Italian Beer

DSC_7588.jpgOn page 724 of Against the Day, we find sinister (likely orange-faced tiny-handed) plutocrat Scarsdale Vibe touring northern Italy with his faithful manservant Foley Walker hunting bargains in Renaissance art. The hunt involves regular humiliation for Foley, not a day going by that he doesn’t “find himself carrying out some chore better left to a performing monkey.”

Page 726, though, has Scarsdale doing some of the heavy lifting himself:

At the moment they were out in the lagoon among the Lost Lands, Scarsdale underwater and Foley up in a little steam caorlina fitted for diving. The millionaire, rigged out in rubber hoses and brass helmet, was down inspecting a mural, preserved for centuries beneath the waves by a varnishing technique now lost to history, attributed (dubiously) to Marco Zoppo, and known informally as The Sack of Rome.

This circumstance provides Foley’s subconscious a chance to entertain its urges towards murderous retribution, his hands creeping unbidden towards the nozzles of the air-supply hoses…

DSC_7581Meanwhile, Vibe is having an underwater moment of art-appreciation:

Seen through the brilliant noontide illumination, approached with the dreamy smoothness of a marine predator, the depiction seemed almost three-dimensional, as with Mantegna at his most persuasive. It was of course not just Rome, it was the World, and the World’s end. … Scarsdale was no aesthete, the Cassily Adams rendition of Little Big Horn was fine enough art for him, but he could see right away without the help of hired expertise that this was what you’d call a true masterpiece, and he’d be very surprised indeed if somebody hadn’t already sold reproductions of it to some Italian beer company to use in local saloons over here.

The Little Big Horn painting referred to is the inspiration for a print distributed by Budweiser to bars across America, discussed in fascinating detail here. It seems every people must have their national equivalent to this great saloon mural of mythic foundational violence. Back on page 395, the narrator describes the cantina where Frank kills Sloat thus:

adobe walls, perpetual 4:00 A.M. gloom, abiding fumes of pulque in the room, no Budweiser Little Big Horn panoramas here, instead some crumbling mural of the ancient Aztec foundation story of the eagle and the serpent, here perversely showing the snake coiled around the eagle and just about to dispatch it

So Mexican beer (or pulque) gets snakes eating eagles, Budweiser gets Custer killing Native Americans, and the Italians (Vibe presumes) get the sack of Rome.

DSC_7568.jpgHow is that Italian beer anyway? I have gathered a highly representative and nineteenth century-relevant sample of two mass-produced lagers (Moretti and Menabrea) and two modern craft things (Birra Del Borgo My Antonia and LoverBeer BeerBrugna). None of them feature any sack of rome imagery unfortunately, although the LoverBeer label doesn’t look completely unlike it was copied from an underwater mural.

The Moretti is very pale and very clear, and starts out as a pleasant enough crisp euro lager. But it falls off a muddy cliff on the back palate and as it warms up a bit becomes just a nasty puddle on the floor of a suburban pub. The Menabrea is much nicer, with a pronounced sweet bready nose and a pleasant light biscuity body.

LoverBeer are the only brewery on our lineup from the northern region of Italy that Foley and Vibe are plundering–they’re just outside of Turin, not too far from the French border. Their BeerBrugna is a wild sour ale aged on plums. It’s tart, with a full plummy body, but just isn’t super exciting to me.

Birra del Borgo’s My Antonia blows them all out of the water. It’s a “continually hopped” imperial pilsner, originally made in collaboration with Dogfish Head. Hazy golden with a beautiful fluffy white head. Smells like peaches, and has this incredible soft pillowy mouthfeel. It’s smooth sweet hops throughout — a mix of spicy noble Saaz and fruity American Simcoe, among others. It’s got the inexplicable magic touch that Vibe perceives as genius in his underwater mural.

Mavrodaphne

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One spring late in Against the Day, Auberon Halfcourt and Umeki Tsurigane find Yashmeen, Reef, and baby Ljubica on the Greek island of Corfu. They dine “in a taverna down by the harbour in Garitsa.” Page 975:

They sat at a long table and ate tsingarelli and polenta and yaprakia and a chicken stoufado with fennel and quince and pancetta in it that Nikos the owner and cook said was an ancient Venetian recipe from back in the centuries when the island had belonged to Venice, and Reef snuck his baby daughter tiny sips of Mavrodaphne, which did not put her to sleep but made her quite rowdy as a matter of fact, pulling the tail of Hrisoula, the ordinarily imperturbable taverna cat, until she actually meowed in protest.

That food all sounded too beautiful for me to leave on the page. Happily, Google dropped what appears to be the exact recipe Pynchon refers to right into my digital lap. A “stoufado” seems to be Pynchon’s spelling of “stifado,” a Greek stew. On page 136 of Aglaia Kremezi’s The Foods of the Greek Islands: Cooking and Culture at the Crossroads of the Mediterranean there lies a chicken and fennel stew with quince and pancetta. Kremezi even provides that backstory that Pynchon has Nikos pass on:

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From what I’ve been able to gather, the Ninetta Laskari book referred to is a history written in the local Corfu dialect called Corfu: a Glance through Time. Barring the not totally far fetched possibility that Pynchon reads Corfiot, I must conclude that the above Kremezi cookbook is Pynchon’s source here! (Feel free to lift that when you get onto An Against the Day Companion, Stephen Weisenburger.) You can see how he was unable to resist a story like this one, especially in Against the Day—East and West layered throughout history into a hearty family meal.

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So anyway, equipped with a recipe straight out of Against the Day, I’ve ventured beyond the liquor cabinet and into Tom Pynchon’s Kitchen. The venture has been rewarding. This was some mighty delicious Greek grandmother Sunday lunch goodness. It was chicken, fennel, quince, and pancetta stewed for ~1.5 hours in a mixture of sweet Mavrodaphe wine and whatever dryer red was sitting on my counter, and was the yummiest thing I’ve made in ages. I highly recommend hitting up the google book above for the recipe–especially if you have any of this Mavrodaphne easily accessible. I didn’t manage to recreate all the side dishes that Reef et al enjoy (couldn’t even figure out what “tsingarelli” was), but I did follow Nikos in serving it with polenta.

dsc_7483Half the bottle of Mavrodaphne went into the food, and I can’t say I’ve mourned the loss. It did wonderful work in the stew, but it’s not the greatest drinking. It smells very fortified and not very welcoming, although it’s only 15%. The taste is sweet and round and quite like a Marsala cooking wine. It’s drinkable, but not exactly thrilling. It may have made baby Ljubica rowdy with all that sugar, but I’m more likely to be put into a happy well-fed sleep.

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Brandy and Soda

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The brandy and soda is a drink that seems to exist today primarily as a P. G. Wodehouse reference. It’s a basic combination that nevertheless occurs to no-one but those imitating Bertie Wooster. Surveying the internet, it appears that mention of the ‘B and S’ without reference to Jeeves and Wooster has been strictly outlawed. They do seem to be rather a Wodehouse special—Penguin describe their anthology of Wodehouse on drinking saying:

His imperishable writing displays a well-turned appreciation for all kinds of booze – cocktails, champagne, port, whiskey and brandy (with soda, of course) …

DSC_7418.jpgBut Wodehouse doesn’t have a monopoly on the combination. Pynchon (whose appreciation for booze I would argue far surpasses “well-turned”) gets in on the rather stuffy B n’ S action in one of his first published stories, “Mortality and Mercy in Vienna.,” and then again 47ish years later in Against the Day.

“Mortality and Mercy” is Pynchon’s only published early story not included in Slow Learner. An anecdote (albeit a somewhat secondhand one emerging from a postmodern hall of textual mirrors) recorded here suggests that Pynchon wrote the story in an undergraduate class at Cornell in response to a first sentence provided by the professor. I will decline to summarise the plot and instead only endorse it as being a fun read and provide you with this one relevant sentence:

He would stand, therefore, out in some street, not moving, hanging on to the briefcase and thinking about Rachel who was 4′ 10″ in her stocking feet, whose neck was pale and sleek, a Modigliani neck, whose eyes were not mirror images but both slanted the same way, dark brown almost to fathomlessness, and after awhile he would drift up to the surface again and be annoyed with himself for worrying about these things when the data inside the briefcase should have been at the office fifteen minutes ago; and realize, reluctantly, that the racing against time, the awareness of being a cog, the elan — almost roguery of the playboy element in the Commission which went well with his British staff officer appearance — even the intradepartmental scheming and counterscheming which went on in jazz cellars at two in the morning, in pensions over brandy and soda, were, after all, exciting.

That passage almost undermines the above about brandy and soda existing only as upper class British affectation, except that it does still seem to be tied to his “British staff officer appearance,” does feel a part of the Commission’s toffee old-timey culture he fits so well.

In AtD, the brandy and sodas are again hovering in the vicinity of Britishness itself, this time expressed in the persons of who else but Neville and Nigel. They’re at a performance of Waltzing in Whitechapel, a somewhat meta “musical comedy about Jack the Ripper” (p. 679). At intermission, they run into a Colonnel Max Khäutsch, encountered earlier in the book escorting Franz Ferdinand. N&N are mostly drinking cough syrup out of a flask, but Khäutsch is getting into the local spirit “working on a brandy and soda,” (p. 680).

“Working” ain’t wrong—this thing is no fun. It tastes like a visit to grandma’s house. (Not my grandmas, they’re cool grandmas. A hypothetical stereotypical attic-dwelling cobwebbed grandmother.) Dusty, musty, staid, and dull. I may have mixed it too weak, but really very little promise was showing. I can’t say I’m surprised the brandy and soda has been relegated to affected Britishism status.

Coconut Ale

dsc_7353In Chapter Three of Mason & Dixon, the Reverend Cherrycoke narrates the first excursion of our title characters in London. As Mason (“coming the Old London Hand”) inducts Dixon into the cheerful violence and mystery of the city, they encounter a group of sailors in charge of the vessel the pair are to sail on. Under the enthusiastic captaincy of Fender-Belly Bodine, the sailors are plotting to kidnap one Léarned English Dog (LED). Page 21:

“Now,— our plan, is to snatch this Critter, and for you Gents to then keep it in with your own highly guarded Cargo, out of sight of the Master-at-Arms, until we reach a likely Island,—

“Island…” “Snatch…” both Surveyors a bit in a daze.

“I’ve been out more than once to the Indies,— there’s a million islands out there, each more likely than the last, and I tell you a handful of Sailors with their wits about them, and that talking Dog to keep the Savages amused, why, we could be kings.”

“Long life to Kings!” cry several sailors.

“Aye and to Cooch Girls!”

“— and Coconut-Ale!”

“Hold,” cautions Mason. “I’ve heard they eat dogs out there.”

“Wrap ’em in palm leaves,” Dixon solemnly, “and bake ’em on the beach…?”

Happily, the Léarned D. foils the sailors in their kidnapping plot with the help of his present “exhibitors,” and all retire to the Pearl of Sumatra for a drink on Bodine’s tab.

dsc_7372But back to that Coconut Ale, apparently a delight of the Indies! I can’t find much of any information on Indigenous coconut beer in those regions. The sailors may be referring to a type of Palm Wine made from the sap of a coconut tree. But I will take them at their word and stick with a coconut ale.

This Coconut Hiwa is a porter brewed in Hawaii by Maui Brewing Company. It’s made with hand-toasted coconut, and plenty of that comes through. Were I an English sailor encountering such a thing on a sojourn in the East Indies, I would certainly find it a memorable twist on the original style from back home, and a drink well befitting an island king.

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Mâconnais

dsc_6922“It’s like licking a bloody piece of slate tile” quoth my father post-quaff of this Mâconnais. He seemed to intend this as a compliment.

dsc_6913The Mâconnais is a Southern chunk of the Burgundy wine region, known for producing value-for-money Chardonnay. This bottle (Louis Latour Les Deux Moulins Saint-Véran) did indeed seem reasonably cheap for fancy-sounding Burgundy under a a classy-looking label. Whether it constituted value or not I am ill-equipped to judge.The shop claimed it was “rich and powerful” with “toasty brioche aromas,” as if it were some kind of boulangerie magnate / French mafia boss. I remarked at first that it was one of the blandest wines I’d ever tasted. But I remain something of a philistine regarding  white wine—it may have been just too subtle and elegant for me.

In Against the Day, Yashmeen’s posse of Lorelei, Noellyn, and Faun draw a bottle of Mâconnais while convincing her to dump Cyprian. Page 494:

“But he makes me laugh.”

“Yes they are good for that,” conceded serious Noellyn, “though one does hear, more often than one would care to, this ‘he makes me laugh’ defense. There being laughter, this is, and laughter.”

“And if laughing’s what you fancy…” Lorelei held out one of the bottles of Mâconnais they had brought.

I personally didn’t find anything very humorous about the Mâconnais. It struck me instead as rather serious. But Yashmeen is a woman of unusual tastes I suppose. And perhaps I just didn’t get through enough bottles for the funny side to reveal itself.

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Absinthe Frappé

DSC_6761.jpgThis here is the fiftieth drink to join our digital cabinet of liquors! And a mighty fine addition it is too. If I were asked elect an emblematic spirit for each Pynchon book, some choices would be easy. White corn whiskey would represent Mason & Dixon. Lot 49 might be kirsch. And Against the Day would be absinthe.

The denizens of AtD take their absinthe in diverse preparations over the course of the book’s pages—soaked into cigarettes, louched with Champagne, cocktailed with rum and brandy. On this occasion, we find it in a frappé. Reef has wound up gallivanting around with Ruperta Chirpingdon-Groin and her crew under the assumed identify of Thrapston Cheesely III, but that whole arrangement’s about to go south. Page 368:

They finally parted company in New Orleans after a confused and repetitive headache of a night that began at the establishment of Monsieur Peychaud, where the Sazeracs, though said to’ve been invented there, were not a patch, it seemed to Reef, on those available at Bob Stockton’s bar in Denver, though those Absinthe Frappés were another matter.

dsc_6755Pynchon doesn’t quite get his Sazerac history right here. According to the (admittedly somewhat mythologising) Sazerac Rye website, Monsieur Peychaud was indeed the inventor of the bitters that go in a Sazerac, but this was in the 1830s/40s,  before Reef was born, and Peychaud didn’t have a bar—he was an apothecary serving it for friends after hours in his pharmacy. The Sazerac became established more widely primarily thanks to the Sazerac Coffee House, and that’s likely where Reef gets his sub-par version. Anyway, let’s save the Sazerac for another time. Reef much preferred the frappé, and I’m happy to take his recommendation.

Here be the contents of my Absinthe Frappé, mostly following this recipe:

  • 1.5 shots of Pernod Absinthe
  • 1.5 shots of soda water
  • However much sugar seems necessary
  • A few mint leaves
  • A bunch of ice

All blended up together and garnished with some more mint. They taste summery and sophisticated, bright and refreshing. They look cool. Good tip all round from Reef.

Here’s to the next fifty drinks! Thanks for joining me!

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Gewurztraminer

DSC_6702.jpgWe’ve just about hit 50 Empty Bottles here at Tom Pynchon’s Liquor Cabinet, but this post marks our first occasion revisiting a passage to pull out a second drink. November last year, Against the Day led me to some apricot brandy abandoned in a safe-house cupboard. (I remarked at the time that it was a bit rough, and I can now confirm that it has been pretty much abandoned in my cupboard too). That brandy wasn’t the only booze left behind there though. Here’s the passage again (p. 718):

By the unwritten rules of these transitory dwellings, the cupboards yielded a sketchy culinary history of those who had passed through—bottles of Szekszárdi Vörös, Gewürtztraminer and apricot brandy, chocolates, coffee, biscuits, tinned sausages, wine, boxes of dried noodles of various shapes and sizes, a white cloth bag of tarhonya from the previous century.

As I remarked in the apricot brandy post, most of that stuff is pretty (and, in context, suspiciously) Hungarian. Gewurtztraminer, though, is mostly French. It’s mainly associated with the Alsace region near Germany (which explains that name). The Hungarians might not be totally off the hook however: Wikipedia does say some of these grapes grow there too, known locally as Tramini. Complicating that further is Pynchon’s use of the German spelling with the umlaut, which the French omit… Anyway, I’ve gone with an Alsace version. DSC_6677.jpg

Gewurtztraminer is supposedly characterised by a “flamboyant bouquet of lychees” and maybe I’m just suggestive but I’m finding that a pretty convincing description not just of the aroma, but also the taste and even the mouthfeel. It’s reasonably sweet, and that residual sugar, combined with a lack of acidity, gives it a distinctively lychee-esque full fleshy texture. This particular one was Dopff au Moulin 2013.

Were I abandoning a safe-house, I might try not to leave this drop behind. It’s not particularly fancy, but pleasant and interesting enough that one shouldn’t have to search too hard for an occasion to polish it off. Plus internet wine people advise that Gewurtztraminer is suitable for ageing “only a very few years” if at all, so you couldn’t expect to go back and find it later in much of a condition…