Monthly Archives: November 2014

That Certain Something

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The Balvenie 125 Photo: Ernie Button

The Balvenie 125
Photo: Ernie Button

Some time ago I posted the intriguing images of Ernie Button, who took photographs of dried whisky at the bottom of glasses.

Button tried taking photos of other spirits at the bottom of glasses, but nothing else offered up quite the imagery of aged whisky.

He turned to a researcher in fluid mechanics, Dr. Howard A. Stone, to gain some insight into the why behind the beauty.

The Balvenie Doublewood 101 Photo: Ernie Button

The Balvenie Doublewood 101
Photo: Ernie Button

Previous work has been done on the science of coffee rings, an issue of particle dispersion.

But while coffee is made of, well, coffee particles and water, whisky is made of two liquids – water and ethyl alcohol, which evaporate at different rates.  And, whisky contains something else – polymers that create the patterns as the liquids evaporate.

The coffee ring effect:

Coffee, like many liquids, contains tiny, spherical particles (see the video below). When a drop of the liquid dries, forces push the particles toward the edge, where they are deposited in a thick line. Image/Text: Peter J. Yunker & Arjun G. Yodh/University of Pennsylvania

Coffee, like many liquids, contains tiny, spherical particles (see the video below). When a drop of the liquid dries, forces push the particles toward the edge, where they are deposited in a thick line.
Image/Text: Peter J. Yunker & Arjun G. Yodh/University of Pennsylvania

What I like about this research is that for the moment is that the molecules responsible for the patterns don’t seem to exist in any of the other spirits or liquids tested. Cognac, for example, creates no such patterns when it dries. Some whiskies work better than others.

The images here are of some of my favorite whiskies, all from The Balvenie.

The Balvenie 140 Photo: Ernie Button

The Balvenie 140
Photo: Ernie Button

Researchers have not yet been able to replicate the effect by mixing water, a ethyl alcohol and particles and letting them evaporate.

The scientists and Mr. Button suspect that it is something that occurs during the whisky ageing process, some unidentified molecules that seep in with the time and flavour, that are at the heart of the matter.

I’m sure at some point this puzzle will be solved.

Still, there’s a part of me that hopes whisky will be able to keep some of its secrets.

The Balvenie 129 Photo: Ernie Button

The Balvenie 129
Photo: Ernie Button

 

A Modest Appreciation

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Last week, I watched my neighbor press apple juice by hand as a demonstration for local school children. It’s something he’s been doing for a few years, taking his smaller apple press around to various village schools or inviting them up to the farm so kids can see what’s been going on here for generations.

Unusually this year, he set up the old apple press, the big one that was still in annual operation when his parents were alive. We were lucky to see this process in action when we first moved in next door, almost 18 years ago.

The pressing barn. Apples would be loaded on the ramp to the right, rolled down into the press and onto a small bed of straw. Once the press vat was loaded, weights were placed atop the apples and pressed through the fine straw, into the juice vat at the front. The turning was all done by hand, usually two or three family members turning the large pole to the left. Photo: PK Read

The pressing barn. Apples would be loaded on the ramp to the right, rolled down into the press and onto a small bed of straw. Once the press vat was loaded, weights were placed atop the apples and pressed through the fine straw, into the juice vat at the front. The turning was all done by hand, usually two or three family members turning the large pole to the left.
Photo: PK Read

I have a feeling that, with the current sales of land taking place in our village, with the increasing weariness I see in my neighbor at the lack of anyone else to step in and take over the apple-pressing (much less the farm), that this press might not be assembled again anytime soon. Maybe in a museum.

The components are mostly handcrafted. Satisfying to the touch, robust and functional.

A wooden gear on the feed ramp. Photo: PK Read

A wooden gear on the feed ramp.
Photo: PK Read

 

My neighbor says it’s only worth using the big press if the planned result is more than 300 litres (80 gallons) of juice. If my conversion calculations are correct, that amount should require around 600 kg (1300 lbs.) of fresh apples.

The wooden feed ramp. Photo: PK Read

The wooden feed ramp.
Photo: PK Read

The family still has a few orchards, but many of them have been sold, and the best apples from the ones that remain are sold at market. It’s the less picturesque apples, the fallen apples, that get pressed into juice.

Inside the empty pressing vat. Photo: PK Read

Inside the empty pressing vat.
Photo: PK Read

I’ve written about the pressing stone before, a solid block of stone from Jurassic rock quarried in the 1840s from the mountains a few miles from our home and hewn into shape by a stonemason two villages over.

It was hauled down by horses and has been sitting in its spot for over 160 years.

Clasps on the outside of the pressing vat. The deep furrows in the stone are the result of decades of juice and the ascorbic and malic acids in apples. Photo: PK Read

Clasps on the outside of the pressing vat.
The deep furrows in the stone are the result of decades of juice and the ascorbic and malic acids in apples.
Photo: PK Read

Once a smooth block with an even groove that ran around the inside perimeter, which led the pressed juices to a spout at the front, the stone is lined with folds and now looks as if it was shaped from soft dough, or clay.

The apple press is somewhat newer, from the late 19th century, and undoubtedly some of the parts have been replaced since then.

The top lengths of wood are pressing blocks for stacking atop the apples. Photo: PK Read

The top lengths of wood are pressing blocks for stacking atop the apples.
Photo: PK Read

When we first moved here, the family was still bottling cider for sale. They had racks of sterilized bottles and a filling table, with a small hand-powered bottle capping tool that seems to have been either permanently stored or moved off the farm.

The turning pole, which was walked in circles against another rod, which would turn the gear  attached to the pressing vat central pole.  Photo: PK Read

The turning pole, which was walked in circles against another rod, which would turn the gear attached to the pressing vat central pole.
Photo: PK Read

Bottles for friends, family and fortunate neighbors were less fancy. Old bottles, plastic wine jugs, water bottles, anything handy.

It was always a happy day when – as I did last week – I opened the door and found a quiet gift to greet me, bottles of apple juice lined up like visitors.

The pressing gear. Photo: PK Read

The pressing gear.
Photo: PK Read

When the big press was running, some neighboring farms would bring in their own apple harvests for pressing. Small tractors would pull up with a flatbed of crated apples behind them, the farm courtyard filled with people taking turns at the turning the press.

Our neighbor sets up the turning pole on the press, which isn't yet set up here. Photo: PK Read

Our neighbor shows me how to insert the turning pole on the press, which isn’t yet assembled here.
Photo: PK Read

And the pole in its place above the pressing stone. Photo: PK Read

And the pole in its place above the pressing stone.
Photo: PK Read

This year, from the small batch our neighbor made on the small press, we somehow ended up with three gallons – they had been intended for a school class that cancelled due to heavy rains. But usually, back in the day, most of the juice that hadn’t been sold or given away would get fermented into vinegar or hard cider in the adjacent storage area.

The old cider barrels. Well, some were for cider, a couple were also for the walnut oil the family used to self-press. Photo: PK Read

The old cider barrels. Well, some were for cider, a couple were also for the walnut oil the family used to self-press.
Photo: PK Read

Our neighbor and his sister, who run the farm together, are in their 70s. They go through the annual tasks with an easy familiarity and confidence that reminds me of their parents, who ran the place until they passed away in their late 90s.

The catchment vat. Photo: PK Read

The catchment vat.
Photo: PK Read

But they are growing tired of the various ordeals of autonomous farm life. They both have homes of their own, all the modern amenities, and what keeps this place functioning is determination and a commitment to passing along the knowledge that has been passed down through the family for generations.

Documenting this task is the least I can do in return for almost 20 years of friendship, and all that delicious, hand-pressed apple juice.

Pressing Issues

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Tree pangolin (Manis tricuspis) Photo: PALF Project for the Application of Law for Fauna Republic of Congo

Tree pangolin (Manis tricuspis)
Photo: PALF Project for the Application of Law for Fauna Republic of Congo

I was sitting in my office today, wondering – as I sometimes do – how to write about pangolins. As I often do.

There was an unaccustomed sound outside, something that broke above the unrelenting rain we’ve had over the past few days. Children’s voices, a lot of them. I stood to look out and find dozens of little kids walking past our house, which lies on a quiet cul-de-sac.

It turns out they had been invited by my neighbor to experience the fine art of apple pressing first hand. The tiny village school only has 90 children from kindergarten through fifth grade – this must have been almost a third of the school.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

They stood and watched as my neighbor – whose family has been pressing apple juice from their orchards for generations – loaded a small press with the season’s apples, then pressed the caramel-colored juice out into a bucket.

The sweetness of the best apple juice I personally have ever tasted should remain in their memories, even if the details of apple pressing might not.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

The apple pressing visit is an exercise in teaching the next generation that apple juice doesn’t originate in plastic jugs any more than meat originates in styrofoam packaging.

Even more, it’s about raising awareness of old skills and habits that are going extinct.

Phot: PK Read

Phot: PK Read

What we take in through our own experience, through pleasure, through a moment outside life’s regular classroom, can leave such a lasting mark. So much of what we learn as small children is not directly remembered in detail, but in a sense of what is good, and what is not.

And so to the pangolin.

There’s a new game out, designed by the maker of Angry Birds, that’s meant to raise awareness of the endangered pangolin.

A pangolin introduces itself to, what else, angry birds. Image: Rovio Entertainment

A pangolin introduces itself to, what else, angry birds.
Image: Rovio Entertainment

The pangolin, otherwise known as the scaly anteater, has the dubious distinction of being the most illegally traded mammal on the planet. Its numbers are dwindling faster than conservationists can count, its habits and place in the environment are disappearing faster than researchers can follow.

An excellent study in the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine examined the reasons animals are used for medicinal purposes, ranging from a belief in traditional practices to the unavailability and expense of modern medicine (as well as a more generalized distrust of Western medicine).

Then there’s the profit end of the stick, the money to be made by selling the precious commodities of ever scarcer animal parts.

Working at cross-purposes to conservationist interests, ‘zootherapeutic’ practices show no sign of diminishing even as the animals upon which they rely go extinct.

Pangolin Illustration: Claire Scully via Aeon (with an interesting discussion of pangolins and physics)

Pangolin
Illustration: Claire Scully via Aeon (with an interesting discussion of pangolins and physics)

Many efforts to stop the use of pangolin flesh and scales for traditional medicines are underway; few of them are quite as playful as Roll with the Pangolin, launched today by the Tikki Hywood Trust in Zimbabwe in collaboration with United for Wildlife and Rovio Entertainment, makers of Angry Birds.

The game is meant to raise awareness of the pangolin and other endangered animals as well as the dangers of the illegal animal trade, as United for Wildlife head Prince William states, an amazing animal goes extinct that many haven’t even heard of yet.

Sweet juice and silly games, simple ways to get a message across, something that might just change the attitudes of a lifetime.

Inadvertent Visitors

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When I was a kid in northern California, we used to go to the ocean beaches of Marin County on the weekends. The long, sweeping scythes of Drake’s Beach and Limantour still count among my favorite ocean shorelines. Beachgoers wore swimsuits on warm days, but we could always tell the tourists from the locals because the tourists were the ones trying to swim in those suits instead of wade or sunbathe.

Locals usually considered swimming the Pacific water too cold for our tender hothouse skin, even in summer. Non-neoprened swimmers venturing into the waters for a swim were a rare sight.

Drake's Bay, Point Reyes National Seashore Photo: Richard Blair

Drake’s Bay, Point Reyes National Seashore
Photo: Richard Blair

This year, researchers and fishermen have seen even rarer sights: Several species that would normally be found far south have been observed in northern waters. An endangered green sea turtle, usually at home in the waters of southern Mexico and around the Galapagos Islands. The tiny striated sea butterfly and a Guadalupe fur seal, both of Baja California, Mexico, common dolphins, blue buoy barnacles and purple-striped jellyfish of southern California.

Striated Sea Butterfly (Hyalocylis striata), collected offshore from Bodega Marine Laboratory. Photo: Eric Sanford/UC Davis

Striated Sea Butterfly (Hyalocylis striata), collected offshore from Bodega Marine Laboratory.
Photo: Eric Sanford/UC Davis

It’s an influx of inadvertent tourists, animals that would normally encounter the cold water barrier of the northern Pacific and turn around, much as I used to do on the beach when I waded in above the knee level.

According to several sources, water temperatures are 5-6 degrees Fahrenheit (2-3 °C) higher than average this year, likely due to a slackening of winds from the north that would normally keep warm waters further south. The annual winds would also normally cool and push surface waters down, causing colder water to churn up from below (‘upwelling’).

And what about the local species that like it cold? The krill, the salmon? They are scarce, as are the animals that feed on them, the whales and birds.

It’s a 30-year autumnal anomaly, which most expect to pass and with it, the strange and wondrous visitors.