Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Gifts By The Sea

The last dozen oysters at Drake's Bay Oyster Farm.

Back in 2012, Lucire reported to readers on the little luxuries to be discovered in Tomales Bay, California, specifically the splendor of local oysters found there. In the intervening years conditions have changed for the oysters, with a shrinking world population.

Recently well-meaning activists forced the shutdown of the retail store at Inverness’ Drake’s Bay Oyster Farm, a fixture of the community for a half century, renowned for succulent Pacifics, and a company which furnishes 40% of all the oysters produced in the state of California. A strange coalition of environmentalists, the Sierra Club, politicians and moneyed newcomers in collusion with government bureaucracies managed to cancel the farm’s lease, a decision largely unpopular with residents, not to mention the end of livelihood for a dozen families, and to the disappointment of a cadre of restauranteurs and aficionados. Subsequently an advocacy group has filed yet another lawsuit with the US Supreme Court to protest this action. We made a visit to Drake’s Bay on the last day that their retail store was open, sampled a dozen on the half-shell opened before our very eyes, and exchanged a poignant hug with Nancy Lunny, a member of the family who owns the farm. We stood at the water’s edge, staring out at the pristine landscape, gobbling down the oysters, rich in the flavor of the sea, tender and gelatinous, garlanded with a dash of home-made mignonette. For the slowest food available you must seek out the source, and Drake’s Bay was just that. A rare opportunity which may disappear, go while you can. May they remain open, may we continue to profit from their bounty of the bay.

We had the opportunity to sleep at Osprey Peak Bed & Breakfast, a 3-room Zen-style inn tucked into a cypress grove on a hillside just beyond the hamlet of Inverness. Quiet, elemental, totally comfortable, with every modern convenience, the property stands far away from the main road, yet accessible to all the local landmarks. On arrival, Innkeeper Nancy set out a table in a clearing, steps from the front entrance, with a platter of local cheeses, condiments and bread, accented by seasonal fruits, accompanied by glasses of Beaulieu Coastal Cabernet. The simplicity and elegance of the display and the gesture epitomize the property. This tranquil retreat may appear austere, but the breakfast table (included in room rate) features a bevy of fresh cut fruits, house-made granola, and other specialties, ordered the night before from a detailed menu. During your meal you can watch hundreds of hummingbirds zipping about the adjacent terrace sampling at suspended feeders. Their thrumming may be the only extraneous sound you hear beyond the whooshing of the pines close at hand. You’re guaranteed a deep sleep in a comfortable bed, a graceful awakening, not to mention a discreet and private refuge to return to after your day of activity. Highly recommended, but reserve early.

Nature watching, hiking, kayaking and small craft sailing complement rich dining possibilities around Tomales Bay. We stopped back into Nick’s Cove in Marshall, intending to put away a quick dozen Kumamotos, but we couldn’t stop, and next ordered half-dozens three different ways: Mornay, BBQ and Rockefeller, washed down with a delicious NZ Sauvignon Blanc. A wonderful interlude resulting in 30 empty half shells, after which we remembered the Walrus and the Carpenter: “they’d eaten every one.” Chef Austin Perkins continues to tantalize guests with seafood offerings worthy of your attention. And Lucire also recommends a night in any of Nick’s eccentric cabins on the water.  

Back in Inverness we had the distinct pleasure of a world-class meal at Saltwater, Luc Chamberland’s celebrated restaurant just across the street from the southern shoreline where the hull of a beached fishing boat can be viewed. Think Slow Food Marin style, with a great wine list of West Coast luminaries, and outstanding French and Italian bottles thrown in for good measure. We chose a bottle of classic Chablis, Domaine Chantemerle, a 2010 Burgundy, which paired perfectly with our dozen Hog Island Kumamotos shucked by the owner himself. Next we moved over to Chef Ryan Cantwell’s rustic fare: Sweet Brentwood Corn Soup accessorized by a refreshing and surprising mint relish. As a main course, wild Oregon Coho Salmon, set on a foundation of white bean ragout, accompanied by a soft farm egg (genius!), olive relish and roasted watermelon radishes. For dessert we tried the Double 8 Meyer Lemon gelato, delicate and not sweet, served with a Scottish shortbread, clairvoyantly prefiguring our next destination. Hard to believe there is such a lively place out at the end of the highway, but Saltwater’s a destination restaurant deserving of its great reputation. We enjoyed the optimum of hospitality and fine preparation, and recommend adding this establishment into your travel plan. But again, reservations a must, and understandably so.

Several weeks later we found ourselves halfway around the world, at the very top of the Scottish mainland in the harbor city of Scrabster, waiting for a ferry to take us across to the Orkney Islands for a visit to the Ring of Brodgar. Down south in the Edinburgh area you undoubtedly could locate some exciting culinary choices, but off into the hinterlands the delectability quotient drops precipitously. The one great barometer of quality might be fish and chips, the ubiquitous equivalent to fast food in the UK. Here we were at yet another shore almost 5000 miles away from Tomales Bay, zero food miles from the source. Thus we were fortunate to identify a compact and unmarked takeaway stand next to The Captain’s Galley seafood restaurant which faces the ferry terminal. There we discovered owner Jim Cowie dipping freshly-filleted haddock pieces in handmade batter, delicately placing the pieces in a bubbling vat of superheated palm oil. The result was beyond reproach: the finest fish and chips ever sampled, feathery, light, flavorful, and for good reason. Jim’s a proponent of Slow Food, and had purchased the haddock that very morning at the harbor, directly from the fisherman who caught it. We learned that the adjacent restaurant he operates with wife Mary in a repurposed ice house originally constructed in the 1700s is known for the freshest, finest fish in the region. Scrabster is the “Gateway Port” where fishing boats land their catches from some of the richest fishing grounds in the world. But was this pescatory discovery evidence of a consistent experience or simply a fluke? Several days later, on our return from Orkney we disembarked and headed straight back to the The Captain’s Galley for a return engagement. Again we found Jim at the same fryer, but recommending today’s catch of the day, hake: delectable, flaky, sweet to the palate. Impossible to resist! We next ordered battered Highland langoustines, and doused them with malt vinegar and sea salt. They disappeared in less than 120 seconds. It proves once again that a voyage to the source, whether here or there, pays the highest culinary dividends. Look to the shore, traveler, and rewards always follow.

Osprey Peak Bed & Breakfast
Nancy Beck & David Herbst, Innkeepers
10 Miwok Way, Box 923, Inverness, CA 94937
415 669-1467

Nick’s Cove
23240 Highway One
Marshall CA 94940
415 663-1033

Saltwater Oyster Depot
12781 Sir Francis Drake
Inverness, CA 94937
415 669-1244

The Captain’s Galley
The Harbour, Scrabster KW14 7UJ, UK
01847 894 999

The delta leading to Drake's Bay

Picnic table overlooking Drake's Bay

All that's left at Nick's Cove, after a dozen Kumamotos and a half dozen BBQ'd.

Cheese platter and wine al fresco at Osprey Peak

Regenerated fallen tree at Osprey Peak

Dining room in repurposed ice house- The Captain's Galley, Scrabster UK

Jim Cowie, frying up the haddock at the takeaway stand next to The Captain's Galley

Daily specials at the takeaway stand, The Captain's Galley, Scrabster

The best haddock and chips in the world

The unmarked takeaway stand at Scrabster Harbor

The Captain's Galley, Scrabster, housed in a repurposed ice house from the 1700s

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

New author interview from India

This fantastic interview on NJKinny's blog just posted.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Another great review for The Hacker

Thanks to NJKinney for a terrific piece on The Hacker:

I really appreciate your good read!

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Letter from Venice

December 28, 2013

Greetings the week after Christmas 2013! I'm living here for the month, writing and reporting, and the city is grand. You still see huge tour groups of curious Asians- welcome, friends! But the lanes are comparatively empty now, and they will thin out next week after the New Year. It's the perfect season to visit. Just bring your warm clothes.

Luna Baglioni's Chef Cosimo
I'm gearing up to write an article for about shopping with Cosimo from the Luna Baglioni, one of my favorite hotels in the world. Paula and I will accompany Chef Cosimo on an odyssey to the Rialto market and observe him as he selects the best of the region for the Canova Restaurant. We'll photograph him, take some movies, and share his secret places and choices with you. Stay tuned!

This week we dropped by the Luna to finalize our appointment, and we shared a coffee with Cosimo, our old friend GM Gianmatteo Zampieri, and were expertly taken care of by the legendary Nicoletta. Cosimo sent out a dessert sampler with zabaglioni, dates and mascarpone, cheesecake, chocolate mousse, and a delicate custard. It's always great to visit the Luna, since it feels like home and family- also to consult with the world's greatest concierge, Antonio Massari about the latest insider places of interest. He always knows what's happening. The hospitality quotient is especially high at the Luna. They earn their stars every day.
The Luna's GM Gianmatteo Zampieri
Stanley Moss and Nicoletta

Later, we went wandering, due East, out to the Castello neighborhood, where a local resident pointed us to the Campo Ruga. It doesn't get much more real than this. You may need your GPS to find it, but tucked away in this tiny square you’ll find Trattoria alla Nuova Speranza, where chef Alessandro (and his Viszla dog) welcomed us for an authentic Venetian lunch.

Typical lasagna at Trattoria alla Nuova Speranza
Chef Alessdandro
A half litre of Valpolicella, traditional salad, and a lasagna which made us cry out loud, “Mamma mia!”

Then traditional Venetian cookies and vin santo, followed by a macchiatone, a coffee service unique to the Veneto- ask for it anywhere else and get a blank stare. The Trattoria is one of those real experiences that can’t be choreographed. True to custom, we had a shot of grappa before stepping back out into the windy chill. As the winter sun set behind the Gothic silhouettes, we strolled along Via Giuseppe Garibaldi, back to the lagoon, where fantasy lights illuminated a temporary row of kid’s rides.

Trattoria alla Nuova Speranza
Campo Ruga
Castello 145, Venezia
Tel/fax 041 528 5225

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Read a sample chapter of The Hacker

Jaideep has published a sample chapter at this link:

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Interview in 'Pebble In The Still Water"

I'm delighted to report a very kind interview posted today in Jaideep's book blog:

Friday, November 15, 2013

Savouring Marrakech

with photographs by Paula Sweet

Unlike many other destinations in the world, central Marrakech hasn’t changed much in the last five years. While there’s major development on the outskirts of town, inbound traffic still proceeds somewhat anarchically to the old medina. At least it moves. Humans meander in front of cars, horns blat, donkeys and horses plod along ambivalently, ultimately you reach your destination. The Jmaa Al Fnaa continues to attract droves of tourists, while the same vendors and storytellers, musicians, souvenir-sellers and henna ladies maintain their unique locations night after night, year after year. The food stall greeters hawk their bills of fare in whatever language you’ll answer to: they have expert radar in determining your nationality, largely error-free, though their vocabulary extends only as far as their particular category of food offering and elementary flirtation. Try and discuss the Higgs boson with them and you probably will get a blank stare. That Marrakech can now be called a culinary destination is the tantalizing surprise.

Moroccan cuisine is hot, and we’re not only talking about spicy. None less than the celebrated chef Joël Robuchon has placed it among the “best cuisines in the world”. With their origins among the upper class, the classic tastes of the Levant begin with expensive ingredients, namely rare spices and savory accoutrements. The very best recipes need time, some specialties requiring 12 hours in preparation. Taken in tandem with Morocco’s legendary hospitality, the dining experience is irresistible. If you’ve crossed Morocco off your bucket list, time for a re-think. In the words of Amanjena’s GM, Gabriel Lousada, speaking about his near-case of traveler’s remorse before his first visit: “I was about to commit the biggest mistake of my life by not coming.”

Ten kilometers east of the city, Amanjena remains a dream destination: spacious, tranquil, opulent-and-elegant, only 40 suites set among fantasy palatial passageways, straight out of the Arabian Nights. Midst vast grounds like these you never have the sense of other guests. Frankly, why bother to venture far from your villa, especially the ones with private plunge pools? You could, of course, browse art books in the library, luxuriate poolside and develop your tan, or sip Mojitos in the extremely comfortable bar, eons away from the grime and frenzy of the souk. Eventually the need for sustenance will surface. In that realm, Amanjena never disappoints, thanks to the ascent of two Moroccans, Chef Khalid and Chef Nourddine, whose joint stewardship has gracefully nudged the restaurant into one of Marrakech’s preferred culinary oases. (Guests have first call on reservations, but the public can also avail themselves.)

On a recent visit to the property a splendor of delicacies were sampled in the fine dining restaurant for dinner and at poolside for luncheon. Both venues delivered world-class service, a brilliant panorama of traditional flavors, informed by French sensibilities and artful presentations. At dinner, a delicate amuse-bouche of tomato gel and pesto garlanding fresh feta cheese gracefully preceded beef tangia, unique to Marrakech, accompanied by ethereal cous-cous and seasonal vegetables which arrived at table at ideal consistency and temperature. As the evening wound down, a dessert bestia with home-made cinnamon ice cream rounded out the meal in the romantic setting, to the echoes of haunting strains of a Gnawa vocalist. Lunch the following day proved another temptation. Sipping ice-cold Vin Gris from the ancient Roman city of Volubilia, we sampled Dlaa, a traditional slow-cooked lamb with saffron dish, which requires 1-day advance ordering. It was served on a background of tantalizing side dishes. Mint tea and cookies capped a truly memorable al fresco meal. (The Ghoriba, a sesame cookie concocted from almond flour, sesame, honey and butter is a must-try. Those with a sweet tooth may need to ask chef to send out a few more.) It’s impossible to exhaust Amanjena’s menu in two meals, so the compulsion for a return visit is powerful. For variety, Amanjena also boasts a highly recommended Thai restaurant, to be reviewed in a future article.

Those curious to unravel the secrets of Moroccan cuisine will certainly benefit from a stay at Riyad El Cadi, located in the medina. This wonderful small and authentic riad of 15 rooms not only feeds you well in local and European style, but also offers highly personalized cooking instruction as an add-on. More like socializing, a typical class might begin with early shopping in the souk, followed by a 2-hour on-site adventure, moving back and forth from courtyard tables to the kitchen as Chef Hassan demonstrates, while majordomo Ali translates. The vivid palette of foods and spices, the buzz of energetic chopping and tasting, the aromas drifting up from tiny earthen cooking pots mysteriously turns into the thrill of seeing one’s handiwork transform into delectable meals.

This riad takes dining seriously. Its small size permits customizing cuisine to individual preferences; arriving guests may find themselves happily immersed in detailed discussion about their upcoming meals. A typical dinner of four courses might consist of soup, salad, tajine (the choice during our visit: fish, chicken, veal, lamb, or artichoke and peas) and dessert, washed down with local Casablanca beer, or a hearty Moroccan wine selection. The riad understands a visitor’s palate must be satisfied, thus management will try and fulfill any wish. On rare occasion guests arrive with exceptional preferences: two folks from England who won a trip to Marrakech, their first outside the UK, specifically wanted McDonald’s, an unusual request which innkeeper Julia Bartels hospitably honored. Happiness is always the goal.

There’s a charming history to Riyad El Cadi, seven interconnected houses collected by Bartels’ father, former German ambassador to Morocco. He began the mass renovation in the year 1996, opening the riad in 2000. A maze of courtyards, and decorated with a remarkable collection of textiles, the riad is a refuge of quiet and space, seemingly far from the chaos only minutes away. You get some idea of the intricacy of the property looking across the interconnected roof terraces, with panoramic views of the surrounding medina. Great pains were taken to preserve the original architectural details of each house, despite the complexities of connecting the diverse structures, a layout so organic that no architect has ever been able to draft a workable floorplan. A bemused guest from the UK told us, “Been here 4 days, still can’t find my room.” The riad footprint straddles two different Marrakech municipalities, and is served by 2 different water and electricity systems. On one notable day during renovation, workmen unwittingly broke through a wall into a neighbor’s living room, fortunately without serious diplomatic repercussions. It’s a peculiar joy to wander through the smooth hallways, climb narrow skylit staircases as you encounter authentic décor rich in local tradition and culture. There are hidden patios ideal for quiet reading (or napping), even a plunge pool, accessed through ornate doorways and sculpted porticos. And your stay inside the medina means the opportunity to discover firsthand the high quality of Moroccan arts, since a wealth of museums, palaces and tombs are walking close.

Riyad El Cadi occupies a special position in the mid-range at €180-220 per night, so the value proposition is high. This may present a conundrum for groups, due to spontaneous cases of room envy: every room is unique, and there are multiple grades and suite configurations from which to choose. This is a property to consider taking over in its entirety, for birthdays, weddings, reunions. With some doubling up the riad can comfortably sleep 35. Location, comfort, cuisine and amenities mean a great Marrakech experience. Be sure to try out the Argan oil products in your modern bath: they are artisanal, bio, and locally-sourced.

Veteran travelers call the first meal of the day the most important one. Tucked away among the labyrinthine lanes of the medina, Riad Ilayka brings a decidedly enlightened sensibility to petit-déjuner. Open just 16 months, this property of only 7 rooms has been lovingly renovated by ex-Parisians who put forth a bountiful morning table. Included in the room rate, breakfast on the roof terrace combines splendid flavors and inspired presentation in a classic setting. The menu: fresh orange juice, 4 breads (brown bread, white bread, flat bread, pain au chocolat), the traditional Moroccan crèpe, olive oil, two kinds of confiture, local butter and honey, rosewater/agar-flavored yogurt, fresh fruit compote, omelette and pousse-café. Ilayka’s restaurant, which is reserved only for guests, proved another bonus. Dinner at €25/person, with wine priced at €15-30, delivered excellent value.

Following a 1-year renovation, the riad’s young proprietors brought the property back to perfect repair; it looks vintage, but everything is new, even the room called “La Cave”, with its intricate ceiling painting. The roof areas now feature views of a traditional menzeh, Jacuzzi, hammam, and an airy elevated platform appropriate for afternoon drinks or romantic trysts. Our room with its private terrace, featured a fantasy bathroom with overhead shower, plunge tub, artisan mosaic work, illuminated cubbies and hammered metal sink and mirror. All rooms are non-smoking, have A/C and safe, at the attractive rate of €95-200. This mostly tourist hotel has an average stay of 3 nights. Local artisan soaps, abundant towels and plush robes fill out the amenities offering.

Route de Ouarzazate
km 12, Marrakech
212 524 399 000

Riyad El Cadi
87, Derb Moulay, Abdelkader
Medina, 40000 Marrakech
212 524 378 655

Riad Ilayka
78 Derb El Hammam, Mouassine
Medina, 40000 Marrakech
212 524 390 607

Maria Pocapalia of Tzell West Travel in Los Angeles is an expert at arranging your Marrakech adventure. Her contact telephone is +1 (310) 546-5140