August 9, 2011
I think most of us are familiar with the sardonic idiom “no good deed goes unpunished.” The idea is that no matter what goodness someone tries to bring into the world, the intentions will ultimately backfire. Foods that have been carefully crafted to induce pleasurable sensory experiences can also become victims of this truism. While there may be no use for crying over spilled milk, the loss of certain other foods might certainly merit a handkerchief. In the following stories, no good food goes unpunished.
Them’s the Breaks: Australia’s Mollydooker winery produces Velvet Glove, a premium shiraz that retails for around $200 a bottle. Its flavor has been described as a combination of “blueberry, black and damson plum, with a panoply of sweet spices” that makes for a “seductive, rich, viscous, and multi-layered Shiraz powerhouse.” With so much promise—and such a price tag—it was nothing short of tragic when, on July 22 of this year, an unsteady forklift dropped a container of the precious wine destined for the United States. Suffering a 6 meter (about 20 feet) fall, all but one of the 462 cases of wine were completely destroyed, at a loss of more $1 million.
Belated War Casualty: When a World War II-era German mine was found off the coast of Swanage, England in October 2009, the British Royal Navy was promptly alerted. Upon investigation, divers found a lobster had taken up residence there and lovingly named him Lionel. They tried to coax the crustacean out of his home, but the crabby lobster belligerently refused to be evicted, delivering a few nips to the trespassers. Needing to dispose of the bomb and left with no other alternatives, the Navy cleared the area and detonated the 600-pound explosive with Lionel still inside. (Granted, there was no indication that this particular lobster was going to be consumed—but he certainly had the potential.)
Smoked Sturgeon: The Mote Marine Laboratory’s Aquaculture Park in Sarasota, Florida raises Siberian sturgeon, which are harvested for their roe—a high-end treat we know in its packaged form as caviar. But on July 20, 2006, employees noticed plumes of smoke emanating from one of the buildings that houses the fish tanks, which contained sturgeon that were just mature enough to begin producing caviar. The six-alarm fire ultimately killed some 30 tons of fish—more than a third of the farm’s population. The caviar that could have been harvested from those fish over a three-year period would have netted an estimated $2.5 million.
Too Good to Eat: Truffles are considered to be a luxury foodstuff, and Italian white truffles are exceptionally rare mushrooms that grows underground and are hailed for their earthy flavor. One such mushroom weighing 1.9 pounds—the second largest known in the world—fetched $112,000 at an international charity auction in 2005. The winning bidder was a syndicate of regular diners at Zafferano, an Italian restaurant in Knightsbridge, England. The fungus was put on display at the dining spot for several days, attracting visitors from as far away as France and Spain. Soon after its arrival, chief chef Andy Needham had to leave on business and the truffle was locked in the kitchen’s fridge. Upon his return, it was discovered that the mushroom was past its peak and the only person to have savored a piece while the truffle was in its prime was newspaper reporter Nick Curtis, who raved about the truffle’s flavor, describing it as “halfway between that of a smoked cheese and strong mushroom.” The truffle was buried in Needham’s garden.
Overturned by Revolution: In 1979, Islamic rebels overthrew Iran’s monarchy to establish a theocratic republic—and Islamic law forbids the consumption of alcohol. Tehran’s Intercontinental Hotel was resplendent with fine and rare liqueurs in addition to having a fabulously well-stocked wine cellar, a collection that was estimated to be worth in the neighborhood of $1.2 million. But instead of exporting the spirits out of the country, revolutionary guards poured the entire stock down the gutter. As of June 1979, Tehran newspapers reported that more than $14 million worth of alcoholic beverages had been destroyed.
May 18, 2011
The first thing that comes to mind at the mention of wine is “yes, please.” The second is “grapes.” And the last thing might have been pumpkins—until this week, when I tasted pumpkin wine.
Shelle Bailey, who lives near me in the Adirondacks, makes wine out of carrots, elderberries, apples and, yes, pumpkins—pretty much everything other than grapes. She recently got her federal permit to start a community-supported winery. Like a CSA (community-supported agriculture), a membership in the Will o’ Wisp Wines CSW gives Bailey the money up front to buy produce and supplies, which she will use to make unusual grapeless wines that will be distributed to members when they’re ready. Aside from the above, the varieties she plans to make include tomato, lemon-ginger, gooseberry, dandelion, beet, rose hips and maple.
The CSW model is novel, but it turns out that the kinds of wines she’s making have a history. Long before grapes cornered the fermented juice market, wine was made from all manner of fruits, vegetables and especially honey; mead, or honey wine, is “one of mankind’s most ancient alcoholic drinks,” according to The Glutton’s Glossary, by John Ayto.
Mead was also Bailey’s entrée into non-grape wines, both for drinking and for home fermenting. She stopped drinking most regular wine because of a bad reaction to sulfites, which are frequently added as a preservative so a wine can age without turning to vinegar. (All wines, including Bailey’s, also contain a certain amount of naturally occurring sulfites.) The wines she makes are meant to be drunk within a year.
Bailey learned to make wine through a combination of family history (she uses her father’s dandelion wine recipe) research (both online and by asking other hobbyists), and “a lot of trial and error,” she says. She is a proponent of “natural” wines—in contrast with commercial wineries, she doesn’t filter them, chemically “kill off” the yeast, blend batches or otherwise tinker with the flavor, for example by adding tannins. “I don’t want it to taste like a grape wine,” she says. “It’s kind of an ‘unwine.’ ”
My co-workers and I had a little tasting at my office this week. We tried Bailey’s apple, elderberry and pumpkin wines. They definitely would not be confused with a grape wine, although they didn’t taste how I expected. Bailey had told me she prefers dry wines, but I had been prepared for them to be a little sweet. They really weren’t; they tasted strongly of alcohol (this may have been partly because they had just been bottled; I suppose they may mellow with a few month’s age). Bailey says her wines average from 10 to 14 percent alcohol, which is comparable with grape wines. The apple, which I expected to taste like cider, was more like apple brandy—but, then again, not really like anything else. The pumpkin, the biggest surprise, was my favorite—slightly vegetal and almost imperceptibly sweet. The best description of her wine is probably Bailey’s own: she calls it “a light, dry, country-style/table wine with a fresh and uncomplicated taste.”
May 10, 2011
The old method of getting goodies from a vending machine is being revamped by the Pepsi Corporation with its new Social Vending System. Dispensing with clunky slots for coins and bills in favor of a touchscreen that allows you to look at the nutritional information of the products therein, this new species of machine is also hopping on the social networking bandwagon: people can use the machines to send drinks to friends, complete with personalized text and video messages. (The recipient gets a message on a cell phone and they have to go to a Social Vending Machine and enter a code to redeem the gift.) But because you have to enter telephone numbers to use the social features of the machine, questions arise about how personal data is stored and used, an issue inherent in all social media. At this time, Pepsi says that personal data will not be stored unless the user grants permission.
Is this the next logical step in our ongoing quest for convenience or does it make accessing foodstuffs more complicated than it should be? Corporate efforts to create glowing vending-machine eye candy have a long and sometimes ridiculous history. (If you have the patience, this mid-century video walks you through the ins and outs of vending machine salesmanship.) Would you go to a machine for any of the following things?
This variation on the claw machine arcade game may very well be the greatest visual pun in food marketing. That’s right: you use your gaming skills to catch your own live lobster; however, if you are fortunate enough to nab one of the skittering crustaceans, you may find yourself in a bit of a pickle. Apparently takeaway bags aren’t a standard part of the machine rig, so you may need to bring your own.
Farmers who sell their eggs directly to consumers can pop a vending machine at the entrance of their property and passersby can drop in their money and walk away with a tray of farm fresh goods. Some famers have even noticed an increased demand for their products since installing the machine. The German branch of PETA offered its own variation, placing live hens in the machine to make a statement about the living conditions of these animals on farms.
In 2010, Pennsylvania unveiled two wine vending machines—however, users have to swipe their ID and pass a breathalyzer test before they can lay their hands on a bottle of vino. And if you have wine aficionados for friends, would you ever tell them that you’re serving them something that came from a vending machine?
4. Pecan Pie
The Bedroll Pecan Farm, Candy and Gift Company in Cedar Creek, Texas offers its wares via a vending machine, from a 9″ Pecan pie to pecan brittle.
The Shop 2000 allows users to buy toiletries, milk, snack items and other convenience store fare. In 2002, one of these machines was installed in D.C. near the intersection of 18th St. NW and California St. under the name Tik Tok Easy Shop. (It no longer existed as of 2003)
And for more on unique vending machines, check out Around the Mall blogger Megan Gambino’s piece on the Art-o-Mat, which sells you works of art out of a revamped and refurbished cigarette machines.
April 8, 2011
Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending a “One-Hour Wine Expert” seminar at Lake Placid’s Mirror Lake Inn with Kevin Zraly, author of the best-selling Windows on the World Complete Wine Course and the 2011 recipient of the James Beard Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award. I don’t know if the seminar turned me into a wine expert, but I did learn a few things and was thoroughly entertained in the process.
Zraly was the wine director at the Windows on the World, the restaurant atop the World Trade Center that, before it was destroyed in the terrorist attack of 2001, sold more wine than any other establishment in the country. Since then he’s been focused on wine education as a roving connoisseur, raconteur and probably some other French nouns. But his high-energy presentation is purely American, delivered with equal parts Jay Leno–style witty audience banter and Tony Robbins zeal (there was even some tongue-in-cheek “what-your-favorite-wine-says-about-you” analysis).
Zraly shared some interesting tidbits about American wine consumption and how it’s changed over his four decades in the business. “This is the golden age of wine,” he said, explaining that there is more good, affordable wine available now than at any time in history. And we’re drinking a lot more than we used to. In the 1970s, the domestic wine industry had yet to really take off, and Americans were far behind Europeans in their wine consumption. In 2010 the United States overtook France as the world’s biggest consumer of wine, according to a recent report from Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that we are the largest per capita consumers of wine—not by a long shot. That distinction goes to the Vatican city-state, followed by Luxembourg, according to the Wine Institute’s latest report, from 2009. Zraly noted that 40 percent of Americans don’t drink any alcohol at all, and many more prefer beer or spirits.
But those of us who do drink wine are quaffing it in larger quantities, and in ways that surprise and possibly dismay traditionalists, i.e. frequently without food. The practice of pairing wine and food comes from centuries of European tradition, where wine is an essential component of leisurely meals. That lifestyle doesn’t exist for most people in the United States. Earlier this week the New York Times wine critic Sam Sifton Eric Asimov wrote about a recent survey of 800 Americans who drink wine frequently; it found that only 46 percent of the wine they drank was consumed with a meal. The rest was paired either with snacks like nuts and crackers, or without food at all. Sifton, Asimov, who wrote that he considers wine “a grocery item” (despite the fact that New York law prohibits wine sales in grocery stores), added that he found “the idea of divorcing food and wine unsettling, to say the least.”
Personally, I’m not surprised by the survey results, because those percentages correlate almost exactly with my own wine consumption; I like a glass with dinner, but I will just as frequently drink it in place of a cocktail at a party or to unwind after work. I’m admittedly no wine expert—even after an hour with Zraly—but I imagine the industry doesn’t care how people are drinking their product, as long as they’re drinking more of it.
January 4, 2011
A question for the end of the year, a time to look back: What’s the oldest kind of wine still in modern production?
If you answered “Commandaria,” I’m impressed. I had never heard of such wines until a few weeks ago, when I attended a Smithsonian Resident Associates lecture about the cuisine of Cyprus. It’s a sweet dessert wine, with a dark amber to light brown color, and an intriguing taste that starts like honeyed raisins and figs and ends like coffee. It reminded me somewhat of Hungarian Tokaji wine, while the woman next to me said she found it pleasantly similar to Portuguese Madeira.
I learned that Commandaria’s history dates back at least 3,000 years, although it was called Mana for much of that time. The ancient Greeks drank it at festivals celebrating Aphrodite, the goddess of love, who, according to myth, was born from the sea foam on the shores of Cyprus. The wine’s modern name can be traced to the 12th and 13th centuries, when the Knights Templar and Knights of St. John established a headquarters (commandery) in the growing region and began to produce and export the wine commercially. Commandaria proved so popular with European palates that it is said to have been served at King Richard the Lionheart’s wedding, and to have won what was perhaps the world’s first wine-tasting competition in France.
Commandaria is made from two kinds of native grapes which I’d also never heard of before—white Xynisteri and red Mavro—which are partially dried in the sun to concentrate the juices before pressing and fermentation. By law, Commandaria wines must be aged for at least two years in oak barrels, but many of the best are aged for a decade or more. (I sampled a phenomenal 30-year-old vintage, Etko Centurion, although at $100 and up a bottle I don’t expect I’ll drink it again. But younger versions are also excellent, and much more affordable at around $20.)
Although its international popularity faded in the centuries after the knights lost power, Commandaria has been staging a comeback in recent decades. The name has been given “protected designation of origin status” in the European Union, the United States and Canada, and there is an official Commandaria wine region in southern Cyprus.
To learn more about the history of Cyprus, currently the subject of an exhibit at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, read this Smithsonian magazine piece.