July 31, 2013
A glass of champagne is often synonymous with toasting some of life’s biggest moments—a big promotion at work, weddings, the New Year. So too, is the tickle that revelers feel against their skin when they drink from long-stemmed flutes filled with bubbly.
There’s more to that fizz than just a pleasant sensation, though. Inside a freshly poured glass of champagne, or really any sparking wine, hundreds of bubbles are bursting every second. Tiny drops are ejected up to an inch above the surface with a powerful velocity of nearly 10 feet per second. They carry aromatic molecules up to our noses, foreshadowing the flavor to come.
In Uncorked: The Science of Champagne, recently revised and translated into English, physicist Gerard Liger-Belair explains the history, science and art of the wine. His book also features high-speed photography of champagne bubbles in action and stop-motion photography of the exact moment a cork pops (potentially at a speed of 31 miles per hour (!). Such technology allows Liger-Belair to pair the sommelier with the scientist. “Champagne making is indeed a three-century-old art, but it can obviously benefit from the latest advances in science,” he says.
Liger-Belair became interested in the science of bubbles while sipping a beer after his finals at Paris University about 20 years ago. The bubbles in champagne, he explains, are actually vehicles for the flavor and smell of champagne, elements that contribute to our overall sipping experience. They are also integral to the winemaking process, which produces carbon dioxide not once but twice. Stored away in a cool cellar, the champagne, which could be a blend of up to 40 different varietals, ferments slowly in the bottle. When the cork is popped, the carbon dioxide escapes in the form of Liger’s beloved bubbles. Once poured, bubbles form on several spots on the glass, detach and then rise toward the surface, where they burst, emitting a crackling sound and sending a stream of tiny droplets upward.
These bubble-forming hot spots launch about 30 bubbles per second. In beer, that rate is just 10 bubbles a second. But without this phenomenon, known as effervescence, champagne, beer and soda would all be flat.
Once the bubbles reach the top of the flute, the tension of the liquid below becomes too great as it pulls on them. The bubbles pop in a matter of microseconds. When they burst, they release enough energy to create tiny auditory shock waves; the fizzing sound is a chorus of individual bubbles bursting. By the time champagne goes flat, nearly 2 million bubbles have escaped from the glass.
The collapse of bubbles at the surface is Liger-Belair’s favorite thing about champagne. “Bubbles collapsing close to each other produce unexpected lovely flower-shaped structures unfortunately completely invisible by the naked eye,” he says. “This is a fantastic example of the beauty hidden right under our nose.”
Europeans, though, once considered the bubbling beverage a product of poor winemaking. In the late 1400s, temperatures plunged suddenly on the continent, freezing many of the continent’s lakes and rivers, including the Thames River and the canals of Venice. The monks of the Abbey of Hautvillers in Champagne, where high-altitude made it possible to grow top quality grapes, were already hard at work creating reds and whites. The cold temporarily halted fermentation, the process by which wine is made. When spring arrived with warmer temperatures, the budding spirits began to ferment again. This produced an excess of carbon dioxide inside wine bottles, giving the liquid inside a fizzy quality.
In 1668, the Catholic Church called upon a monk by the name of Dom Pierre Pérignon to finally control the situation. The rebellious wine was so fizzy that bottles kept exploding in the cellar, and Dom Pérignon was tasked with staving off a second round of fermentation.
In time, however, tastes changed, starting with the Royal Court at Versailles. By the end of the 17th century, Dom Pérignon was asked to reverse everything he was doing and focus on making champagne even bubblier. Although historical records show that a British doctor developed a recipe for champagne six years before Pérignon began his work, Pérignon would come to be known as the father of champagne thanks to his blending techniques. The process he developed, known as the French Method, incorporated the weather-induced “oops” moment that first created champagne—and it’s how champagne is made today.
So the next time you raise a glass of bubbly, take a second to appreciate its trademark tickle on another level—a molecular one.
July 19, 2013
It’s hard to imagine anything positive coming out of the dreaded hangover, that ultimate punishment doled out by the universe in the form of headaches, nausea and general discomfort. After a night of revelry, the unlucky afflicted often retreat to their beds, nursing aches and pains with rest and water. A brave few, however, have surged ahead, grasping at a mix of science and migraine-induced cravings to create their own remedies for the infamous day-after-blues. While some of these inventive cures have failed the test of time (deep-fried canary was a favorite of the Romans which, thankfully, you won’t find on your nearest diner menu), others have reached a level of success so mainstream that you might be surprised by their more nefarious origins.
Brunch: Though currently a popular venue for weekend gossip and day drinking, this portmanteau-meal actually began as a hangover cure. Before English writer Guy Beringer proposed the most ingenious combination of breakfast and lunch, weekend feasting was strictly reserved for the early Sunday dinner, where heavy fare like meat and pies were served to the after-church crowd. Instead of forcing this early dinner, Beringer argued that life would be happier for all if a new meal was created, “served around noon, that starts with tea or coffee, marmalade and other breakfast fixtures before moving along to the heavier fare.” By letting people sleep in on Sundays, and awake later for a meal, Beringer noted that life would be made easier for “Saturday night carousers.” Beyond the appeal of a nice, substantial meal after a night of debauchery, Beringer testified to the soothing social interaction brunch brings, reasoning that it helped to “sweep away the cobwebs of the weekend.” Brunch didn’t gain traction with the American crowd, however, until the 1920s and into the 1930s, when celebrities and socialites hosted brunch parties in their homes. Brunch received an even larger following in the 70s and 80s, when church attendance dropped nationwide, and Americans swapped their religious dedication to breaking bread with the secular tradition of breaking yolks.
The Bloody Mary: Battling a hangover with more drinking has been around as a cure since alcohol itself. Famously referred to as “hair of the dog” (which actually comes from an old cure for rabies, wherein the afflicted would rub a bit of dog hair into the wound) the hungover have often turned to libations as a way to ease their pain. Perhaps no iteration of this is more famous than the Bloody Mary, ubiquitous on brunch menus (see above). But the drink itself wasn’t created to cause hangovers – instead, it was created to cure them. As bartender Josh Krist explains, the roaring crowd of ex-pats that populated Paris in the 1920s required a drink that could ease the pain from their The Sun Also Rises-esque gallivanting of the night before. In response to such demand, Fernand Petiot, bartender at Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, first created the concoction by adding equal parts vodka and tomato juice. In terms of scientific hangover cures, the one half of the libation is fairly ingenious, because tomato juice contains high amounts of both lycopene and potassium, which help stimulate blood flow and replenish electrolytes (hair of the dog, however, has been debunked as a healthy way to hurdle the hangover slump).
Fernet: Continuing the fine tradition of spirits invented to cure an over-indulgence in spirits (again, see above) Fernet, a famous Italian liquor now used as a post-meal digestive, was actually created for curing hangovers. As the story goes, Italian spice trader Bernadino Branca invented the spirit in 1845, adding the traditional hangover cure-all myrrh to a lot of grape infused spirits. He then added a plethora of other flavorings and ingredients, including rhubarb, chamomile, aloe, cardamom, peppermint oil, and – get this – opiates. The resulting mix certainly succeeding in perking drinkers up after a night on the town and, in much more extreme cases, patients suffering from cholera.
Eggs Benedict: If we are sensing a trend here, it’s that the world of brunch is very meta (a hangover cure that inspired other hangover cures…like some headache-ridden version of Groundhog Day). We’ve all heard of the greasy breakfast – eggs, bacon, whatever your heaving stomach can handle – as a cure for the hangover, but if you thought of eggs Benedict as too highbrow to constitute the classic “greasy breakfast,” think again: lore surrounding the origin of this famous brunch food actually cites one seriously hungover Wall Street worker as the original Benedict. In 1942, The New Yorker published an article claiming the dish had its roots in a man named Lemuel Benedict, a Wall Street worker known for his eccentric-for-the-time lifestyle choices (like marrying a woman who worked as an opera singer) and heavy partying habits. After one especially raucous night of partying, Lemuel awoke in the morning and went to breakfast at the Waldorf Hotel, where he invented his own breakfast sandwich of two poached eggs, bacon, buttered toast, and a pitcher of hollandaise sauce. Lemuel’s inventive sandwich caught the eye of the Waldorf’s famous maître d’hôtel Oscar, who sampled the sandwich, made some personal alterations (ham was swapped for bacon, an English muffin for the toast), put the sandwich on the menu, and sailed peacefully into history, much to the delight of hungover brunch attendees everywhere.
Coca-Cola: Brunch, eggs Benedict, Bloody Marys – these items are already so associated with post-drinking maladies that their origin in the history of hangovers might not come as a huge surprise. But that ever-present Coca-Cola bottle in the vending machine and corner stores, it too was a brainchild of those looking to cure hangovers. Coca-Cola went public in 1886, but the recipe that the popular beverage was based off of had been popular for years at pharmacist John Pemberton’s Atlanta drugstore and soda fountain. By mixing caffeine from cola nuts with cocaine from coca leaves, and adding a thick syrupy base, Pemberton’s original cola sold widely as a miracle hangover remedy. Soon, the beverage’s enjoyable taste made it popular with a non-drinking crowd, and Coca-Cola erupted into the famous soda we know today.
July 5, 2013
The world is no one’s oyster. If it were, it would be full of pearls. But it is stashed with hidden beers. In the past, I have left a number of bottles stashed in rock holes in random locations in southern France. (So have a few readers of Food and Think.) Now, the game called “Find the Beer” comes to America. I’ve left a trail of ales behind me in Northern California, and in this post are directions to each treasure. Please play the game right and leave a beer of your own choice if you take one of the stashed bottles. Just be sure to replace your find with a beer in a bottle–not a can, which may deteriorate and corrode under harsh conditions–and notify us via the comment box below of your contribution. Game on!
1. Big River Bridge on Highway 1, near Mendocino, CA; Anderson Valley Brewing Company’s Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout. At the south end of the bridge just south of the town of Mendocino, a beer awaits in the east side guardrail. The brew is a velvety smooth oatmeal stout from Anderson Valley that tastes vaguely like cream, sour caramel and woodsmoke. Sounds bad but it’s great–one of my very favorites, in fact. The beer is only 5.8% alcohol and not one suitable to long periods of aging, but the Mendocino County coast is cool all year, and this beer should hold up just fine until you get there.
2. Near Napa, on the Trinity-Oakville grade section of Dry Creek Road; Lagunitas Brewing Company’s Undercover Investigation Shutdown Ale. A friend of mine once said that beer is the perfect athlete’s food. “It has water, calories and painkiller,” he explained. And so I hope that a cyclist on a long and arduous ride finds this next beer. It is sweet, fragrant, hoppy and strong. At 9.6% alcohol by volume and with some heavy sugar content, the 12-ounce bottle contains at least 250 calories (alcohol contains 7 calories per gram) and probably about 80 percent water. Bring it home, chill it, and make it your recovery meal. Where is it exactly? In a hole in a tree trunk on the south side of the highway about 100 yards west of the Mount Veeder Road turnoff.
3. Muir Woods Road, Marin County; Belgian-style homebrew. A long, long time ago, I brewed a batch of brown Belgian-style beer. Then I forgot that I ever did–until early in 2013, when I found a box in my basement containing 30 bottles dated July of 2007. The lost stash! The beers remain good, if possibly past their peak, and I’ve decided to donate a bottle to the game. I left it in an old Eucalyptus log by the side of the road, smack at an intersection that local cyclists call “Four Corners.” Precisely, the beer is hiding at the southwest corner, several feet down a gravelly bank, in a rotted-out cavity in the log. Use a stick to pull out the beer (or be on spider alert)–and let me know how you like the beer. Just be nice; it was one of my first homebrews.
4. Bicycle/Hiking Trail (Old Highway 1) in Pacifica, CA; Lagunitas Brewing Company’s Brown Shugga’. This beer, made with a liberal addition of brown sugar on top of the standard barley malt, is good when fresh. Keep it around a year, and it gets better. Fast forward two more years, and a Brown Shugga’, bitter and sweet and vibrant when it first hits retail shelves, is like liquid candy–chewy, sticky, and fudgy. So it goes for the two-and-a-half-year-old bottle that now dwells in Pacifica, on the well-known bicycle-hiking path (I like to call it John Steinbeck’s Highway 1, since he surely drove it when this was the main coastal route) that ascends inland and upward from Pacifica to Moss Beach, over Montara Mountain. The bottle is buried deep in the pine duff behind a large Monterey pine tree beside the semi-paved trail. See the photo below for details.
5. Shasta Lake, CA, under a fig tree beside Turntable Bay Road, off of Interstate 5; Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA. The temperature was 105 degrees Fahrenheit (in the sun, but nonetheless) when I buried this beer in six inches of dirt, gravel and pine needles and placed two hand-sized rocks on top. But within the canopy of the fig tree, it was a cool 80. Thus, this strong IPA from Dogfish Head should be in good shape even through the fiercest heat wave. How to find it? If you’re driving north on Interstate 5 and arrive at Lake Shasta, take the exit to Turntable Bay Road. This paved downhill through the forest quickly turns to dirt. After several switchbacks and a quarter mile from the freeway, you will see the fig tree on the right as the road turns sharply left. Pull over, and scramble into the gully and start digging beside the trunk. There are burrs, spider webs and dust–but for a Dogfish Head IPA it’s worth the sweat and blood. See the accompanying photo for the exact location.
Elsewhere in the World: Those readers who have been following along know that Find the Beer had its roots in France, where the game began one year ago. Currently, a handful of beers remain stashed in cobblestone rock holes (the French love to build things with cobblestones–perfect infrastructure for treasure hunts). A number of these bottles dwell along roadways that are about to be swarmed by cyclists and fans of the 100th Tour de France. On such high mountain passes as Tourmalet and Col d’Aubisque, and on the road to Col de Jau–at these locations and others, beers have been patiently waiting for months. Refer to this post from May to find your way to them. In particular, the beer on Tourmalet is a high-alcohol giant that, after one year of aging at high altitude, should be a real treasure. Go find the beer.
June 20, 2013
Mold in the kitchen has an overwhelmingly negative public image. There’s nothing like opening the fridge and seeing fuzzy welts on your long-forgotten leftovers, and that momentary pang of dread as you feel that you’ve committed some cardinal sin in your housekeeping. (Or maybe I’m just a neurotic.) But fact is that mold spores are everywhere, and given a moist environment, said spores are able to thrive. In many cases, molds are are an easy visual signal that you are in the presence of food that is rotting and is best left un-ingested.
Nevertheless, some molds are perfectly fit for consumption, if not desired to produce fine dining fare. Part of the trick is knowing how to tell the difference between good molds and the molds that will do you some harm. The other part is to overcome some of your reservations try some of the following foods that benefit from a little fungus. (However, it should be noted that if you see mold growing on the following after the point of purchase, you should consider said foodstuff unsafe. The USDA has a handy cheat sheet if you need a refresher course on how to handle fungi in the kitchen [PDF].)
Cheese: Certain cheeses rely on bacteria and mold for their unique flavors and textures. Usually introduced during the finishing phase of the cheese-making process, once applied to the surface, molds penetrate the cheese and breaks down lactic acid, which in turn softens the fats and proteins therein. Strains of penicillium—the same genus of fungi used to create antibiotics—are frequently used. In soft cheeses, Penicillium candidum is what produces the characteristic hard, outer rind as well as the garlicky and earthly flavors those cheeses are known for. Without the mold, brie would be a sour and rubbery cheese, but a little fungus allows the cheese to take on its signature soft, creamy texture. Blue cheeses benefit from Penicillium roqueforti, which provides those cheeses with their hallmark blue veins and bold flavors.
Wine: In the realm of viticulture, rotting is a good thing if induced by the fungus Botrytis cinerea. Under the right climate conditions—dry, sunny days followed humid nights—the fungus’ growth and metabolism induced a “noble rot” in the fruit. Once infected, the grapes dehydrate and shrivel on the vine, increasing the concentration of sugar therein and providing the fruit with honey-like flavors. Vintners have been intentionally infecting—or “botrytizing”—grapes since at least the mid-1500s and these moldy grapes are used to produce some of Germany’s Rieslings, France’s Sauternes and Hungary’s Aszù wines. In incredibly rare cases, however, this mold can also harm people by causing “winemaker’s lung,” a hypersensitive pneumonitis where a person’s lungs become inflamed upon inhalation.
Salami: Health regulations here in the United States have placed some tight restrictions on the manufacture and sale of moldy meats. By and large, this is a good thing. But mold plays a vital role in how European butchers make dry-cured sausage. Here, the desired mold is penicillium, the same genus of fungi used to create antibiotics. When encouraged to grow on the outer casing, the penicillium serves several functions: by occupying all the physical real estate on the sausage, it prevents bad molds from developing; by consuming oxygen it inhibits oxidation of the meat and lastly it protects the fat from going rancid. Although it’s a centuries-old process, finding meats cured in this style are increasingly difficult to find here in this country. (In 2006, health inspectors destroyed the handmade, dry-cured meats at New York’s Il Buco restaurant. The USDA stipulates that meats should be cured in a refrigerator at 40 degrees or colder in order to stave off microbial growth. The “contraband” meat was stored at a little above room temperature.) So if you want to try the real stuff, you can try finding a place that imports dry-cured sausage, or you can make good salami an excuse for a trip overseas.
Corn Smut: Corn is susceptible to the pathogen Ustilago maydis, commonly known as “corn smut,” which infects the kernels and causes bulbous, gray tumors to grow. In this country, corn smut growth is a sign of diseased crops and is something to be eradicated. South America, however, has long regarded the fungus—known there as huitlacoche, Mayan for “excrement of the gods”—as a delicacy. When processed, it’s a slimy, black substance that can be used as an ingredient in Mesoamerican cuisine or as a standalone quesedilla filling. The appearance and colorful nicknames have made it hard for huitlacoche to break its niche market status, although some chefs are trying to do some re-branding by using more plate-positive terms like “corn mushrooms” or “corn truffles.” But there also seem to be some nutritional benefits to eating this fungal slush: a 2010 study showed that huitlacoche is rich in beta-glucens, the same cholesterol-reducing fiber found in oatmeal. And flavor? It’s been described as a cross between corn and mushrooms, earthy and fungal. But there are a few factors that get in the way of widespread huitlacoche production. In addition to being known exclusively in
South American Mexican cuisine, the fungus is highly perishable, making it difficult to get from field to market. And while canned versions are available, the flavor doesn’t compare to the fresh product. Furthermore, if you’re not expressly looking to cultivate this fungus, it can be highly destructive. In addition to decreasing total corn yield, infected ears need to be immediately removed lest mold spores go airborne and effect adjacent plants.
Smith, Tim. Making Artisan Cheese: Fifty Fine Cheeses That You Can Make in Your Own Kitchen. Boston: Quayside Publishing Group, 2005.
Jackson, Ronald S. Wine Science: Principles and Applications. Elsevier, Inc. 2008. Burlington: Elsevier, Inc. 2008.
Ruhlman, Michael and Brian Polcyn. Salumi: The Craft of Italian Dry Curing. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2012.
Deutsch, Jonathan. Ed. They Eat That? A Cultural Encyclopedia of Weird and Exotic Food From Around the World. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2012.
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.”