Paris Peregrinations

I will write some notes on our recent Paris journey, in three phases. First, general impressions of the city. Second, our reaction to the food scene there. Third, comments on beer in Paris (while not intending to focus on our pet subject, inevitably I was drawn to it when in situ).

As for 20 and 30 years ago when we first visited the city, the architecture is the main draw. At every corner you think you are in a museum of some kind, an outdoors one based on buildings, monuments, and the engineer Haussmann’s long-lived design. Paris survived almost intact the two major wars of the 1900s, and his work and the previous infrastructure left standing retain all their glory. You get a burnished golden look to many of his buildings which helps define the city.

This museum-character is virtually unique among major cities of its age and importance.

The famous Metro works as well as ever. The RER (interurban system often aboveground) works well too although in general the cars seemed older and scheduling less rigorous. Traffic is thronged, and somehow the city manages without the speed bumps and bike lanes which have made city-centre traffic so dense and slow-moving in many Western cities. I have a feeling there are aesthetic reasons too why these refinements of social paternalism are dispensed with there.

The city, while it has the same look as preceding generations stretching to the late 1800s, is however less French than before, dans un double sens one might say. The French language has increasing amounts of English in it, in public signage and in newspapers and other media. Even where French seems unaffected by English, one can see that many phrases borrow their word order and ideas from English. For example, the verb se positionner, or to position yourself (say to make a run for office), seems of this type.

Much of the business language in the press uses cant words from New York and London, but in French. I suppose practical people would say it’s gagnant-gagnant (win-win).

Many signs now are bilingual, one sees it in the Metro, the system to buy tickets certainly, in museums, in many shops.

I’d think in a couple of hundred years French will be replaced by English as the lingua franca (sorry).

As well, many more Parisians speak English than before. Not just in hotels and restaurants, but those whose work requires interaction with Britain, U.S., or other parts of the EU. Of course globality and the Internet promote all this. Still, knowing some French helps the visitor a lot. With my Montreal upbringing, expressing myself came easily but I had trouble following some of the French due to the speed and monotone style in which Parisians speak. Quebecois speak much more in a musical way which to my mind is more understandable, but it’s all relative. All the French I met expressed great interest in Quebec and many said they would like to visit here.

I told one person that most French Canadians trace their lineage to Normandy or Brittany. He expressed surprise at this and said the modern Norman accent is not like Quebec’s, but of course things change over time.

In mid-2017, most of the tourists seemed Asian or East or North European – very few North Americans. The reasons are well-known, especially the fear of more Islamist terror attacks. One sees soldiers festooned with submachine guns frequently in town, especially near the seats of government in the 2nd arrondissement.

A group of Czechs was in town wearing white and red football-like costumes, some with funny hats. A bunch of them, men and women, sat in a line in a cafe and ordered large mugs of beer at noon. My kind of crowd. We met some on the Seine tour boats as well.

The city remains very livable. Like London, it almost instinctively knows how to preserve a kind of tranquility once the traffic dissipates and dusk falls. This is achieved in other ways too. Walking for hours each day, I think I heard an emergency siren once or twice – in Toronto it would be many more times. There is less heavy construction, of course because so much of the city remains the same, hence less noise from that source.

I didn’t see any of the zones where large numbers of French and immigrants live of North African or similar origin. These areas must be relatively distant from the main arrondissements of the city centre. There is an ethnic diversity in that city centre of course, but it seemed not much different from decades ago.

The media especially tv seemed preoccupied with politics especially the election just held. The style of news seems much influenced by what we first saw in America, the panels where each speaker tries to shout down the other, the experts brought in from academy, army, or business to weigh in on this or that. It’s still very French though. Emmanuel Macron’s victory speech was a triumph of banalities in my opinion, just vague, inspirational talk, and he mentioned almost nothing of policy. Frequently this was the tone of the commentary as well including the print versions (Figaro and other newspapers).

There is an intellectual tone to all this that seems impressive but sometimes you get the impression people like to hear themselves, and others, speak…

In the end, Paris remains itself, and that draws untold millions to see its wonders, and will no doubt into the distant future.


A Note of Interrogation

Wine-and-Cheese Across the Hemispheres

A columnist for The Argus in Melbourne, the pseudonymous Oriel, met an English visitor travelling in his country for chemical giant ICI. This is 1937. A chat revealed that in England, plain Jane wine-tasting had been superseded by tasting cheeses with the wines. The Englishman was a member of the Liverpool “Food and Wine Society”. I’d guess this was an early offshoot of the (original) Wine and Food Society formed by André Simon in London in 1933.

The indefatigable M. Simon (1877-1970) ranged the world to set up branches, reaching inter alia New York but also for example San Francisco (c. 1935). It appears some British cities outside London were already in his orbit even before WW II.

Oriel’s account strikes just the right mordant tone, trumping perhaps two American counterparts who tried a similar approach as I discussed earlier in these pages.

The Melbourne scribe put it this way:

Wine tasting is one of the pleasantest epicurean pastimes to which a man of sensitive palate can be introduced but yesterday I heard a lot in favour of cheese-tasting as an appetising diversion. It was told to me by Mr Norman D. Lees, an English visitor whose business interests are associated with that vast modern enterprise Imperial Chemical Industries. Mr Lees who is a member of The Liverpool Food and Wine Society told me that besides holding regular banquets the society organises occasional cheese-tasting afternoons. He went on to enumerate the many kinds of cheeses of which the members are connoisseurs but seeing a note of interrogation in my glance he made haste to add that it was customary to sip wine between bites.

In those circumstances ORIEL makes haste to recommend the pastime to those Melburnians to whom plain tea-tasting and wine-tasting produce a sensation of insipidity.

Actually, the Wine and Food Society already had a branch in Melbourne when Oriel did his reportage. It was established in 1936, as explained on the IWFS’ site here. (It may be of interest that the branches I’ve mentioned, and there are many more today world-wide including in Toronto, all continue in fine form).

Oriel’s full article may be read here, available courtesy the Trove digitized newspaper resource. The reference to tea was no doubt a dulcifying element, perhaps an editor’s addition. Melbourne always was the most prim of Australian settlements. As this is the 1930s, one has visions of clubs and lawn bowling, posh homes, lazy fans and louvered ventilations. One part of society takes tea or learns the finer points of wine in soirées; another is resolute on the malt at plain chair and tables, as I’ve explored earlier too. In one, the restrained, rather English tones of aspirant Melbourne; in the other, the broader twangs of Sydney and the more distant Territories. The salon; the cheery hotel.

An acute observation about insipidity though, I’d never think to put it that way. Maybe he meant insensibility, but had to go with another word given the tea reference.

Who was Oriel one wonders, so much is lost to the vaporous mists of history..

Note re sources used: the image above was sourced from an Ebay listing, here. The quotation from the Oriel column was sourced from the 1937 issue of the The Argus referenced in the text. All intellectual property in the sources belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized users, and are used herein for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


The Colour of Mauve

Wine is the colour of…

Major Ben C. Truman, a long-lived newspaperman, author, and expert on California wines, wrote a prescient piece in 1911 for the Pacific Wine and Spirits Review. It is well-worth reading as he predicted accurately the future of the industry. The only difference, albeit not a small one, from his shape of things to come was the hiatus of Prohibition and post-Prohibition. This was an enormous setback for the domestic wine industry. It took years for vineyards to recover in the 1930s, e.g., re-planting grapes more suitable for wines than table-grapes, only to be set back again by Depression and WW II.

By the 1950s, European producers in a revived European economy – boosted by the Marshall Plan – were sending lots of wine to the U.S. and establishing good markets both at the popular and high ends. As a result and due to the lost momentum of 1920-1945, California achieved at most a jug wine image and perhaps for decent table wines, but not more. The natural ascendancy to wine stardom which would have occurred by the 1940s had Prohibition and war not happened took another generation to achieve.

Hence the phenomenon of many American gastronomic dinners into the 1960s featuring only European wines, and perhaps too the kind of event I described in my last post.

(This doesn’t mean American wines were ignored by gastronomes, as I’ve explained in earlier posts. A latent appreciation for the top end of California production later merged with an international acknowledgement which started with the 1976 Judgment of Paris. Together they created a surging confidence in local production).

And so the American industry proceeded from an insecure, apologetic view of its wines, finally gaining an increased confidence by the start of WW I, losing the momentum with Prohibition, the Depression, and WW II, and slowly re-building to where it stands now. While many regions of the world have become quality, not just bulk, producers including Italy, Chile, and Spain, California wines especially from Napa and Sonoma retain high prestige. But it was something hard fought for.

Truman must be counted a pioneer, someone confident in his nation’s produce and not afraid to say so, often with a dry humour, and not a little boosterism characteristic of the good salesman.

 

Forty years ago no pretentious club house in California, and not a score of genteel home entertainers placed native wines on their tables — partly because they were inferior and partly because they were cheaper, and their use “not in good form.” All this has been metamorphosed, as all the clubs keep dry and sweet California wines altogether for general use, while their use in families and hotels and restaurants is quite as general and in perfectly “good form.” There are clarets and hocks, burgundies and rieslings and other red and white dry wines in our leading wine and grocery stores at present, as good and much purer than many of those whose bottles are bedecked with pictures of some old chateau on the Gironde or old crumbling castle on the Rhine; while such sweeter offerings as Cresta Blanca, Angelica and many muscatels appeal to palates that enjoy a luscious savor without an undue exhilaration.

Much more praise, even, may be bestowed on our ports and sherries and brandies — and especially those made in Los Angeles and other parts of Southern California — whose flavors and other delicious qualities are quaint and fascinating, something one cannot describe any more than one can impart an idea of the different shades of mauve. The California port is the truest, the purest and best that can be obtained anywhere in the world at present, as all the imported ports have been sophisticated and most of them basely adulterated; and it is matter of fact that nearly all eastern physicians, in prescribing ports as a tonic or otherwise in a medicinal way, recommend California ports on the ground that they are honest and pure, while the Oporto ones are not.

Regarding our sherries, it may be truly said that, while they are honest and pure, and of great medicinal value, they do not as yet possess that nutty flavor given the “high-priced sherries” manufactured from cheap American whisky, water, burnt sugar, prussic acid and other chemicals in New York, and from potato spirit, maidenhair, capillaire, prussic acid, water and coloring chemicals in Hamburg, which sends out more “Genuine Amontillado” annually than leaves Cadiz in ten years. As a matter of fact, there is no such thing as pure sherry— except the California sherry — in England or the United States today, and there has not been for more than fifty years.

Truman is an English name, well-known I might add among beer devotees with an eye on Albion. But Major Ben Truman, just as his namesake President Harry Truman, was a quintessential American, despite his likely English blood.


A Pot-Pourri of Gastronomy in the Glitter Era

Paging through some 50 years of Wine and Food Society of New York menus in the NYPL’s digital menu archive, one is continually struck by the richness and variety displayed. Later menus seem to encompass more dinners and buffets, although it may be luck of the draw that more of these appear than “straight” wine tasting menus, the earlier pattern.

An April, 1973 menu created to accompany a Society meeting that year sets forth a stunning five buffets, some comprising cold and hot items. The buffets were: Chinese, French, Italian, Mediterranean (Greek-, Turkish-, and North African-influenced in this case), and Scandinavian. The event was held at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY.

Each buffet comprised about 20 items and the Scandinavian one had a dedicated cheese component. On top of all this, a separate cheese board was offered comprised of French and Italian selections. And on top of all this, there was a dessert table.

The wines were divided into aperitif, white, red, and rose sections, with a separate group of German Rieslings.

Numerous were in the popular category, which makes sense given the large number evidently in attendance. Some of the popular names are no less today, Riunite from Italy, Entre Deux Mers from Bordeaux, Liebfraumilch from Germany.

A similar approach could be taken today, except I think the rose category would be replaced by sparkling. Also, the sherry and vermouth offerings in the aperitif section have a period touch, one indeed that reaches back to the Thirties and Society events in its first 20 years. Today, cocktails more likely would be offered. At that time though, cocktails and hard liquor, except in the form of brandy or sometimes another spirit for post-dinner, were viewed askance. This was an article of faith in French-influenced circles, then.

There seems to have been an evolution in American drink habits as earlier events of the Society focused, for example, on “summer rum drinks”. With the increasing European influence on American gastronomy in the 50s and 60s, assisted by better communications and cheaper travel, the emphasis on the hard stuff lessened over time, at least judging by the menus available in the NYPL resource (perhaps 50, not a large sample to be sure). This has now changed and hard spirits and cocktails are much in vogue in all parts of the culinary world.

I can’t recall that bourbon or straight rye were ever the subject of a Society tasting. Park & Tilford had a blend of straight whiskeys in a late 1940’s tasting, but otherwise bourbon is rarely or never mentioned in the menus. Old New England rum, under the carriage trade label S.S. Pierce, was included in the after dinner drinks for another 40s tasting, which is nice. Someone saw that the New England rum heritage was passing and a taste of it should be included before it was too late.

There was no beer, which Beer Et Seq finds regrettable, but 1973 was just ahead of the start of the American beer renaissance. Beers would have been appropriate at least to accompany the smorgasbord (but then too no akavit was in evidence either). Tuborg beer would have been a good choice as it was a fine-flavoured lager in those years. Even Michelob would have worked, nay especially, as it too was a very sound product then. The New York-area breweries were closing fast but Schaefer was still being produced in New York I think, another good choice. No doubt such beers had a ballgame image then and weren’t considered. Ballantine IPA was still in the market though…

The thing that really stands out to me as unusual is the absence of American wines – not a single one was included. U.S. viticulture had greatly improved since the 1930s. The scene was already set for the Judgment of Paris. Given the popular focus of the wine table, a good Napa Chard or Cabernet would have fit well. Since the Society certainly occasionally tasted choice American wines from the 1930s through the 1950s at least, their absence seems odd. Perhaps since no element of the buffet was identified as American, it was felt no U.S. wines need be present. There was no German buffet presented, though…

I like the mix-and-match approach of the buffets. Apart from being typically American, or North American – our insouciance permits such helter-skelter – it shows the great strides foreign cuisines had made on the American culinary consciousness. It was people like James Beard, M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, Myra Waldo, Craig Clairborne, Graham Kerr, the Browns (husband and wife duo), and many others who laid the groundwork.

And so, what a party. Bang that gong.

Note re images: The first image above was sourced at the Bremer’s Wine & Spirits site, here. The second was sourced at the Culinary Institute of America’s website, here.  All intellectual property in the images belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized users. Images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 

 

 


A Wine and Cheese Tasting at the Pierre, 1945

In 1936 and 1939, the Wine and Food Society of New York held seminal wine-and-cheese tastings, events regarded by the press at the time as novel. Indeed they have no precedent we are aware of. If any similar events were held in the 1930s, it was probably in London or other branches of the same organisation founded by the gastronome André Simon.

The New York branch continued to mount tastings during the war although likely on a reduced scale. Quite naturally, these reflected wartime conditions. Few if any wines from France, Italy and of course Germany were tasted. Also, the surviving wartime menus – by which I mean those in the digital menu collection of the New York Public Library (www.nypl.org) – often are “stripped down”. They contain few introductory and taste notes, and are relatively spartan. See an example, here.

Inadvertently, by needing to focus more on domestic sources of wines, this gave no doubt a new appreciation of varietal and other interesting wines coming out of Napa and Sonoma in particular. The slow but steady rise in appreciation of American wine post-WW II in good part can be laid to this cause, in my opinion. True, the Wine and Food Society was small, but very influential. People like the New York-based James Beard, Craig Clairborne, Julia Child and Myra Waldo all would have known of its events and probably attended many of them.

In March, 1945, the Society held a Tasting of Red Wines, Cheeses and Cheese Biscuits. The venue was the iconic Hotel Pierre, on Fifth Avenue. Before discussing the approach taken, I might mention that it was by no means usual for the Society to table cheese at its wine tastings. In fact, judging again by the menus publicly available today (albeit a small sample), tasting cheese and wine together was the exception, not the rule. Many of the menus on the nypl.org site between the 1930s and mid-1950s mention no food at all or perhaps cheese straws or, at holiday time, cakes, mince pies, and similar. Sometimes other foods were tasted with wine, oysters, or a selection of hams.

This means I think that the idea of tasting wine almost invariably with cheese developed slowly, even though the Wine and Food Society was a – maybe the – key innovator here.

The 1945 tasting is interesting on numerous accounts. First, the war had not ended, although its end, at least in Europe, was near – Germany’s surrender came seven weeks later. Second, numerous cabernets and pinots from choice California vineyards were tasted, many with some years age. Numerous vineyards are still existing or remembered, e.g., Simi, Louis Martini, Christian Brothers, Beaulieu. Beaulieu in particular was a progenitor of the prestige Napa and Sonoma houses of today.

Third, brief tasting notes were included, modern in style and formulation. A Fountain Grove 1939 Sonoma cabernet was called “soft”, with “excellent bouquet and flavour”. An Inglenook pinot was compared favourably to a good French Burgundy. And so on, peruse the menu and read these impressions of 71 years ago, they read much like one would write today, and of essentially the same type of wines: cabernets and pinots, Zinfandels, and Italian-style wines, one said to be like a Chianti, mostly from California.

A couple of wines hailed from other parts of the U.S., one from Ohio. Winemaking in states other than California was widespread before Prohibition and it was starting to come back even in the east and central regions.

The ports were both American and Portuguese, the latter either prewar or perhaps shipped during the war by neutral Portugal if that was possible.

The cheeses were either domestic, or from Mexico, Argentina (a blue cheese), or Canada (Oka Trappist cheese, cheddar). Two have French and Italian names, Camembert and Bel Paese. I’d guess these were American versions.

One of the most interesting cheeses was a goat cheese from Arkansas, made from “mineralized goat milk”. The description is similar to what one might read today of artisan cheesemakers in Food and Wine magazine.

Crackers and cheese straws rounded out what was a very interesting event.

N.B. viz Argentine blue cheese: Argentina still produces blue cheese, indeed it makes something of a specialty of it.* See this discussion by blogger Dan Perlman of numerous current Argentine blues, one of which is pictured above, San Ignacio.

Note re images: The first image above was extracted from the original 1945 menu linked in the text, available courtesy the New York Public Library, www.nypl.org. The second and third were obtained from the producer`s website, here.  All intellectual property in the sources belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized users, and are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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*In a subsequent exchange with Dan Perlman in the comments section of his post mentioned, he indicated that Argentina does not really specialize in the blue cheese area, it’s just that he found the group of blues he reviewed interesting.

 

 

 

 

 


The Beer and Cheese Tasting: Some Archeology

In July, 2015, I looked at the pairing of Ontario cheeses and beer at the Monforte cafe in Stratford, ON.

In the last week of April, 2016 a series of posts highlighted the alliance of beer and cheese in the far north of France. I examined beer with French monastic cheese, with Vieux-Lille, Vieux Boulogne, and Maroilles, Mimolette, and Boulette d’Avesnes. 

I also considered the Welsh rabbit dish in America, here and here.

In all these instances except the first which is effectively a “tasting”:

a) beer is eaten with cheese as such;

b) beer and cheese are ingredients in a recipe; or

c) beer is used to wash (cure) a cheese in processing.

Cheese and beer as ingredients usually means the cheese is melted, or simply that beer is infused in cheese (no cooking). Hence, the “porter”-flavoured cheddar of Ireland, a tasty thing to eat although how traditional it is, is hard to say. Cheese, certainly the hard types, was not traditionally made in Ireland despite the reputation of Irish milk and cream. Cheese-making has taken root in the last 20 years or so.

The idea of cheese and beer in these latter ways is obviously quite old. The “ploughman’s lunch” of England is a snack of beer and cheese. The name itself may be quite recent as Martyn Cornell suggested a few years ago, but beer and cheese as a pairing in England must go back to misty times. Celery used to be eaten with it, maybe still is. Pickles in the English sense, as well.

Wine and cheese together have similar applications and no doubt as venerable a history, at least where both are staples, which takes in a large part of Europe certainly.

But as I discussed earlier this month, the concept of a wine and cheese tasting – a stand-alone, social event to assess the offerings and rate the combinations, if only informally – is something new.

This is a party, or reception. Wine and cheese are served and nothing else except crackers and bread usually, and perhaps some fruit.

From pairings on the dinner table, from the snack or informal meal, and from the idea of toasted cheese, “bucks”, and similar dishes, there sprung the wine-and-cheese tasting, a long-lived progeny.

The two 1930s New York wine-and-cheese events I discussed recently, held by the Wine and Food Society, featured sherry and port among the wines served. In Anglo-American cuisine, fortified wines, the sweet ones anyway, were served at the meal’s end. The example of port with Stilton is trite. Clearly, early wine-and-cheese parties borrowed from, or built on this tradition, hence sherry and port at the seminal 1930s events.

Today, dry wines are more typically served at the wine-and-cheese. This is probably new, as dry wines traditionally were served with main courses in British and “Continental” (French-influenced) dining, although the French were also said to eat cheese at the end of a meal to “finish the wine”. That probably played into dry wines becoming dominant at the wine-and-cheese.

Anyway, the American notion, now established everywhere, that a glass of dry wine can stand as an aperitif, surely is a spin-off of the wine-and-cheese.

Wine-and-cheese as a form of socializing has British roots as well in the same gestational period, 1930s-1950s, which deserve exploration.

What of a stand-alone beer-and-cheese tasting, when did that start? We think probably after 1975 as the craft brewing renaissance gathered speed.

And there are precedents which seem quite parallel to the wine area. Some Edwardian dinners paired cheese with beer, not just at the end of the meal. Just ahead of WW I, in the East Oregonian, a suggested Christmas menu was advertised by a wine and liquor dealer. Different drinks were shown for a lengthy list of courses. One can presume few dinners inspired by the ad included every course, readers probably adapted the suggestions for their own needs.

Beer is advised with a cheese “entree” (no wine), and no fewer than six brands are suggested, all American lagers.

The German-American table was pairing cheese with specific beers by 1900, as I discussed here, where Pabst Blue Ribbon accompanied hand kase and rye bread. The kase is a strong, soft cheese still consumed in Germany, a rather local taste but one that migrated to America with the emigrants.

Perhaps the earliest beer-and-cheese, i.e., as a separate, organized event, was the landmark 1944 A Tasting of Beers, Ales and Stout with Complementary Foods“.* It was held by, once again, the Wine and Food Society of New York, a tasting I recreated in a local restaurant a couple of years ago.

Numerous interesting cheeses were served at this event including a brandy-flavoured blue cheese, Swiss cheese, and various American types. They weren’t paired individually with specific beers, but were available for tasting at the participant’s will with the beer of his or her choosing.

The 1944 event was not limited to cheese, but all the dishes were cold – it wasn’t a dinner – and cheese was an important part. In essence, a tasting was held very similar to the modern beer and cheese tasting.

As well, the German Alps Festival, held annually at Hunter Mountain, NY since 1972, included a “beer and cheese tasting” at its 1977 event, see here. This was just at the dawning of the craft beer era. No doubt a similar idea had been around for some time. I seem to recall having one or two such tastings at my place in the mid-1970s, in fact. Perhaps CAMRA in England did something similar at one of its early festivals. 

The 20th century wine-and-cheese party/reception/mixer probably stimulated the beer version, but both are the outgrowth of earlier ways to consume two comestible products long seen as “flavormates”, to borrrow the term used in an early 1950s supermarket ad touting beer and cheese together. The alcohol needs a sop, first and foremost, and cheese provides admirably for it. Apart from that, is there a palate synergy between beer and cheese, and wine and cheese? Maybe. Anyway, tasting events for both are staples of the gastronomic scene everywhere.

Note: The poster of the Portland Beer and Cheese Fest shown above depicts last year’s event. This year’s will be held June 17, 2017, see all details here.

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*In fact, a similar tasting was held by the same Society in 1942, but I consider the ’42 and ’44 events of a piece.

 

 

 


The California Way of Entertaining

Wine-and-Cheese Catches a Wave

In 1939, second (at least) wine and cheese tasting was held by the Wine and Food Society of New York. It was reported on by Charles B. Driscoll, who wrote a column for the San Bernadino Sun in California, “New York Day By Day”.

Driscoll was mildly amused by this early New York foodie scene but isn’t as skeptical as the New York Times for a similar event in 1936, as discussed here.

The 1939 tasting was held at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New York, one of the posh venues where the Wine and Food Society held its events. I have discussed earlier the Society’s early events, with a specific focus on its historic 1940s beer and food tastings at the Waldorf-Astoria, see also hereThe Society had a pivotal influence on American food and wine culture –  gastronomy if you will. And it is still going strong in New York, to this day.

From the Driscoll piece:

 

The Wine and Food society is one of the interesting organizations of New York. It has grown from a nucleus of a few gourmets. Recently I attended a tasting at the Ritz-Carlton, and was astonished to find four or five hundred people filling the grand ballroom as they noseyed about, tasting a sliver of cheese here and a thimbleful of port wine there. On an occasion of this kind, there may be as many as 30 or 40 tables or counters, each numbered, and each dispensing only one kind of wine or food. The most accomplished gourmets sit at tables with rows of samples of wine and cheese before them, comparing, whiffing, making notes. The general membership and guests make a social affair of it, milling about and gathering in small groups, wine-glasses and cheese slices in hand.

With hundreds of attendees, the Wine and Food Society’s wine and cheese tastings had become sophisticated affairs. I’d think tickets were sold to the public. It seems unlikely, although possible, that the Society counted that many members at the time. Perhaps a current analogy is the whiskey festivals which occur regularly in large Western cities.

Driscoll was clearly taken with the novelty of the thing. Writing about it in sunny southern California must have boosted the idea locally, a “natural” given the restoration of commercial winemaking in California. The war would have interrupted the development of the wine industry and gastronomic interest in wine and cheese. By the early 1950s, consumer interest in these comestibles was patent. The notion of wine-and-cheese was spreading but not necessarily as a stand-alone event.

Cheese and wine are referred to in news ads as pairings for different courses in meals or for casual home entertaining. This 1951 advertisement in a Healdsburg newspaper offered free recipes for wine and cheese pairings. The wine and cheese are described as “flavormates”. The book: “The California Way of Entertaining With Wine and Cheese”.

Wine and cheese were the subject of lectures by industry promotional associations, with filmed accompaniment, at a 1951 Sausalito Womens’ Club meeting. It’s not clear if samples were made available at the event but I’d think they must have been. This Club appears to have been instrumental in introducing the wine-and-cheese idea to a broader audience.

California supermarkets were selling cheese platters and wine to go with it if they had a license, as shown here in 1954 (“taste their ‘go-together goodness’ at dinner tonight”). Wine-and-cheese suited the informal style of West Coast entertaining, but the idea was germinating nationally.

Once again: using cheese and wine in a recipe, or pairing them as an appetizer or dessert course, is not the same as organizing a wine and cheese party, but the connection is evident especially as wine-and-cheese were advertised for “snacktime”. It is a hop and skip from there to organizing a formal tasting where more thought would be given to the wines and cheeses and their suitability as pairings.

Clearly, a similar idea was starting in England about the same time, per the drinks writer Frederick Martin whom I quoted the other day. The Wine and Food Society in New York was a c. 1934 offshoot of a London group founded by Andre Simon (I’ve reviewed this earlier). Haute culinary London would have known the kinds of events occurring in parallel Manhattan circles in the 1930s. Possibly the London parent group was organizing similar ones on its own.

The 1954 Kappa Nu tasting in Buffalo, NY, together with these California stirrings, are some of the earliest wine and cheese tasting events which appear after the landmark 1930s soirees in New York, at least to our knowledge. Kappa Nu’s may have been the first one post-WW II on the East Coast, or the first to be documented. It would be interesting to check manuals on entertaining and catering c. 1950 to see if the idea was already current in the country.

Note re image: The image above was extracted from the 1954 news article linked in the text, available via the California historic newspapers digitized resource. All intellectual property in the source belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. Image is believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 

 

 

 


The Greeks Do Wine and Cheese

Back in 1954, Kappa Nu, a college fraternity now part of Zeta Beta Tau, held a wine and cheese party at University of Buffalo in New York. A university newspaper, the Spectrum, chronicled the event together with doings of other Buffalo Greeks.*

The affair was dubbed Be Alive in ’55. You have to have remembered the “Red” and A-bomb scares of the Fifties to get the full humour in that.

The party was “open”, presumably not restricted to fraternity members and pledges.

Kappa Nu has an interesting history, it was one of the early fraternities (pre-WW I) largely composed of Jewish members. It later amalgamated with similar, yet-older organizations, of which Zeta Beta Tau is the successor. ZBT is well-known amongst the Greek societies in the U.S., and is today non-sectarian. Perhaps the open nature of Kappa Nu’s 1954 party was a harbinger of ZBT’s inclusiveness in 2017.

In the short article referenced, the words cocktail, beer, wine, and Champagne all appear. Of course it was the holiday period. Still, one gets a flavour of frat social life in the 1950s. (Or is “frat social” tautological?).

Beeretseq has nothing against the frats, but we moved in separate paths during my college years. Based on the Buffalo Greeks’ social calendar in 1954, a lot of it looked like good fun and socializing: wine tastings, “keggers”, football. To be sure, some of the doings have no place in today’s society (e.g., Apache parties), but this is 60 years ago. We live, we learn.

In my last post, I discussed a 1936 wine and cheese tasting held by the Wine and Food Society of New York at the Waldorf Hotel. 18 years later, a college social organization holds something similar. What links them is the privileged social status of the groups involved: an elite gastronomic society, a distinguished university fraternity. Participation in both required disposable income, but also the participants were likely well-educated, or on the path. Some would have been exposed to wine in Europe or at the parents’ dinner-table.

Further, both these events were held in the same state. The brother who hatched Be Alive in ’55 may have got the idea from his father or an uncle who attended the 1936 event at the Waldorf, or a similar event.

Bear in mind too the Finger Lakes Region in New York is not far from Buffalo. Long-established wineries there, including Great Western Winery, probably supplied some of the wine for these events. Perhaps its sales and marketing people helped organize them. I’d think the Greeks at Cornell in Ithaca, NY were doing similar events in the 1950s.

From an elite social base in the 1930s-1950s, the wine-and-cheese party idea went national, or so we apprehend.**

The breweries should have seen a similar opportunity but didn’t, not at that time. Ironically, a handsome ad appears on the same page of the Spectrum article from Iroquois brewery in Buffalo, a long-disappeared regional brewery. The breweries didn’t see their product as fit for upscale tastings and food pairings, and beer at college meant keggers, basically. There is some irony here, as the idea to pair beer and food intelligently probably predates the wine-and-cheese fete. We’ll explore this soon.

Note re images. The first image was sourced at the clipartfest site and is believed in the public domain. The second was extracted from the news article linked in the text, obtained via the New York State historic newspapers digitized resource. All intellectual property in the sources of the images belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. Images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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*From Greek-letter social fraternity.

**See my last post mentioned, clearly eating cheese with wine or beer itself did not start in the 1930s and expand from there. But the idea of attending a party or reception to appraise the flavours of different wines and cheeses, where nothing else was consumed, seems a 20th century innovation.

 

 


The Wine and Cheese Party

The wine-and-cheese party is a staple of middle-class and gentrified living whether in town or country. You see it all the time: wine and cheese for the vernissage at the new art store in Rosedale; the Unitarian Church holds one to raise money for an extension; a new book is coming out on climate change; a winery wants to tout a new release; call in the wine and cheese.

 

While hardly fashionable in the way, say, vegetarian food is today, or sustainable fish, wine-and-cheese is a permanent part of the culinary scene. It’s no trouble to find advice on how to hold one, here is an excellent suggestion from the website, Big Girl Small Kitchen.

Unlike one-time stalwarts of popular wine culture such as Blue Nun, say, or crackling rosé, or of the cheese world – Blue Roquefort, Camembert (unless deep-fried but that’s passé too now, isn’t it?), wine-and-cheese as an event is evergreen.

Why is this? How did this start? The old school used wine to accompany meals with the partial exception of Champagne, which goes with anything or nothing, for any reason or none.

Is it an old stand-by of the Paris or Lyon salon which transplanted here with its two components? No, it’s not. The French never drank plain wine as an apéro. They didn’t hold cocktail parties, either. Cheese ends a meal, or it did, and wine is consumed with food.

Frederick Martin, in An Encyclopaedia of Drinks and Drinking said this circa 1970:

The habit of drinking wine as a beverage, largely unaccompanied by food, has much grown up in Britain and has been fostered by the trade through promotion of “wine and cheese” parties, which I personally find the dullest social events imaginable. Wine and cheese by all means, at the conclusion of a good dinner, but not as an end in themselves.

So what changed? Martin lays it at the feet of the wine agencies, they came up with it to promote wine to a larger market. He might be right, but I think in any case the Americans must have started it, as they and now everyone consider wine an apt aperitif, “a drink” in other words. Before you can think of wine to be consumed just with a tidbit, you have to accept that it can stand as a drink, as a whiskey, or beer, or Coke. And as Martin says, wine on its own is not part of traditional social habits.

Maybe Germany had something to do with it since the Moselle and other classic whites there are on the sweet side and drink well on their own. The taverns in the Rhine offer such wines between meals, at least I’ve always understood this. And Germans had a long influence in New York and other parts of the U.S., as I’ve discussed in other contexts.

Maybe it started in California wine country. Wine there probably had a larger social function than at formatted dinners. The “jug” idea is kind of consistent with that, you take the jug to a poetry reading, a folk concert, a picnic. Maybe it migrated to New York from San Francisco.

Someone should study this, but at bottom wine and cheese must have started in America, and thence to places like London, Montreal, Barca.

It sounds, too, in temporal terms, like a 1960s idea.

In fact, it’s older, reaching back at least to the Thirties. The Wine and Food Society of New York, of which I wrote in connection with my recreation of a 1944 beer and food tasting it held at the Waldorf hotel, held a wine and cheese party in 1936. You can read the droll report of the New York Times, “Wine Tasters Test Talents on Cheese”, here.

Was that the very first one? It may have been, or one of the first, e.g., the Limburger the reporter fled from to remote corners of the Starlight Room is not really suitable for a wine and cheese. They were working the kinks out.

I think wine and cheese is okay, beer and cheese too. But it’s not really a “natural” combination. You could as well combine wine with a selection of cold cuts, or salads, or biscuits and breads.

Stilton and port have had an association in English culinary history, but that alone can’t have started the “wine and cheese” of the modern era, i.e., a party or reception – an event – where wine and cheese are tasted and nothing else. The fact that cheese has been eaten with wine or beer as part of a fixed meal, or as a casual snack, probably for a very long time, is not the modern wine and cheese “tasting”.

Someone hit on it and the Wine and Food Society cum New York Times helped democratize it, not intentionally though. The 1930s Wine and Food Society was an elite group, e.g., its next event in ’36 was a dinner to commemorate Escoffier’s work and was chaired by the brother of President Taft.

But as often happens, influential small groups do something and it spreads from there. Doesn’t matter what it is: guitar feedback, bacon-infused cocktail, cloudy beer, free verse, somewhere somehow something starts and it grows.

Many food and drink trends have short lives. The wine and cheese is a hardy survivor.

Wine and cheese. Think about it…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


A One Way Ticket to Munich

Another c. 1900 éloge of beer comes from another pen working for the Catholic Journal of Rochester, NY, this time scratching out praises to Munich, Bavaria. This pen had a unique way of talking, of which this is just a small sample:

Do you love the beautiful in all its forms – music, painting and architectures? – then go to Munich. Are you – pardon me for asking the question – partial to a flagon of real, lustrous, vitalizing, never-to-be-forgotten lager beer? Go to Munich. Would you rub shoulders with long-haired artists, ox-eyed musicians, bouncing women, hare-brained students, dreamy philosophers, ingenious workmen, sharp-nosed critics, sombre-robed clerics of all degrees of sanctity? You would? Then go to Munich. Would you, in fine, run headlong into the temptation of preferring a terrestrial, not a celestial  paradise? You would? Then book for Munich, one way.

It’s not that the capital of Bavaria is so fortunate in what nature has done for her, but because of what man has done. Her kings, princes, dukes, (whatever they like to call them) have been her best benefactors. It is they who have built all that she is most proud of, – her mighty triumphal arches, her gorgeous palaces, her noble churches. They ransacked the world on her behalf…

This is one of a number of ecstatic reactions to the local beer recorded by foreign visitors around this time; the brews must have been very special. Studies of hop rates and final gravities of the day, as well as the stylistic or perhaps production variety then evident, explain why.

 

I did visit Munich once. The picture conveyed here didn’t quite connect, in part it was the time of year (um, December), but also, the 8th Air Force and other allied visitors during the war reduced much of the city to cinders, and the rebuilding didn’t, I think, render the original charm. Even Munich beer didn’t really impress: too little dunkel, too little draft weizen, too much green flavour in the blonde lagers.

Of course I did have some good experiences, but the “fountain head”, as the article later terms the beer culture, is too strong a term. Industry consolidation and stylistic levelling have taken their toll.

Still, we had an enjoyable time, and would certainly return, in better season.

The rest of the article is well-worth reading, not least the part which states parents send their children to university half-expecting them to be scarred in duelling. (“Fighting is part of the educational curriculum”). This suggested a lurking militarism, nay undertone of civic violence, made all too apparent later in the century.

Articles as the one cited allow us to remember the best of past eras, but in doing so more recent history can never be quite effaced, it’s like whack-a-mole…

Note re image: the image above is believed in the public domain and was source from Wikipedia, here. Image is believed available for educational and historical purposes. All intellectual property in the image belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.