by David Downie
Confession time: for the last 25+ years I’ve lived in Paris and traveled the byways of France and Italy, tasting and writing about delicious food and lickerish wines. I’ve rarely felt gastronomic nostalgia for my native land, though the food and wine of California admittedly aren’t bad (this is serious understatement as you all know). But I have an incurable passion for peanuts in all sizes, shapes, and clonal varieties. I also love other spicy nuts, and, the real shocker, brittle. Yes, brittle. Peanut brittle not only hits all the right pleasure buds. It also whisks me back to the happy days of my youth in San Francisco and Berkeley, when “wild” was the operative descriptor.
So when a new friend in Berkeley told me that her son is the maker of some of the world’s greatest artisan peanut brittle and other brittle, I was tickled pink and announced that I couldn’t wait to try them when we reach California on May 1st on book tour. A few days later, a box from Morning Glory Confections arrived by courier from the company’s HQ in Los Angeles. Inside were six samples of brittle, hand-made by chef-confectioner Max Lesser, the company’s founder. Max worked as a private chef for several years and noticed that his clients’ most frequent requests were for spiced nut mixtures and brittle. A light bulb lit in Max’s brain, and the rest is history (which you can read on the company’s site).
Without further ado I tore open the package and began an utterly unscientific sampling session. Dizzy from delight, I stopped myself from eating everything, and brought what was left home, to share with my wife, Alison Harris.
Alison is not just a great food, travel and portrait photographer. She is an excellent taster, and about the only effective brake on my excesses, culinary and otherwise. We scientifically tasted our samples this time, and Alison took a still-life photo for me (the other, inferior pics are by yours truly).
We tasted: 1) Cocoa nib coffee bean & pecan; 2) Chai tea & cashew; 3) Indian curry pistachio; 4) Fleur de sel & peanut; 5) New Mexico chili pumpkin seed; 6) Thai curry & peanut. Only later did I check out the Morning Glory website, and read the glowing press reviews.
Here are our impressions: #1, 2 & 4 appeal to those of us who pre-date the sweet-and-spicy generations that have followed. What I mean is, so many people we know in the under-50 category are wowed by punchy, spicy and sweet things. This trio of brittle is subtle, flavorful, satisfying and of course sweet, but not overly so.
#s3, 5 and 6 are definitely winners for adepts of chili and curry. This isn’t to suggest that the subtlety and excellence of the first three are entirely lost in this second selection. The spice is never overwhelming. But so intense is the spiciness that only the tiniest bit of brittle is needed to set the throat throbbing.
Since quantity is also important in the enjoyment of brittle, I naturally preferred the first batch. And since I’m basically a purist of the old school, my favorite of all was the simple Fleur de sel peanut brittle. The sea salt makes a perfect match to the peanuts. This is grandma’s brittle with bells and whistles. Alison shared my general preferences though, as a lover of tea (and not peanuts), her favorite was the Chai tea brittle.
What all these brittle varieties share is the perfect texture: they’re firm and crunchy but don’t cling to or injure (brittle long) teeth. The dosing of ingredients shows great skill: this is the best-balanced brittle I’ve ever tasted. What will French customs think when I return from the U.S. from book tour in May with a suitcase full of American brittle? I might be writing about that soon. Stay tuned.