Wednesday, November 24, 2010

How Wine Became Modern

I happened to be in San Francisco for the opening of the How Wine Became Modern exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibit focuses on the year 1976 as the beginning of modern winemaking. The photograph above is a section of the piece titled The Judgment of Paris, 1976. It depicts a parody of The Last Supper. A blind tasting of French and Californian wines was conducted with shocking results. Even French experts found New World wines being made of superior quality. This scandalous scene was depicted in the 2008 film, "Bottle Shock." With this as the starting point of modern winemaking, the exhibit displays the diversity of wine stemware and exotic decanters, aroma samples and various fads of descriptors and flavor adjectives, soil samples from different winemaking regions and definitions of terroir, and a collection of different wine labels and marketing appeals.

There were two parts of the exhibit that I most enjoyed. The design of wineries and modern architecture was inspiring in both form and function. Perhaps the most relevant part of an exhibit entitled "How Wine Became Modern," was left strangely understated; the actual techniques and technologies of truly modern winemaking. Paul Draper, the chief winemaker at Ridge Winery, describes the scene. "In California for at least the last ten or fifteen years we have heard that the wines are now made in the vineyard. What is not mentioned is that in most cases they are then remade in the winery."

The technology Mr. Draper refers to includes not only the architectural facilities, with precise controls of temperature, sophisticated pumps and presses, but also the chemistry of winemaking itself. What that means for today's winemaker is more precise control by means of a wide array of additives, from powdered tannins, yeast superfoods and nutrients, to oak chips, advanced fining and filtering agents supplied by companies like Laffort and Lallemand, Gusmer Enterprises and Scott Laboratories. These companies can also provide analytical services to measure your titratable acidity versus volatile acidity, malic acid, pH levels and whatever else you want to know. Today, many great winemakers use additives to some degree, like the often called "Viagra of winemaking," diammonium phosphate. DAP is a nutrient that supplies yeast with the nitrogen it requires get the job done, and one of many common nutrients used to control modern fermentation.

These are the techniques rarely advertised by wineries. It seemed to me as I was leaving the museum that this portion of the exhibit could have run away with the show, but instead was left as secretive as by the industry itself. Perhaps they want to maintain the romance of nature in a bottle, or perhaps they fear the notion of cheating. Whether that means cheating nature or cheating the consumer may be reason enough to let the juice speak for itself. Like any great tool when used properly, it only enhances and not merely imitates, the fundamental work of the artisan. Maybe one day, the public will be ready to know more about the product.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

What to do with a Medlar?

What is a medlar? It sounds like some creature from Harry Potter's adventures. Few people have heard of these esoteric fruits, much less tasted them. They have fallen out of fashion over the past century, perhaps because they aren't very easy to eat. In centuries past, they were more common, with remnants strewn about in English literature. Shakespeare alludes to medlars in "As You Like It," when he says "...you'll be rotten ere you be half ripe, and that's the right virture of the medlar." Before they can be used, they must be bletted. What does that mean? There are a few fruits that are terribly astringent in their immature stages, most of them are Asian fruits like the durian, loquat, hachiya persimmons, quince and hawthorns. The flesh must be completely mushy before that astringency is transformed into sweetness and acidity.

Tremaine Arkley sells his quince to Park Kitchen, and we ended up in a conversation about medlars, which his wife planted after reading about them in a Victorian novel. He gave me twenty five pounds of fruits to develop recipes this year. Once the medlars have bletted, they are very soft and oozing with juices. They have a very large seed pod and thick skins, much like rose hips. In fact, it was the rose hips that brought medlars to my door. I was watching the squirrels in my yard as they foraged for food. They were nibbling on the rose hips, high in vitamin C and other nutrients. Suddenly, I though of our conversation about the medlars, and I pictured the birds and squirrels feasting on them in the trees. So I called Tremaine, who had forgotten about our conversation, and he rescued the harvest for me.

I have stewed the medlars into a paste, which can then be used for a number of applications both savory and sweet. I've made some medlar frangipane for apple tarts, and simmered them with bourbon as a glaze for braised pork belly. I just put up a batch of medlar bourbon, a simple infusion of quartered medlars, sugar, vanilla bean and bourbon. It should be ready to taste by New Year's Eve.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Chestnuts, Le Pain Des Pauvres

Chestnut season arrives as the night falls quickly, the evening air becomes chilly, and the geese begin their flight south for the winter. By October, the nuts begin falling from the branches. Their fruit is ripe when the fuzzy, spiky outer casings turn from lime green to straw gold. Harvested when the farmer's fields become more sparse, time allows for forest gleaning of autumn nuts and mushrooms. The chestnuts are gathered from the orchard or forest floor and often ground into flour for baking through the winter months. In the old days, chestnuts were regarded as le pain des pauvres, the poor man's bread. Since the chestnut has a low oil content, theree was little worry of the flour turning rancid.

Peeling them from their shells is the kind of chore that would have been done by the family around the evening fire. The European method is to score the shells along the concave side and roast them briefly in a hot oven or skillet. The shell will begin to curl away from the meat, and they must be peeled off while still hot. While they are warm and pliable, the inner papery skin will rub right off, but once cool, this bitter husk clings tight to the nut. The papery husk also comes off if the nuts are dried after peeling the shell. As the nut contracts, the paper separates from the meat much easier. Then the meat need only be reconstituted before eating.

The French regard the chestnut by two names, the marron, in which the nut is one whole piece, and the chataigne, divided into two or three pieces by the husk. The more attractive marron commands a higher price, and is used in ways that show its attractive appearance.

The nut has a strong seasonal charm and fares well in soups and purees, where its rich, woodsy flavor is uninhibited by it's dry and crumbly texture. Usually eaten with wild game, mushrooms, truffles, and roots and fruits of the season. Pumpkins, potatoes, parsnips, celery root, cabbages, apples and pears are great combinations. It has also long been a favorite winter confection in breads, cakes and puddings, or the coveted confection, marrons glacees (pronounced glah-say). Marrons glacees are gently simmered with honey until it becomes translucent, tender and sweet.

Gather some chestnuts for the cold months and try some of these simple French recipes, but if you are gathering them from the forest rather than the marketplace, beware of the horse chestnut. Terribly bitter and toxic, it has a similar leaf and shell appearance, but the nut casing is a fleshy green outer husk instead of the spiky straw husk.

In the northern Willamette Valley, there are several chestnut orchards. Ladd Hill Orchards in Sherwood is owned by Ben and Sandy Bole, and they sell all sorts of chestnut products from their website. In late winter, their whole dried chestnuts are wonderful.

Pumpkin and Chestnut Soup
Soupe au Potiron et aux Chataignes

Slice two onions and place them in a pot with a few spoonfuls of duck fat. Simmer gently while you peel a pumpkin and remove the seeds. You'll need about two or three pounds of flesh, roughly chopped. Add the pumpkin and about twenty peeled chestnuts to the pot along with one quart of duck stock, and a bouquet garni. Bring the liquid to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer, season gently with salt and pepper. Cook the squash until tender, about twenty minutes, then remove and discard the bouquet. Puree the soup in a blender, and if you want a little more richness, add a little cream at the end.

Chestnut and Cognac Puree
Puree de Chataignes au Cognac

Simmer about two pounds of chestnuts in one quart of milk with a little salt and white pepper. After about thirty minutes, once the nuts are tender, puree them with the milk and return to the pot. Stir in about four ounces of butter and four ounces of cream. Once you have the consistency that you like, stir in two tablespoons of cognac. This is a great holiday accompaniment to roasted venison leg.

Venison Leg with Pears
Cuissot de Chevreuil roti aux Poires

Trim the venison leg and tie the muscle groups with butcher's twine and season with salt and pepper. Cover the venisoon with milk and marinate overnight. Set the oven at 325 degrees. Drain and dry the venison and sear the meats in a pan to achieve some caramelization. Place the meats in a roasting pan. Peel the pears and toss them in a bowl with a little butter and cinnamon, and add them to the pan. Baste the meats with beurre montee, melted butter emulsified with a little water. Baste and rotate the meat as it cooks, and roast for 20 to 30 minutes depending on the size of the roasts. When the roast reaches medium rare, allow the meat to rest before slicing. Slice thinly against the grain of the muscle, and spread the slices over chestnut puree, on a platter surrounded by the roasted pears.

The Sake Professional Course

Many times when I'm talking about sake with people, I get the impression that they are interested in sake, but feel intimidated by it. The labels can be intimidating when all you see is kanji, so you just buy something based on how pretty the label is. It can be intimidating if you are unfamiliar with terms like tokubetsu honjozo or junmai daiginjo. In the same way that you don't have to speak German to enjoy drinking a trockenbeerenauslese riesling, you don't have to speak Japanese to feel comfortable buying the perfect sake for your palate. If you have ever been curious about sake, whether you are already an enthusiast, an industry professional, or simply want to know more about sake, the answers await in John Gauntner's Sake Professional Course.

Mr. Gauntner has been an educator in all things sake for the western world. His Sake World website is the gateway to an enormous wealth of knowledge and resources. He also conducts advanced classes aimed at understanding sake production, sake culture, and most importantly, sake tasting. Mr. Gauntner is the only non-japanese Certified Master of Sake Tasting in the world. I had the honor of taking his three day intensive Sake Professional Course in Portland earlier this month. As someone who has been studying sake for over a decade, I still left this class with a greater depth of understanding on all things sake.

The course is comprehensive, and covers all the basics of brewing methods, terminology, business, tasting and pairing with foods. His knowledge of the industry extends deep into the sakagura, the kurabito, and the business of buying, selling and tasting this special beverage. The greatest advantage of taking his Sake Professional Course is in his astute selection of vertical tastings. A lecture about rice varietals is followed by a tasting of several sake brewed with different rice, a lecture about yeast and its impact on aroma is followed by a tasting of sake with different yeasts. If you wondered about the difference in flavor between pasteurized and unpasteurized sake, you can taste them side by side and draw your own conclusions. All the books and articles in the world will never add up to the knowledge of tasting the sake in your ochoko and knowing why it tastes that way. This class is definitely worth the time and money, and as John likes to say, leaves no sake stone unturned.

A Small Footnote with a Large Imprint

There are two men who have been outstanding educators of sake for the western world. Ironically, both of these men, John Gauntner and Philip Harper, arrived in Japan independently on exactly the same day in 1988. Mr. Gauntner has focused his years on education through teaching, writing and consulting, while Mr. Harper has focused on brewing, the only non-Japanese toji (brewmaster) in Japan. Their efforts have greatly improved the availability and enjoyment of sake in the English speaking world.