The Marathon du Médoc: running the world’s longest, booziest, race
Is a full marathon with 23 wine stops also offering specialities such as oysters, steak, and ice-cream a recipe for success – or disaster?
The Marathon du Médoc: a race with a twist. Photograph: PR
As any long-distance runner knows, there are a number of cardinal rules when it comes to marathons and, while waiting at the start line for my third, I realise I have broken most of them. My general health is poor, in fact I woke coughing up so much phlegm that I was reminded of Slimer from Ghostbusters; I haven’t allowed myself a good night’s sleep; and I’ve not trained in my race outfit – a police costume bought off eBay for £15 – partly from fear of getting beaten up in my north London hood, and partly because I’ve not really trained much at all.
Oh, and I’m extremely hungover. Fortunately, I’m attempting Bordeaux’s Marathon du Médoc; a running event combining “wine, sports, fun and health”, which seems to actively encourage anything that’s normally discouraged in running. Held every September in France’s Médoc region, this sounds like the most idiotic race known to man. The course is 26.2 miles through scenic vineyards and the participants – in compulsory fancy dress – are expected to indulge in 23 glasses of the famed vintages en route, while also stuffing themselves with local specialities such as oysters, foie gras, cheese, steak and ice-cream. Brilliant.
My hangover, then, is in good company, and I’m not just referring to my running partner and fellow “police officer” Birdy, whose eyes are so bloodshot he looks like a zombie. Many of the 10,000 other participants have attended one of the event’s pasta parties the previous evening: a glorious mix of wine, carbohydrates and merriment designed, I suspect, to ensure that you forget you’re running a marathon the following morning. Or, in Birdy’s case, even on the day itself.
Yet the atmosphere at the packed start line is upbeat. Everyone is grinning, most are dancing, some are even whooping – a far cry from the sombre, nervous mood of my previous marathons.
The event has even more glitz and glamour this year – fireworks and dancers at the start line and an additional 1,500 runners to acknowledge the 30th anniversary of the first race. “The first official race didn’t take place until 1985, but it was meant to take place in 1984,” explains Vincent Fabre, the marathon’s president, when I question why the anniversary dates don’t quite add up. “There were some problems with administration – they’re very strict about health and safety over here.”
The Marathon du Médoc: Excessive alcohol consumption may result in some strange visions Photograph: Vicky Lane
Glancing at the pack of Smurfs already finishing off a bottle of vino (it’s 9.30am), and the oversized baby having a fag in the starting zone, I’m not entirely convinced regulations are quite as stringent as they would be back in the UK – though I’m hardly complaining.
I do have one concern though. Having – strangely enough – not really trained with the food and drink I intend to consume en route, I’m unsure what havoc they will wreak on my stomach. Luckily, a man whose costume consists of a toilet roll secured to his head reminds me. “Imodium,” I explain to Birdy, pulling the packet of pills out of my pocket and handing him some. “Some now and some for later, in case of… the worst.”
Having been advised by veterans that those who were serious about the Marathon du Médoc aimed to finish as close to the six-hour-30-minutes time limit as possible to take full advantage of the produce on offer, Birdy and I agree that our strategy is: take it slow. Too slow. The novelty of introducing wine to running is too much for our over-excited selves, and while slurping back our third glass of wine at Chateau Montrose – the first wine stop just over 5km along the track – it occurs to us that we’ve already taken almost an hour. Spotting the cut-off float dangerously close we decide to pick up the pace.
But after the first chateau, the stops come thick and fast, the wine and food – biscuits, waffles, fruit, sweets, cheese, bread, crackers – go down far too easily, and the temptation to stop for an impromptu boogie to the many wonderful local bands stationed along the route is too hard to resist.
Plus, it’s really hot: around 27 degrees without a cloud in sight. And the heat slows us down to walking pace along the stunning – but very exposed – country roads and vineyard tracks. As we approach Chateau Lafite Rothschild around halfway, we notice some runners have found an excellent way to cool down – by jumping into the Chateau’s lake. We decide to join them – along with our car keys we later realise. Who knew alcohol could affect good judgment?
It also affects the second half of a marathon, which, for the first time, I find easier than the first. Plodding along in my own merry way, I’m quite oblivious to the mileage we’re getting through. It’s Birdy who breaks into a spontaneous, projectile vomit around 18 miles (29km), necessitating another Imodium tablet. “Too late,” he shouts, seconds later, running off at a speed we could have done with a while back towards the nearest chemical toilet.
Finally, after mile 23, the oyster stop. God, the cool, lemony, saltiness washed down with white wine tastes incredible. To me, anyway. Half a mile from the end, Birdy keels over for his second vomit. Instantly a group of medics are around him checking that he’s OK. “He’s fine – just too much – you know,” I assure, making a drinking motion.
Indeed this marathon – to the organisers’ pride – has the most medical support of any in the world, not that it seems to need it. Unlike in the London and Paris marathons I only saw one floored person (a Smurf, surprise surprise) on the entire route. Maybe it’s because there is a less pressure to run fast – or maybe I was just too drunk to notice.
Finishers’ treats: not a granola bar in sight at the end of the Marathon du Médoc. Alka Seltzer might be handy, though Photograph: Vicky Lane
When we finally stumble over the finish line, sunburnt and tipsy, we’re happy. Until we realise that we have taken six hours and 52 minutes. What the hell happened? “You had fun!” says Fabre, when we meet up later. “Year after year, the Marathon du Médoc proves you can be healthy and safe while appreciating fine food, wine and our beautiful region. It isn’t about getting a good time – it’s about having a good time.”
He’s right. It’s been a long day, I’m still full of cold, and yet, undeniably, I’ve managed to have one of the most bizarre and brilliant experiences of my life. Even better, because of the heat, Birdy and I weren’t the only ones to be a bit on the slow side, so organisers extended the cut-off time by half an hour. It means that we are presented with a medal, and a splendid goody bag containing a souvenir bottle of wine and engraved red wine glasses. That beats the cereal bar they gave me in Paris.
Would you eat honey that could send you mad – or even kill you? Here are three kinds of honey that pack a punch
Honeycomb. Photograph: Stanca Sanda/Alamy
After years confined to squeezy bottles and jars at the back of the cupboard, honey is finally getting the attention it deserves. It has always been revered for its health properties, even credited with promoting weight loss in this year’s “honey diet”, and there has been a spate of DIY beekeeping in a bid to combat dwindling numbers. But it is getting noticed for other reasons these days. New Yorkers are going crazy for an infused chilli version, and UK chefs and bartenders have rediscovered the joy of mead, that ancient – and very alcoholic – tipple. But by far the most intriguing example is Turkey’s “mad honey”. Here are the honeys that pack a punch.
Deli bal (or ‘mad honey’)
This amber-hued mutant’s effects range from a pleasant tingling to dizziness, blurred vision and impaired speech. Worse, it was once used as a weapon of war. In 67BC, King Mithridates’ army left chunks of “mad honeycomb” in the path of the Roman enemy, who gobbled it up, lost their minds and were promptly slain. The honey is also said to have medicinal qualities – from treating hypertension and diabetes to improving sexual performance – when consumed in small amounts. It is more or less confined to the Black Sea region. There, in humid conditions, apiarists herd bees to fields of special rhododendron flowers containing grayanotoxin, and the toxin spikes the resulting honey (incidentally, it is the same poison used by the chief antagonist Lord Blackwood to feign his death in the 2009 film Sherlock Holmes).
If you do find yourself in the area and want a taste, you’ll have to dig a bit deeper than supermarket shelves. Ask nicely, and chances are most local shopkeepers will hand over a jar from a stash tucked behind the counter, adding to the old-world mystery of it all. But be very careful: do not spread it on toast, drizzle it over yoghurt or generally treat it like normal honey. A tiny spoonful on the tongue is more than enough; any more and you’re at risk of “mad honey poisoning”, which afflicts a handful of unwitting travellers each year. It is no laughing matter – it causes low blood pressure and heartbeat irregularities, and in extreme – and thankfully rare – cases, can be fatal. This is honey at its most hardcore.
From the sleepy Turkish mountains we jump to the lively streets of Brooklyn, where “hot honey”, a chilli-infused condiment, is making waves (and has even been tipped as the next sriracha). Leading the way is Mike’s Hot Honey, based on a sauce that owner Mike Kurtz discovered in a rural Brazilian pizzeria. Combining a secret type of South American chilli (which sits somewhere between jalapeños and habaneros on the spicy scale) with honey and a dash of vinegar, this is not for the faint-hearted. According to Kurtz, the reddish liquid initially tastes sweet, before making way for heat – and a slight smokiness – after a couple of seconds.
The home base for Mike’s Hot Honey is Paulie Gee’s pizzeria in Greenpoint, which not only sells the sauce over the counter, but also showcases its versatility by drizzling it over pizza and ice-cream (apparently, it’s even better with ricotta on toast). Unfortunately, neither Mike’s nor any of its US competitors, such as MixedMade’s Bees Knees Spicy Honey or Negley & Son Spicy Honey, have yet made their way to Britain, although you can buy Mike’s online if you’re prepared to wait and don’t mind splashing out (it’s $10 for the honey and $24 for shipping). For the moment, it seems that Britain has only one hot(ish) honey product, courtesy of Hilltop Honey. However, the company likens its honey infused with chilli to sweet chilli sauce, which suggests that it doesn’t quite pack the heat of its US counterparts.
When it is time to put out the fire in your mouth, honey has the answer once again. Mead, AKA honey in alcohol form and the oldest alcoholic drink in the world (as well as being the source of the word “honeymoon”, from the pagan tradition of drinking mead for the first month of marriage), is enjoying a revival after years of being dismissed as beer’s daggy medieval cousin.
This restarted in the US, with more than 200 meaderies popping up in the past decade. And although Britain’s mead market has been slower to pick up, the arrival of Peckham-based Gosnells London Mead on the scene last year, joining stalwarts such as the Cornish Mead Co, seems significant. The drink is made via a similar fermentation process to cider, with apple juice swapped for honey. By substantially reducing the alcohol content from the traditional 16% to 5.5%, Gosnells offers a lighter and more accessible version, which found an immediate fanbase at Maltby Street market in London, The Table in Cambridge and Timberyard in Edinburgh, where it is served straight or in cocktails with gooseberry, sorrel stem, quail egg and vodka. Mead has also been championed by chefs such as Simon Rogan and René Redzepi. Signs are promising.
Between sending you crazy, spicing up your life and cooling everything down again, it seems that honey – in all its forms – has plenty of buzz about it.
Burger King launches black burger in Japan – and no, it’s not just burnt
The chain’s goth-like burger, with black buns, black cheese and black sauce, is a bizarre addition to the menu. But it’s not the only food to go back to black
Burger King’s black burger, with bamboo charcoal. Photograph: Burger King
It may look like leftover burnt scraps of a late-summer barbecue, stuffed with melted tyre fillings, but this bizarre black combination is just Burger King’s latest menu option for Japan.
The incinerated-looking buns are darkened with bamboo charcoal, and the same has been used to give the poisonous-looking cheese its melted-tar look. The beef burgers, meanwhile, have added black pepper, and are topped with an onion and garlic sauce mixed with squid ink.
The international chain says it is the third time it has released a goth-like burger (the others had black buns and black ketchup) and diners have so far given them a “favourable reception.”
Strange as they seem, however, Burger King’s Kuro Pearl and Kuro Diamond are not the first black burgers around.
The Spanish dish arroz negre, a rice casserole made with squid ink. Photograph: Alamy Photograph: Alamy
“It is by now generally understood, at least in the sound money community, that inflation is much higher than the government admits and that the true extent of the problem is being hidden in various ways. But the specifics keep getting more and more disturbing. Here’s a recent Phoenix Capital note (via Zero Hedge) on the adulteration of our “food.”
Last week we noted that inflation has already entered the economy. It isn’t showing up in nominal price hikes because it never does at first… As we noted last week… Let’s be clear here… inflation does NOT mean prices have to move higher in nominal terms. The reason for this is because companies cannot and will not simply raise prices overnight. Consumers will not simply put up with the cost of a good going up time and again.
So don’t look for the cost of an item to necessarily go straight up in nominal terms. This can happen, but more often than not, corporations engage in a number of different strategies to maintain profit margins without raising prices. These strategies include:
1) Shrinking the box/package of the good, thereby selling less for the same amount. 2) Not filling the package all the way; again selling less for the same amount. 3) Changing what’s considered a “serving size” or the quantity of good being sold. 4) Swapping in lower quality ingredients, thereby selling a lower quality good for the same amount.
Companies have been doing all of these since 2008. Most recently however, costs have risen to the point that these strategies won’t cut it anymore. Consequently, we’re starting to see prices going up across the board.
Regarding #4, Burger King was caught putting wood pulp in its burgers. There may be more fiber in your food than you realized. Burger King, McDonald’s and other fast food companies list in the ingredients of several of their foods, microcrystalline cellulose (MCC) or “powdered cellulose” as components of their menu items. Or, in plain English, wood pulp.
The emulsion-stabilizing, cling-improving, anti-caking substance operates under multiple aliases, ranging from powdered cellulose to cellulose powder to methylcellulose to cellulose gum. The entrance of this non-absorbable fiber into fast food ingredients has been stealthy, yet widespread: The compound can now be found in buns, cheeses, sauces, cakes, shakes, rolls, fries, onion rings, smoothies, meats—basically everything.
The cost effectiveness of this filler has pushed many chains to use progressively less chicken in their “chicken” and cream in their “ice cream.” McDonald’s ranks highest on the list with cellulose integrated into 14 of their menu items including their renowned fish fillets, chicken strips and biscuits, with Burger King ranking second on the list with 13 menu items containing cellulose. Moreover, many cellulose-laden ingredients (such as honey mustard, bbq sauce, and cheese blends) can be found in multiple items throughout the menu making the filler difficult to avoid.
One has to wonder… just how high are real costs that a food company substitutes wood pulp for meat?
We’ll be seeing more stories like this in the coming months. I wouldn’t be surprised if food companies everywhere have been resorting to similar strategies.
Some thoughts: Anyone who eats (or allows their kids to eat) modern fast food pretty much gets what they deserve in any event. But it’s still upsetting to see it spelled out. And this, of course, is just the tip of a very big, very unappetizing iceberg. Click here for an amazing (but not surprising) example of Coca Cola Company selling “pomegranate blueberry juice” that has just 0.5% of those juices combined.
Companies have always tried these kinds of tricks, which is why even some libertarians accept the existence of truth-in-advertising laws. But lately the pressure on even generally honest companies (as opposed to those mentioned above) has become overwhelming, as the government generates real inflation in the 6% range while reporting only 2%. In this supposedly low-inflation world a store or manufacturer can’t raise prices sufficiently to cover its rising costs and is left with few palatable options. So a growing number of them are choosing lower quality, deceptive packaging and secrecy. This, in short, is yet another way in which an unlimited fiat currency printing press corrupts a society.”
A ham in the US said to be the oldest in the world has celebrated its 112th birthday. Can it really be edible after all this time, asks Tom de Castella.
It was first cured by the Gwaltney meat company in 1902, forgotten about at the back of a storage room, and eventually donated to the Isle of Wight County Museum in Smithfield, Virginia. Today it looks like a piece of old leather. A special case protects it from bugs and mould, and it is billed the world’s oldest edible cured ham. “It would be dry, dry tasting, but it’s not molded,” curator Tracey Neikirk told the Wall Street Journal.
Dry curing – salting the meat and draining the blood – allows ham to last and develop a richer flavour. But most hams are only aged for a year or two. Not 112. “After such a long time and without knowing how the ham was processed it’s difficult to know whether it would be safe,” a Food Standards Agency spokesman says. To most people “edible” means more than the ability to eat something without it killing you. “Jamon iberico of four to five years is amazing,” says Jose Pizarro, owner of Pizarro, a Spanish restaurant in London.” The oldest edible ham he’s heard of is eight years old. After that the fat starts to oxidise and the flavour disappears from the meat. A rancid taste develops as the yellow fat diffuses, and as the decades pass it will become as hard as a stone and incredibly ugly, he says.
And then there’s the question of whether the Virginia museum’s really is the oldest. In 1993, Michael Feller, a butcher in Oxford, bought a ham at auction that was 101 years old. It looked “rather yukky” but was edible, although he wasn’t going to cut into it. Today it hangs in the shop window, unnibbled at the ripe old age of 122. Food writer Jay Rayner is unmoved by the battle for the title of oldest ham. “I’d be suspicious of anyone getting excited about the former back end of a pig that’s been hanging around for 112 years.” Wine and spirits offer a better bet. He remembers drinking a “rather lovely” 1865 armagnac. It had aged well – “deep and toasty” – but the real attraction was not its flavour, he concedes. It was “that link with antiquity”. Which perhaps explains the birthday party for a shrivelled up piece of pork.
Lard is being smeared on sourdough, draped over scallops and boiled up for triple-cooked chips – and it might even be good for us. Are you a fan of pig fat?
Lardo di colonnata, the fanciest of fats. Photograph: Alamy
You’ve got to love food fashion. Just an arrhythmic heartbeat ago, or so it seems, lard was the artery-clogging work of the devil. These days, if you’re not scoffing whipped fat on sourdough, you’re just not keeping up.
I realise that not all of us are lauding lard, but there’s no denying it’s having a “moment”. Across the land, lard – aka solidified pig fat – is being draped over seafood, smeared on toast, flung on pizza and boiled up for triple-cooked chips.
Before the second world war, Britons couldn’t get enough of the stuff, of course. But concerns that it travelled straight from lips to hips, furring our arteries in the process, saw it slither from favour. Privately, chefs have always loved lard for its flavour and versatility – it produces heavenly pastry and crispy, flavoursome tatties – but until recently it has been their dirty little secret. So what’s changed to bring this love for lard out of the closet?
The trend for nose-to-tail dining – eating all parts of the animals we kill for human consumption – has something to do with it. But our views about eating animal fat are also changing. While the official line on saturated fat (the type found in meat and dairy) remains to limit our intake, a growing body of evidence is challenging the accepted wisdom that animal fat increases the risk of heart attack and disease. Some writers such as Gary Taubes, the author of Why We Get Fat, even argue that lard can be good for us. So with the heat off fat, and sugar taking its place in the firing line, it seems we’re enjoying a lardy binge.
Marianne Lumb, the chef and owner of Marianne restaurant, loves lard, especially the fanciest of fats, lardo di colonnata (back fat from Tuscan pigs). “I think it’s so popular in my kitchen because it is so versatile,” she says. “We introduced lardo di colonnata in our canapés by slicing it very thinly and using it instead of rice paper to wrap mint, radish and carrots. I also use it on a scallop dish, again sliced very thinly, and I gently blowtorch it so it goes translucent. It offers delicious flavour and also a real visual treat to a dish.”
She says customers need no persuading when it comes to ordering a dish garnished with fat, although she concedes description is key. “My front of house, Francesca, pronounces lardo di colonnata in perfect Italian, which makes it sound irresistible, compared to just ‘lard’!”
Lardo, pig butter, prosciutto bianco, salo – call it what you will, I love it all, from the herb-infused, whisper-thin posh stuff to the discards nicked from other people’s plates after a steak supper (yes, my family is repulsed).
But I do wonder what my late granny – who used to fondly recall the bread-and-dripping austerity suppers of her childhood – would make of our growing appetite for chic lards and drippings. I’m fairly sure she would have had a good chuckle at my recent experience at the Guild of Fine Food Great Taste awards, where I and other judges were asked to ruminate on a selection of fancy fats. As delicious as they were, I reckon Granny would opt for the stuff scooped from the bottom of the roasting pan – along with the all-important meat crud – any day.
What about you? Do you like your food draped in fat? Or is fat a food fad too far?
A guide to the best of the winemaking style that offers new flavours, as well as colours
Orange wines? If you’ve not come across them before, you could be forgiven for thinking I’ve made them up. It sounds like something an ambitious but clueless marketing person would come up with having sized up wine’s annoyingly limited colour palette and convinced their bosses what Generation Y really want is a brand new colour of drink.
In fact, if you listen to orange wine’s (many) detractors, the artisanal producers of this niche but, in sommelier circles, very on‑trend style of extreme white are more cynical than any corporate producer. Orange wines, those critics say, are an emperor’s new drink, a way of passing off faulty, cloudy, dirty brews as an authentic, avant-garde and, of course, expensive way for credulous enthusiasts to express their individuality.
I sympathise with the critics, but only up to a point. There can be something offputting about being served an orange wine if you’re expecting a conventional white. It’s not just the colour, which can be amber or a brick-like pink. It’s the challenge they present to our idea of what white wine should look like.
But for fans of the style – and I’d now count myself among them – the colour and appearance are the least interesting thing about them. There is a combination of flavours in the best examples – orange pith, spice, cherries, nuts, pears and Campari-like bitter herbs – that you just don’t get in other wines. Even more arresting are the textures: there is tannin and grip like a red wine, but less weight and density. The palate is enlivened with the mineral, mouthwatering acidity and tension of a white wine.
This best-of-both worlds feel is not surprising: orange wine is essentially white made using the principles you’d use to make a red. The key is the skins: whereas most white wines are separated from their skins and pips immediately after the grapes are pressed, orange wines take grapes used for white wine and, like a red, leave them macerating in contact with their skins.
It’s how most white wines used to be made but its renaissance is relatively recent, driven by pioneers such as Josko Gravner and Stanko Radikon in Friuli, north-east Italy. Disenchanted by the overly technical approach of modern winemaking, they began experimenting in the 1990s with long macerations using, in Gravner’s case, clay amphorae. The arrestingly different wines they made spawned imitators in his home region and across the border in Slovenia. Along with Georgia, where the style is also enjoying a revival, those regions remain the source of the best orange wines. But adventurous producers around the world are also beginning to experiment.
Not all of them are successful: orange winemaking is more risky. And you get the sense that many producers are still learning to master what is still, despite its ancient roots, a new technique.
Done right, a good orange wine’s combination of textures works well when matching with food. There’s substance enough for meat, the freshness required for fish – and the combination of the two makes them among the best I’ve come across for aged hard cheese.
The wines might take a bit of getting used to – and since they’re usually made in small quantities by small producers they don’t come cheap. But if you’re curious, try a glass in a natural wine bar before committing to a bottle – and keep an open mind.
The latest double-whammy of a dessert is the waffogato – a combination of waffle-shaped ice-cream with maple syrup espresso. Is there no end to this crossover creativity?
The waffogato, brought to us by New York bakery Dominique Ansel.
Dominique Ansel is at it again. The Heston Blumenthal of the New York bakery scene, who previously brought us the cronut – half-croissant, half-doughnut – has unveiled his latest hybrid: the waffogato.
A cross between a waffle and affogato (an Italian dessert of ice-cream with an espresso poured over it), it comprises a waffle-shaped block of ice-cream to which a hot maple syrup espresso is added, so that the ice-cream melts, liberating pieces of Belgian waffle and, erm, tapioca.
“It’s a little like a milkshake at the end,” Ansel told the Wall Street Journal earlier this week, before unveiling the waffogato at a fundraising dinner. It goes on sale at his eponymous SoHo bakery from 9 May.
You may raise a sceptical eyebrow at all this, perhaps feel a little queasy at the mere mention of tapioca, but do not be surprised if, this time next month, waffogato variations are everywhere.
Not all Ansel’s ideas translate – for instance, serving milk in edible chocolate cookie “glasses” was a bit too Happy Days to go global – but Ansel’s cronut inspired a worldwide wave of genetic baking mutations, not to mention a flurry of controversy.
I’ve seen a couple of excellent media spoofs recently on The Onion (here and here, since you ask) so I blinked twice when an email arrived saying: “The Times newspaper has today launched a new premium London Dry Gin.”
Now for the hype. The Times London dry gin is “made in very small batches to a unique recipe” with nine botanicals plus “a cold-distilled mixture of fresh zests.”
Times editor John Witherow describes it in the press release as “a fantastic blend with a unique taste.”
It is being launched through The Times’s whisky club for a special price of £29.95 (that’s a £5 discount on the retail price).
Each bottle carries an individually-numbered label featuring the royal crest along with The Times’s lion resting on juniper branches. And it quotes John Walter, the founder and proprietor of The Times: “A newspaper is like a well-covered table, it should contain something suited to every palate.”
However, in the paper’s 2013 food and drink recommendations today, The Times London dry gin doesn’t get a mention. Better luck next year. Cheers!
To be more accessible and approachable to shoppers during the holiday season, French champagne house Moët & Chandon is selling mini bottles in vending machines at British department store Selfridges in London.
The company is looking to change their brand image by placing their champagne in an ordinary display.
The vending machine is located at the store’s “Destination Christmas” section. The machine has the brand name displayed prominently and comes in a metallic champagne-colored finish. It holds 200ml champagne bottles that sell for $29.
The vending machine has created buzz both for Selfridges and the champagne brand as people share and post about the machine on their social networks.
Oh, you mean that hamburger that started life as a few cells cultured in a delicious nutritional soup of antibiotics and foetal bovine serum but is still ethically and ecologically better than hacking lumps off actual cows? Yes.
I don’t get it. Has it been dismissed as nonsensical by the Guild of Jewish Mothers? “Meat-schmeat!” No, it’s a combination of “sheet” and “meat”.
Sheet? Because that’s how you grow meat that does not have to be supported by a cow/sheep/pig skeleton. In sheets.
I’ve just been a little bit schick in my mouth. Schfair enough. No, wait, schtop – I mean, stop – it.
Hang on – shouldn’t it be “shmeat”? Why’s the “c” there? That is a question for more cunning linguists than I.
Which is? “Selfie” – a picture people take of themselves on their phone and post on social media. Coincidentally, most of them look about as prepossessing as the average bunch of meat fibres emerging from dish of foetal bovine serum.
But let’s go back to the schmeat of the issue. Is it arriving on our supermarket shelves anytime soon? Scientists predict it will be producible in sufficient amounts by the end of the decade.
Is it going to be the best thing since sliced bread or the worst thing since turkey bacon? Time alone will tell, my friend. Time alone will tell.
The man who invented molecular gastronomy – the adventurous style of cooking popularised by chefs including Heston Blumenthal – has developed a new concept which he claims will solve the challenge of feeding an overpopulated world.
French physical chemist Herve This says every foodstuff is made up of a basic chemical mixture – and so it’s possible to create nutritious dishes from powders, oils and liquids that contain the building-blocks of food, rather than conventional raw ingredients.
He calls the principle Note by Note cuisine and says it is like a painter using primary colours, or a musician composing note by note.
The result is food not as we know it, more like being given a chemistry set on your plate.
It appears that some gays have got their knickers in a twist, and rightly so.
London gay community joins boycott of Russian vodka
Campaign organisers consider Stolichnaya vodka a national brand
Popular London gay bars and nightclubs have decided to boycott Russian vodka brands, joining a global campaign launched by North American gay activists in solidarity with the LGBT community in Russia.
The organisers accuse the Russian authorities of an increasingly aggressive stance towards sexual minorities.
They are angry about a controversial law signed by President Vladimir Putin banning the promotion of “non-traditional values” to children, the refusal to allow gay pride events and harassment of gay activists.
Many conservative Russians suspect gay rights campaigners of trying to undermine traditional family values.
The purpose of the vodka boycott is clear: to harm the image of a product that has become a national brand, symbolising Russia.
Some activists suggest going further by boycotting the 2014 Winter Olympics, due to be held in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi.
The call to boycott was posted on the websites of London’s popular gay bars
The SPI Group behind the most famous vodka brand in the West – Stolichnaya – has declared its firm support for the LGBT community.
Russian Standard – another popular vodka brand in the UK – declined to comment.
‘How can it get any worse?’
The vodka boycott campaign was launched by US writer and activist Dan Savage.
He wrote in his blog that gay bars in Seattle should “dump Stoli… to show our solidarity with Russian queers and their allies and to help to draw international attention to the persecution of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, trans people, and straight allies in Putin’s increasingly fascistic Russia”.
Savage’s initiative generated a swift response in the US and Canada, and then on the other side of the Atlantic.
Gustu, Bolivia: the surprise restaurant venture by Noma’s Claus Meyer
Nobody predicted the co-founder of one of the world’s best restaurants would pick Bolivia as the location for his next venture. Ed Stocker visits the newly opened Gustu in La Paz
Gustu’s inauguration night in La Paz, Bolivia. Photograph: Stephan Gamillscheg
Gourmet Bolivia. Now there’s an oxymoron. While its neighbours, in particular Brazil, Argentina and Peru, have established themselves on the world’s food scene, Bolivia has yet to make its mark. Few of us can name any classic Bolivian dishes, fewer still any Bolivian chefs.
So the news that Claus Meyer, co-founder of Copenhagen’s Noma, a three-time winner of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants (and the current number two), was opening an upscale restaurant in the capital La Paz was greeted with some astonishment. But Meyer – who, alongside Noma co-owner and chef René Redzepi, is famed for his trailblazing ultra local, seasonal cuisine – was drawn to the country not by its existing cuisine, but by the potential of its raw ingredients.
“Why Bolivia? If you have access to a large diversity of products, unknown to foodies, then you have a strong chance of coming up with something that could have global interest. Bolivia may have the most interesting and unexplored biodiversity in the world,” he says over the phone from the Danish capital. “If we succeed, this will mean more to the Bolivian nation than Noma and new Nordic cuisine has meant to anyone.”
Tender beets and papalisa with hibiscus. Photograph: Ed Stocker
It seems like quite a leap into the unknown for a man who, by his own admission, had never travelled in the country before. He says he was swayed into picking Bolivia by the work done there by Danish NGO Ibis, which has become a partner in the Gustu project. He hopes the benefits will be three-way: for him as restauranteur seeking new inspiration, for customers looking for something new, and for the country, South America’s poorest.
Following in the footsteps of Brazilian chef Alex Atala, who is credited with redefining Latin American food with his use of exotic Amazon ingredients at his restaurant DOM in Sao Paulo, and Peruvian Gastón Acurio, whose international chain of high-end restaurants has put his country’s cuisine on the food map, Meyer wants to offer diners a chance to explore local Bolivian flavours they have never even heard of, let alone tried.
Gustu, which opened in April, is located in the zona sur, the southern part of town where its wealthiest residents live, some of 1,110m below the wheeze-inducing heights of El Alto, La Paz’s satellite town in the north, 4,100m above sea-level.
The restaurant’s interior feels every inch the international diner: minimalist décor, grey walls, large windows with impressive views of the Andes and low-wattage exposed light bulbs. Like the food, everything is sourced from within the country, overseen by local designer Joyce Martín. There are flashes of local colour, too, in the Andean-inspired striped cushions dotted around the space.
Sampling the Gustu tasting menu is certainly a lesson in the biodiversity that Meyer rates so highly. Tender beets come with papalisa, a yellow potato dotted with shocks of pink and flavoured with hibiscus, a plate bursting with colour and flavour. A perfectly cooked egg yolk comes in a “nest” of palm heart strips and alpaca charque, Bolivia’s jerky equivalent. Pink llama loin is served with fermented carrots, coa oil (a herb that tastes like a combination of rosemary, Swiss mint and eucalyptus) and little green and yellow wakataya herb flowers, giving the dish a unique sweet-fragrant kick.
As Bolivia is a landlocked country, seafood doesn’t make an appearance, but Lake Titicaca trout does. A standout pudding is the chankaka – sugar cane honey – meringue with sorbet made from tumbo, a green-skinned fruit that looks like passion fruit and grows just outside the restaurant. This is the sort of menu that needs footnotes.
The five, seven or 15-course menu arrives beautifully presented on rough-cut slate plates and in ceramic bowls, with attention to detail as obsessive as at Noma. There is also an alcohol-pairing option which, like the cuisine, is full of surprises. For one, Bolivian wine is really rather good, even if some of the bottle labels are shockers. Their whites span everything from riesling to torrontés, their reds go from malbec to merlot. And then there are the cocktails, all made from singani, the national grape-based spirit, and often infused or macerated in-house. The singani with orange is particularly good, with the chankaka (unrefined sugar cane) giving it a dark sultry colour.
Gustu’s two head chefs are from Venezuela and Denmark respectively and they haven’t been afraid to include ideas and ingredients – still locally sourced – that are rarely eaten by Bolivians, including cauliflower and rabbit. Meyer defends the use of foreign chefs, citing the number of non-Danish cooks working at Noma, including its Macedonian head chef. “It doesn’t necessarily take a Bolivian chef to release the true potential of Bolivian cuisine,” he said. “It takes someone with a very humble attitude towards everything, able to see, smell, eat and learn.”
The strong savoury flavour that makes everything from spag bol to Marmite so hard to resist may serve a vital evolutionary purpose. We could even use it to fight malnutrition. Pass the parmesan
‘Parmesan is probably the most umami ingredient in western cookery.’ Photograph: Lara Belova/Getty Images
I am often flabbergasted when I think about how humans came to develop such complex culinary skills. Granted, 1.8m years have passed since our ancestor, homo erectus, began to cook. But still, leavened bread! That was one hell of a happy accident.
Our predilection for umami – the only recently recognised (by western scientists) “fifth taste”, after salt, sweet, sour and bitter – is a fascinating piece in the jigsaw of our gastronomic evolution. Since studies confirmed just a few years ago that our mouths contain taste receptors for this moreish savoury taste (the other four “basic tastes” had been widely accepted for, ooh, a few thousand years), so much in the history of recipes suddenly makes sense. Umami is why the Romans loved liquamen, the fermented anchovy sauce that they sloshed as liberally as we do ketchup today. It is key to the bone-warming joy of gravy made from good stock, meat juices and caramelised meat and veg. It is why Marmite is my mate.
Escoffier, the legendary 19th-century French chef who invented veal stock, felt sure that a savoury fifth taste was the secret of his success, but everyone was too busy gorging on his food to take much notice of his theories. Fast forward to the 21st century and many cooks are delighted to finally see proof of what they had instinctively known. Massimo Bottura, whose restaurant in Modena is ranked fifth best in the world, served the first incarnation of his dish five ages of parmigiano reggiano in different textures and temperatures in 1995. More recently, however, Bottura says that the discovery that parmesan is probably the most umami ingredient in western cookery has enhanced his appreciation and understanding of the dish. “Five textures, five temperatures and five levels of umami,” is how he now views it.
Putting a name to a taste
Cheese and cured meats have umami in spades. Photograph: Axiom Photographic/Design Pics/Corbis
Umami has been variously translated from Japanese as yummy, deliciousness or a pleasant savoury taste, and was coined in 1908 by a chemist at Tokyo University called Kikunae Ikeda. He had noticed this particular taste in asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat, but it was strongest in dashi – that rich stock made from kombu (kelp) which is widely used as a flavour base in Japanese cooking. So he homed in on kombu, eventually pinpointing glutamate, an amino acid, as the source of savoury wonder. He then learned how to produce it in industrial quantities and patented the notorious flavour enhancer MSG.
What gives good glutamate?
Wild mushrooms, rich in glutamate. Photograph: Jeremy Sutton Hibbert / Rex Features
A quintessential example of something umami-tasting, says Paul Breslin of Monell University, who was among the first scientists to prove the existence of umami taste receptors, is a broth or a soup: “Something that has been slow-cooked for a long time.” Raw meat, he points out, isn’t that umami. You need to release the amino acids by cooking, or “hanging it until it is a little desiccated, maybe even moulded slightly, like a very good, expensive steak”. Fermentation also frees the umami – soy sauce, cheese, cured meats have it in spades. In the vegetable kingdom, mushrooms are high in glutamate, along with those favoured by children such as petit pois, sweetcorn and sweet cherry tomatoes. Interestingly, human milk is one of the highest MSG-containing mammalian milks.
Magical flavour-bomb maths
Double cheeseburger with all the trimmings: ménage à trois. Photograph: Jess Koppel/Getty
So why is bolognese sauce with cheese on top, or a cheeseburger with ketchup so finger-licking good? Because, says Laura Santtini, creator of the umami condiment Taste No 5 Umami Paste, when it comes to savoury, “1+1=8”. In the simplest terms, umami actually comes from glutamates and a group of chemicals called ribonucleotides, which also occur naturally in many foods. When you combine ingredients containing these different umami-giving compounds, they enhance one another so the dish packs more flavour points than the sum of its parts. This is why the cooked beef, tomato and cheese in the above examples form a ménage à trois made in heaven. And why ham and peas is a gastronomic no-brainer. And, oh dear, why it’s hard to stop popping Smoky Bacon Pringles.
Why we love umami
Sushi – with the all-important soy sauce. Photograph: Howard Shooter/Getty Images/Dorling Kindersley RF
Just as humans evolved to crave sweetness for sugars and, therefore, calories and energy, and loathe bitter to help avoid toxins, umami is a marker of protein (which is made up of amino acids, which are essential for life). This begs two interesting questions. First, why is our innate penchant for umami best served by cooked or aged foods? Breslin’s answer is that cooking or preserving our main protein sources detoxifies them. “”Part of the great digestion formula,” he says, “is not only the ability to procure nutrients, but it’s to protect yourself from getting sick while you do that. If you don’t get proper nutrition you can live to see another day, but if you’re poisoned, it can end it for you right there.” Second, why are some fruits and vegetables that are low in protein, high in glutamate? Some cases, such as mushrooms, says Breslin, we cannot explain. However, for others, such as tomatoes, it could be the same reason why fruit is so sweet. “The sugar is there so you grab the fruit and spread the seeds around. It could be that the mixture of sugar and glutamate in some of these foods is there to make them extra attractive.”
A force for good?
Spaghetti bolognese with cheese: umami triumvirate. Photograph: Christian Teubner/Getty Images/StockFood
Lacing cheap, fattening, non-nutritious foods with MSG to make them irresistible is clearly not responsible, but some argue that glutamate can be used responsibly to good effect. Breslin says one of his key motivations is finding ways through taste research to feed malnourished people. “What you want,” he says “are things that are very tasty that kids will eat, that will go down easy and will help them.” Meanwhile, Professor Margot Gosney, who chairs the Academic and Research Committee of the British Geriatrics Society is “looking into increasing the umami content in hospital food,” to make it more appealing to older people, without overdoing the salt.
When I first learned about the fifth taste, I became obsessed, seeking it out in ingredients and experimenting. However, not everyone is convinced that umami should even be classified as a basic taste. Professor Barry Smith of London University’s Centre for the Study of the Senses queries why “we need neuroscience and the Japanese” to alert us to it, when tastes such as salt and sweet are clear as day. “If you think of what has umami,” he says, “it’s not obvious that there’s something in common with all these things,” and in lab tests, westerners struggle to consciously detect it.”
Do you savour the umami in foods, or is the concept meaningless to you? And where do you stand on the MSG food additive debate?
Some restaurants have banned diners taking photographs of their dishes, while others are offering food photography workshops. Do you snap your supper, or is it the height of bad manners?
‘A blurry picture of scrambled eggs on toast … I can almost hear Rudolf Clausius turning in his grave.’ Photograph: Trevor Baker
At the start of 2013 the debate on whether it’s OK to take photographs of your food in restaurants seemed to swing towards a definite “no”. In New York some smaller establishments, such as Momofuku Ko, have banned photography. An article on Esquire’s blog provided a stern list of reasons why pausing for a photo shoot before eating is not OK, the most surreal being that it’s an affront to the laws of thermodynamics (because it makes your food get cold), the most sensible being that your photos will probably be rubbish anyway.
However, in Alicante in Spain, the restaurant group Grupo Gourmet, which owns the much-praised Taberna del Gourmet and Monastrell restaurants, has started running a “Fotografia para foodies” course on the basis that, if people are going to take pictures, they might as well do it properly. Chef-patron María José San Román says that the worst thing about bloggers taking pictures in her restaurants is that, if they don’t do a good job, or if they do it after eating half the food, the result looks terrible.
Well, according to Wikipedia, it’s a small snack usually served in a bar. They are particularly popular in Spain and the Basque Country. You can follow the link to find out more, quite fascinating.
I had never heard of ‘pintxo bars’ before I read this…
The best experimental pintxo bars in San Sebastián
San Sebastián’s famous pintxo bars serve fantastic food for a few euros – and now there’s a new generation of more experimental places to try, says the author of Real Tapas
Experimental pintxo at A Fuego Negro in San Sebastián
Last week, acclaimed Basque chefs Juan Mari Arzak and his daughter Elena, owners the famous Arzak restaurant in San Sebastián, opened Ametsa, their long awaited London outpost. Several notches down the price scale, in Donostia-San Sebastián itself, you can sample bite-size versions, cocina en miniatura or pintxos, the refined Basque version of tapas. Here is a selection of the top avant garde and experimental pintxo bars, plus a couple of classics thrown in.
Iñaki Gulín has kept a loyal following ever since he blazed a trail at La Cuchara de San Telmo. This opened 12 years ago at the back of the old coastal quarter as an innovative, nueva cocina place with a young spirit. Then, five years ago, he and fellow chef Marc Clua left La Cuchara to open Borda Berri a few streets away in this foodie labyrinth, keeping the rock’n’roll style yet turning out impeccable pintxos with a twist. The homely bar, its yellow walls hung with old photos, is professional yet laid-back, not an easy balance. The pintxos are chalked up on a board and cooked to order: an unctuous risotto of mushrooms and idiazabal (a Basque cheese), garlic soup with pig’s ear, braised veal cheeks in wine or a bacalao (salt cod) taco. This is top, earthy Basque fare and not to be missed.
Award-winning Zeruko is one of the old town’s most inventive pintxo haunts. The style is young, hip and playful, with mint-green walls, trestle tables and a bar laden with temptations. Aspic makes a comeback, enclosing diced vegetables and a soft-boiled egg, quickly heated beforehand, or wild mushrooms with foie gras mousse. Meticulously presented, though contrasts of textures and flavours sometimes go too far down the showy molecular route. Try the marmitako, a traditional Basque tuna and potato soup.
Fried grasshoppers – a Mexican delicacy – are currently on offer in one London restaurant. Is it time to get over our squeamishness and learn to savour the taste of bugs?
Mexican grasshoppers fried in chilis … could you? Photograph: Alamy
On the menu the Mexican delicacy is described as “chapulines fundido“. Having eaten it – indeed polished it off – I would say it is the equivalent of an “insect moussaka”. The bottom layer is made of pureed fried grasshoppers (chapulines), which have been flavoured with softened shallots, garlic, smoky chipotle chillies and lime juice, topped with a gooey, fondue-style blanket of mozzarella and cheddar cheese (queso fundido). You can scoop it up, street-style, with corn tortillas or get stuck in with a knife and fork. And so that you are under no illusion whatsoever about the main ingredient, the dish is garnished with three crispy grasshopper bodies – minus legs and wings. Yum – or not.
Grasshoppers, of course, don’t routinely feature anywhere on British restaurant menus, but that could all be about to change. Wahaca, the sustainable Mexican street-food restaurant chain co-founded by MasterChef winner Thomasina Miers, is trialling the dish for one month only at its South Bank restaurant in London. It claims the unusual move – some might say shameless PR stunt – reflects its ethos of providing interesting, flavoursome fare while encouraging people to take the next step in sustainable eating by swapping meat for a protein-rich, environmentally friendly alternative. Meanwhile in a documentary next Monday on BBC4, Stefan Gates asks if eating bugs – from tarantulas to grasshoppers – can “save the world”.
More than 1,000 insect species are eaten in 80% of countries – mostly in the tropics. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation says insects are vital to meeting the nutritional needs of the world’s growing population but they hardly feature in the diets of many rich nations. As an ingredient, chapulines are a healthy alternative to meat; cooked grasshopper contains up to 60% protein, with 6% fat. Miers herself believes eating insects is no different from eating shrimp or prawns; after all, like insects, they are arthropods.
“It’s just not in our psyche at the moment,” she says. “The chapulines fundido is a great introduction to the beautiful earthy flavour of these insects as it tastes amazing and a salsa is much more palatable for the more squeamish diners out there.”
You can’t argue with the need to get us to eat more sustainably, but given Britons’ aversion to dealing with, let alone eating insects, what do the punters think? On a chilly Monday evening – the first full day of the experiment – a handful of early evening diners at the South Bank restaurant have ordered the dish.
Friends Kate Franklin and Bella Lawrence have eaten more than half the portion they are sharing. “It was very tasty, very lemony in flavour,” says Kate, a 22-year old photographer. But Bella, also 22, isn’t sure about “the three smiley faces” on top, which lie uneaten. The pair agree that the initiative was a commendable one. The chain is doing a steady trade in the dish, if not a roaring one. General manager Dean Hughes said he expects the restaurant – which has 90 covers – to serve up 30 portions by the close of play. After the horsemeat scandal people are definitely looking for alternatives to meat,” he says.
In fact there seems to be more criticism of the heavy cheese layer – which tends to congeal as it gets cold – than the insect content. Personally, I enjoy the rich, smoky flavour and texture of the dish. But even I am unable to wolf down an entire bowl of crunchy grasshopper bodies, which are typically served in Mexico as bar snacks washed down with cold beer. And there is also the issue of the insects’ carbon footprint. Those used by Wahaca – vaccuum-packed in large bags – are imported to the UK from Oaxaca in Mexico.
Have you eaten insects, anywhere in the world? And could you imagine making them a part of your regular diet? Should we westerners just learn to get over our squeamishness?
Sorry, but no thanks, I am definitely a part of the squeamish brigade.
Scandals every where; first horse meat in Europe and now beer in the USA.
Drinkers sue Anheuser-Busch for ‘watering down’ beer
The lawsuit claim the watering down began after Anheuser Busch’s 2008 merger with InBev
Beer drinkers in the US have filed a $5m (£3.3m) lawsuit accusing Anheuser-Busch of watering down its beer.
The lawsuits, filed in Pennsylvania, California and other states, claim consumers have been cheated out of the alcohol content stated on beer labels.
The suit involves 10 Anheuser-Busch beers including Budweiser and Michelob.
Anheuser-Busch InBev have called the claims “completely false”, and said in a statement “our beers are in full compliance with labelling laws”.
The lawsuits are based on information from former employees at breweries owned by the multinational.
“Our information comes from former employees at Anheuser-Busch, who have informed us that, as a matter of corporate practice, all of their products mentioned [in the lawsuit] are watered down,” lead lawyer Josh Boxer said.
The complaint claimed that “Anheuser-Busch employs some of most sophisticated process control technology in the world to precisely monitor the alcohol content at the final stages of production, and then adds additional water to produce beers with significantly lower alcohol contents than is represented on the the labels”.
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Manufacturers, companies and corporations are pulling the wool over our eyes in search of higher profits.