Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Slow Food Slacks?!

I’ll take the liberty of using my blog also to express an opinion I feel deeply about…SLOW FOOD...and the degeneration of this organization or contortion of it if you will.

My husband and I love to eat at good restaurants. Not necessarily pricey ones - we certainly appreciate good value within fair parameters of good food not being cheap. It’s sort of our hobby when we’re not busy visiting wineries (hard life!). I consider both occupational hazards – LOL!
My husband thinks I’m a bit snooty when it comes to my personal approval of restaurants or simply foods not home-made. I’m well known for taking my time selecting a place to eat until all others are too hungry to stand me any longer! Hence nowadays I usually plan ahead and use the Slow Food guide when in Italy. Lately Tripadvisor is another great source in most of Europe.
Contrary to what my husband probably considers me to be I, on the other hand, like to think of myself as selective and non-acceptant of low standards below what I believe to be of a sensible eater’s acceptance - whether it comes to ambience, menu style, food quality, prepping, cooking or taste of the food, service, and pricing or often just cleanliness and hygiene…my analytical eye browses every restaurant I go to and finds the weak spots within moments. My husband does the same with wines and wineries, so I suppose we’re equal J

Let me get down to the point of this post!
I used to be a big Slow Food fan.
Slow Food was an idea that started in Italy thanks to a man called Carlo Petrini, somewhat of a revolutionist in his anti-global vision of food which was taking a global turn in the mid 80’ies when Petrini started his organization. In my simple understanding the ground rules of Slow Food are to eat as much as possible local, seasonal and prepped from scratch. Something that the Italians have been pretty good at doing so far, with exception of a few infiltrations of standardized chain restaurants (either Italian or International – commonly found in Italy are McDonalds or Burger King amongst a few others). Italians are by my feeling still one of the strongest food cultures in Europe hanging on to their own traditional ways and foods, even though the culture is slowly starting to vanish with the new generations that by lack of time turn to convenient solutions. So here I am embracing Carlo Petrini and his philosophy – I’m sucking it all to me, tenfold! Slow Food does all sorts of great things making people more aware of what they eat and why and giving small local foodstuffs space and awareness about them. This is all a great noble thing that also has become a massive business, but so far that’s understandable.

Had you met me 5-10 yrs ago I would have praised this organization to the skies…
Now I’m not so sure anymore. I still love the philosophy, but the organization (which is non profit, I believe) leaves me very perplexed.

Well, first of all I know the slow food story from both sides – as a consumer and as a provider. We own a restaurant which thanks to certain connections got admitted into the slow food guide for Italian restaurants already in its second year of life. Then, thanks to interrupted connections, the next year the restaurant was omitted! That’s when it started to dawn upon us how subjective political it all was…
However, not for this reason did I leave my faith – I’ve still been buying the restaurant and wine guide and followed it on any trip to anche area I'm unfamiliar with.
The organization doesn’t just list local foods & growers & restaurants in an equal fair way, it also rates them and crowns them with special prizes so it becomes commercially interesting for restaurants and producers to emerge this way… And somehow some are selected to be included in the list and others not.
Here are my top negative comments about the SLOW FOOD:

I have strong reason to state that the Slow Food organization is driven by volunteers who have subjective favorites. Slow Food’s own recommendations of restaurants in Italy are given by volunteer delegates of the organization that will be flattered and well treated (not pay for dinners, etc.) by certain restaurateurs that often have become “friends”. This is a well-known fact within the business. I’ve started to talk more openly with other restaurant owners or foodstuff producers who’ve admitted to my own perplexities in this regard.
The initial philosophy was to preserve tradition and small family business - which I'm a super fan - has often become a selection that is friend-based or favor-based - and that totally sucks for the visitor who's looking for an objective great choice. Sometimes I'm flabbergasted over restaurants (or wines) admitted and raved about in the guidebooks.

Often restaurants suck up to the Slow Food organization to get recognized - like a farm would convert to organic agriculture to use the term on the label; it’s cool and it sells tables in the Italian restaurant industry (or wines for the wineries "Slow Wine" or produce for the growers "Slow Food Presidio"). So besides being a noble thought, it's a great economic philosophy to adopt – so basically could be a pure marketing strategy.

While I often follow the restaurant guide "Osterie d'Italia" in areas I’m not familiar with (even locally), I find many Slow Food recommended restaurants to be completely pretentious towards the customer as if they are doing the customer some huge favor of just being there for them, as if we were unpaying guests in their dining room. Often they have statements posted already on the outside of their restaurants (if not that obviously, then on their menus) that e.g. they don’t accept credit cards. Ok, so are their businesses in such an anarchical state that they are exempt of paying taxes?! In others it is stated not to use cell phones. That would’ve been cool 15 yrs ago, but nowadays if I’m out at dinner and my babysitter calls I want to be reachable. As a business owner I need to be reachable, too. I feel like a certain freedom of being the client is swept away under my feet and I have to obey to the restaurant owner's rules.
Often I've run into a statement that cappuccino or coca cola will not be served. If someone wants to end their meal (or have their meal) with a cappuccino - it's a personal choice, no? I mean, come on! (I wouldn't drink either during a meal, but that's my preference)
Whilst these things and others are no no's, at the same time it's totally ok for the any person within the restaurant to leave the fellow eaters at the table, slide outside and smoke at least 10 cigarettes during their meal (often joined by kitchen staff or owners themselves while in service). You must be kidding me!
Other statements may include how organic the restaurant is, 0 km and sustainable and no carbon trace…all really nice words…but absolutely no exact proof is ever really given. As I know some restaurants like this that claim to be e.g. organic (not that organic restaurants actually exist by standards of certification) – so often a long blabla of b*llsh*t to make us think it’s all so incredibly authentic whereas in reality most of the restaurants alike buy a lot of their foods from big distributors as in reality they can’t afford otherwise (believe me, I'm a firsthand witness!)

(extract from menu from Slow Food restaurant visited a short time ago)

All in all, often I find companies that claim the Slow Food philosophy to their name to be commercial opportunists wrapped in self-righteous political strategy with an extremist dictating nature – a pure pit hole that too many of us fall into because lack of background knowledge about what could have been a wonderful romantic way of eating and living, but has become a way of making money and often fooling the masses.

Essentially I find Slow Food to be a noble thought. And I still would embrace it entirely if it hadn’t been for the organization becoming this commercial cult I’ve painted to you above. Maybe that’s an inevitable evolution of a bright idea spread to the masses?
As mentioned, I’m in the restaurant business myself, but I mainly consider myself a client. I want to fit my food like people critically fit clothes – 10 pairs even before they buy maybe one pair. We can’t try on food, but we should be able to rely on other sources to do it for us – and I just want it to be 100% true.
After touching grounds with Slow Food these past many years, I now much prefer the opinion of the laymen – the paying visitors - that are unbiased and base their reviews and opinions upon personal experience be it for the good or for the bad.

Slow Food'ists – shape it up!

(I was such a big fan that I even made my daughter draw the Slow Food snail - one of the first things she could draw!)

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Unhappy versus happy vineyards

This post is inspired by the wake-up of spring and the joy of seeing those vineyards around us sprouting with their new life - the beginning of what will be the 2014 vintage. 
Simultaneously this post is to express the sadness with which we watch some farmers still manage their vineyards with chemicals (often forced by low prices on wine market). So here's an awakening call to those of you who haven't noticed this before.
Vineyards are man-made and must be managed according to climate, soil, philosophy and ultimately (but often most importantly) economy. They can either be managed mechanically or chemically (or a mix of both). There are various degrees of managing a vineyard chemically, and we are talking everything from herbicides to fungicides and pesticides (either systemic or by contact). The latter escape the human eye, but the first is evident especially in spring when grass starts to grow alongside the vines. This is when the chemical treatments are evident to the eye. 
There are mainly 2 kinds of herbicides: 
1) that prevents greenery from germinating in the first place (in this case the vineyard looks dry - like e.g. in the first picture).
2) the second kind (and the most famous of which is Roundup by Monsanto) is active against developing weeds (the other 4 pics in "unhappy" vineyards) and then it looks like the greenery around the roots of the plants are simply dried out or burnt by the sun (which is obviously not the case in a cool & wet month like April).
The main reason for choosing herbicides and other chemical treatments in the vineyard is economical (sometimes also heavily influenced by climate). Basically, it would be fair to say that the cost is reduced 3 or 4 times compared to an organic vineyard.

"Unhappy" vineyards:

So next time you visit a wine region in the spring, I want you to go beyond the beauty of the vineyard scenery and how neat it looks. Often, if it looks a bit messy, it's actually better as it could be a sign of it being managed organically or with mechanical weed management. Take a look at the pictures below and try to notice the difference!

"Happy" vineyards:

You can see weeds being left to grow, they are then cut, left to dry and worked back into the soil usually with the use of tractors. Sometimes specific cultivars can be grown as for example the picture just above where you see the Favino grown in every second row. It's a sort of bean belonging to the family of Fava that will add nitrogen to the soil after it's cut and tilted back into soil.
It's also possible to use a device on a tractor to cut the grass in between the vines and to tilt the soil there, but it requires much work and sometimes a vine is accidentally cut. So to sum up, much much more work, but the result in the long run is a soil which is alive and full of essential microorganisms to the vine (amongst which yeasts that will transport food to the roots), and above the soil these different flowers and herbs may attract a diverse universe of insects that could have an impact on the balance of the vine.

Chemicals in vineyards are much reduced compared to a few decades ago, but we could still improve...
How can we as consumers improve the methods of agriculture:
1) know the producer you buy wine from and enquire about practices (sometimes marked as organic, but often times not because of bureaucratic obstacles)
2) if the wine is real cheap, so is the method for producing it
3) by drinking cheap wine you encourage pollution of the water, so take responsibility of a green Earth and drink better wines!

A friendly reminder: all the wines we offer from small wineries around Tuscany are made from happy vineyards: www.tuscany-in-a-bottle.com

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sticky Stuff in Montalcino

The village of Montalcino is rightfully famous for Brunello. If you visit the village you'll notice the town celebrating its notorious wine thanks to which it has flourished from a poor medieval village to one of the most important wine villages in Italy. Montalcino counts more wine shops than any other village I know of in Tuscany - so the wine theme can't escape you.
But if you look really close in those shops you may also find a selection of local honey production. In fact, Montalcino is officially a Town of Honey (Città del Miele) and a yearly honey-festival inside the fortress of Montalcino in September displays all the different products that derive from the bee-keepers.

In medieval Europe sugar was really expensive, so honey was the most common sweetener. Today the situation has reversed which is a shame because honey also reserves us health benefits that refined sugar doesn't.

Each hive is populated with an average of 25.000 bees. The queen lies eggs her whole life while other females look after the larvae as they hatch and feed them nectar & pollen that other females again go gather in flowers surrounding the hive. They don't fly too far from the hive and navigate by the sun.
The males role is to fertilize eggs - that's all!

This shows before and after; the larger is a clean plate before it is put into a hive - and the smaller one displays all the work done by the bees.

Bee pollen is recommend as an energizer and to avoid allergies (and much more) - a spoon a day - and just think it takes one bee a month of 8 hr work days to collect that spoonful.

Propolis is also extracted and is hard at room temperature. It will liquify by heating and alcohol is added to keep it in liquid form and is used against colds.

Bees wax is scraped off plates and they are inserted in round stainless steel vat in the background.

The stainless steel vat will swing round in circles and by force of gravity the honey will flow to the bottom.

What is so neat about these honeys is that they are often jarred as a monovarietal - so min 60% of the nectar coming from a specific flower. The bee-hive is simply placed in an area with a majority of one kind of flower as for example rosemary.

You'll also find lavender, thyme, sunflower, heather, clover, acacia, chestnut, honeydew, strawberry tree (corbezzolo) and more...

Each one is more or less intense yellow-orange color and also can have different consistency (solid versus liquid). And more importantly, they taste differently - some are sweeter than others - some more floral and others more fruity. Chestnut honey is rather bitter but a great accompaniment on top of Tuscan pecorino cheese.
On a side note, each kind of honey has health benefits varying from anti-bacteral, anti-fungal, preventing cancer and heart disease, reducing ulcers and gastrointestinal diseases, etc.

We taste honeys on our Montalcino wine & food tour on Fridays from Siena! Or you can taste them at our wine school in Siena!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Happy Anniversary - the first decade!

Wow! Tuscan Wine Tours has now been around for 10 years! I can't believe it!
Here's a brief chronology of most important events!

- After half a decade of working in a Florence wine bar/ restaurant called Enoteca Baldovino, I ventured as a wine distributor and created my own little company that I called Vinalità (Winality). Venturing into a business that I hardly knew was exciting but also frustrating, especially when I discovered what bad payers restaurants are around here - ha ha!
- One day I met wonderful Bob & Sally from BC at a winery and before I knew it we were touring around to some wineries I knew. It was so much fun that the first next step was registering the site www.tuscan-wine-tours.com (later officially trademarked in 2006).

The very first home-made logo:

- A crazy busy time of building up the business and figuring out the (complex) Italian ways. What a period of learning and determination! Meeting of wonderful people from around the world and establishing relationships with some of Tuscany's best small wineries.
- Still selling wines from same small wineries, but now to wine lovers around the World: www.tuscany-in-a-bottle.com.

Loving the wine jumping photos!

- Opening of Restaurant Officina della Cucina Popolare - now one of the most popular restaurants in our little village.
- Wine maker Pierre comes on my tour. We fall in love and he moves to Tuscany from Bordeaux. Whole blog post if you wanna read that story...

Here's our restaurant sign that takes inspiration from Italian artist Carosello famous for La Linea.

- Opening of the first Tuscan Wine School - a place of encounter for the traveler who loves or wanna love Tuscan wine in the beautiful town of Siena.
- We create and brand our own olive oil, called Olivoglio from the very best olives in Tuscany, the label is designed by Alvalenti of Siena (famous in Italy for his filù)
- We make an independent Tuscan Wine Map - updating it with the new entries of wine regions admitted in recent yrs on our territory (with huge help from my friend Raffa)

New (much more professional) logos are created both for the wine school and for the wine tours.

- Already mother of Louise, I'm double blessed when Julian is born and my husband and personal wine hero takes over the tours to our guests' content.
- First vintage of wine for Julian was harvested and aged at our friends' natural winery Colombaia. The wine ends up with the name Jollie, because straight after Julian is born, Oliver is on his way (triple blessed)!

The idea for the label for Jollie comes from my love for the French book "The Little Prince" - very appropriately French as the father of my little princes!

- Opening of the second Tuscan Wine School - this time right next to the Ponte Vecchio in Florence.
- Official naming of our tour agency Grape Tours to manage brands as the original Tuscan Wine Tours,  new Tuscan Wine Time & Champagne Wine Tours.

Our agency logo features my husband and myself (in case you hadn't figured that out!)

Our front door in Florence to a 15th century building:

Life is Grape! We launch our philosophy of joy for life and wine with wonderful logo created by great artist Bo Bendixen.
- We start getting a great team of people with us, and we are now working with well regarded wine critics / wine makers / journalists directly on our team.

Our own DOCG quality mark for the mother site (to distinguish from imitators):

- New Food & Wine Tours from Siena, alongside frequent tours to Montalcino with one of the top producers of the region.
- From Florence, we add to the already popular Super Chianti tour a new tour to feature cooking and foods in Tuscany with artisans: Cook'in Chianti. This latter tour is logo'ed by another great local artist, Luca Carfagna. We celebrate 10 yrs of Tuscan Wine Tours with a 10 euro discount for early birds on the latter tours.

Here's a photo of the original:


So far this has been a great life journey, hopefully many more years to come!

Thanks to great staff & partners without whom the wine wouldn't shine!!! (Ilaria, Matteo V, Aasa, Kimberly, Sarah, Riikka, Johanna, Bernardo, Mark, Matteo P)

A big huge thank you to all the lovely people who've come our way & who've helped us grow in a good way. A special thank you to the fantastic wine producers who are producing fantastic wines and keep their enthusiasm high. We love coming to you and bringing our lucky guests (and we love drinking your wine, too!)

We continue to look for local (and non) artists who express passion for food or wine! Here's art you'll find in the wine schools from artist Cassandra Wainhouse.