All Out for Inulin!

Agave tequilana weber

Tequila owes its soul to inulin.

As such, perhaps many of us also owe our souls—and our marriages, friendships, and just-barely-made-it-out-of-college-alive stories to inulin as well.

Inulin is the substance present in agave sap that, after a bit of finagling, is fermented into alcohol and distilled into tequila. However, just like the starch found in barley, wheat, and rice—inulin has to be broken down into fermentable sugars before the magic of fermentation begins. This process is known as saccharification, which is just a fancy way to saying “breaking a complex carbohydrate down into its component sugars.”

Inulin is a type of complex carbohydrate known as a polysaccharide—meaning that it is a large, chain-like, sugar-based molecule. Starch, the well-known polysaccharide abundant in wheat, barley, and rice (as well as the foods produced from them) is a polysaccharide consisting of a many short chains of glucose molecules held together by molecular bonds. Grains (and other starchy foods such as potatoes) are typically soaked, ground, heated, and/or allowed to sprout in order to activate the enzymes that will split apart the molecular bonds and free the glucose molecules for fermentation. In humans, most people digest starch well—digestion breaks apart the molecular bonds and releases the glucose to be used as energy (if we get off the couch).

Common Chicory (cichorium intybus)

Inulin is a polysaccharide consisting of many short chains of fructose molecules held together by a unique type of molecular bond and bounded on each end by a glucose molecule. Inulin is used as a form of carbohydrate storage in plants that do not store or create starch. In plants, inulin is found mainly in the roots and underground stems (rhizomes). In humans, due to the nature of its molecular bonds, inulin is largely indigestible and is considered a type of soluble (water absorbing) dietary fiber.

In addition to agave, inulin is found in over 36,000 species of plants, including asparagus, artichokes, onions, bananas, and chicory. Inulin was first observed in 1804 by a German scientist named Valentin Rose. He noticed a “peculiar substance” in the roots and stems of the horse-heal herb—a relative of the sunflower plant that goes by the latin name of Inula heleniu.  After the substance was isolated, he named it “inulin” after the name Inula.

Inulin-rich agave hearts

In that wonderful circle-of-life process we know as tequila production, the heart of the blue agave plant is split open and slowly heated to release the sap.  But as we liquor store archaeologists know, what is really happening is that inside a long-chain polysaccharide known as inulin, the molecular bonds are slowly loosening their grip on the sugar molecules they once held so tight, soon to release a flood of fructose (and a little bit of glucose) into the world as simple, fermentable sugars ready to be transformed into tequila.

P.S. We do not advise anyone to rush to the grocery store and try to make liquor out of inulin-rich asparagus. But if you do, please let us know about it in the comments section (above).

References/for more information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

 

 

 

(A Pound of) the Legendary Fernet-Branca Cure

Paging Doctor Fernet...

Paging Doctor Fernet…

Usually, an ounce of prevention is best. However, at this time of year, perhaps we should just go straight for the cure. For many people, a shot of Fernet-Branca is a lengendary cure—for a long night of drinking, or whatever ails you. While its flavor  has been variously described as “a smack in the face with a eucalyptus branch1” and “a cross between medicine, crushed plants, and bitter mud2,” these are terms of endearment and the taste (once it has been acquired) is crave-worthy.

The legends of Fernet-Branca take many forms, including history, cocktails, secret ingredients, and curative properties. Read on for a few of the legends of Fernet-Branca!

Paging Doctor Branca: Fernet-Branca was invented in Milan in 1845 by Bernadino Branca, a self-taught herbalist. The name “Fernet” comes from one Doctor Fernet—a fictional Swede with whom Branca originally shared credit for the drink, presumably to add authority to his claims of the drink’s health benefits. According to the story, the “renowned liquor” had helped Dr. Fernet and several members of his family to live for over one hundred years.

A Corner on the Saffron Market: Fernet-Branca has been produced using its original recipe since its inception. The exact formula is a trade secret, but is known to contain cinchona bark, bitter orange, aloe, chamomile, myrrh, cardamom, gentian, peppermint, anise, and bay leaves. It is rumored that saffron is also a key ingredient, so much so that the makers of Fernet-Branca have a (rumored) corner on a large percentage of the world’s saffron market.

Tastes like (Poison) Iodine: In 1960, the legendary Broadway actress Betsey Von Furstenberg played a joke on Tony Randall, and “spiked” his on-stage drink with Fernet-Branca. Upon tasting it, Tony believed that he had just swallowed iodine and thought he was being poisoned. Laughing no longer, Ms. Von Furstenberg was suspended from the Actor’s Equity Union for 60 days for her role in the prank.

A New Year’s Toast with Fernet:  The drink’s numerous medicinal claims—which included being prescribed for fever, cholera, intestinal parasites, colds, and menstrual cramps—came in handy in San Francisco during American Prohibition where it was still legal for sale in pharmacies, as a medicine. This was the beginning of the City’s love affair with Fernet, where it has become such a cult favorite that in some bars and restaurants, a midnight toast of Fernet-Branca is raised just before midnight on New Year’s Eve, in lieu of Champagne.

Hanky-Panky: A Fernet-based cocktail known as the Hanky-Panky was invented by in 1903 at the Savoy Hotel in London. One of the bar’s regular customers was an Edwardian Actor named Charles Hawtrey. One night after a performance, Hawtrey came into the bar and asked for something “with a bit of a punch.” The bartender, Ada “Coley” Coleman, created a variation on a martini using gin, sweet vermouth, and a dash of Fernet-Branca. When Hawtrey tasted it, he acclaimed, “By Jove! That is the real hanky-panky!”

1http://www.littledenblog.com/blog/classic-cocktails-the-negroni

2http://www.romefile.com/food-and-drink/fernet-branca.php

References/for further learning:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

 

The Spirits of Galicia

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If you visit Galicia (and you really should), you’ll probably want to stay in Santiago de Compostela. While you are there, you can backtrack along the final kilometers of the Camino de Santiago, and feel the amazement as the Cathedral—the final spot for so many who have traveled so far—comes into view.

You’ll definitely want to attend the mid-day Pilgrim’s Mass (where hopefully they will swing the botafumeiro—a gigantic incense burner, from the ceiling). After Mass, you might want to visit the Museum of the Galician People and the Galicia Contemporary Art Centre.

For dinner, wander around the old town and take your pick of the tapas bars. Be sure and sample the Caldo Galego, a traditional soup of potatoes, cabbage, and ham; and the Empanadas Galegas, which are typically baked into a large pie and cut into wedges. Treats for seafood lovers abound, but a plate of Pulpo Galego a la Ferira (octopus cooked whole and cut into bite-sized pieces) is the local favorite.

The next day, try to wake up early and take the train to Pontevedra. Once there, you’ll be in the heart of the Rías Baixas wine region and can easily visit several wineries with just a short drive, including my favorites Bodegas Martín Códax, Mar de Frades, and Bodegas Paco & Lola (where they make the famous “Polka Dot” Albariño).

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One more thing: don’t miss out on the unique spirits of Galicia, most of which are based on the left-overs (pomace) of the outstanding wine production in the area. The pomace brandy of the area is known Orujo. Orujo (named after the Spanish word for pomace) is actually produced all over Spain, but has a special significance in the north of Spain. The regional version is produced in almost all of the wine areas of Galicia and, known as Orujo de Galicia, has been awarded PGI status.

Production methods for Orujo de Galicia vary, but the use of copper pot stills is traditional. Orujo, similar to Italy’s famous and popular grappa, may be produced in households, but there are over 85 commercial producers of the spirit.

Like most pomace brandies, Orujo is typically made as a somewhat fiery, raw, and unaged spirit. However, an aged version, known  as Orujo envejecido (aged Orujo), is oak-aged for at least one year in barrels of 500-liter capacity or smaller (or two years in larger barrels).

Three other PGI spirits—Aguardiente de Hierbas de Galicia, Licor Café de Galicia, and Licor de Hierbas de Galicia—are also produced in the area.

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Aguardiente de Hierbas de Galicia PGI is a flavored spirit produced using Orujo de Galicia as the base spirit. It is created by soaking (macerating) a variety of herbs in the Orujo, by the re-distillation of the Orujo in the presence of herbs, or a combination of these procedures. According to the PGI regulations, Aguardiente de Hierbas de Galicia PGI must be produced using at least three different herbs or botanicals. Any herbs that are suitable for food may be used, but peppermint, chamomile, lemon verbena, rosemary, oregano, thyme, coriander, saffron, orange blossom, fennel, licorice, walnut, nutmeg and cinnamon are among the most widely used. Aguardiente de Hierbas de Galicia PGI usually has a clear, light-green color and must have no more than 100 g/L of sugar. A sweetened version, known as Licor de Hierbas de Galicia PGI, would be known in English as a liqueur.

Licor Café de Galicia PGI is produced using Orujo de Galicia as its spirit base, but neutral spirits are also allowed. This is a sweetened spirit (liqueur) flavored with roasted coffee beans. Licor Café de Galicia may be produced via maceration, re-distillation, or a combination of methods, and must contain a minimum of 100 g/L of sugar.

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In addition to being served straight, on the rocks, or in a variety of cocktails, Orujo de Galicia is used in a regional beverage known as queimada.  Queimada is made with orujo, sugar, lemon peel, cinnamon, and coffee beans. The ingredients are poured into a clay pot, set aflame, stirred until the blue flames die out, then ladled into ceramic cups. The sharing of queimada is accompanied by the recitation of an incantation (which is often described as a “spell” of protection against witches and things that go bump in the night). The sharing of the queimada is based on Celtic lore and considered a part of Galician tradition.

References/for more information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Playboy and the Electric Car

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The playboy and the electric car…it’s an odd title, I’m aware. And kudos to you for even clicking on it, as it admittedly tells you very little about the story which is to follow, which is actually about Cynar.

Cynar—pronounced CHEE-nar—is an Italian amari (bitter liqueur) that is probably only known to true cocktail aficionados and CSS students. For you liquor store archeologists, it’s the big green bottle with an artichoke on the label. (Yes, an artichoke.)

Before we get into the actual story I’m burning to tell you, let’s get this out of the way: Cynar is an acquired taste. It’s not the prettiest bottle on the shelf—and it’s competing with beautiful bottles bearing pictures of rose petals, wild raspberries, and baskets of wildflowers from Provence. Also, if you glance at the bottle quickly, you might think that the C-y-n-a stands for cyanide. I’d understand if you would prefer to walk on by.

Then there’s the flavor. It has a short burst of sweetness and quickly becomes intensely bitter and very, very herbal—this followed by a vegetal flavor that you might recognize as asparagus, but will describe as artichoke because you saw the picture on the bottle. You might think that you’ve never tasted anything like it before, but then you remember the Dr. Brown’s celery soda you once bought by mistake.

Keep in mind, however, that an acquired taste is just that—it must be acquired. Remember your first taste of hoppy beer, Stilton cheese, or octopus-on-a-stick? You might not have adored it at first, but you got used to it until you started to crave it. Trust me, Cynar will be the same, and its legendary ability to calm your stomach (like many digestives) is a real thing.

The story of Cynar (and the playboy and the electric car) begins in 1952. About that time, a Venetian entrepreneur named Angelo Dalle Molle created and began to distribute Cynar, his artichoke-flavored liqueur. Rumor has it that he chose the artichoke due to its aphrodisiac properties. The story continues (with a wink and a nod) that the love-potion formulation must have worked pretty well, as the creator was a well-known and successful man-about-town, fathering six children with six different women and—at the age of 80—marrying his secretary who was 40 years younger than he.

Numerous references point to the veracity of this story, and as far as I am concerned, that’s a pretty good story. I love a good tale of love, lust, and longevity. And there’s a happy ending as well: Cynar became popular very quickly, and in 1976 Dalle Molle sold the formula to Bols (a Dutch brand famous for many spirits and liqueurs) and became a wealthy man. Many years later, well into his 90’s, he passed away peacefully—and left his young bride a fortune of over 30 million euros.

But there’s another side to the Venetian playboy of Cynar. In addition to being a businessman, he is remembered for being a patron of the arts and a utopian philanthropist. Let me explain: utopian—in the  sense that he believed in the possibility of an ideal (or, at least, better) world and philanthropist—meaning he was generous with his time and money, using both in the service of mankind.

He also had a technological/scientific side—he’s been called a true “Renaissance Man,” and in his case, it’s believable. Dalle Molle was an early adopter of information technology and believed that technology should be used to improve the quality of human life. In order to accomplish this goal, he established the Fondation Dalle Molle pour la Qualité de la Vie (Dalle Molle Foundation for the Quality of Life). The foundation is still awarding grants and prizes for projects that “encourage and promote research which allows people to benefit from science and technology and to improve quality of life.”

Through this foundation he created and funded several research institutes, including the Istituto Dalle Molle di Studi Semantici e Cognitivi (Dalle Molle Institute for Semantic and Cognitive Studies), which was established for the purpose of conducting research into languages, linguistics, and automated translation. Another project is the Istituto Dalle Molle di Studi sull’Intelligenza Artificiale (Dalle Molle Institute for Artificial Intelligence Research), founded with the goal of applying artificial intelligence to the quality of life.

Dalle Molle was very concerned about pollution, and at yet another project, the Centro Studi della Barbariga, he oversaw the design and production of over 200 electric cars. These cars were put to use as taxi cabs, vans, and as an ambulance. Seven of these cars are now in the collection of the Museo dell’automobile in the city of Vicenza.

Angelo Dalle Molle’s work lives on, and you can learn more about about his life—as both a playboy and a creator of electric cars—on the website of the Dalle Molle Foundation for the Quality of Life.

References/for more information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

The Genius of Gentius

Gentiana Acaulis photo by Ramin Nakisa via Wikimedia Commons

Gentiana Acaulis photo by Ramin Nakisa via Wikimedia Commons

If you are a fan of the Aperol Spritz (or Suze and Soda on the rocks), you might not know it, but you are a fan of Gentian. Gentian is a flowering plant that grows wild in the mountains of Europe, particularly the Vosges, the Alps, the Pyrenees and the Massif Central.

Gentian (Gentianaceae) may have yellow, white, blue, or varied-color flowers. The dried root of the gentian plant has a variety of culinary and medicinal uses and is often used as a flavoring agent for bittered wines and spirits–including Campari, Suze, Aperol, Bonal, Fernet, and various brands of cocktail bitters and vermouth.  Gentian root is highly aromatic and adds a range of sweet aromatics as well as a bitter taste to an aromatized wine or a spirit amari.

In addition to the range of gentian-infused amari on the market, gentian liqueurs have a following of their own. Gentian liqueurs originated in the historical French region of Auvergne, which is now part of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region. This is a mountainous region of central France where gentian grows wild. In these parts, gentian liqueur is traditionally served as an aperitif, over ice and with a wedge of lemon.

Photo of Salers Gentiane via Wikipedia Commons (public domain)

Photo of Salers Gentiane via Wikipedia Commons (public domain)

Salers, a bright-yellow-colored liqueur, is considered to be the oldest producer in the area, having started production in 1885. Other brands still produced in the region include Avèze (formerly known as Auvergne), Chantelune, and Gentiane Couderc.

In addition to its role in beverages, gentian root is used in herbal medicine to treat fever, muscle spasms, and digestive problems. This is despite the fact that most scientific studies have shown little to no actual effect on these conditions other than a placebo effect. However, it is widely accepted–in many cultures, east and west–that bittering agents and the taste component of bitter can increase gastric secretions and therefore aid digestion. Just witness the long tradition of “tonics” and digestives made with bittering agents, which might include your own habit of calming a rumbling stomach with a shot of Fernet (it works for me). We might just have to call this debate a draw.

Gentian is named after King Gentius, who ruled as the last Illyrian King (a kingdom near present-day Montenegro that later became part of the Roman Empire) from 181 to 168 BCE. It is believed that Gentius discovered the medicinal and flavoring value of the plant and encouraged its use. Several ancient writings, including those from Pliny the Elder and Dioscorides, allude to the fact that gentian was used for a variety of medicinal purposes during Roman times, including as an antidote to poison and in the dressing of wounds.

King Gentius of Illyria, designed in Photoshop by Hyllier, via Wikimedia Commons

King Gentius of Illyria, designed in Photoshop by Hyllier, via Wikimedia Commons

Here is a partial list of well-known beverages that contain gentian. See the “for more information” links for even more:

  • Amère Sauvage
  • Angostura Bitters
  • Appenzeller
  • Aperol
  • Averna
  • Bonal
  • Campari
  • Cinzano Bianco Vermouth
  • Fernet-Branca
  • Peychaud’s Bitters
  • Picon
  • Salers
  • Suze
  • Underberg
  • Unicum

References/for more information:

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P.S. Of course, to get a hit of gentian, you could always have a Negroni Cocktail–that’s always a good idea!

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net