Articles in Tradition
Here’s a holiday drink that’s loaded with tradition — and most respectable tradition at that: It comes from Martha Washington’s personal cookbook. But it’s not eggnog. In fact, it contains no egg, and it’s served cold, with a sporty flavoring of rosemary and lemon zest. Martha’s recipe calls it “posset,” but it also resembles an old English dessert/drink with the particularly silly name of “syllabub” — which itself has a family resemblance to a dessert with the particularly foolish name of “fool.”
Posset’s ancestry is somewhat obscure. The name itself is a mystery. When it was first written down in the 15th century, it was more likely to be spelled “poshet” or even “poshoote.” The descriptions of the time show that it was a soothing drink for people in sickbed, consisting of milk curdled by the addition of ale and flavored with spices, which were thought to be medicinal. By Shakespeare’s day, it had become something people drank for pleasure — Lady Macbeth helps her husband murder his rival Duncan by drugging his chamberlains’ possets. In the 17th century, possets were generally made with cream and raisiny Mediterranean sweet wines such as sherry or Malmsey. (Sometimes they were thickened with egg yolks in a manner similar to modern eggnog, complete with a touch of nutmeg or cinnamon.)
More from Zester Daily:
Flavored with German wine
Martha Washington’s recipe is unusual in that it’s flavored primarily with German wine. This gives it a lighter, more floral character than eggnog has, without so much of the musty dried-fruit aspect that can grow kind of tiresome during the holiday season. In fact, though the recipe also contains sherry, I prefer to cut the amount down to half a cup to give Riesling a chance.
And the degree of sweetness is up to you. Her recipe calls for 1 1/2 cups of sugar, which is a whole lot for flavoring seven cups of liquid. Go ahead and use that much if you want, but remember the condition of the Father of Our Country’s teeth. I prefer one cup.
Finally, Martha’s version is a whipped (or as she wrote it, “whipt”) posset. It doesn’t whip up anywhere nearly as high as whipped cream, but it does thicken appetizingly, and the foam gradually rises to the top as a kind of frosting on the drink. In this it resembles syllabub, which was also a mixture of cream and wine (though not whipt as much) that separated into alternately rich and winey layers. Note that a certain degree of curdling is caused by the acidity of the wine, giving posset its affinity to the aforementioned English dessert fruit fool.
Prep time: About 10 minutes
Total time: About 10 minutes
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
1 quart (2 pints) whipping cream, well chilled
2 cups German Riesling such as Rheinhessen, or a California or other New World Riesling, if preferred
1 cup cream sherry
1 cup sugar
Several sprigs of fresh rosemary
1. In a mixing bowl, combine the cream, Riesling, sherry and sugar. Whip at low to medium speed for about 5 minutes, then 5 minutes more at medium to medium-high speed (so long as it doesn’t spit posset out of the bowl).
2. Grate the zest of half of the lemon and stir into the mixture. Cut the remaining half of the lemon peel into twists.
3. Squeeze a sprig of rosemary between your fingers, drop it in the bowl, stir and let sit for a minute or two. Taste to see whether you like the amount of rosemary flavor; if you’d like more, stir the mixture again and leave the sprig in a bit longer.
4. Spoon the posset into wine glasses, using a large-mouthed funnel to keep the presentation neat, and garnish each with a rosemary sprig and a twist of lemon.
Main photo: A spot of whipt posset. Credit: Charles Perry
It’s that time of year when raising a glass of bubbly is de rigeur. What would holiday-time commercials be without happy people clinking flute glasses of delicately hued golden nectar, tiny bubbles making a purposeful beeline to the rim of the glass?
But what about revelers who don’t like Champagne or sparkling wine? While I can hardly believe such folks exist, the fact is they do, and they eschew these carbonated wines for a variety of reasons.
For some, Champagnes and sparkling wines are too dry. For others, they are headache inducing, and for yet others, they are too high in alcohol. What, then, to do when asked to raise a glass of cheer to ring in the new year?
Raise a flute of dry, hard apple cider instead.
A revolutionary drink
In the 18th century, hard cider was the preferred drink of the American everyman. Most often brewed at home, it was drunk at breakfast or in place of water — by men, women and children alike.
More from Zester Daily
“The cider of the 18th century is probably around the same strength as today — typically around 7% (alcohol by volume) — but would be much more sour them modern versions,” said chef Frank Clark, the director of Historic Foodways at Colonial Williamsburg. Clark and his staff have made historic ciders at Williamsburg and have found them to be much more tart than modern versions. “That was because of both the type of apples traditionally used and the lack of sterilization and sanitation used at the time.”
Hard cider went out of fashion in America as beer took over as the everyday alcoholic drink of choice. Up until recently, the little hard cider still made in this country tended to be overly sweet — more reminiscent of soda pop than the ciders of yore.
Clark said that was due to a process called back sweetening, adding sugar after the drink has fermented to give it a much sweeter taste.
Happily, however, a new crop of craft cider makers, following the footsteps of draft beer distillers, are producing drier and more sophisticated ciders that are neither sweet nor syrupy in finish or appearance.
Cider is a renaissance cocktail
Many of the new American hard ciders, particularly those from smaller distillers, come in a variety of packages, alcohol percentages and tartness. Unlike wines, or even beer, don’t judge a cider by its package — some of the best I’ve found have come in cans or wine bottles versus stout beer-type containers.
Like a good Champagne, the more sophisticated hard ciders come from a mix of varietals skillfully put together by a master cider maker.
“In England, for example, there is a rising trend of doing single varietals, but even there most of the cider makers I spoke with preferred to drink a skillfully blended cider,” said Tim Larsen, the owner and cider maker of Snowdrift Cider Co. in Wenatchee Valley, Wash. “Someone who is skillful at blending cider can create a delicious cider that is uniquely different than the ciders that went into it. By carefully marrying flavors and aromas you can multiply the effects of each and produce a cider distinct and better than its components. ”
The alcohol content in hard ciders ranges between 6% and 8.5%. When testing hard ciders to use in place of Champagne or sparkling wine, consider the level of acidity, particularly when pairing them with rich holiday foods or for drinking alone.
“Savory foods, like steaks and burgers, do well with cider,” said Eddie Johnson, co-owner and director of the bar Publik Draft House in Atlanta. “The acidity of the fruit cuts through the richness. Ciders are also great to cook with — a splash of cider in pies and tarts pushes some of the flavors forward. It is also a great aperitif, as it has similar characteristics [to] Champagne.”
Remember that newer hard ciders are generally less aggressively carbonated than some of the versions that have been on the market and often less so than a traditional champagne or prosecco. The carbonation level is most like that of cava. For those who don’t like carbonation at all but want a cleaner-finishing drink with which to toast, there are even some good still versions of hard cider as well.
Here is a primer on available hard ciders as an alternative to Champagne for ringing in the new year.
Devoto Orchards in Sonoma, Calif.: The orchard’s Cidre Noire, 1976 and Golden State Cider truly live up to the spirit of the craft. Dry without a hint of the vinegary aftertaste found in some dry ciders, the surprise star in this line is the Golden State Cider in a can. Effervescent and almost mineral-like, once poured it lives up to any bottled version and is my favorite for toasting. Cidre Noir is best served with fatty foods like cheese or charcuterie, while the 1976 works well with spicy fair.
Eve’s Cidery in Finger Lakes, N.Y.: I’ve long been a fan of Eve’s Cidery Northern Spy, which I first sampled at the New York City restaurant Northern Spy Food Co. It is extremely tart with hints of apple cider vinegar, so it’s not for everyone and is best had with food. The cidery’s Albee Hill Still and Dry is a delicate wine-like cider worth trying for a more subtle cider experience.
Snowdrift Cider in Wenatchee Valley, Wash.: Like winemakers in the region, Snowdrift produces a good and dependable product with little variation and democratically appealing flavor. The Cliffbreaks Blend is tannic enough to stand up to both fatty foods and stand in for sparkling wines for toasting.
Eden Sparkling Cider in Newport, Vt.: This half-sized bottle is one of the most Champagne-like of the hard ciders I sampled. Made with English apples and aged in French oak for a deep golden hue, this product works nicely as a substitute for cocktails that require Champagne as a base.
Farnum Hill Ciders in Lebanon, N.H.: This is a drier line of ciders, and it includes a still version.The green-labeled Extra Dry was most to my liking, but the Red Labeled Semi-Dry is also hardly sweet — and Champagne aficionados will find that, despite the lower alcohol content, even the semi-dry is less sweet than champagnes of the same description.
Sonoma Cider in Healdsburg, Calif.: A fun brand of hard cider that harkens more to commercial varieties like those by Vermont Cider Company, but with a far drier finish. The Hatchet is an apple variety, while the Pitchfork represents pear, and the Anvil has added Bourbon flavor, making these ciders feel like a good, stiff drink. These are good options for beer or harder-liquor drinkers who would like to raise a bubbly glass with body.
Vermont Hard Cider Co. /Woodchuck in Middlebury, Vt.: Vermont Hard Cider Co. is probably best known for reintroducing hard cider to the American market as a bottled drink. Brewers such as Stella Artois have recently followed in the company’s footsteps with products such as Cidre. While the company is most noted for its Woodchuck hard cider, its product line now also extends into seasonal, reserves and fruit ciders such as pear and raspberry. Overall, these products are sweeter than the varieties listed above, but folks who eschew the dryness of traditional sparkling wines or who appreciate sparklers like the sweet Moscato will appreciate this company’s core offerings.
Main photo: Winter red cider. Credit: Courtesy of Snowdrift Cider
There’s something about drinking cocktails on New Year’s Eve that makes the occasion feel extra festive. But on New Year’s Day, there’s often something about those very same cocktails that feels like a big mistake. One way to avoid starting off the New Year with a blistering hangover is to steer clear of the offending drinks altogether. Another, some say, is to make healthier cocktails, using kombucha as a mixer.
Dating back more than 2,000 years, kombucha is a fermented beverage made by adding a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast to sweetened tea. The resulting drink has a slight effervescence, and a pleasant sweet-tart flavor, but that’s not the main reason people drink it. Because it’s rich in probiotics (“good” bacteria), unpasteurized kombucha is used as a digestive aid that can offer protection from harmful bacteria and boost the immune system.
It also makes a delicious cocktail.
“Kombucha is really complex and interesting, more flavorful than soda, and drier,” said Jasmine Dravis, co-owner of Native Kitchen & Kombucha Bar in Petaluma, California.
It also has less sugar than soda and juices, which, along with kombucha’s gut-health benefits, may help prevent morning-after suffering.
“That’s the thing when people drink traditional alcoholic cocktails,” Dravis said. “Most of the hangover is the result of a battle between the alcohol and the sugar. With sugary cocktails, you’re going to be very out of balance the next morning.”
When Dravis and her husband Joseph, a kombucha brewer, opened Native Kitchen in October, they created a list of sophisticated kombucha cocktails that are not only a pleasure to drink, but potentially healthful.
“We thought, if we came up with a low-sugar way to mix our cocktails with kombucha, which supports your gut health, we’d be bringing some balance to the table,” Dravis said.
“OK, you’re still drinking alcohol, but you’re not going to feel the harsh effects that you normally would,” she continued. “The perfect example is our Ginger Mule. We use fresh ginger and kombucha and some vodka, and I can tell you that when I drink it I feel much better than if I had just consumed a high-sugar cocktail with ginger beer and vodka.”
The bar also serves a kombucha mimosa, which replaces half of the orange juice with fermented tea.
“I can tell you from firsthand experience that when I drink regular mimosas I can get a headache, or I feel low after drinking them,” Dravis said. “There’s definitely going to be a more sustained, balanced feeling when you drink a kombucha mimosa because you don’t get the sugar crash.”
Dravis isn’t the only one who believes kombucha can help prevent hangovers. Eric Childs, founder of Kombucha Brooklyn, claims that drinking kombucha between alcoholic drinks results in “reverse toxmosis,” and that drinking it the morning after can cure a hangover thanks to kombucha’s detoxifying properties.
For those who are already suffering from a hangover, Native Kitchen offers kombucha on draft, along with kombucha elixirs such as the Pommy, a mixture of pomegranate juice, kombucha, local honey, lime juice and bee pollen.
The key to alleviating a hangover, Dravis said, is to reduce acidity in the body, and kombucha can help with that. “When you’re hung over your body is in a state of complete acidity from the excess sugar and the alcohol, so you’re going to want a quick boost of alkalinity,” she said.
Although there’s no solid scientific proof of these claims, they seem to make a fair amount of sense. And when kombucha cocktails are as delicious as Native Kitchen’s, lining up volunteers for further “research” shouldn’t be a problem.
The Ginger Mule
2 ounces vodka
1 ounce honey
Juice of 1/2 lime
3 ounces kombucha
1 ounce ginger juice*
*If you don’t have a juicer, you can use a ginger-flavored kombucha, or muddle a small piece of ginger in the shaker.
1. Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker with ice and shake until mixed.
2. Serve over ice in a copper mug or double old fashioned glass, garnished with a lime wheel.
3 ounces pomegranate juice
1 ounce lime juice
1 teaspoon local honey
6 ounces kombucha (any flavor)
Small pinch of bee pollen (available in health food stores)
1. Add all ingredients except the pollen to a shaker with ice and shake until mixed.
2. Strain into a flute glass and sprinkle bee pollen on top.
Main photo: Jasmine Dravis of Native Kitchen & Kombucha Bar shows off a kombucha cocktail. Credit: Tina Caputo
Our ancestors knew a thing or two about how to enjoy the festive season without paying the penalty for overindulgence.
It’s no accident that many of the traditional recipes for festive refreshment include cream and eggs. And that’s why three of my favorite midwinter warmers — English, Scottish and Spanish cocktails — double up as hangover cures. It’s two for the price of one!
Lamb’s Wool Wassail
Wassail is an elision of the Saxons’ merry toast, was haile, or “your health,” hence “hale and hearty.” It’s wise, according to the old wives’ tale, to serve it from an apple wood bowl to discourage witches from joining the party. This has something to do with an ancient tradition of going out into the orchard at midnight on Christmas Eve and banging drums or firing guns to scare away evil beasties that might stop the apple trees from fruiting. Sounds reasonable. And anyway, apple trees are host to mistletoe, and everyone knows where a kiss under the mistletoe can lead.
More from Zester Daily
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes
Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings.
1 cinnamon stick
Small piece of ginger
2 pints mild ale or hard cider
4 to 6 small, hard apples, pricked with a fork
1/4 pint thick cream
2 egg yolks
4 tablespoons sugar
1. Set the cinnamon, ginger and cloves in a small cloth that can be tied closed.
2. Put the ale or cider in a pan with the spices and warm very gently.
3. Meanwhile, roast the apples until soft on a baking tray in an oven heated to 400 degrees F (200 C or Gas6). Alternately, you can turn them on a roasting fork in front of a fire until the skin is nicely toasted and the flesh is soft. Keep them warm till you’re ready to serve.
4. Beat the cream with the egg yolks and sugar until smooth and well blended.
5. Increase the heat under the ale or cider pan and remove just before it comes to a boil. Take out the spice-bag and whisk in the cream and egg.
6. Transfer to a warm bowl (apple wood or otherwise) and float the apples on the surface.
7. Finish with a dusting of nutmeg.
Note: If you need to reheat, don’t let it boil or the egg will curdle. If so, blame the witches, scoop out the apple flesh, whiz everything together and pretend it was your intention all along.
This is the traditional Scottish welcome to a first-footer at Hogmanay, or New Year’s Eve. A first-footer is the first visitor to step over your threshold after the stroke of midnight. Fair exchange is a lump of coal for the fire, and you hope that your first-footer is dark-haired and friendly rather than a blond-haired, blue-eyed Viking up for a bit of pillaging. Christmas north o’ the border — the line drawn between Scotland and England, which roughly follows Hadrian’s Wall — is an altogether quieter affair than it is south of the border. Whisky never has an “e” when it’s Scotch. Now you know it all.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Total time: 20 minutes
Yield: Makes 6 to 8 servings
1 bottle Scotch whisky
12 ounces runny honey
12 ounces thick cream
1 heaped tablespoon porridge oats
1. Mix the whisky with the honey and cream.
2. Stir the oats into a pint of cold water in a pan, bring to a boil and simmer for a few minutes to thicken.
3. Whisk the whisky mixture into the oats and serve hot.
Note: Garnish ideas include a little nutmeg sprinkled on top or any extra swirl of cream.
Ponche is a traditional, brandy-based eggnog for which similar recipes are found throughout Europe. The Spanish version is thickened with ground almonds, a traditional Christmas ingredient. Serve it warm on a cold night with something sweet and crisp for dipping.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes
Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 pint thick cream
4 ounces ground almonds
2 ounces sugar
4 egg yolks
1/4 pint brandy
1. Combine the cream, ground almonds and sugar in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and heat the mixture till just below boiling.
2. Meanwhile, whisk the egg yolks until light and fluffy, then beat in the brandy.
3. Pour the hot cream in a thin stream into the yolk mixure, whisking steadily.
4. Serve immediately, or bottle it up, cork securely and store in the fridge — you’ll need to shake it up before you pour.
Main image: Ponche is a traditional, brandy-based eggnog. In the Spanish version, ground almonds are included. Credit: iStockphoto
In Belgium, beer is the beverage of choice, while mead, an ancient alcoholic drink, is virtually unknown. But a young Belgian beekeeper, Xavier Rennotte, has given mead a makeover with the recent launch of his own brand, Bee Wine.
With roots in historic recipes and “Beowulf,” the real magic behind Bee Wine’s freshly minted flavor comes from Rennotte’s collaboration with a Belgian scientist. Mead is nothing more than honey, water and yeast, although spices and fruit are sometimes added for flavor. It’s not wine, although it tastes like it.
When I first encountered Rennotte some years ago, he had just met Sonia Collin, an expert in brewing and honey at Louvain University. I asked him then why he had turned to science for help. He explained it was his godfather who had made the suggestion: “Learn from the beginning, the scientific way. The best way to understand something is to go deep inside it,” he had told Rennotte.
ZESTER BOOK LINKS
By Diane Fresquez
But why mead? It turned out Rennotte was obsessed with recreating the flavor of his first boyhood taste of mead, known as hydromel (“honey water”) in French. In other words, he was using science to track down a fleeting, Proustian taste from his childhood in the Belgian countryside.
Rennotte’s story lies at the heart of a book I wrote to explore our mostly pleasurable relationship with flavor, and the science behind it. I caught up with him recently at a food festival in the Parc Royal in Brussels. A crowd was gathered in front of his Nectar & Co stand to sample his Bee Wine.
Many people were mystified — was it wine or not? He happily explained its origins, as he offered tastings. Most people were delighted with the flavor. “It makes a great aperitif, or can be used as an ingredient in a cocktail,” Rennotte said. He’s also a trained chef, and loves using it as a marinade for lamb or fish, or as a dessert ingredient. “It’s great in sabayon,” he noted.
People were also sampling about a dozen types of organic honey with different flavors, aromas, textures and colors that Rennotte imports from around Europe for his Bee Honey collection. They include lemon blossom, wild carrot, eucalyptus and coriander. My favorite is the sunflower honey — thick as molasses, butter yellow and delicious on Le Pain Quotidien sourdough bread. One of his best-sellers is a spreadable paste made of just honey and pureed hazelnut. It tastes like Nutella, but with no added sugar or oil.
Rennotte isn’t the only novice alcoholic beverage entrepreneur who has turned to science for help and inspiration. One of the recipes in my book is for sabayon made with Musa Lova, a banana liqueur produced by a Flemish restaurateur. The liqueur is made in collaboration with the director of the largest in vitro banana species collection in the world, at the Laboratory of Tropical Crop Improvement at Leuven University. Musa Lova, a rum-based liqueur that comes in varieties such coffee or local honey, is made with ordinary Cavendish bananas, without added flavoring. Bananas contain a huge number of flavor molecules, which vary slightly depending on the ripeness.
Science not only helps alcoholic beverage makers, the producers influence science too. During my research in Copenhagen, for example, I discovered that the pH scale, used in medicine, agriculture and food science, was developed at the Carlsberg brewing company’s laboratory in 1909.
Rennotte’s hydromel is made from organic orange blossom honey from the Mount Etna area of Sicily, organic German yeast and spring water. His meadery, south of Brussels, is a former slaughterhouse that he refurbished with solar panels and a system to reuse the water that cools the fermentation tanks.
More from Zester Daily:
The first time I tasted Rennotte’s mead was at his wife’s bakery-patisserie Au Vatel in the European Quarter, where we met often to talk about his search for the perfect mead. The early sample I tasted, which he had poured straight from a plastic lab bottle into a wine glass, was clear, young but tasty. The honey-tinted final product I drank at the food festival was light and sweet with a complex flavor that, one customer noted, develops and changes slightly with every sip.
“I couldn’t have done it without science,” Rennotte said. “I learned how the yeast functions, the importance of the pH of the honey and the temperature of the water — I learned it all from Sonia.”
Rennotte is incredibly proud and happy with his hydromel. But did he manage to capture the flavor he remembered from childhood? “I’m still searching,” he said. “Perhaps I’ll be looking for it for the rest of my life.”
Crumble of Christmas Boudin Sausage With Mead Sauce
Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes (plus chilling)
Yield: Serves 4
For the boudin mixture:
1/3 pound white boudin with pecans
1/4 pound black boudin with raisins
A “knob” of butter (roughly 2 tablespoons)
For the apple compote:
2 cooking apples
1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons sugar
For the mead sauce:
2 cups veal stock
1 1/4 cups mead
Salt and pepper to taste
For the topping:
2 ounces Speculoos (classic Belgian spice cookies)
1. Prepare the compote the day before or in the morning, so that it can be well chilled before serving. Peel and cut the apples into chunks. Cook the apples in the water on high heat. After 5 minutes, mash the apples, drain off any excess water and add the sugar. Chill.
2. Before serving, remove the skin of the sausages and place the meat in a mixing bowl. Mash the sausage meat with a fork. Cook the sausage meat in the butter in a nonstick pan on high heat. Remove when the meat is browned and keep warm.
3. To create the mead sauce, combine the veal stock and the mead in a saucepan, simmer and reduce. Salt and pepper to taste.
4. Prepare the Speculoos cookies by breaking them into small pieces.
5. When serving use 4 balloon-type wine glasses to layer the ingredients in the following order:
- 2 tablespoons warm sausage meat
- 1 tablespoon mead sauce
- 2 tablespoons cold compote
- 1 tablespoon crumbled Speculoos cookies
This is one of Xavier Rennotte’s favorite mead recipes, a starter or amuse-bouche based on boudin (blood sausage) from the southern, Francophone region of Belgium. During Christmastime in Wallonia, butcher shops’ windows are overflowing with boudin made with a variety of ingredients, such as raisins, apples, walnuts, leeks, pumpkin, truffles and Port. Each butcher competes to offer his or her clients a selection of sweet and savory boudin sausage.
Main photo: Belgian beekeeper Xavier Rennotte has given mead a makeover with the launch of his Bee Wine. Credit: Xavier Rennotte
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.
More from Zester Daily:
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.
More from Zester Daily:
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.
ZESTER BOOK LINKS
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