Monday 4 April 2016

Fraud, food and natural wine

The article coincided with the week I happened to spend 100% more time on a farm than I usually do so it got me thinking. The reason I was on farms was to source (sounds better, really just buying) ingredients for our latest sit-down supper, the menu for which we’d promised would be entirely noord-centred and — (that word again) — sourced. No small feat during the dregs of winter but we did it and it was great. What exactly we did/made I’ll save for another story; but for now, it was all about kraut.

When I read it, the first thing I thought about was how impatient I’d been when required to wait 40 minutes while a lady on one of these farms counted out and calculated the cost of as many cheeses. She was operating at the speed of slow that makes you appreciate that little-spoken alternative use of the countryside: the pace of city life is just not for everyone (and mind you, we’re talking Amsterdam here). I don’t feel ashamed saying it: I had better things to do in that time, but the article made me laugh at the thought. Turns out this was a small price to pay for the (incidentally, excellent) cheeses we bought. At least they were what we thought they were.

Not so, it turns out, for many many more things than I thought (if I’ve ever really thought), says the article. So much not so, that in early 2015 the UK set up the National Food Crime Unit to fight food fraud; one, policy makers hope, that will one day be as good as the Dutch equivalent. 

Via a process that uses rapid evaporative ionisation mass spectrometry, scientists can test if what the food in front of them says it is, it really is. Be it a piece of cod or flakes of dried oregano (last year a UK institute found that 25 per cent of the samples supplied from supermarkets and online retailers contained substances other than oregano), the bottom line is that where there’s money, there’s crime, and where there’s big money, there’s big crime. Financial consulting firm PwC estimates that global trade in food fraud is worth around $40 billion a year.

But more on the things the authorities are finding another time. For now, what I’d like to write about is what we’re putting in wine

Fraud you say? Well, ish even though, technically, no. What wine makers put in to wine is legal. Not listing what they’ve put in on the label is also legal. And yet, people would probably be shocked to see the ingredients in a bottle of wine. Wine growers know that they would be shocked. Does’t this smack a teeny weeny bit, even if not exactly then something quite like, fraud?

So leaving for the minute the poisons that are sprayed on the grapes and vines while still in the vineyard, what’s in wine? WIRED wrote about it when it wrote about How to Make Mass-Produced Wine Taste Great so you should read that. But for here, it’s telling to know that in the US and EU, over 70 groups of additives and processing aids are allowed. These range from obvious additives like sugar and water, to more obscure powders and potions. And vegans beware: these can include animal derivatives such as albumen and lysozyme (from eggs), casein (from milk) trypsin (extracted from the pancreas of pigs or cows) and isinglass (an extract from fish bladders). 

For all its land-to-bottle connotations, much wine is being manufactured as a standardised product. Additives can be used to enhance colour, oak extracts for flavour and tannins for texture. If the season was rainy, makers can use reverse osmosis to extract water; if it was too dry, other machines can diminish the alcohol. Before fermentation even begins, enzymes may be added to speed up the removal of solid particles from the juice, to amplify desirable aromas and to intensify the colour of red wines and to clarify the colour of whites. 

Sound like your kinda thing? Then you're in luck. If not,  ever heard of ‘natural wine’? Well, if nothing more (and as a solid 6 month convert, it's a lot more, but more later) it’s what we all would like to think conventional wine is: ‘just’ fermented grape juice. Nothing else added to the vineyard, the bottle (except in some cases a minimal amount of SO2) or the label; this last point being the only thing it has in common with conventional wine.

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