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REVIEW: Dan Barber’s THE THIRD PLATE

Dan Barber: “How had I assumed all those years that polenta smelled of nothing more than dried meal?”

Dan Barber: “How had I assumed all those years that polenta smelled of nothing more than dried meal?”

Dan Barber is chef/co-owner of the Michelin-starred, farm-to-table New York restaurant Blue Hill, and also Blue Hill at Stone Barns  (in upstate New York), where organic produce for the two restaurants is grown.

In addition, Barber is a man who knows how to tell a good story—a skill he puts to good use in The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, published in 2014. (Acclaimed journalist Ira Glass, of This American Life, professes envy of Barber’s writing skills when he introduces him in the YouTube clip Beyond Farm-to-Table.)

Barber’s book opens with a yarn:

A corncob, dried and slightly shriveled, arrived in the mail […] Along with the cob was a check for $1,000.

It turns out that a seed collector had sent the cob, an heirloom corn dating back to the 1600s. Native Americans had cultivated that particular variety because of its flavour, and it was then adopted and enjoyed by colonists. But the frigid winter of 1816 killed the American plants; starving animals and people ate the harvested barn-stored cobs. The variety disappeared altogether from New England.

But in the 21st century, the seed collector traced this corn to a rare crop in Italy. That is the cob Barber now holds in his hand, along with a plea to grow it—and $1,000 to persuade him to accept the challenge.

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TOAST: IT’S COMPLICATED

The taste test. Inconclusive verdict. More testing needed.

The taste test. Inconclusive verdict. More testing needed.

Surely nothing could be easier than making toast. In these modern times, all you have to do is drop sliced bread into the toaster slots, push the lever down, and toast will pop right up when it’s done.

It was much trickier in my childhood. Our toasters were primitive appliances, with fold-down doors on either side. They demanded vigilance and patience, with disastrous consequences if we wandered away. These were the days before fire alarms, so burnt toast could be very burnt before the smell roused our attention.

My family also had a camping toaster, a simple wire mesh contraption held over a flame. I remember the toast it made was particularly delicious—very crisp on the outside and somehow fluffier and moister inside.

Either way, there was nothing difficult or complex about toast. Or so it seemed.

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SALTY. SWEET. DELIGHTFULLY GUILTY PLEASURE.

Salty, sweet and delicious: salted caramel Zumbarons.

Salty, sweet and delicious: salted caramel Zumbarons.

I searched for Australia’s favourite yeast extract on the Cadbury website and this was the response:

You are searching for: Vegemite

There are no pages that contain the search term “Vegemite”

I was surprised. It was only four months since Cadbury had launched its milk chocolate block filled with Vegemite-flavoured caramel, and there was no mention of it. (However, there is still plenty of evidence on the Cadbury Facebook page to confirm the product did exist.)

During the period when the Vegemite chocolate block was still around, I was never able to find it in my local supermarket. I admit that I didn’t venture further afield but, knowing the popularity of salty-plus-sweet, I imagined this new confectionary line would be highly successful.

After all, the salted caramel flavour is everywhere. Back in December 2008, writer Kim Severson labelled it “the flavour of the year” and traced its history in a New York Times article, “How Caramel Developed a Taste for Salt”.

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HUNGER AS A METAPHOR. OR NOT.

I once stole a piece of salami from an ashtray ...

Terry Durack’s confession: I once stole a piece of salami from an ashtray …

Hangry.”

That is, hungry + angry. As researcher Amanda Salis confirms, the physiology of hunger creates emotional effects.

The human brain, she writes, “is critically dependent on glucose to do its job.” Without glucose,

you may find it hard to concentrate, for instance, or you may make silly mistakes. Or you might have noticed that your words become muddled or slurred […] Another thing that can become more difficult when you’re hungry is behaving within socially acceptable norms.

As a result of brain chemicals triggered by hunger, some people “tend to show high levels of impulse aggression.”

That can certainly be unpleasant in the office at that dangerous period around 3:30pm, but imagine the impact of those physiological reactions in an extreme situation.

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TRUFFLE FEVER

Truffle butter under the breast skin, grated truffle added during cooking.

Truffle butter under the breast skin, grated truffle added during cooking.

One wintery evening in Canberra, I tried a beer brewed with truffles and spices. It tasted like a gorgeous big slice of Christmas cake but, amid the other flavours, I couldn’t find the truffles.

But, up to then, I had never tasted the mysterious fungus. Of course, I had been reading about it for years. But no description was able to convey to me what truffles smelled like, or what they tasted like. Ultimately, language—no matter how subtle and dexterous—cannot capture an experience accurately enough to allow someone else to live it.

So, during winter 2013, I went on-line and ordered a truffle.  Yes, it was expensive, but when compared to a truffle dinner at a restaurant, it was affordable.

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YUMMY UMAMI

Dashi, seaweed, fish sauce, cooked tomatoes ... and especially Vegemite. All are rich in umami flavours.

Dashi, seaweed, fish sauce, cooked tomatoes … and especially Vegemite.
All are rich in umami flavours.

(Originally posted on Sensorium, July 9 2014)

While sweet-sour-bitter-salty flavours were identified as basic flavours thousand of years ago, writes Larissa Dubeckiumami was not identified until 1909.

The person who identified and named the flavour was Japanese professor Kikunae Ikeda, who then turned entrepreneur, establishing a factory producing monosodium glutamate (MSG), which is a concentrated crystalline extract of one type of glutamate and is widely used as a flavour booster in food. (See this link to the Japanese Patent Office.)

Even though the flavour was identified over 100 years ago, it is only now widely coming into public recognition in the West. In fact, Dubecki, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, announced that 2014 is the “year of umami”.

What exactly is umami?

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MOUTHFEEL

So many kinds of textures in this dessert-- whipped cream, melting ice cream, jelly, kiwi fruit and crispy biscuit.

So many kinds of textures in this dessert–
whipped cream, melting ice cream, jelly, kiwi fruit and crispy biscuit.

(Originally posted on Sensorium, February 3 2014)

“Most people wildly underappreciate how much their sense of touch influences what they eat”, claims Barb Stuckey in Taste: What You’re Missing (p. 82).

Mouthfeel” is the word for the touch sensations generated when we eat.

The earlier post “SWEETNESS (AND DEATH)” notes that our sense of taste isn’t confined to our mouth. We also have taste receptors in our pancreas and intestines, for instance.

Similarly, our sense of touch is very diffuse, registering on the surface of our bodies as well as deep within—and often in tandem with other senses.

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