Friday, April 27, 2007

WTN: Cocchi Barolo Chinato

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The Cocchi Barolo Chinato didn't make sense. Oliveto put it on their list of dessert wines, but Barolos are big, robust, dry reds you drink with osso buco. When the waiter brought the bottle, the label said it was from Asti, but the famous city and the vineyards of Barolo, a pretty and well-heeled hilltop town, sit 30 miles apart from each other.

Melissa and I asked the waiter about the clash of concepts, and he dove into the restaurant's database for answers. The Asti-based producer buys Barolo wine and adds quinine. And rhubarb. And gentian. And secret spices. (K & L's web site says "secreted spices." I hope that's a typo). "Ah," I said, "it's like vermouth, but with Barolo."

And I didn't like it. It had raging aromas of menthol and cumin, anise and tobacco, It had a medicinal taste and a bitter finish. Melissa, who didn't mind it, compared it to gin. She wonders if I prepared myself for a dessert wine and ended up reeling under the very different digestivo. Maybe in a different context, with different expectations, I would like the wine more. But I won't rush to the store to add it to my rack.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Where Are The Snobby Wine Professionals?

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I recently noticed this quote in Amy's review of Educating Peter. She voices a sentiment that I think many people share:

Here's the thing I hate about wine, the attitude. You know what I'm talking about. Wine should be something we enjoy and yet it easily slips into something that intimidates instead. Of course it's not the fault of the wine. It's the people who write about it, sell it and pour it who use it as a weapon against the unsuspecting. I haven't actually met any intimidating winemakers, although it may just be a matter of time.

I think at this point I know a good number of wine professionals. I've interacted with wine writers, sommeliers, retailers, importers, and distributors. I've met asses, hypocrites, and wackos.

I've met plenty of wine snobs, too: all of them have been wine consumers who want to show how much they know. I've never met a wine professional who tries to intimidate consumers about wine.

It just doesn't make sense. Those of us in the wine industry—at least every person I've met—entered it because the passion for wine grabbed us and wouldn't let go. We want to share that passion like newly converted zealots. On a practical level, we don't want to intimidate wine drinkers because they are our bread and butter. More drinkers equals more reasons to hire wine writers or sommeliers.

The image of the imposing sommelier is a fixture in our minds, and I'm sure they exist. Somewhere. I don't doubt consumers feel intimidated by wine: Everyone has this silly notion that they should know something about wine before the sommelier approaches. Before I became interested in wine, I always just said, "Hey, I don't know what I'm doing; I'd love to hear your advice." I still say that, when faced with a wine list I can't breach, like the Italy-heavy list at Incanto. Every sommelier and wine merchant who hears me pounces on the opportunity to educate me. Education is what we writers and those who work face-to-face with the drinker always want to provide.

So where are the intimidating wine professionals? Have you met any? Have I just been lucky? Or am I oblivious to the intimidation? No need to name names, but I'd love to hear your stories. I think the intimidating wine professional is a myth in this day and age. Prove me wrong.

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Monday, April 23, 2007

A Morning Tour Of Chinatown, Edible East Bay, Spring 2007

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Ducks hanging at Sun Hing
Photo by Melissa Schneider

I've always been shy about diving into Oakland's Chinatown, even though it's mere blocks from my apartment. But when my Edible East Bay editor wanted to set me up with longtime Chinatown explorers Victor Gee and Rhonda Hirata, I jumped at the chance for a guided tour of the best places to eat and shop. I wrote up our weekday morning stroll, including addresses, for the Spring 2007 issue, which the distibrutor is lugging through Alameda and Contra Costa counties as I write. It is the most blog-post-like of my published pieces.

I know the real reason I walked past the restaurant windows, with mahogany-colored duck and pig carcasses hanging upside down. The shops intimidated me. I've studied European cuisine until it feels familiar. In Chinatown, I had no interior dictionary to connect the food for sale and the food I know. I had no map for the bright-red symbols and strange words painted across pastel menu pages. I had no guide to get me started.

You'll also find articles on morels, Oakland's Food Policy Council, the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, and more. Keep an eye out for the issue at local farmers' markets, Andronico's, Vintage Berkeley, Bakesale Betty, Market Hall, and other select destinations. You won't have a problem spotting the gorgeous cover, a print by artist Adria Peterson. Don't want to hunt down the magazine? Have it delivered to your door when you subscribe.

As an aside, check out this fantastic interactive map of Downtown Oakland. Melissa discovered it recently.

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FTC To Investigate Food And Beverage Companies

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A few years ago, I saw Marion Nestle speak at Cody's Books. She noted that food companies were worried about future obesity lawsuits. The message I got from her talk was, "They know they're vulnerable to attack." Or as Coca-Cola's Chief Creative Officer Esther Lee, says in this article at AdAge, "Our Achilles heel is the discussion about obesity." So you can imagine their concern at the news that the FTC will conduct a widespread probe into advertising aimed at children and the healthfulness of those products.

From the article:

And it's getting even bigger as the Federal Trade Commission takes the extreme step of issuing compulsory requests for information from 44 food, beverage and quick-service restaurant chains this summer. The goal is to get a "more complete picture" of their kid-marketing practices, especially in the unplumbed arenas of in-store promotions, events, packaging, internet marketing and product placement in video games, movies and TV programs.

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Colbert on rBGH

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Just in case you've missed the link on the other food blogs you read, go watch Stephen Colbert's satirical look at rBGH. rBGH: It's Jesus for cows.

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Do I Love Wine That Loves?

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My friend Phil reminded me about the Wine That Loves line of wines. The idea is that you buy a bottle of wine to go with the food you're eating. The labels show you the food that the wine loves, with bottles for pizza, chicken, steak, pasta with tomato sauce, and fish.

At first I liked the idea. It might entice infrequent drinkers to explore wine more. It would take the fear out of pairing wine and food, and would remind shoppers that wine belongs on the dinner table, not in the isolation chambers of tasting notes in wine publications.

But I wonder if these wines dumb down shoppers. A Wine That Loves bottle doesn't give the buyer the tools to pair wine with food. It simply says, "Here's the answer." Where is the education? How does the shopper grow from Wine That Loves Chicken to ordering another, different bottle later? Does Wine That Loves Pizza love ham and pineapple pizza as much as it does peppers, olives, and sausage? Of course the Wine That Loves company would probably be happy with you buying more of their bottles, and not expanding your knowledge.

On top of the dumbing-down problems, I disagree with their sommelier's choices. A white wine with grilled salmon? I'd choose a light, fruity red, unless the sauce steered me back towards a weighty white. Pinot Noir with salmon is the classic counterexample to the tired "Red wine with meat, white wine with fish" mantra. He also goes against the wine experts who have taught me about acidity, saying this about Wine That Loves Pasta With Tomato Sauce:

The right wine for this acidic dish needs to be low in acidity. If the acidity is too high, the wine will clash with the food resulting in an unpleasant sour or tart taste.
I've always learned that your wine should have more acidity than your food, lest the acidic food make the wine seem flabby. That's why it's hard to pair wines with salads and pickles. And he fails to mention that tomato sauce has sugar in it as well. How does that factor into the Love?

Has anyone tried these? Are the wines any good? Did they go with the food as well as they promised? What are your thoughts about wine and food pairings?

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Marbling Ice Cream, Part I

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Photo by Melissa Schneider.

When I pored through David's book, I noticed a small box that explained how to marble two ice creams: make the individual flavors, freeze them for about an hour, and then add alternating dollops of each to a central container. Tap out the air bubbles; finish freezing for another few hours.

What it doesn't say, perhaps because it's so obvious, is that you should choose two ice creams with contrasting colors. When I pictured a marbling of strawberry and white chocolate ice creams, I saw a map of dark red splotches on an ivory background, vivid, strong colors you might find on a wild horse.

But strawberry ice cream, as you probably know, is pink. In my case, it was pale pink. Pale pink and ivory don't contrast; they blend. Instead of a piebald mustang, I got a My Little Pony pinto.

The ice cream tasted fine. The white chocolate created a subtle undercurrent against the bright strawberry, a flavor that will only improve as the plump red berries show up at local farmers' markets.

But what to do about the contrast? If I go to the effort to marble ice creams, I want my guests to notice. Privately, David tells me that his strawberry ice cream recipe, made without eggs, is darker than the version I made, which is a hodgepodge of techniques. So perhaps I'll use his recipe. Maybe I need to use cherry or raspberry, or fresher strawberries, instead.

Melissa is willing to suffer through the experiments. She's good to me that way. And we'll make sure you get to follow along.

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Monday, April 16, 2007

WTN: 2004 La Cabotte, Côtes du Rhône

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For my current wine class, I don't limit the wines to ones I already know. Because the class is about sensory analysis, I choose wines that I know will illustrate certain characteristics. So each night's batch is something of a crap shoot, though I buy or beg from people I trust.

As I poured the last wine of the night on Thursday, the 2004 La Cabotte Côtes du Rhône, I asked my students to describe the aromas. Earlier, I had set up 70-80 vials with isolated scents—from green apple to liquid smoke—to help them solidify associations between scents and vocabulary. Freshly equipped, they poured out adjectives for this intense wine: smoke, soy sauce, tar, deep black cherries, a bit of bacon fat.

And then we went through an analysis exercise, reinforcing the first class's lessons on acidity, complexity, balance, and weight. I have the students rate these aspects on simple low-to-high scales. They discussed the slightly coarse tannins, but also talked about how the flavors came through despite the tongue-shriveling grip. We talked about good structure because this wine illustrated it nicely.

And as we talked, we all came to the same conclusion at about the same time. This was a good wine. Complex, well-balanced, and heavy without being overbearing. Then I told them the price, $10 at Paul Marcus Wines, and they started scribbling down the name. I went back to the store and bought 4 bottles for our rack. (A friend tells me that it's also available at Berkeley's Whole Foods, which for most items means that you can also find them at other Bay Area Whole Foods stores.)

Food Thoughts
This wine's weight should steer you towards medium-heavy dishes. It could probably handle a steak, but I'd prefer to pair it with stew, roast chicken, or duck. Especially duck: The wine's acidity and tannins could slice through the fatty flesh, and the intense fruit flavors would complement the dark meat. Braised meats, sugo, or sausages would work as well. I'd decant the wine for half an hour or so before drinking it.

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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Bees And Cell Phones

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A decade or more ago, I bought a book called Why Things Bite Back, and one of its key points was that technology solves old problems but creates new ones. Call it the Law of Conservation of Anxiety.

I thought of that book when I read today's news that some scientists believe that cell phone usage has created Colony Collapse Disorder. CCD is a catastrophe breaking over world agriculture like a tsunami. Bee colonies have been shutting down left and right in unprecedented numbers for no good reason. Why is this a problem? Because a wide range of farmers rely on bees to pollinate their crops. No bees, no crops, no food.

But I have to wonder about this theory, which arises from the fact that bees won't return to the hive when someone's using a cell phone in their vicinity. Why this year? Shouldn't we have seen a gradual decline in bee colonies inversely proportional to increased cell phone usage? And how would it spread to Europe from the U.S., given that Europe has deeper cell phone penetration than this country? Or is there a tipping point at work here? Or is it not just cell phones, but the increasingly ubiquitous wifi networks?

Scientists around the world are scrambling to find an explanation for CCD, so you can expect to hear any number of theories in the coming months. Fingers have already pointed to global warming; as with the cell phone theory, no experiments have shown conclusive connections.

And if cell phones are the problem, how do we fix that? Tell everyone to stop using them? Or require users to only call from a shielded place, such as a car?

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Friday, April 13, 2007

Cantillon, C'est Bon!

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I first learned of Cantillon beer, the most traditional lambic beer in Belgium, through The Art of Eating. Four and a half years ago, I posted about a visit to the Brussels brewery—though I warn you that I squirm and wince when I read my earlier writing. My respect for the van Roy family's commitment to tradition and artisan techniques has only grown in that time. When my editor at the Chronicle suggested I pitch him beer stories, I jumped at the chance to write about this unusual brewery. My article appears today.

If you've never tasted Cantillon, you've probably never tasted real lambic. Cantillon is sour. Its fruit beers are bone-dry. The brewery does not cut corners. Forget Lindeman's or other industrial brews; Cantillon is a beer unlike any other.

This assignment gave me the chance to get to know Cantillon again, and I think I'll be stocking up. If you're in the Bay Area and want to try some, the Toronado has a larger-than-normal selection as part of their Belgian Beer Month.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Perfect Scoop

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Since the Glace-A-Tron 6000 arrived last December, I've made lots of ice cream. But until a week ago, I only had one recipe book on my shelf: Cook's Illustrated's out-of-print How to Make Ice Cream. The tiny book only features traditional ice cream and gelato recipes, and—real mint chip and salted caramel aside—I've lacked the time and energy to develop new recipes. I've been deep in an ice cream rut.

David Lebovitz's The Perfect Scoop is the friendly passerby offering to push me back onto the road of inspiration. Within moments of opening it, Melissa searched for a pad of stickies she could use to mark pages. Rice Gelato, Panforte Ice Cream, and Lemon-Speculoos Ice Cream were just some of the flavors on her list. David's more modern flavors—Pear-Pecorino, Olive Oil, and Parsley—went on mine.

A quick primer on technique, equipment, and ingredients opens the book, and then you dive into a sea of recipes: several dozen ice creams and gelatos and a couple dozen each of sorbets, granitas, and sauces. If you enjoy David's blog, you'll enjoy the witty and wry prose. Each recipe lists suggested pairings from the sauces section, so you'll want to try recipes a few times with different toppings.

My quibbles with the book come down to taste. I prefer fewer egg yolks in my ice cream—my vanilla uses half as many yolks as David's—as did most of the participants in a blind "vanilla off" I held at Easter dinner. David also likes more mix-ins than I do, though I like the idea of adding chopped chocolate truffles. And I'll note that his rice gelato, essentially frozen rice pudding, requires a good 30 minutes, not 5 or 10, to soften enough for an ice cream scoop; the ground-up starch makes the gelato rock hard. On the other hand, it's worth the wait.

But you can adjust the recipes to your tastes. With so many inspiring ideas, you'll get plenty of practice.

This book was sent to me for review. Also, David's a blog-friend and we have a number of mutual friends.

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Monday, April 09, 2007

Wines of the United States, UCB Extension

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A new UC Berkeley Extension catalog is coursing through the mail as you read this. You all know what that means: the announcement for my next wine class. This summer, I'll be teaching a 4-week course entitled Wines of the United States. The school offers Wines of California and Europe, but I wanted to show my students some of this country's other wines, which can be hard to find here in the middle of California's behemoth wine industry.

Here's the schedule I pitched:

  • Class 1: Texas and the Southwest
  • Class 2: The East Coast (New York and Virginia, among others)
  • Class 3: The Midwest (Missouri, Iowa, Ohio, Michigan)
  • Class 4: The Pacific Northwest (Oregon, Washington, Idaho)

Sign up early; sign up often.

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Sunday, April 08, 2007

Markets of Paris

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I would like to give Markets of Paris the review it deserves. I would spend a week in the City of Light, visiting the markets open on each day. Then I would tell you if Dixon and Ruthanne Long's 500-word descriptions do justice to each market's ambience. I pitched this idea to OWF's publisher, but he wouldn't approve the budget.

But the next time I go to Paris, I'll use this pocket-sized book to help plan our trip. The guidebook promises to send its readers to places that Melissa and I like: Those outside of most tourist books and inside the hearts of locals. The book covers markets of all types, from food markets to the Marché aux Timbres et aux Cartes Téléphoniques—stamps and phone cards. It also features information about French culture, the authors' favorite brasseries and bistros, and other tourist information.

As I considered the book for review, I found myself flipping it open at random times of the day to discover a new market. There's one for used and antiquarian books, a couple of flea markets, and a legion for cheese and vegetables. Armchair travelers will enjoy the little voyages possible in the straightforward prose, but actual visitors may be frustrated that there's no "week at a glance" view. If I were only going to be in Paris on a Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, I'd have to flip through the entire book to learn which markets are open. But that's a minor complaint.

Pack this guide in your luggage next time you're en route to Paris. I know I will.

This book was sent to me for review.

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Where Did The Feast Move From?

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A fellow National Puzzlers' League member posed a question to the mailing list: Where does movable feast come from? The answer isn't "the title of a Hemingway novel." A flurry of word geeks chimed in, and I guess it's no surprise that Wikipedia gives the full scoop. Christian holidays tied to a particular date, such as a saint's day or Christmas, are immovable feasts. Christian holidays that can shift around the calendar, such as Easter, are movable feasts. Now you know.

Speaking of movable feasts, the rules for calculating Easter's date for any given year are deliciously complicated and worth a look. Über-mathematician John Conway published the algorithm, an adjunct to his system for determining the day of week of any given date, in the second volume of the original Winning Ways series. I don't have the new versions handy as I write this, but I'd guess it's now in Winning Ways Volume 4.

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Monday, April 02, 2007

To Get The Ungettable Table

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Want a seat at a hot restaurant? Read this Wall Street Journal article before it disappears behind the paywall next week. My friend Aren gets a mention for his website, where he helps people get a table at The French Laundry.

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Around The Web

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The Onion did a "man on the street" segment about Burger King's small steps toward more humane food. The responses will give you a nice Monday chuckle.

My friend Louisa Thomas Hargrave, founder of the Long Island wine industry, gave me a heads-up about Zabibu, a blog chronicling Louise Leakey's efforts to make wine in Africa. Louise represents the current generation of the famous Leakey family, who have unearthed and explored Africa's role as the cradle of humanity.

Meanwhile, Tish reminded me about Martha Stewart's attempt to trademark Katonah. She'd like to use her hometown's name as a brand, but unfortunately other people live there as well, and for some reason they object to the idea. Would they have to put little ™ symbols on their return addresses? Would we, sending mail into the town? Tish has attacked the problem with his signature wit, putting out a satirical newsletter that skewers the Stewart empire.

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