It’s become a tradition now that each autumn I put together a list of my favorite foods of the year. Of course, it’s next to impossible for me to nail the list—there are so many great things to talk about (and eat!) around here that no matter what I write about, it’s inevitable that within a week of this piece going to print I’ll think of at least five more that I forgot. What follows are all foods I’ve been eating regularly, with great relish, in recent months. I can’t guarantee that you’ll like them all as much as I do, but I can say with certainty that I’ve had a great time eating every one of them, and, in writing them up for the newsletter, I’ve ended up even more excited than I was when I started. Everything on the list is, of course, available for you to taste at our businesses in Ann Arbor. And if you want to a have a little honest fun, you can make some time to treasure hunt for yourself and find all the great things I forgot to include.
Rozendal Wine Vinegars
12 Year Old Biodynamic Masterpieces from South Africa
I want to start this piece with an apology. I’m sorry that I waited so long to bring these vinegars to the Deli. These amazing vinegars are some of THE best new things to arrive in a long, long time. The story behind them and the flavor of the vinegars in each bottle are both, to my knowledge, unique. Most definitely worth taking notice of more quickly than I did.
I think that I first tried the Rozendal vinegars three years ago at a food show. Their exceptional flavor caught my attention right off, but I think the fact they’re flavored made me doubt myself. I tried them again the next year and was still impressed but… again, I held back and failed to act on my instinct. We have a lot of good vinegars, and I let my purist streak get in the way. Finally, this summer I tasted them for yet a third time with folks at the Deli and Mail Order, and I was still impressed. I finally gave in. I’m glad I finally got going—these are some pretty exceptional bottles of vinegar.
They’re made by the Ammann family in Stellenbosch on the southwest coast of South Africa. Long a grape grower and wine producer, Kurt Ammann took the family farm organic in 1994. He went even further by going biodynamic back in 2001. Nothing in a biodynamic setting is taken for granted, from the method of conversion from wine to deciding not to pasteurize (to protect the positive acetobacters), to spending many years of patient maturation, to carefully selecting herbs and flowers for the infusion into the vinegar. All of which has been translated into a truly spectacular and unique set of vinegars; so good I really could drink these by the shot glass.
The vinegars start with natural conversion of the Ammann’s already well-made and nicely matured wines. The move to vinegar is a process that alone takes many months. Natural conversion protects the flavors of the wine and also the natural health benefits of the vinegar. The herbs are then added to the vinegar and the infusions are allowed to mature another four or five years. The total maturation is about 12 years, all done in oak barrels. The results, as I said, are superb! They’re so good that you can—and I have a number of times—sip them straight from the bottle. They’ve got big, slightly tingly, subtly sweet, fantastic flavors with great complexity and very, very long, very lovely, finishes.
The Ammanns are very adamant about the health benefits of raw vinegar like this and draw on centuries of data to back up their claims. Either of the two varieties we have at the Deli would do. The Fynbos Vinegar is infused with an array of the region’s herbs and flower—South African honeybush, buchu, wild olive, wild rosemary, and rose geranium. I’m worried now that I’ve started sipping I might drink the whole bottle. Like sipping a super long-aged bourbon, there’s a loveliness, a long lingering sweetness, vanilla undertones from the oak, a succulence and smoothness… that’s hard to explain. The hibiscus vinegar is equally excellent. It’s got elderflower, rosehip
I could go on and on and on (which is what I can honestly say is true for the finish of the vinegar, too), but space is limited. It’s not inexpensive so this probably isn’t everyday eating but it would be a truly superb gift for anyone who loves food. This is one of the best things I’ve tasted in ten years.
In fact, these vinegars are so good that I think I’m ready to take things a step beyond where they’ve been. The idea of sipping or drinking vinegars has become fairly common in our end of the food world. But this stuff is what I’m starting to think should be called “kissing vinegar”—not to make anyone blush, but, truly, kissing anyone who just sipped it would be a pretty sensual experience.
Peanut Brittle from the Candy Manufactory
Best New Confection in Washtenaw County?
Last year Zingerman’s Candy Manufactory managing partner Charlie Frank emerged from his Wonka-like workshop with this extremely fantastic peanut brittle. Right out of the gate this stuff was great. I know that this sounds a bit over the top but the truth is that literally almost everyone who eats it has loved it. Many around here are actively admitting to having eaten a half a bag in a single sitting. It’s simple really—brown sugar, the same Jumbo Runner peanuts that are in the Zzang! bars, some butter. He cooks it over the stove and pulls it by hand when it’s just the right temperature to get the perfect brittle texture. Simple but damn if it’s not good. Really good. Really, really good. Next time you’re at the Roadhouse or Deli, ask to have some crumbled on top of your gelato!
Espresso Mousse at The Roadhouse
A New Way to Get Your After Dinner Coffee
This is one of the most popular new desserts we’ve done at the Roadhouse in a long, long time. Ethereally light espresso mousse served in a cappuccino cup, topped with a thin layer of dark chocolate and a dollop of real whipped cream. Like an elegant cup of coffee and dessert all in one!
Caraway Rye from the Bakehouse
“America’s very best rye? No contest. It comes from Zingerman’s Bakehouse.”
—Jane and Michael Stern
Jane and Michael Stern rated the Bakehouse’s rye bread the best in the country this past spring in Saveur magazine. Having long respected their palates, read their articles, listened to their radio shows and known them for many years now, I was really happy to have their support. But in honesty, what they were saying is what I’ve already long since believed to be true—the Jewish rye at the Bakehouse has been pretty amazing since we started making it back in 1992. And for whatever reasons of technique, nuance, and delicate touch, it seems to just keep on getting better and better with each passing year.
If you haven’t been to the Bakehouse or the Deli, we do a whole range of ryes—one we call Jewish rye (without the caraway seeds), a caraway rye, and one with onions. My favorite this year though has very clearly been the caraway rye, in particular the really large 2-kilo loaves that we only make on Fridays. Friday, if you didn’t already know, is Ryeday. And pretty much every Friday I try to get a quarter or half of one of those big, beautiful loaves to get me through the next week. Bigger loaves, quite simply, have a better, moister texture. And they taste better. Somehow, though I can’t explain the science; there’s just something that’s noticeably nicer, a touch chewier, and somehow significantly more rewarding than eating from the also very, very good smaller loaves. And, kept in the paper bag we pack them in, the big loaves last easily for a week or longer. Then there’s my affection for caraway. For some reason, I like the little seeds more and more with each passing year. There’s something about the aromatics, the small hint of anise it offers and the almost-but-not-quite-fennelly flavor that makes the rye all the more interesting to me. A chunk ripped from a fresh loaf and eaten, as is, is really a pretty marvelous thing. Better still, thick cut slices spread with a lot of butter. Add some good jam and you’ve seriously got a world-class breakfast in about two minutes. The same slice is equally excellent with a thick layer of the Creamery’s old style, no vegetable gum, no preservatives cream cheese. And of course, it’s all also amazing if you toast the bread—it’s almost worth toasting for the aroma alone. And, last but definitely not least, there’s the obvious opportunity to use it for sandwiches of all sorts. Great for grilled cheese and, of course, on the classic corned beef or pastrami sandwich.
[If you're going the butter route, try the Irish Kerrygold cultured butter in the silver foil wrapper—made only when the cows are grazing in the pastures which makes for a noticeably more flavorful, more golden in color (more beta carotene), softer-textured butter. Because the cream is allowed to properly ripen—as per rarely used traditional techniques—the butter develops a fuller flavor. Really remarkable stuff.]
As a bread lover, seriously, I can’t think of a better gift than a 2-kilo loaf beautifully wrapped in nice paper and tied with a string. Save the sweaters—I’ll take bread any day!
Organic Harissa and Handmade Couscous from Tunisia
A Couple Simple and Superb Tastes
from the Southern Mediterranean
I’ve written so much about these two of late that I’m wary of overdoing it. I’ve literally eaten couscous or harissa almost every week for the last two years, and I’ve yet to tire of either. To the contrary, the more I eat them the more I want to eat them. Both are easy to use and easy to like. They’re great together—a bowl of hot couscous and a spoonful of harissa to mix into it is fast food at its best.
If somehow you’ve missed my ongoing oration of the last few years on these terrific Tunisian products, let me review things very briefly here. Both the couscous and the harissa come to us from the Mahjoub family’s farm, about an hour outside of Tunis, in the small town of Tebourba. The family itself is fantastic. They are truly passionate about all things Tunisian, intent on spreading the word about their country’s special history. All the family’s products are organic.
They grow the wheat for the couscous on the farm, mill it, make the resulting semolina flour into couscous, rolling each small round by hand, then dry it all slowly and naturally in the sun. M’hamsa, actually means “by hand.” When you cook it your whole kitchen will smell like wheat. It’s also incredibly easy to do, so easy that I was skeptical when we first started stocking it four years ago. But sure enough, all you do is use 1 parts water for 1 part couscous. Salt the water lightly, bring it to a boil, the add the couscous. Stir, cover, turn off the heat altogether, and just let the couscous steam in the pot for about 12 minutes. It should come out light, almost fluffy once you move it around a bit with a fork. Couscous is, of course, basically a form of Berber (the native peoples of North Africa) pasta. It fit well with their nomadic lifestyle, allowing them to transport and eat wheat regularly throughout the year. If you love pasta (as I do) you’ll pretty likely love the couscous. It can be a main course, a side dish, or a salad. Top it with anything from a simple tomato sauce to meat, fish, and vegetables. You can add it as well to soups or stews. Cooked with milk, cinnamon and a bit of sugar you have a porridge to take the place of rice pudding.
The harissa is excellent on pretty much anything you can imagine. It’s made from three different chiles, tomatoes, and garlic—all organic, all sun-dried—ground to a paste and then blended with the Mahjoub’s organic extra virgin olive oil, a touch of caraway, some sea salt. I like it a lot on eggs, on sandwiches, added to tomato sauces, mixed with mayonnaise for a dipping sauce, mixed with yogurt and then tossed with chickpeas and baked. It’s great in cream cheese—you can serve it that way for a snack, hors d’oeuvres, or on a toasted bagel. Toss it in really good, just-cooked pasta (couscous or one of our other artisan offerings), serve it next to broiled fish, roasted meat of any sort, or just add a spoonful to a vegetable soup. All, truly, are terrific.
If opposites often attract, it would make sense that the harissa would be a natural partner for the couscous. The latter is mellow, nutty, wheaty, a beautiful golden color, with a soft flavor that can support most any sauce. The harissa by contrast, is forward, fast paced, spicy, wildly intriguing, a deep, bold red and intense flavor that will never, ever go unnoticed. The harissa is so exceptionally good that I’d put it on pretty much any list of “bests” you asked me to put together. If you know anyone who loves spicy food, stick a jar of this in their stocking. And if you know anyone who likes to cook, give them a jar of the couscous. If you really like them, give them one of each. They will, I promise, thank you for many years to come. And for what it’s worth, that promise is not speculation—I’ve given both as gifts dozens of times and I think that everyone I’ve given them too has quickly confessed to being as addicted to the two as I am.
P.S. if you’re wary of the spiciness of the harissa, take home a jar of the Mahjoub’s sun-dried tomato paste instead. Basically it inverts the ratio of chiles and tomatoes. With the sun-dried tomato taking top billing, the heat is very secondary. You can use it in all the same ways and it is always super fantastically good.
P.P.S. the Mahjoubs also make spectacular sun-dried (truly dried in the sun which almost no one else does any more) tomatoes, incredible Tunisian tomato sauces, orange marmalade, preserved lemons (aged six months in salt brine barrels out in the sun) and amazing naturally cured (for over a year) olives. All are outstanding.
Bostock from the Bakehouse
The Bakehouse’s Big Secret Revealed
Although we’ve been making it for a good ten years now the Bostock really does seem to be one of the best kept secrets at the Bakehouse. I know it has a loyal following but it’s yet to get the level of attention I think it deserves. It really is amazing stuff, but unlike muffins, croissants, danishes and donuts it’s hardly a well-known way to start one’s day. There are a handful of spots around the world that make it but not many, so maybe the word is starting to get out. Sara Kate Gillingham, on her amazing website thekitchn.com described the Bostock as a, “syrup-soaked, frangipane-topped, crispy-edged ode to breakfast glory.”
I’d say it’s a little bit like a really good almond croissant that’s come back to life in a dense, round, but still equally delicious and almost otherworldly good new existence. Bostocks start with a piece of Bakehouse all-butter brioche. It’s brushed with orange infused simple syrup, topped with a layer of frangipane (ground almonds and sugar), and then more toasted slivered almonds. If you’re ready to liven up your morning routine, seriously ask for a taste of this stuff at the Bakehouse bakeshop or the Deli’s Next Door Café.
Mandelbread from the Bakehouse
Jewish Biscotti My Grandmother Would Have Loved
Mandelbread is anything but new. It’s been a staple of Eastern European Jewish eating for centuries and a regular item at the Bakehouse for fifteen years or so. For whatever reason, I have a tendency to take mandelbread for granted. Maybe it’s the long history, the fact that I grew up with it being in the house with a high degree of regularity. Or maybe I forget about it because I don’t eat a lot of sweets. Or because so much of the world’s mandelbread is, unfortunately, rather unremarkable. The good news is that literally almost every time I taste a piece of it, I’m reminded how incredibly good the Bakehouse version really is.
Basically you could start calling mandelbread Jewish biscotti. Butter, fresh orange and lemon zest, lots of whole toasted almonds, and real vanilla. We make them the old-fashioned way, forming a long “loaf,” baking it once, then slicing it crosswise and baking each slice once more again so it turns a nice golden brown on top. Finally each slice is then turned over again and baked in a final third position. (Most commercial versions are sliced before they even start baking, which changes the texture and flavor of the finished cookie.)
They’re great on their own, with coffee or tea, or perfect for an easy, light after-dinner treat. You can also dip them into sweet wine (like the Tuscan Vin Santo) as well. On top of all that sweet goodness, they’re now packaged in a really nice new box, which I happen to love almost as much as I love the mandelbread. Makes them not only taste good, but also turns them into a super easy to give gift.
Freddy Guys Organic Hazelnuts from Oregon
Best Hazelnuts in the US?
It’s been about two years now that we’ve been bringing these amazing nuts in from the West Coast. In that time they’ve given me a whole new take on hazelnuts. While I’d always liked them just fine, outside of what I’d had in northern Italy, I can’t say that I’d ever come across any that drew me in the way so many other foods have over the years. All that’s changed. Now that I’m hooked up with Freddy Guys, I almost never go without hazelnuts. I keep them in my house to toss on salads or to add to rice or pasta dishes. And I pretty frequently take them in my bag when I travel—they’re a great way to get protein and great flavor all in one, easily transportable form.
Freddy Guys is a family run farm. Fritz and Barb Foulke are growing an old variety called Barcelona that was brought first to New Jersey, where it didn’t do very well, before eventually being loaded on wagons and hauled out west. The climate in Oregon is, apparently, very similar to that of the Piedmont in northern Italy, which is like the world headquarters for hazelnuts. All the Freddy Guys nuts are roasted to order; when we get them they’re literally only about a week or so out of the small Italian roasting machine that the Foulke’s have on the farm. They’re really as simple as can be, and all the better for it. No salt, no oil, no nothing; just great nuts shelled and given a light roast. They’re really good and they go with most anything—chop and put ‘em onto fresh cut fruit, gelato, cake or cookies. Accessorize salads and pastas; or if you’re getting into more complex cooking, they’d be great in a Catalan picada, ground up along with fresh garlic, and really good olive oil.
Peanut Butter Gelato from the Creamery
Celebrate the Season with a Gelato and Jelly Sandwich
If you like peanut butter and you like ice cream, you’re pretty sure to love this stuff. A pound of the Koeze family’s amazing peanut butter in every batch …. it’s pretty great stuff. I couldn’t resist the nearly obvious opportunity to top a scoop with a spoonful of American Spoon strawberry jam for the dessert equivalent of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Fantastic French Sardines
A Little Bit of Brittany in Ann Arbor
I’ve long loved good sardines. I’m happy to have them in pretty much any form I can get them. When I can get them (we have them at the Roadhouse at times), fresh ones are fantastic. Top notch tinned sardines are equally superb. Those, I try to have on hand all the time. They are one of the ultimate convenience foods. Canning was actually started first with sardines in an effort by Napoleon to feed the troops out on the front lines. I regularly open a can and put them on salads, sandwiches, and pasta dishes. Unlike the fresh fish, the tinned sardines never go bad so there’s no reason not to carry a high level of inventory. In fact, they actually get better with age.
I’m particularly excited right now because we’ve just gotten in a couple of types from France to add to our already really good sardine selection. Fished only in the summer months (which is officially “sardine season”) off the coast of Brittany using small old school nets (to protect the delicate flesh), the sardines are brought back to port that night to maintain freshness. They’re then cleaned, very lightly fried in olive oil, tinned up with additional olive oil and then finished by being cooked inside the tin. When you open the can you’ll find four or five beautiful, silver-skinned sardines carefully lined up inside. A bit denser in texture than the also terrific offerings we’re getting right now from Portugal, these French sardines are very meaty, herbaceous and just darned delicious.
Better still I’d say are the aged sardines we’re getting from the same folks in France. Each tin has four beautiful, big (for a tin at least) sardines, caught, cooked and packed as above, but then put aside to mature for three years. As the months pass, the olive oil penetrates to the center of the sardine, making them even more delicious than they were to begin with. Delicacy that they are, I like to eat the aged sardines in simple ways—next to a small green salad or with some toast topped with a bit of butter or extra virgin olive oil. A sprinkling of sea salt seals the deal. Here, Breton fleur de sel would be geographically correct, and its delicate texture would be a good compliment for the sardines.
Vintage Spanish Tuna
2009 Bonito from off the Coast of the Basque Country
While I’m on the subject of aged tinned fish I should tell you about the really delicious Spanish tuna we’ve tracked down this fall. It’s line caught albacore (known to Spaniards as ‘bonito’) from the Cantabrian Sea. We get it from the Ortiz family, who’ve been at this since 1891, and are known across Spain for the consistently high quality of their tinned seafood. Like the Breton sardines above, the bonito is aged right in the tin along with extra virgin olive oil. Same basic process, same really good results. For a particularly good treat, pour a bit of extra virgin olive oil on a plate. Add a few spoonfuls of harissa (if you’ve had the jar in the refrigerator, let it come to room temperature before you do this so it will soften up and its complex flavors will be even easier to appreciate.
Portuguese Mackerel with Piri Piri
The third in my trio of tinned fish favorites of the moment. This time it’s mackerel packed with Portuguese piri-piri hot sauce. Easy to use and easy to love, like all the great tinned fish we’ve got on hand, this stuff is super healthy (very high in Omega-3 oils) and super convenient. Fast food at its finest!
Super Big Seller from the Bakehouse
As I was writing this I was about to head home from the Bakehouse when a family pulled up next to my car. I was loading up to leave and they were arriving but for a minute or two we were basically sharing the same space. As they gathered up their whole group (three generations it looked like) I heard one of the kids say really loudly, “I know what I want. I want a mint Cosmic Cake!” I was impressed. When a product that only we make, and that’s only been around the Bakehouse for maybe two years, has that kind of high name recognition from a ten year old, that’s a pretty great thing. One other thing I know too—that kid sure has good taste. These Cosmic Cakes are pretty terrific—a couple of thin layers of chocolate cake, sandwiched around fresh butter cream fillings, then all dipped into dark chocolate. Try all four fillings—vanilla, chocolate mint, peanut butter or banana—at Zingerman’s Delicatessen, Bakehouse, Roadhouse or ship them from www.zingermans.com.
Noodle Kugel at the Deli
A Classic from the Deli’s Early Days
We’ve been making noodle kugel since we opened the Deli back in 1982. It was delicious then and it’s equally as delicious now. It’s basically my grandmother’s recipe but we make it with much better ingredients. Although there’s no replacement for family memories and emotional connections, when it comes to flavor, the truth is that ours actually tastes far better than what she made for us when I was a kid. Egg noodles from Al Dente in Whitmore Lake, farm cheese from the Creamery, plenty of plump Red Flame raisins, and a generous does of vanilla, all blended and then baked ‘til it’s a nice golden brown. Great for breakfast, lunch, dessert or really any time you just want something good to eat. And now that I think about it, since it holds up nicely wrapped, it’s a great bag lunch or afternoon snack as well. I’m considering calling 2012 the Year of the Noodle Kugel. I’ll start the trend now so you can get out in front of things.
Cheese Blintzes at the Deli
Thirty Years of Gracing Breakfast Tables on Detroit St.
This is another classic that slipped off my list for far too long. They’re so, so, so good, that blintzes really shouldn’t be off anyone’s list for any length of time. Like the noodle kugel, we make these pretty much as my grandmother did, but, again, the ingredients we use are about eighteen times more flavorful. Thin handmade blintzes (Jewish crepes would be the standard description) folded around a filling of farm cheese from the Creamery, plenty of real vanilla (from beans, not extract), and a generous dose of chestnut honey to sweeten them. It’s an impressive line up of ingredients, but the honey, for me, is what takes them over the top. Chestnut honey has a pretty remarkable, sweet, deep, almost slightly bitter flavor that brings a big round bass note to an otherwise mostly sweet dish. Served with sour cream or preserves, blintzes, like the kugel, are great for almost any setting—breakfast, lunch or a light dinner.
The Creamery’s Cream Cheese
A Taste of the Turn of the Last Century
Our cream cheese, I know, is hardly anything new any more. We’ve been making it at the Creamery for over ten years now. But every time I taste it, I’m reminded how lucky I am to have it. While great cheese has become readily available all over the country (see the Wisconsin piece on page 10), for whatever reasons, old style, hand-ladled, preservative-free cream cheese like this is still almost non-existent. This is truly a taste of what luxurious eating would have been like for my grandparents’ generation a hundred years ago. Toast up one of those incredible handmade, board-baked bagels from the Bakehouse (poppy and sesame are my personal favorites), top with a generous layer of this cream cheese and you’ve got as good a way to start the day as I can imagine. In case you haven’t yet had it, this stuff is to commercial cream cheese what all those great artisan cheeses I’ve written about on page 10 are to the prepacked slices of stuff that they sell in supermarkets. Come on by the Deli, Creamery, Roadhouse or Bakehouse and ask for a taste today. It is, truly, pretty terrific!
Piquillo Pepper Jelly
The Crown Jewel of Pepper Jellies
I have loved piqullo peppers for so long now that I start to assume that everyone else knows them as intimately as I do. That, of course, is not the case—while they’re far more popular in the US than ever before, I’d be shocked if more then two percent of the population has ever tried one. If you’ve not yet had the chance, please come by and ask for a taste next time you have a spare minute. I’d highly recommend adding them to your list of things to try before the end of the year. Other than when the local peppers are in season at the market, I usually go through a jar or two a week.
If you don’t know piquillos personally, they’re a small triangularly shaped pepper that grows up in Spain’s Basque Country. The best of them (which we of course go after) are still roasted over smoldering beechwood. The blackened skins are then carefully rubbed off by hand and the peppers packed with no additives of any sort; the liquid that forms in the jars is just the juice from the recently roasted peppers. piquillos are so highly prized that only farms near three dozen or so villages qualify to get the official denomination of origin that certifies authenticity. This is no small thing; over the last ten years, piquillos have probably become the most often misrepresented pepper in the world. There are actually subpar “piquillos” now being processed in almost every part of the globe. But the best ones still, I’m adamant, come from those same small villages in the northeastern part of Spain. They have a smoky, slightly spicy, delicious, unique flavor that goes great on pretty much everything you can think of putting a roasted pepper on.
What we have here is a new way to experience piquillo peppers and a pretty amazingly good one at that. piquillo pepper jelly. It is just like what it sounds: piquillo peppers from the Basque country, chopped up and cooked down with a bit of sugar. Not surprisingly, this stuff is as delicious as the peppers are on their own. A bright bold red color that reminds me of raspberry jam, you can do with this stuff anything you’d do with any pepper jelly. I’ve been putting it on toast that’s topped with a good Spanish olive oil. It’s also a great thing to use to deglaze your pan after sautéing fresh scallops, or to accompany roast pork, lamb or duck. Hmmm… better still, I’m going to try using it to deglaze a pan after I sauté up some fresh pork liver. For lunch, I’m thinking almond butter and piquillo pepper jelly sandwiches would be pretty superb. And of course, for one of the easiest and all time best hors d’oeuvres, put it atop some of that handmade cream cheese from the Creamery.
Agen Prunes from France
Dried Fruit for the Ages
What piquillos are to peppers, these prunes from Southwest France are to plums. So special that they have a demonination of origin. So good that I can eat them easily out of hand almost any time. So versatile that you can add them to almost any dish you like. Salads, stews, sauces,… they’d be tremendous actually in noodle kugel. Or just eaten out of hand with some of those Freddy Guys hazelnuts. If you want to do something a bit different and very delicious, try topping them with a drizzle of walnut oil before you serve. Or if you’re feeling fancy for the holidays you can stuff them with a bit of mousse de foie gras. Special stuff for any one who loves dried fruit!
Olive oil Tortas
Can’t Stop Eating ‘Em Crispbreads
from Southern Spain
A specialty of southern Spain that’s been ever more present on my kitchen counter over the last couple months. I haven’t been back to the area for a long time now, but I’m speculating that these tortas are to the people of Seville what mandelbread is to Eastern European Jews. A really great little sweet you could eat almost every day, something most everyone made at home, that could carry you through a long afternoon or be a light, sweet ending to a good meal.
Made in the town of Castilleja de la Cuesta, they’re lightly-leavened, crisp flatbreads made with a generous dose of olive oil, then sprinkled with a bit of coarse sugar and, in the case of our most recent arrival, also brushed with a bit of orange syrup. Unlike some of the other “models” on the market, these are completely hand done. Each torta is a bit different from the next, which you’ll see when you unwrap the waxed paper in which they arrive. I’m particularly partial to the slightly dark edges that you get on a few of them. Not too sweet, great with tea or coffee, with cheese, or for a snack. I have a feeling they could be a big hit with kids and parents alike—sweet enough to get you excited, not so sweet as to put you off. Again, all are made completely by hand and all are really quite excellent!
Dark Chocolate from Tanzania
Community Project Puts Out an Amazing Chocolate
This is one delicious and very special chocolate bar which is made by Shawn Askinosie, unquestionably one of the country’s best chocolate makers, who’s working directly with cacao growers in east Africa to bring these beans to North America. I love it. It’s a bit lighter, slightly softer in flavor than most of Shawn’s other offerings. It’s definitely more cocoa-y than most of our other dark chocolate bars, with a slight hint of cinnamon with a slight bit of some other specific spice that I can’t put my finger on. Shawn himself says it has “hints of tobacco” but I quit smoking so long ago I can’t really remember what that means. It’s definitely kind of creamy on the tongue. Allen, the coffee man, is adamant that he tastes banana and I agree. The main thing is, it’s complex and well balanced with a nice finish and it really doesn’t taste like any other chocolate that I’ve had. All of which, I’d say, makes it well worth checking out. Without getting too simple on you, it’s just sort of downright delicious. Mouth watering. Clean finish. Makes me want to eat more every time I taste it.
El Rustico Bars from Shawn Askinosie
Mexican Chocolate and Chewy Bits of Organic Vanilla Bean
It’s been I think four years since Shawn Askinosie started making this special bar specifically for us. I loved it then and the truth is that I love it still, a fair few years further down the road. Dark chocolate that starts with the cacao that Shawn has personally sourced (in its current incarnation, the El Rustico features cacao from Davao, Philippines) and hand chopped bits of organic vanilla bean laced into it. Shawn has worked with Deli Chocolate Lady Margot Miller to adjust the recipe of this bar and the biggest change is the quantity of hand-chopped vanilla bean. The new bar now has three times the amount of vanilla bean than the original El Rustico. This bar boasts a texture triple threat—rich chocolate, crunchy sugar crystals, and fibrous vanilla bean pieces! Where most bars that use vanilla have it in there like background vocals, when the El Rustico goes on stage the chocolate and vanilla are singing a strong, well-balanced duet with full flavor, good balance, and a nice long finish. Sounds like a good recipe for living life now that I think about it. Buy a bar. Eat a square. Appreciate the work that Shawn and his staff in Missouri have made happen.
Paraís Pepper from South India
Estate Grown Tellicherry Peppercorns
I’m a huge fan of black pepper and this pepper, just arrived from the Wayanad Hills in southern India (from a single estate at about 2500 feet up) is pretty freaking fantastic. Para, who runs the project, is passionate about pepper. He’s growing two varieties: the long-shoot Panniyur and the short-shoot Karimunda. All of Para’s pepper would qualify as Tellicherry, and all is also especially good—big winey nose, lots of complex aromas and a lot of flavor. We’ve got jars of it ready to go—some whole black peppercorns, some white and then also peppercorns dried on the vine. The latter in particular makes a beautiful gift.
Marques de Valdueza Olive Oil
Exceptional Estate Bottled Oil from Western Spain
As a history major I have to admit to being moderately biased toward this oil—you’d be hard pressed to find any product that’s a whole lot more rooted in family and national history than this. The family—formally known as the House of Alvarez de Toledo— has been a fixture in Spanish history for something like ten centuries. I can’t tell you it’s some romantic rags to riches story—at least for the last nine hundred years, the family has been hugely successful and has stayed that way for centuries. Best I can tell quality and care have been a part of most everything they seem to have done for hundreds of years now, and this oil is no exception.
The Valdueza oil is very well made and it shows. No defects, long finish, good complexity. It’s made from a unique blend of four different varietals that grow on the farm. Hojiblanca and Picual are standard varietals from southern Spain and are not uncommon out west either. The former brings a soft, warm, nutty butteriness; the latter offers hints of artichoke, green asparagus, a bit of earthiness and a touch of black pepper in the finish. Arbequina arrived in the region only recently, planted for its good yields and round soft flavor. In Extremadura, at least on the family farm, it tastes a bit different from what I’ve experienced in Catalonia (where it typically comes from): less appley, more olivey. Most interesting to me, though, is the oil from the Morisca olives, which are unique to the area, offering a fair bit of pepper and interesting fruit, almost apricot in a way, with a touch of green grass and green tomato in there too.
For those of you who follow these things (and there are many!), I’d put the flavor profile of the finished oil in about the middle of the range—less green than the Tuscans, less earthy than most southern Spanish Picuals. This past autumn the weather was very dry—not great for yields, but generally, in my experience, very good for the flavor of the oil. As is true of all these high end, well made oils, there’s a complexity and an elegance (and a commensurate higher cost) that will likely mean you’ll want to use it for finishing—at the table drizzled on great greens from the market, on top of a bit of roasted meat or vegetables. During my visit a few years ago we had lunch at the family hunting house where they served us an entire meal in which the oil was featured in every dish. The highlight for me was the potatoes, tossed with a lot of the oil and a bit of salt, then roasted at high heat ‘til they had a bit of a golden brown crust and a whole lot of flavor. The more I eat this oil, the more I like it, and I should add that with its distinctive pale blue label and elegant bottle, the Valdueza oil makes a pretty marvelous gift too.
Biolea Olive oil
from Crete Outstanding Organic Oil from Crete
One of the few single estate Greek oils out there (most are from co-ops) and one of my favorites right now. The Astrikas Estate is located on the northwest part of the island, about 20 something miles west of the town of Chania, the fourth village up into the hills after you turn inland from the coastal road. The farm has been in the family for a long time now—George is the fifth generation to run it. The oil is made from Koroneiki olives, the small olive that’s most commonly found in Greece, handpicked a bit later in the year than, say, the olives of Tuscany, hence the relative sweetness and softness of the oil that the people of the area like so much.
Biolea is also interesting for the story. The oil is organic. The olives are handpicked. And the owners have done a great deal of work to take traditional stone milling above and beyond what’s considered the most modern of olive oil pressing techniques. They’re exceptionally aware of the environment, both in an ecological sense and in terms of the community in which they’re working, and they’re intent on leaving both better off than when they arrived on the scene. Long story short, the result of all their work is a delicious olive oil. It’s a bit lighter than a lot of our oils—don’t let the stereotype of Greek oils being “heavy” fool you. This one’s anything but. It is a bit buttery, surprisingly sweet actually. George wanted to make sure I understood that this lighter flavor was very true to the region—this is the way people in the area like their oil. I don’t want to get too wonky on you, but it’s got a touch of some spice I can’t yet nail… maybe mace, or even a hint of vanilla? George says it has hints of salad greens and lettuces and sorrels and it is slightly citrusy. It’s got a touch of pepper at the end, but not too much. Terrific on fish, salads, slices of barrel-aged Greek feta cheese, simple pasta dishes, or vegetables of all sorts (raw, roasted or really any other way you can think of).