For some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, all I have wanted to do recently is go to the movies, drink and fantasize about living in another country.
It’s so strange. This odd mood hit me in early November and I just can’t seem to shake it. It feels like it could be with me for years to come.
The day it began coincided with the start of the Napa Valley Film Festival, so I gave into this state of mind fully for a week, taking in three or four films a day interspersed with wine tastings and happy hours to indulge both my movie-going and drinking urges.
But I had to put the foreign fantasizing on hold for most of the festival. The low-budget indie productions I favored were mostly shot in domestic locations that offered few opportunities to re-imagine my life beyond our borders.
Some of the documentaries probably included foreign settings, but I don’t know for sure, as I largely steered clear of them. With the miasma settling around me, I found myself preferring make-believe to true life. I did make a couple exceptions, though, for ones made by friends or their relatives.
One of those, the closing film of the festival, turned out to perfectly suit my strange mood. Even if it hadn’t been ably directed by a friend’s husband, its subject would have intrigued me. Called “Pisco Punch: A Cocktail Comeback Story,” it explained the near demise and recent resurgence of pisco, the national brandy of Peru.
I learned about the eight local grape varieties (most of which were new to me) that can be used to make the wine that is then distilled into this fascinating crystal-clear spirit. Because it is distilled only once (rather than multiple times, as with vodka) and not aged in wood (as with cognac and other brandies), the grape varietals and their terroir shine through, allowing for a lot of variation between producers.
I also found out that pisco has a strong Bay Area connection. It was a heavy favorite of miners during the Gold Rush. Pisco Punch, a delicious and surprising cocktail with many variations — as I discovered by trying a half-dozen of them (purely for research purposes, of course) at the film festival after-party — was even invented in San Francisco.
The film filled me in on Peru’s recent history and the economic hardships and problems it experienced as the result of sweeping agrarian reform under a military government in the late 1960s. Among other things, the reforms broke up large, thriving vineyards into failing collectives that eventually devolved into numerous tiny, struggling subsistence farms — and, in the process, disrupted pisco production as thoroughly as Prohibition in the U.S. destroyed wine.
I visited Peru on business during the 1980s, at the depths of the depression brought on by those reforms. At the time, I described Lima as what you would get if you picked up Los Angeles, shook out all the money and swept it away, then dropped the city back down — leaving nothing but grinding poverty, crime and endless urban sprawl. I couldn’t wait to leave and never wanted to return.
But what a difference a few decades makes. It almost gives me hope.
With stability and a healthier economy, the country has made a tremendous comeback in the past 10 or 15 years. Pisco is also having a resurgence, championed by a young generation of dedicated artisanal producers. And truly exciting Peruvian cuisine has emerged, on a level with some of the finest cooking in the world.
The film whetted my appetite for Peru and helped me see it with fresh eyes, satisfying the part of me that is dreaming of getting far, far away from here.
Fortunately, travel to Peru will be more than just a fantasy for me in 2017. My travel companions from Cuba and I have already planned an expedition. We’re heading to Peru for a culinary adventure next summer.
I confess I wasn’t all that excited about the destination when we settled on it months ago, but thanks to the film, now I am. I can’t wait for August.
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Now I just have to figure out how to survive this strange mood for the next nine months. Please help.
I don’t think sitting around reading the Peru guidebook will be enough. And after six days at the film festival, I am done with cinema for awhile. Which pretty much leaves drinking.
Anyone want to meet me for a cocktail? I hear that Morimoto makes a mean Pisco Sour.
I’m hoping to move on from escapist drinking to escapist cooking sometime soon, perhaps after the Peruvian cookbook I ordered arrives. But in the meantime, in my current mood, my kitchen activities have been limited to the cocktails I’m drinking to match my “get me out of this crazy country” travel fantasies.
I’m not giving a recipe for Pisco Punch today, because I haven’t had time to figure out my favorite combo yet among the various options. Instead, I’m offering instructions for making the Peruvian national drink, the Pisco Sour, whose recipe is more standardized.
For true authenticity, use key limes (which are often available at Mexican markets) and Peruvian Amargo bitters if you can find them (though Angostura or other bitters are fine). And don’t skip the egg white, which provides the signature frothy topping. Raw eggs don’t scare me in this context, but if you are leery of them, look for pasteurized ones at the market.
3 ounces Peruvian pisco
1 ounce fresh-squeezed key lime juice
3/4 ounce simple syrup*
1 fresh egg white
1 dash Amargo or Angostura bitters
* To make simple syrup, mix together 1 cup sugar and 1 cup water and heat in the microwave or on the stove until the sugar dissolves, then cool before using. Store the extra in the refrigerator (or dilute it by half or more and use it in your hummingbird feeder).
Combine the pisco, lime juice, simple syrup and egg white in a cocktail shaker (without ice). Shake vigorously until the egg white is foamy (about 10 seconds. Add ice and shake very hard for another 10 seconds, until well chilled. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and shake a dash of bitters on top of the foam.
Betty Teller is renewing her passport this month. Tell her how you are coping at email@example.com.