Troy Hightower


Two Estonian Eateries

Tallinn has a beautifully preserved/restored medieval old town, but it is very heavily touristicated (thank the cruise ships, in part) with quite a touch of Disneyland--such as medieval-garbed wenches hocking sugared peanuts from a wood-wheeled cart, or shilling a 'medieval experience' dining hall. As such, restaurants in the core tend to cater to the common denominator, and be of less than outstanding interest. There are, however good and interesting restaurants to search out. Taking recommendations from chefs and sommeliers in both Riga and Pädaste, we zeroed in on two fairly new innovative eateries. Both are located outside the old town, one litterally hugging the walls, and one a few blocks away near the port.

Click to read more ...


Bucolic Baltic Island

Off the Estonian coast in the Baltic Sea lies a pastoral island called Muhu. Reached by a half-hour ferry from the mainland, it’s extremely rural, with only a couple of tiny villages and the rest farms, fields full of russet cattle and round hay bales and forest. On the southern shore lies Pädaste Manor, an ancient estate and manor house that in recent years has been turned into a tranquil resort. After the four-hour drive from our first Baltic stop in Riga, Latvia, we arrived at Pädaste early one blustery afternoon for a two-day rural interlude in our itinerary of city centers.

After settling into our spacious room on the second floor, we took a half-hour walk around the estate, and arrived at what the owners dub the Sea House – a stone building with flagged terraces that fronts the marshes of the Baltic sea-front, and serves in summer as the estate’s lunch restaurant. Too cold and blustery to sit outside, we made ourselves comfortable in the cozy stone and wood-paneled dining room. Both the Sea House and the main restaurant in the manor house are overseen by chef Peeter Pihel, who produces what he refers to as Nordic Islands Cuisine. The lunch menu is dotted with fascinating and unusual combinations.

Click to read more ...


Venetian Cicchetti

Venice has been said to be a place where it’s hard to find great food. There is some truth to this--there are many tourist-oriented restaurants where locals would never set foot—inflated prices, supercilious waiters and marginal quality. We’ve found some reliable favorites over the years, and can normally find a good meal. But our favorite way of eating in Venice is the moveable feast known as cicchetti (pronounced chi-KET-tee)--the Venetian version of tapas, served in stand-up taverns known as bacari. Many of these institutions are generations old, and there are also new ones appearing occasionally. Locals call this mobile feast the giro d'ombra—giro literally means “turn” – as in “to take a turn” and ombra is what the tiny 2 oz glasses of wine traditionally taken with cicchetti is called. On our year-end holiday trip this past December we ‘turned’ several tasty giri.

Click to read more ...


Old Africa


We’ve seen elephant before—quite a number of elephant. But this is a really lot of elephant. As the sun creeps lower toward the horizon, we’ve rolled up to a water hole that’s holding a literal convention of the grey giants. This is a number of herds converging at once.  A rough count in a 180-degree sweep indicates there are at least 200 jumbos here. Many drink and squirt water over their backs and under their bellies at the waterhole’s edge. Several juveniles roll, kneel, and cavort in a mud pit, charcoal hides dark with muddy water. Groups of females cluster with their young winding under and around the adults.  Two young males spar and mock charge, trumpeting, flapping ears and twining trunks and pulling. For us they are the most fascinating of all the creatures to watch. And since this is Zambia, where safari tourism is just flowering in recent years, there is no one else around. We’re alone in a sea of elephant.

Click to read more ...


Villas & Gardens on Lake Como

As we motor over calm water past a stunning villa, we notice a large hand-lettered sign on the iron railing of the lush gardens in front which proclaim "NO GEORGE" with an arrow pointing southward--presumably generally in the direction of the actual villa of George Cluny. Lago di Como is one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, and it's easy to see why those with the means, like George, and his general-direction neighbor Richard Branson have shoreside villas here. We are touring the lake and some of its villas and gardens in a lovely wooden Venetian water-taxi, one of two trucked here by Italian Luca Venini and his Aussie wife Jennine who together operate Bellagio Water Taxis.

Click to read more ...


Santa Barbara Birthday

Which in the pantheon of gods are those that decree that the day in spring that you elect to set out on a seven-hour road trip will be the day the skies open for the entire day? Turning what should be a lovely spring drive into an exhausting battle of peering through slam-dancing windshield wipers and gouts of truck-wheel spray at the slick road ahead well enough to stay in lane. Flashes of verdant spring California countryside come to the brain in brief glimpses, but can’t be paid any attention.

I had selected Santa Barbara for a short ‘milestone’ birthday trip to combine vistas of gorgeous spring California countryside with various garden visits spiced with interesting dining experiences. It was still sheeting when we turned up the drive lined in grand old olives under which a sea of French lavender bloomed purple, and wearily pulled up to the main lodge at the San Ysidro Ranch in the affluent Santa Barbara suburb of Montecito. We were quickly registered and escorted under umbrella through the splendid herbaceous borders to a cozy and welcoming cottage, this one named Pine, with comfy sitting room, deck overlooking a private garden and warming fireplaces in both sitting and bedrooms. A spacious bathing pavilion with indoor and outdoor showers overlooks a private enclosed hot tub. This cozy cottage in this renowned hideaway provides an auspicious start to a short stay. Now if only the weather will turn for the better. 

Click to read more ...


A Bazaar Way to Buy Spices

One of my favorite lines of all times was uttered by a rug merchant in Istanbul--as we were walking to dinner in the purple-sky dusk, a slick-hair, shiny-suited fellow sidled up next to me and said in thickly accented English "May I rrrrip you off, my frrriend?" I damn near choked with laughter. A line nearly as good was recently voiced by a young hawker as we were entering the bazaar in Cairo: "How may I take your money?" I laughed, and patted him on the back--but he got no money.

Kahn el Kalilil, Cairo's bazaar, is a colorful and chaotic maze of pedestrian streets and narrow alleys, some almost covered by overhanging balconies. This warren, dating to 1382, is packed with people and merchants' wares of all sorts spilling into the lanes. It can't be said that it's unchanged in all that time, as there are many modern goods, and in the outer bits that give off the entry streets, lots of tourist junk. But as you wind into the heart of the souk there are shops, stalls and wares that are much as they were a hundred years ago.

Click to read more ...


'09 Olive Harvest

Olio Nuovo--the new oil is in the cellar. We harvested olives this year slightly earlier than planned, due to the deep freeze on the nights of the seventh and eighth. The olives froze on the tree, and had to be picked and rushed to the mill immediately. Almost all the members of our small syndicate were in the same boat, but with a bunch of rushing around, everyone got picked and delivered olives to the Dry Creek Olive Company outside of Healdsburg, and by Thursday morning, glorious green-gold new oil was in carboys.

The oil has to settle and mellow for 2-3 months before bottling, but I always bottle up a couple of the cloudy oil for early taste tests. The oil this year seems a bit mellower than usual, which would be expected due to the slightly later than normal harvest time, and the greater overall ripeness of everyone's fruit. It still has a nice bite and kick, though.

My first taste combination of the oil this morning was fantastic--drizzled on slightly charred Levain bread from Della Fattoria, and topped with a fresh egg, poached-in-the-shell according to the technique espoused by New York chef David Chang in his new book Momofuku. It's called a 5:10 egg: put an egg in boiling water for exactly 5 minutes and 10 seconds. Immerse in cool water for a minute. Peel very carefully. Works perfectly. That perfect egg yolk, bitey oil, earthy toast combo is great.