fear of caffeine

I fear caffeine. Yet I love coffee, it’s most expressive and eloquent ambassador. I fear that roiling stomach, the clenched teeth and the feeling that something needs to be done but you’ve already run out of time to do it. You move forward – back – what are you doing? Tap-tap-tap. Continue reading “fear of caffeine”

the pantalon

At the launch of a new wine, called Anwilka, yesterday. It’s a collaboration between the owner of Klein Constantia and a few very upper class Frenchies, Bordelaise gentry. Being their holiday season, the Continental connection was well represented, including a few friends that just happened to be in the Cape, so they popped in for the launch. As we stood there sipping on our vintage Champagne and scarfing smoked salmon, it suddenly dawned on me – all the French men (and I mean all) were wearing camel coloured chinos. Together with botton-down shirts (mainly blue) and dock-side shoes, they were looking very cas-mal. That’s casual-formal uniform.

the sauce

A new restaurant on the Cape scene is almost open, with Bruce Robertson at the pots. The name is now out in the open – it’s called “The Showroom” for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a very visual affair, with food on translucent plates and glass between triple volume spaces. Also, one of the walls of the restaurant shows the neighbouring luxury car showroom. But mainly because Bruce will be on show, cooking in front of people. There is also an interesting twist to the menu (it’s a concept menu, yes) – more on this later. The header is a clue…

The thrill of the new

We are thrill-seeking eaters. As our foods become more and more saturated
with fats, sugars and salts (which mask “true” flavours) we need more and
more flavour enhancers or flavour substitutes. We have all experienced the
black pepper-wielding waitress, we accept the offer – but does the food need
it? Or does our palate need the spike? Same with salt, with chilli sauce (or
Tabasco on oysters), wasabi, mustard sauce, dressings. Our plates are now
accustomed to more and more salt, sugar, fat; these mask the original
flavour of ingredients. Saturation also masks distinctions of subtlety and
difference. What is the real flavour of vanilla? Do you remember it? Or,
more likely, you know vanilla as that sweet extract that goes into “vanilla”
cake and ice-cream.
Why also do restaurants have to continually change their menus? A good dish
should be enjoyed over and over, like the sound of a favourite piece of
music, it changes according to your knowledge and your mood, and there are
subtle changes according to the particular ingredients’ variation. But we
always want something new.
Along the way, we also seem to have forsaken the taste of bitterness – the
unsweetened coffee, the dry tannin of a classic red wine. We prefer our
coffee with milk foam and sugar, our wine with residual sugar and lashings
of new (sweet-tasting) oak – all this reduces bitterness. But bitterness
adds complexity to the palate, though it is an acquired taste. Our palates
are in too much of a hurry, the quick fix is in order. And yet we miss
something and replace it with more, and more.

Eating and subjectivity

You’ve been looking forward to this restaurant for weeks, you’ve heard all about it and good things too – but the day you sit at the restaurant is the day someone rear-ended your car. Or you come to the meal after an excessive night out. We often overlook just how much our mood affects our food and wine experience – but maybe even more: how it affects your choice… you may be more likely to choose fresh and bright flavours when you are tired, when spice will pep you up. In a quiet mood, you may want to explore the subtleties of a classic, understated dish.

Tenderness before taste

The modern palate loves soft meat. We value fillet above any other cut for its melt-in-the-mouth quality, never mind the fact that it is the meat with the least flavour. So what’s the obvious solution a profit loving supplier reaches? Tenderise your other cuts. The problem then is, with the synthetic additions to meats to tenderise it, that people become accustomed to this and they demand all meat to be tender. Tenderness is more important than taste. So what is a steakhouse to do? It wants to serve tender and tasty meats – so it slaps on copious amounts of house-style basting sauce to hide the basic quality of the meat. When last did you ask for a properly naked piece of meat at your steakhouse? Try some rump with some sirloin – can you taste the difference?

Water in your meat?

Notice how much your chicken shrinks when you roast it? Or how meat is packed with a flat sponge-like paper beneath it? That’s due to the water that most meats these days exude – and they push out water because water has been injected into them. Added water mass is an easy way for mass meats to be heavier and cost more. The cut also looks more promising, it looks as if it should feed quite a few people – but then your chicken to feed a family leaves the family hungry. Bulk butchers argue that this added water is a way to prevent the home cook (a clumsy individual) from drying the meat out, (see this account of the uk), and not to make money off us… but I would rather have more meat and less overpriced water. All this adds weight, to use the obvious pun, to the use of free-range meats. They may cost a little more, but you are probably getting more meat for your money.
The proper way to mature beef, for example, is to hang it for a number of days. It air-dries and a black skin forms, while the meat softens and develops flavour. As it dries, it shrinks (and loss of bulk means loss of money) and then a good butcher cuts the black meat away – this is dressing the meat – another loss of bulk. The result, however, is properly tasty meat. A quick water injection earlier on means the bulk loss over the course of such ageing is lessened, but so is the gain in flavour.

Music puts smoke in your eyes

You would think that the choice of your music during the barbeque is as eclectic as at any other time, but in South Africa a dedicated “Braai Collection” has been launched with a string of dead-ordinary, sing-along pop songs and chest-pounding macho anthems. That the atavism of searing your meat on the fire is blatantly paired to such basic music gives you some insight into the strange tribe that the white South African is.

Sear your beef but cook your lamb

Regarding the cuts we put on the barbeque (or braai as it is known here): more often than not the lamb is a fattier meat than the beef and the fat is marbled into the meat. While certainly not true of every cut of beef (some are fatty too) most of the beef we braai has its fat separate. In order to allow the flavour of the lamb, which is naturally rather neutral, to develop, you need to cook the meat well and slowly – as opposed to the flash, high-heat grilling that works best for beef. Cooked too far, beef loses flavour, but the opposite is true of lamb, it develops flavour through a slow heat that lets the fats dissolve into the meat.

Testing service

In my restaurant guide, I score each place out of ten for their service, and it is a category where very few places climb to the highest points. Service is often friendly but usually ignorant and untrained. So the problem clearly lies with the management, though there is some mitigation in the fact that the staff are often temporary students, and training them would be an altruistic act. On the other hand, the staff would stay on if the profession was considered more noble, and not just a part-time affair. So they work for tips, and the clever ones work the customer most charmingly, but usually with little associated food or wine knowledge.
Murray Weiner at Porcupine Hills is concerned enough to be thinking about an academy. Chatting about all this, we also came up with the idea of an experiment where we test wine knowledge and etiquette at a restaurant by ordering and repeatedly declining bottles for spurious reasons. Mean, maybe, but could be interesting. I guess you’d have to repeat the experiment at various places to learn anything useful though.

Wine lists

Helping Bruce Robertson, previously of one.waterfront at the Cape Grace, with the wine list for his new restaurant – the name at this point secret, but scheduled to open sometime in February. It’s sure to get foodies in the door with some innovative ideas. For example, he is going to cook in front of everyone and the space is laid out so that most people have a line of sight to the pass. Also, the room adjoins a luxury car dealer… with views of the marques, so if you feel the urge to spoil yourself after a few bottles of fine wine, you needn’t travel.
Speaking of the fine wine, the idea is to stock the list with interesting and unusual wines, and also to make sure that the list offers fair value for money. One way of doing this (one I am keen on) is to have a flat rand-based mark-up, so that the price reflects the winery’s selling price, with something added for the service. Where this will show most clearly is on the wines that are usually very expensive on lists, because the restaurants whack great surcharges onto these wines. But here it will get the same rand mark-up as the most modest wine on the list. Probably a different flat rate for whites than reds though.

Would you want to eat at El Bulli every day?

Famous for his “molecular gastronomy” Ferran Adria’s restaurant El Bulli takes reservations for the year on one day in mid-Novermber, and within hours he is full. His now-famous food is all about flavours reduced and intensified to the extreme, to purity, but repackaged as foams, jellies and whimsical bites. It’s a gastronomic adventure, and apparently a satisfying one, though tiring. A typical meal consists of a dozen and more intense courses that demand a certain amount attention. Most of us who like good food also like much of our food to be comforting, to offer the reassurance of the known. There is a natural balance at work when El Bulli is so expensive and a seat so scarce – its not an experience for the everyday.