Aspen’s Rio Grande Bike Trail: Burgers, Bourbon And Basalt

biking a bridge on rio grande trail
Courtesy of Jeremy Swanson

I can probably be kicked out of Colorado for admitting this, but I’m just not that into bikes. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been lugging my vintage, fixed-gear cruiser around for over 21 years. Even though I rarely ride it these days because I live in hilly Boulder, I’m devoted to it. But mountain biking and road cycling plain freak me out, and in this state, that’s like saying you hate snow.

So, when my friend S. urged me to join her on an 18-mile bike ride down Aspen’s Rio Grande Trail to the former mining town of Basalt, I was dubious. I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was 7. I have terrible balance. What about getting back up valley? Still, there was the allure of flying down a riverside path in the high Rockies on a summer’s day. I caved.

The Rio Grande Trail is a part of the former Denver-Rio Grande Railroad bed. It starts at Aspen’s Herron Park, just off Main Street on the east end of town, and runs the length of the Roaring Fork Valley, all the way down to Glenwood Springs, 41 miles away. The trail, especially the Aspen-to-Basalt leg, is enormously popular with cyclists, walkers, and runners and, in winter, cross-country skiers.

aspen grove
WanderingtheWorld, Flickr

Last week, I met up with S. in Aspen. It was a bluebird day, one that begged for a picnic or al fresco lunch. Our plan of action, after picking up two titanium, single-gear cruisers, was to ride down to the nearby community of Woody Creek (home of the late Hunter S. Thompson), and hit the Woody Creek Tavern (bar of the late Hunter S. Thompson) for lunch. Their famous hamburgers and a margarita on the patio are an Aspen summer staple. Alternatively, if you want some truly excellent breakfast pastries or picnic bread, take a slight detour over to Louis’ Swiss Bakery in the Aspen Business Center.

The first mile of the Rio Grande Trail runs alongside the Roaring Fork River. This time of year, the vegetation is lush: wildflowers are in full bloom, and the aspens and pines provide ample shade. You’ll cross a wooden bridge or two, and after about five minutes, the pedestrians disperse, and can really start moving (do watch out for other bikers, stay in your lane and always wear a helmet).

After about 15 minutes, we arrived at the Tavern, which is essentially a roadhouse/bar/tribute to all that’s weird (there’s a reason Thompson was a regular). The burgers really are all that, if nothing fancy, and the Mexican dishes also win raves.

biking the rio grande trail
Courtesy of Jeremy Swanson

Post-lunch, we hopped back on our bikes and rode to Basalt, which has become an alluring little hamlet in its own right. Don’t expect much in the way of excitement, but it’s a cute, quiet place to kick back for a few days, and enjoy the many outdoor activities the Roaring Fork Valley has to offer.

The ride from Woody Creek to Basalt changes from sub-alpine terrain to open valley and ranchland. Horses and cattle graze ipeacefully, and the rust-red hematite cliffs so indicative of this region loom to the right. Below us, on our left, was the river. The path remained smooth and the light was so bright it almost hurt. I started to remember why I’d been hauling my old cruiser around with me all these years. Being on a bike was exhilarating, especially in a place so geographically blessed. I certainly didn’t care that I wasn’t hammering it on half-track.

When we reached Basalt, S. and I pulled into a nondescript business park. We’d decided to cap off our ride with a visit to the the four-month old Woody Creek Distillers (they’re killing it with their whiskeys and vodka made with Colorado-grown ingredients, including Polish Stobrawa potatoes farmed up-valley on co-owner Pat Scanlan’s family farm.

woody creek distiller's copper still
Courtesy of Woody Creek Distillers

The gorgeous, state-of-the-art distillery houses a gleaming, copper-and-stainless steel German still, which can be viewed from the tasting room. Distillery manager David Matthews walked us through a whiskey tasting, which made me long for an accompanying wedge of bandage-wrapped farmstead goat cheddar from Basalt’s own Avalanche Cheese Company (pick some up at Whole Foods just north of Basalt, off of Highway 82, along with some famous Palisade peaches, grown just over the mountains on the Western Slope).

Back in Boulder, I paid a visit to my dusty cruiser, which has been languishing in the basement for nearly a year now. I’m going back up to Aspen in September to see the fall foliage; my newly-tuned up bike will be making the trip with me. Thanks, S.

The details
If you’re not bringing your own bike, the best place for rentals in the Aspen/Snowmass area is Four Mountain Sports (various locations). Note that many Aspen hotels, like the The Little Nell (which will comp rentals September through the first snow), have bike rentals for guests. The easiest way to return to Aspen is to catch the Roaring Fork Transit Authority (RFTA) bus from Basalt.

For more summer biking ideas, consider one of these great coastal beach cruiser bike rides.

The Spirit(s) Of Christmas: Great Distilled Gifts To Give

bourbonThe holidays are stressful for many reasons, one of which is gift pressure. Host(ess), Christmas and Hanukkah gifts, gifts for neighbors, obligatory “thank you for the great mail delivery/haircuts/massages gifts.”

You know what makes for a thoughtful gift that reduces stress? A bottle of something delicious. Unless, of course, your intended recipients don’t/aren’t old enough to drink. I can’t help you with that. But I can provide you with a list of great, small-batch spirits to give to those who’ve been appropriately naughty or nice this year:

Black Maple Hill Small Batch Bourbon
This stuff sells out quick, so when you see it at your local liquor store, snatch it up right quick. The bourbon lover in your life (I would gift this to myself, hint, hint) will savor the vanilla, clove, licorice, black cherry and petrol notes. Made from sour mash, and aged for eight years in white oak, this heavenly elixir is made by Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, Ltd., which specializes in producing small-batch bourbons for brands that include Noah’s Mill and Willett.

Leopold Bros. Three Pins Alpine Herbal Liqueur
One of Colorado’s top distilleries is this family-owned Denver company. They make a mean gin and whiskey, as well as other spirits, but Three Pins is a ski-town favorite. Made from a proprietary blend of over a dozen herbs and regional alpine flowers blended with spices and other botanicals, it’s slightly sweet and syrupy, with refreshing citrus and herbal notes. Use as you would Benedictine – as a digestif, to add depth to a cocktail, or as a surprisingly compatible pairing with a mellow blue or goat cheese.

Ron Zacapa
If someone on your list has the hots for rum, this is the gift that will keep on giving far longer than its under-$40 price tag would suggest. A premium Guatemalan sipping rum made with high-elevation-grown estate sugar cane, Zacapa is made according to the same Sistema Solera process used in sherry production. The rum is blended and aged in American whiskey, sherry and Pedro Jimenez wine casks of varying ages. The result is a rum with deep, complex aromas and flavors reminiscent of raisin, honey, spice and oak. If your recipient is extra special, get them the Ron Zacapa 23 (as in years). Simply luscious.

Crop Vodka
I’m not a huge fan of vodka, but was pleasantly surprised by the cucumber and tomato flavors from this certified organic brand from Minnesota. Lovely on the rocks, in a gimlet or Bloody Mary, or with a splash of tonic, these refreshing garden varieties are like summer, er, distilled in a bottle.

Sombra Mezcal
Mezcal is the new tequila (technically, tequila is mezcal; both are made from blue agave, but tequila is produced in designated regions within Jalisco state). Or, look at it this way: it’s the Scotch-drinker’s white spirit. Smoky, peaty, and world apart from the firewater swill with the worm in the bottle, today’s premium mezcal’s are often sourced from single villages located near the small distilleries. Sombra, produced in Oaxaca with high-elevation, estate-grown agave, is oaky and smoky, with notes of spice and pineapple. Masculine and sophisticated; serve with a smoking jacket or … velvet slippers?

[Photo credit: Flickr user fd]

Cinco De Mayo: Five Fiesta-Worthy Foods To Make Or Try

elotesIn the United States, Cinco de Mayo (“fifth of May”) is essentially yet another excuse to get hammered. In the Mexican state of Puebla, however, the holiday commemorates the Mexican Army’s victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.

Cinco de Mayo is also celebrated in other regions of Mexico; as in the States, it’s a day of honoring Mexican pride and heritage. This year, instead of the standard chips and guacamole (and crippling hangover), try some beloved Mexican foods that are well suited to serve a crowd. They’re easily made, or purchased if you live in a community with a sizable Hispanic population. Buen provecho!

1. Flor de Calabaza (squash blossoms): Available now at your local farmers market or specialty produce shop, and a favorite of Mexican home cooks. Try sautéing them and tucking into quesadillas or dipping in batter and frying (stuff them with fresh goat cheese mixed with chopped herbs for a really special treat; click here for the recipe).

2. Elotes: Whether served as whole, grilled ears of corn or kernels-in-a-cup, these mayonnaise, lime, and chile-slathered street eats are worth every ripple of cellulite they produce. True, corn isn’t in season right now; see if your favorite local farm stand, market vendor, or specialty grocer has frozen kernels for sale.

3. Churros: Fried, sugary goodness in phallic form: what’s not to love? Uh, except maybe churros con cajeta (filled with caramelized goat milk).

4. Antojitos: Traditionally found in the fondas, or beer bars of Mexico City, these small, fried or griddled masa dough “cravings (antojos)” or “little whims” are now more commonly associated with street food, and have regional adaptations. The differences in shape and fillings are often subtle: a chalupa (not to be confused with the Taco Bell concoction) is a thin, fried cup with a slight depression for holding meat and/or beans, shredded cabbage, crumbled fresh cheese or crema, and avocado or guacamole, while a huarache is like a slightly thicker tortilla in the shape of a sandal (hence the name). In Oaxaca, regional antojitos such as tlacoyos (like a skinny huarache) and memelas (think round huarache) may be topped with black beans and complex salsas indigenous to the region. In a word, addictive.

5. Michelada: Forget margaritas. This refreshing beverage has hair-of-the-dog built right in, and indeed, it’s a traditional Mexican hangover helper (as is a steaming bowl of menudo). Combine one icy cold Mexican beer (My pick: Pacifico) with fresh-squeezed lime juice, tomato juice or Clamato, a dash of hot sauce and a pinch of kosher or celery salt. The variations are many, but this recipe from Food52 is a winner.

[Photo credit: Flickr user the queen of subtle]

Want more antojitos? Check out this assortment, below:
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Video of the day: a goaty guide to pronouncing foreign cheeses

The holidays are Cheese Season. At no other time of the year are cheese and specialty food shops as thronged by dairy-seeking customers. They’re hungry for a fix or searching for a gift, recipe ingredient, or the makings of a cheese plate. Cheese is love, and one of the easiest, most elegant ways to kick off a cocktail party or conclude (or make) a memorable meal.

With that in mind, the folks at Culture: the word on cheese magazine (full disclosure: I’m a contributing editor) have produced this clever (and utterly adorable) video to aid you in pronouncing some of those delectable but tricky foreign cheeses from France, Spain, and Switzerland. Happy Hoch Ybrig, everyone!


October is American Cheese Month!

cheeseIt’s amazing it took this long, what with national hot dog month, ice cream month, and clogged artery month (okay, I made that one up), but now we have a new reason to check in with our cardiologists.

The American Cheese Society ACS) has announced the launch of American Cheese Month, an annual celebration of America’s artisan, farmstead, and specialty cheeses, and the farmers, cheesemakers, distributors, retailers, cheesemongers, chefs, and educators who make up this growing community. And I joke about cardiologists; cheese consumed in moderation is an excellent source of protein, calcium, phosphorous, and vitamins B12 and D, and an important part of maintaining bone and dental health.

American Cheese Month will be held annually each October, with special events, farm tours, and promotions in cities across the country. The goal of the month-long celebration is to raise awareness about the quality and diversity of American cheeses (from the milk of cows, goats, sheep; even water buffalo), as well as to increase support for family farms, traditional cheese production methods, and sustainable production and farming methods. Proceeds from select American Cheese Month events will support the American Cheese Education Foundation.

In the last decade, North American artisan cheesemakers have become serious contenders with those in Europe, and the excellence of American artisan cheeses is now recognized worldwide. The American public’s passion for cheese is also booming, as evidenced by the increase in cheese shops, books (Shameless self-promo moment: I’m currently co-authoring Cheese for Dummies in collaboration with Culture: the word on cheese magazine and its co-founder Lassa Skinner. It will be out in March, 2012) classes, workshops, and festivals.

ACS will kick off American Cheese Month in its home base of Denver, at the Brewers Association’s 30th Annual Great American Beer Festival (sold out, alas). Beer and cheese pairing is the hottest thing going in both industries, so look for more cross-promo events in the coming year. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper has shown his support by issuing a proclamation declaring October as American Cheese Month in the state (which has its own growing–and impressive–artisan cheese scene).

For listings of national and local events, go to the American Cheese Society site. Cheese lovers can also network on the American Cheese Month Facebook page and on Twitter (#AmCheeseMonth, @CheeseSociety).

[Photo credit: Flickr user ex_magician]

How to Understand Cheeses with Dean Max McCalman at Artisanal