Baton Rouge, Shreveport, and New Orleans Louisiana Await

Paul Gustings manning the Empire bar at Broussards, one of New Orleans literary inspired eateries. Christopher Ludgate photos. Read more at http://www.gonomad.com/5899

Paul Gustings manning the Empire bar at Broussards, one of New Orleans literary inspired eateries. Christopher Ludgate photos. Read more at http://www.gonomad.com/5899

I’m packing for a trip that starts tomorrow with a flight to New Orleans. I’m joining a group of journalists on a road trip through the great state of Louisiana, and on Saturday morning I’ll take a swamp tour in New Orleans Plantation country.  Then we’ll visit the city of Baton Rouge with a look at the capital and a food tour.

The next day we head to Opelousas, then on to Shreveport for a two-day conference with all of the tourism boards from the southern states in the US.  It’s a chance to have short meetings with dozens of tourism people who give travel writers a quick run-down on what’s new and what’s worth writing about in their states or cities. Then we work out trips and the coverage begins.

Our journey picks up again a few days later and we will head for the famous, well TV famous, Duck Commander Warehouse. Maybe we’ll even see a few members of the famous bearded Richardson family. Then it’s on to Natchitoches, the oldest permanent settlement in the Lousiana Purchase territory, and to Fort St Jean Baptiste, another early back country settlement.

Then it’s Lake Charles in southwestern Louisiana, completing the arc around the state. We’ll tour the highlights and then see Lafayette and have dinner in a Cajun dancehall there.

We cap off our busy week in New Orleans and have lunch at Antoines, which is now 175 years old. Our final night we’ll dine in another very famous New Orleans restaurant, Broussards, and stroll around the French Quarter. Paul, the ‘tender in the Empire Bar there, is pictured above.

I am already stuffed!

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Everywhere I Go, Everyone is Sick of This Winter

We’re all just so sick and tired of winter here in New England that we can’t even joke about it any more.  On Thursday I drove to Boston with Paul Shoul for a lunch with some Atlantic Canada tourism people. We parked on a street where every car was perched atop a snowbank. One daring Toyota FJ was teetering way up on top of a drift.  This snow is too thick to melt, so all around us are giant three and four foot drifts. Even though most of the moisture has evaporated, the snow just hangs on.

My friend Ed said that this is it–this winter has pushed him to his limit, and like many people, he is vowing to take a February vacation next year to escape. I am so glad that Mary and I got our California escape in a few weeks ago.  I am finding an overwhelming hatred on social media and in person for all things winter.

Even my parsimonious cousin Paul has given up and is now letting his propane heater come on, the heck with the cost. We too, have gladly filled up our oil tank and despite an abundance of wood, we let the oil heat come on, and thank God for low oil prices.  At my daughter’s house, they’ve been burning their woodstove non-stop since December. Six cords of wood later, the oil furnace is on and the woods almost all gone.

Come on God. It’s high time for us to stop heating our houses and for the sake of sanity, bring us warm breezes and spring. Please!

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Fort Hill Brewing: A 50-Barrel System with Hops Growing Next Door

Brewmaster Eric Berzini of Fort Hill Brewery shows the Valley's largest brewery in Easthampton, MA.

Eric Berzini of Fort Hill Brewery shows off the Valley’s largest brewery in Easthampton, MA.

The 50 barrel system at Fort Hill Brewery makes only lagers and each batch takes 5-6 weeks, Berwini said.

The 50 barrel system at Fort Hill Brewery makes only lagers and each batch takes 5-6 weeks, Berwini said.

Fort Hill Brewery’s big grain silos loom before you out of farm fields driving up Fort Hill Road, off Ferry Street in Easthampton. The footprint is huge, with the towers and a new steel building that looks like a medium sized factory.

This new Easthampton brewery is by far the largest in this town that now has three breweries, with a 50-barrel brewing system. Abandoned Building Brewing, the other newcomer in town, has a 15-barrel system and High and Mighty Brewing is building their own brewery in town right now.

Tastings are in tiny draft glasses, and free. Pints are just $4

Tastings at Fort Hill are in tiny draft glasses, and free. Pints are just $4

Eric Berzini, the 28-year-old brewmaster, showed us around and explained why Fort Hill’s 10 owners decided to build such a large operation. It’s because they are brewing lager beers, which take 6-8 weeks to brew, versus the ales more commonly made that take about 11 days. “We had to make a whole lot more per batch because it takes so much longer to make lager,” he explained.

On Thursday, Friday and Saturdays, the brewery is open for visitors to taste the beers in their comfy bar area, with a pool table and the absolutely cutest little tiny draft mugs you’ve ever seen. Tastings are free and pints are only $4.  They are all lager beers, ranging from 4.75 to 7.25 alcohol, and my personal favorite was the M4, a smooth lager that was refreshing and not hoppy.  IPA fans, like my cousin Steve, won’t be happy here. Lagers rule.

Eric took us on a tour of the operation and showed us their very high tech systems for bringing in the grain and keeping all of the various temperatures correct. The number of giant tanks used in the processes dwarfed any local brewery I’ve ever seen. There is also a massive gas-powered furnace to make hot water.  This is what a 50-barrel system looks like, and the cost $4.5 million prompted Berzini to quip, ‘yeah that’s what it all cost–so buy a growler–seriously!”

Berzini learned his brewing craft at the tiny Bridgewater Corner Brewing and the larger Long Trail brewing in Vermont.

Besides their size, Fort Hill Brewery has another unique element to it. They grow hops right outside the brewery!   Though it takes up to three years for the hops plants to produce the right kinds of buds, they are on their way to being nearly self-sufficient in an ingredient that they’ll need a whole lot of, hops.

As we toured the automated canning line, Berzini pointed out that they color code each pull-tab for the different style of beer, but use the same white generic can for everything. “The company that makes cans has a 100,000 minimum per design, so we are using the same can for all of the beers,” he said.

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The Lives of Others

In our little country neighborhood, we enjoy watching the parade of people walk by, and the pulse of the neighborhood during different times of the year.  We watch our neighbor’s kids on their playset, the single men next

door clearing their driveway of snow, and the passing parade of walkers who stroll down Mountain Road.

I also sometimes chat with Andrew, who lives at the head of the street and is often out mowing his lawn,  clipping his manicured hedges, or picking up that last leaf in the yard. Though he’s been retired for decades, he still dons his work clothes for his busy days working in his yard and on his well kept house.  I’ve enjoyed our short chats and I noticed that he wasn’t around as much over the past few months.  Then I saw a familiar vehicle, owned by Larry Wrisley, of the Wrisley funeral home, and my heart sank.  Did we lose him?

Today I was running and I spotted Larry, so I hailed him and he rolled down his window.  He explained that Andrew, who is 91, had fallen and broken his hip, and that his wife Phyllis who is 83, is his aunt.  So every day he stops by their house with the Springfield Republican for them, and to check up to see how they’re doing.

I am so pleased that Andrew did not need the services of the local funeral home yet.  As an avid obituary reader, the lives of others has always fascinated me.  I was pleased to figure out just what had been keeping Andrew from his appointed yard work rounds, and that it wasn’t the grim reaper.

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Helsinki’s Restaurant Week: 3000 Pop-up Eateries For Just One Day

On Restaurant Day in Helsinki, thousands of ordinary people are allowed to open their own pop-up restaurants and sell dinners to their neighbors!

On Restaurant Day in Helsinki, thousands of ordinary people are allowed to open their own pop-up restaurants and sell dinners to their neighbors!

Paul Shoul and I are planning a May trip to Helsinki, Finland.  Fortunately, we’ll be there right in time for Restaurant Week. This is a really great idea, considering how many people I’ve met in my life who harbor hopes as budding restauranteurs or food truck operators.  From the Helsinki tourism website, here is what will be happening.  I wonder if we could ever do this in Northampton–have a one-day pop up restaurant festival with ordinary people manning their grills and their camping stoves!

” Four times a year local residents in Helsinki get together to have fun with food. Next Restaurant Day is celebrated on 15 February 2015.

Restaurant Day lets anyone become their own restaurateur for a day. Hundreds of popup restaurants appear throughout Helsinki – and dozens of other cities in Finland and abroad. All you have to do is sign up on the Restaurant Day website and get cooking – it’s that easy!

Timo Santala, one of the founders of the event, cannot get over the enthusiasm that Restaurant Day has generated.

“One guy took a week off work in order to fish for pike and serve fresh fish & chips on Restaurant Day. Participants really put a lot of effort into their restaurants,” Timo says.

The great thing about Restaurant Day is that once you hear about the basic idea – to establish a restaurant for a day – you immediately start coming up with ideas. And when you see all the amazing restaurants set up by others, you get even more inspiration.

“People really let their imaginations go wild, creating something that has never been tried before in terms of the food or the concept. The dedication and joy of the participants is wonderful, as is the way in which people get involved and get to know each other around the table.”

A legend is born

Helsinki Restaurant week brings out the Ordinary Joe's who open their own pop-up restaurants all over the city for one day.

Helsinki Restaurant week brings out the Ordinary Joe’s who open their own pop-up restaurants all over the city for one day.

The idea behind Restaurant Day arose from frustration over all the bureaucracy involved in running a restaurant. Wouldn’t it be great if for just one day anyone could operate their own restaurant with no bureaucracy whatsoever? Three friends, Antti Tuomola, Olli Sirén and Timo Santala, came up with the solution.

“We brainstormed the idea and thought of everything Restaurant Day could be. Antti and I set up a bike bar to sell drinks and tapas, and at the same time we encouraged others to join us,” Timo Santala remembers.

The first Restaurant Day was held on 21 May 2011 and featured 45 popup restaurants in 13 locations around Finland. The second Restaurant Day was held the following August and featured around 200 popup restaurants in four different countries. Over 38,000 restaurateurs have operated the popup restaurants, and they have served an estimated 1,000,000 customers. Restaurant Day is certainly helping to boost the images of Helsinki and many other cities four times a year.

One of the biggest benefits of Restaurant Day is how it nurtures a “yes we can” feeling, which is vital for urban culture.

“Absolutely anybody can participate. Restaurant Day is a group effort. We take the city into our own hands and make it a dream place in which to live,” Timo Santala says.

Restaurant Day has inspired many other events, and the team spirit has helped nurture an environment in which everything is possible.

“Our role has been to light the fire, to provide the initial spark. The true heroes of this event are those who have helped set up around 3000 popup restaurants to date.”

The founders of Restaurant Day picked up the Finland Prize from Minister of Education and Culture Paavo Arhinmäki in December 2011, and on the first anniversary of the event all the people who had set up popup restaurants were likewise rewarded.

“It’s amazing that this important artistic recognition was awarded to a loose group of people who haven’t created art but a somewhat cultural food event instead,” Timo Santala remarks.

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The Roller Coaster Goes Up…and then Down

Do you go from despair to delight, back and forth up and down and sideways?  I am startled this week by how great I feel, how optimistic and positive I feel.  This contrasts mightily with two weeks ago when I was fretting about the weather, felt down and depressed about business, and was flitting back and forth with anxiety.  We spent a restorative week, Mary and I, in beautiful central California, and it began perking up my spirits.

I tumble back and forth from the dark to the light, some times in one day I can wake up positive and ready to embrace life and then I can at 2 pm if all alone, fall into sadness.

One thing I’ve realized is that we all do this–these cycles of joy, and despair and back to joy are part of the rhythm of life. We just hope that we can tilt toward the happy dances more frequently. I think I do know what helps to tilt it the good way though–for me it has to do with feeling solid about business, planning upcoming trips, and not letting myself get caught up worrying about health.

Health is the one thing that we all have in common. I often think about how quickly people’s fates change, and how even the most powerful people are powerless about their health.  If you have good health, you can skip and dance, and it’s better than if you had no money.  But there are plenty of people with lots of money who would trade it all to a pauper on the street with good health.  For some reason that still surprises me, but get a scary diagnosis or feel a lump and you might sing the same song.

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