Articles in Tradition
With the continued interest in fermentation and increased popularity in drinks such as kombucha on the rise, other types of unusual beverages are getting attention. One of these is shrubs.
Ever since a meal at Pok Pok in Portland, Oregon, revealed my adoration for drinking vinegars (aka shrubs), I’ve been on the lookout for the tarty, fruity concentrate wherever I’ve roamed. Finally, at a recent San Francisco Bay area food event, I saw a demure woman standing in a corner pouring tiny tastes of her homemade shrubs.
Christina Merkes, a classically trained chef and entrepreneur, had hit on some winning combinations of fruits, herbs and vinegar that drew a crowd to her like bees swarming the hive. The fig vanilla shrub had the deep flavor of that fall fruit, while the blood orange cardamom was a spicy citrus mouthful. and the cabernet was a smooth wine-country symphony. Merkes has a knack for unusual combinations of local, seasonal fruits and herbs. And she is onto something, as more and more mixologists, bartenders and home cooks explore the age-old process of making drinking vinegars and shrubs.
Shrubs started as means of food preservation
The custom began before the age of refrigeration, when fruit was mixed with sugar and vinegar for preservation. The resulting drink was served for medicinal purposes, as a fever reducer and blood thinner, and used as a replacement for alcohol as well as a mixer for cocktails. Smugglers added fruit and sugar to tainted barrels of rum they had hidden in the ocean as a way to mask the seawater flavor, and colonialists mixed fruit and sugar with vinegar as a way to preserve the harvest.
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Pok Pok chef Andy Ricker came back from a trip to Southeast Asia, where drinking vinegars are a commonly quaffed beverage, and he put them on the menu at his restaurant. He felt the tart tonics would be the perfect foil for his spicy Thai street food, and they’ve proved wildly popular. He is most frequently credited with starting the shrub and drinking vinegar trend in the U.S.
Merkes was inspired to try her hand at making shrubs after a friend raved about a cocktail she’d had at a bar in wine country that contained pomegranate shrub mixed with bourbon and jalapeno. So Merkes embarked on a path of discovery, testing and mixing, balancing tart and sweet, and using her chef’s sharpened palate to come up with unusual and flavorful fruit, vegetable and herb combinations. She found basic recipes online, then followed her taste buds for new flavors to create.
One such recipe heats the vinegar for the infusion with fruit and the other uses a cold method. Merkes prefers not to use heat, saying the fresh fruit or vegetable flavor comes through better without it. Here are a few other tips from her for a successful shrub brew:
- Sterilize the container before adding the shrub mixture.
- Use white balsamic or apple cider vinegars or a combination of the two.
- Use organic sugar, either white or turbinado, depending on the color of the fruit or vegetable.
- Use only fruits or vegetables that are in season.
- Store the shrub in the refrigerator, where it will keep for up to a year.
Drinking vinegars are incredibly versatile, beyond a refreshing thirst quencher or cocktail mixer, although that is what they are best known for. You can use them to make a soda by mixing 1 to 2 tablespoons of shrub into a glass of sparkling water and adding lots of ice, or add berry- or ginger-flavored shrubs to perk up iced tea. You can also swirl them into a glass of wine or sparkling wine for a riff on kir royale or wine spritzer. And shrubs are a natural in cocktails; barkeeps in the U.S. are coming up with all kinds of creative concoctions. For ideas, see what they are trying at Whiskey Soda Lounge at Pok Pok.
Merkes has come up with several cocktails, including one that is layered with bourbon on the bottom and top and black cherry and apricot basil shrubs in the middle and another that is a take on the original inspiration for her shrub business called The Marin Cruiser: pineapple melange shrub with vodka, lime, cilantro, jalapeno and sparkling water.
Other uses for shrubs include in salad dressings; whisked into mayonnaise for a sauce on fish; as a topping for ice cream, fresh fruit and cakes; and as a finishing sauce for grilled meat and poultry. Just as they used the technique in early America, drinking vinegar is a great way to capture the bounty of what is in the garden or at the farmers market right now before winter is upon us.
Merkes is still perfecting her recipes but expects to have her products available for sale in the next year. Pok Pok sells its drinking vinegar online, so if you don’t feel like making your own, check out one of their flavors.
As drinking vinegars continue to catch on, keep an eye out for them at local bars and specialty food shops. The flavors they can add to your favorite recipes will surely have you coming back for more.
Photo: Shrubs, or drinking vinegars, are concentrates that can be used to make cocktails and other drinks as well as add flavor to other dishes. Credit: Brooke Jackson
For the British, tea is not just a hot beverage; it is a meal. The most delightful meal of the day, in fact, but the word embraces a wide variety of meals and occasions. It can be served at any time between 3:30 and 6 in the afternoon, around a kitchen table or in a drawing room with elegant chairs. Whether afternoon tea, high tea or some more exotic variant, confusion often arises as to exactly what each involves. The only constant is the tea (to drink).
In the second half of the 20th century, tea, as a meal, declined. This was partly because cakes and other teatime goodies received bad press health wise, and partly because the lives of Britons became more hurried, often to the point where we no longer even stopped for a cup of tea, let alone a proper meal. Recently, this trend has reversed. We are more interested in baking, some healthier ingredients have moved to the fore and the importance of family meals has been widely recognized.
Tea as a drink was fashionable in Britain by the late 17th century, but it did not refer to a meal until 1840 when Anna, the duchess of Bedford, felt a “sinking feeling” and ordered cake to be served with a cup of tea. At this time, a long gap without food occurred between a light lunch and a late dinner. Anna was a close friend of Queen Victoria and influential in aristocratic circles, so tea and cake rapidly became very popular. The queen herself enjoyed a meal at teatime (Victoria sponge, a pound cake sliced in half and filled with jam, cream or both, is named in her honor). It began as a meal of the leisured classes, those with the time and money to be able to sit and relax during the afternoon. It was often called “low” tea, as the participants sat on comfortable low chairs in elegant drawing rooms. With time, the meal developed and sandwiches were included, typically finely sliced cucumber between paper-thin slices of bread. A wide range of dainty cakes and pastries followed. Cream teas with scones, clotted cream and jam originated in Devon and Cornwall, where clotted cream is chiefly made, but are now available countrywide.
The 19th century Industrial Revolution in Britain brought about the rise of “high” tea, spurred by urbanization. Builders and factory workers often worked considerable distances from their homes and returned hungry in the early evening. They fell into the habit of taking a meal at about 6 p.m. sitting around a table, usually in the kitchen. This was a much more substantial affair than the low or afternoon tea of the aristocracy, and it became known in contrast as a high tea. Everything was placed on the table at once, including pies and cold meats, tarts and salads, jam, honey, toasted tea cakes and hearty fruitcakes. The richer the household, the more there typically was. One of the best types of high tea is in a farmhouse kitchen, with homemade bread, newly churned butter, and a feast of fresh and simple food.
An article in the Daily Telegraph of 1893 describes it perfectly: “A well-understood ‘high tea’ should have cold roast beef at the top of the table, a cold Yorkshire pie at the bottom, a mighty ham in the middle. The side dishes will comprise soused mackerel, pickled salmon (in due season), sausages and potatoes etc., etc. Rivers of tea, coffee and ale, with dry and buttered toast, sally-luns, scones, muffins and crumpets, jams and marmalade.” A light supper, such as a sandwich, followed later in the evening.
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High tea is often associated with northern areas of England, where it is called “meat tea,” and Scotland, where it is simply called “tea.” “Tea” meant the same thing in Australia and New Zealand. This could cause misunderstandings when guests were invited to (afternoon) tea but turned up several hours late, expecting a more substantial meal.
A glance at the table will quickly show which type of tea is being served. Even the china is different. Afternoon tea uses fine china cups and saucers, usually filled with fine tea, while high tea uses mugs and a large brown teapot, usually filled with a stronger brew of tea.
Strictly speaking, afternoon tea fills the gap between lunch and dinner, but it’s rarely vital to one’s survival. High tea, on the other hand, is a necessary meal, eaten when typically artisan workers return. Nowadays the divisions are blurred, with food such as scones and sponge cakes appearing at both meals. The very adaptability of tea has caused this confusion, but whatever we call the meal, it is one that we British believe we would be much poorer without.
Main photo: A traditional English high tea consists of hearty rustic fare. Credit: J.M. Hunter
Conversations with more than 50 distillers over the last two years have changed me. No, I haven’t had a liver transplant; I’ve undergone an adjective-ectomy.
I’ve spent most of the last 25 years writing and editing, and a little less of that time drinking, so it’s not surprising that a word has taken on outsized importance. It’s a word I would like to see banished from all discussion of spirits. And that word is … “smooth.”
Hold on one stinkin’ minute, I can hear you thinking, isn’t that the (Johnnie Walker) Gold standard? The sine quaff non of distillers everywhere? As a matter of fact, no. And if you’re looking for smoothness in your glass you’ve been sold a bill of goods.
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By James Rodewald
Before embarking on the research for my recently released book on craft distillers, I would not have questioned the assertion that smooth was the height of perfection. Ah, for a simpler time.
Dan Farber, co-owner of the world-class brandy producer Osocalis, in Soquel, Calif., is one of the best makers and agers of brown spirits in the country. As such he’s at the top of a very small group. It’s a group, just by the way, that does not include very many bourbon producers since most are somewhat indifferent to the making.
The big guys use an industrial process, and what ends up in a $20 bottle may well have started out as the very same liquid as, say, a bottle of one of the delicious but overpriced and impossible to find Pappy Van Winkle bourbons. As for the aging, when you’ve got a seven-story high, football-field size warehouse full of bourbon, odds are that a few of those barrels will be sublime. Small producers do not have these luxuries, so they have to take a more careful, hands-on approach.
Farber characterizes smoothness as a “trivial thing” and “entry-level stuff.” What’s he’s going for — and the proof of his success can be found in everything he makes, but particularly his XO brandy — is brown spirits that have “the flavor of the beast that they came from, yet also have all these new things.”
Those new things come from aging. And while we’re on the subject of banishing words and sloppy thinking from the booze world, if someone says they’re able to speed up aging by using small barrels, run the other way. Sure, you can get more wood character more quickly, but why would you want to?
“Smooth” is not just Distilling 101; it’s also the path away from complexity. Milk is smooth. Aged spirits should be complex.
Are Farber’s brandies harsh? By no means. But when they’re in your mouth, and for many minutes after, nerve cells are firing in all directions. I defy anyone to take a sip of any Osocalis product and have nothing more interesting to say about it than “smooth.”
Jake Norris is an original partner in Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, one of the first and best small, independent American whiskey producers. (He left Stranahan’s shortly after Proximo, the owners of Jose Cuervo and other brands, bought the company.) He’s now at Laws Whiskey House, the most promising new whiskey distillery in the country. The fear Norris expressed to me, about a year into production, was that his whiskey was too smooth.
“The danger might be that it’s almost too balanced. In the beginning,” he said, “it was overly smooth and I was afraid it was going to lose character, so I [adjusted the distillation] so you get that slight astringent suck on the tongue. It’s got a little bit of teeth so it can sit in the barrels longer, meaning two to five years. If all of this is done properly, it can go to possibly six or eight years, maybe more. I don’t know if I would try that.”
Not every small, independent spirits producer (and very few of those who make aged brown spirits) is making stuff as good as Osocalis or Laws. Almost none can afford to use large barrels and wait until time and good wood have worked their magic. What every one of them can do is tell you honestly what they’re trying to do and how they’re going about it.
If they say their whiskey is smooth, however, feel free to explain to them that that’s exactly how you like your shaves, babies’ bottoms and gravy. But not what’s in your glass.
Main photo: “American Spirit” author James Rodewald wants to change how we talk about booze. Credit: Marella Consolini
It may be the Puerto Rican version of moonshine, but pitorro is creating a buzz — in more ways than one — in the South Bronx, where Port Morris Distillery has been making this potent drink since 2010.
Childhood friends Ralph Barbosa, 41, and William Valentin, 43, launched Port Morris Distillery (PMD) after visiting Puerto Rico on vacation. Armed with a dream, Master Distiller Tio (Barbosa’s uncle Rafael Rodriguez) and a $60,000 budget, PMD is drawing amazing street traffic from celebrities, old-school folks and millennials in search of something unique.
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“Our families thought we were nuts, but stood by us,” said Barbosa, who counts his wife Miriam, an educator, and Valentin’s family members as staff.
The only professional experience they had with making spirits was drinking. But, after visiting Puerto Rico on a vacation, they decided they wanted to do something to honor their culture.
Pitorro is a cultural spirit based on sugarcane, and it is created throughout the Caribbean, Central America and South America. It has names like Jamaica shine, clarén in the Dominican Republic, guaro in Honduras, cachaça in Brazil and pisco in Peru.
An old-school approach
Rodriguez’s old-school approach, perfected in the hills of Guayama, is to measure everything by eye and taste. Pour your homemade libation onto the ground, light a match to it and watch it burn, all the while noticing its color and how long it burns. This is a test of quality and whether the distillate is tainted or not.
Rodriguez was persuaded to leave Puerto Rico, join PMD and oversee production after the guys tested and showed how perfectly consistent his homemade spirit measured on a hydrometer at 92 proof. ‘That’s the history of our 92 proof!” Barbosa said.
Once onboard, Rodriguez decided he wanted to age pitorro in wood-cast barrels. PMD‘s 80 proof anejo is cured by resting the pitorro in wood-cast barrels for less than two years.
“Our pitorro is created with all the detail of a fine wine, but it hits you with a fuller effect,” Barbosa said. The taste attracts drinkers of aged whiskey, rum and tequila, as well as those who like mixed drinks. In Puerto Rico, it is mixed into coquito, the local eggnog.
Everything at PMD is handcrafted. Rodriguez’s recipe is distinctive. He prefers to prolong fermentation and turn the mash into a beer-wine consistency, giving it 14 to 21 days to cure, as compared to the usual four- to five-day fermentation process applied to most spirits.
“Tio’s fermentation process gives our spirit a glassy pearl-look and, most importantly, prevents hangovers,” Barbosa said. Every self-respecting pitorrero (moonshiner) knows that without the perlas (pearl-look), the pitorro is no good, he said.
The mash is made of apples, honey, brown sugar, non-GMO corn, yeast and New York City water.
“We fill and label each bottle by hand. We heave big bags of apples onto our shoulders,” Barbosa said. They handle their own distribution.
They built their raw first-floor loft space, including assembling the still from Germany. They designed and created a tasting room to feel and look like Old San Juan. The bar is finished with corrugated zinc metal, in typical island style.
They applied for a NYS Farm D license ($127), which allows them to distribute wholesale, sell retail and run a tasting room, according to Barbosa, who quit a job as a superintendent for the New York City Department of Housing. Valentin worked as a sheet metal professional with a local union.
A growing community
“The great thing about the microdistillery business is that we are part of a small yet growing community. We help each other. We are not competitors,” Barbosa said.
“I heard a TED Talk by Ralph Erenzo of Hudson, N.Y., who lectured about ‘gumption.’ He is credited with reforming the New York State Farm Distillery Act. He said that there was no blueprint to start a distillery.
“That’s all we needed to hear. Everything we did was on the fly,” Barbosa said. In December 2013, after three years of work and getting all the licenses, they launched Pitorro Shine, 92 proof and Pitorro Anejo, both at 750ML & 375 ML.
Barbosa said that branding, word-of-mouth and luck were important factors for this start-up. “We were featured on a local New York TV show that drew one viewer straight to our door,” he said.
“That customer, Mercedes Garcia, was our very first customer. She said it sounded like her grandfather’s moonshine. Once she tried it she was so amazed that she returned with her family. They loved it too and started spreading the word.
“We call our customers ‘members’ as we are a growing ‘movement,’ ” he continues. “We have live music, an old-school salsa band every other Friday evenings and home-cooked food.”
PMD offers a tasting room by appointment. There are tasting tours every Friday.
Main photo: PMD makes Pitorro Shine and Anejo in its South Bronx distillery. Credit: Jennifer Yip
Though I’d been anticipating it for weeks, it was while sitting at a stoplight that the intoxicating aroma of linden flowers (Tilia spp.) first hit my nose. I jerked my head around, craning over my shoulder and peering out the windows in a desperate attempt to locate the tree whose flowers supply my favorite herbal tisane.
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No doubt the people in the surrounding cars thought I was nuts. If only they knew that the tree with the fiercely fragrant flowers could provide them with a divine beverage, they too would be thrilled by the scent.
As my years as a forager roll on, I become clearer about which crops are worth my time to harvest. I try to live on wild edible plants for as much of the year as possible, no easy task in the high altitude, dry climate, and short growing season where I live in Colorado.
This means I have to work hard during the short period of growth, not only to harvest my favorite plants in great enough quantity to get me through the off-season, but also to preserve those plants, whether by drying, freezing, or canning.
As my go-to beverage, linden is high atop my list of desirable wild foods. Last year, I picked and dried enough linden flowers to fill a laundry basket. It wasn’t enough. In late winter, thirsting for my favorite tea, I pillaged the linden stocks of two friends.
Fragrant foraging in the shade
Also known as basswood or lime, linden is a deciduous tree with leaves shaped like slightly crooked hearts. In my area, they are used frequently as ornamental trees, mostly likely for their fragrant flowers and generous shade. The bees are particularly fond of linden, and one can often locate the trees by the sound of buzzing bees.
When the leaves first emerge and are still tender, they can be eaten in salads and sandwiches. The flowers clusters grow along with a long pale green leaf-like structure, known as a bract. When harvesting, pinch off the bract and flower clusters of linden. Since the trees flower abundantly, it is often most efficient to grab several flower clusters, avoiding the leaves, and strip them off all at once.
As with all flowers, to maximize fragrance, and therefore flavor, it is best the harvest linden flowers in full sun. It may sound obvious, but on a hot day, by all means, stand in the shade of the tree while harvesting flowers. It will make a difference when your arms tire.
As always, be sure to forage in the cleanest possible location. Avoid linden trees that grow alongside busy streets or in areas that might have been sprayed with chemicals.
Herbalists know that although it is gentle enough for children and seniors alike, linden is strong medicine, soothing and demulcent. Throughout the scorching growing season, I enjoy cold infusions of linden flowers, which help me to deal with the heat and stay moisturized from the inside out. By winter, the sight of delicate linden flowers floating in my teacup call to mind the long days of summer.
Turn linden into teas and cocktails
With experience as a forager, I’ve given up commercial teas in favor of my wild herbal blends. Not only does this save me money, but I have the reassurance of knowing exactly where my tea came from. I’ve also become quite skilled as a drink-maker, despite initially not knowing much about the subject.
Even though I couldn’t really sniff out a great glass of wine, and don’t know the difference between whisky and whiskey, I make amazing concoctions and cocktails that are hits both in my house and at social events. As a wildcrafter, I have the advantage of bringing truly unique flavors to any party.
If you’ve got a tasty wild edible plant on your hands, I encourage you to experiment with ways to preserve it. Infuse it into vodka, later adding sugar syrup to taste if needed. Try it in vinegar, or in a shrub, which is an aged mix of infused vinegar and sugar. Combine it with whichever fruit is in season. Dabble in making homemade bitters. This year, I’ve got an experimental batch of linden vinegar going, as well as a jar of linden and lemon balm in gin.
Whether you are new to linden or and old pro, you can’t beat classic linden tisane and honey infused with heady linden flowers.
Pick off the freshest linden flowers (leaving behind stems and bracts), enough to loosely fill a jar. Pour fresh honey over the flowers, and leave them for at least three weeks in a warm place. Though there is no need to do so, if you wish to strain out the linden flowers after the honey has infused, set the linden honey in a sunny windowsill for a day, then strain out the flowers. The candied flowers can be enjoyed atop ice cream or cake. The floral-scented honey can be the genesis of myriad recipes. This recipe is so beautiful, you may want to consider making several extra jars of linden honey to use as gifts.
Cold-Infused Linden Tisane
1 cup loosely packed linden flowers (fresh or dried), bracts included
20 small wild rose heads (substitute one green tea bag)
½ gallon lukewarm water
1. Add the linden flowers, roses, and water to a ½ gallon mason jar. Leave the jar on a counter for 8 hours, then refrigerate it until cold.
2. Strain out the flowers, squeezing with your hands. Serve over ice, and with a drizzle of linden honey if you prefer sweet tea.
½ cup cold-infused linden tisane
¼ cup white grape juice
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 ounce gin
½ cup seltzer water
Stir together all the ingredients, and serve them over ice.
Main photo: Foraged linden flowers in a basket. Credit: Wendy Petty
From the nondescript exterior of the Café des Musées in Paris, you wouldn’t expect it to be one of the city’s best bistros. Yet inside you’ll find plenty of conviviality and good cheer, and a simply stunning Champagne, Drappier Brut Nature, being poured by the glass. Even on a chilly rain-swept evening such as the one I experienced last month, a visit to this restaurant and a glass (or two, or more) of this sensational wine will be sure to warm body and spirit alike.
That the Café des Musées serves such an exceptional Champagne is a testament to the French approach to Champagne in general. There, unlike here in the United States, Champagne is first and foremost a wine, not a luxury product, and should be enjoyed like all wines—without snobbery or pretense, but with good will and joie de vivre.
Drappier Brut Nature is a non-vintage, non-dosage wine. The first designation means that, like most Champagnes, it is a blend from multiple harvests, the winemaker’s goal being not only to display quality but also to maintain consistency. Wherever and whenever you drink it, a non-vintage Champagne should taste much the same as the last time you had it.
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In the case of this particular wine, it will taste completely dry, “non-dosage” meaning a Champagne deliberately crafted without the sugary syrup that most winemakers add to their cuvées in order to soften and, yes, sweeten them. Because the Champagne region lies at the northernmost geographical limit for ripening grapes, wines there are naturally high in acidity, leaving a tart impression that sometimes can turn unpleasantly sour.
In recent years, due in part to improved winemaking but even more to a series of quite warm summers, dosage levels have gone down in Champagne, with the amount of sugar used now being roughly half of what it was 15 to 20 years ago. Entirely non-dosage Champagnes remain, however, quite rare. The base wine in them needs to be exceptionally good. Sugar can conceal faults, but its absence will magnify them. No matter how much the region’s climate has changed, these Champagnes still run the risk of tasting harsh and acerbic. That’s why only a handful of producers even try to make them.
Drappier’s Brut Nature tastes flawless. Surprisingly rich on the palate (surprising precisely because of the absence of sugar), it is enticingly aromatic and very yeasty in the finish. Made with 100% Pinot Noir, most of which comes from Drappier’s home vineyard in the village of Urville, it exhibits a depth of flavor typical of wines made with that grape variety but unexpected in a non-dosage Champagne.
Decant this Champagne
I would advise decanting this wine because it will really come into its own when in contact with air. The two glasses I had at the start of dinner at Café des Musées came from an open bottle, in fact a magnum, so had been exposed to plenty of air before being served. My enthusiasm for them surely was due in part to that interplay of wine and oxygen, a chemical exchange that helps the wine develop a softer, more appealing texture and a more complex so compelling bouquet.
Much of my enthusiasm, though, surely also came from the situation. This was my fourth dinner over the years at this restaurant, and as with my earlier visits, I was enthralled. Although it’s located on the edge of the hip Marais district, the Café des Musées is no gastronomic temple, and its menu is anything but cutting edge. Instead, this is the place to go for traditional French bistro fare — juicy steak frites, spicy andouillette, “black pork” loin, steak tartare and the like.
As that list suggests, the menu here is a carnivore’s dream. While the house-smoked salmon is some of the best you’ll find anywhere, and the chef always offers at least one fish as a main course, you’ll want to go only if you can bring a hearty, meat-eating appetite. Portions are large, the atmosphere joyous. You’ll be sitting close enough to a fellow diner to bump (not just rub) elbows. So long as the Champagne keeps flowing, however, no one will much care.
So reserve a table the next time you are lucky enough to be in Paris. And toast your good fortune with a glass of Drappier Brut Nature. Then hum this song. Though in reality spring in Paris tends to be wet and chilly, Vernon Duke and Y. A. “Yip” Harburg got the sentiment just right:
I never knew the charm of spring
Never met it face to face
I never knew my heart could sing
Never missed a warm embrace
Till April in Paris . . .
Drappier Brut Nature is imported into the United States by, among others, A. Hardy USA. It retails for roughly $50 a bottle.
Café des Musées is in the third arrondissment, at 49 rue Turenne, 75003 Paris. The telephone number is 1 42 72 96 17. (Dial 330 before the number if calling from the United States; dial 0 if calling from within Paris.)
Main photo: The Café des Musées in Paris. Credit: Marguerite Thomas
Nothing gives a cocktail a kick quite like bitters. Whether it’s an Old Fashioned, a Manhattan or a Champagne Cocktail, those quick dashes from a paper-wrapped bottle turn simple alcohol into something mysterious, tangy and alluring. There are big-name bitters — Angostura and Peychauds — with secret recipes and exotic back stories. At some hipster cocktail bars, you will find mixologists with steam-punk facial hair who have whipped-up their own concoctions of bitters that are just as mysterious and secret.
But if I’m going to use bitters when sharing an Old Fashioned with my husband, I’m going to want to make my own. And that required some research.
It turns out that bitters have a long and distinguished history, a history that stretches back before the invention of distilled spirits. The angostura bitters that you find at supermarkets and liquor stores began life not as a cocktail mixer, but as a medicine.
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The bitters recipe created by Dr. Johann Siegert in the town of Angostura, Venezuela, in the 1820s was meant as a digestive aid for the troops of Simon Bolivar. Folk medicine has long held that a bitter taste helps digestion. For centuries, herbalists and self-taught doctors have known that healing plants can be preserved if saved in tincture form. And a tincture is simply an herb that has been left in alcohol long enough.
I dove into online research with gusto, discovering the high-alcohol patent medicines of the 19th century colonial era, and even some stretching back to medieval medical writers such as St. Hildegard of Bingen. But these historic recipes were extensive and required access to some bizarre herbs. Even a fairly modern recipe reverse-engineered from the Angostura original required roots and seeds that I wouldn’t find at my local grocery store.
Then I stumbled upon a simple answer: a kit.
Dash Bitters is the brainchild of Gina and Brian Hutchinson, a husband-and-wife team of DIY cocktail mavens who ran into the same problem I had.
“We found lots of old recipes online from small-town pharmacies,” Gina told me, “but when we tried to order the ingredients, we could only order in big bulk batches.” Herbs like gentian root, wormwood and burdock could only be ordered by the pound.
“You only need a teaspoon of gentian root for bitters,” Gina said, “A pound is more than any person will need in their entire lifetime. It would have been nice to have just bought a kit and not have to pay for shipping of each five times over.” That was their brainstorm. Dash Bitters was born.
Making bitters at home
I immediately went to dashbitters.com and ordered the 1889 kit, meant to reproduce the Angosturian digestive aid for Simon Bolivar’s troops. Dash’s packaging is simple and elegant, but the herbal ingredients were the real revelation: pungent, beautiful, each with their own stories that stretched back to the era when medicine and magic were nearly identical.
Gentian Root, the star ingredient, actually has medical value as an anti-inflammatory and antiseptic. But in 1653 British herbalist Nicholas Culpeper noted that gentian “comforts the heart and preserves it against faintings and swoonings: the powder of the dry roots helps the biting of mad dogs and venomous beasts.” That makes for a powerful Manhattan.
The Dash kit also contains a redolent packet of cardamom. Its sweetness is a nice balance to the bitterness of gentian, and Bolivar’s army would have found it useful because it’s a proven aid for heartburn and gastric complaints.
The most interesting of the herbs to me were the round peppery seeds called grains of paradise. This West African spice was first discovered by Europeans during the Renaissance. My research took me away from the Internet and into the real world, where I had the pleasure of visiting the extraordinary collection of medieval texts of The Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions. Its scientific director, Alain Touwaide, showed me reproductions of historic texts and illustrations of Grains of Paradise, which he told me was more popular than black pepper in 14th-century France, and three times more expensive.
According to Touwaide’s copy of the “Tractatus de Herbis,” the spice’s pungent flavor was said to have the properties of “warming, drying and giving ease.” In “The Boke of Nurture,” John Russell described Grains of Paradise as provoking “hot and moist humors,” and apparently, that was medieval code for “aphrodisiac.” Oddly enough, a 2002 medical study showed that extracts of Grains of Paradise “significantly increased” the sexual activity of lab rats.
Dog bite treatment, gastric cure, aphrodisiac … you can see why bitters quickly migrated from the medicine chest to the cocktail bar.
Extracting the essence of these magical herbs is not a short process, and I felt like a medieval alchemist as I boiled, strained and transferred the herbal concoction from one tincture jar to another. Three weeks later, I had my own small jar of pungent, aromatic bitters, ready for its first introduction to some locally-made bourbon and a bit of sugar.
But I discovered one other interesting fact about making bitters that Gina had warned me about. Even a small kit gives you a lot more bitters than you’ll use on your own. The solution: cooking with bitters!
So as you sip your Manhattan or Old Fashioned, you can use the rest of your alchemical digestive aid on a batch of chocolate cookie sandwiches with cherry walnut bitters frosting. It’s for your health, after all.
Chocolate Cookie Sandwiches With Cherry Walnut Bitters Frosting
(Recipe courtesy of Dash Bitters)
Makes approximately 12 small, sandwich cookies
1½ cup almond flour
¼ teaspoon salt for cookies, plus an additional pinch for frosting
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ cup arrowroot powder
⅛ cup cocoa powder
¼ cup grapeseed oil
⅓ cup agave nectar
⅔ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 ounces cream cheese, softened
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon Cherry Walnut Bitters
1½ to 1¾ cups confectioners’ sugar
1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.
2. In a large bowl, mix almond flour, salt, baking soda, arrowroot powder and cocoa powder.
3. In a small bowl, whisk together the grapeseed oil, agave nectar and vanilla extract. Pour the wet ingredients into the almond flour mixture and stir until thoroughly combined.
4. With a teaspoon, scoop the dough one teaspoon at a time onto the prepared baking sheets, leaving at least two inches between each cookie. The dough will spread.
5. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until the tops of the cookies look dry and the color darkens.
6. Remove the cookies from the oven and allow the cookies to cool on a cooling rack for 10 minutes while you make the frosting.
7. Beat together cream cheese and butter on medium speed until mixture is fluffy, about one minute. Scrape down bowl with a spatula. Add cherry walnut bitters and salt. Mix on low for another minute.
8. With the mixer on low, slowly add 1 cup of the confectioners’ sugar; beat for 20 seconds. Scrape down bowl. If consistency is too soft to hold its shape, add additional confectioners’ sugar, one tablespoon at a time, until desired consistency is reached. Frosting can be kept refrigerated, in an airtight container with plastic wrap pressed on the surface, for several days.
Top photo: Making homemade bitters requires spices, alcohol and, above all, patience. Credit: Susan Lutz
The driver who took me from Punjab to Kashmir, India, estimated the ride to be around eight hours, 10 if we ran into traffic, which he assured me was inevitable. After spending the past few days wandering through India’s Golden Temple of Amritsar, I was ready to hit the road and didn’t blink at the double-digit journey to Srinagar.
At first I enjoyed the quick stops we made at the dhabas, roadside stands serving hot, homemade meals that are a ubiquitous feature on any road trip in India. As we gained momentum, our speed slowed to a steady but painful crawl up the Himalayan two-lane highways we shared with what seemed like every truck in the nation. The air thinned, and the dhaba stops became more frequent in an effort to break up the monotony. By the fourth egg omelet — a fried egg wrapped around a piece of toast and grilled — my mouth dried up at the sight of them and I declined to get out of the car. We were 14 hours in, and I wanted nothing else but to get there.
It was early November and our anemic car heater didn’t stand a chance against the clutch of an early winter. Then we stopped altogether in a massive traffic jam in the middle of the night on top of a mountain.
The driver, who had not said a word to me in 17 hours, explained that an avalanche had blocked off the road miles ahead and we would need to wait for it to be cleared. Hours passed in the cold, black night with nothing to think about but how much I wished I had not passed up my last opportunity for an egg omelet.
At last we were on our way, climbing and climbing until we finally arrived at my hotel on the edge of Dal Lake, famous for its elaborate houseboats and shikaras, the Kashmiri version of a gondola.
The entrance gate was locked, and no one answered when I rang the bell over and over in what I feared might be a futile attempt to find a bed that night. At last the hotel owner wiped his sleepy eyes as he walked to the gate, then showed me to my room, where I wanted to sleep for days.
Kahwah tea an ancient tradition
A knock on my door late the next morning woke me.
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“I am sorry to bother you ma’am, but would you like some tea?” asked the man who stood before me, wearing a black linen suit buttoned up to his neck.
“I would love some tea. Thank you so much. No sugar, please,” I said to avoid the sugar-bomb chai served everywhere in India.
“Ma’am, if I may invite you to tea at our restaurant? We have a special tea here in Kashmir that will warm and restore you after your long journey.”
I wanted nothing more than to return to my bed, but I couldn’t turn down someone so polite and I reluctantly followed him to the dining room. This was my first opportunity to see Kashmir in the daylight, and even from the vantage point of my hotel, it was glorious. Soaring, snowcapped mountains and the freshest air my lungs had inhaled for ages were already doing a number on my exhaustion; I was now looking forward to the restorative elixir he promised.
“Would you like to join us in the kitchen, ma’am, to learn how this tea is prepared? We read a little about you after you made your booking, curious as to why someone would venture to Kashmir so late in the season. When we saw your interest in food, we suspected you were coming for the saffron harvest. I believe you would enjoy learning about our special kahwah tea. We are very proud of it in Kashmir.”
I was, indeed, there for the saffron festival, and I could not resist his offer. “I would be honored,” I told the man, who later told me his name was Ashish.
Inside the kitchen, several cooks gathered round as the head chef, Kiran, gathered the ingredients he needed. He crushed up cinnamon and cardamom pods, adding them to boiling water that he sprinkled with cloves and threads of saffron. He let it boil for a few moments before spooning green tea into it, the aroma of hospitality filling my nose.
The Kashmiri tradition of kahwah tea is so ancient, its origin was lost long before the conflicts between Kashmir and Pakistan began. Pakistanis drink it too, as do the Afghanis. Some say the Chinese were the first to drink kahwah, but it’s likely that most Kashmiris, whose spirits are infused with the tradition of their beloved tea, would disagree. They greet their mornings and conclude their days with it; finding in it solace from the hardships they have endured.
Ashish led me to an outdoor table that Kiran carefully arranged with a tea cup, saucer, kettle and small bowls of honey and crushed almonds. The kitchen staff gathered around, and I felt foolish drinking on my own. There was enough kahwah to go around, and I asked if everyone could join me.
Additional saucers and cups were collected from the kitchen as Ashish sprinkled almonds into my cup and drizzled them with honey. He poured the tea from high above, a golden line of kindness making its way from his kettle to my cup. The air smelled like cinnamon and the tea warmed my spirit, vanquishing fatigue and filling me with gratitude.
Makes 2 cups
1 cinnamon stick, crushed
2 cardamom pods, crushed
3-inch knob of ginger, crushed
2 cups water
4 threads of saffron
1 tablespoon green tea
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon crushed almonds or walnuts
1. Combine the cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 2 minutes before adding the cloves, saffron and tea.
2. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 5 minutes more.
3. Remove from the heat and cover to infuse for 10 more minutes. Strain through a sieve.
4. Drizzle honey into cups, sprinkle it with almonds and pour the tea.
Top photo: The ingredients for kahwah and a prepared cup. Credit: Sandeep Patwal