Posts Tagged With: tasting

Weasel Poop Central

Dalat is a college town of about 400,000 people with a large (13,000 students) regionally well-known university. It’s only about 30 miles from Nha Trang as the crow flies, but it’s a 3-4 hour bus ride; Dalat is up in the mountains at about 5000′ (1500 m) elevation, and the road to it is steep, winding, and very slow. It does take you through some scenic valleys with narrow waterfalls threading down the cliffsides.

Dalat IMG_8729-HDRThere used to be a rail line connecting Dalat with Saigon but the Viet Cong blew it up during the war and it has never been replaced. It does have an airport with twice-daily flights to Saigon, though. (People seem to randomly call it either Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City as the mood strikes them, though the latter has been the official name since 1975.)

There is a certain amount of nostalgia for the railroad, though, at least among the very small community consisting of a burnt-out expat American who opened a restaurant called the Train Villa Cafe, which sports a railroad car behind the building. He used to be the general manager of Tower Records in Singapore, but he moved here in 1991, married a local woman, and (according to Phil) has been running this restaurant and drinking himself to death since then. We ate lunch there, and he did arrange for some of the local hill tribespeople to come and perform some traditional music for us.

Dalat IMG_8767They are called the Kho, part of a larger set of hill tribes that are collectively known in the West as Montagnards. The Kho themselves are subdivided into a number of groups, including the Khmer in Cambodia. They have a very characteristic style of dress — dark blue cotton with vertical colored stripes as you see in the photo — and speak their own language. This particular family of musicians had been educated in the cities and spoke Vietnamese as well. The Kho language is significantly different from Vietnamese; Phil does not speak it.

We continued on to our hotel, a large ornate place with the inexplicable name of the Sammy Hotel. No one seems to know who “Sammy” was, but the architecture is pretty purely French Colonial and — because of our frequent travel with OAT — we have been upgraded to a very large and pretty snazzy suite, with a full living room and two baths. Yay!

The weather was deteriorating by mid-afternoon but we headed out anyway — eventually getting poured upon — to visit the Linh Phuoc Buddhist temple, a large and impossibly ornate complex in which every exterior square foot — and quite a bit of interior space as well — is covered by elaborate dragon-themed ceramic mosaic tile and statuary. It is an utter riot of color and detail, something that Antoni Gaudi would have happily designed if he had been into Buddhism.

Dalat IMG_8849

Dalat IMG_8891-HDRThe interior is no less elaborate, and includes some creepily realistic statuary along with all the ceramic frou-frou.

Dalat IMG_8854-Pano

Dalat IMG_8865

Dalat IMG_8870By the time we left we were in a full-on downpour, which continued for the next four hours; it is the monsoon season.

It was still pouring at 6:30 PM when we were picked up at our hotel by a cheerful young woman in a rain poncho, riding a motorbike. (Vietnamese use their scooters to go anywhere at any time; monsoon rains are of no consequence.) Her name was Nhii, and she is the 26 year old daughter of the host family with whom we had dinner at home last night. As I have mentioned before, every OAT trip has a generous dollop of interaction with the locals, and each trip usually includes dinner at home with a local family.  Nhii put us into a taxi, and then led the way home through the driving rain on her motorbike.

Dalat IMG_8908Those are Nhii’s parents at left, and our travel mates Hazel and Bruce on the right. Nhii’s father is a retired archivist with the government; her mother is retired from a bank. Nhii herself is a receptionist at a hotel and the only one of them that spoke any English. (Hers was pretty rocky but serviceable enough for the occasion.) The language barrier put things off to a slow start, but as we started showing each photos of our various grandchildren, things picked up. Nhii’s mom is an excellent cook and served us a nice meal that included pho, spring rolls, sticky rice, and a salad that had a large number of hard-boiled quail eggs in it. The evening was enjoyable enough, but we would have liked to see more of the house (we never got out of the living room and dining room) and learn more about their lives. (We learned a lot more about Nhii since she could converse.)

The rain had stopped by the time we headed back to the hotel, and we slept well enough in our Colonial Overlord room to take on more ambitious sightseeing today.

Dalat is a major center for wholesale flower cultivation and sales; it is sort of the Holland of this part of Asia. Flowers are big, big business here, and the best way to illustrate that is to show you this panorama looking into the valley adjacent to the downtown part of the city:

Dalat IMG_8812-PanoWith the exception of the tile roofs in the foreground, every single building in that image is a greenhouse, hundreds and hundreds of them filling the valley. Here’s the interior of one of them, and happy Alice — who is an avid gardener, unlike myself, and much in her element here — with a sample bloom.

Dalat IMG_8927

Dalat IMG_8931I am informed that that is a gerbera daisy.

The greenhouses are not made of glass, but rather nylon, which we were told is a technique invented by the Israelis. Water condenses on the interior and drips into the gutters that you can see running the length of the structure, thus minimizing the need for an external water supply.

Besides flowers, the other cash crop in these parts is coffee, and so of course we were morally obliged to visit a coffee plantation. Since we live in Kona (Hawaii) for about five weeks a year that was not exactly new and exciting for us — and I don’t even drink the stuff — but here you go anyway:

Dalat IMG_8937-PanoWe got The Coffee Spiel. There are three types of coffee here, being Arabica, Mocha, and Something Elsa-a (Robusta, I think), and the differences are [at this point my brain turns off due to total indifference]. So of course they sat us down and served us a sample, which everyone duly admired, except for Alice, who literally shuddered and sotto voce averred it much inferior to Kona coffee.

Dalat IMG_8942Those are our travel mates Yvonne, Karen, and Joan. Yvonne looks a little dubious.

But this was not the main event. Oh no, far from it. This particular coffee was conventionally grown and processed. At no point did it emerge from a weasel’s digestive tract.

You may perhaps have heard of kopi luwak, the fabulously expensive Indonesian coffee that is processed from beans that have been eaten and excreted by a civet cat. Well, guess what? They do it here too. They call the creature a weasel here, but it is the same animal, Paradoxurus hermaphroditus if you’re taxonomically inclined. It is not related to the ferret-like thing that we in the West call a weasel, but looks rather like a raccoon. Here’s one in its cage at the plantation.

Dalat IMG_8975So the deal is, they feed the coffee “cherry” — the red fruit with the bean at its core — to the animal, which dutifully poops it out the other end, its digestive enzymes having dissolved the fruit and worked some chemical miracle upon the bean. The poop is dried in the sun and the beans then extracted by machine (thank God). You then process the beans and charge a zillion dollars a pound for them because people are insane. I mean seriously, this is certainly the only consumable substance in the world where declaring, “This tastes like shit,” is considered a compliment.

Dalat IMG_8948Note the sign above. For the record, I was not tempted to take any away. I am however going to start an emo band named “Weasel Feces”.

Alice, who is a coffee snob, was very disdainful of the whole thing but upon actually tasting it — they gave everyone about a half a shot glass to try — declared it quite excellent after all.  And as I looked on in head-scratching wonder she actually plunked down money to buy a few ounces, at a price that scaled to US $90 a pound.  That’s about three times the price of good Kona coffee. She is unable to testify that it is three times as good.

That adventure under our belt, we climbed onto a flatbed hitched to a tractor — this has been an especially interesting trip, transportation-wise — and literally headed for the hills, traveling a short distance up into the hills to visit a Montagnard/Kho village. Our first encounter was with some fierce children (one was wearing a Batman teeshirt so you know this is serious) who took a break from chasing each other around to threaten to eat us.

Dalat IMG_8994We navigated this existential threat — I taught two of them to play Thumb War in case my grandsons ever visit here — and spent some time talking to the village headman and his wife, who was patiently weaving through part of the conversation.

It’s an interesting society, matriarchal for starters; property is handed down through the women in the family, and arranged marriages have been abolished.

That’s as much of Dalat as we have time for. Tomorrow morning we fly to Saigon for the last leg of the trip. We’ll be there for three nights, then leave for home on Saturday.

 

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Finger Lake-in’ Good

In case you happen not to be familiar with the geography of New York State, the central region of the state — north of Pennsylvania and southeast of Lake Erie — is dominated by the scenic and aptly-named Finger Lakes region. It’s called that because, um, well, look at the map:

There are technically 12 Finger Lakes, but the “big four” are Cayuga, Seneca, Keuka, and Canandaigua. Those intimidating-looking names are from the Iroquois language, the Iroquois having populated the region well before we did. The lakes themselves were carved by the retreating glaciers a mere 20,000 or so years ago. They’re all long, skinny, and very deep, as much as 600 ft (180 m) in places. They’re also cold and silty — fine for boating, not so much for swimming or diving. (One of my college friends actually learned to scuba dive there. The water was so opaque that he never saw a thing, including his own hands.) But the entire region is extraordinarily scenic.

The region is dear to my heart because everything about it hearkens back to my long-receded youth: I went to college here, at Cornell University in Ithaca, at the south end of Cayuga Lake.  So it seemed a natural destination when we were discussing a joint getaway weekend destination with our friends and occasional traveling companions Laura and David.

Thing is, this is wine country. There are over 100 wineries in the region, which is great if you like wine, which I do not. So it was pretty clear that I was going to be the permanent designated driver on this trip, which I do not mind.

Wineries and quaintness always seem to go hand in hand for some reason; vineyards somehow make otherwise economically depressed areas seem attractive. The Finger Lakes are no exception. We are staying at a B&B in the town of Geneva, a small lakefront town at the top of Lake Seneca, whose downtown is graced by 1940’s building facades and Gothic churches and which is otherwise ringed by spectacular venerable estate homes on the water. The B&B itself, look many such establishments, has a picket-fence, overstuffed-furniture wholesomeness to it, as you can tell just by looking at the front.

It’s a very pleasant inn, the kind of place whose room decor includes this:

And there are of course wreaths. If you live within a block of a B&B you apparently must have a wreath on your door.

But back to the wineries. Visiting all 100+ was not a practical option, but our B&B host kindly presented us with free tasting coupons for several nearby ones. David handed me the car keys, and off we went.  As we approached our first destination (out of what would eventually be five), Laura expounded a very profound insight: “You know you’re at a winery when there’s a chandelier in the barn.” True dat.

The day consisted of a great deal of sloshing, spitting, and pronouncing. (“Too acidic.” “Notes of oak, cinnamon, cat dander, and feldspar.” “Hey! This is Diet Coke!”) They tasted, I photographed (and drove), we all admired the scenery.

Now here is today’s riddle for you: what do wineries and the Special Olympics have in common? Answer: everybody gets medals. There is not a winery on the planet — or at least not in the Finger Lakes — that does not boast a slew of awards of mysterious provenance. The Governor’s Cup. The Decanter Awards. The Chardonnay Showdown. La Mouffete d’Or. Whatever. Here’s a set won by a local winery that you’ve probably never heard of.

No matter… I don’t drink the stuff anyway, and everyone had a good time. It was crystalline sunny day, about 80F, when the area is at its most beautiful. Tomorrow we will visit some spectacular local waterfalls, our admiration doubtless punctuated with more wine.

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