In honor of the feast of St. Martin de Porres, this Sunday’s wine is Reserve St. Martin Vin De Pays D’Oc Pinot Noir 2007.

I’ll be the first to tell you that I don’t know anything about French wines. The appelations confuse me, the vintners are inscrutable, and the taste (in my opinion) often leaves something to be desired. But I was in a hurry, and this was a featured wine placed strategically at the front door of my local shop. For $7.99, it fit my budget, and made for a quick trip, helping me to avoid the otherwise bewitching aisles of hundreds of different wines, which typically lure me in like a kid in a candy shop and refuse to let me go.

This Pinot Noir from the south of France fits the profile of other French wines I’ve had. It has round, soft tannins, tart red cherries on the nose and palate, and an otherwise mild flavor profile that leans pretty far in the sour direction. To my uneducated palate, this reminds me of other wines I’ve sampled from France – notably young Beujolais or even Cotes du Rhone.

It’s a pleasant enough wine, and certainly drinkable, but it’s not memorable for me. Keep in mind, I prefer wines that tie your tongue up in knots while they punch you in the face – big, bold reds with crisp tannins or fruit forward reds with juicy, luscious, dark fruit that drips down your chin. This wine tends more toward whispers and caresses than hot, passionate displays of flavor affection. If that’s your style, it might be worth giving a try.

(I’ll upload a picture of the label when I get a chance.)

Rounding out our Sunday afternoon snack was a nice baguette from Balducci’s, Drunken Goat Cheese (pleasant and mild as goat cheeses go, with some nice herbal components) and some Columbus Dried Italian Salami, which was really excellent.

My wife and I often say that wine, baguettes, cheese and cured meats are the kind of things we could live on indefinitely. There’s nothing better.

Goodie Goodie Gumdrops

October 28, 2008

My co-worker Kristen has a foodie blog which I saw once, then forgot about.

Well, I remembered it again.

I like, as they say, the cut of her jib.

Bembelman’s Bakery

October 28, 2008

When I was a kid, I loved books with food in them. Among my favorites were The Giant Jam Sandwich, Stone Soup, and skewing even younger, a toddler book about a train that delivered fresh fruits and vegetables to people, complete with luscious pictures of giant carrots, potatoes and tomatoes.

But of all the food books I liked, my absolute favorite was Bembelman’s Bakery. When I had kids, I immediately went out and found a copy.

What made me think of the book was looking at my first post, where I say, “Everyone needs to eat, but each cuisine brings its own uniqueness to the table, telling a story about produce and fauna and climate and history, all in each wonderful bite.”

I realized, re-reading it, that I lifted the last five words of that sentence from this excellent book. The story is straightforward – two men, standing in line for bread at a New York bakery, begin talking about the history of the place. One of the men is older, and begins telling the younger man the story of how the bakers got their start, back in “The Old Country”. The scene changes to what looks like an impoverished Russian village, straight out of the imagery of Fiddler On The Roof. The mother, Sarah Bembelman, goes to town to buy some things from the market, and her children grow hungry in her absence. They decide to make bread, but not knowing the recipe, they guesstimate the amounts of flour, yeast, and so on, using handfuls rather than cups.

Soon, the bread they put in the oven begins to “rise, and rise and rise some more.” The bread pushes out the oven door, fills the Bembelman house, and pushes out of the windows.

It is at this point that Sarah Bergstein (the town gossip ever since she was three years old) runs to the market to tell Sarah what her children have done. Sarah comes home, sees the mess, and in terror, threatens the children (in my house, she has the voice of Estelle Harris) “When your father gets home, tired and hungry…”

Long story short, Aaron Bemblemen¬† (a cross between Tevya, Wooly Willy and one of the creatures from Where The Wild Things Are) comes home from brickmaking, Sarah, his wife, is in a tizzy. Saul, the oldest son, is hiding in the woods. But Aaron is too tired to notice. When Sarah tells him that she can’t get to the oven to make dinner because of the bread filling the house, Aaron responds, “So, cut a piece of the bread.”

She does. He eats it. Suddenly, his face lights up. His stony countenance breaks into a grin. He begins dancing and laughing, and he cries out, “This isn’t bread! It’s vodka and noodles, streudel and potatoes, every taste you ever wanted to taste – all in each wonderful bite!”

The family becomes so successful selling their bread, that they come to America and open a bakery, proprietary in its recipe because who can compete with measurements made in the hand sizes of Bembelmen children?

I love the book as much for the great accents I can put into the character voices as for the food, but at the heart of it is the bread – that fantastic bread, which like the peasant version of an everlasting gobstopper managed to contain numerous flavors that hit the palate in waves the longer you chewed.

There’s nothing so fantastic as the discovery of new flavors, and Bembelman’s Bakery drives that point home in a way that expresses that even amongst drudgery, food can bring joy into even the simplest lives.

I continue to believe that some of the best food is peasant food – breads, meats, cheeses, organs, soups – you name it. Simple things, often made from the cheapest ingredients, frequently evolve out of necessity (and no small amount of love) into some of the most flavorful cuisine.

One of these days, I should try to scan Bembelman’s Bakery in to share. Until then, if you have kids who love stories (especially about food) it’s worth picking up a used copy, since it’s long since out of print.

I love coffee. Love it. Have gotten to the point where, really to my own chagrin, can easily taste the difference between fresh and stale, fresh ground whole bean or pre-ground, and even if it’s been brewed properly (temperature, time, proportion, etc.)

I blame this on Murky Coffee, which has spoiled me. Murky Coffee has been in and out of controversy over the last year – one of their shops was shut down for unpaid taxes, there was a high profile spat between the owner, Nick Cho, and a customer that, while amusing to me in a sophomoric sense, got pretty juvenile, and even a disturbance in the force over Mr. Cho’s appointment to the chairman position at the U.S. Barista Championship (USBC) Committee.

But underlying all this static is the single thing that made me a Murky Customer for life after my first delicious sip, summed up in their motto – it’s the best damn coffee there is…yes, I said “damn.”

I didn’t know coffee could really taste that good. That lattes could be better without sugar than with it. I had veered close at times – there was that double-thick, double-sweet stuff we had with fry bread in the village in Michoacan while doing missionary work; or that exquisite cup I had with Flan in a Mexico City hotel. In Europe, I’ve had above-par cappuccinos both Rome and in Vienna, but I have never had coffee like this.

In fairness, where Murky really shines is their espresso. If you’re a drip guy, the coffee is average to sub-par. If you like your coffee made a la French Press, well, I’ve never had the time to sit down with a press pot there but you couldn’t ask for better coffee to do it with, so I’m sure it’s out-of-the-park good. (They regularly do cuppings there which, considering that coffee chemically has more flavor complexity than wine, probably means they’re sampling only the good stuff in the hopes of enhancing the perspicacity of your palate.)

Which brings us to the real star – the coffee itself. Murky Coffee buys all their beans from a roaster in North Carolina named Counter Culture Coffee. The guys at Counter Culture are the real stars behind the scenes. You can have a $10,000 plus Synesso Cyncra with all the bells and whistles, or, moving away from Espresso toward perfection in a brewed cup, the $11,000 Clover – the coffee world’s new wunderkind – and if you don’t have good, fresh beans roasted by an expert, your coffee is still going to taste like crap.

I’ve sampled several of Counter Culture’s blends. Their Espresso Toscano is the house blend for double-shots and lattes at Murky, and it’s buttery, caramelly, and flippin’ delicious. Their Decaf Zaragoza out of Mexico is in contention for most flavorful, even above the caffeinated blends (and is decaffeinated by a natural water method, not the usual chemicals), their robust Colombian Cauca, and the excellent El Salvadoran Finca Mauritania.

My latest fix is the Kuta, from the Waghi Valley of Papua New Guinea.

I only wish there were some way to offer you a chance to smell it. I have never in my life gotten an aroma from a bag of coffee beans that is even remotely similar to this. The aroma is thick with butter, honey, and brown sugar, with a hint of frutiness. It hits your nose with a savory punch, then finishes sweet.

Truth be told, I haven’t been able to coax the full flavor out of this yet. I have a portable plastic Bodum press pot that lacks the capacity or finesse of a full-sized glass version, and I don’t have a thermometer handy to check my water temperature. I also need to stop being lazy and clean out my conical burr grinder instead of resorting to my cheap little quick and easy blade jobbie, which doesn’t give me an even, consistent grind. My drip coffee maker, the least friendly way to make a cup (they aren’t designed to even get water temps in the ballpark of the 190-205F range most coffees need to really shine; and hot plates make coffee burn quite fast, turning the oils from sweet to bitter) hasn’t had a chance at this yet, but it has a notoriously low brewing temperature which extracts surprisingly good flavor but leaves me with a lukewarm cup.

I’d love to bring this blend to someone with a Clover and have them show me what it can really do. Coffee is hard for me to distinguish flavors in, other than to say that I like it more or less than other blends, that a particular type is richer or bolder, sweeter or more savory. This Kuta tends dark on the flavor profile, with a robust body and a bitterness on the finish that kills the taste before I can figure it out, probably because of my own brewing inadequacies.

All the same, if you enjoy your morning cup as much as I do – if you wake up looking forward to it as a delightful experience that starts your day out on a high note – give Counter Culture coffees a try. Get whole beans, grind them fresh, and use the press-pot method.

You won’t regret it.

Having had these before I got the bright idea of blogging them, I have no tasting notes for them. Hopefully, as finances permit, I’ll have a chance to revisit them and give more detail:

Mirassou Pinot Noir 2006 – I’m new to Pinot Noirs, but I am really beginning to like them. As they go, the Mirassou stands out as different, with a more mellow, rounded flavor and fruit-forward character. When I first tasted this, it reminded me a bit of the Milton Park Shiraz 2006. I picked this up for $6.99 at Costco, which is a screaming deal. In the grocery store, this can run you anywhere from about $8 on sale to $12 at full price.

Mirassou Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 – The link takes you to a description of the 2004 vintage, but I believe the one we tasted was a 2005. On sale for $7.99 at the supermarket, I picked this up to pair with some roast beef we were having, and it was good. Like the Mirassou Pinot, this is a softer, gentler version of Cabernet, lacking the strong tannins and dry character that I’ve come to expect without failing to deliver entirely. It was a nice wine, and one I’d drink again, but if you’re looking for a nice palette cleansing Cabernet this one isn’t really big enough. (For an excellent mid-range Cabernet Sauvignon, I recommend the J. Lohr Paso Robles from 2004 if you can find it, or from 2005-2006, which weren’t quite as good when I had them, but are still extremely enjoyable. These will range $12-$17 depending where you find them, and we have traditionally picked them up only for special occasions like Easter.)

Big Tattoo Red 2006 – I was in a hurry one night to come up with some vino when I got home and found out Jamie was grilling ribeyes which were almost done. I jetted down to Red White & Bleu, since it’s the closest place to the house, and they recommended this wine when I told them I needed something from the bargain rack. It’s a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon & Syrah (Shiraz), which are two of my favorite red varietals, so I went with it. At $9.99, it was a couple bucks more than I wanted to spend for a weeknight wine splurge (we usually try to limit our wine consumption to Sundays and special occasions to keep costs down) but those stakes were calling my name and begging me to bring home a red-headed friend. Dark, ruby red to be precise.

I was pleased with this one at first. It’s big and bold, and the grapes are South American in origin (Chile? Argentina? Can’t remember) which tend to exhibit a large, powerhouse in the mouth feel and taste. It paired well with our dinner, but I noticed that as the meal wore on, it was a bit rough around the edges. The strong tannins, acidity and spice were a bit much on their own, but the flavors were well balanced and I’d be willing to give it another go, especially if I could find it for cheaper.

Mark West Pinot Noir 2006 – After a tasting at Whole Foods and a free gift card from Ford for filling out a survey, I decided to plonk down some not-earned cash on a bottle of good Pinot. It’s been about a month since I’ve had it, so I can’t tell you much, other than that it had a nice, semi-dry character, a bit of (if I remember correctly) smoky oakiness, and a nicely balanced, mellow fruit character that if you pressed me, I’d say tended toward cherries. I also know that I paid $11.99 for it at Whole Foods (wouldn’t have if I didn’t have the $15 gift card) and that I just saw it for $8.79 at Total Wine & More. Will try it again.

Antis Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 – Whole Foods must have gotten a huge shipment of this stuff, and one Sunday while I was looking for something inexpensive I happened upon it. On sale for $6.99, I brought it home and enjoyed it. It was well balanced, but not memorable enough to give you tasting notes until I try it again. If you see it, I think it’s worth the sale price but probably not more than that.

Milton Park Shiraz 2007

October 21, 2008

I didn’t grab a picture or tasting notes because we had company, but I had my first bottle of Milton Park Shiraz from the 2007 vintage on Sunday.

I mentioned in the past what a steal the 2006 was. I have mixed feelings about the 2007. First, the price has gone up $2 to $9.99 a bottle, no doubt in part due to high demand for this excellent value wine. (I imagine that the falling dollar plays a role here too.) Secondly, what I loved about the 2006 (and the 2005 before it) is that it was an atypical Shiraz, in that it was lacking a strong spice character and had soft tannins and only a hint of acidity, leaving nothing but lush, dark fruit on the palate. It was jammy, ever-so-slightly sweet, and evokative of plums, concord grapes and blackberries.

The 2007 vintage has grown up, and has lost it’s stand-apart character. The taste has grown less fruity and more complex, with a characteristic Shiraz spiciness, and a smoky woodiness as well. These flavors are not at all uninviting, but were not what I have come to expect from this wine, which was remarkably consistent in the past. I want to revisit it when I have time to sit down and really pay attention. Its new flavor profile makes you want to slow down with it a bit over the previous incarnation, and take your time savoring the sophistication.¬† My wife said she thought it tasted young, but I disagree. While I have little doubt that it will mellow a bit over the next year or so, it’s quite drinkable now, and remains my favorite red in the $10 and under category (which is, for budgetary reasons, usually the only price rage we drink.)

Weihenstephaner Korbinian

October 19, 2008

When I spent a semester in Austria, one of my regular rituals was to walk down to the local Spar and grab two things: a Milka chocolate bar and a bottle or three of Kaiser Doppelmalz. Doppelmalz was everything all the American beer I’d ever had wasn’t – dark, sweet, malty and delicious.

I’ve never found Kaiser’s Doppelmalz since coming back to the States, which might be a good thing, based on some online reviews I’ve found. (Perhaps it’s better in memory than in reality). Until now, the closest I’d ever come was the pretty damn good but not quite great Celebrator Doppelboch.

Today, on a walk with the family, we stopped into the German Gourmet, where I picked up a Milka bar, a sampler of German cold cuts (including some outstanding blood sausages, one with beef tongue, which was really tasty) and a single bottle of Weihenstephaner Korbinian. I could only get a single bottle, in fact, because for some reason it was the only one in the store. I took one look at it, and realized that the force was strong with it.

Let me just say that with this double bock beer, it was love at first taste. Suddenly, memories of Austria in the Fall of 1999 came rushing back, and I saw myself loading up on beer and chocolate for the hike back to the Kartause.

Having long-since finished the bottle, my tasting notes will be brief. Suffice to say this is a dark, thickish sort of beer with (for someone of my tastes) a nice, borderline heavy sweetness that comes through as a bit caramel and a bit molasses. There’s dark, sun-dried fruit in there too, though it’s hard to put your finger on them – dates? Figs? Raisins? Something that’s perhaps a hybrid of all three.

I can’t recommend this beer strongly enough if you like your beers dark, malty and a bit sweet. This is a new favorite of mine, and while the German Gourmet is walking distance from the house, I may need to find a supplier who’ll have more than one bottle in stock at at time.

(Total Wine & More; $2.99)

Aventinus Doppelboch

October 19, 2008

Aventinus is brewed by Georg Schneider & Sohn in Kelheim, Germany. I got talked into this one while I was at a fall beer tasting at our local Wine, Beer and Cheese shop, Red White & Bleu.

While it’s a doppelbock, it’s also a weissbier, which I don’t usually care for. All the same, I thought I’d give it a spin, because the tasting notes sounded appealing and Harry, the shop’s beer guy and co-owner, thought I might like it based on my description of what I usually drink (dark, malty, sweeter, high-alcohol beers.)

I brought it home and chilled it, and I have it in front of me right now. The notes on the bottle say:

Aventinus, the world’s classic top-fermenting wheat-doppelbock, has received accolades for the perfect balance of fruity spiciness (banana, clove, vanilla) and notes of chocolate (crystal & dark malts). Unfiltered & unpasteurized, bottle-conditioned.

The beer pours a medium, cloudy brown (normal to dark for a beer of this type). The second you put your nose in the glass, there’s no question it’s a weissbier, as you get hit with the characteristic smell of banana on the nose. There’s also a hint of sweetness in the bouquet that tends toward caramel. The mixture of the two creates sort of a toned down bananas foster aroma.

The flavor is mild, but is consistent with the aroma. There are definitely cloves on the palate, though I don’t taste the vanilla. There’s just that same hint of sweetness, even less pronounced than it is in the smell, which pushes this into a more favorable direction for me.

As weissbiers go, this one is drinkable, and with an alcohol content of 8.2%, you’d only need a couple to last you the night. I’m still not a convert, however. I’ll take malted barley over malted wheat any day.

On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d give this beer a solid 6. If you like wheat beer, however, I could see how this one could easily become a chart-topper.


October 19, 2008

My name is Steve. I’m a communications professional, freelance writer, blogger, and husband and father to three (going on four) in the Washington DC metropolitan area.

One of my passions, along with my lovely wife, is gastronomy. The flavors of food and drink prepared painstakingly and with love are among life’s finest pleasures, and for a guy like me, just about any trip to the store winds up turning into an adventure. I like to try new things. I like to establish traditions with things worth going back to. In the process, I frequently stumble across treasures that I later can’t recall.

That’s what this blog is about. It’s my own little journal to keep notes on the things that I’ve tried. It will be mostly devoted to beer and wine, but I’ll post entries on cheese, chocolate, coffee, restaurants or whatever I come across that I find exceptional.

I’m not an expert. I’m just a guy who loves flavors, and sees that food is more than fuel – it’s art, it’s culture, it’s familial, it’s sentimental. It’s what brings people together, and often enough, what sets us apart. Food is knowledge. Everyone needs to eat, but each cuisine brings its own uniqueness to the table, telling a story about produce and fauna and climate and history, all in each wonderful bite.

In an attempt to be accurate in my descriptions, I’ll be trying to use the terms that sommeliers and foodies the world over apply as tools of the trades. I have no doubt I will use them incorrectly. That’s part of the fun.