Sunday, August 31, 2008

Home Again, Home Again...


But from where from you ask? A nice jaunt around the various & sundry ports of call of the Mediterranean with Princess Cruise lines. Starting in Italy at the docks of Venice, the trip lasted twelve days and terminated in the new Mecca of cuisine: Barcelona, Spain with a great many fascinating, if brief, stops along the way. More on those in my next post (hey, there's quite a bit to remember), first a brief look at my accomodations (from a food & drink standpoint, of course) on the trip...

The Boat
Strictly speaking, more of a floating hotel with a propeller than a ship, the Emerald Princess was truly a massive piece of work, with space for well over 2000 passengers and over 1000 crew members from a diverse mix of countries. As we sailed from Europe, the majority of the passengers hailed from various locales therein; onboard I heard a plethora of languages being spoken - everything from Spanish and Italian to Russian. The ship's impressive facillities included a library, casino (wherein I lost a fair bit), numerous swimming pools, a nightclub (loud, neon & flash, just like any on land), more than a dozen unique bars & lounges and four (immense) dining rooms (as well as a pair of independent restaurants). While not in port, I occupied myself with a variety of activities, among the most interesting of which was a tour of one of the ship's four main galleys (any one of which occupies a similar square footage equivalent to that of my home):

Onboard most any cruise line, as a part of the price of admission, fairly ridiculous quantities of food are made freely available just about 24 hours a day. And somehow, despite such massive volumes of cuisine being served up, quality-wise, it's by-and-large both very good & very well-prepared.

To give you some idea of these quantities, the ship stocks somewhere between 110 and 115 tons of foodstuffs for each voyage! Daily preparations & requirements, on average, include *7000 lbs. of fresh fruit, 2100 lbs. of beef, 1700lbs. of flour (for bread alone, nevermind pastry), 550 Gal of soup and 500 lbs. of Pasta! Now, I've worked in catering & at busy restaurants before, yet even after a tour of the gleaming galley I only have the vaguest notion of how they put forth such high-quality food for roughly 3000 people day-in & out. The best I could come up with was that in addition to well-trained personel and state-of-the art equipment, they (like any successful kitchen) have a tried & true system which is followed to the letter.

All that soup for instance, would be prepared in an industrial apparatus like the ones pictured at left - each capable of cooking over seventy-six gallons at a go. Dinner service is a la carte, with a number of predetermined selections from which to choose, so dishes (with the exception of meat cooked to order) are prep-cooked somewhat in advance of the dinner times (which are more or less set under two seperate seatings) before being placed into temperature-controlled cabinets like the ones pictured here. Long rows of finishing, plating & garnish stations spanning the rear of these containers provide the last-minute touches to individual orders before they are brought to table. And if should you desire a drink with dinner, the point-of-sale system used by the dining room staff calls beverages back to one of two (caged) service bars in each galley, which brings us to the next part of my review - the drinks!

Now, with the cuisine being generally great, I have to say that I was shocked & disappointed to find the bar service more than lacking in many regards. What struck me as particularly shocking was the dichotomy of product qualities. Barring small differences between individual bars & lounges, based largely on theme, every bar had essentially the same range of spirits and mixers available. While hardly exhaustive, I was pleasantly surprised to see Pimm's No. 1, Appleton's V/X Rum, Campari, Leblon Cachaca, Simple syrup (made daily), Passionfruit & Raspberry purées by Funkin, Pomegranate syrup (used for Grenadine) & Angostura bitters at every bar. The bartenders were all friendly, each had a great patter & most seemed to know their spirits more or less thoroughly...

...yet there were no fresh juices *(despite the presence of some 70,000lbs. of fresh fruit on board), only Lime and Lemon pre-mixes, miniscule twists of citrus cut days prior were casually tossed into drinks with nary a twisting motion to be seen, the (already wet) tired ice used to prepare a drink was casually poured into the glass (despite the uniform presence of hawthorne strainers). Even worse, what passed for shaking a drink wouldn't even qualify as 'rocking them to sleep', much less 'waking them up', as the late Harry Craddock would say. Everything except neat spirits, was free-poured despite the uniform presence of jiggers and while glassware was stored in refrigerated units, the lack of a properly-chilled, diluted (or even measured) beverage within made cocktails more or less...unpleasant.

I visited each of the ship's bars to try and determine if perhaps there was a well-trained 'tender, one willing to make the effort. The folks in the "Martini Bar" were fairly appalled at my request of a stirred Martini (which was tossed exactly three times with watery ice before being strained into a cold glass), and were even more appalled that I had ordered it with Italian vermouth (which was far beyond stale). That they offered me a drink from their list of some forty-five "Martinis" was small consolation, let me tell you. An attempt at talking another barman through preparing a Hurricane resulted in a combination of Appleton's Rum, Lime sour mix, Passionfruit puree & no Simple syrup, all casually built over more melted ice. What was a cocktailian to drink under the circumstances, without becoming a hated "difficult customers"? Stick to Caipirinhas (the only drink which guaranteed fresh Lime as it was plucked from the garnish tray), simple Highballs & Cuba Libres (made with European Coca-Cola, which, much like Mexican Coke, is not made with HF Corn syrup).

Just as despair began to set in, I visted one of the ship's smaller on-deck bars, where I struck up a conversation with the South African bartender on duty. After a short exchange about food-service and bartending (& observing that he actually used the jigger at his station) I asked him if he would be willing to make a cocktail by my specifications - nothing outrageous, just a proper Whiskey Sour. With juice culled from wedges of Lemon in the garnish tray, a proper measure of Jameson's and a good hard shake it was fantastic. After noting his shifts, for the remainder of the cruise I went only to that bar for my cocktails & I introduced him to a number of classics which the bar's stock was abe to produce - an Americano, Bronx cocktail, Roman Punch, even a close fascimile of a proper Mai-Tai (sans Orgeat). He was curious to know where I had learned many of my recipes & I was happy to lend out reprints of the 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book, as well as Charles Baker's The Gentleman's Guide, which I had brought along to read. He devoured them in just four day's time and was quick to ply me with recipes of interest he had seen. All that just goes to show what a bartender who cares can do, even under less than optimal conditions, and I'm honored to have met & been able to share a few recipes with the man.

And so, with cuisine & cocktails squared away onboard the ship, here's a brief look at the first of my destinations:

Venice, Italy
Harry's Bar
Venice is a place of many wonders; the city itself is an engineering marvel, essentially standing on water. The buildings are hundreds of years old, built in a magnificent variety of architectural styles, and there is something very pleasant & peaceful about visiting a place where the streets remain unclogged by cars and traffic.

Chief (in my humble opinion) among the many marvels of Venice is Harry's Bar, a venerable & renowned (despite its discrete exterior) establishment opened in 1931. The dimly-lit interior is small & cozy, elegantly decorated in handsome wood tones with a tiny stone-top bar and white-jacketed staff. Though a bit expensive, the atmosphere (to say nothing for the phenomenal cocktails) was worth every Euro...

My Americano (pictured at left), Bellini & Old-Fashioned were prepared pefectly & efficiently by the fastidious barman and served in the house's beautiful engraved glassware. While seated, I (gleefully) watched the bartender press fresh oranges & purée a batch of white peaches (for the bar's most famous invention, the Bellini) in the manner of a well-practiced ritual, all while effortlessly keeping up with the busy lunch rush's liquid demands. Equally interesting about the experience, was the service - at once formal & intimate. All these elements combined under one roof - the gleam of knowledge and amusement in the otherwise silent bartender's eyes when an order came through, the quiet sounds of dishes and glassware - led to a truly fantastic experience...

Between a spot of writer's block, a poor memory and after noting the length of this post alone, I have opted to detail the remaining stops on my journey in my next post. Adventures with the cuisines and cocktails of Istanbul, Rome, Naples & Barcelona and others will be along shortly , so stay tuned!


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

What is it Good For?


Pennsic War that is. For those among you who have never heard of it before, is one of the largest annual events run by the Society for Creative Anachronism - a worldwide medieval educational & re-enactment society with whom I have been an active member for many years. This two-week long event takes place at a massive campground called Cooper's Lake in upstate Pennsylvania & often draws upwards of ten-thousand people. It is a tricky experience to explain in a single post, particularly to those who have never attended, but I will attempt to sum up the overall experience as fully as possible:

Pennsic is a city-sized (those are all tents in the picture above by-the-by), two week-long camping event wherein the attendees live (more or less) & dress according to a given period of pre-1600's history with which they have an interest. My own time period, for example, is Kamakura-era (mid-1200's) Japan. Attendees generally camp with their regional or local groups, which are allotted campsites according to their size.

During the day at Pennsic, while thusly dressed & encamped, one can attend classes on all manner of historical matters of interest, fight re-enactments of historical battles complete with armor & rattan weaponry (quite a sight to see & the principle reason it's called a 'War'), perform or listen to music from antiquity, attend formal medieval-styled courts and otherwise experience various aspects of the medieval lifestyle from dozens of the worlds' cultures. A large portion of the site is devoted to a massive marketplace, wherein one can see and find just about anything - fantastic jewelry & metalwork, glassblowing, clothing, leatherwork, herbs, brewers - name it & you can likely find it. At night, however, Pennsic takes on a frenetic, Dionysian-atmosphere with many of the groups in attendance throwing massive parties in a variety of period & non-period themes (hence the anachronism in SCA).

So how does one throw a party or have any hope of eating good food or mixing a decent cocktail on a camping trip you ask? For starters there are some modern amenities available - camps are supplied with running water (we have a heated camp shower & sink), and there is a store on site at which one can purchase necessities like ice (cubed or block). Similarly, some of the larger groups have very impressive set-ups, complete with propane refrigeration, ranges & the like, and for my part - I long ago built a 'portable' bar (I'll have pictures up soon) which I bring with me, and many of my fellows are equally clever in what they bring to arrange for such things as food, drink & comfort.

To give you a rough idea, in camp we feasted on Paella, Curried-Coconut Rice, Stir-Fried Vegetables w/Sesame Noodles, Hummus, Steak, grilled Tuna and much more. In the heat of the day (& throughout the evenings' carousing), an assortment of drinks kept us all comfortable & relaxed - Hurricanes, Palomas, JW&N w/Ting, Scorpion Bowls, Stone Fences, a wide variety of Coolers, Fizzes, Swizzles, Smashes, Sours, Shrubs and other libations of my own devising were greatly enjoyed by all, such as this refreshing cocktail utilizing Horchata de Melón (made w/Cucumber, Cinnamon & Coriander):

Mí Amor
1½ oz oz. Hendrick's Gin
½ oz. white Port
1¼ oz oz. Horchata de Melón
½ oz. fresh Valencia Orange juice
Combine ingredients in a mixing glass & shake with ice. Strain into an Old-Fashioned glass half-filled with crushed ice & garnish with a whole Cinnamon stick.

Likewise, as none of the above really fall within the provinces of the SCA's historical period (& anachronism will only go so far), I played with a handful of recipes & notions from antiquity: a Wassail Bowl; drinking Chocolate flavored with fresh Blackberries & Cassis; brewing a Pap of Barley, Almonds, Nutmeg & Mace before fine-straining it for blending with Brandy and Wine; as well as a number of Mead-based drinks.

All & all Pennsic War is an incredible experience - good (not just by camping standards) food, quality drinks and through the days a glimpse at the diverse cultures & history of the world, all in the company of a horde of extremely friendly, knowledgeable & like-minded individuals. What follows will be a brief glance at some of my cocktail-related adventures at War:

Fascinaing Flavors While Finding My Inner Vagabond While a number of the Pennsic marketplaces' inhabitants are in the business of supplying comestibles to the populace, none of them (in my humble opinion) do food & beverage-service quite like the fantastic folks at Your Inner Vagabond.

This incredible lounge is one of the true wonders of Pennsic, lavishly decorated in authentic Middle-Eastern coffeehouse style. Within its cool & comfortable confines one can sample an impressive array of delicious coffees, teas, specialty drinks and desserts, complete with live entertainment & hookah service in the evenings.

I was able to spend a great many hours within, sampling a wide variety of rare & delicious beverages while enjoying numerous lengthy conversations with a new acquaintance, the worldly owner/operator AJ, whom I found to be a kindred spirit in all matters mixological. She and her fabulous staff espoused an attitude towards quality, consistency and wondrous ingredients which I cannot applaud heartily enough.

When the time came to experiment & work with certain flavors which had been discussed, whether back at my own bar or in YIV's impressive kitchen, I was quick to play with a number of interesting combinations, several of which worked quite nicely:

Lemongrass Cooler
1½ oz. Plymouth Gin
½ oz. Aperol
1 oz. Monin Lemongrass syrup
½ oz. fresh Meyer Lemon juice
Combine in a mixing glass & shake with ice. Strain into a Collins glass filled with ice, top with Seltzer & garnish with an Orange twist.

Jasmine "Toddy"
1½ oz. Brugal Añejo Rum
½ oz. Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur
3½ oz. Jasmine Green Tea
½ oz. Demerara Simple syrup
1 dash: fresh Lemon juice
1 dash: Angostura bitters
Brew a strong cup of Jasmine tea. Build ingredients in a drinking Bowl or Coffee glass while tea remains hot & stir briefly.
A scant ½ oz. of Honey syrup (2:1 - Honey:Water) also works well in place of the Simple syrup. This is also equally good (& quite refreshing) cold - merely allow the tea to cool after brewing & serve over cracked ice.

Sudanese Rose
1½ oz. Rhum Agricole Blanc
½ oz. Lillet Blanc
2 oz. Karkade (a Hibiscus Tisane, Jaimaica also works fine)
3-4 dashes: Hibiscus Grenadine
Combine ingredients in a mixing glass & stir well with plenty of ice. Strain into a double-rocks glass, half-filled with ice. Garnish with a twist of Lime, sprig of fresh Peppermint & an organic Rose petal.

Even better for you gentle reader, in addition to their (sadly, temporary) Pennsic location, AJ & her staff operate a permanent facility in downtown Pittsburgh at which you can experience the same wondrous range of culinary creations coupled with all manner of live entertainment events without having to "rough it". If you're ever in town check them out - I promise, once you've sampled their Morrocan Coffee you'll never have another espresso...

An (Expected) Party & Cocktails for the Masses
On the last Thursday of Pennsic, sometime around dark-thirty, our camp opens its doors to the general populace & throws a party. This year was no exception, with the theme of the fete being a blatant, over-the-top, mockery of the Inquisition in true Mel Brooks/Monty Python fashion. The event, complete with live music & fire-Poi by members of our group, was a positively smashing success. Throughout the evening and well through the last few days of War I heard nothing but kind words & good feelings circulating the public rumor mill regarding our little soiree...

While we provided a modest spread of cold Beer & hard Cider (Smithwicks, Guinness & Woodchuck on tap) I was, of course, responsible for arranging the cocktail end of the liquid refreshment for the evening, and I'd like to think I did not disappoint. Intending no disparagement towards other groups or the quality of their parties, let us merely say that the trend of true mixology has not yet caught on with all of Pennsic's many "cocktail" crafters. For our (not so small) event I therefore wished to demonstrate to the attending populace what a proper cocktail could be - a real culinary experience in a glass, taking no shortcuts despite the immense volume required. To this end I prepared a pair of libations for our guests' pleasure, as well as a measure of flavorful shots for those who wished to get underway with a minimum of fuss:

Bloody Inquisitor
3½ Liters: Cardamom, Vanilla & Valencia Orange peel-infused Vodka
1 Liter, 3 oz. Triple-Sec
1 Liter, 3 oz. Marie Brizard Orange Curacao
15 oz. Lillet Blanc
8 Liters: organic Blood Orange Nectar
15 oz. Simple syrup
1¼ Tablespoons: Regan's Orange bitters
1¼ Teaspoons: Green Cardamom tincture
9x Valencia Oranges, julienned
3x Meyer Lemons, julienned
In advance, add 2 whole Madagascar Vanilla beans (split), 2½ Tablespoons whole Green Cardamom and 2 Tablespoons dried Valencia Orange peel to Vodka & macerate for eight days, agitating occasionally.
Combine ingredients in a clean 5-Gal water cooler, pouring infused Vodka through a double-layer of cheesecloth to strain out solids. Stir well to incorporate & add fresh fruit. Approximately one hour before serving add one 10lb. block of (double-frozen) ice & stir well. Pour servings over cracked ice.

Yes, yes I know a Vodka-based cocktail isn't very exciting, but in my experience people trust things that they recognize & are comfortable with. Though my original idea for this particular cocktail called for a Cardamom-infused Gin, I knew that no matter how good it tasted I would never get the vast majority of our guests to even try it, so I settled on an infused-Vodka recipe. In retrospect I'm fairly glad that I did - this drink was quite a hit and the flavors were excellent in my own humble opinion. With the next cocktail however, I pushed a few boundaries rather successfully:

The (Spice) Rack
5x 750ml: Lautrec V.S. Cognac
3x 750ml: El Dorado 5-yr Demerara Rum
1x 750ml: JW&N 123° Jamaican Rum
9 oz. St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram
4 oz. El Dorado 151° Demerara Rum

1 Tablespoon: Angostura bitters
1 Tablespoon: Spiced Lemon bitters
50 oz. fresh Lemon juice
14 oz. fresh Meyer lemon juice

4 lbs. Demerara sugar
16x bags: Green Tea
16x bags: Black Tea
2 Gallons: Water
Approximately six hours prior to serving, bring Water to a rapid boil & remove from heat. Peel half of the Lemons, being sure to remove as much of the bitter white pith as possible. Slack the Sugar into the Water and add the Lemon peels & Tea bags. Allow the Tea and Peels to steep for approximately one hour before removing, being sure to press them through cheescloth to extract as much of the liquid as possible. Place a clean cloth over the mixture & allow another hour for it to cool to room temperature. Meanwhile start juicing Lemons. Pour mixture into a clean 5-Gal water cooler & add the remaining ingredients, stirring well to incorporate. Allow to rest for another two hours to allow the flavors to blend & develop before adding one 9lb. block of (double-frozen) ice. Allow one final hour to chill, stir well & serve over cracked ice, garnishing with a (optional) twist of lemon.

This recipe is a modified & scaled version of the classic Bowl of Punch, as presented in David Wondrich's Killer Cocktails (among other sources). I chose both flavorful Demerara as well as strong Jamaican rums and added a bit of Pimento Dram & bitters to contribute to the spice element(s) already present in the spirits. The use of both Green & Black teas acted as an excellent foil for the dynamic combination of flavors.

For the 'shot' of the evening, I decided to go with something I have already had some success with. After procuring some freshly-dried Jasmine flowers in the Pennsic markets, I settled on the lovely flavor combination of Jasmine & Vanilla and (somehow) managed to cobble together a flash-infusion of those flavors into an already-made Orgeat syrup with little more than a camp stove & a muddler. With this syrup in hand I then assembled a well-chilled triple batch of my own Falaknuma Bowl in a 2½ Gal water cooler, and poured one-ounce servings to those of our guests who did not wish to shilly-shally or mess around in getting their night started (or ended). It was oddly the first of the three beverages to go dry, even though it did require some 'selling', as it contains a measure (however small) of Gin. I daresay I wooed a visitor or three over to the cocktailian love for all things juniper with this one, and was quite happy to have done so...

With the close of Pennsic this Sunday past, I have finally started to decompress from the tedious journey home. However, I will treasure the new friends I made, old friends I got to see again, and many adventures about which I have elected not to write. Vivat, so long and thanks for all the memories. For those of you whom I have terrified beyond belief with this glance into my unabashed exploits in geekery, have no fear, regularly-scheduled posts on cocktails & cookery will continue uninterupted from here on...

On that note, for my next adventure, at week's end I depart for a short cruise through the Mediterranean, with such diverse stops along the way as Provence, Istanbul, Venice, Rome & Barcelona (among others). I shall attempt to keep you my good readers appraised of the highlights of my travels - several items of interest should include the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul, Harry's Bar in Venice, (possibly) a visit with Max of Listen to the Ice in Rome & a stop off at both Boadas and Dry Martini in Spain before returning to real life. Rest assured I shall share whatever I might find and learn upon my return to the 'States...

Cheers & Enjoy!