Sunday, October 30, 2011

Croatia Part 2: The Splendors of Split

A dash of red pomegranates to the left, a slash of blue sea to the right, and straight-ahead, looming high in the distance, a salt and pepper ridge of limestone and granite cliffs. That was my first glimpse of coastal Split. Before my trip I read many travel articles comparing Croatia to other places, such as Italy. But in Split the sun seemed brighter, the mountains closer and sea's horizon was filled with the undulating shapes of distant islands. After arriving at our hotel I took a little walk around the beach area. The vibe was very familiar but altogether different, not quite Italy, not quite Greece, it was a mish–mash of its own. Croatia was not the new Italy as I'd read--I’d say Croatia is the new Croatia!  

Dinner Konoba Varos 

I was a little worried about what my first meal in Croatia would be like after I met Ivan, a Croatian living in California near Sacramento, who was on my flight from San Francisco to Split. Ivan told me he was bringing a suitcase full of Jiff peanut butter and Oscar Mayer bacon on special request for his friends and family. I was confused why people who lived in a country that supposedly had some of the best food in the world would desire peanut butter filled with partially hydrogenated goo and bacon shot throughout with nitrites and sodium phosphates. But within a few hours all my concerns were alleviated as I had the first in a series of great meals that set the tone for the rest of the trip. I chalked up the Jiff and Oscar Meyer to those odd hankerings people get for foreign foods. It's not so much that it’s good, but it's different.

The first night in Split we dined at Konoba Varoš where I got to know our driver Dino and the other four journalists on the trip. Ordering was pretty simple, you have two choices: Grilled Fish or Grilled Meats. Or just tell the waiter to bring it all!

For starters we had the following:
Salata od hobotnice -- Octopus salad with boiled octopus and onions dressed with olive oil and lemon juice. We had this many times over the next several days and I never tired of it. So fresh and simple and delicious with a crisp white wine like Pošip.

 Salane srdele –Salted sardines with onions.

 Dalmatinski prsut and Ovcji sir—Prosciutto with cheeses and olives.

Mesni carpaccio-- a carpaccio of raw beef fillet on a bed of rocket greens and drizzled with a sauce of olive oil and balsamic, lemon juice and covered with Parmesan cheese. Yum-o-rama.

We also had a platter of grilled meats that included the most succulent little things called cevapis that look like breakfast sausages, but are a far cry from Jimmy Deans. Cevapis are not encased like sausage, but more like rolled kabobs of beef, lamb or pork. There were also pljeskavica, small meat patties like hamburgers that were grilled with just a bit of seasoning and served with my new best friend - Ajvar. Ajvar is the fiery orange-red condiment of choice made from grilled peppers, eggplant and garlic that adds a piquant dash of joy to anything you slather it on. 


For an entree we had gnocchi with beef. The gnocchi was light and fluffy, the perfect vehicle by which to sop up the dark sauce covering the braised beef. Asked how exactly the dish was made, we were told the beef was marinated in olive oil and wine for 24 hours and the sauce was made with plums, prunes, pears, and vegetable stock. When pressed for more details the waiter merely said the sauce was a secret process. “It’s a process.” Hmm… we would be hearing that a lot in the days to come. 

Desert-- Palacinke (pancakes) filled with tresnja (cherry) Sir (creamed cheese) and Jabuka (apple). I skipped desert, but I must admit I would have been very happy with a bowl of Ajvar. 

Pošip Čara 2010 from Korčula and Plavac Mali ivanDolac 2007 from Hvar. The Plavac Mali was a most versatile wine--deep dark berry flavors, spicy with good tannins--it was perfect with the hearty meat dishes and surprisingly good with the seafood too.

I know what you may be thinking-- how did I possibly eat all this? Well I’d been up for close to 30 hours and I had to make up for lost calories. 

Scenes of Split--
The next day we met up with a local guide also named Dino, and took a walking tour of Split. 

A trip to the fish market foreshadowed lunch as we walked past the various offerings. Next we explored the walled section of town and toured inside the former palace in historic Split.

One odd thing I noticed in Croatia, I saw very few policemen. In other countries the tourist areas are full of armed officers in uniform patrolling the perimeter. Maybe the cops in Croatia are all in plain clothes, but nevertheless, I felt very safe everywhere we went. Except for one fleeting moment in Split, when a huge block of a man came trudging towards us from across a plaza. I was struck by his size and he literally looked like Frankenstein, a solid oblong mass of flesh and bones with squared off head and shoulders. His wrists cocked backwards as he walked as if he were paddling through the air. Of course my first instinct was to take a photo, but as he moved closer something told me that was not a good idea. It felt like an invisible energy field was spread out before him and everyone scurried aside to make way. 

Lunch --Restaurant Šperun
At Šperun we enjoyed a fresh array of mixed grilled seafood and some amazing anchovies. If you need just one reason to come to Croatia—let it be the anchovies at Šperun. Their bright sea flavor with a trace of olive oil, lemon juice and garlic will have you clapping your hands like Flipper at SeaWorld. 

Resturant owner Zdrakvo Banovic, who had a movie star air of Clark Gable about him, stated his goal is to serve an eclectic menu of authentic dishes based on Mediterranean cuisine that present Croatia as its own particular place with grilled meats such as lamb, and fresh fish dishes like his black cuttlefish risotto. He does not offer tiramisu. “Our identity is Croatian, not Italian and our cooking is representative of the region,” said Banovic.

Owner Zdrakvo Banovic, center. Anchovies, right. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Croatia Series Part 1: Bibich Dégustation

As my series on Croatia begins, I think might as well start at the top. There were many extraordinary experiences in Croatia, but the visit to Bibich was what I was most excited about beforehand. I’d already been introduced to a few of their wines by Frank Dietrich of Blue Danbue Wines during the Wines of Croatia tasting I held at my house back in August and was really looking forward to tasting more of the Bibich wines in Croatia. One clarification to avoid confusion:– Babić  is the grape name while Bibich is the winemaker. 

Press trips by their nature are very jam packed and tightly scheduled, and there was much to see and do before Bibich time, including a walking tour of Šibenik, a exquisite seafood lunch at Konoba Dalmation (more about that to come) and a visit to Krka National Park to view the waterfalls. The only problem was I’d had little to no sleep the first two nights and now was running on fumes and sheer willpower to stand upright by our third very packed day. But I willed my self to carry-on and kept reminding my self, this was the day we would visit Bibich. By 5 pm my strength was waning but just seeing the sign for Bibich perked me up. We were greeted at the door and whisked inside the cozy space where Alen Bibić gave us the background on the 500 year history of the vines and winery and it’s operation. 
Next we sat at a small table and the eight wine & seven course Dégustation began:

Pairing # 1 Bibich Brut Sparkling wine / Oysters 2 ways: Raw Oysters and Oysters with Lemon ice and Worchester Foam. I never even got to taste the lemon ice ones! My fellow (ravenous) writers jumped all over them before I got the chance. 

Pairing # 2  Debit 2010 / Cucumber sorbet topped with trout caviar.  Granita of smoked trout. The Debit was dry and lively with a mineral chalky quality and nose of flowers granite dust. The cucumber sorbet was an unexpected flavor sensation but it really made the Debit come alive. 

Pairing # 3 R5 Riserva 2008 a blend of Debit, Pošip, Maraština, Pinot Grigio, and Chardonnay –all the flavors in harmony. Paired with Sea bass tartar w/ olive oil, pepper, chili, and an orange roof. Just as this dish was served my phone died and I frantically looked for an outlet to recharge. So no photo. Sorry! UPDATE: I recently discovered photos of the Sea Bass tartar with orange roof and several more of the other pairings on my digital camera click here to view them.

Pairing #4 Lučica 100% Debit / Scallops grilled with goat cheese & black sesame seeds. The Lučica is very special limited production wine from vines close to 50 years old. Lovely rich flavors 13% alc. I was very captivated by the Lučica--
To the Eye: Golden amber color.
On the Nose: A rush of apple and apricot with a light honeysuckle and violet perfume.
On the Palate: Bright and smooth. Flavors of granite/limestone and vanilla with a touch of caramel.
In the Ear: A chorus of Angels!

Pairing #5 – Riserva R6 2008/ Cuttlefish pasta balsamic reduction and olive oil dust. The R6, a favorite of mine, is a blend of Plavic, Lasin and Babić with a floral rosy vanilla nose and full rich flavors. The pairing dish was a play on black and white, a deconstructed take on cuttlefish as a pasta with paski (cheese) cream, almonds, and a reduction of balsamic vinegar with olive oil dust. Deconstructed and delicious! This dish discombobulated me. I was no longer responsible for my actions. I was fully under the Bibich spell. 

Pairing #6 – Wine 1- Sangreal Merlot 2007/ Lamb Filet with hazel nut, chili oil and Mediterranean spice “glass top” brittle / Wine 2- Bas de Bas 2007-- The luscious Sangreal Merlot is very limited production. I suggest you try to get some. The Bas de Bas was a Crno Syrah oakey notes on the nose and palate and a deep ruby color. 

Pairing #7 Ambra / Baked Chocolate Mousse and Cream Catuluna.  Ambra Debit 100% had awesome fig and apricot flavors.

I loved all the wines, but the Lučica was the one I was most enthralled with. One in our group (I’m looking at you KL)  had the presence of mind to buy some Lučica. But I was so completely wrapped up in the reverie of the moment and in such a blissed out state I barely remember leaving under my own locomotion. I slept that night for the first time in two days and sweet dreams of Bibich danced in my head. 

Above: Me flanked by the cherubic faced Sime (right) and the slightly Faustian Alen (left)

The cozy unpretentious setting belies the world-class wine and food at Bibich. If not for the goofy red and white checkered tablecloths, which gives the place a slightly tourist feel, one might mistake it for the weigh station to heaven--wine pairing heaven that is. Soon the world will know of Bibich, as Anthony Bourdain was scheduled to stop by the next day. But up until then it was ours alone.

Bibich is located outside of Sibenik in Skradin. Do what you must to get there. It’s well worth the effort. 

Links to all Croatia Series Posts:
Croatia Part 1: Bibich Dégustation
Croatia Part 2: The Splendors of Split
Croatia Part 4- Zadar, The Perfect Date

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Croatia Series Preview: Zivili!

I'm back from Croatia and my head is spinning with all the amazing food and wine I experienced and the fabulous people I met. Before I even left the twitter support from the Croatian wine and food community was incredible. Special thanks to the Croatian Tourist Board for making the trip possible and also to:

 @TasteofCroatia , @EatDalmatia , @PaskiSir , @PASKASIRANA, Cliff Rames @WinesofCroatia , Pacta Connect @pc_wines , Sasha Burekovic @TastyWineCo , Lada Radin @ladara and of course
Frank at @BlueDanubeWine for reaching out to me with tips and suggestions.

I'm currently sorting through a pile of maps, notes, photos and videos as I prepare a series of posts dedicated to Croatia and the stories of the people who make it unique. -- So stay tuned for a wild romp though one of the most dynamic wine and food regions I've ever visited. In the meantime here is sneak peek of what's to come --

The wine and pairings at Bibich in Skradin

Tasting one minute old olive oil fresh from the press at Chiavalon in Vodnjan

Market shopping and cooking with chefs Robert Ripli and Grgur Baksic of Klub Gatstronomadi

Fresh from the sea lunch extravaganza at Konoba Dalmatino in Sibenik

Truffle Fair in Livade, Istria and the wine pairing truffle lunch at Zigante

Touring Paska Sirana on Pag and tasting the new sage infused cheese

Taking a six hour scenic detour along the coast due to extremely high Bura winds

Learning about Maraschino liqueur at Maraska in Zadar

Hanging out with winemaker Oliver Arman at Franc Arman winery in Narduci

The world's greatest cappuccino at Elis Caffe in Zagreb

And of course all the outstanding wine and grappa!!

Don't touch that dial! Stay tuned to Come for the Wine for full report on all the above and more-- Zivili!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Theater of Nature at Raymond Vineyards: Growing Wine Tourism

Four months ago I visited Raymond Vineyards for an event I felt could never be matched for sheer over the top inventiveness. Well, I was wrong. I should have known better when I got an invitation to the debut of several new features at Raymond Vineyards and the opening of the Theater of Nature. A mere four months ago the Theater of Nature was just a notion, now it is a fully realized interactive educational experience about the process of organic and biodynamic farming.

The Theater of Nature
At the gates of the theater you are met by one of the three animatronic sheep that gently takes your hand in its mouth and leads you through the exhibit explaining the 5 Acts. It's an extraordinary experience, like a Disney fantasy come to fruition.

Oh wait... I think I may have dreamt that part about the sheep, but honestly if you've ever been to Raymond you'd understand. It is like a waking fever dream of genius and madness and love for the pursuit of pleasure and understanding of wine in all it's aspects.

The Raymond estate has quietly undergone a transformation led by Jean-Charles Boisset and the Theater of Nature is just the beginning. Raymond is converting over to biodynamic practices and they are in the transition stages of gaining Demeter certification for organic growing as well.

The Theater of Nature is an educational walk in the Bio-dynamic park presented in 5 Acts starting with the Soil and continuing around to include the Plants, Animals, the Vineyardist who farms in harmony with the laws of nature and the final act, the act of Wholeness that explains to guests the process of biodynamics and the convergence of earthbound and celestial forces that directly effect the growth and quality of the plants.

My favorite part of the Theater of Nature besides the sheep and the goats and the very cool cow, was the descriptor gardens planted with different herbs and fruit trees to illustrate the aromas and flavors associated with Cabernet and Chardonnay. You are invited to wander about with your wine in hand and taste the herbs, smell the fruit and determine what's in your glass accordingly.

The Corridor of the Senses
This new experience looks much like something out of the Roman Polanski movie "Repulsion" wherein Catherine Deneuve was grabbed by disembodied hands as she went down a hallway. In the movie it was very creepy, but at Raymond it's sort of Stephen King meets Lady Gaga. Large hands are mounted on the wall holding scent vials with red tasseled puff atomizers allowing you to inhale the aromas found in wine. Breathe deep. But keep one eye open.

The Rutherford Room
The Rutherford Room is where everything you ever wanted to know about the soils and AVA's of Napa Valley can be learned in a program developed by Karen MacNeil. Large glass apothecary jars display the soil along with a maps of the area. Now you can actually see what various soil types, such as volcanic, really means and get a whiff of it too.
The Red Room
If you thought the JCB lounge was jaw dropping (I wrote about it here), wait till you see the Red Room. Or wait till you become a member, I should say. The Red Room is a members only tasting room that offers an exclusive red wine blend and classic games, such as cards or billiards, set in posh red surroundings. Oh did I mention all the surroundings are red?  Yes, I believe I did.

Before you continue reading might I suggest you pour yourself a glass of something. Perhaps the Raymond Generations Cabernet, but anything will do really, you just need to get in the proper frame of mind as I introduce you to Napa Valley's very first Oompa Loompa. I am not kidding. Now go get that glass of wine. I'll wait here. Seriously, go get it you are going to need it.

Okay you're back...ready now... follow me to the Blending Room a.k.a Willy Wonka's Wine Factory.

Blending Room
Welcome to the black lit, disco balled, and ultra futuristic Blending Room with your host Tyson Madden. Mr. Madden is the blending master and resident Oompa Loompas in Raymond's version of Willy Wonka's Wine Factory. Under the direction of Mr. Madden guests will be able craft their own personal blends and then make a customized label on the spot using their own images or logo. You even get to wear a fetching silver robe while blending. I give it high marks for sartorial reasons alone!

The Grove and Outdoor Living Room
This area on the opposite side of the winery is set up for guests to enjoy their wine in an open and relaxing setting and also play some bocce, pétanque or croquet. The Grove with it's linden trees, cafe tables and little white lights twinkling in the leaves feels very much like a little bit of Paris. The whimsical outdoor furniture alone makes this an irresistible spot in which to enjoy the day.

Growing Wine Tourism
Wine tourism is a concept that encompasses many things, and what "wine tourism" means exactly is open for discussion. But for now, I think Raymond has all the bases covered and then some. If you think wine tourism means Education, check, they have it; Entertainment, it's there; Hands on Experience, got that too. Raymond gives the visitor an array of choices and environments in which to experience wine, be it from a quiet corner of an outdoor garden, or in the full on glitz and decadence of the Crystal Cellar and Red Room. It's all happening at Raymond Vineyards and you don't even need an E ticket to get in.


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