News and Notes: August 2001
In Croatia, a Mines-To-Vines Mission
In the eyes of the outside world, devastating wars in small countries tend to overshadow all else. Croatia, thus, is best known for its part in the conflict that destroyed the former Yugoslavia. But Croatian history did not begin in 1991. The country's cultural traditions date from at least the first Croatian kings, over 1,000 years ago, and produced, along the way, the cravat, the pen, Marco Polo--and Zinfandel. Croatians were making wine long before they were known as Croatians; Plavac Mali, which some believe is Zinfandel's direct ancestor, dates from Roman times.
Now this long tradition of winemaking is being given new life. In late July, members of an organization called Roots of Peace, working with the United Nations and the Croatian Mine Action Center, will travel to Croatia to remove land mines from one village and replace them with grapevines and wheat. This will be the group's third mines-to-vines mission in the country; earlier demining efforts were carried out in Dragalic and the neighboring Serb and Croat villages of Ciste Male and Ciste Velika.
Nobody knows how many land mines are still buried in Croatia, but estimates range as high as 3 million. Demining is an expensive (and, obviously, dangerous) process: Removing a single mine costs roughly $1,000. To fund their projects, Roots of Peace has enlisted a number of California vintners, including Robert Mondavi, Judy Jordan and Croatian-born Mike Grgich, as well as some corporate, nonprofit and federal sponsors. (This fall, Smith & Wollensky restaurants in seven cities will hold a series of $175-a-plate wine-tasting dinners to benefit Roots of Peace; for information call 800-638-6449, ext. 51.)
Since active minefields exist in former battle zones all over the world, Roots of Peace plans to take its work to other areas where, as in Croatia, people in need of massive economic rebuilding cannot even trust the land they stand on. The group hopes to plant rice in Cambodia and fig trees in Lebanon. And in Croatia, it has begun to replace the bitter harvest of war with the land's rightful crops.
Technology: Grand-Style Grills
Two new high-end grills make it clear that the simple pleasures of barbecuing are getting more advanced--and more expensive. The 56-inch Vieluxe from Weber, is made entirely of brushed stainless steel and looks like it wandered out of a four-star restaurant kitchen. It comes with all the bells and whistles, as well it should for $8,000. Under the hood, six mighty burners pump out 75,000 BTUs an hour; the two side burners are even more powerful. Stainless steel tubes evenly distribute wood smoke, and a sliding drawer hides the gas tank. There's even a built-in infrared rotisserie with a basket instead of a spit; just drop in a bird and flip the switch for a perfect roast chicken (866-843-5893). Dacor's new 48-inch model also has an infrared rotisserie, along with brass side burners and an unusually large grilling surface. But its real claim to fame is its lighting system, the first of its kind: Halogen lamps mounted under the hood illuminate the entire grill for easy after-dark cooking. We can't imagine why no one thought of this before ($3,700; 800-793-0093).
--Monica F. Forrestall
Travel: Greenhouse Effect
With the opening of the Eden Project in Cornwall, England, a former pop-music producer named Tim Smit has become one of the most visible advocates of thoughtful eating in Europe. "We buy prepared food in great variety, at relatively low cost, every day," Smit says, "but do we know or care where it comes from or how it's produced?"
Smit's $130 million creation is more than just the world's largest greenhouse; it's a spectacular theater telling the story of human dependence on plants. The exhibits, representing major ecological zones, are contained within a cluster of seven gigantic geodesic domes in a former clay mine almost 200 feet deep; the Tower of London would fit inside the Humid Tropics Biome, which houses a global range of plants. A snaking path climbs high into the curve of the dome, through cocoa trees, banana palms, scarlet-berried coffee plants, sugarcane, pineapples, trees heavy with mangoes and custard apples.
Throughout the complex, sculpture, poetry and paintings remind us that virtually all our food comes from plants. A gold mosaic path evokes the long tradition of olive oil as a symbol of light, life and divinity; a spice galleon made of scented wood tells the story of the sixteenth-century's nutmeg wars. Eden delivers a passionate message about the planet (Smit hopes the project will lead to ideas for improvements in farming and food production), but there's no hair-shirt environmentalism here; it's all put together with wit and fun.
Now there are two new ways to enjoy the world's favorite spice. Pure Madagascar vanilla paste from Nielsen-Massey is (despite the name) a thick syrup with the full-bodied flavor and the myriad tiny seeds you get from fresh vanilla pods. It can be used measure-for-measure in place of vanilla extract ($12 for a 4-ounce jar; 800-525-7873). On the home front, Hawaiian Vanilla Company offers the only vanilla beans commercially grown in the United States. The beans, farmed on the sunny Hamakua coast of the Big Island, are intensely aromatic ($5 each; vanillavineyards.com).
Address Book: The Berkshires
More than 30 years ago, Pauline Kael, the famously fearless movie critic for the New Yorker (now retired), traded in Central Park West for the Berkshires town of Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Then it was something of a backwater; now it's a tourist magnet--skiing in the winter, concerts in the summer--and the culinary scene has flourished. Kael's opinions about restaurants are as diamond sharp (and diamond hard) as her opinions about movies. These are some of her favorite spots.
Babalouie's The thin-crust pizza is a marvel any New York pizzeria would be proud to claim. Kael likes the Isabella: roasted sweet potatoes, parsnips, shaved fennel, onions, garlic, mozzarella and Parmesan (286 Main St.; 413-528-8100).
Castle Street Cafe "I've watched this restaurant become more elegant, and tastier, over the years," Kael says. The current menu includes everything from an olive sampler to a salmon fillet with green-tomato salsa (10 Castle St.; 413-528-5244).
Union Bar and Grill This popular American hangout can get boisterous, so Kael often phones in a takeout order. "They're wizards with portobello mushrooms--they mix them with the damnedest things" (293 Main St.; 413-528-6228).
Verdura Kael says this year-old Italian restaurant "may be the best place in town." The owners are members of the back-to-basics Slow Food movement; their cooking is both simple and sumptuous (44 Railroad St.; 413-528-8969).
Bookmark: Vietnamese Homecoming
Mai Pham left Vietnam more than 25 years ago, when she and her family fought their way onto an airplane days before Saigon fell. To write her latest cookbook, Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table ($28), she returned for the first time to the country that inspired the cooking at her Lemon Grass restaurants in Sacramento. "I had two dreams," she writes. "To reunite with my grandmother and to eat pho, my favorite food on earth, on Vietnamese soil." She did both, bringing her grandmother a wheelchair (the first in her village) and slurping bowls of the aromatic rice-noodle soup in the market stalls where she used to eat as a girl.
Pleasures has an entire chapter on pho, with recipes and helpfultips on eating it in restaurants, but it is the lesser-known, home-style dishes you most want to make for yourself. One of the best things about Pham is that she doesn't browbeat you about using authentic ingredients, so you can concentrate on cooking without feeling guilty about, say, substituting ordinary cilantro for the Vietnamese kind. Cilantro and fish sauce are hallmarks of Vietnamese cooking, to be sure, but Pham explains that what really sets the cuisine apart is the way each taste is kept distinct through a skillful use of contrast in flavors, textures and temperatures. If pho tastes like home to the author, it's in part because the clear flavor of the steaming broth is layered with the individual flavors of fresh herbs, lime juice and hot chiles.
Taste Test: Ice Cream
Our recent blind tasting of a dozen national brands of vanilla ice cream took a bit longer than most of our evaluations, what with editors trying each variety over and over, "just to make sure." When at last the results were tabulated, these four premium pints won by a landslide.
Riccardo Campinoti moved to the United States from Siena, Italy, a few years ago, and like many expatriates he missed the food and his friends most of all. Opening Terra di Siena in Atlanta, Georgia, and hiring Filippo Saporito as chef, brought him satisfaction on both counts. Saporito was a childhood rugby teammate who happened to be cooking at one of Tuscany's best restaurants, Arnolfo. Since Terra di Siena debuted in January, he's been crafting authentic modern Italian food from the best organic produce Georgia has to offer. (His take on the fashionable Tuscan pairing of shellfish with legumes is sautéed shrimp with a puree of local peas.) Desserts are dreamed up by Ombretta Giovannini, who was also lured away from Arnolfo. Even many objects in the slick, cosmopolitan interior were imported, like the lights and the Philippe Starckesque chairs, which come from a furniture shop in Siena. As for the very Vegas wine tower--Atlanta's first, we're told--we can only guess that Campinoti has picked up a few of our native customs (654 Peachtree St.; 404-885-7505).