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ST. HELENA, CALIFORNIA

This issue’s Romantic Travel Award goes to the town that is the very heart of the California Wine Country, historic St. Helena. The autumn harvest season there abounds with fall flavors and pleasurable pastimes. Please enjoy my travel tips, recipes for my most memorable tastings there, and links to travel resources you will find invaluable for making plans.

 

THINGS TO DO IN ST. HELENA:

THE ULTIMATE FOODIE EXPERIENCE
By Diana von Welanetz Wentworth
Click here for Diana's video about the CIA

What is it like to spend four days at the most stately and luxurious cooking school in the world?
 
Mornings feature hands-on-instruction for twelve amateur chefs, with afternoon visits to a private estate or farm, a behind-the-scenes tour with an olive oil producer, and a chat with a winemaker while sampling a yet-to-be-released Pinot. The Sophisticated Palate four-day program at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Napa Valley is the perfect epicurean vacation.Click for brochure

They are headed up by a longtime hero of mine, master teacher and chef John Ash, author of From Earth to Table and winner of awards for “Best American Cookbook” and “Cookbook of the Year.”  So intensely do I relish John’s story-telling style of teaching, his reverence for food, and his respect for sustainable farming and ethical eating that I enrolled in the four-day, $3995 program.

The irresistible attraction was an upcoming subject: Exploring the Tastes of Southeast Asia.  It had been twenty years since my late husband Paul von Welanetz and I published The vonWelanetz Guide to Ethnic Ingredients, our fourth of many cookbooks. Ahead-of-its-time, this 750-page volume was considered the classic work on seasonings and was found in most libraries. A recent visit to Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia reawakened my fascination with the spice-infused foods of those countries, and I was eager to expand my knowledge.

Our culinary immersion program was held at Greystone, once the Christian Brothers Winery, a 117,000 square foot facility with 22-inch walls of locally quarried stone outside the town of St. Helena. Facilities there are truly state-of-the-art, and no expense has been spared in creating them.
 
The night before classes began I checked into The Adagio Inn, a cozy bed-and-breakfast only a mile away with only three charming rooms and only a few steps from the main street in town. Adagio is an Italian musical term meaning “take it slow,” but that wouldn’t be an option for the next few days.  (I only got to have one breakfast there—one I will remember forever—the mushroom crusted quiche.

I dashed off to a welcome reception at Greystone where I met the other attendees.  Andy Wild, our sous chef for the next four days, passed delicious canapés topped with pretty and pungent lavender "society garlic" blossoms. Who knew?

I paid rapt attention during the tour of the terraced herb garden led by gardener Diane Martinez because I cherish my own extensive herb garden and use it daily. Diane encouraged us to gather herbs and herb flowers for our own use in cooking and garnishing our presentations during the next four days.

In the mornings, classes were held in the original gatehouse next to the herb garden.  Thanks to Chuck Williams of Williams Sonoma, it has been transformed into the Williams Center with both a high-ceilinged great hall/ dining room complete with mammoth fireplace, and a perfectly pristine kitchen and pantry large enough for 12 student chefs.

The first morning we learned the six primary flavor components: salt, sour, sweet, hot (chiles), pepper, and umami (glutamine).

During kitchen sessions, we studied and discussed Southeast Asian ingredients, deciphering labels for the best brands to buy, then prepped and presented garnished platters, and tasted until we were ready to drop. Sessions held in the ultra high-tech Rudd Center featured an aroma workshop and food/wine pairing seminar.

Some afternoons, we were escorted on exclusive excursions to private homes and local farms. We dined in some of the most gorgeous venues in the Napa wine country including the dramatically beautiful Hess Collection Winery and the Wine Spectator Restaurant on campus.
 
Early on our last day, ten of us in our official monogrammed chef’s jackets stepped off a small bus. Our group, laughing, some with arms around one another, was feeling the exhilaration, camaraderie and community that occur when people have been through a challenging experience together.
 
A short walk through the weekly outdoor St. Helena Farmer's Market (open every Friday, May through October, 7:30 am - 12 noon, rain or shine in Crane Park) led us into a pine woods where we found picnic tables laden with sunflowers and heaping baskets of locally baked chocolate croissants, tender cinnamon buns, and a warm egg and potato frittata.

Along with breakfast we each received vouchers to purchase ingredients for preparing a lunch dish for our fellow-students and instructors using techniques and new flavors we had studied. Finding some perfect wild salmon fillets, I decided to prepare slow-roasted wild salmon with a butter sauce, adding Asian sweet/sour/salt with soy, ginger, kaffir lime, chiles and cilantro. I was eager to learn professional tricks for preparing buerre blanc sauces in advance and discovered the addition of heavy cream allowed me to keep it warm in a bain marie for two hours. Society garlic blossoms and other herb flowers freshly plucked from the herb garden garnished my presentation, of course.

Sophisticated Palate was the most enjoyable educational experience of my life!
Here is big news for you!  The CIA is offering a brand new 1-day class as a “teaser” that stays entirely on the Greystone campus:
Click for more info

“FOODS & FLAVORS FROM THE CALIFORNIA HARVEST”
Menus will reflect seasonal ingredients and various cooking
techniques.

Dates:
October 25, 2008
October 26, 2008 (wait list only)
November 16, 2008

Price: $495 pp

Schedule:
8:00 AM - Welcome
8:30 AM -10:00 AM - Lecture
10:00 AM -1:00 PM - Kitchen Production
12:30 - 2:00 PM - Lunch
2:00 PM - 3:00 PM Group photo and free time
3:00 - 4:00 - Wine tasting, sensory analysis
3:00 - 3:30 - Wrap up celebration toast w/ hors d'oeuvres at Wine
Spectator Restaurant

For information on upcoming programs, click here

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Click on the play button below to watch Diana's video about the CIA.

 

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