Archive | January, 2012

An Unforgettable Italian New Year’s Eve – the Love Affair Continues

23 Jan

            It was 2001.  We celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary in May with two and a half glorious weeks in Italy: a week in a delightful villa outside Radda in Chianti, a week in an apartment in a restored 15th century convent in Chiusi, on the Tuscany/Umbria border and three days in Bellagio, on Lake Como.  After the nigh perfect trip that we spent in Italy for our tenth anniversary, it would have been easy to be a bit disappointed.  Far from it- if anything the second trip surpassed the first and before the trip drew to an end, we were head over heels in love with the place.

            I couldn’t believe it, in the fall of that year, when an Italian business associate of Jay’s invited us to spend New Year’s with him in his castle between Florence and Sienna – two trips to Italy in a single year, and the second in a castle!  I felt as though my own private pumpkin coach had arrived and that I was truly living a fairy tale.  We gleefully accepted.

            As the days passed, I realized, through my excitement, that I had agreed to spend three days as a guest in the home of strangers.  I’m an introvert and strangers scare me.  One of the things that I value the most about my family is that we come from strong but humble roots.  My grandfather grew up in a house with dirt floors -not dirt ON the floors, but literally, no slab, and certainly no indoor plumbing.  So on top of my general fear of strangers, I was scared to death that despite all my education and world exposure, that I just wouldn’t measure up with the “castle set”.  I was afraid, in that secret place within my soul, that I wouldn’t be accepted and that I would feel ashamed and inadequate.

            Worry or not, the departure date arrived and my love of travel helped ease my fears.  I love to travel and often wonder if my truest calling isn’t, simply, gypsy.  I’ve never once been ready to come home.  While I’ve visited all 7 continents and 47 countries, Italy is my favorite.  I love the rhythm of the place and its zealous embrace of life.  Jay and I can both be passionate and intense and we’ve found ourselves fed there in a way we have yet to duplicate.  It’s as if, when we’re there, we resonate in perfect harmony.  It nurtures our souls.

            We had three blissful days in Florence, strolling along the holiday light trimmed medieval streets; gazing into shop windows, filled with wares of vibrant hue; pondering the passion and thirst for expression that fueled men like Michelangelo and Titian to create works of such intense beauty; immersing ourselves in the language, history and culture of a fabulous city.  We reveled in food paired perfectly with the experience of almost melting into someone new, someone almost Italian: enjoying linguine with truffle sauce while watching the lights reflect off the Arno, sipping morning cappuccino in tiny sidewalk cafes; munching cones of gelato as the lights dimmed and the city prepared itself to rest until dawn and sharing the yearnings of our hearts over a glass or two of Chianti with almost every meal.  How can you help not falling in love all over again, each and every day?  Romance leaks from every pore and every breath of its perfume is simply intoxicating.

            We awoke late the morning of the fourth day, as is our habit with jet-lag and after a leisurely late Florentine lunch, we packed our bags and began our drive south for the New Year’s party at the Castello.  It was winter and the days were short and the roads icy.  As anyone that has driven rural Tuscany knows, the roads are unlit and full of hairpin turns.  We arrived later than we had anticipated and being late set my already sensitive nerves on edge.

            Tommaso and Eliane’s home is impressive.  It rules from atop the highest point between Siena and Florence with a quiet and stately grace.  We entered the gate of the estate and began our ascent along the forested drive.  Just before we reached the castle, we passed a beautiful 11th century chapel, which spoke to me in comforting tones.  Cars lined the exterior of an ancient stone and stucco towered fortress.  This really was a castle!  My only disappointment was there were no turrets.

            Tommasso and Eliane greeted us together, and from that first moment, welcomed us into their lives, which were casual, welcoming and warm.  From the start, Tommaso inspired me with his level of energy and his zeal for life.  He struggled, laughing, as he heaved my heavy bag from the trunk.  Mortified, lest this gentleman in his 60’s develop a hernia carrying my vast assortment of nightgowns, I took the bag from him and he embraced me in a mighty hug as we shared the first of many merry laughs together.

            Eliane, on the other hand, seemed to radiate gentleness and grace.  Though she greeted us in sweats, she possessed a quiet beauty which extended beyond her graying hair and softly lined face.  Somehow, it seemed to be, as strange as this sounds, the beauty of a life well lived and strength of character.  She welcomed us warmly and showed us to our rooms – a two bedroom suite with a bath.  We were asked to make ourselves at home – we were welcome anywhere in the castle and  the party would begin at 9:00.

            Tommaso had indicated to Jay that the attire for the evening was dressy, but not formal.  I had struggled with this, worrying that Houston ideas of dressy and formal might be different from what those terms might mean in a castle in Europe.  I ultimately decided to play it safe, and to build a safety zone on both sides with a “perfect” LBD (little black dress) and great pair of shoes.  The evening wasn’t at all what I expected.  The castle was filled with 25-30 very close friends and family, and it felt much the same way that holiday festivities feel when my own family gathers together.  The surroundings were ancient and elegant, but the focus was on the joy of togetherness:  the chance to cherish those who were loved and make a new friend or two.  We enjoyed a delicious but simply served meal.  No wine bottles here!  They simply took pottery jugs to the cellar and filled them with estate grown wine, straight from the barrel.  I think that may have been the single element of castle life that seemed, to me, the most romantic.

            Tommaso and Eliane were so gracious.  Jay and I were the only guests who spoke English as a first language.  Yet, they had gone to the trouble, well before-hand, to gather a group of eight that could converse in English to join us at the hosts’ table.  The entire meal, English was the only language spoken at our table, even though it was a bit of a struggle for some.  Elaine’s mother, in particular, spoke only French, and was excluded from the entire conversation, but smiled broadly at us throughout.  I can’t recall another time in my life when anyone has extended that much effort to make me feel welcome.  I began to feel a touch ashamed that I had doubted my comfort with my new friends and ashamed that I allowed my own insecurities to stain my heart.

            At 11:45, the meal reached its conclusion and we adjourned to another room the watch the Italian equivalent of the ball drop on television.  Champagne was passed around and in true Italian tradition, everybody had to kiss, and kiss again, everybody else.  It was a magic moment.  I feel so grateful to have been given the opportunity to glimpse, just for a moment, the manner in which people who are a part of a culture, a little different from my own, privately celebrate the passage of time and the gift of another year.

            The part of the celebration that I found the most intriguing, however, was the way that the different generations interacted.  About half of those present were young adults, in their twenties or early thirties.  Not long after the kissing ended, the rock-n-roll began.  I was so surprised when the lights dimmed, the music began and everyone, including the little French grandma, started line dancing!  It was fun, even if it caused my feet in those 5” stiletto heels to ache.  The revelry continued, the music got louder, and one by one, us “old folks” gradually drifted to chairs at the room’s periphery, watching, toes a tappin’, the fun of the dance to those who remained.  At 2:00, jet-lag got us and Jay and I politely excused ourselves, the party still raging, the younger generation still dancing, the music still blaring.  It had been an absolutely wonderful evening.

            The thing that seemed so remarkable to me about the latter part of the evening was that I couldn’t imagine it happening, at the time, at either my mother’s house or my own.  This party was truly multi-generational.  I wasn’t surprised by that.  Italians have a reputation for tight extended family.  The part I found surprising was how much they all enjoyed being together, and the very fact that “young” music was not only tolerated, but welcomed.  It occurred to me, as I reflected back about the evening, that perhaps the reason that Italians families remain so connected is that generations each make more effort to bridge the gaps that separate them, embracing things that change, remaining willing to live and fully participate, at least for a while, in one another’s world.

            It was a lesson learned, one that I hope has helped me to both parent better and to entertain more graciously.  And what an amazing way to gain meaningful insights into my own life.

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East meets West in a Pub Worthy of a Michelin Star – The Queen Vic Pub & Kitchen, Houston, TX

19 Jan

            It’s been a week of change – good change.  My sphere of personal freedom has grown and I’m basking in the newness of it all.  First, I took the final for my ISG sommelier class on Monday night.  I’m confident that I passed and while I’ll continue tasting, reading and learning, I’ll have 15+ additional hours in my week from now until my diploma level class begins in the fall.

            Second, William, the youngest of our three children drove himself to school for the very first time on Tuesday.  As I sipped my coffee and reflected that morning, I realized that, with the exception of a few days here and there, I’ve driven children to school five days a week for just shy of twenty years.  Sadly for me, the pension plan for retired carpool drivers is in direct proportion to my paycheck – zero.  So my sole reward for transcending the hurdle of the carpool line is my newfound freedom to blog in my pajamas, a luxury I’ve already begun to cherish…..

            While he may not have anted for a full-time mom retirement plan, Jay, my husband, is a gem and took me out to celebrate the milestones in my life.  We went to a restaurant that was new to us both – the Queen Vic Pub & Kitchen in central Houston.  We’ve spent a good amount of time traveling in rural England, Ireland and Wales, which means we’ve enjoyed many a pub, many of which boasted a menu of only three items: fish & chips, shrimp & chips and bangers & mash: not what a foodie’s looking for when she’s in a mood to celebrate.  The place was crowded and does not accept reservations.  At first blush, I thought it might be a long evening.

            But as soon as we found a pair of stools at the bar, the stars aligned and a nigh perfect evening began.  I ordered a pint of 512 IPA.  And while I’m in no way a beer aficionado (although I was on the beer chugging team in college, another story for another day), it was lovely and my trepidations began to melt away.  (512) Brewing Company is located in the heart of Austin, TX and describes its India Pale Ale as:

A big, aggressively dry-hopped American IPA with smooth bitterness (~65 IBU) balanced by medium maltiness. Organic 2-row malted barley, loads of hops, and great Austin water create an ale with apricot and vanilla aromatics that lure you in for more. (Approx. 7% ABV)

            When our table was ready, we were seated and perused the menu.  To my delight, there were numerous options, many with an Indian twist.  I chose the Prawn and Fish Tomatillo Masala and it was simply out of this world delicious.  The menu describes the dish as “Jumbo prawns and fish tikka stewed in a fresh tomatillo masala with roasted cherry tomatoes, sweet corn, butternut squash and avocado”.  The seasoning was absolutely perfect, spicy but not enough to induce a sweat, and the coolness and creamy texture of the avocado balanced the spiciness beautifully.  I paired it with a bottle of 2008 Sebach-Oster Reisling from the Mosel Valley.  It’s a Kabinett wine, off-dry, with a touch of spritz and aromas and flavors of nectarine, green herbs and lemon peel and it was a lovely contrast to the spiciness of the Masala.

          The atmosphere was casual and relaxed, and though it was a bit loud, it seemed to encourage our conversation and a desire to linger, long after the meal.  We a grand time and I am eager to go back.

            I did a bit of reading on the Queen Vic and discovered that it’s owned by the same group that owns Oporto, a wine bar that we enjoy very much.  The Queen Vic is a “gastro-pub”, a term coined in the 1990’s in England for establishments that combine a pub atmosphere and fine food.  The owners and executive chefs, Richard Di Virgilio (Rick) and his wife Shiva, aim to provide Houston with their interpretation of “modern post-colonial British cuisine focusing on Indian flavors, emphasizing quality chef- driven food, artisanal cocktails, and local and imported beer”.   Based on this foodie’s experience, they’re doing exactly that, and doing it very, very well.  So here’s to East meets West in a pub worthy of a Michelin star – Oxymoron?  Perhaps.  But to me, the Queen Vic is one of the most interesting dining experiences that Houston has yet to offer.

Home Stretch Reflections on My ISG Sommelier Class

10 Jan

          It’s week eleven of my ISG Fundamentals of Wine class – the home stretch.  And I’m experiencing the entire gamut of feelings that may imply: palate and brain fatigue, satisfaction that I dared to pursue a dream, excitement about the future and if I’m honest, a bit of anxiety about next week’s final exam.  It’s been a crazy whirlwind, but a whirlwind that’s been wonderful in a way that I haven’t experienced for a very long time.  I’m reminded that I’m a learner at my core and that I’m happiest when I’m fully immersed in something that I find personally engaging.

          This week was the first time that the work required was a burden rather than a pleasure.  I think part of it was that I’m battling a sinus infection and somehow, cold drugs and studying just don’t mix to produce a very appealing cocktail.  But I think the other part of the answer is that I wasn’t personally interested in this week’s new content.  We learned about beer and spirits, and while I love an occasional margarita as much as the next girl, I’m just not passionate about beer or spirits in the way that I am about wine.  I didn’t even want to smell the whisky, much less taste it, especially with a cough drop chaser….. It’s part of the repertoire –  I understand that and am willing to pay my dues.  I just didn’t actively enjoy it.

          The good news is that my level of anxiety about the exam has decreased dramatically.  Karla, our teacher, is great and she both explained the grading rubric in detail and led us through a timed blind tasting practice test. For me, the practice test was illuminating.  It showed me, in a very concrete way, just how much I’ve learned the last three months.  Did I correctly identify the grape, country and region of origin of every wine?  Absolutely not.  But I nailed one perfectly, missed the grapes on two, and the country and region on the last.  My nose and palate descriptions were where they needed to be and I “passed” with room to spare.  It’s a “Fundamentals” class, the tip of an ENORMOUS iceberg, and I’m learning that development of the correct evaluative process, at this point, is more important that a perfect palate.  So I’ll do some work reviewing wine profiles and other than that, I feel pretty good to go.

          I’ve outlined all the lectures and written material and will spend this last week, hanky in hand, memorizing for the four remaining essays and the multiple choice test.  It’s an absolutely overwhelming amount of material, hence the anxiety.  But now I realize that I’m only fighting my personal achievement demons because the class has prepared me well to pass.  I’m at the head of the stretch…..and it’s time to finish strong.  I’m not in it to win, place or show.  But, I want to be well prepared for the “race” ahead.

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A New Year’s Revelation: Nebbiolo is My New BFF

6 Jan

        While the typical theme of New Year’s Eve is “should auld acquaintance be forgot and never thought upon” –  a call to remember long standing friendships, my New Year’s Eve 2011 was, instead, an introduction to a wonderful new friend: Nebbiolo.  Our tradition for New Year’s Eve is to gather with extended family, usually at our East Texas ranch, for a multicourse meal, pleasant company, a game or two and weather permitting, fireworks. This year, two of our three kids were able to join us, as were both my Mom and my sister, Kim, and her family.  As my brother-in-law, Matt, is my buddy in our ISG Fundamentals of Wine class, I decided to flip-flop my usual priorities and choose the wines first and design a menu that would complement them well.

        We tasted a variety of French wines when we were all last together at Thanksgiving.  So I decided to branch out and explore an Italian grape that I don’t have a lot of experience with, Nebbiolo.  Our winery is in Tuscany and we drink a good bit of Tuscan wine: Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Super Tuscans.  I’ve tried Barolo, and we have a few in our cellar, but for all intents and purposes, I’m a Nebbiolo ingénue, in experience, if not by age.  Since we covered Italian wines in our class, I’ve been eager to become better acquainted with this noble grape.

        I went to my favorite neighorhood wine shop, which carries a broad selection of serious wine, intending to pick up 2 different bottles of Barolo to pair with our entrée, osso bucco.  I learned in my sommelier class that Barolo absolutely needs time in the bottle to soften its tannins.  The Barolos on the shelf were young, most were 2007s, and I wasn’t comfortable choosing them for immediate consumption.  The only other choices they had were locked inside the same display case as the Chateau Latour, and the price point, while not in the range of Latour, was higher than I generally spend .  I ultimately decided to splurge (after all, it was a special occasion) on a single bottle of the 2001 Gran Bussia Barolo and to round out the tasting experience with a close cousin, a Barbaresco, that I had learned was lighter and more approachable in youth.  The sommelier at the store recommended the 2005 Tenute Cisa Asinari Dei Marchesi Di Gresy Martinenga.

        I opened both bottles a couple of hours before I served the main course and decanted them.  Matt and I put our wines class heads together and decided that we should serve the younger, lighter Barbaresco first, and follow it with the Barolo.

        The Barbaresco was lovely.  Ruby, with bright flavors of sour cherry and subtle spices, it was round in the mouth, pleasant and easy to sip, without any trace of overbearing tannin.  When we had drained the Barbaresco, we poured the much anticipated Barolo.  It was truly sublime and reflected the same sour cherry character, but the Barolo was so much more complex.  The sour cherry was layered with aromas and flavors of leather, tar and flowers and was velvety on the palate.

        I simply loved both wines.  We ultimately regretted our failure to serve the Barbaresco before we began the main course.  We were nigh finished with our osso bucco before we poured the Gran Bussia, and all agreed that it would have been even better with food.  By comparison, we felt as though the Barbaresco would have been equally delicious, with its fresh ripe fruit and easy feel in the mouth, with or without food.

        I did some research on the Gran Bussia and learned that it comes from a historic Piedmont estate, Aldo Conterno.  It’s a blend of their single vineyards and is only produced in exceptional years.  Unlike many Riserva wines, it is not designed to be the most powerful expression of the estate, but rather the most elegant.  We certainly experienced that elegance in the glass.

        Bottom line, I’m highly motivated to add more Barolo and Barbaresco to our cellar, to have and enjoy through the coming decades.  I’ve definitely made a new BFF, and what a great way to welcome 2012!

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