Troy Hightower


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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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'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.



Fall Napa Sojourn

Recently we made a little foray out of 'our' valley (Sonoma) over the Oakville Grade into the 'other' valley of Napa. Late fall--well into November--is a good time to do this, as the crush is done, and accordingly, the hordes of tourists and their traffic have ebbed back to the wherever they've come from. The lovely town of St Helena was mellow and un-crowded on a crisp, sunny Saturday as we strolled its tree-shaded streets, window shopping, stopping for a bite of hand-crafted chocolate at  Woodhouse Chocolates, or a loaf of crusty bread at  the venerable Model Bakery. We lunched at the bar at Tra Vigne--again uncrowded, plenty of seats--on Mozzarrella 'al Minute', that was literally just made, served on smoke-tinged grilled bread,  salad of Forni Brown greens with shaved goat cheese, and the Pizzeta of the day.

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A Small Island "In the Midst of Waters"

Feeling small is sitting in the right front seat of an 8 passenger Cessna headed southeast into a wall of fog for 45 minutes, trusting the pilot's knowledge of the instruments, and the instruments themselves to find a tiny flat island 30 miles out in the Atlantic off the coast of Cape Cod. Less than two minutes before touchdown, the mist clears, and the blue rabbit-running light of the runway at Ackerman field appear, announcing that we've arrived safely on Nantucket—a named appropriately derived from a Native American word meaning "in the midst of waters".

Friends have visited the island for years in the shoulder season of September, after the summer hordes have left, and convinced us to join them for leisure and relaxation in the prettiness and charm that Nantucket provides. They'd taken their usual one-bedroom cottage over the water on Old North Wharf, but those are booked years in advance, and we were lucky to obtain a two-level cottage called Falcon halfway out Old South Wharf overlooking a fabulous view of the boat basin. Cheerfully furnished with great light and decks on two sides, Falcon proved a fine little home for five days.  

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