A&L Wine Castle

posted May 9, 2013, 1:47 PM by Tammy Coxen

From the outside, it looks like a castle. The first things you see when you walk in the door are cases of Michigan beer – three from Shorts and two from Atwater. When you look to your right, you see racks and racks of wine. Beyond that, more beer and liquor waits for you behind the counter.

Every party store should look like this.

A&L Wine Castle has served the Ann Arbor area since 1984, which has provided owner Maher Jaboro and his staff with a unique opportunity to observe the evolving market for quality spirits, beer and wine.

Click to read more of my May column for iSPY Magazine.

The Bar at Vellum

posted Mar 31, 2013, 6:50 PM by Tammy Coxen

Vellum excels at attention to detail: the amuse bouche when you arrive, the house churned butter for your bread, the tiny assortment of chocolates with your check. Happily, this philosophy applies as much to the bar as it does to the rest of the restaurant.

Take the beer, wine and spirits lists, for example. Head bartender Travis Reeves reports that people will look at the draft beer list and ask “Don’t you have anything local?” Three of the six beers on the list are local, but it’s not obvious because they’re not the usual suspects. The spirit list is similar. You won’t find many of the big names, but you will find some amazing gins and vodkas that don’t have enormous marketing budgets. What they do have are great stories, and the knowledgeable and friendly bar and service staff can not only help you pick a new spirit to try but also tell you why it’s different and interesting.

Click to read more of my April column for iSPY Magazine.

The Mad Scientist of The Raven's Club

posted Jan 31, 2013, 6:09 AM by Tammy Coxen

There’s a lab in the basement of The Ravens Club. It has beakers and vials and jars filled with mysterious ingredients. There are dropper bottles and measuring scoops.

Jeff Paquin is the creative force behind The Ravens Club’s many unique house-made ingredients. When The Ravens Club opened in May of 2011, it was the culmination of several years of planning and dreaming for Paquin and fellow managing partner Chris Pawlicki. Cocktail culture was taking the coasts by storm and sweeping slowly inland to the Midwest, and Paquin was determined to be on top of it. A lifelong food lover and cocktail connoisseur, he’d grown up watching his parents host cocktail parties and putting up brandied cherries in the kitchen with his mom.

Click to read more of my January column for iSPY magazine.

The Bar

posted Jan 31, 2013, 6:06 AM by Tammy Coxen   [ updated Jan 31, 2013, 6:11 AM ]

Some places, you just know you are going to like the minute you walk in. So it was with this bar. Bar Bar. Bar at Braun. 327. TBa327BC. Or just The Bar. That last one makes Eric Farrell, co-owner of The Bar at 327 Braun Court, laugh. “I would never have opened a bar and called it just ‘The Bar.’ That seems so pretentious. But some people do call it that.”  We may not know what to call it, but we know that we like it.

A year after opening, The Bar at 327 Braun Court has settled into itself and its space. It’s the kind of place where you instantly feel at home – if your home has funky décor and a fetal shark on the bar. After a few visits, the bartenders and servers will welcome you back and greet you by name.

Click the link to read more of my December column for iSPY magazine (co-written with Patti Smith)

The Birth of Parmigiano-Reggiano

posted Oct 16, 2011, 6:25 PM by Tammy Coxen   [ updated Oct 17, 2011, 6:52 AM ]

We were on the bus at 5:30 in the morning, so we could arrive at the Poggio Castro cheesemaking facility by 6:30 am. That's when they start making the cheese, and we were there to witness Italy's most famous cheese being born.


The milk for parmigiano-reggiano comes from two milkings. The milk from the previous afternoon sits out in large metal trays overnight, and the cream skimmed off in the morning for other uses. The remaining milk is combined with the whole milk from that morning's milking along with some whey from the previous days cheesemaking, and is poured into large copper kettles.

Rennet starts the reaction that leads to cheese. We watched Christien pour the rennet into the kettle, and in just moments the milk had set up into a kind of gel - the curd. How you treat the curd varies from cheese to cheese, but for parmigiano, you want a very fine curd, so Christien used a whisk to break it up into small lumps, then attached a flat mixing head to the mixer atop the kettle.

As the mixer stirred the mixture, the kettle was heating the contents, and gradually the curds and whey started to separate. The creamy white milk became yellow whey, with tiny specks of white curd floating in it. Christien would reach into the kettle ever few minutes, squeezing the curds in his hand, testing their consistency.

When the appropriate texture and temperature has been achieved, the mixer was turned off, the edges of the kettle were brushed down, and the curd was left to settle to the bottom of the kettle for an hour. Then it's time for the birth.

Using a large wooden paddle, Christien lifted the coagulated mass of curd (weighing over 200 lbs) from the bottom of the kettle to the surface. The moment when that white round breached the surface really did feel like a birth, Parmigiano-Reggiano emerging from milk and rennet. Or proto-parmigiano, to be precise, because it has several steps to go before it can rightfully claim that name.


Each large kettle makes enough curd for two finished cheeses, so after the curd is contained in cheesecloth and left to drain for a few moments, it is cut into two. Then each batch of curd drains for a moment before being transferred into the first mold and wheeled into the draining room.

Here, the cheese gets its first markings, and is weighted and left to drain. It will be transferred to another mold that will give it the customary shape and imprinted dots that mark it as Parmigiano-Reggiano. When it's ready, it moves to the brining room, where it will spend 22 days in salty brine, being turned regularly.


From there, it's off to the "bank" - a large climate controlled room full of 100 lbs wheels of aging Parmigiano.  Called the bank because each wheel will sell for 500 euros, and in this room there are thousands of cheeses. After 12 months of aging, they are tested by the consortia that will certify that they qualify to bear the name Parmigiano-Reggiano. They don't test by taste, but by sound - using a special hammer on the outside of the wheel to determine if the cheese meets the standard. Those that pass receive a brand, while those that do not will be inscribed with horizontal lines indicating the cheese is of second quality, and in the worst cases, the words marking the cheese will be completely removed.

We got to sample the cheese at 4 stages. The first was basically un-aged - perhaps just out of the brine? In any case, it didn't taste like much. The cheese aged 12 months was tasty enough, but not really what I think of as Parmigiano-Reggiano. By 24 months, it had started get the intensity of flavor I associate with the cheese. And by 32 months it was chock full of those crunchy amino acid "flavor crystals" that I love. Delicioso! (And only about $10/lb from the factory store!)


Giovanni Fabbri's Artisanal Pasta

posted Oct 16, 2011, 8:26 AM by Tammy Coxen   [ updated Oct 16, 2011, 8:30 AM ]

Giovanni Fabbri's family has been making pasta in Strada in Chianti, Italy, since 1893. For five generations they've been striving to produce excellent pasta, and it was a great treat to get a peek into how the do it.

Giovanni greeted us in the tiny waiting room on the main floor of his production facility, tucked off of a piazza in central Strada. We clustered around as he told us stories and demonstrated his collection of antique pasta making equipment.

We learned about the crucial role of gluten in flour as he took some pasta dough he made and rinsed the starch out of it in a bowl of water, until all that was left was the chewy, stretchy gluten, which he popped in his mouth to chew like bubble gum.

Giovanni uses heirloom varietals of wheat in his pasta, believing that not only do they taste better, but they are better for us. He's working on bringing lost varietals back into production, and working with the local university to test whether these old grains might be more digestible for people with certain kinds of wheat intolerance.

We learned how bronze dies create a rough texture on the surface of the pasta, allowing it to hold on to the sauce better. He demonstrated the bronze dies in a variety of antique pasta extruders, then took us upstairs to see how pasta is made in the modern day.

I was amazed at how tiny the space was. Narrow hallways, trays of drying pasta everywhere, machines not in use tucked into corners until they were needed. There was only room for half of us at a time in the room with the main production line.

We watched as long tubes of pasta were extruded, cut into penne, and dropped from a hopper onto trays to dry until it was time for packaging. Spaghetti is not dried on trays, but hung - racks and racks of it, tucked into a space the size of a walk in closet.

Traditional pasta for the modern world.

The Importance of Tasting

posted Oct 16, 2011, 7:55 AM by Tammy Coxen

(Originally posted on my Tammy's Tastings blog on November 7, 2006)

I named this blog Tammy's Tastings for a couple of reasons. One, I like alliteration. And two, and perhaps more importantly, because I think that consciously tasting is the best way to learn about food.

I've run and attended tastings of a huge variety of foods - olive oil, vinegar, bacon, maple syrup, to name but a few. When my husband bought me a four pack of single origin chocolate bars for Valentines Day, the first thing I did was invite friends over for a side by side compare and contrast.

Blind tasting in particular is important. Every month I learn something new from the blind tastings we use in my wine club. Whenever we eat or drink something, we bring to it a lifetime's worth of experience and emotion and knowledge. I "know" that I like French wines better than domestic. So hand me a glass of California Chardonnay and a glass of White Burgundy, and I'm going to look for things I like in the Burgundy, and things I don't like in the California Chard. It's human nature. Hiding all the identifying features of a wine, or a food, or whatever it is, really lets you taste it on its own terms.

I was inspired to write this post by a recent experience with apples. I grew up eating McIntosh apples. That's what my family bought, and I barely knew that other kinds of apples existed! (Okay, I knew about Red Delicious, but even then I recognized that they were a triumph of appearance over flavor.) When I grew older and more worldly, I started eating other kinds of apples. Jonagolds, Empire, Pink Lady, Granny Smith. I found a couple that I particularly liked - Golden Delicious and Honeycrisp - but for the most part I wasn't an apple fan. But I never bought McIntosh. Those were the "average" apples. The "regular" apples. I was a gourmet. I was too sophisticated for the simple Mac.

A couple weeks ago, someone put some apples out for dessert. The package just said "apples." I took one, and it was the best apple I'd tasted in years. And - as I'm sure you've guessed - it turned out to be a Mac.

Tasting is important.

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