Articles in Opinion
When I was just married I went with my new husband to a famous Jewish restaurant in London. I scanned the menu anxiously searching for something green.
“Excuse me,” I asked, “Do you have any vegetables, please?”
“Yes,” the waiter answered seriously, “we have dill pickles and latkes.”
That exchange demonstrates so much of what is wrong with traditional Ashkenazi fare. Certainly the food is delicious, rib-sticking and very tasty. Look at menus solid with dishes like matzo ball soup and kreplach, the delicious triangles of pasta filled with chopped meat floating generously in rich broth. There are slices of corned beef with a liberal side of deep fried potato latkes and over-large slices of lockshen pudding — noodles mixed with dried fruit and masses of fat and sugar. Of course all these dishes are wonderful and immersed with flavor and Jewish tradition. Lighter versions of some of the recipes form part of my book, “Jewish Traditional Cooking.” But maybe it would be sensible to serve one of these recipes as a treat or delicacy accompanied by a liberal quantity of vegetables and fruit, not all of them together at a single meal.
A diet for survival
The traditional Ashkenazi diet evolved from a fragile East-European existence and the shtetl — impoverished, flimsy villages.
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If people were fortunate enough to have a chicken, probably only for a festival, it was an old boiler, and in true Ashkenazi tradition it would have been placed in a large cooking pot with root vegetables and masses of water to make a soup. This soup would be extended with matzo balls or any kind of dough and rough bread, along with chopped gizzards and heart, and meat from the chicken’s neck. The neck skin would be separately stuffed with chopped fat and peppery flour and stitched, then roasted with the bird to create another meal called helzel. Those bubbas, grandmothers and mothers, knew that they could keep hunger at bay by adding calorie-laden extras. The chicken would likely be served at the festival meal with kasha, rice, potatoes or barley.
We are now in the 21st century and Ashkenazi tradition still follows that regimen. Jewish people manifest significant problems connected with obesity, including the so-called Jewish Disease, diabetes. Heart disease and cancers are known to be exacerbated by a high fat, high protein diet.
Adapting the Ashkenazi diet for the 21st century
So maybe it’s time to acknowledge this and accept change, as I did after marrying a lovely Sephardi man. After the Diaspora, the Sephardic Jews looked about their surroundings and adopted the cooking methods of their new neighbors using masses of cheap vegetables and fruits, cooking with olive oil rather than the artery-clogging schmaltz of their Jewish cousins. Instead of relying on frying or interminable stewing to add flavor, they began seasoning their food with fresh herbs, creating fragrant dishes redolent with glorious spices and mouthwatering taste.
When I wrote “Jewish Traditional Cooking” I wanted to include the inherited foods but lighten them where possible. Many of the appetizers are vegetable-based: baba ganoush, a fragrant Asian dish based on oven-roasted vegetables, and soup mit nisht – the ultimate low-calorie cauliflower soup that tastes of heaven but relies on the freshness of a good cauliflower, onions and a light stock and herbs. Lockshen pudding has exchanged its ancient stodgy image for a healthier alternative by adding masses of freshly grated apple, vanilla, mixed spices and fresh lemon zest.
Passover is no longer a stomach-clutching kilo-raising event in our home. We adore the lightness of a carrot and almond bake which rises soufflé-like for any chef, and the spinach and leek roulade with its lighter cheese filling still satisfies. For a modern Jewish woman understanding tradition and the demands of religion and custom, I looked to Morocco where I learned to cook fish in a tiny Fez kitchen with a mixture of fresh vegetables and a fabulous stuffing so that it can be eaten hot or cold. Turkish tradition showed me how to stuff a whole vegetable and experiment with butternut squash as the base for a stuffing of toasted pine nuts, lentils, brown rice, currants and masses of chopped mint, parsley and cilantro.
I believe that Ashkenazi Jews have to look to their Sephardi cousins to learn how to eat in the 21st century. They may not survive their traditional diet.
Top photo: Ruth Joseph. Credit: Western Mail, Thompson House, Cardiff
The holidays were nearing when I eagerly skipped down the yellow-brick road into Dr. Mehmet Oz’s world of “What To Eat Now: The Anti-Food-Snob Diet.” His opener — that “some of the tastiest and healthiest food around is also the least expensive and most ordinary” — was indisputably welcoming.
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Finally, I sighed with relief, our nation’s favorite star doctor will set the record straight. Eating healthy food doesn’t have to be rocket science. And it doesn’t have to be expensive. OK, yes, all the Google-smart news-speak mavens can choose to buy their fresh foods at the most expensive markets and thereby confirm their conspira-stories that healthy, local food is elitist.
But now, finally, we would get the straight dope on how we can eat well without breaking the bank.
I happily entered Dr. Oz’s world of bright and colorful frozen green peas and carrots. I read that we can enjoy some of our favorite foods — tacos, peanut butter, salsa and guacamole — and we can also “eat frozen and never feel that you are shortchanging yourself.” Hallelujah!
An egg is an egg?
But when Dr. Oz said “organic is great, it’s just not very democratic,” I stopped skipping. What he means by organic is revealed in his next sentence: “truffle oil, European cheeses and heirloom tomatoes.” No mention of everyday organic foods like apples, peas, carrots, beans. A bit later he confesses that he’s doing a “public-health service” to folks who are “alienated and dejected” because “the marketing of healthy foods too often blurs into elitism.” His public health service includes telling us there is no difference between organic and conventional foods. “An egg is an egg,” he says. What’s more, there’s “not much difference between, say, grass-fed beef and the feedlot variety.”
Let me get this straight: Organic is not democratic because … not everyone can afford truffle oil or European cheeses? The only organic food is the kind he shops for? Following that logic, if the only British car I bought was a Rolls-Royce, I could soundly conclude that British cars are not democratic because not everyone can afford a Rolls. That is, of course, ridiculous.
Affordable organic food is available
A real public health service from Oz would be giving devotees the low-down on organic: telling them that eating organic doesn’t mean buying truffle oil. Eating organic can mean consuming affordable, common foods. And eating organic can mean eating more nutritious food. This is where I get to thank Wal-Mart, which, like Dr. Oz, positions itself as serving the common person. Last November, Wal-Mart’s Economic Customer Insights Report announced that its “natural and organic food sales are growing almost twice as much as traditional food products.” This is not truffle oil. This is everyday organic and affordable food.
A real public health service was this recent study, “Is Local Food Affordable to Local Folks?,” which overturned many assumptions about the affordability of local and organic. Comparing prices between supermarkets and 24 farmers markets in 19 communities across six states in Appalachia and the Southeast, the study found that in 74% of the communities, local farmers markets produce was actually less expensive on average by 22%. In 88% of the communities, even organic produce was less expensive, on average by 16%. Overall, although local meats and eggs tended to be more expensive on average, when the costs of similar items were compared, the local food found at farmers markets was either the same or less expensive than in supermarkets in 74% of all cases, with an average of 12% lower cost. What’s more, the great news is that farmers markets are proliferating, meaning more affordable local and organic foods are available to low-income folks. Since 1994, according to a USDA report, farmers markets in the U.S. have more than quadrupled to 7,864 to date, with no end in sight.
Let’s not forget the nutrition argument. An important study showed grass-fed beef is nothing like conventional beef: it’s hugely healthier! Less fat overall, more healthy fats, more minerals, 300% more vitamin E, 400% more vitamin A and 500% more conjugated linoleic acid, which combats cancer, body fat, heart disease and diabetes. Yet another recent study by Penn State revealed striking differences between organic and conventional chicken eggs, with organic boasting twice the healthy fats, 38% more vitamin A and twice the vitamin E.
In my world, a real public health service would spread information not rumors. It would showcase the multiple benefits, including higher nutrition, of organic food. And it would show that, thanks to providers ranging from local farmers markets to Wal-Mart, more and more low-income people now can find — and afford – more healthy, nutritious, organic foods.
I applaud Dr. Oz for addressing the topic of affordable healthy food. Making healthy food more accessible to all is the right goal. But we don’t ridicule those who buy the latest smartphone as snobs and tell the rest to be happy with a rotary dial. Low-income folks don’t want rotary dial phones any more than they want sub-par food. So, Dr. Oz, please come back to the real world where everyone deserves to know the real dope on food: healthier, nutritious food can indeed mean organic foods — and if we look they’re becoming more available and affordable to us all.
Photo: Tanya Denckla Cobb. Credit: Dan Addison
I was trying to make a tart aux pommes (apple tart.) I followed the instructions in my cookbook and the final product tasted and looked delicious. But when I placed my finished dish beside the picture in the cookbook, it didn’t quite match up, which made me think: Was my dish made the way the chef intended? If the chef was here, would he or she have guided me differently?
A seed was planted. I wanted to transform the way people follow recipes. I came up with an idea that marries technology with the passion and skill that collaborate in the creation of master recipes.
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Here’s the crazy part: I was a guy from the music business without a single contact in the food industry, and zero cooking experience aside from my own kitchen. There’s something to be said for determination.
When Top Chef Masters winner Rick Bayless, founder of Chicago’s Frontera Grill and award-winning Topolobampo, agreed to cook for us, I devoted my heart and soul to getting it right. I tried every recipe we were going to shoot in my own kitchen before we got to the set. To my family’s initial enjoyment — and ultimate dismay — I cooked Mexican food for three weeks.
Learning from chefs is the key to recipe video app
And I ruined more than half the recipes. Enchiladas are messy, I misread several steps, and making a mole is just plain hard. No matter that I was determined, I couldn’t seem to get the results I wanted. But after we shot our segment with Rick, I remade some of those recipes by following the video, and they were perfect. Being able to watch exactly how Bayless executed his recipes changed and refined the way I cook.
I remember the set being silent. It was nearing the end of a 14-hour shooting day and Rick was preparing his last recipe, potato-chorizo tacos. He began blending tomatillos. I watched them change color and texture, and then he stopped the blender, opened it and paused. His eyes closed and he inhaled deeply, smiling as he took in the aroma.
Chefs like Rick are present. They use all of their senses: listening for when something is done; smelling when it’s time for the next step. They recognize nanomoments that call for the next decision, fleeting interludes that novices like me are likely to miss. These chefs have an innate respect and appreciation for ingredients and what they can become.
It’s inspiring to watch chefs like Rick, Nancy, Jonathan and Anita in their element. They’re like musicians. A guitar is replaced with a knife, sheet music with raw ingredients, and harmony with a final dish — an outcome of labor, love and inspiration. Reading their recipes can give a home cook incentive, but watching professional chefs in action gives a novice another dimension of inspiration. More practically, it provides the tools necessary to make an enchilada that looks, and tastes, like a Master’s enchilada.
Top photo: David Ellner. Credit: Danny Sanchez
“People have the right to know what is in their food,” Whole Foods Market founder and co-CEO John Mackey told a gathering of customers at his company’s Pasadena store. And when it comes to eating genetically modified anything, he said, the folks who shop at Whole Foods have made it clear: “They don’t want it,” he says.
Mackey listens to his customers. Last week Whole Foods announced that, within five years, all genetically modified ingredients for sale in its stores will be labeled. He is the first retailer in the U.S. to take this step; the story ran on the front page of the New York Times.
In the battle over the American shopper, Mackey, a baby boomer vegan from Austin, Texas, has called out the big boys of GMOs — Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill and other multinational chemical companies. If they want access to his customers, they’ll have to play by his rules.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Mackey told the group in Pasadena in February, smiling as he shifted his thin frame from one desert boot to the other. “But if the government won’t act, we will.”
Most of the corn and soybeans grown today in the United States is genetically altered, as is a growing list of fresh produce sold in neighborhood grocery stores. And while Mackey has 339 Whole Foods stores in the U.S. and Canada, he’s a junior varsity player in the North American grocery business. The Grocery Manufacturers Assn., a trade group representing major food companies and retailers, wasted now time in denouncing his GMO labeling decision.
But Mackey’s 30-plus years of paying extraordinary attention to his customers’ wants and needs have earned him a fierce loyalty that allows him to punch well above his weight. No one is counting him out in this fight.
It was Mackey’s business philosophy that took me to Pasadena last month to hear him speak during a stop on the promotional tour for “Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business,” a new business management book he co-wrote with Raj Sisodia, a Bentley College marketing professor.
“I believe capitalism is the greatest force for good in the world. It alleviates poverty, creates goods and services and allows the culture to advance,” Mackey said in his opening remarks. His goal in writing the book was to help companies claim an individual sense of purpose, something he believes many businesses lose in the struggle to survive.
If the only goal of a business is to make money, he says, it will fail to reach its potential. In the book, Mackey writes, “Conscious businesses treat satisfying the needs of all their major stakeholders as ends in themselves, while traditional businesses often treat stakeholders other than investors as the means to achieving their ultimate goal of profit maximization.”
Doing it right starts by establishing a “core value” to guide your business, he says. At Whole Foods, it is to be a financially successful retailer providing customers high quality whole, organic products.
With its core value in mind, a conscious business then considers the needs of all of its stakeholders. Meeting the needs of the customers is first and foremost, but it extends to the needs of employees, suppliers, investors, the communities around stores and the environment as a whole. When a company gets the balance right, it can improve the lives of all stakeholders.
GMO labeling follows business philosophy
Viewing his decision on GMO labels through that prism, Mackey didn’t have much choice. His key stakeholders — his customers — made it clear that they wanted to avoid GMOs. But he took his suppliers’ needs into account as well. Rather than force them to immediately comply with Whole Foods’ new requirement, he gave them time to secure non-GMO ingredients or to accept the effect of being labeled accordingly.
Mackey has made similar moves at the Whole Foods meat and fish counters. Some customers won’t eat anything but grass-fed beef. Others think conventionally raised beef is just fine. Which fish are sustainably caught or raised? The labels tell the story. And while the effort is at best a work-in-progress, he is setting a standard that other grocery stores are struggling to match.
It’s all a process, he says. A “conscious business” gradually becomes more and more aware of its “reason for being,” or its core value. Enlightenment, wisdom and all of the higher thinking implied in those words, he says, gets easier with experience.
Conscious capitalism “is about leadership that serves the higher good of the organization, a culture that helps humans to flourish and self-actualize themselves.
“We are not retailers with a mission as much as missionaries who retail,” he wrote in the book. And his mission is to spread the gospel of conscious capitalism and change the world for better, forever. An optimist, Mackey believes any company can be saved. Maybe even GMO giant Monsanto.
Top photo: John Mackey. Credit: Chris Fager
St. Patrick’s Day used to mean corned beef and cabbage, but with Ireland’s culinary renaissance, cooks are exploring other traditional Irish foods. I’m thinking not only of Irish lamb stew and crubeens, golden-crusted pigs’ feet turned meltingly tender inside a crisp breaded crust. I’m also thinking of the Irish blaas. On a recent visit to Ireland I discovered a bakery that honors this delicious relic of the past.
Barron’s Bakery, in the small town of Cappoquin, County Waterford, is one of Ireland’s last traditional bakeries, with brick ovens dating to 1887. Because these ovens have never been modernized, they still operate without thermostats. Each firing yields a slightly different batch of bread, a variability prized by the townsfolk who flock to Barron’s.
The bakery is most famous for their “blaas” — light, plump yeast rolls with a subtle malty taste and a heavy dusting of flour. The rolls’ origins lie with the thrifty French Huguenots who immigrated to Waterford in the 17th century — blaa is likely a corruption of the French blanc (white) or blé (wheat) — and who are said to have introduced rolls made from leftover pieces of dough.
In 1802, blaas entered the Irish mainstream thanks to Brother Edmund Ignatius Rice, the founder of the Christian Brothers, who began baking them at Mount Sion Monastery in Waterford City. Made only of flour, water, yeast and salt, these rolls were inexpensive to prepare and thus affordable to the city’s poor.
Ireland recently submitted an application to the European Union to grant the rolls Protected Geographical Indication, PGI, status as a distinctive regional food. This move is significant, as Ireland has generally been slow to request special status for its food products. Only four are currently registered: Connemara Hill lamb; Timoleague Brown Pudding; Clare Island Salmon; and Imokilly Regato, a cow’s milk cheese from County Cork that has Protected Designation of Origin, PDO, status.
The application detailing blaas’ place of origin makes County Waterford sound like a magical realm: “The river Blackwater runs through the area and includes the town-lands of Dangan, Narabawn, Moolum, Newtown, Skeard, Greenville and Ullid.” The actual production of blaas looks a bit more prosaic. The 3-inch rolls are shaped by hand into rounds or squares, with the dough hand-floured at least three times in the process. This heavy dusting of flour both protects the dough from the oven’s intense heat and gives the blaas a distinctive top. Like American pan rolls, the pieces of unbaked dough are set side by side to merge as they rise. When the rolls are ready to eat, they are pulled apart, yielding a crusty top and soft interior and sides.
Irish blaas through the generations
Today, blaas are eaten either for breakfast (the local radio station’s morning program is called “The Big Blaa Breakfast Show”) or for lunch, when they’re often filled with fried potatoes or dilisk, a local seaweed. I was lucky enough to arrive in Cappoquin just as a tray of blaas was emerging from the oven, and the bakery owners, Esther Barron and Joe Prendergast, insisted that I have a taste. A first crisp bite immediately gave way to a tender and aromatic crumb. I was hooked.
Established in 1887, Barron’s remains at the heart of Cappoquin — so much so that last year a book commemorating its 125th anniversary was published with tributes from the bakery’s customers and staff. Esther is the fourth-generation Barron to run the bakery. She’s a remarkable woman, the youngest of five daughters who took over the business on her father’s death in 1980. Even though baking was very much a man’s profession, she made a success of it.
Through her work she tries to honor the memory of her grandfather John, who spent time in New York in the 1880s and dreamed of emigrating to the United States. But his wife and new baby called him back to Cappoquin, where he eventually took over his father’s bakery and sired 11 more kids!
Adding new traditions
Esther and Joe are reviving other traditional Irish baked goods like spotted dog, which is a white soda bread with fruit, and Chester cake, a spice cake originally devised to use up stale bread. And they’re experimenting with the use of locally grown organic wheat to improve their bread and support local farmers. Barron’s is so devoted to the Cappoquin community that they fire their ovens on Christmas Day so that the villagers can roast their turkeys communally.
For St. Patrick’s Day, Barron’s bakes a special cake in the shape of a shamrock, though it’s far from the kind of plain sheet cake you might expect. Theirs is an extravagant madeira cake with lemon curd and buttercream, covered in white fondant and decorated with piped green roses and the Gaelic greeting “La Fheile Padraig.”
For the past three years Barron’s has also organized a big St. Patrick’s Day parade, another aspect of their community involvement. In April, Waterford will be host to its sixth annual Festival of Food, and Barron’s is one of the sponsors. Esther Barron stands ready to welcome guests from near and afar with a taste of her special blaas.
Darra Goldstein. Credit: Courtesy of Darra Goldstein
Why did I smell roasted soybeans in my glass of vintage Bordeaux? Ten years ago, as the tasting editor at Wine & Spirits Magazine, sniffing a glass of vintage red wine took me back to my earliest childhood memories of foods in Korea. While some in the tasting panel described the smells of mushroom and barnyard flavors, my descriptors recalled the pungent smells of fermented foods such as aged kimchi and soybean paste that were always condiments on the table in our home.
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By Lauryn Chun
It was a clarifying moment. I understood the tie that binds some of the most flavorful fermented foods. Kimchi (a brined pickle) also undergoes the process of fermentation that brings out complex, secondary flavors and umami (the taste of a savory protein compound in certain natural foods).
The fermentation connection
The complementary relationship between wine and the Korean food I grew up eating turned auspicious a few years ago when I started my business: Mother-in-Law’s Kimchi, a line of packaged napa cabbage, daikon and vegan kimchis. Kimchi goes through active fermentation when its vegetables (typically napa cabbage or radish) are mixed with a heady sauce of chili pepper flakes, garlic and ginger, and is aged for as little as three days and as long as a few years. The result is a crunchy, tangy, spicy and complex pickle that’s rich in digestion-enhancing probiotics. The flavors continue to change with time. I once opened a daikon radish kimchi aged over two years that had notes of aged salami and cheese.
As I wrote “The Kimchi Cookbook” and began testing a vast array of kimchi recipes using a panoply of seasonal vegetables, I explored the parallels of natural fermentation in winemaking and kimchi making. The process allowed me to help demystify and share the versatility of kimchi as a condiment and cooking ingredient that complements and enhances the pleasure of a meal much like an everyday wine.
Enjoying kimchi alongside wine results in a sensory experience in which taste and texture come alive. Both can be judged by their fruit flavors, length of acidity and overall balance.
Pairing wine + kimchi
Through a number of tastings, I have come across some stellar kimchi-wine pairings that can serve as a guide. For example, an off-dry white sparkling Grüner Veltliner or a German Kabinette Riesling is a perfect companion for the robust spice and texture of daikon kimchi. The wine’s bubbles and hint of sweetness help offset the heat and tangy notes of the kimchi and counterbalance the multitude levels of flavors. A simple Beaujolais Nouveau (yes, a red wine!) is wonderful with napa cabbage kimchi; the Beaujois’ lack of tannins brings out the fruity notes of the chili in the kimchi seasoning rather than spice that one would normally expect.
Being a wine lover shaped my understanding of kimchi — the characteristics in fermentation frame a balance of flavors and textures in my sensory experience that makes fermented foods so uniquely appealing to us all.
Top photo composite:
Lauryn Chun. Credit: Renato D’Agostin
Kimchi jars. Credit: Sara Remington
Lately I’ve been frustrating my customers, which is never a wise thing to do. We get asked all the time for analytical stats on the wines we offer and details about our winemaking practices. My catalogues tend to pass over such things, because I’ve reached a place in my drinking career where I find them otiose. This might seem snooty. So let me explain.
First, a wise quote from Peter Jost (of the estate Toni Jost), who said: “Judging a wine by its analysis is like judging a beautiful woman by her X-ray films.” Second, and further support for my theory, a remark I received from esteemed German winemaker Helmut Dönnhoff many years ago, when I asked him for the figures of a wine in my glass. “You don’t need these anymore, Terry,” he said. “Analyses are for beginners.”
But there are beginners, I must remember, and they’re curious, and it’s peevish for me to deny them the understanding they seek. If a drinker is interested in knowing how a wine was made, or in knowing what its acidity or residual-sugar or extract might be, this is entirely valid if she is trying to collate her palate’s impressions with the facts of the matter. That is a useful way of thinking — until it isn’t anymore.
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The ecstasy of defeat
I well remember traveling with an earnest young colleague who sought to guess how a wine was made strictly from its taste. He was especially eager to identify cask versus stainless steel aging. I loved the guy, but I knew the perplexing denouement that quivered a few days down the road. For indeed, at one winery where all the wines were done in cask, my pal was sure they used steel, and yielded to his dismay; however hard he tried, he just wasn’t getting it. When I told him he’d crossed the Rubicon into a place of far greater wisdom, he thought I had a screw loose. I tried to reassure him that being right was reassuring, but being wrong invited epiphany; you ascended to greater understanding through your mistakes.
I remember, though, the urge to understand, to find explanations, to learn the causes and effects of flavor. We mustn’t frustrate that urge – it’s human to be curious and I think we should respect curiosity. But we also have to help drinkers understand the limits of this vein of knowledge. It is a closed system that gives the simulacrum of expertise while actually leaving us in an airless chamber of our minds. We feel terribly knowledgeable discussing the details of a wine, but there’s a big-picture glaring at us that this approach won’t let us see.
If you’re hungry for knowledge of how a grower trains his vines, prunes his vines, binds his vines; if you seek to know the density of plantings per hectare and the space between the rows; if you’re curious about which clones were used, how the canopies were worked, if and when the winemaker did a green harvest, if the grapes were picked by hand, with what-size teams and with one big bucket or several smaller ones, then these are things you ought to know. Shame on me for finding them ancillary and ultimately trivial.
More than the sum of its yeasts
If you want to know the wines’ total acids, the amount of its sweetness, the must-weights of the grapes at picking, whether it fermented with ambient or with cultured yeasts, how it was clarified, what vessel it fermented in and at what temperature (and if the temperature was technologically controlled), whether it sat on its gross or fine lees and for how long, and whether it was developed in steel or in wood — I don’t mind telling you. But it worries me some. Because I fear that for each one of you who sincerely wants to compare what his palate receives with what’s actually inside the wine, there are many of you who want to enact value-judgments prior to tasting, because you’ve decided what’s permissible and what’s despicable. (This nonsensical approach is rampant in Germany.)
I am decidedly not in favor of excluding tasters from any wine because they disapprove of the effing yeast that was deployed, or because they won’t go near a wine with more than X-grams of sweetness. Who wants to enable something so repugnant?
Nor am I willing to abet the sad phenomenon of people talking about wine with what seems like authority, because of the “information” they’ve accumulated, whereas they’re actually blocked from attaining true authority by the rigid limits of their approach. If you’re stuck in the “how,” you’ll have a rough time finding your way to the “what.” And that is where true wisdom lies. The wonky isn’t a bad place to be, for a while, but it’s a dangerous place to stop, because like all objects of beauty, wine is more than the sum of its parts. If you’re busily probing into technical minutiae, will you remember to consider not only the application of technique but the expression of a vintner’s spirit? Will you remember to pause for just a second and consider how a wine makes you feel?
Photo: Terry Theise. Credit: Anna Stöcher
When new olive oils are fresh on the market it’s fun and illuminating to have an olive oil tasting, a sure way to prove that not all oils are alike. Indeed, differences in flavor, aroma and texture can be striking and might lead to thinking more creatively about how different oils can work with various types of food — in a sweet dessert, for instance, a simple green salad, or perhaps with an oven-braised fish.
A few things to remember when organizing a tasting: All your oils should be from the same harvest year, and not older than one year or they will have lost a lot their original oomph. And don’t even think about tasting anything but extra virgin, that’s where the character and individuality of oil comes in. Ordinary olive oil is like salad oil — it all tastes exactly alike.
How to begin olive oil tasting
Pour a couple tablespoons of each oil into separate glasses. Don’t feel you must have special glasses. The photo above shows my own hodgepodge, although I would do better to use a similar glass for each oil. And don’t make the mistake of trying to taste too many at once. Just three can be a good start, although five can be more revealing. Any more and palate fatigue sets in and it’s not fair to the oils at the end of the row.
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Note differences in color and texture. Then pick up a glass and hold it in your palm and, with the palm of your other hand on top of the glass, swirl to warm it. When you feel the temperature is right, take a deep sniff. Think about the aroma and what it’s like — artichokes or freshly cut grass? Old rancid walnuts or nail varnish remover?
Then taste, taking a small sip, not even a teaspoon, in your mouth. Hold it for a moment in the front of your mouth, then push it out to the sides. Finally, as you pull it toward the back of your throat, smile and suck in a little air on each side. And swallow. That last impression is most important — retronasal sensation is what sensory scientists call it — where aromas and flavors come together to define what it is you taste. You might sense fresh almonds or green tomatoes or tomato leaf; you might get a pine resin flavor. In most fine oils, you will sense some bitterness on the sides of your tongue, and pungency in the back of your throat when you swallow — enough sometimes to make you cough.
Professional tasters don’t dip bread to taste oil. If the bread is good, it will detract from the oil’s flavors, and if it’s bad, well, it will detract from the flavors as well. In between tastes, sip a little fizzy water or have a bite of tart green apple to clear your palate.
Here are a few oils I’ve recently had the privilege of tasting that have impressed me with their excellence. All are available in the U.S.
Capezzana: The Contini-Bonacossi family, well-known Tuscan wine producers, make oil from estate-grown Moraiolo and Frantoio olives, a typical Tuscan blend. The oil is a classic, but pleasantly mild and sweet without the intense, cough-producing pungency of many Tuscan oils. Clear green but unfiltered, it has a distinctive aroma of fresh-cut grass. ($42.95 for a half-liter bottle at Olio2go.com.)
COR Limited Reserve: California Olive Ranch, northern Central Valley, leads in the super-high-density production of good, reasonably priced, mass market oils. Limited Reserve, from the first harvest, is a more interesting unfiltered oil with a grassy fragrance and green fruit flavors. Not a lot of bitterness or pungency, but this unfiltered oil has the clean taste that should be a model for other California producers. (shop.californiaoliveranch.com, $17.97 for a half-liter bottle.)
Cru di Cures: From the Fagiolo sisters in the hills of Fara Sabina just north of Rome in Italy’s Lazio region, it is made with Frantoio and Leccino olives as well as a local cultivar, Carboncella. Dated to consume before 31 March 2014. Clear, unfiltered, pale green with gold highlights, it has a delicate fruity flavor but is well-balanced with bitterness and pungency in the after taste. (gustiamo.com, $27.50 for a half-liter bottle)
Laudemio Frescobaldi: Laudemio is an impressive association of 21 Tuscan olive oil estates, all making their oils according to the very strict parameters established by the group some decades ago. Frescobaldi is the easiest of this group to find in U.S. markets, an excellent example of a very carefully made oil, virtually fault free. But it is without the aggressive character typical of Tuscan oils — one that often puts off U.S. consumers. This 2012 harvest has a well-rounded flavor of fresh walnuts and a spicy peppery finish. A carton protects the clear bottle from light. ($40.80 for a half-liter at amazon.com)
Olio Verde: Made by Gianfranco Becchina in Castelvetrano, southwestern Sicily, from his own nocellara di Belice olives (so-called because they look like round green walnuts, noce in Italian). Dated 2012, from a very early harvest that began in late September, this pure-bred Sicilian oil has an almost Tuscan flavor profile; rich green fruit flavors, well-balanced with a spicy retrogusto. ($39.95 at www.Olio2go.com)
Pianogrillo: Made by Lorenzo Piccione from Tonda Iblea olives, a prestigious cultivar from Sicily’s Monti Iblei region. Dated 2012 harvest, to be consumed before 30 June 2014. It is not certified organic, but the producer states that no pesticides or chemical fertilizers have been used. Unfiltered, pleasantly lush in texture, green-gold in color, and very smooth in flavor with a typical fragrance of green tomato or tomato leaf. Pungency at the end adds interest — one of Italy’s most outstanding oils, IMHO. (gustiamo.com, $34.75 for a half-liter)
La Quagliera: Made near Pescara in the Abruzzo region of eastern Italy, just a few kilometers from the Adriatic, from local Dritta olives. Dated to consume before June 17, 2014. Brilliantly golden oil with the fragrance and flavor of ripe almonds. Very well-rounded and balanced between fruitiness and pungency, with a slightly bitter aftertaste. (gustiamo.com, $31.75 for a half-liter bottle.)
Séka Hills: A new arrival on the California olive oil scene. Séka Hills is made by the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, an independent tribe of Native Americans in the Capay Valley (east of Napa, west of Sacramento), from 82 acres of arbequina olives, newly planted in the super-high-density or hedgerow system. A clean, fresh almond flavor, typical of this cultivar, is balanced by a lightly pungent tickle in the back of the throat. An excellent example of how California is meeting the challenge of European imports. (sekahills.com/olive-oil, $16 for a half-liter bottle)
Il Tratturello: Made by Francesco Travaglini at Parco dei Buoi in Molise, eastern Italy, from local Gentile di Laurino olives. Dated October 2012 harvest, for use before May 31 ,2014. Another very early harvest, with fresh almond flavors, lightly bitter and pungent, and notes of apple and fresh olive fruit. (gustiamo.com, $42 for a ¾-liter bottle.)
Vicopisanolio: Made by the family of Nicola Bovoli, in Tuscany’s Pisan hills, overlooking the Tyhrrenian Sea. Dated 2012-2013 season for consumption before December 31, 2014. Very early harvest, certified organic. Green and clear, with artichoke and fresh herbs, quite pungent on the finish but beautifully balanced. (gustiamo.com, $43 a half-liter.)
Photo: Olive oil tasting. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins