That Scene in Ratatouille

I work in a kitchen that is built into a sort of warehouse.  It has terrible ventilation and gets stiflingly hot in the summer.  We’ve found that if we raise the large bay door in the receiving area behind the kitchen, then prop open the door in front of the kitchen, we can sometimes wrangle a decent cross-breeze to cool us down.

One hot afternoon we were running this system, and riding a beautiful cross-breeze.  So much so that the catering menus and prep lists pinned to the walls were flapping and waving at us.  I was cutting chickens at a work bench opposite another cook who was slicing fennel.  I was downwind, so to speak, and during one warm gust the anise-type aroma of the fennel hit me with the breeze.

It was a strange and swift collision of circumstances: the distinct smell of anise, the warm rushing air, and in the periphery, the fluttering papers.  I stopped working for just a moment.

~

Lisa and I arrived in the village of Dryos, on the island of Paros, after a long ferry ride that had us curing in cigarette smoke under a sweltering Mediterranean sun.  When we reached our temporary residence in the village, the sun had set, and the wind had picked up.  Our apartment adjoined a courtyard with lime trees.  We sat in the yard, and a waiter named Jack served us ouzo mixed with ice water.

I remember very distinctly the smell of the anise liqueur, the warm rushing wind, and in the periphery, the fluttering leaves of the lime orchard.

 

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Blood and Sand Cocktail

The ingredients and equipment needed to make an interesting twist on the classic Blood and Sand cocktail.This is the tedious origin story of a cocktail, or rather my version of a cocktail.

I’ll start apologetically and admit that I don’t know very much about cocktails.  I read one book about them last year (Imbibe!), and then started mixing them at home.  Probably no book has had such a deleterious effect on my liver and general health.  Anyways, I think the drink described in this post is delicious, but I acknowledge that it’s a bit over the top.  I have absolutely no idea how it would play in the real world with real bartenders and patrons.

Blood and Sand is a classic cocktail, typically composed of equal parts blended scotch, orange juice (often blood orange juice), cherry liqueur (usually Cherry Heering), and sweet vermouth.  The standard version is delicious, but through a variety of circumstances I have developed a unique take on the drink.

Last year we hosted a private dinner at Little Brick.  The organizer wanted a custom cocktail served to welcome the diners, and she knew that the guest of honour loved big, peaty Scotch.  I racked my brain, and then the internet, to try and find a list of components for the drink whimsically called “For Peat’s Sake”, one of the signature cocktails served at Three Boars in years past.  Naturally, I wanted to copy it and pass it off as my own, under a different pun-name.  My brief, private brainstorm session for a new name was pretty embarrassing.  “Peat Sampras” was the best I came up with, which doesn’t even really make sense.

Unable to find a recipe or think of a clever name, I pondered the classic scotch-based cocktails.  I could think of only two: the Rusty Nail (Scotch and Drambuie…. an acquired taste) and The Godfather (Scotch and Amaretto).  Nate knew of a third: Blood and Sand, which sounded ten times sexier than the others, so I set out to make a Blood and Sand using a smoky Scotch, instead of the usual blended Scotch.

Most of the components were pre-determined by what we had on hand: Ardbeg (very smoky), a homemade cherry liqueur which would take the place of the usual Cherry Heering, Carpano Vermouth, and a bag of navel oranges. That was the form the drink took for the event at Little Brick, and really all that made it unique was that we used an Islay peat-bomb for the Scotch, and the cherry liqueur was homemade, with local cherries.  Otherwise, it was just a Blood and Sand.

Several months later I tasted a cocktail conjured up by Nich Box at District Café.  It was called Flatbush, and one of the ingredients listed on the menu was “saline”.  In other words, a salt solution.

I don’t know why, but this absolutely blew my mind.  It’s not so weird to put salt in a cocktail, now that I’ve had time to think about it.  After all, I’ve had margaritas with salted rims, and Caesars with Clamato and Worcestershire.  Salt in a cocktail, in and of itself, is not revolutionary.  But dissolving the salt right into the drink in such a measured, purposeful way, so that the drinker can’t dance around the salt as one might do with a salt rim…  it was an epiphany, and I really really liked it.

To Make Saline.  One part kosher salt and five parts water by volume.  Heat on the stove until the salt dissolves.  This is just about the most concentrated salt solution you can make by this method.  The 1:1 and 2:1 ratios common for sugar syrup are quit impossible with salt.  I might have learned this in a grade eight science class.  I had to relearn it when making saline.

The first drink that I tried at home with a touch of saline was the Blood and Sand.  Now, most people find the campfire-smoke flavour of Ardbeg too much to begin with, so by adding something as distinctive and unusual as salt, this is admittedly not going to be everyone’s cup of tea.

The drink tastes of salty, smoky cherries.  If you’ve ever had the salty preserved plums at a Chinese grocery store, you can imagine what this tastes like.  It’s peculiar, but delicious.  And I especially love that the hint of salinity puts the “blood” into the Blood and Sand.

Certainly not something that I would drink everyday, but a still, a synthesis that I’m rather proud of.  In fact, I keep having this daydream in which I am a barkeep and maybe have tatoos, and someone comes in and asks for something that tastes utterly unique and unlike anything they’ve had before.  This is what I serve them in that fantasy.

 

Blood and Sand Cocktail, Button Soup-Style

Ingredients

  • 1 oz Ardbeg Scotch (or another suitably smoky Scotch from an Islay producer)
  • 1 oz Carpano Vermouth (or another suitably prestigious sweet, red vermouth)
  • 1 oz homemade cherry liqueur, preferably made from Evans cherries (or Cherry Herring, or another suitably delicious cherry liqueur)
  • 1 oz Navel orange juice, freshly squeezed
  • 1/4 tsp saline solution (see description above)

Procedure

  1. Combine all ingredients on ice.  Stir swiftly until thoroughly chilled, about 20 seconds.
  2. This is where I might belie my ignorance of the cocktail craft.  I think the Blood and Sand is usually served “up”, ie. without ice.  I almost always take all of my cocktails, event classic “uppers” like a Manhattan, on ice.  Likewise for this number.
  3. Garnish with orange peel and sour cherry.

 

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River City Kir

cider_cherry_liqueur_2.JPGSparkling hard apple cider with a splash of cherry liqueur: something so simple shouldn’t need a complicated origin story.

[Pauses awkwardly, before rapidly relating a complicated origin story]

A Kir is a French cocktail, a glass of white wine with a bit of crème de cassis (blackcurrant liqueur).  There are a number of common variations.  The Kir Royal, for instance, uses Champagne instead of still white wine.  The Kir Breton uses hard cider.  So this most recent invention was inspired by the Kir Breton.

I’ve tentatively titled this drink the River City Kir.  I’m open to other suggestions.  This is the first cocktail I tried with my homemade cherry liqueur.  It’s a knockout.  My cider is bone dry, and quite tart, so it takes the sweetness of the liqueur beautifully.  And the colour is fantastic.

I can see the River City Kir becoming my house apéritif for the summer months.

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Homemade Cherry Liqueur

cherry_liqueur.JPGIn retrospect this is a pretty straight-forward homemade cherry liqueur, but it was actually inspired by a drink from Normandy called pommeau.  To make pommeau, Normans combine two parts fresh apple juice with one part Calvados (apple brandy), then age the resulting mixture in barrels for several months before bottling.  You can purchase this traditional, aged pommeau at fine liquor stores, but fresh pommeau made with just-pressed cider and consumed without barrel-aging has become one of my favourite parts of the cider season.

This formula (two parts fresh juice, one part spirit made from that juice) occurs in a number of other places.  Pineau de Charentes is another famous example, made with grape must and Cognac.

So I wondered if the same could be done with our local cherries.  I ran fresh Evans cherries through a food mill to make a viscous juice, added a bit of white sugar, then mixed in Kirsch, which is pure cherry distillate.  Not having any local cherry spirit, I used Hugel Kirsch, from Alsace.

The liqueur is the very essence of sour cherry.  It is supremely well-balanced, the bright acidity of the raw cherry juice mellowed by the sugar.  While delicious on its own, it reminded me a great deal of the Danish liqueur Cherry Heering, which suggests that this homemade cherry liqueur is probably useful in mixed drinks.

Hm…

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Boning Out Rabbit

In my experience rabbit is usually hatcheted into quarters and saddle, as described (and lamented) in this post.

One year Lisa and I were in Piedmont in northwestern Italy in September, and it seemed that every restaurant was serving rabbit, and all of them had boned-out the entire animal, then rolled it into a cylinder and braised it, usually in Nebbiolo wine.  It’s a beautiful, thoughtful way to prepare the animal.  At first it didn’t make sense to me: I was hung up on theoretics, asking ridiculous questions like, “Won’t the tiny, slender loin get over-cooked before he belly tenderizes?”  This might be true of pork, but I can tell you from empirical study that it is not an issue with rabbit.

So: To Bone a Rabbit.

Make an incision along the breast bone.  Remove the flesh from the breast by following the rib cage from the breastbone to the underside of the foreleg.  Bend the foreleg up as you go.

Boning rabbit: removing meat from the breast

Continue to remove the meat from the rib cage, moving down the rabbit, folding the meat up and away from you.  Once you have removed the meat form the last rib you will then be at the belly flap.  Fold this up and away from you as well.

Bend the hind leg up and away from you.  Snap and cut through the joint where the thigh and hip meet.

boning_rabbit_3.JPG

Carefully remove the loin from the backbone.  At this point you have removed half of all the meat from the main body.

Flip the rabbit and repeat all these steps to the other side.  The meat should only be connected to the skeleton in one place, a line along the top of the rabbit’s backbone.

boning_rabbit_4.JPG

Remove the last connections at the top of the spine.  At this point you have a relatively uniform sheet of meat, but the fore- and hind-legs still contain bones.

boning_rabbit_5.JPG

There’s no trick to removing these bones: make small cuts following the bones as closely as possible.

boning_rabbit_6.JPG

You now have an entire rabbit sans bones.  Season assertively with salt, pepper, and herbs.  You can roll the entire thing into one large spiral, or your can roll each side in towards the centre to achieve a double-scroll, with the two loins protected in by the centre of each roll.

Braise this little bundle in red wine.  The meat will be tender in only a couple hours.

braised_rabbit.JPG

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Canola Oil

Some crusty bread with cold-pressed canola oil for dipping.Take a midsummer drive away from Edmonton in any direction and soon you will find fields of yellow flowers in radiant bloom.  This is canola, and the oil pressed from its seeds is as common in Albertan pantries as the plants are to Albertan landscapes.

Canola is a Canadian invention.  In fact, its name is an amalgam of the words “Canada oil low acid”.  Canola is a type of rapeseed that has been bred to have a low erucic acid content.

What’s rapeseed, you ask?  It’s a plant with an unfortunate name, ultimately derived from the Latin word for turnip, rapum, to which it is a close relative.

Allow me to expedite this explanation by quoting from the Canadian Encyclopedia:

Rapeseed has been an important source of edible vegetable oil in Asia for almost 4000 years.  It was first grown in Canada during WWII as a source of high-quality lubricant for marine engines.  After the war, Canadian plant-breeding programs, combined with changes in processing techniques, led to a reduction of erucic acid (very high consumption of which has been associated with heart lesions in laboratory animals) and glucosinolates (which cause enlarged thyroids and poor feed conversion in livestock).  As a consequence, canola has become established as a major Canadian and European source of cooking oil[1]

So, frankly, canola is not exactly an ancient tradition here in Canada.  That being said I think it’s important to note that it was developed by applying traditional plant-breeding methods to rape (Brassica napus) and turnip rapeseed (B. campestris).  Canola is not by definition a GMO, although there is now a huge amount of GMO canola being grown all over North America.

Since its recent invention canola has become the most common household cooking oil in our part of the world.  Unfortunately I don’t have a source to confirm that statement, but working in kitchens I’m pretty confident it’s true.  Most of us have a jug of canola oil sitting by the stove at home that we use as a cheap cooking oil.  This style of canola oil is made by heating and pressing canola seeds.  Heating increases the extraction rate, but destroys all of the volatile aromatic compounds, making a very neutral, I daresay flavourless, oil with a high smoke point.  This style of canola oil is good for pan- and deep-frying.

There is, however, also cold-pressed canola oil, which is an entirely different product with low yields but big flavour.  If you haven’t tasted this you’re missing out. Depending on the producer, it can be anywhere from brilliant bronze to hazy green in colour.  Whatever the appearance, it has an aroma uncannily reminiscent of fresh cut lawn.  Seriously: it tastes like grass and raw grain.

Because of its distinctive flavour, cold-pressed canola is very much a finishing oil.  It makes a great garnish on vegetables (sautéed asparagus, for instance), soups, and salads.  I also use it to make vinaigrette, but I usually blend it with a more neutral (and cheaper) canola oil.

Over the past ten years or so there have been a handful of cold-pressed canola oil producers in the province.  Sadly some have folded (I think).  I can’t seem to find Mighty Trio or Vibrant at any shops any more.  Highwood Crossing, a grain farm near High River Alberta, is still making oil, but it seems to have a much smaller distribution than it did a few years ago.  I used to buy it in retail bottles at Planet Organic, but I haven’t seen it there in a while.  At Elm we buy 20 L pails direct from Highwood Crossing, and also bring in their retail bottles to sell at Little Brick.  If anyone out there knows of other Albertan producers and where their oil is available, I’d be grateful to know.

Despite its rather industrial origin, gastronomically cold-pressed canola is Canada’s answer to extra virgin olive oil.  It’s a really, really remarkable product and I’m thrilled to have it in my kitchen.

 

References

  1.  Marsh, James H. The Canadian Encyclopedia, Second Edition. Vol I. ©1988 Hurtig Publishers Ltd. Edmonton, Alberta. Page 365.
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A Chardonnay Tasting

A few weeks ago I led a Chardonnay tasting for a private event at Little Brick Café and General Store.  I thought I would post some notes from that session.  If this type of info interests you at all, I’m going to be hosting a tasting of Belgian beers on Thursday, April 21, as part of Little Brick’s Home School series.

 

chardonnayFor this event we did a style of tasting that we do a lot with our wine group at work.  We call it a semi-blind varietal tasting.  This isn’t a technical term, or even a commonly used term… it’s just a name we made up.  Three or four wines of the same grape varietal are selected, but they each hail from different, far-flung corners of the globe.  They are often of hilariously different price points.  Ideally they each represent a different style or tradition.  The varietal is announced to the tasters at the beginning of the session, but nothing else is revealed about the wines.  Hence “semi-blind”.

After 10 minutes of silence during which everyone evaluates the wines’ appearance, nose, and palate, we compare notes, then everyone has to pick a favourite.

Finally the wines are revealed, and folks have to come to grips with the fact that they preferred, for instance, a $12 blue bottle of Riesling over a $50 bottle from a prestigious, steep, south-facing slope.

This is a really fun style of tasting.  Purists insist that tastings should be blind in order not to influence perception and judgement.  I think it’s really useful to be able to think about the varietal as you taste.

 

Chardonnay.  For this tasting all the wines were Chardonnay.  This grape is originally from Burgundy, France.  Nearly all the white Burgundies available to us in North American are made exclusively of Chardonnay.[1]

From Burgundy Chardonnay went on to conquer the world and become one of the most widely planted wine grapes.  Why is this?  Well, Chardonnay adapts to several disperate climates as far-flung as British Columbia, California, France, and Australia.  It is not susceptible to many vineyard pests or diseases.  It is realatively neutral in flavour, and naturally high in acid and sugar, which means it produces wines with plenty of alcohol.  With acidity and alcohol Chardonnay can form the backbone on which several different techniques can be applied.  It is maleable.  So, for instance, it could be given a long, cool fermatation and early bottling to produce an aromatic, light style…. or it could get long, warm, barrel fermentation… or it could be made into sparkling wine.  Chardonnay is the principle grape in most Champagne.

Chablis.  Wines from France, generally, and Burgundy especially tend to be named for the village in which they are made, not the grape from which they derive.  In fact, a hundred years ago, the names of the grapes would have been considered a rather arcane fact, only important to vine growers, not wine drinkers.  The practice of naming wines by varietal didn’t become common until the end of the twentieth century, and then mostly in the new world.[2]

Famous white Burgundies like Chablis, Pouilly-Fuissé, and Meursault, are all made from Chardonnay.  The idea is that the place where the grapes grow has at least as much to do with the character of the wine as the grape varietal.  In the case of white Burgundies, the most important aspect of place is the limestone soil, which gives the wines their famous minerality.

The first Chardonnay we tasted was a Chablis, one of the most classic examples of Chardonnay.  Chablis is in the far north of Burgundy.  The hallmarks of this style: bone dry, high acid, and a lot of mineral character on the nose, often described as “gunflint,” though I never use that word because it always begs the question: have I ever smelled gunflint?  I haven’t.  Chablis’ reputation is for an austere, un-oaked style.  In reality the matter of oaking is very much the preference of the vintner, and lots of Chablis sees some oak.

This bottle cost around $30 from Devine Wines.  It clearly has the distinctive “mineral” quality for which Chablis is famous.  Sometimes that mineral smell reminds me of vinyl.  Medium plus acid, green apple character, punchy, flavourful, a relatively watery mouthfeel.

Lindeman’s Bin 65 Chardonnay.  The next wine was Lindeman’s Bin 65 Chardonnay, from south eastern Australian.  I bought it for about $14 at Jasper Liquor Merchant.  I don’t have much to say about this one.  It’s here as an example of a cheap, mass-produced, warm-climate Chardonnay.  For the price I think it is eminently drinkable.

Mer Soleil California Chardonnay.  The last wine was a California Chardonnay.  Ostensibly “California Chardonnay” just means a Chardonnay made in California, but it has become something of a classic style in its own right.  The classic California chardonnay has been aged in oak and has undergone a secondary bacterial fermentation called malolactic fermentation (MLF).  This used to occur spontaneously in oak barrels; nowadays vintners will inoculate their wine with the bacterial culture.  MLF affects the wine in many important ways.

  • aroma – Aromas of vanilla and butterscotch
  • MLF is so called because the bacteria convert malic acid to lactic acid.  Malic acid is the principle acid in green apples.  Imagine the sharp sensation of biting into a tart Granny Smith.  That’s malic acid.  Lactic acid is the principle acid in cultured dairy such as yogurt and sour cream.  It has a much gentler, rounder character.
  • Mouthfeel.  One distinctive effect of MLF is that the wine develops a very full mouthfeel; it almost feels viscous on the tongue.  The Mer Soleil is a great example of this… In fact one taster found the impression of viscosity so strong, he was reminded of ice wine, and even started to wonder if this wine is sweet.  (It isn’t.)

This style was done to death in the 1990s[3], and there has been a reaction against it in the wine world.  The style has become so synonymous with New World Chardonnays generally and California Chardonnays specifically, that producers now label their un-oaked specimens very clearly.  Some common examples: Joel Gott Un-Oaked Chardonnay, Kim Crawford Un-Oaked Chardonnay.

I find this one of the more difficult things about wine.  With beer, if you buy an IPA, you basically know what you’re getting.  Of course some are more or less bitter, and the aroma may be more towards the citrus end of the spectrum, or more towards the evergreen end… but at the end of the day, beer is usually made to a certain style that is stated pretty explicitly on the packaging.  This is not true for wine, so if you buy a California Chardonnay, while most have been put through MLF, your bottle could just as easily be an austere, steely incarnation.  Tasting notes on labels are basically useless, and ultimately you need to have tasted the wine before to know what you’re getting.

Anyways, the Mer Soleil Reserve, with its fat, full, buttery mouthfeel is a shining example of luxurious oak treatment.

Mer Soleil is from Monterey County, which is on the central coast of California, well south of San Fransisco and Napa.  But it is from a part of Monterey that has been branded the Santa Lucia Highlands.  It is marketed as one of California’s premier “cool climate” sub-regions.  The Mer Soleil still has plenty of the tropical aromas (mango!) common in warm-climate Chardonnay.

Conclusion.  So my favourite was Mer Soleil, simply because I love that buttery style of Chardonnay.  At $45, I have to admit I would almost never buy it.

#ButtonSoupCellar is a series of posts about wines and spirits

 

  1. Some are made from Aligoté.  But all the famous, high-quality white Burgundies are Chardonnay.
  2. There are loads of notable exceptions to this generalization: northern Italy and Alsace come to mind.
  3. I was not drinking wine in the 1990s….
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Sauerkraut

This post was originally published on September 17, 2013.  I’m re-posting it today in anticipation of a cooking class, Cooking with Cabbage, that I’m hosting for Metro Continuing Education.

 

Shredding cabbage to make sauerkrautKraut is German for cabbage.  It was also a derogatory term for Germans during the Second World War.  Sauerkraut means sour cabbage, or possibly a German curmudgeon.  Ukrainian, Russian and several other eastern European languages use the word kapusta to refer to fresh cabbage, cured cabbage, and various dishes made with one or both of those.

Sauerkraut is a miracle preparation.  Cabbage and salt.  That’s it.  Somehow liquid appears from thin air and submerges the cabbage.  Over a few weeks, though neither cabbage nor salt are acidic, the mixture develops a piquant tanginess.

I had never eaten sauerkraut before moving to Alberta when I was a teenager, unless maybe once I accidentally got it on a hot dog at a baseball park.  In Edmonton there seems to be a house every couple of blocks that has a big crock of sauerkraut in the basement.  I first learned the process from Yolande at Tipi Creek.

While I’ve made sauerkraut a few times over the past couple years, this was the first year that I went all in and filled a 10 gallon crock.  The ever-resourceful Judy had found us an old Medalta[1] crock, as well as a wooden cabbage shredder, pictured above.  The latter is basically a mandolin with three sets of serrated blades that make quick work of a trimmed, quartered cabbage.  The last piece of the puzzle fell into place on a balmy Saturday morning when I saw that August Organics was selling 50 lb bags of cabbage for $25.

The freshly sliced cabbage, about to be mixed with salt35 lbs of shredded cabbage had the crock brimming, though the volume falls by more than half once the salt is worked in.

The specifics of the preparation are discussed below.

Sauerkraut

Ingredients

  • 100% cabbage, thinly sliced, roughly 1/16″ wide and  2″ long
  • 1.89% kosher salt
  • optional: spice, usually either caraway or juniper, to taste

The percentages above are equivalent to 18.5 g of salt per kilo of cabbage, or roughly 3 tbsp of kosher salt for every 5 lbs of cabbage.

Procedure

  1. Combine all ingredients in a large bucket or crock.  Let stand for one hour, then mix vigorously until liquid is pooling on the bottom of the container.  (Letting the mixture stand for an hour makes the mixing and liquid extraction easier; you can proceed directly to the mixing, but you’ll have to work harder to get the liquid from the cabbage.)
  2. Once there is enough liquid, use a plate that is slightly smaller in diameter than the bucket to cover the cabbage.  Weigh the plate down (a smaller bucket filled with water works well) until the cabbage is submerged in liquid.  Cover the entire operation in a kitchen towel and secure with an elastic band.  Store at a cool room temperature, maybe 18-20°C.  Most basements are this temperature.
  3. A white scum will slowly form on the surface of the liquid.  For the first week or two, skim the surface every day.  Afterwards, skim whenever you remember that you have a crock of sauerkraut curing in your basement.
  4. After three weeks, starting tasting periodically.  The sauerkraut is done when it has a sharp-but-manageable acidity.

A jar of sauerkraut

 

1. Medalta, short for Medicine Hat Alberta, was once a large ceramics factory in that town.  They produced plain but distinctive pottery that can still be seen in kitchens and flea markets across the province.  One advantage of setting up such a factory in Medicine Hat was the large oil and gas reserves that could cheaply fire the kilns.  In fact it has been said that Medicine Hat has all hell for a basement.[2]  The site of the old factory is now a historic district housing modern ceramics studios and a museum.

2. Most know this phrase from the Big Sugar song All Hell for a Basement.  When that song was first played on the radio, my cousins in Ontario started asking if we had basements out in Alberta or what the deal was.  The song is actually the ballad of an itinerant worker moving to Alberta to find work.  Big Sugar is quoting Rudyard Kipling, who when touring southern Alberta, wrote, “This part of the country seems to have all hell for a basement, and the only trap door appears to be in Medicine Hat.”

The Big Sugar line is: I have lost my way / But I hear tell / Of a heaven in Alberta / Where they’ve got all hell for a basement.

Great lyrics…

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Grüner Veltliner and Other Austrian Wines

Some shameless self-promotion:  if the type of information contained in this post interests you at all, I’m going to be hosting a tasting of sparkling wines on Thursday, February 11, as part of Little Brick’s Home School series.

 

Three examples of Grüner Veltliner available from wine shops here in Edmonton.I’ve been meaning to write about Austrian wine for some time.  Years, actually: ever since I wrote this post on Heurigen, which are rural taverns that serve young wine and cider.

Last week the Elm wine group did a tasting of Grüner Veltliner, the national grape of Austria, so I thought I would finally put down some info on Austrian wine.

If you haven’t had Austrian wine before, you’re not a freak or a philistine: there isn’t a whole lot available in North America.  Austria produces almost as much wine as New Zealand[1], but in most generic liquor stores the Kiwis have an entire section, while you would be hard-pressed to find a bottle from Austria.  Boutique wine shops like Devine usually carry a handful.  It seems that the majority of Austria’s wine is consumed by Austrians.

Despite its relatively small amount of exports, the Austrian wine industry has garnered a lot of attention in recent years because of its commitment to both its regional identity and quality production.  The latter sounds like it should be a given, but within most wine-producing countries there are regions that make enormous quantities of mediocre or bad wine, creating surplus, driving down prices, and ultimately threatening the entire wine industry.[2]  The southern-most regions of France and Italy are infamous examples.  By contrast, almost all of the area under vine in Austria is devoted to quality wine production.  Austria also has some of the most stringent regulations for processing and labelling, though admittedly these were put into effect after a 1985 scandal that saw some producers adding diethylene glycol to improve the body of their wines.

It’s always tempting to lump Austria in with Germany, and while the two countries do share some grape varietals and labeling practices, Austrian wines have a lot more in common with those of Alsace than Germany.  They produce mainly dry whites, common varietals being Grüner Veltliner, Welschriesling, Riesling (almost always dry, unlike German examples), and Gewürztraminer (also dry, unlike Alsatian examples).  The most common red variety is Zweigelt, an Austrian native.  As in Germany, wines are sold under varietal name.

Austrian wine production occurs almost entirely in the east end of the country, in the lower regions away from the Alps of the west.  Most of the Austrian wines available to us in North American come from the province of Lower Austria (Niederösterreich), specifically parts of the Danube and its tributaries just upstream of Vienna: Wachau, Kremstal, Kamptal, and Traisental.  (The suffix “tal” indicates a valley.  The Kremstal is the valley around the town of Krems.  The Kamptal is the valley formed by the river Kamp.)  The most important of these is the Wachau.

Wachau.  The Wachau is a stretch of the Danube west of Vienna.  Much like the German Mosel, the best wines here are labelled by varietal as well as the vineyard or hill that produced the grapes.  Important hills include Loibenberg, Terrassen, and Kellerberg.  These may appear on labels either by themselves, or in conjunction with the name of the adjacent village (eg. Dürnsteiner Kellerberg refers to the hill Kellerberg by the town of Dürnstein).

The Wachau also has its own version of the German “predicate” labelling system, which classifies wines by pre-fermentation must weight, that is, sugar content.  The more concentrated the original must, the higher potential alcohol, and in theory the higher the quality of the wine.  So in Germany Rieslings are classified as Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenasulese, and Trockenbeerenauslese, in order of increasing must weight (and by extension increasing prestige and price-point…)

The Wachau sytem is much simpler, and uses final alcohol content instead of original must weight.  The lightest grade is Steinfeder (named for a type of frizzy grass) which is below 11.5% ABV.  Next is Federspiel (named for a bird) between 11.5 and 12.5%.  The highest quality wines are labelled Smaragd (a kind of small lizard native to the region) and are above 12.5% ABV.

A view of the Donau (Danube) from the ruined castle at Durnstein

 

Grüner Veltliner, the most commonly planted grape in Austria, has become a darling of the wine cogniscenti in recent years.  Here’s what rockstar sommelier Rajat Parr has to say about the varietal…

A robust white, it features some of the greenish flavors of Sauvignon Blanc and a hint of legumes, making it the perfect match for green vegetables like peas, asparagus, artichokes, and lettuces. (Secrets of the Sommeliers[3], page 208)

[Grüner Veltliner] has a beany, green, peppery character that nicely offsets asparagus… (ibid, page 115)

It’s ridiculous for me to try and contradict Rajat Parr, but I’ve never, ever picked up “green” aromas from Grüner (despite its name… which I think means “green grape from Valtellina”, but that refers to the colour of the fruit itself, not it’s aromas).  I’ve always struggled to pick up that smell, even in Sauvignon Blanc, so I should just keep my mouth closed.

Getting back to the original point of this post, for our Grüner Veltliner tasting we tried three examples.  Some quick notes follow.

F.X. Pichler 2007 Loibner Berg Smaragd Grüner Veltliner.  Pichler is one of the big family names in the Wachau.  The wine smelled exactly like an old pineapple, and had a viscous mouthfeel.  If the tasting had been blind I would have sworn it was a New World oaked Chardonnay.  It was almost unanimously the favourite of the three wines we tasted, until it was revealed that it was $49.99 at Wine and Beyond.  With that price tag it is not likely be purchased by anyone in the group.

The next day I happened to read this: “Because Wachau’s producers have the ability to push the ripeness envelope, they are tempted to overdo it, as is happening in Germany’s Rheingau.  A few well-known producers have fallen into this trap – F.X. Pichler and Hirtzberger to name two – and for the privilege of drinking their unbalanced wines, you pay a costly premium.  Stick to the better, more proportional wines of Prager, Altzinger, and Knoll.” (ibid, page 115)

Rabl 2014 Grüner Veltliner Langenlois.  This is an interesting one.  Basically no fruit on the nose.  Strong, frankly peculiar aromas that I described as rice cake, toast, and mock orange blossom.  (The tasting notes posted at the place of purchase said, “citrus notes with a dusting of stony mineral”. Go figure.)  It has a sharp, bright acidity, and the flavour of lemon pith.  Quite distinctive.  The Rabl was $21.99 at Devine.

Gritsch 2013 Steinterrassen Federspiel Grüner Veltliner.  The lightest of the bunch.  A nose of wet stone and red apple.  Medium, round, happy acidity.  Short finish.  $22.99 at Devine.

 

#ButtonSoupCellar is a series of posts about wines and spirits

 

Footnotes

  1. New Zealand and Austria are 17th and 16th, respectively on this list.
  2. The Oxford Companion to Wine says that surplus production is “the single greatest problem facing the world’s wine industry”.
  3. Secrets of the Sommeliers by Rajat Parr and Jordan MacKay.  Published by Ten Speed Press.
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A Really Good Griddle

griddleTonight is Pancake Tuesday, which is how Catholic Canadians celebrate Mardi Gras or Shrovetide.  If you’re unfamiliar with the tradition, I wrote a bit about it here.

So yes, I’m eating pancakes for dinner tonight, which means I get to use one of my very favourite appliances, my West Bend counter-top griddle.

My parents received this griddle as a wedding present in 1981.  It takes 120 V electrical and runs at 1500 W.  It is a simple, flat, metal cooking surface, roughly 10″ by 16″, with a shallow trough along three sides, and a deeper, broader trough on the fourth to collect rendered fat. It is supported by hard plastic brackets that hold it above the counter on which is sits.

I can hear you: “Great description, Allan: it’s a griddle.  Big deal.  How is it different from the one I bought at London Drugs?”

Because the cooking surface is a six pound slab of cast iron, which gives it a heat capacity far exceeding any modern griddle.  And I could do without the sarcasm, thank you very much.

The sheer mass of iron means that the surface heats evenly; there aren’t any hot spots where the heating coil runs beneath, which means pancakes brown evenly.  Also you can load it with sausages and pancake batter without a serious sag in surface temperature.  Plus it’s durable: this griddle has been making Shrovetide pancakes and hash browns for more than thirty years.  It’s the only electric appliance I own that is actually older than me.  (I feel obligated to mention that one of the electrical components was replaced by my father-in-law a couple years ago.)

Another way to know that this griddle hails from a by-gone era: on the underside it is stamped, “Made in Canada”.  I’m personally not old enough to remember a time that Canada had a manufacturing industry.[1]

A heavy cast iron griddle is all well and good, but the skeptical among you may suggest that it doesn’t do anything that a good cast iron pan couldn’t.  To me the griddle’s value is in the quantity and variety of food it is able to cook all at once.  Granted, if you are a family of five you would still need to do multiple batches, but since this is the largest cooking surface in my house, it is most often used on special occasions.  At brunch, for instance, or to fry up a mess of colcannon on St. Patrick’s day.  All this to say I have very fond associations with this implement.

My pancake recipe can be found here.

 

#ButtonSoupTools is a series about my favourite kitchen tools, the ones that appeal to me for reasons practical or sentimental.

 

 

1.  Too soon?

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