Around The Table…

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Recipe Calendar 2013

It’s striking how inspiring ideas are often sparked while gathered around the table with good friends, great food, and plenty of wine — of course recalling any of these afterwards is another challenge!

Fortunately, the idea one of our Xplorers had for compiling recipes from a favorite B&B in Porto was remembered. The magical meals shared along our journey blossomed into this “Recipe Calendar”, highlighting a bit of the richness and cultural diversity of this fascinating sliver of the Iberian Peninsula.

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Lugo, Our First Art Scholarship Fund

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Meet Lugo, the first recipient of the Culture Xplorers Foundation Art Scholarship fund.

While in Peru this past April, I visited a small school outside of Lima, it was situated atop some rocky and dusty land not far from the ocean. The school was lacking, there were bathrooms but no water, and a number of improvements that were needed, but I did notice the art murals….where did they come from?

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CX Inspire: Landmark Journeys. Life-changing Impact.

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With making a positive impact through travel at the heart our philosophy, what better way to celebrate our 10th anniversary than with the first of a new series of philanthropic journeys. For our inaugural CX Inspire journey we’ll return to Oaxaca to endow a young artist scholarship in close collaboration with one of Oaxaca’s most influential artists. Amongst this trip’s exceptional highlights are:

  • Floating farms — visit small scale organic farmers in UNESCO designated Xochimilco
  • Architour Insider — meet architects who foster community through visionary design
  • Art of Giving — inaugurate a cross cultural art exhibit in Oaxaca
  • House Party — celebrate at the home of a local artist with special musical guests
  • Artisan Aromas — taste expertly paired mescals & chef-inspired small plates
  • Holy Mole — market-to-table culinary workshopp
  • Master Class — visit with renowned painter & philanthropist Francisco Toledo
  • Enduring Legacy — help us endow a young artist scholarship in Oaxaca
Jim Kane will lead this landmark journey celebrating 10 years of Culture Xplorers. Space is limited to 10 travelers. To request a detailed itinerary and reserve your spot please click here.

Artisan Traditions of Tras-Os-Montes Region in Portugal

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Tras-Os-Montes region in northeastern Portugal in the minds of many Portuguese has a reputation for being a remote part of the country, a region of many traditions and ancient beliefs, of pre-christian or syncretic festivals where participants dress in rustic, colorful costumes and wear frightening masks to ward off evil spirits in their villages.  This was the region where I was drawn to this winter to witness of some of these rites.  I found a region steeped in the strong pride of its traditions but with a welcoming warmth much like its hearty beef, pork, and chestnut dishes accompanied by deep red Douro wine which contrasted with its cold and often fog shrouded Terra Fria (cold uplands). Travel to and from Tras-Os-Montes region, due to its historic remoteness, requires time as the country’s network of highways is only now beginning to arrive to the main hub and largest city of the region, Bragança.  This historic isolation has been both a blessing and a setback for the region.  On one hand, the lack of opportunities for many families has caused a large outmigration from the region leaving many villages nearly empty. On the other hand, many of its traditions (intangible cultural resources) have survived the onslaught of globalization resulting in a unique cultural landscape that retains some special “gems” found nowhere else in Portugal if not the world. This post and some successive ones will cover some of these “gems” that I have had the opportunity and pleasure to witness.

In early winter many villages retain and still practice ancient pre-christian traditions of Os Caretos (mask wearers).  Many villages have these mask wearing festivals that are still maintained by its artisan community. I travelled to some of these villages and had the opportunity to meet and interview some of these very talented artists.  I would definitely like to thank Dr. Antonio Pinelo Tiza from Bragança, and author of Inverno Magico: Ritos e Mistérios Transmontanos among many other articles and books on the region, who provided me invaluable advice on numerous topics of the region.

In Bragança, I met with Amavel Antão who, inspired by the numerous mask making traditions in the region, has created stunning masks that represent the local folklore and legends.  In the cold mountain town of Vila Boa de Ousilhão, I met Antonio José Fernandes do Vale (a.k.a. Tozé) who shared with me his techniques of mask making and the context of the carnival traditions in the village. In nearby Ousilhão, I met the youngest of all the artisans, Romeu Jorge Fernandes and was absolutely amazed at his skill and unique style that he has developed. Meeting him gave me a sense of hope that this tradition would not be lost.  Some days later I had the opportunity to travel to Baçal to meet a very lively Senhora Maria Adelaide Pereira who showed me the colorful costumes and the thatch masks she had made for the revelers for the winter celebrations taking place a few days later.  Finally I visited Salsas, south of Bragança where I met Senhor Manuel Antonio Cabral and his wife Senhora Ana da Conceição Afonso, both artisans who warmly invited me into their home and shared with me their craft.  Senhor Cabral, a very skilled person and proud man of the earth, is now retired but still adds his unique style to the masks of the Salsas winter festivals.  His style is unmistakenly unique as he captures frightening corpselike visages in his woodwork. Senhora Afonso has made her name as a highly skilled weaver and seamstress. She has woven the colorful costumes for many of the winter festivals over the years. She demonstrated for me the unique carder made by her husband to spin flax thread (flax which she herself had collected).

I was told by a young man in Bragança, “Em Tras-Os-Montes cada pessoa é um guia.” In Tras-Os-Montes everyone is a guide. I couldn’t agree more. Everywhere I went I found a proud people that were truly helpful, incredibly kind and very willing to share their traditions, their identity with others.  The photos above are of the people and places mentioned in the post.

Lima in the Limelight

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As someone who has returned to Lima time and again starting in 1994, it’s gratifying to see the city increasingly recognized for its many merits, many of which are hidden from first time visitors to this cacaphonous capital.

The truth is, I used to be amongst the hordes of visitors whose goal was to, if not avoid Lima altogether, then at least to minimize the time spent in this often grey, and always bustling metropolis.

Around 2006, I remember looking for interesting things to experience while in Lima and finding myself surprised at the options which have since multiplied. As the positive article in the Daily Telegraph (linked below) asserts, Lima’s charms can be enjoyed in its many world-class restaurants, its heralded museums and in the city’s architectural and archaeological treasures.

This piece in the Telegraph has joined dozens of other articles in recent years extolling Lima’s resurgence, including one by the now defunct Gourmet Magazine naming it as the culinary destination of the year in April 2009. This press serves as a potent reminder that Lima is a compelling destination in and of itself, worthy of appreciation and in-depth exploration.

And while most travelers to Peru, including this one, eagerly await their internal flight up to the highlands or to the Amazon, Lima serves as a mouth-watering first course in the exquisite tasting menu that is Peru. Here are several under-the-radar experience not to miss while in the “City of Kings”:

Farm Fresh Fun. Meet local farmers and sample the healthy fare at Lima’s organic market.
Ceviche Seminar. Delve into the fine art of ceviche — boarding a fisherman’s skiff, explore the city’s fresh fish market, enjoy chef-led ceviche demonstration
Behind the Scenes at the Larco. Enjoy a guided tour of the highly lauded Larco Museum, and savor a pre-dinner cocktail overlooking their shady garden
Fine Folk Art. Enter the home & private gallery of one of Peru’s pre-eminent folk art experts.Hear stories & share insights from her 40 years of collecting.

Of course, each of the above are experiences we gladly organize for Culture Xplorers travelers to Peru!

Here are some additional links to recent articles about Peru’s resurgent capital city:

Globalization & the Grape

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As the founder of a micro-enterprise specializing in hand-crafted travel, I greatly admire individuals in many fields who cherish the integrity of their craft and who maintain a deep respect for local culture and traditions.

As friends and family know, I’m also a big fan of grapes, especially in their post-fermented state! So it’s no surprise perhaps, that an old film called Mondovino (1997) recently caught my eye.

This French documentary probes the modern evolution in the wine industry and comes to a rather unflattering conclusion. “Wine is dead” says one of the film’s weathered protagonists early on. This sets the tone as the film goes on to excoriate what it sees as an ominous triumvirate of money, marketing & PR which is squeezing out artisan producers who remain rooted in tradition & terroir.

Of course drama is often heightened via boldly drawn villains & heroes and Mondovino is not exactly nuanced in the black & white characterization of its protagonists. This is documentary filmmaking with editing that reflects back the strongly held views of its creators. “It takes a poet to make a great wine” asserts Aime Guibert, a deeply-rooted winemaker in Languedoc, France. The filmmakers seem to agree.

In Mondovino’s worldview, a handful of industry titans, amongst them Robert Parker, the Mondavi family and Michel Rolland (globetrotting wine consultant to over 100 wineries) are painted as ego-driven, voracious power brokers with little regard for either tradition or terroir.

The message is that wine is being homogenized by these high-powered consultants, superstar critics and powerful family oligarchs. In the process, a wine culture once celebrated for its diversity and strong sense of place is now lurching dangerously towards global homogeneity, with geographically indistinguishable flavor profiles created in laboratories to please the palette of these select market-bending influence-makers. “People have lost their identity, their sense of where they come from” concludes flatly Battista Columbu, a wizened, old-school winemaker from Sardinia.

At times the film can come across as heavy-handed. For example, an attempt to tie past generations of wealthy Italian wine families to their support of Fascism and Mussolini seems both unnecessary and overreaching.

Another distraction from an otherwise compelling story is a bizarre choreographic fixation with dogs, dozens of which draw the focus of the camera throughout the film. OK, as long as we’re on the subject, Robert Parker’s toothy, flatulent bulldog gets my vote for best supporting canine 🙂

Putting aside these flaws, at the heart of the film is a deep respect for diversity, terroir and tradition. The film both exposes and throws a skeptical gaze on a world if wine increasingly driven by PR, profits and power to the detriment of craft, integrity and individuality.

In this sense, this is a story-line that resonates in many aspects of modern culture. We live in a time when hundreds of the world’s remarkable languages are disappearing at a precipitous rate and many non-Western lifestyles and traditional, local food ways are in endangered due to economic pressures to modernize and conform.

So let’s raise a glass to passionate artisans everywhere, to individuality, to a celebration of diversity and admiration for a genuine sense of place in an increasingly homogenous world.


Roots Resurgence

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In recent weeks, we’ve been transfixed by the news as popular uprisings have rippled across North Africa and the Middle East dramatically changing the political, economic & social reality of millions of people in half a dozen countries.

While in no way as sudden, dramatic — or in some cases, as violent — as the revolutions sweeping Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, my thoughts have turned in recent days to a much more subtle revolution happening halfway across the globe; one that also affects the political, economic & social reality of millions of people in half a dozen countries in Latin America.

The revolution I’m thinking of is a roots resurgence, specifically, a long overdue recognition of, and respect for, the inherent value of indigenous culture.

While leading thinkers such as anthropologist and National Geographic Explorer in Residence Wade Davis have spoken out on behalf of indigenous peoples and their endangered cultures for decades, a broader recognition of  the value of indigenous  culture – both within Latin America and beyond – has taken much longer. Thankfully, that recognition is starting to grow and as it does, the ripple effects are spreading.

This month, a terrific article in Conde Nast Traveler reflects this growing appreciation for the deep-rooted, indigenous traditions of the stunning Northwestern provinces of Salta & Jujuy, Argentina. While the Conde Nast piece highlights this dramatic corner of Argentina, an indigenous cultural renaissance is spreading throughout Latin America.

Perhaps there is no better example than in Peru, where superstar chef Gaston Acurio has turned his  admiration for indigenous dishes and ingredients into a culinary empire spanning three continents, with a popular TV show, flagship restaurants in Chile, Argentina, Spain, and the U.S. as well as dozens of acclaimed eateries scattered throughout his home country.

This revolution doesn’t stop in the kitchen. Thousands of indigenous weavers in Peru, for example, are increasingly finding an appreciation for their intricate textile designs, and a willingness on the part of domestic and international buyers & collectors to pay prices that at least begin to reflect the months of intense labor, not to mention the centuries of cultural knowledge, that go into creating these one-of-a-kind works of art.

There has even been a resurgence of interest in Quechua, the indigenous language spoken by well over 2 million people in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. According to the Peruvian news agency Andina, there are 25 universities across North America teaching Quechua. Within Peru, there is a new focus on bilingual education for native Quechua speakers to foster interest in this unique Andean language and to help keep alive the deep cultural knowledge that comes along with it.

Of course, none of this implies that indigenous groups don’t still face tremendous challenges to gain equal opportunity for education, employment and economic status within their home countries. They do. However, merely a decade ago, few would have bet on this renewed respect for, and appreciation  of, indigenous culture. Quietly, steadily, this revolution is transforming Latin America’s cultural landscape.