Archive for the ‘US Customs’Category

All menus lead to Rome

Ultimately, we did visit the amazing museums at Vatican City—and here’s our sneaked photo of the Sistine Chapel ceiling to prove it. (Yeah, like we were the only ones….) But we have to admit that we were originally waylaid by Rome’s greatest gourmet food shop. And who could blame us? Gastronomy is Italy’s other art. Or maybe its other religion.

When we’d finished eating lunch at Franchi (see previous post), we decided that it was a good time to stop in at Castroni (Via Cola di Rienzo 196, Tel: 06-68-74-383, www.castronicoladirienzo.it, open Mon-Sat 8am-8pm), reasoning that since we were already stuffed, we would be immune to the lures of the merchandise. It was only next door, and we’d still have plenty of time to get back to the Vatican.


The legend over the door reads Castroni Droghe Coloniali, but like some pop stars, the place is famous enough to go by a single moniker. And Castroni is indeed a name to conjure with. Since 1932 the flagship store in the Prati district east of the Vatican has proved that all gastronomic roads lead to Rome. On seeing the walls lined 15 feet high with gourmet goodies, David pleaded, “Do we have to go to the Sistine Chapel today?” Pat gave in, and we postponed the museum trip by a day.

Many ex-pats swear by Castroni for the tastes of home—the full line of Twinings teas, for example, or a broad range of Fauchon products from Paris, or good smoked Spanish paprika. But all the flavors of Italy also find their way to this wonderful shop. This year is the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy, and while north and south, right and left seem no closer to real unity than they have been since the days of Vittorio Emanuele II himself, Castroni brings all the regions together for a gastronomic love fest.

There’s a modest bar with some casual food, so it’s possible to pop in for lunch and then to spend an afternoon just shopping. (Or drooling.) Bins hold virtually every variety of dried bean or chickpea grown anywhere on the peninsula. The store’s own brand of dry pastas include bags with mixed Roman monuments (maybe the ultimate gastronomic souvenir), and Castroni’s own coffee (whole bean or ground) makes an authentic-tasting Roman espresso—dark and syrupy with some high, almost lemony notes that suggest a lot of East African coffees in the blend. If you find the flavor addictive, the shop also sells a coffee concentrate passed off as an energy drink.

Had we demonstrated the foresight to bring an empty suitcase from home, we would have stocked up on all kinds of goodies that U.S. Customs would let us bring in, including the dazzling array of pestos from Abruzzo made of ripe Leccino olives, of asparagus, or of radicchio. Just add hot pasta and you have a stupendous meal. We also would have loaded up on duck liver and orange pâtés and the jars of small green peppers stuffed with duck liver mousse, not to mention hot-pepper-inspired salsas from Sicily and white truffle and porcini salsas from Umbria.

But since we were traveling light, we limited ourselves to squeeze tubes of tomato paste, mushroom cream, black olive puree, and mixed vegetables. (A squirt of the mixed vegetables paste into chicken broth makes it taste like minestrone.) We find them amazingly versatile in the kitchen, allowing us to add a dollop to eggs, salad dressing, soup, or a sauce to shade the flavor one way or another. (They also make great gifts for friends who cook.) In fact, the only thing we expected to find at Castroni but didn’t were the truffle products of Acqualagna in Le Marche, where the local motto is ”truffles all year long.” More on that next time….

24

06 2011

Bites worth standing for

It’s easy to get a good, quick lunch in Rome. Usually we opt for a couple of slices of pizza in whatever pizzeria is closest when we’re hungry. But for even more variety, we sometimes head to a tavola calda—an amazing array of hot and cold dishes ordered at a counter, served up quickly and almost always eaten standing up. One of the best in Rome is found at Franchi (Via Cola di Rienzo 200, tel. 06-68-74-651, www.franchi.it.), which is also one of the city’s most extravagant alimentari (local food stores).

Outside of meal time, this is the spot in the Prati neighborhood to buy sliced cold cuts, cheese, and cooked dishes to take home for dinner. But at lunchtime, the shop is swarmed with office workers (including those from the nearby Prati courthouse) who order from the daily selection of dishes on the tavola calda. The chefs are known for their arancini: breaded and fried balls of risotto drooling with mozzarella inside. But they also make other good things, such as a cold rice salad studded with shrimp and layered with slices of cured salmon, deep-fried cod fillets, oven-roasted vegetables drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, creamy pools of polenta and melted cheese, manicotti….

The scene is a bit chaotic. You place your order, return to the cashier to pay, grab a tray and wait for your food, then hope you can score a tall table or bit of counter space to balance your food while you eat standing up. (Be careful who you elbow aside—the courthouse guards are packing.) Our last visit was a reward for shuffling in the long and pointless lines to visit St. Peter’s. We needed the break before plunging into the crowds at the Vatican museums. The rice balls did not disappoint, the slice of lasagna was as good as any we’ve eaten in a white linen dining room, and the slab of polenta was rich and cheesy.

19

06 2011

A very Fortnum Christmas to you


Since business took me to St. James’s Street in London (mostly to visit the iconic wine shop of Berry Bros. & Rudd, which has been there since 1698), there was no way I could miss visiting Fortnum & Mason (181 Piccadilly; tel: 0845.602.5694; www.fortnumandmason.com), practically around the corner. I could tell that Christmas was coming when I met chocolatier David Burns (above) just inside the front door, handing out samples of his chocolates. (The lavendar English cream that he gave me was as divine as I’d expected.) Burns and his wife Keely operate the small firm that has supplied handmade chocolates to F&M since the 1920s.

By the first week of October, my favorite London purveyor of gourmet goodies had transformed its first floor into the Christmas shop. Given the paucity of British autumn holidays, the retailers start Christmas early. But no one does the flavors of Christmas quite like the Brits, who have spun a whole gastronomic fantasy about holiday sweets and savories (and sweet savories, like mincemeat). For example, who can resist a jar of Christmas rum butter to accompany Christmas puddings and pies?

The store is a great place to buy holiday gifts for foodie friends (I’ll take the whole-grain mustard, please, and a bottle of F&M’s own beef extract–a hideously expensive commodity ever since mad cow mania shut down the British beef industry for a while). Maybe the nicest of the Fortnum & Mason teas is the white Yunnan, but I find the packaging of the “Royal Blend Stronger Tea” irresistibly colorful.

Fortnum & Mason tries to have Christmas both ways, of course. Advent calendars make it nigh unto impossible to find the cash register, and the tins of plum pudding and other sticky sponge-like things conjure up the feel-good emotions of a Charles Dickens Christmas. But even Fortnum & Mason can sometimes jump the shark with its Yuletide enthusiasms. Just who do they think will be serving the “Arctic delicacy” of reindeer paté at their Christmas party?

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05

12 2010

Tips for packing food and wine in a suitcase

bubble wrap packing for wineWhen we posted What to buy in an Italian grocery store and What to buy in a Spanish grocery store, we neglected to mention how to get those delicacies home. International airline security restrictions limiting liquids, gels, and pastes (including most soft foods) to 3 ounces in carry-on luggage means entrusting your goodies to the gorillas who slam around checked luggage.

Leaving home, we try to fill our checked bags only halfway, taking up the extra space with bubble wrap and really large plastic bags. (A friend once suggested we have a bag fetish.) Hefty One-Zip 2 1/2 gallon bags are ideal. A few 1-gallon sliding zipper plastic bags are also handy. Small items like jars of anchovies, truffle oil, or pistachio butter from Sicily can go in the gallon bags after each is padded with some bubble wrap (the smaller the bubbles the better).

Bottles of wine and olive oil are a little trickier, since they’re bigger and make an unholy mess if they break. We haven’t had a suitcase ruined, but we did manage to saturate a Spanish rental car trunk with two liters of Núñez del Prado olive oil.

We tend to wrap each bottle in a plastic laundry bag (thank you, hotel), then in bubble wrap before inserting into a Hefty. Each of these mummy-wrapped bottles is packed strategically in the suitcase padded by lots of dirty clothes. Practically speaking, this means no more than 3-4 big bottles per suitcase to stay under the airlines’ increasingly strict weight limitations.

If you’re flying an airline that allows two pieces of checked baggage, you can also ship wine in its own box. Ideally, that would be a box with styrofoam shipping inserts (sometimes called a “wine shipper”), but we’ve had good success with a standard wine case and lots of bubble wrap (limiting you to about 8 bottles per 12-bottle case). Attach a secure handle, which can be made from strapping tape, and pray you’re not flying Alitalia, which requires you to sign a waiver before they will accept the box as checked luggage. (They won’t guarantee safe arrival–or even arrival at all.)

30

12 2009

What to buy in an Italian grocery store

Since so many of the regional Italian cuisines are based on food that is fresh, fresh, fresh, we’re limited in what we can bring back home. But there are some dry goods and conserves that turn out to be very useful in cooking Italian dishes. We’ve learned not to bother with colored pastas, which cook up to a gray mess anyway, because we can buy good imported dry pasta for about the same price we’d pay for it in Italy.

Here’s our Italian grocery list:

AnchoviesAnchovies.
Many Americans think they don’t like anchovies because they have never tasted good ones used with the restraint characteristic of Italian recipes. We look for anchovies packed in glass jars so we can make sure they are firm and whole. We also check the jar for an expiration date several months in the future.

Dried mushrooms.
Dried fungi, especially dried porcini mushrooms, are central to a number of pastas and risottos. Alas, purchasing in an Italian market doesn’t provide much of a price break over buying in US gourmet import stores, but because Italian cooks use a lot of dried mushrooms, the shelf stock is always fresh. Even dry, porcini should remain flexible.

RicesRice.
We buy arborio for most risottos, but always get some vialone nano for seafood risottos, and Roma for Roman rice dishes. They’re all strains of short-grained, oval rice. The less expensive riso originale (the more generic mother strain) is a good choice for soups or arancini, but we rarely buy it unless we have a lot of room left in the suitcase. The same one-kilo box of vialone nano we buy in Italy for two euros is nearly $15 in the U.S.

Bouillon cubes.
Bouillon cubes and soup bases differ from country to country-even the international brands like Knorr. Those sold in the Italian markets are seasoned to Italian taste, and work very well as a backup for having your own homemade stock. We like the Starr brand, especially the porcini mushroom bouillon cubes.

Mushroom salad.
Jarred marinated mushrooms provide an instant antipasto. We generally look for mixed “woods” mushrooms for variety of colors and shapes. Fior di Bosco is a good choice.

Tomato pasteTomato paste in a tube.
Often ridiculously expensive at home, the tubes of double-concentrated Italian tomato paste are a perfect solution for providing just a touch of tomato to a soup or a sauce. The flavor is typically richer and a little sweeter than canned tomato paste.

Herbs.
There are few dried herbs used in Italian cooking that we can’t buy at home, but we like the aromatic sweetness of Italian oregano for seasoning sauces and salads.

Salt.
Like the Spaniards, the Italians typically use sea salt to season their food, though their salt is usually more refined than the Spanish. Italian processed sea salt is usually found in both fino and grosso (fine and coarse). The coarse salt is intended for oven-roasting fish or meat, but can do double duty in a salt grinder.

MostardaMostarda de la Cremona.
The great cookbook author (and all-around generous soul) Michele Scicolone turned us on to this conserve of small fruits poached in sugar syrup until they become nearly translucent. A secondary seasoning with mustard syrup gives the mostarda a sweet-savory quality similar to a chutney, but even more beautiful to serve with a bollito misto (a ring of mixed meats). You can buy it in bulk at deli counters as pictured, but mostardas are also sold in jars (easier to take home).

18

12 2009

What to buy in a Spanish grocery store

SpanishpimentonWe love visiting fresh markets when we travel. But except for dried herbs and spices, most of the goods won’t make it through US Customs. Once we’ve snapped dozens of photos of mounds of vegetables and tables of glistening fish on ice, we head to a neighborhood grocery store (the kind where homemakers, not tourists, shop) to stock up on food essentials to bring home.

Here’s our Spanish grocery list:

Saffron

Spaniards claim their saffron is the world’s best and price it accordingly. The larger the container, the better the deal. We usually purchase saffron in 20-gram boxes or larger. (A half gram is sufficient for a 15-inch paella.) Stored in an airtight container out of the light, it will keep up to seven years—or so we have been told. It never lasts that long for us.

Pimentón de la Vera

It’s hard to resist the colorful tins holding smoked paprika from Extremadura. The earthy red spice with a mild hint of smoke seasons chorizo and most forms of paella. It’s most commonly available as dulce (sweet) or picante (hot). Dulce, which is slightly hot, adds a touch of warmth and deep coloring to rice dishes and soups. It is the main paprika used in Spanish sauces (including Bravas). Use the picante sparingly. It heat approaches as most Mexican chile peppers. If we plan to make a barbecue dry rub, we look for the less common ahumado, which has a strong smoky component.

Sea Salt

Flaked sea salt is a current foodie favorite, but we prefer the coarser Spanish sea salt sold for roasting fish or fowl. It can be ground in a salt grinder to use at the table or tossed into liquids as a seasoning. Our favorite brand, Sal Costa from the Costa Brava, costs less than a half euro per kilo.

fishtins

Canned fish

Spaniards are canning geniuses. Their tinned anchovies, oysters, squid, octopus, clams, and sardines supply half the tapas served in the bars. White anchovies, in particular, taste so good that the Italians import them.

Olive oil

Olive oil is a matter of personal taste. But Spaniards concur that the best in Spain comes from Andalucía—either from Núñez del Prado, or from hill towns around Úbeda. Best bet is “bionatur” oil packaged in tins rather than bottles.

Bomba rice

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This heritage strain of rice introduced to the Valencia area from North Africa around 800AD is the premium rice for paella. It’s twice as expensive as “Valencia” rice, and worth every cent for its ability to absorb flavor and maintain its toothy texture.

Manchego cheese

This aged ewe’s milk cheese is the pride of Spanish cheeses. We sometimes bring an entire three-kilo wheel home, but big vacuum-sealed wedges are also available in most grocery stores. It keeps fine for several days without refrigeration.

Pouringhotchocolate

Valor chocolate

Anyone who visits in cool weather soon discovers the soothing pleasures of Spain’s unusually thick hot chocolate. Valor is a common supermarket brand for recreating the treat at home. It’s even good without the accompanying churros.

09

12 2009

Bringing food through US Customs

Sometimes you can’t bring the taste of travel back home. We learned the hard way by trying to bring in a large block of mountain ham from Spain. Mind you, this was the choicest grade of jamón ibérico (from acorn-fattened black-footed pigs), and priced accordingly. The salesperson at the factory in Jabugo assured us that it would go right through U.S. Customs because it was vacuum-sealed.

When we declared the ham, Customs promptly confiscated it as if we were smuggling uncle Guido’s homemade country sausage. You can argue the validity of the policy all you want, but Customs people do not make policy. They only enforce it. One of us was already tired of pungent Spanish ham anyway.

To avoid disappointment, costly or not, it is a good idea to have a working knowledge of the USDA and FDA regulations that U.S. Customs will enforce.

Meat is not welcome. In theory, this even extends to canned meat and meat derivatives, like sausages in tin cans, soup mixes, bouillon cubes, or jerky snacks. By contrast, most fish and fish products are welcome—even dried salt cod, should you wish to really foul up your luggage.

The regulations on bringing cheese into the U.S. are complex, but in the absence of extensive paperwork, Customs officials use a rule of thumb: Firm and hard aged cheeses are fine. Soft and runny cheeses are not. Fresh cheeses like ricotta and feta are out of the question.

Most fresh fruits and vegetables are no-no’s at Customs. In theory, many of them are permitted if you can prove where they were grown. In practice, they are almost universally confiscated. An interesting exception are fresh truffles. Truffles are OK—as long as not a speck of soil clings to them. Soil is strictly forbidden without a special import license.

In theory, the restrictions on food are supposed to protect American agriculture and ensure that foods meet U.S. health standards. Dry goods in general are OK, and they are the easiest to pack. Spices and condiments take up little space in your luggage, and they often concentrate some of the essential flavors of a cuisine. Customs frowns on rice from Asia and Africa, but we have never had a problem bringing home Italian and Spanish rice for making risottos and paellas. Specialty flours are no big deal. Ditto dried mushrooms and chile peppers.

This being the government, the rules are subject to constant change and there are many, many exceptions. For a full run-down on the regulations on any given day related to any product and any country of origin, see the databases at the Animal and Plant Heath Inspection Service of the USDA.

07

12 2009