Drinking Like a Local

Either as a light lunch or convenient dinner, a loaf of crusty bread, a block of cheese, a bit of spicy brown mustard, and a beer is the quintessential meal during European travel.  Regional delicacies can be quickly discovered by visiting a local market or small grocery for these items.  And oftentimes, such stores will stock a substantial number of locally brewed beers, or at least the local population’s favorites.

I have, on several occasions, walked through a market in Vienna or Prague and stared at the several new and tempting choices of beer.  Deciding which to choose can be difficult considering the multitude of superb breweries through Western and Central Europe.  Their vast numbers present a wonderful predicament to have while on holiday: how to choose from so many delicious choices?

While dining out or simply walking around a traveler should carefully note what the locals are drinking, be it seated at sidewalk cafes, inside restaurants, or in several Eastern European nations, while out for a stroll.  A sharp eye will lead to what is the best beer a city or region has to offer.

This is especially true with old folks.  Learn what the old guys are drinking and chances are its pretty tasty.  This fact is not limited to the European continent; here in the states grandfathers generally have a keen sense of what is good and what is not.  There is a reason the Old Fashioned has been around since the Nineteenth Century.

Next time you are traipsing around Europe and looking for the best local beer, figure out what the old timers are drinking; it is likely that region’s finest.  Because fine drink, whether beer or not, sticks around for generations.

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Published in: on September 28, 2010 at 10:52 pm  Comments Off on Drinking Like a Local  
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A Whisky and a Sigh of Relief

Looking down on Baghdad International's passenger terminal following takeoff

 

Arriving at the Baghdad International Airport provides a unique flying experience.  To avoid anti-aircraft and small-arms fire, incoming commercial aircraft must conduct a sharp, spiralling descent from their set cruising altitude.  The plane, when almost directly above the airport, banks sharply to one side and points downward.  The airframe groans in response to the force and stress caused by this maneuver.  Only when a few hundred feet of altitude remain does the plane quickly level out and immediately land. 

When departing, the spiral is conducted in reverse: only seconds after leaving the ground the plane climbs upward through the cone until reaching cruising altitude and proceeding to the destination.  The flight pattern is affectionately known as ‘The Spiral of Death.’  After the displeasure of experiencing it four times – two inbound and two outbound – I was understandably elated on my final departure. 

My return trip from Iraq to the U.S. required an overnight layover in the Mid-East and the short respite was a welcomed opportunity to reflect and decompress before returning home.  And how better to reflect than in a plush, worn-in leather chair, with a glass of whisky and a thick Cuban cigar.  Such luxuries allow one to process past events and be truly thankful for safely completing their mission safely – the simple fact I had come through unscathed. 

My hotel’s lounge provided just such a setting.  It was styled to appear as a library: false books lined inlaid bookcases; dark hardwood floors were covered by several room-sized and meticulously detailed rugs.  Cigar and cigarette smoke hung heavy in the air.  My Cohiba Churchill produced an impressive cloud itself.  Glass after glass of Crown Royal complimented my smoke.  My fellow patrons – Arab businessmen in European-cut suits and couples enjoying the privacy of dim lights – paid me no attention. 

I returned their favor, focusing only on my drink and immediate plans following my stateside arrival.  A long pull on my cigar was followed by a deep sigh of relief: relief of tempting fate and probabilities of violence and chaos and not being harmed.  Reason enough to order another drink. 

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To commemorate the anniversary of September 11th, this month I’ll reflect on my time serving in the Middle East.  This is the third in a series of three posts.

Published in: on September 24, 2010 at 8:00 pm  Comments Off on A Whisky and a Sigh of Relief  
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Wine at the Lowest Point on Earth

The road connecting Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport to the few resorts dotted along the Dead Sea’s eastern coast begins flat before turning southwest and sloping sharply downward through the barren plains of the Arabian Peninsula.  It is smoothly paved, equal to any American highway.  Picnicking families, camels, and tents belonging to Bedouin nomads sporadically appear along the shoulder and in the surrounding countryside.  The landscape is bare, aside from rocky gravel and patches of scrubby grass.

Upon arrival at our destination, I see a small sign near the resort’s entrance indicating the altitude at which you stand: 383 meters below sea level, the lowest point on Earth.

Through the open front doors and windows blows a cool breeze, dry and salty from the Dead Sea.  The air smells as ocean water does, only more acidic.  The opulent resort and its environs – lush gardens through which stone pathways snake and bubbling fountains within crystal-clear swimming pools – stand in stark contrast to the ravages of war-torn Baghdad, its pockmarked suburbs, and trampled countryside.  The stress of living in the presence of constant and indiscriminate danger feels strange in such a tranquil place.  But the peace is appreciated, if only for a few days, before returning to the chaos of Iraq.

Following a dip in the Dead Sea, whose concentrated salinity reeks of sulfur and allows one to bob like a cork, I prepare for dinner – a feast of Mediterranean cuisine.  More importantly, the meal is served with a half dozen local varieties of wine.  All of which is remarkably good.  And surprisingly, it is served with a dinner as a special: all you can drink of their Jordanian wines for about ten dollars.

A few bottles later, the sun sets over Israel, on the Sea’s west bank.  The desert turns cool and the night sky is filled with stars, then suddenly, fireworks.  The group laughs at one another for our collective panic at the noise.  Fireworks sound so similar to the explosions to which we have grown so accustomed.  Glass still in hand I gaze upward at the bursting colors.  Just down the hill a wedding party cheers wildly at the display; it seems the father of the bride spared no expense for this celebration.

My colleagues and I turn back inside to conclude dinner with a nightcap in an upstairs lounge.  It has been a good day, after so many that were not.  In a couple of days I will return to the anxiety of living amidst violence.  But for now, I focus on that delicious Jordanian wine and the haze and happiness it brings.
 
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To commemorate the anniversary of September 11th, this month I’ll reflect on my time serving in the Middle East.  This is the second in a series of three posts.

Published in: on September 20, 2010 at 10:53 pm  Comments Off on Wine at the Lowest Point on Earth  
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Beer by Candlelight, or Star Shell

Mamba Armored Personnel Carrier parked near the entrance to the Blue Star Restaurant

Cracking open a beer at the end of a long work day is a practice long enjoyed by American laborers.  Whether blue collar or white, reaching deep into the refrigerator to retrieve an ice cold beverage after quitting time is a time-honored tradition across the country.

However, this practice becomes challenging when working in a war zone, where such simple conveniences as electricity are in short supply.  Many years ago now, I found myself in just such a situation: sitting in a plastic chair, staring up at the stars with a beer in hand, smack in the middle of a near civil war. 

Unwinding with a drink while deployed abroad is a unique combination of risks and rewards.  Inebriation is clearly foolish and reckless; oftentimes it is outright prohibited.  But we civilians (vice military) are granted special permissions along with special responsibilities.  That means balancing your limited free time with healthy doses of caution and maturity. 

Low on the priority list then, are drink selection and locale ambiance.  Yet the Blue Star, a tiny local restaurant hidden near the heart of Baghdad’s International Zone (or ‘Green Zone’) had both: dimly-lit colored lights wrapped around palm tree trunks; tea lights atop the worn plastic patio furniture; the sweet clouds of shisha smoke wafting from hookah pipes; and a few different kinds of beer, wine, or tea.

If electricity was flowing, your beer might be a little cooler than room temperature.  Selection was limited and determined by the successful arrival of supply convoys.  Yet even when only one option was available, it was still desired – the Turkish beer Efes.  The light and hoppy pilsner, brewed in the Aegean-coast resort town of Izmir, was consistently available and sold for what amounted to pocket-change – usually about a dollar.  And although lukewarm, the crisp taste of beer greatly assisted in managing one’s sanity amidst indiscriminate mortar and rocket attacks.

It is for this reason that Efes has held a special place among my favorite beers.  It brings back memories of exhaustion, anxiety, elation, and achievement; those with whom I served shared experiences others cannot understand.  One of which is the taste of warm Turkish beer, savored slowly and carefully, under the thunder of helicopters passing overhead and by the glow of illumination shells drifting lazily down through the night sky.

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To commemorate the anniversary of September 11th, this month I’ll reflect on my time serving in the Middle East.  This is the first in a series of three posts.

Published in: on September 16, 2010 at 11:40 pm  Comments Off on Beer by Candlelight, or Star Shell  
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The Blackcurrant Solution

A simple glass of white wine is, during summer, a most pleasant refreshment for many.  Whether it is taken with a meal or alone, out of doors or in, it is light, cooling, and quite often delicious.  To most, no other beverage is so fitting with so many different summer occasions.  When maturity and civility are required during warmer months, white wine is the perfect choice.

I am not particularly fond of white wine generally speaking.  When selecting a wine I often find white to be insubstantial or far too sweet.  During hot summer months, red wine is too heavy.  And when wine is being served I feel uncomfortable ordering a beer.  Rosé is an excellent alternative but is usually not commonly served or available to those looking for other drink options.  For the non-white wine drinkers, what can be done?

Crème de cassis, the dark red blackcurrant-flavored liqueur, is a sure solution to an ordinary glass of white wine.  This cocktail, long known by the French as a kir, immediately emboldens and invigorates the white.  Although a kir is traditionally made with Sauvignon Blanc, the cassis is equally delicious alongside most other whites.  Its copper-colored hue is reminiscent of an August afternoon’s waning hours, just before twilight.

Unfortunately cassis is not standard fare in most home bars.  So next time a friend hosting dinner requests you bring a bottle of white, take along a small bottle of crème de cassis as well and introduce your host to a kir.  You’ll likely be noted for your unique gift – especially by those looking for a something a little different.

Published in: on September 12, 2010 at 4:15 pm  Comments Off on The Blackcurrant Solution  
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