May 13, 2013
Walnuts, like almonds, avocados, flax seeds and other things rich in good oils and antioxidants, are among the rising stars of the American whole foods health craze. But it never took a good word from Dr. Oz or Oprah to make this nut a favorite in the Périgord region of southern France, where walnuts have flourished for centuries. Mature orchards line the highways and carpet the Dordogne River floodplain, plots of sapling twigs sprout their first year’s leaves in adjacent plots, trees blossom with the promise of a bumper autumn crop, and heaps and heaps of nuts are sold in bulk in virtually every single market. Deeper inside the local shops and households, one finds other things walnut–including fresh-pressed oil and whiskey-strong walnut booze. And following the road signs of the “Route de la Noix,” a meandering circuit of small highways through the woods, travelers discover the Périgord’s most prolific walnut country–and along this route are walnut oil presses, walnut museums, distilleries, and places to taste the Périgord’s variety of other walnut products. I, as it happens, am on vacation here, and for at least a few days I’m disregarding the region’s foie gras, truffles and wine and, instead, am making this visit to the Dordogne Valley a walnut tasting tour.
Here are five ways I’ve recently learned to enjoy this rising superstar of nuts:
1. Drink it: Eau-de-vie de noix. This liqueur–translated into something like “firewater of walnut”– begins as brandy, distilled from wine, but gains its distinguishing marks through several weeks of sitting on mashed-up walnuts. The final product, which may never touch an oak barrel, is usually just faintly yellow with a subtle candy-like nuttiness. The drink is dry–unsweetened–and usually weighs in at about 42 percent alcohol by volume. (Don’t get it mixed up with drinks like vin de noix, eau de noix or liqueur de noix, discussed below.) Drink eau-de-vie de noix straight or on the rocks to best savor its subtle essence–and in the name of France’s cherished food-and-drink traditions, keep the expensive bottle away from that hair-gelled mixologist friend of yours.
2. Drink It, Part II: Walnut wine. You’ll see this billed as “vin de noix” in the Perigord, yet the product is grape-based, made from straight red wine that sits on macerated green walnuts (harvested in the summertime, when bitter and scarcely edible) for several weeks before being sweetened with sugar and sometimes spiked with brandy or vodka. Many households make this drink, as do inns where it may be served to guests. Relatively little is labeled and sold commercially, but visitors to the Dordogne Valley (it occurs in Italy and the Balkans, too) will have little trouble finding a glassful. Walnut wine usually runs about 16 percent alcohol by volume. But those who read bottle labels will observe that a similar product called “eau de noix” runs 18 percent, and that another labeled as “liqueur de noix” measures about 30. They are different renditions of the same recipe. Speaking of which, walnut wine is almost stupid-easy to make yourself; you need just green walnuts, wine, sugar, brandy and a few weeks.
3. Drizzle It: Walnut oil. This is one of those oils that can be so delicious that one hates to do anything with it much more complicated than sipping it from a spoon. It is a product of the autumn, when the walnuts fall by the tons and tons throughout the Périgord. Many farmers rake up at least part of their crop and bring it to the local oil maker. Here, a grinding mill–sometimes decades old–smashes the nuts, rendering a honey-golden juice that comes gurgling out into jugs. Often the walnuts are toasted before being ground, though some farmers of less traditional tendencies are now “cold-pressing” the nuts for a subtler, softer oil–and supposedly with more health benefits. You may find roasted walnut oil to be superior. It is fragrant, rich, warm and toasty. Don’t even think of blending it with balsamic (even though the locals often do, perhaps since they have all they can use), and if you must make a dressing with it, go easy on the vinegar. Also, don’t use walnut oil for cooking, as high temperatures can supposedly annihilate its purported health benefits and burn away its aromas. The best ways to taste walnut oil may be to drizzle it over couscous, charcuterie, a runny egg yolk or a steaming plate of whole-grain bulgur.
4. Eat It: Walnut Bread. The humble baguette may be the oven-made star of the French boulangerie–but walnut bread is better. Produced year-round and available in most good bakeries, walnut bread–sometimes made with whole wheat for a richer, fuller flavor–is often baked into a round loaf with a hard crust, and the nuts are inevitably toasted. Layer a slice with cheese–or drizzle it with walnut oil.
5. Spread it: Walnut cheese. Another specialty of the Périgord, walnut cheese may be encountered as a sticky Tomme-like substance called Echourgnac, made at the Trappist Abbey of Our Lady of Good Hope and soaked in walnut liquor. This treatment produces a strong-tasting and smoky scent–almost like cured anchovies–yet subtle in the walnut spectrum of flavors. One must consciously wish to taste walnut to believe he actually can–but the label of the Trappe Echourgnac, a 14-ounce walnut cheese wheel, verifies that, indeed, the stuff is bathed in “liqueur de noix.” Want a crunchier experience? Try Gourmandise, a blended cheese studded with crumbled walnuts.
December 17, 2012
With Christmas tunes, ugly sweaters and tacky plastic reindeer out in full force, it seems it’s time again to blend up some rum-spiked eggnog—but today, I’m going to stoke up a different sort of holiday spirit: really strong beer. ‘Tis the season, after all. We often see a spike in the number of extra potent beers about now, the common notion being that a touch more alcohol will warm the bones on cold nights. “High-alcohol” beers, by some standards, might include 6 or 7 percent alcohol by volume holiday releases, like Deschutes Brewing’s Jubelale, Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome and Marin Brewing’s Hoppy Holidaze, and if you’re a regular sipper of light lagers, these seasonal beers are festive enough. But it’s the ludicrously potent, double-digit beers that I’m thinking of now—beers with attitude, charisma, strength, flavor, culture and, especially, spirit.
Imperial Stout. Few beers may so strongly evoke the image of dark winters, frozen European landscapes and long ship voyages as Imperial Stout. This pitch-black, super-strong sipper has become a favorite in modern American craft beer circles, but the style has a long and compelling history, too. The story takes us across oceans and continents, to the damp streets of London and even into the dens of emperors. While England made the first Imperial Stout, it was Russia that drank the stuff. Czar Peter the Great is known to historians for his productive time as Russia’s leader from 1682 until 1725. But many beer geeks only know the famed czar’s role in the invention of Imperial Stout. Peter visited England in 1698, when he was in his late 20s. Here he took a liking to the nation’s black and bitter stouts. Before returning to Russia, Peter requested that a shipload be delivered at a later date. England proudly answered the request—but with embarrassing results: the beer casks, deep in the ship’s hold, froze during transport through the frigid Baltic Sea. The water expanded and burst the barrels. The beer was ruined. (Actually, they might have discovered the trick now known as “freeze distillation” had they only the courage to taste the stout. See below.) As legend tells it, the Barclay Brewery of London came forward with a solution: Raise the alcohol level to stave off frost and try again. They custom brewed a new batch, and the effort seems to have worked. The next delivery made it to Peter in shipshape, and the bigger-boned rendition of the standard English stout swept the emperor off his feet. Deliveries became routine, and the beer is now often called Russian Imperial Stout. Though the first batch that Peter tasted may only have been about 7 percent ABV (like Samuel Smith’s Imperial Stout, brewed in North Yorkshire—a classic representative of the original), modern brewers have upped the numbers. North Coast Brewing Company‘s rendition runs 9 percent, Lagunitas Brewing‘s is 10, Three Floyds‘ 15 and Dogfish Head‘s a smashing 18. These are the big guys that sit well in a brandy snifter—and they fit nicely in a Christmas stocking.
Other Holiday Spirit Boosters
Samichlaus Classic Malt Liquor. Billed as “The World’s Most Extraordinary Beer,” Samichlaus Classic measures 14 percent ABV and back in the 1990s was recognized as the world’s strongest lager. The beer is brewed once per year, on December 6, and after months of aging, released about a year later. Trust me: It’s not going to be a favorite of just everyone. It barely tastes like beer, in fact. It is sweet, sticky, syrupy and raisiny, with hardly a hint of hops. Colored like brandy, it drinks about like one, too. In other words, go slow. The beer, for a piece of trivia, means Santa Claus in Zurich, the Swiss-German dialect of the Alps.
Ice Beers: No—don’t go plunking any ice cubes in your stout. Ice beers, in fact, are made through quite the opposite process: Beer is placed in a freezer, where water in the beer turns to ice, while the alcohol remains in liquid form. As clear ice floats to the surface of the beer, a stronger, condensed version of the original brew is left behind. It’s basic chemistry—and a trick brewers call freeze distillation. It’s illegal, in fact, in the United States—mostly. That is, the law’s fine print says it’s OK to use freeze distillation to add trace amounts of alcohol—a loophole that allows big breweries to make such products as Molson Ice and Bud Ice, which are only barely affected by the process. However, we have secret info from industry insiders that the technique occurs in full force at some brewpubs, where the often smooth, velvety beer may be served on tap. Customers thus unwittingly consume great beer, contraband and evidence of the crime all in one glass. The first ice beer is believed to have been made by accident in Kulmbach, Germany, in 1890, when a cask of beer was forgotten and left out on a freezing night. In the morning, the brewers tasted the beer and found the boozy liquid under the cap of ice to be strong and delicious. Sound tasty? You’re in luck, because while making ice beers is illegal in America, importing them from Europe—where freeze distillation is completely lawful—is not. Kulmbacher Eisbock and Aventinus Weizen-Eisbock are two available examples of the style.
He’Brew Jewbelation Sweet 16 from Shmaltz Brewing. What? You don’t believe a fat man in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer delivers billions of presents around the world every December 24? Yeah—it does seem sometimes like a grand parental hoax. But far from being left out in the cold this winter, you just might be enjoying the best specialty drink of all: an extreme Hanukkah ale called Jewbelation, brewed by the Shmaltz Brewing Company in upstate New York. The beer, released this month, commemorates the 16th anniversary of the brewery’s birth. The anniversary series began with Shmaltz’s eighth, when the beer was made with eight kinds of hops, eight malts and to 8 percent ABV. In following years, the numbers pattern was maintained—and now, Jewbelation has morphed into a 16 percent ABV giant. It’s dark brown and easy to love for anyone with a small glass and a taste for brownies, chocolate and coffee. One bottle contains 480 calories, so divvy this one between friends—and if you believe in him, don’t leave it for Santa: There’s a lot of skinny chimneys out there.
Not a beer fan? Then drink glögg. The Swedish rendition of mulled wine, glögg, or gløgg, is a keyboard nightmare—so we’re going to call it glogg. Red wine, orange peel, cloves and cardamom are the essential ingredients of this Christmastime drink, though some versions contain additions like sugar, cinnamon sticks, brandy and Port wine. My own preference is for something heavily spiced but on the drier side. Glogg can be purchased ready-made in bottles, but the drink is so easy—and, at the risk sounding cheesy, fun and festive—to make that not stewing up your own would just be silly. Try this recipe. The wine (it needn’t be expensive) is heated slowly in a cauldron with orange slices, whole cloves and cardamom powder bathing in the drink. These and other ingredients’ flavors leech into the wine, and the warm aromas fill the house. Now, before your company arrives, get the pronunciation down: That funny “o” is, in fact, pronounced like the double “o” in hook, making glogg actually more like “glug.” Which allows you, as host, to look from guest to guest to guest as you take drink orders and suggest, “Glug? Glug? Glug?” Mulled wine just isn’t the same.
Drinking Down Under? As a northerner, I’ve always been intrigued if not confused by the notion of celebrating Christmas at the peak of summer. But for many in the world, it just might be 95 in the shade this Christmas Day. For you folks, I feel I need to suggest something, but I’ll be honest: I’m clueless. Cold lemonade? Watermelon juice? Fruit smoothies? Ice water? Really: We northerners are fascinated: How do you drink in the holidays?