History in a glass box

William M. Dowd photo

FORRES, Scotland -- Some people like their history neatly placed in a box, rather than being scattered around and requiring some assembly.

For them, Sueno's Stone is perfect.

The 21-foot high stone is classified as a Picto-Scottish Class III standing stone, perched on a slight rise on the northeastern edge of town. It is the largest such stone in the British Isles.

I must confess it felt less than historic when I first saw it, wrapped in glass and steel as it is and perched within a stone's throw of private homes. But closer examination began unwrapping its art and mysteries for me.

As with many ancient monuments, the stone's precise history is unknown. However, some records indicate it is the remaining part of a two-stone installation.

Sueno's Stone, which is quite weathered, is covered in typical Pictish style of interwoven vine symbols on the edge panels. It is carved from Old Red sandstone. The western face has a carved Celtic cross with interlaced decoration and a badly worn scene set in a panel below the cross. The east face has four panels depicting a large battle scene. The base panel shows the victorious army leaving the battlefield.

The stone has been kept behind armored glass since the early 1990s to prevent further erosion and to protect against graffiti. Radio carbon dating at the site has produced dates of charcoal fragments to between AD 600 and 1000. Researchers generally agree that the stone dates to between the 9th and 10th centuries.

One interpretation of the carvings is that they depict the battle, parade and decapitation scenes of the victorious army of Kenneth MacAlpin (in Gaelic, Cináed mac Ailpín), who held authority over northern Pictland. There are several others, including that the carvings are meant to memorialize the final triumph of the Christian Gaels of Dál Riata over their "heathen" Pictish enemies.

The name Sueno's Stone seems to refer to its discoverer since the name translates to "Sven's stone."

Local legend says the stone stands at the crossroads where Shakespeare's "Macbeth"Macbeth originally met the three witches. In the legend, they were eventually imprisoned inside the stone where they would stay unless the stone was broken.

One wonders what, if that should happen, the witches would be able to do with the glass box itself.
Macbeth of Scotland
Scottish Megaliths
Dowd's Guides


Brits' iconic pubs on the way out

As the old phrase goes, there will always be an England. However, it won't always be the same England.

Right now, one of the country's greatest icons, the local pub, is in trouble. Five British pubs go out of business every day, according to the British Beer & Pub Association, as the weak economy continues to affect all aspects of life.

Beer sales at pubs, known as "on-trade,'' fell 8.1% in the third quarter. Translated into actual drinks, that's a reduction of 1.1 million pints a day. That's a direct reflection of the fact that the British economy contracted last quarter for the first time in 16 years.

I reported on this same problem earlier this year, and the latest report offers no improvement.

Beer at the locals is much more expensive than buying beer "off-trade," that is in grocery and liquor stores, where 45% of all beer is sold. However, sales there also have declined, 6% in the last quarter, according to the BBPA.

Spirits, which traditionally sell better in stores than in pubs, have a better outlook. Industry analysts say this is because spirits purchasers tend to be more affluent.
A Short History of the British Pub
Dowd's Guides


NYC home to first organic restaurant/bar

You've got to love a restaurant whose motto is "Changing the world one meal at a time." That goes for its cocktail list, too.

The venue is GustOrganics, a New York City cocktail lounge and restaurant (519 Avenue of the Americas at 14th Street). It claims to be the nation's first fully certified such establishment, and has the credentials to support it:

• All dishes made only with organic U.S. Department of Agriculture certified Ingredients.
• Certified organic by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York.
• Certified green restaurant by the Green Restaurant Association.

For sure it is the world’s first USDA certified organic bar.

Alberto Gonzalez (seen above), a native of Argentina, is the owner of GustOrganics. He notes that all drinks -- hot, cold and alcoholic -- are free from chemicals, hormones, antibiotics, artificial flavors and drink enhancers.

"We have only USDA certified organic spirits, wines and beers," he said. "All these products are produced according to the USDA's National Organic Program. On top of this, our cocktails are made featuring fresh organic fruits and vegetables. ...

"The only two ingredients that are not organic are the water and salt because they are minerals and by definition cannot be organic. We use sun-dried sea salt only and that means no additives. We have our pure water that is New York City water run through a UV lamp that kills all the bacteria and after that we run it through a top notch purification system that takes out all the bad metals, keeping the good minerals."

The signature cocktails at GustOrganics are priced in the $12-$14 range, typical for Manhattan drinks. Some of the top sellers:

• Dulce de Leche Martini: dulce de leche, espresso coffee and vodka.
• Pura Vida Daiquiri: strawberries, bananas and rum.
• Fresquito: fresh mangos, fresh squeezed orange juice and vodka.

What made Gonzalez decided to establish a base for his organic foodie and drinks efforts in Greenwich Village?

“New York is one of the most sophisticated societies in the world, but I didn’t like the food," he says. "It wasn’t fresh. When I used to stay here for business, I noticed I was more tired, lacked energy, and gained a lot of weight. I realized I took for granted the freshness and quality of the food in Argentina.

"I developed this restaurant with New Yorkers. They are the ones who helped shape this idea.”
Green Restaurant Association
Healthy Living NYC
Dowd's Guides

South of the border down Tlaquepaque way

William M. Dowd photos

TLAQUEPAQUE, Jalisco, Mexico -- No, try again. It's pronounced tlock-ay-pock-ay.

Snug up against the southern boundary line of Guadalajara, this town of a half-million residents has been absorbed by the growth of its much larger neighbor, Mexico's second-largest city, yet retains its own identity as a center for artisan crafts and as the home of the colorful mariachi music tradition.

Its full name is San Pedro Tlaquepaque, so it's occasionally known as San Pedro. However, Tlaquepaque reflects the indigenous heritage of the area, while San Pedro reflects the Spanish influence. Thus, there's much more pride in using the longer name which comes from the native Nahuatl language phrase for "place above clay land."

From artists working at their easels to craftspeople spreading their wares on tables for passersby to see, to shops crammed with pottery, blown glass and silver and leather goods, to the Iguana Man who will let you take a picture with his partner for just 20 pesos (about $1.50 these days), Tlaquepaque is a feast for the eyes.

Fountains dot the landscape, not unusual in the Greater Guadalajara area which has more than 150 public fountains. Wrought iron fences, adobe and plaster building exteriors are dressed in various hues of golds, reds, blues, greens and earth tones. Cobblestone streets are commonplace, as are metal sculptures, many showing Aztec design influences.

Shopkeepers and street vendors alike vie politely for business from passers-by, a pleasant change from the sort of sales-by-attack antics often encountered in the Latin American world. Here, a more restrained demeanor make it possible to actually enjoy the many artisanal works on display as well as the sights and sounds.

Children of pre-school age help tend some of the crafts tables festooned with beadwork, silver baubles and other eye-catching items. Since education is compulsory for ages 6-12, only the younger kids go to work with a parent.

In addition to tight, winding streets filled with dining spots, cantinas and shops, Tlaquepaque has El Parián, a large plaza flanked by columned arcades. The main square in the city center is El Jardín ("The Garden"), which is home to two major churches, San Pedro (St. Peter) and El Santuario de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad (The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Solitude), as well as the Benito Juárez market, named for a revered Mexican president.

Bars and restaurants, such as the colorful and popular Adobe seen here, are usually busy from their 10 a.m. openings right through 8 p.m. closing time.

One of the most iconic things about Mexico is the mariachi influence on the music scene. Historians and musicologists differ over the precise origins of the musical and entertainment form that dates back several centuries, and, indeed, even about where the name comes from.

Modern mariachi performers, clad in tight-fitting traje de charros -- heavily embroidered waist-length jackets, and dark pants and large sombreros, still are claimed by the residents of Tlaquepaque as well as the rest of Jalisco state. A mariachi band usually consists of a wide range of musicians, with guitars, basses, trumpets and violins, playing ethnic and classical Mexican music.

Mariachi music has become so integral a part of Mexican life that it has been incorporated into the Roman Catholic Church's ritual of Mass, which further ingrains it in the life of a country in which 92% of the population is Catholic. It even has made its way into the art world, such as in this metal sculpture representation of a mariachi group:

A few other street scenes:

Mariachi History
Tlaquepaque and Tonala
Dowd's Guides


Beneath the Jose Cuervo story

William M. Dowd photos

TEQUILA, Jalisco, Mexico -- Deep below the public areas of the LaRojeña Distillery that produces the numerous expressions of Jose Cuervo tequila lies family history.

Here, in a stone cellar few get to see, damajuanas of Reserva de la Familia tequila sit undisturbed, some behind bars and stone pillars and arches since as far back as 1890.

Thick layers of white dust coat many of the containers, some of which are unadorned glass (such as the reproduction shown at right), others that have been wrapped in basket-like coverings made from agave leaves to protect against breakage. They sit in marked contrast to their newer cousins, contained outside the barred area in pristine American oak casks that have been cellared in more recent years.

This is the pride and joy of Jose Cuervo, now in its 250th year of existence, still family owned, the world's largest producer of tequila, from the inexpensive but popular expressions such as Cuervo Gold to the treasured añejo tequilas that make up the Reserva, the top of the line.

I had the opportunity this week for a private tour and tasting with several fellow journalists in the cellar, hosted by Juan-Domingo Beckmann, the 40-year-old heir apparent to the Cuervo empire when the transition of responsibility from his father, Don Juan Beckmann, is completed next year.

The younger Beckmann (left), an informal, affable sort who is a sixth-generation tequila maker, makes no bones about the fact tequila isn't the only spirit he enjoys.

"I'm a Scotch drinker," he said, "plus, of course, my tequilas. The profile of the Reserve de la Familia is similar to that of a fine single malt or even a cognac. That's why we recommend it as an after-dinner drink. An añejo tequila on the rocks or with a little splash of water gives me the same expression as many Scotch whiskies. It's all depends on the occasion.

"But, when you serve it is really a matter of taste, just as is your selection of what sort of tequila you like. Some people swear by the blanco, others the reposado or an añejo and won't drink any other kind."

Beckmann likes to illustrate just how tastes can be modified once someone experiences a spirit different from their usual choice by sharing an anecdote about being in a bar and overhearing a women order a vodka and cranberry juice.

"I asked her if she had ever tried that with tequila instead of vodka," he said, "She said no, she didn't like tequila. So, I suggested she try a Platino and cranberry. She loved it!"

What is Beckmann's attraction to the Reserva de la Familia?

"With this añejo, because it is finished in oak barrels, you can have the elements of both the agave and the wood notes usually found in whiskies," he said.

Before the cellar visit we had a tasting of three other Cuervo tequilas: the Platino (a blanco), the Tradicional (a reposado), and the Jose Cuervo Black (an añejo). The first two are 100% blue agave products, the third made with a touch of sugar cane.

[Go here for my tasting notes on this trio.]

Cuervo also makes the Maestro, 1800 and Centenario brand tequilas as well as Matusalem rums. Under the younger Beckmann, Maestro is attempting to usher in a new tequila category -- diamond vodka -- to go with the traditional styles. It's Maestro Dobel Diamond Tequila was released in August to select American markets.

[Go here for my notes posted after an advance tasting of Maestro last summer, and here for notes on a Matusalem Gran Reserve Rum tasting.]

While Cuervo's 250th anniversary boxed tequila set won't be on the market in the U.S. until 2009, the special tequila already has been taken from the barrel, thus meeting the 250-year marker. It commemorates the issuing in 1758 of a land grant to Don Jose Cuervo by King Carlos IV of Spain, allowing him to plant and harvest blue agave lilies for the production of tequila. Thus, the birth of an industry.

Each year, Cuervo commissions a different Mexican artist to create its special tequila bottle boxes as well as various posters and other original art. The 2009 collection is the work of Marco Arce, who has a gallery showing at LaRojeña that now is open to visitors.

Much of Arce's work is in the form of multiple-panel works grouped in triptychs, quartets, polyptychs and an occasional diptych. One of his most ambitious is called "The Tiger Series," composed of hundreds of small, hand-painted watercolors, framed in sets of four. One portion, "Tigre del Caminante," for example, is made up of 225 paintings over five panels.

Tigers are a recurring theme in Arce's work. The 25-painting installation seen above is part of the gallery display at the LaRojeña distillery.

NY Arts magazine said of this aspect of his varied works:

"Arce has created a highly surreal habitat that magically transports us, sometimes playfully, sometimes a bit menacingly, from circus to zoo to jungle. One could say that the artist also answers William Blake’s time-honored question:

'Tyger, Tyger, burning bright,
in the forests of the night.
What Immortal hand or eye
could frame thy fearful symmetry?'

Why Marco Arce, of course."

Arce, however, isn't the only "resident" artist at LaRojeña. Noted sculptor Juan Soriana has a large assemblage of human, wildlife and abstract sculptures dotting the complex. Above is one that sits on the patio in front of the gallery showing Arce's work.

Tequila Distillery Tours in Jalisco
The Pacific Coast State of Jalisco
All About Guadalajara
The Culture of Jalisco
Dowd's Guides


Another mind-bender in Dubai

A friend just back from visiting Dubai was still amazed at the amount of construction going on in the development-happy Arabian Gulf state.

"We had dinner in a restaurant on the 27th floor of one building," Phil Spencer said, "and there were construction cranes as far as you could see. The only thing they seem to have a shortage of is room for all the traffic."

In addition to the towers, manmade sand islands being created in the shape of the world's continents, and about every other kind of sprawling project one can think of, the 2,150-foot high Anara Tower shown above is in the planning stages.

It won't be as tall as the mind-boggling Burj Dubai, which towers at 2.650 feet, but someone else probably will come up with one to top them both.
• Sleep With the Fishes In 7-star Digs
The Palm Projects
• Dowd's Guides

Mexico's Day of the Dead a lively time

William M. Dowd photo

• We are now in the midst of the celebration known as Dia de los Muertos, celebrated mostly in Mexico and stretching anywhere from two to four days, depending on the community. I wrote this story in 2007 and pull it from the archives to share with you today. -- Bill Dowd

Mexico's tourism profile is never higher than during Dia de los Muertos, literally the Day of the Dead but in reality a longer event that this year will begin on Sunday, Oct. 28, and end the following Friday, Nov. 2.

There is nothing as quintessentially Mexican as El Dia de los Muertos, a festival that has been part of the culture since before the Spanish invaders. Originally held in July, but moved closer to All Saint's Eve in November by Catholic priests brought in by the conquistadors, it is anything but a morbid or frivolous event.

Families construct tiny temporary altars, festooned with large, colorful marigolds and chrysanthemums, near the doorways to their homes to welcome back the departed. Crowds stroll throughout the towns and cities to see and be seen. Vendors line both sides of many streets, selling foods, trinkets and crafts.

In the city of Guanajuato last year, I joined a stream of walkers headed for a large cemetery where they visited the graves of their loved ones, replacing wilted flowers with fresh, often washing down the stone or metal markers with pails of water purchased from entrepreneurial youngsters who set up shop at the cemetery gates. Some churches had theirf exterior staircases converted to temporary altars covered with flowers, candles and photos of the dead, as shown above.

Artwork for the Day of the Dead features skeletons involved in all sorts of earthly pursuits, playing instruments, dancing, eating and -- most important to some -- drinking.

This year, noted San Francisco mixologist Duggan McDonnell came up with a lineup of tequila-based cocktails to celebrate the holiday for the Don Julio line that is Mexico's top-selling high-end tequila. Most include agave nectar, a non-alcoholic sweetener made from the same blue agave plant used to create tequila. It is widely available online and in some specialty shops.

One is the Smoky Diablo that blends limoncello, grapefruit juice, agave nectar and tequila with a sprinkle of chili powder. Another is the Jalisco Sidecar, named for the Mexican state where most tequila is produced, made with aged tequila, Grand Marnier, fresh lemon juice and orange bitters.

But my favorite is the Black Widow with a superb contrast of berries and herbs. The recipe:

1½ ounces tequila blanco
1 ounce fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon agave nectar
5 blackberries
4 basil leaves
Ice cubes

Muddle 2 blackberries and 3 basil leaves in a Boston shaker. Add the tequila, lime juice, agave nectar and ice to the shaker. Shake well. Strain contents into a stemless martini glass or similar glass over ice and garnish with a blackberry and basil leaf on a toothpick. Serves one.

Day of the Dead background
The Mummies of Guanajuato
• Celebrating in Mexico
Dowd's Guides

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