February 14, 2013
First, there was sugarcane juice. Then came distilled cane liquor, dribbling out of a steel pipe.
And somewhere in between was the stuff I was interested in: fermented sugarcane juice touched by the ethanol-making labors of airborne yeasts and containing 8 to 9 percent alcohol by volume. But fully fermented cane drink with 8 or 9 percent alcohol by volume is not easy to find in Ecuador. I have been on the lookout for this stuff since Day 1 in Ecuador a month ago, when I began seeing extensive sugarcane fields, and I have yet to land a used plastic soda bottle filled with the beverage. The clear liquor—90-proof stuff, or thereabouts—whether commercially bottled or sold out of kitchens in Inca Kola bottles, is easy to find. Ditto for the raw, algae-green juice, which comes gurgling out of hand-cranked cane grinders on street corners in almost every town and is sold for 50 cents a cup.
The only way to go from raw, sweet juice to hard, throat-raking liquor is to ferment the juice’s sugar using yeast, then distill this sugarcane “wine” into the hard stuff. In Vilcabamba, at last, I knew I was getting close to this almost theoretical product when, in a grocery store, I found homemade vinagre de cana. Vinegar, like hard booze, is a product derived directly from fully fermented juice, or malt water like beer wort. So a local household, it seemed obvious, was engaged in the cane juice industry.
“Who made this?” I asked the clerk.
She directed me to a home several blocks away where, as she said, a man fermented cane juice and sold a variety of cane-based products. I cycled over, but the man’s wife answered and said they only had distilled liquor, which may be called punta or traga. I bought a half liter for $2 after making sure that it was safe to drink. I mentioned the tragic scandal in 2011, when dozens of people died from drinking tainted distilled alcohol. “We drink this ourselves,” the woman assured me.
Before I left she said that in the next village to the north, Malacatos, many people grew sugarcane and made traga and that I could find fermented juice there. But I had already done the Malacatos juice tour the day prior, while riding through on my way to Vilcabamba from Loja, without luck. At every juice shack I visited, the proprietor said they had none but that they would make some overnight and that I should return in the morning. They all spoke of a drink called guarapo—fermented cane juice.
This sounded almost right—but not quite. Because I know from experience making beer and wine that it takes a solid week or more for a bucket of fruit juice or sugar water to undergo primary fermentation, the vigorous bubbling stage that turns 90 percent of a liquid’s sugars into ethanol. Brewers and winemakers cannot make their products overnight.
I learned more about this matter in Vilcabamba’s eastern outskirts, just outside the entrance to the village zoo. Here I found a woman selling cane juice under the business name “Viejo Luis,” who, it seemed, was her husband. I bought a liter of juice, then was treated to a taste of guarapo fermented for one day—a sweet-and-sour rendition of fresh cane juice. At the risk of sounding crass, I got straight to business: “Does this guarapo have alcohol?” I asked. Yes. “How much?” A tiny little bit. “I want more.”
To better explain myself, I asked the lady to tell me if this was correct: “First, there is juice. Then, you ferment it to make alcohol. Then, you distill it to make liquor.” She nodded and smiled with a genuine sparkle, pleased, I think, that I recognized the labors of her business. “OK, I want the middle juice—the juice with alcohol. Not fresh juice, and not punta.” She nodded in understanding and said that if she were to leave this one-day fermented guarapo for another week, it would contain as much alcohol as a strong beer. She even said she would sell me a liter for $2—if I came back the next weekend.
This wasn’t possible—but she did have another fermented product ready to sell—chicha de hongos. That translates into, roughly, “fruit beer of fungus.” She poured the thick, viscous drink through a sieve and into my plastic bottle. I had a taste immediately and complimented the rich and buttery green drink, tart like vinegar, and teeming with an organism she said was tivicus but which most literature seems to present as tibicos. This fungus-bacteria complex turns sugary drinks sour, thick and soupy and allegedly provides a wide range of health benefits. She assured me it was an excellent aid for facilitating digestion.
Meanwhile, I hatched a plan. I took my liter of Viejo Luis’s cane juice to the village bakery. “Can I have just a tiny, tiny, tiny pinch of yeast?” I asked in Spanish. The young man came back with a sack the size of a tennis ball. “That enough?”
Plenty. I took the gift and, on the curb by the plaza, sprinkled a dusting of yeast into the bottle. It came to life overnight. I reached out my tent flap in the morning and unscrewed the cap. It hissed as compressed CO2 exploded outward. It was alive! First, there had been juice—and in a week, there would be sugarcane “wine.” I tended the bottle through many rigorous days, of bus travel and shuttling luggage into hotel rooms and cycling over high passes with the bottle strapped to my pannier. Every few hours for days I gingerly loosened the cap to release the accumulating CO2, the telltale byproduct of sugar-to-ethanol fermentation (methanol, the dangerous form of alcohol that infamously makes people blind or kills them cannot be produced through fermentation). Finally, after five days, I lost my patience. The bottle had been falling off my bike every few hours for two days as I bumped along the dirt road between Cuenca and Santiago de Mendez, in the low Amazon basin. The juice was still fermenting, but I was ready to drink. I gave the bottle an hour in my hotel room so that the mucky sediments could settle to the bottom, then drank. The stuff was a grapefruit yellow now, with a bready, yeasty smell and a flavor reminiscent of raw, green cane juice but less sweet and with the obvious bite of alcohol. I had done it—connected the dots and found the missing link. Or, that is, I had made it myself.
Quick Cane Trivia
- Sugarcane is native to Southeast Asia.
- Consisting of several species, sugarcane is generally a tropical plant but is grown in Spain, some 37 degrees from the Equator.
- Sugarcane yields more calories per land surface area than any other crop.
- Sugarcane first arrived in the New World with Christopher Columbus on his second voyage across the Atlantic, when he sailed to the West Indies in 1493.
Other Local Wines to Taste in Ecuador
If you should visit Vilcabamba and have any interest in wine and fermentation, spend 20 minutes in a small store and tasting bar called Vinos y Licores Vilcabamba. The shop specializes in locally made fruit wines—including grape, blackberry and papaya. The shop also sells liquors made using cane alcohol and a variety of products, like peach and cacao. Most of the wines here are sweet or semi-sweet—and you can put up with that, go in, meet owner Alonzo Reyes and enjoy a tasting. He may even take you to the rear of the facility and show you the fermenting tanks, containing more than 5,000 liters of wines, as well as the cellar, where scores of three- and five-gallon glass jugs contain maturing wines.
The Name of a Dog
I must concede that I spoke a few days too soon in last week’s post about troublesome dogs in Ecuador and the owners that sometimes neglect them. I joked about the unlikelihood that a scruffy street mutt down here might be named Rex, Fido or Max. Well, 11 kilometers south of Sucua on the Amazonian Highway E-45, a dog came trotting out to meet me in the road. Its owners called it back. Its name? Max.
December 11, 2012
As polar bears watch their winter ice recede farther and farther from boggy Arctic shores each year, skiers may notice a similar trend occurring in the high mountain ranges that have long been their wintertime playgrounds. Here, in areas historically buried in many feet of snow each winter, climate change is beginning to unfurl visibly, and for those who dream of moguls and fresh powder, the predictions of climatologists are grim: By 2050, Sierra Nevada winter snowpack may have decreased by as much as 70 percent from average levels of today; in the Rockies, the elevation of full winter snow cover may increase from 7,300 feet today to 10,300 feet by the year 2100; in Aspen, the ski season could retreat at both ends by a total of almost two months; and throughout the Western United States, average snow depths could decline by anywhere between 25 and—yep—100 percent.
These, of course, are just visions of wintertime future produced by climatologists and their computers—an easy venue for climate change naysayers to assault. In fact, a recent report commissioned by Protect Our Winters, an environmental organization, and the Natural Resources Defense Council on declining snow levels also noted that annual snowpack depth has remained stable or even increased in parts of California’s Sierra Nevada. Another study, published in January in Environmental Research Letters, foresaw similar outcomes, predicting that global warming could trigger counterintuitive winter cooling in certain parts of the Northern Hemisphere. But those findings seem tantamount to just the tip of the iceberg—which is undeniably melting. Because the thing is, global warming has already delivered serious wounds to the world’s ski industry. Europe, especially, has been hurting for years. Back in 2003, the United Nations Environmental Program reported that 15 percent of Swiss ski areas were losing business due to a lack of snow. A few years later, in 2007, one ski resort in the French Alps—Abondance—closed down entirely after a 40-year run. The closure came following a meeting of local officials, who reluctantly agreed that there simply wasn’t enough snow anymore to maintain the Abondance lodge as a ski operation. For several years, low snowfall had been attracting fewer and fewer tourists, and Abondance—once the recipient of millions of tourist Euros each year—began stagnating. The Abondance lodge and the nearby town of the same name lie at a little over 3,000 feet above sea level—low for a ski resort and, so it happens, right in the hot zone of 900 to 1,500 meters that climatologists warn is going to see the most dramatic changes in annual snowfall.
But more alarming than the Abondance shutdown is that which took place at almost six times the elevation, at Bolivia’s Chacaltaya Lodge, once famed as the highest ski resort in the world. Here, outdoorsmen came for decades to ski the Chacaltaya Glacier, which historically flowed out of a mountain valley at more than 17,000 feet. But that wasn’t high enough to escape rising temperatures. The glacier began retreating markedly several decades ago, and over a course of 20 years 80 percent of the icy river vanished. The lodge, which first opened in 1939 and was a training ground for Bolivia’s first Olympic ski team, closed in 2009.
Similar results of global warming can be expected in the American ski and snow sports industries. Already, as many as 27,000 people have lost their seasonal jobs in poor snow years in the past decade, with revenue losses as much as $1 billion, according to the recent study conducted for Protect Our Winters and NRDC. The study cites reduced snowfall and shorter winters as the culprits. In total, 212,000 people are employed in the American ski industry.
The irony of the ski industry’s impending troubles is the fact that ski resorts, equipment manufacturers and skiers themselves have played a role in fueling the fire that is melting the snows. The carbon footprint of the ski industry is a heavy one. Seventy million people visit the Alps alone each year to ski or otherwise play in the snow—and travel to and from the mountains is recognized as perhaps the most carbon-costly component of the industry. But excluding tourist travel, lodges and ski resorts are major users of energy and producers of trash. A 2003 book by Hal Clifford, Downhill Slide: Why the Corporate Ski Industry Is Bad for Skiing, Ski Towns, and the Environment, details the many ecological and cultural problems associated with the skiing industry. Among these is clear-cutting to produce those dreamy treeless mountainsides that millions of downhillers long for on many a summer day. The ski resort Arizona Snowbowl, for one, was lambasted last year for plans to cut down 30,000 trees—a 74-acre grove of pines considered holy by indigenous nations. And just prior to the kickoff of the 2006 Turin Winter Games, in Italy, The Independent ran a story under the headline “Is it possible to ski without ruining the environment?” The article named “ski tourism-induced traffic pollution and increasing urban sprawl of hotels and holiday homes in former Alpine villages to the visually intrusive and habitat-wrecking ski lifts” as faults of the industry. The article continued, noting that with the “spectre of global warming … now stalking the Alps,” the ski industry of Europe “is waking up to its environmental responsibilities—just in the nick of time.”
Right: “Just in the nick of time.” That article came out almost seven years ago, and look where we are now. The earth, by most measures, is warmer than ever, and snow is declining. A study just published in Geophysical Research Letters reported that locations in Eurasia have set new records for lowest-ever spring snow cover each year since 2008. In North America, according to the same report, three of the last five years have seen record low snow cover in the spring. It shouldn’t be any surprise, then, that commercial use of snow machines is on the rise. These draw up liquid water and blast out 5,000 to 10,000 gallons per minute as frosty white snow. It may take 75,000 gallons of water to lightly coat a 200- by 200-foot ski slope, and the energy-intensive machines have been blamed for their role in pollution and excessive water use. And while snow machines can serve as a crutch for limping ski resorts, the snow they produce is reportedly quite crummy in quality—and they’re anything but a cure for the greater problem.
Where do you like to ski? Have you seen more exposed rocks and muddy December slopes and snow machines at work? This article offers a summary of how several major ski regions in the world will feel the heat of global warming. Every mountain range around the world will feel the heat.
Will warmer winters mean richer skiers? In 2007, the mayor of the French Alps town of Abondance, Serge Cettour-Meunier, was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “Skiing is again becoming a sport for the rich,” explaining that soon only more expensive, high-elevation ski resorts would have enough snow for skiing.
November 20, 2012
Thanksgiving dinner may be the supreme all-American meal, and it’s surely one of the most satisfying feasts that ever has come across a table. It’s starchy, greasy and meaty; it’s both savory and sweet; it’s massive—and usually a sure recipe for leftovers. One could argue that a table set for Thanksgiving lacks in nothing. But we could likewise make the case that a Thanksgiving dinner is one of the most predictable buffets of Americana. Mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie and, of course, an absurdly overweight turkey all have their rightful places on the Thanksgiving table. But would it entirely upend a revered culinary tradition to add a little exotic variation to the feast? From turkey to pumpkin pie, Peru to Tahiti, these dish-by-dish suggestions will spice up this Thursday’s banquet with some global flair and fare.
French duck. Turkeys—especially monstrous ones so fat and fleshy they cannot fly—are as American as apple pie, Chevies and suburbs. While Europeans have gained a taste for our largest native fowl, other birds have traditionally taken the seat of honor at their dinner tables. In much of France, the bird of choice is the duck. Now be warned: Most of the guests on your invite list have been waiting all year for their turkey, and if you screw it up they might mob you—so only replace the turkey for a small or particularly adventurous crowd. Ducks are only a fraction of the size of a Thanksgiving turkey, often with far less meat and a thick layer of fat. Don’t expect much leftovers, even if—as might be wise—you serve two ducks. To cook, try this: Brown some hand-sized cuts of the duck with shallots and onions in a Dutch oven over a medium flame. Then add Belgian beer, dried fruit and dried herbs, put on the lid and bake for two hours. Or you might spice up the bird with ginger, green onions, garlic and sesame oil for an Asian presentation.
Peruvian mashed potatoes. The origin of Solanum tuberosum, Peru is home to thousands of varieties of potato, some of which are available in America and, mashed with milk and butter, can add color and flavor to what may be the blandest dish on the table. For a dramatic presentation of mashed potatoes, try a purple potato. In taste and texture, the dish will be negligibly different than the one you grew up on. If you wish to take the same concept a step further, separately mash and season a batch of yellow potatoes. Then, fold the two mashed potato purées together in the serving dish, leaving layers of color.
Nigerian yams. Almost everyone loves yams on Thanksgiving—or at least they think they do. Because “yam” is a misnomer commonly applied to the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas), another Peruvian native. You want a real yam? Then look straight to western equatorial Africa, where four-foot-long tubers weighing as much as 100 to 150 pounds are a staple carbohydrate for millions. The vegetable, which is celebrated with annual festivals, consists of multiple species in the genus Dioscorea. Africa’s white yam (D. rotundata) is the most popular and important species, and, like sweet potatoes, may be baked or boiled for starchy, semisweet results. Yams are grown throughout the Caribbean where African cultures took root (sorry) several centuries ago. Some are exported, and in the United States this huge vegetable is available in some Caribbean and Asian supermarkets.
Belizean baked plantains. The sweet syrup that leaks from the splitting skin of a hot baked yam—I mean, sweet potato—is one sure signature of the fourth Thursday in November. But along the belt of the Equator, an abundant local alternative produces a similarly delicious result: a baked plantain. This banana-like fruit, though often eaten as a savory starch source, can be left to ripen until black in the skin and soft in the flesh, which will by now be sweet and sticky. Cooking plantains as a sweet potato alternative is a cinch: Put them in a metal baking dish and bake at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 or 20 minutes. When that syrup starts bubbling, the plantains are done. To serve, peel open the fruits, and the steaming flesh will fall onto the plate. Now, season as you would a yam—or melt coconut oil onto the fruit for a stronger exotic accent. Plantains grow throughout the tropics, but I name Belize as the origin of this dish simply because that’s where I first learned to make it.
Turkish fig-and-cranberry chutney. Messing around with the cranberry sauce is not as likely to draw unfriendly fire from expectant diners as, say, replacing the turkey with a scrawny avian cousin, so take this idea as far as you want. Following a Turkish theme, add dried brown figs—a major product of the nation—to your usual cranberry sauce recipe. Then, go incrementally further, ingredient at a time, to make a spice-laden chutney. Simmer the cranberries in a cup of fortified red wine (a.k.a. Port) and begin adding elements of the East: Dice and toss in the figs, some lemon and orange zest, garlic, ginger, cloves and cumin. Sweeten with honey and, after the stew has cooled, garnish with chopped mint and serve.
Tahitian stuffing with breadfruit (or taro) and coconut. Your guests may sulk at the sight of a nontraditional stuffing, so approach this idea cautiously. The theme takes us to the Pacific islands, where, lacking the culture and systems of grain cultivation, many societies rely on breadfruit as a major carbohydrate source. Cooked in its earlier stages of ripeness, this round, green, thick-skinned treefruit somewhat resembles a pineapple, but the fruit inside is as starchy and savory as bread or potatoes. Cooking breadfruit is easy; grilling or broiling thick slices with a little olive or coconut oil is a simple method. The challenge, however, may be finding the things, as our blog “Food and Think” reported three years ago. If you can’t find one of these exotic fruits, go underground for a similar result with taro, a starchy tuber of the tropics and also grown in Tahiti. Peel and halve the roots, then bake until steaming and tender. Use the breadfruit or taro as the bread in your favorite stuffing recipe. If you want some tropical sweetness in the dish, you can add cubes of fresh coconut and pineapple.
Italian porcini-chestnut gravy. Where chestnuts fall, porcini rise. That’s because Italy’s favorite mushroom happens to prefer the roots of the chestnut tree as its mycorrhizal companion, and for one who wakes early to beat the competition, a walk in the woods in November can provide a double whammy of wild gourmet loot. The mushrooms are considered relatively unmistakable, with no dangerous look-alikes (but if there’s any doubt, throw it out) and chestnuts, well, they’re as easy to harvest as pine cones. At home, de-husk the chestnuts, bake and peel. Using a blender or a hand potato masher, make a smooth paste using half the batch. Coarsely chop the rest of the chestnuts. For the mushrooms, brush off the grit, slice and dice, then sauté in olive oil until brown. Make the gravy as you normally would, using bird broth as the base and the chestnut mash as a thickener in place of flour. Add the porcini and chestnut chunks halfway through the simmering process.
Moroccan pumpkin pie. You might not subject each pie on the table to exotic experimentation, but try this idea for one: Follow your favorite pumpkin pie recipe, but reduce the quantity of molasses and make up the difference using purée of Medjool date, a variety believed to have originated in Morocco. The date is the world’s sweetest fruit, with up to 80 percent of its mass being sugar, meaning you can expect a rather seamless swap. Additionally, coarsely chop a handful of dates to fold into the pie mix. Sprinkle the pie with toasted almonds and orange zest, and you’ve got a North African rendition of America’s most sacred pie.
November 15, 2012
The unlikely rise to fame of a tepid and unimposing wine could be one of the most heartening stories in the world of noble French vines, stodgy oenophiles and glittering stemware. For Beaujolais Nouveau, the fruity pinkish-red wine of eastern France’s Beaujolais region, has gone from cheap plonk to superstar (though still cheap) and, every third Thursday in November, drives millions of French into revelry the very second the new vintage is released.
In fact, the French have been partying with their glasses full of Beaujolais Nouveau since exactly 12:01 a.m. local time, the moment at which it becomes legal each year to release the wine. As the name implies, Beaujolais Nouveau is “new”—young, that is—and goes to the bottle not even two months after the crush. Lacking some in maturity and finesse, the wine was traditionally just a guzzler for the table and something with which to celebrate the end of the exhausting harvest season, but over time the wine’s release became an anticipated event, and the wine itself—though still not considered a stunner—the cause for celebration. In the 1950s, distributors began competing each year in a race to deliver the first bottles to Paris. In the 1970s, winemaker and businessman Georges Duboeuf, a major producer of Beaujolais Nouveau, pushed and publicized the wine and the associated festivities. Banners proclaiming “Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!” became commonplace, and the race from Beaujolais to Paris attracted increasing media coverage each year. People around the world soon would acquire a taste for the wine and anticipate the day of arrival each fall, and spotlight-seeking wine merchants have made deliveries by elephant and rickshaw and motorcycle. Today, Beaujolais Nouveau is a star and the day of its release one of the biggest parties of the year.
So how did such a tale of success and triumph happen to carry a moderately good red wine, at best—and a close neighbor to the fine wines of Burgundy—into the heights of world fame? First of all, people like to drink—and surely the opportunity to suck down a wine that carries symbolic value of the finished season while also demanding no tiresome critical analysis was refreshing for the French. But Beaujolais Nouveau Day is also a product of heavy and unabashed marketing. For 34 years starting in 1951, November 15 was the official release date, but it seems to have been a calculated decision in 1985 when the Beaujolais regional government decided that the big day, always, would be a Thursday—a day when party-prone people are more likely to jumpstart their weekend. And though it may be just coincidence, Beaujolais Nouveau’s arrival just a week prior to Thanksgiving has given American marketers something to bang over the heads of their consumers—specifically, that Beaujolais Nouveau is a superb match for turkey. Perhaps—but it’s just as probable that, with millions of bottles of the wine abruptly available right as 45 million American turkeys meet their maker, producers saw a perfect and timely marketing marriage.
Now, with third-Thursday parties underway (120 public celebrations take place each year in Beaujolais alone), turkeys filling out in their last days, and millions of Nouveau bottles exchanging hands throughout the world, the time to taste the first wine of 2012 has arrived. Beaujolais Nouveau is generally cheap—10 bucks and less—and is available from scores of companies, including Domaine Dupeuble, Jean Foillard and, most famous of all, Georges Duboeuf, which sends almost two million bottles to America bearing the colorful confetti-esque label familiar to many wine drinkers and as cheerful as the third Thursday itself.
But cheery bottle labels and the festivities of Beaujolais Nouveau Day may belie recent drops in sales of the wine and the lagging spirits in the Beaujolais region. By many reports, people have lost some interest in the wine’s release. Some shops are seeing a longer turnover in inventory, and many restaurants are throwing scaled-down Beaujolais bashes. In the United Kingdom, Beaujolais Nouveau consumption peaked in 1999 at about 740,000 bottles. That figure has since slid dramatically, to just 100,000 bottles in 2011. This season, after some rough weather and a damaged crop, low sales are just as likely. In the producing region, in fact, declining returns seem to be attracting few young winemakers to invest in a future here. The winemakers of the region are collectively aging—and, after all the years of fanfare and comedic races to bring the wine to market, Beaujolais Nouveau itself may be growing old.
Many people have never cared for it, anyway, and although more than half of Beaujolais Nouveau is consumed in France, the wine has a relatively cool reputation in its home country. Wine snobs may snicker at Beaujolais Nouveau, and many otherwise enthused wine drinkers see little to be gained from consuming it. The wine, indeed, is very low in tannins, which makes it largely unsuitable for long-term aging, while also leaving it top-heavy with fruit flavors, delicious to some palates, cloying to others. The wine, as a general rule, is simple—but its this very simplicity, and the rapidity of production, that is so attractive. The wine is fresh, youthful, vibrant, cheerful—and except for several weeks of fermentation and handling, Beaujolais Nouveau is as close as you can get to drinking wine straight from a vine.
A few Beaujolais Nouveau factoids to spice up the conversation at Thanksgiving dinner:
The region of Beaujolais is a swath of fertile hills 34 miles north to south and between seven and nine miles wide. The area’s 2,300 farmers produce several grape varieties, but only one—the Gamay grape—is permitted in Beaujolais Nouveau.
Japan is the world’s largest importer of Beaujolais Nouveau. Germany is second. The United States is third.
Using the word “Beaujolais” is illegal for winemakers in America, but “nouveau” is up for grabs, and many American winemakers produce their own renditions of nouveau wines. Many use the Gamay grape and strive to replicate the new wines of Beaujolais, even releasing the wine on Beaujolais Nouveau Day to absorb some of the excitement. Others use different grapes. New Clairvaux, a winery in the northern end of the Sacramento Valley, makes a Nouveau Tempranillo, while River Road Family Vineyards and Winery, about 60 miles north of San Francisco, makes a Pinot Noir Nouveau.
“New” wines are also made in the Czech Republic, Italy and Spain.
A poor harvest in 2012 could force hundreds of Beaujolais grape growers into bankruptcy.
Banana scents, commonly cited as a fault of Beaujolais Nouveaus, are the aromatic results of isoamyl acetate, a fermentation byproduct.
November 13, 2012
For almost six months, they resided in a cramped dungeon in southern France. The summer sun blazed outside, hoards of tourists unwittingly came and went from the region of the Périgord, and the two cans of strong, cheap lager endured their days of isolation in the damp cobblestone cavity where I’d left them last May. Could beers think and feel loneliness, the two might have cried, “Why have you forsaken me?” But, in fact, someone in the world was thinking of them, and one day in early November a man stuck his hand into the cobwebbed cavity in the base of a cemetery retaining wall in the riverside village of Grolejac, and pulled it out again with a half-liter tallboy of malt beverage, namely Gayant La Démon.
Edward Heseltine, a Briton living in the Dordogne department, which includes the Périgord, also read the note I had affixed to the can and, shortly after drinking the cheap yet stimulating beverage, sent me an e-mail about his discovery—and just when I was beginning to think that readers of this blog weren’t interested in this game of go-to-France-and-find-the-beer. But people, it seems, are catching on. Just days after Heseltine contacted me, a traveler named Andrew Quinn sent me a similar e-mail describing how he’d found another of the multiple beers I stashed last spring in remote locations throughout from the Dordogne River Valley, as far west as the Bordeaux region and as far south as the high Pyrenees. Quinn, an American documentary filmmaker from southern California, was traveling in the Dordogne with his wife, Hilary, in September when they made a side excursion, followed the instructions that I posted on this blog in May and parked their rental car at the described mile marker. They walked 100 yards along a stone wall paralleling the Vezere River, a Dordogne tributary, before Quinn dropped to his knees. His hand went went into a drainage hole, and it came out again with a can of beer. Quinn was thrilled, he told me later by phone, “like a little kid” on a successful treasure hunt.
Quinn also picked up on the game’s subtler, deeper significance that had inspired me last spring.
“It was neat to have this interactive experience with another traveler who had been there before,” Quinn said. “There’s so much history in that area of things that humans have left behind, whether hand prints or dwellings or cave paintings, and I appreciated that this was sort of the same thing—that this beer was something that another person had left behind.”
Speaking of leaving things behind, Heseltine took only one of the two beers he discovered in Grolejac, leaving the other for anyone else who may like the sound of a cheap beer at the end of a treasure hunt in the beautiful Périgord. And Quinn, too, reciprocated, going back to the car and taking inventory of his available selection of libations: They had an expensive bottle of wine and a €6 bottle of Normandy cider. The cider went into the hole, and the treasure hunt in the Dordogne remains a live game.
All told, and to the best of my knowledge, six containers of alcoholic beverage remain hidden in remote crevices and crannies in rural France. If you wish to find them, read these instructions pulled from prior Off the Road posts: “I left a bottle of something extra special just 2.2 kilometers from the top [of the Hautacam ski resort], under a table-like rock on the left side of the road [as one ascends], 200 meters past a roadside auberge, and just 20 meters past a metal grate over the road. E-mail me when you find it.” And: “I stashed a beer halfway between the two passes [of Col d’Aubisque and Col du Soulor] in the cliff. It’s a Kellegen blond special, 8.6 percent alcohol, stuffed into a hole in the left end of the cobblestone retaining wall. On the wall is spray-painted a Basque freedom message, ‘LIBERTAT.’ You can’t miss it.” And: “There’s a beer on top [of the huge Col du Tourmalet pass]. If you’re coming up from the east side, you’ll see a concrete bunker-like structure on the right side of the highway. It’ll just take you a second; jump off the bike, reach under the ground-level ledge (you’ll see what I mean), and find the beer. I left it directly beneath the “L” in the spray-painted political message about Basque freedom.” And: “In Sauternes, on road D116 E1, in the base of the cobblestone rock wall facing the entrance to Chateau Lafaurie-Peyragney, a can of beer now dwells in a hole just 40 meters west of the four-way intersection. Let me know when you find it. The beer’s name starts with an “M,” is as strong as a wine but a whole lot cheaper than Chateau d’Yquem‘s latest release.”
The ultimate experience in the sport of lost beer recovery may be the 2010 excavation of several unopened bottles from a Baltic Sea shipwreck. The vessel had gone down in the early 1800s and took to its frigid grave a shipment of sparkling wine and beer. The champagne was reported to be worth tens of thousands of Euros per bottle, while the beer proved later to be contaminated by seawater and, alas, undrinkable. Which makes me wonder about my own beer caches. Specifically, I wonder if the winter freeze could shatter the bottles, or burst the cans—especially those in the high Pyrenees. But perhaps the safest of the bunch will be that particularly strong ogre of a malt beverage named the Maximator that currently resides, as far as I am aware, in the relatively mild wine region of Sauternes. Still, I should hope the thrill of finding them will be enough to encourage you to go looking.
Not a beer fan? Then consider another prize I’ve more recently hidden away: A bottle of homemade maple syrup mead that I brewed and bottled in 2008. It now occupies a cozy nook in Marin County, inside a pedestrian-accessible tunnel less than a mile north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Intrigued? Here is another hint to take you toward the prize: Looking south through the tunnel, you will see downtown San Francisco. E-mail me when you find the mead—and be gentle if you decide to critique my home-brew.
Want to contribute to the game? I invite anyone, anywhere, to stash a beer in a secret but accessible public place. Please provide written directions in the comments box below, and I will publish them in a new post. Additionally, please e-mail a photo of the beer going into its hiding place to email@example.com.