Southeast Asian Food, Oil, Wine & Cheese (aka Week in Review)

I’ve been struggling, a little, in writing this posting. It is not that there isn’t a lot to write about. It is more a matter of trying to explain this week in such a way that my readership will understand how difficult much of the week was and not lapse into thinking, “Poor baby living the dream life and trying to make believe that it is work.” I will try to establish the case for the effort involved in my new undertaking.

Okay, Monday morning was more of a treat but it was very educational, too. Two of the previous Master students, who are just finishing their program, gave us a talk on Southeast Asian cuisine. Pan is from Thailand and Rae is from The Philippines. They thought that our mostly Western and mostly European food education should be balanced with some understanding of other very different food cultures and the faculty apparently agreed.

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– photo by Nathalie Stevens

I learned a lot from their presentation on the food of their region and how it related to climate and historical population shifts in their areas. They approached it in a very gastronomic way discussing the taste profiles of their food, their cultural traditions around food, meals and eating, and they showed the contrasts with the Western food attitudes and culture. During the presentation the served us examples of their traditional dishes which were delicious.

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– photo by Nathalie Stevens

It was very educational, entertaining and it left a good taste in our mouth, literally and figuratively.

That afternoon we began learning about oil production from Paolo Bondioli, a researcher and world expert on oil production. As you would expect, I’m not talking about petroleum. Most of the lecture was on olive oil production and it was quite technical but I found it fascinating. I had several misconceptions concerning olive oil and the way that it is graded and how it is best used. There are very strict E.U. standards as to what can be called Extra Virgin Olive Oil. The technical definition is that it is a “superior category of olive oil obtained directly from olives and solely by mechanical means.” There can be no use of solvents nor biochemical action (enzymes) nor any refining. It must pass two tests: 1) Chemical analysis, the most important of which is the acidity (specifically free Oleic acid) must be less than or equal to 0.8%, and 2) it must meet organoleptic evaluation standards. Organoleptic standards are those relating to odor and taste and are determined by a trained panel of tasters. There are something like 22 things that are looked for to certify an olive oil as Extra Virgin which mostly consists of the lack of defects but also it must include positive attributes. It makes no difference what mechanical means was used to press the oil, the Extra Virgin designation is the result of the evaluation. I used to think there were two pressings (or more) and that the first was where extra virgin came from. Apparently that used to be mostly true but it is not the case now. Virtually all olives are pressed once. If it doesn’t meet the Extra Virgin standard then the resulting oils are called Virgin if it has acidity from 0.8 – 2.0% and/or defects present, or Lampante if it doesn’t meet the Virgin criteria. Virgin and Lampante oils are not sold to consumers. Those oils are sold to refineries which use chemical and/or heat processes to remove defects (and the healthy things) and make a oil suitable for use. One product of that is oil that would be labeled “Olive Oil.” Olive oil is colorless and flavorless but some companies blend in small amounts of Extra Virgin oil to add color and some flavor. There are different qualities of Extra Virgin olive oil but there is not any regulated way to distinguish that on the label. Some producers voluntarily add more information than is required hoping to influence customers.

We had about 5 hours of lecture on olive oil production and standards and another one hour on other types of food oils (grain, nut and fruit oils). The last part was rushed but the basic principles were the same for these other oils.

The following day we began wine tasting under the tutelage of Sandro Bosticco, and expert in wine and olive oil tasting. Here’s a video of him in another role ( http://www.vimeo.com/2464560 ).

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Now the fun begins, right? Well, the answer to that is yes and no. Over the next 3 days we tasted 11 wines with a brief half-day interlude to taste olive oils. The main struggle for most of us was distinguishing smells and being able to describe them. He kept reminding us that this was the most important thing to be able to do and insisted that one of our primary jobs as gastronomy students was to smell everything. By everything he means everything! To be able to describe an odor to another person you have to relate it to some smell memory that you associate with that odor. That seems somewhat simple but someone would say they smell “sweet” and he would say “No. Sweet is a taste (one of the 5). What does it smell like that reminds you of sweet? Honey? …or…? ” This was a very difficult concept for many of us to understand. He was also quite forgiving in that if someone smelled something in a wine he would accept that they had smelled something that reminded them of that odor even if he didn’t find that. With some wines the smell can be simple and somewhat generic like “floral” or “tropical fruit” while others are more complex and made of of dozens of odors. He emphasized that while there are 5 tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami) there are thousands of odors and the detection of those odors by the nose is very complex. He said, “This is hard (referring to describing smells).” That is understatement. We would spend about an hour and a half “tasting” two wines. Then another hour and a half of tasting another 3 or 4. After a day of that one truly is fatigued but excited at the same time.

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When we tasted 7 olive oils for a half day in the middle of the 3 days of wine tasting we found the job was no easier. The same things are evaluated: clarity, color, aroma, and taste. The aromas are often complex, especially with quality extra virgin oils. The tasting technique is different in that you have to spray the oil in your mouth by “slurping” so that the oil reaches the back of the palate. He kept saying, “You have to make noise when you taste olive oil. If you visiting a producer and taste without making noise they will be disappointed.” The best olive oils have tastes that are fruity, bitter and spicy. We tasted some Tuscan olive oils that were strongly “grassy” and almost overpowering but very good. He reminded us that we had to think about their taste with food as people don’t generally sit around and drink olive oil as they do wine.

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The week ended Friday afternoon with the first of our classes on cheese tasting. Finally a break from the difficult work of identifying the subtle smells in wine and oil and a chance to enjoy some cheese. Right? Wrong! This was a most difficult and discouraging class for me. The class is taught by Cristiano De Riccardis. I was told by some in another Master course that he was a great teacher…their favorite.

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-Photo by Kunal Chandra

We have more classes taught by him so I will see how things go. I thought that the description of the technical aspect of cheese tasting, visual evaluation, olfactory evaluation and gustatory/olfactory evaluation were presented too quickly and not in a fashion that was easy to follow or remember. The visual was easiest. What is the shape of the cheese. What is the appearance of the external surface? What is the color. Describe the “nail” (the part of the cheese just inside of the rind). What is the color of the paste (the middle of the cheese)? Describe the eyes (holes in the cheese: round, irregular, almond shaped, evenly dispersed…).  But when it came to Olfactory evaluation and, for that matter, gustatory/olfactory evaluation as they blend into one another it was a completely different matter. What is the intensity? Check. Describe the olfactory sensations perceived. Hummmm…

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– Photo of classmate Chris smelling cheese (“barn yard?”) by Kunal Chandra

We were back to the thousands of odors that needed to be perceived but in this case Professor De Riccardis was more concrete. One student would say, “I smell <this>.” To which he would sometimes say, “No! There is no <this> smell in this cheese.” It did not appear to be a matter of basing what we were smelling on our own experience as it was for wine, but rather it seemed to be a matter of some set classification of odors to which we have not yet been exposed. The same held true for taste. For when you taste you chew the cheese with your mouth closed and breathe out through your nose so that the aroma can be perceived by the olfactory receptors in the back of the nose. So you have the 5 tastes plus all the possible acceptable cheese odors to classify. Some examples of common odors are yeast, cow shed, apple, caramel, brioch, black pepper, beef stock, leather, toffee, toasted nuts, etc.

This was discouraging for me because I had a difficult time pulling out as many smells as he wanted. He said we should be able to find more than 5 or 6 in a cheese. I often couldn’t. The cheeses we tasted, on the other hand, were amazing! We had a Bitto which is a difficult cheese to find as it is produced in only a small area in very limited production. We had a nice Fontina which is more common. The last cheese we had was a Losa which is very rare.

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– photo of Losa cheese by Kunal Chandra

It is produced in our region of Italy but there are only 3 or 4 people who make it now days. It is a goat cheese and the original breed of goat disappeared after the war because it was more economical to raise cows for milk. Another breed of goat was reintroduced and is used now. Those goats are fed some rose petals and violets and some of those odors were detected in the cheese by someone in our class (obviously a super-nose).

After class I found that I wasn’t the only one who had difficulty with the cheeses. Many thought it was very difficult and were exhausted by the process. A couple of them said, “Barn yard!?! I live in the city I have no idea what a barn yard smells like!” I thought this was interesting for two reasons. First it reinforced what we learned in wine to smell everything (and remember what you smell). The other reason I was amused was because on our Piemonte stage we visited a dairy farm. We were most definitely exposed to barn yard smell. Smell everything and…remember what you smell.

Ciao!

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