Sunday, January 22, 2012

"You probably shouldn't eat that."

My mother responded the way most mothers would upon hearing my description of the latest stuff-I-ate-and-loved.

The seemingly lethal dish? Unpasteurized, curdled, moldy sheep’s milk, washed down with the fermented juice of rotten grapes.

When described in such a way, I’d have to agree with my mom: the classic pairing of Roquefort with Sauternes has never seemed less appetizing. But over the course of our eight months at UNISG, we’ve come to understand and appreciate the processes that give cheese, wine, and other products their unique flavour. Without the transformative powers of decomposition, fermentation, and inoculation, our gastronomic world would be much blander.

While the prospect of eating rotting or fermented meat is likely to trigger your gag reflex, any high-quality cut of meat or salame has, to a certain extent, been in such a state. An animal’s body stiffens after slaughter, but with time, enzymes break down the proteins in the muscles along with other molecules. Often referred to as “dry-aging,” this process essentially involves the decomposition of the animal carcass. But when carefully executed in a controlled environment, it causes the meat to tenderize and develop a depth of flavour not found in its raw form. As the aging has already primed the meat for maximum organoleptic delight, neither elaborate seasoning nor cooking methods are needed: some salt, freshly cracked black pepper, and smokey char will suffice.

Non-prime cuts of meat undergo a different sort of change: fermentation. Various bacteria are responsible for transforming the mixture of ground meat, fat, and spices into a salame. The acidic environment that the bacteria create make the salame safe to savour long after it’s been made. And don’t let those white fuzzy surface molds fool you: they actually are consuming the oxygen that would otherwise cause the salame to become rancid.

Two staples of Asian cuisine – miso and kimchi – also exist thanks to the work of microbes. While there are many different types of miso, they all involve some combination of cooked soybeans and moldy rice. During the ensuing fermentation—which can last for weeks or even years—enzyme-producing microbes break down the rice’s starch and beans’ proteins into simple sugars and amino acids, creating the sweet and umami sensations that miso is renowned for.

Cabbage becomes considerably more interesting when left to ferment with spices and fish sauce—itself another example of the “edible rotten”—to create kimchi, the essential element of a Korean meal. It also raises the question, who came up with that? The same could be asked for all of these products. Seriously, who first said, “You know this fresh meat? Let’s stuff it in pig intestines and see what happens.”

Legends abound: Tokaji AszĂș—Sauternes’ Hungarian relative—was supposedly discovered during a moment of peace during the many wars between the Austro-Hungarians and Turks. When the Turks returned home to observe Ramadan, so did their Slavic rivals. These famers-turned-soldiers found that their grapes had been ravaged by a fungus. Luckily for them, it was botytris cinerea, now known as the “noble rot.” Luckily for us, they decided to press the grapes anyway, and their descendants have been making the golden nectar ever since.

In reality the credit shouldn’t be entirely attributed to such fortunate accidents of questionable veracity: the powerful combination of necessity and ingenuity undoubtedly had a hand. The need to preserve the abundance of the milking season, harvest, or slaughter bred innovation. With time, the recipes and production methods have been perfected, and the resulting products are now revered as traditional and emblematic. Chemistry and history and biology and culture all melded into that one perfect bite: Yes, you definitely should eat that.

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