When I’m looking for hope, it’s really no further than my local farmers market. My ritual Saturday morning excursion to a vibrant Arlington Farmers Marketreplenishes my creativity and optimism. My mind starts churning delicious possibilities not only for ripe heirloom tomatoes and dark green poblano peppers but added enthusiasm for the start of the weekend and what it holds.
The walk up starts with a detour to Java Shackfor the requisite morning latte, and ends with a #3 veggie, egg, and cheese burrito from El Piquin’stent at the Market. Made right in front of you, it’s not only hot, but tastes exceptionally of fresh spinach, mushrooms, and peppers, flavors only enhanced by the spicy red and mild green salsas (on the side). If you’re tempted by grilled cheese in the morning (and, I am), a greens and tomato “breakfast sammy” when on the grill at Cowbell Kitchen(tent next door) is a favorite especially if there’s homemade catsup.
The Market explodes color in all directions. And I’m made fully aware of seasons, what’s grown from Pennsylvania to Virginia, and when it ripens. Red strawberries arrive in June, for a short month, before the really good blueberries show up in July. I grab white ‘n green or purple ‘n green spring onions every week in, well, Spring before they get too small or too large for grilling in Summer. Don’t expect shiny green shishito peppers until August, but all types of red, yellow, purple, orange, and striped tomatoes start crowding the tables in late July. Along with pale yellow sweet corn and tomatillos for salsa. And even when Summer fades, I know Fall blows in with brussels sprouts and their purple-tinged leafy cousin, the kalette.
There’s always a veggie to look forward to transforming into a great meal. The Market’s always alive with fellow Arlingtonians and a few of their dogs (yep). And hope and optimism are renewed.
I’m in the foothills of the Andes mountains in Argentina – on a horse – gripping the reins with an intensity only a novice rider could know, while being jostled up the last few feet of uneven, gravelly terrain. At the top of the ridge, I willed myself to open my eyes and take in the stunning expanse of the wine-making Valle de Uco below. I had joined J, already at this precipice, and our guide, Dino – part-time trail rider, part-time goat farmer. Vineyards lay below us, barely visible in a pastel quilt. While over my shoulder were the Andes mountains, rising up behind shrub dotted hills.
An hour later I was lounging, legs stretched out, in a chair beside a shaded table on the clipped front lawn of the main house at the guest ranch, Estancia El Puesto. I was sipping chardonnay under a sharp blue sky, the late fall air warmed by the intense mountain sun. And so it began, three days of exhilarating riding across the hills of the Alto Valle de Uco matched only by superb local dishes and unexpected attention to detail back at the Estancia. We were greeted our first day with Argentine barbeque on the large outdoor grill. One night featured pollo al disco (a rich chicken, sauce, and vegetables cooked in a deep round pan, the “disco”). On another, a hearty stew – Locro – typically served on Revolucion de Mayo (Argentina’s Independence Day). Breakfast was always out by the time we got up and included a small pot of dulce de leche (yes, it does go with everything), and the necessary hot pot of café con leche.
Evenings were without the glowing distraction of devices, digital clocks, or TVs. With no ambient light – at all – the nights collapsed quickly into black. We ate dinner by candlelight and warmed ourselves by fireplaces against plummeting nighttime temperatures. Once we braved the cold outside to gaze at the blanket of stars sparkling overhead and were able to trace the Southern Cross.
J and I felt a peacefulness only achieved in a place where you are surrounded by sky and mountains, and where cattle, horses, and goats (and several friendly dogs) outnumber the humans. Where the only other person I saw outside the ranch was a lone gaucho riding slowly along the dusty path that ran in front. We were only two hours from Mendoza City and a half hour from the vineyard filled Valle de Uco. We were not roughing it. We were embraced by good food, good wine, crisp white sheets and whitewashed walls, and gentle horses (mui tranquillo, I was assured) at an unassuming ranch at the base of the Andes.
We’d had five straight days of unrelenting drenching rain. I’d just spent a late, sad Thursday night at the Capital One Arena witnessing the Washington Capitals hockey team lose Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals (but which they went on to win in Game 7 to play for the Stanley Cup!). It was Friday evening and I was looking for happy. Could that be found at a restaurant in a non-descript suburban office building in Arlington, Virginia? Why, yes it can. SER was that place. And mostly because of the owner’s graciousness and attention and our server’s congeniality, a comfort I appreciated even more on that sorry wind-whipped soggy night.
A Spanish restaurant (not a tapas bar as SER’s amiable owner Javier Candon impressed upon us), SER transformed a ground floor of open concrete space into Spain’s warmth with splashes of blues and yellows – in the covered bar stools and banquettes and centerpieces of small cans of olive oil – and lively tables of local diners, like ours, enjoying the catch of the day, a rich ventresca del atun (tuna belly) that dissolves in your mouth. Not as if we needed more than the ventresca, but we couldn’t pass up velvety Revuelto (mushrooms, egg, and shaved duck foie), and the appropriately garlicky shrimp that is Gambas al ajillo (with soft, crusty bread to ensure the cayenne tinged olive oil didn’t go to waste).
Then there was the Priorat (more about that under Get this wine.) SER felt like a neighborhood restaurant with an owner dedicated to creating as much as possible in Arlington a true taste and feel of Spain. “Ser” translates as “be” in Spanish, and “to be” in Catalan and Portuguese. “Being” in the moment, enjoying a meal with J and a friend and surrounded by people doing the same, no matter the long week or the off-putting weather – that’s what I happily got at SER.
You’ll thank the monks who first tilled the soil in Catalonia, creating Priorat (only one of two wine regions classified as a Denominaciao d’Origen Qualificada (DOQ) in Spain for consistent quality). I’ll raise a toast to Javier Candon of SER in Arlington, Virginia, for introducing me to the 2011 Cal Batlett D’Iatra Gratallops Priorat. Three Christmases ago J and I had capped a full day of family visits with a quiet dinner at the bar at SER. Even if I can’t remember the name of the wine, I remember how much I enjoyed that glass of Priorat with J on that Christmas night in the colorful surroundings of SER. Just as Javier described it, the D’Iatra Priorat on a subsequent rainy night was bold in flavor but nicely rounded at the finish at seven years old. Go get this wine and enjoy it this year.
Enjoying the restaurant scene in DC can sometimes be challenging. It’s the combination of very small, no reservation restaurants with restaurants that take reservations, but two weeks or a month in advance, at a precise hour, requiring you to stand, with fingers raised, at your keyboard or phone at the appointed time to claim a spot. Sometimes I’m not ready to make a reservation one month in advance, and certainly not every time I want a good meal out. And if you want to treat guests in town to interesting food at a smaller neighborhood spot, it’s hard to consider it a “treat” if you must start standing in line at 4:00 pm. And even then not be guaranteed a seat at the table that night.
One Saturday night, it was only me and J, and we thought that showing up at The Dabneyat 6:00 pm without a reservation would still give us a shot at a seat at the long bar. We were wrong. We could have put our names on the wait-list for seats about an hour and 45 minutes later, but decided to venture out into the neighborhood instead. After a glass of wine at Maxwell Park, we walked a few blocks down and over to the other side of the DC Convention Center, with fingers crossed, that we’d land a seat at the bar at Kinship. The restaurant’s facade is painted black with “Kinship” softly etched in a window to the left of the door. The name wasn’t visible at the time (it was dark) making the recessed entrance seem purposefully secret.
Kinship is the “less fancy” restaurant above Metier, the “more fancy” restaurant of Chef Eric Ziebold and Celia Laurent. (J and I ate at Metier for J’s birthday last year and it remains one of the best dining experiences I’ve had. But back to Kinship.)
The bar area is a long open space separated by a wall from the dining room. A few tables and small booths line one side The smooth white bar opposite had four vacant seats when J and I showed up. We took two and the couple walking in right behind us, the other two. We happily sat down and exhaled. At Kinship we didn’t feel rushed, we weren’t jostled by the comings and goings of people behind us, and we didn’t have to raise our voices to be heard. We indulged that night in meaty corned beef short ribs with delicate cabbage confit agnolotti – a stand-out “corned beef and cabbage” in a light broth. Along with velvety cauliflower soup and some reds by the glass, a cold evening in DC with no reservations turned into a warmly relaxed dinner at Kinship’s welcoming bar.
I hiked to the home of the pelaverga grape, Verduno, in the Piedmont region of Italy, to have lunch at a trattoria with a sense of fun (just catch their wall mural of two dancing dudes – a server and chef – with oversized heads). And try the wine from this uncommon grape. J and I had left our mid-morning stop, Cantina Stroppiana, and had wound our way to Verduno through vineyards heavy with grapes ready for harvest. Off a quiet side road, we walked into the small gravel courtyard of Trattoria dai Bercau, and were waved over to seats, on a covered patio, with wooden tables and white tablecloths.
J and I joined a few others making the most of the sun and series of courses on the set menu. Four were enjoying what looked like the last of their lucky work day lunch in button down shirts and pants, blazers hanging off the backs of chairs. A longer table behind us was crowded with the plates and glasses and wine bottles of a visiting family (and their small dog) leisurely enjoying their meal.
Once the pelaverga wine was ordered, plates started arriving at our table with carne cruda (ground raw beef with (as I remember it) lemon, olive oil, and garlic) then vitello tonnato (thin slices of veal with tuna sauce). Having veal wasn’t surprising, but the tuna sauce was an unexpected Piedmontese specialty, to me, in these hills below the Alps. By the time thin, flat ribbons of tajarinpasta showed up – black truffles shaved tableside – we had comfortably settled in to the warm sun and the ease of the afternoon. A reward and necessity before finishing the hilly loop that was the hike back to our home base in La Morra.
Get This Wine…Verduno Pelaverga
Complementing Trattoria dai Bercau’s meal was the pelavarga. The grape produced a bright red wine that’s slightly fruity but surprisingly, definitely peppery at the finish. Plagued, yet again, by the reality that we-only-packed-carry-ons-so-can’t-take-wine-back, we sought it out online once back in the US. I’m coveting a few bottles from Comm.G.B. Burlotto– Verduno Pelaverga 2015, and the 2016 Fratelli Alessandria– Verduno Pelaverga. I found them here and here.
Hiking the hills of the Piedmont began with a stop at the tourist office in La Morra. Opening hours were reliably sporadic. It was, after all, early September – in Italy – just after a sleepy summer break and just before white truffle hunting season. A few impromptu reconnaissance trips got J and I to the office as it opened one morning, and we were rewarded with a well laid out hiking map and helpful guidance from the woman behind the counter. Tiny historic La Morra is the highest point in this commune in the Piedmont region of Italy, and hikes from here spread throughout the vineyard clad hills to other villages and towns in the Province of Cuneo. The map encouragingly displayed the names and phone numbers of hundreds of wineries dotted along the hiking trails that run through vineyards and down narrow roads. Map in hand, J and I started down a route that would lead us into the town of Verduno, just to the north of La Morra.
Along the way we took advantage of that helpful list of wineries and phone numbers and called Cantina Stroppiana, a small winery in the hamlet of Rivalta, to ask if they had time for us to tour and taste. The family in this family-owned business was busy pressing grapes. Extreme cold and severe heat over the last year meant that grapes were being harvested early, in September, not October. But despite the amount of work going on, Stefania graciously welcomed us in our hiking gear and Leonardo, her son, showed us around an open area of stainless steel tanks where his father Dario was in the process of turning the harvested dolcetto grape into its wine (sort of the red table wine of this region).
We sat down in the simple tasting room for a Piedmont wine education from Stefania and leisurely tasted about 10 of Stroppiana’s wines from rich red barolos, to light, white and new (to us) nascetta. There was a barolo and barbera named Leonardo and Altea, respectively, after her son and daughter, and one called San Giacomo, for the saint of the namesake 18thcentury church where the winery now stands. Dario joined us at the table and we lamented the high cost of shipping to the US. Which, in the end, didn’t dissuade us from ordering a case. Several hours later, their time and hospitality left us energized for the next leg of our hike and a late lunch further up the road in Verduno.