Articles in Tradition

Making homemade bitters requires spices, alcohol, and above all, patience. Credit: Susan Lutz

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.

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.

Microscopic view of Grains of Paradise. Credit: Susan Lutz

Microscopic view of Grains of Paradise. Credit: Susan Lutz

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

Ingredients

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

Directions

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

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The ingredients for kahwah and a prepared cup. Credit: Sandeep Patwal

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.

“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.

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The kahwah team. Credit: Sandeep Patwal

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.

Kahwah Tea

Makes 2 cups

Ingredients 

1 cinnamon stick, crushed

2 cardamom pods, crushed

3-inch knob of ginger, crushed

2 cups water

4 cloves

4 threads of saffron

1 tablespoon green tea

1 tablespoon honey

1 tablespoon crushed almonds or walnuts

Directions

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

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California-style limoncello. Credit: Cheryl Lee

In my front yard are two old, thorny Meyer lemon trees. I do nothing special for these trees, just let them have water and sunshine. And I have no control over the sunshine. Twice a year those dwarf trees are loaded with lemons. They cannot be more than 6 feet tall, but both produce hundreds of pounds of lemons each.  The weight comes from the abundance of juice each lemon holds.

Meyer lemons are very thin skinned with a fragrant, almost floral scent. The zest will make any dish pop with flavor. I use it instead of butter on steamed asparagus, sprinkle it into green salads for extra zip, and mix it into both sweet and savory types of dough.

The harvests are always so abundant I give bags of lemons to friends and neighbors, make lemonade, lemon curd and lemon cake. But most important, I make limoncello. I make lots of limoncello because I like to give some of it away. I also like to give some to myself.

But this limoncello is slightly different than the traditional Italian style of limoncello. I use the entire lemon in the initial infusing. Most recipes call for lemon zest only, but my Meyer lemons are so lovely I like to include the juice in the process. The majority of the flavor and aroma of the lemon is found in the zest, but the juice adds another layer of citrus intensity to the limoncello. The pith of the Meyer is also not as bitter as other lemons because it is a sweeter lemon. It is thought to be a cross between a regular lemon and a Mandarin or other variety of orange.

Meyer lemons in vodka, becoming limoncello. Credit: Cheryl Lee

Meyer lemons in vodka, becoming limoncello. Credit: Cheryl Lee

Traditionalists would say this is not true limoncello, as my method is different, if only slightly so. I was even chastised by a 21-year-old from Belgium after I posted a picture of my quartered lemons steeping in vodka on my Instagram page. She wrote “You have to peel the lemons and put them in the alcohol (not the entire lemon).” Well, all right then.

Now that a girl from Europe young enough to be my daughter has tried to set me straight, I will continue to do it my way. The limoncello I make is absolutely delicious, so I see no need to alter my recipe, even if I am bucking tradition and offending Italians the world round.  If you make something that you like, even if you do not follow the traditional way of making it, it’s all right.

The lemons should be steeped for two weeks, but can be steeped up to four weeks. When ready to finish the limoncello, be sure to have a lot of clean bottles or jars to fill with the liquid gold. Or if keeping it all to yourself, one large jar.

Meyer Lemon Limoncello, California Style

Makes 2 to 3 quarts

Ingredients

10 to 15 Meyer Lemons, preferably organic, scrubbed

1 (750 milliliter) bottle vodka or Everclear (grain alcohol)

2 cups water

1½ to  2 cups raw sugar

1 cup honey

Equipment

1 large glass vessel to prepare the limoncello (large enough to accommodate 15 lemons and a bottle of alcohol)

Smaller bottles or jars to keep the finished limoncello (enough to accommodate about 3 quarts)

Directions

1. Cut the lemons into quarters and place into a large, clean jar.

2. Pour the bottle of vodka over the lemons.

3. Seal the jar and place it in a cool corner of the kitchen.

4. Let the lemons steep in the vodka for 2 to 4 weeks.

5. Strain the alcohol into a large bowl, reserve.

6. Place the lemons, water, sugar and honey into a large pot.

7. Turn the flame to low.

8. Using a potato masher, smash the lemons to release all their juices. Mash and stir until the sugar and honey are dissolved.

9. Strain the syrup, discard the lemons, and let the syrup cool.

10. Mix the reserved alcohol and the syrup.

11. Pour the limoncello into your jars and/or bottles. Place the bottles into the refrigerator, and let the limoncello rest for at least a day, preferably a week, before drinking.

Top photo: California-style limoncello. Credit: Cheryl Lee

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An assortment of port wines for a tasting. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Quick: In three words, what is port wine? Before hosting a port tasting party the other night, I would have said, “sweet, old-fashioned and British” — and I would have been mostly wrong. The most fun way to learn about port is to drink it, so finish reading this article and gather together a few friends and a few bottles. The holidays are the perfect time for a tasting party.

A little background might make your tasting party a bit more interesting. Port is wine fortified with brandy or grape spirit, often resulting in an alcohol level of around 20%. Best known as a deep garnet or brick-red sweet dessert wine, it is also produced in a white or pink off-dry style for cocktails and apéritifs.

Unlike many other wines, it is not produced as a single varietal. Style variations are based on three things: how it is aged — either in bottle or wood vats and casks; how long it is aged; and the winemaker’s skill at blending grape varietals. The result is three basic styles of port: bottle-aged vintage; wood-aged reserve or late-bottled vintage; and wood-aged tawny.

Port’s history goes back 335 years, when a drink that would satisfy England’s tipplers was first imported from northeast Portugal by British-owned shippers bereft of trade-embargoed Bordeaux wine from France. Fortification began in the 1700s to ensure that the wine could make the arduous sail without spoiling. Britain drank the lion’s share of port production for many years, but nowadays France takes the lead, Britain has dropped to fifth place and the U.S. is nipping at its heels.

The World Heritage home of Portugal’s Port

Today, more than 38,000 farmers grow port grape varietals like Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesco, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca and Tinto Cão on the steep rocky hillsides above the Douro River in Portugal. The fantastically, challenging terrain — in some areas, vine roots have to reach down 40 feet through rock fissures for moisture — has qualified some of the oldest vineyards, or quintas, to be classified as World Heritage sites. And many traditional practices live on: Hand-harvesting and traditional foot-crushing are still widely practiced by the best producers.

Vintage port is considered the rarest and finest of all ports. It is selected from a single exceptional year — only three years on average in a decade are declared “vintage” years by the industry body, Instituto do Vinho do Porto. Vintage port is typically aged 2 years before release, then cellared 15 years or more before it’s ready to drink.

The other classic style is tawny port, aged 10 to 40 years in wooden vats or casks and bottled when ready to drink. The creation of aged tawnies requires incredible blending skills and a great deal of patience on the part of the winemaker. David Guimaraens, head winemaker for Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca and Croft, is a sixth-generation family member of the Fonseca clan who described it best.

“The fact that we lose about 3% a year in ‘the angels’ share’ [what port winemakers call the wine's natural evaporation] means that having one bottle of 20-year-old to sell in 20 years’ time requires two now. There is simply no shortcut. It takes 20 years to make a 20-year-old tawny,” Guimaraens said.

So port may seem pricey at first, but when you consider the effort that goes into making it, you may think of it as a bargain. The small harvest of 2011 declared vintage port is just hitting shelves now and availability is not expected to last long. So if you want to get your Christmas shopping done really early, pick up a bottle of 2011 vintage today. It will make a killer hostess gift for another port tasting party in 2028.

Tasting party gear

In anticipation of my party, I asked everyone to bring one bottle and I stocked the table with an assortment of aged tawnies and a few newly released 2011 vintage ports from Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca and Croft, all venerable producers of the best classic port. We were lucky that one guest shared a bottle of 2007 Quinta do Vesuvio, the last time a vintage was declared in this decade. We started with interesting vertical tastings of each style and progressed across the horizontal range from aged tawnies to new vintage. No matter what styles you try, have a few things at hand:

  • Tasting Notes Form — De Long Wine Company offers a great one free to download
  • 3 stemware per person — white wine glasses work perfectly fine
  • Wine aroma wheel — might help the tongued-tied with classic flavor descriptions
  • Something to munch on — nuts or cheese
  • Designated driver

Top photo: An assortment of port wines for a tasting. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

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Porcini hot chocolate. Credit: Wendy Petty

Porcini hot chocolate might be the most unusual holiday drink recipe you try this season. It is polarizing, to be certain. Most people will run in the opposite direction from the very idea of mushroom hot chocolate. But for those who dare to taste it, porcini hot chocolate is a unique and decadent treat.

I developed this recipe one night when my friend furnished a lovely rich meal of Mangalitsa pork and roasted vegetables, and I was asked to supply dessert. With such a filling meal, I knew that my dessert needed to be light. Immediately, my mind went to sorbets. But it was a cold and snowy night. It finally occurred to me that hot chocolate might be the perfect way to end the meal. The only question was how to make it special.

I’m known for my pantry full of wild Boletus edulis, aka porcini, mushrooms. It seemed that hot chocolate might be rounded out with mushrooms. It was certainly worth the experiment. I ran a quick test batch, knowing it would either be brilliant or horrible.

That first batch was so delicious that, with mug still in hand, I raced to the computer to tell all of my foraging buddies. Most of the foragers were excited. But one friend confessed, “that sounds really gross, but I’ll trust you.”

I served it that evening with the roasted pork to great success, and it has since become the staple item that I bring to all holiday parties. Each time, porcini hot chocolate gets a decidedly mixed reaction. Some politely decline, and others race to fill their cup. The people who try it are unanimously pleased with the way chocolate combines with mushrooms. Both are rich and earthy, and each seems to complement and make the other fuller. The powdered mushrooms also thicken the porcini hot chocolate, as if it were made with cream. When topped with a hit of whipped cream, and some extra cocoa for a bitter contrast, I can hardly think of a dessert I’d rather cozy up to during the holidays.

Porcini Hot Chocolate

Serves 4

Ingredients

2 tablespoons cocoa powder

4 tablespoons porcini powder, from sliced dried porcini

4 teaspoons packed brown sugar

32 ounces whole milk

whipped cream

extra cocoa powder, for dusting

Directions

1. Begin by making the porcini powder. This is best done by placing sliced dried porcini mushrooms in an electric spice grinder. Buzz them until the porcini are as fine as cocoa powder.

2. In a small bowl, combine the cocoa powder, porcini powder and brown sugar. Use a spoon or fork to stir the ingredients together until they are evenly combined.

3. Add the milk to a medium saucepan. Over low heat, whisk in the powdered ingredients until no visible powder remains on the top. Bring the heat up to medium-low, whisking every 30 seconds or so, until the porcini hot chocolate is hot.

4. Ladle the porcini hot chocolate into mugs, and top them with whipped cream and a dusting of cocoa.

Top photo: Porcini hot chocolate. Credit: Wendy Petty

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Wine, oranges and nutmeg go into the cocktail called Bishop. Credit: Charles Perry

This is the time of year for hot drinks such as buttered rum. Here’s one from the 18th century that fits right in. The drink called bishop is like mulled wine crossed with sangria with a dash of triple sec and a rich and intriguing flavor we rarely use, baked orange peel. It would move pretty fast at a holiday party, and it could even be served cold in summer.

I don’t really know why it’s called bishop, though some people say it was served when a bishop came to visit, and one Maryland recipe collection reportedly says to add brandy “according to the capacity of the bishop.”

The idea of flavoring wine goes back to the Romans, who liked to put spices and fenugreek leaves in it. From the Middle Ages down to the 17th century, monks and doctors made liqueurs with secret herb mixtures while laypeople were whipping up concoctions with names such as ypocras and metheglin. These were all medicinal beverages, or so people told themselves.

In India, the English finally learned to mix drinks for purely recreational purposes. The toddy, from a Hindi word for palm wine, was essentially whiskey, sugar and hot water. The name punch comes from the Hindi word panch, which means “five,” because it originally had five ingredients. Finally, shrub, which comes from the Arabic word sharab, or “beverage,” seems to have been punch with fewer ingredients.

Most of these punches were basically booze mixed with sugar and lemon or lime juice. In the modern world, punch, apart from children’s birthday punches and the wedding champagne punch, has evolved into a cocktail. Most often it is essentially a miniature, single-serve punch mixed to order. And when making cocktails, bartenders still go through a lot of lime juice and Collins mix. Another thing old-time punches and cocktails had in common was that they were often sprinkled with nutmeg, which doesn’t go on anything but eggnog today.

Once they got the idea, the English started running with it. Negus was essentially strong lemonade mixed with wine, perhaps topped off with some brandy. And then there was bishop, which was wine mixed with orange juice. (When bishop was born, it was a showoffy drink because oranges were expensive imported delicacies.)

I’ve followed the recipe in Mrs. Lettice Bryant’s “The Kentucky Housewife” (1839) except for baking the oranges rather than roasting them before the hearth fire. “Serve either warm or cold,” the recipe says, “in glasses, and grate nutmeg thickly over the tops.” Cheers, reverend sir.

Bishop

Serves 6 to 8

Ingredients

6 oranges, preferably Valencias

1½ cups sugar

1 bottle red wine, divided

Freshly ground nutmeg

Directions

1. Bake the oranges at 350 F until the peels soften, about 25 minutes. The peels will look a little puffy and shiny and have a piney aroma. Don’t worry about a few browned spots. Let the oranges cool, slice them into a large mixing bowl and stir with the sugar and half of the wine.

2. Cover overnight.

3. At serving time, squeeze the oranges and stir up the mixture to make sure the sugar is dissolved. In a saucepan, heat the rest of the bottle of wine to just under the boiling point and strain the orange-wine mixture into it. Serve sprinkled with nutmeg.

Top photo: Wine, oranges and nutmeg go into the cocktail called bishop. Credit: Charles Perry

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Christmas wine and Christmas cake in Kerala, India. Credit: R. V. Ramachandran

Christmas in Kerala, that sunny tropical strip of southern India along the Arabian Sea, is a somber festival with more faith and religious fervor than mere celebrations. It is observed as a religious holiday and Kerala Christians all add the flavor of their native culture, be it in the music or food or spirits.

Churches are decorated with candles and flowers, and service is held at midnight on Christmas Eve. Traditionally, Christian families of all denominations, often dressed in formal clothes, go to church for the midnight mass. Christmas Day is celebrated with feasting and socializing with family and friends.

Rituals vary by region so the menu for the Christmas feast differs by village and household. Even though the feast often includes roast duck and mincemeat dishes, palappam, which is made with rice and coconut and served with meat or chicken stew, is also popular. Sweets such as rose cookies and diamond cuts are usually homemade like cookies in Western countries.

Christmas dinner, especially among Kerala Catholics, is not complete without a glass of homemade sweet grape wine and a piece of plum cake — a moist, brown cake with plenty of nuts, dried fruits and fragrant spices.

In old times the ritual of making wine at home would begin in October. Though tropical Kerala does not have the ideal weather for winemaking, it is a longstanding tradition for Christmas. These days, many depend on store-bought wines and Christmas cakes, but a few still make wine at home.

These wines are very sweet, and most often spiced, and belong to the dessert wine category. Traditionally, wine is made in a pale brown ceramic jar called cheena bharani or simply bharani, which is a remnant of the ancient Indian Ocean trade with China.

The recipe for sweet grape wine is a typical wine recipe, but the fermentation is much briefer. The process is stopped before all the sugar turns into alcohol. The recipe also uses equal amounts of grapes and sugar, resulting is a very sweet wine.

Grapes aren’t grown in Kerala, but winemakers can get Bangalore Blue, Anab-e-Shahi, Gulabi and Bhokri variety grapes from neighboring regions in India. The variety isn’t particularly important, however, as any dark red grape will do.

The red color of this wine is from the red pigment in the grape skin. Grapes give the flavor, sugar adds sweetness, yeast is for fermentation and spices impart aroma. The strength of the wine depends on the amount of wheat or barley used, which also acts as a clarifying agent. Egg white is used to make the wine clear.

It is essential to begin with a sanitary environment and absolutely clean equipment before starting the process of making wine. Used bottles, in particular, should be sterilized before they are used again.

Homemade Kerala Christmas Wine

Makes 16 cups

Ingredients

2¼ pounds sweet dark grapes, washed and stalks removed and wiped dry

1 teaspoon dry yeast

2¼ pounds sugar

18 cups water, boiled and cooled to room temperature

¼ cup wheat kernels

4 cloves

1-inch cinnamon stick, crushed

1 egg white

Directions

1. Clean and dry a glass or ceramic jar.

2. Crush the grapes thoroughly and place them in the jar.

3. Dissolve yeast in 2 tablespoons of lukewarm water and set aside for 10 to15 minutes. Then add the proofed yeast, sugar, water, wheat and spices to the crushed grapes. Stir well, until the sugar is completely dissolved.

4. The contents should fill only ¾ of the jar. During fermentation carbon dioxide is formed and released. It is ideal to cover the jar with a piece of clean cheese cloth and tie with a piece of kitchen twine. Keep it in cool dark place to ferment.

5. For the next two to three weeks open the jar once a day and stir the contents well using a clean dry wooden spoon. Initially the crushed grapes would be floating in the liquid, but after a couple of weeks these will begin to settle at the bottom of the jar.

By the end of the third week, the mixture would stop foaming. Depending on the weather conditions, it may take more or less days for the fermentation process to stop.

6. When the fermentation stops, strain the liquid through a clean cheese cloth into another clean jar and discard sediments. Keep the wine in a glass container for two or three days, closed and undisturbed for the finer sediments to settle down. Drain the clear wine to another bottle and discard the remaining sediments.

7. Mix the egg white into the wine and leave it in the container. Keep the container closed for a few more days. The wine will become clear. Drain the wine once more to remove any remaining sediments.

8. Bottle in dark bottles and store in a cool, dark place.

Top photo: Christmas wine and Christmas cake in Kerala, India. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran

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Dramatically pouring Asturian sidra natural into a glass, the traditional way. Credit: Greg Nesbit / Asturias Cider Commission

Nobody understood the melancholy-tinged beauty of those transitional months between summer and winter quite like the great Romantic poet John Keats, whose “Ode to Autumn” famously celebrates that “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” Keats also enjoyed a good drink. So it seems fitting that “the last oozings” of the cider press make an appearance in his love song to the fall.

On a recent evening, I found his lines running through my mind while I tasted a range of utterly distinct apple ciders from Asturias – a remote rural region on Spain’s North Atlantic coast where one can still observe, as in Keats’ more pastoral time, how the season conspires to “bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees/ And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core.” For in Asturias, the apple is not just an article of produce; it’s a way of life.

There’s something about the traditional style of Asturian cider — or sidra natural, as locals call it — that would have appealed to someone like Keats. Fermented with indigenous yeasts and bottled without any filtration, it’s the sort of frothy, pungent and unapologetically rustic concoction that has remained unchanged for centuries. Sidra natural represents the art of fermentation at its most elemental: The effect is not sparkling so much as gently effervescent, with low alcohol and a slight prick of fizz. Dry and earthy, with a pleasantly tart tang, this stuff is delicious. It also happens to be remarkably versatile at the table: think sheep or goat’s milk cheeses, shellfish or, at this time of year, even the traditional Thanksgiving dinner.

Asturias is home to more than 200 types of apples, which (because of the high moisture in this maritime region) tend to be less tannic than those grown in other cider-producing parts of the world. But in order to bear the proud label of Sidra de Asturias – the area’s officially protected Denomination of Origin (DOP) — the final blend must consist of a combination of as many as 22 preapproved varietals, of which the Regona and Raxao apples are the most common.

Asturian sidra natural being poured into a glass. Credit: Greg Nesbit / Asturias Cider Commission

Asturian sidra natural being poured into a glass. Credit: Greg Nesbit / Asturias Cider Commission

Almost as fun as drinking sidra natural is watching it be poured — in Asturias, this is a crucial part of the experience. The customary method, known as escanciar, involves pouring the cider from high above one’s head and allowing the free-flowing stream to plunge into the glass. According to John Belliveau-Flores, who imports a wide variety of Asturian cider through his company, Rowan Imports, this age-old technique accounts for more than just flashy showmanship.

“Pouring this way physically changes the character of the cider,” he says. “It breaks up the bonds which release the naturally occurring esters and unleash the aromas. Also, when you try to pour the cider normally, it ends up flat, but it effervesces when you pour from a height.” During my own attempt at mastering the art of escanciar, more cider wound up on my shoes than in my glass, but to watch an experienced professional undertake the act is mesmerizing.

‘New Expression’ Asturian cider cuts the funk

Despite the fact that sidra natural has remained a touchstone of Asturian culture over generations, in recent years producers have experimented with a more modern approach. Designed as a cleaner, more commercially viable interpretation for the export market, cider in this “New Expression” category undergoes filtration and stabilization to remove the sediment. Clear, crisp and lemony in both flavor and appearance, it shares more traits with white wine than beer. To be honest, the results often strike me as a bit too sanitized or refined, stripped of Asturias’ signature funky essence. But Belliveau-Flores is quick to point out the virtues of this style.

“In some cases, the New Expression ciders gain something,” he explains. “Although you’re taking away that funk, which removes a powerful layer, you can end up revealing more of the fruit expression, which would otherwise be covered up.”

I suppose it’s a matter of personal taste, but I’d still start by introducing yourself to the classic sidra natural first. One lovely rendition is the Val d’Ornon bottling from the family-run house of Sidra Menéndez. A refreshingly tart and milky blend of apples including Raxao, Regona, Perico and Carrio, it’s the perfect accompaniment to those bittersweet, “soft-dying” autumn evenings that Keats knew all too well. You might even be inspired to write an ode of your own.

Top photo: Escanciar, the art of pouring cider into a glass from above one’s head, releases the aromas. Credit: Greg Nesbit / Asturias Cider Commission

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