When I travel, I am inclined to collect foodstuffs. I scour grocery stores looking for snacks and candy, and gather honeys and mustards from markets. A few years ago I hauled a gallon of olive oil back from Italy. These souvenirs inspire me on post-vacation days, keeping the glow going.
In July we traveled to southwestern France, where my good friend, culinary adventurer Kate Hill, lives on a small farm called Camont. As I settled into a familiar chair in the kitchen, watching Kate crack freshly gathered chickens' eggs for clafoutis, I was distracted by the sight of a large glass jar filled with a slightly rosy liquid, herbs and spices at the far end of the table. Kate, who had been traveling around Spain, introduced me to her own Catalan-style vermouth.
It is not a vermouth to mix into a Manhattan, wave over a martini or tip into a Negroni.
This is a spiced and boozy fortified wine – made to be sipped as an aperitif over ice, with a twist of orange peel. It is refreshing and complex, cozying up to cheese, olives, charcuterie and other salty snacks. Start making it now and not only will you be ready for holiday gift giving, you will also have a welcome tipple to take to your next gathering.
The recipe is flexible: an infusion of a base alcohol, citrus rind, sugar, spices and herbs added to wine. When Kate learned that some Spaniards use their local sherry as the base alcohol, she opted for Armagnac, since it's readily available in her part of the world. For my version, I chose a little of each: some sherry, some brandy.
The orange peel provides a prominent flavor note but is not floral in the least. Rather, it carries a slightly bitter edge, achieved by cooking strips of zest in a deeply bronzed sugar syrup. In testing, I added the brandy while that caramel was still warm – and had a moment of deep regret. The caramel broke, sticky and solidly attached to my wooden spoon, and looked impossible to fix. Fortunately, gradually warming the brandy, without boiling, eventually led to melting the caramel back into liquid form.
Kate had her own suggestions on spicing, and I followed her lead. Because the spices are added to the warmed, orange-scented brandy, they bloom right away, allowing me to tweak the flavors, adding a pinch of this and that, using my nose to guide me. This step is strictly personal, so if this recipe includes flavors that aren't in your cupboard or aren't your thing, use what appeals. Seeds and large chunks of spices (not ground cinnamon, but cinnamon sticks, for example) are preferred, which will help keep the liquid from turning opaque.
After an overnight infusion, I combined the brandy base – strained of the herbs and orange peel – with a white wine. Vinho verde is crisp and light. I think pinot grigio would work as well, as would a French chardonnay – nothing too complex, woody or floral, because the recipe benefits from a wine that is bright and snappy.
Patience is an underrated ingredient. I waited for my concoction to develop (at the back of a dark closet; Kate does not keep hers in the dark, but I'm a believer in less light for infusions). It was a long month, but now I am appreciating a souvenir of Gascony with every sip of vermouth.
You will need a 5-quart jar with a lid and a clean, empty 750-ml bottle.
1 navel orange
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup water
1 cup brandy
3 whole cloves
1/4 teaspoon coriander seeds
1/4 teaspoon green cardamom seeds (from the pods)
1/4 teaspoon whole pink peppercorns
1 whole star anise
1 small piece of a whole nutmeg
A few saffron threads
1/2 vanilla bean (split lengthwise)
1 cup fino sherry
2 bottles pinot grigio or vinho verde
Use a vegetable peeler to remove strips of peel from the orange, leaving the white pith behind. (You can eat or juice the remaining orange.)
Combine the sugar and water in a medium saucepan over high heat. Swirl the pan – do not stir – and keep constant watch. Cook for 12 to 15 minutes; the resulting syrup will begin to turn a light amber color. Add the strips of orange peel, continuing to cook and swirl the pan as the syrup gets richly caramel-colored, for 6 to 8 minutes. Remove from the heat.
Add the brandy to the pan. The caramel syrup will seize, in what seems like a truly terrible moment. Return the pan to the stovetop and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring with a sturdy spoon as the caramel melts into the brandy. Do not let the brandy come to a boil.
Pour the warm brandy mixture into the jar, then add the cloves, coriander and cardamom seeds, pink peppercorns, star anise, nutmeg, saffron and vanilla bean. Cover/seal the jar. Once the mixture has cooled completely, add the sherry and close the jar again. Let this mixture steep overnight.
The next day, strain the infused brandy and sherry mixture through a fine-mesh strainer or a strainer lined with cheesecloth. Add the 2 bottles of wine, stir well, and, for efficiency, pour the DIY vermouth mixture back into the 2 empty wine bottles plus 1 additional empty bottle. Cork or twist the caps back on and place the bottles in a dark closet for 1 month. Makes 25 servings (makes three 750-milliliter bottles).
Though it may be sipped straight away, vermouth takes a month to fully meld flavors. The bottles can be stored for up to 3 months. Once opened, refrigerate for up to 1 month. Serve over ice with an orange twist as an accompaniment to green olives, Marcona almonds and orange wedges.