Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Getting Into The Set

Howard holds the syringe delicately, letting two drops of rennet fall into the milk he has been warming on his stove. He breaks his concentration, wipes a few drops of perspiration from his brow, and looks up at me, “So…um…that’s about it, for eight hours or so”. Howard makes his own cheese and bread, and I have hiked out to his remote hillside in Co. Galway to learn a bit about how he does both. But, like so many things, fermentation requires short bursts of work, with long stretches of time in between. So, while we are waiting for the cheese to set and the sourdough starter to get going, we go check out the mini hydro-electric project Howard and his son have set up to provide energy for his house. Then we chop some wood, feed his herd of Scottish Highland cattle (about five of the beautiful orange hairy kind with big horns), and go set dancing. Wait…what? That’s right. The cheese and bread will be left until the next morning, but tonight is Monday night, and it’s time to go set dancing. A lot like contra dancing, set dancing is a form of folk dancing in which you twirl a lot…a whole lot... and then switch partners, and twirl again. Besides referring to how milk curds form when making cheese (they set), a 'set' has two meanings in the dance context, it is both the number of people in each basic unit of the dance (4 couples), and the name of the dance: the Connemara Set, the Claire Set, the Caledonia Set etc.

Before we leave Howard teaches me the basic step in his dining room/kitchen, and I nervously tap out the rhythm of the jigs, reels, polka’s and hornpipes that make up each set. However, when we get to the town hall, the teacher (luckily this evening was half dance, half class) makes it her personal mission to make me a passable participant. I like to think that I took to it like a duck to water, but it was probably a result of the teacher who kindly followed me around, firmly shoving me into place and shouting out the steps for each figure “Now Cross up! Settle down Max! Now Move! Not NOW! NOW!”.

It was a ton of fun, and as I took off into the freshly falling snow the next morning (with a bit of sourdough starter tucked into my jacket like an old 49er), I thought to myself “If this is how the Irish occupy themselves while their food is fermenting, then they need all the high calorie bread and cheese they can get!” So a big thanks to Howard. Tomorrow it is off to Co. Cork, where I have an appointment to meet with a goat farmer/cheese maker on a tiny island off the coast.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Perusing the great inter-web

Just found this fantastic one page summary of why small scale food fermentation is important. It's a bit dated, but all of the content still holds true. Check it out here: http://www.fao.org/ag/magazine/9812sp3.htm. Coming soon: a post about the regional cheeses and breads of Ireland.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Emerald Isle

After Terra Madre I collapsed into the back seat of my parent’s rented car, letting them ply me with loving affirmations and smoked salmon as we took a week long road trip around Ireland. After four months abroad, it was great to see them again. True to the Watson philosophy, my mom and dad joined me in pursuing my project, though considering the nature of my subject, this didn’t require much arm twisting. Starting in Dublin we took a tour of the Guinness factory and ate dinner at the Messrs McGuire brewpub. In Galway we visited Sheridan’s cheese mongers (now my favorite shop) and a tiny fish-smoking company perched out on the edge of Ireland, way up in Connemara; a moonscape of mountains, marshes, and craggy coast. We finished our trip with a few days in Cork, where we went by the Ballymaloe cooking school, dropped in on the English Market (an old covered market in cork city), and toured the Jameson Distillery. After the week was over I said goodbye to my parents again and headed back to Galway.

Terra Madre

I have been putting off writing a blog post about Terra Madre because the experience was overwhelming. If I had done nothing but gone to TM this year I would have a backpack full of stories. First of all, getting to and away from this event were odysseys in themselves. Then there were all of the amazing people I met, from my two roommates (a farmer from Pennsylvania, and a marketing entrepreneur from DC) to the welcoming contingent of farmers, chefs, grad students, etc. from British Columbia whom I ended up spending much of my time with. Add in the odd 50-100 other fascinating characters who introduced themselves while waiting for lunch, or in the line to the bathroom, and about 1,000 different producers at the Salon De Gusto, and then round up. When you mix in the various presentations, tastings, conversations over dinner and at various food stalls…whew, you can see my problem. A narrative is difficult to achieve.


Tasted: smoked cheese and mead from Poland, approximately a bajillion samples of cured or fermented meats from Italy, some Mexican mescal, some Yak cheese from Tibet, white truffles in Ea-taly, and lots of good wine.

Sat in on an incredible presentation by World Watch on their new Nourishing the Planet initiative, got to see a bit of the Irish and Indian regional meetings, met a bunch of people from Vermont etc.

On the last night of the conference I hung out with the friendly BC contingent. We got dinner and then tasted wines in the Enoteca until it closed and they had to kick us out (my friend informed me that one of the few others getting kicked out with us was Alice Waters). When we were walking out of the Salone, one of the stands was celebrating another successful year by blasting ‘we are the champions’ by Queen. People in suits and other business attire were standing on tables waving glasses of wine and ‘singing’ at the top of their lungs. An excellent finish to what my friend titled ‘summer camp for foodies’.

I have posted some photos to my Picasa page, which you can access through clicking on the slideshow…

Saturday, November 20, 2010


I stayed a week in London before heading to Italy for Terra Madre. While in the city, I spent significant amount of time furiously pedaling a one speed rented bicycle, weaving between double decker buses and retro-taxi’s, chasing after my friend Leighton- fellow beer-hunter and expert urban-jungle pub guide. Leighton's passion for ale began in earnest last year, when he worked for a craft-beer distributor in NYC. However, he recently relocated to London and I was more than happy to be his incentive to explore the culture of real ale on this side of the pond. From the Cask Pub and Kitchen to the Harp, we explored every cask ale pub Leighton could think of, and even a micro-“if I ever saw one”-brewery fitted snuggly into an arch bellow a railway. By coincidence, my only official appointment in London turned out to be the next arch over, an office/distribution center for Neal’s Yard Dairy. There, on an uncharacteristically sunny morning, I met Bronwen Percival, a buyer for the company with a compendious knowledge of cheese-making and an infectious enthusiasm for its minute sensory details. I had seen Bronwen present a paper on farmhouse cheddar making at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery in July, and since I was back in London I decided to drop her a line. Fortunately for me, she took time out of her busy schedule to show me around a little bit. Check out the pictures here and on the slide show.

Monday, November 8, 2010

You Down With NCYC?

Having taken the train from Edinburgh to Norwich, riden the bus from Norwich to somewhere near the research park, hoofed it several miles the rest of the way, obtained my security badge, toured the laboratory and gotten the run-down of the place from collection manager Chris Bond, curator Dr. Ian Roberts finally unlocked the door and allowed me a glimpse of what I had come all that way to see: The United Kingdom’s magnificent National Collection…of Yeast Cultures.
“So… that’s it huh?”
“yup, you can see why it’s not much of a tourist attraction”.
About chest high and again as wide, the National Yeast Collection bears an uncanny resemblance to the humming gray plastic icemaker at my college job in cafĂ© Opus- except that this little puppy doesn’t use ice, it’s pure liquid nitrogen.

Dr. Ian half-not-jokingly suggested that there is probably more bio-diversity in that little box than at the Norwich Zoo. And he is probably right. The NCYC holds over 3,400 different strains of yeast from common brewer’s yeast strains to pathogenic opportunists from the world over. The NCYC plays an interesting role, straddling the divide between commerce and public service. They preserve strains of yeast for posterity-running all sorts of genetic assays to classify each strain- but also delivering cultivated strains upon request (for a reasonable fee) in order to sustain themselves economically. The collection even serves as a fungal swiss-bank of sorts, providing a secure place to store proprietary strains- keeping them safe from an unforeseen microbial disaster back at the brewery.
The collection may be impressive to the microbial-collection amateur like myself, but a little research reveals that it is small beans compared to the massive collections at UC-Davis ( Pfaff collection: 6,000 strains of yeast), Peoria, Illinois (USDA’s ACCR collection: 95,000 strains including all microbes), or Utrecht, Netherlands (CBS: 50,000 fungal strains). Right now, they don’t have the capacity to classify every strain possibly collected (often discoveries of possible new species come in bursts, like finding over 200 different types in the guts of a termite or something). However, they are situated just across the street from a world class genetics laboratory, and The Collection may soon set up an automated system (looks like a large humidifier) which would allow them to increase the speed of analysis exponentially. Who is submitting new strains for classification? The most interesting source I heard of was from a scientist who had revived (using unknown techniques) an ancient strain of yeast from clay pots believed to be fermentation vessels found at an archealogical site in Ecuador.
In case you are wondering, the NCYC adheres (as do many collections) to the convention on Biological Diversity, which recognizes certain rights for countries of origin and strives for equitable distribution of benefit from the collection of genetic resources. As our knowledge of biology burgeons, and our subsequent control over its processes becomes more précising, institutions like the NCYC may come to play important roles in the negotiation of public versus private ownership of genetic resources. They also might help us make cooler beers. Probably both.
If you want to know more about the NCYC, a well written and scrupulously researched article by David Quain appeared in Brewer and Distiller magazine. You can find it here http://www.ncyc.co.uk/BDI_article.pdf. For another interesting take on the science and business of yeast collecting check out the chapter on Yeast Wranglers in Ken Wells’ book “Travels with Barley”.

Thursday, November 4, 2010


I want to start this blog post by warning you that it is really too long to be a blog-post. It is also full of amateur theorizing and the action fizzles out a little in the middle. So if you have a meeting to get to or a class to attend, feel free to skip around. Otherwise, here it is…

Printed on the cover of my journal- in bold white against the diary’s fire engine red- is the moniker “Keep Calm and Carry On”, a slogan originally intended to prop up British morale during World War II. While this phrase remains my motto, the winds of panic recently filled my sails, casting me to the shores of Scotland, down the English Isle to London, and finally to Ireland (where I have at last found the time to update my blog). I will explain why I am in Ireland (instead of Ghana) in another post, but first, how and why did I venture back to the UK? The gale began when my friend asked me how I was managing the 90 day limitation for staying in EU countries under the Schengen Agreement. I deftly countered with “huh?” and “Schengen what-now?” If I still wanted to attend the Terra Madre conference in Italy, I had one week to leave France. After five weeks at the vineyard, I set off early Monday morning for sunny Edinburgh, (fermenting expert).

This is how I found myself in one of the most hauntingly beautiful cities in the world with but one obligation: to seek out and explore the fermented food which most embodies Scottish identity. I was looking for a food or beverage whose history was inextricably intertwined with that of the Scottish people and the place itself, something ancient and indigenous, but also a substance which now bears the markings of scientific, technological and industrial innovations. After all, Scotland has had a disproportionate effect on the development of industry and science in the west. From Adam Smith to David Hume (and for those who have studied physics: Maxwell, Watt, and Kelvin) Scotland has been the home to paradigm exploding economists, philosophers, scientists, and some darn good poets. Considering these criteria what else could suffice but the Water of Life itself: Whiskey.

Whiskey, the fluid fire which loosens the screws constricting body and mind, might not be directly responsible for such free thinking as Hume or Adams, but as Robbie Burns (lived in Edinburgh) once put it “Freedom and Whisky gang thegither”. “Not so fast”, you might say, whiskey in Scotland is no revolutionary force, it is a moral failing, it has been the nurse and curse of an oppressed people, it has long cushioned a political-economic order which both fails the vast majority while enabling the privileged few! Or, you might believe, as David Daiches (also lived in Edinburgh) has articulated "The proper drinking of Scotch whisky is more than indulgence: it is a toast to civilization, a tribute to the continuity of culture, a manifesto of man’s determination to use the resources of nature to refresh mind and body and enjoy to the full the senses with which he has been endowed."(1969). Whiskey, like so many other fermented foods, opens possibilities in human thought and action which force us to pose moral questions, to negotiate those distinctions and contradictions which lie at the heart of modern life: tradition versus innovation, power versus sovereignty, enlightenment versus intoxication.

With such heady thoughts in mind, I wandered up the street from my hostel and accidentally struck gold when I stumbled into The Scotch Whiskey Experience. More than a sweet band name, this ‘experience’ is really an adult Disney World, mixed with a splash of museum. It begins with something like the Scottish version of the tea-cup ride, only replace the tea cups with barrels. Now, cut away one half of the barrel to allow the rider a view of a holographic ghost (of a fictional 18th century distiller) which guides you as you spin through gigantic models of tanks and casks, explaining the process of whiskey making from malting to fermenting to distilling to aging. Following this harrowing adventure, the SW Experience includes an informational video complete with complimentary scratch and sniff comparison sheets that allow you to smell the different aroma profiles for each of the four different whiskey regions in Scotland. Then pick one you’d like to try and sip it while perusing the largest collection of Scotch Whiskey in the world (purchased from a Brazilian pharmaceutical CEO, this is a pretty remarkable collection). Some interesting tidbits:

Every second some 39 bottles of Scotch Whiskey are sold around the world.

Whiskey brands often mix many different types of single malt scotches to create a unique and balanced “blended” whiskey. Like wine or cheese, single malt’s have different flavors every year and in order to maintain a consistent taste profile for the blend, distilleries have to employ a master blender. It takes upwards of 15 years to become a true master blender, and if a company employs more than one their proprietary knowledge is so great that they are often not allowed to travel together.

Adding water to whiskey helps release aroma, and when professional judges taste whiskey they water it down to 20% abv.

The ‘experience’ was similar to my wine tasting class in Bordeaux, combining history and attention to developing a discerning palate. But, by the end of the tour I was left with the feeling that I had been suckered again. This was clearly a slick production-the brainchild of a marketing genius- an ‘experience’ deserving of the travelers favorite problematic disparagement “inauthentic”. I later rethought my position, but at the time I was determined to get underneath what I saw as the tourist-varnish, so I diligently pursued a conversation with the bartender (an actual whiskey fan) who gave me a tip “you want to see a distillery? Head up to Edradour in Pitlochery”. So early the next morning I boarded the train bound for the highland hills where I expected the ‘real’ Scotch Whiskey experience to be waiting.

From the railway station in Pitlochery, the Edradour distillery is a two mile hike. The path winds along wooded lanes and fields dotted with the occasional grazing sheep. That morning the fog rolled out of the valley and the sun’s rays pierced the receding tide of downy fleece, offering glimpses of the towering mountains girding the valley below. The distillery itself is charming. Located in the same farmhouse facilities it started in over 150 years ago, it is the smallest distillery in Scotland and still only makes 12 barrels a week (it makes in a year what most distilleries make in a week). The collection of houses straddles a burbling brook and the distinctive smell of biscuits (from the fermenting yeasts of course) wafted across the grounds on a light autumn breeze. I think I was even humming as I approached the tour guide.

The tour began with a two minute documentary video and thirty seconds in I felt my quest for an ‘authentic’ whiskey experience slip away. A syrupy montage of taster’s choice moments, afternoon sunsets, soothing voice over narrative, and lots of shots of men in overalls, this piece of propaganda (which I have discovered to be ubiquitous on distillery tours) struck me as so bluntly nostalgic that even Martha Stewart would have puked. Over 100,000 visitors pass through Edradour a year, and it shows. From the beautifully redone tasting room with some of the best graphically designed informational posters I have ever seen, to the spacious gift shop (where the tour finishes of course), this place knew its market and knew how to sell. I was disappointed at first, but as I read through the panels in the tasting room a new concept dawned on me. I was not experiencing the ‘varnish’ hiding a true or authentic age old tradition, I was actually encountering the very heart of the process by which traditions are created, interpreted, re-interpreted and sustained. Furthermore, these trappings of the advertising world were not covering up the real meaning of whiskey for the Scottish people, as if this were a static and essential relation, no what I had here was the refined techniques of cultural transmission by which communities continuously recreate and re-affirm the meaning of an artifact. Perhaps I was even participating in the making of meaning itself!

Looking back with new perspective, I thought how the video at the beginning of the tour communicated more than just nostalgia. The combination of images, music, and narrative assured the viewer (whether successful or not is another question) that despite changes in brewing, distilling and distributing technology, the timeless quality of distilling whiskey was ensured by the continuity of practices and values with those of the good old days. One look at the old copper stills, the ancient Oregon pine washbacks, and the medieval barns housing the distillery confirms this assertion. However, this claim becomes problematic considering that the distillery was once owned by Pernod Ricard (one of the largest alcoholic beverage companies in the world) and only recently bought by an independent bottler in 2002. In all respects the business is fairly modern, most strikingly so in a business plan which emphasizes the contemporary commitment to a diverse array of value added products. Thus, claims for authenticity are necessary to set this small producer apart, and these claims are anchored on one hand by tradition and on the other by the careful selection of scientific explanation.

Nowhere was this message more skillfully crafted than in the informational panels lining the walls of the tasting room. With titles like “Why Whiskey Tastes Like it Does” and “Single Malts-The Tasting and Sensory Experience” these aesthetically stunning posters appropriated science and tradition, melding them into coherent arguments for quality and resolving (or eliding) the tensions I just mentioned. For example, they explain how the surface area of the copper still impacts flavor by acting as a catalyst in certain chemical reactions, precipitating certain flavor/aroma compounds from the boiling wort. Details were glossed over for brevities sake but exact measures were included and scientific names/terms of art from organic chemistry (such as ester, ketone, and aldehydes) littered the prose. My favorite panel explained that, “Fermentation is an important source of flavours: higher alcohols, fatty acids and esters are all formed during the fermentation process” and went on to describe how the boiling wort produced more fruity esters at the beginning of the boil and more aromas of biscuits, porridge, and leather near the end. Probably the best example was the panel on tasting whiskey which calmly assured the consumer that “a complete whiskey tasting follows a logical and traditional (italics mine) sequence- colour, nose, body, taste and finish, each stage revealing more about the whisky being assessed, building progressively to a satisfying climax”. The message being: drinking whiskey is neither immoral nor insensible, rather there is a logically coherent narrative, which, if practiced correctly is both historic and natural. Thus, the moral tensions of drinking alcohol (intoxication) are resolved as well.

I left the tiny distillery enthused by my newly formed idea of what an ‘authentic’ whiskey experience could be. As I wandered down a different, but equally pastoral trail back to Pitlochery I thought to myself: Is the role of whiskey in society more complex than such ‘experiences’ portray it to be? Of course. Is there is a ‘more authentic’ role for this ferment in culture than what I had seen? Again, maybe, but this was starting worry me less, and as I got back on the train to carry me home to Edinburgh I am pretty sure I was humming again.

P.S. I wanted to look up what some famous Scotts had said about whiskey, and I found quite the collection of witticisms, not all of them appropriate. Here is also a great whiskey site. Check out this video of a master blender doing his thing…highly entertaining if not unbelievably silly…