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All articles in Food and drink

Balvenie Peated Cask
Almost forgot in all the post-rapture partying, I came across a blog post about a whisky I bought a few weeks back. Balvenie Peated Cask 17yo Tasting Notes.

I have the Balvenie Islay cask referred to in the blog as well (it took me ages to find) and frankly I find it better than the new Peated cask though the new one is still very interesting and worth it's money.

I had a discussion with the liquor store vendor when I bought this whisky and he couldn't tell me where the casks for this whisky came from. Happily now we know: "It transpired that Balvenie Peated Cask is a strange hybrid, being comprised of a mix of 17yo Balvenie finished in New Wood blended with 17yo Balvenie finished in casks that had previously held a so-far-unreleased experimental heavily-peated Balvenie distilled in 2001."

Very interesting stuff if you like that sort of thing.

I like the description of the brine on the aftertaste, I hadn't noticed that before and if you know it's there you actually notice a very clear salty aftertaste that comes quite late after swallowing and then slowly fades. There's a wonderful world hidden in tasting notes from people who really know about that stuff, personally I only pick up half the things mentioned if I'm lucky and having a good day.

awww nuts
Air Canada told to provide nut-free zone. What's amazing to me is the comments from people that think this is just some wanton infringement on their freedoms. To be sure there is some infringement going on here, that is not in question, but I think there is a need for regulation to protect those who really need it.

I have a nut allergy and while it's (probably!) not enough to kill me when someone else is eating nuts it is bad enough that I can become quite ill when several people near me are eating fragrant nuts or nut-based products like peanut soup.

I once spent an extremely miserable half hour between London and Schiphol because the only food handed out was a packet of peanuts (this is a flight that lasts an hour and food is handed out about 15 minutes after takeoff). Whilst I didn't eat anything (obviously, as I might not have survived and certainly would have been puking my guts out over random people) the smell of 60 people munching peanuts made me sick to my stomach.

The enclosed space and large amount of people eating peanuts meant that the odour of peanuts pervaded the entire plane and there was no escaping this, it seems the windows in planes can't be opened to let in some fresh air :-). I used large amounts of medicine to stave of allergic and asthmatic attacks, in fact I used more medicine than is allowed in a single day in that one hour just to keep control over my breathing. Hours later I still felt weak and feeble.

Please do not tell me about infringing on your freedoms. My allergy is by no means as bad as it gets and I can certainly imagine someone dying over this, or if not actually dying then at least going into anaphylactic shock, which can lead to death if not treated very very quickly.

One of the commenters wrote: "I do not want my seat selection options to be limited by this fringe group of nut-sensitive agitators".
Presumably this person would be quite happy to sit on an 18 hour flight with a dead person stashed in the seat next to them? Now why do I doubt this?

I do not mind people eating peanuts or other nutty things but I do object to large amounts of people in an enclosed space eating them when there is no way to get away from the smell. That is torture.

Some simple rules should be able to prevent this: do not serve peanuts in small and medium sized planes where there is no escape from the smell, do not serve an entire plane peanuts or smelly nuts (not all nuts smell, at least to me).
There's a lot of research into allergies and it shouldn't be too hard for some experts in the field to come up with simple to follow guidelines for airlines that would allow those that need it the protection they deserve and the fervent nuteaters their pleasures. For example by providing a buffer zone or separate room with better ventilation.

As a society we often infringe upon some people's rights to protect the weak who have no control over their genetic, physiological or mental condition. No one choses to have a food allergy, and it is the right of those people to not only be accommodated but also protected by the companies they do business with.

Two years ago around Christmas-time the OOOk Default: club made their own beer. Under the guiding hand of my good friend and home-brewing expert René we set out to create a classic Triple beer. For the bloody foreigners who do not know what a Triple is one website defines it as such: "A triple is most of the time a gold coloured -there are some darker examples- strong top fermented beer. Triples are fruity, yeasty beers, very malty and sweetish beers with a degree of alcohol between 7 and 9".
If I were to define I would probably confuse things a bit by saying that a triple is a beer made with certain kinds of hops and light malts (malts for brewing come in different kinds of darkness due to caramelisation, the darker the malt the darker the beer), fermented first in a vat and then having an extra fermentation in the bottle. To up the alcohol percentage you add a little bit of sugar water to the bottle before putting a cap on it so the alcohol percentage goes up while the beer matures before consumption.

Our joint effort was a roaring success and 2 years after brewing it is still an immensely enjoyable beer. We made about 4 crates (there are 24 bottles in a Dutch crate of beer) with the 5 of us. As supplies were extremely limited diligence was required and I think at this time I am the only one of us that still has a few bottles left. Today I decided to sample one of my last bottles (leaving me just 2, we need to make a new batch of beer soon!) and I must say that it appears to me that the beer has aged very nicely indeed. I may be a bit biased by the above description but I do detect notes of general fruitiness and sweetness. Over the past 2 years the yeasty flavor of a normal triple has all but gone and we are left with a fairly sweet-tasting beer that is slightly heady yet not at all overpowering.

It is often amazing how beer and other alcoholic drinks mature, the difference between a 5 year old whisky and a 30 year old from the same distillery is enough to blow most (normal) people off their socks but even on a more modest time-scale the difference between a home-brewed 6 month old triple beer and a 2 year old is stunning. With age spirits mature and develop. Note: I am not talking about stuff that sits in a bottle doing nothing, a 5 year old whisky that is bought in a shop and sits in a closet for 25 years does not become a 30 year old whisky, for that you need to mature the whisky in a cask before bottling (as the cask adds flavor to the drink by releasing complex organic compounds like tannins and aromatic oils into the drink). The same principle - of not maturing in a bottle - does not go for beers that have yeast in the bottle like Triples do, as there's still fermentation going on inside the bottle the taste matures and grows. Obviously there is a limit to this. At some point the amount of alcohol will kill the yeast, or, alternatively (and more likely), the amount of sugars in the beer is not enough to sustain the yeast anymore, after that the only differences will be from chemical reactions between the different compounds that make up the taste and at a certain point an equilibrium will be reached where taste will not mature anymore and in fact may degrade due to these chemical reactions.

The hard part is deciding when this point occurs. When we brew a beer do we let it sit in a bottle for six months or for 24 months before we drink it? Does the added time of 18 months make enough of a difference that we would give up some room to let the beer mature or is the difference so small that it's not really worthwhile.

When a brewer like Heineken makes beer they do so in vast quantities*. Their beers do not mature in the bottle but are instead meant for immediate consumption. A bottle that has been produced yesterday wil taste the same as a bottle that was produced a month ago or even 36 months ago, that is part of their appeal, much like a McDonald's hamburger will be more or less the same the world over. This isn't the case for home-brews and that is what makes them so interesting. Because you lose some control you get added benefits, potentially. You could wait too long with drinking and miss out the high point. Generally, from my experience, we drink too soon, but it's sometimes hard to contain oneself when there's an interesting beer waiting for you. Immediate gratification is, well, immediate. And potential future benefits are, well, potential.

I am drinking and enjoying a bottle right now but is it much better than the one I had half a year ago? I am not sure, it seems a bit more fruity, but not by much, it is a bit less yeasty but that could be because the beer was decanted more properly. As taste is a purely subjective experience I could be just be in a better mood today than when I drank the last bottle and therefore enjoy it more. What I do know is that we created a truly memorable beer and that will just have to be enough, after all with two bottles left I can hardly drag this experience out for another 15 years. Saying that, I do have a bottle left from an earlier home-brewing experiment that I forgot about (the bottle, not the brewing). This bottle is close to 18 years old by now but it has been stored in a balcony cupboard outside in freezing and hot temperatures so I am extremely hesitant to open it as I think the years and storage conditions may not have been kind to it.

Here's to the next batch, and the last bottles of OOOk Triple when I do decide to open them.

*) Sidenote: often I am told by foreigners when they learn I'm Dutch is that Heineken is one of the best beers they've ever had. Which always makes a bit sad as Heineken is one of the most tasteless and mundane beers around. In Holland we are spoilt for choice when it comes to normal lagers (most supermarkets stock at least 10 different kinds, at least 6 of them with more character than Heineken) and if we get bored with that we are very close to Belgium, the kings of specialty beers, so a lot of those are easily available in supermarkets and specialty stores here.

Recipe for disaster
Word of advice: when you really really really fancy eating tacos the entire day one of the things you should remember to buy in the store is beans. Otherwise you'll come home with a paprika (red pepper or bell pepper for you foreigner types), leeks, minced beef, grated cheese and hot sauce and still have to eat some leftovers out of the freezer.

Still, if I can remember to buy the right stuff tomorrow I'll have tacos. And that's something to look forward to.

Happy Days
oooo. oooo. ooooo.

I can barely contain myself here. I just went to the city to get my dad a present for his birthday and while in the liquor shop I saw a bottle of 17 year old Balvenie Islay Wood.

This is a whisky that's extremely hard to come by (it was only produced in 2001) and when my good friend Joke got one I was almost consumed by jealousy. Luckily I now have a bottle as well and mine is full (apart from the drop I just poured myself).

Ahh. Bliss.

In Search of Perfection
The BBC has a new (to me at least, I don't watch much television, the BBC website tells me this was the 5th show) program by Heston Blumenthal called In Search of Perfection. I saw an episode tonight and was moved by his approach.

Blumenthal is a proponent of Molecular Gastronomy, which basically means he takes a scientific approach to cooking. In today's episode he sets out to redo Baked Alaska and in order to do this he needs to find out several things. One of these is to find out what is the best way to make the lightest/fluffiest meringue. First of all he determines that the absolute best way is to mix egg whites and sugar, whisk them together and then put the resulting mixture under a vacuum pump. After seeing the results he determines that although this does produce spectacular results doing this in a real life kitchen might not be the best way forward, or at least not very practical. So he sets out to find the next best thing. The way he does this is by making a meringue of a lot of different sorts of eggs, fresh chicken eggs, duck eggs, 7 day old chicken eggs etc. Mixed by hand or in a copper bowl. Does adding butyric acid (CH3CH2CH2-COOH) produce better results or not.

The whole approach is as scientific as possible, with testing lots of different approaches. Arguably it all breaks down at some point of course as taste and even texture are subjective things but the approach is certainly interesting and the experimenters take great pains to approach the subject as objectively as possible by measuring the weight of predetermined volumes thereby eliminating vaguenesses such as "this tasted lighter".

I've read about Molecular Gastronomy before, mostly on Kottke, (click the link for search results), but have never eaten any and even if such a place existed in Utrecht I'm not sure I could afford to eat there, still the topic fascinates me. After all, I like eating (who doesn't) and science is close to my heart. I studied chemistry for a while and we had a minor course at some point in which every-day chemistry was taught. The science of cooking was a small part of that and it was fascinating though a bit too short on actual substance to my taste (nice pun!).
The thing that impressed me perhaps the most in the tv program was Blumenthal's knowledge on the chemistry of what he does. For example a meringue is basically a combination of proteins and sugar mixed with air. In order for the air to mix in you have to somehow find a way to stiffen the proteins (using sugar). When you do this the hydrophilic part of the proteins align and the hydrophobic parts align as well, forming little bubbles in which air can be trapped. In a way it's not that much different from the way soap or detergent does it's work. You probably remember the little diagram from your high school chemistry book on this, at least all Dutch chemistry books contained this when I was about 15, the small sperm-like molecules aligning themselves to enclose a speck of grease. Hydrophilic heads outwards, lipophilic tails embedded in a particle of grease. (Wikipedia has a clear diagram.)
Basic high school chemistry, yet most chefs would not be concerned with this. I find this approach to be appealing, when I make some gravy I am always keenly aware that a mixture of melted butter and water do not naturally mix, in order for the whole to form a smooth liquid you'll have to add some ingredient to "bind" or emulsify the two. This can take the place of the juices from the frying pan in which a piece of meat has been cooked. The juices contain chemical substances that bid to both water and fat and thereby allow the existing water and fat to mix. Chemistry is fun!

Take a look at the BBC website linked above, you can view some details from the program online, although sadly no full episodes are available. Cooking with dry ice, vacuum pumps, microwaves, pure molecules, burning rum and ordinary food. Science combined with food. Highly interesting.

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