Photos: Photos for the Washington Post by Goran Kosanovic. Food Styling for Lisa Cherkasky's Washington Post
When I travel, I am inclined to collect food. I browse the grocery stores looking for snacks and sweets and collect honeys and mustards from the markets. A few years ago I transported a gallon of olive oil from Italy. These souvenirs inspire me on post-holiday days, keeping the glow on.
In July we went to south-western France, where my dear friend, the culinary adventurer Kate Hill, lives in a small farm called Camont. As I settled on a family chair in the kitchen, looking at Kate cracking the eggs of the newly harvested chickens for the clafoutis, I was distracted by the sight of a large glass jar filled with a slightly rosy liquid, herbs and spices at the end of the table. Kate, who had traveled to Spain, introduced me to his Catalan-style vermouth.
It is not a vermouth to be mixed in a Manhattan, to greet a Martini or to tip a Negroni.
It is a flavored and spicy liqueur wine, made to be sipped as an aperitif on ice, with a touch of orange peel. It is refreshing and complex, and combines with cheese, olives, cold cuts and other savory snacks. Start doing it now and not only will you be ready for the Christmas present, but you'll also have a welcome surprise to take to your next meeting.
The recipe is flexible: an infusion of basic alcohol, citrus peel, sugar, spices and aromatic herbs added to the wine. When Kate learned that some Spaniards use their local sherry as an alcohol base, he opted for Armagnac, as it is readily available in his part of the world. For my version, I chose a bit of each: sherry, brandy.
The orange peel provides a note of prominent flavor but is not floral in any way. Rather, it bears a slightly bitter edge, obtained by cooking the strips of rind in a deeply tanned sugar syrup. In the test, I added the brandy while that caramel was still hot – and I had a moment of deep regret. The caramel broke, sticky and firmly attached to my wooden spoon, and seemed impossible to fix. Fortunately, by gradually warming the brandy, without boiling, it eventually brought the caramel into a liquid form.
Kate had her suggestions on spicing, and I followed her example. Because the spices are added to warm and fragrant orange brandy, they bloom immediately, allowing me to change the flavors, adding a pinch of this and that, using my nose to guide me. This passage is strictly personal, so if this recipe includes flavors that are not in your belief or are not your gender, use what appeals. We prefer seeds and large pieces of spices (not ground cinnamon, but cinnamon sticks, for example), which help to keep the opaque liquid.
After a night-time infusion, I combined the base of brandy – stretched with herbs and orange peel – with a white wine. Vinho verde is crisp and light. I think that even the pinot grigio would work, as would a French chardonnay – nothing too complex, woody or floral, because the recipe benefits from a wine that is bright and snappy.
Patience is an underrated ingredient. I waited for my mixture to develop (on the back of a dark closet, Kate does not hold her in the dark, but I am a believer in less light for the infusions). It was a long month, but now I appreciate a memory of Gascony with every sip of vermouth.
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PORTIONS: 25 servings (makes three 750 milliliter bottles)
OVERVIEW: You will need a 5-quart jar with lid and an empty 750-ml bottle.
Serve on the ice with a touch of orange as an accompaniment to green olives, Marcona almonds and orange cloves.
GETTING AHEAD: Although it can be sipped immediately, the vermouth takes a month to completely melt the flavors. The bottles can be stored up to 3 months. Once opened, keep refrigerated for up to 1 month.
1 orange navel
1 cup of sugar
1/3 of a cup of water
1 glass of brandy
3 whole cloves
1/4 teaspoon of coriander seeds
1/4 teaspoon of green cardamom seeds (from the pods)
1/4 teaspoon of whole pink pepper
1 whole star anise
1 small piece of a whole nutmeg
Some saffron threads
1/2 vanilla pod (divided lengthwise)
1 cup until sherry
2 bottles of pinot grigio or vinho verde
Use a vegetable peeler to remove the orange peel strips, leaving the white marrow behind. (You can eat or suck up the remaining orange.)
Combine the sugar and the water in a medium saucepan over high heat. Shake the pan – do not mix – and keep the guard constant. Cook for 12-15 minutes; the resulting syrup will start to turn pale amber. Add the strips of orange peel, continue to cook and turn the pan when the syrup becomes rich in caramel, for 6-8 minutes. Remove from the fire.
Add the brandy to the pan. The caramel syrup will take over what looks like a really terrible moment. Return the pan to the hob and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook for 10-15 minutes, stirring with a sturdy spoon while the caramel melts in the brandy. Do not let the brandy boil.
Pour the hot brandy mixture into the jar, then add the cloves, coriander and cardamom seeds, the pink peppercorns, the star anise, the nutmeg, the saffron and the vanilla pod. Cover / seal the jar. Once the mixture has cooled completely, add the sherry and close the jar. Let this mixture steep during the night.
The next day, filter the brew blend of brandy and sherry with a fine mesh strainer or a strainer covered with gauze. Add the 2 bottles of wine, mix well and, for efficiency, pour the DIY vermouth mixture into the 2 empty wine bottles plus 1 additional empty bottle. Cork or twist and place the bottles in a dark closet for 1 month.
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Barrow is an author of cookbooks in Washington, D.C.