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Entries in San Francisco (39)

Thursday
Nov282013

Parmigiano Reggiano Tasting

A Reposted blog entry from Mastro Scheidt Family Cellars

As a winemaker, we are built to talk about terroir. Terroir, is the French term to describe the place of origin, a unique set of descriptors for a wine from a specific region, vineyard, or vineyard block. Cabernet Sauvignon from a specific vineyard in Dry Creek Valley has a unique terroir different from a vineyard in Napa. 

Photo by Stephanie Seacrest

In the same vein as a wine tasting, I attended a cheese tasting sponsored by the Parmigiano Reggiano Academy at Cookhouse in San Francisco. I didn’t know what to expect from a cheese tasting. I’ve been to countless wine tastings for 20 years, arranged by everyone from the local wine shop to events sponsored by a particular viticultural region. I always learn something, either about my own palate or about the wine being drunk.

Photo by The Cured Ham, Parma, Italy 2009

The focus of the Parmigiano tasting was to sample Parmigiano Reggiano aged 14-18 months, 24 months (Vecchio), 36 months (Stravecchio), directly from the wheel and incorporated with food. Chef Jordan Schacter of Jordan’s Kitchen in San Francisco, prepared an entire menu of Parmigiano heavy, small plates ranging from a Parmigiano crisp pizza to Parmigiano polenta topped with sugo. My personal favorite Parmigiano inspired dish of the night? Parmigiano and mushroom accented brodo.

Why would anyone consider Parmigiano Reggiano a homogenous branded cheese from Italy?

If I were to tell a fellow wine maker or sommelier that all Cabernet Sauvignon, aged for 12 months from the Sonoma County AVA is basically the same product, I’d get some real funny looks.

But that's exactly what many of us do when we speak generically of Parmigiano. And here's why...

An accurate definition of Parmigiano Reggiano and a good enough answer for most would be that Parmigiano Reggiano is produced exclusively in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and parts of the provinces of Mantua and Bologna, on the plains, hills and mountains enclosed between the rivers Po and Reno, made exclusively of cow’s milk, made with natural rennet and aged a minimum of 12 months.

But the answer above only describes the minimum requirements to be called Parmigiano Reggiano. 

Photo by Stephanie Seacrest

For the Parmigiano tasting at Cookhouse, the focus of the evening was on the age of the cheese, from 14 months to 36 month. Parmigiano at 36 months is certainly drier in mouth feel, has a more crumbly texture, and greater intensity of flavor that a 14 month old wheel. A 14 month Parmigiano could easily be described as creamy. Each cheese maturity level can also have different applications in the culinary world, with younger cheeses playing a supporting role in polenta, while a stravecchio parmigiano a leading role on a cheese plate with balsamico.

Beyond the sensory and maturity characteristics we focused on that evening, I began to become even more curious about the specific origins of Parmigiano Reggiano. 

Photo by Stephanie Seacrest

384 dairies are responsible for all of the Parmigiano production, globally distributed, of which 34% is exported to countries like the United States. Each dairy produces milk throughout the year from various cows, in various regions, independently of each other.

Each dairy will have variations in cows, harvest, feed, temperature, etc.  Similarly in the production of wine, there are variations in soil type, fertilization, sun aspect, and temperature. Cabernet Sauvignon Clone 7 grown in Alexander Valley, while genetically the same as Cabernet Clone 7 grown in Dry Creek Valley will have dramatically different flavors even if harvested on the same day each year, even if only grown 5 miles apart. Conditions vary from region to region, town to town, winery to winery, winemaker to winemaker. In the case of Parmigiano, conditions vary from dairy to dairy and cow to cow throughout the region of Emilia Romagna.

If there are 384 dairies, how many different cheese makers are there? One for each dairy? Again, the analogy to wine makers is appropriate and accurate. No matter the minimum production standard, each cheese maker has learned a technique, timing, and “feel” differently than their counterparts at other dairies, just like wine makers. 

Photo by Stephanie Seacrest

With all the potential variables for each wheel of Parmigiano, why do so many consumers and cheese mongers generalize Parmigiano Reggiano as some homogenized product; albeit hand-made and of the utmost quality? Various conditions exist in raising cattle as they do in winemaking; yet a sommelier would never consider all Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma County homogenized. That would be blasphemy! It’s actually a disservice to generalize and homogenize Parmigiano Reggiano into a monolithic hard Italian cheese.

A few basic distinctions when consuming and buying Parmigiano Reggiano: 

  • Milk comes from Red Cows, Brown Cows and Holsteins. Certain dairies will stamp their certified Parmigiano wheels with a secondary brand, indicating place of origin and the type of cow used for milk. Red and Brown cow milk is more highly prized and more rare than Parmigiano made from Holsteins.
  • Cows are milked throughout the year, causing seasonal variations in the milk, spring versus winter milks, and the diet of the cows from dairy to dairy can vary. Each wheel of Parmigiano is stamped by month, to ensure the 12 month minimum aging requirement, but nothing more.
  • There is no legal certification beyond 12 months of aging. Dairies, exporters, and your local cheese monger may or may not know and is under no obligation to disclose the various ages of the cheese. However, there is an obvious difference in flavor, texture, and visual appearance between a 14 month and a 36 month piece of cheese. 

After a couple hours eating, discussing, and analyzing Parmigiano Reggiano I have a new respect, understanding, and inquisitiveness about The King of Italian Cheeses and the vast kingdom of Parmigiano Reggiano.

Just as I never take Cabernet Sauvignon from Dry Creek Valley for granted, I will never take another purchase of Parmigiano Reggiano for granted either.

Photo by Stephanie Seacrest

Tuesday
Oct152013

Eat at the Counter, Idiots!

Eating at the Counter, either alone or with a more intimate friend, partner, lover, or family member is better than a table.

I traveled and dined alone for over 10 years, while now, grounded to a more regular schedule with the ability to dine with closer friends and relatives more frequently, I’ve come to the conclusion that if there is a counter/bar that regularly seats guests, eating at the counter is a more intimate experience with your meal (if dining alone) or your dining companion.

And let’s get something clear about dining at the counter. I’m not talking Applebee’s, Chili’s, or the neighborhood pub with bar seating, with 8 big screens and 22 different sporting venues from around the world and servers in their Game Day uniform. There’s nothing intimate or special about game day dining over a trough of nachos or 22oz Budweiser.

SPQR, Flour+Water, Diavola, Zin, Scopa, Locanda, Cotogna, now gone Cyrus, the old Petite Syrah, Enoteca Molinari, Bellanico, Trelio, Parma, Ruth’s Chris in Fresno during happy hour, any sushi restaurant, or Pizzeria Bussola in Florence all are or were more fun to eat at the counter. Let me reiterate and emphasize, eating at the counter is better ONLY if you’re alone or with someone you’re close to. Eating at the counter with four people defeats the purpose of intimacy.

Why the Counter over the Table?

Why separate your meal with a table when you could eat side-by-side with someone you may not see again for several weeks? Why sit at a table with 3 x3 feet of pine between you and your smokin’ hot wife when you could have your hand on her thigh during dessert or better yet, her hand on yours? Why share parallel space with other guests on the banquette overhearing their boorish conversation?

Reasons to sit at the counter if you’re a single diner: 

  • Chances are, there is a bartender you can talk to
  • If the counter is purpose built for the kitchen, there is plenty of action as food is prepared
  • You’ve increased your chances of meeting someone new on either side of you
  • You wanna get to know the owner or the chef? Eat at the counter.

 Reasons to sit at the counter if you’re a couple:

  • As “The Gentleman” you never have to face the back wall again. I was told many years ago that women should be able to face the main restaurant, while we should have all our attention on our girlfriend/wife/wall. Fabulous, but if it’s a date and it isn’t going so well, at least you can watch food prepared.
  • It’s creepy to sit side-by-side at a table. I recall being seated side-by-side, facing the main dining room at Lacroix in Philadelphia. We felt like we were posing for a formal picture or on display for other guests to discuss.
  • Sharing food with your friend/lover/relative is much easier. The counter will generally have more space than a table and a server that can be more attentive because they are generally expediting food from the counter or window. 

"We’re fully committed this evening"

For very busy restaurants and for restaurants that don’t take reservations, the only dining option may be the counter/bar. As a single and two-top diner, I may not have had the chance to eat at Flour+Water, Locanda, or Cotogna unless I ate at the bar. In fact, many restaurants declare first-come-first-serve at the counter, as if it’s a bad thing or as if there is a limited menu served there.

“Welcome to Hard to Get Into Restaurant…how many?”

“Two People”

“While we are fully committed for the next 90 minutes in the main dining room, there is seating at the counter”

It’s almost a pejorative declaration from the host “There is seating at the counter.” And then the unsettled moment comes to the inexperienced or parochial diner after they look at their guest; with the responses, “Thank you, we’ll come back another time” or “We’ll wait for a table”.

Idiots. This isn’t Denny’s. You could have sat down immediately at a one-star Michelin rated restaurant, with a one-month reservation queue and you passed up two seats. Now you’re going to wait 90 minutes for the same food at a “corner” table with full view or perhaps full “smell” of the lavatory; or your wife is going to complain that you got the cold, breezy table next to the door, or worse, you’re not going to eat at the Michelin one-star because of your preconceived notion that you only dine at a table.

Tables at restaurants should be for parties of four or more, business transactions, people you want to keep at a distance, in-laws, an uncompromising dullard of a wife or husband and escort services.

And restaurants, install hooks under the counter for purses and coats.

Sunday
Sep222013

Flour and Water...again

I returned to Flour + Water in San Francisco for a high expectation pasta tasting. There were two additional courses on the menu, pre and post pasta, but they weren't my focus. The review will be brief and will include some pictures, driving over the new Oakland-Bay Bridge for one. No food porn of the dishes because I sat at the bar again, it's dark, and I only take food pics in stealth mode.

Good warm-up course: Eggplant tortellini with tomato & basil
 
LOVED IT: Bigoli with cranberry beans, pancetta, tomato & olive. It reminded me of a less forward puttanesca recipe. Bold flavors and remarkably crispy pancetta. I've gotten more into using beans in my pasta and all of the elements harmonized well.
 
PLAYFUL and well executed: Carrot farfalle with braised rabbit, summer squash & tarragon. Light, the play of both spring and summer without an ounce of heaviness, this dish sang Sunday afternoon in Tuscany. I can see it now...Nonna waking up early to grab her espresso, walk over to the barn and freshly slaughter a rabbit for a midday meal. So I decided to squeeze in a photo from when I was cutting up some rabbit for dinner.
 
FAVORITE: Pork trotter raviolini with fennel & stone fruit mostarda. Even after a pronounced bigoli, the raviolini packed a big punch. The mostarda was the key to the dish. Bright acids and when matched with the fennel texture and flavor, the right amount of everything (for lack of a descriptor) to bring out the flavors of the pork. Everything just hit the right note here.
 
Almost tapped out on pasta, so maybe I didn't appreciate it the way I should of, but I really did like the raviolini more: Duck casonsei with prune, chard, pistachio & basil

 

 

Tuesday
Nov132012

Darth Malort and The Force

“Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in.” Michael Corleone, Godfather III

“Choice. The problem is choice.” Neo in the Matrix

“But Master Yoda says I should be mindful of the future.” Obi-Wan

“But not at the expense of the moment.” Qui-Gon Jinn

Opening night at Eat Retreat was exploratory. It started off wonderfully enough, open fire grilled lamb, copious amounts of red wine, and good conversation; three things that make me happy. 

My mood began to change after the introductory campfire and the brief circle of personal stories. I had flashbacks of grammar school, high school, college, and financial industry conferences. Equal parts summer camp, high school football after-party, frat party, and conference hotel bar all combining together among a crowd of 20 somethings all the way through 40 somethings (although there may have been a quinquagenarian or two in the group)

To be perfectly honest, part of me didn’t know where to fit in. I certainly drink. Heaven knows I’m a big eater and love food. I’m reasonably social. I’m happy to drink grappa, amaro, or some local firewater late in to the evening. I don’t shoot the stuff down like I used to, but rather sip it these days. I’m even known to enjoy a cigar.

I’ve got plenty in common with other Eat Retreaters, like food. So what was my hesitation late in the evening? I think a large part was nearly 20 years of going to financial conferences and knowing exactly what to do, how to act, what to say and more importantly what NOT to say. Big Brother is always watching. Human Resources is a phone call away. Some Managing Director may begin to question me at 11pm about the firm and its macro position on the European debt crisis, knowing I may have had a little too much wine. And remember, I'd have to be up, shaved, suit on, ready to rock at 7am each morning.

It’s the training. The programming. The discipline.

So when a bottle of unknown Mid-Western hooch with dubious origins and product slogans tailored to head-sock wearing hipsters who chase said product down with PBR at 11pm was presented to the crowd to swig straight out of the bottle, a danger sign went off in my head. 

Photo by Mike Lee

The name of the hooch was Malort. The individual responsible for bringing it? Rachel Adams.

 “Kick your mouth in the balls” The official slogan of Malort

“Because these pants aren’t going to shit themselves”

“It smells like a tire fire and” something else, but I was laughing so hard I totally didn’t hear the other thing Malort smells like.

“Northern Discomfort”

Rachel, with eyes wide open and ‘all-in’ on every bet that weekend, began passing Malort around. Rachel does not come from the institutional investment world as I have. I watched Rachel shoot her first oyster, eat her first chicken foot, and drink her first Cabernet Franc with absolute enjoyment and excitement I rarely see these days. I’m sure Rachel did plenty of things for the first time at Eat Retreat. Rachel is what makes Eat Retreat a retreat, a chance to get away from it all and live your life, a moment at a time. But my guess is, Rachel lives this way outside of EatRetreat as well. Enjoying the moment.

Photo by Mike Lee of Rachel Adams

Enjoy the moment, right? Yes, I was. But, I also enjoy sleep, no hangover, and making sure a Mystical Malort Cat didn’t take a shit in my mouth while I slept. Yes, I’m restrained. But I can’t disregard the life I’ve lead for nearly 20 years with high-quality results. The last time I chugged Jack Daniels out of the bottle was in college.

I chose the quotes to start this article with care. Even after Michael Corleone  went “legit” in Godfather III, the past had a way of catching up with him, pulling him back into his old life, despite his best efforts to leave it. We all have a choice, we all look to the past and the future, but shouldn’t waste the moment. (I love movies).

My old life is still part of my present life, but in a different way. I’m still the product of training, lifestyle and environment. But these days I’ve given myself choices. I still won’t choose to chug dubious spirits from a bottle that has touched 15 other mouths or stay up till 4am. I no longer choose to stay in hotel rooms 200 days and fly 100,000 miles a year as part of my job either. A lot has changed for me by choice in the last couple years.

In recent years, I have chosen a different path. For instance, enjoying a moment with Rachel Adams to shoot her first oyster and take in her anticipation, excitement, and desire to shoot her second oyster immediately after her first, is something worth being a part of. Sorry Rachel, chugging Malort is not my thing anymore. Downing oysters, anytime. Other 'moments' included

When conducting the wine tasting, having Mike Lee and I simultaneously say “petroleum” while sampling a Finger Lakes Riesling, is a moment I’m looking for.

When Chef Samantha shouts, “how we doin’ Chef?” to ME on our Sunday Brunch crew, is a moment I was caught up in.

Chatting with Chris on Sunday about life in our late 30's and early 40's, versus our 20's. Wait till we're 60 my friend.

Creeping out Stephen at 6am Saturday morning while he slept on the couch in the Grand Room. Never thought someone would be up that early, eh Stephen? By the way, anyone with a handle like @_terroirism_ on twitter, you've gotta get to know. Also, thanks for keeping me caffeinated that weekend.

Taking my first look at Mirit’s Sunday Brunch presentation and thinking, “Damn, that’s good!”

There were several moments at Eat Retreat that I will enjoy for a long time to come. I'm still processing all the stuff that went on; the conversations, the food, the moments in time that I've been able to write about. 

It's experiences like Eat Retreat that I'm chosing to find these days, rather than simplyexperience. Maybe I should end it with one more quote that I can relate to..."Unlearn, what you have learned." Master Yoda.

Monday
Nov052012

Eat Retreat Digestif 

"You have your way. I have my way.

As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way,

it does not exist."

Friedrich Nietzsche

The nature of the Eat Retreat weekend is to combine various personalities, backgrounds, and skills that often work complementary, and at times, incongruently. Retreats by their construction are meant to challenge the participants. EatRetreat wasn’t meant to be a day spa, filled with relaxation, cucumber water, and 10 hours of sleep. Far from it.  

Taking part in the conversation, the dialogue, the backdrop of the retreat weekend was important to me. Listening and taking part in the conversations at the dinner table after a few glasses of wine is as important as listening to the silence of a sober crowd just before a chicken head is cut off. Each moment speaks of place, personality and emotional content. 

It’s not my nature to simply gloss over the weekend with superlatives and praise.  Although I will use this conclusion for a bit of levity. I made the EatRetreat quote wall with reference to that oaked Chardonnay I poured, “That’s Cougar Juice”. Hell Ya over-oaked Chardonnay is Cougar Juice! 

I made some new friends. I watched some real artisans explore their craft. I’m sharing a few stories as I recall them, when I was caught up in the moment, as both participant and spectator. 

I will post the stories over the next several days.