More Than You Want To Know

The relationship between ham and cheese

Filed under: Travelogue — yk @ 1:46 am

We spent one night in Parma, of which the highlight was the tour of the parmigiano-reggiano cheese factory. The particular one that we saw was run by a consortium of 4 or 5 farms, which provided the milk from a very particular kind of grass-fed cow. I think Kathleen summed it up best: no wonder the real stuff is so expensive.

The factory is run by a team of four, of which two are working at any one time. They work from 3 a.m. until 8 p.m. seven days a week, 365 days a year, with just one two hour siesta in the afternoon. The cheese which basically takes a month to make must be aged a year to be officially considered parmigiano-reggiano cheese and two or three years to garner more money. The cheese itself doesn’t have any particular taste until it’s been brined in salt water for about 20 days.

Patrick and I are big consumers of parmigiano cheese and we’ve been eating parma ham throughout the trip, but what we didn’t realize until the tour was that parma ham owed its existence to the cheese. In the cheese making process, there is a tremendous amount of whey that factories are left with. The solution: keeping pigs and feeding them whey mixed with grains. Our guide told us that every cheese factory has a pig farm that is attached. The factories feed the whey to the pigs, which then develop the sweet flavor that parma ham is known for. They then sell them to the ham producers after 10 months, which allows them to supplement their income. Brilliant.

Dennis and Gelato Part II

Filed under: Travelogue — yk @ 6:08 pm

For the past two weeks, Dennis has paid a visit to a gelateria almost every day. Some days he visit two. I think the record has been three. At each place, I take a picture of him in front of the sign, holding up his rating of the place (as the self-appointed gelato connoisseur of the trip). There have been a couple of duds, but for the most part, they’re very good. We paid a couple visits to Grom, the organic gelato chain from Turino with the most amazing dark chocolate ice cream ever. And Carozza right by the Ponte Vecchio. La Carraia across the river was good enough to merit two trips although Dennis found the lemon ice cream so terrible that he fed it to the fish in the river (the fish loved it). For the record, I want to point out that Dennis is the only one who got gelato at all the places. The rest of us sometimes ordered our own but often had a taste of his.

No matter how good these gelaterias have been, however, none of them merited five stars. They scored 4.5 on Dennis’s arbitrary scorecard based on god knows what. When I asked him what would merit a 5, his response was “You just know.”

On the last day of Florence, we finally found the five-star gelato at a place called Badiani outside the wall. Here’s an excerpt of what one of our bibles for the trip “The Food Lovers’ Guide to Florence” said about it:

“Badiani is the queen bee of Florentine gelatarias. You’ll want to make a trip out to this inconvenient spot… for one reason only: Buontalenti…. Buontalenti is the color of buttermilk and has no discernable flavor… Instead it tastes like some kind of heart-stopping quadruple cream straight from the cow.”

The author pretty much nailed the description of this. Because she was literally right. We took one taste (I had mine with coffee ice cream, Dennis with pistachio), looked at each other and agreed that god had spoken through the gelato.

Mosquitos

Filed under: Random Rants,Travelogue — yk @ 3:39 am

I managed to escape getting a single mosquito bite all summer thanks to the cool San Francisco weather, but in the last two weeks, the mosquitos have had their revenge. My legs and arms and even my hands and feet are covered with bites. The first encounter took place in Tuscany at the Villa where Aiko and Bill got married. The bugs were so huge and omnipresent that even the bug spray couldn’t help me. Subsequent visits to restaurants with open doors and windows finished the job. I loathe mosquitos.

Eye of Newt

Filed under: Travelogue — yk @ 11:50 pm

Every once in awhile, a confluence of factors come together to turn a meal into something special. Last night’s dinner at Tre Soldi, a tiny trattoria outside the walls of Firenze was one of those. It was the end of an amazing day in the city, seeing Michaelangelo’s David (truly, truly magnificent and amazing how the veins in the arms of the marble statue look like they’re pulsing), strolling through the Uffizi and getting lost on the streets. Patrick and I were feeling relaxed after an aperitivo at a wine bar near the hotel, followed by a second cocktail in the hotel bar. Everyone had time to recover from the exhausting day and we were all hungry after a light lunch of panini (first lunch on our vacation that didn’t involve multiple courses) and gelato. We were also ready for a more local experience after a dinner the previous night at a restaurant, in which every nationality seemed to be represented except for the Italians.

So when we arrived at the small and elegantly decorated restaurant with no English menu (the first since we entered Italy), we were ready for a small adventure. Kathleen and I planned on sharing the one salad in the antipasti menu. How risky can salad be, we thought. As it turned out, it had shredded horse meat on it. I hesitated, but Kathleen suggested we go for it, so went for it (it tasted like bacon). Patrick, who doesn’t eat meat, especially pork, was suggested a typical Florentine dish of braised pork neck with white beans, so he went for that. The four of us (including Patrick) ended up sharing the Florentine beef, which came with a range of slices from rare to medium well — something for everyone. We topped it off with various gelato and sorbetto. I ordered the white peach sorbet with bergamot. Amazing. Ending the meal came coffee, limoncello, and vin santo.

We loved it so much, we went back for lunch two days later (11 euro for the Fast Lunch with a primi and a secondi).

Running

Filed under: Travelogue — yk @ 4:25 pm

This vacation is a little different than ones we’ve had in the past because Patrick is in his last two weeks of marathon training before the Chicago Marathon and I’m a month away from my first half marathon. That means that 3-4 times a week we’re out there at 7:30am-8am in the morning trying to find a good route to run. Patrick’s mom, who run/walks 4-6 miles every day back home has decided she will come out and run with me to get some exercise, which I’m very grateful for.

Our 4.5 mile run in Auribeau sur Siagne was a little nerve-wracking because of the cars that zip by, but still pleasant on the whole and a lot less hilly than we anticipated. We saw two camping grounds (nicer than any in the U.S.) and some very nice homes until we hit a dead-end. Our run in Portofino yesterday was a bit more comical. Portofino road is a curvy two-way road that is scary enough to drive because cars zip by. It also doesn’t have a sidewalk for the first 1.5km from the port, which makes it a suicide mission to run.

In Tuscany, we stayed at an agritourismo, essentially an auberge at which most of which they serve is grown there. It was a beautiful property except they neglected to mention that there was a natural gas plant right near by (The parts they don’t mention in books like “Under the Tuscan Sun”. My eight mile run there was a hundred times better than the previous runs, but naturally, I would be the one to figure out the one route that took me right by the gas plant. Twice.

Portofino

Filed under: Travelogue — yk @ 3:54 pm

We’re sitting on the patio of our hotel, Hotel Nazionale, right in the port of Portofino, sipping a bottle of local white wine, eating strawberries and listening to the piano music coming from the restaurant next door as we watch the world go by — the women in completely impractical heels trying to walk on the cobblestone, the huge boat that dominates the tiny port, and the man in the orange pant and 70s haircut. This must be the life.

Dennis and the Gelato — Part I

Filed under: Travelogue — yk @ 5:31 pm

I say “Part I” because when we started on this trip, I was informed that Dennis was coming along just for the gelato. Oh, and the pastries. So it was to no one’s surprise (okay, maybe a little) that he made four purchases at various gelateria on our first day in Nice. Actually it was three purchases at one place and a fourth at a second place.

At the first place, when we walked in there, we only had a 50 euro bill, which the man grudgingly gave us change for. Fortuitously for him, it turned out to be the best investment ever because Dennis fell in love with the homemade popsicles they had. He bought himself a strawberry (before lunch) and then made me buy a lemon five minutes later, so he can try that. After a delicious and filling lunch (during which he carefully avoided dessert to leave room for gelato), he went back a third time for a a scoop each of pistachio and banana gelato. When I look back on that day, it feels a little bit like our walk in Vieux Nice revolved around this one gelato place. I wish I remembered what it was called, but I know exactly where it is because we must have passed by it at least a half a dozen times.

Of course, on the way to the car, he found another gelateria and decided to go for a second dessert — vanilla gelato. That one was disappointing, but we quickly decided that a gelato connoisseur had to have a dud once in awhile to refine his palate. Luckily, Dennis was able to recover from that with a tasty cherry gelato in St. Paul de Vence yesterday.

Today we cross the border to Italy — hopes are high for even better gelato.

The GPS and us

Filed under: Travelogue — yk @ 5:07 pm

We’ve been in Nice for three days now, and it’s abundantly clear that we would be lost half the time if it weren’t for the Gamin GPS system that Patrick brought on the trip. We’ve been staying in Auribeau sur Siagne a 13th century commune (=smaller than a village) about a half hour from Nice where passages (=smaller than a street) have no names, roundabouts take the place of street lights or stop signs, and the directions even on the GPS consist of something like “2nd turn on the next roundabout” followed by “first turn on the next roundabout”. That’s difficult enough to follow because sometimes — just to mix things up — there are stores right by the roundabout with entrance ways that don’t count as a turn.

What makes our drives even more “interesting”, “entertaining” or “terrifying” if you’re Kathleen, is that our GPS appears to have a personality of its own. We’re still learning about its eccentricities, but so far, one appears to be that it doesn’t like to take the same way twice. Two nights ago, for example, we got to Mougins, the utterly charming village about 30 min away that we went to for dinner two nights ago, by the tollway. On the way back, it decided to take us on a windy two-way cliff-side road, the width of a one-way road in utter darkness. It loved that road so much that the following day, it wanted to go back again on the way back from St. Paul de Vence, the beloved village of artists like Picasso, Matisse and Leger. We suspect there was an easier route to get back. But that wouldn’t have been way too boring for the GPS.

Bhutan – postscript

Filed under: Travelogue — yk @ 9:57 pm

We got back from Bhutan yesterday, and while we were immediately grateful for Japan’s efficiency, clean bathrooms, and the great food, we also felt detached from the world we came back to.

Though it was a mere two-week vacation, we feel like we’ve been gone for months. While we were gone, the dollar plunged to around 100 yen, Bear Stearns went bust, and a big riot broke out in Tibet. I realize now how truly disconnected we’ve been.

Before we went to Bhutan, we imagined a magical country and an equally amazing adventure. It was all that we hoped for, but we came back with much more. To answer the question, Patrick’s brother asked us — No, we did not come home as Buddhists. But I think we took something of the Bhutanese spirit back with us.

When we got home, Patrick took one look at his office, and said he wanted to clean it out because there was too much crap. This morning, when it rained, I thought about taking a taxi to work as I often do. But the thought that I would be spending the equivalent of a week’s salary for Chencho on a single ride stopped me from doing so. At the train station, I could have rushed to get on the train that was pulling up, but decided against running to catch it because I can just take the next train, and I would get to work eventually anyway.

I’m certain that as the days go by, we’ll be sucked back into our previous lives, but I hope we do hang onto some of the spirit and values that we took away from Bhutan. I used to think the idea of Gross National Happiness instead of GDP was amusing, but I think I understand it much better. If the little girl at the Bhumtang school asked me now whether I was happy, my answer would still be the same – yes, I am. But I would be more comfortable with my answer now that I have a better sense of why happiness might be all that matters when it comes down to it. As long as you try to do what you can to be happy then the little things won’t matter as much. Thinking about what makes one happy will also help you figure out what is most important to you. It’s not fundamentally different from my past outlook on life, but I’m definately more aware of it.

We may eventually forget a lot of the details about our time in Bhutan, but I think Patrick and I will wonder from time to time what Chencho, Ugyen, Rinzin and all the people we met are up to.

Bhutan – Day 13

Filed under: Travelogue — yk @ 12:11 pm

We got up this morning at 6:15 am to see the great scroll of Guru Rimpoche that the Paro Dzong unrolls during its festivals just once a year. It’s supposedly one of the 10,000 things everyone should see before you die, and we’d read that these scrolls, which are hidden away carefully most of the year, are Bhutan’s greatest works of art.

Many of the guests at Aman woke up at 2:30am to see the procession, in which the monks carry the box with it to the Dzong, where they hang it from the top of the temple. The scroll covers the whole side of a building. I wanted to see the procession, but Patrick was reluctant, and I was persuaded by Paul, who expounded on the meaninglessness of non-believers to witness such an event. The scroll was going to be up until 8am, so we went to see it in the morning.

Having seen it, I have to admit that Paul was right. The painting was quite impressive, but it meant nothing to me, though they say that just looking at it cleanses us of our sins, which sounds alright to me. Our guide and driver, on the other hand, were gazing at it solemnly and praying under their breaths. On the way back, I was amused that Ugyen stopped to help a young man, who was struggling to figure out how to put on the cream-colored cloth that all men have to wear on the temple’s grounds. Even in religious Bhutan, it seems some of the young are beginning to lose touch with aspects of their tradition. I was also interested to see that a popular toy for boys at festival time was a toy gun. I even saw a young monk with a toy gun in his hand, and tried to get a photo, but sadly missed the opportunity.

After lazing away the morning, we spent our last afternoon going for a bike ride and playing archery the old-fashioned Bhutanese way. I just watched, but Patrick hit the target three times, which our guide says was the all-time record for any foreigner he’s seen. I’m not sure how true that is. We got a sense of the entertainment aspect of this sport, however. Whenever Patrick missed, Ugyen, who was standing near the target, would tease him about how terrible the shot was, and point at the target to show him where it is. “It’s not here,” he would say, pointing at the air.
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Bhutan – Day 12

Filed under: Travelogue — yk @ 2:06 pm

Today was the big day we took our longest hike yet to see Tiger’s Nest, a monastery that hangs on the side of a mountain about 3,000 meters above sea level. It’s the place where Guru Rimpoche is said to have arrived on the back his wife, who he had turned into a flying tigress.

The hike takes a solid two hours on a fairly steep path, as well as more than 600 steps, the first 400, which dip down before you have to climb up to the monastery. This is a must-do hike that everyone who comes to Bhutan does, but it was painful. The stairs, particularly, was my idea of a personal hell. The monastery, however, is beautiful. The original, unfortunately, burnt down in a fire about a decade ago, but they’ve rebuilt it on almost the same exact footprint, and it’s quite amazing that such a structure could be built hundreds of years ago.

Chencho told us that about 25 monks live at the monastery, including a 15-year old cousin of his that we bumped into when we were up there. He looked no older than 10 years old –Patrick later commented that their diet must be such that the teenagers probably don’t hit puberty until their much older than their Western equivalents. Inside the main temple, we prostrated ourselves, and got blessed with holy water by the head lama there.
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Bhutan – Day 11

Filed under: Travelogue — yk @ 10:57 pm

Today, we made our way from Punakha to Paro via Thimphu. On our way to Thimphu, Chencho and Ugyen entertained us with more stories. The Bhutanese apparently love practical jokes, and the jokes they play on each other can be a bit extreme.

Chencho was a little upset with Ugyen this morning because Ugyen yelled that Chencho was “fluttering” with other women, while he was on the phone with his wife. Ugyen had to call Chencho’s wife later to apologize, so Chencho could avoid getting the “tiger massage” treatment when he got home. Chencho also told us about how some of the staff snuck a pair of woman’s underwear in his rucksack after a trek before he got home, leaving his wife to find it. The lesson he took away — always make sure to inspect your bags for falsely incriminating evidence before you go home. Ugyen followed by telling us about the time one of the staff was sent on training to Thailand, and there was a big tsunami. Some of the guy’s friends thought it would be amusing to tell his wife that he died. His wife gave several offerings and prayers in mourning before her husband came safely home.

Apparently, there is very little that is sacred with their practical jokes, and the name of the game is often getting the husband in trouble with the wife. I read in one of the guidebooks that marriages can still be fairly informal, and government registrations are suggested, not required. I’m not sure if that has anything to do with it, but my impression is that casual sex is not unusual here.
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Bhutan – Day 10

Filed under: Travelogue — yk @ 10:36 pm

We spent the morning, hiking part way to the Punakha Dzong from the lodge, passing by one of the third king’s palace’s on the way. The palace is very modest in size, no bigger than the farmhouse on the Aman property, which itself used to be owned by one of the queens. People are free to walk on a trail that goes through the king’s golf course and right by his stables, where his horses roam freely. Chencho told us that the palace is still used by the fourth and fifth king and once when he was taking a pair of guests through the trail, they actually bumped into the king, who was golfing. He suggested they walk along the side, so he doesn’t hit them. The golf course was the oddest that we’ve seen. The area around each of the holes was covered in asphalt instead of grass. Even though security is clearly not as big of a concern in Bhutan, it’s hard to imagine, any other country where security around the king is as low key as it appears to be here.

The Punakha Dzong is an incredible piece of architecture, half of which is used as government offices, and half of which is a monastery. The inside of the temple had gorgeous drawings of Buddha’s life story. We learned here that the story of Buddha’s birth is similar to Jesus Christ in that he was conceived by a holy spirit. In Buddha’s case, that came in the shape of an elephant, and he was born from his mother’s armpit.

The one thing we were disappointed to witness at the dzong was the ugly tourist syndrome. We saw a woman guest from our lodge, posing in front of the monastery with her shoulders bare, an act that shows utter insensitivity to the culture. We later saw the same woman walk up to two Bhutanese women, who were chatting, and take a photo of them in front of their face without saying a word. It made us feel ashamed about being a fellow tourist.

In the afternoon, we went to the Divine Madman’s Temple, which is otherwise known as the fertility temple. For some reason our guide decided that he would use the word “dick” to explain the three penises that the monks use to bless you. That sent us snickering each time. It wasn’t the most adult moment for either of us.

In the evening, Patrick won yet another game of Scrabble. The winning word was JA, which doesn’t even exist. After unsuccessfully challenging him for days on words I’d never heard of, it totally disgusts me.

But the assistant lodge manager, Artie, had a nice surprise for us. They arranged a private dinner for us in the old kitchen of the farmhouse. I had the most delicious sausage ever, made out of yak, for a starter, followed by the Indonesian rice dish, nasi goreng. I’m falling in love with this chef’s food. Rob, the chef, came and joined us for a drink towards the end, and we had a great time chatting with him. Rob has been here for 7 months. Our guess is that it can get a bit lonely, though he seems to making the most out of his time, and his food is probably the best out of all the Amans we’ve been at. I was even amazed a couple nights ago that the butter tea he had made as part of the Bhutanese dinner was delicious.

Punakha was the first lodge, where we felt like the communal dining thing worked. Though we’re probably the youngest, we’ve met all sorts of interesting people – Brits, Americans, an artist, an orthopedic doctor, a physical therapy docter… We’ll probably be seeing many of them in Paro, where everyone is sure to be to attend the big festival.

Bhutan – Day 9

Filed under: Travelogue — yk @ 4:18 pm

We spent the morning on a two-hour hike to Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten, which was built by one of the queens for the fifth king in 1990. The inside of the stupa was beautiful, albeit fairly new. Chencho explained that the queen built it herself for her son to ensure prosperity and wise governance. Patrick asked if it was built with taxpayer’s money, but this was treading into dangerous waters. Chencho was adamant that it was her very own money that she earned from running a women’s organization, but I agree with Patrick that it’s probably unlikely that’s the case. But as long as the people aren’t complaining, who are we to say anything?
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Bhutan – Day 8

Filed under: Travelogue — yk @ 4:17 pm

We spent 6 hours in a car to get from Bhumtang to Punakha. I’m still disappointed that we weren’t able to buy honey in Bhumtang, which is known for it, because it’s out of season and the stores were completely sold out. I’ve been reading Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food,” which advocates eating seasonally, but I had no idea until now that even honey has a season.
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Bhutan – Day 7

Filed under: Travelogue — yk @ 11:12 pm

Today we went to Tang Ugyen Chholing, which required a bumpy hour’s drive on an unpaved dirt path with lots of rocks. The ride was uncomfortable at best, but on the way, we went through a village that was celebrating something to do with Guru Rinpoche, and having an archery competition with old-fashioned bows and arrows.

It was almost straight out of Katie Hickman’s book. The men were roaring drunk, and shooting at targets that were 150 yards away. We watched on the sidelines and we could see what she meant about the craziness of watching drunk men shoot arrows and trusting them not to hit you. They were, however, good-natured. An old woman sang a song as we got out of a car – we think it was that traditional song that women sing before or during such competitions. Then a friendly, but very drunk man offered us homemade bangchang, the buckwheat alcohol that we also had at the farmhouse yesterday. This one was served to us in a plastic bucket, and you could see some specks of dirt or something floating in it. Trusting that alcohol will kill bacteria, I had a sip, and Patrick finished off most of the rest of it. We seem okay so far, so no harm done. After our guide and driver had a couple rounds of archery, we took off for the most pleasant hike, on a perfect day, overlooking one of the prettiest valleys I’ve ever seen.

I finished the day with a nice massage and a pleasant dinner. It was one of the most ideal days here. I’ve so completely lost track of days here that I was startled to realize that today was Saturday, and we’ve been on vacation for a week.

Bhutan – Day 6

Filed under: Travelogue — yk @ 11:11 pm

What we thought would be just a pleasant bike ride today turned out to be quite an adventure. We went to a place called Ura Valley, and the idea was that we would take the car as well as the luggage truck, with our bikes loaded, to the top of the valley, and bike down into the villages, which is known to be the first Bhutanese village. Then the car and truck were to take us back up to the top, and we were to cycle down back to the hotel going the other way.

Midway, though, Ugyen had a surprise for us. We were going to have lunch at a farmhouse that belonged to the family of his former assistant when he was driving a truck. Ugyen has taken them rice and chilis when he passes by, and they are very fond of him. So we took our picnic lunch into the house, where they showed us into the alter room, where Bhutanese families would typically invite guests. We sat on mats and had lunch.
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Bhutan – Day 5

Filed under: Travelogue — yk @ 11:10 pm

We arrived in Bhumtang yesterday – Ugyen’s hometown. We got up this morning at 7am because I had asked to visit a school, which started at 8:15am. We got there to find the children hard at work, cleaning the school. At 8:45am, they gathered in the schoolyard for the daily assembly. The school has about 900 students in grades 1 through 8. Assembly started with a prayer for wisdom and two presentations by a student – one in English and the other in Dzongka. Finally, a student raised the flag of Bhutan and they all sang the national song. The presentations are apparently rotational and each student has to do one once a year.

The principal told us that there are about 50 students per class, but about 90 percent of them go on to higher education, which is pretty impressive. He had visited a school in Canada at some point, and he said he was struck by the informality between teachers and students there. He said they put distance between students and teachers in Bhutan, which is good in some ways, but also makes it difficult for students to confide in their teachers when they have problems. He said they were also trying to get rid of corporal punishment.
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Bhutan – Day 3

Filed under: Travelogue — yk @ 11:08 pm

Today we made the 5-hour trip from Thimpu to Gangtey. We started out with a blessing for a safe journey by a monk, who chanted something, tied a white piece of string around our neck and gave each of us a little holy water to drink and put on our heads. We were told to keep the string around our neck for three days. Being superstitious, I plan on doing just that.

Patrick and I are definitely feeling the altitude. Gangtey is about 3,000 meters above sea level and the two passes we have to go through to get there are even higher. Even a short hike up a hill puts me out of breath, I have a low-grade headache, and I feel tired and a bit oxygen deprived. The only consoling thought is that running will hopefully be easier when we get back to Tokyo.
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Bhutan – Day 2

Filed under: Travelogue — yk @ 9:06 pm

The day started with a little morning tea called ngaja, a Bhutanese milk tea (tea, milk, sugar) that was brought to our room. Bliss! We haven’t experienced this since we were in Sri Lanka, and I’ve already decided that we will order this every morning (Patrick could care less). To me, nothing makes me feel more pampered on vacation than a hot cup of tea while looking at the view outside in your bathrobe.
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