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Saturday, February 28, 2015

Misadventures in German

I sat alone in my favorite German bakery, sipping my coffee, typing on my iPad, watching the flow of the crowd.  Small shop.  Five or six folks is a multitude.  The shop clerks scurried.  Oven doors slammed.  Essence of bread floated through the air.

An older man walked in and sat at the table next to mine.  Only three tables in the place.  I’d spoken to him on occasion, so I murmured a quick “Morgen,” and went back to typing.

He smiled and forced a conversation.  “Blah, blah, Berlin, black, blah, blah.”  Clearly he expected an answer. 

I didn’t disappoint.  “What?”

“In Berlin,” he said in German.  “The President.  Black blah, blah, blah.”

“President Obama?”

“Nein, nein, nein!”  His irritation showed he knew he was talking to a fool. “California,” he blurted.

I only knew two Presidents from California.  “Reagan?”

“NEIN!”  It appeared he was about to crap his pants and fling a healthy handful my way.


“NEIN!!!”  A handful wasn’t going to do the job.  He was going to have to scamper out to the car and retrieve his shotgun.

“The GOVENOR!  CALIFORNIA!”  Curious onlookers started taking bets.

“Jerry Brown?”  An ambulance was called in case this guy didn’t make it.



Relief flooded the crowd.  My conversationalist mopped his brow.

“In Berlin,” he said, his face beginning to fade from red back to winter white.

“Film,” he said, staying in German, trying his best to keep it on my imbecilic level. “Lots of money.”

I agree.

“German is hard,” someone muttered.  Small comfort.  Some of the women had tears in their eyes.  Tears of pity for the demented foreigner who could only speak in single syllables and barely knew about the greatest German ever.  Except he’s from Austria.  And he isn’t the President.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Chocolate and Wine at Wein Hauck

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Wasn’t long ago if you’d mentioned wine and chocolate, I’d be thinking Mars bars and Mogen David?  Are you out of your mind?  Turns out I was out of mine.

Pairings don’t always work.  Spaghetti and caramel sauce.  Teenagers and cars. Conversations and narcissists.   Angela, the high school cheerleader and …but anyway, you see my point.

Couple of weeks ago, I got an invite to an evening of chocolates and wines.  I’ve come a long way since the Hersey days.  Much more of a sophisticate, conjuring up images of Nutella slathered on pale skin, wine delicately poured into navels.  Should have known, in my world, dreams and reality live two turbulent oceans, and a mountain range apart.

You mean actually eating chocolate and drinking wine?  Well, knock me down!  Why that’s like pairing maple waffles and hamburgers….wait a sec, a popular fast food chain already tried that.  Ok.  It’s like pairing scotch and root beer.  Damn, one of my friends drinks that all the time.  Well, hell!

Got it!  That would be like pairing me with a fat woman with bad breath!  Uh oh.  I remember one time in my misspent youth….hate to change the subject, but let’s wander back onto firmer footing:  chocolate and wine.

Ever heard of Wein Hauck?  Small place in an off street near the old market in Kaiserslautern, Germany.

If you get the chance, drop in between 2 and 6:30 p.m., weekdays except Monday.  Don’t take a chance.  Go to the web site for exact times.

Often Wein Hauck offers off the beaten vineyard events.  Music and wine.  And in this case, chocolate and wine.

Even if there’s no special event, the small shop intrigues me and tingles my taste buds.  I picture wine tasting as a blind date, except you don’t have to buy dinner, and you can move on to something more attractive and still call yourself a gentleman.

I thrive on small shops, especially when it comes to wine.  Hole in the wall bodegas in Spain.  Gordon’s Wine Bar in London.  (

If you’re carefully selective, you'll find small shops are friendlier and their survival rests on every single bottle they sell. Wein Hauck is a prime example.  The owners search for wines themselves, wander the vineyards, chat with the vintners, and only sell the best they can find.  French and German bottles dominate Hauck’s cellar, but they also offer a few Spanish delights, as well as some very interesting spirits. Picked up a few bottles of a bubbly and satisfying Crémant from Alsace, just a couple of weeks ago.  A jewel.

For the pairing on this evening, we tread both Italian and French vineyards.  Here’s a glance at what our hosts served:

Prosecco (Maschio dei Cavalieri), with 60% Chocolate, flavored with caramel and Fleur de Sel.

2014 Côte de Gascogne, with another 60% chocolate, this one with ginger.

Our molars coated with chocolate, our palates already well-graped, we moved on to the red wines:

2011 Cabardes, with 60% chocolate and mildly spicy red peppers.

2011 Vacqueyras, with 70% chocolate from Sao Tomé.

2011 Côtes de Bourg, with 85% chocolate from Ghana.

You want to know the bottomline, right ?  All the wine pairing worked supremely well, but none except for the Prosecco, would I choose to drink without the chocolate.  Sounds like the wines were not up to snuff.  Nothing farther from the in vino veritas.  These wines paired exactly correctly with the accompanying chocolates.  That, my friends, is difficult.

That’s also the magic of pairing that goes beyond red for red meat and white for chicken and seafood.  Start talking chocolate and wine and the red and white rules take a nose dive.  Same goes for wines and cheeses.

In my own late night excursions into  the wonders of the grape, I’ve found sturdy white wines, especially some of the Spanish drys, stand up well to the heavy flavor of beef.  Similarly, I’ve tasted reds just perfect for a particular cheese.

All in all, Friday night at Wein Hauck  led to a solid evening of tasting and chatting, but standing around sipping wine and eating chocolate….how bad could it be ?  Our cordial hosts took us on a tasting tour that opened my eyes and brightened my evening.  The  Wein Hauck selections paired remarkably well, but had I sipped them without chocolate I would have moved on.  Neither my palate nor my mind had made the adjustment to chocolate.  Just another point in favor of a small, quality wine shop that knows how to blend flavors and select the best wines for each occassion.

Wein Hauck is adept at  specializing rather than trying to blanket the planet. This small shop is a wonderful place to ferret out good wines at reasonable prices.  They also offer their remarkable expertise in leading the novice to experience some out of the way stops on the wine road.

Want to know a bit more about unusual pairings?  Here's a great place to start.  Check out this blog from my good friend, Laura.

Look for upcoming wine events and in the meantime, stop into Wein Hauck.  Tell them the guy with the broad grin and the chocolate moustache sent you. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Le Schlossberg Restaurant - Ahhhh French Cuisine!

So, you foolishly think I confine myself to England?  Mas non, mesdames et messieurs!  Certainement pas!

I stray across other borders, into small towns, wine caves, fine restaurants, and as long as the money holds out and my trousers fit, I will continue to consume fine potables and nosh at tables that require no rush, and no qualitative guessing.

Just last weekend, my current girlfriend, who keeps referring to herself as my wife, and I visited Le Schlossberg Restaurant in Forbach, Alsace, France.

As the name implies, the restaurant shares a space up on a hill, in the castle in the center of Forbach.  The castle itself dates to somewhere in the 11th or 12th centuries, although wars and whatnot have led to considerable rebuilding.  The grounds are part of an expansive park, with rolling green slopes and slender trees that set the castle apart from the town and allow for a quiet, and restful repast, divorced from the traffic below.

We stumbled on the restaurant perhaps a year ago, a wrong turn, a fortuitous find.  It was closed at the time, but we always meant to go back.   Our first attempted return foolishly involved inviting friends to join us, and when that didn’t work out, we cancelled.  (We also crossed the so-called friends off our Christmas Card List, and left an anonymous tip on the drug abuse hotline.)

Months passed.  Maybe a year.  Who knows when you wash down a bottle of wine each night?  Well, maybe a fourth of a bottle.  I’m always aided by my ever-eager-to-help family.

Then one Saturday, I woke up fairly early, which is to say well before cocktail hour.  The sun was not shining.  After all, this is Germany.  But, it was not raining, or snowing, nor was there enough road construction to stop a determined column of Panzers.

You’ve heard of German efficiency?  Don’t believe everything you hear.  Stretches of major highways are sometimes down to one lane for months, or even years.  The famed speed limit-less autobahns slow to what you might find in Los Angeles during a riot, without the accompanying gunfire.

The road to Forbach, France lay open, clear, and without stagnation.  I’d been studying French and had that innocent swagger of confidence.  Bonjour, merci, au revoir rolling fluidly off my silvered tongue.

I always say the French can teach anyone how to eat.  No matter if you drop into a rowdy neighborhood bistro, or op for the elegance that comes with Michelin Stars, you’ll soon wonder how food can taste this good, or be presented so artfully.

 Bonjour! I said happily to the lovely woman who greeted us at the door. Deux personnes, s’il vous plaîtNo matter what, in France the first word out of your mouth must be Bonjour.

Always best to let the locals know with whom they’re dealing.  They soon found out.  French flew back at me like the sting of ricocheting shotgun pellets.  When under attack, stutter and stammer, or in my case, smile like an idiot and nod.  The waitress saw my problem, but treated me gently.  German? She inquired.  English? I countered.  She shook her head, as if to say, Messieur, this is a respectable restaurant.  I smiled as sheepishly as a schoolgirl being asked to her first ménage a tois.  German it is!  But, I also reserved the right to ravage the French language to the best of my ability.

French cuisine is frequently held as the gold standard and I’m often asked, “What’s different about French cooking?”

It’s been said, the three secrets to French cooking are butter, butter, and butter.

I have a different take.  My answer comes in just a few words:  Time.  Attention to Detail. Freshness.

Time:  Good cooking cannot be hurried and that means: neither cooked rapidly, nor prepared ahead.  Every sauce is strained and tasted time and time again, until the ingredients meld and the satin creaminess brings out the best of the dish.

Attention to Detail:  Every texture, flavor, and color is important to the French chef.  Every vegetable is prepared exactly, from peeling, to cutting, to cooking.  It’s arranged on the plate exactly, and cooked to bring forth both taste and aroma.  Meats ,fish, and vegetables will never be overcooked.  Even a ragout, in which the meat literally falls apart, is cooked to exactly the right point so that flavor is not lost.  Another part of detail is providing a blend of flavors and textures that tease and please the palate.  

Freshness:  A can has never seen a French kitchen.  As one French housewife put it, “I do not buy vegetables that do not have dirt on them.”  Fish never smell fishy because, freshwater or sea, they go from swimming to the pan. Breads and rolls are crusty outside, warm and soft inside.

French cooking may fool you into thinking you’re not going to get enough to eat.  Small to tiny portions dominate, but after several courses, unless your stomach was a donor organ from an NFL lineman, you’ll come away pleasantly pleased and politely satisfied.

A French meal is to be relished, discussed over wine, compared to delightful things in heaven and on earth.  A time of dining and conversation. Better than sex?  No, for the French, one is merely a continuation of the other.

Rather than ramble on, with the address, hours and other restaurant details you can quickly find on Le Schlossberg’s web site, just feast your eyes on photos from the best lunch I’ve had in a long time.   

Even the table setting sports an elegance.

A bit of red vermouth as an aperitif.

An appetizer. From the left, dots of reduced balsamic vinegar, a broccoli compote, a red bell pepper compote.

The first course.  From the left, pear sorbet, stacked silky paté, coarse paté, the compote of figs

Velouté, one of the five classical French sauces.  This one is fish, with mussels, shrimp and thin sliced broccoli.

A main course.  scalloped potato tart, dimples of potato mashed with spinach, a row of sweetened red cabbage and finally, veal "in its skin," which is actually a Wellington style crust.

Dorada fish (bream).  Note the tiny vegetables around a scoop of creamy saffron rice.

A cheese plate to finish.  Green grapes, Chève cheese, Brie, Tomme, and Brouère. The first and third are goat cheeses.

Elegance even with the resting crystal.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Plymouth Gin: From Plymouth, England, of course!

Let’s talk about gin.  I don’t mean just any gin.  Must be thousands of them and more on the market everyday.  Let’s chat about Plymouth Gin, made in Plymouth, England, in the oldest gin distillery in Britain.  Plymouth is one of those geographical contrivances.  Like Cognac and Champagne in France, if the gin isn’t made in Plymouth, you can’t use the town's name.

Why talk about Plymouth Gin specifically?  Oh lots of reasons.  History. Romance.  Need more reasons?  Wow, you are so jaded!

Ever wonder where the word gin came from?  Sure you did, you’re just ashamed to admit it.  Let’s go back to 1688 and the Glorious Revolution that unseated James I and set William and Mary of Orange (Dutch monarchs.) on the throne of Britain. W & M brought an alcoholic beverage with them called jenever shortened to gin. Jenever is the Dutch word for juniper, and juniper berries are what give gin the biggest part of its distinctive flavor. 

Never seen juniper berries?  Sure you have, you just didn’t know it.  Next time you see the common juniper bush, an evergreen shrub growing by so many front doors, notice the little blue-gray berries.  Dig your thumbnail into a berry and presto, you smell the flavor of gin.

Gin really took off once it hit the English royal court.  Even in Plymouth, there were lots of gin stills, but only one is left, Black Friars Distillery.

When you start peeling the onion of English history, it’s tough to know when to shut up and start drinking.  But, you’ve got to hear a word about Black Friars Distillery.

The building dates to the early 1400s.  It’s been a monastery, a debtor’s prison, a meeting hall for French Huguenots, and in 1620, the Pilgrim Fathers spent their last night there before heading across the briny to the New World.

Which brings us to 1793 and the start of the gin business.  Plymouth is still made the same way it’s always been made.  Seven botanicals bring the original Plymouth gin its distinctive flavor, but there’s also Plymouth Navy Strength (114 Proof!), which for years, along with Pusser’s Rum, sailed on every British naval vessel.  The third Plymouth Gin is Sloe Gin, flavored with sloe berries from the blackthorn bush and sugar.

Ok, ok, you’re saying, where’s the romance?  Devious sexual practices?  Dark cellars of the soul?  You’ve heard of James Bond.  Doesn’t get much sexier than that.  Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming served in Naval Intelligence in the Second World War and he also liked martinis.  Notice how Bond likes his martinis shaken, not stirred?  Same with Ian Fleming, who used to inhabit the bar at Duke’s Hotel, St James, London.  His preference? Plymouth Gin, of course.  Dukes is still the most famous place for martinis in London.  Fancy an overnight?  The least expensive rooms go for about $535.  Suites are over $2000.  Add another thousand if you want the penthouse.

But if all you want to do is learn to make the perfect martini, enroll in Duke’s Martini Masterclass.

Besides Ian Fleming, let’s not forget Winston Churchill, one of the world’s most notable drinkers, be it Cognac, Champagne, or gin.  His choice?  Take a wild one!  During the Second World War, French vermouth was almost impossible to obtain.  Sir Winston took to drinking his gin, with a perfunctory nod toward the French coast.

How about Plymouth’s Original Gin itself?  Smooth.  Juniper tones, of course, but without the wildness or harshness of most gins.  Once you try it, you’ll understand why Black Friars Distillery didn’t just fade away like hundreds of other English gin distilleries.

1793 was just the beginning of a long journey that leads to today.

What kind of martini do you favor?  Lots of them out there, but the traditional is all I need.  A measure of Plymouth gin.  A third measure of Martini clear vermouth.  Shaken with ice, not stirred……OF COURSE!  Pour it in a martini glass. Add three olives speared on a toothpick and enjoy...........The name is Stroud... William Stroud.

A few more Martini Cocktails from The Savoy

You need this cocktail Bible in your library!