October 2008 Archives

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That's Ba Culbert at the bar of her new place on Tilikum Place overlooking the statue of Chief Sealth at Fifth & Cedar. Culbert and her business partner Paul Dormann, along with GM Derin Madia, all Palace Kitchen alums, just opened a brand new breakfast-lunch-dinner coffee-house cum bistro where a printshop once cranked out posters for obscure music gigs.

Breakfast & lunch from 10 to 3, drinks & dinner from 4 to 10. The beans on toast (Essential Baking's Columbia loaf, sweet-smokey bacon in the beans) come with a fried egg and seared tomato, ten bucks. It's a comforting dish that you find in every country hotel in the UK, just not here. But Culbert's mother was English, so she grew up with this sort of food.

Yeah, all that the frou-frou Belltown stuff (cheese & charcuterie, duck confit, crab cakes) is on the menu as well, and pretty good, too. And it scares off the drunks looking for the 5-Point, two doors down.

Tilikum Place Café, 407 Cedar St., 206-282-4830 Tilikum Place Cafe on Urbanspoon

Keta Salmon on the Hyrdrogrill

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The fall run of keta is coming in now from the high seas (well, any day now; we haven't had quite enough rain yet); follow their progress here.

They've been out there for three to six years, those poor fish. Undervalued, underused, under-appreciated, and mis-named, the under-dogs of salmon are schooling up at sea with their fellow chums to give us a little taste of the last salmon run of the season.

In fact, the keta are also the last intact, sustainable salmon run left in Puget Sound, according to their champion, John Foss of Eelgrassroots, a PR firm. Says Foss: "Our local fishing fleets are out daily working to bring these beautiful fish to market, and put some dollars in their pockets after a tough season fishing up north in Alaska."

He calls the keta the zeitgeist salmon of our tough economic times. Mild of flavor, a great friend of all sauces, and a smokers dream. And affordable. Keta retail for $8 or less for filets. Tens and tens of thousands of pounds are getting shipped out weekly to the Midwest and East Coast, but relatively few keta are consumed in locally. Unfortunate. Cornichon thoroughly enjoyed the sample cooked up by Foss and his pals out at Golden Gardens on a giant salmon-grill sculpture "hydrogrill" designed by Don Hennick and welded by Dave Charles. The cool-temperature hydrogrill was ideal for the keta's mild flavor, cooking the fish perfectly without any of the charring we usually associate with barbecues.


From the street, Shaw's Crab House looks unassuming: an awning on a cross street just north of Chicago's Loop. Inside, it's two spots: a formal fish house, and an informal oyster bar. Turns out, it's part of the Lettuce Entertain You conglomerate (Maggiano's Little Italy in Bellevue is, so far, the only example in the Seattle area). The oyster bar is clearly where it's happening.

Barman Josh Keeseker and oysterman Luis Tedroza supply a sampler of virginicas from three of the country's best sources: Totten Inlet in the South Sound between Olympia and Shelton, Fishers Island on Long Island Sound, and Naragansetts from Rhode Island. Rhode Island is sweet, New York is salty and smooth, Totten Inlet is the best of both.

Regular readers will recall that we've seen the Totten Inlets before. They were named best-tasting virignica oysters in the country last year (by an east coast panel, yet), and are regularly promoted by Seattle's oyster guru Jon Rowley.

Shaw's, grateful for Jon's services on behalf of the bivalves, named him to its oyster honor roll and put his portrait in their board room. There's more coming about Jon later this week, by the way.

Shaw's Crab House, 21 E. Hubbard, Chicago 312-527-2722 Shaw's Crab House on Urbanspoon

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Oyster Bar menu at Shaw's, sampler of virginica oysters, Jon Rowley's portrait

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Regular readers of this blog know that Cornichon wears more than one hat, none more happily than director of wine tours for The International Vineyard. TIV was launched (after France In Your Glass closed) by Karen Herbst as a sibling to her successful collection of cooking school vacations, The International Kitchen. And this week in Chicago, at a meeting of American tour operators specializing in travel to France, Maison de la France (the French Government Tourist Office) recognized TIK as the best provider of special-interest programs. Our "big sister" makes good. Bravo, Karen!


Maison de la France, the French Government Tourist Office, is concerned about the declining numbers of international travelers, but optimistic. Here's what their director for the Americas, Jean-Philippe Perol, told a tourism conference after unveiling a new logo and theme for travel to France.

First off, the political landscape will change on November 5th. True, 80 percent of the French support Obama (UPDATE: figure is now 93 percent!!), but it's going to be a fresh start no matter what. People will be more confident (though not necessarily better off) after the elections. And the Bush administration's travel restrictions have, ironically, doubled the number of people with passports, to 82 million.

Second, oil prices are down (which helps the airlines) and exchange rates are more favorable to the dollar.

Third, in times of trouble, travelers go back to basics. The brand, if you will, of France remains positive. Beyond "art of living" it's "art of pleasure."

Fourth, France maintains a close relationship with a strong network of tour operators, the folks who provide the actual travel services.

No doubt about it, 2008 will end up a terrible year for tourism in general. France--the world's most visited country--will see an 8 percent decline in visitors, but still end up with 80 million from around the world, worth $55 billion in foreign revenues. The US accounts for maybe 10 percent, a figure that the French would like to see double by 2010.

More from the annual get together, dubbed French Affairs, as the week progresses.

Provence: Smells Like Team Spirit

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Participants from New York, Cape Town and Taipei; wine steward at dinner

We were a rolling United Nation: two dozen travelers from 15 countries speaking 18 languages on our little bus. All but one spoke English, all but one spoke French. Everyone else averaged (averaged!) three-plus, and not just "Where is the train station?" travel-speak, but well enough to transact business. From Swahili to more-than-passable German (the same man), from Mandarin to Italian (the same woman). It's the new face of Maison de la France, the tourism marketing arm of the French Government.

This particular trip through southern Provence preceded the 2008 edition of Destination Vignobles, a biannual promotion for tourism professionals. Far fewer North Americans this year (only 11), far more South Americans and Eastern Europeans, 36 countries, all in this together.

Globe%20w%20fiery%20angel%20in%20Avignon.JPGSurprisingly, given France's status as the world's leading source of premium wines, it wasn't until seven or eight years ago that MDLF started promoting its vineyards as a travel destination, and not until four years ago was there even a formal program. (Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Rhone have been the three destinations so far; Alsace in 2010.)

The big news this year is the creation of a joint commission to think of new ways to promote the concept, variously called Oenotourism and Vitivinitourism; nothing as simple as "Wine Tours", to be co-chaired by the ministers of agriculture and tourism. (In France, nothing is simple.) It took a German journalist to suggest putting every winery and vineyard in the country into a GPS database to help tourists navigate the back roads. And a Brit to point out he didn't need every damn one of the country's 100,000-plus vignerons to participate, just the good ones with the willingness to welcome visitors and provide them with decent wine.

Thankfully, at the closing ceremonies at the imposing Papal Palace in Avignon, the French tendency to complicate and over-intellectualize was muted. The six-course closing dinner featured seven bottlings, followed by a tasteful, politically correct aerial ballet & pyrotechnics display promoting international understanding. YouTube link here. Merci à tous!

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Seriously? Vineyards that grow in sand along the Mediterranean? A stone's throw from the glitterati beaches of St. Tropez? Seriously. It's a protected shoreline, too, ecologically sensitive, between two headlands, Cap Lardier and Cap Taillat. But just inland is Domaine la Tourraque, owned by the Brun family, a vast wooded estate that includes 100 acres of vineyards planted with rolle, ugni blanc and semillon (for white Côtes de Provence), carignan, cinsault, mourvedre and cabernet sauvignon (the authorized red varieties). You can't reach the vines by road, you need a rugged four-wheel-drive to navigate the rutted paths.

You bounce past along past hard clay and schist on the higher elevations, then emerge from the forest to find yourself on a sandy beach. Vines share space here with the ubiquitous parasol pines of Provence; only a fragile dune protects them from being burned by the Mediterranean's salt-laden mist.

The vehicles shuttle our international delegation down to a grove where the family has set out the makings of lunch. Much amazement over the purple potatoes, but there's more: fresh crunchy vegetables from the markets of Provence (you never get enough fresh veggies on these trips), served with a hearty garlic mayonnaise and plenty of 2007 La Tourraque white. There's grilled salmon to follow, with creamed spinach, then a custard-filled cake and three more wines.

Still pix can't do justice to the setting. Fortunately, there are several panoramic shots on Tourraque's website. (Google map shows it even better.) Should add that this sort of off the beaten path experience, complete with wine and picnic, is available to those in the know. Just gotta know how to navigate the Tourraque website. Kudos to the Brun family for their initiative!

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You gotta love the French. For the last eight years, we've had Captain Underpants masquerading as President, while bus stops around Paris are decorated with underwear ads like these. A bus stop! (See the schedule information reflected on the right?) Sloggi's a brand aimed at teens, no connection to Dan Savage and the crew at Slog, right? Yeah, right. We hear they pal around, you know, on the down low.

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LES ARCS, Provence--These are not your deeply colored rosés, the ones that you see on the shelves of American wine shops. No, says Jean-Jacques Benetti, director of the regional showcase for Côtes de Provence wines, the new rosés are pale, pale, pale. And some of the labels are kinda sexy, too. Rosés of one night, he calls them, but it's a night of maceration, not what you think. (It's said that there's another kind of rosé, the one that gives you a suntan: you drink until you pass out on the beach.) Anyway, this one, with the girls in old bathing suits on the label, is from Château l'Arnaude, 80 percent grenache, 20 percent cinsault, and is called, ahem, Sleepless Night.

May I draw your attention to the display case behind the bottle, please? It's produced by the official Rosé Research Center, which is trying to standardize some of the language involved. For the rosés produced in the Côtes de Provence, nine descriptors, ranging from apricot and mango to melon, raspberry and red currant. All in the pink, the pale, pale pink.

It's unfortunate that the term "rosé de Provence" still doesn't get much respect from the French themselves, let alone the greater wine world. How do they taste? Well, they may be pale, but they have firm acidity to balance their high alcohol, often 13.5 or even 14 percent. There's plenty of fruit flavor, too. The color thing is all about fashion, about what's in the ice bucket on your beachside table in St. Tropez, but the fact is, they're delicious, full-flavored and refreshing.

Sanary on Sunday

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Traveling through Provence for a couple of days on a trip organized by Maison de la France (the French Government Tourist Office) and the tourist bureau of the Var.

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There are fishing villages all along the Mediterranean coast, of course, and here's a typically picturesque one 30 miles east of Marseille: Sanary sur Mer. Traditional on Sunday mornings for locals (and perhaps Brad & Angelina) to visit the open-air market, buy some fish just off the boat, then stop in at Hotel de la Tour for a little tasting: locally grown oysters, locally harvested sea urchins, a garlicky anchoïade and couple of glasses of local wine, Domaine de la Goujonne, crisp and bright and local, blended from the principal white grape varieties grown here: mostly rolle (also called vermentino) and ugni blanc. The oysters were as fresh as you can get, and the sea urchin roe tangy with the taste of the sea. Didn't take long, glass was empty, shells were empty.

It's a modest hotel with a fantastic location, right on the harbor. The fishing boats are just beyond the windows. Our little delegation is assured that the restaurant staff do this sort of thing regularly. So what did you do Sunday morning? Watch the Hawks?

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Italian Wine Country Hosts

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This is the final post from Italy. Next stop: Provence!

My tour of Emilia-Romagna has taken me to more than a dozen wineries where I've encountered many wonderful people, tasted over 100 interesting wines, eaten fabulous meals and visited some of the world's most beautiful villages. Have now chronicled these events over the past couple of weeks, attempting to combine personal experiences with something of a global (rather than purely local) perspective on the wines. In addition to the hosts, wineries and restaurants already mentioned, I'd be remiss to omit the following.

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At Montesissa in the hills above Piacenza, young Nicola Montesissa showed off the bins of recently harvested grapes destined for passito.

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Lodovica Lusenti's winery in the Colli Piacentini avoids mainstream techniques. Her deep gold 2002 malvasia, partially aged in oak, was perfectly dry; her 2006 bonarda passito pruney and port-like. She's a bit of a rebel, but true to her own vision.

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Two brothers at La Tosa: short, lively, generous Stefano Pizzamiglio is in charge of wine making (and hospitality). His tall, taciturn brother Ferruccio handles administration. A fine example of Gutturnio here (barbera-bonarda blend), and an elegant cabernet sauvignon with 18 months of barrel aging. The usual assortment of cold cuts (pancetta, salami, prosciutto, coppa), three kinds of quiche (potato-onion, spinach, vegetarian) and a big chunk of Grana Padana cheese. Sigh.

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At Monte delle Vigne, veteran wine grower Andrea Ferrari took us on a long walk through the vineyards and poured his best wine, a barbera blend named for Verdi's famous opera, Nabucco. It's relegated to IGT status because it contains about 30% merlot, thus ineligible for the more prestigious DOC.

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La Stoppa's wine maker, the dynamic Elena Pantaleoni, had just left on a sales trip to South America. The harvest was winding down; a couple of women were still sorting the ripest grapes for passito.

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Umberto Cesari winery, one of many we visited in Emilia-Romagna, features a charismatic owner and a contented workforce (on lunch break when we stopped by).

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Finally, though hardly least, Matteo Marenghi, wine expert for Emilia's hills, co-author of definitive varietal studies, married to an Englishwoman who runs a language school in Piacenza. (We've already described his counterpart for Romagna, Andrea Spada.) And my two "minders," marketing and media expert Marta Geri (of the multi-tentacled Ph5 Group advertising & PR agency) and freelance translator Elena Scheda. Sincere thanks and heartfelt gratitude, mille grazie, to all.

Hamming It Up With Verdi

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PARMA, Italy--What could be more Italian than prosciutto? The music of Verdi, perhaps. Today, we stand at the juncture of the two. Pigs, it's said, are like the music of Giuseppe Verdi (a native of these hills)...there's absolutely nothing to throw away.

The annual Verdi festival in Parma (a city smaller than Tacoma, Wash.) features several of his operas, performed in the jewelbox Teatro Regio. They're doing Nabucco this year, an opera known for its "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves," which became the unofficial Italian anthem before the country was unified in 1861. Nearby, the massive 15th century castello of Torrechiara hosts a summer festival dedicated to Renata Tebaldi.

At the foot of the castello, in the village of Langhirano, there's a museum devoted to the production of prosciutto and its many variations, depending on the pig's anatomy and the method of preparation: ciccioli, copa, culatello, fiochetta, gola, lardo, lonzino, pancetta, salame, and, of course, the official Prosciutto di Parma, all made possible by the ready availability of salt (from the same wells that produce the soothing waters of the Apennine terme) and by nutritious feed for the pigs: the whey from the production of Parmegiano-Reggiano cheese (described in a Cornichon post on a previous visit).

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Affetati.JPGYou could live on Parma ham and Parmesan cheese, with a drop or two of balsamic vinegar from nearby Modena, perhaps, and no one would consider you a slacker. Indeed there's not a wine tasting in the region that isn't accompanied by one or the other.

But at an average lunch, the prosciutto, coppa and crudo are just for openers. There might well be a competely separate course of antipasti of marinated vegetables, followed by one or two types of pasta (ravioli, gnocchi, linguini). If it's dinner, you'd go on to a meat course (lamb almost certainly if you're in Romagna) before rounding the bend for a bite of dessert.

Your wines would also follow a traditional progression. an aperitif of sparkling malvasia is traditional. To accompany the opening cold cuts, an off-dry, slightly sparkling lambrusco. The lowest level of sparkle is dubbed vivace, the next up is frizzante; the term spumante is reserved for Champagne-style sparkling wines. I was particularly taken with the vivace style, which just barely tingles the tongue and provides a gentle counterpoint to the smooth, salty flavors of the thin slices of pink ham.

Sure, there are wonderful gastronomic restaurants all over Italy. But the part you remember is what's unique to the place you're in. Food and wine from Bologna and the of Emilia-Romagna. More about ham...and opera...tomorrow.

Language Lessons

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After%20lunch.JPGPullmino. A Pullman is one of those big coaches, a tour bus, but a pullmino is a baby, like the minivan we're riding in.

Consorzio. In English, you don't encounter a consortium every day; we're more likely to call it an association or a union. Italy's got thousands of consorzie, though. In the travel biz, for example, hotels get together by locality. Competing wineries form a consortium to promote their region.

Enoteca. A wine bar or wine cellar. The Enoteca Regionale is a wine cellar (and promotional agency) supported by a consorzio of Emilia-Romagna's wineries. My hosts for this trip.

Tanto Piacere. With great pleasure. The Enoteca's slogan.

Genitori. No, not the janitor. Nor is it genitals, though that's closer. Your genitori are your parents, your forebears, your ancestors. They're the ones who established and followed the traditions that created the system we live in today. Very important.

Vivace, Frizzante, Spumante. Three levels of spritz in wine, from the lowest level of sparkle to the biggest bubbles. Many examples in Emilia-Romagna, because that's the tradition.

Passito. Another tradition. Ripe grapes are dried in the sun after harvest to concentrate the sugars. When they're vinified, they make a delicious sweet wine, highly prized.

Agriturismo. A farmhouse inn. More than a simple bed & breakfast, the Italian agriturismo is often rather like a country hotel, complete with restaurant. Since everyone here makes wine, lunch at an agriturismo includes many bottles.

Pisolino. A nap. What I'd like after lunch.

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In a region dotted with perfect hilltop villages, Dozza stands out. It's a given that the view from its tower would extend across the vineyards and north to the Alps, almost a no-brainer that the 30-year-old Enoteca Regionale dell'Emilia-Romagna would be located within the Rocca Sforzesca (fortress) itself. But what makes Dozza unique is its biennial festival of the painted wall, when artists are invited to express themselves directly on the ancient doors, alley ways, arches, and public passages of the tiny village.

As for the Enoteca, it's an administrative center for hundreds of participating wineries as well as a well-stocked showcase and well-run wine bar that's open to the public. Yes, there's a knowledgeable sommelier on hand (800 labels, after all, not to mention olive oil, balsamic vinegar and grappa!) They face the same challenges as industry associations everywhere: representing growers with a dizzying number of grape varieties and wine styles, defending Emilia-Romagna's 18 DOC and DOCG appellations, even as legislation later this decade sweeps all the traditional nomenclature into DOP (Protected Denomination of Origin). There's optimism that the new DOP (already in use for agricultural products) will simplify matters; we hope so. Every provincial subzone of the region clings passionately to its traditions, reluctant to compromise "authenticity" with innovation, even when it's clear (to an outsider) that there's too much, say, lightly sparkling lambrusco and malvasia and not enough full-bodied barbera and bonarda. But the market for wine throughout Italy is defined by its local food, and Emilia-Romagna is no different. The prosciutto and coppa of Parma, one cannot deny, are absolutely delightful with lambrusco; the castrato (gelded lamb) of Romagna finds its perfect match with the light-bodied sangiovese grown nearby.

Campanilismo, what we'd call provincialism, is alive and well here, frustrating as hell most of the time, yet providing the reassurance of a foot planted firmly in the past. The Enoteca Regionale sponsored my trip to Italy as part of an effort to communicate the vast improvement in local wines. No argument, even though it sometimes seems their drive for quality is at odds with the very system they're promoting.

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Benessere for Benito

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Benessere is what the Italians call the pampering you get at a spa. Benito Mussolini, sometime journalist seduced by the power of politics, ended up running post-WWI Italy in much the same way as Adolf Hitler did post-WWI Germany: by appealing to the anger, shame and nationalism of its baffled, impoverished and humiliated citizenry. A native of Emilia-Romagna, he nationalized its terme, the soothing hot springs of the Apennines. In the Grand Hotel at Castrocaro, he strutted proudly, toga-clad, through the grand hallways of its Fascist-era architecture. (Art deco suited totalitarianism very well.) Then again, FDR took similar pleasure in dedicating Mt. Hood's Timberline Lodge. Actually, Timberline was built as a public works project in the same era (late 1930s), though there would not have been a faint aroma of sulfur. One fortunate, impressive legacy at the Grand Hotel is the magnificent decoration by a Florentine ceramicist, Tito Chini.

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Tasting%20at%20Campo%20del%20Sole.JPGBERTINORO, Italy--We're at the eastern end of the vineyards of Emilia-Romagna.The village itself is medieval, with a castle that houses, of all things, an interfaith museum. Its exhibits are devoted to the world's three great monothestic religions and reconciles Jewish, Christian and Islamic teachings.

Below the walls lies a spanking new winery, Campo del Sole, a huge investment by the Isoldi family. Their wine maker, Stefano Salvini, has worked all over the world, including stints at Mondavi and Sebastiani; he's got a consulting gig right now in Georgia. Their vineyards are immaculate, their ambitions high. Modern techniques, clean-finishing wines, not a bad one among them. There's a budget for marketing; Campo del Sole's bringing its road show to Seattle in February.

Higher on the hill, Fattoria Paradiso's been around since the 15th century. Graziella Prezzi has taken over from her father, who brought the winery back to prominence. She's a political powerhouse and former president of Italy's Women In Wine. Mario Batali shot an episode of his TV show here. She's got traditional wines from sangiovese and albana, new styles ("concept wines") and unique wines, best of all being barbarosso, a long-lived red variety. Danny Kaye was particularly taken with it. Graziella's beloved dog, Peti Trufi, is a foundling.

Bertinoro has a long tradition of hospitality. Local families would fight for the privilege of welcoming strangers, finally building a column festooned with "anonymous" rings. Upon tying up, travelers would be hosted by the family whose ring they were using. The mayor, Nevio Zaccarelli, tracked us down on the square and presented us with a replica of Bertinoro's famous hitching post.

Top: Graziella Prezzi and her dog, with bottle of Barbarossa in background. Side: Stefano Salvini. Below: Bertinoro hillside, mayor Nevio Zaccarelli, doorway detail of interfaith museum.

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My Dinner With Andrea

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First of all, this particular Andrea's a dude, Andrea Spada by name. Named best young sommelier in Italy a few years ago. Author of definitive guidebooks to the vineyards of Romagna. Restaurateur.

He scouted the wineries I visited last week (on a press trip sponsored by the Enoteca Regionale di Emilia Romagna), then came along for the visits and tastings. We also had dinner at his restaurant in Faenza, Noè, named Noah for the first planter of vines, the first wine maker, and, truth be told, the first to get pass-out hammered. All this after the flood, mind you.

Fig%20tart%20at%20Noe.JPGSpada's place--his third restaurant--is devoted to art as well as the harmony of wine and food. Now, most of us follow the paint-by-numbers pairings. Only rarely do we come into contact with people who are so intimately familiar with the subtle tastes and aromas of hundreds of similar wines--and ever-changing plates from the kitchen--that they unerringly find the perfect match. No hit-and-miss, no "almost." It's a satisfaction beyond words.

Seven wines for six courses, including three lovely sangioveses (Romagna's all-purpose red) and three takes on the gets-no-respect albana grape variety: two at the start of the meal with the omnipresent plate of cold cuts, one magnficent passito at the end. The grapes for passito are dried in the sun after harvest, concentrating their natural sugars for a sensational sweet wine. The 2004 bottling from Tre Rè had overtones of peaches and apricots yet plenty of acidity to complement a fig tart.

Other countries play games with their wines, adding oak chips to the juice for more "flavor" and all sorts of goop to give the wine more body. Not here. Wine is governed by rigid tradition, intense rivalries and often-petty local politics, resulting in a crazy-quilt of bottles. But there's no question about their sincerity and authenticity.

Where's the Beef?

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Chianina cattle, tall white beasts originally bred in Tuscany, are the source of bistecca alla fiorentina, one of the world's best T-bone steaks.

At Peck, the amazing food store in Milan, they display fiorentina in the shop window at 55 euros a kilo, $40 a pound. Gulp!

At Antica Locanda del Falco at Rivalta in the hills above Piacenza, they served a couple of two-inch-thick steaks this week as part of a festive meal for eight diners. (And yes, there were other things to eat: an appetizer course of four types of cold cuts and three sorts of marinated vegetables, two kinds of pasta, and three kinds of meat; in addition to the fiorentina, there were veal cutlets and braised pork.) Quickly seared, salted and peppered, drizzled with olive oil, the bistecca is carved tableside and served blue. The restaurant is in a medieval village, across from the castello described in the previous post, run by a family who previously operated butcher shops; they know their meat well.

We drank no less than five wines, the best being a Gutturnio Riserva from Il Poggiarello, a winery that's part of a marketing consortium called Mosaic, five of the best wineries in the Colli Piacentini. Gutturnio is a blend of two food-friendly red varieites, barbera and bonarda. Traditionally, it's often left slightly fizzy, but it's better with that serious cut of beef as a still wine.

More posts from Emilia-Romagna in the days ahead!

Views of Emilia-Romagna

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Vineyards of the Colli Piacentini, looking north toward the Alps.

The region of Emilia-Romagna sits like a garter high on the thigh of the Italian boot. As you stand on the slopes of the Apennines looking north across the plains of the Po valley, the snow-capped Alps stand like false teeth on the horizon. Were you to turn and hike across the top of the hills, you'd be in the yuppie playgrounds of Tuscany and Umbria. Instead, you're in the land of picture postcards: renaissance art cities strung like pearls along the ancient Via Emilia (Piacenza, Parma, Reggio, Modena, Bologna, Ravenna). For art enthusiasts, heaven.

For racing enthusiasts, Formula One heaven as well. Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini and Ducacti are all headquartered here, the pride of Italy's high-performance motor industry. The San Marino Grand Prix is held in the Romagna resort of Rimini.

Vineyards, of course. They grow a bewildering number of grape varieties, most unknown outside of Italy, made in styles ranging from slightly fizzy to full-bodied, from dry to sweet. Much of what growers can grow and wine makers can vinify is defined by legislation and tradition. And, as often happens, the best producers simply make what they like, defying the rules.

And not a few castles. The castello at Rivalta, built by the same architect who would go on to design Moscow's Kremlin, is the family home of the Contessa Zanardi Landi. The motorcycle in the courtyard belongs to her son, who's obviously following the local tradition of defying tradition: it's a Kawasaki.

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When In Romagna, Fill 'er Up!

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EMILIA-ROMAGNA, Italy--Medieval village of Brisighella , a hilltop town in the Appenines, southeast of Bologna, southwest of Ravenna. Charming "Donkey Street" has old stables on ground floor (to house the animals who worked the chalk quarries), newly desirable lodgings in the covered passageway upstairs.

Just outside town, the cooperative sells olive oil (local orchards are famous) and, of course, wine. But it's not a shop for tourist so much as a filling station for the folks who live here and trundle their casks and demijohns through the double doors. Cheapest is trebbiano at one euro per liter (roughly $1.20 a bottle). Chardonnay, sangiovese, etc., also available at slightly higher price. (Hey! This is a good thing, practiced by coops everywhere. Drains off lesser quality juice, saves cost of bottling for folks who drink plenty of wine every day. Too bad nothing like this in US.) The olive oil is 11 euros per liter, which is, surprisingly, more than you'd pay at Trader Giuseppe or Whole Paycheck.

And by the way, petrol goes for almost $9 a gallon here. And people heart Obama.

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When In Romagna ...

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Well-looked after, that's your correspondent. One of Italy's leading sommeliers as personal guide, a car & driver, a full-time translator, a press officer who checks in regularly, and a succession of wine makers, enologists, and political figures at every meal and tasting, every countryside visit. We make up our own convoy as we travel through the plains of northern Italy's Romagna region. Much industrial activity and commercial traffic but also 10 percent of Italy's vineyards.

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Outside the town of Imola (home of auto racing's San Marino Grand Prix), a winery called Tre Monti owned by brothers Vittorio and David Navacchia. They name their premium wines "Thea" in their mother's honor. Good boys they are and fine wine makers, too. They do a particularly great job with their albana, a grape variety that grows only in Romagna (all of 2,000 acres) and is its only DOCG (Italy's highest guaranty of quality). Comes in dry (fragrant, serious) and passito (from raisined grapes, sweet, lively acidity), both wonderful.

Victor's busy pulling hoses so David leads the tasting, then hosts lunch. Thin-sliced prosciutto and thick fresh-from-the-oven piadini are passed. Then raviolli filled with herbed ricotta, topped with meat ragù. Stuffed roast veal. Meringue with berries for dessert. "A simple lunch, home cooking" David explains, "because I know you're having a big dinner." Outside the kitchen door, Tommy the winery dog takes his siesta. Our little convoy, however, must move on.

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Milano: Golden Arches

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MILAN, Italy--The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, an elegant covered shopping mall with two intersecting, vaulted arcades, was built in the 19th century as a showcase of glass and wrought iron architecture. You enter from the Piazza del Duomo through a triumphal arch dedicated to the first king of the newly united Italy. (Tragically, the architect fell to his death while inspecting the stained glass dome two days before the king himself arrived to dedicate the complex.) Today its fancy jewelers and designers include Prada; its cafés include Biffi and McDonald's.

Yes, and a very tasteful Mickey D it is, too, where visitors and locals alike line up for their Big Mac value meal: only 6.90 euros, about $11. Even more surprising: in a country that has never recognized its upstart imitator of its coffee culture (that would be Starbucks, folks), there's also a big line at the McCafe inside.

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