Southern Comfort Veers North

Southern Comfort, the sweet, brightly-flavoured drink famously favoured by Janis Joplin in the 1960s, has been re-invented. I just bought the one sold in Canada for a try-out.

SoCo belongs to the arcana of drinks in that its original composition and current formulations are rather misty. As best I can tell, it was originally a compound of young whiskey (maybe bourbon), fruit, sugar, spices. At some point neutral spirits substituted for the whiskey.

When the bourbon renaissance gathered pace in the early 2000s the domestic (U.S., Canada) product was neutral spirits and the fruit, sugar, spice. Yet a version that included bourbon, stated on the label as such, was sold in some export markets.

I bought it a few times in the Caribbean. It was somewhat deeper in flavour than regular Southern Comfort but not that different.

Finally, the brand was sold to Sazerac Brands, of Buffalo Trace bourbon fame and more.

Its version seems to use whiskey since the term is all over the website. I think SoCo is probably not 100% whiskey, at least for the 35% ABV product, since whiskey must be bottled at 40% ABV. The labels too don’t call it whiskey as such.

Some SoCo is 100 proof or 80 proof, but I’d think all are made broadly the same way. The 80 proof is badged “Black” for a “bolder” taste, perhaps it uses more whiskey. In Ontario we only get the 35% ABV version. It is termed on the label in small print “liqueur” but the back label states it has the “flavor of whiskey”.

So it’s a whiskey-flavoured liqueur, presumably in the U.S. too. The fruity element is probably from a concentrate with sugar added, peach- and apricot-based judging by the taste and some published reports.

The reason for the current insistence on whiskey is that some dissed the brand in the past for not being a whiskey while still conveying the image. So that’s changed now, the website and labels makes clear the formulation involves whiskey of some kind.

The whiskey might be distilled at a higher proof and therefore fairly neutral, unlike bourbon that is, but I’d think some bourbon probably enters the composition. Could the spirit used be grain neutral spirits given some barrel aging?

This is possible but I’d incline against as the website uses the term “whiskey” repeatedly and this term means in U.S. law something distilled under 190 proof (95% ABV), so not quite neutral that is.

The Manitoba liquor authority describes the drink this way:

Southern Comfort is a New Orleans Liqueur made from neutral spirits with fruit, spice and whisky flavorings. It is a full bodied, full proof spirit with light citrus and stone fruit notes, touch of warm spice, cinnamon and herbal notes, with hints of caramel.

The taste of the current product, as sold in Canada, isn’t radically different from the circa-2000 one but it isn’t quite the same either. It seems less sweet and has a faint tannic/woody finish, showing the whiskey element.

I wonder if the whiskey, at least in Canada, is actually a non-spirit food flavouring, given too the term above “whisky flavorings”. The wording of the U.S. website seems to suggest real whiskey though; unless the product differs in Canada it should be the same here.

Still, it’s interesting that the Canadian rear label states SoCo is “blended and bottled in Canada”, maybe that means the formulation differs here.

It’s all delphic but this matters little except to a tiny coterie. The market will just want to drink it, or not, and I hope they do because it’s good stuff, a classic old taste.

I’d advise to blend it with bourbon, something not too old and woody. A standard Canadian whisky would work well too, or vodka for a yet lighter taste.

The brand was clearly in for a new look as sales were declining from the halcyon 60s. It’s been 50 years since Janis Joplin brandished that bottle in publicity shots. Sazerac Brands is good at what they do and I have a feeling SoCo may be in for a revival.

It’s a famous old drink, dating from the time a frankly sweet drink was admired. It retains its place in the world drinks pantheon. Grander days may yet await.

 

Great Cabernet, Great History: Inglenook

Francis Coppola Recreates the Great Cabernet of Inglenook Legend

This is, I think, my first second wine review. The first was on Virginia’s Horton Vineyards Norton the other day.

I don’t plan to have many wine discussions, not because of any particular focus to this blog, but because I don’t drink that much wine.

Why is that? It’s not that I don’t like it. I like most examples of fermented and distilled beverages, wine included. It’s just that both budget and a rational weekly drinks limit exclude wine for the most part.

For the drinks I permit myself, they must be mostly beer and a little spirits.

Wine features therefore only where I have a particular interest, usually historical as for the Norton, or there may be some other reason, perhaps something I find on holiday.

For the wine pictured above, I wrote recently about a dinner in 1954 at which all-Inglenook wines were featured. The event was the inaugural dinner of the Wine and Food Society of Pasadena, its menu is shown below, sourced from the chapter’s website. I outlined some of the winery’s history in my post mentioned.

Inglenook had a high reputation in the 1950s and 60s as it did in the years following its establishment in the 1880s by pioneering vinifera grower Captain Niebaum. With restoration of winemaking after Prohibition, 1940s Inglenook Cabernets were particularly esteemed and acknowledged in wine circles internationally.

The post-1935 winery (year of passing of Niebaum’s widow) achieved a high pitch of excellence especially for estate reds.At the 1954 dinner a 1946 Cabernet Sauvignon was served, possibly made 100% of that grape or blended with Merlot or another grape. It was eight years old when the neophyte Pasadena branch of the Wine and Food Society held its first dinner.

1940s Inglenooks were legendary, also pictured is the 1941 vintage put up for auction with similar items some years ago as chronicled in this 2011 Decanter article by wine writer Adam Lechmere.

What did 40s Cabs taste like? What did Captain Niebaum’s acclaimed early noble wines taste like? He grew Cabernet Sauvignon among other European varieties and it’s not clear (from my reading) how his early wines were composed. Given he admired Bordeaux red it’s likely though he was seeking the character of the French classified estates whence his cuttings issued.

Inglenook after its 1950s-60s upmarket heyday went into a relative decline by being passed through different hands and focusing ultimately on the supermarket category. Its European-style wines were good average quality, good value for table wines, but the halcyon vintage days were passed.

Francis Ford Coppola, now in his late 70s, bought parts of the winery in stages from the 1970s and finally rescued the Inglenook trade mark. His wines today come out under his own name and a few years ago he issued a premium “1882” as a tribute to Niebaum’s groundbreaking work in California viticulture.

The all-Cabernet Sauvignon wine is issued, as further tribute, under the Inglenook name, clearly as an attempt to restore lustre to the brand. The name indeed is hard to find on the label, but presumably will get a ramp-up as time passes.

The current winemaker is French and is implementing a long-term plan for the winery including restoration of the highest quality for its Bordeaux-style wines.

We rarely get the chance to taste premium wine, Champagne apart at festive moments. But I have read acres of prose over the decades what fine Bordeaux and estate Napa red are like. So the first taste brought back, not so much personal experience, but all that reading.

The nose was, in a sometimes-derided cliche but it’s true, lead pencil. The lead more than the wood, with background notes of blackberry and dark-skinned fruit, also a tarry note.

The taste was plush yet dry, easily carrying the 14.5% ABV. The 1882 is easy to drink slowly, and no acidity seemed to build as for many red wines. It’s very good, let’s just say that. It gives me an inkling what the fuss was about when quality Bordeaux-style wine started to emerge from Napa, Sonoma, and Livermore valleys in particular.

It was interesting to compare it to the Norton of Horton Vineyards in Virginia. Norton is a North American grape once viewed as a contender in the international premium red wine stakes. It is somewhat acid (its nature) and offers a more frankly but non-foxy, I underline, fruit character.

The analogy of Norton is not really to Cabernet IMO but to Pinot Noir and perhaps more Gamay for Beaujolais, or to a cross of Gamay and Zinfandel.

Both wines were excellent but different. I’d serve them with different foods at different temperatures.

A good example of a beer analogue to the 1882 is Timothy Taylor’s Landlord from Keighley, England: every bit as good but on the malty vector. I could see a dinner at which just those were served serially (beer first) with Ontario ice wine to finish. Yes?

Coppola and his winemaker should be very proud of 1882. I’d guess it is on a par with the best superwines and so-called garage wines of California’s best wine regions (damaged as some were recently but they will come back).

The only California superwine I’ve had I’d put on a par with it is 1970s Mayacamus with its violet-scented nose and taste – softer and more flowery than 1882 but a similar level of quality.

Some years ago I had the chance to taste different vintages of Heitz Cabernet but this 1882 easily outclassed those, IMO, as for most other premium Golden State reds I can recall.

Note re images: the last two images above were sourced from the sites respectively linked in the text. All intellectual property in the images belongs solely to the lawful owners or authorized users, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 

 

Rustic New England food in Bright Lights, Big City

Welcome to the Hotel Pennsylvania, 1936

A fine vintage menu which points to the future of American dining and wine culture is the December, 1936 dinner menu of the Gourmet Society.

The full menu in beautiful reproduction can be viewed here, on the invaluable menu archive of Johnson and Wales University. Below is simply a portion.

The New York-based Gourmet Society, helmed by the gourmet and food author J. George Frederick, lasted from 1933 until about 1960; I profiled the group earlier and have discussed a number of their menus.

The 1936 dinner was held at Hotel Pennsylvania in New York, across from Penn Station and Madison Square Gardens. Then comparatively young, the hotel continues as a New York stalwart albeit the glamour has faded.

In the late 30s it was a stylish resort and the perfect place to host a creative dinner of the type pioneered by the Gourmet Society and its boon companion, the Wine and Food Society.

Although not styled as a New England dinner, that is exactly what it was. Each dish is typical of the coast or interior of the region, from the Vermont turkey pie to the Connecticut Oysters Casino and Maine stuffed potatoes. The conceit of combining state dishes was used, but it is evident most dishes are broadly regional.

The squash pie is a variant of pumpkin pie, as discussed earlier in these pages. It is as Yankee as they come, the cranberry sauce no less.

British readers will be forgiven for thinking the meal has an oddly familiar look. Oysters, crusted pie of poultry, mashed winter vegetables such as turnip, sweet sauce to accompany – think Cumberland sauce or even mint jelly – adorned English tables long before they journeyed overseas to new homes.

The treatment of green tomatoes and red pepper jam recall dishes with medieval or later east colonial influences (Indian, often)

Even the New England rum was English, or English Colonial, before it was American. But the dishes melded into the fabric of America and acquired their own stamp.

(Still, I suspect a dinner could be assembled, say, of dishes traditional to Yorkshire that would have a not dissimilar impact).

The “chablis”, a generic label from one of the California wineries re-established after 1933, was a good choice for such a dinner. Yet, it took imagination for a gourmet society to choose such a thing over Champagne or another French, or German, wine.

1936 is only three years after liquor comes back, in the darkest ages of the American wine business short of Prohibition itself. But New York 1930s culinarians had the imagination to go American.

The other choice that would have suited is cider. I’m sure George Frederick would have agreed at any rate it was a good option. Cider is an old New England specialty and is again today. Rum too is being made in different parts of the first colonies by craft producers.

Old Pilgrim rum was served at the 1936 dinner with coffee. It was a conscious attempt to recall the grand era of New England’s Medford rum – grand only in retrospect. You don’t know what you have until it’s gone, as the popular song has it.

Felton’s rum revived after Prohibition and was made until well after WW II but the venerable distiller sold out to the Old Boston concern, known for liqueurs and cocktails, which closed the plant in the early 1980s. Thus ended the original New England rum business which had reached its apogee in the late 1800s but continued to Prohibition and even after.

Finally, what makes the Hotel Pennsylvania dinner foodism, a construct? Each component is a dish long known in the area, either very old or more recent: shellfish Casino dates from earlier in the century and the salad “moderne” seems a contemporary idea, but otherwise the meal is down-home Yankee.

What makes it what I said is, the menu was consciously planned as an investigation, an interpretation, an honouring of New England foodways. It wasn’t just tonight’s dinner, or a family dinner. It was a group of “cosmopolites” in the Society’s charming prewar vocabulary, viewing something in a new light.

It’s a good meal, yes, but also something devised, to learn from.

It presages as I’ve often said an Anthony Bourdain visiting Cajun country or South America. It presaged the Time-Life cookery series, Julia Child’s work, or Ruth Reichl’s encyclopedic looks at American cookery.

It’s looking at food and drink intellectually, ideationally, call it what you will.

This way of dining gets the goat of some people, but it’s as valid an endeavour as anything else. Food and foodways belong to the world.

Note re images: the first image above was drawn from the original menu identified and linked in the text. The second was sourced via Pinterest hereAll intellectual property in the images belongs solely to the lawful owners or authorized users, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 

Norton Virginia: Fascinating History and Taste

Pre-Civil War Grape Type Shines 

Earlier I discussed the Norton Virginia grape, a native American type discovered c. 1830 by Dr. Daniel Norton in Richmond, Virginia. It is of the Vitis aestivalis species, and of unconfirmed lineage. Some think it has some European heritage (Vitis vinifera) but it is considered of the wild American grape family.

Most American grapes, of the six or seven types native to the continent (labrusca, riparia, etc.), have the fox flavour. This is the wild grape taste, a funky, blackcurrant note that traditionally is eschewed for quality wine-making.

Some of the grape types or hybrids associated with the taste are Concord, Delaware, Catawba. These wines had local markets in North America for generations both before and after Prohibition, either for table grapes, sweet and dry wine or both.

With the introduction of European vinifera types to California where they were a marked success, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling (and now many other areas including Ontario), viticulture based on native grape varieties has slowed considerably.

For example, little of this type is grown in Ontario because the provincial retail liquor monopoly, Liquor Control Board of Ontario, only buys Vinifera wines from growers, who are incented in other ways not to grow native varieties.

While this structure to our modern wine system was felt drastically to improve wine quality here, it has resulted in viticulture based largely on European grape types and the few hybrids authorized by Ontario’s wine standards body, Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA).

In the U.S. many wineries persist with native grapes especially in the East where climate often is unfavourable to cultivating vinifera or the most popular sorts. I recall drinking Delaware and Catawba wine in the Finger Lakes region of New York years ago, and I’m sure some is still made.

A lot was sweetened but not all and winemakers are constantly trying to come up with the magic formula that will produce a widely appealing flavour albeit it might disclose some fox flavour.

Fox flavour characterizes many of the American-grown hops popular since the 1970s. Beer drinkers readily accepted these tastes, the wild fruit taste that characterizes Concord, say, which has relegated its use to sacramental wine, grape juice, and jam.

Welch’s grape juice typifies the taste to those reading who know the brand. Grape jelly for toast has the same taste.

Enter Norton Virginia, sometimes known as Norton or Cynthiana. While a charter member of the native grape group, it lacks the fox taste. This was noted immediately on production of wine from the grape in early 1800s. Three states are known for its cultivation historically, Arkansas, Virginia, and Missouri.

The absence of fox taste made it a star in the eyes of Europeans and those in their thrall making authoritative determinations of wine quality. Norton grape wine won  a gold medal at the Vienna world exhibition in 1873 and was even grown in France.

It was thought to be a first class “claret” wine and set to be a major international variety comparable to Bordeaux red, fine Burgundy, and other noble reds. See some background in this excellent precis of its history from the Appellation America website. A search of “Norton Virginia” will disclose many other good short accounts.

But that world stage never came. There are a number of reasons: California with its lush European variety wines, in the market since the 1880s after pioneer growers brought European cuttings, started to overshadow eastern winemakers.

Also, the Norton grape is difficult to propagate which inhibited its spread to otherwise receptive vineyards. Further, it requires a receptive climate, especially a long growing season albeit it is strongly resistant to the cold weather period and the phylloxera pest. Modern viticulture and science probably could find ways around the limitations, as they have for vinifera in many regions.

Finally, WW I and especially Prohibition ended any chance of a world greeting for Norton. The 1930s was period of transition where growers back in business were deciding what to grow and how to sell it during the Depression, then WW II came. Norton Virginia fell by the wayside.

So the grape has remained on the fringes of the wine world but a dedicated group of winemakers, most in its three heartland states, persist with it including Horton Vineyards in Virginia where Dennis Horton has grown the grape since 1989. I tasted his wine last night in company of an English guest.

We all agreed it was flavourful and interesting. The guest thought berry-like, an accurate view IMO and I’d add spicy, with good acidity. It is somewhat like Zinfandel but less “hot” and with no jammy quality – a cooler climate Zin with some resemblance to the best Beaujolais as well, Morgon, say, and Fleurie.

The type is said to age well – Horton on the label suggests 7-10 years – but drinking it fairly new showed appealing qualities all the same.

While I hold nothing against the fox taste as such on the theory of the relativity of taste and using the beer analogy again, lacking the fox taste can do nothing to harm Norton’s future prospects. The grape performs differently too depending on local growing conditions and this variety of character would broaden its appeal.

Perhaps it can be grown successfully in parts of Ontario. I’d think the southwestern corner may be apt, which has a warmer climate than other parts of Ontario.

Based just on this one bottle, Norton deserves to be much more widely known. It may one day become America’s answer to the red wines based on Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel (Zin of course is an American variety but its lineage is 100% European, effectively it is an import as the other three).

It may fulfill the destiny, finally, many forecast in the 1800s.

 

Origin of the Beer Sparkler

The Road to Wigan’s Pint – and the North’s

A beery controversy in the U.K. since the 1970s is whether the “sparkler” is good for beer. A sparkler is a perforated ball fitted to the end of the tap. It aerates and forces CO2 from the beer as the handpump draws it from the cask. The pint acquires a dense head and creamy texture.

Without the sparkler, cask ale pours fairly flat with a loose, thinnish head that dissipates quickly. Serving the pint sans sparkler is popular in the south of England. In the north the sparkler is generally liked (custom can vary by sub-region and pub).

You don’t read much today about “sparkler – is it good or bad?” but oceans of ink and bandwidth have been sacrificed in the past to a cause that seems delphic to non-initiates.

It’s not that the hard core has tired of the controversy. Newer issues arise and attention turns elsewhere.

Today the main issue facing cask ale is whether CAMRA, the U.K. beer lobby that saved real ale, should promote other forms of beer. The American style of fizzy, well-malted and hopped beer is now popular in the U.K. CAMRA will probably have to adapt to the new reality.

Meanwhile, the matter of sparkler and cask ale quality remains. For what it’s worth, I prefer the bitter style of cask without the sparkler. Its effect seems to blunt hop flavour and generally flatten out taste.

We used to see the sparkler at some cask ale outlets in Toronto but lately the beer is pulled without them. There is some irony in this as if a sparkler improves any beer it is probably American IPA – the blunting of flavour actually improves some of it.

The sparkler was referred to parenthetically in a 1949 brewing journal article by J.W. Scott, “From Cask to Consumer”. Initially I thought it was a post-1945 invention, or perhaps an expedient to make thin, wartime beer more attractive in the glass.

In fact, its use well precedes that date.

The sparkler was invented and patented in the early 1880s by George Barker. He advertised the device for sale in 1885 and identified himself as from the “Crown Hotel, Ince, near Wigan”.

The first ad I saw left off the “l” in Hotel, or the upload to Google Books did that, and I thought the “Ince” must be a misprint of another kind or imperfect uploading again. But no, Ince is a locality nearish to Manchester, Ince-in-Makerfield. (About 17 miles).

The above short article is from pg. 707 of the November 1, 1885 issue of “The British Trade Journal and Export World, Vol. 23”. It explained what Barker’s device does, indeed exactly as people describe the effect today. The sparkler makes flat beer seem more sparkling by agitating the beer and creating the creamy effect.

The ad above is from the same issue of the journal mentioned.

Anyone familiar with beer knows you can swirl the glass to pick up the foam, or use a stirrer of some kind – Barker’s invention did the same thing, but methodically.

Cask ale of course has no CO2 injected at the brewery or pub so as it pours fairly flat, the sparkler would have enlivened pints that looked unattractive. For some reason the south has never minded flat pints, it may be palate-related, it may be the desire to have a brimful glass.

I cannot find any trace of a Crown Hotel in Ince. But there was one – and is one – at 106 Wigan Road, New Springs, near the canal. Ince was a kind of suburb of Wigan, itself some miles from Manchester.

New Springs is only two miles from the centre of Ince. You see its Crown Hotel pictured, a handsome house that looks old enough to have been the locale where Barker did his field work.

Maybe he lived in Ince and worked at the hotel, or used the hotel as a business address. It’s a nice looking pub innit? It is still going strong and gets fine reviews, see some details here. It serves, need we add, cask ale, presumably through Barker’s Aerator, formal name of his device.

In this Google maps view, you see the route from Ince to the Crown Hotel. The route wends further to another Crown Hotel in Worthington. That is another old public house, now closed. I thought it might have been the place Barker did his testing.

But Worthington is seven miles from Ince, likely too far for Barker to have travelled there unless he did so intermittently.

I feel fairly certain his Crown Hotel is as pictured, at 106 Wigan Road – unless you sleuths reading – you know who you are – uncover a Crown Hotel in Ince. (If you do, a pint on me, but you must meet me in Toronto. Okay, two pints).*

And Wigan, for non-Britons reading, is Lancashire – up north you know, so that part ties in.

N.B. One has to admire the hyperbole of Victorians. The sparkler was said to be “the most ingenious invention of the age”. Well, not quite, albeit Barker did quite well anyway. Still, millions of frothy pints beloved by Northerners and other Britons mostly are due to him. He should be remembered, even if palate purists will grumble.

Note re images: the first two images above were sourced from the 1885 journal article linked in the text. The third was sourced from this Google Maps view, and the last, from the Google Maps view linked in the text. All intellectual property in the images belongs solely to the lawful owners or authorized users, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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*In fact reader Roy Pearson has shown there was a Crown Hotel in Ince, tenanted by Barker, see his message in the Comments. Thanks to Roy for straightening this out.

 

Pint of Burning Gold

Bring Me Pint of Burning Gold, Laden with Green and Pleasant Hops

Having sampled Timothy Taylor Landlord, an English pale ale, in bottle recently it brought back the commanding heights of English brewing. The cask version in England would only be better.

The flavour of these beers – meaning old school bitter and pale ale – is often incomparable. While lower amounts of hops are used today vs. the 1800s, the balance and gastronomic quality resulting from using English hop varieties especially for aroma are evident. If you used 1800s levels of hops they would equal a typical modern IPA in intensity and might often be better, beer for beer.

This brings to mind the many local attempts, by which I mean, Canadian, Ontarian, American, to make an English beer similar to England’s surviving best old-school beers.

I’ve tasted many of them in the last 40 years. I am not talking here about English-inspired beers that use local hops for terroir and practical reasons – this ended by creating the American pale ale/IPA format – but where local brewers try to emulate the English taste. This means in part using English hops brought here, just as European brewers successfully use New World hops to create American-style beers there.

Rarely can I recall an English bitter or pale ale being successfully made here. They don’t really come close, in my experience. We can get the malts or use similar ones of our own; we can get the hops; we can adjust brewing waters; we can select an English yeast; we can do cask; so why can’t we make a Timothy Taylor Landlord?

The English-type beers I’ve tasted rarely have the right malt profile, often I get a kind of mixed or “cracker” grain flavour, as e.g. for Goose Island’s (quite decent) Bitter Half the other day. I wonder if it comes from using too many malts. Where brewers disclose the number you read often of 5, 6 or more malts being used.

Is this really necessary? 1800s pale ale used one malt. Modern bitter often combines just pale malt and caramel malt.

I’ve had English-style beers with wheat in them – Britain does this too now sometimes – and I cannot see why this grain is necessary. It seems often to thin the beer and leave a faint dryness that doesn’t belong in pale ale.

You want – or I want – a clean sweet maltiness, the Maris Otter Pete Brown writes so well of in his new book is ideal but I’ve had many North American beers with great malt qualities. Celebration Ale from Sierra Nevada, for example.

Use that malt profile with English hops and you should end up with something Hook Norton, Timothy Taylor, Shepherd Neame, or many other English brewers would be proud of.

I’m not complaining, as we have innovated many styles of beer that now form part of the Gambrinal pantheon. But a fine English-style beer should be part of many brewers’ ranges.

I did have the odd beer over time that did deliver the true taste. Once, at Russian River in California. Probably the odd one in Ontario or Montreal over the years.

But even when the profile is right it’s usually too timid. You can get a small burst of flowery hop that is clearly English but it should dominate the beer, as say it did years ago for John Martin’s Special Pale Ale, brewed at the time if memory serves by Courage in Bristol.

Where the taste gets close, in other words, it doesn’t take you all the way – for me, that is, and here we speak of course of our palate, our tastes, but I can’t imagine a true English beer wouldn’t attract followers here. For one thing it’s a market opportunity given the proliferation of IPAs and pale ales with the American stamp.

Europe is brewing our styles faithfully; we should be returning the favour, not just for Germany or Belgium – overdone! – but for England’s classic forms of pale ale, bitter, and strong ale.

Note re image: the image shown was sourced from Timothy Taylor’s website. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner or authorized user, as applicable. Image is used for educational and historic purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 

 

Pasadena Makes Early U.S. food and wine History

As California’s population and economy grew post-WW II, new chapters of the International Wine and Food Society formed in the state.

The Los Angeles branch was the first, founded in 1935, and indeed 20 years later had reached a stage of maturity to warrant its first history being published as I discussed recently (in fact, two histories have appeared to date).

Two members of the L.A. group formed the nucleus of a new Pasadena chapter in 1954, as explained on its website:

… a second organizational meeting was held at the Stuft Shirt Restaurant. Each charter member was requested to invite a few good friends who enjoyed food, wine, and camaraderie to join the new Society. It was determined that there would be four annual dinners, a logo was designed , and annual dues of $50 per member were assessed. ($10 was allotted to each dinner, to include both food and wine). The minutes of the second meeting were closed by Mr. Goss, stating “the meeting was adjourned in a gentlemanly fashion, sans stagger.” The first full membership dinner of the Wine and Food Society of Pasadena was held at The Piccadilly Restaurant in Pasadena on 9 November 1954. It was titled “An Italian Dinner accompanied by Inglenook Wines”. Now, as we move along in the 21st century, the Pasadena Wine & Food Society anticipates many more opportunities for the best in wine, food and fellowship.

On the same website you may read the first menu, a simple affair as far as typography and design but setting out an authentic, inviting Italian dinner prepared by a local restaurant.

We are not certain if Piccadilly Restaurant was another name for Piccadilly Cafeteria which was part of a small southern chain, but no restaurants under those names exist today as far as we know.

All the wines at dinner were from Inglenook, the famed California winery that began in the late 1800s, founded by – in typical U.S. fashion – a Finnish seafarer and his American wife.

Inglenook had many twists and turns after the captain died. The winery was revived after Prohibition and became one of the four or five wineries of national scale to dominate the U.S. wine business. Its fortunes changed after hundreds of small wineries took the momentum from the late 1960s (will it happen that way in brewing??).

Francis Ford Coppola, who needs no introduction, bought the vineyards after a winding history involving notably Constellation Brands. Initially he did not own the Inglenook name but today owns that too.

Wines now appear again under its name from the original estate. Earlier he put out wines under the name Coppola-Niebaum, the latter was the founding Finn.

Almost certainly the Los Angeles chapter, today the Wine and Food Society of Southern California, had held Italian dinners and featured California wines with them or certainly in other contexts.

So the Pasadena group did not innovate that way, but to base its inaugural dinner on all-local wines was a sign of the growing confidence of the informed wine consumer and the California wine industry. Most new gastronomy societies would have selected all-French wines or taken another conservative vinous course.

Go gourmets go, you might say, and they did. Despite the quaint sound to some of the 1954 proceedings – for one thing it was an all-male affair – the group was forward-looking and intrepid for what counts, the subject matter. It could have selected mostly Italian wines with one or two local selections, but it went all out.

Charbono on the list is an Italian-origin red wine grape that goes under many names, it is still grown occasionally in California. It’s not the same cultivar as Barbera but offers some of its taste qualities, or Zinfandel, vigorous and rustic. It was and still is used in blending too, in so-called field blends, but sometimes just with Cabernet Sauvignon.

Inglenook’s Cabernet Sauvignon at the dinner speaks for itself and was a fairly vintage one. The other wines served mostly still resonate today as well.

In fact, you can buy an Inglenook cab sauv at the LCBO, one with an 1880s date in its name that suggests therefore a character going back to the winery’s earliest days. We like that, and will pick it up soon for an assay.

Note re image: the image above was sourced from Pinterest, here. All intellectual property in the image belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. Image is used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 

 

 

 

Miami and Birth of Modern Food Culture

The Miami Wine and Food Society: a getty that grew

The Miami Branch of the International Wine and Food Society was inaugurated in 1962 under tutelage of wine and food author Charles H. Baker, Jr., Dr. Lewis C. Skinner, Jr., Stephen A. Lynch, Jr., and others. From the current website of the IWFS, the following neatly pens the origins:

 

The Miami Branch was founded by Dr. Louis C. Skinner Jr., a world traveler and respected authority on wine and food.  In the summer of 1961, Lou and Society founder André Simon met in London.  Upon leaving London, Lou traveled to Bordeaux and purchased four cases of red wine of that glorious vintage from 52 different Bordeaux chateaux [en primeur], which he received in 1963 and cellared in his home.  This was reputed to be the best 1961 Bordeaux collection in the world.

In October 1961, the Miami Branch Organizational Committee convened its first meeting at Café Louis in Lou Skinner’s Home.   Lou declined to be the first Branch President, and the honor was bestowed upon Charles Baker.  The inaugural dinner was held on March 28, 1962 at the Columbus Hotel, Miami, FL

Similar to the Los Angeles branch founded 28 years earlier, the founders and leaders were the cream of society. Membership was limited for many years.

In 2009 Scott Bailey, a member since 1983, penned an account of the first decades which sparkles by its perceptive comments. He covers the evolution of the membership, the wine cellar of the branch and how it changed over the decades, and types of events held. For example, for many years black-tie was required and in fact the meals were stag: only later were women included.

This was of course a reflection of an older generation’s customs. My sense is the club was white-shoe and old-school, as many gastronomic societies were in previous times. I’d guess it is rather different today. The current website shows an interesting roster of activities and a membership of almost 80.

Bailey included dozens of menus with his account starting with the very first dinner in ’62. They make for absorbing reading but Bailey has helped us understand them with his insider’s perspective. We can conclude not just that the Miami branch changed with the times, but influenced them in its turn.

Initially the meals were European in focus and rather “Francophile”, not so much at the very beginning, as he notes the first meal, which started with oysters Rockefeller, was more “supper club chic” than truly French. But a 25th anniversary meal showed classic French cuisine at its most sophisticated. The wines included top classified Bordeaux, not just the Burgundy enthusiasm of early dinners.

Bailey notes that as late as 1994 the cellar did not contain any American wine. He states an early experiment was made to cellar California wine but it did not succeed, so this delayed the time Napa and other California vintages would be regularly offered the membership.

The focus for decades was noble French wines (Bordeaux, Burgundies, Champagnes), other French regions especially Alsace and Rhone, German wines, and to a degree Italian, Spanish and Portugal wines.

After ’94 however the percentage of New World wines grew albeit France still dominated at the date of writing.

In fact, a number of early Miami branch dinners did offer California wines. This would have resulted from a member hosting a gathering at his club, or from a restaurant’s list providing the offerings rather than the branch’s cellar.

By 1970 California wines were occasionally offered, sources included Inglenook, Beaulieu, Buena Vista, and Robert Mondavi. This January 6, 1970 meal is an illustration with well-penned product and taste notes included. It was held at the private The Bath Club (pictured). The meal is classic French but all the wines were American including a 12-year-old Cabernet Sauvignon.

My sense is in the early years the Miami chapter lacked the enthusiasm for California viticulture the Los Angeles chapter demonstrated as soon as the industry got on its feet after Repeal. This is understandable as L.A. was in America’s “wine central”: foodies, to use today’s rather unsatisfactory term, had access to what was happening on the ground.

As well, Lewis Skinner was internationally known for his matchless collection of French vintages especially from the great years 1929, 1945 and 1962. 1982 would be included as well, finally. Skinner and Baker were friends with Michael Broadbent, André Simon, Cyril Ray and other international wine luminaries and generously made their private collections available for epic branch tastings.

So a French perspective, one way or another, ended by dominating branch events for some time. Bailey uses the term “International” to denote the subsequent phase of branch activities. This means an increasing focus on New World wines and also regional and ethnic cuisines.

Even from the late 1960s menus on the website show a budding interest particularly for national (non-French) and regional dinners.

Hence, in the 1970s and 80s a Spanish-and-Basque dinner was held, a luxury Chinese one based on regional dishes (no alcohol served, only Chrysanthemum tea – Skinner was also a tea expert), various Italian dinners, a Provence-Côte D’Azur menu, an English “country house” menu (mostly French wines and a sherry, no beer), even a Belgian dinner (French wines again, no beer).

I haven’t inspected every menu, perhaps one did feature a beer sampling or include a beer or two with a meal, but I haven’t found one as yet. The same is true for whiskey, rum, and other spirits.

The arc of the Miami branch, as elucidated by Scott Bailey’s essay and the menus themselves, is a miniature lesson in American foodways evolution. To be sure the people enjoying the experience were a small group, privileged in numerous ways – prosperous, educated – but they were taste-makers.

With IWFS members in other cities, with other gastronomic organizations, with Julia Child, James Beard, Craig Clairborne, Mimi Sheraton, and TV cooking shows, they paved the way for today’s food culture.

I like the approach of the International Food and Wine Society as exemplified by its early years. There is a learned tone to it that appeals to me. Some of the “epicurean” language and attitudes seems a bit high-flown but at bottom they took food and drink seriously and made education a central part of their mission.

Today the world of the Ramsays, Bourdains, Rays, Olivers, Iron Chefs and bake-offs seems rather different. They bring good or interesting food to a broader range of people than in the old days, so it’s good as far as it goes. But the scholarly tone of old-style foodies has an intrinsic value that can’t be gainsaid.

And need I say: it’s wrong to think a deep interest in drink or food, shared with the like-minded and enjoying the best money can buy, is elitist or snobbish. It’s not, there is an old tradition for it going back to Socrates. It’s an area of endeavour as valid as miniature trains, go-karting, steam-punk or whatever drives your boat.

Because everyone needs to eat and drink something, some people take offence when others drill down for something purely quotidian for them. (Hey it’s just beer man, leave it alone).

But there’s no reason gastronomy should be exempt from the countless passions that move people to hyper-enthusiasm.

I’d guess today’s IWFS covers both the old-style approach for those inclined and the kind of popular interest the avatars mentioned cater to.

Finally, as Marcus Crahan put it in his 1955 book I discussed yesterday what is important is not the wine but the memories, meaning the learning, the discussions, disputations, community. Wine provides the impetus but isn’t the main thing, else why create a group centered around its elucidation and enjoyment?

His dictum applies to today’s nerve centres for good food and drink: the tv chefs and competitions, the glossy culinary mags, food festivals, all of it.

Net-net, the activity of the most cosseted of the early food societies can be likened to a good pub evening, a lively corner of a cask ale festival, an ardent Twitter thread.

Otherwise one might just as well drink his vintage Chateau Latour, or choice Imperial Stout, or historically interesting Horton Vineyards Norton, on his own. What fun is that?

Note re image: the image above was sourced from the website of The Bath Club in Miami, FL, here. All intellectual property in the image belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized user, as applicable. Image is used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 

Angelenos, ales and Aristocrats

I’ve learned a lot about this subject matter but have less time to write it up, so am compressing. Dr. Marcus E. Crahan (1901-1978) was a psychiatrist who was Medical Director of the Los Angeles County Jail. Apart from his considerable gastronomic importance, he is remembered for his work involving investigation of the deaths of Robert F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe.

Crahan was from a prominent California family established for generations in the state. He was a bon vivant, bibliophile, and very literate gastronome, a key early member of the Wine and Food Society of Southern California (originally, the Wine and Food Society of Los Angeles).

This group was one of the first American branches that London-based, French-born André Simon established after 1933. Others included the New York, Boston, and Chicago chapters. This group were all set up about the same time, 1933-1935.

The Southern California branch continues today and retains an exclusive aura: the International Wine and Food Society website states in its regard that each branch has its own traditions while all generally follow IWFS policies (promotion of gastronomy, wine culture and education).

This means in part that accession to the Southern California branch is by invitation only. Many of the newer branches – California has some 20 alone – accept members by application.

20 years after the Southern California branch was founded, in 1955, Crahan compiled a history of the group, which you can read here. It is an invaluable record, one that contains not just numerous early menus but many other facts and figures pertaining to its operation and the IWFS in general.

Clearly the L.A. wing were composed or at least directed by a social elite, some of the other key early members were Messrs. Converse, from the wine industry, and Hanna, another doctor. However, the extent of their culinary and wine adventures shows a questing, democratic spirit. They tasted almost everything in their day that could reasonably be found and considered of possible interest to those with a fin bec.

Truth be told the word whiskey does not appear in the book but Crahan states only a representative description of dinners was included, so the L.A. group may have held events for whiskey, and probably rum. After all by 1955 it had held 155 meetings.

Crahan also states that as early as 1937-1938 the group had reached a pitch of its activity, had engaged in every kind of tasting and dinner that it ever would. Some of the events were a Chilean wine tasting and dinner, an Armenian dinner, Swedish and English dinners, and a foray into Peruvian cuisine and pisco brandy.

The onset of the Nazi era in Germany did not deter the group from essaying German wines, and in April,1938 German (and Alsatian) wines were tabled for the group’s assessment.

Indeed Simon published a book, German Wines, in 1939 that apparently had support from Germany’s Ministry of Agriculture. Until the war directly entangled America, such activities were not viewed askance in general American society.

Craven’s book contains a bibliography of Simon’s writings, a lengthy, comprehensive list that is remembered to this day. It is especially impressive for someone who left school at 17 and was writing in a second language. A letter from Simon to Crahan is included which itself is a short history of the International Wine and Food Society and is of interest on many accounts.

Did the Society in L.A. ignore beer? Not at all, and below I include details of a beer tasting it held on September 7, 1938. Nowhere in the book does Crahan give any indication he or others considered tasting beer lesser in relation to their (general) wine devotions. This is commendable especially considering the early date.

It is no surprise craft beer took flight from the 1970s in the same state. One can credit in part the Wine and Food Society of Southern California for the beer revival, as of course for the steady growth of interest in American wines after WW II.

California wine figures almost from the beginning in the group’s tastings, and as quality and availability grew so did the number of wines and American focus in some of the tastings.

During WW II the book reports the group largely ceased its activities, holding only small gatherings. As I’ve mentioned earlier, the New York branch continued some tastings which gave it an opportunity to explore American viticulture with new attention, so the situation seems broadly comparable.

Below I also include a couple of pages from the book’s prologue. Crahan eloquently explained how the mingling of Yankee and Spanish cultures in his state produced a unique environment for the epicurean spirit to flourish, something that went national finally.

The New York branch – indeed all the U.S. branches – were important in this regard but given Crahan and his fellow Angelenos were located in America’s premier wine state their early promotion of California wines is especially significant.

Indeed Crahan himself published a book on California wines in the 1940s. And L.A. Society member Maynard McFie published a commentary on significant California wines in 1941, it is mentioned in the extracts below.

Another example of prescient California wine interest – at a time when California was still struggling to reset the wine business after Prohibition – is the visit the group made to Santa Clara vineyards with members of the San Francisco branch.

Finally, and viz. beers again, the L.A. group had an annual award for the best non-wine beverage. Acme Bock Beer consistently won, see pp 44-45 for the listings. Carlsberg beer won this award in 1939.

Acme Brewery, which originated in San Francisco, was probably “the” Southern California brewery from the 1930s-1950s. It is a sign of the Society’s unsnobbish gastronomic spirit that it awarded this prize consistently to a local dark beer.

 

 

 

Note re images: all images above except the Acme Bock image are via the HathiTrust digital library, from the book linked in the text. The Acme Bock image is from the Tavern Trove site, here. All intellectual property in the images belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized user, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 

Beef, beef, beef, ale, ale, ale*

Beer Joins Cuisine at Table

In discussing early beer and food menus, I’ve drawn attention both to pairings of beer and food and dishes using beer as an ingredient: the two often go together.

Certainly before about 1900 one does not see either form, not as planned offerings for a bill of fare. Of course folk custom always paired beer with some foods. In England ale (or other beer) was legion with meat pie, steak or other beef, cheese, and famously, cake.

Steak and ale were occasionally blended under the pie or pudding pastry but this was more haphazard than anything else: England had no beer cuisine vs. the odd dish that sometimes used beer as an ingredient.

Germany had its pairings, in which the sausage figured not a little (still does), and its beer soups and such, but there was no organized beer cuisine, and the same for Austria, the Czech lands, and other beer countries. Even Flanders’ beer dishes before the 1950s seem rather thin on the ground, as I’ve discussed earlier.

And so writing a menu to pair different beers with foods or offering recipes with beer is comparatively new. I’ve given numerous examples starting in 1898, the first was a German-American dinner at a restaurant owned by Pabst Brewery. This example may be viewed perhaps as the start of a practice that derived from commercial impulse rather than long social custom.

(Things often start with commercial aims and then become accepted practice, there is certainly nothing wrong with that).

Pairing wine and food, in which France notably excelled with the gentry following in England, provided the template for what we now call “beer dinners”.

While French culture and English gentility provided the analogy, a spur was needed given the lack of a parallel tradition for beer and food. This came again from commercial impulses. An early example is provided by the menu shown from 1937, a luncheon of the United Brewers Industrial Foundation.

The UBIF was later absorbed into what is now the Beer Institute, one of the two main beer lobbies in the United States.

A number of the dishes used beer in the preparation – even good old American chocolate cake. Beer chocolate cake sounds contemporary, something the local brewpub might offer at its next beer dinner. Here we see it in 1937, at the height of the Depression and when malign dictators were strutting around Europe.

Clearly these dishes, and even the service of beer only at the meal (no wine), came from a conscious attempt to make beer the theme of the meal. This kind of meal was never seen before in American or European custom, at least to my knowledge.

The 1898 Pabst dinner pictured below is not quite the same as its dishes did not apparently use beer in the cooking. Still, it is a kind of precedent for the later event and perhaps more so since it pairs specific beers with specific courses.

Eloise Davison, one of the speakers at the lunch, wrote a book sponsored by the UBIF called Beer in the American home. It contained numerous recipes with beer, things like beer and beef kidneys, beer cole slaw and probably the said chocolate cake. Clearly the beer recipes in the 1937 menu were from that book as the menu invites requests to be sent the recipes.

Davison was a home economist, a journalist and editor who had long written about food. She was the ideal person to write the book she did. I have not read it and perhaps she suggests sources in the book for her recipes – in effect this was so for the Bohemian beer soup – but I suspect most recipes with beer were of her own devise.

Janet Clarkson, the Australian food historian who blogs at The Old Foodie, discussed in 2010 a number of the recipes promoted by the UBIF. Start here for an illuminating discussion.

One would think that if anyone was to invent a tradition of beer cuisine it would be the various brewers associations, at least for their own dinners.

The New York Public Library menu archive discloses about a dozen dinners or lunches held by such groups in the first half of the 1900s, but the 1937 luncheon is the first I’ve seen to present beer as the (drinkable, edible) theme of a brewers’ dinner.

The other events either don’t mention any alcohol or list various wines and other liquors to accompany the meal. Beer was sometimes included but one can tell it was “thrown in”.

 

Why would brewers of all people not make beer the theme of their culinary gatherings? First, these affairs were partly working luncheons, it makes sense no alcohol was served at some, especially perhaps in communities with an abstinence image.

Second, brewers can be excused for wanting to drink something different from their daily stock-in-trade. The organizing committees would have been encouraged to choose some nice wine or other liquor as a treat.

By the 1930s though and with the increasing sophistication of public relations and business in general, clearly brewers thought they should showcase their wares as part of their business gatherings. Two beers were offered with the meal, brand(s) not specified but this was due to the nature of the UBIF – a trade organization engaged in generic promotion.

Still, a bock beer was offered, a style quite different to the light lager Americans were familiar with as beer, so that was unusual right there.

The Waldorf hotel’s 1937 beer dinner is a harbinger of the beer dinners that would become typical of the post-1960s beer revival.

It was easy for the Waldorf to switch modes for this purpose, from Bacchus to Gambrinus. Many of its chefs were European-trained. Also, the New York Food and Wine Society, as we’ve seen, was holding beer and food tastings at this hotel or would before long. The idea was in the air.

Note re images: all images except the third are from the New York Public Library (www.nypl.org), the links are given in the text. Third image is via the HathiTrust digital resource, also as linked in the text. All intellectual property in the images belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized user, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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*The title of this post is taken from a passage in an 1887 book by Charles Wilkinson attesting to the enduring link of steak and ale in English culture. The book is set in Germany but one Temple, an English coach-driver on assignment in Germany, is depicted as a sedulous follower of ale and beef and thus an emblem of John Bull. His old-fashioned nature is highlighted by his preference for the dark and strong “London particular”, in other words porter, as against the light, clear pale ale. Even the Germans, no tyros at beer, were impressed with Temple’s bibbing. They said of him, Morgens ein Bier-fass, Abends ein Fass-bier.