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

Tag: whole foods

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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Simply Gum

Simply_Gum_Ginger

If you frequent Whole Foodsyou’ve probably noticed by now these simply designed white square boxes sitting pretty on the displays as you wait by the register. Other health food stores carry them too, but the difference in frequency of appearance is notable.

To be clear, we aren’t gum people. Not even close, really. We’re also not too keen on ingesting glycerin (an ingredient used here to retain moisture), as its antibacterial properties are not welcome in our digestive systems, and neither is its blocking of mineral absorption welcome in our mouths or on our teeth. But considering this is what seems to be the best gum out there so far, we made an exception in the name of research.

Simply_Gum_Fennel

Simply Gumas its name suggests, is an attempt to create a quality chewing gum with as little junk as possible. At first glance, its ingredients might not seem particularly special, and they shouldn’t: organic dried cane juice, all natural chicle*, all natural flavour/s**, organic vegetable glycerin, organic sunflower lecithin, and organic rice flour. That’s really all you need. If you check out the ingredient lists of most other popular gums, however, you’ll find a roster of cryptic components. Chief and most problematic among these is the mysterious ‘gum base’. Where Simply Gum uses chicle (a more traditional base made from several trees of the Manilkara genus), most producers hide beneath the term things such as paraffin wax (most commonly derived from refined petroleum), polyvinyl acetate (literally Elmer’s glue), and hydrogenated vegetable oils (only a molecule away from plastic), to name a few.

You can probably gather that in terms of ingredients, Simply has little to no competition.

Once those ingredients are set aside though, the stakes are much higher. Other than their natural colouring (or lack thereof – however you want to look at it), the pellet shaped pieces they come in are not particularly attractive. The flavoural experience (whether it’s Ginger, Fennel Licorice, Cinnamon, or, we would guess, any of their other three) is also distinctively brief, disappearing almost entirely after about 30 seconds. The bulk of it after about 5. It’s mild while it’s there too, never giving that mouthfilling bigness of flavour (think: Big Red or Winterfresh) that some desire. In a way, its soft-spoken nature is refreshing – it feels honest. The texture is amazing, and by far serves as the most pleasurable part of the experience. A really excellent super-smooth chew that doesn’t overwork your jaw or wind up getting compacted into an unfortunate squishy rock-like substance.

WARNING: Do not attempt to use as bubblegum. Big enough bubbles are sure to pop, and will stick to whatever surface they happen to meet like a motherfucker. Individuals with facial hair of any kind should be especially wary.

Cinnamon_Simply_Gum

On an individual basis, the three flavours we sampled showed substantial variation in quality.

We started with Ginger, which surprised us from the moment we opened its package with the unmistakable scent (and later, taste) of cigarette smoke of all things. It seemed as though it was coming from the darker, duller part of the root – much like some powdered gingers, as opposed to the bright, spicy part we were expecting. Kind of interesting; ultimately, not what we’re looking for in a gum – certainly not breath freshening. Fennel Licorice provided welcome contrast with its happily realistic portrayal of the eponymous ingredients. Almost tangible in its complexity and subtle shading, conjuring up a sense of both traditional licorice chews and fresh-picked fennel, this is by far the most refreshing and our definite favourite. And in Cinnamon, despite being formulated from actual cassia, Simply still ends up leaning on the familiar artificial profile (overly spicy, one-dimensional), albeit a toned down version; sitting somewhere in the potpourri department, hovering between nice and air freshener. Unlike the other two though, cinnamon does indeed build intensity over time. Granted, it is a short period of time, and the max is far from max, but it does so more than the others, which is something.

Overall, Simply Gum’s flavour just doesn’t keep up with its chew. Fennel Licorice does a pretty damn good job, but even that dissipates too quickly. For a gum, their ingredients are fantastic, and though we have some minor quibbles with their packaging (which we aren’t going into) they have a great look that really sets them apart from their competition as much on the outside as their formulas do on the inside. We hope they’ll continue to work on their product, as there is still plenty of room for improvement in the flavour department. Anyone for whom chewability is a high priority though, will most certainly not be disappointed, and at the end of the day, it is chewing gum after all. The flavour is just a fun temporary bonus.

We certainly aren’t going to be purchasing any more of these for reasons we’ve already mentioned, but for folks who just can’t go without their gum, Simply does get our recommendation.

*We’re assuming chicle is one of those difficult to certify ingredients, mostly due to its source. Likely a non-issue.

**Natural flavourants are easy to source organically, so we’re a bit puzzled as to why they cut this little corner.

Yin Yang Hot Sauce

Yin_Yang_Hot_Sauce_HotSauce_Boulder_Colorado

Craft hot sauce exploded in the US over a decade ago. If you’re into heat, it’s almost difficult these days not to find a peppery blend to match your taste. Despite small producers proving to be kind of the norm within the hot sauce sphere, it’s still frustratingly difficult to find many who take their ingredient sourcing seriously. Whether it’s hot sauce’s associated macho mentality or the fact that it’s ‘just a condiment’, to find an organic hot sauce that isn’t one of the few familiar health food store staples is a welcome surprise.

Whatever the reason, we were excited to find the minimalist-styled Yin Yang hot sauce on the shelves of a Denver Whole Foods. A Boulder-based company, they’ve apparently been around for over 10 years now and have yet to distribute outside the state of Colorado. We’re hoping that’s just due to a preference for localism on their part – it certainly isn’t because of a lack of quality.

Like most foods, there are of course already well-established hot sauce styles. But as the craft scene continues its steady growth in production and popularity, so do those sauces which defy easy categorization. Yin Yang, suiting its name, is light and dark, sharp and smoky, intense and simultaneously mild-mannered. It’s even tropical meets Midwestern – calling it just a ‘hot sauce’, might not even be entirely accurate, as it lies very much on the outskirts of traditional ‘hot sauce’ territory, bordering on BBQ and steak sauces as well (even in terms of viscosity). To put things more simply and satisfy curiosity, it’s closest relative is probably Jamaica’s iconic Pickapeppa. But instead of being fruit-heavy and relatively tame in terms of heat, Yin Yang stretches their shared elements in considerably different directions, inventing for itself a singular purposeful identity.

For the most part, this sauce is incredibly consistent – the entire story reveals itself nearly immediately. The tang comes first. Quickly, on its own, the vinegary brightness lays way for the heat which builds up to a point and then plateaus, satisfying the masochism inherent in hot sauce consumption, without leaving one scarred from the experience. The habaneros aren’t simply employed for pure capsaicin content, but also their tropical fruitiness, which binds with the mysterious ‘other’ fruit (their labeling doesn’t divulge any specifics – verifying even the habanero took a bit of research), and meets the smoky low-tones to round it out. You’re then left to ride out the echoing umami waves until the heat completes its quiet diminution.

To see how Yin Yang works, we paired it with a variety of super-simple dishes: fried eggs, hamburgers, mashed potatoes, and collard greens. With the fried eggs and hamburgers, adding only salt, it filled flavoural nooks and crannies that weren’t even necessarily there it was so perfect. The mashed potatoes pleasantly muted its highest parts, leaving the smoky richness to come through, bringing it especially close to its BBQ sauce cousins. And the collards, though they were least appropriate, were also great, simply requiring a bit more zing, for which we used a splash of ume vinegar. It doesn’t have quite the ridiculous flexibility of say, rooster sauce, which people put on or in everything from grilled cheese sandwiches to ice cream, but within certain bounds Yin Yang does have quite a bit of versatility, and in many contexts is even stellar.

Other ideas we had were: with corn on the cob, sautéed mushrooms, in place of chipotle in a chipotle ranch, on a Tex-Mex style salad or burrito, and in some combination with Emmentaler and pineapple.

Literally our one disappointment is that the peppers aren’t organic. For whatever reason, finding organic peppers does seem to be harder than most anything else, so we’re not surprised that they’re the only non-organic ingredients. With that said though, they aren’t impossible to find, and they’re becoming easier and easier to obtain. We hope that eventually Yin Yang’s choices will be reflective of the change.