Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Driving through the USA: Plantations and lemon mint julep

The Oak Alley Plantation.

We spend our summer holidays in the States. Here is a kind of my travelogue from the Deep South.

We travel from Miami down Interstate 10 to the West along the Gulf Coast. Shortly after passing Pensacola we leave the state of Florida. Passing through the Mobile city centre we spot the USS Alabama battleship, now a museum. The ship, during the Second World War was one of US first battleships that protected convoys to Murmansk.

After half an hour we pass a large sign saying: "Welcome to Louisiana". We stop and go to the tourist information. A young American gives us a map of Louisiana. Of course, here comes a sacramental: "Where are you guys from?" question. She makes a kind of statistic counting the number of tourists coming to Louisiana. I look over her shoulder. In first place there are tourists from Texas and Florida. Looking a little nervous she
flips the pages of the book looking for Poland. Finally, she finds it and with a satisfaction on her face writes down number 3.

Every few miles street sellers offer local delicacies - hot boiled peanuts. It is not the first time we hear about growing peanuts in the U.S. However, we could never find any of these farms. Anyway, the fresh peanuts sold in the street are excellent.

An hour later we pass New Orleans. Among many downtown skyscrapers stands the Superdome - the stadium of the local NHL team Saints. It was here that in 2005, 20 000 people had taken refuge from Hurricane Katrina.

One of the many roadside stands with the local favorite - peanuts .

We leave the city behind and follow the road signs to the North-West. We cross a mighty bridge over the Mississippi River. The river is wide and strangely calm. But do not be fooled - this is the largest water way in the U.S. and the most dangerous. During the Great Flood in 1993 the river flooded an area the size of Scotland.
We cross the bridge and turn west travelling down a narrow road along the Mississippi river.
It's a poor neighbourhood. Wooden houses are inhabited mainly by the Afro-American families. The road turns and twists indefinitely. Finally we arrive at our destination. The Oak Alley Plantation.

This is one of the most beautiful estates in the southern U.S. Built in 1839 in Greek Revival style by a family of French descent, it is located on a giant sugar-cane plantation.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries sugar export to Europe gave the owners enormous profits. Sugar producers belonged to the elite of the financial world. Oak alley, now nearly 300-years-old (planted 100 years before the construction of the house), leading from the main building to the bank of the river, has breathtaking views.
We wander through the park.
It is hot and humid. The place where the slaves used to live now has a commemorative plaque with dozens of names. We learn that a family of slaves used to cost a few thousand dollars. A young slave cost $ 1,000 and an old slave was rather cheaper , only $ 100.

Oak Alley Plantation. Christmas in the American South (or Cajun style) - instead of the red-nosed reindeer there is an alligator with a red nose. Mint Julep in a café on the Plantation. Shady verandas surrounding the house protect against the heat of the Southern Sun.

Every half an hour the ring of the bell is heard. In this way, the beginning of the guided tour in the mansion is announced. At this time of year (the beginning of September) there are few tourists here - so we are alone with a guide. The house interiors are confusingly similar to the aristocratic chateaux of France. It's no wonder - all furniture was imported from Europe. There were many architectural tricks designed for the soul purpose of combating hot climate: the house was surrounded by columns which supported deep, shady verandas, tall windows and doors facing each other served as an air-conditioning. Garden views from the second floor are fantastic. The owners could enjoy the views of the Mississippi steamers and sailing boats as they passed by.

Everything here reminds us of scenes from the "Gone with the Wind" movie. The history of the first owners Jacques and Celina Roman, however, is somewhat less romantic. Shortly after building the "Bom séjour" (the name initially given to the house), Roman Empire - as the Roman family fortune was called - began to sink into decline. During the Civil War the owners lived in the mansion in relative peace, but in the post-war period the master of the house - Jacques died of tuberculosis and two of his children of yellow fever. His beautiful wife, Celina, accustomed to a luxurious life and being a typical nineteenth-century shopaholic, lost every penny of their fortune. The family had to sell the Oak Alley Plantation. The last lady on Oak Alley Plantation - Mrs. Stewart - created a foundation and opened her home to the public.

In the small bar near the mansion we order a mint julep drink. It has 4 basic ingredients: bourbon, mint, sugar and ice. The name comes from the Persian gulab, which originally meant rose water, and later all types of beverages with sweet syrups.
Ideally it should be served in silver glasses, on a shady veranda, as you sit in a wooden rocking chair. ;)

To tell you the truth the mint julep is terrible .... The lady at the bar warned us about it and offered me a lemon mint julep instead
but I insisted on tasting the absolute classic. The drink ended in the dustbin - a strong, disgustingly bland and sweet liquor.

However, I did not give up and decided to try the lemon juice version of the drink at home. It's almost like a mojito, but instead of lemon it contains lime and rum is substituted by whiskey. I add lots of lemon juice, much more than bourbon, and my version suddenly gets quite tasty.
According to the purists one should serve the mint julep in silver glasses. As I could not get my hands on them, I served my version in classic high-ball glasses.

Having in mind the approaching New Year's Eve, I invite you to try fresh lemon mint julep.

Lemon Mint Julep

4 servings (four 330 ml high ball glasses)

5 lemons (about 300ml of juice)
225 g sugar
250 ml water
1 / 2 bunch of fresh spearmint
crushed ice to fill glasses
160 ml bourbon whiskey

Peel the rind of 1 lemon and reserve. Squeeze juice from all the lemons. Stir water and sugar, add the lemon rind. Boil for about 15-20 minutes or until it turns syrupy. Cool, discard the lemon peel. Pour the lemon juice. You should obtain about 440 ml of liquid.

With a muddler, crush a few leaves of mint in each of the glasses. Fill it to the top with crushed ice. Pour approximately 110 ml glass of lemon syrup to each glass and add 40 ml of bourbon. Garnish with fresh mint sprigs ( you should
previously have taken some in the palm of your hand and hit it with the top of the other hand to free spearmint aroma). Serve with a straw.


tasteofbeirut said...

I had a great time reliving my trips to the South through your travelogue. I visited Vicksburg, Mississipi and stayed in a plantation there, supposedly one where one of the Civil war generals used to stay. Anyway, I loved Vicksburg. I never tasted their mint julep and from what you are telling us, did not miss much!
(actually it is the whiskey I am not crazy about)

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