"You can't have wine without a little something to eat," says Alisa Barry as she rummages through her fridge. Four of her girlfriends have gathered in her kitchen for wine and conversationand to get a head start on the holidays. They will prepare spice blends, flavored salts and other concoctions to bag, box, bottle and wrap as edible gifts. Barry, who runs the award-winning Bella Cucina Artful Food in Atlanta, is in her element. This is what she does for a living.
Barry dollops a spoonful of Bella Cucina's lemon-pear marmalade on a platter for her guests, then adds slivers of goat gouda, sliced fennel-sultana bread and marcona almonds. The garnish: a branch snipped from one of the olive trees that, surprisingly, not only grow but bear fruit in Barry's garden.
Barry lives a few minutes from Bella Cucina's downtown production plant and retail shop. The company's artisanal pestos, preserves and sauces are now a familiar presence in specialty food stores as well as national retailers like Whole Foods Market. These conserves are so good they are quickly put to good use rather than being pushed back into the nether regions of the pantry. The clear, curvaceous jars and the natural flavors of Barry's walnut-sage pesto, Meyer lemon spread and farmhouse sun-dried-tomato pasta sauce with capers all reflect her love of Italian culinary traditions and her refined-in-California sensibility.
After attending high school in Atlanta and Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Barry moved to San Francisco to attend cooking school. Before classes started, she answered an ad placed by a woman looking for a private chef. They hit it off, and the woman took a chance on this untrained food enthusiast. "I didn't know how to cook," Barry admits, "but I could go to the grocery store and charge anything I wanted."
After studying at Tante Marie's Cooking School in San Francisco and completing an internship at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Barry went to work for Vicki and Sam Sebastiani, who asked her to develop Italian-inspired dishes at their Viansa Winery & Italian Marketplace in Sonoma County. "I'm not a technical chef and I'm not a food historian," says Barry, "but I can create recipes."
Then, in 1989, what she expected would be a short visit to her family in Atlanta set her life on a new course. She needed to earn a little pocket money, so she began selling fancy sandwiches from a basket she toted to the city's toniest hair salons. People started to call her "The Eggplant Lady." Her well-coiffed clientelein a city where hair countsconvinced Barry to stay. In February 1993 she opened a small café inside a home-furnishings and antiques market; then she shared a booth at a local gift show and sold more than $25,000 worth of pesto, preserved lemons and other items. Her business was born.
Barry's high school friend Leslie Wierman recalls those early, heady days of Bella Cucina, when a party hosted by Barry meant sitting on the floor, drinking wine and labeling jars of pesto by hand late into the night. What are friends for? "The scene's a little different now," Wierman says with a laugh as she heads into the dining room. Barry has set the table with bowls of spice mixtures and savory salt blends. Beautiful packagingJapanese paper boxes, ribbons, clear glass bottles with cork stoppersstands ready. Votive candles cast a flickering light on the table. The whole tableau suggests a hip medieval apothecary.
The guests sit down and get to work. They scoop a Moroccan spice mixture into squares of cheesecloth and tie them into sachets, then tuck them into handsome boxes. "You just put one sachet in a stew or the cavity of a chicken as it's roasting," says Barry. "It will flavor the juices."
Next, Barry and her friends combine coarse, flaky English sea salt with dried citrus peel and fennel seeds as a rub for meat, then tamp the mixture into squat glass apothecary jars. The finished product, one guest remarks wryly, looks a bit like bath salts.
Barry fetches simple syrups, which she'd left in the kitchen to steep. The green-tea-and-honey syrupwhich is wonderful mixed with sparkling wateris ready to bottle in tall, slender flasks. The orange-cranberry syrup could work equally well with iced tea or Cosmopolitans.
Finally, the women turn to bowls of oat clusters, dried cranberries, pistachios and other granola ingredients ready for each guest to create her own mix to pack into glass jars. Clear jars are important, says Barry. When handcrafted foods are this beautiful, you want to see them.
For information on how to buy Bella Cucina products, visit bellacucina.com.
John Kessler is the dining critic at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.