Tag Archives: Food

A Caviar Fix in Missouri – L’Osage Caviar Company

L'Osage Caviar from the Ozarks, MO

A jar of L’Osage Caviar

When I was growing up in a foreign diplomatic family in Tehran, we were very fortunate to sample the caviar for which the country was famous. In addition to having it for special occasions, we would often leave school, stop in the local equivalent of a deli and order a caviar sandwich – about an inch thick slab of the ambrosial gray or black pearls on a slab of bread. The price? A mere $1! Caviar was as common as oysters once were on the streets of New York.

Fast forward 60 years and how things have changed! Oysters are no longer the street food of New York City. Hot dogs have replaced them!! And caviar is now an almost unreachable luxury. It is enough to drive you to despair!

What exactly is caviar? It is usually the roe of Sturgeon, found predominantly in the Caspian Sea and fished almost to extinction by Russian and Iranian fishermen. Here, the three most expensive Caviars in the world were produced– Beluga, Osetra, and Sevruga.

When sturgeon became an endangered species in the 1980s, we stopped buying it. Since then we have made do with red salmon roe and, periodically, with a one-ounce jar of either French or German-produced sturgeon caviar to celebrate a special occasion.

Paddlefish roe caviar

Steely gray pearls of paddlefish roe

But the drought is now over! And believe it or not, the rescue is coming from the crystal-clear waters of the Ozarks in Missouri! Back in 1953, Jim Kahrs and his family started the Osage Catfisheries, selling different species of fish indigenous to the waters in this part of the world. When sturgeons became endangered, Jim began to produce paddlefish. Unfortunately, Jim passed away a few years ago, but his sons Steve and Paul have continued the company and are now the proud producers of exquisite caviar made from the roe of these fish.

Paddlefish have been around for about 300 million years and are relatives of sturgeon. They look just as intimidating, growing to be five feet in length with thin, extended noses that are over a foot long. The fish live to be over 50 years old and can weigh up to 100 lbs.  Osage Catfisheries hatch and raise them before releasing the fish to live for 10-12 years in privately owned ponds and lakes around the region. They feed on a diet of plankton, making them the only “green” fish of their kind, and they are farmed sustainably without impacting the environment or decimating the fish stocks.

When it comes time to collect the roe, giant nets are used to catch the fish. While the largest females are kept for breeding purposes, the rest are harvested for their roe. A typical fish yields about 9 lbs.

Thereafter, the eggs are processed through a sieve in the traditional Russian manner by a highly skilled, trained processor. The result? Beautiful, pearly gray, glossy balls that shimmer in the candlelight and almost melt in your mouth with a creamy, buttery flavor that is reminiscent of the finest Beluga.

Caviar with baguette and lemon

A spoonful of caviar

Whereas in Russia caviar is accompanied by vodka, we prefer the French choice of a glass of sparkling Champagne. Some people serve caviar with blinis (small buckwheat pancakes) and smother it with sour cream and onions. I am a purist. I like it by the spoonful, straight out of the jar or else on a slice of fresh Baguette with a smear of butter and a spritz of lemon. (Always use a spoon made from mother-of-pearl or wood. Silver changes the taste of the caviar.)

Some of America’s finest chefs have already discovered L’Osage Caviar. If you love caviar and have missed it for all these years, help is now available!

You can contact L’Osage Caviar Company at (573) 348-1190 or by email losagecaviar@usmo.com.

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Foods of Georgia – Khachapuri

Khachapuri, Georgia's National food

Adjarian Khachapuri

Georgians LOVE their Khachapuri! You find it in fancy restaurants, fast food places or holes-in-the wall. It is served in large cities and in the smallest hamlets across the country. People eat it at almost every meal – as a starter, a main course, even as a dessert with sweet sauce. In short, it is the National Food of Georgia. Khachapuri is so important in Georgian culture that its price is used as a benchmark to measure the rate of inflation in the country (known as the Khachapuri Index).

The most common type of Khachapuri

Imeretian Khachapuri

What is Khachapuri? In Georgian the word is a blend of the words for “curds” and “Bread.” In its simplest form, it is a cheese-filled yeast bread, similar to a pizza. However, each region of the country has its own traditions and ways of making Khachapuri.

The most common type comes from Imereti, a region in the center of the country. It is a circular pie with a cheese filling between two circles of dough. Ossetian Khachapuri combines cheese with mashed potatoes between two layers of dough. Chakhragina Khachapuri adds leaves from the beet plant (or sometimes spinach) to the mixture.

Khachapuri with cheese and mashed potatoes in the filling

Ossetian Khachapuri

Abkhazian Khachapuri, called Achma, has multiple layers and looks like a sauce-less lasagna.

But perhaps the most flamboyant of the Khachapuri is Adjarian, from the Black Sea area. We watch one of our hosts prepare some for our lunch. Her dough, which includes milk and olive oil amongst its ingredients, has already risen and sits on the side of the table next to a bowl of sulguni cheese curds mixed with eggs and milk to make a thick filling. (Sulguni cheese comes from the Shmegrelo region of Georgia. It can be made from cow, goat or buffalo milk and has a slightly sour, salty flavor).

Our host breaks off a piece of the dough and, using a glass bottle, rolls it out into an oval; she spreads the cheese mixture over the top to within an inch of the sides. Then, deftly grasping the dough, she folds the long sides, turning the edges to contain the filling. Taking the ends of the folded dough, she twists them together to form the ends of the boat.

Georgia's national food, Khachapuri

Chakhragina Khachapuri

Sitting in the corner of the wooden lean-to that serves as a kitchen, is a black wood-fired stove. Our host puts the khachapuri into the oven and bakes it until the cheese has melted and the bottom of the crust is charred and smoky. Then, quickly removing it, she breaks a raw egg yolk into the cheese, together with a dollop of butter, and places it back in the oven for a few minutes.

Proudly placing it on the table in front of us, she explains how to eat it. “Pull off a piece of the bread,” she says “and dip it into the cheese and egg.” And we do! On a cold, rainy afternoon in the Caucasus Mountains, it is a perfect way to warm up.

When I ask our host for her recipe, she tells me, through our guide, that she mixes a handful of this and a pinch of that together and bakes it. Somehow, I think something was lost in translation!

Certainly in the New York City area you can find Khachapuri at many of the restaurants in Brighton Beach. If you are interested in making it at home, the New York Times Cooking Section includes an easy recipe for Adjarian Khachapuri by Marian Burros.

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Exploring The Republic of Georgia

9 Things You Probably Didn’t Know 

The flag of Georgia adopted in 2003

Flag of Georgia

Mention that you are traveling to Georgia and most people in North America will automatically assume you are talking about the Peach State. In fact, the Georgia I am referring to is the Republic of Georgia, bounded on the north and northeast by Russia, to the south by Turkey and Armenia, to the southeast by Azerbaijan and to the West by the Black Sea. It is about twice the side of Belgium.

Tusheti National Park, Caucasus Mountains, Georgia

The Caucasus Mountains, Georgia

Georgia is a land of cities, green meadows, high mountains, tropics, deserts, rivers and seas. A turbulent history, religion, wars, invasions, cultural diversity, as well as vines and food, have shaped its multicultural, tolerant society into a magical, unique world.

Although it is still largely unknown to travelers from North America, Georgia is quickly becoming a popular destination for Europeans and others from the Mediterranean region.

Before we embark on a series of blogs about different aspects of our travels, we thought we would share some of the things we learned about the country that we didn’t know before we left.

  1. What’s in a Name?

Georgians refer to their country as “Sakartvelo,” and call themselves “Kartvelebi.” Some say the name refers to the land settled by Kartlos, one of Noah’s descendants, considered as the father of all Georgians.

Russians know it as “Gruzia,” the Azeri call it “Gurjistan” and the Armenians as “Vrastan.”  The origins of the Anglicized name “Georgia” have never been definitively determined, but the role of invaders certainly had something to do with it. Some say that when the Persians conquered the Kingdom of Georgia, they called it the “Land Where Wolves Roam,” (“Gurg” is the Farsi word for wolf). Another theory opines that the name came from the Greek “geo” (earth) because when the Greeks arrived in the country, they saw the Georgians working their land.

Some point to the Crusaders who swept through here on their way to the Holy Land and transformed Gurjistan into Georgia, after St. George with whom many of them were familiar. Legend even has it that some of these Crusaders remained hidden in Georgia for centuries.

Irrespective of what name the Georgians use for themselves, St George is one of the most popular saints in Georgia, a fact you can’t help but notice when you see the enormous golden statue of George slaying a dragon in the middle of Freedom Square in Tbilisi.

The most recent Georgian flag (known as the Five Cross Flag) also pays homage to St. George – a large red cross in the middle of a white background with smaller red crosses in each quadrant. Originally a banner of the Kingdom of Georgia in medieval times, then-President Mikheil Saakashvili readopted it as a symbol of the 2003 Rose Revolution. 

2The Language

Georgian is like no other language. It belongs to an ancient linguistic group, its 33-letter alphabet possibly based on the Aramaic spoken at the time of Christ. Most words consist of a jumble of consonants nestling together, interspersed with a vowel or two. Inspired by the vineyards, Georgian writing is a calligraphy of swirls and flourishes where one letter can easily be mistaken for another. Despite my best efforts I only learned to say “hello,” “thank you” and “cheers”! (See our earlier blog for more details)

  1. The Origins of the People
Freedom Square, Georgia

Golden Statue of St. George and the dragon, Tbilisi

            Recent archeological discoveries (2002) reveal that the earliest hominids outside Africa lived in Georgia. Homo erectus georgicus dates back 1.7 million years with an even older skull discovered at the archeological site of Dmanisi, a medieval Georgian town overlooking the confluence of two rivers where Silk Route caravans used to pass. Once all the excavations and scientific analysis are completed, this finding could significantly affect the current view that a single early species of man came out of Africa.

  1. Religion and religious tolerance are an important part of society

            Christianity came to Georgia in the 4th century CE, thanks to the efforts of a young Roman woman, St. Nino, daughter of Zabulon, a general of the Roman Emperor Maximian’s army. (Nino is the correct feminine spelling of her name in Georgia).

Following a dream, St. Nino traveled to Georgia carrying a cross that she made of vine branches secured using her own hair. Following St. Nino’s conversion of Queen Nana (by curing her from a serious disease), King Mirian accepted Christianity for Georgia. Soon afterwards the entire population of Mtskheta (the ancient capital of Georgia) was baptized in the waters of the Aragvi River.

While religious adherence continues to decline in many countries, in Georgia it is booming. Over 80% of Georgians belong to the Georgian Orthodox Church. Many attribute the ability of the Georgian people to maintain their identity and culture through many conquests and upheavals, to their attachment to their religion.

Bodbe Nunnery, Burial place of St. Nino

Bodbe Nunnery, Signaghi, Georgia

However, Georgia is probably the most religiously tolerant country in the world. In Old Tbilisi a Georgian Orthodox Church sits next to a Greek Orthodox Church, a Catholic church, a Jewish synagogue and a mosque, the latter probably is the only place in the world where members of both the Sunni and the Shiite sects pray in the same place.

  1. The highest mountain range in Europe

If you thought the Alps were the highest mountains in Europe, you would be mistaken. The Caucasus Mountains, marking the border between Georgia and Russia are the highest. Georgia claims the second highest mountain in the chain (Mt. Shkara), which at 17,040 feet beats Mont Blanc by 1,312 feet. The highest mountain in the Caucasus, Mt Elbrus (18,510 feet), is on the Russian side of the mountain range.

  1. The importance of Legends and the pagan tradition

            In Greek mythology, the Caucasus Mountains are one of the pillars holding up the world. These mountains were where Zeus is said to have tied up Prometheus, as punishment for giving fire to humanity. Prometheus was condemned to having his liver eaten by eagles during the day, only to have it regenerated over night.

Supplicants tie strips of cloth to a tree and make a wish, Georgia

A wishing tree, Georgia

Other ancient legends speak of Jason and his Argonauts seeking the Golden Fleece in Colkhis (Colchis), a part of western Georgia where Medea lived with her father, the king. In fact, the Georgians “panned” for gold by submerging a sheepskin into the flowing river water where nuggets would become entrapped in the hair; hence, the Golden Fleece.

Many of the churches stand on sites that once were pagan temples. In addition, throughout our treks in the Caucasus Mountains, we came across small pagan shrines adorned with animal skulls and horns. Women are not allowed within 800 feet of the shrines, many surrounded by barbed wire. No matter how many people we asked, no one could enlighten us about why women are barred from approaching.

Elsewhere “Wishing Trees” around the country become impromptu places where offerings of bits of cloth and plastic are left together with wishes and prayers, a throwback to pagan times.

  1. Natural wine made in Qvevri, Okro Winery

    Buried qvevris, Okro Winery, Signaghi

    Le vin c’est tout! (Wine is everything)

            Georgia is considered the cradle of winemaking. As recently as 2014, archeological excavations found the remains of grape skins and pits going back to 8,000 BCE. These discoveries certainly lend weight to the evidence that ancient people from this part of the world used wild grapes and vines for religious and spiritual purposes long before other parts of the world. Georgia is the only country  that has preserved the ancient methods of making, fermenting and storing wine in qvevris (clay amphora-like containers) through the centuries.

Over the years, many conquerors including the Persians and Soviets tried to destroy the Georgian vines. The Persian king, Shah Abbas, had the vines ripped from the ground while the Soviets under Stalin (himself a native-born Georgian) tried to limit the production of grapes and vines to only a small variety, all in the name of progress.

Fortunately for us, they failed. Today there are over 500 endemic species of vines in Georgia, many of which are being used to make excellent wine across the country but specifically in the province of Kakheti (more about this later).

The wine is an intrinsic part of every Georgian meal, which is an intricately choreographed dance of eating, toasting and drinking.

Georgia's cheese bread known as khachapuri


  1. Georgian Feasts

            Georgian hospitality is the stuff of legends, and the backbone of Georgian social culture is the “Supra” or feast. The word means “Tablecloth” and comes from the Persian “Sofre” or eating surface.

At every feast one person is appointed as the “Tamada” or toastmaster who leads the toasts and manages the pace of the meal. These toasts can last anywhere from a quick “Gaumarjos” or “cheers” to several minutes in length.

There are specific rules to be followed. The first toast is always to Sakartvelo, then to God, followed by family, friendship, the world, etc. When the tamada has finished his toast, each of the guests responds. In this way, many serious topics are broached and discussed, almost like a debating society made mellow by glasses of wine. Of course, the larger the number of guests, the longer the dinner. Be sure to think about how you will respond when your host makes toasts!

In between the toasts, guests are plied with mountains of food, starting with several types of salads, multiple main courses and a myriad of sweets. One constant that will appear at almost every meal is Khachapuri or cheese bread.

According to tradition, a supra continues until every inch of the table is covered with food. It continues to come until the plates are stacked on top of each other down the table. The wine? It just keeps coming! A point of etiquette to remember is that you only drink your wine after a toast has been made.

  1. Qvevris used to make wine the traditional way

    Old Qvevris, Kakheti, Georgia

    Georgia has one of the oldest and most intriguing polyphonic vocal traditions of Europe

Georgian polyphonic singing has existed possibly since the 5th or even the 8th centuries BCE. The Assyrian King, Sargon, and the Greek historian, Xenophon, make reference to the songs that Georgians would sing whilst celebrating, working and fighting.

Contrary to their neighbors who only have a single melodic line with accompaniment, in Georgia two independent melodic parts are sung together, creating a magical sound that echoes across the hilltops and valleys.

In 2001 UNESCO proclaimed Georgian Polyphonic singing a masterpiece of the “Intangible Heritage of Mankind.” In 1977 NASA included a recording of “Chakrulo,” a patriotic song about Kakheti, on the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft to Jupiter, Saturn and the stars.

Georgia is a fascinating, intriguing, magical country. There is so much to see, learn and photograph that even our two-week expedition only scratched the surface of what exists. Any excuse to return!


There are a limited number of airline companies that fly into Tbilisi. Among the more popular are Lufthansa (www.lufthansa.com), KLM (www.klm.com), Turkish Airlines (www.turkishairlines.com) and Georgian Airlines (www.airzena.com).

We booked our adventure travel in Georgia through Wild Georgia (www.wildgeorgia.ge).

For more images of Georgia visit www.allegriaphotos.com/Recent-Additions/Republic-of-Georgia/







The Perfect Cornish Pasty — The Chough Bakery, Padstow

The Chough Bakery, Padstow, Cornwall

The Chough Bakery, Padstow, Cornwall

According to an old Cornish saying, “Cornwall is the land of saints and pasties,” and there is no better place to sample this delicious, authentic fare than at the Chough Bakery in Padstow. The Chough Bakery sits on the oldest trading site in the town, on the edge of the harbor. Originally part of the market and a slaughter-house, it evolved into a dairy before becoming a bakery in the very capable hands of Elaine Eads, her husband, Rob, daughter, Luisa and son, Greg.

Owner Elaine Eads filling pasties at the Chough Bakery, Padstow, Cornwall

Owner Elaine Eads filling pasties at the Chough Bakery, Padstow, Cornwall

Visit the bakery early in the morning, and you will feel like a child at Christmas. Everything looks, smells and tastes delicious from the saffron buns to the scones and pies; but the main reason people visit the Chough Bakery is the Cornish pasties.  So what exactly is a pasty? It is a pastry case filled with beef, potatoes, turnips (also known as swedes), onion and seasoning that is sealed with a crimped edge, glazed and baked. It was only in 2011 that the pasty was granted Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) in Europe, putting it on a par with Parma ham, Parmesan cheese and other iconic foods. Only those pasties made in Cornwall can be called “Cornish” and there are strict regulations about the filling and the shape. The pasty must be shaped like a D with a crimp on the side NOT on the top.

Why the crimp on the side? Originally, the wives of Cornish tin miners baked the pasties for their husbands’ lunch. The pasty was held by gripping the crimp to avoid contaminating the entire pasty with arsenic from the tin that might have been on the miners’ hands. According to legend, the crimped dough was then left in the mine as a goodwill gesture to any “knockers” (ghosts of dead miners) who might be haunting the premises.

On a recent trip to Padstow we, of course, stock up on pasties. Elaine very graciously invites us to watch as she and her colleagues make a batch. First, plate-size uniform circles of dough are laid out on the counter; a cupful of the filling is place in the middle. Then Elaine puts in a “special ingredient” on top — a dollop of Cornish clotted cream. The pasty is folded into a semi-circle and sealed by crimping it into the most beautiful braid you have seen on pastry. According to Elaine, who always crimps from right to left (and is a star at doing it), this is an art that can only be taught. It is impossible to describe. Finally, the dough is lightly brushed with a glaze and baked.

Crimping a Pasty, Chough Bakery, Cornwall

Crimping a Pasty, Chough Bakery, Cornwall

Elaine, who has won many awards for her pasties (including the 2016 Cornish Pasty Championship), produces 1,000 pasties a day except on 1 May when she produces 2,000 a day. This day is known as “Hobby Horse,” a holiday dating back to Celtic Beltane, a day that celebrated the coming of summer, when the townsfolk parade through the streets accompanying two people wearing horse heads. Many pasties are consumed.

An old nursery rhyme sums it up. “Pastry rolled out like a plate, piled with turmut, tates and mate, double dup and baked like fate. That’s a Cornish pasty.” If you find yourself in this corner of Cornwall, be sure to stop for a taste.

The Chough Bakery is located at 3 The Strand, Padstow, Cornwall.  To get to Padstow, coming from Exeter, take the A30 to Bodmin, then drive through Wadebridge and into Padstow. You can also take the Black Tor ferry from Rock across the estuary to Padstow. If you are in the UK you can also order pasties online and have them delivered overnight.  www.thechoughbakery.co.uk.Tel. 44 1841 533361. 

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Panettone — A Christmas Tradition in Italy

A box of panettone at Christmas

A box of panettone at Christmas

Natale (Christmas) in Italian conjures up images of trees shimmering with decorations, Nativity scenes and Panettone, that light, sweet bread which has become synonymous with the holidays in this part of the world.

Slice panettone at Christmas

Slice panettone at Christmas

There are a number of legends regarding Panettone, many of them romantic in nature. This is Italy after all! According to one, it was first whipped up by a poor nun as a Christmas present for her colleagues. Yet another speaks of a young baker in the court of Ludovico Il Moro, the Duke of Milan, who, having burnt the evening’s dessert, threw together eggs, flour, sugar, raisins and candied orange peel to make a sweet bread. One popular story tells of a baker named Toni who, wanting to woo a beautiful maiden, made a delicious bread nicknamed “pan di Toni” by his customers. Or it could have simply been a type of “big” bread prepared in 15th century Milan which has transcended time.

Whatever the truth, Panettone has become a worldwide sensation, available nearly everywhere, the pyramids of distinctive flat-topped boxes signaling that the holiday season is upon us.

Most Panettones are mass-produced in factories such as Bauli in Verona (which turns out over 100,000 a day around Christmas) and are characterized by their domed shape. The most prized Panettones, however, are those which are handmade by artisanal bakeries around the coutnry. They are likely to be more rustic in shape and richer in taste.

Boxes of Panettone at Christmas

Boxes of Panettone at Christmas

What makes Panettones so special? They are made with the finest and freshest ingredients, fresh eggs, butter, yeast, soft wheat flour, sugar, plump raisins soaked in wine and Sicilian orange peel. Left to rise 3-4 times over the course of a day, the dough is baked in tall containers, resulting in the dome-shaped, fluffy bread that takes several days to produce from start to finish.

How do you eat panettone? The possibilities are endless. In Italy on Christmas morning, it is served in wedge-shaped slices, maybe toasted a bit. Perhaps it is spread with a bit of Nonna’s jam or served with a touch of mascarpone, a rich creamy sweet cheese. If it is served at lunch or in the afternoon, a small glass of Asti Spumante or Prosecco or Vino Santo may accompany the slice.

It is traditional in Italy to take a Panettone as a gift to your hostess when visiting around the end of the year. If you are a popular hostess, you could end up with more Panettone than you can slice. Consider using the cake as a base for tiramisu, trifle, bread pudding or some other delicious treat.

And if you haven’t had your share, don’t worry. You can start eating Panettone all over again to celebrate the New Year (Capodanno!). Buon Natale! Merry Christmas!

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Turin’s Sweet Tooth — The Gianduiotto

A bowl of Gianduiotti chocolates

A bowl of Gianduiotti chocolates

It is hard to convey the sensation on your tongue as you place a luscious, ultra-silky smooth Gianduiotto in your mouth. It sits there for a few seconds, melting slowly before it explodes over your taste buds. You lean back in your chair, savoring every last drop, smacking your lips and — reaching for another one. It is hard to stop!

Opening a Gianduiotto chocolate

Opening a Gianduiotto chocolate

But what, you ask me, is a Giandu, Giandu, Giandu What? Gianduiotto (jan-du-yotto)!! Gianduiotti (jan-du-yotti) if you have more than one (and I guarantee you will).

According to legend, in the 1850s, taxes on imported cocoa beans were raised to such an extent that chocolate — long a favorite in this elegant northern Italian town — was beyond the reach of most people. The resourceful chocolatiers looked for another solution and came up with the idea of replacing a percentage of the cocoa beans with a smooth hazelnut paste (hazelnuts are a staple in Piedmont). And ecco! A new chocolate was born!

Again according to legend, one chocolatier decided to hire someone to hand out samples of the new treats on the streets of Torino during festivals. The person wore the costume of the Gianduja, a character from the Commedia d’Arte, who represents the Piemonte (Piedmont) region.

The name stuck and Gianduiottos are now almost synonymous with Torino where the smell of chocolate and hazelnuts wafts from nearly every part of the city. Shaped like an elongated triangle and wrapped in gold paper with the words “Gianduiotto di Torino” stamped on it, this bite-size taste bomb is available at every chocolate shop in town. If you can’t get to Torino, you can buy them around the world in most stores that carry gourmet Italian imports or by mail order.

Eating Gianduiotti chocolates

Eating Gianduiotti chocolates

And if you are ever in Torino (home to the “Slow Food” movement), be sure to stop by the ultra-gourmet store, Eataly (now also open in New York and Chicago) where, in addition to the chocolates, you can get a gianduiotto gelato that will make you swoon!

Eataly Torino is at Via Nizza 230; 
In New York it is at 200 5th Avenue; and 101 Liberty Street in south Manhattan near Freedom Tower. 

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The Swan Oyster Depot, San Francisco

Waiting for a seat, Swan Depot, San Francisco

Waiting for a seat, Swan Oyster Depot, San Francisco

Do you absolutely love oysters and seafood? Then, the next time you are in San Francisco, take yourself down to the Swan Oyster Depot, at the end of the California Street Cable Car route, for some of the best seafood in the city. Swan Oyster Depot has been open since 1912 when four Scandinavian brothers started a fresh fish market on Polk Street. Over time it was sold and evolved into a tiny seafood depot, run for generations by the same family.

The Swan Oyster Depot, San Francisco

The Swan Oyster Depot, San Francisco

We get to Swan’s about noon — and the line is already long. But it doesn’t matter, the four of us are determined to eat here! We wait about 45 minutes, using the time to make friends with others in the line, including both tourists and San Franciscans. The window is filled with tubs of seafood — tiny pink bay shrimp, large scarlet prawns, mountains of Dungeness crab, smoked salmon, smoked trout and a large tray of purplish-blue sea urchins, their sharp spines twitching. Locals come in to buy their fish, chatting with the servers, with whom they are on a first name basis.

When you get inside the door of the depot, you are offered a glass of wine or beer, making the last few minutes of waiting more bearable. This is old-time San Francisco — a long, diner-style room, maybe 10-feet wide, with a long marble counter and about 20 stools. The wall is covered with sports memorabilia and pictures of fish. An old-fashioned cash register and antique black rotary telephone complete the decor.

You sit elbow-to-elbow with your neighbor, hoping that you don’ts send crab or oyster crackers flying into someone else’s lap. The menu is listed on the wall. We start with a cup of creamy clam chowder with vegetables, chunks of potatoes, clams and a soupçon of herbs, so good that a piece of sourdough bread is required to sop up every last drop.

The menu board, Swan Oyster Depot, San Francisco

The menu board, Swan Oyster Depot, San Francisco

Try any of the combination seafood salads. Ours is heaped high with fresh crab, bay shrimp, prawns and chunks of lobster, covered with a creamy pink Louie dressing on a bed of fresh, crisp, iceberg lettuce. We wash it down with a glass of ice cold California chardonnay recommended by our server.

But what we really came here for are the oysters — shucked in front of us at the counter. We go for a mixture of a dozen kumamotos, miyagi and bluepoints, glistening on their scalloped half shell on a large platter of shaved ice. Spritz them with some lemon  juice or dunk them in the pink mignonette of shallots and red vinegar before popping the smooth, briny, buttery, juicy fresh crustaceans into your mouth. Ecstasy! It doesn’t take more than a few minutes before a second dozen are being prepared.

The service is very friendly. The servers are constantly moving, checking on the customers, offering advice, chatting. Even though there is a line outside, there is never any pressure to “hurry up and move on.”

Swan Oyster Depot, San Francisco

Swan Oyster Depot, San Francisco

This tiny hole in the wall was named as an American classic in 2000 by the James Beard Foundation. It is easy to understand why. Be sure to make it a stop on your schedule the next time you are in San Francisco. There is one requirement. You have to love oysters. But if you have never tried an oyster, this is the perfect place for a first bit. Bon appetit!

Swan Oyster Depot is at 1517 Polk Street, San Francisco (between Sacramento and California Streets on  Polk). Open from 0800 to 1600; cash only. No reservations. Get there as early as possible to avoid a long line, and be aware that if you are a group, it is unlikely that you will be able to sit together.

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