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- Des, The Grommet

Travel articles & reviews

Back From Italy: Venice and Cinque Terra

(along with recipe for Walnut Sauce for Pansoti)

As I have now lost the 2-1/2 pounds I gained eating my way through Italian pastry shops, I will say that I am still happy but not quite as plump as I was when I arrived home. That said,
I just baked a fresh peach pie for my housemate’s birthday and I’m hoping he’ll give me a piece as I wouldn’t want to wither away, especially while writing about food.

We left Cortona for Venezia by train, arriving just before noon.

Home From Italy Fat and Happy: Cortona

Let’s face it:  If you’re a foodie and you go to Italy and Greece  for three weeks, you’re going to gain weight.  It’s a given.  In fact, the only thing that saved me from returning as a full-on  roly-poly, was that we walked five to nine miles a day.  How do I know this?  I wear a pedometer.

My five friends and I met up at the Rome airport, caught the shuttle to the train station and headed for Cortona, 2-1/2 hours to the north.  Cortona is an Etruscan hill town, roughly 2500 years old.  The road from the train station in Tarantola meanders up the hillside to Garibaldi Square, near the center of Cortona.  From there, the town continues its upward spiral toward the sky.  A castle and centuries-old church look down on the town, which, in turn,  looks down on beautiful, verdant Tuscany.  It’s a breath-taking view.

Pop-Up Cookie Bar in NY City

This morning I wanted to write about something fun for a change, but I wasn’t coming up with anything that spoke to me.   Then I opened today’s e-mail and stumbled upon something that has my head spinning.

Dorie Greenspan and her son Joshua are doing a five-day pop-up cookie bar in New York City, from February 7th through the 11th!  If you are fortunate enough to live  in (or are visiting) Manhattan, go to Mizu Salon at 505 5th Avenue between 58th and 59th from 10:00 a.m until only cookie crumbs remain.  The cookie choices sound spectacular!

Tropical Fruits? You Betcha!

This visit on beautiful Hawaii, I’ve been treated to some fruits I’ve never tried as well as others I’ve enjoyed once again. I love fruit, not only because of the sweetness, but also the explosion of juice, the mouth-feel, the textures, the sheer lusciousness they offer.

Some of the fruits I’ve eaten this trip I first had in China, but didn’t have recognizable names for them. Fruits such as longdon, a small round fruit in an unassuming thin khaki shell. Similar to the lychee, it is a delicate, translucent fruit with a single brown seed in the center. Just a taste, but sweet and refreshing.

Dragon fruit with its exotic fuchsia skin with scales and beet-red flesh was served to me the first time in China. It is currently in season in Hawaii. I wasn’t really taken by it in China so I haven’t had it here, but I was curious about its origins. It’s from a cactus, which makes perfect sense as I realize now that it tastes similar to tunas, the little fruits that grow on the flat paddles of Mexican and Central American cactus. Now that I understand it, I like it better.

Another is Lilikoi, a variety of passion fruit that is more citrusy than its sensual purple cousin. Lilikoi chiffon pie is an Island favorite, as well as lilikoi salad dressing, lilikoi curd to spread on toast or poundcake, or lilikoi cream pie. Too tart for my palate by itself, but delicious as an ingredient.

Cape Gooseberry is a little round fruit that looks almost like

Better than a Lava Lamp: Kiluea Lava Flow

P1020574 Okay, I’m old enough to remember when lava lamps first came out. I never owned one but I definitely found them a source of great entertainment, especially after a drink or two.

Now I can tell you that as cool as they are, they don’t stand up to the real deal!

On the evening of October 24th I went to the village of Kalapana on the Big Island to the Kiluea lava flow. I wasn’t sure I could actually watch the pyrotechnics as I’m extremely sensitive to sulphur dioxide. Didn’t want an asthma attack to ruin an otherwise thrilling adventure.

“Not to worry,” I was told. “The steam, sulphur, ash and other gases drift north to the Kona Coast.” I certainly can attest to that as most of my stay in Kona was clouded by

Afternoon Tea at Onamea Tea Plantation

Afternoon Tea on Onomea Bay

Courtesy of Sonia Martinez: www.soniatasteshawaii.com http://foodiesleuth.gather.com

On a beautiful Spring afternoon not long ago, I was invited to join friends for tea.  Now, I know that many people welcome friends to drink afternoon tea and share scrumptious food, but how many people have the pleasure of experiencing drinking tea at the source? 

My friends Rob Nunally and Mike Longo are the owners of Onomea Tea Company a boutique tea garden located on one of the most beautiful bluffs overlooking Onomea Bay near the Village of Papa’ikou on the East Coast of Hawai’i Island.

Spice Farms in Kerala, India

Courtesy of Courtenay Dunk: www.spicelines.com 

For just a moment, for no reason I can decipher, I am in a place I know better than I should; I fall through the gratings of the conscious mind and into a place that observes a different kind of logic.

–Pico Iyer, Sun After Dark: Flights into the Foreign

Tall palms cloaked in heart-shaped leaves. Pepper vines dangling heavy clusters of green, unripe fruit.

Vaguely Indonesian houses, bright blue, burnt orange, pale pink stucco. Tip-tilted red tile roofs topped with bulbous finials pointing skyward.

A woman, head held high, striding along

Intrepid Spice Hunter

Courtesy of Courtney Dunk: www.spicelines.com

(Courtney writes a great blog at the above address.  Check it out!)

Sometimes I tell myself if I had it to do all over again, I’d be a spice hunter. The romance, the intrigue, the snakes…

Gerard Vives wrote a long email the other day about his recent escapades in Madagascar. “My métier is sometimes dangerous,” he said. “I’ve had to face wild animals, unpleasant savages, serpents, spiders, big monkeys, etc. in the areas of production, but the one I fear the most is …man. “

Female Coffee Growers in Peru

Female Coffee Growers Find New Freedoms in Peru

By Sadie Hoagland – WeNews correspondent

NUEVO YORK, Peru (WOMENSENEWS)–Her hands move methodically down the branch, raking the red coffee cherries into the basket around her neck. She moves to the next branch, demonstrating the work of harvesting coffee. Watching her dexterity and strength, one would never guess that Rosa Cantalina Sanchez is 66 years old.

Glades Valencia, 14, is doing the same thing, running her hands down the branches as if she were braiding hair.

Sanchez and Valencia represent a life’s work of coffee growing in northern Peru. Even though many of the region’s farmers have attained “Fair Trade and Organic” certification in order to grow higher premium beans, the most a coffee-farming family can hope to make is $1,200 a year, and only $400 in poorer areas.

Don Fernando Patino

1908 — September 2001 — National Treasure of Mexico

When I first met Don Fernando in October of 1994, I was already in possession of a small crucifix made by his niece, Rocio, a gift from a visit to their home in 1992 while passing through Papantla. Don Fernando was away for the day so I was charmed by the family’s stories of their life in Papantla, of their cat that played the guitar, but mostly, about Don Fernando. His presence was everywhere — the tools of his trade, displays of his remarkable craft, photos and awards displayed on walls or placed in books and brought out for the American guest.

When I returned in 1994, I was greeted as a friend and immediately introduced to Don Fernando, the family patriarch. Fernando was a small, unassuming man with a passion for his work. In most respects quiet and retiring, he would come alive as a magnificent storyteller at his work-bench as his still nimble fingers twisted, bent, shaped, and tied supple vanilla beans into works of art.

Enchanting Tahiti

As I stepped off the plane into Faaa airport on Tahiti, I pinched myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. No! I really am in Tahiti! I repeated this simple ritual at least once each day. Even after a particularly uncomfortable night in a pension in Bora Bora, I opened the plywood door to a turquoise bay and lush, tropical gardens, and the aches and pains of the terrible bed faded away. After dreaming of Tahiti ever since I saw “South Pacific” as a child, it was difficult to believe that it was truly a dream come true.

The water really is turquoise, and it’s the same temperature as the air. Filled with every imaginable tropical fish and coral, it’s like being part of an enormous aquarium — with the sharks outside the reefs! The beaches are clean and sandy. People paddle through lagoons and bays in kayaks. Trade winds rustle through palms. Everyone wears flowers in their hair. When you arrive, you will be given a flower to wear too.

The geography of the Society Islands is spectacular. Remnants of volcanoes covered with brilliant green foliage rise dramatically to jagged, angular peaks. Deep bays ringed with coral reefs provide anchorage for everything from enormous cruise ships, inter-island ferries and cargo steamers, to schooners, sail boats and tiny kayaks. Tiare, plumeria, hibiscus, and much more bloom year ‘round. Everyone is warm and friendly, and why not? They live in Paradise. For me, the bonus was the food. As Tahiti is French, there are freshly baked baguettes and croissants for breakfast, incredible French pates, cheeses and pastries, apples and other produce from New Zealand, fish fresh from the water, and lots of tropical fruits. Heaven!

I was in Tahiti for my ongoing research on vanilla’s journey around the world. I also collected stories, interviews, recipes and photos of vanilla in the islands to share with you. I hope my offering will pique your interest and perhaps you too will find your way to the South Pacific. It’s worth saving for as it’s an adventure you’ll never forget. While my focus is on the vanilla, I’ve given you a few tidbits about travel and activities in the Islands to get you in the mood for daydreaming.

Vanilla in Tahiti

There are several styles of vanilla growing in Tahiti. There are traditional family plantations of several hectares or less, where the entire family cares for the vanilla, from planting vines, to pollinating orchids, harvesting and drying the beans, and boxing them for sale. Other traditional farmers simply grow the vanilla, then sell their harvested green beans to specialists who dry and sell beans. The newer shade-house plantations are compact, time-saving ventures where fewer workers are required to manage the entire production cycle. And finally, you’ll frequently see vanilla vines in family gardens where they’re planted as decoration and as a kitchen crop.

Vanilla growers include native Tahitian families, the Chinese who came to the Islands in the early 20th century, and the French who, because Tahiti is a French colony, have dual citizenship. The following three profiles offer a glimpse of the people who make up the industry in Tahiti. All three people are passionate about their work and are actively working to preserve the tradition of vanilla in their beloved islands.

The Voladores of Papantla Veracruz

Ask anyone who’s been to Papantla what most impressed them, and they’ll probably say, “The Voladores.” Many people who’ve never been to the Gulf Coast — or even to Mexico – will light up in recognition at the mention of the Voladores. They perform regularly throughout Mexico, Central and South America. They’ve performed in several cities in the United States, and even in Paris and Madrid. So, who are the Voladores, and why are they famous? And what do they have to do with vanilla?

Volador means flyer – he who flies. It is breathtaking to watch the spectacle of four men gracefully “flying” upside down from a 75 foot pole secured only by a rope tied around their waists.

Even more amazing is the musician, called the caporal. Balanced on a narrow wooden platform without a rope or safety net, the caporal plays a drum and flute and invokes an ancient spiritual offering in the form of a spectacular dance.

As he turns to face the four cardinal directions, he will bend his head back to his feet, balance on one foot then lean precariously forward, and perform intricate footwork, all the time playing the flute and drum! No matter how many times you see this beautiful performance, it will continue to astonish you, and the plaintive tune of the flute and drum will remain with you long after you have returned home.

The early history of the ceremonial flight of the Voladores is shrouded in the mists of antiquity. Information about the original ritual was partially lost when the invading conquerors from Spain destroyed so many of the documents and codices of the indigenous cultures. Fortunately, enough survived through legend and oral history and in materials written by early visitors to New Spain, that anthropologists and historians have been able to document at least part of the story of this ancient religious practice and how it has evolved through time.

A Totonaca myth tells of a time when there was a great drought, and food and water grew scarce throughout the land. Five young men decided that they must send a message to Xipe Totec, God of fertility so that the rains would return and nurture the soil, and their crops would again flourish. So they went into the forest and searched for the tallest, straightest tree they could find.

When they came upon the perfect tree, they stayed with it overnight, fasting and praying for the tree’s spirit to help them in their quest. The next day they blessed the tree, then felled it and carried it back to their village, never allowing it to touch the ground. Only when they decided upon the perfect location for their ritual, did they set the tree down.

The men stripped the tree of its leaves and branches, dug a hole to stand it upright, then blessed the site with ritual offerings. The men adorned their bodies with feathers so that they would appear like birds to Xipe Totec, in hope of attracting the god’s attention to their important request. With vines wrapped around their waists, they secured themselves to the pole and made their plea through their flight and the haunting sound of the flute and drum.

In Mesoamerican times the ritual of the Volador was performed throughout much of Mexico and extended as far south as Nicaragua. It was performed once every 52 years at the change of the century, and the brotherhood of the Voladores was passed from father to son.

At the time of the Conquest, the church fought strongly against what it considered heathen practices, and indigenous worship and rituals were silenced or held in secret. Later, the Catholic Church combined native beliefs with religious dogma, creating a syncretization of faith. The flight of the Volador was considered an interesting game by Colonial New Spain, and special plazas were constructed where the Voladores performed for a curious public. Over time the ritual slowly died out, until finally the Totonaca and a few Otomi were the only groups performing this ancient practice.

Today, the Totonaca people perform the flight of the Voladores for several reasons. First, it keeps a part of their traditional culture alive for everyone to see. Second, it provides additional income for the Voladores and their families. Non-Totonacas are asked to make a donation after each flight is completed, as well as for traditional dances which are frequently performed on weekends and evenings in the town plazas or in front of cafes. And last, it provides a sense of group pride. Like other folkloric dances and music from around the world, it’s a way to celebrate heritage and diversity.

The Voladores were among the first cultivators of vanilla, and many of them continue to grow it today. Not all of the early growers were Voladores, though the Voladores comprised an elite segment of the Totonaca society. Vanilla continues to have a sacred place in the lives of the Totonaca in the same way as the flight of the Volador, and the two have remained integrally connected.

The Voladores are a source of great pride to everyone in Totonocapan – the region of the Totonaca. In Papantla, the hub of the vanilla industry, there is even a large stone Volador that looks down on the city from one of the highest points in town. Created by world class artist, Teodoro Cano – who is part Totonaca — the Volador is a moving testimony to the Totonaca ancestors who founded Papantla in the 1200s, as well as to those who continue to maintain the rich cultural legacy in this region of tropical Mexico.

Last photo by Joaquin Morales

 

Vanilla Dreams

His name is Jim Reddekopp and his enthusiasm is catching.  His face lights up when he tells the story of how he and his family came to the Big Island from their Oahu home to grow vanilla orchid vines on the Hamakua Coast.

Looking for a business that would bring them in contact with the earth, Jim and his wife Tracy latched on to the idea that was thrown at them during a family discussion. Thinking that this was finally the way to work toward their dream of having a business where the whole family, including their five children, could be involved, they started learning all they could about vanilla.

During his search, he met Tom Kadooka of Kona. Orchids have been Kadooka’s life work since he started growing and propagating vanilla orchids in 1941.

“Everything I have learned about growing vanilla, I have learned it literally at the knees of Tom Kadooka. Whenever I thought I knew it all, Tom would say, `Jim, you’re just in kindergarten’ “, says Jim with a self-deprecating laugh.

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For an update on the 2016 vanilla shortage, please see "Why is Vanilla so Expensive?"

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