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myMEGusta

Named for things that please me (“me gusta” in Spanish) and rhymes with balabusta (Yiddish for “good homemaker”).

Archive for the month “May, 2012”

Café Culture?

Close your eyes and imagine you are sitting in a café.

Perhaps on the Champs d’Elysees, watching the Parisians and tourists stroll by as you sip a pricey mineral water or orange presse (fresh squeezed orange juice). Maybe at Café Florian in Piazza St. Marco in Venice, with music wafting in the background, pigeons overhead (wear a hat) and Prosecco in hand.

If you hop into the Wayback Machine (for those of you old enough to remember The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show) and seek out the oldest of the cafes, the ancestors of them all, you will find yourself transported to 17thCentury Austria, sitting indoors in Vienna, where the concept was born.

During the Ottoman wars, the city had been occupied by the Turks. On being liberated by the Polish-Hapsburg Army, Vienna was quickly emptied of the invaders who left things behind, as people on the run tend to do. Among the remainders were bags upon bags of coffee, and the accoutrements it took to brew it.

Vienna Coffee House

What had been an exotic luxury became available to the masses in the newly invented coffee houses, outlets created specifically to prepare and serve this beverage which was new to most people.  Some traditions which live on today were established in those early years: myriad varieties of coffee preparations to choose among, and the freedom to sit for hours on end, reading, talking, just staring into space.

Cafe Schwartzenberg Vienna

Starbucks lovers take note: Some things never change.

On a recent trip to Vienna, I visited several coffee houses, mostly for a quick coffee or aperitif, but on one occasion for lunch at the venerable Café Landtmann, a fixture on the Ringstrasse since 1873, now a serious restaurant in addition to being a coffee house. From my notes: “venison ragout with allegedly local cranberries, potato croquettes, porcinis and other fresh wild mushrooms.” It was delicious and satisfying, so I passed on the gorgeous pastry display.

The most interesting part of this was the coffee menu, too elaborate to paraphrase here:

http://www.landtmann.at/fileadmin/content/pdf-dateien/Kaffeeposter_Landtmann.pdf

The Viennese coffee house continues to evolve.  I remember my first visit to this beautiful city, many years ago, before tastes and health concerns changed the laws about indoor smoking.  Even in some of the finest and most historical examples, coffee house walls were a little dank, and smoke permeated the air. When I visited in late 2011, I did not encounter any problem whatsoever with smoke in any coffee house or restaurant, although this could be a result of my seeking out non-smoking areas (which did not exist in the past) and ignoring smokers’ siberias. Bottom line: it is no longer a problem.

Franziskaner: Coffee with steamed milk and whipped cream

I need to go back, and research a blog on “mit schlag”, German for  “with whipped cream,” and not ignore the Sacher Torte next time.

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It Didn’t Happen in Rio

But it did in Paris.

The exact location was the Discophage, a Brazilian hole-in-the-wall restaurant/caberet in the Latin Quarter, near the Sorbonne. The wife was in back (cooking), with the husband, Carlos, in the front (hitting on customers), and musicians playing sambas (when they weren’t also hitting on customers). Some young French and American women fell in love with the guitarists; I fell for the feijoada.

Feijoada

At its simplest, it’s a black bean stew with chunks of porky things and tongue, served with manioc flour (a tuber also known variously as cassava, tapioca, or yucca), orange slices, kale and a vinegar sauce, accompanied by rice. Normally, a pot of beans and meats arrives at the table with the bowl of rice, surrounded by a bevy of other small dishes containing the various garnishes.

Pronounced “Fey-ZWAH-dah”, its name derives from the Portuguese for “black bean”, and originated in that European nation, although now is more associated with their former colony, Brazil.

I’ve sought it out in New York, and, over the years, have found very credible versions at Brazilian restaurants that come and go, although you won’t find it at the otherwise wonderful churrascarias (Brazilian barbecues) popping up all over.

Business meals in Sao Paolo and Rio de Janiero never afforded the opportunity to try feijoada at the source. Just like in the United States, the locals take visiting firemen to “the local Chamber of Commerce restaurant,” as Calvin Trillin would say, instead of where the locals eat the really good food.

But I hit the mother lode during a side trip to Iguazu Falls, where Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay meet.

Iguazu Falls

This occurred many years ago, so the hotel, not yet trained to focus on burgers, spaghetti and sushi for tourists, instead served a feijoada buffet for lunch.

At least ten pots bubbled with assorted sausages, pork chunks (including belly, another day’s blog), and odd parts, including perfectly braised tongue, all cooked with black beans. Mounds of manioc and rice and orange stood by, with a few different vinegar sauces and freshly cooked kale.

It is a rich, peasanty food, and carries a high risk of overindulgence, particularly as the plate gets loaded with all the components. So, have plenty of kale and oranges, skip the dessert, and Bom Apetite!

Three Buckets of Tea

No, this is not a saga about getting lost and found in Afghanistan.

It is how I see “tea” falling into three buckets: raw tea (green tea being the best known and most popular), processed tea (black tea and oolong, for example), and all sorts of other infusions which have nothing to do with what grows on tea bushes (and which we’re not going to talk about today).

Tea Leaves

All real tea comes from the same type of plant.  What makes the tea in your cup different depends on the quality of the tea leaf when harvested (the smaller the better and more expensive), how it was processed, whether not processed at all, or wilted, fermented partially or fully, how dried (heat or smoke), whether rolled or crushed, and, of course, how it was brewed.

Portuguese Ship, circa 1600

Portuguese traders were the first to carry tea throughout the world, and it is they who introduced it to England, who took such a liking to it (as well as silk and porcelain) as to create a massive trade imbalance with China. To address this, the Brits started selling huge quantities of opium to the Chinese. The societal problem that caused, plus their general dislike of foreign traders, led to the Opium Wars.

Most tea names have to do with production processes (black tea, oolong). Sometimes they are named for where they were grown (Assam and Darjeeling, both regions of India), or for their appearance (shotgun, tea leaves rolled into tiny balls and dried), or for flavorings. Some are blended to a corporate style, such as Twinings versus Bigelow having different flavor profiles in their identically named English Breakfast teas, or Lipton versus Tetley.

Bergamot

Among the flavor enhanced teas, Earl Grey is one of the best known (flavored with oil of bergamot, a type of bitter orange), related to Lady Grey (like the Earl, but with lemon and additional kinds of orange rind). Smokey flavored Lapsang Souchang is a personal favorite. Constant Comment is an example of a spiced tea, with notes of orange peel.

Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous is a product called “Monkey Picked Oolong”, which might actually be wonderful but reminds me of the stale jokes about a wine snob sniffing a glass and opining that it was “picked by a blonde fraulein named Brunhilda in the early afternoon.”

The innumerable types of Chinese and Japanese teas are traditionally consumed with neither milk nor sugar nor lemon, although Indian teas tend to use dairy and a sweetener, probably resulting from English habits adopted during the Raj. Chai tea, often served as a cold latte, is a descendent of this, seasoned with Indian masala blend spices.

Green Tea Ice Cream

Two of my favorite tea concoctions are green tea ice cream and its relative, Starbucks Green Tea Frappuccino, effectively a green tea ice cream milk shake. No, consuming green tea this way is not a healthy choice.

The Japanese Tea Ceremony is well known but little understood, more about an elaborate traditional ritual and showing respect to one’s guests, than anything special about the tea itself, whisked from a fine powder and quite bitter.

Japanese Tea Ceremony

There is a perpetual debate regarding teabags versus loose tea, the latter supposedly being better because “they hide the bad tea in the bags”. For commercial brands, this is really a matter of the packer’s quality control. The newest container is the H-Bag, made by Bigelow for Keurig machines.

Very serious tea shops are sprouting up, offering wide selections of the best available teas brewed the exact number of seconds to be perfect, “cuppings” (a fancy word for “tastings”), and tea friendly menus. Two excellent examples are The Steeping Room in Austin, TX (www.thesteepingroom.com) and Savvy Tea Gourmet in Madison, CT (www.savvyteagourmet.com).

A Toast to Wedding Cakes

They can be the perfect culinary marriage of exquisite beauty and luscious flavor.

Or not, since some don’t deserve to be celebrated. Sometimes the prettiest on the outside can be the ones with hearts of stone, or at least they taste that way.

But the one I’ll be enjoying at the wedding of two friends this weekend will be elegant and delicious, which I know because I’ve had cakes from this Chinatown bakery before. Remember the old adage: “You cannot save your cake and eat it too”? This references the superstition that if a woman puts her slice of wedding cake under her pillow, she will dream of her future husband. I’ll be eating the cake.

“Liberated” Wedding Cake

Like many other things that were liberated in the sixties, wedding cakes have undergone a wonderful transformation from the staid norm of white cake/white frosting, to anything goes, like chocolate, red velvet, tres leches (Mexican “three milks” cake), carrot cake or even cupcakes artfully arranged in tiers.

Cupcakes!

Bakers sometimes decorate with real or marzipan flowers, not just squiggles of white fondant which used to be the norm, or royal icing, a hard, sugary frosting so named because it was used at Queen Victoria’s wedding cake. As a side note, her wearing of a white gown started another bridal tradition that lives on today.

Traditional Decoration

Feasts have always been part of celebrations like weddings, so it’s not surprising that cake would be part of the ritual. For example, it is documented that in medieval England the bride and groom would kiss over a pile of pastries, and would have good luck if they didn’t knock it over.

Croquembouche

In France, the traditional wedding cake is a croquembouche, a stacking of cream filled profiteroles bound together with light caramel.

I have never really understood the whole concept of groom’s cake, very popular particularly in the South, and sometimes in masculine, humorous forms representing his hobbies or interests. It is usually darker in color, often fruitcake, and is often wrapped to snack on the next day. Or to use as a paperweight, depending on your opinion of stale fruitcake.

Groom’s Cake for a Football Fan

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