Monday, April 23, 2012

LIVE BUTCHERY! Tuscan Butcher Dario Cecchini Comes to PDX

Dario Cecchini visited Portland Oregon on April 17, 2012

Amongst the thundering whacks of the cleaver, exclamations in Italian, and various cuts of meat (including a whole pig's head set to one side of the butcher block that had had its hair burned off using a plumber's blowtorch), a crowd of reporters and chefs tried to comprehend the larger-than-life, eighth-generation Tuscan butcher, Dario Cecchini. Dario came to Portland Oregon at the behest of James Beard Award Finalist, Cathy Whims—chef at Nostrana restaurant—and the demonstration was streamed live on the restaurant's website. Dario is famous for shouting "Butchers of the world unite!" and I was immediately overwhelmed by the beauty of his mind and his philosophies toward food and life.

Nostrana and Cathy Whims present Dario Cecchini from Nostrana on Vimeo.

It's not the knife, it's the hands holding it.
"It is a pleasure to work with this meat. When an animal is raised well, it is easy to cut; it is not compact," said Dario, as he carefully extracted each of the ribs from the loin and side—the room filling with the sound of bones cracking. The pig was supplied by Square Peg Farms, and, during the last eight weeks of its life, it had been fed plenty of chestnuts. Dario seemed impressed with the ingredients supplied by Chef Whims overall, also complimenting the local rosemary, and he clearly was passionate about the quality of the animals that he worked with as well as the quality of the lives they led. "I don't really care so much about which breed of pig I work with—I'm not a racist. They tried to make the best breed of human and that didn't work well. Being happy is the best race, and it makes the best meat, too!"

Dario is from the town of Panzano, located in the Chianti region in Tuscany. If you've ever gone wine tasting in Chianti, you've likely driven past Dario's butcher shop, Antica Macelleria Cecchini, and restaurant, Solociccia (meaning only meat), which welcomes guests year round.

Dario has dedicated his life to discovering the best ways to butcher an animal and the best ways to cook the resulting cuts. Ripping a huge slab of fat (lardo) off of the quarter pig in front of him with his bare hands—the ripping sound like extracting Scotch tape—Dario said that guanciale (pig cheek and part of the neck) is one of his favorite cuts. "It is lardo and pancetta in one," he says, as he points to the marbling. I first learned of Dario when reading the book Heat by Bill Buford. In the book, Bill travels to Tuscany and throws himself at Dario's feet, begging for an apprenticeship. Dario clearly wants to teach people about butchery, but he doesn't want to give us a single cut: he wants to teach us to cut. "The spirit of this lesson is not to show you how to cook each part, but to give a perspective of the animal," he said. "To learn a language you must learn the alphabet. Guanciale is the alphabet. Too few people in the food world do not learn the alphabet."

I decided to eat red meat because of men like Dario. I was raised vegetarian and rarely ate red meat until I visited Italy in 2006. Suddenly, I was surrounded by meats that showed respect for the animals. For example, the care that is put into making a leg of prosciutto boggles my mind: The animal is raised on a very specific diet, slaughtered at a particular time of year, and then the meat is cured over months and sometimes years. In Italy, I put my grievances with hamburgers aside and became a ravenous red-meat eater! Dario focuses on understanding every portion of the animal and making each part taste delicious. During the question portion of the demonstration, I asked, "So, are hot dogs a good or a bad thing? They use less common cuts of meat but they are made on an industrial scale." Dario responded, "Hot dogs were once a good thing. It's great to learn other people's cultures, such as hot dogs. But, when quantity goes up the quality comes down." And that might just sum up my entire relationship with meat.

At the end of the demonstration, Dario said that he wants to bring about a Renaissance in meat. He suggested that vegans and vegetarians are very loud about their preferences, but that carnivores are very quiet. "I have no intention of being quiet," he said. He thinks that butchers should rise up against the industrial companies that sell mass-produced meat—many of which only use select parts of the animal. "If you are an artisan and you use all of the animal you have complete control," he said.

I asked Lisa Marcus, assistant to Chef Whims, what Dario wanted to do while he was in Portland. "After this, he wants to check out some of the food carts," she said.

Here are a few tips that I learned from Dario for all you aspiring butchers and chefs (I recommend watching the video above though, to hear them from the man himself):

1. Pork is a tough meat, so, in Italy, it is traditionally served with herbs that aid digestion. Dario used so much fennel flower!
2. Dario likes to cook what looked like a pork shoulder roast for 3-4 hours at 375 degrees F.
3. Dario salts and ages many of the cuts for 4-5 days before cooking.
4. When he cooks meat in wine, he uses wine that has zero additives and that hasn't been aged in wood
5. Using a plumber's blowtorch to remove the hair from an animal is very effective; it also makes the skin nice and crispy!

Monday, April 16, 2012

A First Taste of Einstein Bros's New Espresso and Neighborhood Coffee Blends

If you've been following along, you know that I've been drinking wine first thing in the morning, but I do in fact typically prefer a good cup of coffee. Einstein Bros. is releasing two new coffees, and Watershed was kind enough to invite me to the Einstein Bros. media tasting at Public Domaine coffee shop in downtown Portland.

Over a cappuccino made with the new Espresso Blend, Bruce Mullins of Coffee Bean International—who carries the awesome professional title of VP of Coffee Culture—explained the ins and outs of designing a coffee blend. He said that one of the most difficult aspects of designing a coffee blend is securing a consistent supply of coffee beans. The Einstein Bros. Espresso Blend is composed of coffee beans from South America, Central America, and Indonesia, and, just like a good red wine blend, each of the components in a coffee blend adds a particular quality, such as body, acidity, or aroma.

I should have been asking coffee-related questions at this point, but I was fully absorbed in the rich, dark flavors of the cappuccino in front of me (made with the new Espresso Blend). The coffee was impressively rich and dark without being bitter. It was robust without having rough edges. It was delicious.

After a few sips, I asked Bruce what makes a coffee taste bitter. He said that coffee beans grown at higher elevations are sometimes more bitter, and that coffee beans that are too finely ground can sometimes taste bitter. Then he brought up the dreaded stinker bean. After coffee beans are harvested, they are fermented (just like wine), typically by yeasts. Sometimes a bean ferments for too long, and this bean develops negatives flavors and aromas, from bitterness to moldy stinkiness. One stinker bean can actually ruin and entire bag of coffee.

To pair the coffees with menu items, we rolled out to the 2314 NW Lovejoy Einstein Bros. location. Angela Proctor, Director of Marketing at Einstein Noah Restaurant Group, Inc., and Chef Chad Thomspon welcomed us with a smorgasbord of menu items, including menu items off the Smart Menu. I was happily surprised to discover that my favorite menu items were healthy menu items, and I have to hand it to Chef Chad Thompson and his team for creating such flavorful and fresh options.

The Bagel Thin Eggwhites, which are served on bagels that look like they've gone on a diet, come in two styles, and I highly recommend grabbing the Asparagus, Mushroom, and Swiss ($4.50 - pictured above). The asparagus is crunchy and we all know what happens when Swiss and mushrooms are put together! When so many coffee shops stick to pastries and donuts, Einstein Bros. supplies a long list of healthy and delicious options (in fact, 30-40% of the menu is healthy). Other knock-outs included the Chipotle Chicken Chopped Salad, which features the signature chipotle dressing; the numerous schmears for the bagels, including the surprisingly spicy Jalapeno Salsa schmear; and the Cinnamon Walnut Strudel (hey, you can't eat healthy all the time!).

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Ravenous Breakfast

Teran and cheerios!

Had an great time during the Zagreb Wine Gourmet Weekend Twitter wine tasting event this morning at 8am!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Twitter Tasting of Croatian Wine at Zagreb Wine Gourmet Weekend

The Zagreb Wine Gourmet Weekend takes place this weekend, April 13-15.

(Photo by Ai@ce)

Wine writers and wine lovers from all over the world are going to celebrate Croatian wine with a Twitter tasting, and since I live on the west coast, I'll be drinking at the ungodly hour of 8am, Saturday morning! In Zagreb—and at 5 PM Croatian time mind you—wine tweeter Cliff Rames (of Wines of Croatia) will moderate a Twitter tasting and lecture on the power of Twitter and wine marketing; you can read all about it here. Consider this your invitation to drink early in the morning with the professionals! We'll sample three Croatia wines, and, though anything can happen during a Twitter tasting (and I mean anything), I expect we'll swap tasting notes and outline the general characteristics of Croatian wine, such as the most popular grape varieties and the flavor profiles of the resulting wines. It will be a great opportunity to learn about Croatian wine from a group of people who have their tongues to the ground. So pour out the Corn flakes!

My good friend, colleague, and fellow wine devotee Marcy Gordon (of Come for the Wine wine blog) will be there, as will wine celebrities James the Wine Guy and Richard Jennings. We'll be using the hashtags #WoCroatia and #ZWGW.

We'll taste Krajancic winery's 2009 Posip, Milos winery's 2006 Plavac Mali, and Terzolo winery's 2009 Teran—all graciously supplied by the Blue Danube Wine Company:

I was absolutely blown away by the wines that I drank in Croatia last fall, from the bone dry, highly ageable plavac mali reds from the southern coast to the friendly Posip whites from the Dalmatian Coast and the dynamic Terans from the Istrian Peninsula. I expect that Croatian wine will become a familiar feature in U.S. wine shops over the next decade, and whether or not you make it to the tasting, try out a bottle of Croatian wine for yourself. If your local wine shops don't have any, ask them to consider stocking some, or order straight from Blue Danube Wine Company, which is one of the main U.S. distributors.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Waterfall of Wine Weekend: The Columbia Gorge Passport Tour

26 wineries are offering discounts, special wines for wine tasting, good food, and more in the Columbia Gorge (just 45 minutes from Portland, Oregon!) from April 9 through 15.

I just returned from the opening night of the Columbia Gorge Passport Tour, and there's a lot to get excited about. The event takes place all this week and will culminate over the weekend, April 13-15. Columbia River Gorge wineries are the highlight—both in Washington and Oregon, from Hood River all the way to Kirkland, Washington (where Waving Tree Winery is the last stop on the line). Winelovers can purchase passports here, or pick them up on location at any of the participating wineries. Passports cost $15 and include discounts, such as reduced or complimentary tastings, discounts on wine purchases, discounts on hotel rooms, and so on. The event is a great excuse to visit a blossoming wine country and partake in a Gorge-wide party!

For those living in Portland, the passport tour reveals another side of Oregon wine country. Unlike in Willamette Valley, you'll find cabernets, syrahs, viognier, zindfandels, and other varietals in addition to pinot noirs. Pinot noir is still a major player, but it stands in the middle of the tasting line-up rather than across the entire table.

AlmaTerra Wines, in Bingen (right across the river from Hood River), is one of several wineries featuring live music on Friday and Saturday, and most wineries, including Marchesi Vineyards and Phelps Creek Vineyards, will be serve special appetizers to go along with the wines. The discounts offered by the wineries vary greatly. Wy'East Winery has a particularly enticing deal: All passport holders, when they purchase one bottle of wine at full price, can get an second bottle of equal or lesser value for half price. "We've got a deck and a pond, too, so it's a great place to have a picnic," said Keely Kopetz, daughter of Christie and Dick Reed, owners of Wy'East.

Other wineries offering discounts include Pheasant Valley Winery, which is offering half-price wine tastings ($2.50 for six wines); Phelps Creek Vineyards, which offers 30% discounts for new wine club members; The Pines 1852, which offers 20% off half cases; and Memaloose Wines, which will sell their Mistral Ranch Red blend for $19 instead of $23. Many wineries will also be offering barrel tastings and pouring special wines, such as library wines, rare single vineyard wines, and other winery experiments that are usually kept hidden in the back of the cellar.

The Columbia Gorge is the land of boutique wineries, and Rob McCormick, father of Memaloose Wines winemaker Brian McCormick, said that "We'll just be pouring wine and having fun." When I asked him what provoked his son to become a winemaker, Rob said, "Well, he was floundering after majoring in Philosophy of Religion at Dartmouth, then he took a trip to France and fell in love with food and wine. It changed his life, and he went on to get his masters in wine at UC Davis." Since I too majored in philosophy and fell in love with food and wine after a trip to Europe, Rob's story struck home. It also paints a picture of the winemaking scene in the Gorge. The wineries are pretty young for the most part, and the winemakers tend to be eccentric, which in turn creates a high percentage of eccentric wines (both Memaloose and The Pines 1852 had full bodied reds that tasted pepperminty to me). The Gorge is home to a massive amount of microclimates, too, which allows winemakers to draw inspiration from multiple locations–( I would say "just like a painter might use a wider variety of colors if given the chance" but that'd be a bit much, wouldn't it?).

I didn't even come close to tasting all of the wines at all of the wineries at the Columbia Gorge Grand Tasting, but here's a list of those that stood out.

The Pines 1852 - 2009 Old Vine Zinfandel (made with fruit grown in the oldest vineyard in the Northwest, this wine is rich, silky, and complex and exceptionally well balanced with notes of peppermint—a true Northwest wine!)

Phelps Creek Vineyards - 2009 Cuvee Alexandrine Pinot Noir (crafted by Burgundian winemaker Alexandrine Roy, this pinot noir is deep and balanced)

Pheasant Valley Winery - Syrah (I'm not sure the vintage, but this syrah is earthy, dark, concentrated, and very full bodied—a massive food wine for a good price; $21)

(jeez—you'd think I only visited the "P" section of the room... but there's also...)

AlmaTerra Winery, 2010 Teres White Blend (I don't like viognier wines in general, but this unique wine—a blend of viogner, roussane, and marsanne—is full-bodied, round, and yeasty; $16; Dr. Alan Busacca was pouring two white blends featuring roussane and viognier, and the two were entirely different: try to taste them side by side at the winery)

AlmaTerra Winery, 2008 Coeo Syrah (AlmaTerra makes three single vineyard syrahs, and this blend features fruit from the three vineyards; the wine is inky and masculine)

Marchesi Vineyards, 2009 Natal Dolcetto (this fantastic dolcetto took me straight back to Italy; it is light and fruit forward and has perky acidity; it is friendly enough to be an everyday drinking wine but complex enough to warrant more attention; $24)

Friday, April 6, 2012

Snapshot from The Netherlands: Van Gogh or Van Grkhoff?

As I was leaving for The Netherlands, my girlfriend's mother said, "When you return, maybe you'll be able to tell me how to pronounce Van Gogh." I hadn't realized that there was any debate, but, yes, it turns out we Americans are totally mangling the great artist's name. As part of a shore excursion offered by Viking River Cruises, I visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. On the way to the museum our tour guide said, "If you ask someone in Amsterdam 'Where is the Van Gogh Museum (pronouncing Gogh: Go),' they will say, 'Don't know.... Is he a French Impressionist?" It turns out that Gogh is not, in fact, pronounced go. Rather, the word sounds like someone clearing his or her throat then spitting a long distance. Van Grhhaufff. Listen below:

That's got to be easier than pronouncing crljenak kaštelanski, the Croatian grape that is the origin of Zinfandel and Primitivo.

I was sent to Amsterdam to cover the christening of Viking River Cruise's new longships for travel blog,

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