I first came across Royce chocolates last year when flying back from Tokyo. On the way to my gate I spotted a small, half-crazed crowd at one of the shops. Everyone was buying multiple boxes of chocolates by a Japanese company I’d never heard of called Royce. One guy immediately pissed the entire crowd off by walking away with over 20 boxes—the entire stock on hand--of the bittersweet Nama, an ultra-intense dark chocolate and cream concoction so rich, so decadent that it can only be described as reverse liposuction. I managed to push my way through the crowd to score a couple of boxes of the milk chocolate Nama which the white-gloved cashier (true!) carefully wrapped in an insulated silver carrying bag for the long trip home. Once back I opened a box to find a slab of chocolate goodness dusted with cocoa powder perforated into rectangles accompanied by a small plastic serving tool. I separated a couple of wedges for my son and erstwhile chocolate accomplice Patrick and tucked in. I can only describe the experience as something that should be illegal or at least available by prescription only. I’ve since had the bittersweet Nama and it’s the crack of the chocolate world. Give a gift and the recipient may become your love slave for an indefinite period of time—or at least until you score them some more. Royce chocolates are available online at:
You have been warned.
At home olive oil is our go to for cooking, sauces, and drizzling over anything edible that doesn’t otherwise move. But not all olive oil is equal. In fact, most olive is anything but and usually grape seed oil or worse. As for those shiny bottles of “extra virgin” on the Safeway shelves, probably not and the simple answer is because olive oil unlike any other kind of vegetable oil is labor intensive to produce and therefore expensive. Most of the top oils come from ancient Mediterranean olive trees that produce limited quantities that vary with each harvest year. Sounds just like wine--and it is. Some of the best oils come from top Chianti and Brunello estates where small groves of gnarled olive trees have been harvested for centuries. There are two annual olive harvests—fall and spring—with the styles of oil strikingly different; fall oils produced from olives at an earlier stage of maturity are lighter and peppery while their spring counterparts pressed from more mature fruit are richer and more golden in color. Most artisan oils are packaged in 500 ml bottles that range in price anywhere from $25 to over $60. My favorite source for top Tuscan oils is the Rare Wine Company in Sonoma. Get on their mailing list because the oils they offer twice a year sell out quickly. Otherwise, Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor is also a great source for outstanding oils. Finally, know that the Mediterranean doesn’t have a monopoly on great olive oil. McEvoy Ranch in Marin County makes world class oils that are simply delicious.
Other than chocolate nothing offers more intense and immediate sensory gratification than bacon. I call bacon Vitamin P. It’s the gateway drug of the food world. It makes everything taste better. It makes us happy. OK, I’ll stop. No one does bacon better than Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor. The last catalogue I received from them offered 15—that is 15—artisan bacons from around the country and all of them just a mouse click away. Better yet, give the gift of a Zingerman’s bacon club to that special wine geek on your list. They’ll be your friend for life. Hopefully that’s a good thing.
"Ah, music," said Dumbledore wiping his eyes. "A magic far beyond all we do here!”
J.K. Rowling from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
This past year marked the release of digitally remastered versions of the first five Led Zeppelin albums. Rumor has it that guitarist Jimmy Page spent the better part of six years meticulously going through studio and live tracks for the new releases. The results are well worth it as the music has never sounded better. Personal favorites are Led Zeppelin I—one of the greatest debut albums of all time—and Houses of the Holy. I was fortunate enough to hear the band on tour doing Houses of the Holy in 1973. The concert was so loud I was deaf for three days afterwards. It was delightful.
Postmodern Winemaking, Clark Smith
Clark Smith’s Postmodern Winemaking is the most thought provoking wine book I’ve read in years. Smith’s winemaking career in the industry began in the ‘70’s and spans decades. He is a leading proponent of micro-oxygenation as well as the former head of a company that brought reverse osmosis and cross-flow filtration to the California commercial industry. Many revile him for both. But those who do, as Smith notes, usually have little—if any—knowledge much less experience actually making commercial wine. Smith also goes on to point out how winemakers today are under pressure to produce wines that will garner high scores in the press and thus use the latest technology to do just that. But these same winemakers are loathe to admit using micro-ox, cross-flow or other techniques to journalists and writers for fear of being nuked in the press for using too much manipulation or intervention in their winemaking. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I was under the impression that ALL winemaking was intervention. Otherwise, Smith’s chapters on natural wine and biodynamics are not only thoughtful and well written they’re hilarious. While I don’t agree with everything Clark has to say it's definitely food for thought. A great read.
Good Manners for Nice People who Sometimes say F*ck, Amy Alkon
Advice Goddess Amy Alkon is today’s Emily Post—with an edge. Her column and books seek to instill manners and civility in a world gone mad with social media and technology. Alkon's new book Good Manners is filled with witty and pertinent advice on manners for any and all occasions—from dealing with irritating neighbors to dating to that ubiquitous loud person on their cell phone next to you in a café. A delightful and very funny read--and imminently practical too.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Suskind’s recent book, “Life, Animated,” tells the story of his autistic son Owen and how he (Ron) and his wife Cornelia were only able to begin communicating with Owen by using the voices of characters from Disney animated movies. What follows is a remarkable journey as Owen learns life skills and wisdom by assuming the personalities of certain Disney characters even proclaiming himself to be the "protector of sidekicks." Needless to say, the book is very close to home as my son Patrick, also a young adult with disabilities, is a fanatic for all things Disney. Superbly written and highly recommended.
Stimulants & Depressants
Adult life is all about balancing stimulants and depressants. In fact, I have a rule: stimulants by day and depressants at night. It seems to keep everything on the up and up.
In the last few years I’ve become a huge fan of tea—specifically single estate teas from Darjeeling and Assam in India. Enter Upton Tea Imports in Holliston, MA. Founded in 1989 Upton offers over 400 carefully chosen artisan teas and blends from India, China, Sri Lanka, Japan, and beyond. Each selection is available in varying quantities, individually packaged, and personally labeled. Highest recommendation.
Why is it that every time I’m in Italy I can get a great—not just good—espresso anywhere, even in a truck stop? Why, I ask you? No surprise then that until recently I rarely drank straight espresso here in the U.S. because most of the time it’s crap—scalding hot and either insipid or so intensely bitter it’s undrinkable. The French have a term for it: s**t du merde* (translates as ultra sh**y). But last year all that changed when I got a Nespresso machine. After using it for over 15 months I have to say that even the most basic machine like mine—the Citiz D111--turns out high quality, very consistent espresso. I call it the screwcap of coffee because the Nespresso pods remove a lot of variables in the espresso brewing process—the same variables that so often result in those SDM* coffee experiences mentioned above. Over 20 different espresso/coffee blends are offered in brightly colored pods and the coffees are rated in strength on a 1-10 scale (Nigel from This is Spinal Tap would be delighted because there are two espressos rated at 11 and 12. Those are my favorites). As for the machines, they’re available through www.nespresso.com/us or Amazon and range in price from $250 to $600 with some of them offering a milk heating/frothing unit. The pods are also available from both sources.
I call it pirate’s milk because one sip and your polarity will be temporarily reversed--and you’ll probably be saying arrrrr as well. Islay whiskies are the peatiest and strongest malt whiskies of all and definitely not for the faint of heart. Lagavulin 16-year and Laphroaig 10-year are at the deep end of the pool. A friend of mine once said that a dram of Laphroaig was like drinking burned rope with a touch of mecuricome thrown in. Accurate description, that. Ardbeg 15-year is also a personal favorite though much harder to find. Also look for 12 to 18-year bottlings of Bowmore, Bruichladdich, and Caol Ila. Any and all are guaranteed to take the edge off any holiday mishap.
If you’ve not seen the Beatles movies Hard Day’s Night and Help there’s a gaping hole in your cultural education. That’s because so much in the music industry we take for granted today in terms of huge stadium concert venues, filmed live performances, and even the idea of a “super group” can be traced back to the Beatles and their two movies released in 1964 and 1965. Hard Day’s Night was directed by Richard Lester. Filmed in black and white the movie was shot in various locations in and around London. It’s a mockumentary of sorts depicting a day in the life of the group as they rehearse and perform a concert during the height of Beatlemania. I’m convinced that Hard Day’s Night gave us MTV and everything like it that followed. Help, also directed by Lester, was released just a year later. It’s filmed in Eastmancolor and set in various locations including London; the Salisbury Plain with Stonehenge visible in the background; the Bahamas; Salzburg; and the Austrian Alps. In contrast to the first movie, Help is a completely silly farce that manages to include the band playing over half a dozen songs from the album’s soundtrack. As for format, DVD is more than acceptable but hearing Beatles songs in HD-quality sound on Blu Ray discs is a must for any fan. And I’m a huge Beatles fan.
Finally, here’s a quick gift suggestion for you and your loved ones that shows how much you care.