Saturday, November 17, 2012

How did we come to believe that food industry chemicals and processing could replace nature-made foods?

I realise that many articles and books have been published about the food industry and its influence on our health and eating habits, meaning that I am pretty late with my opinion about this matter. Fact is also that my insight about this came by the passion for natural wine without additives some ten years ago, followed by the many encounters with passionate cooks and foodies. I also meet more and more people who are allergic to much un-natural stuff in food and wine, and this made me think about the subject. And last but not least, I am a chemist, but didn’t have much knowledge about the topic and the effect on our health, so my opinion was not outspoken at all.

A hundred years ago all food was organic, local, seasonal, fresh or naturally-preserved by ancient methods. All food was food. Now less than 3 percent of the Western agricultural land is used to grow fruits and vegetables, which should make up 80 percent of our diet. Today there are not even enough fruits and vegetables to allow all people to follow the healthy guidelines to eat enough of it a day. What most of us are left with is industrial food. And who knows what lurks in the average boxed, packaged, or canned factory-made science project. When a French fry has more than 20 ingredients and almost all of them are not potato, or when a fast food hamburger contains very little meat, or when the average teenager consumes 34 teaspoons of sugar a day, we are living in a food nightmare, a sci-fi horror show. Do you agree?

The very fact that we are having debates about what we should eat, that we are struggling with the question about what the best diet is, is symptomatic of how far we have strayed from the natural conditions that gave rise to our species, from the simple act of eating real, whole, fresh food. When it becomes a revolutionary act to eat real food, we are in trouble.

The best advice is to avoid food with health claims on the label, or better yet avoid food with labels in the first place. The food industry is one of the biggest in the world, and people seem to forget this all the time, despite the obvious heavy influences on media and government. Low-fat is good -- so anything with a "low-fat" on the label must be healthy. But Coke is 100 percent fat-free and that doesn't make it a health food. Now we are told to eat more whole grains, so a few flecks of whole grains are sprinkled on sugary cereals. That doesn't make them a health food either. Or what to think of the more recent obsession to avoid carbs in whatever you put in your mouth?

In the 21st century our tastes buds, our brain chemistry, our biochemistry, our hormones and our kitchens have been hijacked by the food industry. We need to un-junk our biology!! Industrial processing has given rise to an array of addictive, fattening, metabolism-jamming chemicals and compounds including aspartame, MSG (monosodium glutamate), high-fructose corn syrup and trans fats, to name the biggest offenders. MSG is an excito-toxin that stimulates your brain to eat uncontrollably. When fed to mice, they get fat. It is in 80 percent of processed foods and mostly disguised as "natural flavorings." And trans fat, for example, is derived from vegetable oil - chemically altered to resist degradation by bacteria, which is why modern cookies last on the shelf for years. But do we need cookies that can stay good for years knowing that our metabolism cannot process these trans fats which result in a shitty situation in our bodies?

Your tongue can be fooled and your brain can become addicted to the slick combinations of fat, sugar, and salt pumped into factory-made foods, but your biochemistry cannot, and the result is the disaster of obesity and chronic disease we have today. On purpose I don’t mention cancer, but even more and more normal weight people have one or more cardiovascular risk factors, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol or high blood sugar. Factory food makes people sick; there is no doubt about this!! But since a couple of years the powerful marketing machine is making us believe that products with low cholesterol is the way to go. Look in your local supermarket for all the health labels on the products. And funny enough the human species swallow all this nonsense. Do you really think that probiotic milk drinks like ‘yakult’ is needed if you eat normal healthy food? But the beauty of all those problems is that another industry lives from the more serious cases. The pharmaceutical industry have solutions for your stomach problems, high blood pressure, heart disease, … caused by the years of shit-intake. Thank you very much, dudes.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is time to take our kitchens and our homes back. Transforming the food industry seems monumental, a gigantic undertaking. But it is not. It is a small problem. In the small places in our lives, our shopping carts, the fridge, the cupboard, the kitchen and on our dining room table is where all the power is.

It is the hundreds of little choices, the small actions you make every day that will topple the monolithic food industry. The previous century is littered with the bodies and institutions of fallen despots and despotic regimes -- from the fall of the Berlin wall to the Arab spring. There is no force more powerful than a small group of individuals with a desire to end injustice and abuse. A very simple idea can break through the confusion and plant the seeds of a revolution. Our bodies were designed to run on real food. Our natural default state is health. We need to simplify our way of eating. Un-junk our diet, detoxify our bodies and our minds and we heal. Simply choose foods such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, healthy oils (olive oil, fish oil, avocado and coconut oil), small amounts of whole grains and beans and lean animal protein including small wild fish, grass fed meat, and farm eggs. There are no diets, no calorie counting, and no measuring fats, carbs or protein grams. None of that matters if you choose real, whole, fresh, live foods. If you choose quality, the rest takes care of itself.

When you eat empty industrial food with addictive chemicals and sugar, your body craves more, looking for nutrients in a dead food where none are to be found. Remember, you are what you eat. Mother Nature is the best pharmacist and food is the most powerful drug on the planet. It works faster, better and cheaper than any other pharmaceutical. Dinner is a date with the doctor. What you put at the end of your fork is more powerful than anything you will ever find at the bottom of a prescription bottle. Just eat real food. Each of us has the capacity to make the small changes in our lives that will create big changes in our food landscape and our agriculture. I hope you will use the power of your fork to be part of the start of a true food revolution.

Did those two last paragraphs also made you laugh? Is St Etienne greener than the most extreme hippy in San Francisco? Why is health so important suddenly, for a guy who likes to hang with others boozing natural wine until dawn?

Congratulation, you are part of the happy few. The fact that you are reading a blog about food and wine means that you are not living in a part of the world where you need to search or beg for food. You live in an area where fresh (organic) fruit and vegetables are easily available, if you are willing to pay a fair price for it. Daily fresh bread is easily available. You can even find fresh fish around the corner. You have some butchers nearby where you can buy different types of beef, from different races and aged over different time. You have a few favourite restaurants where they serve the type of food and wine you like and you are willing to pay for this experience. You like to hang in trendy coffee houses which are roasting their own beans. Oh, maybe you are from California and drive weekly to the Whole Food Market for organic food (despite the silicone and botox in your body) with your new green car, which recently replaced your S.U.V. You despite fat people, as they can’t take care of themselves. Thinking about it, there are many selfish persons, putting themselves in the middle of the world, without taking into account the fast-growing population of the already overpopulated world. Do you also close your eyes for the economic and sociologic reality while eating a kiwi from the other side of the world?

Fact is that we don’t have enough space to provide real and healthy food to the entire planet. Until a few years ago men in China didn’t ask to each other what they had been eating, but ‘if’ they had eaten. Mass production, mass processing and mass distribution at low prices had made it possible to provide ‘food’ into those regions. Many people don’t care if the weed was growing organically. They are mainly interested if they can afford something to feed their family. And the sad thing is that this is now also pretty common in the Western world, where many people have to survive on one-dollar menus, which is often a combination of deep fried shit or a mix of rice.

The public food companies striving for quarterly higher profits are there to stay and are penetrating the fast growing countries, like India and China. They are bringing even more shitty body filling on the market, at even cheaper production costs. There shouldn’t been too many complaints yet about health in those countries. But at the same time we should also applause the fact that those companies are providing many new jobs in the countries where they start producing. So what advise should I provide to you? I honestly don’t know. I guess it depends on your personal situation, so decide for yourself, but please do not forget: you are what you eat!!

St Etienne
Chemist & Part of the Elite who can afford real food

Ps Thanks to Mark Hymann, M.D. for providing the insides in the matter and most info I have found (and this is not a joke) in the CIA World Factbook, but also during my professional visits of some big food R&D centers

Friday, October 5, 2012

Finland: a country full of hidden food treasures

I could talk about the fact that in 3 days I became the best Belgian Nordic skier, that Finnish women are the most beautiful (at least after a few drinks) and that 28°C is fucking cold (Finns do not specify the minus as they know that during the winter the temperature is under zero), but as this is a food & wine blog, I will talk about some unknown treasures…

In my life I try to combine pleasure (my work) with fun, and this time this would be a trip to Helsinki again, but this time combined with a 4-days trip to Lapland during the winter of 2012. Finland is not known for its food culture, even being part of the ‘Nordic’ countries, which seems to be the keyword in the world of food those days. Former French President Jacques Chirac once said: ‘After Finland, Britain is the country with the worst food.’ Ouch!! Gangster Silvio Berlusconi agrees, ‘I’ve been to Finland and I had to endure the Finnish diet…’ Double ouch!! Former Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen luckily replied back in the defence of Finnish food with, ‘I like spaghetti, as long as it is not spiced too much. I like simple food.’ Zing!!

Dear reader, what’s your favourite Finnish restaurant in your country? Can’t name one? Don’t worry. No one can, as there aren’t any. Finnish cuisine doesn’t really exist. Sure there are some specialities you won’t find elsewhere in the world, but these were created out of necessity or durability, rather than taste.


The capital has restaurants of course, but sadly I never saw such a concentration of kebabs and pizzeria, and most of the time the two combined and owned by a Finnish speaking Turk. That last part deserves an enormous respect! Hot-dog stands seems also very popular at night. Strangely enough the ‘normal’ restaurants (ravintola in Finnish) belong very often to a group, where for instance also one of the big supermarket chains belongs. If it rains in Copenhagen and Stockholm, then nothing happens in Helsinki. The Finnish population, known for its innovation, engineering skills and sober quietness seems to stay in standby mode when it comes to food and wine. Of course there are exceptions and writing this, I know some people who will be disappointed in my introduction. There are since a couple of years some new restaurants popping up, but I seem to be going back to the same ones all the time, after trying others. My favourite is without a doubt the fabulous Chef and Sommelier (see 2 pictures) and when visiting it, say hi to Sasu. This restaurant is a no-bullshit place with honest local organic food, prepared in an innovative way, and full of passion*. They clearly know what to do with all those unique ingredients, which seem to be an exception of the rule. Let the product speaks for itself!!


The more often I go to Helsinki, and believe me, I have good reasons, the more I love the country. I still don’t understand the language and I still have difficulties with the surficial coldness of the people (they call it shyness), but once you know them you realise how wonderful people they are. The beauty of this huge country with its never ending landscapes is unique. And to come back on topic, they have some wonderful nature’s pure products which belong into people’s stomachs. I am not sure with what to start…

Aloitetaas...  Far in the swamps of the Northern forests grows an orange berry, called cloudberry (Lakka in Finnish). I felt deeply in love with this little beauty, with her unique character. The first time I tasted it was two years ago in Geranium (Copenhagen) and F12 (Stockholm). They are very difficult to find and on location you pay at least 30 euro per kilo. In some shops in Finland and at the airport you can find marmalade of it, but of course this is not the same. During the winter you can find them frozen. A typical local coffee snack is Leipäjuusto (a cow milk cheese) suffused with the cloudberries. The cheese is almost tasteless, but there is no better way to guarantee the juicy taste of the fruit. Beside this cloudberry you can find a lot of different more-known berries. Did you know that the best strawberries are coming from the far North? No, I am not kidding and no I don’t have Aquavit in my blood! Ladies and gentlemen, I say without a doubt, forget our conservatory strawberries or the one cooking in the tropical sun of South of Europe. Try to taste, at least once in your life, one strawberry from the North of Finland, meaning the area where during the summer the sun is not disappearing and do not cause extreme temperatures, so that the berries can slowly ripe.

Jatketaan! Maybe less unknown is the reindeer. I have tried during my stay in Lapland different versions: the dried, what seems to be sold as a candy, the smoked, often presented in a starter, the more traditional minced version with red currants and mashed potatoes, and also a grilled version. All very tasteful. The only piece missing on my track record is the liver of veal. But maybe the encounter with an entire family in the wild forest during one of my long winter sport session made my heart soft. Can it be even more tasteful? Kyllä!! Try a piece of moose. Ladies and gentlemen, this is so good, that it should be forbidden. The meat is so rich, that you can’t stop eating, but luckily the bill will make you stop ordering more. There are plenty of other games, with bear being the most exotic, and I guess the most exclusive. Try one of the Russian restaurants in Helsinki if you want to taste it.

Very often Finns forget another of their national proud: game birds or at least the meat of it. The fact that Finland has a high concentration of rifles means also that there are no statistics about the consumption of game meat, but for sure many ends up on Mika’s or Tapio’s plate. Speaking about statistics: addiction to illegal drugs may be low in Finland, but addiction to caffeine is the highest in the world. The average person consumes 1.3 kg of coffee each year, while in Finland the average person consumes 12 kg each year. An explanation could be the long, cold, dark winters, but how come that ice-cream consumption is also huge per inhabitant in this part of the world? Hä?

Writing this now in the autumn made me also remembering the fact that everyone is free to forage mushrooms in the many forests. A one-hour search made me once collecting plenty of chanterelles and four boletes (they were no ceps that time). Did you know that Finland export a lot of ceps to Italy, so remember when paying a lot of money for those dried mushrooms during your stay in Tuscany or another Italian region that there is a big change that they are from a forest somewhere in the North of Europe. Wild herbs can be also found easily in nature, but surprisingly the whole population spices their dishes with only salt and pepper, and that’s it.

Every Finn knows that a hearty bowl of non-sugared porridge in the morning will last you until lunchtime – which is about 10:30 – so porridge lasts about two or three hours. And as every Finnish freezer is packed with berries and jams, so toss these in your porridge if you’re into food with flavour. I still didn’t convinced one Finnish person that marmalade can also be put on bread. They honestly don’t see the point… Finland has very good bread, with dark rye as being the most common, but you should also try the following breads during your visit (no way you will find this outside Finland, even if you can pronounce it correctly): saaristoleipä, näkkileipä, rieska, limppu,…

Okei, hijennetään vähäsen... The advantage of Finland is that if you don’t have a sea close to you, for sure there are plenty of clean lakes and rivers in the neighbourhood. And this simple fact means that there is a large amount of fresh and pure fish and shellfish close to every kitchen. The most exquisite salmon can be found, but I honestly prefer the arctic char more, and if during the season they serve crayfish, I don’t look at other options on a menu. Blini’s, the Russian pancakes are very familiar those days, and can be found in most supermarkets wherever you live. There is also a Finnish version, a much bigger one, which means that you only eat one, as a starter, in combination with smoked salmon, pieces of onion, smetana cream and little eggs of a fish.


I should also write about one of the most incredible and fascinating invention of food in the whole wide world: Mämmi, which is eaten traditionally around Easter and can be found during that period in some supermarkets. Only people with a lot of time can afford to make this at home, as it take many hours to create this fermented rye malt. I need to be honest at this point: I don’t know any food which has so many resemblances to shit, but once passed this hurtle, I liked it a lot. The cook of the Italian embassy in Helsinki felt in love at first sight (?) with the dark brown mush, and created a fan-club and mämmi organisation, and finally published a book about it.

Probably the biggest treasure of Finland is the pure clean water they have in their many lakes. A pretty wasted Finn accompanied by a clearly paid lady, I once met in a Russian restaurant in Helskini, offered me some shots of vodka, where after he asked me if I have ever tasted the best water in the world. He asked the waitress to bring me a jug of water and after tasting it and agreeing that I have never drunk so pure water, they told me this was tap water, as every citizen in Helsinki can drink. Unbelievable! About wine that I like, there's almost nothing to say, as you can't find much in Alko, the state's monopoly and distributor for consumers. I read somewhere that there is a 30% increase in sales of organic wines compared to last year, whatever it means...


*Sasu: I’ll take credit for this line and I hope you are aware of the European laws about copyrights

Speaking about copyrights: thanks to Phil Schwarzmann for a big inside into Finnish society, through ‘How to marry a Finnish girl’

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Some reflections on natural wines (part 3): you can’t reflect on natural wines? WRONG

I’ll try to keep it concise this time, as life is so short. One of the most common misconceptions when it comes to natural wine, is that their sole function is to obey one's thirst. We all know that a good bottle of great natural wine is emptied before you can think of, let’s say ... 20 states in the US, including the likes of Maryland, Arkansas and Alabama and remembering that there is a North 'and' South Carolina. The reason for this misconception is the encredible 'drinkability' that these pure and juicy wines posses. There are no elements that cause any hindrance upon sniffing or swallowing the wonderful content of the glas.

Personally, I can’t drink wines with oak flavours, but more importantly, there are very often unnatural molecules that can potentially cause physical problems when drinking one or more glasses, depending on your sensibility. You don’t believe me or don’t know what I am talking about, then I'd suggest you stop reading any further, as this piece is a waste of your time.

On one hand, for reasons unbeknownst to me,  some people like to create this image of natural wine drinkers as a bunch of drunks, who only drink it as a substitute for beer. ‘There is no way those extremists can have civilised wine tastings or reflect on the wines, winemakers or estates’. We are all considered as 'wild men', and come to think of it, we're okay with this description. Yes, we are wild men, but there is more…

Ten years ago a bunch of unknown, very 'normal' people came together in a little country in West Europe with Brussels as a capital, to taste natural wines. For US and Asian readers: Brussels is not a country, but a city and West Europe is not a state. There were no real rules, but we decided to drink all the wines blindly, meaning that we didn’t know what we were drinking and that everyone could say their honest opinion. There was no right or wrong! Most of the time we tasted 12 bottles and we tried to have a kind of a 'theme' for the evening. We came together every 2 months or so and after the tasting we shared a good meal together, as we had 1 or 2 excellent professional cooks amount us. Always make sure that in whatever group you create, you have a good cook in the mix. Most of the time, those Monday evenings ended up very late (or should I say early?) and were great fun.  During those days we had 2 wine importers of natural wines in the group and strangely enough the majority of it is selling wine now and they are each other’s competitor in professional life. I am one of the exceptions, but remain friends with all of them. It is not surprising that people sharing a passion for pure wine and good products start liking each other’s company, especially when seating them around the same table. I learned a lot about wine during those sessions, but definitely don't consider myself as the greatest taster of them all. The fact is that I know now how to recognise a pure wine. I can smell if the wine was made from indigenous yeast or not, I'm knowledgeable on the stability of a wine, and I know how an equilibrated wine should taste and that for instance, I know the importance of the quality of the aftertaste. I discovered some ‘real’ wine makers and during the last 10 years I have visited most of the French ones.

Since (and because of) those late Monday night sessions, I only drink natural wine. Very occasionally, for professional reasons such as during business meal  meetings, I receive a glass of conventional wine. Out of courtesy, I will put my lips to that glass, knowing that I can’t drink it and will  then switch over to water, sparkling water. Some people will not understand this, but I really hate the smell and taste of unnatural wine, as I also don’t like Martini or pudding. When invited by family or friends to their home, I always take some bottles with me, likewise when going out to dine, always with a bottle in each hand, whatever restaurant. 

That being sais, on the other hand my taste for natural wines is not dogmatic or ideological. The ‘sect’ side of some natural wine lovers is ridiculous. In their own way, they merely imitate the snobs of the ‘prestigious label’ drinkers, which they supposedly hate so much. There are even ‘fundamentalists’ ready to excommunicate the ones who are not ‘pure’ enough in their eyes and self-proclaimed ‘specialists’ ensuring that nobody encroach what they consider their exclusive domain. Like any ‘society’, the natural wine scene has it share of heartburn and jealousy. Whatever! For my part, I drink these wines because I like them so much, because they surprise me all the time and they have an ever-changing character like human beings. They are also naked, freed from all makeup. Sometimes I can honestly feel the winemaker’s personality as well as his environment in the wines. And last but not least those wines don’t cause any headache at all to me the day after. After a night of boozing I am ready to go to work, without any problem. OK, the evening after I will be more tired than usually, but if this is it what it takes, go for it. Suggest me any juice beyond labels that satisfy all those conditions and I am a happy man. 99 times out of 100, at least, it is an unfiltered wine without any artificial yeast or other additives. That’s what I also learned during the many blind tastings. But the most important thing I learned about wine is that it is there to share. I love sharing wines with people and see their reactions when exploring the wine. I am curious about their feelings, about what they have to say, even though if it is difficult to express...

Thanks to Manu, Rob, Stefaan, Tom, Ilse, Gerd, Peter, Wouter, Hans and of course Jacques for those long Monday night sessions 

Inspired by Vinejo and C. Authiere


Friday, September 7, 2012

The worst restaurant in the world is located in Belgium

The world’s worst restaurant is Belgian, or at least located in Belgium, but maybe there is one even worse in Bosnia-Hercegovina (this needs to be investigated urgently, but I doubt it). I hate bad restaurants!
St Etienne eats really well. I have here and there my favourite eating places and if you stick long enough with my blog, you will find out where. But of course I am still looking around for new addresses, where the product is everything and where the wine is pure. Last winter I was invited by company Z for a lunch at restaurant X from cook  and owner Y, a very well-known place in Flanders, the Northern part of Belgium, where people if they don’t complain about the weather like to wave with ugly yellow flags with a black lion on it. Arriving at the location I was surprised to see such an ugly building, typical for the seventies, a period where architects forgot that there are some aesthetics rules to take into account. To accentuate this ugliness the owner built a huge pebbled parking space around it. I hate parkings, but do understand that they are functional for car drivers. The welcome at the reception was very cool and since the many culinary television programs I know that a warm welcome is key. The interior was a mix of modern ugly objects and tasteless classic and this caused an unpleasant feeling, due to the impression that someone couldn’t make a choice. And it was this strive for indecisive that came back during the entire meal. Also the modern tight chairs sat so uncomfortable that even the most athletic person would have myalgia and a sour ass by the time the starter was served. Is it that difficult to choose seats that provide comfort for the entire duration of a meal?
When invited the host makes the choices of the lunch meeting, and for once I decided to stay passive. The aperitif was not an aperitif, but a non-fresh sweetened fruit juice, supplemented with a shot of alcohol and a mint leave. Painful! It made me very thirsty and luckily there was a bottle of sparkling water on the table. The decision was to go for the 7-course degustation menu, with matching wines, something I didn’t do for years. Shall I start with the dishes, the wines or the combinations? What was the worst or do we have to start with the best? I frankly don’t know, but in fact it doesn’t matter, as everything was bad. I never take notes during a meal, as people might think I am one of those inspectors. This mean I need to dig into my organoleptic memory for this awful experience and believe me this is not fun.


The meal started with appetisers served in some ‘artistic’ table service (see picture). There was a lot of deep fried stuff, as this restaurant wanted to proof that Trans-fat is healthy whatever science says. I also remember clammy cheese, again accentuating the point that the kitchen didn’t know the concept of freshness. And as so often the appetisers are a good indication for what will follow. The first plate was a pumpkin soup, characterised by an intense dominating nut smell and accompanied with a floating long hair from a black haired employee. I received a new plate, but this time someone decided to add some cream, as if the cook realised that the taste of walnuts should be masked. Do you serve wine with a vegetable soup? In restaurant X they do and why not a sweet Austrian Riesling, only loved by fat old ladies who survive on cake and pie. The next dish that I remember was a creation of coloured foam, the kind you can find in your bath after you have been spilling wildly with some liquid soap product. The taste of it was mainly basil and according to the menu there should also be tomatoes in it. This made my stomach turned upside down and this for three reasons: the taste was without a doubt awful; my stomach is not made to digest a foamy material and serving summer product, even in an unrecognisable form deserve a knee kick in the nuts. Foam and wine? Yep! To accentuate the air bubbles on the plate, we now received a sparkling wine, one of those so badly made that it can only be served at cheap receptions for old war warriors. The very effeminate sommelier looked astonished that I didn’t touch my wine glass. I needed water, a lot of sparkling water.
The saying that ‘prawns are for queers’, once pontificated by a wannabe cook on television, is something which I will always remember, especially also because for years I have influenced a growing grandnephew by saying at every family meeting that ‘cake is for queers’, as I don’t like it. This Pavlov experiment wonderfully succeeded, as my grandnephew doesn’t like cake or at least he never tried it. Prawns are very often tasteless and that’s why you need to add something to it. Cook Y of restaurant X thought that curry in a fatty cream would match perfectly with the prawns, which made me think that an amateur cook took over the entire kitchen.  Was this candid camera? Where were the hidden cameras?
Suddenly a few stumps were put on the table. When looking closer we could detect glasses of broth with Mediterranean herbs. This was clearly a gimmick, but one with profound consequences. After drinking the extremely salty liquid our entire taste palate was insensitive. Afterwards this was not too bad, knowing what plates was still to come. 
Getting a tasteful and well-prepared fish in a restaurant seems to be a challenge, and so also in this restaurant. I don’t get a hard-on from an over-cooked piece of cod on a fucking spread of leek and mashed potatoes, ‘pollinated’ with a sweetened sauce on the basis of a ‘vadouvin’ mix. The art of seasoning was another thing that Chef Y didn’t master, as all dishes were over-salted. I hate it when too much salt is used. Somewhere in between we also received a sorbet of parsley. Now, you can make sorbet from all kind of ingredients, but really parsley is not recommended based on this experience. The meat was wild hare and sucked big time. The only thing I can say for sure is that the animal most have had 4 legs and a tail, but I am not sure if it was hare, and for sure it didn’t taste wild. Cheese croquettes, yes cheese croquettes were served with it, accompanied by caramelised chicory and a sauce of red fruit. This plate was unworthy any restaurant and I felt the need to rush into the kitchen to check if today’s cooks were replaced by the dishwashers. We skipped the cheese plates, although I was curious about the ‘exquisite’ selection. But I didn’t have any illusions; choosing good products were by no means a hobby of Mister Y. For dessert there was a choice between something completely with chocolate or some kind of modern panna cotta. I went for the chocolate, which is often a ‘safe bet’, but not here. How is it possible to serve tasteless chocolate in Belgium? I don’t know, but cook Y of restaurant X can. And this made me sad.
The toilets were clean, just proofing the point that when it is good we say so, but like so often in this part of the world they were too cold. Not that I am so sensitive to it, but this was ever reported to me by a foreign lady. First I laughed it off, but now not anymore…, as it is so true.
Oh yeah, I forgot the wine. The wines were industrial wines from regions that don’t give me goosebumps: Bordeaux, Chili and Australia for example. Probably they have good wines in those regions, but bland woody expensive wines are not for me. With the so so espresso they served again this tasteless chocolate and also some unpleasant sticky sweets, just to accentuate that the entire meal has being going downwards (yes, down the drain). When leaving the place we received a little bag of candy in memory of a splendid experience, what made me smile spontaneous. This was Belgian – this was surrealism! Paul Delvaux was not far away. I love Delvaux.
I guess you are now wondering when I will reveal the name of this place, but actually the answer is already given, even twice, but well-hidden. Should you not find it, please send me a mail, so I can prevent you from an unpleasant meal.
Your humble servant,
St Etienne

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Why I don't want chicken shit in my wine!

After many years of wine tasting you are a real wine connoisseur. At home you have collected an impressive wine cellar full of exquisite wines. You know all wine regions and the most common grapes. When you have visitors at home you always know how to impress people with a well-chosen bottle of wine. During restaurant visits the wine list always ends up in your hand and people are staring at you full of admiration while you are selecting a white for the starter and a red for the main course. When tasting a wine with the well-dressed sommelier standing next to you still presenting the bottle, you feel like a king!

Probably you have followed one or two wine courses, where you confirmed that you are good with wine. You are a gifted taster, at least better than your family members and many friends. Besides you are subscribed to one or more international wine magazines, out of interest, but also to discover new wines. Often you are surfing on the web to obtain extra information about a wine, winemaker or wine region, and so you end up on the holy grail of the web, the many wine blogs. The best proof of this is that you are reading this article. You already have met many winemakers and you always know what to ask them. You know the basis of wine making and you know that to obtain healthy grapes a lot of work has to be done in the vineyard. You often are involved in wine tasting sessions and when tasting blindly you sometimes make a fool of yourself, while being jealous of someone next to you who seems to be able to provide better descriptions of the tasted wines. I guess you start to sit uncomfortable on you chair by now, as you really recognise yourself in the above description. No need to, as I just described the average wine lover, and not you specificly, as I probably don’t know you.
OK, I just continue my article, well knowing that I start skating on thin ice and that some people will felt attacked. I frankly don’t care about people masturbating while looking at a prestigious wine label on a bottle. Everyone needs his pleasures and comforts, just like a baby like to suck on a piece of plastic in the shape of a female nipple. But I read and hear more and more the biggest nonsense from wine journalists or connoisseurs or even sommeliers when describing a wine. And I have to say, I am sick and tired of this bullshit. Wine tasting is reduced to a recital of subjective taste sensations: ‘red fruit, I think red berry, but very ripened, even sultry, oh but also some leather, a kind of sandal leather and after a while even development of butter... and prunes and yes, also graphite and King-mints (I am not joking)’. Tasters are just happy while detecting a smell of dry grass in their glass, where I think it is much more interesting to think about the equilibrium, purity, freshness, drinkability, minerality and stability of the wine, but also the quality of the finnish for instance. I have read wine tasting notes where the juice was still described as wonderful even having impressions of varnish, a likable paint odour, touches of turpentine, warm wood glue, Tipp-Ex, a typical rubber nose, black elastic (I am still not joking), old cheese, a smelly well, nice burned flavours (?), gasoline, hairspray or a mysterious sulphur scent. According to me those are all errors in a wine. What am I saying; those are for sure all faults in a wine that even can be explained chemically. Apparently there is a diminishing of norms taken place in the area of wine. Believe me; if these characteristics are reflected in a wine, then something seriously went wrong during the vinification. There is even a chance that the wine is already in an irreversible phase on its way to vinegar, certainly if you detect acetaldehyde (ethanal) or ethyl acetate ester. There might be the frequent use of chemicals in the vineyard and in the cellar, where after the formation of H2S in the juice other chemicals as mercaptans and/or thiols are formed, which provides unpleasant odours. Personally I find it important that any wine drinker is aware of this type of information and realise that this impurities should be avoid in a wine or any drink. There is no sane and critical person who wouldn’t scratch his head when detecting those kind of smells in a plate of food. ‘Yes, Mister 3-Michelin stars Chef, the sole with grilled, smoked and lacquered Oosterschelde eel, served with fresh quinoa with aromatic herbs and season vegetables, spider crab emulsion and dashi was delicious, especially when combined with that subtle scent of burned rubber giving the whole creation an extra punch.' To clearify my point we all know for sure that every glass of industrial orange juice with the smell of Tipp-Ex will stay untouched. I still don't rest my case...

Also when I occasionally read the international wine press, I am shocked by so much amateurism and ignorance. I recall a wine tasting note from a top wine from Rhône, written by the most loved and hated wine journalist on this globe, where he described the delicious flavours of ‘chicken manure’. Indeed, chicken shit, or rather manure, but we all know what the first phase is of manure. Probably there was an infection of the Uncinula Necator fungus, but please do not see this as something positive in a beverage. Another common attack is Brett (from Brettanomyces yeast) with ethyl 4-phenol as a notable derivate. A slight contamination will provide a nose of stable or leather. Most of the time I associate it with the smell of Geuze-beer. But with higher concentration your wine starts to smell like shit and I hope we can agree that this is not what we are aiming for.

‘Quel beau nez Petrolé’, is what you hear quiet often when describing the nose of a Riesling. This typical smell of petrol should be due to the unique minerality of the terroir some tried to make us believe. In fact the North American specialised press label a Riesling without these characteristics as atypical. Just be sure that most German winegrowers exclaim a loud big ‘scheisse’ when detecting 1,1,6-trimethyl-1,2-dihydronaphthalene in the juice, knowing at the same time that they will be able to sell the wine anyway. Look, that you and you and you and basically half the planet like the smell of petrol in a wine glass should not bother me too much, but I like it when people are informed correctly. By the way I would also advice to look up the nearest refinery in your area and to drive regularly towards it if you like that smell. Also avoid washing your hand after fueling your car. With a bit of luck you can still smell that perfume at night in bed. Not sure if your partner will like it.
Another molecule is however considered at the slightest sensation by any wine drinker as an error: 2,4,6-trichlooranisol. When detecting even a ppm of this substance in the wine every connoisseur will ostentatiously and clearly conditioned thrown away the wine and to make sure to warn everyone by a big shout of the word ‘cork’. There is absolutely no question to try to detect other sensations to this devilish wine.
To finalise this article, I would like to focus on natural wines. Let’s face it: there are a lot of bad natural wines on the market. As the demand is growing fast, there are more and more (young) wine makers who tried to make the step, sometimes forgetting that there are many obstacles to the creation of a pure balanced stable wine. Their bottles are imported by the many wine importers who are dying to get new ‘organic’ talents in their wine range. One of the biggest problems, according to me is the stability of the wines. Very often they are not, which you can easily detect, except most wine importers. This means I get more and more remarks that natural wines are awful except a few exceptions. I tend to agree with this statement!!

"En dégustation, ce qui nous intéresse, ce n'est pas la longueur, mais la qualité de la longueur. Mangez de la merde, vous verrez, c'est long en bouche!" Pierre Overnoy (winemaker in Jura) Nov 2008

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Anne, Françoise and Joseph: the real pioneers of natural wines

This is probably the most difficult piece I will write on this blog. It’s about an encounter I had with the two sisters Anne and Françoise H, former winemakers settled in the heart of the Loire wine region in France. The 6 hours that I spent with them on one icy cold Saturday afternoon-turned-evening has affected me tremendously for many reasons. I was slightly reluctant to enter their world, and I felt a certain kind of sorrow to see so much misery, combined with the disbelief of how cruel people can be towards the atypical among us. But above all, I have a deep respect for the fact that these women have spent their entire lives swimming upstream in the very conservative world of wine. They have worked so hard and lived in such inhumane conditions, that they both practically walk like cripples - hunched over a piece of branch which they use as a walking stick to prevent them from falling over and never standing up again. Fortunately though, they do have each other and it's been that way ever since they can remember. There was simply no time or place in their world to start a family of their own. To Anne and Françoise, the options were either to make wine in what was viewed as an 'extreme' way, or leave one another to raise children. Their outlook has been so hardened by the constant harassment they've endured, that they don’t care about what other people might think, and have no qualms with speaking their minds freely. I now know for sure that people mainly change under the influence of other people. They have certainly triggered things inside me, if only for the time being, most definitely for the better! I've grappled with the thought of sharing this precious encounter with them publicly, but have come to the conclusion that it would be a good thing to do, so long as I remain honest and integer. Of even more importance though, I felt a deep longing from Anne and Françoise's side, to tell the story of theirs as well as that of their deceased brother, Joseph.

The first time I heard their names, actually I read it, was via a label on a bottle of wine – there is a wine from Domaine Les Griottes called Anne Françoise Joseph, a homage to the family H, as the newly emerging winemakers were able to use a piece of their vineyard. A few days before my trip, I had lunch in restaurant Veranda with Wouter De Bakker, a famous sommelier and successful wine importer. The meal prepared by Davy Schellemans was fabulous, as always, and the wines were very juicy and pure, as we like them. So in short, the lunch was splendid and while drinking coffee afterward, Wouter told me the story about the two sisters and their wines. The description of the estate left me with the desire to pay them a visit as soon as possible, which happened only a few days later.

In the wine region Coteaux-du-Layon, somewhere in Anjou, a young man called Joseph started in the ‘50’s to make wine with the help of his two younger sisters. He wanted to produce wine without any use of pesticides and other shit in the vineyard and chemicals during the vinification. He could obtain 6 hectares of vineyard, mainly existing of Chenin-vines that never saw a molecule of non-natural matter. Why this pioneer was so obsessed to obtain natural wines, despite the increasingly relentless pressure of the other winemakers and growing wine industry, seems now with the ecological trend self-evident, but was for that time too crazy for words. The heavy lung problems of their father, due to chemical gasses used during the First World War has certainly left its mark on the entire family, as they had to move to a tiny cottage due to financial problems. It is a fact that brother and sisters saw it as a mission in life to make pure wines free of any additives, despite the many setbacks. They were poor as a church mouse, but they still insisted. It was the few compliments from occasional passengers that motivated them to continue that lonely road. The wine making process was very simple at first sight: after picking the healthy grapes they were pressed, so the natural fermentation could start of the juices, where after it was aged for 6-9 months in old barrels of 220 litres. The only intervention was the occasional heating of the cellar during the winter as they couldn’t afford that the wine wouldn’t be finish in time, as the year after they had to use the same barrels. Each year it was a battle to obtain the ‘appellation’(awarded by an organization composed of other winemakers who didn’t understand their wines), so that they wisely decided in 1989 to sell their wines as "vin de table". Since then their wines received a number on the cork, starting with 1 and ending with a 14 in 2003.

The day before I left, I had one of the sisters on the line who assured me that I was welcome to visit. A female navigation voice brought me to the small ancestral house right on time. The yard was a mess and full of old, used equipment and tools. There was clear evidence that indicated to the making of wine, and not in such a distant past it seemed. I also couldn't help but notice some clucking chickens, a few dogs, an abandoned old cow and a vegetable garden. Upon arrival the door was already open in spite of the winter cold. I guess they must have heard my car. My first thought when entering the living room was that no one lived there besides three dogs, five cats and two abashed beings. Clearly I was not expected. They probably thought that whoever had called them up on the phone, like so many before him, would not show up - especially considering the bad weather conditions. The tiny room was filled with rubbish (if you do not have much, you don’t throw anything away) and the table had not been cleared, for what must have been several days! Sometimes people lose their determination.

After the fading of the initial embarrassment and after presenting them with two boxes of Belgian chocolate, the atmosphere became very open and amicable. I discovered two very strong personalities, who had an opinion about everything. I was really amazed by the eloquence of both women. They complemented each other very well, to the extent that when one began with an argument, the other automatically completed it. This must be the result of living in such close quarters! There was a big need for them to talk.. and talk, but never was there a moment where I was bored. Anne was 86 and the younger sister, Françoise, was close to the 84. They were genuinely pleased with my visit, my interest in their wine and my knowledge of natural wines. I was able to taste all the vintages they had in stock and this was a huge challenge. The wines are stored randomly in a sort of stable. There is little light and you must try to decipher the vintage on the cork. I found the 1975, 1976, 1986, 1987, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2001 and the outsider, the 2004. Not bad for a first encounter with a wine estate during a first visit, and of course incredibly fascinating to have a tasting of real natural wines from many different, yet all very specific years. Both sisters used their elephant-like memories to remember each year as if it was just last week. I was pleasantly surprised by the aging potential and stability of the wines without any added sulphur as an anti-oxidant. I won't divulge any tasting notes, even though I wrote down many impressions. But I will say that 3 wines were phenomenal, some 'very good' and some just 'good' and that you can taste the effects of global warming very clearly when moving gradually from the ‘70’s to the ‘90’s. The region of Anjou gives of very rich wines and this you could taste clearly, especially when tasting younger vintages. Most of the wines tasted fairly young and some bottles still contained carbon dioxide, which is the perfect prevention of oxidation of the liquid. Longer aging periods in barrels would have rounded off and completed some of the wines, but I have to admit that I do like this sleek style. The theory that you should store your wine at a temperature inferior to 14⁰ C has now been proven to be false for good, as those so called 'sensitive natural wines' saw fluctuations between 5⁰ and 30⁰ C and for 20 or 30 consecutive years at that.

We spoke of the wars, about a famous forest in the area, about faith and religion, about the 'others', about burglars and of course about real wine, because that’s how Joseph labelled his own. The rest should not be called wine! It is noteworthy to realize that those 3 people began and continue to make natural wines totally isolated from other pioneers. The names of Pierre Overnoy and Jules Chauvet didn’t ring any bells to them. They vaguely remembered a visit of Eric Callcut, an incredible winemaker between 1995 and 1999, but they were not aware that after 4 years he left Anjou to do something completely different, as far away as possible from the world of wine. About Claude Courtois, they asked me if he was "the big man with the long beard" but they couldn't tell me more than that about him.

At the end of the day I had bought some of their wines, wines that I will cherish for the rest of my life. My fear was that by writing about them it would entice people to invade their premises, like a kind of tourist attraction. This is not just a selfish reflex, but rather a clear conclusion after observing that those beautiful old souls are not equipped to receive and deal with people, let alone to sell bottles of wine. It took more than an hour to prepare only a few bottles, including manually writing and sticking the labels on the dirty surfaces. I encapsulated all the bottles myself, as they lacked the necessary power in their shaky hands. During the farewell, they asked me if they could kiss me and of course, I allowed this. It is after all the French way, two kisses, one on every cheek. Anne made the symbol a cross on my forehead with the movement of her thumb, exactly as my grandmother did to me before bedtime, and Françoise gave me one of the sweetest compliments you can receive as a father. A few minutes later, sitting in my cold car, I saw in the reflection of tears in my eyes in the rear view mirror.


In 2005, Joseph passed away due to a combination of poor medical treatment and the absolute refusal of taking antibiotics to combat a wound to his right hand. His last vintage, the 2004, remained in a forgotten barrel for five years until some visiting winemakers questioned what was inside it. After tasting the wine they begged to bottle it: the wine had received a ‘voile’, which gives it an oxidative character. Some abhor it. Myself and others are fond of it. So much later than expected, the 2004 was born and it was decided that it would not be given the number 15, since the wine was not in line with all other wines from the family H!

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