Why have I allowed an invasive native of the Yucatan peninsula into my kitchen? The immediate answer is the thunderstorm outside. It’s freaking out our chihuahua (fellow Mexican), who is cowering in a corner, while I’m equally frightened our new Chaya plant (also known as Tree Spinach) will be devastated if left out in the deluge in its flimsy pot.
When it hits maturity as a 12ft tall rival to Japanese knotweed the Chaya will hold its own but, as a stripling freshly arrived from a Lincolnshire herb nursery, we’re giving it shelter. And that kind act is causing ructions all of its own. Because I have briefed the rest of the household on the pluses and minuses of harbouring such a nutritious plant.
So already I’ve slipped in its major selling point. Chaya has high levels of protein, calcium and iron, while the leaves are also crammed with carotene, potassium and vitamin C, putting normal spinach or Chinese cabbage in the shade. Superfood status? This is a hype-free zone.
All this nutritional benefit is for the future, of course, when my plant grows enough foliage to cook with.
You could just juice it or, like our spinach, stew it in butter, one minute minimum. I’ll start with legendary food writer Diana Kennedy’s Tamales de Chaya and then proceed to Grilled Coronado Fillets with Piña and Chaya from Eric Werner and Mia Henry’s Hartwood restaurant between the jungle and the sea in the hippest stretch of Yucatan (if you can’t get there their cookbook is highly recommended).
Culinary bucket list logged but let’s first fit in the downside, which is causing some domestic consternation. As a major convert to indigenous Mexican regional cuisine during lockdown I hunt down authentic ingredients zealously, but some do come with a health warning. Not all the insects surprisingly. Cue Chaya. When mature, the leaves can be tough with microscopic stinging hairs, which can irritate the skin for days, so handle with latex gloves when cleaning. Unless very young, best not to eat it raw since, like spinach or almonds, it contains a toxic compound, a form of hydrogen cyanide. That’s easily sorted, I’m telling my wary nearest and dearest, simply by boiling, frying or drying the leaves.
I will be charting my progress – in the garden and the kitchen – with this vigorous perennial, which I’ve been slow to catch on to. A decade ago Guardian gardening correspondent Alys Fowler vividly described the beauty of the Tree Spinach Chenopodium giganteum or Magenta Spreen Lambsquarter in her garden: “The tree spinach is a brilliant bright green with each new set of leaves blushed a shocking magenta.”
Attractive, but Alys warns: “It will reappear everywhere. It is not exactly a thug, but if you’re not prepared to eat it, that’s an awful lot of weeding. If you sow it as seed, consider sowing it in modules or seed trays and planting it out as this will give you more control as to where to grow it. If you want full-height plants, it needs to go at the back of the border.”
Maybe it needs a WALL.
TOP FOODIE DOCUMENTARY TIP
Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy (available to rent on Amazon Prime for £3.49) tracks the now 98-year-old expat Brit to her lair deep in the Mexican forests. This fiery, formidable cookery writer is the foremost champion of authentic Mexican cuisine and Elizabeth Carroll’s inspiring warts and all profile does her proud.
I am eating one of those banh mi Vietnamese baguettes, with a dip of pho broth on the side. The spice goes surprisingly well with a Denver Pale Ale from Hogshead brewery – a neighbourhood homage to English cask beer. Soundtrack is the Black Keys in glam stomp mode; staff serving sushi, pizza and Venezuelan arepas shimmy along to it. In the distance Denver’s soaring skyline shimmers.
The ‘Mile High City’ apparently gets 300 days of sunshine a year and today is living up to the boast. My vantage point is the rooftop terrace of collective eaterie Avanti F&B, a two level shipping container with half a dozen global food vendors plus bars dispensing a riot of delicious, eclectic beers.
Naturally, for this is Denver, US capital of craft brewing, home to more than 100 breweries, and to the annual Great American Beer Festival (virtual in 20121, due to return in 2022).
After my banh mi it’s all I can do not to order another pint, a Diebolt Chin Chin de Diable Belgian Golden Strong Ale perhaps or a wild-fermented Crooked Stave Hop Savant, both local riffs on artisan hoppiness.
Heaven knows I’m thirsty enough after rambling around Denver’s hip and hilly Highlands district with its roster of fine eating places and bars – the likes of Roots Down, Linger, The Ale House, William & Graham and the veteran Beat Writers’ hang-out, My Brother’s Bar (about all of which, later). Fine old houses, too, and a pleasing leafiness.
This is a city for walking. Highlands is west of the South Platte River, easily reached via the pedestrian Millennium Bridge and the revived Riverfront parks from my base in LoDo (Lower Downtown). How they love these aspirational acronyms – RiNo, which I always took for ‘Republican In Name Only’, here means the River North Art District, an urban wasteland now on the up and a hub for the craft brewing and leftfield creativity that define contemporary Denver.
LoDo too is a story of resurgence, entire blocks of brick warehouses and stables left to rot rediscovered and turned into apartments, restaurants and the like without losing their soul. Blink and you could be in that old Rocky Mountains frontier town with a whole posse of mavericks passing through – Wyatt Earp, Butch Cassidy, Billy the Kid and Buffalo Bill (who is buried up on Lookout Mountain on the outskirts of town).
The railroad was mighty important for the development of the Wild West; one cherishable legacy in Denver is LoDo’s Union Station, a 1914 Beaux Arts masterpiece that only a few years ago was a shabby drifters’ haunt under threat of being torn down. Enter an urban conservationist called Dana Crawford, who energised its transformation into one of America’s coolest destinations, complete with its own 112 room Crawford Hotel named in her honour.
I was lucky enough to stay there; walk out of my second floor room and I gazed down from the landing on its ornate centrepiece, the sweeping Great Hall. White and gilt, glistening chandeliers for when the light fades through its vast arched windows, it’s quite glorious.
Down in the lift, avoiding the temptations of the Cooper indoor cocktail terrace, and I was spoilt for choice by the array of food and drink outlets and boutique shopping, including a tiny branch of the city’s legendary Tattered Cover bookstore and Snooze, flagship of a renowned retro brunch chain (with cocktails and ancho chilli wheat beer shandies for when the smoothies pall). Next door Mercantile switches from daytime deli to casual fine dining each evening.
My main focus was on the Terminal Bar, in the converted ticket office which occupies a whole side of the ground floor. What’s not to like about 30 rotating regional beers on tap and a smart Colorado spirits list?
Having got the taste, I left this heavenly haunt in quest of the catalyst of Denver’s craft beer revolution – The Wynkoop Brewpub on the street of that name. To get there it’s just a short walk across the station plaza, home to a growers-only farmer’s market every Saturday (Union Station even has its own beehives on the roof and a farm to table ethos governs much of the city’s eating habits).
Denver mayor now Colorado state senator John Hickenlooper founded the brewery/bar back in 1988, kickstarting the rebirth of the whole area. It has a real pub feel with pool, darts, telly sports and a hearty food menu.
It’s a must-visit destination, but the axis of brewing has shifted northwards to RiNo, a still edgy district that over the last decade has been colonised by artists, hipster nesters and cutting edge brewers. This transformation has now gone into overdrive, with the infrastructure still a work in progress as we discovered on our bumpy tuk tuk ride from Downtown.
What we discovered was majorly exciting. The hub is The Source, an 1880s brick foundry complex that has been converted spectacularly into an artisan food market hall with an on site hotel created by New Belgium brewery, from Fort Collins. Their big rivals in that town, Odell also now have a presence in Denver. A sign of the times, though, in a very competitive market, Falling Rock Tap House, a pioneering US craft beer bar, closed it doors in June 2021.
A short walk away from The Source are several excellent brewery taps – Zach Rabun’s Mockery probably the best, its name a rebuttal of the constricting German Reinheitsgebot ‘pure beer’ rules, thus emphasising their own innovative brewing (Mukduk, a summery cucumber Berliner Weisse beer quite breathtaking); Great Dividenext door, motto ‘bold characters’, is a bigger concern, a pioneer in the wake of Wynkoop with their Yeti Imperial Stout range almost a brand within their brand and their brewery tours a lively introduction to the brewing process’; and Ratio Beerworks with a delicious range to be sampled in their large, functional, dog-friendly taproom, an offbeat rock venue (the touring Wilco played a private set there while I was in town).
Still, the most exciting tasting was in Source’s industrial chic food hall itself, just past the unique combo of florists and butcher’s shop, at the Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project brewtap. Our server lined up 16 samples of the sour beers they specialise in – owner Chad Yakobson completed his master’s in Edinburgh in these complex ales fermented with wild yeast. Blueberries and cherries and barrel ageing all strove for attention with hardly a dud down the line, making for the most memorable beer moment of our visit.
All this proves how important beer tourism is to the town, which is scattered with breweries and their taps. Down in boho South Broadway I took in two which combine fermentation and heavy metal head-banging – TRVEwith its occult dungeon trappings and Black Sky, whose bar – suddenly making me homesick – sports a Trooper beer banner in homage to the bitter curated by Bruce Dickinson for Robinson’s of Stockport. Booze loving bookworms have their own Fiction Beer Company, which I never got to, sampling brews inspired by literature from a bar created from stacked books. Anyone for Dreamer IPA, whose muse is the last line of Rudyard Kipling’s The Fairies’ Siege?
But, of course, this is just the tip of the all-year-round ‘Aleberg’ that culminates in the Great American Beer Festival in the Convention Center on 14th Street – hard to miss because of the 40ft high blue bear leaning into it, a much-loved statue by a local artist, which is actually called ‘I See What You Mean’. Such a very Denver icon.
So if your idea of heaven strays beyond brewery visits…
Here are a few places to eat, perhaps buy a hat or even a stash of legal marijuana.
A contender for best restaurant in a city devoted to casual dining, this Francophile project from Jasinki-Gruich is a terrific mix of stylish surroundings, slick service and some imaginative Mediterranean-inspired food. Fittingly it’s in pedestrianised Larimer Square, the swishest stretch of bars and restaurants in the city.
This purveyor of extreme fillings and biker diner vibes, is situated in edgier territory a 10 minute walk from Rioja. Alaskan Reindeer was the recommended dog of choice, but I decided Pheasant and Rattlesnake was the way to go with an El Diablo topping. Tastes of chicken naturally, not to be hissed at.
Civic Center EATS food trucks
Throughout the summer from Tuesday to Thursday, from 11am-2pm, it’s meals on wheels time in the rather grand public park sandwiched between the Capitol, the mInt and the rather wonderful Denver Art Museum. From a melting pot of global street food on offer I went Indian. My spinach paneer lacked genuine chilli eat, but it was lovely to sit out in the Denver sun with the lunchtime crowd.
Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox
I went up 20th Street to breathe in the atmosphere from Coors Field ballpark on a Colorado Rockies match night and maybe grab a beer from the Jagged Mountain brewtap (not a Coors, mind, poor, thin stuff from the world’s biggest brewing facility just outside Denver). I was diverted, though, to Ophelia’s Soapbox, a former bordello that wryly styles itself as a ‘gastro-brothel’ thanks to its boudoir-style decor across several levels, encompassing and eclectic mix of cocktails and mostly organic dishes, live music and a dancefloor.
A younger version of The Source – a gourmet food emporium with a community feel covering most bases and also a good place to lunch and, of course, drink craft beer, which we did. Lovely conversion of a bright and airy 1920s building, once a car showroom.
Another (more leftfield) conversion in the Highlands – the old Olinger’s mortuary transformed into a global small plate restaurant with a panoramic rooftop bar. The ‘O’ in the neon Olinger sign is extinguished at night; hence the laid-back name Linger.
Also in the Highlands classic Prohibition-style speakeasy the guise of a bookstore. A cosy escape, pull up a chair and order a Corn on the Macabre (Butter Washed Vida Mezcal, sweetcorn, blackened lime demerara and lime luice).
Famed the world over for its classic Western clothing range, notably the original snap button shirt, the original LoDo outfitters is a photo-cluttered shrine to all the celebs who have worn (or at least bought) the gear. I couldn’t resist slipping into the cannabis motif cowboy blouse sported by Willie Nelson in the picture.
Denver would be Spliffing Willie’s kinda town, Colorado his kinda state. If you are 21 or older, you can now legally possess 1oz of marijuana in Colorado. You can enjoy many types of concentrates and edibles during your visit, bought from an array of dispensaries with names like Potco and Sacred Seed. If you wish to research further visit the Colorado Pot Guide. And if you really want an initiation into the almighty Pot, visit the city’s International Church of Cannabis.
The Beat writers would have approved – cannabis was their drug of choice back in the Fifties and Sixties. Kerouac, Ginsberg and Co were regular moochers around Denver primarily because partner in crime Neal Cassidy was raised in the city. His faint legacy remains in My Brother’s on the edge of Highlands, a bar without a sign at 2376 15th St. Here you’ll find a framed letter Cassady sent to a friend from the Colorado Reformatory, where he was sent for car thieving. The ever hard-up Cassady wrote: “I believe I owe (My Brother’s) about 3 or 4 dollars. If you happen to be in that vicinity, please drop in and pay it, will you?” The beer range here is ace. I’d recommend the Odell IPA.
For full information about the state’s attractions visit Colorado Tourism Office. and for Denver check out this link. The self-guided Denver Beer Trail is a good way to get your beer bearings in the city. A version of this article, since amended post-pandemic, first appeared on Manchester Confidential.
https://i0.wp.com/www.neilsowerby.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/New-hat-1.jpg?fit=1287%2C899&ssl=18991287Neil Sowerbyhttps://www.neilsowerby.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/NS-typemark-v1c.pngNeil Sowerby2021-06-30 10:28:002021-08-02 14:11:13Denver, America’s capital of craft beer and legal highs
Norma, Ben Tish’s love letter to Sicilian food in Fitzrovia, reopened on May 17. This restaurant hosted the last meal I ate in London before lockdown. It was in the company of a dear friend and former colleague, Sarah Hughes, who died this April from the cancer she had endured for so long. We shared so many meals over the years. This review, which couldn’t appear at the time, is in tribute to a great writer. A charitable trust set up in her name has reached its £30,000 target.
They don’t appear to serve a Bellini at Norma, the restaurant that shares the name of that opera composer’s most famous heroine. I’m sure they’d rustle you one up, though this Venetian Prosecco creation is at odds with a cocktail list kicking off with a Saracen.
There’s a whole North Africa meets Sicily vibe going on here in both decor and menu – in synch with the chef’s last cookbook, Moorish. That he’s no swarthy son of backstreet Palermo but a clean-cut Lincolnshire lad adds to a sense of cultural appropriation about this latest arrival in London’s old boho haunt, Fitzrovia.
Yet there are precedents for English chefs falling in love with food styles from Milan via Malaga to Marrakesh and making them their own. Witness Sam and Sam Clark at Moro or Jacob Kenedy at Bocca di Lupo. In Manchester Yorkshireman Simon Shaw has conquered Spain with El Gato Negro and skirmished into Portugal (Canto) with a Levantine foray, Habas on Brown Street his latest offering.
By chance Ben, above, was due shortly to appear at our own Northern Restaurant Bar trade show, postponed because of Covid (the influential event is scheduled to return to Manchester Central in March 2022).
At the NRB there would have been a chance to quiz Signor Tish on how he became besotted with the food of Sicily and the culinary tendrils that bind it to Africa’s Barbary Coast – notably through ingredients such as citrus and saffron, pine nuts and almonds, nutmeg and cinnamon. All were in evidence at that Norma dinner.
Pasta alla Norma we had to try. Sicilian in origin, its sharp topping combines tomatoes, aubergine and salted ricotta. The pasta used is negotiable; it’s chunky rigatoni at Norma, which gets its name from this dish, not the tragic opera with its cast of druids in Ancient Gaul.
In concept the restaurant is a slightly oddball side project of the Stafford Hotel in St James’s. They hired Ben, once of Salt’s Yard, to cook at their exquisite in-house Game Larder and are now indulging his real food passions.
These were obvious from the first dishes that issued from Norma’s downstairs raw bar, central to the dining experience in this three-storey Georgian townhouse (the top floor is for private dining).
We were already nibbling crisp yet fluffy focaccia (£2 apiece) and chickpea panelle (£4.50) – similar to Nice’s socca but with salsa verde – when the wild sea bream crudo (£10) arrived, freshest of fillets doused in a peppery olive oil, a hint of saline bottarga in there, scattered with pomegranate arils.
Creamy saltmarsh lamb crudo (£12) was equally enticing, served with lamb fat crostini and toasted pine nuts. It’s the kind of food I’d yearned for around Palermo’s frenetic Ballarò Market and been disappointed. Instead in the old country we had tackled both Pani ca’ Meusa, a sandwich of lard-fried spleen and ricotta, and grilled skewers of tough cow spleen, lung, and trachea that stink of mortality. Thankfully the Tish Sicily fixation doesn’t go that nitty gritty.
The reputation of the red prawns meant they were a must-order. At £16 for four a substantial investment but worth it, dense-fleshed divas, singing of rosemary and orange. They partner surprisingly well a duo of violet artichokes (£12), halved and seared into a deep caramelisation. Alongside a scoop of pine-nut puree for dipping.
A pretty dish, as is Norma’s take on the ubiquitous burrata (£13) that comes in a tangle of red chicory, blood orange croutons and coriander seeds, dressed with fruity vinegar and olive oil. Somewhere along the way we also hoovered up a bowl of frittered spaghettini under a snowstorm of parmesan with more of the cheese and olive oil as a dip. Norma is big on dips.
It seems madness in retrospect that my guest Sarah and I ignored the cannoli option but no regrets about the house sundae for £8.50 – a homely homage to the in-season blood orange, gelato and caramelised, with whipped orange blossom ricotta and biscotta.
It perhaps needed a Negroni to partner it, but we’d shared a bottle of Cerasuolo di Vittoria red (£42) from high profile Sicilian producer Planeta. It’s blend of Nero d’Avola and the fruitier Frappato. The name comes from the local dialect word for cherry but there’s exotic pomegranate flavours too that so match the food menu.
Voluptuous is the word for the fit-out, all marble and tiles, rich fabrics and intimate lighting, but avoiding the harem look. Downstairs at least. We explored no further, so engrossed were we in the parade of small plates. They do some obvious mains but this is the better way to explore Sicily. If ultimately the food felt more moreish than truly Moorish who cares? I wish we had its like in Manchester.
Norma, 8 Charlotte Street, Fitzrovia, London W1T 2LS, 020 3995 6224.The prices are as of March 2020.
One of my early lockdown treats, my alternative to baking banana bread and sourdough (or hoarding more loo rolls than my neighbours) was to order a small sample of English truffle from The Wiltshire Truffle Company, shaving the precious tuber into scrambled eggs, its heady aroma permeating the kitchen.
Since when I’ve moved onto more and more arcane foodie explorations – bottarga, colatura d’alici, mostarda di cremona, cottechino. There’s an Italian theme developing here, so if I want to resume my truffle fixation I should really hang on until next autumn when the white truffles of Alba in Piedmont make their seasonal bow.
Not that seasons are crucial in our global society. The Wiltshire suppliers don’t just confine themselves to Italy, France and the ‘full English’ they’ve done so much to promote. Their latest mail-out trumpets the arrival of Australian winter truffle, akin to Périgord truffles from South West France – “widely considered by leading chefs to be the best black truffles on the planet”. Big claims and you could compare these Aussie beauts with the company’s regular shipments of Italian summer truffles from hunters in the Tuscan and Umbrian hills. If your funds run to it. Truffles are wallet-busters. At auction the most prized varieties could cost you over £5,000 per kilo.
A local truffle trader on the streets of Alba
The most exciting and affordable way to encounter them is to visit Alba at peak Truffle Festival Time. OK, it hosts auctions flogging the most perfect specimens to connoisseurs and entrepreneurs across the world, but even the smallest cafes offer affordable menus showing their pride in the product. I know I’ve been there. And also, cutting out the middle men, I’ve trekked with hunters in the ancient forests as they unearth secret truffle patches with their specially trained dogs. Ditto in Oregon, USA, where I was invited to an altogether more academic Truffle Festival…
• There’s a documentary in cinemas, The Truffle Hunters, which is set around Alba and another UK online truffle merchant called TruffleHunter, which has a fine reputation. They’ll also sell you a professional standard truffle shaver. I’m wary of much that passes as truffle oil; truffle butter can be a better bet for a cheaper option to the real tuber.
But first, what exactly makes the white truffle so special?
Truffles are the fruiting body of a subterranean fungus usually found in close association with the roots of trees, their spores dispersed through fungivores (animals that eat fungi). Hence it was traditionally pigs that were trained to hunt these coveted delicacies. These days it’s more likely to be dogs. White truffles are more highly prized than the black. Growing symbiotically with oak, hazel, poplar and beech and fruiting in autumn, they can reach 12 cm diameter and 500g, though they are usually much smaller, between 30g and 110g. The flesh is pale cream or brown with white marbling which releases their powerful scents, not appreciated by everyone (let’s call it olefactory Marmite). There are an estimated 200,000 regular truffle gatherers in Italy, with the sector worth around €400 million a year.
Fresh truffles should be consumed more or less immediately although they will last for up to seven days in a domestic fridge.
Once upon a time in Alba
I’d never associated hedonism with tramping through thick forest undergrowth in the dusk. Peering to see if a lean setter-cross has found the ideal tree root to dig frantically under. I am not alone here in the heart of Alba truffle country in an October unseasonally warm. Around me 15 other paid-up ‘Hedonistic Hikers’, cameras at the ready, also await a tuber epiphany.
Our guides, trading under the name Hedonistic Hiking, are proud to include an authentic white truffle hunt in season as part of their ‘Jewels of Piedmont’ (Piemonte) walking tour. It’s not everyone’s idea of holiday heaven but it sets serious foodies salivating. Those who know what the fuss is all about when the autumn mists that give their name to the famous local grape variety, Nebbiolo vines coat the valleys of North West Italy’s Langhe region and the autumn wine harvest is nearly over. It’s now Truffle Time, all the way to Christmas.
The following day we’ll indulge in an early evening aperitivo and do the ‘passeggiata’, strolling around the truffle-scented squares and alleys of regional capital Alba, where the annual Truffle Fair is on to celebrate – and auction off – this lucrative delicacy.
Still for the moment, at the gourmet equivalent of the coalface, there’s work to be done.
Our truffle hunter, Marco Varaldo, expresses faith in his rookie hound, Laika, so new she doesn’t feature in his publicity material. Marco has a day job, but hunting for the lucrative truffles, with their intoxicating, almost aphrodisiac scent, is his passion.
The white variety, the ‘tartufo bianco’, rarer and more expensive than the black and found mostly famously in this corner of Italy, is revered the world over by gastronomes (and expensive restaurants). Admiration isn’t universal – their earthy assertiveness nauseates some sensitive palates. I’m not in that camp.
The white truffle can’t be artificially cultivated. This is part of its unique appeal. They are sought for in certain jealously guarded locations, hidden at the base of oak, beech and hazel trees. You train your dog to recognise the pungent aroma and then snuffle them out of the soil and leaf mould. It all seems a mite random as Laika zips and zig-zags around, scattering leaf mould, but then…
I don’t know what the Piemontese for Eureka is, but it is time to yell it. The pooch apprentice has struck gold – ‘white gold’. Marco quickly straddles Laika, snatching a knobbly clay-covered lump from her jaws, pocketing it and rewarding the dog with a far less expensive treat. We clamber to see what the fuss is about. Marco delicately brushes the muck off the white truffle and we all commune with its pervasive perfume.
Over the next couple of hours we collect further specimens and, later, part of the haul, assiduously shaved over the local tajarin pasta, will be the centrepiece of our supper at a little local restaurant called Mange. When truffles are abundant, near the source, they can be a surprisingly democratic treat. Just a few slices elevate a local beef dish, below.
We were staying in La Morra, which follows the pattern of all the settlements in the Langhe, which recently attained World Heritage Status. They sit on a hilltop above the vines, dominated by a castle, a church, usually both, and offer ample opportunity to taste the wines that have made this corner of Piemonte famous – Dolcetto, Barbera, Barbaresco (in one small enclave) and, above all, Barolo.
One of of our walks, from our hotel, the Corte Gondina, to Barolo village itself, took in the family-run winery of GD Vajra at Vergne. I’ve been there before in the early summer to taste their excellent wines and, now the harvest complete, was welcomed back like an old family friend. Piemonte’s like this. It doesn’t feel like some calculating tourist honeypot. You meet it on its own terms. Just like the truffle.
Oregon’s wine country is also home to truffles (and another festival)
The Willamette Valley, just south of Portland, is the epicentre of Oregon wine, notable for Pinot Noir that can arguably rival Burgundy’s silkiest reds. And where there’s great wine there’s usually a thriving food culture. Yet until I was invited to join the The Oregon Truffle Festival I had no idea the rolling hills around McMinnville are also home to both black and white varieties plus four Oregon natives. 2021 pandemic strictures meant it has gone virtual (you can pick up goodies via an online marketplace – truffle stout anyone?).
All this is obviously off a normal tourist’s radar, but rolling Willamette Country’s wineries and fine restaurants aren’t. McMinnville makes a fine base for exploring. Stay in its red brick historic district, perhaps at the oddball Hotel Oregon, which has a rooftop bar and is decorated with relics of the building’s 115-year history and the town’s famous 1950 UFO sighting. You might also run into the ghost of a former resident, nicknamed John.
As in all the towns along the route, I grabbed a craft beer, this time at the convivial Golden Valley Brewery and Tap before sampling a festival special truffle vodka and local wine at the Elizabeth Chambers Cellars, one of many tasting rooms in the town.
You’ll probably find it more fun to drive out to one of the country wineries to do your sampling. It sounds boringly generic but Willamette Valley Vineyards offers exceptional quality. Wine and truffles – the perfect marriage either side of the pond.
https://i0.wp.com/www.neilsowerby.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/White-truffle-at-Cicchetti-Mancheter-copy-scaled.jpg?fit=2048%2C1366&ssl=113662048Neil Sowerbyhttps://www.neilsowerby.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/NS-typemark-v1c.pngNeil Sowerby2021-06-29 10:44:392022-03-25 21:36:40Truffles aren’t to be trifled with – my transatlantic quest
Yucatán or Oaxaca? Oaxaca or Yucatán? It’s a heavyweight contest. Celebrations of particular cuisines don’t come more comprehensive – and gloriously well illustrated – than two monumental, magisterial love letters to regional Mexico by David Sterling and Diana Kennedy.
Sterling’s Yucatán: Recipes From A Culinary Expedition and Kennedy’s Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy together weigh in at over 5kg. Both are published by the University of Texas, from a state that likes to think big. They’re beautiful too and immaculately researched.
Essex-born Diana, based in Mexico since 1957, is the doyenne of writers on Mexican cuisine. Even the Mexican government recognise her championing of their culinary traditions, often sadly debased – they gave her their highest honour for a foreigner, The Order of the Aztec Eagle. Oaxaca, her magnum opus, won Cookbook of the Year in the 2011 James Beard Awards. Similar US top table recognition for Yucatán arrived four years later; within a year its author was dead at the age of 65.
Originally from Oklahoma, Dvid Sterling had a mega career as a designer before his chef talents saw him found, in the heart of the Yucatán, Mérida’s Los Dos – lauded as one of the world’s top 10 cookery school. That designer’ visual sense permeates a book that, like Kennedy’s, is the result of a lifetime’s intense research. Both could be seen as coffee table books but are so much more. I bought hers first and then found the courage to stump up the £48 for his.
The books became my lockdown lifeline. I dream one day of flying into Mérida, gateway to the beaches of Cancun and Turum but also a portal to visit the ruins that evoke the Mayan civilisation that flourished hereabouts. Or will Oaxaca 800 miles to the South West live up to DH Lawrence’s prose in Mornings in Mexico and the musings of Anthony Bourdain in Netflix’s Parts Unknown, where he encountered classic Zapotec (ie pre-Hispanic) cooking?
Pandemic restrictions gave me time and space to foster an interest in the regional cuisines of Mexico, as varied a those of Italy, say. It has resulted in a wooden box hosting 20 different types of dried chillies, a spice cupboard boasting epazote, Mexican oregano and achiote, a giant chaya plant prospering in a garden tub and a bright red tortilla press with bags of blue corn masa at the ready. Yes, I am also a devotee of Netflix’s Tacos Chronicles.
The watershed moment? The documentary Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy (available to rent on Amazon Prime for £3.49) tracks the now 98-year-old expat to her lair deep in the Mexican forests. This fiery, formidable cookery writer is the foremost champion of authentic Mexican cuisine and Elizabeth Carroll’s inspiring warts and all profile does her proud.
For over 50 years she has travelled the length and breadth of the country. The resulting books are light on illustration and design; the best the travelogue My Mexico: A Culinary Odyssey with Recipes. All that low key presentation is rectified by Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy.
Let’s be honest. Its sheer authenticity makes it hard to replicate dishes. There’s little chance I’ll be rustling up an iguana in a black mole sauce any time soon. For the uninitiated a mole is a rich chilli sauce with chocolate and nuts, not a wee underground critter.
Techniques cited too are equally intimidating. Her recipe for mole negro oaxaqueño calls not only for a specific type of clay pot (“it has to have a round base and a ‘collar’ around the top to hold in the heat”), but also for this pot to be cooked on a charcoal brazier. All this and I’m still trying to source an iguana (ready skinned).
Kennedy’s ringing endorsement is on the dust jacket of Sterling’s Yucatán: “I know of no other book in print today, or in the past for that matter, that explains so meticulously the ingredients and history of the foods of Yucatán.”
She herself had not given her full attention to this tropical peninsula, isolated from the rest of Mexico. Sterling makes up for it big time, exploring the three states it comprises – Yucatán, Campeche and Quintana Roo. The food is a melting pot of many traditions, Mayan, Spanish, Lebanese, French and more, all fuelled by remarkable abundance of raw produce. All these are catalogued in full colour at the start of Yucatán.
Chapters divide the book by geography — the market, the urban matrix, the fertile shores, the pueblos, as well as sections devoted to “pantry staples” and “kitchen technique.”
At the heart of Yucatecán cuisine are the spice mixes called recardos, some powdered, some in paste form, which you’ll find heaped up in every market. There’s no shame in using these essentially home-made bases for every recipe. Alas here you’ll have to make your own. Or travel to Yucatán. It’s on my post-pandemic bucket list.
It just pips Oaxaca because of a contemporary culinary cuckoo. In ultra-hip Tulum, south of suntan city Cancun, is Hartwood, New York exiles Eric Werner and Mia Henry’s restaurant between the jungle and the sea. Each provides the freshest wild ingredients to be transformed by the wood-burning oven that dominates the outdoor kitchen (I expect I’d pack insect repellent before visiting).
The food served at Hartwood is “addictive,” says Noma chef Rene Redzepi, adding, “It’s the reason people line up for hours every single day to eat there, even though their vacation time is precious.”
How do I know about it? I read the cookbook, of course,
https://i0.wp.com/www.neilsowerby.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/market.jpg?fit=1200%2C803&ssl=18031200Neil Sowerbyhttps://www.neilsowerby.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/NS-typemark-v1c.pngNeil Sowerby2021-06-21 19:21:002021-08-02 14:21:09Yucatán is going to be my ultimate foodie hideaway. Read all about it!
Was there ever a hotel as ace as the Ace? In my first visit to Portland, Oregon I revelled in its grungy quirks (even the vintage shower that didn’t work). With master mixologist Jeffrey Morgenthaler and definitive Stumptown Coffee on the premises and the legendary Powell’s City of Books two blocks away who could ask for a better base in this playful, radical city George Bush dubbed ‘Little Beirut’?
I swore this would always be my Portland lodging of choice. And the vow stuck – until six months later, stopping off on a San Francisco-Seattle road trip, I discovered Jupiter. Not via any space shuttle, simply by crossing the Burnside Bridge into a post-industrial quarter that’s on the up from a long way down. In this process the Jupiter Hotel and its in-house live music venue, the Doug Fir Lounge, have been a major catalyst, along with Portland’s top restaurant Le Pigeon next door and Burnside Brewing Co across the road. Good things come in clusters.
We had been asked when booking the Jupiter, a converted motel, whether we preferred a room on the Bar Side or the Chill Side; the former giving you an up-close share of party central until dawn, the latter offering a chance of some shut-eye. We chose Chill, taking advantage of an extremely comfortable bed in a compact but murally soothing environment.
Host to many top acts, the Doug Fir Lounge has regularly been named one of America’s premium gig venues – and there’s strong competition in Portland itself from the likes of Mississippi Studios and the Crystal Ballroom. Indeed the Jupiter’s leaflets claim 12 music venues within a mile radius (along with five distilleries within two miles and award-winning breweries four blocks) We just loved the timber-clad Doug Fir’s happy hour bar vibe, the raucous stand-up getting the party under way and then the fire pit bonhomie of the joint.
The beer was better, though, at Burnside Brewing and we couldn’t resist taking in Le Pigeon, 30 seconds round the corner. I’ve been cooking from restless pioneer Gabe Rucker’s cookbook for several years and the bistro didn’t disappoint with dishes such as caraway crusted sweetbreads; foie gras thom kha; and truffled chicken, shrimp and grits, corn succotash, prawn-tarragon aioli. Top end prices, especially for wine, belie the casualness of the setting and make it a special occasion place.
A more accessible and affordable bet for a Jupiter guest is three minutes’ walk away on S.E. Alkeny Street – a cafe outlet from street food champion Nong’s Khao Man Gai, whose original food cart is still serving its trademark poached chicken with rice downtown on the corner of SW 10th Avenue and SW Alder Street. Sunday Times restaurant critic Marina O’Loughlin is a big fan.
Street food ‘pods’ are scattered around a city devised on a grid system (hence NE, NW etc attached to some impossibly long streets to signify which district you are in). The corner of 28 South East Place and Division Street hosts the Tidbit Food Farm and Garden, a lovely place to refuel, global food carts circling the Scout Beer shack like covered wagons.
Bibimbap, sushi, roasted pepper tri-tip, Fillipino pork stew – it’s a dazzling Asian road trip. Alternatively, there’s Texas brisket or candied bacon burgers, waffle sandwiches and wood-fired pizza. I grabbed a picnic table, a Fresh Hop Simcoe brewed by the hyperactive beardies at Breakside and slurped the best bone stock rich ramen I’ve ever eaten from a truck called Hapa. The name describes the fusion of Japanese cooking techniques and Hawaiian recipes. For a full of Portland’s food cart locations visitthis link.
Though Seattle would claim the honour, sometimes you feel Portland invented coffee, too, it’s home to so many acclaimed roasteries. Stumptown is the place to start. It took on the city’s nickname (from its logging past) and for nearly two decades this roastery has set the standard by which rivals are judged. These are many to pick from nowadays. Take Extracto , a decade-old chain of two with its roastery at the original N.E. Killingsworth Street cafe/shop. From the Eleven of Spades house-blend through rare single-origin roasts to the elevation of latte decoration to an art form it hits all the right coffee buttons.
With all this coffee, well, you’ve got to have a doughnut. Jupiter does a ‘The Magic is in the Hole’ certificate for guests, providing a ‘Voodoo Dozen’, a pink box of 13 from the city’s most hyped provider. Voodoo even run to a Homer Simpson tribute doughnut (creator Matt Groening is a Portlander and several of the cartoon’s characters are named after its streets – Ned Flanders, Milhouse and the like).
Locals insist Blue Star is the hipster doughnut of choice. I understand why when I scoff one of their lauded creations – a riot of intense chocolate, cream and brioche. The wonder of it is captured fully in a local website’s Deconstructing Blue Star’s Valrhona Donut. I’d checked out their Mississippi Avenue outlet en route for a Brewvana craft beer walking tour.
This vibrant corner of town, once a no-go area now on the cusp of gentrification, has lots to offer – the aforementioned Mississippi Studios, a street food pod (naturally), a cannabis store and the amazing Paxton Gate offering stuffed animal collectibles – but its breweries are worth the trip alone. Our ‘Brewvana Mississippin’ tour guide April took us around three, Ecliptic, Stormbreaker and Hopworks Bike Bar and what our small party tasted along the way, especially at the latter, revealed why Portland contends with Denver for the title of US Capital of Beer. The three hour tour costs $69 and you do get to eat the pretzel necklace that brands you as an ale geek.
Of course, the intoxicant of choice is not always malt and hop-driven. ‘Keep Portland Weird’ says the parking lot sign opposite Voodoo Doughnuts. Personal consumption of cannabis is legal in Oregon; still I resisted the temptation in its largest city to get high on a brownie infused with the stuff. They even sell ready-rolled joints in specialist dispensaries such as Nectar.
Oh and salt is more than a footnote if you visit Mark Bitterman’s two sodium chloride-centred delis called The Meadow. Conveniently, one of them is up on resurgent North Mississippi Avenue next door to a Blue Star cafe. It was here I bought kala namak (Himalayan black salt) and a couple of Bitterman’s books – one on salt naturally, the other on cocktail bitters.
In it he name-checks another Portland legend, Jeffrey Morgenthaler, mixologist at Ace Hotel’s Clyde Common bistro and Pépé le Moko speakeasy. I couldn’t resist begging this cocktail high priest for one of his celebrated barrel-aged Negronis.
Post Negroni (or three) for further weirdness walk up to 901 Salmon Street and gaze up at a whole salmon swimming through the corner of a brick building. It’s an 11ft long bronze sculpture called Transcendence, high above a seafood restaurant.
The city hosts some of the most inventive street art around. Some of it had rubbed off in my room at the Ace, adorned by a giant cat image guarding my personal vinyl deck. Retro touches extended to a Heath Robinson-like steel shower in my standalone tub that I gave up on and recycled fabrics and furnishings I found charming if hardly luxurious. Downstairs, though, oozes sociable cool. Check in and you may never leave. Unless Jupiter is in your orbit, dude.
For something different to enliven your stay in this most civilised of American cities in bewildering times check out these five fun options:
1 Small is beautiful at Leprechaun Park
Mill Ends Park – total area 452.16 sq in – holds the Guinness World Record for the world’s smallest park. Known as Leprechaun Park, it fills a circular concrete hole, once meant to be the base for a lamp-post on Naito Parkway. Back in the 1940s a local journalist, whose office overlooked it, decided to plant flowers there and it was officially recognised as a city park on St Patrick’s Day 1976. PS Don’t aim to spend a whole day there.
2 Or if you fancy a more expansive green escape
The formal Japanese Garden has now added an extra 3.4 acres to its original 5.5, featuring ornamental cherry trees, ponds and tea house. The revamped Cultural Village has an authentic style medieval castle wall, which was built with traditional hand tools under the watchful eye of a 15th-generation Japanese master stone mason. It’s a place of tranquil contemplation all year round but must be spectacular in blossom season.
3 Portland’s Chinatown
Once dubbed ‘The Forbidden City of the West, it is now much diminished. The opium dens, brothels and kidnappings via the ‘Shanghai tunnels’ to the riverside are now gone, but the area retains a certain seediness. All the more surprising to stumble upon the gorgeous Su Lan Chinese Garden, which occupies a whole city block on NW Everett Street. Modelled after Ming Dynasty gardens and built by Chinese artisans from twin city Suzhou, it offers a microcosm of Chinese culture. Taste the tea, feel the harmony. A Portland must.
4 A good bookshop?
Look no further than one of America’s largest, offering used and new – Powell’s City of Books. On West Burnside Street around the corner from the Ace and boasting a spectacular wine and cookery section, I couldn’t resists its allure. After three Powell’s trips my Delta baggage allowance was in serious danger.
5Wine? Head south to the Willamette Valley
Portland has its own urban wine scene, but the real deal is less than an hour away. Willamette is famous worldwide not for being Portland’s river but for being focus of the Oregon wine industry. Roam the hills around Newberg, Dundee and McMinnville 30 miles or so south of Portland. You’ll receive a warm welcome at any number of folksy family wineries. To plan an itinerary visit this link. We went upmarket to Ponzi, one of the pioneering wineries created by ‘escapees’ priced out of California and seeking a fresh terroir for the Holy Grail grape, Pinot Noir. That was 45 years ago and nowadays the luxurious tasting room and terrace overlooking the Chehalem Hills vineyards feels not a million miles from Napa. Accordingly, a single flight featuring a selection of current vintages costs $20 with cheese and charcuterie plates from $12. Worth splashing out for wine and setting. The winery has recently been bought by Bollinger.
Neil Sowerby stayed at The Jupiter Hotel, 800 East Burnside Street, Portland, OR 97214 and at the Ace Hotel, 1022 S.W. Stark Street, Portland, Oregon 97205.
The Covid pandemic has grounded most of the transatlantic air services, but as lockdown ends expect a resumption from the like of British Airwaysand Delta.
An essential guide to the area is Travel Portland. For further afield in the state go toVisit Oregon. To plan your American trip of a lifetime go to Visit USA.
Unless I’ve missed it previously, Zhug is making a Manchester debut on the menu of Simon Shaw’s eagerly anticipated third restaurant in the city, Habas, which opened in early June in the former Panama Hatty’s site on Brown Street.
Brought by Jews from the Yemen a century ago, Zhug is the Israeli national chilli paste, mixing parsley, coriander, and assorted spices. I first discovered this fiery condiment on the counter of Soho’s vibrant Palomar restaurant and in the pages of Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem. I slather it over shawarma; at Habas it accompanies homemade garlic and herb flatbread with hummus.
Other dishes feel very Ottolenghi, the Guardian Weekend readers’ passport to Levantine dinner party heaven. So familiar that maybe it lessens the excitement of Habas. Still what’s not to like about small plates such as Middle Eastern raw slaw with pomegranate molasses; batata harra – spicy fried potatoes with dill sour cream; beetroot hummus with Greek yoghurt and dill (main image); feta cheese, wilted spinach and sunblush tomato filo cigars; spiced lamb ‘jackets’ – fried potato skins filled with spiced lamb, served with mint yoghurt.
But is it a culinary game changer? One Manchester Confidential reviewer, of Persian heritage, accused it of ‘culinary appropriation’. Fair comment? There may be a certain residual bias against a classically trained Yorkshire chef’s temerity in tackling cuisines not ‘his own’. Certainly Habas is a lurch east from his twist on Shaw’s ‘Iberian-influenced’ food at El Gato Negro (Spanish) and Canto (Portuguese).
Shaw is very much aware he is surfing a certain ‘Zhug Zeitgeist’, telling me, a friend and supporter from El Gato’ first stirrings in the Pennine village of Ripponden: “It’s phenomenal just how much people’s appetites have evolved over recent years.
“Back in the late Nineties you’d have struggled to have found Middle Eastern restaurants outside London. Even there, they existed largely to feed the local community, people from those countries living in the city.
“Times have changed and there’s a whole new wave coming through. It’s an amazing style of food, simplistic but with a real depth of flavour. It’s what excited me about it as a chef and I think it will have really broad appeal.”
Like El Gato Negro and Canto, the menu centres around a generous number of small plates, coupled with larger dishes and feasting platters.
“Middle Eastern cuisine has many influences and Habas is a fusion of all,” says Shaw.
“It’s about ingredients. There are lots of connections to Spanish food, the Syrian lentils, lamb meatballs and spiced aubergine dishes enjoyed at El Gato Negro all lean towards the style of cuisine. I suppose part of my mind was already on it.”
Habas means fava (broad) bean) in Spanish and also is the name of a settlement in the Yemen, where zhug is the relish of choice, no doubt.
Habas, 43a Brown Street, Manchester M2 2JJ. 0161 470 9375. Opening hours Thursday-Sunday 12pm to late (food service until 10pm, after which we’d recommend continuing with suitably-themed cocktails). Expect opening hours to be extended when the industry’s current staffing issues are resolved.
https://www.neilsowerby.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/NS-typemark-v1c.png00Neil Sowerbyhttps://www.neilsowerby.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/NS-typemark-v1c.pngNeil Sowerby2021-06-18 07:10:002021-08-02 14:25:24Habas – A Yorkshireman goes East (and we don’t mean Hull)