I’ve been on forums and read many a discussion regarding fine wine and “cheap” wine. One recent discussion revolved around what is the lowest cost wine you are willing to drink if you have a fine palate.
It is funny, because even though I sell wine for a living and have tasted thousands of wines from all regions of the world, I am intent on not becoming a wine snob. As I read about the pain people go through drinking “lesser” wines it made me think. I certainly love a good white burgundy, which is rarely a bargain, but I’ve also had $10 bottles of wine that are fine. I have no desire to go through life wearing blinders, closing myself off to whole categories of things and people. Here is what I realized: traveling is what can really make the difference in your palate and sensibility.
Recently, in Umbria, we bought many a bottle of local red wine at under 7 euro a bottle, some as little as 3 euro. When you are sitting on a porch in the hills, looking over Lake Trasimeno surrounded by herbs and olive trees, eating wild boar salami, peccorino cheese, focaccia and the like this wine is fine. I can’t imagine lamenting the quality of the wine – and some were better than others, and noted for the next trip to the store. It opens my taste buds to a greater variety of wines and food when I get home as well as how to enjoy them. This “far niente” is contagious. I grab a bottle of red, create a cheese plate and sit in my backyard with friends and enjoy the day, bringing a bit of Italy to them. For my formal Christmas dinner with prime rib I may opt for a better Bordeaux or perhaps a burgundy, it just seems to go with that particular flow and meal. Pairing food, wine, and atmosphere is one of my passions, so I indulge at every opportunity.
The impact traveling has had on our relationship with food and life is significant. I am thankful that it has taught me to relax and enjoy what is in front of us and take it as a whole rather than pick it apart. While attending a seminar on Italian wines I heard a famous restaurateur speak who had a wine cellar of tremendous renown. Tasting a simple wine from Sicily, he explained its virtues: it was a well made wine yet you don’t expect too much from it but it would be great with Pizza Margherita. He said it isn’t a “meditation wine,” meaning one of those big complex wines that you sip in front of a fire and marvel at the depth and textures in the wine – and possibly your life.
Isn’t that true of so many things we enjoy? There are movies you see to just relax and laugh and those that shift your viewpoints, books to read on the beach and those that require more time and attention, art that is playful and that which has a message to impart. Wine is no different. You still want well-made wine with balance and a degree of complexity, just as when I read a light book I still want good story telling.
The secret is to always find the good in life, relax and drink it in.
Attending the Fancy Food Show in New York is not for the weak of mind, heart or stomach. It fills a cavernous 675,000 sq ft jammed with over 180,000 products from 2500 exhibitors representing 81 countries. Whew! You have 3 days to explore and find the lucky ones that will make it back to your shop. You either want to run out screaming or sigh and take a toothpick and start tasting, regretting those reservations you made for dinner because, let’s face it, you won’t be hungry for hours after the convention floor closes.
Exhausting as it is, I do get the chance to meet vendors, see new product and compare products through tasting. This is a godsend when trying to determine which is good enough to make it onto the shelves of Fancifull or be designed into one of our gift baskets. I once was sold on a cherry in liquer that had good packaging. Two rows over there was another manufacturer, with a simple label, but oh my, they were so much better. There was no contest.
I really am a bit crazy about tasting and finding the best. I found a fantastic cheese from Utah that is rubbed with espersso beans giving it a slightly sharp flavor that melts as you hit the more mellow cheese. Next booth over was the guy from Colorado who made wild boar sausage better than what I ate recently in Italy. Sampling, comparing and talking gives me an opportunity to get to the heart and soul of the food, rather than buying due to convenience, marketing or a glitzy package.
The number of artisan producers who had booths at the show surprised and thrilled me. This is an industry ruled by the big boys, who mass produce with often more care to the bottom line than the quality of the product. (I do have to say there are some big companies who do it right, I don’t want to slight them or anyone making a great tasting product). I am proud of the number of American Craftsmen out there who are creating cheese as good if not better than Europe and the chocolate makers sourcing fair and good chocolate as well as the many women I met starting their own baking companies. The good ones really stand out – small doesn’t always mean better which is why tasting the product is an imperitive. Their passion and dedication is contagious and I can’t wait to share their products with you. I delight in introducing you to new artisans and delicious food, it is a mission with me, and one which we can all savor.
I am standing in the dusty windowless basement of BHV, a huge department store in the heart of Paris and trying to figure out how in the hell I say the word drill, and even worse, screws, in French.
The employees at hardware stores don’t generally speak another language. This isn’t your typical tourist stop after all. There are French contractors in the aisles and Parisian homeowners checking out the rows upon rows of door locks to choose from – it seems the French are very adamant about keeping people out of their houses, their lives, their country…. We receive the occasional stare or raised eyebrow. Two Americans trying to figure out not only where the drills are but what kind we need is a rare sight. I didn’t realize how many different kinds of drills there were.
It seems we can get drills to go through all sorts of materials: stone, wood, and one that had the word water on it, but I still haven’t figured that out. Of course there doesn’t seem to be an all purpose one, but there is an abundant assortment. My husband is gallantly trying to find a salesperson and then use his best French to ask questions. These aren’t the type of conversations you have in French 1. Excuse me sir, could you tell me where I might find a drill that will go through stone so I can hang a towel rack? This is a far cry from, “where is the train station?”
I am not a home repair type by nature, even in my homeland of America. So what am I doing here? Yesterday I was walking in the steps of my idol, Julia Child, buying goat cheese and lunching on salade nicoise on Rue Cler. That is why I come to Paris, not to hang out among rows of light bulbs. Then it dawns on me, we have moved beyond merely tourists, we are now owners of a Paris apartment.
Somehow when we decided to purchase our small one bedroom pied a terre near the Seine, I didn’t imagine that I was going to have to do minor repairs. Needing a tool kit never entered my mind. Buying a wine opener, yes. And of course vases to hold all the flowers I would buy at the local market. But reality sets in, and we are somehow missing a few handles for the kitchen cabinets we installed. I guess I should say the kitchen we installed because when we bought the apartment the kitchen consisted of a metal sink, a microwave, a hot plate, a washing matching (laundry not dishes), and a bright peach colored storage closet Just having matching cabinets and an actual oven makes it a deluxe kitchen by Paris standards.
We also are in desperate need of a heater since the one that came with the apartment is feeble at best and it is February with temperatures in the 30s. I happily find a heater I love amid the display in aisle 24 and hug it like a lost child who has found her mother. It is slim like so many things french, and from what I gather from my fractured understanding of the language is it puts out a lot of heat. Luckily the box is well illustrated, so I can see the waves of heat coming out of the grill work, and the fact that it has higher numbers next to what seems like electronic measurements than the other ones must mean it is more capable than those other underachievers next to it.
When I get it to the apt, the contractor looks at me as I display my proud purchase and informs me that the heater I bought will blow all the circuits in my apt. The handles I’ve bought are all about 5 cm too short.
Now that I know how to buy household items in France, I get to learn how to return them
C’est la vie.
It means that vacations are often spent hunting down a vendor in their native land to see how they make their cookies – like Tate’s Bake Shop in South Hampton. or Jacky Blot wine in the Loire Valley of France. I put in days at Trade Shows eating cheese from France, Italy, Northern California, Holland, and anywhere they make cheese – which is just about everywhere except parts of Asia and Africa. Not happy just to find a nice looking candle line, I have to smell all the ones offered to be sure I am buying the one that has the best aroma, doesn’t make me sneeze, is environmentally sound, and looks good. Don’t get me started on the number of lotions I smeared on my hands and arms, as well as labels I read, looking for a new bath line to bring into Fancifull.
I know, I could just sit back and look at the catalogs I get sent, or go on web sites. But really, can you tell a cookie is going to be good by reading about it? Also there is the comparison factor, this is good, but suppose there is something better? It is a constant search. I want to meet the person making that product such as Sara from Sara’s Snackers, which I found recently at the Fancy Food show in New York. Turns out Sara was a client of ours when she worked at an agency in Hollywood and is now in New York making delicious cookies with potato chips. Yes, they are addicting – the crunch of the chips make a great texture for the cookie. Look for those in our shop in the next month or so (may need to wait for cooler weather as they have a chocolate coating, whet your appetite yet?)
Going to Tate’s was a delight because they have been our best selling cookies for years.
I’m afraid to ask how they get the cookies tasting so fresh out of box, I’m sure there is some deal with the devil or something of the sort. I can report the chocolate chip cookies we ate in the bakery-in the name of science-did taste like the ones we carry in our shop. I probably didn’t need to try the cherry cobbler or coconut cupcake, but I wanted to be sure they kept their standards up in all areas – at least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
New Items Coming Soon to Fancifull:
Sara’s Snacker’s Cookies
Lulu Soy Candles
Burgundy Blue Baby Clothes
An even greater variety of cheese
Long Island Wine
Baskets made from magazines (they look great)
Better Stainless Water Bottles
My favorite aspect of travel is the ability to savor and recognize all the creation that goes on in the far corners of the earth. I get the opportunity to experience first hand the culture, history and the incredible people that inhabit this planet. Cultural and personal idiosyncrasies abound. I have found a great advantage to sitting back and enjoying the show.
Travel allows one to connect the dots as it were. I could see during my first trip to Italy where the so called New York attitude originated. So many Italians immigrated to the east coast in the early part of this century and brought their customs and attitudes with them. This explains the neighborhood feel of New York, where you buy your groceries from the market on your block and eat at the same pizza place at least once a week. I find many Italians have the same gruff, ” whaddya want” attitude New York is famous for. Once you get past that there is a warmth that is increased if you make any attempt to speak Italian at all.
The attitude and the manners change by region of course, much the same as in the United States. But throughout, there is an honesty in the demeanor and in the food of Italy that I find refreshing. The Italians can take 3 ingredients and make a dish with depth and texture. I can still remember a simple mixed green salad I had in Rome. It was only a bowl of mixed greens with olive oil and salt. As I write this I can still smell the greeness (if that is a word), the freshness of the olive oil and taste the crunchy salt. Pretty intense. Which I think sums up Italy.
One of my favorite travel stories illustrates this attitude perfectly. We had just landed in Venice with that wobbly tiredness that comes from a long flight and not nearly enough sleep on the nights preceding our trip. Hungry and wanting to explore the city a bit before passing out, we wove our way through the labyrinth streets. We ended up at a small place just at the foot of a bridge.
In Italy many of the waiters are older; this is a career after all, not something you do while waiting for something better to come along. We had this gruff older waiter, your quintessential tough Italian, salt and pepper hair, craggy face, bulbous nose, and somewhat squat.
We were trying to make our way through the menu. It was printed in 4 languages and we were having a hard time focusing much less reading even the English version. Did we want a Primi Piatti (usually pasta), Contorni (vegetables), or a Secondo (meat or fish dish), the list of choices went on and on. You see, most Italian menus are broken down into many categories and you put your meal together. With so much to choose from we were taking a little longer than the waiter wanted.
He comes to take our order and my husband, Wally, orders an antipasto with the intention of ordering something else. The waiter starts to walk off and Wally says, “Wait, I think I’ll have the Spaghetti Bolognese.” The waiter fixes him with a steely stare and barks out, “You think or you want?” Wally, eyes wide and a bit startled yells back, “I want I want!” “Okay” grunts the waiter, with the appropriate hand gesture and takes off.
We almost fell on the floor we were laughing so hard. This was the perfect introduction to a country we have come to love. We all decided that was a very good life lesson. Do you think or do you want? One needs to be definite in this world. I appreciate the lesson.