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2011 Drops of Jupiter

Date: Thu, Jul 4, 2013

-- or, "can you tai - ail me?"

I stopped listening to the radio in 1979 because it got so dull forever waiting for the station(s) to play a song I liked. There was a lot of dreck being broadcast and listened to and paid for in 1979. Supertramp's "Logical Song," Raydio's "You Can't Change That," Melissa Manchester's "Don't Cry Out Loud," and Billy Joel's "Big Shot" epitomize the dullness. Most of it seemed so harsh and clanging, too. Then there was Herb Alpert's "Rise," which was neither harsh nor clanging, but of which the less said the better. I tried a country music station for a while, decided I only liked T. G. Sheppard's "Last Cheater's Waltz" and Charley Pride's "Mountain of Love," and then turned off the machine entirely. Later on I enjoyed, in my reading, coming across appropriately quaint old terms for the baleful, boring instrument. In Anne Frank's Diary, it was a "crystal set." In Mapp and Lucia, it was "the wireless," and to turn it on "Olga turned a handle or a screw or something." E. F. Benson was no more interested in it than myself, it seems. Some other English novel called it, very properly, "a "listening-in device."

Thanks to that self-imposed artistic fast, all popular music produced after 1979 strikes me as the new stuff the young folks are crazy for now.

Leap forward thirty-four years. (Is it really?) Self-imposed fast or no, since I work in a retail store run by young management, I am all of a sudden exposed to a steady diet of reasonably au courant music. Judging by my children's reactions, I am hearing what is new and hip beginning about six months after it is truly hip. Such that when the nice salesman, all unknowing, gives me a sample of a new wine called Drops of Jupiter, and asks if I am familiar with the band Train (no), and the song "Save Me San Francisco" (ah-hah), I can take the wine home, taste it, and look up the odd title.Then I can discover, via a Huffington Post article from 2011, the video on YouTube of Train performing "Drops of Jupiter." Why yes, I have heard that at the store, it must be au courant! Alas, no. Copyright 1998.

Below are some drops of rain on the evergreen tree beside my back porch.

The song "Drops of Jupiter" is pleasant enough. I do enjoy lyrics that are simply pretty images, with no meaning or connection to one another, as in."she walks like spring and talks like June" or whatever it was. There's a certain brazen charm in young artists putting this sort of thing to a melody, adding a few bits that seem like emotional truths, and catching people's attention and earning money by it. And generations of them have been doing this for, what, seventy years? "Roman cavalry choirs are singing" (how does anyone know?), Rhiannon "rules her life like a fine skylark." Warden threw a party at the county jail. At least that was a whole sentence, and the beginning of a complete story.

Because you see I do hope that over the decades, the artistic brazenness and the unconnected imagery haven't always just come from drug use. Surfing YouTube beyond Drops of Jupiter, one encounters the seeds of doubt about that. Watch Stevie Nicks belt out "Rhiannon" live in 1976, for example. (The commenters below the post "love how she loses it at the end.") Impossible to deny that in the '70s every red blooded teen girl in America wanted to be Stevie Nicks -- the hair, the chin, the eyes, the voice, the body, the name "Stevie" in a world of Lindas, Pams, and Kathys -- but we wanted to be her minus the cocaine habit, surely. I hope that is just as true for all the boys who wanted to be whatever rock stars they admired.

Below, the clouds that made the rain.

And below that, the "supermoon" that everybody else photographed last week.

As it happens Drops of Jupiter, the wine, is good.. It is another global red, retailing for about $9. Hey - hey - he -- ey -- ey -- eyyy. All this time we haven't even asked why a rock band would venture into wine sales. Perhaps they have been told everybody's doing it and it's a better investment than precious metals or hog futures. And yes, customers do buy a wine sight unseen when it is sponsored by a musician -- much moreso than they will when it is sponsored by an athlete. The Dave Matthews Band does it; Lady Gaga did it. Can we expect a Fleetwood Mac chardonnay soon, or a Coldplay chianti? If not, why not?

And do you think -- can you taai-aiil me if -- I could try my hand at the unconnected-imagery wheeze, and write a rock and roll song? If this one makes me a fortune, I'll let you know.

Some drops of rain on the evergreen tree
Beside my back porch
There's a certain brazen charm
Seeds of doubt
The hair, the chin, the eyes,
The voice, the body, the name
"Stevie" in a world of Lindas, Pams, and Kathys
The clouds that made the rain.
The "supermoon" that everybody else photographed last week.

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Piccini Memoro

Date: Wed, Jul 3, 2013

Lately I seem to be savoring a long line of what Michael Broadbent in his book Vintage Wines called "global reds." The book was subtitled Fifty Years of Tasting Three Centuries of Wine, so we get a hint just there of the depths of his experience. Worked for Christie's, I believe.

The global red is a smooth, lushly fruit-filled wine, produced anywhere from Italy to California to south east Australia ("that grape sink," as another colossus of the wine world, Jancis Robinson, calls it) -- to Argentina to France. It is a wine whose harsh edges, if it had any, have been buffed away. Hardly any Italian acidity or French tannins here; these are global reds for a global market, especially for a sweet-loving, ready-to-drink American market. Most buyers in that market now would be hard pressed to remember that once upon a time, it was precisely the harsher qualities in a wine that helped preserve it to a future wondrous drinkability. And it was still a very Italian or French drinkability. Are soreheads then justified in sniffing at the global red as being too uniform, too thick and jammy, too forever young, stateless, and uninteresting?

Retail for the Piccini below, which is very tasty, is about $9. That helps reconcile one to the jamminess and uniformity.

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2007 Georges de Latour Private Reserve

Date: Wed, Jun 26, 2013

There are times when one must fortify oneself with something very good.

What an extraordinary age we live in, when the Supreme Court itself will tell us that falsehood is truth, and evil and nonsense are good and sound. So "gay" "marriage" is acceptable, is it, and only opposed by hate-filled troglodytes? If we are all to acquiesce in the overturning of planetary reality by our betters -- "speak up loudly," the magazines and blogs say, but speak up to whom? -- then really we ought to overturn a little planetary reality ourselves. Try deciding that the earnest and ignorant young nieces and nephews (for example) in your life, who probably have the equal sign on a soft blue background as their new Facebook avatar, will now get their own private little dose of overturned reality. If they are called Mary and John, and are a woman and a man, try calling them Greg and Jane, all their lives. Introduce them conversely as "my nephew and niece" -- and make it stick. It would be a wonderful short story if nothing else. And if you did it, whom would you be hurting?

One opens Shakespeare at random -- I am not kidding -- and finds something apt.
I pressed me none but such toasts-and-butter, with hearts in their bellies no bigger than pins' heads, and they have bought out their services ... the cankers of a calm world and a long peace, ten times more dishonorable ragged than an old fazed ancient....
Falstaff is speaking of trying to recruit ("press," impress by force) soldiers, in I Henry IV, IV, ii.

I am sure Sir John would approve our having a glass of good, very good wine. There are details to be learned about this one if you like, as Beaulieu having been founded in the '30s, and André Tchelistcheff being involved with it, and so on. But that seems rather unimportant now.

.....But for certain
He cannot buckle his distempered cause
Within the belt of rule. (MacBeth, V, ii.)

Retail (2009 vintage), about $90
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Grand Barossa, grand (Victorian) sentence

Date: Fri, Jun 21, 2013

After this, you may have a glass of wine.

December, 1845. "...and he ventures to indulge the hope that this long trespass upon your Majesty's much occupied time may find a sufficient apology in the deep anxiety which he feels that his regret at being compelled not only to retire from your Majesty's service, but also to take a step which he is aware may have had some influence on the course finally adopted by Sir Robert Peel, may not be still farther increased by the apprehension of having, in the performance of a most painful duty, incurred your Majesty's displeasure. [Lord] Stanley."

I dare you to figure this out. And this is only the second half of the sentence; there was a semicolon, and more before. Hint: after about ten readings, you may begin to see that it all hangs on his regret increasing.

Now for your wine. Queen Victoria would have called it hock, and recognized the tapered hock bottle, although its having come from Australia would have surprised her. We call it riesling And we like it very much.

Retail, about $14

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2009 Nimbus Estate pinot noir

Date: Mon, Jun 17, 2013

You can't see, through the dark green glass, the mariachi band playing next door, nor hear the sounds of all the other neighbors' Sunday afternoon barbecue parties, and then the lawn mowers whirring. Nor can you taste or see either the disappointing dinner I made -- Julia Child's potée Normande, or "French boiled dinner," gad, boiled dinners are over-rated -- or the disappointing cocktail before that. Café San Juan. Why did I waste a jigger of good rum on a drink made with coffee, ice -- and lemon?

Thank heaven the wine was good.

Retail, about $16.
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Work notes...White Cloud

Date: Sun, Jun 16, 2013

It occurred to me that in order to get any writing done while also holding down a full time job I should keep a notebook in my car or even in my apron, so as to scribble down profound thoughts (well, you know what I mean) or striking images and character sketches when they occur. That way, I would at least still be contributing to my own Collected Works even though the phraseology of any one day may be less than wondrous, or its progression of inner logic a hash.

I don't have my car notebook yet -- so difficult to write coherently at stoplights anyway, before you know it the light is green and you must go -- but I do have my Sunday mornings. Perhaps I ought to call this new theme "Sunday morning hash." And look! I mentioned food.

So here goes.

I've been reading Sappho, pretentious though that sounds. I regret I can't find anything in her poetry about food or wine. And to "read" her means to read the approximations, in English, of the images that were in her mind when she wrote in Aeolic Greek some 2,600 years ago. Only fragments of her poetry survive, partly because -- after, granted, a thousand years, a thousand years of copying and reverent study, from about 600 B.C. to about 400 A.D. -- even the ancients found Aeolic Greek too abstruse to bother with. Disintegrating scrolls and burned libraries in conquered cities, century upon century, did the rest. Very modern scholars who publish her take scrupulous care nowadays to actually translate just the fragments. So you might read a new translation of something of hers that goes "By the sea .... yet your cloak ... [to the? possibly an error for delight ...]."

Rough sledding. In 1907 someone named Bliss Carman made the sledding a bit easier. He translated (or approximated) and published Sappho's poems, in a kind of entirety, in Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics. You can find it at Project Gutenberg. Living just before our own era of absolutely scrupulous scholarliness left him free to guess what she was thinking. If you consult him and his "indefinable flavour of translation accompanied by the fluidity of original work" (I read the preface), you will find that the images in the poetess' mind were apparently most lovely. Perhaps too lovely, and that was all? But for a thousand years everyone adored her.

Sleep thou in the bosom
of the tender comrade,
While the living water
Whispers in the well-run,
And the oleanders
Glimmer in the moonlight.

Soon, ah, soon the shy birds
Will be at their fluting,
And the morning planet
Rise above the garden;
For there is a measure
Set to all things mortal.

Legend has it that Sappho spent a part of her life in exile in Sicily, apparently because 2,600 years ago nothing about government had changed. It was still full of people telling you what to do based on your thoughts.

For the heart of man must seek and wander,
Ask and question and discover knowledge;
Yet above all goodly things is wisdom,
And love greater than all understanding.

So, a mariner, I long for land-fall, --
When a darker purple on the sea-rim,
O'er the prow uplifted, shall be Lesbos
And the gleaming towers of Mitylene.

Ah, government. So in our own day they're spying on us all day, are they? I am reminded of another poem, although this will sound pretentious too -- you would think I read poetry all day. (But even if I did, why should that be pretentious? Anyway.) John Donne opened the three verses of The Sun Rising with this:

Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou this,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run?

He went on, chiding the sun for waking him and his mistress when they and their love, their busy-ness (ahem), and their rest were more important than anything the sun could shine upon in all the twenty- four hours of his trek about the world. "She's all states, and all princes I; Nothing else is ...."

Government dossier-collecting is not nearly so innocent or pleasing an image as the sun shining unwanted into John Donne's bedroom circa 1600 A.D. But there is an element of childlike comedy to it, not least because we in the modern age are free, aren't we, from real threats. Exile for example. In past ages people who enjoyed controlling their fellows liked not only to send them away on ships, but to kill them. They still do, elsewhere. Because our little day and our little corner of the planet eschews very savage penalties for wrong thinking, we can still afford as it were to smile maturely at the sun. We could ask the president, the heads of the bureaucracies and the security administrations and the justice departments, "Really? you need all this -- do you think you'll live forever? Do you think this level of power will prevent time from passing for you personally?"

Then again, if they get all our money through taxes and live on it while vainly attempting to evade "the measure set to all things mortal," I suppose they'll consider it a pretty good bargain.

'Who was Atthis?' men shall ask,
When the world is old, and time
Has accomplished without haste
The strange destiny of men.

Haply in that far-off age
One shall find these silver songs,
With their human freight, and guess
What a lover Sappho was.

Then there's this. I was fooling with the "scan" button on my car radio one day when it stopped in time for me to hear an interview with a just-published scholar about the battle of Gettysburg. You don't hear that every day, so I pushed a button and kept that station programmed among what is scanned. Turned out it was 90.1 FM, the radio home of Chicago's Moody Bible Institute.

Although "Moody radio" gets heavy-handed for my tastes, it does do one thing: it reminds secular people that there is another avenue of understanding in this world apart from what the human mind thinks up. There is also revelation. And if there is that, then there is some kind of refuge from mere total human authority -- from government -- no?

Great Pan came to thy cradle,
With calm of the deepest hills,
And smiled, 'They have forgotten
The veriest power of life.

'To kindle her shapely beauty,
And illumine her mind withal,
I give to the little person
The glowing and craving soul.'

Sometimes when things get quite too serious, when you have had enough of poetry and politics and of even the most delicately oyster-gray late evening skies in summer, and the robins caroling and twittering for the last time to a purpose in the silhouetted black trees (they raise three broods per spring, the bird books claim) and the other specks of more distant birds slowly winging away below the crescent moon, -- sometimes you just want to read P.G. Wodehouse. Here he is, in one of the most wonderful English sentences I have ever read, saying that a certain character in Right Ho, Jeeves is such a "goop" no normal woman would think of marrying him.

I have no doubt that you could have flung bricks by the hour in England's most densely populated districts without endangering the safety of a single girl capable of becoming Mrs. Augustus Fink-Nottle without an anaesthetic.
Sappho would have roared. Now dear things, you have been patient with my work notes, my Sunday morning hash. Here is a cocktail as a reward. You will enjoy it later in the day of course.

White Cloud
3/4 ounce (half a jigger) cream
3/4 ounce (ditto) white creme de cacao
1 and 1/2 ounce (a jigger) vodka
2 ounces (a little more than a jigger) pineapple juice
Shake all ingredients well with ice cubes in a shaker, then strain into a highball glass filled with crushed ice.
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2011 Romantic riesling

Date: Mon, Jun 10, 2013

Day off. Picnic. Zoo (again!). Conservatory. A bit of fog over the city. Lovely.

Retail, incidentally, about $12.

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Blithe spirits

Date: Sun, Jun 2, 2013

Like the tiger below, we will plunge right in -- or rather venture forward moodily, as cats do. It's long past time for our crash course in spirituous liquors. I include photos from the zoo because that's where I've been lately.

Hugh Johnson admits, in the first sentences of his book Vintage: the Story of Wine, "It was not the bouquet of wine, or a lingering aftertaste of violets and raspberries, that first caught the attention of our ancestors. It was its effect. In a life that was nasty, brutish, and short, those who first felt the effects of alcohol believed they were being given a preview of paradise."

This effect of wine and beer, the foretaste of paradise, comes of course from one property in any gallon of the sloshing stuff -- alcohol. If I understand my researches correctly, I can say with confidence that alcohol is a single substance, made by the action of yeasts consuming sugars in any grape juice (wine) or in any grain-and-water mash (beer). Once gallonsful of those two nice drinks are made, the alcohol sits dispersed in them, just as, let us say, the green of chlorophyll sits in any leaf in summer.

A preview of paradise in a gallon of wine or beer is a very fine thing. But how much more efficient it would be -- our ancestors must have thought and rather early, too -- to get that preview in a convenient, easily transportable mini-size.

Distillation was the answer. In antiquity mankind had already learned how to extract fragrant oils from plants,

and had observed, or at least Aristotle had, that boiling seawater released a fresh water steam.but left salt behind.

In time therefore, though probably not half early enough, mankind also learned that boiling beer or wine released a vapor which, when collected and condensed on a cool surface, gave them a new liquid more wonderfully potent than the original. (This is because alcohol has a lower boiling point than watery mash and juices, and so vaporizes first.) It was its "little water" -- vodka -- its essence, its "spirit."

All the names given it or associated with it reflect man's marveling gratitude. Alcohol, from the Arabic al kohl meaning the essence of anything generally, was also dubbed aqua vitae, eau de vie, and whisky, this last from the Gaelic usquebaugh. Whether Latin, French, or other, it all meant "water of life."

We raved further. Alcohol as a medicine was a "cordial," from the Latin word for heart. Cordial still means both a little drink and to be friendly. Quintessence, signifying the ultimate or perfection of anything, derives from medieval distillers' and physicians' cataloguing of alcohol -- mere condensed droplets on a cool surface -- literally as the fifth element, as vital as fire, earth, water, and air.

Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking tells us that at first, the condensed potency was set aside for the rich (in ancient China) or as medicine (those "cordials"). By the 15th century, in Europe at least, it was "liberated from the pharmacy and drunk for pleasure."

And mankind did not rest content with merely boiling grain-and-water mashes to get the usquebaugh that would become vodka or whisky, or boiling wine to get brandy (from the German brannten Wein, burnt wine). From boiled (fermented and therefore lightly alcoholic) molasses we pulled rum, from (ditto) sugar cane, cachaça. From boiled (fermented, lightly alcoholic) agave mash we draw tequila, from boiled (ditto) hard ciders the apple brandies Calvados or applejack. This is not to speak of the eaux-de-vie or fruit brandies distilled from fresh fruit mashes -- cherries make Kirsch, plums Slivovitz, raspberries Framboise. And so on. Our Mr. McGee tells us there is even a Russian watermelon brandy called Kislav, a decoction which strikes me as unfathomably alien.

The wonderful substance was extracted from every possible source except maybe rocks and then "liberated from the pharmacy and drunk for pleasure" only after dilution, however. Mankind must have had to grasp this small necessity through painful experience I suppose.

You see, so potent and rough is the "spirit" that in order to be drinkable after distillation it must be diluted with water, and quite a bit of it. Pure alcohol is toxic. This explains why 1) fermentation in wine and beer stops naturally, once the yeasts have consumed enough sugar and produced enough alcohol to kill themselves off; and 2) why spirit manufacturers boast, curiously it seems until one understands, about the quality and mystery of their water.

We hear from single-malt whisky makers about Scotch highland streams, from Bourbon distillers about spring-fed, limestone-bed Kentucky lakes, or about pure water from Iceland, as in Martin Miller's specialty gin. Perhaps the ancient Chinese boasted also about the burbling and crystalline perfection of the Yangtze.

One last curious thing we'll learn about alcohol is that, because it is a single substance, any rules about distilling This and calling it That seem to be strangely fuzzy at the process' beginning. No sooner do we complacently sketch out our crash course on what derives from what than we discover, for example, that vodka can be made from grapes and yet not become brandy. Gin can be made from molasses, but not become rum. "Neutral alcohols," made from grain, potatoes, or grapes and needed for the manufacture of things like blended whiskies, are themselves not properly whiskies, vodkas, or brandies. We are even told that a quintessence politely called "vodka" can be extracted from 'leftover material from the oil refining process.' It's the art of the master distillers creating, doctoring, and aging their particular products in traditional ways, that leads to our liquor stores' shelves gleaming with the endless rows of bottles we expect.

And yes, in a way gin was the first flavored vodka. When people cleverly announce this -- I've heard it twice lately, I suspect it's a fact du jour in the liquor industry -- you can act complacent about it. Assuming we have done our researches correctly, we can agree gin is simply the "little water" extracted from a grain mash (or molasses?) but then fluffed up with juniper berries (jenever, hence gin). It seems one Franz de le Boë, Latnized as Franciscus Sylvius, a Dutch professor of medicine circa 1650, believed juniper and alcohol together made an even better cordial than usual.

There. Our crash course, moodily entered into, is done. Now here is a cocktail. We continue the theme of paradise.

Bird of Paradise (from Schumann's American Bar)
1 and 1/2 ounce (1 jigger) cream
3/4 ounce (half a jigger) white creme de cacao
3/4 ounce (ditto) tequila
1/4 ounce (1 and 1/2 teaspoons) amaretto
Shake all ingredients with ice in a cocktail shaker, then strain into a cocktail glass.

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Martin Miller's gin

Date: Mon, May 27, 2013

Of course it's delicious. Only after a sip or two, the crisp flavors of cucumber and lemon become so prominent that one begins to think one is tasting the food that cucumber and lemon each pair so well with. Fish.

May one enjoy a fishy gin?

Certainly. Besides, let's be fair. My favorite drink is any sour, so using Martin Miller's in a gin sour -- the juice of half a lemon, a dash of sugar, and a jigger of gin -- does lead to the brilliant conclusion "gee, this is lemony." Perhaps this gin's delicate botanicals and the effects of the fresh Icelandic water with which it is made will show up better in the cocktails you like -- the martini, the gin and tonic.

Or, you might try the simplicity of the Orange Blossom: 2 parts gin to 1 part orange juice, stirred with cracked ice and strained into a cocktail glass.

And I love Martin Miller's marketing. Polar bears and poodles, entrepreneurs in ruffled shirts photographed in an artistic half-light; beautiful women and ice floes.

Happy Memorial Day, and let the summer commence.

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2010 Marigny Neuf pinot noir

Date: Wed, May 22, 2013

"Les raisins bio d'Ampelidae," the label repeats in a rough, slanting script. Today's wine is a pinot noir from the Loire valley, an unusual combination. (We expect pinot noir to come from Burgundy, and to be put in a slope-shouldered Burgundy bottle.) My high school French is shaky, but from the PDF available it seems that the winemaker, Frédéric Brochet, "le savant vigneron," decided while working on his doctorate in oenophilia to farm organically ("bio") using as few chemicals as possible and interfering with the grapes ("les raisins") as little as possible. He got his financial backing from English friends with an interest in the romantic history of the Loire, and he calls his company "Ampelidae" after the Greek word ampelos, meaning vine or vineyard. Marigny-Brizay is the name of the commune where he farms; if you go to the website Bikely you can plan your bike trip "along the Marigny-Brizay wine route" starting from romantic Poitiers. From significant Poitiers, too. It was near here in the year 732 that Charles Martel and his 20,000 Franks defeated an 80,000 strong Muslim army entirely ready to go on slashing north through Europe, as for a hundred years other jihadist armies had already slashed through the middle East, north Africa, and Spain. It is incredible to look at a map of France and see just how far north Poitiers stands.

M. Brochet's wine is just what we had been discussing a little while ago when we told the story of the customer who returned a different pinot complaining it was "stale." Au contraire -- that one, a Castle Rock, was delicious and correct, having a pinot noir's clear light color, acidity, tart fruit tastes, and the slightly gamy or barnyard aromas that can be startling if you don't expect them. All those qualities appear again in this Marigny-Neuf. Dear things, do, do experiment with what the trade simply calls "pinots." Try particularly those from otherwhere than soda-sweet, jam-red California. Delightful.

Available from the California Wine Club, $21.

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2010 Primarius pinot noir

Date: Sun, May 19, 2013

Recently I found out that a customer returned a pinot noir -- not Primarius, above -- to the store, asking for a refund because the wine was "stale." The refund had already been doled out, so there was nothing for me to do but pour a splash of the suspect product into a little plastic cup, taste it and see. Sometimes disappointed customers are quite right and a wine is faulty. It is good to know this.

This time the nice customer was wrong. I know because I sipped, and waited. One eyebrow moved a quarter of a millimeter, just like Jeeves when he is agitated or impressed. (My bedside reading is currently Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves, and I cannot tell you how much fun it is to climb under the covers at the end of the day with this book and the night light, and spend fifteen minutes or so in my imagination at Totleigh Towers, with Pop Bassett, Gussie, Emerald, Spode and everyone, all in a fluster about the black amber statuette. Plus Bertie's awful Alpine hat.)

As I say, while I sipped the eyebrow moved, a la Wodehouse, a quarter of an m. I did not immediately "light a moody gasper," although that sounds such fun too, -- but I thought: this is delicious. This wine is most assuredly not stale. Here rather is fruit, and a pinot noir's fine translucent raspberry color, along with its spiny no-nonsense acidity and yes, that peculiar pinot funk. How to describe it?

When a pinot noir is not dark red and California-sweet (and those are very nice in themselves), it can have a strange, gamy smell and taste. Professionals describe this in terms of earth or barnyard, forest floor or mushrooms. Of course they also often say this is in the French style, which is true. Then again "French" is shorthand in all of life for correct, glamorous, authentic, and good.

Since few of us go around sniffing earth or barnyards every day, still less drinking properly pale, gamy Burgundies, we might be forgiven for balking at a nine-dollar grocery store bottle that tastes so un-winelike. We might be forgiven for saying, "this is odd. This is stale."

Never meeting my disappointed customer, I faced no awkward on-the-spot etiquette challenges with him. I wonder what sommeliers do at tableside in a restaurant under similar circumstances, but all amid the dark romantic lighting, the laughter and the softly clinking silver and glassware, and the witnesses. One can't raise the e. and cluck soothingly, "sir, this wine is fine. You just don't know pinot noirs. Let me explain." Perhaps it would be best then to give the customer a different bottle, and rather ostentatiously place the "stale" one at the little corner nook where the staff will eat and drink between rushes. Perhaps if he saw people who know food and wine very much not choking down but instead savoring his reject, he also might raise an e. and start to rearrange his ideas. Not long ago, a regular saw me contentedly leave for the day with his reject in my bag -- opened and un-sellable, but don't worry we get replacements from the distributor and there would have been nothing else to do with it but throw it out -- and even out of the corner of my eye I could tell he was non-plussed. He thought the cork was bad, and that once a cork is fussed with overmuch, the wine is therefore ruined. Yet off I went .... I think he didn't have enough strength or skill to uncork the bottle properly. The wine was excellent.

The Primarius above has inspired today's fun because it is the sort of pinot noir we are talking about -- the sort that risks rejection because of its pale, gleaming, spiny, gamy, delicious Frenchness. If you see it, treat yourself. It retails for about $15.

P.S. Because we have been discussing Frenchness, and because we are Tudor geeks (as who is not?), we cannot let the day pass without a nod to one of the prime dates in the Tudor calendar. May 19 is the anniversary of the execution of Anne Boleyn, 477 years ago. Part of the reason she captivated Henry was because of the Frenchness she learned abroad. Did she drink gamy Burgundies? Why not?
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A spring stew ("Ropa Vieja")

Date: Sun, May 12, 2013

It so happens I have a good recipe for "Ropa Vieja," which I made several years ago and kept in draft, accompanied by a dull and rather queasy photograph of the stew, also in Blogger draft. Actually I have many old recipe-and-photo combinations in my own personal Blogger slush pile, waiting for attention. Chantilly potatoes -- salmon chowder -- braised fennel Carrot pudding désastre. And why is it so difficult to photograph meat, in particular, in any appetizing way?

This means that as we prepare Ropa Vieja, Cuban beef and pepper stew from Ruth Reichl's Gourmet cookbook, we will have to content ourselves with pretty and completely unrelated pictures taken on a resplendent spring noon just a few days ago. Here are tulips and plum tree blossoms,

dogwood, maples, and blue sky,

yellow forsythia, and above all, crabapple trees.

I love crabtrees, and have an ambition to one day live in a house that has a crabtree in its yard.

Did you know that the modern apple in all its large and shiny varieties is partly descended from wild apple trees that behave much like the crabapple? That is, they naturally produce many small, hard, sour fruits, all the better for scattering seed and propagating the species, and have had to be coaxed and bred, cultivated and grafted by man for many centuries in order to change that habit and bear just the handfuls of large sweet apples that people want to eat. The Oxford Companion to Food gives us the further delightful information that grafting especially is needed to maintain reliable apple production because, if growers merely planted the seed of an apple expecting it to sprout into a replica of the parent tree, they would be disappointed. "Apple seeds grow into trees resembling their parents no more than human daughters resemble their mothers. ... and there is a natural tendency for offspring to revert to the wild state. As Behr (Edward Behr, The Artful Eater, 1992) puts it: 'Without the techniques of grafting (or rooting of a branch), each tree in the world would constitute its own variety, distinct from every other.' " Imagine, apple trees as unique as people. (And perhaps, just as full of tiny, hard, sour fruit? We wax over- poetic.) Delightful.

Now we must cook Ropa Vieja. We are going to adapt this recipe, even acknowledging with a gulp of trepidation that it comes from so lofty a source as Gourmet, because -- because while it may be authentically Cuban to simmer the piece of beef for hours in a seasoned vegetable broth, then take it out and tear it into bite size pieces by hand while reducing the cooking liquid, having discarded the first batch of aromatics, all of this also represents a tremendous and tedious amount of work. Far simpler to braise. We will sear the meat in oil, add all the vegetables and spices and some water, and simmer it all very gently for the several hours that we can then spend doing something else. Briefly sautéeing a fresh handful of sweet peppers and onions in a separate pot and tipping them into the stew half an hour before dinner is all that is needed to finish things off. As Beethoven scribbled into the margin of a music instruction book, just at the place where the author had said "such and such a musical thing is not allowed" -- "I allow it, you ass."

Ropa Vieja, or Cuban beef and pepper stew, adapted from Gourmet.

In a large stewpot or Dutch oven, sear over high heat, in a few tablespoons of olive oil:

3 pounds of skirt, flank, or chuck steak

Remove the meat to a plate, and to the drippings add:

2 carrots, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
1 bay leaf
3 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 and 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns
2 green bell peppers, sliced

After stirring and cooking the vegetables until they soften a little, add

1 (14 ounce) can whole tomatoes
2 to 3 cups water

Return the meat to the pot, bring everything to a boil and then lower the heat and simmer gently, either on the stove or in a slow (225 F) oven, for 3-4 hours until the beef is fork-tender. About half an hour before serving, heat a few more tablespoons olive oil in a saucepan. Add and sauté:

1 red onion, sliced
2 red bell peppers, sliced
2 yellow bell peppers, sliced
3 more cloves garlic, sliced

When these vegetables are softened but not browned, put them in the stew along with 1 cup frozen peas and 1/2 cup green olives, halved. Heat through, adding another teaspoon salt, a teaspoon cumin, and a half teaspoon ground black pepper, if desired.

Serve over rice.

Ropa vieja (the name means "old clothes," and is said to refer to the colorful dish's resemblance to a pile of old rags) is rather heavy as you can tell, but this weekend's spring weather has turned chilly and so perhaps a new beef stew would be welcome.

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What I might end up being known for: finally, the recipe

Date: Fri, May 3, 2013

We conclude our saga, and giving full credit where it's due, we try a recipe for homemade cérat du Galien, Galen's wax or cold cream

If you wish to follow up on this little, this positively Lilliputian (Boswellian?) matter, if you want to achieve true cold cream geekiness, you may do so by surfing the net for websites which actually are devoted to makeup and makeup reviews -- and reviews of products that remove makeup. While embarked on this sub-project I found someone who knows more about the nice chemists at Pond's than I do, but whose information confirms my suspicions, and frightens me a bit, too. Hear this, dated 9/11/09 from Makeupalley.com:

"However, I am disappointed that Pond's reformulated the product by adding toxic ingredients like the preservative DMDM Hydantoin. The upside of this change is that the original Pond's cold cream is still manufactured." [Aside: this information from 2009 is no longer true as far as I know.] "You just have to look harder. My local drugstore has it while one major drugstore carried the new reformulated one. Good luck!"

I can't tell what is more extraordinary, this confirmation that I'm not crazy, or the news of toxicity in my Pond's, -- or other reviewers' complaints about the cold cream's intense, "been around for decades," "granny" smell. "I despise the smell of roses," one woman huffed.

Really? It still contains Galen's roses? I almost think I'm better off not noticing them, rather than being such a poor soul as to dislike them. Meanwhile, it's almost time for my nightly ritual. Bring on the DMDM Hydantoin.


And that is the end of My Pond's Cold Cream Saga, the one piece of writing in my entire career that has garnered the most response. You remember we began by discussing Biography Syndrome, and wondering what we might end up being known for. The writer always hopes that, if it must be just one thing -- and this age of the internet and instant self-publishing certainly has rendered the breadth of competition more appalling than in any previous era -- then, one hopes, that thing will be really valuable, maybe even dignified. But we also remember Flannery O'Connor's quote: you can choose what to write about, but not what you will make come alive. And so -- gad -- as for making things come alive -- gad. This?

I promised you the recipe long since. Here it is, from very busy women at websites like Makeup Alley, Jillee, and Beauty Bottle, who don't bother their heads about all This.

Homemade Cold Cream

1/4 teaspoon borax
1/4 cup distilled water
1/2 cup mineral oil, or another oil that is liquid at room temperature (Almond is nice)
1/2 ounce (by weight) grated beeswax**(see below)

"Dissolve the borax in the water in a (one cup) glass measuring cup. Set aside. [Women who want a fragrant cream say that they add something nice to the water and borax at this point. A fruit infused tea bag, for example. Or, they simply use rose water.]

"Dump together the oil and beeswax in a larger (2-cup) glass measuring cup.

"Heat the oil/beeswax mix in a microwave until the beeswax is melted in and the mixture is clear.

"Heat the borax/water mix in a microwave for a minute - almost to boiling.

"Slowly pour the borax/water mixture into the oil/beeswax mixture, using a stick blender [immersion blender] to mix as you pour. Now beat well with the stick blender until the mix is glossy white and thickened up some. [Again, women looking for fragrance can add a few drops of an essential oil here. Rose is traditional but hugely expensive.]

"Pour the (hot) cold cream into an 8-ounce jar with a lid.

"Let it cool to room temperature.

"NOTE: If you don't have a stick blender you can beat the cold cream with a whisk or in a regular blender, but the cleanup will be much more difficult. By using glass measuring cups and a stick blender you will be able to simply wipe most of the excess off with paper towels, then wash in hot soapy water. Cleaning plastic measuring cups, and a whisk or (worse yet) a blender of this wax-containing product is difficult and a pain in the neck."

One last tiny, tiny P.S. If you are the enchanting blogger Vixen Vintage, and already are supermodel- gorgeous with skin that cannot be described in terms of pearls, alabaster, milk, or velvet because those words are laughably inadequate, then the nice manufacturers of boutique cold creams may simply send you samples to blog about. One is called Queenie May and looks divine. Its cost, though ($47 for a 4 ounce jar) helps explain why some people make their own and keep it in a plastic container in the fridge.
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New cocktail -- the Bullfrog

Date: Thu, May 2, 2013

Watch me visit the marsh in spring, and then try to identify birds. After that we'll have a cocktail.

A red-bellied woodpecker, I think?

American goldfinches. There is a cocktail called the Yellow Bird, but it is much too complicated to bother with. What with the rum (both kinds), and the lemon juice, the orange juice, the Tia Maria, the mint, the cherry, -- no. We'll enjoy something simpler in a minute.

Nice young Nick the forest preserve naturalist tells me this is a black-capped chickadee.

My field guide tells me this is a female house finch. I think. Below, a red-winged blackbird, perhaps? But where is his red shoulder patch?

And below this, a cocktail. In keeping with the marshy theme, we'll make a Bullfrog. It's much simpler than any Yellow Bird, and goes like this:

Pour a jigger of vodka over ice in a tall glass. Fill with Seven Up, then squeeze a lime wedge over and drop it in. That's all.
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