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Well-aged delights are not old food, they are mature food

October 2011

Old times. Old folks. Old Food.

Prohibitively expensive 50-year-old balsamic vinegar, barely affordable 25-year-old port, 4-year-old Canadian cheddar with a sharp taste and slight crystalline crunch on the tooth, 18-month-old prosciutto sliced paper thin and melting on the tongue, 3-month-old home made orange marmalade, thousand-year-old Chinese eggs. Twenty-eight-day-old air-dried beef, bock beer, a hard karnatzel, Schwartz’s smoked meat, kimchi, sauerkraut, yogurt, cider vinegar, sourdough bread. So many great things age well, well before we taste them.

In our rush for fast food, we often forget that time is also an ingredient in foods we enjoy.

Actually, enjoy isn’t the right word. I think it is savour. Even the word savour implies that we will indulge ourselves and take time to relish (ahh, and that is such a wonderful word in itself) the flavour. The Flavourguy believes that the expression “time is of the essence” goes both ways. For some things, speed is required. But time is also essential to bring out the best qualities in good food, even ourselves. With aged food, we often don’t know what we will get. The smell, the taste, come as a surprise.

A fall apple must be crisp and juicy. A freshly cooked chicken should taste, well, of chicken and seasonings. We don’t want something else and we don’t expect something on our plate that has substantially mutated. But delicious, aged food has gone through a mutation. And once a food has gone through this process, we are ready to shift our allegiances.

“It was a good fruitcake, but not as good as last year’s.” Or: “I’m sure that the sausage had more garlic the last time you made it.”

My sister and a friend once planned a trip to London. I recommended that they stay in a small old hotel that had been the home of William Hazlitt, the 19th-century essayist. The hotel was narrow with a high winding staircase. Their room was near the top.

I had arranged that there should be a large wedge of Stilton cheese and a bottle of port in their room. As they climbed the stairs, with a porter carrying their bags behind them, the smell from the cheese wafted down.

“This place stinks,” one of them said. “Why would Barry suggest that we stay here?” The porter, I was told, simply chuckled.

Our senses trick us. A stinky room isn’t pleasant; a ripe Stilton is superb.

I have noticed that as I age, food competes with memory. It has nostalgia for a mistress. I often find myself eating something that may not taste quite as good as I expected, yet I continue to eat it, because I am searching for that hidden memory of when it tasted fantastic. Yes, this is what tomatoes used to taste like and, huzzah, they still do! And don’t these ripe autumn pears go great with that old cheese?

So here’s to aged food, call it mature.

The kids won’t like it. That’s for sure.

As for us, we’ll procure

Strong tastes, ripe flavours, and so ensure

We each become an epicure.

OK, try this: Hard and hearty vegetables from crudités leftovers: bits of broccoli, slices of carrot, peppers, etc. Anything hard (leave out the cucumber).

Heat some oil in a pot, cook a clove or two of chopped garlic and a chopped onion until both are soft.

Cut the veggies into toothsome bits. The amount doesn’t matter. Less makes soup, more edges toward stew. Both are good. Stir.

When the veggies have cooked for a few minutes, add chicken, beef or vegetable stock. Homemade is best, but canned and cubes are OK. When the carrots are soft (but not too soft), it’s done. Add tomato paste, salt (if necessary) and pepper. I also like to add oregano or herbes de province but others prefer the Simon and Garfunkle mix (parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme).

Serve with a crusty loaf and a hard, aged Italian cheese for grating, such as asiago, romano, or parmesan.

Of course, it tastes even better the next day.



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