Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Stay-cation Road Trip: Dark Chocolate

Sometimes a wife wants to surprise her husband with a trip to a place they have not yet visited, and once there, sometimes the wife realizes that their trip is not all it’s cracked up to be and the husband thinks his wife has lost it. 

A co-worker of mine, well, to be clear, the Grumpy Cat, is a big foodie and wine-y (?) wino(?) and he’s been talking to me about his trips to Brooklyn for local eats, artisan food merchants, butchers, bakers, wine cask makers, and other nom-noms he can buy at the source of production.  The Grumpy Cat has family in Brooklyn, though he grew up in Long Island and now lives in North Jersey, I was sensing, like myself, he had a bit of an inner urban child who needed to get out of his Xth – Borough and back into the grit and grist of Brooklyn every now and then.  So I paid heed to his stories.  Our group at work is also mostly a bunch of non-drinkers, so I think he felt able to discuss his vineyard, brewery and distillery visits with a fellow imbiber such as myself. 

So a few days ago, I drove Rob to Brooklyn for our ‘Surprise Destination’ trip, and I gave him a hint: it was in Brooklyn.  He thought we were going to Spumoni Gardens, which is, like a lot of Bensonhurst, an entirely concrete ‘garden’, that sells (obviously) Spumoni, Gelato, ice cream, Italian Ices and some of the best Pizza you could ever sink your teeth into – that’s why I capitalized  the P in Pizza right there.  But in my personal opinion, they make the best Sicilian Pies on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.  Their Sicilian Pies have to be 2 or 3 inches thick of fresh crust, and everything there is always so fresh because it’s never not crowded, they are a Pizza making machine!  About 2 years ago we went to Spumoni Gardens in the summer to have ices/spumoni/gelato in the ‘garden’, which is a giant concrete patio on the street filled with concrete picnic tables and lines of people waiting to order food reaching around the corner.  But Rob never got a slice of Pizza at Spumoni Gardens, and he’s still looking for his return trip.

I told Rob we were not going to Spumoni Gardens, but in fact we were going to Red Hook, and I think he immediately thought about our last trip to Red Hook, which just involved checking out the new Ikea Brooklyn down there.  I promised him we were not going to Ikea, or at least, that wasn’t the main attraction, though we did end up there on this trip to use the restrooms and get a snack.  (OK and then we ended up buying stuff because who doesn’t love Ikea?)

Red Hook, Brooklyn is both in a state of urban renewal and yet frozen in time.  It’s a small swatch of waterfront land, a grid layout of maybe only 15 blocks by 8 blocks, north of the Gowanus canal, just southeast of the very tip of lower Manhattan, grossly underserved by public transit, and isolated in a way, as the BQE cuts it off from flowing into Cobble Hill or Brooklyn Heights.  Exiting the BQE and heading past the public housing projects, Brooklyn’s cruise ship terminal makes use of the northern-most coastline in the area, and the large blue box that is Ikea sits at Red Hook’s southern coast.  In between those commercial establishments is a mix of old industrial buildings, some in disrepair and decay, others renovated but still in the shell of old brick buildings, advertising crafts and trades shops, and two- and three-storey brick row houses, also in various stages of decay or renovation.  Some of the row houses had their front doors or window trim painted bright, happy colors.  Others had gardens in their small front courtyards.  But it was entirely hit and miss.  Some blocks looked entirely renovated, while others looked like they had suffered an air-raid bombing.  Some streets were paved and some were cobblestone.  It made driving a little tricky but the whole area, in spite of what I thought was a home to burgeoning artisan industries, was in parts, desolate.  The most people I saw in one group was a team of Firemen checking out a very decrepit (and hopefully unoccupied) corner house, that looked like it was on the verge of collapse. 

I don’t think that Red Hook ever had such an industrial or commercial heyday as the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which lies just a short trip north up Brooklyn’s coastline, but the combination of houses and low-slung industrial buildings made me think it was once its own, self-sufficient port, like an old New England fishing village, the people who worked the docks and the boats, were probably all the residents just the same.  In between the old and renovated buildings, there were chunks of land entirely out of use, empty plots, in some cases dumping grounds, where you’d find remnants of a waterfront town – buoys and dinghies tossed about on land, a handful of motor boats in a lot, broke down and forgotten.  Like once upon a time people could launch a boat from here and now the waterfront isn’t a system of piers and docks, but chopped up concrete and wood pilings all over the place.  There was no seawall or formal coastline, just jagged edges.  I wasn’t sure how much of this was pure decay or how much was recent damage from Hurricane Sandy, which gave low-lying Red Hook a real beating last year, but I’d say it was more like time moved on and forgot about this little slice of Brooklyn, whose ridiculous proximity to Manhattan should have warranted it a better fate. 

We found our destination, and I had like 9 parking spots available to me, which in any other part of Brooklyn, would be considered akin to winning the lottery.  Nine open parking spots gives one pause, to think maybe these spots aren’t really legit, or maybe the streets were being vacated for a parade or a feast.  Given the general lack of souls about, including the general lack of traffic cops, I took my chances, parked the car and walked into the open steel-framed glass doors of a three-storey old brick industrial now operating under the name of Cacao Prieto – or literally – Dark Chocolate.  (www.cacaoprieto.com).

Cacao Prieto is both a rum distillery and a maker of their own chocolate.  What more could you possibly need?  As a lover of Rum, I thought Rob would love it, even if we had to drive though an urban ghost town to get here.  The building seemed to be cut into three parts, on the right side, you could see large steel (metal?) vats and piping, most likely the mechanics of the distillery itself.  On the left side, there was a bar and café, which was dark and empty.  In the center area, was an old fashioned cart of sorts, stocked high with wooden casks and decorated with dried ears of corn and pumpkins.  Behind this cart, was one guy who seemed to be running everything by himself.  I never caught his name but he was wearing a flannel shirt and had several small tattoos on his fingers, which I was trying to make sense of while he poured some rum tastings.  Rob tried a coffee flavored rum, a chocolate flavored rum, and another type of rum which they let age in barrels which once held whiskey.  This rum was called ‘Widow Jane’ and Flannel Guy informed us that this rum is cut with mineral water from the Widow Jane limestone mines in Upstate New York.  We bought two bottles of Widow Jane, she was clearly the winner!

I have no idea how people figure these things out, say age x liquor in a barrel that used to hold y liquor, or use this mineral content in your production and it will taste great.  Like whiskey or beer, rum has been around for a long time and I guess all that much time to tweak and enhance flavors.  Once I tried to make olive-infused vodka thinking it would amount to like an already-mixed martini.  That went badly. 

Flannel Guy also informed us that they weren’t selling any more Chocolates, as their cacao supplies from the Dominican Republic had all been used up for the rest of the year.  That was sad news.  I chatted with Flannel Guy about the café, and the overall desolation of the area.  He said that Red Hook’s location near the water made it an exceptionally cold place in the winter, he thought on average being this close to the water left them about 15 degrees colder than say any other part of Brooklyn.  Come summer time, the café fills up and the area is hopping, but late November on the cusp of a Nor’easter, the stray cats outnumber the humans. 

I thanked Flannel Guy for his time, and we made our way out of Red Hook, with a quick stop at Ikea, then over the cobblestones and past the projects, and in 10 minutes we were back on the BQE, in bumper-to-bumper traffic, and full re-entry into the 21st Century.

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