On Spirits

brettosSpirits are distilled beverages, made by concentrating alcohol and other volatile, aromatic compounds to make heady, shelf-stable drinks.

The sheer number of different types of spirits available in most liquor stores can be confusing.  What, for instance, is the difference between Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey?  Or tequila and mezcal?  Why is all Cognac brandy, but not all brandy Cognac?  These questions can be answered by knowing a few things about how liquor is made.

All spirits can be classified using the following four pieces of information:

  • region of production;
  • ingredients, including the base fermentable material and any other flavourings like spices or caramel;
  • distillation details, including type of still used, number of distillations, and other nuances; and finally
  • aging method, if any.

Region of production.  Some spirits must be made within defined geographical boundaries to carry a certain name on the label.  The most famous examples are Scotch (which must be from Scotland…) and Cognac and Armagnac (from the areas around the French towns of the same name).  The argument for the protection of regional designations is that subtleties in the water, ingredients, even the air, give the product a distinct character.  Regional designations are always accompanied by specifications on the ingredients and processes using in production.  For instance, Cognac must be from the Cognac region, must be made from grapes, must be aged for a certain period of time, and so on.

Ingredients.  All spirits begin as some sort of food that has sugar in it, whether fruit like grapes and apples, grains like barley and rye, or even sugar itself, in the form of cane juice or molasses.  The first step in converting these foods to spirits is to turn them into a fermentable liquid.  This is self-explanatory for grapes: you crush them to make juice, and there is in fact already yeast on the skins that will start to metabolize the natural sugars.  The process is a bit more complicated for grains: generally you need to malt, kiln, grind, and mash them, just like when making beer.

Interestingly, the base fermentable is not always important in categorizing the spirit.  Vodka, for instance, can be made from rye, or potatoes, or a number of other diverse ingredients.  Some spirits are categorized not by the base fermentable, but by how it is flavoured.  Gin can be made from any type of grain, but must be flavoured with juniper and other aromatics.

Regardless of the ingredients, yeast is added to the base fermentable liquid, and over the course of a week or two it metabolizes the sugars, creating ethanol as a byproduct.

After fermentation the mixture (now called wash) is relatively low in alcohol, somewhere around 5-15% alcohol by volume (ABV).  ABV is determined by the quantity of fermentable sugar in the original liquid.  There is, however, a ceiling on alcohol content with natural fermentation.  Even if we were to pour a bag of sugar into our grape juice or barley mash, we could only ever get an ABV of at most 17%.  Alcohol is a toxin, and fatal to yeast in such a high concentration.  We must concentrate the alcohol and aromatics by distilling the liquid.

Details of Distillation.  Distillation makes use of the different boiling points of the different components of a liquid.  Water boils at 100°C at sea level, and ethanol at about 78°C.  By heating a mixture of water and ethanol to a temperature between these two, then capturing and condensing the vapour, the distillate will have a much higher ethanol concentration than the original liquid.  The ethanol, being easily evaporated, is called a volatile component.  Often used to describe someone who flies off the handle, in the present context it means easily evaporated.  Non-volatile compounds, including sugar and pigments, are left behind.  All pure distillates are therefore dry (not sweet at all) and colourless.

What makes distilling challenging and interesting is that there are thousands of volatile components in fermented liquids besides ethanol.  Some are more volatile than alcohol and boil off at lower temperatures.  These are called heads, or foreshots, and are always undesirable in finished spirits.  They include methanol, acetone, and are generally nasty and toxic.  Other compounds are less volatile than ethanol, boiling off at higher temperatures.  They tend to be long, fat-like hyrdrocarbon chains, and are called tails, or feints.  They contribute harsh flavours that are desirable in small amounts in some styles of spirit, notably whisky.  They also contribute to mouthfeel, producing the oily texture of some spirits.  Tails are also known as fusel oils, and include butyl and amyl alcohol.

The art of the distiller is inviting the right volatiles to the party, while keeping out the undesirables.  The guest list depends on the style of liquor they are making.  Vodka, for instance, is a very neutral spirit, prized for it’s clean flavour.  (One of the first Schmirnoff ad campaigns in North America was: “No taste. No smell.”)  Eau-de-vie and schnapps, on the other hand, are prized for their strong aromas of fresh fruit.

There are countless types of stills, but there are three important, classic styles used in commercial distilling.

Pot still.  A large pot that holds the wash is heated.  Vapours rise from the pot into a vertical pipe called a gooseneck, or swan neck.  This pipe then narrows and bends towards the horizontal in a section called the lyne arm.  Vapour then descends into a condenser.

The first liquid that dribbles out of the condenser contains the heads, which are discarded.  Next the happy hearts are dispensed.  Finally the tails, which may or may not be desirable in small quantities.  The distiller evaluates the spirit to separate the heads, hearts, and tails depending on the style of spirit being made.

Charentais Alembic Still.  Most associated with Continental, aromatic spirits based on fruit, such as brandy and eau-de-vie.  Important features include the “helmet,” a bulbous top on the boiler functions as an expansion chamber, which holds back the heavier volatiles, and lets the lighter fruit aromatics through.

Usually the vapour passes by a pre-heater, containing the wash for the next batch.

Like a pot still, heads, hearts, and tails come out of the condenser one after the other, and have to be separated at the distiller’s discretion.

A sketch of a Charentais alembic still

Continuous still.  Most associated with industrial distillation of neutral spirits.  As the name suggests, this still does not operate batch by batch, but with a continuous input of wash.

The cool wash descends and is heated by the rising vapour.  Instead of heads-heart-tails differentiation being a function of time, as with batch stills, here it is a function of height.  The more-volatile heads come out the top of the still, and the less-volatile tails out the bottom.  The spirit is taken out somewhere partway up the still.

A sketch of a continuous still

The number of passes through the still is also important.  Scotch, for instance, is generally twice-distilled, while most Irish whiskey is thrice-distilled.

Aging method, if any.  The most important question here: is the spirit aged in wooden barrels?  All distillates are clear and colourless when they first come out of the still.  The colour of brown spirits like whisky and brandy develops during barrel-aging.  Besides changing the colour of the spirit, aging in wood makes the drink smoother, and can lend distinct aromas and flavours, notably the vanilla and caramel notes found in bourbon.

Based on the four points discussed above, we can now simply and accurately define every major style of spirit.  A super-quick survey:

Whisky

  • Region of Production: There are no controls on the term whisky, but its most famous sub-varieties are regional designation: Bourbon is from the US, Scotch from Scotland, Irish whiskey from Ireland, and Canadian whisky from Canada.
  • Base Fermentable: Whisky is always made from grain, but the exact ingredients vary widely.  Bourbon is based on corn, and Scotch on barley, for instance.
  • Distillation Details: Traditionally made in a pot still that allows certain tails through.
  • Aging Method: Always aged in wooden barrels to obtain characteristic colour, flavour, and mouthfeel.
  • Contrary to popular thought, Canadian whisky is not necessarily rye whiskey, though it does generally contain a good does of rye.  It pains me to admit, but Canada is the least regulated of the four classic whisky regions, and therefore the least distinct of the group.

Vodka

  • Region of Production: There are no regional controls for vodka, but its homeland is Russia.
  • Base fermentable: Any number of base fermentables can be used.  Basically the cheapest source of calories available.  Rye is the most common, but potatoes and wheat are also used.
  • Distillation Details: Most commercial varieties are made in a column still, but pot stills can also be used.  Often distilled several times for clean flavour.
  • Aging: Not aged, or aged very briefly, but never in wooden barrels.  Vodka is always clear.

Brandy

  • Region of Production: “Brandy” itself can be made anywhere, but it is understandably most common in wine regions, and certain types of brandy are regional designations (Cognac, Armagnac).
  • Base Fermentable: Grapes are fermented into a mediocre wine that is later distilled.  The term “brandy” is also broadly applied to other distillates based on fruit.  For instance, while the Normans have a word for apple cider distillate (“Calvados”, see below), but the English do not, so we often call it “apple brandy.”  This is perfectly acceptable.  Imagine if the English language did not have the word “cider,” and we had to call fermented apple juice “apple beer.”
  • Distillation Details: Premium brandies like Cognac are made in Alembic Charentais stills.
  • Aging Method: Always aged in wooden barrels to obtain characteristic colour, flavour, and mouthfeel.

Calvados

  • Region of Production: Specific parts of Normandy and Brittany, in France.
  • Base Fermentable: Apples, or sometimes pears.
  • Distillation Details: Alembic still
  • Aging Methodl: Always aged in wooden barrels to obtain characteristic colour, flavour, and mouthfeel.

Gin

  • Region of Production: Not a controlled term, but originally from Holland and adopted with enthusiasm by the British.
  • Ingredients: Usually a neutral grain spirit that has been flavoured with juniper and other exotic aromatics like grains of paradise.
  • Aging Method: Almost never aged in wood.  Almost always clear.  (There are some exceptions by craft producers like Victoria Spirits.)

Rum

  • Regional of Production: Not a controlled term, but originally from the Caribbean and other cane-growing regions.
  • Base fermentable: Sugar cane juice, or molasses, or a blend of the two.  Often caramelized sugar is back-added to the distillate for sweetness, colour, and body.
  • Aging Method: Large commercial brands of rum are not usually aged.  The best rums in the world (like this one) are always aged in wooden barrels.

Eau-de-Vie and Schnapps (true schnapps)

  • Region of Production: Not a controlled term.  Schnapps is common in German-speaking regions such as Germany and Austria.  Most French regions, notably Alsace, use the term eau-de-vie.  Switzerland can go either way.  Etter is a self-described eau-de-vie, even though it is made in the largely German-speaking Swiss town of Zug.
  • Base fermentable: Any manner of fruit, including apple, pear, apricot, plum, and cherry.
  • Distillation Details:  The best examples use an Alembic still to capture the aroma of the fresh fruit.
  • Aging Method: Not aged in wood barrels.  A clear spirit.

Mezcal

  • Region of Production: Not a controlled term, but confined almost entirely to Mexico.
  • Base Fermentable: Agave, specifically the swollen, central bulb of a mature agave plant that has had its flower stalk snipped.  The bulb is cooked, then crushed and shredded to extract a sweet liquid.
  • Distillation Details: Pot still, traditionally.
  • Aging Method:  Some mezcal is aged on wood, some is not.  It is partly a stylistic decision.  Cheap industrially-produced mezcal usually gets its colour from caramel, while very fine examples are aged in wood.

Tequila

  • Tequila is a kind of mezcal produced in certain delimited areas of Mexico, using only blue agave.
  • Tequila has different classifications based on aging method.  Blanco is un-aged, or aged very briefly in stainless steel tanks.  Gold tequila gets its colour from caramel.  Reposado and añejo tequilas are aged in wooden barrels.

Grappa, Marc, and other Pomace Spirits

  • Region of Production: Not a controlled term, but most common in wine-producing regions.
  • Base fermentable: Grape pomace (the skins and seeds left-over after pressing grapes to make wine).  Really cheap examples will use true pomace mixed with a bit of water and sugar.  Really fine examples will actually use grape juice, but from later pressings.
  • Distillation: Pot still, traditionally.
  • Aging: Most often a clear spirit.  The Cretain pomace spirit raki is often aged on wood.  And there are some amazing Grappa di Barolo that are barrel-aged.
  • In Greece the most common word for pomace spirit is tsipouro.
  • Other notes: Grappa is often a little rough around the edges, but quality examples like Nonino Grappa showcase the natural aromas of the grapes from which it is made.  Nonino Grappa di Moscato, for instance, has the distinct lemon balm aroma of the moscato grape.
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Red Fife Wheat: Heir to the Prairies

I consider this post a sort of addendum to The Story of the Buffalo.  I suggest having a gander at that post before reading this one.

 

Red Fife wheat has received a lot of attention in our part of the world.  It is a heritage or heirloom wheat, touted as the first cultivar to be grown successfully on the Canadian prairies. It is not genetically modified, and since it is not industrially grown, it is often organic.  There are many compelling reasons to grow, purchase, mill, and cook with Red Fife wheat.  It is, however, romanticized to a hilarious degree.

We all know that the buffalo was the basis of prairie life before European arrival.  It remained an important staple in forts and trading posts along the various routes taken by voyageurs and coureurs de bois well into the 1800s.[1]

By the end of the 1870s the buffalo had been hunted to near-extinction, and treaties had been signed with the natives.  The next period of prairie history was European settlement and conversion of the native grass- and pakland to farmland, most notably for grain-growing.

Grain is central to the identity of the prairie provinces.  If you think that’s an overstatement, I direct you to the provincial flags of Alberta and Saskatchewan, both of which brandish golden stalks of wheat.  It’s incredible to think, but at one time there were serious doubts that the prairies could ever be farmed successfully.  The first significant attempt, made by the Red River Colony, was full of failures and disappointments.[2]  They had difficulty clearing the land, had to contend with flooding and locusts on a biblical scale, and then of course there were the bitterly, impossibly cold winters and the brief growing seasons.  Most European varieties of winter wheat were killed by the frigid cold, and most varieties of spring wheat could not ripen before the first frosts of autumn.[3]

Despite set-backs, the Red River Colony eventually found a robust strain of wheat, and they were more or less self-sufficient grain-wise from 1820 onward.[4]

In 1857 the British and the colonial Canadian governments both sent expeditions west of the Red River Colony, all the way to the Rockies and beyond, in part to asses the land’s agricultural potential. The former was led by a man named Palliser, the latter by a man named Hind. Though the Palliser report contained descriptors like “semi-arid” and “almost-desert”, the general consensus was that agriculture would be possible throughout much of the region.

Meanwhile Red Fife wheat was making its way west from Ontario.  David Fife was a Scotsman living in Peterborough, and his serendipitous “discovery” of what became known as Red Fife wheat is now a Canadian food legend.  In 1842 a friend of David’s working at the port in Glasgow sent him some grains of a hardy wheat variety.  Most sources say that the wheat had come to Glasgow from the Ukraine.  The story goes that the friend dipped his hat into the grain, lodging some of the seeds in the interior headband, and then sent this hat to Fife in Canada.  Fife planted the seeds, but only one stalk grew.  That one stalk was decimated by the family cow, but thankfully someone managed to save one head from bovine destruction.[5]

These rescued seeds produced hardy wheat that was resistant to rusts and other diseases. It became famous locally, then spread south into the US, and west across Canada.  By 1870 Red Fife wheat was common on the prairies.[6]  While it was not the first wheat to be grown here, it is considered the first distinct Canadian wheat variety.  Where Old World wheat varieties had offered mere subsistence, Red Fife and its scion Marquis offered prosperity.  Reliably productive wheat crops helped entice millions of immigrants from Europe and the United States into the Canadian west, a region that would later export massive quantities of grain and become the “breadbasket of the world”.

The success or failure of a people has always depended on the success or failure of their associated flora and fauna.  It’s hard for us, a supermarket people, to comprehend, but our mode of existence is largely predicated on tiny genetic mutations in the plants and animals that we eat.  The only reason that we grow wheat in the first place is that thousands of years ago a single Mesopotamian wheat mutant held onto its seeds instead of releasing them and letting them fall to the ground.  Normally this would have been a fatal defect: how could the plant reproduce if its seeds didn’t fall to the ground and get pushed into the soil?  Thankfully someone took notice of the unusual plant, and grabbed the easily-harvested seeds.  They probably ate some, and one way or another planted the rest.[7]  Likewise a mutation in Fife’s wheat from Glasgow made the plant so robust and well-adapted to Canada that it became a keystone for European settlement of the Canadian west.

In this context we can return to the buffalo.  Bison and wheat are two sides of the same coin: bison, the wild animal that sustained the largely nomadic indigenous people of the prairies, nearly eradicated by the voracious buffalo hunt; wheat the sort of heir to the prairies, and Red Fife the unique cultivar that appeared to fill the agricultural gap and make European life here possible.

As with the buffalo post, I want to sort of wash my hands and say that my goal in writing this brief history is not to arrive at any kind of moral decision. The mandate of the local-food movement is to know more about where our food comes from. While we often talk about specific grains grown on specific farms, this post was an attempt to consider a plant from a broader perspective.

 

 

References and Other Notes

1.  In 1814 the Red River Colony, closely associated with the Hudson’s Bay Company, attempted to take control of the regional pemmican trade.  The violent response from the North West Company is now called the Pemmican War.

2.  Described in detail in this article on the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada website: From a Single Seed: Tracing the Marquis wheat success story in Canada to its roots in the Ukraine.

3.  From the entry on “Wheat” in The Canadian Encyclopedia, Second Edition, published by Hurtig Publishers in Edmonton, 1988.  Winter wheat is planted in the fall.  It germinates, then goes dormant over the winter, and resumes growing in the spring.  Spring wheat is planted in the spring and harvested in the fall.

4.  Also from From a Single Seed on Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

5.  The online Canadian Encyclopedia entry on Red Fife wheat.

6.  Also from From a Single Seed on Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

7.  From Jared Diamond’s brain-blowing book Guns, Germs, and Steel, one of the greatest food books of all time, even though you won’t find it in the food section of the bookstore.  The domestication of wheat is described in Chapter 7, “How to Make an Almond.”

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Valpolicella

A view of Valpolicella vineyards and Lake GardaAmarone is the most fashionable Italian wine in North America.  I’m in no way qualified to make such a sweeping statement, but I think the shelves of boutique wine shops offer ample testament.  The wine is rich, concentrated, age-worthy, and expensive.  It is by its very nature more pricey than most other wines: made from partially-dried grapes, it requires more kilograms of fruit to produce a litre of wine.  The absolute cheapest bottles in Canada cost about $40, but most mid-level bottles sell for around $60.  My first taste of Amarone was in the home of a self-impressed eye doctor.  It was delicious.

Amarone is from Valpolicella,[1] a small region in northeast Italy, just outside Verona.  Valpolicella is an old word for an area that doesn’t have a modern administrative function, and so doesn’t appear on most political maps.  Outside Italy the term Valpolicella is always used in connection to wine production, but the people who live there will patiently explain that it is a place with a long history and a unique identity within the Veneto.  My instructor in this lesson was Davide Canteri, who offers wine tours of the area.

Almost every written source I have, including the Oxford Companion to Wine, says that the word Valpolicella comes from a mixture of Latin and Greek, and means “valley of many cellars”.  I asked Davide about this, and he said if he were being completely objective he would have to admit the origin is unknown, but that the “many cellars” etymology is definitely not correct, and was clearly invented by advertising executives.  (“Why would the name of this region have a Greek word in it?”)  He then offered a few other possibilities that he thinks are much more probable (though admittedly less sexy).  One involved the regional word for puddles.  Another was based on the word for maiden, as one of the local coats-of-arms features a young women kneeled in prayer.

Valpolicella proper is comprised of three adjacent valleys, their principle towns being Fumane, Marano, and Negrar.  They are northwest of Verona, and east of the Adige River.

In the 1960s the Italian government set out to codify its wine regions and methods of production in a system similar to the French appellation laws.  In several parts of the country the permitted production areas for specific wines were expanded well beyond the traditional borders so that more winemakers could benefit from labelling their wine with a famous name.  Valpolicella, though traditionally confined to the three valleys east of the Adige, was expanded west of the river, all the way to Lake Garda.  According to Davide, this enlargement was first met with resistance from the producers in the original region.  The silver lining is that the enlargement increased production to a level that allowed Valpolicella wines to be sold all over the world.  If it hadn’t been for the enlargement, Davide says, North Americans may never have heard of Valpolicella.  But it also means that consumers need to know more about the producer, and where exactly their grapes come from.  Wine produced in the original region is labelled Valpolicella Classico.

Valpolicella wines are made from a mixture of several grape varieties, the three most important being Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara.  Corvina literally means “crow” and refers to the dark colour of the grapes.  This variety holds the highest regard.  It produces wine with the best structure, but its yields are low, so it is supplemented with other higher-yielding varieties.  Rondinella is the second most renowned grape of the region.  Rondine is the word for swallow (the bird), and rondinella means little swallow.  Davide said this is because late in the season these grapes tend to split, and then resemble a swallow’s tail.  Molinara is the third most important variety.  Unfortunately I don’t have a cute bird story about this grape.  These three varieties are the backbone of viticulture in Valpolicella, but there are dozens of other local varieties that are permitted.

According to the wine cognoscenti, vine-growers in Valpolicella and the rest of Italy are faced with a dilemma.  On the one hand they can grow a huge amount of ordinary grapes that will produce ordinary wine, or they can grow a small amount of high-quality, flavourful grapes that will make better, more concentrated, more expensive wine that can be exported.  These grape yields are determined by vineyard site, the grape variety planted, and viticultural details like how the vines are trained.  Vines grown on rocky slopes, for instance, have lower yields than vines grown in flat valleys with rich, loamy soil.

In Valpolicella the traditional way to train vines is up onto a pergola, about six or seven feet off the ground.  Modern international wine-makers prefer to use the Guyot method, where the vines are cane-pruned and trained along wires, closer to the ground.  If you think that this is an esoteric or trivial difference in viticulture, consider this: pergola-trained plants yield about 15 kg of grapes per vine, while Guyot-trained plants yield about 4 kg of grapes per vine.

That being said, as you leave Verona and drive through the endless vineyards of the Veneto, you will notice that some vines are trained on pergolas, others in the Guyot style.  Later you will discover that good wines can come from either camp.

From Verona we drove to what Davide calls the heart of Valpolicella, the small hamlet of San Giorgio, which is perched on a hill with beautiful views west towards Lake Garda (photo above).  In the centre of this town is a medieval church, formally called Pieve di San Giorgio di Valpolicella.  It was this church as much as the vineyards that Davide wanted to show us.

The church, like most buildings in the old town, is made of burnished white stone.  It has a blockish bell tower, and an elegantly crumbling cloister.  Excavations on the adjacent hillside have revealed evidence of a Bronze Age civilization.  There was also a Roman building on this site.  In fact, some of the stones from that pagan temple had been salvaged and re-purposed during the construction of the church.  You can still make out the fragmentary Latin inscriptions.  A stone baldachin carved by Lombards arches over the main altar, and along the walls are frescoes painted as early as the 11th century.  There’s one of Adam eating the bad apple, one of St. John, a scene from the Last Supper, all in the flat, slightly contorted medieval style.

I know: this kind of architectural palimpsest can be found all over Italy.  In Rome there are numberless examples of Christian churches and monuments built with odds and ends from Roman ruins.  But in Rome and in the Vatican that construction was done so lavishly, and on such an impossible, monumental scale, that they are now part of the collective cultural heritage of the western world, and congested tourist destinations.

San Giorgio is a living church.  Davide went to mass here when he was little.  The hot September afternoon when we were visiting a wedding had just ended.  We had to drop coins in a box to switch the lights on.  I could have touched the thousand year old frescoes on the wall.  (I didn’t…)

Yes, here was the same story told throughout northern Italy of Bronze Age pagans, Roman imperialism and collapse, barbarian invasion, medieval Catholicism, and Venetian domination, but here that story was told on the smallest, most personal scale.  A trip to Davide’s boyhood church was an intimate, humble gesture, something that I wasn’t expecting on an outing marketed as a wine tour.  I guess the point is that while wine is an important part of Valpolicella, and central to its identity, it really is only one facet of the region.

Anyways: right now we’re talking about wine.

After we left the church we went to a winery.

It is called Salgari, after a famous Italian author.  I had never heard of him, let alone read any of his books.  He was described to us as an Italian Jack London, a writer of adventure stories.

We started our tour with a quick visit to the vineyard closest to the house.  The vines were festooned on pergolas.  It had been a miserable vinatge across northern Italy from the Veneto to the Piedmont, grey and damp and cool, but the harvest was underway.

In the house we peered into some cement tanks built into the ground.  We also stuck our heads into an old cellar, musky and pungent with the smell of wet earth, with a fat salami and some ancient bottles of wine.

Finally we sat for a tasting of the four main styles of wine made in the Valpolicella.

Valpolicella is the standard, dry wine of the region.  A red, made from a blend of Corvina, Rondinella, and possibly a number of others including Molinara.

The most famous wines of the region are made from grapes that have been partially raisined.  After the ripe grapes are harvested, they are spread out on mats in airy attics and storehouses to try for three to six months, during which time they typically lose about 40% of their weight in moisture.  Only once the sugars have been concentrated in this manner are the grapes crushed and fermented.

Recioto[2] is the traditional premium wine of the region.  It is a sweet red made from partially-dried grapes.  It ferments for about 25 days, but then fermentation is arrested to preserve a good deal of sweetness in the wine.  In modern wine texts Recioto is presented almost as an historical curiosity, a footnote, important only because it is the ancient progenitor of Amarone.  These dismissals notwithstanding, the folks at Salgari unflinchingly stated that Recioto is (still) the most important wine of Valpolicella.

Amarone is the current darling of the region.  Like Recioto, Amarone is red, and made from partially-dried grapes.  Unlike Recioto, it is fermented until it is completely dry.  This takes quite a while: usually forty to sixty days.  The great irony of Amarone is that historically it was considered a mistake: a ruined Recioto, a Recioto scapà, which means a Recioto that has fled or run away.  According to Davide the first time Amarone appeared on a label was in 1935, when the Cooperative Cellar of Negrar marketed a Recioto scapà as Recioto Amarone.  Amarone literally means “big bitter,” though the wine is not bitter in the conventional sense: it’s bitter  in that it is not sweet.

Ripasso is simple Valpolicella wine that has been aged with some of the pressed grape skins leftover from Amarone production.  It therefore has a bit more depth and complexity than a straight Valpolicella, without the concentration and price tag of an Amarone.  Ripasso wines are dry.

We sat at a table, three tourists, Davide our guide, and two members of the family.  The proceedings took the form of a formal tasting: empty glasses line before us on a mat.  Each wine poured.  We smelled, tasted, discussed.  But truthfully it was not a formal tasting.  It was social.  There were cheeses and salami and olive oil and bread on the table.  And we talked about all sorts of things besides the wine.  Most memorably, what Italian food is like in Canada.

Formal tastings are for suckers.

 

  1.  “val-poll-i-CHELL-a” – with the same “ch” sound as “cello”
  2. “re-chee-OH-to”
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Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena

A bottle of Unico Balsamic Vinegar of ModenaThis is balsamic vinegar of Modena.[1]  We’ve all had it before: it’s brown, and sweet, and acidic.  This bottle was produced by Unico.  I think I bought it at Safeway.

Let’s look at the ingredients list.  First is wine vinegar.  Then concentrated grape must.  “Must” is the winemaker’s term for unfermented grape juice.  So concentrated grape must is just cooked grape juice.  Next we see caramel, or cooked sugar, which gives the vinegar is characteristic colour, sweetness, and body.  Finally we have sulfites, which inhibit micro-organisms and prevent unwanted fermentation.  In other words, this condiment is sweetened vinegar.

Bottles labelled “Balsamic Vinegar of Modena” have a faux seal on them that says “Indicazione Geografica Protettata,” or IGP.  This is an EU certification that guarantees a very basic level of quality, a broad style of production, and certifies that at least one part of that production occured in the indicated region, Modena in this case.  None of the ingredients actually need to come from there: the grapes that created the vinegar and concentrated must could have been from other parts of Italy, or France, or Australia.  The part of the process that takes place in Modena is the brief aging period: all the ingredients are combined and stored in a barrel for one year, then bottled.

Balsamic vinegar of Modena is a commercial product made on an industrial scale.  I like it: I always have a bottle at home and I use it semi-regularly for salad dressing.  Or sometimes I cook it down to a syrupy consistency and drizzle it on toast with honey.  It’s tasty, but it is a pale shadow of the original, traditional vinegar on which it is based.

A bottle of San Donnino Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of ModenaThe photo at right shows a bottle of traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena.  Instead of an IGP stamp, it has a DOP label: “denominazione di origine protettata”.  DOP regulations are much more stringent than IGP.  Let’s look at the ingredients list of this product.

There is actually only one ingredient that can be used to produce traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena: grape must.

So let’s talk about this grape must.  First, the grapes must all come from around Modena, and they must be of only two varieties: Trebbiano and Lambrusco.  The grapes are harvested, crushed, and pressed to make juice.  This juice is then cooked very gently for about twenty four hours, preventing conventional fermentation and concentrating the natural sugars in the fruit.

Once the must is cool it is aged for several years in a series of wooden barrels called a batteria.  There are usually five barrels in a batteria.  They can be made out of any of six kinds of wood: mulberry, ash, cherrywood, chestnut, oak, or juniper.  Each barrel has an opening at the top, covered only with cloth, so that the grape must is exposed to the air.  As you can see in the photo below, the barrels are of different sizes, lined up on a rack so that they descend in volume.

Batterie at San Donnino in Modena

It is in these barrels, without the addition of any yeast, that the grape must slowly (slowly!) ferments, first to an alcoholic mixture, then an acidic one.  Moisture also evaporates through the opening in the barrels, so the must levels gradually drop month by month.

The batterie are always set up in an attic, where ambient temperatures fluctuate with the seasons.  The micro-organisms working on the vinegar are active in the warm summer months, and stagnant in winter.

The final important aspect of a batteria is that it is a fractional blending system.  Each year the producer is allowed to draw only one litre of vinegar from the smallest barrel.  Then must is moved from the next largest barrel into the smallest.  All the barrels are topped up with must from their larger neighbour.  The largest barrel at the end is topped up with the season’s new must.

In other words:

  • all the barrels contain a blend of musts from different years
  • the largest barrel contains the youngest average age
  • the smallest barrel contains the oldest average age
  • the average age of all the must increases with each year

batteria must be at least 12 years old before its vinegar can be sold as Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena.  Vinegar that is 25 years or older can earn a further classification called extravecchio (“extra old…”).

Before it can be bottled and sold, the one litre that is drawn from the smallest barrel of each batteria is evaluated by a consortium.  It is tasted and scored, and if it is not deemed worthy it is returned to the batteria for another year, or longer.  Once the consortium has approved a batch of vinegar, they give the producer a certain number of bottles and DOP labels.

Traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena is always sold in a particular bottle designed by Giugiaro.  The high speed train that I rode from Rome to Bologna was also designed by Guigiaro.  Every Giugiaro balsamic vinegar bottle holds only 100 mL.  Prices for one of these bottles vary greatly.  I paid 40 Euros for the bottle of San Donnino shown above.

So, that’s how traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena is made.  What do you do with it?

Firstly, you never cook it.

Secondly, you don’t make salad dressings with it, or mix it with oil or any other food: you put it directly onto food in small quantities.

The most classical use is as a condiment for cheese and cured meat, especially Parmigiano-Reggiano, which is made just down the road from Modena.  It is also commonly added to mortadella, fish, and pasta.

Traditional balsamic vinegar is rarely served at restaurants because of it’s high cost.  In fact I’ve only seen it in a restaurant twice.  The first was at The French Laundry, where our server shook a few drops of 100 year old balsamic vinegar onto ricotta agnolotti.  The second was at Osteria Franscescana in Modena.  I ate a “croccantino,” which was a piece of foie gras coated in crushed almonds and hazenlnuts, filled with a generous glob of traditional balsamic.  The foie was mounted on the end of a stubby wooden stick, like a popsicle.

It suddenly occurs to me that I haven’t told you what traditional balsamic vinegar tastes like.  The reason this product deserves respect isn’t because of how long it takes to make or how expensive it is: it’s the taste.  I learned what I know about traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena from Davide at San Donnino.  He gave us a tour of his acetaia,[2] and climbing into his attic and smelling those first wafts of balsamic was the most memorable moment of my entire stay in Italy.  Yes, it smelled of vinegar, but with a pronounced aroma of dark, cooked sugar, like molasses.  Later, when we tasted the vinegar, we found that it is not sharply acidic and simply sweet like the industrial version, but balanced, rounded, and again with that incredible, deep, blackstrap flavour.

We brought back a bottle of regular traditional, and a bottle of extravecchio.  To taste this vinegar now is an incredible, visceral reminder of Modena.  It has the transportive power usually associated with wine.

Thank you, Davide.

 

1.  Pronounced “MOH-den-a”, not “mo-DEE-na”
2. Pronounced “a-che-TEYE-a”

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Preßwurst

Presswurst at an Austrian Heuriger.Preßwurst, transliterated “presswurst” and pronounced “PRESS-voorst,” is Austrian headcheese.

Headcheese is a polarizing preparation with a terrible name, but I think borrowing a trick from Preßwurst can make headcheese much more palatable to North Americans.

Both dishes are made from pork head and trotter.  The meat is brine-cured so it is rosy pink, then simmered until tender. The meat is strained, shredded, and packed into a mold with some of the gelatin-rich cooking liquid, which firms into aspic when chilled.  Full details on the procedure can be found in this post.

The most important way in which Austrian Preßwurst differs from North American headcheese is that after being packed into the mold, a heavy weight is rested on the shredded meat and aspic.  This compacts the meat and forces excess aspic from the mold, making for a dense, cohesive texture.  Most North American’s objection (or revulsion) to headcheese is the jelly component.  When the terrine is pressed this way, there is no discernible jelly; the gelatin is simply an adhesive that binds the various elements together.

Besides changing the appearance and mouthfeel of the dish, the properly weighted Preßwurst is cohesive enough that it can be sliced very thin, like ham.

To replicate the Austrian version I use a commercial kitchen container called a 1/3 plastic insert as my mold.  Once the meat and aspic are packed inside I make a 3 kg weight by adding 3 L of cold water to a second plastic insert that rests on top of the first.  The terrine should be refrigerated for at least 24 hours, preferably 48 hours.

I realize now, looking at the photo below, that my mixture has a lot more fat than the true Austrian version above.

homemade_presswurst

 

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Schmalzfleisch

Mixing cured meat and lard to make SchmalzfleischSchmalzfleisch is one of the staple Aufstriche (spreads) at an Austrian Heuriger.  If that sentence made absolutely no sense to you, read this post before proceeding.

Schmalzfleisch literally means “fat-meat”.  It is one of several dishes Austrians have developed to use up irregular scraps of cured meat, like the very end of a ham that can’t quite be passed through the meat slicer.

The process for making Schmalzfleisch is simple: pieces of cured meat are ground, then mixed with rendered lard to form a cohesive paste that can be spread on bread.  Traditionally cured meat and fat are the only two ingredients.  I like to add a touch of mustard for balancing acidity.

If you grew up in eastern Canada and spent any time in a church basement, you’re probably familiar with minced ham.  Schmalzfleisch is similar to minced ham, only it is bound with lard instead of mayonnaise.

 

Schmalzfleisch

Master Ratio – 3:1 ground cured meat, lard

Ingredients

  • 240 g leftover charcuterie (see Note below)
  • 80 g warm lard
  • 8 g mustard

Procedure

  1. Cube the charcuterie and grind once through a 1/4″ plate.  Transfer to the bowl of a stand mixer.
  2. Add the warm lard and mustard to the bowl and mix briefly with the paddle attachment, until the ingredients are combined and the ground charcuterie has formed a spread.
  3. Transfer to serving dish, garnish with chives.  Consume on light rye bread.

Note:  “Ham-type” charcuterie, ie. pork that has been brine-cured and cooked, works best.  A small amount of air-dried meat like salami can be used, but not more than 1/4 of the total weight.  Fresh (un-cured) cooked meat like pork chops and roast beef give the mixture a mushy texture and should be used sparingly.

Yield: 320 g schmalzfleisch

A ramekin of Schmalzfleisch

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Schweinsbraten – The Ultimate Ham

Schweinsbraten literally means “roasted pork”.  If you order it in an Austrian restaurant, you will get a slice of greyish meat, usually but not always from the shoulder of the animal.  If you order it in an Austrian Heuriger, you will get something a bit different.

Thinly sliced SchweinsbratenAll the food at a Heuriger is served cold, and meat is typically cured.  Schweinsbraten at a Heuriger is cured, like ham.  What makes this particular ham so special is the cut of meat it is made from: the Schopf.

The Schopf extends forward from the loin of the pig, into the shoulder primal.  It has the same round cross-section as the loin, only it also has a very healthy amount of fat marbled throughout.  For more specifics on where exactly this cut of meat is on the animal, and how to remove it, see this post.

To make Schweinsbraten, the Schopf is brined like any other ham.  Once cured, it can be slow-roasted.  If the meat will be sliced thin and served cold, it only needs to be roasted to 65°C.  If you would like to slice the meat thicker and serve it like baked ham, it will need to be roasted or braised up to 80°C to tenderize.

Braised Schweinsbrated with Serviettenknödel and sauerkraut

I suggest this cut as a superior alternative to pork leg for making ham.  When I first started cutting pork I used most of the shoulder for sausages and other ground applications, reserving the leg for hams and roasts.  But the shoulder makes such amazing hams, braises, and roasts, that increasingly I am using lean leg meat in conjunction with fatback for sausage and ground.

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Making Soap with Lard

Homemade soap in a mold.If you had told me five years ago that one day I would make soap I would have scoffed with self-righteous indignation.  Being a very serious chef and a bit of a dink I eschewed the “arts and crafts” that took precious space away from food at the farmers’ market.  I don’t feel that way anymore: I appreciate the pottery and the quilts and the pysanka, and even the beeswax candles.

For the past few years I have been rendering lard from sides of pork.  Now, I think I eat more lard than most: I use it in pie dough, I make spreads like Grammelschmalz and Schmalzfleisch, and use it as an everyday cooking fat.  Even so, I can’t eat it as fast as the anatomy of my pigs demands that I produce it. When I cut this year’s pig there was still about ten pounds in my freezer.  I decided to use it up by making an inedible pork product: soap.

Traditional soap is a mixture of fat, water, and lye.  Lye is sodium hydroxide, a very strong base, once commonly used in homes as a cleaner, valued for its ability to break grease into water-soluble debris that can be rinsed away.  It is also used in the traditional production of bagels and pretzels, which are briefly boiled in a lye solution before being baked in an oven.  (Milder baking soda often subs in these days.)  I have no idea where to purchase lye; there just happened to be some in the kitchen at Elm Catering, remnants of a pretzel-bite experiment.

Anyways, when water, lye, and fat are mixed properly a process called saponification begins.  I tried to read the Wikipedia article on saponification, but understand almost none of it.  All we need to know is that saponification converts these three seemingly incompatible ingredients into bars of hard soap.  For specific recipes and procedural details I used this website, recommended by Michael Ruhlman.

The process in a nutshell:

Dissolve the lye powder in cold water.  A chemical reaction occurs and the water actually becomes quite hot.  My cold tap water was at almost 80°C by the time all the lye was dissolved.  Best not lean over the bowl as you dissolve the lye: sniffing the fumes is a bit like inhaling bleach. The lye solution must cool to below 37°C before it can be mixed with the lard.

Melt the lard.  While the lye solution cools you can slowly heat the lard.  Optimal temperature is 85°C-115°C.

Mixing.  Pour the lard into the lye solution while stirring.  The mixture must then be stirred vigorously until it thickens, like a custard.  This is called “trace” stage.  I used a stick blender and had a pudding consistency in about three minutes.

Pour into molds.  I used a steel baking tray lined with plastic wrap.

Shape.  After 1-3 days you can cut the soap, still in its mold, into bars.  After 3-7 days you can remove these bars from the mold.

Cure.  At this point the soap is still too basic to be used on your hands.  It must cure for another two weeks or so, during which time the saponification process continues, the pH drops significantly, and the soap hardens and becomes more opaque.

So, what’s the soap like?  It’s fine.  It’s soap.  The first thing most people ask is if it smells like pork because it’s made from lard.  The answer is no: if you render the lard properly it should be very neutral.

The soap lathers, through maybe not as much as a bar of Irish Spring.

For me the real value of making soap is that it uses up the last bits of fat from the animal that I have been unable to consume at the table.  The process is dead simple, and quick.  I don’t know if I’ll be making soap every year, but it’s a useful trick to have when the freezer runneth over with lard.

A stack of homemade bars of soap

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Introduction to Soup

Split-pea soup with ham hock and crème fraîcheThere is something medieval about soup.  It is often made from bones.  It takes time to prepare, and to eat.  Soup is slow and simple and primordial and the opposite of modern.

I consider the promulgation of soup a personal mission.  Most of the formal meals that I prepare for friends or at work include a soup course.  Burns supper, for instance, begins with Scotch broth, Thanksgiving with squash soup, Viennese dinners with pancake soup.

Types of Soup

This is the kind of rant I usually relegate to the footnotes of a post, but I want to talk about soup classification.  In culinary school our standard text was called Professional Cooking for Canadian Chefs (PCCC).  I learned a lot from this book, but some parts of it are seriously whack.  One of the most annoying things in PCCC is its classification of soups. There are, it says, four types of soup: clear, thick, international, and specialty.  Isn’t that ridiculous? Gumbo (a thick soup) was classified as an “international” soup, because it had a specific regional origin (Louisiana).  Gazpacho (a thick soup with a specific regional origin) was classified as a specialty soup, because it is served cold.  Ridiculous.  It’s like saying there are four types of cars: red, blue, fast, and Italian.

So, let me correct the matter and say that there are two types of soup: clear and thick.  Many of those soups have specific regional origins.  A few of them are served cold.  But they are all either clear or thick.

 

Clear Soups

Chicken noodle soup!Clear soups are made with transparent stock or broth, through which is distributed various garnishes such as vegetables, meat, and starches.  Chicken noodle soup is a clear soup.

The principle aesthetic consideration when preparing clear soups is the colour and clarity of the stock.  Adherence to these basic stock-making principles will result in a clear, flavourful stock with an appetizing colour.

Converting good stock into a soup can be as simple as adding some chopped vegetables and leftover meat.  I typically lightly sauté my vegetables in butter before adding the stock.  This is strictly for flavour.  Be sure to use a scant amount of fat to sauté your vegetables.  It’s nice to have a few spots of fat floating on top of a clear soup (the French call these spots “eyes”), but you don’t want so much that it forms a mat of grease.

If the clear soup will contain a starch such as pasta or rice, cook the starch in a separate pot of water.  These garnishes leach starch into the liquid as they cook, so they would cloud your soup.  Think about what water looks like after you’ve boiled pasta in it.

 

Thick Soups

When the liquid body of the soup is opaque and viscous enough to coat the diner’s spoon we describe the soup as thick.  Thick soups can get their viscosity in a number of ways.

Purée Soups.  Purée soups experienced a minor renaissance about ten years ago when a marketing genius started selling ready-made butternut squash soup.

The most important thing to know about purée soups is that they must contain some sort of starch.  Broccoli, for instance, contains little starch, and will not make a cohesive, voluptuous purée without the help of a starchy companion like potato.

I would like to discourage three common practices when it comes to purée soups.

The first is the idea that you need stock to make soup.  This is a lie invented by classical French cuisine.  Stock is helpful (but not essential) in clear soups, but more or less useless for purée soups.  For starters, the full body of a rich stock is completely lost in the starchy mass of the purée.  Also I think the goal of a purée soup should be to taste perfectly like the ingredient it is made from.  If I make a potato soup, I don’t really want it to taste like chicken and mirepoix.  You can make very, very flavourful purée soups using only water.

The second is born from the idea that a soup or sauce has to simmer for several hours to develop flavour.  This isn’t true.  In fact, vegetables have the most flavour when they are just, just cooked.  After this the flavour wanes.  Vegetables should only be cooked to the point of complete tenderness before being puréed.

Finally is the idea that you must finish a purée soup with cream.  There is a time and a place for cream in soups, but it has a tendency to mute other flavours.  In some cases it also kills the colour.  I like to use cream with potato soups and mushroom soups.  I would never add cream to a squash soup, as it would turn the vibrant orange to a muted yellow, and muddle the natural, sweet flavour of the vegetable.

The way to really distinguish a purée soup is to make it as smooth and velvety as possible.  Nothing will get vegetable mash as smooth as an upright blender like a Vitamix.  Food processors, even powerful commercial varieties like the Robot Coup, and immersion blenders just don’t circulate like an upright blender.  Start blending the soup and forget about it for maybe five minutes, then run the soup through a chinois.

Purée soups should not be stodgy; a spoon dragged along the surface shouldn’t leave a trace.

 

Purée Soup Case Study: Squash and Apple Soup

Pumpkin soup with cream and Styrian pumpkinseed oil

This is a magic soup of subtle architecture that perfectly bridges savoury, sweet, and tart.

Sautée sliced onions and garlic in butter until the onions are becoming translucent.  Add cubed squash and apple and sauté briefly.  Cover with cold water.  Bring to a simmer.  As soon as the squash is tender, transfer the soup to a blender.

Season.  Don’t feel shy about adding a bit of sugar to reinforce the natural sweetness of the squash.

Finish with pumpkinseed oil.  Not to knock North American producers, but nothing compares to the Styrian variety.  I’ve written about it before, but it has a deep forest green colour and a knockout aroma of roasted nuts.  The best that I have had in North America was imported by a company from Montreal called Green Gold.  Not sure if it will be available in stores in Edmonton.

Other appropriate garnishes: heavy cream, roasted pumpkin seeds.

Roux-Thickened Soups.  Roux is the traditional way to thicken several classic soups, including chowder and gumbo, but it has fallen from favour in recent decades.  In fact, some of the chefs I have worked for have explicitly banned roux from their kitchens.  There are a few reasons for this.  First is the ever increasing phenomenon of gluten sensitivity.  More generally, roux is seen as stodgy.

I love roux.  I always have butter and flour in my kitchen.  It tastes good.  I use it in mac and cheese and corn chowder and even tourtière.

If for some reason you can’t use a roux in a chowder, you can make the soup as if it were a clear soup, then separate a portion, puré it, and mix it back with the rest of the soup.

A Quick Note on Cold Soups before we go

I think the two most common cold soups are tomato (“gazpacho”) and cucumber.  Many have tried these and decided they’re gross and then sworn off cold soup for the rest of their lives.  A better gateway into cold soups is the starchy varieties like potato and leek (“Vichysoisse”) and those containing fruit (the squash and apple soup described above).

My favourite cold soup is parsnip and pear:Bowl of parsnip and pear soup, garnished with toasted hazelnuts and chervil

 

In conclusion, I’ll reiterate that soup is the very essence of frugality and comfort.  Let it be a part of your life.

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Roast Pumpkin Seeds

A lil' bowl of roasted pumpkin seedsRoast pumpkinseeds are a very rustic North American snack.  While pumpkin seeds are relished in several far flung parts of the world, including central America (pepitas) and Austria (kurbiskern), I think ours is the only civilization that eats pumpkinseeds in their shell.  Pumpkinseed shells are woody.  Frankly they are just barely edible, and certainly not digestible.

But I do like them.  Lengthy chewing promotes contemplation.  Rumination, even.

And though you can eat pumpkins throughout the fall and winter and into early spring, growing up I only ever ate roast pumpkin seeds at Hallowe’en.

A nifty trick for separating the seeds from the stringy pumpkin guts: throw the whole mess in a large pot of water.  If you rub the mass between your hands, you loose the pumpkin flesh from the seeds, which float to the top and can be easily skimmed off.  Dry them on a bake sheet lined with paper towel overnight.

Toss with oil.  Over the years I’ve flipped and flopped between oven-baking and pan-frying.  Certainly the oven is more gentle: it takes longer, but browns the seeds more evenly.  Pan-frying is more aggressive, and quick.  Right now I’m leaning towards pan-frying.

Traditionally salt and sugar and nothing else.  Paprika might be good, too.

Happy Hallowe’en.

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