Now that a new life is beginning, here are some videos that mark my childhood. If you were a part of any of these, thank you for making a fool out of yourself for the greater good.
I began blind wine tasting a week ago. It has become the main source of excitement in my last week of freedom. The process involves going to a restaurant and asking the waiter to pick a set of wines from these red and white lists. The process is exactly like that of the film “Somm”. Based on visual characteristics, the smell and taste, you try to deduce the identity of the wine. This is the only way to truly appreciate wines without being pre-conditioned to believe something because of the price, the brand, and other clues. To truly have associations between label and wine, it is necessary to work backwards and determine the label by tasting only the wine.
As a blind taster, I am horrific. I struggle between the Bordeaux varieties and mix up Syrah and Malbec (on a daily basis, it seems). On a percentage basis, it seems like I can get close to the answer a little less than half the time. By close to the answer, I mean a similar varietal or a similar region. The likelihood of identifying the exact wine, appellation, vintage and all, is reserved for Master Sommeliers. I would be content with flirting with the truth. Here is an example that made me quite happy, despite being wrong.
A wine with a decidedly odd smell presented itself. It was so odd it is kind of hard to describe. The best description might have been what you could smell as you walked through a change room. Curtly, I wouldn’t drink it. On the palette it was a big wine, but without the Bordeaux characteristics. I immediately think of a Shiraz from Australia. I try to smell some green-ness and some pepper – both can potentially be there, just slightly covered up by the unbecoming smell. I almost say Shiraz from Australia because I can’t really think of anything better. But I realize I might have jumped to conclusions. The wine is a little earthy and isn’t as ripe as something from Australia. I end up thinking old world Shiraz, which would be naturally from the Rhone valley. It turns out that the wine is actually a Malbec from Cahors. In my defense, Cahors is not on these red and white lists, and therefore inadmissible. The Australian Shiraz / Argentinian Malbec mix-up is easy to make (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tSBOXLexDO4 – amazing series btw). The wine was actually the original Malbec from France; my guess was the original Syrah from France. The two regions are a few hundred kilometers from each other, both from south-ish France.
This is the same deductive reasoning used everywhere. It’s notably similar to classical name-that-tune, where you try to guess a song from what is being played. You have never heard the song before, but you can place it based on similarities with what you know. For the recreational wine drinker, it isn’t necessarily about placing the wine correctly in any particular region, but simply producing a good enough set of options the wine can be. Being able to know which wines the particular glass is not is also a worthy skill.
To do blind tasting is simple. Any time you want to order a wine, ask a friend or a waiter to pick it for you. It is usually optimal to order half-sized glasses (3oz). Going to a place with a good international wine list is important. Any high end restaurant is usually sufficient. The by-the-glass wine list at dbar, a random place I stumbled upon, was almost entirely on my testable list. A personal favourite is Crush Wine Bar, which does 3oz pours and has an excellent selection. It also comes in at the cheapest - $7.50 / glass after tax and tip. One has 3oz pours for about $8-10 (plus tax and tip). Luma, and probably the other O&B restaurants also have 3oz pours. Good luck.
It was inevitable to be drawn to wine. In Europe, it is slurped like water. In starred restaurants, it is paired with food. It strengthens the palate and plays tricks on the nose. It has as long a history as anything. It is intrinsic to and often defines culture all over the world. Its prevalence everywhere in the world is a testament to the closeness and oneness of humans. Pablo Neruda has nothing but good to say about the legendary grape (http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/ode-to-wine/). Beer is forever for the cheap drunkard; spirits are for the perennially unhappy (think Mad Men). Wine is for the jovial.
It would seem to be a shame to live through another day without the joys afforded by wine. But the subject is shrouded by mystery. It is also a fairly expensive taste. Altogether it is a difficult subject to learn. It is more complicated than beer by many magnitudes. For this reason, wine itself has been discounted by consumers that order indiscriminately, and buy according to price tag at the LCBO. Consider the sorrows of a wheat beer lover that accidentally orders a hoppy IPA. There are enough types of wine to suit any taste bud (and most budgets). One experience illustrates my recent obsession with wine.
It was just another day in Copenhagen. I was eating at a quaint little fishbar in an industrial part of town. The wines in Denmark are too expensive – the pairings with the meal at Geranium were over $100. They generally go for at least $10 a glass. But at least the standard glass size in Denmark is 200mL instead of the stingy French who only give 125mL. (In Canada, it is usually 150mL or 187 mL.) In my adventure to find a cheap glass of wine, I stumbled upon a sherry. I had used sherry vinegar before; but I had no idea it was a fortified wine – something the waitress was kind enough to explain to me.
I had enough. It seemed wrong to be going to all these restaurants in the name of food blogging yet being a complete amateur when it came to wine – an indispensible side of gastronomy. And I am generally against doing things half-assed so I decided to learn wines inside and out. I had watched a thrilling documentary called “Somm,” where wanabe sommeliers have to guess the varietal, vintage and appellation of a wine purely by sight, smell and taste. I re-watched some clips and got excited. That would be my goal. Someday, I want to be able to guess a wine from what it tastes like. It seemed like a good way to hone in on your senses – and to make you more acutely aware of your surroundings. The wanabe sommeliers talk about going to the market every day so they could smell apples, pears, berries, lemons – just so that they don’t lose their ability to pick up even the tiniest clue when blind tasting. So it’s obvious then that there is some intricate link between wine and food. Being good at one makes you good at the other. At the very least, it would be a cool party trick.
We are also at a stage of our lives when wine makes a lot of sense. Slowing metabolisms and beer bellies prefer wine. Learning wine is expensive – and now it’s affordable. The next post will detail my supercharged attempt to learn about wine. I was racing against my imminent job catching up with me. But for most people, a leisurely approach is acceptable.
Wine List (unsolicited advice to learn about wine)
1. Get a list of the most important wines in the world. And have one of each. There are an outrageous types of wine so only focus on the most important ones. That means stop drinking Ontario wines. There is nothing wrong with Ontario wines but you need to learn the important wines before learning the offshoots. Use these red and white lists because they are the testable material for the master sommelier diploma. If you can’t memorize this list, have it readily accessible when you order or buy wines.
2. Take some introductory classes. The most accessible are at the LCBO. Price per wine tasted is usually $5. You also get the lesson that comes with it.
3. Get a car and go to Niagara wine country. This is the cheapest place to try a lot of wine. It is usually $1-2 per wine tasted.
4. Blind Tasting. I will discuss this in detail in the next post. I think that our perception of wine is largely predetermined by irrelevant factors – mainly the price and how French-sounding the label is. The only way to truly understand wine is to turn wine-ordering around. Tell what a particular wine is without looking at the label. This can be done economically at any restaurant that sells flights of wine or wines for 3oz. The best one I’ve found so far is Crush Wine Bar, where it costs about $7.5 per wine blind tasted (after tax and tip).
Hayao Miyazaki had a fruitful filmmaking career, but for no film is he better known for than Totoro, a story about a pudgy rodent who could make trees grow out of nowhere. Totoro has since been used as the mascot for Miyazaki’s studio, and more broadly has become a symbol for childhood and innocence. This wide-eyed, frankly dumb looking invention is certainly adorable. It even comes in three incarnations: Big Totoro (grey), Medium Totoro (blue) and Little Totoro (white). It has admirers across the world. In Japan it was an immediate talking point with waiters. But more recently, a barista in Denmark picked up on it and expressed her love for it. It is a cross-cultural bridge, a universalized symbol.
Our love of pudgy animal-like creatures is not isolated to Totoro. The modern day equivalent is Pusheen, the round-bodied cat that wags its tail on Facebook. It reminds me vividly of my late cat which, once described a cow, died of obesity. In Tel Aviv, a skinnier cat that would have envied my cat’s luxurious lifestyle was jumping around furiously to get its paws on a Totoro coin purse. This immediately spurred a conversation about my own former cat, a picture of which solicited a visceral “it’s fat” reaction from the waitress. Trust me, it was much cuter in person. My dad later admitted to wanting to fatten it up a little to give it a cuter figure.
Pokemon is not short of pudgy characters: most notably the karaoke-loving Jigglypuff. But probably the heaviest is the adorable Snorlax who is also an Olympic swimmer. Japan, in particular, has seem to have iconized obesity, perhaps because of its rich culture of sumo wrestling and Buddha. Not all Buddhas are fat; Gautama Buddha, the original one, is quite slim whereas the Chinese “Budai” is heavy. In an unlikely conversation with an Algerian couple in Turkey, they said they preferred the fat Buddha, the wife adding that she loves her fat husband.
What can explain our obsession with pudginess in everything except living people? The fat Venus of Willendorf, exhibited at Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna, was once the symbol of beauty. Now, she would be considered unhealthy. There is probably still a basic instinct that links pudginess with well-fed and therefore happiness. Perhaps seeing a fat character draws the same reaction as the uncontrollable joys of eating.
The Totoro coin purse has followed me around in my travels. At times, intended or not, it has participated in my photo album. When it has coins, it is pudgy. When it is poor, it looks like a pancake. Again, another reason why we like pudgy things.
Many a Canadian have used Icelandair to fly home from Europe via Reykjavik, and some have taken advantage of the option to have a lengthy layover. This island is best described as fantastical, as if it inspired Game of Thrones and Middle Earth. This small island inhabited by about 300,000 is home to breathtaking sights of nature that seem as capricious as the strong bursts of wind and rain, changing in mere minutes. Close to volcanic activity on the fault lines, like near the legendary Blue Lagoon where a soft blue-hued geothermal pool invites visitors from all over, the landscape is like that of the moon (not that I know what the moon looks like). It seems barren, jagged, black. Further away, near the Kerið volcanic crater, a Mars-red terrain is imposing and breathtaking. Other parts look like any beautiful site from Switzerland, with the trio of plains, mountains and lakes. The mountains are particularly picturesque, appearing more like plateaus that disappear into the clouds.
The most popular travel option is to take a full day tour around the “golden circle”. See fault lines between the North Atlantic and North American plates, the reason for the volcanic activity, at Þingvellir national park, home to the largest lake in Iceland. See steaming water shoot out at in Geysir area (from which comes the English word Geysir). Most popular on the route is the two-tiered waterfall “Gullfoss” or golden waterfall. Walking into the fantastical mist is like going into the wardrobe and coming out in another world. For a full “circle”, go to Faxi waterfall, Skálholt (a church), the Kerið volcano crater and end with a look at the thermal energy production facility at Hellisheiðarvirkjun. This round trip takes about 7-8 hours to complete. In the evening, the blue lagoon up a little and is transformed from a squishy public swimming pool to the relaxing spa that it advertises itself to be. Around the perimeter, there are little spa stations where you can smudge tar on your face. The views of the moon-like surface nearby is quite special and unlike the other hot springs of this world. Just be prepared to see some naked people in the showers, though private showers are available.
The best way to see all of this is to rent a car (~15000 a day, gas is about twice as expensive as it is in Canada). Otherwise go on a guided tour (~10000 a person).
Reykjavik itself is quite condensed, with major sites easily walk-able. As a city of 200,000 should be, there is not too much to do, though it certainly punches above its weight. It is difficult to think of another small city having such a substantial art gallery (Hafnarhus), history museum (National Museum), a Van Rohe winning concert hall (Harpa), and an evil looking church (Hallgrimskirkja). A wealth of shopping opportunities also present itself. It features the standard for Nordic products: utilitarian style.
Options for food and drinks are notably strong as well. The finest food is at Forrettabarinn, where both duck and foal are lusciously pink and adorned with the tastiest condiments (~2000 a course). This restaurant could easily make the top 100 list. Then, for some ethically problematic but culturally sacrosanct dining, have horse and whale at Grillmarkadurinn (~2000 a starter, ~5000 for main). The drink of choice in Iceland is beer, where the price never dips below 1000 ISK. At MicroBar, which feels more like a Hotel lounge than a bar, a flight of five can be had for 2500 ISK. Or go to the groovier Kaldi Bar. A pint is about 1100 ISK.
In many ways, it is similar to Nordic culture. It isn’t a society fixated on laws and discipline, as French society is. Nordic society relies on the goodwill and common sense of individuals.
There is unobstructed entry into public transportation and checks are infrequent (compared to Paris, where there are gates as well as checks). There are no attendants at the doors of museums, as if it were a free exhibit. Some museums don’t even issue tickets. At closing time, no one ushers you out at closing time – it’s expected that you know when the museum closes and will see yourself out. This is, of course, the idealization of society, and very few societies can ever reach this level of tolerance and still function properly. But somehow, Iceland is able to.