August 23, 2017

Tuscany tastes better, a food tour with Frances Mayes, Inspirato, Summer 2017

In Tuscany, food isn’t just something to eat – it’s something to do with family and friends: harvesting wild mushrooms, picking olives, canning tomatoes, sharing big bowls of pasta, and gathering for dinners where everyone helps cook and conversations flow deep into the night. “There is an intense passion for local food, and it’s particularly focused on what you can find yourself,” Mayes told me last fall. (2016) “And that’s what I see that is so different from living” in the United States.

“In Tuscany right this minute (early October) everybody is out looking for the mazza di tamburo, the mushroom of the moment. That means drumstick – it’s shaped like a drumstick with a long stem and a big flathead. You find them on your own land and saute them with garlic,” Mayes said. Italians “don’t even want them on pasta – they just want them on little crostini because they so want to taste this wild mushroom. And in the spring it’s strange things like the green almonds. Everybody loves those crunchy green almonds before they really turn into a nut. To me that’s very much an acquired taste, but local people really like them.”

Turning junk into the art of the possible, Sierra magazine, August 2017

Amiot and Laurent hope their message is about more than turning junk into art and reducing the amount of waste going into landfills. They hope their work demonstrates how a neighborhood can be a “magical place” where kids grow up thinking anything is possible.
“All of a sudden, it’s normal to have something big, bold, and crazy in front of your house. That to me is way more important than anything else,” Amiot said. “In mainstream America, you don’t see giant sculptures in front of people’s houses, but if you’re brought up in this community, it’s a natural thing. These people grow up thinking it’s alright to show your colors and do wild and crazy things. And it just so happens that the things they saw were actually made out of recycled materials.”

Napa Valley’s most unlikely grape spirit

The self-described “spirit educator” behind the bar, Tim Johnston, said this outpost of the nearby Napa Valley Distillery had the largest selection of bitters on the West coast, including a couple of antique bottles. He showed me two ancient bottles of Abbott’s bitters, one of which predated Prohibition. “We have two of the remaining 10 bottles of Abbott’s bitters in the world,” he said. And yes they’re for sale: one is $1,500, the other $750.

Shapiro wins 2016 Explore Canada Award of Excellence for fish story

“In his in-depth exploration of Vancouver’s seafood restaurant scene, Michael Shapiro not only thoroughly and thoughtfully explains the timely issues surrounding ocean sustainability and the efforts being made by Vancouver to improve it, but also succeeds in making me very, very hungry for the extraordinary and often unlikely ingredients used by the city’s most talented and conscientious chefs.”

Tracking elusive pumas in Patagonia, Summer 2016

Typically when traveling overseas I like to stay a while. But when an editor emailed and asked if I’d be willilng to travel to Patagonia to track pumas for a week in the dead of the southern hemisphere’s winter, I leapt at the chance even though I couldn’t extend my stay. The journey involved an overnight flight to Santiago, Chile, another flight south to almost polar town Punta Arenas and then a four-hour drive north to Torres del Paine, the national park in Chilean Patagonia. It was a long way to go but well worth it to see the park’s legendary mountains, cobalt lakes, ubiquitous guanaco, and to wake before dawn in hopes of sighting a puma.

By Michael Shapiro

Well before dawn our Jeep crawls over the deserted roads that traverse southern Chile’s Torres del Paine national park, searching for pumas. The day before, my guide and I had spotted puma tracks and scat while hiking, lending support to another guide’s comment that “puma are everywhere” in this park, the jewel of Chile’s Patagonia region.

To read the full story, click the link above.

Washington Post: Dylan Thomas’s Wales

Annie tells me that Thomas wrote hundreds of poems in this house, with his greatest output coming between the ages of 16 and 20. He worked in the morning and drank late, Annie says. Unfortunately Thomas couldn’t hold his alcohol, perhaps because he’s now believed to have been a diabetic, so he became a “performing monkey,” she says.

“Obnoxious behavior became his calling card. In London he was a performer. That’s not creative, and it’s tiring. He had to keep coming back and recharging here – not just this house, this town,” she says. “He’d say when he was on the train to London (that) he wasn’t going to England, he was leaving Wales. He was leaving his heart, he was leaving his safety.”

Like a protective mother, Annie denies that Thomas was an alcoholic. There’s “such a lot of work of such high quality that alcoholism is not considered.” I refrain from listing all the great writers who overindulged in alcohol. Annie refills my glass with Cotes du Rhone and I ask about Thomas’ most famous poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night” written as Dylan’s father, a frustrated poet, lay dying.

“Listen to it from a child’s point of view,” Annie says. “His father wouldn’t give Dylan the words he needed like ‘well done’ or ‘I’m proud of you.’ The work between father and son wasn’t finished.”

Vancouver leads Canada’s sustainable seafood movement, Spring 2016

Though most of humanity doesn’t realize it, our survival depends on our oceans. During the past couple of centuries we’ve overfished and polluted oceans to the point where many aquatic species are on the verge of collapse. But most of us love wild seafood and have no intention of curtailing our appetite. That’s why the sustainable seafood movement is essential. In the U.S. it’s been led by the Monterey Bay Aquarium; the Canadian counterpart is the Vancouver-based Seafood Watch but the true stars of the movement there are the top chefs who insist on serving fish whose stocks are not depleted. Last fall I spent a few days in Vancouver tracing sustainable seafood from fishing boats to markets to the city’s finest restaurants.

Global Soul: Chilean author Isabel Allende at home in SF Bay Area, 2016

Ever since I read The House of the Spirits in the 1980s I’ve adored Isabel Allende. She’s a natural-born storyteller, warm-hearted and insightful with a wicked sense of fun. I had the opportunity to interview her for my 2004 book of interviews with writers, A Sense of Place. I was elated last year when a magazine asked me to write about her adopted home, the San Francisco Bay Area, and how Allende has found her place so many mile from home. Ultimately this story is about Allende and her remarkable ability to transcend tragedy.

Halfway through an hourlong talk to a group of aspiring writers last August, Chilean author Isabel Allende was asked: “If you were a character in an Isabel Allende novel, where would you put yourself?”

Without missing a beat the petite writer said: “First of all, I would have long legs, I would be beautiful, I would be stunning, and smart, very strong and independent. What was the question?”

“Location: where would you be?”

“In bed with someone,” she shot back. “It doesn’t matter the town.”

Hanging on the beloved author’s every word, the audience in Marin County (just north of San Francisco) erupted in laughter. And just about everyone who asked her a question that day at Book Passage, a bookstore in Corte Madera, addressed her simply as “Isabel” as if they were talking to an old friend.

Good Call: Las Vegas with Antonio Esfandiari, Inspirato, Winter 2016

In 2012, the World Series of Poker held its most expensive tournament ever: it cost $1 million to buy into it and the top prize was more than $18 million. Antonio Esfandiari, who emigrated from Iran to the U.S. when he was a boy, finished on top and instantly became one of the best known poker players in the world. I met him in Las Vegas in October 2012 and we spent about an hour talking over an early dinner. He had the poker player’s stare; when we discussed the possibility of me writing about him his look bore through me; there was a power in his assessing that I’m sure serves him well at the poker table. Ultimately he chose to trust me with his story and I went on to play poker that night at Wynn and later at Caesar’s, where a few winning hands covered all my costs for the trip.

Esalen: Retreat on Big Sur Coast, Press Democrat, Jan. 2016

After failing to get through the gates to paradise years ago, I finally made it to Esalen. To see the story on The Press Democrat’s site with some pictures, click here.   By MICHAEL SHAPIRO I couldn’t wait to get to Esalen on the Big Sur coast. I love hot springs and though I wasn’t […]