Sunday 29 November 2015

Are you drinking beer aged in Mescal barrels yet?

Now that whoever is responsible for identifying trends at Albert Heijn and Jumbo has finally cottoned on to the fact the US makes lots of that thing called craft beer, both supermarkets are, finally, selling some US beer. And I'm grateful, I am, though this is hardly a forecast of what's to come. After all, it's taken them two years too long. More interesting maybe is the speed at which big beer companies are sucking up small breweries (Heineken has just bought a more than a 50% share in Brouwerij 't IJ), similar to the way in which Google buys anything that moves. But for how long will we see any old craft beer as the answer to bad beer?

Because let’s face it, who, when faced with hundreds of beer-runes scratched out on a blackboard, isn’t at least a little surprised that the beer they've finally chosen is actually something they feel like drinking? After all, you didn’t have much to go by when you picked The Great, Big Kentucky Sausage Fest (from Amager Bryghus and Against the rain Brewery) from a host of equally obscurely named others, did you?

But I get it. In a market of hundreds of thousands of beers in the US alone, (the American Brewers Association estimate that there were 4.000 plus craft brewers* in the US in 2015), I get why someone might have thought it necessary to call their beer Flying Dog’s Pearl Necklace Chesapeake Stout with artwork to match (of an oyster dressed up pwetty in poyils of course). They need to stand out. And anyway, I think it's fun. Plus I’ve already forgiven bands from my past life for having names ripped from freeform poetry.

Thursday 26 November 2015

The natural choice is to drink natural wine

“It would spoil people’s perception of wine” is, both inevitably and ironically, what got me first thinking about ‘it’. Before I heard that, all I thought about when I thought about wine was taste. That and whether or not this should be my last glass.

These were the (subtitled) words of a (French) grower in a documentary about how we manipulate wine and, armed with the terms ‘extract of pig pancreas and dried swim bladders of fish’ and a word I have since learned how to spell (Polyvinylpolyryrrolidone), I set off to tell my wine drinking friends. Not that anyone seemed to care. Most people seemed to think that even if this was true, that it probably wasn’t for the sort of wine that they drink. In fact, there seemed to be a direct correlation between the people who profess to enjoy wine the most and a confidence that this didn’t apply to them. And because all I’d seen was a documentary, for all I knew, they were right.

And so I bought a book.

I figured that if it was difficult to learn about what was being added to conventional wine, then I should start with natural wines and learn about all the stuff that’s categorically not in them. This, to cut a long list of additives short, is everything except (in some cases) a little sulphite at bottling. There’s no added water, no sugar, no tannins, no gelatine, no phosphates, no added yeasts. No (surprise!) dimethyl dicarbonate, acetaldehyde and not even any hydrogen peroxide. There are no animal derivatives, no iyoszyme (from eggs) or casein (from milk). And there have been no pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, insecticides or fertilisers used to treat the vines. There is, incidentally, also no legal definition as to what counts as natural, nor is the addition of any of the above to wine, illegal. 

Awkward on both fronts then. 

Legal definition, even recognition, aside; the point is that at one end of the make-wine continuum there are those that manipulate wine via heavy processing, additives or aids, and those at the other end that produce wine without adding or removing anything.

And so, armed with this new information, I return to my friends who, grateful for my concern as ever (not), ask, How do you even know that stuff’s in this wine? 

I don’t. And that’s the whole thing (ok, one of the things): we don’t know what’s in our wine.

Thursday 19 November 2015

On the popular culture of cookbooks

Fast food’s not in fashion anymore, everyone’s telling us to go slow. Restaurants too. They’re blocking mobile signal, reservations and you from Instagramming your food. They’re sitting you at communal tables and serving you their mamma’s-mamma’s recipes. They’ve been cultivating a lifetime of sourdough starters and the single estate coffee is made by a single barista one. single. cup. at. a. time. Slow food can be as simple as drip coffee – crazy, huh, how your parents had it right the whole time? New-school breweries are serving pickled eggs instead of peanuts and putting beer in wine casks. Noma went back in time to learn from Japan and if you’re not preserving, pickling, smoking or fermenting everything, have you checked you’re even alive? It goes without saying that you have the time, space and required amounts of sunshine to grow your own vegetables.

Like any fashion, versions of this trickle down to our homes, too. Christ, I’ve had a sheep’s skin lying under a heap of salt on my balcony for four weeks. Every time a workman comes to tell us how expensive double-glazing is (expensive), I pray he won’t comment. We’re brining the two cucumbers we managed to grow on land that, for all legal intent and purposes, we’re squatting, and the other day we found swiss chard growing there long after we'd abandoned it for winter. Come spring, there's talk of us putting bees there and we almost killed our kefir babies – honey is a bully.

We are where we eat and our souls belong to those whose cookbooks we have on our shelves. I suppose we should be happy print is not dead, long live print; but too many of these bestsellers are formulaic. Celebrity so and so with so and so million followers and oh, here’s a recipe for a juice and the secret to long lasting health or at least good skin.

Friday 13 November 2015

“I’ve never met a hungry atheist”

‘The theme was world hunger and we were in a salad bar’ is not the opening of a macabre joke but what happened. We had been invited to listen to Spanish journalist Martin Caparró tell us about the making of his book, ‘Hunger’, some of what he learned and who he met along the way. Hunger, he told us, was something that happened to others, not to us. It’s a cliché, the solving of which is on the eternal to-do list of every Miss Universe, and something that is easy for us to ignore.

Remember where we were sitting.

Caparró told us a story. He told us about the time he asked a woman what she would ask for if she had magic powers. “A cow”, she answered. And if she could ask for anything, no matter what or how much? “Two cows?” This incident, he said, showed him how small someone’s world can be. How simple. Surely, we can improve such a simple problem? Our own worlds are so big.

When lunch was brought to the tables, three big salads full of rocket and other non fork-friendly salad leaves, Caparró told us “There is no hunger in abstract. There are people who are hungry” at a time where, for the first time in history, we have been producing enough food for everyone living on Earth (7 billion when we have the capacity to produce for 12). Hunger, therefore, is not from a lack of food.

Hunger is a symptom of wealth distribution, or a lack thereof. It’s a symptom of the way we live and what we expect from life. Of the way we use the resources we have and the way we use those of others, those that don’t have. Let’s take meat: every 1 kg of flesh needs 10 kg of grain. When you choose to eat that kilo, there are a lot of people not eating grains. Worldwide, forty per cent of grain is used to feed livestock. I don’t know the percentage of the people – worldwide – that don’t get fed.

Bear with me, we'll get to the salad bit.


Wednesday 4 November 2015

What fraction of God are you if you can’t bake?

I roll out pastry with wine bottles and drop flour. I forget sugar and honest to god thought one time very recently (as in last week) I could replace baking paper with packing paper because it looked like baking paper and all I was thinking at the time was ‘god I forgot the baking paper’ and then relief: I thought how clever I am all. the. way. until I opened the oven and only really realised then that it was an oven and ovens are hot and hot burns paper. After I managed to separate the bottom of the galette from the packing paper that had come one with the galette, I thought this to be funny in a “it could always be worse” kind-ah way because under the pile of flour I dropped was the smoke alarm, battery disgorged.

I don’t bother pre-heating the oven because by the time I’m done with stage 1, 2, 3, the oven could have been pre-heated 4, 5 times over. And thank god I happened to have a pastry cutter because I of course don’t have a mixer, something I realised in July when I was baking cookies for our new neighbour. It is now November but back in July I thought ok, I’ll just mix the dough with my hands and now back to November I still mean to sound disarming when I say things like “I can’t even bake chocolate chip cookies”. This is to make me sound charming because who can’t even bake chocolate chips? I haven’t yet met the neighbour.

Charmingly enough, the lady who made the first chocolate chips also didn’t get what she expected. She thought if she baked in chunks of chocolate that they would melt to make chocolate cookies. Chocolate chip cookies are therefore a mistake and my own chocolate chip mistake turned into crumbles crumbled on top of Greek yoghurt with blueberries also. No one thought that was a mistake and when I told about my mistake my sister said I should have kept my mouth shut because then you create the space for people to see genius.   

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