June 13, 2013
If there’s just one thing I take away from my conversation with Louisville, Kentucky, historian Michael Veach, it’s that there is no wrong way to drink bourbon. Dilute it with water, mix it with ginger ale, or stir in a liqueur or two and call it something fancy like “The Revolver.” According to Veach, makers of America’s native spirit are just as pleased to see their product served up with a maraschino cherry as they are watching it poured straight into a shot glass. And you know? I believe him. Because when it comes to all things bourbon, Veach is Louisville’s go-to source.
As associate curator of special collections at Louisville’s Filson Historical Society and a former archivist for United Distilleries, situated in the heart of Kentucky Bourbon Country, 54-year-old Veach has spent decades studying bourbon history. Many local residents consider him the spirit’s unofficial ambassador, and it’s a title he’s undoubtedly earned. Veach once spent an entire year sampling the 130+ bourbons on hand at the city’s Bourbons Bistro and recording his thoughts in what would become the restaurant’s ‘Bourbon Bible,’ a binder overflowing with tasting notes and food pairing suggestions that now serves as a resource for the restaurant’s patrons. More recently Veach parlayed his expertise into a book, Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage, which tells the history of the bourbon industry from the Whiskey Rebellion straight through to the 21st century. The text highlights often-overlooked aspects of the industry—such as the technology behind the spirit’s production—and includes a few of Veach’s own theories that may even surprise bourbon aficionados.
Take his argument on where the name ‘bourbon’ comes from. Visit any local distillery and you’ll likely hear that the moniker derives from Bourbon County—once part of a larger expanse known as Old Bourbon—in upstate Kentucky. However, says Veach, the timeline just doesn’t match up.
Though the Filson Historical Society is home to bourbon labels printed as early as the 1850s, he says, “the story that the name ‘bourbon’ comes from Bourbon County doesn’t even start appearing in print until the 1870s.” Instead, Veach believes the name evolved in New Orleans after two men known as the Tarascon brothers arrived to Louisville from south of Cognac, France, and began shipping local whiskey down the Ohio River to Louisiana’s bustling port city. “They knew that if Kentuckians put their whiskey into charred barrels [which gives whiskey flavor] they could sell it to New Orleans’ residents, who would like it because it tastes more like cognac or ‘French brandy’,” says Veach.
In the 19th century, New Orleans entertainment district was Bourbon Street, as it is today. “People starting asking for ‘that whiskey they sell on Bourbon Street,’” he says, “which eventually became ‘that bourbon whiskey.’” Still, Veach concedes, “We may never know who actually invented bourbon, or even who the first Kentucky distiller was.”
For those unfamiliar with what makes bourbon bourbon, here’s a brief primer. Contrary to popular belief, bourbon distilling is not limited to Kentucky, though the state does produce the lion’s share (Veach attributes this to the area’s excellent-quality limestone-filtered water as well as Kentucky’s extreme weather patterns).
For a spirit to be considered bourbon it must adhere to six standard rules: It must be made in the U.S.; aged in new, charred white oak barrels; and be at least 51 percent corn. It also must be distilled at less than 160 proof (80 percent alcohol by volume) and entered into a barrel at below 125 proof. Lastly, there can be no artificial coloring or flavor (hence the reason Jack Daniel’s is a Tennessee whiskey: it’s filtered over maple wood chips before bottling). The darker the bourbon, the higher the alcohol content; and for a true taste of its complexities, open your mouth while sipping.
As a lifelong Louisvillian, Veach not only drinks bourbon—he also has a few cherished places for imbibing the local spirit. Along with Bourbons Bistro, Veach pays occasional visits to the bar at Louisville’s historic Brown Hotel (home to the city’s signature Hot Brown sandwich), as well as the iconic Seelbach hotel, a four-star property that F. Scott Fitzgerald mentions in The Great Gatsby (like Veach, Jay Gatsby’s golden girl, Daisy Buchanan, is also from Louisville). Veach also recommends Louisville’s Dish on Market for both its fine bourbon selection and its presidential breakfast: an ode to President Harry Truman, who stayed at the Seelbach while in town. “Every morning he’d have one egg, a slice of bacon, buttered toast, cup of fruit, glass of milk, and a shot of Old Granddad,” he says.
However, Veach admits he’s much less a tour guide and more a historian who loves bourbon, a notion that his book well reflects. In Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey, American history and bourbon history—from the Pure Food & Drug Act’s effects on bourbon to how Prohibition contributed to the Great Depression—are distinctly intertwined. Still, there’s one thing you won’t find within its pages: bourbon ratings and reviews. “I really don’t have a favorite bourbon,” says Veach, “There are just too many different flavors and flavor profiles. It’s like asking what’s your favorite wine.”
Choosing a Bourbon
As with wine, some bourbons pair better with a particular dish or are best enjoyed during a certain season. Veach suggests the following:
For Father’s Day – “I like Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel,” he says. “At $30-35, it’s not overly expensive—though remains a step up from your normal everyday whiskey. Elmer’s about 93 years old, but he still comes down to the distillery on Tuesday mornings to pick the barrels himself.”
Relaxing after a Long Workday – Veach recommends something refreshing for spring/summer, like a Four Roses Yellow Label. “It’s light but flavorable,” he says. “Not overly complicated, but with enough complexity to give you a little interest.”
To Accompany a Nice Steak “There are so many good ones,” says Veach, “but the last time I had steak I enjoyed it with a neat glass of Old Grand-dad Bottled-in-Bond. It’s got a nice fruitiness that I find compliments meat well.”
May 31, 2013
The countryside of southern France is drenched in classic bucolic charm and beauty–and it hardly needs improvements. Here already are truffles, fois gras, wine, mushrooms, chestnuts and cheese. Castles stand on mountaintops, sheep graze in meadows, bears and wolves add an element of the wild to the high Pyrenees, and farmers markets pop up in almost every village. For many travelers and food lovers, the region is one of the Earth’s most exciting Edens. But even paradise gets better with a rousing game of beer-hunting. As I travel through southern France on my bicycle, from the Perigord to the Pyrenees, I am stashing brews in random cracks in the rock where nobody would ever think of sticking a hand and encountering a bottle of beer–except that I’m willing to give explicit directions to these rock-holes. That, of course, is the whole point in this game that I began last spring during a similar bike ride.
I call it “Find the Beer,” and the only rules are 1) you just take one, 2) you leave a beer of your own before you go, and 3) you let us know through Food and Think’s comments box that you’ve made the discovery–and, please, tell us how it tasted. NOTE: So that you don’t wind up taking a long trek for nothing, we will keep readers updated on the status of these beers (that is, found, or still hiding) via the comment thread below this post. ANOTHER NOTE: Please don’t stash canned beers, as I unwisely did in 2012. The cans may corrode if exposed to water, frost and heat. With no further ado, here they are–the locations of great beers now lurking in dark rock holes and crevices in the South of France. Go find the beer!
1. Groléjac, Dordogne. Pelforth Brune. Stashed on May 3, 2013. Dwelling between Souillac and Sarlat, this beer–a rich, hearty brown ale brewed in France–dwells in a cozy cobblestone hole just a stone’s throw outside the town of Groléjac. This brew replaces the two cans I left in the same hole last May; one was collected by one Edward Heseltine, of England, last fall, and I took the other this May. (The can was leaking and the beer was flat.) The Pelforth Brune now rests in a rock wall beside the town cemetery, on highway D 50–just east of the village. The beer is at ground level, in a hole that faces a walnut orchard across road. Use the photo included to guide you to the right place, or just start exploring these spider houses one by one. You’ll find the beer.
2. Le Bugue, Dordogne. Chimay Brown (blue bottle). Stashed on May 4, 2013. About 100 yards east of kilometer marker 27 on highway D 703, a bottle of this highly esteemed Belgian beer dwells in the fourth drainage hole at the base of the rock wall between asphalt and cliff. Or was it the fifth hole? You tell me. This Chimay beer is the third drink to find its way into this hiding place. Last spring, I stashed a can of strong Dutch lager here. And in the fall, an American man, one Andrew Quinn, removed it and kindly left a bottle of Normandy cider. (It was excellent after a winter of hibernation.)
3. Massat, Ariege. Duvel Belgian “SPECIAALBIER.” Stashed on May 12, 2013. This beer, a light-colored strong ale of 8.5 percent alcohol, lives in a hole along a rock wall on highway D 618, about nine kilometers uphill from the charming old town of Massat. When you arrive at a village named Brusque, the beer is all but yours. Use the accompanying photo to guide you to the gold.
4. Gorge de St. Georges, Highway D-17, Aude. Fischer Bière De Noël. Stashed on May 16, 2013. Just four kilometers upstream of Axat, in the Aude River gorge, this 6-percent alcohol lager awaits the hand that finds it in the cliff wall, between two sections of precipice contained by chain link fencing. If you’re going uphill, the beer is stashed on the left-hand side of highway D 17, about 100 yards upstream of the junction with D-118. D 17 is the road that leads to Col de Jau, a 4,935-foot pass that frequently occurs in the Tour de France route. Perhaps grab this beer on your way to the top.
5. Sougraigne, highway D 74, Aude. Biere de Printemps Aux 7 Cereales. Stashed on May 19, 2013. A craft beer of France, this small label was found in a fancy organic foods co-op and should be worth the trek to get it. It is 6.5-percent alcohol and contains seven grains, for what all that is worth. The beer is hidden in a rock wall precisely beneath, and just to the left of, the kilometer-3 marker on highway D-74, en route to Sougraigne, in the Aude department. It’s a small country road in a beautiful forested region–a worthy touristic drive whether or not you find the beer.
The 2012 collection. These beers need special mention. I stashed them in 2012. They are all strong beers, and if alcohol content has a say in how well a beer endures time (which it does) we should expect they are still in good shape. The only questions are: Are they still there? (Nobody has claimed to have found them.) And have the cans endured the weathering effects of four seasons? (Aluminum may easily corrode and I have halted all use of cans and am now only placing glass bottles of beer, and I encourage others to do the same.)
1. Col d’Aubisque, Pyrénées-Atlantiques. Kellegen Blond Special. Stashed in June, 2012. This one is a year old now. I left it in the cliff halfway between the Col d’Aubisque and Col du Soulor passes, in the Pyrenees. It lies in a cobblestone crack just beside a spray-painted Basque freedom message, ‘LIBERTAT.’ Note that this beer is in a can. It’s not certain whether the aluminum has survived a blazing summer and a frigid winter without corrosion.
2. Col du Tourmalet, Hautes-Pyrénées. Beer type unknown (I forget). Stashed in June, 2012. I can’t recall exactly what the beer is–but it’s in a glass bottle, weighs in at a high alcohol content, and should be in good shape still. Trouble is, you must reach the top of this grandest of Pyrenees Tour de France passes to get it–nearly 7,000 feet above sea level. Precisely, the beer is hidden in a concrete bunker-like structure on the right side of the highway (if you’re ascending from the east side). Listen: The beer is tucked under a ground-level ledge (you’ll see what I mean when you get there), directly beneath the letter “L” in a spray-painted political message about Basque freedom.
3. Sauternes, highway D116 E1 (in the base of the cobblestone rock wall facing the entrance to Chateau Lafaurie-Peyragney), Gironde. Amsterdam Maximator. Stashed in May, 2012. The beer, an 11.6-percent wine-strength monster, is in a can. It is quite possible that corrosion has allowed in the air, spoiling this lager. Don’t make a journey to this point for the beer alone. The local wine is quite reputed–but if you’re there, it will be worth sticking your hand in a hole to get this big lager.
May 30, 2013
Roughly 30 years ago, the average soda serving was just six ounces. Today the standard is 32 ounces or more. Though most fast-food restaurants offer giant-sized beverages, 7-Eleven’s 32-ounce “Big Gulp” was one of the first of its kind. These days, at any 7-Eleven, you can choose from the original Big Gulp, the 52-ounce X-Treme Gulp, the 64-ounce Double Gulp (Though it was cut to 50 ounces when consumers asked for the cup to better fit into a car’s cup holder), or the astonishing, gallon-sized jug of soda called the Team Gulp—in case you’re really thirsty.
But what’s the story behind this cup transformation?
With more than 18,200 stores in 18 countries, 7-Eleven sells an average of 33 million gallons of fountain drinks a year—enough to fill 75 Olympic-size swimming pools. The company has always been a leader as far as convenience goes: in 1964, 7-Eleven was the first store to offer freshly-brewed coffee in to-go cups. Their hours put pressure on grocery stores to remain open later and the quickly attainable goods still make “life on the go” just a bit more manageable. This commercial from 1970, for example, flashes the words “convenience” and “FAST,” reminding us to “Thank Heaven for 7-Eleven”:
But it wasn’t always the go-to, “to-go” convenience store. Back in the early ’70s, Dennis Potts, who was the merchandise manager for 7-Eleven’s 300 or so stores in Southern California at the time, says sales were mediocre at best before the introduction of the Big Gulp.
“It was a sort of a ‘we-need-to-do-something-or-get-out-of-the-business’ situation,” he says. Sometime in the spring of 1976, Coca-Cola representatives approached Potts about a new 32-ounce cup design—a pretty significant increase in liquid as the store carried only 12 and 20-ounce cups for their fountain drinks at the time. It was an oddly shaped cup—circular on the bottom like any standard plastic drinking receptacle, but square on top, similar to a milk carton. (Sadly, we were unable to track down any images of this version of the Big Gulp. If you have any, please let us know in the comments.)
“I said [to the Coca-Cola representatives], ‘This thing is this too damn big.’” Potts says.
Unsure of what to do with the two cases of cups, the Coca-Cola reps gave them to Potts and said “Do what you want you want with them.”
Potts sent the 500 or so cups to a store in Orange County with the highest sales in soft drinks. The most popular item at the time was a 16-ounce returnable bottle that went for a total of 50 cents including tax and a bottle deposit.
It was a Tuesday when they introduced the new cup size. They put up a handmade sign that read: “39 cents, No Deposit.” That following Monday, the franchise called Potts in Dallas asking for more cups. “Once we heard we sold 500 cups in a week, we got the message dog gone fast,” Potts says. “We moved as quickly as we could to get this thing out. It just took off like gangbusters.”
After the first store’s success, 7-Eleven experimented with the cup in 25 or 30 stores and then with 300 more in Los Angeles. The sales for soft drinks doubled.
In August, three months after the cup’s launch, Potts learned that the supplier of the original design, Continental Can Company based out of Colorado, was moving its facility to Canada and would not be in production for several months. In an attempt to keep the new 32-ounce endeavor rolling, Potts explored the company’s options. The milk-carton shape of the original beverage seemed to be indispensable—”We thought it was magic,” Potts says— but eventually the 7-Eleven team went with an alternative “flush-filled” cup (a cup that holds 32 ounces of liquid if filled to the very brim, excluding ice and walking room) with the Coca-Cola logo, shaped like the round container we see today.
“They sold like hotcakes,” Potts says. Back at the Dallas headquarters, the Stanford Agency, an in-house advertisement team, decided the wildly popular cups needed a 7-Eleven logo and catchy name. The Big Gulp was born. Later, the slogan would read “7-Eleven’s Big Gulp gives you another kind of freedom: freedom of choice.”
In the summer of 1980, large, refreshing beverages like the Big Gulp and the frozen, slushy drink, the Slurpee increased in popularity. The opening line of this commercial from that same year is the perfect example of 7-Eleven’s promise of convenience and relief from the heat:
During 7-Eleven’s early years, only the West coast stores were set up with fountain drink dispensers, and with the Big Gulp’s popularity, the company made some changes. By 1979, every 7-Eleven was equipped with fountain soft drink machines.
In 1981, one of Potts’s employees proposed a new design—a 46-ounce cup tentatively called “The Super Big Gulp.” Potts gave it a shot and sent it to a division in Texas where the summers are hot and the customers are thirsty. History repeated itself when Potts got a call from a store manager in Texas: “We’re out of the damn cups,” he said. Soft drink sales doubled again—fountain soda profit was now four times higher than before the Big Gulp hit the scene.
Before 1983, all 7-Eleven fountain drinks were available only by counter service. When the Big Gulp and Super Big Gulp gained popularity, the amount of labor and time it took to fill up a cup that size increased (it took roughly 20-30 seconds to fill the cup, not including volume of ice and time for capping and handoff to the customer). “We had always sold coffee on a self service basis—early on we discovered customers like to put sugar and cream in to make it exactly the way they like it,” Potts says. “We thought ‘Why can’t we do it with fountain drinks?’”
In a few test stores, they turned around the dispensing station and let the customers help themselves.”It was sort of a rude crude, Jerry-rigged operation,” he says, “But sales rocketed and we didn’t have those labor costs.” 7-Eleven was the first retailer in America to install self serve beverage stations—a distinction from its competitors that this commercial from 1987 highlights perfectly:
By 1984, all 7-Eleven stores were outfitted with a self-serve beverage bar. That same year the chain launched the 64-ounce Double Gulp in a milk carton cup like the original Big Gulp design—what Ellen DeGeneres calls “six weeks in the desert.”
Mr. Potts, whose last position before retiring was vice president of merchandising, is not surprised that the soda cups keep getting bigger. “We should’ve known better. Some of our best selling beverages before the Big Gulp were our largest ones,” he says. “The customers were already asking for more volume—they always seem to be.”
But not everyone’s as thirsty as the Big Gulp compensates for. About a year ago when New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a ban on sugary drinks exceeding 16 ounces in the city’s boundaries, people got to talking. “It’s just pop with low-cal ice cubes in it!” Sarah Palin joked at the Conservative Political Action Conference last year. Hip-hop songs were written in response to his plan. In March this year, a Manhattan judge ruled that measures to restrict soda servings to a maximum of 16 ounces in restaurants and other venues, were “arbitrary and capricious,” and he was barring the plan “permanently,” the AFP reports.
Good news for 7-Eleven if they’d like to someday offer something larger than the gallon-sized Team Gulp—more than 200 percent more than what the average adult stomach can hold at one time.
May 15, 2013
There are plenty of examples of structures built from recycled materials—even Buddhist temples have been made from them. In Sima Valley, California, an entire village known as Grandma Prisbey’s Bottle Village was constructed from reused glass. But this is no new concept—back in 1960, executives at the Heineken brewery drew up a plan for a “brick that holds beer,” a rectangular beer bottle that could also be used to build homes.
Gerard Adriaan Heineken acquired the “Haystack” brewery in 1864 in Amsterdam, marking the formal beginning of the eponymous brand that is now one of the most successful international breweries. Since the first beer consignment was delivered to the United States upon the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, it has been a top seller in the United States. The distinctive, bright green of a Heineken beer bottle can be found in more than 70 countries today. The founder’s grandson, Alfred Heineken, began his career with the company in 1942 and was later elected Chairman of the Executive Board at Heineken International. Alfred, better known as “Freddy,”oversaw the design of the classic red-starred label released in 1964. He had a good eye for marketing and design.”Had I not been a beer brewer I would have become an advertising man,” he once said. When Freddy’s beer took off in the international market, he made it a point to visit the plants the company had opened as a part of its globalization strategy.
In 1960, Freddy took a trip to the island of Curacao in the Caribbean Sea and discovered that he could barely walk 15 feet on the beach without stepping on a littered Heineken bottle. He was alarmed by two things: First, the incredible amount of waste that his product was creating due to the region’s lack of infrastructure to collect the bottles for reuse. (Back then, bottles were commonly returned for refilling, lasting about 30 trips back and forth to the breweries). Second, the dearth of proper building materials available to those living in the impoverished communities he visited. So he thought up an idea that might solve both of these problems: A brick that holds beer.
The rectangular, Heineken World Bottle or WOBO, designed with the help of architect John Habraken, would serve as a drinking vessel as well as a brick once the contents were consumed. The long side of the bottle would have interlocking grooved surfaces so that the glass bricks, once laid on their side, could be stacked easily with mortar or cement. A 10-foot-by-10-foot shack would take approximately 1,000 bottles (and a lot of beer consumption) to build. Yu Ren Guang explains in Packaging Prototypes 3: Thinking Green:
“On returning to Holland [from Curacao], Alfred set about conceiving the first ever bottle designed specifically for secondary use as a building component, thereby turning the function of packaging on its head. By this philosophy, Alfred Heineken saw his beer as a useful product to fill a brick with while being shipped overseas. It became more a case of redesigning the brick than the bottle.”
A handful of designers have accepted Alfred’s WOBO as one of the first eco-conscious consumer designs out there. Martin Pawley, for example, writes in Garbage Housing, that the bottle was “the first mass production container ever designed from the outset for secondary use as a building component.”
There were many variations of the original prototype—all of which were ultimately rejected as many components were considered unworkable. For example, a usable beer bottle needs a neck from which to pour the beer and a protruding neck makes it harder to stack the product once the beer’s run out—problematic for brick laying. The finalized design came in two sizes—350 and 500 milimeters (35 and 50 centimeters)—the smaller of which acted as half-bricks to even out rows during construction. In 1963, the company made 50,000 WOBOs for commercial use.
Both designs (one of the wooden prototypes is pictured in Nigel Whiteley’s Design for Society), were ultimately rejected by the Heineken company. The first prototype for example, was described by the Heineken marketing team as too “effeminate” as the bottle lacked ‘approprate’ connotations of masculinity. A puzzling description, Cabinet writes, “considering that the bottle consisted of two bulbous compartments surmounted by a long shaft.”
For the second model, Habraken and Heineken had to thicken the glass because it was meant to be laid horizontally—a costly decision for an already progressive concept. The established cylindrical designs were more cost effective and could be produced faster than the proposed brick design. But what most likely worked against Habraken’s design was that customers simply liked the easy-to-hold, cylindrical bottle.
Though the brick bottles never saw the market, in 1965 a prototype glass house was built near Alfred Heineken’s villa in Noordwijk, outside Amsterdam. Even the plastic shipping pallets intended for the product were reused as sheet roofing. The two buildings still stand at the company’s former brewery-turned-museum, The Heineken Experience.
Where Heineken failed in creating a reusable brick bottle, the company EM1UM succeeded. The bottles, which were easier to manufacture for most automatic bottling machines than Heineken’s design, were made to attach lengthways or sideways by pushing the knobs of one into the depressions of another. EM1UM was mostly successful in Argentina and collected awards for bottle designs including prisms, cubes and cylinders.
In 2008, French design company, Petit Romain, made plans to make its own take on Alfred Heineken’s WOBO design, the Heineken Cube. It’s similar to the original concept in that it’s stackable, packable and altogether better for travel than the usual, clinky, cylindrical bottles. The major difference is that the cube is meant to save space, not to build homes. Like Freddy’s WOBO, the Cube is still in the prototype stage.
Though Freddy’s brick design never took off, it didn’t stop Heineken International from maintaining the lead in the global brew market. By ’68, Heineken merged with its biggest competitor, Amstel. By ’75 Freddy was one of the richest men in Europe.
A fun, slightly-related fact: Alfred Heineken and his chauffeur were kidnapped in 1983 and held at a 10 million dollar ransom in a warehouse for three weeks. Lucky for Freddy, one of the kidnappers gave away their location mistakenly while calling for some Chinese takeout. According to the Guardian, after the incident, Heineken required at least two bodyguards to travel with him at all times.
Alfred played a large role in the company’s expansion, championing a series of successful acquisitions, right up until his death in 2002. While his plans for translucent, green bottle homes never came to fruition commercially, the Wat Pa Maha Chedi Kaew temple, constructed from a mix of one million bottles from Heineken and the local Chang beer remains proof of the design’s artfulness. For some designers, it seems, there is no such thing as garbage.
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.