Travelling alone and sexual harassment

Many people have asked me if I felt threatened, harassed or in danger when I’m travelling, and the answer is usually no. I don’t generally go out at night alone, and I’m always conscious about my surroundings, like the guy who was following me in Rome despite many turns, shop visits, etc.

But with all the news of late about sexual harassment in all the insidious forms it takes, I’m going to tell you a little story about last week.

I was visiting a friend in Lille, an absolutely charming city, and we were having a great weekend. We’d walked the city, strolled the citadel, drank wine, ate good food, watched Bojack Horseman when we needed a rest, and just enjoyed our time. On Sunday we went down to a cafe down her street for a few glasses of wine. Turned out that Sundays was the night that a chess club meets- cool. We are chatting with the guys about all the things people usually ask me: politics, Trump, the lunacy of American gun laws… It was an interesting group- English, Thai, French, all’s well.

But most of the attention came from an older gent who described himself as Algerian/French. Parents born in Algeria, him in France. We talked about immigration, about the vilification of Muslims as the new cinema bad guy-
remember when it was dark skin, then the Russians or Nazis? We talked about a work injury he suffered which led to his early retirement. I’m enjoying getting to know a new person. He starts pushing for some personal info- articles I’ve written, how to find this blog, etc. It’s a little boundary intrusion, but not too much.

Then.

Then he starts asking about my sex life. ALL women know that when a guy starts with this, going back to politics and current events ain’t happening. How many lovers have I had? Who am I sleeping with tonight, do I prefer English to French? Have I slept with a Muslim man before? It’s okay, France is free like that. What kind of man do I like to have sex with? I like big black men, right? Now for a half hour I’m under sexual interrogation from a fucking stranger.

Keep in mind, that my answer to these questions has gone from demur upbeat deferrals: “none of your concern”, “nope, not answering that”, “I don’t care how cool France is, I’m not sleeping with any of you” to being backed into a corner in tears, begging him to “Please stop please stop please stop”

I ran from the cafe without my jacket just to get away.

To those who might ask where my friend was- don’t even. That’s not the point at all, and it’s not her job to defend/help me. It’s HIS job to stop the first time I ask.
It’s his job to never start this shit. For the record, though, she was outside having a smoke with some others. Which of course is part of the plan, to isolate me and tear me down. That’s how it works, that’s how it always works.

So at the time, I felt debased and humiliated. I was having a nice chat with an interesting person for over an hour, and it was all a set up. Now I’m mad as hell- how fucking dare he? How fucking dare he take an innocent conversation and turn it into something predatory and scary?

When men say that women are bitches because they rebuff the initial offers of conversation, this shit is why. Because I don’t want to spend an hour chatting with you to find out that you were a fucking creep to begin with. You may be a “nice guy”, but frankly, I’m exhausted trying to figure it out, because the minute you hear me assert my own privilege over my own body, you get nasty.

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Home cooking: Ricotta

The first time I made Ricotta was in 2008, when I was team-teaching a class for a group of new cheesemongers. I was 2 months into a new job, and was eager to teach what I knew, and learn new tricks of the trade. The Cheesemaking segment was taught by a colleague, and I was very impressed with how easy it was: 4 ingredients, plus heat and time. The demonstration really helped the students understand the alchemy of cheese- it’s a very effective exercise, and made me realize that converting milk is possible in my own kitchen.

One disclaimer- this isn’t actually Ricotta. Traditionally, Ricotta is made from the whey left over from making other cheeses, such as Parmigiano Reggiano. The word Ricotta translates from Italian as “re-cooked”. What I’m making here is often labeled “Whole Milk Ricotta” at the store, but even the best store product can’t come close to the smooth, sweet creaminess of homemade.

It’s tomato season down south- just. And to me, tomato season means caprese salad. But I had a problem- the mozzarella at my local stores is all flavorless, gummy and cryovac’ed. My friend Mandy is coming up from Charleston for the night, and I want to make a special dinner for us to enjoy overlooking the marsh. I decided instead to make Ricotta to serve with some of the amazing tomatoes I got from the farmers market, and the basil from the garden.

First step, heat 3.5 cups of milk, 0.5 cups heavy cream and a half tsp coarse salt to 190 degrees


Stir frequently to keep the milk from scorching, which saves the flavor, and the hassle of cleaning a saucepan with milk proteins glued to it.

Juice lemons to get 3 Tbs. Depending on your lemons, this is usually about a lemon and a half. As soon as your milk gets to 190, it will look a little foamy. Remove from the heat, and immediately add the lemon juice and stir once to incorporate and then let the acid do it’s thing. Note: some recipes call for vinegar as the coagulant, for many good reasons- the best of which is that vinegar is a consistent acidity. But I like lemon juice,  because I just like lemons. I like the bit of bright flavor it imparts better than the flavor of the vinegar. I also appreciate just using a fresh beautiful fruit, rather than a processed product.


Almost ready!

Let sit for 5-7 minutes to acidify the milk. When you gently drag a spoon through the mix, you should see the thin whey separate from the curd. This is a lactic set, meaning it’s coagulated with acid, so the curd is loose and fragile. Be kind as you ladle it into a strainer lined with 4 layers of cheesecloth over a bowl to catch the whey.



Let this sit for at least 15 minutes. If you want a firmer cheese, let it sit longer. You can even press this to make paneer. I let this drain for about 30 minutes, as I still wanted it to be creamy and moist. I removed it to a ramekin to chill for 2 hours while I turned my attentions to other elements of dinner.

Mandy arrived safely, the Prosecco was poured, and we enjoyed both while watching the pelicans, herons and egrets hunt for their dinners.


Ricotta caprese with extra virgin olive oil, balsamic and a scattering of flake salt.

The recipe:

3.5 cups whole milk (not UHT or shelf stable milk)

0.5 cups heavy cream

0.5 tsp coarse salt

3 Tbs fresh lemon juice

But what about that leftover whey? Waste not! There are many things you can do with it- I usually freeze it initially, while I decide what to use it for. You can use it in place of/in addition to water for making oatmeal, grits, rice, or even pasta water. It’s an excellent marinade for pork or chicken. But my favorite use, because I’m crazy that way- dogs love it!

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Cheese in Asia? Yes!

When one thinks of the foods available in Southeast Asia, the mind goes to lemongrass, chicken rice, and coconut curries. It’s considered a given that you will be forgoing many Western necessities like cheese during your visit, but you soldier on, hoping it will be worth it (spoiler alert – it is!).

Travelling in Southeast Asia is about being exposed to a constant virtual cacophony of amazing smells and flavors, and nowhere is this more the case than the melting pot of the region, Singapore. There may not be another locale with such a density and diversity of restaurants, food stalls and hawker centers – Singapore is filled with crazy deliciousness. Populated primarily by people of Chinese, Malay and Indian ancestry, this city-state is the shipping center of the region, always attracting many cultures and influences. One important fact to keep in mind is that Singapore imports between 80- 90 percent of all of its food since the island’s terrain is completely unsuited to agriculture.
Founded in 1819 by Sir Stamford Raffles of the British East India Company as a port for spices, opium and tea, Singapore retains many obvious Western influences in its architecture, city planning, and the parliamentary system, but it’s only recently that Western cheeses have been readily available to the residents of the Lion City. While iconic and well known cheeses such as Parmigiano Reggiano, Brie and Roquefort are available in cryovac at the better grocery chains, specialty, cut-to-order cheeses have only been on offer for the last few years.


This is a typical kiosk at the local grocery. Pre-packs arranged rather haphazardly.

Today there are two excellent cheese shops that sell to the public in the city. The Cheese Shop of Singapore, and The Cheese Ark. While both stores take their responsibility to cheese seriously, and the passions are evident, their approaches are quite different. Neither shop is located in the downtown business district or near tony Orchard Road, where you will find expensive designer shops of all kinds (think Cartier, Louboutin, Dior), and loads of tourists.

The island’s premier cheese shops are there for the local customers. One shop is nestled in a residential neighborhood and the other in a funky hip reclaimed building, a trend we also see in the States. I did not, however, see anyone dressed ironically as a 1930’s train conductor, so there’s that. Perhaps it’s a caning offense…
The Cheese Shop of Singapore is the older of the two stores. It boasts a sleek storefront located in a neighborhood of mixed residential and commercial buildings in the “Little Vietnam” neighborhood. (I had a very good Bun Thit Nyong down the street from the shop… I digress, sorry). The Cheese Shop is owned and run by Brit Chris Moores and his wife. Chris has been in Singapore for six years, and has owned the shop for three-and-a-half years. He cites the annoyance he initially felt at carting cheese in his suitcase on return visits, and the frustration at the poor care and knowledge of available product as his inspiration of taking on the challenge of sourcing and creating a Western-style shop in this heart of Eastern commerce. While he did work in a cheese shop in Bristol in the 1990s, he was located to Singapore by his English employer, and his shop reflects his British roots.


The Cheese Shop has a very familiar Western feel to it. It is clean and bright, with cheeses displayed on and off refrigeration. Signage indicates the name, milk type and price. To my surprise,  after doing the currency and unit conversions, the pricing is comparable to what shops charge in the US. For example, Morbier runs S$6/100 grams, which would translate to about US$19/lb, a wheel of La Tur runs about $12 USD. Moores imports his product from European suppliers, to get a better diversity in his shipments.


Incidentally, Moores also had a visit last year from an American dairy group. The visitors brought him Caveman Blue from Rogue Creamery, Roth Case Grand Cru and the Nicasio Square, all of which he sampled to his customers, and Moores would be receptive to have American cheeses in his case if he could find a reliable supply chain. HUGE HINT HERE, Americans!


Moores at the helm of The Cheese Shop

The founder of The Cheese Ark has a different story. Ai Ming Syu is a Singapore native, and a former advertising executive. In her 20’s, she took a trip to Italy, and while there was bowled over not by a finished cheese, but by a curd. A warm, jiggly, in the vat curd both enlightened and angered Syu. That’s when she realized that she had been lied to about what cheese was her entire life! She experienced the evolution of that cheese from curd to wheel, and has been a passionate advocate ever since. Today her mission is to make sure that everyone experiences real cheese at least once in their lifetime – not the rubbery processed product that too often was called “cheese”. Anything else is a fraud, observes Syu. How can you not love that sentiment?
The Cheese Ark is a reflection of its iconoclastic owner. The shop is located in Pasarbella at the Grandstand, a former horse racing arena. You’ll find it down a particle board hallway indicated by a sign advertising “This Way to Rare Cheese”. Pasarbella is best described as a modern/rustic food hall – it’s loaded with cool micro-breweries, wine shops, crafts and artisan foods. Ai Ming Syu, not coming from a cheese background, makes her own rules. She eschews signage for cheeses, since she takes her role as cheese ambassador very seriously. “Customers take their guidance from me, it’s a huge responsibility!” She prefers to engage the customer personally, and makes recommendations based on the conversations she has with them. Her passion is evident in all of her selections.


Entrance to The Cheese Ark, and seating to enjoy your selections.

Ai Ming Syu in her shop

Most of the cheeses at the Cheese Ark range between S$9-13 for 100 grams ($26-35/lb in USD). Her selection is eclectic, and while it’s obvious she has a predilection for the Alpine cheeses of Switzerland, Italy and France, nationality isn’t her primary concern.  She sources makers that are “adamant and stubborn about their ways” (I see this trait in Syu herself), and notes that many traditional makers have “gone bust”.  Hence, the name of her shop, the Cheese Ark, suggests a link to the past. Her aim is to preserve traditional cheeses that follow ancient recipes and techniques. She buys direct from makers exclusively, as part of her ethic to aid the producers only. Her narrative is about the origins of cheese, the traditions, and she is always on the lookout. In all my “fromagey years”, I’ve never met such an  ardent  promoter of traditional cheese- I love this about her.

The two shops offer samples to help customers make informed decisions, and both shops sell wholesale. Each offers a selection of mostly cow’s milk, but plenty of sheep and goat’s milk cheese. They are far enough from each other not to encroach on their respective customer bases. The mix of western expats and locals varies.  Chris Moores of The Cheese Shop puts it this way: “Expats are great, are already familiar with much of the product, and are daily buyers. For now, the locals see cheese as a special occasion product. But expats leave, and the locals will be what sustains the business long term, so I am always working to convert them into regular cheese consumers.” They both cite truffle cheeses as their big sellers of the moment, but do keep in mind these interviews were conducted in early January.

Since “local” is not an option, how difficult is it to get product into the country? As mentioned before, Singapore imports almost everything, especially food.  One would think that would make cheese importing more difficult, but actually the reverse is true. Cheese is a product poorly understood by overwhelmed local regulators, and since it hasn’t shown itself to be a problem, they have been pretty hands-off. But it’s “not difficult to imagine a situation where a new rule will happen next week”, says Syu. Moores states that the rules reflect rules of the UK, generally. For instance, raw milk is banned, like the UK, but raw milk cheese is not.

While not cheese, I feel compelled to add that The Cheese Ark sells pasteurized  goat’s milk that’s made in Singapore. Given that there is almost no designated farmland on the island, I was pretty surprised to find any local product.


When visiting Singapore, whether for business or pleasure, remember to stay hydrated, enjoy the amazing opportunities to feast on so much cultural diversity, but when you have a cheese craving – you’re covered.

Contact details:

The Cheese Shop

Chris Moores

267 Joo Chiat Road #01-01

Singapore 427521

Phone 65 9069 3471

http://www.cheeseshop.sg

 

The Cheese Ark

Ai Ming Syu

200 Turf Club Road

Pasarbella #02-06 Stall number #02-K28

Singapore 287994

Phone 65 9175 0090

www.TheCheeseArk.com

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Savannah

Today I took a ride down to Savannah, about an hour away. As always, the first part of the plan involved choosing where to eat. I decided on The Grey, a remodeled Greyhound Bus Station that had excellent reviews. The whole building is gorgeous, inside and out, very retro, with gleaming silver and plenty of deep blue accents, reflecting the history. The diner section is what’s open for lunch:

Which is where the original diner at the station is located. Here’s a shot of the same space in 1958

Prices are reasonable, with the Blue Plate Special clocking in at $11.99 for a nice thigh and leg of chicken, on a healthy pile of very good potato salad, and 4 housemade pickle slices. 


The servers were both efficient and friendly, it was a nice lunch.  After running a few errands, I headed to Bonaventure Cemetary, made famous in “The Book”, which is how locals refer to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Bonaventure has plots that reach back to the Spanish American war on it’s 100 or so acres. It’s really a serene spot on the river.


And the weather was a perfect 74 degrees F, who could ask for more?

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Back to the farm, January 2016

Traveling is wonderful, seeing new things, exploring new foods, meeting new people. But sometimes you need a soft place to land- again. This farm is that place. 80+ acres, a lovely home, a kitchen to cook in and people that love me. Spring is busting out all over!

Tomorrow I’m going into town (Savannah) for a little adventure and a visit in good weather. Last time I was here I was in a wheelchair, which did not really allow for road trips to cobblestoney cities. Also, it was hot as hell. 

This visit was a recuperation from some SE Asian epizootie that had me sleeping 16 hours per day, and some other less charming symptoms.  Now that that’s past, it’s time to play tourist.

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Singapore, 23 December 2016

My first impression isn’t terribly original- it’s hot and it’s very clean.  I arrived at 6:30 am, after a long flight from Rome. Singapore airlines is excellent. I flew coach for this one, and the food and service are excellent. Sorting the transit card was a little stressful, as the booths were not manned yet, so I bought on from a tourist booth and I think I got had a bit. Paid S$20, was told I’d have S$12 after fees, but when I scanned it the first time, I had S$7. I didn’t have the energy to go back and fight it, so I put it in the “rookie mistake” column and moved on. 

The obligatory flight path screen shot:


I love Asia:

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Singapore 3

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