Monday, June 24, 2013

19th Century Rose Brandy from Virginia

Within days of moving into the new house, I uprooted all the rose bushes. This was partly because I wanted to make room for herbs in that spot (indeed, wormwood, basil, parsley, and more grow there now). I uprooted them also because they weren’t healthy bushes and I would rather coax something to life there rather than nurse them back to health. But mostly I ripped them out because I can’t abide the overpowering smell of fresh roses. Not in a vase, not in a garden, not as a gift — and for God’s sake, never even near the dinner table where their overpowering odor would ruin any meal.

That’s fresh roses. Roses preserved are another matter. The suffocating, cloying smell of fresh roses can be tempered through skillful distillation, infusion, and preserving in sugar that leaves their distinctive floral notes in place, but smooths out the high notes. Candied rose petals strewn across a cake? Fine. Looks pretty, too. Rosewater in cocktails? Sure, Champagne and mild bourbons can — with a restrained hand — sometimes become the base of delicious rosy drinks. Odds are, I’d rather enjoy that bourbon without the rosewater, but if some bartender wants to show off, why not?

And then there’s baking. Desserts, puddings, pies ~ this is where rose flavors can shine and, apart from the occasional cocktail, where I tend to use rose as a flavoring. A hand pie, filled with stewed dried apples, palm sugar, and rosewater then fried and tossed in sugar is a sublime thing indeed. Good rosewater and even rose syrups are available in Middle Eastern markets and well-stocked liquor stores, but I am tempted to try a batch of 19th century rose brandy. This recipe hails from Virginia, but the technique is nearly identical to older French recipes.

From Mary Stuart Smith’s 1885 Virginia Cookery-Book, here is a rose brandy specifically for flavoring cakes and other desserts. And, hey, maybe a few cocktails.
Rose Brandy for Flavoring 
Gather leaves from fragrant roses, without bruising; fill a pitcher with them, and cover them with French brandy; next day pour off the brandy, take out the leaves, and fill the pitcher with fresh ones, and return the brandy. Do this until it is strongly impregnated; then bottle it. Keep the pitcher closely covered during the process.
Now if only I hadn't ripped out all those rose bushes...

Goes well with:

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Philadelphia Church to Hold Beer Service

Beer is big in Phildelphia. Has been for as long as I can recall. When I packed up to move to San Diego from Philly, I bequeathed my homebrew setup — the fermentation tub, carboys, bottle brushes, air locks, fillers, capper, all of it — to my buddy Zeke, a cheesemonger who shares my taste for beer. In addition to the homebrew gear, there were several cases of liquor. The deal was: no cherry picking. Take all of it or none of it. Zeke's no dummy; he took it all. The occasional fermentation updates from the City of Brotherly Love still make me smile.

Can't make it to Philly?
Relax. Don't worry. Have a homebrew.
And if you don't brew,
Sculpin now comes in cans.
It's delicious.
Zeke and I were far from the only ones who liked making beer in Philly. The city was crawling with other brewers, both professional and amateur. It is, in fact, the location of next week's 35th Annual National Homebrewers Conference. Wrapping up the conference is a service dedicated to all that hoppy, sudsy goodness at a Center City house of worship established in 1796.

On Sunday, June 30th, the First Unitarian Church (2125 Chestnut Street) is hosting a service that

[...] will explore the history and culture of one of mankind’s oldest beverages. Throughout history beer has not only been a sustaining beverage but it has also come to connote conviviality and equality among all people. The service will also look at an interesting message from the world of craft brewing – small is good! This service will mark the conclusion of the American Homebrewer’s Association’s National Homebrewers Conference being held in Philadelphia this year.

Choir member Dane Wells is one of several homebrewers in the congregations. In 1985, he received a certification as a Beer Judge from the American Homebrewer’s Association, and has since devoted considerable study to the history and culture of brewing.

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Thursday, June 13, 2013

Chuck Cowdery on Non-Distiller Producer Whiskey

Blended, not distilled,
by St. George Spirits
Non-distiller producer whiskey — NDP whiskey to those in the abbreviation-prone trade — has been around a long, long, time. Non-distiller producers buy bulk spirits and resell them under another label. It's a completely honorable business model. Regardless of the abuse that model sometimes suffers by resellers of rum, whiskey, and (notoriously) vodka, some very nice spirits are sold by people who do not operate the stills on which it was made. They may — or may not — blend, age, or flavor the bulk spirits. Regardless, they are not the distillers of that particular booze.

You may sometimes hear such spirits referred to as "found" whiskeys, as if some Kentucky distiller rounded a corner in an unused part of a rambling old rickhouse and ran smack dab into a forgotten lot of barrels just a'settin' there. It's a disingenuous term, "found" whiskey. NDP is clunky, but more accurate. The reason it is interesting from a consumer's point of view is that, in general, brands would rather not have buyers know that the distillery named on the bottle may not in fact exist. Whiskey writer Chuck Cowdery calls brands that go to great lengths to craft images of these fictional distilleries "Potemkin distilleries." It's a good term.

But how are consumers standing there in the liquor store to know which whiskeys are made by distillery on each label and which are not? In a blog post today, Cowdery proposes that genuine, actual, echt craft distillers develop common language that Potemkin distilleries cannot truthfully use...and then plaster it on everything. As an example, he cites copy from one of our favorite of America's newer distilleries, Balcones Distilling in Waco, Texas:
100% of Balcones whisky is mashed, fermented and distilled at our distillery. We never resell whisky from other distilleries or source aged whisky barrels for blending under the Balcones label. This is authentic craft whisky.
Language like that would go a long way to letting drinkers who actually makes their spirits. Read the rest of Cowdery's three-point proposal here.

Goes well with:

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Canned Foods in French Restaurants?! What Would Escoffier Say? Let's See...

A law should stipulate
that in a restaurant
food that has been cooked
on site with fresh ingredients
is served to customers.

Didier Chenet
President of French restaurant union, Synhorcat

Yesterday in the online edition of the German magazine Spiegel, Stefan Simons wrote that French restaurateurs are rankling under an onslaught of prepared meals and ingredients in places that serve food. With shorter lunch breaks, a greater emphasis on healthy eating, and a tighter economy, fast food joints and kitchen shortcuts are becoming increasingly common in the land known for boeuf Bourguignon and cassoulet. A slice of pizza for lunch might not at first blush seem "healthy," but compared to the traditional options at the long, drawn-out lunches of old, it's quicker, cheaper, and may have fewer calories.

What specifically upsets restaurateurs, though, is the crush of canned, bagged, bottled, and otherwise preserved or pre-made dishes and ingredients in so-called restaurants. Many argue that places that serve such food ought not be called "restaurants" at all. Simons writes:
A recent poll of culinary professionals in France by restaurant union Synhorcat found that 31 percent of French eateries are now often looking to the can for their culinary inspiration. Increasingly, this means salads out of bags, industrially produced French fries and potato wedges, canned vegetables, flavor concentrates, vacuum-packed fish as well as sauces and dressings out of the bucket. One-quarter of meals are no longer cooked -- they are simply stirred together or warmed up with nary a mention on the menu that what the customer is getting isn't fresh. As a result, half of customers no longer trust the restaurants that serve them.
Horrible. Simply horrible. Sauces from buckets! Canned produce! Such degradation of French cuisine. Can you imagine what the sainted Auguste Escoffier — the king of chefs and the chef of kings — would say if he weren't so busy turning in his grave? What sputtered indignation could he offer us?

We don't have to imagine. Escoffier actually wrote about such things. From Auguste Escoffier: Memories of My Life:
Since I created Pêche Melba, which now enjoys world wide renown, demand for tender peaches, both fresh and preserved whole, has increased considerably. To ensure the high quality of such peaches, the fruit must not be too fragile. Montreuil peaches were excellent, but in recent years that quality of peach became difficult to find. I noticed that in the Rhone valley there grew a peach that was very similar to the Montreuil peach. I tested it and was very happy with the results. The next year, in 1911, 15,000 of these peaches were canned. The year after, 30,000 peaches were canned, and the third year the figure had reached 60,000. The producer was planning to can 100,000 of these peaches when the war broke out. This kind of incontestable success would never had [sic] existed without the creation of Pêche Melba.
Escoffier did not merely tolerate canned and bottled goods cooked off-site, he embraced them. He encouraged producers to bottle, can, and ship overseas produce and sauces. He even later owned a company to manufacture canned and bottled goods. Although the codifier of haute French cuisine developed an improved tomato purée around 1874 (when the custom among cooks was to pour the purée in Champagne bottles and sterilize them), he could not convince a manufacturer to can the product until about 1892, when he took the entire 2,000 can run for his kitchens at the Savoy. The year after that, the manufacturer canned 60,000 kilos of crushed tomatoes. Today, some of the best restaurants in the world use canned tomato products.

From truffles to tomatoes, Escoffier knew that seasonality and adverse local growing conditions could make certain foodstuffs occasionally unavailable. Granted, he maintained high standards, but there was — and remains — no reason that high-quality preserved foods shouldn't be in anyone's kitchen larder. Do you truly want to mill your own grains, make your own pasta, pickle your own capers, grown your own cotton, stitch every bit of your clothing, build your own bike, forge your own knives — and create by your own hands every single thing you want to eat, drink, wear, or use every single day? There comes a point when we must rely on others who do good work so that we can get on with doing our own good work.

So, yeah. Despite some pretty schlocky examples on the market, canned, bottled, and jarred products don't bother me in and of themselves. I know how to make whiskey and homemade butter couldn't be easier, but frankly, it's a lot more expedient to buy those things from others who know what they're doing.

I sympathize with their frustrations, but clinging to notions of authenticity centered on fresh ingredients cooked in-house is going to be a slippery prospect for France's restaurateurs.

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Saturday, June 8, 2013

Drinking Advice from Sarah Josepha Hale, 1839

Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879)
After her husband died in 1822, Sarah Hale took on writing work to support her five children. Chances are, you are familiar with her work; the song Mary Had a Little Lamb was based on her 1820 poem. She edited Ladies' Magazine from 1828-1837 and later became editor of the influential Godey's Lady's Book. Among her other works, she published in 1839 The Good Housekeeper. Her advice to housewives of the time strikes sensible notes: beer and warm tea are, indeed, wholesome drinks. Well. Hot tea, anyway; warm tea has no life in it. One can almost see her lips pursed in disapproval, however, when it comes to "fermented liquors." By the time she hits stride with her not-one-drop approach to distilled spirits, we realize that we've tumbled down a rabbit hole into a Puritanical realm of proto-Prohibition.

From The Good Housekeeper, here is Mrs. Hale and her take on appropriate beverages for American households:

Why water — that is a safe drink for all constitutions and all ages — provided persons only use it when they are naturally thirsty. But do not drink heartily of cold water when heated or greatly fatigued. A cup of warm tea will better allay the thirst and give a feeling of comfort to the stomach which water will not.
Toast and water, common beer, soda-water, and other liquids of a similar kind, if they agree with the stomach, may be used freely without danger. 
Fermented liquors such as porter, ale, and wine, if used at all as a drink, should be very sparingly taken. Distilled spirituous liquors should never be considered drinkable—they may be necessary, sometimes, as a medicine but never, never consider them a necessary item in house-keeping. So important does it appear to me to dispense entirely with distilled spirits, as an article of domestic use, that I have not allowed a drop to enter into any of the recipes contained in this book. 
As the primary effect of fermented liquors, cider, wine, &c is to stimulate the nervous system, and quicken the circulation, these should be utterly prohibited to children and persons of a quick temperament. In truth, unless prescribed by the physician, it would be best to abstain entirely from their use.
Hale, Sarah Josepha Buell. 1839. The Good Housekeeper: Or, The Way to Live Well and to be Well While We Live: Containing Directions for Choosing and Preparing Food, in Regard to Health, Economy and Taste. Boston: Weeks, Jordan and Company.

Goes well with:

  • William "The Only William" Schmidt pontificates on Why Men Drink in his 1891 bartending manual The Flowing Bowl
  • W.O Rigby gets into the spirit of Prohibition by thumbing his nose at Volstead with his 1920 fake-out Prohibition Schooners.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Homemade Thai Iced Tea

Cool your boots with a tall Thai tea
Summer is coming. With it comes blazing sun and sweltering nights, the kind of nights you don't want anyone coming near you in bed, much less actually trying to snuggle up next to you. It is the season of cool showers, cold beers, and punch-spiked watermelons — anything to keep the sweat demons at bay. Iced tea production, common enough around here any time of year, goes into overdrive. Some days, I'll guzzle a gallon of plain black Assam or orange pekoe iced teas. For particularly hot nights, though, or when I want a counterbalance to some ferocious curry, I'll make a batch of Thai tea. Poured over ice and dolled up with dairy, it's sweet, soothing respite from the heat.

For many, the making of Thai tea is a mystery. Oddly orange with unidentified exotic smells and tastes, its concoction is often left to restaurateurs and vendors who specialize in such things. That's a pity when it can be made so cheaply and easily at home. And the tastes, while they may be exotic, are familiar enough in other contexts: vanilla, cinnamon, star anise, black tea, and tamarind. Orange flower water as well as artificial dyes sometimes go into the dry tea blend. Come on; you didn't think that orange color came just from natural, wholesome tamarind and tea, did you? The brand I use, Pantainorasingh, comes in one-pound bags and is readily available at many Asian markets or through Amazon.
Thai Iced Tea 
4 cups water
½ cup Thai tea blend (Pantainorasingh brand)
½ cup sugar (white or — my preference — demerara)
3-4 Tbl half-and-half* 
In a 1.5-2 liter pot, bring the water to a boil. Add the tea blend and sugar, then return the mixture to a slow, soft boil. Boil five minutes, then turn off the heat and let the dark, aromatic mix cool 10-15 minutes. Strain it with a fine-mesh sieve or a cotton strainer into a jar or large bottle and refrigerate. 
To serve, fill a 16-20 glass with ice, then pour cooled, sweetened tea to within two fingers of the rim. Finish the drink by pouring in 3-4 tablespoons (1½ -2 oz) of half-and-half.
*The term "half-and-half" confuses some people, so allow me to quote from an earlier piece about goat cheese ice cream:
Half-and-half is, nominally, half cream and half milk in the United States. But that ain’t necessarily so. As Anne Mendelson explains in Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages, it is a “term with no uniform meaning.” Practically, it refers to a light, creamy liquid with 10.5-18% milkfat, depending on the state and manufacturer. Richer than milk, not as rich as heavy cream. Since light cream can range from 18-30% milkfat, there may be some overlap between it and half-and-half. Experiment and substitute at your peril/discretion.
Goes well with:

  • Brown Cubes of Joy (coffee ice cubes) in New Mexico.
  • Soulless Ginger Lemonade (and plain without the ginger)
  • I get serious about the preparation of a proper cup of tea, but still have enough sense to laugh at myself for doing so. I'm not the only one: Rip it. Dip it. Sip it. 
  • Masala chai is something I'm less likely to make in the summer months, but when I do brew up a batch on those mornings when I'm up at 4:30, here's how it's done.
  • If you know it's going to be especially hot, lay in some bread pan ice blocks for your cool drinks.
  • Finally, making plain, everyday, unsweetened iced tea is even simpler than the Thai tea here. Grab some loose tea, a gallon of water, and get brewing

Wednesday, June 5, 2013


I know the bronze blocks exist throughout Berlin, but still — to come across a cluster of Stolpersteine unexpectedly after lunch recently was an arresting and gut wrenching counterpoint to the pleasant meal. Stolperstine are the work of Cologne artist Gunter Demnig and each commemorates an individual killed by Nazis. Most of the dead are Jewish, but some named were Gypsies, homosexuals, and political undesirables.

In Smithsonian Magazine's blog, Lois Gilman writes "More than 12,000 such stones have been installed in roughly 270 German towns and cities since Demnig hammered the first brass blocks into Berlin's sidewalks in 1996." Each denotes who lived at that address, when they were born, the date they were taken away, and what happened to them. "Deported to the Warsaw Ghetto." "Murdered in Auschwitz." "Murdered in Riga." And, simply, "Murdered."

Even trod underfoot and littered with cigarette butts, the names of the dead still have the power to take one's breath away.

Goes well with:
  • Lois Gilman's piece, Memory Blocks, explains the history of the blocks.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Back from Berlin, Trouble with the Language

Lili Von Shtupp: Would you like another schnitzengruben
Sheriff Bart: No, thank you. Fifteen is my limit on schnitzengruben.

~ Blazing Saddles (1974)

I've been away for a bit in Germany and Holland where I ate, drank, and hit up old bookstores. More on that later. On our first day in Berlin, the boys were exhausted after an overnight train from Munich left everyone considerably less rested than we had hoped we'd be. While they trundled off to bed, I bundled up and headed into the rain to hunt for liquor and sausage-making books.

On returning to the hotel, one of them asked me whether I'd found anything good. "Oh, yeah," I enthused, pulling out a few old books from their rain-flecked paper wrappers. "Check it out. Bowlen und PünscheDie Fabrikation feiner Fleisch- und Wurstwaren, and a nice copy of Das Getränkebuch by Franz Josef Beutel and Hans Krönlein."

He blinked, propped up on one elbow and still freighted with sleep. Blinked again. "All I heard was 'Blau, blau, blau, bitte schön, gau, gau, Schnitzengruben."

German, it seems, falls harshly on some ears. The recipes will go into rotation this summer. Let's hope they are better received.

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