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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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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Apricot Brandy

Apricot Brandy Pynchon

Around page 718 of Against the Day, Cyprian and Yashmeen meet up with Ratty McHugh to discuss Yashmeen’s fear that she’s being followed, including by a “Hungarian element.” (My recollection of this passage is close to nil, but the Chumps of Choice group-read blog has great memory-refreshing summaries of AtD chapters—it’s a great travelling companion if you’re reading the book now). They retreat to a safe-house of Ratty’s, where we get this little Slothrop’s-desk description of the kitchen’s contents (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.

I don’t mean to descend into petty quibbling, but doesn’t it seem a bit lazy to include “wine” in a list that’s already mentioned two specific wines? Whatever, it’s good for my list. Right now, I’m just going to handle the apricot brandy.

Apricot brandy these days is most often a liqueur flavoured with apricots, rather than a true brandy distilled from fermented apricot juice. But the real stuff can be found. I used a bit of this Fütyülős Barack in the Tequila Zombie. As you might be able to guess from all those accents, it’s Hungarian. This particular type of brandy is known as Pálinka, and Wikipedia tells me it’s a protected product that can only be made in Hungary or a few bits of Austria. It’s not the only morsel of Hungary in Ratty’s safe-house—the Szekszárdi Vörös (wine) and tarhonya (some kind of pasta) also hail from the Magyar lands. This “sketchy culinary history” does indeed seem a bit sketchy—what’s Ratty’s hideaway doing full of Hungarian food while Yashmeen fears pursuit by Hungarians?

I’ll say one thing—I can see how the apricot brandy got left in the back of a cupboard. Authentic or not, I’m finding it a bit rough. The apricots come through pleasantly enough, but the alcohol burn is too harsh for me to really enjoy this straight. I’ll find some more cocktails to put it in.