Greetings, Vine denizens! I'm tan, rested, and ready to roll again after a much-needed vacation. I'm fresh from floating in the Mediterranean with the Sweet Partner in Crime on our first cruise. We did plenty of research to find a ship and itinerary that would be fun, interesting, and wouldn't have hourly updates about the hairy leg contest on the Lido deck. (We ended up going with the Celebrity Summit.)
This vacation was about relaxation, pampering, and -- of course -- food and wine. I could easily wax poetic about the four course meals in the Summit's main dining room, or the six-courser that we had in the exceptional SS Normandie Restaurant one evening, but I'll focus on our gustatory experiences off-ship.
The difference in attitude towards eating and drinking between the parts of Europe we visited and the US was stunning. Honestly, it's been quite jarring to readjust after only a couple of weeks. We quickly got used to this relaxed, easygoing attitude towards dining. Most restaurants don't open until noon at the earliest for lunch and often 8:00 or later for dinner. Servers almost seem offended if you ask for the check before you've had time to drink your coffee after dessert. What's the rush?
Since we weren't on this schedule, we found ourselves in a couple of cafes before opening. No worries. The waiter would explain, "The kitchen's not open for another 25 minutes, but feel free to have a seat." Drinks were fetched, and we settled in for the next couple of hours. Multiple courses and flavors were the rule rather than the exception. Portions were considerably smaller, but I never felt underfed. And, of course, there's the wine.
In fact, there's almost always wine. What the US Government defines as "binge drinking," most Italians define as "lunch."
During our entire jaunt, I can't think of a non-breakfast meal where there wasn't at least some kind of wine on the table. Most placesetting are pre-set for meals with wine glasses (but not water glasses, we discovered). For instance, in Barcelona, I ordered cava to go with our delicious tapas at a fantastic little place called El Xampanyet. The server ducked into the cooler, pulled out a one liter bottle of house cava, opened it, and left it on the table. Heaven! No one bats an eye at a wine order with lunch. If I'd tried that in Cincy, I'd expect a comment like "Starting early, aren't you?"
Maybe I was simply being a tourist and didn't have to head back to work afterwards -- but somehow Europeans manage to maintain a stable economy while taking six weeks of vacation a year and drinking decent house wine at most every meal. I've heard people talk about how different the wine is in Europe, but their wine's made much the same way there as here. The alcohol content is similar, although the overall flavor of the house wines tend to be slightly lighter. Yet, I can't ever remember getting tipsy while enjoying my mealtime wine. Perhaps there's a lesson here somewhere...
I've said consistently that people historically make wine to complement whatever it is that they're eating locally. We were very excited about trying "indigenous cuisine" in the various ports of call. Of course, we also wanted to see what they were pouring alongside! So, what did we learn?
Italy -- We started the trip in Venice and docked in Naples, Civitavecchia, and Livorno during the second week of the cruise. We eschewed sightseeing trips from the latter two ports to Rome and Florence for wine tasting excursions to small towns in Lazio and Tuscany. Trying to generalize "Italian cuisine" is almost impossible, but "Italian coastal cuisine" has some commonalities. Lots of fresh fish, obviously, and pastas often contain or are flavored with shellfish or anchovies. The white wines tended to be very light and crisp and the reds had enough body and tannin to cut through the acidity of tomatoes, the minerality of shellfish or the oilyness of black sea bass. A red wine that reminded us of several we had over there was Falesco "Vitiano" 2005 Cabernet-Merlot-Sangiovese ($10) After we came home, I tried to emulate a pasta I had over there -- mushrooms, capers, and anchovies in a light red sauce. Cut through and complemented all of those flavors really well.
Croatia -- Our first port of call was Dubrovnik, an absolutely beautiful city nestled on a small peninsula. Interesting fact -- Dubrovnik was one of the most progressive cities in Europe in the treatment of Jews over the last 600 years. Foodwise, Dubrovnik is famous for shellfish, especially oysters and mussels. We sampled both at a restaurant called "Moby Dick," which, for my readers in Louisville, should raise a smile. It also gets very hot during the summer there, so the wines both serve as a cooling agent and a complement to anything you'd find on a raw bar. Try Toljanic 2006 Zlahtina at around $12 for an interesting change from muscadet.
Greece -- Athens and Santorini were our ports of call in Greece. Athens was a big city made up of ugly concrete apartment buildings surrounding incredible ancient sites. Santorini Island was once a volcano that exploded to form a beautiful "c"-shaped lagoon. We were familiar with "standard" Greek foods. We've chowed down at some very good local Greek places on dolmathakias, souvlaki, gyros, and so on. However, fish wasn't typically on the menu stateside, which is quite the contrast from our experience over there. Both Athens and Santorini had plenty of variety when it came to fish, shellfish, and mollusks for consumption. On the wine front, Greece is known for Vinsanto, a sweet dessert wine, and for bone dry, minerally whites that make wonderful aperitifs or go very nicely with the aforementioned sea life. Santorini itself is home to a very productive wine region. Interestingly, they grow grapes low to the ground because of the oppressive summer heat. (Also interesting was the Santorini Wine Museum -- off the scale on the Unintentional Comedy Meter.) Look for the crisp, slightly fruity Sigalas 2007 Santorini at around $15 if you want a nice example. I also discovered that I had a taste for both Ouzo and Metaxa, but that's a story for another time.
France -- We made one stop along the French Riviera. We tendered in Villefranche-sur-Mer, a small (but pretty daggone affluent) community between Nice and Monaco. The Riviera is exactly what you'd expect -- strikingly beautiful. This part of the Riviera is in the Provence region.Provençal cuisine is known for using lots of fresh vegetables (which led to a very "American" moment for me when I asked the SPinC, "So, what does Niçoise mean?" while she was relishing one of these salads...in Nice). The region is also known for wonderful seafood, with bouillabaisse as the local specialty. In the wine world, Provence immediately brings one thing to mind -- rosé. 50% of French rosé comes from this region -- the perfect pairing for both salads and fish. Domaine Houchart 2007 Cotes du Provence Rosé is a nice example at around $10.
Spain -- Our last stop on the trip was a couple of days in Barcelona before we caught our flight home. The space I have here is completely inadequate to do Barcelona and all of its wonders justice. (Anyone, religious or not, who can step into La Sagrada Familia without an overwhelming sense of awe is utterly dead inside.) The city is pleasure, decadence, and inspiration rolled into a one huge, wonderful package. Barcelonan cuisine also follows this "delicious mishmash." Paella and tapas. Ham, fish, poultry, bread, fruit and on and on. What wine goes with everything? As I've mentioned time and time again -- sparkling wine. Cava country is Penedès, just southwest of Barcelona. Longtime readers know what a sucker I am for good cava, so go pick up a bottle of Gramona 2005 Gran Cuvee at around $15, pair it with anything, and thank me later...
As a side note, we didn't experience any of the animosity that Europeans, especially the French, allegedly hold towards folks from the US. Most people we met spoke at least some English, and they weren't shy about using it, which was important -- since neither of us are fluent in anything other than our native language (unless you count the Eastern Kentuckian dialect I lapse into from time to time...). I try to imagine my reaction if someone came up to me and started asking me questions in Greek. The secret to our success, in my opinion? We took the time to learn a dozen or so useful words or phrases in the language of wherever we went. Saying "Govorim malo Hrvatski. Govorite Engleski?" in Dubrovnik went a long way in smoothing out international relations.
There will be other stories from this trip to weave as the weeks go on-- but I now prepare to face the unenviable task of readying myself to go back to work. Eek! Also, for Cincinnati metro readers or avid road trippers, make sure that you have Wine Over Water on your social calendar for the evening of Saturday, September 20th. It's going to be a great time, guaranteed...