Tuesday, August 27, 2013

In Love with the Loire

The wonderful, amazing, lovely Terresa.
Still life with mirabelle.

I can't sing my friend Terresa's praises loudly enough. She's really a remarkable woman: Kind, funny, full of life, honest, and a wonderful teacher and chef. Ever since we met two years ago, I've learned so much from her, both life lessons, and kitchen lessons. Because of her, I've expanded my culinary repertoire to include all kinds of things I once knew absolutely nothing about, including chick-pea flour cakes, olive oil pie crusts, and natural wines.

Whenever I write about vegetarianism as it relates to Paris, I have to write about Terresa. Her artisan cooking school, La Cucina di Terresa, is an undiscovered (relatively) gem that I wish more people knew about. She teaches small classes in her home to students from around the world, plus, she caters special events, does table d'hote dinners, and even hosts natural wine tours in the Loire Valley.

Those are the actual house keys to the old abode we stayed in.
The sweet little garden.

Terresa knows I'm writing this Vegetarian Paris guidebook for UK publishers Vegetarian Guides, and because she's a kind and generous person, she invited me to join her for a weekend in the beautiful Loire Valley, to see what her tours are about and therefore be able to write about them with some authority.

My train left Gare Austerlitz at 7:30 am and arrived in the little village of Onzain, near Blois, just after 9 am. Terresa had already done the day's shopping, so instead of heading to the market, we fortified ourselves on coffee, took a walk to the local boulangerie, then climbed in her little car and drove the 10 or so kilometers over windy, narrow back roads to her winemaker friend Christophe's home. Together, we would prepare lunch, drink wine, and enjoy the fruits of our labors.

So simple, yet so delicious: Terresa's eggplant tarte before entering the oven.
The vigneron had a rough year last year; a mildew killed nearly all his grapes. This year is looking much better.

These chickens, according to Christophe, get to live out their natural lives and are never, never turned into soup or something equally atrocious.
Christophe's daughter and I share the same birthday--and a fondness for food preparation.
Wandering the vineyard builds an appetite quite unlike anything else. 

The gorgeous, sweet little plums that would later become a sticky, scrumptious tarte.

Christophe's vines stretch on for about seven acres.

The day was splendid, in spite of spitting rain that kept us indoors most of the day. We prepared a wonderful meal of sweet and savory tarts and salads, and relished every bite with sips of Christophe's truly dazzling liquid elixirs. You haven't really tasted wine until you've tried natural wines; the vignerons allow their grapes to "express their individuality" and what you get is something almost magically delicious and not at all like the stuff you buy at supermarkets or even mainstream French caviste's. The wines are rustic and earthy and tingly and tasty, and they work particularly well with plant-based foods.

Our day ended at about 9pm, and the number of empty bottles we left behind was rather startling (though they weren't all full to begin with). The next day, however, I felt great and ready to head off on our next natural wine excursion.

I loved the beamed ceilings in Terresa's Loire Valley abode.
Terresa prepared a beautiful meal and whipped up a roaring fire to warm us from the outside in while the meal warmed us from the inside out. 
A late-night supper of butternut-and-homemade-almond-milk soup after a long day of wine tasting.

For my second and final day in the Loire, Terresa would take me to meet her dear friend Joel, whose winery sits on a verdant plot of rolling terrain ripe with walnut, peach, and plum trees. Terresa credits Joel--who has been tending vines here longer than most--with turning her on to natural wines, so it was with a bit of reverence that I exchanged bises with this maestro and sat down to the important task of tasting his wares.

Joel's wines have a much different flavor than his wine-making comrade Christophe's; Joel's are more fruity, intentionally more oxidized, and utterly more-ish in their own wonderful way. We tasted a white, rose, then a red--which I fell in love with and bought a bottle of on the spot. (I'd have purchased a case, but didn't want to lug the treasures home.)

Coffee time!

We shelled these beans and turned them into a delectable tomoto-bean-herb salad.

Hamming it up in the town of Pontlevoy.
A simple, wholesome and delicious lunch.
We thought we'd wandered into a park, and so began collecting and eating our "found" apples. Then we realized we were actually standing in someone's front yard. Oopla!
Terresa snapping photos of the local abbey.

After our tasting, we set off to visit the vines, stomping our feet as we marched through the tall grass to scare off any vipers that might be slithering about. We reached the vines, oohed and ahhed over their preciousness (and the fact that they were doing well, as opposed to last year, when grapes throughout the region were affected by a mildewy blight). The harvest would be later than usual this year, but at least there would be a harvest.

We passed a neighbor along the way who told us to look out for vipers. Not the thing a sandle-sporting city girl wants to hear on a day traipsing through the countryside!
Joel measures the alcohol content of one of his sparkling wines. Afterward, we drank the test material. Miam!!

The day at Joel's ended as it began at Terresa's: With liquid good cheer--only this time, it was sparkling wine instead of coffee. The fizzy, apricot-colored wine tasted of jasmine and minerals and luscious sunshine, and reignited that old Green Acres fantasy that's always there, just beneath the thin layer of common sense in my mind. "Ooh! What if I moved to the Loire, bought a little plot of land, and started growing grapes and plums and peaches?" I thought to myself. And then the thought was gone again, and we were off.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Mama Mia!

Fellow passengers on the ferry ride over from Naples.

Colorful caftans for sale at Citara spaggia (beach).

Yummy-looking, non-vegan sweets that were the local speciality.

The trip to Ischia was booked on a whim. It seemed like a nice alternative to its more glamorous sister island, Capri, and offered the added perk of thermal springs and lighter crowds. Beaches, too, were a big selling point (I swear I'll stop talking about sun, sea, and sand soon), but Italy wouldn't be nearly so tempting were it not for its most celebrated contribution to global culinary culture: Pizza. The combination of a crispy, chewy crust, salty tomato sauce, and olive oil is perpetual allure on a plate, and I couldn't wait to eat it for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert. My mouth is watering just thinking about it!

The food of the (Roman) gods?
A two-hour hop by plane from Paris and a one-hour ferry ride from Naples later, there we were, deep in emphatic-hand-gesture land, surrounded by people who really do shout "mama mia!" with dramatic flair. We worked our way across the island to our funky hotel, where we were booked in a studio that came with a well-equipped kitchen and a spacious patio with room enough for a table, chairs, and giant umbrella to shade us from the fiery summer sun.

Ischia's picturesque port.
The chickens--no, make that roosters--were an unexpected surprise at our seaside lodgings. We might not have known they were there were it not for the round-the-clock cock-a-doodle-dooing. And the resident dog, who had a penchant for barking--loudly and on end--never failed to rouse Fanny into joining the chorus. (We're still debating whether we prefer the domestic barnyard cacophony or the symphony of screaming baby noises that blare night and day back at home.)

Noisy beasts aside, relaxation came easy on Ischia. You can't help but sync with island time when everyone around you is doing the same, and that means taking it easy during the hottest part of the day, swimming, sunning, eating, reading, writing--but definitely not working.  The best way to spend a day or a week or a lifetime on an island in the Mediterranean involves the following, in no particular order:

- eat like locals do, which, in this case, meant anything dressed with perfect, sun-ripened tomatoes

Mama mia! How can something so simple taste so flipping good?
The mobile fruit-and-veg stand near our guest house.

Our local pizzeria, wedged into the rocks next to our favorite beach (which WASN'T the crowded one seen here)
A few varieties of tomatoes at the local market
Homemade lunch on the patio.

- lap up the sunshine until your skin turns a much deeper shade of whatever you had do begin with

A heated game of football on the beach--pun totally intended.

Working on my tan and enjoying the views.

- drink what the locals drink, aka vino rosso e bianco, or elixirs made from artichokes or lemons

(Or, Campari-and-soda sold in little bottles like this)

- take post-siesta strolls through the cobbled pedestrian promenade of the old city center

One of Forio's many squares that come alive at night
One of the town's prettier churches

The evening stroll is an important local ritual
Forio is a study in ochre, terracotta, and sandy white
Pretty heavenly.

- eat pizza with artichokes

Artichokeylicious pizza

I could get used to this
- leap off of slippery sea-rocks into the clear, green, super-salty water

Come swim with me!
This is what 7pm should always look like.

- soak in a pool filled with thermal water from dormant volcanoes
A view over the hot pool to the Ischian mountain tops.
Practicing for a Palm Springs retirement, Italian style.
I loved the hotel's old-school hacienda vibe
- wander into shops and make impulse buys that you will never regret, even if it was a lot of money

Why yes, I did by this awesome vintage sign!

Where's your favorite place to travel? What do you like to do there? What do you eat and drink? Give me inspiration for my next trip!