Let’s give credit where credit is due. Raise a glass and make a toast to Poland and its gift to the world. With vodka, of course. Na zdrowie!
Vodka has taken a circuitous route around the globe since the Middle Ages, travelling first class as well as steerage, to become one of the world’s bestselling spirits. From humble beginnings in the Poland/Lithuania region (now Belarus), it was distilled and quaffed in vast quantities by peasants and nobility alike.
It was a simple process. Anyone could do it, and many a farmer who planted rye, wheat, potatoes or sugar beets distilled his own vodka. In 1580, in the city of Poznan, there were 498 working distilleries. Too good for the hoi polloi. The nobility were granted a monopoly by the government to produce and sell vodka.
Czar Alexander III of Russia got involved in 1894, and assigned Dmitri Mendeleev to create and establish quality standards: the ideal alcohol content was 38 percent. Looking at the vodka bottles in my cabinet, the range is from 40-50 percent.
Is there a country in the western world that does not have its own brand of vodka?
Wyborowa Exquisite follows production methods that have been perfected over 500 years. It’s produced in Poznan from a single variety of premium rye. Purified many times, it is then bottled in beauty. The bottle, designed by the world-renowned Canadian architect Frank Gehry, conveys a fusion of Polish heritage and contemporary sophistication.
ZubrÛwka, which contains a decorative blade of bison grass, is flavoured with a tincture of bison grass found only in a forest in Poland and Belarus. Unique in its yellowish colour and flavour, it has been copied by many countries, but it remains registered in Bialystok, Poland.
Grey Goose, distilled and bottled in the Cognac region by FranÁois Thibault, a man who has been making cognac for 25 years, is among the world’s most popular. Made of soft winter wheat from Picardy, when ground, the aroma is like a French bakery. Still, creative people must create: ergo, Grey Goose Le Citron, La Poire and L’Orange. Dimitri Lezinska, Grey Goose Ambassador, cocktail curator and mixologist extraordinaire, says, “[It’s] 100-percent natural, no additives. The orange and lemon are made from the natural essential oils of the fruit, and the pear is made of the pear itself.”
Absolut from Sweden has covered the entire flavour spectrum of fruit from Kurant to Raspberri to Mandarin and is probably the best known in the world. When flavoured vodka began to dilute their image, they reverted back to promoting the original brand.
Vodka is broadening its horizons with a host of new brands and blends. Akvinta, the first Mediterranean luxury vodka, has gone through five natural filters: charcoal, marble, silver, gold and platinum. Getting on the bandwagon, Donald Trump has created a namesake vodka distilled in the Netherlands. Trump comes in a tall gold bottle. Elit by Stolichnaya, from Russia, is one of the most expensive, no doubt because of a new freezing filtration system. Villa de Varda, an Italian distiller, has introduced Pinot Grigio-flavoured Vodka Italiana. Tito’s Handmade Vodka hails from Austin, Texas, and is filtered through active charcoal and is reasonably priced.
In British Columbia and Calgary, there is Pinky, infused with, among other botanicals, strawberry and violet. It’s aimed at women and teamed with Agent Provocateur, a line of lingerie hard to find in conservative Ontario, for a tasting campaign. It might be forbidden, along with Crystal Head Vodka, the brainchild of actor Dan Aykroyd, which has been banned by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. The image of a human skull is commonly associated with death, an unpalatable concept at the retail level.
The purists stay with the classic vodka made according to the formula of the czar. Russian Standard Vodka is the most widely drunk vodka in all of Russia.
Dad believed that one ounce of vodka every day helped blood circulation. He would down a shot, neat, smile and say, “It makes weak men strong and strong women weak.”
There was a thriving caviar industry in Sturgeon Falls, Ont., until illegal poaching and a moratorium on sturgeon fishing ended it all. Now, the sturgeon fishermen work for the phone company.
Back in the day, the “golden caviar of the czars” was the natural companion of vodka. Every year, Czar Nicholas II received 11 tonnes of the best caviar as an annual tax from the fishermen of Astrakhan and Azerbaijan.
Taken from sturgeon that live from 60-100 years in icy waters (the best are from the Port of Anzali on the Caspian Sea in Northern Iran), caviar is one of the world’s oldest-documented delicacies. Aristotle described it in his writings in the fourth century BC.
But caviar has not always been an elite product. In the U.S. in the 1800s, when the country became peopled with European immigrants, it was offered in bars and pubs, like peanuts today, as the salty taste encouraged thirst and, thereby, boosted beer sales.
While the Old World always loved caviar, the New World is getting a taste for caviar at an unfortunate time. Sturgeon are endangered; overfishing, poaching, oil pollution and industrial-hazard material have done them in.
But wait. All is not lost. There are new supplies of these crunchy, luscious fish eggs available – for a few months anyway.
On July 23, 2010, the UN watchdog on endangered species said at a meeting in Tehran that five producer countries had now agreed on export quotas, which would run until Feb. 28, 2011. Of the five countries, only Iran, Kazakhstan and Russia were given quotas, of 800, 1,500 and 700 kilograms, respectively. Caviar won’t flood the market, but it will be legally available – if you know where to look.
Today, if you are important in Moscow, you might have a caviar machine in your office that dispenses portions of caviar for about Ä3.50 to Ä15. Sadly, reports Britain’s The Telegraph, the machine in the mayor’s office is so popular that it is already broken.
Still, there is some good news for caviar lovers. Steven Omidi of the Caviar Centre in Toronto says, “The future of caviar is farmed, sustainable product.” He and his father, Mark, have been in the caviar business for several decades and have seen the changes, such as the decline of Caspian Sea caviar in the past five years and the “popping up of sturgeon farms all over the globe – France, Germany, Uruguay, Saudi Arabia and, now, Canada.”
“Among the industrialized nations,” Omidi explains, “the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is the toughest, requiring about 20 different tests for food safety. As well, one needs the right permits – even Environment Canada is involved.”
The story of bread is the story of the human race. It unfolds slice by historical slice in a fascinating book, Six Thousand Years of Bread: Its Holy and Unholy History, by H.E. Jacob. The taste pendulum has swung from the loaves and fishes in biblical times to white sliced bread. And now, good bread is making a comeback.
Brian Silverstein of Toronto’s iconic Silverstein’s Bakery tells me, “My grandfather was a baker and started the business in 1918. He baked the bread, took it around and sold it, and ran the family business on Baldwin Street in Kensington Market.” While Brian is not a baker, he has a passion for the business and has kept it all still in the family. They employ dough men, bakers, packagers and delivery people, and make about 10 different kinds of bread.
Silverstein’s bakes with Canadian flour, white flour, buffalo flour and rye, and supervises a company that makes a special mix – the right mix – with wholesome flax, grains and seeds. “Even though this is a wholesale bakery, people still come in to pick up their favourite loaves: rye bread, challah bread and pumpernickel. When a restaurant has a signature bread, they come in asking for it. People expect healthy bread,” he says. “We make fresh bread every day. No preservatives.” Not really expecting an answer, I ask anyway: Is there something special that you put in the dough that makes Silverstein’s bread so delicious and unique? “It’s all in the mix,” he says. “It’s really our great recipes, passed on for generations.”
Andrea Damon Gibson, the force behind Toronto’s Fred’s Bread, which she runs with her husband, Steve Gibson, is passionate about good bread. “Tastes in bread have changed,” she says. “People want to taste the grain it was baked from, and have that character and texture. They want to understand every ingredient in every product.” So passionate is Andrea about her bread that she has contracted with a local farmer to grow acres of Red Fife wheat, which will be harvested and milled exclusively for Fred’s. What satisfaction there must be in personally taking the food every step from earth to table. Fred’s baguette takes six hours to make; the cheese bread is a cut above, with two-and-a-half-year-old white cheddar from Maple Dale Cheese in Perth, Ont. The green olive and chipotle loaf will satisfy the most intense bread-lust. Black Bread begins with an organic starter and unbleached wheat flour. And then, the wow factor: they add cocoa, molasses, honey and little bit of espresso.