Skip to content

Tagami Food, Wine & Travel: 2011 in Review

January 2, 2012

The stats “helper monkeys” prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Sydney Opera House via Wikimedia Commons (GNU)

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Syndey Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 13,000 times in 2011. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 5 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

PS:  We had 121 unique visitors from Australia this year.  Thanks for stopping by!



Losing ‘Virginity’: Olive Oil’s Scandalous Fraud and How to Protect Yourself From It

December 13, 2011

If you’ve not yet read Tom Mueller’s 2007 New Yorker article, “A Slippery Business”, I invite you to do so; in it he uncovers an astonishing world of product adulteration with regard to olive oil.  It is a fast and engaging read.

The process of researching and writing the 2007 article was so compelling to him that Tom devoted the past five years to researching and writing further to present a snapshot — a cultural, culinary and criminal history of olive oil — in his new book, Extra Virginity:  The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.

Currently on a book tour in SF, LA and NY, Tom’s 20 minute “Fresh Air” interview with NPR’s Terry Gross today generated 60 comments in the first few hours, many from distressed consumers aching for an answer as to which olive oils to trust, which moves me to offer this post.

Whom do you trust?  How do you choose?  

It is very “20th century” to assume that EVOO is just a flavorless fat, and it is plain wrong to assign positive or negative attributes to an oil based on its country of origin.  As Tom mentions in the interview, modern methods of farming, harvesting and extracting oil have enabled farmers to elevate this lively fruit juice onto an entirely new plane. Yes, there is rampant adulteration and fraud in our industry, however there are also thousands of small producers crafting excellent product and dozens of large producers who are doing the same.

FACT:  Dozens of countries cultivate hundreds (thousands, actually) of varieties of olives, each with unique varietal characteristics.  Climate, soil, irrigation, variety, harvest and milling methods and blending techniques are just a few of the things that contribute to an oil’s character, and the fresher the product, the better.  Olives made into olive oil are as diverse and amazing as grapes are made into wine, and today we have the opportunity to appreciate the nuance and complexity of them as never before.

FACT:  There are several certifying bodies which guarantee quality — at time of bottling.  More on “time of bottling” later.

Century-old olive tree. Corning, CA (photo by Tagami)

You can trust EVOO producers that use third party labs to certify authenticity via chemical analysis and use trained, internationally calibrated and certified tasting panels to qualify the oils as “Extra Virgin” via organoleptic (sensory) means.  The two best known certifying bodies to us here on the west coast are the California Olive Oil Council and the Australian Olive Association.  Click through the COOC and AOA links above for lists of growers you can trust, many of whom have their own websites which allow you to buy directly from them.

You can trust winners from major competitions (current year).  I’ve given you a short list of three well known competitions below.  If an oil has earned a medal in competition they will have a sticker on the bottle.  I don’t mean an image of a medal from the 1893 fair in Chicago, I mean a sticker on the bottle from a competition in the past year.  These stickers are regulated.

Why do I say that these designations help identify an oil as EV at the time of bottling?  It is because olive oil degrades with time and eventually becomes rancid.  The reason growers bottle in dark glass is to protect the oil from light and slow down this process.  If an importer, distributor and/or retailer does not turn inventory it may be sold to you as already rancid even if it left the producer in fine condition.  If oil is stored near heat or light it will age faster, too.  If you — as a consumer — keep your oil near the stove, in a sunny window, or in a warm pantry, if you leave the top off the bottle and let air get to it, your oil will age faster.

Olives are washed before milling. Corning, CA (photo by Tagami)

There is a movement now amongst growers to add HARVEST date to the package, not just “Best By” date.  Look for this when you shop and buy from the most current harvest year that you can.  Generally speaking, northern hemisphere oils are being produced now and will be released in February/March as 2011 Harvest, good through Fall 2013.  Southern hemisphere oils were harvested in the Spring, and this year’s harvest is good through Spring 2013.

FACT:  You cannot trust a bottle just because it says “First Cold Pressed”, this is a meaningless phrase, completely unregulated, and a carryover from when olives were pressed.  Sorry to spoil the romance, but very few olives are pressed today.  The modern method is much different.  See an example of modern milling methods on this video.

What is the fast and easy answer for EVOO if you don’t want to pay premium prices?   The most affordable and accessible extra virgin olive oil in the US today is California Olive Ranch “Everyday Fresh”, found in thousands of grocery stores across America.  A company of similar standards and accessibility from the southern hemisphere is Boundary Bend “Cobram Estate”.

The two artisan producers in California with whom I’m most familiar are Lucero Olive Oil in Corning and The Olive Press in Sonoma.  I endorse them highly.  There are dozens of producers throughout the Mediterranean and South America that I stand behind, too numerous to iterate here.  They are active in promoting their brands at top retailers such as Williams-Sonoma, Sur la Table and Dean & Deluca and can be found on the lists of top oils in competition.

Vote with your pocketbook.  Support the growers.

Quality oils taste good and are good for you.

Liz Tagami at an Arbequina Olive Harvest 2011

14 December 2011 Addendum:  Although there is no unifying standard across Europe for authentic extra virgin that is represented by a seal or badge, it is generally safe to assume that any oil with an AOC, DOP or IGP designation will be of high quality.  These oils undergo careful scrutiny and therefore are nearly always beyond reproach.  Thanks to colleague Alexandra Devarenne for pointing this out.  You can read more of her work at CalAthena, newly added to my blogroll.  

Buenos Aires Drive By – Study in Red

May 1, 2011

We landed in Buenos Aires to a gray day; 1o° celsius (5o°F) and drizzling.  The driver was a tad late so I people-watched at Arrivals, wrapped in two pashimas, and tried to look dignified despite 20 hours of plane travel and five hours of airport waiting time.  The drive to the hotel was also gray, as it was early Sunday morning.  The shops were closed, leaving only their dull steel roll up doors along the avenues to greet me.  Except for a stand of pampas grass along the highway, a few churches, and some lovely Spanish colonial and neo-classical architecture, my first impression of Argentina was…gray.

We slowed to navigate a turn on downtown street and the MaxiKiosco (Big Kiosk) on the corner next to a parked car really jumped out in contrast.  Here, I took a quick snapshot with my phone for you!

Tomorrow we fly to the interior to see olive harvest and olive oil production; I look forward to sharing a few highlights.

Buenos Aires MaxiKiosco: Study in Red


Delayed Reaction: Little Boy at Shojoji Temple March 12th

A note to my readers.  We hit a milestone tonight with 17,000 unique page views, 3,650 of those alone are for “Shaken, then Stirred” in Tokyo.  

Thank you for your many notes of encouragement and interest, and for mentioning your various projects with regard to supporting Japan.  I know I owe you Part II, and truly think about it every day.  That essay is still somewhere inside, and hope to share it before too long when I can slow down enough to ponder and then write what I feel in my heart.

Shaken Then Stirred: Sendai Quakes, part 1

March 16, 2011

If you know me at all, you know I love to fly, especially transpac or other long haul flights where I can disappear into the void — a tube of silence separated from the outside world at 550 MPH and 35,000 to 38,000 feet.

The airport bus dropped my friend Jim at Terminal 2 for AA, then swung around to Terminal 1 South to drop me at UAL.  I checked in quickly (no waiting) and stopped by the gift shop to pick up a few things which this trip’s itinerary hadn’t allowed earlier.

Tagami was sitting in the green chair on the left!

I was scheduled to depart Narita at 1700, so had a leisurely two hours to enjoy United’s spacious Red Carpet Club near gate 31 for some comestibles and email time.


It started as a silent rolling wave.  Not a long wave, but an almost imperceptible wobble or rotation under your chair which — if short in duration — could be attributed to a large truck or some nearby construction.  I exchanged glances with a traveler sitting across from me, and as it did not stop said, “3.0” with the nonchalance of a Bay Area girl. Within 10 seconds the undulations grew slowly more urgent as the room began to rattle with the nervous chatter of porcelain, glass and cutlery.  “4.3”, I offered “…uh oh, uh oh, UH OH….this is a lot bigger!”  Bigger, and certainly longer than anything I had experienced before.  It. Just. Wasn’t. Stopping.

The lounge swung wide and shuddered.  The building creaked, groaned and swayed.  It screeched, it jolted, it swirled in strange leftover eddies of vibration.  It was dizzying and thrilling and horrifying at the same time.  It was completely unpredictable.  The swinging grew more intense — I’d say a swing ranging from 18″ to 24″ from center running NW to SE with rotations and swoops thrown in unexpectedly — then settled to shaking and shuddering, only to begin the wide swings once again as the shaking intensified: terra firma was bucking and crashing and I hoped she did not want to take my building down with her.  A fine dust shook from the ceiling near me, and the artwork hung as room dividers on monofilament looked as if they were capable of  taking off heads, yet passengers sat stunned and frozen beneath them.

We were sure we had just experienced at least 7.0, and our phones quickly confirmed a “7.9”, which an hour later became an 8.9.

"We eagerly shared what we could glean" iPhone Screen Capture

Phones and email didn’t work, but I was able to squeeze out some SMS messages before the system failed. Passengers shared phones and information and advice on how to create a crush zone which could save your life!

The aftershocks were frequent and quite strong, by the time the second one started I was on the floor with a small cache of food — my back to the wall between the chair and the end table with my head low so that if the ceiling came crashing down the furniture would take the impact and I would have a breathing space.  In between these frightening events, which just kept coming, the ground crew advised that all passengers stay away from the windows as some folks had gone running to the glass to see what was happening outside!

The airport finally decided that it was time to evacuate the building, so about 13,000 of us were directed to the emergency exits onto the tarmac.  The sun was already low in the sky, so we huddled in clusters near gate 34 waiting for instruction.  Fortunately, I met a nice couple — Virginia and Bill from Hawaii — as we formed a little tribe for the next 21 hours.

Gathering on the tarmac near gate 34

We had no idea how bad it was


Folks were quite calm.  The sun was going down, so we were herded west to gate 31, which was not much warmer and was unfortunately in the path of a 777 and between two structures — not a place I wanted to be if there was another big earthquake.  Oh, and it started to rain.  Someone gained access to the terminal to use the facilities and we all just started pouring in to get somewhere warm.  The airport agent kept telling us that the building had not been inspected that we were entering at our own risk, but after several hours in the cold it did not seem to matter to us.  Before long ground crew from United and Delta and airport personnel began distributing water and rations — Ritz Crackers!

Amazingly, janitorial services and airport routines continued around us, and all was calm. Announcements followed:  our section of the airport was safe, but don’t go upstairs (yet); all flights cancelled, check with your individual airline in the morning; roads closed and no trains, buses or taxis were running.  Stay put.  A parade of uniforms marched in — again, the livery of many different airlines — carrying blankets, water, and more Ritz crackers.

A group gathered at one of the check in counters to charge laptops while others tried to see what was happening on the news (the Tsunami) or slept.

Watching early news reports

Rations Arrive

Airline blankets arrive

A very somber slumber party

We continued to feel aftershocks so it was an uneasy night.  More water arrived, then bananas, maki sushi  and musubi (a triangle of sushi rice with a salty plum or something else inside and wrapped with seaweed  TOTAL comfort food, if you’re Japanese).

It was 1:00 AM and I chatted with a fellow from Mexico City and a woman from Beijing while our phones and laptops charged, and at 3:00 AM the airport found some thick green pads, which made sleeping on the floor okay, and was a vast improvement over the corrugate, if you were lucky enough to have found some anyway.

Maki Sushi from one of the airlines

Neighbor at Gate 28

The next morning at about 0600 the tribe — Virginia, Bill and I — packed up and moved closer to UAL on the level above us.  We camped near the lounge, then found a quiet corner near electricity and bathrooms. It seemed likely that we had another day and a half at the airport, and then I got a call from Jim that he was busting me out of terminal 1.

Moving Camp

TOMORROW:  How I was stirred.

We really had no idea how bad things were .  We experienced some uncertainty and discomfort, but we were safe, warm and dry with food and water and a high probability of departure in a few days.  It was nothing like the grim reality for the villages along the coast north of us, some still isolated and without food, water or electricity.


The US State Department has vetted and issued a list of 28 ways you can donate to Japan’s recovery.  Click this link for detailed information: InterAction Members Support Japan Tsunami Response

On the Ground in Japan

March 15, 2011


Sendai March 2011 Earthquakes and Shake Zones - Tagami was in Narita, NW of Tokyo

The events in Japan these last few days have been cataclysmic, and we still don’t know the full extent of destruction of lives and property.  We do know that the earthquake was upgraded from 7.9 to 8.8, then 8.9 and now will be recorded as an historic 9.0 megathrust event which moved Japan’s main island of Honshu 7.9 feet (2.4 meters) and shifted the Earth on its axis by 3.9 inches (10 cm) per Deutsche Welle; or, if you take the numbers from the Italian National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, they state that the earth’s axis was shifted over twice that much — 9.8 inches (25 cm) shortening the length of a day and the tilt of the earth.  To put this in perspective for my California readers:

1971 Sylmar SoCal quake was a 6.6 that lasted 30 seconds

1989 Loma Prieta NorCal quake was a 6.9 that lasted 10-15 seconds

1994 Northridge SoCal quake was a 6.7 that lasted 10-20 seconds

2011 Sendai Japan quake was a 9.0 that lasted over 180 seconds and was followed 2o minutes later by a 7.0, nine minutes after that with a 7.4, and then a 7.2 eleven minutes after that one!  It seemed that the earth didn’t stop vibrating from the first quake before the next one started in that first hour.

Because of the logarithmic basis of the scale, each whole number increase in magnitude represents a tenfold increase in measured amplitude; in terms of energy, each whole number increase corresponds to an increase of about 31.6 times the amount of energy released, and each increase of 0.2 corresponds to a doubling of the energy released.  The USGS estimated the energy output from the 9.0 quake to be 600 million times the bomb at Hiroshima (9.32 teratons of TNT).

According to the Japan Meteorological Agency over 500 aftershocks of greater than 4.5 have been recorded, and according to a BBC Interactive Map, more than 20 of these have been greater than 6.0.   As you now know, Japanese building methods saved thousands of lives as structures are designed to move with the shaking instead of breaking, and that the tsunami was more destructive and failing nuclear reactors potentially even more so.

Licensed Art Purchased from


The US State Department has vetted and issued a list of 28 ways you can donate to Japan’s recovery.  Click this link for detailed information: InterAction Members Support Japan Tsunami Response

My traveling companion Jim and I were fortunate to suffer no harm, only uncertainty and a weekend of inconvenience.  Many thousands in Northern Japan are not so fortunate, so I hope that you can consider some way to help them.  In the meantime, I have some words and photos to share about Japan and will post several essays in the days to come.

This Little Piggy…

January 23, 2011

I recently received a post about wild boar season in Italy from one of my readers, Nick Garrett. He included some facts and Italian words which I didn’t know along with his personal story, which I enjoyed very much.

Crostini e Salume - Osteria del Cinghiale Bianco

Wild boar in Italian is cinghiale [cin-ghià-le] — click the link for a sound file on how to say it — and I first learned the word when I went to a little restaurant down the street from my office in Florence, a place called “Osteria del Cinghiale Bianco“, translated as the White Boar Tavern.  It is a simple restaurant situated a few hundred feet from the Ponte Vecchio in the Oltrarno, and they serve wild boar.  I usually stop in at least once when in Florence.

If you clicked the hyperlink to the sound file above, you now know that Cinghiale is a fun word to say, and I think you’ll find the animals themselves fascinating also.

Last Spring I was driving from Castello del Trebbio to Villa Campestri with Linda Sorgiovanni, a food colleague who is a sommelier and tour guide in Tuscany, when we came upon a cinghiale bianco emerging from the forest into a little clearing along the roadway.  Linda was kind enough to stop, and as the boar seemed to be no threat, being 15 meters away and on the other side of a small fence I took some photos.

The White Boar Approaches (Photo by Tagami)

I was charmed (but wary), as the curious creature approached to check us out, grunting softly and casually nosing and rooting.  He was a juvenile, and came all the way up to the fence.

White Boar Foraging (Photo by Tagami)

Tagami e cinghiale bianco

Boars in central Italy usually weigh 175 – 220 lbs (80-100 kg), but have been known to reach over 300 lbs (136 kg).  The piglets are adorable, with long horizontal stripes and sweet faces.

I’m almost sorry I started this post with a plate of salumi…

Hans Hoffmann, Wild Boar Piglet (Sus Scrofa), 1578

Vinegar, Resplendent

January 19, 2011

I participated in a comparative vinegar tasting this morning, and as I was clearing the tasting cups captured the sun on some of the samples.


Five Vinegars, Resplendent (Photo by Tagami)