Passion Points: Food/Wine
When passionate traveler and self-proclaimed foodie Bonnie Brayham, originally from San Francisco, moved to Paris in 1999, she immediately found herself on a quest to uncover the best restaurants, hidden gastronomic treasures, passionate artisanal food producers and top places to stay in Italy and France. Today, as the founder of gourmet travel company Purple Truffle (www.purpletruffle.com), she frequently travels to the culinary regions of these foodie destinations, and speaking with Indagare, she shares some of her favorite discoveries along the way.
What regions in France do you love the most and why?
Difficult question. Every region is unique (some fiercely independent), and I enjoy spending time in all of them for different reasons. My particular favorites are Brittany for the rugged coastline which reminds me of Northern California where I am from, for kouign amann pastries, savory buckwheat crèpes or galettes and for exquisite fresh seafood. Dordogne, in the heart of Southwest France, I adore for some of the most picturesque hilltop villages and towns, spectacular sites, and castles in France, foie gras paired with a local Monbazillac, duck confit, black truffles and quaint family-run auberges. Burgundy has towns like Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet where rows and rows of magnificent vines stretch as far as the eye can see, and the friendly vintners create legendary pinot noir and chardonnay wines; there are also outstanding artisanal chevre, including the pungent AOC Epoisses, which was allegedly banned on public transport in France because it really stinks. Burgundy has some excellent restaurants, plentiful wild mushrooms and the 12th-century Abbey of Fontenay, one of the oldest Cistercian monasteries in France. And the Languedoc Roussillon, yet to be discovered by mass tourism, has a rich medieval history, waistline-expanding Cassoulet, and the excellent but lesser-know wine appellations of Corbieres and Minervois.
How about in Italy?
I am partial to Sicily for the passionate and kind people, the awe-inspiring Roman and Greek temples, capers, sweet ricotta pastries, the amazing Roman mosaics at Villa Romana del Casale. Food-wise, you can’s miss the sarde a beccafico (open-faced sardines stuffed with raisins, bread crumbs, parsley and pine nuts among other tasty ingredients), as well as many fantastic and lesser-known wineries such as Passopisciaro and Benanti. Sicily is a culture melting pot for food, and its winding streets and covered market stalls in Palermo and Catania feel more like traditional souks or bazaars found in Africa or the Middle East. Emilia Romagna, of course, for their food and fast cars; culatello di Zibello, prosciutto di Parma, traditional balsamic vinegar, parmigiano reggiano cheese, gnocco fritto (addictive little fried pockets of dough served with various salumi) and pumpkin tortelli reign here. Parma is also one of my favorite cities in Italy. Umbria is another region I love for the voluptuous green landscape producing some of Italy’s finest delights, including exquisite olive oil, porchetta, truffle-laced salami from Norcia, exquisite linens, beautiful pottery. There are stunning medieval towns and villages (many perfectly preserved), like Gubbio, Bevagna and Spello. I also spend a lot of time in Tuscany and one of my favorite regions is the tranquil Maremma, in the south, probably the most wild and undiscovered part of Tuscany. Many of the medieval hilltop villages such as Massa Marittima are unspoiled and the spectacular Mediterranean coastline stretches for almost 200 miles. I love such local specialties as wild boar , as well as their wines, also known as Super Tuscans, some of the most coveted by Italian wine enthusiasts. The Sassicaia, Ornellaia and Tignanello domains started to experiment with French grapes varieties and methods in the late 1970s and they now produce some of the finest and most expensive wines in Italy. (Because they do not conform to the strict classifications, they cannot be labeled DOC or DOCG and were initially labeled as vino da tavola, table wine.) Lastly, I am, of course, partial to Piemonte for the Nebbiolo grape, producing some of my favorite Barolos and Barbarescos, for white truffles, the Slow Food movement, and bagna cauda (hot bath), an unbelievably addictive sauce made from cooking butter, olive oil, garlic and anchovies together. I serve it drizzled over grilled zucchini and red peppers or to dip bread.
What makes organizing a truffle hunting trip unique?
There are many different types of truffle experiences offered in Italy and France and unfortunately, many are designed for tourists and are therefore not authentic; the truffle hunter will bury previously found truffles in strategic locations. The whole point of truffles (especially the elusive white truffle) is that they are rare and difficult to find. They refuse to be cultivated and have very particular specifications regarding where they choose to grow. That said, if you are hunting with an exceptionally good guide in high season, it’s likely truffles will be dug up. Purple Truffle organizes experiences where clients search for truffles with an expert hunter and also learn more about the secretive culture around truffles, discover different types, learn how to store them and have the option of cooking regional dishes.
Are truffles still hunted with the help of pigs?
They are used less frequently because many a truffle has unfortunately been consumed by greedy pigs. Today, dogs are used more commonly, because they generally don’t try to eat the truffles, they just want their reward for finding one. The traditions and culture surrounding truffles are fascinating, and I’ve had many captivating conversations with truffle-hunters, as have my clients.
When is the best season and region for truffle hunting?
In France, truffles are mainly found in Provence, Perigord, and Burgundy, and the season is November through March. Southeastern France, the most well-known truffle region, produces the majority of French truffles, including the black truffle from Perigord, known as the black diamond. In Italy, in Piemonte, for example, the high season for the famous tartufo bianco d’Alba (Alba white truffle) is October and November, however truffles can be found as early as September and as late as January. Tuscany follows a similar season. In Umbria, the different sorts of truffles (black truffles, white truffles, summer truffles, etc.) can be found over half the year. In a nutshell, Piemonte, Tuscany and Umbria are really the top regions for truffles in Italy, although Emilia Romagna and Le Marche should not be left out.
What would be your advice for parents who want to take their kids on culinary journeys?
If you want to teach your child how to cook, stick them in the kitchen with a passionate chef, the best quality seasonal ingredients, and a vast array of weird and wonderful kitchen tools that provoke awe and curiosity. Teaching children where their food comes from and how it grows is always fun, especially when they are allowed to help harvest the fruits, vegetables or herbs themselves. It’s also important for kids to learn that preparing fresh ingredients in various ways can make them taste very different. Of course, afterwards, you may find that your child will only eat fresh pasta, top-quality extra virgin olive oil and turn their noses up at dried herbs.
What have been some of your favorite culinary discoveries?
Cibo di strada (street food) in Palermo, one of my favorites being arancine, deep fried and breaded Arborio rice balls stuffed with ragu or bechamel. Maitre Chocolatier Joel Durand in Saint-Remy-de-Provence and the lavender and green tea chocolates from his Alphabet des Saveurs. A small acetaia (traditional balsamic vinegar producer) in the Reggio Emilia province of Emilia Romagna and tasting twenty-five-year aged traditional balsamic vinegar drizzled over a fresh chunk of 36 month aged Parmigiano Reggiano produced nearby; the truffle market and marche au gras (fat market), the latter of which features foie gras, duck and goose confit, in Sarlat in the winter months. The farmer’s market in Uzes, especially in the early summer, in the southern region of Languedoc Roussillon. The non-descript Ristorante Genovini, near San Miniato, for their fonduta con tartufi (truffle fondue) and meals shared with local hunters. For baking, G. Detou in Paris, a professional baking supplies store. The name of this shop is a pun on “J’ai de tout,” or “I have everything.” I wish my kitchen was bigger just so I could buy everything I covet in this shop from brick-sized bars of dark chocolate to huge bags of vanilla beans and boxes of candied violets.
What is your favorite time of year to visit certain culinary regions?
Autumn is my favorite season in Italy and, in my opinion, one of the best seasons for a gastronomic adventure. In France, I love the late spring and early summer in the south and the abundance of seasonal fruits and vegetables. One of my favorite culinary regions is Piemonte…for the white truffles, of course, but also for porcini mushrooms, chestnuts and pumpkins, all harvested in the fall and celebrated with fantastic local festivals called “sagre” in Italy. One of my favorite festivals is the “Sagra della Zucca” or pumpkin festival and one of the best in Piemonte is in Piozzi in the region around Cuneo. Not far away from Piozzi is the beautiful hilltown of Mondovi and a favorite restaurant of mine, Il Baluardo, owned by chef Marc Lanteri and his American-born wife, Amy, a professional sommelier. The focus is strictly on creating inspired dishes with local and seasonal ingredients.
What are your favorite restaurants in Paris?
I have many favorite restaurants in Italy and France and while quite a few are known by seasoned epicures, many are hidden gems. In order not to get carried away, I will focus on my home city. A favorite standby is L’Ami Jean. Chef Stephane Jego worked alongside Yves Camdeborde at Le Regalade for about a decade before venturing out on his own. The chalkboard menu changes often and the cuisine is inspired by the Basque region of France. Clos des Gourmets is another best-loved restaurant of mine. Chef Arnaud Pitrois uses seasonal ingredients and a bit of quirkiness to turn out classic French favorites like tete du cochon and carpaccio of foie gras. They have an excellent wine list and their prix fixe menu is incredible value for money. Auguste, opened by former sous chef at Le Meurice, Gael Orieux, and now boasting a Michelin star, specializes in exquisitely prepared seafood (Orieux is from Brittany) and perfectly executed versions of classic French dishes. For the best stuffed cabbage in Paris, I head to Le Florimond where chef Pascal Guillaumin prepares excellent bistro classics in a relaxed atmosphere. A couple of relatively undiscovered gems in Paris are the tiny Le Jeu de Quilles, hidden away in the 14th arrondisement and Le Baratin, located in the 20th arrondisement, a favorite of many Parisian chefs, and, fortunately, too out of the way for all but the most dedicated and informed foodies.
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