May 2007


A few months ago, while doodling some blog posts here and there, I was at Terry Hughes’ mondosapore and Gabrio Tosti happened to mention in a response to something an strudel_01.jpgunusual strudel from the northeast corners of Italy that he made sound like manna from heaven. “Hey,” I joked, “bring some of that back some time.”

So two weeks ago, I received an email message from Gabrio, who owns the Italian wine store De Vino on Clinton Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, that said something like, “Your strudel is on the way.”

Two days later arrived by UPS a package about the size of a shoebox, neatly and tightly wrapped. The handsome wood container, pictured below, held a strudel from Fior di Mela — “Flower of the Apple.” I am, apparently, the only person in America who has had this strudel, at least on this side of the Atlantic, because it is available only in Italy and only by mail-order. Every red-blooded man, woman and child should wish otherwise, because a strudel from Fior di Mela is a wonderful thing, chock-full of apples, sultanas and pine nuts scented with cinnamon and wrapped in a rich, buttery crust that’s almost cake-like in consistency.

Fior di Mela — the website is fiordimela.it — was founded in 2005 by Federico Corrà in the Val di Non in Trentino, a region in northeastern Italy known primarily for white wines. Though strudel may seem a foreign concept to the Italian sensibility, trained on such creamy or custardy desserts as tiramisu, zabaglione and panna cotta, don’t forget that until the end of World War I, this region of Italy was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire; the Val di Non — which the Google translator waggishly renders as “go them not” — is only 100 miles from the Austrian border.

Each strudel from Fior di Mela — there are five versions — is made to order by hand by Ettore, who has been working in the box2_01.jpgstrudel tradition for 35 years, and shipped on demand; they are not available in stores or restaurants. The apples, Corrà told me in an email message, are the secret of the strudel’s goodness, though it seemed to me that everything about my strudel was filled with goodness. They’re Golden Delicious apples, the only variety in Italy according the status of Denominazione d’Origine Protetta. Curiously, the cultivars for these apples are from Virginia, so Fior di Mela has indelible roots in the United States.

Corrà would like to bring Fior di Mela this country, but supplying the consumer trough of American culture requires more than one artisan turning out handmade strudels on demand, so we’ll have to see how that goes. In the meanwhile, travelers to Italy, and especially to Trentino, should look up Fior di Mela, a small and exclusive operation with large aspirations.

No one would deny that Ed Sbragia is one of California’s great winemakers. As if creating the justly well-regarded Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and the Beringer Bancroft Ranch Howell Mountain Merlot were not enough, Sbragia has overseen the sbragia-img1.jpg production of myriad consistently well-made wines for Beringer under many designations and at various price levels.

Most people would deny that Ed Wood (1924-1978) was a great film director; in fact, because of movies like Plan B from 200px-edwood1.jpg Outer Space, Glen or Glenda and Bride of the Monsters, the title typically given to Ed Wood is, “the world’s worst film director.”

So what’s the connection between the talented winemaker and the pathetic auteur? They share a tendency for flamboyance, even outrageousness. Ed Wood’s films are noted for their hot-house over-the-top qualities. Taste one of Sbragia’s Private Reserve Chardonnays — “Chardonnay is one of those varietals that allows me to push the envelope,” he says — and you might agree that as far as oak is concerned, Ed Sbragia can be the Ed Wood of wood.

Sbragia came to Beringer in 1976, serving under the legendary Myron Nightingale. When Nightingale retired in 1984, Sbragia was named Beringer’s chief winemaker. Laurie Hook arrived at Beringer in 1984 as enologist and became Sbragia’s assistant in 1997. She and Sbragia have worked closely together, and when Sbragia was named winemaster in 2000, Hook became chief winemaker. They continue to work together on almost all of the Beringer wines.

I will say frankly that I have quarreled in print over the years with Sbragia’s philosophy of chardonnay grapes and oak treatment, my feeling being that Sbragia, whose use of oak with red wines tends to be quite deft, pushes the oak and barrel treatment too hard in his chardonnays, especially the Private Reserve Chardonnay and the Sbragia “Limited Release” Chardonnay. I have often thought that those two wines epitomized exactly what I don’t like about California chardonnay, that is, full-throttle ripeness and spiciness and tropical character and the panoply of “dessert” effects like creme brulee, brown sugar, caramelized pineapple, coconut cream pie and so on. Yuck and shiver.

So I was intrigued to receive samples of four of the Beringer chardonnays from 2005: the “regular” Napa Valley bottling; the Stanly Ranch Vineyard bottling, the Private Reserve and the Sbragia “Limited Release.” In this quartet, I would be able to trace Sbragia’s ideas about chardonnay and his continuing influence at Beringer. The surprise, as it turned out, was that however brash and flamboyant the Private Reserve and Sbragia “Limited Release” chardonnays were — and lovers of discreet, minerally Chablis would find them odd — they never seemed out of balance or overdone. One would not mistake them for originating anywhere but 78084_w110.jpgCalifornia, but they certainly embody the Golden State’s sense of youthful vigor, experimentation and “can-do” spirit.

First, the Beringer Chardonnay 2005, Napa Valley, is a wine you could sell the hell out of in restaurants at $8 a glass. This is very pretty, fresh and clean, bursting with spiced grapefruit and pineapple scents and flavors with a touch of mango. The oak is there, and it’s a bit creamy, but the wine is crisp and lively, with fine acid and a tide of minerals to keep the structure essential and pointed. My rating is Very Good+, and at $16 a bottle, the wine represents Good Value.

For four more dollars, you can get the Beringer Stanly Ranch Vineyard Chardonnay 2005, Napa Valley, a wine of lovely breadth and ber_81659.jpg depth, balance and integration. Its shining purity and intensity are supported and supplemented by spicy oak, scintillating acid and a pervasive mineral element that treat the chardonnay grape with respect, so that ripe and moderately lush grapefruit-pineapple flavors (with a touch of orange rind on the finish) are neither too creamy nor tropical in nature. The wine does turn a bit “blond” with oak and a touch austere in its final moments, though this aspect doesn’t detract a whit. It’s a well-made example of the combination of power and elegance in chardonnay and My Favorite of this quartet. About $20. Excellent.

Not surprisingly, with the Beringer Private Reserve Chardonnay 2005, Sbragia and Hook begin to pull out the stops. The juice ferments in French oak barrels, 75 percent new, goes through malolactic fermentation and ages 11 months in barrel, with the lees — the residue of spent yeast cells — stirred once a week. Lees-stirring, called batonnage in French, may contribute to the density of a wine’s texture, making it feel heavier in the mouth, and indeed, this Private Reserve Chardonnay 2005 is thick, dense and chewy, almost powdery in feeling, close to viscous. Flavors of roasted pineapple and grapefruit are permeated by buttered toast and caramel, tangerine and baking spice. The wine is not just rich; it’s super-ripe, extravagantly rich, and you feel the oak in every molecule, yet it’s blessed (just barely) with the acid and mineral qualities to keep it balanced. Almost reluctantly, I’ll give this an Excellent rating. About $35.

As I expected, the Beringer Sbragia Limited-Released Chardonnay 2005 was the most extravagant, the most flamboyant of these chardonnays, the one that took the most risks of winemaker manipulation away from the purity and intensity of the grapes, yet ber_90357_d.jpglike many a thrill — filching a packet of Post-It notes from the company storeroom, watching Nicole Kidman in a really bad movie — there’s something titillatingly illicit and decadent about it. This is, if it were possible, even richer, more viscous, spicier, more tinged with toast and caramel and the blondness of oak that the Private Reserve Chardonnay ’05, the pineapple-grapefruit flavors — pineapple upside-down cake, roasted grapefruit — close to exotic. And yet, and it’s a big “and yet,” the wine is not tropical, it doesn’t taste like coconut meringue pie, it manages to stay balanced through the essential infusion of crisp acid and mineral qualities. Whew, it’s exhausting to taste and would be difficult to match with food, but, once again, a reluctant Excellent. Why reluctant? Because I think the sort of manipulation that Sbragia exercises in the winery, to which he cheerfully admits, runs counter to what the vineyard and the grape would dictate.

Coincidentally, I had a bottle of the Sbragia Family Vineyards Home Ranch Chardonnay 2005, from Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County. This is Sbragia’s own venture, a real family concern, separate from Beringer; his winemaking partner here is his son Adam.

Sbragia asserts that the wines from Sbragia Family Vineyards “are intensely personal, an expression not only of terroir but of my family’s winemaking heritage.” Be that as it may, I found this chardonnay dauntlessly over-the-top in every sense and an sbragiachard.jpgexpression not of terroir — all that seems to have been wrung out of it — but, first, of alcohol. The alcohol level for this wine is 15.6 percent, according to the information sheet, or 15.9 percent, according to the label. In either case, that much alcohol in a white table wine is ludicrous, resulting in a chardonnay that’s hot, harsh and strident. The wine is certainly flamboyantly ripe with pineapple-grapefruit flavors touched with macerated tangerine, pears and apricots, but its second expression is of oak; the wine is aggressively spicy, so toasty and caramelly that it tastes like toffee left too long in the pan. It is, in effect, a monster created in the laboratory, a fantasy power-trip of a chardonnay that Ed Wood would understand. The Wine Spectator rated this wine 92, but then those panelists, with their incurable California palates, love chardonnays that taste like the dessert trolley at a Continental restaurant.

Image of Ed Sbragia from beringer.com. Image of Ed Wood from imgsearch.com.

The Sierra Vista Unoaked Chardonnay 2006, El Dorado, a terrific summertime wine, offers so much personality and such lovely silkiness that you don’t miss the wood influence. It’s vibrantly fresh and clean, bursting with notes of green apple, lemon and lime zest and hints of jasmine and logo.gifhoneysuckle. In the mouth the mineral element comes forward in impressions of limestone and wet gravel; flavors of lemon curd, lime and pineapple are couched in a seductive texture that comes close to being lush. Crisp acid keeps everything honest and forthright.
We drank this with seared swordfish served in a white bean ragu with green beans, roasted red pepper and rosemary. You can’t beat the price, about $14. I rate the wine Very Good+, though you may call it irresistible.

What does this remind you of: Crushed raspberries, spiced melon and orange pekoe tea; dried Provençal herbs and damp stones; myrose2_011.jpgscintillating acid, refreshing liveliness and a hint of dry but friendly tannins?

Yes, I just had my first rosé of the summer. Actually, I’ve tasted a few others, but they were from 2005. This one, from Bieler Père et Fils, Côteaux d’Aix-en-Provence, is from 2006, so it’s scarcely eight months old. It’s made from 70 percent syrah grapes and 30 percent grenache, and as you can tell from the description above, it’s absolutely delightful. The wine is imported by USA Wine West in Sausalito, and should retail for about $10.

We’ll be drinking lots of rosé wines this summer, many from France, where they’re not just from the South nowadays — they’re made in Burgundy and Bordeaux too — but also from Italy and Spain, South Africa, Argentina and California. The secret of a great rosé is that it combines the refreshing, thirst-quenching qualities of a light, crisp white wine with the red fruit, spice and supple body of a red wine. They can be made from any grape that produces red wine — merlot, zinfandel, pinot noir, grenache and syrah, nebbiolo, sangiovese — as long as the grape skins are quickly separated from the juice, a process that lends these wines their ravishing summery colors of muted onion-skin, pale copper-tangerine, sunset-salmon, tarnished peach or even as dark as myrose_01.jpgcranberry-magenta, but not ruby, that’s too intensely red. And remember that, despite the implication of their floral name, rosé wines are not sweet; the best are bone-dry to the point of bracing, chalky austerity.

Served these wines chilled, though not ice-cold, as an aperitif or with ham or cured meats or with such backyard fare as fried chicken, potato salad and deviled eggs. Rosés are the perfect wines for those seductive “P” words of warm weather: Porch, patio, pool and picnic.

Ahhhh, I think it’s going to be a good summer.

I don’t know why I decided to focus on wines made from merlot grapes. I suppose after getting some review samples it seemed like a good idea to visit a few retail stores and lay in more examples for reasons of comparison, and before I knew it, I had 20 of them. Typical of the way I manage life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, most of them were pretty expensive, too, top-of-the-line merlotgrapes2_01.jpgsort of thing, don’t you know. Not the top top of the line necessarily, not like Chateau Petrus from Bordeaux’s Pomerol region or Ausone or Cheval Blanc from St.-Emilion (Petrus these days can easily be $800 or $900 a bottle), but I actually found myself in a store with a bottle of Masetto 2002 in my hand — that’s the best merlot wine made in Italy, a legendary wine and so on — I even actually started walking toward the check-out counter, but my cooler head prevailed and I said to myself, “No, I cannot, I will not pay $235 for a bottle of wine, even if I can deduct it next year.”

Let’s be honest: Merlot is not a grape easily made into a cheap wine; it turns bland and generic and sweetish-ripe without blinking an eye. Beginning in the early 1990s, though, producers throughout the West Coast of the United States and in the south of France and in Chile and Australia tried their damnedest to turn out every kind of merlot they could based on the fact that American consumers wanted a no-challenges red so they could slurp up the two glasses of red wine a day as seemingly required by “The French Paradox.” That notion was introduced to this county by “60 Minutes” in 1991. Then merlot, which for a decade and a few years more proliferated far beyond its capabilities to be all grapes to all people, took a beating from the (only so-so) movie, Sideways. which leveled the playing field (or devastated it) for merlot while raising pinot noir to apotheosis.

Merlot’s natural home is Bordeaux, though the grape is regarded differently in such cabernet sauvignon-dominated Left Bank communes as Pauillac, St. Estephe, St. Julien and Margaux and in the merlot-dominated Right Bank communes of Pomerol and St.Emilion. On the Left bank, where the soil is primarily gravel in nature and beneficial to cabernet sauvignon, merlot is relegated to a secondary blending role, making up as little as 10 percent to up to 35 or 40 percent of the wine. On the Right Bank, the clay-based soil is better for merlot vines, with merlot grapes composing anywhere from about 60 to 95 percent of the blend with, usually, cabernet franc (not cabernet sauvignon) making up the rest. Of the Pomerol wines listed below, for example, Gazin typically contains 90 percent merlot, 7 percent cabernet sauvignon and 3 percent cabernet franc, while the proportion at Latour a Pomerol is likely to be 90 percent merlot and 10 percent cabernet franc.

California, of course, does whatever the hell it wants, and while some of these wines, Grgich Hills for one, are made of 100 percent merlot grapes, others include touches of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc or even petit verdot grapes in the blend.

Looking at the phalanx of wines I had acquired, I finally decided to share the wealth and invite a few people over for a blind tasting, that is, the participants knew that we were tasting merlot wines, but the bottles were hidden so they didn’t know what the regions, producers or vintages were. Around the table were someone from the wholesale world, someone from retail, a wine blogger (Ben Carter of Benito’s Wine Reviews: wines-by-benito.com), me and my wife.

Here are the wines we tasted, in order of the panel’s preference. I include the composite score followed by my personal score. You will quickly notice that the California examples, and the one from Washington state, achieved more impressive scores than the French models. The reason is pretty clear from looking at my tasting notes. The wines from Pomerol and St. Emilion were not only rigorously structured but ferociously tannic; the fabled Bordeaux balance between elegance and power had not yet made itself manifest. The West Coast wines, on the other hand, while exhibiting plenty of structure and tannin were more immediately sensuous and pleasurable. It’s the old Euro/California style debate in a nutshell.

We rated the wines on a 20-point scale, and you will notice that in most cases my score is higher than the evident scores of the rest of the panel. I’m such a damned pushover.

1. Lewis Cellars Merlot 2000, Napa Valley, California. About $55. Score: 18. My score: 18. This was clearly the favorite wine of the tasting.

2. L’Ecole No. 41 Merlot 2002, Columbia Valley, Washington. About $35. Score: 17. My score: 14. secondmerlot_01.jpg

3. Turnbull Cellars Merlot 2004, Oakville District, Napa Valley, California. About $35. Score: 16.6. My score: 19. Yep, this just knocked me out.

4. (Tie) Rosenblum Cellars Mountain Selection Merlot 2001, Napa Valley, California. About $30; I bought this on sale for $20. Score: 16.2. My score: 18.

4. (Tie) Ferrari-Carano Merlot 2004, Sonoma County, California. About $28. Score: 16.2. My score: 17.

5. Chateau St. Jean Merlot 2004, Sonoma County, California. About $25. Score: 15.6. My score: 17.

6 (Tie) Chateau Ferrand Lartigue 2000, St.-Emilion Grand Cru, Bordeaux. About $70. Score: 15.4. My score: 18.

6. (Tie) Pahlmeyer Merlot 2003, Napa Valley, California. About $115. Score: 15.4. My score: 16.

7. Sbragia Family Vineyards Home Ranch Merlot 2004, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County, California. About $25. Score: 15. My score: 17.

8. (Tie) Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot 2004, Napa Valley, California. About $64. Score: 14.8. My score: 18. Obviously another knockout for me, but my colleagues certainly didn’t agree.

8. (Tie) Plumpjack Merlot 2004, Napa Valley, California. About $58. Score: 14.8. My score: 14.

9. Nickel & Nickel Suscol Ranch Merlot 2004, Napa Valley, California. About $45. Score: 14.2. My score: 14.

10. Chateau La Fleur-Petrus 2000, Pomerol, Bordeaux. About $115. Score: 13.6. My score: 14.

11. Chateau Latour a Pomerol 2001, Pomerol, Bordeaux. About $75. Score: 13.2. My score: 16.

12. Chateau Gazin 2001, Pomerol, Bordeaux. About $90. Score: 12.8. My score: 15.

13. Matanzas Creek Merlot 2003, Bennett Valley, Sonoma County, California. About $30. Score 12.6. My score: 16.

14. Chateau Belair 2001, St.-Emilion Premier Grand Cru Classe. About $68. Score 12.2. My score: 13.

15. Grgich Hills Merlot 2003, Napa Valley, California. About $38. Score: 11.8. My score: 16. Once again the opinions and scores of my colleagues and I vary radically.

16. Blason de L’Evangile 2002, Pomerol, Bordeaux. About $40. This is the “second” wine of Chateau L’Evangile. Score: 11.2. My score: 15.

17. Lassegue 2003, St.-Emilion Grand Cru, Bordeaux. About $50. Score 10.8. My score: 12.

The image of merlot grapes is from fieldinghills.com.

You’re saying, “FK, what’s the big deal about another pizza? You make a pizza about every Saturday of your life. Pizza, two movies and so on.”

Well, several things happened with this pizza that were interesting. pizza4_01.jpg

First, I took a minimalist approach to the ingredients. Often I can be an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink kind of cook, and I’ll pile on the toppings for a pizza, but under the inspiration of LL, who cooks in a much more spare fashion, I tried to keep the ingredients on this pizza to four or five. My model was a chicken soup she made recently.

We had been back from Mexico for a few days and I was feeling a bit puny, and LL said, “What you need is some chicken soup.” Now I make chicken soup pretty frequently, especially in the fall and winter, and besides chicken broth and chicken I tend to fill the soup with green beans, zucchini, green onions, celery and carrots, maybe some diced potatoes or turnips, some kind of pasta or noodles, maybe some chopped chard and usually a big can of diced tomatoes. In other words, it’s vegetable soup with chicken.

The soup LL made had these ingredients: chicken and chicken broth, of course; a little celery, sliced very thin; a shallot, sliced very thin; a handful of linguine; some spinach that she put in the bowl and ladled the soup over. That was it. It was fabulous. Pure. Intense. Rather Asian.

So, under this inspiration — less is more — the pizza pictured here has heirloom tomatoes (yellow, red and slightly purple), roasted cipollini onions, pancetta, heaps of basil and a few black olives. A little grated Parmesan cheese. For me, that’s really minimal.

The other interesting aspect of this pizza was that I made a mistake with the crust. For years I have used Gold Medal Bread Flour to make pizza dough, but on this Saturday morning, I reached in the drawer and hauled out a bag of flour and started making the dough, and then realized that I had begun with a cup of regular flour, not bread flour. Now this was White Lily, the flour preferred by many Southern cooks for biscuits, but not what I use for pizza dough. “Rats,” I said, thinking how I didn’t want to start the process all over again, so I just got out the bread flour and continued. So this pizza dough was about half bread flour and half regular flour.

The result was a crust that was as thin as usual but a little denser, a little chewier. The next time I made a pizza, I used about half a cup of the White Lily, and we liked the crust so much that I think I’ll continue to do that.

For wine that movie and pizza night, I opened a bottle of Plungerhead Old Vines Zinfandel 2005, Lodi, a label from The Other Guys division of Don Sebastiani and Sons. Now if I remember correctly, the 11th Commandment (or maybe the 12th) goes, “Thou shalt not name a wine Plungerhead.” I mean, really, the whole cute-daffy wine name thing (including cute-daffy back-stories to justify the cute-daffy name) is getting out of hand, and Don & Sons is responsible for many of them: Screw Kappa Napa, Mia’s Playground, Smoking Loon, Hey Mambo, Gino Da Pinot. Like, ha-ha, dude. Though I concede that these are primarily well-made and tasty wines, and none is expensive.

That was the case with the Plungerhead we had with this pizza on movie night. At about $14, this zinfandel delivered a whole personality-packed wallop of plummy-jammy blackberry, blueberry and boysenberry flavors permeated by smoke and spice, by lavender and violets and minerals, by earthy touches of briers and brambles and black pepper. I know that my friends with plunger_01.jpgEuro-centric palates are saying, “Gack, FK, that sounds awful!” (Are you reading this, TH?) But they must remember that we’re talking about a California red wine here and moreover a California zinfandel made in the good old-fashioned slightly (but not too much) over-the-top style. Sometimes exuberance trumps elegance, and that’s OK. Anyway, the Plungerhead Lodi ’05 rates a solid Very Good with a Good Value addendum.

The Plungerhead line-up includes two other zinfandel wines.

Plungerhead Old Vines Zinfandel 2004, Sierra Foothills, turbos the alcohol to 15.3 percent, and you definitely feel that element in the wine’s funky super-ripeness. It’s very deep, very dark, very spicy and boldly, profoundly tannic, and its vibrant blackberry, boysenberry and blueberry flavors are roasted and smoky and imbued with hints of cloves and sassafras. This is a zinfandel that takes balance way out to the edge and then doesn’t quite know what to do with itself. 618 cases. About $16, and I’ll give it Very Good+.

Third in this trio is Plungerhead Old Vines Zinfandel 2005, Dry Creek Valley, a classically proportioned zinfandel from Sonoma County’s best region for the grape. This is clean and fresh yet quite roasted, smoky and meaty, like a grilled steak. The flavors are blackberry and blueberry but without the over-ripeness of sweetish boysenberry that often comes into high alcohol zinfandels; this is “only” 14.9 percent. The whole shelf of dried baking spices is here, as well as the sharp pungency of freshly ground black pepper, all of this bolstered by a texture so supple and thick that it’s almost viscous and might be overwhelming if it weren’t for the serious tannins, dense and chewy, that linger through the finish. Excellent. About $19.

Plungerhead wines are closed with the bizarre Zork, a plastic stopper that’s opened by loosening and unwinding a plastic strip that curls several times around the bottle neck.

On April 4, I posted on BTYH a piece about the purity of the martini titled “Pas de Martini,” complaining that just about anything that anyone wants to call a martini is accepted as such nowadays and that, now and forever, the only true martini is made with explodingmartini_01.jpggin and a splash of vermouth. In other words: Not Vodka!

On May 1, Eric Asimov, at The New York Times, picked up that post for The Pour, his wine and spirits blog (http://thepour.blogs.nytimes.com), and provided a link — thanks, Eric! — and from there it got picked up all over the blogosphere, which is one of the nice things that can happen on the Internet. I was particularly interested by the reaction on the Coffee Rhetoric blog (“Dark, Robust, and Highly Caffeinated”), written by coffey0072, a young woman evidently deeply immersed in the life of the body and its senses. On a post entered on May 2, coffey0072, besides providing a link to my martini rant — thanks, coffey0072! — bemoaned the fact that martinis, in the classic (and only acceptable) sense, have nothing to do with vodka, since she had been drinking vodka martinis (and thinking herself pretty damned sophisticated) for about as long as she could lift a cocktail glass. Crushed now that she had been deluded all these years, coffey0072 decided that she would have to “re-drink” all those martinis in order to correct her errors, an intriguing concept that could be applied to dating, children, jobs and just about anything else in our lives.

The young responders to coffey0072′s post — they write under names like Bloody Whore, Pookie Sixx and Jessucka, and I assume that none of them is my daughter — refuse to feel abashed. “Who gives a flick?” asks Cat about the supposed place of gin in the martini hierarchy, and as for Amadeo, he gets right to the bone-baring point: “Piss on critics.”

Well, as I’m brushing the warm liquid from my elitist shoulders, let me say that I found these reactions vivid, refreshing, rather cute and fairly naive. Oh sure, I’m a condescending snob — “LOL” as they all say, “:-)” — everybody knows that, but I also hope that Cat and Pookie Sixx and Jessucka will continue to belly up to the bar and drink anything in any combination that their hearts desire. I mean, if young people come to me and say, “Help, how do I learn what wine to drink with what food? It’s all so confusing,” I tend to reply, “Yes, there are general guidelines (not rules) to give you aid and comfort but mainly you need to experiment with drinking different wines with different dishes and see what you like best.” That’s how we learn.

And maybe someday, just maybe, after all the chocolate martinis and apple martinis and lychee and melon martinis and ginseng martinis and, hell, I dunno, black-strap molasses martinis, one of these young people will clamber to a bar-stool after a hard day’s work and say to the bartender, “Gimme a, uh, well, you know, gimme one of those real martinis, you know? Gin and vermouth and an olive?”

And the bartender will carefully craft — stirred, not shaken — such a concoction and pour it into an elegant cocktail glass (a triumph of economical design) and set it, sleek, gleaming, transparent, on the bar on a pristine white square of napkin, and the young person will sip it tentatively, exploringly, and discover how cold it is, how openly astringent yet supple, how complicated in its clean, slightly sharp medicinal citrus, cedary and floral hints but with all edges buffed by the slightly bland herbal nature of the vermouth, and how the faint tang of olive, earthy and comfortable, floats on the surface, and the young person will experience an epiphany and stand up and declare, “Now I have put behind me childish things.”

And we’ll get together and re-drink all those bad old martinis to correct the errors of the past. As long as I don’t have to call her Jessucka.

Image of the exploding martini from trengovestudio.com.

We didn’t have nearly enough time in Puebla to explore the local cuisine, especially the variations on mole that we knew we would find. I mean, there was sight-seeing to do, and museums to go to and archaeological sites, and LL’s conference to attend, but eat we must. What we found was that 1) basically the food in Puebla (this is all in the historic district) rated very good to excellent; 2) it was incredibly cheap; and 3) hole-in-the-wall places could be more authentic and reliable than highly touted restaurants.

First, a few words about mole.

We have been misguided, we gringos north of the border, into thinking that mole is a chocolate sauce served with chicken. In reality, chocolate has little to do with mole and is found in few versions; Rick Bayless, for example, in Mexico One Plate at A Time (Scribner, 2000), uses one ounce of chocolate in a recipe that makes seven cups of mole. It’s there to lend depth and intensity, not flavor.

A great mole — and it’s my feeling that mole owns a rightful place in the pantheon of great sauces — is a marvel of depth and complexity and barely pent yet never overwhelming spicy heat. To achieve this result, most moles incorporate three or four kinds realmole_01.jpgof dried chilies, as well as tomatillos, ground peanuts or almonds, sesame seeds, raisins or plantains, garlic, cinnamon and cloves. Preparation and cooking can take, according to some sources, two or three days. There are no shortcuts

The Nahuatl word, molli (or mulli) simply means “mixture” or “combination” and later came to mean a sauce, as in guacamole, a sauce of avocado. The concept of mole precedes Spanish colonial times, but its first official recorded use was in the 18th century in a meal that Sor Andrea de la Asuncion, a nun of the Convent of Santa Rosa in Puebla, concocted, on the order of the bishop, to impress the Spanish viceroy. Her combination of traditional native ingredients, ground together and long cooked, and spooned over turkey, created the model for mole poblano and its variations.

Many Mexican chefs and cookbook writers regard mole not as a sauce but as a dish, and we noticed in the three restaurants poblana_01.jpgwhere we ate that meat — mole is typically served with chicken or turkey and sometimes pork — plays a minor role. The emphasis is on the mole. This was apparent at La Poblana — “the girl from Puebla” — a tiny restaurant not far from our hotel (the Camino Real), where we stopped for lunch. As far as we could figure out, two sisters were the cooks and a daughter of one of them served as waiter, or perhaps they were three generations. The cooking took place in a back room, while the giant sandwiches called cemitas were prepared at a counter in the small dining room. We ordered the “house” cemita and a plate of enchiladas with mole poblano.

The cemita was stupendous. It consisted of a large roll, from which the white bread part is torn away, filled with sliced, slow-roasted pork, avocado, tomato, quesa fresca and another kind of pale white cheese in strings, all of this topped with a dark brown sauce that gently smoldered with spicy heat.

The surprise was the enchiladas; we couldn’t see them. The plate held what seemed to be a pool of glossy, dark brown sauce sprinkled with sesame seeds and a few sliced white onions. The three enchiladas, it turns out, were simply corn tortillas folded over a few bits of chicken; they were nothing like the enchiladas we get in Mexican restaurants in the United States, not even in family-owned, home-style poblana2_01.jpgMexican restaurants, and it was clear that they served as a vehicle for the presentation of the mole, not the other way around. The boldly aromatic concoction seemed composed, once tasted, of seamless layers of heat and spice, the forceful flavors balancing a hint of sweet fruitiness, the sweet spices balancing the intensity of the inextricably mingled chilies, the nuttiness inseparable from the mole’s roasted, coffee-like character. It was wonderful. And the cost of this meal — cemita, mole enchiladas and two bottle of water — was under $10.

We chose to eat at Meson Sacristia de la Compania because it came highly recommended on a list of restaurants passed out by the organizers of the conference we were attending and because it was written up in 2005 in The New York Times in an article about Puebla. The writer called the restaurant’s mole “the best multidimensional mole poblana in the city.” Alas, success seems to have spoiled Meson Sacristia. The famed mole poblano tasted like — chocolate sauce. In fact on the menu, just so North Americans get the idea — and the restaurant was packed with North Americans — mole poblana is described as “chocolate chili sauce.” No, sorry, we can get “chocolate chili sauce” in the States.

The restaurant occupies several connected rooms of the ground floor of a small hotel, painted bright blue with pink trim, at the end of the Callejon de los Sapos (“Alley of the Frogs”). sacristia2_012.jpg It’s crammed with old furniture, possibly real antiques, and art of all sorts, and, on the Saturday night we were there, with patrons; it’s a homey place but uncomfortably crowded. We decided to order the whole range — appetizers, soups, entrees and a dessert — assuming that this would be our best dining experience in Puebla. Indeed, the two soups we had were exemplary — I loved the idea of taking a charred chipotle chili and crumbling it into the soup — as was the flan at the end of the meal. Zucchini blossom mantel_01.jpgquesadillas, however, definitely did not bloom. LL’s manchamantel (“tablecloth-stainer”), a tropical mole or, as the menu stated, “a sweet/salty stew” of pork, ancho chilies, plantains, sweet potatoes and pineapple, was more interesting than memorable. The blue objects on the plate, the manager told us, were “like potatoes but not potatoes.” I chose the restaurant’s selection of four moles, each presented in a small bowl. The best (at the top in the accompanying image) was the exceptionally fresh and lively green mole based on tomatillos and jalapenos. I also like the milder mole amarillo or yellow mole. But the disappointment, as I mentioned, was the mole poblana, which was so chocolate-y that it was unpalatable. It seemed to have abandoned the principle of fourmole_01.jpgintensity, depth and complexity required of a great mole for the sake of pleasing non-Mexican diners. The cost of this expansive meal, including wine and bottled water, was about $70.

The next afternoon we asked one of the owners of an antique store (he spoke excellent English) where he would eat mole, and we mentioned that we had dined at Meson Sacristia de la Compania the previous night. “Oh, no,” he said, dismissing it with a wave of his hand and a roll of his eyes, “that place has really declined. It’s now only for tourists. We just go around the corner to Fonda La Mexicana. It’s excellent, and nobody knows about it.”

Fonda La Mexicana was indeed just around the corner and was, as the gentleman said, excellent and also immensely appealing. The restaurant is a model of a clean, well-lighted place, a medium size space, open to the street, with polished wood and tiles and plaster and dignified but helpful waiters wearing long white aprons. LL started with a delicious zucchini soup in a milky broth; I ordered a bowl of guacamole. The mole poblano, one with chicken, the other with pork, was as dark and glossy, as vivid and vibrant as it should have been, though a touch fruitier and less coffee-ish than the mole we had at La Poblana, a fact that’s testimony to the differences that must characterize mole from restaurant to restaurant and from household to household. The tab here, including a bottle of wine, was about $25.

Now, a word or two about wine in Puebla. I was, perhaps naively, disappointed that we saw no Mexican wine, despite the fact that the Mexican wine industry, located mainly in Baja California, grew tremendously in the 1990s and into the 21st century. No, mainly what we saw was beer, though our hotel cafe and bar offered wine and so did several of the restaurants where we ate. Inevitably, I suppose, the wine was Spanish and Chilean. At the hotel we drank quite a bit of the Marques de Carceres Blanco by the glass. At Meson Sacristia de la Compania, a bottle of Torres Gran Sangre ded Toro red wine cost about $5; at Fonda La Mexicana, a bottle of the Concha y Toro Casillero de Diablo Cabernet Sauvignon was even less.

The image of mole cooking in a pot by J. Brophy for worldonaplate.org, to accompany an excellent post on mole by Chris Carter; go to http://www.worldonaplate.org/world_on_a_plate/2005/11/index.html