Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A Little Love Apple in Provence

Today I decided to try to fix up the sickly tomato plant that's been having some trouble in the garden.  I'm a little bit ashamed that I've let it go on so long like this, especially since I've been around tomato plants almost all of my life, I should know how to take better care of one, but I've been busy with other tasks around the Liquoristerie, and taking care of plants isn't my top priority.  I am the resident gardener though, so I feel like I should be trying to take care of the plants.  Unfortunately, I don't have quite the green thumb of my mother, but I do know a thing or two.

I guess I can take a little comfort in the fact that I told Jill and Pascal within the first week that it shouldn't been in that little pot, but I could have taken initiative sooner nonetheless, so excuses don't really count for much.  They never really do anyway.

I did get some tips from my mom that I scribbled down in my notebook, so I had a nice list of steps to take, although it's not nearly as extensive as I'm sure she would have liked, but then again I have limited gardening resources over here, so we had to make do.

The first step was to dig a new hole for the little one, so I dug it out and set it in the shade to rest up before giving it a bigger home with a freshly stocked fridge.
My tools were not the greatest, and the soil is hard packed and pretty full of clay, so it was tough going.  The dimensions of the hole are supposed to be around 2' deep and 1' in diameter, but I'm pretty sure I didn't dig that far.  It ended up working out though, because the plant was probably shorter than my mom expected anyways.

Next I added the compost.  Jill's been tossing all of her kitchen scraps into makeshift pallet-built compost pile, so I dug out a couple of scoops of those and threw them into the bottom of the hole.

After watering it in, which made a pretty gross-looking soup, I threw some eggshells and salmon skin on the top.  My mom recommended any sort of fish meal for some good plant food, so I told Jill to save any fish guts she might have for the project.
After getting all of my amendments in, I broke up the bottom of its previous soil in order to make sure that the roots weren't bound, then placed it into my hole quite deep.  My mom always insists on this, because the little hairs on the plant's stem will turn into roots when covered in soil, so it's important to plant it as deep as possible.
I filled in the dirt and made a little mound in a circle around the base of the plant in order to give it a little bit of room for water to collect.
My moat retained quite a bit of water, but I think since the soil is so ridden with clay that it took awhile to drain.  After feeling how hard it was trying to dig the hole, and seeing how quickly the water filled up in my moat, I decided to fill up my watering pail before shutting off the valve.  There's a leak in the faucet for a couple of businesses on my street, so every time I want to water in the mornings I have to walk to the neighbor's place and unscrew the valve, giving the pipes outside pressure.
After washing my hands off with the hose, I discovered that I gave myself a blister that subsequently broke open.  Such a newbie move.  I definitely should have remembered to wear gloves.
If you're trying to get gardening tips from this blog post, I definitely would not rely on it.  You should go check out my mom's blog.  It's called Grow Better Veggies and there's a link to it in the sidebar.

I'll post again soon, I'm sorry that it's been so long since the last one.  I've been really busy.  There are those excuses again though, I've got to remember that they don't really mean all that much.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Maceration: Day 2

So today marked our three-day cutoff for the Armoise blanche maceration.  Pascal and I opened up the lid of the cuve to see this beautiful greenish brown extraction staring back at us.  The smell was powerful, it took me a little while to get used to, but I could definitely recognize the organic notes over the burning alcohol.  Pascal's filtration method turned out to be very effective as there was hardly any plant matter floating in the liquid. 

We used an iron and chain pulley to lift the bags out of the cuve, suspending them over the alcohol because they still retained quite a bit of liquid that we needed to let drain out.
The pump we used to stir up the maceration came in handy for a second purpose: to suck our solution from the bottom of the cuve into the tank that we started our alcoholic solution in.
As the pump siphoned our extraction into its new receptacle, I stuck my camera over the opening in the top, and blindly got a really cool shot.
After transferring the solution, we took a little break, waiting for the filtered bags to drain as much liquid as possible before our next step.  Pascal joked, "I love this job because it's a lot of waiting.  If you don't know how to wait, you need to find a different job."

We left the bags to sit and drain while we ate lunch, coming back after a few hours to find them drier and more manageable.  There was still quite a lot of liquid in the bags, so our next step was to put them all into a mechanical press.
The green sack on top was filled with blocks of wood in order to add some pressure to our bags and to provide a buffer in between the delicate filters and the hard metal press.  Slowly the disk descended into the cage, bringing the pressure up to 300 bars.  As the machine came to our predetermined pressure, more liquid seeped out of the cracks in the metallic mesh.
In order to minimize the amount of plant matter going into our extraction, we filtered this liquid through more cloth, draining it into a bucket.
We waited a little while longer, letting everything in the press drain out into our collection bucket.  When we returned to check up on the process, pretty much everything had drained out, so Pascal hoisted the bucket over the brim of our larger container.
We removed the metal bars holding the two shells of the mesh press together, dissembling it in order to take out and reweigh our bags.
Each bag took on about 4 kg in weight, even after all of the draining and pressing.  I put each of our filtered bags into black trash bags, and we added tags to each with the weight of each bag and the date of our extraction.
After the plants were taken care of, we had to clean up the mess we made.  That involved washing out the cuve with a high-pressure hose and draining the water out of the warehouse through a series of connecting pipes.  I wheeled the bottom part of the presser outside and washed that down with the hose as well.
The life of a liquorist isn't always as glamorous as it sounds.

So that's it!  I finished an extraction.  Pascal jested afterward, "Now you can make your own absinthe!"  Haha, I doubt it.  Our next extraction is going to be licorice.  Personally, I'm not a big fan, but it'll be fun nonetheless.  I'm hoping that we're going to make some Versinthe La Blanche, because that process involves using a vacuum partial-pressure alembic so that it can be distilled at a low temperature (less air pressure allows the liquid to evaporate under lower heat), which all sounds very official and exciting.

Hope you enjoyed the post.  Leave me some love in the comments!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Maceration: Day 1

So we've finally started a maceration of plants, this time it's Armoise blanche, or sagebrush.  The Latin name is Artemisia herba-alba, which means it's in the same genus as grande absinthe (Artemisia absinthium).

Matilda, Pascal's daughter, and I began the process of preparing for the maceration by cutting out sheets of sheer cloth paper (the same that we used as tablecloths for the party).  I made a makeshift rolling device out of a broom and two barrels, and I pulled the cloth out while Matilda cut it into roughly 6 ft lengths.  The cloth is a very fine mesh and is dual-layered, so the sheet forms a cylinder that's open on both sides.
After washing the sheets over the weekend to remove any remaining fibers or dirt, we used them to weighed the dried plants into them.  Pascal came up with the method involving these sheets after he struggled with to cleaning up and dealing with a bunch of soggy plant matter.  This way everything stays together, and the clean-up is much easier.
We placed a bucket on the scale, lined it with one of the cloth sheets after tying off the bottom end, and pressed the tare button to clear the measurement to zero.  We lifted the blue bag with the dried plants bottom-up and poured 7 kg of plant matter into the bucket, measuring out three separate bags like this.
We tied the bags on the top end in order to make sacks resembling dried-plant-filled sausages.  We placed all three of these bags together into the cuve, which is basically a giant vat, and left them to sit there while we prepared the alcoholic solution in which to soak them.
In order to assure quality control and an accurate mixing content, we had to weigh the entire container of the 97% alcohol.  Pascal used the forklift to lower the container onto the large scale.
You may be wondering why we use weight instead of volume measurements.  We use weight because volume changes under different pressures and temperatures, and later in the process we will have to measure the quantity again at a higher temperature.  Weight stays constant, so we use it in order to have maximum control over the process.

After recording the total weight of the alcohol, we moved another container onto the scale, this time using the hand crank lift.
After taring the scale, Pascal lifted the container with the alcohol high up on the forklift, positioning it over the top of the metal container.  Normally, they use a pump to transfer the alcohol, but Pascal decided that he didn't want to clean the pump out, and this method was a lot more fun anyways.
We attached a hose to the downspout on the container above, allowing gravity to drop the alcohol into the vat below.  We watched the numbers count up on the scale until we reached our target amount.  We tore the scale again, then used a good ol' fashioned hose to dilute the alcohol to our desired 57% level.
After the solution balanced out, Pascal lifted the whole thing on the forklift again, taking it into the adjacent room where we had placed our sacks in the cuve earlier.  We used the same gravity method, lifting the vat containing the solution above the cuve, and attached a hose to the former, letting gravity drain our solution into the latter.
As I looked over the edge of the cuve to monitor the progress of our maceration, it felt like the alcohol was burning out all of the hair in my nose.  I could see the solution already changing color, taking on the flavor of the dried leaves.
After draining the entire solution out of our weighing container, we replaced it on the scale, and attached a pump to the top and bottom of the cuve.  The pump helps the circulation of the solution through the plant material, accelerating the flavor extraction process, although it is only turned on 1-2 hours per day of the maceration.
For most flavors, we would let the extraction sit for about six to eight weeks, but as I mentioned earlier, this plant is in the same genus as grande absinthe, and thus contains the dangerous molecule thujone (commonly known as wormwood).  We are under strict regulations to be under a specific percentage of thujone content in our liquors, so we only let this plant sit for three days.  It also has an extremely powerful flavor, and thus needs little time to infuse the alcohol with its essence.

Absinthe was banned in the early 20th century because of this molecule's reputation.  During the middle of the 19th century, absinthe grew in popularity, and suppliers rushed the distilling process in order to meet such a high demand.  They cut corners in their production, resulting in low-quality absinthe containing high amounts of thujone.  A temperance movement emerged, claiming that absinthe caused people to lose their minds, and they succeeded in banning the drink.  It has now been proven that this molecule is harmless when consumed in small doses, and thus the ban has been lifted.  Still, we have to assure that our extracts contain as little of this compound as possible.

There's more left to this job, and I'm excited to get more experience with it in the week to come.  Check back by the end of the week for another post, hopefully we'll work on this in the next couple days.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

On the Road to Extraction

This week has been quite busy, and I haven't found myself with a lot of time to update this blog.  I'll try to summarize to the best of my ability most of what I've done.

Every day I've spent at least two hours sealing or staining the various doors and windows around the Liquoristerie.  It's been about eight years since anyone has done the job, so the wood soaks up a lot of sealant and stain.  I've already gone through two 5-liter buckets of sealant, and I haven't even started on most of the windows.  There are four sets of large wooden doors that I've been working on getting sealed, but some of them are so weathered that one set of doors takes almost an entire bucket.
I've also been working on staining various windows around the place, but they're all covered by metal bars, so I have to use a small brush and work my way through the grates in order to get at them.  I feel somehow very official with my red plastic palette and stepladder though.

On a different note, we got a new shipment of dried plants in, and we're going to start a maceration next week!  Apparently the nomenclature is important over here, because we do not distill alcohol, we macerate plants.  A distiller ferments sugar (using barley for whiskey, wine for cognac/brandy, etc.) using specialized bacteria in order to transform sugar into alcohol.  A liquorist performs macerations, and uses high-potency alcohol in order to extract flavors from plants or spices.
Pascal let me move it into our warehouse with the forklift, too!  That was fun.
We have a stock of older dried plants that Pascal wanted to do a mini test maceration of, to see if they were still good. 
First, he mixed some dried white anise with water, then poured some 97% alcohol into the beaker.

He swirled the flask, mixing the alcohol and water solution together.  Ideally, we want a mixture of about 57%, but I'll get more into the technical stuff when I post about the real maceration next week.
He let it sit for awhile with a cap on, letting the alcohol bring out the flavor of the dried leaves.
Throughout the day he periodically poured out a small amount in little plastic shot glasses for everyone to try as the maceration progressed.  At the end of the day, we determined that the plants were still good, as the mixture had a strong flavor after only six hours of macerating.  For the larger projects, we let the mixture sit for six to eight weeks, depending on the flavor.

I'm looking forward to working on the maceration next week, it should be very interesting.  I spent a lot of time this week translating their French version of the factory tour, and made up an eight page document for myself in order to prepare for the tour that I'm going to have to give soon.  Pascal's going to need my help though; apparently the guy who usually helps him broke his foot, so he is incapacitated.  I'm excited to take on the apprentice liquorist position though.  Apparently, one person's accident is another's good fortune.  C'est la vie.