Itata and the roots of Chilean wine

I am indebted to the De Martino family for their research into this fascinating region of Chile. It is fair to say that they rediscovered its potential as part of their quest to identify original terroirs in Chile.

Itata is not a region which the wine cognoscenti know a great deal about

The wines from here are very particular, deeply embedded in the traditions of the locality. Our knowledge of Chile tends to be based on matching certain grapes to certain regions– Syrah with Choapa & Elqui, Chardonnay with Limari, Sauvignon with Casablanca and the coastal regions, Carmenere & Cabernet with Maipo. You have to journey further south to where the Spanish first colonised to find the original varieties, Pais (ironically known as the Mission grape) for red and Muscat of Alexandria for white. Rather than the huge monocultural estates of the north, the land here is spread across wild rolling hills, a patchwork of small organically-farmed, horse-ploughed vineyard parcels of thick-trunked bush vines still owned by the local huasos.

When the Spanish colonizers landed at the Port of Concepción, they brought with them the Muscat of Alexandria and Pais (Listan Prieto) grapes. As a result, the first grape vines in Itata were planted in 1551. These grapes came from the Canary Islands originally and had been collected en route to Latin America. Due to destruction caused by subsequent earthquakes and the desire to “improve” the quality of the wines, other grape varieties –including Cinsault and some rare whites that are only known by their local names (such as Corinto) – were introduced to the region at the beginning of the 20th century.

From the beginning, Itata wines were highly-regarded as evidenced by the following quotes:

“Vine growing adapts much better to the southern wine provinces, the wine of Concepción is superior in quality to the ones from other areas” – Eduard Poeppeg, German traveller. 1828.

“The French have a singular affinity to the city of Concepción, and they claim the reason is the excellence of their wines”- Miguel de Olivares, priest. 18th century.

As winemaking and grape-growing expanded across the country other wineries began to gain influence. These factors, in addition to Chile’s increasing centralization, caused Itata to slowly lose its prominence and eventually become all but forgotten as a wine region. However, in recent years the valley has recovered its relevance and is now recognized as a treasure of the Chilean countryside. In this way, the Itata Valley has allowed growers to return to their origins, rediscover forgotten varieties and examine the work carried out by the first winemakers in the country.

The gorgeous landscape of the Itata Valley and the surrounding coastal areas where vineyards are located include steep hills planted with vineyards and imposing pine forests. The fast-flowing Itata River complements this stunning panorama, and its crystalline waters make this a truly unique location. In Itata there are a variety of small subsistence farms for whom viticulture is a way of life; they produce artisanal wines using traditional methods and sell their products locally. Thanks to their resilience, it is still possible to find vestiges of history reflected in vineyards that date back over 150 years

ItataLandscape

Vineyards are worked using horses, and axes are still the pruning tool of choice

The local cuisine is dominated by rabbit, hare, and chicken stews, as well as legumes and local sausages that are famous all across Chile. Wild mushroom foraging, which is carried out during the autumn and spring, is also popular. On the coast, blue crab (jaiba), conger eel (congrio) and corvina, similar to a sea troutare the main attractions. The vibrant and taut Itata wines perfectly complement these traditional dishes.

The climate of coastal Itata experiences high levels of precipitation – up to 1,000 mm per annum – and makes dry-farming (without irrigation) possible. The Pacific Ocean also exerts a cooling influence which tempers the climate and helps to produce fresh and vibrant wines.

The soil is composed of granite deposits from the Coastal Mountain Range formed during the Jurassic period. The mostly loam soil has excellent drainage and close to 20% clay content, which helps retain humidity and fortify the plants during the driest summer months. Quartz is also commonly found in the soils of Itata.

The vineyards are dry-farmed and use a very low goblet training system (known here as “cabeza”) creating an unsupported bush vine. The vines are planted on original rootstock and the oldest vines in the area date back over 150 years. Vineyards are worked using horses and axes are still the pruning tool of choice.

 

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Amphorae in Chile

An amphora is a ceramic vessel whose properties vary according to the characteristics of the soil from which it is derived. Chilean clay comes from a variety of sources, including granite, calcium, volcanic rock, and ochre. The latter is the most common type of clay found in the central coast and the most utilized for making these earthenware containers.

Amphorae arrived in Chile with the Spanish conquistadors, however historian Gonzalo Rojas assures us that, “From an anthropological point of view, the amphorae are a powerful symbol of the mestizaje between the Hispanic world and the pre-Columbian indigenous world. Not only because both indigenous and Spanish artisans — laymen and religious men — participated in their production, but also because of the craftsmanship that’s entailed; this work also had its roots in the ancestral farmer-potter traditions of the America´s indigenous populations.”

Local pre-Columbian cultures are thought to have used their amphorae as vessels for making alcohol around 1500 AD; however these vessels were of a different shape and design than those brought by the conquistadors. Chilean amphorae developed as a result of the blending of both cultures and styles. In this way, the amphora became a uniquely significant cultural artefact for the country. Production peaked during the La Colonia period (1598-1810), when they were primarily used for fermenting and storing wine, an activity which was carried out across the country, from the Atacama region all the way to the BíoBío River. On a smaller scale, amphorae were also used to store grains, olive oil, and other liquids, as well as transporting goods.

With the arrival of barrel-making in the 19th century, amphorae were replaced by containers made from other materials. The wine industry preferred wood as it requires less care when being moved, was relatively light-weight and easy to repair. In this way the raulí  barrels (known as “pipas”) became the container of choice for wine fermentation and ageing throughout the country, relegating 200 years of tradition to the resilience of a few committed artisanal producers immersed in the depths of the countryside.

Amp

They are wines that will make you smile

De Martino and the amphorae

The idea of producing wine using traditional terracotta amphorae emerged in 2010, as a result of De Martino’s decision to craft wines with strong, unique personalities, while maintaining a fresh and gastronomic winemaking style. This project inspired them immediately as it tied in with their mission to recover ancestral winemaking techniques.

The Viejas Tinajas wine range began as an experimental programme with only 14 amphorae, which collectively produced their 2011 Viejas Tinajas Cinsault. The following vintage they incorporated new vessels and added the Muscat grape variety, thereby completing the range’s white and red duo. They currently have 172 amphorae of all different shapes and sizes, ranging between 200 and 1,800 litre capacity. Many of these are over 200 years old. Wines fermented and aged in amphorae have a unique textural signature and stand out for their varietal purity, freshness, and delicate nature.

Q & A with Sebastian De Martino

What attracted you to Itata initially – had you ever tasted wines from this region?

What attracted us was its history (quite unknown and mysterious even), the southern location (high rainfall and dry farming), the varieties not found in the northern regions, the maritime influence, the landscape dominated by rolling hills, plus the granite soils. Even in Chile it was difficult to find wines from Itata as in the past either they were sold locally or wine companies from the north would buy the grapes at low prices and blend them into their basic wines.

We therefore decided to organize a scouting trip where we discovered several new wines. Unfortunately, at the time although you could find great fruit behind the wines you would also see various “commercial” practices that militated against the expression of terroir. This was no doubt due to these local producers selling wines for blending or being advised by oenologists with different philosophies.

How different is Itata to the north (I mean the area around Santiago) in terms of the people and the culture?

The area is where Chile’s first vineyards were planted and the original vignerons are still found. Properties are smaller and more fragmented (no fencing, for example). In the north the wine culture followed the “Bordeaux” model since the wealthy families travelled in the 19th century to France to learn from the examples there. The south, however, is wild with a long standing history that we are just starting to rediscover ourselves.

Why did Itata lose its fame as a wine region (considering this region was important in the origin of vine planting and culture in Chile)?

Good question – we are still trying to understand what happened! Most likely since the arrival of the French practices in the 19th century, and the planting of vines in the northern regions of Chile, everyone thought that the wines of Itata were in the “past” and no longer relevant.

How many wineries other than De Martino are producing wines from Itata region alone (ie not blends between two or more regions)?

Besides the local producers, some of whom are making surprisingly good wines, there are about 8 companies which have come down from the “north” to produce wines in the area. The style of these wines spans a broad spectrum and tends to reflect the philosophy of each of the wineries behind them. We are proud though to be the first who committed to the region by acquiring a small plot containing historical old vines and field blends of varieties that we are just starting to understand .

What do you see as the future of this region?

Itata, in our opinion, has a very bright future. As I have mentioned there are few places where you can find such old vines, dry farmed, granite soils and unique grape varieties. The history of the place is just beginning to be rediscovered and the style of the wines – or the possibility which Itata offers to produce wines – are not found in in the northern regions of the country and, in our experience, in few places of the New World.  We feel we are still just scratching the surface, and learning about the potential of the area; there will be more to come.

Are there any other regions in the world that you think have the same feel as Itata?

Parts of the region resemble Galicia in Spain, whilst the fruity style of wines tend to remind one more of Beaujolais (the natural producers who work there) or perhaps even the new Languedoc. The wines are defined by their vibrant character and nerve.

They are wines that will make you smile.

Doug Wregg. Photographs courtesy of the author.

 

 

 

 

 

Living – and Eating – in Queens, New York

For years, even Manhattanites refused to cross the East River into Brooklyn or Queens, so you certainly wouldn’t have found either of these subordinate New York City boroughs making their way onto tourist itineraries either. But the tables are turning—quite literally.

Queens...has recently thrown its chef’s hat into the ring.

Brooklyn has been holding its own as a hotbed of coolness, particularly in the gastronomic realm, for more than a decade now. The boon of farm, ocean and forest-to-table eateries—not to mention the coffee, tea, and matcha cafes, the trucks that dole out steamed, grilled, and fried food all hours of the day and night, the artisanal bakeries, the gastropubs, wine bars, dessert bars, microbreweries, distilleries, and cocktail-slinging speakeasies with their herb-infused simple syrups and their small-batch liquors—has lead to a culinary explosion that now extends far beyond Kings County.

But the brooklynisation of America that has influenced the eruption of white subway-tile clad, reclaimed wood-countered, dimly Edison-lightbulb-lit, urban-rustic-chic eateries and drinkeries from Williamsburg (Brooklyn’s epicentre of hipness) to California is old news. What’s new is that Queens, long considered Brooklyn’s almost entirely un-compelling sidekick to the north, has recently thrown its chef’s hat into the ring.

Food writers from the New York Times and other food-focused magazines and blogs have been evangelising about Queens cuisine with regularity for sometime now, but the borough has largely remained under the radar for most. However, with Queens topping Lonely Planets “Best in the US” list for 2015, our humble borough’s secret is out. Now even international tourists know that we have world-class museums and sculpture gardens, an east coast Tinseltown, a colourful music history, a surf scene, a county farm on the ground and a few more up on the rooftops. And being one of the most ethnically diverse places on earth, we’ve got food that will blow your mind.

This is not to say that the restaurants in Queens rival the level of artistry, sophistication, or innovation that can be discovered in Manhattan’s finest restaurants or that you’ll find the same obsession with hyper-locavorism that has put the greenmarket-driven seasonal New American fare of Brooklyn on the gastronomic map. What we offer instead is a nearly incomprehensible concentration of eateries that showcase authentic cuisines from all over the world.

Flushing Xian FF soup 2

...being one of the most ethnically diverse places on earth, we’ve got food that will blow your mind

The enclaves of Queens are teeming with chefs and food purveyors from Europe, Africa, Asia, and North, Central, and South America. And, reflecting its origins, the food culture here is not limited to traditional sit-down restaurants. You might be grabbing the best kebab, curry, or plate of momos (Tibetan or Nepalese dumplings) you’ve ever sunk your teeth into from a food cart on a corner in Jackson Heights while a subway train roars above your head or the most scrumptious Taiwanese pork bun on the subterranean level of a Flushing food mall, where pungent, heady aromas of hot oil, Asian 5-spice, grilled meats, stir-fry, and spicy broths thicken and perfume the air.

And sometimes, in Queens, the most amazing food just materialises in an unexpected setting, such as when you’re sipping a sweet and salty lime-, lychee- and chile-laden cocktail at the Thai bar Pata Paplean in Elmhurst at 4PM on a Saturday, and even though the bar only serves drinks and bar snacks (as far as you knew), you’re suddenly presented with the option to order a bowl of sweet and tangy noodle soup brimming with pork and fish balls and a zing of lime juice, fish sauce, chile, and cilantro. Naturally, you seize the moment. Gobsmacked by the heat and bright flavours, you start to mentally reorganise your life so you can come back and slurp down these magnificent noodles every day. But then you’re informed that noodles are only served here for a few hours a few days a week. Sometimes you’re just lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.

Flushing Happy Food

As with many American families, the first big trip of my childhood was to Disney World. I was nine years old, and what was most memorable about it for me was not the Magic Kingdom but the international food pavilions at the newly opened EPCOT Center. This was back in the early 1980s, so American food culture was still, for the most part, in the dark ages. Not yet having been exposed to many foreign cuisines, I was intensely curious about what people ate in Japan, France, Germany, Mexico, and other parts of the world. I remember being surprised and delighted that nothing tasted as I had expected. I had no frame of reference for the new sweet, sour, and spicy flavours that were sparking my taste buds. It was an awakening. This feeling returns repeatedly in Queens as I deepen my explorations into the regional cuisines of countries whose food I thought I knew.

Though my palate has evolved with a couple of decades of international travel, I still experience anticipatory glee when I read a description on a menu and I can’t really imagine what the thing will look or taste like, even if I recognise some—or most—of the ingredients. The initial element of surprise can occasionally turn to disappointment, but taking the risk and ordering the mysterious item often reaps delicious benefits. For instance, a combination of pork organs and blood with the right spice, herbs, and seasonings can be transformative—and yes, seriously delicious, as evidenced by the num tok noodle soup served at Plant Love House, an adorable little Thai restaurant run by two sisters and their mom in Elmhurst. A tongue taco sprinkled with cilantro, a spritz of lime, and a squirt of crema (a Mexican version of sour cream or crème fraiche), like the one thrown together by the women inside the Mexican truck, Tacos Rey de Oro, that’s often parked below the 52nd Street and Lincoln subway stop in Woodside, turns out to be the ideal after-midnight morsel. Next, I’m looking forward to trying the jellyfish hearts at Fu Ran (formerly Fu Run), a Chinese restaurant in Flushing that specialises in food from the northeastern Dongbei region.

 

Elmhurst Khao Kang dessert

Walt Disney may have designed the EPCOT Center to showcase a microcosm of global culture, but Queens is the real deal. Four or five subway lines can take you on an authentic culinary tour of the world (and this is still only a small fraction of what the borough has to offer). Heading out on the N or Q train will land you in the Greek, Egyptian, Middle Eastern, and Eastern European neighbourhoods of Astoria. The first ten stops on the 7 Train will take you out to Irish pubs, Italian pizzerias, French bistros, Middle Eastern bakeries, Turkish falafel joints, Thai steam tables, spicy Korean hotpots, Filipino barbeque, and some of the city’s best Japanese food. After that, you’ll pass through Jackson Heights, which is still thought of as Little India, though it’s now home to many Pakistani, Himalayan, Tibetan, Nepalese, and Mexican restaurants too. The 7 and the R and M trains will deposit you in Thai Town or Little Bangkok, officially known as the neighbourhood of Elmhurst, which in addition to all of the Thai eateries also has its share of Indonesian and Vietnamese food. Flushing, our Chinatown, is at the end of the 7 line. Here you can feast on food from China’s most sought-after culinary provinces, including Szechuan, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Hunan, and Guangdong, as well as its more obscure, like Dongbei and Yunnan. But you’ll also find a holdover of Korean restaurants here along with the occasional Korean barbecue cart perched on the sidewalk grilling up skewered meats and serving them with a side of chilli-soaked kimchi. Before the Chinese took over, Flushing was home to a large Korean population. Koreatown has since branched out farther east into Murray Hill, Bayside, and beyond. Finally, the E and the F trains will drop you in the Caribbean, African American, and South Asian enclaves of Jamaica.

Elmhurst Pho Bac Vietnamese

Like fashionable neighbourhoods in cities all over the world, Queens’ surge toward popularity began with artists

Our borough has boasted ethnically diverse cuisine for decades, but it is only recently that people began celebrating it. The buzz about Queens food culture really started in Long Island City (LIC), the southwestern-most neighbourhood in Queens. It’s almost as if the culture of “food cool” came across the Newtown Creek by way of osmosis, or perhaps via the Pulaski, which is the drawbridge over there that links Brooklyn to Queens. Whether it was a result of the waning trend and oversaturation of Brooklyn’s glorification of its own grub or a matter of zeitgeist, it’s hard to say.

Like fashionable neighbourhoods in cities all over the world, Queens’ surge toward popularity began with artists. The former PS1 art exhibition space (known, since 2000, as MoMA PS1) has been a beacon of creativity in the area since it was first erected in a late 19th century public schoolhouse back in the early 1970s. Artists began funnelling into this industrial quarter and took up residence and workspaces in the increasingly defunct factory warehouses throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. A gallery and coffee-house culture ensued, followed by a new wave of restaurants and bars, which helped put LIC on the map as a cultural destination and paved the way for a complete renaissance.

Now considered the swankiest Queens neighbourhood, it boasts a skyline of luxury residential high-rises, a picturesque waterfront park overlooking Manhattan, art galleries, sculpture gardens, theatres, dozens of trendy restaurants and bars, greenmarkets, a weekend flea and food market, and an annual food festival. Even if it feels more like an extension of northern Brooklyn, LIC offers a good first taste of Queens, especially for tourists, as it’s just one subway stop from Midtown Manhattan and there are some real standout places to eat, drink, and visit.

In terms of eating, people flock here for M. Wells Dinette and the M. Wells Steakhouse. However, I’d steer you toward LIC Market, an earnest little restaurant just a stone’s throw from MoMA PS1 on 44th Drive. Chef-owner Alex Schindler is passionate about creating internationally influenced New American dishes with local and seasonal ingredients. At any time, you may find Japanese, Italian, or Latin American influences highlighted on the ever-changing menu, but Schindler has a way of delicately wielding his seasonings so that the pure flavours of his locally-sourced main ingredients remain the most resonant in each dish. He makes a great chocolate croissant too, with just the right combination of crispy and fluffy, salty and sweet, bitter chocolate and bready elements. Other neighbourhood gems include the old-school French bistro, Tournesol, where they whip up their own homemade terrines, and its sister wine bar, Domaine, both on Vernon Boulevard. The expertly mixed signature cocktails at Dutch Kills Bar on Jackson Avenue are the best I’ve had in the neighbourhood.

As a New York City dweller, I’ve migrated from Manhattan to Brooklyn to Queens over the past twenty years. My first Queens neighbourhood was Astoria. I moved there back in the summer of 2001. Having lived in Rome the previous summer and Paris the summer before that, it took a while for me to embrace the simpler flavours of Greek cooking which rely heavily on olive oil, lemon, oregano, and thyme—and honey for sweetening. But nearly a decade and a half later, I will still make special trips to Astoria for a dinner of fresh catch-of-the-day fish and boiled potatoes at Elias Corner, pistachio cookies and baklava from the Greek pastry shop, Artopolis, and on occasion, Czech beer and sausages at the Bohemian Beer Hall.

Lately, I’ve been devoting a lot of time to exploring the clusters of ethnic restaurants that jut out like constellations of deliciousness from the 7 train, the subway line that cuts across Midtown Manhattan at 42nd Street and then shoots straight through many of the best eating neighbourhoods in Queens, including where I currently live. Once predominantly populated by working class European immigrants, Irish, Italian, and German neighbourhoods like Sunnyside, Woodside, and Jackson Heights have been evolving to accommodate an influx of South and East Asian, Hispanic, and Caribbean immigrants, as well as a wave of upwardly mobile renters and first-time home buyers who are getting priced out of Manhattan and Brooklyn.

I relish the opportunity to get a proper pint and my fish-and-chips fix at pubs like Molly Bloom’s and The Dog and Duck in Sunnyside, but there’s one restaurant that surpasses the many other good ones in the neighbourhood: Takesushi. Locally, it’s said that this Japanese restaurant comes with a Park Avenue pedigree as owner, chef, and fishmonger, Robin Kawada, opened one of the first Japanese restaurants in Manhattan—on Park Avenue—more than 30 years ago.

Decades later, Kawada is still serving traditional Japanese dishes and ultra-fresh fish at his latest spot on 42nd Street in Sunnyside. His omakase selections are generous, manifesting in a seemingly endless stream of artfully executed small plates of fish and shellfish, and other seasonal ingredients. The Kaisen Don is one of my go-to dishes here. It comes in a regular and a deluxe version, each with an assortment of sashimi, a few thick ribbons of briny sea urchin, a sprinkling of salmon roe, and slices of seaweed, cucumber, and pickled ginger draped over a bed of rice with a little ball of tuna shavings—tuna surprise, as I always refer to it— tucked into the middle of the rice bowl. At Takesushi, the food is as fresh and delicious as it is tantalisingly beautiful, and sidling up to the bar to chat with Kawada can leave you feeling like you’ve just had a conversation with the interminably good-natured Socrates of sushi.

 

lamb_noodlesoup

Our borough has boasted ethnically diverse cuisine for decades, but it is only recently that people began celebrating it

In Jackson Heights, the 35-year-old Jackson Diner is a local institution where you can fill up on a vast selection of curries, dosas, tandooris, and Indian breads, but I’ve recently been enjoying the South Indian fare at Samudra, a vegetarian restaurant opened by Jagdish Shetty, a former hotel employee who emigrated from India nearly 30 years ago and whose dream it was to eventually open his own restaurant in New York. It’s worth a trip just for the enormous dosas, which look like three-dimensional abstract art popping off your plate. If you’re feeling carnivorous, Kabab King, a Halal restaurant on 37th Road, will be more likely to satisfy. For dessert, treat yourself to a Chai tea and check out the curious array of colourful sweets at shops like Raja Sweets and Fast Food or Rajbhog Sweets and Snacks, both on 37th Avenue, or Al Naimat on 74th Street.

With the arctic throes of winter upon me, I’ve been looking to spicy foods to help boost my weathered spirits. In particular, I’ve been enjoying the spicy lime and lemongrassy fare that can be found at the Thai restaurants in Elmhurst, particularly the fragrant, meaty soups at Plant Love House on Whitney Avenue which is run by Manadsanan Sutipayakul and her daughters Benjaporn Chua and Preawpun Sutipayakul. Last time I was there I warmed up with a delightful bowl of tom yum and a rich and creamy gang gai, a spicy green curry with tender pieces of chicken and melt-in-your-mouth eggplant poured over rice vermicelli noodles and then heaped with fresh basil leaves. I finished up with a piece of dessert toast, an ambrosial brick of bread that’s drenched in butter and toasted until crisp on the outside (yet still soft and fluffy on the inside), and then drizzled with warm honey. If you’re in a hurry though, I’d recommend checking out the cafeteria-style Khao Kang, a Thai hipster steam-table joint on Woodside Avenue where you can simply point at a few different curries and stews on the steam table and it’s practically instant gratification. Afterward, wet your whistle across the street with the inspired Thai cocktails at Pata Paplean.

I have also been frequenting the Golden Mall. Its chaotic and claustrophobic little hive of food stalls with menus on the walls all written in Asian characters makes you feel as though you’ve been transported to another country altogether. In the basement digs here, you can find some of the most succulent dumplings in all of New York at the Tianjin Dumpling House. When they arrive, be sure to douse them with garlic sauce, black vinegar, and chile oil. Another dish that’s not to be missed down there is the spicy cumin lamb hand-pulled noodle soup at the original Xi’an Famous Foods stall. The rich broth is infused with fiery Far East-meets-Middle East flavours, and you can watch as the hand-pulled noodle chef slaps, stretches, and tears little disks of dough into long, glutenous tendrils that will be imminently dropped into your soup.

 

Flushing New World Mall 3

The enclaves of Queens are teeming with chefs and food purveyors from Europe, Africa, Asia, and North, Central, and South America

New York City is often colloquially referred to as a “melting pot.” This cultural term was coined back in the early 1900s when waves of European immigrants were settling in New York and other American cities. The concept, which was originally put forth in a play written by Israel Zanwill, a Jew from England, was that all immigrants coming to the United States could be fused together and then forged into new American citizens.

Queens is one of the most ethnically diverse places in the world. But I don’t think of my borough as a melting pot. If anything, it’s more like a hotpot, a type of stew generally prepared by placing a metal pot over a heat source in the middle of the dining table. A variety of ingredients are then added to a simmering stock inside the pot—everything from meat, offal, and seafood to vegetables, tofu, noodles, spices, herbs, and condiments. Unlike in a crucible, the contents of the hotpot don’t meld together when heated. A sliver of beef is still a piece of meat, a chile a pepper. But as the ingredients simmer together, they impart their individual flavours to the stew, and this is what makes these one-pot meals so delicious and gratifying. As I see it, the diverse ethnicities of Queens are contributing exponential depths of flavour to our borough, literally and figuratively in both the culinary and the cultural realms.

Another memorable aspect of my childhood EPCOT holiday was the relentless repetition of the saccharine tune, “It’s a Small World,” which is still etched in my mind as the soundtrack to all of my memories of the trip. Perhaps it was Disney’s attempt at subliminally reinforcing the notion that peace and understanding around the world could be gained through exposure to other nations’ art and culture—and food. Incidentally, the first time the song was ever played publicly was at the 1964 World’s Fair, which was held in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens.

In the Queens Museum, the permanent collection contains something of a shrine to the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs, including a 867 sq m Panorama scale model of New York City. It is astounding to stand above it and see how big Queens is in comparison to the other four boroughs—Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and the Bronx—that make up New York City. (Queens covers an area of 460 sq km, Brooklyn only 250.) And yet, fifty-one years later, Queens is proving that it is a small world after all. I guess that’s as good a reason as any to deem it the number-one place to visit in the United States this year.

I’ll save a seat for you at the hotpot, just bring some chopsticks.

 

Jen Laskey. Photographs courtesy of the author.

Time to Taste

Sitting down with a dram, a glass of wine, delicious food, or indeed all three is a sensory pleasure which we rightly hold in high esteem. With a plethora of flavours easily available we can indulge in whatever tickles our taste buds. In our busy-bee realities do we really give the flavour process the time and attention it deserves and are our lives helping to shape the nature of flavour itself?

Cooking was the gentle and slow process of coaxing out the flavours

When I was a child our house seemed to revolve around its reactor core, our coal fired Aga. For heat, cooking and drying, the Aga played a vital and dependable role, as long as the wind blew from the right direction. Occasionally my mum would be more akin to an engine driver, stoking the flames and adding more fuel to the little furnace. Cooking was the gentle and slow process of coaxing out the flavours, tenderly encouraging them to take their first steps into the world and mingle with others in their own time.

Today I feel that slowly developed flavours are becoming as rare a joy as commuting aboard a steam train. With no time to waste we need flavour on the go and need a diary planner to fully appreciate the processes in the kitchen. It is no surprise then, that in our busy worlds that convenience has become king. We need flavour and we need it now. Simply add monosodium glutamate, high fructose corn syrup, salt and more sugar and we have our sensory satisfaction sorted for the next few hours. If the sound of all that sugar opposes your programme we can just pack it with aspartame instead, and not to mention all of the stabilisers, preservatives and colouring agents. There’s a great game I like to play in the supermarket, its called find the cheddar without artificial colourings. Try it sometime.

Scotch whisky, long regarded as the pure spirit of Hibernia, has also been an interesting example of manipulative trends. The legally permitted ingredients for Malt Scotch Whisky are barley, water and yeast plus E150 or caramel colouring, which is often produced from corn syrups, glucose syrup or sucrose itself. Although going out of fashion amongst discerners of a fine dram, the colouring in Coca-Cola has played an interesting role by tapping into our association of dark colours with rich and developed flavours. The natural colour of whisky comes entirely from wood during a steady process of ageing so E150 has provided a way of short-cutting that process, at least where it’s tint is concerned.

It has long been generally accepted that when it comes to whisky, as with all of us, we do not get older but simply get better. Drinkers of the dram have begun to appreciate how this is not an absolute rule, partly through appreciating some superb young whiskies and also some extremely disappointing old ones. In particular when it comes to those peaty, smoky and medicinal nasal eviction orders from Islay, they are at their most intense at a young age. The rise in popularity of these fabulous sensory adventures has been quite astounding since the late 1990’s and has propelled the image of those distilleries to superstar status. The degree of that phenolic smoky-peatiness within the whisky has been pushed higher and higher, doubling, tripling and venturing beyond what was thought possible and indeed necessary. A few years ago Bruichladdich distilled a spirit from barley that had been peated 6 times higher than what had been considered ‘extremely peaty’.

 

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It has long been generally accepted that when it comes to whisky... we do not get older but simply get better.

Following this trend we also see a quest for whiskies matured in casks previously seasoned with Sherry, those dark mahogany or rich orange drams that play with our preconceptions of taste. The cask in this instance giving qualities of intense rich fruit cake and spice, occasionally becoming so ‘Sherried’ that it’s like chewing on a Davenport desk. The whisky world’s answer to those new-American oak monsters that were once the height of Australian winemaking. Another fashion, fortunately now passed, is to the combination of whisky with wine. Think of a type of cask and there has been a whisky matured in it, be that Burgundy, rum, port, Sassicaia, Chateau Y’quem and even Tobasco. Again it’s a quest for flavour and fulfilment beyond the known world, like some trepid adventurers on the U.S.S. Enterprise.

The acceptance that age is not necessarily an indicator of flavour quality is being pushed in a new direction now with the growing emergence of NAS or non-age statement whiskies. These mystery drams do not carry any information regarding the age of the spirit. As long as it has spent at least three years and a day in an oak cask in Scotland it’s good enough for Scotch. NAS whiskies fill the void created by a global boom in Scotch and are being utilised by some distilleries to sell premium priced whisky at a not so premium age.

The new school is all about the flavour and not the age, so we are told. Is this another indicator of our busy lives as we demand flavour on tap, or at least in three years and a day anyway? If time and ageing no longer carry significance amongst consumers then what is there to hide by not placing an age statement on the bottle in the first place? As more of the big players spin the premium priced wheel of ‘guess the time in cask’, we should focus on education as opposed to misrepresentation of maturation, if the theory about age no longer holds.

America has been far more creative with their whiskey tinkering. Limited by choice of wood, American whiskey has seen a surge in alternative flavour additives such as honey, chocolate, fruit, hops and botanicals. Such flavour enhancing processes for Scotch get a big waggly finger from the Scotch Whisky Association. Although oak is by far the most important element to the character of Scotch, it is interesting that it is not even listed as an ingredient along with whatever the cask had previously contained.

Marrying and mellowing the flavours within wood is a slow process of maturation that can only be expedited by a relatively small margin on a commercial scale. That sense of time and patience is one of the most endearing qualities to any flavour assembly but in our desire for quick results we need hard hitting, taste explosions that fit within our schedules. The price to be paid by reducing time and increasing yield is often a loss in quality. We can see this at work through whisky maturation, wine production and also fruit, vegetable and animal farming.

A consumerist world presses us to constantly seek out new flavours and to expect variety. With our limited time to really appreciate the nuances of life, trends being driven by both sides towards readily available flavour bombs and in turn constructing a tolerance for sweetness, salt, wood and even peat. Creating the time to contemplate, enjoy and above all share our sensory experiences is one of the most rewarding tools in our box of humanity. By taking no texture, aroma or taste for granted we can open up an exciting world of everyday experiences and enjoy the subtleties that come by simply slowing things down.

Kami Newton. Photographs courtesy of the author.