Early Morning – Late Harvest

Last harvest of the season at Crow Vineyard and Winery, Kennedyville, MD., and it was a cold start to the day.  It was right around freezing when I arrived, and the last rows of Vidal grapes were ready to be harvested for the vineyard’s Ice Wine.  The light was perfect and before I helped with the picking, I made a few images.  This was my third visit to Crow Vineyard, and I am finishing up a longer post about the wine making going on there.  But, the are still grapes to be pressed and casks to fill; so it will be a few more weeks until it is completed.  So for now, enjoy these from today!

Land of the Sweet Spot

Yesterday we joined a Tedx and Maryland DNR Adventure, to tour the oldest Crabhouse and an Oyster Farm.  With my background as a Chef and Whole Foods Market manager; seeing and talking to the real producers/growers is always a delight.  This adventure surpassed all our expectations.

We gathered at JM Clayton’s Seafood Company to start our day, and really got up close to one of the Bay’s most notorious resident – the Blue Crab.  VERY lively [although not for long] and very colourful. (I now really understand how they got their name) Jack Brooks gave us quite a bit of insight on the Blue Crab; The claw colour differences, females mate only once, and about why the Chesapeake’s are so special – they have to hibernate – so they have to get all fat = succulent for usTedx-C&C-FB-7We were then led into the crab picking rooms – AMAZING!  The speed and cleanliness were simply astounding – I simply could not do the job these pickers were doing.  With surgeon like precision they extracted the pair of Jumbo Lumps per crab, then proceeded to gather every bit of delicious crabmeat at robotic speed and accuracy.  The following video has not been speed-up, THAT is how fast the pickers go!  The meat is as sweet. delicate and moist as you could image – it needed absolute nothing to season or compliment it, and that is exactly how we sampled it.

Time for us to leave JM Clayton and head over to The Choptank Oyster Company.  I have had their Choptank Sweets before but I was very excited to see the farm.  On a beautiful bend on the Choptank River floats the oyster farm.  Dozens of netted rectangular floats are laid out with millions of oysters in varying stages of growth.  It takes from 18 – 24 months to get these oysters big enough for market.  Tedx-C&C-FB-24

As Kevin McClarren explained, it isn’t just seed the floats and forget.  As with any farm, it is hard work. The floats have to be turned and the oysters tumbled regularly, and of course weather is always unpredictable. The farm is not only is growing oysters, it is actually helping to restore the Bay. The product is magnificent;  Choptank Sweets (as they are called) are some of the finest oysters  I have ever enjoyed.  They are slightly sweet, due to the lack of excess salt, nor are they grainy or sandy.  It is a very pure oyster flavour; I had mine just topped with some fresh crab!  Kevin did offer us a Pepper Mignotte to drop on and it was delicious. Time was winding up and we had to head off to lunch, but it was a great educational experience.

I left the adventure with immense respect for the people responsible for bringing us this bounty of the Chesapeake.  When I was a Chef, I  would just go into the walk-in and get the tubs of crabmeat or the box of oysters I needed, without as much thought as maybe I should have, of the product’s journey to my kitchen. Maryland DNR has instituted a really good program whereby restaurants and markets can certify they using only Maryland harvested crab. 

As to the title of this blog entry – Kevin from Choptank Oysters explained that this small place on the Bay is just such a very special place for oysters to grow and the crab industry to survive.  But, it will take time and a lot of effort to help the Bay to come back.

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Easton’s Osteria

Osteria-Alfredo-Web-7Last evening we went with a couple of our good friends to Osteria Alfredo, in Easton MD. I am going to be doing some photography/video for Alfredo and this was a very good excuse to go out and enjoy a really good meal. Besides, on Thursday nights he features Paella – I know an Italian place that does Paella? It is very good.

I have only recently been introduce to the restaurant and as a “retired” foodie, I don’t know how I had missed it.  An osteria is by tradition a place serving wine and simple food – fresh ingredients, good wine and comfortable surroundings; my kind of place.

Between lively conversation, excellent food, a really great bottle of wine, our evening went by all too quickly.  I actually even manged to take few photos of our evening!

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Art in vallARTa

Art in vallArta

This trip, I set aside time to really explore Vallarta’s thirty galleries.  The depth and breadth of the art scene in Vallarta should not be underestimated.  The city’s galleries feature local and international artesian/craftsman creating stunning works in many mediums – sculptures, paintings, photography, folk art and pottery.  From galleries scattered throughout the Historic, Old Town, Viejo and along the Malecon, art is literally everywhere. This is what helps to make PV not just another beach town; the cultural events here are thriving and expanding.

While walking about I found most of the galleries, including a few off the main thoroughfares, but there is another option – Art Walk!  This event takes place every Wednesday evening [October-April] in the Historic district and features thirteen galleries and a number of restaurants.  Strolling through the galleries, drinking some wine and having dinner; this was not a bad way to spend an evening out.

On the Walk, I visited Galeria Pacifico, which represents several of the sculptors, whom created the large bronze works on the Malecon, plus a selection of rising talents working a variety of Medias.  Up the street just a few doors is Galeria Caballito de Mar, who specialize in Antique Silver Jewelry and rare Textiles and Ceramics.  Their collection Deco era Silver jewelry was captivating.  I also visited the Galeria Whitlow where Still Life Realism, Realistic and the amazing paintings of a miniaturist are on display. 

After touring the galleries, I set off for dinner, stopping in at Si’ Senor.  I was intriqued by the Tampiquena and it was an excellent choice.  Perfectly seared Steak, sitting atop a grilled Nopale [Prickly Pear Cactus Leaf] accompanied by a pair of tamales, fresh guacamole and a diminutive corn tortilla filled with refried beans.  The slightly acidic quality of nopale worked perfectly with the steak and the grilled whole onions.  Between the meal and the view it was a really great way to finish off an evening.

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The following day, I visited a number of the galleries in the Colonial Emiliano Zapata part of the city.  Galeria Dante is PV’s largest gallery and their space is glorious; indoors there are a number of rooms and an open inner courtyard reveals fountains and sculptures. Creating a marvelous retreat to linger and ponder the works.  Next door is Ambos Galeria, which when I was there, was highlighting Abstract paintings and Photography.  They feature contemporary artists on two floors of wonderfully lit galleries. They also plan on offering workshops, lectures and performance in their space.

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A short walk away, in the Centro district, is Arte Popular Mexicano Galeria.  Estela Camacho features locally produced museum quality pre-Columbian replicas, ceramics and catrinas.  She calls her Galeria a shop for “Only those who know”.  Spend a while with her and your education will be enhanced dramatically; plus gain a much better understanding of the artwork offered and the lovely people of the region.

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Wander up the Isla Cuale walkway and you will find the Cultural Centre where in the morning and evening classes are offered in painting, sculpture, photography and dance.  A lot of tourists do not explore this far up, but it is a great respite from the bustle of the city, with a few small cafes nearby and the relaxation offered by the natural beauty that surrounds you here.

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On the way back, I stopped at Joe Jack’s Fish Shack for late lunch.  This is one those places that no stay to PV would complete without a visit.  It’s always very good, always very busy and always a great crowd. I had a very delicious simply grilled fish sandwich, super fresh and seasoned with a touch of Black Olive Tapenade[I added a bit of coarse mustard].  Served with crispy fires it was a great lunch.  I was tempted by and succumbed to the Chili-Cucumber Margarita that was the featured drink of the day.  The cooling flavor of the Cucumber was highlighted by the Serrano chili.  The frosty glass was rimmed with Tajin,  a seasoning blend consisting mostly of chilies, lime and salt.  My new favourite Margarita!

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On another evening out, the Plaza de Armas was taken over by artisans working with chalk.  Several dozen very talented artists were on the pavement creating vivid designs of folk, religious and environmental and political themes.    For me, the added joy of meeting and talking with these artists was such a plus. Unfortunately a few days later, an odd rainfall washed all the creations away; but while they were here, the walkways of the Plaza were vibrant with colour.

From very modern works, museum quality indigenous pieces, large sculptures, to antique jewelry and outdoor installations, all represent the Mexican heritage and culture.  The vibrancy, the intimacy, the diversity of works continues to impress me.  I find the openness and at times the whimsy in the works equally delightful.  Theses galleries are alive!

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Mexico’s Sour Mash Whiskey

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We are all familiar with Mexico’s most renowned liquor, and the State of Jalisco makes some of the very best Tequilas I have ever sampled; smooth and delicious. But a new beverage has arrived – Sour Mash Whiskey, in a small fishing village no less! As you walk down to the beaches at Boca de Tamlatan, you pass a few small businesses, homes and this distillery. Los 2 Compadres is a very good small distillery at that; making a Single Cask Sour Mash Whiskey, a “Shine Whiskey” and a Coffee Liquor.
As we wandered into in, the air was heavy and humid with the smell of fermenting corn. The casks of aging whiskey and “shine” [a shortened form of moonshine] are sitting there – just passing the time away. The five fermenting tanks are busy transforming the local Aztecan Maize into the “wash” that will be distilled to make the whiskey. They are bit unique here, in that they use a 100% mash bill

for their Whiskey. In the center of the room sits the large distilling kettle; stainless steel with bright blue feet, just waiting for the next batch to be cooked. Larry Dorwart was on hand to pour us a sample, or two, and gave us the tour.

The Corn Mash

The Corn Mash

The Fermenting Containers

The Fermenting Containers

The Distilling Kettle

The Distilling Kettle

The Condenser

The Condenser

The Aging Casks

The Aging Casks

This is a small local artisan distillery. He gets his heirloom corn from the hills surrounding the little village of Boca de Tamlatan from a farmer who goes there on mules. I am not kidding! The water, an essential component, is perfectly suited for this use. Larry should know, for he refers to a long family tradition of making “shine” through the years – even during Prohibition. Therefore, when he retired and moved down here, this seemed like the thing to do.

Aztecan Maize

Aztecan Maize

The Cask Whiskey is based on an American Bourbon recipe. As such, some of the prior soured mash is used to get the fermenting started.  The tanks also are not sealed, so as to allow the wild natural yeasts in this region to help flavour the whiskey. After being freshly distilled, the liquor goes to the wooden casks to age.  They use old French wine barrels; taken apart and charred to their specs.  I was intrigued by the nuanced aromatic differences in the casks, depending upon which of the barrels the whiskey was aging in. The colour of this young whiskey is attributable, no doubt to the use of theses casks.  Currently they produce about 1500 bottles per month but are getting ready to increase that and offer a Blended Whiskey also. The whiskey rests for year in these barrels, then bottled by hand.   Los 2 Compadres Whiskey is reminiscent of some Kentucky’s lighter bourbons.  For me it has definite caramel overtones along with a hint of vanilla and agave essences.  I found it to possess a very nice mouth finish, fresh, not heavy but with a light finish consistent with it’s aging.  Eminently sippable, I prefer mine just in a snifter.  However, on the rocks or with a bit of water added also works

.A small amount of this aged Whiskey is used to blend in their “Gringo Larry’s Shine”. This whiskey is aged for a shorter period and much lighter in colour. Los 2 Compadres shine is a full flavour, but not a harsh biting shine. It feels full in the mouth with lovely warmth as swallowed. Much smoother than other moonshine offerings I have had before.

The much unexpected third offering from them is a delicious Coffee-Creamed Liquor; Licor de Café’ Mexicano. Think Vietnamese coffee, dark roasted and locally grown beans and sweetened condensed milk, combined with their “Shine” to make it 40 proof! Larry’s affection for the cuisine of Vietnam lead him create this beverage. It is fantastic over ice and a great way to finish a meal.

The Single Cask Whiskey, Gringo Larry’s Shine and even the Licor de Café’ Mexico are available locally in several bars and restaurants, along with stand he mans at the Saturday Farmer’s Market in Puerto Vallarta.

Vallarta’s Gardens

VBG (36 of 52)Vallarta’s Botanical Gardens are a special place that definitely should not be missed. A combination of Orchid houses, nurseries, nature trails, a very nice restaurant and even a place to take a dip, await you upon arrival.  It was just what I needed to relax and escape into nature for a day.

Getting there is easy; catch the bus, bound for El Tuito, at the corner of Aguacate and Carranza streets in the Romantic Sector of PV.  The fare is 20 pesos, and you are dropped off right at the Garden’s entrance.  Now for me, on my Sunday visit, I did have an adventure getting there.  Our bus had a small calamity. The turbine overheated, filling the bus with smoke and causing us to pull over to the side of the road, the driver quickly doused the engine compartment with water and we all spread out and awaited another bus to pick us up.  The thing was; nobody got terribly upset, we all just sat roadside and waited the 20 minutes for our rescue – boarded our new bus and headed off to our destination.

After picking up a map at the entrance, I set off.  I decided to walk the nature trails down by the Emerald Pools first.  This path is rated Difficult, but with a good set of walking shoes, it is very manageable.  The clear and cool stream, the deep green pools of water along with the sound of the rushing water made it all very worth it.   I lingered for quite a bit of time there.

[Video] Vallarta Botanical Gardens – Emerald Pools.

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The trail back up was well marked out and while difficult, was a great nature walkway.  The work they have done here to reforest this land is astonishing.  Much of the land here had been used for cattle and was terribly overgrazed and cleared.   The volunteers and the staff have totally transformed this place.

The trail lead me back to the Hacienda de Oro, just in time for lunch!  The building is covered with Bouganvillas and is brilliantly painted.  There is a very nice gift shop, offering many local products, including some wonderful and such fragrant whole Vanilla Beans.  Upstairs is the restaurant, where I settle in for a lite lunch of Tortilla Soup and an Agua Fresca  [Hibiscus flavoured] .  On this Sunday morning, opera arias were playing in the background and the view from up here is magnificent.  My lunch started with a little tray of fresh cucumbers, jicama and radishes sprinkled with Tajin.  This has been served to me in several other restaurants here; and is a habit I intend on continuing.  Crisp, refreshing and a bit spicy – an excellent tradition. The soup arrived in a diminutive earthenware pitcher and bowl.  A delightful presentation and delicious to boot; It was richly flavoured and topped Guacamole and Sour Cream.  The restaurant offers wood-fired oven pizzas and other traditional Mexican offerings, along with an extensive selection of tequilas.

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After lunch, I joined the tour through the Orchid house and nursery.  I would highly recommend joining this – the varieties are almost endless.  Robert Price, Founder and Curator of the Puerto Vallarta Botanical Gardens has developed an outstanding collection of orchids and in the propagation lab, endangered species of orchids are being cultivated.

To finish my day, I headed off down to the Vanilla Trail area; a more rainforest feel to these gardens.  Coffee plants abound along with Vanilla orchids and Capomo trees.  Theses trails are a bit easier to navigate and were a great way to finish up my trip to the gardens.  I cannot over state the special nature of this place; a bit of paradise not far away for the city of Puerto Vallarta and a must visit.

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VBG (37 of 52)

Holiday Aromas -Rodolfo el Reno

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The other morning I was heading out to do some street photography, when my nose caught whiff of something very familiar; cinnamon, sugar and freshly made pastry. An immediate detour was required. I rounded the corner and discovered “Rodolfo el Reno”. A brother and sister team carrying on a family tradition, creating Buñuelos.
Buñuelos are a fried delicate pastry, made from yeast-raised dough, flavoured with a hint of anise and coated with cinnamon and sugar. This kind of pastry appears in many cultures, each with its own variation, some are rounded, others are filled with custard or jelly and in several countries, and they are made from cassava and malanga. From my own heritage, Jews in Turkey make them from matzo meal and serve them during Passover.
At this shop, Goel and Hortencia start early in the morning during the holiday season, to make hundreds of these each day. This tradition has been carried on from their mother, who made them for years in this little shop. These pastries are very popular with Vallarta’s Las Posadas celebrations. Boxes and boxes were being filled when I arrived, each containing bags of warm buñuelos.

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I left with my own bag of warm Buñuelos, headed back to my apartment, and made some café de olla. I shared them with my good friend, Ramon and delayed my trip to town. This is what I love about Vallarta; so many wonderful little shops scattered throughout the city just waiting to be discovered and enjoyed