Saturday, August 23, 2003

I loved Russell Smith's piece (G & M, Aug 13'03), "I'm 40 I must be dead," which came by way of my dear friend O. Knowing O he was rubbing in the fact I had hit the mark earlier this year but if so I take solace from knowing he is following right on my heels.

Smith writes that he always thought he would be dead at 40-- that his life would be dull, sexless, and not worth living. Of course this rite of passage would not be complete without receiving at least a few corny birthday cards offering recycled and tired sympathies as if turning 40 was a disease or suggesting hobbies for the peri-geriatric set such as collecting flatware and stemware, taking up golf, or waxing on about the joys of cottage life. (Note to Smith: flatware refers to cutlery NOT plates. Trust this 40 year old who finds the Christofle museum of table setting displays as interesting as Hamarabi's Code inscribed on a stone at the British museum).

But Smith deduces he cannot possibly be dead. He has just spent an infernal techno night with a passed-out 20-something young thing. Our hyper-male claims his sex drive at 40 is the same if not stronger than when he was 14. Perhaps he has not heard of Pfizer's best-selling drug to aid what ails many aging males?

However, I do like his list of things learned in old age. In a nutshell, skip the adjectives and adverbs. Delete non-verbs like jeered and expostulated and let the dialogue speak for itself. Admit you do not like live rock shows because among many things they are just too loud to engage in any reasonable social interaction. It is acceptable to pass on a social event without providing a reason. Life changes so get over it. And lastly, he is convinced girls really like him, and it would seem I might add, especially those techno-charged 20-something year olds.

In honour of those of us 40 and older and still around to prove we are not yet dead I offer my ten truths about cooking as a metaphor for what I have learned in life thus far (especially for you, O):

1. A recipe is just a guide and not the absolute truth or the final word. Let your taste buds guide you. Keep tasting, adjusting, and experimenting until it tastes right to you.

Experimenting is part of life; bad experiments become mistakes but they are part of the learning process. Sometimes you will listen to your heart, other times you will follow your head, but let your gut guide you as to what when.

2. A well-composed dish takes into account presentation, colour, seasonings, textures, and acid balance.

Add texture to your life. Let your friendships transcend mental barriers of age, profession, geography, and social, economic & cultural differences. Discover what moves you so that you will always have interests and hobbies that occupy you well beyond your working years. Try new things because you never know where that may lead you to.

3. Cook to music you love. Even if it does not help your cooking at least you will have a better time in the kitchen doing it.

Maybe a dose of music just injects fun into the process because there is nothing else to explain away how cooking to music you love will improve your culinary skills in more ways than a dozen classes will (but cooking classes have their place too).

4. Sometimes the most memorable meals are the simplest of creations.

Life does not always have to be 3-Michelin star restaurants, Gucci, or Baccarat. The neighbourhood food joint, Banana Republic, or an empty glass jar can serve the same purpose with equal pleasure and effectiveness.

5. A dish should be honest by preserving the integrity of the ingredients in it. Even a cooked tomato should still taste like a tomato.

The term "true blue" is used to describe a wine that tastes as it smells. Let your actions be true to who you are and what you stand for even if it proves unpopular because once you have sold your soul there is nothing left.

6. Use good ingredients. And fresh almost always beats frozen or canned.

The body you have is the only one you are getting so take good care of it. Do not deny yourself too many pleasures of the palate but as in all things moderation is a good guide.

7. Think about building depth and layering flavours whether it is caramelizing onions, roasting garlic, moon-drying tomatoes (what others call oven-dried), sweating vegetables or giving the dish a kick with wine or sherry.

I used to think the more friends I had the better but over time I have learned that it is the depth of my friendships that sustain me. There is rarely such a thing as an instant deep friendship; true ones take time, interest and mutual effort to nurture. But these will be the same friends who not only show up for the party but will also offer a helping hand with the clean-up.

8. There are many ways to cut an onion but only one way to cut it without crying.

Avoid getting too fixated with one way of doing or seeing something. Sometimes this may require taking a step back or taking time away to gain a better perspective but if it is something important take the effort to do so. But when it comes to onions there really is only one way to cut it without crying.

9. Sometimes a recipe does not yield the desired result and it may have nothing to do with you. It may just be a lousy recipe but that does not make you a lousy cook. But if you make that lousy dish a second time without adjusting the recipe you might be best to stay out of the kitchen.

More on point #1. Make mistakes but be sure as hell to learn from them!

10. When you finally sit down to enjoy the fruits of your labour share it with someone whose company you enjoy. Life is too short to do otherwise. Besides, a meal shared over conversation always tastes better than dining alone.

Find people with whom to share your experiences and memories. Recounting that hole-in-one or the big fish you reeled in is best embellished in good company and a bit of vino. And a companion will serve to remind you you're not dead at 40. But maybe at 50; from where I'm standing that's really out there but I'll let you know in a decade from now.

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

I was out with a friend the other afternoon doing the usual "gawking and aahing." It seems no matter how many times I return to Paris I am blown away each and every time by everything that is here. Walking around not far from a well-known falafel stall, we ran into a couple of his co-workers and a project leader. After the PR-nice exchange I asked my friend if he'd like to join his co-workers (because I could easily stand more time on French pronouns) but he declined and then proceeded to explain why. They are all computer programming types from India who have been assigned to this project for one of their large clients. Although my friend's colleagues are all staying in Versailles where the client is located, my friend chose Paris and the commuting option for what seems like obvious reasons. I suppose it's only obvious to those of us of the "gawking and aahing" set. According to the project leader there's nothing to see or do in Paris. What an utterly outrageous thought!

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Every time I'm in a wine shop or the wine section of the supermarket, I can't help but think of what Jacques says about a good wine. It's the one you like when you drink it, the one you like when you pay for it, and the one you like when you wake up the next morning. With that in mind I'm always keen to sniff out a good bargain plus shameless about giving a good friend's book a plug.

I was at Monoprix (an upscale supermarket) the other day scanning their white wines until finally settling on a Cotes de Saint-Mont. First, it was from south-west France which is a good place to start in France when seeking out wine bargains. Secondly, it was affixed with a plain cream coloured label. Generally, wines with pretty labels especially those with artist renderings tend to be bad bets unless one knows of the wine. Thirdly, it was dry and it was white; exactly what appealed in the summer heat. According to the label the grapes were Petit Courbu, Arrufiac, and Manseng, all unfamiliar to me. But how could I go wrong at less than 5e and an endorsement from Gault Milau no less? Although I would later learn from my French friends that 2e is about what they'd spend on an every day drinking wine so I guess I was splurging here.

It turned out to be a tremendous wine-- extremely flavourful and refreshing with a rather unusual but very pleasant nose. I thought I sniffed out ripe tropical fruit and honey but you take the word of a George Brown Wine Appreciation Course II flunkie at your peril. But I was really, really enamoured with this wine because I did a google search at my first opportunity and since then I have been reluctant to part with my now empty bottle even though it's been more than a week. Google unearthed tasting notes on the '98 vintage: simply "yum." Now why didn't I think of that very apt and concise description?

Then as I was knocking off my usual round of net reading I came across Corby Kummer's article in Atlantic Monthly. I follow Kummer's writing religiously, but obviously not religiously enough to have missed his take on the wines of Gascony back in December 2002. It turns out the wines of Cotes de Saint-Mont are rather special. These unfamiliar grapes are rare old varieties which have been brought back because of the efforts of an innovative cooperative. Jancis Robinson is reportedly a big fan of Dubosc who heads the Plaimont cooperative. Kummer is particularly keen about Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh, the sweet wine which can be served as an apéritif, with dessert, or paired with foie gras as is common in the region. Worth seeking out I would think.

Post note: I went back to Monoprix for another bottle but they had sold out of the wine. Hate when that happens. But I came across a different Cotes de Saint-Mont at Nicolas, the Plaimont cooperative's 2002 bearing 'En La Tradition' on the label. It was also very good and a few centimes cheaper I might add.

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