Damm Inedit

When we were leaving Spain, we were browsing the duty free in the Barcelona airport, looking at their meagre selection of whiskies, trying to find a nice bottle to bring home with us, I spotted a display of Estrella Damm’s Inedit. Inedit is a beer created by, according the the little booklet that comes with every bottle to hammer home the point you will be purchasing and drinking a truly remarkable beer, “globally acclaimed chef Ferran Adrià, Juli Soler and sommeliers Ferran Centelles and David Seijas from El Bulli Restaurant.”  It also boasts that it is a “beer specifically created to pair with food”.  I first saw this beer when we had lunch one afternoon at a great paella place by the sea.  At a table near us was a family of tourists with a couple of young children.  The dad ordered a bottle of beer; it was apparently some fancy beer despite the Damm label around the neck, because after serving it was kept in a bucket of ice at the end of the table, much like a nice bottle of wine.  One of the kids, who looked to be about six years old, asked the dad if it was dry-hopped, which Anna thought was hilarious because in that moment she saw our future. I was curious about it because while Spain isn’t exactly famed for its beer, I do like to try as many local beers as I can.

I’ve hinted at craft beer’s “wine envy” here and in comments here, and while this isn’t craft beer by any reasonable definition of the term, don’t we have in Damm Inedit the most literal example of beer trying to prove that it is sophisticated enough for wine drinkers?  That finally we have a beer refined enough that it can be drunk with fine food?

This idea is, of course, nonsense.  There are plenty of beers that go excellently with food.  Yes, even high-end food.  Last fall we went to New York and had a superb meal at wd-50. For my main, I had Wagyu steak with barley and malt and it went wonderfully with a malty German lager.  And here I am at Au Pied du Cochon’s cabane à sucre–maybe not fine dining, but gourmet nevertheless–feeding beer to a chicken head:The idea that there is now finally a beer good enough to accompany fine food says more about Ferran Adrià’s ignorance about beer than it does about anything else.  But, hey, it was four euro a bottle, so why not try it?

We decided to try it with one of the best foods to pair with beer: (homemade) sausage on a bun.  Of course, had I looked more closely at the Inedit booklet before starting dinner I would have realised that such a fine beer wasn’t made for such rough and ready proletarian fare as sausage on a bun, but was rather “created to pair with the most exquisite and challenging foods. Foods that contain: citrus and oils: i.e. salads, vinegar based sauces. Bitter notes: i.e. asparagus, artichokes, rucula. Oily textures: ie. salmon, tuna, fatty cheese.” Though from the beer’s website we see that “this beer can take acidic, sweet and sour flavours by the hand. the symphony of flavours in each dish is different, but there can be a common thread capable of unifying them all, for a sense of continuity so there is no need to switch drinks.” So maybe it can go with most foods?  Sausage it is, with a side of grilled potatoes and zucchini.

Maybe we should have eaten something closer to the recommended foods to get an idea of how this beer pairs with food because it brought very little to the complex seasoning of the sausage. It is, in effect, a pretty ordinary Belgian-style blanche with subtle coriander and orange peel notes, and a clean finish that suggests a bottom-fermenting yeast.  The subtlety of the spicing verges on blandness.  It was okay, but not something I feel inclined to try again.  There are far better examples of this style: Unibroue’s Blanche de Chambly is a locally-brewed blanche that far surpasses the Damm version.

I’m struggling to find things to say about the beer because there really isn’t anything remarkable about it. If this was a wine, and the beer and its presentation really do beg the comparison, I can’t see it having a place on a high-end wine list.  There’s just not enough going on with it.  The very idea that there is a beer that can pair with food, instead of a variety of beers with different flavours–bitter, sweet, sour, spicy–suggest a lack of seriousness put into conceiving the ways in which beer and food can work together. This beer and its conception seem completely ignorant of the brewing world, and it basically does a very mediocre job of attempting to reinvent the wheel. I suspect that a large reason why the beer exists, and is distributed as widely as it is (for example, you can purchase bottles in Quebec at the SAQ) is because El Bulli was hemorrhaging money–the New York Times reports here that annual losses of a half a million Euros were what led to the restaurant closing–and the beer doubtlessly generates a decent amount of income.  That doesn’t mean that it’s groundbreaking or exceptional.


On Fancy Comfort Food

I always feel conflicted about the current trend towards restaurants serving upscale versions of comfort food. On the one hand, because I believe so strongly in food being about care and social connection and because this is just what I love to eat, I am a a diehard devotee of comfort food. These are the kinds of foods that connect us to our families, our cultural heritages, and each other. And so I am thrilled that when I go out for dinner, I increasingly have the option to indulge in this kind of eating. On the other hand, I am very skeptical of the commodification of traditionally “peasant” foods, which are re-appropriated and marked up to become acceptable to our yuppy palates. I hate the pretension of some of these efforts, and I am not sure they always do justice to the cultural traditions they claim to represent. They often seem like expensive versions of food that are tastier, and more satisfying, when I make them at home. Additionally, I wonder why we need fancy restaurants to rehabilitate these foods for us. In this post, I talked about rediscovering head cheese in one of Montreal’s nicer restaurants. It was absolutely amazing and I have no objection to a nice restaurant serving a delicious food that they’ve done super well–in fact, I am obviously glad that they’re perpetuating an often maligned form of charcuterie–but I kind of hated myself for only trying it within a fine dining context. And I hate that culturally, we increasingly talk about what used to be the food of the poor like it is exotic and mysterious. It makes me feel like Marie Antoinette playing in my peasant village or something.

(And of course, all of this reclaiming of “poor people food” is happening while very real issues related to actual poor people’s access to food are a huge social problem. And a problem that the very same “foodies”, while savouring their/our gorgonzola mac and cheese, tend to treat patronizingly as being about laziness, negligence and ignorance, rather than, you know, poverty. But this is a rant for another time.)

How can we honour these foods, and genuinely love and enjoy them, without fetishizing them? I don’t know, but this has been on my mind ever since we visited the Au Pied de Cochon Cabane à Sucre this weekend. For the non-Montrealers, Au Pied de Cochon and its accompanying cabane  à sucre, are the creations of Montreal’s prodigal chef, Martin Picard. The former has been one of the most talked about restaurants in the city ever since it opened a little over five years ago. I first heard about it in the context of one of the restaurant’s most well-known dishes, its foie gras poutine, and I was instantly annoyed; I thought it sounded gimmicky and stupid, and a bastardization of a food that is meant to be cheap and simple. I came around, though, once I actually ate there, and understood what Picard was trying to do. Rather than simply trying to make “fancy” versions of local dishes, Picard has made it his mission to do justice to québécois foods such that they are recognized and taken as seriously as the French classics that have for so long dominated local fine dining. There is this fine line between bastardizing local dishes like pouding chômeur (literally “unemployed person’s pudding”) and doing justice to them that epitomizes my ambivalence with the fancy comfort food trend that I discuss above. And somehow Picard, who bathes half of his food in local foie gras that he miraculously manages to present totally unpretentiously, really pulls off the latter. I am not quite sure how he does it, but I think a large part of it is the genuine love and affection for these culinary traditions that pours out of the food his restaurants serve. They do not feel like a re-appropration; they feel like a love letter. While his restaurants are pricy, they are oddly good value given the generosity of the dishes and their richness (bringing home doggie bags is pretty much the only way to survive one of his meals). Despite the upscale nature of what he’s doing, the food is profoundly satisfying and comforting, as it should be. And it is absolutely delicious.

The cabane à sucre is the latest effort in Picard’s mission to pay hommage to québécois cuisine. For those not in the know, going to the cabane à sucre, or sugar shack, is an awesome springtime tradition in Québec; around the time they tap the trees for maple syrup, folks head out of town for their first breath of fresh air after a long winter, and generally eat a disgustingly rich meal of a dozen different kinds of pork/ham/lard, as well as pancakes and eggs, all bathed in maple syrup. This meal is usually finished off with tire, which involves one’s kindly host pouring lines of hot maple syrup into a trough of snow, which you then pick up and wrap around a popsicle stick and savour as it hardens. Trips to the cabane à sucre usually happen in big groups and often end in square dancing, or in another local “tradition” of sorts, crappy 80s disco music (a remnant of failed attempts to make the cabane à sucre “hip”). This is the stuff of extreme food nostalgia when you’ve grown up here, and so, as we headed out to Martin Picard’s version of the venerated institution, I was, again, skeptical. Cabanes à sucre are not meant to be fine dining experiences, I protested!

But it was so, so, so good. And once again, you had this space that certainly reinvented and fancified traditional québécois foods, but it was still so hearty, and so generous, and kind of sloppy and indulgent and food coma-inducing, that it worked. It still felt like a cabane à sucre, albeit a clearly unorthodox one, and I think I loved the food there even more than what I’ve eaten at the Montreal restaurant. My one complaint is that I do wish the cabane was able to offer the larger experience that one generally enjoys at a traditional cabane à sucre–such as walking trails in the surrounding areas, or dancing–but otherwise it did real justice to my food memories, and was absolutely delicious to boot. I won’t bother “reviewing” the meal further as there are a million reviews of the place floating around the internet. I’ll just finish by posting photos of the ridiculously indulgent meal that we enjoyed there (and that we enjoyed the next night, too, as we had enough leftovers that all six of us were able to take plenty home!). Sadly, probably my favourite dish of the night is not pictured–probably because I was too busy gorging myself on it–which was this amazing salad of arugula, cubes of ham, cubes of cheddar, walnuts and a dijon dressing topped in the lightest, crispiest oreilles de crisse (literally “Christ’s ears”) I have even eaten. I swear I could eat that salad every day, although it probably would not be a good idea.

Thoughts on the Possibilities of Food

While Graeme and I love cooking, eating, and talking about food, we have always been resistant to terms like “foodie”. I know a lot of people have called out the rise of “foodie” culture as exclusionary and elitist, which is a critique for which I unsurprisingly have a lot of sympathy. But I also have another problem with it. I worry about the ways in which “foodie” as a category of people who have made a hobby out of food has made the whole project of loving cooking and eating about its fetishization; about working with and consuming things that are rare, or difficult, or special, or, yes, expensive. What especially bothers me is when we talk about loving food with no context; when the conversation becomes only about food as a means and as an end in and of itself. To me, a huge part of why I am someone passionate about food is its social context. Food brings us together, helps us learn about each other, helps us learn about our pasts, and makes us feel cared for and loved. Food is a form of communication. Talking about food outside of its social importance strikes me as, more than anything else, really quite dull.

Obviously I do not mean to suggest that anyone who uses the term “foodie” is subscribing to the strange way of seeing food that I am problematizing above. Of course not. These terms take off and take on lives of their own that can mean a million different things. But I do feel, in my reading of food books, magazines, blogs, etc.–and I read about food quite a lot–that that fetishizing and decontextualizating is a pretty recurring feature in the current landscape where food is the new rock’n’roll, so to speak. I think the trendiness of food right now can be really promising–amazing new restaurants open every week and grocery stores increasingly stock more and more diverse ingredients–but again, when it is divorced from any sort of deeper meaning (why do I care that I can buy eight thousand different kinds of chiles now?) it falls kind of flat for me.

I am thinking about this this morning as I laze around on the couch in an attempt to recover from the last few days. When not cooking or eating, I am an academic, and I just finished organizing the most ambitious conference that I have been involved in to date. When my co-organizer and I first started conceptualizing the conference, about a year ago, we thought about the previous academic events we had attended, and how much hospitality had played into our experiences of those events; not just in terms of how much we “enjoyed” them, but also how being treated well, and feeling cared for, opened up spaces for conversation and allowed us to deepen the academic conversations we were having and build stronger connections to each other. Academics have often been criticized for wasting money on wining and dining, which is kind of nuts because if you’ve ever been on the other end of these things, your budget, and how you are allowed to spend it, tends to be so restricted (as a way of preventing accusations of excessive wining and dining), that it becomes very difficult to spoil people who have travelled very far to attend your conference, at all. This plays into a larger politics and discourse of seeing what academics do as being lazy and self-indulgent, but that’s a post for another time (and really another blog).

I joke a lot about being a crazy child of immigrants who is obsessive about hosting and feeding people, bu beyond the self-deprecating humour, I am constantly thinking about how such a focus affects my life and my social world beyond just keeping everybody well fed. And this conference that I am currently recovering from is an amazing example. My colleague and I, in planning it, explicitly prioritized making sure that people felt hosted and cared for. We did not do anything fancy at all; we are in the humanities, where there is never money for any kind of upscale dining or anything remotely luxurious. We mostly ordered inexpensive foods from local restaurants that we loved, and made sure there was plenty of it. We made sure that there were ample opportunities for us to all eat together, as these are the spaces in which the formal conversations that occur in conference sessions are deepened, and in which collaborations are begun. And the results were incredible; despite the fact that we didn’t really do that much to create these socially welcoming spaces, people could not stop commenting on how well cared for they felt (also a testament to how few academic events will do even this much). And the resulting conversations, and academic work that happened, were a result of that warm and fuzzy feeling. People are not robots; how well they think and work has everything to do with the circumstances in which they do so. Treated well, people felt like they wanted to give back what they had been given; their contributions to the conference were generous and engaged. There was a general sense of good will and desire to work across our disagreements and find common ground. We had all eaten together so we were all in it together. Eating together creates a sense of collaboration that changes how people relate to each other personally and professionally. It allows conversations to ripen and to go places where they would not and could not in more formal settings. Simply put: many of the best discussions that happened simply would not have happened had we not created an intimate and collaborative space through, among other things, food.

That is what loving food is about to me; I love the spaces that food creates. I do not love food as a status symbol, but rather as something that can create social intimacy. When I obsess over the perfect corn bread recipe or where in this godforsaken city I can find a decent taco, what I am searching for is not just an especially transcendent combination of flavours and textures (although obviously that’s part of it). I am also looking for the way a food makes you feel, such that it opens up possibilities. This is something that I want to keep in mind as we build this blog–that it is not merely about this recipe and that restaurant, but also about how food and drink make us feel, and especially how they help us relate to each other. I think it is important to talk explicitly about food as something that can create social intimacy in a world where food is so pathologized–we tend to talk about food as this dangerous thing that can only do us harm if we dare to enjoy it too much–what about the power of food beyond physical health? What about what it does for us socially, and even politically? That is some powerful stuff that is far more interesting to me than truffle oil or whatever the next trendy ingredient is.