italyresto.jpgOpen and become a part owner in a restaurant in Italy?  Sure, why not?  That’s exactly what happened several years ago when chef Jeremiah Tower and I decided to try our hand at operating a ristorante in a small hill town in Umbria, Italy.  What no one tells you before you arrive to attempt such an endeavor are the hoops you must jump through, and the circus-type feats you must attempt to get the necessary licenses and permits to start a business in Italy as a foreigner.  Madonna! It was like trying to squeeze olive oil out of Cararra marble.  Endless meetings with lawyers, police chiefs, and building inspectors and we still didn’t have the necessary permits and documentation to operate a business. 

It all started in 2003 while on a three week trip to southern France and Italy.  Italian friends told us about a small restaurant where the owner of the property (a small hotel along with the restaurant) was looking for a chef to become a part owner in the restaurant.  Ristorante Carleni was located in Amelia, a small hill town in Umbria not too far from the well-known town of Todi, and relatively close to the A1 auto route.  The A1 connects Rome to Florence and is heavily traveled.  We looked at the restaurant and were intrigued.  We initially thought that we might operate it on a seasonal basis opening in the spring and closing in the fall.  We went back to try it out in the spring of 2004.  After much effort and hand wringing we both decided that there were far too many roadblocks and difficulties, and opted not to proceed with the project.  But this post isn’t really about the restaurant, it’s about beans.

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sonomawildflowersThirty miles from San Francisco, Sonoma County is one of the world's great destinations. With beautiful farmland, a dramatic coastline, fields of wild flowers, world-class wineries and upscale restaurants, the valley offers travelers, especially oenophiles and foodies, the best of the best.

My wife and I needed some serious R&R. We wanted a trip somewhere casual, where we wouldn't get stuck in traffic jams, could enjoy beautiful countryside, have some good meals and do a bit of wine tasting. So we put our suitcases in the car with a plan to explore Sonoma County, from the inland wine growing valleys to the coast. There is nothing like a road trip to clean out the cob webs and refresh the soul.

Driving on Sonoma County's two-lane black-tops in summer, the sun owns the sky, shining down on well-tended fields and big-sky landscape. Mustard flowers blanket the fields, corn grows tall, the vines are fat with ripening grapes and cattle stroll lazily across green pastures in search of shade.

Largely agricultural, mom and pop businesses are much more common in Sonoma than in Napa, which is dominated by wealthy investors and large corporations. The 200 wineries along Route 12 and Highway 101--near the towns of Schellville, Sonoma, Glen Ellen, Kenwood, Sebastopol, Graton, Forestville, Fulton, Windsor, Healdsburg and Geyserville--are family run, for the most part.

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ImageNorcia is a secluded, walled city in the mountainous region of the Valnerina in southeastern Umbria. Its history dates back to the fifth century before Christ. St. Benedict and his twin sister were born there in the year 480. Other than that, Norcia is famous for its pork products and its black truffles. It’s the pork capital of Italy – so much so that the shop of a pork butcher anywhere in Italy is called a norcineria.

There are two very different pasta dishes that go by the name alla norcina. Version one — often made with fresh pasta like fettucine or the local Umbrian pasta, strangozzi – is simply pasta with fresh truffle grated over the top. Of course, it’s not that simple. Actually you chop a clove of garlic together with a couple of anchovies, put them into olive oil in your pan. Heat and stir into a paste. Toss the cooked pasta into the pan, stir and then grate the truffle over the top. That’s one version. Alla Norcina version two is a whole other kettle of macaroni. It’s generally served over dried pasta – usually penne or rigatoni. It features pork sausage and it’s one of the most satisfying recipes in the repertorio – especially in the winter when you want to warm yourself from the inside. So simply, it’s pasta with crumbled sausage, cream and truffles. But once again, it’s not that simple.

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burmatempleI'm just back from Myanmar and it is a jeweled kaleidoscope. Aung San Suu Kyi has finally been released from house arrest to accept her Nobel peace prize. The repressive Myanmar government has begun to open the doors and this corner of the wiggly third world is trying to hoist itself into the twenty first century.

I had timed my arrival for a full moon Buddha night and as soon as I had settled into the hotel I headed straight to the mother of all temples, the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda. I'm sure someone said it first, but its true that some metaphors just can't be improved upon. Time really IS like a river, and life is like a dream.

On this particular night the moon was a golden orange in the sky. I had a gentle rain to set the mood as I climbed the staircase to the temple with the monks in saffron robes. I got that familiar little rush of anticipation as I entered the magical world of spirits and wishes and prayers. There were candles and chanting and bells to ring and the aroma of incense perfumed the air.

It’s funny that a kid from the suburbs should feel most at home in the temples of Asia, but it’s true for me. The rain washed my sins away and left me feeling immaculate. I lingered a long time in the temple and all its little golden niches, savoring the heady atmosphere. I descended the stairway behind a group of monks in the amber light and stopped at the bottom for a coconut on my way home.

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ladies_market_hong_kong.jpgCruising Hong Kong’s street markets is a savvy shopper’s dream come true.  Fashion hounds can score bagsful of famous label clothing copies, counterfeit leather accessories, faux pearl necklaces, and fake jade gewgaws.  Gadget buyers gravitate to stalls overflowing with cameras, watches, and electronic gizmos.  On a recent ramble through a bustling night bazaar, none of the above were on my list.  I was seeking a somewhat more authentic trinket.  Snakes.

Some cultures regard serpents with fear and loathing.  Not the Chinese.  A person born in the Year of the Snake is considered wise and cunning.  Able to slip in and out of tight situations with ease.  A formidable foe and a staunch ally.  Cool, calm and collected.  Strikingly beautiful.  Exotic.  Sensuous.  If one is not fortunate enough to be born in the lucky year, there’s an alternative way to pick up a little snake essence.  You can eat them.

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