Archive for the ‘travel’ Category

I’ve been to Grand Cayman before. It was 16 years ago…I was single and found myself “stuck” on the island for an extra 4 days at the end of my vacation because of 9-11. (I was due to fly home on September 12, 2001.) The airport security systems we don’t even think twice about today didn’t exist back then, and I remember getting to the airport at 6AM to stand in a security line for a 1PM flight. Every piece of luggage was hand-searched…twice. It seemed like forever.

Coming in for a landing!

What I remember from that trip was how empty and primitive the island was…and how ancient the airport was, even for the Caribbean. Sixteen years later, the island has changed drastically: massive construction everywhere you look…huge investment properties are built, then stand empty, waiting for buyers. One “for sale” sign after another along the roads that line the island’s waterfront properties. A giant, soulless shopping center called Camana Bay is a stone’s throw from a very crowded 7-Mile Beach. And the airport? It now gets my award for one of the worst airports in the Caribbean: low-tech, crowded, disorganized, dirty.

What made–and still makes–the Caymans shine are the beaches and the people. Despite the oversized resorts lined up on 7-Mile Beach, the sand and water are pristine. It’s still a scuba diver’s and snorkelers’ paradise. And the people, if you go out of the crowded tourist areas to find them, are as friendly and helpful as ever. They just seem a bit lost in their own home.

The waters of 7-Mile Beach are still beautiful.

 

The Caymans were hit by a hurricane in 2004, and a billionaire investor by the name of Dart decided this was his opportunity to make the investment of a lifetime. The people of the Cayman Islands no doubt looked at him as somewhat of a savior–at least in the beginning. Here was a guy that was willing to invest a lot of money in rebuilding their beautiful island. And though he did invest a lot of money in real estate–it’s estimated that he now owns 25% of all the real estate on Grand Cayman–sadly that money went into condos, shopping malls, and hotels. Little by little, the real heartbeat of the Cayman Islands was being replaced by large, sweeping generic slabs of concrete and glass reaching for the sky, and huge roadways connecting them to each other.

Georgetown, the capital and where the airport is located, is crowded, dirty and hosts several cruise ships every day, dumping thousands of passengers for a few hours to buy the typical souvenirs and duty-free goods every cruise ship port holds.

 

 

OUR TRIP

We chose to stay off the beaten path for our first couple of nights, finding a cute waterfront condo on AirBnB in Boddentown, the original capital of the Caymans, and much quieter than 7-Mile Beach or Georgetown to the west. The condo was clean, but the beach in front of it was full of weeds. Winds and currents were strong. We realized that it was a good home base to settle in at the end of the day, but that’s about it. We would spend our first couple of days exploring the rest of the island, from Boddentown to the East End to the North Side to Rum Point.

A simple map of Grand Cayman.

There’s nothing better than finding a great little food place just steps from your condo, and the Czech Inn Grill hit the spot. They don’t sell alcohol, so it’s another few steps to a liquor store to pick up a few bottles before we finally sat down at the bar.

Celebrating its first year the very weekend we arrived, we met the owner, George, and sampled several dishes from his extensive menu which did feature a half-dozen hearty Czech dishes. We passed on those and enjoyed more local fare: a delicious freshly caught wahoo ceviche, smoked ribs, and a huge cheeseburger for my daughter. It was a very welcome meal, along with my Mount Gay Rum that I purchased a few doors down, after a long day of flying and settling in.

 

 

That evening, we headed for Tukka, a restaurant on the East End that got good reviews. It was already dark, so we saw no scenery, but we knew we’d be back this way the next day anyway. Among other things, Tukka boasted they had the largest rum selection on the island.

 

The rum bar at Tukka.

 

What we found when we got there were a couple of truths that guided us throughout the rest of our trip. First, though Tukka’s rum selection was excellent, many places layed claim to the biggest rum bar on the island. And second: the majority of menus at the so-called better restaurants on Grand Cayman are very similar. Only a handful of dishes really separated them. Part of the reason for that is that everything comes from off-island, and everyone uses the same companies to deliver their ingredients.

As for Tukka, we all thought the dinner was good, not great. The only exception was my lion fish tacos, which were a highlight. Lion fish is a nasty little invasive bugger, and requires hand protection when touching them, making them difficult to harvest and clean. But their meat is absolutely delicious, and I was very glad I tried it.

 

 

Leaving Boddentown the next day, we headed east again, and started exploring the coast. The south coast was too rough for swimming, but we enjoyed stopping at local fish shacks like Captain Herman’s for a quick snack of fried snapper with freshly made juices of cucumber, and carrot. I say “quick,” but I mean island-time quick. We were the only customers there, with 3 women serving, and it took an hour. Still, it was a beautiful day and they were fun to talk to.

Our next stop: the Blowholes. Fun to watch these ocean-carved tubes pressurize and blast water high in the air.

We searched for more local eats, wanting to stop at the “famous” Vivine’s, but my daughter craved a ham and cheese from Subway instead, and there was one located on the property of the Windham Reef Resort on the East End. (There are Subways and Burger Kings all over the island.) There was also an out-of-service ATM across the street, surrounded by a strip mall of closed stores. (It was Sunday.) Lesson learned: if you need cash and you see an ATM that works in the town you’re in, don’t think you’ll find one later…you won’t! Grab the cash while you can!

We stopped when we saw a local fellow selling coconuts and enjoyed his highly skilled demonstration of how to crack one open with a machete.

 

A stop at Old Man Bay, another possible snorkeling spot listed in various books and websites, was disappointing: strong winds and currents and trash on the beach. We saw that elsewhere, too. One brochure even said that the trash “comes from cruise ships and that if you can get past it, you’ll find great snorkeling!” Uh…no, thanks.

We made a stop for lunch at Kaibo Restaurant Beach Bar and Marina, just a turn away from Rum Point. We enjoyed an excellent lunch–the jerk chicken was a standout–and contemplated returning there for dinner at their finer dining restaurant on the second floor. It, too, boasted one of the largest rum selections on the island. We never made it back to find out.

 

After lunch, we headed to Rum Point, where we finally had our first attempt at snorkeling. A small reef off the shore offered us a chance to see some tiny, colorful fish, and Rum Point itself offered beach chairs, sand, food, and bathrooms…everything we needed to spend the rest of day in the sun.

 

One of the signs at Rum Point.

At the end of our day, we headed back toward Kaibo, because that’s where we found Starfish Point, a pretty patch of sand that attracts a large number of starfish. It was fascinating to see them. It’s OK to touch them, but never lift them out of the water. They need to stay underwater to stay alive.

Rather than going to Kaibo for dinner, we chose to head back to Georgetown and dine at Guy Harvey’s Bar & Grill. The food was mediocre at best, as was the service. We should’ve known, because its location was right where the cruise ships drop off their passengers. As we would find out the more we ate on this island, it was pretty much the same food as everywhere else: Ceviche of the day? Wahoo. Special of the day? Snapper. Etc., etc.  And with the Cayman dollar worth $1.25 US, even bad dining became an expensive part of the vacation, about $250 and up USA per dinner for 2 adults and 1 child.

Our third day, we stopped in Georgetown for lunch, making a stop at The Rock Hard Cafe. (Just a stone’s throw from Guy Harvey’s.) I have only myself to blame for being in this tourist trap: I got my daughter hooked on visiting Hard Rocks when I took her to the one at Universal Studios in Florida last year. After that, she wanted to visit every city with a Hard Rock! I promised her I’d take here to the one on Grand Cayman for lunch. We enjoyed good burgers and salads.

 

We continued north after lunch and eventually arrived at the Westin Grand Cayman 7-Mile Beach Resort and Spa, where we would spend the next 5 nights. 7-Mile Beach is crowded, with one resort lined up after another. But they’re not stupid: they know their money comes from tourism, and despite the crowds, 7-Mile Beach remains pristine.

 

 

Dinner that night gave us our first glimpse at the massive investment and construction that was moving at full speed in Grand Cayman. We dined at Mizu Asian Bistro + Bar, a sushi restaurant located at the sprawling (and sterile) Camana Bay shopping center. We (again) read good reviews about this restaurant and we (again) were disappointed. The sushi wasn’t bad, just not great. My daughter’s cooked dishes were better. And the price of half-decent sake was outrageous! I joked about how we should’ve brought sake from the States. Price gouging was apparently common at restaurants in the Camana Bay shopping center. I’m guessing they have huge rents to pay.

 

 

Clever little gadget. A button attached to each beach umbrella. Press it, and you get food and drink service without searching high and low for help!

 

Once we settled into the Westin, we enjoyed several days of simply swimming, snorkeling and being lazy on the beach. The Westin is one of the headquarters for Red Sail Sports, a company that rents any water sport equipment you can imagine. They also have a fleet of boats for snorkeling and diving trips. Everyone (and we) agree they’re the best on the island. My daughter rented a bicycle, literally a bike on a pontoon boat that you pedaled in the water! And she and my wife enjoyed a wild parasail ride as well.

 

Balcony views at the Westin.

Good cheap eats across the street from the Westin at Eats Cafe.

 

 

 

Scattered throughout our stay at the Westin, we took on a few trips. Probably the smartest way to see the stingrays at Stingray City, a must if you’re going to Grand Cayman, is to go first thing in the morning. Red Sail Sports offers a “Breakfast with the Stingrays” trip that gets you out there before the real crowds arrive…and it can get really crowded with cruise ship passengers showing up by the boatload. The staff on our beautiful 65′ catamaran was friendly and helpful, and they literally bring the rays to you, grabbing the attention of the stingrays they’ve handled many times before. The rays themselves are extremely gentle, and even though it wasn’t my first time swimming with them, it’s never anything less than amazing to bond with them. The females are the large ones, and we were fortunate enough to hang out with everyone’s favorite, Sandy, for some time.

 

 

Another great trip was with George’s Watersports (www.stingraycitygrandcaymans.com). George is a young guy that runs his own company. He’s literally a one-man show, from the van driver that picks you up at your hotel, to the captain of the boat. But he’s energetic, upbeat, and a young businessman I was glad to support. Among the many trips George does every day, he offered a nighttime snorkel in the bioluminescent bay. A fast boat ride from the marina got us to the “Bio Bay,” as they called it. Nighttime settled in, the stars came out, and we jumped in the water with our snorkeling gear to swim among the billions of bioluminescent plankton that live in the bay. It was a wild experience to see your whole body sparkle as you swam through the water! My daughter was particularly thrilled, waving her hands through the water, her fingertips sparkling like some character from a Harry Potter movie. Sadly, photos just don’t pick up the bioluminescence. You need to put on a snorkel mask and dive in. It’s worth it!

 

 

We took a road trip up the 7-Mile Beach coast and made the mandatory stop in the little town of Hell. Of course, we did all the silly tourist things you do when you go to a town named Hell…

 

 

On our way back, we made a stop at Cemetery Beach. Park your car along the street, then walk the marked path on the side of the cemetery to the beach. The water is beautiful, and the snorkeling was the best we had on our entire trip.

It’s pretty common to find beaches located behind the cemeteries, even fast food restaurants. For example, there’s one beach, appropriately called “Cheeseburger Beach,” because it’s located behind a Burger King.

 

The cemetery at Cemetery Beach.

 

…And the beach at Cemetery Beach.

Heading back south toward Georgetown, and then further east toward Boddentown, other snorkeling adventures included stops at two public beaches: Smith Barcadere (or Smith’s Beach) and Spotts Beach, a favorite of locals and a hangout for sea turtles. The waters were a bit rough…we didn’t see much of anything. But it was a fun adventure nonetheless. Both beaches are clearly marked, with parking nearby.

 

 

OUR TOP 3 DINING EXPERIENCES ON GRAND CAYMAN

Great food is an important part of any trip we take. It doesn’t have to be fine dining…a shack on the water is totally fine, as long as the food is fantastic. Most of Grand Cayman lacks that old island charm, with the exception of the few places I mentioned earlier on the East End.

7-Mile Beach is where the luxury resorts are located, and that means fine dining, or at least the Cayman version of it. As I mentioned, because everything is imported to the island, the menus at most of these restaurants is pretty much the same. What varies is the dining room and the view. So despite the fact that the Cayman Islands tourism board brags about being “The Culinary Capital of the Caribbean,” there are really very few excellent restaurants. They are, for the most part, nice hotel restaurants. (And that’s not a complement.) It probably should come as no surprise, then, that the 2 best restaurants we found are at the fanciest hotel: the Ritz Carlton.

Blue by Eric Ripert. A newcomer to the island, Blue has made a big splash, totally reinventing the idea of fine dining. Eric Ripert is the Michelin star award-winning chef of NYC’s Le Bernardin, widely considered one of the top restaurants in the world. For him to put his name on another restaurant had to mean drastic changes in the way they do business in the Cayman Islands.

For one thing, the same importer that brings all the same mediocre products to the other restaurants, was not going to cut it. Ripert uses exotic, expensive, hard-to-get ingredients in his recipes that certainly required a new source, someone who could consistently bring him the highest quality tuna, foie gras, and other luxury ingredients.

The staff at Blue is well-trained: the service is beyond reproach, yet they don’t hover over you while you try to eat. And the kitchen staff was hand-picked by Ripert himself, who visits regularly.

What it all amounts to is the finest dining experience on the island: impeccably fresh seafood with the lightest touch of the finest ingredients to make the dishes really shine. One example was the tuna with foie gras, a combination that couldn’t possibly work on paper, but turned out to be a mindblower.

Tuna with foie gras. Tuna pounded thin, with a foe gras “wafer” underneath.

Of course, you pay a hefty price for all this luxury, and as expensive as dining is on this island, Blue kicks the price tag up a notch. All I can say is, go cheap somewhere else and treat yourself to Blue.

 

Taikun at the Ritz  Carlton. The fact that Taikun is the best sushi restaurant on the island is no doubt in part possible by the influence of the new and exotic ingredients imported for Blue by Eric Ripert. Hey, if one restaurant at the Ritz is getting them, why not two? They even had their own version of tuna with foie gras on their menu. Beautiful sushi, and an excellent, though expensive sake list.

The dining room at Taikun.

 

 

Ristorante Pappagallo: Our third favorite restaurant caught us by surprise. We thought for sure that it would be touristy, yet they served some of the most delicious and authentic Italian food we’ve had in a long time: handmade gnocchi, fabulous beef carpaccio, eye-rollingly good risotto…and an excellent wine list. Also, one of the best bars and bartenders on the island…real mixology.

 

The bar at Ristorante Pappagallo.

Plus, a wonderful old parrot that’s been there for 35 years!

 

 

The worst part about our trip to the Cayman Islands was the airport. For all that money invested in this island, you’d think they would have a state-of-the-art facility. Quite the opposite. It’s crowded, disorganized, low-tech, and dirty…enough of a negative that it makes you think twice about coming back…which is too bad, because it’s the last memory you have of your vacation.

 

With so many other island choices in the Caribbean, it’s hard to say whether we’ll be back to Grand Cayman any time soon. But we needed the rest and relaxation…and despite a few snags, we got that!

 

 

 

 

 

I’m always on the lookout for a great cocktail, and these days, a great restaurant very often requires a great mixologist at the bar…not someone who can simply whip up a Cosmo, but someone who puts as much creativity in his drinks as the chef does in their dishes.

Over the years, I’ve created a list of cocktail recipes that bartenders have been willing to share with me, scribbled on business cards and bar napkins. Here are some from my travels…

The classic negroni is made with gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth. I love negronis, and this cocktail is inspired by them. It comes from chef Tony Maws’ restaurant Craigie on Main in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (www.craigieonmain.com) It’s been a decade since we dined there but the drink remains a favorite of mine. When our server communicated to the bartender that I was willing to be his guinea pig for creative cocktails, I was served this one–so new at the time, they didn’t have a name for it. I took a sip and exclaimed: “Holy Shit!” and the server laughed and said: “That’s as good a name as any!”

I still call it the…

“HOLY SHIT!” COCKTAIL

1 1/2 oz. Bols Genever
1 oz. Gran Classico
1/2 oz. Punt e Mes

Add some ice to a cocktail shaker, and add the ingredients. Stir well. Strain into a rocks glass with one large ice cube.

Bols Genever is a Dutch spirit, the ancestor of gin, created from lightly distilled Dutch grains and a complex botanical mix. It is made according to the original 1820 Lucas Bols recipe which stood at the basis of the cocktail revolution in 19th century America.

Gran Classico is an alcoholic aperitif/digestif created following a recipe dating from the 1860s. It’s made by soaking a mixture of 25 aromatic herbs and roots in an alcohol/water solution to extract their flavors and aromas. The maceration creates a natural golden-amber color, although many other producers, like Campari and Cynar, dye their product red.

Punt e Mes is a pleasantly bitter, slightly sweet red vermouth, the “baby brother” of Carpano Formula Antica. The formula was developed in 1870 in Antonino Carpano’s bar in Piedmont, and the distinctive 15-herb recipe is still a family secret.

 

I sampled another negroni-inspired cocktail in Cleveland, Ohio, dining at chef Jonathon Sawyer’s The Greenhouse Tavern. (www.thegreenhousetavern.com) Crazy creative food, and this mind-blowing drink that inspired me to buy a small oak barrel and start cask-aging everything I could get my hands on at home. The OYO Stone Fruit Vodka, a key part of this cocktail, is not available here in Rhode Island. And my online source will no longer ship it! (www.thepartysource.com/oyo-stone-fruit-vodka) Store pick-up only.

 

OYO STONE FRUIT “NEGROSKI”

1 oz. OYO Stone Fruit Vodka
1 oz. Campari
1 oz. Cocchi Vermouth di Torino

 

If you’re doing it The Greenhouse Tavern way, combine large quantities of these ingredients in the right proportions and pour them into an oak cask, then let it age! Experience tells you that newer and smaller casks will mellow flavors faster than larger, older ones. But it’s all about experimentation. Having a taste every once in a while is must, because you don’t want to over-age it, either.

If you don’t have an oak cask lying around at home, it’s still delicious without it…

Combine all the ingredients in a rocks glass with ice. Stir gently, adding a splash of soda, and garnish with an orange peel.

 

OYO Stone Fruit Vodka gets its wonderful flavors from stone fruits: cherries, peaches, apricots and almonds. Terrific on its own, but amazing in this recipe.

Campari is a world-famous aperitif and bitters, and a must in any decent home bar.

Cocchi Vermouth di Torino is a sweet vermouth, made in Italy from the Moscato grape.

 

Mystic, Connecticut has been a favorite day trip here in New England for years, with its charm as a historic seaport with an impressive aquarium. But over the past decade or so, food, which has never been a strong suit of this small community, has taken the forefront. There have always been the pizza joints and the fish shacks, and staples like the generic Steak Loft, but in recent years, food lovers have found Mystic to be a destination for dining alone. It’s no surprise, then, that this community, which would be busy for only 2 summer months out of the year, is now teaming with visitors year-round.

One of the best dining destinations in Mystic is The Oyster Club, (www.oysterclubct.com), a farm-and-sea-to-table establishment that features ever-changing menus based one what is truly in season at the moment. Add that to genuine creativity in the kitchen and bar, and you get a really fun and delicious dining and drinking experience often found only in larger cities.

We recently had dinner at The Oyster Club on a Saturday night, and loved it so much, we returned the next day for Sunday brunch. Neither meal disappointed.

Our friends at FireFly Farms, a certified humane farm that raises pigs, cows, chicken and ducks in nearby Stonington, Connecticut have contributed to The Oyster Club menu on occasion, including a pig roast next month. Despite that the duck wasn’t from their farm this time, it was a dish that 3 of us just couldn’t resist. Only I veered from the meat and went for a beautifully pan-sauteed black bass. And my daughter was perfectly happy with house-made tagliatelle with Bolognese. Appetizers included fresh local oysters (of course).

House-made everything bagel, cream cheese, red onion, fried capers, parsley, and smoked conger eel.

For brunch the next morning, my wife and returned to enjoy food and a few cocktails. My wife ordered a delicious frittata, while I just had to order the eyebrow-raising house-made everything bagel with cream cheese, sliced red onion, fried capers, parsley, and smoked conger eel! Yes, eel! It was fantastic! A delicious salad of apple and blue cheese rounded out our brunch.

The bar at The Oyster Club. Wish I lived closer to this place…

For drinks, I sipped on a mushroom infused bourbon cocktail called the Fun Guy…and my wife enjoyed the Downward Dog, featuring cold-brewed coffee.

Fun Guy (left) and Downward Dog (right.)

With an exterior raised deck area they call “The Treehouse” in the back, open in warmer weather, The Oyster Club is a place we will gladly return to!

 

If you’re craving sushi, ironically, the best sushi can be found across the street from the Mystic Aquarium at Johnny’s Peking Tokyo. (www.pekingtokyomystic.com) As its name implies, you’ll find Chinese and Japanese cuisine here, and everything is top-notch. It’s the best sushi between New York City and Boston.

 

And what visit to Mystic would be complete without hob-knobbing with the rich folks? The Spicer Mansion (www.spicermansion.com) is a beautifully refurbished Relais and Chateaux property, where you can dress up and sip cocktails by the fire. Join the special club here and you’ll have access to a “secret” speakeasy located in the basement! Excellent pampering service, as you’d expect.

 

 

 

 

 

It seems silly to travel all the way to Paris for a jar of mustard, but that’s exactly what we used to do. OK…we happened to be in Paris when we made the pilgrimage to the Maille mustard shop, but I couldn’t imagine a trip to the city of light without making the stop.
Back in 1747, Antoine Maille was known by many as the greatest mustard and vinegar maker of all time. He created the now-famous Maille Dijon Originale mustard in Dijon, France, and opened a shop in Paris to sell it. To this day, the company follows his strict guidelines to re-create that magic. The Maille company opened a second store, in Dijon, in 1845.
Saving us thousands of dollars in travel expenses, there are now 2 Maille mustard shops in my home town of New York City.

The supermarket stuff.

When you visit the Maille Paris shop on place de la Madeleine, you’re surrounded by beautiful displays of colorful jars of mustard. But you need to focus on the mustard taps–yes, like beer taps–at the main counter, a long oak bar where fresh mustard (no preservatives, never more than 10 days old) is dispensed into ceramic jars that are filled, corked, and wrapped in tissue paper.
Our mustard of choice is the Maille Chablis mustard, which is unlike anything I’ve ever been able to find here in the States. And though it is potent, it has a magical quality that I can’t even begin to describe.

How do I get one of these taps in my home?

While you’re standing in line for your mustard–and there is always a line–you can sample the three fresh mustards offered with a pretzel or a cracker. Aside from the Chablis mustard, there is also a grape juice and honey mustard, and a white wine mustard.
In the old days it was a sad day indeed when I opened the last jar of Maille mustard, look deep down inside, and saw that there was nothing left…just a dry residue of crusty mustard. I’d have to wait until our next trip to Paris. Now, it’s an excuse to go home to New York City and stock up!

It takes a few weeks for this limoncello recipe to be ready, so plan ahead!

Many years ago, my wife and I visited the Amalfi coast, and we spent several nights on the beautiful island of Capri. On our last night, we dined at the legendary Grand Hotel Quisisana, and our incredible meal ended with a glass of the most delicious limoncello I ever had.

I asked the waiter if it was possible to get the recipe of the limoncello, and he made a big deal about the recipe being a “secret.” Though disappointed, I understood, and I left Capri thinking that I would never taste that limoncello again.

Two weeks later, now back at home, I was reading the latest issue of Conde Nast Traveler, and there in black and white, was the Quisisana limoncello recipe! WTF?

After making many batches of this limoncello, I started experimenting with other citrus, and the most successful by far was with grapefruit. Now I make a batch of each every year. Note: the recipe calls for 100-proof vodka. Most vodka is 80-proof, so you’ll need to go to a liquor store with a better selection to find it.

 

 

Four ingredients, easy to make. The toughest part is waiting for it to mellow a bit.

 

4 lbs. lemons, zest only
2 750-ml bottles 100 proof vodka (I prefer Absolut)
5 1/2 cups sugar
6 cups filtered water

Peel the zest off all the lemons, making sure you don’t get any of the white pith that could make the limoncello bitter. Place all the zest in the bottom of a glass jar with a lid that can hold all the vodka.

Pour the vodka on top of the lemon zest pieces, seal the container, and keep at room temperature for a week, swirling the jar around gently once a day.

On the sixth day, combine the sugar and water in a pot over medium-high heat, and stir until all the sugar completely dissolves. Remove from the heat, cover, and let it thoroughly cool to room temperature (overnight is best.)

On day seven, strain the lemon zest, pouring the infused vodka into a clean glass jar. Discard the lemon zest.

Pour the sugar/water mixture into the vodka and mix well.

At this point, you can pour the finished product into individual bottles, but let it mellow for about a month before drinking.

I keep my limoncello refrigerated.

It’s all about the salt.

I fell in love with Fleur de Sel, the rare hand-raked salt, years ago. I’ve got high blood pressure, and unfortunately, I need to limit my intake of salt. So my discovery of “finishing salts” allowed me to cook completely without salt until the very end, where I can then sprinkle just a few crystals of this moist, hand-harvested miracle on my plate, enjoying every tiny burst of salty ocean flavor without a lot of guilt.

Inspired by an episode of “No Reservations” where Anthony Bourdain journeyed to Brittany, my wife and I dreamed of traveling to what is arguably the epicenter of Fleur de Sel production, the small town of Guerande, France. Located on the Atlantic coast in the Pays de La Loire region just south of Brittany, it’s about a 5-hour drive from Charles de Gaulle airport outside of Paris.

A salt flat in Guerande

 

Some of the articles we read about the medieval town of Guerande said it was too touristy, but we found that it had a lot of charm: the perfect combination of old and new, with many interesting shops and eateries inside its ancient walls. Built in the 15th century and fortified in the 19th century, the surrounding wall around Guerande is one of the best preserved in all of France.

The salt marshes outside the city walls have been around a long time…the last of them built around 1800. Salt production here declined soon after, because salt was available more cheaply from salt mines. But you gotta love foodies…the influence of chefs and food lovers around the world have brought back the demand for this very special product. Salt workers now harvest about 15,000 tons of cooking salt a year, and about 300 tons of the very precious Fleur de Sel.

 

Worth its weight in gold!

 

The process is simple: the ocean tides bring the salt water in and channel it into shallow pools where the water then evaporates, leaving behind the beautiful sea salt Guerande is known for. When just a few inches of water remain, a salty crystalized film floats on the surface of the water. This is very gently hand-raked and produces the much sought after Fleur de Sel. Traditionally only women were allowed to rake this salt because it was believed they had a gentler touch.

Driving through the salt field was a wonderful experience. The roads are narrow, and wind almost endlessly through these flat marshes where salt workers spend their days raking, gathering and then bagging their precious harvest. You can stop anywhere along the way to buy your salt directly from these salt workers, which we did. It was easy to get carried away…we brought home over 20 lbs. of salt! Of course, we shared it with friends.

 

Harvesting and selling salt in Guerande is a family affair.

 

One taste of Fleur de Sel, letting it gently melt on your tongue, and you’ll know what the big fuss is all about.

Our Fleur de Sel journey did not end in Guerande, however. After a couple of nights in that region, we headed south to the island of Ile de Re, just off the coast of La Rochelle, France. Connected by a 3km bridge, Ile de Re is a beautiful world unto itself, with an intricate network of bicycle paths that allow you to travel safely from one end of this flat island to the other, enjoying beautiful views as you ride through vineyards, salt marshes, beaches and small port towns.

As in Guerande, not only can you sample the local salt, but also the abundant supply of incredibly fresh seafood, especially their famous oysters. The salt flats seem somewhat newer in Ile de Re, but still very much a large part of the local economy. The salt itself differs in only the most subtle of ways from its Guerande counterpart and I would find it difficult to say which I liked better.

 

Ile de Re is long and flat, so many of the salt pools are larger than those in Guerande.

 

It may seem a bit silly to travel all this way for something is simple as salt. But it’s a journey I’m very happy I made…and will gladly make again.

Years ago, before Alex & Ani founder Carolyn Rafaelian bought Sakonnet Vineyards in Little Compton, its success at creating quality wine was mediocre at best.
I heard stories that the grapevines on the property were there just for show. The story goes that the land was contaminated, and they couldn’t use it for winemaking. So despite having this magnificent piece of property, just about all of their grape juice was imported from South America.
To me, that defeated the purpose of going to a local vineyard. You expect them to grow the grapes and then use those grapes to make their wine.
Fast forward years later, the property is now called Carolyn’s Sakonnet Vineyards, and their website claims that they make their wines from the grapes they grow on their land. Is this truly the case? Or is this a bunch of BS? It’s hard to really know for sure.

The tasting room is full, especially on rainy days!

That issue aside, the vineyard seems to attract a lot of tourists, especially on rainy days when there isn’t a whole heck of a lot to do in Little Compton. Sampling a variety of wines, even if they’re not really that great, is better than sitting at home and watching television.
The property also has an outdoor stage for mellow concerts when the weather is cooperating. (They were denied a permit to have a larger concert venue established on their property, because of the traffic and noise it would create. The town of Little Compton has had a bug up its ass lately…just ask the folks trying to get the historic Stone House open again.)
And there is a café, which is open seven days a week through Columbus Day…and weekends through the winter months.
That’s good to know, because there isn’t a huge choice of places to dine nearby. There’s a luncheonette and pizza joint in Little Compton Commons, and there’s a grill and sandwich place at Tiverton Four Corners. But that’s about it.
The café at Carolyn’s Sakonnet Vineyards serves up a tasty menu of freshly prepared sandwiches, flatbreads, salads and more. At a recent lunch, my daughter and I enjoyed their steamed pork dumplings as a starter. My daughter chose the Sakonnet Club, a turkey and ham sandwich on sourdough. I went with the Grilled Tuscan, which featured Genoa salami, capicola and soppressata and mozzarella on sourdough, all freshly made and grilled to melt the cheese. The table next to us had a bachelorette party, and all the gals there had different flatbreads, which looked really delicious…something to keep in mind for our next visit. Our sandwiches came with a light salad and a bag of chips on the side.
I had a glass of mediocre Albariño with my lunch, but it served its purpose.
All in all, a really nice lunch, and other things on the menu that I am looking forward to trying in the future.
I didn’t taste more than one wine at the vineyard that day, so in all fairness, I need to make a return visit for that purpose. But for me, the best wines in the area are located down the road at Westport Rivers. Although they don’t have the beautiful room and property that Carolyn’s Sakonnet Vineyard has, they more than make up for it in the quality of their wine.
I was cleaning out the pantry recently, and there, in a corner where I haven’t looked for years, was a green 5-liter jug with a plastic cap on it. It brought a smile to my face because although I haven’t seen it in many years, it reminded me of a wonderful trip my wife and I took to Italy when we were still dating.
Our first European trip together was to explore Rome, the Isle of Capri, and the Amalfi coast. We stayed at many wonderful hotels, including an old castle, and we made an effort to sample the local cuisine when possible.
At one of our stops, we walked through a small, quaint village and found a local eatery named Da Roketa (The Rocket.) As I recall, the food was homemade and fantastic, the bread to die for, and the homemade olive oil from the family’s own olive trees something you wanted to drown in.
Much to the surprise of the owners of the restaurant, we asked if we could buy their olive oil to take home to the states with us, and we somehow wound up with this massive 5-liter jug, which we carried with us throughout the rest of our trip.
Although this was after 9/11, the limitations about carrying on liquids had not yet been established, so I ducked taped the plastic cap securely, making sure there’d be no leaks, and I placed the jug in a small duffel bag, cushioned by clothing. I carried that bag right onto the plane!
But first I had to get through security…
Placing my duffel bag on the conveyor belt in Rome as we walked through the x-ray machines, one look at the security agent’s face and it was clear I was going to get pulled side.
The female agent asked me what was in the bag and I matter-of-factly told her: olive oil. She didn’t believe me, so I opened the bag for her and there was my beautiful 5-liter bottle, nestled in some “fragrant” dirty laundry. She looked at it, and her stern look morphed into a smile: “It looked like a bomb on the x-ray screen!”
I explained about the amazing food at Da Roketa, and how we were obsessed with the olive oil. She chuckled, shook her head, and let me zip it up and walk away with it.
The rest of our journey, even when we landed at customs in the United States, was uneventful.
I doubt that even now, even if I checked my luggage, I’d be allowed to bring in an un-hermetically sealed container of olive oil into the states the way I did that day.
We used that olive oil every opportunity we had, and yes, we did eventually finish it.

I get a lot of travel and food magazines, and for whatever reason, when they talk about where to stay in Providence, The Dean Hotel seems to be everybody’s new favorite. When they talk about where to get a great cocktail, The Dean is listed again. (I did notice that the cocktails article info was submitted by someone who has a financial part in the operation of the hotel…a bit suspicious.)

But, nonetheless, I decided it was time for me to check it out for myself.

Those of us that have been in Rhode Island for some time might remember what was previously at The Dean’s address back in the day: the legendary Sportsman’s Inn, a roach-infested whorehouse, to put it plainly. As as one reviewer put it: “Don’t go there without antibiotics!”

So The Dean is a serious improvement! I was told that to keep its historical value, The Dean had to leave the tiny hotel rooms exactly the same size as they were before. The result is a very cozy room that is clean and modern…just really small…as is the bathroom. But it’s got everything you would need to spend the night here, no complaints.

My small but very clean room at The Dean.

 

The Dean has many of the amenities you’re looking for in a nice city hotel: valet parking, a coffee shop (Bolt Coffee) for your morning wake-up, a very good cocktail lounge (The Magdalenae Room), a restaurant (Faust) and Boombox, a karaoke bar. Okay…in all honesty, I was glad to hear that the German food of Faust is being replaced this fall with the truly creative food of one of Providence’s best: north. (www.foodbynorth.com) And as long as I don’t have to hear the karaoke bar when I’m trying to sleep, I can deal with that.

I had dinner elsewhere in town the night I stayed at The Dean. (Faust was already closed.) But I did stop by to have a cocktail–or three–at The Magdalenae Room. The choice of spirits is limited, but the essentials are there. A nice chat with the bartender who knew his drinks and knew his way around Providence. Even someone like me that has lived here for almost 30 years learned a few things! (Was it the best crafted cocktail in Providence? That honor still remains with The Eddy.)

All in all, my experience at The Dean was a good one. I don’t know if it deserves all the attention it’s been getting in those magazine articles I’ve read, however. But it’s clean, it’s not expensive, and when north opens up, it can very much be an ideal one-stop in Providence.

Every other year, the Master Gardeners of the University of Rhode Island host “Gardening with the Masters,” a tour which showcases over 2 dozen home gardens. Some big, some small, these gardens are the passion and obsession of 26 Master Gardeners in Rhode Island and nearby Connecticut.  This year, 14 gardens on the tour have never been on the tour before…including mine!

The Gardening with the Masters tour happens from 10AM to 4PM on June 24 and 25, rain or shine, so make plans to visit our area and get some great ideas and tips for your own home garden.

You’ve just got 2 weeks to buy your tickets online!

Your ticket to the event is a booklet that lists all the gardens on the tour, along with maps that help you get to each location. Tickets are $20 (good for both days) and can be purchased at: www.uri.edu/mastergardener up to June 15. They will be mailed out. Call 401-874-2900 for details.

I gave my garden the title of “Space, the Final Frontier,” because my particular garden challenges include managing an almost 2-acre yard backed by 6 acres of forest and protected wetlands. You’ll see stands of bamboo, fruit trees, native plants, a vegetable and herb garden, a greenhouse, and my wife’s art studio (http://farmcoast.com/blog/tag/bow-house-studio/) will be open to the public that weekend as well. We’re right down the road from historic Tiverton Four Corners, featuring shops, art galleries and restaurants.

URI Master Gardeners (and others who know their stuff) will be on site to answer questions about plants, composting, and good gardening practices.

Ask questions, bring your camera, bring a picnic lunch, take notes, but most importantly enjoy the beauty created in these gardens!

My garden and yard is accessible for the handicapped in most areas.