Posted by: oysterculture | June 12, 2009

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

Hi Everyone,

Oyster Food and Culture has a new home.  It is now at  

I am still tweaking the blog, but I discovered I could continue to tweak it until I am fifty and would still not be happy.  Most everything transfered over without a hitch, however not all of the comments from the last post on Fortified Wines show up.  I can see them on the admin side, but not on the public side.  Oh well, part of the tweaking process. 

Please stop by and let me know what you think.


For everyone who was kind enough to link to this site, please note the new address.

Posted by: oysterculture | June 8, 2009

Fortified Wines

photo from

photo from

Like much of life, fortified wines were born from necessity.  In this case, to preserve European wines on long trade voyages in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Brandy was added either before or during the fermentation process to stabilize the wines, and improve their shelf life.  As might be imagined, traditional wines did not store well in the wildly fluctuating temperature and motion they were subjected to on the voyages.  Once fortified, they are more stable than traditional wines and have a much longer shelf life once open.

While the reasons no longer apply, the methods used today are nearly identical to those of old, so the fortified wines of today bear a close resemblance to their brethren of old.  The final product typically contains between 14% to 21% alcohol, and are more stable than ordinary table wines.  If brandy, or the alcohol of choice is added after the fermentation process, the result is a dry wine.  If the alcohol is added before fermentation, the result is a sweet wine with a high sugar content, with port being a classic example and consequently categorized as a dessert wine.  Wines are found to be drier when the brandy is added after the fermentation process such as dry Vermouth.  Depending on how the wine makers approach the process the results can vary greatly from the mellowness of a cream sherry to the pucker producing tartness of an extra-dry vermouth.

Why the difference in sweetness?  

When the alcohol is added before the fermentation process is complete, it kills off the yeast and the sugar that would have been consumed in the process remains.  Typically the yeast survives in a mixture where the alcohol is less than 16.4%.    As these wines have more sugar than usual, they are sweeter than their non-fortified cousins.  So a general rule of thumb, is that the earlier the alcohol is added to the fermentation process the sweeter the fortified wine.

What’s the difference between fortified wine and spirits?  

Fortified wine is distinguished from spirits made from wine in that spirits are produced by means of distillation (brandy being a good example), while fortified wine is simply wine to which the spirits have been added.

Why are certain spirits or alcohol used and when?

The choice of spirits plays an important part in the final product of the fortified wine, as it has influence on the organoleptic qualities of wine. The alcohol used for fortification is produced with a variety of methods and substances – and it can be obtained by the distillation of grape’s pomace, wine, sugar beet, sugar cane, or agricultural byproducts. In some cases are also used wine brandies aged in cask, such as Cognac.  The selection is important, because the wine maker does not want the characteristics of the spirits to overshadow those of the wine.  So frequently neutral alcohol, lacking organoleptic properties are selected.  They would not be desirable on their own for consumption, but serve to showcase the wine’s attributes through the fortification process.    Also, depending on the desired final product, certain attributes need to be played up.  Higher quality alcohol is generally used in fortified wines destined for a long period of aging in bottle; so for fortified wines intended for early consumption, the quality of alcohol is generally lower.  


photo from

photo from


Continuous versus discontinuous distillation of spirits

The alcohol mainly used in fortified wines is produced with the continuous distillation method, the same system used, for example, for the production of many brandies. The most neutral alcohols, poor in aromatic substances, are commonly used for the fortification of wines destined for early consumption, or in wines which must keep their primary aromatic characteristic, such as fortified wines produced with Muscat Blanc grapes. The alcohol produced with the method of discontinuous distillation – the same system used for the production of grappa – is rarely used in fortification because of its high quantity of aromatic substances which would greatly influence the aromas of wine.  The alcohol or the fortifying agent, have their own aromas and enrich the aromatic qualities of the base wine.  

What are some examples of fortified wines?

  • Madeira (Spain)
  • Marsala (Italy)
  • Moscato (Italy)
  • Port (Portugal)
  • Sherry (Spain)
  • Vermouth (Italy)

Italian Fortified Wines

Moscato and Marsala are examples of liquoroso, the Italian name for fortified wine: typically sweet, and with a high alcohol content, by the addition of brandy, or other grape alcohol (brandy being the most common).  The sweetness indicating that the grape alcohol is added before the fermentation.

Madeira wine

Madeira is a fortified wine from the Madeira Islands. The wine is produced in a variety of styles ranging from dry (consumed as an aperitif)  to sweet (commonly consumed with dessert).

Marsala wine

Marsala hails from Sicily, and is available as both a fortified and unfortified wine.  First produced in 1772, it served as a cheap substitute for sherry and port, and gets its name from the island’s port, Marsala.

Port wine

Port is a fortified wine from the Douro Valley of northern Portugal.  It is typically a sweet red wine, but also comes in dry, semi-dry and white varieties.   


photo from

photo from



Sherry is a fortified wine made from the white grapes grown near the town of Jerez, Spain. The word “sherry” is an anglicization of Jerez. In earlier times, sherry was known as sack (from the Spanish saca, meaning “a removal from the solera”).  After fermentation is complete, sherry is fortified with brandy. Because the fortification takes place after fermentation, most sherries are initially dry, with any sweetness being added later.  Most people do not understand the difference between sherry and port – this is it, the timing of when the alcohol is added to the fermentation process:  before for port, after for sherry.


Vermouth is a fortified wine flavoured with aromatic herbs and spices – the exact ingredients are a closely guarded secret, but some herbs may include cardamom, cinnamon, marjoram and chamomile.  Vermouth may be sweetened; however, unsweetened, or dry vermouth tends to be bitter.  Vermouth is credited to Antonio Benedetto Carpano who named his concoction “vermouth” because he was inspired by a German wine flavoured with wormwood, famously used in distilling absinthe.  The modern German word “Wermut” means both wormwood and vermouth.  

Vins doux naturels

Vins doux naturels are lightly fortified wines typically made from white Muscat grapes or red Grenache grapes in the south of France. The production of vins doux naturels was perfected in the 13th century and they are now common in the Languedoc-Rousillon of southwest France.  As the name suggests, Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, Muscat de Rivesaltes, and Muscat de Frontignan are all made from the white Muscat grape, whilst Banyuls and Maury are made from the red Grenache. Regardless of the grape, fermentation is stopped by adding up to 10% of a 190 proof grape spirits.

Fortified wines make great apperitifs and port in particular is famous for how well it pairs with blue cheese.  Of course, cooking with fortified wines offers a lot of variety and creativity, and about everyone has heard of chicken marsala.

Chicken Marsala

 Serves 4, recipe adopted from Tyler Florance


  • 4 skinless, boneless, chicken breasts (~ 1 ½ pounds)
  • Flour, for dredging
  • salt and black pepper
  • ¼ c extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 oz prosciutto, thinly sliced
  • 8 oz crimini or porcini mushrooms, stemmed and halved
  • ½ c sweet Marsala wine
  • ½ c chicken stock
  • 2 T unsalted butter
  • ¼ c chopped flat-leaf (Italian) parsley


Put the chicken breasts on a cutting board and lay a piece of plastic wrap over them; pound with a flat meat mallet, until they are about ¼” thick. Put some flour in a shallow platter and season with a fair amount of salt and pepper; mix well.

Heat the oil over medium-high flame in a large skillet. When the oil is hot, dredge both sides of the chicken in the seasoned flour, shaking off any excess. Slip the cutlets into the pan and fry for 5 minutes on each side until golden, turning once – do this in batches if the pieces don’t fit comfortably in the pan, and to control the temperature of the oil (adding too much chicken lowers the temperature of the oil). Remove the chicken to a large platter in a single layer to keep warm.

Lower the heat to medium and add the prosciutto to the drippings in the pan, saute for 1 minute.  Add the mushrooms and saute until they are nicely browned and their moisture has evaporated, about 5 minutes; season with salt and pepper.  Add the Marsala in the pan and boil down for a few seconds to cook out some of the alcohol. Add the chicken stock and simmer for a minute to reduce the sauce slightly.  Stir in the butter and return the chicken to the pan; simmer gently for 1 minute to heat the chicken through.  Season with salt and pepper and garnish with chopped parsley before serving.

Posted by: oysterculture | June 5, 2009

Mead: sweet, sweet nectar

photo from

photo from

Mead is a fermented beverage also know as “honey wine” because that is frequently made where grapes are not grown and has the simple ingredients of  water and yeast.  Although, mead is not technically a wine.  It has a long history and has been the stuff of legends, literally having been featured in Beowoulf.  Mead’s alcoholic content ranges from the equivalent of a mild ale to a strong wine. It may be still or flat, carbonated, or sparkling.  It runs the gamut from dry, semi-sweet, or sweet.  If you want to know what to look for when you sample mead, Michael Hall developed a treatise on mead tasting.

The diversity of this beverage is as endless as the possible combinations, depending on local traditions and recipes, it may be brewed with spices and fruits, or flavored with hops producing a bitter, beer-like flavor.  The type of honey also has a significant impact on the flavor and color of the final product.


photo from

photo from

Mead, while not necessarily a world traveler enjoys consumption and recognition on a global scale.  While its exact origins are unknown, its consumption has been documented in ancient times from Europe to Africa to Asia.  “It can be regarded as the ancestor of all fermented drinks,” Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat has observed, “antedating the cultivation of the soil.”  Claude Lévi-Strauss makes a case for the invention of mead as a marker of the passage “from nature to culture”. 

Archaeological evidence of mead production back to around 7000 BC, with pottery containing a mix of mead, rice and other fruits along with organic fermentation compounds in Northern China.

The first known description of mead is in the hymns of the Rigveda, a sacred books of the historical Vedic religion and (later) Hinduism dated around 1700–1100 BC. During the “Golden Age” of Ancient Greece, mead was the preferred drink.  Aristotle (384–322 BC) mentions mead in a few places including Meteorologica, while Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79) called mead “militites” in his tomb Naturalis Historia and differentiated wine sweetened with honey or “honey-wine” from mead.  Columella the Roman-Hispanic naturalist, gave a recipe for mead in De re rustica, about AD 60.  Around AD 550, the Cumbric bard, Taliesin wrote the Kanu y med or “Song of Mead.”  The legendary drinking, feasting and boasting of warriors in the mead hall is echoed in the mead hall Dyn Eidyn (modern day Edinburgh)proves to be a recurring theme.  In Russia, mead remained popular as medovukha and sbiten long after its decline in popularity in the West, amd was often mentioned in the works of 19th-century Russian writers, including Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.

Mead also has a romantic history to it, having lent itself to the word “honeymoon” as a tradition started to give newlywed couples a supply of mead to last them 31 one days, or one moon’s supply to allow them to relax. 

photo from

photo from

Mead has a wide swath of flavors, depending on the source of the honey, additives (also known as “adjuncts” or “gruit”), including fruit and spices, the yeast employed during fermentation, and aging procedure.  Some commercial producers market white wine and honey as mead, often spelling it “meade”, a variation on the Hypocras style. Blended varieties of mead may be known by either style they represent, there is no rule of thumb, for example, a mead made with cinnamon and apples may be referred to as either a cinnamon cyser or an apple metheglin.

Mulled mead is a popular drink around Christmas, when it is flavored with spices and sometimes fruits and warmed.  Traditionally, warming involved the plunging of a hot poker, but if you do not have one handy, the microwave or stovetop do nicely.

Mead variants

Braggot — AKA bracket or brackett. Originally brewed with honey and hops, later with honey and malt — may have hops added. 

Black mead — A name sometimes given to the blend of honey and blackcurrants.

Capsicumel  – A mead flavored with chile peppers.

Cyser — A blend of honey and apple juice fermented together; see also cider.

Great mead — Any mead that is intended to be aged several years. The designation is meant to distinguish this type of mead from “short mead” (see below).

Krupnik  –  An example of mead made to a brandy, or liqueur strength, and is a sweet Polish liqueur made through such a process.  A version of this called “honey jack” can be made by partly freezing a quantity of mead and pouring off the liquid without the ice crystals (a process known as freeze distillation), similar to the method that applejack is made from cider.

Medovukha — Eastern Slavic variant (honey-based fermented drink)

Melomel — A generic name for mead made from honey and any fruit. Depending on the fruit-used, certain melomels may also be known by more specific names (cyser, pyment, morat).  This process served as an early form of fruit preservation. 


metheglin (photo from

metheglin (photo from


Metheglin — Metheglin starts with traditional mead but has herbs and/or spices added. Some of the most common metheglins are ginger, tea, orange peel, nutmeg, coriander, cinnamon, cloves or vanilla.  Other additions include oregano, lavender and chamomile.   Its name indicates that many metheglins were originally employed as folk medicines. The Welsh word for mead is medd, and the word “metheglin” derives from meddyglyn, a compound of meddyg, “healing” + llyn, “liquor”.

Morat — A blend of honey and mulberries.

Mulsum — Mulsum is not a true mead, but is unfermented honey blended with a high-alcohol wine.

Omphacomel — A medieval blend of honey with verjuice


photo from

photo from

Oxymel — Another historical mead recipe, blending honey with wine vinegar.

Pitarrilla — Mayan drink made from a fermented mixture of wild honey, balche tree bark and fresh water.

Pyment — A blend of  honey and the fermented juice of red or white grapes. Pyment made with white grape juice is sometimes called “white mead.”

Rhodomel — Rhodomel is made from honey, rose hips, petals or rose attar and water.

Sack mead — This refers to mead that is made with more copious amounts of honey than usual. The finished product retains an extremely high specific gravity and elevated levels of sweetness. It derives its name, according to one theory, from the fortified dessert wine Sherry (which is sometimes sweetened after fermentation and once bore the nickname “sack”), while another theory is its name was acquired from the Japanese drink sake, being introduced by Spanish and Portuguese traders.

Short mead — Also called “quick mead”. A type of mead recipe that is meant to age quickly, for immediate consumption. Because of the techniques used in its creation, short mead shares some qualities found in cider (or even light ale): primarily that it is effervescent, and often has a cidery taste.  

Show mead — Refers to “plain” mead with a honey and water base, no fruits, spices or extra flavorings. Since honey alone often does not provide enough nourishment for the yeast to carry on its lifecycle, a mead that is devoid of fruit, etc. will sometimes require a special yeast nutrient and other enzymes to produce an acceptable finished product.  

Sima – a sweet mead connected with the Finnish Vappu (May Day) festival. It is usually spiced by adding both the pulp and rind of a lemon. During secondary fermentation, raisins are added to control the amount of sugars and to act as an indicator of readiness for consumption; they will rise to the top of the bottle when the drink is ready.


Tej (photo from

Tej (photo from

Tej — Tej is an Ethiopian mead, fermented with wild yeasts (and bacteria), and with the addition of the powdered leaves and bark of gesho, a hop-like bittering agent which is a species of buckthorn. A sweeter, less-alcoholic version called berz, aged for a shorter time, is also made. The traditional vessel for drinking tej is a rounded vase-shaped container called a berele.

Mead Names in Other Countries

(Note if the description had other enhancements to the mead, I left it in the varieties section)

Chouchenn – A mead made in Brittany

Czwórniak — A Polish mead, made using three units of water for each unit of honey

Dwójniak – A Polish mead made using equal amounts of water to honey

Gverc or Medovina —  A Croatian mead. The word “gverc” or “gvirc” is from the German “Gewürze” and refers to the added spices.

Hydromel — Literally “water-honey” in Greek. It is also the French name for mead. (Compare with the Spanish hidromiel and aquamiel, Italian idromele and Portuguese hidromel). It is also used as a name for a very light or low-alcohol mead.

iQhilika – A mead made by the Xhosa of South Africa.

Medica — Slovenian variety of mead

Medovina — Czech, Serbian, Croatian, Bulgarian, and Slovak for mead. Commercially available in Czech Republic, Slovakia and presumably other Central and Eastern European countries.

Półtorak — A Polish mead

Trójniak — A Polish mead, made using two units of water for each unit of honey.  



“Wassail” is a toast, an expression of good will, much as a beer drinker might offer “Prosit” or “Cheers”. The word derives from Old Norse through Middle English, and means “be healthy”. A modern German cognate would be “wacht heil.” The dictionary lists two pronunciations (wahs’ul, wah-sale’).


New Blog Update:  Its looking good, but taking longer than anticipated.  I lost the ability to have pictures on the front page, which is no fun.  I disregarded the rule of programming of only makiung one change at a time: I added several plug-ins in one go.  So I continue to chug along, and apologize for the lack of activity, but hope to have something to show for my efforts soon!

Posted by: oysterculture | May 30, 2009

Special Ingredients: Avocado Leaves

photo from (

photo from (

In a recent bout of Mexican cooking (I go through periods, I just wrapped up a long stretch of Italian).  I encountered , or more specifically, paid attention for the first time to the ingredient –  avocado leaves (hojas de aguacate).  In most cases, they list this ingredient as “optional”, but I had to wonder what authentic flavor have I sacrificed in my acceptance of a short cut, and perhaps more importantly what exactly are avocado leaves?  

Please note, that when I refer to avocado leaves in this post, I refer specifically to Mexican avocado leaves, not Haas, or any of the other varieties.  They have a toxicity issue, which I’ll expand on.  Besides, the desired taste in the leaves applies only to the Mexican variety, the more tropical varieties of which Haas is one, lack this aroma.

Harold McGee tells us theses avocado leaves are of the laurel family, and so are related to bay leaves and sassafras or filé.   Uses:

Can be used both fresh or dried.  This ingredient is common in the dishes of south central Mexico.

Fresh leaves are used in Oaxaca as abed for barbecuing meat and flavoring tamales.

Dried leaves are common additions to soups, stews and bean recipes.  Diana Kennedy suggests substituting this leaf for hoja santa which is also used to flavor chocolate drinks in Central Mexico.  

fresh leaves (photo from

fresh leaves (photo from


Avocado leaves are harvested from the native Mexican avocado Peresea drymifolia. The leaves impart a slightly anisey flavor.

Rick Bayless, Chicago Mexican food expert, suggests substituting a combination of bay leaves and cracked anise seeds for avocado leaves.  He also points out that dried leaves with a vibrant olive-green color have more flavor than their pale companions.  Unbroken leaves are a sign of careful handling and higher quality.

Reports of Toxicity with Avocado Leaves

Reports have been presented regarding toxic avocado leaves, and Diana Kennedy in her book From My Mexican Kitchen does a good job of clarifying the issues:

“Because there has been some concern about toxicity of avocado leaves among some Californian aficionados, I think it is time to set the record straight. The toxicity reports relate back to a study done in 1984 at the University of California at Davis, which showed that dairy goats suffered some toxic effects from ingesting very large amounts of avocado leaves (the toxic agent remains unknown). The crucial point, according to Dr. Arthur L. Craigmill, toxicology specialist at Davis and one of the authors of the study, is that the toxic effects were traced to the Guatemalan avocado (Persea American). When the goats were fed Mexican avocado leaves (Persea dryminfolia), a different variety, there was no problem.

The Hass avocado, the best tasting one grown in America, is a hybrid of indeterminate origin though its DNA tests positive for a Guatemalan ancestor—hence the suspicions. No one has ever tested Hass leaves for toxicity, but it seems unlikely that the small amounts used in cooking would cause any problems… When in doubt, choose based on taste and that leads you to the aromatic Mexican leaves which are available in the U.S.”

Avocado Leaf Galls

Small “galls” can form on the underside of the avocado leaves. They are edible and actually add an enhanced flavor, per San Francisco chef Reed Hearon of Cafe Marimba, Restaurant LuLu, Rose Pistola et al. 

Beef with Chili and Avocado Leaves 

(recipe adapted from the the Mexican Gourmet)

Texmole, from Coxcatlan, Puebla, is a variety of mole de olla.  


  • 2-¾ # beef short ribs
  • 5 c water
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 c greenbeans, cut into thirds
  • 2 guajillo or cascabel chillis
  • 1-¼ # tomatoes, halved and seeded
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • ½ c water
  • 3 avocado leaves
  • 20 squash blossoms, cleaned and chopped
  • 3 zucchini, cubed
  • 2c potatoes, peeled and cubed

For the Chochoyotes (masa dumplings)

  • ½ c masa harina 
  • 1/3 c warm water
  • ½ T lard
  • ¼ tsp salt


Beef Stew (photo from

Beef Stew (photo from

In a large saucepan, cover the short ribs with water and salt and cook until the meat is just falling off the bone, ~ 1 to 1½ hours.  Just as it starts to cool, skim the fat off the stock, and reserve the stock.  Remove the meat from the bones, discarding the fat and tendons.   

Cook the green beans in boiling, salted water until just tender, and drain.

Puree the chilies, tomatoes, onion, garlic and water in a blender until smooth.  Pour into a soup pot with reserved stock.  Add the avocado leaves, squash blossoms, and zucchini, and bring to a boil, and simmer over medium heat for about 20 minutes.  

FOR THE CHOCHOYOTES:  Combine the masa harina and water and mix well, add the lard and salt, and combine until well blended. form ¾” balls and make a small indentation on one side with your finger.

Add the dumplings and potatoes and simmer for 15 minutes, until cooked.  Add the beans and meat, and simmer for another 10 minutes.  Add salt and season to taste.  Enjoy!


SIDE NOTE:  I am converting my blog to  As with all things, user error leads to issues.  I managed to delete WordPress last night, or so I suspect.  In any event, at one point it said it was not there, and the nice folks at GoDaddy helped me to reinstall.  I was also successful in getting all of my old posts moved over complete with comments, which was no small feat as most of the day, it only showed 8 random posts that I had done.  Yahoo!  That was very important to me.  So hopefully soon, you’ll see the new and, I think, improved Oyster blog.  In the meantime, I apologize for being less than attentive in writing and responding.

Posted by: oysterculture | May 27, 2009

Worcestershire Sauce – this one is a bit fishy if you ask me


Bet you were not thinking of Worcestershire as a fish sauce.   You may be surprised to discover that the two key ingredients for its unique taste are anchovies and tamarind.  

As I alluded to in my previous post, I’ve been curious about fish sauces for some time, and in an effort to not end up with a deluge of a post, I’ve broken the subjects down to I hope a more management size – first the colatura from Italy, now the fish sauce from England, I may break this post down further depending on the volume, as there are still the fish sauces, from China, Thailand and the Philippines.  I’ve added the tag “fish sauce” for easy reference. 

Worchester (photo from

Worchester (photo from


Worcestershire sauce was invented in the early 1800s in Worcester, England (where else?) at the request of Lord Sandys.  He had acquired a recipe for the sauce during his travels through Bengal (now Bangladesh or parts of Pakistan and India) and commissioned two chemists, John Lea and Williams Perrins, to make the first batch.  The first results were not good.  In fact, they were so bad that left jars full of the stuff in their cellar where it collected dust for years.  Sometime later, they found it, and like anyone with a failed chemistry experiment left sitting in the cellar they sampled it  [insert heavy sarcasm].  To their amazement, they found the sauce delicious.  The missing part of that recipe, apparently, was the requisite aging process – which is about 18 months (no longer in jars, but wooden casks for a “richer, smoother” flavor).  [These “happy “discoveries never fail to amuse me.  What is it that drives people to look at jars hidden for years in their cellars, maggoty cheese, stinging nettles, or poisionous fish and think – “I really must taste that”?  I confess, if I were in their shoes, this world would be a much less colorful culinary place.  So its probably best I just write about the stuff.]    

As you might have suspected, this is the story of Lea & Perrins brand of Worcestershire sauce.  Soon after Lea’s and Perrin’s fortuitous discovery, they began bottling their special blend of vinegars and seasonings. With little fanfare this sauce quickly became indispensable in the  kitchens of Europe.  In 1839, a New York entrepreneur, ordered a small batch of the sauce, and it quickly replicated its success in the United States as the only commercially bottled condiment.

I could not find any further information on Lord Sandys, apparently he dropped out of the picture.  Seems a bit unfair as he was the person that brought back the recipe and started this endeavor.


Lea and Perrin's Worcestershire Sauce

Lea and Perrin's Worcestershire Sauce

The recipe remains a closely guarded secret – a real “secret sauce”, and only a privileged few know the exact ingredients. The company designed the label to shield the appearance of the sauce from other imitators, apparently they did not consider that the competition could purchase the bottles and pour the sauce in a bowl.  That label design remains the same today.  Lea & Perrins remains true to the original recipe, aging the sauce in wooden casks for 18 months for a richer, smoother flavor.

The following list of ingredients came from wikipedia.  Note the US and English ingredients are different.  The last time, I purchased some Worcestershire sauce, I was dismayed at the number of brands, including Lea & Perrins, that contained high fructose corn syrup.  The French’s brand did not have high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), only corn syrup listed in the ingredients, so while the bottle is not as attractive, nor does it have the mystic, it also does not have HFCS.

The H. J. Heinz Company, which now manufactures “The Original Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce” lists the following ingredients on the bottle produced in the United States: vinegar, molasses, high fructose corn syrup, anchovies, water, onions, salt, garlic, tamarind concentrate, cloves, natural flavorings and chili pepper extract.

The ingredients of a bottle of Worcestershire sauce from England sold under the name “The Original & Genuine Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce” by Lea & Perrins Ltd., lists: malt vinegar (from barley), spirit vinegar, molasses, sugar, salt, anchovies, tamarind extract, onions, garlic, spice and flavoring. 


  • Soups, stews, and sauces
  • Bloody Mary drinks (In the barman at “Harry’s New York Bar in Paris) mixed vodka with tomato juice and a splash of Worcestershire sauce)
  • Party Mix aka Chex Mix (this might be a US thing, but its made with Chex cereal, nuts and pretzels, coated with melted butter, spices, Worcestershire sauce, and baked)  I loved it growing up; craved it might be closer to the mark.  This was a holiday treat in my family .  Some years back, the cereal maker, General Mills, got smart and now sell the packaged stuff.  Not nearly as good, or as fun, because this snack was something my mom always made at the holidays, and now it can be purchased year round. Besides, homemade is just better.
  • Caesar salad
  • Welsh Rarebit or Rabbit  Helen at World Foodie Guide just posted a review of a new British cookbook British Regional Food, by Mark Hix and posted a great looking recipe for this dish.
  • the popular Mexican beer cocktail, the Michelada
  • added to pizza in Mexico
  • hamburgers 


Welsh Rarebit (

Welsh Rarebit (


Welsh Rarebit (serves 4)  Adapted from recipe by Alton Brown


  • 2 T butter
  • 2 T flour
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • 1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 c porter beer
  • 3/4 c heavy cream
  • 6 oz (a~ 1 1½ c) shredded Cheddar cheese
  • dash of hot sauce
  • 4 slices toasted rye bread


In a medium saucepan over low heat, melt the butter and whisk in the flour. Cook, whisking constantly for 2 to 3 minutes, do not brown the flour. Whisk in mustard, Worcestershire sauce, salt, and pepper until smooth. Add beer and whisk to combine. Pour in cream and whisk until well combined and smooth. Gradually add cheese, stirring constantly, until cheese melts and sauce is smooth; ~ 4 minutes. Add hot sauce. Pour over toast and serve immediately.

Fun bits of trivia

Worcestershire sauce =  salsa inglesa (English sauce) in Spanish

When the Lea & Perrins company started exporting Worcestershire sauce around the world – boat being the sole option. The lengthy and often rough sea voyages caused some breakage. The practice of wrapping each bottle in a paper wrap was devised to protect the bottles and prevent breakage.  That wrapper, while no longer necessary, still exists today.

Worcestershire Sauce in Asia

For Asian countries that had significant exposure to Western cuisine, Worcestershire sauce has been assimilated into their cooking.

In Cantonese cuisine, Worcestershire sauce was introduced in the 19th century via Hong Kong and is today used in dim sum items such as steamed beef meatballs and spring rolls. The Cantonese name for this sauce is “gip-jap”. It is also used in a variety of Hong Kong-style Chinese and “Western” dishes.

In Shanghainese cuisine, the use of Worcestershire sauce insidiously spread from European-style restaurants in the 19th and 20th century, Eastern European-inspired dishes such as Shanghai-style borscht, and as a dipping sauce in Western fusion foods such as Shanghai-style breaded pork cutlets. It is also commonly used for Chinese foods such as the shengjian mantou, which are small, pan-fried pork buns. In Shanghai, Worcestershire sauce is called “la jiangyou” (literally “spicy soy sauce”).  Imported Worcestershire sauce became scarce in Shanghai after 1949, as local brands took control. These Chinese versions are now exported around the world for use in Shanghai-style dishes.  Lea & Perrin’s recently established a plant in Guangdong, China, to counter the local dominance, but it still has not recaptures hus increasing availability of the original variety in China. However, it does not have a dominant market share compared to the native-grown varieties.

Japanese Worcestershire sauce

photo from

photo from

Often known as sōsu “sauce”, or Usutā sōsu “Worcester sauce”, Japanese Worcestershire sauce is made from the fruit and vegetables such as apples and tomatoes, matured with sugar, salt, spices, starch and caramel, and comes in a variety of flavors and consistencies. Despite its name, it is not all that close to the Lea & Perrins version – American style barbeque sauce might be a better substitute.  Sōsu comes in a variety of thickness, with the thicker sauces taking on attributes of both the original Worcestershire sauce and HP sauce, another popular condiment.

Depending on the foods they are created to compliment, many variations exist in terms of flavor and consistency, such as okonomiyaki (savory pancakes) sauce and tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlets) sauce.

Posted by: oysterculture | May 24, 2009

Peru – Land of Plenty

La Mar (photo from SF Gate)

La Mar (photo from SF Gate)

In preparing a recent post on raw fish, I developed a craving for cerviche, and really who could blame me?  Living in San Francisco, there was one restaurant on my radar that I knew could offer me an authentic, or at least close proximally, of the Peruvian cerviche I desired: that restaurant is La Mar Cebicheria Peruana, the first US foray for Chef Gaston Acurio.  Immediately after I pressed the “publish” button for that post, I booked my reservations.  I had the added privilege of having Daily Spud, a potato aficionado, accompany me on my exploration, and a more perfect lunch is hard to imagine.

I knew that Peruvian cuisine had amazingly range, but its diversity is hard to comprehend.  The challenge is determining how to approach Peru’s food – by the diverse cultures that made their mark on its culture, with their food preparation and choices assimilated into the cuisine?  Or, by the incredible food stock that exists in Peru and has incorporated into its recipes, such as corn, tomatoes, potatoes, quinoa?  If ever a place was at the cross roads of diversity, it is Peru.

To appreciate the cuisine, some knowledge of Peru’s culture, history and geography is required.


map of Peru (courtesy of Google)

map of Peru (courtesy of Google)

Peru is physically isolated from its neighbors (Ecuador, Columbia, Brazil and Bolivia) by natural barriers such as the Andes and the Amazon river which discouraged early travel; i.e. walking.  Its western edge is the Pacific Ocean which runs practically the entire length of the country.  These physical limitations allowed tribes and cultures to thrive relatively undisturbed for a significant time.  The landscape of Peru runs the gamut from the snowcapped mountains of the Andes, to the jungles of the Amazon basin, to the coastal plains.

History and Culture

Machu Picchu (photo from

Machu Picchu (photo from

Evidence of pre-Columbian civilizations (including the Incas) that thrived prior to the arrival of the Spaniards still exist.  Peru’s history dates back as far as 11,000 BC with the Norte Chico civilization, one of the oldest in the world, and of course the Incas. When the Spanish conquered in the 16th century, they established the Viceroyalty, consolidating most of the South American colonies, and Peru finally gained its independence in 1821.  Two groups have the majority of the population:  approximately 45% of the people are Amerindian (indigenous Peruvians) At the time the Spanish arrived, more than 2,000 groups or tribes existed, today few distinct groups remain, most were assimilated into a single order, and many perished due to infectious disease.  37% of the population is Mesitzo, which refers to people of mixed European and Amerindian ancestry.  

Andes (photo from

Andes (photo from

The Incas were ingenious land stewards, building elaborate terraces and irrigation to cultivate food, primarily the potato, and quinoa which the Incas revered and called “mother again”.  They also influenced the Peruvian taste with the addition of aji (hot peppers) and herbs such as hucatay.

The Spanish or Moorish influence included the meat that they brought: goats, chickens, cows, and sheep.  Dairy products were added to the aij sauces.  Rice, wheat and barley were thrown into the repertoire as were olives, oils, and vinegars.  Wine making, pickling and frying techniques were introduced.  As most of the conquistadores were from the Andalusia and Extremadura regions of Spain, not surprisingly 700 years of Moorish occupation offered some influence.  Specifically from this region, they brought cumin, coriander, cinnamon, and cloves.


Chinatown in Lima (photo from

Chinatown in Lima (photo from

About 4% of the population is Chinese Peruvian, having first immigrated in the 19th century to work as contract labor or coolies on the sugar plantations, and mines where unfortunately they became virtual slaves.  Upon completion of their contracts, they tried their hand at small businesses including chifas (Chinese-Peruvian restaurants, the word comes from Mandarin for “eat-meal”), primarily in Lima.  They introduced soy sauce, and vegetables from snow peas to ginger to the Peruvian diet.  The initial distrust of the foreigners that cooked “anything that moved” gave way to such an acceptance, that 50 years after the first immigrant arrived, all the wealthy Lima families had Chinese cooks. (source:  One famous Peruvian dish that shows their influence is lomo saltado which incorporated the Chinese stir-fry techniques with the addition of Peruvian aji in the same pan as the ginger and soy sauce.  Today, Lima has over 6,000 Chinese restaurants, the most of any Latin American country.


Peru was the first Latin American country to establish relations with Japan in 1873, and the first to accept Japanese immigrants in 1899.  Most of these immigrants worked as farmers, and after their contracts were completed they settled in the cities.  They left their mark on Peruvian cuisine with the incorporation of shoyu and miso.  Prior to the 1950’s, eating fish was less desirable to meat, and it took the rising interest in Japanese cuisine to remind them of the delights of eating seafood.  Although the Incas ate ceviche marinated in chicha from corn and several sour fruit juices, it was the Spanish introduction of limes and onions, and the new approach to fish that the Japanese contributed that gave the cervices that are familiar today.(source:

After the Spanish were sent packing, the Peruvians looked to the French for influence, feeling the tug of solidarity with a country that overturned its monarchy.  By 1857, over 20,000 European immigrants arrived, and greatly influenced what the criollos ate.  Mousse being an example of a French dish they quickly adopted.   

Festivals and Holidays

photo from

photo from

Nothing demonstrates Peru’s cultural identinty more than the 3,000 or so festivals that take place annually that mix Spanish religious influences and native traditions.  Certain towns are reputed as putting on the best, or most speculator, celebrations, so some research is required to determine the best locale. Here’s a sampling of these events.

In Cusco, is the second-largest South American festival, after Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Inti Raymi reenacts an Inca ceremony that pays homage to the Inca gods.  This YouTube video gives you an idea of what takes place.

Another festival is the celebration of Corpus Christi which takes place 60 days after Easter Sunday.  Representatives from nearby churches take part in the main day procession, bearing their patron saints in a procession bound for the city’s main cathedral. 

One raucous Peruvian festivals pays homage to the Virgen del Carmen in the town of Paucatambo. She is the patron saint of the mestizo peoples, and the scary costumes worn by the particpants represent the demons that the Virgin of Carmen drove away.  

During the Peru Carnival, strangers soak each other with water balloons and water guns.  The Andean towns are famous for the liveliest carnival celebrations, with the city of Cajamarca earning special recognition.

Christmas probably takes top billing in terms of importance. Christmas melds Spanish and Indian traditions as colorful processions give way to the solemn Christmas Eve mass. For residents of Lima, the country’s biggest bull fight might be how they choose to celebrate Christmas. In Cusco, people buy hot chocolates for needy children.  


photo from

photo from

The natural bounty that Peru has at its disposal is breath taking, and has many a chef salivating at the possibilities. Its biodiversity exceeds 21,000 plant and animal species as of 2003 (wiki is the source).  Of these, over 5,800 of them are found only in Peru.

  • 35  varieties of corn
  • 15 species of tomatoes
  • 2,000 of the 3,000 varieties of potatoes found in the world reside in Peru.   
  • over 2,000 varieties of sweet potatoes
  • 2,000 species of fish -no other country comes close
  • Over 650 native species of fruit  

A sampling of food that Peru and South America introduced to the world

  • Potatoes were brought to Europe by the returning Spaniards  
  • Corn is native to all of Central and South America
  • Tomatoes were introduced to Europe from Latin America
  • Peanuts were taken by Spanish and Portuguese merchants to Africa.  Later these peanuts were introduced to America (South) by the African slaves.  

From its interaction with Africa via Spain, Peru imported diverse foods such as bananas, and yams.

Peruvian cuisine is often made spicy by the addition of the ají pepper. Some Peruvian chili peppers are not spicy but serve to give taste and color to dishes. Rice often accompanies dishes in Peruvian cuisine, and the regional sources of foods and traditions give rise to countless varieties of preparation and dishes.

Food by Region

With the eclectic variety of traditional dishes, the Peruvian cuisine constantly evolves, and it is impossible to list; as along the Peruvian coast alone there are more than 2,000 types of soups, and over 250 traditional desserts.  The following summary barely scratches the surface of regional Peruvian food, as the diversity is incredible!  Not only is this the result of the outside influence of other cultures, but of the natural bounty that the country has.  Consider the stunning climatic variety that Peru has 28 of a possible 32 world climates.  

photo from

photo from



Coastal cuisine

The cuisine of the coast can be said to have five strong influences: Japanese, the Moorish, the African, the Chinese and natives.  Given that the Pacific Ocean is the principal source of fish, and Peru ranks as the world’s top two producers and exporters, with many oceanic plant and animal species found only in Peru – seafood is high on the list of ingredients.   

Lima and Central Coast Cuisine

A center of immigration and of the Spanish Viceroyalty, Lima and Trujillo incorporated dishes brought by the Spanish Conquistadors and the immigrants from various continents.  Since the second half of the 20th century, a strong shift from rural areas to cities (Lima being a prime example) has strongly influenced their cuisine.

La Mar ceviche

La Mar ceviche

Ceviche, often spelled “cebiche” in Peru, is the coastal dish, consisting of bite-size pieces of white fish, marinated raw in lime or lemon juice mixed with chillies. Ceviche is served with raw onions, boiled sweet potatoes (camote), toasted corn (cancha), and sometimes a local green seaweed yuyo. Leche de tigre (tiger’s milk), is the Peruvian colloquial name for the juice produced from these ingredients.

Tiradito, cervices’ younger sibling, shows the influence that Japanese cooks on Peru’s seafood cuisine (though some suggest it’s closer to Italian carpaccio). The fish is sliced in fine strips and marinated in lime juice, ginger and ají limo.  The distinguishing feature is that they lack onions, translating into a subtler taste.

Lima bean (pallares) salad made with Peruvian Lima butter beans, boiled whole and mixed with a “salsa” of onions, slices of tomatoes, and green ají (chili), marinated in green Peruvian lime juice, oil, salt, and vinegar. Lima butter beans (pallares) have been part of the Peruvian cuisine for  6,000 years.

Carapulcra is a stew of pork and chicken, dried potatoes, red chilis, peanuts and cumin. The version from the Afro-Peruvian Inca region uses fresh potatoes.

In the 150 years since its arrival in Peru, the Chinese Peruvian culture has revolutionized Peruvian cuisine, gaining international recognition.  Chifa reflects a fusion by Chinese Peruvians of the products that were brought from China to what they found in Peru. Some creole dishes such as tacu-tacu, lomo saltado, and arroz chaufa were influenced by the Chinese.  

Cuisine of the Northern Coast

The cuisine of the northern coast differs from the central and southern varieties. This is not only due to the coastal native Indian, Spanish, African and Gypsy influence (Hindustani); but also the warmer coastal waters, hotter climate and immense geographical variety.

Shambar is a soup made with wheat, pork rinds, smoked ham, assorted beans, and green onions, and served with toasted corn (cancha).

Seco de Cabrito (goat stew, but often substituted with lamb, chicken, or beef) is made in a pot after marinating with beer and other spices including fresh cilantro and garlic. 

Cebiche de Conchas Negras (ceviche with black shells) is a dish of Piura and Tumbes. In this version of ceviche, the seafood used in the dish should be black clams accompanied toasted corn.

Andes (photo from

photo from


Andean cuisine

In the Andes, the locals’ diet is based on corn, potatoes, and assorted tubers as it has been for hundreds of years.   

The pachamanca is a very special banquet, and cooked throughout the Andes.  It is made from various meats (including pork and beef), herbs and vegetables that are slowly cooked underground on heated stones.  Because of its tedious preparation it is saved for celebrations. 

Olluquito con charqui is a typical Andean stew. Olluco is a tuber domesticated by pre-Inca populations, and is visually similar to colorful small Andean potatoes, but with a distinct crunchy texture when cooked.  Charqui is the technique to cure meat by salting, then dehydration.  The stew consists of finely diced ollucos with charqui pieces (traditionally alpaca, llama, or sheep) and served with rice.

 Jungle cuisine

Paiche (one of the world’s largest freshwater fish) is the common protein here.  Fruit include camu camu, mango and pineapple.


So back to what promted this post, that meal at La Mar.  

La Mar cerviche

La Mar ceviche

Instead of a bread basket they brought strips of potato and plantains that were fried nice and crispy accompanied by  a trio of dipping sauces.  We started with the ceviche sampler, which contained the four cerviches the restaurant makes: mixto, chifa, nikei, and clasico.  From the first bite we knew the food was prepared by someone who knew and loved good fish and seafood and had a deft hand at seasoning.  I’ll leave the descriptions of mouth feel and waxing poetic to the restaurant critics, but I can tell you that DailySpud and I would have licked the dishes to secure every last drop of the leche de tigre if we were not in polite company.  Alas, the sacrifices made for good behavior.  The ceviche chifa was our favorite with its Asian overtones (mahi mahi, peanuts, scallions, ginger, pickled carrots, daikon, habaneros, wonton strips, and sesame oil). 

La Mar causas

La Mar causas

Without question we had to have a causas.  We chose the causa nikei (purple potato with the avocado puree, creamy aji amarillo and rocoto Huancaina sauce).  Daily Spud might be more expansive, I’ll just say “yum”!

Did I mention were sipped Pisco Sours as we devoured this meal?  They had to be the best I ever had, and the waiter assured us they were the perfect choice for our selections.  Come to think of it, he said that about everything we ordered, a very congenial gentleman.  

La Mar dessert

La Mar dessert

Amazingly, we topped off this extravaganza with a dessert.  I do not usually have a sweet tooth, but the selection here was so different than what I am accustomed to that I could have tried them all, but thankfully I can go back. Unfortunately, the menu on their website does not list this dish, but it was a type of custard (the consistency like condensed milk) topped with Madeira flavored whipped cream.  Over-the-top rich, and thank goodness we shared, so I did not have to waddle out of there.


Peruvian cooking has been given the same accolades as French and Italian because of the diversity of its ingredients and cooking techniques.  If you do not believe me: The Economist stated that “Peru can lay claim to one of the world’s dozen or so great cuisines”, and at the Fourth International Summit of Gastronomy (regarded as the world’s most important gastronomic forum) Lima was declared the “Gastronomic Capital of the Americas”   Do not take my word for it – find out for yourself.

Posted by: oysterculture | May 22, 2009

Colatura di Alici a fish sauce from the Amalfi Coast

photo from MarketPlace

photo from Market Hall

The more I learn about the Amalfi Coast, the more impressed I am.  We owe it a debt of gratitute for such culinary wonders as limoncello, and this incredible fish sauce colatura di Alici made from anchovies.

The sauce is simple to make:

  1. select fresh anchovies
  2. clean and pack in a wooden barrel
  3. add weight on top of said anchovies
  4. heavily salt the lot
  5. forget about them for about 4 to 6 months 

When they’re done brining, alchemy has occurred, liquid gold is in those barrels, and the final step is to carefully drill a hole in the barrel and extract that golden magic drain into a waiting receptacle.  The results of a little pressure and time and time to some fish and salt is truly magical as the video shows.   

To me this is quintessential artisanal food at its finest. In Naples, families make their own colatura in small batches for Christmas gifts for family and friends.  

Orecchiette with Roasted Cauliflower, Raisins and Colatura


(recipe from the always wonderful Market Hall in Berkeley)  

Serves 4

  • 1 head of cauliflower, cut into small florets
  • 4 T extra virgin olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • ½ c raisins
  • 2 T pine nuts
  • 1 T colatura
  • 8 oz orecchiette  

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Toss the cauliflower with 2T of extra virgin olive oil and 1 teaspoon of salt and½ teaspoon of pepper. Spread on a baking sheet and roast for 10-12 minutes until nicely caramelized. In the last 3-4 minutes, add the raisins and pine nuts and continue roasting. (Do not burn the pine nuts!)

Meanwhile, cook the orecchiette in salted, boiling water. Reserve ¼ cup of the cooking water and drain the pasta. Return the hot pasta to the pot and stir in the pasta water, colatura, 2 tablespoons of fresh extra virgin olive oil and the roasted cauliflower mix. Serve immediately.

Amalfi Coast

The Amalfi Coast, or Costiera Amalfitana in Italian, stretches from the southern side of the Sorrentine Peninsula of Italy (Province of Salerno), extending from Positano in the west to Vietri sul Mare in the east. The towns found on the Amalfi Coast are Vietri sul Mare, Cetara, Maiori, Minori, Ravello, Scala, Atrani, Amalfi, Conca dei Marini, Furore, Praiano and Positano.

Famous for its scenic beauty and picturesque towns, the Amalfi Coast is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

The towns of the Amalfi Coast:

Vietri sul Mare is a small town in the Campania region of Southern Italy and considered a good starting point for the Amalfi Coast drive.  The town was first built by the Etruruans.  The town is known for its ceramics, having been making them since the fifteenth century.  


Cetera (photo from

Cetera (photo from

Cetara  has a strong fishing tradition and is famous for its tinned anchovy and tuna.  They are also known for their garum which is served with pasta.  Garum being a fish sauce that was considered an essential condiment in ancient roman cooking.

Maiori  is famous for the longest, unbroken stretch of beach along the coast.  The churches in this town are worth more than a passing glance.   At one point, during the Republic of Amalfi it was considered an important harbor that suffered from attacks.

Minori  is a site of a first century Roman villa.  It is known for its paper and pasta.  The name of this town is linked to its neighbor Maiori:  Rhegginia Minor and Rheggina Maior.  The church of Santa Trofimena and the ancient Roman villa are considered requisite viewing. 


Ravello (photo from

Ravello (photo from

Ravello  is famous for its beauty it is a destination for artists, musicians and writers.  The tourist guides like to tell the story that this town is the place where Satan transported Jesus to show him the world’s beauty.  (Luke 4: 5-8) Places to check out include the Duomo (Cathedral) of Ravello: the central nave contains the “Pulpit of the Gospels”, created in 1272 by Nicolò di Bartolomeo, and the Villa Cimbrone and Billa Rufolo.



Atrani (photo from

Atrani (photo from

Atrani is famous for its churches:  San Salvatore del Birecto and of Santa Maria Maddalena.  The town was founded by wealthy Romans and became the home of the most powerful families in the region.

Amalfi is the main town on the coast that bears its name.  Almalfi is built up the sides of the coast and is a series of seemingly endless alleys and steps. Must visit spots include: Duomo (the cathedral) in Amalfi, and its cloister (Chiostro del Paradiso in Italian) Conca dei Marini.  Second only to kitchen accessories shops, I love stationary and paper shops. Knowing that paper making is such a tradition requires extra space in my luggage.  The following information comes straight from wiki:

Amalfi is also a known maker of a hand-made thick paper which is called bambagina. It is exported, and used throughout Italy for wedding invitations, visiting cards and elegant writing paper. The paper has a high quality and has been used by artists such as Giuseppe Leone, who described it: “There is a whole world that the Amalfi paper evokes and an artist who is sensitive to the suggestion of these places is aware that it is unique and exciting”….The city is home to the Museo della Carta, a paper-making museum.  


Furore (photo from

Furore (photo from

Furore was a town built by the Romans and thanks to nature, the coastline provided a natural protection for the pirates that ravished the region.  This town is actually two villages, connected by a long staircase, one by the sea and the second, nestled in the mountains.  The Fiordo is the place to check out here.

Praiano is a small town, again famous for its churches, San Luca and San Gennaro in their views.  Also a must to check out is the Grotto Esmerelda or Green Grotto, which has a green light that reflects inside the grotto pool.

Positano was a town built by Romans and ideally located to take advantage of the Mediterranean trade.  The church of Santa Maria Assunta is a good place to start exploring.

Posted by: oysterculture | May 20, 2009

Special Ingredients: Oregano

Mediterranean vs Mexican oregano

Mediterranean vs Mexican oregano

When I attended a Yucatan cooking class in Mexico, the chef informed us that oregano was a foundation spice in many of the dishes we were to prepare, he further admonished us that we needed to use only Mexican oregano  and not the Mediterranean Greek variety.  Huh?  Where I grew up, oregano is oregano is oregano.  But as I learned, that is certainly not the case.  Regardless of the variety, this herb is no wallflower, its flavor is bold and assertive, and adds a distinctive element to any dish.  


Mexican Oregano: This variety has a stronger flavor and odor than its Mediterranean counterpart. It is also less sweet than its counterpart and is more closely related to lemon verbena. In a pinch it can substitute for epazote leaves.

Mediterranean (Greek or Turkish) Oregano: The herb has been used since Roman times. It gained exponential popularity in the United States when Italy exposed us to a pie (pizza that is).  It is related to the mint plant.  The bitter taste of this herb is powerful, and an indication of the quality is if it numbs the tongue.  Climate and soil play a significant role in its taste, with consensus being that the better quality plants are produced in warm environments.


Here’s another herb whose name can drive you nuts.  For years both oregano and marjoram  were known by the same name Origanum majorana L.  Botanists keeping with this habit now identify oregano and marjoram as Majorana hortensis but quickly point out that this name really belongs to the “sweet” marjoram of the Mediterranean.

From the truly outstanding Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages 

The Greek name origanon [ὀρίγανον] might well contain oros [ὄρος] “mountain”, and the verb ganousthai [γανοῦσθαι] “delight in”, because oregano prefers higher altitude in Mediterranean climate.  Some Scandinavian names also contain an element of that kind: Norwegian bergmynte and Icelandic bergminta mountain mint and Finnish mäkimeirami “hill marjoram”; a parallel formation exists in Farsi, avishan kuhi [آویشن کوهی] mountain marjoram.   

Names for Oregano in the large majority of European languages are very similar, or even the same: The spice is named oregano not only in English, but also in German, Danish, Polish and even Hebrew (written אורגנו). Minor spelling modification occur some other languages, e.g., Czech oregáno, Spanish orégano, Icelandic oreganó, Italian origano, Catalan orenga, Irish Gaelic oragán and Portuguese orégão. Only a few languages have the name significantly changed: Maltese riegnu and Greek rigani [ρίγανη], which was transferred to Albanian (rigon) and Bulgarian (rigan [риган]).

 Many tongues name oregano as wild marjoram, e.g., German wilder Majoran, Swedish vild mejram, Hungarian vadmajoránna, Polish dziki majeranek, Provençal majurano fero and French marjolaine sauvage and marjolaine bâtarde (bastard marjoram). This is botanically incorrect, because although oregano and marjoram are indeed closely related, one cannot identify the former as the wild form of the latter.

First, according to Penzy’s Spices, Mexican and Mediterranean oregano are really two different plants.  However because they are used in a similar fashion and have somewhat similar tastes, they got lumped together.  

This is one herb where the dried version is more flavorful than the fresh.   

People often substitute marjoram for Mediterranean oregano, because of the similar tastes as they are related.  This substitute does in a pinch, but where both types of oregano are added towards the beginning of the preparation, to bring out its flavor; marjoram being more delicate is held off towards the end of the cooking process.


For Mediterranean Oregano (from The Herb Farm Cookbook – an oldie but a goodie)


Oregano and Roasted Garlic Pesto (~ 1c)

  • 2 T oregano leaves
  • ¼ c marjoram
  • 1 c flat leaf parsley
  • 1½T roasted garlic, mashed
  • ¼ c walnut pieces, untoasted
  • 1 tsp balsamic vinegar
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 6 T extra virgin olive oil

Put all ingredients, except the oil into a food processor and pulse until the mixture is finely ground.  With the machine running, pour the oil in a steady stream.  Stop to scrape down sides, and continue until the sauce is smooth and slightly creamy.  Season to taste with salt.  Can keep in the refrigerator for about a week.

For Mexican Oregano (from my beloved A Yucatan Kitchen by Loretta Scott Miller)

Recado Bistec  (Oregano and Garlic Seasoning Paste)

Note: most cooks will tell you  that oregano and garlic is a match made in heaven and this seasoning taste proves their point.  Despite the name, this paste is not just for been and can be used on fish, pork, chicken, its only limited by the cook’s creativity.

  • ¼ tsp ground clove
  • 1 T black peppercorn
  • 4 whole allspice
  • 1 cinnamon stick broken into pieces
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 ½ T tasted and crushed Mexican oregano
  • 1 head garlic, roasted and peeled
  • ½ tsp salt
  • mild vinegar

Grind all the spices in a spice grinder or with a mortal and pestle until very fine. Add the roasted garlic, salt and a drop or two of vinegar until it forms a paste.  Store in a glass jar in the refrigerator until ready for use.  

To use: dissolve in sour orange (Seville oranges, or a combination or orange and grapefruit juices)  

Make about ½ cup.

Posted by: oysterculture | May 16, 2009

Brunico: weinerschnitzel or pesto?

main street in Brunico

main street in Brunico

When we landed in Brunico, I was confused.  Not necessarily a unique state for me, but you must understand, Brunico is in Italy – the map clearly says so.  Yet, I felt we had taken a wrong turn at a mountain pass and and arrived at a village in Austria.  I knew we had crossed no international borders, as I had not flashed my passport, since leaving Milan earlier that day.  But German was the language spoken on the streets, and the menus posted outside the restaurants were not only written in German, but also had German dishes sprinkled with a few Italian favorites.  Finally, the town’s name was just as often spelled as Bruneck – oye!

church on outskirts of Brunico

church on outskirts of Brunico

According to Wiki, the 2001 census for this area of Italy claims 83% of the population speak German, 15% Italian and ~ 2% Ladin as their first language.  (Ladin resulted from Latin melding with the local language, oh about 15BC when the Dolomites were conquered by the Romans)  This explains so much.  Brunico, I discovered, was in a region that was a bit of a hot potato, bouncing frequently between what is now Austria and Italy, and as recent as World War I part of Austria. 

On this lovely May trip, our purpose was not to stalk the Tour de France, but seek the Giro (Italy’s great bike race).  Near Bruncio, the drama of the most challenging stage of that year’s race up to Kronplatz/Plan de Corones (part of the Southern Tyrol) was about to unfold.  This stage was to be the crowning example of human endurance – practically no expense or attention to detail was spared.  The Italian government had build a temporary road up the last 6 kilometers, where only a dirt path had existed before.  My husband could barely contain his excitement at the thought of watching such a hell on wheels event.  That last bit of grade was so steep, the riders would probably have to dismount and walk their bikes to the top.

The Giro is a three week stage race similar to the Tour de France, but the bikers jerseys are different; where the Tour leader sports a yellow jersey, the Giro has a pink jersey to match the colors of the sponsoring sporting paper.

view out of hotel window with Giro truck below

view out of hotel window with Giro truck

We stayed in this area for 4 days and the time flew by.  The surrounding country side is speckled with wineries, quaint villages and of course an abundance of mountainous scenery.  What is not to like?  Plenty of hiking, and in the winter, skiing is mandatory.    Five star restaurants?  Maybe not, but if you are interested in good regional food, you cannot go wrong.

The roads around here are easy to drive and beautifully maintained, but while they look fairly straight on Google maps, they are full of winding S-curves as this town is nestled deep in the mountains.  As the crow flies, this town is not far from Innsbruck, Austria; by road little over an hour away. The drives through the nearby towns were wonderful and the surrounding fields held grazing cattle complete with those wonderful copper cowbells draped from their necks.  The pastoral scenes were straight from the Sound of Music.


river scene (photo from

(photo from

Brunico was founded around 1256, and at that time the town consisted of two rows of houses.  In the 14th and 15th centuries a brisk trade developed between Augsburg and Venice, and some of this trade required long term storage in Brunico, which was rewarded for its efforts with prosperity and fame.  Around this time the Pustertal painting school was founded by the painter Hans von Bruneck, and included great masters Michael Pacher and Friedrich Pacher who also studied at this school.

After World War I, South Tyrol and Brunico became part of Italy.   During World War I, the Dolomite Mountains were the stage of some horrific battles – the Italian and Austrian armies fought many battles in these mountains.  For twenty months the soldiers endured indescribable hardship.  Consider spending two winters lodged in the mountains, man against man.  (Four hours on top of Corones was enough to convince me I had better things to do.)   Both armies dug tunnels and trenches to bypass and surprise the enemy.  Mines were exploded beneath enemy positions after months of exhausting work excavating the rock. 

After the war, the Dolomites eventually returned to their original beautiful state, but not without some battle scars; deep cuts made by bombs and mines.  Tunnels can still be found in the mountains – we discovered a few in our exploration.

Brunico was spared damage in World War I, but in World War II the town was bombed, so the architecture is a mixture of old and new especially in the more business sections of town.   

Food and Wine

This area is sprinkled with wineries, but I cannot speak to them.  We tried to visit a few, during the week, stopping by just prior to lunch time, only to learn that they were open that day but were now closed to the public – it was not yet noon.  In fact they seemed surprised to see us, despite the fact that they had a tasting room.  (Note to self, “you are not in Napa”.)  My advice is to check with the hotel before you head out if your is to check on a vineyard. It was not a wasted trip as we just pulled off the road and enjoyed a flavorful picnic of local sausage, cheese and wine, while visions of returning to the US with bottles straight from the wineries receded to a distant memory.

In the spring they have an asparagus festival featuring those yummy stalks with Spargelwein – asparagus wine, made not from asparagus but Sauvignon blanc.  The best wine, and the winner proudly displays the award for wining the competitions for best wine.  The asparagus is topped with Bozner sauce – not a hollandaise  – which looks to be made with hard-boiled eggs, mayonnaise, mustard, herbs and spices.  

Here are some of  the regional dishes of the Southern Tyrol, some identified by the Italian Trade Commission.  The Austrian influence can be seen in the ingredients and preparation:






speck (photo from

speck (photo from


Biroldi con crauti: blood sausages stuffed with chestnuts, walnuts and pine nuts, flavored with nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon, served with sauerkraut.

Blau forelle: trout poached in white wine with vinegar, lemon, bay leaf and clove, and served with melted butter.  

Carne salata: beef marinated for a month or more in brine with juniper berries, pepper and herbs, eaten either raw or cooked in butter and served with beans or polenta

Orzetto or Gerstensuppe: barley soup with onion, garlic, vegetables and herbs simmered with Speck.

Leberknödelsuppe: dumplings of bread crumbs mixed with flour, milk and eggs and flavored with chopped liver and herbs, and served in broth.

Sauresuppe: Tyrolean tripe soup with onion, herbs and nutmeg soured by white wine vinegar.

Speck: a juniper flavored ham – it showed up in about everything, and I am not complaining. It is delicious, as evidenced by the fact that is been around since the 1300s. 

Wines of the Alto Adige

winery in Alto Adige (photo from

winery in Alto Adige (photo from

While experts agree that the Alpine climate favors white wines, the demand for reds has tipped the scales as they account for ~ 2/3 of the region’s production. The dominant variety of Alto Adige is Schiava or Vernatsch, a source of light, bright reds that head due north to Germanic countries. 

The ruby wines from Schiava extend through the South Tyrol along the Adige river fall under the Valdadige or Etschtaler appellation.  Alto Adige’s native grape, Lagrein, thrives on the plains along the Adige where the wine achieves full round taste and some bonus qualities with a bit of aging.  Given reds appeal, considerable real estate is devoted to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  The region also produces some of Italy’s finest rosés, the most impressive being Lagrein Kretzer. The sweet Moscato Rosa is a rare and prized dessert wine.

But the white wines are starting to demand more attention and growers are planting the whites favored by the altitude: Sylvaner, Veltliner, Gewürztraminer, Müller Thurgau and white Moscato.     

Alto Adige has also stepped up sparkling wine production which cannot be a bad thing. 


Skiing in the winter is a given.

Driving and exploring the wineries in the summer is a sure thing, provided you find wineries with hours that fit your schedules.

We were impressed with the trails  that covered the area.  We discovered was a converted railroad trail that was pristine.  It even had a tunnel that cut through the mountain and it was well maintained and lit.  Hiking and mountain biking are very popular.

Several national parks are within driving distance and offer amazing vistas.


graph from Cycling News

graph from Cycling News

This graph depicts the stage we intended to see – we were perched at the top of the last peak.  Note the dashed line at the top of the last peak – that indicates the new road they built for this stage.

Giro d’Italia


this does not look good!

this does not look good!

I know you are dying to know what happened in that leg of the Giro.  Well, my husband and I got up early because based on our experience at the Tour de France we knew the advantages of a good viewing spot.  We caught the lift taking us to the top of the mountain. Did I mention that the Giro happens every May?  We got to the top of the mountain and this scene was waiting for us.  I was not ready for this one.  Nevertheless, we hiked down a ways to secure a cold damp spot so that we secured our location – few other spectators were around, and my husband was convinced it was because no one else had our foresight.  I think no one else was as insane. Throughout our stay people stopped and took our picture.  I searched the web for “crazy Americans, Giro, Italy” and thankfully no incriminating pictures were found.  

We were rooted there for over four hours.  I tried to convince myself that drinking wine from the bottle would make me feel warmer, as would the plastic bags we wore on our feet and as vests really added an extra layer of warmth. After a while, I gave up the futility of that internal argument and resigned myself to the fact that I was just darn cold, and the only thing that would improve the situation was climbing on that lift to take me back to the hotel and a hot shower, and meal.

Finally, one passerby alerted us to the fact that the riders had essentially gone on strike – not once – but twice!  First they wanted to take out one of the intermediate mountain stages and then they refused to go up that last section I mentioned.  So while we were stomping our feed to keep warm and drinking unconscionably cold red wine, the race directors were scrambling to move the finish line seven kilometers down the

fashion victims have been cropped

fashion victims have been cropped

mountain.  We shakily rose to our feet and made our way down the hill to a rather anti-climatic finish.  My husband was stunned that the riders mutinied – I heard repeated mutterings of “this would never happen at the Tour!”  Although I kept it to myself, I was relieved – maybe giddy is a better description –  to be heading down the mountain to relative warmth.   

After the finish we made our way back to the lift and back to the hotel.  How many ways can you say bliss?  The hot shower was amazing and that Austrian meal of  Leberknödelsuppe warmed me from the inside.  

the end is near

the end is near

 a church in the distance (near Brunico)

a church in the distance (near Brunico)

The next day we came down for breakfast and confirmed our suspicion that a few teams from the Giro also stayed at our hotel.  We were shocked that everyone looked so dejected; the sighs and moans were piteous.  Men slumped in their chairs or draped on the breakfast tables with their heads in their hands.  While I felt great wearing shorts and a t-shirt – the multiple layers including the repurposed plastic bags now a distant memory.  We thought someone might have died and my Italian is extremely limited and what we gleaned from the papers provided no clues.  Only later did we find out that a doping scandal had  been revealed and the coach of one time had made a dash across the boarder, and another team was ejected from the Giro.  We were in the midst of a juicy scandal and this soap opera was playing out in front of us and could not understand a word.  Oh – the injustice!  

If your are looking for excitement and nightlife, this is not the place, but if you want to relax and unwind and explore some unexpected culture in beautiful surroundings, than Brunico and the Southern Tyrol area are up to the challenge.  This section of Italy is wonderful to explore and makes you rethink your preconceived notions of this amazing diverse country.

Side note:  The original version of wiener schnitzel is thought to have originated in Milan, but it took the fine folks of Vienna to make it the popular dish we know today.

Posted by: oysterculture | May 14, 2009

Toblerone – a chocolate replica of a national treasure

who can resist?
who can resist?

You see that distinctive beige triangular box and immediately you just know its going to be good, and unless you have the will power of Lance Armstrong, you know  you are not going to stop with one square, err triangle portion, but settle in for the long haul.  You know what I am talking about, resistance is futile… that all around unique candy bar – Toblerone.  Not only is it’s shape unlike any other chocolate bar, but there is no confusing its flavor.  Toblerone is a Swiss chocolate bar that is immediately recognizable because of its unique shape and packaging.  I’ve been reading a lot about marketing strategy lately, and it struck me as a classic example of a marketing success story – if you just have the box, and hide the name, everyone knows what can be found within; if you do a blind taste test, folks familiar with the flavor can tell you the candy.


“Toblerone” is a play on the names “Tobler” + “Torrone“, the Italian word for honey and almond nougat.  Tobler being the surname of the company founder.


The official version states that the chocolate bar owes its triangular shape to the famous Swiss Mountains of The Matterhorn.  The unofficial version is that on Theodore Tobler’s frequent business trips to Paris, he visited the shows at the Folies Bergères.  The shows’ finale featured the red and beige clad dancers forming a human pyramid, was the inspiration for his “ah-ha” moment.   

Regardless of its genesis, this brilliant marketing idea, and the Toblerone name were quickly patented, making the Toblerone chocolate bar the first chocolate product to have this distinction.  Tobler moved quickly and in 1909 also registered Toblerone as a brand name in Switzerland.


So what of this country that produced this wonderful sweet?    Switzerland is a country of incredible beauty, and diversity brought on in part in its quest for neutrality and independence.  The time I spent there only stoked my desire for further exploration.  The

(photo from historichotelsofeurope)

(photo from historichotelsofeurope)

country, thanks to its prime location, enjoys tremendous natural resources and beauty.  Its a land of multiple personalities, and each one is worth knowing.  In some respects, it is a composite of Europe with its French, Italian and Germany cultural regions.  Not one, but four languages are officially spoken:  French, German, Italian and Romansh.  Switzerland is further divided into 26 cantons, each with their own constitution, legislature, government and courts.  Which leads me to my next observation…

Switzerland’s strong goal towards neutrality makes for some challenging business situations, especially for those not familiar with its attributes.  I worked in Switzerland some years ago, and was responsible for the construction of a telecom site that required hiring contractors in construction, electrical, plumbing, and the like.  I discovered that contractors must be hired locally – I had hoped to piggyback of the success of a colleague and hire the contractors he worked with in Geneva (my project was in Zurich).  To my chagrin, I could not make that hire.  Each city has its own building codes – so no regulations are governed at the national level.  To find an expert in the building codes, local contractors are about the only option, and this sort of local expertise extends beyond business into the realm of food.   

A sampling of cuisine (by region)

When most people think of Swiss food, what immediately springs to mind are images of cheese and chocolate. Many Swiss cheeses  are justly famous – take for example Emmental cheese, Gruyère, Vacherin, and Appenzeller.  Of course with that wonderful ingredient, inspiration strikes and dishes such as are fondue and raclette are developed.  Swiss chocolate covers the gamut as well with: Lindt, Suchard, Cailler, Sprungli, well you get the idea.  The bulk of what is produced and shared with the world so when you walk into your grocer you might be able to take home a bit of Switzerland.

Dishes from the French part of Switzerland

Cantons include Geneva and Vaude.

Swiss fondue (photo from

Swiss fondue (photo from


Papet vaudois is very filling as a pork sausage, leek and potato hotpot.  ‘Papet vaudois’, leeks with potatoes, served with Saucisson (sausage)/

Fondue is probably the most famous Swiss dish. Fondue is made out of melted cheese. It is eaten by dipping small pieces of bread or potatoes in the melted cheese.

Raclette is a variation of fondue, and is melted cheese dribbled over potatoes, served with small gherkins or pickles, pickled onions etc. 

Tarts and quiches are also traditional Swiss dishes. Tarts in particular are made with all sorts of toppings, from sweet apple to onion.

Cervelas (made of beef and pork) is considered the national sausage, and is popular throughout Switzerland – to the tune of over 160 million links consumed annually.


Dishes from the German part of Switzerland
Rösti: This simple dish, similar to hash browns, is a Swiss German favorite. It has given its name to the “Rösti ditch”, the cultural demarcation between the German and French regions of Switzerland – but do not let that fool you, it is consumed with gusto even in the French      

Unteraargletscher, Switzerland (photo from

Unteraargletscher, Switzerland (photo from

speaking cantons of Switzerland.  Like hasbrowns, you might find a couple of fried eggs nestled on top. Originally considered a breakfast staple, it is now overlooked thanks to muesli, which is commonly eaten for breakfast and in Switzerland answers to Birchermüesli.  

Züri gschnätzeltes: Thin strips of veal with mushrooms in a cream sauce and served with rösti.

Meat cuts, Zürich style, are served with Rösti.

Älplermagronen: (Alpine herdsman’s macaroni) is a frugal one pot meal using ingredients found in the herdsmen’s alpine cottages: macaroni, potatoes, onions, bacon, and melted cheese. Traditionally Älplermagronen is served with applesauce rather than vegetables or salad. 


Dishes from the Italian part of Switzerland

The Ticino canton is the only Italian speaking canton in Switzerland, and as you can imagine pizza and pasta are very popular, both here and around Switzerland.  It is almost entirely surrounded by Italy, hence the heavy influence, as a result the

hillside view of Ticino (photo from

hillside view of Ticino (photo from

predominate language is Italian but not without a twist.  Given the French and German presence in Switzerland some of their words have been assimilated into the local dialect.

Polenta: For centuries polenta was regarded as a meal for the poor. While corn was introduced back in the 17th century, it took another 200 years before polenta – initially made with flour added, only later of pure cornmeal – became a staple of the area.

Saffron Risotto: A typical dish from Ticino

In this region, one will finds a restaurant unique to the region, called a grotto, so you will see Grotto Ticinese. This restaurant is a rustic eatery, offering traditional food ranging from pasta to homemade meat specialties. Popular dishes include artisanal sausages called Luganighe and Luganighetta.   Authentic grottoes are old wine caves repurposed into restaurants, and commonly found around forests and built against a rocky background. Typically, the facade is granite blocks and the outside tables and benches are made of the same material.  Grottoes are popular with locals and tourists alike.  


Dishes from the Graubünden Canton in Switzerland

This canton borders Liechtenstein and Austria, with only one third of its land available for use, the rest is forests and mountains.  Some corn and chestnut farming takes place, along with some wine production around the capital.

Zurich (photo from

Zurich (photo from


Chur Meat Pie: A popular dish from Graubünden in south eastern Switzerland.  Chur is the capital of this canton.

Graubünden Barley Soup: The famous soup from Graubünden

Pizokel with cabbage: Pizokel were eaten in a wide variety of ways. In some places when eaten by themselves they are known in Romansh as “bizochels bluts”, or “bald pizokel”. If someone leaves a small amount of any kind of food on the serving dish for politeness sake, in the Engadine this is called “far sco quel dal bizoccal”, meaning “leaving the last pizokel”.

Bündner Nusstorte: a honey and nut tart.

Bündnerfleisch: a dried-beef specialty


The diversty is part of what makes the Swiss, well Swiss.  They say that what is important is “unity not uniformity” and when the results this delicious and delightful, I think they’re on to something. 

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