A Little Bit of Italy in Virginia

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We went south to head north; to stop by a few wineries on a rainy Sunday, on our way back to the Washington, DC, area.  J and I had been hiking in Shenandoah National Park and “camping” in a tiny house trailer at getaway.  After a morning stop for cappuccino at the Mudhouse in Crozet, we turned left at the winery sign – hanging off a piece of construction equipment at the side of the road – and pulled in to Gabriele Rausse (just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia).  Gabriele Rausse is the namesake winery of Gabriele Rausse who moved from Italy to Virginia in the late 1970s to help start Barboursville Vineyards.

The modern glass and wood framed tasting room was tucked into the trees at the end of a short gravel lane – windows facing out on at least two sides of the small open space.  At mid-day, a couple was sitting in the back booth and several were standing at the tasting bar.  The Beatles were playing; a wilted hardcover book about Italy’s big Barolo wines on the shelf.  The winery’s lumberingly sweet yellow lab mix greeted everyone and then plopped down to rest against the window.

Gabriele Rausse’s son was pouring the wine, family was around, and fresh pasta was being rolled through a pasta maker.  We tasted whites to reds accompanied by small bites of speck with arugula, soft and crunchy sourdough baguettes with pungent olive oil for dipping, fresh linguine with pesto, and a bite of warm baklava at the end.

Hiking to Eat…At a Tiny House Trailer in the Woods

I don’t do it often enough, but it’s not hard to get out of the city in the Washington, DC, area.  Farmland, horse country, the Blue Ridge Mountains, are only an hour or so away.  Take Stanardsville, Virginia, just outside Shenandoah National Park.  It took me and J about the two hours advertised by getaway, to drive there late Friday afternoon for some Saturday hiking.  Getaway is a revamped campground (once, Heavenly Acres Campground) dotted with carefully placed tiny house trailers – all wood-sided and painted black.  Ours came with a New York license plate.  Each trailer is named for a grandparent of staff or guests (says the web site) the name engraved onto a metal plate by the front door.  Discreet black and white signs lead you into the wooded grounds.  Our tiny house trailer, Carroll, was light and spare and punctuated by a glossy red under-counter refrigerator and a black-and-red checked blanket.

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Two people and a small dog take up the entire floor space.  And don’t plan on cooking meals with a lot of ingredients or steps – there’s a two-burner electric cook top and counter space is a scarcity. Which doesn’t mean we didn’t eat well.

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J and I started our day waking up to a forest staring back at us through the picture window wall that was the back of our trailer.  We ended it in Adirondack chairs in front of our own fire pit – eating sautéed shishito peppers and re-heated smoked sirloin tip with the other night’s potato salad on the side.  Later we (truthfully, just I) gorged on s’mores complete with marshmallows toasted over the fire pit on twigs stripped clean and to sharp points by J.  Sitting by our flickering fire, the night otherwise dark, you could hear people laughing a few camp sites away.  When walking the dog, we passed cars tucked into alcoves next to their own tiny house trailers and saw the occasional dog and person.  But our campsite, encircled by trees, was definitely our own.

 

 

 

Beach Walking to a Fried Bologna Sandwich

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A walk to Coco’s on the Beach requires advance consultation with the Hilton Head Island Tide Chart.  Low tide was my friend.  To make the journey from where I was staying towards the heel of the Island, you have to cross an inlet.  When J and I crossed, an hour and a half after low tide and just around mid-day on a Tuesday, the water was barely ankle deep at most points and the inlet just a narrow line of water fed by the ocean cutting up through the sand.  An hour later, that ankle-deep line was a hip-deep stream.  And with a current strong enough that kids were having fun letting it carry them along a short-ways.

The walk to Coco’s was a people-watching quick-paced 50-minutes up the beach in bare feet, flip flops in hand, to the elevated open-air bar giving you a view through the palm trees to the ocean beyond.  Coco’s is the quintessential beach-side bar – all laid back with a sense of hot, salty, sandy, and sunblock  There’s a nod to old hippies (they’re welcome) and a sign that although (the owner?) may be of a certain age, he’s seen all the best bands.  So true.  Vibrant in their primary colors of blue, red, and yellow, square wooden stools front the wraparound bar and equally vivid wide square tables.

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Coco’s serves a range of burgers and beers and sandwiches and cocktails in plastic cups.  The Fried Bologna “Ohio Style” Sandwich that J ordered – pickles and onion rings layered on top of the lightly fried thick bologna slice – was delicious.  So was my beefy Swiss and ‘Shroom Burger.  Coleslaw and a bag of chips served on the side.  Order at the window; pick up when your name is called over the mic.  Try to read all of the signs running the length and width of the walls all around and above the counter.  Take your photo in front of the multi-colored signpost.  Or just sit and eat and have a beer and feel the breeze.  You really are at the beach.

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Beach Walking to the Closest Latte

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I’m always looking for the closest walkable latte.  On Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, it happens to be at The Westin Hotel’s take-out café, and a good excuse for a daily morning walk on the beach.  Once I step out onto that soft sand surrounded by endless sky, I immediately sense that I could walk to infinity.  (But then I would miss that latte, only 15 minutes away.)  There are few people on the beach in Winter, more in Summer, and always a handful of dogs walking happily on the sand or splashing recklessly through the waves.

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One morning a photographer was trying to make the most of the soft morning light on two small uncooperative fluffy white dogs.  Beachside yoga class was wrapping up on towels close to the water’s edge.  I check out the other goings-on at my destination, walking from the beach through the tiered decks of the hotel’s pool area and into the back lobby and take-out café.  Latte in hand (iced in Summer but ordered hot in Winter), I reverse my route back toward the comforting hum of soft waves and light ocean breezes of the beach.

Where the Malbec Meets the Mountains on a Ranch in Argentina

 

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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.

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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.

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Valle de Uco

 

Hiking to Eat…Trattoria dai Bercau, Verduno

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Trattoria dai Bercau

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 Stroppianaand 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 tajarin pasta 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.

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Tajarin pasta with shaved black truffles, Pelaverga in the glass.

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.

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On the road to Verduno, there was Stroppiana

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Verduno, Italy

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).

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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.