Sunday, October 25, 2009

RECOMMENDATION: Bonne Maman preserves

Bonne Maman is the best fruit preserve on the market. Hands down. I have found no other competitors. Cory's Kitchen is better, but he's a tiny, local guy. As far as big names go, Bonne Maman is without peer.

The strawberry has big, juicy hunks of fruit in it. It has a joyously tangy edge to it to liven up the sweetness. Too many preserves and jams are loaded with pectin and not enough fruit to keep it interesting (Smucker's, I'm looking at you). Preserves should be more than a jam or jelly. It should have texture and weight to it. It should add something to the bread. Bonne Maman is the grand, high lord of this.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

It's Harvest Season! Bring Out the Pipes! (Part 4)

Middletown Harvest Festival

I love the harvest festival. It's one of the few festivals that has a wide variety of local vendors selling local things. Every time something gets large enough, all of the local vendors are squeezed out by larger, interstate salespeople hawking the same shit from fair to fair. Eventually, instead of painters from the next town over, you have painting factories from up and down the eastern seaboard selling perfectly generic portraits of sailboats in the sun to hang next to the painting you bought at Sears. Even worse is when the event gets big enough to attract vendors of shit that HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE EVENT.

The biggest culprits of this crime against locality that I can think of are the Situate Art Festival and the Washington County Fair. Everything is local, except all of the shit that isn't. At least the food vendors at the County Fair are local, but none of the vendors selling stuff are. The marines have a setup. Verizon and T-Mobile are at the art festival. Because cell phones are artistic.

This sucks because these vendors are willing to pay much more, thus driving up the prices of a spot, and thus driving out local talent. Eventually, you end of with sad pieces of shit like the Glastonbury Apple Harvest Festival. Which has a competition for best apple pie... And one, count'em ONE, vendor selling apple pie. They have a contract to be the only seller. And it sucks. Hard. One would expect to have APPLES at an apple harvest festival. Apples from lots of different farms, selling different pies and home recipes. Instead, you get a pie competition in which only the judges get to have pie. Shitty pie from the local church. And one place selling every kind of pie but apple.

On top of all this, you then have a large carnival, and a giant aisle of vendors selling -you guessed it- the same damned shit as every other line of vendors at every other damned festival. The only saving grace of the festival are some live bands that frequently end up being quite good. Whoever plans the music should be in charge of the entire fair. Maybe it wouldn't such so badly.

But the Middletown Festival is different. EVERYONE is local! All of the crafts tents are local. You have jewelry makers from Pawtucket, woodcarvers from Wickford, and dollmakers from Cranston. Some of it is rather pricey, but the same crap from vendors from New Jersey and Florida is usually the same price and of lower quality. The food is still pretty crappy, but it's local. There are games for the kiddies, setups by local organizations, like a robotics club from URI, and it all feels local. It feels like your buying from your neighbor.

That's a great sensation. I'm all for globalization, I don't hate giant corporations, and I shop at Wal-Mart. Still, given the choice, I'd rather give my money to someone I kind of know. Someone who might live one town over. I'd rather take my money and inject it directly into the local economy instead of funneling it out to some other state/country/planet. This fair feels like I'm doing just that.

A woodworker straight from Wickford, my homeland. If you're interested in his work, he's Tom Schwab, at 401-295-0492. I bought a thermometer/barometer/hygrometer from him. Pretty, with perfectly molded wood.

One of the best tents from the show, the wood pen lady! Hand-made and polished wooden pens of various types, which can be paired with a matched letter opener. Gorgeous pens.

The food tent was large, but the food selection was surprisingly thin. Take a look at the lower left; it's just a table with some pizza boxes. That's... gourmet.

I was seriously not expecting to find fine teas at a local harvest festival, but here they were.

Unfortunately, I can't say anything about Empire's quality since I never bought anything from them. They have a great variety of teas and coffees, including those weird bubble teas that I seriously don't get. I'm going to check out their Newport location and see if they're any good.

I was happy to see a genuine ice cream stand set up. The large power infrastructure obviously made this possible.

And behold! The ice cream I got. Not a terrible price. About three bucks for my cone. And the ice cream was good, too! Not at all icy, which seems to be the biggest issue with ice cream, these days.

Some of the better hand-made pottery available was from Rising Sun Earthworks. They had a wide selection of plates, mugs, and other dishes. The best thing had to be the hand-made french salt dishes. In the Wal-Mart era, $20 seems a bit pricey, but I have no regrets. I love my soft, spreadable butter.

The tree of mugs from Rising Sun. See the one in the upper left? That baby came home. Very playful designs, sturdy, perfectly glazed. Very good mugs.

This guy looks familiar... where have I seen him?

A necklace made from two sanded mussel shells, molded together with a silver frame. Very pretty. Bulky as all hell, though. Not a very good prospect for jewelry. Come to think of it, it may have been intended as a door hang. Regardless, you like? Buy your very own at

The amount of stuff for the kids was amazing. Tons of games, tents, toys, big... things... this. I think they lit a fire in it sometime later in the day, but I'm not sure. It was big and it was smiling, which of course means kids will like it.

Some of the nicest jewelry of the day came from Ellora Janes. Not cheap, nothing here is cheap, but not terribly expensive, either. Very fine details and good aesthetic quality. Where many of the other vendors were making jewelry out of stones and whatnot, Ellora was light metal.

This just seems pretty dodgy to me. $10.99 for two lobster rolls? Where the hell did you source the lobster? Your koi pond? Well, I didn't hear of anyone dying from mad lobster disease, so I assume it was ok.

Cory's Kitchen was another highlight of the day. Excellent muffins and cookies and some of the most fruit-packed jams I've ever had. I'm talking huge, fuck-off chunks of fruit. Bumbleberry jam was the bomb-diggity, yo. Sweet, with a strong tartness zinging through the raspberries. It is one hell of a way to wake up the taste buds in the morning.

Clam cakes compliments of Kempenaar's Clambake Club. I'm all for fried food, but these bad boys were like eating clam-flavored blocks of hardened arteries. I didn't even finish them. Very greasy. So afterward, still hungry, I went to another stand.

I'm glad I did. Candy apples! You have no idea. I am singularly obsessed with apples dipped in stuff. You want caramel apples to SCREAM about, use butterscotch ice cream topping. Knowing this, it's amazing that all I got was...

... a hot dog! It was what you would expect. At least it was a decent hot dog. Ballpark, I think. And for only two bucks, it was a great fairground price. I think I avoided the candy apple because I knew that Amy's Apples lay just a few hundred feet away. There was no need to even look twice at these pathetic, unelaborate concoctions.

Speaking of Amy and her Apples (not THOSE apples), they had one of the most densely-packed stands of the show. It was absolutely overflowing with chocolate-dipped goodies. At $12, their apples are to die for. To DIE for. High quality chocolate and toppings, decent prices, and a huge variety of creations truly won me over. That giant apple can go screw.

This necklace was compliments of Very Petra designs, out of Pawtucket. It's representative of something lots of the artists had a problem with: subtly. It's one chunky, bloody necklace.

This is URI's ball-throwing robot in action.

I have no idea what these people were here to do, or what they signified.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

It's Harvest Season! Bring Out the Pipes! (Part 3: Bonus QUICKVIEW!)

QUICKVIEW: Gypsy Cafe- +++ / $$

Lincoln is the proud home of one of New Hampshire's very best restaurants. The Gypsy Cafe is an amazingly inventive, well-sorted, fabulously executed little restaurant in the middle of freaking nowhere.

The inside is well-appointed, a vibrant color scheme of reds, blues, and black & white checker patterned floor, and various little knick-knacks dominate the dining area. Combined with lots of twinkling point lights and one of the best signs I've seen in a long time, it's a winning look. There's a large bar with beers on top, and a variety of drinks with an emphasis on exotic vodka. The dining area is pretty small, and if you're up there for the highland games, the biggest event of the year for little Lincoln, you might have to wait awhile.

The service is excellent and friendly. Me and my partner had long conversations with the staff on both visits. Dishes were accurately recommended, delivery was quick, and the details of the night were sufficiently transparent. Table dress was good. The brushed metal salt & pepper shakers were very post-modern and looked nice in comparison to the de rigueur glass shakers with dented metal tops.

For an appetizer, we had lobster risotto cake ($8.99) and shrimp wrap ($10.99). Both were inventive enough and to impress us. The risotto cake was spicy with good, firm risotto. In effect, it was a giant crab cake with lobster in place of crab. The creaminess of the risotto needed a bit more crunchy greens on the side, but that was the only real criticism. It was a great deal at only nine bucks.

The shrimp wrap was a great take on a shrimp appetizer, which usually takes the form of coconut shrimp. The won-ton wrappers were fried to a golden crisp and brought fabulous crunch to the texture of the shrimp inside. It was a thoroughly satisfying mouth feel that was superior to the omnipresent coconut shrimp, if not also in flavor.

Entrees came out, we got one of the specials, the El Paso Tenderloin Pasta ($18.99), and the Cashew Long Bean Stir Fry ($16.99). Talk about impressive. The tenderloin was tender and very flavorful for the cut. The chile rub and grille of the meat resulted in a powerful, spicy smokiness that combined fabulously with the creamy chipotle cream sauce. The pasta was perfectly al dente, and the asparagus still had some good snap to it. The serving was gargantuan and was an excellent deal for only nineteen dollars.

The stir fry was a similarly shocking revelation. Unlike a lot of places that mix it up for impressiveness' sake, and use fusion as more of a marketing tool, like I think Cafe Nuovo is guilty of sometimes, Gypsy Cafe balances different cuisines to universal success. The stir fry was sweet and spicy, as you'd expect, but there was also a dash of cayenne pepper all about the edges of the dish, and this was integrated into the whole of the dish as well. That same smokey undertone was present all throughout the food. I think that it was a detail taken from southwestern, Tex-Mex cuisine used to great effect and the kind of stuff that I wish would be more prevalent in "fusion" cuisine. It was primarily a stir fry, with just a dash of Texas thrown in for good measure.

The Gypsy just kept impressing, finishing up the evening with a great dessert menu. It's not the most mind-blowing assortment, but today, anything beyond "chocolate cake" and "tiramisu" is a fucking blessing. The pumpkin crisp was well-made comfort food, and the blackberry mousse pie was suitably decadent. But the rest of the selection provided me with a rare treat: multiple choices. So rarely do many things on a dessert menu sound good. But the chocolate torte with ice cream sounded good. As did the chocolate trifle with pecans, amaretto, and Heath bar.

The Gypsy Cafe would be a great restaurant with great prices just about anywhere, but nestled up in the mountains of New Hampshire, in a skiing town catering almost exclusively to tourists makes it nothing short of a miracle. If you're nearby, you positively must try.

Gypsy Cafe- +++

View Larger Map

117 Main St
Lincoln, NH 03251
603-745-4395 (Reservations accepted)

Wednesday through Sunday 11:30am to 4:00pm
Friday & Saturday 5:00pm to 9:30pm
Wednesday, Thursday, & Sunday 5:00pm to 9:00pm

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Damned Uplifting Articles.

I'm in investments, and trust me, we're still hosed. But that's depressing. We don't want to hear about that. We want to hear about how things are getting better. That sells papers.

The Projo has an article talking about how restaurant sales are still strong. Which only tells half of the story. The other half is the long list of restaurants that have gone under in the past two years. It stretches well into the dozens, including one of my favorites, Feast or Famine.

How could this be? The restaurants are all packed. The paper says so! Ah yes, but at what cost? The sales may be up, but as GM and Ford have so spectacularly demonstrated, you can be selling buckets of product and still be losing lots of money. Just because overall sales are up does not mean life is good. All of the closings show that quite clearly.

Despite economy, R.I. consumers still find means to dine out (

Friday, October 16, 2009

It's Harvest Season! Bring Out the Pipes! (Part 2)

New Hampshire Highland Games

This is it. The big one. The New Hampshire Highland Games are far and away the largest Scottish festival in the northeast, and possibly the country. Tens of thousands pour into the tiny town of Lincoln, where the games are hosted at the Loon Mountain ski resort. It's the single biggest weekend for the town; all of the hotels fill up; there's waits at every restaurant; and the roads become clogged with cars.

It's also the most exciting for those who enjoy Scottish stuff. There are multiple stages and houses for musical performances, including the central tent which can hold north of two thousand people. The food is also the most varied of the fairs. There's a tent with a frighteningly large pot of stew boiling away. There's sorta' traditional Scottish food. There's even some American food thrown in for good measure.

This sign sort of embodied the whole town for me.

A bridie and a meat pastry. The bridie was more like a meat turnover than others I've had. It was very flaky and hot. Otherwise, just standard Scottish festival food.

Ahh, the apple pastry. Pretty decent. Crispy, fresh-baked, and reaaaally pricey. Try $6.99 pricey. This and the macaroon cost over $14.

This was fun. You got the can and could refill it! Too bad the soda was watery as hell.

Sigh. American fair food just had to make its greasy way into the highlands.

They're Scottish eclairs. Got that? Scottish.

One of the dozen or so pipe bands.

Again, decent food. The meat pie was good, but the gravy was absurdly salty. The mashed potatoes were also dry.

This was the world's largest macaroon, and it better frickin' be. It was $7!

The sign to the best restaurant in Lincoln. A Quickview is forthcoming.

The epic vista of the river flowing under the access bridge to the games.

And to close it all up, a video of one of the most kick-ass Scottish bands in the world, Albannach. They play at the NH Highland Games almost every year.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

It's Harvest Season! Bring Out the Pipes! (Part 1)

Scotland Connecticut Highland Games

The Connecticut Highland Games are much smaller than their gigantic brother up in Hew Hampshire, but that gives them a sense of accessibility and ease. Whereas the New Hampshire event truly takes two days to get everything out of it, Connecticut can be done in an afternoon. The crowds are lighter, and everything is generally cheaper.

This sport is known as the sheaf throw. It's a burlap sack filled with straw until it weighs 20 pounds for the men and 10 for the women. But judging from some of the women, I see no reason to not give them the 10-pounder. It is most certainly a game of strength and skill, since many of the participants are strong enough, but as the height grows their accuracy prevents them from moving forward.

The Port-o-Potties are very clean. I'm always happy with them.

I'm not a small man, but jeezum crow do these guys make me feel inadequate.

A haggis puff. It's actually not real haggis. It's just ground meat with all of the haggis spices in it. That the spices were originally used to cover up some extreme nastiness is no surprise; it's strong. Not bad though. At first, you're like "*chomp*, uggh. This is disgusting... *chomp* bleggh. Why would anyone eat this?... *chomp*" and you just go like that until you're done.

A crushingly cute highland cow. It has eyelashes! This one was obviously powerwashed just before the event, and they're likely mud-covered piles in the wild, but this one was great.

This pipe-overload is compliments of the band Prydein. They're a sort of rock/pipe band and have a good sound. This set up was just freaking hilarious. They had one piper, then two, then four, and then they just brought up a whole freakin' pipe band. Fast forward to 2:50 for the real fun to begin.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

It's Harvest Season! Bring Out the Pipes! (With a Bonus Quickview!)

The end of summer is always so exciting. I find it better than summer, winter, or spring. Winter is too loaded with commercialized holidays. Summer is too loaded with advertisements for booze and sex. And spring just makes my eyes swell shut. But fall, ohhhh, fall is where it's at. You have more festivals than you can shake a stick at. And I've tried. I have a very large stick specifically for that purpose... *snicker*.

Still, we've got festivals like the mega-gargantuan-huge Big E, the New Hampshire Highland Games, the Scotland Connecticut Highland Games, and the Norman Bird Sanctuary Harvest Festival.

I missed the Big E and the New Hampshire Highland games, sadly, but I had some photos of my previous trips. So look to this space over the course of the next few days as I upload tales of adventure, wine, women, and song! By adventure I mean lots of driving! By wine I mean BEER! By women I mean my friend Jay! And by song I mean BAGPIPES, BITCHES!

Starbucks Via Ain't Half Bad

I forgot to write about this when I did it, but here it is. I tried that Starbucks Via Challenge. I lost, I suppose. I guessed that the Via was the drip. I haven't had Starbucks coffee in years, so I had nothing to compare it to, but I guess that's not the point. The Via was not disgusting. There was a difference between the two, but nothing about the Via stood out in a "blech! This is crap!" sort of way. I certainly didn't feel the same as the people here.

I haven't had instant coffee in quite a while, but my memories are pretty good, and Via seems to be the best on the market. It's a bit more acidic than the Starbucks drip I tried, and would be a reasonable cup on the go. Would I replace some homemade pour-over coffee, or french press, or even freshly brewed drip, with this? Not a chance. It's the best instant, but not as good as most other fresh options.

Now to bash the test. The acidic wateriness of the coffee compared with acidic wateriness of the drip coffee possibly because they had both been sitting in carafes for an unknown amount of time. If a cup had been freshly brewed and the Via freshly mixed, the experiment would have been better, although admittedly much more difficult to stage. Second, Starbucks drip coffee is frequently mocked for some good reasons.

It's Pike Place launch was a disaster. It was light, weak, with damn-near no body, but sour. The old house roast was too dark, with not enough body to explain the deeply roasted beans. Basically, light roasts should be bright, acidic, and fruity; dark roasts should be less acidic and bright, but with greater body and deeper chocolate tones. I'm not sure what the deal is. Perhaps running such a massive organization results in problems in quality control down to that level, and if I drank more drip from Starbucks I'd feel different. This is a real possibility.

Unfortunately, from my experience, I've never gotten a cup of coffee from Starbucks that wasn't burnt. So that means Via is trying to live up to merely adequate coffee. That it does so is perhaps not a surprise, but, again, all of this is something of a misdirection. It's close to Starbucks brew, but still different. What it certainly is, and what the advertising should focus on, is better than the direct competition, and that in itself is an achievement. Moreover, since my coffee from Starbucks is always burnt, freshly made Via is definitely better than burnt drip. Which is all worse than a big pot of french press made in the morning.

And that's a big problem for coffee purchased, it is never as good as the coffee made at home with cheap, easy methods like a french press, Aeropress, or pour-over:

Starbucks and its espresso exist for a good reason: it costs a lot to make good espresso. You need expensive machines that require maintenance and it requires more than a small amount of skill to get it right and steam good milk. Coffee requires very little work and only a little bit of knowledge to get it right. If you only ever drink drip, trust me, make it at home. You'll be much happier.


I just got some free Via in the mail and had a chance to try it legitimately. There were two big differences between the cup I made and the cup I got to try for free. First, it's cool enough to drink. Second, it's from an actual Via package in a cup.

Where the large karaf of coffee had none of the grittiness that usually accompanies instant coffee, the smaller amount of water in the cup brings it out loud and clear. Second, when the coffee gets cool, it begins to taste like instant coffee. Hot, the differences between it and a Starbucks drip are small. But while good coffee, cooling, is a chance to taste different flavors as they are revealed, Via, like all other instant coffees, becomes unpleasant.

If you drink your coffee while very hot, I think it's still a reasonable purchase if ordinary coffee is too difficult to come by. But otherwise, It's not worth it.

Thursday, October 1, 2009


I am always on the lookout for cookies, nay, anything made without shortening. I do it for health reasons, certainly, but this has been an obsession of mine for many years. Shortening is used not because of taste, but because of cost and shelf life. That's it. Products made with the good, ol' fashioned parts mother used almost always taste noticeably better. For one thing, don't even get me STARTED on brownies made with butter.

So it is with great happiness that I can recommend LU Cookies. Well, I can recommend most of LU Cookies. Especially the delicious Petite Madeleines pictured above. A few, like the Chocolatier are hands-off, since they have those insidious hydrogenated oils in them. Doesn't matter, though. The Madeleines are where it's at. They're like Pepperidge Farms' Milano, only much better. The chocolate is richer, darker, and there's simply more of it. The cookies themselves have a fresh crunch and crisp to them that Milanos can't match.