Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Mount Riley

I have been soo slack with the tasting notes. Saint Clair was last week and I still haven't got it out yet.

And again tonight, as with every Thursday. Another tasting.

Mount Riley. I'll be great I am sure.. MR is another solid Marlborough producer and Bill (Digger) Hennessy will be there to guide us. I'm keen to try the latest releases and see if it they are all as good as I remember from the Mary and Diane December 2004 Tour.

Don't ask.. that's another story I promise to tell.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

got turkey?

Turkey.

Not a terribly popular meal here in New Zealand from what I can tell. Without a Thanksgiving type holiday and warm Christmas weather, not to mention all the cattle and wee lambs running around, it hasn't crossed my mind in awhile. Still, with Canadian heritage (I celebrated my own little Thanksgiving back in October with spring lamb), I'll have to source some turkey for the coming holiday. Along with my turkey fix, I'll be needing something to drink and have narrowed it down to a few choices.

1) Bubbles. As good a champagne as I can afford. Or two bottles of local sparkler. There are lots of good value for money choices around NZ depending on your taste. And depending on the locally available selection, I might pick up a slightly cheaper one and start at breakfast with a Bellini and end at dinner with a Kir Royale cocktail. Why not, it's the holidays.

2) RED Bubbles. Who knew? All those crazy (duck?) wines in North America that I have heard about but never drank (I was too young, hehe) haven't ruined red bubbles for me. The Aussies have been making some good sparkling reds for awhile (Hugh Hamilton's merlot is spectacular stuff and under $20, whoohoo). There must be someone importing it.. I don't think there is any being made here. It might seem odd at first, but it is a nice drop for the sage stuffing, rich meat and sauces.

3) Pinot Noir. With the varietal berry and possible truffle/mushroom flavours, I'd have to say that for a special occasion (and with others who'd appreciate it) Pinot Noir would compliment a menu that I'd whip up to impress the in-laws. For turkey, it's tempting to lean toward the lighter end but that would depend on what accompaniments were being served. Put a few drops of truffle oil in the potato mash, some wild mushrooms in the dressing and slip a bottle of Pinot Noir into something more comfortable, a decanter. This silky wine will be perfect for the sauces and enhance the slight gamey flavours of the meat too.

4) A rich creamy Chardonnay. Fruity, juicy and definitely one with some time in a barrel (but easy on the new oak). There are many good ones in NZ: Craggy Range, Saint Clair, Milton, Martinborough Vineyard, Ata Rangi.. the impressive list would take a whole post. But thinking of my poor pocketbook, Saint Clair would be a good choice and I'd go for Nobilos Poverty Bay 2002 if there is any left. Both are seamless baked-pear-custardy-buttery-hazelnut-biscuit beauties and the Nobilo should probably be drank by now. The Saint Clair also had buttered popcorn on the nose, incredible! They are so good that the festivities could deteriorate (or escalate) into a rather raucous evening if you weren't careful. Poverty Bay 04 isn't bad either.

And finally,

5) A rose. I always had a thing against rose and then a trip to Waiheke Island changed all that. But since few of those bottles are available off the rock, I went looking this summer in Canada and found one in Niagara's Flat Rock vineyard (made by a former Villa Maria vigneron, Darryl Brooker, now at Inniskillen, I think). It was a %100 Pinot Noir rose. It's a possible partner for many hard to match foods. And not bad only slightly chilled either (I had to try this, it was 30C outside). I think with the range of flavours and textures in a typical turkey meal, it might just do the trick.

As with any food matching quest, but there is never one solution. And all this talk about turkey is making me homesick. It'll be Chardonnay, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and seafood for me in December but I'll survive somehow.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

bacchus would approve

San Martino came and went. I didn't make any wine this year which is a sad thing for many reasons but especially so on November 11 because it is the day of tasting the new wine.

Legend has it that San Martino cut his cloak in half to share with a drunken man who had fallen down and was cold. It is also celebrated as the summer of San Martino in places since it can coincide with warm autumn weather sandwiched between spells of cold and damp. Unsure, but I like them both and, either way, it goes hand and hand with a party and there is always wine involved.

Instead, I celebrated late at a tasting of Matariki wines on Thursday evening. It was fitting as Matariki (Maori for mother of the stars in the constellation Taurus) symbolizes the mystery of nature. The appearance of Matariki coincides with the beginning of spring and the rituals of fertility and planting. The visibility of the stars is often associated with the prosperity of the season that lies ahead. When Taurus fades from view, the season is over and the harvest is complete.

It was a good complement of wines. And good company. My only problem with tastings is that I get incredibly hungry (likely due to the fact that I tend to think of wines in terms of what I would eat with them). For me, this seems to best describe wine. It works to evoke more of the feeling I get when I drink it and, oh yeah, it also assists with remembering my preferences. So goes the tasting notes infused with recipe and food references.

We started the tasting with the Blanc de Blanc 2002. It is a lovely 100% chardonnay sparkler, very simple with yeasty warm bread rolls and a faint lemonade on the nose. I would be tempted to have it with my favourite cream pasta (lemon cream asparagus fettucine and smoked salmon) or with an array of appetizers. Light, not too acidic and cleansing.

The Aspire range of wines are what Alister, the winery representative/speaker for the evening, referred to as "lifestyle wines". The stuff of everyday drinking (responsibly, of course) and he has got a point.

Perfect for pizza, the Aspire Syrah was a lovely drop. It drew rave reviews from all in attendance and value for money (being high on the student winedrinker's criteria) at $17, you certainly couldn't go wrong. The purpley red wine had a great dried herb, blackcurrant, peppercorn nose underlined with an almost medicinal note (maybe licorice). It is a mouthful as well with nicely balanced tannins/toast and a little cherry jam on the finish. As we discovered later on there was a little merlot blended as well so this was interesting to note. Go gourmet with the pizza and make some incredibly simple combinations. Anchovy, black olive and eggplant would be good. Not a bad match for a home-made pork sausage (on a bun smothered in marinated roasted peppers) either.

The Aspire Chardonnay was also a good wine, definitely living up to its accolades. I got tangelo, stone fruit, light butter/ toast. Nice. I am thinking about a tomato based seafood pasta. Spaghetti con le cozze. In a wide saute pan, heat some garlic and thinly sliced red onion in a bit of butter and olive oil, even add a little diced bacon if you like. When sizzling, fragrant, and the garlic is soft, add a splash of white wine to "deglaze" the pan if there are any little brown (not burnt) bits, and to evaporate the alcohol Add a tin of diced tomatoes and juice (or whole, breaking them up with a wooden spoon). When this is bubbling along nicely, dump in scrubbed fresh greenlip mussels (no cracked shells and none that won't stay closed when pinched). Say 12-14 good sized ones. Cover and let them cook until they open. This should only take a few minutes. Discard any that do not open. Have the pasta boiling, it takes a few minutes to put this sauce together (maybe only a few more than it takes to cook the pasta!) and it is full of flavour. Also going to try the chardonnay with Pasta Carbonara. I think the light oak will compliment this nicely but if I feel like splurging, would definitely go for the Reserve Chardonnay. I don't believe in adding cream to a carbonara. so, the Reserve, with its mouthwatering tropical and stone fruit, creamy richness (butterscotch, hazelnut) and well balanced cedar-y oak aromatics would suit the bacon, egg and parmigiano reggiano/pecorino romano in the sauce well. Sipping on its own wouldn't be a bad idea either.

The Aspire is a terrific wine range and although I am not keen on Sauvignon Blanc, I have to admit it was textbook. With mostly Marlborough fruit (the remainder from Hawkes' Bay), the aromatics just jumped out of the glass. Lovelycitrusylime, lemongrass, fresh gooseberry, and slightly vegetative (faint tinned asparagus), it has sufficient length and flavour to reward the nose. I don't know if it is just me, but I could imagine that, during a second glass, I could see it getting a little sour ( I am going to get a bottle to trial this theory). As for food, I wasn't overly inspired but if I had to make a recommendation, I think simple would be best. I remember reading that Sauvy was the new fish and chip wine or a good match anyhow.. something I'll be trying when I get out to Port for fish again.

I have to say it again, the Aspire range does offer good value for money. And the Cabernet Merlot was no exception. Black cherry and savoury (maybe a slight tobacco note), it has a good tannin backbone that would be perfect for a steak. Either secret recipe barbeque sauce or black bean marinade (best cheater marinade as far as I am concerned) would make the tastebuds sing. And even for brasato di manzo al Barolo (braised beef in Barolo). Not an everyday dish, but then, Barolo isn't an everyday wine. And since I can't afford to drink regularly.. I can't justify cooking with it. Ah someday. In the meanwhile, I think this would be an acceptable substitution.

Matariki also has an Estate Syrah that was very good. The rich red 2001 had great spice and sandalwood aromas. There was also a bit of cigar smoke and maybe tar (hey, it was one of the last wines) wafting out of the glass. Lots of complexity and definitely one for a special occasion. Rack of lamb encrusted in herbs.. bring it on. Really a nice bottle.

And then there was Quintology..

This is one of few red wines that I have ever distinctly and immediately got vanilla or vanillin notes out of the glass. Port also came to mind. Really concentrated aromas. Still quite complex, in its youth (or a little younger) it would have been something, there are definite signs that it is getting on in age. I wouldn't keep it too much longer. Another definite match for meat. Maybe something more rustic though.. stewed goat in tomatoes (pasta con agnello e cipolle) would be absolute yum.

Overall, I have to say there is never a bad expereince in participating in a wine tasting. I have had bad wines. And admit to going against a lot of popular opinion in saying so on occasion. Likewise, I love some wines that never get a nod from the wine gurus of New Zealand (what IS wrong with them?!) To answer my own question, absolutely nothing. It is most important to find what you like and learn to recognize it. Then there are no bad choices.

Is that justification for my opinion as well? I hope so because I am off to another tonight.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

un bicchiere di vino

Tonight there is a wine tasting at a local bottle shop. Matariki wines will be on offer for tasting. The accompanying talk is always good as the event is usually led by the individual(s) who tends the wine. I am hesitant to use the word "winemaker" but won't get into it because it will likely lead to another rant about modern practises and the lost soul of food production. Oops. it just did.

But many New Zealand producers are reviving the old world passion for wine in a typical innovative and understated Kiwi fashion. So tonight should be very interesting.

I'll let you know how it goes.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Items from the free food shelf

Takes place in a hostel in (of all places) outback Australia.

The free food shelf is a familiar thing to frequent hostel dwellers and can add spice (literally) to potentially otherwise bland sustenance. That is, if you can get your head around a communal and constantly rotating kitchen full of the competing smells of foreign foods and meals that often contain items of a donated variety. You don't need to miss condiments when you travel.

The free food shelf held, among other things, kejap manis (a sweet Indonesian soy sauce), cucumber salad dressing, sweet thai chili sauce, a tin of sliced pineapple (in juice) and a bottle of olive oil.

We bought pita bread for 79 cents, a tomato for 50 cents, cucumber was $1.99 and chicken for $2.89.

Heat a little oil in a skillet, sear chicken pieces on all sides. I use skinless, boneless chicken breast, although the thighs were good.
Add the juice from the tinned pineapple.
Add sweet chili sauce and kejap manis to taste.
Cover and simmer (medium heat) until chicken is nearly done.
Remove the lid and reduce the sauce. (We sliced the chicken and added it back to coat with the sliced pineapple.)

An invention of Epicurean proportions, maybe not. But it filled the gap. And my former travel mate (we still keep in touch) also makes it from time to time.

Served in a pita, with the sliced vegetables, pineapple and a little of the dressing, lettuce would have filled it out nicely.

I'll add some when I make it tonight.

Monday, November 14, 2005

coffee

Coffee, caffe, cafe, kaffee, koffie.

Now what about bourbon santos, San Marcos di Tarrazu, Yirgacheffe, Mandheling, or kopi luwak?

No matter how you say it, the brown bitter liquid is causing quite a stir. After oil, it is the second most widely traded (legal) food commodity in the world. And we're passionate about it. Most of us drink at least a cup a day and would agree that we pay far too much for it.

Let's use espresso to illustrate. A cup can run anywhere from $2-4, the Auckland University of Technology (who lists it as a living expense on their website) says about $3. We can use that for arguements sake. The average espresso uses between between 14 and 17 grams of coffee per cup, while others may barely use 10 grams. Averaging 15.5 grams, that puts the cafe price of coffee at $193 per kilo. Using under 10 grams, that skyrockets to over $300 per kilo. And what about the supermarket? Say $7 for a 200 or 250 gram brick? That's between $28 and $35 a kilo. A slightly better figure.

That covers the pocketbook, but do we know how much it really costs?

Regardless if you drink instant, or prefer the myriad of cafe choices, or you are a gastronome, swilling Guatemalan Huehuetenango or Kopi luwak (beans scavenged from Indonesian kitty poo, no, not kidding, and it sells for about 75USD per quarter pound), with the volume we are guzzling, we should want to know more. Where is it grown? Who grows it? How? There are many informative websites about coffee detailing these questions and the importance of purchasing coffee that is fairly traded (Fair Trade coffee), and farmed using ecologically sound and environmentally safe methods. I highly recommend www.tradeaid.org.nz where there is updated information on product availability and supplier participation. Do look them up, it is a relevant and necessary.

First, I'll assume that everyone knows that coffee comes from a plant grown on a farm. But is it common knowledge that coffee comes predominantly from farmers who live and work appalling conditions? They rarely have governing bodies and struggle under fragile and corrupt economic systems. Fair Trade and similar schemes are working with farmers so they can implement business and technological support from government, trade groups, and private organisations (such as MAF and HortResearch) as would a horticultural farm in New Zealand.

So what is Fair Trade? Fair Trade is a system that guarantees coffee farmers in the world's producing regions, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean, a fair price for their harvests by implementing a set minimum price to offset the volatile world commodity market. If the world market price goes higher, the fair trade market pays higher prices. Ensuring this base minimum ($1.26 per pound), to the majority of the world's coffee farmers means a "decent" living wage. In addition, participating farmers are typically represented by buying cooperatives and the fair payments are invested in health care, education, environmental stewardship, and economic independence. This provides credit to farmers, community development, and the availability of technical assistance to adopt more sustainable methods of farming, organic and shade coffee.

Ok, so this seems decent. Though still probably not a fair price, if you consider the intensive labor (I've read figures of something like 400 man hours per 70kg bag of the green beans) required to produce coffee and the fact that producers alone have to bear the brunt of poor harvests. Still, the difference between 10 cents a pound and $1.26 is quite substantial. (What are the cafes charging again?) The formation of buying cooperatives support the fairer price structures, but more promising are the long term relationships and the social gains that stem from this system. Alternative political and market structures that are morally important will also promote longevity and stability of these communities.

Coffee certified as Fair Trade is independently monitored to ensure that this mornings macchiato was purchased under fair conditions. Monitored by who? Australia and New Zealand have the Fair Trade Association that uphold the criteria of "standards developed by the FLO Standards & Policy Committee, in which stakeholders from FLO’s member organisations, producer organisations, traders and external experts participate" (FLO website).

As with most of the world, the cafe culture has indeed invaded the Kiwi lifestyle. In Wellington, I am told there are more cafes per capita than Manhattan (or was it all of New York?) Either way, that's a lot of beans. And then there is the supermarket.

Wondering about a fair trade choice at the supermarket? Good luck. The main players aren't overly interested in providing a mainstream fair trade option. In mid 2004, Kraft "saw no demand" for this sector, Sara Lee had developed the 'Prebica' coffee line in response to the growing number of American university students demanding fair trade coffee in their campus cafeterias, P&G has a fraction of its business (Millstone label) that is fair trade and Nestle has only recently come up with an instant product certified Fair Trade to answer the growing trend in the UK. The Japanese owned company Robert Harris, who has nearly 50% of the supermarket ground coffee business, apparently aren't so interested either. (Although I've heard that there is supposed to be something Fair Trade in their pipeline for food service, I can't find it anywhere on their websites. I'll keep looking.)

Bottom line: Companies will source fair trade beans IF there's a demand. In Europe this demand is growing. Like the demand for good coffee, in Italy there is respect and value for the people that produce food. Giant Lavazza has developed a collaborative project called ¡Tierra! and likewise, illy is another strong proponent of coffee growers. German Tchibo has rececently got in on the action. All these companies work within their own initiative to improve the quality of coffee and they want to do so in a responsible corporate manner. Establishing social, ecological and economical standards for sustainable production, processing and trading of coffee, higher standards of living for farmers, as well as environmental protection are all included in the business practices of these companies.

Who knew? But maybe you are asking "What does this mean to me?". Well, if it is not enough to contribute your bit to fair and just dealings with the 20 odd million people who produce the coffee you buy, supporting the earning of a fair wage, ensuring good working conditions, minimizing the impact of coffee farming on our planet, how about showing the coffee farmer the money?

Simply put, what we pay for coffee is at an all time high, why not distribute some of that back to the farmer? Consumers should demand this of the large coffee corporations. Where there is a demand, large companies will provide. I believe that New Zealand consumers, in a country where nearly everyone is touched by agriculture in some way, if given an informed choice would support a movement that supports the plight of coffee farmers in crisis.

On another, more hedonistic, note, it also ensures that you don't get adulterated (read: inferior) coffee.

We all like 'good' coffee. With the glut of garbage on the market, I don't know if many of us would know it if we tasted it. Matter of fact, most cafes rely on that. Coffee quality is highly dependent on its origin, species and the way it is processed. There are many varieties but only three (some argue two) species are commercially traded on the world market: Coffea arabica, C. canephora (former name, C. robusta), and C. liberica. The arabicas are more prized than the others and demand higher prices. Processing using the wet (washed) method produces a "mild" coffee, the most expensive being Colombian milds (from Colombia, Tanzania and Kenya). Other "milds" come from Central America, Mexico, other Latin American countries, and some African nations. Robustas come principally from Asia and some African countries.

Some countries have more stringent harvesting and processing rules for coffee producers. Kenya, for example, prides itself for its reputation as East Africa's top quality coffee producer. They maintain this by inspecting and grading, assuring quality beans offered for export. The government controls the system and rewards growers for better beans resulting in consistent quality and continual improvements.

Fair Trade consults with the International Coffee Organisation (criteria for certification, remember?) that helps promote quality and sustainability of the market. So, if left unregulated, what you are drinking could be less than the quality stuff you think you are paying for. What is to prevent buyers from saving a little money by blending cheaper robusta with that Antigua you savour on the weekends? Without some intervention, who will stop the roasting houses from packaging substandard coffee and still demanding premium prices?

Have a favourite cafe that doesn't offer fair trade coffee and want to remain loyal? Ask for it. I have spoken to a few local roasters who have all said the same thing: they don't supply fair trade because there is no real demand for it. Show them that is not the case. If a cafe sells Fair Trade coffee, it will likely be well posted (and listed on www.tradeaid.org.nz). If not, ask your coffee retailer or roaster. And if they can't or won't tell you, there are lots of cafes in New Zealand to choose from who deal in Fair trade coffee and would be more than willing to provide information.

Can your cup of coffee make a difference to the 8 or so percent of the world's population in fragile or developing countries whose livelihood hinges on getting a fair price?

It can, and with responsible companies and Fair Trade, it does.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

New Zealand Cheese


Ah, cheese.

At any one time, I have several types in the fridge, cupboard, counter.. because you don't always have to keep it in the fridge here in New Zealand. And for tastes sake, you shouldn't.

This is about a few things cheese. I am sure there will be more posts about one of my favourite topics, to which I devote much of my time and my budget, but I first have to point out a few tips for anyone planning to serve cheese platters over the coming Christmas holiday:

1) Buy a good portion of your choices soon. And forget about the use by date. They will taste better as this date approaches and in some cases, past. This might not be to everyone's taste but experimentation is the fun part. Buy a few small wheels of camembert and taste them over several weeks. Don't worry if you don't live in Christchurch (Canterbury Cheesemongers are ripening a lovely selection) or near some of the great local producers who hold their product until optimum eating, a little advance preparation will make the most of the supermarket selection.

2) Include cheese in your recipes because cooking with cheese can not only enhance a dish, it can make a little go a long way. In most cases, these aren't cheap choices, but they are quality products made with quality milk that are big on taste. So experiment, roll your favourite inside a crumbed chicken parcel with spring asparagus, make a warm grilled lamb salad with cheese crumbled over top, fill pastry shells with mushrooms and cream cheese for a tempting hors d'oeuvre, or serve a perfectly aged piece of cheddar next to an apple tart.

To put it in simple terms, which is often the best way to describe anything..

Cheese is alive.

Yes, cheese is a living, breathing, evolving food. A fact discovered long ago. One my many favourite cheese quotes was made by Clifton Fadiman who said cheese was "milk's leap toward immortality". And how true that is. Milk certainly could not be kept on the pantry shelf for months on end. We could credit a fortunate accident (as to how milk ended up in a calf stomach) or lack of refrigeration but must thankfully acknowledge the inherent qualities of milk. Its absolute specificity for rennet and natural flora (natures vehicles of preservation) that combined with the climate or storage facilities (temperature and humidity) yielded something very tasty - think of the Roquefort caves! Add to this centuries of development of cheesemaking methods that capitalize on the available resources and you have the characteristic textures, tastes and aromas specific to the various regions of the world.

Think of the legendary aging halls of Parmigiano-Reggiano and the glorious King of cheese appreciated in its homeland for its inconsistencies and seasonal/regional differences. Then, there is the well known affinage of legendary French fromages (of numbers it would take a lifetime, maybe two, to get through them all!). And the differences are staggering. Some types are tended from pale and firm to caramel coloured and oozing. The lovely rinds containing cheese just waiting to be released onto a baguette. And although Kiwis love to travel, one need not wait for a holiday in Brebis, Lausanne or Aosta.. there are some fantastic cheese experiences to be had right here.

No matter what your taste, a fresh mild chevre or a well-aged golden gouda, someone in New Zealand is having a go at making it. I'll apologise now for failing to list them all (and for the rudimentary explanation of cheese types). There are many sub-classes within the main cheese categories, depending on the method used to make the cheese, but the basic breakdown is just this: Fresh or aged (ripened, in cheese terms). Under the aged category, cheeses can be soft-ripened, semi-soft, or firm/hard according to their texture. And again within these categories, terms like washed rind, natural rind, and blue varieties can all be included.

Fresh cheeses are delightful but don't benefit from and aren't designed to age. Snowy chevre for salads, rich mascarpone for irresistible desserts or (make your own) paneer for Indian curries featuring this heat-acid precipitated cheese.. All are delicious. Keep refrigerated and use them relatively soon after purchase.

The most common soft-ripened varieties are usually associated with the flour-like (it isn't) bloom covering the exterior. This special and edible mold (penicillium candidum, for the interested) is what covers Camembert and Brie (and even some blues). These cheeses that are matured by a process that occurs from the outside in, evident when you slice into a cheese that is oozing around the rind but still firm in the center. When fully ripe and tempered, they should have good give if poked gently and they should be almost runny when sliced open.

"Semi-soft" refers to cheeses that have a smooth, generally creamy interior with little to no obvious rind. Many blues are in this category as would be something like domestic harvarti, and often, washed rind cheeses. They can be quite elastic (read: like eating rubber) if not tempered before eating.

Some washed rind varieties are also part of the aforementioned groups. Washed rind being when the surface of the cheese is rinsed or brushed with anything from wine, beer, salt (brine).. where the natural growths on the cheeses exterior are constantly removed by the cheesemaker and replaced with other materials that promote the growth of another type. This gives a characteristic flavour and texture profile to the resulting cheese. The surfaces of washed rind cheeses can vary in colour and the oranges and browns of their rinds are an eye-catching addition to a cheese platter. More often than not though, these cheeses also bring an distinctive nose (odour) to the cheeseboard.

There are a couple very interesting cheeses being made in New Zealand in this category. Kapiti makes Ramara, a washed rind that is overlayed with mold. Don't be put off by the um, subtle, ammonia-type aroma. The cheese is only exhaling and it will dissipate once it is set out for a wee bit. It has a gloriously fluid interior and, even in the fridge, if you leave ripe Ramara on an angle, be prepared to have the cheese flow to one side of the wheel. Not so much a problem with the Mt. Hector. When ripe, the exterior is wrinkled and the interior is like silk. The wrapper should read: A fantastic little pyramid shaped nugget of goat milk goodness. This last one benefits from a few days in a cool cupboard and both should be at room temperature before serving.

Feta is a soft-ripened variety but requires constant refrigeration. It is more perishable and prone to picking up other flavours from the fridge. I still bring it to room temperature about an hour before using but I slice only what I plan to use and return the remainder to the fridge. Have to say that I am not a fan of feta made with cows milk so will refer anyone interested to the Cuisine website for their tasting of the NZ selection. I think feta should be as white as the driven snow and taste slightly sweet and tangy underlined with the mildly gamey ewe (or goat) milk flavours that so easily handle the salt from the brine aging. Puhoi makes a relatively mild goat feta (seems more like a slightly firmer chevre) under the Ornelle label (likely the most easily sourced from the Cuisine list) that I like for salads and as an ingredient. A solid choice that will suit most. Where texture is important, or for a Greek inspired (mezes) platter or a classic Greek salad, feta from Blue River Dairy or Whitestone are worth seeking out (or ordering from their websites). For something different, although I have never tried it with a local offering, is grilled feta. Sprinkle with dried oregano and a good olive oil, roast at 190C for 12-15 minutes. Careful not to burn the herbs. Nice accompaniment to dips and a glistening bowl of olives.

With the exception of feta, most soft cheeses need some time (I prefer a few days) in the cupboard to develop flavours and lose that chalky or rubbery texture becoming rich and runny (and, in my opinion, better able to compliment wine). Much like decanting or tempering a fine wine, buying cheese in advance and storing in the fridge until the week of the use by date and a day or two (or more) at room temperature should allow for the cheese to be tasted at its absolute best.

The harder cheeses cover a huge category. They can vary from in flavour from mild and milky becoming increasingly sharp and downright pungent. Texture-wise these can also be elastic to coarse, grainy grating cheeses. Many Dutch styles, cooked or Swiss types (i.e. gruyere), cheddars and parmesan are all included here.

These cheeses need even more time which means that your wax-enrobed cheddars should have been tucked away in the back of the fridge for awhile already. Oil can appear on the cheese surface at room temperature (if it is really warm) so storage out of the fridge should be limited to 3-4 hours before serving.

Kapiti makes several fine examples of cheddar (a smoked one too!) as does Whitestone. Their Airedale and Totara are both good. Tasty on a cheeseboard, the savoury, tangy flavours are nicely paired with Pinot Noir. Karikaas makes a lip-smackingly good vintage Gouda (Sileni pairs it well with their Semillon) as well as a Leyden, delicately enhanced with the traditional cumin seed. As for gruyere or Swiss cheese, I can't, in good conscience, recommend any of them. But it isn't the fault of the cheesemaker. I still maintain that pasturisation ruins the domestic gruyere flavour and alters the melt. (If you don't believe me, a side-by-side comparison with the imported stuff melted on toast is a good illustration, but I digress.) These yummy cheeses are also very good tucked into a burger for the grill. Cut a 1cm slice and fold it inside while forming patties. Good for advance preparation because they need a bit of time in the fridge to set up. Resist the temptation to press the burgers while on the grill, you'll get a more flavourful burger and won't squeeze out all the cheese. Not bad with a sturdier blue either..

Blue cheeses are those with distinct blue (or even green) streaks created by the addition of penicillium roqueforti mold (actually a fungus) during the cheesemaking process. For the characteristic veins to develop, the cheese needs to be aerated and small holes intentionally poked through the wheel allow enough air to promote the growth of the mold. This mold provides a distinct flavor to the cheese as well, and depending on age, ranges from fairly mild to downright aggressive! Blue cheeses can also be in all of the cheese categories, but not fresh cheese.

My tastes on blue vary as widely as the styles do. Creamy and mild to pungent and crumbly. regardless, the same applies. The closer to the use by date the better and they need a good breathe before serving. I have found many NZ blues are rather creamy and are good wine matches for the abundance of well-made sweetish Riesling for dessert. Beyond the classic pairings, I had a fantastic platter in Matakana winery pairing their Pinot Gris with, among other things, Puhoi blue (the one in the black wax). In another style, if you are in Marlborough, River Terrace farm makes a good one. It is harder and slightly saltier than most and, with age, was a wonderful grating cheese. I also liked it served alongside a pumpkin ravioli with sage brown butter and I plan to order more to mix into a ravioli filling.

Much has been written about NZ cheeses. There are articles, awards, medals and the like.. and these recommendations, similar to those in the wine industry, can steer you toward a good choice. Really though, it is a matter of personal taste and with so much to tempt the palate, I hope people take advantage and explore be it at the supermarket, specialty shop or farm gate. Ultimately, support of the domestic cheese industry will be a driving force for artisanal cheesemakers to continue to produce quality cheeses and with time, develop some flavours all their own.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Remembrance

Today is Remembrance Day in Canada.

I am off to a local RSA (Returned Servicemen's Association - like the Legion at home) here in New Zealand for a pint and to give solemn recognition (amidst those who served) to the fallen. Soldiers who gave their lives so I may experience life as I have. Anything I could write seems so inadequate.
Only the words of Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae will do.

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.


Lest we forget.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

La tavola

La tavola means "table", in Italian.

I think it is a significant name for a significant topic.

Food and all the experiences that come with the act (and some would argue the art) of eating.

New Zealand is blessed with agricultural richness and abundance. Kiwis are fiercely proud of this but at the same time can show remarkable indifference. It is easy to take something so precious for granted. Like many similar nations, the pleasures of the table are waning in favour of convenience when enjoying a meal prepared from the fresh local ingredients is one of the simplest pleasures possible.

Simple.. a cup of coffee and a freshly baked muffin for morning tea, a nibble of cheese with an exquisitely matched local beer or wine, greenlipped mussels and a fresh tomato sauce over pasta.. pleasures.

So. With that, I've got to run. Must find something to make for tea..

Origins of the Foodie

I often wonder where this fire began.

Where does it begin for anyone impassioned with food?

Early transference of food and culinary traditions came from exploration and invasions. In recent times, immigration and widespread travel has opened the doors on global cuisine. We find it understandable that someone from Italy or France, the accepted centers of gastronomy, have a passion for food coursing through their veins. (I'd have a lot of caneles coursing through my veins if iI lived in Paris!) Yet, all other countries and every region within them have strong food traditions or customs (some more well-known than others). And depending on where you are blessed to live or travel, the real cuisine isn't in restaurants though they may serve fair to even exceptional examples of where I believe food comes from.

I think real food comes from a kitchen with nary a star.

More and more, people are seeking out taste and experience. In "A Cook's Tour", Anthony Bourdain is in search of the perfect meal. For me, I think such a meal should transport you to another place, and there is no place like home. That essence is in the cooking of a mother, grandmother, aunt or community kitchen and it can remind people, no matter where they may hail from, a little of home.

Home. Whether you have lived in the same place all your life or had some circumstance that has taken you far from whence you came, the power of smell and taste can conjure images of that place. Most people can attest to this. If I were blindfolded and taken to my parents home just before dinner, I would know where I was.

And I wasn't born in a part of the world renowned for its gastronomic delights or at least, I never considered it to be. We ate meat and potatoes, fiddleheads (tender new shoots of the ostrich fern) in spring and I took the occasional lobster sandwich to school (I had a teacher make an off comment to me about it once - the nerve!) but I didn't think it was anything out of the ordinary. (Besides, they were rather ugly creatures..)

My grandfather used to tell me about taking lobster to school. He'd hide his lunchpail away from the others lest they smell the lobster and he be made a spectacle. Lobster, you see, was a by-catch and the food of the poor.

Looking back, I was a lucky kid. Living on the bay, despite the fog, had its benefits.

So where does someone from a small city with conservative tastes get this fire?

First, I have to credit my mother even though I cook different things compared to what I would have eaten while growing up. That said, there isn't a birthday that goes by that I don't make the moist chocolate cake and pillowy Italian meringue icing that I first stuck my whole arm into at the age of one, or crave blueberry muffins that have that crunchy, sugary topping everytime I have a cup of coffee. Ditto rhubarb custard pie. She still makes the best fried haddock I have ever tasted and, now that the local fishermen have long since pulled in their boats, continues to hassle the local fishmonger for the freshest fish available.

Second, travel. Ever met someone who visited Rome and raved about a fast-food mega chain? Or someone who ate there simply so they would know what they were eating? Both are sad and unnecessary. Wandering around markets in other countries certainly puts the regional cuisine in perspective and an impromptu lunch with fresh market gatherings can be the stuff of memories. Arming yourself with a few recipes (and food words in the local lingo) from research prior to travelling makes all the difference. This way you are able to get the most out of the local cuisine. And if you are of a certain diet persuasion (or ant eggs aren't your thing), you can avoid an unpleasant surprise. Most surprising was that they tasted like an incredibly savoury rice.

And to give credit where it is due, however reluctantly, I have to credit Food Science. University has given me the drive to communicate in other languages and try new (and sometimes frightening) things.

So I study. And cook. And eat. I devote what most consider an insane amount of time to all of the above.

And why shouldn't I?

Meal preparation can now be measured in minutes. A large percentage of the population of developed countries take less than an hour to prepare an evening meal (and only wants to spend half that). It is well documented that takeaways (and inactivity) are rampantly having ill effects on health. So, when there are a plethora of cookbooks available and we don't have to ready the coals (although I have) to make dinner, why not use the extra time to enjoy making and eating the meal with family or friends?

Not to get into the politics of "Supersize me", but I do have to mention Jamie Oliver's School Lunch Program in Britain and the Edible Schoolyard at Martin Luther King Junior School in California. I hope it catches on. We know the detrimental effects a poor diet has on health, learning and behaviour. And we know that healthy habits are best formed at a young age. This should be fire in the belly of every parent and school administrator with any sense of responsibility.

These are only a few of the reasons.

It has to come from somewhere.. So maybe my own mother, oblivious to the effect she was having on me, cooking evening meals, making homemade bread and preserves, always extolling the importance of fresh seafood, was the beginning. My father, helping me plant lettuce and always conveying awareness of nature and where food comes from, was the beginning. Now, I revere the freshness and quality of ingredients (often growing my own) and scrutinize the manner in which they are obtained from the earth or ocean.

We always ate in the kitchen, at the table (unless I was stealing a warm biscuit before dinner) with no television. I used to hate that but no longer. There was always discussion.

I can take recipes from her cookbooks but know I have gathered more than recipes from my experiences in her kitchen. Her cooking for us was an act of love. And it continues as I prepare dinner for my husband and hopefully one day, my own family.

Eating is one of the small pleasures of life that I am determined not to lose.

Maybe it is that simple.