The Puritan Mark Bittman

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ppuritansI agree with NY Times’ food columnist Mark Bittman that the word “foodie” should be retired.

At a dinner party the other night where people were asked to say a word about themselves, one woman said, “My name is” — whatever it was — “and I’m a foodie.” I cringed.

I’m not proud of that visceral reaction; in fact, I think it’s wrong. But I do wish there were a stronger, less demeaning-sounding word than “foodie” for someone who cares about good food, but as seems so often the case, there is not. Witness the near-meaningless-ness of “natural” and “vegetarian” and the inadequacy of “organic” and “vegan.” But proposing new words is a fool’s game; rather, let’s try to make the word “foodie” a tad more meaningful.

The problem is with his explanation for why “foodies” are held in such low esteem.

As it stands, many self-described foodies are new-style epicures. And there’s nothing destructive about watching competitive cooking shows, doing “anything” to get a table at the trendy restaurant, scouring the web for single-estate farro, or devoting oneself to finding the best food truck. The problem arises when it stops there.

More conscious foodies understand that producing food has an effect beyond creating an opportunity for pleasure.

Apparently “foodies” are reviled because they seem to be focused excessively on pleasure. If they concerned themselves with food politics and ethics they would be taken more seriously, according to Bittman.

The importance of ethics and food politics notwithstanding, what is the matter with the pursuit of pleasure?

Do we think music lovers are unserious because they listen to music for pleasure only? Does anyone call for music lovers to become “music activists” taking up the cause of noise pollution to avoid the social stigma of being mere pleasure-seekers? Why is it OK to avidly seek an obscure recording of a favorite band or study the score of a symphony, but frivolous to seek out interesting food experiences? In either case it’s about pleasure. Since when is pleasure-seeking considered unserious in this society, which seems devoted to little else?

The difference between attitudes toward “foodies” and attitudes towards music lovers is a deeply-held prejudice that taste is an inferior sense modality, that the pleasure we get from listening to music is of a higher order–more intellectually satisfying–than the pleasure we get from mere taste.

But this is a mere prejudice perpetrated by people who haven’t yet experienced the beauty of flavor. It is sad that, of all people, Mark Bittman has succumbed to it.

Wine Review: Opus One Overture NV Napa

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overtureOur literature is full of epigrams about the virtues of age—“The best is yet to be”, “Old age hath yet his honor and his toil”, “With age comes wisdom”. Alas, none of them are true of persons, only of wine.

With its soft tannins, Opus One’s “second wine” is approachable now and was clearly made to be consumed young. But most quality red wines—especially Bordeaux varietals—will benefit from some aging to get all the components to come together. This  one was opened 2-3 years too early.

The nose shows sweet vanilla, black cherry and cassis wrapped around a core of tobacco. With aeration some loamy earth appears; decanting is recommended. There is excellent depth and clarity but it is not as complex as I had expected for a wine at this price.

Deeply concentrated dark fruit gives way to an intense mid-palate that shows licorice but tastes excessively woody. On the plus side of medium body, rich and round yet lithe and lively in the mouth with plenty of acidity, it will not achieve the characteristic velvet texture until the oak and acid become more integrated.  Tannins are very ripe and very fine. They don’t grip but do propel a very long powerful finish.

The alcohol is nicely done; never a distraction.

Overture is a blend of all the Bordeaux varietals, apparently including some juice held back from earlier vintages—hence the lack of a vintage designation on the label. It was purchased in 2013.

I recently tasted the flagship Opus One from 1993. It was beautifully preserved, still opulent, fresh and vibrant, among the best Napa wines I’ve tasted and a legitimate rival of Bordeaux Premier Crus. I doubt that the Overture will age like Opus One’s flagship. I wouldn’t hold the Overture more than 6-8 years, but it still needs a few years to develop.

It reminded me of a band in their final rehearsal before a big show. All the parts are there and there is no discord among them but the whole doesn’t sing until show time. There is nothing to replace what age can do for a wine.

I would like to say the same about persons but I have my doubts.

 

Score: 92

Price: $143

Alc: 14.5 %

Budget Wine: Torre San Millan Gorrebusto Rioja 2012

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gorrebustoIt is odd how some wines grow on you. They don’t reveal their virtues on a first meeting. You have to adjust to them. As when meeting a person who speaks a different language, meaning dawns slowly and still without full comprehension.

That was my experience with this wine. My first reaction was—PLONK!. But over the course of two days I gradually came around to a qualified enjoyment.

I suspect this evolution is in part because inexpensive wines tend to lack definition. The flavors and aromas are just vague enough to be interesting but not focused enough to be transparent. This wine kept changing on me.

Hints of vanilla, pencil lead ,and tobacco with an undercurrent of red cherry and fresh fig make an interesting nose although rather poorly defined. There is some concentration and good depth though marred by a bit of alcohol. Coffee is the dominant flavor note on the palate playing counterpoint to cherry, but the tannins strike the mid-palate early and blend with some sour acidity to create a rough and very dry texture that took some getting used to. However a seam of minerality draws your attention, the rough character settles down and the finish is medium length and satisfying. More rustic than most Riojas but an intriguing wine, very lively and vigorous.

Is this the best Rioja I’ve had? No. But a wine that keeps me curious for several days has something going for it.

Score: 88

Price: Around $9, sometimes less, at Bevmo

Alc: 13.5%

Is Estate Bottled Wine of Higher Quality?

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wine estateA recent post by Steve Heimoff raises the issue of whether the designation “Estate Bottled” tells the consumer much about a wine.

Legally, in the U.S.,  “Estate Bottled” means that the winery controls the grapes, the grapes must all be sourced from the same AVA, and the wine must be fermented, bottled, and aged in the same facility. (It does not mean that the winery possesses a lovely mansion set within scenic vineyards)

Heimoff, with some qualification, says this is all useful information and speaks well of a wine:

If you think about it, each of those specifications might in itself be of minor importance, but when you add them all up and take them together, they make it far more likely that the resulting wine will be of high quality. Having that precision control over farming is certainly the most important of the “estate bottled” requirements, but to have the entire winemaking process “in the same place,” usually the winery or a facility located very nearby, removes the risky transportation elements that can drag down wine quality. You want to move grapes, must, fermented wine or bottled wine as little as possible; wine is living food, and doesn’t like being manhandled.

Perhaps. But there are some caveats to note. Estate Bottle does not mean that the winery owns the vineyards from which the grapes are harvested–the control may be via contract rather than ownership. Some wineries are better at enforcing contracts than others, and if the winery is looking for high yield rather than high quality, the fact they control the viticulture will not enhance their wine. Furthermore, AVA’s in the U.S can be rather large and diverse. Thus, vineyards in the same AVA may have vastly different soil compositions and be subject to different climates. So Estate Bottled does not mean that the wine expresses a particular terroir.

I have consumed many, many very fine wines over the years that were not “estate bottled” because the grapes were sourced from independent growers who were very good at what they do. Transportation of grapes is always an issue but it can be done well with no discernable loss of flavor. So is an “estate bottled” wine more likely to be of high quality than not? I see no basis for assuming that.

However, “estate bottled” does rule out one important possibility–the wine cannot be bulk wine purchased from another winery. That is an important bit of information because bulk wine is usually, with some exceptions, inferior wine.

So “estate bottled” is useful information but offers no guarantee and perhaps not even a liklihood of quality wine.

 

The Future of Food (Hopefully)

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barberI haven’t read Chef Dan Barber’s book yet. It’s entitled The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food and describes his vision of a new way of eating that is both sustainable and more flavorful.

But this Ted Talk makes me want to move it to the top of my list. Barber describes a fish farm so ecologically healthy that it doesn’t need to feed its fish and that gladly loses 20% of its fish stock to birds who feed daily on the overabundant resources created by sound ecological farming practices.

He is a good speaker; it’s worth 20 minutes of your time.

It’s All About Pleasure

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whole-snapper-6526-520x346Bottom line. Food (and wine) has to taste good. Otherwise we won’t consume it no matter how interesting it is. We take food into our bodies, so we are very careful to avoid anything that might be dangerous or disgusting.

This fact about food consumption is often used to cast doubt on whether food can be an art. After all, the fine arts–painting, sculpture, music, or literature—have no such restriction. The fact that a painting depicts an unpleasant scene or a novel recounts a disturbing tale does not inhibit our experience of them. We readily consume the unpleasant when we can hold the object at a distance as we do with vision or cognition. We allow music to express negative emotions as well.

kollwitz

Kathe Kollwitz “War”

The violence of Picasso’s Guernica, the desolate personalities of Kathe Kollwitz, the brutal angst of Munch’s The Scream—all depictions of the horrible that we find fascinating or gripping, We are moved by the cacophony of Stravinsky or the strident, searing guitar work of Sonic Youth. But the Confit du Canard—it must be pleasing or it will be untouched. This leads many commentators to conclude that food lacks the expressive range of painting, music, or literature because, whatever food does, it must do so with pleasure; it cannot represent the ugly.

But I think there is a fundamental mistake in this argument. When painting, literature, or music expresses something unpleasant we don’t experience it as unpleasant–we take pleasure in the presentation. The depiction may be of something unpleasant but through the artistry of the artist our experience is of something vivid, intense, and full of life. The actual experience of violence or trauma is deeply unpleasant, but its presentation via art nevertheless gives us pleasure. If this were not the case we would feel repulsion rather than enchantment when confronted with great art. We are moved by great art but it is always the pleasure we take in the representation that participates in our being moved.

Art that gives no pleasure is simply a failed work.

Thus, fine art and fine food and wine do not differ in the role that pleasure plays in the experience—it is necessary for both.

Moreover, it is simply false that food does not represent violence or horror. The carcass of a dead fish with one eye staring at you is unlovely and it represents a variety of ideas—death, slaughter, power, and the creative destruction of heat among others. It is the artistry of the chef and our own powers of self-deception that cast that violence in the glow of phenomenological pleasure.

As it is with food so it is with art.

Wine Review: Cune Rioja Crianza 2010

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cuneThis wine has pedigree. In operation since 1879, The Cune Winery is located in the traditional Rioja Alta region and is one of Spain’s iconic wines. Its 2004 Imperial Rioja Gran Reserva 2004 was named Wine Spectator’s 2013 wine of the year.

This Crianza has the elegance and bearing you would expect of a wine with that lineage. “Crianza” is the Spanish quality level designating affordable wines for daily drinking. They must be aged for a minimum of one year in oak, but the oak is usually used oak and thus does not impart strong flavors.

Playing to type, the Cune shows restrained red and black fruit. Although lacking intensity on the nose it makes up for it with a good deal of subtlety. Dusty, baked earth, hay, all lightly traced by lovely balsamic notes make this a real charmer.

It is similarly modest but full of finesse on the palate. Cherry flavors are draped on a  tender, medium body,  with gentle tannins supporting an herbal finish. Svelte and endearing, a bit restrained but graceful and well balanced. A perfect wine for a tranquil world, but on the roiling cauldron of planet earth it will remind you of tranquility if you give it some attention. An outstanding bargain.

80% Tempranillo with some Garnacha and Mazuelo.

Score: 89

Alc: 13.5%

Price: $15

Budget Wine: Epicuro Salice Salentino and Aglianico 2011

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saliceA Trader Joe’s exclusive, the Salice Salentino is one of my go-to, everyday wines and has been for years. A simple but pleasing nose of ripe cherries encased in subtle loam and a hint of smoke. The medium-bodied, supple palate shows dried cherries and a slight characteristic bitterness on the finish. The flavors lack depth but have good intensity and focus. The soft tannins come on early with a bit more grip than most six dollar wines.

Salice Salentino is a small commune in Apulia, in southeast Italy. The wine is produced from the Negroamaro grape with a small percentage of Malvasia Nera added to soften the rusticity.

The Aglianico 2011 was also quite drinkable but less satisfying. Plum and dusty earth accented by mild herbal notes give the nose some interest. On the the palate, it’s full and fruity with a medium plus body. The texture is soft upfront but the tannins come on quickly and are persistant. The finish is full of flavor but is quite sour which disappoints. Both wines have a rustic character

Score: Salice Salentino:  85      Aglianico: 83

Price: Both $6

Alc: Both 13%

 

The Search for Food Utopia

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220px-Cyclonebill_Hvide_asparges_med_pocheret_aeggeblomme_og_skovmaerkesauceThis fascinating article by Jacob Mikanowski tries to get to the bottom of the hi-tech food revolution that has turned cooking into an art form. His focus is on the culinary approach of René Redzepi, chef and proprietor of Noma, Denmark’s celebrated restaurant, which has been named the world’s best restaurant 3 out of the last 4 years.

Redzepi creates dishes such as “Blueberries Surrounded by their Natural Environment” with ingredients he finds by scouring the Scandinavian countryside. But unlike the farm-to-table and slow food movements which aim to evoke a sense of place with their choice of ingredients, often with a dose of nostalgia for a bygone era where location mattered, Redzepi is after something less traditional—to commune with nature in quite novel ways. As Mikanowski describes:

So this is Redzepi’s wish: to put a piece of ground in front of a diner and have him figure it out. And once you got over your dismay at being served moss on a plate, maybe you would. His cooking is an attempt to go beyond the world of language and culture and into the world of pure things. And like any real artist, Redzepi articulates desires we didn’t even know we had—not for nutritive powders or engineered foams, but for contact with another way of being. To taste the essence of rocks and trees, to creep through the forest like a snail, to sleep in the earth like onions, with our feet in the air.

The reference to “nutritive powders and engineered foams” is to another trend Mikanowski notes—the modernist cuisine of Ferran Adria and Nathan Mhyrvold. Adria and Mhrvold use science and whizz-bang technology to separate flavors, aromas, textures, and colors from their original source, and recombine them in ways that surprise and challenge diners:

In new modes of cooking, food gets dematerialized, turned into distilled scents and pure flavors. You can ingest whole meals with an eyedropper or a straw. It’s almost abstract, and indeed the move in haute cuisine of the past decade or so has been a modernist one: to try to liberate what we eat from its connection to its origins. More and more, chefs have been trying to make food that doesn’t taste or look or otherwise resemble the ingredients it is made out of.

But I suppose no discussion of contemporary food trends would be complete without mention of the Soylent project, the name of which is drawn from Soylent Green the cult film from the 1970′s. Computer programmer Rob Rhinehart uses science to take the next step—to separate food consumption from nutrition altogether by creating Soylent-a high energy mix of nutrients that apparently tastes quite bland but supplies all the body’s needs for a day, freeing us up to eat only for enjoyment—or not at all.

It is hard to know what to make of the “Soylent” project, which seems at bottom ascetic and anti-pleasure in the extreme despite the high-minded notion of eating only for enjoyment. The need to eat periodically throughout the day is a strong incentive to take pleasure seriously, periodically throughout the day.

Mikanowski takes these trends to exemplify the search for utopia, “testing the limits of food’s perfectability”. Perhaps. But “Soylent” aside, the much different projects of Redzepi and Adria/Mhyrvold share one important goal–to make flavor mean something, to use flavor to provide experiences of wonder, mystery, and intensity that, in the past, only vision or sound could provide.

Just as no painter has succeeded in painting a perfect painting, whatever that might mean, I doubt that perfection is the aim of these culinary trends. We will never reach an “end” where taste need no longer be developed.  But to the extent all art is a vision of an alternative way of life, a  promise of happiness, perhaps the search for utopia is apt as a description of what Redzepi, Adria, Mhyrvold and other creative chefs are up to.

 

 

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