Tuesday, August 31, 2010

2009 Avinyó Vi D'Agulla: Like Txacoli?

One of the most memorable aspects of my prior trip to Spain was my visit to the Talai-Berri Winery in Basque country. On a sunny autumn day, I stood on the back porch of the winery, overlooking their beautiful vineyards, and sipped Txacoli, a crisp, flavorful and slightly effervescent wine. Since then, I have been an ardent admirer of this wine, and have been very pleased to see more and more brands available locally.

While perusing the shelves at Lower Falls Wine Company, I found a wine new to me, a Spanish wine reminiscent of Txacoli, so I had to buy a bottle and try it. The 2009 Avinyó Vi D'Agulla ($15) is produced by the Esteve Nadal family of Avinyonet del Penedès. They also produce Cava, and each bottle of such has an inscription in Catalan that signifies the family philosophy: "From the must of the flower and with the rigor of a work well crafted."

This wine is made from the Petit Grain Muscat grape, and its name means "wine with a prickle." The vineyards are organically grown, though the winery does not possess an organic certification. It is produced with all free run juice, is fermented in stainless steel, undergoes secondary fermentation in the tank and has an alcohol content of only 10.5%.

Like Txacoli, this is a slightly frizzante wine, which is refreshing, crisp and clean. Its aroma combines floral notes with fresh citrus smells. On the palate, the citrus flavors were dominant, with subtler notes of green apple. It was medium-bodied with a good finish, and certainly was an excellent summer wine and paired well with some roast chicken. The main difference to me between this wine and Txacoli, was that this wine had more floral aspects to it, undoubtedly due to the Muscat grape. I definitely enjoyed the wine, though I still think I prefer Txacoli.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Rant: Best Advice on Buying Wine

Buying wine can be intimidating and frustrating so let me give you the single, best piece of advice that I can. Forget wine scores, badges, contest medals, critter labels, celebrity endorsements and such. Though they may offer some questionable value to consumers, they are not, by far, the most valuable information you could garner about wine. They could also mislead you, causing you to purchase a wine you will ultimately dislike.

Instead, your best option is to speak to the wine store owner, manager or employee and let that person assist you in finding a wine you will enjoy. It is simple advice but can be extremely effective, provided you shop at the right wine store.

Recently, I visited five wine stores in one day, from Chestnut Hill to Melrose. I had specific reasons for visiting all of the shops, and fortunately some were located fairly close to each other. Those stores which most stood out to me have a commonality: very passionate owners, managers or staff. These are people I have learned to know over time, personable people who I converse with when I visit their shops. They provide me recommendations, and listen to my suggestions. Their advice means much more to me than any mere wine score or gold medal.

Not all wine and liquor stores have such owners or staff. It is like any business, where some people truly have a passion for their work and others just go through the motions. When I visit a wine store where they are just going through the motions, I find myself wanting to leave as soon as possible. You should find those with people with passion and then you will have a wine store you can trust, a place to locate wines you will more likely enjoy. That is one way how small wine stores compete with much larger stores, by having better service. And if you do not avail yourself of their services, you are doing a disservice to yourself.

If you want to select a wine, talk to these people, seek their recommendations and suggestions. Describe to them the types of wine you enjoy, give them an idea of your preferences. They know their inventory and can best direct you toward similar wines to match your preferences. Or they might suggest something new to you, which they think you might also like. The more you interact with these people, the better they will know your preferences and the more able they will become to assist you. Put their wine knowledge to work for you.

If a wine store lacks a passionate owner or staff, I probably won't shop there or recommend it to others. I know I can always find what I seek elsewhere. Even if a particular store does not carry the wine I seek, they can usually order it for me if it is available. There is no real downside to shopping where the passionate people work. I worry about those soulless stores that rely on mainly scores and shelf talkers to do the work for them. I bet they have many unhappy customers.

Let me present four of the five stores that I visited that day, all of which I recommend. These stores are all owned and/or operated by very passionate individuals, and I am sure they will assist you in findings excellent wines.

Lower Falls Wine Company (Newton Lower Falls)
Wine Cellars of MA (Stoneham & Danvers, in B.J.'s Wholesale Club)
Beacon Hill Wine & Gourmet (Melrose)

Visit these stores and place yourself in their capable hands. I bet you will not be disappointed.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Wine Nation: Future of Discount Wine?

After some difficulty and opposition, the first "big box" wine store has entered Massachusetts, the Wine Nation in Millbury. Smaller wine stores have often opposed such stores coming to their cities and towns, worried about losing business to such huge establishments. The Wine Nation previously attempted to open stores in Braintree and Reading, but was denied in both attempts, though it appears they are trying to appeal the Braintree decision. And a small discount store, not connected to the Wine Store, is now poised to open in Reading.

I was extremely curious to visit Wine Nation, to ascertain for myself what it was like, and whether it would become a place I would frequent. So yesterday I made the drive to Millbury to check it out. Friend and fellow blogger Bob Dwyer had already been there and posted a very thorough and accurate review of this new wine store. You might even want to read that first before proceeding onto my own review.

Wine Nation might be the largest wine store in the state (or at least in the top three), and will eventually carry 7000+ wines and 1000-1500 beers. It is also seeking to be a discount wine store, desirous of having some of the best prices in Massachusetts. In comparison, most other local wine stores carry 300-800 wines, so the Wine Nation will carry about 10 times the amount of wine as many other stores. That certainly would sound very threatening to a small proprietor.

The store is easy to locate, just a short distance off the Mass. Pike, though I live approximately one hour away from the store. So, I would need to make a special trip to stop by the store, meaning I need to have a compelling reason for visit. It is situated within a large shopping complex, the Shoppes at Blackstone Valley, and thus there is plenty of parking available. Plus, with all the other shops and restaurants in this complex, you can accomplish much more during your visit than just buying some wine.

I should preface my review by noting that the store is still very new, and needs some time to work out the initial kinks. There was apparently some rush to open the store so everything was not as carefully put in place as could have been if more preparatory time had been invested. The owners seem to be cognizant of some problems with the store, and have promised to address them in the near future. So, the store will likely be different, and hopefully better, in a couple months.

There is a strong warehouse feel to the store, which could turn off some wine lovers, but which really should not be seen as a negative. It is more cost effective to operate in this style, and those savings hopefully will be reflected in their pricing. The casual wine buyer probably won't have any objections to the look of the store, and wine snobs need to look beyond the surface. Because of its great size, it is wise to pick up one of the maps near the front of the store to acclimate yourself to how everything is set up.

Wines are arranged numerous ways, including by country, varietal, style, highly rated, staff picks, local, organic, and new items. Plus, wines can occupy more than one category, so might be spread out over multiple sections. That can be confusing. Plus, not all countries and wine regions get their own specific section. For example, South African wines do not have a specific shelf and are spread out over a few shelves, including in "Red Blends," "Other Reds" and "Other Whites," making it more difficult to see what is available just from that country. Plus, Washington and Oregon do not have their own sections.

The Wines by Style section is broken down into about nine categories, such as Intense, Complex, Lush and Crisp. But, only a small portion of wines are categorized here, so it is of limited use. Usually if a wine store is going to categorize by style, then most of their inventory is categorized as such, which is far more effective than only doing so for a mere fraction of the stock. It generally is an either/or proposition, to categorize wines by region/varietal or by style. It is very hard to have it both ways.

As Bob pointed out in his review, there are few shelf talkers on the shelves to describe the wines, and they are needed to help consumers with their selections. But this appears to be an issue the store is aware of, and plans to change in the near future.

Also as Bob pointed out, the pricing is a bit uneven, with some wines at very good prices, and others higher than other wine stores. Sometimes the price difference is only a dollar or so, and sometimes it might be as much as $50. Again though, this is something the store is supposed to be working on, with a goal of generally having the lowest prices in the state.

Near the front of the store are their high-end wines, fine Bordeaux, Burgundy, California Cabernet and more, kept in a temperature controlled case and displayed nicely. Offhand, I noticed they carry the 2007 Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon Special Selection, listed at $149.99. But I have seen that wine at another discount wine store in MA for only $99. Thus, I would suggest that before buying anything from this section that you do a bit of price research first, to ensure you are getting a good deal.

In this case is also probably the most expensive wine in the store, and understandably so, a magnum of the 2007 DRC Richebourg, priced at $1599.99. I have not seen that wine anyplace else in MA, but on Wine Searcher the price ranges from $1600-$2175. So, their price it is at the low end.

What about their selection? The vast number of wines they carry creates certain expectations in my mind. With over 7000 wines, they should be carrying quite a diverse selection. They should have wines from less common regions, which you often cannot find at smaller stores. There should be a decent selection of more artisan wines, especially those harder to find elsewhere. They should take advantage of their numbers to the fullest extent. But did Wine Nation live up to my expectations?

You will find most of the big name wines here, many of the usual suspects. But, I think they are lacking an adequate representation of the smaller wineries, the more artisan wines, as well some of the lesser known wine regions. I was familiar with most of what I saw on the shelves, and had been hoping to find far more wines that were new to me. Diversity is lacking and the promise of such a huge number of wines is not being fulfilled.

The store could easily carry several thousand well known brands, but also a couple thousand far less known wines. How many different Chardonnay labels do they really need? 500, 300, 100, 50? Five shelves are set up for Chardonnay, so there are easily hundreds of different labels and I can't imagine why they need so many. Would it really hurt the store if they cut their amount of Chardonnay in half? I don't think so, and it would free up spots for so many different wines.

Now obviously there are plenty of good wines on their shelves, and wines I drink myself, but I expected far more diversity. Small wine stores struggle, and succeed, to maintain diversity with only 300-500 wines. With 7000+ wines, Wine Nation should have absolutely no difficulty providing an extremely diverse mix of selections, rather than trying to carry every brand of Chardonnay that exists.

I was pleased to see a decent sized section of Portuguese wines, around 30 different labels (pictured above). Portuguese wines are often excellent values and I have long recommended them. Their Sherry and Port section is pretty good too, including Madeira and Marsala wines. I was impressed with their Local Wine section, which includes wines not only from New England but also New York and even Virginia. Some of the New England wineries represented include Turtle Creek, Westport Rivers, Still River Winery, Truro Vineyards, and Sakonnet. From New York, you will find Ravine Cellars, Red Newt, Hermann Wiemer and Dr. Konstantin Frank. There is also a nice Organic Wine section.

I was much less pleased with their Saké selection, maybe 25 or so labels, but plenty of ordinary Saké and little to excite a Saké lover. That section really needs work. They also carry about six plum wines which is overkill as it is certainly not that popular. That space would have been better served by some premium Saké. They stock about 20 Greek wines, and again that section has a few very good choices, but plenty of rather ordinary wines as well. It needs more attention too. They have three Lebanese wines, but the only Israeli wines they carry are kosher.

Though they do not carry a large selection of half-bottles of wine, they have a very ample supply of 1.5ml bottles as well as plenty of boxed wines (including Blue Nun). They also sell numerous wine supplies, from racks to decanters, and from books to spit buckets. If you love beer, there is a huge selection here, beers, ales and more from all over the world. There is also a decent selection of hard ciders. Plus, they carry a variety of other beverages, including soda, juices, water, and vermouth. In addition, you can buy cigars from their humidor, as well as various foods, including chips, cheese, frozen pasta, chocolate and much more. So it is much more than just a wine store, and you will find most of your party needs here.

While I was there, I was asked several times if I needed any assistance. There appears to be plenty of staff walking the floors, and they are checking with all of the customers to see if they have any questions or need help. There is also a central desk where customers can go if they need assistance. With such a large facility, it is very good that there are so many employees around offering assistance to the patrons.

Overall, and as a preliminary opinion, I think the Wine Nation has potential, but it has not yet lived up to that potential and it remains to be seen whether it will or not. As the store is still very new though, it has time to change and there have been indications that the owner understands some of the problems and is going to take action to correct them.

First, pricing needs to be adjusted if the store seeks to be one of the lowest in the state, and to remain competitive with the other discount wine stores. Massachusetts already has some excellent, and competitive discount wine stores and any newcomers must rise to the occasion. Second, the store needs more signage and shelf talkers to provide descriptions of the wines. Customers need to know about the wines they might be interested in purchasing. Third, I think store organization needs to be adjusted. Get rid of the Wine Styles shelves, and give specific space to the neglected regions, like South Africa, Washington and more.

Most importantly, get much more diversity in your stock. Cut down your stock of some of the overly stuffed sections, like Chardonnay, and bring in some lesser known regions and smaller, artisan wineries. Revise the selection in some of your existing sections, like Saké and Greek wines, and carry more than the usual suspects. One of your biggest strengths is the vast number of wines you carry, so you need to capitalize on that strength. If you fail to do so, then I doubt you will become a recommended destination for wine lovers.

Currently, there is no compelling reason why I would drive an hour to shop here. There are plenty of other discount wine stores much closer to me, with better overall pricing and a better selection. Plus, if I don't see a wine on their shelves that I want, I can order it and often receive it within a few days. I will certainly visit the store again though in a couple months, to see if there have been any changes. And you can be assured that I will write about its progress, or lack thereof.

Wine Nation
70 Worcester-Providence Turnpike
Millbury, MA 01527
Phone: 508-917-0400

Saké Professional Class: Portland in November

John Gauntner, the famed Saké expert and "Saké Dendoushi" ("Saké Evangelist"), is holding his 7th Stateside Saké Professional Course in Portland, Oregon from November 7-9, 2010.

The course runs for three days and finishes with an optional exam, which if you pass will garner you a Certified Saké Professional certification. The course costs $775, which includes the three days of instruction, materials, all Saké for tasting, and one shot at the exam. There are only 60 spots available for the course.

Gauntner states "The course is geared toward industry professionals wishing to expand their horizons in a thorough manner into the world of sake, and will therefore necessarily be fairly technical in nature, and admittedly somewhat intense. But the course is open to anyone with an interest in sake, and it will certainly be fun! The course lectures and tastings will begin with the utter basics and will thoroughly progress through and cover everything related to sake. There will be an emphasis on empirical experience, with plenty of exposure to a wide range of sake in the tasting sessions throughout the three days. Upwards of 90 sake will be tasted across the three days."

For the first time ever, the Stateside version of the Saké Professional Course will include a visit to a Saké brewery, thanks to the cooperation of nearby SakeOne. Plus, for the first time, each evening will have scheduled dinners at one of Portland's many sake-centric eateries!

For reservations or inquiries, please send an email to info@sake-world.com

I attended the last course in San Francisco and you can read my review here. In short, it was a superb class, taught by an excellent instructor and well worth attending if you love Saké. I cannot recommend this class enough.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my semi-regular column where I briefly mention some interesting wine and food items that I have encountered recently.
1) Once again, I savored a superb dessert at Le Patissier in Troquet. Wild blueberry souffle: light, fluffy and filled with plenty of rich and sweet blueberry flavor. A dessert that will make you moan in delight. Unfortunately, it is no longer available though its replacement is a Sweet Summer Cherry Souffle, which I expect to be quite delicious too.

I also got to taste the Strawberry Shortcake Crème Brulee and Honey Crisp Peach Tarte Tatin and both were absolutely delicious. The presentation is very cool, the ingredients are fresh, and the flavors really please. If you have never had dessert here before, then what are you waiting for? This is the place to go if you love sweets.

2) Yesterday, in the Boston Globe's Plonk of the Month column, Stephen Meuse praised some high-quality boxed wines. Two of those wines were the Poderi Zanusso “Sant’Andrat’’ Venezia Giulia Bianco and Poderi Zanusso “Sant’Andrat’’ Venezia Giulia Rosso. A year ago, I strongly recommended those very same wines. I can also tell you one other wine store, which I visited last week, which I know carries those wines, the Spirited Gourmet in Belmont. There are other wine stores that carry them too, but I don't know who else currently has them in stock. But, as the wines are imported by Adonna Imports, check if your local wine store does business with them.

3) The Limited Fall Release of Woodchuck Hard Cider has now been released, and I bought some at the Beacon Hill Wine & Gourmet in Melrose. The cider has some added cinnamon, nutmeg, and a hint of American white oak. This is definitely a drink for the fall, especially around Thanksgiving. It tastes like spiced cider, reminding me of the fresh smell of a hot apple pie. The flavor does not overwhelm and though it is sweet, that too is not overboard. The flavors are clean and distinct, and it is an enjoyable taste. Except it doesn't seem too appropriate in the summer, especially with our hot weather. But once the autumn coolness arrives, and the leaves have fallen, then it will be time for this cider. Buy some now and put it away for a couple months.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Manzanilla: The Neglected Sherry (Part 2)

"There are only two kinds of sherry, the good and the better."
--Jerez saying

Manzanilla is not a singular wine and there are actually several different types available, including:

Manzanilla Fino: This is the most common type and the term “fino” is usually omitted.
Manzanilla Pasada: This is aged longer than usual, about seven years, and is slightly darker, saltier and less refined than the fino.
Manzanilla Amontillada: This is aged even longer, up to twelve years, and assumes some of the qualities of an amontillado.
Manzanilla Olorosa: This is aged even longer, and assumes some of the qualities of an oloroso.

Manzanilla is so important in Spain that it even has its own special glass. You might be familiar with the copita, a tulip-shaped glass which was designed for drinking sherry. But for manzanilla, there is another glass, the cana. This is a small tumbler, almost cylindrical in shape, with vertical indentations called balcones and an indent at the bottom. There is even a particular tray, the canero, which is used to hold cana. The canero has two tiers with holes in the top tier to insert and hold your glasses. Though I have seen copitas in the U.S., I have not seen any cana.

The term “cana” can also refer to the venencia, a tool used to take samples from a sherry barrel. Even with this tool, manzanilla is different. In Jerez, the venencia is often a tubular metallic cup at the end of a long flexible handle, once made of whalebone but now mainly fiberglass. But in Sanlucar, the entire venebcia is made of bamboo, including the cup, and the handle is rigid, not flexible.

Like many European wines, manzanilla is probably best when paired with food. Though some see manzanilla more as an aperitif, and many Spaniards drink it is as such, they still drink it with food, such as tapas. Yet Spaniards will also drink manzanilla with their meals, finding that it pairs well with a wide variety of foods. A classic match is with shrimp but it goes well with most seafood, including even a rich fish like tuna. It is also a very good pairing with soups, ham and charcuterie, most cheeses (unless they are too strong), pasta, and vegetables. It is even said to be an excellent pairing with asparagus, considered one of the toughest foods to pair with wine.

So why aren’t more people outside of Spain drinking manzanilla? There are probably numerous factors contributing to this situation, and changes are needed to increase consumption. First, Spanish manzanilla producers have done little to promote the product outside of their country, to highlight its important role. We are starting to see more sherry promotion in recent years, though the promotion is mainly about sherry in general, so manzanilla is only one component of that promotion.

Second, manzanilla can be a difficult taste for a person to enjoy at first, especially if they are not tasting it with food. Its bone-dry nature runs counter to the styles of many American wines. It would probably be best tasted where a whole environment could provide a context reminiscent of Spain. Maybe a seaside restaurant or a Spanish tapas place.

Most importantly, consumers need to be educated about manzanilla, and sherry in general. They need to understand it, to taste it, and learn how it fits into the realm of wine. Though wine store owners and restaurants probably need a similar education, as they are in the front line of the potential promotion of manzanilla and sherry. Local sherry distributors can lead this effort and bloggers can do their part as well. Manzanilla is often an inexpensive wine so should appeal to many people because of that reason.

Give manzanilla a try!

And if you have any thoughts or experiences of your own concerning manzanilla, please add them to the comments.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Manzanilla: The Neglected Sherry (Part 1)

Manzanilla sherry is "as delicate and as temperamental as a woman;"
--Julian Jeffs

Spaniards may embrace this sentiment, especially considering how many manzanillas possess feminine names, such as La Pastora, La Victoria, La Goya, La Gitana, La Guita, Solea, and Eva. It is also very clear that Spaniards love manzanilla and over half the sherry they drink is that style. It is also the only type of sherry whose consumption has either grown or remained the same within recent years.

As an example of their love for manzanilla, consider the Sevilla Feria, the famed Spring Festival of Seville, the capital of Andalucia. At this event, attendees drink approximately 600,000 bottles of manzanilla over the course of only six days. How many other wine festivals do you know where that much wine is consumed in such a short time?

Yet outside of Spain, demand for manzanilla is extremely low, with sweeter sherries often being preferred. In 2009, Great Britain, the largest importer of Spanish sherry, only imported 2.07% of manzanilla. Holland, the second highest sherry importer, imported the most manzanilla, though it was only 4.92%, still quite a low figure. As for the United States, they only imported 1.72% of manzanilla. Hopefully that can change as manzanilla is a delicious and versatile sherry, one which deserves a far greater appreciation.

Manzanilla is a type of sherry unique to a single city in the sherry region, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and even has its own Denominación de Origen, called Manzanilla de Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Manzanila is sometimes known as el mas fino de los finos (the finest of the fine) and vino de la alegria (the wine of joy). It is drier and paler than fino sherry, with a taste often thought to be salty, reminiscent of the briny sea.

Sanlucar is an ancient city, located on the left bank of the mouth of the Guadalquivir River. Across the river from Sanlucar is the Coto de Doñana, a large natural park and wildlife refuge. In the early days, Sanlucar produced malmsey and eventually began to produce some sherry style wines and a red wine called vino carlon. But until the beginning of the 19th century, the wines of Sanlucar were generally not considered sherries.

The style of manzanilla was probably created around 1800 but the name did not become common until around 1814. Even as late as 1846, manzanilla was still not considered to be a sherry. Initially, it was mostly drank by locals or used for blending though there was a surge of love for manzanilla in England during Victorian times. Manzanilla still would not be bottled extensively until the beginning of the 1900s.

There are a few different theories as to the origin of the term “manzanilla.” First, some believe it derives from the word “manzana” which means “apple,” as this type of sherry is thought to taste like apples. But the diminutive form is “manzanita” not “manzanilla” so some don’t feel the theory is valid. Second, it may derive from the word “manzanilla” which also means “camomille,” again because the sherry is thought to have a flavor like camomille. But some people dispute that there is such a flavor link, and dispute that origin. Third, the name might be derived from Manzanilla, the name of a small village located between Seville and Huelva. Supporters of this origin feel that the wines from this village tasted similar to those in Sanlucar, but others disagree. In the end, there is still much uncertainty as to the term’s origin.

Manzanilla, like most sherry, is made from the Palomina grape, also sometimes known as listan, tempranilla, palomino blanca, and orgazuela. Interestingly, the grapes for manzanilla can come from any vineyard within the sherry region, but the wine can only be aged in Sanlúcar. If there wine were aged elsewhere, it would not legally qualify as manzanilla, and very likely would not taste like one either.

Manzanilla is produced using some of the same basic methods as a fino, but there are significant differences as well, from the vineyard to the storage of the wine. First, the grapes are picked earlier, at least a week, when the grapes are not fully ripe, and thus contain less sugar but more acid. This year, the sherry harvest, in a few spots, began a couple weeks ago. Second, their vineyards are usually pruned less.

Third, instead of moving the wine in the solera every six months, it is moved more frequently, every one to three months. In addition, during the aging process, manzanilla is moved through more barrels, called scales, than other sherries. Most sherry goes through three to nine scales, but manzanilla never goes through less than nine and sometimes as many as sixteen. Manzanillas are also aged a minimum of five years. Fourth, the sea breezes are supposed to add a salty tang to manzanilla. Many of the bodegas in Sanlúcar have been designed to get the most benefit from this breezes.

Fifth, the flor for manzanilla is different from that of other sherries. Flor, a type of yeast, forms atop sherry as it ages in a barrel. The flor protects the sherry from oxygen and also consumes any residual or unfermented sugars. In Jerez, the flor is most active only in spring and autumn but in Sanlúcar, where manzanilla ages, it is active year round. The effect is that manzanilla becomes lighter and less oxidized. Sanlúcar cooler temperatures and higher humidity also lead to a higher yield of flor, and the flor even looks different. Plus, in Jerez, you’ll find four different fungi in the flor but in Sanlucar, only one, cheriensis, predominates.

The Neglected Sherry: Part 2

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Wine Bunker: Opening in October

Last month, I mentioned that a new, discount wine store, The Wine Bunker, was coming to Reading. I now have some additional information I wanted to share with my readers.

I stopped by Corporate Wines in Woburn to ask about the new store, and they were able to share some information about their plans. I should note that Corporate Wines seems to have lots of empty spaces in their wine racks, and some wines are spread out over the facings so that the number of different brands of wine is much less than you might think. Maybe they are currently devoting more attention to the new store.

The Wine Bunker will be located at 128 Marketplace Shopping Center, One General Way, near the Market Basket. It is scheduled to open in October and will only sell wine, and no beer or spirits. They are partially modeled after Rapid Liquors in Stoneham, a wine store I often recommend to people because of their very low prices. Thus, the Wine Bunker wants to offer wines at prices competitive with Rapid, but they will try not to carry the same wines as Rapid carries.

They will offer a case discount, maybe 20%, but that is still tentative. That will be a difference from Rapid, as they do not offer a case discount. They will carry wines at all price points, including some high-end wines. Their selection should have 1000+ wines, including a fair share of Washington and Oregon wines, which they consider to be excellent value wines. There will be weekly tastings, though they might also always have an open bottle available for tasting.

I will be sure to check out the Wine Bunker when it opens, and I will report back my thoughts.

Rant: Where's The Sherry?

Over the weekend, I celebrated a friend's anniversary at the Capital Grille in Burlington. We had an excellent meal, from Tenderloin to Alaskan King Crab legs, and enjoyed a bottle of 2005 Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant. Then it was time to consider dessert.

I received a large menu with their desserts, as well as a slew of after-dinner drinks. There were Ports, a Madeira, ice wines, late harvests and much more. Lots of diversity, except there was not a single sherry on the list. Why was that the case? Why have such a lengthy and diverse list but omit sherry? Isn't sherry at least more popular than madeira?

I most often see sherry on restaurant after-dinner drink lists, and rarely their regular wine list. Plus, the after-dinner lists usually show Amontillado and Olorosos, and most often the sweeter versions. I was surprised not to see any on the Capital Grille list, especially considering how large of a chain it is. I know that the popularity of sherry is still low, though growing, in the U.S., but it would grow even faster if more restaurants and wine stores promoted it. Especially considering that sherry can be very food-friendly.

I have emailed the Capital Grille to see if they will provide me an explanation for their lack of sherry. They surely are not the only restaurant without sherry on their wine list, but I am curious as to their reasons for its exclusion. Did they once have it on their lists but removed it when few people bought it? And if so, when did this occur and is it time to place sherry back on their list?

Do you know any local restaurants with good sherry lists?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Saké News: Growing Rice in Vancouver

Local Saké rice can lead to a significant tax advantage, as well as other benefits, for a Vancouver producer of Saké. In the article, "B.C. Saké Brewer Seeks Fertile Fields," written by Joanne Lee-Young, Canwest News Service, you can read about the efforts of Masa Shiroki to grow rice in Vancouver.

On Granville Island, Masa produces small batches of Saké but suffers a tax disadvantage because his brewery, Artisan Sakemaker, is classified as a commercial winery. But he would reap more financial benefits if he were classified as a land-based winery, and to do so, he needs to grow his own rice. He has started just that, in tiny plots across British Columbia, and will expand his rice paddies in the near future.

To obtain his new classification, Masa must have at least two acres as well as use 100% local ingredients. He underwent plenty of research to discover where rice would best grow in British Columbia. After finding such areas, he started planting experimental 5 by 10 meter plots in these spots. His plan for 2011 is to plant a hectare of land, about 2.5 acres, which will produce five tons of rice, enough for his brewery which only makes 1000 cases.

Masa's efforts may benefit him in other ways with the increased awareness of people for local products. This could help him sell more Saké if all of his ingredients are obtained locally.

Please read the entire article for more information.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Gourmet Dumpling House: "Hot, Juicy Love"

Do you know what food this is, which resembles a fleshy volcano?

Though many people have sampled the usual Chinese dumplings (which might also be called pot stickers or Peking Ravioli), it seems fewer people have tasted Xiao long bao, which are also known as soup dumplings.

It is thought that xiao long bao originated only in abut 1875, in Nanxiang, a suburb of Shanghai. The alleged inventor sold them out of a food stall next to the Guyi Garden, a famous park in the city. In time, these soup dumplings spread across Shanghai.

Xiao long translates literally as "small, steaming basket" while bao, or more properly baozi, are "steamed buns." These dumplings are commonly steamed in small bamboo baskets, so the name is fairly literal. The dumplings are usually made with unraised flour, making them smooth and partially translucent. They are traditionally filled with pork, but other ingredients can also be used, everything from beef to seafood.

What primarily differentiates soup dumplings from other types of dumplings, is that they contain a broth within the wrapper. Meat gelatin is placed inside the dumpling, and it melts when the dumpling is steamed, creating a savory broth. The traditional dipping sauce is Chinkiang vinegar, a black rice vinegar, with ginger slivers. The Chinkiang has a rich, smoky flavor.

The only place I have eaten soup dumplings in Boston is at the Gourmet Dumpling House in Chinatown. But, as they are so delicious and inexpensive, I don't have much incentive to seek them out elsewhere. Plus, I don't think there are too many other places in Boston that serve these anyways. On their menu, the soup dumplings are referred to as "mini juicy dumplings" and come with either pork ($6.50) or pork & crabmeat ($7.25). For that price, you receive eight dumplings, and I don't consider them "mini" at all.

In the first picture above, you can see the pork dumplings while the second picture are the pork & crabmeat dumplings. The pork & crabmeat have a bit of yellow in them.

A couple nights ago, I stopped at the Gourmet Dumpling House with two of my friends, Dale and Jen, and we shared a few orders of soup dumplings, and a couple other appetizers (including a delicious dish of pickled cucumbers with garlic and a spicy sauce). Now, there is no single way to properly eat a soup dumpling, and below you will see two different ways to do so. Though I should mention that there are some potential pitfalls to avoid when eating these dumplings.

This was Jen's first experience with soup dumplings and she said, "They were all I dreamed they would be, and more!" Note her intense rapture with the dumpling. She, with an adept use of her spoon, is biting a small hole in the dumpling so she can suck out the broth. If you do that wrong, the broth can either squirt out on your clothes, or dribble out onto the table. You must also be wary as the broth can be very hot when the dumplings first come to your table. Give them a little time to cool down or you'll find your mouth seared from the hot soup.

Dale is taking an alternative approach, and stated that "Soup dumplings are a mouthful of hot, juicy love." That sounds like a very compelling description to me. In the video, Dale shows you how you can place the entire dumpling into your mouth at once, thereby eliminating much of the chance of the broth squirting out, as long as you keep your mouth closed while eating. But be very wary when the dumplings are still hot, as doing this at that point could lead to a major mess, or injury.

Me? I used both approaches as each has their own merits. As for the two types of soup dumplings, Jen preferred the pork & crab while Dale and I preferred just the pork. Though we all enjoyed both types.

If you haven't experienced soup dumplings, then get off your butt and make the trek to Chinatown to the Gourmet Dumpling House. You'll be thanking me later.

Gourmet Dumpling House
52 Beach St
Boston, MA
Phone:(617) 338-6222

Gourmet Dumpling House on Urbanspoon

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my semi-regular column where I briefly mention some interesting wine and food items that I have encountered recently.

1) Oye's Restaurant in Reading opened this past Monday. Kevin, one of the owners of Sato II in Stoneham wanted to open his own place and has now done so. It is a fairly large restaurant, nicely decodated with a large and well stocked bar. The menu bears some similarities to that at Sato, though it is more expansive, including items like a raw bar. You'll find plenty of Chinese and Japanese cuisine, as well as a few Thai and Korean dishes. They even have a gluten free menu.

I stopped by for lunch the other day and had a nice meal. I began with some good sushi, from unagi to sweet potato tempura maki, and it seemed fresh. Sushi prices are average. I then ordered one of their lunch special, Combo #2 ($8.50), which came with pork fried rice, four chicken fingers, a beef teriyaki skewer, and some boneless spare ribs. I then chose chicken wings as my extra appetizer. The food was good, better than the average Chinese restaurant.

The restaurant is promising, and I look forward to returning to try more of their menu.

Oye's Restaurant & Bar on Urbanspoon

2) I was excited to learn about the first annual Boston Wine Week, which is reminiscent of Restaurant Week but in the realm of wine. Numerous restaurant will participate, from September 20-26, by offering at least six different wines at a substantial discount. All of the wines (some of which retail up to $90/bottle) will be offered at $9/glass and $32/bottle. And based on the samples, there does appear to be some excellent bargains.

A sampling of wine highlights include:
--2006 J Hoffstatter Gewurtztraminer (Alto Adige, Italy)
Served at BiNA osteria; normally $75/bottle
--2007 Sottimano Langhe Nebbiolo (Langhe, Piedmont, Italy)
Served at Bin 26 enoteca; normally $54/bottle
--2007 Broglia ‘La Meirana’ Gavi di Gavi (Gavi, Piedmont, Italy)
Served at Lala Rokh; normally $44/bottle
--2001 Castellani, Soave Classico (Veneto, Italy)
Served at Jer-Ne; normally $84/bottle

Participating restaurants include: Bin 26 enoteca, Lala Rokh, 75 Chestnut, Clink at The Liberty Hotel, The Hungry i, Beacon Hill Bistro, Woodward at The Ames Hotel, BiNA osteria, Jer-Ne, Locke-Ober, The Beehive, Petit Robert Bistro South End, and Brasserie JO.

In addition, during Boston Wine Week, you will have the opportunity to attend a couple special events. Guest pourer Tyler Balliet of The Second Glass will offer featured wines at BiNA osteria from 6pm–7pm on September 20 (complimentary pizzettas included). Richard Elia of the Quarterly Review of Wines will also be on hand at Bin 26 enoteca on September 21 from 6pm-7pm to serve featured wines alongside paired cheeses.

Additional restaurants and more details about which wines will be served will be posted on the Boston Wine Week website so keep checking it. I will be taking advantage of this special wine week, and maybe I will see you there.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Bangkok Bistro in Burlington, Vermont

When you have a craving, just go with it.

On my recent trip to Vermont, I stayed the night in Burlington, a city I have visited often in the past. One of the main thoroughfares for pedestrian traffic is Church Street, where you will find a plethora of shops, restaurants and bars. While meandering down the street, I was stopping in some of the various shops, considering where to eat. What type of cuisine did I crave? What most called to my hunger?

Bangkok Bistro. Thai cuisine beckoned to me and I heeded its call. It is a small restaurant, though with a patio and bar. It was fairly busy, though it was also a Saturday night, but we were able to get a table. I first perused the drink menus and was surprised, and very pleased, to see that they carried a good selection of Saké, and fairly reasonably priced.

Unfortunately, they did not have my first two selections in stock. I ended up with the Taisetsu Junmai Ginjo ($15/300ml), which is aged in an igloo-like ice dome, and the Shirakabegura Tukunetsu Junmai ($15/300ml), an old favorite. They brought individual containers to keep both of them chilled, which was a very nice touch.

Besides Thai, they also have a lengthy sushi menu, from nigiri to maki. I tried their Sweet Potato Roll ($4), which was very nicely presented, and tasted very good too. Plus, that is a very reasonable price for such.

An intriguing appetizer was the Pad Thai Gyoza ($7.50), fried gyoza but with the flavors of Pad Thai, as well as bean sprouts and peanuts. The flavors enhanced the gyoza, which was fried well, with a nice crunch to them. There were plenty of gyoza in the dish and once again, I thought it was reasonably priced.

The Chicken & Rice Bowl ($12.95) was a good, but not impressive dish. It tasted fine, the veggies were crisp and fresh, but there was nothig exciting about the dish. Just a simple dish, executed well.

I ordered the Chicken Massaman Curry ($16.95), which is one of the dishes I often order at a Thai restaurant to see how it measures up to other similar restaurants. This Massaman stood up well to the others, with plenty of tender chicken and a delectable spicy curry sauce with a dominant coconut flavor. Not all Massaman dishes are spicy, but I do enjoy when they are. I eagerly devoured this dish, making sure to pour some of the sauce atop my white rice. It definitely will be added to my list of top Massaman Curry dishes.

Service was excellent, and I found the food tasty and reasonably priced. It was also very nice to see they carry some good Saké. This certainly satisfied my craving and would recommend it to others as well.

Bangkok Bistro
144 Church St
Burlington, VT
Phone: (802) 951-5888

Bangkok Bistro on Urbanspoon

Stoneham Sun: A Local Sampling

My new column of "A Passionate Foodie" can be found in the August 18 issue of the Stoneham Sun newspaper. This is a weekly column that concentrates on reviews of local restaurants though it also sometimes touches on other food and wine topics.

The new column has been published today and will be available online soon. The new article is collection of some local food news, ranging from new restaurants to an upcoming salsa contest at the Stoneham Farmers Market. You don't have to travel far to find some new and exciting places to check out or things to do.

If you have any questions or comments about my column, feel free to add them here.

Dine with passion.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Pizzeria Posto: New Brunch Menu

This past Saturday, while out driving and pondering a place for lunch, I finally selected Pizzeria Posto in Somerville, off Davis Square. I hadn't eaten there yet, had heard some excellent reviews about the place, and the menu had enticed me. I was not aware that it was also the initial debut of their new Brunch menu.

The restaurant is owned and operated by Chef Joe Cassinelli, who most recently had been the Chef de Cuisine at L’Andana in Burlington, one of my favorite restaurants. So that was a very good sign to me. The basic food menu includes a diverse variety of antipasti, insalate, pasta dishes and wood-fired pizza. They are dedicated to the spirit of Neapolitan style pizza and follow the rules and guidelines of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana. Those rules govern such requirements as the type of oven to be used, the necessary ingredients and techniques of pizza making. This may be the first pizzeria in Massachusetts which is a member of this organization.

The restaurant is visually very appealing, a simple elegance with an open kitchen and large windows facing Elm Street. You can also dine at their outside patio area. When seating people, the hostess spaced the parties well, allowing some element of privacy, rather than trying to pack everyone into one close section. We sipped some fresh brewed iced tea while perusing the brunch menu.

The brunch menu has some antipasti, paninis, frittatas, breakfast dishes and pizzas. There is a good selection of choices, and many sounded very appealing. We decided to start with the Arancini ($5), which come in a pomodoro sauce. This was an impressive dish, four good-sized arancini which were absolutely delicious. A nice crisp exterior, and a very cheesy interior with lots of harmonious flavors. The pomodoro sauce was quite nice, with what seemed to be bits of garlic and onion, and I eagerly devoured the arancini. At this price, the dish is a very good value too.

After this high though, matters sunk to a low as there was a very lengthy delay in the receipt of our entrees. I watched other people, who sat down after us, receive their food before us. Our waitress came over at one point and stated our entrees were almost ready, but it took fifteen more minutes before they arrived. We received an apology with our food, with an explanation that this was their first brunch and they were having some issues. It still put a damper on our meal.

Fortunately, the food was top notch. The Verdura Frittata was quite large, accompanied by a salad and potatoes. It was cooked just right, with plenty of fresh vegetables and lots of creamy goat cheese. Very delectable. I went with the Poco Pizza ($11), which comes with Fior di latte, basil and olive oil. I chose to add some roasted garlic, a soft farm egg, Vermont goat cheese and prosciutto (+$10).

This was a good-sized pizza, sliced into four pieces, and is plentiful enough for one person, or even two if you are not too hungry or ordering a bunch of other items too. It was a bit disconerting at first that the prosciutto had been added after the pizza was cooked, especially as it was a bit cold to the touch. In most other places, the prosciutto is baked atop the pizza, making a nice crispy meat. But, the prosciutto warmed up quickly from the rest of the pizza, though it did not become crispy. I really enjoyed the taste of the pizza, and they did not skimp on toppings, with lots of prosciutto atop it. The thin crust was just right, both properly chewy and crunchy, and the cheeses were creamy and smooth. I enjoyed the taste of the silky smooth and salty prosciutto, and it was simply a different, not lesser, taste than if it had been baked with the pizza. All in all, an excellent pizza and I would love to try some of their other intriguing pizzas.

As I went to pay the bill, they stated they would not charge us for the Arancini and iced teas, to make up for the service delay. That was a very nice gesture on their part, definitely creating good will. They should have been a bit more proactive about informing us of the delay, and the reasons for such, but they did resolve the matter in a satisfactorily manner.

Their food is impressive and reasonably priced, and I will return again, especially as I want to try plenty of other dishes, including their pasta. For now, they receive my recommendation, with hopes that the service delay was an aberration and not the norm. When I have heard others speak of this place, I have not heard complaints about service so I strongly suspect it was abnormal.

I'll report again on my future visits there.

Pizzeria Posto
187 Elm Street
Somerville, MA
Phone: (617) 625-0600

Dining in Quechee

When traveling to Vermont from Massachusetts, I commonly take Route 89 into Vermont, which takes me close to Route 4 and Quechee. If you too take a similar route, let me offer a couple recommendations for restaurants in Quechee. Quechee is well worth a detour, to visit its numerous shops and to check out the famous gorge.

On Route 4, headed into Quechee, you'll soon encounter the Quechee Gorge Village, a collection of intriguing little shops, as well as the Farmer's Diner. After having a delicious breakfast there last year, I wanted to return there for more food, though this time for lunch. Part diner and part regular restaurant, this place continues to receive my high recommedation. They serve excellent comfort food, reasonably priced, and much is locally sourced.

Most of their ingredients are obtained locally in Vermont, and they even have a map and list in the lobby indicating the source of their ingredients. Thus, if you really enjoy something, you could check out the source.

We began with one of the Starters, the Loaded Cheese Fries, which are topped with Vermont Smoke & Cure Bacon and Cabot cheddar cheese. The cheddar was made into a cheese sauce with a creamy, sharp flavor to it. The fries were cooked just right, nicely crispy with a fluffy interior and there was plenty of smoky bacon. A very nice choice to start our lunch.

The Sappy Squealer has slow roasted Vermont raised pulled pork in a Maple BBQ sauce, and served on a lightly griddled LaPanciata Bakery Roll. All of the sandwiches come with either french fries or coleslaw, plus a dill pickle spear. The pork was very tender with a sweet, yet tangy, BBQ sauce with only hints of maple flavor. The roll was fresh and soft, and a nice addition to the sandwich.

The Hog Heaven includes two Farmers Diner hot dogs wrapped in Vermont Smoke & Cure bacon, deep fried, and snuggled deep in a bed of coleslaw and served on a lightly griddled bun. Note that I had them omit the coleslaw. What a decadent dog, with its crispy bacon and fried meat. I savored every bite of these delicious dogs, which are much better than just a plain old hot dog.

Prices are reasonable, the food is tasty, and service is also very good. A great place for breakfast or lunch, but note that it is not open for dinner. It continues to receive my recommendation.

While you are in Quechee, there is another restaurant you might want to stop by, Shepard's Pie By The Gorge. It has been open for less than six months and I stopped there without knowing anything about it. It was dinner time, the Farmer's Diner was closed, and I just wanted to dine somewhere close.

Obviously the restaurant's name appealed to me as I love Shepard's Pie, though I am very particular about which ones I enjoy. I gave their version a try, Classic Shepard’s Pie ($10.99), which contained ground lamb and beef, fresh sweet corn, layered and topped with whipped potatoes. This dish was a winner, just the style I most enjoy, with plenty of flavorful ground meat (nicely spiced), creamy potatoes and sweet corn. The gravy was very savory and complemented the rest of the dish. It seemed to have been freshly made, and the restaurant certainly earned its name, having created an excellent signature dish. Great comfort food and well worth a stop.

Shepard's Pie By The Gorge
US Route 4
Quechee, VT
Phone: (802) 281-4585

Shepard's Pie By the Gorge on Urbanspoon

Monday, August 16, 2010

Rant: Faux FroYo

I think we all want truth in advertising. Plus, when we order a food, we want that food to live up to its name. But many people are being deceived by a specific food item, thinking they are eating something that they are not. I don't think that is right and it needs to be better known. Let me tell you about Faux FroYo!

Yogurt is considered a healthy food and is produced through the bacterial fermentation of milk using active cultures of Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus. Regulations of the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) mandate that "yogurt" must be made with a certain amount of active cultures.

But what about frozen yogurt, sometimes called FroYo or Frogurt? You would expect that it too has all of the active cultures, and that it is actually a form of yogurt. But in most cases, you would be wrong, and that is why I prefer to call much of it: Faux FroYo.

Frozen yogurt was created in New England in the 1970s by the H.P. Hood company. By the 1980s and into the early 1990s, frozen yogurt had become extremely popular. But with the introduction of new reduced-fat ice creams, the popularity of frozen yogurt started to wane, with the demand dropping in half. Recently though, with the advent of numerous new frozen yogurt stores, like Red Mango and Pink Berry, the popularity has been increasing once again.

Unlike yogurt, frozen yogurt is considered to be a "a non-standardized food" and thus not subject to FDA composition standards. So in short, it does not have to meet the definition of "yogurt." Thus, when you are eating frozen yogurt, it might not actually be yogurt at all, which is really a bit of deception. Some frozen yogurts use heat-treated yogurt, which destroys the active cultures, or though they might add some active cultures, they fail to ferment.

Interestingly enough, most of the frozen yogurt stores have admitted that what they sell is not actually yogurt. But as the term "frozen yogurt" is not regulated, they can legally sell their frozen dessert product under that designation. But many people seem unaware of the reality, that they are not getting actual yogurt. They simply assume that "frozen yogurt" actually is a form of yogurt, though most times it is not.

The National Yogurt Association does issue a seal, Live & Active Cultures, which ensures a product has a significant amount of live and active cultures to be considered yogurt. That is one way to determine whether the frozen yogurt you enjoy actually is yogurt. Though there are few frozen yogurts that are deserving of that seal.

So don't be fooled any longer. Go ahead and enjoy frozen yogurt if you like it, but just remember that you probably are not eating actual yogurt.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Echigo Denemon Junmai Ginjo

It is extremely satisfying to me to find a Saké for a person that they enjoy. Over the weekend, I did exactly this, though it had not been my specific intent or purpose. At my regular poker game, I usually bring wine or Saké for myself to drink, and willingly share it with any of my friends who also want to partake.

This past game, I brought a bottle of Saké, and one of my friends, who generally dislikes Saké tasted it and really enjoyed it. It was a style that really appealled to him, much more than any prior Saké I had brought. I then told him how he could find that similar style again if he so desired.

I brought the Echigo Denemon Junmai Ginjo ($32.99/720ml), which I later realized was mentioned in Eric Asimov's recent The Pour column about Saké. This brew is made in the region of Chubu in the Niigata prefecture. The use of the term "Echigo" is almost always an indicator that the Saké is from Niigata. This Saké has had its rice, Gohyakumangoku, polished to 55%, and has an SMV +2, making it basically neutral between sweet and dry.

This has the traditional Niigata style, which is referred to as tanrei, clean, crisp and dry. It is smooth and very easy drinking with underlying tastes of melon and peaches. This is a style that should appeal to many people, even those who generally claim to dislike Saké. Though not all Niigata Saké has this profile, a significant amount does so if you enjoy this style, then you should seek out those brews from Niigata.

With such a diversity in the flavor profiles and styles of Saké, I do believe there is one that will appeal to almost anyone. It is just a matter of finding it.

Saké News

Australia is a growing market for Saké, a good sign for the continued spread of this brew.

In a recent edition of the Sydney Morning Herald, there was an article describing how Saké is exploding across Australia. In 2004, Saké exports to Australia were 95 kiloliters and grew to 135 kiloliters in 2008. And as far back as 1996, a Saké brewery, the Sun Masamune, opened in Penrith. They make Saké under the brand "Go-Shu" meaning "Australian Saké."

Read the rest of the article to learn more about the Saké scene in Australia.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Salsa Contest at Stoneham Farmers Market

The Farm Hill Farmers Market is hosting a contest to locate Stoneham’s Best Salsa. In celebration of Farmers Market Week (August 22-28), the contest will be held at the Farmers Market on Tuesday, August 24. A panel of local judges, including me, will sample the salsa and grade each on taste, freshness, texture, and consistency. Prizes will be awarded for Stoneham’s Best Salsa, Stoneham’s Second Best Salsa, and Stoneham’s Third Best Salsa.

The Farmers Market has undergone some positive changes this year,” said Dennis O’Hara, Market Manager. “We’ve moved to the Stoneham Common, we’ve doubled the number of vendors participating, we’ve added entertainment to further engage the community, and we’ve received outstanding community support. For Farmers Market week, we invite the community to come out, show off their salsa-making skills, and celebrate this wonderful community asset.”

Here are the rules for the Salsa Contest.

1) Entries will be accepted from Stoneham residents, business owners, or business employees.
2) This is an amateur contest. No entries will be accepted from restaurants, employees of restaurants whose main job duty involves preparing food, professional chefs, etc.
3) Salsa must be brought to the Common fresh and in a clean, clear, sealed glass jar. Jars will not be returned.
4) Salsa must be of mild flavoring.
5) Salsa will be rated by a panel of judges selected by Farm Hill Farmers Market. Salsa will be judged on taste, consistency, freshness, appearance, and “tongue appeal.” (I will be one of those judges.)
6) Farm Hill Farmers Market will provide the chips to be used for judging. Three Amigos Mexican Restaurant is providing those chips to the market.
7) The decision of the judges is final. The Farm Hill Farmers Market manager will tabulate the judges’ scores and announce the results. Prizes will be given for Stoneham’s Best Salsa, Stoneham’s 2nd Best Salsa, and Stoneham’s 3rd Best Salsa.
8) While family participation in the contest is encouraged, the entrant must be 18 years of age or older, and that entrant must actively participate in and supervise the making of the salsa.
9) Entries must be brought to the Stoneham Senior Center tent at the Market on the Stoneham Common between 4:30 and 5:00pm on contest day Tuesday, August 24.
10) Each entry must include a printed text recipe of the salsa submitted.
11) Entries must be brought by the entrant him/herself. Entrant must remain at the Market until the announcement of the winners is completed no earlier than 6pm.
12) Entrant agrees that his/her name, likeness, recipe, and Stoneham affiliation can be used by Farm Hill Farmers Market for the purpose of publicizing the contest and the Market.
13) The Market plans to announce the entrants and the winners, as well as the winning recipe(s) on our web site and to local media.

To enter: Send an email to info@farmhillfarmersmarket.org with the following information:
•Your name and age
•Your street name (house number not required) and town of residence
•If not a Stoneham resident, explain your Stoneham eligibility (Stoneham business owner, employee, program participant, etc.)
•Your employer and position

Entry information must be received at info@farmhillfarmersmarket.org by Noon on Monday, August 23.

I hope to see lots of entries for this contest and will see you on August 24!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my semi-regular column where I briefly mention some interesting wine and food items that I have encountered recently.

1) Legal Sea Foods will be holding a Oyster Festival this fall. From September 20 to October 17, Legal will celebrate everything oysters via menu features and special events.

Our oyster bars are a hallmark of our restaurants,” observed Roger Berkowitz, President and CEO of Legal Sea Foods. “And no longer should oysters be just the favorites of gastronomes. We want to educate all our guests and encourage experimentation. We’d like everyone to share the belief of the idiomatic saying, ‘the world is your oyster.’”

Special events will include: Sip, Slurp and Sup, a five-course dinner—everything oysters!—paired with wines and hosted in the Park Square location’s 10,000 bottle wine cellar ($75); Shellfish Shindig¸ a ‘shuckout’ of $1 oysters on Charles Square’s vast outside Terrace Bar—; Shellfish Soiree, where three small plates are paired with oyster-friendly wines at Chestnut Hill ($30); Bivalve ‘Brew’haha, a four-course oyster and craft beer tasting at Copley Square ($55); Mollusk Mania & Aw Shucks, Drawing for Pearls, the finale event—an oyster tasting and tutorial where one lucky winner will go home with a jewel of a prize, courtesy of Long’s Jewelers, at the Burlington Mall location.

Legal’s feature menu will offer the delicacy au natural on the half shell and in various preparations such as baked Oysters Legal and in a Traditional Oyster Stew. And guests are encouraged to toast the festivities with the Belvedere Deadrise cocktail, the featured drink throughout the promotion. It is aptly named after the type of boat used to fish the flats for oysters.

2) On Sunday, August 29th, from 1pm-5pm, how2heroes and Smolak Farms present Hoedown 2010! With over a 1,000 attendees slated to appear, guests can look forward to everything from BBQ stations, chef demos, a pig roast, live bluegrass music, a 3-legged race, hayrides, a dunk tank, an old fashioned store, line dancing lessons, “The Hoedown Throwdown Baking Contest” (an amateur baking contest presented by King Arthur Flour and how2heroes using farm fresh fruits & vegetables as the main ingredient and King Arthur Flour) and classes and workshops offered onsite all afternoon. Restaurants/Chefs slated to demo and have food stations include: Chef Jason Bond of the Beacon Hill Hotel & Bistro, Chef Chris Parsons from Parson’s Table, Chef Antonio Bettencourt of Sixty2 on Wharf Restaurant, Chef Brian Poe of Poe's Kitchen at the Rattlesnake, Chef Ben Hasty of Brasserie JO, Eunice Feller of Bread & Chocolate, Michael Reppucci from Orzo Trattorio and Alina Eisenhauer of Sweet to name just a few!

For only $25, with a percentage of proceeds to benefit the Federation of Massachusetts Farmers Markets, hoedown goers can look forward to all the entertainment, fun and food and drink samples they can handle as well as free parking. Guests will be issued a hoedown badge that will allow them into all activities, chefs’ tent and full access to the food stations. For more information or to purchase tickets please visit: http://how2heroes.com/hoedown. Children under 10 are free with parent or legal guardian 21+.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Combier Triple Sec: The Original

Triple Sec. I never gave it much thought and bought what was available at the liquor store. Though it is an ingredient in a number of cocktails, including my Sangria recipe, I just didn't pay it enough attention. And I should have done so as a cocktail is often only as good as its lowest quality ingredient.

Not all Triple Sec, an orange liqueur, is created equal. I recently attended an informative luncheon at Eastern Standard where I had the chance to taste test several different Triple Secs. These included Combier, Cointreau, Patron Cintronge and Bols Triple Sec. The winner of the group was clearly Combier, the others either being too alcoholic, too sweet, too viscous like syrup, or didn't have enough orange flavor.

The luncheon was being put on my Combier but their product did impress me. It had a prominent orange flavor, only a mild sweetness, and tasted clean and light. It did not taste artifical and the alcohol was well integrated so it did not seem "hot." The proof was in the tasting.

Combier Liqueur d'Orange ($34.99), produced by La Distillerie Combier is the original Triple Sec, created in 1834. In the village of Samur, located about 300 miles southwest of Paris in the Loire Valley, Jean-Baptiste Combier and his wife ran a chocolate shop. At the time, bitter orange was a very popular flavor so they infused it into some of their chocolates. But, Jean-Baptiste eventually decided that maybe the bitter orange flavor might be preferable on its own, so he quit the chocolate business and created the first Triple Sec.

Triple Sec is so named because it undergoes a triple distillation, and the Combier company, still family owned, continues to use the original formula. They also use old copper stills, which are over one hundred years old, and were created by Gustave Eiffel, who designed the Eiffel Tower. Only natural ingredients are used, including orange peels from Haiti and sugar beets from Normandy. Though it has been around for over 160 years, it has only been imported into the U.S. within the last couple years.

There were imitators of Triple Sec within a short time of the release of the original Combier. Brothers Adolphe and Edouard-Jean Cointreau were also confectioners and lived about twenty miles from Samur. They knew Combier and his Triple Sec and eventually created their own version, trying to mimic the Combier formula. There are currently no regulations on what constitutes "Triple Sec" so anyone can refer to their orange liqueur as such. Thus, there is a wide variety of differences in the Triple Secs on the market.

Combier makes other products as well including Royal Combier ($36.99) and Rouge Cherry Liqueur ($25). The Royal is a blend of triple sec, cognac, and Elixir de Combier (which includes ingredients like aloe, nutmeg, myrrh, cardamon, cinnamon, and saffron). It has an intriguing herbal taste though is a bit more viscous than the Triple Sec. The Rouge is a blend of guigne and Morello cherries, sweet and bitter, and is also all natural. The formula for the Rouge was created back in 1632 by the Reverend Mother Gautron of the Benedictine Abbey of Samur. Though I expected this to be viscous like the Royal, it was not. Instead it had a light red color, prominent cherry smell, and a light and not overly sweet taste. I really enjoyed it and could think of plenty of uses for it in both cocktails, as well as cooking.

With lunch, we got to try three cocktails made with the Combier products.

We started with two first courses, served family style. Above is an Heirloom Tomato Salad with toasted almond relish and creamy goat cheese below the tomatoes.

The other first course was Combier Rouge Stained Foie Torchon with brioche and candied walnuts. A superb dish! Our accompanying cocktail was a Sour Cherry Sling, an alternative to the Singapore Sling, and using Combier Rouge, Oxley gin, fresh lemon, and organic cream soda. A refreshing and fruity drink with underlying herbal notes.

For my main entree, I chose the Hangar Steak Frites with herb frites and a bearnaise sauce.herb frites. The accompanying cocktail was Heather in Queue which contains The Spirit of Plymouth, Bianco Vermouth, Combier, Fernet Branca, and Lemon Oil. This was also an intriguing drink, with lots of herbal flavors and hints of citrus.

For dessert, I selected the Butterscotch Bread Pudding with praline ice cream and salted butter caramel. A rich, heavy dessert it had an excellent taste, especially as I love butterscotch, but it was heavier than I would have preferred. After all of the other food, I was unable to finish dessert, as tasty as it might be. Our final drink was the Royal Combier Fizz with Combier Royal, fresh lemon, a touch of apricot and egg white. I didn't like this drink as much as the other two, but it is more a matter of personal preference.

I was impressed with the Combier products and feel they would be beneficial to many different cocktails. I want to experiment with the Triple Sec and maybe even the Rouge in a Saké cocktail. It also has reminded me that I need to pay more attention to my cocktail ingredients, such as liqueurs, and not just buy whatever is available or inexpensive. I suggest you do the same.

As a bonus, here are the cocktail recipes for what I tasted.

Sour Cherry Sling
1 1/2 oz Oxley gin
1 oz Combier Rouge
3/4 fresh squeezed lemon juice
1/2 oz simple syrup
Dash of Bitter Truth Orange bitters.
Dry shake and pour over ice in a chilled highball. Top with a dash of cream soda.

Heather in Queue
1 1/2 oz Plymouth gin
3/4 oz Bianco vermouth
1/2 oz Combier L’Original
1/4 oz Fernet Branca
Stir over ice and pour into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with flamed lemon twist.

Fizz Royal
2 oz Royal Combier
1 oz fresh squeezed lemon juice
1/2 oz Apricot Brandy
One egg white
Shake all the ingredients, then add ice and shake again. Strain into a chilled coup glass. No garnish.