Winter on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, is low key. Its wide-open beaches and fewer people. It means oysters are in season and we can still get fresh shrimp. Last year, J and I experimented with poached oysters dotted with caviar and wisps of pickled cucumber. It was decadent and delicious. This year, to save J’s hands and manage to eat before midnight AND be able to enjoy more oysters with family, we stuck to roasting them on the grill to dip in cocktail sauce, a gingery cilantro sauce, and melted butter. Sauces that also shared nicely with a large bowl of peel-and-eat shrimp.
And then there was that blind baguette taste-off, which completed the night’s vibrant meal. (Some of the family had pre-determined favorites, but it was a tie – really – because each chewy baguette had its own strength – from a hint of butter in one to a perfectly browned crust in the other. See the culpable bakeries below.)
Sharing table space with the shrimp and oysters were bottles (carted down I-95 in the car with Russ & Daughters‘ smoked salmon, pickled lox, and a chocolate babka for good measure), of sparkling smoky na Punta extra brut and an exceptionally dry Argyle Extended Tirage Brut sipped from unassuming (maybe mismatched and unbreakable?) house wine glasses. We could bring them down to the beach for a sunset in soft shades of pink, behind the oyster shell-decorated “tree” that shows up every year at Christmas. Or during a pitch-black night, to see the moon, like J, with his camera, tripod, and headlamp.
Besides the beach at sunset, get to these places on Hilton Head Island and in Bluffton, SC, to make the most out of Winter –
Bluffton Oyster Company, for bushels of local oysters. Be sure to call and place an order ahead of time during the holidays.
New York City Pizza, where the take-out veggie pizza is piled high with mushrooms, green peppers and onions, and they’re open late-ish if you hit traffic and arrive on the island after dark.
Fish Camp on Broad Creek, to sit at the heated outside bar twinkling in strings of soft white lights, eating ahi tuna nachos and calamari with crunchy/spicy fried pickles, a Westover One-Claw and a glass of malbec, listening to the guy in the corner playing guitar.
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 Parkand “camping” in a tiny house trailer at getaway. After a morning stop for cappuccino at the Mudhousein 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.
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.
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.
Le Vigne Bio, in the town of La Morra in the Piedmont region of Italy showcases wines from winemakers using biodynamic and organic processes. The wine bar’s temporary, raised outdoor patio (reminiscent of a small music stage) was across the street and abutting the face of the La Morra town hall, which is just about to the top of the hill where the via San Martino meets the Parrocchia di San Martino. The wines by the glass, including several sparkling options, were written in chalk on a blackboard leaning against the town hall wall. Several small tables and chairs were arranged and two sets occupied by a visiting German family on this cool late afternoon in early September. It was a perfect time for J and I to sit down for an aperitivo on our first day in La Morra.
Eyeing the sparkling, I went with the na Punta (2012) an Extra Brut produced by Franco Conterno, based in Monforte d’Alba just across the hills. What a find! The pale gold color of the na Punta delivered a dry smoky taste that was so unexpected from a sparkling. Made from 100 percent Nebbiolo grape (the grape of this, the Piedmont region of Italy), na Punta had a heft I hadn’t tasted before in a sparkling. I sipped mine while nibbling on a selection of salumi, the aperitivo food complement to our glasses of wine.
I was wracking my brain trying to think of ways to carry back some na Punta despite only traveling with small, international-size carry-on bags. Was the na Punta worth investing in a large hard-sided suitcase? Would we be crazy to pay more outrageous shipping fees to the US and buy a case to be shipped from Le Vigne Bio’s friendly owner, Severino Oberto? In the end, sensibility won out, but we took a photo of the bottle just in case we might find it back home. We didn’t. Franco Conterno distributes some of their wines, but not the sparkling na Punta, in the US. J surprised me, though, and for Christmas, he ordered a half case from the winery and we enjoyed na Punta on a twinkling Christmas Eve on Hilton Head Island. Most appropriately, with elegant Poached Oysters, light and tangy with Pickled Cucumber and Caviar.