September used to mean homemade wine

on 7:14 pm

Ok so here we are nearing the end of September. Drawing back on my days of youth in Prince George, B.C., this time of year reminds me of three things: yellow leaves, chopping and stockpiling lumber for the winter ahead, and making wine. It's this last one I'm going to talk about today. The Portuguese love their wine, it's a matter of fact. But the Portuguese also believe they shouldn't have to pay a lot for their wine. Most Portuguese emigrant men in Canada will tell you that they will drink 3, 4, 5 glasses of wine a day, yet most have never purchased a bottle at the liquor store. How do they do it? They make it at home.

Now having grown up the son of Portuguese emigrants in Canada, and as many like me will attest, this time of year was often a messy time of year. Making homemade wine never was and probably never will be a clean process, yet everyone had to help with one thing or another. So in our house, every September, from one day to the next, unannounced, my dad would receive boxes of grapes, often brought to our place of residence by another member of the Portuguese community. The grapes, whatever the variety, would either came from the Okanagan region of British Columbia or from California straight into our backyard and ready to be turned in the nector of the gods.

Boxes of California wine grapes ready for the wine press

Now the crushing of the grapes, of course, was the messy part, be it the crushing (crusher on the left) or the pressing (presser on the right).

The end result, however, made it all worth it - to see the juice flowing into the pail, the first signs of what would be on the table every night for the year(s) to come. I guess it made it all worth while.

So skipping ahead a few steps in this winemaking adventure, a few weeks or months after fermentation would come the bottling. Now bottles often came in two sizes. On one hand, there was the popular five litre bottle (see below) which was robust, heavy (once full) and awkward to put on the table during dinner.

On the other, there were the unreturned 1 litre Pop Shoppe pop bottles (on the Pop Shoppe see Whenever my non-Portuguese friends would come over, if we would go into the garage for one reason or another, a common question posed would often be: What's the deal with all the empty Pop Shoppe bottle cases piled up one on top of each other? Why don't you return them? It's for bottling wine. Explaning it would bring a smile to my face as well. I guess it was a bit of a way of bringing a bit of Canadiana to Portuguese winemaking. Go ahead, imagine one of these here to the left full of tasty homemade wine on your table though...

Now by the 1990's, this whole process of making wine right from the grape got replaced by the buckets of grape juice ready for fermentation. Everybody got into it. Surely the cutting off of certain steps made things cleaner, even cheaper, but the replacing of the wooden grape boxes with white plastic buckets left something to be desired, this beyond the fact that such a "new" method seemed to be serving up a slap in the face to the old, more traditional means these Portuguese emigrants adapted upon settling in Canada. Now is there hope of the grape making a comeback among Portuguese winemakers in Canada? I like to think so. After all the Pop Shoppe bottles are back.

The bastardisation of the pastel de nata

on 7:01 pm

If one were to say that the pastel de nata (or the pastel de belem) is Portugal's most well known sweet or cake, my bet is on the fact that not too many would put up an arguement. Anyone who knows Portugal, or has any affiliation to the country, knows how delicious these soft and creamy on the inside, crispy on the outside custardy cakes are. Just seeing them leaves your mouth watering, am I right? Just look at all of them ...

Surely the pastel de nata is synonymous with Portugal, but you may also be interested in knowing that its populary is world-wide. If anyone has been a great embassador of our little custardy cake, it's the 5 million Portuguese throughout the world. Myself personally, while growing up in Prince George, B.C., Canada, I certainly didn't have the pleasure of going down to a local Portuguese café like our Portuguese-Canadian friends residing in Toronto or Montreal who have their Little Portugal's. We in Prince George were fortunate enough, however, to have among our community, a baker from the Minho region who had worked at the Pasteis de Belem Factory in Belem for 10 years before having moved to Canada. Every Christmas and Easter he made a killing making and selling his pasteis de nata to the community and believe me, they were just as tasty as any you'd find here in Portugal.

On the issue of the globalisation of the pastel de nata, however, if there's one place our custardy representative has really taken off, it's in Asia, especially in countries like China, Taiwan, Singapore, Malasia, among others. It's introduction to the Orient was, unsurprisingly, through the former Portuguese colony of Macau, having then made its way into China where the pastel de nata is know as 'dan ta' or pastel de ovo (egg tart). Today, it is quite common to find 'dan ta' as a dessert option in many fast food restaurants in these East Asian countries. They do look a little different from the Portuguese version but not too far off. Here's what they look like:

Now what is interesting about the globalisation of the pastel de nata is that as this Portuguese sweet starts making in-roads across different parts of the globe, it also starts taking on regional characteristics, even flavours. Again, in Asia, one can now find various 'bastardisations' of the pastel de nata, ranging from coffee, to caramel, to brown suger to mochi (rice cake) pasteis de nata, for example. Have a look at what the mochi pastel de nata looks like:

Interestingly, however, this trend (if you can call it that) is not unique to East Asia. Recently, while in a Portuguese café in the heart of Little Portugal (in the Plateau-Monte Royal neighbourhood) in Montreal, I came across what undoubtedly best fits the description of a 'Canadian pastel de nata' - a maple syrup pastel de nata - certainly a fitting symbol of the Luso-Canadian presence, bringing the two worlds together. Have a look at the maple syrup pastel de nata (which I thoroughly enjoyed right after taking this picture):

Ok now certainly we can look at this and think that it's just not right to be taking something that is so typically Portuguese and making it something that it is not. Well certainly the Portuguese are not too worried. Just recently at this years Chocolate Festival in Obidos they were selling these tasty little morsels - that's right, chocolate pasteis de nata.

So as we can see, in this globalised world we live in today, everything is everywhere and everything's up for grabs. One thing I could certainly grab right now...? Yeah that's right, you guessed it ... a pastel de nata; but I think I'll stick with something a little more traditional, as in a pastel that comes via Belem.

The Pop Shoppe memories

on 9:01 pm

Do you remember the Pop Shoppe? I sure do. For those of us who grew up in Canada during the 1970 and early 80, Pop Shoppe pop, in fact, was a major part of our lives. Out of London, Ontario, the Pop Shoppe was more like a ma and pa business that quickly grew and grew and grew. Founded in 1969, by 1972 there were over 500 Pop Shoppe outlets in Ontario alone. Pop Shoppe grew to be as popular as cigarettes back in the day. The company always avoided using traditional retail channels, selling its pop instead through franchised outlets and through its own stores, using refillable bottles that came in cartons of 24 for the stubby bottles and 12 for the 1 litre bottles.

Now my fondest Pop Shoppe memories were the Pop Shoppe flavours, which numbered nearly 30 in total by the 1980's. I certainly loved the grape soda, the cream soda, the black cherry, the lime rickey, the grape, the orange, the blue raspberry and not to mention pink (whatever that was) as much as the next guy, but my favourite was definitely the root beer. The cool thing was that if didn't want an entire crate of just one flavour, you could pick and chose from the vast variety and take home a rainbow crate of pop.Then, after a week or two of sucking back all that pop, you'd put the empties back into the crate and return those empties to the Pop Shoppe outlet. As I remember, no visit to the Pop Shoppe shop was free of the clinking and clanging of returned bottles.

So while the 1970's put Pop Shoppe on the pop map, by the early 80's due to competition coming from the big boys of the pop world (yeah you guessed it, Coke and Pepsi, among others, after all they did have the advantage of selling ther products in every single grocery store on the face of the planet), the Pop Shoppe closed the pop shop doors in 1983.

Jump forward 11 years to 2004 and the Pop Shoppe is re-established. Basing their marketing and sales strategies on nostalgia, a number of flavours were brought back and a couple of years ago even the stubby bottle was re-instituted. So anyone having a hankering for a cream soda or grape pop can now kill that hankering, but is that magic still there? Well one thing that's no longer there is the Pop Shoppe shop itself as the new Pop Shoppe pop is now sold through regular retail grocery stores using conventional retail distribution; long gone are the clinging of return bottles and the rainbow coloured cartons of pop. They say you can never go back. Well fair enough, after all the business went down in 1983 due to the competition.

So in the end you can have your nostalgia back but those precious moments (as reflected below) remain in our memories.