Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Open That Bottle Night 2009

(Wine "Library" at VIÑA COUSIÑO MACUL outside Santiago, Chile)

I’ve written before about Dorothy (Dottie) Gaiter and John Brecher the wine columnists for the Wall Street Journal. I have been a big fan of theirs for many years and reading their weekly column (and now watching the video on has become a weekly ritual

To my mind, one of their greatest achievements has been their creation of Open That Bottle Night (OTBN). It’s a holiday of sorts designed to provide a “reason” to open that bottle of wine too good, too rare, or too emotionally significant for you to ever find a worthy occasion to open. OTBN is celebrated on the final Friday of February. This year, the 10th Anniversary of OTBN is February 28, 2009.

The celebrations take on a number of different forms from quiet dinners at home with that special bottle to large parties where guests bring their bottles and share in a large tasting and/or dinner. Hinton’s Wine Store near my home is hosting its 4th annual OTBN at their Bin 75 wine bar with a complimentary event to those lucky 30 people who come and bring that special bottle.

Here are the suggestions from Dottie and John:

1. Choose the wine. You don't necessarily need to open your "best" wine or your most impressive wine, but the wine that means the most to you, the one that you would simply never open otherwise.

2. With an older bottle, the cork may break easily. The best opener for a cork like that is one with two prongs, but it requires some skill. You have time to practice using one. Be prepared for the possibility that a fragile cork may fall apart with a regular corkscrew. If that happens, have a carafe and a coffee filter handy. Just pour enough through the coffee filter to catch the cork fragments.

3. Otherwise, do not decant -- at least at first. Many OTBN wines are old and fragile. Air could quickly dispel what's left of them. But if you are opening a younger wine, taste it first; if it seems tight, and especially if you don't plan to linger over it for a few hours, go ahead and decant.

4. Have a backup wine ready for your special meal, in case you are opening an older wine that really has gone bad.

5. If you are having an OTBN party, ask everyone to say a few words about the significance of the wine they brought. This really is what OTBN is all about.

6. Enjoy the wine for what it is, not what it might someday be or might once have been.

7. Drop us a note at about your evening. Be sure to include your name, city and phone number, in case we need to contact you so that we can share your account with other readers.

Our plan this year is to have a few friends over with a few special bottles of wine toted back from vacations around the world. Having the event and the collective courage will help me open a very rare bottle of single vineyard unfiltered 1996 Malbec bought in Argentina a few years ago at what was then a ridiculous 25x the cost of a decent Malbec, but still a deal given the battered Argentine Peso. It was intended as a souvenir to be saved for a very special occasion which we haven’t found yet, but the suspense is now building as we prepare to open it this Saturday for OTBN’s 10th anniversary. Last night I put it on end to allow the sediment to begin moving down to the bottom of the bottle. It will be served with roast rosemary lamb chops with a blackberry port sauce.


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

High Praise for Sucré

During our recent trip to New Orleans we stumbled into Sucré on Magazine Street. What drew us in was a very modern and tasteful little store lined with cases, the ones in front selling ice cream and gelato. It reminded us of the geloterias in the fashionable parts of Buenos Aires.

Inside the service and selection were equally wonderful. After a few minutes of perusing we were greeted by a very enthusiastic gentleman at the chocolate counter at the back of the store who began telling us about each hand crafted chocolate. His passion was infectious and we purchased a box of six chocolates to eat right there in the store. Our selections included: Absinthe, Avery (salted chocolate caramel), Port, Bolivian (made from single source beans), Sicilian Pistachio, and Raspberry. All of these were excellent with the Avery and Absinthe our favorites.

We were also treated to samples of their King Cake which was very good and instead of the typical colored sugar was decorated with edible glitter that made for a much more refined presentation. We brought back a bag of their Mardis Gras Cream coffee as a gift and have been assured by the recipient that it's quite delicious.

If you're looking for a gift for a chocolate lover and want something more unusual than a box of Godiva place an order from Sucré and your recipient will not be disappointed.

Monday, February 23, 2009

A Taste of Mardi Gras

I just returned from a trip to New Orleans so please enjoy a series of Nawlins and Mardi Gras themed posts. I discovered a newish sweet shop on Magazine Street that inspired this post on King Cakes, though the picture above is not one of their delicious confections. More on the shop in the days to come.

The “modern history” of the King Cake began in 12th century France when the cakes were baked on the eve of January 6 to celebrate the Three Kings’ visit to the Christ Child. A single token was hidden in the cake as a surprise for the finder. This tradition was not invented to celebrate the Epiphany, but was instead an adaptation of a pagan tradition.

The more ancient history is believed that in pre-Christian Western Europe the pagan Harvest celebrations involved a sacrifice ritual of the “sacred king.” How was this unfortunate chap selected? Well this is where the cake comes in. Several men of the tribe, would eat of a cake in which a coin or bean was placed prior to baking. Whoever got the slice that had the coin or bean was the chosen one and was treated like a king for the year, the catch was that at the end of that year he would be sacrificed and his remains returned to the soil to ensure that the harvest would be successful.

The custom came with French settlers to Louisiana in the 18th century and continued to be associated with the Epiphany. During the 19th century with the increasing focus on Mardi Gras the tradition seems to have shifted and for a short time became a weekly event between the Epiphany and Mardi Gras and determined who would host the next weeks party. It was also during this period that they began using a porcelain baby in lieu of the coin or bean as the baby hidden in the cake symbolized the difficulty that the three Kings had in finding the Christ Child and of the gifts they brought.

In 1870, the Twelfth Night Revelers, one of the major Mardi Gras crews, held their ball, with a large king cake as the main attraction. Instead of choosing a sacred king to be sacrificed, the Twelfth Night Revelers used the bean in the cake to choose the queen of the ball. This tradition has carried on to this day, although the Twelfth Night Revelers now use a wooden replica of a large king cake. The ladies of the court pull open little drawers in the cake's lower layer which contain the silver and gold beans. Silver means you're on the court; gold is for the queen.
Unlike the French version of the cake - la galette des rois - still served for epiphany which is round without a hole in the middle, the king cake is an oval-shape with a large hole in the middle. The dough is basic coffee-cake dough, sometimes laced with cinnamon. The dough is rolled out into a long tube then shaped into an oval with the ends twisted together to complete the shape. This twisting is also a convenient place to put the baby if one wanted to increase one’s odds of finding it. The cake is then baked, and decorated with simple purple, green, and gold granulated sugar, the colors of Carnival.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A Well Stocked Bar XI

"It is a golden maxim to cultivate the garden for the nose, and the eyes will take care of themselves." ~ Robert Louis Stevenson

The Islands Scotch Whisky Region encompasses all the island distilleries except those on Islay. Of Scotland's 790 islands only 7 are involved in the production of Scotch Whisky, they include: Mull - Tobermory, Orkney - Highland Park and Scapa, Jura - Isle of Jura (pictured above), Arran and a whisky by the same name, Shetlands - Blackwood (though the distillery has been planned for some time it does not yet exist and spirits labeled Blackwood are actually purchased from a Lowland distillery) and Skye - Talisker.

Whisky from the Islands tends to have similar characteristics of Islay whisky, only a bit more subdued, due in large part to the reduced exposure of the malted barley to peat smoke. These whiskies tend to be lighter in color and a bit smoother than either Islay or Highland whisky and in some ways remind me of Speyside malts with a hint of salt.

I have seen the whiskies of Orkney, Highland Park and Scapa included in the Highland region. Orkney is an archipelago of 70 islands lying to the North of the Scottish Highlands. Scapa is located on what is called the Orkney Mainland - despite being one of the islands, it is named as such as it is the biggest of all. Highland park takes its name not from The Highlands, but from the fact that the distillery was built on a hill in the parklands above the town of Kirkwall. There's also a certain logic to this classification as the taste profile is similar to Highland whiskies.

Talisker is my favorite line of the Island whiskies and has a long and interesting history on the Isle of Skye. Talisker has over the years increased its single malt offerings including the excellent 18 year and the 25 year cask strength bottlings, though the majority of the production goes into the Johnnie Walker blends. I'm not alone in my fondness for Talisker, the Scottish writer Robert Lewis Stevenson referred to Talisker as 'the king of drinks.'

'Slaandjivaa' (to your health)

Friday, February 6, 2009

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's Dinner Party Guide

The following are Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's suggestions for the makings of a successful dinner party as contained in his Physiologie du Goût, ou Méditations de Gastronomie Transcendante; ouvrage théorique, historique et à l'ordre du jour, dédié aux Gastronomes parisiens, par un Professeur, membre de plusieurs sociétés littéraires et savantes, or more simply Philosophy of Taste. Some of his suggestions hold up better than others:

1. Let not the number of the company exceed twelve, that the conversation may be constantly general. Athenaeus: Still very good advice if your intention is to have a dinner party conducive to a catholic dialogue. We've all been to those large parties where you end up between two people, neither of whom manage to capture your attention for long as you lean forward and strain to hear what you imagine to be much more interesting things being said just a few seats away.

2. Let them be so selected that their occupations are various, and their tastes analogous, and with such points of contact that there will be no need for the odious formality of presentations. Athenaeus: This is good advice for all manner of parties. If the assembled persons are all of a similar interest it is not so much a party as a convention or meeting.

3. Let the dining-room be well lighted, the cloth spotless, and the atmosphere at a temperature from 13-16 degrees C (60-68 degrees F). Athenaeus: I think central heating has made us accostomed to a room a bit warmer than this.

4. Let the men have wit without pretension, and the women be pleasant without being coquettes. Athenaeus: Certainly the advice pertaining to the gentlemen is correct, but I'm a bit less certain if coquettes in their modern incarnation are appropriate or not as guests as I am at a loss as to imagine an acquaintence who might be labeled as such.

5. Let the dishes be exceedingly choice, but few in number; and the wines of the highest quality each in its degree. Athenaeus: This might be the simplest definition of a good host/hostess is one who provides the best possible in food and beverage for their guests.
6. Let the order of service be from the more substantial dishes to the lighter, and the simpler wines to the most perfumed. Athenaeus: This is a foreign concept for an American palette, but a novel idea. Have you ever served, or been served your courses from meat to fish to salad to dessert?

7. Let the meal proceed without undue haste, since dinner is the last business of the day; and let the guests consider themselves as travellers about to reach a shared destination together. Athenaeus: I like this so much I'm considering printing the quote on my next dinner invitations.

8. Let the coffee be hot, and the liquors chosen with special care. Athenaeus: Not much to be said here.

9. Let the drawing room be large enough to admit a game of cards for those who cannot do without it, while leaving ample room for post-prandial conversation. Athenaeus: An after dinner game is certainly the easy way to amuse your guests, though a stimulating conversation over coffee and after dinner drinks is certainly the ideal.

10. Let the guest be detained by the charms of society, and animated by the hope that the evening will yet develop. Athenaeus: A polite warning against boredom.
11. Let the tea not be too strong, the toast skillfully buttered, and the punch carefully prepared. Athenaeus: This is tradition I was previously unaware of and do not anticipate the resecutation of.

12. Let none leave before eleven o'clock, but let all be in bed by midnight. Athenaeus: A good general rule for host and guest alike.

Do you have any dinner party musts or must nots? Anything on which you disagree with Monsieur Brillat-Savarin?

Thursday, February 5, 2009

In Memoriam Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

"The discovery of a new dish confers more happiness on humanity, than the discovery of a new star." Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

February 2nd marked the 183rd anniversary of the death of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin the great 18th to 19th century gastronome. Brillat-Savarin was a renaissance man in the truest sense of the word having studied law, chemistry, medicine, and of course food in the context of living the good life. He had a command of five modern languages as well as Latin and used them frequently in both conversation and the written word. A good example of this was his fondness for the English word sip for which he did not find a suitable counterpart in French.

Brillat-Savarin's jobs included provincial lawyer (his family's trade), he was a deputy to the National Constituent Assembly, during the Revolution he was a political refugee living in Switzerland, Holland, and the United States where he tought French, gave violin lessons, and played in the Park Theater orchestra where he was the first violin. With the formation of the Directorate in 1797 he was welcomed back to france where he became a judge and author of several books on law, politics, and his most famous on food published just two months before his death: Physiologie du Goût, ou Méditations de Gastronomie Transcendante; ouvrage théorique, historique et à l'ordre du jour, dédié aux Gastronomes parisiens, par un Professeur, membre de plusieurs sociétés littéraires et savantes. Despite it's unwieldy title and occassionally unwieldy language the book has become a classic among gastronomes and the English translation by M. F. K. Fisher, published in 1949 is a classic in its own right.

His influence in food remains today with Brillat-Savarin cheese, a soft cow's milk cheese created in 1930's Normandy and named after Brillat-Savarin. And the often overlooked Gâteau Savarin cooked in a Savarin mold (see picture below). Many of his quotations live on, perhaps most famously, "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are." And one of my favorites, "A dessert without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye."

Here's a recipe I've been perfecting for a Gâteau Savarin inspired by one I had in Bruge, Belgium several years ago. Please forgive the absence of a photo as I have never photographed the process nor the finished product.

9-10 inch Savarin (ring) Mold (or Bundt pan)
1 Large mixing bowl

Ingredients for the dough:
3 large eggs
120 grams white sugar
3 Tbsp whole milk
90 grams unsalted butter melted
210 grams cake flour
3tsp dry yeast

Ingredients for the syrup:
1/2 l water
1 black tea bag
250 grams sugar
Zest of 1 orange
1 vanilla bean
1/3 cup light rum (100 Cane or similar)

1. Cream the eggs and sugar together until smooth, add milk and melted butter.
2. Stir in flour and yeast, work for no less than 10 minutes until firm and well formed ball, roll ball into a log sufficient to coil into the Savarin Mold.
3. Put into a greased and floured Savarin Mold, cover with a towel, and put in a warm place until it doubles in volume.
4. Bake in an oven pre-heated to 375 degrees F for 25-35 minutes until golden in color.
5. While the cake is baking bring water to a boil, remove from heat and add tea bag. Let stand for 3 minutes.
6. Remove tea bag and return to heat and add sugar and split vanilla bean, simmer until sugar is completely dissolved.
7. Remove vanilla bean and add orange zest, continue to simmer for two minutes. Remove from heat and cover.
8. Remove cake from oven and immediately pour syrup evenly over the top of the cake. Let stand up to 8 hours.
9. One hour before serving pour rum over cake.
10. When ready to serve remove from mold and slice.

Tomorrow tips from Brillat-Savarin on hosting a dinner party.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Widow Clicquot Reviewed

"I drink it when I am happy, and when I am sad.
Sometimes I drink it when I am alone.
When I have company, I consider it obligatory.
I trifle with it if I am not hungry, and drink it when I am.
Otherwise I never touch it - unless I am thirsty."
Madame Lilly Bollinger

The Widow Clicquot by Tilar J. Mazzeo was on my Christmas wish list this past year; I was excited about this book based on the promising subject matter, but I must preface this review by saying that this book was a major disappointment. Having said this I beg your patience to continue with this review as there were some diamonds among so much uninteresting rock.

Ms. Mazzeo started her quest to reconstruct the life of Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin Clicquot with a well intentioned zeal, and clear desire to extol the virtues of a businesswomen before the term had even been coined. Her initial premise was flawed in that Madame Clicquot, by her own admission, was like most businesswomen of the Napoleonic Era in that she stepped into the role as the result of a death of the patriarch either their fathers or husbands, in this case her young, fragile husband. Rather than take up the reins on her own she immediately embraced male business partners and professional sales and managerial staff to whom she delegated many of the major duties of running a wine wholesale business and ultimately a full production estate winery. While Clicquot’s accomplishments were many, as were her failures, they were not done by her alone as the precursor of the modern female entrepreneur. To expect this of a young widow in the mid 1800s was simply too much to hope for and an unfair imposition of our modern constructs; fighting against fact to prove so is unfair to Clicquot as it distracts from her authentic accomplishments.

The narrative is forced by Ms. Mazzeo with insufficient historical material leaving a story filled with awkward conjecture. Perhaps because of a lack of foresight in keeping the papers of the Widow Clicquot or simply because running a business and raising a family left precious little time for diaries and social correspondence there is precious little in the way of personal details beyond sales records and a few impersonal letters to her chief salesman during his travels.

What does come through from the facts and figures is that Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin Clicquot was a brave and adventurous woman. The daughter of a wealthy textile merchant who married another Reims elite, another son of a textile merchant and wine distributor, she was destined for a comfortable provincial life until the Napoleonic Wars and the premature death of her husband interfered. Her aggressive expansion into Russia, running blockades, and out innovating her competitors showed a brilliant mind and an appetite for risk.

Bits of wine wisdom peppered throughout the book were not enough to propel the story along but included such interesting party knowledge as name for the wine cages (muselet) and the metal cork cap (capsulets) both invented by Adolphe Jacquesson in the 1840s. The fact that Dr. Jules Guyot “invented” the practice of growing grapes in rows to increase evenness in ripeness, prior to the widespread use of this practice they were grown in round clusters for support. And perhaps most interestingly and relevant that the widow Clicquot invented the riddling racks out of her kitchen table as a way to speed the disgorgement process whereby the yeast is cleared out of the wine and removed from the bottle. She was also on the forefront of our modern conception of branding by being among the first to use a signature color in sealing her bottles, adding labels, and marketing prestigious vintages.

While this book makes marginal gains in Champagne scholarship and will be a useful reference for future authors it fails in its primary task of informing and entertaining the reader. For this reason I cannot recommend cluttering your nightstand with The Widow Clicquot.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A Well Stocked Bar X

"How solemn and beautiful is the thought that the earliest pioneer of civilization, the van-leader of civilization, is never the steamboat, never the railroad, never the newspaper, never the missionary - but always whisky!" ~ Mark Twain

To date in the Scotch sub-set of Well Stocked Bar posts we've covered Speyside, the Highlands, and most recently the Lowlands. This post is dedicated to Islay, a small island west of the Scottish mainland that has made a large contribution to the world of Scotch whiskies. These are also some of the most picturesque distilleries in Scotland, most being located on bays overlooking the cold sea.

Islay whisky is generally all the things Scotch can be in abundance: smoke, peat, and salt. The island once had 23 distilleries operating at the same time but the number of active distilleries is now down to eight, the newest of which, Kilchoman, opened in 2005 as the first new distillery on the island in 124 years. 2009 it will release its first whiskey having met the minimum legal ageing of 3 years in oak barrels. Kilchoman is preparing itself to be a definitive Islay whiskey as it's one of only six distilleries to carry out traditional floor maltings with barley grown at the distillery, something other distilleries don't do. Kilchoman single malt will also be bottled on Islay.

The oldest Islay distillery, Lagavulin, can trace its roots back to the 1740s. Lagavulin produces, at least to my palette, the second smokiest single malt available after Ardberg. The smoke comes from the process where the barley is smoked over a peat fire to stop the sprouting process, remove moisture, and impart flavor.

Other famous distilleries on Islay include: Laphroaig, Ardbeg (pictured above), Bowmore (pictured directly above), Caol Ila, Bruichladdich, and Bunnahabhain.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Lucky Numbers

“To do a common thing, uncommonly well, brings success.”
Henry John Heinz
In preparation for a Super Bowl party last evening I made barbecue sauce on Saturday. As I lined up my ingredients I couldn't help but notice the prominence of numbers on two iconic American products. The first was Heinz ketchup; having lived in Pittsburgh not far from the home of Senator John Heinz and Mrs. Theresa Heinz (now Kerry), I am a devoted Heinz customer when purchasing bottled and canned products.

The number 57 is featured prominently on a number of Heinz products, most notably Heinz 57 Steak Sauce. The number comes from a slogan used by the company at the end of the 19th century boasting that the Heinz company had 57 Varieties, though in true advertising fashion the number was a bit less than accurate as the company had more than 60 products at the time the slogan was put into use. The number 57 was a combination of the number 5 which was Henry John Heinz's lucky number and the number 7 which was his wife's lucky number. Today the number is still in use on packaging, as the P.O. Box for the company's mail, and as the last four digits of their consumer hotline '5757'; though the slogan is long gone and the company now produces more than 6,000 products. The Heinz brand got its start making prepared horseradish and grew quite quickly thereafter.

The second number is the 'No. 7' on the Jack Daniels bottle. Lot's of legends exist regarding the significance of this number, though none is officially endorsed by the company. The most probable theories center around whisky competitions where the product was entrant number 7 or that it won 7 competitions.

Here's a recipe for my Lucky 7's Barbecue Sauce:

1/2 cup Jack Daniels
1/4 cup Cointreau
1/2 cup chopped shallots
zest of one small orange, finely chopped
4 cloves finely chopped garlic
2 cups Heinz ketchup
1/3 cup cider vinegar
3 tablespoons Worcestershire Sauce
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
3/4 cup dark molasses
1/2 teaspoon fresh cracked pepper
1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger
1 tablespoon soy sauce (1 1/2 tablespoons if using reduced sodium)
1/4 cup tomato paste
3/4 teaspoon Crystal hot sauce

Combine shallot, garlic, Jack Daniels, and Cointreau in a 3 quart saucepan. Sauté until translucent, about 10 minutes. Add orange zest for the last 3 minutes of sauteing. Add all remaining ingredients, bring to boil. Simmer uncovered until reduced and thickened, about 15 to 25 minutes.

I like find this sauce particularly well suited to chicken meatballs and wings as well as pork ribs.