Drinking Our Way Around the World at the Blackbird Bar

Posted by Anneli Rufus at 7:53 pm, Friday, June 21, 2013

For a “what’s local in Speyside” experience (previewed by a “what’s local in Jalisco” experience), Dibs headed for the Blackbird Bar in San Francisco two days ago.

And no, Dibs did not arrive at the Blackbird to find Ewan McGregor eating haggis and scones while reading Robert Burns poems and dancing to the Bay City Rollers and wearing a kilt.


Speyside is part of Scotland. Dibs has a long emotional relationship with Scotland, despite never having actually been there — during this lifetime, at least, but this relationship might spring from some previous incarnation because how else to explain the storms of sobbing Dibs underwent as a very small child while watching The Three Lives of Thomasina and Ring of Bright Water, two films (one Disney, one not) involving people and animals in Scotland? Granted, animal dramas based anywhere might make small children cry, but Dibs remained dry-eyed while watching Sammy, the Way-Out Seal and The Ugly Dachshund and even Lady and the Tramp, which were set in America and Paris respectively, so Scotland has to be the emotional hook. It just must.

Plus Scotland is one of two countries on earth that Dibs — a world traveler from way back — has persistently refused to visit until an absolutely consummately perfect reason to visit there emerges: a knightship, perhaps, or the gift of a free castle, cathedral, islet or croft. Japan is the other country. Dibs is still waiting.

While waiting — this amounts to a lifetime, thus far — Dibs experiences these magical unvisited countries vicariously, through books and movies (sob) and of course things that can be swallowed. The Blackbird was offering an “extremely exclusive” (that’s what the invitation said, which made it extra-impossible to resist) one-night-only tasting event spotlighting Balvenie single-malt scotch. Guests were offered several choices, including the rarest of the rare: As the invitation explained it, “The Balvenie Tun 1401 is the first un-aged expression from The Balvenie, whose ages span a number of decades. The whisky was rested for several months in Tun 1401, the Balvenie’s traditional oak marrying vessel, creating a synergistic single malt characterized by a deep, complex oakiness.”

Based in eastern Scotland, the Balvenie distillery includes a traditional malting floor, the last of its kind in the Scottish Highlands. Balvenie’s coopers, coppersmith and other craftspersons including the renowned David Stewart, who has been honing his expertise for fifty years, draw upon the heritage of more than three centuries of Scottish scotch-making to produce elegant whiskies such as The Balvenie Fifty, made of newly distilled spirit which was poured into an oak sherry hogshead in 1962 and permitted to mature slowly for fifty years.


OK, so Dibs doubled up on local-ness that night by sampling Suerte tequilas at the Blackbird before the Balvenie event. Founded just last year by two Coloradans, Suerte — whose name is Spanish for “luck,” a fact which Dibs has known since high school, when Dibs and Dibs’ best friend used to wish each other buena suerte before dates — is derived from 100 percent blue Weber agave that grows in Highlands (that is: the OTHER, non-Scottish highlands) of Atotonilco El Alto in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. After being slow-cooked in a traditional brick over for 52 hours — more than quadruple the minimum required industry standard — the agave hearts then spend an astounding sixteen hours being crushed in a traditional tahona, the stone wheel-and-channel device seldom seen in tequila-making today. The resulting mosto (must) is then fermented and double-distilled. The latter process takes seventeen hours; the industry standard is three and a half. The portion that is destined to become Suerte Blanco rests in steel vessels for two months; the portions destined to become Reposado and Añejo are aged in oak barrels for seven-to-eleven months and two years respectively.

You could really taste the quality — especially if you grew up, as Dibs did, quaffing Cuervo. Sampling all three Suertes, Dibs veered back and forth every micro-second over which one to dub “my favorite.” The Blanco tasted brilliantly bright. The Reposado tasted slyly smoky, with a hint of honey. The Añejo evoked flowers and caramel, borne on a hot desert wind. Bar manager Gina Schuarte mixed them into lush cocktails that blazed gently on the tongue like sweet spicy fire.


But Dibs had to leave room for the whisky, and wandered to the back of the bar where the Balvenie was beautifully arranged and an eager crowd jostled for drams.


Dibs chose a dram of the Caribbean Cask, aged fourteen years. Admittedly, Dibs is no expert. Dibs is new to the whiskiverse, albeit having inherited the late parents’ entire liquor collection, which includes numerous still-sealed bottles of cheap Canadian whisky. But you have to start somewhere, right? So Dibs sipped….

And sipped….

And Oh. My. Scottish. God.

Smooth, not like cream or even ice cream but like warm toffee-flavored satin that is not merely swallowed but pulled osmotically through the entire head.

Complex, not like cartoons or card games but like long algebraic equations that prod you gently at first and then, as you understand them, glow like a thousand stars.


Rich, not like quiche crust but like mellow chocolate and classical music and civilization itself. just in one tiny sip. Then another. Then another. Warm. Open, like a summer dawn or a friend to whom you could tell anything.

And then this buzz. This transformation that feels like a cross between comfort and flying. Maybe all scotch whisky does this to everyone who drinks it. In which case Dibs has been missing out. But Dibs suspects that this Balvenie (which the Blackbird will serve for the next month) is very special stuff, made with the help of malty angels.

What Does Mendocino County Taste Like? Wine, Pie and Seaweed

Posted by Anneli Rufus at 9:28 am, Monday, June 17, 2013

Last week, Dibs attended an event titled “Taste of Mendocino” in San Francisco’s glorious Presidio.

This event was designed to spread the word about Mendocino County, a scenic nearly 4,000-square-mile swatch of coastal Northern California that is blessed with deep redwood forest, sprawling vineyards, Old West architecture, rugged shoreline, hot sunny summer days and drenchingly wet winter ones, with panoramic vistas during both.

kemmy's pies

We met lots of friendly Mendocinans with interesting businesses, products and stories to share. Carlos Fuentes of 32-year-old Mendocino Brewing Company furthered our beer-tasting sensibilities with his hearty Red Tail Ale. The mother-and-daughters team from family-run Kemmy’s Pies — whose kitchen is located in Willits’ historic Skunk Train depot — shared samples of their strawberry-rhubarb and apple-bacon pies, both of which were so nostalgically rich and wholesome that we could eagerly have made balanced meals of either one. We tasted farm-grown goodness, proffered by the family-run, Fort Bragg-based Thanksgiving Coffee Company — whose charitable efforts and commitment to cooperatives around the world have garnered multiple awards, including a Dr. Jean Mayer Global Citizenship Award from The Tufts Institute for Global Leadership and a Lifetime Achievement Award for co-founder Paul Katzeff from the Specialty Coffee Association of America.

Cherie Soria and Dan Ladermann from the Fort Bragg-based Living Light Raw Foods Culinary Center — they’re also the co-authors of Raw Food for Dummies — shared elegantly edgy raw cocoa-pecan “brownies” that we could well imagine being served at chic Hollywood soirées.

mendo gin

Lots of wineries were on hand, including family-owned Husch Vineyards and Meyer Family Cellars, home of the smooth Meyer Family Port. At the popular Craft Distillers booth, we sampled Mendocino-distilled delectables including pear-based Germain-Robin Pear de Pear and Crème de Poète liqueurs, Fluid Dynamics bottled cocktails, and Crispin’s heavenly garden-in-your-glass Rose Liqueur.

We learned about romantic lodgings such as the cozy Brewery Gulch Inn and fifth-generation family-run Little River Inn. And we were excited to hear about Point Arena’s B. Bryan Preserve, which recently relocated to Mendocino County from Mississippi and is actively devoted to the breeding and preservation of hooved African wild animals including zebras, giraffes and antelopes.

We learned a lot and were reminded of our last visit to green Mendocino. But amidst all this talk of trains, giraffes and Chardonnay, something was missing — and it was the sea.

For us, Mendocino’s main attraction is its rocky, wild seashore: not the classic sun-baked Southern California strand but a roaring watch-your-step wonderland of pink and gold and black and white and ever-shifting moody blue. We searched Taste of Mendocino for someone to talk with about these beaches — and happily met Terry d’Selkie, who for over thirty years has hand-harvested raw seaweed from the rocky shallows to create Ocean Harvest Sea Vegetable Company products, which are sold online and served at restaurants nationwide.

terry d'selkie

Sampling these mineral-rich snacks which brought alive in our mouths the very essence of all that we love about the sea, we yearned to learn d’Selkie’s story. This is what she told us:

“We sustainably hand-harvest and sun-dry ten different species of seaweeds during the new and full moons of summer each year,” between April and July.

“Harvesting seaweed is no easy day at the beach. It starts at 4:30 a.m. when I leave my home in the redwoods. At daybreak, we walk in wetsuits, booties, and wool hats with our backpacks full of gear. When it is a longer trek, we take a wheelbarrow because carrying 200 pounds of wet seaweed” back from the beach “is not possible in two backpacks. After we sing to the ocean, giving thanks for such abundance, we hand-harvest frond tips from the various ocean plants” — such as sea palm, ocean ribbon, kombu, fucus, bull-whip kelp, wakame and dulse.

“We must listen to and watch the waves to understand their ebb and flow. The mixed swells combine to produce varying wave heights, which, along with the added height of wind waves, can produce waves of up to 16-20 feet. Sometimes we cut and run,” d’Selkie explained.

“Other days the ocean is flat, but there is no predicting what ocean conditions are, and only regular use of a weather radio and a good tide book” can give human searchers the edge.

“Even though safety is a priority, I have been swept off rocks I was harvesting on. The pull of the ocean after the wave hit the rock was so strong that I lost my hat, shoes, knife and bag to the ocean. I was lucky enough to be swept back against a rock and grabbed onto the ocean ribbon seaweed holdfast — and hold fast I did.

“We drive the seaweed back through the redwoods and, at a 2,000-foot elevation, we dry the seaweed in the sun’s rays to preserve its prana,” she said, using the Sanskrit word meaning “life force.”

ocean harv seaweeds

“This drying process is very tedious, long and hot. We take great care to keep the seaweed at a stable temperature and dryness throughout the year. Seaweed loves to soak up any ambient moisture,” she added.

“Seaweed harvesting is a right livelihood and an amazing way to get nutritious and delicious food to seaweed lovers. The minerals in seaweeds are more complete than those in any other plant-based foods.”

Adherents to the macrobiotic movement, along with everyone who loves Japanese cuisine, would happily agree. D’Selkie offers annual Seaweed Safaris for those who would like to join the harvest firsthand. It’s not your typical dip in the sea, but it sounds like a life-changer to us.

Texas Caramels Gotta Be Hotter

Posted by Anneli Rufus at 3:36 pm, Friday, June 7, 2013

This week, we at Dibs had to chew. And chew. And chew. We did it for the sake of artistry, in support of independent enterprise, to whet the blades of ambition and fan the flames of rivalry and to honor butter and sugar and the power of chemistry to spin these two exquisitely simple ingredients into softly, stretchily exquisite confections that create their own exercise program, if flexing your mandibles counts as a workout.

We were among the judges at a roundtable competition based on selecting America’s best artisan caramels.

Organized by TasteTV, the confab entailed tasting dozens of different caramels from dozens of different companies and evaluating their packaging, appearance, uniqueness, ingredient combinations, flavor and general artistry. Grueling work, we know. Our dentist can now afford that yacht he wants.

Among the many glorious competitors (winners have yet to be announced) were Kandinsky-esque delights from Wild Sweets and faceted, gleaming jewel-like designer caramels from Phillip Ashley. Local-ism wasn’t a category in TasteTV’s contest, but Austin, Texas-based Delysia Chocolatier won our own private Local Caramel Prize for its Salt Lick BBQ Dry Rub caramels:


Subtle at first and then slowly building up to a smokin’-hot sweetness, these soft squares were inspired by (and created for) the Salt Lick Bar-B-Que restaurant in Driftwood Texas, adorably packaged in pure white boxes whose snowy hue serves as a whimsical counterpart to the moody dark-chocolate bitterness and bright peppery blaze.

Kudos to chocolatier Nicole Patel, a trained engineer and former Fortune 100 business leader who has made good on a lifelong love of creating sweet treats while keeping local-ism alive. Nothing says “Texas” like capsicum-infused caramels that bite you back!

Officially Local: How “appellations” and “AVAs” ensure the authenticity of local specialities

Posted by Kristan Lawson at 1:01 pm, Wednesday, May 29, 2013

I am a “locavore,” not in the original definition of the term — someone who only eats food grown or produced nearby — but rather in the sense that I seek out and enjoy local specialities native to particular regions or places.

Until recently in human history, most local or regional specialties, from mochi cakes to açai juice and beyond, were unavailable (and in most cases completely unknown) to the outside world. But sometimes a local delicacy’s reputation spreads nationally or even globally, and suddenly there is a growing customer demand for a product (such as Greek yogurt or boba tea) which until that time had been made only in limited quantities. Into this gap step counterfeiters and name-stealers who profitably pass off to an unwitting public an inferior (or at least inauthentic) product passing as the real thing.

Perhaps the best-known example of this deception is “Parmesan cheese.” Originally known locally as Parmigiano (from the region around Parma, Italy), it gained fame regionally over the years as far and away the best topping for pasta. As long as pasta remained a local Italian dish, there was enough real Parmigiano to satisfy domestic demand, but after WWII when pasta quickly spread around the world as a newly popular meal, suddenly there was not nearly enough real Parmigiano being produced for all those diners from Honolulu to Helsinki who needed something to sprinkle on their spaghetti. And so imitators popped up across Europe and America to make a cheap substitute (spelled “Parmesan” for easy pronunciation) that was vaguely similar to but not nearly as good as real Parmigiano. Consequently most people now think of Parmesan as a type of salty sawdust found at pizza parlors rather than a piquant and delectable regional specialty from Parma.

To prevent this kind of brand degradation, many countries have recently established strict food labeling laws; the European Union, in particular, has an extensive and rigorously enforced system for identifying and protecting local specialties. This system was itself derived from an earlier system of “appellations” specifically meant to protect the reputations of local wines which had had earned international fame. Some appellations, or legally protected regional wine names, date as far back as the 18th century; the four oldest ones are Chianti from Italy, Tokay from Hungary, Port from Portugal, and Champagne from France. Each language of course has its own term for these laws, but the French appellation has become the standard catch-all name, since France established the first and most extensive labelling laws to guarantee the authenticity of its legendary wines.

In the United States, the term we use for American wine appellations is “AVA,” which is not a word but an acronym standing for American Viticultural Area. We as a nation are comparative newcomers to the appellation scene; our AVA system was not established until 1980, which is right around the same time (not coincidentally) that American wines began to garner a reputation equal to or even surpassing that of European wines.

By now there are over 200 AVAs across the United States, with more of them in California than in all the other 49 states combined. AVAs can be of almost any size, with some of the largest spanning several states, while others occupy just a few acres at a single winery.

Recently we were given the opportunity to take a behind-the-scenes tour of one of the most desirable AVAs in the country, Dry Creek Valley AVA in Sonoma County, part of California’s world-famous Napa/Sonoma wine country. We jumped at the chance, specifically to answer the age-old question: What makes local specialties unique? Is it the climate, the culture, the people, the recipes, the very dirt under our feet? The answer in all cases, it turns out, is “Yes.”

Dry Creek Valley

California’s “wine country” is actually two adjacent counties, Napa and Sonoma. Of the two, Napa remains the best known internationally, but Sonoma is a close second. Within each county are several highly localized wine-growing mini-regions, most of which have been granted official “AVA” status. The Dry Creek Valley AVA occupies a narrow creekbed in the northwest of Sonoma’s wine-growing area.

As we were to learn on the tour, Dry Creek Valley’s micro-climate and particular soil characteristics were long ago discovered to be absolutely perfect for growing one particular type of finicky grape known as Zinfandel, and as far back as the 19th century Dry Creek was already known for its high-quality Zinfandel wines — a reputation that has never dimmed.

Despite its comparatively small size, Dry Creek Valley is jam-packed with wineries and vineyards covering nearly every available square inch of land. One could spend weeks touring them all, but we had only one afternoon and limited our visit to just four.

Our first stop was at Fritz Underground Winery at the northern end of the valley where our oenological education began with an “Aromatics Seminar” led by Fritz’s winemaker Brad Longton.

Wine connoisseurs will often differentiate appellations and vintages by noting the subtle aromas given off by each glass. At Fritz we were given the opportunity to test our olfactory skills: we were not only allowed to sniff and taste a series of Fritz’s best wines, but then also presented with fruits, flowers and spices to smell which supposedly matched the complex aromas of each wine sample.

While it was a pleasant exercise and certainly easy to convince oneself that the Sauvignon Blanc really did exude the aromas of sweet-pea flowers and pineapple, as we were informed it did, even so I got to wondering whether the seminar participants would have identified the same aromas if we had not all been told ahead of time what to expect. So on the Zinfandel portion of the demonstration I closed my eyes and tried to discern, without any prompting from an expert and without bowing to group psychology, what aromas I smelled. I detected kiwi fruit, burnt matchsticks, and horehound drops, which was better than it sounds and quite different from the “ripe raspberry, bittersweet chocolate and ripe plum” that I was supposed to detect. Fascinating! And quite an education on the subtle differences between various local wines.

The “underground” part of Fritz Underground Winery refers to its unusual architecture, with the winery literally built into a hillside, which allows the wine to flow through the various processing steps by gravity alone, a natural flow which preserves certain flavors and further differentiates Fritz’s wines from anyone else’s. I’d always heard that wine was aged in “caves,” and wondered if that was just a euphemism for a cool storage room, or if it really referred to actual caves. Well, as you can see, in Fritz’s case at least, they really are caves.

Next stop was Mauritson Wines where we got down to the real nitty-gritty of what distinguishes one wine from another: the very soil in which the grapes are grown. Like many of the wineries in Dry Creek Valley, Mauritson is family-owned and so we were lucky enough to have the knowledgable Cameron Mauritson himself present a series of wines from various parts of the AVA paired with samples of the dirt from which the vines draw their nutrients and minerals.

Each of the soil samples was remarkably different from all the others, and as we sipped the delectable samples Cameron explained the centuries of experience and wisdom the vignerons employ in choosing which varietals to plant in which kind of soil, at what elevation, and so forth.

We learned, for example, that red wine grapes do best in rocky, less fertile soil, which stresses the vine and consequently helps produce more tannins and a richer flavor (albeit with decreased harvest), while white grapes require less time to ripen and thus need more fertile soil to get a greater amount of nutrients in a shorter season.

Dry Creek Valley, despite being a very small appellation, has numerous distinct sub-regions, with some vineyards on the valley floor, others on the “benchlands” or flat strips partway up the hillside, and others near the crests of the encircling hills. Each and every vineyard in Dry Creek Valley is essentially unique, with different soils, different elevations, different fertility, more or less fog, sunshine and wind, differing levels of drainage or water retention. All this in a valley just two miles wide and sixteen miles long! Imagine the differences from region to region, state to state, nation to nation. This is the essence of what makes each wine “local.”

Our next stop was the lavish and beautiful Quivira Vineyards & Winery, where we got to commune with the grapevines themselves in a tour of the extensive vineyards and garden — while sampling their wine, naturally.

And “naturally” is the appropriate word, as Quivira is a strictly organic winery, using no chemical fertilizers and nothing artificial whatsoever.

In fact, Quivira takes it even a step further and is now a certified “biodynamic” farm, which out-organics mere organic and treats the entire winery as a living organism.

While there is a lot to admire about biodynamics, it does have an eccentric “mystical” aspect which Quivira freely discusses on its own website, for the sake of full disclosure:

The spiritual side of biodynamics is a bit more difficult to grasp. The originator of biodynamics, Rudolf Steiner, proposed many techniques well outside the realm of proven science. The mystical side of biodynamics includes making fertilizer preparations during certain moon phases, stirring in different directions at different times, applying the organic matter of cow horns in the vineyards, burying cow horns in our organic garden beds.

Although these types of farming techniques have been around for centuries – from 15th century Italian farms to 17th century Native American garden plots – in these modern times it is harder to allow for the unexplained. Yet we see the results every day out in the vineyards, as vines strengthen and thrive using these techniques.

I admit I’m a little skeptical about the efficacy of Steiner’s mystical and astrological instructions, but they certainly don’t hurt — if the excellence of Quivira’s wines is anything to judge by.

During the tour we finally encountered Dry Creek itself, which wends through Quivira’s extensive estate. It used to be dry most of the year (hence the name), flowing only in winter and spring, but in 1982 it was dammed upstream to create Lake Sonoma, and now a controlled release creates a flowing creek year-round, which allows salmon to spawn there.

Quivira also maintains a huge biodynamic garden, produce from which is used by local chefs, while all proceeds from sales are donated to charity.

And off we went once again through more vineyards to our final destination, Dutcher Crossing Winery, where owner Debra Mathy and winemaker Kerry Damskey welcomed us, along with the winery’s mascot and namesake, Dutchess the Labrador Retriever.

At Dutcher our newfound knowledge was put to the test as each of us on the tour was expected to create our own Zinfandels in a “blending seminar.” Here we learned the final step of what makes each kind of local wine different from every other kind — the proportions of how much each grape varietal are mixed to make the final bottled product. With test-tubes and precisely calibrated pipettes we bravely tried to follow instructions from master mixer Kerry Damskey.

This was no idle exercise, but a serious competition. Our personal blends were then judged on quality by a panel of experts in a double-blind taste test; needless to say, my eccentric combination of 75% Zinfandel, 16% Grenache, 8% Rhone reds and 1% Sirah came in somewhere near last place.

That disappointment was more than made up for by a celebratory dinner literally in the Dutcher vineyards.

It was at this final event that I tasted what ended up being my favorite wine of the day, 2012 Viognier from Thumbprint Cellars.

Even though we had spent all day exploring Dry Creek Valley, we had only visited 5% of the many wineries blanketing the valley, each of which has it own story to tell and its own unique “terroir.” And this appellation is only one of many in Sonoma, which is just one county in California’s ever-expanding wine regions. And each of those regions has their own microclimates and regional characteristics as well.

That’s the beauty of seeking out “the local.” The variety is infinite, yet each delicacy unique.

[All photos and text by Kristan Lawson.]

What Happens When You Squeeze 3 Lbs. of Local Produce into One Small Bottle?

Posted by Anneli Rufus at 11:45 am, Monday, May 13, 2013

Today is grand-opening day for Thrive-Cleanse, a new shop in San Francisco’s Embarcadero Center. The basic idea behind a Thrive Cleanse is drinking six bottles of T-C preparations instead of three solid meals, ideally for three to five consecutive days. Formerly, T-C was a pop-up. But as of today, customers can buy bottles of nut milk or “pressed juices” over the counter or have them delivered — yes, door to door, right to their homes, like pizzas that require no chewing at all.


Inspired by cleanses they undertook together, co-founders Stephanie Hubbard and Megan Propp assert that giving the digestive track an occasional rest — feeding it, but not making it process solid foods for a few days — can yield amazing results in terms of energy, weight loss and more. The two friends, who are health coaches, studied over 100 dietary theories before creating their own line of liquids and launching T-C. An amazing three pounds of organic produce go into each bottle — and that’s local produce, gathered at farms within 200 miles of San Francisco.

A wide range of bottled options include Tropical Greens, comprising kale, romaine lettuce, spinach, cucumber, celery, pear, pineapple, lemon, cilantro and ginger; and Fennominal Greens, comprising fennel, apple, cucumber and mint. Almond Joy includes raw almonds, dates, vanilla, sea salt and filtered water. Cozy Cashew includes raw cashew nuts, vanilla, cinnamon, agave and filtered water. Beetastic comprises beet, apple, cucumber, lemon and ginger.

The proprietors can recommend specific cleanse programs or customers can pick and mix.

“A lot of people who are very into cleansing want nothing to do with fruit juices,” says Hubbard, who is depicted above. “So we can offer those people drinks containing no fruit juices. And a lot of people will say, ‘I don’t like beets.’ So we can substitute something else instead of Beetastic.”

Dibs sampled the Cozy Cashew and loved its earthy natural richness. Will Dibs actually go for a full-on cleanse? Who knows, as yet — but nut milks might help.

“If you’re a beginner at this, having something yummy makes it all so much easier,” Hubbard said.

Cottage Law Lets Home Cooks Go Legit

Posted by Anneli Rufus at 1:10 pm, Sunday, May 5, 2013

California’s new cottage law, which became effective in January of this year, allows enterprising people to sell food products that were created in their own home kitchens. In passing this liberating legislation, California now joins many other states, including Michigan, Florida, Texas, Oklahoma and Virginia.

Last week, Dibs visited the Bay Area Homemade Market, where a large handful of new cottage-law entrepreneurs set up shop in a Berkeley space normally used for art shows. It was inspiring to meet these folks, hear their stories and of course sample their wares.

jake blaine

“I grew up making jam,” said Jake Blaine (depicted above) of Jake’s Castro Kitchen. “My problem was that I’ve never figured out how to make it in small batches.”

Now he doesn’t have to. Cordon Bleu-trained Blaine offers six different sweet jams and three savory jams in such innovative flavors as carrot cake and bacon-balsamic-bourbon, along with a selection of sauces, fruit butters, chutneys and more — all handcrafted in his kitchen in San Francisco’s Castro District, where he and partner Ren Blake also serve monthly brunches, another cottage-law plus.

Why did Jasmine Shepard name her company Engineered Cupcake? Because she’s an engineer!

“I work in HVAC and solar, and I put way more science into my baking than the average person does,” says Shepard, who worked her way through a college engineering degree while part-timing as a pastry chef at the local Four Seasons and elsewhere. Science succeeds, as Shepard’s wares are perfectly velvety and exactly the right degree of sweetness. Our favorite were the green-tea cupcakes — made according to her Japanese grandmother’s recipe.

“Not a spring went by when she didn’t bake green-tea cupcakes,” Shepard said.

alex stone

Other participants included A-Live:Raw nutrition bars; Brown Dog Mustard; Mi Gudu Baking; Chickie’s Cookies & Treats (whose gloriously chewy offerings include salted-caramel brownies, jalapeño cookies, banana-chocolate-chip cookies and more … including s’mores); Teveh Sweet Life (whose amazingly affordable pastries include irresistible vegan and gluten-free Key lime/coconut oat bars; each label proudly announces, “Made in Home Kitchen”); and Girl Alex crackers, whose proprietor Alex Stone (depicted at right) organizes the monthly Homemade Markets.

All of these pioneering business owners told us that they had been baking and cooking for friends, family, tailgate parties and officemates for years until the new cottage law finally let them connect with a wider audience — and turn their talents into well-deserved cash.

All Hail the Chamomile-Honey Bar

Posted by Anneli Rufus at 9:51 am, Saturday, April 27, 2013

The San Francisco Bay Area is aggressively, teeth-baringly, button-bustingly proud of its local chocolate. But unlike some of the other reasons for which Bay Area people love themselves too much, this one is totally justified. Everywhere you turn within a few miles of SF, you bump into either another indie company making its own amazing local chocolate or a restaurant making amazing things with this amazing local chocolate.

Granted, the cacao beans are not local — just as the coffee beans that also inspire eye-popping pride around here aren’t local. But what locals do with these non-local cacao beans is like the difference between heaven and Hostess Ding Dongs.

Kudos to San Leandro’s TeaRoom Chocolate Company:

In the Specialty Food Association’s prestigious 2013 sofi awards, The TeaRoom’s luscious non-GMO Chamomile & Honey organic white chocolate bar has been selected as a finalist in the category of Outstanding Chocolate.


If The TeaRoom wins this award, it will join a raft of past honors that the company has been racking up for years. These include six Gear Awards™ in 2008 and seven in 2009. In 2010, The TeaRoom scored two “Top Gear of the Year” awards (Gold), three “Great Gear of the Year” awards (Silver), and four “Seal of Excellence” awards (Bronze), all in the “Organic Treats” category. Among other honors, The TeaRoom’s Earl Grey tea-infused bar won a silver sofi award in 2009, silver medals in the Best Milk Chocolate, Best Flavored Chocolate, and Best Flavored Chocolate Bar at last month’s San Francisco International Chocolate Salon.

The TeaRoom’s head chocolatier Heinz Rimann was a chef at five-star hotels in his native Switzerland, then at Hong Kong’s world-renowned Peninsula Hotel before moving to the Bay Area. The TeaRoom began as a purveyor of loose-leaf teas, but Rimann became inspired by the idea of merging his knowledge of tea with his knowledge of chocolate. The result is a range of products including truffles, drinking chocolate, and bars flavored with such exotica as green maté, honeybush caramel tea, Earl Grey tea, Masala chai, and jasmine tea.

“We are extremely honored to have been selected as a finalist for our the Specialty Food industry’s top honor. … Onward and upward,” TTR’s Ethan Ash wrote us yesterday, soon after the sofi finalists were announced.

Learn from a master chocolatier! The TeaRoom offers this recipe for Masala Chai Mousse:


6 TeaRoom Black Masala Chai Milk Chocolate bars

1 pt heavy whipping cream, preferably organic


1 medium-sized pot

2 stainless-steel bowls, 1.5 to 2 quarts capacity

electric or hand mixer


spatula (spoon will do if you don’t have a spatula)

glass bowl or individual glasses for serving


Fill pot half with water; bring to a boil. Break chocolate bars into 3-4 pieces per bar; put all pieces in 1 stainless-steel bowl. Whip cream in other stainless-steel bowl until lightly whipped — not too stiff; don’t overdo it. Place stainless steel bowl containing broken chocolate in the pot with the hot water; melt chocolate; do not let the water boil or let the bowl touch the water. Stir chocolate until melted — approximately 104 degrees F. Remove melted chocolate from hot water pot. Add only 1/5 of the whipped cream to chocolate; stir firmly with whisk; put bowl back on the hot water for a few seconds to smooth the mix. Add another 1/5 of the whipped cream; beat strongly again. If necessary, put again back on the hot water to mix chocolate & whip cream well. Add the remaining 3/5 whipped cream; mix delicately. Put mixture in large glass bowl or individual containers. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours. Enjoy!

If Your Life Depended on It, Could You Tell Me Three Things About Corsica?

Posted by Anneli Rufus at 9:59 am, Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Corsica is one of those places whose name your average non-European might know … or not. And even those of us who know its name — how many of us could find it on a map? (Hint: It’s an island west of Rome, southeast of Cannes. But I had to Google it just now to confirm this, embarrassingly enough.) And how many of us could rattle off even one fact about Corsican history, geography, culture, language, cuisine? We might — juuuust might — remember that Corsica has something to do with Napoleon Bonaparte.

Should we be ashamed of ourselves or what?! Corsica has forests! Gorgeous beaches! Soaring rock formations! Dazzling waterfalls! Prehistoric menhirs! Romanesque chapels! A glorious sunshiny Mediterranean climate — which manifests in such marvels as myrtles, figs, cherries, chestnuts and clementines … which are made into jams, jellies, chutneys and nougat, sweetened with delicate mountain honey.

sml nougat

How many other places in the world do we know nearly nothing about?

They Don’t Eat Tacos in Peru

Posted by Anneli Rufus at 11:33 am, Sunday, April 21, 2013

Let’s play a word-association game.

Brunch + Peruvian. What comes to mind? Nothing?

Or this:


We used to have a little joke around the Dibs house. One of us would ask what we should have for dinner, and the other would say: “South American food.” This was considered hilarious because (a) neither of us had ever tasted South American food, and (b) neither of us had any notion of what South American food comprised, except (c) lima beans, which are named after Lima, Peru, and (d) corn with huge, Corn Nuts-sized kernels. This was all we knew.

Then South American restaurants started opening in and around San Francisco. First, we tried Brasa in Berkeley. Revelaciones grandes: smoky skewered beef hearts; steak sandwiches with French fries tucked inside the roll, amongst the strips of steak. Ice cream made with sunny yellow maple-flavored lúcuma fruit.

Lima-born chef Verónica Laramie, who co-owns Brasa with her husband Christopher Laramie, warned Dibs not to confuse Peruvian food with Mexican food:

“In Mexico, they eat tortillas. In Peru, we don’t even know what tortillas are. In Peru, nobody eats tacos. Taco Bell opened in Peru and had to close because nobody went there.”

Instead, Peru has a rich, diverse culinary heritage with ancient roots, influenced by indigenous traditions and European cuisine and local produce such as plantains, the leafy green huacatay herb and local peppers including the earthy yellow aji amarillo, assertive red rocoto and fruity orange aji panca. Sauces made from these peppers and from huacatay are more popular in Peru than ketchup and mustard.

Most surprising of all is the strong influence of Chinese cuisine. Lima has a huge Chinatown. Dim sum, soy sauce and rice figure prominently in mainstream Peruvian meals.

Peruvian cuisine might be the Next Big Thing, thanks in part to Peruvian celebrity chef Gastón Acurio and his highly renowned international La Mar restaurant group, which is waking the world up to these dazzling flavors and textures at long last:

plantain chips

Last week Dibs visited San Francisco’s waterfront La Mar Cebichería Peruana, whose new brunch entrées merge that rich diverse heritage with cutting-edge innovation. Empanadas (depicted at the top of this post) are South America’s answer to the English pastie and the Jewish knish. Causas (depicted below) are Peruvian whipped-potato pedestals with aji amarillo and various toppings:


Nearly a dozen other new brunch items include chicharrones served with three different sauces and soft Acme rolls; Chaufa Power, which is beef Milanesa atop wok-fried rice with Chinese sausage, egg noodles, scallions and bell peppers, served with pickles and pepper sauce; another new dish is Brussels sprouts and cauliflower sautéed with garlic and huacatay, topped with aji panca bacon candy:

brussels bacon

A wide range of house-specialty cebiches includes the vegetarian cebiche de hongos, made with piopini, enoki and oyster mushrooms in aji amarillo leche de tigre with wakame and basil-infused olive oil. Some dishes even include giant corn, imported from Peru:

big corn

From a tempting selection of pisco cocktails, we chose the classic pisco sour — augmented by a glass of chicha morada, the traditional Andean non-alcoholic drink made from purple corn:

chicha pisco

Next time someone at the Dibs house says we’re having “South American food,” we’ll know what we’re talking about.

Mexico City Is a Region Too

Posted by Anneli Rufus at 4:00 pm, Friday, April 19, 2013

Copita Tequileria y Comida, the modern Mexican restaurant in Sausalito, CA that is co-owned by iconic restaurateur Larry Mindel and celebrity chef Joanne Weir, is going local with a new series of seasonal and regional menus created by executive chef Gonzalo Rivera, inspired by his culinary journeys through his native Mexico.


Introduced this week, the first installment in the series is a spring menu celebrating the specialties of Mexico City. This assertive array — which Dibs investigated last night — includes Beef Cecina (thinly sliced dry-aged flank steak, served with plump Rancho Gordo black beans and salsa cruda) and Queso Fundido (house-made chorizo verde, Niman Ranch pork, epazote, cumin, poblano peppers and charred tomatillo salsa).

Also on the menu is another Mexico City must-have, Mancha Manteles — tender goat mole poblano served with sweet peas and rainbow carrots, quinoa a la Mexicana and soft fresh handmade tortillas.

“When I told my friends that I was going to make goat mole, they said ‘No way,’” said Rivera, an alum of the Michael Mina restaurants and Capella in Ixtapa, Mexico. “But I went ahead and made it anyway.”

He makes this velvety-rich dark mole — which many call Mexico’s national dish — with well over a dozen ingredients including nuts, raisins and CacaoBerry chocolate. The dish’s name literally means “tablecloth stainer” in Spanish — and as you want to spoon up every drop of this seductively complex glory, it’s easy to see why.

Also on the spring menu are Tacos al Pastor, made with spit-roasted Niman Ranch pork loin, guajillo chile adobo, roasted pineapple and roasted serrano chile salsa. The juicy kiss of the pineapple lingers long in the memory.

“Mexico City,” Rivera told Dibs, “is home to a lot of Jewish and Lebanese people” whose tradition of preparing spit-roasted shawarma inspired this smoky, slyly sweet-tart dish.


Future regional menus will be introduced throughout the year. A summer menu will spotlight Mexico’s northern Michoacán region; a fall menu will focus on southern Oaxaca; a winter menu will embrace central Jalisco. Creative cocktails — such as the Chaparrito, comprising cherry-infused tequila, whiskey, house-made hibiscus tea and ginger syrup (depicted above) and the Bloody Maria, comprising tequila, caraway-flavored Kummel, house-made sangrita and lime — make bold companions for Copita’s intensely fresh fare, served indoors and outdoors amidst warm spicy colors within sight of San Francisco Bay.