Saturday, April 30, 2011

Z is for Zermatt

I struggled with Z, not because it was hard to think of a topic, but because I had two really good topics: Zurich, Switzerland's largest city and home to many of my friends there; and Zermatt, the famous ski resort town at the base of the iconic Matterhorn.  I finally opted for Zermatt because people seem to enjoy my mountain pictures :)

I visited Zermatt four times during my four years in Switzerland, not an inconsiderable number given that each time it was a day trip, and it takes over three hours (one way) to travel from Lausanne to Zermatt.  I actually did not spend much time in Zermatt itself, because it is something of a Swiss tourist mecca, perhaps only matched by Interlaken, and after six months of living in Switzerland, I stopped feeling like a tourist.  Instead, Zermatt was the starting point for three very memorable hikes, and one memorable train ride on the Gornergratbahn with my mom.

To reach Zermatt from Lausanne, you take the InterRegio to Visp (if you are lucky, you can occasionally catch the faster Cisalpino on its way to Milan), then switch to the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn traveling south to Zermatt.  The train climbs up near three-quarters of a mile in altitude (in some places using cogs to handle the incline) as it travels through the Mattertal, finally ending in Zermatt:

The Matterhorn looms above Zermatt

Trip #1: August 2007

Two of my good friends visited me in Switzerland, and I suggested we go to Zermatt and see the Matterhorn.  The weather in Switzerland, particularly in the mountains, is fickle, so I woke up at 6 am on a Saturday to check the webcam for the Matterhorn.  When I saw it was blue skies and no clouds, I roused my friends, we hustled to the train station (stopping for some delicious croissants at a nearby bakery), and away we went.

We were fortunate, for though it was August, the previous week had been rainy and cold, so the mountains above Zermatt were newly dusted with snow.  We did a classic hike, starting at Sunnegga (2288 m), an underground funicular ride up from Zermatt, past three lakes -- the Stellisee, Grindjisee, and Gruensee -- to Riffelalp.  I have many pictures of the hike, but this is forever my favorite:

The Matterhorn, reflected in the clear waters of the Stellisee
We have lunch by the Stellisee, and a light snack near at a restaurant near the Gruensee, where the waitress was impressed by the fact that my friend ordered a full liter of Coke (Er hat eine grosse Durst, I told her).

Trip #2: August 2009

It would be two years later that I would return to Zermatt.  This time, two more friends (both Americans, but living in Lausanne and working at EPFL) joined me.  We had decided to tackle the steep climb from Sunnegga to the Unterrothorn, topping out at over 3100 m above sea level.  The weather report forecasted early clouds, but by the time we arrived, I hoped they would clear.  When we arrived in Zermatt, the clouds hid everything, including the Matterhorn, and we were very disappointed.  Nonetheless, we took the funicular up to Sunnegga, hoping we might get above the clouds.  Even up there, however, the clouds still obscured everything.  We resigned ourselves to finding a shorter, less scenic hike, but as we were studying the map, I turned around and saw this:

Within 30 minutes, the Matterhorn looked like this:

With suddenly blue skies and snow-capped mountains welcoming us, we began the steep ascent to the Unterrothorn, culminating in a rocky, exposed trek along the Ritzengrat:

Finally, we reached the top, and were rewarded with 360 degrees worth of views:

Trip #3: October 2009

In the fall of 2009, my mom visited me in Switzerland.  She was very lucky because we had one week of glorious weather, a truly rare feat in Switzerland.  Towards the end of her trip, I think she was getting a bit tired with crisscrossing the country (though it is her fault on insisting we go to Liechtenstein), but I told her that the weather was great and she would not forget a trip up into the mountains above Zermatt.  This time, we went to Zermatt not for a hike, but to take the Gornergratbahn up to Gornergrat, a station at 3100 m complete with a shopping mall!  But the best part of Gornergrat are the views: 

Trip #4: July 2010

My last visit was a grand hike up to the Hohbalmen, an alpine meadow high above Zermatt, with fantastic views of glaciers and mountains all around.  The hike consists of two parts: a traverse up a stream bed called the Triftbach, and then a climb up to the Hohbalmen itself.  This hike took me to the other side of the valley, somewhere I had not been before above Zermatt.

The Triftbach
At Trift, below the Gabelhorn Gletscher
Hohbalmen, with a view of the Matterhorn
After reaching the Hohbalmen, we were originally going to hike to a point called Zmutt, but instead we decided to call it a day and make the incredibly steep descent to Zermatt.

Like I said, I could do without the town of Zermatt, but it is the launching point for numerous incredible hikes in one of the most picturesque locales in the Swiss Alps.  That wraps up the A to Z Blogging Challenge here on Occam's Samurai Sword, I hope you enjoyed it!

Y is for Yttrium

So close to the finish line, and I drop the ball and forget to post on Friday.  Oh well.  Here was my planned post for Y, which was incidentally just as hard as U and Q.

I've thought yttrium was a pretty cool element ever since I heard about it back in the 1980s.  I learned about it either from a TV special, or a National Geographic article on superconductors.  Yttrium is a key element in yttrium barium copper oxide (YBCO), what is known as a "high temperature superconductor" because it displays superconductivity above the boiling point of nitrogen.  This is a big deal, because instead of having to use very expensive liquid helium (boiling point 4.2 K) to cool the superconductor, you can instead use the comparatively inexpensive liquid nitrogen (boiling point 77.1 K).  I thought this was particularly cool because of the pictures they always showed of levitating superconducting magnets

Yttrium is a transition metal and a rare earth element with the atomic symbol Y (making it perfect for today, er, yesterday) and atomic number 39.  Its name, interestingly, comes from a town in Sweden called Ytterby, on the Stockholm archipelago.  In fact, three other elements -- ytterbium, erbium, and terbium -- were similarly named after the town because they were also discovered in the quarry near Ytterby.  It is the 28th most abundant element in the Earth's crust, and it is used in a number of applications beyond superconductors, including making synthetic garnets, increasing the strength of various alloys, and the radioisotope yttrium-90 has a number of medical applications.

That's it for today's foray into the periodic table.  Hopefully I won't forget to post Z tonight, so I can finish off this A to Z Blogging Challenge on the right foot!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

X is for Xiaolongbao

Xiaolongbao are a pretty special treat.  I remember having them as a kid, but I don't recall having a good xiaolongbao any time during my adult life, at least not until recently.

Xiaolongbao are confusingly called "soup dumplings" in English, even though they are not what the Chinese would call dumplings, and frankly the appellation "soup dumplings" would be more appropriate for jiaoziThey fall into that classification of bao, which is translated into "bun" in English.  Their distinguishing characteristic is that the bun is filled with broth, hence the translation soup dumplings.  If you bite into a hot xiaolongbao, they will practically explode in and scald your mouth, which is not pleasant.  The trick is to bite a small hole in the side of them and slurp the broth out, then eat the now less explosive bun and its pork filling.

I had not eaten xiaolongbao for a long timeAccording to the guidebook I had with me in Singapore, there was a good place that served them somewhere off Orchard Road, but I failed to find it.  When I moved to Philadelphia this past fall, I had xiaolongbao at the Sang Kee Noodle House on 36th and Chestnut.  They were okay, but not what I remembered from my childhood (which of course is always a difficult standard to meet).  A few months later, however, a friend and colleague of mine mentioned Dim Sum Garden, a small restaurant located on 11th Street, in the underpass where people catch the Chinatown buses to New York.  The surroundings are less than pleasant, but the little restaurant itself is simple and clean, and their various buns and dumplings are excellent. Their menu features xia jiao, shumai, and most importantly, their flagship dish, xiaolongbao.  They offer two varieties -- one made with the traditional pork, and the other a mixture of pork and crabmeat.  They are freshly made, meaning you have to be careful when you eat them, but they are delicious.     

Check around your city or neighborhood and see if you can find a place that specializes in these little guys -- you will not be disappointed!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

W is for Walensee

I've already mentioned my two favorite lakes in Switzerland (is it weird that I have such a ranking?), the Vierwaldstättersee and the Oeschinensee, but today I am going to talk about another of my favorite Swiss lakes, probably #3 or #4, a lake called the Walensee.

The Walensee is located partially in the canton of Glarus and partially in the canton of St. Gallen, in the eastern portion of Switzerland, not far from Liechtenstein.  In fact, the first time I saw the Walensee was when I was traveling from Vaduz back to Zurich, and rode (by train) past the southern shore of the Walensee.  The view from the south shore is fantastic -- the Walensee is a long lake, and the northern shore is more cliff than beach, and beyond the cliffs rear up the Churfirsten, a range of mountains:

A view of the Churfirsten, from the north side of the lake
The moment I saw it, I knew I wanted to hike along the north side of the lake, and a few years later I finally did.  It was November 1, 2009 (I remember the date because the day before, on Halloween, I hiked up to the top of Monte San Salvatore in Lugano), and I met up with friends in Rapperswil.  We took a train and then a bus to the village of Amden, and then proceeded to hike most of the length of the lake, from Amden to another village called Walenstadtberg.  For the beginning of November, the weather was almost summer-like -- a really perfect autumn day for a late season hike.

One of the best parts is that we finished up in Walenstadtberg just as darkness was falling, and stumbled upon a small restaurant, which ended up being more a person's living room and kitchen than anything else.  The proprietor and a few of her friends were celebrating the anniversary of the restaurant, and they welcomed us in without hesitation.  About 45 minutes later, we caught the PostBus down the mountain and returned to Zurich.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

V is for Vinho Verde

I was going to write about the Vierwaldstättersee, my favorite lake in Switzerland:

Instead I am going to discuss the virtues of vinho verde (literally "green wine" in Portuguese).  Vinho verde is a type of wine produced in the Minho region of Portugal.  It is called green wine because of how young and refreshing the wine is, though the most common varieties are white wines that may possess a slightly greenish hue.  In fact, I later learned that there are white, rosé, and red varieties of vinho verde.  Because of its youth, you tend to drink it within a year, and the alcohol content (in the white wines at least) are lower, around 9-11% abv.  It is not quite a semi-sparkling wine, but there is a hint of fizziness, which just adds to the refreshing character of the wine.  Vinho verde enjoys official name protection and pretty much exclusively denotes wines produced from certain grapes following certain guidelines in a region known as Entre-Douro-e-Minho.

I was first introduced to vinho verde on, of all days, my 30th birthday.  My friends and I gathered alongside the lake in Lutry for an evening picnic, and one person brought a bottle of Gazela vinho verde.  I really enjoyed it, and as coincidence would have it, I was leaving early the next morning to go to a conference in Porto.  Now, you would expect that I would drink a lot of port while in Porto (and I did), but my beverage of choice in the warm Portuguese summer was vinho verde.  As far as I am concerned, no wine is better enjoyed in hot weather or accompanying fresh seafood.  Porto had an abundance of this in Matosinhos, where restaurants line the sidewalks selling freshly caught and grilled fish (particularly sardinha assada, grilled sardines).  Actually, I could spend a whole blog post just waxing poetic about the fish in Matosinhos.

I have yet to try rosé or red vinho verde, but with the weather growing warmer here in Philadelphia, I certainly plan to.  If you have never had vinho verde, I suggest you take the opportunity this summer to do so.  It makes a great aperitif or, as I have said, pairs well with simply prepared grilled fish (whitefish mostly) and shellfish.  I have tried a few producers -- Gazela, Casal Garcia, and Aveleda are the ones I can remember -- and have not been disappointed.  And vinho verde is inexpensive, so taking a flier on a bottle hardly requires an investment.  Check out the official Portuguese webpage (in English) for much more information about vinho verde. 

Monday, April 25, 2011

U is for Umami

The letter U proved to be a difficult one, perhaps only slightly less difficult than Q or X.  I finally settled on a food-related term that I learned only a few years ago.

Growing up, I learned that our sense of taste was divided into four "basic tastes": sweet, sour, bitter, and salty.  I also learned that the taste buds associated with each of these tastes were not uniformly distributed -- instead, certain regions of the tongue featured more or less buds for each of the four tastes.  As it turns out, we have more than four basic tastes, and our taste buds are relatively homogeneously distributed across the tongue.  The former is the subject of my post today.

The fifth basic taste is sometimes called savoriness or meatiness, but the term that seems to have gained the most traction is umami.  Umami comes from Japanese and means "pleasant savory taste."  It is a flavor caused by the presence of glutamate or certain ribonucleotides in food.  It is because of umami that monosodium glutamate is such an effective "flavor enhancer" -- and it is not surprising that MSG was used so frequently in Asian food, because the Japanese and Chinese have been using seaweed extracts and other natural ingredients that contain MSG for centuries*.  If you are interested in a brief description of the biochemistry and interesting properties of umami compounds, I suggest the Wikipedia article.

*I own older Chinese cookbooks where practically every recipe calls for MSG.  And while most people think that MSG is bad for you, there is no compelling evidence for this, and in fact many foods contain sources of glutamate just as substantial as MSG.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

T is for Ta Prohm

One of the places I always wanted to visit was the temple of Angkor Wat, in Cambodia.  In November 2008, I finally had the chance, and it was an amazing experience.

Perhaps only slightly less famous than Angkor Wat is the ruined Buddhist temple of Ta Prohm.  Even if you have not heard of the name, you may recognize the pictures:

Yes, those are huge trees growing over the temple itself.  When the reclamation and restoration of the Angkor temples began during the 20th century, a decision was made to leave Ta Prohm as it was, largely (but not completely) taken over by the jungle.  This was in contrast to many of the other ruins, where there were extensive reclamation efforts.  This was largely done because Ta Prohm, in its state, was so magnificent in its disarray.  Since then, efforts have been made to maintain its state, preventing further overgrowth of the jungle, and to reinforce some of the more fragile structures.

The temple was commissioned by Jayavarman VII, king of the Khmer Empire, in the late 12th century, and construction was completed around 1186.  The most amazing thing about Ta Prohm, and all of the Angkor temples, is its age and grandeur -- the Khmer Empire was a highly advanced civilization that ruled from the 9th to 13th centuries, and built singular structures like Ta Prohm, Angkor Wat, and Banyon.  And yet I barely knew anything about it before I visited Cambodia. 

When we think of ancient civilizations and the architecture they left behind, names like the Great Pyramids, Machu Picchu, Chichen Itza, the Parthenon, the Colosseum, and the Great Wall of China spring to mind.  I think the temples of Angkor deserve mention in the same breath. 

Friday, April 22, 2011

S is for Starkbierzeit

You've all no doubt heard of Oktoberfest, the huge festival in Munich that has become an international phenomenon.  But Oktoberfest is not the only beer festival held in Munich, and I don't even think it is the coolest.  My money is on Starkbierzeit.

Starkbierzeit literally translates to "strong beer season."  It is a two week celebration that takes place in March every year, during the period of Lent.  Its origins date back to the Paulaner monks, who during the Lenten fast were only allowed to drink (not eat).  The Paulaner monks were already exceptional brewmasters, and during Lent they would brew a stronger version (nearly 8-9% abv) of their dark beer that they called doppelbock (literally "double" bock).  The beer was sweeter and more nourishing than the regular bock, and thus perfectly suited for making it through Lent.

Now the people of Munich celebrate Starkbierzeit every year.  The Paulaner beer hall on Nockherberg remains the center of the celebration, but all the beer halls in Munich participate.  The famous Paulaner brewery produces the original doppelbock called Salvator, and other breweries in Munich follow suit, following the naming convention by ending their brews with "ator".

The Paulaner beer hall in Nockherberg
My friends in Switzerland and I found out about Starkbierzeit, so in March 2007 we drove from Lausanne to Munich to take in a weekend at the event.  After getting lost in Munich and asking for directions from old Bavarians in their local bar, we finally found our hotel and then quickly hustled to closest beer hall, the Augustinerkeller.  Their doppelbock is called Maximator, and like all beer in Bavaria, is served in one liter glasses:
At Augustinerkeller (faces cropped out to protect the innocent)
Two liters of 8% abv dark beer and less than an hour later, I was done.  The next day, I could barely eat or drink anything -- I did not even try the Delicator at the Hofbrauhaus, I had a few sips of Salvator at the Paulaner beer hall, and finally a small glass of Triumphator at the Löwenbräukeller.  In retrospect, I think I would drink my Maximator more slowly next time.  But if you want to go to a great beer-centric celebration in Munich, one still owned by the locals and not dominated by sloshed tourists (and before you comment, despite drinking too much, I was still well-behaved), Starkbierzeit is the place to be.  And despite overdoing it, I had a fantastic time.  

Thursday, April 21, 2011

R is for Rigi

Rigi is one of the most famous mountains in Switzerland.  It is called Die Konigin der Berge ("Queen of the Mountains"), though it is barely over 1500 m high.  Instead, I think the draw of Rigi is its location -- towering above the beautiful Vierwaldstättersee and Zugersee in central Switzerland, with a 360 degree panoramic view that lets you see many of different parts of the Swiss Alps.

I had wanted to visit Rigi for sometime, and finally had the chance in the fall of 2009, when my mom visited me in Switzerland.  We got really lucky and enjoyed five days of glorious weather.  We spent one of those days taking the train from Lausanne to the city of Arth-Goldau in the canton of Schwyz.  From Arth-Goldau we took a rack railway up to the top of Rigi, where we could look in every direction and see something spectacular:

Pilatus to the west
The view southwest towards the Berner Oberland
A close-up of the Berner Oberland, including Jungfrau, Monch, and Eiger

The Schilthorn, made famous in the James Bond film "Her Majesty's Secret Service"
The view east of the Glarner Alps
The southeastern view of the Urner Alps
After we had our fill of the views (if that is even possible), we took the train down the other side to the town of Vitznau, where we took a boat across the Vierwaldstättersee (which, with all due respect to the Oeschinensee, is my favorite lake in Switzerland) to Luzern, one of my favorite cities in Switzerland.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Q is for Qimen Hongcha

I am cheating, and using a pinyin spelling for today's Q topic!  Qimen hongcha literally means "Qimen red tea" and is the Chinese name for Keemun tea, a type of black tea from China.  What we refer to as black teas because of the color of the oxidized tea leaves, the Chinese refer to as red teas because of the color of the tea liquid.

I've enjoyed drinking tea for some time now, but this past Christmas, my brother and sister-in-law gave me a gift of a tea pot, three sampler sets of tea (black, green, and white), and a book about tea.  My brother told me that he expected me to become a tea connoisseur.  So I've been trying -- with a tiny bit of success.  My favorite tea so far (I have tried probably upwards of a dozen different varieties, mostly green and black, but also a couple of white teas and one rare yellow tea) is the aforementioned Keemun black tea.  Keemun tea comes from the county of Qimen in the province of Anhui (Keemun is the old colonial English name for Qimen) in China.  Keemun tea comes in a number of varieties, generally related to the age and condition of the buds.  Most recently I have been enjoying a Keemun Hao Ya (one of the highest grades, I think) from Premium Steap, a great tea shop near Rittenhouse Square.  Keemun teas are one of China's Ten Great Teas, a vaguely defined list of the most distinguished types of teas from the country, and are a part of Russian Caravan and some English Breakfast black tea blends.  

I really enjoy Keemun tea because of the wonderful aroma of the dry tea, the coppery color of the infusion, the slightly smoky nose, and the bitter chocolate notes (yes, chocolate).  Since it has gotten warmer, I drink it less frequently, but during this year's rather cold Philadelphia winter, I routinely enjoyed a cup a day.  If you like black teas, I highly recommend Keemun.  Make sure you get something high grade (anyone at a decent tea shop can help you with that), it really makes a difference.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

P is for Professor

My thesis for this particular blog post is this: Ph.D. graduate study and post-doctoral training do little to prepare you for being a professor.

Of course, they do something.  A Ph.D. is a prerequisite for any tenure-track faculty position.  Post-doctoral training has become a de facto requirement for getting a faculty position in the sciences and engineering.  Both provide you a strong background in doing research.  These are important for becoming a professor.  But what does a professor do all day?  Well, what I have discovered as a new tenure-track assistant professor is that I do the following (in no particular order of importance or time investment):
  • Attend committee and faculty meetings
  • Meet with interested undergraduate and graduate students
  • Prepare for and teach classes
  • Write grants
  • Advise my own graduate students
  • Balance my lab budget
Sounds very different than the average day for a Ph.D. student or post-doc, right?  I do not do much bench science, except when I have been training my graduate students or lending a hand.  Instead, many of my responsibilities are largely administrative.  My contact with research is largely in an advisory role (in meetings with my students) or through the writing of grants, which are necessarily much larger in scope than what I normally encountered as a Ph.D. student or post-doc.  I spend a lot of time mentoring students, both my own graduate students, as well as students in my classes, and other students who are simply interested in what I do or what I have to say, apparently.

I am fortunate in many ways -- my Ph.D. and post-doc advisors gave me ample opportunities to write grants, mentor students, critique manuscripts -- so those aspects of my new job are not entirely mysterious to me.  But in other ways, I was totally unprepared for being a professor -- I have very little teaching experience, no management experience, and I do not have the intrinsic talent for navigating the tricky political waters of the university and academia at large.  But I am learning.

Since I can't do it over again, the best I can do is offer advice to graduate students and post-docs out there.  It is easy to keep your head down and focus on just your own research, but if you are serious about getting a faculty position, and want to be as prepared as possible for when you start (and even then you will still be woefully unprepared), I would take every opportunity you can find to participate in research-related activities separate from doing research, and to try and teach at least part of a course, if not two or three courses.  You will be glad you did -- and if you find you really dislike all these seemingly ancillary activities, then perhaps being a professor is not the profession for you.

P.S. If anyone has any suggestions for Q, I am in need of some help :)

Monday, April 18, 2011

O is for Oeschinensee

A Swiss friend told me that he thought the Oeschinensee ("Oeschinen Lake" in German) was the most beautiful lake in Switzerland.  What do you think?

 That picture does not even show you the coolest feature of the lake, which I shall reveal in time.  After having the endorsement of a Swiss citizen, I decided to visit the Oeschinensee in the summer of 2008 (I would later return, under much cloudier conditions, during the Hohtürli hike).  As it turned out, the forecast for the day I picked was beautiful in the morning, with increasing clouds in the afternoon, so I hopped a very early train to Bern and switched to the BLS line to Kandersteg.  Kandersteg is situated in the beautiful Kandertal:

From Kandersteg I took a chairlift up about 400 m to a path leading to the Oeschinensee:

Instead of following everyone straight to the lake, however, I took a path that veered up towards the mountains surrounding the lake -- my goal was to walk above the lake to its far end, then descend quickly and walk at lake level when I finished my circuit.  Following this path (and hilariously giving directions in Germans to other hikers, even though I knew next-to-nothing about the trail), I would catch glimpses of the lake through the trees, but finally I reached a point far enough up to see it in its entirety:

The most dramatic feature of the Oeschinensee is not its turquoise color, or the surrounding snow-capped mountains, but the sheer cliff, which is probably 300 m tall, at one end of the lake.  I continued my way along, getting more beautiful views of the lake and surrounding mountains.

The farthest point of my hike was a mountain restaurant, where I had some sausage and leek soup, and from there I descended rapidly among cows happily lounging in the sun (a pretty common sight when hiking in Switzerland):

Finally I was back at lake level, and hiked the flat path along the Oeschinensee and back to the chairlift, just as the clouds started to roll in.  Perfect timing!

Overall, it is a relatively short hike, unless you link it up with something else, but the scenery is magnificent.  There are a number of hikes that start or finish in Kandersteg as well, several gems in Swiss hiking, including the famous Gemmipass.  I highly recommend visiting the lake, even if you do not hike around it. 

If you want to see more pictures of the Oeschinensee, check out my photo set.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

N is for Ninja!


Here's a quick primer for everything you need to know about ninjas:
And finally...

(Yes, that is me dressed as a ninja, cooking Chinese food, as it turns out.)

Friday, April 15, 2011

M is for Mondeuse

When two friends visited me in Switzerland in August 2007, we immediately took a weekend trip to nearby France, driving from Geneva to the wine region of Savoie.  It is a little-known region, with many mountains and massifs (Albertville, host of the 1992 Winter Olympics, is in Savoie) and rare but wonderful wines.  The second place we visited was nothing more than a man's garage, where he stored the wine he produced and offered tastings.  He spoke French, we spoke English, and my own French was terrible (and still is), but I remember trying a red wine called Mondeuse that he said was "plus rustique", and that has stuck with me.  For some reason -- perhaps because of all the ancillary memories of visiting the beautiful valleys of Savoie -- I now have a fondness for Mondeuse, and try to have it whenever I notice it, which is not particularly often, since it primarily a grape grown in Savoie, and they are not a large producer by any definition.  The wine itself is deep and dark red, full-bodied, and like the man said, has a rustic taste and feel to it -- it is not refined like some red wines, but it is very enjoyable to drink.  I think it goes well with hard cheeses and meat dishes.

The second time I had Mondeuse was in Switzerland, in a restaurant in Lausanne.  They had a bottle of Mondeuse produced in nearby Mont-sur-Rolle, a really beautiful wine-growing town west of Lausanne, in the region called La Cote.  This particular bottle, produced by the Domaine de Maison Blanche, was blended with pinot noir (the most popular red wine grape in Switzerland), which mellows the flavors and makes it smoother in the mouth (don't put too much stock in this description, I don't know what I am talking about).  As an aside (and still letter M appropriate!), visiting Mont-sur-Rolle is highly recommended if you are going to be near Geneva, particularly during a special weekend called Caves Ouvertes ("open cellars"), where the producers open up their businesses (oftentimes their homes) and encourage people to come in and taste the newest vintage.

If you happen to see a bottle of Mondeuse (or red Vin de Savoie, it is likely made with this grape) wherever you are, give it a try.  And let me know where you found it :)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

L is for Lutry

I had many options for L, nearly all of them Swiss-centric: Lausanne, Luzern, Lugano, Locarno, Lac Leman, the Lavaux...but I had to decide on just one.  So I picked my favorite place in Switzerland: Lutry.

Lutry is a small town east of Lausanne, situated in incredibly picturesque surroundings on the northern shore of Lake Geneva (Lac Leman in French).  It lies on the western edge of the Lavaux wine region, recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  When you look to the east, you see the beautiful terraced vineyards of the Lavaux (pictures courtesy of my friend, since I sadly have no pictures of Lutry for some reason):

When you look across the lake, you can see France and the Alps:

Along the lake there is an excellent stand for ice cream.  And the town itself is beautiful -- an old church and narrow alleys are just what you expect of a medieval European town.  All of these aspects factor into why Lutry is my favorite place in Switzerland, but the most important factor is the Caveau de Vignerons ("wine-growers' cellar).  I was introduced to the caveau not long after I arrived in Switzerland by two of my closest friends there.  As you can tell from the pictures, Lutry is situated near vineyards, but in truth there are vineyards within the borders of the town itself (including right by its train station).  Wine is a big part of the town's identity.  The caveau is, as the name suggests, collectively owned by all the wine-growers in Lutry (basically a cooperative) and serves only wine made in the two appellations in the Lutry region: Lutry and Villette.  The caveau is run by two people (who are not wine-growers) named Pascal and Francoise.  We got to know Pascal very early on, as he speaks English and is wonderfully friendly, and taught us much about Lavaux wines (I will keep the topic of Swiss wines for another time).  The caveau is a popular hang-out for locals, situated in an old cellar-like room, now decorated with photos and art and sporting tables made out of large wine barrels:


If you look very carefully, there are a ton of plush monkeys hanging over the bar -- that is because monkeys are the symbol of Lutry.  Anyway, my friends and I spent many hours in the caveau, drank many bottles of wine, and it was a favorite destination for all of us to bring visiting friends and family members.  In the summer we would bring plastic cups, grab a bottle of chasselas (a white wine), and sit by the lake drinking before retiring to the caveau for the inevitable bottles of red wine.  In September we would all come to Lutry for La Fete des Vendanges, the festival celebrating the grape harvest.  On one of my last days in Switzerland, I visited the caveau and told Pascal I was leaving, and he gave me a bottle of pinot noir made in Lutry.  He told me to save it for a day when I missed Switzerland.   I miss Switzerland often, but so far I have kept the bottle in a safe place.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

K is for Kvothe

I was going to milk this for two A to Z posts, but I was struggling to find a good K idea, and a recent Penny Arcade comic (warning: minor spoilers) inspired me.

Who is Kvothe?  Kvothe is the main character of The Kingkiller Chronicle, a fantasy trilogy-in-progress by Patrick Rothfuss.  He debuted with The Name of the Wind in 2007 and recently published A Wise Man's Fear (out just a month ago).  The basic premise of the trilogy is that Kvothe, an infamous, near-legendary figure, has retired to a sleepy town and adopted the persona of Kote the innkeeper.  He is accidentally found by a scribe named Chronicler, who convinces Kvothe to tell his story for posterity.  The Name of the Wind is subtitled The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day One, just as A Wise Man's Fear is subtitled The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day Two, because Kvothe insists that the telling of his story will take three days (hence a trilogy).  And while Kvothe's story dominates the two novels, there are also dark and important events transpiring in the present, which no doubt will become increasingly more important as Kvothe's story draws to a close.

What do I like so much about these books?  Well, I enjoy the story-within-a-story format, though that is by no means novel.  I like Kvothe as a character.  I am impressed by Rothfuss's storytelling prowess, and most of all I really dig his treatment of magic.  See, Kvothe is known by many epithets, such as Kvothe Kingkiller (hence the name of the series) and Kvothe the Arcanist.  Yes, he is a wizard (of sorts), though not in a traditional fantasy sense; in fact, I do not think the word 'wizard' is ever used.  Kvothe learns magic in the course of his life, and there are two principal kinds: sympathy, which is basically a sort of arcane thermodynamics-meets-quantum mechanics, and the much more powerful but mysterious naming, which more or less involves knowing something or someone's truename, and thus gaining power over that thing or person.  The "name of the wind" refers to just such a truename.

Now the novels are not without their problems.  Kvothe's life story is far more interesting (so far) than what is happening in the present, so the portions of the novels that return to Kvothe's current situation as an innkeeper are comparatively slow (though important details and events do occur).  And much of the story deals with Kvothe trying to making ends meet, which while realistic is oftentimes trying, because you know Kvothe is and will be capable of great and terrible things, and as the reader you are waiting expectantly to see at least glimpses of these abilities.

Nonetheless, The Kingkiller Chronicle is my favorite fantasy series in recent memory, and alongside A Song of Ice and Fire, has forced me to break my previously mentioned fantasy novel rules:
  1. I do not read series more than five books in length.
  2. I do not read as-of-yet-unfinished series.
I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a classic coming-of-age tale supported by good storytelling, an interesting world (though so far we only have hints of what it all contains), and refreshing take on magic.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

J is for Jamón Ibérico de Bellota

Let's stick with the food theme for a little bit.  While I was living in Switzerland, I was introduced to the wonderful world of charcuterie, preserved or cured meats (usually made of pork).  In the US, typically our exposure to things like salami, ham, and sausage is via sandwiches.  What I discovered in Switzerland is that Europeans really enjoy these by themselves.  One of my favorite stands in the Saturday market in Lausanne sold all manner of dried sausages and cured meats.

On a whim, one day I bought a relatively expensive package of Spanish ham labeled jamón Ibérico de bellota, and my view of ham was transformed.  I had tried prosciutto, jambon cru, and jamón Serrano, but never before had I tried jamon Iberico, and boy was I in for a surprise:

Jamon Iberico de bellota (from
Just look at that ham!  Look at the sheen, the beautiful intramuscular fat.  When I tasted it for the first time, I was surprised by the fact that it was not salty or smoky (usually flavors I associate with hams of various sorts), but incredibly rich and a little bit sweet, like pork should be.  I also quickly noticed that if you leave jamon Iberico out at room temperature, the ham begins to glisten because the fat is nearly liquid at room temperature!

Since then, I have gone out of my way to have more jamon Iberico de bellota, and to learn more about it (mainly from Wikipedia, as usual -- lazy, I know, I should use primary sources).  Jamon Iberico is sometimes called pata negra ("black hoof"), which also references the breed used for jamon Iberico, called the black Iberian pig.  This breed of pig is prized for its intramuscular fat (those lovely white streaks in the ham pictured above) and likes to graze in forested pastures, which leads to the reason for the bellota ("acorn").  In wooded pastures called dehesa, these pigs roam about and feast on acorns from several species of oaks, consuming up to a kilogram of acorns per day. This makes jamon Iberico de bellota the highest grade of jamon Iberico; most of the pigs are not fortunate enough to live this life -- lower grades of jamon Iberico are made from pigs grazed on grain or a combination of grain and acorns.  The free range lifestyle and the acorns no doubt account for much of jamon Iberico de bellota's wonderful flavor, and in addition, the acorn-rich diet results in a high level of monounsatured fat -- thus the near-liquid consistency of the fat at room temperature.      

I am still relatively ignorant about just how good jamon Iberico de bellota can get, but I look forward to trying the Spanish hams offered at DiBruno Brothers and hopefully, one day, going straight to the source in Spain.

Monday, April 11, 2011

I is for Italian Hoagie

I have a thing for sandwiches.  I attribute it to growing up outside Philadelphia, where hoagies, cheesesteaks, and roast pork sandwiches.  My formative sandwich experience (I know this is a bit bizarre - people don't usually talk about formative sandwich experiences) was at the preeminent local sandwich shop in my hometown of Wayne, a place called John's Village Market.  They have an amazing Italian hoagie (still my favorite), which is the subject of today's blog post.

For those unfamiliar with a hoagie, it is a sandwich served on a long Italian roll and topped with cold cuts, vegetables, and cheese.  "Hoagie" is a regional term -- I pretty much only hear people from southeastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey use that name; elsewhere names like submarine sandwich, grinder, or hero can be used, though oftentimes these names have additional nuanced meanings.  In Philadelphia, the hoagie reigns supreme, and at the top of that pile is the Italian hoagie. 

An Italian hoagie is dressed with oil, sometimes oil and vinegar or a special house Italian dressing (but never, EVER, mayonnaise), loaded with Italian-style deli meats -- capicola, some sort of ham (I like pepper ham), and Genoa salami are nearly givens, while pepperoni, and occasionally mortadella and prosciutto are used -- and then topped with Provolone cheese, lettuce (romaine or Boston is the best, though iceberg is still used way too often), tomato, onion, and quite often pickled peppers (usually sweet, though you can get hot -- I always go sweet peppers).  Sometimes you get a shake of oregano or "spices" to top it off.  The bread is very important -- an Italian long roll (sometimes seeded) either makes or breaks the sandwich.  The result looks something like this:

An Italian hoagie from Dalessandro's (from
See how much stuff is in there?  That is important -- this is not some French baguette with one slice of cheese and one slice of meat artfully hidden within the bread.  The secret of the Italian hoagie is all the different textures and flavors mashed into a single sandwich that you can barely fit into your mouth -- but when you do it is an experience that really cannot be topped by any other sandwich.

I actually have not had Italian hoagies from very many different places, and I know I've missed some standouts in Philadelphia, but my top Italian hoagie list currently looks something like this:
  1. John's Village Market, Wayne: The meats they use on the hoagie are spicy like no other Italian hoagie I've had, and they are very generously sized.
  2. Salumeria, Reading Terminal Market: I only recently had their Italian hoagie, and it was fantastic.  They eschew the traditional pickled peppers for roasted red peppers and artichoke hearts, if you want them.  At the suggestion of a friend, I also had their prosciutto hoagie with the house dressing and artichoke hearts, and that may even be better!
  3. Paesano's, Philadelphia: Their Daddy Wad is a fancier Italian hoagie (mortadella, sopressata, and prosciutto, among others) topped with arugula instead of lettuce.  A great sandwich from Philly's best sandwich shop.
  4. A Cut Above Deli, Newtown Square: I mentioned this deli in a previous post about Ridley Creek, and they did not disappoint.  The hoagie is served on a seeded roll.
So there you go.  I'd love to hear about more places I should visit to have Italian hoagies -- Sarcone's is a glaring omission here and is definitely on the list.  If you've never had an Italian hoagie, you need to have one at least once -- but unless you find a place in the Philadelphia area or nearby New Jersey, it just isn't going to be the real thing.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

H is for Hohtürli

Prior to living in Switzerland, I had done a little bit of hiking, but never as a regular activity.  In Switzerland, hiking became something I really enjoyed, and I looked forward to the start of hiking season every spring.  One of the best things about Switzerland is that hiking is very civilized.  What does that mean?  You can hike high into the Alps, be surrounded by snow-capped mountains, glaciers, and rugged, rocky terrain, and yet only be an hour away from civilization.  Many of the best hikes I did in Switzerland included fantastic mountain restaurants part way through the excursion, at the highest points of the hike! 

One of the best examples of this is the Hohtürli, a mountain pass in the Bernese Alps.  My friend and I decided to do this hike in September 2009.  My friend, who lives in Switzerland, has over the years done most of the stages of the Via Alpina, a multi-stage hike across Switzerland that traverses 14 different passes in the Swiss Alps.  One of the passes he had not yet done was the Hohtürli, the highest pass (at 2778 m) along the Via Alpina, between the village of Griesalp and the town of Kandersteg.

We met in the Bern train station on a cloudy weekend, and after a bit of confusion and some running, we got on the BLS train to Reichenbach im Kandertal, where we transferred to a PostBus.  In fact, there were two PostBuses going to Griesalp, our destination, and we ended up on the smaller one, and this would be important shortly.  Both buses followed the same route into a valley called the Kiental, but after awhile we ended up at the base of what looked like a cliff.  Our bus continued on, while the people on the larger bus had to get off, and board a smaller bus waiting for them.  We soon discovered why, as our bus wound its way up the forested cliff along a very narrow, switch-backing road, at one point squeezing between two huge rock faces.  After some ascent, we arrived at the trail head in Griesalp.  I later learned that this was apparently the steepest bus route in Europe!

It was still misty when we left Griesalp, so unfortunately we did not get the grand views we were hoping for, but the panoramas from the village were still beautiful:

We marched up into the mist, eventually rising above the tree line.  Here we were greeted by Alpine pastures clouded in mist and covered with marmots!  Never had I seen so many marmots in the wild, all in one place, making their little marmot noises.  We continued to ascend, and the path steepened:

Finally, the clouds broke and we saw some blue sky and mountains:

Unfortunately, the clear skies did not last, and the final push to the Hohtürli was made in mist:

That last stretch nearly killed me, I think, as the path got so steep that steps, and in some places chains or railings, were put in place.  But then we finally made it!

Because of my friend's murderous pace, we had reached the top in three hours, a climb of 1400 m from Griesalp.  But as it turned out, the descent was steep and just as hard:

Even though the sign at the top said Kandersteg, our destination, was only 3 hours, 15 minutes away, it proved a much slower slog.  Still, the terrain along the way was rugged, wild, and breathtaking, and included even more marmot sightings:

After having a bite to eat while sitting on a glacier-deposited boulder, we made our way towards a mountain lake called the Oeschinensee.  At this point, our legs were like rubber, so we were looking forward to taking a chairlift down from the Oeschinensee to Kandersteg, saving ourselves an hour of walking and 400 m of steep descent.  We were forced to make another steep descent along a cliff face over the lake, and by the time we reached the resort area on the shores of the lake, the chairlift had stopped for the day :(  We pushed through another hour and finally reached Kandersteg, dead-tired, but excited that we had conquered the Hohtürli.  This was easily the hardest hike I had done in Switzerland: steep climbs and ascents, an elevation gain to the pass of 1400 m and a drop from the pass to Kandersteg of almost 1800 m, all over a distance of about 15 km.  All told, it took us around 7.5 hours, including a couple breaks to eat.  And while I still wish the weather had been clearer, it was one of the most rugged and memorable hikes I enjoyed while living in Switzerland.

If you want to do this stage of the Via Alpina, check out the official route from  Highly recommended!