We’ve talked before about how seeking out local food on vacation has enriched our travel experiences, and a recent trip to London was no exception. We attended the Midnight Apothecary, hosted every Saturday night in the beautiful rooftop herb garden of the Brunel Museum in southeast London. Just across the street from the Thames, the Brunel Museum sits atop the very first tunnel under the river. We preferred to stay above ground, and had delicious cocktails made from herbs grown right in the garden.
The beer served was Hiver,, brewed with honey from urban London apiaries.
Last week, we made a return visit – and we hope the first of many return visits – to Tenuta di Spannocchia in central Tuscany. A former estate farmed under the mezzadria system, guests can stay at the main house (the castello) or former farmhouses scattered throughout the property. The estate produces organic wine (red, white, and rose), olive oil, and cured pork products from the heritage breed Cinta Senese. The estate also has an extensive garden that produces almost all of the food for the main house and its guests.
The bucolic setting is perfect for hiking, reading, etc., but it’s absolutely inspiring when it comes to cooking. When we open the door to our farmhouse to find a loaf of tuscan bread, a bottle of vino tavolo rosso, and large crate of produce (onions, garlic, potatoes, zucchini, string beans, tomatoes), it’s difficult to refrain from cooking right then – even if we did just come from a multi-course feast at the main house.
Of course, this was Italy, so we gravitated to pasta dishes that took advantage of the produce, the cured meat, or both. This carbonara did just that.
Spannocchia cures a variety of meat products – coppa, salame toscana, prosciutto, lardo, and pancetta. Using farro pasta purchased at the the Consorizio Agrario (see below), I made this carbonara with the pancetta and the zucchini flowers that the gardeners had kindly left attached to the fruit. First, I rendered the fat from the pancetta over low heat. Then, I added the onions and gently sauteed them. (I have found both a long rendering and gentle saute of the onions over low heat to be crucial to good carbonara.) When the pasta was cooked, I added it to the pan with eggs and grated cheese (an organic pecorino from a nearby farm) and tossed in the zucchini flowers that I had cut in a chiffonade.
Before Spannocchia, we spent several days in Siena. In anticipation for all of the cooking, we did our grocery shopping at the Consorzio Agrario. Akin to a boutique grocery store, it sells many prepared foods (and, apparently, excellent pizza) that showcase the farmers and producers from around Siena. We were lucky to find locally-made ragu made with the local boars, or cinghiale. For pasta, we made the traditional pici by hand, using only flour (both semolina and white “00”), water, and a little oil. The thick, chewy pici demands the big, bold flavors of something like boar ragu, and I would hesitate to pair it with anything delicate.
Many traditional Italian recipes are deliberately unspecific when it comes to quantities for ingredients; the preferred phrase is quanto basta, just enough. In this spirit, and because the farmhouse was totally lacking in measuring cups or spoons, the pici was simply two coffee cups of flour (one literal cup of each type) and just enough water to make it cohere.
Of course, between the salame toscana, risorgimento, and bistecca fiorentina, we needed a break from all of the meat at some point. So, a light dinner of several garden-grown vegetables was perfect.
My only regret here was that I didn’t think to roast the beets in the cooling ashes of the wood-fired pizza oven the night before.
The last time we were here, I was amazed at how easy the “00” flour was to work with. Both my gnocchi and hand-rolled pasta was so easy to work with. As with the pici, I poured out the flour on the table, added two eggs and one egg yolk, and incorporated just enough flour to make a dough. Not having my Kitchen Aid attachment from home, I stretched and rolled the dough by hand, stopping when the large disk was transparent enough to see the grain of the marble table beneath. This was paired with dried porcini mushrooms I picked up on a day trip to Volterra.
One of the highlights of a stay at Spannocchia is the salumi tasting class. It occurred to me at that moment that my food was never going to be more local than this – eating pork raised several hundred yards away, cured in a room several hundred feet away, washing it down with wine grown and vinted several hundred yards away.
We are very fortunate that we have quality wine, salumi, and flour here. It won’t taste like Spannochia, but that is exactly the point.
Before visiting Long Island two weeks ago, I had understood the name only in the most literal, geographic sense: a slender piece of land that begins where Manhattan ends and stretches far out into the Atlantic Ocean. After visiting, I now understand this as a psychological and cultural descriptor as well. What begins in Brooklyn or Queens ends very differently in Montauk.
After reading (particularly this Travel and Leisure piece and this article from the New York Times), I learned that coastal Long Island is far more than the Hamptons, which were of no interest to me. The North Fork, with its wineries and farm-to-table restaurants, clearly was.
There are an absurd number of wineries on Long Island; they appear every few seconds as you make your way northwest along Route 25. To limit my search, I began with a recent story about my two favorite wineries from here (Va La and Amalthea), which also happened to mention Shinn Vineyards. Using organic methods and wild yeasts (rather than commercial, selected strains), Shinn’s approach to wine is one of farming grapes (as opposed to solely making wines) – something to which I wholly subscribe.
Shinn is a member of the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing Association, as was the second winery we visited that day, Roanoke Vineyards. The owner and winemaker, Richard Pisacano, is also the winemaker at Wolffer Estates. (Really, these wineries are just crammed onto this sliver of land.) From Shinn, we picked up a rose with nice balance and aromas of strawberries. I was so impressed with Roanoke Vineyard’s Cabernet Franc, among the finest red wines I have tasted from an East Coast winery, that I have one set aside for late-spring dinner at The Farm and Fisherman.
Of course, all of this wine tasting would be deadly without some food. And while we didn’t want to take the time out for a proper sit-down meal or to drive to one of the farm-to-table restaurants farther out on North Fork, the North Fork Lunch Truck was set up in the parking lot of yet another sustainable winery (Bedell Cellars). Their lobster roll, which uses local lobster whenever possible, was among the finest I have tasted. It has joined the estimable company of both Oyster House and Quahog’s.
On the way home, we stopped for some excellent apple strudel (the size and dimensions of a cheesesteak) and pastries from Junda’s Pastry Crust and Crumbs for our drive home. Speaking with the owner, who kindly let us in as they were getting ready to close, we learned a bit of history about the area. Most of the farmland, including many of the wineries, was allocated to raising potatoes – Long Island as the Idaho of the East Coast. Even now, a local company makes potato chips from Long Island potatoes. We, of course, were eating a bag of said potato chips at that moment.
We’ll be back in the fall – for different wineries, perhaps, or more of the same; for a proper meal at the North Fork Table and Inn (operators of the North Fork Lunch Truck); and to stay at the Shinn Vineyards guest house – chef/winemaker/co-owner David Page makes a mean breakfast.
I’ve written in the past about my attempts to eat local food when I am traveling. This may seem obvious while vacationing on an organic farming Tuscany, but less so while in London. Still, the way I eat at home has fundamentally altered the way I eat elsewhere, whether I am working or traveling. While on my latest trip to Italy (a return to the beautiful Spannochia in central Tuscany), I saw three very distinct ways that eating local has actually improved my travel.
Vetting Restaurants. So much dining out when you travel can be a lot of fun, but the search for something worthwhile can also be exhausting. Whether the restaurant has ceased to exist since your guidebook was printed or the address of buildings seem to have no logic whatsoever, we’ve all found ourselves in that miserable state of hunger and fatigue from a fruitless search. You might think that in Italy it’s hard to have a bad meal. While that may be true (though I certainly don’t want to conduct that experiment and be proven wrong), it is also difficult to find a truly outstanding meal in the heavily-touristed places I have recently travelled to in Italy. (E.g., Most of the gelato I tasted was actually inferior to Philly’s own Capogiro.) The Slow Food organization has been indispensable guide to quality restaurants in Italy. Any meal I have eaten at a Slow-Food-endorsed restaurant has been outstanding and because its food is somehow indicative of its location, quite unique and unlike anything I might have here. Also, as much as I love the good folks at Lonely Planet, they are not restaurant critics by any stretch.
Getting off the Beaten Path. Though I am not a particularly intrepid traveller, looking for local food has made it a bit more interesting. Even when I purchase imported wine, I try purchase from small wineries that are organic or biodynamic. (Down to Earth Wines has been a consistently excellent source for them.) In fact, through a recent purchase from Down to Earth, I was very impressed with wines of Montenidoli – so much so that I arranged a tasting when we traveled to Italy. For nearly two hours, our host, Alberto, graciously showed us the estate and discussed their impressive wines. Montenidoli is, however, quite far off the beaten track, even in such a heavily touristed area.
Eating Less Formally. For whatever reason, I tend to think of sitting down to three proper meals when I travel. I have been drifting from that recently, and I suspect it has something to do with years of going to farmers markets and eating from food stalls. Now when I travel, I try to continue this “informal dining.” This was particularly true of our time in London, where we had fantastic – and fantastically cheap – meals at both Borough Market and the Sunday Upmarket. This both left more time for sightseeing and more money to spend on dinner at such fantastic places as Terroirs Wine Bar.
As we wait to board our plane here at Heathrow, I’ve been thinking about food (since it’ll hours before I get some decent food, I suppose). I spent some time getting acquainted with local food by visiting Borough Market, eating at “local” restaurants, and even shopping at a Farmer’s Market in Oxford. So, in my last few minutes in the UK, I am asking myself, “What can Philadelphia learn about local food from London?” Here, in no particular order, is what I’ve found.
Local Seafood – Naturally, I was impressed by what was available at Borough Market, but that extended to several dinners I had in London and even Oxford. Granted, London is a short distance from the coast, but so is Philadelphia, and we don’t have anything remotely commensurate. The fish and oysters I’ve had here surpass anything I’ve tasted in the States – particularly the oysters. Aside from wine (see below), I feel continually frustrated in my efforts to eat local seafood – and I know I’m not alone.
Local Food Gardens – For whatever reason, the Tate Britain was lined with a luscious herb garden. If I had a kitchen at the time, may very well have plucked a few leaves when no one was looking. However, last week, when I visited Anne Hathaway’s cottage in Stratford-Upon-Avon, the garden (dubbed a “Victorian” garden) was full of enough food to feed me and my wife for the remainder of the summer – including the most amazing artichokes I’ve seen since Culton Organics’. There’s a nascent movement of converting vacant lots into urban farms, and what I’ve seen here indicates to me that this holds only more promise. If a restaurant like Konstam can fashion its menu from what can be found within the London Underground network, what can Philadelphia do?
Gastropubs – As well as any American city, Philadelphia gets gastropubs (we’ve had the Standard Tap much longer than New York has had the Spotted Pig), but we do not have anything to compare to London. I was fortunate enough to eat at the Duke of Cambridge (an organic pub to boot), but I also enjoyed the Anchor and Hope (potted cockles, yum) as well – and those are just what I managed to get to on my budget. There was the Eagle and the Coach and Horses that were on my list, too. Should places like the Royal Tavern and Standard Tap continue to open, it seems only natural that they – seeking to be neighborhood destinations – showcase local food.
Local Organic Beer and Wine – Philadelphia is such a great beer town, so why don’t we have organic beers? Of course, the Duke of Cambridge was serving them, but I also had an organic ale at a chain restaurant (Gourmet Burger Kitchen), that was brewed from hops grown on the farm. Local wine for me, mostly, is still nascent. As much as I would love to drink local wines, I’ve tasted very few that equal my favorites from Southern Italy.
Celebrity Chefs Gone for Local Food – If you haven’t already seen Jamie Oliver (and, given the crappy timeslot from the Food Network, you may not have), he’s already gung ho for local food. At our lunch at Fifteen (a worthy enterprise in its own right), my braised pork shoulder actually named the local farmer from whom it was purchased. Yet, that’s not all. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, of River Cottage fame, has a weekly series. More interesting, Marco Pierre White is fashioning the ultimate British feast . Marco is, to be frank, insane (just read Bill Buford’s account of him in Heat, if you don’t believe me), but he is talented, and it’s been very interesting to see what he finds as he traverses Great Britain. The show could be a complete sham for all I know, but that anyone thought it was worth making is interesting to me.
Above all else, though, I admire the genuine pride in local, artisanal products that I’ve seen here. I know that “British” cuisine was not considered serious for some time, but that seems to be disappearing (I hope), as this country has a long and distinguished culinary tradition. It’s nice to see traditions thriving alongside and complimenting London’s international cuisines.
And so, Goodbye, London Town…
As I walked on with a heavy heart
Then a stone danced on the tide
And the song went on
Though the lights were gone
– “Lullaby of London,” The Pogues