Beer Reviews

I believe in revisiting beers over time, even those I find wanting. Sometimes they change, sometimes for the better. I picked up a Von Bugle Munich lager, a label of the 17-year-old Steam Whistle Brewery, a pioneer craft in Ontario. It’s brewed at a sister establishment in Etobicoke, Ontario.

Whether it’s been tweaked I can’t say, but I’m getting more hop impact. Same profile as before, but more taste.  An excellent effort and will buy again. The beer is interesting too because not a typical Helles (blonde), not a typical Dunkel (darkish, sweetish brown), but more an amber lager. Perhaps Vienna is a better description, but I care about taste, not fine points of label description.

This is the latest in the Amsterdam Brewery Adventure series, Crooked Path, a 7% abv Baltic Porter. Excellent brewing, not too dry, good rounded flavours, the roast not overdone yet very present. Despite the strength I like this in large draughts, cold. Available at Amsterdam retail outlets and the Adventure Series beers go fast, so tarry not.

Finally, the “new” Coors Original, the Canadian brewing of Coors Banquet, the full-strength Coors that heretofore has been imported from Golden, Colorado. I tasted it against the import as some cans are still available at The Beer Store.

I preferred the import by a small margin which seemed more complex with less of a “tang” (perhaps the corn adjunct). The Canadian one also seemed a tad darker in hue. That said, they are, as expected, very similar.

Any shadings of difference make no difference for us, as “American adjunct lager” in general does not appeal. I’ve had one or two AAL in craft hands that is excellent, but from the big players, very little. Of course I speak only for beeretseq. For the millions who will buy it, I’m sure it will please.

This company link introduces the Coors Original. Kudos to Molson-Coors Beverage for anticipating questions from the fans and answering straightforwardly.

 

 

 

 

Beer Consumption and Social Distancing

A Bright Side to Hazy IPA

In times of social upheaval in the past, shortage of beverage alcohol, often beer, was the result.

Social upheaval might be of national scope or localized. Labour strife, the war economy, failed grain harvests and not just of barley (e.g. oats shortages meant no feed for dray horses), water shortages (Australia has had examples), glass shortage, and yet more explained lack of beer in certain periods.

War had many impacts. In 1944, four reasons for the shortage of beer in the United States were crisply advanced by a brewers’ organization. You may read them here.

One factor cited was increased overall consumption, i.e., not just due to the military allocation. In part this came from greater per capita income (the cited higher “payroll”), but it seems clear that stress of wartime was a contributing factor.

In 1907, a massive failure of barley and oats supplies led to similar problems, as shown in this New York press account. Britain had the same failure of barley harvest that year, with buyers sent to America coming home empty-handed.

The greatest example of “shortage” was legally imposed National Prohibition in the U.S. between 1920 and 1933, with similar in much of Canada over this period.

With the current coronavirus crisis, the one thing that seems not short, and not likely to be, is beverage alcohol. Stories of LCBOs sans customers have been cited, but a cursory examination on a walk through north-central Toronto yesterday showed business as usual. And with food stores doing a much-ballyhooed business, one can be sure that includes the beer shelves.

Early in 2020 beer commentary seemed weighted by the fear there was too much capacity, too many producers for a supposedly sated market. It’s an evergreen reaction every time craft beer reaches new heights of success.

With enforced social distancing and more people staying at home, I suspect consumption will go up. This should be good for the industry in the medium term at least.

Today, home delivery and online shopping for booze exist in many jurisdictions. The Beer Store in Ontario, and no less for our craft brewers, may find renewed business in this category. I suspect as well that many won’t demur from the occasional beer run, even those mindful to maximize social distancing.

The current crisis is real; caution and prudence are necessary. Some parts of the trade may suffer, perhaps (it’s not clear) the retail trade the most, but brewers, as well as wine makers and distillers, may find a silver lining. Societal stress may again take greater refuge in the balm of alcohol.

The much-bruited brewery tap is an enhanced bar in a brewery vs. the simple tasting counter of earlier days. The taps may see a fall off in sales vs. canned, growler, and bottled beer. Perhaps, too, draft deliveries to bars will decline vs. other forms of production, although again it’s not clear as yet.

Brewers will need to be nimble to manage these changes, but all doom and gloom? Far from it, imo.

 

A Day in the Life

Gleanings from the “NBL Review”

I discussed some years ago the exhibition in the City of Montreal on Dawes Brewery history. It was chock-full of interest, covering advertising, brewing, Dawes family history, economic background – just about every angle of mid-century (1900s) brewing.

The exhibition was held at the original location of the Dawes Brewery, in Lachine, Quebec. I attended it not long before it closed, but a virtual version continues to be offered by the City of Montreal. It is equally interesting if not more so in some ways.

I’ve drawn attention to the employees’ magazine. The issues archived start in 1942 and end in 1949. National Breweries Ltd., of which Dawes was a unit with breweries in Quebec City and other breweries in Montreal, was bought by Canadian Breweries Ltd. in 1952. Rationalization soon followed with the result Dawes’ signature Black Horse Ale was dropped. (Nonetheless the brand came back at least once to Quebec province, in the early 1960s. I’ll return to this soon).

The magazine in the last years appears to me to have an elegiac tone. Many long-service retirements are featured, and not a few images of bygone days or passe technologies. One short piece even addressed the history of porter.

The explanation is conventional, standard dogma of the 19th century, but the fact of being included was unusual. First, porter had only a small sale by the 1940s. More importantly, the relentless focus on technology and new methods tended to preclude brewing history as a topic.

In a sense, beer, which provided the livelihood of all concerned at National Breweries, was taken for granted, something there was no need to investigate or compare to other traditions. While the readers “lived” beer every day, the incuriosity is still notable.

A rare exception pictured an employee, a maintenance supervisor at the Dow unit, with his collection of international beer bottles. He had about 50 from all over Canada, the U.S., Britain (one can just spot Bass Pale Ale), Denmark, and even China.

The editor prefaced the coverage by noting that some people collect matchbooks, others stamps, but this man collected beer bottles. It shows how novel the idea was, even in a brewery context. The collection perhaps had been exhibited at the employees’ 1947 “Hobby Show”, but to include it in the magazine was unusual.

Perhaps too there is an undertone of raised eyebrow, that an employee showed interest in other breweries. Still, the inclusion was notable. And certainly, it can’t have been easy to amass such a collection in Canada in the 1930s and ’40s. Being in the beer business probably helped, though.

As a slice of mid-1900s industrial and social history, these publications are invaluable.

 

The Other Poutine (Part II)

This post will supplement my Part I by adding reference to an early poutine in Quebec. It is not the French fries/cheese/gravy dish now known from Montreal to Mumbai, but an English-style pudding.

It is recorded by Lorraine Boisvenue in her 1979 “Le Guide De La Cuisine Traditionelle Québécoise” (Stanké, Montreal), at p. 255.

As the standard accounts reveal, see for example this Wikipedia entry,* “poutine” has been used in French America to equate to the English pudding, among other non-French fry dishes.

This doesn’t mean, as I discuss in Part I, that the English term inspired the French one. In fact I think the reverse is more likely via the term boudin, arguably a cognate to poutine. But it does show that in North America, where British and French culinary heritages mingled, the term poutine was adapted to embrace an English-style pudding.

Ms. Boisvenue’s dish is called ‘Poutine à la poche’. Note that she places the words in quotation marks, showing that in her estimation, the name was informal or folkloric.

A la poche means in the pocket, but what does that mean here?** The recipe is for a British-style pudding. Ingredients include milk, flour, butter, raisins, baking powder, eggs, nutmeg, and a cloth in which to steam (not boil) the pudding for two hours.

She specifies to use a grand morceau de coton propre. So a big piece of clean cotton or linen, meant to wrap the pudding and cook it to a soft succulence, whence she advises to eat it with the sauce of your liking.

As for countless dishes in the inherited Quebec repertoire, the long hand of British influence is discernible.

The pocket must be the cotton bag, or “poke” we might say, a British dialectical term that migrated to America and is related to the term pocket.

A pudding in a bag. Why not simply call it Pouding à la poche, then? It is not because Ms. Boisvenue was averse to using an English loan word – she gives four recipes in the same section for different “poudings”. One is pouding au suif, or suet pudding. Another is rice pudding. More U.K. influence, clearly.

There must have been a tradition in Quebec, in some families, to use the term “poutine” for this particular steamed raisin pudding. This could be further proof that the term is truly French in origin, although its long reign on the French Riviera (see Part I) shows that clearly enough.

There is no reference to the French fry poutine in the book. It was too early, even if the dish had currency by then in snack bars around the province. Even had Ms. Boisvenue encountered the French fry poutine, she may well have disdained to include it in her book, which after all is concerned with traditional home cookery – slow food, we might say.

Such was the scope of this tradition that she states the book could have comprised 10 volumes. We are fortunate to have the one she did author. Yves Thériault, the prolific Quebec novelist and radio broadcaster (d. 1983), wrote the preface. He is remembered especially for his prescient 1958 novel, Agaguk.

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*This entry, and the Canadian Encyclopedia entry referenced in my Part I, might be edited to include the French poutine documented in my Part I.

**”Pocket-style” is another rendering.

 

Beer Culture: Insularity or Cosmopolitanism?

Beer scribes Jeff Alworth and Stan Hieronymous set out thoughts recently concerning insularity in a beer culture. You may read them here and here, while Jeff expanded on his views in a Twitter thread today.

As I read them, Jeff argued for and was addressing those who seek maximum knowledge, in part to avoid an undue spirit of “triumphalism”. Stan was more qualified, questioning whether the current beer culture is more limited in ken than the past, and pointing out that to dive deep is not easy, one must be prepared to struggle with hard questions.

I’ll express some reaction, and then how I see my own place in this.  I’d say most consumers have little interest in gaining real knowledge. They may seek a little at the outset, and then settle in for the duration. This is true in my experience even of many devoted beer fans.  Even highly influential critics such as Michael Jackson were read by comparatively few people. Enough to confer high status on them in their field, but relatively few people that I’ve met in the consumer beer field delved deep into beer writing.

More perhaps saw a Jackson travel video, or read a magazine or two, but not that many, in absolute terms.

I think this is true around the world in most countries.

The situation is better at wholesale and retail levels. Yet even there people often know relatively little. Last summer when in France I recall visiting a beer shop with a pretty good beer selection in Paris. A clerk sold me a bottle of German Helles lager and said the product was wheat-based. This is highly unlikely, even for a beer shipped to France. Maybe the brewer made wheat beer as well and the clerk misunderstood something he was told in that regard.

This happens to me all the time, in many countries, and I just ignore it now. (Another example, from a bartender: “Guinness stout is very filling, a ‘meal’. If I want a meal I eat food”). I never try to correct, I just accept a reality and decide for myself what to buy and on what basis.

At producer level, of course brewers are often knowledgeable about their own and sometimes others’ beer traditions. But it can vary. In the pre-craft era, North American brewers probably knew (I generalize again) relatively little about foreign beer styles and ways to brew. Today, among all brewers, at large breweries too, the situation is much less insular. I know this by having chatted with many brewers from these ranks over the years.

Then too, such persons know things (about technology including sanitation, the market, the inputs used) that even knowledgeable beer critics don’t know. It’s a two-way street.

Now, insularity can be a good thing, even “triumphalism”. German confidence in the pure malt tradition, while at times overbearing, helped sustain German beer quality and international recognition of same for hundreds of years.

If early craft brewers on the West Coast knew how the British viewed American hops for flavouring and aroma in the 1800s, we might not have American Pale Ale and IPA today, but rather pallid copies of bitter and strong ale.

Hence, “too much” knowledge can stifle innovation and result in the second class and even sterile.

So, where does this leave us? Decide for yourself how far you want to go. I’m with Jeff on wanting to know as much as time and my intellect will allow. I won’t be falsely modest. I’ve learned a lot. But there is a universe more I’d still like to know. I’m with Stan that it can be hard work – there is no royal road to geometry.

Decide for yourself what you need to know and, finally, enjoy beer in your own way.

A Toronto Porter Enters the Pantheon

Great Porter at Creemore Batch House

Among the great stouts and porters – we use the terms interchangeably as historically it’s the same thing – our memory keeps a handful front and centre despite passage of the years.

These include Sinebrychoff Porter, a 7.2% porter that originated in Finland, now owned by Carlsberg. “Koff” porter, as it’s known, continued the 19th century English porter tradition. A few years ago, a sample at The Ginger Man in New York (draft) proved it as good as ever. Deep-flavoured, silky-sweet, decidedly bitter, yet with no harsh edges or raw burnt cereal notes.

Like many of the best porters it features a black fruit note probably contributed by the yeast, or perhaps the fermentation temperature.

Another in this pantheon was a bottled Murphy Stout, probably 5% abv, exported to the U.S. in the late 1970s, made at Lady’s Well Brewery, Cork, Ireland. This one had more of a burned wood taste, with the coffee notes still claimed in the company’s advertising, but in a moreish way few craft stouts attain today imo. Owned since the early 1980s by Heineken.

I recall buying this Murphy in Albany, New York, and a press story from 1977 confirms the export drive at the time. It’s interesting that the American Irish ethnic market was the target market, which shows you how the beer business has changed.

Carnegie Porter of Sweden, also now owned by Carlsberg, at 5.5% ABV impeccably upholds the old school. Its richness is almost Imperial in impact, at least the last time I had it.

The U.K.’s Courage Imperial Russian Stout, especially as brewed in the 1970s-1990s, stood tall in these stakes with its “burned fruitcake” taste. Its revival some years ago, sadly short-lived, didn’t quite reach the earlier standard but was certainly worthy. The first re-brewing, 2012 if memory serves, had a pleasing pear-like note from the fermentation and a fresh chocolately taste from the malts.

The first decades of Samuel Smith Imperial Stout, from Tadcaster, U.K., almost equalled those earlier Courage Imperial Russians, but recent bottles seem different to me, drier and less estery.

The Kernel, an iconic London craft brewery, has an outstanding Export Stout at 7.2% among a range of dark beers of interest. Fuller’s in London has made something similar. Of course Harvey’s in Lewes, U.K. brews its Le Coq Imperial Extra Double Stout to a fine palate with a touch of Brettanomyces yeast. 9% abv.

Just yesterday I had a local stout in the class of those above, Imperial Porter Winter Warmer at Creemore Batch House in Toronto (owned by Molson-Coors Beverage Co.).* At 8% abv, it reminded me a lot of the Koff and Carnegie. It has all the right elements but in the right proportions. The recipe was tweaked from last year – I spoke to one of the brewers – to decided advantage. The roast grain was slightly boosted, for example, and I suspect the finishing gravity was raised, making the beer maltier and richer.

A stylish depth bomb of a drink, it just gets better as it warms and decarbonates. The serving is nine ounces, which is plenty.

All these beers deserve the appellation black wine, and sometimes actually approach the vinosity of wine with age. Aging is another question in these annals, but net-net we prefer all these beers fresh and new.

Now, there are many good porters brewed in Ontario, don’t get me wrong. From Clifford Porter in Hamilton to various bourbon barrel and other strong stouts, creditable examples exist. Still, the group I just lauded stands apart for me. Is it the fact my palate was introduced to them first? Always hard to say, but hie down to Creemore Batch House and taste for yourself. It’s available in bottles for takeaway, too.

In the U.S. countless porters feature in the quivers of craft brewers. Of those that hit bull’s-eye, Anchor Porter, a gran-dad of the genre, and Oregon’s Black Butte Porter,** stand out for me. The latter is available on draft at beer bistro in Toronto.

At day’s end, porter, a brown beer probably introduced (London c. 1700s) for its lower cost due to lower-yielding roast malts, lays claim to the greatest beer style. When made really well, we are inclined to agree.

I’d like to have included Guinness in these stakes, but today it pasteurises and filters its beer and makes only a little of the older style. Guinness Foreign Extra Stout, 7.5% abv, is a good beer but uses to my knowledge a proportion of raw (unroasted) barley in the mash, which detracts from the palate, imo. The Special Export, at 8% abv and made mostly from malt, is a better beer yet not quite in the class mentioned above.

Were Guinness to return to bottle-conditioning and all-malt brewing, we suspect the strong beers in the range would rank among the best anywhere.

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*As for many breweries, strong porter is felt to be a winter brew, hence only available for a short time. The Winter Warmer deserves full-year availability, however, and would do well in that role, in our estimation.

**The original text stated Colorado for state of origin. See Comments with thanks to reader Michael Sherriff for the correction.

 

Suite Nice: La Lumière

Hi, again. We’re just back home now, but I wanted to share some final, sweet (suite) thoughts of our time in Nice and Paris.

While we intended on visiting the surrounding towns and villages of Nice we decided instead to concentrate this trip on the many charms of Nice and to rent a car on a subsequent visit to facilitate trips to Antibes, Eze and Vence.

There was much to see in Nice, from the street where we lived in the old town (see the view from our apartment window in the first picture below) to the panoramic views from the hills surrounding the city (second picture below). On two separate days, we climbed high above the city on the hills which surround it. On the first climbing day, we made our way along the coastal road to Coco Beach, an out of way small beach not known to many tourists, and went beyond that half-way to Villefranche-sur-Mer.

On the second, we fell upon the panoramic views from Chateau Hill, reached by winding paths and stairs up, up from La Vieille Ville, where we discovered sweeping views over Nice, the Baie des Anges, and Nice Harbour. At the top is a Jewish cemetery with an impressive Holocaust memorial to honour the many Jewish lives lost due to the Nazi deportations from Nice in 1944. The memorial was consecrated only in January of this year.

There is a novel beer bar, called Foam, along one of the quais in the Nice Harbour. It uses a stored value card, self-serve beer dispensing system, novelties that appealed to the banker in me and to the beer enthusiast in Gary. We especially liked a Corsican IPA dispensed at one of its taps.

 

 

 

There are a number of world class museums in Nice. I visited two of them while there: the Marc Chagall Museum and the Matisse museum. The Chagall Museum contains the largest public collection of Chagall’s work. This purpose-built museum was created by the artist himself to bring together in one place his most important biblical works.

 

 

The museum contains as well a performance hall with Chagall’s signature blue-stained windows and a grand piano decorated on its hood’s underside with a Chagall painting.

 

 

I also visited the beautiful Matisse museum housing many of Matisse’s major works. It was clear what impact the radiant light of the Mediterranean and blue skies had on the artist’s work. He said:

“Most people come here for the light and the picturesque scenery. Me, I’m from the North. What fixed me on this place were the reflections of coloured light in January, and the radiance of the day.” (Matisse, 1952, from Museum).

Nice has 300 days of sunshine out of 365 days in the year! Coming from the grey of Toronto’s winter, I understood perfectly when Matisse also said:

“Quand j’ai comprise que chaque matin je reverrais cette lumiere, je ne pouvais croire a mon bonheur. Je decidai de ne pas quitter Nice et j’y ai demeure pratiquement toute mon existence.”
“When I realized that each morning I would see this light again, I could not believe my good fortune. I decided never to leave Nice and I have lived here practically my entire life”. (My translation).

Just outside of the museum, the 11th century Roman ruins of an amphitheater greet the visitor. One could almost hear the roar of the crowd being entertained by the games once held there.

 

 

Finally, we spent a couple of days in the 12th arrondissement in Paris before heading home. This is an area we had not stayed in previously, but which was convenient as the train from Nice ended there at the Gare de Lyon. If you go to Paris, do not miss the Marché de Beauvau in the 12th, a classic outdoor and covered market, with vendors selling produce, meat and seafood, plus wine, cheese and more.

Especially, do not miss a hole in the wall restaurant in the perimeter of the market called Restaurant de Gevaudan, located cheek by jowl next to a purveyor of fish and seafood at 19 Rue d’Aligre. There, I had the best meal of the trip, an étouffée of salmon à la façon tagine. It came bubbling hot with salmon, potatoes, aubergine, onions, lemon and carrots in a shallow tagine dish (see the final picture below). Gary had a whole bream (bar) steamed that he filleted like a boss.

 

 

And so, home again, to dream of the next trip and to savour the warm memories of our Nice and Paris adventure.

 

The Other Poutine (Part I)

Poutine of Nice, France

A Canadian professor and food researcher, Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, is writing a book on the history of Canada’s now famous poutine. More specifically, as many with even a passing interest in food history know, it emerged from Quebec in the 1950s.

It is generally agreed it came from small towns (various localities claim the honour) within an hour or so’s drive from Montreal. This entry in Canadian Encyclopedia sets out the learning generally understood.

Based on media accounts Dr. Charlebois will likely offer more definitive origins, so his book is keenly awaited by food enthusiasts and culinary historians.

I grew up in Montreal, and left for Toronto in 1983.  I never saw poutine in Montreal or surrounding towns but we generally went north, to St. Donat and Saint Agathe and the towns in between – we never saw poutine there. French fries with a beef or chicken gravy, yes, also a staple of Montreal taverns as I’ve written earlier. But cheese curds did not form part of this dish, then.

It took time for poutine to escape its small town origins in southeast Quebec and penetrate the large centres like Montreal and Quebec City, but once it did poutine was unstoppable. A more unlikely international food star can hardly be imagined, but food trends and food history are unpredictable by nature.

As many sources show, Canadian poutine is also known in New Brunswick, often to describe a different dish – a potato-and-pork preparation is one. The common element is the mixture of things, as poutine means, sometimes derisively, a mix or hodge-podge of things. In Louisiana, poutine means the same as the English term pudding.

I’d like here to draw attention to the fact that Nice, France has a poutine – that exact spelling, not a similar-sounding word. This poutine is not referenced in the Canadian Encyclopedia or in any other non-French source I’m aware of.

It means a school of very small fish, juvenile fish such as sardines and anchovy. So again the idea of collection or mixture, as for the North American usages. The context is different but still related to food.

See also this page from the travel website See Nice, which states in part:

The fry, or baby fish, of sardines and anchovies, ‘La Poutine’ are generally considered food for other fish. But on the Cote d’Azur the fishermen of Nice fill their nets with these local specialities.

Transparent in appearance, with silvery eyes visible, this jelly-like pulp is best consumed fresh and is a popular cuisine at this time of year. Often served raw, drizzled with olive oil and a few drops of lemon juice so that you can discover the fragrance and flavours.

A French Wikipedia entry gives some information: https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poutine_(Nice)Another French-language discussion is of further interest: http://www.lemanger.fr/index.php/poutine-shirasu-la-saison-des-alevins/

The late French culinary writer and food historian Ninette Lyon referred to this poutine in her 1985 “Le Tour Gourmand des Spécialités Régionales” (Marabout, 1985), pp. 218 and 225. She never mentions Quebec or Canada, it is too early anyway (1985).

She states juvenile fish (alevins) are used in galette, a type of pancake, or for friture, a fry-up probably similar to how smelt were prepared in the Thames Estuary. Egg preparations are also mentioned.

I mention this because in the etymological discussions I’ve seen, Quebec, New Brunswick (for old Acadia), and Louisiana are mentioned, but never France, the assumption being apparently that the linguistic construction emerged in French America.

But given this usage in Provence, it had to come from France – and not just the term but the culinary context. Surely they didn’t get all this from us. Even if Provence did not supply many settlers to Quebec (most came from the western littoral), seafaring culture may have brought the term to North America, as likely for chowder, say, or burgoo.

Or, perhaps the term was once more widely known around France and is now restricted to parts of the Cote d’Azur.

It seems likely that “poutingo”, a Catalan pottage or mixture of some kind mentioned in some Canadian discussions, has the same root as the French poutine. An Italian dialectical equivalent for the fish poutine exists as well on the Italian Riviera, and in Nice itself – poutina – where an Italian patois is still spoken.

But we don’t need the Catalan or Italian terms to reach over to Canada: the word is already French.

I can add some personal testimony. I just came back from a few weeks in Nice. I asked older vendors in the fish markets about the Nice poutine. They all knew it, and said in this very month of March the schools arrive for gathering. So at this very time, the pre-Canadian, French poutine will be harvested and made up into obscure but still extant dishes.

(Impressed by the gleaming displays of fish, I asked one vendor if it was true the Mediterranean is becoming fished out. Not at all he said. I said, what about the media accounts of shortages and stock declines? He said, journalists need something to write about to get paid, don’t believe everything you read).*

Now, France may have adapted the English term “pudding”, long ago, into poutine. But we think it is more likely boudin and poutine in France are at the origin of the English term, via the Norman invasion.

Indeed poutine sounds like an alternate pronunciation or spelling of boudin. Boudin, a blood pudding or other sausage type is nothing if not a mixture…

For a continuation of this post, see Part II.

N.B. This image shows the importance of March to the local fish harvest, but in a typically French way: the products are all chocolate preparations.

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*We are well aware of the many studies in recent years that report fish stocks are dropping alarmingly in the Mediterranean, with almost all edible species being overfished (96% by one report). Nonetheless we found this personal testimony by one fisherman in Nice worthy of mention.