September 17, 2010
Tomorrow at noon local time, the lord mayor of Munich will tap the first keg of Oktoberfest beer, signifying the beginning of the German city’s 200th Oktoberfest. For two weeks thousands of locals and tourists will gather in giant tents and drink liter-size steins of beer (for the metrically challenged, that’s nearly two pints), and occasionally wine, as they rock out to traditional oom-pah-pah music. It’s never a good idea to drink a lot of beer on an empty stomach, so Brotfrauen (bread women) are on hand to sell pretzels the size of a briefcase.
I’ve never been to the official Oktoberfest, but I did become acquainted with Bavarian-style pretzels when I spent a summer in Munich during college. As part of my German language studies, I went on a work-exchange program and was placed as a chambermaid at a luxury hotel in the center of town. I was a vegetarian at the time and, if I had done a little culinary research, I would probably have chosen to study Italian or Hindi instead of German. I survived the summer in that meat-loving land eating mostly ice cream, the little chocolates I was supposed to be putting on hotel guests’ pillows, and pretzels.
There are two kinds of pretzels most Americans are familiar with—the hard-baked packaged ones and the warm, squishy salt-encrusted kind sold at baseball games and carnivals—but neither is anything like Bavarian Brezeln (as pretzels are called in German). In fact, the difference between an American soft pretzel and a Bavarian one is about as stark as between a Lender’s bagel and an Ess-a-Bagel bagel (or a Montreal bagel, for that matter). The secret, according to a recent New York Times article (which also notes the recent fashion for artisanal pretzels in New York), is lye. Lye is a caustic substance traditionally used to make soap. It also imparts a unique, almost glossy, finish to the exterior of a German pretzel, resulting in a bread that is crunchy outside and soft inside (the causticity of the lye disappears when the pretzel is baked). These specimens are a deeper brown and a lot more flavorful than their American counterparts. They can be eaten with mustard but, again, we’re talking a whole different substance than daffodil-hued French’s. Bavarian mustard can be spicy, sweet or both, sometimes with the whole grains of mustard seed still intact.
Many sources say the pretzel was actually invented by a medieval Italian monk, who used scraps of leftover dough to fashion a treat shaped like a child’s arms crossed in prayer. This explanation didn’t make any sense to me, since I had never seen anyone cross their arms in prayer, but apparently this is the traditional way for children who are not ready to receive communion to receive a priest’s blessing. (Some Mormons also pray with crossed arms, but pretzels have been around a lot longer than Latter Day Saints.) The English and German words for pretzel may have ultimately derived from the Latin word brachiatus, meaning “with arms.”
Fans of the TV series Seinfeld remember the episode where Kramer earnestly rehearses his single line in a Woody Allen movie—”These pretzels are making me thirsty.” Utter that line in an Oktoberfest tent, and someone might just hand you a liter of beer (or at least point you in the direction of the Kellnerin, or beer seller).
August 27, 2010
Years ago, before I ever traveled overseas, I remember hearing that English people drink warm beer. This sounded disgusting, of course, because the only “warm” beer I had ever tasted was the dregs of a cup of Miller or Budweiser from a college keg party that I had drunk too slowly. A few years later I spent some time in the United Kingdom, where I discovered, lo and behold, that their pubs were not devoid of refrigeration. In fact, beers were served at various temperatures according to what type they were. If you ordered a lager, it came chilled, but if you ordered an ale, it was only cool. Some brews were served at room temperature, but never what I would actually call warm.
Americans, including me, have become far more beer-savvy in the last two decades since the explosion of microbreweries has introduced varieties beyond mass-produced—and often nearly flavorless—lager. But the Brits-drink-warm-beer myth (or, more accurately, the all-beer-should-be-ice cold myth) seems to have survived, as President Obama’s June exchange with British Prime Minister David Cameron (which I saw on The Daily Show) reminded me. At the G-20 meeting in Canada, Obama and Cameron exchanged beers from their respective countries, and Obama joked that Cameron should drink the Goose Island 312 wheat beer cold. Cameron retorted that Obama could drink his gift, Hobgoblin, cold but that he probably wouldn’t like it.
A dark ale or stout served ice cold just doesn’t taste as flavorful as it does at a slightly higher temperature. The reason for this is the same as why white wines are usually served chilled, while red wines aren’t. Put simply, the volatile compounds associated with certain flavors or odors can be activated or deactivated through heating or cooling. If a flavor is desirable, it needs to be served at a temperature high enough to be detected; conversely, an undesirable flavor can sometimes be suppressed through chilling. So, if you over-chill a beer or wine that is meant to be served cool or at room temperature, you could be killing its complexity.
A chart at Wine.com gives general guidelines for the ideal serving temperatures for different kinds of wines. It explains that a red wine served too warm will taste more alcoholic and even vinegary, too cold and the bite of the tannic acid will overwhelm the other flavors. White wines need to be chilled enough to avoid tasting overly alcoholic and “flabby” but not so much that they lose flavor altogether.
A similar chart for beer, at RealBeer.com, recommends wheat beers and lagers be served at 45 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit (which, incidentally, is still warmer than where most people keep their home refrigerators) and dark ales, including porters and stouts, at 55 to 60 degrees.
Alcoholic beverages aren’t the only things that taste best at particular temperatures. Some foods, especially fruits, can lose their flavor if refrigerated. Tomatoes are one of the examples cited most often—refrigeration turns off the enzyme system that helps produce fresh tomato aroma and flavor.
Of course, taste is subjective. If you ask for your red wine on the rocks you might give the sommelier a heart attack—but you’re the one who has to drink it.
May 14, 2010
I just can’t get on board the ultra-hoppy beer bandwagon. Lately brewers have been vying to create the world’s bitterest beer, and it seems that every microbrewery has put forth an IPA (India Pale Ale) that scores high on the IBU (International Bittering Unit) scale.
Hops are the flowers that give beer its bitter taste, and have been used since the Middle Ages as a flavoring and preservative—extra hops were added to British beers exported to the warm climate of India. I don’t mind hops in moderation, but I prefer when I can also taste the other flavors in a beer. (I should point out here that I am not in any way claiming to be a beer connoisseur. I enjoy a pint now and then, but my interest is casual.)
Hop wimp that I am, I was eager to try gruit ale when I saw it on the menu of American Flatbread, a restaurant in Burlington, Vermont (with other locations in Oregon, Virginia and Vermont) that serves house-brewed beer. Described as a “Medieval herbal brew—no hops,” it had a light, slightly floral flavor—still recognizably ale, but unlike any I’d ever had. That was two or three years ago; since then I’ve ordered gruit every time I’ve gone back, but I’ve never seen it anywhere else.
Apparently, that wasn’t always the case. Long before Budweiser crowned itself the “king of beers,” gruit reigned in Europe—though, since it was often brewed by women, or alewives, it might more aptly be called the queen. Brewers, both commercial and small-scale, used all kinds of other herbs and botanicals, which varied from place to place. Then, for some reason or combination of reasons, beer made with hops came into favor by the 18th century, eventually overshadowing gruit to the point it nearly disappeared.
According to herbalist and author Stephen Harrod Buhner (in an article posted on gruitale.com), the primary gruit herbs were yarrow, sweet gale and marsh rosemary, though other flavorings, including cinnamon, nutmeg and caraway seed, were also popular. Some of these herbs had stimulant effects, which produced a highly intoxicating beverage that was thought to be an aphrodisiac and, according to Buhner, eventually led to their replacement with hops. I’m not sure whether any of those were in the gruit I tasted, though I can say that it was not highly intoxicating (and I am a lightweight). It didn’t make me feel sleepy, though, which beer sometimes does.
Hops, on the other hand, have traditionally been used as a sedative and were thought to reduce sexual desire and male potency. They contain phytoestrogens, the naturally occurring compounds that are molecularly similar to human estrogen and are found in soy, nuts and other foods. Although there has been speculation that over-consumption of phytoestrogens (especially from soy additives in processed food) could lead to health problems, there hasn’t been enough research to determine the effects of phytoestrogens on humans. It’s a complicated topic that will have to wait for a future post.
In the meantime, if you’re a home brewer (or would like to become one) and are interested in trying gruit, gruitale.com links to a handful of recipes.
May 6, 2010
Last night, I attended a National Geographic Live! event with the fun title “A Come to Cheeses Moment,” about the art of pairing cheese with wine and beer. The speakers included wine expert Joshua Wesson, co-founder of the Best Cellars chain of wine shops (now owned by A&P), and Sweetwater Tavern brewmaster Nick Funnell, a softspoken Brit with a background in chemistry.
And the cheese factor? Well, Steven Jenkins, of course. He’s the cheesemonger for Fairway Market, the author of Cheese Primer, and a self-declared “idiot savant” who overcame a Velveeta-smothered childhood to become America’s first French-certified maitre fromager (master cheesemonger).
The event was presented as a competition between the two beverages, although in practice, the quick-show-of-hands voting system in a crowded room proved pretty darn inconclusive. But that’s the point, I suppose—it’s ultimately up to your own palate to decide what’s “best” when it comes to any kind of food and drink pairings.
“Anyone who comes in here with an open mind and an open mouth is going to be surprised,” Wesson predicted before the event, adding that even though beer might seem to be the underdog, its bitterness and “scrubbing bubbles” often refresh the palate better than wine, giving it an edge when paired with heavier cheeses.
“People assume it that wine and cheese go together better, and that red is better than white—but when it’s a cheese that’s very salty and full of fat, hanging on your palate, you really want something refreshing. It’s going to be very interesting to see if the refreshment factor trumps all the other factors.”
I considered that as we tasted the first cheese, a soft, rich scimudin that tasted lovely but left a buttery slickness on the roof of my mouth. The beer, a nicely balanced kölsch from Capitol City Brewing, was a good match for flavor, but Wesson had smartly picked a sparkling Saint-Meyland Brut (a champagne in all but name), and I thought the wine’s livelier bubbles cut through the fat better.
The wine wasn’t the liveliest part of the evening—my table was full of 20-somethings who had come out to celebrate a birthday, and after just one round they were already talking and laughing loudly enough to get scolded by a server. (Reminded me of a beer event I wrote about last year…good thing Mr. Shush wasn’t at our table!) I couldn’t really tell what the overall vote was in the room; but if our table was a representative sample, most of the rounds were a draw.
All of the beers came from within 150 miles of DC, although most are only available directly from the breweries, Funnell noted. The wines are fairly easy to find, but not the cheeses—Jenkins said he was still unsure until just a few days before the event whether the FDA would let some of them into the country (since they’re all unpasteurized, and rather obscure). “Some of these cheeses are so rare, they don’t even exist!” he joked. My favorite was the Spanish pico melero, an aged sheep’s milk cheese with a firm texture and a slightly sweet, nutty taste.
If you’re interested, the six pairings were as follows:
5. Cheese: Wildspitz (cow and goat; Switzerland)
Wine: Li Veli Passamente Negroamaro 2008 (Italy)
Beer: Devil’s Backbone Barleywine (Roseland, VA)
My verdict: Couldn’t stand this cheese, no matter what I drank it with; liked both drinks on their own—let’s call it a tie.
6. Cheese: Peralzola (sheep, Spain)
Wine: Jam Jar Sweet Shiraz 2009 (South Africa)
Beer: Flying Dog Gonzo Imperial Porter (Frederick, MD)
My verdict: Sorry, I had to leave right before the final pour! But the blue cheese was outstanding.
April 12, 2010
If you find yourself in the Washington, D.C. area this spring and have had your fill of museums and sightseeing, you might want to check out these food-related educational events:
April 12 (TONIGHT) at 6:45 p.m: Don’t miss the chance to hear famous food writer and former Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl discuss her new book, “For You Mom, Finally,” with Washington Post food editor Joe Yonan in the Natural History Museum’s Baird auditorium. Tickets are still available for $25 ($15 for Smithsonian Associates members).
April 14, 7 p.m.: Chocolate: From Bean to Bar, a National Geographic Live event featuring chocolate maker Steve Devries and chocolate-shop owner Biagio Abbatiello, will feed your brain as well as your mouth. Learn about the history of cacao and how it is processed, then taste an international selection of fine chocolates. Tickets are $75 to $80.
April 17, 11 a.m.: Indian Cuisine on the Move, a Smithsonian Associates event featuring both traditional and modern Indian cuisine in a lecture and luncheon with Indian chef K.N. Vinod and food writer Monica Bhide. It’s already sold out, but you can get on the wait list and hope that an additional session will be added! (The same advice applies to the May events in which Bhide will host tours of Indian food markets.)
April 24, 1 p.m.: The Pennsylvania Ale Trail, a Smithsonian Associates event hosted by the Brickskeller, will shine a spotlight on the many fine craft breweries in Pennsylvania, including Yards Brewing Company, Sly Fox Brewing Co, Bullfrog Brewery, and East End Brewing Company. Drink up while soaking in the wisdom of beer expert Jack Curtin. Tickets are $82, or $65 for members.
May 18, 7 p.m.: New Beers of Scandinavia, a National Geographic Live event hosted by the Brickskeller. Learn about the rise of the craft brewing movement in Scandinavia from renowned brewmaster Garrett Oliver, while sampling several Nordic beers. Tickets are $75 to $80.
May 20, 6:45 p.m. Barbecue: Globetrotting with ‘Primal Grill’ Host Steven Raichlen. Learn about the history of barbecue around the world, and learn new methods to try in your own backyard. Raichlen will also sign copies of his new book, “Planet Barbecue.” Tickets are $25, or $15 for members.
June 11-12: Mark your calendars now for the Smithsonian Resident Associates’ second annual Savoring Sustainable Seafood program, combining receptions and tastings with in-depth panel discussions about the future of our oceans—and our dinners.