Thursday, October 25, 2012


It certainly has been a long time since I have written in this space, and I do apologize for my negligence. I write this sitting on my balcony, enjoying one of the last few days warm enough to do so, surveying the variegated patchwork of autumnal foliage blanketing the hills of Brookline, musing upon the wisps of pipe smoke that pirouette as if dancing upon the breeze before being swept away.  The shrill sirens of a passing ambulance, a sound all too common around here, rouses me from my reverie.  However, my mood has already entrenched itself firmly in the realm of nostalgia.  Allow me, then, a few, or I rather suspect many, words on events that have passed some time ago.

Over eight months ago, a friend and I had the good fortune of making it onto the guest list of a Brasstacks dinner.  To elaborate, Brasstacks is an underground supper club that explores the interface of New England's historical foodways and modern techniques and pops up in various venues around the Boston area.  After securing a seat at the table by befriending one of the masterminds of this operation, I was certainly intrigued when I received the email a few days prior listing the event venue as an address for a townhouse in the South End.

Having met up with my friend, I apprehensively rung the doorbell after having checked the address three times, hoping desperately that we were at the right place, and I could not help but think that we were about to take the proverbial plunge down the rabbit hole.  The wait felt interminable, though we probably did not wait any more than a few seconds.  A couple of ladies jogged by, eyeing us suspiciously as we dawdled on the stoop.  Moments later, our genial host opened the door and reassuringly invited us inside, no doubt having seen a glimmer of my startled surprise.  We were the first guests to arrive, and as my coat was being hung, I silently contemplated the apartment's living room, an intersection of minimal modernist furniture, reclamation-driven décor, and preserved historical architecture.  Disassembled piano hammers, slate color scheme, high ceiling with pressed tin.

I turned around to find a flute of Simonnet-Febvre, a Chablis Crémant de Bourgogne, being handed to me by the friend who had invited us.  As other guests filtered in, passed hors d'oeuvres began making the rounds: sea urchin with cauliflower, raw diver scallops on potato crisps, pickled razor clam with salted fruit and lardo, butternut squash-stuffed date, tiny pears stuffed with chicken liver.  My flute was never empty.  In mingling with the other guests, I quickly met a local farmer, a well-known chef from across the river, a jet-setting financier, and others.  With the table set for only 11 guests (one of whom was hardly covert in taking notes on her notepad), it was rather a trivial matter to have had at least a short conversation with each of them by the end of the night.

Soon, I found myself being led upstairs to the dining room and to a table already laden with a surfeit of charcuterie.  The theme of that night's dinner was Maine lamb.  More specifically, the entirety of one particular lamb that was just culled from a feral flock on an island off the coast.  As such, the featured charcuterie for the night included lamb coppa, lamb neck cretons, and fried pickled lamb tripe.  Our merry band rapidly devoured all of this with great relish (I do not refer to the carrot relish, which although also "great", was not my intent).

Then, the feast began in earnest, all of these previous bites being but the foreword to the novel about to be written.  A medley of root vegetables with cottage cheese and lamb belly paired with a deceptively copper-coloured, yet robust and compellingly complex 2000 R. López de Heredia 'Viña Tondonia' Gran Reserva Rosado Rioja.  2010 'Les Pouches' Cave de Saumur alongside braised cod cheek and throat in sheep's whey.  I do love drinking chenin blanc with whitefish.  Lobscouse of smoked lamb leg in sunchoke broth accompanied by 2007 Côtes du Jura 'Les Bélemnites' Peggy & Jean-Pascal Buronfosse.  Saddle of lamb with rutabaga, cabbage, and burnt yogurt served with 2008 Heinrich Zweigelt.  Whole roasted shoulder cooked in Maine seaweed with the hearty Rhône 2007 Le Pigoulet en Provence, Vin de Pays de Vaucluse.  These last three course were most effective in demonstrating the terroir of the meat.  In particular, each bite of the lamb's fat seemed to rather strikingly evoke salt  marsh grasses and seaweed.  In closing my eyes, I was veritably transported to a rustic, imagined vignette: an insular meadow and a craggy shore, swept eternally by an assertive oceanic wind.

As we concluded with a traditional New England dessert of steamed brown bread with an Ipswich oatmeal stout, the humming conversation took on a reverent tone as everyone turned to express their delight and to praise our hosts for such a splendid evening.  Despite having spent over four hours at the table, it passed so pleasantly that I was quite surprised at how late it had become.  In such an intimate atmosphere, conversation rarely lulled, despite being among such a group of disparate strangers.  Here and there was an exchange of business cards, murmurs of pure contentedness, and fond farewells as coats and scarves were reassembled in preparation for the bracing cold waiting without.  After such decadence, I could only ask for one more thing: an amaro digestivo.  Truly, though, this was the quintessential dinner party.

Later this summer, I had the opportunity to attend yet another Brasstacks event.  However, this time was to be a block party in celebration of their one year anniversary.  Unlike the intimate nature of the previous dinner event, this fête was lively and open, clearly designed to be more accessible.  As my driver wove through warehouses before finally stopping by a haphazard stack of unused pallets, my eye was immediately caught by the glisten of a roasting pig as it spun lazily on a spit in the middle of the parking lot.

As the early evening sun lent its oblique rays, spotlighting the promise of a porcine potlatch, I ducked into a literal warehouse, deep shelves stacked with various imported foods, to grab a glass of grüner veltliner from the folks of Olmstead Wine before heading back out to enjoy the warm day.  (I hope that I can be forgiven for neglecting to remember what wines exactly were available that night..)  I already knew a few of the other people there as acquaintances, and I met a few more while waiting for my friends to arrive.  At some point early on in the proceedings, I availed myself to the sideboard of charcuterie, and thus began the balancing act of glasses full of wine and plates full of food.

Had there not been a slight breeze, I imagine that there would have been a localized pocket of high humidity given the amount of salivating that occurred as the pig was finally unseated from its perch and prepared for service.  Meanwhile, a kitchen crew had assembled a smorgasbord of accompaniments from shredded kale salad with fermented sausage to roasted potatoes with fermented asparagus (other than the roasted meat centerpieces, fermentation of various sorts clearly had top billing).  Although, the bites of snoot, rib, and shoulder that I had were good, one could see the benefits of cooking the different parts of the pig separately.  Not to mention, by the time I was served, some of the choicest bits like the ears and jowl had already been claimed.  Though all was redeemed by the best morsels of kid goat, two of which had taken the pig's place on the spit some time earlier, I had ever tasted.

The last glows of dusk gave way to night, and our merry band continued to sip and nibble despite being quite sated.  Groups of friends formed clusters of quiet conversation or of cacophonous revelry.  Surely a more idyllic setting could have been chosen, perhaps a dacha surrounded flowering meadows and shaded by elms, but the essence of the night was one of comforting food and interesting friends.  Or perhaps the other way around with comforting friends and interesting food.  One way or another, I could not help but wish for more hours in the day as my driver pulled up to take me home.

The two nights really captured both ends of the entertaining spectrum, each with merits.  Perhaps it was the opposing seasons - the contented coziness of winter versus the frenetic energy of summer - that frames each experience with such contrast.  Though my nature found the former more pleasing, both were equally enriching (calorically?).  I can only hope to find more invitations to such events in my future mailbox!

Ah! I believe that is the smell of my fårikål simmering away, beckoning me to lay aside my pen for another day.  Comfort indeed..

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