barrel

Tabasco_sauce

Not just alcohol, but tabasco sauce and balsamic vinegar are aged in wooden barrels!

It takes more than a year to make the barrels, then the aging process for some products may take another 3 years.

These products remind me of cheese (see my post on “Aveyron, France”) because of the surprising number of variables that can be manipulated:

  • the type of wood
  • where the wood came from
  • how the staves were cut and dried
  • the degree of barrel charring
  • whether the barrels have previously been used to age another product
  • how the long the aging process takes

Britannica makes it clear that barrel-making is a highly-skilled craft:

According to the 1st-century-ad Roman historian Pliny the Elder, the ancient craft of barrel making, also called cooperage, was invented by the inhabitants of the Alpine valleys.  Tight barrels, made to hold liquids, must be constructed carefully of high-grade woods, such as white oak, with bungholes for filling and emptying. Wood for barrel staves and headings is usually air-dried for at least a year, then kiln-dried for 10 to 20 days before being cut and planed to the needed size and finish. A crucial operation is jointing of the edges of the staves and giving them the proper bilge (middle bulge) so that the joints will be tight and the circumference uniform. The bulge gives the barrel added resistance to internal pressure.The most complex part of the operation is called raising the barrel. Staves are set vertically into a head truss ring, and a temporary hoop is placed over the other end. In this arrangement, the staves are passed through a steam tunnel to soften them for drawing into final shape and then dried again. Whiskey barrels are charred on the inside at this point, so that they will develop flavour in the whiskey as it ages.

According to Wikipedia (“Barrel”), although barrels look simple, a lot of thought went into their design:

Barrels often have a convex shape, bulging at the middle. This bulge facilitates rolling a well-built wooden barrel on its side and change directions with little friction, compared to a cylinder. It also helps to distribute stress evenly in the material by making the container more curved. Barrels have reinforced edges to enable safe displacement by rolling them at an angle (in addition of rolling on their sides as described).

Here are some of the variables that can create different types of alcohol:

TYPE OF ALCOHOL TYPE OF WOOD WHY IT’S USED
wine French common oak subtler taste
white oak
American white oak stronger aromas
chestnut
redwood
sake Japanese cedar imparts an unusual, minty-piney flavor
pisco earthenware or oak
straight whiskey oak
Scotch oak and sometimes used bourbon barrels
sherry North American oak more porous than French or Spanish oak
brandy oak transfer certain aromas to the spirit
cognac oak casks made from the Tronçais and Limousin forests.
beer sometimes aged in barrels that were previously used for maturing wines or spirits.

 

So tabasco and vinegar–really?

Since its invention in 1868, the pepper mash used to make tabasco sauce is aged for three years in previously used oak whiskey barrels (Wikipedia, “Barrel”).

Ever wonder see balsamic vinegar on the store shelf and wonder what it is? Traditional balsamic vinegar is aged in a series of wooden barrels. By law, it must be made from the cooked juice, pulps and skins of specific types of grapes harvested in Modena or Reggio Emilia provinces of Italy. The minimum aging time is no less than 12 years.  Other types of balsamic vinegar, which cannot be called “Traditional,” can have caramel or thickeners and can be aged for shorter times (Wikipedia, “Traditional Balsamic Vinegar”).

Photo credit: http://bit.ly/1NzWHvJ

 

 

 

banana

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
From left to right: plantain, red banana, apple banana, and Cavendish banana.

Courtesy of Wikipedia (“banana”), here are some banana fun facts:

  1. The banana plant is the world’s largest flowering herb; the banana itself is a “leathery berry.”  The bananas eaten in the U.S. are the Cavendish variety.
  2. Bananas are naturally slightly radioactive, more so than most other fruits, because of their potassium content and the small amounts of the isotope potassium-40 found in naturally occurring potassium.  The banana equivalent dose of radiation is sometimes used in nuclear communication to compare radiation levels and exposures.
  3. Ripening bananas fluoresce a bright blue color when exposed to ultraviolet light. Green bananas do not fluoresce.  The fluorescence allows animals that can see light in the ultraviolet spectrum to more easily detect ripened bananas or may add protection against ultraviolet exposure, like a sunscreen, allowing the fruit to remain fresh longer.
  4. Because they reproduce asexually, bananas are vulnerable to being wiped out by disease.  While in no danger of outright extinction, the most common edible banana cultivar Cavendish (extremely popular in Europe and the Americas) could become unviable for large-scale cultivation in the next 10–20 years.
  5. Bananas can be cooked in ways that are similar to potatoes. Both can be fried, boiled, baked, or chipped and have similar taste and texture when served.  Both the skin and inner part can be eaten raw or cooked.  Banana flowers can be eaten, too.
  6. If bananas are too green, they can be put in a brown paper bag with an apple or tomato overnight to speed up the ripening process.
  7. Bananas and plantains are critical to global food security.  Because bananas and plantains produce fruit year-round, they provide an extremely valuable food source during the hunger season (when the food from one annual/semi-annual harvest has been consumed, and the next is still to come).
  8. North Americans began consuming bananas on a small scale at very high prices shortly after the Civil War, though it was only in the 1880s that it became more widespread.  As late as the Victorian Era, bananas were not widely known in Europe, although they were available.  Jules Verne introduces bananas to his readers with detailed descriptions in Around the World in Eighty Days (1872).
  9. The United States produces few bananas. A few tons were grown in Hawaii in 2001.  Bananas were once grown in Florida and southern California.
  10. Bananas are used to create thread for kimonos.
  11.  Two different parts of the banana plant can be used to make paper.
  12.  Banana peels may have capability to extract heavy metal contamination from river water.
  13. The first joke about slipping on a banana peel was recorded in 1910.
  14. In all the important festivals and occasions of Hindus, the serving of bananas plays a prominent part.
  15. The term “banana republic” has been applied to most countries in Central America, but from a strict economic perspective only Costa Rica, Honduras, and Panama had economies dominated by the banana trade.  The phrase comes from the political maneuvers of banana companies, which included working with local elites and their rivalries to influence politics or playing the international interests of the United States, especially during the Cold War, to keep the political climate favorable to their interests.
  16. Plantains have more starch and less sugar than bananas and are cooked.  They can be used at any stage of ripeness.

Photo credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Banana#/media/File:Bananavarieties.jpg

See also an article about the banana from 1550 found in England:

Ancient London banana unpeeled

Aveyron, France

Roquefort_cheese_-_PDphoto

Bleu de Gex

Aveyron’s economy is dominated by sheep, the milk of which is used to make Roquefort cheese (left), matured in limestone caves.

I had no idea that sheeps’ milk was used to make cheese, so I researched cheese making and learned about Blue cheese (right).  The blue color comes from a penicillin mold.  What surprised me here is that I am allergic to penicillin, yet I love Blue cheese.

It seems there could be almost an infinite variety of cheeses if you combine different types of places it could be matured (types of caves?  types of barrels?), different types of molds, and different sources of milk.  I wonder if there are people with as much expertise in identifying cheeses as there are those who identify wine.  (I have heard of blindfolded wine experts who can identify not only a type of wine, not only the region it came from, but the EXACT FIELD it came from.  A palate that sensitive is amazing!)

Photo credits: On the left is Roquefort cheese (http://bit.ly/1HTvzUP); on the right is Blue cheese (http://bit.ly/1Hl3bWj)

asparagus

Asparagus_officinalis_bluete

“In parts of France, most notably at Argenteuil, asparagus is customarily grown underground to inhibit development of chlorophyll. This white asparagus is prized for its tenderness and delicate flavour. In classic French culinary nomenclature, the word “Argenteuil” denotes an asparagus garnish.”

This makes me wonder what other vegetables could be grown underground and how they would taste.  It would be an interesting project to systematically grow every vegetable underground and see what happens.  Would adding things to the soil change the taste much?

Photo credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Asparagus_officinalis_bluete.jpeg

(Who knew? Asparagus has flowers!)

arrowroot

It’s interesting to me how different ingredients of cooking can serve specialized purposes.  Arrowroot’s “fine texture allows cooking at lower temperatures and for shorter periods than other starches, making it especially suitable for such egg preparations as custards, which are adversely affected by overcooking.”

This reminds me of how different types of oils serve different purposes.  Grapeseed oil is especially good for stir-frying because of its high smoke point — the point at which the oil begins to smoke, generating toxic fumes and harmful free radicals — of 420 degrees Fahrenheit.  Also, because of its neutral taste, it is often used as a base in salad dressings (from http://www.marthastewart.com/268547/grapeseed-oil-101).

I imagine that different types of flour also lend themselves to different purposes.

To me one of the key marks of a skillful cook is an understanding of the unique characteristics of each ingredient and using the right ingredients for the right purposes.