Thursday, September 11, 2008

Local, if You Live in Key West

I'm hardly the best person to write about this. I lived in Florida for just three years. Central Florida (shudder).
But I was fortunate enough to have a husband who wrote for the Orlando Sentinel. He took it upon himself to get to the bottom of the Key lime.
A real cult item.
You rarely see them in stores. They don't even grow in Orlando.
But in Key West, everybody grows them in their backyards.
So we went to Key West. (Actually, we went as often as we could. The culture there was much more to our liking than Disney Acres.) Key West is the last of a chain of islands, connected by a causeway, leading southwest from Miami. Ninety miles from Cuba.
The newspaper photographer accompanying us on this adventure had grandparents living in Key West; they were the descendants of generations of Key Westers. And yes, they had Key limes growing in their backyard. As well as a bird pepper tree. You might have to Google that.
I will briefly stop the narrative here to tell you an anecdote the grandfather liked to repeat. "You ever get up to the States much?" "No, I get the shakes around Key Largo."
We learned lots of Key lime lore from the Pinders, but my favorite item was a condiment called Old Sour.
Old Sour is a blend of Key lime juice, salt, and a fresh chili pepper, ideally a bird pepper. Let it sit in the humid, warm air for a day, then refrigerate it. You're supposed to filter it through cheesecloth, but I hate filtering off the goodies. Even though I just bought a tamis. So I never filter it. In the photo, you can see lime sediment settling at the bottom of the bottle. What's so wrong with that?
We recently got a sack of Mexican limes, which are really similar to Key limes. Squeezed them into a bowl. Strained out the seeds. Stirred in the salt. Tossed in a gashed cayenne pepper. This is SO not Key West, but for Northern California, darned close.
This mixture went into a bottle with a spout, an old Kikkoman bottle. Tabasco bottles work well, too.
It has been sitting out for a day, but since we don't have tropical weather here, I think I'll let it go another day before I pop it into the fridge. Already the sharp smell of the limes has softened, sweetened. No kick from the cayenne yet, but we've got time.
So, what do you do with Old Sour? My best memory at the Pinders' house was a bowl of fresh-caught fish served with a side of grits, splashing around in some of the fish-poaching liquid. Onions, bay leaf, like that. And a great shot of Old Sour.
When it was time for us to say goodbye, Mr. Pinder slapped a precious bottle of Old Sour into Cranky's hand, like a secret handshake. A private, special, homemade gift from an old-time Conch.
It was.


El said...

I LOVE food stories like this. Even condiment stories. (I am making verjus right now so I've got condiments on my mind.) What a lucky lucky girl you are: and that Kikkoman bottle is just the right touch I think...

Rev. Biggles said...

I just gotta.

My condiments exactly, save the goodies!


Dagny said...

When you said "Key limes," I instantly thought of "Mexican limes."

I'm still chuckling over the grandfather's story.

cookiecrumb said...

El: Verjus! How resourceful. I'm wondering what kind of bottles you'll be using.

Biggles: Coinkydink -- Cranky just came home with five more pounds of Mexican limes and he found a clean Tabasco bottle. Just wait a little for the limes to ripen... Now I gotta go save one of the last cayenne peppers for you.

Dagny: Yes, Mexican limes are probably the same thing.
If you liked the grandfather's story, you'll love this line the grandmother said after we were handling the bird peppers: "Don't touch anything important."

Michelle said...

Beautiful. ha ha ha ha - I just read your reply to Dagny! Okay, recompose myself... I love having this type of stuff in the cupboard, especially when it comes with stories to make it even more special - and a secret handshake to boot!

Rev. Biggles said...

Ooo OOO ooo.

I need a nap. Not hungry though.


Shelley said...

That is a wonderful story! That sounds like a delicious condiment. LOL about not touching anything important! My dad says that about his home grown Habaneros! :)

Sounds like we are nearly neighbors! I'm over in Marinwood. I love your blog; it's interesting and funny.

dancingmorganmouse said...

ooh I wonder if it will work with native red limes (once the bugger of a tree starts producing some that is *waiting, impatiently*)

Sweet Bird said...

Oh man, I've never had Old Sour, but Key Limes get me all quivery. I visited my sister in FL in June and absolutely had to buy some Key Limes. I squeezed 'em out and made a tart. Yumm.

The Spiteful Chef said...

where do you come up with this stuff?? If I ever decide to take up recreational pot smoking, I am coming to your house to sate my munchies. This looks like something a pregnant woman would crave at 2 a.m. In Maine, or somewhere, driving her husband to look longingly at the shotgun.

B. said...

I've been making an ongoing bottle of this all summer, using unripe tangerines from the backyard in place of limes and datil peppers in place of birdseyes (which is what we call them around here). The datil peppers are a north Florida sort of thing, St. Augustine's Minorcan immigrants and all that. So far, it's pretty darn good.

Anna Haight said...

I love your adventures. And the stories are a hoot! And I'll bet Old Sour is very tasty!

Greg said...

My wife makes a great key lime pie.Did the limes come from the civic center? How about Old
sour and raw fish. Instant cerviche!

kudzu said...

Great report on a national treasure.

Bird peppers are the best to use in sherry peppers -- a shaker bottle crammed with the red devils and then filled with (duh) sherry, left to cure for as long as you can wait -- in my case, not long -- and then fabulous sprinkled on greens (collards, turnip, mustard), seafood, or almost anything. You can keep topping it off but the first hits are the best.

PS I think that key limes and Mexican limes are practically identical twins, but don't say that in Key West.

cookiecrumb said...

Michelle: I bet you have a lime tree... Even if it's the "wrong" kind of lime, you should give it a try.

Shelley: Howdy, neighbor! What a surprise.
Speaking of homegrown peppers, I almost let all my cayennes dry out (for grinding) before I remembered to save one for the old sour. What weird weather we've had this summer.
Thanks for the compliment. :)

Morgan: Since native red limes are what you (hope to) have, then that's what you should use. I think the idea is to go with what's in the yard. ;)

Sweet Bird: Our other lesson at the Pinders' was, of course, Key lime pie. We learned a LOT.

Spiteful Chef: This is the beauty of regional delicacies. To find yourself dropped into an unfamiliar locale (sound familiar?) and learn what the old-time natives eat.
But still, c'mon over. We'll toke up.

B: Bingo! Wow, how inventive; unripe tangerines. But this is sort of my point -- use what you have. Rock on. Call it "New Sour."

Anna Haight: Aw... xoxo

Greg: The limes come from the Latino grocery in downtown San Rafael.
I love your ceviche idea!

Kudzu: Sherry peppers! Wahoo, that is absolutely new to me. I will have to give it a try. Sounds great for winter (and a dandy way to preserve summer's bounty).

salvage859 said...


Born and raised in Central Florida (shudder) and I had no Idea you were supposed to refridgerate Old Sour. It just gets better.....

All of my Cheyennes are sealed up in their little bottles now, waiting for the next Hot Wings extravaganza.

Nik Snacks said...

That was friggin awesome. I lived in Miami for a year and I went to Key West once, to surprise my parents whose 1st stop on a cruise, was there.

I live close enough to get some real key limes (for like...$7.99 a bag lol) and I might try this. & crispy...sounds like my kind of meal.

Nik Snacks said...

That was friggin awesome. I lived in Miami for a year and I went to Key West once, to surprise my parents whose 1st stop on a cruise, was there.

I live close enough to get some real key limes (for like...$7.99 a bag lol) and I might try this. & crispy...sounds like my kind of meal.n

cookiecrumb said...

Salvage: I agree. I'm kinda into keeping the bottle out in the warm air to see if I can get some fermenty action going. I guess the recipe writers are anal about germs.

Nikki: How cool that you experiment. I hope you do it.

Shari@Whisk: a food blog said...

This is a great story about key limes! Sounds delicious on fish!

cookiecrumb said...

Shari: I saw it squirted over lima bean soup at a church potluck supper in Key West. I guess the possibilities are endless.

tammy said...

Very cool!

cook eat FRET said...

i wanta bottle... salvage, can i have a bottle?

cookie, this salvage guy? he is quite the guy. listen to him at all costs...

very cool post. as usual.
i learn from you, my friend...

Brittany said...

Oh my god, that sounds so good! I've never been to Key West, but my parents used to go all them time. My mom was always raving about conch stew.

Sounds like life just moves at a different, more thereputic state down there.

cookiecrumb said...

Tammy: Whenever I make a bottle of it, I wonder why I don't do it all the time. I have to admit it's been a while.

Cook: I think you can MAKE a bottle. Use regional ingredients. Bask in your wonderfulness.

Brittany: Life in Key West is smooth. Oysters. Beer. Conch. Old Sour. {{grin}}

Edward Trujillo said...

Reading this really brings back some old memories. I am a fifth generation "Conch". My great grandfather, Dionisio Diaz was bottling the original Old Sour in the old days down in Tavernier, where he lived for about 80 years. He used to bottle it in old clear miller beer bottles with cork for a cap and then sell it locally in Key West for fifty cents a bottle. As to the Pinders, they are well known in Key West.I went to Key West High school with Joe Pinder.

cookiecrumb said...

Edward! Wow, what a wonderful note. I am basking in your genuineness.
So, 50 cents for a beer bottle full of old sour. What a deal.
Thank you for the nice words. Makes me happy.