Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Vermont Raised Mangalitsa Pigs: Bring On The Lard

"Pork. The Other White Meat." 

Since 1987, that slogan, promoted by the National Pork Board, has tried to define the pork industry, offering pork as a lean alternative, more akin to chicken than beef. Farmers then sought to raise leaner pigs, and that became the standard for much of the industry. The promotion was successful, raising pork consumption by 20%.  

You might be surprised that the USDA defines pork as a "red" meat. Their website states, "Pork is a red meat. Oxygen is delivered to muscles by the red cells in the blood. One of the proteins in meat, myoglobin, holds the oxygen in the muscle. The amount of myoglobin in animal muscles determines the color of meat. Pork is classified a red meat because it contains more myoglobin than chicken or fish."

Some believed that when pigs were bred to be leaner, their meat became less flavorful, like chicken, and it actually needed more fat to enhance its flavor. Thus, some farmers began raising heritage breeds, fattier pigs, to produce pigs with much more flavor. The general consumer might be most aware of the heritage Berkshire pigs, which can be found on numerous restaurant menus. If you've eaten Berkshire pork, you understand how more flavorful the pork can be than most factory farm pork. 

However, many consumers might not be familiar with another heritage breed, the Mangalitsa, which is like the Waygu beef of the pork world. And when you view a piece of finely marbled Mangalitsa pork, you also understand why pork is a red meat. 
The Mangalitsa, whose name means “hog with a lot of lard,” originated in the Austro-Hungarian empire during the first half of the 19th century, although the breed wasn't officially recognized until 1927. It is sometimes known as the "curly hair" pig, because of all of its curly hair, and it's said to be the last pig breed in existence with this type of hair. 

Despite its initial popularity, the Mangalitsa pig nearly became extinct during the 1990s, with only a couple hundred remaining at that time. So, what was needed to save the Mangalitsa? To eat it!

Eat it to save it? That might seem contradictory at first, but it's not. If farmers don't believe there is a market for their products, they won't raise them. With so many people wanting lean pork, fewer farmers were willing to raise the fatty Mangalitsa. To save an animal, they need a purpose, a reason to be raised and produced. So, if more people desired to eat an animal, then more farmers would be willing to raise it, helping to grow the population. This philosophy has been successful in helping a number of endangered breeds.

As the Mangalitsa faced extinction, a Hungarian geneticist, Peter Toth, worked hard to spread the good word about this breed of pigs, convincing a number of farmers to raise them for their cherished meat and fat. They have since rebounded, and there are now around 50,000 Mangalitsa in the world, bringing them away from an endangered status. In the U.S., there is even a Mangalitsa Breed Organization & Registry Inc., founded in 2019, which registers U.S. Mangalitsa pigs and helps to educate breeders.

However, more work needs to be done, to educate consumers about the marvels of the delicious meat of this wondrous breed. It should be a household word, known and loved by all. Many American still know nothing about the Mangalitsa. Because of their ignorance, they are generally unwilling to pay more for Mangalitsa pork, so they need to be cognizant of the reasons why Mangalitsa is worth the cost. Once they taste it, and understand its richer flavor, that might be sufficient to change their minds.    

There are generally three varieties of Mangalitsa pigs, differing primarily by color, and including the Blonde, Swallow-Bellied, and Red. A few other pure-breed varieties have gone extinct.

Why makes Mangalitsa special? The Mangalitsa is one of the fattiest breeds of pig, comprised of 65%-70% fat, while the average pig has only 16-20% body fat, although some other breeds can reach up to 50%. All this fat means that Mangalitsa pork is highly marbled, like a good steak, and with much more flavor than a leaner pig breed. Their meat also has more of a reddish color to it, showing you that pork is truly a red meat. Mangalitsa fat is also high in omega-3 fatty acids and natural antioxidants, so it can be healthy for you as well. 

I've previously enjoyed Mangalitsa pork several times, although it's difficult to find in local restaurants, mostly offered as a Special rather than as a regular menu item. And it is nearly impossible to find in local markets. 

So, on my recent trip to Vermont, I was thrilled to get the chance to visit Vermont Raised Mangalitsa Pigs, a farm in Springfield, Vermont, which raised this breed of pigs. I returned home with a bag of Mangalitsa pork products, which I purchased at the farm, and I strongly recommend that all pork lovers make the trip to southern Vermont to purchase some of this delicious Mangalitsa.
Betsy Lirakis, a strong, passionate and dedicated woman, owns the Top O' Hill Farm, and since 1985, she has been breeding American Curly horses, now being the oldest breeder of these horses. About ten years ago, she started raising Mangalitsa pigs as she was dissatisfied with the pork she found elsewhere. It lacked sufficient flavor and she knew better pork existed, but that she might need to produce her own. Although Mangalitsa are fatty pigs, Betsy loves fat, and stated that most people are taught to avoid fat, yet in moderation, there is nothing wrong with it. Especially Mangalitsa fat which has healthy aspects to it.

Betsy also mentioned that she often chooses the underdog, from Curly horses to curly pigs, but that also requires that she must educate people about her choices. I've found that as well when I champion an under-appreciated drink, like Sake or Sherry, that consumers need to be educated about those products, to correct their misconceptions. Mangalitsa pigs are worthy of attention, so more people need to understand their value, and tasting their meat is a great step forward. It can help persuade people where words might be insufficient. 

First and foremost, Betsy is a farmer, a steward of the land, and it's extremely hard work. When I talked to Betsy, I didn't hear any complaints about that work either, simply a pride in her accomplishments, whether it was her horses or Mangalitsa. She truly cares for her animals, and tries to raise them in the best manner possible. Although she's fond of the Mangalitsa, they are raised to produce meat, so she doesn't try to form a close bond with them, despite their good nature. They aren't pets. At times, she will show some mild affection to them, but that is the extent. 

One takeaway from my Vermont trip, after visiting three farms, was that these niche farmers, like Betsy, must become experts in their chosen field, often learning on the job, through trial and error. They are always learning, always trying to improve their operations. It's a drive to excel, a passion to be the best they can be. And consumers benefit from all their hard work. 

Her truest passion is raising horses, the Curly Horse Farm, and its obvious why she forms a closer bond with her horses. She will spend years breeding and training the horses, so she naturally grows attached to them over that time, wanting only the best for them. When you spend that long with an animal, helping to develop it, learning and shaping its personality. then it is almost like a child to you. And when she eventually sells some of the horses, there is a natural worry over whether the new owner will treat the horses properly. 

The farm is spacious, and the Mangalitsa have plenty of room to roam about. On the day of my visit, it was raining a bit, and the ground was muddy, but that didn't dissipate the fun we had exploring the farm. And the pigs had no complaints about all of the mud! 

Betsy didn't know offhand how many pigs she currently owned, but stated it was on the lower end at the moment. She recalled a Ground Hog day of the past, where over a two-day period, four sows gave birth to a total of 35 piglets, all which survived. She selects for Mangalitsa that can survive, although they are generally easy to care for, very self-sufficient animals. I loved the varied coloration of the pigs and even after only a short time, you could discern they had individual personalities. 

This sow was nearly ready to give birth on the day of our visit, and did so a couple days later. She only had four piglets, a small litter, but they were all healthy. Unfortunately, she kept the piglets hidden for a time so I wasn't able to see them on a second visit, although you can now see them on the farm's Facebook page.

The Mangalitsa is a slow growing pig, part of the reason some farmers dislike them. The average factory farm pig is slaughtered when it is about 6-7 months, but Betsy generally waits until her Mangalitsa are 14-15 months old, twice as long as a usual pig, and they commonly weigh about 220 pounds at that point. 14-15 months seems to be the usual amount of time many Mangalitsa farmers in the U.S. process their pigs. In Europe, they commonly wait three years to butcher a Mangalitsa. 

Her pigs are processed at Maple Ridge Meats, in Fairhaven, Vermont, and a 150 pound pig will yield about 60 pounds of meat, with ham being the dominant meat, about 16% of the total. It will also yield about 15 pounds of lard. Betsy's biggest challenge is to get consumers to pay the higher prices for Mangalitsa than the usual pork found at the supermarkets. You pay more for quality meat, and there is a significant difference in the taste between factory-farmed pork and Mangalitsa. 

Betsy sells a wide variety of Mangalitsa products, from sausages to country ribs, ham to tenderloin, ground pork to kielbasa, and even a whole head. The meat generally sells for about $9-$20 a pound, and although that is more expensive than most factory-farm pork products, the quality is much better and it is worth the extra cost. And you know that it is a local product, raised well, and without the well-known issues of factory-farm meats. I loaded up on a variety of meats, and have started sampling some of what I purchased. 

The Sweet Italian Pork Sausage were delicious, and I simply cooked them in the oven. They were juicy and tender, with a tasty melange of spices. You could enjoy them as is, although they would also go well in a pasta sauce or on the grill with your favorite BBQ sauce.

Betsy really loves Shoulder Bacon, also known as Cottage Bacon. Most bacon comes from the pork belly but this bacon comes from the pork shoulder, which creates a meatier bacon. It definitely tastes like bacon, but is a bit thicker, and with less fat, although the fatty parts are silky smooth. The ends of this bacon still crisp up some so you get a crunch from that section. This is a compelling alternative to regular bacon, and I'm surprised more restaurants and markets don't sell Shoulder Bacon. 

Over the weekend, I also enjoyed a Mangalitsa Pork Tenderloin, which was very tender, juicy and flavorful. Certainly better than the usual pork tenderloin you find at the grocery store. It was a pure pleasure to eat, and it would impress your family and friends if you prepared it for them for a special dinner, or just a regular Wednesday night. I paired this tenderloin with an Oregon Pinot Noir, which proved to be an excellent pairing. 

As I mentioned previously, a 150 pound pig will generally produce about 15 pounds of lard. What do you do with that lard? Lard is basically pork fat that has been rendered down to a liquid. Betsy told me that lard is a hard sell, and that is basically because lard was demonized when people began seeking low fat alternatives. However, your grandparents may have used lard all the time, cooking and baking with it. 

Science has helped to rehabilitate lard, and shown that lard has less saturated fat than butter, and thus, used in moderation, isn't really unhealthy. Lard also has components which produce a far flakier pie crust than butter, which is why it has long been prized by bakers. Other cultures around the world embrace lard in their cooking. I bought a large hunk of Mangalitsa leaf lard and plan to experiment with it in the near future. 

Interestingly, in 2018, the global lard market revenue was $15.7 billion, an increase of 2.9% from 2017, and 40% of that consumption was in China. Germany was the #2 consumer, with only 10% of the total consumption. Americans is still very low on the lard consumption scale and they need to embrace lard, to forget their preconceptions about it being so harmful. 

As lard is a hard sell, the farm uses it to make soaps and lotions. This make sense as lard is rich in vitamins that can make your skin healthier, and acts as a mild moisturizer. They produce various flavors of their soaps and lotions, such as Vanilla Lotion, Peppermint & Rosemary Lotion, Citrus & Star Anise Soap, Rosemary Mint Soap, and Rose Geranium Soap. I got a soap and couple lotions to try as well. 

Much appreciation to Betsy Lirakis for taking the time to talk to me and give me a tour of her Mangalitsa farm. It was informative and fun, and I've been greatly enjoying the pork products I purchased. Betsy is a hard-working, local farmer, with a deep passion for her endeavors, and is very worthy of your support. She is raising a unique heritage pig, which faced extinction in the recent past, and keeping that breed alive for future generations. If you visit southern Vermont, I strongly recommend you purchase some of her Mangalitsa products. 

Monday, August 30, 2021

Social House: A Culinary Treasure in Manchester, Vermont

Where should you dine in southern Vermont? 

One recommendation I can give is the Social House Restaurant & Bar, located in Manchester. The restaurant opened in the summer of 2019, by Luis Pazos and his wife, Debbie Pazos. Debbie worked at the famed Le-Bernandin in New York City for about seven years, and met Luis there, who eventually became the floor manager at the restaurant. When they married in 2012, they soon decided to move to Vermont, as they felt it would be a great place to raise a family.

In time, they decided to open their own restaurant in Vermont, and chose the name Social House for a couple reasons, such as the abbreviation, SoHo, referenced their roots in New York City. Plus, they desired that their restaurant would be an excellent place for people to socialize. They also hired Executive Chef Jose M. Valines to run their kitchen. Obviously, the restaurant has faced many challenges, and continues to do so, because of the pandemic. However, I was impressed with my dinner and would definitely return there if I were in the area.

There is plenty of outdoor seating, and there's still time this season to enjoy their patio.

The restaurant is elegant, yet casual, and seats around 125 people. 

You could begin your evening with one of their cocktails, such as the Razzmo, made with vodka, house-made raspberry liqueur, cranberry and lime. 

I opted for the House-Made Rock & Rye, which they describe as a "Rye Old Fashioned but better." It was a well-made cocktail, nicely balanced, and with the spicy bite of Rye that I enjoy. 

They also have about 14 wines available by the glass, many costing $13-$15, except for several Reserve wines that cost $22-$31. The wines are from all across the world and have some good selections. The Migliriana Montozzi Trebbiano ($14), an orange wine, was quite delicious, and went very well with our starters. They also have a lengthier list of wines by the bottle, with a fair amount priced from $45-$65, as well as a number of higher-end, splurge worthy wines. I liked the make-up of the wine list, which avoids some of the "usual suspects" and includes some more interesting selections. 

The Menu is relatively small but with plenty of excellent options, and it changes on a regular basis. The Menu has 7 Starters, from Oysters on the Half-Shell ($3.50 each) to PEI Mussels ($17), and 3 Shares, including Mezze ($22) and a Cheese Plate ($19). There are then 3 House-Made Pastas & Risotto, like Mushroom Ravioli ($30), as well as 3 Entrees, like Fried Misty Knoll Chicken Breast ($32).  

There were four of us for dinner, so we began the meal with a few Starters and a Share. Above, is a photo of the Artisanal Breads & Ricotta Spread ($12), which included Herb Foccacia, Pan de Casa, Baguette, and Herb Ricotta. The creamy and flavorful ricotta was delicious atop the fresh bread. 

The Hamachi Crudo ($18) was made with Ají Amarillo, Leche de Tigre, & Lime, accompanied by Maldon Crispy Wontons. The thick pieces of hamachi were silky tender, enhanced by the toppings, and the crunchy wontons added a nice textural difference. 

The Charcuterie Plate ($21) came with Chicken Liver Truffle Mousse, Alto Adige Speck, Fortuna's Pistachio Salami, pickled vegetables, candied pecans, and maple mustard. The earthy and flavorful mousse was excellent, as was the speck and salami. Pickled carrots had a great crunch and pickled flavor, a nice contrast to the earthiness of the mousse. 

The Grilled Spanish Octopus ($19) is a duck fat confit octopus, with fingerling potatoes, Bromley Farm pea tendrils, and Fortuna's Chorizo Vinaigrette. This was the star dish of the starters, with a wonderfully tender and flavorful octopus, with a touch of spicy heat. Octopus, if prepared poorly, can be tough and rubbery, but this dish was well prepared, and the octopus was absolutely delicious. The tasty fingerlings had a slightly crusty exterior, with a fluffier interior. 

For my entree, I, and two other of my dining companions, opted for the Gnocchi alla Buttera ($32), house-made Gnocchi, with Wilcox Silver Spring Farm Sausage, Peas & Cream. The pillowy gnocchi were fresh and light, enhanced by the light cream sauce, fresh cheese and the nicely-spiced sausage. An excellent dish, I would like to try more of their house-made pasta dishes. 

My other dining companion ordered the nightly Special, a Filet Mignon, wrapped in Bacon, with sweet potato mash and he was very pleased with the dish as well.

Service was excellent and everyone at my table was very satisfied at the end of the dinner. This is my style of restaurant, where you want to order a bunch of dishes and share them with good friends. I like the fact that menu changes often, dependence on what is fresh and available. The dishes are well composed, nicely balanced, and delicious. 

So, when you visit southern Vermont, keep the Social House Restaurant & Bar in mind.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I'm back again with a new edition of Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I highlight some interesting, upcoming food and drink events. I hope everyone dines out safely and tips well.
1) Chef/Owner Will Gilson, Chef de Cuisine Sam Day, and the rest of the Puritan & Co. team will be celebrating the life of local culinary legend Julia Child at its 8th annual Julia Child Tribute Dinner on Thursday, September 16th, from 6pm-9pm.

Guests will be treated to a prix fixe menu of dishes inspired by favorite recipes from “The Art of French Cooking,” Each course will be served individually alongside carafes of wine on each table, which will be kept full for all to enjoy throughout the meal. Full wine, beer, and cocktail lists will also be available for purchase. 

Seatings will be available in the dining room or on the patio as parties of two, four, or solo bar seatings. Tickets, which are about $110 per person, can be purchased HERE.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Chester, Vermont: Helping Hands & Wine, Cheese, Pies, Candy, Donuts, and More

Have you ever visited the small town of Chester, Vermont? 

While in Vermont, I visited my good friend, Christopher Meyer, who founded, with Jason Tostrup of the Free Range restaurant, a charitable, non-profit organization called Chester Helping Hands. It was established during the pandemic to provide food assistance for the local community, such a worthy cause. They currently offer free meals on Wednesdays, provided by local restaurants. They are also supporting local farmers who have provided foods for this program as well. All of these meals are financed through donations, and the workers who help disseminate the meals are volunteers.

On the Wednesday I was in Vermont, Chris and Chester Helping Hands set up their table on The Common in Chester, a street with a number of small businesses, from an antiques shop to a book store. A line of cars queued up to receive their free mails, and about 700 meals were ultimately disseminated. The process ran smoothly and it was inspiring to see how this community has come together to help each other during these tough times. Not only do local residents receive free food, but restaurants and farms receive support as well, helping them as they too are hurting because of the pandemic. 

If you would like to support Chester Helping Hands, you can Venmo them a donation to @ChesterHelpingHands. As they are a 501c3 organization; your donations should be tax-deductible. I'm proud of my friend Chris for having developed such an admirable program.

In the vicinity of The Common in Chester, there's a number of cool food and drink shops too. I made brief stops to a few of these places, although I would like to explore them in more depth in a future trip. Chester is a small town, of only about 3,000 people, but its worth your while to explore this interesting community. Here's a few spots I'd highly recommend you check out.

The Meditrina Wine & Cheese shop is an excellent place with a very compelling beer and wine selection, and some gourmet foods. It's a small store, but there's plenty of food and drink available, filling the shelves floor to ceiling, and I bet you find plenty to tantalize you. The shop also conducts regular wine tastings. I spoke briefly with Amy Anderson, the owner of the shop, and she evidenced the passion for wine I seek from such shop owners. I probably could have sat down with her and spoke about wine for hours.

There is a section of Vermont cheese and gourmet foods, including Torres Potato Chips, one of my favorites. If you're going to drink wine or beer, it's always pleasant to have some snacks too.

There's also a section of local beers and ciders, and this is where I bought the Shacksbury Whistlepig Lo-Ball. Vermont is well known for its craft beers, and there certainly was a wide variety of local offerings for sale. 

These photos are just a small section of the wine shop, and as I skimmed the wine shelves, I found much that appealed to me, including plenty of natural wines, small production wines, and some other intriguing wines, including a Red Vinho Verde (which I bought). They have wine at all price points and any wine lover will find much of interest. This well-curated selection would be impressive wherever it was located. Finding it in the small town of Chester was intriguing and all wine lovers need to make this a stop while they are in southern Vermont.

These "bears" stand outside the Chester Candy Company, a small spot that concentrates primarily on sweet treats made in Vermont and New England. There's plenty of decadent chocolates, fudge, retro-candies, gummies, sours, hard candies, and much more. I enjoyed their Dark Chocolate Bourbon Caramels, which certainly had a prominent bourbon taste. 

Another cool spot is the Southern Pie Company (of which I sadly didn't get any pics), which specializes in pie, especially with a southern flair. Bourbon Pecan Pie, Chess Pie, Buttermilk Pie, Sur Cream Peach Pie, and so much more. The pies looked awesome, and I was very tempted to pick up a pecan pie, but I already had too many treats at the moment. However, they also make some other baked goods, and I got some of their tasty, fudgy brownies. I will get some pie on my next visit. In addition, you'll find a variety of breakfast and lunch sandwiches, and have a variety of drinks, including various coffees. 

Less than a mile away, you should visit Smitty's Chester Market, a small grocery store with plenty of the usual items, as well as a meat counter, beer & wine, and a deli. I visited the deli a couple times, which sells a variety of customizable sandwiches, as well as salads, soups, mac n' cheese, and other dishes. Every day, there is something different offered on the menu.

Their sandwiches are ample, fresh, tasty, and reasonably pricesd. They are also made for take-out only as they don't have a dining area. In addition, they sell a variety of baked goods, made in-house, including amazing Apple Cider Donuts, dipped in cinnamon/sugar, and a hearty Cinnamon Bread. Get there early as those baked goods disappear quickly. 

And you can ever buy worms and nightcrawlers at Smitty's if you want to do some fishing in Vermont lakes and rivers.

So, when will you take your next trip to southern Vermont?

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Shacksbury Whistlepig Lo-Ball: A Delicious Barrel Aged Highball Cider

Located in Vermont's Champlain ValleyShacksbury Cider is an artisan cidery that was founded in 2013 by David Dolginow and Colin Davis. They produce a variety of different ciders, some limited edition, and others are part of their Lost Apple Project. Tis intriguing program is intended to seek out the type of apples that were planted for cider over one hundred years ago. 

Back in 2016, I met David Dolginow at a local spirits convention, and got to sample a number of their ciders. One of those ciders was their Shacksbury WhistlePig Barrel-Aged Cider, a cider that was aged in used barrels from WhistlePig Rye for about 6 months. David stated that cider is very delicate so you must be very careful with barrel aging and they engaged in three years of experimentation before finding something which they felt good enough for their cider. This is their first batch and they considered it to be a dessert cider. 

I found it to be more full-bodied and smooth, with a complex melange of flavors, including caramel, honey, vanilla, mild spices and some fruity notes, mostly apple but with some citrus and pear as well. It had only a small touch of sweetness and mild effervescence. It was a fascinating cider which I felt would pair well with cheese. 

Jump forward five years. On my recent trip to southern Vermont, I made a brief stop at the Meditrina Wine & Cheese shop (of which I'll write about more later() in Chester, and found the Shacksbury Whistlepig Lo-Ball, which is about $5 a can, and sold at retail in four-packs. This was different from the prior barrel-aged cider I'd sampled, so I was intrigued and bought a four-pack to check it out. 

The Shacksbury 
Whistlepig Lo-Ball is a limited edition, a "barrel aged highball cider," at 4.8% ABV, which was aged in WhistlePig's Vermont white oak barrels that were used to age their FarmStock whiskey. This cider is very different from their prior Whistlepig collaboration, especially as it wasn't produced to be a dessert cider. And now, the cidery had five more years of experience with barrel aging cider.   

The Lo-Ball is crisp and dry, quite refreshing, and possesses a rich apple flavor complemented with spicy notes and a subtle hint of whiskey. It was well balanced, with a pleasing finish, and I was extremely glad that I bought it. With its low alcohol content, you can easily have a few cans in a fine summer day, or a crisp autumn afternoon. It is certainly delicious on its own, but could also pair well with a variety of foods. 

Last night, I drank the Lo-Ball with Smoked Beef Chorizo, from Vermont Waygu (which I also obtained on my recent trip), and they worked well together. The Lo-Ball is supposed to be available in a few stores in Massachusetts, or you could just drive up to Vermont and get some. 

Friday, August 20, 2021

New Sampan Article: The First August Moon Festival in Chinatown

"The most interesting feature of Chinese life to me was that on board their boats, or sampans, as they are called....Upon these boats live whole families of three and even four generations."
--The Fall River Daily Herald, November 20, 1888

For over a year, I've been contributing to Sampan, the only bilingual Chinese-English newspaper in New England. It is published in print as well as online, available in both Chinese and English. I've previously written twenty-six articles for Sampan, and you can find links here.

My newest article, The First August Moon Festival in Chinatown, is now available in the new issue of Sampan. In 1885, Boston’s Chinatown feted their first public celebration of Chinese New Year, their most important holiday. Curiously though, their second most important holiday, the August Moon Festival, wasn’t celebrated publicly in Chinatown until 1970. 

The history of the August Moon Festival, also known as the Mid-Autumn Festival, the Moon Festival, and the Mooncake Festival, extends back a few thousand years. It has multiple inspirations, from a celebration of the harvest to an honoring of the moon. There are also multiple traditions associated with their holiday, including the lion dance, the lighting of lanterns, and mooncakes. So, what was the first public celebration of this festival in Chinatown like? You'll find out in my new article.

What is a "sampan?" The newspaper's site states, "A sampan is a popular river boat in traditional China. This small but useful vessel, by transporting cargo from large boats to the village ports, creates a channel of communication among villages." And like that type of boat, Sampan delivers news and information all across New England, and "acts a bridge between Asian American community organizations and individuals in the Greater Boston area."

Sampan, which was founded in 1972, is published by the nonprofit Asian American Civic Association, "The newspaper covers topics that are usually overlooked by the mainstream press, such as key immigration legislation, civil rights, housing, education, day-care services and union activities. These issues are crucial to the well-being of Asian immigrants, refugees, low-income families as well as individuals who are not proficient in the English language."

There is plenty of interest in Sampan which will appeal to all types of readers, from restaurant reviews to historical articles, from vital news stories to travel items. In these current days when racism and prejudice against Asians and their restaurants is high, it's more important than ever that accurate information about the Asian community is disseminated and promoted. We need to combat the irrational prejudices that some possess, and support our Asian communities just as we would support any other element of our overall community. We are all important aspects of a whole, and we need to stand together.

Support Sampan

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Luzhou Laojiao: Mainstreaming Baijiu With Cocktails

As I've said often, Baijiu, the famed Chinese spirit, is the Durian fruit of the spirits world, both having a reputation, primarily with non-Asians, of possessing a foul aroma and taste. However, both are misunderstood, and Baijiu itself comes in a variety of flavor profiles, including plenty which would appeal to almost any American consumer. 

More public education about Baijiu would be beneficial, to enlighten people about the wonders of Baijiu. To garner some background about Baijiu, you can read some of my introductory Baijiu articles here, as well as my two-part article of Historical Tidbits About Baijiu,  

Another way to enlighten people about Baijiu, to make it more mainstream, is through cocktails, to showcase its versatility and flexibility, to present its flavors in a manner which might be more appealing. Historically, the Chinese generally drank Baijiu straight but as times have changed, cocktails are beginning to be more common. Drinking straight Baijiu, especially considering its usual high alcohol content, is unlikely to garner many American fans, but they do love their cocktails.  

This past weekend, I received media samples of three Baijiu from the Luzhou Laojiao Distillery, and I decided to create some simple cocktails with it, the type of drinks that nearly anyone at home could make. If you have basic cocktail ingredients at home, then you can easily create tasty Baijiu cocktails. You can also see the potential of Baijiu in more complex cocktails, some of which can be found at a few local restaurants and bars, like Sumiao Hunan Kitchen.

Let's begin with a little background on the Luzhou Laojiao Distillery.

In 1425 A.D., it's claimed that Shi Jinzhang created the pit fermentation method, thus also creating the category of Strong-Aroma Baijiu. In this fermentation method, grain and qu (basically a starter culture) are planted a 10 foot deep mud pits, and then covered with mud. It will ferment there for about 70-80 days. Strong Aroma Baijiu is commonly fruity, spicy and pungent, acquiring more complexity and flavor through the bacteria and such within the mud pits where it's fermented. Baijiu production is a fascinating process, unique in numerous aspects. 

For nearly 450 years, the Luzhou Laojiao Distillery, located in at the junction of Sichuan Province, Yunnan Province, Guizhou Province and Chongqing municipality, has been producing Baijiu. Established in 1573 A.D., during the Wanli Period of the Ming DynastyLuzhou Laojiao is the oldest continually operating Baijiu distillery in the world. It's famed for its over 1,000 fermentation mud-pits, some which are over 100 years old, which are responsible for the quality of their Baijiu. It is one of the largest distilleries in China, yet it remains, in important ways, very traditional. 

The first of the three Baijiu I sampled was the Ming River Sichuan Baijiu ($37.99/750ml). This brand, which is produced by Luzhou Laojiao, was co-founded by Derek Sandhaus, a famed Baijiu expert who has written two excellent books about Baijiu, Drunk in China: Baijiu and the World's Oldest Drinking Culture and Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits.

Ming River Sichuan Baijiu is made from locally harvested red sorghum grain and pure well water.  It is fermented in a traditional mudpit, using naturally harvested yeast, and then distilled in small batches in a pot still. It is then commonly aged for up to two years before the final blending. 

On the nose, the Baijiu is fruity and appealing, without any aromas which would turn off someone. It isn't the off-putting aroma of which some people assume all Baijiu possess. When you taste it, there's an intriguing melange of flavors, with prominent tropical fruit flavors, especially some pineapple, with an undercurrent of anise and pepper and some floral notes. It's 90 proof, and that is noticeable without being too hot. It possesses a lengthy finish, a mild sweetness, and there's an umami element as well. Well balanced and complex, this Baijiu is delicious on its own, but also is very versatile for cocktails. 

I created two cocktails with this Baijiu, and both were delicious and very different. First, I added 1 ounce of the Ming River, 2 ounces of Watermelon/Cucumber Cooler (from Trader Joe's), 1 ounce Club Soda, and Citrus Bitters. It was tasty and not too sweet, with the Baijiu flavors being complemented by the Watermelon and Cucumber. Baijiu & watermelon seem to be an excellent combination. The bitters helped to balance out the cocktail. I used Club Soda because I prefer it to the bitter edge of Tonic Water but you could easily use Tonic Water instead if that's your preference. 

I also created a Manhattan variation, using 2 ounces of Ming River, 1 ounce of Spanish Sweet Vermouth, and Aromatic Bitters. This is not a cocktail for the faint of heart because of all of the alcohol, but it was appealing, with a nice balance of savory, herbal and fruity notes. I think it also helped to show that Baijiu doesn't have to be just a substitute for white liquors in cocktails. As a whiskey substitute, it created its own unique profile, but with a sufficient similarity to the traditional Manhattan. 

The second Baijiu was the Luzhou Laojiao Zisha Daqu ($50/375ml), which is made with 80% red glutinous sorghum and 20% wheat, and is 104 proof. It comes in an ornate box, and the Baijiu itself is in a special purple pottery bottle which is also functional. This is essentially a "living" Baijiu, as the bottle is porous, allowing the Baijiu to continue to breathe and develop over time. 

On the nose, this Baijiu was more savory, with only mild fruity aromas. And on the palate, that savoriness took center stage, with mild underlying fruity, anise and peppery notes. The flavor profile was complex and fascinating, with rich umami and a lingering finish. Again, the taste of this Baijiu would appeal to many people, although its higher alcohol content would prevent many from consuming it on its own, although with the growing popularity of over-proof whiskey, that might be changing. 

With the Zisha Daqu, I chose to create a cocktail using 1 ounce of the Baijiu, 2 ounces of Super Fruit 7 juice (made from pomegranate, grape, strawberry, tart cherry, fig, mulberry and cranberry), 1 ounce of Club Soda, and Citrus Bitters. Again, this worked out as a tasty drink, a nice balance of the savory Baijiu with the fruity and tart juice. I'd be interested in trying this Baijiu to make a Bloody Mary. 

Finally, the Luzhou Laojiao Guajiao National Cellar 1573 (500ml $220) is a high-end and amazing Baijiu. This is the one which Derek Sandhaus has stated made him fall in love with Baijiu. This Baijiu, produced in a very traditional manner, is aged for at least 5 years in natural caves, and is 104 proof. The nose is complex, with a find blend of herbal and fruity notes, and on the palate it's equally complex. You'll find tropical and stone fruit flavors, complemented by herbal and peppery elements with a hint of anise. It is also silky smooth with a lengthy, pleasing finish, perfect for slowly sipping, enjoying each complex and delicious taste. This is probably the Baijiu which would be best enjoyed on its own, and should appeal to many people.  

However, I did make a cocktail from it as well, using 1 ounce of the Baijiu, 2 ounces of Lemonade, 1 ounce of Club Soda, and Ginger Bitters. This was probably also my favorite cocktail, refreshing and delicious, and perfect for the summer. 

In the near future, I'll probably experiment with more Baijiu cocktails, but I've already seen its potential, that it blends well with a variety of mixtures. And it is such cocktails which could help mainstream Baijiu, changing people's misconceptions about this fascinating spirit. Strong Aroma Baijiu is a great choice for cocktails, pairing well with a variety of ingredients, and I encourage you to conduct your own cocktail experiments at home.