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Two Trick Pony.

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Not food-related, but just FYI, my friend Simon and I have a cover story in the new issue of Harper’s. It’s a short piece about OxyContin, regulatory gamesmanship, and the FDA, with just the tiniest bit of background on the tangled co-emergence of chronic pain as a major clinical object and the marketing of opioid painkillers. I was really angling for a less sensational tag line, but you can’t win ’em all. Available for subscribers now, I think it’ll hit the shelves early in the new year. I’d like to claim this was what I was working on the past few months, while -not- updating the blog, but in actuality I have been drinking wine and watching Futurama. 

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A Motherfucking Triumph of Goddamn Simplicity.

Radish biscuit, radish butter, radishes. Repeat.

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There is something about radishes. Radishes and butter are such an indisputable French classic that it should seem tiresome and doltishly obvious to draw attention to them, yet whenever I come across an entry for radishes and butter in a cookbook, I am not annoyed by the laziness and pretence of the author claiming that this somehow constitutes a “recipe”. Rather, I take it more as a gesture – a reminder, to the reader, in case he or she has forgotten; and a gesture of appreciation, the devotion of the space on a page to something so simple, yet so unstoppable.

Vin Papillon has been doing this radish biscuit with radish-green butter and radishes this season, and it is nuts. I am not embarrassed to say that I am impressed. Radish butter. Duh.

 

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Who Lives?

I mean, it -could- be a Negroni. I really don't recall.

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Embarrassing as it is to acknowledge, this “Death to Negronis” piece reads exactly as if I had written it, right down to the author wrapping up his tirade against lazy, pretentious historicizing with a slyly bet-hedging ‘This is Stupid, But Drink it Because it’s Good, or Drink Something Else, Literally Anything Else, Also Shut Up.’

It does little to allay the ever-present temptation to let this blog just slide entirely into the mire, because seriously, do we really need one more food blog, one more jackass delving into the historical and technical minutiae of food and food culture? It is not a rhetorical question; the answer is No.

And yet I persist. And I still love the Negroni. And odds are, unless the angel of history all of a sudden begins to beat back the winds that pile wreckage upon wreckage at his feet, in the ongoing single catastrophe that is human civilization, I will probably talk about the Negroni again; I make no guarantee that you won’t be subjected to my enthusiasm at finding a perfect half-measure amaro substitution for the Campari, or just the gin that makes the difference.

Because, in the immortal words of Buzz Gunderson, you’ve gotta do something.

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An Historical Aside on Amphorae.

Whitewashed ribbed amphorae for oil or wine, almost the size of those dug up in the palace of Minos, stood by many a doorway. Once more I wondered how these immense vessels were made. They are obviously too big for any potter smaller than a titan with arms two yards long. As usual, theories abound. Some say a man gets inside the incipient jar like a robber in the Arabian Nights, and builds up the expanding and tapering walls as they rotate on a great wheel; some, that the halves are constructed separately and then put together; others that they are cast in huge moulds; yet others assert that they are built up from a rope of clay that is paid out in an expanding and then a contracting coil until the final circle of the rim is complete; which is made to account for the ribs and the fluting that gird them from top to bottom. I had heard, all over Greece, that they came from Coroni in the Messenian peninsula, only the other side of the gulf. It was strange that, even here, there should be such a conflict of solutions. There were only four men in the little group I asked among the beached fishing boats. If there had been more, no doubt the total of solutions would have risen accordingly.

I have been to Coroni since, and I now own one of those stupendous vessels. ‘We build them bit by bit, from the bottom,’ the potter said, ‘just as a swallow builds its nest.’

– Patrick Leigh Fermor, Mani (1958)

Inexplicably, I have not yet written on Patrick Leigh Fermor, despite the fact that there has for the past year inevitably been to be found on my bedside table some or other book of his, perhaps picked up only sporadically, but read in bursts of avid pleasure. There has been a fair amount of buzz about Fermor lately (perhaps more in the British than the North American lit press) because the final instalment of his technically still-unfinished trilogy documenting his trek by foot from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul/Constantinople in 1933-1934 was just posthumously released. Consequently there is no shortage of profiles that do greater justice to the details of this life than I ever would. You should read them. Better still, you should read -him-.

I am not typically a fan of travel literature, nor of memoir, but like Maugham’s The Gentleman in the Parlour, Waugh’s When the Going Was Goodand parts of Greene’s Ways of Escape (and much of MFK Fisher, come to think of it, and to think of someone who is not a dead white British man), Fermor’s work captures something special. The first two books of his trilogy, A Time of Gifts, and Between the Woods and the Water are tremendously engaging. His writing is dizzyingly prolix, but usually in the best and dare I say shit-eatingest sense of the word (and in the best sense of the term “shit-eating,” for that matter). Purple but without pretence. Almost too much, or perhaps just too much enough. It may depend on one’s taste. But there is a vital quality to all of Fermor’s prose, it animates his material in an irresistible fashion – I am inclined to say that it speaks to one’s blood, if one remembers that blood flows equally to the brain as to the heart and the stomach.

The quote above only hints at this quality, but it caught my eye since I’d been thinking about kvevri (hence amphora, although kvevri are cooler because they bury them in the goddamn ground) recently. But just wait until I track down that passage about getting wasted in Schwabing, you’ll be in for a treat.

 

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In Bocca alla Lupa

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Mindful as I am of the fact that it has been a month and a half since I have written anything about solid food, I nevertheless need to tell you about this cocktail, because I started drinking it in the summer, and only through some  diligent brain-wracking abetted finally by a spark of inspiration was I able to come up with a means by which to re-associate it with Christmas and thus reinvigorate its by now several-months-expired topicality. The origin of the drink must be traced back to what at Joe Beef they call the “Roman Coke”, the recipe for which is given as 3/4 oz grappa and a splash of Fernet Branca topped up in a highball glass with ice and chinotto, the italian bitter orange¹ soft drink best known to Canadians in the form of Brio. I encountered this drink while indulging my typically obnoxious practice of, when anywhere that anyone appears to care about cocktails, asking if they do anything with Fernet, because it is just such a great bastard of an ingredient, and I take equal satisfaction in the response Yes We Do And You Should Have One Because It Is Awesome as in No You Just Drink It Why Don’t You Shut Up And Just Drink It. Initially upon receiving the Roman Coke I was pretty underwhelmed, in part because it (the restaurant) was loud and confusing and the server didn’t seem to know what it (the drink) was and it (the drink again) just seemed to taste like a Fernet & Coke, which is all well and good and a respectable drink in its own right but I’m not noway paying 11$ for one. Or Whatever.

But by the time the thing was mostly consumed, we realized that there was something else going on it, something intriguing, and so when the opportunity presented itself I inquired what was behind the thing and was informed as to its constitution. Now, the Roman Coke is a heck of a drink, but it is truly more of a summertime ripper, a tall drink, and in the interim since this first experience I have been screwing around with it a bit and have come up with something slightly more to my tastes, which is roughly a 1:1 fernet-grappa ratio, still topped up with chinotto but served in a rocks glass with a good hunk of ice and some manner of citrus zest to your taste (I advise orange, but grapefruit is nice in the summer). This is a somewhat different beast, and it demands further specification – in The Art of Living According To Joe Beef, they specify cheap grappa, because when you’re filling a glass with pop there’s no point in squandering one of any quality. I have found however that with this short drink ratio, the quality of the grappa matters considerably more, which is not to say that you need to use truly good grappa, but that I distinguished a real and lamentable difference between the De Negri Monovitigno di Prosecco and the standard Poli Bassano. In fact, the price difference is negligible, but the Poli mingles beautifully into the whole, whereas the De Negri retains a pronounced and unfortunate paint-thinning presence in spite of the robustness of the other ingredients. I would further specify San Pellegrino chinatto over Brio, because it’s just better. Deeper, darker, richer, bitterer, better.

Roman Coke might be a clever name, but it is not a great one, and I was pleased by the opportunity my tinkering afforded to come up with a new name. Less fortunately, this has turned out to be surprisingly difficult. I was looking for something that captured the wholly Italian composition of the drink, but still which said something about how it comes across in the mouth, or as it begins to wash the brain. My friend Matteo suggested  the Bocca della Lupa, which translates into “the mouth of the she-wolf”, invoking with a sly Capitoline Wolf reference its Roman predecessor, and deriving from an Italian expression in bocca al lupo (“into the mouth of the wolf”) which basically means to go for broke, or just fuckin’ give ‘er. He further clarified that “It’s often incorrectly translated as ‘good luck,’ but it’s ‘good luck’ meant with an ironic twist – “You’re fucking nuts, it probably won’t work, but good luck”.” Which is fucking great, obviously, but I felt that in the oafish mouth of the English speaker, Bocca della Lupa might lose some of its musicality and become the sort of name that, paradoxically, can only be uttered intelligibly when waaay into one’s cups, when one is laboriously emphasizing each syllable individually.

When more recently I was attempting to lend the name a little holiday flare, I touched briefly upon La Vigilia Buio, which translates roughly as “dark vigil,” but specifically invokes which is the Italian Christmas eve feast, La Vigilia. Thus giving the whole thing a slightly macabre, Rosemary’s Baby-esque feel that I appreciate, but not sufficiently to insist on a name that suffers the same complications in pronunciation as the Bocca Della Lupa. Then, just a few days ago, in the midst of much thinking on and drinking of the cocktail, I was reminded that was is special about the thing, what caught me from the very get-go, is that little alchemical miracle by which out of the almost coniferous medicinal bitterness of Fernet, the spirited, vinous intensity of the grappa, and the not very-much-like-oranges herby cola quality of chinotto, you get something that tastes hauntingly like -chocolate– (and not, thankfully, like mouthwash). So you have what? Chocolate? Oranges? Christmas?

Behold, the Amaro Terry.²

Maybe?

¹ Specifically Citrus aurantium var. myrtifolia, if you’re interested, which is the same variety of bitter orange used in Campari and a number of other amari but not, apparently, in Barolo chinato in spite of them tasting so reminiscent of one another. 

² In case you don’t get it. Get it?

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Christmas Spirits V: No Way I’m Spitting This Out.

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(This is part of a drink-by-drink Christmas eve exploration of Charles H. Baker’s 1939 cocktail compendium book, The Gentleman’s Companion)

16h45

“This is basically like going the the Big Orange and dumping a gin in it, because you’ve had a bad day and you’re going to Dollar Cinema and it costs two dollars fifty right now.”

Mike’s adequate summation of Duffy’s Noon Cocktail, which just tastes entirely too much like orange juice to merit a more detailed description, but which ultimately does satisfy Brennan’s demand for “A healthy drink, to health me up between drinks.”

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Christmas Spirits II: Faded Glory

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(This is part of a drink-by-drink Christmas eve exploration of Charles H. Baker’s 1939 cocktail compendium book, The Gentleman’s Companion)

14h35
(Apologies for the lengthy and uncharacteristic intermission between drinks, but two of our party were dispatched to retrieve “nacho fixins” and an N64 gaming system with 007 Goldeneye, both soon-to-be Christmas Day staples.)

MORNING GLORY No. 2.

Good rye, or bourbon, 1 jigger
Gomme syrup, 1 tsp
Curaçao, 1 tsp
Cognac, 1 jigger
Orange bitters or Angostura, 3 dashes
Absinthe, 1 tsp.

Mixing technique seems to be torn between stirring in a bar glass with ice, straining into a whisky glass, and adding a little seltzer topped off with a twist of lemon peel – or stirring in the same bar glass, and turning into an old fashioned glass, a squirt of club soda, and a twist of peel.

Again, opted for no ice because, again, we weren’t anticipating it would hang about long enough to be warmed by the ambience. Agreed by all in attendance to be a solid and respectable cocktail, although stock limitations demanded we substitute a cheap but serviceable 10-year-old Italian brandy for the cognac. Ultimately it conveys a surprising delicacy for all the brutish and elbowey spirits involved, although to its discredit there is a slight hint of Mr. Clean on the nose. Opted for classic Angostura in lieu of orange bitters, but upon further consideration suspect that orange was the way to go.

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