Troy Hightower


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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Serenity at Sea Ranch

We’ve been going north to The Sea Ranch for a weekend getaway or two each year for a couple of decades, now, staying in a succession of rental houses throughout that coastal communithy. Recently two of our oldest and closest friends, who live nearby in the Sonoma Valley, made a pretty significant northward shift when they sold a pair of flats in the Marina in San Francisco that had been in his family for three generations, and bought an iconic oceanside house in Sea Ranch.

Located a two-hour drive north of Sonoma, The Sea Ranch was planned and developed in the mid-60’s by noted Bay Area architects Charles Moore, Joseph Esherick, Bill Turnbull, and landscape architect Lawrence Halprin. The design intention was for the houses to organically and naturally fit into the seaside landscape—to “lie lightly on the land” as they put it then. Houses are low-lying, driftwood colored, and clustered to leave large areas of open space available to all residents. Successfully meeting this intent, Sea Ranch has won environmental design awards and been internationally recognized as a harmonious and ecologically sound marriage of human habitation and preserved wild land: “an unparalleled melding of architecture and landscape”. And it’s a fabulous place for a relaxing weekend getaway.

The house is dubbed Frank’s Cadeau, in tribute to Ken’s grandfather who originally bought the Marina flats, which ultimately made a weekend place up the north coast possible. It’s emblematic Sea Ranch architecture—clean and modern, beachwood gray exterior, low native meadow landscaping, with interiors of sweeping glass, high beamed ceilings and rough-sawn Douglas fir siding. There are incredible blue ocean and whitewater views, with the sound of crashing surf always in the background.

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Bringing Etxebarri Home

Ever since that fantastic lunch of charcoal-grilled foods at Asador Etxebarri in Basque Spain, I've been musing on grilling and smoking. I've dabbled here and there with things, and then decided to re-create a full meal, matching the conditions in Victor Arguinzoniz' grill-kitchen as best I can. We don't have a crankable stainless steel grill, but do have a raised outdoor hearth and a trusty Lodge cast-iron grill. No laser-drilled pans, but a stainless wire mesh splash guard and collander might serve. Oxygen-controlled charcoal oven? No 'check' there, but we do have seasoned branches of oak, madrone, olive and manzanita from our property, all of which provide wonderful coals. And we do have access to some pretty darned fine fresh foodstuffs. So we invited some close friends, and settled in to a grilling and smoking experience in the Sonoma Valley.

Explorations in home-made chorizo are out, but Paul Bertoli's Gentile salami from his Berkeley Fra Mani salumeria serve adeptly as an appetizer with a glass of Paul Bara Champage. Bryan's Meats in Corte Madera gets fresh Louisiana white prawns flown in Tuesdays and Fridays from a shrimper down there who fishes Mondays and Thurdays--these slightly blueish beauties were in the Gulf of Mexico yesterday. They marinate simply in Meyer lemon juice, our own very fruity 2008 olive oil, and fleur de sel for a half hour, and then go on the grill over glowing coals of madrone and manzanita for about three minutes. Served on their own, the prawns are incredibly fresh tasting--sweet, succulent and lightly redolent of smoke. (I'll save every scrap of shell, leg and head for a smoky shrimp bisque).

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Charcoal Grilled Everything

The contrast in just five minutes, from toodling along the N634 in Basque Spain's urbo-industrial sprawl to the Swiss-hillside like serenity of the village of Axpe is nothing short of astounding. One minure, diesel fumes, factories, shopping complexes, apartment towers, and a few minutes later, clean mountain air, slopping wildflower covered sheep fields, stone barns and-chalet like farmhouses, all backed by the steep limestone reef dominated by Mount Anboto, the 1300 metre limestone peak in the sprawling acre Parc Naturel de Urkiola. It just doesn't seem possible that the modern human sprawl has stopped so abruptly, changing to a gorgeous scene that could have existed pretty much unchanged 100 years ago. Birds sing, cowbells, clank and not a hint of roadnoise--of course the road pretty much ends here, as the natural park map showing miles and miles of hiking trails, and sites for backpack camping demonstrates.

Such a beautiful, peaceful setting is an unexpected benefit of searching out Asador Etxebarri, Chef Victor Arguinzoniz's by now legendary wood-grill restaurant set in one of those wood and stone chalet-like farmhouses. In this kitchen, it's all wood-fire, all the time. No steaming, no sous-vide, no liquid nitrogen here. Just grilling on la brasa, and wood-fired oven. One side of the kitchen is a long, custom-made wood grill, with sections that raise and lower on cranks to get the perfect height above the coals for different foods. On the facing side, a set of oxygen-contolled wood ovens that serve primarily to make coals for the grill, out of oak, apple, olive woods, and grapevine--the wood type and heat of coals matched to the food being cooked. Each order prepared by the kitchen gets its own scoop of coals.

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Pintxos at the Spoon

The 'Spoon' was overflowing into the square. That first bite made my eyebrows skyrocket in astonishment. The intensity and complexity of flavor in something normally meant as a bar snack was unprecedented. In the 'Spoon', we might have stumbled across the best pintxos in the world.

Tapas are Spain's ubiquitous bar food, found everywhere with regional variations. In Basque Spain and here in San Sebastian they are called pintxos--the word said to derive from the verb pinchar--to prick--because they were at one time all served with toothpicks. Many still are, and counting toothpicks is often a way for the barman to tally your bill.

But these amazing pintxos are all toothpickless, and rather than being arrayed across the bar on a sea of platters as at the usual pintxos bar, are individually ordered from a chalkboard menu. This temple of pintxo gastronomy is La Cuchara de San Telmo (cuchara means spoon), a narrow space tucked into the corner of a building across from the San Telmo convent under the looming brow of Mt. Urgull, and two blocks from the sea, at the edge of San Sebastian's parte vieja, or old quarter. A long bar takes up one side of the space; a narrow shelf, bar height and just wide enough for a small plate runs along the other. The width between is no more than two people deep, though it frequently seems to contain more. The open miniscule kitchen is at the back. Two barmen take orders and dispense plates, two bar girls pour drinks and ferry plates from the kitchen. Our barman, called Marc, is tall, dark and handsome and speaks better English than our pidgeon Spanish. His is a constant-motion dance--scribble order, pour a glass of txacoli, yell "Alex, un foie, uno; dos canelon, dos!" to chef Alex Montiel at the back, and deliver tiny plates of incredible, beautiful food up and down the bar.

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