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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 9
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From Clark Johnsen's Diaries: The Forbidden City
by Clark Johnsen

 

The other day my buddy Nicky telephones. New flavor concentrates have arrived and my assistance would be appreciated, so I drive out to Lizzy's, his handsome ice cream parlor, carrying Iggy's best crusty white underarm to wipe the palate clean between samples. This town, Boston, has great bakeries and, with the highest per-capita ice cream consumption in America, the best frozen stuff in the world outside of Florence, Italy, in my opinion. Nicky has developed several innovative angles that catapult him over Firenze, so I am ever eager to heed his call.

Today finds us seated at a back table, old friends lingering over espresso in the afternoon, European style, while Avi mans the counter and we confront, before our tasting session begins, the pressing political issues of the day. On hand are sixteen varieties of jarred and sealed compote, supplied by Perigord, to be stirred into stock vanilla ice cream and evaluated. Eventually, Avi produces bowls and spoons and I line the entrants up by fruit category: apricot, black cherry, raisin, plum, and currant. Variations on each include various ground nuts, sherry, and brandy. Let the trials commence.

Regrettably, not one entrant tastes decent in ice cream. Only two or three are even good to spread on bread. The nuts are gritty, the brandy is volatile, the sherry… well, cheap.

"How do you know?" the silent-until-now, self-appointed guardians of scientific method demand: "How can you possibly justify those statements?" Disdainfully they continue, "Mr. Johnsen, we are not aware of any properly-conducted double-blind tests, published in a reputable peer-reviewed journal, that support your conclusions."

Well, if that isn't... totally true!

How indeed do I know? I'll have to think about that.

Meanwhile, why should audio, the reproduction of music, for Heaven's sake, be stuck with a rigid orthodoxy when the non-auditory senses are allowed to operate freely in other areas?

For instance:

Chocolate

Everyone recognizes Hershey and Nestle as mainstays of the candy counter, but who can name a really superior brand? Lindt, perhaps?

Sorry.Just good Swiss PR, in my opinion. Try again.

Toblerone? Godiva?

Better, but...

Let me introduce you to Valrhona, maison fondée 1925. Valrhona, she do the thing! Whether unsweetened bricks for bakers or gold-foil-clad bars and wafers for upscale consumers, here be a high-percent-cocoa-butter peak of the chocolate-maker's art. Unfortunately Valrhona remains obscure to all but a few "chocophiles" and their plebian counterparts, the "chocoholics," who as a rule maintain their habits at very low levels of quality (rye whiskey, anyone?). Only he who remains unaddicted moves onwards or upwards.

Yes, you can get decent stuff from van Houten and Cadbury, Lindt and Tobler, but they pale beside Valrhona. Still, those are all mere brand names. Beyond these NADs and Boses of chocolate lie the shadowy zones of nationalities—Ghana, Venezuela, Indonesia—and within those, regions and estates and, most significantly, the varietals.

In the last several decades, wine drinkers everywhere have become acquainted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc, yet who can name one single variety of chocolate bean? Or one estate? Isn't that an almost shocking fact, in this day and age of food-and-beverage connoisseurship? How could such an embarrassment du pauverte, so to speak, have arisen? Could it be that our chocolate-drug suppliers have us so firmly under control that they know we have no need to know, so why rock the boat?

Fact: Theobroma cacao varietals, while difficult to obtain, possess attributes wholly absent from the processed product. (That word! As in "processed cheese", and "digitally processed.") They exhibit overtones of raspberry, cherry, cinnamon, melon, and more. True chocolate need never be mixed with additives like milk powder, liquor, nuts, or raisins to achieve flavor complexity. Some names to look for: Criolla, Carenero and Trinitario, but good luck finding them, and don't come crying to me just because I turned you on first and now you find the stuff is unavailable.

But here's a place to start: El Rey Chocolates (maison fondée 1927) out of Fredericksburg, Texas. All beans are grown in Venezuela on historic estates. Each batch of bars, while unlabeled as such, reputedly represents a different harvest or locale, and each such bar therefore potentially possesses a different character. Not long after discovering El Rey, I called up an acquaintance at a local gourmet store. His reaction? "Yeah, we've had this stuff, but you know what the problem was? Every bar's different! The customers, they want a certain thing in their chocolate. Once they find it, they like to stay there. Bitter, sweet, milk, almond... who knows?"

Even better is Hawaiian Vintage Chocolate, the only chocolate grown in America and possibly the only labeled vintage product available anywhere. Some batches are further designated by locale, and like fine wine, everything is aged before "bottling."

"How do you know it's so good?" the gatekeepers of the approved view sneer. "I am not aware of any studies that establish your claims, Mr. Johnsen. Have you conducted proper tests?"

Coffee

That report on chocolate may have been news to many, but what coffee drinker has not heard of Costa Rica, Java, and Brazil as countries of origin? Or of arabica and robusta as varieties? Coffee enjoys multitudes of informed consumers and tastes the better for it, recent depredations by Starbucks aside. None of the measurements brigade can question the taste-differentiables of coffee. In a real sense, familiarity breeds further legitimacy.

Where they might draw the line, however, is with the vastly more "romantic" coffee roasters. In Coffeetalk (a fine magazine, now defunct) for May 1996, in a column entitled "Coffee Roasting and the Importance of Being an Individual," Mauro Cipolla observed:

What does it mean when people or companies speak about "the art of coffee roasting?" Does the phrase actually have meaning to most people? Or is "the art of coffee roasting" simply a cliche, good marketing?

Naturally the answer to whether art in coffee roasting exists or not is subjective... The challenge in today's superficial and image-oriented world is to rise above generalizing. Worst of all would be to standardize the art of roasting in an effort to enshrine a single brand name or marketing concept.

It should be the individual diversity and creativity of each roaster, that constitutes the essence of the roasting art, and the consumer should make choices by taste and taste only, no matter what brand name is on the label.

"By taste and taste only." Substitute "ear" for "taste" and shudder, ye lynch mob of audio. Hang your "scientific procedures" on that limb!

Cipolla concludes:

We have to make room for more passionate, caring artists, with their resulting creative flavors and coffee characters. More pleasure to more people will be delivered by tastes that are varied and individual rather than homogeneous.

No argument from this quarter. But just try to tell that to the brand-addicted public! As for coffee's arch-rival hot beverage: Hey, what's wrong with Lipton's?

Tea

Highly exotic stuff, tea, the flushed, dried leaves from that puny shrub, Thea sinensis, but a word first, before our learned opponent steps up. Prices on "high-end audio" gear, and on its obligatory accessories, have become a laughingstock in the consumer media. "Laughing" puts it mildly—scorn, derision, mockery, and contempt are heaped upon those who claim that such chimera may be worthwhile, since measurements reveal no particular advantage. The most commonly ascribed motive for such purchases, given lack of documented proof among the genus scientiste, is customer self-delusion. That would be, you and me. What idiots we are!

Now, without further ado, I present, the Upton Tea Quarterly, Vo1.4, No.3, from Upton, Massachusetts:

Prices for Orthodox process Indian teas set new records again this year. Which came as no surprise to tea buyers. Demand for top quality Orthodox teas has been growing steadily but for two years in a row production has been substantially below normal.

The price of tea is usually determined at auction and it is entirely possible for hysteria to take control on the floor. Two years ago a lot of Darjeeling fetched a record price of 13,001 rupees ($550) per kilo! That's $62.50 for a quarter-pound, $1.25 per cup based on the auction price! The ultimate price to the consumer is unknown. We can assume that the tea was good, even spectacular.

To put the price in perspective, consider that a cup of coffee in an average shop in Tokyo costs $5. What price could be tagged to a cup of record-breaking Darjeeling tea? One can assume the tea was not sold at a loss. The high bidder for the 13,001-rupee Darjeeling may have had sweaty palms for a few moments, but it was not because he feared he paid too much for this particular tea. Had the bidding continued he likely would have paid more. We can safely assume that the objective was to obtain the best tea produced that year, regardless of cost.

Hmm! "The best tea." Imagine that! And "regardless of cost." Fighting words, those.

The Upton Tea Quarterly also includes ads for tea affordable by normal folk like us. One example:

Castleton Estate Second Flush FTGFOPI: Our best offering in second harvest Darjeeling. This is a tea wholly worthy of the praise heaped upon the name Castleton. Remarkable flavor and aroma. 125g: $25.00

Lord God! And they say that high-end audio is expensive! Imagine spending $1.50 just to brew a morning cup of tea when Lipton's Pekoe and Orange Pekoe goes for only $3.79/lb!

"Mr. Johnsen," the trailing posse parchedly croaks, "We are not aware of any studies..."

Milk

Finding good, fresh milk isn't easy. In most states raw milk, the best, is illegal. In some other states, one can buy it from the producers, but you must go direct to them. At least look for unhomogenized milk on the shelf. But if you haven't had raw milk, you haven't had milk and I don't want to hear another objection!

Butter

Butter sells for $3/lb. and its dull sameness (at least in the USA) never varies, apart from salted or unsalted. Interestingly, the government allows the former to include return stock from the more perishable latter, thus "salted" butter tastes actually somewhat rancid, although to most people, that is the flavor of butter. (For a home experiment, mix fine salt into unsalted butter, wait a day for the two to meld, then see how much the result tastes like store-bought "salted".)

Moreover, nearly all butter sold in America is "sweet cream" style, made from ultra-pasteurized cream that already has no taste. Artisan butters, those with actual flavor, are churned from specially-soured cream. Many such have appeared since Slow Food, a traditionalist movement founded in Italy that promotes a return to pre-industrial methods, spread to these shores. Still, I personally favor Burro Occelli from the Piedmont region of Italy. Is it worth the relatively high price? Damn! Where are the published test results to help guide my choice?

The joke here is on our dear meter readers: This far superior spread retails for a mere $5.95/250g. So just try it, will ya? Have an experience!

Speaking of soured cream, back in ‘74 I was hitching from San Francisco over to Berkeley and got this ride in a Chez Panisse van heading back from SFO. The driver had just picked up a shipment of sour cream flown in from Russia. Unexpectedly finding me aware of flavor (while skeptical of the need to import sour cream), he swung off the Bay Bridge onto Yerba Buena Island, pulled to a halt, proudly broke open a container and offered me a spoon. I dipped in and shortly uttered a single-word critique: "God!" Replied he, likewise monosyllabically, "Yes."

Vinegar

This item can be had for $1.09/qt, so why spend more? Well, because the cheap stuff tastes rather nasty. Instead, many of us prefer the category "wine vinegar," widely thought to be better, and indeed it is, up to a point. Meanwhile, a few Americans have acquired the balsamic habit, forking out up to, oh, $4-5 for 8 ounces, even occasionally splurging $8 on 6 ounces from some Modeno, Italy, bottler who wraps it in foil.

Surely everyone by now has gotten the drift of this tirade, but it remains now to reveal something entirely different, by which I mean the existence of an authentic balsamic, an intense red-brown liqueur made not from wine directly, as most people suppose, but from a fermented wine-grape reduction aged in old oak. Ordinary inexpensive "balsamic" constitutes an outright fraud concocted from regular wine vinegar and food coloring. By comparison it's acidic junk. Nor is the real thing ever used on salads, rather drizzled very lightly on meats and vegetables, its unique, highly complex sweet-and-sourness enhancing even the finest presentations of either. Or it is taken one small drop at a time and savored in the mouth, where flavors more intense than the finest claret can develop. So, the envelope, please.

Hmm! Sorry to tell you this, but good things don't always come cheap. Williams Sonoma lists the 12-year-old Malpighi for $89 and the 25-year-old for $174, in bottles of three and a half ounces.

Surely no hard evidence exists to support this insanity!

Fish

Fish trades for $4.99 to 14.99/lb. over the counter. Beyond that retail level are two amazingly-higher specialist price points: domestic sashimi and Japanese sashimi. Sashimi: raw fish in your dinner pail. Veteran buyers haunt local piers seeking primo catch, which on the table here can fetch $50/lb., in Tokyo $50/oz.

What can possibly justify such extravagance? Shouldn't these foolish gourmands be told to get help?

Now say Cheese

In Cambridge, Massachusetts, across the Charles River from my happy home in Jamaica Plain, a repugnant society squats on the People's Republic land. These citizens are of the "liberal democrat" persuasion, who profess political oneness with the working class, but who manifest quotidian disdain for it. This conflict is limned by the glaring social gap between Boston Globe subscribers—my state's liberal suburban elite (­think Kennedy, Kerry, and Barney Frank)—and the actual working class: bus drivers, day laborers, policemen, and firemen, every blue-collar wretch of whom prefers to read the despised Boston Herald and its funnier, punchier (in the literary sense) conservative writers.

In a one-paper town, one might never notice the difference.

And the women are even worse! Encountering them over in Cambridge, one almost chokes. Their mean, faux-aristocratic treatment of store clerks, baby sitters, and wait staff ought to stagger any truly democratic American. For example, here I am one day in Formaggio Kitchen, jewel of West End Cambridge's shopping district—a fine store nonetheless, although rarely do I visit because I find the clientele so generally unpleasant. And sure enough, a lady with a mid-Atlantic accent is facing off against a helpless clerk. Behind her, a woman with tot in backpack, dark hair tightly drawn, long dress, frowns at me angrily, Lord knows why, might be my uncouth Indian Motorcycles T-shirt (courtesy of the late Gizmo).

Welcome to Harvard Square World, and liberal angst.

After those two difficult customers leave, I step up to the glass and mention my own wants: Neals Yard artisan cheeses from England, which I had just read about in Corby Kummer's highly irregular food and beverage column in Atlantic Monthly. These unique creations were said by him to represent the pinnacle of the rennet art and I am eager to learn, although not so happy to display my ignorance.

I strike a nonchalant pose. "I hear you have Neals Yard..." A bright-eyed fellow named Matt (I later learn) takes note of the low ego factor and a dreamlike cheese tasting ensues. We proceed from a $7.95 onwards to $11.95, thence to $13.95, $14.95, and two incomparable $19.95s. Thus I splurge thirty dollars on five types, money like I've never spent before on cheese. Only a quarter-pound or so each, but the stuff lasts forever and I get to treat friends and family to a unique sensation.

"The trick is," Corby writes, "when something has real flavor, it takes only a small amount to satisfy you."

"How do you know real flavor?" the cheerless vigilantes sniff, now in a forlorn, even famished tone. "We... are... not... aware... of... any….."

At Nicky's place I always enjoy reading the food industry trades at Nicky's place. Real insider stuff, like how to microwave your frozen entrees, yet (unlike the airlines) keep the vegetables crisp. Peruse these rags and you soon realize that hardly a dish served in any but the finest restaurants bears any resemblance to live-cooked food, meaning made on the premises and more or less from scratch.

How the newsstand press manages to conceal this veritable scandal speaks volumes about the control they exert over our daily lives. Indeed, as the old saw goes, "the press never tells you what to think, only what to think about." Or, not about. In audio too, one must wonder: Why does even the vaunted Post Times Journal cover only the carefully-measured concoctions served up by mass market industry? Why do they dismiss the existence of a vital, largely American high-end segment and characterize every new reductionist audio scheme with that gloomy, unwitting oxymoron, "CD quality sound?"

But you probably know the answers already.

El Rey www.elreychocolate.com 800-357-3999

Formaggio Kitchen www.Formaggiokitchen.com 617-354-4750

Hawaiian Vintage Chocolate www.hawaiianchocolate.com

Lizzy's Ice Cream www.Lizzysicecream.com 781-893-6677

Upton Tea Quarterly www.uptontea.com 800-234-8327

Valrhona www.chefswarehouse.com 718-842-8700

Williams-Sonoma www.williams-sonoma.com 800-840-2591

Slow Food www.slowfoodusa.org 877-SLOWFOOD

Real Milk www.realmilk.com

 

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