Monday, February 17, 2020

Rant: Dining Out On Valentine's Day & Other Holidays

Last Friday was Valentine's Day, considered the second most popular day for dining out, with Mother's Day taking first place. However, despite its popularity, there were plenty of people warning others against dining out, alleging that it's actually a bad night for restaurants, chefs, servers, and guests. Similar warnings are often given about other popular holidays or events like the upcoming Dine Out Boston.

There is some truth behind the warnings, but it's not an absolute. You simply have to be very selective in where you dine, carefully choosing the restaurant where you plan to celebrate. You need to do your research, to locate those places with the best menu choices, those which are best likely to be able to handle the crowds. Not everywhere will be able to provide a satisfying dining experience, but there certainly are spots which you will enjoy and provide a pleasing meal.

On Friday, I dined out on Valentine's Day, for the first time in years, and it ended up being an excellent experience. I selected A Tavola, in Winchester, and Chef Joe Carli and his staff didn't disappoint. Why did I choose this restaurant? First, I wanted a smaller restaurant, something more intimate and which wouldn't garner the huge crowds you'll find at some of the large restaurants. Second, though the Chef created a special Valentine's Day menu, which could be ordered as a three-course prix fixe or a la carte, their regular menu was also available. Diners had plenty of options, and I had some difficulty choosing my entree because too many options appealed to me. Lastly, I had faith in the chef to handle the holiday properly.

It was certainly a busy evening at the restaurant, mainly couples, though there was a large table of guests that sat a short time before we finished our dinner. The restaurant had plenty of staff to handle the crowd and I had no complaints about service. All of the food was delicious, prepared properly, and arrived at the same quality as it would any other night. The other guests sitting near us seemed to be very happy with their dinners as well. I made a great choice and expect A Tavola would do equally as well on any other holiday too.  

With Dine Out Boston coming up in March, and similar Restaurant Weeks in the near future, you again need to be very selective as where to dine. Check over the menu offerings at the various restaurants and find something that appeals to you. A number of those restaurants seem to offer similar menus, ordinary salads and chicken dishes, items that don't really thrill the palate. If you look carefully though, you can find places offering something different, something much more appealing. It can be worth the effort to search for these special spots.

You shouldn't just dismiss out of hand dining out on holidays. With a bit of research, you can find a restaurant which will provide an excellent dining experience, even on the busiest of holidays.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I highlight some interesting, upcoming food & drink events.
1) Starting on Saturday, February 15, from 11am-3pm, Bistro du Midi will launch its Bubbles and Brunch series. Upon the purchase of a bottle of Champagne, guests will receive a dozen complimentary oysters. Executive Chef Robert Sisca has also curated a menu of pairings to go with guest’s champagne of choice.

Chefs Perfect Pairings include:
Scituate Lobster Benedict (Baby spinach, chardonnay and chive hollandaise)
Black Truffle Scrambled (Escargot beignet, puff pastry, arugula pisou)
Sea Urchin “Monsieur” (Caviar, tomato, ginger-soy aioli, cilantro)
Ora King Salmon Crudo (Pistachio, saffron rice crispy, sea grapes, pear)
Prosciutto & Goat Cheese Sandwich (Baby kale, champagne mustard)

To book a reservation, please call (617) 426-7878.

2) At Anthem Kitchen, Chef Jason Walker brings Bourbon Street to Faneuil Hall for Fat Tuesday on February 25. Chef Jason Walker started his culinary career in Louisiana and is excited to return to his southern roots to serve up Anthem Kitchen & Bar's Fat Tuesday celebration menu that includes food specials including a fried oyster po-boy, yankee seafood gumbo, Mississippi Catfish and more. From the bar, sip on Bourbon Street classic cocktails including the Sazerac and Hurricane. End the night by cutting into your own Individual King Cake for dessert.

To make reservations, please call (617) 720-5570

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Wine & Soul: Field Blends, Old Vines & Douro Terroir

My love of Portuguese wines, from Vinho Verde to Port, is well known, and there's much diversity to be found in their wines, from hundreds of indigenous grapes to varied terroirs. I often rave about the great values that can be found in the Portuguese wines, but I've also emphasized that they produce some amazing, albeit more expensive wines, as well. At a recent wine dinner, I experienced for the first time the wines of Wine & Soul and was thoroughly impressed with their quality, complexity and taste. These are wines that earn my highest recommendations and I need to buy some for my own wine cellar.

The Wine & Soul wine dinner, of which I was a media guest, was part of the 31st Annual Boston Wine Festival, said to be the longest running food and wine festival in the country. Chef Daniel Bruce (pictured above), the Executive Chef at the Boston Harbor Hotel, created this festival, which runs from January to March, and each year hosts a series of winemaker hosted dinners, seminars and receptions. These wine dinners often present some of the world's top wines, paired with Chef Bruce's amazing cuisine. I've previously enjoyed a number of dinners prepared by Chef Bruce, and have always been very pleased and satisfied with what he created.

Wine & Soul, which was founded in 2001, is owned by a husband-and-wife team, Jorge Serodio Borges and Sandra Tavares DaSilva. They both possess extensive prior experience in the wine industry. Jorge Serôdio Borges was an oenologist at Niepoort, and also owns the winery Quinta do Passadouro with the Bohrmann family. Sandra has the honor of being the first female winemaker in the Douro, having worked at Quinta do Vale D. Maria in the Douro and at her family’s estate of Quinta da Chocapalha in Estremadura.

Sandra and Jorge eventually decided that they wanted to own their own vineyard, and in 2001, purchased an old Port lodge in the Douro, more specifically in the Cima Corgo's Pinhão Valley. The property had a two-hectare plot of 70+ year old vines, the Pintas vineyard, with over 30 indigenous grapes. Wine & Soul was born. In 2009, they also inherited Quinta da Manoella, an estate planted mainly with very old vineyards, some over a hundred years old. Overall, they now own about 45 acres of vineyards, producing only about 30,000 bottles annually.

Sandra, pictured above, was the special guest at the Wine & Soul dinner, which was attended by about fifty people. She began the dinner with a short talk, mainly about their history and vineyards, and spoke a few more times during the dinner, discussing the various wines. Her family owns the Quinta da Chocapalha in Estremadura, and this is probably what might have initially set Sandra on the winemaking path. She spent a year studying in Italy, as she feels it has much in common with Portugal, and then she began working in the Douro. About 20 years ago, she began working at Quinta do Vale D. Maria and she also met Jorge at that time.

I found Sandra to be personable and charming, humble and knowledgeable, a passionate advocate for her wines. Some of her wines have garnered accolades from the major wine periodicals, such as the 2016 Wine & Soul Manoella being included in the Wine Spectator Top 100 Wines of 2019, but Sandra never mentioned these accolades. It seemed as if she wanted all of the guests to judge the wines on their own, and also because she seems to be a very humble person. To me, that is so much more appealing than having a winemaker drone on and on about their wine scores. It was a real pleasure to chat with her about her wines.

Wine & Soul is very concerned about producing wines that reflect the terroir of their vineyards, which includes wanting to best understand their vineyards. Sandra stated that wine should give you "the feeling that you are there," which is an interesting way of describing the concept of terroir. In addition, they are concerned with old vines and indigenous grapes, and one of their biggest challenges is locating plots of old vines available for purchase. In addition, they are currently seeking organic certification, and use indigenous yeasts, with minimal intervention.

Many of their wines are made from field blends, often consisting of 30+ grapes. Such a fascinating palette from which to create their wines. Portugal has over 300 indigenous grapes, a number of them originally brought by monks who carried cuttings with them when they travelled to Portugal. By using field blends, you're not dependent on any one grape, so are less susceptible to problems with a bad vintage. A field blend provides balance, yet still possesses its own identity. In addition, contrary to what some might think, there isn't much difference in the ripeness levels of the grapes, as plants generally want to pollinate at the same time and thus usually flower together.

Most of their grapes are also foot-trodden, in granite lagares, which is supposed to yield fine, silky tannins as it is a more gentle process on the grapes. This is rarely done in the Douro, and mainly for Port wine, although there are still granite lagares existing from the days of the ancient Romans. Thus, this practice is another way Wine & Soul helps to differentiate itself from other producers.

Interestingly, all of their barrel aging, including for their Ports, is conducted in the Douro, though most other Port producers age their wines elsewhere. The Douro was long considered too warm for barrel aging, but the advent of modern technology has changed the need to age elsewhere. Wine & Soul also owns a 19th century building with stone cellars, for the storage of their hundreds of barrels, which creates a natural coolness that works well for their varied wines.

Before we sat for dinner, we began the evening with a glass of the 2018 Wine & Soul Guru Branco (about $35). Sandra mentioned that about 20 years ago, few people in the Douro were producing white wines, as many claimed the region was too warm to produce good whites. However, in the Douro, there are higher-altitude mountainous areas which are cooler and can produce fine white grapes. Sandra and Jorge found tiny plots, with a field blend, at 600-700 meters high. Inspired by old white Ports, they chose to make this wine, what they claim to be a classic wine with aging potential, one reflective of terroir. Its first vintage was 2004.

This wine is produced from a field blend, from a 60 year old vineyard, which is approximately 25% Viosinho, 25% Rabigato, 25% Codega do Larinho and 25% Gouveio. The soil is a combination of schist (which gives the wine texture and flavors) and granite (which gives the wine its length and purity of flavors). The wine was also fermented and aged in French barriques for about seven months.  With a 12.5% ABV, this wine was fresh, crisp and delicious, with a complex blend of flavors, including peach, grapefruit, mineral notes, and a touch of oak. Medium-bodied, it possessed a pleasing finish and a nice elegance. Would love to pair this wine with seafood, from oysters to cod.

The First Course of our dinner was Slow Braised Pork Belly, in a red wine glaze with smoked King Oyster mushrooms and spinach. Chef Bruce mentioned that the pork belly had been steamed for about seven hours and that the mushrooms had been smoked for about 20 minutes. The silky pork belly, with its mildly sweet glaze, was delicious, enhanced by the smoky earthiness of the mushrooms. This dish was paired with two wines, the 2016 Wine & Soul Manoella and the 2013 Quinta da Manoella Vinhas Velhas.

The 2016 Wine & Soul Manoella (about $22) is a blend of 60% Touriga Nacional, 25% Touriga Franca, 10% Tinta Roriz, and 5% Tinta Francisca from the Quinta da Manoella vineyard, which was planted in 1973. This property has been owned by five generations of Jorge's family, and was initially purchased in the mid-19th century. It now consists of 70 hectares of land, 20 which have vineyards, the rest being forest and their plan is to keep it that way. The grapes for this wine were foot-trodden, and the wine aged for 16 months in used French barriques. At 14.2% ABV, this wine had a beautiful dark red color, with a delightful nose of pleasing aromas. On the palate, it was dry and lush, with tasty flavors of cherry, raspberry and mild spices. There was an earthy element as well, with a lengthy finish, nice acidity, and it paired nicely with the pork belly.

The 2013 Quinta da Manoella Vinhas Velhas (about $75) is a field blend of more than 30 indigenous grape varieties, from a vineyard planted in 1900. The grapes for this wine were foot-trodden, and the wine aged for 20 months in used French barriques. At 14.3% ABV, this wine had a more subtle nose than the other Manoella, but on the palate, it was much bolder, though still possessed of elegance and restraint. The black fruit flavors, like ripe plum and black cherry, were more concentrated, and there was plenty of complexity, with elements of dark spice, chocolate and black tea. A full bodied wine, with a lengthy, lingering finish that thoroughly satisfied. So much going on in this wine, and the smoky mushrooms were a nice companion to this wine.

The Second Course was Seared Arcadian Red Fish, with black rice, sweet onion puree, tomatoes, and petit basil. Chef Bruce found this fish while perusing the choices down at the Fish Pier. It is a sustainable choice, an under-utilized species with a delicious taste. This flaky white fish had a nice weight to it, and the ingredients combined for quite a tasty dish, the acidity of the tomatoes helping to cut the fat of the dish.

This was paired with the 2015 Wine & Soul Pintas Character (about $42) which is made from a field blend of 30+ varieties from the Vale de Mendiz vineyard, which was planted in 1970. The grapes for this wine were foot-trodden, and the wine aged for 18 months in French barriques, 50% new and 50% second-use. At 14.1% ABV, this wine is intended to be softer and more accessible than the flagship Pintas wine. It is a rich and bold wine, yet still elegant and silky, with a tasty blend of black fruit flavors and dark spices. The fruit flavors are most dominant, yet this wine still retains complexity as well as a lengthy, pleasing finish.

The Third Course was a fantastic Char Grilled Colorado Lamb T Bone, with fresh thyme, crosnes, and aged pecorino cream. The lamb was extremely tender, juicy and flavorful, just an excellent cut of meat. And that lamb was a killer pairing with our next wine, the 2017 Wine & Soul Pintas!

The Pintas was the first wine made by Wine & Soul, and the term "pintas" refers to "spots" or "splashes" of wine. The vineyard is over 100 years old, and contains a field blend of over 35 indigenous varieties. In addition, the vineyard has a southern-west exposure, with over 40% elevation slopes, and it located at a high altitude. Their desire was to make a full bodied wine that best showed the terroir of the Douro. As they state, "Our goal is to create wines that express all the character of the traditional vineyards and varieties from the Douro Valley. A balanced wine between the concentration, complexity and elegance.

The grapes for the 2017 Wine & Soul Pintas (about $90) were foot-trodden, and the wine aged for 22 months in French barriques, 70% new and 30% in second-use. With a 13.7% ABV, this wine first evidenced a seductive aroma, subtle and complex, drawing you into its beauty. On the palate, there was an intriguing and absolutely delicious melange of complex flavors, such as ripe plum, blackberry, blueberry, mild spice notes, a few floral hints, and a touch of earthiness. Full-bodied and bold, yet elegant, with well-integrated tannins and a delightfully lengthy finish. Well-balanced and compelling, this was a superb wine, certainly evidence that Portugal can make world-class wines. It was an amazing pairing with the lamb. This is also a wine that should age well for many years to come, something definitely you should add to your wine cellar. It earns my highest recommendation.

For Dessert, there was a Hazelnut Torte, with Port-glazed figs, pear sorbet, and salted caramel. A wonderful blend of sweet and fruity flavors.

With this dish, we enjoyed a glass of the 2017 Wine & Soul 10 Year Old Tawny Port ($55), which enthralled me. The grapes were foot-trodden and this Port was aged closer to 15 years, spending time aging in 50+ year old, 630 liter, chestnut barrels. Sandra mentioned that chestnut was used as it tends to be more neutral, with very tight grains. Only 3,000 bottles of this wine were produced, and less than 100 have been allocated to Massachusetts. Sandra stated that this Port was intended to bring new people to drinking Port.

At 19.5% ABV, its nose was compelling, with a subtle sense of sweetness amidst dried fruit and nut notes. On the palate, the Port was more dry, with only a hint of sweetness, and possessed a complex and beguiling flavor profile, with elements of dried fruit, cherry, salted nuts, honey, caramel, earthiness, and more. It drank more like a 20 year-old Port, being well balanced and well integrated, and I could have sat there all evening just sipping this Port. I can easily understand how this Port could convince more people to drink it, especially as it was more dry than sweet. This Port also earns my highest recommendation. In time, Wine & Soul will produce a 20 Year-Old Port. Plus, they make vintage Port and their recent 2017 Vintage Port has been garnering many accolades.

Such a compelling food and wine experience, this was but one example of the type of events held at the Boston Wine Festival. Of the other guests I spoke too, they were unanimous in their love for this dinner. Sandra was such an excellent host, and her wines spoke volumes about the quality of their terroir. I found even more reasons to love Portuguese wine. The Wine & Soul wines are currently imported by Boston Wine Co., so I highly recommend you ask for them at your local wine shop.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Rant: Brave Restaurants & Their Wine Lists

Kudos to two courageous restaurants, A Tavola and Krasi, both which have taken a bold stance with their wine lists. They have chosen to restrict their wines to a single country, the country of their chosen cuisine.

Would you expect to find a Neapolitan pizza on the menu at a Sushi restaurant? No. Would you expect to find a cheeseburger on the menu of a Spanish tapas restaurant? No. In a similar vein, diners shouldn't expect that a restaurant, concentrating on a specific cuisine, will carry wines from all regions of the world. If a restaurant wants to specialize in the wines of a single country, it should be embraced for doing so. Diners should respect that decision and be willing to select wines from that list, even if they aren't familiar with those wines.

Restaurants which go this route spend lots of time carefully curating their wine list, selecting a diverse selection of wines which should appeal to all wine preferences. If a diner likes a certain flavor profile, the restaurant staff should be able to recommend wines which would appeal to that diner. A Tavola has an all-Italian wine list, and although it's relatively small, there's still plenty of diverse choices. Krasi has an all-Greek wine list, of over 150 selections, and there's definitely a wine for everyone.

This is a philosophical choice by the restaurant, an effort to promote a certain culinary tradition and region. We should respect such a choice. Such a wine list a great way to expand your palate, to broaden your vinous experiences. You might even find some new favorites, intriguing unique grapes or wine styles. You might not find some of these wines at any other restaurant, so you have the opportunity to explore something new. Personally, I was very excited to see the Greek wine list at Krasi, eager to sample wines new to me. And at A Tavola, I've already tasted a few wines new to me as well.

However, not all restaurants choose to limit their wine menu to a single country. I certainly understand the reasons why some do so, especially their desire to cater to the desires of their customers. It can be a financial decision, worries that some customers won't dine at their restaurant if they can't find the wines they commonly drink. Some people are too set in their ways, and want to be able to get their California Chardonnay no matter what restaurant where they dine. That is a valid concern to some degree, and as restaurants are businesses, they need to do what they can to survive. That is their choice, but it's not the only available choice.

We should to give our support to those restaurants brave enough to have a single-country wine list, to dine at such restaurants and enjoy their wine choices. We should be open to experiencing new wines, and not limit ourselves to the same old wines. Please dine at A Tavola and Krasi and thank them for the courage in presenting a single-country wine list.

Do you have any favorite restaurants with such a wine list limited to a single country?

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I highlight some interesting, upcoming food & drink events.
1) For Valentine's Day, consider the ArtBar at the Royal Sonesta Boston, where Executive Chef Brian Dandro has crafted an extensive four-course Valentine’s Day menu exclusively for the evening.

For the First Course, you have three options, including Local East Coast Oysters, Roasted Winter Vegetable Bisque or a Cheesy Valentine's Salad. For the Second Course, you also have three options, including Winter Squash Empanadas, Lamb Rillette, or Jumbo Lump Crab Cake. For the Third Course, there are four options, including Pork Shank, Surf & Turf, Mushroom Risotto, or Half Buttered Poach Lobster. And for Dessert, there are also four options, including Premier Cheese Plate, Chocolate for Two, Grand Marnier Creme Brûlée, or La Marca Champagne Float.

To toast the evening, the chef has also crafted a special signature cocktail, The Love Bite - a combination of Ketel One Ohranj vodka, Malibu Coconut Rum, Peach Schnapps, fresh limes, and cranberry juice with a strawberry garnish.

The price for this Valentine’s Day Prix-Fixe Menu is $65 per person, and it will be available from February 13-15. To make reservations, please call 617-806-4122

2) On Sunday, February 23, starting at 5:45pm, Puritan & Company’s Chef/Owner Will Gilson and Pastry Chef Brian Mercury bring back OverKill 3 which will feature ten Boston-area chefs, five savory and five pastry, that will each prepare a dish as part of a ten-course blowout. All proceeds will benefit Lovin’ Spoonfuls, a nonprofit dedicated to facilitating the rescue and distribution of healthy, fresh food that would otherwise be discarded throughout Greater Boston, MetroWest, Hampden County, and beyond every weekday. During each course, the chefs will introduce themselves and speak about the dish they have prepared.

Chefs confirmed to participate include: Will Gilson and Brian Mercury of Puritan & Co., Tracy Chang of PAGU, David Bazirgan of Bambara Kitchen & Bar, Meghan Thompson of SRV, Dee Chin of Big Heart Hospitality, Sophie Gees of Oleana, and Kenny Hoshino of Alden & Harlow, Waypoint and Longfellow Bar and a couple more surprise chefs!

Seats for this event are very limited, and tickets are available for $100 at Eventbrite.

3) On February 15 & 16, from 11:30am-3pm, guests at Zuma Boston will get a taste of their Miami location's special brunch service. The Brunch package ($65 per person) will include full access to two buffets – a hot buffet, featuring items from the robata, and a cold buffet, featuring sushi & sashimi offerings – as well as one entrée per person and Zuma’s signature, towering dessert platter to share. Zuma’s resident talent, DJ Tao, will be spinning both days from 12:30-4:30pm.

Sample items from the two-hour buffet package include Maki, a selection of Sushi & Sashimi, Robata skewers and roasted vegetables. There also will be cocktails and limited a la carte starters and additional entrees available for purchase separately.

To make reservations, please call 857-449-2500

4) Harvest Chefs Tyler Kinnett and Pastry Chef Josh Livsey invite guests for the 5th Annual Harvest Winter Party benefiting Furnishing Hope MA, a charity committed to helping those transitioning out of homelessness. On Sunday, March 1, from 6pm-9pm, break out the flannels and pompom hats and join the team at Harvest for a winter lodge-themed party on the heated patio. Sip on Maker’s Mark cocktails and Harpoon brews while enjoying the Harvest ice luge, shot skis, food from Chef Tyler Kinnett and Pastry Chef Joshua Livsey, a charity raffle, and music from DJ Ryan Brown.

Tickets are $55 per person and include food, two drink tickets, and full access to all the party perks. A portion of each ticket, as well as the proceeds from the raffle, will benefit Furnishing Hope of MA, an organization committed to helping families transition out of homelessness and create homes from themselves. Tickets can be purchased on Eventbrite.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Moonshine? A History of Sotol in the U.S. (Revised/Expanded)

"More than 75% of the population of Mexico may be illiterate. Educational methods in Mexico follow more closely cock-fighting, sotol drinking, and the bull ring rather than the "three R's."
--Omaha Daily Bee, March 26, 1914: A letter to the editor written by Wood B. Wright

This racist comment is interesting for one aspect, that it mentions Sotol drinking rather than Mezcal or Tequila. Today, when discussing Mexico, most people would first mention Tequila and then maybe Mezcal. Very few people though would mention or even know about Sotol. However, back in the early 20th century, Sotol was apparently much more dominant in the northern region of Mexico and Americans on the borders were more familiar with it. Sotol has since been eclipsed by Tequila and Mezcal, but it is starting to make a bit of a comeback and you should learn more about it.

The Sotol plant (Dasylirion wheeleri), also known as the Desert Spoon, derives its name from the Nahuatl word “Tzotolin,” which basically translates as “palm with long and thin leaves.” It was once thought to be a type of Agave but it was eventually discovered that it actually is a succulent that belongs in the Nolinaceae family. Both the Agave and Nolinaceae families fall under the same plant order, Asparagales, so they are related to a degree. Sotol grows in northern Mexico and ranges into the U.S., primarily in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.

Indigenous peoples have been using the Sotol plant for thousands of years, for a number of different purposes. They use the strong fibers of the leaves to make cords and weave baskets. The base of the leaf has been used to make a spoon-like utensil, which led to the Sotol being called the Desert Spoon. The core of the plant has been used as a food source, and some peoples also fermented the plant to make alcohol.

Once distillation was introduced to Mexico, people began to distill the Sotol plant, creating an alcoholic spirit that also was named Sotol. Sotol is primarily produced in the northern Mexican regions of Chihuahua, Coahuila and Durango, though it can be found in other Mexican regions as well. In 2004, Mexico granted Sotol a Designation of Origin (DO) and formed a Consejo Mexicano de Sotol to regulate its production. Legally, Sotol can only be produced in the states of ChihuahuaCoahuila and Durango.  Generally the producers uses wild Sotol plants, which commonly take about fifteen years to mature, and it is said that one plant can produce a single bottle of Sotol.

In Texas, a new Sotol distillery, Desert Door, has recently opened to the public, raising the issue of whether there is a history of Sotol distillation in the U.S. There appears to be some anecdotal evidence, stories passed down from family members, that Sotol might have been illegally distilled, a form of moonshine, in Texas. It certainly seems plausible that it might have occurred but it would be even more interesting if we could find some documentary evidence to support the belief. In addition, there is the question as to whether Sotol was ever commercially produced in the U.S. or not.

Back in 2017, I conducted some preliminary research on the issue and based on that initial work, I couldn't find any documents to directly support the allegation of Texans distilling Sotol. What I found tended to lend more support to the possibility that such distillation didn't occur on any significant basis in Texas, and was essentially limited to Mexico, or to the indigenous peoples of Texas region.

At the time, I indicated that further research into that area was definitely warranted, and I'm back, after conducting some additional research. My conclusions are now slightly different, though more definitive. First, I have found some evidence of Texans illegally producing "moonshine" using Sotol. Second, I've found a legal rationale for why the commercial production of Sotol, as a spirit for consumption, was illegal and thus never occurred in Texas or any other part of the U.S. in the past. The laws have subsequently been revised, allowing Sotol production to now occur, but during the 19th and much of the 20th century, it was prohibited.

One of the earliest documents I found, with substantial information on Sotol, was in The American Naturalist Vol. 15, No. 11, Nov., 1881, an article titled "Sotol" by Dr. V. Harvard, a U.S. Army Surgeon who was stationed at Fort Abraham Lincoln in North Dakota. Dr. Harvard noted that the production of Sotol "... is carried on mostly in the Mexican States of Chihuahua, Cohuihuila and Sonora, and sotol mescal is the ordinary alcoholic beverage of the native population. It is precluded in Texas by the high duties laid on this class of industry." Dr. Harvard doesn't indicate that any "sotol mescal" is produced in Texas, or elsewhere in the U.S.

Dr. Harvard then goes into a detailed explanation of "sotol mescal," from its harvest to a description of the heads, noting harvesting is suspended only during the rainy reason, from June to September. He also notes how the heads are baked in circular pits, which are about ten feet deep, before they are pounded into a pulp. This sounds similar in some respects to the production of Mezcal. However, the pulp is then thrown into vats for fermentation, and for a few days, men tread upon the pulp with their feet. That foot-treading generally doesn't occur when making Mezcal. Once fermentation is complete, it is then placed into a still. "The first liquor obtained, being richer in alcohol and possessing to a higher degree the peculiar aroma of sotol mescal, is considered of better quality."

Dr. Harvard provides some information on the pricing of "sotol mescal" too. "A vinata in good running order will turn out a Mexican barrel a day (about twenty-eight gallons), sold at an average price of fifteen dollars, and retailing for thirty or forty centsaquart." He also is appreciative of its taste, "Sotol mescal is a pure, wholesome alcoholic drink; if the best brand be kept long enough to lose its sharp edge, it compares favorably with good whisky;.." And another benefit is "On account of its cheapness and characteristic taste, mescal is very seldom adulterated." This is a fascinating article and you should read it for even more information on Sotol.

In some subsequent written references, Sotol in Texas and New Mexico is mentioned as animal feed, with no reference to distillation. A Colorado newspaper, Walsenburg World, June 12, 1892 wrote that in the Pacos river valley of Texas, they are using a "peculiar" sheep feed called Sotol, noting that men with axes must first cut open the Sotol heads and that the sheep are quite fond of the Sotol.

The Santa Fe Daily New Mexican, April 02, 1895, in an article titled "Live Stock Interests," wrote "Attention is now being directed to the nutritive and fattening qualities of sotol, a vegetable growth of the cacti species. Sotol is said by stockmen, who have closely studied its virtues as a stock food, to furnish both feed and water, as it contains sufficient moisture supply stock for long periods without water. Sheep readily fatten on it while cattle and horses take to it as they do to grain. It is not available for sheep unless burst open with an ax." So we see Sotol being used as feed for sheep, cattle and horses, but there isn't any mention that anyone locally is distilling it into alcohol.

There are a number of other newspaper articles during this time frame which discuss feeding sotol to animals, especially sheep, and I haven't added many of them as the information would be duplicative of what I've already mentioned. In none of those articles will you find references to Texans distilling Sotol alcohol.

Mezcal distilleries in Texas? The Laredo Times, May 5, 1903, published an article, Mezcal And This Country, subtitled Why It Can Not Be Distilled In The United States. The article was in response to a question as why no one had ever started a Mezcal distillery, using the abundant maguey that grew in the U.S. Beyond its connection of Mezcal, the answer to this question has important ramifications concernng the production of Sotol, providing a definitive explanation for why no one could commercially produce Sotol liquor at that time.

The answer was provided by the law, in two related statutes. Section 3248 of the Revised Statutes of the U.S. defined "distilled spirits" as "spirits, alcohol, and alcoholic spirit, to be that substance known as ethyl alcohol, hydrated oxide of ethyl, or spirit of wine, which is produced by the fermentation of grain, starch, molasses or sugar, including all dilutions and mixtures of this substance." Section 3255 of the Revised Statutes then allowed the Commissioner of the Internal Revenue to exempt a specific list of fruits, used to make brandy, from the regulations of the manufacturing of spirits.

Based on these two Sections, the Commissioner had ruled that "the articles and fruits mentioned in the statues above quoted are the only ones which can be used for the purpose of distilling alcoholic liquors..." Because Sotol and Maguey were not specifically mentioned in these statues, then neither could be legally distilled to produce alcohol. Thus, no one could operate a legal Sotol distillery in Texas, or anywhere else in the U.S. Quite a definitive answer.

The article also briefly mentioned that about two years ago, a man established an illegal distillery in West Texas, and had produced about 600 gallons of "mezcal" from Sotol. However, the government somehow learned of the operation, and subsequently seized and destroyed the still and illegal Sotol "moonshine." So, we also see evidence of illegal distillation in Texas.

Subsequent references to Sotol being distilled for alcohol aren't quite what you think. The Brownsville Daily Herald, October 12, 1906, in an article titled "And Ozona Is Advertised," reports that: "Another gold mine has been discovered in Texas, namely, the vast quantities of alcohol contained in the sotol bush. At Ozone, in Crockett county, the light and ice company is making its own fuel from the sotol and this same company proposes to supply fuel for power to all the surrounding country from its distilling plant." Again, there is no mention that anyone in Texas is distilling Sotol for alcohol consumption.

There were additional references to the plans to use Sotol for fuel. The Jimplecute, October 13, 1906 mentions "San Antonio: John Young of Ozona, who is at the head of the company that proposes to distill denatured alcohol known at (sic) "sotol," is in this city and has shed some new light on the proposed enterprise. He says that sotol plant has somewhat the appearance of a cabbage and grows in great abundance all over West Texas. For many years the Mexicans have manufactured mescal from the plant, producing a good grade of alcohol." Though it mentions Mexicans making alcohol from Sotol, there continues to be a lack of mention of any Texans doing the same.

The San Angelo Press, October 18, 1906 added more detail, stating that the denatured alcohol would replace fuel oil in machinery plants, also stating that: "Other good uses have been made of sotol, however. Sheepmen in the sotol section have long utilized it as the chief food during the winter for their flocks." And once again, despite referencing other uses for Sotol, there isn't any mention of Texans making alcohol from Sotol.

Another such reference is in the El Paso Herald, June 18, 1907. which printed that "Within six months there will be completed and in operation in El Paso a plant for the extraction of alcohol, ether and fiber from all forms of the cactus plant. This concern will be known as the El Paso Chemical and Fiber Works..." The plant, which is planned to be in an adobe building, will cost $20,000 and have a capacity of 20 gallons a day. "The alcohol will be denatured alcohol, therefore usable for fuel." Though the article claims this will be the first plant of its kind in the U.S., the earlier references provided here seem to indicate there was at least one other plant prior to this planned El Paso plant.

As for the continued use of Sotol as feed, the Albuquerque Evening Citizen, July 03, 1907 published an article, Alfalfa versus Sotol for Cattle, discussing a report prepared by a New Mexico agricultural experiment station that conducted a study of the use of Alfalfa vs Sotol. Though they found that Sotol was generally cheaper than Alfalfa, commonly by as much as half, they also concluded that Alfalfa was generally better nutritionally for the animals unless additional ingredients were added to the Sotol feed. In the end, it came down to how inexpensive a farmer could obtain Sotol and the other ingredients as compared to Alfalfa.

Returning to the El Paso plant, the El Paso Herald, August 12, 1907, indicated the factory would be constructed on three blocks in the Grandview Addition. The plans for the building hadn't been completed yet and construction wouldn't begin until those plans were complete. There was a follow-up in the El Paso Herald, October 30, 1907, indicating that the main building, the distillery, was nearly completed. A four-room cottage and stable had also been completed, and they were still working on finishing the fiber building and a bonded warehouse. The plant was supposed to begin operation on January 1, 1908, with a capacity of 1,000 gallons of alcohol, far greater than originally planned.

Plans didn't work out as expected. The El Paso Herald, May 1, 1908, reported that the factory hadn't opened yet, awaiting government authorization for their alcohol distillery, but would open their fiber factory on May 4. Then, the El Paso Herald, July 29, 1908, discussed the imminent start of the distillery, noting that they had already conducted a test run. A few changes were made to the process due to findings from that test. They also learned that the "heart of the cactus...after the fibrous blades had been cut off, was a juicy pulp easily converted into alcohol of a very superior quality." In addition, they decided that they would produce only about 500 gallons per day, finding it more beneficial than trying to reach 1,000 gallons. On August 26, 1908, it was announced that the plant needed up to another two weeks before it would finally start production.

Some general information about Sotol, and a short bit about the proposed El Paso plant, was provided in The Buffalo Sunday Morning News, Sept. 27, 1908The article first mentioned how there are millions of acres of Sotol plants in the mountainous area of Western Texas, and that it's said not to grow anywhere else in the U.S. Second, it stated that the Sotol plant can yield a percentage of alcohol greater than any other plant. Third, it mentioned how Congress authorized the construction of a plant to produce denatured alcohol from Sotol, which refers to the El Paso Chemical and Fiber Company.

Fourth, and most interesting, there was a brief historical item, mentioning that when the Spanish came to this area, they found that the "Pueblo and other Indian tribes" already knew of the alcoholic potential of Sotol. They were already using primitive stills to distill a "fiery white liquor." It was also mentioned that Sotol was still a favorite drink of the Mexicans, and that "American cowboys" on the border ranches were familiar with Sotol as well. For example, drinking Sotol was considered one part of the initiation rituals for "tenderfoots" on these ranches. However, there wasn't any mention that anyone in Texas was distilling Sotol.

There were more problems at the El Paso plant in October. The El Paso Herald, October 12, 1908, reported that there has been difficulty in getting alcohol from the product, although they weren't having any problems getting tequila. They wanted to bring in a master distiller for assistance. The November 16, 1908 issue noted the company was still having problems getting denatured alcohol from the yucca plant and they would run the plant for 90 days under the auspices of a distillery expert. Obviously, the plant had significant problems and The Houston Post, October 1909, noted the El Paso Chemical company had gone into receivership. It apparently never commercially produced Sotol for drinking purposes, and even had extreme difficulty in making denatured alcohol for fuel.

The Bulletin of Agricultural Experiment Station, New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, Issues 72, August 1909, printed an extended article about denatured alcohol, as well as discussing the El Paso Chemical plant. "In this investigation we will also include a study of the alcohol obtainable from the sotol and lechuguilla, the two plants that the El Paso Chemical and Fiber Company made an unsuccessful attempt to ferment for alcohol production. About a year ago this company erected a factory in El Paso. Texas, at a cost of something over $40,000 for the production of denatured alcohol, but for very evident reasons the plant was in operation only a short time."

The article continued, "El Paso plant was able to produce small quantities of fermentable sugar, would seem to indicate that the high steam pressure of the autoclave must have hydrolyzed some sugars without the presence of any mineral acid. It was not sufficient, however, to place the production of alcohol from these plants on an economical basis, and the factory soon closed its doors." It is clear this distillery was only trying to produce denatured alcohol, and even that was ultimately unsuccessful.

During this time period, smuggling Sotol across the border, from Mexico into the U.S., was a problem and there were multiple references in various newspapers about people being caught smuggling. For example, in the El Paso Herald, August 04, 1910, there was a report of a Mexican smuggler trying to discard his contraband Sotol, "the Mexican booze," before he was apprehended by the border authorities. In none of these references was there any indication that Americans were distilling their own Sotol.

In the Bryan Daily Eagle And Pilot, May 08, 1911 there was a brief mention of Sotol: "Then there are the sotol and the maguey and other desert plants, which the Mexican well knows how to convert into either food or drink." Once again, Sotol distillation seemed restricted to Mexico and there was no mention of it occurring in the U.S.

There was a single outlier article and I have to question its veracity. The Houston Post, March 26, 1917, discussed moonshine operations in Texas. "Of course there have been in Texas the moonshine distilleries which were so common in more eastern states...Be that as it may, distilleries, legal or illegal, have never been a success in this state." This section only mentioned Texan's difficulties in making whiskey from corn.

The article then curiously printed, "At this time only one distillery of any kind, so far as known to the officials, is operating in Texas. This prosperous concern is located in El Paso. It supplies to the Mexicans of that city and contiguous territory their natural drink, mescal, which is distilled from sotol." This distillery was not named, and no other identifying information was provided. This is strange as the only documented distillery, El Paso Chemical, closed around 1908, and it never sold commercial Sotol. As commercial Sotol and Mezcal production was illegal under U.S. law, this part of the article makes no logical sense, and it is most likely a factual error.

Back to Sotol as animal feed. The use of Sotol for animal feed took a technological step forward as reported in El Paso Herald, July 04, 1917. A new company was formed in El Paso, Sotol Products, to produce feed for livestock derived form the Sotol plant. The company had a new patented process which produced a nutritious Sotol molasses. This molasses was then combined with the pith of the Sotol as well as some Alfalfa or other vegetable material. This livestock feed could be sold at "an extraordinary low price."

In a follow-up, in El Paso Herald, July 27, 1918, there was an advertisement for this new Sotol animal feed. The "Sotol Molasses Mixed Feed" contained a blend of 25% Alfalfa Meal, 25% Ground Sotol Plant, and 40% Sotol Molasses. There was then a breakdown touching on the feed's Fats, Protein, Nitrogen Free Extract & Crude Fiber and comparing them to beet pulp, showing that the molasses mixed feed was better for livestock. And the advertisement also stressed the low cost of this product.

Finally, I've heard some claim that there might have been a Sotol distillery in New Mexico, but that seems to be based on an incomplete information. The El Paso Times, September 24, 1923, detailed an account of a couple murders, and some other news accounts of this incident were much less detailed. Those shorter reports seemed to indicate one of the bodies was found near a Sotol distillery south of Columbus, New Mexico. That is factual, except that actually it was far enough south that it occurred in Mexico, not New Mexico.

The El Paso article noted that Holly Herring's body was found in a hollow near a Sotol distillery, but the article stated it was located on the south side of the Ojo Federico ranch, which is in Mexico. This was confirmed as the authorities in the U.S. had to obtain the permission of Mexico to retrieve the body and then it to the U.S. The Sotol distillery was thus located in the Chihuahua region of Mexico, and not in New Mexico.

Although there is limited evidence of Texans making illegal Sotol "moonshine," as well as smuggling over the border, it is definitive that commercial Sotol production was illegal under U.S. law so it never occurred in Texas, or any other place in the U.S. Sotol was used to produce denatured alcohol for fuel, though even that production was relatively small, as the companies ran into an assortment of problems producing it.

As more Mexican Sotol becomes available in the U.S. market, I recommend you seek it out. Last night, I enjoyed a glass of Sotol at the new Bodega Canal, near TD Garden. You'll find some other local Mexican restaurants too that may carry one or two Sotol. Be adventurous and enjoy a new spirit!

"There is some resemblance between the cabbage and sotol, but there is no reason to conclude that cabbage beer is anything like mescal, one drop of which, it has been said, will make a rabbit go out and hunt a fight with a bulldog."
--Bryan Daily Eagle And Pilot, August 26, 1911

(This article was originally published in 2017, but has now been revised/expanded, due to additional research.)

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

2016 K7 Plavac Mali: 7 Croatian Wineries, 1 Compelling Wine

Seven Croatian wineries, all located in the Komarna Appellation, and their U.S. importer, Croatian Premium Wine Imports, Inc. (CPWI) have united to create a special wine, a Plavac Mali created from a blend of wines from all seven wineries. Such a collaboration is very rare in the wine world, though considering the closeness of the Komarna Seven (K7) Association, the seven wineries in this Croatian appellation, it makes much sense.

In 2008, the first grapes were first planted in the Komarna region, by the Rizman Winery, and five years later, in 2013, Komarna became a legally recognized appellation. There are only seven wineries in this appellation, and they have formed an association, agreeing to jointly abide by certain rules, such as all their vineyards must be organic. I've visited this region, and several of the wineries, and it's a fascinating area, producing some excellent wines, especially from indigenous grapes such as Pošip and Plavac Mali.

Thus, I was especially curious to sample their new collaboration, and recently received a media sample of the wine. The 2016 K7 Plavac Mali, which has just been released, is only available in the U.S., and Mihovil Stimac, the president of the Komarna K7 Association, commented, “We always wanted to create a joint label, but we are a young appellation and association, so the opportunity didn’t present itself until the Croatian Premium Wine team suggested we create a label for the US market, and we are thrilled we were able to get this done for the 2020 introduction.”

Win Burke, CPWI’s co-founder and CEO, stated, “In partnership with the Komarna wineries, we wanted to create a label specific for the American palate and the American market. This effort resulted in a very drinkable Plavac Mali with silky tannins and a special aroma characteristic of the Komarna Appellation. I believe this is the first of its kind joint venture where the wineries and importer are creating the wines, and we look forward to the feedback from the American wine lovers who will be the only ones able to taste it.”

To produce this wine, each of the seven wineries first produced their own Plavac Mali, in a similar style, and then submitted the wines to Josip Volarevic, the owner and oenologist of the Volarevic WineryHe is also a scientist and an academic, currently working on intriguing PhD research about the Plavac Mali grape. I've met Josip and he is a passionate and intelligent person, with an intense drive to best understand the Plavac Mali grape, conducting various experiments using this grape, so selecting him to create their blends was an excellent choice.

Next, Josip created several different blends from the base wines. The seven wineries then met together to select the final blend, through a blind wine tasting process. Once the final blend was selected, Terra Madre Winery began blending the wine in tanks at their winery, continuing the process through bottling and labeling. In addition, the seven wineries and CPWI finalized the K7 logo and label.

I am delighted to be able to showcase this remarkable bottle of Plavac Mali - a result of a tight collaboration of people from my hometown - that to me represents the aromas of Dalmatia,” said Mirena Bagur, VP Brand Management at CPWI. “This is an elegant wine with a complex body and is drinkable at opening. Within a few minutes one can taste the typical jammy raisin flavor of Plavac Mali. We have shared samples with a few key wine bars, restaurants and stores, and the best feedback from them is that the wine is already on the shelves and on the menu in a few of them.”

The 2016 K7 Plavac Mali ($19) is made from 100% Plavac Mali, is certified organic, and has a 14.5% ABV. The wine was aged for 24 months in a combination of Croatian, American and French oak barrels. It possesses a medium-red color, slightly translucent, and the initial aromas include black fruit and subtle spice. The wine was a little tight at first, but within 30-60 minutes after being poured, it opened up beautifully. I'd suggest decanting the wine maybe an hour before drinking, to give it a some time to open up.

This wine presents an interesting complex melange of flavors, including blackberry, plum, blueberry, black pepper, hints of vanilla, and a touch of chocolate. Some very typical Plavac Mali flavors. It also possesses a lengthy, satisfying finish, pure deliciousness. The tannins are moderate, and it's a wine that is probably best accompanied with food, something hearty, a juicy steak or even just a burger. I paired the wine with Chicken Parmigiana in a spicy Arrabbiata sauce, and it was a pleasing pairing.

At only $19, this wine is a very good value too, and an excellent introduction to Croatian wines and the Plavac Mali grape. It earns my hearty recommendation. The K7 Association will even continue to make further vintages of this collaborative wine. So, you might want to buy an extra bottle or two to store in your cellar, to later compare with future vintages.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Rant: We Need More Bread Pudding!

We need more Bread Pudding, more restaurants willing to place it onto their dessert menus, more bakeries willing to offer it, and I'd even love to see a bakery specialize in Bread Pudding. So why hasn't this happened yet?

The origins of Bread Pudding extends back to the 11th century, as people tried to find ways to use their stale bread. A couple hundred years later, in England, it was known as "poor man's pudding" because it was popular with the lower classes. Essentially, Bread Pudding is made with some type of bread over which a custard-like sauce is poured before it is cooked. Numerous other ingredients can be added, from nuts to fruits, and you can use any type of bread, or bread-like food, such as muffins or donuts. It is relatively easy to make, versatile and can be absolutely delicious.

Cupcakes and froyo have already had their time in the spotlight. It's time for something else, another dessert to take the world by storm. My vote for that candidate goes to Bread Pudding. I've been hoping for this for numerous years, wanting some adventurous entrepreneurs to go forward with this idea. There was a bread pudding bakery in California, which advertised 108 flavors, broken down into Classics, Chocolates, Fruits and Seasonal. Why can't such a bakery start up in the Boston area?

A few local restaurants offer Bread Pudding, and my favorite is created by Chef Marisa Iocco at Spiga, in Needham, and which is pictured at the top of this post. I first tasted her Bread Pudding back in 2009, and it captivated me then, being just as delicious now as it was all those years ago. I've told people they should start their meal with the Bread Pudding, to prevent them from being otherwise too full to eat it after dinner. 

Chef Iocco even allowed me to post a recipe for her Bread Pudding, though you're on your own for creating a sauce to top it.

2 lbs. crusty, day-old Italian bread
1 quart heavy cream
1 quart whole milk
6 eggs
2 cups sugar
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise

--Remove the bread heels and cut bread into small cubes
--In a saucepan, combine cream, milk, sugar and vanilla bean, and bring to a slow boil. Remove the mixture from the heat and allow it to cool and steep for one hour.
--In a bowl, whisk the eggs, then pour in the vanilla-cream mixture and stir. Next, add the bread cubes and allow it to sit just long enough to soak up most of the liquid.
--Pour mixture into a rectagular cake pan at least 4” deep. Cover tightly with foil. Place that pan into a slightly larger pan, then add about two inches of water to the larger pan to create what’s called a “bain marie” or water bath. This provides moisture during baking.
--Bake at 375 degrees for two hours. Remove from oven; let pudding “set” briefly. Cut into squares. Serves 8 generously.

Readers, would you support a local bakery specializing in bread pudding? What local restaurants have you enjoyed bread pudding? Do you make bread pudding at home?