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This is going to be a story of extended, earnest, culinary efforts that were totally unsuccessful. They were not entirely without consolations, but they fell far short of the goal. It all started last December, when De Robertis, a family-owned Italian pastry shop in Manhattan’s East Village, closed after 110 years in business.

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store

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To downtown New Yorkers, its demise was as devastating as if the Statue of Liberty had stepped off its pedestal and walked away. I was one of the chief mourners, mainly because for decades I’d been addicted to De Robertis’s almond-studded biscotti. Light, crunchy, nutty, gently anise flavored, these were my Platonic ideal of biscotti. Nowhere else, in this city rich in biscotti and their kin, had I found any to equal them.

My very last De Robertis biscotto

My very last De Robertis biscotto

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After a futile round of re-trying the biscotti from other local Italian bakeries, it occurred to me that, having enjoyed many hundreds of the De Robertis ones over the years, I should be able to find or adapt a recipe that would allow me to approximate them at home. So I set forth on my quest, filled with innocent (but unmerited) confidence and eager (but soon to be dashed) hopes.

There are tons of different biscotti recipes in cookbooks and on the Web, using all manner of ingredients and flavorings, but I needed to focus on almonds and anise, which narrowed the options for me. The procedure itself is simple enough: Mix up a dough, shape it into rolls, bake them not quite to doneness; slice them, lay out the slices, and bake them again until browned, crisp, and dry. Stored in a tin, they keep almost forever.

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My first attempt was based on a recipe from my friend Joan, which I had made and enjoyed in the days before I fell in love with De Robertis. It calls for butter, eggs, anise extract, vanilla, flour, baking powder, salt, and grated walnuts. I switched almonds for walnuts, reduced the sugar somewhat, and doubled the amount of anise.

That didn’t work. I must have gotten the proportions wrong, because they came out rough, fat, and extremely crumbly – almost fell apart in the slicing, which they’d never done when I followed the recipe exactly.

Joan's biscotti

They even refused to get very brown. As cookies they were reasonably tasty, but nothing like what I was aiming for.

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sopranos family bookA few weeks later I was ready to try again. For my second attempt I turned to the recipe for Biscotti d’Anice in The Sopranos Family Cookbook. The De Robertis biscotti were Italian-American, right? What’s more Italian-American than the Sopranos? (The book’s recipes are actually by Michele Scicolone, also a friend.) The recipe had no butter – which I’d realized was what made my first batch so cookie-like – but used an extensively creamed base of eggs, sugar, anise extract and vanilla. Into that were to be folded flour, cornstarch, baking powder, and aniseed to make a thick batter. I substituted a lot of slivered almonds for the aniseed.

The batter had to be baked in a square pan, turning it into a cake, which was then to be cut into strips for the second baking. Unusual.

soprano biscotti

Though unconventionally shaped for biscotti, these crisped and browned well, but they were more delicate in texture and much sweeter than De Robertis’s. The almonds were barely noticeable. Again, not what I wanted.

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LTIWhen I was ready to enter the fray again I decided to try working with a purely Italian-Italian recipe: my own Biscotti di Prato from La Tavola Italiana. These have plenty of almond flavor, though no anise. Other ingredients are the usual flour, sugar, salt, and egg, but no butter and no vanilla; baking soda, not baking powder; and toasted almonds. I made a small batch, adding a good dose of anise extract.

my biscotti

These came closer to what I wanted, in look as well as flavor. But they’d utterly refused to brown this time, even though I’d given them a very long second baking (looks as if I overfloured the outsides), and there was no taste of the anise at all. Sigh.

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Baking with JuliaAfter that I essentially gave up. But I still longed for good biscotti, even if they weren’t just like my late lamented ones. The other day, browsing through Baking with Julia, I came upon a recipe for Hazelnut Biscotti, which started out by saying “It’s the baking soda in the dough that gives these biscotti their wonderful open, crunchy texture.” Aha – maybe that was why my own recipe had come closer than the others! So I tried it.

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Julia hazelnuts

Again, the result was nothing like the original goal, but these were very good indeed. The texture was as promised, and the hazelnut flavor was lovely. They were still sweeter than I like, but I can cut back the sugar next time. Guess I’ll just have to train myself to be content with these and with my own un-adapted recipe, above. De Robertis, ave atque vale!

Last month the food pages of the Times had an article called “Potato Salad Done Right.” I fully endorse that concept, but for me all four of the recipes given were firmly in the category Done Wrong. I’m an old-fashioned-potato-salad purist, but it’s not just the trendy ingredients (kimchi, sriracha, and lime juice?) that I object to. It’s that they all call for the potatoes to be cut in big chunks. De gustibus and all that, but I do not want a salad of halved golf balls. Potatoes for salad should be sliced.

My ideal potato salad is a simple one my mother made all through my childhood, and I’ve made ever since. Tom agrees with me in the main points of potato-salad principle, but the version he makes has some differences. In 46 years of married life, neither of us has managed to convert the other. This week we decided to do a test: each of us to make a bowlful, taste both together, and see how they compare.

For salad you need waxy, not mealy, potatoes: boilers rather than bakers. I used to use plain white “all-purpose” ones, as my mother did, but as most of those have been rendered virtually tasteless by modern agribusiness, I incline to Yukon Gold, which usually just about hold together when sliced hot. Tom likes to use red Bliss, but he lets them cool before slicing, making them less prone to crumbling.

potatoes

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So we each took a pound of our preferred potatoes and boiled them in their skins in salted water. When they were tender, Tom let his cool for a while, but I peeled and peelingsliced mine immediately. That is not the fun part, but I minimize burning fingers by impaling each one on a three-pronged fork to peel. I’ve always understood that hot potatoes will absorb oil, vinegar, and condiments better than cool ones. Tom doesn’t think the temperature matters: He doesn’t believe that anyone in the old German delis that provided his model for potato salad ever went to that kind of trouble.

This time some of my potatoes did crumble in the slicing, but I carefully moved them to a bowl, adding some thin slivers of Spanish onion. I dressed the veg with olive oil, salt, and pepper, tossing very gently with a wooden spoon; finally a sprinkle of wine vinegar and a good coating of mayonnaise. I covered the bowl with plastic wrap and left my potato salad to cool on the kitchen counter.

Tom, meanwhile, had prepared a dressing in the bowl for his potatoes, making a slurry of olive oil, Dijon mustard, and vinegar. When the potatoes were cool he peeled and sliced them into the bowl, tossed them with the dressing and some chopped spring red onions, salt, and pepper, and finished the dish with mayonnaise. Some of his spuds also crumbled instead of staying in neat slices.

When our two salads were ready for the contest, we dug in.

both salads

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Well, it wasn’t much of a duel. There was almost nothing to differentiate them. Both kinds of potatoes and both techniques made decent, tasty salads. My potatoes were slightly yellower, Tom’s slightly whiter. His had a faint flavor of the mustard. Both seemed to have absorbed about the same amount of the flavorings. But both were also much mealier than they should have been – not properly al dente. It’s harder and harder to find a reliably waxy potato these days, I fear. Too bad!

And too bad for all those years when I burned my fingers peeling and slicing potatoes hot off the boil! I won’t do it any more, I guess. There is at least that much to be said for the experimental method.

Some edible items seem to take root in my freezer or pantry. It’s not that I don’t want to use them – I do – but somehow the right moment doesn’t arrive. The Hatch chileslatest one was a large can of Hatch green chiles, which had been sitting in the pantry long enough for its use-by date to be looming. It was absolutely time to make something with it.

Hatch green chiles are a special kind of New Mexico chiles, grown only in that state’s Hatch Valley, along the Rio Grande. My can was the mild variety, though there are hotter ones if you’re lucky enough to find them.

I don’t know a lot about New Mexico cooking, but from a trip in that region some years ago, Tom and I did develop a genuine passion for dishes made with green chiles. Back home, the dish we’ve had our best luck with was a green chile stew recipe I found online. It’s from Central Market in Texas, which probably makes it anathema to all good New Mexicans – but hey, we’re gringos, and it tastes good to us.

When I opened my can of chiles I was surprised at how many it contained: This was a solid pack, and they were firm, clean, fragrant vegetables.

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can contents

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No way I was going to be able to use them all at once, so I deseeded and chopped up about a cup’s worth, carefully wrapped the remaining ones, and put them in the freezer for another day.

The recipe starts with browning cubes of boneless pork in olive oil. I’d defrosted a generous pound of meaty country-style pork ribs, and Tom cut them up for me. Using a little artistic license, I asked him for larger pieces than cubes: That wasn’t canonical, but I wanted to try it. I also decided to use lard instead of olive oil, for a porkier oomph.

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When the meat was browned I added chopped onions and garlic, cooked a few minutes, sprinkled on flour, cooked a little more, stirring. Next came a cup of chopped tomatoes, the chiles, salt, pepper, and a tiny pinch of sugar; finally a big potato cubed and two cups of broth. All that cooked gently, covered, for about two hours, until the pork was tender.

The chiles were indeed mild, but quite authoritative in the stew, providing a distinctive flavor and gentle warmth. I served it with black beans, rice, guacamole, and white corn tortillas, making a fine Southwestern combination.

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Though these Hatch chiles were canned, they were better tasting than either the fresh or the frozen ones we’d occasionally been able to buy here before. So good was their effect that if I make the stew again with the rest of this batch I intend to cut back the amount of tomato, so the chile will be greener. Or perhaps try a totally green chile recipe: We have fond memories of a bowl of what seemed a simple green chile puree that we ravened down in a nondescript diner somewhere near Sonoita, New Mexico.

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Post script: It wasn’t long until the rest of the Hatch chiles got their day in the spotlight. Tom was the instigator, since we’d invited his brother and wife for dinner and he’d had ideas about ways to get that recipe greener and spicier. So out of the freezer came the remaining chiles. This time I became the cook’s assistant, as he proceeded to make the recipe his own.

For starters, he went heavy on the meat: The recipe calls for 2 pounds of pork to serve 6 to 8; Tom used 2½ pounds for the 4 of us. He cut the meat fairly small – not quite the little cubes the recipe indicated, but more normal stewlike chunks than in my earlier version.

pork browning

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He increased the proportion of onion, reduced the tomato by half, used all the remaining Hatch chiles, and added – his secret ingredient ­– three chipotles in adobo, minced.

chipotles

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After that, he more or less followed the original recipe’s ingredients and steps. It produced quite a hefty pot of chile, which scented the kitchen with the spiciness of the chipotles as it simmered along. I envisioned enough leftovers for another meal for Tom and me.

At the dinner table, after a first course of guacamole and chips, we served the chile with black beans, rice, and fresh corn tortillas.

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second stew served

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To our surprise, it was not the fiery dish that we’d expected, much to my brother-in-law’s relief and my sister-in-law’s disappointment. The Hatch chiles provided fine flavor again, but they had lost almost all their heat, compared to the first time around. Also, except for those cooking aromas, we couldn’t discern the chipotles at all. That was a pity but, fortunately, not enough to spoil our enjoyment: The ingredients did blend into a good, harmonious stew. At the end of dinner, there were just three chunks of pork left in the bowl.

 

 

Pasta with Lentils

This June started with a spate of miserable weather: daily highs 20 degrees below normal for the season and very chilly nights. I had to reinstate my heavy sweaters and turtlenecks, close all the windows, and defer my eager anticipation of summertime meals. I feared we wouldn’t see local corn until August. My only consolation was the chance it gave me to revisit a few good cold-weather dishes that I hadn’t gotten around to making earlier this year.

Pasta with lentils, from Tom’s and my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen, is one favorite. (The recipe is in the “Winter section,” of course: ridiculous to crave this warming, rib-sticking dish in June!) Entirely meatless, it develops rich flavors from the combination of a few simple vegetables and olive oil.

lentil labelFor this recipe – actually, for all my lentil cooking – I like to use small, golden-brown Castelluccio lentils, a prized Umbrian variety. They aren’t easy to find in the US and are relatively expensive, even in Italy. Ordinary lentils are OK in the dish too, though at some sacrifice of flavor. My recipe headnote offers this bit of shopping advice:

Expensive lentils taste better than cheap lentils. With lentils more than any other legume, the price differential between run-of-the-mill stock and premium stock really reflects a perceptible quality difference.

Whenever I’m in Rome I stock up on Castelluccio lentils at Franchi, a wonderful specialty food shop in the Prati district, which is also the one place where I can reliably get my favorite brand of mostarda di Cremona (fruits in sharp mustard syrup) for serving alongside bollito misto – another winter dish that was looking very attractive early this month.

Franchi

However, I digress. Back to the lentil cooking.

For four generous servings, I use ½ pound of lentils, picked over (to eliminate the occasional small stone), rinsed, and drained. I put them in a large pot with ½ cup of finely chopped carrot, ½ cup of finely chopped celery, 1 cup of finely chopped onion, 2 teaspoons of salt, and cold water to cover. This cooks slowly, covered, until the lentils are tender – usually about an hour. I check every 10 minutes or so, and as the lentils absorb their water I add more from a kettle that I keep simmering on the stove.

When the lentils are done, I add 5 ounces of imported Italian pasta. My recipe calls for bucatini broken into 2-inch pieces (for a contrast in shape with the lentils), but any short pasta variety will do. I re-cover the pot and keep cooking until the pasta is done, again adding hot water as needed to keep the dish moist. I like the final consistency to be about that of a thick soup.

The essential last step is to stir in ¼ cup of olive oil, salt to taste, and a generous quantity of freshly ground black pepper. Here’s one place where I do use extra-virgin olive oil – though, again, you don’t have to. No grated cheese is called for, but at the table an extra lacing of olive oil and pepper couldn’t hurt.

pasta with lentils

No sooner had Tom and I eaten the dish than warmer weather started to come in. Could it have been apotropaic magic? Maybe we’ll get local corn on time this summer, after all.

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P.S. The back of the lentil label pictured above has a little verse called Il detto di nonno Sirio (Grandpa Sirio’s Saying), which gave me a chuckle. Here it is in the Italian, followed by my translation.

Nasce in montagna vicino al Vettore,
Tra le lenticchie io son la migliore.
Per i bambini io sono il sostegno,
Per il vecchietto il bastone di legno.

Born near the Vettore mountain’s crest,
Among all lentils I am the best.
Essential support for babies I give,
And a strong walking staff to help oldsters live.

My recent post on the food in my trip to Spain mentioned four items that I wanted to make at home. It didn’t take me long to get to one: the revolcona potato dish I had as a dinner first course at the Hospedería Parque de Monfraguë in Extremadura. It was extraordinarily good, and my captive tasting panel of husband and house guest were standing by to test my version.

This is the dish I had in Spain: revolcona .

You can’t see too much of the potatoes under the “poché egg” – as the English-language menu called it – but they were definitely the star of the combination. I could tell there was smoked paprika in the flavor, which confirmed my resolution to bring some of that Extremenian specialty home with me. I bought modest-sized tins of all three types of Pimentón de la Vera (at a fraction of the cost I’ve ever seen them at in the US). Pimentons .

None of my Spanish cookbooks offered a recipe for revolcona potatoes, but the Internet provided many. I chose this one, which looked as if it would be closest to the version I’d had in Spain. And I decided to make it for a lunch, since the dish my palate remembered so vividly was really too rich and filling for a first course.

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I boiled my potatoes with a bay leaf in the water, then mashed them only roughly, with a little of their cooking water. The next step was to prepare the seasoning mix. I lightly browned some cloves of garlic in olive oil, transferred them to the mini food processor, added a hefty dose of the sweet paprika, a small dose of the hot, salt, and more of the potato cooking water. (The recipe called for cumin also, but I omitted it.) When that was all pureed, I stirred it into the potatoes, which I’d transferred to the garlic-browning skillet. potatoes twice .

While the potatoes were reheating I poached eggs and sizzled some pieces of bacon and prosciutto in another pan. The meat should have been Ibérico ham, but good slab bacon and Parma prosciutto were what I had, and I wanted to see which would make the better combination. Once the meats were ready, the final assembly was easy. Revolcona at home .

My tasting panel declared the dish a success. The potatoes were excellent, but we all agreed they wouldn’t be hurt by a little more zing, so I’ll try going heavier on the hot paprika next time; or maybe replacing the sweet paprika with the bittersweet variety. Both my “inauthentic” pork products were just fine, slightly salty and crisp, in excellent contrast to the almost melting texture of the potatoes and eggs. One other variation I might try is to replace the poached eggs with the wonderful Spanish-style fried eggs that I wrote about here last year. If that’s gilding the lily, I’ll be happy to go for the gold.

Heading into this Memorial Day weekend, the weather was yet again unseasonably chilly, gray, and windy. The one good thing was that those autumnal conditions were ideal for the main dish at my upcoming dinner party: braised shoulder of boar. Marcassin – young wild boar – was the first true game dish Tom and I had eaten on our very first foray to France, way back when. I’d promised to make it for some francophile friends, and I wanted to get to it before the days became too hot for it to be enjoyable.

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raw shoulder

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This four-pound boneless hunk of protein had come from D’Artagnan, neatly encased in netting. It’s described as “truly wild boar” from Texas, the animal having fed on grass, roots, nuts, fruits, acorns, and grains – all of which contribute to the flavor of the meat. I’ve cooked boar a few times before, and I’ve found it always repays marination.

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marinade ingredients

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I’ve adapted my marinade from a recipe for Marcassin Ardennaise in Anne Willan’s French Regional Cooking. It involves softening sliced carrots, onions, celery, shallots, and garlic in oil; adding red wine, peppercorns, juniper berries, cloves, and salt; and simmering for an hour or more, until the vegetables are soft.

The day before the dinner party, I made up the marinade and put the boar into it for 24 hours at room temperature, turning it over frequently. Early the next day I removed it, dried it, browned it in goose fat in a Creuset pot, and set it on a plate.

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shoulder browned

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I strained the marinade, saving both solids and liquids. The marinade vegetables went into the pot and the boar sat on top of them, with some of the marinating liquid and some broth and tomato paste, coming about a third of the way up the meat. It cooked gently, covered, for 3½ hours, until it was fully tender. Out of the pot once again, so the cooking liquid could be strained and lightly thickened with cornstarch to make gravy. Then the boar had only to be reheated in its gravy as dinnertime approached. I love dishes like this, that leave me free to exit the kitchen and enjoy a glass of bubbly with my guests.

Unfortunately for its appearance at the table, the meat partially fell apart when I removed the netting. And it was so tender it was impossible to slice neatly – Tom had to essentially tease it out into serving-size pieces.

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braised shoulder

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It wasn’t photogenic, but it tasted fine: strong, rich, mildly gamy. A potato-celeriac puree and roasted green beans made good accompaniments, as did a lovely 17-year-old Châteauneuf du Pape. And though we could have used a bit of heat in the apartment that evening, it was a very happy and inwardly warmed crew that consumed my “autumn” Memorial Day weekend dinner. (Just in time, too: The weather turned hot very soon thereafter.)

My birding trip in Spain was definitely not focused on gastronomy. All dinners were taken at the simple rural hotels where our group was staying, and lunches were at cafes and other modest eateries in villages along the birding routes. Menus were sometimes limited, with dishes selected in advance for the group by the local leader (and described for us in English, so I never got some of the Spanish names). Nevertheless, we encountered very good food in some of those places, including a few dishes that I hope to be able to recreate at home.

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Lunches were usually a large assortment of tapas for the whole table, ranging from salads to the ubiquitous fried squid. Here are a few of the interesting items. (Click to enlarge the images.)

tapas

Jamón Ibérico, the air-cured Iberian ham at left, is always a treat. The fried cuttlefish were even tastier than their close relatives, squid. Next, potato croquettes – a frequent tapa offering. The medium-sized garden snails, a delicious short-season specialty, appeared to have been cooked with oil, garlic, and smoked paprika. And the last dish on the right is grilled chipirones: very small squid.

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Frequent main courses at dinner included beautifully cooked fresh seafood:

seafood dishes

The tiny fried fish are fresh anchovies. Next, braised octopus. In the middle, a roasted whole choco, or large cuttlefish. More small fried fish, including tiny soles. Last, two tentacles of yet another octopus.

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There were also good, hearty meat and poultry dishes.

3 meat dishes

Left to right, a simple lamb stew with the Basque name Corderico al Txilindron; duck leg confit; and Codillo de cerdo. This last was mystifyingly translated for me as “elbow of pork”; close examination showed it to be a pork shank that had been halved lengthwise through the bone.

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We even came upon some surprisingly elegant and sophisticated preparations. At lunch one day, everyone in our group was served a large, richly eggy crepe filled with wild mushrooms and topped with something like a light Mornay sauce. It was marvelous.

crepe

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Another day, as a dinner appetizer Tom had “ravioli” made with rice papers instead of pasta, filled with a creamy mixture of pears and oveja cheese, topped with pesto, and served on a bed of ratatouille. An improbable combination, it seemed to me, but intriguing and very flavorful.

ravioli

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That same evening, my appetizer was a cake of spicy revolcona potatoes topped with a perfectly poached egg and surrounded by quickly sauteed Ibérico ham. That in itself was almost enough for a dinner!

revolcona

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Finally, the most noteworthy dessert I had in Spain was Torrija. This traditional sweet is a sort of hybrid of French toast and bread pudding, and this version came with a crunchy crème brûlée topping. Quite luscious.

torrija

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These last four dishes are the ones I’m determined to try making at home. If I succeed, you may be meeting them again in future posts.

P.S. Tom’s blog has a post on some of the wines we drank in Spain.

 

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