Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Ah, Sweet, Sweet Bitters, in Search of a Better Cocktail

It was an early rise on my day off. Heading across town in the summer morning to meet with Matteo Luxardo and taste through his family's legendary wares.

The Luxardo company has been in existence since 1821 when Girolamo Luxardo moved the family from Genoa to Zara, on the Dalmatian coast to establish a Maraschino distillery, the region being the only habitat for the Marasca cherry. The company became one of the largest liqueur producers in Italy, exporting the Luxardo Maraschino liqueur around the world. After the factory was destroyed during World War II, it was rebuilt south of Padua, where they planted a 200 acre cherry orchard. Today the family still owns and manages the company which produces a range of 11 liqueurs plus their famous Marasca cherries, both in syrup and jam.

So why is it so special? 

Because better cocktails demand better ingredients. Period. End of story. Great spirits are the base. Great flavoring agents are the modifiers. The Luxardo products are uniformly precise in flavor definition. Flavors are intense without being overpowering, sweet without being cloying. The intensity of flavor combined with seeming lightness make the Luxardo products such great flavoring agents. I'll just run briefly through my tasting notes.

Limoncello - Made from Sicilian lemons which are large, with thick skins and a thick zest. Bright yellow and transparent. Brilliant lemon zest with a long bright finish. Sweet but never loses the sense of tartness. Filtered to meet market expectations of clarity, but an unfiltered will be available in the near future. Most commonly served straight up from the freezer. Add soda for a refreshing summer cooler. Or it will make a great sno-cone!

Italian Triplum Triple-sec - Wow, this is intense stuff! Initial aromatic attack of bitter orange that becomes richer and sweeter on the floral finish. Made with with bitter oranges, sweet oranges, mandarin oranges  and orange blossoms. For me, this product redefines triple-sec.

Maraschino Liqueur - Clear liqueur with intense, deep, rich essence of cherry. White and milk chocolates come from the depth of the natural flavor of the Marasca cherries. Hints of almond aromatics come from the pits. The product is pure cherry. Fruit comes from the 22,000 trees in the Luxardo orchards in the Euganean Hills near Padua. After fermentation and maturation in larch vats, the juice is distilled in small pot stills and aged for two years in Finnish ash before dilution and bottling. Excellent over fruit and an essential element to a well stocked bar.

Amaretto di Saschira - Light essence of almond with hints of caramel. I'm drinking the macaroons my grandmother used to buy at Henri's Bakery in Atlanta 50 years ago (Until today I always thought it was Henry's!). Made from pure almond paste from Sicilain almonds, aged in larch vats to mature the spirit before bottling. No apricot pits, peach pits or concentrated flavorings. Another product redefined!

Sambuca di Cesari - All Mediterranean countries have their anise based spirit, Sambuca is strictly Italian. An infusion of elderberries (Sambuca nigra) grown near the distillery and green anniseed, the clear liqueur has rich anise flavor and viscous, thick mouthfeel and is not as sweet as one would expect. Elderberries have long been known for their digestive and tonic benefits.

An impressive portfolio of liqueurs. The overarching uniformity of style is noteworthy. All products other than the maraschino and the grappa are infusions which use a distillation of beet sugars as the alcohol base. Matteo says they use the beet product because of the sweetness and neutrality of the spirits.

We also tasted the Luxardo Marasca Cherries themselves which are just unreal. The color of the fruit and the syrup is a deep, dark unctuous red and that's just the way they taste. Simply put, they transform cocktails. Try a Manhattan made with an outstanding rye whiskey, a high quality sweet vermouth and a Luxardo Marasca cherry and you'll be a believer. Or just put one on a chocolate sundae! Become a believer.

And that was the end of the regular meeting. Grappa and Bitters were available for the hardcore.

Grappa Euganea - Made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot grown in the Euganean Hills in Veneto. Slightly smoky and nutty aromatics are followed by  a warm and viscous grappa. Does not have the burn and jet-fuel characteristics of most grappa. 

Luxardo Amaro Abano - Amaro means bitter. Abano Amaro is a medium bitter with sweet smoky bitter orange with cinammon, cardomom and long warm finish infused with sweet bitter (yes!) herbs. Very approachable. Traditionally a digestive, a favorite with the new mixologists. 

Luxardo Bitters - A Campari-type aperitif in the Luxardo style. The flavorings come from the infusion of several herbs and spices such as sweet orange, bitter orange, rhubarb, mint, marjoram and thyme. Drink it before dinner to stimulate the appetite. 

Luxardo Fernet - A bracing attack of bitter herbs fused with sweet fruit and eucalyptus sustained by overwhelming aromatics that hang around.

The hardcore group was buzzing with excitement at the conclusion. Most of the products are in stock most of the time at Sigel's. We hope to have the three bitters on the shelf soon.

The morning sun had intensified when we wandered into the parking lot and our next destination was not in question: Drip Coffee for a double shot of the best espresso in Dallas.

Better make that a double-double.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Oops!! Has It Been THAT Long?


(I'm always writing in my head, just not on the keyboard.)

Where to begin. Rather than going way back, I'll just stay in the recent past. Which was vacation. We spent some nice days in Santa Fe with Michael and Laura, an amazing day in the canyons and mountains of Boulder, Utah with Mary and Glen, and a couple of spectacular drives in between the two.

Naturally, highlights were meals.

Visits to Santa Fe always begin with Margaritas, Carne Adovada and Blue Corn Enchiladas at Maria's.  Maria's has the best selection of tequila and the biggest list of Margaritas in my known universe. The serious overindulgence is always followed the next morning by a massive breakfast at Tecolote Cafe. My fave: Atole Pinon pancake topped with an egg over-easy, jalapeno bacon and green chile. Oh, and warm maple syrup on the pancake not blessed by the chile. Oh my. I could drive the eleven hours to Santa Fe, eat at Maria's, eat at Tecolote and drive back home and have had a great trip.

But the greatest meals are when we cook at Michael and Laura's. They do like to eat and drink and are such great company! Michael is a manager at Susan's Fine Wine and Spirits, the best wine and spirits shop in Santa Fe and I always bring a bottle or two, so we do drink well. 

We had some good cheese to start and a bottle of Mas Carlot 2009 Rose, which had just come off the container the day before. Intense strawberries and raspberries jumped from the glass. Wild cherries joined the party on the palate and were kissed on the finish by gentle acidity. Delicious, but the bottle was gone in a flash! Laura took the helm in the kitchen and fixed pork chops with bacon and sage in a vinaigrette glaze. We had some asparagus and I chipped in with a mushroom risotto, and we enjoyed a bottle of Brian Loring's 2007 Russell Vineyard Pinot Noir. The wine met the savory pork with intense wild black berry fruits and the risotto brought out a touch of earthiness from the wine.

The next day's late afternoon sun found us driving across the northern head waters of Lake Powell at the junction of the Colorado and Dirty Devil Rivers and through the spectacular deep red palisades of Fry Canyon. A ghostly twilight drive gave us a taste of the massive formations of the Capitol Reef and then we pushed over the 9600' summit of Boulder Mountain in the dark, surprising elk, deer and herds of cattle who thought the road was theirs at that late hour.

In the midst of the mountains and slick rock canyons lies the oasis of Boulder, Utah. The fertile valleys were farmed first by the Fremont culture and later by Mormon farmers. For years the village was a dairy center as the cattle grazed on the lush mountain meadows. 

We spent the next day driving up the spine of the Capitol Reef. It can only be described as driving up a trench in the middle of the ocean bed, only there's no water at all. After the long hot drive, we discovered delicious pastrami burgers at Slacker's in Torrey, then headed up over the mountain to Mary and Glen's vintage Shasta 'Canned Ham' trailer where we enjoyed a bottle of sparkling wine and margaritas. Well fortified, we raced down the mountain to dinner.

Our goal was the Boulder Mountain Lodge and the Hell's Backbone Grill. The restaurant is run by two visionary women, Blake Spalding and Jennifer Castle who are dedicated to local sourcing. They have their own farm and gardens, raise hens for eggs, meat is locally produced, the goal is local, organic and sustainable. Not only that, they are lovely, charming and amazing women who produce delicious food. My sister Mary has gotten to be good friends with them so Blake joined us at our table and guided our selections. Salads with local greens, radish vichysoisse, enchiladas with tender young tumbleweeds, trout, bison filets, tender lamb and rich ice creams with eggs supplied by Blake's 'girls' (her hens.)

Of course with wine. Did I mention the wine? Before dinner we shared another bottle of new Rose, this time from Mas Guiot. Similar to the Carlot but Francois and Sylvia always get a touch of dark black cherry in their rose. We enjoyed the wine on the porch behind our room overlooking the marsh/pond with Reef formations and Boulder Mountain off in the distance. Two bottles with dinner, first a bottle of 2008 Melville Inox Chardonnay. Single clone, meticulously farmed chardonnay, cold soaked, cold fermented, stainless steel, minimum handling. Edgy, nervous, laser beam of intense flavor. I love it! The wine sliced through the vichysoisse and made the trout sing. And another bottle of 2007 Loring Pinot Noir. This time, from the Brousseau vineyard, grown the sparse Pinnacle highlands of the Chalone AVA. Dark, rich and brooding, it was the perfect foil for the tender lamb and spice-rubbed bison filets.

After a late breakfast at the Grill, we headed over the mountain and through the canyons back to Santa Fe and a last meal with Michael and Laura. I found a Brunello at Michael's store and though it was way too young, I just had to have it. Casanova di Neri Tenuta Nuova 2004. I've enjoyed both the Rosso and base level Brunello over the last few months, so it only seemed natural. I mean professionally speaking and all... The wine was big, intense and young, so I splash decanted it twice and let it breath for a couple of hours and then poured through a Vinturi aerator. It was still big and intense, but the manipulation pulled an amazing amount of the dark, hoisin tinged black cherry fruit out of the wine so that the fruit helped mask the wine's massive structure.

To match the wine I seared and pan roasted a pork tenderloin and sauced it with mushrooms in an intense wine reduction accompanied by gnocchi tossed in brown butter and sage from their garden. And Parmigiano out of hand as we wiped out plates and finished the bottle.

Pralines and Cream Ice Cream for dessert.

I was happy. We all were happy.

We headed back to Dallas where Susan immediately had two root canals. Yes, she did the whole trip flying on hydrocodone!