Archive for February 2017

The first time I went to a Renaissance fair, I didn’t quite know what to expect. I understood from the ads that there would be jousting, music, crafts, and people walking around in period clothing, but that’s about it. In theory, a Renaissance fair is supposed to be a re-creation of 15th-century England. That sounded interesting, but I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant. As I explored the fairgrounds, playing primitive arcade games, sampling the crafts, and watching the shows, I was alternately delighted and annoyed by the ubiquitous displays of pseudoauthenticity. I smiled when a guy walked up to me and, wanting to know the time, asked “How stands the hour?” but just rolled my eyes every time I saw a merchant with a sign that read “Master Card and Lady Visa welcome here.” Everyone seemed to speak faux Shakespeare. Those in costume wore custom-made boots that looked believable until you saw the Vibram soles. And everything, of course, had a commercial gimmick. But no matter—it was still great fun.

It was not long before I turned my attention to acquiring some authentic Renaissance food. The roasted turkey legs were quite popular, as was corn on the cob—both believable as period foods. I tried something called a “Scottish Egg,” which was a hard-boiled egg, rolled in batter, covered with ground pork, and deep-fried. Appalling—they might as well have called it Death on a Stick—but delicious. And of course, I needed something to wash all this down with. I couldn’t possibly bring myself to buy a Coke or a Budweiser (both readily available), so I looked for the most authentic-sounding drink I could find. Sure enough, some of the vendors were selling mead. All I knew was the name—I had no idea what was in it or what it tasted like—but I proffered my gold (card) and got a nice authentic plastic cup full of a pale yellow liquid.

Honey, Would You Like Some Wine?
Mead is a type of wine made from honey rather than grapes. To modern ears that sounds like a contradiction in terms, but almost any kind of sweet liquid can be made into wine, because the bacteria that cause fermentation aren’t especially picky about what kind of sugar they feed on. Mead looks about like white wine, and tastes like…well, it tastes like mead. I was about to say it tastes like honey, but that’s not quite right, any more than wine tastes like grapes. You can detect a family resemblance, sure, but the flavor is distinct. Furthermore, there are hundreds if not thousands of varieties of mead, and the flavors have as much variation as those of wine. Some are quite sweet while others are dry; some are fruity while others are earthy, and so on. It depends on the kinds and amount of honey used, the type of yeast added, the presence of other flavoring agents, details of the fermentation process, and numerous other factors. Mead-making techniques, and the resulting flavors, also vary from one part of the world to another. At our favorite Ethiopian restaurant, for example, we drink a type of honey wine called Tej, which is much different in character from English or American mead.

Historically, honey wine is the first known alcoholic beverage, predating both fruit-based wines and beer. No one knows exactly where or when it was first invented, but it was certainly common at least as far back as 4000 B.C. in some parts of the world. Mead was known in the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Europe, Africa, Australia, and the Americas. According to conventional wisdom, mead became popular not for its intoxicating effects but rather because the alcohol killed the microorganisms that would otherwise make water unsafe to drink. (In other parts of the world, of course, boiling water for tea was the preferred solution to the problem, though mead had the advantage of a longer shelf life.)

The Gods Must Be Happy
Over the millennia, mead has found its way into legend, mythology, and literature countless times. Mead appears in Beowulf, the Aeneid, The Canterbury Tales, and ancient Greek, Roman, and Norse myths. Among its other sterling qualities, mead has often been considered an aphrodisiac, if not a magical potion. Scholars of Roman mythology suspect that the term “nectar of the gods” is in fact a reference to mead. And according to one popular—if possibly apocryphal—etymology of the word “honeymoon,” the ancient Babylonians had a custom whereby a newly married couple would consume mead every day for a month (that is, a “moon”) to ensure male offspring.

Mead was eventually supplanted by beer and grape wine because the ingredients for both are cheaper and more plentiful than honey. But recently mead has been making a comeback, both commercially and as favorite project for home brewers. The very simplest kind of mead requires just three ingredients: honey, water, and yeast. To oversimplify greatly, you combine the ingredients and wait. Depending upon the recipe and the method, mead will take from one to several months to ferment, and after bottling, must age another few months for optimum flavor.

I’ve enjoyed the few varieties of mead I’ve tasted, though more as a novelty than as a substitute for grape wine. I’m sure it won’t become my primary source of liquid as long as I have a safe water supply. Nevertheless, I do very much like the idea of mead—the notion that I’m drinking an ancient and mysterious beverage, quite literally the stuff of legend. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Mead…

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There are a number of books about mead, most of which primarily cater to home brewers, but with varying degrees of history and lore mixed in. Try for example The Compleat Meadmaker by Ken Schramm, Making Mead Honey Wine: History, Recipes, Methods and Equipment by Roger A. Morse, Mad About Mead!: Nectar of the Gods by Pamela Spence, or Brewing Mead: Wassail! In Mazers of Mead by Robert Gayre and Charlie Papazian.

Sources of information about mead on the internet are legion. For a quick intro, see About.com’s Mead Page or an article in U.S. News & World Report. If you want more detail, here’s a small sampling of mead fan sites (in alphabetical order):

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A French Butter Dish

A few years ago, when Interesting Thing of the Day was just a gleam in my eye, I started asking people for their ideas on interesting topics I should write about. One of my wife’s friends made the very first suggestion. “You should write about French butter dishes,” she said, “—you know, the kind that keep butter fresh without refrigeration.” I had no idea what she was talking about, but I wrote it down on my list anyway. After unsuccessfully trying to locate one of these things in France, I did a few Web searches and sure enough, French butter dishes—like the one now in my kitchen—are quite interesting.

The idea behind French butter dishes is pure, ingenious simplicity. Butter at room temperature quickly turns rancid when exposed to oxygen, so the usual means of preserving it is to store it in the refrigerator. But all that’s really needed is to keep air away from the butter. A French butter dish does this by using water to form a seal between the butter and the air. There are two parts to the dish: a smaller, bell- or cone-shaped piece that sits on a wide base, and a second, larger container. You fill the bell up with butter, put water in the larger container, and invert the bell into the water. Because butter is basically an oil, it won’t mix with the water, and as long as it’s not too hot, it will remain sticky enough to stay inside the bell. You can keep this on your kitchen table so that butter is always available without having to soften it.

Going Soft
Of course, most people have refrigerators, so keeping butter fresh is no longer much of an issue. But for some unfathomable reason, even in the technologically advanced and culturally sophisticated 21st century, I regularly find myself at restaurants that serve hard, cold butter with their soft, warm bread. Presumably the temperature of the butter is supposed to reassure diners that it’s fresh, but I am utterly at a loss to comprehend what technique I am expected to employ to spread the butter while keeping both the bread and my dignity intact. This is, for me, one of life’s great imponderables. But it’s a problem solved neatly and painlessly by a French butter dish—always fresh, always soft, no refrigeration required. Every restaurant should use them.

I should point out that for all their virtues, French butter dishes are not maintenance-free. The water needs to be changed every two or three days, and some people recommend adding salt to the water to retard the development of mold. They’re also not impervious to heat. If you leave a full dish in a hot room or in direct sunlight, the butter can melt and ooze into the water when you lift the lid—not a pretty sight. It’s also important to top off the butter regularly. If the bell is only half full, a layer of air will be trapped between the water and the butter, defeating the purpose of the dish. Some designs overcome this problem by placing small holes in the sides of the bell to allow the air to escape.

That Name Rings a Bell
There’s yet one other problem: these dishes don’t have a good name. I call them “French butter dishes” because that seems to be the most popular name, but it’s a bit of a misnomer. If you go to any random housewares shop in France and ask for a butter dish, or beurrier as they’re called there, you’ll get an ordinary, everyday butter dish that will hold a stick of butter quite nicely in your refrigerator—not one of these. (According to the scant evidence I’ve been able to piece together, the design apparently originated in the French town of Vallauris, but is now more popular in the United States than in France. Go figure.) In any case, this particular type of French butter dish doesn’t have a distinct generic name. I’ve seen them called butter bells—a term that is trademarked by L. Tremain, Inc.—as well as French butter crocks or butter keepers. But none of these terms quite does justice to the unique design. Perhaps the pottery makers of the world would consider the term cloche de beurre, which is French for “butter bell” and not, as far as I know, trademarked. If the name catches on, remember: you heard it here first.

French butter dishes are cool because they’re a low-tech solution to not just one, but two annoying challenges—keeping butter fresh and keeping it soft. Just thinking about them makes me hungry for a baguette. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about French Butter Dishes…

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There are umpteen (by actual count) manufacturers of French butter dishes on the Web, with tremendously varying designs, materials, and colors. Amazon.com carries quite a few different designs. I bought mine from Lee Daniels Handmade Pottery in Brinnon, Washington. I was favorably impressed by the quality of workmanship, the rapid and secure shipping, and the customer service; I’d recommend them to anyone.

Other sources (just to list a few random examples) are:

If you’d like painfully detailed information on what happens to butter when it goes bad, see When butter has an off flavor at WebExhibits.org.

One last thing: If you decide to call your French butter dish a cloche de beurre, remember that the plural would be cloches de beurre, not *cloche de buerres—don’t make me report you to the grammar police.

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A raclette grill

The term cheesy in English can, and sometimes does, mean “containing cheese.” More often, however, it’s used to mean “cheap,” “shoddy,” or “culturally infelicitous.” Sometimes these two meanings come together, typically in reference to a ’70s-style electric fondue pot. Raise your hand if there’s one in your cupboard that you received as a gift and haven’t used in at least two years. That appears to be…yep, pretty much all of us. OK, put your hand back down; you’ll need it to scroll. But please, for a moment, set aside any prejudice you may have about Swiss tabletop cheese-melting devices. Today I’d like to tell you about another one that is both more (in the good sense) and less (in the bad sense) cheesy.

In Switzerland, the trains run on time—thanks, no doubt, to the seriousness with which the population treats clocks and watches. In much the same way, the Swiss take cheese extremely seriously. There is no such thing as “Swiss cheese” in the sense that Americans think of it—American Swiss cheese is a pale knockoff of Emmenthal, just one of hundreds of varieties of cheese produced by Switzerland’s numerous (and apparently quite happy) cows. And for some of these cheeses, only one method of serving is considered appropriate—Tête de Moine must be shaved on a Girolle; Gruyère is typically melted in a fondue pot. But there’s another type of cheese that requires an exacting preparation ritual, though it’s little known in North America. The cheese is called raclette—a semi-soft, off-white, fairly mild cheese that melts extremely well.

Scraping By
Raclette usually comes in rounds (or “wheels”) that are about an inch and a quarter (3cm) thick and eight inches (20cm) in diameter—though you can find much larger wheels too. The cheese has been produced for centuries in the mountainous Swiss canton of Valais. According to legend, shepherds and herdsmen, short on ingredients, once heated wedges of raclette by an open fire, then scraped off the top layer of melted cheese onto pickles and boiled potatoes. This is, in fact, how raclette got its name: from the French verb racler (“to scrape”). In time the practice was refined, until it acquired an air of sophistication that has stayed with it to this day.

A modern raclette meal uses the same basic ingredients, but trades the campfire for handy electric heaters. There are two types of raclette cookers. The raclette grill is by far the most common. It looks very much like any other tabletop grill, except that underneath the heating elements is a platform that holds six or eight individual trays. Participants put a hunk of cheese in a tray, pop it under the heat, wait a few minutes for it to melt, then use a special spatula to scrape it onto their plates. The top of the grill, meanwhile, can be used for meat, vegetables, crêpes, or anything else. A more modern design attempts to replicate the campfire experience more closely. A quarter or half round of raclette is held vertically by a small bracket, while an oblong quartz lamp shines down on the edge of the cheese. When you’re ready to serve it, you swivel the cheese away from the lamp and scrape off a layer with a special knife.

Getting Into a Scrape
The melted cheese is usually accompanied by boiled potatoes, cornichons, or pickled onions. However, the specifics of raclette etiquette are apparently a subject of much debate in Switzerland. My Swiss friend Eveline insists that the only proper way to serve the raclette is to sprinkle paprika, pepper, or both onto the melted cheese, then scrape it directly onto the potatoes. Her husband Peter, on the other hand, says that this is an egregious violation of tradition—that spices must never be used, and that furthermore the cheese should be scraped onto an empty portion of the plate and combined with the potato only on one’s fork. I witnessed a heated discussion on this topic, but luckily the couple avoided a meltdown.

When it comes to the proper method of eating cheese, I understand that emotions can run high. From my earliest days of childhood, I put ketchup on macaroni and cheese. When I got to elementary school and did this in the cafeteria at lunchtime, my classmates regularly complained to the teachers that I was doing it just to “gross them out.” I was bewildered by this accusation; how could anyone enjoy macaroni and cheese without ketchup? I said, “You eat spaghetti with tomato sauce and cheese, right?” Heads nodded. I said, “This is the same thing, just in different proportions.” My argument, which I thought very logical and persuasive, appeared not to move my audience. Later, however, I lived in Canada for a few years and discovered to my delight that ketchup on macaroni and cheese was as normal there as gravy on French fries. (That is to say, completely normal, in case you were wondering.) I can’t imagine anyone putting ketchup on raclette, but I wouldn’t complain—I’d be too busy scraping. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Raclette…

[[http://rcm-images.amazon.com/images/P/B0000635XW.01.TZZZZZZZ][http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/redirect?tag=itotd-20&path=tg/detail/-/B0000635XW][Amazon.com carries a variety of raclette grills as well as several brands of raclette cheese. If you’re looking for a vertical grill, try iGourmet.com, raclette-fondue.com, Kitchen Emporium.com, or Raclette.us.]]

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Jill Metcalfe has complete Raclette Instructions on Jill’s Gradely Scran. For much more detail (and numerous recipes), see Raclette (Quick & Easy) by Claudia Schmidt.

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Not only do Canadians put ketchup on their macaroni and cheese, they even sing about it. I felt especially vindicated when the ketchup-on-macaroni meme made its way into the Barenaked Ladies song “If I had $1,000,000,” though a lot of Americans probably didn’t get it because the product in question was called “Kraft Dinner,” known in the U.S. as “Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.” The song is on their 1992 Gordon album, also available individually on the iTunes Music Store.

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by Morgen Jahnke

When I was younger and didn’t have a lot of money to spend on lunches outside the office, I often brought a bag lunch to work which usually (although not always) featured a peanut butter sandwich. My coworkers teased me about this habit, chalking it up to frugal necessity, but it really was a matter of preference. I really liked, maybe even loved, peanut butter sandwiches, and as a vegetarian at the time, it was also an easy way to get some protein into my diet.

According to a new online initiative called the PB&J Campaign (referring to peanut butter and jelly, for those uninitiated into this North American tradition), it turns out I was not only saving money and my health, but the environment as well. Through their Web site at www.pbjcampaign.org, the organizers behind the campaign lay out the facts about how incorporating this humble treat into your lunch plans can be a simple way to help the planet.

Butter Me Up
The PB&J Campaign gives four main reasons why choosing a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich over other types of lunch food can have a positive impact on the environment. These reasons are all based on how much of the earth’s resources are needed to produce a meal that contains no animal protein, such as a PB&J sandwich, versus a meal that contains animal protein, such as meat, eggs, or cheese.

By chowing down on a PB&J more often, an individual can make a difference in four areas, according to the campaign: global warming, water conservation, land conservation, and animal welfare. Because of the greater resources needed to raise livestock, the group argues that by eating a PB&J sandwich rather than a hamburger for lunch, a diner could save almost 3.5 pounds (1.6kg) of carbon dioxide emissions, and about 280 gallons of water. That meatless lunch could also preserve 12 to 50 square feet (about 4 to 15 square meters) of land from deforestation or other harmful practices. Lastly, a meal without animal protein would definitely have an effect on the animals concerned; the group estimates that eating 16 PB&J sandwiches is equal to saving the life of a chicken.

Hard Nut to Crack
Whatever your beliefs are about eating meat, I think this campaign is a simple and positive way to make a difference on environmental issues. I am no longer a vegetarian, but I can see the value of giving greater thought to the resources involved in putting food on my plate. Practical suggestions like the PB&J Campaign make it easier for those of us concerned about the environment to integrate enviro-friendly changes into our lives. I also like the fact that instead of being told what not to do, this group is advocating something we should do.

All that being said, I worry that this effort, and others like it, may be too simplistic, and may only make me feel better about things I’m already doing (although unfortunately I’ve had to give up peanut butter because it no longer agrees with me). In addition, this is not a one-size-fits-all campaign; those with peanut allergies or sensitivities, or even those concerned about the fat or sugar content of a PB&J, cannot jump on the bandwagon. And this campaign disregards the preferences of those of us who do not like jelly with our peanut butter, but would rather have a PB&H (honey) or PB&B (banana), or other less-mainstream combinations.

Sticking To It
I’m playing devil’s advocate of course, because the PB&J Campaign itself addresses many of these potential pitfalls on its Web site. They even provide alternatives to PB&J, like black bean chili, vegetarian burritos, and falafel. It’s clear that the call to greater PB&J consumption is not meant to be taken literally, but rather as a means to a worthwhile end.

However, I do think touting this mostly unsung culinary creation is a great strategy; there is something very familiar, at least to North Americans, and therefore iconic about the melding of bread, peanut butter, and gelatinized fruit. Now if only I can find some information about how eating chocolate croissants for breakfast every morning can stop global warming, I’d be very happy indeed. —Morgen Jahnke

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More Information about The PB&J Campaign…

Thanks to reader Bernard Brown for suggesting today’s topic!

The main Web site for the campaign is www.pbjcampaign.org. They also have a blog about their continuing activities.

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If you’re looking for inspiration about how to get more creative with peanut butter, you might like The Peanut Butter & Co. Cookbooks: Recipes from the World’s Nuttiest Sandwich Shop.

I grew up listening to the great Canadian children’s music trio of Sharon, Lois & Bram. The song “Peanut Butter (and Jelly)” from their album Smorgasbord is a classic.

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by Morgen Jahnke

Every day it seems medical researchers come out with a new study about coffee, how it is extremely unhealthy for you and/or full of amazing benefits. The focus of most of these studies is more particularly about the effects of caffeine on human health, caffeine being coffee’s most potent element. As caffeine is a stimulant, it can produce both positive and negative effects. It can wake you up in the morning, but it can also lead to sleeplessness, a racing heartbeat, and anxiety.

It is therefore no surprise that many people have decided to cut caffeine out of their diets. What I sometimes find surprising is how many people still opt to drink coffee, just without the caffeine. I have grown to like the taste of coffee, but to me the main purpose of drinking it is to get an extra jolt of energy.

I’ll admit to a certain prejudice against decaf, perhaps prompted by bad experiences in the past with weak and tasteless brews. It is true that the actual process of removing caffeine from coffee can degrade the taste beyond repair, however, new methods of decaffeination have been developed to help the coffee retain more of its flavor in the process. In addition, a new strain of coffee beans with a naturally low level of caffeine has recently been discovered. This may all spell good news for those who still crave coffee without its kick.

Buzz Kill
Early decaffeination attempts involved soaking the green beans in water and then using various solvents to separate out the caffeine in the resulting water solution. The beans were then re-introduced to the caffeine-free solution in order to absorb some of the flavor they had lost. Solvents used included benzene, chloroform, and trichloroethylene, all of which were later found to have toxic effects. In the 1970s, dichloromethane came into use to replace the earlier solvents before it too was deemed possibly carcinogenic.

In response to these concerns about solvents, some coffee companies began to run the water solution through charcoal filters as a means of removing the caffeine. The so-called Swiss Water Process, developed in Switzerland in the 1930s, goes one step further. After a batch of coffee beans has been steeped in hot water, that water is filtered (the resulting solution is referred to as “flavor-charged”), and then is used to soak the next batch of beans to be processed. In this way, the beans lose caffeine as they soak, but lose less of their flavor.

Yet another method that aims to safely remove caffeine from coffee beans involves a fascinating chemical process. The solvent used in this method is neither water nor one of the earlier toxic solvents. Instead, caffeine in the coffee beans is dissolved by means of carbon dioxide. In order to accomplish this, the carbon dioxide must become a supercritical fluid, created when it is compressed and heated to the point that it has the same density in liquid and gaseous forms. As this supercritical CO2 is passed through the beans, it can penetrate them because of its gaseous properties, and yet is able to dissolve the caffeine they contain because of its liquid properties.

Hold the Caffeine
All these decaffeination methods are useful in extracting the caffeine from beans that already contain it, but how much more efficient would it be if the beans themselves contained less caffeine in their natural state? In 2004, Brazilian scientists identified three coffee plants from Ethiopia that contain almost no caffeine; these plants seemingly lack an enzyme necessary to caffeine production. If these plants can be crossed with commercial strains of coffee plants, we may one day see more coffee on the market that is naturally low in caffeine.

With these advances, and the current methods of decaffeination, decaf junkies are sure to be able to get their fix of coffee that not only tastes great, but won’t keep them up half the night. As for me, I do want to stay up half the night, so I’ll stick to my full-strength brew. —Morgen Jahnke

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More Information about Coffee Decaffeination Processes…

Thanks to reader Eric Y. for suggesting today’s topic!

Currently there is only one official Swiss Water Process plant in operation in the world, and it is located near Vancouver, in British Columbia, Canada. For much more about the history of the company, check out their Web site.

Fred Senese helpfully explains the chemistry behind decaffeination processes on General Chemistry Online!.

News articles relating to the discovery of the low-caffeine coffee plants from Ethiopia ran in the Guardian Unlimited and New Scientist.

Other helpful sites with information about decaffeination processes include Ask Yahoo, Go Ask Alice!, and the Wikipedia.

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