Feeling Umami



Umami Burger

The idea that there are four basic tastes—sour, salty, bitter, and sweet—was widely accepted until 2002 when the taste receptors for glutamate were discovered which gives food the flavor called “umami”. (Bacon, parmesan cheese, soy sauce, and tomatos have lots of it.)

But of course this 5-taste model describes only the tastes detected by the tongue. Most of the flavors we identify in food come from aromas. Some research suggests that the average human can distinguish millions if not trillions of distinct odors, some of which emanate from food. So the range of flavors we can detect is quite large.

It is then strange that taste sensations but not flavor sensations are used extensively as metpahors. We routinely use taste sensations to describe emotions, personalities, facial expressions, etc. A person is a sourpuss, a smile is sweet, resentment is bitter, language is salty.  But we don’t describe persons as fragrant, minty or herbal. It is curious why taste rather than aroma is the source of metaphorical association.

But at any rate, now that umami is officially a taste I suppose it will eventually acquire metaphorical associations.

So what is it like to feel “umami”?


Hipsters And Food



This article in the Guardianhipster, “The end of the hipster: how flat caps and beards stopped being so cool” got me thinking about current trends in food consumption. (The article is London-centric but it translates well across the pond.)

The title of the article is misleading—it is really about how the meaning of “hipster” changes once ordinary people start to adopt hipster style (and it becomes a commodity exploited by capitalism). The real trend setters will move on to something new once their innovation is no longer a badge of distinction.

Part of contemporary hipster culture is caring about the provenance of your food and drink. If beards, flat caps, and tattoos are on the way out, will locavorism and the whole phenomenon of wanting a personal connection with what we consume go with it?

I hope not because that movement is a form of resistance to the industrial food complex, and it is important to keep up that resistance.

Has locavorism transcended the stage of “fashion trend” to become more firmly rooted in culture?

What say you hive mind?

Ingredient List for Wines?


Andrew Jeffords of Decanter Magazine has a beef:
If you add acid to a tin of tomatoes, you have to fess up. If you add acid to wine, you don’t. I want to know if a wine has had acid added to it, so that I know I am tasting a corrected industrial wine rather than a vin de terroir. It’s more serious than tomatoes!
I’m with Andrew on this. Although the list of ingredients for wine would seem to have fewer dietary consequences than for food, we should leave it up to the consumer to decide. Many wine lovers today are concerned with whether the wines they are drinking are “manipulated” or not and would prefer to know whether what they are tasting is the product of the grapes and their location or chemicals added to correct flavor.
Of course, a list of ingredients would not give you the whole picture; processes matter as much as ingredients. A wine that has undergone micro-oxygenation would not have to list oxygen as an additive. But it would be interesting to know whether sugar, acid, tannin, or color was added.
I’m not quite seeing a compelling argument against it. If you know of one let me know.



Altipiano Tempranillo NV California


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altipianoThe culture of wine signifies romance. From the idyll of the farming life, to the artisan winemaker coaxing a palette of flavors out of her grapes, to lazy, sun-drenched afternoons spent sipping wine with good friends sharing a meal, wine symbolizes the good life even if the reality of the wine business is sometimes less enchanting.

But the “personality” of the wines themselves are not always so fanciful. Some are powerful, some brooding, some ostentatious; others are severe,pert, vulgar, or pretentious. Wines present almost as much variation as the human personality, which is one reason we find them so interesting.

But then there are the wines that really do seem to capture enchantment and bottle it; with an erotic allure that brings to mind Gable and Leigh (or Scarlett Johansson and anyone)

This Tempranillo has that character.

Warm and sweetly sensuous on the palate, medium-bodied yet full and succulent. The evolution in the mouth is like a languorous, meandering, boat ride down a long river showing fruit first, then a mildly acidic phase, and turning leathery just as soft tannins ease you into a medium-length finish that shows the lingering after-flavor of cherry capped with a little milk chocolate.

The nose has complexity and focus with black cherry, pencil shavings, and earth vying for attention over subtler intimations of smoke and  new leather.

This wine is non-vintage and made from grapes from somewhere in California so it is likely to be a blend. Props to the winemaker for this lovely effort.

Altipiano Vineyard and Winery are part of San Diego’s burgeoning wine scene. Their first vintage of estate grapes—Sangiovese Brunello clone and Barbera–is now in the bottle and is being poured at their winery along with this Tempranillo and several other varietals.

(My bottle of their Sangiovese is in storage acquiring a bit more of the patina, which every good Brunello-style wine needs) If you are in San Diego it is worth a visit to their beautiful Escondido property where Peter and winemaker Denise will greet you enthusiastically and talk about their wines.

Score: 91

Price: $35

Alc: 13.4%

Budget Wine: Domaine Bousquet Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 Tupungato Valley Mendoza

domain bousquetAnother wine that requires some patience to appreciate. It had a distracting metallic aroma when first opened that gradually dissipates as the wine aerates and was gone by day two. Otherwise simple black cherry and blackberry aromas with some green notes in the background, a hint of menthol and subtle oak. The palate opens with simple dark fruit, but strong acidity and a core of minerality give the wine a lifted quality. It is sinewy and taut, not round and full as if all the flavor is being funneled and concentrated in the mid-palate. I enjoyed this quality. The tannins were soft; the finish peppery and acid driven.

Not extraordinary but sufficiently unusual and tasty to make it worth the price.

This is winemaker Jean Bousquet’s entry level wine made from organically grown grapes.

Score: 86

Price: $9

Alc: 14%

Your Coffee and You


This is hilariouscoffee and you. Entitled “What Your Coffee Order Says About You”, the writer proceeds to identify a unique personality description for every variation on the menu at your local coffee shack.

Here is a taste:

Skinny latte

The Diet Coke of coffee. You mouth your order to barista mid-phonecall and leave in a click of Manolos, clutching venti flagon w/ left hand, little finger extended, arm crooked by designer handbag. You work in something high-powered (publishing? Finance? Fashion?) but the high-milk content of your coffee order is symptomatic of your need for comfort and escape. Incidentally, skimmed is more fattening than whole milk, so the ritual self-denial is pointless.

So what does your coffee order say about you?

Oh, probably nothing but writers need something to write about on a slow news day.

Your Food, Your Choice, not Really


Three stories this week point to the fact that when it comes to food, the unconscious is king.

A new study shows that when ordering in restaurants we tend to choose menu items similar to those chosen by others at the table:

Have you ever been at a restaurant table where everyone ordered a salad? A new finding may explain why this happens: When we order in groups, we like to be similar to our friends, even if it means ordering something we would not typically pick on our own…. Diners at the same table tended to pick main dishes that were not exactly the same, but were from the same category — for example, if one diner ordered a mushroom burger, another might have ordered a bleu cheese burger….

In general, people didn’t really like salads or vegetarian dishes, compared with the other food choices. But in the study, that changed if more than one person at a table ordered a salad: the more salads that were ordered, the more people liked them.

The same was true for high-calorie and expensive dishes — these dishes were not typically liked unless more than one person at a table ordered them.


Scientists have also discovered why some people despise cilantro:

Cilantro tastes like soap to approximately 10% of the people who have had their genotype analyzed by 23andMe. The currently accepted explanation is that those of us who passionately despise cilantro were born with a genetic variant known as a single-nucleotide polymorphism (or SNP, pronounced ‘snip’).

And finally, the smell of chocolate turns us into mindless drones:

According to a new study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, people engage more with the merchandise and staff when a bookstore smells like chocolate.

Researchers in Belgium conducted a 10-day experiment at a general-interest chain bookstore, comparing customer behavior when the smell of chocolate was present to when it was not….

Overall, the researchers found that patrons were twice as likely to look at multiple books closely and read what they were about when the scent was in the air. They were nearly three times as likely to interact with personnel and ask questions after browsing the whole store.

But the chocolate scent had to jibe with subject matter for customers to be more drawn to the books. Researchers found the chocolate smell was “congruent” with books in the food, drink and romance genres, but “incongruent” with history, mystery and crime books.

All of which indicates why changing food preferences is hard—we are not really in control.

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



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%


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