Day 78: A shout out to my man Francis, that rare breed of waiter who knows how to call a spade a spade. Francis demonstrated this exceptional ability last night at dinner. I was flummoxed, unable to decide what to choose as an appetizer, and so I put the following question to Francis: "How about the Atlantic seafood tian? Is it any good?"
His answer: "Not really."
Boom. An honest answer from an honest man.
What good is a waiter if he or she can't give you plainspoken advice about the food? The waiter works at the restaurant, after all. Is it so unreasonable to expect him to know what the food is like? And yet too often--way, way too often--waiters deliver the limpest, most half-hearted recommendations. Ask for guidance between the lamb and the steak and you might hear, "They're both good," or "I guess it depends what you're in the mood for," or, my favorite "I don't know. I'm a vegetarian."
Must... work... off... lunch...: Paying for meals bathed in butter along Normandy's country roads
While the rest of the world has turned its back on clarified butter, Normandy has not, and for this it is deserving of high praise. This means, however, that if you're going to travel along the coast of Normandy, you may wish to consider a high-cardio form of locomotion, especially if you're going to be doing things like eating a sole that took its final swim in sea of clarified butter.
Cross-country skiing would be your best choice, but Normandy has what the French call le climat oceanique, which is just a sophisticated way of saying "British weather." It's prone to cloud cover and rain, and by cloud cover I mean a thick, gooey blanket of light-sucking grey, and by rain I mean an interminable drizzle. There is no snow, but there are roads, and so the logical choice is also a fun one: the bicycle.
A handful of Burgundian dirt: Is this the soil that launched a thousand sips?
Bad news was waiting in Burgundy: A wind was blowing. It was a perfect day to send up a kite, and therefore absolutely not perfect for going up in a hot air balloon, which was the reason I had driven all the way from Monaco. I was, in other words, grounded.
If there's a place on this planet to get grounded, however, it's Burgundy, and the reason has to do with the ground. It consists of a layer of clay soil -- from a geological point of view, a thin film -- and beneath it is limestone bedrock. It is the most delicious ground in the world. It is so delicious that buyers from France, the United States, Japan, Great Britain, Russia, and almost every other country are prepared to pay as much as $2,500 for a bottle of that ground. There are no rocks or soil in those slope-shouldered bottles. There is wine: red or white.
Things started going wrong for Florence about a thousand years ago, when a very important man named Hugo--a margrave, no less--decided he wanted to live in Florence instead of the then capital, Lucca, a decision which brought on a period known as The Golden Age of Florentine Art. Half a millennium later, A guy named Lorenzo di Medici started running the show and throwing serious money at local artists like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci (best known for his thrilling novel, "The Da Vinci Code") and Botticelli. Pretty soon, all the talk was about Florence: The architecture! The paintings! The sculptures! The ravioli!
Make that a large
Thanks in great part to Starbucks, we have become a culture of Italian-style coffee drinkers. We drink cappuccinos, we pour honey into caffe lattes and sprinkle cinnamon on top, and a few of us even know the words "espresso macchiato," which is a quarter of an inch of mud-like coffee topped with a little milk and a tiny dollop of foam. Or at least that's the definition I'm going with. The very concept of macchiato is troubled by controversy.
James Hathaway is the Communications and Conservation Manager at the Orvis Company, which makes fly-fishing rods. As some of you may remember, I brought 6/7ths of an Orvis fly-fishing rod with me to Mongolia. My plan was to bring all seven sevenths of the rod, but something went greivously wrong during the packing phase of the trip and the end result was that I found myself standing on the bank of a Mongolian River with an incomplete-and useless-fishing rod.
My Slow Day in Italy didn't begin nearly as slowly as I'd imagined. Tilde woke me up at 7:30, I had a quick shower, a quicker breakfast, and then it was into Tilde's car. The three of us--Tilde, myself, and her daughter, Wanda--were headed into the mountains and I wasn't quite sure why. Tilde said something about a crazy man named Ali and sausage. That's all I knew, but it seemed like as good a reason as any.
Like all the hills in Italy, the ones around Cilento have a pretty look to them. The road climbed over hillocks and wound left and right in an upwardly direction, past increasingly thick woods of oak and chestnut. Occasionally, we would pass an old man or woman walking along the side of the road who appeared to be on their way to an Italian peasant contest.
Flour - 500 grams (100 grams per person, 80 percent soft flour and 20 percent hard flour)
Eggs - 3 (possible more or fewer, depending on "feel")
Weigh and mix the flour. Pour it in a tall pile on a pastry board, and form a crater in the center with hands. Crack the eggs into the crater and beat well. Fold the flour into the eggs and when they are absorbed add water. Knead the dough with hands, adding water, until it has reached a desired consistency.
Flattening the hands, roll the dough into a long thin line, about a quarter of an inch thick. Cut it into 3/4-inch lengths. Take each length individually and lay on pastry board. Insert a round metal rod--a kebab spear will do, so long as it is round--into a section of dough running lengthwise, so that the dough hugs the mid-section of the rod. Using the palm of both hands, roll the rod back and forth, spreading the dough out towards the ends until it reaches a length of several inches. Remove fusilli and lay on cookie tray covered with dishtowels. Repeat until there is no more dough.
Boil in salted water. Add sauce. Eat.
Tilde rolls fusilli
Sometime after lunch, we hopped into Tilde's Alpha Romeo and paid a visit to the butcher, Luigi, to get some Podolica bisteccas.
Podolica is one of the "autochthonous" breeds of Italian cattle. Italians are very proud of their cattle. They even have a magazine, called Taurus, that talks about nothing else but Italian cattle breeds. (I am a subscriber.) The most famous is Chiannina--the lumbering alabaster-white cow of Tuscany. Podolica is from the south. It's raised both for its milk and for its meat, and like so much from Italy's south, northerners tend to sneer at it. They rave about Chiannina, Marchigniana, and Maramma beef, but no one says a thing about the lowly, grey-faced Podolica. I wanted to have a taste for myself.
I like Italy. I have liked Italy from the first moment I stepped foot on Italian soil, which was in the winter of 1987 when, for the first time in my life, I was greeted by a taxi driver with the word, "Pronto." There is only one other country in Europe that can match the history, cuisine, and beauty of Italy--I think you know which one I am talking about--but Italy has one thing that country does not have: friendly people.
Day 39: At dinner I did a stupid thing. I ordered caviar. I had just finished reading a book about caviar called Caviar, by Inga Saffron, which was mainly about how terribly and alarmingly abused sturgeon stocks in Russia have become since the fall of communism and that this ancient and fascinating creature with the most delicious roe of any fish in the world may soon become extinct in the Caspian Sea. It is a sad and painful subject to read about, but the descriptions of all that caviar left me in quite a state.
I'm close to wrapping up my trip here in Mongolia. The next stop will be Moscow where I will spend four days. If you have any suggestions on where to eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, please let me know. Something old school, preferably--I can get fusion and minimalistic and all that stuff back home. I'm looking for borscht and blinys and caviar.
Day 33: To ride on horseback across the Mongolian steppe is to be reminded of the cycle of life...and probably more often than you'd like. The dun-colored expanse may vanish in great magnificence on the distant horizon, but underfoot it is just dirt, tufts of overgrazed grass, and animal droppings blackened by the sun. Horses, cows, sheep, goats, and yaks leave their marks everywhere, and when there aren't droppings, there are bones (skulls, femurs, shoulder blades, vertebrae, a horn) all scattered about, sun bleached, and sunken into the dirt.
Editor's Note: "Good Food," a show on Santa Monica's National Public Radio affiliate KCRW, caught up with Mark last week while he was in China.
Click here to listen to Mark recount his meal at Water's Head village by the Great Wall and offer his thoughts on why getting a good local recommendation in Beijing is more difficult then it sounds.
Day 29: For my last two nights in Beijing, I stayed at the Raffles Hotel, a big, colonial-style spread right on the main drag where Western business people like to stay in China so that they can forget they're in China. But the hotel has one thing going for it: breakfast. You can get whatever you want--porridge, bacon, fried rice, dumplings, eggs, noodles in broth, waffles. I opted for noodles and fried rice, for the simple reason that I wasn't interested in pretending that I wasn't in China. But then an unusual thing happened. I came down with a craving for pancakes, which, to be honest, isn't all that unusual.
My alarm clocks in Water's Head village
Day 28: Chinese roosters, like roosters everywhere, crow to announce the arrival of day. It is the best kind of alarm, and in Water's Head village, a crescendo of mules and goats figure into the mix, a brazen and undeniable call to action.
We got up, washed our hands, and rolled our sleeping bags. The toilet was situated in a shed out back, and was nothing more than a hole in the ground to squat over. It worked just fine, so long as you could tolerate the thigh-burn.
Is there room in the back?
Day 26: My first night in Beijing, I bathed in an eighteenth-century palace, rode on a bus more packed than I thought possible, and ingested the spiciest cabbage in existence. This was before the fight broke out.
Let's begin with the palace. It was built as a residence for a Ching dynasty prince, and later turned into a Sichuan restaurant, which was something the prince never saw coming. According to lore, it was Deng Xiao Ping's favorite place to go for dinner, and in 1995 it was fashioned into the China Club Hotel. The China Club is something all too rare: an expensive hotel with character. I'm not sure my room was the prince's actual bedroom--you probably need to own a Gulfstream for that--but that was okay with me. My room, I thought, just might have been the quarters of the prince's favorite concubine, and that her spirit would visit me during the night. (No such luck, as it turned out.)
My watch is correct again (+12 hours)
As I write this, it is 5:20 p.m. here and 5:20 a.m. on the Eastern Seaboard. My watch is correct once again. I am halfway around the world.
Here on the other side of the world, no one seems to think I'm dressed very well. Every second man I pass in the street wants to make me brand new a suit. So great is their alarm over my appearance that they assure me that one can be ready in just a few hours.
Oahu. It has always struck me that Hawaii's most populated island was named after the particular yelp of excitement shouted by first time visitors. Perhaps this is why I envisioned several hours of euphoric tropical enjoyment during the cruise's all-too-short stopover on the island. Accordingly, I set myself the following itinerary: Dock at 10:30 a.m., take the shuttle to the Hyatt Hotel at Waikiki Beach (another outstanding name--Waikiki, not Hyatt) and rent a car. Drive to Hanauma Bay, go snorkeling, see tropical fish, return to Waikiki, sample two local delicacies: poke (pronounced "pokey") and shave ice, then hit the beach, where I would learn how to surf. Or try to learn how to surf. Or try to try to learn how to surf.
Schang, a big mahalo to you for sharing a little local information on Oahu.
I want to let you know that our Hawaii itinerary has been modified, for reasons that have something to do with the Coast Guard, apparently. Anyway, we get in at 10 a.m. on Saturday, then depart midnight that day. Not a lot of time. I'm planning on renting a car and taking the family to Hanauma Bay for some snorkelling, then to Waikiki Beach so I can try my hand at surfing. Does that sound doable to you?
I'd love to know where to grab a bite for dinner. Ideally, I'd really like to sample something Hawaiian, if that makes any sense. I imagine the fish and produce are excellent here and would love to find a chef who knows what he's doing. (I can get steak and burgers anywhere, after all.) And yet, I don't want to spend too much money. Any suggestions?
The author in San Francisco
The first local I met in San Francisco was just the kind of San Francisco local that Bill O'Reilly would warn you about. He was a transplanted New Yorker, and he had something of a refugee air about him, as too many transplanted Easterners do. Here was a man who resolutely refused to live in any other part of the country because, as he put it, "the rest of the country is insane."
"What about New York?" I said.
"New York isn't insane," he admitted. "But the weather sucks." He said this in a way that suggested putting up with New York weather was its own kind of insanity.
We made it to Napa despite the meth-user. He showed up five miles outside Reno, surging in our rear view driving in a blue 1960s Chevy pickup and showing no signs of slowing down. This was a bit of a problem, because the right lane was blocked by the late-model Buick we were in the midst of passing. But the pale-faced, neck-scratching, scraggly, meth-user seemed to be prepared to plow right into us. So Graham gunned the engine and pulled the car in with a couple feet to spare. But that wasn't the end of the meth-user. He pulled in front of us and braked, trying to give us a taste of the injustice he felt we had forced upon him. We pulled back into the left lane, but he followed, like a NASCAR-style, blocking us from moving ahead. It went on like this for several minutes, then the meth-user settled down and returned to just driving erratically and scratching his neck. He took the second exit in Reno, a city that, judging by how it looks from the highway, is right where he belongs.
The idea that everything happens for some overarching grand reason has always struck me as a stupid way of looking at life. Philosophers call it teleology, Harlequin Romance novels call it destiny and I now believe in it, thanks to the great state of Nevada, where it's known as Lady Luck.
Illustration by Graham Roumieu
We pulled out of Chicago yesterday morning a little later than we should have. Rush hour was in full swing, which wasn't such a bad thing, because Chicago has to have one of the finest looking downtowns in America. The buildings are stately, yet beautiful, and it all seems to have been laid out coherently--not as haphazard as New York City. In all, we saw a lot more of downtown Chicago than we should have because our trip computer, who had been reliable up until this point, got pretty confused. She had us driving in circles, turning right down one way streets, and told us to pull onto highway on-ramps that were a hundred feet above our head.
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