(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 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

Five Cognac Curiosities

Cognac CuriositiesAll good wine and spirits students know that Cognac is a high-quality French Brandy, made from grapes grown in the delineated Cognac region, located just north of Bordeaux. There are several grape varieties allowed, of which Ugni Blanc (aka Trebbiano) is the preferred; the ferment goes through a double distillation in an Alembic still, followed by a minimum of two years’ aging in oak. Good! We’ve covered the basics. But did you know…

#1 – The product of a third distillation is known as “Espirit de Cognac.” Espirit de Cognac was awarded an AOC in 1936, and is an unaged product that – after hours and hours of distillation – comes off the still at 80 – 85% abv. Brandy lovers of the world, don’t feel bad if you think you’ve never had Espirit de Cognac. In reality, you actually might have – as all of the production is destined to be used in the “liqueur d’expedition” for sparkling wines such as Champagne.

#2 – Don’t confuse the unaged, bound-for-bubbly “Espirit de Cognac AOC” with a product labeled as “L’Espirit de Cognac.” Many Cognac producers use the term “L’Espirit” to designate their top-tier bottles. For instance, “L’Espirit de Courvoisier” is an assemblage of old cognacs – the oldest is rumored to be from the 1802 vintage (“the few precious drops that escaped Napoleon’s lips”), and the youngest from 1930.  Bottled in a numbered, hand-crafted Lalique crystal decanter, L’Espirit de Courvoisier sells for upwards of $5,000 per bottle – if you can find one.

Cognac grapes#3 – Cognac is distilled from a white wine base, which, according to the AOC, must be a minimum of 90% Colombard/Folle Blanche/Montils/Sémillon and/or Ugni Blanc. (In practice, Ugni Blanc is by far the dominant grape, accounting for up to 90% of the total vineyards.) A Folle Blanche X Ugni Blanc cross named Folignan may be used up to a maximum of 10%.

#4 – Three other grapes are currently allowed to be used in the base wine as well. These are Jurançon Blanc, Meslier-St-François, and Sélect. However – it gets a little tricky here – they are only permitted through the 2020 harvest, and only if they were planted prior to September 18, 2005. Most of these grapes fall into the “uninteresting” category; however Meslier-St-François is (according to Jancis Robinson, et al, in Wine Grapes) a historic French variety that once grew in Champagne, the Yonne department of Burgundy, and the Loire Valley. As a matter of fact, in 1990, Charles Jumert of Cave de la Berthelotière “saved” the last surviving Meslier-St-François grapes of the Loire Valley by taking cuttings off of a vineyard as it was bulldozed under. He planted the grapes in Villiers-sur-Loir (north of Tours) and has been making a varietal “Vin de France” from them since 2003.

Cognac curiosities 2#5 – 97% of all Cognac produced each year is exported. That’s right – only 3% of the Cognac produced, on average, is consumed at home. As a matter of fact, the French consume as much Scotch whisky as they do Cognac. This means that an average of 130 million bottles of Cognac are exported each year, which is enough to make grape brandy one of France’s most valuable exports. (As for France’s other valuable exports, #1 is airplanes (as in Airbus), #2 is medications, #6 is wine (as in yeah!), #9 is make-up and sun-tan preparations, and #13 is perfume (we knew those had to be in there somewhere). Number 18 is brandy, Cognac included – not bad. You can see the rest of the data on French exports here.

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

In Praise of the Juniper Berry

Fig 4-2 Juniper BerriesThe hero of gin lovers everywhere, the juniper berry is not really a berry at all but the seed cone of the juniper plant. Juniperus communis, the common juniper, is a shrub or small evergreen tree with needle-like leaves in whorls of three. Juniper often grows as a low-spreading shrub, but juniper trees can grow to over 32 feet (10m) tall. The juniper plant has over 50 species, and the largest range of any woody plant, thriving throughout the temperate zone of the Northern Hemisphere from North America to Europe and Asia.

Many cultures consider the leaves of the juniper to be a symbol of protection against disease and evil spirits. In Tuscany, a sprig of juniper is often placed in front of the door to offer protection to the house and its inhabitants. Juniper can also ward off snakes, at least according to the ancient Greek pharmacologist Pedanius Dioscorides, who claimed that the smoke from a fire of burning juniper could keep snakes away.

The “berries” of the juniper plant begin life a grey-green color, and ripen in 18 months to a deep purple-black hue with a blue waxy coating. Juniper berries are revered for their medicinal purposes, particularly as a diuretic and in regards to conditions of the kidney, bladder, and stomach.

Of course, to students of wine and spirits, the juniper berry is known primarily as the predominant flavoring in gin and other spirits such as Genever, Steinhäger, and Wacholder. The flavor profile of juniper berries is often described a pine-like, resin-like, intensely herbal and with bitter citrus notes. Noted author Harold McGee, in his book On Food and Cooking defines the flavor of juniper as “green-fresh.”

The Juniper Forest ("The Valley of Juniper) in Ziarat, Pakistan

The Juniper Forest (“The Valley of Juniper”) in Ziarat, Pakistan

Juniper berries are considered an important culinary herb, particularly throughout Scandinavia and Central Europe. Juniper is often used to impart a sharp, clean flavor to meat dishes – particularly game meats – as well as cabbage and sauerkraut dishes. Juniper has a natural affinity for pork and is found in many recipes for roast or braised pork. The recipe for Choucroute Garnie, a classic Alsatian dish of sauerkraut and meats, universally includes juniper berries.

One more thing: on Easter Monday, the young boys in Kashubia (Northern Poland) chase the girls in the town square, brushing (sometimes referred to as “gently whipping”) their legs with juniper sprigs. This is, according to tradition, to ensure good fortune in love to the “chased” young ladies. After watching this annual tradition unfold,  I am guessing, the parents would most likely appreciate a nice shot of gin.

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

A Side Note on the Sidecar

sidecar 1This blog post about the classic cocktail – the Sidecar – was borne of last Friday night’s dinner.

The anh (adorable new husband) and I went to our favorite local swingin’ hot spot. It’s a pretty fancy restaurant, maybe even special-occasion style, but we always snag a couple of seats at the bar and order casual. We have never been disappointed. Great, simple, classic food; excellent cocktails, professional, white-apron service – we love it every time.

One of my favorite things about the restaurant is the short-and-simple list of craft cocktails they offer. I usually order something cha-cha like the Bartlett Pear Martini (garnished with a house-made slice of dried pear) or the absolutely fabulous Blood and Sand, but this evening I really fancied a Sidecar. Interestingly enough, our lively bartender remarked that no one had ordered a Sidecar in years and he had to look it up. He quickly consulted his handy Mr. Boston Guide and made me a -well, two- delightful cocktails. Just perfect.

But it set me to thinking…if a working bartender in a busy, urban restaurant has to remind himself how to make a Sidecar – what gives? A Sidecar is a classic, 1920’s-style  cocktail, and as such should be enjoying a resurgence of popularity along with other crafty cocktails – so let’s help it along!

As is true of many cocktails, there are many versions of the origin of the drink and the meaning of the name. One legend dates back to Harry’s Bar in Paris, near the end of the First World War. It seems there was a certain American Army Captain who sidecar 2would often arrive at the bar in the sidecar of his friend’s motorbike. The Captain drank Cognac, but as Cognac is considered more of an after-dinner drink in France, the bartender sweetened it with a bit of Cointreau and sharpened it with a squeeze of lemon juice. Named after the Captain’s preferred method of transportation, the Sidecar was born.

England also claims to be the land of the Sidecar’s invention. In London the star of the story is the legendary Pat MacGarry, bartender at the Buck’s Club in London, famous for inventing the Buck’s Fizz cocktail. The details of the story are the same – a Cognac-loving gentleman pulled up to the club in his friend’s sidecar – only the names have been changed!

A totally different version of the story harkens back to pre-prohibition New Orleans, where it is said that the Sidecar evolved from the Brandy Crusta. Here, the word “sidecar” was used for that little bit of a drink that is sometimes leftover after a drink is strained into the glass. The bartender would serve the excess in a shot glass on the side – which came to be known as a sidecar. In time, the story goes, the recipe for the Brandy Crusta (Cognac, Curacao, bitters, lemon juice, sugar) evolved, with Cointreau replacing the Curacao, and the new drink became known as a Sidecar.

sidecar 3There are also many versions of the recipe. While it is commonly agreed that the drink is composed of Cognac, Cointreau, and lemon juice, after that all bets are off. Some recipes call for a sugared rim, some call for a lemon zest garnish, some call for a non-sugared rim, and some call for an orange wedge garnish. Some list the proportions of the drinks as 1:1:1 Cognac-Cointreau-lemon juice, some 2:1:1 for the same ingredients. I used to make mine in the 2:1:1 recipe – until I watched this beautifully made video by The Cocktail Spirit with Robert Hess. Robert recommends 4:2:1 Cognac-Cointreau-Lemon, and after listening to him (and trying it out) – I agree!

You need to watch Robert’s video! It will take six minutes of your life, but I promise it will be well worth it! You’ll learn a lot about the Sidecar, cocktail ingredients, cocktail techniques, and perhaps even life in general. And you will definitely be left craving a Sidecar. Enjoy in moderation and good health!

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