We came across warka being made the old-fashioned way by Khadija in her home in Essaouira. Warka is the ultra-thin pastry used to make lots of classic Moroccan dishes, such as pastilla and briwat. It looks a bit like the Turkish yufkaand Greek filo, but is made completely differently: there’s no rolling, just a lot of dangerous-looking hand-to-hotplate action.
You might think this kind of manual cooking is the epitome of Slow Food, but it takes only seconds – at least, when you know how to do it. Check out Khadija’s technique, and just how fast she knocks them out, by clicking on the picture to watch the video:
Did you know that 2008 is the official year of Feta cheese?
Neither did we, until we read it in the in-flight magazine on our way from Thessaloniki to Crete for a conference on ‘the Eastern Mediterranean diet’. This strengthened our resolve to find a Feta-maker and learn all about this crumbly white cheese, which most of us know from its prominent role in the ubiquitous ‘Greek salad’. And why is it getting its own special year this year?
“Bunică ştie” is something you might find yourself observing on numerous occasions while spending time in the villages of Transylvania. For every grandmother you would have the good fortune to meet would know an awful lot, about everything. And everybody knows that granny knows (best).
She knows about looking after animals, and bringing up the grandchildren. She knows how to milk the cows and turn the milk into butter and cheese. She knows how to butcher the pig and turn it into bacon, ham, salami and more. She can make …
Louis XIV is said to have called the sweet wines of the Tokaj region of Hungary “the wine of kings, and king of wines”, and they’ve been used as diplomatic sweeteners at the highest levels for hundreds of years. We went to find out what makes them so great, and discovered that they are still the king of wines – perhaps these days even more so than ever before. However, they now seem to be the wines of very different kinds of kings…
Luckily, by the time we’d reached the remote Bieszczady Mountains we’d learnt enough Polish to recognize that ‘kozie sery’ meant ‘goat’s cheeses’. (It’s great being married to a linguist.) So when the hand-painted wooden sign appeared by the side of the road we slammed on the brakes – and then tentatively approached the farm gate, while two enormous barking dogs approached us from the other side, a lot less tentatively.
The farmer came to our rescue, and proceeded to introduce us to his goats and cheeses with great generosity of spirit. You’d be forgiven for thinking that in this far-flung corner of southeastern Poland he was making cheese the way his great-grandfather had, according to time-honoured Polish tradition, isolated from the world. But you’d be wrong (as we were). In fact, Zbigniew Wantula’s cheeses have truly international dimensions, but with traditional cores. We were to discover how Germany, France, Greece and the UK were all playing their part…
In the basemenent of Maciej Rzankowski’s bakery, Cukiernia Samanta, there’s a 100-year-old poppy-seed grinder that’s been in the family since 1927 – much like the business itself. It started with his grandparents, in the southern Polish town of Zakopane, up in the Tatras mountains. And it’s still there over 80 years later, and still going strong: Zakopane only has a population of about 26,000, but on the last Thursday before Lent (‘Fat Thursday’, the Polish equivalent of Mardi Gras) he sells 47,000 pączki doughnuts.
Since 1927 there have been many changes in Poland, much of which we found reflected in the history of Cukiernia Samanta. There’s a lot that his grandparents wouldn’t recognise: it’s changed from a one-shop operation into an out-of-town factory supplying cafés all over town.
But there’s a lot they would recognise, too. It’s still an avowedly local, family business, still has the same eye for quality, and the loyal customer base who wouldn’t let him get away with anything less. And having tasted a selection of delicious freshly baked goodies – both in one of the downtown cafés and after our tour of the factory – we’re sure his grandparents would have been proud of all of them.
I’d known the Czechs liked their beer, but I’d had no idea they were so good at making wine. Until we happened to visit Kroměříž, an unpronouncable old market town in southern Moravia, Czech Republic. In the centre of town there is a huge archbishop’s palace, complete with peacocks in the gardens and hundreds of barrels of aging wine in the cellars. It turned out they’d been making and storing wine here for 800 years, and it tasted pretty fantastic too. In fact we’re drinking a bottle of their rulandské šedé right now.
The Czechs certainly like their beer – in fact, they drink more of it than anyone else. One of the world’s best-known beer styles, pilsner, is named after the Czech town of Plzeň; and the name of one of the most famous brands (deservedly or not) derives from the brewing centre of České Budějovice (or as the Germans call it, Budweis).
They’ve also been brewing it for a very long time. In Český Krumlov, they’ve been brewing since at least the 1300s, with records showing they were granted a charter to brew and sell beer in 1336. And at the Eggenberg brewery, they still make beer the same way – local organic ingredients, secret recipe and all – producing a rich, tasty, slightly yeasty brew known for its dramatic effects on the youthful appearance of the local womenfolk and on the digestive systems of tourists.
When we knocked on the heavy wooden door at Domaine Weinbach we weren’t sure we were in the right place. Having had it recommended to us by our friend Jono at Chez Panisse in Berkeley (who knows a thing or two about wine), we were confident their wines would be good, but only if we could find them…
Having driven up and down the picturesque little Alsatian valley at least four times, we finally decided to pull into the winery despite the enormous ‘Domaine Faller’ sign and the distinct lack of inviting ‘tastings’ signs for tourists like us which are displayed prominently at so many other wineries. And when Colette Faller peered round her front door at us, she didn’t look sure we were in the right place either.
It’s not easy being an Alsatian cheesemaker. Yes, you get to live in a beautiful valley in the foothills of the Vosges mountains. And yes, you get to produce the traditional Munster Fermier, one of France’s tastiest (and smelliest) cheeses.
But tradition brings rules, regulations and responsibilities as well as tastiness (and smell) – not to mention expense. And it’s not easy to make a living from cheese alone anyway.
We stayed with Chantal and Dany Roess at their farm in Soultzeren, where they make Munster (amongst other things), and they told us all about what they do, how they do it, and how they see their role as upholders of the traditions of cheese.