Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Drinking Smoke and Peat with Mac & Cheese

scotch on the Faculty Club patio
It’s been a while since I drank scotch.

The last time was more than several years ago in a dark bar at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

I had just come down the mountain, having barely reached the upper foothills. My friend Margaret and I had abandoned the taxing ascent in favor of a more pleasant and relaxing hike and more time at the local bar. The place was somewhat run down and smelled of burnt plantain and rotting fruit. All they had was scotch. The whisky burned down my throat like a wild fire; its pungent rawness mocked the disappointment that lurked beneath my relief in the abandoned climb. As I nursed my drink over some fried goat’s meat, I decided that I didn’t like scotch. And that was that. Scotch—like the peak of Kilimanjaro—remained elusive.

Many years later, I found myself travelling in Kentucky and sampling its signature drink—Kentucky small batch bourbon whisky. Bourbon is a barrel-aged American whiskey made mainly of corn. Like Champagne, Bourbon is named for the area it was first conceived, known as Old Bourbon (now Bourbon County in Kentucky)
Getting the Lagavulin, Faculty Club Pub
and after the French House of Bourbon royal family. The typical bourbon grain mixture, called mash bill, is 70% corn mixed with wheat and/or rye and malted barley. Yeast is added to a sour mash of ground grain and then fermented. This “wash” is then distilled into a clear spirit, which is aged in charred white oak barrels. Bourbon gains color and flavor from the wood as it ages. When I finally graduated to drinking bourbon neat, I learned to look for a premium class sipping whiskey that is a Kentucky Straight (aged at least two years and made entirely in Kentucky) and a single-barreled bourbon (e.g., the bottle comes from an individual aging barrel; not a blend from various different barrels to provide uniformity of color and taste). A good sipping bourbon boasts a very deep and satisfying nose, with a start of caramel and vanilla and a “soft pepper” aftertaste.

Fast forward to a few days ago, as I lounged in the outside patio of the University of Toronto
UofT Faculty Club patio
Faculty Club, recently opened for the season. It was early May and a warm breeze brought with it the promise of adventure. The patio provided a cheerful setting as I prepared to celebrate a double birthday—mine and a friend’s—as well as my soon to be released book Water Is… I decided to order a bourbon as I waited for my friend to arrive. Alas! They didn’t have any! What was a girl to do for her birthday and first of many launch celebrations?

“The 16-year old Lagavulin is a lovely scotch,” offered one of the kind patrons as reprieve to my forlorn disappointment. I forgave him for not knowing my legacy with scotch. “Lagavulin is a fine Islay single malt scotch; great for a celebration,” he insisted. Malt scotch whisky is made by the pot still process using malted barley only. And the name Lagavulin, I later found, means “hollow by the mill” (Laggan Mhouillin) in Gaelic. 

I demurred at first.

Faculty Club pub
Then, with thoughts of an elusive mountain unclimbed, I agreed and watched Leanne, the manager of the Faculty Club, pour me a dram of intense amber liquid. She left the bottle for me to study and I read the strange description on the front label:

“Moss water, passing over rocky falls, steeped in mountain air and moorland peat, distilled and matured in oak casks exposed to the sea shape Lagavulin’s robust and smoky character. Time, say the Islanders TAKES OUT THE FIRE but LEAVES IN THE WARMTH.”

I inhaled the sharp organic scent of peat
rare fritillary butterfly on Islay
bog with something else not identifiable. Intrigued, I took a sip. The deep musk burned down my throat with a complex fire, warming every cell of my body with stories of ancient peatlands by the sea and rolling acidophillous grassland and marsh—home of the elusive and endangered marsh fritillary butterfly. The complexity of loam, smoke and sweet meadow grass gave way to a long and intense finish of burning sweet caramel: what I imagined a crème brulee would be if it decided to be a liquor. Do the villagers of Islay enjoy crème brulee as much as I do?

When my friend arrived, we toasted each other’s birthdays and ordered something to go with the scotch. Merridy ordered the warm mushroom salad and I went with the club’s signature macaroni and cheese, baked with spinach and mushrooms. Exquisitely baked and briefly braised on top, the mac and cheese was a divine mate to the 16-year old scotch. A libiamo ne’lieti calici of sharp and salty seashore tempered with the bursting melt of cheese and pasta. A comingling in a lively Verdi duet. I sipped my scotch and dug through the crispy crust of baked cheese pulling out gooey strings of cheddar, parmesan, mushrooms and spinach.

Mac and cheese originated in southern Italy in the 12oos. Liber de coquina, written by
Leanne inhales the "nose" of Lagavulin
someone familiar with the Neapolitan court then under Charles II of Anjou (1248-1309) contains a recipe called de lasanis, purported to be the first “macaroni and cheese” recipe.

Six hundred years later, John Jonston and Archibald Campbell built the Lagavulin distillery—a whitewashed jumble of buildings by the sea—in the village of Lagavulin on the rocky southern shore of the island of Islay, the southernmost of the Inner Hebridean Islands off the west coast of Scotland. Amy Zavatto of Serious Eats describes Islay as a “wild and windswept corner of the world where sheep may well outnumber people and waterproof shoes are your good friend.” Peat, she reminds us, is decomposed organic matter—grass, heather, moss—that forms along the coastal, boggy lands that make up much of Islay. Peat holds moisture and smokes wonderfully when you burn it. And when this is used to truncate the germinating of the little barley bits via heat it flavors the malted barley with a unique perfume. This is called peating whisky. Most of Scotland’s distillers no longer peat their whiskies (preferring oil burners); but Islay still harvest and burn peat to make their whisky.
Still pots at Lagavulin

The Master of Malt writes that Lagavulin is “a much sought-after single malt with the massive peat-smoke that's typical of southern Islay—but also offering richness and a dryness that turns it into a truly interesting dram. The 16 year old has become a benchmark Islay dram from the Lagavulin distillery.” This 16-year spirit has won many awards, including the Whisky of the Year in 2013. Lagavulin is known for its use of slow distillation speed and its pear-shaped pot stills.

The waters of Solum Lochs, along with the peating levels of the barley, help give this scotch its distinctive flavor. In an interview with Eric Knudsen, master distiller Donald Renwick of Lagavulin affirmed that, “The water from the Solum Lochs is obviously important, as it is our own water, good quality with lots of peat in it. However one of the most important parts is the Malted barley (malted at our own Maltings plant on Islay) During the kilning process a peat fire introduces the peat smoke into the malted barley. This gives Lagavulin its distinctive peaty and smoky flavours.”

Lagavulin on Islay
he Whisky Exchange
writes that, “Lagavulin is not for the faint-hearted but inspires fanatical devotion in its many followers.” Says Zavatto: “Give it a couple of gentle sniffs (e.g., don't go sticking your nose all the way in the glass; there's a lot of alcohol there, so take it in easy!) to take in that first burst of sea spray and smoke, and then try to see what else you find underneath that. I'd recommend that you consider adding a drop or two of water, which you'll find really teases out some of the underlying orchard fruit, citrusy, or caramel-vanilla notes that are lurking beneath the peaty surface. This is, after all, uisge beatha—the water of life. It's worth a wee moment or two to enjoy it.”

The whiskies of the nine or so distilleries along the southeastern coast of Islay typically
express that smoky character and what some—me included—would describe as a “medicinal” quality. Notes of iodine, seaweed and salt have been used to describe the element that I found deliciously unidentifiable.

It made perfect sense, I finally decided, reminded of what D.H. Lawrence said about water: “Water is H2O, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one; but there is also a third thing that makes it water. And nobody knows what it is.”

So with water; so with scotch. Uisge beatha.

The University of Toronto Faculty Club is located on 41 Willcocks Street, Toronto, Ontario; 416-971-2062.

My book, Water Is… was released worldwide on May 10, 2016.

Water Is…
Pixl Press
ISBN: 978-0-9811012-4-8

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Nina Munteanu Interviewed by Joseph Planta of The Commentary

I was recently interviewed by Joseph Planta of "The Commentary" in Vancouver about my new book Water Is...

Here's how he started the interview:

I am Planta: On the Line, in Vancouver, at 
We bathe in water, we drink it, we probably live around it or close to it, it flushes our toilets—we do so much with it, and it’s such an important aspect of our lives, but we waste it, we take it for granted, and we certainly don’t think about it as my next guest does. She has pondered water in an interesting, fascinating way. The title of the book is Water Is… and its author Nina Munteanu joins me now. She has spent a career as a limnologist and ecologist, and has conducted research, published papers and consulted in the environment, so she’s immersed well enough in water to tell us about how we should think about it. And the way she goes about it in this book is awfully good, in that she looks at water spiritually, artistically, and mythologically as well. Nina Munteanu is an award-winning novelist and short story writer as well, and currently teaches writing at the University of Toronto and George Brown College. The website for more is at The book is published by Pixl Press. Please welcome to the Planta: On the Line program, in Toronto today, Nina Munteanu; Ms. Munteanu, good morning...
Our conversation flowed and surged like a living river, covering a range of topics--like the book itself--from ecology and quantum physics, to water's anomalous properties (like the Mpemba effect), water wars, spiritual connections and childhood memories. And what we as Canadians can and are doing.

Astute, intelligent and wonderfully inquisitive, Joseph helped create a memorable experience for me and, I'm sure, for listening audiences. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Here's my Interview with Joseph.

Joseph Planta

Author David Berner said it well: "Joseph Planta is quite simply one of the best interviewers working today, and he has been for quite a few years now. Far-ranging and ubiquitous in his tastes, he is always deeply researched and versed in the world of the person at the other end of the microphone."

I couldn't agree more.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

A Metaphysical Meander Down a Scientific Stream

Nina and an interested "reader" of Water Is...
That was the title John Stewart gave his interview article in the MississaugaNews last week on my book Water Is… In fact, as part of the interview, John and I did a meander over to the Credit River, featured in my recently released book about the myriad identities of water.

We met at the Port Credit Second Cup on Lakeshore Avenue and talked for several hours over as many teas, then wandered across the bridge to the lower Credit, where I tried to interest several swans in my book. I almost succeeded, except the price—falling in the water—prevented me at the last moment. The sun was warm and the wind blustered as we watched the swans glide like luxury ships along the rocky shoreline. At this time of year the swans are nesting. In fact, Stewart later captured some beautiful shots of swans nesting at Lakefront Promenade Park in Mississauga (see shots I stole off Twitter: @JohnAtTheNews).
Credit River at Meadowvale

“The book is a progressive journey, reflecting her career and life,” notes Stewart of Water Is… in his article. He and I talked a lot about the Credit River and why I’d chosen to feature it over the many other higher profile rivers I’d experienced—the Seine, Rhine, Fraser and Mississippi rivers for example. It was simple for me. Serendipity played a major role; The Credit River figured in my life journey at just the right time and it was accessible in a way that provided the kind of intimacy I needed as I wrote my book. I’d walked pretty much the whole length of it. Waded, I should say; because I was in the river, clamoring over the rocks in my Oakley flip-flops, most of the time.

Nina photographing rapids of upper Credit River
“The first chapters,” writes Stewart, “feature scientist and limnologist Nina, who spent a decade teaching at the University of Victoria and doing consulting science work and publishing papers. [Water Is…] gradually progresses, step by scientific step, to embrace things beyond science and into spirituality.” Einstein and many other scientists have made the same journey, I pointed out. “All great scientists at one point need to connect with God.”

“Most intriguing,” continues Stewart, “is the science that explains our emotional reactions to natural encounters. We feel better beside rushing water because negative ions, which have an extra electron, attach to positively charged ions from pollen, mould, bacteria, etc. and drag them to the ground. Thus the air is fresher.”

“[Water Is…] works on myriad levels,” says Stewart, “from top-notch trivia guide (the total amount of water in the atmosphere hasn’t changed since Earth’s formation) to science primer to cultural guide (Australian aboriginals douse for water through their feet, explaining that water in their bodies communicates with underground supplies.)”
Photo by John Stewart

“It’s part memoir and part philosophical exploration,” he says, “especially good when exploring the Da Vinci-esque bonds shared among science and art and design. It’s also a lay guide to the scientific and popular literature on the subject, chalk full of fascinating quotations…If you don’t want to read all those other books on water, just read this one.”

Water Is… “an exhilarating ride, even if you are not a science type. It’s filled with gentle eddies and contemplative pools on the connections between nature and man, inner and outer lives, and the struggle between your rational science side and your aspirational, artistic, spiritual side. You’ll find yourself revisiting a few vortexes and shifting undercurrents in your own life.”

Our conversation—like the meandering Credit River itself—flowed from ecology and water wars to quantum physics, entanglement and altruism. Stewart concluded his article with a note about new science regarding the emerging recognition of a cooperative universe. I’d mentioned that we are finding increasing evidence that all kinds of life demonstrate qualities of empathy and altruism. “We just need to look for it.”

“This book is a good place to start,” says Stewart.

Water Is... was released today worldwide and is featured as  the #1 Hot New Release in Hydrology and is already an Amazon bestseller in several categories including Hydrology, Geology, Environmental Science and Natural Resources.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Joyful Motherhood

Kevin and Mom enjoy a hike
When I gave birth to my son, Kevin, I felt a miracle pass through me. I felt divinity touch me with a kind hand and whisper its joy. I was humbled, awestruck and so overjoyed. A little miracle had emerged out of me, completely formed and so beautiful!
Kevin became my doorway to wonder. His curiosity was boundless and lured me into a special world of transformation.
I took time off work to spend with Kevin when he was young. We went on great trips, from the local mall, where we had a hot chocolate and played with Lego, to the local beach on the Fraser River, where we explored the rocks. When he was no more than three, I took him on endless adventures in the city and its surroundings. We didn’t have to go far. The mud puddles of a new subdivision after a rain were sufficient to keep our attention for dozens of minutes. We became connoisseurs of mud. The best kind was “chocolate mud,” with a consistency and viscosity that created the best crater when a rock was thrown into it. Kevin and I often explored the little woodland a block from our house. We were hunters. Gatherers. Magicians. We made “magic potions” out of nightshade flowers, fir and pine needles, loam and moss; then we fuelled our concoctions with the elixir of water from a stagnant pool.
Kevin around 2 years old
Being with my young son slowed my world and returned to me a great sense of wonder. A walk to the little store with young Kevin was an expedition. he’d amble, explore, poke, then suddenly squat and study something on the pavement that I’d missed.
Kevin brought me back to the ground, to the extra-ordinary mundane—to the quiet details and the fragrant light. Acting like a macro lens, he pointed me to the little things, Nature’s nuanced designs that I’d forgotten in the larger paradigms of my hurried life.
Kevin brought me back to the immediate, to Nature’s elegant silence and beauty. He showed me the fractal wonders of tree branches, exploding seeds, glorious reflections in puddles, strange mud waves and odd moss-covered rocks. We crouched in halted silence to watch a bee feast from a flower’s nectar then launch itself—a dirigible laden with pollen—into the sky. 
Kevin exploring the west coast 
We followed the brilliant Fibonacci spiral of a sunflower or the circular gossamer web of a spider, both mimicking the greater spiral of our own Milky Way Galaxy. We stuck our tongues out to taste the snow as it cascaded down in heaps or caught hexagonal snowflakes on our sleeves and sadly watched them melt. We stomped in road puddles or threw rocks and watched the circles of waves feed outward, changing the colour and texture of everything. We collected flotsam in nebulous forest pools and made magical potions. We wrote stories in the ocean sand, then leapt from dry rock to dry rock until the sea trapped us in its rushing embrace.
Water’s beauty spans the subtle dewdrops on a suburban lawn to the extravagant and powerful surges of a tropical sea.
Kevin swimming in Georgia Strait
“It’s hard to find anything more beautiful than dew on flower petals and leaves,” writes Masaru Emoto in The Secret Life of Water. “A single drop of dew falls off the tip of a sprouting leaf on a branch and makes its descent, through the forest canopy, and lands on the back of a frog ... Water spreads itself ... to shower love on the frog and the new sprout—and to be loved in return. Just as a mother instinctively loves her newborn, water in infancy is loved by all of nature.”
In his book The Holy Order of Water: Healing the Earth’s Waters and Ourselves William E. Marks writes, “The mysteries flowing from water are with us in many ways—in the life surrounding us; in thoughts generated by our water-filled minds; the smells and rhythms of our oceans; the soothing sounds of gurgling streams and fountains; the beat of our hearts; the gift of sight from our watery eyes; the ever-changing clouds above; the misty fog that lightly kisses our faces; the sight of an awe-inspiring tornado; the vortex swirl of water disappearing down a drain.”
Grad Kevin and proud Mom
Water is the bold light of change. Water is the deep purity of soul.

Water is the abiding mother. 
And to be a mother is to be blessed.

This is an adapted excerpt from "Water Is..." (Pixl Press), currently available on and other great bookstores near you.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.