In Istria, Hunting For The World’s Most Delicious And Smelliest Treat

The rotund man standing before me on the dirt path was wearing olive-green military fatigues and held a sharp, bladed object in his thick, oversized right hand. He looked unhappy to see me. I was late. His hands – pudgy and exaggerated – seemed like the result of an unlikely sculpting partnership between Michelangelo and Colombian artist Fernando Botero. Standing beside him were two dogs, Jackie and Duna.

Ivica Kalcic, 56 years old, looked like he had become what he has dedicated his life to: a pasty version of a giant bulbous white truffle. “Let’s go,” he said, wasting no time. He unleashed the dogs and they darted up the path into the leafy, dark forest.

I was in Istria, exploring the less trammeled interior of this peninsula in northwestern Croatia, and had signed up for a short truffle hunt. Along with Alba in northern Italy, Istria is what the Caspian is to caviar or Mexico is to the mustache: a foodie goldmine, hiding nuggets of earthen deliciousness so expensive that to cherish them might be asking for the guillotine in some future revolution. It was black truffle season and Ivica, 56, has been traipsing through this forest nearly every day for the last 40 years (white truffles, the season of which is in the autumn, are the pricier kin to darker-hued subterranean fungus).

Though Alba may get more attention for its buried, edible fungus treasures, it was in Istria where, in 1999, the largest white truffle ever was discovered. The three-pound truffle, valued at $5,000, was found by local truffle hunter Giancarlo Zigante and listed in the Guinness Book of World Records. Zigante soon after opened a mini-chain of truffle shops as well as an eponymous eatery just up the road from where I was traipsing with Ivica and his dogs.

I doubted such a prize would be found today but soon enough, Jackie, the more experienced of the two hounds, was digging up dirt. Ivica waddled over, pulled the dog away, and began hacking at the earth with his pick. A few seconds later, he held up the prize: a golf-ball sized black truffle, which he says will fetch him about thirty dollars. A few minutes later, Jackie was digging up another. And another. And another. So much that I wondered if they had been planted for my benefit.

Whatever the case, Ivica, doesn’t have to go very far for his paycheck. Just up the road in the village of Livade and in the shadow of the majestic medieval hill town, Motovun, is Giancarlo’s restaurant, Zigante Tartufi. A few hours later, I was sitting at a table in the front room, scoping out the menu. If whatever dish you order doesn’t already have truffles in it, the waiter will be by in a second to grate some on. Even my ice cream had truffles in it. “We go through two kilos on a busy day,” he told me, as he was grating some on to my shrimp-stuffed ravioli. The food at Zigante was good but risked appearing gimmicky, like an all-garlic restaurant. It’s hard to blame them. After all, this is truffle heaven. A minute later, the waiter set on my table something that looked like a plaster cast of someone’s brain. It was a rendering of the world’s largest truffle.
Afterward, I felt like a walking, breathing truffle myself. So much so that when I got back to my hotel, a dog walked by and I wondered if it was going to lurch for me. Surely truffles were oozing from my pores. It gave me a long look and kept on trotting up the street.

Five Halloween treats for grown-ups

Halloween candyLike many former kids, I used to live for Halloween. Sure, the dressing up part was fun, but so was TP’ing the neighbor’s tree. What All Hallow’s Eve was really about were Pixy Stix, Fun Dip, mini Milky Way bars, and REESE’S Peanut Butter Cups (in my world, the latter still reigns supreme).

Still, things change. We grow up; most of us lose our appetite for eating the equivalent of eight cups of sugar in one sitting, we’re aware that those candy bars will go straight to our ass.

Still, I find something a little magical about Halloween: the brisk fall air, the aroma of woodsmoke and swirls of brightly colored leaves. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth anymore, but there are some sophisticated treats out there capable of conjuring my inner child (mercifully, minus the buck teeth and tattling habit).

Below, my favorite confections, regardless of season:

1. Jonboy Caramels
I love me a good caramel, and this micro-Seattle company does them right. I discovered Jonboy at my local farmers market; despite the feel-good ingredients and ethics, these are no half-assed candies peddled by dirty hippies (kidding; I’m a longtime market vendor myself). Made completely by hand with local cream and HFCS-free, these pretty treats come wrapped in unbleached parchment paper, and are sold in little (recycled cardboard) boxes. But it’s what’s inside that counts, and these are intensely rich flavor-bombs redolent of that good cream as well as more potent, sexy flavors.

The selection is small and includes fleur de sel caramel, molasses ginger, and my favorite, an intriguing absinthe with black salt. Inspired by the salted licorice found in Scandinavia, Jonboy’s version is made with local Pacifique absinthe and a blend of anise, fennel, and hyssop. They’re dark and mysterious, like a trick-or-treater you shouldn’t let in the door.

Jonboy Caramels are available throughout Seattle at farmers’ markets and specialty stores, and select Washington and Oregon Whole Foods. Five box minimum for online orders (you’ll be glad to have extra, believe me).Halloween candy2. sockerbit
This groovy New York shop in the West Village is dedicated to “Scandinavian candy culture.” The name translates as “sugar cube,” and is also one of their namesake treats (a strawberry marshmallow square). Just like Ikea, crazy names and diversity are part of sockerbit’s charm. All of the essential categories are here: chocolate; licorice; marshmallow (who can resist something called “Syrliga Skumshots,” which are bottle-shaped sour marshmallows?); sweet; sour, and hard and wrapped candies. All are available for order online, and free of artificial dyes, flavors, trans-fats, and other synthetic nastiness.

It’s hard to make a decision in this place, but if, like me, you’re a slave to anything gummy and chewy, (red Swedish Fish people, I’m talking to you), you’ll be very happy with the tempting selection of fruit jellies. Skogsbär, here’s looking at you.

3. Recchiuti Confections
Lucky me, I used to work next door to this revered San Francisco Ferry Building confectionary (I worked in a meat shop; they traded us for chocolate). Chocolatier Michael Recchiuti is a genius, but it’s his delicate, botanically-infused chocolates that bring a tear to my eye. Bonus: many use herbs sourced right outside the door at the Saturday farmers market. Think lemon verbena; star anise and pink peppercorn; rose caramel, and candied orange peel. Just as heavenly are Recchiuti’s exquisite pates de fruits, S’more’s Bites, and…just about everything else. Order them all online at your own risk.

4. Dutch licorice
Licorice is an acquired taste regardless, but the earthy, intense, salted Dutch stuff is another thing altogether. Made with real licorice root extract–no artificial flavors here–they’re bracing, spicy, herbaceous, and strangely addictive. Any bona-fide candy store worth it’s, um, salt, will stock at least one imported variety.

5. Salt & Straw ice cream in holiday flavors
Ice cream season is supposed to be over (isn’t it?) but this five-month-old Portland, Oregon shop begs to differ. Some examples of their delicious array of super-regionalized “farm-to-cone” flavors: Hooligan Brown Ale and Olympic Provisions bacon, Stumptown coffee with cocoa nibs, and pear with Rogue Creamery’s Crater Lake blue cheese.

New to Salt & Straw is their line-up of Thanksgiving and Holiday flavors, which includes bourbon pecan pie, made with Stone Barn’s Oregon Whiskey; eggnog with butter-rum caramel; blood orange cranberry; pumpkin cheesecake, and a sweet-and-savory brown bread stuffing studded with chestnuts, herbs, and dried apricots. Online orders are a minimum of five pints.

Understanding and Preventing Sugar Cravings

SkyMall Monday: Top 5 products for hurricane season

gadling skymall monday cowboy rain boots Here on the East Coast, Hurricane Irene made for quite the weekend. First, we braved the hordes of crazy people in the supermarket (no one needs that much peanut butter), then the torrential rains and, more than anything, the constant barrage of media hype. Thankfully, we’re all safe and accounted for here at SkyMall Monday headquarters. However, we’re now well aware that hurricane season is underway and still has weeks to go. That’s why it’s time to make sure that you’re prepared. By now, you should have flashlights and batteries (and to the people who needed to buy them this weekend, why didn’t you own them already?), but there are plenty of other items that you should own to ensure that you’re prepared for the next month or so of tropical weather. Here are the top five SkyMall products you need for hurricane season.5. Monet Rain Boots (pictured above)

When the weather is bad, it doesn’t matter how ugly you look so long as you stay dry. Since it doesn’t matter, you might as well be the ugliest.

4. Make Your Own Truffle Kit

There’s a good chance that your local chocolatier will be closed during storms so they can hoard their confections for their own family. Fear not, however, as you can easily whip up some emergency truffles. Disaster has never been so decadent.

3. The Spectator Umbrella

Let’s go right to the product description:

When not providing rain protection, it can be converted into a seat cane with a comfortable 13″ wide leather strap seat by simply spreading the handles.

You want to stay dry as you brave the storm, but you also want to relax once you get to the shelter and using the cots that they provide just sounds unsanitary.

gadling skymall monday women's waterproof rain cape2. Women’s Waterproof Rain Cape

Over the river (which is flooding over its banks) and through the woods (which is full of fallen trees), to grandmother’s house you go (because she’s outside of the evacuation zone and still has electricity). Ponchos are so last year and jackets are cliche. This hurricane season, it’s all about capes. Just look out for the big, bad wolf (or, you know, downed power lines).

1. Testosterole Sexual Enhancer

You’re going to be spending a lot of time inside the house with no TV, internet or electronic entertainment options. Eventually, you’ll want to have some fun with what’s underneath that cape. [Note: I would have posted the product description but it’s painfully long and includes the word “secretion,” which makes me very uncomfortable.]

Stay safe out there, kids.

Check out all of the previous SkyMall Monday posts HERE.

Daily Pampering: new San Francisco restaurant debuts $390 truffle dinner

It’s truffle season again. In the Perigord, grizzled Frenchmen scour the forests using specially-trained female pigs or dogs to sniff out the rare black fungi growing from the roots of various tree species. In Piedmont, Italy, a similar hunt is under way for the even more esteemed white truffle. According to The Daily Beast, these little buggers can fetch an average of $3,500 a pound in a good economy (in ’09, the price for white truffles dropped to $1,800 to $2,500 a pound), making them one of the most expensive ingredients on earth.

In celebration of all this fungal goodness, Alexander’s Steakhouse in San Francisco is offering a nine-course truffle dinner for $390, through early 2011. Inside Scoop SF also tells us that for another $110, the restaurant will pair the wines for you. The Japanese-inflected meat temple opened last month in the buzzing SoMa neighborhood, but the sister location in the Silicon Valley is offering the same special.

Why are people willing to spend so much cash on a glorified foraged mushroom that smells like male pig pheromones? Gourmands will tell you the essence of the homely truffle elevates everything from scrambled eggs to pasta to euphoric levels. And truffles are supposedly an aphrodisiac (the scent of swine sex hormones, and all). Fortunately, a little of the pungent fungi goes a long way, and Alexander’s uses a total of 15 grams (roughly half-an-ounce) of black and white truffles on its special menu.

Dishes include elegant offerings like bonito sashimi with salsify, garlic chips, celery, curry foam, and black truffle; binchotan-roasted bone marrow, black garlic panko, citrus jam, and white truffle, and Japanese a5 Kagoshima ribeye cap [in plain English: expensive cut of top-grade imported Wagyu beef] with parsnip puree, butternut squash, chestnuts, and white truffle. Are you feeling randy yet, baby?

Want more? Get your daily dose pampering right here.

[Photo credit: Flickr user cyclingshepherd]

Best truffle in the world is in Missoula, Montana

I was after a cup of coffee. I got that. French press coffee to be exact. But, it was the truffle I ate at Posh Chocolat in Missoula, Montana yesterday afternoon that enticed me to take out my pen and take notes.

Posh Chocolat’s specialty is Artisan chocolates that win awards. The one I savored, Garam Masala Spice–a lovely blend of ground peppercorn, cardamom, cinnamon, and cumin in Ecuadorian dark chocolate, landed the best truffle award last year at the 2008 International Chocolate Salon in Seattle.

The store owners and chocolatiers, Jason and Ana Willenbrock also brought back eight other awards which have helped put Missoula into the forefront of fine chocolate.

This husband and wife team have been turning out lusciousness in downtown Missoula for more than four years. Theirs is a story that crosses continents. She is from Brazil. He is from St. Louis, Missouri. They met as students at the Culinary Institute of America in upstate New York. Then she headed to Spain and he to France for more culinary know-how. Eventually, they came to Missoula after chef gigs at Triple Creek Ranch, a luxury resort in the Bitterroot Mountain Range, also in Montana

Truffles and French press coffee aren’t Jason and Ana’s only offerings. Soups and salads balance out the chocolate fix, and the pastry case contains gorgeous desserts. I was interested in a slice of key lime pie.

You don’t need to be in Missoula to savor the sweetness. Posh Chocolat does ship. Another truffle I had my eye on is the Hemp Seed with Caramelized Banana. It sounds funky and delicious.