Articles in Drinking
“Oysters are the canaries in the coal mine,” a fourth-generation oysterman once told me as we slogged across the mud flats of Willapa Bay in Washington. The grower was giving me a tour of his vast oyster beds that emerge as if by magic during every low tide. Oysters can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day, and the quality of the water they process affects their health … and their flavor. Healthy oysters mean a healthy environment, and when they struggle, they can indicate something dire for the habitat as a whole.
The oyster I swallowed had the precise taste of a clean, deep breath of Pacific Ocean air. It was what a gorgeous coastal landscape photo might taste like were it a flavor of ice cream. I understood why M.F.K. Fisher wrote that they were, “more like the smell of rock pools at low tide than any other food in the world,” and why that is a good thing. Then as I grew to understand that these creatures seemed specifically designed by nature, a benevolent creator or both for the task of pairing with splendid wines, I was hooked.
The only thing that remained was how to open the damn things. If you’re daunted by the process as I was, then this quick-start guide to oysters and wine will help you find, pair, unlock and swallow a magical taste of the marine environment, and then chase it with a sip of the best flavors that terrestrial geography has to offer.
Where to find oysters
You can find them at your local supermarket seafood counter. You buy them live, but given the complexity of unlocking them from their secure and encrusted boxes, how do you tell if they’re fresh and have been handled with care?
“Look for a place that sells fresh fish,” says Jaret Foster, chef/owner of Oyster Social, a pop-up mobile raw bar in Portland, Oregon. Look for a counter that sells fish that look and smell fresh, with no fishy odor or bruised flesh. Whole fish should have clear eyes and bright red or pink gills. If the owners take pride in their fish, then the odds are good they’re selling quality oysters.
Restaurants and seafood purveyors buy oysters in mesh bags that are marked with the date of harvest and the location. Ask to see the tag and snap a phone picture for reference. Like great wines, oysters taste like where they come from, so explore the regional differences. The Pacific Northwest, the Atlantic and Gulf are three broad domestic regions to check out, and there are dozens of locales nestled within these.
Finally, shells of fresh oysters should be sealed tight. No gaps or openings. A good proprietor won’t sell you oysters with open shells. If they’re difficult to open, you’re on the right track. This, of course, presents another problem that we’ll tackle later.
Gather the gear
If you’re serving oysters raw, you can do the work of opening them for your guests or share the fun. A good oyster knife is critical, but a screwdriver will work in a pinch (and the experience will drive you to find a good knife all the sooner). Crushed ice is important: From the moment you buy them at the market to when they’re waiting to be shucked and served, oysters should always be kept cool or on ice. Carry a small cooler bag to the market with you. Your vendor will provide the ice.
Mignonettes — fresh dressings — should be prepared in advanced and ready to roll. They can be as simple as lemon juice or your own creative dressing. A dish towel will help you hold the shell and protect your receiving hand from the dull knife blade. Work gloves on your receiving hand are an option to help you grip the shells, which can be both jagged and slippery.
Add a cutting board and a glass of wine and you’ll be geared up to swallow some sea.
A note on mignonettes
A good mignonette, a sauce or condiment for your oysters that is usually made fresh, can heighten the experience. I recommend avoiding jarred cocktail or hot sauces until you get a handle on the flavors of these slippery little critters as these sauces can overwhelm the freshness, but there’s no reason not to prepare some creative mignonettes. Recipes abound that feature rice wine vinegar, shallots, ginger, juniper, cucumbers, lime and more. A pair of options are included below.
Foster follows the rule of always eating the first oyster of the meal unadorned to experience its inherent flavor grounded in the region where it comes from.
And when it comes to oysters and wine, mignonettes are optional. In fact, a good wine sipped as a chaser can be considered a sort of mignonette in and of itself, and you may pick your wine style specifically for this task.
Find the right wine
If you’re eating the oysters unadorned, then a bracing Alsatian-style Riesling is hard to beat. The eye-watering brightness and acidity can act as a dressing. At a recent oyster workshop led by Oyster Social’s Foster, Jess Pierce of Brooks Winery presented the guests with a selection wines ranging from magnificent dry Rieslings to Pinot Gris and dry Muscadet.
“Oysters show their terroir well, so why not pair them with wines that do the same?” Pierce said as she poured wines framed by views of the vineyards where they were grown. More and more domestic producers are making Rieslings and Gewürztraminers in the dry, acidic Alsatian style, though they’re far from the only wine options.
Champagne and sparkling wines provide a lively way to begin any meal, and their acidity and effervescence complement the fresh earthy, tidal flavor of oysters. A transparent Chardonnay that really shows its minerality, like Chablis, is another great match. Laura Anderson, who runs Local Ocean Seafoods, known for its hyper-fresh menu and location directly across from the fishing fleet in Newport, Oregon, likes to pair half-oak, half-steel Chardonnays from Oregon’s Ribbon Ridge AVA: “I look for a crispness and minerality to balance with the wildness of the oysters,”she says.
The old saw is to drink white wines with shellfish, but there’s no need to limit yourself. Reds can work just fine. A light, slightly under-ripe Pinot Noir from a cool year in Oregon, New Zealand or Burgundy won’t break the bank and a bright, tart swallow is the perfect way to chase a glistening mollusk down your gullet.
Other reds to try include a cru Beaujolais or Gamay. Look for wines from places by the ocean, like Sicily,” Pierce says. Locals there drink their local reds and whites alike with menus largely driven by the sea.
Finally, it’s always good to look to the classics. M.F.K. Fisher claims that an Alsatian Pinot Blanc is the perfect wine match in her gorgeous treatise on bivalves, “Consider the Oyster.”
The art of the shuck
So you’ve got the gear, found your oysters and bought the wine: Now how do you unlock the things without slicing off a thumb or crushing the shell and spilling the flavor-infused liquor?
1. Wrap your passive hand in the dish towel. A glove will improve your grip. Oysters have a top and a bottom, so you want to hold the cup-side facing down.
2. Locate the hinge at the back of the shell if you can’t find a seam along the side. Insert your oyster knife into the hinge and twist like a key. It’ll take a try or three, but you should be able to create a gap and slowly work the two halves of the shell open by twisting the knife and working around the edges.
3. After pulling the top off, slide your knife along the roof of the top shell to cut the oyster’s adductor muscle.
4. Try not to spill the “liquor,” the silky juices inside the shell that pack much of the flavor. You’ll want to swallow that with the oyster.
5. Don’t worry about chips, cracks and bits of shell … you’ll make a mess, especially at first. Practice and plan to spend time tidying up. Study the process by hitting YouTube or state wildlife and extension offices in places where oysters are grown. They all offer plenty of advice to help get you started.
That’s pretty much everything you need to get started with oysters and wine. They’re both amazing natural products that have an unmatched ability to express flavors from where they are grown. Eating a clean, flavorful oyster is a small sort of tribute to ocean health. It is my hope that these tips lead you more quickly to your own oyster epiphany so that you aren’t required to pull on waders and slog after a spry oysterman through the drizzle … mud sucking at your boots until your hips and back ache, the stiff bay breeze whipping you … before you can appreciate the full glory of these tasty little bivalves and begin to care about where they come from.
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Classic Mignonette Sauce
–Enrique Sanchez, chef, Local Ocean Seafoods
Yield: One cup of sauce, enough for 5 to 6 dozen oysters
1 tablespoon course ground black pepper
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons minced shallots
1/2 cup sparkling wine
Salt to taste
Simmer wine in a saucepan to cook out alcohol; take off heat and stir in rest of ingredients; taste, salt, chill, serve.
— Jaret Foster, chef/owner, Oyster Social
Yield: One cup of sauce, enough for 5 to 6 dozen oysters
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 to 2 tablespoons yuzukoshō (Japanese fermented chili-citrus paste, available at Asian grocers)
2 tablespoons finely diced daikon radish
Combine all ingredients in a quart jar and just before serving shake well to emulsify; keeps well in the refrigerator for two weeks to a month.
Main photo: Oysters on ice with lemon. Credit: Copyright Serhiy Zavalnyuk/Thinkstock
In the past few years, Denver — joined by its deluxe alter ego, Boulder, Colorado — has been at or near the top of so many national rankings, it would probably top the list ranking the lists themselves. It has consistently been named among the best (and fastest-growing) cities for millennials, for singles, for entrepreneurs, for outdoors enthusiasts, for beer lovers, you name it — and now that Denver is in the spotlight, its long-underrated dynamo of a dining scene is finally getting a chance to shine.
Here are just some of the kicks awaiting visitors in search of a Mile High culinary adventure. Or at least a cure for the munchies. Let’s face it: Marijuana legalization might have something to do with Colorado’s soaring profile.
It has stood at the edge of what’s now known as LoDo (Lower Downtown) since the fin de siècle — and Union Station‘s grand reopening in 2014 after a multimillion-dollar renovation marks the apotheosis of the neighborhood’s own comeback from late-20th century Skid Row into prime real estate.
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Some of the city’s most celebrated restaurateurs have set up shop on all sides of the magnificent Great Hall. At the casual end, there’s funky daytime franchise Snooze — where buttered-popcorn pancakes meet Thai-chili Bloodies — and Next Door, an ethicurean pub known for its beet burgers and kale chips. At the splashier end, Stoic & Genuine revels in a seafood repertoire that skews both wildly original — think miso-cured uni over kimchi granita — and classic, from clam rolls to caviar. Anchored by a gleaming deli and exhibition kitchen, Mercantile Dining & Provision turns out an ever-changing array of contemporary creations: highlights include exquisite pastas and anything featuring products from co-owner Alex Seidel’s Fruition Farms. And The Cooper Lounge, overlooking all the action, is as swanky a setting for cocktails as you’ll find in this dressed-down town.
Think of it as Union Station’s flip side: a gritty-chic urban marketplace that opened in 2013 along a still-gentrifying stretch of Brighton Boulevard with a roster of rising culinary stars and cult vendors. Now arguably the hub of the RiNo (River North) district, The Source is a one-stop shop for extraordinary beans (Boxcar Coffee Roasters), breads (Babettes) and beef (Western Daughters Butcher Shoppe), among other goods, that prove the word “artisanal” hasn’t lost all meaning just yet. It’s home to two beloved restaurants — the globally inspired Acorn and Comida, a modern taqueria/cantina — and ultra-cool cocktail bar RiNo Yacht Club. Capping it all off is the taproom of Crooked Stave, founded by a brewer whose experiments with brettanomyces and barrel aging have put it at the forefront of Denver’s world-class beer scene.
Breweries, breweries and more breweries
Speaking of beer: If ever there were proof that statistics don’t tell the whole truth, consider that Colorado, with about 250 craft breweries (or 6 per 100,000 adults), ranks “only” third in the nation. After all, that figure comes from the Brewers Association, which happens to be located not in California (first) or Washington (second), but in Boulder — the outgrowth of an earlier organization started by association president Charlie Papazian, aka the godfather of American home brewing. Papazian also founded the nation’s largest craft-beer showcase and competition, the Great American Beer Festival, held annually in Denver. It’s worth noting, too, that a fellow local microbrewing pioneer, Wynkoop co-founder John Hickenlooper, is now governor.
Of course, the ultimate metric of achievement becomes evident to anyone who spends even a short time here: the presence of a taproom on every other street corner, each with its own niche. For the most up-to-date and comprehensive information on breweries large and small, check out Westword’s Beer Man column and the Fermentedly Challenged blog. But some of my favorites include Diebolt and Prost for traditional (read: Eurocentric) styles, Former Future and Coda for adventurous tastes, and Renegade and Station 26 for sheer high-energy atmosphere.
One of Colorado’s most renowned (and widely distributed) envelope-pushing brands, Avery Brewing Co., recently opened a state-of-the-art, city-block-sized facility complete with sit-down restaurant and gift shop at the northern edge of Boulder. It’s a must for any suds buff — as are much smaller but no less superb breweries such as the chef-run BRU and the locals’ secret, J Wells — but it’s just the tip of the Berkeley of the Rockies’ gastronomic iceberg. To name some solid candidates for the connoisseurs’ to-do list: splendid sandwiches and specialty goods at gourmet shop Cured. Tea at the jaw-dropping Dushanbe Teahouse, an architectural masterpiece built by Tajikstani craftsmen. Genuine farm-to-table feasts at Blackbelly or Black Cat Bistro — both labors of love by chefs who really do run their own farms. Exquisite Japanese bites at the twinkling izakaya called Amu, wood-fired pies at the mod-rustic Basta, displays of Old World oenophilia at PMG. And as for Frasca Food and Wine — suffice it to say that chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson and master sommelier Bobby Stuckey’s mecca of Friulian cuisine continues to earn the accolades it rakes in nationwide (and beyond).
If it’s teeming diversity you crave — admittedly not Boulder’s strongest suit — Aurora, on Denver’s eastern border, is your destiny (along with Federal Boulevard, thronged with Vietnamese and Mexican kitchens). Though it feels like a suburb, it’s actually Colorado’s third-largest city and a center of immigrant life. Here, sharp-eyed explorers will find Korean, Thai, Middle Eastern, Indian, Sudanese and Hawaiian restaurants lined up in strip malls one after the other; they’ll find ramen and barbecue and tacos galore — and they’ll encounter the most random of surprises to boot, like soul fast food (Kirk’s Soul Kitchen) and a biker bar that serves Chinese eats (Piper Inn).
On that note, long before Denver had a culinary leg to stand on, it boasted watering holes whose potent mix of Wild West grit and urban grime earned them a place in, variously, Jack Kerouac novels, Tom Waits songs and one particularly infamous Playboy article. It still does. And although a whirlwind tour isn’t for everyone, here’s the itinerary any counterculturalist at heart should follow. Start at Charlie Brown’s Bar & Grill or My Brother’s Bar to hang out where Kerouac, Neal Cassady and other Beat legends once drank. Catch some live jazz at El Chapultapec, the 80-year-old remnant of an era when the Five Points neighborhood was known as the Harlem of the West. Or simply cruise East Colfax Avenue: Though in the throes of change, it’s still an embarrassment of divey riches. There you’ll find Pete’s Satire Lounge, where an as-yet-undiscovered Bob Dylan used to perform, as did the Smothers Brothers; not far away, PS Lounge illustrates the power of kitsch to bring all walks of life together. Meanwhile, situated at the western end of the 26-mile-long avenue, Casa Bonita may not be a dive, but it’s got cliff divers, among other carnival attractions parodied in a famous “South Park” episode.
Casa Bonita is strictly a sightseers’ stop, but you’ll have no trouble finding terrific Mexican eateries on just about every corner of this city (to pinpoint just a few admittedly downscale gems: El Taco de Mexico, El Original Tacos Jalisco, Tarasco’s, Chili Verde and La Calle Taqueria y Carnitas on West Alameda Avenue). Many of them will offer green chile; the sauce/stew is as traditional here as it is in New Mexico, though the Colorado style is thicker and often includes tomatoes with the chiles, pork, onions, garlic and so on. Cruise down Federal Boulevard in summer and you’ll see the roadside roasting stands hawking Pueblo (as well as Hatch) chiles by the bushel. Of course, Colorado lamb and beef are even more famous, as is Rocky Mountain trout — but locals equally covet Olathe corn, Palisade peaches and Rocky Ford melons in season. For a taste of the bounty, head to farm-centric fixtures such as Beast + Bottle, The Kitchen and Old Major.
Where a local focus and a cosmopolitan outlook come together, you’ll find Denver’s most distinctive dining and drinking spots. Take Beatrice & Woodsley, combining eye-popping decor designed to evoke a mountain cabin with a fascinating menu that simultaneously reflects the agrarian past and a global future. At Lower48 Kitchen, up-and-coming chef-partner Alex Figura takes a similar approach to yield some of the most exciting food around. Visionary restaurateur Justin Cucci is building an empire on extraordinary ambiance as well as consciously sourced contemporary cuisine, with venues housed in a former gas station, mortuary and brothel, respectively; the latter, Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox, emits a dazzlingly risqué vibe. Jim Pittenger of Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs has rightly garnered national attention for his reindeer, rattlesnake and other wild sausages, with wacky toppings to match. Same goes for Sean Kenyon, bartender-owner of Williams & Graham, a celebrated rendezvous for cocktail aficionados. And then there’s Work & Class: its exuberant yet intimate atmosphere and Latin-influenced comfort food will linger in your mind long after your visit.
The great outdoors
With its enviable high-desert climate (not to mention the Rocky Mountains in its backyard), Denver is an obvious draw for outdoors enthusiasts — and an ideal site for seasonal festivals and markets of all kinds. Food-truck chasers mustn’t miss Civic Center EATS, where mobile specialists in everything from pierogi to Popsicles gather in the namesake park twice a week from May through October. The Big Wonderful is its even-hipper counterpart, bringing to a vacant lot in RiNo not only trucks but also stalls selling gourmet pantry products and household goods, a live-music lineup and a full bar. The Denver Flea hosts similarly massive bashes with food, booze and arts-and-crafts vendors a couple of times a year. In a Larimer Square courtyard, the pop-up Le Jardin Secret proves as charmingly chichi as it sounds. And — to return once again to Denverites’ favorite subject — themed beer festivals are a near-weekly occurrence. But be warned: They often sell out in no time.
Main photo: Stoic & Genuine at Denver’s Union Station. Credit: Copyright 2015 June Cochran
Malt is a fairly mysterious ingredient, but craft beer is about to change that.
Like milling helps turn wheat into bread, malting helps turn barley and other grains into beer. Malting is the process of germinating (sprouting) and then kilning grains, which allows access to the starches and enzymes necessary for fermentation.
The importance of malt
Malt’s job is not strictly functional, though. Different types of malt contribute flavors and other elements to the final product. Malt is to beer what stock is to soup, as brewer John Mallett writes in his book, “Malt: A Practical Guide from Field to Brewhouse.”
“As craft beer has exploded in popularity, hops have often been seen as the sexy ingredient in beer,” he says. Mallett is the director of Bell’s Brewery in Michigan. “On first glance, malt seems kind of dull, but it actually contributes the key attributes that largely define beer, including color, flavor, foam, body and, eventually through fermentation, alcohol.”
Craft malthouses opening
At one time, malting was a domestic chore, same as baking bread. Prohibition and changes in farming helped consolidate the industry and put the production largely out of sight. Now, in response to curiosity about this ingredient, craft malthouses are opening across the nation. New York State has more than its fair share.
This is because New York created a friendly environment for micro and nano brewing with the Farm Brewery Law. This licensing, which went into effect at the beginning of 2013, requires that breweries use a percentage of state-grown products. A revival of hops production was already underway, and the law nudged along the boom in malt. Nine malthouses are in operation across the state, and more are in the works.
Brewing at the local level
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“It’s been exciting learning a whole new skill, one that’s been pretty much forgotten,” says Bob Johnson, who runs Niagara Malt. A professor of plant ecology and biochemistry at Medaille, a small liberal arts college in Buffalo, Johnson also grows hops, and farms and malts barley. “Malting is relegated to big commodity houses, and it’s nice bringing this whole process … to the local level.”
Buffalo had several malthouses, he notes, and three of its mayors were maltsters. Johnson says regional products lend distinctive flavors to beer.
“Plants really have an intimate contact with the soil,” Johnson says. “I’m at the base of the escarpment and all my soils are very limey; sitting at the base of a limestone cliff — my soils are very sweet as they say. That gives a flavor. The microorganisms in soil strongly influence the health and metabolism of plants.”
His adventures in making ingredients began with a taste for fuller flavored beers. “I realized the chemicals I was enjoying so much were from hops,” he says. Intrigued, he started to look into hop farming. Three years ago he planted 1,200 plants but lost half of them to drought. Hearing rumblings of the Farm Brewery Law, he realized there was going to be a programmed demand for hops and malt. This gave him the courage to replant and buy some equipment. His hop yard covers 1 1/2 acres and has 1,400 plants.
Johnson malts in the original malting system designed by pioneering Western Massachusetts maltsters Valley Malt. This system malts 1 ton of grain at a time, carrying out all the procedures, from steeping through germination (sprouting) and kilning in a single tank.
As he explores malting, Johnson also benefits by being a member of The Craft Maltsters Guild, which was formed last year to help shape the burgeoning industry by setting standards for production, performance and sourcing, and building a network for sharing information.
Given the rise of the craft beer market, the potential for growth in small-scale malting is tremendous, and New York has created an economic architecture to help develop that potential.
Private/public partnerships are helping to build momentum. Cornell University is researching what varieties of malting barleys are suited to the climate. Greenmarket Regional Grains Project is pairing farmers, maltsters and brewers for collaborations and otherwise working to raise awareness of the local agricultural products. Entrepreneurs are seizing the opportunities in beer. New York has 210 craft breweries, and 78 of those are farm breweries.
“Farm brewers have to use 20 percent New York ingredients,” says Paul Leone, director of the New York State Brewers Association. (The rate will change as the region’s capacity to produce local products increases.) “The market is there automatically for that group, but beyond the license every brewery in the state would use local ingredients.”
A steep learning curve
For now, use is limited by quality and price. Farming malting barley in a region that hasn’t done so for almost a century is a steep learning curve. Commodity malts cost significantly less than craft malts, and beer is thirsty for grains. Even if there were no difference in price, New York could not supply all its breweries. The largest of the new craft-malting facilities in the state only produce three tons a week. A ton of malt can only make about 13 to 15 barrels of beer, or about 26 to 30 kegs.
“What’s unique about New York State and craft beer is that at one point we owned the hop industry. It’s a natural progression to own it again, or a share of it,” Leone says. “Beer does have a certain terroir. The barley that’s grown here and the way that its malted here is going to be a little different than when it’s from out West, same as the hops. Brewers have an ability to engineer their own flavor profile that’s uniquely New York.”
Main photo: A farmer holds a handful of germinating barley. Credit: Copyright John Mallett
There are more than 3,400 craft breweries in America, with another 10 breweries opening each week. Retail sales of craft beer grew 22 percent in 2014, as overall beer sales stayed flat with the popularity of Budweiser and Miller dropping like a stone. The incredible consumer demand for craft beer makes the failure rate for new craft breweries … effectively zero.
Across the nation, beer lovers are daydreaming about jumping on the craft beer bandwagon and opening their own brewery.
Last fall, Zester contributors fanned out across the country interviewing craft brewers, distillers and cider makers for a book we’d been commissioned to write on how to start these ventures. We had a fabulous time talking with a number of unusual characters working in these fast-growing sectors. Our book — “Start Your Own Microbrewery, Distillery, or Cidery” — will be released June 30 by Entrepreneur Press.
In the process of writing our book, we read extensively about the craft beer business. Obviously, we think our book is an invaluable addition to the collection, but it tells only part of the story. Our “beer library” is a list of must-read recent releases for everyone interested in craft beer. There is no homework here. These are fun, entertaining reads.
10 beer books reviewed by Zester Daily:
Main photo: Greg Koch, co-founder and CEO of Stone Brewing Co. in Escondido, California, and co-author of “The Brewer’s Apprentice.” Credit: Copyright 2011 Quarry Books
The real trick to pairing food with wine is not to take it too seriously, but rather just play with it. When chef Olivier Combe, whose restaurant CO2 is one of the best in Avignon, France, plays this kind of game — pairing his dishes with some of the best wines from nearby Chateauneuf-du-Pape — it’s not only fun, it’s drop dead delicious.
In April, Combe and the producers of Chateauneuf-du-Pape held what you might call a Master Class on food and wine pairing for an international gathering of wine geeks, bloggers, vintners, and journalists.
Wines from Chateauneuf-du-Pape are almost never made from one sole grape variety. A palette of 13 different grapes may enter into the blend. For whites, the chief grape is Grenache Blanc, usually blended with different percentages of Bourboulenc, Clairette and/or Roussanne, the last of which is often fermented or aged in oak.
Chateauneuf-du-Pape is known for majestic reds which account for most of the production, but the pairings at this event included a majority of whites which are often overlooked. Further, Combe’s menu transitioned from white wine to red and back to white again. I love that kind of freewheeling liberty.
Welcoming us was a glass of 2013 Chateau de Vaudieu, barrel fermented white made primarily from Grenache and Roussanne. Simultaneously plump and fresh, with mild but distinct oak notes, it nicely whet the palate for the organoleptic onslaught.
Melt-in-your mouth food and luscious wine
Combe’s home-cured gravlax was the first dish. Cubes of fleshy salmon sat on a light cream sauce, judiciously seasoned with dill, lemon zest and shallots.
Each of the two whites paired with the gravlax worked beautifully, bridges of flavor joining the salmon and the cream sauce. The 2013 Domaine Giraud Les Gallimardes, a blend of equal parts Grenache, Clairette, Roussanne and Bourboulenc, was fresh, full and gently oaky. The 2013 Domaine Patrice Magni was tight and mouthfilling, with vibrant flavors of lemon and lemon zests.
In another life, Olivier Combe must have been a sushi chef, so deftly did he sear the medallions of superb tuna that followed the gravlax. Essentially raw, only the extreme outer edges of the tuna were blistered with a crust hauntingly scented by Timut pepper. It was almost a pity to mask that purity by combining the tuna with the palate-tingling hot-sweet Thai sauce served alongside.
Enter the first red Chateauneuf-du-Pape of the day, the 1985 Clos du Mont Olivet. Like the appellation’s whites, the reds are almost always made from a blend of grapes, primarily Grenache Noir, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cinsault. The Mont Olivet, for example, was 80% Grenache, assembled with small amounts of Syrah and Mourvèdre. Aging with dignity, it was a smooth and inviting weave of dried fruit and herbs and very much at home with the tuna sans Thai sauce.
Then it was back to white Chateauneuf-du-Pape with the 2011 Clos Saint Paul that accompanied a large slab of melt-in-the-mouth foie gras. A blend of 60% Grenache and 40% Roussanne, the wine was rich and mellow, with notes of oak and faint hints of oxidation. Enjoyable as the wine was, everyone felt that a much, much older white Chateauneuf would have been a better foil for the foie gras — an enticing proposition that earned a round of applause.
The main dish was a toothsome parmentier of long-simmered, minced pig’s cheeks mixed with black olives on a thick gravy seasoned with sage, thyme and red wine, and topped with a succulent mound of creamy potatoes.
Of the two reds served, it was the 2004 Domaine du Bois de Boursan Cuvée des Félix, an organic wine, that won universal acclaim. Chiefly Grenache with some Mourvèdre, it had aged beautifully, presenting a homey tapestry of dried red fruit and herbs which married seamlessly with the parmentier.
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Next, slices of Comté — each from a specific sub-region — were paired with the 2011 Domaine des 3 Cellier Réserve, a white made from pure Roussanne, fermented and aged in barrel. Pale gold, with a hint of butterscotch, it went nicely with the nutty, borderline butterscotch flavors of the cheese, but the wine served with dessert might have been a more vibrant partner.
The dessert finale
Dessert was a chestnut tiramisu made by the chef’s wife, Jeanne. This cloud of froth accented by chestnut was paired with a fascinating wine from Domaine de la Charbonnière. A blend of Clairette and Bourboulenc, harvested late when the grapes were totally shriveled, it was extremely sweet but nicely balanced by acidity. By law, it’s not a Chateauneuf-du-Pape, though this type of wine was historically made for communions and baptisms.
Since my palate does not appreciate sweet-on-sweet, I’d have served this with the foie gras or with the comté and I’d have paired the tiramisu with a good bourbon or Armagnac or an ice-cold iced coffee.
So sure, certain dishes go best with certain wines, but I polished it all off anyway.
Main photo: Parmentier of long-simmered minced pig’s cheeks mixed with black olives on a thick gravy seasoned with sage, thyme and red wine, and topped with creamy potatoes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Federation des Producteurs de Chateauneuf-du-Pape
Infusing vodka with fruit is perfect for summer and holiday entertaining. Colorful and easy to make, all you do is place the washed fruit into a clean glass jar, pour in the unflavored vodka, cover and store until the fruit has transferred its flavors to the vodka. The resulting infused spirit can be sipped by itself or used in a deliciously refreshing cocktail. That’s it. Wash, pour, cover, wait and enjoy.
Flavored vs. infused
You may have seen vodkas labeled as infused with lemons, oranges, cranberries, pomegranates and raspberries. In point of fact, they are actually flavored artificially. The taste of those vodkas ranges from passable to medicinal.
Creating your own flavors allows you to control the quality and the strength of the infusion. Using a farmers-market-fresh approach will bring a farm-to-table excellence to your cocktails.
How long to infuse?
Generally speaking, soft fruit needs less time to transfer its flavors. Strawberries for instance need only a few hours or a day at most. With quick infusions, taste frequently and strain out the fruit when you have the flavor you want. When the fruit is removed, the infusion stops.
With a firmer fruit such as cherries, infusion can take longer. To make the Italian liqueur limoncello, lemon peels remain in the vodka for several months. When making umeshu, Japanese plum wine made with green plums called ume, the plums take a year to complete the infusion process.
When making infusions, no need to use premium vodkas. The fruit so dominates the flavor, buying affordable vodka is definitely the way to go.
Infused vodkas can be used as the basis of any number of cocktails. Personally, I enjoy them over ice, neat or with a mix of soda water. Simpler is better. The result is deliciously refreshing, especially on a warm summer day.
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Buy good quality, unblemished cherries, preferably Bing cherries because they are fat and sweet. The cherries can be pitted, in which case they will give up their flavor more quickly. But over time the cherries will become less firm. I prefer to keep them whole so they can be served as an adult dessert.
Use glass jars, any size you have on hand. Wash the jars and tops in hot, soapy water and rinse well. Quart juice or canning jars work very well. Use the cherries separately as a dessert by themselves, with plain yogurt or as a topping on ice cream.
The infused vodka can be served cold as a shooter with a cherry as garnish or in a mixed cocktail of your choice. Leave the cherry whole or finely chop when using as a garnish.
Add more vodka when needed to keep the cherries covered. Keep refrigerated.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Infusion time: a week to a month
Yield: two quarts
3 pounds fresh cherries, preferably Bing, washed, pat dried, stems removed
1 quart unflavored vodka
1. Examine each cherry. Reserve for another use any that are blemished or over ripe.
2. Remove and discard any stems.
3. Place the whole cherries into the jars.
4. Fill with unflavored vodka.
5. Cap and place in the back of the refrigerator.
6. Serve cold. Pour the infused vodka into small glasses garnished with cherries (whole or finely chopped) from the jar.
7. Add vodka to keep the cherries covered. Refrigerate.
Umeshu or Japanese Plum Wine
Although frequently called plum wine, ume is actually more of a apricot and umeshu is a liqueur. Available in Japanese and Korean markets, ume are also sold in Middle Eastern grocery stores. Armenians and Iranians eat the unripened plums raw but do not use them to prepare a liquor. In Asia, ume are also eaten preserved in salt and called umebsoshi in Japan.
Sold at a premium price because of the short growing season in the spring, only use green, unripe fruit. Ripe ume should not be used.
Mention umeshu to someone from Japan and invariably they will smile
Traditionally umeshu is made by grandmothers. In the spring when the plums appear in the markets, dull green and hard as rocks, the grandmothers buy up all they can find, place them in a large jar, add rock sugar and shōchū (similar in taste to vodka). The jar is placed under the sink and everyone waits a year until the plums soften and the shōchū has mellowed.
After a year in their sweetened, alcoholic bath, the ume can be eaten. I like to include them in the cocktail, either whole or cut off the pit, chopped up and added as a flavor garnish that can be eaten with a small spoon.
Only use unblemished, unripe fruit.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Infusion time: one year
Yield: 2 quarts umeshu, 2 quarts macerated umeIngredients
2 pounds ume or green plums, washed, stems removed
1 pound Japanese rock sugar
1.75 ml unflavored vodka
1. Wash well a gallon glass jar.
2. Place the ume into the jar.
3. Add the rock sugar.
4. Pour in the vodka. Stir well.
6. Place in a dark, cool area where the jar will be undisturbed for a year.
7. Serve ice cold with macerated ume whole or chopped up as garnish.
Top photo: Bing cherry-infused vodka in quart jars. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt
Let’s say you bought some Cabernet Sauvignon vines from a local nursery to plant a vineyard. You decided on Cabernet because you determined that this particular grape variety would be best for your location because of its soil type, sun exposure and climate. But then a worrisome thought enters your head: What if the vines aren’t Cabernet Sauvignon after all, but some other less-suited variety? What if the nursery somehow got them mixed up with Sauvignon Blanc vines? That would be a mighty costly mistake.
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You could pray, sweat and grind your teeth until the first grape clusters appear, and then wait some more until they change color and mature enough for you to figure out the vines’ true identity. Or, you could call an ampelographer.
Ampelography is a type of grapevine botany that uses the physical traits of grape leaves to identify varieties. Grape leaves vary quite a bit between varieties, so a skilled ampelographer can easily distinguish Cabernet Sauvignon from Cabernet Franc.
In the world of ampelography, it would be hard to find a more renowned practitioner than Virginia-based vineyard consultant Lucie Morton, who travels around the country lending her expertise to grape growers and vintners.
Among Morton’s clients is one of California’s best Sauvignon Blanc producers, St. Supéry Estate Vineyards & Winery, which flew her out to the Napa Valley earlier this month to teach an ampelography class. I was lucky enough to participate in the workshop, and learn some tips from a master.
Before taking us into the vineyard, Morton explained the background and basics of vine identification. Lesson number one: “Looking at clusters is cheating.”
In the early days of the California wine industry, American vintners often brought back vine cuttings from Europe to plant in their vineyards. Sometimes, the varieties were not identified correctly, or were known in their native country by a different name than the one used by the rest of the world.
In the 1970s Morton began to discover that some vines planted in American vineyards were misidentified. For example, she said, in the Finger Lakes region of New York people used to say that the Chardonnay grown there tasted “Germanic,” due to the area’s cold climate. The real reason was because their “Chardonnay” was actually Riesling.
Up until the early 80s, nearly all of the “Pinot Blanc” planted in California was not Pinot Blanc but a French variety called Melon de Bourgogne. An ampelographer — Morton’s teacher, Pierre Galet — set the record straight. “It does not make you popular, pointing out other people’s mistakes,” Morton told the class.
Even so, her skills are in demand, even in the modern world of high-tech viticulture. Although DNA testing can identify varieties, Morton pointed out, it can’t distinguish between clones. Ampelography can. “There’s still practical value in this skill,” she said.
Anatomy of a grape leaf
According to Morton, the main characteristics that distinguish grape leaves include:
Lobes: If you imagine the leaf as a hand, the lobes would be the individual fingers that extend outward. Some leaves have prominent lobes, other leaves are shield-shaped and have none.
Petiolar sinus: This is the empty space surrounding the stem of the leaf. Some sinuses are wide open, others are very narrow.
Teeth: These are the serrations on the outside edge of the leaf. Some are jagged and sharp, others are rounded.
It’s also important to look at the color and texture of the leaves.
In the vineyard
Providing each of us with a list of defining characteristics for several different grape varieties, Morton sent us out into St. Supery’s Dollarhide vineyard and challenged us to bring her back a leaf from each variety. If we got it wrong, we went back to try again.
Identifying the vines was more difficult than I expected. In a given vineyard row, not all of the leaves are identical, even among the same variety. Just when I would think I had a match, I’d notice that one of the distinguishing elements wasn’t quite right: The teeth were rounded instead of triangular or the surface was smooth instead of leathery. Each time I was sent back for another leaf, I came to respect Morton’s skill a little more.
Following are the characteristics of five of California’s most popular grape varieties:
Morton calls this leaf the “monkey face” or the “mask,” because when held with its tip facing up, it looks like it has eye and mouth holes. It has five lobes, rounded teeth and an open (or naked) petiolar sinus.
This is a shield-shaped leaf, with shallow, sawblade-like teeth and an open petiolar sinus. The vine’s young shoots will have red nodes that are distinctive to Chardonnay.
This leaf is longer than it is wide, with five prominent lobes, an open petiolar sinus and deep triangular teeth. It’s yellowish in color, with a waffled, leathery texture.
This five-lobed leaf is green in color, with a wavy texture. It has a narrow, almost-closed petiolar sinus, a round shape and rounded teeth. The lobes have three prominent troughs that resemble spouts from a fountain.
This leaf is a heart-shaped shield, with a relatively narrow petiolar sinus and shallow pointy teeth. It has a puffy, quilted look and a thick, leathery texture.
Main photo: In a sea of vines, ampelography can help growers tell which grape varieties are which. Credit: Tina Caputo
You’re standing on a rooftop in Portland, Ore., Aperol spritz in hand. The bubbly orange cocktail matches the summer sky at sunset. Prosciutto-wrapped grissini — long, crispy breadsticks enveloped in buttery ham — appear as if by magic for snacking. City lights sparkle below and bridges reach across the Willamette River as you dine on a salad of juicy peaches, creamy burrata and fresh basil, followed by succulent roast pork with green garlic sauce. Dessert is zabaglione with ripe berries. When the sun goes down, all eyes turn to the crisp white sheet taped to the wall, where a projector beams Stanley Tucci’s “Big Night,” a film about two brothers from Italy who open a restaurant in New Jersey. You sigh contentedly as you munch on a bowl of Pecorino popcorn.
This may sound like a delicious culinary dream, but it was the Portland Picnic Society’s La Dolce Vita gathering last summer. This group of 20 ladies meets monthly in the spring and summer to throw fabulous fetes. With summer on the horizon, we’re anxious to steal some of their picnic pointers. But don’t fret if an Italian-themed al fresco gathering seems like too much to plan. “Picnics are so flexible: You can dress them up with involved recipes and elegant touches, or you can head to your favorite market and throw together a pop-up party in a matter of minutes,” says Jen Stevenson, a founding member of the Portland Picnic Society, co-author of “The Picnic: Recipes and Inspiration from Basket to Blanket,” and the gastronomical genius behind the food blog Under the Table With Jen. Get inspired for your own gathering with these ideas.
Rethink deviled eggs
The classic recipe always pleases, but it’s fun to take a crack at a new version. Here, two that Stevenson loves:
Try a BLT: Mix minced cooked bacon into the filling; garnish with ½ cherry tomato and a piece of baby arugula.
Perk it up with pesto: Mix in a bit of store-bought pesto to the filling, then top with tiny fresh basil leaves.
Make a daring dip
Crudité and dip are an easy appetizer, but it’s fun to wow your guests with a shock of color.
“Hummus doesn’t have to be boring,” says Stevenson. “Add roasted red beets to turn the dip a gorgeous shade of magenta, or blend in a handful of parsley for a fresh flavor and a pretty green hue.”
Prep individual desserts
What’s cuter than a mini mason jar? A sweet treat for one inside that itty-bitty container. Serve lemon curd topped with whipped cream, chocolate pudding with fresh strawberries, or a fruit and yogurt parfait. Or bake a crumble (like the Portland Picnic Society’s drool-worthy Blueberry Cardamom Crumble, pictured here) right in the jar.
“Most crumble recipes can be baked in jars or ramekins; just be careful not to overfill since they tend to bubble up while cooking,” recommends Stevenson.
Forget tired sandwiches
Turkey or tuna salad on whole wheat screams “school lunch,” not glam outdoor gathering. One of the most colorful and delicious sandwiches to bring is the classic pan bagnat, which is based on salade Nicoise.
It’s easy: Split a fresh baguette from your favorite bakery, then layer it with high-quality canned tuna, sliced hard-boiled eggs, anchovies, olives, sliced fresh tomatoes and lettuce. This is a seriously picnic-proof sandwich; the hardy crust protects the gourmet goods you stuff inside. It’s a cinch to transport if you wait and slice on-site (bring toothpicks to secure each individual sammy).
Get creative with props
Sometimes the most picturesque spots lack a picnic table, but a basket with a flat, hard top can serve as a miniature table once it’s unpacked. You can also incorporate everyday kitchenware into your spread for easier serving. Bring cutting boards and platters to set food on.
“We like to fill a Le Creuset Dutch oven with ice, then keep our wine and bottled cocktails in it,” says Stevenson. “Eight-ounce jam jars make the perfect glasses, because they’re easy to nestle into the grass.”
Another idea: Schlep goodies from the car to the picnic site in an old-school red wagon, then use the wagon as a table. If someone asks you to pass the three-bean salad, you can just give the wagon a push in her direction.
Sip in style
With all those delicious snacks, don’t forget about drinks. The Pimm’s Cup, a classic gin-based English cocktail, is refreshing but not too sweet. With this version, from “The Picnic,” each guest gets his or her own mason-jar cocktail for easy transport.
Elderflower Pimm’s Cup
Yield: 1 serving
Excerpted from “The Picnic” by Marnie Hanel, Andrea Slonecker and Jen Stevenson (Artisan). Copyright 2015. Photographs by David Reamer.
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Lemon Simple Syrup:
½ cup sugar
½ cup water
1 small lemon, zested with a peeler into ½-inch strips
2 ounces Pimm’s No. 1 Cup
1 ounce St. Germain liqueur
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon Lemon Simple Syrup
1 strawberry, hulled and quartered
1 thin slice orange, quartered
3 thin slices cucumber
1 mint sprig
1 1/2 strips lemon peel, from Lemon Simple Syrup
Before the picnic:
1. Make Lemon Simple Syrup by bringing sugar and water to a gentle simmer in a small pot. Stir frequently until the sugar has dissolved and the syrup is clear. Remove from heat and add the lemon peel. Let the syrup steep for one hour. Strain the syrup into a jar. Reserve the lemon peel for garnish.
2. Combine the booze, lemon juice, and simple syrup in a Mason jar. Add the strawberry, orange, and cucumber. Replace the lid and pack in a cooler filled with ice.
At the picnic:
3. Add ice, top with club soda, garnish with a mint sprig and lemon peel strip, add a straw, and serve.
Pick a theme
Instead of just throwing food in your basket willynilly, pick a theme to tie everything together. Make it meze madness (meze are small plates, dips and salads common throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East) with feta-topped figs, bunches of fresh grapes, hummus and pita, kalamata olives, and dolma (grape leaves stuffed with rice).
Host a Southern soiree with deviled eggs, macaroni salad, fried chicken and sweet tea. Plan a Parisian party with roast chicken; Lyonnaise potato salad; crusty baguette with brie, Camembert and chevre; rainbow-hued macarons; and plenty of rosé.
Main photo: Turn your picnic into a feast with a few simple twists. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Reamer, from “The Picnic” by Marnie Hanel, Andrea Slonecker and Jen Stevenson (Artisan).