Friday, September 28, 2012

Coffee. Only Coffee. Nothing Else.

House rules. We know them. We largely abide by them. Most places that serve food or drinks — from McDonald's standard no-shirt-no-shoes-no-service policy to no-phone-calls-at-the-bar and keep-your-tongue-in-your-own-mouth rules at New York's PDT — have them.

A new Berlin coffee shop's rules, however, have some Berliners in a snit. The Barn — Roastery opened last week and almost immediately caused a furore lively discussion in the German press. At the heart of the debate is the cafe's no-stroller policy. Der Spiegel reports:
At the entrance to the café stands a one-meter (3 feet) high concrete post in the shape of a bowling pin that prevents parents from bringing buggies inside. In case the message wasn't clear enough, a sign on the window shows a pram with a line through it.
In fact, it's not just stollers that are verboten at the Barn — Roastery. Owner Ralf Rüller has instituted policies against pets, music, smoking, sugar, and, I'm hearted to read, ridiculous fake-Italian names for espresso-based milk drinks. Instead, order a 3, 6, or 10 oz cup. Laptops? A few are permitted at the media table. This, we are led to understand, is a place for coffee purists.

Rüller has been at pains online to clarify that the post can be removed for wheelchair access. As I mull over a trip to Berlin, his cafe is on my to-do list. But first, brandy distilling in another coffee-loving town: Portland.

The Barn — Roastery
Schönhauser Allee 8
10119 Berlin Mitte

Subway: Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz

Goes well with:

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Woodcuts of Loren Kantor

When I first started carving woodcuts, 
every portrait 
oddly seemed to resemble 
Steve Buscemi.

~ Loren Kantor

Unlike sculpture, it's easy to pack a lot of works on paper — prints, posters, drawings, and like that — into very little space. And so I do. Of all these flat bits of art, I've been mesmerized by woodcuts since I was old enough to turn pages. Old anatomy diagrams, Albrecht Dürer's famous rhinoceros, early 20th century German prints, the Malleus Maleficarum (I was a precocious reader), Hatch Show Prints, and more. Even as a kid, before my parents deemed it wise to allow me access to woodcarving tools,  I learned to make simple prints with crudely carved potatoes and finger paint; flowers, animals, movie monsters, Latin and Cyrillic letters — whatever struck my meandering and occasionally morbid imagination. Alas, as I grew older, I turned to bending copper rather than carving wood.

But I never lost my fondess for those woodcuts. Lately, I've been taken with Loren Kantor's contemporary examples. Kantor lives in Los Angeles and the influence of cinema both old and new shows clearly in his work. His Absinthe is inspired by a 1913 silent film of the same name, an early bit of temperance propaganda.

Food, drink, and mania show up elsewhere in his prints; there's the ruined mug of Charles Bukowski, a bespectacled Colonel Harlan Sanders, the panic-struck face of Peter Lorre from Fritz Lang's 1931 classic M, and Gary Busey who, wild eyes notwithstanding, gets a sympathetic presentation.

Kantor presents these and more on his blog, Woodcuttingfool. Most seem to be about 5" x 7" — a good size for a desk or that blank spot on your office wall. Me? I'm trying to decide between Absinthe, Colonel Sanders, or the Richard Nixon print which uses an actual slogan from his 1972 reelection bid: “You Can't Lick Our Dick.”


Of course, if Halloween is as big a deal around your house as it is in ours, the Boris Karloff print may be just the thing for you.

Email him for pricing and shipping. Absinthe, for instance, is $35 and will ship for $3 in the United States. Loren Kantor: lorenwoodcuts (at) gmail (dot) com

Goes well with:

  • Mikey Wild (1955-2011), a nod to Philadelphia institution Michael "Mikey Wild" DeLuca whose art, while very different, I hold onto with great affection. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Peach Ratafia; There's Still Time

I didn’t make noyau this year — but when Jane Lear broke out a vice and a quart of brandy, she reminded me that it’s not too late to get a batch ready by Thanksgiving.

Still Life: Jane Lear's Recursive Ratafia
Lear is the features director at Martha Stewart Living, was an editor at Gourmet before the magazine folded, and has a stack of cookbooks to her name. Recently, she emailed about peach ratafia, thus confirmed a long-held belief that a note from Jane is a reason to smile. The recipe she’d followed, from Helen Witty’s book Fancy Pantry, is close enough to the ratafia aux noyau recipe we make (usually) around here that they can be used interchangeably in cocktails, aperitifs, and baking.

In her post Obsession: Peach Ratafia, she makes a distinction between familiar wine-based ratafias and those based on brandy:
The peach ratafia I’m talking about is different. Based on brandy and peach pits (for color and an almondy flavor), it has more in common with the ratafias of the Georgian and Regency eras, which today have their own Facebook pages. I would kill to have a conversation with Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer about that fact.  
But instead I turned to Gerald Asher, Gourmet’s wine editor for 30 years and the author, most recently, of A Vineyard in My Glass, for context. ”Ratafia was originally the unfermented sweet grape juice preserved and stopped from fermenting by adding brandy,” he explained. That brandy, he noted, was usually young, fiery stuff, not aged Cognac. “The French—women, mostly—drank a small glass of ratafia as an aperitif, in the same way the French drink a small glass of ruby port, or concoctions like Lillet or Dubonnet.” 
Fortunately, noyau can be made year-round, even with out of season peaches, since its defining marzipan and almond tastes are derived from kernels within the peach pits. Lear’s peach ratafia, however, calls for fresh peach slices in addition to cracked pits from those fruits.

Now that our days are growing shorter, decent peaches are becoming scarce, but if you can lay your hands on some, try her version. The advantage of Lear's approach over mine? Her's yields a batch of brandied peaches as well as the cordial. Not, it should be noted, a horrible thing.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Hubert Germain-Robin Offers Brandy Distilling Class

Charentais still at McMenamin's Cornelius Pass Roadhouse Distillery 

Just over the transom from The American Distilling Institute comes word that Hubert Germain-Robin is leading a brandy distilling class this November in Portland, Oregon. Germain-Robin was co-founder with Ansley Coale of Germain-Robin distillery in northern California in the early 1980's, though his family has been in the cognac business for centuries.

Writes ADI president Bill Owens:
This week-long workshop will combine traditional techniques of Cognac-style brandies with three decades of experience in working with New World varietals to create new flavor profiles.

The workshop addresses the conditions a craft distiller must be mindful of in the vineyard, the winery and throughout distillation. In keeping with the traditional methods of distillation the participant is encouraged to use all their sensory perceptions in creating their product.

Participants will get hands-experience with fermentation, distillation, barrel management and blending. A variety of tastings will include eaux de vie from different varietals of grape, Cognac, Armagnac, American brandies, and wines appropriate for distilling brandy.

The course will be conducted on the Charentais alembic still at McMenamin's Cornelius Pass Roadhouse Distillery. Participants will stay November 4-9 at McMenamin's Crystal Hotel in downtown Portland.
I may try to get there. Haven't decided yet, but I've a weakness for Portland and deep respect for Hubert. [Update 9/21/12 I'm going; see you in Portland] Those attending need to get to Portland on their own, but the course fee runs $3,500 and includes "instruction, hotel, bus tour of local distilleries, and most meals." The ADI website does not yet include registration instructions. If you're keen to do hands-on brandy distilling with a master of the craft, keep an eye on the ADI's website ( for updates or send them a check:

Box 577
Hayward, CA 94543

Monday, September 17, 2012

Cider Week 2012

I don't go for bullshit holidays. Nobody in my house has time for No Socks Day, National High Five Day, or Absinthe Drip Day. That's not to say I always wear socks or would snub anyone who was kind enough to offer me an absinthe drip. It's just that devoting a whole day for made-up, marketing-driven advertising and awareness campaigns is, well, bullshit.

A whole week for cider, though? That's a different story.

Next month's Cider Week gets a preview at New York's Astor Center with Cider Salon tomorrow evening, September 18. The event — with over a dozen producers offering their hard ciders — is a benefit for Glynwood’s Apple Project and Cider Week NY. Details for the salon are here, but if one day is too short a notice, check out the rest of the schedule for October 12-21, 2012.

Goes well with:
  • Where one finds hard cider, apple spirits can't be far away. America's current apple spirits scene is a lot more lively than applejack. From absinthe to cider royal, check out what today's distillers are doing with apples.
  • It's not fermented, but boiled cider is a great old-fashioned syrup to have around. The recipe is: apple cider. Oh, and cooking. Here's how
  • Once you've made a batch of boiled cider, slip it some rum and brandy for a tiki Halloween punch.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Jesus Juice Sorbet

For decades, Spaniards have indulged in iced calimocha, a simple drink that is about as easy as an on-the-go drinker could want: equal parts red wine and Coca Cola. Nobody is about to win any bartending awards with this thing, but what it lacks in sophistication, it makes up for in tastiness — sweet, slightly bitter, and about 7% alcohol, but it's easy to take along to the beach, a picnic, or a fútbol game.

The drink is not unique to Spain and it travels under a number of names wherever one finds wine and soda. American wine coolers, for instance, clearly are in the same family. In fact, if you think of it as a sort of bare-bones, stripped-down, single-chromosome sangria, calimocha's flexibility becomes manifest.

Jake Godby and Sean Vahey, founders of Humphrey Slocombe ice cream shop in San Francisco, seem to have recognized this and have given the wine-and-cola combo a Neverland twist as a sorbet. "Michael Jackson died suddenly on the afternoon of Thursday, June 25, 2009," they write in Humphrey Slocombe Ice Cream Book. "Before his corpse was cold and the Botox wore off, we were working on a new flavor to pay tribute to the fallen icon." Jesus Juice — reports vary on the variety of wine and how, precisely, soda was incorporated — was Jackson's name for the concoction of wine and soda he favored around the ranch.

For the end of summer when nights are cool enough for blankets, but the days are hot as blazes, here's Godby and Vahey's recipe for Jesus Juice sorbet. The duo caution, however, that it may cause inappropriate touching.
Jesus Juice Sorbet
1 cup sugar 
1 cup water 
1 cinnamon stick 
2 cups cola [Mexican Coke]
1 cup good-quality dry red wine 
2 Tbl red wine vinegar 
1 tsp salt  

In a large, heavy-bottomed, nonreactive saucepan over medium heat, combine the sugar and water and stir to dissolve the sugar. Drop in the cinnamon stick and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.

Stir in the cola, wine, vinegar, and salt and remove from the heat. Let cool completely, then cover the bowl tightly and chill in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour or preferably overnight. When you are ready to freeze the mixture, take out the cinnamon stick, transfer the mixture to an ice cream maker, and spin according to the manufacturer's instructions. Finish freezing in freezer. Stare approvingly at the Man in the Mirror. Eat immediately, or transfer to an airtight container, cover, and freeze for up to 1 week.

Jake Godby and Sean Vahey (2012)
Humphrey Slocombe Ice Cream Book
144 pages (paperback)
Chronicle Books
ISBN: 1452104689

Goes well with:
  • Gift of the Negi. Wine-and-cola is not unlike the 19th-century port wine concoction known as the Negus. Recipes here include one for children's parties from Isabella Beeton (Jackson would approve, I'm sure), a 38-gallon Negus made for England's King George IV, and (no surprise) an effervescing Negus made with soda water. Some things never get old...

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Bitters Tasting Table in the Meadow

As you build your cabinet of cocktail bitters — or, at any rate, put together a handful of stalwarts you want always to have on hand — keep in mind that any proper liquor store will carry common brands such as Angostura, Regan's No. 6 orange bitters, and possibly Peychaud's, that old New Orleans favorite essential to a Sazerac. Here and there, stores may also carry Fee Brothers bitters or tiny, single-shot, paper-wrapped bottles of Underberg, digestif bitters from Germany that are so good after a heavy meal (or a stein too may of beer). Truly well stocked stores with robust selections may offer modern bitters from Bittermens, Adam Elmegirab, Berg & Hauck, The Bitter End, and more.

These are the stores to patronize.

Go on; taste. And again. And again.
San Diego is not awash in an ocean of bitters, so I keep my cabinet stocked with commercial stuff through a combination of combing local stores and mail-order sources as well as doing lots of pre-travel research on which bartenders, bars, and bar supply houses to hit when I'm on the road. When I'm in Portland, Oregon or Manhattan, for instance, I make a point of dropping by The Meadow. Owned by Salted author Mark Bitterman, The Meadow offers fresh flowers, salts, chocolates, and bitters. When I was in the Manhattan store recently, my obsessions over the last two caused a shameful amount of money to flow from my pocket to Bitterman's register.

Most of the brands were familiar or even old hat to me, but the flood of new labels over the last five years has caused even bitters geeks to fall behind in the latest offerings, bottlings, iterations, and experimental batches. The Meadow's way around shoppers' potential unfamiliarity with brands is to offer a tasting table where one bottle of every bitters in stock is open. Drinkers who want to compare brands of celery, old fashioned, orange, or other bitters are welcome to do so.

The Meadow isn't the only place to offer tasting bottles, but it does have one of the largest range of bitters to smell and taste on site. In the Manhattan store, 50-60 open bitters bottles stood ready for walk-ins to sample. Local bartenders get a professional discount; visiting writers do not.

Now, if only there were a way to sample them through the mail...

Meanwhile, most of the stock is for sale online here.

The Meadow — New York 
523 Hudson Street
New York, NY 10014

The Meadow — Portland 
3731 N. Mississippi Avenue
Portland, OR 97227
Tel: 503.288.4633

Toll free for both stores: 1.888.388.4633

Goes well with:
  • Bitter Disappointment from Japan, in which a much-anticipated package from San Francisco barman Neyah White arrives smelling so good. Wait...why does it smell at all?
  • My take on Brad Thomson Parsons' 2011 book Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, with Cocktails, Recipes, and Formulas. In a nutshell: good, but not as good as it might've been with better editing.
  • Pink lemonade; you can buy pink powder in a canister...or you can empinken your drinkin' like a grownup with aromatic bitters. Also, check out "Cocktail" Bill Boothby's getting in his digs at temperance charlatans making vats of the stuff for circuses, fairs, and churches in another look at pink lemonade. He's as subtle as a whack upside the noggin with a loggerhead, but Boothby's insinuation that saloons were far better and safer places to drink than church fairs wasn't far off the mark — at least as far as some saloons and some churches were concerned.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Miniature Ice Cream Sandwiches

Eighteenth-century lexicographer, biographer, and essayist Samuel Johnson wrote in the first edition of his pithy Dictionary of the English Language (1755) that oats are "a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people." It's a quote that still raises the ire of some Scots. Of course, Dr. Johnson could also be a bit of a prick about many things, not just English ethnocentrism. He defined a distiller, for instance, as "One who makes and sells pernicious and inflammatory spirits." That's clearly hogwash. Grains of salt — many of them — are required when reading his essays.

But Johnson was in mind on a recent trip to visit my parents when my mother picked up a small tub of tiny oatmeal cookies, each the size of a medium coin, from Trader Joe's. Opinionated as Johnson may have been, was not entirely wrong about oats. Oatmeal is fine in a mash bill for, say, dark and velvet stouts, but the grain doesn't make one of my favorite cookies because it tends to yield a dry little cake. Not horrible, just not something I'd shove others out of the way to get.

So in an offhand, joking way, I told Mom "You know, if you want to keep your granddaughter busy, you could have her make little ice cream sandwiches with those tiny cookies. Maybe a teaspoon of vanilla ice cream between two of them, then freeze them." The Midwest summer was soul-draining hot; ice cream sounded great, but the tedium of little handwork required to make them was not something seriously to be entertained. This was just idle chatter; holding an idea up to the light, as it were, and casting it aside without further thought.

When I went to get ice for my iced tea the next morning, lo and behold — a one-gallon bag of miniature ice cream sandwiches was waiting in the freezer. Mom had been busy after I'd gone to sleep. We had them that night for dessert as we sat around the big wooden dining room table, talking politics, religion, and other topics one doesn't broach with casual acquaintances.

Some ideas, it seems, should not be cast aside so lightly. 

Goes well with:
  • No need to restrict yourself to vanilla ice cream (or oatmeal cookies). We've made these with goat cheese ice cream (or, rather Glace au Fromage-blanc de Chèvre) that turned out quite good as did the Dutch cocoa ice "cream" made with thick coconut milk rather than cream. Lemon ice cream sandwiched between Belgian speculoos cookies are winners, too. Take this as a template and run with it. Hell, you can dip them in chocolate if you like. 
  • Agnes B. Marshall was a bit of a maverick in her (Victorian) day. in 1901, she advocated mixing liquid oxygen with ice cream ingredients tableside to make ice cream, getting a jump on modernist cooks by almost a century. See Mrs. Marshall's Liquid Air Ice Cream.
  • In her book Paletas, Fany Gerson gives a recipe for granizado de michelada, a granita-like frozen treat based on that Mexican spiked beer stalwart, the michelada. Here is the recipe.
  • About this time last year, San Diego lost power for a day. Rum-lashed mango sorbet inspired by David Lebovitz helped get us through the dark, sultry night. Lebovitz called for dark rum, but I swapped it out with maraschino, then used rum over the top of the finished sorbet. You try it.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Say My Name. You're the Freshmaker. You're Goddamned Right.

An indulgence in just plain silly today with only a tangential relation to eating.

I don't spend much time watching television and what I do watch tends either to be comic or dark. The Shield? Yes. The Walking Dead? Yes. Dexter? The writing is spotty, but yes. In that vein, AMC's Breaking Bad, which follows the tragedy of chemistry teacher-turned-methamphetamine-kingpin Walter White, is such a well-crafted series that we never miss an episode.

If you don't watch the show, this clip and the title above may just seem odd, but the mashup below of a recent episode of Breaking Bad and cheesy old Mentos candy commercials made me bust out smiling.

Goes well with:
  • The Mentos candy commercials were such cornball, feel-good, adversity-overcoming spots that they've spawned a load of parodies. Most are bad. Given my penchant for dark, moody, and tense films, the Linda Blair/Exorcist-Mentos mashup was also worth a smile or two. No more than that.
  • White, as played by Bryan Cranston, maintains an alter-ego in the series named Heisenberg. I'm calling it now. Because the online homages, parodies, animations, and sampling of the show's materials and references to Heisenberg have become so popular, we're going to see an awful lot of Heisenberg/Walter Whites for Halloween this year. Clever masqueraders, though, could do better by dressing as characters Hector (Ding. Ding. DingDingDing) Salamanca or half-faced Gustavo Fring. Just putting that out there.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Preparing Next Year's Garden

The biggest project around here this week has been the garden. Well, it's not a garden yet. Next year, it will be one. Now, it's just a barren 40'x15' batch of land that includes the circa-1914 concrete pad for the house's original garage. Work began this weekend of clearing its mulch cover and digging out roots and rocks from the heavy, slow-draining clay soil. My plans for gardens include other parts of the lot, but this will be the largest plot.

Grab a shovel because tonight is Ladies' Night; ladies dig for free
Shortly after we moved in last December, we got to weighing options for the yard and promptly removed a stand of feral Brazilian pepperwood trees along the back of the lot. Ground the remaining stumps out a month later. Built a new fence bordering the back of the lot in March; it's a custom-made horizontal redwood deal with tongue-and-grove posts so it looks the same from both sides (didn't want the neighbors or us to deal with ugly-ass posts). Fences to replace those on the sides are in the planning stages. Or they might become walls. Don't know yet.

The garden itself will be for food plants; tomatoes, peppers, herbs, okra, butter beans, some beans my sister brought from Macedonia a few months ago, perhaps some beets and ijskruid (Mesembryanthemum crystallinum, called ice plant sometimes in English, glaciale in French), and various Cucurbitaceae (melons, squash, pumpkins, etc). Other areas will be for artichokes, rhubarb, fruit trees, and we'll see what else. Grapes maybe. Hops. Passion fruit perhaps. This is, after all, a garden for drinking as well as eating.

Busting up a buried sidewalk
As we plan the yard, there are more trees to be removed, more stumps to grind. The garden itself may only last one year since we've been talking about how we'd like to see the yard play out. There's talk of installing a pool. Meh; I'd rather build a smokehouse, an outdoor brick oven, or — my latest obsession — a big, round, in-the-ground barbacoa pit. A hot tub (or, in the local parlance, a spa) seem inevitable. One project at a time. I think, however, I've finally found the last of the buried sidewalk, prized it from the earth, and busted it up with a pickaxe. Hard to say, though; that thing meandered all over the yard just a few inches under the surface.

Once all the concrete is out, the roots dug out, and the rocks removed, it will be time to bring in two loads of fresh topsoil and plenty of organic materials and work those into the formerly hard, compact dirt so next year's plants will have a fighting chance.

Digging down to 18" across the plot means there are about 900 cubic feet of dirt to shift. I've got to go back and reread Mark Twain to remind myself how Tom Sawyer got that fence painted. Think it'd work with turning earth?