Category Archives: food

Sweetness and Dark on Lake Como

Some evenings, stepping off the train as it arrives in Lecco, there’s a slightly toasted, coffeeish scent of rich, dark chocolate in the air. It’s not a hallucination: Lecco is the home of Icam, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of organic chocolate. They process 6000 tons of raw cocoa beans per year, and when those beans get to cookin’, the whole town is wrapped in a sensuous fog of aroma.

I had long been aware of Icam as a purely local phenomenon – Icam-branded chocolate doesn’t even show up much in Italian stores, though some friends had proved to us that Icam’s chocolate-hazelnut spread was far superior to Nutella. I knew that Icam had a spaccio (outlet store) at the factory down in Pescarenico, but I never managed to get there until we’d been in Lecco for a while, and then only because they ran extended hours during the Christmas season.

I discovered one Christmas that they make very good “cru” (single-origin) tasting squares of “Extremo” 75% dark chocolate – I bought some for family Christmas presents.

More recently, I was surprised to notice that our friend Michele was selling Green & Black’s, the famed UK brand of organic chocolate, at his bakery in Lecco.

“Where did you get that?” I asked.

“They make it right here in Lecco!”

He told me that a British couple had stopped for a chat at his shop. Turns out the man was a financial officer with Green & Black’s, in town to visit their production partner. He told Michele that some (surprisingly large) percentage of Europe’s chocolate, including much of Green & Black’s, is made by Icam – exactly how much I have not been able to confirm. He may have been referring specifically to the organic chocolate market – I have not so far located any definitive figures on European chocolate production, though I did find a list placing Icam as number 89 among the Top 100 Global Confectionery Companies. They evidently manufacture for others who sell organic chocolate, such as Seeds of Change.

So Icam was on my Christmas shopping list again last December. I came away with:

  • three half-kilo bags of mixed chocolates (many of them Green & Black’s), at 5 euros each
  • two bags each containing ten bars of Green & Black’s
  • one bag of non-chocolate candies
  • a 1-kilo bar of dark chocolate for cooking
  • a 1-kilo bag of unsweetened cocoa powder for cooking
  • a half-kilo tub of “Icam-ella” or whatever they call their spread
  • a sampler box of the Extremo (pictured above)

Yes, it was a lot to carry! But I couldn’t resist – the bill for all this was only about 50 euros. Both at home and at the office, we had a very sweet Christmas.

Icam is doing so well that it needs to expand, but apparently is not finding encouragement to do so in Lecco. However, last I heard, their efforts to build a new factory in a nearby town were also frustrated by some strange local resistance.

<sigh> It can be inexplicably difficult to do business in Italy. Icam would probably have fewer hassles and lower costs if they moved their operation to some other part of Europe. But Icam is a family-owned business, and we can all be thankful that Italian families and businesses are stubborn about sticking to their roots!

You can visit Icam’s factory outlet store during the hours 8.30-13.00/14.00-17.00, Monday through Friday.

Dining in America (and Italy)

I instinctively dislike chain restaurants: when someone says “Let’s eat at a [name of chain restaurant],” I wince. And it’s getting harder and harder to find a restaurant in the US that isn’t part of a chain. However, my instincts may be out of date: chain restaurant food seems to be improving. During this recent trip I ate at TeKei’s (Chinese/Thai), Razzoo’s (Cajun), Sarovar (north and south Indian), and something else with a southern (American) theme. I think they’re all chain franchises, but they were also all good. I still prefer to support local and personal cooking creativity where possible, but… sometimes you gotta make do.

What puzzles me is the concept of waiting to get a seat at a restaurant. In 15 years in Italy, I have almost never waited for a restaurant. I’m sure it must have happened once or twice, but I can’t actually remember a single instance. The handful of times I can remember arriving somewhere and finding it full, there was always someplace just as good nearby to go to instead.

But, in the US, no matter how saturated with restaurants an area may be, it’s not uncommon to arrive at a restaurant and find you have to wait half an hour for a table – even though American restaurants are usually HUGE compared with Italian ones, and manage several seatings per table per night, as Americans rarely linger over their meals. I can’t figure it out. Maybe Americans simply eat out more often than Italians (with today’s prices at Italian restaurants, that wouldn’t be surprising).

Restaurant congestion is so bad that, throughout my recent trip, everyone I had lunch with wanted to eat at 11:30 am to avoid the rush. If I hadn’t had jet lag, I would never have got used to this, but it was good preparation for CES, where, if you don’t eat early, you don’t eat at all.

America seems to be obsessed with eating. You can’t go anywhere without being bombarded by advertising for food. It’s effective, too: hearing or reading adjective-stuffed descriptions and seeing perfectly-staged food photographs (there’s an art to it), I always get hungry.

I can’t remember ever hearing food advertised on Italian radio (not that I listen to it regularly). Nor are restaurants advertised on TV in Italy, except McDonald’s. I guess that’s because there aren’t any non-fast-food restaurant chains in Italy (well, there is one, Pastarito – I don’t recommend it), and it doesn’t make economic sense for a single restaurant to advertise nationally.

In America, the marketing doesn’t stop once they’ve got you in the restaurant. The typical American menu is larded with sensual adjectives: “creamy this, delicately folded into tangy that, with a hint of zesty the other…” Some menus include photos, though the food on your plate rarely comes out quite as beautifully. All of this – words, pictures, page layout, fonts – is designed to encourage you to buy the items on which the restaurant makes the biggest profit margin. The waiter may also, asked or unasked, recommend those high-margin items.

There’s no art of selling in Italian menus: they generally only give the name of the dish and a price. In most Italian restaurants, this is all that’s necessary, because most stick to well-known classics with maybe one “house specialty” dish. In the rare cases that you don’t know what a dish’s name means, you ask the waiter, who gives you a bare description: “pasta with sauteed eggplant and salted ricotta.”

The fancier restaurants do tend to be more creative and therefore need to explain their dishes, but the explanations are usually simple statements of fact: “sauteed local trout with diced vegetables” – which hardly does justice to one of Lanterna Verde‘s amazing dishes. But then, the food at Lanterna Verde is so good that you need not be seduced into eating it, and you will certainly not be disappointed, whatever you choose.

In the Kitchen at Spankyville

Julia’s grandmother’s recipe for Chinese barbecued ribs, AKA “Sticky Chewy Ribs,” as demonstrated by Julia in her gorgeous new kitchen, presided over by the ghost of Spanky.

Including the amazing KitchenAid mixer, custom-airbrushed with red hot chili peppers!

buy the music

Good Food in Austin

No one should go to Texas without eating Mexican food, and we were fortunate to have my cousin Guy’s guidance to the good stuff. We ate at El Mercado (on Lavaca), some of the best Tex-Mex I’ve ever had. Standard enchiladas and fajitas, but the enchilada sauces (one green tomatillo, one red) were amazing.

We had Sunday brunch at Chez Zee, sitting at the bar because there was a half-hour wait for a table and I didn’t want to spend two hours on a meal. While trying to find decent food over Valentine’s weekend, I had occasion to reflect on the fact that it’s rare to wait for a restaurant in Italy – I can’t think of a single time we’ve done it, perhaps because, if a given restaurant is full, there’s always another great one nearby. Not always the case in the US. Chez Zee might even have been worth the wait, but eating at the bar was fine, especially as we were right behind the talented jazz pianist/singer, to better enjoy her music.

During our wanderings, Ross and I lunched one day at the Kerbey Lane Café near the UT campus, a great place for healthy food (including vegetarian). For one dinner we went the opposite route, with fancy steaks at Dan McKlusky’s. The food was very good, but the dining experience was spoiled by our fellow diners. Due to some weird acoustics where we sat in the front corner, everything seemed very loud, especially from the next table, where a man had invited two people for a business dinner in hopes of “getting your thoughts on this” (some business proposition). I don’t think he got many of their thoughts, because he did 99% of the talking himself – loudly – and we all learned far more about him than we needed to know. Lack of sensitivity to others is a common handicap among computer geeks, which he evidently was (his tales included his early days on punch-card machines and more recent excitement at visiting the world’s largest flight simulator facility). His daughter was student president of something or other at the University of Houston; evidently she is more astute in dealing with humans than her father is.

Our best meal was at the home of Julia and Dani. Julia is a friend of my old friend Barb. Thanks to Barb, she has been reading my newsletter for some time, and we’ve occasionally exchanged emails about something I’d written. So when I knew I was coming to Austin, I dropped her a line, and she invited us for dinner. “Spankyville,” as they call their place (named after their cat Spanky), is one of the most comfortable homes I’ve ever been in. Comfortable in the sense of a nice place to be: as soon as we walked in, we knew that we were among friends in a house full of warmth. It’s hard to explain, but a few rare places in the world make you feel that way. And we sure needed it right then.

The Chinese/Mongolian hot pot dinner was great; it’s a tradition in Julia’s family ever since her father, years ago, invited the entire Chinese Students’ Association of Texas Tech home for Thanksgiving dinner.

cooking at Spankyville

Moghul Shredded Chicken Curry

^ These are all Indian cookbooks that I own and use.

To make the chicken broth for the scripelle, Enrico had boiled two chicken thighs. Which meant I had lots of cooked chicken, plus leftover white rice from several previous meals (I always manage to overestimate how much rice everyone will eat). So Saturday night I made Moghul Shredded Chicken Curry, from Royal Indian Cookery. The recipe calls for steamed chicken breasts, but boiled thighs worked just as well. I pulled all the meat off the bones and shredded it, then:

  • fry 1 tbps cumin seeds in ghee or oil for 1 min
  • add one chopped onion, cook til soft
  • grind into paste 2 cloves garlic and a 1-inch cube of fresh ginger (actually, I used the food processor to chop very fine, not quite the same as paste…)
  • add to the pot with cayenne pepper and 1 tsp turmeric
  • in a separate pan, fry a finely chopped small onion in oil til brown
  • food-process this, along with 1 cup cashews, 1/4 cup blanched almonds, 2/3 cups dried coconut, into a fine-ish crumble
  • add to main pot, stir for a few minutes, add about 1/3 cup water, cook low for 5 minutes
  • add 1/4 cup yogurt and 1/3 cup raisins (previously soaked in water to soften), and salt, cook some more
  • add chicken, cook another 10 minutes or so

The recipe calls for a garnish and a final two tbsps of cream, but I didn’t bother – with the yogurt, it was plenty creamy. Along with this we had the leftover rice (I bought a microwave this year mostly to heat pasta and rice in) and a simple dish of green beans and peas (clearing odds and ends from the freezer!) with coriander, another Madhur Jaffrey recipe. And lots of chutneys.