Tuesday, January 25, 2011


My birthday was last week, and I am sad to say that I am still without a colander.  A colander is that bowl shaped utensil with the holes in it that you use to drain the pasta water off your pasta when you are done stirring.  I say you use it, because you probably do, and because I still don't.  I forget about this when I am near kitchen supply stores, or actually any time that I am not right then directly engaged in the act of making pasta. 

The real shame of this story is that I am at that stage in my career where the default gift at the holidays is wine.  Everyone gets me wine, or wine books, or wine openers, or a fountain pen.  That's nice.  I like wine.  And I like to drink wine.  Which is why I spend so much of my disposable income on wine that I never seem to have the dollars or the foresight together to enact the purchase of simple household items like colanders.  Up until fairly recently, this didn't present much of a problem.  When I was little, my parents had a colander.  I used their colander.  When I was in college, my roommate had a colander.  I used his colander.  But now, not only do I not have a colander, but no one ever thinks to gift me one.  Wine, wine, wine.  After all, this site is not called "so you want to drain some pasta?" is it??  But to be truthful for a second, there are times when my neglect of the aspects in my life not directly relating to wine tends to become quite bothersome.  And it is unfortunate that my friends, all winos really, are of little help with this predicament.  I spend all my money on wine, and then they gift me more wine.

I feel genuine sorrow when I see those little curlicues of perfectly cooked durum wheat flesh fall into the ragged ratatouille hell that is my drain pipe, which is what just happened, and which is what happens every time I try to splash the water out of the pot all freestyle -like, without the use of a colander.  Special, delicious, bronze die cut, extraordinary specimens of pasta: gone now.  To pull them out of my drain would be unthinkable, and also heinous.  Really.  I know the last time my sink was cleaned, and it wasn't 2011.  So really I could use a colander, but I could also use some Seventh Generation Kitchen Cleaner Spray On.

Anyway, my birthday is on January 19th (Go Caps!).  If you happen to remember this next year, I can't tell you how happy I would be to receive a little something for around the house, and I don't mean a Eurocave or a decanter funnel.

Thanks for listening.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Back again

Duccio’s Madonna and Child is in a little room on the second floor of The Met Museum.  If you were to go straight from the Met’s large front door, past the information booth with its elaborate flower stand and on towards the grand staircase in the middle of the room, you’d be going in the right direction to find it.  Except you can’t do that, because the bag inspection lines either lead you left, towards the Roman coins, or to where most people are, to the right, in the direction of the mummies and the alabaster jewelry.  Straight ahead takes a bit of effort, as it turns out.  You have to backtrack a bit.  But if you do that, and you head up the stairs, it isn’t that far past the large scale portraits in the foyer to the small room with the small framed Duccio.  There isn’t much to catch the eye in that room, and most people just pass on through.  I like to spend time in there, though, and I try to return as often as I can, which is never quite enough.  This is a painting that I like to come back to.
I won’t say that this is my “favorite painting,” because I don’t know what that means.  But I will say that I like to spend time with this Duccio, and that I like to observe the details.  You can’t tell from the picture up above, but there is a rich texture to the painting in person, with its crevices, and creases, and cracks along the surface edge.  There is a patina.  Mary has a halo of course, but that is hard to see unless you are standing there.  And she seems to have an expression that says “You are my Son, and Very Special, and I Love You a Ton and Forever, but I can tell there will be Trouble, and I am Ready for it.”  At least that is what I think it says sometimes.  On other days I might see a different gaze.  The Little Man reaches up to pull back the headdress hanging around her for a fuller look.  He wants to know better.  I like that.  There is a connection there.  And also to how her left thumb rubs his robe as his opposite foot brushes gently against her other hand.  There is a sensitivity to their movements, and an emotional relationship.  These are not detached objects.  They are still against the general run of time, but not in the fullness of their gestures.
There are grander paintings in The Met, and in the world.  I know of several.  There are gaudier paintings.  There are whirling dervishes, and there are dramas on a bigger scale.  Many paintings are more famous.  Most call more attention to themselves.  Multitudes are more technically competent, or better preserved, or more perfect.  There are Noted Masterpieces and Hallowed Works.  But I find that I like the feeling of the Duccio, and when I can get back to that sense again, I do.  I have read that this was a devotional piece, viewed by those who came to pray beneath it, and that the burns in the bottom of the frame were left by the candles that had been lit to better view the figures.  I think I can understand that.
Yesterday we had a special dinner at the restaurant.
The occasion was a study of Chave Hermitage Blanc and we opened up 25 vintages, most every release since 1981. 
The 1990 and the 2005 were the most powerful and impressive.  The 1984 and the 1983 were the grandest reaffirmations for the reputation of the wine.  The 1991 showed the most promise.  The 2004 was the most mineral.  The 2007 may have been the most lavishly oaked.  The 1981 was the most distinctive, with cool wintermint fruit.  The 1992 may have brought the most immediate joy. 
But it was the 1993 that I returned to.
It used to be that I served the 1993 when I first started as a wine buyer.  The gregarious Bob Zahn, who always looked out for me, called up the restaurant one afternoon.  “I have something special for you,” he said.  “They just found a couple of cases of Chave Blanc during inventory.  Old stuff.  Nobody at the warehouse knows what it is.  I’ve got it hidden under your customer number, ‘cause I know you know.  Want it?”  Of course I didn’t know, not back then, and not firsthand anyway.  Back then I had just read about Chave.  But here was my chance to find out, and I took the delivery the next day.  The pricing was nothing.  I mean really nothing, I think we had that wine on the list for like 73 bucks.  And that was apparently too much, because we hardly sold one.  Merlot, sure.  Back then we could sell Merlot for a hundred, no problem.  Merlot was what everybody wanted.  But Marsanne/Roussanne wasn’t the first thing that came to people’s minds.  If they ordered the Chave they were in the business, or just passing through, or else I pushed it on them.  Which usually didn’t work out so well, because to tell you the truth, back then the 1993 was lanky.  Overgrown.  Gawky.  Keeping mostly to itself.  You know how Northern Rhône whites can be.  They go through their oxidative phase.  What I think of as their punk adolescent period: always tired when the grownups are around looking at them.  You feel like something is wrong with them because they don’t behave when you ask them to.  They can be troubling, and they make you suspicious.  They are not for polite company, and they often get sent back to their rooms.  We had two cases of that wine to start with, and I saw more than a few bottles turned back.

But here was my 1993 after a decade more in its old green glass: hair combed back, tender, a bit portly in the middle.  Gentle in demeanor.  Pairing well.  Showing a developed patina with rich hues on the nose, and a fine drapery of flavors across the palate.  In that bottle was not the greatest of the liquids that we saw that night.  Not the grandest, nor the most famous.  But it was the bottle that I had a relationship with.  That I had returned to again and again.  That I had worried over.  The one I had searched my feelings about and decided to believe in.  That had turned out to be, for me, the most pleasant to be around.  This was the one that I was the happiest about.

I had had a chance to go back and spend some more time.  To admire.  To change my mind.  The chance to take a new look and be surprised.  Sometimes that is, for me, what is most important.

Privately, I gave thanks.

Monday, January 17, 2011

An Early Winter Tale, with thanks

A group of travellers set out to return

to a place

that some had once been before,

to see the friends that lay there.

And as their view showed clear

across the high cliff of a Chamomile Mountain,

and the gentle wave of a rich Satin Sea,

they gave a thought to promises that might have been
forgotten about,

had not some kept their faith,

and others heeded them

across the distances

that were there

before them.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Make mine an Amontillado!

Perhaps it occured to you just now that you do not have dinner plans for this evening, much as it just occured to me that I have empty seats for a pretty fantastic dinner I have planned for tonight? Perhaps also you have an interest in some of the most wonderful sherry to ever see a bottling? And maybe I just happen to have a menu to show you?

Et voila!

saffron arancini
clam salad with fregola

Manzanilla, Bodegas Hidalgo, La Gitana //
Sanlúcar de Barrameda

Grilled Octopus
baccalà foam, crushed fingerling potatoes, culatura di alici

Manzanilla Pasada, Equipo Navazos, La Bota de n° 20 //
Sanlúcar de Barrameda

Roasted Squab
squab leg confit, cannellini beans, Bra sausage

Amontillado, Barbadillo, Principe de Barbadillo //
Sanlúcar de Barrameda
Amontillado, Emilio Lustau, Almacenista Miguel Fontadez Florido //
Jerez de la Frontera

Braised Beef Cheek Cappellaci
chestnut ragù, finanziera sauce

Amontillado, Perez Barquero, Gran Barquero //
Amontillado, Gutiérrez Colosia //
El Puerto de Santa Maria
Amontillado, Bodegas Hidalgo, Viejo V.O.R.S. //
Sanlúcar de Barrameda (bottled in 2006)

Seared Foie Gras
bitter chocolate polenta cake, huckleberry jus

Amontillado, Gonzalez Byass, Del Duque, Muy Viejo //
Jerez de la Frontera
Amontillado, Bodegas El Maestro Sierra, 1830, Vinos Viejos //
Jerez de la Frontera
Amontillado, Bodegas Tradición, V.O.R.S. //
Jerez de la Frontera
Amontillado, Equipo Navazos, La Bota de n° 9 //
Sanlúcar de Barrameda

A fine collection of sherry, with several aged for over 30 years in cask, including some of the greatest La Botas yet released, the 1830 from Maestro, and Bodegas Tradicion's amazing work. Seared lobes of foie gras with huckleberry jus. What is not to like about this picture?

Also, there is the Liem factor. The guest speaker and host for this dinner will be Peter Liem, who I firmly believe is one of the top authorities on sherry to be found anywhere. I also believe that he is an all around good guy who is pleasant to hang out and have dinner with.

This dinner is tonight, Friday the 14th, at 7:30pm, at a restaurant I just happen to work in located at 11 East 53rd Street between Madison and Fifth Aves in Manhattan. There are some seats available.

The cost of this event is $125 + tax and tip. That price includes all food and wine.

Please email me should you like to attend: ldalton@altorestaurant.com


Sunday, January 2, 2011

the Amari file: S. Maria al Monte

It used to be, when we were all quite young, that we would cut a switch from a length of birch.  It was best to pick a branch that had a few leaves already on it, and then shear those off with a good serrated blade, rather than try to cut a branch that was too young and green.  Those young ones would never break, just bend, bend, bend, and you could cut into them for what seemed like hours if you let it get to you.  A good switch was handy to have if you were hiking and you wanted to brush back some old cobwebs on the trail that were waiting up ahead for you, or if wanted to pass some marshmallows over a flame for a bit in the evening.  You see, a good switch doesn’t catch fire same as the old wood does, they just singe a bit.  But mostly I know I liked the sound of a switch when I pulled it fast through the air, the hissing sound it would make like a snake held out by the tail.
We would wait until the sap started to rise in the birches, and then we would take my father’s hunting knife out of its big leather sheath and go out to the birch stand.  I was thinking just now about why we would wait for the sap to come up when all it would do was get all over our hands, I mean, did that make a better switch?  I’m guessing we would go out about that time because in Oregon, if the sap isn’t rising, then that probably means that it is raining or snowing on you, and if that’s the case, then maybe you aren’t outside cutting switches.  Some kids liked to cut down the sides of their switch to make it flat with edges like a triangle or a diamond, but me I just took the leaves off and left the switch round, kind of like a pool cue.  But it was important that it be straight and slender, with a good weight to it.
I’ve gone ahead and told you about cutting switches because nothing reminds so much of the smell of birch sap as the amaro known as S. Maria al Monte does.  And that is about all I know for sure about it.  Most of what you can read about S. Maria al Monte would seem to be inaccurate, and there isn’t too much to read anyway, or so it seems.  “Santa Maria al Monte” was as best I can discern a shrine in Genoa that was inhabitated during medieval times by a Franciscan monk community.  The Friars apparently developed the original recipe for this amaro.  It is also possible that another religious group associated with the shrine developed the recipe prior to the arrival of the Franciscan Friars.  It is somewhat difficult to tell, and it is also a bit odd that I can’t seem to locate a current Santa Maria al Monte convent or shrine within Genoa.

Be that as it may, in 1892 the recipe was developed commercially by a Nicola Vignale, who is credited on the bottle’s label as the patent holder.  Currently the amaro is produced by Distillery Durbino, which is primarly a grappa producer both under the Durbino name and also in partnership with other brands.  I have seen a date for the founding of Distillery Durbino put at 1992, but I don’t have any verification of that.  Durbino apparently maintains 3 different facilities, two of those in Liguria, with one in Genoa (a major town inside of Liguria), and the last in Friuli.  S. Maria al Monte is apparently made at the facility in Genoa.

You can see towards the bottom of this picture where the label lists the producer as Distillerie Durbino, in Genoa (a town in the area of Italy's Liguria region)
 I say apparently because when you read about this amaro online, you will frequently come across mentions of an origin in the Valle d’Aosta.  The bottles that I have sampled clearly indicate an origin in Genoa, however.  I think the confusion stems from a prominent inscription on the label of those bottles which reads “Dal 1892 Fornitori di S.A.R. il Duca d’Aosta”.  As best I can tell, The Duke of Aosta is a title of nobility given to the second son of the ruling monarch of Sardinia, similar to the Duke of York amongst the peerage of the English.  There is actually still today someone who uses the title Duke of Aosta.  The crucial bit to understand here, though, is that one does not have to be from the Valle d’Aosta to be a Duke of Aosta.  The inscription would thus appear to be saying that this amaro has been supplied to the Dukes of Aosta since 1892.  This would be akin to an English gin bearing an HRH inscription.

You can see here in this picture the inscription and crest that seem to have led to many commentators postulating that this amaro has an origin in the Valle d'Aosta. I have even seen multiple references to "alpine herbs" in the recipe, although the label doesn't say anything about them.
The label of S. Maria al Monte indicates that the recipe calls for an infusion of rhubarb and also orange.  Some of the other flavors that I think of when drinking S. Maria al Monte are cola, jasmine, and ginseng.  I have read that some people find menthol flavors in S. Maria al Monte, but I don’t see them nearly as present in this amaro as I do in others.  When I taste S. Maria al Monte I am reminded of the waiting room of a Chinese herbalist with his ginseng tea more than I recall the cooling spearmint flavors some people say they have found.  Although S. Maria al Monte has had both sugar and caramel added to it, the finish is noticeably dry in comparison to many other amari, which I appreciate.  It is on the finish that I get lingering flavor allusions to roots.
I found it interesting that the back label of S. Maria al Monte described its easy application as a grog drink, and on one particularly cold evening I decided to experiment with that a bit.  I put 2 ounces of the amaro in a glass with a sugar cube, and poured on top of that various amounts of boiling water.  The sugar pretty much dissolves when you add the water, although you can stir the mixture a bit to make that change occur faster.  I found that I enjoyed the proportion of 2 parts water to 1 part amaro the most.  At that level the amaro flavors were still nicely discernable to me.  So thus about 4 ounces of hot water and 2 ounces of amaro seemed to work well in my experiment.  One of the things that happens when you add hot water to the amaro is that the alcohol fumes come out more to the nose, which I didn’t really enjoy.  To counter that, I tried adding a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, and that seemed to do the trick nicely, lending citrus highlights to both the nose and palate.  I would imagine that if you had some sudachi on hand that the juice of that might be a nice choice as well.  Perhaps a bit of cinnamon would be welcome.
With or without the addition of hot water, I tend to think of S. Maria al Monte as a tonic to the fall and winter months, when its bitter qualities seem most appreciated on the palate.  This is not the kind of amaro that I would associate with a light aperitivo, but rather it would seem closer in spirit to a fernet.  Whatever it is, I personally enjoy it a great deal.  For others it might be a kind of switch.
S. Maria al Monte amaro is 40% alcohol by volume.  It is imported to the United States by Vias Imports Ltd. of NY, NY.