, and festivals.

ACS will kick off American Cheese Month in its home base of Denver, at the Brewers Association’s 30th Annual Great American Beer Festival (sold out, alas). Beer and cheese pairing is the hottest thing going in both industries, so look for more cross-promo events in the coming year. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper has shown his support by issuing a proclamation declaring October as American Cheese Month in the state (which has its own growing–and impressive–artisan cheese scene).

For listings of national and local events, go to the American Cheese Society site. Cheese lovers can also network on the American Cheese Month Facebook page and on Twitter (#AmCheeseMonth, @CheeseSociety).

[Photo credit: Flickr user ex_magician]

How to Understand Cheeses with Dean Max McCalman at Artisanal

Boulder’s favorite outdoorsy chefs describe their perfect day in “Sliced and Diced” guide

Boulder's best chefsBoulder, Colorado, is an anomaly when it comes to the complicated relationship between mountain towns and great food. Whether it’s a slice of pizza or a charcuterie plate; a well-crafted cocktail, or just a damn good cup of coffee, it’s generally hard to find quality ingredients and skilled artisans, chefs, and cooks to produce them in enticing high-altitude settings. Ski towns are a prime example: who wants to work on an epic powder day? Fortunately, Boulder is setting the bar on combining the two aesthetics, thanks to its “Sliced and Diced” guide.

As I mentioned in a post last week, Boulder takes its outdoor pursuits and sustainability seriously. The city boasts one of the highest concentrations of tri-athletes in the nation, and is famed for its hiking, climbing, biking, kayaking, backcountry sports, fly fishing, and mountaineering. It also has the highest number of yoga classes, physical therapists, massage specialists, and top bike fit specialists per capita than anywhere else in the world. This might explain why some people are a bit…irked by Boulder, and even I tend to feel self-conscious about my resting metabolic rate when I’m in town (and I used to live there).

Now, the city’s most talented chefs–some of them competitive/former athletes themselves–share their ideas of a perfect day in Boulder in the “Sliced and Diced” guide, which is available online, at area hotels, and the Boulder Visitors Center kiosk at 1301 Pearl Street (on the pedestrian mall).

Unsurprisingly, the guide’s focus is on Boulder’s edible and outdoor charms. It’s not unusual for ski town chefs to be avid outdoor enthusiasts, as I’ve discovered from living, working, and attending culinary school in the Rockies and Sierras. Until I moved to Boulder, however, I’d never met entire restaurant staffs comprised of pro-climbers, tri-athletes, competitive cyclists, and ultra-runners. How they find the time and energy for both are a mystery to me, but I admire the hell out of them.

Since my first visit to Boulder in 1995, the food scene has changed dramatically. In the last couple of years, sourcing from local or regional family farms and food artisans whenever possible (remember, this is Colorado, where there’s a short growing season) has become an integral part of the Boulder dining scene. Where five years ago only a few estaurants featured product from family farms, now there are dozens of eateries and shops featuring local, usually sustainable, product.Boulder chefs, outdoorsThere are excellent farmstead goat, sheep, and cow’s milk cheeses from the region. You’ll find farm dinners, grass-finished beef, dozens of coffee houses, and locally-roasted beans. The growing number of acclaimed craft breweries and distilleries makes for a white-hot beverage scene. If you care about excellent beer, wine, or well-crafted cocktails, don’t miss the Bitter Bar, Upstairs, Frasca, or Oak at Fourteenth (which will reopen soon, following a fire). If that doesn’t convince you that Boulder’s become a serious drinking town, it’s also home to five of Colorado’s ten Master Sommeliers (there are only 112 in the U.S.).

Some “Sliced and Diced” contributors include former Food & Wine Best New Chef/James Beard winner Lachlan MacKinnon-Patterson of Frasca (which he co-owns with Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey–himself a former pro-cyclist and active marathoner). The two recently opened an adorable Italian pastry, panini, and espresso bar, il caffe (don’t skip the housemade pastries, baked fresh throughout the day), and the excellent Pizzeria Locale.

There’s also chef/farmer Eric Skokan of the charming Black Cat Farm Table Bistro. When he’s not cooking, he’s riding his tractor so he can supply his restaurant and CSA-members with produce from Black Cat Farm. Boulder’s food scene, while still nascent, is most definitely blowing–and growing–up.

“Sliced and Diced” contributor/chef Hugo Matheson of The Kitchen helped launch Boulder’s communal dining and green restaurant design/business ethos trend when his seasonally-inflected restaurant opened in 2003. Now known as a community bistro, Matheson and his partners have spawned two spin-offs. There’s Upstairs, a community wine, beer, and cocktail lounge (the bar menu includes affordable small plates, and incredible Happy Hour deals), while Next Door, a community pub, opened in mid-June.
Boulder chefs, outdoors
The Boulder Farmers Market is, I believe, one of the finest in the nation. Saturdays, April through November, it’s where everyone–locals, students, tourists, tech entrepreneurs, chefs, climbers, cyclists, hippies–goes to shop and socialize–usually before heading off for a run, peddle, paddle, or hike.

And that’s the thing about Boulder. It may take its fitness a little too seriously, but it’s hard to mind when the soul of the community is so intertwined with the pursuit of good things to eat and drink and enjoying the outdoors. Now, thanks to “Sliced and Diced,” you can, too.

Ten great food co-ops in the western U.S.

food co-opsIf the concept of food cooperatives conjures up images of burning bras and withered, wormy produce, hear me out. The times they have a’changed, and today’s co-ops (about 500 nationwide) can be the hometown equivalent of a certain high-end, multi-billion-dollar, national green grocery chain. As with farmers markets, all are not created equal, but when you hit upon a good one, it’s easy to see why they’re such community hubs.

One of the defining principles of many co-ops is their commitment to purchase produce, meat (if they’re not vegetarian stores), and dairy as direct as possible, often from local farmers. By shopping there, you’re promoting food security and supporting the community. Most co-ops are also open to non-members.

Great product aside, I love checking out co-ops because they give me a sense of place. I learn about what foods are indigenous to or cultivated in the region, and usually, who grows them (I have a particular weakness for hand-lettered signs informing me I’m purchasing “Farmer Bob’s Pixie tangerines,” or blackberry honey from an enterprising 10-year-old’s backyard hives).

No matter how well-intentioned, not everything in even the best co-op is regional, as it depends upon what grows in that area, and the time of year. But the best co-ops have a high proportion of local products, and I award bonus for a truly appetizing deli (no tempeh loaf, please), bakery, and an espresso bar. When I’m on the road, dropping under five bucks for a delicious breakfast (steel-cut oatmeal, polenta, or ethereal scones, perhaps) and a well-made latte with locally-roasted beans always makes me happy. With a good co-op, that’s often possible.

Below, some of my favorite food co-ops in the western U.S.:

1. Ashland Food Co-op, Oregon
Located just over the California border in the Rogue River Valley, Ashland is famous for its Shakespeare Festival. It also deserves props for the co-op, with its selection of carefully curated local produce, deli, espresso bar, and delicious baked goods. Hippie haters may cringe at the earnestness of the patrons, but grab a seat on the patio, and enjoy the show. The surrounding Railroad District neighborhood boasts galleries, artist studios, shops, and restaurants.

[Photo credit: Kootenay Co-op, Flickr user donkeycart]

food co-ops2. Rainbow Grocery, San Francisco
This beloved collective draws customers seeking out some of the most impeccable produce, dairy, and specialty foods in the nation–all grown or made nearby. Look for goat cheese from Harley Farms, seasonal Gravenstein apples from Sebastopol, and honey from the bulk tank.

3. Boise Co-op, Idaho
I stumbled upon this co-op while exploring Boise, and fell in love. Idaho doesn’t usually conjure images of pristine produce aside from potatoes, but this bustling store is packed with beautiful local product, a deli, and an impressive housewares department. Located in a pleasant quasi-residential neighborhood walking distance from the downtown core.

4. Ocean Beach People’s Organic Foods Market, San Diego
It’s all about produce at this large, contemporary collective, especially citrus. But be sure to pick up a sandwich or some picnic items from the deli/bakery; the beach is just a few blocks away. Confession: I got a job here as a recent college grad, and it’s a tribute to my former boss, Trent (then and still the produce manager) that I found a career in food and sustainable agriculture. I was living in my car and going through a severe quarter-life crisis at the time, and by the end of my first day working with him, it was as though a light (energy-saving, of course) had switched on in my serotonin-starved brain. Thanks, Trent!
food co-ops
5. PCC Natural Markets, Fremont (Seattle)
Call it hometown advantage, but I live down the street from this store–part of a greater Seattle co-op chain–and shop here several times a week. It’s my favorite of the stores–some of which could use a makeover. Located in the pretty Fremont neighborhood on Lake Union’s northern shore, it’s modern, inviting, and stuffed with local product. Don’t miss Grace Harbor Farms yogurt, made from butterfat-rich Guernsey milk: the thick layer of cream on top is irresistible.

6. La Montanita Co-op Food Market, Santa Fe
It’s hard to beat Santa Fe’s famous farmers market, but should you miss it or require some additional souvenirs (posole and Chimayo chilies, anyone?), swing by this New Mexico co-op chain. Mark your calendars for September, when select stores roasts massive batches of organic Hatch chilies.
food co-ops
7. Davis Food Co-op, Davis, California
Home to one of the nation’s top ag schools, Davis is located within Yolo County, one of California’s largest farming regions. You’ll find exquisite vegetables from small farming champs like Full Belly Farm and Riverdog Farm of nearby Capay Valley, as well as local olive oil, honey, nuts, orchard fruits, and cheese. Cooking classes for kids and teens, too.

8. Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, California
Take the same wonderful products found in Davis, and add an ambitious learning center and cooking school program for kids and adults. Learn how to raise backyard chickens, take a two-day farming intensive, or gain some urban cycling skills.

9. People’s Food Co-op, Portland, Oregon
Portland is rightfully one of the nation’s epicenters of mindful eating. With both excellent restaurants and farmers markets, a co-op may not make it onto your travel itinerary, but if you’re in the Clinton neighborhood on the Southeast side, stop by. The reason Portland gets it right? Oregon is a leader in sustainable agriculture and livestock production, artisan cheesemaking, craft brewing, and winemaking. The store also holds a year-round farmers market every Wednesday, 2-7pm.
food co-op
10. Central Co-op, Seattle
Located in Seattle’s hipster thicket of Capitol Hill, this popular spot is just the place for an espresso before hitting the aisles. A seriously bomber selection of PacNW craft beer and wine, and a tiny but well-stocked cheese case featuring offerings from the likes of Washington’s excellent Black Sheep Creamery = one hell of a happy hour.

For a national directory of food co-ops, click here.

[Photo credits: peppers, Laurel Miller; bread, Flickr user farlane; apples, Flickr user Shaw Girl; espresso, Flickr user Nick J Webb]