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.

North-South divide

27 March 2014

Meats are grilled in the fireplace at Osteria del Mirasole

I’ve been spending a lot of time in Emilia Romagna in recent months, on the lookout for both food and wine. If the foods are some of Italy’s best known – from Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and Parma ham to aged balsamic vinegars sold in perfume-size bottles – the wines have revealed more surprises. Paltrinieri’s fizzy Lambruscos are scrumptious and  anything but simple. (Yes, Nick Belfrage, there is life beyond that plonk). I’ve been seduced by white Pignolettos near Bologna and red Sangioveses in the Apennine slopes from there to the coast. (For more on these wines see my recent Decanter article).

The house lasagne at Osteria del Mirasole, San Giovanni in Persiceto

A typical trattoria in Romagna

The only problem I have with this region is the food. It’s utterly delicious but so much richer than the vegetable-driven cucina I usually live on that after about five days I have to move on. I start craving the bitter wild greens and fruity olive oils of the south. I just can’t eat a butter-and-meat-heavy cuisine any more. Who wouldn’t be tempted by mountains of lasagne, or bowls of egg-yellow noodles topped with cheese? They go so well with wine, and vice versa. But a little goes a long way. So I pack my gastro-treasures into the car and head down to Campania, or to Sicily, where the food/wine-to-life ratios suit me best.

The Campiume organic winery is housed in a self-contained borgo in Romagna

Vineyards near Brisighella are carved out from the calanche rock formations in Romagna

Or to London where we live on home-made soups and vegetables punctuated by meals out at the city’s top foodie venues. There’s such good food and wine to be had in London these days, from the bold, Best of British at Margot Henderson’s Rochelle Canteen, to the Loire Valley specialities of the Green Man and French Horn, to Ottolenghi’s eclectic vegetable assemblages. You can get great nouveau-Peruvian food at Lima, funky East End minimalism at Clove Club, and top-rate Italian with an English twist at Theo Randall’s. And that does me very nicely for a few weeks until I start feeling the yen for a plate of pasta as only the Italians know how to cook it – never over-sauced or over-cooked – and I know it’s time to get back to Italy again.

It’s a MAD world!

30 August 2013

The tent pitched on some waste land

This week has been electrifying. Four days in Copenhagen, of which two at the amazing MAD Food Symposium, now in its third year. This year’s theme was guts, and it took a lot of them to put together the line-up of chefs, activists, foragers, farmers and other food-minded people who gathered in a circus tent pitched in an unkempt field on the outskirts of Copenhagen to attend. MAD is an invitation-only event drawing an audience primarily of young chefs from around the world, plus a smattering of food writers. Altogether there were around 600 people.

Chris Ying, David Chang and René Redzepi, the hosts

There was even a bagpipe to lead us into the final session

The brainchild of René Redzepi, MAD came together this year with co-curators Dave Chang and Chris Ying of Lucky Peach magazine, and with help from Ali Kurshat Altinsoy and Peter Kreiner. The format is structured: each speaker – and there were around 24 of them – has 30 minutes to make their presentation. In the middle of the day there’s a buffet lunch for everyone, cooked on the first day by the women cooks from Lebanon’s farmer’s cooperative, Souk El Tayeb (their motto is: make food, not war), and on the second by Mission Chinese Food, from San Francisco and New York.

Puglisi demonstrating that there is no foraged food at his restaurants

Big name chefs – including Alain Ducasse, Pascal Barbot, Alex Atala and David Kinch – were joined by others who are better known within their local communities: Margot Henderson (London), Christian Puglisi (Copenhagen), Barbara Lynch (Boston), and Ahmed Jama (Somalia). Cookbook author Diana Kennedy was the most senior speaker; schoolgirl blogger Martha Payne, the youngest. They all inspiringly recounted their lives in food.

Activism was strongly represented too: alternative Nobel prizewinner, Vandana Shiva, came from India to light the fire under the young audience with a rousing talk about fighting for the sovereignty of seeds and the importance of indigenous agriculture. She says our stomach guts are dying: much of our natural healthy intestinal flora is being killed off by the fluoride, pesticides, antibiotics and weedkillers that are now saturating the food and water chains.

Food historian Michael Twitty was illuminating about the culinary traditions the slaves brought with them from Africa to the US. And Roy Choi, from the poor South Central areas of Los Angeles gave everyone a lesson in how to do something about it: he fights poverty and lack of decent food in ‘the ‘hood’ by driving his Korean-Mexican taco trucks, or Kogi, into these culinary wastelands and spreading the word through Twitter…the long lines prove him right.

Roy Choi whets the audience’s appetite

I was particularly moved by the presentation made by Dario Cecchini, the colourful butcher from Panzano. I first wrote about Dario almost 20 years ago, in my Food and Wine Lover’s Companion to Tuscany, and we’ve been friends ever since. With the artistry of a great showman he held the stage as he skilfully sliced into a freshly slaughtered pig to reveal its guts, all as he spoke eloquently of the importance of conscientious butchers, and the difficult but important role they play between life and death, death and life. Dario is a Dante fanatic, and he ended his session by reciting the Paola and Francesco love story from the Divine Comedy. “You may not understand the words, but you’ll get the passion,” he said. We did.

Dessert was fruit and sweet baby corn cobs

Heading back to the city after the Syposium

For more information about what I felt about MAD, see my article on Zester Daily. While I was in Copenhagen, I also ate at some of the culinary city’s top new restaurants. My favourite was Amass, whose chef, Matt Orlando, was formerly a sous-chef at Noma. I’ll be writing more about him and the others soon.

California Dreaming

17 June 2013

Fresh juices at the Hollywood weekend market

To emerge from under the wet, grey blanket that has hung over Europe recently into the Californian light was like switching from black and white to technicolor. Everything was saturated with colours and flavours that just can’t be found in northern European winters and springs. It had been years since my last trip there, and I was curious to check out the food scene.

My hosts in San Francisco, Gary and Jim, booked a formidable line-up of restaurants to visit, starting in Oakland with Camino (if only it was in my local neighbourhood…), and ending, six nights later, with the newly opened and stunning Saison. Our exciting food journey took us south to David Kinch’s Manresa and into the heart of San Francisco to Daniel Paterson’s Coi. Both Daniel and David have become friends in Europe in recent years and I had been longing to visit them in their own kitchens. I wasn’t disappointed! Each produced wonderful meals in their own distinct styles.

Manresa’s candle-lit fireplace

Gary and Jim introduced me to some of their favourite restaurants, with a sunny day trip to Napa ending in the comfort of Meadowood Hotel’s spectacular dining rooms, and a stylish supper in SF at sophisticated Quince. I’ll be writing more about these memorable meals soon. Our only disappointment was down to bad luck: three days before our dinner reservation at Chez Panisse, the restaurant’s porch caught fire and the restaurant was closed for the whole week I was in Oakland. Next time, Alice!

I always enjoy LA too. It feels exotic yet familiar, with some of the laid-back vibe that Greenwich Village used to have. I ate well in some of its casual, buzzing restaurants – including Red Hill and Mozza – with my brother, Marco. The best meal I had in LA this time was in Santa Monica at Rustic Canyon, where chef Jeremy Fox really knows how to be imaginative with the vibrant local vegetables.

Gary and Jim sampling yogurt at their local market

Those vegetables were a common theme in visits to local farmer’s markets in both SF and LA. Marco is an habitué of the Sunday market in Hollywood where we shopped for organic vegetables to the sounds of live music. I’m really envious of the quality and choice of bright, sun-reared produce California can offer – so different from the pale taste of the UK’s winter offerings.

Outside-inside at Quince’s elegant dining room