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AlexRast's Profile

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Where to buy a truly great olive oil in Florence proper?

"It is really hard to succinctly explain why this is a seductive idea that is profoundly wrong -- a superstition, in itself really."

Forgive me for diving off-topic. But I've got to address this one. It must be emphasised again, you *can't* use a statistical observation as a causal explanation for a single event. Global warming is an example of a statistical observation whose validity depends on a large number of observations; by definition any one observation is meaningless by itself.

But don't confuse a statement like "you cannot attribute olive crop failure in Tuscany to global warming" with the different statement "olive crop failure in Tuscany has not been caused by global warming". The truth is, we can't know whether it is, or not, without more specific evidence. In essence, global warming has nothing to say on the subject.

However, that's not very comforting, and (good) science does have a tendency to speak with a very cold, clinical voice that ignores human needs. It's very important to separate the scientific dimension from the human dimension, in situations which affect human lives. Science can *inform* but not *prescribe* policy decisions in human life; it makes no judgements of value, and as a result cannot address real decisions, where value to people is of utmost importance. Just because we can't attribute Tuscan olive failure to global warming doesn't mean we shouldn't do anything to ensure future production, or for that matter to mitigate global warming. People first, science second. It should be our servant, not our master.

Meanwhile humans have tremendous powers of inference, on very noisy data, that appear to go far beyond what science can prove. The judgement in any case isn't scientific; it's intuitive. I don't see any problem with going with an intuitive approach - as long as a scientific explanation isn't invoked to justify it. In this case I think bringing up global warming is particularly misplaced because in addition to using science out of context it invokes an explanation that would require a global response when only a local one could be achieved.

"It also seems to me to think that climate change will be checked when it thus far has gone unchecked despite long decades of scientific evidence is merely faith at best"

While there is the obvious problem with this line of reasoning, what is called the "stationary assumption", i.e. that since things have been such a way in the past they will continue to be so in the future, I don't deny for one minute that my belief is a belief and not fact; the future can never be predicted exactly unless you have a complete causal model. The reason I think it will be checked, is because world energy needs will not be able to be met economically by fossil fuels for much longer at all, and it's the change in energy sources that will bring about reversal. I'll say no more about this though because it's just too off-topic.

about 11 hours ago
AlexRast in Italy

How long will you stand in line for food?

One of the things that happens is actually quite subtle. Let's say some food producer - it doesn't have to be bread - has been making something truly excellent for years. Then someone there discovers that they can make something *almost* as good - where the difference in flavour or quality is at the borders of detectability, for 1/2 the price. They can either pass the cost savings on to customers, and reap much more business, or charge the same as ever, with much higher profit. Very, very few, if any, customers will notice or comment. Only the most fanatical of owners will pass on that sort of proposition.

Unfortunately, that's the first step down the slippery slope. Each such step taken makes it that much easier to justify taking a similar such step in the future. Meanwhile, the changes are happening so gradually before the customers' eyes, that no one actually notices things are changing. Project that forward a few years and you have something that is a mere shadow of what it was, the accumulation of many slight compromises in quality for a huge drop in cost. If there's no reference to compare against, furthermore, even the memory of what the product (or indeed, products in that category, be it bread or milk or strawberries or whatever) could be like is lost or at least blurred. So nobody even realises what is possible and indeed used to exist because their exposure has been conditioned by their experiences.

Then there can be a partial "rediscovery", when people recognise that what they've been having is actually substandard, but by that point many of the skills that went into making something of top quality have disappeared, as well, as, as I've noted above, the conceptual idea about what good is actually like. So there is a long period of inconsistent experimentation, when people try to relearn what was once common knowledge - and you get a lot of products where the effort is undeniable but the result is mediocre because people are still learning and because customer feedback isn't particularly informative. Many are often only too glad to have something even marginally better than the commodity grade. I think it's critical that we need to support and encourage *experienced* producers, who have accumulated wisdom, and they need also to be exhorted to share that with the new idealistic producers as well. The situation isn't going to improve dramatically if people are forced to stumble around in the dark.

By the way, on your side question; it must be admitted that I've forgotten most of the bakeries I've tried recently because they just weren't that memorable. I can certainly recall Cantinetta Della Verazzano in Florence (because I was just there), and Chez Charli in Brussels (only a month ago) From the former I got 2 Pani Toscani. From the latter a baguette. Both were in the good-but category. Generally speaking though I'll try to get the most basic bread that's regionally typical, in a given bakery.

However, my personality values intensity over duration/frequency of experience. In other words, I would far rather one sublime experience than 100 good ones. For me, it's as if the 100 good experiences are compressed into a single moment in the sublime experience, at 100x the intensity, which is exactly what I crave. I find that the standard I set isn't unachievable, and usually for any given product there is *exactly* one producer/specific item in a given area that really meets what I'd expect. It's a question of finding who they are - and for certain classes of item, like bread, queues aren't the telltale sign.

about 12 hours ago
AlexRast in General Topics

How long will you stand in line for food?

That's precisely my point though. I've been to Germany, France, and Italy many, many times. In *many* places. But the bakeries, even there, even the ones with a high reputation, just aren't generally putting out bread that really qualifies as great. Decent, maybe. Better than what you will get in the supermarket, undoubtedly. But great, no, not usually. Nor would that be to be expected. After all, most bakeries are just local businesses trying to supply a basic product to a local clientele. Few of them have the obsession or ambition to try to be a national point of reference.

I can recall only one bakery in France - it was in Grenoble - that had what I would consider great bread. At least one *exists* in Italy; somewhere in Rome but I don't know where because I had it at a trattoria and was unable to cajole the staff into giving me the name or address. I've yet to encounter a German bakery in the "great" category, though one must surely exist. As luck would have it, there is a bakery in Manchester that has great bread; they deliver Thursdays to one of our local co-ops (Eighth Day), but I'm certainly making no special claims for England. Acme Bakery in San Francisco has great bread.

Remember the context here; bread sufficiently good to be worth *waiting* for. That's a high bar. As noted above these places do exist but (Acme excepted) are usually sufficiently obscure that queueing is never a problem.

1 day ago
AlexRast in General Topics

How long will you stand in line for food?

There seems to be something peculiar about barbeque that encourages a particular form of fanatical obsession. The type that causes people to wait for 2+ hours. They should call it barbe-queue. For the majority of other foods, I suspect, most people would consider that length of wait absolutely beyond the pale. You think about how large of a slice that takes out of the day, it becomes hard to justify for anyone leading a working life. What is it that makes such incredible waits justifiable in peoples' eyes? I'm well aware of the differences in barbeque quality, that can lead to some places being worth singling out and refusing any other, but on the other hand it's not as though barbeque is categorically better as a food in general, that would make a 2 hour wait justifiable in its singular case, when for other things people would just not bother. A few might disagree - but to generate queues long enough that 2-hour waits occur, a very large proportion of the population must have very different expectations in this one case.

Other things that generate queues are usually the result of carefully targetted media promotion. In this second case what's happening is panic psychology more than anything else.

What would I wait for and for how long? Under normal conditions, the longest I'll wait for, assuming leaving your name with the staff and returning later isn't an option, is probably about 30 minutes, maybe 45 minutes if I'm distracted. What *would* I be prepared to queue for?

1) Really good roast beef; for that I'd wait the full 45 minutes, possibly more if I had an unusual free day.

2) Pizza. Might wait 45 minutes. But the atmosphere is completely different. In Italy (where the majority of pizza actually worth queueing for at all is to be found), a queue for a pizzeria is something of a moving party. The night's warm, you chat with your neighbours, the people watching's interesting. Queueing is half of the whole event of having pizza.

3) Cracking breakfast, particularly if it features really good sausage. 30 minutes.

4) Ice cream, particularly if it's in Italy, particularly if the chocolate flavour is legendary. 30 minutes.

5) Chocolate cake, but it would have to be really in a class of its own in terms of quality, not something that was mostly about innovative concept. Maybe 15 minutes.

6) World-class coffee (espresso-style). 15 minutes.

(You can probably detect a bit of an Italian slant to the would-queue-for category)

And a few things I've discovered are almost never worth queueing for - generally speaking victims of inflated reputation:

Hamburgers. As a food, this could be sublime. In terms of what any restaurant is willing to supply (or what the market is prepared to support), they *never* are. Strangely different from pizza, that other anchor of the casual-food sector.

Doughnuts. Identical dynamic to hamburgers.

Bread. This has become a category too dominated by sourdoughs and exotic fancy breads. It's astonishingly hard to find bakeries, even in continental Europe, that do really good traditional breads. Those that do remain strangely obscure and hence queue-free.

Scones. So few use all butter. Those that do tend to be cottony. So easy to make at home.

(One can easily see a developing theme here - that it's in the baked goods category that the potential to generate massive queues often converges with extremely disappointing end products)

Feb 25, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

Where to buy a truly great olive oil in Florence proper?

First, I think it's important to emphasise that thinking the problem is related to climate change is essentially pure superstition. Not because climate change itself isn't real: it's a fact. The problem is that you ABSOLUTELY CANNOT attribute a single event in any causal way to a statistical phenomenon like climate change. *Maybe* climate change might have had a role, maybe it would have happened anyway. No isolated incident can be used to infer climate change or the impacts thereof.

Perhaps if climate change were allowed to continue unchecked, then olives might have to be grown elsewhere. However, I very much doubt it will be allowed to continue unchecked, so maybe the problem will turn out to be a non-event anyway, and regardless it would be unhelpful to use an isolated event as some sort of motivation to people to do something about it. It requires a systematic and concerted response.

On the other hand, I think the problem of people expecting great olive oil at unrealistically cheap prices is a major problem that must be addressed. It reflects a very distorted view of the real market on the part of consumers. How it is that people can come to imagine that quality will come cheaply I don't really understand, but there it is - there is almost a refusal to believe that there is any significant relationship between price and quality. Ironically, much of it seems to be driven by a fear of being cheated - which in fact makes these people prime victims as you say. I think the solution to this though lies mainly in exposure, in other words, in getting people to actually try really good oil to see what it can be like (and then make the decision for themselves about whether the price is worth it for them)

Interestingly, it seems Laudemio had at least a small harvest this year. It seems reasonably safe to assume, at least, that dei Frescobaldi on Via de Magazzini is using the real thing. I went there, tried their 2014 bottling. It will be said that compared to other years there is a very vague whiff of petrol; nothing severe but clearly this wasn't the best year. Price is spectacular as you might well imagine. Given that I'd been looking for better, perhaps smaller-harvest oils anyway I didn't get a bottle. When I go to Alghero later this year I might look at what they have there. Anybody know if the Sardinian harvest was reasonable?

Feb 24, 2015
AlexRast in Italy

Why is "the best" so important

Aside from the problem of mindless questions expecting glib answers, which has already been commented on here extensively, I think what can get irksome about "best" lists, in many peoples' eyes, is that it leads to a "honeypot" effect where a few places which have been cited become impracticably popular, or expensive, or both, or drop in quality. That can mean you have to develop an obsession similar to the one that might possess the owner, in order to eat there. 1-year waiting lists are an example of this trend gone into the land of the totally irrational. Or for that matter queues that take 2 hours to get to the front of.

There seems to be an element of unfairness also in certain places lucky enough to get listed suddenly becoming successful, when possibly hundreds of other places that are at least equally good or at the same basic level languish and may eventually disappear.

That said, from the point of the establishment, popularity is a good problem to have, publicity is something all need, and all of them understand that the market is ruthless and unsentimental. You have to compete with everyone else and some people *will* get lucky.

Similarly from the point of view of the customer, you have to know that many if not most of the really good places will be popular. Some discretion is called for of course: I would say question your sanity if you make a 1-year advance booking, unless it's for something like a wedding or other major, heavily planned event. But quality is invariably going to be expensive relative to its category (even a loaf of bread is going to be somewhat more expensive at a really top boulangerie, although the difference in price might be trivial), will attract the crowds, and yes, will always be to some degree a potential magnet for people ready to heap their uncritical adulation upon it.

Feb 18, 2015
AlexRast in France

Where to buy a truly great olive oil in Florence proper?

Hmmm...probably too tied up with judging chocolate to shift into olive oil as well...

I worry also for the fortunes of the Tuscan olive oil growers. They must really be suffering with this sort of disaster. Is there any possibility some of them may have to abandon the business altogether? If so I really feel for them. Maybe there should be some sort of public collection for relief - or at least a list of growers/bottlers to patronise next year intensively.

Feb 18, 2015
AlexRast in Italy

Why is "the best" so important

I can speak from experience on this! Having sampled (more than once) more than 200+ chocolates in a day, 2 days running, I can aver that the palate exhaustion starts to set in at about chocolate number 50.

At the Salon selectivity is definitely called for because a lot of the chocolatiers that exhibit aren't anything particularly good. Perhaps surprisingly to some, La Maison du Chocolat is really quite hard to top, they're much better that you might think, given their ubiquity at this point. Why go to the Salon when you can replicate the experience at the airport, then? :-D

Yes, those chocolate dresses are rather frou-frou. The schmearing thing is another one of those ideas that sounds exciting until you try it (or have the misfortune not to be able to avoid seeing).

Feb 17, 2015
AlexRast in France

Where to buy a truly great olive oil in Florence proper?

Thanks for that info. Probably saved me at least a few hours of fruitless searching. I'll make sure to look for oils from outside the region given the situation.

Unfortunately for the future, though, it looks like what you're saying, is, there isn't really a way to do A/B sampling of top oils (which are invariably distinctive, thus highly personal in taste) in order to make buying decisions - at least not if you're not in a position to hire a car and spend probably a month or so driving. And even then sounds like you're not going to be able to try more than different varieties of a specific grower. Is there another rational approach?

Feb 17, 2015
AlexRast in Italy

Why is "the best" so important

I was just trying to draw attention to the fact that different people say things differently - and so there are some who are going to use "best" in a nuanced way.

Indeed, there is an argument to be made that really, this is the way the word *should* be used, or else it becomes a meaningless word that could just as well be deleted from the English vocabulary. After all, "best" is inherently a subjective adjective - it can never be objective because best is always referred to human criteria - and because anything subjective also varies depending upon the individual, it's always going to be a relative distinction rather than an absolute one.

Interestingly, I do find, when researching restaurants, etc, though, that "best" can be a very useful word put into search engines - even more useful in fact when put in in the local language, e.g. meilleur(e). Places that have NO mention of "best" tend to be decent but not exceptional or obsessive, others have many mentions but clearly in a marketing context, and it's usually quite easy to filter them down to a list which are mentioned in several sources independently; this can be quite a reliable guide to quality. However on Chowhound specifically, it tends to be less useful in that as you imply a lot of people seem to ignore the post altogether.

Notwithstanding, I think that it may be worthwhile not to have a knee-jerk reaction to the word "best"; a simple question that asks someone for a bit more detail is a fast and usually harmless of distinguishing Type 1 from Type 2.

Feb 16, 2015
AlexRast in France

Why is "the best" so important

I think there are 2 different types of "best" requests.

The first is the generally vain, superficial type (I think) you detest who imagines in the first place that there can be such a thing as an objective "best" in a food-related category, and second that there is indeed, some sort of competition in which the winners get all the glory and the losers go home. Often their real interest isn't in the food as such but rather in having been seen, or having been, or knowing about, such places as an indication of their own status. These I think are perhaps best responded to by referring to some publication that they could buy which will give them the answers they want to see. Ignoring altogether is also an option.

The second, though, may ask about "best" or talk about it not so much in an absolute sense but because they are at least aware than in just about any food there is a category of producer or chef that is just obsessive and really is quite a lot better than all but an insignificant percentage of the rest of the market. They use the word "best" as a convenient shorthand to avoid going into agonising descriptions that others might still not understand anyway. People in this second group recognise that there *are* real differences in quality and either want to get, or give, recommendations where it's clear that the place recommended is in that obsessive category, not just in the very-nice-everyday class. If nothing else, they might enjoy debating with tablemates (or possibly others) over the relative merits of place A vs place B without any expectation that there be an absolute conclusion drawn or getting hostile if disagreed with. I personally think these can be discussions worth having. This group can be answered, but on the other hand you need to be prepared to enter into a long debate; they're generally not satisfied (or even interested in) a flat response or list.

Feb 15, 2015
AlexRast in France
1

Where to buy a truly great olive oil in Florence proper?

Here's the situation. While I would love it if I had either the financial resources or the time to spend a week or so touring around sampling oils from farms and selecting the best, that's not my position, nor is that likely to be a possibility in any foreseeable future. I go to Florence, though, quite regularly; about to go, in fact, this Friday.

The exigencies of other commitments while in Florence (I'm almost always there on business rather than as a holiday) mean I have limited time and limited range. I don't have a car but on the other hand I'm completely comfortable with walking 3 miles, or taking any form of public transport. Still, for practical purposes it would be most convenient to think mostly about the city centre unless there are *manifestly* better options further away.

What I'm looking for is somewhere with a really first-rate selection of really first-rate olive oils; the sort of place where you can sample several efficiently and choose what you like. Really, what I'd like to do is get into the categories that lie far above my "everyday" olive oil - Badia al Coltibuono's Albereto. It's a really nice oil, in fact, lovely "green" flavour and low acidity. But there is a category (in fact, several categories) above what is a "premium mass-market" oil when all is said and done - which is what I'd like to explore more fully than I've been able to thus far. The big thing you get in this category is much greater "personality" - a less "generic" flavour which is what I would like. Can anybody give me useful recommendations for places that might have broad selection, sampling available, and hopefully knowledgeable staff who can match preference to oils? Mostly interested in Tuscan oils; I like to buy locally for obvious reasons, but not going to make an absolute restriction to just that. In Florence Friday/Saturday/Sunday/Monday.

Feb 15, 2015
AlexRast in Italy

What's your favorite cake?

A basic chocolate layer cake: chocolate sponge, chocolate icing, 2 layers. Cake and icing made with (dark) chocolate, NOT cocoa. Must be very strong on the chocolate: at least as much chocolate by weight in the sponge as flour, if not more. Same applies to the icing. Ideally icing in thin, dense layers, not thick, heavy ones or fluffy, insubstantial ones. The icing should not be mostly sugar.

Lent Starts One Week From Today

Beware: possibly Too Much Information below...

The Church Fathers give various and sundry reasons for permitting fish, at least on certain days, without any clear consensus of opinion. Symbolic/allegorical interpretations are often given by those Fathers so disposed, but that's nothing more than a particular person's interpretative gloss.

Much of the ultimate reason seems to go back to views that prevailed at the time of the early church, which was that fish weren't "animals" in the same sense. As the Church became more developed, a practice of scaled fasting and feasting was adopted that established different recommendations for different circumstances. The strictest fast of all was exactly that: no eating of any kind. This was reserved for Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and a few other days of the year thought to be particularly penitential (e.g. Exaltation of the Cross) Next in severity was the "lenten" fast: no meat, fish, dairy, eggs, oil, or wine. On minor feasts during a fasting period, wine and oil might be permitted. After that was the fast for days which would ordinarily be festal, but fell during a fasting period (Annunciation, Palm Sunday) when fish was added to the permitted list. In Orthodox practice there was also the unique "Cheesefare" restriction: meat not permitted, but everything else allowed, and NOT fasting but rather feasting. During ordinary times of the year, Wednesday and Friday were fast days (remembering the betrayal by Judas and the Crucifixion respectively - this is the origin of the "fish on Friday" pattern) Of course during Lent the full lenten fast prevailed, with a few exceptions as noted. Advent was also a fast, and there were fasts before the Assumption/Dormition of the Virgin Mary and other important days, with varying degrees of strictness. Post-Easter (all the way to Ascension), post-Pentecost (1 week) and post-Christmas (for the "12 days", until Epiphany), as well as Carnival (just before Lent) there was no fasting whatsoever.

In the Catholic West, at least, these distinctions seem to have been seen as overly complex and difficult to maintain, (as early as the 11th century), and so gradually the trend was towards the fish allowed, meat forbidden fast as the best compromise between the myriad different rules. Then the Church Fathers sought ways to explain this to the people in a way that seemed plausible. The Orthodox East, meanwhile, maintaining their pattern of obstinate retention of any practice long established, continue to observe the whole thing to this day, at least in theory.

The original purpose of fasting was, as explained, to give people a time where they didn't really focus on personal gratification. All sorts of reasons for this including more thought given to others, thankfulness to God for what he has provided, more thought given to God directly, personal self-discipline and self-mastery, and many others. These ideas are MUCH, MUCH older than Christianity itself and fasting has been a part of most religious traditions for a very long time indeed.

Feb 13, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics
1

Best not-"third wave" espresso/coffee?

At this point it's effectively impossible for *$ to produce truly great espresso or any other coffee, just because of volume ordering requirements. They need to be ordering in units of 10's (or more) of metric tonnes, and the volume of high-quality beans produced in the world, certainly from a given source, just can't deliver that sort of size of supply. Even with ideal equipment and rigorously trained baristas (bariste?), the quality would still have limits. Similar arguments apply for most chain shops beyond a certain small size.

I'm not saying, though, that fruity descriptors are out of place, I'm saying that it would be disproportionate to think of quality flavours of coffee or even dominant flavours entirely in terms of fruity descriptors. A coffee could well have NO fruity characteristics and yet be a high-quality coffee. But nothing stops a very fruity-tasting coffee from being high-quality, either.

I also want to correct potentially confusing usage that refers to coffee as a "fruit". By that definition, many nuts would be fruits - e.g. almonds are seeds of a fruit, or chocolate - but are not usually called that way in common speech. Neither, for that matter, are tomatoes or peppers. Usually "fruit" is used to indicate a fruiting body that is generally sweet and has a high water content and associated relatively low fat content. (Interestingly, in many Romance languages nuts are called "dry fruits"; another source of confusion in translation when in English typically a "dry fruit" would be taken to mean something like a raisin or dried prune. An idiosyncracy of English usage)

Feb 13, 2015
AlexRast in Manhattan

Best not-"third wave" espresso/coffee?

I can well understand your personal preference, but what is a bit surprising is that apparently that preference is strongly prevailing. I'd expect a fairly uniform distribution of preferences around roast points, probably with some falloff at the extreme end of the scale.

However, notwithstanding, I think it's important to discriminate between coffee roasted dark because someone was trying to disguise poor beans, and coffee roasted dark as a specific style preference. I want to emphasise that there is no necessary relationship between dark roasting and poor quality, in the sense that a dark roast doesn't automatically indicate poor quality, nor can it be used to infer suspicion of lower quality in and of itself.

Fruity flavours are one possibility, but I think not the only one, particularly because the coffee bean itself isn't a fruit, so there are other logical directions a roaster might go towards (nutty, chocolatey, earthy, etc. etc. etc.) Truly burnt *is* a defect, and I've definitely had some burnt coffees; the flavour is unmistakeable. But there is a range of styles possible that don't taste burnt and aren't particularly acidic either. It should also be said that not all of those involve dark roasting; e.g. my favourite source (in a broad sense): Sulawesi, is always heavy and earthier regardless of roast.

The point though is that with a variety of potential quality styles, the drift towards a common style in some senses suggests a factor on consumer taste that isn't *entirely* personal.

Feb 12, 2015
AlexRast in Manhattan

Lent Starts One Week From Today

If you're Orthodox (Christian) then it means not just no meat, but no meat, fish, dairy, eggs, or oils (!) Essentially a strict vegan diet - and everything baked, steamed, boiled, or stewed (no frying or roasting).

Which is not nearly as dreary as it may sound; you can get very creative - e.g. steamed chestnut pudding with jam, and there are traditional things such as e.g. Ribollita that can be made fully lenten and really good.

Of course the real bonus is the month of unrestricted feasting when Easter arrives, and of course if you've actually kept the fast it's guilt-free.

However for the moment let's focus on the fact that it's Carnival week. Feast one and all!

Feb 11, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

Best not-"third wave" espresso/coffee?

A question then occurs to me. From my point of view at least, it's hard to deny that the drift in high-quality coffee has been towards ever-lighter roasting and that very acid style the OP mentioned. It therefore seems likely that as a market the "fine coffee" consumers are drifting towards a lighter, brighter, more acidic style preference. There will of course be exceptions but that's the trend. Anyone care to conjecture on why this sort of style is gaining appeal?

(My guess, FWIW, is simply difference for difference's sake. If dark roast was the norm in the past, after a while it will become boring. The palate craves variety and moves towards whatever is different. If this is the case, then eventually the trend will be reversed and a darker roast will emerge again.)

Feb 11, 2015
AlexRast in Manhattan

Really good rye risotto. Can you help me recreate?

That's interesting that it wasn't creamy - because rye is easy to get into a creamy state; almost too easy. As long as it's cooked reasonably slowly with a 3:1 volume ratio of water to rye grain, it just gets creamy. The one thing not to do though if you want a creamy result is bring it to a boil first then turn down (as you would with rice). In general, the boil-first-then-turn-down with most grains will yield a pilaf-like texture, i.e. separate, relatively dry grains with little starchy coating.

Doesn't sound as though the dish would be difficult to recreate though. If the squash was roasted first, it and the kale could just be mixed in towards the end of cooking. I'm guessing it had some sort of spices as well? I think black pepper would improve, maybe a *small* amount of cinnamon. But I don't know exactly what they did there.

Feb 11, 2015
AlexRast in Home Cooking

Not liking small plates, tapas trend.

Actually, a lot of the reason for that is that steak is one of those things that actually turns out better in larger sizes. The cooking process involved means that larger, thicker pieces of meat can get a much better external sear without overcooking the centre badly.

The USA isn't the only place where steaks are generally huge.

Feb 10, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

Not liking small plates, tapas trend.

Indeed. Part of the reason I brought it up is I think it's a bit unfair of the critical consumer to expect relentless innovation from the top-end restaurants. Creativity is welcome but when it turns from a delight into a requirement it puts impossible pressures on very talented chefs (and might indeed put some of them out of business, if they're too subject to the whims of potentially unrealistic public expectation).

Of course these chefs are fully aware of the market they're getting into, so in that sense it's their choice. Given the pressure as you say it's a very rational choice to go with small plates.

Feb 10, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

USA heavy cream vs UK double cream

Clotted cream is solid at room temperature. Generally it has somewhere over 55% fat. The consistency is different from but bears some similarities to cream cheese - or for that matter to the top part of a cheesecake. Think of it as a sort of spreadable cream.

Double cream is fluid at room temperature. Fat tends to hover between 45 and 50% depending on the cow. It has a consistency with some similarities to treacle. Some double cream becomes spoonable - the consistency of firm yoghurt, in the fridge.

You can whip double cream; indeed, it's the best cream by far for whipping, but trying to whip clotted cream will just fling chunks around your kitchen. You might be able to aerate it but this is never done; usually you'd just use clotted cream "as is" instead of whipped cream in applications that might call for it.

Clotted cream and double cream aren't mutually substitutable in all situations, certainly not in recipes, but if all you're doing is using it as an accompaniment to pies, tarts, pastries, etc. you can do so most of the time, although there would be occasions where it would be missing the point - e.g. in steamed puddings like treacle pudding or jam roly-poly it would be sort of pointless to use clotted cream. And while you could easily use whipped double cream on a scone with jam, again it would sort of be missing the point.

Feb 09, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

Not liking small plates, tapas trend.

Different peoples' expectations may vary, but my opinion is that if "mouth fatigue" really does set in after the first few bites, whatever you're eating is actually not that good - merely momentarily interesting. Think of it this way: most of us have some foods that we really love, which it is almost impossible to tire of.
*That's* the body telling us we actually like the food: that it's genuinely good, and provides a strong, visceral sensation that doesn't die away quickly. Exactly what foods excite this reaction vary from individual to individual, but I think most people have a fairly large range of things they like enough to eat happily and repeatedly, without any particular feeling that it's monotonous (or at least not until the number of repeats becomes something like a full plate every day for a week). Satiety - actually having had enough food - that happens, but it's different from palate fatigue; it's that you're body's telling you you're not that interested in food in general now. I think the standard of "good" should be something that you genuinely would be happy to eat a reasonably substantial amount of (in context) - and if it doesn't convey that strong sensation, then it's not really that good.

It's particularly common in high-end, "innovative" restaurants, where the chef is under a sort of pressure to keep inventing new dishes every time. Unfortunately the odds against him creating something really good are long. Food has been around for a long time and given that almost everybody in a given society has an interest in food that tastes good, over the centuries people have found out very comprehensively what works. In other words, most of the really good ideas have already been thought of, centuries ago (and probably come under the title of "traditional classics" or "regional specialties")

Of the relatively few ideas not already thought of in the distant past, many were thought of in the slightly more recent past (~decades rather than centuries) by the top innovative chefs of their day. And even in the present instant, there are many innovative chefs currently working, all of whom must have their own "independent" ideas on what's expected to be a fairly regular basis (menu changes on the order of at least months and probably more like weeks).

So it would take a chef of singularly talented and inspired genius to be able to come up with new ideas of that type more than about once a lifetime if they're lucky. Mostly, the experiments are momentarily interesting, then you discover that in terms of actual sensory reaction, they're not really that wonderful.

However, the same standard equally applies in "classic" or "traditional" restaurants: if you wouldn't want to eat a reasonable amount or tire quickly of what they've served, it's not that good.

Feb 09, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics
1

Not liking small plates, tapas trend.

I think small-plates places are inoffensive, as long as you are clear on the concepts.

The first concept is that there is a style of eater, who is either always disappointed by having to choose a perforce limited number of items off a regular menu (they want to try everything) or can't easily decide which choices to make (everything looks good, or confusing and uncertain). For that style of eater the small-plates restaurant is a godsend because it appeals precisely to their dilemma.

The second concept is that a lot of people have eating patterns or appetites that don't sit well with large meals. They get too full or feel heavy afterwards. The small-plates restaurant appeals to them because it gives them wider variety in what is for them a more realistic size.

The third concept is that in large groups, it can be time-consuming and complicated, and fraught with errors, for everyone to order their own personal plates. A variety of small bites on a table is often a much more expedient option. This works well provided you don't have any particularly selective or dietarily-restricted people in the party (in which case such formats can be difficult although not fatal)

The fourth concept is that eaters who need a more substantial meal should order multiple plates for themselves. This can cause a problem if the eater in question really would rather focus on one specific thing than try lots of different things, but then again nothing stops them from ordering multiples of the same plate.

The fifth concept is that none of this flexibility comes for free. For the same amount of food, for the same number of people, you'll usually pay more, sometimes a lot more. That's a price being paid for a type of value being delivered, namely flexibility. Now if you are a person who consistently needs large, substantive meals, makes decisive choices, and wants a small number of individual plates, that amounts to paying more for no additional value - so yes, in that circumstance, you're not gaining anything. But if a restaurant is "higher end" the expectation is that you're not particularly price-sensitive anyway, and that's probably a fair expectation to make. Sometimes, when you're with a group all of whom are in love with the idea other than you, it can be a nuisance to have to pay more than you really would have wanted to for less that you really would have preferred, but think of it as paying the social cost for maintaining solid friendships.

I will admit on a personal level that I'm certainly someone who needs substantial meals and makes decisive choices. But I was reconciled to the idea on a trip to Barcelona. In a position of looking for a really first-rate meal while in the city centre without bookings, all the indicators pointed to Commerç24. I wasn't thrilled with the idea until I went, and came away simply delighted. Lovely meal, interesting plates, exceptional, knowledgeable service, exciting atmosphere. OK the bill was terrifying but I was expecting that anyway. When it works, it *works*

Feb 08, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

Will my puff pastry turn out okay if I just use bread flour?

Your puff pastry will turn out fine - or at least it won't be any more of a disaster than what you should expect anyway on a first attempt! It's not easy to make the first few times, your first experiments will most likely be somewhat imperfect anyway.

The dough for puff pastry requires some gluten or the sheets won't stretch thin enough. For that reason very-low-protein cake flours and to a certain extent pastry flours are suboptimal, but pastry flour usually will work. Bread flour will make a very stretchy dough that will laminate very thinly indeed. If it's worked too much of course it can become tough but this is more of a problem only if you're using a fairly lean puff pastry anyway (i.e. with not so much butter). In any case, any difference from what you'd get with a slightly lower protein flour will probably be noticeable only to the sorts of people who judge pastry competitions.

The very best flour, btw, for puff pastry is (probably) Italian 00 flour. It's specifically selected, protein-balanced, and milled exactly for this application so the results are generally superior. This is mostly noticed in easier workability; the dough readily achieves that exact balance between stretchability and elasticity that it can be rolled easily very thinly but without contracting like bread flour will have somewhat of a tendency to do (you can't work bread flour dough into sheets too fast; it will just spring back under its own elasticity. So roll somewhat slowly and patiently).

Feb 07, 2015
AlexRast in Home Cooking

Best not-"third wave" espresso/coffee?

I also think it's a simplification to think of Robusta as universally inferior. Too much depends upon the plantation, the conditions, what's appropriate in the local region where the coffee is grown, the target flavour of the coffee, and many other details.

Inevitably there will be a number of fine Robustas available, some with superior blending qualities, that a discerning roaster can use with discretion when a particular style such as very high crema or very bold flavour is desired. It's like anything else though - you have to know the plantation. Unfortunately a lot of them languish in obscurity because of the popular perception that Robusta is inferior coffee and thus a decided bias on the part of the quality coffee consumer for 100% Arabica coffees. Many coffee roasters have little choice but to go along with this even if they do know quality sources because they would lose business if they did use Robusta.

Bulk growers of commodity coffee for the consumer coffee market: in-a-tin and instant, do grow a lot of Robusta, and that helps to inflate the percentage of poor-quality Robustas seen (and the perception that Robusta is an inferior variety), but if a strong "punch" is desired in a given coffee blend, a judicious use of a quality Robusta is probably the best way to do it.

Now, Arabica does have fine flavour characteristics that you generally won't find in a Robusta, and thus for certain types of flavour it's desirable - particularly soft, fruity or nutty flavours - and in fact the proportion of Arabica that's high-quality or "fine" is a lot greater than the proportion of Robusta so grown, but it's no automatic indicator of quality. An indifferent, cynical plantation may well plant Arabica to sell to the "quality" market but use poor growing and post-harvest practices. As you might expect, this will appeal to price-sensitive buyers who want to offer a 100% Arabica product to roasters at low prices.

We're not, unfortunately, yet at the stage where individual plantations (with rare exceptions) are being recognised specifically for producing consistent high-quality coffee. Many good shops now do at least put the farm on the label, so there's hope that this will change, but this required both a good roast that makes the most of the bean and enough supply that customers will be able to try it enough for the name to stick. The point is to move from simply having traceable origin to being able to have origins that customers recognise and demand.

Feb 07, 2015
AlexRast in Manhattan

Best not-"third wave" espresso/coffee?

To me these posts express a drift towards what I would characterise as a "canonical style" - the idea that a certain fairly narrowly-defined style envelope encompasses quality.

I've never been one who subscribes to that approach. There *are* differences in coffee quality, but style has very little if anything to do with it.

As already mentioned I love espresso-style coffee best of all. I probably wouldn't use the term "Italian coffee" to describe it, although I understand, I think, what is meant by the term.

That said, I have found that there is a greater probability of being able to get a good espresso in Italy than in most other countries. I *don't* think it's true, bob96, that "superb espresso can be had...on any street in Naples"; in general you walk into a bog-standard bar in Italy and you'll get coffee not far removed from the quality level you'll find almost anywhere else. But, your odds *are* better with a random search, than they would be almost anywhere else.

As has been mentioned there are a variety of styles in Italy; I personally very much like the very dark, syrupy styles of the south such as Sicilian and Neapolitan but that's personal taste. But if there's a reason why there are more fairly good coffee shops for espresso in Italy, I'd say it comes down to this: that there is a greater density of people, in almost every city in Italy, who, spoiled for choice, are going to be ruthless in patronising only the best bar that is practical for them to go to. So bars have to try harder to attract custom, and it does help that with a thoroughly imbedded culture of espresso, there are more people you can hire who know how to make espresso and who are going to care enough in the details to pour a good one. Essentially all of my Italian friends (some of them coffee experts themselves) confirm that this is the situation.

The view in countries like the USA or for that matter the UK seems to be more experimental (as a general trend). Try a whole series of different coffee bars, and keep rotating; it's interesting to see what different people will have on offer and how they progress. It's a different outlook. With it I'd expect what you get: more wildly inconsistent results because in fact wild inconsistency=variety. In New York for instance I will find a much wider variety of different styles and interpretations, of good quality, than I will find in Milan, or Rome. I would love it, though, if more espresso shop owners would spend some considerable time in Italy, and travel around some high-quality bars, and learn the basics of consistency, skill, and process, because then interesting variety might be married with excellence everywhere. It's a two-way exchange.

Feb 06, 2015
AlexRast in Manhattan

Best not-"third wave" espresso/coffee?

?I don't see how mentioning the economics of the coffee market with respect to supporting multiple espresso roasts in a shop would amount to a conflation.

If the idea is that the expense of supporting multiple roasts in a particular shop can only be taken on a case-by-case basis, so that there can never be any sort of general statement made, then surely there's reason to believe shops could and would exist that had multiple different espressos on offer in a given location. On the other hand, if the costs of supporting multiple roasts were so insurmountable to *any* shop that none could support it, then this would be a factor of the (local) economics of the coffee market.

Meanwhile fixed costs might remain fixed but in a given location there might be a greater or lesser concentration of people that wanted (and were prepared to pay for) a variety of different espressos on offer. In some areas this seems to be manifestly the case, e.g. the Cafeotheque in Paris is an example I can think of right away that has a bar where any of a broad number of origins can be had.

Probably the best way to provide education is to sample - with lots of comment. Having multiple varieties on offer to try is in fact one part of that outreach, and it can make a difference. If nothing else you can create a local market. I'm optimistic about the potential of people to understand once they've been given enough exposure to know what the possibilities are. But if they have no exposure, no opportunity to try even what such coffee could be like, then they're not likely to find out.

Also if there was a misunderstanding here - my comment about the state of affairs in NYC isn't intended as some kind of regionalistic jab - more as a summary of what to me at least seems to be the current state of affairs.

Feb 05, 2015
AlexRast in Manhattan

Best not-"third wave" espresso/coffee?

Jason, Peter (responding also to the message below), interesting comments.

"As a consumer, I don’t need to know the difference between “sous vide” and “braising” to appreciate the short ribs in front of me – I either like the dish, or I don’t."

Here's a point where we disagree. I think even for a consumer it's useful to be informed about differences and the why of what makes something good or not, because that's how you develop the knowledge to identify and (to a more limited degree) appreciate what's before you. A consumer going into a typical coffee shop, presented with an array of origins and brewing methods, thinking entirely in terms of "like this, don't like that", is unlikely to have enough information a priori to make an informed choice about what coffee to get. If they understand the specifics in detail, they'll choose better - and can perhaps make specific requests to the barista, correct obvious faults, and be able to give the kind of feedback that will let conscientious baristas (bariste?) improve. Depth of understanding translates in the long run to greater richness of local possibility and higher overall quality, because consumers will demand higher standards. An example, incidentally, would be your mentioning of what's possible with home espresso in re: calibration. An informed consumer should really understand that they need a machine that can be calibrated accurately, if they really want good espresso. Otherwise they're throwing good money after bad, and may well wonder why they can't seem to get good results out of their expensive new machine. They also need to know, of course, that such capability doesn't come for free, but armed with that knowledge, they'll also be in a better position to determine whether an espresso machine at home will be really worth the investment.

Peter, your observations are illuminating. So what you're saying is, basically, the economics of the coffee market such as it exists aren't yet there to support that type of service profitably. In that respect perhaps NYC is behind some areas of the country (in Seattle such shops exist) - or for that matter the world (e.g. Paris, Berlin). Maybe it's a matter of wait-and-see.

Feb 05, 2015
AlexRast in Manhattan

Best not-"third wave" espresso/coffee?

While as mentioned there is the preparation issue, I'm also referring to the radically different nature of both the source product and the process steps involved.

Wine comes from a fruit whereas coffee is a seed product. There is a very big difference between a seed and a fruit. A fruit has a much higher water content and lower proportionate fat content (if you discount the seeds of said fruit) and generally more acidic composition. There are also differences in particular flavour compounds.

Throughout the process there are differences in how the methods of production change both the result and quality. Grapes for wine are, obviously, pressed to release juices. Sometimes the skins are then removed, sometimes not (at least, as I understand it). The resultant product is fermented, reducing sugar levels drastically. At the end you have a virtually fat-free, high water liquid.

Meanwhile coffee is eventually dried - so that moisture is driven out rather than extracted and used. It's then a fairly dry, oily product. Roasting further dries as well as bringing oils to the surface, and of course changes the composition. The liquid that you eventually get from coffee is done by an extraction process from the beans (seeds).

All of this is obvious but just a way of saying that you're dealing with processes sufficiently different that drawing analogies may only work at the very broadest level conceivable.

I would say your first 4 categories "vineyard"
"appellation/location"
"harvest & fermentation methods"
"blending/single-varietal"

don't really mean much in terms of making analogies - in the sense that they could apply to *any* food. Yes, most people understand that where a food came from and how it was handled post-harvest probably have an effect, but that in itself isn't informative unless there are specifics characteristics you can apply. I think that's where comparing wine and coffee gets dangerous because I don't think there's much overlap between the specific characteristics that make for a good wine and those that make for a good coffee.

Meanwhile the last one comparing oaking to roasting I think is very dangerous, because for wine it's not a required part of the process, and for all I know may only apply in a narrow sector of the wine industry, whereas roasting is a central part of coffee production. Nor are the resultant changes comparable.

On a different point, I note you mentioning you mostly do espresso at home. At least theoretically, that changes the considerations with respect to coffee quite substantially, because in a home setup, at least if you have the time available to do the machine calibration each day, pour yourself the shot, then clean the machine afterwards, you can make it exactly according to the style you prefer, and can select your bean appropriately. Not many, I suspect, are in that position, which means they actually do have to think quite carefully about the style of the shop they frequent as well as the beans they use, so even if they knew chapter and verse about the original beans, that might not help if the only shops using them used a preparation style that they didn't prefer.

By the way, while I'm at it - a very random point: I notice, that, with very few exceptions, coffee shops that have a wide variety of origins will only offer one coffee (more often than not a generic blend) in espresso form and most of the varieties are only made available in other brew methods. Why is this the case? Any conjectures? As someone whose overwhelming preference in brew method is espresso I always find this incredibly deflating. There *are* exceptions, but rare ones, and even then it may be a choice between 2. One could conjecture that very few roasters are producing beans that can be used effectively in an espresso interpretation in a wide variety, but that merely pushes the question one step backwards in the production chain.

Feb 04, 2015
AlexRast in Manhattan