Jun 17, 2013
Prague, Czech Republic
A flock of pigeons was what first drew me to Jirka Dopita’s trdelník stand in Prague’s Wenceslas Square. This was clearly a popular joint. Every minute or so, the birds would be so bold as to fly onto his counter and peck at the crumbs of the sweet treat. Jirka would wave them away each time with the same practiced motions, the routine having broken whatever exasperation the animals may have once caused him.
Trdelník is a traditional sweet bread that is made by coiling dough around a wooden stick and grilling it over open coals before coating it in a mixture of sugar and nuts. Both the crunch of the coating and the act of unwrapping the pieces can quickly lead you down a dangerous path to devouring the whole bread. I know from experience.
I’m not sure how long Jirka has been making the bread or where he learned the process. All we could communicate was the fact that he would be there again next Sunday, just the day after I had planned to leave. So if you find yourself in Prague on a Sunday and happen to notice a flock of pigeons favoring one man’s treat stand, wander over and see what his hands have to offer you.
Jun 14, 2013
Parisian Christophe Vasseur is a medicine man, and the cure he prescribes is bread. “It makes people happy. For only two or three euro, you can heal someone’s soul.” Having won the Pudlo Paris award of Boulanger de l’Année in 2012, Christophe is king in a country where people regularly walk around noshing on warm baguette in the afternoon or on their way home from work. Here, bread makes its way onto most people’s daily grocery lists, a fact made more convenient by the devotion of around one shop on every block to either patisserie or boulangerie.
Christophe’s Du Pain et des Idées (Of Bread and Ideas) specializes in traditional bakery and Viennoiserie — yeast-leavened and often laminated dough sweets like pains au chocolat, croissants, and escargots. The flagship creation here is Pain des Amis (Friends’ Bread), a thickly crusted hunk of perfectly glutinous bread sold by weight after being cut from a larger loaf.
Christophe used to make this bread only for his friends because it took such a long time to prepare, but that all changed one Monday six years ago when he ran out of baguette traditionelle too early before closing time. Not wanting to disappoint his regulars by turning them away, he baked some of the Pain des Amis dough he had lying around and sold it to those who came through the door expecting their daily loaf. Without exception, every single person who purchased some of this bread came back the next day demanding more. The baguette had been dethroned; a revolution was underway!
In fact, according to Christophe, the French are so passionate about their bread that when Louis XVI halted its production in 1781, the French Revolution was born. Bread was such an important part of everyday eating — around 2.2 pounds per person — that they were starving without it.
The figure for daily consumption today stands at a mere six ounces, but the passion manifests now in the search for the best ingredients: seasonal fruits, easier-to-digest heritage wheat flours and the most richly flavored and purest organic butter available.
Having authority over the ingredients he uses makes Christophe more of a craftsman than just a technician, he says. The self-taught boulanger also eschews the use of recipes because he believes that standardization compromises quality. Instead, he and his five back-of-house partners patiently read the dough to gauge its responses to subtle shifts in the environment. And while baking is a very hands-on profession, the greatest force it requires is gentleness. “Dough is fragile. You must be respectful with it.”
On your next trip to Paris, be sure to eat as much bread and pastry as you possibly can, everywhere and all the time. This way, when you eventually seek out Du Pain et des Idées, you’ll know that you’ve found a truly great bakery from the moment the warm current of creamy, sweet vanilla greets you on the corner and smacks your olfactory system across its face, whisking you straight off to a place of delirious happiness. Simply open the door, step inside, and empty your wallet as you tell the woman behind the counter, “Je prends un de chaque.”
For more information about Christophe’s work, click here.
May 31, 2013
Médoc, Bordeaux, France
Claude Barreyre knows two things that pair well: wine and family. He’s part of the fifth generation of vintners at Château de la Croix in the Médoc region of Bordeaux, and from cultivating and harvesting to marketing and sales, he’s involved in every aspect of transforming water into wine.
Bordeaux has been particularly rainy this spring. This will impart certain characteristics to the grapes growing in the microclimate here. Slight manipulations during harvest, maceration, and fermentation will continue to direct the evolution of the flavor. After a few weeks in the fermenting vats, the wine will be ready for mixing and aging in wooden casks.
An important note about Bordeaux wines: every one is a blend. Four varieties of grape are grown at this castle: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. Each lends its unique characteristics to the final blend and can act to highlight or tone down the qualities of the other grapes. It is Claude’s job to determine the appropriate ratios. The winning combination may not be the most obviously pleasing to the palate. Instead, the principal matter at Château de la Croix is to share the genuine flavor and heritage of their unique land. This is wine as a means of communication — a time capsule, a short vacation.
Just before I take Claude’s picture, he says his hands could use a wash. I tell him to forget about that; his yellowed calluses hint at a history of regular contact with the earth, of the manual labor involved in moving oak casks just filled with new life, of the redundancy of the friction of bottling. When I ask Claude how his hands play a role in his work, he shows me a faint scar that runs across his left palm, just under his index and middle fingers. It’s something he acquired during a harvest five years ago, when his hand was snagged on the barbed wire that supports the plants. Lucky for Claude, the injury wasn’t serious. Instead, it merely serves as a colorful reminder of the lifeblood that rests in each grape. The Frenchman condenses his sentiments: “C’est ma raison d’être.”
For more information about Château de la Croix, click here.
May 22, 2013
Pardshaw, Cumbria, England
The pursuit of mastery is a lifelong journey. To become expertly skilled at what you do, you must be committed to that singular task with the vigor that only passion and talent can birth.
In the case of Barry Porter, it’s woodworking that has possessed him for the last three-quarters of his life. Now 60, he has spent 45 years engaged in the entire process of felling local trees, milling and aging the lumber, and carving and constructing functional works of art primarily in the Jacobean style.
The medium first caught Barry’s attention when he was a 15-year-old schoolboy in England. He went on to pursue woodworking as a major at university. Upon graduating, he traveled to Zambia, where he taught the craft in the bush through Voluntary Service Overseas for two years and at Lions Den Farm for a year. When he wasn’t teaching, he was hitchhiking some 11,000 miles all over the continent. He tells me that one time, he even came upon a few Bushmen crudely forging axes with nothing around for miles. When Barry’s three years were up, he returned home, met his wife, and started a family in the Lake District in northern England.
Throughout his long career, he has restored furniture for museums and castles, custom-built pieces for clients’ homes, designed wooden tombstones (one of which has been treated so that it will completely biodegrade within 100 years), demonstrated traditional woodworking techniques at festivals, constructed entire buildings, and refurbished a cottage near his home to use as a rental property. He has also been teaching at Cockermouth School in the next town over for the last 20 years, and when classes aren’t in session, his home workshop becomes a classroom where students are able to choose between practicing woodworking or iron forging. As if that weren’t enough to keep Barry busy, he’s also continually focused on the greatest project of his life: his family home.
Built in 1697, the house has a charming interior that is punctuated with darkly stained exposed beams, custom-built cabinets, shelves, staircases, lofts, decorative carvings, and furniture of every sort. Barry tells me that the aesthetic was pretty terrible when they moved in; the most recent renovations had taken place sometime between 1962-64. Since then, he has succeeded in erasing all signs of dated trends. His current project, building a conservatory for enjoying the outdoors while under cover from the mercurial English weather, will elevate the home to a new level of country-chic modernity. “It’s my last project,” Barry tells me.
I relay this statement to his son, John, who confirms my suspicions. “That’s what he always says.”
Despite Barry’s prolificacy, his work doesn’t come without its challenges. In 1992, his right pinky began to pull back due to a genetic condition called Dupuytren’s Contracture. Essentially, this disease means that there are fibers growing between his tendons and the skin of his palms, which forces his fingers to curve in as if making a half-hearted fist. The problem has worsened only slightly over the last 21 years, when he implemented the practice of stretching his fingers against his bedroom wall at the start and end of every day. Still, three years ago, he underwent surgery to correct a particularly bad curvature, and there is always a risk of infection in the divots in his palm that result from the contracture. Regardless of his vigilance in maintaining his condition, Barry says the disease could compromise the longevity of his career.
While Dupuytren’s Contracture is a unique obstacle for Barry, there is always the risk of injury in jobs like woodworking and blacksmithing. Barry went 45 years happily without incident — save for the 38mm sliver that penetrated his left thumb in 1999 — until March 7, 2013, a day when he was planing lumber. “I’ve done it a million times!” Even so, the one time he didn’t pay close enough attention, the saw blade caught the tip of his left pinky finger and cut it clear off. After a trip to the emergency room, his finger was completely repaired, though it will always stand just a little shorter than before.*
Having had the past few months to heal from the incident, Barry continues to work as if nothing had ever happened. Most recently, he’s purchased a plot of ancient woodland in the center of the lakes. It’s only 200 yards west of the water, with just enough trees to conceal from view the 8’x6’ shed he’ll build there. It’ll be a simple arrangement, with just enough space for a bed inside and a compost toilet on the hill — the perfect retreat for taking long walks with his wife when she retires from teaching in the next year.
For now, Barry has too many plans to follow suit. “I was just hoping to potter around until I dropped.”
*The last photo in the series was taken by Barry’s son John in December 2012, just three months before Barry chopped off the tip of his finger.
Apr 29, 2013
Every August, the population of Edinburgh, Scotland doubles when the culture-hungry flood the city to witness artists of every medium display their talents in the Edinburgh Fringe and International Festivals. As the birthplace of the Enlightenment, Edinburgh is a city that values the evolution of the arts.
Katherine Sola is one of the many contributors to that evolution. She works with her hands every day, usually immersing them in her favorite medium: white porcelain. “I love the purity of white. It’s just beautiful,” she says. And when she feels the need to express herself in color, she turns to her first love.
"I started painting when I started walking," she tells me. Katherine’s mother began to nurture her creative inclinations from the time she gained dexterity in her hands. Between ages seven and eight, she studied oil painting with the performance artist and writer Marian Lech Bednarek, who Katherine tells me is well known in the community. Unlike many children, Katherine never lost touch with her creativity as she grew.
Even when she spent her twenties traveling, she eventually came back to the arts. She moved to London to practice her English with the man who would eventually become her husband, started painting with a bunch of friends from her restaurant job who introduced her to three-dimensional work, and finally completed her Bachelor’s in Ceramics at the University of the Arts London in 2007. Within a couple days of graduating, she and her husband moved to Edinburgh, where she set up camp in her first private studio.
She tells me a story from before her ceramics career began, when she was working at a photo lab ten or eleven years ago. She was the only one left in the building at the end of the day, and as she was cleaning up the processing tanks, she submerged her hands in film developer without any gloves to protect her. An intense burning sensation immediately shot up her arms.
"I went to the hospital and they ran tests and found that I had had an allergic reaction to one of the chemicals." She points to a sheet of paper tacked to the back of her studio door. It’s the original proclamation of her diagnosis, which ended her job with the film processor only three months after it had begun.
In her artistic career, Katherine has enjoyed success despite not having shown her work recently. Sometimes she wonders if exhibitions are worthwhile. Ultimately, Katherine creates to satisfy her impulses. When few people purchase her work, she’s forced to consider whether her effort has been wasted. Instead, she sometimes benefits from the interest of private collectors like fashion designer Zandra Rhodes.
To supplement her income and continue her creative studies, Katherine is now focusing on using her certification to teach art in the Steiner-Waldorf education system. The kids learn from her, and she takes inspiration for her work from them.
This summer, she will offer one-on-one ceramics sessions with children in her very own studio. It’s a good setup for Katherine to share her years of experience while still getting her hands dirty.
"It’s all about sharing what you know. Someone else taught you what you know now. You have a responsibility to keep passing that along."
For more information on Edinburgh’s festivals, click here. To better acquaint yourself with Katherine’s work, click here.
Apr 17, 2013
Hrísey, Akureyri, Iceland
We’re all too familiar with the story of a man building himself a comfortable life only to have the ground slide out from beneath him.
In 2008, Icelanders felt that pratfall when their economy collapsed. I had read about the economic comeback in Iceland, and from what I understood, they were mostly healed only four years after jailing their bankers. The reality I found was not quite so positive.
"Six thousand people have left Iceland because there are no jobs." That’s five percent of the total population. "And people continue to lose their houses," Víðir Björnsson explains.
He’s a mussel farmer in Hrísey, a 4.6 mile-long island located equidistant from the eastern and western shores of Eyjafjörður, on the north coast of Akureyri, Iceland. Approximately 180 people live on the island in summer. Right now, I’d swear there are maybe 30 in total.
"Everyone knows when you go to the bathroom here," Víðir jokes. He’s probably not far off.
Víðir was born 50 years ago in the very bed where I spend my two nights on the island. Outside of the fourteen years when he was traveling, he has always lived here. In 1999, he did some research on the internet and traveled to the United States and Canada to learn the art of mussel farming. Shortly after the dawn of the new millennium, Iceland had its first mussel farm. Its home: Hrísey.
"At first I really fucked it up," Víðir admits. But with outside help, he developed a system of keeping the mussels 5 meters below water and another 15 meters from the bottom of the sea. This keeps the predatory eider ducks from snacking on mussels that make their way close enough to the surface. But there’s a second reason to shelter the crop.
"It makes their color brighter," Víðir explains. People are used to mussels ranging from cream to pale pink to gray. Here, due to the purity of the water, the mussels are a vibrant rosy orange.
Many Icelanders have not yet incorporated mussels in their diet. In recounting Víðir’s story, I come across two who require hand gestures to make them understand what I’m even talking about. Despite the ignorance of some consumers, the industry is booming.
The only problem is that the largest company of mussel growers in Iceland is currently undergoing a change in ownership. Now, the man who began the trade here won’t even know whether he has a job until the merging of two companies in May.
Regardless of the uncertainty facing him, Víðir tells me that this move is good for mussel farming. A rich Icelander sees the promise, and that means greater opportunities for growth.
Víðir says you can look to mussel farming for a perfect example of the possibilities of sustainable, organic food.
"The mussels actually clean the water," he elaborates. "But that’s not what we tell the customers," he adds with a knowing laugh.
The largest customer base is in tourist-friendly Reykjavík, where Víðir sells directly to restaurants and supermarkets. Most of the mussels leave Akureyri, but I am lucky enough to enjoy a meal of Víðir’s homegrown blue mussels on my first night in town (he works his magic on cod the second evening). They’re incredible, even from frozen. Like a timid eider duck, I pick them off the top of the dish when no one is looking.
Though I am amazed at the bright flavor of the mussels, Víðir insists the mussels are crap because they’ve been frozen. He says I will have to come back so he can do them justice next time. He’s proud of the work that he does, and I’ll be glad to reap the rewards of such perfectionism someday.
On my last day in town, Víðir takes me on a tour of the island’s oldest house, built in 1886. It now stands as a museum of the shark- and herring-fishing industries that used to thrive here. I am amazed to discover that Víðir knows many of the people in the old photographs on the wall. Until now, I have never witnessed the tight weave of identity that industry knits from person and place.
The strength of that fabric is being tested now for Víðir. He’s out of work and unable to make a move until he knows whether he has a future with the company.
If all else fails and he has to walk away from his house, Víðir will buy some land outside of Akureyri, where he will plant the ship bridge he is currently restoring. “You shouldn’t get attached to a house,” he says. After all, he is forever at home on the sea.
To learn more about blue mussel farming and the wonderful food of Iceland, click here and here.
Apr 10, 2013
Everyone knows the old adage about teaching a man to fish. But for Stjani Ben, learning to fish meant gaining the upper hand in a long battle with drug addiction.
"It’s meditative," he says. "At night, when you can’t hear anything but the door opening at the farmhouse half a kilometer away," he adds, "it’s very peaceful." In Iceland, there are no trees to cut the movement of sound waves through the landscape.
I am witnessing that very landscape on the drive from Reykjavík to Akureyri, a small town — but still the country’s second largest — in the north of Iceland. Akureyri is home to a major fishing industry due to its location on the fjords. When the mineral-rich fresh water attracts insects, the fish come, and then the fishermen.
There is a long line of them in Stjani’s family; his father and grandfather were also fishermen. But unlike his salmon-fishing grandfather, who was a well-to-do banker, Stjani is after brown trout. “It’s a poor man’s game,” he insists. The evidence proves otherwise.
In 2006, Stjani was just beginning his now seven years of sobriety. To keep himself distracted from his vices, he bought books on the internet and taught himself how to fly-fish. By 2009, he was practiced enough to begin his own business selling weekend trips to wealthy out-of-towners who were interested in fishing Iceland’s renowned waters. In this way, Stjani was able to capitalize on the privatized system in a manner that he considers to be the most environmentally responsible thing to do.
"It all comes down to money. If you don’t make a profit, the farmers will find someone who will," he tells me. "And it’s better than putting some hydroelectric power plant there or harvesting the gravel." When he puts it so plainly, I suddenly don’t see such a problem with hooking a fish only to set it free again. "The next best thing to catch-and-release fly-fishing would be just doing nothing."
I get the impression that doing nothing is not quite Stjani’s style. Since beginning his career as a tourism fisherman, he’s been invited to join fishing expeditions throughout Iceland and has even traveled to Scotland to visit clients. The job keeps him moving, and his clientele is ever-expanding. In June, he’ll be playing host to two high society New Yorkers who work in Condé Nast and have home addresses on Park Avenue.
This “poor man” certainly has come a long way. When reminiscing on the days of yore, he tells the story of his right pinky finger.
It’s 1999, and the upperclassmen in his high school have a tradition of putting the new students through a sort of hazing. The game is tug-o-war, and the freshmen are made to wear wool socks so their feet can’t gain traction on the gymnasium floor. The rope is a found thin nylon string, which Stjani wraps around his hand to get a good grip. Add parts A, B, and C, and you know how the story ends.
With a trip to the emergency room, Stjani had the tip of his pinky finger reattached using medical glue, a titanium screw, and five weeks of wearing a cast around his hand. It’s one of those experiences you dread going through yourself, which makes you appreciate the greatness of, and personal distance from, the story all the more.
Fly-fishing season is just beginning in Iceland. With a long, sunny summer ahead of him, Stjani will soon be putting his hands to good use. The days are exhausting, he says, and sometimes last until eleven at night, when dinner ends. But then he concedes, “It’s better than sitting in an office.”