Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Scallops: A Rant

Can someone tell me what the deal is with scallops in this country? You go practically anywhere in the world and a scallop is this gorgeous little nubbin of white and red - yes, red coral nestled into a beautiful shell with other appurtenances. And you eat it all. And they have to be absolutely fresh, and unless I'm mistaken, like oysters alive when bought. When did the desecration of scallops begin in this country? Not only are they nude, but include the one arguably difficult to eat part - the little muscle that apparently opens and shuts them.

I stopped buying supermarket scallops long ago, because they float them in some nasty chemical broth to keep them white, which causes them to absorb water, which of course all oozes out once they're cooked. The only way to deal with these is to soak them in milk, and completely dry before cooking. But there goes the flavor too. In haste I have made the mistake of seasoning these - including salt which ought never to be done - and popping them in a hot pan. Dreadful. I've seen dry scallops for sale, but not in Stockton.

So last night a bag of frozen scallops appears on the counter - seriously, I didn't buy them. Why not? Frozen shrimp are usually better than defrosted sitting in the case at the supermarket. After defrosting, the scallops were sitting in a puddle of flegmatic ooze, which I was hoping wouldn't happen. But I dried them meticulously. Just a hint of pepper and tarragon. Seared in a pan of olive oil the hottest I could get it before inflagration. The sizzling splattered everywhere, but I did get a nice brown edge, damn it. And know what? In the end it was pretty boring. It tasted sort of like scallops, but not much else. No briney depth, no mystery of the sea in your mouth kind of frisson. No PASSION! That's what I want in a scallop.

So for the time being I'll wait till the next time I see them fresh. I think the last I had such a scallop was at the ASFS banquet in Victoria. Yes, lots of things went wrong, but the little pink Pacific scallops were incredible. A shell from one sits on a bookshelf in my office; they were that good.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Rhapsody on Belgian Beer

I admit from the outset, I am no lover of beer. And I finally realize why. By the time one has consumed enough to get even the most mild of buzzes, the inevitable bloat sinks in. I honestly can't get past two beers comfortably, even of those I like a lot, such as Sierra Nevada.

So I decided to do some in depth research on this question, and went to Belgium. This is a country that seriously knows beer. In Bruges, there is a Gruuthuse, a gorgeous gothic palace built with the proceeds from taxes on gruit - the predecessor to hops in medieval beer. Unfortunately, I am told there is no beer produced today with it, partly because no one knows exactly what it was. Probably mugwort and some other herbs. I dare an intrepid brewer to give it a shot.

The place to taste beer in Bruges is Cambrinus, named for the pagan beer god/king. Here you are handed a wooden board with pages and pages of beers nicely organized and color coded. Some several hundreds, all made in Belgium. I passed by the krieks and lambics, though they can be charming, it was very cold and wet and windy, so I decided to focus on Trappist ales. All legally must still be made in an abbey by monks. It took me a pint of the house Gambrivinus just to read the book. It was wickedly hoppy, a nice light fizz and long aftertaste.

But what I finally settled on was Westvlieteren Trappist triple, coming in at 12%. In an unlabeled bottle. Belgians do distinguish between Bieren van 't vat, and Op fles (i.e. bottled) but apparently without prejudice to the latter. Now, arguably, we would categorize this as a barley wine. It came in an 8 ounce stemmed glass; in fact every beer here has its own glass shape. It was dark, spicy, densely carameled. Nothing like the porter it resembles, but quaffable, with a richness and full mouthfeel. It's oaked too, and aged. And one seriously hit me. That's when it dawned on me. Why is our beer so weak? At this strength a beer or two is perfectly satisfying. And went perfectly with some smoked salmon on toast they brought gratis.

I tried more in the next few days. Westmalle, another Trappist was beautiful, honey colored and also spicy. I wish I had tried Duvel there, but it can be bought here. There might be a difference. Even the regular daily brews like Jupiler and now everywhere available Stella Artois are nothing to shirk from. I don't think I tasted a single beer there even mildly uninteresting.

What really drove home this difference were the few brews I had in England the few days following. Even some of my favorite Green King ales, and once favorite Old Peculiar on tap, were dull flat and filling. The strongest among them was 4.8% I think. So yes, it encourages guzzling.

Here's to quaffable Belgian Beer, and a call to our brewers to try triple brewing, cask aging, and making beer stronger, so you don't need to (or want to) drink so much of it.