Getting Closer

We just visited the Upper Peninsula of Michigan—commonly called “the U.P.” by all but the most uninformed tourists—and absolutely loved everything about it. Our U.P. trip was a short one, but we crammed in quite a few adventures. We kayaked at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on Lake Superior, mountain biked on Grand Island, and stopped by Mackinac Island for an overnight on the way home.

Mackinac (pronounced “Makinaw”) is a tiny little island (two miles long) out in Lake Huron, and visiting is like time travel—no cars, lots of horse-drawn carriages, and buildings and hotels dating to the 1800s.

The U.P. seems largely about the fantastic (ok, Great) lakes and the beautiful northern forests, but it’s also about the food—and you tend to see and hear a lot about pasties, perhaps the most well-known regional treat.

But there’s so much more to food in the U.P., in particular the seafood. Coming from the East Coast, I didn’t really associate seafood with Michigan, and yet there is amazing fresh Great Lakes seafood all over the U.P..

On our trip, we fell in love with the local market in the town of Munising, VanLandschoot and Sons. It’s been around for more than 100 years, and it has an amazing selection of whitefish, salmon, trout, fish dip, and smoked fish.

Like a lot of U.P. businesses, VanLandschoot and Sons is a family affair. It was founded in 1914 by a Belgian immigrant named Philip VanLandschoot who initially set up shop on the shores of Lake Michigan. In 1942, he and his family shifted operations to Munising, a town of about 2,500 on Lake Superior. He fished all summer by boat, and then ice-fished all winter—moving his gear around by horse and sleigh. Those were no doubt different times.

In addition to running an amazing market, VanLandschoot and Sons has also been at the forefront of sustainable fishing practices. In the 1960s, they pioneered the use of trapnets, which are a more responsible way to fish than gillnets. With a trapnet, fish are caught live and any fish that are not being targeted (“bycatch”) can be released. In contrast, gillnets typically kill anything that they catch. The use of trapnets are one of many innovations over the years that have help maintain Lake Superior as a very health commercial fishery.

There are 88 species of fish in Lake Superior, including whitefish. They are near the lake bottom in terms of habitat, but clearly near the top in terms of popularity—comprising almost 90% of the commercial harvest. Whitefish owes its popularity in part to its mild flavor, which means that even people who don’t like fish seem to like whitefish (illogical much?).

 

VanLandschoot and Sons is located in a building next to their docks on the edge of town, and there’s nothing fancy about it. But you can see the boats when you are standing in front of their cold case, so I’m thinking you are getting pretty fresh stuff. They also process, filet and smoke everything right on site, with a friendly staff and prices that would make Whole Foods blush.

Back at our spacious and lovely AirBnB rental in Munising (we splurged a bit), we pan-fried our whitefish with a little paprika, olive oil, pepper, and lemon juice, and we also made a smoked whitefish dip with green onions and cream cheese. That’s a lot of whitefish, but it was definitely a Superior meal.

It’s funny to think that time spent together in the kitchen was one of the highlights of our vacation. But there’s something special about supporting a local (and responsible) business, eating what’s in season, preparing your meals from the freshest of ingredients, and doing it right near the source. A lot of people go on vacation to get away, but sometimes it’s fun to get closer.

Sweet Memories

A few weeks ago, I asked my 94-year-old dad if he had a favorite drink–thinking he might say something like a Manhattan or a Whiskey Sour. He looked skyward for what seemed like a long time, and then he finally announced, “probably cane juice.”

Huh? Cane juice? I guess I’m still learning things about my dad—and learning things from my dad, too. This lesson was about a great memory from his childhood in Savannah, Georgia, which was apparently overflowing with a sugary natural drink that I’d never even heard of.

 

Cane juice is made by crushing sugarcane stalks, and it is quite popular across the South, as well as throughout Latin America and in Southeast Asia. People have been enjoying this stuff for generations wherever sugarcane is grown (who knew?). Oh, and cane juice can also be aged to make rum (patience is an even greater virtue than I thought).

 

Whenever my dad had money in his pocket as a kid, he would stop for cane juice at roadside stands in and around Savannah. He also shared that there were a lot of stands in nearby Guyton, where his Aunt Beth lived on what we’d nowadays probably call a farm (she kept chickens and pigs out back). In the old days, the juice was sometimes made by mules that walked in a circle to power a cane crusher.

 

Fresh cane juice had to either be consumed or refrigerated right away, which wasn’t a hard choice for a thirsty kid (and there wasn’t much refrigeration in those days, anyway).

 

With my dad’s re-kindled interest in cane juice, my sister found a place close to where he lives in Florida that serves it in much the same way as the stands across Savannah in the 1930s. The community of Bokeelia, on Pine Island, is only about 40 minutes from my folks’ home in Fort Myers, but it feels lost in time. Pine Island still has general stores, motels that advertise in-room color TV, endless fruit groves–and a place called Fruitscapes that sells amazing fruit as well as fresh-pressed cane juice.

 

We stopped into Fruitscapes for a visit this week, and were delighted to find fresh juice—along with pomelos, bananas, persimmons, dried mangos, and a super friendly staff. During our visit, our new friend Cecelia gave us a little education along with a glass of the prized juice. Just as in the old days, she threaded several stalks of sugarcane through a press, and then folded the partially flattened canes in half and did it again. The whole press contraption looked like it was made in 1930, so maybe that’s why the juice tasted so familiar to my dad.

 

So, for four dollars, we got a demonstration, a drink, and a chance to hear stories about Savannah in the 1930s. I’m not sure I’d say that I like cane juice better than a Manhattan. But you probably have to drink six Manhattans to take a trip through time, and it only takes one cup of cane juice.

Seven Fish, and a Cheese Log

We spent part of our holiday this year in Southwest Florida before heading north to enjoy the snow in Buffalo. While in Florida, we made a new (to us) dish called Cioppino for Christmas Eve. Cioppino is a soup/stew that features seven different kinds of seafood. It originated with Italian immigrant fishermen in San Francisco in the late 1800s, who were apparently inspired by an older tradition from their homeland. That’s a whole lot of tradition behind what might be a new tradition for us.

The story behind Cioppino is that unlucky Bay Area fishermen would walk around the docks and collect fish from the more successful boats, and then would add tomatoes and white wine to a large pot and make a stew from their random catch. They would expect to return the favor when they had better luck. Sharing a bit of one’s catch sounds like a “holiday season thing to do” no matter the time of year—and shouldn’t every season be the season of giving, anyway?

It was easy for us to get into a seafood theme in Florida, since you are never more than 60 miles from a beach anywhere in the state. A beach theme also seemed to go with the mellower pace of things here–although the calypso vibe isn’t as obvious when you see two people at the local mall fighting over the last cheese log. There are, I suppose, practical limits to the season of giving.

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My brother-in-law in mid-carve on a past holiday

My brother-in-law, who is a history professor, shared with us that the original Cioppino took some inspiration from an Italian dish called the Feast of the Seven Fishes that is traditionally served on Christmas Eve. In Italy, the Feast of the Seven Fishes is called La Vigilia, or “The Vigil.” My brother in law is a fountain of Italian history; he really should do that for a living.

Our favorite seafood place in Southwest Florida is Skip One in Fort Myers, a locally owned market on Highway 41 that features fresh caught everything. Skip One is primarily a shrimping outfit, but they trade part of their shrimp catch with other types of boats to bring in a full bounty—sort of the commercial fishing version of Cioppino (ok, so that analogy is a bit of a stretch).

For our dish, we used a recipe from Giada De Laurentiis, and for our seafood we chose grouper, snapper, sea bass, clams, shrimp, mussels, and scallops. In addition to the seven types of seafood, Giada’s recipe includes white wine, diced tomatoes, garlic, shallots, onions, and fennel. We added the seafood to the broth just ten minutes before serving in order to avoid over-cooking it.

We’re told that Italian restaurants in San Francisco serve a lot of variations of this dish, and some even provide a bib to their patrons (if you’ve seen me eat, that’s another hint for why we chose Cioppino). In the tradition of the city, we served our Cioppino with a beautiful loaf of San Francisco-style Sourdough bread.

All in all, Cioppino was a fun new recipe, pretty easy to prepare, and delicious. Tradition or not, it’s one thing we did this year that is worth repeating next year (but we’ll order our cheese log ahead of time).

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Fancy Beef Sandwiches

A few years back, I wrote about the amazing food scene in Buffalo, New York, a scene that is partly the result of the melting pot of immigrants from back in the day (and by “melting pot,” I don’t mean the forgettable fondue chain, where $100 buys you an appetizer and the need for a cholesterol check). Many of Buffalo’s best-known dishes are ethnic creations like kielbasa and pierogi, dishes which are now competing for attention with more recent additions like Buffalo wings and sponge candy.

I’d of course heard of Buffalo wings long before I met Souzz, but marrying into a Buffalo family means you get to learn about a lot of other new treats. One example is the signature sandwich of Western New York, a beef on weck. The beef on weck is a Buffalo classic: a coarse-salted roll with caraway, thin-sliced roast beef, fresh horseradish, and au jus.

“It’s just a fancy beef sandwich,” I once blurted out from under my newly purchased Buffalo Bills hoodie. Endearing yourself to your in-laws is difficult stuff, I soon learned, and no food in Buffalo is “just” anything. Dinner choices often have storied histories and serve to unite generations–regardless of whom your daughter might have just married.

Weck is short for kimmelweck, a style of roll that you don’t see unless you are in Buffalo–or are in a restaurant with chefs that wish they were. The sandwich’s origin is hotly debated (well, maybe not hotly debated, but people do occasionally talk about it). Some say the kimmelweck was adapted from a roll that was served at funerals in Germany, and others say that an enterprising bartender decided to salt rolls to get people to drink more (Seriously? Has lack of consumption ever really been a problem in Buffalo?).

Regardless of how and where the sandwich originated, it is a Western New York staple. And the locals agree that the classic area restaurant for beef on weck is Schwabls, in West Seneca. Schwabls is on a non-descript corner that isn’t really on the way to anywhere, and yet it has been serving Western New Yorkers in one form or another since 1837. Its small dining room is perpetually filled with hungry locals that come to enjoy a sandwich or some other German-style dish.

I felt very authentic walking into Schwabls over the holiday wearing my still-new-looking Bills hoodie. As usual, the place was packed, with a lot of folks enjoying beef on weck as well as their signature holiday drink, the Tom and Jerry (similar to egg nog, maybe like drinking a sugar cookie).

Our server asked us just exactly how we wanted our roast beef, and she meant every word. Beef on weck at Schwabls is hand-cut, in order to avoid cooking the roast beef more with the heat of a spinning blade. The care that Schwabls takes in preparing each and every sandwich is in itself worth the visit. Oh, and Tom and Jerry were nice to see, too.

It seems that every time I visit Buffalo, I learn a little more about the food scene, and maybe a little more about other things, too.  My meal was great, my brother-in-law shared a lot of history, and there was some good local color, too. I may have some more work to do to blend in up here, but at least I didn’t order a “fancy beef sandwich.”

Meeting Up With Irma

As we awaited the arrival of one of the bigger hurricanes on record, my 92-year-old mom had a question for me. While typing away into her iPad (she’s pretty high-tech), she asked “how do you spell the word hussy?”

To backtrack a bit, I came down to Fort Myers, Florida to visit my parents a few weeks back and decided to stick around to help out during Hurricane Irma. As expected, we were ordered to evacuate, so we headed across town to a friend’s house that was outside of the evacuation zone. Their fortress of a home (high ground, solid construction, hurricane shutters, generator…and incredibly gracious hosts) was a very welcomed refuge.

Our hosts generously took in several others in similar circumstances–so all in all, there were 17 of us (12 adults, five children) in a three-bedroom house, along with a dog and two gerbils (hey, what’s a hurricane without a few gerbils?).

The storm itself was pretty exciting for a Virginia boy, tons of rain and wind that left a lot of standing water and downed trees (it was worse elsewhere in the state).

Unlike areas to the south–and unlike Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands during Hurricane Maria–we were fortunate to get through without much damage. We did a lot of prep beforehand, moving anything that could blow away, but we also got lucky with the storm track.

There was some flooding and damage in the surrounding neighborhoods, but for us the challenge was mostly about the long (several days) power outage, the seasonal heat, a shortage of gasoline, and a few health issues that thankfully resolved.

Through it all, I learned a lot from the locals, who know a thing or two about hurricanes. Here are a few random tips:

  • Back into the door: Garage doors are one of the weaker parts of a house, and bad things happen when the wind gets in under your roof. A trick is to back your car next to the door (from the inside), set the brake, and wedge in some wood (or whatever) between the door and the bumper to give the garage door more strength.
  • Strings attached: Our friends had a hanging light above their front porch that couldn’t be removed ahead of the storm. So they tethered it with parachute cord, tying it off to the front pillars on the porch. It made it through, which was nice–but we also know that some folks lost everything, so we tried to keep it all in perspective.
  • Keep water out, but keep it in, too: It’s old news that a filled bathtub means you can flush the toilets if you lose water, but tub stoppers often leak. Our friends put a little Saran wrap around the plug to help the seal. We never lost water, but we had plenty on hand just in case.
  • Give your freezer a quarter: Food safety is a big deal after a power outage, so one trick is to freeze a glass of water and put a quarter on top. If the quarter is still on top after power returns, the food in the freezer didn’t thaw and refreeze–and the meatloaf is ok to eat (although I still hate meatloaf).

In the coming days, the Fort Myers News-Press was still delivering and was one of our main links to the community and the state!

Lastly, there are some things that I knew before the storm but that were good to see in action again:

  • You can’t have too much power (unless you are a dictator): Having a few UPS’s (uninterruptible power supplies) on hand is a good thing. The UPS’s work well for charging anything and the batteries last much longer than pocket-sized phone chargers.
  • Siphons suck: Spend a million dollars on a good one, as the gas in your car is a great resource to feed a generator (if you are fortunate enough to own one). Inexpensive siphons don’t seem to work well with newer cars, and sitting on 15 gallons of gas with no way to get it into a generator is a bad feeling (ask me how I know).
  • It’s dark, even when it isn’t: With spotty cell coverage, no internet or tv, and radio coverage that was hard to follow, it was amazing how little we knew about the storm. This was true both before, during, and after–even though we were right in the middle of it. At first we had cell reception and Souzz texted us images of the storm track. But the cell towers eventually went down and it wasn’t until days later that we heard details about the damage in the Keys and elsewhere across the state. Looking back, the lack of communications was equal parts unsettling and unburdening.
  • Reaching in: People from outside of the area wanted to help…and they did, simply by connecting on the phone (once our phones worked). Friends, family, the NMFA crowd, the 34th crowd, and Red Cross peeps, you know who you are. Connecting with friends by phone or text was a huge boost.
  • It takes a community: A neighbor that we had never met until the eve of the storm gave us five gallons of gas when we couldn’t get a drop anywhere. Shara and Kevin gave us gas and food and support, Dave fixed our generator the day before the storm (!), Janet from Publix grocery store offered hugs, Jonathan (the pool guy) gave us a big lift, and a total stranger stopped his car to help my mom, pretty cool.

For days, anywhere you saw people in town, Irma was all that they could talk about, and sharing stories was definitely a part of the process. I can’t even count the number of conversations that started with “how did you do in the storm?”

As we put things back together, we went out of our way to thank the employees at Home Depot or Publix or CVS–places that are filling critical needs in the community. Each of those folks had their own story, but they were out there helping us (maybe later they’ll write a blog that is more interesting than mine).

I also recognize that storms hurt even more for those with fewer resources, so we feel incredibly fortunate to have had so much help to bounce back. And our hearts go out to those that lost so much to Irma–and now to devastating Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean–and we are contributing to relief efforts. Our little adventure was pretty manageable when you view it in the context of the areas that were hardest hit.

**

As for my mom’s question before the storm, she was posting an update on Facebook, and her post ended with “Irma, you hussy, be gone!”

 

 

The Agony of Defeat

Souzz and I are in the midst of a trip through Switzerland, Austria, and Germany. It’s been a great chance to experience new cultures, new cities, and new mountain ranges. We’ve also met up with great friends along the way in Henggart, Switzerland, and Lofer, Austria.

 

One of the things we’ve noticed during our travels is how much American culture is exported, and often it’s not our best. We’ve heard middling American rock music, seen ads for TV shows like Murder, She Wrote, walked past a Starbucks in a 16th century building, and spotted a lot of unremarkable American products. Interestingly enough, there are also a lot of foods specifically marketed as “American-style.” Don’t get me wrong, as I’m proud of a lot of what our country produces…but we didn’t find too much of that in our travels.

 

Perhaps a lesser known part of U.S. pop culture is the phrase that titles this blog, which American sports fans may recognize from the opening of ABC’s Wide World of Sports during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. If you aren’t familiar with the show, it ran for nearly 40 years and featured sports that would rarely get air time in the pre-cable era—sports like pro surfing, track and field, whitewater kayaking, and ski jumping.

In the Wide World of Sports’ opening (click here to see a 30 second version from the late 1970s), a voice-over says “Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport, the thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat. The human drama of athletic competition, this is ABC’s Wide World of Sports.” As the words “agony of defeat” are spoken, an unnamed ski jumper falls and flies off into the crowd—and an American catchphrase for epic failure is born.

 

By now you might be wondering what all that has to do with traveling in Europe, which is where the small Bavarian village of Oberstdorf comes in. We had planned to visit Oberstdorf because it offers amazing hiking and is somewhat off of the beaten path–hoping for an authentic experience where locals wouldn’t respond to our terrible German in perfect English. So far it’s been just what we were expecting (and yes, our German is still terrible).

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As we were planning our day’s hikes via Google, we learned that the ski jump here in the village is where the “agony of defeat” crash happened during a World Cup competition in 1970. Thankfully, the Slovenian jumper that took that horrible fall, Vinko Bogataj, was not seriously injured. He returned to competition the next year, was later a professional ski instructor, and is now a very successful artist. It’s clear that he has not agonized much over that jump.

 

There are many reasons to come to Oberstdorf, including the incredibly friendly people, the charming town itself, the hiking from the summit of the Nebelhorn (2224 meters), and a lot of other natural attractions (including the Breitachklamm, a fantastic stream-carved gorge). Not surprisingly, none of the reasons to come here have anything to do with the history of the ski jump.

 

Some years ago, Vinko Bogataj was invited by ABC to join in an anniversary celebration for the Wide World of Sports, since his fall had helped open the show for decades. When he got the call, Vinko had no idea what ABC was talking about.

Thankfully, there are at least a few parts of our culture that we have kept at home.

Hollow Full of Memories

This weekend we joined good friends for a quick getaway to the nearby Blue Ridge mountains and a stay at the Rosser Lamb House. The house was built in 1915 as the home of Hiram and Lucy Lamb and their nine children, and it is now one of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club’s primitive (no power or water) rental cabins. It is located in Lamb’s Hollow (of course), adjacent to Shenandoah National Park.

Shenandoah National Park was created during the Great Depression, and the formation of the park resulted in more than five hundred families being forced by the U.S. government to leave their homes. Many of these families had been on land that they had occupied for generations, and entire communities were uprooted and moved to the east—including some to a subdivision in nearby Madison County called “Resettlement Road” (seriously).

The Lambs had been in Lamb’s Hollow since 1845. Nevertheless, they got the word that they were to be one of the relocated families. But in a twist of fate, the U.S. government ran out of funding for the park before the Lambs were forced to move. So the park border stops just short of the Lamb house, and they stayed there well into the 1960s–when the house was eventually sold to be used as a hunting lodge.

In 1995, the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club acquired the house and its surrounding property and began what became a 17-year project to restore it. The house has been described by a park historian as “a tribute to a mountain family living out the American dream in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.” And a fine tribute it is.

We spent our weekend hiking on the nearby trails, enjoying the stream-side setting, cooking in the spacious and renovated kitchen, and imagining life here some 100 years ago.

Our visit was made even more memorable by some family history that was shared with us by Larry Lamb, a sixth generation member of the family and a volunteer with the Blue Ridge Heritage Project, and Kristie Kendall, who is a historian with the Piedmont Environmental Council.

Larry and Kristie were incredibly gracious in sharing the history of the house and the surrounding area, and both of their organizations are doing amazing work.

 

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A mill on the Lamb property. Photo courtesy of Larry Lamb

Larry’s father, Thurman, was born in the house in 1925, and Larry visited the house often as a kid. He shared that his grandparents, Rosser and Rosetta Lamb, were “kind, humble people who loved the mountains and their home.” There were also stories of corn growing on the hillside, a smokehouse, a big garden, and family gatherings that featured banjo music and dancing the Virginia Reel.

As for food during our trip, we tried to use recipes that we thought might be common back in Rosser and Rosetta Lamb’s day. Cherry trees were popular in the Blue Ridge, so we made a cherry pie. The Lambs made sorghum molasses, so we baked molasses cookies and muffins. They grew corn, so we had corn on the cob. They likely ate wild ramps, so we had some ramps. The streams in the park had wild trout, so we made a trout dip. They had a smokehouse, so we smoked some fish.

Of course, it’s a lot easier when you get your food from the local supermarket and keep it on ice in a giant cooler—a little different than in Rosser and Rosetta Lamb’s day.

Later on the trip, we visited Far Pocosin Mission, which is about a two mile hike from the house. The Mission was founded in 1902, and historians describe it as the center of the community at the time. Now, 115 years later, the Mission is slowly fading into the forest–but there are old foundations, stairs, and chimneys that are still visible. Rosser Lamb attended church at the Mission, and his children went to school there.

I’ve enjoyed hiking and backpacking in and around Shenandoah National Park for more than 30 years now, and I confess that I haven’t always thought much about the human history. But we found the house and the mission to be powerful reminders of the people that were here before the park. The house is a fine tribute to the Lamb family, and to a lot of other families that lived in the neighboring hollows. I really can’t imagine what it must have been like for those that were forced to leave.

Lastly, it turns out that Pocosin Mission was founded by a very distant relative of mine, Frederick William Neve, a fact which was fascinating to me—but was either irrelevant or annoying to Souzz and our friends. After all, how many times can you listen to someone say “hey, I’m related to the guy that built this!” without wanting to scream?

Actually, I know that answer, and it’s four.

Picking A Cake

My dad just turned 93, a big number, and I asked him what kind of cake he wanted for his birthday. Before he could answer, my mom chimed in and shared that “he loves hickory nut cake!” Now I’ve known this guy for a long time, seemingly a lifetime, so how could I not know this?

“His Aunt Lillian made him a hickory nut cake for his eighth birthday,” my mom went on, “and quite a few times after that. She even mailed the cakes to him when he was in the Army.” My dad’s eyes lit up as he remembered those cakes.

My dad had his own cake stories, of course. “Aunt Lillian would gather shagbark hickory nuts from the tree right out front of her house,” he told me, “and she would sit at the table and pick the nuts for hours on end. Even the squirrels avoided hickory nuts, because they’re hard as hell to pick. But she made me a cake most every year…until her eyes got bad.”

“She probably went blind from picking those damned nuts!” my mom interrupted.

“Lillian always lived with Inez and Sarah and Uncle Nicky,” my dad continued. “And she was very smart. She was the bookkeeper for Aunt Inez’s Milliner shop.”

“What?” I responded. “I thought Aunt Inez was a hatmaker?”

When my dad was growing up in Savannah, hickory nuts were easy to gather all over the green spaces of the city, and they probably still are. Hickory nut cakes were pretty popular in the 1930s, maybe because the Great Depression put a premium on recipes that required a trip to the park instead of a trip to the store.

Hickory nuts aren’t quite as easy to gather where I live in Virginia, but I was able to buy some on-line from a guy in North Carolina. I was psyched to find them, although it marked the first (and perhaps last) time I’ve done business with someone called “Carolina Nut Dude.”

My dad didn’t have any details on Lillian’s recipe, but I was able to find several recipes for “old fashioned hickory nut cake” on the net. The recipes were pretty similar, with most of them calling for flour, egg yolks, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, and vanilla. I made mine in a loaf pan with brown sugar frosting, just as Aunt Lillian used to do.

We enjoyed our cake as my parents reminisced about Savannah in the 1930s. They shared fun memories of Lillian and of things that they did as kids, pretty amazing considering that it all happened 85 years ago.

As for shelling those nuts, that part hasn’t changed much. It is still a very tedious and time-consuming process. My mom jumped in to help me when I was making my cake, and then summarily stabbed herself in the wrist with a nut picker—reminding us why everybody needs a nutty aunt like Lillian.

Vicarious Dessert

Souzz and I are always looking for regional recipes–even by way of others’ travels–so we asked my sister and brother-in-law to scope out some fun dishes on their recent vacation to Alsace in the north of France. We figured they’d find a new recipe or two, and maybe we could bring a new creation to Buffalo over the holidays to share with Souzz’s mom (Alsace is where Souzz’s family is originally from).

Alsace is known for fine wines, great food, unique architecture, and picturesque villages– including the village of Riquewhir (population 1300), sometimes called a “wine village” because of its history as a trading hub for regional wines. Our “advance team” also discovered that Riquewihr is home to a number of small cafes and restaurants, including Restaurant au Dolder.

Restaurant au Dolder’s menu featured Tarte a L’Oignon (French Onion Pie), Choucroutie Garnie (a pickled cabbage that is an Alsacian staple), and a number of other local treats–including one of the region’s most famous desserts, kougelhopf. All of these dishes looked amazing to us as we thumbed through my sister’s photos afterwards. She assured us, of course, that all of her foodie pics were taken discretely (yeh, right, lots of locals casually wave their iPhones over their plates during dinner–but hey, they were doing us a favor!).

Not surprisingly, the recipes that we were able to find were written entirely in French, and with metric measures. Aaah, yes…the metric system, something that the US inexplicably abandoned in the mid-1970s. Apparently it was easier for Americans to remember English conversions–yet another one of 5,280 good reasons for Canada and the Continent to poke fun at us.

Kougelhopf–sometimes spelled kugelhopf, kouglof, or gugelhupf–dates to the late 1500s and takes many forms, with the one constant being the form itself. The name refers to the distinctive shape of a kougelhopf pan, a form that imprints an interesting fluting on whatever fills it (custard, dough, batter, maybe lime jello if you want to go low-brow). The kougelhopf featured at Restaurant al Dolder was a glacé (frozen dessert), but there is also a popular Austrian variation that is a raisin-filled cake made of yeast dough.

As for the recipes, metric conversions proved easy enough, but the French translations required a bit more effort. As I stumbled my way through Google Translate, I was reminded of Steve Martin, who once observed that “those French have a different word for everything!” Thankfully a friend was able to translate the tricky parts for us, which prevented at least 100 kilograms of kitchen mistakes.

The glacé version was pretty easy to make, just whipped cream, egg yolks, sugar, vanilla, and grapes mixed together and frozen in a six-serving form. The key was to keep things cool. By that I mean cooling the form ahead of time, cooling the simple syrup before mixing it with the egg yolks, and cooling the syrup/egg mixture before folding it in with the whipped cream. We topped with a thin layer of chocolate ganache and then plated it with a little kirsch in the middle, some thinly sliced fruit, and a dusting of cocoa. We let them sit for 10 minutes or so at room temp before serving.

Just for fun, we tried the raisin cake version, too, and it was also really good. It is light and airy, and takes on the flavor of most anything around it. Just make sure that you warm the milk to the right temperature to properly activate the yeast (~115F), let your butter come to room temp, and expect to take your time (there are three separate risings of the dough). We topped with ganache and a few sliced almonds before serving with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar and a thin slice of orange.

With the recipes pretty well figured out, we brought them north to Buffalo for the holidays to share with Souzz’s mom. It was nice to enjoy an Alsacian treat along with some of Souzz’s family traditions (I doubt there’s any place in Alsace that would pair kougelhopf with home made egg nog, but that seems like their loss to me).

As for my sister’s trip, we learned about two good new dishes and we didn’t even have to leave the house. Does it still count as a travelogue if it’s somebody else’s trip?

Leaving The Rock

We closed out our trip to Newfoundland with a hike in Little Cove, just south of the village of Twillingate. Our hike took us to Jones Cove and then up and over the ridge to Lower Little Harbour.

The Twillingate hiking website listed this particular hike as easy, but we found it to be a bit more—four or so miles with a lot of up and down. Perhaps this was due to weather in the low 50s (Fahrenheit) and high winds (25-30 mph gusts), or maybe we are just flatlander tourists. In any case, the hiking was interesting, with sections of heavy forest, sections of bare rock, a summit ridge, and even a short stretch of rocky beach.

Along the way, we passed a natural arch and the remains of a settlement from the 1930s, including what was left of a restaurant called Kelley’s Sunset Chat. Our hike was a nice mix of nature, history, and exercise–including some scrambling and some up-hill climbs.

Back in Twillingate at Oceanview Retreat, we closed out our stay with another interesting Newfoundland dish, seafood chowder. It’s pretty clear why I haven’t lost weight on this trip.

Some other local dishes this week included Newfoundland fish cakes, pickled herring, and fried dulse. Menu staples here are highly seasonal, revolve around the sea as well as roots and berries, and have a simple charm about them.

We are back in Virginia now, but we have some great memories of “The Rock,” as Newfoundland is often called. We didn’t know much about any of these places before planning this trip, and now we’ll never forget them. The culture is interesting, the people are amazingly friendly…and there is so much more to see.

On our way to the airport in Gander, Souzz uttered the telltale phrase that marks the end of a great vacation: “I wish we had one more day.”

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