Smokin' & Drinkin'

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In college it was a saying we had- probably rooted in a comment one of us made in all sincerity at some point. “ we'll go out and do some smokin', drinkin', you know.” Someone said it and the rest of us picked up on how stupid it sounded and from that point until now, we still say it tongue in cheek in remembrance of that statement.

And yesterday in an odd corner of Germany's Franconia region I was reminded of my college friends as I tried smoked beer for the first time. The idea of a smoked beer is such an oddity- I didn't give it much thought before we arrived at the former monastery in the story-book cute town of Bamberg. It is what one imagines a small German town would look like...with flowers spilling out of windowboxes attached to meticulously painted and maintained homes. Small shops along the street welcome tidy waves of locals and tourists and the air is crisp and clear with sunshine spilling into every alley. Before the industrial revolution harsh winters required pickling vegetables, and to this day vinegar is a prominent flavor. Cured meats are present along with sausages, brats, and schnitzels. Sadly, after world war two an “Americanization” took hold leading to more processed, cheaper, and more convenient foods. As has been the case in every other corner of the globe when this happens authentic flavors and recipes are the first casualty. Next tastes change and the standard for normal is set at a different level. This is also the case with beer.

Smoked beer is not the result of an overly- creative beermeister trying for the next great thing. It's the original way that beer was made. For centuries, beer has been made with the same recipe with slight variations in preparation methods. One of these variations is the drying of the malt. Malt is the germinated (soaked) cereal grain (wheat or barley) which is soaked so that it is activated to produce sugar and enzymes which facilitate fermentation. Once soaked, they need to be dried. Further south, beermakers would do this in the sun- but as beer making migrated northward, it became necessary to dry these grains over a fire. This is where the smoke flavor comes from. But with the industrial revolution, the more efficient gas powered hot air-driers replaced wood burning driers, effectively removing the smoked flavor of the old days.

But at Schlenkerla Tavern and brewery, the Rauchbier (smokebeer) tradition continues. The place is tough to find when you're casually walking by since it is difficult to stand out in a perfectly groomed town, but the institution does not suffer as a result. The building stands shoulder to shoulder to its neighbors on a street called Dominikanerstrasse. It is a narrow one, cursed by motorists but loved by pedestrian tourists and so Schlenkerla gets plenty of traffic: so much so that our group had to arrive early in order not to interfere with the lunch rush. But a ten-thirty beer tasting is not too far afield for our class. We were ushered into the circa 1310 arched room once used by monks for meeting, eating and drinking and were greeted with a tall dark glass of frothy smokebeer. The beginning of the owner's presentation was almost universally ignored as my fascinated classmates and I sniffed, photographed and sipped the strange brew. It was adictive to investigate- the first sniff was like a sausage! No- roasted game! Look at that color- it is clearer than a guinness I think. It doesn't have the same foam, though. The first sip elicited curled noses from some and groans of appreciation from others. It was then that we were capable of turning our attention to the presenter of this product, Mr. Matias Trum. He laughed when he saw some didn't appreciate Smoke beer on its first sip- saying that while the beer is a little rough making its the first impression, everyone likes it after they've had three. Matias is the sixth generation of his family making Smokebeer here at Schlenkerla. In fact the tavern is named after his great great grandfather who walked with a limp. Shlenkerla is a German reference to a person walking crooked- from an injury or from drink and Matias suspects his ancestor had an accident in the brewery. In the old days, beer was fermented in big wooden barrels that were very difficult to work with. According to Matias, being a brewer was a dangerous and sometimes deadly occupation. His family makes smoke beer by burning Beech wood from the surrounding forest contributing extra flavor to the smoke that penetrates the malt. The official description of the aroma includes smoked sausage and bacon- not something you'd naturally be inclined to drink. But out of reverence for the taste of the past and indignation towards the today's taste molded by the industrial drive towards ease and convenience- I vow to drink it and to like it. And I do. It is heavy- and you don't taste hops- only the smoked barley. But it isn't overwhelming because of a slight sweetness that balances it out. It does have a smoked sausage flavor, but I'm not sure if this is because smoke overwhelms the memory of sausage and that's what this beer brings to mind by simply having a smoke flavor- but that is for a neurologist specializing in senses and memory to figure out.

The brewery offers other beers- heavier and lighter. The wheat smokebeer (which we also got to taste) has more sweetness and a milder flavor. Lentbeer is available only during the Lenten season (this part of Germany is very Catholic) and is brewed under the Bavarian purity law 1516. It has more yeast and actually advertises during the season of fasting, Lentbeer has the “Brotzeit already included.” Brotzeit is german for afternoon snack. Another seasonal offering is Urbock which is a stronger beer for the winter months (with Original gravity of 17.5% and alcohol of 6.5%). Of course for the everyday drinker there is the easy to approach Schlenkerla Lager- clear golden beer with a hint of smoke because it is made in the same kettles and with the same yeast as the smoke beer.

Most of the product is sold direct to restaurants and shops around Bamberg still in the barrel. Bottles are exported as far away as Japan and North America, and of course Schlenkerla is available around Germany.

The upper limit on consuming this beer is one for me because it is very filling. The wheat beer is lighter and I could be convinced to have a second or third if I hadn't eaten much before. Regardless, I feel like a bit of an insider in the world of history being able to actually taste what beer was like for centuries before it changed in relatively recent years. It is a taste that could easily be forgotten and that is a shame. It makes me wonder at the hundreds of preparation methods that have changed and how this has changed our perception of what tastes good and what tastes bad. How many recipes are forever gone, and for that matter, how many foods and drinks have fallen out of cultivation and eventually existence? It seems that the globalized homogenization of taste is stripping away fringe products revered by localized cultures for centuries. It makes me applaud Matias, Schlenkerla, Smokebeer, and the locals who love it. A small amount is exported, so if you find it and have an opportunity to try it, do. It is a sip of history that has defied the machine of mass consumption and thinking of it now gives me the same goose-bumps I had upon the first sniff.

Italy vs. France...Sorta

After spending some time in France and Italy, I'd like to compare the two regarding their dissimilar commonalities. In many cases it is tough to make a call- in some it is painfully obvious... and only a bit unfair. But who cares, I am no authority.

Toilets. I love Italy but this one I have to give to the French. The public restrooms were better over-all from smell to visual cleanliness to the presence of an actual toilet upon which one could sit if desired (and sanitized). There are still squatty-toilets in Italy which require odd contortions for the jeans-clad to relieve themselves, and whiz-splattered shoes are an unavoidable and gross result. France also gets high marks for presence of paper products in the rest-room.

Coffee. Italy wins hands-down. While my first cafe au lait nearly made me cry with joy at its huge-ness (it was about the size of a dog-bowl) I have to say that overall flavor is better in Italy- even though the cappuccinos are dinky to this excessive American. Even if the French coffee shop had an Italian branded coffee roaster it just wasn't the same.

Meat. I am still entirely un-impressed with European fresh meat products- and let's just forget a steak. But here I have to say that the French preparation of meat is very impressive. They take cuts we'd normally toss and make them amazing. In Italy I've only seen grilled or roasted and while this is fine, it's not so great when dealing with meat that isn't all that fabulous to begin with. For example, I had a beef cheek in Burgundy that was incredible because they had stewed it in red wine for twelve hours. OK, maybe I had been stewed in wine, but it was quite a dish that on description sounded foul but was one of the more memorable meals I've had. In contrast I had a beef cheek in Italy and every ribbon of fat that you'd imagine would be there was quite present and I ate very little of it. Of course I am aware of the difference in restaurants and preparation.

Wine. This really isn't fair because I was only taken to Burgundy which is home to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay- both of which are not my absolute favorite grapes. To be fair- the Chardonnays from Chablis were more pure and characteristic of the grape alone than those that I have tried from elsewhere. It is a quality I respect and like the flavor of. Also, I did find a Burgundian red I liked- however it was from 2003 which was apparently a season that produced Pinot Noir that was not in keeping with its typical characteristics and therefore not a fan-favorite. OK, I just don't love Pinot Noir.....I'll just accept it. So, really what I can base this on is my preference for the style of Italian winemakers. Italy's wines feel like they have more tons of passion per hectare than France's. They are less predictable, less organized by “terroir,” and seem to have less to loose by tinkering with innovation. While there is tradition in both places, it seems to be less of a straight jacket for Italian wine producers and that can lead to some yummy accidents, super-tasty rule-bending blends, and over-all relaxation and that's what wine is for isn't it?

Bread. Here geography has me biased again. Parma, Italy is home to some of the crappiest bread ever extracted from an oven. It is difficult to describe. Flavorless does not even touch the dearth of life in this bread. Usually presented as little baseballs in a basket, the exterior is deceivingly golden-ish. When you pierce this non-porous rind with a thumb, dust-like crumbs are airborne for the next few seconds. This is when you apologize to the people at the next table and try to fish an especially offensive crumb from their wine glass. The white pouf inside is reminiscent of 18th century men's wigs- smooth as can be from the over-processed flour and a shade of white what would make a Crest white strip jealous. I've tried to justify its existence with the idea that this is also home to two strong flavors- Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano-Reggiano, so having a really sturdy bread might compete. But it's still just not acceptable. So France didn't have to do a lot to win this category- Wonder bread could have won- but the French baguettes cannot be beat.

Cheese. This cannot be decided. I have tried. French cheeses are a different animal from Italian cheeses. Both are to die for and neither can lose anything. I love all cheese....except for this one incredibly smelly one from the mountains somewhere. Apparently it is the ends cut off another kind of cheese, smooshed together and cured in beer. It is cone shaped and bright orange. If it is offered, go ahead and try it, but I'll admit, after a bite and then a sip of my water, I couldn't drink from the same glass again for the smell....do NOT try while on a date- unless it's not going well.

Escar-gone

OK, I ate 89 escargots while in France. On the road trip back I tallied and that is the total. Possibly six were below average, but obviously not inedible. The rest were perfect. The accompanying bread served as a crispy crusted sponge for the garlicky parsleyed butter, and each dish was sent back to the kitchen gleaming clean. My classmates generally enjoyed the abandon with which I dove into the shallow snail cups, and those who were not inclined to enjoy theirs sent them my way. It would have been disgusting to another crowd, but since we're all attending the University of Gastronomic Sciences my delirium was not frowned upon; rather, it was celebrated, and I love that.

Part of our stage was a trip I'd waited my whole life for- we went to an escargot farm called L'Escarbelle in Thoisy-le-Desert which is in the Burgundy region. It is one of two small escargot producers in the area still operating and the other guy is ill, according to L'Escarbelle's owner, Isabelle Joly. Isabelle is a woman in her forties, I would guess, with bobbed wavy blonde hair and cheekbones that are as strong as her personality. She started her farm about seven years ago, originally intending to produce sheep's cheese. Her garden had become over-run by snails and a friend joked that she'd probably have better luck farming them- and she did. After five years with no profit she is finally able to rest occasionally. She produces 200-thousand escargots a year and she sells them all. She does no advertising, relying instead on word of mouth. She's able to spread the word well herself since she's an enthusiastic communicator with a gift for confidently exposing small weaknesses. (Once she thought an electric fence would deter potential escapees- instead she accidentally killed almost all her “livestock”).

The escargots are basically free-range, with a fenced in area about fifty feet by twenty. For a cow this might not qualify but it would take one of these snails a couple of days to do a lap. They get their exercise while grazing on clover, thistle, and rape- a plant with small yellow flowers and plenty of foliage. The day we visited the snails were still babies- still smaller than a pencil eraser. Snail reproduction- let's talk about it- it's as slow as you might imagine (if you ever imagined it before). Awesomely, they are hermaphroditic and in the spring they seem to be more in touch with their masculine side and become interested in reproducing. They get together and sort-of slowly spin around belly-to-belly until the correct organs match up. Once matched they are “in process” for forty-eight hours. Then both slide away carrying about a hundred eggs each. The breeding actually happens on Styrofoam in a lab somewhere, and Isabelle buys 100 snail eggs in a petri dish for one Euro and fifty cents. The tiny snails are brought to their new home in said petri dish and they will find plenty of greens and shade in their new paradise, along with slats of wood for them to attach underneath. Isabelle sprinkles these boards daily with lime for them to get calcium for their shells. This, she says, is the most labor intensive part of running the farm- next to the actual process of removing them from the shells for washing.

D-day for the escargots comes in the fall. They are collected in late August and September and are forced to fast for fifteen days to clean out their digestive system. Then they're put into a chilly place with fans where they instinctively hibernate. They can stay like this for a few months if the producer doesn't have time to process them right away. Isabelle then puts them into a netted nylon bag- similar to those you'd find holding potatoes at the grocery store. This is put into boiling water, then into cold water, and then comes the tedious part- pulling them from the shells. According to Isabelle, this part is pretty stinky.

There is more to the snail than we get in the restaurant, by the way. There is a curly bit of meat that coils into the shell; it is the snail's liver. Previously it was believed to be the intestines, and people would remove it for fear that the snail had eaten something poisonous while in the wild (also part of the reason for the pre-hibernation fasting). This part is still removed because the liver retains heavy metals and while this wouldn't be a problem at Isabelle's farm, many of the snails that we find on the market and in cans today come from Eastern Europe- more specifically from areas near enough to Chernobyl to arouse suspicion of nuclear accident left-overs. So we are left to wonder enviously as those “in the know” assure that is is an exceptional flavor that is shamefully missing from the landscape of the modern palate. And I find this mildly irritating.

So, Isabelle removes the liver and discards it, then stirs the escargots in a pot with salt and vinegar to remove the slime. They are rinsed, then par boiled, then put into fresh vinegar and salt, and rinsed again. She prepares a vegetable broth, adds snails, then jars them for sale. Others, she packs back into shells with the traditional garlic-butter-parsley mixture and freezes them. She says this is ok because they are protected by the butter fat from freezer issues. Otherwise, freezing is not an option for her.

Farming the escargot is a new adventure in agriculture (called Heliculture). Only twenty years old, really. Before that people would hunt for the snails out in vineyards- probably because the snails would benefit from the limestone soil in France. Over-hunting depleted the wild Helix Ponatia which is prized in Burgundy (in Southern France it is the Petit Grey). So much so, it became illegal to hunt wild snails for resale twenty years ago. There aren't many left still because of pesticides and the early over-hunting. Now there are three hundred snail producers in all of France- a few of which make up a large segment of the market because of enormous production numbers. France consumes 65-thousand tons of escargot, according to our lecture, many of which come from Eastern Europe. I'm not sure of this total includes shell weight, but I am proud to say that I did my part in adding to that total.

A Bone to Pick

Being from Kansas City I have gnawed on my share of rib bones. I have always felt it to be the most crude and yet satisfying display of carnivorism. Grease and bar-b-q sauce dripping from knuckle to elbow with a good smear of it across the lower face shows that I know what stalking prey is all about. I look primitive. I feel primitive. And that is not pretty on a girl.

So now I have found a refined way to get the most from an animal bone; in formal dress with no less than a silver spoon. It is eating the marrow from a bone much bigger than any rib. At a restaurant in Dijon called La Ruelle my friend ordered it and I was stunned at the size of these bovine leg bones. They were cut and arranged on her plate like little industrial smoke stacks with the slightest steam rising from the warm center. In that center, where I'm accustomed to seeing either nothing or a dog treat there is a gooey translucent substance with juice or warm fat pooling around the outer edges. This is the marrow and it closely resembles something I am psychotically not fond of- visible animal fat. Grizzle is what I called it as a kid and to this day it does not pass my lips if I have any control over it. If a crafty interloper passes the incisors, it is quickly dispatched into a napkin regardless of who I am sitting across the table from. It could be the Pope. If it were a religious order to not eat visible animal fat, like no pork for Jewish people, the pontiff would be proud of my resolve. But alas, it is seen as juvenile at best, disgusting at worst, and still my addictive aversion abides.

However, I said I would try the marrow before I saw it. Of course I never imagined what it would look like. Thankfully you don't eat it straight as it is served with accompaniment. My patient friend prepared my bite, carefully spooning the marrow onto a slice of the wonderfully crusty bread of France. With the measured carelessness afforded only to people with more worldly food experience than I, she sprinkled fleur de mer sea salt over the glistening lump and handed it my way. I'm in a food course where adventurousness is admired. I couldn't play the vegetarian card, because I've never professed to be one and I couldn't feign a stomach ailment because I had a plateful of cassis- sauced pink shrimp staring at me from my spot at the dining table. I wasn't about to totter off to the bathroom moaning in my best Meryl Streep and risk the seafood being whisked away in my best interest. So I had no choice but to try it and be enthusiastic about it.

To say it was life altering would be melodramatic, but it did cut the tether to my youthful knee-jerk reaction to its appearance. The bread carried the marrow and its juice to all corners of my mouth. As I chewed I felt it spread like warm massage oil over my teeth, gums, and tongue- spreading the subtly beefy flavor towards my throat. As with all things glorious, the bite was over too fast. But before I could form a tear of remorse that it had disappeared- I sensed its flavor lingering there- mercifully suspended by the protective armour of fat- the marrow's spirit hung on. I was so grateful. Its persistence made up for the fact that there is not much of it. Each bite is to be savored and beloved for at least five minutes, then followed by a small sip of Cotes de Nuit. The wine seemed like a long lost lover of the bite I had just taken and as they reunited on my tastebuds I groaned a little. Opening my eyes I realized I made a bit of a scene for my friends and thankfully none of the other diners noticed. Or if they did, they acted like they didn't notice, and that is a nice thing about the French. They do that.

So I would suggest if there is a way, try marrow for the first time with people you won't be embarrassed in front of- or at least with French people. Because while your reaction may not be as wanton as mine there will be some sort of pause while you ponder what you've just consumed because it is unlike anything in the common repertoire of daily dining.

A Hermit's Feast

The drive seemed to go on forever, but the fog was as thick and white as cream; it even managed to white out road signs along our way. All I knew was that I was in a taxi bound for the mountains outside of Parma for lunch and wine at a friend of Luca's. 

Luca is a taxi driver I met a week into my year-long stay in Parma, Italy. He happened to pick me up twice that week and through bits of my bad Italian and his broken English I managed to communicate that I was a student at the University of Gastronomic Sciences. From here he launched into a reverent description of his friend; a legendary intellectual, conversationalist, and most importantly a cook. He happened to be going to this friends mountain home the next day for lunch and would I like to come? Of course I found this offer to be golden- an invitation into the home of an esteemed cook. I'm in. See you tomorrow at eleven.

Luca's hulking friend Bruno is also a cabbie and I am surprised to see him occupying the front passenger seat when they pull up outside my apartment in- what else- a taxi. I hop in the back seat next to two bottles of wine, a salumi, and a smoked calciocavallo cheese which I am instructed not to eat because it is for later. Just outside of Parma the fog swallows us and we don't escape until we climb above it onto the mountain. We emerge into a different world from the one we left. The trees are tall, pine, and this world is covered in road-silencing snow. We finally stop in what may qualify as the smallest town in Italy where Luca's friend and former math professor is meeting us in his four-wheel-drive. The taxi shouldn't be risked further up the mountain. It takes about ten minutes for the professor's questionable vehicle to climb down, during which Luca and Bruno smoked four cigarettes each and chatted with great velocity in Italian. It starts to creep into my mind that I will have difficulty following conversation. The four-wheel-drive appears. It is about twenty years old, shedding upholstery, and reeking of wet dog and old cigarettes. The car's owner, Artimedes speaks no English either, so my feeling that ears will be useless today became a hard fact. However my sense of taste would be enough.

We climb further into nowhere for fifteen minutes and Artimedes' dog appears- the sentry of the hermitage. The huge white guard almost blocks the view of the house sitting serenely in the snow with a chimney puffing smoke into the crisp air. We attempt to exchange pleasantries as the wine is opened, the salumi sliced, and the water set to boil, but language is difficult and I just smile a lot. To be generous, the kitchen is Spartan. It clearly is the home of a straight man living alone for a long time. The necessities are all there, with no décor and little attention to tidiness. Artimedes reaches into his tiny freezer and grabs an unlabeled, indistinct jar half filled with a brownish-black grainy paste. Within ten minutes there is a steaming plate of linguine with black olive pesto sitting in front of me. As is typical in Italy, I'm encouraged to eat immediately and not wait for the others to be served. “It's hot now so eat while it's at its best.” This is a cultural phenomenon I wish the rest of the world would accept. I take a bite which transforms the rustic dusty kitchen into a swooning, spinning etherial place where olive pesto shook any skepticism from me. The pasta is al dente to the point of being uncooked, but its firmness plays off the squishy minced olives in a beautiful partnership. While my teeth work the strong linguine noodles, my tongue swirls and savors the delicate black-ripe olives in oil. Artimeded salts the pasta water, but not the sauce, since the olives take care of that. The ingredients are as few as the accoutrements to the man's home, and that allows each to shine. If a taste bud can sense the care with which a dish is prepared, mine knows immediately that Artimedes loves his olives. The pesto was prepared last fall when the olives were at their best, and the olive oil came from the same farm as the olives- a farm that a friend owns in Tuscany. It takes about a half hour of conversation and references to my dizionario for me to understand this small fact- but I became much more interested in this loner on a mountain after the first bite.

A diminuitive man of about fifty years, Artimedes is a chain smoking life-long bachelor whose love of food seems to be in the blood of everyone in Italy. He is a man with thinning hair but admirable charisma, which is easy to see in any language. The way he holds court with the two young taxi drivers reminds me of a sage in a cave taking occasional visitors to bask in his enlightenment. We sit in uncomfortable ladder-backed chairs around an indistinct Formica table for hours. Nine hours. And we enjoy it. After the pasta we start in on the contorni of olives marinated with peppers or onions, bread, oil and more wine. Then the cheese; the calciocavallo Luca brought, and a peccorino Artimedes had purchased for the occasion. And then, after a Tuscan cigar, comes the dolce.

Artimedes prepared for us what is to this day among the best desserts I have had in Italy. It's a simple torta of apple and raisins. This is not something I would usually care for, but his crust is not the paste-like substance that often passes for crust in Italian bakeries. It is sweet, crumbly and buttery and somehow light on the stomach. It also has a reasonable amount of fruit and accompanying caramelized juice to remind you that it is, in fact, the star of the dessert. The raisins had been soaked in an unidentifiable low-alcohol liquor and so are revived to juiciness. The apples are substantial in texture balancing on the precipice between undercooked and mush. The juice respects the boundary of the crust due to its thickness and is just sweet enough. Artimedes swells with pride as we all dive in for seconds. To reward our good taste, he brings out last year's Nocino, a dark brown home-made liquor made from nuts. I don't understand which nuts, but after a couple cordials and a caffe corretto with grappa I find the Nocino's chewy sediment a bit more charming at the base of a glass coated in the syrupy residue. Also newly charming are the two cab drivers who suddenly feel they can sing Frank Sinatra and re-enact action scenes from movies. When Bruno does a startlingly realistic death scene after being shot by an invisible bullet in the chest, I don't flinch. My trepidation from the morning hours vanished, I glance at Artimedes through a cloud of smoke from his latest Tuscan cigar and run to the side of Bruno in his death throes acting as the bereaved widow-to-be.

Mouthfeel, by Julie Glenn