Thursday, February 25, 2010

Rye Not?

I have lived in Richmond, Virginia for 14 years now. I have acclimated to the climate, I frequently use Y'all in everyday conversation, and have even gotten used to the archaic and wrongheaded ABC laws.* But in many ways I am a true Son of Maryland. My family has lived in Harford County since the mists of time. As a keen student of history (and of booze) I was aware that Maryland was famous for their Rye Whiskeys. Before Prohibition, most American whiskey drinkers perfered rye over bourbon. It was the whiskey of Colonial America, and when the new Federal Government put a tax on whiskey it sparked the first crisis of the young United States of America.

I have been a whiskey drinker for most of my adult life, and it would stand to reason that I would have at least tried rye in the last 15 years or so. But I never did, starting at Bourbon, then Irish, then on to Scotches...I seemed to leap over the whiskey of my ancestral homeland.

No more. This past summer, after all due consideration, I decided to take the plunge into Rye Whiskey.

In quick succession I picked up two bottles, Russell's Reserve Rye & Sazerac Rye. Both were fantastic. If you are a whiskey drinker and have not sampled any Rye's I insist you do so immediately.

Rye is a close cousin to the more familiar Bourbon, but spicier and a little more pungent. But as the great American philosopher Sherman T. Potter once said - "Not enough OOOOOOO's in smooth".**

About the same time that I started started my love affair with Rye Whiskey, I started to see more and more Rye Pale Ales on the market. I routinely pick up two of them, the Terrapin Rye from Athens GA, and Founders Red's Rye from Grand Rapids MI. Both fine pale ales set apart from their peers by the added spiciness from the rye malt. The same spiciness that sets the Rye's like Russell's and Sazerac apart from their cousin bourbon.

So I now declare that 2010 will go down in history as the year of Rye. I will forthwith add Rye Whiskey to the spring and summer drinking season. I look forward to mint juleps made with rye, and to sipping on a rye and soda out on the porch on a hot summers night. Likewise, I hereby declare that my next batch of home brew will be a rye pale ale. I found a Terrapin clone recipe, which I intend to change up a bit, adding more rye malt and cutting back a bit on the hops, to make a spicy delicious beer I can call my own.

* Oh how I loath the state controlled ABC system, and how I look forward to the privatization of this inefficient consumer unfriendly system.
** Also a catchphrase of my beloved Father John W. Stump Sr. - Dad tells a great story about Rye. When he was but a lad in the 1930's he came down with dysentery (or some other old-timey disease of a similar nature), Things were looking pretty grim for young Grumpy when the doctor asked him if he wanted anything special, he answered "I want a drink of Maryland Rye Whiskey". That magic elixir perked him right up, speeding him to a quick recovery, so he could go on to his ultimate destiny - to sire me.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A day on the Mighty James River

I love the James River. It is one of the reasons I like living in Central Virginia so much. The River flows across the Commonwealth from the mountains to the Chesapeake bay. The two best things to do on the river are tubing and kayaking. I can walk down to the river from my house, with a tube slung over my shoulder and float to my hearts content. We do this three or four times a summer, tubing from the 'Z Dam' down to Reedy Creek. 4 or 5 hours (depending on the river levels) of hot summer fun. Kayaking is my favorite thing to do on the river. I can put in down at the Huguenot flats, only 3 miles from my house. Richmond is the only city in the country with class III and IV rapids in the city limits. To do a long float on the kayak you have to go upriver a bit. Yesterday I drove out to Powhatan and Goochland counties to do a long float with my good friend and neighbor. We decided to do a trip neither of us had done before and settled on the 'Westview to Maidens Landing' float.

We set off early in the morning, loading the boats on my Jeep and leaving before 8 AM.
We dropped a vehicle at the take out point Maidens Landing on the Powhatan side of the river, then drove the 20 minutes or so up to Westview on the Goochland County side. It's a great drive, with lots of farms and country houses along the way. I took this picture not long into the float, you can see how incredibly beautiful the James River is. As soon as we started out we saw Bald Eagles, we probably saw a dozen of them in the course of our float, more than I had ever seen. You can actually see a couple of eagles soaring in this picture spiraling up and up looking for prey.

We would stop every once in a while to stretch our legs, as we were on the river for over 6 hours. Here is a picture of the boats, mine is the blue one...a Perception Prodigy. It's a pretty nice kayak. Perfect for day trips. It has a 'water tight' compartment that is not actually water tight. I need to re-caulk the bulkhead, but have not quite gotten around to it yet.

Eagles were not the only wildlife we saw on the trip. We saw an Osprey and lots of fish, mostly Catfish, Bass, and even a couple of Longnose Gar. But the best wildlife sighting I have seen in a long time was the squirrel we saw. Yes, the common gray squirrel - Sciurus carolinensis. I see dozens of them every day, usually running around my back yard to and fro. What made this particular sighting so unusual? The location.

About halfway through the float my Neighbor saw something swimming in front of us, in the middle of the river. "Is that a muskrat or a beaver?" we wondered. When we got a little closer, we were amazed to see that it was a squirrel. I don't know what caused him to take a swim, but he sure was determined to get to the other side. We paddled over to him to cheer him on. He did not like this much as his eyes got wider and his tail even fluffier. He got safely to the other side and paused for about 45 seconds to catch his breath, then he scampered up the riverbank.

I will leave you with one last picture. The Bald Eagles had not been cooperating with me, keeping out of range for a good photograph. I keep my digital camera in a small dry bag, and it takes a couple of seconds to get the camera out and aimed in the general direction that they used to be.

Finally, not long from the take out point we managed to sneak up on one. We spooked him out of a tree and he flew 50 yards or so downstream. I got my camera out and held the strap between my teeth and paddled closer to shore building up steam. Then I drifted underneath the snag the eagle was perched on. This is the best of the pictures that I was able to snap before he got tired of us and flew away.

I would love to go out and do the same float next month, closer to 'Peak Leaf season' but don't think I will be able to. I guess I'll just have to wait until next year.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

I was Kidsnapped*

My delightful and charming wife has been conspiring behind my back. Last week was was my birthday...what some would call a 'Milestone Birthday'. We did not go out to dinner to celebrate this happy day, so she told me that we were going to do something Sunday "From Noon to 5PM" and not to plan anything else for that time. All week I tried to weasel the plans out of her, to no avail. The only clue she would give me was 'wear long pants'. So at Noon we started to drive. I kept trying to guess where we were going with each turn. Exit on the Powhite expressway north...that means nothing south or east of the City. Exit on 64 west, this rules out Ashland and points north (and my best guess of Lewis Ginter for lunch). 45 minutes later we got off on 15N, and then I knew where we were going! My favorite Virginia Winery is Barboursville Vineyards. They have the best wine, and (in my humble opinion) the nicest tasting room in the area. I would put the vineyard up against any that I have been to (and I have been to a TON of them), here or in Napa. They also have a restaurant there called 'Palladio', and I have wanted to go there for years.

You can see here how excited I am, as the waiter handed us a menu. You see, at Palladio you order options of the menu and build a 4 course meal, each course matched with one of Barboursvilles excellent wines. I had been trying to think of a good excuse to come here for ages. Arbor Day? Boxing Day? International Talk Like a Pirate Day? Not big enough occasions. Apparently turning 40 is. And thank goodness, as it was an excellent meal and a great experience.

My first course - Antipasta.

~ Fantasia di Pomodori ~
Trio of Local Tomatoes
Heirloom Tomato Pizzette with House Made Mozzarella
Tomato Cloud wrapped in Speck
Tomato and Cucumber Sorbet with Sea Salt

Barboursville Vineyards Vintage Rosé 2007

The sorbet was fantastic, cucumber sorbet on a tomato and tomato sorbet on a cucumber.

Second Course - Primi Piatti

~ Risotto con Carciofi ~
Organic Risotto with Sautéed Artichokes,
Fresh Basil and Mozzarella Cheese

Barboursville Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2008

I have not had much exposure to Risotto, something that I have always wanted to try and make myself, but intimidating because of the preperation time and technique involved. I'll be sure to give it a shot now. The best bites were the ones with both artichokes and the cheese.

Third Course - Secondi Piatti

~ Scaloppine di Vitello ai Funghi Porcini ~
Prosciutto-Stuffed Limousin Veal Scaloppini with Braised Porcini Mushrooms,
Grilled Polenta and Young Watercress

Barboursville Vineyards Cabernet Franc Reserve 2006

This was amazing. The mushrooms were in a marsala style, and complimented the salty prosciutto and the creamy polenta. The Cab Franc was the best wine of the meal.

Fourth Course - Formaggi

I had the choice of a dolce (sweet) or cheese for dessert. No surprise to those that know and love me that I went for the cheese. Delicious. Made more so with the accompaniments, a jam, two kinds of local honey and two kinds of balsamic. Served with toast points.

Served with Barboursville Vineyards Malvaxia Passito 2005

The Malvaxia Passito was intensly sweet, with overtones of honey. It more than stood up to the strong cheeses. A lesser wine would have been overshadowed by the two stronger cheeses I had, both blues.

After lunch we did an abbreviated tasting in the winery, because we had just had five glasses of wine - did I mention the nice glass of prosecco we had while perusing the menu? No? My bad. It was a really elegant glass of dry sparkling wine.

Afterwards we took a stroll around the vineyard. This likely bunch of grapes will be harvested next month. Warm from the sun and a little sweet, soon to be transformed by the vintners art into ambrosia, fit for a King. Or for me anyway.

Seriously if you live or visit Central Virginia, and you have the time and the money (it is not cheap to eat and drink here) treat yourself to a meal here. You will not regret it. Thanks again to my sweetie for making this a very memorable day.

* Growing up in my family 'Kidsnapping' = Kidnapping a fate worse than death. "Don't wander or you'll get kidsnapped" - Mom 1978

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

I made a field trip.

I have the good fortune to have swell in-laws. My wife hails from the town of Meadville PA, a short drive from Venango, PA the home of Sprague Farm & Brew Works.When visiting said in-laws last week, they took me on a field trip to one of my favorite breweries. This was my second trip to Sprague Farms, the first a year ago. The neat thing about Sprague Farms is the setting. The brewery is in a converted dairy barn. Last year we got the grand tour from the owner and brewmaster Brian Sprague.

The mash tuns and fermenters are in the main floor of the barn, the kegs are kept cool in the basement, in the old dairy. After my first visit I became a fan of the brewery on Facebook. I have been getting regular updates on the expansion of the brewery, and updates on the creation of 'Brewhalla' - the tap room that they built in part of the converted barn (and the best name ever for a beer hall).

And the beer? Did I mention the beer? It is top notch stuff. I had three pints while there. Notice the glass shaped like a pint of milk. Nice touch for a brewery in a converted dairy barn. This was the pale ale and it was pretty good. Better yet was the Scotchtoberfest beer. A nice malty and nicely balanced scotch ale (think Belhaven not McEwans). Best of all was the Effin' Beer - a Heffe Dunkel Weizen. I have enjoyed two growlers of the Effin' in the last two weeks, and I tell you it was excellent stuff. I got a Effin' Beer tshirt for my birthday from my aforementioned swell in-laws. A nice end cap to my Sprague Farm & Brew Works experience.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Life is good

I just returned from a business trip. I went to Erie PA to do some computer geek stuff and made a couple of pit stops along the way. I had a very nice visit yesterday with my In-Laws, who were very gracious hosts. Knowing of my abiding love for malted beverages, they took me to the North Country Brewing Company. It was a pretty cool place. The decor was looked like it was designed by an elf on drugs. The beer was quite good, especially their Scottish Ale. Food was good too.

The other pit stop I made this morning on my way home. 4 or so years ago we met up with my then future in-laws for a Fathers Day weekend in Pittsburgh PA. While touring the historic 'Strip District' I ducked into an Italian grocery \ deli. I wandered around in awe at the shelves that were bursting with dozens upon dozens of types of pasta, olive oils, and other sundry dry goods that made my mouth water. Then I came upon a sight that has stayed with me all these many years. A deli counter, the likes of which I had never seen. Cheeses as far as the eye could see...salami's and sausages by the hundreds...and the Olives - enough olives to satiate EVEN ME...the man who loves olives as much as life itself. The name of this wonderland? The Pennsylvania Macaroni Company. We were headed to a Pirates game that day, so I could not buy anything, but I vowed to return some day and bring a cooler. I did not think that it would take this long to get back there, but it did. Days turned to weeks, weeks to years. Attempts to return were foiled by major holidays (closed on Labor Day) and by the hours (closes at 2 PM on Sundays). But today I made it, and I brought a cooler. I made up for lost time by buying a passel of stuff, a veritable cornucopia of Mediterranean food.

My haul? Olives (three kinds), Giardiniera (the pickled veggies the Greeks call Toursi), 1 1\2 lbs of Greek Feta, 1 1\2 lbs Parmigiana Romano, 2 lbs of fresh mozzarella, flour for pasta, capers, white balsamic vinegar, a big bottle of very good Greek olive oil, two kinds of ruffled pasta - one of which looks like a dead ringer for trophie, a loaf of oh so crusty bread, and a handfull of what can only be called a 'salt loaf'...kind of a cross between a mini loaf of bread and a pretzel - with carroway seeds in it. Oh, did I mention that I scored a bottle of Truffle Oil? The secret ingredient to THE BEST SANDWICH IN THE ENTIRE WORLD?
I was in a great mood as I set my GPS and pointed the rental car towards home. This mood did not last, as every slowpoke, rubbernecker, and semi driver made it their mission to delay my voyage home at every opportunity. I did not stop for lunch, only for gas and soda. Thank goodness for the 'salt loaf' bread...the only thing that kept me from chewing on the steering wheel on the way home. After a quick stop at work to unload the car and turn in the rental, I scurried home as fast as my Jeep would take me.

What did I find waiting for me? Two tomatoes ripe on the vine. And I thought to myself, "What has two thumbs and 2 lbs of fresh mozzarella? THIS GUY!" So dinner tonight was a caprese salad, made with tomatoes still warm from the vine. With basil from the herb garden and fresh cheese from my trip to PA. Drizzled with my new olive oil and white balsamic. Heaven. Summer on the plate. Throw in the bread and olives to complete the meal.

Life is good.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Gourmands tour of Italy Part 3

On Friday May 22 in the Year of our Lord 2009, I had the BEST SANDWICH IN THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD. I do not make this claim lightly. I recognize fully the gravity and seriousness of the statement. I took one bite, looked up at my enchanting bride and said "This may be the best sandwich I have ever had in my life." Then I took another bite and exclaimed "This IS the best sandwich that I have ever had in my life."

We took a day trip to Orvieto on the way from Florence to Rome. After a very early alarm clock we jumped on the train and headed out. A couple of hours later, and a nice walk through town it was time for lunch. After our usual "Where should we eat" debate we decided on this fine establishment.

The main reason that I wanted to go to Orvieto was because of the wine. I have been a big fan of Orvieto wines for years. When I saw that it was on 'the way' to Rome I pretty much insisted we go. As soon as we sat down, we ordered a bottle of the local wine, and some olives. One of the more surprising things about Italy was the fact that we only saw olives on the menu once or twice, a big difference from Greece where olives are served with almost any meal. The olives we got with lunch were fantastic, big and just oh so slightly salty. They went great with the wine. If you have never had an Orvieto I suggest you run out right now and get a bottle at your local wine shop. Semi sweet and golden in color it is my favorite white wine.

But enough about the wine (as good as it was), lets get to the real reason for the post. The sandwich itself. I'm afraid the picture really does not do it justice. Here is how it was described on the menu "Roasted Wild Boar, with roasted eggplant, formaggio, and truffle oil." Any of these ingredients would be good on their own, but this culinary masterpiece was much more than a sum of it's parts. It was a masterpiece. A work of art. As worthy of a place in the Uffizi Gallery as any Botticelli.

The bread was crusty and fresh, the pork sliced thickly with the crackling still on. The eggplant had a tangy marinade that made it really pop. The cheese can only be described as 'a slab of parmigiana', and the best cheese I had in Italy. And truffle oil to top it off - this is what really made the sandwich truly stellar. I have never cooked with truffle oil, but am sure to in the future.

If anyone doubts my word in this manner, book your flight to Rome, take the train to Orvieto, look for the white umbrellas on the right hand side of the main plaza, just yards from the Duomo. Order this masterpiece, this work of art...and then we'll talk.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

A Gourmands tour of Italy Part 2

Eating our way through Cinque Terre was a tough job, but I feel I was up to it. Looking back on the trip with hindsight, some of the overall best meals I had were in this region. I already spun you a tale of the pesto. In reading my last post, I realize that I left out the pesto Focaccia I had for lunch on our third day. It was really worthy of a post in itself, but the subject of pesto is ground already covered, and I feel that I must press on to the next great meal I had.

On the day long hike we took from village to village in Cinque Terre my charming and delightful bride snapped this picture. Note a couple of things. 1) the majestic views of Corniglia, the least accessible of the towns.* 2) the town of Manarola in the distance behind Corniglia. It was another 2 hours of rugged trail before we got back to our home base of Vernazza that evening.

Why do I tell you all of this? So you can understand how hungry and thirsty I was at the end of the day. When we got back to Vernazza, I grabbed a 32 oz Peroni from the local market to wash the trail dust out of my throat. After a quick shower we walked down to the plaza for dinner.

My reward for my efforts this day? Spaghetti with muscles. A very simple dish, but quite tasty. The muscles were cooked perfectly. Then tossed with olive oil, lots of garlic, tomatoes, and parmigiana cheese. Add a bottle of the local white wine and a half a loaf of crusty bread and you get perfection. Well worth the effort of what we thought at the time would be our longest walk of the trip (Rome proved this fallacy wrong but that is for another post).

* Unlike the other towns in Cinque Terre, Corniglia is at the top of the hill. There is a long staircase from the bottom of the trail (also the train station) and the town proper - 382 of them.