Reports, Ramblings, Reminisces…

Without the constant changes in latitudes, hotels, restaurants, and internal turbulence… life just doesn’t seem as varied here on the home front. Notable events seem fewer and farther apart, so I will probably write every other week or so (unless life becomes suddenly a good deal more bizarre).

I have noted how my morning walks on West Dry Creek Road differ from those in Asia. I see a (very) occasional bicyclist or car instead of 25,000 or so elderly folks doing their morning ablutions. It’s also very cold here in the early morning, with temperatures in the high 40’s and low 50’s, a good 40-50 degrees cooler than later in the afternoon. I like it.

This time of year (the last two weeks of July to be specific) is blackberry season. We have a large field of blackberries, and last year our friend Phil cut a meandering path through the field, which has made for easy pickings. It takes only about a half an hour to fill a 3-4 pound can, and the picking is therapeutic (at least for me). You cannot hurry or you will get stuck. The only sounds I hear are the screeching of our resident red tailed hawk. It is all very Old MacDonaldish.

Not all books I read are terrific; Nicolette Hahn Niman’s RIGHTEOUS PORKCHOP being a case in point. Despite the cool title, the condemnation and description of the gruesome corporate pork and chicken industries are not that new; and the description of her newfound life as a steward of the land is a bit too precious for my taste.

Much more to my liking is SEVEN FIRES: GRILLING THE ARGENTINE WAY, by Francis Mallmann. South America’s most famous chef takes one through seven methods of cooking on open fires. His recipe for “Una Vaca Entera” says it all. The ingredients list is as follows:

  1. medium cow, about 1400 pounds, butterflied, skin removed
  2. 2 gallons Salmuera ( 2 cups salt, 8 quarts water; boiled to dissolved)
  3. 2 gallons Chimichurri

How can you not love this guy?

Last weekend was a full one. On Saturday we attended the 19th annual Wrubarb – a blowout our friends Francis and Priscilla orchestrate every summer. Wonderful food and wine in an idyllic Napa Valley setting; with the chance to catch up on old friendships, many of which go back to the 1970’s.

The next day we celebrated to 90th birthday of my mother in law, Alvina Lyons. Her daughters put together a tribute to a woman who has touched and nourished the lives of many. Another day of cheer.

On another note; in the previous blog I spoke of the demise of a Sonoma County landmark – Red’s Recovery Room. I do not like dwelling on the passing of venerable institutions; I’d rather pay tribute to those establishments that keep on trucking – like the Joe Matos Cheese Factory, located in the boonies southwest of Santa Rosa. The setting is early dilapidated, the aromas barnyard, and the cheese (a topflight cows milk farmers cheese known as St. George) is delightful. Highly recommended.

Let the summer continue. The warm days and cool nights are bringing the grapes to maturity, and the harvest will be here in no time. I’ll have a winery report and update this weekend in the State of the Street section of our website.

Check it out.

Until next time, Cheers to all.

Mike

BACK IN SONOMA COUNTY

July 16, 2009

How does it feel to return from the exotic Orient with its fantastic foods, adventuresome traffic, suspect air, and nonstop activity?

Pretty damn good, actually. Back to a budgetless land with little water, few jobs, and a dismal economy. There are, however, a few positives. Taft Street wine is widely available (if you know where to look); the first tomatoes, blackberries, gravenstein apples, zucchini, strawberries, cukes, potatoes, onions and carrots are ripening; blue skies, clean air and cool nights are the rule; plus, there are free concerts in the square. The above combinations goes a long way in soothing the soul.

(One half hour of blackberry picking)

Last minute takes on China. Took the MENGEL (high speed train) from Shanghai city to the airport. At 432 kph, the smooth and very speedy ride was spectacular.With time to spare at the Pu Dung Airport, I spotted two bottles of Chinese wine I hadn’t seen before. Despite the time (10:00 a.m.) my professional curiosity took control and I tasted the two offerings by Imperial Court: an oak aged white in the “burgundy” style, and a Cabernet Sauvignon. The oak aged white was as awful as anything I had tasted recently, but the Cabernet Sauvignon was very drinkable. Not a memorable wine, but not bad at all. There is hope.

Just finished The Sacred Willow – Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family, by Duong Van Mai Elliot; a family history from the late 19th Century through the aftermath of the Viet Nam War. I have usually looked upon Viet Nam as either a symbol of United States foreign policy run amok or as an exotic tourist destination. This book pointed out the rich, complex and often horrific period the last 100 years have been. That Viet Nam today can be such a serene and friendly place says a lot about the resiliency of its culture, and is a hopeful sign for all of us.

I read with sadness the closing of Red’s Recovery Room, and truly great dive bar in nearby Cotati. Years ago my late brother in law, Arleigh Sanderson and I undertook a quest of visiting as many dive bars in Sonoma County as possible – a true Herculean task. With the possible exception of Monte Rio’s legendary Pink Elephant, Red’s Recovery Room reigned supreme. Great name, great vibe, cold beer. Great loss.

The weekend is approaching, Kathy is returning home, friends for dinner, and out of town guests next week. Time to get out the cookbooks.
Check out the new Taft Street Website at www.taftstreetwinery.com
Cheers,

Mike

BACK IN SONOMA COUNTY

July 16, 2009

How does it feel to return from the exotic Orient with its fantastic foods, adventuresome traffic, suspect air, and nonstop activity?

Pretty damn good, actually.

Back to a budgetless land with little water, few jobs, and a dismal economy. There are, however, a few positives. Taft Street wine is widely available (if you know where to look); the first tomatoes, blackberries, gravenstein apples, zucchini, strawberries, cukes, potatoes, onions and carrots are ripening; blue skies, clean air and cool nights are the rule; plus, there are free concerts in the square. The above combinations goes a long way in soothing the soul.

Last minute takes on China. Took the MENGEL (high speed train) from Shanghai city to the airport. At 432 kph, the smooth and very speedy ride was spectacular.

With time to spare at the Pu Dung Airport, I spotted two bottles of Chinese wine I hadn’t seen before. Despite the time (10:00 a.m.) my professional curiosity took control and I tasted the two offerings by Imperial Court: an oak aged white in the “burgundy” style, and a Cabernet Sauvignon. The oak aged white was as awful as anything I had tasted recently, but the Cabernet Sauvignon was very drinkable. Not a memorable wine, but not bad at all. There is hope.

Just finished The Sacred Willow – Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family by Duong Van Mai Elliot; a family history from the late 19th Century through the aftermath of the Viet Nam War. I have usually looked upon Viet Nam as either a symbol of United States foreign policy run amok or as an exotic tourist destination. This book pointed out the rich, complex and often horrific period the last 100 years have been. That Viet Nam today can be such a serene and friendly place says a lot about the resiliency of its culture, and is a hopeful sign for all of us.
I read with sadness the closing of Red’s Recovery Room, and truly great dive bar in nearby Cotati. Years ago my late brother in law, Arleigh Sanderson and I undertook a quest of visiting as many dive bars in Sonoma County as possible – true Herculean task. With the possible exception of Monte Rio’s legendary Pink Elephant, Red’s Recovery Room reigned supreme. Great name, great vibe, cold beer. Great loss.
The weekend is approaching, Kathy is returning home, friends for dinner, and out of town guests next week. Time to get out the cookbooks.
Cheers,
Mike

HANOI DURING MONSOON 2009

What in the hell is an old Irish guy, raised in the fog in San Francisco, doing in Hanoi during monsoon?

Perspiring profusely, among other things.

My birthday was Sunday, July 5th, and I arose early (6:00 am) to walk around beautiful Hoan Kiwm Lake. This particular morning seemed to be dedicated to badminton, and the streets and parks around the lake were littered with shuttlecocks and badmintoneers – young and old, hale and infirm – playing with an enthusiasm quite unbecoming the time of day.

Heavy rain soon scattered the aspiring Olympians, and as I walked around the lake a second time (under the protection of my new best friend – the umbrella), I heard oddly familiar music accompanied by Vietnamese lyrics. Then I saw it. Under a nearby gazebo were dozens of couples, waltzing to taped music!

Where am I?

Hanoi/Viet Nam – places I spent a great deal of energy in my youth trying to avoid. There seems little reason to stay away today. Viet Nam is cool (not literally). The people are friendly, with few hassles in shops or markets. Drivers are maniacal, but not as homicidal as the Chinese. Beer is plentiful and cheap, especially the fresh brewed Bia Hoi Hanoi. Wine is not as catastrophic as it is in China, and we have found potable Bordeaux Blanc and Listrac Rose. The Russian River Valley is represented by a 2006 De Loach OFS Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($110), and a 2006 De Loach OFS Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($150). We’ll wait until we get home.

Breakfasts are the best. Vietnamese coffee and tea accompany fresh yoghurt, lychee, dragonfruit, sopadilla (like apricot/persimmon), pomelo, rambantans, star fruit, mangosteen, mango, crepes, dim sum, pain chocolate, pastry and baguettes, cheese selections, bacon and eggs, pho and on and on and on.

We have tried a number of well regarded Hanoi restaurants and have experienced decent to very good French food and good Vietnamese fare. I find I am looking for much stronger concentrations of cilantro, lemon grass, fish sauce, and especially lime. The search continues. I must comment on a feature in the restaurant WILD RICE. One plain stone wall in the dining room had a simple water feature. On the wall was projected a series of classic black and white slides of old Hanoi. Stunning!

July 6, 2009 Maison D’Hanoi Hotel

We left the world class serenity of the Hotel Metropole (depuis 1901) for the maelstrom of Hanoi’s old town Huan Kiem District. Whatever you may be looking for can be found here, usually in a dizzy number of variations.With just a couple of days to go, Anne (daughter in law), Lisa (sister in law), Paul (Lisa’s amuse bouche), and I enrolled in the Hoa Sua School – good cooking for a good cause. And it is. The school trains 350 orphaned youth as chefs and hospitality workers. It is a non profit organization, which helps support itself by running a cooking school, restaurants, a bakery and pastry shop, laundry, catering firm, and sewing and embroidery workshops. Good stuff.
Our class involved a trip to a major Hanoi market, where head chef Nguyen Phuong Hai pointed out the ingredients we would be using to create our meal: green papaya with BBQ beef salad; fried spring roll; fresh spring roll with pork and shrimp; and sweet black sticky rice porridge. We left the market for the school’s modern facility, where Chef Hai and students led us through the meal preparation.The results were amazingly gratifying, and I look forward to recreating the meal at home – in spite of the 60-70 separate preparations involved. This food screams for Taft Street Sauvignon Blanc and Russian River Valley Riesling.

July 8, 2009

We finally found what we have been looking for – authentic Vietnamese food in a fun local setting. The folks at the hotel suggested QUAN NGON, a cavernous building/courtyard jammed with locals. Line at door – good sign. Quick turnover – good sign. Icy beer – good sign. Prompt and friendly service – good sign. Great foot at cheap prices – very good sign! We left the restaurant an hour and a half later – sweating, mouths afire, and deeply satisfied.

I must confess to being a cookbook junkie. What started as a mild addiction has in the last couple of years grown out of control. When my wife joined Sur la Table several years ago, she and her friends provided me with dozens of books to read and evaluate – a most dangerous game as it turned out. Now I cannot visit a place without a cookbook to calm my nerves and sooth my spirit.

So I visited the cookbook section of Hanoi and found a couple of books I already own, and a smattering of books like Betty Crocker does Viet Nam in 30 Minutes. Then I spotted several copies of Bobby Chinn’s WILD, WILD EAST. I see that he has lived in San Francisco and even attended one of my alma maters (St. Mary’s College), and he is currently the bad boy of Vietnamese cooking. Then I see crossed out lines – this book has been censored!! The book is part narrative ( a plus) and when he gets into Viet Nam war history, he evidently crosses the line. The great thing is that you can usually read through the silver magic marker, and see what the tempest is all about. Signed and censored – what a find!

This morning dawned with a clear blue sky and the lake park was jammed. My favorite sight was a tiny (4’6″) Vietnamese woman in a wheelchair with silk pajamas and bright lilac crocs swaying back and forth to the beat of some questionable fusion music. God, I’m gonna miss this place.

Until next time,
Mike
http://taftstreetwinery.blogspot.com/
NI HOU FROM YUNNAN PROVINCE

There is quite a contrast between the megalopolis of Shanghai and the southeastern province of Yunnan. From the Himalayan peaks down to the rainforest bordering Myannmar and Laos, Yunnan is the most diverse province in China, both geographically and ethnically.

The city of LiJiang is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and also a focus for the Nature Conservancy. At 7800 feet Lijiang is the home of the Naxi people, descendants of Tibetan traders who established a trading center of cobbled streets, intricate canals, and distinctive buildings. Government and world wide agencies have poured tons of money into this area and a major tourist industry has developed. The result is a very handsome old town built and rebuilt with quality materials. However, the economy is now firmly tourist centered, and the shops sell curios and the restaurants are set up to get diners in and out. There is also a two block area reserved for night clubs – a high volume mix of traditonal Chinese music with disco, techno, hip hop and other such trends of which I am blissfully unaware. It was not music to my ears. One of the major tourist attractions while we were there was our grandson Otto. Almost all the tourists were Chinese and a young blonde curly headed white boy was a curioisity indeed. He had his picture taken more often than many of the local attractions, and for the most part he put up with it quite well.


The food scene is interesting. Fresh produce and pork abounds, yet most restaurants offer only average fare. However, we did find superior food at the aptly named Chinese Restaurant. Here we had roasted pork right off the spit; kau yu (bar be que fish in sauce); and baba (wheat flatbread). We passed on the bee babies – roasted bee larvae.

It was in LiJiang that we tested some more Chinese wine. I had unpleasant memories of the two dominant players in the Chinese wine industry – Dynasty and Great Wall. Both, I believe, produce wine of great mediocrity. So when I saw saw Yunnan Red, a Cabernet blend, hopes rose. Sadly, my hopes were dashed, as the wine tasted very much like cherry cola – without the fizz. The search goes on.

After 3 days we were off to Zhongdian – renamed Xannggelila (Shangri-la) by the Chinese government in 2002, undoubtedly to attract more tourists. The name Shangri-la is derived from the 1933 best selling novel by James Hilton, where airplane crash survivors found peace and harmony in a Himalayan valley. Many locations claimed they were the site upon which the book was based, but the government decreed Zhongdian was the place, so Shangri-la it is.

We hired a van to take us from LiJiang to Shamgri-la and en route we stopped at the jaw dropping Leaping Tiger Gorge; a gorge deeper than the Grand Canyon with truly terrifying rapids. We had the breathtaking experience of climbing down and up several thousand ricketty steps in the pouring rain with several thousand Chinese tourists. It got the heart pumping! Afterward, we had a lesson in how local food should be utilized. We stopped at a no named vacant restaurant, where we were led to the kitchen where 8 or 9 baskets of produce sat. We pointed to some things we knew – zucchini, beans, tomatoes, chilies, eggplant- and then sat down to a cold beer. Minutes later an eight course feast appeared. Localvore eating at its best.

So here we are at a 10,500 feet valley with glimpses of 24,000 foot Himalayan peaks. It is cold enough to wear levis and a jacket, and the rooms have fireplaces. Most of the people here are Tibetan and the food and architecture reflect this. Prayer flags and yaks are everywhere.

Dinner last night included braised yak in Tibetan sauce. The meat was terrific- lean and tender, with a wonderfully seasoned sauce. A tough and rather bland homemade bread added little.

Another outing today, with more local food. Tomorrow we put away our warm clothes and head for the heat – Hanoi and Vietnam. We will keep in touch.

For those interested in China today, check out Lost on the Planet China, by J. Maarten Troost. This Dutch born California resident gives an irreverant but often spot-on betrayal of travel in China today. Good read.

Cheers!