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Why Gurus Are Obsolete And Brands Are For The Timid

March 21, 2017

People buy famous and expensive wine brands for different reasons.

One reason is that they can be a decent investment—which is valid.

Another, somewhat unsettling, reason relates to risk aversion.

An essay in a recently published Wired Magazine outlines this logic*. According to Rory Sullivan, vice-chairman of the New York marketing firm Ogilvy & Mather Group, one reason people buy renowned brands is that humans instinctively want to avoid disaster, rather than seek perfection. Famous brands may not provide perfection, he notes, but their reputation means that they will likely steer you clear of disaster. They are, he wrote, “…an exceedingly reliable way of avoiding buying something which is awful.”

Unless you are purchasing expensive and renowned Bordeaux First Growths to lay away in a cellar to sell later, or hang out with deep pocketed friends, or are trying to impress somewhat shallow visitors, is it worth shelling out serious cash for wine? Some say yes. For me, there are a few mind-altering Burgundy wines for which I might fork over $100 per bottle (and certainly not frequently). But thousands, or tens of thousands of dollars to buy less than a liter of fermented grape juice?

Why?

I’ve sampled a few pricey Grand Cru wines. A few (certainly not all) are mediocre. For daily drinking, I’d be more inclined to nip down the road to any of a dozen local châteaux selling splendid wines for south of 20 Euros a pop (including the 8 Euro La Garagiste made by a wild-haired Brit named Ben—good stuff).

If you want to buy more expensive brands, fine. Just don’t be confident that the level of wine quality will raise commensurately with the price.

This short video highlights problems concerning price and quality.

Or, you could ask a critic.

Famously expensive brands, after all, attract ‘experts’ and ‘renowned’ critics.

Perhaps some ‘experts’ hope that this association with an established tide of renown may somehow float their own levels of self-esteem, public profile, or even income.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Human nature, at times, causes us to be attracted to that which is popular.

But some ‘experts’ may soon become disposable.

Here’s why.

In his highly readable, fascinating and excellent book titled Thinking, Fast and SlowNobel Prize winning author Daniel Kahneman tells the true story of a Princeton economist and wine lover named Orley Ashenfelter. In the 1980’s this man, who publishes the Liquid Assets newsletter, thought it would be worthwhile to predict the future value of Bordeaux wines based on the weather in the years when the grapes grew. Generally, wet springs impact the quantity of wine produced, while warm dry summers can be wonderful for quality.

Ashenfelter designed a mathematical model with an input of just three weather-related factors:

  • The average temperature over the summer growing season.
  • The amount of rain at harvest time.
  • The total rainfall during the previous winter.

Using this, he could predict average wine prices not only years ahead, but decades into the future, with a correlation between his predictions and actual prices of 0.90.**

Pretty dang good.

He predicted 1986 would be an average vintage, vying against the prediction of world renowned wine guru Robert Parker.

Ashenfelter was correct, not Parker.

His impetus for creating this mathematical model came from observations of a wine château owner in the St. Estephe region on Bordeaux’s left bank. Ashenfelter’s algorithm worked so well that it had the potential of rendering opinions of ‘experts’ obsolete.

So—they trashed it.

When this happy mathematician paraded his algorithm (an example of ‘demystification of expertise,’ as Kahneman called it) within prominent wine circles, the reactions—according to a New York Times article—ranged between ‘violent and hysterical.’ The Wine Spectator magazine stopped letting Ashenfelter advertise, while Robert Parker called his research ‘ludicrous and absurd.’

Not everyone was skeptical. One Yale professor suggested that if others were not told these predictions derived from mathematics, more ‘experts’ might be willing to accept them. But, no.

“The prejudice against algorithms,” Kahneman remarked in telling the tale, “…is magnified when the decisions are consequential.”

And popular input regarding the price of expensive wine? Very consequential.

[What does it take to become a wine critic? This Irish brewer found that it’s not difficult to judge wines, as long as all are relatively awful.]

Now, what wine to serve…?

But seriously, the conclusion?

  1. Consider why you want to purchase an expensive wine with a renowned brand name.
  2. Perhaps an algorithm can help you select wines of better value.

Regarding number 2, learning about Ashenfelter’s research only a few weeks ago struck an inner bell.

Two years ago I developed an algorithm—to identify the best value wines within any specific wine region. It combines two factors—one being subjective, which is taste, the other being objective, which is price. Like Ashenfelter, in developing it I used a regression analysis to calibrate the model. The mathematics are not linear because, when humans hit a sweet spot as far as quality goes, they are more receptive to opening wallets and purses to fork out more greenies for that lovely liquid.

The reaction I got for this mathematical model? It ranged between fascination and wariness. The most gifted wine taster I ever met (a young French man) was polite, though suspiciously inquisitive. Generally, however, its merit still waits to be proved.

Spring has arrived here in Bordeaux. That means it will soon be time to take out this Vino Value algorithm again for a road trip or two, combining quality with price to recommend the best value wines to purchase.  Previous uses focused on wines from California’s Anderson Valley, on the Finger Lakes wine region of New York as well as on the Loire Valley and on wines from the Cahors region.

I’ll keep you posted as this model rolls out again.

In the meantime—remember the point of the above stories: be confident in your own judgment of which wines you like, and be wary of buying any wine just because it has a ‘label’ that equates with expense.

Prices aside, here are a few insights into what constitutes quality in wine.

Finally, my latest Forbes articles are here, including a recent piece about why you will seen an increase in new blends of Rioja white wines.

Coming attractions include….

…the Dordogne region of France. Thanks for tuning in.

And a final question:

 

Notes:

* See The Wired World In 2017 – ‘In The Game Of Life, Anything Times Zero Must Still Be Zero.’

** Kahneman suggested that one reason for the inferiority of ‘expert’ opinions is that “…humans are incorrigibly inconsistent in making summary judgments of complex information.” He continued by writing, “The research suggests a surprising conclusion: to maximize predictive accuracy, final decisions should be left to formulas, especially in low-validity environments.” (Those are domains with a significant degree of unpredictability and uncertainty, which applies to the quality of wine and the vagaries of weather.)

Comment below if you like.

Pairing Wine With Kangaroo To Celebrate A Cookbook

March 7, 2017
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Bilbao at night

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70,000 barrels at Bodega Campo Viejo in Rioja – an hour and a half south of Bilbao

Of inventive cuisines developing in the world now, one is a beautiful fusion of Basque and Latin American food. I covered this topic in a few new pieces for Forbes, based on another trip made there two weeks ago. Click here to read latest pieces about:

  • A special anniversary dinner at the Guggenheim in Bilbao.
  • Spain’s accidental sommelier.
  • A dynamic new Basque/Latin America restaurant, and a renowned pintxos restaurant – both in San Sebastián.
  • Bordeaux wine labels are getting a makeover.
  • An 11th generation winemaker tells how traditional Bordeaux wines are stuck in the past.

The Winemakers’ Cooking Companion Cookbook – 

The book is now formatted, the recipes cooked, and the photographs are now being edited.

To celebrate cooking a final recipe, a group of us recently gathered for a video shoot and lunch. This included the same two couples I was with almost two years ago when the idea for the book came.

In the summer of 2015, while sitting with friends Les, Clarissa, Jérôme and Valérie under the shade of a tree at the garden of Château La Rose Bellevue, Valérie served zucchini/cucumber gazpacho soup. We toasted glasses of a Grand Cru Chablis wine and the thought suddenly came – what about putting together a book of recipes from winemakers and winery owners? The recipes could come not only from France, but throughout the world. After mentioning the idea, these friends toasted and said, ‘go for it!’

The result is highlighted in a brief pre-publication informational video below (prepared by STA Marchand Productions; photo credit: Hans Herzog Estate, New Zealand).

During this recent gathering, Valérie cooked a recipe from Hans Herzog Estate of Australia for Dukkah Crusted Kangaroo – substituting ostrich meat (from a local ostrich farm here in southwest France) for kangaroo meat, because of their similar gamy flavors. Venison would also work as a substitute, but is unavailable now – meaning, out of season.

Many people in rural France are big on food being ‘in season,’ which makes sense. Show up to a friend’s home in January carrying asparagus, and they may treat you with suspicion. I once cooked a zucchini in early February, considered a veritable sin by a neighbor.

Was that imported from Morocco?” she demanded, adding, “They use a lot of pesticides!”

This focus on seasonality also applies to meat – if venison or pheasant are out of season, then substitute.

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Substituting ostrich for kangaroo meat in rural France

There is a local outdoor market here twice a week. You get used to seeing produce appear and disappear, depending on seasons. It’s a contrast to many supermarkets in the USA, where often everything is available – always. No complaints about having food always available, but here in the rural region at least, there is a pervasive and acute awareness of which local food is freshest.

Kangaroo meat is certainly not local, though apparently it’s a hit around Christmas time, when it is available (imported, of course). Which wine to choose for a pairing? Apparently Shiraz (Syrah), according to Isabel Van Den Brink of Hugh Hamilton – who provided the recipe below. We enjoyed the ostrich meat substitute with a bottle of 2009 Secret from La Rose Bellevue (100% Merlot), as well as a Châteauneuf-du-Pape (which may include up to 13 grape varieties, of which Grenache and Syrah are most prevalent).

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Ingredients for making dukkah

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Preparing Persian feta

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Crispy asparagus

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A gathering of winemakers enjoying a beautiful Australian recipe

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Chef Valerie (left) and film maker Sonya

The recipe is below…once again, thanks for tuning in.

 

Dukkah Crusted Kangaroo

From Isabel Van Den Brink, Hugh Hamilton Wines, McLaren Vale, South Australia

 

Preparation Time and Quantity –

1 hour to prepare and cook. Serves 4 people.

 

Ingredients and Amounts

 

Kangaroo and Vegetables

Kangaroo fillets (or venison steaks) – 1 to 1¼ lb (500 g)

Egyptian dukkah – ½ cup (75 g) [or use below recipe to make your own]

Olive oil – 2 tbs (30 m;)

Baby beetroots – 1 bunch

Asparagus spears – 1 bunch

Persian feta** – ⅕ cup (40 g)

Garlic cloves – 2

Salt and pepper – to taste

Lime zest and juice – to taste (from 1 lime)

 

Kangaroo and Vegetables Preparation –

  1. Pre-heat oven to 370°Fahrenheit (190°Celsius).
  2. Wash, then trim beetroot and asparagus spears.
  3. Mince or chop garlic.

 

Kangaroo and Vegetables Recipe –

  1. Wrap the washed, trimmed beetroot in aluminum foil and place in oven. Cook for 35 minutes.
  2. Combine 1 tbs (15 ml) of olive oil with minced garlic, salt, and pepper.
  3. Place asparagus spears on a baking sheet and coat with oil/garlic/salt/pepper dressing. Cook for 25 minutes.
  4. Butterfly kangaroo fillets so they are as even as possible in thickness.
  5. Rub thoroughly with dukkah.
  6. Heat remaining oil in a non-stick fry pan and fry kangaroo fillets until both sides are browned.
  7. Transfer kangaroo to a tray lined with baking paper and cook in the oven for another 10 minutes.
  8. Remove kangaroo from oven and allow to rest while you unwrap beetroot and serve with crumbled feta.
  9. Remove asparagus from oven after it has been there for 25 minutes and transfer to serving plate.

 

Dukkah

Nuts (any of: cashew, almonds, hazelnuts, macadamia, pine, pistachio) – 1 cup (100 gms)

Sesame seeds – 1/3 cup (45 gms)

Coriander seeds – 3 tbs (15 gms)

Cumin seeds – 3 tbs (18 gms)

Black pepper seeds – 1 tsp (2½ gms)

Finely chopped fresh chopped mint – as needed

Thyme (dried) – 1 tsp (1¼ gms)

Fine salt – as needed

 

Dukkah Preparation and Recipe –

  1. Toast sesame, coriander, cumin and pepper seeds in a pan over medium heat for 1 to 2 minutes.
  2. Crush these seeds with a mortar and pestle.
  3. Pulse nuts in a food processor.
  4. Combine spices and nuts.
  5. Add fresh chopped mint and thyme.
  6. Add salt to taste.

 

Serving –

Slice kangaroo fillets and serve with beetroots, asparagus and feta.

Isabel writes –

“This dish goes beautifully with Shiraz – including the style we make here at Hugh Hamilton.”

 

Comments –

Isabel writes –

“Kangaroo fillets are served rare as the are very low in fat content and become tough if over cooked. All kangaroo meat is 100 percent free-range as kangaroos are not ‘farmed’ in any sense.”

Other Comments –

There are several streams of beautiful flavors in this recipe. The beetroot coated by fragrant feta is a wild ride for the taste buds, and the crunchy dukkah with earthy scents over the strong flavor of meat is incredible. The asparagus provides a bridge between the meat and beet tastes.

There are several dukkah recipes available. You can choose your own. Try combining nuts (such as roasted almonds or pistachios) and seeds (such as sesame seeds, coriander, and cumin), and middle-eastern spices. Alternatively you can purchase dukkah.

Obviously if kangaroo is not available, and if venison is out of season, improvise, adapt and substitute. We used ostrich meat from a local farm in Bordeaux.

* Persian feta is produced near Melbourne, in the Yarra Valley. It is a feta cheese marinated in fresh thyme (or, alternatively, fresh oregano), 2 garlic cloves, 2 bay leaves (finely chopped), peppercorns, fresh thyme and olive oil (you can combine different styles of olive oils), lime zest and juice of 1 lime.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Moscow’s Missing Wine Labels And Chateauneuf-du-Pape

February 7, 2017

My friend Stephanie and I went to the same high school in Europe, though at different times. Our birthdays are a day apart (hers is today – Happy Birthday Steph!). This woman knows how to recommend a good read.

Five years ago as I boarded a train from Paris to Bordeaux for Christmas, she communicated her book recommendation:  The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes. It had recently won the 2011 Man Booker Prize. I downloaded this quick read. By the time the train arrived at Gare Saint Jean on a chilly winter afternoon, I had finished this captivating tale.

Weeks ago Stephanie recommended another book: A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles. This fictional tale recalls years when a Count lived in Hotel Metropol in Moscow. It begins in 1922.

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Imagine no labels…

One tale recalls how an embarrassed headwaiter invited the Count down to their vast wine cellar with 100,000 bottles. He explained how, ten days earlier, the ruling political party deemed individuality in the world of wine bottles as suspect, and instructed the hotel manager to strip away all labels from each bottle, then sell all the ‘red’ and ‘white’ for the same price.

“What has happened!” gasped the Count.

Andrey nodded in grim acknowledgment.

“A complaint was filed with comrade Teodorov, the Commissar of Food, claiming that the existence of our wine list runs counter to the ideals of the Revolution. That it is a monument to the privilege of the nobility, the effeteness of the intelligentsia, and the predatory pricing of speculators.”

“But that’s preposterous.”

For the second time in an hour, the unshrugging Andrey shrugged.

“A meeting was held, a vote was taken, an order was handed down. . . . Henceforth, the Boyarsky shall sell only red and white wine with every bottle at a single price.”

[A Gentleman in Moscow. Viking. New York. 2016]

This tale is a reminder that rather than save a special wine for some grand, magnificent occasion at an unknown future date, you might want to enjoy it now. Text your friends, set the dinner table, pull out a corkscrew and share your beloved bottle with worthy allies.

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Without a label, this would become just a ‘red’

Without labels, wine would be even more mysterious. Valuable information on those paper shards tell the region where the wine was made, the year the grapes were picked, and alcohol content.

Labels are also a marketing tool.

A recent edition of the online science magazine (highly recommended) named Nautilus, tells about several experiments concerning perception of the quality of wine and how it relates to what we know about price. The article also highlights intriguing notions concerning how perception can be influenced by labels, as well as by names.

According to the article, one study concluded:

“… the colors of the labels were less important than their shapes, or the shapes printed on them. The most successful labels were brown, yellow, black, or green (or combinations thereof), with rectangular or hexagonal patterns.”

The article then mentioned surprising results from another study:

“Mantonakis and her colleague Bryan Galiffi even showed that consumers significantly tended to prefer the products of wineries with hard-to-pronounce names…”

There you go.

How to sell your wine.

Use a slightly complex name, slap on a brown/black/yellow/green label with a few rectangles and hexagons, and Bob’s Your Uncle. Of course, to maintain repeat buyers, winemakers will have to keep focusing on excellent quality.

Back to Moscow, where the Count – horrified at seeing nude bottles – wandered around the labelless cellar, then selected one bottle with two crossed keys embossed on the glass neck. He touched this emblem of Chateauneuf-du-Pape from the French Rhone Valley, then plucked up the bottle and carried it away upstairs – eager to enjoy a good drop, and slightly smug at outmaneuvering the bureaucrats of Moscow.

^^^

 

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From the Margaret River wine region of western Australia

Next, a recipe.

There are slightly more than a dozen recipes left to cook for The Winemakers’ Cooking Companion. The countdown toward completing the field work is in full gear.

We’re also producing a short promotional video (thanks Sonya) and our intrepid graphic artist is editing photographs (thanks Lou).

This comes from western Australia. Substitute local ingredients accordingly depending on where you live and what’s available – combining fish and shellfish. This is a crispy, crunchy spring/summer delight (we are pulling out of winter, soon, after all). It’s relatively easy to prepare.  Serve with a Chardonnay.

Crayfish, Dhufish, and Squid Pasta Marinara

From McHenry Hohnen Vintners, Margaret River, Western Australia

Preparation Time and Quantity –

45 minutes to cook. Serves 4 people.

 

Ingredients and Amounts

Pasta (such as linguini) – 5¼ oz (400 g)

Olive oil – ¼ cup (60 ml)

Butter – 5½ tbs (80 g)

Garlic cloves – 4

Lemon – 1 for zest

Crayfish – 1

Dhufish fillets – 2

Squid – 1

Tomatoes (ripe from garden) – 10 oz (300 g)

Fresh chili – 1

Mixed herbs (e.g. – basil, sage, parsley) – handful

Flaked sea salt – to taste

Fresh cracked pepper – to taste

Preparation –

  1. Slice garlic cloves, zest lemon, chop chili pepper, chop mixed herbs.
  2. Scoop crayfish from shell and slice.
  3. Cube the dhufish.
  4. Slice squid into rings.

Recipe –

  1. Cook pasta in large saucepan of boiling, salted water until almost al dente (2 to 3 minutes if fresh, 6 to 8 minutes if dried).
  2. Meanwhile, heat oil and butter in a frying pan over medium high heat.
  3. To oil and butter add garlic, lemon rind, and chili, and cook until tender (1 to 2 minutes). Add salt and pepper seasoning to taste.
  4. Add crayfish, dhufish, and squid, and turn occasionally until cooked (2 to 4 minutes).
  5. Remove from heat.

Serving –

Add pasta and garden tomatoes, toss to combine, and serve immediately, scattered with fresh herbs.

Comments –

Lilian Kurys-Romer writes –

“Margaret River is a hot spot for food and wine, and we are lucky enough to be quite obsessed with both! …Our backyard is the quintessence of enjoying the outdoors sustainably; we’d go for a dive for some fresh endemic crayfish (western rock lobster), dhufish, and line caught squid, and pick tomatoes and fresh herbs from the back garden, heading inside to throw together a very relaxed pasta marinara.

“Don’t forget to enjoy reasonable gulps of Chardonnay throughout the process.”

 

^^^

 

My latest Forbes posts are here – including a piece about the ancient Grotte Pair-Non-Pair cave in southwest France, a messy Catalonian food festival, a renowned bubbly wine from New Mexico, and thoughts from the Godfather of biodynamic wine from the Loire Valley.

 

 

 

 

 

Alternative Agriculture For Wine and Food

January 24, 2017

 

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Flickering fire flames, downy snowflakes, brutal temperatures…And glasses filled with full-bodied red wine to provide comfort and ward off the deep chill of winter.

Wonderful. Very traditional.

Yet…

During dark, chilly eves this winter, I was hit by an inclination to drink white wines instead of reds. I uncorked zinging, tangy refrigerated bottles of Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc and gulped frozzled mouthfuls with brutal, energizing pleasure.

Yes!

No idea why.

Yet it makes sense.

The crystal clear, razor-sharp snap of winter matches ice-crackling brittle acidity of Chablis and Sauvignon Blanc.

Not so?

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Googling that thought, I came up with an article from Epicurious titled Four Ways to Persuade Your Friends to Drink White Wine All Winter. 

Which is wonderful – because now that someone else has written about the topic, there is no need to write another article.

Instead – we can switch attention to agriculture. Alternative agriculture. Though the subject is not new, the modest inclination to embrace it is somewhat mystifying. This is somewhat, though not too much, akin to choosing to drink whites instead of reds during winter.

When I was a child living in Europe, a relative sent me copies of Ranger Rick Magazine. All things colorful and natural and eco were inside – photographs of wildlife, color by number caterpillar drawings, and stories. One memorable story was about a family living in suburbia who decided, at the insistence of the children, to let their garden grow wild. Wild. No more manicured lawn. Instead, a profusion of weeds and bugs and colors plopped up outside the front door. The neighbors were furious. So one day this rebellious family invited neighbors to visit the garden and see strange but intriguing relationships between plants and insects and listen to songs of increased numbers of visiting birds. In short they witnessed what we can call the ‘vibrancy of an ecosystem.’ I forget the ending, but think the neighbors all decided to do alike, and everyone lived happily ever after…

You get the story. Work with nature, not against it. Again, this is nothing new.

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But there is a strange tendency of humans to overlook that which is not considered mainstream. And as we become more connected through media, ‘mainstream’ has a potential to become more prevalent, if we allow ourselves not to consider other options.

For example, take wine. I recently interviewed Nicolas Joly for a Forbes piece. He uses biodynamic principles in growing vines and making wine – which include no use of herbicides, pesticides, or imported yeasts. His yields are less, but the enhanced aromas and tastes of his wine allows him to charge prices commensurate with the quality. So the wine he produces is ecologically and economically beneficial, and tastes better.

He refuses to call himself a winemaker, as he considers himself a tender of vines. The wine – with a little physical manipulation – makes itself. He is, therefore, ‘Nature assistant and not wine maker.’

After writing this piece, I received an email from the author of the book about Joly – Gilles Berdin. He told me that he appreciated the article, but found it mystifying that a foreigner from half way across the planet wrote about the talk, while the local and national press had ignored it. “It puzzles and many questions arise about the media,” he wrote.

If you want to learn about Joly’s way of regarding agriculture, by the way, below is a clip from a few years ago in which he speaks with hyper-energetic wine blogger Gary Vaynerchuk.

Now let’s see a parallel situation regarding food. Specifically, alternative agriculture and media myopia.

Yesterday a friend from Blaye here in France forwarded a YouTube clip of the renowned chef Dan Barber from Blue Hill restaurants in New York. It is about his trip to Spain to a poultry farm where the farmer, by working with the land and animals, expends less effort and produces food that tastes better.

One amusing part of this story is that this Spanish producer of foie gras (who uses no force feeding of geese) won an important international medal for producing what the judges considered the best foie gras that year. Immediately, some accused him of cheating. Why? Because he did not force feed the geese, so it could not have been real foie gras…! Nonsense. They were likely angry that someone succeeded by being different.  [There is another video from Barber about visiting a fish farm in Spain; it is as good.]

The point is – and this point becomes very, very clear the more you tune into lopsided media coverage of worldwide events – you can choose to live ever so slightly off the beaten trail and reap rewards that impact your health and wealth in ways unexpected. But you have to be open to listening to alternative points of view, and be brave enough to take a few steps away from crowded avenues in terms of thinking. It is somewhat bizarre, or as author Berdin might phrase it – “it puzzles and many questions arise” – how strongly humans can resist change, even when that change may benefit them in terms of health, lifestyle, or ecology.

^^^

Thanks again for tuning in…my latest Forbes posts include pieces about the wonderful and ancient city of San Sebastian in Spain, about the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, and about the unexpected (in terms of geography) ascendancy of New Mexican Gruet sparkling wine to world class levels…

 

Lose Weight Through…Cooking and Drinking Wine?

January 10, 2017

This is bizarre. As in – unexpected.

Here’s the story.

My weight stabilized and reduced, almost paradoxically, the more I cooked.

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Ingredients for Sockeye Ceviche Cocktail – From Cherry Point Winery, British Columbia, Canada

This spring I left an overseas job and moved to Bordeaux’s countryside in southwest France. I had gained weight working in Pakistan, so began running. Yet surrounded by friends and ambiance, there was plenty of good food and wine. Too much. After weeks I plunged into a week-long ‘General Motors Diet.’ Friends had highlighted this effective seven-day diet years ago. Basically – you exercise every day, drink no alcohol – and follow a simple pattern of eating fruit, veg, and some beef. It works IF you follow it rigorously. I did so and dropped 14 pounds in a week. Yet within a month – I gained most of that weight back. (Those chocolatine aux almandes croissants at the bakery? Life is too short to resist forever.)

I repeated the diet every few months. Sometimes for weeks in a row. Weight would drop 10 pounds, then increase seven pounds, then drop four pounds – like a Yo-Yo.

It was frustrating.

But there was another problem.

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Piadina – from Galassi Maria Wines in Emilia-Romagna, Italy

I still need to finish compiling a cookbook. The 120+ recipes collected from winemakers from 15 countries all need to be cooked in order to check the timing and quantities and sequencing. For months I held back from cooking while instead nibbling apples and carrots (and occasionally bingeing on wine to satisfy hunger pangs).

But time was running out. The book needs to be completed. So, I set aside weight loss considerations and began cooking.

This included cooking two new recipes a day.

Many meals included wine. Sometimes bread. Even chocolate for dessert. Mmmm….

A week passed. Then two. I weighed myself, expecting the worst. And yet – weight had stabilized at the lowest point in months. In fact, in the following days I watched it decrease even further. It then generally hovered between 1 and 3 pounds above the low point set earlier during the year – not within the earlier range of between 3 and 7 pounds.

I thought the scale was broken.

No idea what was going on.

A friend said that eating non-processed food, rather than processed, packaged food – with all the added salt and sugar and unpronounceable chemicals – is what made the difference. He was right.

Partially.

But there was something else.

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Chicken Cacciatore – from Summerset Winery in Iowa, USA

Here is what happens when you cook more. As physical actions in the kitchen become more efficient, shopping becomes more efficient, less food is wasted and your relationship to food changes. The time spent preparing meals – slicing green peppers, sautéing onions, crushing garlic, layering lasagna, frying cod, chopping lamb into small cubes and dicing parsley into beautiful green shards made me appreciate each meal far more. Fresh tastes and subtleties, unmasked by heaps of sugar or salt, grew more intense. For each cooked meal I set the table – plate, fork, knife, spoon, water glass, wine glass (sometimes; usually) – and then enjoyed steaming aromas, unusual texture combinations and tastes neither tame nor bland.

Food became less of something quick to satisfy hunger, and more of a symphony of subtle tastes to enjoy. My appetite diminished. I ate less and enjoyed it more. I also enjoyed wine more with meals, though no longer needed to guzzle down a liter.

Was this normal? I generated a theory: when you respect the food you shop for and prepare, you naturally tend to respect moderation. Well balanced meals with fresh ingredients don’t hit on our dopamine triggers or cravings for sugar buzz highs. As you become efficient in the kitchen and avoid waste, you become considerate toward more balanced eating and more dismissive of gluttony and inconsistent eating patterns. You eat reasonable, not excessive portions. You drink quantities of milk or water or beer or wine proportionate to each meal. Your psyche intuitively knows that to do otherwise would be to contradict the economical, organized, carefully timed actions and mindset required for you to have crafted a decent dish. Your overall increased respect for food, in other words, increases your attention to how carefully you eat.

Was this theory nonsensical?

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No sulfites, no olive pits, no stress

I googled for information relating weight loss to cooking and – tada! – came across a 2014 article from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health that showed the same – those who cooked more at home consumed fewer calories. These subjects who cooked more not only ate more moderately at home – but also when they went out to dinner.

Next came a 2013 article in the London Daily Telegraph about a French book (The Parisian Diet) that said the same – that cooking helps us lose weight. The article included information from another author, Michael Pollan, on how – since the 1960’s – the average time Americans spend on cooking decreased from about 1 hour to less than 30 minutes, while during that same time the French also reduced their home cooking times, but only from 90 minutes to an hour.

Home cooked meals are also generally not laden with sugar (okay, those addictive Christmas chocolate chip cookies shared with friends were a worthy exception). A very recently published book titled The Case Against Sugar (as reviewed this past weekend by the Wall Street Journal and New York Times) highlights the perils of consuming too much sugar – a truth long squashed by industries that profit from peddling sucrose. Too much sugar impacts insulin levels and causes glucose increases in the bloodstream – which can lead to cells holding onto more fat.

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Lamb Chops in Red Wine – from Bodega Terramoll in Spain’s Balearic Islands

Perhaps this relationship between cooking and weight is part of the explanation for the ‘French Paradox’ – the mystery as to why the French generally often seem as thin as rakes and have a lower propensity toward coronary heart disease (compared to, say, US residents) when their lives revolve around the joys of eating (often high saturated fats) – croissants, cheeses by the dozen, foie gras and canard – as well drinking ample wines: bubbly, Bordeaux and Burgundy to boot. In France, plenty of meals are thoughtfully home cooked with fresh ingredients, and the notion of snacking is disdained.

When respect for the quality and preparation of ingredients is in balance, the quantity of food eaten becomes more balanced. Cooking and eating become more journey than destination.

Would a stone mason, honed on the craft of efficiency in cutting and shaping blocks of marble or granite, tend to construct a gaudy and excessively lavish building? Doubtful. Would a mosaic artist who spent decades honing their craft of working with the subtle minutiae of multicolored tesserae stones venture out to create a flamboyant, ugly piece of art? Probably not. If we cook fresh vegetables, fruits, poultry, fish and meat with an eye toward balance in texture and flavor, it becomes disharmonious to our thoughts to want to scarf down Twinkies or power-binge double fudge milkshakes between meals. As our mindset toward food changes, as do our appetites.

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When I abandoned weight loss and started cooking far more – weight stabilized and reduced of its own accord. Most meals taste wonderful. I snack less and feel more incentive to take long walks.

And that occasional glass or two of vino?

Pas de problème. 

Which basically means – Enjoy.

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I’ve published no Forbes articles this month yet, but will soon get cooking with articles from Spain.

Thanks for staying tuned. Click here to visit the Forbes redesigned website.

Unexpected Lessons From A Kitchen

December 27, 2016

This week’s post differs in that it is only about cooking. However one of my latest Forbes posts is about a British Columbia winery. In the future we’ll be covering more British Columbia wine producers.

Now, to the kitchen.

Years ago I read books both by Julia Childs (My Life in France) and Julie Powell (Julie and Julia) and thought that Julie’s idea – cooking 524 recipes in 365 days was original – yet simple and facile. It seemed anyone who cooked up that notion could simply plunge through.

Not true.

The process of compiling a cookbook has for myself involved collecting over 100 recipes from 15 countries, formatting each to be consistent, converting measurements to both Imperial and Metric units, and then…

To make recipes consistent, each recipe must identify preparation and cooking times and how many people will be served. Some contributors supplied this information; many did not (they were not asked to). In some recipes the ingredient list did not tally with subsequent cooking steps. Some recipes lacked clarity.

Which meant – it was time to cook each recipe.

In youth I baked cakes: four layered spice cakes; banana pan cakes – all taken from a Better Homes and Gardens, or a Betty Crocker cookbook. Later I learned to make yeast breads. Kneading became almost meditative. The majority of other meat, fish, poultry and vegetable dishes? Not so much.

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In cooking these recipes (a task not yet completed), here are a few lessons learned.

  • As with all actions, with time and practice you learn to economize. Cooking the first 50 recipes was slightly stressful (because I would not otherwise have selected them). The process was new and unknown. Planning what to buy, organizing ingredients within a relatively small kitchen, timing, and taking notes required leaving a comfort zone to which there is no return. The book My Paris Kitchen by David Lebovitz is inspiring because he understands the challenge of operating within a constricted working space. With foods you never worked with before you learn improved economy of operations and new ways to wield knife, bowl, cutting board and oven.
  • Much delicious food is simple to cook. Vegetable stock? Slice and dice greens and reds and orange carrots, toss in a pot, cover with water, simmer for an hour and strain. Done.
  • Some cooking is complex. Petite triangular pasta pieces individually stuffed with cheese and spinach? The taste is unworldly, though the preparation effort requires the concentration of a dentist. Decide carefully before committing to what you will cook for friends, then practice at least once in advance.

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  • Some kitchen gadgets are helpful. After college I skied days and worked nights as a dishwasher at the Grand Banks Restaurant in the town of Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Since then I had not used a dishwasher in decades. No reason. Weeks ago it became clear that constantly balancing a mini-ziggurat tower of pots, pans, dough encrusted ladles, parmesan smudged forks and a spinach draped colander over a small drying board was an admirable, though unstable act. A gust of wind from an open window could crash the pile. Instead, I recently tried out the dishwasher and was delighted at the improved results of the machine compared with decades ago. No wonder they endure.
  • However, not all amazing kitchen equipment is necessary. A blender does not have to tell digital time in three languages, and a plastic ladle from Ikea often works just fine.
  • Eating healthy and home cooked food feels beneficial in several ways. Instead of chowing down packaged foods with unpronounceable ingredients, you can feel pride ladling out butternut squash soup from vegetables bought at the morning market, followed by risotto made with fresh mushrooms. Sure, we don’t always have the time for cooking. But turn off the TV and you certainly will have more.
  • Appreciate the effort of cooks. Anthony Bourdain was right: writing for money is easy in comparison to cooking because you can sit down. Cooking can be physically demanding, frenetic, hot, challenging, and always subject to the availability of ingredients. Unfortunately, your audience will not wait.
  • Some of the best recipes require you to do everything. Yes, everything. No supermarket bought pie-crusts. No canned vegetable stock. No rice in a bag. Slice ’em, dice ’em and assemble all ingredients – fresh. Twist in your hands the very turnip or carrot or pea pod you will transform into lunch.

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  • The Europeans are onto something with their weight rather than volume measurements. Ever tried to measure four tablespoons of unsoftened butter pulled from a fridge? If you know what the weight is in grams, plop it on a scale and get a readout. Simple.
  • Consider visual presentation. A dash of green herbs, shreds of cheese, or a slice of bread or red radish added to a dish can improve the appearance immeasurably. You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.
  • If you burn rice or make crappy lasagna or your potatoes are cold and your cod looks mangled – wonderful. Learn from your errors.
  • By choosing new recipes, you learn about foods never heard of before. Jerusalem artichokes do not resemble artichokes; quails and pheasants are certainly not chickens. Leeks and sweet potatoes? Prepare to become well acquainted with them.
  • Improvisation and substitution are essential. I received a beautiful and excellent recipe for Dhuka crusted Kangaroo; fortunately the Australian chef provided an alternative to kangaroo meat if unavailable. Lack an ingredient? Check for substitutions online. No ricotta cheese? Try bourse. No carrots for vegetable stock? Chop up a zucchini. Live large and go for it. Have the audacity to be creative.

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  • Be grateful that most of us are quite fortunate. We have refrigerators, stoves, blenders, electricity, thermometers, oven proof glassware, zesters, peelers, excellent knives and knife sharpeners, timers, plastic bags, aluminum foil, olive oil available year round, trash disposal systems, dishwashers, cookbooks, online tutorials, television channels, FDA food quality standards, electric kettles, measuring cups, scales, pot scrubbing abrasive pads, kitchen fans, freezers, internet answers to questions, and – of course – corkscrews. We are not living in North Korea. Be very thankful.
  • Thanks to all recipe contributors. I am often amazed after following steps to find that a dish emerges not only bizarrely creative and beautiful, but delicious. Each recipe is a river that runs its own unique course.
  • Thanks also to author Michael Pollan (whose books will encourage you to eat and cook healthier foods) as well as Betty Crocker and Molly Katzen – cookbook authors from years gone by.

 

Bordeaux’s Difficult to Pronounce Wine Region – Pessac Leognan

December 13, 2016

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Established as a wine appellation in 1987, Pessac-Leognan was formerly referred to as Haut-Graves. This wine region sits just south of Bordeaux city. Actually, part of it is within the city.

I drove there in early December to visit the Portes Ouvertes, a delightful French tradition where dozens of wine châteaux in a given region pour free samples from 10.00 am to 6.00 pm on a Saturday and Sunday. In this case more than 40 wine chateaux in eight communes poured non-stop while streams of cars on exploration tours followed special countryside signposts.

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Out of the city at last

The northern wine chateaux are within the periphery of Bordeaux city. Château Baret is a stately white stone architectural beauty with vineyards spreading out before—a sizable Renault dealership. This is a land of community swimming pools, warehouses, schools, offices and industrial zones. Only after you slip out of the town of Leognan further south does the countryside abruptly transform to swelling agricultural fields, forests and vineyards. The sight of this open space will make you exhale with relief.

The region is known for both red and white wines, though I found the whites exemplary (usually a blend of 5 to 55 percent Sauvignon Blanc; the balance being Semillon) while the reds (Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, primarily) were balanced and smooth but generally lacking zest or distinction.img_6900-1The range of variety is noticeable within Pessac Leognan—in terms of architecture, size of operations, quality and price. Some of it is similar to the Languedoc in southeast France where you can drive to adjacent wine producers and find large differences between the quality and cost of what they produce. I visited one large château oozing with wealth where scheduled bus tours arrived each hour. They served high-priced mediocre plonk and had difficulty identifying which grapes they had blended.

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Hells Angels, having sampled glasses of Graves at Château Fieuzal

img_6904-2Yet the overall variety of this visiting experience was colorful and rich. The Bordeaux Hells Angels had parked outside Château Fieuzal to stop in for a taste, while Château Mancèdre included an exhibit of the winemaker’s photographs from rural Galway, Ireland. At Château Mirebeau the winemaker gave talks about biodynamics while at Château Eyrans groups of visitors were given barrel samples of Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc. Because the cold snap of winter arrived days ago, the fireplace in Le Ferran, surrounded by couches, was welcoming.

 

The below wines—ranked for value—are all white, good quality, and priced between $15 and $25 a bottle.

Vino Value™ Scoring of Selected Wines – Pessac Leognan Wines December 2016
Winery Wine Retail Price – Euros Retail Price – US dollars equivalent Value Score
Château Baret 2015 Blanc € 17.00 $18.12 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Château Mancèdre 2014 (white) € 20.00 $21.32 Excellent Value ♫♫
Château Larrivet Haut-Brion 2014 Les Demoiselles (white) € 15.00 $15.99 Superlative Value ♫♫♫

Château Mirebeau

2015 Héliotropes (white/biodynamic) € 23.50 $25.05 Good Value ♫

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Work on the book The Winemakers’ Cooking Companion continues. We’re still cooking recipes, and this week spent time with graphic artist Lou Dorémus on the layout of pages. Elena Malgina is also focusing on publishing contacts.

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Here’s a recipe for pumpkin soup to ward off the chill of December. The aromas of these vegetables when they are frying is beautiful.

Potimarron (Pumkin) Soup

From Valérie Eymas, Co-owner of Château La Rose Bellevue, Saint-Palais, Côtes de Blaye Bordeaux, Gironde, France

 

Preparation Time and Quantity –

35 minutes to prepare, 50 minutes to cook. Serves 6 to 8 people.

 

Ingredients and Amounts

Leeks (only white part) – 3

Small pumpkin (‘potimarron’) – 1 (or use ½ normal sized pumpkin)

Potatoes (medium) – 3

Sweet potato – 1

Chestnuts – 1½ cups (200 grams)

Jerusalem artichokes – 4

Garlic cloves – 2

Coarse salt – 2 tablespoons (35 grams)

Olive oil – as needed

Sweet garam masala – 1 tablespoon (8 grams)

Fish sauce – 3 tablespoons (45 grams)

Coconut milk – 3 tablespoons (45 grams)

Water – 1¼ quarts (1¼ liters)

Preparation –

  1. Chop leeks.
  2. Peel and chop all potatoes – regular and sweet. Cut to approximately 1 inch (2 centimeter) squares.
  3. Peel and chop artichokes to same size as potatoes.
  4. Scoop out innards of pumpkin, then cut the interior flesh into chunks about 1 inch (2 centimeter) squares.
  5. Heat chestnuts.
  6. Peel and chop garlic cloves.

 Recipe –

  1. Sauté the leeks in oil until browned, then add chopped pumpkins and potatoes.
  2. After a few minutes of frying, add other vegetables and chestnuts and fry for about 10 more minutes.
  3. Top up with the 1¼ quarts of water and bring to the boil.
  4. Reduce heat and let simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes.
  5. While simmering, add garam massala, fish sauce and coconut milk.
  6. Put in blender and purée.

 

Serving –

Valérie writes –

“Serve with garlic croutons, shredded cheese, and a few coriander leaves on top.”

 

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Finally, you may want to check out my latest Forbes posts, which include one about the growing wine bar scene in Berlin, and coastal Cap-Ferret in southwest France.

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