A food and wine travelog by Carla Capalbo

Assaggi is Italian for ‘tastings of food and wine’ and the word sums up what I spend so much time on the road doing: visiting artisan food and wine makers, chefs and restaurants, food shops and markets, tasting and talking to them about their ideas, skills and products. Over the past 16 years I’ve spent far more time travelling than at home, sometimes letting 10 or more months go by without ever getting back to my own bed. As you’ll know if you’ve read my Italian food and wine guides or articles, I’m not interested in giving scores or reducing a great wine or dish, man or woman to a number or rank. This site is the perfect place to share my assaggi and travels with you, wherever they may take us.

Mount Ushba, Svaneti
Mount Ushba, Svaneti

After two full years of work my book is finally out! To prepare for it I’ve interviewed dozens of people in Georgia, tested hundreds of recipes and taken thousands of photographs. The result is a 464-page book, with 400 photos, 70 recipes and lots more.

The idea for TASTING GEORGIA A food and wine journey in the Caucasus was born in June, 2013, when I visited the country for the first time. It only took a few days for me to fall in love with the people, their food, wine and culture. On the day I was leaving, I said to John Wurdeman: “I know this sounds crazy because I’ve only been here for a few days but I can feel a book coming on!” His encouragement and the help and support of many wonderful friends in Georgia have led to this large and complex book being born. I’ve been to Georgia countless times since then, travelling up and down the country in search of the best stories, foods, recipes and wines.

Marina’s Khinkali Dumplings
Marina’s Khinkali Dumplings

Like my last three Italian books, this book is about the culture of making food and wine. I like to write these books with a reading traveller (or travelling reader) in mind, so you’ll find oral histories of women in the highlands of the Greater Caucasus alongside their recipes, photos and local highlights. There are maps too, to help find these often hard-to-locate families living in rural areas of the country.

It’s been a wonderful journey for me, and I hope Tasting Georgia will encourage many more people to travel to – and fall in love with – Georgia.

Chef Leif Sorensen foraging for sea-plants
Chef Leif Sorensen foraging for sea-plants

In the past few weeks I’ve been able to spend time in places where the clock seems to have stood still, at least the Mid-Atlantic clock I’m used to. Up in the North Sea, on the magnificent Faroe Islands, people don’t lock their cars or houses. They don’t need to, there’s no crime. Instead, you feel the strong bonds of community. Walk over, knock and open their front door if you want to see someone.

People’s living rooms are big in the Faroes because that’s where families and friends congregate, sitting around long dining tables to talk and eat together in the evenings. There’s an active and admirable social commitment to share there, whether it’s the communal guardianship of the mountains and their precious lamb pastures, or the equally important division of the meat from each whale that the community fishes. There are few vegetables or fruits on these islands and before modern commerce allowed for the transportation of fresh produce, whale meat and blubber provided the life-saving vitamins and minerals other societies get from their plants.

It’s a pleasure – and an honour – to be in a place where pollution has not taken the toll we’re all too used to in more industrially developed parts of the world. In the Faroes the ocean is so clean the shellfish tastes sweet; the air is limpid and pristine. However it’s a bit disquieting to live in a landscape almost without trees. I thought that must be because of wind or weather (though the Guf Stream stops the temperatures from ever falling too far below zero °C). No, it seems the revered sheep graze everything down to the ground, so there are no bushes or higher plants. I was fascinated by the ‘set-aside’ experiments being carried out in several parts of the islands: small tracts are being fenced so the sheep can’t access them, the idea being to allow them to just grow naturally for 10 years. The islanders are the first to be curious about what will happen.

Traditional grass roofs are a feature on the islands
Traditional grass roofs are a feature on the islands

In Hatay, south-eastern Turkey, just 40 kilometres from the Syrian border, it’s a different picture. If the current political situation is clearly on people’s minds, the traditional way of life, especially in the kitchen, belies this concern. The culture of hospitality and openness was striking to me, in particular among women, who communicated their sympathy without the need for a shared language.

Hatay is famous for its religious and social tolerance: twelve civilizations – from the Hitities to the Romans and Greeks – left their cultural footprints here and today’s Hatay boasts a peaceful co-existence among religions and races. There’s even an inter-denominational choir, the Civilizations Chorus, that sings songs from many faiths in dozens of languages.

Making kadayif in Antakya market
Making kadayif in Antakya market

The colourful Bazaar at the heart of the old city of Antakya – or Antioch – is notable for its generous shopkeepers still making so many of the great Turkish specialities by hand, from the firin bakeries producing the daily pide breads to the unique local dessert, künefe. This delicious tart sees a layer of mild but stretchy cheese sandwiched between two layers of crisp, buttery kadayif. The kadayif – fine, hair-like strands of filo pastry – is made in special stalls with large spinning hotplates that look like a disc jockey’s turntable more than a baker’s tool. The kadayif is chopped, mixed with melted butter and spread out into wide, round baking trays before being cooked until golden over wood embers. As the Michelin guide would say, ça vaut le voyage.

Kadayif looks like vermicelli
Kadayif looks like vermicelli

Kunefe in its pans, cut and ready to be served
Kunefe in its pans, cut and ready to be served

Stop shaping us!

22 May 2014

Emilio Macìas’ Peruvian ceviche, of oysters, scallops and Nopal cactus, cooked in Faenza
Emilio Macìas’ Peruvian ceviche, of oysters, scallops and cactus, cooked in Faenza

Squid with white polenta at La Capanna di Eraclio, near Ravenna
Squid with white polenta at La Capanna di Eraclio, near Ravenna

This morning, reading the Guardian online as I usually do first thing, I happened on an article by Hannah Ellis-Petersen about the sickening reviews that have recently been written about the young Irish opera singer, Tara Erraught – who is currently starring admirably in the trouser role in Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier at Glyndebourne. It seems that opera reviewers at several of the top British papers have been more obsessed with criticising the talented singer’s shape rather than praising her excellent mezzo soprano voice. It’s outrageous that this kind of sexism should continue to heap pressure on women everywhere, young and old, to conform to what this society considers the ‘right size’, especially when men are so rarely subjected to it.

I join the protestations of many of the world’s top sopranos upon reading these reviews: Let us be appreciated – and criticized if need be – for what we are able to do and say rather than how we look!

The shaping theme cropped up in the next article I read too, albeit in a more superficial and absurd way. It appears that William Sitwell, one of the ‘expert judges’ on BBC1’s British MasterChef, can’t stand square plates. I kid you not. “Sitwell…has called the modern tableware ‘an abomination’… and threatened to throw a square plate back at a contestant who used one in a recent show.”

New-wave pizza at Alce Nero Berberè, Bologna
New-wave pizza at Alce Nero Berberè, Bologna

Tiny raw scallops, La Capanna di Eraclio
Tiny raw scallops, La Capanna di Eraclio

The article then quotes Sitwell: “Food should be served on round plates and not a right angle in sight…A square plate is at odds with nature…Mother Nature produces ingredients that are many shapes – including round, but never square…The square plate is too frequently part of an armoury of a cook who is hoping to divert attention from their own inadequacy, in the mistaken belief that the squareness or indeed rectangular shape will lend the cook some kind of fashionable vibe. Except it is very much out of fashion, as pointless as the sprinkling of micro-herbs or grit…If you have square plates, now is the time to be bold and cast them out.”

Peruvian tiramisù of chillies, Mescal and chocolate, sprinkled with ground agave worms, by Emilio Macìas
Peruvian tiramisù of chillies, Mescal and chocolate, sprinkled with ground agave worms, by Emilio Macìas

The chocolate ball cracked open
The chocolate ball cracked open

Why should painting have been allowed since its inception to be framed by straight lines, but food not? The tension between a straight line and an organic form can be used to effect, and often is, by chefs the world over. Round plates are no guarantee of good graphics. TV programmes such as these are hardly citadels of fine aesthetics: the amateur chefs are pushed to the limits with the time restraints they’re dealing with. This type of visual sexism is yet another version of the kind of narrow-minded cultural prejudice I abhor. Creativity – like nature – comes in all forms: Viva la diversità!

Yoshihiro Narisawa’s oyster beignets, Tokyo
Yoshihiro Narisawa’s oyster beignets, Tokyo