Archive for January, 2010

A Hedonist in the Cellar, Great Read

January 14, 2010

A Hedonist in the Cellar Adventures in Wine

Jay McInerney

Borzoi Books Alfred Knopf

New York 2006 243 p.

A few months ago I read somewhere that while recipe books and books about food abound, books about wine are scarce. Whoever said that also said that good wine books are a rare species. It is sad to agree but I have to. It is obvious that a lot of people know a lot about wine and that among that lot a few are terrifyingly knowledgeable of the subject. However, very few are both versed in the affairs of wine and are -at the same time- good, strong writers. To our fortune, Ian McInerney is one of them and his “A Hedonist in the Cellar” is a delight to read.

Like those who are really good at what they do, McInerney renounces to all bragging rights. He doesn’t have that annoyingly pretentious “I-know-it-all” tone that many who think themselves wine connoisseurs do. His style is light and deep flavored,  like a Pinot Noir. His understanding of wine is concentrated and dark, like an Amarone. Or perhaps a Sagrantino, an obscure wine on which he illustrates us well with his vivid account “The Mysterius Beauty of Sagrantino di Montefalco.”

McInerney’s narrative is fun and interesting and he has had the wisdom to write short pieces for each subject, coming up with titles that make one feel like jumping into the reading. Enmeshed in the narrative, cultural and historical references add a layer of erudition, showing a writer who has read deep and wide. McInerney also has a knack for capturing people’s looks and personalities and his descriptions make the characters he meets come alive from the paper. After reading this book, you will not think of wine personalities the way you did before. Michel Chapoutier, for instance, one of the most successful winemakers from the Rhone, shows his intense humour, borderline with crassness but stopping shy of it. “The brain is a pleasure killer” he says, in the introduction. Later he is quoted saying “drinking filtered wine is like having sex with a condom” and then “you don’t need to be a gynecologist to have sex, in reference to the widely spread, obsessive need to “analyze” wine and find all kinds of aromas and flavors in it, instead of just enjoying it fully.

Like in Mr. Chapoutier’s case, McInerney brings out the quirky side of wine makers, negociants, writers and critics, a side often not even imagined. And he does it with freshness and humor. There is little room for hard black & white criticism in McInerney’s writing, something that should be essential in any good writer, especially when the subject at hand is wine.

The book starts with “Foreplay”, a metaphor for the fact that one starts a party drinking whites. A collection of eight pieces that take us from the slopes of tiny Condrieu (McInerney’s confessed favorite white) to the intricacies of German enological hieroglyphics, read labels. This first set, dedicated to whites, is like that kind of wine, bright and fresh. It sheds light on some wines that should deserve more attention: white Bordeaux, Soave, Tocai Friulano.

The second set “All Wine Wishes It Could Be Red” is loaded with knowledge and entertainment. I enjoyed “The Roasted Slope of the Rhone” (where he renders a colorful depiction of Marcel Guigal) and “An Extreme, Emotional Wine: Amarone” particularly. His articles in this section cover the world of wine at large: Malbec, Chilean reds, Cahors and the Cult Cabs of Santa Barbara, among others.

It would be tempting to go into the details of each selection but that would be rather time consuming and really, the scope and depth of each short piece is of such richness that it is better to let the reader jump from characters like Rioja’s eccentric Remírez de Ganuza to Jacques Lardiere (“The Mad Scientist of Jadot”) and the likes of Jancis Robinson, among others. His “How to Impress your Sommelier” selection is delightfully insightful, providing an insider’s look at Rioja, Austrian Riesling and Sagrantino di Montefalco.

For a seafood lover like myself, I loved the “Fish Stories from Le Bernardin” as well as the “Provencal Pink” article. These two and others are part of chapter six, “Matches Made in Heaven”. “Bin Ends”, the title for chapter eight, brings the uber interesting “Strictly Kosher” (it made me smile quite often too) and his “Baby Jesus in Velvet Pants” touched a personal note, as I spent a good hour chatting with Burgundy’s own Luc Bouchard from Bouchard Pere et Fils at a downtown Vancouver restaurant last November.

The last chapter, “Bubbles and Spirits” is equally rich and inspiring, somehow transferring to the reading the joyful mood that one gets after one or two sips of sparkling wine. The pieces on Armagnac, Champagne, Chartreuse and Absinthe (“The Wild Green Fairy”) set the tone for his epilogue (“What I Drank on my Forty-Eighth Birthday”), a candid account which made me a bit jealous. Who, after all, gets to write a letter to Jancis Robinson telling her about one’s birthday knowing that she will read it? And who gets to open a Magnum of 1990 Dom Perignon for the occasion? Not to mention the 99 Zind-Humbrecht Clos Hauserer Riesling or the Martinelli Jackass Hill ’96 monster Zinfandel. These closing lines  reminded me that I should start planning my own 48th with the best wines I can get my hands on. One can only dream…

From the physical point of view, this book also scores high. The cover is definitely low key but deeply wine themed (although I would’ve done without the unnecessary Robert Parker’s three-line comment on the front). Good choice of color scheme here (so many people seem to be color blind these days). The table of contents, to the point and simple. I loved the choice of paper both in appearance and texture. Nice at touch: strong yet somehow sophisticated. Or at least the kind you’d expect when the subject at hand  is wine. Lovely font too and quite smart to have a note about it on the last page. The bibliography list –on the previous page- also comes handy.

There aren’t very many things lacking in this read. One of them is an index. The information packed here is dense and loaded with names of appellations, winemakers and the like. It surely would help to have an index when using this book for reference, as I am sure many will do. Summing up, I can see McInerney’s “Hedonist” becoming a classic. Good for him. Highly recommended and now I am to return this copy to the Burnaby Public Library (beautiful building with a view to the North Vancouver’s mountains) and buy my own.

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Arroz con Mariscos: The Easy Alternative to Paella

January 5, 2010

I had the fortune to eat my first real Paella in the place where it was born: Valencia, on Spain’s Mediterranean coast. As a first timer, I was intrigued and also a bit weary. You never know if you are going to like a new food, especially, when everyone who told you about it seems to love it. I had had spurious versions in Vancouver’s Hispanic restaurants and I couldn’t say I was too impressed. My hosts were a nice young couple who had visited me in Vancouver years before. They fell in love with our city (how could they not?) and were more than eager to show me their town and its best expressions. I am not the kind of person who can hide his dislike of a dish or wine. So, I was a bit worried I might pull a face when tasting the Paella Valenciana they were so excited to share with me.

Before going on with the story, let’s say that Valencia claims to be the cradle of Paella. That is, the Paella Marinera (marine) that we all know. Rice, saffron, red pepper, mussels, prawns, chicken, chorizo. However, the original Paella, also originated in Valencia but further inland, is made with rabbit, chicken and rosemary as opposed to saffron. The young Spanish couple had made this for me during their visit in Vancouver and I enjoyed it thoroughly.  In the years to come I tried making Paella Marinera several times. Anyone who has attempted this knows how heartbreaking is to find, after spending good money on seafood and a lot of work and time, that the result is not what one expected. Most stoves do not have the right burner size to heat the paella pot homogeneously. Electric elements don’t respond quickly to temperature changes. It is easy to end up with overcooked rice, lumped in one sticky mass. Or even worse, to have uncooked rice on your plate. Because of that I turned to a Peruvian favorite, Arroz con Mariscos (rice and seafood) that is easier to make and is a tasty substitute to Paella.

THE RECIPE

Start by thawing a bag of seafood mix. Rinse thoroughly with cold tap water. For this amount (approx. 1 lb) chop a medium size onion and a shallot. Sautee in olive oil over medium heat until tender. Add a sprinkle or two of chili flakes and a spoonful of Spanish paprika. Stir well and add the seafood mix. Chop a Roma tomato and add to mix. Pour 1/3 cup of dry white wine, ¼ cup green peas and a bay leaf. Cook in low for 7-10 min. or until seafood is tender. You will know it  is ready because it turns opaque. Remove bay leaf. Meanwhile, cook 2 cups of rice (I normally use rice cooker for convenience). Follow regular water to rice proportions. You can substitute water for fish, chicken or vegetable stock. When rice is almost ready, incorporate to cooked seafood mix and stir. Incorporate 8-12 prawn tails, shell on.  Add half a red bell pepper cut in fine strips on top, cover and simmer for another 5 minutes. Serve hot, sprinkle with chopped fresh parsley and drops of lemon. This dish is truly enjoyed when paired with a refreshing white wine. Albarino comes to mind, but Fiano, Orvieto or a lean Chardonnay will do well.