Articles in Tradition
There may be no better example of a destination watering hole than the one on the site of the abandoned Nellie E Mine outside Parker, Arizona. Ken Wardlow’s Desert Bar is in such a remote location in the Buckskin Mountains that just getting there is an adventure. But it’s no secret to communities up and down the Colorado River from Blythe to Lake Havasu, whose residents party there every Thanksgiving weekend, or to the snowbirds who come from all over the country in January: Pull into the parking lot and you will see license plates from Alaska, Illinois, Washington, Oregon and Nebraska. The accents you hear of German gentlemen cooing over showy 1,000 horsepower ATVs will confirm that this place is an open secret among Europeans, too. Then you enter the bar and meet 300 new best friends.
In 1983, Ken Wardlow had three things: a piece of property he had owned since 1975, a liquor license and a great imagination. He built a 12-by-12-foot shack with three walls and called it the Nellie E Saloon. Customers with a thirst for its Wild West aura began coming in droves, and by 1989 the shack had been replaced by a solid structure. It has been growing organically every year since. Now known as the Desert Bar, it’s a three-level complex with tin roofs, multiple seating areas, bars, kitchens, bandstands and a dance floor that you reach by a covered bridge spanning an actual gulch. It has no address other than its coordinates (34 degrees 12.05.14 North, 114 degrees 08.55.87 West), and it relies on its own wells, solar panels and twin cooling towers. In short, it is entirely off the grid.
The Desert Bar’s curiosities don’t end there. It is rarely open — only on weekend afternoons, before sunset, mid-autumn through mid-spring (that is, when the average temperature hovers below 100 F). To reach it, you have to join the line of Jeeps and pickups that creep along five dusty miles of primitive road. (Unless you have a quad, dune buggy, side-by-side or dirt bike, do not accept the challenge of the treacherous back way. Better to enjoy that drama through some daredevil’s head cam on YouTube.) So why is this bar so wildly popular? Well, there’s cold beer and lemonade that’s squeezed to order. There’s perfectly prepared American comfort food like hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken sandwiches to energize you for the journey home. You can indulge your secret longing for a basket of deep-fried pickle spears, or go all the way with the fritto misto of pickles, onion rings, mushrooms, jalapeños and freshly cut fries unfairly known as the “junk basket.” Try it, just the once…
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But in the end it’s the atmosphere, not the menu, that makes all the difference. As the regulars arrive, they grab the shaded table they will occupy until sunset, while the newcomers wander around in awe. Cameras and cellphones capture the abandoned cars and fire trucks strewn around the property, the three bars, and the open-air ladies’ room constructed of rusting metal plates. Women — and, if the coast is clear, the occasional man — linger in here taking photos of the 30-mile view through the glassless picture windows. Hands down, the most-photographed structure is the trompe l’oeil “church.” Constructed from steel plates in 1991, it contains just one room under the three-story, copper-topped steeple, lined in stamped tin with two arched openings. And yes, destination weddings take place there regularly.
The words that customers use over and over to describe The Desert Bar are “fun” and “unique.” For the first-timer, two miles on the bone-rattling road to its door are enough to make you question all the praise. But once you see that steeple up ahead you know it is going to be worth the trip. Fun? Just walk up into the hills behind the bar and listen to the buzz of conversation and laughter filling the canyon. Unique? Without a doubt. Guaranteed you have never spent a Sunday Funday in such a hospitable bar surrounded by such inhospitable mountains.
Main photo: Fresh-squeezed lemonade at the Desert Bar in Parker, Arizona. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel
It’s 1715 and gin is in! Genever, anglicized from the Dutch as “gin,” was introduced to the British in 1688 by William the III and quickly became known as “Mother’s Ruin” or “Dutch Courage.” The mass production of cheap gin in London had unleashed an epic 50-year street party of drunken debauchery and moral depravity.
Now it’s 2015, and gin is in once again. This time we can avoid the turpitude by taking guidance from Daniel Kent, dean of beverages at the Institute of Domestic Technology in Los Angeles. The institute teaches simple food- and beverage-production techniques, some long forgotten, for do-it-yourself enthusiasts.
A spirited introduction
The workshop is set up around a mammoth pool table in Greystone Mansion, a faux-château set in formal gardens above Beverly Hills. The vaulted billiard room is just off the bowling alley, which many might recognize from the 2007 movie “Let There Be Blood.”
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Eschewing cocktails such as the Gin Fizz, the Fluffy Duck and the Hanky Panky, Kent plans to dismantle what the Brits would call a “bog-standard G and T” and rebuild it into a sublime, sophisticated multilayered beverage using craft American gin, homemade tonic syrup and perfectly clear ice.
Joseph Schuldiner, director of the institute, begins the afternoon by asking the 24 students to identify themselves by first name only and to relate a “drinking story.” (This is awkwardly reminiscent of an AA meeting, but judging by the hilarity that follows, no one in this room needs a drink to relax.)
Kent, a former actor, cannot resist a theatrical flourish and starts the class with a reveal: a secret bar hidden behind the oak-paneled walls. This elicits gasps from his audience, as does the statement that gin is just juniper-flavored vodka. He explains the complex process of flavoring neutral spirits with a vapor infusion of juniper berries during the distillation process to produce a subtle and aromatic spirit.
The tasting process
Our tasting starts with a sample of Junipero, made in San Francisco by the Anchor Distilling Company. This 98-proof gin is flavored with dried juniper berries and a secret mix of herbs and spices, described as “exotic” botanicals.
The second gin we try, the Botanist Islay Dry Gin, comes from Bruichladdich, a Scotch distillery that is also using its stills to produce a 92-proof gin flavored with 22 wild plants foraged on Islay Island in the Inner Hebrides. The result tastes less of juniper and more of myrtle, heather and the moss that grows on peat. (As Kent says, it tastes of things that grow close to the ground.)
The third gin sample is Terroir from St. George Spirits. This is a 90-proof aromatic gin “wildcrafted” from California plants including Douglas fir and bay laurel, which provide its distinctive flavor. Kent uses the word “woodsy” to describe it, echoing St. George’s own description: “a forest in your glass.”
Then we move on to making the tonic syrup. The medicinal qualities of the key ingredient, Peruvian cinchona bark, were observed by Jesuit priests in the 17th century. By the 1860s, it was known that quinine was the active ingredient that suppressed malarial fever, so the British and the Dutch planted cinchona trees in their growing colonies in the East. The officers of the Royal Navy began adding the unpalatable quinine tincture to their daily ration of gin, and the new British cocktail became instantly popular in malaria-free London drawing rooms.
Reminding us there is no quinine in commercial “tonic” water, Kent creates a quinine tincture, steeping powdered cinchona bark in spirits while the class juices and zests limes and grapefruits. (He credits “The Bar Book” by Jeffrey Morgenthaler for the basic recipe but says he has jazzed it up a bit.) We all help by adding the zest and fruit juices to heating water, along with carefully measured coriander, anise and allspice. The mixture is mulled for 20 minutes, then left to cool as the orange water, quinine tincture and sugar are stirred in.
The finishing touches
On to the ice. Daniel explains that good ice is just a matter of physics: Rip the lid off a six-pack Igloo and then fill the cooler with water, and it will freeze from the top down like a lake, pushing air bubbles and impurities to the bottom. Using a block of ice he has already prepped, Kent starts tapping his serrated bread knife gently with a hammer, scoring a line where the clear ice and the cloudy ice meet. Suddenly the block splits into two layers, and Kent triumphantly holds up the top layer, as clear as any self-respecting mixologist could ever want.
When we are ready to mix the new gin and tonic, Kent schools us on technique, putting the ice in last to create extra fizz. The results are interesting. Junipero, with its more traditional flavoring, was a class favorite during the tasting, but when mixed with the fragrant tonic, it seems too complex. The Terroir, with its more balanced blend of botanicals, marries well with the tonic, but scores low because it does not have the kick that we attendees crave. Meanwhile, the Botanist, only moderately popular at the tasting, becomes the crowd favorite in the mixed drink. This cocktail, with its damp, earthy tones, is as far from artificially flavored gin and chemically manufactured tonic water as you can get.
The class ends with an inkling of what’s next for Kent. He is obsessed with pruno. What is that? Let’s just say pruno, a.k.a. jailhouse hooch, is immortalized in a poem by Jarvis Masters that ends with the line “May God have mercy on your soul.” When one of the workshop participants, a judge by profession, reveals his experience with authentic prison-made pruno, Kent blurts out, “Can you get me in?” Really, Daniel? There must be an easier way.
Main photo: A proper gin and tonic. Credit: © Seth Joel
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.)
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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.
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“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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Pok Pok chef Andy Ricker came back from a trip to Southeast Asia, where drinking vinegars are a commonly quaffed beverage, and he put them on the menu at his restaurant. He felt the tart tonics would be the perfect foil for his spicy Thai street food, and they’ve proved wildly popular. He is most frequently credited with starting the shrub and drinking vinegar trend in the U.S.
Merkes was inspired to try her hand at making shrubs after a friend raved about a cocktail she’d had at a bar in wine country that contained pomegranate shrub mixed with bourbon and jalapeno. So Merkes embarked on a path of discovery, testing and mixing, balancing tart and sweet, and using her chef’s sharpened palate to come up with unusual and flavorful fruit, vegetable and herb combinations. She found basic recipes online, then followed her taste buds for new flavors to create.
One such recipe heats the vinegar for the infusion with fruit and the other uses a cold method. Merkes prefers not to use heat, saying the fresh fruit or vegetable flavor comes through better without it. Here are a few other tips from her for a successful shrub brew:
- Sterilize the container before adding the shrub mixture.
- Use white balsamic or apple cider vinegars or a combination of the two.
- Use organic sugar, either white or turbinado, depending on the color of the fruit or vegetable.
- Use only fruits or vegetables that are in season.
- Store the shrub in the refrigerator, where it will keep for up to a year.
Drinking vinegars are incredibly versatile, beyond a refreshing thirst quencher or cocktail mixer, although that is what they are best known for. You can use them to make a soda by mixing 1 to 2 tablespoons of shrub into a glass of sparkling water and adding lots of ice, or add berry- or ginger-flavored shrubs to perk up iced tea. You can also swirl them into a glass of wine or sparkling wine for a riff on kir royale or wine spritzer. And shrubs are a natural in cocktails; barkeeps in the U.S. are coming up with all kinds of creative concoctions. For ideas, see what they are trying at Whiskey Soda Lounge at Pok Pok.
Merkes has come up with several cocktails, including one that is layered with bourbon on the bottom and top and black cherry and apricot basil shrubs in the middle and another that is a take on the original inspiration for her shrub business called The Marin Cruiser: pineapple melange shrub with vodka, lime, cilantro, jalapeno and sparkling water.
Other uses for shrubs include in salad dressings; whisked into mayonnaise for a sauce on fish; as a topping for ice cream, fresh fruit and cakes; and as a finishing sauce for grilled meat and poultry. Just as they used the technique in early America, drinking vinegar is a great way to capture the bounty of what is in the garden or at the farmers market right now before winter is upon us.
Merkes is still perfecting her recipes but expects to have her products available for sale in the next year. Pok Pok sells its drinking vinegar online, so if you don’t feel like making your own, check out one of their flavors.
As drinking vinegars continue to catch on, keep an eye out for them at local bars and specialty food shops. The flavors they can add to your favorite recipes will surely have you coming back for more.
Photo: Shrubs, or drinking vinegars, are concentrates that can be used to make cocktails and other drinks as well as add flavor to other dishes. Credit: Brooke Jackson