Category Archives: Essays

Root & Fruit


The orange groves on either side of the mountain do not understand the meaning of borders. Pulling from the same soil in silent reverberation, carrying stories of each passing generation, every harvest, every secret. In this way they are whole, sharing a transmutable richness in root and fruit where one does not survive without the other. It is a code we cannot touch but we share. Yet we divide these fruits by country, by taste, and by aesthetic value. We separate our fruits and defend our borders. Perhaps unwittingly, the natural division made by the Pyrenees between France and Spain facilitated escape in the Second World War. My great aunt Lisa Fittko, a refugee from Germany, became central in the local resistance of the small border town Banyuls-sur-Mer, where she found herself after escaping a camp in Gurs, with Hannah Arendt and a few others.

Since I never met my grandparents, Lisa was like a grandmother to me or rather the distant emblem of one, the embodiment of an otherwise lost generation. She was a fierce story teller with an incredible memory, recalling the tiniest details of her experiences throughout the war. She wasn’t the type to play with me or braid my hair, cook or sing, rather she asked for my thoughts and offered me new ways of understanding. More importantly, what intrigued me as a young girl was the way she had an answer for everything and held firm in her convictions, assured in her gestures and demeanor during heated political discussion. During these moments between adults, I would often slip away to the boudoir where she kept her collection of lipsticks, trying each one while WFMT 98.7 Chicago’s classical radio played softly beside the mirror. Less for beauty than a symbolic embodiment of her strength and assuredness, I imagined this as a tactile way to absorb her wordless wisdom.

When Hitler came to power, Lisa was a twenty-four year old secretary in Berlin. She had already been active in the resistance, organizing anti-fascists and establishing a network. She wrote in detail about her indirect route across Europe, from Berlin to Paris where she was caught and sent to a detention camp in Gurs, then escaped and zigzagged along Southern France. After reading her memoirs as an adolescent, and then again in my twenties, something intangible solidified in me that set the tone for my recent exploration. In August 2019, months before the pandemic, I took a short trip to Barcelona where I detoured to Banyuls-sur-Mer to retrace her footsteps, returning again for several months during national lockdown in autumn 2020.

Centuries before the demarcation lines were set, Banyuls-sur-Mer was a Greek trade port that later became Catalan country. Fishermen developed a system of hiding goods in the cavernous cliffs (called the Cova Fordada) that line the coast where salt, tobacco, foreign currency, sugar, rice, sheets and skins were nearly impossible to regulate, and so became known as the Smugglers Republic by Louis XIV. In 1793, Spanish troops encountered unprecedented local resistance while attempting to invade Roussillon, a battle that became known as the Battle of Roussillon on the Col de Banyuls. Since the region has always been full of resilience, contraband and pride, it would make sense that Lisa found herself here, able to hide and actively counter the Third Reich. For a period of seven months, several times a week she would lead refugees along a smugglers path to Spain. Now called the “F Route” after her last name “Fittko”, I spent a lot of time retracing her path, searching for markers, melting into the mountains with the sun, moving out of time to be near her.

“It’s what anyone should have done.”

One late summer morning on the F Route, chasing the last shadows as the sun reached its zenith, I remembered an encouraging image from Lisa’s memoir. “Finally we reached the summit. I had gone on ahead, and I stopped to look around. The spectacular scene appeared so unexpectedly that for a moment I thought I was seeing a mirage. Far below, where we had come from, the deep-blue Mediterranean was visible; on the other side, in front of us, steep cliffs fell away to a glass sheet of transparent turquoise- a second ocean? Yes, of course; it was the Spanish coast. Behind us, to the north, the semicircle of Catalonia’s Roussillon, with its Côte Vermeille, the Vermilion Coast, an autumn landscape with its innumerable hues of red and yellow-gold. I gasped for breath – I had never seen such beauty before.” Feeling a little lightheaded, I soaked my white t-shirt with the last of the water, rewrapped it around my head and pushed forward up the last rocky stretch. Undoubtedly, when I made it to the plateau with one foot in France and the other in Spain, it was as spectacular as she described and for a moment I forgot about the blistering heat. How did she manage this in espadrilles, hungry and tired, several times a week?

As the seasonal shift brought the Tramontane winds, the leaves began to turn and the gendarmes patrolled the streets enforcing curfew, I felt a strange sense of cyclical timelessness. But with this impression came more questions without answers, only the patterns in nature. I started thinking that for every unknown there is a color-way, which is to say maybe these things can be explained as colors. You can see it in the orange light at dawn and sunset that bathes the village, crinkling the black schist rocks as if they were paper, filling their crevices like kinstugi. I became content with this color as a way to replace the urge for an explanation of things that must remain language-less.

All around, orange trees were within reach from my window and I pulled the branch in the morning. Here was a ripe wilderness of unkept riches, falling flecks of color on grey sidewalks, deep green gardens and taupe earth. The Banyulenc did not share my incredulous sense of loss for each untasted juice droplet, a $4 piece of fruit in New York City. In an abundance of utility and beauty where there is no difference between the two, they were valueless; overstocked and overlooked. I realized this fallen fruit was part of a lifecycle rather than a commodity; a necessary release.

Although initially I returned to Banyuls to continue working the harvest, you could say I went as a way to find something of myself in my family history, a story which has always been fragmented and delicate. There are many ways to understand a story, for example there is the imagining, the walking, and the reflection, the synthesis of which might bring understanding or, in this case, peace. When I left Banyuls, it was easier to gather my thoughts from a distance. Something within me was concerned with the logistics of how to become useful during war. Like a child playing make believe, I imagined the pressure of her thoughts:

Discretion! Stay on the move and informed of enemy whereabouts. Know the landscape, know your mind. Find the way out, find someone who can forge visas to …Gibraltar, Morocco, Cuba, China… find this napkin sketch escape route, do no think of when you’ll eat next; when you are hungry, keep going. When your body aches, keep going. When you get sick, keep going. Blend in, speak the language, learn the mannerisms. Embrace the village that hides you and refuses your food stamps. Get firewood, bring bread, fuet catalan and cheese. Climb the footpath disguised as a vineyard hand, thread through crevices of the mountain, fabricate stories for the gendarmes, hope your efforts are not in vain when you leave the refugees at the plateau for the Spanish side. Analyze everyone and every move, but don’t waste time.

Just stay alive and get them over the mountain.

One day early on, Lisa opened the door to find Walter Benjamin asking her to take him over the border to Port Bou. They hadn’t seen each other since Paris, yet somehow he found her in Banyuls. That was Lisa’s first expedition, which had many delays between his failing health, his luggage, and several detours. After she left him at the summit, she turned back toward the village feeling relieved that all seemed to have gone as planned. But several days later, she heard of the tragedy.

It was this rural community that supported the resistance during the war as they had before and as they continue to today, refusing denomination as French or Spanish, fighting to be recognized as an independent Catalan state. In her memoir Escape Through the Pyrenees, Lisa describes many instances where people looked after her without regard for the rules of Vichy. At the butcher shop with very few food stamps, she offered them up meagerly and the butcher replied, “I asked how much meat you want, not how many food stamps you have.” Rosa Ventajou, a fiery woman whose family goes back centuries in Banyuls, was always finding ways to help. Lisa and her husband Hans stayed in Rosa’s family apartment for most of that period. On one particular occasion in April 1941, Vichy gendarmes came to question them about the legitimacy of their travel documents after a new decree was passed that no foreigners could remain in the region. Rosa made a scene on the street, “What’s going on? Where are you off to? What étrangers? Who are foreigners here?” Hearing the commotion, other women leaned out their apartment windows and chimed in. “Foreigners? These are our neighbors. Who stood in the chain half the night passing water-buckets during the fire? And now you’re calling them étrangers?” “She’s really right you know, that’s the truth, I saw it myself, monsieur helped to put out our fire, therefore he belongs here.”

At this time, there was a lot of confusing paperwork meant to stall and limit foreigners living in or transiting through France. In order to travel safely, one needed a sauf-conduit with an identification number, called a Piéce d’Identité, which Lisa didn’t have as a refugee. In vehement Catalan, the Sergeant argued with the Mayor’s Secretary about whether the responsibility fell under gendarmerie or mayoral jurisdiction (note that the issue was not whether or where they would evict Lisa, but who was responsible for her outcome). They hesitated to put refus de sejour, which was technically what Vichy required and would have had her arrested at the first checkpoint; instead they were trying to find a reasonable alternative. After much deliberation, it was suggested that they simply write Piéce d’Identité by hand on that line because, as Lisa recalls in her memoirs, “‘you’d be sticking to the truth; at the checkpoint they’d surely think you made a mistake and really intended to write Carte d’Identité – especially since her husband has one.’ Everyone found that to be brilliant. So we dragged ourselves back and they issued the sauf-conduits to us. Mine stated: Piéce d’Identité: Piéce d’Identité. Then we shook hands all around. Au revoir, bonne chance!” This kind of ambiguous aversion to rules highlights a certain kind of flexibility and loyalty that seems deeply rooted here.

History is not lost, it’s a living foundation for the modern cultural labyrinth. In this melding of Catalan and French, beyond their differences is their deep respect for the land, a unifying entity across the borders and a commonality above everything else. While other parts of the coast may have modernized, these village surroundings have remained wild, practically untouched apart from the vineyards, and even they are terraced within the natural topographical fabric. An abundance of sanctuaries in the area attract divers, snorkelers and photographers, supporting the beauty of the wilderness. While much of the French coastline has become something of a cliché mise-en-scène, Banyuls is too niche, rough and wild, too resistant to frills; a raw, resilient beauty unwilling to be tamed by consumerism.

When in the foothills I looked across the valley to the mountain range, and depending on the time of day or the way the light hit, especially when it became a rich orange, the foliage emerged in dimensions so sharp that if I looked too closely I lost my depth perception, as if the mountain were at arms length. And then I was the mountain, in a dreamlike state. My friend Pedro handed me an orange carpel he picked from the overhanging tree. The burst of flavor snapped me back to my feet, standing on the opposite hill on a footpath in the olive grove, looking once again across the valley. Rather the opposite of an out of body experience, where sight became taste it was a palpable vision.

Leaning into our merging history, I sensed walking in Lisa’s footsteps eighty years later, hearing the same friendly voices she heard, considered the way the light warmed my face the way it warmed hers, considered turning the same corner, considered the trees that have seen me pass beneath them as they’ve seen her, as they’ve seen the gendarmes in pursuit.

We unite in this light and these fruits out of time. After all, what keeps anything alive beyond death? As they looked back at the village from the train car on their way to Marseille, she turned to her husband and said, “When all of this is over and we’ve grown old and want peace and quiet at last, then we can come back and live here.” After the war, in Chicago, Hans passed away in poor health, so they never did. Sometimes I wonder why Lisa didn’t go back anyway, but she was as stubborn as they come. And now I see the gift of not knowing Banyuls sooner, and of her letting it go, was essential to the story continuing. That through our independent discoveries in life beyond the realms of conscious discourse, we find bridges of understanding. A “good omen”, as she would say; her quiet lesson.

Lisa Fittko, Escape Through The Pyrenees (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1991)

All’s Well in Paganland Nouveau: Peeping the Alter-Native

Ours is a history of well-crafted deceptions elevating mere mortals to infamy, from Adam & Eve to Ponzi Schemes, Potemkin Villages and the Panama Papers, wielding power through convictions of the mind. It would be selling them short to call them lies (the stories or the actions they describe). Even with a moral compass, most of us look for ways to get ahead of others in the survival of the fittest, each building our own mini Trojan Horse. If lying is a survival strategy, it’s inherently part of every human embedded deep in our animal instinct, which we try to rise above by working together, building communities and compromise. But down to the molecular level wars never cease and so our battles rage, morphing through the current state of affairs while retaining the eternal conundrum- me or other. The best stories are partial and not whole truths. The idea of reality is more attractive than itself.

The art of storytelling is in essence a mastery of pulling some truths and fictions together, building a foundation on which a credo is sold. Where a successful story is measured by the quality of its performance, the actual truth is irrelevant. There is no better place than the internet to achieve this kind of sublime experience, because it’s premised in virtual reality. The internet is the liar’s playground, where a nouveau-riche badaud-artiste savant niche taxes the heart out and soul out of the paisan essence they take from, replacing it with an orgasmically vapid two dimensional luster conversely addictive and monotonous. The result in effect is you’re so boring, you’re interesting.


How do things become the inverse of how we interpret them, especially when a functioning societal structure requires us to control our behavior and thoughts? Flexibility and adaptability takes us beyond what a truth is or isn’t. Now more than ever, the psychology of immediacy impacts our perception of the world and how we relate to one another. We need “it” now, and whether or not we get it, FOMO (organic or derived) drives us to move on to the next. The concept store is the current solution to the insatiable desires of the consumer. The consumer spends time and money to own a piece of their identity in a community. This is the new socialism, spending one’s capital gains as if sharing your wealth builds the self. Automated shopping tools selling a predetermined aesthetic presented as “personalized” emerge on your feed; another fragile form of unlearning self in favor of an image. This often results in objects looking nicer than they are, but you’re still satisfied because you know you own the “right” thing that adds to your “identity” (which you chose, right?). The story is more important than the truth. Just as we no longer remember phone numbers and our handwriting has gone to shit, soon we won’t even “choose” anything we buy because it will be chosen for us based on an algorithm (which could be helpful with things like restructuring work if data were used to match and connect people with jobs that best suited them based on actual interests and abilities rather than archaic resume and interview processes. It remains to be seen which direction this will take). To achieve one’s socio-economic goals, the replacement of origins with fitting interpretations is the catalyst for the stories one sells.

The Constitutional Peasant, Monty Python & the Holy Grail

Rather the opposite of the Constitutional Peasant emerges Pagan Nouveau, the land of the High Peasant. As Venkatesh Rao puts it, “high peasant is not actually peasant; it’s a reconstructed fiction of peasant with high resources. Think of it as a pastoral art form”. A reimagining of the originally derogatory term coined by the Christian Church where rustic polytheism has been reclaimed as abundance, the High Peasant blesses the empowerment of the individual while collectively reconstructing new inclusive identities (latinx, womxn) that ceremoniously hold reverence for and accountability to people and communities, navigating new territory as makers, builders and witnesses of newly embraced ancestries. But the delicacy of this becoming sellable material has reached new heights, beyond veganism, lactose intolerance and gluten free diets, the new restrictions lie within the inversion of the story that’s being told, between the lines. Socio-political issues are now a consumer issue, and because our society is largely driven by consumerism this melding of identities unifies as much as it alienates, creating more ambiguity. Companies are willing to fight for black lives in the context of their business models depreciating, and people suddenly care to support local farm’s produce if it increases their follower count. The high peasant is a not an individual or a group, it’s a mentality adopted by foster minds who, if you look five years back, harbored a different look of mind completely.

In this era of thinly veiled aesthetics, lily pad hopping on a return to our roots rebranded as artists, there’s a mesh of subvarieties wafting in the wave: Practical Chic (utility begets beauty begets inutility), Rococo (I blame Grimes and Chloe Wise, respectfully) and Cottage Core. But where Wise performs an ironic societal commentary, we are overcome in an erotic array of foodporn as art with home-baked breads, luscious dripping flowers, visually plopping cakes on Brooklyn ceramics carefully laden on tousled linens, androgynous muses in friend’s paintings, mismatched vests and bucket hats sporting extra long unkept hair, lush, pouty lips, dancing in nature, angled dewy chins, fetishizing Mexican sunsets atop malnourished horses, strategic shirt slashes and tye dyed cotton, all hailing the glory of the repurposed…a burgeoning contrast to the self assured beauty of a vacant, gazing body.

We applaud ourselves for asking questions and posing with our domestic monetized hobbies, questioning the status quo like adolescents, but is any of this relevant to practical growth? Why aren’t we demanding government subsidies and funding for local farms and businesses to support the education and practice of making quality produce and paying people livable wages; people who are not just working for fun but for their livelihoods who should be able to create their own businesses instead of relying on another white man. Witness how fashion has the power to convert an entire generation to a set of values, and with that same power it fails to examine the ethics it capitalizes on. How can we truly work together to build communities and systems that last, creating structures and products that serve us in the longterm rather than us serving them. We’re so focused on the idea of sustainability and regenerative models while produce and products still lack substance, taste and efficacy. Does anyone eat a potato anymore, or is it all dollops, petals, gems and supper clubs paired with hand placements and afternoon sun?

As long as we live in a debt-based economy, we will prioritize monetary gain. Even with the urgency of climate change (which has found aesthetic value in this Pagan Nouveau), the only successful environmentally-conscious models will be in the interest of profit. To really have an impact and slow or reverse the damage we’ve done as a species, we need to restructure what incentivizes us on a societal level.


There are very few things that unify our country, but sugar is one of them. The glue, our wrinkle free ageless old reliable. Sugar in the American diet has evolved to a subliminal state, seeping through our strong cancel culture seething with wokeness which somehow fails to recognize that health is not an alternative, it’s the root of our confusion. From vegan alternatives, chicken stock to soups, cereals, milk and meat alternatives, sugar is added to nearly everything, maybe especially the “health conscious” options, and nobody seems to raise a brow. We replace meat with impossible burgers but the carbon footprint remains the same- increases even.

Most packaging remains plastic, including those $7/bundles of locally harvested organic greens. Our agricultural industry is still so unregulated that people with time and money make researching a hobby, priding themselves in having the ability to make healthy choices by “knowing what’s out there”, when the general food industry standards should be significantly raised across the board for all, beyond organic and health food stores.


What if we defined ‘the economy’ as the way we take care of one another?

David Graeber

We seek to tell stories in a post modern branding culture because we miss our tribal roots. Beauty is not as beauty does; beauty tells a story and we are more beautiful than ever. It easily becomes an all consuming endeavor, stirring the inner narcissist and capitalizing on relevant values, leaving our subconscious thirst unquenchable. Are we falling for our own reflections and missing the meaning? This interplay of over-saturation and meaninglessness are at best memes and at worst mining at morality.

In his simple manner, he had suddenly illuminated the recent trends of rootless generations towards folklore, primitive art, history, even archaeology. Apparently, there was an awareness in people that in their unbridled progress, they had lost their way. -The Thirteenth Apostle, Eugene Vale

By oscillating between future and past, we still fail to congeal in the moment. Life is a synthesis of memories, experiences, stories and lessons passed down through generations, evolving in the moment. It isn’t about leaving what we used to be or becoming what we are not. It’s about breathing with our minds. Dolphins may remember previous generations through sand dollars, at least according to PCP user Timothy Wyllie in his interview with Hamilton Morris, but there is evidence to suggest that underwater mammal’s sonar transmissions are stored and passed through generations. Does water itself hold onto memory?

There is a growing need to find balance between autonomy and relying on the wisdom of others. Just as the biologist has specialized knowledge of how things grow on a scientific level not readily accessible to everyone but respected nonetheless, so should ancient wisdom of native peoples around the world. With the popularization of palo santo, homeopathic remedies, meditation and native yeasts, in the context of a christian mind frame, the concern seems to remain on repentance, washing away current sins to make room for new ones. It’s a cyclical, non-evolved proposition. We need to be careful we don’t appropriate these wise women’s traditions and ancient folklore without realizing the difference in context and intention. Not only is it disrespectful, it’s almost absurd to take everything literally. That’s not what those practices are about, they are about a deeper purpose and finding centeredness. These ideas are more like cues, guidelines for each person’s connection to self in an endogenous, fluid way, and no amount of therapy, meditation or holistic practice will change the inner compass if the context is still based on social or economic value.

In many cultures, sacred knowledge is not considered appropriate for all people. “In my day it was not your job to know everything,” the elder said. “You were told things that you were meant to know.” Indeed, in certain healing traditions, the very efficacy of a cure depends not just on the plants used, but on the user’s relationship to nature, their community, and the spiritual world. Read more about the Archive of Healing here.

If we “normalize” these influences in a practical way, I suspect they’ll become part of the quotidienne without the need to hype or overpromise. There will be interest, funding and understanding that’s integrated into the rest of post modern society. An example is Germany or France, first world countries that have long supported homeopathy and organics, as can be seen in the fantastic apothecaries where you’ll find mugwort or ibuprofen, Weleda or La Roche Posay alongside eachother at the user’s discretion. By presenting them in a less extreme light with educational support, one can find helpful, non invasive solutions and move on with their life.

By appropriating aspects of indigenous identities and practices out of context, we’re actually distancing ourselves from understanding them.

In the land of peptides, anti-allergen dogs, Tekashi 69, Tiktok decade revivals and hype over facts, we find a reimagined equality as the virtual and virtuous “Consumerican”. But if we use imaginary values in real world applications, does that mean our world is fake? We’re more flexible than ever, fluid supporters of whatever material is relevant, whenever it’s convenient. Preoccupied by the judgement of others, our heavily researched sophistication dulls our intuitive spontaneity, comprehensive understanding and respect of self, yet we reach further to put ourselves out for a like, a match or an NFT, props in the theatrical production of identity waging; a losing battle. We are in an evolutionary moment, pushing the curve unwittingly in one of two directions.

The Sweet Potato: An International Investigation

From the Irish Potato Famine to French Fries, this simple tuber has made impressive and unrivaled intercontinental sociopolitical statements for hundreds of years. It was first cultivated in South America somewhere in southeastern Peru and northern Bolivia from 3-7,000 years ago, but probably grew wild as far back as 13,000 years prior. Spanish conquistadors discovered and brought them to Spain in the late 1500s, after which a slow steady spread across Europe saw the potato in Ireland, Holland, France and Germany by the mid 1600s. There isn’t a more versatile or sought after root crop whose cultivars continue to gain popularity and recognition around the world, most recently the sweet potato.

Why is there so much variation in flavor, texture and color? This confusion stemmed from a haphazard observation of my potato consumption during the past year, as I moved from the fall season in Southern France to winter in Berlin, then spring in New York. When I tried to prepare them the same way as I had in previously, these potatoes were dull in color and nearly flavorless, sort of flat tasting. It was confusing since I (naively?) imagined the birthplace of the potato being the source of the tastiest ones. I really wanted it to be true. Maybe I never noticed it before, but after living abroad and coming back it was a pretty sharp contrast. I missed the vibrant, almost florescent orange, with a rich, complex smell and taste. So I went down a rabbit hole because there was so much I didn’t know and needed to understand in order to try to answer this.


Part of the tuber family, it grows underground as essentially a food reserve or main organ for the leafy plant that emerges above. It’s a hardy, highly adaptable, nutrient dense vegetable, an ideal essential food that offers a variety of vitamins and minerals:, including vitamin A & C, potassium and fiber.

Tubers prefer well-drained, deep but loose soil, high in organic matter. Loam, a mix of sand/silt/clay in varying ratios, seems to be ideal and I found it to be commonly mentioned as the prominent soil structure for planting them across the US and EU. It makes sense that fluffy soil gives roots the wiggle room to dig and reach which is why dense, packed, clay-forward soils are not ideal.

A North Carolina Sweet Potato Farm

There are many varieties of sweet potato, some of which have yellow or orange flesh (generally from the US) and others have white flesh (from places like Israel, Honduras, China and Egypt). Since the EU imports the majority of their sweet potatoes from the US, the relevant popular types are: California, Beauregard and Georgia Jets. Strange to note that I don’t see any of these varieties here, rather Garnet or Jewel seem to be the common types available. But according to the the CBI, Georgia Jets and the American Covington are highest in demand in Northern Europe, so maybe I was eating one of those and the difference is simply in the varietal itself.


It turns out that the sweet potato is part of the morning glory family and the regular potato is part of the nightshade family, so they’re only distantly related. Furthermore, yams are also a completely different species as they are part of the monocot family, which are related to grasses and lilies. While yams and sweet potatoes sometimes taste similar in sweetness, their origins, size variation and climate needs still vary.

Temperature plays a big role too: the sweet potato is actually a hot summer crop, growing best when daytime temperatures range from 75 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit (so more of a tropical climate) whereas the regular potato is more of a winter crop, preferring temperatures between 50 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. This means Germany is not currently an ideal place to grow sweet potatoes, so the ones I was eating in Berlin were most likely imported, but from where?


I’m going to try to narrow this down as best I can. America is the number one supplier of sweet potatoes in Europe. Although they’re grown in many states, the biggest production comes from North Carolina (unlike Washington and Idaho for the regular potato). Within Europe, the UK and the Netherlands are the top American suppliers, while Portugal followed by Spain, Italy and Greece the top European producers. It seems that as the demand increases (and climate changes permit), Northern Europe is slowly starting to cultivate them too.

It seems there are 3 options: France and Germany are either buying locally from very small sweet potato farmers, importing American from the Netherlands, or buying produce directly from Portugal. It should be said that the sweet potato specifically is NOT very popular in Europe, compared to practically anywhere else in the world; from China to Nigeria, Indonesia to Vietnam, India to Tanzania. While they’re gaining popularity through health consciousness and curiosity, it was actually pretty random of me to eat sweet potato in Europe. I think it had to do with the fact that we were in lockdown and I was doing a lot of home cooking, so I bought a mix of traditional, local produce and things that were familiar to me.

On a side note, here’s a very cool current map of the top potato varieties and where they’re grown around the world. I just wish someone would further add all the varieties and all the locations to see if and where the sweet potato is grown in say, France or Germany on a smaller scale.


If the sweet tubers in Europe are American, why do they taste different on either side of the ocean? If we go with the theory I was eating European grown potatoes, then according to the international scientific journal PLOS ONE, “apart from the chemical and physical parameters of soil, different field sites differ in the composition of the soil microbiota, which is the main reservoir of microorganisms colonizing plants. This raises the question of to what extent do the microorganisms that colonize potato tubers have an impact on the sprouting behavior of the potato tubers?” If you really want to get into that, you can read the whole article The Bacterial Community in Potato is Recruited from Soil and Partly Inherited Across Generations. Basically, even if the same strain tuber is planted in another place with similar soil composition, weather patterns and care, the native microorganisms will still have an impact on the potato’s character. This is also true for grape vines, humans… any organic matter, really. It makes sense.

Another important thing to consider is what organic really means and to whom. This is relevant whether the potatoes in Europe were imported or produced locally. The US FDA regulations vs EU approved organic legislation have some overlap, but there are a ton of discrepancies between both continents and countries. For example, pesticide residues are one of the crucial issues for fruit and vegetable suppliers. To avoid health and environmental damage, the European Union has set what they call Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs) for pesticides in and on food products. Products that have more pesticides than the maximum allowed are withdrawn or rejected from the European market. What’s more, buyers in several EU Member States, such as the United Kingdom, Germany, The Netherlands and Austria, use MRLs which are stricter than the MRLs laid down in the general European legislation. Supposedly within that, supermarket chains are the strictest and manage 33-70% of the legal MRL. But smaller organic markets and chains, such as the German Bio Company or Sir Plus where I frequently got produce, may not have such a thorough regulation process, but purchase direct from smaller producers who practice minimal intervention farming. It’s a mess to figure out.

Most likely, I was eating either imported American, French or Portuguese sweet potatoes, bought from organic or local markets. But to keep this as straightforward as possible, we could assume it was American all along, in France, Germany and NY. What if they were all from North Carolina, too? Given there is an annual International Sweet Potato Week hosted by the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission (NCSPC) in several Northern European Countries including Germany, it’s especially plausible. Could it also be that they would taste better overseas, and if so, why?


I read that the US only consumes 1/3 of their annual production and freezes the rest. It seems that the EU is more strict about buying seasonal produce, and although the organic sweet potato is still considered to be a niche market, the demand is increasing and so is supplier competition, which means that the US may not always be the lead exporter to the EU. Southern France’s Fruits Union is developing the Beauregard with the intention to slowly take over all imports, offering a “zero residue” potato to France and beyond.

Is it possible that the quality of the exported tuber is higher than the one bought at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s? If the residue requirements are stricter at Bio Company in Kreuzberg than Whole Foods on E. Houston, maybe the delicate skins do not absorb as many toxins and leave the flesh in a happier, fuller life state, even transported in containers over the ocean. There is nothing inherently better in Portuguese loam soils than North Carolina’s; in fact at one point they were all connected as the same super continent, Pangea.

But when I consider how many food and health products are unavailable in the US, the reason is almost always because they don’t fit regulation requirements for MORE preservatives, not less. This distinction has a huge impact not only on our produce but our minds and lives, maybe in more subtle ways than we realize, but they accumulate nonetheless. We’re way overdue to reexamine why exactly we infuse everything with a cocktail of fillers and additives. Is it an embedded psycho-societal need for control? Can we let it go? Maybe the microbes, the local and naturally occurring ones, are not as scary as we imagine them to be. Maybe they do the job of preserving just fine, as they have since forever, long before we came into existence as a species.


Foundations, Farmers & Fraternité

From Burgundy to Lyon to tiny towns along the Côte Vermeille, jobless and living as a nomad while adhering to regimented excursion hours, I begin to wonder if I’m in some wartime echochamber. But rather than feeling desperate, somehow it’s still possible to get by. They’ve been through it before, and they know the secret foundation of nourishment is sensory pleasure. Not only is everything rich in flavor, it’s beautiful to look at and invigorating to smell. I find myself gravitating towards these redefined necessities: baguette, eggs, cheese, butter, pate, saucisson, poulet rotie with roasted potatoes, citrus, figs, and the glorious seasonal vegetables: radish, tomatoes, lettuces, eggplant, cauliflower, leeks, mushrooms, and my favorite, 1 euro for a pound of green beans. Not to mention croissants, tartes, gateaux, confitures, and honey. Food and wine culture are such an intrinsic part of the lifestyle that even during lockdown access to these creations remains unquestioned; they are in fact essential.

It’s easy to develop rapports with the farmers at stands you frequent, showing appreciation and curiosity and in turn they offer their best, sometimes revealing a secret stash. One fromageur in Banyuls who specializes in brebis and chèvre, opened up a box behind him of a super fresh brebis in tiny cups which usually is reserved for the grands-mères and sells out immediately. He explains it is still sweet with natural sugars so best to enjoy as a dessert with a little confiture or honey. Nevertheless I make sure to try it first without anything. The texture is similar to a panna cotta but disappears on tongue contact leaving a lingering taste of sweet cream on the exhale. The next time I see him I remark on the pleasure of it, and he is happy.

Because of the way our commercial agricultural system is structured, Americans tend to view paisan products as luxe, artisinal and inaccessible, a splurge for special occasions, but here most of these pleasures are the backbone of a basic diet at a fraction of the exported price. To say the least, it’s a disparaging feeling when you see the difference; that in the US eating fresh, bio and/or local ends up becoming a class issue whereas here that seems like an inhumane concept.

While I work for local winemakers in exchange for food, lodging and access to their cellar, I learn the balance between long days of labor, a glass of heard earned wine, good conversation and sleep. Through delicate but nurturing exchanges, one can easily understand the sentiment and build friendships based on mutual respect and curiosity rather than a buy and sell mentality, often resulting in the exchange of much local knowledge including recipes with a few quality ingredients to stay satiated and content. Not only is it a reminder that the simple things really are the most rewarding, they are not things at all.

Paths of Resistance in the French Pyrenees

As it appears in ISSUE 05 of THE WINE ZINE 

Eighty years after my great aunt fled Nazi Germany, I found myself retracing her footsteps in the French Pyrenees. As part of an underground network in the International Resistance, she was on a wanted list which meant she was constantly moving from place to place. Returning to her last locale, the tiny town of Banyuls-sur-mer, was a surreal synthesis of family, history, wine and sense of place. The months I spent where she lived, working in the vineyards she crossed, reading her memoirs recounting forged identity papers, food stamps, the help of numerous people including the wine community, smuggling hundreds of refugees over the mountains before saving herself, inspired in me nothing short of reverence. I realized that it’s in human nature to simultaneously create laws and circumnavigate them, so in essence if a law exists so does its manipulation, and nature gives weight to improvisation. This mountainous frontier acts less as a border and more as a sentient consonance. We impose arbitrary boundaries that are meaningless against the strength of the natural world. 

In the case of my great aunt, a natural mountain barrier actually helped her smuggle people across unnoticed. They could not be easily regulated because the boundaries were symbolic in an otherwise rough and wild landscape. The most crucial area of her route was shimmying along a naturally inlaid cliff with garrigue and rock hiding her from view. “I must explain why this route was so secure. After the ascent through the green hills that sloped gently down to the sea, our path ran parallel to a well-known official road that led along the mountain ridge and was easily negotiable. Our route ran below the road and was concealed by the mountain overhang, so that it couldn’t be seen by the French border sentries who patrolled above.” At a certain point she stood with one foot in France and the other in Spain, disintegrating the divide completely. She could see centuries old villages, farms and vineyards surrounding the mountains on both sides, merging one country’s end and another’s beginning, unifying trade, life and community within greater Catalonia; two countries, one people.


Banyuls-sur-Mer is a small port town along the base of the Pyrenees at the southwestern edge of Roussillon, France. Basking topless towards the Mediterranean and bordered by the beginnings of the Pyrenees which divide France and Spain, this last part of the French coast is known as the Côte Vermeille, which is also considered part of Catalonia. While there is some conflict over this matter (sometimes the French still claim it as Occitane), indisputably most locals are neither necessarily French nor Spanish, they are Catalan and have been for many generations. You notice it in the little things: the use of saffron and pimentón, the accent, when ordering pain au chocolat (it’s chocolatine or you don’t get one), dancing in the main square facing the sea where old ladies in skirt suits clap and twist their hips. There is a vivid resistance to be anything but what this place represents: the freedom to be in-between.

Winemaking in this region dates back over a thousand years, to when this was a port of ancient Greece. It became known as the Smuggler’s Republic by Louis XIV, as Banyuls fishermen transported wine, salt, tobacco, sugar, rice and skins with almost total impunity, they hid large amounts of stock within the cavernous cliff rock. By the time of the second World War, Banyuls was known for their AOC Vin Doux Naturel. This is in part because the area is hot and arid, which can quickly overripen grapes that already possess high natural sugar content (for the AOC this means mainly Carignan, Grenache Noir, Grenache Gris and Grenache Blanc). While production did become more systematic and regimented over time, it’s important to understand the impossibility of this area becoming a commercialized, high output zone of industry. In addition to the Banyulenc mentality, the land is truly unforgiving: immense layers of gray and black schist shoot up from the sea becoming relentlessly steep slopes building towards the Pyrenees, speckled with granite and quartz on which only the most strong-willed plants can survive.

Broadly known as garrigue for rough shrubbery near the Mediterranean, here especially you’ll find wild fennel, euphorbia, prickly pear, cistus, rosemary, lavender and thyme, to name a few. This landscape endures direct, scorching sun for long hours the majority of the year as well as the tramontane which can knock you off your feet. To make wine in this area, one cannot be passive: it takes a determined, well-weathered, intuitive and most of all stubborn personality. Unlike “domesticated” regions like Burgundy, you can’t fight nature here—it commands respect. It’s only fitting that the movement back to natural wine would find a home in Banyuls. 


Winemaker Alain Castex arrived in the early 90s and was one of the first to create a natural wine from soil to bottle without care of AOC regulations: nothing added and nothing taken away. I had the chance to visit him in January 2017. He taught me how to faire la tailleand explained his garagiste style (and unlike the many small natural winemakers being called garagistes these days, Alain actually makes wine in a garage). Thoughtful with the air of a magician in his incredible sense of balance in wine and cooking, he lowkey has incredible taste. Case in point: one night he effortlessly put together a dinner of oysters, petit Catalan saucisson, and a dish of whipped carrots, sweet potatoes and sausage that was inexplicably delicious, alongside a bottle of Jacques Lassaigne Montgueux Blanc des Blanc Extra Brut and his white and red cuvees from that year.

The community in Banyuls continues to grow and support one another through an ongoing exchange of ideas, many spurred by Castex himself. There are now more than a dozen vignerons finding a balance between showing both the terroir and their individual character. Les 9 Caves has become a hub for this exchange as part wine cellar, restaurant, wine shop and hotel supporting the growth of natural winemaking in the area. Behind the restaurant you will find nine wine caves of Bruno Duchene, Pedres Blanques, Cave des Nomades, Vinyer de la Ruca, and Domaine Carterole, to name a few. It’s not uncommon to gather and taste other’s wines at the long table in the back of the restaurant, then inevitably someone brings a few snacks and before you know it you’re well into the evening. 

How does a tiny seaside village have such conviction, such resilience? What makes a community, what creates a perspective like that? When you look at a mountain, do you see an end or a beginning? Can you ride the waves or will you get sucked under? In a place like Banyuls, you get the feeling there’s a Zarathustra in everyone: Upon your own head, and beyond your own heart! Now must the gentlest in you become the hardest. The combined energetic force of sea and mountains has a palpable effect on anyone, especially if you live there.

Ancient cultures around the globe considered mountains places of high cosmic connection and transcendence. The mountain as the immovable force, the heart of creation, the navel of the earth. Zoroastrian ritual included drinking fortified wine facilitating spirit travel to the invisible world. Times change, but the inclination remains.


In 1940, my great aunt, Lisa Fittko, escaped a detention camp in Gurs, at the foot of the Pyrenees. She fled to Marseille with the intention of getting a visa to escape Europe, but it proved more complicated than expected.  After reuniting with her husband Hans, they ended up in Banyuls  for nearly nine months, leading other refugees over the border with the help of the town’s socialist Mayor, Vincent Azéma, and the local community, including the winemakers. She was given only a hand drawn sketch of an old smuggler’s route and a few verbal guidelines which she used to find her way. Eventually this would be called the “F Route” in honor of her surname, which is an incredible sentier although barely marked and still fairly treacherous.

Her first ascent was with Walter Benjamin, a German Jewish intellectual of the Frankfurt School, a cultural critic and philosopher with mystical leanings. Benjamin was a radical thinker who has since become somewhat of an iconic figure with lots of mystery surrounding his work and death. When Lisa left him at the Spanish Border, he descended into Portbou as he was supposed to, but committed suicide that night. This was thought to be because he believed he would get caught by the authorities despite his escape. It was a loss that made Lisa only more resolute.

At that time, the winemakers of Banyuls were mainly Catalan and helped Lisa stay hidden during the first part of the route through the vineyards. The group of refugees would leave early, before sunrise, with the vineyard crew climbing the steep, terraced vines disguised as workers wearing espadrilles, carrying a cabec and banaste. In her memoir she recalls, “Among themselves they speak Catalan, and now and then we understand a word. With us they speak French, as they do with all étrangers. It’s a good thing for us that everyone who doesn’t belong here is called an étranger, whether a Frenchman from another area or an apatride.” It’s not that the Catalans accepted her as one of their own—they accepted her as someone else. Well accustomed to maneuvering between countries, they have been fighting for their own independence for centuries, living amongst the Spanish and the French while remaining firm in their traditions. They are the original keepers of the Pyrenees.

As Lisa became familiar with everyone, she began to feel like she was from the village. People had each other’s backs, smuggling supplies and vouching for those who were interrogated by gendarmes. Not only did her sense of purpose increase, so did her affection for Banyuls.

To successfully navigate the land and work with the Banyulencs, she had to embrace the strength of ambiguity and intuit the greater picture, a way of being that invigorated her expeditions. 

“We clambered through and between the vines which were heavy with dark, sweet, near-ripe Banyuls grapes. I think it was an almost vertical incline…the vignerons know us now and sometimes in conversation one will mention in passing what the best way to the border is, and where one shouldn’t go… [Mayor] Azéma’s data about distances and times were elastic, as is often the case with mountain dwellers. How long a time is ‘a few hours’?”

Escape Through the Pyrenees by Lisa Fittko

It’s true, time doesn’t have the same meaning here; it’s less of a measure and more of a feeling. The mountains and the sea test your understanding of things, of what you’re capable of, maybe even more on a psychological level. You see the cliff drop and the jutting rock that split your path and your instincts tell you it’s dangerous, you can’t do it, but you can. It’s not the void of cavernous dips echoing a bridge to the next mountain, it’s the feeling that gravity is all around you, the weight of an invisible ocean ready to take you with one false step. But by pushing through your imagined physical limits, you relieve the internal ones, and you finally understand the meaning of balance. 

Living on a border is living in a place of undeniable possibility, of heightened perception which connects not divides. Throughout history mountains have been recognized as concentrated energetic zones where the sacred manifests, offering illuminations in varying forms. We are reminded that we are part of something greater than ourselves. A mountain is both sides, the one you’re on and the one you don’t see. It is the sum of its parts, dividing and unifying; a contradiction ruled by natural law, above the will of governments. While many borders act as a hostile political division, there’s always the undertone of rare fertile ground for true collaboration, understanding and acceptance. Resistance is one of nature’s most successful propellers but we struggle to understand what that really means. There’s a hierarchy, but not the one humans create. Even we, as the mountain, yield to the greater forces of the cosmos. 

Losing to Win

It wasn’t long after the pandemic took hold that life started to drastically shift. As a nation we watched incredulously as China, followed by Italy were smeared by COVID-19 cases, warning us of the inevitable, yet we remained steadfast in denial. We were the audience of the Lumiere brother’s first motion picture, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, except nobody imagined the train was real. For a country enthralled with entertainment, this would have been a good time to let ourselves be swept away. But our suspended disbelief wasn’t in our favour, and we took the hit hard.

New York was the first epicentre for the virus in the US. I was working in wholesale wine import and distribution, for a small company based in Manhattan. My account base was 90% on premise fine dining restaurants- in other words, I lost nearly all of my business. It trickled out, to be sure, but I saw the end coming and realised I needed to start making plans. By the time the company let me go, I wasn’t surprised- in fact since it was commissioned work I was only regretful I hadn’t been on unemployment sooner. Earlier in the year, the government had approved a $600/week additional PUI under the CARES Act, an unprecedented approach for the US. But it ended shortly after I was enrolled and I started to worry how I would cover my rent.

There was nothing to do. I lost my job, there were no prospects, and life was unaffordable. Just as I was getting approved for Medicaid, a friend of mine told me about an opportunity to work the wine harvest in Burgundy. Normally this was an exclusive arrangement between approved Michelin restaurant wine directors, sommeliers and a private French export company. I was neither a somm nor had I worked with this company. But given the circumstances, most Americans were no longer able to travel abroad without specific justification. Having dual citizenship at this moment became my golden ticket. I had never really used my other passport- it was a reminder of my inner conflict about family and loss. But ten years working in the wine trade and I hadn’t worked a harvest or been to Burgundy. This was my chance. Without really knowing what I was getting into or for how long, I booked a flight to Paris.

Day One

I arrived in France with a carry-on suitcase. The first thing I did was eat a croissant. The second thing was get tested (at CDG, for free). There is nothing more dissimilar than talking about the harvest season and working a harvest. On the very first day, I snipped the tip of my ring finger clean to the bone. I was trying to keep up and I didn’t know what I was doing. I tried to ignore it by wrapping vine leaves around, but determined it was pretty bad when the bleeding seeped through almost instantly. I ran down to the base of the row where the vigneron himself was monitoring our progress and showed him the blood. “C’est pas possible!” and he turned and walked in the opposite direction. I was embarrassed. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself, especially creating an impression as the white American girl who gets injured the first day of work. But the vigneron’s daughter fixed me up with an assortment of disinfectant, sterile pads and bandaids from the van, telling me “Ca va aller, ça arrive à tous”. By her swift bandaging I could tell this was a common occurence.

Out the door and in the vineyard picking grapes by 6:00am. It was already getting chilly in the vineyards and sometimes at daybreak the dew was partially frozen. But the beauty of waking up with the sunrise, feeling it warm your face as you move between rows of vines, quickly became my favourite part of the day. In exchange for room and board, I worked nearly 12 hour days in the Cote de Beaune: premier cru vineyards of Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny as well as Volnay and Santenay. There were a few days in Gevrey-Chambertin too. Some of the parcels were a 16th of a hectare while others nearly a whole. I tasted the grape ripeness, their variation from parcel to parcel, measuring density, quality, soil, exposure.

Burgundy, I realised, is an industry. After all, the hype of terroir, regional history, the distinguished character of each Domaine… is all very French, and has become very American too, in the world of haute commerce. This is not to downplay the efforts or quality of the region, but as someone whose interest had been sourcing wild, minimal intervention produce, this region is very domesticated. The land itself is gentle rolling hills with many long, flat stretches of vineyards. I quickly learned these flat stretches make it extra difficult on your back as you reach downward, about mid-thigh height for grape clusters sandwiched between dense leave clusters. It’s much easier to pick at an angle. You find creative ways to angulate your body, whose alternative negative effects suggest the proper way to save your back remains to be seen. The most successful method was taught to me by a Belgian scientist in his 50’s who despite being retired, enjoyed doing the harvest as a yearly ritual. He showed me that wearing kneepads and then kneeling with one leg forward and the other behind keeps your lower back out of the equation. That advice saved me from what would have surely been a dislocated disc.

The Power of the Human Heart

The harvest team consisted of a group of hired hands from multiple regions and countries. Especially places like Burgundy where time is of the essence and there’s a lot of ground to cover, the groups can be pretty large and are generally cheap labour from elsewhere. The family members usually head the teams and oversee that the bunches are picked properly and nothing is missed. There are designated “pannier”, interchangeable word for the person who carries an oversized basket over on their back, walking down the row periodically to collect the pickings from your small bucket. Our group was a mix of Sudanese immigrants, hippies from Ardeche, Italian backpackers, high school kids from Beaune, some local families, and a few old men who adored the harvest so much they’d been doing it over 40 years (a Spaniard and the Belgian).

Most days were spent listening and asking questions, as we moved in tandem through the vineyard. Far from the demonstrative nature of city life, it was refreshing to be around so many readily genuine people. Despite what anyone was going through (being an illegal immigrant, homeless, poor, without family) everyone was filled with strength and found any excuse to share joy. Our group became a community who looked after each other and shared in the waves of the work. This carried with me, and I didn’t feel so alone.

Unlocking the Past

A little over a month later, I left Burgundy for a tiny seaside village in the south of France, Banyuls-sur-Mer, for the next phase of this improvised expedition. I harvested grapes on infamously steep slopes on completely wild vineyards. I met and worked with an entire community of completely natural winemakers, which means their practices involve the least amount of intervention necessary at every step in the process, from soil to bottle. But perhaps more importantly, I found myself retracing my family’s history of resistance and escape through France during WWII. To my complete surprise, many villagers knew the story of my great aunt, her role in the local resistance, and her perilous path through the Pyrenees. The path exists to this day and is called the “F Route” in her name, Lisa Fittko. Retracing her footsteps, hiking the route and hearing stories from people who knew her, took this expedition to the next level, which you can read about here.

Early morning on a vineyard in Banyuls-sur-Mer

Homeopathy and holistic living were part of my childhood experience. I felt at home in the forest, with a wild garden surrounding the house and a wood fire as the central heating system. There was a lot of work to be done, so it was easier to understand how to exist with nature’s unpredictability rather than fight it. Animals were great teachers, in my case mainly cats, horses and wildlife. I studied them continuously and tried to mimic their awareness of their surroundings. My mother understood how to let me discover a lot for myself, but was always there to answer questions. In Banyuls I met a woman who helped her 70 year old husband recover from COVID holistically, namely with essential oil of Ravintsara. I had so many questions. We spent the afternoon discussing different plants, oils, and home rituals. It was both so familiar yet strange that she had dedicated her time to research alternative healing methods. Minimal intervention, whether it be in agriculture, nutrition or psychology is supposed to be reserved for hippies, right? While I’m kidding, a lot of people are not. But the longer I spend in countries like France and Germany I see it’s not such a fringe concept. Natural wine was a passion of mine to which I dedicated the last ten years of my professional life. It has since become a fashionable sociopolitical statement, which is great, although increasingly it’s missing the mark. Recently there were revelations of harvest worker exploitation in Puglia, uncovering the disputed action/inaction of Valentina Passalacqua, ending her distribution almost entirely. What it shed light on was a far greater issue: the natural wine world isn’t as holistic as it thinks it is. There’s a lot to be done to amalgamate idea and action.

Go In to Go Out

Last year helped me see things as they are and appreciate them for exactly that; letting go of things that were beyond control, replacing those urges with an inexplicable lightness, considering the omniscient ever-possible consequences of travel and human interaction which serve as a reminder to be grateful for what we have within us. Things are just things. Learning to live outside of the framework of a job, a place to call home, or someone you’re close to shifts the focus to cultivating a new kind of resourcefulness.

© 2021 terroirisms

Puglia, the Forgotten One

People throw themselves at Italy. They “do” Rome, Florence and Venice. Romanticism takes on a level of tenacious ambiguity, seizing the desire to experience the country through a lens three times removed. And yet, Italy remains unknown and intact, a stubborn opponent to globalization’s pin pricks and the pressure points of tourism.

Throngs of tourists thirsty for answers to the mysteries of the Italian way of life drink up the consumerist stereotypes- mesmerizing in its own right. But quietly in the background the Italians live their lives, upholding the values and secrets they’ve maintained for centuries. Family is everything, food is passion, corruption is everywhere. While you eat lunch you discuss what’s for dinner.

No region is more raw and unassuming than Puglia. It’s hardcore Virgin Mary & Madonna, a firm believer in local traditions and unassuming riches of which it can’t live without. It doesn’t welcome, it bodes. There’s no filter, there’s only pride. It’s the dear, strange cousin to the rest of Italy; loved unconditionally while it resists any suggestion of prowess or grace. Refusing to be touched or spoken to, it struggles to be left alone.

As someone curious about borders, wine once again gave me a lens into the microcosm that is Puglia. Who is Puglia?  I found myself in Salentu, considering this weird paradox of trying to connect with the land and the people while trying to satisfy my insatiable urge for authentic wine and food…but it came together with genuine remittance of my desire to influence the outcome- I just let it happen, and it taught me more than words can say.

In Italy, the word “local” is redundant. If it’s not local, it’s not Italian.

Straight as a digestivo, on ice, or as an aperitivo with soda, the Amari (plural of Amaro) are a popular beverage across Italy but vary distinctly by region and by their base and method of production. Laurel is a very common shrub in Puglia, so not surprisingly it’s used in many digestivi. It has a peculiar tree bark quality mid palate with a hint of pine that brightens the end, a different balance than Amari from the north, like this Chinotto (myrtle leafed orange tree) based amaro from Piedmont.

Even in early March, the afternoon light pierces through the clouds with palpable heat. Silver in undertone, the hue is like wearing a pair of mica sheets for glasses and gives a particular two dimensional crispness to everything. A breeze twists through the side streets into alley ways and dances the laundry. Being the offseason, it was pretty easy to walk around and find the hidden nooks. Polignano a Mare was a subdued but electric greyishblue, muted green and chalky beiges.

It was late afternoon so immediately I began searching for places to snack, letting instinct take over and smells telling the tummy where to go. The aperitivo is a very important part of the day, not to be confused with afternoon coffee or dinner. It’s the place you go to get energized for the evening and stimulate your appetite before continuing to walk around more with before dinner. Between tiny flavorful bites and conversation you’re primed for another 3 hours before having dinner later on.

One place in particular I’ll always remember well because it was the first time I tried fresh uni, which was caught just hours before. It was also the richest, most beautiful uni in shell I’ve ever seen. They were presented to me with pride as I sat down and I mean, how could you say no? I found this place because I asked a butcher where to eat.

After eating (slowly), a walk is a good idea. I let myself meander towards the water and ended up finding this beautiful cove where I descended and sat for a while.

Fresh and in season is everything-unless it’s a preserve or salami. The plate of antipasti above was part of a buffet in a hole in the wall in Lecce, Osteria delle Travi. Amazingly flavorful: fresh twists of mozzarella di buffala, beets, cima di rapa, peppers, eggplant, zucchini, olives. We ordered the catch of the day, and plop! fish. So simple, so good. The guy who ran the place was sassy and critical of outsiders, but after some sideways conversation he ended up dancing around with the music turned up, we were clapping and at the end he said we were welcome back anytime. The best!

Paglione “L’Eclettico” 2014 (Lucera, Puglia)
Malvasia Bianca & Bombino Bianco with 8 days maceration

This was definitely the highlight of the wines I tried. An orange wine from Paglione, one of a handful of emerging natural wine producers in Puglia. The slow food/slow wine movement has been…slow…to arrive in Puglia but as with many things in Italy, a lot of the products are already made essentially in this manner but just don’t have the stamp or care to brand themselves that way. The other scenario is that Italy has a long history of producing quantity for export rather than quality for local or “artisanal” consumption, as a means to secure money for the family; in other words, one could pinpoint the global market as the source of divergence from quality. But now that international consumers have started to develop an interest in their own palates, the demand for terroir driven products is here. The question is, how and who makes these wines? Who is really in charge here? You get the feeling that the secrets include treatment of bodies and earth…looking around there is so much poverty that seems basically ignored. I start to wonder if I could even get a straight answer out of anyone, whether they knew or not or were directly involved. And just as quickly I recognize this can’t be an isolated chain of problems in this region….

 Paglione “Caporale” 2013 (Lucera, Puglia)
Nero di Troia & Sangiovese, a little Bombino Bianco

Both wines from Paglione were part of a beautiful and very interesting list at La Bul in Bari. The young chef Antonio Scalera and Wine Director Francesca Mosele have created one (if not the only) completely modern take on Puglian cuisine.      

Already noted by Michelin, they’re doing something completely forward thinking for what people are ready for in the area. Whereas the local trattorie are booked for weeks before any given Sunday, El Bul remains relatively open for reservations. You have to ring a doorbell to unlock the door, and then you are greeted by an open dining room with modern art accents, Spanish tiles and minimalist lamps over the tables. The food is thoughtful and progressive while remaining an unpretentious taste of place. I slept well that night.

An incredible dinner at Da Tuccino outside Polignano a Mare. Words don’t do justice to the freshness of the freshest fish anyone could ever dream to have. Whereas La Bul represents the evolution of Puglian cuisine, Da Tuccino is the standard of timeless excellence in Puglian terroir (since 1968, in fact). Our meal there was on a quiet, stormy night and the intermittent lights going pitch black throughout dinner added a curiously Buñuel allure. Just imagine, a seafood restaurant isolated on a cliff outside town, off season on a dark stormy night. The entire staff stands at the door to greet you, their first guests of the evening at 9pm. They study you up and down. You are served by a man who has been there since 1968 and the plate of epically fresh seafood being placed in front of you disappears as the lights cut out as the place goes pitch black. Someone inhales sharply, we pause, and the lights come back on. The waiters pick up from a standstill exactly where they left off and it continues this way for the rest of the evening. We chose the scorpion fish at the beginning of dinner. The system is spontaneous yet organized: you leave your table and head strait to the ice room where the fishmonger consults with you from behind his fish bar on what you’re in the mood for and how he plans to prepare it. 

Cantele Verdeca, Bianco 2015 (Alberobello, Bari)

Indigenous white grape variety Verdeca (=Verdejo?) redefined my general idea of Puglian wines being heavy and uneventful. Intense yet graceful, highly aromatic and incredibly thirst quenching, an ideal accompaniment to eating large amounts of seafood.

Madrigale Primitivo di Manduria, Dolce Naturale (15-20%)

Naturally sweeter Primitivo grapes coaxed to elevated sugar levels before harvest, going through appassimento and aged further in bottle. Only made in years which harvest allows. A typical and very delicious end to a meal.

The natural beauty of Puglia took my breath away. Somewhere between the olive groves, the jagged cliffs, ancient ruins and glass ocean, the sacred and delicate balance between earth and human remains intact. A community relatively untouched by the demands of tourism, global markets and branding, still keep their traditions and their language unchanged. Walking down any given street, you will find dozens of wedding dresses on display, a church, pastry shops and tabac with a few old men standing outside. Priorities are heavy with family and religion, and the young people seem to follow suit happily although with a slight disdain. I found pockets of progressive thinking- interestingly enough it was channeled mainly through food and wine, but people were generally closed and secretive. I let it sit quietly on display and tried to listen to the animals, the land, the buildings…The stuff beyond words, the essential, the undeniable that we always return to, no matter what walk of life we’re from.

Exploring Wines of Southern France

The first night was on a tiny quiet street near Cafe de Turin in Nice. Tired after a 7 hour flight + 7 hour train ride from Paris, we had just enough energy to crush a tower of shellfish which thankfully was open till late and still completely packed. Somehow we managed to get a table between the throngs of people crowding the drenched sidewalk, sometime after 10pm. We squeezed in under a large column with a shaky table next to a huge tank of live lobster and a drippy green hose. The column was supporting the alleyway along which the restaurant staged all of its catch, under bright fluorescent lights that showed no mercy. The archway, although painted white, reminded me a lot of the arcades of Bologna. Finishing the last drops of house Muscadet, we melted into the night.

This cantine of wine was hooked directly to a mainline behind the cafe/bio shop at O’Quotidien in the Nouvelle Porte/Bonaparte quarter where, along with over a dozen others, they pour by the glass or bottle on site. Every wine is rotated and imported monthly. Carlo and Laura opened this place a couple years ago in an effort to offer local products from Italy (Piemonte & Liguria) and Provence to the average guy who wants a place to hang, eat and drink.

In the states this would be overrun with trendseekers but here we met a theatre actor, farmer, doctor, producer, and ambiguous Spanish joker who pulled us in for several rounds of wine from the cantines. They’re only concern was that we were game to be human. We drank 2013 Dolcetto from Cooperativo Valli Unite (the best dolcetto to date btw) and a 2010 Barbera Riserva from Azienda Agricola Mario Torelli Bubbio. The wines were all unbelievably fresh, earthy, alive- and all Italian. I was didn’t realize how much the Côte d’Azur leans on Italian influence. We came back for lunch the next day and had lasagna with seasonal vegetables.
Carlo brought an aged Trebbiano to accompany the meal which quickly disappeared and led to dessert, a chocolate cake soaked in some kind of sweet wine (pictured above) that was unbelievably good. Also these guys have incredible espresso.

We talked to Carlo about his market and the biodynamic movement in Italy for a while. He operates from a place of extreme calm, a rarity these days. He doesn’t bother with marketing his place- he doesn’t even want to run it for long. “I look to the next time I can ride my bike to the woods and forage mushrooms, pick grapes in the vineyard, and be away from the chaos of the city.” I hope next time I visit, he’s gone on a foraging trip.

We drove along the coast to Cap Ferrat, Villefranche, the medieval hill town Eze, and Beaulieu-sur-Mer. We climbed down a cliff to the sea, and jumped in the water. We forgot to eat before we left, so after several hours of hiking around the Cap, we hunted down a place to eat. Given that it was 3 in the afternoon in the south of France, there was nothing open. But we managed to find a little market where the guy took pity on us and made some sandwiches. He really hooked it up: bresaola, brebis and tomates confites with butter on a baguette. He also recommended we go next door to the patisserie where to our great joy we found millefueille!

Bistro du Fromager

One of my favorite places in Nice is Bistro du Fromager in Vieux Port, a hidden cave à manger where the entire menu is based on cheese. The Carte des Vins was like the rest of it, delicious, bio, direct, no fuss. The menu handed to you doesn’t have any wine, but at the bottom a little note read “the drinks based in fermented grape juice are located in the large wine menu”. Immediately that made me want them to pick the wine for us; I felt like I could trust them. He brought us a red from Simon Busser in the small village of Prayssac (Cahors in the Midi-Pyrenees). 100% goddamn Merlot! It was deep, inky purple and tasted like smoked blackberry confiture with hints of myrtle and spice, and opened up beautifully the longer we stayed.

Looking around, people had equally local, natural wines, many of which I didn’t recognize but I have the impression most were from lesser-known regions like South West. We had a splash of a wine that was open on the counter on our way out: Domaine de L’Ausseil “P’tit Piaf Blanc” 2014 also from the South West in Latour (Roussillon). A blend of Muscat and Macabeo, it was rather sweet but due to the way it was made (fermented via carbonic maceration), the freshness and tarty twinge carried well.
One of the dishes was two fresh sacks of burrata, each bigger than my fist, with olive oil, pepper and a few haricots verts (green beans). The pasta was delicious too, also having lots of cheese. It was almost like someone was playing a joke on us- “do they really expect us to eat all this?” until I saw another table had the same amount of burrata and that somehow gave me the green light. “Even if I’m sick tomorrow, it will be worth it”.

Chez Palmyre

It’s important to say that not every meal was a wine-centric event. We went to a hole in the wall, a one room restaurant no bigger than 20 x 20 feet. Small prix fixe menu at shared long tables covered in checkered table cloth. Noisy, tight, boards with scribbled in menu items and a bar with no seats, just trinkets and mechanisms from bygone generations lining the walls and keeping score. Without question, we had a carafe of house wine and Durex tumblers. Classic.

And then there was Carbo Culte. Night at the apartment during one of the rainiest, most deathly regional storms in recent history. The thunder and lightning cascaded across the sky and struck the nearby mountains and the sea, while rain came down heavy, thick and loud. We opened a window and looked out onto the piazza below. It was empty, desolate. The trees flashed white as another bolt struck down on the water. We pulled shut the window and opened the Carbo Culte. Another bodilicious babe, the name is a riff on a Serge Gainsbourg song, “Cargo Culte”, which is cute because it’s referring to its “cult charge” aka carb maceration. A small operation in the Roussillon region, Sylvain Respaut is on the wave with vigor and precision. He has a few wines, including Gorgolou and Zumo, using grapes like Carignan, Grenache Gris and Muscat d’Alexandrie. Carbo Culte is a blend of Grenache and Carignan. There’s practically no info on him and I only asked briefly about it with the very friendly guy at La Petit Syrah. From what I understand, he makes a lot of honey and just recently started making wine. Anyway, it was very delicious.

BANDOL: a Timeless Classic

The diversity of wine in the South West makes up for the lack of production around Nice and the rest of eastern Provence. Where Nice has become somewhat of a Souther French gastronomic destination, the western area of the Cote d’Azur remains a rustic spattering often with time travel potholes. While Languedoc-Roussillon seems to be the next big chapter in the natural wine movement (after Loire & Rhône), Provence remains seemingly aloof, concentrating on the perfection of Mourvèdre and the timelessness of the afternoon rosé.

Chateau Pibarnon

 On our trip to Bandol, we visited Chateau Pibarnon which may be considered home to some of the oldest and most prominent Bandol AOC wine available. We tasted through and decided to take home a bottle of Les Restanques 2011, which comes from slightly younger vines on a hillside primarily of clay and limestone. The blend (70% Mourvèdre, 30% Grenache) undergoes extended fermentation of 25 days, then is split between large, new French oak casks and smaller barrels.

Part of being included as an AOC is that as a producer, you have to meet certain requirements. In Bandol, one of those is the red wine must be at least 50% Mourvèdre and aged 18 months in oak at minimum. This is already an explanation for the huge disparity between taste profiles of natural and controlled wine. The former often has no contact with oak and is generally drunk very young. Is one better than the other? No- dumb premise. The better question is, how can I learn to appreciate what each have to offer?

In this case I’ll remember sharing that bottle of Pibarnon with newly encountered family, eating grilled lamb and merguez sausages with rosemary and garlic, in our house just down the hill from the vineyard and 10 minutes drive to the Mediterranean.

PARIS – Epicenter of Vin de Soif aka the Glougou

Au Passage was a perfect example of the success that the natural wine movement has had on the city. It’s more of a lifestyle; informal, conscientious, a sensitive collective of earthy people. Earnest enthusiasm aside, how long will it take for this to turn disingenuous?

100% Gamay from 60 year old vines in Beaujolais. At with small, lighter dishes, including radishes, sweet greens, liver pâté.


Rhône Valley blend of Grenache, Syrah & Mourvèdre. Maceration over 30 days, matures 24 months in concrete tanks. Ate with roast chicken and mustard. Delicious, rich, elegant but totally natural- cosmic, according to Viret. Old school guys who brought amphora to France.

The trip was confirmation of my observations on the changing landscape of wine, culture, fashion, taste…and how it doesn’t change. Some things- most things – are cyclical in the end. The true evolution is yet to be seen, I think.