Thursday, August 29, 2013

Nahmias et Fils Brings Back a Sephardic Moroccan Tradition

By Amanda Schuster

I have to say I was a little skeptical when I received the bottle at my door.

Fig brandy? What am I supposed to do with this? Eye roll. More booze writer problems…

But then I tasted it. And the answer is, drink it. Drink it a lot.

Nahmias et Fils was founded by a husband/wife team, Dorit and David Nahmias - she, a former foreign-exchange trader and he, an ex-computer software engineer. When the financial crisis hit, the Yonkers, NY-based couple, like many people at the time, found themselves at a career crossroads and they decided to make Mahia, this yummy fig brandy.

I had the pleasure of speaking to Dorit Nahmias over skype recently. She told me that her husband had grown up with the Mahia, a traditional fig (or sometimes date or grape) brandy popular with Moroccan Jews, that his mother and grandmother famously made in the mountain village of Taznakht, where it was the family business and continued to be so when they later moved to Casablanca. Multiple bottles of the spirit were consumed with every celebration and traditional family meal, such as Russians might do with vodka.

When the family moved to New York in the 1980s, his mother still made Mahia in their kitchen in Brooklyn from time to time in small batches with a “rudimentary still” for private consumption and for gifts to local friends. The sad passing of his mother coincided with the crash and Dorit losing her job in finance. They decided to raise money and “go for it” - bring this delicious family recipe to the public.

Dorit explained that as the majority of the Jewish population began to migrate out of Morocco in the 1960s and 70s, “... the art of making Mahia kind of got lost for a generation. What we’re doing is revitalizing it here.”

Dried figs, a blend of gold and mission varieties, are brought in from California (Dorit explained that fresh ones aren’t suitable for the brandy due to their delicacy, as was standard practice in Morocco.) They are then crushed with filtered water, then fermented for 2 weeks only with yeast (no other added enzymes or sugars.) Once fermentation is complete, it’s distilled with fresh anise seed, taking care only to use the heart of the make in production. The proof is brought down to 40% with filtered water, the distillate is cooled and filtered, then bottled.

Though Mahia is traditionally consumed neat, I felt compelled to ask Dorit about it cocktail potential. She has found that it matches very well with anything citrusy. “It mixes really well with just a simple lemonade. Or pink grapefruit juice with a little bit of agave sweetener. It mixes really well with mint, so it actually works great  in a mojito [in place of white rum.]”

I noticed that the Mahia does have very rum-like qualities, with a clean, light, sugary finish like a good rum should. But it also tastes very much like what it is. The fig flavor is unmistakable and quite delicious. In a blind taste test I would have identified that flavor right away. Dorit was pleased when I told her this. “That’s the whole point!” she said. “And the reason we don’t use enzymes. Because figs are so delicate. If you put enzymes in the fermentation to help production, what it does is break everything down… you lose the fig flavor.”

Excellent choice. Definitely give this delectable brandy a whirl. I personally think the Mahia-at-every-table tradition is one we should all work on bringing back.

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!

Amanda Schuster is a native New Yorker, but without much of the accent. The mobile landscape of the city has taken her on a whirlwind journey from Medieval historian, photo archivist, jewelry designer and invitation specialist to earning her sommelier certification in late 2005. After working as a retail wine and spirits buyer and freelance brand promoter, she turned to the one thing that has stayed a constant all these years – her love of writing. She has published dozens of articles on cocktails, spirits, wine and other culinary interests, and is currently working on her first novel. Her favorite cocktail is a Manhattan.

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