Some of my well-intentioned friends and acquaintances are given to attaching the word “chef” to my adventures in and around our kitchen and in my well-known proclivity for writing, speaking or even occasionally teaching about food and food history. They are, of course, venturing very close to good-natured hubris when they do so. I am not a chef. I am just a guy who loves to cook; and for that I offer no apology.
Along with that lifetime love affair is an appreciation of the whole wide world of ingredients – those constituents which when combined in just the right way make the finished product better than the sum of its parts. What’s more when it comes to ingredients I tend to be highly opinionated. For instance, let’s look at favorite sweeteners. Since I practically grew up in an old-fashioned Vermont Maple sugar house coaxing 30-50 gallons of fresh cold sap into a single gallon of just-drawn hot syrup, I take our present-day basement supply very seriously. Quite apart from a Grade of A medium amber classification, I like to know who made it. If possible, I buy my maple syrup from Maple Crest Farm in Shrewsbury, Vermont, where seven generations of the Smith family have been tapping the trees their ancestors planted. I know how they take care to keep every piece of tubing and storage tanks gleaming clean. And most important: no blending of batches here in an effort to simulate uniform viscosity levels.
The pantry shelf sheltering my supply of honey reads like a saccharine geography of the world, every jar representing a “single source” honey whose blossom of origin is proven by pollen testing. (Typical “supermarket” honey has had its pollen removed to preserve its liquid appearance and make possible unlimited blending; it is no more than a “sweetening.”) One of my favorites is Chestnut blossom honey from Tuscany where beekeeper Franca Franzoni personally manages the daily positioning of her beloved hives, while I half believe the assertion that the reason I like Sourwood honey is the knowledge that bees are joined by angels in its production. On each visit to Oregon I add to my supply of “mainstays,”such as blackberry, blueberry and Marion berry blossom honeys acquired from local farmers’ markets or apiasts I have come to know. A Northwest honey aged in whiskey barrels is unique. Some single source honeys are particularly “dear” since they are not necessarily “annual” or have a harvest season so short it can be missed because of a brief weather change. My supply of delectable locust blossom honey from the Ames family farm in Watertown, Minnesota is an example. (My present supply comes from hive number 608A.) From Montana dandelion blossoms to the Neem flowers whose pollen is gathered from the dense forests of central India, each honey is different from every other honey.
When it comes to olive oils of choice, there are some similarities in preference. For everyday cooking, an inexpensive “supermarket” quality extra virgin will do just fine, but for dressing a fresh salad, flavoring a pasta dish, assembling a dipping sauce, or adding a nuanced flavor to something special, it would be nice to have an estate – made premium select extra virgin oil from a single source, where olives are picked by hand and pressed within 24 hours of harvest and never blended. I like a Lucini Limited Reserve Tuscan oil. I admit also to a slight personal preference for Italian over Spanish oils.
The term Balsamic Vinegar from Modena has come to describe a wide range of vinegars of 6% acidity made from Trebbiano grapes. They are all useful and satisfying but if budget considerations allow and one wishes to own something of incomparable “wonder” here is a worthwhile treasure to hunt for: barrel-aged traditional Balsamic vinegar. Here the Trebbiano grape “must” (fermented grapes, stems, seeds, skins and all) go through a long aging process beginning in oak barrels with the reduced quantity of juice decanted each year into a slightly smaller barrel made from a succession of different hardwoods including cherry, chestnut, mulberry, acacia, juniper and ash. The aging process might stretch across 12 – 150 years, resulting in a finished product as thick as honey and super-rich with the accumulated flavors of ancient woods and long mellowing. On my pantry shelf (some cooks would keep it in a safe) reclines my treasured three liquid ounces of 25-year-old traditional Balsamic vinegar, to be drizzled sparingly on fresh figs, strawberries or a slice of my 4-year-old white cheddar; ahhh, living large!
As Trebbiano grape “must” ages in barrels, its volume being reduced by time and osmosis, it progresses through stages into ever smaller hardwood barrels of tradition-proven species, overseen by Italian families passionate about following ancient techniques.