Where There’s Wine, There’s A Way

This past weekend I was able to go Up North for the first time this year. For those of you not familiar, Up North refers to the northern part of the lower peninsula of Michigan. A major part of the summer culture here is going Up North. While my family never had a cottage there, I was lucky enough to have friends who did and still do. The area draws people to it with its natural beauty,  hundreds of miles of Great Lakes coastline, many inland lakes, an abundance of outdoor activities, charming towns and more recently, a burgeoning wine country.

We were staying in Gaylord but took Saturday to head over the Old Mission Peninsula to cycle and visit some wineries. I had been there before but had traveled by car. The biking provided more time to take in the gorgeous views and enjoy the perfect weather.  I would highly recommend biking if you think you’re up to it but, make no mistake, it was a challenge. I hadn’t noticed how many hills there were on the peninsula the last time I was there, zipping around in a car. But there are hills, many hills, steep hills and a few  of my favorite wineries were on top of those hills. At times it felt like I was in a very long spinning class with intermittent breaks for wine and cheese. I was by far the weakest link when it came to biking. I ocassionally bike around (a very flat) town to get from A to B but I was in the company of some serious cyclists. But still, I couldn’t even keep up with my friend who had RUN A HALF MARATHON earlier that morning.

One of the many, many times the group had to wait for me to catch up.

It also took about, oh, a minute and a half  for me to injure myself. No, I did not fall off the bike. Apparently I can hurt myself just as well while still being on the bike. I somehow managed to ram the back of my ankle into the pedal, which of course had those sharp teeth-like-things (sidebar: why the hell are those on some pedals anyway?!) creating quite a wound.

Smooth move, Exlax.

It helps to be with experienced cyclists on a trip like this. At one point someone had a blowout but luckily there were patch kits and extra tubes and mini-pumps, things that I would have never brought because I don’t know the first thing about bike maintenance.

Ok, so I know you might be kind of confused right now because at first I told you biking was a good idea but then I told you it was really difficult and it made me bleed and that you need all this extra crap. Considering all of that and the fact that I can not yet bend my ankle, I would still recommend it. I just felt that this time I was much more able to take in all the natural beauty around me, the cherry orchards, the grape vines, the views of the bay, the little fruit stands…and it made it all the more enjoyable, even if some of the time I was grunting and sweating and bleeding.

Moving along to the wine…we stopped at Black Star first, which I had visited before.  They charge $5 for 6 tastes and you get a cute, little Black Star wine glass. The ciders impressed me the most there, especially the Apple and Cherry Hard Cider. I can’t stand sweet ciders but those had a nice balance of sour to sweet.

We drove to the next destination, Chateau Grand Traverse. I had been there before and was turned off by the long lines and the fact that they sold lots of country kitsch. We gave it another chance because, well frankly, the tasting was free. I found I quite liked some of their wines, especially the Ship of Fools.

We finally hopped on the bikes and after a long and arduous ride, we arrived at 2 Lads, the standout of the trip.

2 Lads

There are actually 2 lads, one from a wine making family in South Africa and another who grew up in the wine growing area of Michigan. The first thing you notice is how cool the space is, very modern, simple and beautiful. In fact, I kind of wanted to move in as soon as we got there. They take advantage of their position atop a hill  (that drew quite a few expletives out of me on the way up) at the northern end of the peninsula with a giant window you face while you taste.

When can I move in, lads?

Their menu was simpler than the other wineries I had visited on the peninsula with fewer and, I would say, better wines. We had complimentary tastes of the Pinot Grigio, the Cab Franc and the Rosé. I was impressed with all of them but, to our surprise, the favorite was the Rosé. It was made from Cab Franc grapes and was pretty dry and full of berries. I believe they only sell wine off the vineyard right now but I see on their website that merchandise is coming soon. So fingers crossed it will be available online in the near future.

We bought a bottle of that fabulous Rosé and rode to Old Mission Bay for a much needed picnic.

Conspicuous product placement

The final winery we visited was Chateau Chantal. The tasting room sits atop another hill (which meant another expletive-laden journey for me) which gives it some stunning views of both sides of Grand Traverse Bay.

This was by far the most crowded winery we visited and it’s understandable considering its beautiful location. I enjoyed their wines for the most part. We picked up a few bottles and armed with our Naughty Red we headed back the 5 miles or so to the car.

Move the water to make way for the wine.

There’s something about being on a peninsula, especially one as small as the Old Mission, so that you’re visibly surrounded by all that water, that’s incredibly calming. Taking the time to cycle around it amplified that even when I was careening down or struggling up one of its many hills. The Old Mission and the neighboring Leelenau peninsulas might be my favorite part of Michigan. They’re gems in the Midwest, underappreciated ones and not just for their natural beauty. I’ve been impressed with their focus on local food and wine. Now, I’m no wine snob. I would say 90% of the wine I buy is from Trader Joe’s. But  I initially went there expecting to only find sickeningly sweet whites and cherry liquers. But I found many complex reds (it seems to be a great area for Cab Francs), delicious, dry Reislings and that Rosé that I can not get out of my head. I’m not saying Napa is going to have to move over anytime soon but it’s nice to know there is that lovely, little corner of Michigan nearby.

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How To Not Eat Dog In China or 为什么在中国不能吃狗肉

It should be no surprise to anyone who knows me that I ate my way through China. Before I left, I had heard from many people that I should be prepared for some of the food to make me sick and that under no circumstances should  I eat street food. “But,” I thought, “Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern are always eating street food and they love it.” And after 6 weeks of eating on the street and never having gotten sick (perhaps I should wait for the blood tests to get back before I swear by that…) I must say I’m happy that I listened to the strangers on TV rather than the perfectly reasonable people I know in real life.

One of the suggestions I had received was to only eat in hotels. We had catering provided in almost all the hotels we stayed in. Some of it was good but a lot of it was mediocre, like a whited-down version of Chinese food. The other issue with the catering was that to rely on it meant I would nearly be chained to the hotel and I was more interested in exploring these new places.

I can see how one would be turned off by some of the street food at first. I was lucky enough to have a Mandarin speaker there to translate much of the time which made me more confident that I wasn’t going to end up with dog on my plate. Speaking of dog, the good (or possibly bad) thing about dog meat in China is that they see nothing wrong with eating it so they don’t try to hide it.

The reason I even bring up the issue of dog meat is that when people warned me about street food in China, one of their main concerns was that I would somehow accidentally eat some. Honestly, I didn’t come across it often and found it easy to avoid. I understand there is some hypocrisy in finding one kind of meat revolting and another kind finger-licking good but for me, there is a difference. People have personal connections with dogs that they don’t have with other animals. A dog will excitedly greet you at the door, affectionately rest its head on your lap and even loyally stay by your side when it knows you are sick. I’ve just never seen a chicken do any of those things.

I would hate for any of the fears that were expressed to me to keep people from being adventurous with the food they try. I had so many delicious things. The inexpensiveness of it made it easy to sample many different dishes and fill up on local specialties for a couple dollars a day. One meal in particular, in Nanning, where 10 of us each had noodle soup and split vegetable dumplings, came to 27 yuan, that’s…are you sitting down?….about $4. For 10 people. FOUR DOLLARS!

Cheap and delicious dumplings in Nanning

 

Like I said, dog meat was easy to avoid and there is one simple, sure-fire way to avoid it: learn how to say that you don’t want it. I’m a big believer in trying to learn a few important words and phrases in the language of the country in which I’m traveling, even if that language is as difficult as Mandarin. These days, there are enough resources, including free ones on the internet, that it is an easy thing to do. Learning phrases like, “Hello”, “Thank you”, “You’re welcome”, “Excuse me”, and “Do you speak English?” can make a world of difference in your tarvel experience. That being said, for the first two weeks I had the phrases for “Excuse me” and “You’re  welcome” confused. In my defense, they sound kind of similar. But that meant that for a couple weeks I was bumping into people and following it up with, “You’re welcome!” I’m sure that did not do much for the American image abroad.

Besides those basic phrases, there was one that I made sure to have in my arsenal, “I don’t want dog meat.” or in Mandarin, “Wo bu yao guo rou.” You can even hear the tones here. I also made sure to learn the “dog” character, 狗, so I could identify it on menus. It’s that easy, folks.

In every city we were in, it was easy to find markets or single vendors selling dumplings (I think I consumed about 873 dumplings in 6 weeks, all of them delicious), sticky buns, roasted chestnuts, soup, roasted sweet potatoes, grilled meat, fish and bread… The mantra became the dirtier the better. I remember one specific time in Wenzhou when some of us hopped on a bike taxi and asked our driver to take us to some street food. Instead he took us to a restaurant where we could see tablecloths through the window. “Tablecloths?!” we said, “What kind of people do you take us for?!” Instead, we found a restaurant across the street that was much more our style, that is to say, dirty. We actually sat next to the fish that was about to become our stew. We had the most delicious sweet and sour pork, like nothing I have ever had stateside and a steak dish with ginger, soy, cilantro and spring onions that I have desperately been trying to recreate since I’ve been home. Afterward, one of the dancers and I got $1 manicures. A prostitute came in to the salon to use some make-up and told me I had a beautiful nose. So all-in-all, it rounded out to be a lovely evening.

Lisa sitting next to Splashy, whose number was up.

 

Splashy stew amongst other delicious dishes

 

The thing is, I never get Chinese food at home. I find it heavy and greasy. I found the food in China to be much different, lighter and fresher. I was often wathcing them make it right in front of me. A great example of that was a Uighur restaurant we found in Foshan. Uighurs are a Turkic people from the Xinjiang province of northwestern China. They are Muslim so their food is halal. They are known for their lamb kabobs and homemade noodles. I was able to watch the amazing process of making the noodles and I have a video here. The noodles were so tender and soaked up the delicious sauce they sat in. We tried a few different dishes but I really loved a very simple dish of noodles with eggplant, green beans and a light sauce heavily flavored with cumin. We loved it so much went back to the restaurant the next night and they didn’t even serve alcohol which is SAYING SOMETHING for his group. If you are traveling in China I would highly recommend trying some of the Uighur cuisine.

Uighur noodle dish

 

I could honestly go on and on about different dishes and meals I had while in China. I tend to be a bit evangelistic about food in general but I was particularly happy, and honestly, surprised at how much I liked nearly everything I had. There is one thing I can not leave out, though, and that is The Most Delicious Banana In The World. I know that food tastes best when it’s perfectly ripened and picked fresh. I’ve tasted it for myself. Being that bananas are grown in the tropics and shipped long distances to us in the states, we probably don’t even know what a really good banana tastes like. I certainly didn’t till I had one in China. We were touring some gardens in Foshan and one of the girls spotted a cluster of bananas. She climbed up the tree and threw a few down. Sweet mother of baby Jesus in the manger they were delicious. They were so….banana-y. I never suspected bananas had so much flavor. Every person that took a bite had the same initial blasé response (How good could it be? It’s a banana.) which turned into wonder and amazement. Every banana I’ve had since has just been a disappointment.

So the moral of the story is, if you see a banana tree, grab yourself a banana and enjoy. And if you’re traveling in another country, or anywhere, or heck, even in your hometown, be adventurous with what you eat. You might just find The Most Delicious Something of your own.

Or you might get a tapeworm.

The Most Delicious Banana In The World