Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Mini Rum Taste-off

In an attempt to convince myself that not being able to buy Cuban rum in the States is no big deal, I bought a 700 ml bottle of Ron Matusalem, a Dominican Rum which is generally well-respected.

I tasted the two neat and...wow. The Havana Club is a bit darker, but they're close in color. The Matusalem is not bad...it's certainly smoother and less burnt-tasting than Bacardi, but it has a prominent and borderline cloying vanilla flavor (from this early-80s law case, it seems like they use some sort of vanilla infusion) that unbalances the whole thing. The Havana Club, on the other hand, seems perfectly balanced in comparison, with the smoke, molasses/vanilla, and alcohol heat in good proportion. The nose on the Matusalem was a bit hard to pick out at first, but after tasting, it's clearly dominated by the cloying candy/vanilla.

With that sweetness, I'm a little worried about the rum/coke possibilities: maybe it'll turn out like Vanilla Coke though, and we'll be OK. I don't think that anything is going to beat the Havana Club Cuba Libres anytime soon though.

If I could get my hands on some damn ginger beer here in Sweden, I'd make myself a Dark & Stormy.

Anyway there you go. Cuban rum takes the day. Let's end the embargo.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Upsides of Sweden: Trade with Cuba

Ok, so this might be a bigger deal if I enjoyed tobacco, or if Systembolaget didn't charge so much tax on distilled spirits. But, still, this is pretty cool.

In the states, perhaps because of its very unavailability, Havana Club rum is a sort of holy grail. The biggest name in rum -- Bacardi -- was founded in Cuba and fled after Castro's revolution. The same is true of the Matusalem rum brand. Indeed, Cuba was, before the revolution, the home of the world's best-known rums.

The owners of the Havana Club, on the other hand, did not leave Cuba, and their assets were seized by the state. So Havana Club is a Communist product, now marketed by Pernod-Ricard all over the world...or most of the world, with the notable exception of one large nation just north of Cuba.

So, how is it? Well...let's just put things in perspective. Ron Bacardi, as everyone knows, is terrible. It's the worst kind of crap, which gets by on marketing and because it's cheap. It's tolerable in mixed drinks -- make sure you've got lots of ice in there -- but tasted straight, it's actually astounding how bad it is. The main flavor could be described as a sort of burnt, almost ashy taste. I'd rather drink Jim Beam than Bacardi, and I hate Beam.

So it's quite odd that I say this: Havana Club is sort of like Bacardi, but good. It's like it's what Bacardi is trying and failing to be. It's smoky -- the flavor comes from the heavily-toasted oak barrels its aged in -- but the flavors coalesce into something more like a whiskey than into the harsh sensory dissonance of Bacardi. This stuff can be sipped neat like a Scotch (though this bottle, the Añejo Reserva, isn't quite as smooth as a Scotch with a decade of age on it -- the average age of the rums is probably around five years) or makes a great mixer. It's really a little too good for mixed drinks. I was disappointed by the Dark & Stormy I made with it, but that might be the fault of the Swedish Schweppes "American" Ginger Ale I used, which seems to be the only ginger-type beverage allowed in Sweden. (I haven't seen any Barrit's, or any of the Schweppe's Ginger Beer, which is quite similar) However, pour some of this Havana Club over ice and add a bit of Coca-Cola and you've got yourself a true Cuba Libre, easily the best I've ever had. The smokiness and caramel of the rum meld with the Coke perfectly; this is a classy beverage, not the sticky-sweet headache-inducing beverage it tends to become with Bacardi.

So there it is. Just head on over to your local Systembolaget and plunk down your 269 SEK (about $35 at today's exchange rate) then head home and recline with a mojito and some late Hemingway.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Thursday, October 09, 2008

The upsides of Sweden: Salt Sill

I know what you're thinking: all this time in Sweden, no blog posts about Swedish fish. Well, folks, that's all about to change.

See above: looks just like what we Americans think of as a Swedish fish, the reassuring red gummy candy, except it's black. Black as night. And if you look close, there are some specks of whitish crystals there...well, it turns out that gummy candy is, in fact, quite popular here in Sweden. However, it's not the sweet red stuff that people favor. In fact, it's this black licorice type shown here.

If you're a black licorice fan, I'm sure you're thinking only one thing: well, sure, black licorice is good, but there must be some way to enhance it? The Swedes have found an answer: salt. Yep. Salt. Ammonium Chloride, to be exact. Lots of it. Actually these fish are only mildly salty; those salt crystals are from smaller, saltier candies in the same bag. The salt level seems to be the main difference between these salt sill, as they're called, and a large variety of candies in other shapes. The super-salty ones tend to be skulls. Those have a powdery outer coating consisting of, yes, salt, but also what I think is citric acid, so they are salty and sour. They are, in my opinion, really gross.

These salt sill are actually rather tasty, though. Once you get used to them.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Sarah Palin believes a Red Dawn in approaching?

Sarah Palin, discussing the need to fight for our freedom: "...or we're going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children about a time in America, back in the day, when men and women were free."

That's right folks. If we don't elect John McCain (hereafter to be referred to as John McClain, since a Die Hard reference is appropriate), we're going to get a stooge government who allows a Red Dawn-style invasion; we'll wake up one day and a zombie Fidel Castro will have risen from the grave to force Americans to...be Communists I guess. Or maybe it'll be Islamic extremists who take away our freedom; perhaps a zombie Ayatollah Khomeini will be installed as Caliph of the USA after President Obama officially surrenders to the terrorists.

That is unless we get President McClain to take out the evil-doers: Yippee ki-yay, motherfuckers. Sounds like maybe he should've gotten circa-84 Patrick Swayze as his VP choice.

One thing is sure, though: that time when men and women were free was definitely the 1980s, when men were men, and women were women, and both sexes teased their hair freely...

Oh, and: can someone tell me why "Joe Six-pack" is now the average voter? Can we just go back to "Schmoe?" Please?

Let's just talk about the food issue here in Sweden.

OK, folks. Do you see that thing there? In the picture? That is a tunnbrödsrulle. It's basically a wrap, with tunnbröd, a flatbread made from wheat and rye, on the outside; inside, yes, that is a hot dog. If you want to class it up, you can get yourself a "chorizo," which as opposed to the standard definition of "a paprika-flavored sausage from Spain" apparently means "slightly larger hot dog" in Sweden. The next main ingredient is always instant mashed potatoes, which have a jaundiced, yellowish cast to them. Also present, usually, is some attempt at salad, usually limp iceberg lettuce; crispy toasted onions, apparently a Danish specialty, ketchup & mustard, possibly mayo with pickles...but the crowning glory of this thing has got to be the räksallad.

Yes, that's right, shrimp salad. Pieces of alleged shrimp smothered in mayonnaise.

I'm not going to lie to you: there is something awe-inspiring about these things. They are large, they put together ingredients with the undisciplined joy of a nine-year-old left alone in the kitchen; they are kind of delicious, in that "I know I'm going to regret this later" kinda way. Actually, it's more like "am I enjoying this right now or am I actually disgusted by this thing" kinda way.

To top it off, these things are like 50-60 SEK, or, with current exchange rates, $8-9. They are, by far, the cheapest option for eating. The other low-end meal option is the kebab, which will run you probably 60-75 SEK. The kebabs are actually respectable, and I have no issue with them at all.

Let's compare this to the bay area for a minute though: taqueria fare is widely available, at prices far less. Often taquerias use fresh ingredients, sometimes make their own salsas, and are generally quite tasty. Some are downright sublime. Also, there is a great deal of individual variation; the grill stands where you get these tunnbrödsrullar seem to be supplied by about two vendors, and basically have a standard, unchanging menu.

Of course in the Bay area, you have other low-end, delicious options: Asian places, like E-noodle...also I have no idea wtf the people who gave that place poor reviews are talking about. The place stays open until 3 am which is a rarity for the peninsula. There are kebabs. There is Indian food. There are delis that serve delicious sandwiches. There is the peerless In-n-out.

I don't know if I have really conveyed just how limited the food options are here. Sure, the rullar are OK once or twice, but they are not really that good; the limited options are what really hurt though. Sitting down at a full-service restaurant will usually cost upwards of 120 SEK per dish, or nearly 20 bucks.

To be fair, the grocery options are not bad. The selection of yogurt, muesli, cheese and sausages is excellent; meat is not too bad. Vegetables, however, are not up to my standards. (Although to be fair, when I left Palo Alto, I'd been turning my nose up at Whole Foods veggies and shopping for fresh stuff almost exclusively at the farmer's markets.) There is one exception to this rule as well: chantarelle mushrooms are very plentiful and often very fresh. They apparently grow wild here during the summer.

So I guess the real take-home message of this is that I am a whiny nit-picker when it comes to food. But I'm not wrong. Somebody needs to shake up the low-end food market here in Stockholm. We need some intrepid taco-truck entrepreneurs here and we need them now.