Articles in Tradition

Ponche is a traditional, brandy-based eggnog. In the Spanish version, ground almonds are included. Credit: iStockphoto

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.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Ingredients

1 cinnamon stick

Small piece of ginger

6 cloves

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

Grated nutmeg

Directions

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.

Warm winter cocktails can make your holiday celebrations festive. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

Warm winter cocktails can make your holiday celebrations festive. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

Athol Brose

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

Ingredients

1 bottle Scotch whisky

12 ounces runny honey

12 ounces thick cream

1 heaped tablespoon porridge oats

Directions

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

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

Ingredients

1 pint thick cream

4 ounces ground almonds

2 ounces sugar

4 egg yolks

1/4 pint brandy

Directions

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

Read More
Belgian beekeeper Xavier Rennotte has given mead a makeover with the launch of his Bee Wine. Credit: Xavier Rennotte

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.


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.

Author Diane Fresquez. Credit: Thibault Cordonnier

“A Taste of Molecules” author Diane Fresquez. Credit: Thibault Cordonnier

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.


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

Ingredients

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)

Directions

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

Notes
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

Read More
Shrubs, or drinking vinegars, are concentrates that can be used to make cocktails and other drinks as well as ad flavor to other dishes. Credit: Brooke Jackson

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.

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.
A variety of things can be made with shrubs, including a salad dressing (clockwise from right), a bowl of ice cream with fig vanilla flavor and fresh figs, a "soda" with apricot basil, and a dark and stormy using ginger drinking vinegar, rum, sparkling water, lime, mint and orange wheel. Credit: Brooke Jackson

A variety of things can be made with shrubs, including a salad dressing (clockwise from right), a bowl of ice cream with fig vanilla flavor and fresh figs, a “soda” with apricot basil, and a dark and stormy using ginger drinking vinegar, rum, sparkling water, lime, mint and orange wheel. Credit: Brooke Jackson

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

Read More
A traditional English high tea consists of hearty rustic fare. Credit: J.M. Hunter

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.

Afternoon tea featuring scones with clotted cream and jam, center, and a Victoria sponge at left to complement the tea in a fine china cup. Credit: J. M. Hunter

Afternoon tea featuring scones with clotted cream and jam, center, and a Victoria sponge to complement the tea in a fine china cup. Credit: J.M. Hunter

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.

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

Read More

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.


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

Read More
Port Morris Distillery goes beyond Puerto Rican moonshine.

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.

“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.

PMD

PMD
Picture 1 of 4

A view of the distillery, with its wood-cast barrels. Credit: Jennifer Yip

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

Read More
Foraged linden flowers in a basket. Credit: Wendy Petty

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.

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.

petty-linden2

petty-linden2
Picture 1 of 2

Linden tree leaf and flower. Credit: Wendy Petty

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.

Linden Honey

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

Ingredients

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

Directions

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.

Linden Sparkler

Ingredients

½ cup cold-infused linden tisane

¼ cup white grape juice

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 ounce gin

½ cup seltzer water

Directions

Stir together all the ingredients, and serve them over ice.

Main photo: Foraged linden flowers in a basket. Credit: Wendy Petty

Read More
The Café des Musées in Paris. Credit: Marguerite Thomas

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.

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.

Drappier Brut Nature Champagne. Credit: Paul Lukacs

Credit: Paul Lukacs

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

Read More