Travel

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A number of years ago I invited a bunch of  top chefs up to my place in Fourchu, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia (and what chefs…Dan Barber, Jonathan Waxman, Cesare Casella, Candy Argondizza, David Pasternak, Nils Noren, Floyd Cardoz and Anne Burrell). Fourchu is my family’s home village and I wanted the chefs to go gaga over the local lobster.  Our village is way out on the southeastern tip of the island…maybe 750 miles from the east coast shoreline.  The lobsters are muscularly and mineral  flavored, ocean tasting, and sublime.  The chef trip was famously written up in a fine Departures article by Peter Kaminsky. The chefs were impressed with the lobster but it was a midnight run to a returning crab boat with fisherman Gordon MacDonald that really had them fired up.

Snow crab from the northeast is an exquisite delicacy that few people get to taste fresh. The snow crab is harvested far out in the ocean with overnight trips are the norm and come from the depths of pristine water. The problem is getting the crabs back before they turn black from the bends from being caught at the deep bottom of the ocean. Triage is usually done by immediately freezing the crab on its arrival on shore. Frozen crab is very delicious but nothing can beat fresh.


Cape Breton has breathtaking scenery and world class fishing. If you live in a lobster or crab village like  Fourchu as I do in the summers, you can meet the crab boat and have the sea water boiling back home. Meeting the boat is as much a social event as shopper’s delight. One buys the crab for $2 a pound at the dock and catches up on gossip and then quickly gets on with the ritual. That means 1) chipping the head off  the crab 2) pulling the hard center shell off 3) breaking it into two halves 4) cleaning out all the yellow gunk. 5) running home and putting it into the boiling water or the freezer for after the season closes.

No butter, no sauce just explosive crab taste. Sensational!  Try it frozen if you find it in your local fish shops or take a trip up to Cape Breton.  Both are absolutely worth the effort.

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I never thought much about canned tomatoes. I love ‘putting up’ tomatoes from my garden but I don’t ponder too deeply about the commercial kind. That is, until I was invited last September to the Mutti factory outside of Parma. As many of you might recall, I spent seven months living in Italy last year serving as President of the U.S. Pavilion at EXPO Milano 2015. While the EXPO itself was thrilling and educational, I was most deeply impressed by the Italians that I met and had the privilege to work with.  Many Italian food companies and wineries are family owned and operated.  Their pride is not only in the product but in protecting the family name and their  devotion to the legacy of being the generational custodians of their land and quality of their product.

As any aficionado of Italian food can tell you,  the brilliance of the cuisine has as much to do with the beauty of the product as it does with the skill of the chef. In Italy the cuisine is highly seasonal. They eat raw tomatoes in the summer and fall and the balance of the year they rely  on canned tomatoes. Thus, as you can imagine,  Italians take their canned tomatoes seriously.  The number one selling brand of canned tomato in Italy and France today  is Mutti.  After visiting the factory, I now know why. I was invited by Juan Pablo Carnevale, Mutti’s export manager to visit the factory during harvest and boy, I will never take a canned tomato for granted again.

We  first had lunch at  a marvelous restaurant  Mulino di Casa Sforza in Basilicanova (outside of Parma). We shared a heavenly pasta and drank a local and most delicious Lambrusco.   It was over this lunch that Juan Pablo set the historical background for my tour. Did I realize that Napoleon’s wife brought the tomato to northern Italy? No. When Napoleon was captured in 1814 and exiled to Elba, he negotiated for his wife Marie Louise, the Hapsburg daughter of  Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire,  to exile to the  Duchy of Parma.  She was a benevolent and a much loved Duchess.  Her French court  brought sophistication to Parma.  The summer palace patterned itself  after Versailles.  The theater  in Parma rivaled any in the world. (The ground floor was capable of being sealed off and filled with water for staging maritime battles!). From a culinary point of view, Marie Louise did a reverse of Caterina de Medici and introduced the Italians to a much loved French ornamental  fruit,  the tomato.  The environs of Parma proved fertile  soil to produce luscious tomatoes.  In the latter part of the 19th century the Italian universities and their superior scientific programs invented revolutionary preserving technologies which were applied to the popular  products of Parma (ham, cheese, tomatoes). With the full support of the banking and commercial community the canned tomato industry was born.

Mutti was one of the first companies to can tomatoes.  The reason for their success today is that each generation constantly  upgraded quality controls and best practices in preserving. Today I saw the latest technologies applied.  Their assembly lines rigorously test each incoming truck for disease and proper acidity levels.  The production line culls green and unripe tomatoes lest bitterness enter the flavor profile.  The harvest must be done quickly and efficiently to capture the freshness and ripeness of the fruit.  A high tech scanner measures  each processed batch for acidity and sweetness levels to maintain consistent  flavor profiles.  The blind tastes test bore out the superiority of the product.  A sweet ending to a fascinating tour.


On leaving the production ground one is struck by a 15-foot standing toothpaste tube in the garden.  Actually it is a blown up Mutti tomato paste tube. The Mutti heir after WW II innovated that packaging.  He marveled at toothpaste tubes and realized they did not allow oxygen into the product.  One could open the tube and use over a longer period of time without oxidizing and ruining the paste.  What a great innovation!  But he also realized that Italian women were slow to change their habits, especially with such an essential ingredient in  making tomato  sauce.  So, he cleverly  observed  that in post war Europe  most families were too poor to buy ready made clothing.  Most women sewed. The cap of the tube was very ‘thimble’ like.  And so, he engineered the cap to have two functions.  When the paste was finished, the cap served as a thimble!  At least the women would buy one tube just  for that and give his product a try.   One try and today it is the number one selling product.

Quality, innovation and passion, all in canned tomatoes.  I wish we had Mutti here.

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It was my fifth trip to Korea (to participate in Seoul Gourmet 2016) and I figured it was time to get up to the DMZ.  The DMZ is the demilitarized zone created in 1953 between North and South Korea. On a hot and sunny Sunday I signed up for a bus tour as  the zone is only an hour north of the capital. As I found out, it’s not a carefree bus tour, you needed to bring a passport and be checked by military personnel on entering the zone. My expectation was to see soldiers on both sides of the line, stare at the buildings and landscape across the border, take pictures with the military guards and put another notch in my tourist belt. What better way to get over jet lag than witness a piece of living history?

It was not until I was on the bus that I realized I did not sign up for the tour to the military sight but to the other places in the DMZ. Wait- there are other places in the DMZ? The DMZ is actually 250 km wide and 4 km deep. It is fascinating, surreal and very gastronomic! For example, in the DMZ you find the relatively modern Gyeongui Railway station that hosts no active trains, and no train customers but has spacious facilities and futile signs for trains to Pyeongyang.

You also discover that historically the DMZ lies in a treasured agricultural valley which in ancient times produced rice and soy beans for Korean royalty. When first declared a no man’s land, farmers were driven from this fertile region. After waiting decades for an end to the conflict (technically the Korean war is not over, there is just a cease fire in place), the South Korean government decided it was not going to let this delicious region go rice-less.  The only village in the DMZ, Unification Village was built specifically for working farmers and soldier families.  It is the only civilian lodging in the zone.  As our guide waxed poetic about this rice, I was hoping the souvenir store would actually sell it. It did, but in 10 and 20 kilo sacks, not exactly souvenir size.  My fellow Korean tourists were buying it by the sackful. In the shop shelves there were other delicacies such as DMZ honey and DMZ chocolate soy beans. Tourist attractions dotted the zone. For example there was  Peace Park with the main attraction of wind. It’s high, grassy knolls lent themselves  for flying kites. Families picnicked by bomb shelters as the kites bobbed and weaved among the barbed wire fences. Jarringly attached to Peace Park was a full blown kiddie amusement park, Imjingak.


Along with the expected DMZ attractions, such as models of fighter jets and a steam locomotive riddled with a thousand bullet holes, there were bumper cars and merry go rounds. At the perimeter colorful ribbons honoring the dead fluttered below the rolls of barbed wired fencing. These vivid colors and the happy park goers were disorienting against a sober backdrop of barbed wire and manned guard houses along the river.

Further on there was  a soybean museum with the story of tofu and three amazing towers of ginseng! I have been to a lot of food museums in my life, but I scratched my head on wondering if people would come to this dangerous part of the world just to understand the soybean.  I realized then how seriously the Koreans take their food and though the DMZ is  known for the present conflict between the north and the south…Korean  food heritage was not about to cede its ground to recent history.


As for the amusement park food itself, it was as unappetizing as Coney Island fare. Different for sure, but equally unappetizing. Some delicacies such as squid and small crustaceans were purely Korean but the faux western fare of  ‘old hot dogs’ and ice cream sticks made me run back to the ginseng towers! If the North Koreans ever come over the line, they are in for a shock!

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One of the great benefits of a summer vacation is to combine a culinary experience with a ‘primo’ summer spot. I have been longing to take the perfect road trip and find the James Beard award winning chef, Melissa Kelly in Rockland, Maine. Down the road from Bowdoin College and past numerous outdoor shops selling colorful canoes, one comes upon Primo Restaurant perched above Rockland’s harbor nestled in acres of organic vegetable bliss.

Melissa Kelly

And of course, there you will find Melissa Kelly, a native of Long Island, NY and the wunderkind that dreamt all this up.  Retreating to Maine from Old Chatham Sheepherding Company Inn in the Hudson Valley, NY (where she earned her first James Beard Award in 1999), Kelly opened Primo in 2000, on a 4.5 acre farm. And there she defies the short growing season with a truly farm to table restaurant. In fact, we have to give her credit that she was doing the farm to table thing before it was called that or became the standard tag for a country restaurant.

I ate the most delicious salad, perfectly fresh swordfish and a berry-licious dessert. My companions devoured lobsters. After the meal we were allowed back in the kitchen and were given a tour by Chef herself. How impressive. I didn’t realize that not only does she raise her own chickens, but slaughters them too. There are few chefs that know how to slaughter a chicken! Melissa also made us tour her basement…actually it’s her modern day prosciutto curing cellar!  The hams hung side by side. Premiums bits with lesser cuts. Nothing, of course, is wasted.

I think a novel could be written about Melissa. The purity of her spirit, the level of innovation and the pure deliciousness of her food, makes her a heroine for me. It’s worth a trip. So make your vacation mantra: “Rockland Maine next year!”

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As many of you know, I am obsessed with the Fourchu lobsters. They taste like the sea and are so sweet. The ICC’s restaurant, L’Ecole celebrates them for the mere two months they are available. So you better get to L’Ecole in June and July where these delicious crustaceans are making their yearly Soho visit.

In fact, we kicked off the season with Cape Breton Tourism who brought down two native born chefs, Ardon Moffard and Brooks Hart. They joined forces with none other than Master Chef Floyd Cardoz. Chefs Ardon and Brooks delivered ‘naked lobsters’ cooked to perfection while Chef Cardoz worked his personal magic on the Fourchus. Chef C is a huge fan of these crustaceans and was happy to put his light touch of spices on the unctuous sweet meat.

In addition the former Premier (Governor) of Nova Scotia and now CEO of the Gaelic College, Rodney MacDonald treated us to his fiddle and step dancing. Cape Breton has the highest number of fiddle players per capita in the world. Here are the highlights of the ceildh-party- we had at the ICC this month.

Colin MacDonald (guitar) and Rodney MacDonald (fiddle)

Finally, Cape Breton is definitely travel destination, just look at these accolades from renowned publications and travel sites. And I promise if you ever get a chance to visit, you won’t be disappointed!

  • Top Ten Dare to Go, CNN.com 2014
  • Cape Breton Island one of the 20 Must See Places for 2013, National Geographic Traveler, World Edition
  • #1 Island Destination in North America, #3 in the World, Travel & Leisure, 2011
  • Most Romantic Place in Canada, Vacay.ca, 2012
  • Ten Best Island Holiday Destinations in Canada, Where.ca, 2011
  • Cabot Trail named #9 Cycling Destination in the world, Lonely Planet, 2011
  • Louisbourg voted #2 World’s Most Exceptional Castle Towns, msnbc.com, 2011
  • World’s Best Islands, BBC Travel, 2011
  • One of North Ameria’s Most Charming Fall Islands, Fox News, 2011
  • Cape Breton Highlands National Park, #2 Park in North America, National Geographic Traveler, 2006
  • Cape Breton Island one of Seven International Paradises, Fodor’s Online Travel Guide, 2008

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Recently I have been to Madrid, Oporto, Geneva, Milan, Rome, Israel. You would think most of  those places would have decent airport food. That’s what I was looking for, just decent food, some “hold me over” sustenance. And quite frankly in those places, well, that’s only what I found. And then there’s Istanbul, Turkey where I was only passing through- but this time I wasn’t looking for food to sustain me, I wasn’t hungry at all.  Yet like any good foodie I was lured to the food court’s by the siren song. And it was a food court with the usual Burger King, Popeye’s and ….a not so usual ‘Turkcuisine.’

OMG! The bakery got me started. Look at those pastries! And Turkish ice cream! And then I found the Turkish fast food court. I was almost hysterical when I saw the assortment of foods. Darn! I knew I had a delicious dinner on the docket in Tel Aviv that evening, knew I wasn’t hungry enough to eat right then, but it was a “know no bounds” moment. I wound up spending $40 on a most delicious lunch that I had no room for! (Does that make me a human equivalent of a foie gras goose?)

They make the “pizza” dough right at the station where you get your cheese pie. It is the Turkish equivalent of a tarte flambé from Alsace. The cheese was slightly tangy and was a perfect texture for melting on flatbread. The assorted appetizers display had everyone in line grumbling at me because I just couldn’t fit all of it on one plate and didn’t want to have to choose. I dithered and then crammed as much as I could on my small plate.

We got to the main food station and the young chef in charge (who has to be the son of Seinfeld’s soup Nazi) kept the line moving fast demanding to know your order. You almost felt like you were going to get a pass/fail grade by the time you ordered. The chefs by the way, were real chefs, spotlessly dressed, very professional and proud of their food. These are chefs at a cafeteria line at the airport, next to the Popeye’s and Burger King. Lord, be praised!



The dried beans with meat in a tomato sauce were among the best I have ever eaten. The stuffed Dolmas…well yes, I have eaten better but it didn’t keep me from wolfing them down. Next on the line, I spot a samovar, a tip off that desserts are next. Baklava heaven! I took one pistachio and one walnut. I am on a sugar high as I write this. Maybe it’s not the sugar. This is an airport after all. If you can pass through Istanbul en route to some exotic land, heed this advice…save your appetite! (By the way Turkish Airlines has my vote for best airline food.)

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