Monday, December 26, 2011

Croatia Part 7: A Taste of Zagreb

Since Zagreb and it’s citizens were so cool I thought the ultra groovy music of Herb Alpert --A Taste of Honey-- would be the perfect swinging background tune for this short slideshow of what we experienced. Take a look--

Running a bit late, (only 45 minutes, according to Dino*) we arrived in Zagreb and dashed through a pedestrian only section of town to meet our local guide Mladen Car aka @funkyzagreb , at the Hotel Dubrovnik. In a meta twist of fate we discovered we were to be part of a film the Zagreb tourist board was making about the gastronomic pleasures and treasures of the city. Travel writers playing tourists playing travel writers in a tourist board film about travel. Okay. Whatever...Let's do it! (*Oh yeah, that 45 minutes is a meta–meta reference to a super meta songify song.) 

So off we went to the market with the film crew in tow. We climbed the steps to the top of the Dolac Market, and then we climbed the steps again. Coverage, you know, need to get it from all angles. 
Here is the video from that day:

At the market we met our host Chef Robert Ripli from the Gastronomadi Club restaurant, and the first thing he did was pour us all a glass of Rakija which helped us temporarily forget that our every move and remark was being recorded. 

We also tasted the first release of 'Portugizac', a young Croatian wine that is sort of their version of Beaujolais. The rakija tasted of honey and apricots and it was harsh in a good way. But the Portugizac reminded me of Vinho Verde Tinto a wine I had in Portugal this past February, and it was reminiscent of Lavoris, the cinnamon flavored mouthwash that was popular in the late 70’s. 

These libations made the shopping experience all the more pleasant. We cruised through the market with Robert sniffing and tasting and buying all sorts of items for the meal we would make back at his restaurant later in the day. First we shopped the produce stands in the open square, and then we went beneath the market to an underground zone for meats and cheeses.  

After shopping, Robert left to prep for our lunch and Mladen “the urban sherpa” took us on a walking tour of upper and lower Zagreb. 

A few hours later we returned downtown to Club Gastronomadi-- a private club where chefs hang out, hone their craft, exchange chef tips, and film cooking shows. It’s also a supper club open by membership to foodie citizens. The layout is part TV-set kitchen and part hipster style speakeasy and dining room. 

At Club Gastronomadia Robert introduced us to his cohort Chef Grgur Bakšić—and we were greeted with shots of žižula, a grappa like concoction made from the čičimak fruit we bought in the market that looks like a date, tastes like an apple. Grappa, Rakija, Schnapps, whatever you call it it’s a potent hit of flavor and this particular version had a bright sweet and sour snap of lemon and apple. 

Now the film crew was back too and we were once again in meta land. Cooking in a cooking show about a cooking show. The Gastronomadi club is also used for corporate team building sessions where executives can get together to cook and resolve resentments between the marketing and engineering departments. Or not. In my experience any corporate outing is always about competition, and accordingly we were split into two teams to create a dish called Pigs in a Vineyard. Pork sautéed with shallots and grapes. 

The teams were Team Burek, the soft pasty cheese filled contenders consisting of Kimberley Lovato, Lavina Spalding aka Lil’ Accident, and our guide Malden. Team Rakija —included me, Mattie Bamman the ravenous traveler @ravenoustravelr, and writer Anne Kazel who disappeared in the middle of it all to drop off some microfilm. ( just kidding Anne...)

The affable Grgur gave us step-by-step instructions, but was entirely hands off for the most part. Meaning we really did all the cooking ourselves. While I browned the pork I noticed that several glasses of žižula were sitting unattended on a table so I convinced Mattie it was our duty as Team Rakija to finish the remaining shots. So we did. This may have affected the cooking and eventual outcome of the competition, although I think more rajika was the key to being able to stick your finger into a hot pan without worry. 

As we prepared the meal, Robert opened more wines and Grgur rolled out the dough for the baked zucchini and cheese filled dish – a component of the Zagreb continental style of cooking that would accompany the Pigs in the Vineyard meal.

Judgment time: To judge the results each team was served the other teams cooking and Robert and Grgur cast the deciding vote. It was determined Team Rajka’s polenta reigned supreme, but Team Burek’s overall meal was a winner by a nose of a pig in a vineyard…just had to get in one more meta-meta reference. But it was all good; especially the company of Robert and Grgur--two of the most fun, knowledgeable and relaxed chefs I’ve ever met. 

This post concludes my Croatia series. There’s no easy way to sum up the experience of Croatia or the food, wine and people that make it great-- except to say—Croatia is way more than you can imagine and far better than you’ve been told. But don’t take my word for it. Go see for yourself. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

Croatia Part 6: Istria--Truffles, Olive Oil, Prosciutto & Wine!

I think this post alone could be broken into 4 parts for the four corners of Istrian gastronomy-- Truffles, Olive Oil, Prosciutto and Wine--but I’m serving it all up in one big delicious page. So go grab a glass of Croatian wine if you have some and take a quick visit to Istria right now.

As we made our way north and inland, the landscape changed from arid to lush, from coastal to mountains, valleys and vineyards.  And the food was veering off from the gifts of the sea and towards the wonders of the woodlands and forests. Pork and swine and pigs and boars and prosciutto and...oh, did I mention pork? There were truffles too-- the MSG of the tuber family--they enhance the flavor of everything they come in contact with, but they’re not eaten on their own. I guess most people seek them out for their aphrodisiac properties as much as for flavor. (Is that correct Mattie?)

The two hotels we stayed in could not be more different. One ultra modern, and the other, an elegant boutique with a chic but cozy feeling. I'll tell you more about that later in the post--But first the Food!!


Our first stop in Istria was in Vodnjan where we met Mr. Milan Bursic, of Kod Milana Prosciutto, and toured his facility. Next to the curing facility the family restaurant Stancija Bursic, offers traditional dishes and of course the main attraction—prosciutto.

We tried a shot of something called biska that I think was mistletoe brandy. They also make an olive-liquor that I don’t recall trying but if I did, I need to go back and try it again!

In addition to a plate layered with succulent prosciutto, we had a stew called zgvacet and a platter of home made sausages with a rolled, tube like pasta called makaruni. After hours in the van with nothing more than Paprika chips this meal was consumed with gusto and it’s simplicity fully appreciated. 

We certainly ate well in Istria-- from ultra truffle gourmet to simple rustic fare, and in every instance was wonderful.  

Olive Oil

If olive oil can be “designed” then Chiavalon has the blueprint. Details are important here. Everything has been considered and chosen to support and enhance Chiavalon’s products. The tasting room, the bottles and packaging, even the logo and website.

Chiavalon began after Sandi Chiavalon became enthralled with agriculture at a very young age and then convinced the family to begin producing olive oil focusing on best possible production practices as a differentiator.

Since that time Chiavalon under the Ex Albis label has gone on to win numerous awards and accolades and was certified best in the world three times. The packaging too has won awards for it’s innovative design.

Several varieties of olives are grown and each is harvested by type and then blended like wine to achieve the superior taste and quality and although some characteristics are consistent from year to year each vintage is different.  We sampled the oils in a tasting with Tedi Chiavalon who showed us how to warm the oil in the special glasses and allow the aromas to open. The scents ranged from fresh cut green grass and tomato, to almonds.

Olive season was in full swing and after our tasting we took a short ride to the mill where we saw the hustle of the harvest first hand and got to sample seconds old olive oil fresh from the press.


The Franc Arman winery sits on 20 acres in the middle-inland section of Istria, in Vižinada, near the town of Narduči. Before we went into the cellar Oliver Arman pointed out the three distinct soils of their vineyards. We could clearly see the red, white and brown soils each with properties best suited to the grapes they grow. The area receives very little rainfall and the vineyards are dry farmed. 

After we toured the cellar and tank room we settled into Olivers office—the tasting room. Oliver sat down with us as we tasted a few of the wines including the indigenous varietals Malvazija and Teran. Oh what lovelies they were. The Malvazija was the epitome of fresh and crisp, with a pale green-yellow color. It had a scent of citrus and grapefruit and a slight apple-vanilla and white nectarine flavor that was very refreshing.

The Teran Barrique is harvested selectively for the best clusters and aged 12 months in oak “barrique” barrels. I must admit since learning about the wines of Croatia I’ve become a big Teran fan. I really love this wine-- it’s deep color and full body belies its relatively low ABV of 13%.  The 2008 Teran Barrique had a beautiful nose of rose buds and berries with medium tannins. Bring on the prosciutto and cheese! I bought a bottle on the spot knowing it would be next to impossible to find it in the states.

The Franc Arman wines are not only great food wines, but seem well suited for just hanging out with friends too. In fact Oliver’s car is inscribed with the phrase—“It’s not just a wine, it’s a lifestyle.” -- and he seems to be exemplifying that quite well.


Livade is world famous for it’s truffles and truffle oils and of course the world’s largest truffle that started it all found by Mr. Giancarlo Zignate. Zigante, his famous truffle restaurant is open year round, and during festival times you can stroll the market stalls, listen to folk music, watch a truffle hunting demo with truffle hunting dogs, and shop for truffle related merchandise. Livade is the Disney World of Truffles.

At the restaurant we feasted on truffle oils and truffle dishes such as Pasta with truffles, Duck breast with a port wine sauce, and a very creamy desert with black truffles. I actually found the ice cream and black truffles too intense for my palate. I think a bit of the truffle oil on the ice cream might have been a better pairing, but no one was asking me for menu suggestions in truffle land.  

The wines paired with each course were well matched and I especially liked the second wine-- a Gambaletto 2008 Teran. It was peppery and bright and contrasted well with the truffle overload.   

Rojvin - Hotel Lone

Honestly,  Hotel Lone is so modern, I thought we were at the airport when we first arrived. Inside it had the feel of an art gallery with an open atrium and a huge hanging installation, that when viewed from above, looked a lot like the spun sugar glass top on the lamb fillet we were served at the Bibich tasting --note the similarities in the photos above.

The Lone design is very distinct and the rooms were ultra sleek and modern. I think Steve Jobs would love it here with its attention to every detail and the design concept well integrated into every aspect of the building from the note pads to the light switches.  Fun touches like the graffiti tables in the lobby keep it from feeling pretentious. But at times I did I feel like I was in the docking station for an international space station like something out of Stanley Kubrick's 2001 a Space Odyssey. 

One puzzling thing I found was the hotel logo. If the intent was to have people stare at it for hours and contemplate it's meaning then objective achieved. I could not determine if it was an abstract image of a angel or an airplane or the left ventricle of the heart. Was it an aorta or a vertebrae? I don't know. You'll have to determine that for yourself.

"Tonight we will songify"
Dinner at Hotel Lone

Dinner at Hotel Lone was terrific and each dish more intriguing than the next. I was happy to see the Grimalda 2008, an Istrian white wine blend of three varieties – Chardonnay, Istrian Malvasia and Sauvignon Blanc, paired with the the monk fish carpaccio. Mmmmm.

Buzet - Vela Vrata Hotel

Vela Vrata feels luxurious but on a very personal scale. This is the place to relax and enjoy the leisurely pace and be pampered with creature comforts.  Every room is different and it's truly like you are staying in a grand private home. Soon Vela Vrata will have a pool and new restaurant area adjacent to the pool and the comfortably snug dining room will transition into a lounge and bar space.

Delights from the Vela Vrata dining room

Of course we did not spend nearly enough time in Istira --but it's on the top of my list of places I will return to very soon.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Ridge Monte Bello Blogger Tasting--Historical Vineyards Series

The final Ridge Vineyards Blogger Invitational of 2011 was hosted this past Sunday, December 11th, at Ridge Monte Bello in the historic barn that served as the very first tasting room for the original winery. In the barn our host, Christopher Watkins, set the stage for the tasting theme--Historic Family Farmers-- Back in time to the original family farmers that started the vineyards know as Ridge today. 

In keeping with that theme, we tasted 3 never before tried by the public wines from the Torre, Klein and Perrone vineyards. These tiny production wines are a part of the Historical Vineyards Series and were sourced entirely from the original planting locations, each wine named for one of the founding families -- Torre, Klein and Perrone. These small quantity wines are actually "beta releases" in a way, harvested from sub parcels, following a premise of "viticultural gerrymandering" based on original planting areas. 

Also part of the tasting was a vertical of Ridge Santa Cruz Mountains Estate Cabernet. 

But there was more to the "Historic" theme-- Christopher brought in four curious machines--ancient hunks of metal, steampunk style communication devices--called typewriters, and each blogger was required to "go back in time" and write a tasting note using one.

We got warmed up with a splash of Monte Bello Chardonnay 08-- always a pleasure.

Klein, Torre & Perrone
Historic Family Vineyards Series--

Today the oldest vines on the property are those planted by William Short in 1949. Prior to Short acquiring the property John Torre planted 100 acres on Monte Bello ridge and the old Torre winery building is now the Monte Bello tasting room.

Klein Cabernet Sauvignon 2009--
Very young and green on the nose with eucalyptus and earth tones on the palate that opened up with more dusty notes and medium-soft tannins.

Torre Ranch Merlot 2009 -- 
This wine is just a baby in terms of it's longevity and has lot's of room to develop over the next several years, but I really liked as is. It was full of flavor with plums and violets and spice. Also a brief whiff of  oregano in there. Beautiful garnet color.  

Perrone Cab Franc 2009--
A tone poem of bright fruit. Very berry, with perfume of violets and a burst of acid. Of course these wines have a lifetime ahead of them, but the Perrone was distinct and fresh and most enjoyable in the present state. The Perrone was my favorite of the Historical Vineyards series.

With these beautiful wines inspiring our palates and our brains, it was time to hit the typewriters-- below are Fred Swan and Jeff Solomon striking out a tasting note. 

I wrote a tasting note channeling the spirit of Mattie Ross from the Charles Portis novel, True Grit-- because in a way that's what Ridge wines have --True Grit. Not in a literal sense, but in a sense of honesty and purity of intent. Unfortunately my first attempt at typing the note was foiled by the fact you must manually advance the paper to the next things go a bit cramped on the page.

Next we tasted a Vertical of Santa Cruz Mountains Estate Cabernet. These wines all 100% estate grown were being featured as a holiday 3 pack in the tasting room. You better have been a very good boy or girl this year if you expect to see these beauties under your tree.

Ridge 2003 Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet -- Smokey, smoldering, and silky--with a toasty, salt water taffy nose and rich dark fruit.

Ridge 2004 Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet  -- Chalky nose with blackberry, current and minty fresh flavors. Tannins were supple but with room to bend--may need a Thai massage to loosen up a bit.

Ridge 2005 Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet  -- I found it dusty on the nose at first, that then developed into light florals with a hint of cocoa and spice. On the palate it was full of dark fruit, very concentrated-- but it's still tightly wound and needs some time to unwind.

The Mystery Guest Wine--

By the graciousness of Mr. Alan Bree, we were treated to a lovey Monte Bello 1985 Zinfandel from his private collection, which after quick calculation, Christopher determined that by drinking the bottle, of which only 33 barrels were produced, we had just enjoyed 5% of the worlds know supply of Monte Rosso Zin. Wow.

Thanks Alan. And thank you Christopher, for another fun, inspiring and enlightening blogger tasting.

Monday, December 5, 2011

7 Links Project

I met Trisha Miller (@TravelWriting) , the publisher of the Travel Writers Exchange a few years ago at Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference. Recently she wrote to me and asked if I would like to participate in the TripBase 7 Links Project. Well not recently, actually it was MONTHS ago! But I've had a few projects to take care of before I could get to it. Sorry Trisha! Anyway, Trisha's 7 links post is here
So the project asks bloggers to choose 7 links from their blog that exmplify pre-set categories. After positng the links the blogger then nominates 5 more bloggers to carry-on. It's kind of like a chain letter but without the bad luck associated if you choose not to participate. It seemed like fun so here are my links in the designated catagories:

Most beautiful post:
Beautiful?...Hmm... most recently, maybe this....The Splendors of Split... beautiful for the food and the wine and the place all at once.

Most popular post:
The Five Types of Wine Bloggers -What Kind of Blogger Are You

Most controversial post:
Most controversial and painful .... Lambrusco in the Neti Pot

Most helpful post:
The Dangers of Pine Nuts

Post whose success was most surprising:
The Wines of Croatia: A Preview -- this post became my third most traffic driving post of all time!

Post that maybe didn’t get the attention it deserved:
Harvest Epiphany -- Considering how hard I worked to get this post, it should get more attention!

Post most proud of:
This is a tricky one... Not really "most proud" of it..but it fit's the theme of pride -- Pride of Palate

So I now nominate 5 more bloggers to carry on and take part in the 7 links chain --Here they are:

Lily Chou -- Messin Around
William Allen-- Simple Hedonisms
Thea Dwelle-- Luscious Lushes
Gwendolyn Alley-- Art Preadator
Frank Morgan--Drink What U Like 

Okay bloggers-- post your 7 links as I did above and then nominate 5 more bloggers to carry on.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Eli's Caffé in Zagreb--Wake Up and Smell the Coffee

Eli's Caffé aka eliscaffe strikes me as the kind of place the protagonist in a Woody Allen movie would meet the wildly attractive (but totally unsuitable) love of his life.  He would pursue the girl, get the girl, lose the girl, and end up back at Eli's where the perfect cup of coffee would be his only consolation.

He'd sit at the counter and tell owner Nic Orosi his tale of woe, but Nic (@nikorosi) would just keep sliding him perfectly brewed cups of coffee. No words necessary. No logo. Just taste. Pure love in a cup.

The all white interior of Eli's Caffé is punctuated by a bright red counter top along the bar. At first glance it looks like a gallery space--a gallery devoted to the art of coffee. The vibe is cool, but not pretentious. It's a refuge for those seeking a superior coffee experience and taste. After your first cup you'll know you are in the right place. One of the writers in our press group stumbled upon Eli's the week before our trip began and was anxious to take us there on our last day in Zagreb. You can read Kimberley Lovato's article about Eli's Caffé here. (NOTE: this is not a direct link to the article, look for November 4th post under the blog tab.)

Throughout our visit in Croatia we were constantly bumping up against Bourdain and his entourage, either they'd just left the place we were visiting or they were scheduled to arrive the next day. That could explain why once we got to Livade in Istria (the Disney World of truffles and home of restaurant Zigante) --instead of truffels all we found were cigarette butts, empty shot glasses and a trail of carnage in the wake of Bourdain's crew. Thank God we got to Bibich first, who knows what mayhem they may have caused there.

Eliscaffe was the perfect end-cap to our trip. I'm sure Eli's will soon be ferreted out by the No Reservations producers if it hasn't already, but I'm glad, at least for the day we were there, it was a Bourdain free zone.

You can find the location and hours of operation for elilscaffe here.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Croatia Part 5-Pilgrimage to Pag: Land of Paški Sir

They say the best wine often comes from vines that struggle. The effort put out by vines to find water in arid climates or dry-farmed regions makes the grapes that much better. Well the same must be true of sheep. The island of Pag is one of the most rugged and beaten down places I've ever visited. It looks like the Alps melted into the island, leaving just the rocky barren tops visible. And it's here that the special herds of sheep struggle against the elements on a daily basis and make one of the greatest cheeses in the country. These sheep must be like the terriers of the sheep world, they are tough and don't give up easily. I don't quite understand how such restricted diet and harsh conditions creates sheep with a milk that has a high fat content. One would think it would be the opposite, thin, almost fat free milk. But that's not the case with the sheep from Pag. They are small, compact and high fat. Sort of like me.

When we crossed the bridge leading to Pag the famous Bura/Bora wind kicked up, so we got out to take a look or have a feel as it were. Yowza! That was some intense wind. Signs were rattling like something out of Close Encounters and the sea was whipping about as if a huge eggbeater was being used from above. You could see patches of white water roiling like furious mini dust devils. I could barely stand upright, and as I made my way back to the van a man came out of a stone building near the bridge. I asked him if the ripping wind was normal for the time of year. "This is nothing!" he said. Apparently it was a mild day in Pag.

I first became acquainted with Paški Sir when I hosted my Wines of Croatia tasting. US importer, Michele Buster of Forever Cheese, arranged for me to get the cheese locally in St. Helena. The cheese was one of the big hits of the day-- pairing well with both white and red wines and exceptional on its own. It's a hard cheese, but very rich and tangy with little white granules of tyrosine that crunch in your mouth, giving it a sensation sort of like pop rocks.

Unfortunately we were running a tad behind schedule so we arrived quite late in the day to Paška Sirana, the oldest cheese factory on the island of Pag. Our hosts were wonderful and I realized what an effort they'd made to accommodate us when Nenad Škoda, who led the tour, mentioned that normally all production in the factory is usually completed by noon each day. That meant these lovely people had been hanging around most of the day just to show us the process live.

Prior to the tour we donned hairnets and coats to keep our bad bacteria away from the good cheese bacteria.

The dairy has grown from a small cooperative to the largest company on the island and it still makes the cheese using centuries old methods, but the new factory was built to meet the high standards of the EU which Croatia is set to join in 2013.  It remains to be seen what the effect of joining the European Union will have on their traditions, but they are prepared to meet the new EU requirements and preserve their heritage of cheese making at the same time.

The sheep of course are the center of the entire operation, and Paška Sirana manages a herd of around 3,500 that provide the milk daily. The rest of the raw milk comes from local farmers on the island. The most productive age of the sheep is between 3-8 years. After 9 years of age they more suited to being roast lamb. And roast lamb is king around the Croatian coast. We saw numerous road side spits, a few with actual lambs roasting inside, as we drove through several small towns. Mmmm.

After the factory tour we tasted several varieties of the cheese. I loved the new sage infused style, but it is not yet available in the US market. We were given samples of a new grated style of paški sir that looked like parmesan but with a more robust flavor.

This past week Paška Sirana won 4 medals at 2011 World Cheese Awards for their PAŠKI SIR, PRAMENKO, MEDITERANO and DALMATINAC cheeses. Congratulations to the entire team.

Although Paški Sir is not that common stateside, it can be found if you put some effort into your search. Be tenacious, like one of those hearty Pag sheep and I'm sure you will be successful. {Hint: contact Forever Cheese for help}

Here's a link to another article about Pag by Matitie Bamman who was also on the trip.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

International Wine Tourism Conference 2012--Perugia, Umbria

I can't believe it's only 60 days away--the 2012 International Wine Tourism Conference is fast approaching. The location for the conference is deep in the heart of Umbria, Italy in the town of Perugia, a beautiful medieval town set high on a hill with tremendous views of the surrounding valleys. Perugia, the capital city of Umbria is well known as an art center, as well as for it's Jazz and Chocolate Festivals and the Università per Stranieri the Univeristy for Foreigners that was recently in the news for all the wrong reasons. Last year the conference was held in Portugal and you can find a list of links to all my posts about it here. Or I guess I mean this years conference, as it was just this past February.

The conference hotel for IWINETC 2012 is Hotel Gio and it's looks like the ideal setting with it's Jazz  and Wine themed rooms. Check out that bedside lamp and desk chair in the photo below!

The 2012 Conference Program is packed with some great sessions including two with Michael Wangbickler ( @mwangbickler) who hails from my neck of the woods here in California. A few program highlilghts include: Wines of Italy Grand tasting led by Master of Wine Jane Hunt, Wines of Puglia tasting and a Wines of Croatia tasting. Yay! I just visited Croatia in October and very excited to see what wines will be featured at the conference.

I'm looking forward to making new contacts and seeing old friends from last year including: Norm Oches, Paul and Merrill Bonarrigo, Melba Allen , the power couple Lara Dunston & Terrence Carter, also hope to see Jethro if his busy schedule allows.

Most of all I'm looking forward to the Blogger/Media trip which is a wonderful learning experience and major fun too. The trip takes us to Montefalco, Orvieto, Torgiano, and the Campania wine region and will include:

* Truffle hunting in teams. Release the hounds!
* Cooking classes, food & wine pairings and an olive oil museum.
* Wine, Wine, Wine and more wine at select wineries.

Birthday dinner at Quinta do Pego
Once again it will be my birthday during the trip. It will be hard to beat the celebration we had this year on the Douro-- read about it here... but I'm sure it will be equally spectacular somewhere under the volcano in Campania.

If you are considering attending the conference--don't delay-- it will be here before you know it. If you are a wine blogger it's a great event to get acquainted with wines from around the world as well as from the host country. And for those of you who are travel writers, the event is the perfect place to meet tour operators and wine region destination managers from around the globe.

See you in Umbria!

For more information and to register, visit the Wine Pleasures site:


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