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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 17, 2013

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Tastings, Music From Trash

Even though I've never been a drinker of wine, I do understand the appeal of wine tastings.

My only taste of wine came years ago, when a waiter switched my ginger ale with someone else's white wine in a very dark restaurant, and I spat the nasty stuff back into the glass. It must be an acquired taste.

But wine isn't the only substance for which you can hold a tasting.

Let's set aside all the cop shows in which somebody tastes a powder to make sure whether it's drugs. Even when I'm pretty sure that a powder is sugar or flour, I'm not going to taste anything at a crime scene. Especially if it might be drugs. That's what chemists are for.

For Christmas I was given a tasting package of a eight different dark chocolates from Trader Joe's -- their "Chocolate Passport," with bars of dark chocolate from different countries.

If you've never shopped at Trader Joe's, keep in mind that unlike most store brands, the Trader Joe's store brands routinely score at the top of the line in Consumer Reports; other impartial testing services report similar results.

And so do I. All eight chocolates, ranging in intensity from 60 to 73 percent, were delicious.

Of course, if you're young, male, or sweet-obsessed -- the group that usually prefers milk chocolate -- you may not have acquired the taste for dark chocolate. I certainly didn't care for it even into my forties.

But now that I've been eating dark chocolate almost exclusively for several years, trying many different brands and intensities, I feel reasonably well-qualified to make my own assessment.

First, though, let me say that "blind" testing is pointless. From time to time you read about wine experts who can't tell, without the label, whether a particular sample is from some mediocre store brand or a fine expensive label.

What's the point? Part of the experience is the fun of knowing that you're trying something with a reputation or a history.

I think of the first time I had caviar. If I hadn't known that caviar is supposed to be a fine gourmet experience, the smell, texture, and color would have repelled me.

But because I knew it was supposed to be wonderful, I made the effort to eat it as it is supposed to be served: not on toast (barbaric), but on a small thin pancake (blini) with minced fresh onion and minced hard-boiled egg.

Eaten properly, it was strange and wonderful.

Having tasted various caviars since then, I must admit that the only caviar I enjoy for itself, without other accoutrements, is inexpensive, plebeian salmon roe. But I have enjoyed, and understand the appeal of, high-reputation and high-cost caviars.

But chocolate tastings start with a huge head start, because it's hard (but not impossible) to make a truly dreadful chocolate. (I won't bother you with stories about the bad chocolate bars I've tasted. Let's just say that when ideology trumps taste, the eater is the loser.)

With Trader Joe's Chocolate Passport, each bar comes from a different country: Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, Ghana, the Dominican Republic, Papua New Guinea, São Tomé, and Tanzania.

The trouble is that I know enough science to understand that chocolate itself is from a plant of South American provenance, which has not diverged into many different species.

However, I also know that I'm ignorant enough to be completely unaware of how regional variations in climate, altitude, soil, and other ambient plants might affect the cacao bean.

Also, each country might have its own distinctive style of preparation. But if so, I couldn't tell what those differences might be.

Having tasted the Taza Mexican chocolates, which really are radically different from the way Americans and Europeans prepare chocolate, I have to say that every one of the Chocolate Passport bars is pretty much a regular chocolate bar -- that is, there's nothing radically different in texture and consistency.

Nevertheless, there are clear differences in flavor between the chocolates. They aren't radical differences, though, and every one of them is good. In other words, I ate all of them with pleasure, and none stood out as being so exceptional that I would either seek it out or avoid it.

The fun is in tasting these very similar bars and noticing the subtle differences and variations. I also suggest that the flavor distinctions are clearer when the bars are slightly colder than room temperature. Not so cold as to deaden the flavor, but cool enough to be just a little crisp.

In the end, however, I added my own samples to the mix -- my favorite Guittard, the 61% Tsaratana semisweet bar; and See's semisweet chocolate chips.

And while I would never slap your hand for offering me any of the Chocolate Passport bars, I'm afraid I'll stick with my daily Guittard and See's, with Taza chocolate-covered cashews in between.

Wine, caviar, chocolate ... but I have not yet exhausted the possibilities for tastings. For instance, over the holidays we had reason to have an informal tasting of several of the packaged cheeses sold at the Fresh Market deli.

Besides traditional choices like gouda, havarti, and edam, the favorites were a delicious pecorino that, though hard enough to grate, is also sliceable and perfect on crackers or broken up in salads; and a strange-and-wonderful cheese called Premoo, which is exclusive to Fresh Market.

Premoo is packaged like Gouda, but is a little firmer and tangier. I liked it a lot. Both cheeses have earned a permanent place at our table.

Cheeses do reveal a lot about your character; I'm just not sure what. Why is it that I love many different fetas, goat cheeses, and blue cheeses, while my wife avoids them all; and my son seems to prefer cheeses that smell like dirty feet?

*

I've already talked at length about the art of Olive oil tasting. It continues to be a pleasure, especially when Midtown Olive Press in Friendly Center gets a new oil.

Though I do love a sharp, tangy, or spicy olive oil, I find that what I come back to again and again are the oils from the "mild" side of Midtown Olive Press's selection.

Keep in mind that all the oils are flavorful and rich; "mild" only means that it is less peppery and has less of an afterbite. They don't sell any bland "lamp oil" olive oils -- if you want that, grocery stores offer a fine selection of nearly flavorless oils.

After Christmas, I took my son-in-law for a tasting, and because I was showing off a little, I decided to leave the olive oils at the front of the store and venture, for the first time, back into the vinegars.

I'm not a vinegar fan -- or at least I wasn't. Vinegar existed only to put a little bite into salad dressing or to keep bacteria out of mustard and catsup.

In other words, when it came to vinegar (and so many other things, alas), I was a bit of an ignorant rube. Because there are some astonishing vinegars at Midtown Olive Press.

I thought "balsamic" was one type of vinegar. No. There's a whole range of rich, delicious vinegars, and here's the shock: Some of the infusions are so delicious that you don't need to mix the vinegar with anything.

For instance, I like the maple balsamic better than maple syrup. To me, even the best syrup is too sweet and sugary. Well, there's nothing sweet about the maple balsamic vinegar. But for me, it purifies the maple flavor. I now drizzle it directly and undiluted on pancakes and enjoy it far more than I ever did syrup.

Right now my favorite balsamic vinegar is the tangerine. I dip bread into it without any oil at all, and also use it alone on green salad. It needs no help.

But in my tasting of vinegars, I knew the moment I tasted it that the red apple balsamic would be my wife's favorite. And her response, when I brought home a bottle, made me feel like a Good Husband. She uses it all the time now.

Don't take my word for it. Midtown Olive Press is built around the concept of tasting. Bring some friends and head to Friendly Center and taste the differences. I'd suggest that you alternate oils and vinegars, the one clearing your palate for the other.

Talk about a cheap but classy party or date!

Well, it's cheap only if you don't buy anything. I have a habit of falling in love with a flavor and bringing home a bottle of this and a bottle of that. But as long as you buy only small bottles, and pick only one or two, it's not expensive at all.

Only people like me who can't make up their mind, and therefore buy some of everything, end up spending a lot.

One of my favorite finds on this last trip was the olive pesto. It looked, in the jar, like it might be like the olive tapenade at I Cugini restaurant in Santa Monica. When the restaurant closed, I thought I'd never have that most brilliant of tapenades again.

Well, I probably won't, because the olive pesto from Midtown Olive Press is not a tapenade and doesn't try to be. However, I'm still glad I tried it, because it is wonderful in its own right. (It's one of the few things you can spread on a sharp rye bread that isn't overpowered and doesn't clash. Two very strong, delicious flavors!)

The nice thing about a tasting at Midtown Olive Press is that even the oils and vinegars that aren't my favorites are still very good.

Even the dark chocolate balsamic. It won't replace chocolate bars for me, the way the maple balsamic has replaced maple syrup. But it's surprisingly good -- even as I realized that there was absolutely nothing I'd ever want to put it on.

*

Speaking of delicious finds, The Extra Ingredient, Greensboro's own local kitchenware shop, has several tall racks of specialty foods.

Recently I learned that when we're making a small batch of pasta for two people, the Ritrovo Selections red sauce called "Abruzzese Sugo al Pomodoro by Casina Rossa" comes in bottles that are exactly the right size.

Of course, that wouldn't matter if it weren't also exceptionally delicious. But it is and it certainly takes less time than making a tomato sauce from scratch.

(My wife also loves alfredo sauces, but not me. I rarely like white sauces -- too many servings of chipped-beef and lima beans in white sauce as a kid, I suppose, so that the sight of a white sauce makes me faintly nauseated to start with.)

You can see what it looks like at Ritrovo's website: http://www.ritrovo.com/i-1500cas-red-pasta-sauce.php.

*

I haven't even gotten to the dozens of books and movies I wanted to review this week.

Fortunately for me, the appetite of newsprint for editorial content is insatiable: There will be another week -- unless you're writing for Newsweek. (Wasn't their final issue smug and self-congratulatory for a magazine that was obviously failing?)

Let me just steer you to an online vid that a friend in LA spotted in the LA Times online. It's a story about resourceful teachers who have created musical instruments for kids in South American slums ... out of trash.

The problem is that real musical instruments are simply too valuable. They would be stolen -- possibly with damage to the child in the process.

But when you make instruments out of found materials, they have no resale value, and so they don't get stolen.

They also sound surprisingly good. But look and listen for yourself online.

It's kind of the opposite of The Music Man, in which the point is selling expensive instruments, with no training at all; here the instruments are, literally, garbage -- but the training is excellent.

There's an even longer trailer , 11 minutes long, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O6rgkCUstaE

It's encouraging to see the power of music even under the most trying circumstances.


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