I know I said I was going to take a holiday break, but it turns out I couldn’t keep away. Mostly that’s because I have no desire to be swamped by a tsunami of unread items in my feed when the break is over. As a result, I’m able to bring you another hand-crafted, artisanal, authentic collection of bits and bobs.
Goaded by a couple of podcasts I listened to, I wrote a little something: A tale of two coffee stories. As always, when something has been on my mind, it stays on my mind, so I was pleased to note a very interesting article on coffee, culture and class from earlier this year. Charlotte Lydia Riley digs into the recent history of coffee in the UK. In a piece with many delights, this one stood out:
In short: everyone knows what a cappuccino is, and we know it; only politicians pretend that we don’t, and pretend that this pretence is authenticity. For some reason, we let them get away with it.
Do read the whole thing.
And, to go all cross-cultural for a moment, I suspect a political equivalent in the USA might be the cheese steak, and not merely whether you relish it, but whether you know how to order and eat it. There must be similar examples from other countries; let me have them, please.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that the modern crop is genetically less diverse than its predecessors. Universally acknowledged perhaps, but in at least one case, not a truth.
Dutch greenhouse tomatoes have been a poster-child for the loss of genetic diversity, the result of breeding for bumper production and good looks, rather than flavour or resilience. In the late 1980s, especially, German newspapers described them as Wasserbomben. Exports of these water bombs to Germany, previously their main destination, collapsed, and Dutch breeders began to pay attention. Their efforts are recognised in a new analysis of seven decades worth of tomato varieties, with a large jump in genetic diversity from the 1990s to the 2000s. An earlier jump, from the 1960s to the 1970s, reflects an effort to breed better disease resistance into existing varieties.
These genetic changes have been accompanied by changes much easier to recognise in the supermarket and on the plate. In the 1950s and 1960s, you would be hard pressed to buy a tomato that weighed less than 50 gm or more than 100 gm. Modern cherry tomatoes and big beefsteak types are newcomers to industrial greenhouses. Flavour profiles too, have changed, with tomatoes becoming both more flavourful and more diverse in their flavour profiles.
Of course, it is still possible to buy a water bomb if you try, but the key conclusion of this study is that tomato genetic diversity has seen “a nine-fold increase since the 1960s”. That’s not to say that things couldn’t be better. Other studies have shown that people generally consider heirloom tomatoes – pre-1950 and not subjected to focussed industrial-style breeding – tastier than modern varieties. Good though recent Dutch breeders have been, they could yet do better.
Further to the crop war of the generations comes yet another comparison of old and new wheats that fails to earn its crust. The bogeyman this time is our old friend gluten sensitivity.
One of the speculative explanations for the increase in people who say they are sensitive to gluten is that there’s something fundamentally different about modern wheats, rather than, say, the way they are turned into bread et cetera. That’s a testable hypothesis, so some researchers at Oklahoma State University tested it, and found that “a modern wheat variety did not compromise gut barrier function or contribute to inflammation … compared with its heirloom predecessors”.
Let’s unpack that.
Make of that what you will. Not proven is the best I can come up with.
Speaking of industry-funded research, Marion Nestle has a little round-up of information about the state of the United Kingdom’s food system after Brexit. There’s not much there in the way of commentary, with the possible exception of her comment that she “had to dig to find anyone hopeful of a silver lining”. The opportunity is doubtless there, but.
How could one fail to be entranced by this headline? Everyone Loves Crispy and Crunchy, But What About Chewy?.
Personally, I like chewy, although I am completely ignorant of almost every dish mentioned in the article. I have, once, tried nervetti, the long-boiled tendons of a calf’s foot. They were, indeed, sublimely chewy, with a good dose of lip-sticking collagen, but remarkably devoid of flavour. The vinegar and hot-pepper dressing was good, but the nervetti themselves were all about texture rather than taste. That was at a very traditional restaurant, and since then I’ve not seen them on a menu, so while I haven’t gone out of my way in search of them, I don’t rule it out.
Last time, I said I would be back in the New Year, and yet here I am. This time, I really mean it.
All the best,
Coffee by Rodrigo Flores on Unsplash
Tomatoes by Alex Ghizila on Unsplash
Cheese steak sub by Kyle Wagaman on Flickr