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AlexRast's Profile

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Tempering Chocolate question

Not tempering definitely does affect flavour, quite profoundly. The more unstable crystal forms (when untempered chocolate will have several) accelerate loss of volatiles and thus the flavour will be diminished from the outset. Also the texture will be somwhat greasy-pasty; not the best mouthfeel.

Also I feel it necessary once again to correct one of the most pervasive pieces of misinformation on chocolate that seems to be passed out again and again even by authorities who should know better:

Bloomed chocolate is NOT unaffected. Quite the contrary, its flavour declines drastically and the texture becomes unappealingly dry. The only sense in which it is "unaffected" is in relation to food safety: namely, you won't get sick from eating bloomed chocolate. But you might not enjoy the experience very much.

I would always recommend tempering. You'll get a much more uniform coating and one which retains flavour and mouthfeel. My feeling is that a lot of people don't temper because they're intimidated by the process. It does take a bit of practice to learn. But once learned (and it's not that terribly hard), it doesn't take any real time and the results are completely worth the effort.

Mar 21, 2015
AlexRast in Home Cooking

Tasting menus and other no-choice restaurants: why the praise?

Just a few small points on this:

"pay for a quality set menu rather than pay merely for the privilege of being able to choose what they eat"

I don't see this as an either/or proposition. My point is if you want *both* quality *and* choice, then that's going to cost more. However offering more choice isn't intrinsically better. The question in my mind is - are people willing to pay even more for the combination of quality *and* choice - or does their willingness to pay more stop at the level where only one is possible? And if the latter, why the sudden price sensitivity?

Staffing is of course a fine tradeoff, and does affect profitability. But it doesn't by itself I think affect what can be achieved; mostly it affects price points (and possibly opening hours)

As pointed out by others, the "cheap set menu" idea is a very different concept that serves a very different purpose, and in *that* context you know without question that part of the reason it's so cheap is because choices are very limited. The cheap set menu I think can be a good way of putting quality within the range of affordability of people who otherwise couldn't even consider it - but I don't see it as a particular source of additional praise (although Gambero Rosso will add a "bonus" in their ratings if a restaurant offers a reasonably thought-through one)

Mar 21, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

Top-end kitchen/cookware shop in London?

The real trouble with on-line ordering or Web searches is that you never really know what you're getting. Too much depends upon physical inspection. For example, in the scales case, you're not going to be able to know what the damping is without actually seeing it and trying it in the shop. And the pudding cloth could be almost anything. Very many things are sold as "pudding cloth" which are not even close to the real thing. Most "muslin" is impossibly coarse for what's needed. Same for many, many other things. On-line is excellent if you've already identified the exact brand and model you need and are sure of its specifications, but if not, there's no substitute for actually seeing it.

BTW, the cookshop on Shaftesbury avenue has shut (or moved). I used to go there. It was decent, but often seemed lacking in the top-end pieces; it was always more orientated towards the more mid-range kit for professional catering. Number of items stocked though was on the order of what I would be looking for.

Mar 15, 2015
AlexRast in U.K./Ireland

Top-end kitchen/cookware shop in London?

All,

While I know something about the various different kitchen and cookware shops in London, I won't pretend by any means that my knowledge is comprehensive, and I would almost be sure something like what I'm looking for must exist.

What I want is a shop that has a truly comprehensive selection of cookware - with an emphasis towards traditional, high-grade, high-performance kitchen basics. I'd like to avoid places whose stock consists mostly of things that are laden with features but sacrifice ultimate performance, places that mostly carry the cheap, low end of the range, and places that take a modern-technology slant on cookware without actually considering whether the technology brings anything in terms of actual performance. Some examples of things I would like to see:

Low-damping, accurate balance scales (at least down to 100 mg accuracy): the real type, where you put weights on one side and what you're measuring on the other.

A broad selection of heavy-gauge, bare-metal (i.e. not non-stick), cake and pie tins.

Forged, high quality hard carbon steel (NOT stainless) knives.

Knife sharpening stones in a comprehensive range of grits. If they have, or can get, genuine natural Japanese waterstones then this is a major plus.

Sandwich-construction pots, without a nonstick interior, with a fully copper core (i.e. no aluminium)

High-sensitivity glass thermometers for a variety of uses.

Portable appliances (beaters, blenders etc.) with high-power commercial-grade motors.

Single-group commercial-grade espresso machines (with a vane pump, temperature gauges, full-size and weight group)

A real pudding cloth made of fine, tightly woven fabric.

(OK, a real dream here, probably impossible) A small grinding mill capable of milling both dry grains and oily nuts to 10 micron particle size or thereabouts - generally something that can produce the very finest flours and nut pastes.

Maybe not all of these are to be found at one location (or even, in some cases, possibly at all any more) but I'd love to know some sources if you have any to suggest.

Mar 14, 2015
AlexRast in U.K./Ireland

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

Responding to several posters on Genoa. I was in Genoa during the storms that caused the floods. While the level of rainfall was truly Biblical - I can't really convey to anyone who wasn't there how hard the rain fell, for how long, I also can't emphasise enough how much this was a *freak* event. NOT something you can possibly correlate with climate change. There was a bizarre disturbance which happened to focus a "spot thunderstorm" over the city for several days running. That's not something that any model of climate change predicts. While it may well prompt the Genoese to think about what they can do in terms of emergency response - and maybe this was a good wake-up call in that sense - I don't think anyone is seriously thinking about planning for a possible future where this sort of flooding is commonplace.

Individual growers can and must make hard decisions about whether their crop is sustainable, and catastrophic events may have a major impact on the decision made, but I think a lot of that may have more to do with revenue irretrievably lost, so that from that point on for several years they are running behind, which requires therefore several good years in order to recuperate the losses. If that doesn't happen they may be faced with no choice but to abandon the business, because you can't keep taking losses for ever. But again, the point is that this is being driven by immediate economic considerations. Some are no doubt worried about climate change in the general sense, but if for example the next few years have glorious harvests and perfect weather, then likely this year will be forgotten.

Mar 14, 2015
AlexRast in Italy

Peanut Butter and. . .

Peanut butter and polenta.
Peanut butter and chocolate (of course).
Peanut butter and chicken.

Mar 14, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

Can handmade pasta be sauce-proof?

As noted some sauces are indeed very thick, almost stew-like (including Bolognese) so that's not necessarily too thick of a sauce. In fact, not clinging to the pasta is quite possible - and not necessarily a sign of a problem as such.

That said, the best handmade pasta has both rough surface texture and additional catchment due to the flour dusting the outside. If this was put through a typical pasta maker with smooth rollers, though, instead of rolled by hand using a wooden pin, you can get very smooth surface indeed, particularly if the dough had been properly worked so that it was fully glutinised.

Furthermore, if cooked properly, so that it's al dente, the pasta won't swell too much and won't be particularly sticky on the outside, so a smooth, pasta-maker-made pasta, well kneaded and then well-cooked, with a dense, heavy sauce, won't catch it particularly well. It looks as if the pasta had been well-made, rather than having a defect. Probably quite good.

I've *NEVER* heard of restaurants finishing pasta in the sauce - and it sounds like a rather bad idea, to be honest. There's a risk it would cause the pasta to swell and become sticky, and I think it would reduce the contrast between sauce and pasta - because the outside would absorb some of the flavour within it. But if people say this is common practice I'm willing to be convinced - what are the purported benefits of so doing?

Mar 14, 2015
AlexRast in Home Cooking

When a food is good it's good......when it's bad it's eeeehhhhhhh

Love Boston. My favourite US city in fact, and one of the best in the world IMO. Last time I was there was ~8 years ago though. Admittedly at the time I didn't find any great ice cream shops, but maybe things have changed since then. However you don't need to invoke that argument to persuade me to visit :-)

Know Burdick's well but didn't think the hot chocolate was actually melted chocolate in the *literal* sense in a cup. To be very clear what I mean, I'm saying, you take pure couverture chocolate in hard blocks. Without *any* dilution with water or milk or any other liquid whatsoever, or addition of sugar, or anything, melt it, and pour into a small espresso-size cup (at that richness level more would be silly, and a mug would probably make a lot of people sick). That said, although that's my "ideal" fantasy, I'd be content with a hot chocolate that I thought really was like a good dark chocolate, rather than something mild and rather watery in consistency. Next time I visit I shall try.

Mar 11, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

Tasting menus and other no-choice restaurants: why the praise?

The revival of this thread has been revisiting the question of costs, and as you've done here, putting them in the context of restaurant efficiency. This is another interesting line. Maybe it's not so much that the critics and others *automatically* think the tasting-menu format is better, but that at the calibre of restaurant where "greatness" is even a possibility, many chefs have little choice but to go with that format if they wish to survive.

I think this is unfortunate and diminishes the dining scene. The critical line here is "offer a higher calibre of cooking, better ingredients, and better execution for less money." That suggests that even at the top end, customers are price-sensitive enough that the gain in business from reduced price more than compensates for the decrease from people for whom for a variety of reasons the tasting menu is unsuitable or awkward. Certainly I think the prices you've quoted there - $35 for 3 courses, $60 for 5, are far, far below what I would think of as realistic at the very high end of the market; that's more like quality mid-range.

In turn, I think this suggests many people have an unrealistic idea of how much a top-end dining experience should cost. Now of course offering choice isn't going to come for free; you're offering additional value to customers who should (in principle) be willing to pay for that. But the volume of business lost, if such a model isn't economical, suggests that for some reason many people don't equate it with any more actual value, or in general balk above some certain price.

However, there are a few points that I'm not convinced of. I'm not convinced that offering 13 or more different dishes per night is any more impossible to do at the highest standard than a tasting menu - you just need a greater number of trained, specialist staff. Again that doesn't come for free but no one should expect that it would. Same thing on freshness of ingredients and waste; this is a matter of hiring an experienced inventory manager (or having the skills yourself as the chef to manage this effectively), and it will be said that the same problems can equally well arise in a tasting-menu format (albeit yes, with less unpredictability). I also don't think that a chef will "double down their efforts" when everyone's eating the same thing - or at least, if he is, he's not fully professional; anyone operating on the high end is going to do the best they can every time regardless of circumstances.

But maybe there's something else going on here - a change in social patterns of eating. Now, I personally am someone who likes, indeed prefers, "proper" sit-down meals with several courses. But that style of eating seems to be less and less common. I find that many of my friends find making a booking, having a commitment to a particular restaurant at a particular time, indeed even eating a "traditional" series of courses, is too inconvenient, almost an imposition. I get the distinct feeling that many people today prefer a much more ad-hoc, spontaneous pattern where what is eaten, and when, is more or less spur-of-the-moment. All of that wars against the "traditional" top-end restaurant and their classical economic model, so that in order even to bring people in, the nature of the experience is changed from something that is simply a meal to something that is more of an entertainment in itself; people don't have any particular hostility to buying tickets to the theatre or concerts. I don't know if this is actually a factor but maybe it contributes?

Mar 04, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

Recommended brands/sources of 100% raw unsweetened/unsalted cacao beans needed

If you want the melt-in-mouth experience, Pacari yet again (!) offers just what you need: chocolate-covered cocoa nibs. So you get the melty sensation (and larger size) and the good flavour. Beware that these are very dangerously addictive, so you might not want to have too many of them.

A cocoa "bean" is, in essence, a nut, and behaves like nuts in almost all meaningful ways. It's not encased in an actual shell; it has a thin husk, that you could chew through, but is not particularly palatable and as you say may not be very safe. However you can rub off the husk without any difficulty. The bean inside won't melt, of course, but it's very edible.

Mar 03, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

When a food is good it's good......when it's bad it's eeeehhhhhhh

Salmon (commonly farmed, or not fresh, or overcooked, or all of them)

Scrambled eggs (usually "chopped omelette", and overdone at that)

Viennoiseries - croissants, brioches, pains au chocolat etc. (how many have you had that had the texture and possibly the taste of an old sock? Or a bag of cotton wool)

Cakes (risk being dry, or too sweet, or flavourless, or again, all 3)

Pie, both savoury and sweet (the fault here is usually the crust)

Ice cream (So often, either the *very* aerated, oversweet bulk ice cream or the brick-like varieties like Ben & Jerry's. Also often use artificial flavours or substitute something like palm oil for part of the butterfat.)

Hot chocolate (almost invariably not strong enough. Would love to see somewhere serving pure melted quality dark chocolate in a cup).

Mar 02, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics
1

How long will you stand in line for food?

3 questions:

Do their cakes use all butter (both for cake and icing)?

Is their style "posh" - i.e. high-concept, elaborate cakes, or "proper" - traditional, basic cakes done well?

Do they have a really great chocolate cake?

Mar 01, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

Recommended brands/sources of 100% raw unsweetened/unsalted cacao beans needed

The best source for reliable quality cacao beans is Pacari. It will be noted they also make excellent bars, but if it's the beans you want, they have very high-quality unprocessed beans available. Buy through http://www.chocosphere.com.

Mar 01, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

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.

Feb 27, 2015
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.

Feb 27, 2015
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.

Feb 26, 2015
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