If life isn’t measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the number of moments that take our breath away, then my recent one-month trip through Europe, alone, deserves its own biography.
So full were my days that each seemed a chapter, and every moment a page-turn that peeled away yet another layer of shock in the amazing strata of my year thus far.
I took quiet walks on the pebbly beaches of Nice under a full moon, watching the surf rise and fall as planes took off in the distance. I watched the sun rise above the Italian Alps, shrugging off the misty veil of dawn. I had lunch on a marbled terrace in Monte-Carlo, a would-be king, feasting on gold plates, with a sea of lapis lapping at the palms in the distance. Under the Tuscan sun, I picked fresh figs the size of small birds, off the trees outside of my window. And in Germany, I supped with a constellation of Michelin stars in a castle, while a galaxy turned about in the kitchen, preparing a dinner that stretched deep into the night.
Sometimes, life exceeds your wildest imagination.
* * *
* * *
George Mendes, chef of aldea, was supposed to be with me on that flight over to Zurich, to spend that first week in Europe with my long-time college friend Solveig and me in the mountains: hiking, cooking, relaxing. But I left the United States alone, with Irene chasing me up the Eastern seaboard on my way over the Atlantic, and with George stuck in New York, holding down his fort against that weepy wench.
Without George, Solveig and I decided to forego the drive up to her amazing haylofts in the Italian Alps, opting instead to spend a blissfully unscripted week in Switzerland’s wine country. There, we walked among the vineyards, grazing on wild fruit along the way: apples, comice pears, and berries of all colors. I hiked, alone, up the majestic Tamina gorge, through a narrow rock cleft, to the head of a hot spring that fed the incredible baths at the Quellenhof in the village below. I biked along the Upper Rhine to the tiny kingdom of Lichtenstein, where, from a castle perch, I looked down into a lush, velveteen valley that stretched into neighboring Austria. And, there were a couple of day trips into Zurich as well, for macarons, macarons, and more macarons.
* * *
* * *
Fashion show in Paris? I’d rather eat on the Cote d’Azur. So Solveig and I parted ways for a few days; she to the catwalks of les Champs Elysees, and I to the tables hautes of Monaco and the south of France. I rented a roadster, slipped on my shades, and zipped along the mountainous bends that wound their way along one of the wealthiest and most breathtaking stretches of the Mediterranean.
Between epic feasts at chez Robuchon, chez Ducasse, and chez Colagreco I took joyrides at irresponsible speeds to San Remo, to Nice, and to many small mountain villages in between, all the while marveling at the quotidien drama that unfolded overhead, every morning, every evening, a never-ending sweep of clouds that kept me looking up all day.
In the afternoons, I went swimming in the deep, clear waters off the rocky coast, thrilled to be revived in the bracing blue cold.
At night, I walked along the strand in Menton and watched sprites tumbling about in the air. I paused to admire the Moyenne Corniche, a rocky outcropping from where the medieval town of Eze overlooked the sea, with the moon glinting off a yacht moored in the vastness beyond. I paid homage to the Grimaldi ghosts at the palais royale, ancestors to the current, troubled dynasty. And I lingered a while outside of that famous casino in Monte-Carlo, birthplace of James Bond, to admire the bling parked outside.
Unhitched, unattached, completely alone and free, I had the time of my life.
* * *
* * *
Solveig and I reconvened in Zurich, where we were joined by my two friends, Adam of A Life Worth Eating and Curtis Duffy, formerly the chef of avenues in Chicago, both of whom I had invited to spend some time with us in Europe.
After a quick macaron tour of Zurich (during which we stockpiled macarons à la réglisse – Adam’s and my favorite flavor), we crossed the Italian border and settled into Solveig’s Valde haylofts, which I had photographed earlier this year for Solveig and Jetsetter.
The next few days were spent hiking and exploring (some, who are prone to histrionics, might characterize my excursions up the mountain as imposed death marches), criss-crossing the Swiss-Italian border daily. We took a day trip to quaint little Soglio, where we stopped for a mid-afternoon tea in a beautiful garden; and to Piuro, where Solveig and I introduced the boys to Crotto Belvedere, a small grotto restaurant that we had discovered on our last trip in June.
We shopped for provisions in the town of Chiavenna, and had one too many espressos on the patio of Cafe Mastai there, our daily watering hole.
And, of course, we spent many cozy nights in the haylofts, cooking and drinking, chatting and laughing. One of the perks of having a Michelin-starred chef as a travel companion is that the food will always be great. One night, Curtis made salmon with kaffir lime, and roasted fennel and onions. The next night, he stirred up some Acquerello risotto with porcini.
In St. Moritz, we picked up a beautiful ribeye of beef from Plinio Laudenbacher, a butcher specializing in organic meats. That night, we raised a fire outside and Curtis grilled the ribeye under a starry canopy, with the Alps looming quietly in the distance. For dessert, he baked a clafoutis, blushing with prunes that the owner of the grotto restaurant had gifted us the day before. It was a lovely way to end our time in the mountains.
* * *
* * *
We traced the eastern shoreline of Lake Como, home to an armada of sailboats that day, on our way down from the Italian Alps into Tuscany, where we settled into a stunning, 16th-century villa on an immaculately manicured estate just outside the town of Bolgheri, surrounded by vineyards stretching in all directions.
From there, we took day trips; some long, some short.
Although I’ve never written about any meals in Italy, it’s one of the countries I’ve visited the most. And over time, I’ve learned that it never changes. The drivers are always crazy, the internet no functiona, and no one ever seems to work (which partly explains why the internet no functiona).
We stopped in Pisa, where the tower still leans with purpose, as crooked as I remembered it.
In Florence, we paid a visit to David (still as naked as ever), and to his maker’s tomb (still as breathtaking as ever). At the Uffizi, we said ciao to Venus, as she washed up on shore, birthed on a giant scallop shell, her blonde curls still wind-tossed and perfect after 500 years. And for lunch that day, Adam, a “Jersey Shore” junkie, insisted that we visit Pizzeria O’Vesuvio, where, apparently, the tanned members of the cast “worked” on the latest season of the show.
In San Gimignano, we found excellent gelato. In Siena, Adam and I binged on paneforte (a dense nut and fruit cake) and ricciarelli (soft, almond meringue cookies), two of the area’s most famous confectionaries, before having dinner at Paolo Lompriore’s controversial restaurant, Il Canto, located in a 14th-century Carthusian monastery.
And the four of us spent a night in Modena, after a long dinner at Massimo Botturo’s two Michelin-starred Osteria Francescana. The next morning, we took a turn about the town square and dropped in at Giuseppe Giusti, a gorgeous, well-preserved food shop that dates back to 1605, the interior hung with hams and the shelves lined with the town’s famous balsamic vinegars.
* * *
* * *
But our time in Italy wasn’t entirely spent on the road. One morning, I lazied about in my pajamas, cradled in a hammock, finishing up Gabrielle Hamilton’s “Blood, Bones, and Butter.”
One afternoon, Curtis and I went swimming on the Etruscan coast at Baratti, yet another stretch of clear, blue Mediterranean.
At night, I did laps by moonlight in the villa’s pool, with a symphony of crickets and the snorting wild boars, rooting in the vineyards, to keep me company.
And, with a beautifully finished kitchen and a wood-fire oven built into the side of the villa, of course, we cooked.
Catching Tuscany at the end of summer is like arriving in Cockaigne. Despite the cornucopia of produce on the grounds of the villa – fig trees, a garden overgrown with tomatoes, fields of herbs, and acres of grapes – we made daily trips to the roadside stands that lined the dusty road out of town, raiding them for more figs, prunes, peaches, melons, and more.
On Curtis’s last night with us, we staged a garden party to send him off in style. But we weren’t going to let him get away without cooking one last time. Curtis roasted off three chickens in the stone oven, strewn with shaved black truffles, along with a beautiful tart made with figs we had gathered earlier that afternoon. He also made pasta with a cream sauce made with black truffles we had picked up in Chiavenna. I made a salad with peaches that I had picked up at the produce stands, herbs from the villa’s garden, milky straciatella, and drizzled it all with olive oil and balsamic vinegar that we had picked up in Modena. We feasted and toasted each other by candlelight, late into the inky night, allowing ourselves to forget for a few hours that we had to get up early to drive Curtis to Florence for his flight out the next morning. (For all of the photos from this dinner, CLICK HERE)
* * *
* * *
A junket followed.
On the last day I was with Adam in Barcelona in July, I received an email from my friend Ingo Scheuermann, author of the German-based blog “High End Food,” and co-author of the upcoming cookbook by Christian Bau, chef of the Schloss Berg in Perl-Nennig. He had arranged a culinary tour of some of his country’s best restaurants, sponsored by the German Tourism Board. Would we come?
Despite being hesitant about accepting such a generous freebie, I agreed.
A perfectly timed trip, we piggy-backed it onto our time in Tuscany.
So, from Florence, Adam and I flew to Luxembourg, via Rome, and were chauffeured to our first of many stops – the Schloss Berg, an old castle perched just this side of the German-Luxembourg border on the River Mosel, home to Bau’s three Michelin-starred kitchen; dinner number one.
From there, we shot across the country to Wolfsburg the next day, home to Volkswagen, where we were joined by our friend chuckeats and docsconz; dinner number two at Sven Elverfeld’s three Michelin-starred Aqua at the Ritz Carlton.
Then to Osnabrück in the north, where we lunched at La Vie, Thomas Bühner’s two Michelin-starred restaurant, nestled in the heart of the old part of town – meal number three. Afterward, Bühner walked us around the city, showing us his beautiful home, which dates back to the 1500’s, and imparted with us the history of the Peace of Westphalia, a series of treaties signed in Osnabrück (and Münster) that ended the Thirty Years’ War.
And finally, back to the west, to Cologne, where we attended the second day of the Chef Sache, a relatively new German chefs congress. There, we watched each of the four chefs who cooked for us (the fourth would host us that night at his restaurant) present and explain some of the dishes we had eaten in the days before. In addition, chefs from other countries, including Massimo Botturo (Osteria Francescana), Andoni Aduriz (Mugaritz), and Elena Arzak (with whom I fell in love after she delivered her entire presentation in fluent German) also appeared on stage to share their culinary philosophies.
* * *
* * *
In 2005, I made my first eating trip to Germany. A student on a budget with a fledgling blog, I could only afford to make it last one day. From among the many restaurants I wanted to visit, I chose one from the old guard – Dieter Muller at the fairytale Schloss Lerbach in Bergisch Gladbach. I relished every moment of that 17-course lunch, sure that I’d never have the means of repeating that experience again.
So, it seems entirely too perfect that, for our last dinner together in Germany on this trip, our group was welcomed to that very dining room, where I started my eating adventures in that country years before, now under the stewardship of three Michelin-starred Nils Henkel, Muller’s successor. And it was even more poignant, on a personal level, to discover my interview with Eater, outing my identity, posted to the world-wide web from my room in that castle, where five years before, I arrived an anonymous blogger, a nobody to the world. (Gabe Ulla, you couldn’t have known at the time, but you couldn’t have picked a more appropriate time to pull the trigger. Thank you.)
That night, I was truly honored to be surrounded and toasted by many of the bloggers – now good friends – who have inspired and encouraged me to continue eating, traveling, and writing. To them, much I owe. And to have Aduriz, Arzak, and Haeberlin at table with us, and eleven of Germany’s Michelin stars in the kitchen cooking for us, was just icing on that blessed night.
Sometimes, life is scripted more poetically than in your dreams.
Another epic trip? Yes, this was just one of many I’ve had this year. And for it, there are many, many to thank: Solveig, the hostess with the mostest; Curtis Duffy, for cooking and driving, and just being a great travel companion; Adam of A Life Worth Eating, for being my partner in many crimes, for tethering, and for always making up for my technical deficiencies; Ingo Scheuermann, the host with the most; the German Tourism Board, for proving, once again, that German efficiency and organization is incomparable; and, of course, to God, who, for some inexplicable reason, continues to bless me with an incredible life.
* * *
* * *
If you’ve been following my blog this year, you know that I’ve issued many more “travel” posts than “review” posts. Hopefully, I’ll be able to reverse that trend in the coming months. Until then, I leave you with a list of the restaurants I visited on this trip to Europe – just another mass upload to the growing heap.
Alte Kelter (Stuttgart-Unterturkheim)
La Vie (Osnabruck)
Schloss Berg (Perl-Nennig)
Schloss Lerbach (Bergisch Gladbach)
Joel Robuchon-Monte Carlo (Lunch and Dinner)
Sankt Meinrad (Zurich)
Photos: The Promenade Anglais, Nice, France; dusk in the Italian Alps, from Presalbert; dusk at Port de Fontvieille, Monaco; Adam Goldberg and Curtis Duffy perched at Agoncio, Italy; a 16th-Century villa in Bolgheri, Italy; dusk swimming in Bolgheri, Italy; the pool deck, floating in a pond, with a view of the old Volkswagen plant at the Ritz Carlton, Wolfsburg, Germany; Schlosshotel Lerbach, Bergisch Gladbach, Germany; me, at the Piazza del Duomo, Pisa, Italy (photo by Adam Goldberg).