Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Artful Eater

Two weeks ago we had the rare pleasure of an audience with three incredibly wise men. While they left their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh at home, they did bestow their own personal, and unique, brand of extravagance upon us. And, in this day and edible age, what exactly would one want with any traditional anointment anyway, when instead one could enjoy sustainable wines, supple ham and stunning mortadella? Our point exactly!

The three wise men were summoned to the west coast by following the lustrous star of Slow Food Nation and gathered together that very afternoon to throw caution to the wind and disclose the wisdom of their trades to hungry devotees. We, mere plebeians, were sent forth, by our philosopher kings in order to report back on these wise men, and their without further ado, we happily invite you to enjoy a bit of what we like to think of as...

“Free Head: An Olde World Approach.”

High-flown prose aside, Foodbuzz scored us tickets to a Slow Food Nation "Slow Sips and Charcuterie Snacking" taste workshop, where we got a chance to meet Sam Edwards of the Virginia Traditions Smokehouse, Marc Pastore of Incanto and Boccalone, and Kenneth Rochford from Medloch-Ames winery. We and two dozen industry professional, sampled two excellent salty pork products and accompanying "sustainable" wines and learned a little about modern preserved meat and what to drink with it.

On the plate was a great prosciutto-style ham from Virginia Traditions and Mortadella from the Fatted Calf. This was more intense ham than I was used to; more "porky" and with a good, dark grain to it. Each ham ages for at least 400 days, and ours had been "hanging out" for 700! That is some very slow food... I don't usually like the fine, squishy texture of mortadella, but this one was rougher and more flavorful.

In the glass, we had a 2007 rose and a 2001 merlot, both from the Bell Mountain vineyard in Alexander Valley. Rochford explained that while most roses get their blush from soaking the grapes' skin it the juice briefly, in this wine, the skins are left in for five days. The result has the same dry, light body and citrusy character of classic rose, but with a darker tint and a tannic edge that stands up better to strongly-flavored meat. The merlot was more robust and "Old World" than what you usually find in California, with intense fruit and An excellent complement, but not so unique as the rose.

"So", you should be asking, "what's so special about this meat? What makes this 'Slow Food'?" If you're us, you are also be asking, "why should I be ready to pay so much more for what looks, on the surface, like very fancy packaging?" It's become pretty clear to me that the current meat industry is unsustainable, but it is not so clear to me what the alternative is. I've been cynical about its motives in the past, but could the Slow Food movement hold the answer?

Apart from a few technical digressions on the fat content of plum-fed pigs versus cranberry-fed pigs, the panel focused largely on the question of "sustainability." Here in San Francisco, I usually roll my eyes and get ready to reach for my wallet every time I hear the word, "sustainable", especially after visiting SFN's beautiful, over-priced "farmer's market." There is way too much hype and marketing surrounding "sustainability" when it comes to food, so I was excited to hear from some people on the inside.

To Rochford that means making room for symbiotic animals around the vineyard, brining in miniature cattle and sheep to keep the weeds down and fertilize the soil, using native yeasts in their wine, selling and distributing locally, and paying a fair wage. For Boccalone and Incanto, that means buying naturally-fed and humanely-raised animals, making use of every part of that animal, and (oddly enough) eating less meat. Like he said, "We're carnivores, but we're trying to eat less meat in a greater variety." He does concede, however, that it is hard to get people to go along with their idea when "two or three generations have grown up without even tasting liver or kidneys." Pastore's advice on learning more about cooking those things that I've never tasted was simple: "go to Italy" and "Ask your butcher." It was actually Edwards' view that amusd me the most. When I asked him what his father or grandfather might have thought about the idea of sustainability, he said simply, "That's just the way we raied them when I was a kid."

After talking to the panelists, I felt a bit less cynical about the idea of . Places like Boccalone, Virginia Traditions, and Medloch-Ames are building a new food-business model from, literally, the ground up and in deciding always to err on the side of art over commerce they are doing something I respect. I may not be able to afford to be an "early adopter", but I share their goals, and even if I don't see myself going to Italy anytime soon, I will follow Pastore's advice and talk to my butcher more.