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Posts Tagged ‘Minneapolis’

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After spending 12 years in Minneapolis, I recently moved to Boston, a wonderful city in its own right, but I’m going to do some serious city bashing here.  The restaurant scene in Boston has historically been given a hard time by fervent New Yorkers because…Sports?  I don’t really know and I haven’t been to NYC in my adult life so I really can’t tell if anything a New Yorker says is justified or not, but I can tell you that so far I now have a lot more trepidation in venturing out to a new restaurant in Boston than I ever did in Minneapolis.

Where I used to live in Minneapolis, I was within a 1-10 minute walk from the Grand Cafe, Victor’s 1959 Cafe, Rincón 38, Blackbird, Nighthawks, Kyatchi, Pat’s Tap, and Hola Arepa.  Each of these restaurants are highly acclaimed in their own right and have not only local, but regional and national recognition for either the restaurant or the chef’s that work there.  Now, I’m not listing my favorite 9 restaurants out of the 100 in this walking distance here. Minneapolis isn’t a dense city. I just listed 9 out of the 10 restaurants within that radius.  Most entrees at these restaurants are between $12-$18.   One of these has a menu with both sushi and hotdogs on it and they made it work well.

Outside of this hot spot for superb dining, let’s not forget the places within a short drive like Heyday, Revival, Spoon and Stable, The Bachelor Farmer, Borough and Parlour (Which has the best damn cheeseburger in the world. I will cut you if you say otherwise!), not to mention those tasting menus from the simple, yet perfectly executed at Tenant to the mind-blowing extravaganza that is Travail (Technically in Robbinsdale, I know). Even now, I’m leaving out dozens of restaurants that I have wandered into and left, not just sated, but impressed.

There are two primary factors that go into me being impressed with a restaurant.  The first is Quality, the second is Value.  Quality is an assessment of how well the food is prepared: freshness of the ingredients, how tender the meat is, the crispiness of things that are supposed to be crispy, appropriate temperatures, etc.  All of these are objective measurements that most food critics seem to breeze over in order to get to extolling their preferences about how food should be.  The other factor of Value is admittedly a subjective measurement, but to put simply: was the meal worth the price I paid?  The Minneapolis restaurant scene shines on these factors by setting a high bar for average quality and simultaneously being an amazing value.  I can say with statistical probability that if you walked into a random restaurant in Minneapolis, the quality would most likely be well above average if compared to a magical national restaurant quality index (Sadly, this doesn’t exist) and you would most likely feel the meal was of good value assuming you are normal fine dining restaurant goer.  And on these two levels, other cities like Boston fail to compete.

This is not to say that all restaurants in Boston suck or that all restaurants in Minneapolis are better than they are in Boston.  I’ve had wonderful experiences at places like Ten Tables, Juliet (Technically Romeo’s at Juliet, their “weekly reinvention”), Legal Harborside (floor 2), Coppa, and Marliave, but there is no way I’m going to take a chance anymore at walking into a random restaurant and it’s difficult to trust rave reviews.  I need more trustworthy restaurant recommendation sources that are able to evaluate quality. It’s really about not being able to trust the restaurant to deliver what is promised.  Why is your slow-cooked lamb or pork tough? Why does what you label as a “smashed burger” not appear to actually be smashed? Why is the light and crispy breading on this veal piccata water logged and soft? On the whole, Boston restaurants are delivering lower quality food on average for a higher price.  There are more slightly elevated versions of Applebee’s here, if you will.  The shining exception to this is pizza.  I can walk into just about any hole in the wall, buy a slice for $2 and be in heaven.  Minneapolis can’t do cheap pizza by the slice like Boston.

The price factor can be attributed to higher rent.  While this is an assumption, it’s clear that real estate in Boston is quite a bit more costly than other parts of the nation and therefore, higher costs on most items can be expected simply because of this and honestly, this was my expectation going in.  However, there are quite a few more restaurants in the Boston area on average that list entrees in the $30+ category simply because they consider themselves to be a fancy restaurant (i.e. they put white table cloths on their tables).  I tend to shy away from $30+ entrees in general because A) I’m not super rich and B) I’d rather buy better ingredients and make that dish myself.  That’s not a boast about my cooking skills by the way, it’s just a reflection on restaurant economics.

The difference in the quality factor is what I can’t figure out though.  Perhaps the expectations of Boston restaurant goers and food critics is lower?  Perhaps there is less intermingling of chefs and restaurant staff in the Boston restaurant scene? Perhaps there is an oligopoly of food suppliers that give restaurants little choice. Or perhaps, it’s because they are focused on entirely different factors here than the base quality of food and how much they are charging for it.  I have noticed that restaurants in Boston tend to have items on their menus or entire menus that are a bit more complex than what they probably should be. They try to sell you on how unique their menu item is (even though, yes,  the restaurant down the street also has a wild boar tagliatelle too) instead of how good it is.  Instead of making a street taco with 8 different toppings on it, just make a high quality basic street taco.  Instead of having 20 hamburgers, just make 2 high quality hamburgers.  Instead of having a huge menu of disparate foods, pick a theme or a cohesive element to tie a shorter list of menu items together.  There needs to be more focus on making things well than focusing on how interesting the menu sounds. At this point I certainly haven’t gotten to a majority of the restaurants in Boston yet and this assessment may change at some point because there’s always a chance that I’ve just magically chosen all the wrong restaurants to base this assessment on.  Until then, I fear I’ll sound like a New Yorker when talking about the Boston food scene.

 

Side Dish Rants

Coffee:  I spend a lot of time in coffee shops because I work from home so it was a surprise when all of the Americanos I was ordering seemed to be…off when ordering them from Boston coffee shops close to home.  It turns out that for whatever reason, the local coffee shops in Minneapolis generally add the espresso or ristretto shots to the hot water and not the other way around.  After some serious internet research, I found that this is technically called a Long Black and I prefer it because the crema of the espresso sits on top making the first few sips extra special. I’ll probably be making myself a lot more Americanos in the future, but until then I have a few coffee shops in the Boston area identified as potentially favoring the Long Black method which I will be seeking out.  I tried asking my usual coffee shop this morning to do it, but they topped it off with more hot water before I could intervene to fill up the cup which defeated the purpose of me having them reverse their usual order.

Cocktails:  When the Bradstreet in Minneapolis first began serving up amazing cocktails at a then unheard of high price of $10, I was quickly on board.  They were beautifully and simply crafted with ingredients that well justified the new higher price point.  Then Marvel Bar came along and added a show of chopping ice in a dark basement with hipster wall paper and the price went up to $12.  Then everyone began delivering cocktails as a sideshow, many of course were much less interesting and with lower quality ingredients, but the price became a range of $12-$15 and at that point I somewhat stopped looking at the cocktail menus and stuck to wine.  I’d still go to the relocated Bradstreet if I was yearning for a cocktail.  I don’t know if Boston ever had a true cocktail renaissance, but they are very much in the $12-$15 range with cocktails of debatable value so I haven’t had much success here.  The last experience included a good rye and Fernet that had potential from the menu reading, but came out shaken instead of built or stirred which I was expecting since it didn’t contain any egg white or citrus.  I hesitate to call this the “wrong” way to make this cocktail, because the proportions of the ingredients, which is really the only hard and fast cocktail rule, were right, but it just seemed…off.

Local wine: Slight deviation from the restaurant scene, but since I spent a lot of time working with local grape growers and winemakers in Minnesota, I have been looking for ways to get involved in Massachusetts.  Oddly, in Massachusetts, you can import grapes from anywhere, ferment it within the state and still put Massachusetts on the label as the source of origin of the wine.  In Minnesota, laws dictate that 85% of the finished product must be from Minnesota grapes to call it Minnesota wine.  Out of state grapes seem to be favored by Massachusetts winemakers which to me seems like they have little interest in making parts of Massachusetts wine country or improving the quality of locally grown grapes.

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Picture selected based on the artist’s misunderstanding of when the USA was founded and when bards and swashbuckling pirates existed. 

Recently, I had a birthday dinner at a local restaurant here in Minneapolis.  It was French.  It was delightful. It was serene.  The most wonderful part of it though was the fact that this restaurant was offering half-glasses of wine (2.5oz instead of 5oz) on their menu of any wine they poured by the glass.  Even better, the price of that half-glass was exactly half the price of the full glass.  It was brilliant.  I was inspired.  I wrote a ballad about it:

 

The Ballad of the Half-Glass Pour

As I sat down at the restaurant,
Menu soon in hand,
I was craving bubbles from a Francophonic land.

But as my eyes danced merrily,
From savory small plate to sweet,
My wine desires multiplied, how would my cravings be complete?

But what was this? Could it be true?
I spied in the margin,
Half a pour for half the price? A fair and even bargain.

How else could I sample them all?
Mix and match as I pleased,
This restaurant was offering half glasses of wine, it seemed like such a tease.

Unlike the up-marked volume sales of the airport,
Where they offer you 6 ounces or 9,
I’ll take variety so 2.5 will be fine.

In the end a similar volume
Will probably be consumed,
But who can choose just one flower, when the entire field is in bloom?

Bubbles to start
Then I selected a Cab Franc rosé
Could have gone on to a red, but I’d already had a glass that day.

For dessert, I had the Byrrh,
A digestif to settle all that food.
Having only just half glasses had put me in the mood.

Satiated, satisfied,
I sat back in my chair with a delighted sigh.
It felt as though Utopia had finally drawn in nigh.

If you chance upon a restaurant
Whose menu begets a paradox of choice
You’d best hope they have the half-glass pour, and if they do rejoice.

For the wine flight is constructed
Meant for comparing and not completing
The option for the half-glass pour however, is certainly worth repeating.

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Taken in Lyon, France…not the bottle I drank from the night of the half-glass pours. 

 

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Your dreams of procuring me AND helping out a great charity are finally coming true!  On Saturday, March 29 at 5pm Emerging Opportunities for Sustainability (EOS) International is hosting their Cheers for a better future event at the 508 Bar in downtown Minneapolis.  This is your opportunity to support EOS International’s mission of providing low-cost technologies to rural families in the developing world.  There’s also a lot of really cool stuff to bid on during the silent auction, including an intro wine lesson for up to 10 people by yours truly (with wine).Check out the list below and I hope to see you there!

EOS Internationl Mission:

To provide underserved communities with access to low-cost appropriate technologies that generate income and improve health. EOS International will accomplish this by implementing our core technologies, promoting and teaching these technologies to both development organizations and rural villages how to implement them, and developing technology kits to distribute as a way to extend our impact to other areas where we are not currently working.

 

Donors providing items up for bid:

Aaron Berdofe (That’s me!)
Blue Door Pub
Bryant Lake Bowl
Christmas Point
Cowles Performing Arts Center
Digi International
Erte Dining
George and the Dragon
Greg McGrath
Jessup Cellars
Joe Dunlay
Linda and Jarrod Peterson/ Yellow Tree Theater
Minnesota Twins
Marlen Kemmet
Sabai Body Temple
Slade Kemmet
Summit Brewing Company
Three Rivers Park Driving Range
Two Sisters Bakery
Wes Meier

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Recently, NPR ran a story about the Danish concept of Hygge (“hue-gah”).  Admittedly, I didn’t actually hear the story, but was told about it be someone who only wishes to be described as “The best person in the world” and “Incredibly sexy”, but nonetheless, it sparked both of our interests and some thorough Google research and execution of the concept soon followed.  A quick definition of the word would be as difficult to do as defining Terroir for the wine world, but at its heart Hygge is a warm emotional connection to a moment.  “Cozy” seems to come up a lot when describing it.  However, the best found definition was found here.  The current theory is that Hygge is responsible, or at least a large part of why the Danes are so happy according to people who measure that sort of thing.  Naturally, those of us in Minnesota have been taken with the concept since Hygge is particularly an effective draw during our winter months.  In other words, we view it as a way to stave off the impending madness that comes from the winter doldrums.

Some examples of Hyggelig (“hue-gah-lee”) things:

  • Savoring a warm meal with someone while being basked in the candlelight.
  • Curling up on the couch with your cup of morning coffee and reading a book.
  • Enjoying the conversation of friends on a cold winter’s eve.
  • Hearing your soft footsteps running on a trail in the snow.

Basically, Hygge, is what this blog is all about for those of us who are imbued with the world of wine. Interestingly enough, the other dovetail of Hygge and this blog (which I assume is the American national past time) is that it’s all about mental framing and priming.  When an idea is framed, it is put in a certain context.  This is like setting the boundaries of a debate topic, or when the media presents a story in a certain light; in a way, how you think about something is restricted by the parameters set forth.  Priming on the other hand is presenting bits of information ahead of time that influence the direction your thought process goes down in the future.  If you’re paranoid, you’d probably call this being brainwashed.

You will like this wine.  Shhh, don't talk, just drink.

You will like this wine. Shhh, don’t talk, just drink.

Framing and priming are an integral part of the wine and food experience.  We have expectations [framing] as to what a wine will taste like and if it meets or exceeds that expectation we will have a positive experience.  If we just recently took a whiff of a particular herb and we notice an herbal smell in a wine, we are more likely to label that wine aroma with the herb we originally took a whiff of [priming].  This is why wine descriptors, although fun and sometimes poetic, are mostly bullshit, but I will have more to say about that in a future post.  I have often been asked how I create wonderful experiences revolving around wine and food and to take away some of the shroud of mystery, it’s mostly that I am able to frame and prime people’s mental state in the way that I want for the experience I give them.  Yes, I have a certain level of cooking ability and a knack for judging what wines various people will like with a meal, but if I just set a dish down with a glass of wine down and said “Here’s your dinner. Eat it alone.”  the Hyggelig-ness (I just created that) of the situation would drop dramatically.  So I put the lights down a little lower, set the music to match the mood (always have music), light some candles, point out aspects of the food and wine that I think go together well, and lo and behold; suddenly we’re having a good time.

Let’s take that clambake I did back in the summer as an example.  If you tried to recreate that yourself, you could have gotten the exact same food and the exact same wine, but it could have really sucked as an experience for you if you ate it in a hurry in between doing errands or with a dog constantly barking at you, or perhaps you were just in a bad mood.  You really have to linger in the experience to the point where it become intimate.  Notice I didn’t say grand, opulent, or even fancy. Just intimate.  Connected.

Anyway, tonight I will be creating some Hygge with a dish of pasta, chorizo, and chickpeas and most likely a darkly fruity red wine (Pro secret: you can generally enjoy any wine with any food as long as you like them both and make slight adjustments if necessary).  I will wear my most Hygge heavy shawl sweater.  The atmosphere will be set with a fire in the fireplace, some ambient candle light, the lights from the Christmas tree, and some music turned down low as the snow falls outside.  Conversation will be enjoyable, and most importantly, the experience will be lingered over.

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Hygge prep

As the Cranberries once asked: “Do you have to, do you have to, do you have to let in linger?” To that I say Yes, Cranberries, yes you have to let it linger.  Therefore, I hope all of you, especially those of us in the wintry north and the shortest days, find some Hygge this winter.

Mega-Hygge candle

Mega-Hygge candle

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photo (1)My home of Minneapolis is full of people who are rather enamored with beer.  I’m not talking about bros grabbing a cold one as they scan for ladies between rounds of Buck Hunter* (as apparently all of us do according to a now infamous NY Times article).  What I’m referring to is the insurgence of Craft Beer that has gained a strong foothold bolstered by people passionate about not just drinking beer, but how it’s made, how it works, and most importantly, how to infuse unique and artistic flair into something that has long been a mass-produced product.  Admittedly, I can in no way be classified as a “Beer Drinker”, but I still watch the movement as well as sample their progress along the way because it’s cool.

As the movement has been progressing it has been looking to the world of wine for a little guidance.  Some of it has been general instruction on how be called “Fancy” at dinner parties, but there has also been a push to pair beer with food á la food and wine pairing (the greatest experience known to humans).   Honestly, most of it I have seen thus far has been, to put it very nicely, a bit of a stretch.  Food science is generally ignored with this effort and it seems mostly to be an exercise in filling content for media to gain the Craft Beer lovers as a readership demographic.  So it was with that mentality that I quickly read a few lines of an article entitled: “Beer Vs. Wine” in our local beer rag, The Growler.  I skimmed over the first few lines of a portion someone had pointed me to about pairing beer with food and promptly walked away with disgust.  The author had sought guidance from a sommelier who gave him a list of Dos and Don’ts and I thought to myself “There is no hope for these people!”

After having a brief conversation immediately following that about why I thought pairing food with beer was worthless (Yes, it was mostly me talking), I began to question whether that was an accurate statement.  This was after of course actually pairing a seasonal lager with a dish of andouille sausage and walnut/spinach pesto over a bed of spaghetti squash as seen above and struggling mercilessly to define whether it actually paired well or not.  The next day I actually read the full article and you should too.  It’s a pretty good article.  The author’s conclusion is actually that beer and food pairing is just beginning so people are still feeling their way around the whole concept which I would say is a good summary.

Yet over the past 24 hours my mind has begun to ponder possible interactions between beer and food and I’ve decided that what the beer community really needs is a good framework in order to begin to hash out their own guidelines (not rules) about beer and food pairing.  With that, I humbly offer some points from the evidence-based wine world to get them started.  I honestly look forward to future progress and I think there will be some surprisingly wonderful results.

Work with good chefs.

The craft of wine making developed alongside the craft of cuisine.  Why it was wine instead of beer or another beverage, I have no idea, but regardless, this means that wine and food already have a partnership.  Wine makers have generally assumed that their product was to be consumed alongside food and chefs traditionally assume a fine meal will be accompanied by some wine.  In other words, sometimes they are literally made for each other.  However, if a chef designs a meal with a specific beer in mind, the results will be much better than just trying to pair a beer to a dish already thought up.  Keep in mind though, that I don’t think any beers are made with the specific thought that they should be consumed alongside a meal.  So once the chefs are willing to give a little taste of what they can do, it would be best to return the favor.

Map out the relationships between the components of food to the components of beer.

This is something the wine world is just starting to do, but the fact that knowledge exists on this topic, it should be incorporated.  Maybe I’m missing it, but I can’t find where things like acidity or alcohol are being evaluated on standard beer evaluation methodologies.  Maybe they don’t matter when judging the quality of a beer, but they sure do matter when pairing with food.  What happens when you mix the varying acidity levels of beers with spicy foods? Why do parts of beer (i.e. carbonation) go well with salty foods? Ask questions and try stuff out.  This is an area I can certainly help with.  From this experimentation, guidelines can be developed and referenced.

Avoid Dos and Don’ts.  Especially Don’ts. Focus on explaining the experience.

We have plenty of fallacies in the wine world that have manifested themselves into rules about what we should or shouldn’t do instead of just stating why something we are experiencing is happening.  There are plenty of sommeliers that will tell you never to pair a big tannic red with a light fish.  However, if you cook up that fish in a creamy or butter sauce, make sure there is enough salt or citrus acid to reduce the astringency from the tannins, and then force the pairing down someone’s throat, they’d probably think it was pretty good.  Therefore, once you have guidelines based on what is actually being experienced in a pairing, let the chef planning the menu or the person consuming the meal decide whether or not they want to experience a certain aspect of the pairing or not.

Encourage the consumption of beer with a meal. Not necessarily by itself.

This is something America as a whole needs to do a better job of.  There are a whole host of reasons as to why drinking with a meal and not consuming alcohol by itself leads to a healthier lifestyle.  Having the Craft Beer movement be part of this push though would also help establish itself as a beverage that can add to the dinning experience.

Consider alcohol levels.

The alcohol content of wine has slowly been inching upwards so now wines are more commonly reaching the 15-16% ABV levels.  It is generally agreed that these higher levels may perhaps be too alcoholic to blend with a dish because they start to overpower them.  We are also seeing fewer wines being sold in the 11-13% range which is unfortunate, because this is a generally appreciated area for alcohol to be when being paired with food.  So while beer generally sits below the 5% range, some of the more crafty ones are being delivered at higher levels with good results.  Now, I think this will vary with the type of beer being made, but my personal opinion is that the most sublime opportunities for beer and wine pairing will be with beer around 9% ABV.  The point is that the wine world is leaving the bottom level open for you if you’d like to come in out of the rain.

*As an aside, I played Buck Hunter for the first time down in Iowa a couple of weekends ago…I still don’t get it.  

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A new events company has just burst on to the local scene here in Minnesota called GetKnit.  They are pulling together winery and brewery tours, cooking classes, and volunteering opportunities, which all ride on the back of the Local movement.  On Sunday, April 7 at 10:30am, the new company kicked off their maiden voyage with the St. Croix River Valley Winery Tour.

Even though the day started out cloudy, the staff were nothing but sunny.  Just shy of 40 people met at the Roseville Park N’ Ride to board a luxury charter bus to the sounds of Frank Sinatra playing over the air.  I personally would have gone with Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage, but I’m not sure how many would have gotten the joke, so Old Blue Eyes was probably a better choice.  The GetKnit staff, called the GetKnit Gurus, which were nearly all in the first half of their 20s, expertly set the atmosphere establishing the suggestion that above all else, this day would be fun and social.  The company’s name itself hints at their broader goal of “Knitting the community together” and without silly games or icebreakers, they organically facilitate the co-mingling of fellow travelers.  Of course, the added suggestion that bottles of wine purchased at the wineries may be consumed on the bus certainly aided this process.  Later in the tour this set the groundwork for a sing-a-long of Bon Jovi’s Livin’ On A Prayer, which was well participated.

GetKnit Gurus Justin and Sarah

GetKnit Gurus Justin and Sarah

Stop 1 was a quick ride over to St. Croix Vineyards for a tasting of 5 locally grown and made wines including a port-style dessert wine with a bit of chocolate to finish it off.  While the group certainly enjoyed the tasting housed in a beautifully restored rustic barn, the excitement for the vineyard came at the end when a large number of visitors lined up to make purchases.  Stop 2 was in the more urban styled Northern Vineyards, a co-op winery found in the heart of Stillwater.  This tasting followed the format of the first involving Minnesota grown and produced wines, finishing with the port-style dessert wine and chocolate, but in a more urban atmosphere.  The second floor patio of the winery overlooks the scenic St. Croix River and will no doubt only enhance the experience when the chill finally leaves the air.  Much discussion was had in comparing the first winery to the second, but regardless of which side people stood on, purchases were again made.

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Around 1pm a well-deserved lunch was had just down the street at Luna Rossa.  Wine was not included in the lunch, but was available for purchase.  However, only the most adventurous chose to partake; most appreciating the brief respite piling up on the pasta and salad.  Yet, before the coma-inducing powers of digestion could set in, the GetKnit Gurus corralled everyone back on the bus for the 45 minute drive over to the last stop across the border into Wisconsin at Chateau St. Croix Winery and Vineyard.

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This stop was perhaps the least Midwestern feeling of the wineries visited as it was inspired by various aspects of France showing off regal statues and a fountain out front, a French hunting lodge inspired tasting room, candelabras, chandeliers, and even full sets of armor standing at guard.  The wines themselves were mostly made from grapes imported from California, but to reassure people they were in fact still in the Midwest (Specifically Wisconsin), the winery does have two wines labeled Buckhunter Red and Cheesehead White.  For good measure, they also have produced a wine from the University of Minnesota hybrid Marquette grape as the previous two wineries had which appeared to be their grape of choice planted in their burgeoning vineyard mixed in with some Prairie Star.  After a quick tour of their facility, another port-style wine and chocolate pairing was had.  The women again swooned.  Purchases were again made and even bottles of beer were bought (When in Rome…) for the ride back across the state line to the tours completion.

Chateau St. Croix being guarded by a lion.

Chateau St. Croix being guarded by a lion.

Most surprisingly was how smoothly everything operated for GetKnit’s premier outing.  The GetKnit Gurus seemed particularly adept at herding cats and there was not a single blip in the schedule, or if there was, no one noticed.  At $65, the tour was an absolute value (15 wines, 3 wineries, lunch, transportation, wine glass memento) and not only the participants, but the wineries and the staff all appeared to be having a wonderful time.  The company has already lined up a number of events, including the wine tour through May with more events likely to follow.

Happy tourists.

Happy tourists.

For more information about GetKnit events follow the link.

Compensation disclosure: Tour fee comped for an event write-up for the Midwest Wine Press

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Being from Minneapolis, I have to be somewhat of a Hipster.  We are the Hipster capitol of whatever, as you know.  I’m not the glasses, flannel, and skinny jeans type; no (that’s so passé), but it is certainly not beneath me to state that something that has now become popular is suddenly uncool.  That something is the wine and cheese pairing party trend.  The mid-2000s called; they want their snobby party idea back.

Like most things I oppose, this one is mostly on principal.  I won’t belittle it because it gathers people together to quaff large quantities of wine while enjoying cheese on the side and a feeling of “fanciness” in the air.  No,  I fully support people who enjoy that sort of thing taking part in that.  It is the fact that the event is a complete sham and people are only maintaining the illusion that they are learning something about wine that I just won’t stand for.  And since I won’t call it out when some guy is talking about how amazing his wine and cheese parties are at a wedding reception and it’s “Just something [he] likes to do”, which apparently makes him a “Wine Guy”; I will do it here.   I’m so passive-aggressive.

So let me lay it out for you: why you should step it up a notch at your next wine-inspired event.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to crack down on the Kraft cheese.  That isn’t the issue.  I’m not even going to crack down on the casual appearance of Two Buck Chuck: still not the problem.  The problem is food science.

Cheese is composed of fat, protein. and salt.  That’s all of it.  The balance of which will cause you to define it as a creamy cheese (i.e. Brie), a salty one (i.e. Aged Cheddar) or something in between (i.e. Gouda).  Plastic-y is something else entirely.  Hopefully, you read the results of my rebelliousness previously and will at least pick up that salt has a certain affect on red wine.  Fats and proteins have long been paired with red wines because they bind with the tannins, thus reducing the cotton-mouth feeling you get from them.  Salt, as previously reported, has a similar effect, and also reduces bitterness.  If you add a couple grains of kosher salt to your coffee, you’ll get a similar smoothing as adding cream.  In fact, milk is still an acceptable additive in numerous parts of the world to ease the bitterness and astringency on overly tannic red wines.

Then there’s acid.  Acid in wine can help lighten up a heavy dish by “cutting through” some of the fat.  A dash of vinegar or citrus in a heavy cream sauce or soup can turn a dish from bland and heavy to focused and structured.  Voilá.  Thus, higher acid in wine cuts through heavy and creamy cheeses.

So here are the two experiences you’ll ever notice at a wine and cheese party. First, when you have a creamy or salty cheese with a red wine, you are masking the tannins or “softening” them in wine lingo and left with the fruit of the wine.  This generally encourages those who aren’t too fond of tannins to drink more red wine.  Then, if you pair an acidic wine with a creamy cheese, you’ll be ok with eating more of that cheese.  At the end of the night, you’re primary experience will be, “Wow, I ate a lot of cheese and drank a lot of wine.”  You will have spent most the evening masking certain items of either cheese or wine.  This is like erasing the horrible lead guitarist in the band and not replacing them with anyone better.

Wine and food pairing, much like a good band is about balance.  Everything has to play a part to create a more complex and enduring experience.  As someone who plays music solo a lot, I can tell you that I crave, crave, crave a full band sometimes to make it more interesting for the listener.  Do you want to listen to a drum solo the rest of your life? I didn’t think so.

When I’m doing a wine and food pairing event, I admit I’ll occasionally have a cheese and chocolate course at the end with a tannic red.  But it’s to show the specific effect the elements of cheese have on tannins in red wine. That’s a drum solo within a song.  Rock on!

Therefore, if you truly want to make the night an interesting experience over and over again, you have to change the mix of interactions between the wine and the food.  There are five different basic tastes you can play around with.  Have something sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and savory (umami) and then see what happens with each of those and the chosen wines.  You will learn something, I guarantee it.  From then on, you can taste a food or wine and ask yourself what you think is missing or what more you are craving to make that sensation balanced.

This self-impression of balance is what is being referred to when someone says,”This pairing did/did not work for me.”  But only by getting beyond wine and cheese events will you be able to answer the most important part to that, which is why.  There’s certainly a time for having a little wine and cheese as a snack, because sometimes simplicity and comfort are what we are craving, but that one note solo is not going to make for an entertaining evening again and again.

As a side note, if you really want to seem cool at these parties, use my music metaphor and tell people you need a little more of the bass line on a certain pairing trial and they’ll be astounded.

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