Tuesday, June 15, 2010



Blogging about our time in Provence the other day made me want to backtrack to the begining of our Food Network European adventure...

I like to think of myself as a gourmand: best hot dog in L.A. – Pink’s on Melrose; best hot dog in NYC – Grey’s Papaya on both the east and west sides (well, I did say “best”)… so when Richard (and first “guy”) told me he was going to Europe to produce four TV specials for the Food Network on extreme (translation: the best) cuisine around the world, I had to tag along.

My first reminder that these shows were on a “cable network budget” was the endless hours spent in economy flying to Frankfurt (non-stop, thank god) on Lufthansa. But the trip was made a great deal easier when Richard and I were given two side of the plane seats (no third seat) to snuggle up to each other in, free wine, free headphones for the movies and lovely service. On the flight with us was Charlie, the shows’ associate producer and my second “guy.” Charlie was in his late-thirties, tall, lanky, charming and cute with a spikey light brown hairdo.

We landed in Frankfurt on time and were met at the baggage claim by Barry, my third “guy,” approaching forty with élan, and the show’s executive producer. However, getting our rental car caused a slight problem since we were starting in Germany and ending in Italy. But Charlie flashed his pearly whites and finally convinced the pretty rental agent to let us return the car in a country other than Germany. So, keys in hand, we found our silver Passatt station wagon, packed our luggage, took the seats that would couch our bottoms for the next three weeks and hit the road... Richard and I in the back, Charlie the navigator up front and Barry, the driver.

We found the city of Frankfurt with no trouble, but finding our hotel was another issue altogether. When I asked Barry if we were lost, he answered, “No we’re not lost… we’re just practicing riding in the car together.” I laughed, having no idea how often we would be practicing.

We finally reached our hotel with its version of the “new” Euro-modern décor: white zebra stripes and bad shopping mall art in the lobby and rooms that belied the grandeur and elegance of “old” Europe. But it was clean and we were staying for only one night.

After much hassle getting the crew’s equipment through German customs, I finally met Jim and Jason, the last of my five “guys.” Jim, the sound guy, was a freelancer from Albuquerque, who’s traveled around the world, single, 40ish, with a funky sense of style and a wardrobe of caps, dark jeans, vests and layers of shirts. Jason, the cameraman and the youngest “guy” at 31, was tall, designer stylish, married with two young children and, at that time, had barely been a hundred miles out of Knoxville, Tennessee where he’s on staff in the production company’s main office.

Our first meal together was dinner at our hotel.

Not an auspicious beginning for our culinary adventure. But we got to know each other a little. Barry loved mustard, which was good thing since they were doing a story on Dijon mustard; Jason, like a lot of southerners, wanted his meat done to the consistency of shoe leather and was a little reluctant about trying foods he never heard of; Jim was ready to taste and drink everything; and Charlie, who had lived in Sweden, London and Dallas running and owning his own restaurants and clubs, was a chocolate junky of discerning taste.

The next morning, after our free buffet breakfast of meats, cheeses, eggs, cereals, coffee, juice, breads, etc., Jim and Jason packed their Mercedes van with what seemed to be two tons of sound and camera equipment, as we loaded up our Passatt, then caravanned our way to Trittenheim, Germany. A few wrong turns later Barry announced we were now practicing “caravanning.” With Charlie in constant touch via “walky-talky” with the van, we arrived on top of a hill in the middle of Nowhere, Germany, overlooking a fairytale town with a beautiful river running alongside it in the valley below. The hills surrounding the town were filled with grapevines and the sound of music (oops- wrong country). We had found Trittenheim where the guys were to shoot a story on grapeseed oil.

Before descending into town, we stopped the caravan to marvel at the view. None of us had ever seen anything quite so “Hansel and Gretel” before. Jason grabbed a camera and started shooting B roll as the sun began to set over the little town’s white buildings and tall, yellow church steeple. “B roll” for those not familiar with the term is sort of “background” video used to enhance a story and to give the viewer a sense of time and place. This footage, cut into the grapeseed oil story, will definitely let the viewers know they aren’t in Kansas.

We arrived at the Krone Riesling, a small family-owned, old world inn with a charming restaurant, no elevators and no bellman.

As Richard and I put the ‘lug’ in luggage up three flights of stairs, Jason and Jim got a full body workout getting all their equipment into their rooms for safekeeping. (Again, for those who might not be familiar with the “equipment,” the van was filled from top to bottom, end to end with video cartridges/tapes, video cameras, digital cameras, camera stands and tripods, lighting gels, sound level boxes and microphones.)

The rooms were large and we had a balcony with a view of a park and the grapevine-covered hills behind it. As we had found in our room in Frankfurt, it seemed that separate sheets and blankets are the custom in Germany. You get a bottom sheet, one pillow each and separate twin duvets covered with a sheet. If you’re a ‘single,’ you get one pillow and one twin duvet even if you have a double bed. However, unlike the Frankfurt hotel which had lovely linens, the Krone Riesling dressed its beds with an over-washed, stiff terry cloth. Our towels seemed to be made of the same fabric. When Barry described his bed to his wife back in L.A., he told her to grab a pillow and lie down on the floor. That, he explained, was his sleeping experience. But, the rooms were spotless and we were on an adventure.

Valentin Humer, the handsome and outgoing Austrian who now lived in Napa, California, manufactures Salute Sante, the grapeseed oil that was to be the star of this particular story. In town to promote his oil and be part of the shoot, he invited us all to dinner that night in our hotel where the owner, an accomplished German chef, was to prepare a special meal. And it was. The courses included a delectable pasta with snails and grapeseed oil (I ate Jason’s snails – it was only his third day out of Knoxville, after all), a savory herbed rack of lamb and various strudels for dessert that just melted in your mouth. The wines were a great surprise--- local white Rieslings that were dry and crisp and reds that were rich and full bodied. Before we retired upstairs, the hotel owner/chef opened some pear schnapps, also made locally.

By the time we all went to bed, sugar plum fairies were dancing in our heads.

The shoot went well--- picking the grapes, pressing the seeds (it literally takes a ton of grapes to make one bottle of grapeseed oil), then bottling and labeling the oil.

(Valentin sitting on top of grapeseed for one bottle of oil)

 But my favorite shoot was the “tasting.” Like fine wine, grapeseed oil has a certain aroma, color and finish and the tasting of the oil took place in a local winemaker’s dark, dank wine cellar. Mold on the ceilings, moisture on the walls and floors, cobwebs on stacks of ancient wine vats and barrels.

I found an old, rusty iron chandelier hanging over a huge barrel in the back of the cellar and instantly my years as a guest designer on HGTV snapped me to attention and I became a set decorator. I requisitioned long white candles for the chandelier, stubby white candles for accent lighting on the barrels around the cellar

 and a white linen tablecloth to cover the barrel. We sprinkled some grapeseeds onto the tablecloth, displayed the crystal wine glasses and grapeseed oil bottles on top of the barrel and hit the lights. It looked elegant and I wouldn’t have been surprised if Count Dracula had come out of the shadows dressed in white tie and tails.

and see the piece Richard wrote and produced
for the Food Network)

Later that night, to celebrate the end of a successful shoot, Valentin’s Trittenheim partner hosted a dinner party for all of us featuring a main course of grapeseed oil pasta with a delicate red bell pepper sauce and more local Riesling. The icing on the cake, as it were, was ice wine, a very pricey dessert wine made from the local vineyards' frozen grapes which was served with cheese and strudel.

The next morning after the inn’s complimentary buffet breakfast of bratwurst, cheese, rolls and cereals, we waved good bye to the tiny village Trittenheim. Our next stop… the 11th century city of Reims in the Champagne district of France.

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