Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Takes Three at La Riboto de Taven

Tuesday, March 30, Soir

Can you imagine entertaining for a maximum of 18 quests nearly every night of the week? Planning meals, prepping, cooking, serving, entertaining, cleaning and washing dishes by hand, and all with a smile--every night. Plus, there's only three people doing all of this work. This happens at the elegant La Riboto de Taven in Les Baux en Provence. Magically, Chef Jean-Pierre Novi and owners, Christine and Philippe Theme (photo) create culinary magic.

I'm not a critic, just a promoter and enjoyer. On this four week adventure, the dining has been extraoradinary and memorable from Tunisia, Sicily to Tuscany, except for the focaccia pomodora pizza that I attempted to eat from the autogrill on the Austradra while driving to Roma on Monday. Last night, however, achieved supreme grandeur.

Castelas olive oil producers, Catherine and Jean-Benoît Hugues managed to convince the owners to open the restaurant just for the three of us (another couple showed up). Jean-Bientȏt predicted this will be an experience! And how right he was.

Get this—Chef Jean-Pierre keeps a record of the courses he prepares for his quests to never repeat one. And Philippe was born in a kitchen following generations of chefdom...He said, "The kitchen was warmer for pregnant women." I will take is word on that one.

What did they prepare just for us? We began with succulent and heavenly foie gras. Next was the innovative dish of the trip, Royal de languistines (Shrimp-like) and flan on three different types of pasta (linguine) woven together by hand, smothered with a Castelas ginger olive oil emulsion. The main course was guinea hen and FRESH spring veggies (snow peas and fava beans). This was followed by the cheese course. Jean-Benoît suggested adding some olive oil to the cheese plate. The Hugues TV dinner is cheese, olive oil and bread. What's dinner without dessert? Fresh strawberries marinated in Castels olive oil (surprise surprise) and a small, warm soufflé.

And you're asking about the wine. There were two wonderful red wines from the the local area. We began with the 2005 Equinoxe Domaine de Lauziérs from Les Baux Provence, AOC (Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault blend). One was not enough so we had Madame Dominque Hauvette's 100% Cinsault, which you never see as mono-varietal wine. All were a perfect accompaniment to a nirvana culinary experience.

Now, if that wasn't enough. As we left the restaurant, we were met by a full moon hovering over the cliffs of Les Baux. To recap the day, a rainbow, a full moon, a magical dinning experience shared with wonderful friends. I'm living large.

Castelas: The Amerian Dream Lives in France

Tuesday, March 30, 2010, Aprés-mIdi

Arriving at Castelas, there was Jean-Benoît Hugues in the olive oil mill dressed in a blue suit (having returned from a speaking engagement) with a wrench and black, greasy hands. He and two employees were working on the centrifuge, the heart of the olive oil production process. They weren’t simply working on it. They were dissembling and reassembling entirely. “We must know and maintain this equipment ourselves. We can’t rely on finding a technician during the peak of the harvest,” Jean-Benoît stated emphatically. Not only does Jean-Bientôt’s team know the equipment, they have discovered flaws and improved the system. “It works better now than when we first bought it.”

This attention to detail stems from an earlier career as an engineer in Arizona. After 15 years in the U.S. Jean-Benoît and his wife, Catherine, who has her master’s degree in biochemistry (or something near to that—I avoided that world in school). They returned to their roots in Les Baux en Provence with their French accents in tact to raise a family and produce high quality Extra Virgin olive oil. Jean-Benoît asserts proudly that he and his wife are living the American dream. “Had it not been for our American experience, we would not be living our dream of producing high quality olive oil here in Provence."

Castelas brings new meaning to high quality Extra Virgin olive oil. The bar has been raised. His engineering skills have created a production system that requires no outside water during the process. Water can dilute flavor and freshness. It is common to add tap water during the production process to help extract the oil from the pomace. At Castelas, water comes from the olives only, not an added outside source. The result is a more flavorful, fresher and healthier oil. Castelas Extra Virgin olive has a length on the palate and the shelf, which far exceeds typical olive oils proclaiming to be Extra Virgin. Castelas is the real deal.

With Jean-Benoît, high quality Extra Virgin olive oil begins in the grove, which includes productive trees that are estimated to be 500 years-old. He is a strong proponent of irrigation, which gives the fruit the natural and necessary water required in the production process.

During an impromptu olive oil seminar given to a group of Australian visitors, the Hugues advised folks to not be afraid of bitter and peppery olive oils. These characteristics are signs of quality and will dissipate with cooking and add complexity to your food by drizzling after cooking.

Castelas is worth visiting on any trip to Provence. The estate is located on the foothills below the breathtakingly majestic village of Les Baux.

During our visit, a large rainbow appeared above us. Jean-Benoît quiped with a smile, "It's a sign." Yes—of the of the joys and prosperity of the American dream alive in France.

Friday, March 26, 2010

3/23/10--Reveling in Ravidá

Hotel Villa Esperia in the beautiful seaside resort town of Mondello, near Palermo, is a couple of blocks from the Mediterranean Sea and a few blocks from the beautiful and stately home of Natalia Ravidá, her husband, Giuseppe and their endearing son, 9 year-old Alfredo. After a burst of expresso and an unsuccessful attempt at an Internet connection, Natalia and I embarked on the one-hour plus drive to Menfi in southwest, Sicily. Upon arrival, we drove over dirt roads through the farm observing welcoming signs of spring including a bright blue sky, blooming lemon flowers among the vineyards and the olive trees. Our first stop was a reserve of wild olive trees and fennel, followed by a grove of ancient trees, 200-500 or more years old. These trees were crafted from the nearby wild trees. Interestingly, these trees were not planted in rows, but spaced randomly and obviously not planted purposefully. With their twisted trunks, these trees exude authentic character. If they could only talk… According to local folklore, the twisting is a result of the spinning earth over the centuries.

After watching a team pruning the olive trees and picking some lemons, Natalia gave me a tour of the mill, including an explanation of their innovative storage system. Using a bag and box technology with smaller 1000-liter tanks, olive oil is stored in two-day lots. Not only is the olive oil stored by varietal, but by time of harvest. My olive oil mantra is “Fresh is Best.” Here is an outstanding example of maintaining the critical freshness of Extra Virgin olive oil.

Any visit to this famed olive oil estate would not be complete without tasting some olive oil. Having a close relationship with this oil for over ten years, the familiar lemon/citrus, grassy, tomato leaf aromas exploded on the nose—classic Ravidá. This oil always takes me back to my youth, strolling down a row of tomato vines. Natalia is developing a new product, a lemon flavored oil. I’ve never been a fan of flavored oils. After all, the oil by definition is no longer Extra Virgin. Plus, most flavored oils on the market use a poor quality olive oil. With this lemon-flavored oil, my conversion is possible, showing nice pepperiness in the back of the throat—a perfect condiment for those summer salads.

Another innovation at Ravidá is the 3 and 5 liter box and bag packaging. Similar to the new wine boxes, exposure to air is minimized preserving freshness for a year or more after opening—Fresh is Best!

Now comes pure pleasure—lunch with Natalia’s mother and father, Ninni and Nicolo, in their magnificent home dating to 1770. My daughter, who is an interior designer and adores old, old stuff, would never leave this home.

Now, when God invented lunch this is what he had in mind. Greeted with a glass of Sicilian white wine made from Greciano, we had a lovely get acquainted chat. Then, Ninni and Nicolo Ravidá, elegant and charming, escorted us to their regal dinning room with a large burning fireplace. Signora Ravidá began with a wonderful potato and mushroom soufflé-like dish. Natalia referred to it as Sicilian Shepherd’s pie—No comparison, this tasted much better. Cod fritters, sautéed chicory and a dessert of refreshing orange slices drizzled with an adult beverage finished out the yummy culinary parade. Of course, a local red wine (Syrah) accompanied the experience. Although Signor Ravidá has owned vineyards across Italy for decades, he’s never bottled under his own level. He has supplied some of the finest vino estates in Italy, including the famed Antinori in Tuscany.

Natalia has authored a marvelous cookbook entitled, Seasons of Sicily. The recipes are simple, authentic and great for entertaining. She and her mother conduct cooking classes at their home in Menfi.

Following lunch, Signor Ravidá and I hovered next to the fire for a brief interview. Two hours passed in a flash. After finishing the video portion of our visit, he rose slowly from his chair. With a little twinkle in his eye and a sheepish grin, he asked, “Would you like a little something?” Having never said no in my life, he emerged with two small glasses and a bottle of Pravis Dolomiti Bianca, an orange blossomed dessert wine from northern Italy.

Hearing Signor Ravidá's engaging stories behind the creation of one the greatest olive oils of the world is a memory that I will cherish forever. Video excerpts of this interview will be shown in the future on Crush and Press and

After interviewing Natalia, we raced back to Palermo to join Giuseppe for dinner at Bye, Bye Blues Ristorante in Palermo. Chef Patrizia Di Benedetto is the first major female chef in Palermo. She presents a modern twist of traditional Sicilian dishes and ingredients, based on her global travels. The affable chef once cooked with Roberto Donna, the famed Italian chef in Washington, DC. Simply divine describes her octopus carpaccio with oranges and perfectly cooked clams.

Following dinner, Natalia and Giuseppe gave me a tour of the old Palermo with its fabulous architecture, dating to the 17th century. Two days in Sicily is not enough. I shall return.

Exhausted, full and gleeful, I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

Photo: Natalia, Ninni and Nicolo Ravidá

3/22/10-A Sicilian Cowboy and Maker's Mark

My Tunis Air flight touched down in Palermo, Sicily on time at 12:15 pm, The friendly and beautiful smile of Anna (formerly from Brooklyn) from the office of Manfredi Barbera office greeted me and drove me to Manfredi’s home. Manfredi Barbera owns Premiati Oleifici Barbara, which has been in business since 1894. Manfredi produces many labels of Extra Virgin olive oil, but the most important to me is Frantoia, which will be available for purchase on the soon to be released Crush and Press. This olive oil has outstanding value and has kept a regular spot in my pantry for over ten years. Despite leaving the next day for a 10 day visit to Brazil, Manfredi set aside the afternoon to visit with me.

Understanding this Sicilian cowboy requires a glimpse at his 400 year-old house. This was once the home of the Prince of Naples, but because of gambling and other activities “finished his money before finishing the house,” according to Manfredi. This home has been in the Barbera family for 120 years and was a country hunting house originally. Forty years ago, the land surrounding the home was developed into apartment buildings and other commercial establishments. One row of trees still lines the street leading to the house, which once provided the traditional picturesque long driveway to this magnificent home.

Shortly after greeting Manfredi, we were sitting down to a typical Italian lunch, a simple and tasty tomato-based macaroni and a red wine. We ate and ran. With his lovable 5 year-old son, Lorenzo, joining us, we began the 45 minute drive to his mill in Custonaci, near Trapani on the western tip of Sicily.

It was not long into the drive that I discovered Manfredi’s love of Kentucky bourbon, particularly Maker’s Mark. A treat to himself on any trip to New York City is a mega steak paired with Maker’s Mark on the rocks. Come to think of it, Bill Samuels, President of Maker’s Mark and Manfredi share a similar eccentric DNA. Introducing these two is a must. Joining them for dinner could be an unparalleled hilarious experience.

Speaking of steaks, Manfredi, who is an exceptional cook, prefers to finish his steaks after cooking with sea salt, fresh lemon and olive oil, Frantoia , of course—and bourbon.

At the mill, he demonstrated a new milling technology that he is experimenting with. This new technology has four separate grinders for crushing. These grinders can be switched and two of them can work collaboratively. This gives the capability of producing six or seven different flavor styles from the same olives. One grinder rolls similar to a traditional stone wheel, but without the exposure to air. The second is a hammer, which is similar to a coffee grinder. Third is an iron disc that acts as a masher. Finally, one grinder removes the pits before crushing giving a softer flavor profile.

Furthermore, the mill is divided into clean and dirty zones to preserve the integrity of the oil and achieving optimum sanitation. This process and picking olives when they are green (adding bitterness and pungency) explains how his Frantoia has the capacity to maintain its freshness beyond most Extra Virgin olive oils.

Manfredi resolved one mystery for me. His main oil is called, Frantoia. In Italian, Frantoio means mill. Frantoio is also a prominent Italian olive varietal. What’s with “Frantoia?” With a big smile, Manfredi said, “It’s fantasy. No meaning. It’s woman, which is better.” I’m in agreement. The romantic cowboy invented the feminine of Frantoio.

To conclude our visit, Lorenzo and I played in a huge ancient cave at Grotta Mangiapane and saw a 500 year-old frantoio (mill). After a thrilling drive back to Palermo, dinner with the Ravidás.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Tunisian Olive Oil: Change is Inevitable Except from a Vending Machine

As I depart Tunisia, today, and reflect back over the past week, I'm amazed by the enormous size and importance of the Tunisian olive oil industry. Yet, outside of Tunisian and some bottlers in Italy, Tunisian olive oil is unknown. Tunisian has 1,600,000 hectares (2.47 acres per hectare) of olive trees, 56 million trees and produces an average of 200,000 tons of olive oil per year (66% is exported). Tunisia is the fourth largest producer of olive oil with Spain, Italy and Greece. Folks, that's a sea of olive oil.

I’m sure you're asking, if they produce so much olive oil, then why haven't I tasted Tunisian olive oil or seen it on the shelves in the U.S? You have, but didn't know it. It's disguised. If you've purchased a bottle labeled, "Packed in," "Imported from," or "Product of Italy," you’ve had Tunisian olive oil. Historically, Tunisia has been a major supplier of the bulk bottlers from Italy. These bottlers or bulk producers buy product from countries in the Mediterranean and blend with Italian olive oil and ship to the U.S. and other countries.

Now, change is coming. And to quote an anonymous source, "Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine." The growers of Tunisian are beginning to bottle and label their own Extra Virgin olive oil (including organic) and seeking global importers and distributors from the U.S to Japan.

In recent years other new world countries including the U.S, Australia, Argentina, and Chile have stormed on to the world olive oil stage by planting an astounding amount of olive trees. These are young trees. To its advantage, Tunisia has mature trees and a whole bunch of them. Their challenge is changing the mindset of a bulk supplier for other countries where yield (quantity) is the most important factor to a quality-focused production process. This transformation is occurring rapidly and will be driven more and more by consumers as awareness increases about high quality Extra Virgin olive oil. Hey, world! Here comes 100% Tunisian olive oil.

My next stop—Sicily!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Tunisia: A Rich and Lengthy Heritage

Yes, the 100% Tunisian Olive Oil Trade Mission has been the experience of a lifetime.

Before getting to olive oil, food and wine, any discussion of Tunisia must begin with the people and their rich cultural heritage. Tunisians are kind, giving, passionate, and welcoming. They make you feel right at home. One of their many mules would be helpful to transport these gifts home to D.C. To understand the people of Tunisia (and olive oil), you must look to their proud and lengthy heritage. Next to Tunisia, Europe is a pup, and America is not even a glimmer in its mother’s eye. Upon arrival, the Phoenicians planted the first olive trees 3000 years-ago. Apparently, there is a 2,500 year-old tree, which we will see on our next trip. The 1000 year-old tree at Fendri Farms had enough “WOW” for me.

The Phoenicians, Byzantines, Carthaginians, Romans, and the French add layers and layers of rich Tunisian cultural heritage. For example, Thuburbo Majus, which we visited on our first day, was the ancient Roman capital city in North Africa. Unlike other Roman ruins that I have visited in the past, less than 10% of the 40 hectares (98 acres) were roped off to the public. You can walk amongst and upon them, touching and feeling as you go. Never have I sensed the presence and energy of ancient Rome like this.

There are the larger ruins at Dougga, but they will be saved for the next trip. The largest and best-preserved ruins outside of Rome reside in this small North African country on the Mediterranean Sea, cradled between Algiers from the west and Libya in the south. This is the gateway to the Mediterranean Sea, which explains its popularity among conquerors throughout history.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the people collected pieces of Roman architechural wonder to build the famous, magnificent mosque in Kairouan (photo). The spread of Islam throughout North Africa and into Europe has its roots in this mosque. Kairouan is considered one of the four Holy cities of this part of the world, along with Mecca (Saudia Arabia), Medina (Saudia Arabia) and Jerusalem (Israel). Interestingly, Medina also refers to old-walled city center in Tunisian cities.

This richness can be conveyed best through photos, so check out the pics at

Next…olive oil, food and wine….

Monday, March 15, 2010

Tunisia: The Arrival

Having landed in Tunis and begun my emersion in Tunisian culture and hospitality, you can't help but feel the deep sense of pride and warmth of the Tunisian people. I'm going to like here.

Last night, Lémia CHEKAR THABET (center photo), General Director of Packtec (Tunisian Packaging Technical Centre), an agency within the Tunisian Ministry and Technology, hosted the participants of the 100% Tunisian Olive Oil trade mission with a relaxed, informal reception at the Ramada Plaza Resort. This provided a "parfait" opportunity to spark the knowing of my fellow pilgrims on this olive oil mission and the Packtec team (photo). The entourage includes folks from France, Germany and, of course, a bunch of curious Americans. These trips are always filled with wonderful surprises and unexpected learning. For example, Philippe Juglar, a French agro business consultant, gave us an impromptu coffee tasting lesson. Did you know that the aromas on the nose for coffee have no correlation with the taste on the palate? The learning has only begun.

After one night of wonderful Tunisian food, I must remind myself of my core mantra, “moderate portions, Bill.” As for wine, we were treated to Chateau Saint Augustin’s portfolio including a salmon colored dry Rosé (Princesse Elissa), a blanc (Cesar Auguste) and a red (L’Imperial Magnus). All were delightful and easy drinking. I was excited to learn that a renowned Tunisian chef will accompany us on our journey this week. Stay tuned for some culinary treats and highlights.

Today we will learn about the history of Tunisian olive oil through visits to archeological sites at Thuburbo Majas and Ksar Ezzit Domain (www.ksar-ezzit). The Phoencians first planted olive trees in Tunisian 3000 years ago. We will see some trees older than dirt (well, almost) and an ancient underground mill. And late this afternoon, this band of olive oil brethren travels to the ancient city of Kairouan where we will be treated to dinner and evening entertaining at the Kashbah Hotel

Can’t wait!

Now time for a walk on the beach before disembarking at 8 a.m.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Skurnik Wines, 2010 Grand Portfolio Tasting

Over 700 wines, 300 wine producers from across the globe and a curious and appreciative band of trade professionals gathered at Michael Skurnik Imports 2010 Grand Portfolio tasting on Wednesday, March 10, in New York City. Yes, this was nirvana. Here's a sampling.

Upon arrival, my first stop was with old friends from Burgundy and the northern Rhone Valley of France. Alexandrine Roy, Domaine Marc Roy, of Gevrey Chambertin presented her stable of villages wines from 2007 and one 2006. Elegance and purity exemplify the work of this dedicated young vignernon. Her 2007 Gevrey-Chambertn “Clos Prieur” received 4 stars in the April issue of Decanter. Bridget Roch, who with her husband, Gilbert Clusel, own the highly regarded Domaine Clusel-Roche in Cote Rotie of the northern Rhone. Gilbert stayed behind to finish pruning. Their wines are superb, particularly the “Grandes-Places.” The 2006 is sleeping in my cellar. I’m on the prowl for the 2007. Next comes Stephane Robert of Domaine Tunnel, who produces quality white wines from St. Peray and brilliant reds from Cornas and St. Joseph. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Stephane and his wife, Sandrine at their cave in St. Peray. Not only are they making quality wines, but their generosity and graciousness are endearing. Domaine Colin Morey ‘s line-up of white Burgundy premier crus from Meursault, Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny Montrachet showed charming freshness, purity and a harmonious blend of mineality, apple and pear notes, acidity framed by a touch of oak.

Others from France worth noting are Chateau Pibarnon (Bandol), Chateau Laulerie (Bergerac), Domane Lafond (Rhone), and St. Prefert (Chateauneuf du Pape).

For the past three years, I’ve attended the International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) in Oregon where I’ve come to know many fabulous producers of Pinot Noir from around the world, particularly from Oregon and California. Many were on hand in New York. Failla’s Ehren Jordon is a pure superstar winemaker. His Pinot Noir and Syrah bottlings are produced with genuine French–like style. They are recommended highly. Other California stars included the “fantastique” portfolio of Peter Michael, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon at its best. The wow wines of Paul Hobbs Kent Rasmussen (long term cellar worthy). Rudy von Strasser of von Strasser winery in Napa was there to fulfill every Cabernet Sauvignon lover’s fantasy.

A strong band of brothers and sisters from Oregon invaded NY. Brickhouse, owned by Doug Tunnell, formerly of CBS news, poured his superb Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The affable Patricia Green presented her approachable line-up of Pinot Noir. To veterans of IPNC, Patricia is well known for her great t-shirt she sells at her winery. It reads, “Women Taste Better.” Who can argue? Penner-Ash and Cristom were there.

Now, I’ll jump back to the old world…Italy.

Powerful and traditional style Barolos from Domenico Clerico. These classic blockbusters were the stars of the day. Cellar them and forget about them from at least a decade or two. For the impatient, Cavallotto and Marengo offer more approachable gems from Piedmonte. From Montalcino, Alessandra Mililotti Ciacci showcased her charm and quality portfolio. Her Moscali has a solid gathering of Morellino di Scansono, Rosso di Montalcino and outstanding Brunello di Montalcinos.

Finally, there was a surprising discovery from the Iscaro Valley, the northern tip of Italy. Weingut Kofererhof's young winemaker Gunther Kerschlbaumer makes some of the most unique and tasty white wines you will find anywhere. The Kerner varietal was a new one for me. The jasmine and passion fruit aromas were intoxicating. His Riesling, Gewurztraimner, Sylvaner, Pinot Grigo, and Muller-Thurgau were pure delight.

The train is about to pull into Union Station. I need a glass of wine.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010