Making Tonic Water

The heat, light and humidity of summer can sometimes make you feel like you’ve wandered into Hell. It can be disorienting in exactly the opposite way that you might feel when you can’t find the exit in an ice hotel or a hedge maze. The likelihood that you may lose your faculties and drift into a malarial fever is practically nil if you live more than a degree or two latitude off the equator. All the same, better to be safe than sorry. And while quinine is present in miniscule quantities in tonic water, the amount of gin-and-tonic you’d have to drink to actually protect yourself against malaria would do you more harm than the disease itself. But one should never discount the placebo effect.

If you’ve started drinking gin and tonics seriously, you’ll quickly become bored and frustrated with the fact that almost all available tonic waters are basically soda pop, full of high fructose corn syrup. It’s time for you to grow up and stop drinking soda pop. Also, you’re spoiling gin pouring that sugary fizz over top of it.

Yes, there is now an increasing number of quality tonic waters vying for your attention. Eventually, though, you might start to wonder if you can’t just make the stuff yourself. The good news is that you can. The worst that will happen is that you will discover the limits of what’s worth doing yourself, and what merits outsourcing. Try anything once, though.

Here are your ingredients:
Four cups water
1 cup chopped lemongrass (approx. 2 stalks)
¼ cup cinchona (that’s the powder measurement, so account for a bit more if you can get it in bark form)
Zest and juice of 1 orange
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
Zest and juice of 1 lime
1 teaspoon whole allspice berries
¼ cup citric acid
¼ teaspoon Kosher salt
¾ cup agave syrup

Cinchona bark (or powder) can be a challenge to find. In Montreal, you can get the bark at Herbistorie Desjardins, which is set up kind of like a naturopath pharmacy. Don’t bother searching the aisles when you walk in. You have to walk up to the counter and ask for a specific amount of “Quincina”. (I asked for 250 grams, which is way more than I needed.) Then someone wearing a lab coat goes in the back and fills a little bag with bark and hands it to you. Bottom line, I don’t think this stuff is available off the shelf at health food stores. It requires a dispensary license, so you’re looking for a shop that’s part herbologist, part pharmacist.

In Peruvian (where the bark comes from), “kina-kina” means “highly sought after bark”. We have to set the bar somewhere. It’s no good if everything is just available all the time.

You’ll only be using ¼ cup of the cinchona bark per batch, so better to err on the side of ordering a small quantity. It’ll take me two summers at least to work through 250 grams. In any case, I’m glad I found the bark because most of what I read online about people substituting cinchona powder involves increasingly maniacal descriptions of how impossible it is to filter the silt from the liquid.

All you really need to do is combine the ingredients (except the agave syrup, which comes later) in a saucepan and bring it to a low boil. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 20 minutes.

Then you’ll want to strain the mixture. (If you only managed to find cinchona powder, you’re going to spend the rest of your day filtering and straining the liquid until you’re satisfied with its clarity.)

Now that you have a concentrate, you can bottle that up and make your tonic syrup by mixing in the agave as you need it. For each cup of tonic concentrate, mix in ¾ cup agave syrup, and heat both in a saucepan until the agave appears fully dissolved. It’s this concentrate-agave syrup mixture that you’ll be adding carbonated water to.

With the basis for a recipe in place, you can continue to tweak ingredients here and there. Try messing around with star anise, juniper berries or cardamom.

What you’ll notice is that your syrup is kind of orangey-brown. This is what I meant earlier when I talked about the limits of what’s possible before you start seeking professional help. Even the small-batch professionally made tonics are clear. Your houseguests may look at your bitter-tasting, cloudy orange mixture skeptically.

Making tonic syrup is almost all of the battle. The remaining piece of the puzzle is going to be your method of carbonating the water to mix it with. If you’re not planning on drinking industrial quantities, you’re probably not in need of a tabletop carbonator, like those that have come to market recently. You could alternately get a siphon, like the kind clowns use to spritz each other after they pile out of the funny car.

Or if you’re only planning on getting through the tonic syrup you have, you can just use pre-prepared soda water. This does defeat the purpose of the DIY approach to making tonic water a little. But if you let yourself get carried away, you might find yourself in Peru before long hacking down a tree in the jungle. Your summer is better spent drinking gin and tonics.

Street Food Arrives in Montreal (Almost)

On June 20, 2013, Montreal officially installs a final missing jigsaw piece into a yawning void that has been empty by decree since 1947, during the famously even-more-corrupt-than-now Duplessis era. It will finally allow food trucks to roam the streets (or at least set up in designated areas so as not to interfere with antsy restaurateurs, etc.).

I must clear my throat and say in advance that I will be eating at these trucks almost every time I see them, as the food will no doubt be excellent and make summer in Montreal (already exciting by any kind of standard) even better than it would have been anyway. It’s exciting.


In 1947, Montreal’s mayor was the larger than life, anti-conscription and pro-Fascist Camillien Houde, and Montreal was renowned as a sort of open-air brothel and focal point for vice, joy, excitement and danger in North America, with a jazz soundtrack.

Just at this moment, as the food trucks begin to roll, Montreal has no mayor. He’s facing corruption charges and has had to resign and the city will function for a short time until an interim can be installed. It’s a funny little period of suspended animation at the municipal level, and perhaps an appropriate time-tunnel moment for street food to suddenly arrive from Houde’s over-the-top, almost operatically corrupt time into ours. Montreal has changed a great deal in the meantime, and how the city is treating the food trucks is indicative of the change in moral weather since that time. We’ve held on to all of the corruption, and retained almost none of the joy.

One can’t help but run the thought experiment of how different this city might be today if street food had not been outlawed all those years ago. We could all have been dining on smoked meat sandwiches, poutine, oreilles de crisse, pine soda or those weird little sandwiches from Wilensky’s at sidewalk carts for several generations now. What an amazing alternate reality. I can barely contemplate it, it’s so beautiful. It would be great if the awakening of street food were to evolve in just that way, interrupted as if by a Brigadoon-like stretch of forgetting, and then a sudden remembrance, “Oh, wait. We don’t have any street food.”

As things stand, however, street food is being rolled out after years of debate, consultation, anxiety from restaurant owners over unwanted competition, etc., and carefully crafted via a highly mediated, focus-grouped, expert opinionated, totally inorganic, Year Zero kind of method. It is being presented to the public as if street food were some kind of foodie art project, or not so much an opportunity to grab a tasty, joy-inducing snack, but instead a food-based immersive experience, with an emphasis on craft, quality and moral uplift. Each bite will be a mini-exercise in consciousness raising and an opportunity to really connect with the meaning of food, rather than, say, a nice knish that you simply feel like munching on as you wander through town.

Better late than never is the very least one can say without damning the whole exercise with faint praise. If only we were seeing the development of a type of robust, interesting, organic food culture that’s a genuine expression of each neighbourhood, rather than an aesthetic and essentially moralistic exercise. It could be so much better.

Each and every time I go to Toronto, I get off the train at Central Station, walk out the front door and buy a sausage sandwich slathered in mustard and/or onions and hot peppers on a toasted hot dog bun. My friends who live there don’t understand my appreciation of what they call “street meat”. It’s partly because I can’t get it here, owing to the street food ban. It’s also because those sausages are freaking delicious.

The thing is, even with the lifting of the ban, I still can’t get those sausages here. I will still make a beeline straight for that cart after each train journey and still get a shot of endorphin that will remain unavailable to me in Montreal, shot through as each bite of the food here will be with a tiny morsel of superiority.

Trucks will be allowed after being approved by a kind of central committee, who will evaluate potential vendors based on some rather steep criteria. The rules around street food are going to be that 1) it’s sold out of a truck, so no carts or small sidewalk vendors, and 2) the vendors have to have some kind of profile in the foodie or restaurant community and aspire to an “innovative, talented, inspired, creative and deliciously prepared” approach.

The approach, method and attitude towards food are puritanical. Delicious, yes. But puritanical.

Montreal’s street food experiment has already been criticized for its class shortcomings, and rightly so. The author of that rather pungently headlined piece, however, folded like a card table on the public radio when challenged to debate the subject. It was an opportunity wasted.

Again, do not get me wrong. Fancy taco trucks and raclette wagons excite me. I will be eating at them. But none of it excites me the way the sense-memory of the average Mexico City taco cart thrills me. Or being able to randomly buy a knish or a hot dog from a completely unpretentious sidewalk cart vendor in New York. I’ll be hitting them all eventually, with reservations.

(Day One update: the Bun Bo vermicelli bowl from the Saigon, Je Me Souviens truck is, of course, terrific.)
(Day 2: Beef tartare on a hotdog bun and fries with some Parmesan on top, from the Route 27 truck. Tasty, yes, and $14. So we’ve engineered a situation in which we’re paying restaurant prices for street food. On the other hand, munching tartare while a vast Idle No More protest snakes its way through downtown provides the kind of détournement you won’t get sitting in a restaurant.)
(Day 3: Rain.)
(Day 4: Mr. Crémeux ice cream truck, the token dessert vendor participating in the programme, serving soft serve vanilla and barbotines (French for slushies). The soft serve coupe with caramel, almonds and bretzel is excellent.)
(Day 5: St-Jean Baptiste Day. Turkey vindaloo sandwich from Le Gourmand Vagabond. Nice. Subtle to the point of nonexistent vindaloo flavour, and a bit heavy on iceberg lettuce. Great house tomato/cucumber juice, though, with a nice habanero kick.)
(Day 6: Calamari pad thai and papaya salad from Tuktuk. Great. Some guy complained there was no English on the menu sign. He’s part of a Montreal species called the “angryphone”, an eternally put-upon and victimized type of citizen. At the lunch hour, city council met and voted in an interim mayor, so I can stop these reviews now. But you get the idea.)

It is certainly good to have standards, but the top-down committee approach taken in Montreal is entirely in keeping with the kind of food worship attitude towards the act of cooking and eating that has basically sucked the joy out of North American food culture over the last 10 years or so. I’m all for quality ingredients and knowing all about where your food comes from and buying from farmer’s markets and all that. But I am not into the cultish aspect and judgey weirdness that shines through every crack in the foodism scrim. There’s something stifling about the idea that each lamb curry taco or kimchi burger is an opportunity for a teachable moment in a way that a greasy sausage or al pastor taco sold off a cart can never be.

Update: Now that we’re hearing the stories of trucks that jumped through all the city’s hoops and were rejected, the committee approach becomes yet more untenable. Let any vendor who meets the health and safety standards roll out as they see fit, and then we can talk about Montreal street food.

It’s enough to make one sentimental for 1947.

Montreal by Night by Arthur Burrows & by Jean Palardy, National Film Board of Canada

My Evening With Google Glass

When I was a child, ads for X-ray glasses in the back of comics promised a product that could see through people’s clothes on the street, or into safes without opening them. Imagine the disappointment of all the children who paid $1 (plus 25 cents shipping), only to put the clunky, obvious eyewear on their heads and experience nothing in particular.

When Google announced its new Glass product, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a preview. The big day came and went. No Google Glass. I ended up taking matters into my own hands, contacting a man I’ll call “Geoff” who appeared to have a used pair on offer. I couldn’t be sure how many pairs were on Craigslist at this point, but it seemed worth a try. Among all the hustlers and the fakes, I had the sense that Geoff was some kind of Google insider who simply had a spare pair of legit goggles. So I dropped him a line.

I arranged the meeting with a sense of excitement mingled with dread. Who was this guy? Why was I so eager to get my hands on these things? Did I really need it? I had prejudged Glass as a kind of gimmick for douchebags, like Bluetooth headsets and Segways. I wondered about my motivation to want to review it so badly. Wasn’t it actually the case that I was just bored? Would the Glasses really change anything?

You know, the life of a writer is tough. It’s not as easy as some people think. You write things and no one publishes them. You take up other lines of work to make a living and people don’t hire you. So you spend your days doing the errands of the trade. You’ve got to wake up pretty early in order to get to the post office to mail things, far enough in advance to wake up fully, make coffee, get dressed, etc.

When I was young, I lived like an aristocrat, riding around in taxis and surrounded by comfort, and all I thought about was art and beauty. Now all I think about is money. Would the Glasses really change anything? I approached the address Geoff gave me and knocked at the door.

As I unboxed the rigid frame and angled it over the bridge of my nose, I heard Geoff say, “I suppose you’ll be wanting some kind of authentication.” The tiny screen to my right seemed to be full of snow or something. It made me twitch involuntarily. “Yes, of course. Can I get a receipt?” Geoff grunted. I looked down at the table and saw a small numbered certificate and then turned my head, only to find that Geoff had disappeared like a cloud of vapour, almost as if he was never there to begin with.

Finding myself alone, I oriented myself with the new gear. I moved my right hand in what I imagined was the right motion to drop down the settings menu. “What a moron,” I said. “That cheque will never clear.” My words echoed back at me through the empty room.

Geoff cleared his throat. He was standing exactly in my new blind spot. The tiny box on the right hand side of the Glasses frame has the unfortunate problem of blocking things from your field of view. “Here’s your receipt.” He placed it on the table. He appeared to be a man who had nothing to lose, no reason to impress anyone. I reached out for my receipt and looked around to thank him. This time he really was gone.

My first steps into the Griffintown streets were pretty exciting, as I was able to instantly Google-map everything I was looking at. The Italian place on the corner was under new ownership, yet still displayed the old ownership’s 68% rating on Urban Spoon. I should tell them. They’re doomed to fail otherwise. They probably have no idea.

Whatever sense of dread or problems with existential boredom I was having were instantly washed away by the heady feeling of looking at everything as if for the first time. Overlaying maps, looking at a building and knowing its history, squinting up into the sky and seeing the itinerary and make of a plane flying overhead, people walking down the street were instantly identifiable as “single” or “taken” or even “in a relationship (but still looking)”: I couldn’t believe it. Google Glass was everything I imagined it could be and more.

The Netflix library consists of just 11 films, which is pretty slim. Probably due to the non-geographically specific licensing arrangements for a device with which I could theoretically fall asleep in one country at a film’s beginning and wake up in another before the film’s end. But it is a surprisingly diverse mix, running the gamut from Orson Welle’s “The Trial” to Louis C.K.’s “Pootie Tang”.

I fell asleep watching “Road House” and ended up having a dream with Ben Gazzara in it, chuckling softly to himself, sitting in a sturdy leather chair, staring into a deep glass of Scotch. “Can you believe I’m in this piece of shit? I used to work with John Cassavetes! He’d kill me if he was still alive. What a stinker.” He looked up from his drink, during what was surely the lowest moment of his career. “What is that thing on your face?”

I woke to the sound of what seemed to be rain falling in my apartment. I wandered bleary eyed into the living room, and saw Geoff standing there, wearing the Google Glasses. He was urinating into an empty cardboard box. You can never just say goodbye to Craigslist people. They always come back somehow.

“Hey!” I shouted. Geoff didn’t move. He either couldn’t or wouldn’t see me. He looked around and was clearly in his own world. He appeared to be sleepwalking. I always heard you were never supposed to wake someone who was sleepwalking. It’s apparently very dangerous. I grabbed him by the shoulders and yelled. “Give my Glasses back! What are you doing here?”

Abruptly, as if in a trance, he locked his vacant eyes with mine and, as if reading my thoughts via the Glasses, he intuited my original craven motivation for wanting to review them in the first place. “Okay! Yes, we are bored. We’re all bored now. But has it ever occurred to you that the process that creates this boredom that we see in the world now may very well be a self-perpetuating, unconscious form of brainwashing, created by a world totalitarian government based on money, and that all of this is much more dangerous than one thinks? And it’s not just a question of individual survival, but that somebody who’s bored is asleep, and somebody who’s asleep will not say no?”

He turned and mumbled, almost laughing, walked out the door down to the street, climbed into a smart car and drove off.

I stood in the doorway and cursed loudly. All the neighbours’ lights turned on. How dare he? Even if he was suffering from some kind of peculiar sleeping illness, he had sold me those glasses. I had a receipt! It was then I remembered that before Roadhouse began, I had hooked the glasses up to my Youtube account to upload an image of whatever I was looking at every 30 seconds. And if the Glasses’ face recognition kicked in, it would start rolling video. That’s a really great function, by the way. So I turned on my computer. Obviously, the best way to figure out where he was going was to look at the world through his eyes for a while.

The first several images through the windshield of Geoff’s car were unremarkable. Eventually, he got out and started walking around, and things became a little more interesting. I recognized a little park at the Old Port that he would have had to have jumped a fence to get into. I fell asleep again watching Geoff watching some ducks asleep by a pond in the night. It was quite beautiful.

Then he arrived at someone’s apartment. He was welcomed warmly by some distinctly unsavoury people, pretty obviously drug dealers. One of them (I wouldn’t swear by it, but the resemblance was uncanny) looked a whole lot like Rob Ford, mayor of Toronto. It made no sense that he’d be in Montreal, except that things were pretty hot for him back at home these last few days. He was absolutely, no question, smoking a crack pipe and going off about welfare cheats, the gravy train, the usual. I have to say, the image shot by Google Glass in this low-light situation was remarkably clear. I mean, crystal clear. Very sharp resolution in a really low-light, not to say dingy, setting. It was definitely him. Actually, don’t quote me on that. It seems insane. Why would he put himself in that situation? Maybe I was dreaming again. At one point, “Rob Ford” pointed at Geoff’s face and said, “That better not be on.” That’s when I fell asleep again.

As it was getting light, I woke and was surprised to see that Geoff’s feed was still on. He was on the move, driving down some street. I was shocked he wasn’t broadcasting from a jail cell yet. Wow, my Youtube account has a lot more subscribers than it did last night. He’s getting out of his car and walking down a street. It looks like he’s a block from my house. Each image refresh brings him closer to my door. There’s obviously a slight delay between the image uploading and what’s actually happening. The door is opening. I can’t believe I didn’t lock it last night after Geoff left. This is not what I signed up for when I agreed to review Google Glass. How dare this guy come back to the scene of the crime? I’m going to give him a piece of my mind.

Le Canuck: Another Use for Maple Syrup

One bad experience with a certain type of booze can put you off forever. One time a friend and I split a bottle of maple-infused whisky. Big mistake. The flavour was sickly and the hangover definitely more devastating than it might have been if it were just straight whisky. (Don’t even ask about my experience with Slivovitz. It makes me heave a little just thinking of it.)

Anyway, with spring in full swing, and maple season so short, it’s fun to come up with as many ways to consume maple syrup as possible. The sap is on the rise, and so should you be.

So flipping through my old Jean Faitout cocktail book the other day, imagine my surprise landing on a recipe entitled “Le Canuck”, featuring a mix of whisky, lemon, bitters and maple syrup.

The recipe calls for 1 oz. of rye whisky, ½ oz. lemon juice, ½ oz. maple syrup and 2 dashes of Angostura bitters.

To fill up a glass, you’ll want to double those measurements. But I’ve found that the lemon juice is a little powerful in those proportions. Better to increase it to ¾ of an oz. rather than a full ounce (in proportion to 2 oz. of whisky).

This is surprisingly tasty, and very much in keeping with the flavour of spring.

Le Printemps d’Érable: Making Maple Crème

Maple syrup falls into the category of perfect food. It arrives to us almost directly from nature, with minimal processing, and cannot be improved upon. It’s consistency is almost like mercury. That might be its only shortcoming, that in its raw form the stuff itself is temperamentally hard to pin down and challenges us to find other uses for its limited versatility. Would you like some pancakes?

It’s also special because the window for enjoying it is so quick. Sugaring off season comes and goes in a heartbeat during spring. And if you live in a place where sugar shacks operate, you’ll see them pop up and close again just before the fruit and vegetable stands take their place for summer.

With just a little effort, the quicksilver consistency of maple syrup in its raw form can be transformed into a spreadable version of an otherwise identical tasting iteration of itself: maple cream (aka. maple butter). After some trial and error, using a machine to stir the syrup with disastrous results, I’ve come to the conclusion that the only way to do this is by hand, using a wooden spoon. There’ll be a little fatigue in your future if you try this, but the result is so worth it you’ll wonder what you were whining about.

The method outlined on America’s Test Kitchen provides the clearest steps needed to attain the best result, along with its properly Protestant work ethic comments that seem to imply “no pleasure without suffering”. So get out your wooden spoon, and prepare to suffer your way towards a state of maple-induced euphoria. It’s a quintessentially Northeastern food, perfectly commingling the bounty of nature and a type of Puritan moral code that equates hard work and reward. No instant gratification here.

Contrary to what a lot of people might think, maple cream contains no ingredients other than maple syrup. It is only maple syrup heated up to boiling, brought back down to a cooler temperature, and then stirred until buttery in consistency. The fact that it’s often referred to as “maple butter” probably conveys the impression for a lot of people that it’s got some butter in it. Nope. It is purely and only 100% maple syrup, transformed.

You will need: 1) maple syrup 2) a saucepan large enough to allow for considerable bubbling up of the heated syrup 3) a candy thermometer 4) a bowl full of ice (for cooling the heated syrup down) 5) a jar into which to decant the finished product.

1) Attach a candy thermometer to the side of your saucepan and empty the maple syrup in.

2) Heat it over a medium-high setting until it bubbles up. Don’t panic when you see the bubbles rise. Don’t stir! Keep a spray bottle full of water to one side if you really think the syrup is going to spill over. One spray will be enough to calm the rising bubbles down. But don’t get carried away with it, and whatever you do, don’t disturb or stir the syrup in any way. You’ll need to leave it on the bubble for a good 15-20 minutes, until the thermometer reads precisely 235 degrees Fahrenheit.

3) Now pour the syrup into a bowl which you’ve placed in a larger bowl already filled with ice. Take the thermometer from the saucepan and affix it to the bowl with the syrup in it. Wait until the thermometer reads approximately 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Again, let it be. Don’t stir or disturb the syrup in any way.

4) It will take at least 10 minutes to reach the desired temperature of 100 degrees. Now the work begins. Grab your wooden spoon in one hand and the bowl in the other, and stir, constantly agitating the syrup until it changes both colour and consistency. First you’ll see it change from an incredibly stiff and jewel-like brown clarity to an incredibly stiff and opaque dark brown. It will require a solid 15-20 minutes of diligent stirring (no joke) until it finally reaches a beautiful silky-smooth butter-like consistency. Put on a favourite record. An average side of vinyl ought to get you through. Or watch some boring television. But keep an eye on your stirring, because when the big moment arrives, you’re going to need to spring into action.

5) Stop stirring the moment the syrup reaches an almost granular buttery consistency, just after it loses its shine. If you keep stirring, you’ll have an essentially useless hard beige candy on your hands. Scoop the stuff into your jar right now, and be quick about it.

Bang, you’re finished. Now, scoop out a spoonful of this stuff and tell me all that work wasn’t worth it. The finished result is so incredibly delicious.

The only real shortcoming I can think of is that I haven’t really found any satisfactory accompaniment to spread the stuff onto. I hate to waste its flavour smearing it on other things, like breads or biscuits or whatever. The only thing that kind of hits the spot for me is to smear it on some apple slices. But nothing, nothing, nothing tastes quite so good as a spoonful of the raw stuff itself.

The Nose Knows: Discussing Perfume

Both the purpose and the nature of perfume are almost impossible to talk about or define. If its purpose is to delight the senses, why is so much of it so foul-smelling and in-your-face? Is it something you wear, like clothing? Or is it more like furniture, designed to change the nature of a room, external and complementary to the wearer? It’s only every once in a while that a scent bothers you in a positive way, gets under your skin and intrigues you. It’s at moments like these that you need expert guidance. I have these friends who are fragrance acolytes, and so decided to have them explain it to me. Robin and Daniel, when together, can discuss fragrance for hours. Daniel’s fridge has almost no food. It contains perfume bottles instead.

Daniel performs a mental calculus each day that attempts to align what he’s wearing with the temperature outside, etc. “There are some perfumes that are intense and hard, dry, and they work well when it’s humid. There are some that project well, that work when it’s dry. There are some that smell like rain, and they complement the rain. So, actually, depending on the weather is a big thing.”

When I suggest that most people probably don’t put that much thought into the clothing they wear, much less what they scent themselves with, he replies, “It’s not even thought, really. You know when you wake up and you think, ‘Where’s that Cap’n Crunch? I gotta have that Cap’n Crunch.’ It’s the same. You wake up and it’s raining and you think, ‘Where’s my Garrigue?’”

But getting back to climate, he continues, “Some things just project differently in different temperatures. See, there’s seasonal stuff, too. Like, in winter I tend to wear Opium. It’s strong. It’s something with the cold air. You can smell certain parts of it better than others. In the humidity, it tends to get a bit of amber too much. But in the winter you get more of the top notes with vanilla for some reason. That’s what I feel like. And then in humidity, there are some lighter perfumes that smell more summery and fresh.”

Robin points out that Daniel has a contrarian streak by perfume fancier standards, opting quite often for a strong scent in strong heat conditions, like Cuir Mauresque or Muscs Kublai Khan (both Serge Lutens brands). (P.S. Things I learned while talking to Daniel and Robin: “musk” is a glandular secretion emanating from the testicle of either a male deer or a smaller animal like either a civet or, you guessed it, a muskrat. The muskrat never struck me as a particularly masculine beast, but I have a whole new appreciation for the little rodents now.)

Daniel claims that Lutens’ perfumes start out amazing, and then over the course of three hours tend to end up too dry smelling. “In the heat, it’s better. Somehow the humidity fills in that dry, ashy aspect of them. And he lives in Morocco, where it’s humid.”

As for a scent that Daniel appreciates but doesn’t wear very often, he offers up Serge Lutens’ Fumerie Turque, a dark smelling, leathery, jasminey perfume.

Robin’s got a beef with the plethora of commentators on mainstream news websites, who frame the decision-making process around selecting perfumes as more to do with, “What’s your personality?” than “Which scent is most appropriate to a given scenario?”

“I don’t think of it as something that’s me. I think of it as a work of art,” she says, “and I’m enjoying it as such. Not that it’s associated with me, or anything about me.”

As for the genderization of perfume, both Robin and Daniel agree that it comes down to marketing. Eighty percent of scents are marketed to women, and the characteristics of a particular bottle are sharply divided between “male” and “female”, but if you remove the marketing, things become both more open and complicated.

Daniel also feels that his sense of smell has improved, or changed, since taking up perfume. “It’s like listening to music. They call it notes for a reason. Because it’s not visual. You can’t see anything.”

Probably the big surprise from our discussion was their mutual conviction that Drakkar Noir, a perfume with a famously bad reputation, has been unjustly maligned, and unfairly used in popular culture as short-hand for a certain type of douchebaggy man. So perhaps it’s time to rescue the reputation of Drakkar Noir? Daniel and Robin certainly seem to think so. “No, Drakkar Noir’s some good shit.”

Listen to them chat about perfume for 40 minutes here:

Against Flûtes

Whenever I hear that champagne coupes were “once used to serve champagne”, it makes my face twitch like Herbert Lom in the Pink Panther movies. The idea that the coupe has been replaced by the flute is wrong. Not factually wrong. But morally wrong. Stating the case for this presents a good opportunity to examine first principles. What, after all, is drinking for? What is it about?

Champagne is a beverage in motion. It makes you feel lively going down your gullet. It is lively. Champagne is not intended for reverential sipping. It’s not scotch. It’s not port sherry. It’s not even vodka. It’s barely even wine. It’s a type of wine that explodes and refuses to let you sit down. Can you remember the last time you drank champagne sitting in a chair? Dress up. Talk to people. Smile. Wake up. You’re going to feel terrible tomorrow, but this is fun, right now.

Champagne is made for libidinous drinking. Appropriate uses for champagne other than drinking it are 1) smashing against the sides of ships and 2) spraying all over victory platforms at speedcar races. You’ll notice that they don’t waste “sparkling wine” at those events. No, they waste the expensive stuff. What would it say about their attitude towards celebration if they balked at cost? Your ship deserves its doomed fate on the sea floor, the final resting place of anyone unlucky enough to sail upon it, if you opt for anything other than champagne. Champagne is a drink of celebration.

A good champagne, obviously, is produced by skilled craftspeople who have bottled a product that is ready to be evaluated by the toughest critic, using the driest, most rigorous means of determining excellence. That’s their job. Your job is to drink the stuff in the spirit in which champagne is meant to be drunk, which is fast and without a thought for tomorrow.

The idea of the flute being ideal for “nucleation” and preserving the precious little bubbles ought to make one sick. The problem with drinking champagne from a coupe has nothing to do with the preservation of bubbles. Bubbles, by their nature, are ephemeral. They’re supposed to rise to the surface and die, and tickle your nose in the death process. The solution to the problem of hanging on to bubbles is not to figure out a way to make them last. It is to drink the bubbles down. The point of drinking champagne is to embrace that ephemerality. Nothing lasts forever. Let’s drink to it.

They say that the champagne coupe was designed from an imprint of Marie Antoinette’s breast. They’re wrong, but it’s a good thing to wish for, isn’t it? The coupe was actually designed in England circa 1663. The Marie Antoinette factoid likely stems from a custom-built milk bowl called a jatte téton (breast bowl) purchased for her by her husband Louis XVI. Shaped like a breast with a small nipple at the bottom (and supported by the heads of three goats), this bowl is reputed to be shaped from her majesty’s udder, thus at least placing the misleading myth of the coupe’s origin into the ballpark of factitude.

The flute, on the other hand appears to be shaped from the penis of Iron Man. Don’t drink from it.

So we come back to the why of drinking. We drink for all kinds of reasons: to take the edge off, to even out the day, to argue myth into reality, to forget, etc. The story about the coupe being shaped like Marie Antoinette’s breast? Have a drink. It’s not true. But you kind of want it to be true. Have another drink. It’s getting truer and truer.

Champagne, more than any other drink, is meant to highlight life’s elusive joys by putting the ephemeral in a glass. It reminds you to enjoy it. Hurry up and drink.

Your Ad Here (or “How Product Placement in Films Destroyed the Martini for Several Decades”)

Like a recurring bad dream, a new James Bond film, Skyfall, is filling the theatres and has been getting good reviews. Increasingly, I am measuring my own lifespan according to Bond films, hoping (like Warren Zevon used to) that I merely survive long enough to see the next one. But I probably haven’t actually enjoyed a Bond film since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and yet there I am, dutifully watching each and every instalment in the series, like a joyless duty I must perform, the reason for which I’ve long forgotten. A bit like Christmas, which I probably haven’t enjoyed since I was 12, but still solemnly endure time after joyful time. And with each passing year, I wonder whether it isn’t time to just say No.

I hated this new Bond film for all kinds of reasons: the new actor’s scowl and the franchise’s lurch towards “realism”, the new Q, the next M, the depiction of China which is slightly less nuanced than a Tintin comic strip, the tuneless and horrible theme song, the insane and pointless recital of a Tennyson poem as M’s defense of her department against a parliamentary oversight panel (doubtless a moment of hack relief for the writers, letting a bit of public domain English greatness slummily flesh out some idea they failed to articulate), and above all the camped-out, agent-of-chaos villain, whose actions make no sense whatsoever unless he is M’s biological son (in which case, they make a bit of sense). I mean, of course, none of it makes any sense. It’s a Bond film. There isn’t a moment during any of these films during which you’re not asking, “Why are they doing this? Why doesn’t he just shoot him?” And you run the risk of admonishing yourself, “You just don’t get it, do you?” He’s James Fucking Bond, all right? He’s got his reasons for needlessly dragging things out. The filmmakers’ need to advance to the next set piece is greater than your need for logic or expedience. If you want narrative coherence, you’re better off watching the Marx Brothers.

There were two bits that I enjoyed: the drinking scene in the beach hut with the scorpion, and the introduction of the Moneypenny character. Those are exactly what I will retain from this particular go-round. The rest is already a tortuous haze in my mind, almost completely forgotten the next day. I’ll probably also remember the unintentionally funny moment when the Shanghainese temptress tells Bond that something is “inevitable”, which put me in mind of Team America’s Kim Jong-Il.

My special hatred, however, for this particular episode is reserved for its more craven than usual product placement. During his “I’m dead” beach interlude, Bond grimly ingests a post-coital Heineken while lying next to some randomly generated woman. Craig himself has apparently spokesmodeled for Heineken before, so it isn’t entirely a left-field endorsement. Later on in the film, while Q and the actor who played the pigfucking Prime Minister in one of Charlie Brooker’s TV shows try and lure the villain (who is absolutely intent on killing M) towards her location to try and aid him in that objective, they signal the afterhours nature of their espionage by enjoying an at-work Heineken. None of this makes any sense. Okay, listen, it’s very simple. They’re leading the villain to M, up to where she’s hidden in an isolated house in rural Scotland (which happens to be Bond’s childhood home). Anything could happen. The villain really, extremely wants to kill M. And the MI6 guys are drinking Heinekens. But it’s a trap, see. The villain will arrive, destroy the house, there’s no backup whatsoever, and then M, Bond and the old groundskeeper will spring their trap, using an arsenal of two rifles, a knife and some patriotism. It could have been worse. At least the surviving Broccoli didn’t make a deal with Corona.

In this film alone, there is also some kind of placement deal with a watch manufacturer, a brand of nail polish (worn by the Orientalist French actress), as well as with Sony Vaio, a laptop of whose the pigfucker actor uses, which perhaps clears up the mystery of a) why MI6 was so easily hacked and b) why nothing its employees do outstrips the competition.

The Bond franchise got an early start in its brand worship with Dr. No, depicting old Sean Connery gamely slurping on a Red Stripe beer, presumably to get in to the spirit of his Jamaican surroundings. In that same film, Bond demands that his hotel’s room service make him a martini, shaken, not stirred, using vodka. The official partnership with Smirnoff, cemented by the Broccoli clan during that first Bond film, remains into the Craig era.

Now, in case you think that entertainment is a harmless confection which contains absolutely no real-world repercussions for your life, think back to Dr. No. This seemingly innocuous and completely eccentric command to a bartender, who would have been within his rights to respond, “Look, I’ll make your drink however you like, mister, just don’t call it a martini, okay?”, has done more to destroy and warp the pre-eminence of the greatest cocktail of the 20th century than prohibition and the film Cocktail combined. All through the 1990s, bartenders taking bartending courses were taught how to make a martini: put some vodka and vermouth in a shaker with a bunch of ice and shake it as hard as you can and as long as you can, until your hands can no longer stand the freezing pain. Now, see those little flakes of ice floating around in the glass? Well done. You’ve made a perfect martini, just like James Bond, but ‘90s style.

And we are just now collectively waking up from this hangover today, in the second decade of the 21st century, knowing that a martini is nothing but gin and vermouth, in variable quantities, stirred in a shaker with ice (for about 40 seconds to a minute). Finally, we have our drink back.

The sheer greed of it is not the only reason that product placement in films is horrible. There is also the matter of insulting the audience. The film’s director, occasional social critic Sam Mendes, insists that he doesn’t know what the fuss is about, that these deals are a fact of modern filmmaking reality. Even the audience, he implies, is savvy enough to resign themselves to it. So, the next time you see a tiny, shrunken Sam Mendes in your cereal bowl, clinging to a Cheerio as if it were a life preserver and begging you for help, just know that neither he nor the Cheerio are there by accident. It’s only a bit of placement. Scoop him up and crunch him down, like the insect that he is. If you don’t, you’re sending the wrong message to filmmakers.

And the next time you order a martini and the bartender reaches for the vodka, think of that first James Bond film and just say No.

À la recherche du vermouth perdu

Following on from the traumatic loss of the Noilly Prat brand of vermouth from my (everyone’s?) life, the search for a new thing to drop into some gin every night gradually shifted from frantic and desperate to resigned, cold and futile. To recap, they changed their formula in 2009 without telling anyone, reverting back to their original 1813 formula under the name Noilly Prat Original Dry. I kept buying it and drinking it, and never noticed the change until the vermouth was removed totally from the market in May of 2012 or so. I still have no word on the company’s rationale or reasoning, and feel quite betrayed by the loss of a beloved ingredient. Also, I felt quite stupid not to have noticed in 2009 that the taste of Noilly Prat had become quite different from what everyone now called vermouth. It was more like a very light fortified wine, kind of straw coloured and fruity tasting. Not like the jet fuel they made before.

So the search for a replacement went very badly, because all the other vermouths still tasted a bit like jet fuel. Eventually, I settled, more or less happily on the Dolin brand, from France, which is actually a great replacement and I’m happy to have found it. I still resent having been forced by Noilly Prat to crawl through the desert eating sand, hoping to taste something like the sand I had become used to, only to spit it all out disgustedly each and every day. Dolin, in my desperation, proved a nice oasis from all that sand for a good long couple of months.

However, I think we have a new winner. From Quebec, a “wine-based apéritif” called Les Folies du Vigneron from Vignoble de la Bauge hit all the right notes that my old Noilly Prat used to hit. It’s got a very clean, citrusy burn through on initial contact, with a nice bitter finish. And it makes a martini taste right, like it used to. The world is almost back to being complete. But I still don’t know what’s up with Noilly Prat. And no one else seems to care.

Hotel de la Montagne

Nothing lasts forever. And so it goes with the Hotel de la Montagne, a storied final piece of the history of old, weird Montreal, now gone. Montreal kept alive so much of what used to be referred to as local colour for so long in North America that its last nostalgic residents who’ve hung in there watching the decline can count on nothing now but their memories. Even the very best of the sad old man bars, the Pub Dominion, has since given way to the admittedly excellent food, cocktails and overcrowding of new, rich Montreal. All cities change. But the way Montreal is changing feels especially dispiriting, given that we still barely have the elusive wild character that most major North American cities have long ago shrugged off and forgotten.

Hotel de la Montagne gave birth to and was a mausoleum for memories. The median age of the clientele was probably about 50. It will all be replaced by a new condo development. They may as well fill it with cement.

I started going to the place because it used to be just a few doors up from the Fine Arts graduate program building (which moved to a different part of town several years ago). So you could often count on seeing one or two, if not a small group of, groovy looking art types sitting in amongst the usual greying crowd, sometimes to laugh ironically at the kétaine surroundings, but mostly to appreciate one of the last places in town that wasn’t a monoculture.

There was a waitress there of indeterminate age, with short red hair and the most ambiguously amoral smile, that I used to refer to as “mother”. Seeing her begin to chuckle (in response to a simple question like “What’s good tonight?” or “Qu’est ce qui ce passe?”) meant the world to me. Perhaps I should have stopped going to Hotel de la Montagne when she retired. The busboy, however, probably in his mid-40s with a curly mullet type haircut, was there until the end. I saw him about a month after the hotel closed, and thought about crossing the street to ask how he was doing.

While there were other bars downtown, there was no other bar with a spectacular water nymph spinning slowly in the middle of a fountain in the lobby, or a doorman wearing a safari hat and beefeater jacket, or the sheer breadth of experience and shared joy brought to the place by its regulars.

As strange and exciting as the downstairs bar was, it wasn’t as weird as the rooftop pool, 22 stories above street level, with great views of the mountain observatory and south shore. The tiny swimming pool was overrun with skinny women in bikinis, with a junkie air about them, who’d wander over to sit at your table and ask for cigarettes.

Upstairs, the drinks were never on special. Part of the attraction of the downstairs bar for students was the lure of the cinq-à-huit (not the cinq-à-sept, like at most places), in which all drinks were two-for-one. So part of the fun was in the spectacle of all the tables around you and each person at them carrying on a casual conversation with duplicate bottles, glasses and umbrellas in front of them. It felt like there was always six of everything at every table. It also meant that when the waitresses went around announcing “last call” at quarter to eight, you would find yourself wandering out at 8:15 absolutely loaded in broad daylight at the height of summer. It was at moments like this that you wondered, “What am I doing?”

Towards the end, my friends Lynne and Bernie and I contemplated getting a room for the last couple of days of the hotel’s existence. The cheapest rate available was $225, so we decided against it, opting instead for spending quality time in the downstairs bar. Noting the preponderance of slightly past it pretty women in the room who would shove off on a regular basis to go upstairs with their distinguished older companions, our friend Anthony wondered, “What’s the hourly rate?”

He observed, too, the strange architectural effect of the open, spacious lobby dropping suddenly into the “bunker-like effect” of the low-ceilinged bar.

The place had a lot of bizarre classical touches, such as the portraits of the Greek “Graces” adorning the overhang between the bar and upstairs restaurant. And the Moorish lamp-holders standing sentinel at the bottom of the staircases. And of course the water nymph. The Graces, according to Greek myth, were goddesses of charm, beauty, nature, human creativity and fertility. The Hotel de la Montagne had all of these qualities in spades.

For my part, I divulged to the group on our final evening there my long-standing fantasy of living in the hotel. Coming down the elevator in the morning, wandering past the fountain to ask the front desk staff if I had any messages waiting for me in the old wall-sized rack of wooden mailboxes. Not exactly the wholesome bohemian Montreal that Leonard Cohen mythologized, but a kind of shabby gentility that would have suited me well.

Indignant commentators sometimes question the impulse in Quebec to form a new country inside North America. But what places like the Hotel de la Montagne kept alive perhaps longer than feasible was the notion that each person is different and unique. It’s one thing to declare a difference at the official or mass level, and quite another to keep that difference vital on an individual basis. With the disappearance of this bar, one more refuge for that ideal is gone.