There’s no humble way to say that you’ve had the opportunity to open an old bottle of nice Cognac, so I’m not even going to try. I did it, and I’m glad. But there was a surprise…
The bottle belonged to my husband Cy’s uncle Hooshang. Hooshang was a pediatrician in New York City for over 60 years. His apartment in lower Manhattan was filled with gifts from grateful patients and their parents, as well as from colleagues. Some of these included fine bottles of liquor.
A few weeks ago, I decided to make French Manhattans from David Lebovitz’s book Drinking French. These cocktails use brandy or cognac. Ordinarily I’d use a reasonably good brandy. But we had Cognac. In fact, two bottles from Hooshang: one was Hennessey that was clearly a more recent one. The other was Courvoisier, probably from the 1960s from the looks of it. I thought we’d taste it neat and then use it for spectacular cocktails. I’m sure Mr. Lebovitz would approve.
I expected that the cork would be dried out. Most people store liquor bottles standing up, so the cork doesn’t get moistened – sometimes for decades. What I didn’t expect to see was lead foil covering the cork and the entire top of the bottle. I didn’t realize it was lead until I cut through it and saw the shiny inner surface. It was also definitely more substantial than regular bottle foil by weight. I made sure to take it all off, then washed my hands before continuing.
As I was picking at the foil to get it off, I remembered that lead was widely used in bottle foil for all kinds of alcohol, including wine. When I first started doing environmental work in the early 1990s, I contacted a winery in California that had reported a big increase (by weight) in transfer of lead for offsite disposal to EPA in 1988. The manager told me that a decision had been made to stop using lead in anticipation that it would be banned for use in bottle foil. Plus, under California’s labeling laws, they’d have had to disclose the lead used in packaging. No one wanted to keep it lying around, and management didn’t want to sell it.
So why lead in bottle foil? For the same reason as many of its other uses. It’s malleable and cheap. Bottle foil was one of the last uses of lead to be legislated out of existence. California banned it in 1991, and FDA announced it would be issuing a ban that same year, finalizing the end of lead foil in 1996. By that time, no U.S. wine producer was using it.
According to the research supporting the ban, the problem wasn’t that lead would leach into the wine in the bottle from the foil. Rather, cutting the top of the foil and leaving the rest on the bottle created a fresh edge that could leach lead into the wine as it was poured, especially if the wine is more acidic. And since a little liquid stays in the cut end of the foil after pouring, that could increase potential exposure even more with subsequent pours.
It wasn’t just the U.S. that banned lead foil on wine bottles. According to one of my French wine producers, May 1, 1992 was the date of France’s ban. So if you have some fine old French wine in your cellar, be careful. I’d take the foil completely off the bottle, but wipe the foil first with a damp paper towel before removing it. This cleans off any surface dust that could contain lead. Wipe down the neck and top of the bottle again with a different damp paper towel and wash your hands before you remove the cork. If you want to cut the foil to remove the cork but leave the rest of the foil on the bottle, do the same procedure except leave the bottom part of the foil on, well below the lip of the bottle. Please wash your hands again before you start pouring, just to be sure.
It’s hard to imagine these days that lead was deliberately used in all kinds of consumer products. Even aside from paint and gasoline. And as we’ve all learned from the water issues in Flint, Michigan, there are countless hidden uses of lead, too. (Lead water lines are surprisingly easy to find in older homes, even today. My 1920-built house has one and our water company has promised to replace it for nearly 20 years now…) Lead is a potent neurotoxin, especially in children. There is a clear link between lead exposure and developmental effects in children. Toxicologists and medical experts state clearly that there is no safe level for lead exposure. Even for adults. Long term adult lead exposure can eventually lead to hypertension, joint and kidney damage, miscarriages, and other symptoms.
Bottle capsules or foils are meant to protect the cork from damage. At least that was the reason they were first used (stopping insects and rodents), and they could slow or prevent oxygen transfer. They’re also another branding space for wineries if they choose to use it. Obviously, lead isn’t necessary for capsules. Metal bottle foils are now made from tin, although most are made from plastic these days. There are some tin-plastic hybrids out there, too. One of my new Italian producers uses a wax-like plastic seal on top of the wine bottles, which I used to see more often. And sometimes if you buy wine directly from a winery you’ll get bottles with no foil on them at all. I like the look of bottles without capsules, although different foil colors can make bottles easier to identify in the cellar.
If you have old bottles with lead foil, you shouldn’t just toss the lead in your recycle bin. Look for your local hazardous waste disposal, even for just one or two of them. It’s important that we keep as much lead out of the environment as we can, since it doesn’t just go away. Be sure to relish every bit inside those bottles, though. Cy and I toast Hooshang every time we drink the Courvoisier and the other alcohol he gave us. We normally use good, but not the very best stuff for most cocktails, so we feel like we’ve been living large. I hope you have a special person or place associated with your old bottles, too.
Amoo Hooshang wasn’t a big spirits drinker, and he always encouraged Cy and me to take some bottles home with us when we visited. Early last July, we finally did, although unfortunately without him there to offer them again. Hooshang died from Covid in April, during the first peak of deaths in the U.S. You can read more about Hooshang and his remarkable life in the lovely obituary Cy wrote for him here. Sorting through his apartment gave us a little bit of the goodbye we didn’t get with him in the hospital. Sadly, this is the same situation for many people losing their family members and friends. Cy and I want to send our sympathy to all those who lost loved ones to Covid, especially if those who died had to be isolated. Let’s hope we can all see one another again in person soon.
I promised producer profiles, and you’ll have them – I just need some more information before I post them. In the meantime, though, I have a recipe for you. It’s based on a dish in Yotam Ottolenghi’s book Simple, and it actually is pretty easy to make. Lamb Arayes are a mixture of spiced ground lamb that is put on one half of a pita (or in this case, a flour or corn tortilla) with a little cheese, then folded over, and fried until the tortilla is crisp and the filling is cooked. They’d be called quesadillas if they weren’t filled with lamb seasoned with tahini and pomegranate molasses (although they could be called Ottolenghi Quesadillas, since he uses those two ingredients often. You can find his recipe here).
I realized you could use this method to make nearly any meat mixture into an araye, quesadilla, or filled flatbread of your choice. The key is to use a meat that’s around 85% lean, and have enough liquid inside to make it nice and sticky/smushy. Ordinarily when you’re making meatloaf or meatballs, you’re told not to mix them too much because the meat gets sticky and the final dish can be tough. But that’s what you want here, because there’s no binder like the typical milk and bread combo to hold the meat mixture together. The filling doesn’t toughen up in the short cooking time.
So, I decided to create a recipe that’s something like Cincinnati Chili, a dish I love. It uses grated onion and crushed or grated tomatoes, like Ottolenghi’s recipe, but also has cinnamon and unsweetened cocoa powder in it along with garlic, chili powder, cinnamon, cumin, etc. I added some Greek-style yogurt and an egg white to help it bind together, plus the yogurt adds a nice tang. (You may not need the egg white, but it won’t hurt to use it.) Ordinarily you’d simmer Cincinnati Chili for hours. But this version doesn’t need hours of cooking to give you a reminder of the flavor. I recommend letting the meat mixture sit in the fridge for an hour before cooking so everything mellows out. In fact, you can mix it all up the night before you plan to cook them.
Serve it with one of our new red wines – my choice would be Cantine Borga Refosco ($15). It’s got enough body to stand up to the spices, but it’s smooth and has nice dark fruit flavors. Refosco is a grape that’s native to the Veneto in northeastern Italy. It’s not one you see here often, but I’m hoping that’ll change now that I stock it. 😉
(based on Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipe for Lamb Arayes in his cookbook Simple)
Serves four as a main dish, eight as a starter
1 pound 85 – 90% lean ground beef
½ of a small onion, about 3 ounces
2 cloves garlic, peeled
½ cup crushed or grated tomatoes (canned is fine, you can also use leftover tomato sauce)
1 teaspoon tomato paste
1-1/2 tablespoons chili powder
½ teaspoon ground cumin
A pinch of ground cloves
¼ teaspoon cayenne or red pepper flakes
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup Greek-style plain yogurt
1 egg white (may not be needed)
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
Blitz the onion and garlic in a mini-food processor until finely ground, adding some of the tomato if necessary. (Alternatively, you can grate the onion on a box grater and microplane the garlic.) Put the mixture in a large bowl with everything else except the ground beef and the egg white and mix well. Break the meat into small pieces and add them to the bowl. Using your hands, mix everything well, being sure to squish the meat in your fingers to break it all up and combine it with the other ingredients. It should be nice and sticky and hold together. If it doesn’t, mix in the egg white. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for an hour.
Assembly and cooking
8 flour tortillas, 8-10 inches in diameter
4 ounces grated sharp or extra-sharp Cheddar cheese
Olive oil or vegetable oil for the pan
If the tortillas are cold, warm them up in the microwave for about 30 seconds so they’re pliable. Divide the filling into 8 portions. Spread one portion of the filling over half of one of the tortillas, leaving a small border around the edge. Sprinkle the meat with one-eighth of the cheese, then fold the unfilled half of the tortilla over the filling. Press down a little to make sure the top half sticks and the filling is spread evenly. Fill the rest of the tortillas and set aside.
Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a 10- to 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-low heat. When the oil is hot, add two of the folded tortillas and fry gently for 3-4 minutes. The bottom should be nice and brown, but not burnt, so regulate the heat accordingly. Turn over and cook another 2-3 minutes until brown. The filling should be cooked through. Transfer to a baking sheet and sprinkle with a little coarse salt. Wipe out the skillet with a paper towel and continue to cook the remaining arayes.
Serve warm or at room temperature.