“I like my gingerbread covered with pâté de foie gras, accompanied by a nice white wine.” As Philippe sighed with pleasure at the memory, I thought: “I will never get this town.”
Dijon was the 36th city we’d stayed in during the last five months. Our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour has taken us through Greece, North Macedonia, Kosovo, Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Italy, and now France. It’s been tremendous fun, but there have been challenges, too. I’ve had to learn to read bus schedules in the Cyrillic and Greek alphabets. We’ve stayed in so many places with hazardous stairs that it’s a wonder all our limbs are still intact. And while generally the food has ranged from good to fabulous, we’ve eaten a few dishes that we didn’t find easy, most especially the traditional raw horse meat served during race week in Asti, Italy.
None of that put me off my stride. But I have finally met my match in Dijon.
Everyone assured us we’d love the food here, and Rich and I were eager to find a congenial spot to sample such local specialties as boeuf bourguignon, coq au vin, and escargots de Bourgogne. On Day One, we set off at 12:30 in search of these culinary marvels, but every eatery we passed was either utterly lacking in charm or bore a hand-written sign informing us they were closed for vacation. After wandering around for more than an hour, we finally stumbled into a place that looked promising, but the staff reacted with stares of incomprehension, gallic shrugs, and shooing motions encouraging us to leave at once. This little scene was replicated in three other restaurants, leaving us as bewildered as we were famished.
It turns out that on weekdays in Dijon le déjeuner (lunch) is invariably served from 12:00 noon to 1:30 pm. Period. Who knew?
If it wasn’t for a large supermarket in a downtown department store and a really excellent all-hours kabob house around the corner, we would have starved to death.
When we weren’t out grubbing around for food, we tried to take in the sights, but a remarkable amount of our time in Dijon was spent staring at locked doors and signs reading fermé (closed). Take Saturday, for instance. Philippe, our guide on a very entertaining food tour, told us how lucky we were to be there during European Heritage Days to enjoy free admission to all the museums, palaces, and historic monuments — plus there was a second-hand market. What fun! However, by the time the tour was over and we’d stopped back at the apartment for a short rest, we returned to the city center only discover the market dismantled and every one of the museums, palaces, and monuments closed and locked.
Despite such setbacks, we’ve managed to visit quite a few of the city’s most famous landmarks and enjoyed the city itself, especially the half-timbered houses, churches, and magnificent palaces built while the Dukes of Burgundy reigned there from the 9th century until 1477.
On the food tour, Philippe introduced us to the city’s iconic mustard, its famous gingerbread, and the tradition of the 11:00 am aperitif, an alcoholic version of elevenses that included gougères (cheese puffs) and kir, a popular French cocktail of crème de cassis (blackcurrant liqueur) and white wine. At the colorful 19th century Les Halles Market, he showed us mouthwatering produce, cheese, meat, and poultry, including the famous blue-legged Bresse chickens sold with their heads still attached, a sign of quality intended to make it easier for you to fork over 28€ ($30) a kilo for what's said to be the most pricey chicken in Europe.
“Yes they are expensive. But if you eat this, you really taste chicken,” Philippe assured us.
The market’s central café, La Buvette, was jammed, yet Philippe somehow contrived to find us seats and produce platters of Beaufort cheese, salami, ham, bread, pickles, and a glass of delicious Macon chardonnay.
On the tour, we’d learned that in Dijon one sits down to dinner between 7:00 and 7:30 pm. Armed with a recommendation from Philipe, Rich and I presented ourselves at an eatery called Dr. Wine promptly at 7:00. All the tables were reserved, the headwaiter informed us, but we could eat in the garden if we promised to leave before a late booking got there at 9:00. Wait, what? You could eat at 9:00 in this town?
I have to admit, Dr. Wine’s food was very good indeed, served in small plates like the heartier kind of Spanish tapas. We started with escargots de Bourgogne, the famous Burgundy snails cooked with garlic, butter, and herbs. Our appetizer included six jumbo snails, a complicated metal grasping tool, and a delicate fork. It was all going well (by which I mean we hadn’t disgraced ourselves by sending any snails flying onto nearby tables) until I tried to eat my last escargot. I could see it, huddled in the inner depths of the shell, but the combined efforts of Rich, a passing waiter, and myself weren’t sufficient to winkle out the little critter.
“Maybe the hour for eating snails has expired,” Rich suggested. No doubt that was the case. I let it rest in peace.
Next we ate slivers of bread topped with two kinds of heavenly cheese, fresh apricots, and a bit of apricot preserve. This was followed by the famous boeuf bourguignon, a hearty beef stew simmered in the region’s trademark red wine. I’ve had this dish before, and Dr. Wine’s was by far the smoothest, richest version I’d ever tasted.
“OK, I'm finally beginning to warm to this town,” I told Rich.
“Don’t get attached,” he said. “We’re off to Paris in a few days.”
Yes, time is getting short. We’re now on the final leg of our long journey, and after a whirlwind visit to the City of Lights, we’ll head south to Spain by rail. Due to the fast pace of the days ahead, I'm posting this earlier in the week than usual. We arrive in Seville on Saturday, which happens to be the day before my birthday.
Whew! It’s been quite a ride.
Once we’re home, I’m planning some serious down time, so don’t expect another post next week, or possibly the week after. Rich and I want to thank all of you so very much for joining us on the journey. Knowing you’re out there enjoying the stories and the recipes has inspired us every step of the way.
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“Deliciosa,” my guests all murmured politely. “Que maravilloso.”
But it was pretty obvious they didn’t really think the dinner Rich and I had prepared was delicious or marvelous. In fact, having accepted the smallest possible servings, they mostly just pushed the food around on their plates as if hoping it would somehow contrive to disappear on its own.
It was November of our second year living in Seville, and in a moment of tipsy bonhomie at a prior gathering, Rich and I had volunteered to fix a full Thanksgiving dinner for my painting class. They were thrilled. The idea they could actually sit down to this iconic American meal, one they’d watched in countless movies scenes, was intoxicating. Rich’s presentation of the turkey brought gasps of admiration. My explanation of each dish brought nods of recognition; yes, they’d seen mashed potatoes in that Woodie Allen film, on Friends, in that movie about close encounters with aliens. It was all perfect — until the moment they had to pick up a fork. Like most Sevillanos at that time, they ate nothing but traditional Spanish fare, and when presented with new foods, they literally couldn’t stomach them.
In vain I pointed out that turkey was commonly sold in Seville’s markets, and that it was hardly distinguishable from chicken. Nobody believed for one second that Rich’s stuffing, a simple dish of coarsely chopped, day-old bread with a little seasoning, was essentially the same as Spanish migas, a traditional dish of coarsely chopped, day-old bread with a little seasoning. The only thing on the table they actually liked was the cranberry sauce. Why? Because it was utterly new, and they had nothing to compare it to, so they could judge it solely on its merits.
As an American, I was raised to view novelty in my diet as a good thing. Being a nation of immigrants, we find it fun to dine on Japanese-Peruvian ceviche nikkei one day and Ethiopian wat the next. Growing up in what’s now Silicon Valley, I take technology in stride and find nothing strange about enhanced superfoods or probiotic breakfast cereals. On the other hand, our standards are so flexible that we accept non-nutritive pseudo-foods laced with dangerous chemicals and additives; in fact, we pack them in kids’ lunchboxes every day.
“America is a new country,” Martine pointed out over dinner in her smart, colorful apartment in the French alps. “In France, in Europe, it’s an old country and we have a long story. It’s a very big story. Since le Moyen Âge [Middle Ages] cooking has been very important everywhere in Europe. In the United States, it’s a new country, so you don’t have a story. So you teach differently and cook differently, and maybe it’s less important for you.”
When I asked Martine about the story behind her cooking, she said that living in the high mountains, it was all about hearty fare for sustaining yourself through severe weather. Common comfort foods were designed to stick to your ribs: cheese fondu, diot (sausages), and crozets (a small, flat, square-shaped pasta). On that warm, mid-September evening, she was preparing something a bit lighter: Blanquette de Lotte, anglerfish with mussels and vegetables.
Martine began developing her cooking skills at the age of ten. In a family that included a grandmother with nine children and 50 grandchildren, she was expected to pitch in and help. There were plenty of aunts around to instruct her in the culinary arts while her own mother was out working. Fortunately, Martine found she quite liked preparing food and later went on to take a cooking course at a well-known restaurant in the nearby town of Chambéry. Eventually she signed up with the private dining group EatWith.
“You are our first EatWith guests,” she told me. I assumed that was because she’d joined only recently, but she explained she’d been on the website for two years.
I was astonished; great food, breathtaking setting, wonderful hosts … what more could people possibly be looking for? Martine explained that most visitors zipped through Chambéry en route to the ski slopes. In fact, she and Patrick raised their eyebrows when Rich mentioned we’d booked five days there. Their voices murmured something polite, but their faces exclaimed, “But what do you do all day there?” In fact, Chambéry was my kind of town: peaceful, picturesque, and with plenty of good food.
Chambéry was delightful, but Martine’s dinner was the unquestionable highlight of our stay. We began the evening on the terrace, admiring the view of Mont Granier and the Belledonnes, sipping a delicate rosé and nibbling on ham with melon, a cheese and anchovy spread, and tapenade.
When Martine returned to the kitchen I followed, my phone’s video camera at the ready. Padding barefoot around her kitchen, she managed to seem quite calm while moving from one task to another so quickly I could barely keep up.
The Blanquette de Lotte was possibly the heartiest fish dish I’ve ever eaten: thick slabs of luscious anglerfish with succulent mussels and a sauce of broth, egg yolks, and crème fraiche. The conversation ranged over everything from travel to families to the art of table setting. Naturally we touched upon the region’s famous role as the original power base of the House of Savoy, a royal family that used diplomacy, economic skill, and shrewd marriages to maintain its influence over world events from 1003 to 1946. By the time dessert came around, the four of us were chatting like old friends.
“This is amazing,” I said, spooning up the last of my baked apple stuffed with crème fraiche and topped with vanilla ice cream. “I can’t stop eating!”
Martine grinned. “I never meet American people who don’t like to eat. You all like to eat. You are very curious and you like to eat.”
And when you think about it, that may be America’s finest gift to world cuisine. Our culinary traditions are all over the place. We have to maintain constant vigilance to keep pernicious corporations from sneaking harmful substances into our diets. Most of us don’t know a sous vide precision cooker from a masticating juicer. But we are enthusiastic omnivores who aren’t afraid to try something new. Oh sure, that can lead us astray when it comes to dubious offerings such as Koolickles (pickles brined in Kool-Aid). But it also gives us the courage to get out there and connect with people around the world, knowing that with luck, we'll discover something to love in the dishes that their ancestors cherished and handed down for centuries.
WANT TO TRY MARTINE'S MOUTHWATERING (YET SIMPLE) RECIPES?
Where are we now? Dijon, France
As you may have guessed, we're in the final phase of Our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour.
Just 10 more days to go!
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Want a simple, sure-fire way to break the ice with strangers? Try committing a social faux pas! Rich and I proved the effectiveness of this method yet again last Saturday night when we showed up at a dinner in Turin, Italy with a bottle of white wine as a hostess gift. I’d chilled it in our rental apartment’s refrigerator and now pulled it out of the bag to present it with our compliments.
“Oh my God,” exclaimed Rich. “We brought the wrong wine.”
In my haste, I’d grabbed the bottle we’d sampled two nights earlier. I was mortified. An unopened bottle of wine says, “Thanks for your hospitality.” I’m not quite sure what a partially drunk bottle says. “We’re barbarians who don’t know the first thing about social niceties” perhaps?
Fortunately for us, Carlotta and Paolo were extremely relaxed and easygoing hosts; as we fell all over ourselves apologizing, they just laughed and kept reassuring us it was fine. Meanwhile, Carlotta started handing around glasses of Rocca dei Forti, a delicious, dry, sparkling white wine. “Would you like to try it with a little vermouth?” she asked. Turin is proud of having invented vermouth back in the 18th century, and locals like to incorporate it in drinks whenever possible. We agreed at once and found that adding vermouth gave the flavor a pleasant depth.
We’d connected with Carlotta and Paolo via EatWith, aka “the Airbnb of dining,” a website that enables you to find local chefs offering private meals in their own homes. You review the menu, check available dates, alert them about any food restrictions, and book and pay in advance online. I love this feature, because it lets you arrive at the dinner without any pesky worries about having correct change or deciding whether it’s really worth another ten bucks for a handful of cookies or figuring out how much you should tip when your math skills are dampened by vino excessivo.
A few days earlier, browsing the EatWith site, I’d said to Rich, “This one sounds fabulous. Salami and cheese with truffle honey … risotto with sausage … that weird dish we tried in Cuneo, the veal with tuna we liked so much … and for dessert? Hazelnut cake with a sauce I can’t pronounce.”
“You had me at risotto,” he said. “Sign us up.”
I sent Carlotta a note explaining that we were on a Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour and asking if we could come early and film the cooking. She kindly agreed, and even though we knew wine was included in the meal, we thought we’d show up with a bottle as an extra courtesy to express our gratitude. Oh well, as they say, man plans, and God laughs. Fortunately, God wasn’t the only one laughing that night. The combination of Carlotta’s wine and our little icebreaker soon had us all talking and chuckling like old friends. Note to self: Perhaps make a point of doing something idiotic at the start of every EatWith dinner? Additional note to self: No need to make an effort, this is likely to happen all on its own.
Black and green olives accompanied our wine-and-vermouth aperitif, along with some of the slender breadsticks known as grissini wrapped in prosciutto di Parma (cured ham). Carlotta then produced a platter with local salamis and cheeses, slivers of golden pear, and two sauces — grape compote and honey with truffles — which combined divinely with the cheese.
We learned that Paolo was an architect, and that Carlotta had a small tour guide business called Torino Discovery which, in addition to traditional sightseeing, offers market tours, vermouth tastings, and chocolate sampling expeditions. Carlotta asked where we’d eaten in Turin so far, and I mentioned we had our eye on one with the tongue-in-cheek name Santa Polenta. Carlotta and Paolo cracked up.
“What?” I asked.
“Here in Turin, that’s an expression you use when you want to swear, but need to make it a mild swear,” explained Carlotta. Ah, the local equivalent of drat or gadzooks! That should come in handy. (Incidentally we did make it to Santa Polenta a few days later; see the photos below.)
The conversation naturally revolved around food, and Carlotta confided that she’d had a passion for cooking since she was a young girl. Which made it especially challenging when she learned she’d have to give up gluten altogether.
“At first,” she told me, “when I was diagnosed with celiac disease, I thought it was the end. Not only of my good eating, but also of my cooking. But actually, I would say it was a blessing in disguise. Because it helped me to look at things in a different way. And to adjust recipes, even traditional recipes, and to do more research about the science that is behind baking especially, and about cooking in general. All in all it was something that made me progress in my cooking, in my passion, and in my knowledge.”
Her skill and passion became abundantly evident as I watched her prepare the centerpiece of the meal: risotto with sausage. It’s so simple and delicious I’ve promised to make it for Rich as soon as we’re back in our own kitchen.
[Get Carlotta’s Risotto with Sausage recipe here.]
Along with the wonderful risotto, we ate vitel tonnè, thin slices of cold roast veal dressed in a creamy, slightly salty sauce flavored with tuna, a summer favorite in the region. And then, just when I was sure I couldn’t consume another mouthful, it was time for dessert.
“My hazelnut cake is of course flourless,” Carlotta said. “And really quite simple. It has just three ingredients: hazlenuts, eggs, and sugar. On top I put Moscato Zabaione. Would you like to watch me make this sauce?”
Leaving Paolo and Rich chatting at the table, Carlotta and I went into the kitchen, where she proceeded to put egg yolks and sugar in one of those fancy food processors that can also heat the food, a local brand similar to Thermomix. “I use one egg yoke and one tablespoon of sugar per person,” she said, “And for every egg yoke, I add one eggshell of Moscato.” And with that she picked up a half eggshell and used it to measure the sweet Moscato d'Asti dessert wine into the mix. “I make sure the machine heats it enough to destroy any bacteria but not cook the egg.” In minutes she had a thick, sweet, creamy sauce ready to serve.
[Get Carlotta’s Flourless Hazelnut Cake with Moscato Zabaione recipe here.]
Rich and his sweet tooth were in their glory. “This is incredible,” he said, finishing his own piece and eyeing the remains of mine. I had slowed to a halt, having reached my optimal consumption capacity back at the risotto and vitel tonnè stage. I passed my plate to him and he tucked in with a happy sigh.
“You see?” Carlotta grinned. “You can eat a full Italian meal that is good just as a gluten-y meal.”
Santa Polenta, ain't that the gospel truth!
What's your definition of Italian comfort food? Let me know in the comments below.
Unlike some of my better-organized and more practical blogger friends, I never accept free goods, services, or fees in return for promoting anything on this blog. Everything I write about is included solely because I believe you might find it interesting and useful for planning your own adventures.
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Where are we now? Turin, Italy
Where are we heading next? The French Alps
Our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour Continues!
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One of the many things I loved about living in Cleveland was Little Italy, a neighborhood where you could always find outstanding pasta, veal piccata, and Chianti, often served family style with a side of accordion music. A friend took us down there and introduced us to Angelo, owner of Nido Italia (The Italian Nest) in the old Brotherhood Loan Association building across from Holy Rosary Church. Rich and I went there often to eat homemade spaghetti and slow dance to songs made famous by Frank Sinatra.
The mix of romance and mouthwatering goodness has made Italian cuisine a favorite just about everywhere on the planet, from your neighborhood pizza parlor to Antarctica — proof that, as one blogger put it, “in a culinary sense at least, the Romans managed to take over the world.” And its reach is still expanding. A few years ago, Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano persuaded the International Space Station to provide the crew with a dinner that reminded him of home: lasagna, risotto, parmigiana, and tiramisu re-engineered for travel into space.
Luca may have found the meal comforting, but I have to confess I consider the idea of reconstituted freeze-dried tiramisu outright horrifying. Having spent the last few weeks savoring Northern Italy’s splendid cuisine, I know it’s all about fresh, local ingredients, recipes passed down for generations, and hands-on preparation in a kitchen that smells of tomato and basil. Somehow I doubt the International Space Station managed to include any of that.
Rich and I got to talking about how our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour has really upped our appreciation of good food. And that’s when it occurred to us how easy it would be for our readers to do much the same thing on a smaller scale — say ten days to two weeks in Northern Italy.
It’s the ideal place to create your own Comfort Food Tour. One glance at the map reveals a cluster of cities synonymous with great eats, such as Bologna, home of Bolognese sauce; Modena, familiar to anyone who uses balsamic vinegar; and Parma, which gave the world Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and prosciutto di Parma. In addition to the famous foodie cities, the region has countless lesser-known towns making mouthwatering contributions to the pleasures of the table.
Google “food Northern Italy” and the culinary treasures of the region pop up. The efficient train system makes it easy to travel from city to city, often in trips lasting just 30 to 40 minutes and costing less than 10€. You may find it convenient to stay in one city and take day trips to the others. Here are a few towns you might want to put on your short list.
Arriving from Croatia, we had a one-night stopover in Trieste, and Rich consulted one of his favorite apps, Triposo, to research nearby eateries. When we arrived at the cozy Trattoria alla Valle we discovered there was no menu and the proprietor only spoke two words of English: “pasta” and “fish.” Fortunately for us, both were delightful.
This ancient city offers an astonishing array of pastas, salumi (cured meat) such as prosciutto di Parma (ham), and cheeses including the iconic Parmigiano-Reggiano. To get a grip on places with this kind of overabundance, I like to connect with a food-savvy local via a cooking class, food tour, or EatWith (dinners in private homes). Cooking instructor Stefania gave us great food and lots of inside info; see my post The Secret Life of Parmesan Cheese for some of what she shared.
I’ve owned countless bottles of supermarket balsamic vinegar. Now, thanks to Stefania and to Cristina at La Consorteria 1966 in Modena, I know the difference between that and the decades-old, barrel-aged version. It’s nearly as thick and dark as molasses, and the tangy-sweet flavor enhances everything from salad to (gasp!) ice cream.
We arrived to find the lovely city of Bologna overrun with tourists during the final days of everyone’s August vacation. In such situations, there’s one sure-fire remedy: we stand with our backs to the cathedral and walk for ten minutes in just about any direction, knowing we’ll wind up someplace more interesting, less crowded, and more affordable.
And that’s how we discovered the unpretentious Trattoria Tony. Tony welcomed us with free mortadella (the grandfather of bologna sausage, aka boloney). To try the city’s iconic pasta sauce, we'd heard you don’t order spaghetti bolognese but rather tagliatelle al ragù: broad, flat noodles with a slow-cooked meat sauce flavored with tomato. Deliziosa!
This overlooked little city has gorgeous old architecture, a mellow vibe, and a cuisine as good as its neighbors’ (which is saying something!). Their signature dish is pisarei e fasö, little dumplings and borletto beans seasoned with tomato sauce and bacon. What a treat! To sample the city’s famous prosciutto, we visited the meat store Macelleria Callegari, where for some reason the proprietor was inspired to fake driving a giant meat cleaver into my head. Butcher humor!
Most famous in the US for Asti Spumanti sparkling wine, Asti is also host to the wild bareback horserace called the Palio di Asti, in which local parishes have competed since the 13th century. Caterina, a member of the Ribero family who run the Hotel Lis where we stayed, managed to finagle us invitations to the pre-race banquet staged by the Cattedrale (Cathedral) parish. We were deep in conversation with Cattedrale supporters when the appetizer arrived at the table: horse tartare, a popular local delicacy.
“These guys really know how to work a theme,” I whispered to Rich. He and I agreed, with tremendous reluctance, that the demands of hospitality required us to eat at least some of it. How was it? Much like steak tartar. I'll never know for sure, but perhaps this sacrifice on our part contributed some positive karma and was part of the reason for Cattedrale’s victory the next day — their first in 42 years.
After the race, Rich and I celebrated at the Campanaro Restaurant with a horse-free meal, concluding with a local specialty, Pesche Ripieno all’ Amaretto (Peaches Stuffed with Amaretto Cookies and Chocolate). In a city famous for sweet, sparkling wines, you can’t discuss dessert without discussing dessert wines, and at our host’s suggestion, we tried a rich Moscato d’Asti.
[See the recipe for Pesche Ripieno all’ Amaretto (Peaches Stuffed with Amaretto Cookies and Chocolate).]
For readers who want an excuse to try some good dessert wines (not that any excuse is needed), I’m providing recipes for two of Asti’s most renowned dishes: Campanaro’s Pesche Ripieno all’ Amaretto and from Caterina at the Hotel Lis, her version of Nocciole Cake. Both recipes naturally include wine suggestions.
[See the recipe for Caterina's Cake.]
Every Comfort Food Tour is different, and you certainly don’t have to eat horse or rabbit or ham to discover the joy of sharing a meal at an Italian table — whether that meal is in Italy itself, your home town, or wherever your travels take you. As the Italians say, “A tavola non si invecchia,” at the table you never grow old. In fact, being at the table, surrounded by good food, family, old friends, new friends, and the memories of other wonderful meals — that’s when we truly come alive.
Have you been to any towns in Italy that you'd include in a Comfort Food Tour? What impressed you most about the cuisine there? Let me know in the comments below.
Unlike some of my better-organized and more practical blogger friends, I never accept free goods or services in return for promoting anything on this blog. Everything I write about is included solely because I believe you might find it interesting and useful for planning your own adventures.
WHERE ARE WE NOW? CUNEO, ITALY
Our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour Continues!
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I'm an American writer living in Seville, Spain and traveling the world with my husband, Rich.
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