I launched The Rambling Epicure e-zine, this website, nearly ten years ago as a literary culinary electronic magazine with a host of well-known food writers and photographers, all of whom are still active members of the related Facebook groups Culinary Travel and Mastering the Art of Food Writing. Editing and publishing this on my own required an incredible amount of gratifying work and because I was busy with my personal projects, I have left it semi-dormant for the last year or two. Today, I would like to relaunch it in a different form as part of an effort to encourage conversation about food, cooking, and writing.
My primary goal is for The Rambling Epicure to become a wellspring of enlightening epicurean essays and culinary fiction. We all have captivating personal and family tales about what we cooked and what we ate through many generations, during good times and bad. These memories are part of our food culture—and our food heritage—and should be an effective way to transmit our experiences and values beyond our front doors.
But my ambitions are greater than just memoir: I’m also interested in publishing articles and essays related to historical research in the field of gastronomy and in reviews of food books.
I would like to make this a cooperative effort that opens the door for us to share our potential as cooks, diners, and writers. Together, we will create a literary culinary site unlike any other, with information and stories that can be passed down to future generations.
A Taste of Paris is a delicious promenade through the Paris of times past and present with David Downie, guide par excellence. History and the senses are intertwined as Downie leads us through the City of Lights he knows so intimately, with many an unexpected turn, making it a suspenseful story that unravels the preconceived ideas we’ve woven about the history of French cuisine. Downie is not a tourist who spends a few weeks in Paris a year. He has dedicated his career to French gastronomy and Parisian history and is one of today’s foremost authoritative voices on these subjects. While this is a most entertaining French food history, it is much more. You come away understanding how and why this grande cuisine rose to such heights. Like the ancient Romans, the French, with all their pomposity and refinement, have a very sensual, down-to-earth relationship to life and land, and hence to food. This is a 12-course feast of words, and I wouldn’t skip a single dish.
Twitter Chat with David Downie about A Passion for Paris: Romanticism and Romance in the City of Light, his latest book
To participate, go into the twitter box at the top right marked “Search Twitter.” Type in #PassionParisTwitterChat. Our Twitter handles are @RamblingEpicure, @DavidDDownie or @JonellGalloway and you should find the questions and chats. Click the leftward arrow under a tweet to take part in that conversation or to ask a question. When there have been long discussions, click View Conversation under the Tweet.
In Paris to the Pyrenees, David Downie takes us right along with him on the Way of St. James, without our ever leaving our armchairs. As stated in the subtitle, “A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Ways of St James,” we’re not talking about a conventional pilgrim, so we don’t expect his transformations to be like those of traditional Christians. But then, the Way of St. James, like so many pilgrim routes in the world, becomes a spiritual journey spreading well beyond the confines of Christianity.
Downie makes it a personal journey, full of the classical culture and history he knows so well, and we have the pleasure of experiencing it along with him. His journey through classicism and French history becomes ours, as we learn about the Druids, the Galls, the Romans, former French President François Mitterand, and much more; as he carries around a stone he was convinced had magical power because it looked like a scallop shell, until it becomes too heavy to carry; as we wolf down hearty French meals and sup coarse local wine after a long day of walking, before we fall like a stone into bed.
And though we might not receive penance, we end the journey all the richer in knowledge, having read a good tale, too. The book is a latter-day Canterbury Tales, with a varied lot of pilgrims, locals, and farmers all along the way. Alison Harris’ photos are in perfect harmony with Downie’s narrative. You’ll want to wear a scallop shell around your neck after reading this book.
In the vaulted cellars at Tartufi Morra, the longest-established truffle dealership in Alba, a town of 30,000 in Piedmont 60 kilometers by road south of Turin, manager Alessandro Bonino fielded telephone orders while sorting white truffles still clotted with soil. “Truffles are hypogeous fungi,” Bonino said, waving his left hand, “meaning mushrooms that grow underground.” Of the 60 known species, 25 grow in Italy. Tartufi bianchi d’Alba—white Alba truffles—are the rarest, most aromatic and, the businesslike Bonino confirmed, by far the most expensive.
“White truffles only grow wild and only in a limited geographical area,” Bonino explained to me. “That’s why they’re so scarce and costly, and also why the statistics on them aren’t reliable—how do you tabulate them when their surrounded by secrecy?”
Alba’s Centro Nazionale Studi Tartufi (CNST), a government-funded research agency, estimates average Italian truffle production per year for all edible species at 400 tons, including about 40 tons of premium tartufo nero (Tubermelanosporum), the black truffles of northern and central Italy, half of which are farmed. In an exceptionally good year the southwest of France also produces about 40 tons of nearly identical melanosporum, the northeast of Spain 20 tons, in both cases 80 to 90 percent farmed. Harvests for the last decade or more for Italian, French and Spanish melanosporum have been small, with wholesale prices ranging between 650-1,200 euros per kilo.
By comparison white truffles occur only near Alba and in other parts of Piedmont, and, in far smaller quantities, in the Acqualagna area of the Marches, the province of Savona on the Italian Riviera, and in Croatia, Slovenia and Hungary. In an average year about 2 tons are found overall, though, as Bonino noted, statistics are notoriously unreliable. Wholesale prices in the 2010-2011 season range from an astonishing 3,000 to 4,000 euros per kilogram, about the same as Sevruga caviar.
As with caviar, demand far outstrips supply for prized white and black truffles. Bonino sells both.
Black and white truffles are not as different as apples and oranges, according to Bonino and others in the business. Comparing them is tricky. “All truffles are mushrooms. Preference is strictly personal, a question of taste, budget and use.”
White Alba truffles are actually pale to straw yellow. They look and feel like small, warty potatoes. Their scientific name is Tuber magnatum pico. Though unwieldy the name is widely used in commerce to avoid confusion with other pale-colored species.
The white truffle season runs from late September to mid-February. Except during the war years 1939-1945, in the second half of October since 1929 Alba has hosted the Fiera Internazionale del Tartufo (International Truffle Fair). The fair lasts two weeks, drawing tens of thousands of visitors. It has helped make white truffles synonymous with the town and the surrounding Langhe, a region of tuck ‘n’ roll hills where most white truffles are found.
As is typical, during a November visit to the Piedmont I experienced cold, damp weather. Wearing a woolen sweater the trim, middle-aged Bonino led me through the Tartufi Morra cellar to a room where an assistant in a blue lab coat hand-brushed white truffles, rinsed them under cold, running water and placed them on a drainboard. Bonino demonstrated how to gauge the firmness of a truffle, pinching one between forefinger and thumb. “When ripe, truffles white or black are as firm as tennis balls,” he said. “Too hard and they’re unripe. Too soft and they’re overripe.”
The smell and flavor of a ripe, healthy white truffle evokes mild garlic, honey, hay and fresh mushrooms. Scents of ammonia, humus or mold indicate rot.
“For security and conservation the bulk of our truffles are cellared,” Bonino added. “With all truffles the soil stays on until we prepare them for shipping. They’re 80 percent water. Soil preserves humidity.” Unbrushed, unwashed truffles last 7 to 10 days in a cool, dark room. Brushed and washed, they should be used within a few days. “Diamonds are forever, truffles are for now,” Bonino quipped, nostrils flaring.
Upstairs in the retail shop a few fresh white truffles covered by a moist cloth were in a refrigerated case. Canned or bottled whole truffles, truffled purées, pâtés, chocolates and olive oil filled shelves. Such transportable, long-lasting products appeal to many consumers, especially tourists, and allow truffle sellers to work year-round. Natural truffle essence, derived from fresh truffles, is the Holy Grail of researchers and retailers but has yet to be perfected. Most top-end shops like Tartufi Morra do not sell artificial truffle flavoring, an ersatz substitute scorned by serious Piedmontese chefs and food lovers.
Outside in the medieval tangle of streets, truffle scents wafted from restaurants and food shops. The enjoyment of white truffles is primarily an olfactory experience. During white truffle season Alba is a delight to the nose, and the scent is free for the taking.
Formerly plentiful and cheap, since at least the 1300s truffles, particularly white truffles, have been prized in Piedmontese cuisine. Scarcity and cost have not thinned the ranks of cultish truffle lovers. The half-dozen chefs in and near Alba I met during my 5-day visit concurred that white truffles lose potency and flavor when cooked and therefore should be eaten raw.
At Villa Tiboldi, a restaurant and B&B where I stayed, near Canale, equidistant from Alba and Turin, chef Stefano Pagagnini dressed fresh tagliolini with melted butter, set a digital scale on my table, weighed a white truffle then quickly shaved approximately 10 grams off it onto the pasta. “The heat releases the raw truffle’s scent,” he explained. “Smell is most of the experience. Simple food like pasta is best because it doesn’t overwhelm the truffle.”
Pagagnini was right. The luscious simplicity of the dish exalted the truffle’s aroma, which subtly evoked garlic, honeysuckle and mushroom. Flavors and aromas melded. I was unable to separate them. Even when I lifted a truffle shaving off the pasta and tasted it alone the sensations came almost entirely through my nose.
The Fundamental Interconnectedness of Wine, Food and Art and Just About Everything Else That’s Good
by Jonell Galloway
From the archives
As Shelly Butcher so aptly said in her article “Welcome to the Borscht Belt, exploring the ‘fundamental interconnectedness’ of all things food,” there is a fundamental interconnectedness in food and it can extend beyond the bounds of food, to things related to art de vivre, wine, aesthetics and the whole ambiance, as the French might say. I think most of us would agree that the French and Italians do it best in the Western world, and we all busy ourselves trying to imitate them. Once the bond is made through food and wine, it often remains and blooms into something bigger and more far-reaching.
My very special story is about how my husband Peter White and I met David Downie and Alison Harris.
My husband is a master at planning trips. He always chooses the perfect B&B, which often happens to be a castle or palazzo or some kind of wonder, with an idyllic view, and of course a long list of perfect restaurants to go along with it.
This summer we took the children to Burgundy for a week, and while in Beaune, where we were staying at one of his perfect B&Bs, Les Jardins de Loïs, a little paradise right in the heart of the city, I picked up a book called Wine Food Burgundy in the study. It’s a guidebook, but quite frankly, if you love good writing like we do, you can read it for the pure joy of style. Over the next few days, every time my husband put it down, I picked it up, and vice versa. I won’t say we fought over it, but we both kept our eye on it at all times, as if it were a precious gem we had to keep watch over.
When we returned home to Geneva, I promptly looked up the book and the author, David Downie, and wrote a comment on his site.
The next day, two amazing things happened. First, I realized that I had stupidly left my jewelry box at Aux Terrasses in Tournus. Secondly, the owner of Loïs telephoned my husband to say that the writer of Wine Food Burgundy wanted to contact us. He and his wife were spending the summer in their country house near Cluny (and near Tournus). And the most amazing part of it all is that since we had to drive back to Tournus to get my jewelry, we decided it was in the stars. Somebody somewhere meant for us to meet.
So Peter and I drove to Tournus, had a lovely lunch with David and Alison at Aux Terrasses, and we’ve been in contact ever since.
David Downie: The Tale of the Two Labyrinths of Chartres
by David Downie
Introduction by Jonell Galloway
Chartres is not only my home, but remains one of the most mystical places on earth, even after years of living there. It has everything I need in a city: a spiritual atmosphere, good food, good wine, beautiful stained glass, a beautiful cathedral and 128 or so other beautiful churches, and honest people who, being from the bread basket of France, have never lost their work ethic and healthy attitude. People were already making pilgrimages to Chartres long before the Christianized Romans appeared on the scene, and they continue to do so in droves today.
Chartres labyrinth (Photo credit: Steve Snodgrass)
I was pleased to see Rambling Epicure contributor David Downie’s article on Gadling about the labyrinths of Chartres, the city that may just have more history than any in Europe, and about how its sacred sites continue to inspire people of many denominations and beliefs who travel from all over the world to soak up its telluric energy.
Labyrinth reproduction in the garden below the cathedral (Photo credit: hdes.copeland)
Outdoors in a panoramic park behind the famous cathedral of Chartres a teenage girl skipped along the concentric pathways of a grassy labyrinth. Other kids shouted and kicked a soccer ball. Young lovers simultaneously pecked at each other and the touchpads of their handheld devices, observed by curious onlookers.
Most such onlookers in Chartres are day-trippers from nearby Paris: The capital is an hour’s ride east on a commuter train.
The minimalism of contemporary pastry art can be spectacular. A Paris-trained American pastry chef friend of mine from New York came to dinner carrying a hatbox. She lifted the lid and everyone gasped. “It’s a pastry radiator,” I couldn’t help exclaiming. The “radiator’s” buttery pastry fins were filled with ethereal cream, shielded by dark chocolate plates and mounted on a hard nougatine U-shaped base reminiscent of Bakelite.
“Actually it’s a vertical millefeuille,” my friend explained as she heated the blade of a long knife—the only way to slice this incredible, gorgeous delicacy without destroying it.
The “radiator” turned out to be the conceptual-art brainchild of culinary designer Marc Brétillot, whose creations have often been spotted in the pastry department at the Bon Marché’s Grande Épicerie.
“Pastry is art,” Philippe Muzé, for a decade the wonder-worker at Paris’s bastion of traditionalism, Dalloyau, told me (he has since moved on and on and won many awards). “It’s poetry,” he added. “You can turn sugar, chocolate, herbs, spices and fruit into a million flavors and colors.” I hesitated before deconstructing his green Gâteau Vert, discovering a raspberry-colored biscuit, pear mousse, hot Szechwan pepper, cardamom, thyme and paprika.
What do the glories of ancient Greece and imperial Rome, baroque Naples and pre-revolutionary “Let-them-eat-cake” France have in common with contemporary Paris?
Easy: artful pastry.
Toss out a euro coin nowadays and it will probably land on a Paris pâtisserie whose chef is bent on titillating customers’ taste buds while dazzling eyes and lightening wallets. White chocolate roses crown red powdered-sugar lips. Fruit still-lifes à la Caravaggio top praline plinths. Dark chocolate treasure chests enclose luscious layer cakes, and bras are not of silk but of purest chocolat.
Training in artistic Parisian pastry making is also in vogue: ever since the renowned École Grégoire-Ferrandi cooking school began partnering with mega-star Pierre Hermé, the chef Vogue has dubbed “the Picasso of pastry”, the “Haute Pâtisserie” concept has ruled Paris tastes.
“The fine arts number five,” wrote Marie-Antoine Carême in the late 18th century, “painting, sculpture, poetry, music and architecture, the principal branch of which is pastry.”
Ever the tongue-in-cheek wit, not for nothing Carême was known as “the king of chefs and the chef of kings”. His claim to pastry fame was the invention of Pièces Montées—precursors of today’s tiered wedding cakes. Remember Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot? Carême pièces were big enough to hide a man, like the cakes machine gun-toting Mafiosi burst from in gangster movies.
Their 50th birthdays in sight, the acclaimed travel and food writer David Downie, and his wife, the photographer Alison Harris, decided that trekking from Paris to Spain, would be just the thing. They are based in Paris, so the Way of St. James, for a millennium one of the world’s most celebrated pilgrimage routes, was right at their back door. Neither Alison nor David is religious — the classical pilgrimage experience was not what they were seeking. What were they seeking? Renewal, changed perspectives. Perhaps to test themselves, over 72 days and 1100 km of — at times — very rough terrain. And thereby hangs a tale.
Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of St. James, launches this week. Scroll to the end to see book tour information. Permission to post on TRE the superb photos from the book was granted by Alison Harris.
ELATIA HARRIS: There has been a lot in the news lately on pilgrimage, however one understands the phenomenon. People who do it talk about needing to lose their routine and find themselves. Most set out alone, meeting others en route. You and Alison started together.
DAVID DOWNIE: Our choice to walk together happened organically. I had planned to do this on my own. Alison came along to keep me out of trouble. If you ask her, she’s likely to say it was her idea about 25 years ago, when she suggested we do something similar.
EH: Readers cannot but wonder how they would hold up, in these circumstances. I pictured a long leisurely walk through a French countryside movie. Cows, chateaux…oh, perhaps a few mildly strenuous stints. I was so wrong. This was a test of all your combined resources. It would be for any couple. 72 days of togetherness and real physical hardship. And you had already spent years collaborating on your books.
DD: Like some old couples, we have merged in mind and spirit — if such a thing exists — while remaining very different people, and very pig-headedly independent. So, while we were together on the pilgrimage, we were often apart both in our mental spheres and physically. Alison stopped constantly, ran ahead, took detours, disappeared, got lost—often, though not always, in pursuit of a photograph. She probably walked twice as many miles as I did. By the end of the pilgrimage, my regard for her had only deepened. I can’t speak for her, of course.