Blackberry, Tobacco, Smoke, Bee Balm

So, I’m obsessed…obsessed…with “dapper” things. The trappings of pure manhood are so captivating and awesome to me; I have a cutthroat razor that I shave with, after lathering up with a bristle brush dipped in either almond- or lavender-scented tub shaving cream. One year, for my birthday, my friends pooled their financial resources to buy me the Most Incredible Umbrella ever made (endorsed by the Royal Family, the umbrella is British-made, has the most lovely cane handle, and is just awesome). I own a bowler hat. If I could get away with wearing a monocle, I would do it in one single second, and I look forward to my days of old age where I get to carry a big listening horn around and yell “SPEAK UP, SONNY” at people.

I found this recipe in the Alinea cookbook the first day I got the book, and was immediately obsessed with it. Its derivations were obvious to me: we often describe bold red wines as having ‘notes of tobacco, blackberry, smoke, spice, etc.’. This is the literalization of those sentiments, but I knew in so doing this, the flavors would be very pure, bold, and…manly. This is Don Draper in a bite. It’s the head of Philip-Morris sitting in a fat leather armchair smoking a giant stogie. It’s just so damn dapper that I couldn’t wait to make it.

You might recall that, for about 2 years now, I’ve been trying to get one of the most visually-striking components of the dish: a bee balm flower. I had a bee balm plant in New Zealand that I nursed for about 9 months before we moved back to the US; it never flowered. As soon as we got here, I started looking around for bee balm plants, but could find none (even at the Berkeley Hort). So, I started my own plants from seed. I’ve been growing and caring for about 20 plants, scattered throughout our apartment, porches, and small back ‘yard’ area (basically an enclosed patio), hoping that the sheer number of plants would increase my likelihood of getting at least one flower. While bee balm plants have no qualms about taking over half my yard, they seem notably hesitant to make a bloom; I read a bit about it and most people found their bee balm to flower around 4th of July. That holiday came and went, and I gave up on the hope of seeing a flower this year.

I’m sure I’m going to curse myself by noting this, but the past two birthdays of mine have carried with them peculiar and unlikely treats that made me feel a bit spesh: last year I stumbled across my favorite beer from NZ in a bar in downtown Oakland, which I hadn’t been able to find prior. I was elated, and bought nearly all of it. This year, I went out to our garden to water it the morning of my birthday, and was stunned to find one single lonely bee balm plant covered in beautiful pink/purple flowers.

Most references I’ve read about the taste of bee balm describe it as ‘minty’, and the recipe mentions I could substitute mint flowers/leaves for bee balm flowers/leaves. I didn’t find that to be terribly apt, though I’m not sure if that means something’s ‘wrong’ with my bee balm plant. I’d call the flavor much more ‘peppery’ or ‘spicy’, more like nasturtium than mint. I’ve been growing two types of bee balm…’wild’ and ‘scarlet’, and the one that bloomed was the wild bee balm. I didn’t really mind the taste (and in fact it encouraged even more manliness and robustness in the dish).

Once the flowers popped up, I had no idea how long they would last. Some friends and I rented a little farm house north of the bay area for the holiday weekend, so I knew being away from the plant for 4 days (and thus unable to water it) would likely kill it. So, I did the best I could think to do: I took it with us, and made this dish at the farm house.

The weekend was meant to be relaxing and bacchanalian; we had so much beer and wine we couldn’t fit it all in the fridge at once. There was a hot tub, too. Knowing all this, I packed up one of my other most treasured dapper hobbies: my pipes.

I got into smoking pipes shortly after college, where a roommate who also loves dapper things turned me onto them. Over the years I’ve collected several, and am always on the lookout for new and interesting ones. This one I call “Ol’ Trusty”. He’s seen me through countless tailgaters, movie nights at Kris and Joe’s, and various other parties. It’s pretty medium-sized, as pipes go, and the flat bottom means I can set it down momentarily when I need to do something like get another beer or use the men’s room.

This next one I like to call “The Sheriff”; he’s huge and useful for long moments of pondering, like when I’m solving mysteries. He’s best-utilized when I have a handlebar moustache grown out and need to peer sternly at someone/something.

Sarah got me this for one of our anniversaries; it’s beautiful and is Japanese-made. I love it and have only smoked it once.

When Sarah and I first started dating, she liked the idea of smoking her own pipe. I somehow stumbled across these guys, which were called “Pipoo” pipes and came with custom-shaped little plugs of tobacco that were pre-formed for their bowls. There’s nothing not gimmicky about this. We enjoyed them for a while but ultimately realized they were a little too…German Party Boy for us. They rarely see use these days.

The day Avatar won an Oscar, Weta had a big party in downtown Wellington for all the artists to celebrate and watch the awards. I popped across the street to a tobacconist for a cigar, and found this tiny little guy that I couldn’t resist snagging for Sarah. It looks like a smaller version of The Sheriff, so I call it the Deputy, and Sarah smokes it when she needs to help me solve a mystery. An example of our mystery-solving might look like this:

Me (puffs The Sheriff thoughtfully): Did you take the garbage out?

Sarah (puffs The Deputy, thinks deeply): No. (puff) Did you?

Me (puff, puff): No. (puff) It’s mysterious that no one took the garbage out.

Sarah (puff, puff): Indeed.

(puff, puff)

Me: Perhaps (puff puff)…perhaps it was you who forgot to take it out?

Sarah (puff puff): No.

Me (puff puff): Mmmm. (puff). Well, that leaves only me who might have forgotten to do it.

Sarah (puff puff): Indeed.

Me (puff puff): Yes well,… well done then (puff puff).

Mystery solved!

Anyway, there’s a point I’m trying to make here. This recipe originally calls for a cigar to be broken up and steeped for 20 minutes in warm cream and half-and-half, then set with gelatin. I had a cigar, but I’m madly in love with the (much more fragrant) tobacco we use in our pipes. The flavors are much more pronounced and complex. Because I had an abundance of tasters for this particular plating, I decided to do a comparison. I made one batch of the cream-tobacco mixture with the cigar, and another with some of my pipe tobacco.

The blackberries I’d found at Berkeley Bowl, which awesomely has about 10 different varieties from which one can taste and choose. I found this punnet sitting near a nondescript handwritten sign that just said “these taste great!”. The sign wasn’t lying; these were beautiful berries neither too sweet or too tart.

After a thin layer of the tobacco cream gel mixture is poured into a pan and set, the blackberries are placed atop the layer, and more cream is poured around them, encasing them in the gel. A round cutter is used to pull out plugs of the gel-encased berry, which is then topped with a mint leaf, a bee balm flower, and a sprinkle of long peppercorn and smoked salt (this latter ingredient is how the smoke flavor is introduced).

On tasting this, everyone agreed that the pipe tobacco offered more interesting flavor. It was recognizably tobacco, and had all the nice notes of caramel, vanilla, etc. that you imagine a fragrant pipe tobacco would offer. The cigar-based one, in comparison, seemed to offer only one flat note of “cigar tobacco”. It was still nice, but not quite as complex.

What was most interesting, through, was the aftertaste of the bite. When you smoke a pipe or a cigar, it’s not-infrequent that you might experience what’s called “tongue burn” or “tongue bite”. This is caused by a combination of high temperature smoke and overly-alkaline tobacco. It feels like a mixture of tingling and irritation, and isn’t what I’d call pleasant (though, as irritations go, it’s mild). Everyone experienced this when we ate this. I suppose you could argue that this is by design…it definitely feels like you’ve just puffed a big robusto after eating this.

After we finished eating, I couldn’t stop thinking about that. I don’t like tongue burn, so I wanted to see if I could remake the dish and avoid that experience. My pipe tobacco that I used (as well as the cigar) weren’t terribly fresh; they were both maybe 6 months old, and a little dry. I wondered if that would have led to the tongue burn. I decided to go back to the tobacconist around the corner from our apartment and buy new, fresh tobacco.

Piedmont Tobacconist is a pretty rad little shop; there’s a silver-haired woman who’s invariably smoking a big pipe each time I go in there, and she really knows her shit. I went in and explained what I was doing, and asked if she could recommend a tobacco what was minimally-alkaline and would minimize my chances of tongue-burn. She puffed her pipe thoughtfully and asked “Can you tell me more about how you’re extracting the flavor? This tobacco you have is pretty mild, and the fact that it’s a little dry shouldn’t matter, because you’re steeping it in a liquid.”

I told her I was letting the tobacco steep for 20 minutes, after bringing it and the cream up to a simmer.

“Hmm (puff puff). So that’s, like, 30-40 minutes or so that the tobacco is sitting in the cream? That’s a very, very long time. I mean, think about how you make a tea; you just let the tea steep for a minute or two; you’re dealing with leaves, so extracting the flavor shouldn’t take very long. Maybe if you were dealing with a bark or a root, you’d need to steep it for that long to fully extract flavor, but with leaves, you’re sailing past the flavor extraction and getting into all the bitter stuff, including nicotine.”

Pipes make everyone wiser, I’m tellin’ ya.

So I went home and used the same tobacco I’d used at the farm house. This time, though, I brought the cream to a simmer WITHOUT the tobacco in it, pulled the cream off the heat, threw in the tobacco leaves, and let it steep for 3 minutes. The result: the flavor was every bit as intense, but the tongue burn was pretty much completely gone. There was just the slightest, faintest, most delicate of tingles as an aftertaste, which I was pretty fine with…it was far from the scratchy irritating feeling I’d had the first go-around.

My friend James commented, when he tasted this, “Well, I’m glad I had it, but I wouldn’t want it if they served it to me in the restaurant.” I kinda liked this comment; it seemed to be a slightly-polarizing dish. I can’t say I loved the taste of it as much as the idea of it, but I still really enjoyed it. It requires a very active, studious tasting; the flavors unfold in stages. First there’s the smoke, pepper, and cream, then the blackberry comes on, and you only sense the tobacco flavor at the end after swallowing. Like so many dapper things, there’s a little bit of a learning curve, and to me that makes it awesome.

 

 

 

 

3 Comments

  1. Posted September 8, 2011 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    Nice write up. Now I am curious about smoking a pipe myself! I made this a while back as a sort of impromptu treat (how many Alinea dishes can be made “impromptu”, right?). So I had no tobacco and used coffee to flavor the cream instead. The combination was very tasty.

  2. Michelle Harris
    Posted September 8, 2011 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    Happy belated birthday, Allen. I love the story-telling in this post.

  3. Posted September 16, 2011 at 7:27 am | Permalink

    Oh waw. I myself love to use tea in pastries. But I’m no smoker myself so I’m actually quite curious about the taste you describe.
    And also, you’re pictures are stunning. I’m like crying now, because I cook so much and take so many pictures without it being so beautiful.
    Anyway, I’m putting you in my favourites ! Such a pleasant way of learning English.