Last week I mentioned I've been struggling with what I'm supposed to do when we return, and - per usual - I'm grateful I posed that question out loud so the universe could respond.
Saturday evening we arrived at our fifth work stay this year, this time volunteering with a vintner in the South Moravian region of the Czech Republic. Richard Stavek is the top producer of natural wines in this area, and this time with him and his family are precisely what I need to remind me I'm on the right path. He sells wine, plum jam and other specialty food products to some of the most acclaimed restaurants in Prague and throughout the Czech Repulic (including the famed La Degustation). As of our last night with him, his wine is also in consideration for the list at Copenhagen's NOMA (oft listed as the top restaurant in the world). We're eager to talk food, wine, hospitality and culture with the craftsman.
We hit it off from the start; Richard, his wife, two amazing kids and one fast-growing baby have a charming home, welcoming presence and a great rapport with each other and their guests. We fit comfortably in place that evening, and the warmth only grows each day. Richard and Stanislava have an incredible passion for what they do, and it's contagious. They send us to bed that first evening with a hug, full bellies and a textbook Richard's contributed to, Isabelle Legeron's Natural Wine.
Richard produces a variety of wines, vinegars and brandies, among many other things, but it's his orange wine that blows my socks off. Orange wine is an ancient tradition with appearances in history dating back some 8000 years to Georgia's Caucasus region that fell from fashion in favor of modern reds, whites and rosés. Orange is a skin-macerated white wine, where instead of pressing the grapes, separating the juice and discarding the skins, the grapes are left to sit with the skins and stems for a period anywhere from a few hours to several months. We taste it for the first time in his cellar the evening we arrive, along with a red and a rosé, as we help him finish bottling for the night. It's flavor profile is incredibly unique to any wine we have tasted and we're immediately hooked on this now rare technique.
It's the next day before we realize what RIchard is doing on his land and in his cellars the couple is paralleling in their kitchen, extending their magic quite literally from farm to table. Over breakfast we taste fresh Sea buckthorn, a teeny citrus fruit natively found in Siberia packed with vitamins and oils that comes on branches that closely resemble rosemary, but have a more piney nose. The berry is often used by astronauts for its incredibly high potency in an extremely small package, and the leaves of the bush make a light citrus-pine tea with a beautifully fragrant aroma (I also happen to be hooked on Fresh's face oil made from the berries).
Meals with the family are learning experiences just as much as our daily chores. Each comes with at least half a dozen distinctly different jars of preserved tomato blends, fresh fruit jams and savory spreads, all house made and part of the lifeblood that sustains the family outside of their small batch wine production. Every time we sit at the table, out comes a new bottle of craft liqueur, a new batch of pickled something or - in tonight's case - a plate overflowing with traditional kolaces, made especially for us by Richard's mother.
Among the flavorful concoctions is an incredibly special jar of sugar-cured young walnuts, a tradition Richard discovered traveling in Georgia and traced back to his native land. The young, shell-on nut is boiled, sliced thin and jarred in cane sugar and spices, creating a firmly soft yet crisp, sweet and mildly toothy decadent aside. Stanislava wows us after one lunch with a dessert of fresh goat cheese whipped with sugar and vanilla and topped with one of the delectable candied walnuts - the penultimate finish to a meal with its light texture, tart and sweet balance and the mild sugar rush from the nut. We're not alone in our love for the sweet treat, the walnuts have also earned the adoration of a nearby Michelin-starred chef who craves new ways to integrate them into his menu.
Among the daily work around the Stavek home, cellars and lands, we shell an endless supply of walnuts, care for the animals, harvest berries for brandy, maintain the vineyard, chop and stack wood, pickle loads of cabbage, help with corking and packaging and work on a new cellar. On top of the wine, the food and the family, there are goats, rabbits, chicken, a black lab and two teeny barncats in training. There is loads to do, but it's the good, exhausted at the end of the day, all for a good cause, sleep like a brick kind of work that feels so good in your soul come evening.
It's this work and these people who help me to clarify what I aim to continue when we return - to follow my passion for sharing special food and drink and hospitality, to foster the spirit of innovation, creativity and creation in myself and others and to support others along their own paths to fulfill their dreams by sharing and following my own.
Thanks, Richard. We miss you already.