Saturday, January 24, 2015

From Alexander the Great to Johnny Depp

Rum’s one of the few drinks versatile enough to suit any climate. The demon goes swimmingly with boiling water, lemon juice, a clove and a honey, in a glass with a spoon left in to prevent its breaking. It’s called rhum grog in the Gstaad and elsewhere in the Alps, and served apres-ski, but also in Sun Valley.                                        

    It’s an entirely different drink sipped under an equatorial sun, with lime and tonic or fruit juice and shaved ice, while the shaded eye takes in blue sky and water. Rum wasn’t invented in the Caribbean but it was perfected in those latitudes. Today its unique, mellow charm accounts for a hefty percentage of the total sales of spirits in the U.S.
The history of rum is tied up with that of sugar cane, which was supposedly brought back from India by Alexander the Great three centuries before Jesus was born. But it wasn’t until the middle of the seventh century AD that the alcoholic beverage made from fermented and distilled sugar cane and molasses arrived in Europe by Arab caravan.
Speculation has it that Columbus carried rum to the West Indies on his second voyage there. It became widely available in the 16th century after Spanish settlers began to make and export it. Written records from Barbados in 1600 contain a recipe for rum punch. The name itself has been attributed to the Latin term for sugar cane, Saccharum officinarum, but also to an admiral in the British Navy nicknamed “Old Rummy” who prescribed rum as an antidote to scurvy (which it isn’t).
Still, rum’s probably still the most romantic drink, obviously as rich in history as in calories, associated with the discovery of America, West Indian adventuring, pirates and the Spanish Main. Rum was popular with American colonists, too, for the same reasons it’s popular today: it tastes good, and it’s relatively cheap. Allegedly Paul Revere got pumped on rum before charging off to warn against the encroaching British; George Washington got elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses after distributing 75 gallons of rum to potential voters.
Before the Civil War, rum was also made in New England, of all un-sunny places, part of the now-infamous trading cycle that included importing sugar cane from the Caribbean with which to make the drink, sent to Africa to purchase slaves, which were sent to the West Indies and sold so more sugar cane could be bought. Profits were raked off at each stop. During Prohibition, rum made its way through the swamps of Florida and south Louisiana to many an American cocktail glass. Even today, rum has a raffish rep.   
The make this adaptable, deletable drink sugar cane is crushed right after harvest, the juice boiled down to concentrate the sugar, most of which is removed by centrifuge to leave still-sweet molasses. Distinctly different styles of rum are made by distilling either plain cane juice, or molasses, by varying the time - and amount - of distillation, and the time it spends in wood. One way producers fudge this last, color-enhancing step is by adding caramelized sugar to the product and foregoing the cost of real barrel aging.
Rum ranges from 80 to 150 proof. With a few exceptions, the lower the alcohol the more complex, and better, the flavor. Americans have long been in love with rum mixed with fruit juice or coconut milk. The daiquiri and the pina colada are okay vehicles for the higher proofed stuff, but the best way to drink fine, flavorful rum is neat.

Rums from Spanish-speaking islands of the Caribbean, and those from South America, are often filtered to make them lighter in color and body, and high in alcohol. Puerto Rican and Cuban rums are commonly 100 proof, and not as flavorful, although there are notable exceptions, among them the pricy Ron del Barrillo. What’s called demeraran run is made in Guyana by a rapid fermentation process that reduces the rummy flavor, then caramelized and bottled at high alcohol. It was once the most popular rum punch ingredient, though no longer.
More flavorful, heavier rums comes from the English-speaking islands, most notably Jamaica. They’re dark, even opaque, because the residue of earlier fermentations, known as “dunder,” is added to each new batch of molasses before a slower, more natural fermentation is allowed to happen. Though the juice, distilled twice, is quite clear, it obtains its lovely tawny hue from time spent in oak casks.
There’s a lot of In-between the light and dark styles: Haiti and Martinique make rum from sugar cane and not from molasses, and age it to a point where it resembles middle-brow cognac. Barbancourt, of Port au Prince, even ranks its version with stars; Martinique’s La Mauny is aged in Limousine oak. But the best all-round rum option is, in my opinion, Barbados’s Mount Gay: medium body and color, and great flavor, whether with a splash of Schweppes or a lime wedge.                                         

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Saturday, January 10, 2015

I went looking for a great wine north of the 50th parallel

The popularity of the photographic short about the Okanagan valley up  in British Columbia ( led to this longer piece. One visitor called it "a wonderful secret," and it still is for residents of the lower Forty-eight.                                               

  I once visited British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, tasted some of it wines, and wondered if a really great one beckoned from up there on those steep slopes. Last summer I returned to find out, driving east from Vancouver and dropping over the Cascades into what’s the northernmost extension of the Sonoran desert. I was amazed by towering Ponderosa pines and a view from above of an inland fiord some 40 miles long, formed by an ancient glacier, on its shores orchards bent under the weight of cherries and apricots bending, and deeply green rows of marching vines.away. As I soon learned, I could also get grass-fed sirloin or lambs’ cheeks shipped from bordering Alberta, and Chinook salmon, Dungeness crab and halibut lofted over the Cascades from the yawningly-cold Pacific by a purveyor called the Codfather.

In the heart of the little city of Kelowna I began my search. Sandhill Vineyard’s new winery pays architectural homage to the glacier with a symbolic white slab that juts out above the tasting room. The wines were very good, with a delectable mineral taste from those ancient deposits. The same was true at Tantalus Vineyards in the hills, the winery the first LEEDS-certified one in BC, a minimalist structure that includes a bright, airy tasting room.
      I tried a riesling made from rootstock 40 years old that was bone dry and complex, a teeth-tingling finish. And the Tantalus estate pinot noir also proved that this tricky, profitable red variety does very well in the Okanagan. 
     “We’re a bit perfectionist,” said the manager, Jane Hatch, who took me for a stroll in the vineyard, the lake visible to the west under steep slopes dense with rock and chaparral and, and overhead a limpid blue sky. “We re-cycle all waste water and use only drought-tolerant plantings. No pesticides and herbicides.” She pointed out the blue-and-white hives full of healthy bees. “The sound of their wings frighten off aphids preying on the vines.”
In the 1970s the Canadian government paid Okanagan grape growers to rip out their old hybrid grape varieties and put in Vitis vinifera of proven European provenance. That was the beginning of the Okanagan’s steady rise to a level of quality that can no longer be ignored by the outside world. Today many of the 120-odd wineries use grapes from both ends of the valley, and finding many of those wineries more than once got me pleasantly lost in a lovely rural landscape not all about wine.                                             

The Okanagan Lavender and Herb Farm, for instance, reminded me of scene in a 19th-century English novel in which young women wrap bundles of lavender in burlap strips while others squeezing rosettes of lavender butter onto cookie sheets.
  Arlo’s Honey Farm had some of the best wild honey I ever tasted and shipped its  yellow zucchini blossoms, blueberries, honeyberries, sascatoon and golden raspberries ripening on the hillsideto local restaurants. At Carmelis Goat Cheese Farm I was shown great redolent rounds of delicious cheese aging in the cellar.                                                
I followed the fresh produce trail back to Kelowna, where I discovered exceptional restaurants, including RauDZ Regional Table, and The Salted Brick. At the Waterfront Restaurant and Wine Bar an improvised tasting menu included - hang onto your napkin - scallops with green apple kimichi from local Green City Acres farms; aged prosciutto made in chef Mark Filatow’s own home, liver terrine with pork shoulder from Wild Moon Organics, smoked lardo, fresh salchitta, baby asparagus from Arlo’s, in-house sourdough bread cameos made with wild yeast, roasted garlic and arugula with baby peas in a carbonara-style sauce.
       I sip Quail’s Gate pinot noir with BC steelhead and salsa verde from milkweed and wild sorrel leaves, and a 50th Parallel Estate Winery pinot gris with pan-seared halibut.                                            
Mission Hill, on the west side of Okanagan Lake, British Columbia, is a hilltop redoubt that looks part Franciscan monastery, part Game of Thrones. The 12-story pinnacle supposedly inspired “tower envy” in the late Robert Mondavi when he visited. The sprawling property includes a kitchen with a full-time staff to meet the demands of what feels like a thriving medieval village (locked up in the gorgeous cellar is a collection of ancient ceramics).
       But it was the wines I had come to taste, like Mission Hill’s Oculus, a well-balanced Bordeaux blend from its vineyards at the south end of the valley, and Quatrain, a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and cabernet franc with great body.
The winemaker and vineyard manager, a New Zealander named John Simes, came to the Okanagan 24 years ago, and stayed. “The growing season’s very short,” he explained. “Some years there’s no bud-break before May, but the change is extremely quick. Then you can be harvesting cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc - and making ice wine a few weeks later!” Yet, in summer, temperatures can go up to 100 degrees. “We have a huge lake effect that moderates the temperature, so grapes can hang on the vine two weeks longer.”
In winter, when the vines are dormant, temperature drops to well below zero. Cold air blows straight down from the Arctic, but “the lake takes the edge off the cold.”                                    

The Okanagan’s a neighborly place. Mission Hill sent me to Painted Rock Estate, named for aboriginal art found nearby, that produces high quality reds and whites and illustrates the versatility of the lake effect. The owner, John Skinner, a former Vancouver investment banker, said, “I was looking for something more soulful to do, and I heard about the vinifera being grown in BC. I came over to take a look, tasted Burrowing Owl, and thought, ‘This has ripe fruit, it’s very good.’”
       The next thing he knew he was buying “dirt” here, preparing a vineyard and and “jumping the cue” to buy the best grape clones in Bordeaux, to be shipped to the Okanagan. Sunlight reflected from the lake helped ripens those grape varieties, and his inky syrah.
At Skinner’s urging I dropped by neighboring God’s Mountain, a delightful bit of Greece improvised from plywood and white stucco by an eccentric German half a century earlier. The greeting committee was a muddle of friendly labs and blue-heelers; the sign on the door of the tiny office read “Department of Various Things.” The owner, a transplanted Brit named Sarah Allen, who uses interns to help run this eclectic B&B with famous breakfast caneles, conducted me through the great hall crammed with mismatched furniture and points to one of several little rooms overlooking the lake. “We don’t bother with keys,” she says happily. “Dinner’s at seven.”                            
It was being prepared in an outdoor kitchen with French-blue shutters open to the view by Joy Road Catering’s staff that also laid outdoor tables end-to-end, spread with white cloths. Soon enough charcuterie was being served on planks, followed by freshly-shelled English pea soup with mint, basil and creme fraiche, cider-brined ham, haricot vert with purple potatoes, and fruit tarts. Hotel and visiting guests talked freely. My seat mates were a charming couple from Montreal cycling to Big Sur, all of  us overlooking mountains, vineyards and dark, distant water while little electric lights blinked on in the trees. A woman from Houston said, “This valley’s a wonderful secret.” So don’t tell a soul.

Outside Penticton, on what’s called the Naramata bench, I found a concentration of wineries and some memorable wines, including La Frenz and Laughing Stock. Then, near the end of that road, I almost stumbled upon what I had been looking for: an undeniably “world-class” wine. No sign, though, just a modest bungalow set amidst vineyards with a little winery behind. A tall man came out - shock of white hair, a big smile - and said, in a Swedish accent, “Welcome to Foxtrot.”
He was Torsten Allender, the founder. Since there was no tasting room we sat at a table out back, with a view of the lake, where he tipped up bottles with Foxtrot’s curious label - a maiden dancing in the vineyard with a bear. The award-winning pinot noir was dark but translucent, with explosive red fruit on the nose and palate, and a surprisingly long finish. I learned that Torsten had been a consulting engineer for a paper manufacturer when he and his wife, Kiki, bought the property in 2002. “We were interested in the fruit trees,” he said, “and only later discovered the 40-year-old grapevines later.”                                                                     
They were about to tear the vines out when their son, Gustav, stopped them. Torsten turned his attention instead to vinicultural, having decided “that if I could make facial tissue out of a tree, I could make wine.” 
      Clusters of grapes are dropped at every harvest, quality control that increases concentration of the wine, which is aged in Burgundy barrels. Today Gustav is the winemaker, and Foxtrot’s pinot noir is in such demand that it sells for more than $50 a bottle. Torsten, too, credits Lake Okanagan for keeping his vines cool enough in summer and for laying down soil deposits important to the taste of Foxtrot.  “This land was all underwater once,” he said. “Everything goes back to the lake.”                                               

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Cuba unleashed - and me, too

In 2007 I left the editorship of Preservation magazine and pursued a long-standing desire: to visit Cuba. The obstacles were great - George Bush was hounding Americans who went, and the Cuban embassy in DC didn't help much. I ended up on a puddle-jumper flight from Miami and stayed in the same hotel Hemingway had been in. The visit to the finca was dream-like and quite wonderful, and the piece I wrote, below, the last I did for that magazine:
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