Archive for December, 2008

A Pot-Porri of Fermentation - The Thorramatur Festival in Iceland

Monday, December 29th, 2008


Photo by Bruce McAdam — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

This week we are going to focus on a food festival that celebrates the glorious age of pre-refrigeration. The Icelandic festival known alternatively as Thorramatur or Þorramatur is celebrated from mid-January to the end of February and pays homage to the naturally preserved (read, unrefrigerated) food and drink the Vikings ate throughout the winter.

Although traditional Porri edibles appeared on the tables of student organizations and regional associations from the late 1800’s onwards, it took the daring minds behind the popular Naustið restaurant in Reykjavík to turn the traditional menu into a trend. By allowing both tourists and native Icelanders to rediscover the gastronomic traditions of the Vikings, the owners breathed new life into an otherwise comatose season in the restaurant industry and revitalized an interest in what many mainstream Icelanders consider to be an indigestible part of their heritage.

The traditional Porramatur menu isn’t for everyone, and it would be madness to take part in the festivities without a bottle of Brennivin by one’s side. The individual dishes are sliced into bite-sized portions, arranged on wooden troughs and served with toothpicks in a buffet style. Among the traditional selections, hakari has appeared on several intrepid food programs such as Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” (his motto? “Eat without Fear”) and Andrew Zimmern’s “Bizarre Foods”. Hakari is referred to as “fermented shark” in guide books, but it is noteworthy to add that Greenland shark is poisonous when fresh, becomes “edible” after being buried underground for six weeks and smells like ammonia when it’s ready for consumption. Moving on…

Harðfiskur is a poetic dish that involves curing cod, haddock or seawolf in the wind. It’s served with butter — which is a very good thing. Lactic acid makes an appearance in at least four different Porramatur dishes, including Súrsaðir hrútspungar (ram’s testicles), Svið (jellied sheep heads), and Sviðasulta (singed head cheese). Blood pudding rolled in lard and sewn up in the stomach, liver sausage, blood-fat and seal flippers are several other treats that make the Thorrablot festival a truly unforgettable experience.

Well! The good news is that Rúgbrauð (rye bread) and Brennivin (Icelandic schnapps) are readily available on the buffet spread and over-consumption of the latter is heartily encouraged. You really have to hand it to the valiant Icelanders — not many people would continue to celebrate foodstuffs that even natives advise eating with a pinched nose.

Iceland has a lot to offer besides fermented shark. For other (more traditional) festivals in Iceland, click here.

- Courtney Maum

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Lettuce Be Festive - The Yuma Lettuce Days Festival

Monday, December 22nd, 2008

White Green

Photo by Johannes Henseler — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

With the winter holidays upon us and the New Year right around the corner, tepid thoughts of New Year’s resolutions might be on our minds. Slow down a little, concentrate on the important things in life, read more books, lose weight- more often than not, our resolutions involve dreams of a happier and healthier lifestyle in the coming year.

Whatever your New Year’s resolution is (or isn’t), the Yuma Lettuce Days Festival is a pretty good place to put it into effect. With the southwest’s longest salad bar, 5,000 pounds of lettuce available for purchase, and farmers markets galore, you’re sure to get back in touch with your inner herbivore.

January 24th will mark the 11th year of the festival hosted by the “lettuce capital of the world”. A fitting sobriquet for a city that accounts for half of Arizona’s 3 billion dollar agricultural revenue and produces 90% of America’s winter vegetable crops. Each year, the festival attracts around 40,000 people- a mesclun mix of tourists, residents, and soldiers from the nearby proving ground.

Additional attractions include a flag raising ceremony, produce and equipment displays, a box car derby, music, and artisanal sculptures made from seasonal vegetables. Burgeoning horticulturists can purchase a wide variety of seeds along with an impressive variety of locally-made ceramic bowls to show off the fruits of their labor, come harvest time.

When life gives you lettuce, you make a salad. But what do you do with those leftover leaves? This ingenious recipe from The New York Times “Recipes for Health” series answers that question.

Still curious? Lettuce answer your questions about other great festivals in Arizona.

- Courtney Maum

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Don’t play with your food - Noche de Rábanos (The Night of the Radishes)

Monday, December 15th, 2008

Night of the Radishes

Photo by Drew Leavy — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

The Night of the Radishes originated as a response to the age-old challenge of strategic positioning. How could a 17th century farmer make his produce stand out from the other vegetable carts in a crowded market? By fashioning whimsical figures out of giant radishes, that’s how!

Radishes became part of Mexico’s horticultural landscape when the Spanish brought them to the lowlands in the 16th century. Mexican legend tells of two Spanish friars who showed villagers how to plant and cultivate produce along the Atoyac river. By the 17th century, market vendors began to carve radishes into religious shapes and figures in order to entice Mexican housewives to patronize their stand. In 1897, the mayor of Oaxaca, Francisco Vasconcelos Flores, formally recognized the tradition of Christmas-themed carvings and inaugurated the very first Noche de Rábanos.

A focal point of the holiday celebrations, the Night of the Radishes takes place every year on December 23rd in the zócalo, or market square. Contestants begin setting up their displays in the mid-afternoon while spectators wait excitedly in surrounding cafes.

The radishes used for the festival have little in common with the bulbous bouquets you find at the market. Heavily fertilized and thick skinned, they can grow as large as two feet high and weigh as much as ten pounds. The ornate designs replicate animals, patron saints and grandiose scenes such as the nativity or the Guelaguetza, a celebrated Oaxacan festival in which gifts are offered to the Gods in exchange for a bountiful harvest.

In addition to radish sculptures, contestants can compete in two other categories using flor inmortal (dried flowers) or totomoxtle (corn husks). Once night falls, villagers and tourists spend most of the evening passing slowly in front of the elaborate designs while children run about distributing confetti from hollowed-out egg shells. A colorful fireworks display signals the end of the festival as well as the judge’s decision. The winning artist takes home $13,000 pesos ($1,300 USD) for the most ingenious radish design.

Oaxaca is well known as a major destination for passionate and colorful festivals, many of which are native to the region. For more information about festivals in Oaxaca, click here.

- Courtney Maum

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Twist and Sprout - The Brussels Sprout & Local Produce Fayre of Worcester (Nov. 13th-14th)

Monday, December 8th, 2008

Brussels Sprouts

Photo by Esteban Cavrico — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

Meet Felice Tocchini, a celebrity chef with a cause. The cause in question? Eradicate the unpleasant memories of English men and women forever scarred by the taste of boiled veggies. To accomplish this, he devised a two-pronged approach: he surreptitiously incorporated local produce into his menu at Fusion Brasserie in Hawbridge and then he organized a celebratory festival in the name of one of the most detested foods on the planet.

When properly handled, the Brussels sprout has a pleasant nutty taste. When overcooked, as they most often are, the vegetable releases sulfur compounds that can lead to post traumatic stress disorder in children and dinner guests. In order to restore the faith of the vitamin-A deprived populace in the gustatory pleasures of this unfortunate vegetable, Tocchini teamed up with local sprout grower William Haines to create The Brussel Sprout & Local Produce Fayre of Worcester.

Intended to celebrate and promote Worcester’s local bounty, the fair brought in vendors such as Lightwood Cheeses, the Malvern baker La Delice and Flights Orchard Organics, with a local produce market supported by Heart of England Fine Foods.

In addition to cooking demonstrations by Tocchini and Haines, student chefs from Worcester College of Technology were on hand to publicly give veggies the respect that they deserve. Other attractions included a painting contest for children, a sprout garden designed by the award-winning Boxcourt Plants & Gardens, and the live preparation of The Sprouty Cake recipe that made Tocchini famous. Featured in local papers and on the BBC, Tocchini’s good-for-you concoction tastes like carrot cake — with Brussels sprouts thrown in. Other culinary surprises included sprout-flavored sausages, twice-baked sprout soufflé and “sproutslaw”. Still not convinced? Among other health benefits associated with the prevention of cancer, sulforaphane (the anticancer compound released when Brussels sprouts are chewed) causes colon cancer cells to commit suicide. Now if that’s not a reason to eat your veggies…

Worcester festivals are good for your health. For your daily dose, click here.

- Courtney Maum

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Tapping Into the Holiday Spirit: The Holiday Ale Festival in Portland, Oregon (Dec. 4-7th)

Monday, December 1st, 2008

Christmas Brew

Photo by Drunken Monkey — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

If you like beer, there is only one place to be in December. If you don’t like beer,
find someone who does, and make your merry way to the Holiday Ale Festival in Portland, Oregon from December 4th-7th. You’ll soon change your mind.

One of the most important beer-tasting events on the entire West Coast, the Holiday Ale Festival brings together over 40 artisan brews under a transparent big-top in the Pioneer Courthouse Square. With daily tastings, food pairings, and a passionate crowd of beerophiles, the Holiday Ale Festival brings good cheer, great beer and some much needed warmth to downtown Portland. (The outdoor tents are heated. Phew.)

Each afternoon, a wide variety of exclusive winter beers will be tapped for tasting. Unavailable in supermarkets, the brews chosen for the Holiday Ale Festival range from Belgian-style ales to porters and stouts, along with a truly impressive lineup of speciality beers. This year, visitors can degust liquid treats like a smoked porter infused with vanilla beans from The Stone Brewing Company, the aptly named “Hallucinator” from the Collaborator Project, or the Samichlaus Bier, one of the rarest speciality beers in the world, and, at 14% alcohol by volume, also one of the strongest.

A copious Belgian beer and brunch will cap off the festival on Sunday, where four Belgian beers will be making their debut. Ticket-holders will enjoy a vintage batch of St. Feuillien Triple, cheeses from Willamette Valley Cheese Co. and a scrumptious spread of European specialties like artisan salamis, chocolate croissants, and platters of the addictive pastry known as the chouquete.

The Holiday Ale Festival is a 21+ event and admission is free. The $20 tasting package includes 10 beer sample tickets and a souvenir mug. Handcrafted Crater Lake Rootbeer will be available free of charge for all designated drivers.

Got any “meady” tips or comments about the Holiday Ale Festival? Send me an email! Interested in exploring other great festivals in Oregon? Click here.

- Courtney Maum

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