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]

Santa Fe On A Budget

santa feSanta Fe has a reputation for being pricey, what with all the art galleries, boutiques, jewelry stores, restaurants, and hotels. And while it’s true you can blow a wad of cash there without even trying, it’s just as easy to enjoy Santa Fe if you’re on a budget. It just depends upon your priorities.

If you can live without purchasing a life-sized bronze sculpture of a bugling elk or Native American art, and you’re more interested in a cultural experience than shopping, Santa Fe is infinitely more affordable than many holiday hotspots. Even on a shoestring, you don’t have to miss out on the many incredible sights and experiences this small city has to offer, with the possible exception of a spa treatment or an overpriced, underwhelming meal.

Unlike many cities with a lot of money and cultural attractions, Santa Fe is all about casual. Locals are more concerned with comfort and self-expression than trends, so don’t worry about buying a new wardrobe for your trip or lugging lots of clothes with you. Bring a pair of beat-up cowboy boots and jeans or a long skirt, and you’ll fit in just fine.

Read on for tips on how to do Santa Fe right, local-style.

%Gallery-166201%santa fe farmers marketSleeping
The biggest secret to saving money in Santa Fe is staying at one of a handful of little-known hotels in the downtown area. Sure, you can crash Super 8 or Motel 6 on the outskirts of town (I’ve done it), but you’re going to wind up paying just as much for a crappy, generic room that requires a car in order to see any of the sights.

Instead, spring for a stay at an adorable, pueblo-style hotel, like the following:

  • The Old Santa Fe Inn is a family-owned property just four blocks from the historic Plaza. A single queen averages $89-$209 low/high season, and includes a full breakfast and complimentary parking; pet friendly.
  • The Santa Fe Sage Inn (free parking, continental breakfast, shuttle, and pet-friendly; double queen $45-$135 low/high season) is located across the street from the thriving Railyard Arts District/farmers market near downtown and the Plaza.
  • The Santa Fe Motel & Inn has free parking and full breakfast, and is a homey little gem near the Plaza and Convention Center, for $89 to $145 a night (standard room; low/high season rates).

Note that low season in Santa Fe is between November and March, excluding major holidays, but can start earlier, depending upon the hotel property. Be sure to ask when making reservations; click here for information on year-round specials.

Eating and Drinking
Everyone loves to splurge on a great meal, but New Mexican cuisine is about as rustic and homely (in the true sense of the word) as you can get. It’s also insanely delicious, addictive, and filling, so those with small appetites can easily get by on one big meal a day (if you count your free hotel breakfast). Gluttons like me still have to work at finding room for three squares, but given the plethora of excellent restaurants in town, you’ll want to pace yourself. And be aware that the hole-in-the-wall spots are where the locals prefer to eat on a regular santa fe plazabasis. The farmers market, which runs Saturdays year-round, is world-class.

Don’t miss these classic, uber-affordable spots:

  • Johnnie’s Cash Store: Serving Santa Fe’s best tamales since 1946, for under $3 a pop.
  • Bobcat Bite: The best green chile cheeseburger in town.
  • Santa Fe Farmers Market in the Railyard: The adovada breakfast burrito is a $6 bit of heaven, and coffee is only a dollar. Located inside the Market Pavilion, at the Farmers Market Cafe concession stand; open Tuesdays and Saturdays, 8 a.m.-1 p.m.
  • Tia Sophia’s: Escape the tourist hordes at this under-the-radar, just-off-the-Plaza eatery, beloved for its posole, green chile and breakfast burritos. Breakfast and lunch, only.
  • Pantry Restaurant: It’s not near the Plaza, but this down-home diner is a local favorite for all things New Mexican.
  • Casa Chimayo: Owned by a long-established local family, the posole is delicious, and service warm and friendly.
  • Roque’s Carnitas: A long-standing food cart on the Plaza, and a great lunch stop.
  • Evangelo’s: About the only true dive downtown (although regrettably, it’s been spiffed up a bit so it’s not as skanky as it once was) with strong drinks and live music most nights. Always a host of local characters (some more derelict than others). There’s also The Matador, right across the street and down a flight of stairs. If it’s Happy Hour specials you want, talk to your hotel concierge or front desk.

Things to do

  • Go museum hopping: Many of Santa Fe’s museums offer a free or discounted day; check individual websites for details. Two of the most popular, the New Mexico History Museum/Palace of the Governors, and the New Mexico Museum of Art, are free on Friday evenings, from 5-8 p.m.
  • Take a cooking class: The Santa Fe School of Cooking is relocating this week to a new, much larger space, which means more classes. Hands-on classes and workshops start as low as $50.
  • mountain bikingHike or ride: There’s hiking and mountain biking in Santa Fe proper, on the Dale Ball Trail System, and Nature Conservancy Trail. if you really want to get out into the woods, however, try the Santa Fe National Forest, Hyde Memorial State Park, or Santa Fe Ski Basin.
  • Go for a walk: Santa Fe is one of the nation’s most walkable cities, with miles of creekside bike/pedestrian paths and enclaves of adorable neighborhoods made up of adobe homes festooned with chile ristras and flowers. I’ve literally whiled away entire days wandering the city. The city also offers a multitude of free walking tours focused on everything from coffee and chocolate to literary landmarks.
  • Dance: The Plaza is buzzing most evenings during high season with live music, festivals, and often, dancing. When I was in Santa Fe in August, the gazebo was full of couples practicing tango. You never know what you’re going to find, but call the Convention and Visitors Bureau at 800-777-2489 if you want to plan ahead.
  • Windowshop: Even if you’re not in looking to buy, Santa Fe offers world-class window shopping, especially amidst the galleries and boutiques of Canyon Road.
  • Visit a pueblo: Although not walking distance, there are eight pueblos located just north of Santa Fe. Spend a morning or afternoon talking to the various tribes, explore the dwellings, purchase handicrafts, or attend one of the weekend Indian Markets, seasonal pow-wows, or other cultural events. Be open to talking to the residents; when I visited the Taos Pueblo, I ended up helping to construct a traditional adobe horno, or outdoor oven.


Getting there
Skip the rental car (which is unnecessary if you’re staying downtown). The shuttle from the Albuquerque airport, an hour away, is just $47/pp/round trip. Ultimately, it comes down to what you’re planning to do while you’re in town.

Aspen’s ‘Revolutionary’ New Restaurant: Is This The Future Of Fine Dining?

maroon bellsAspen is well known for many things, some more savory (its restaurants) than others (Charlie Sheen arrests). There’s also the world-class skiing, but a person’s gotta eat, and Aspen definitely boasts some of Colorado’s finest restaurants. In a ski town, that’s saying a lot.

In June, Aspen’s restaurant scene just grew a little bigger, better and more groundbreaking, with the opening of Chefs Club by Food & Wine, at the tony St. Regis resort. The innovative restaurant, which opened to great fanfare during the 30th annual Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, marked the completion of a $40 million redesign of the resort.

The first restaurant of its kind worldwide, Chefs Club’s concept is simple, almost like a long-term pop-up. A select group of four Food & Wine Best New Chefs curate a bi-annually-changing menu of “seasonally-inspired cuisine.” The chefs will rotate on the same schedule, as well: the Fall/Winter talent will be announced November 15, via the restaurant’s website and Facebook. Following their initial, one-week tenure the chefs will make appearances throughout their “term” to offer menu specials, and showcase the Chefs Club concept to guests and the local community.

Notice that I said the concept is simple. Having four guest chefs, who are most likely total strangers, design a compatible collaborative menu, and having it consistently executed to high standards by a kitchen staff of complete strangers with varying degrees of training is a monumental task. I freely admit I was more than a little dubious when I first heard about Chefs Club. I’m writing this piece now, nearly six months after its opening, because I wanted to follow-up with staff and guest chefs, and find out how things are going.

Chosen to inaugurate the restaurant and menu were former Best New Chefs: George Mendes (2011) of Aldea, located in Manhattan; James Lewis (2011) of Birmingham’s Bettola; Alex Seidel (2010) of Fruition, in Denver; and Sue Zemanick (2008) of Gautreau’s, in New Orleans.

I was able to wrangle an invite to the grand opening reception at Chefs Club last June, as well as dine there the following night. It’s rare that I attend restaurant openings, because they’re usually a bit of a clusterf–k, as the kitchen hasn’t had time to work out the kinks or refine the menu. In this instance, however, I was curious to see how such a challenging concept would be carried out, especially given immense pressure for things to run smoothly.

%Gallery-165852%chefs clubSome of the culinary industry’s biggest players attended the grand opening and/or the Classic, including the Food & Wine editors and publisher, and some of the nation’s most prestigious chefs, among them Jacques Pepin, José Andrés and Thomas Keller.

If you’ve never been to a restaurant opening, just know it’s an ulcer-inducing event for any chef, no matter how experienced. The decor, service and every single dish is scrutinized by both diners and press, and in the weeks that follow, it’s critical that any flaws be ironed out. Yes, it’s just food, but it’s also the livelihood of dozens of people, from dishwashers to investors. Chefs/restaurateurs face a lot of pressure with the opening of a new place.

The biggest challenge, as I saw it, was finding chefs willing to relinquish control (or their egos), because unlike a normal restaurant, Chefs Club means entrusting an unfamiliar staff to carry out their vision. That means it’s up to the Chefs Club powers that be to find participating chefs who fully understand the concept of collaboration, and are capable of letting go to a certain degree.

Fortunately, St. Regis Aspen/Chefs Club Executive Chef Thomas Riordan is equally adept at ensuring his kitchen does right by guest chefs. Says General Manager Paul Duce, “I think this is a revolutionary concept, and it’s amazing to see it all come together so beautifully. [Riordan] has a very difficult job, and our team works so well together.”

Based on my experience, which included dining at Chefs Club on its third night of operation, the team kicks ass. In fact, I was astounded by how smooth the service was (the wait staff and sommelier were also genuinely friendly and enthusiastic; no pretense whatsoever). I sat in one of the seats located right in front of the open kitchen, and was amazed by how calm everyone seemed to be, guest chefs included. In fact, there was a lot of camaraderie and joking around.

As for my dinner, it wasn’t flawless (no meal is), but it was very, very good. I enpastajoyed a luscious Duck Confit Crostini from Chef Zemanick; Charred Mediterranean Octopus with cannellini beans, local lovage and pancetta by Chef Lewis; Colorado Lamb Saddle with Fruition Farms (Seidel’s sheep dairy) ricotta gnocchi, baby artichokes, and pine nut gremolata (Chef Seidel), and for dessert, an outrageous Malt Chocolate Semi-freddo with peanut butter fudge, toasted marshmallow, and graham cracker crumbs (Chef Zemanick). The sommelier graciously paired wines for all of my courses.

I left not only full, but very satiated, and convinced that Chefs Club might be onto something. Couldn’t this concept provide a feasible way for talented young chefs to avoid the pitfall of opening their own restaurants before they’re ready (emotionally or financially)? A way for older, more settled chefs to eliminate the stress, long hours, and administrative b.s. involved with owning a restaurant, but still allow them to do the thing they’re passionate about, which is cooking? An opportunity for experienced, savvy restaurateurs to keep their places relevant and exciting, long after the opening rush has passed? What about hosting guest chefs from around the world, as a sort of educational exchange for professional cooks and armchair travel experience for diners?

A month later, I asked Chef Seidel his thoughts when first approached by Chefs Club. “It’s a great concept, if challenging,” he said. “Being the first group of chefs meant there were a lot of unknowns, and participating chefs need to understand the level of commitment needed for this.”

If being a part of Chefs Club means time away from his own kitchen, farm and family, and entrusting that his staff will run Fruition as if it were their own, Seidel feels the benefits outweigh the potential risks.

“The opportunity to cook for so many different people, and work with great chefs from across the country is amazing. At my restaurant, we don’t cook with any attitude or ego, and this shouldn’t be any different. The four of us got a chance to hang out, learn from one another, and work together, and I gained three new friends out of the experience.”
chefs club
Other things to know about Chefs Club
The editors of Food & Wine have a hand in putting together custom wine and cocktail lists to coincide with the menus, while Jim Meehan, one of the nation’s top mixologists (PDT, New York), creates an original selection of seasonal cocktails (I’ll vouch for their excellence).

Don’t have any preconceptions about the menu, and be open to a diverse, but harmonious, melding of cuisines (there’s a three-course tasting menu with wine pairings for $85).

If you want to dine when a specific guest chef is in the house, check Chefs Club’s website and Facebook page for special events.

The elegant, white-walled dining room – done up in a mod ski chalet aesthetic, replete with giant snowflake cut-outs on the ceiling – features a long, low bar and row of seats in front of the open kitchen. If you enjoy watching the inner workings of a restaurant, reserve a seat here. There’s also a 24-seat patio, and 99 seats inside, including a communal table.

Make a reservation, regardless.

Enjoy yourself. This isn’t a pretentious, hushed temple of gastronomy. It offers a convivial atmosphere, and the concept and vibe are all about having fun, and a spirit of adventure. Cheers to that.

The bar is open to the public, not just diners. Says Duce, “A lot of the time, people will poke their heads in and say they’re just looking, and I’ll invite them in to check out our kitchen, or pour them a bit of Prosecco. We’re here to serve the community, and everyone should feel free to come have a drink at our bar.”

For information and tickets to the 31st annual Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, June 14-16, 2013, click here.

[Photo credit: Maroon Bells, Flickr user mland329]

Global Street Food Celebrated In Recipes And Stories In New Book

susan fenigerFor those of you who are unfamiliar with the reign of the “Two Hot Tamales,” Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken were the badass female chefs/restaurateurs of the ’80s and ’90s, and the darlings of the Food Network in its infancy (read: when it was good). They helped to put world and regional Mexican cuisine on the radar in the United States with their L.A. restaurants CITY, City Cafe, and the Border Grill, and subsequent TV shows and cookbooks.

Today, they’re still at it. Feniger competed on “Top Chef Masters” last year, and also has her first solo restaurant, STREET, in Hollywood. The menu is dedicated to one of her enduring passions, which is global street food. In July, “Susan Feniger’s Street Food: Irresistibly Crispy, Creamy, Crunchy, Spicy, Sticky, Sweet Recipes” (Clarkson Potter), hit the shelves: a lively collection of recipes adapted from her favorite street foods worldwide.

In June, I caught Feniger doing a pre-release-inspired cooking demo, “Irresistible Street Food,” at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. I’ve attended a lot of cooking demos in my day, and she’s without doubt one of the most engaging, down-to-earth chefs I’ve ever seen, and not just because I’m piggishly besotted with street food.

Caught up in sharing the travel stories behind the recipes she was preparing (the book is packed with anecdotes from her trips to places like India, Turkey, Mongolia, Vietnam, and Singapore), Feniger was reminiscent of a modern-day Julia Child. “Oh! Salt. Forgot the salt. Oh well, let’s add some more gin!” she said of her Honeydew Cucumber Cooler. In her defense, I, along with the rest of the audience, was suffering a classic Food & Wine Classic hangover right along with her. The weekend’s motto should be, “You play, you pay.”

Feniger also prepared Indian Puffed Rice Salad, and Egyptian Bus Stop Kushary (a lentil dish), in between anecdotes. Whether you’re an armchair traveler or a street food-obsessed adventurer, her book will leave you inspired, intrigued, and hungry for a taste of what the world’s back alleys have to offer.

If you’re in the Bay Area, catch Feniger at a “Cooks with Books” event sponsored by Book Passage, featuring a meal made from the book’s recipes. She’ll also be doing a signing at Omnivore Books in San Francisco on September 21, and at the Book Passage in the San Francisco Ferry Building on September 22.

‘The Perennial Plate’ Partners With Intrepid Travel For Online Food Documentary Series

food documentariesI’ll be the first to raise my hand and say I despise most of the food shows currently on television and online. That’s why I got so excited when I heard about “The Perennial Plate,” a weekly online documentary series, “dedicated to socially responsible and adventurous eating.”

That angle by virtue does not a good show make. But Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine, the team behind the show, have the ideal background to make this concept work, which it does. Throw in a collaboration with well-regarded Australian adventure company Intrepid Travel, and you have the makings of a cult classic.

In case you’re thinking this is another “No Reservations,” or “Bizarre Foods,” the focus is different in that the duo explores the increasingly connected global food system, minus the machismo. That said, there’s plenty for those more interested in armchair travel.

Klein has an impressive resume as a chef, filmmaker and activist, while “camera girl” Fine has a background in graphic design and writing, and has previously released short, food-based films. Together, the two have completed two seasons. The first took place over the course of a calendar year in their home state of Minnesota. The second was filmed across America, taking viewers on a journey of “where good food comes from, and how to enjoy it.”

Season three, which premieres in October (check their site for dates), is the first since joining with Intrepid Travel. The season kicks off with a tour of Vietnam. Future episodes will include China, Japan, India, Argentina and Italy.