Riesling from Traben-Trarbach… and words fail me!

Was du heute kannst entkorken,
das verschiebe nicht auf morgen!

Never put off till tomorrow
what you can uncork today!

There is a wine region defined by a snake-like river – dark and shiny – twisting through deep green forest and fresh green vineyards. The houses of a little, picturesque town remind partly of Alsace and Southern Germany for they tend to be half-timbered, and partly of Britain for their charming greyish or brownish stone.

IMG_0389This romantic description refers to the valley of Moselle, in German Mosel, after which the wine region is named. Mosel, possibly the best known (and still too little!) German wine region, stretches from the border with Luxembourg to the city of Koblenz, where Moselle flows into the Rhine.

In the old town of Traben-Trarbach – once a thriving wine commerce hub – I’ve discovered the wines of Martin Müllen. He’s numbered among the best winemakers in the region and as a matter of fact he made it to the great World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, though he barely spends time for all that networking and marketing stuff one could perceive as necessary for a successful winemaker. The quality speaks for itself.

IMG_0460Here, like in many other parts of Germany, the dominating variety is Riesling, which once ennobled the local wine making. Up to the end of 19th century, some of the Mosel Rieslings enjoyed fame comparable with celebrated Bordeaux reds. The two devastating World Wars and following developments resulted in a decline in quality and so Germany started to be associated with easy-going semi-sweet whites like Blue Nun. From the 1980s on, this has almost ruined its reputation as consumer preferences shifted. Since then the quality dramatically improved and the valley of Mosel offers us again some of the most splendid white wines in the world. Though, prices remain relatively low and a great value for money is what results from this – surely not long lasting – situation.

Mr. Müllen was among those young winemakers who tried to reverse that degrading development and regain the old good reputation for the Mosel wines. He has been even called a ‘fundamentalist’ for his attempts to bring terroir-driven wines back to the region. In his winery, gentle more than hundred-year-old presses ensure that grapes have an opportunity to express their true character, and they are given lots of time to do that. As little technical intervention as possible is Mr. Müllen’s principle. Furthermore, for a decade, he has also helped to preserve the steep slopes of Traben-Trarbach, a unique cultural heritage but also a telling example of biodiversity uniting wild and cultivated species.

IMG_0354Last summer, I had an opportunity to try several of Martin Müllen’s wines and, dear me, there was not even one I disliked or found mediocre. It is also incredible what a great aging potential Riesling might have! I fell for 2008 Trarbacher Hühnerberg Riesling’s charm, a dry masterpiece of a lovely opulence, balanced acidity and light black currant notes (!), which are going to become more intense with time. Unforgettable were all Late Harvest wines (German: Spätlese): the 2012 Kröver Paradies, which was defined as fruchtsüß, that is fruity-sweet, and elegantly united the delicate sweetness with freshness; the 2012 Trarbacher Hühnerberg Riesling Spätlese – a feinherb (≈ off-dry) creation reminding of candy and matching red meat or game, a result of long pressing process (decent tannins from skins) and maturation in wood; and the 2005 Trabener Würzgarten Riesling Spätlese – another masterpiece uniting sweetness and acidity, containing distinct black currant notes, so seductive! The last Late Harvest beauty was the feinherb 2011 Kröver Letterlay Riesling Spätlese, which proved to be truly vigorous and as such was paired with roe venison goulash and spätzle with Mirabelle plums. The long degustation (I have not named even a half of the wines) finished with 2003 Kröver Paradies Riesling Auslese “Abbi,” served together with plum strudel. The 2003 vintage offered at the Mosel overripe grapes, which produced wine perfect for long aging. This one was creamy, dominated by the aroma of ripe strawberries, and manifested smart noble rot character.

Traben-Trarbach was where I have heard for the first time a twisted version of an old German proverb: Was du heute kannst besorgen, das verschiebe nicht auf morgen (Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today) with the verb uncork in exchange for do: Was du heute kannst entkorken, das verschiebe nicht auf morgen (Never put off till tomorrow what you can uncork today). Dear wine-lovers, following these wise words: cheers!

Xinomavro, 2010 Single Vineyard ‘Hedgehog’, Alpha Estate, Amyndeon, Greece

After Malagousia, Xinomavro (Greek Ξινόμαυρο) is another autochthonous Greek grape variety that I would like to present. Its very name means literally “sour black” – “mavro” standing for black, exactly like in the name of another Greek variety: Mavrodaphne (Greek Μαυροδάφνη), meaning “black laurel”. Dark as it might be, the perception of colors in the Hellenic culture generally leaves much to be desired. In the “Odyssey,” Homer described sea as wine-dark. In fact, there is no term for blue in the ancient Greek (neither in some further languages). IMG_1485Black like the Aegean Sea or not, Xinomavro, especially when young, might surely appear to many palates as too acidic. At the same time, the high acidity and tannins, combined with phenolic opulence, give it both great structure and potential for aging. Unlike in the case of its charming Malagousia, Alpha Estate uses the Appellation of Superior Quality, or Ονομασίας Προελεύσεως Ανωτέρας Ποιότητος (ΟΠΑΠ), for its “sour black” wine. The appellation of Amyndeon (also Amyndeo or Amyntaio) was created in 1971 for wines from the Xinomavro grape: whether red, rose or sparkling. In order to qualify, red must content at least 85% Xinomavro. To soften this somehow wild variety, Merlot is often used, but many purists consider it a sacrilege to dilute their noble “sour black,” and also Alpha Estate seems to share this point of view. In my glass, I found wine of purple color, with beautiful deep-violet reflexes, and of that blood-like acidity I have already loved so much in Terran and Refosco. Surely a wine of complex aromas, its bouquet of red berries, leather and spices was unfolding, with vegetal notes bringing to mind ripe black olives. Balanced, although at this age still with austere traits, not too alcoholic (13,5% ABV), and with long charming aftertaste, this wine showed the same imperialist tendencies as its compatriot, Alexander the Great – it takes possession of you.

Papa dei Boschi – a nougat crème of superior quality

Italy is home to rich culinary traditions and Piedmont might be – along with Tuscany – this corner of the country where wine and food are best. The region happened also to be among the finest chocolate producers, although an average consumer might think first of Belgium and Switzerland. Though, it is where Nutella comes from!

The first cocoa beans arrived to Piedmont from Spain as early as in the 16th century. The maestri cioccolatieri of Turin had been tempting the locals with their splendid creations for centuries, until a need led to an invention of something completely new. At the beginning of the 19th century, when a large part of Europe was under French occupation, Napoleon forbade the import of cocoa beans to Italy. The carnival was starting and Turin remained with way too little cocoa to produce enough chocolate. The maestri cioccolatieri couldn’t help but extend their product. Fortunately they decided to do it with a noble ingredient, which one can still find in Piedmont in abundance: hazelnuts. Nowadays, the Piedmontese hazelnuts enjoy even an I.G.P. status (indicazione geografica protetta = protected geographical indication) and are considered the best ones in Europe. The invented product was called gianduia, after Gianduja, which is one of the masks in the Italian Commedia dell’Arte and traditionally represents Turin and Piedmont in general. In Germany, where I live, gianduia is usually called nougat, which might lead to confusion with white nougat (torrone, turrón).

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As many inventions of times of crisis, gianduia becomes a specialty. In 1852, the ‘Caffarel’ company invents small pralines, in form of triangular prisms, called gianduiotti – still an unchallengeable souvenir from Turin. ‘Caffarel’ continues to prosper, although sold to the Swiss – the recipe has allegedly never changed. Nutella is basically a gianduia spread and its name before entering the international market was Pasta Giandujot.

Considering the quality of many chocolate-hazelnut spreads, I believed Nutella to be superior to all its peers. And as a matter of fact, for being an industrial product, it truly is an awesome treat.

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Though, there is an artisan version of gianduia crème too. I have discovered it during the biggest cheese festival worldwide – the Slow Food ‘Cheese’ in Bra, organized every second year. And bless my soul, I have never eaten anything better! This crème is more liquid than Nutella, but is produced without any fats added. Its creaminess is all-natural and derives from hazelnuts, exclusively the Piedmont’s I.G.P. hazelnuts 🙂 The family uses cocoa from Central and South America. What’s more, there is not a single preservative or flavor added. There is real Bourbon vanilla inside – such a rare thing nowadays!

As I tried it for the first time, I had to define this product for myself and I described it as a noble Nutella… While the latter contains 13% of hazelnuts, Crema di Nocciole by ‘Papa dei Boschi’ has no less than 55% (!). All ingredients are organic, so every Slow Food fan or other gourmet can only close her eyes and enjoy, enjoy… enjoy!

Ajvar – because there is a Balkan cuisine

Vague terms, generalizations, stereotypes that shift a lot of beautiful diversity on this world into obscurity, an ignorance cherished by everyone in some realms of live. Who doesn’t know them?! Designations like African, Slavic, Arabic, Asian usually don’t say anything. This is why I wished to speak about Serbian cuisine but need to revise this concept now. A Serbian friend of mine told me once that there is nothing like Serbian cuisine for him. Yes, there are regional cuisines in Serbia, with their traditions and specialties. However the next level will be already the Balkan one. The history of the region, shared by the majority of the area for several centuries, led to a common cultural heritage, visible as soon as we enter local kitchens. As a part of one empire for al least three to four centuries, Balkan people were learning from each other; their ideas spread, cultures shared their achievements. There is a spectrum of products, which you can find only here but at the same time in almost every corner of the peninsula. Think of feta-like cheese, rakija, kebab, sujuk sausage, shopska salad, ljutenica, stuffed paprika, kofta meatballs, börek, sarma, pita, baklava, and dozens more. So as a mater of fact, to a big extent, I need to agree with his point of view.

Here you go – one example of Serbian specialty, which is in fact known in the whole Balkan area: AJVAR. In my opinion, this is one of the best products of the Balkans and this one is indeed originally from Serbia, from where it later spread over the peninsula.

Ajvar is a word derived from Turkish though. It comes from ‘havyar’, which is salted roe and so the term ajvar shares its origin with the word ‘caviar’.

So what is the magnificent product bearing such an oriental name? We could probably talk about a relish based on red bell peppers, which are roasted and peeled, before the are blended or chopped and mixed with onion, salt, sunflower oil, vinegar, and sometimes also eggplants, treated as the peppers. As it’s a very simple product, its quality is dependent first of all on the aroma of peppers, which luckily feel in the region much at home since half a millennium.

Peppers were brought to Europe by Columbus. The plant soon conquered the stomachs of the whole Southern Europe, reaching Balkan very early, probably already in the 16th century. It is also from where it entered the Hungarian, and later also Austrian cuisines. In the northern countries of the continent, like Germany and Poland it basically remained unknown until the 20th century.

Here, in Serbia, the region, which is particularly famous for its red bell pepper, is the southeastern part of the country, around the city of Leskovac. Accordingly, also the best ajvar comes from there.

The relish is used as bread spread or as a side dish, but in my opinion it might be paired almost with everything. I add some to many pasta sauces, put it on ham, especially pečenica, or baked potatoes with horsemeat sausage, and even enjoy a layer of ajvar on bread with kajmak.

The best ajvar is the home made one that you can buy here from old ladies at pijaca, kind of farmers’ market, a true treasury of Balkan flavors and aromas. This is not surprising, of course. But there are also plenty of companies offering excellent products too. I had delicious ‘Leskovački cepkani ajvar’ (Chopped ajvar from Leckovac) from ‘Strela’ or ‘Domaći ajvar od pečene parpike’ (Homemade-like ajvar from roasted peppers) from ‘Zdravo’, which is organic. Basically everything is good if not from mass production, which offers low prices and the same low quality.

Slatko – a Serbian comfiture from little-known fruits

There are many variations of the traditional sweet and dense fruit product, of which marmalade is just the best known. There is jam, comfiture, powidl, jelly, and there is also slatko. The latter is a Serbian specialty, used also in Bulgarian, Greek and Jewish cuisines. It means literally ‘sweet’, and is traditionally served on a small plate, with a spoon and a glass of water. Such was usually the first part of the ceremony of taking in guests. The consistence of slatko makes it also perfect for being mixed with yogurt, muesli, and tea (Russian tradition), or poured over ice cream. The difference to many other comfiture-like products is the preparation process: sugar is cooked to syrup, the whole or chopped fruit added in the very end.

The most popular fruits used for slatko in Serbia are wood strawberries, plums, quinces, tart cherries, figs, blueberries and blackberries. These are mostly common tastes, with exception of wood strawberries and quince, to which I want to pay more attention.

My love to the wood strawberries is endless and even more so as they are a rarity – not cultivated, always locally and seasonally consumed, hardly known in many European countries, not to mention overseas. Who doesn’t know the seducing smell of fresh strawberries? True, the ones from supermarkets rarely smell, but those from our gardens or farmers’ markets do! Then imagine the same fruit – just smaller, with its sugars and aromas concentrated, growing in the half-shadow of forests, especially in the mountains. This is for me a smell from the childhood, and a taste of better, more natural and fragrant strawberry – a wild one! Slatko is one of few products that make it possible to enjoy these pleasures also out of season, and in the regions where you will never find wood strawberries.

Another story is quince, called in Serbian dunja, which almost disappeared from modern Polish and German cuisines, but enjoys its old position on the tables in Serbia, Italy, or Spain. In the latter two countries, there is cotognata (Italian) or dulce/carne de membrillo (Spanish) produced, which are basically the same and could be described as a very thick jelly, to be wonderfully combined with cheese, croissants, toasted bread, or just plain without anything else – served in a Japanese-like minimalist way, in slices on white rectangular plates. In Serbia, one of the most valued rakijas (Serbian spirit) – the famous dunjevača – is produced from quinces. My favorite brand of slatko – ‘Bakina tajna’ (Grandma’s secret) by Foodland, which offers awesome, mostly organic stuff without any colorants or preservatives – adds to its quince slatko chopped walnuts. All in all a very fine composition of tastes!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Heidi Grand’Or Florentine – the spectacular chocolate from Romania

Some short sweet recommendation. This is a great chocolate and one of my favorite ones. It’s a Romanian brand but looks like on a Swiss license. The website refers all the time to the “Läderach – chocolatier suisse”, but both Heidi’s office and the whole production process are in Romania.

The brand offers a broad range of products – only the Grand’Or collection consists of nine different flavors. I’ve tried several of them and they are all good, without any doubts, but my favorite remains the ‘Florentine’ one. The obvious reason might be my love for that mysterious crunchy layer of almond flakes in caramel. This old sweet, simple but fantastic in taste, is known under several names: in French it’s called praliné or pralinoise (Julia Child’s book offer a nice recipe), in Italian it would be croccante. But the name of the chocolate is derived from the Florentine biscuit, which is a cookie with two layers – the chocolate one on the bottom and a caramel one on the top, whereas there are nuts or dried/candid fruits in the caramel. Mmm, this reminds me of another specialty: the Jewish-Polish magagigi cookies, which are basically the same, but much bigger 🙂 But it’s a topic for another post…

So, in the tradition of the Florentine cookies, the Heidi’s product combines a very nice praliné/croccante with a high quality chocolate. I wish you poftă bună (in Romanian) or bon appetite!

 

 

 

Pizza – more on fast food in Serbia

There are several good things I want to write about pizza in Belgrade. This may be useful to anybody who will visit the Serbian capital. Obviously, there is no need of describing preparation and flavors – they tend to be similar to the Italian original.

As in many other countries, you can buy here pizza by pieces. Still, pieces are here big and I mean really big. Actually, usually they mean a quarter of a whole pizza. If it’s smaller, you will pay accordingly less. And the price is almost symbolic – around 1-1,2€ apiece. Then, the quality is high, or at least it tastes like that. Good dough, nice ingredients, very often some Serbian meat specialty: kulen (pork sausage with pepperoni), pršut (similar to prosciutto) or sudžuk (dry spicy sausage, usually from beef). Here you are, big pieces, good price, great taste… and available on every corner, also at night 🙂