A product review blog primarily focusing on food + drink that is organic, sustainable, wild-harvested, ethical, or otherwise well-produced.

Tag: artisanal

Wandering Aengus Cider – Golden Russet at 1.5 years

WANDERING-AENGUS

After scouring the country in search of organic craft alcohols of all sorts, we’ve discovered a significantly larger number of ciders than we have anything else. Organic beers are slowly but surely on the rise, as are hard alcohols and wines, but ciders have got them well beat out.

Let us clarify. Speaking purely numbers, wines easily take the cake for the highest organic count, with plenty of certified and non-certified vintners keeping their process clean from field to bottle – Domaine Huet of Vouvray and Domaine Leroy of Bourgogne being prime examples of the latter – but the issue of ‘spoofing’ in the wine industry deeply muddies the debate, and is too big a detour to address properly in this article. That aside, the majority of wines marketed as organic in the United States are simple, mass market table wines, so if we’re talking about alcoholic drinks meant to be paid any kind of serious attention, the numbers quickly become very different.

Even though it’s incredibly satisfying every time we find an unfamiliar organic, biodynamic, or otherwise well-produced alcohol, it is frustratingly difficult to do so*. Most alcohols don’t even list their ingredients, let alone tell you anything about them, so if they don’t make it clear upfront what they’re working with, there’s no way to know without some thorough online investigation or direct contact with the producer, which of course takes quite a bit of commitment. When we’re on the hunt, we literally turn around every unfamiliar bottle desperately searching for any sort of indication.

During a hunt of similar description, we found Wandering Aengus**, specifically this Golden Russet single varietal cider (one of a series of theirs) in the Bend Whole Foods. Even though we’d only had a Golden Russet apple once before (in the hibernal Northeast for those who are curious), the experience was powerful, and to this day it easily tops our favourite apple list. That said, we were justifiably stoked to see a cider made from our very hard-to-find favourite apple.

A cidery based in Salem, Oregon, Wandering Aengus Ciderworks works exclusively with heirloom cider apples. The apples that go into the Golden Russet cider in particular all come from a single orchard in Ashland, Oregon where they are grown using organic methods, and then fermented into cider and bottled by Wandering Aengus. Our bottles are from the October 2014 harvest, and were bottled after a 5-month fermentation period in March 2015. We say bottles plural because we’ve got a second one we’re keeping racked to pull out in a few years after it’s had a chance to age a bit more.

Their single varietal miniseries (others of which have been made from Wickson and Ashmead’s Kernel apples) stands pretty drastically apart from their main line of ciders – all of which are hefty blends, using 20+ different types of apples per bottle. The label design on this series reflects the contrasting simplicity, employing the Celtic trinity knot (meant to represent the interwoven relationship[s] of fruit, cidermaker, and technique) as its only iconography on a single-coloured background.

Golden Russet at 1.5 years:

On the nose, it’s lovely; mellow, light, and clean. It smells like a straightforward, bright cider that one would expect to be relatively accessible. On the palate though, it offered some surprising quirks that for many might be harder to handle, most of which can probably be attributed to the unique character of Golden Russets, but the rest we’d chock up to being opened prematurely. Oddly enough, Wandering Aengus themselves suggest a drinking age of as young as 1 year.

The first thing you’re likely to notice is that this is a deeply sour cider, and a dry one at that, so you won’t find respite for your acidified tongue in an immediate response of sugars as you drink. This profile fairly well represents our experience of Golden Russets as a whole fruit. Sharper than they are sweet, their appeal lies largely in the complex flavours of their skin, particular brightness, and the unique texture of their flesh. These basic characteristics (excepting textural elements, of course) appear to have been transformed by the fermentation only in terms of exaggeration, at least so far. Secondly, there is a wonderfully forward minerality that’s got an electric quality which combined with the strong acids makes for a fun kick; at times tasting almost straight-up salty.

To get more out of the young cider, we ate some strong tasting foods in hopes of knocking out primary aspects of its profile in order to show off more underlying features. Following a quick bite of finger limes, which stifled the brighter notes, we detected the not exactly flattering-sounding but nonetheless interesting scent of ‘cat urine’ most often associated with certain Sauvignon Blancs, and after a bit of extremely (perhaps even overly) ripe Camembert, a vegetal blueberry note was revealed that, though subtle, lingered for quite some time.

Texturally, this cider’s sort-of funny, as the bubbles appear to be largely inactive until they hit your mouth, at which point though, they become blatantly obvious: fairly coarse and medium-large.

Though there may be some things in those past few paragraphs that sound intriguing, we should state that while this was by no means a bad drinking experience, it was also not a particularly good one. Unless you feel like desperately hunting down the sensations listed above, your experience is more likely to be of a fairly one-note, high acidity, moderately dry, minerally cider. If that’s what you’re into, you’ll enjoy it, but we found it to be unbalanced, obnoxious, and lacking depth. Interesting, sure. Enjoyable? Less sure.

Ultimately, 1.5 years just doesn’t seem to have been enough time to do these Golden Russets justice. Only time will tell. As fun as its shocking acidity may be for kids like us who grew up on sour candy, hanging out with this young and overzealous cider for an entire evening proved to be tiresome. Though this first encounter with Wandering Aengus was admittedly underwhelming, we’re not closing ourselves off to future possibilities. Ciders of different apples and vintages could prove more impressive, and you never know, that second Golden Russet could have something exciting in store.

*We suspect that a significant contributor to the difficulty of obtaining organic alcoholic beverages (even in stores which otherwise specialize in sourcing good, organic products) is that too many people assume the belief that drinking alcohol is already unhealthy – a point we’re not going to agree with or debate – and so therefore if they’re going to do it, do not see any reason to drink organic. Unfortunately, this stance completely misses the much more important factors of environmental impact and sustainability. If you take issue with the vast swaths of monoculture corn and wheat that currently dominate our agricultural landscape, it is imperative to consider that those same ears of corn are becoming your whiskey, and the wheat, your beer. Sourcing organic, biodynamic, and heirloom materials is about protecting and supporting biodiversity, reducing soil degradation, and limiting toxic agricultural pollution (among other things) infinitely more than it is about personal health.

**The name Wandering Aengus comes from Irish poet W.B. Yeats’ poem entitled: The Song of Wandering Aengus.

 

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Hayden Flour Mills – Crackers

hayden-flour-mills-crackers

We were first introduced to Hayden Flour Mills through the famed Arizona pizzeria, Pizzeria Bianco, who now use Hayden’s flours to make their exceptional crusts and pastas. After having dined at both Bianco locations a multitude of times over the years, we had begun to wonder if their secret lie more in preparation or source material. Of course, both are key, and Bianco had already reached great success well before switching over to Hayden’s flours, but a chef like Chris Bianco doesn’t just switch primary flour sources on a whim, and we can’t help but feel they’ve elevated their work with the addition of Hayden, at least a bit.

Hayden Flour Mills is a flour mill based in Queen Creek, Arizona, a small town less than an hour Southeast of Phoenix, building on the mythical foundations of the historic Tempe mill. They mill exclusively heritage grains, which are grown and hand-cultivated by small local farms, and ground using rare traditional Austrian stone mills, of which they have three (at the time of our writing this). All of the grain varietals are inherently non-GMO, and due to the heartier nature of heirloom stock, no herbicides or pesticides are used in their production.

While in Phoenix, we made an uncharacteristic stop in at a Sprouts and were pleasantly surprised by a decently-sized display of products local to Arizona, including Hayden Flour Mills’ flours and pancake mixes, along with their newest venture – crackers. Despite the fact that we’d been dying to bake with their White Sonora Wheat*, we were on the road, and flour is just about the silliest item we could have purchased. So instead, bound to practicality, we picked up the three cracker varieties they had available: Red Fife Wheat, Blue Beard Semolina, and Emmer Farro – the fourth and final in the series being of course the White Sonora Wheat we’d been looking to try. Still, we were excited for the other three all the same.

Their ingredients are simple: the crackers’ respective grain, followed by non-GMO canola oil, sugar and salt. Outside of just a few others, these are the cleanest crackers we’ve seen yet, and by far the most intriguing. The biggest difference between these and those is how bare Hayden leaves their grain. Most other crackers in this sphere reliantly add herbs like rosemary, and fruits such as red pepper to distract from their bland bases – generic varieties of wheat, rice, etc. It’s exciting to see such bold minimalism in a field that in the last decade has become almost parodically overindulgent in terms of flavour stacking.

As comparatively simple as Hayden’s crackers might be, we do still wish the few ingredients used were cleaner. Neither the canola oil nor the sugar are organic. And while we understand the impulse to use canola oil for its neutral flavour, better alternatives exist. Hayden is clearly committed to reviving healthier, more sustainable agricultural models, so the non-GMO canola oil and sugar choices feel like a copout.

An aside – we find it frustrating the increasingly common practice of employing ‘non-GMO’ ingredients as equivalent stand-ins for organic ones. Though we mostly appreciate the attention that issues relating to genetic modification have gotten in the past few years (especially in as much as it has helped raise awareness of heirloom seed stock), we find it troubling that so many people allow themselves to be so distracted by that one factor, to the degree that they now eschew concern for how their food was actually grown and cultivated. ‘Non-GMO’ food products are just as likely to be grown in poor agricultural conditions, with no interest in soil preservation, pollution of water tables, toxin absorption, or any of the many other issues that inspired the rise of organic, biodynamic, and permacultural approaches in the first place.

We recognize that organic certification programs often have their own – at the very least that they’re cost prohibitive for many producers, but that is where information transparency on the part of producers (Hayden has done their part in this regard where their grains are concerned) should come into play, not regressive acceptance of lower standards that distract from arguably more important issues.

Returning to the crackers – though the heritage grains call more obvious attention to themselves flavourally (see below), texturally they’re familiar in that they resemble something like a graham cracker, but with more body and heft – more or less depending on the specific variety. They’re undecorated and straightforward, as per their ingredients, and are well-suited for bearing the weight of substantial toppings (though unlike most crackers, pairing with these grains does require a bit of forethought.)

Red Fife Wheat – Though it ends on a mildly sweet note, Red Fife was the ‘strongest’ tasting of this sampling, with a very rich, full flavour strongly suggestive of some of the deeper notes found in olive oil. Similarly, the fattiness also sort of takes shape in the form of raw pecan. More than with the other two, the graham cracker similarity is most striking here, offering an especially soft texture and muted bite.

Blue Beard Semolina – Significantly crispier in texture, Blue Beard’s got a good crack to it, and a clean, bright profile that corresponds appropriately. This might be the most accessible of the three we tried, with the taste possessing something that reminded us vaguely of Wheat Thins. If it’s accessible, it’s also somewhat plain, but in crackers which seem to beg so imploringly to be paired with other foods, it feels unfair to fault them for it.

Emmer Farro – Without a doubt our favourite, this cracker had the lightest texture and best balanced flavour of the bunch. Following the initial bite, you’re presented with a nice give that upon further chewing reveals a pleasantly coarse granularity. A lovely buttery flavour couples up with the distinctive bitter fattiness of walnut. To our palettes the most complex, but also the one we found easiest to pair with.

All are made with just enough sugar to bring out the grains’ natural sweetness, without turning them into dessert items, or requiring a compensatory over-salting to make up for it. The salt they do employ closely resembles (if it isn’t in fact) pretzel salt, and is used in a similarly sparse pattern of distribution also resembling pretzels. It’s pretty pleasurable too, getting surprise bites with salt to accent the otherwise soft-spoken grains.

While we can’t say for sure that it’s directly related to their being heritage varietals, it was interesting to taste so many fatty compounds (butter, olive oil, pecan, walnut) in these decidedly unflavoured crackers. It certainly isn’t something we’ve ever experienced in crackers made with ‘regular’ grains, flavoured or not, and as such it was enough to make us wonder if those fatty tasting compounds used to be a normal part of the flavour profile of grains, accidentally bred out over the years in favour of other traits.

These are good crackers, especially considering how absolutely reductionist they are by design – early batches didn’t even have sugar in them! In a field that’s generally devoid of true innovation, Hayden Flour Mills is definitely doing something different. They’re a young company, so it’ll be exciting to watch them grow. We hope the standards they hold their own grains to will eventually trickle down to their secondary ingredients (sugar, oils, etc), but considering how few other shortcuts they’ve taken up to this point we’ll optimistically hold out for that possibility.

*White Sonora wheat is the oldest surviving wheat varietal grown in North America with a documented history dating back to at least the 1700s.

For those interested in the resurgence of ancient grains in an increasingly gluten-phobic culture, Lauren Saria wrote a great article on the topic for the Phoenix New Times.

Marou, Faiseurs de Chocolat

marou-chocolate-craft-bean-to-bar

We first encountered Marou by chance while wandering around the small specialty shop Chelsea Market Baskets in NYC. Its ornate packaging helped it stand out amongst the store’s particularly large (and better than normal) chocolate selection, and their regional hyper-specificity piqued our curiosity. Being modest, we started with just the Bà Rịa bar, and as always, hoped for the best.

It delivered in shocking spades. We had had our fair share of craft chocolates, many of them single origin, but there was something understatedly yet vastly different about Marou. For a year since, we’ve looked forward to sampling a broader selection of their original series. Still with the taste of the Bà Rịa bar in our memories, we knew this was going to be an important tasting.

marou-gold

With so many craft chocolatiers cropping up these days, it seems necessary that we go into a bit more detail regarding Marou.

Marou is a Vietnamese bean-to-bar chocolate company, based in Saigon, started by two Frenchmen named Samuel Maruta and Vincent Mourou (the name Marou coming from MA-ruta + Mou-ROU). Unlike the majority of origin bar series (which are now so popular they practically make up an entire subset of the craft chocolate scene) that are differentiated by country (e.g. Belize, Ecuador, Samoa), Marou’s bars – not just their cacao fruit but their sugar cane as well – all come from within the single country of Vietnam, specifically Southern Vietnam, and are further subcategorized by their respective provinces.

They work directly with small family farms who not only harvest, but also dry and ferment the beans* they cultivate, so that a firm division is established between the growers and the chocolatiers (this is a relationship we have yet to see disrupted on any sort of large scale in the chocolate world. Even Cacao Prieto, who own the farm that grows their fruit, still have it shipped up to their Red Hook, NY factory for production). Though Marou specifically addresses matters of ‘fair trade’ (they pay the cacao farmers well and maintain close relations with them), and the generally biodynamic approach of their growers, there are just enough informational gaps in regards to farming practices that we’re left frustrated.

Much cacao that goes into ‘bean-to-bar’ or craft chocolates is organic, if not in certification, then in practice. Most cacao-growing regions don’t have to force their fruits to excel, so generally little outside help is needed in producing quality material. Additionally, cacao trees prefer to grow in the shade of other trees, which encourages biodynamic farming practices in lieu of the more common monocropping which so dramatically disrupts natural ecosystems. In keeping with this pattern, the source fruits that become Marou’s bars are grown with minimal intervention or fertilization, however some of the farmers may on occasion employ unspecified sprays** to defend against aphids and other invaders – the only definite exception to this being the cacao grown in Tiền Giang.

We recently had the opportunity to talk more with Marou directly, and Samuel had this to say regarding the farming practices of their growers:

“On the farms that we visit regularly we’ve never seen any farmer spray any pesticides on the cacao trees; of course we have no way to know for sure whether all other farmers that provide pods to our fermenters are the same, but based on 5 years on the ground buying cacao we’re pretty sure that the cacao we use is not sprayed with toxic stuff.”

As for the bars themselves, all are wrapped in a coloured paper corresponding to the colour of the fruit from which it’s made. Though they have explicitly talked about using Trinitario cacao (a sort-of messy hybrid of Criollo and Forastero, and in this case red in colour) in their Bà Rịa bar, nowhere else had we seen or heard mention in regards to the rest of the line. We were confused. If they’re so touting terroir, and if the bars are all in fact Trinitario, wouldn’t disclosing this information further support their thesis?

Samuel had this to say:

“Trinitario is not so much a variety as a loose definition of varieties that are hybrids of Forastero and other cacao varieties. Cacao trees in Vietnam come by way of Malaysian hybrids that were selected a couple decades ago and introduced by the Nong Lam Agricultural college in HCMC. Most of them are labelled Trinitario but more precisely they bear technical names like TD2, TD5, TD18…, that’s before farmers do their own crossbreeding, grafting, etc…

Unlike a French wine farmer that will plant a whole field with say Cabernet Franc and another with Sauvignon Blanc, the various cacao hybrids are usually planted together haphazardly by Vietnamese farmers, which makes good sense to avoid diseases (clones of the same hybrid tend to succumb to the same pests / diseases en masse), but is less than ideal to control what goes into a specific cacao harvest.

So to answer your question: we don’t give more precise variety indications because the information is not really available in a meaningful way. A typical heap of cacao pods at the farm presents a variety of shapes and colours betraying the fact that it comes from a number of different varietals.”

Additionally in this article you can hear from Marou their thoughts concerning chocolate and terroir (which is of course critical to their practice, seeing as the geography of each bar is taken to be such a defining feature of each), and take from it what you will. There they talk about their belief (one we share with them) that both the variety of cacao and its growing location play heavily in determining the bars’ characteristics. How this is even a contested matter at this point is beyond us. To think that soil conditions among other things wouldn’t influence the flavour of a highly environmentally sensitive plant seems absurd. Whatever the influencing factors might be, the result is an impressive lineup of chocolates with incredibly rich, well-defined, but also illusive characters.

marou-bar

Because of these bars’ complex nature, we broke up our tasting into 4 sessions over the course of a week. Though the core profile of each is strongly evident, there are clouds of meta-flavours surrounding them that are maddeningly difficult to define.

The following notes are written in order from lightest to darkest in terms of percentage of cacao:

Tiền Giang, 70% – This bar, for us, was an unexpected though once experienced unsurprising meeting of strong colour association (specifically that of a very dark, sort-of midnight purple) and physique or physicality. Though it’s indisputably a delicate bar, we found ourselves repeatedly returning to adjectives that if describing a human would relay an opposite form. What one of us characterized as curvy, thick, and sultry, the other called bosomy. Magnolia, lavender syrup, and other decadent floral aromas suggested themselves, all this underscored by a creaminess reminiscent of extra marshmallowy instant hot cocoa.

Đồng Nai, 72% – We found this to be the ‘friendliest’ of the bunch, despite its being slightly darker than Tiền Giang. The flavour is rich, but in a gentle way, with a dark caramel or butterscotch note adorably dominating the palate. Its got a sunny disposition that lights up in your mouth immediately, while bringing to mind things like buttered popcorn and walnut. On first tasting, one of us was reminded of turmeric, mustard flower, and other curry type spices, but over subsequent tastings couldn’t manage to return to the sensation.

Lâm Đồng, 74% – This bar played out like one of those mystery novels that has you all turned around right up until the end, at which point you’re presented with a conclusion so simple you’re shocked you didn’t see it earlier. In general, it possesses an airy quality; light, accessible, pleasant. But to locate specific notes was stupidly challenging. After extended deliberation (but mostly after a lot of experiments with different ways of tasting and untasting) we finally found what had been lingering on the tips of our tongues – toasted brown rice! Once we made this breakthrough, a cascade of more specific associations became clear: genmaicha (a Japanese green tea blended with toasted brown rice), brown rice crispy treats, the old-school health food classic Rice Dream ice cream, and even plain brown rice syrup.

Bà Rịa, 76% – Returning to the first bar we tried, we were instantly reminded of what we had for so long been anxiously awaiting. Despite it having been a year, upon even the first bite, its flavour came back with such familiarity that it felt much more recent. Such is the distinctiveness of Marou’s bars. As before, the first thing we noted was the intensely sour though decidedly not ‘citrusy’ brightness (which actually hits you first on the nose), followed by the flavour but not the spice of cayenne pepper, and then a hint of carob. It had an intangible tropicality for both of us, yet neither of us could say quite why. In fact, there is much we aren’t able to say about this bar, as its peripheral character seemed to constantly be shifting upon inspection, avoiding any in-depth sort of analysis. This is a quality that is present in many complex foods and drinks, but which in Marou (and particularly with the Bà Rịa bar) has an almost purposefully devilish, trickster-like quality that though frustrating is also admittedly fun.

Bến Tre, 78% – While it may seem odd, as darker bars are typically the most complex, and the flavours here are in no way cookie-cutter, this was in a way the quickest bar for us to understand. It was all rather plainly laid out. Briefly, but right upfront was something akin to burnt wood, or charcoal, followed by an unusual sour punch – a combination of lime creamsicle and soured butter or cream. Overall, it’s hilariously bright for being the darkest in the lineup.

Then, of course, texture is the other half of the equation. We would argue that even more so than flavour, texture illustrates the greatest contrast between one chocolatier’s product and another’s – partially because that is where more of their work takes place. The fruit itself provides most of the flavour. Eschewing the fermentation (something Marou only does themselves in the case of one bar) and roasting of the ‘beans’, tempering (what creates chocolate’s texture) is where the most distinctive mark is made. The difference between a bar from Dick Taylor, for example, and a disc from TAZA is enough to make you wonder how these two are considered to be the same basic ‘thing’.

The texture of Marou’s bars remained consistent throughout the line. Unlike with Mast Brotherswhose texture in our experience provides little in the way of personality, Marou clearly takes great care here, and as we’ve seen from their ingredient sourcing to their labels, leaves nothing overlooked. Each bar was exceptionally smooth without sacrificing dimension, having just enough fine granularity to suggest their origins (ground, dried cacao) but not so much as to call attention. With every bite, they perfectly gave beneath our teeth, while providing a wonderfully satisfying percussive crack. Once chewed (or just allowed to sit in the mouth), each melted just slowly enough to occupy a consistency most similar to brownie or cake batter, where both the liquid (cocoa butter) and grain (cacao bean and cane sugar) are discernible as separates but experienced still as one entity.

One of the best things about these bars is how clearly hands-off the makers are with them, respectfully allowing the cacao fruit to really shine. Attempts to ‘engineer’ food never result in complexity as rich as what nature provides, as the best vintners know (so much of what Marou has to say seems to echo the knowledge of wine-making’s rich history) and as any well-raised heirloom fruit, vegetable, or animal will evince. It’s easy to approach chocolate creation using other historical chocolates as a reference point, but to wholly listen to the fruit from start to finish and allow it to point in the direction of a new chocolate takes great restraint as well as sensitivity.

Though their distribution is currently very narrow, the awareness of and hence the demand for Marou is steadily increasing. In a creative field awash with products labeled ‘craft’ and ‘artisanal’ that don’t provide further evidence for said descriptors beyond their packaging, here is chocolate that speaks for itself of the artistry that goes into its production. We would appreciate more clarity in regards to the farming side of things, but hopefully that will come with time and frequent inquiry from curious consumers.

It will be interesting to see just how much demand Marou will be able to accommodate as they grow, or what form(s) their growth might take. According to their current model, there is only so much growing they can do before they become another entity entirely. Perhaps the world of chocolate will increasingly reflect the world of wine, with the best selections of any given production getting snatched up by speculators and distributors reselling at a premium which reflects the current state of availability and market interest. For the sake of our wallets and the appreciation of good food by all we certainly hope not, but if any craft chocolate is deserving of its high dollar value, Marou is it.

*Note: What are generally referred to as cacao ‘beans’ are in fact the fatty seeds of the cacao fruit.

**This is the biggest informational gap, and it is in regards to this more than anything else that we would appreciate a bit more transparency; what kind of ‘sprays’ are being used? – as those can range from entirely benign to highly toxic and/or environmentally damaging.