The Digest

The Natural Wine Explosion & Other News

18th November 2017

Words: James Hansen

natural wine

In this week’s round-up of the best online food writing: in search of lost flavour, the art of tinkering, and culinary nostalgia in the age of Trump

Tony Naylor gets on the natural wine roulette for The Guardian: “Sulphur mutes everything; it makes wine orderly, neat, considered. With [natural], there are extreme highs and lows, but when you get one that really sings, it’s whoosh …” So says Steve Nuttall of The Reliance in Leeds – one of a growing number of bars and importers putting low-intervention wine at the forefront of their offering. Naylor surveys the terroir with a keen, clear eye, pairing illuminating responses to industry cynicism – “Winegrowers are busy, practical people working extremely closely with nature. Their livelihood depends on it. If biodynamics didn’t improve their grapes and wine, they wouldn’t touch it” – with the awareness that if some natural wine is “shit”, it’s part and parcel of its essential character: the broad sweep of flavour gained far outweighs the predictability lost.

Benjamin Breen time-travels with taste at Res Obscura. His subject is the place of art history in food history: that is, a painting at a given time, in a given place, that features food, is likely to say something about what was being eaten at that given time, in that given place – and by whom. Focusing on two seemingly egg-centric paintings, from the same Spanish artist, Diego Velázquez, Breen’s eye is drawn to dried chillies lurking in both; on the fringes of the painting, just as they were on the fringes of European cuisine in ~1618. Breen continues to chart food’s place in art and the history that can be derived, before moving on to old cookbooks, with one goal: understanding how far culture can convey the actual taste of food.


Chin Jou writes on uniquely American food nostalgia for Gastronomica Journal. Harnessing a certain spray-tanned president’s slogan as a framing device, Jou takes Michael Pollan’s “not too much, mostly plants” maxim for his starting point. Aware that both Trump and Pollan’s nostalgias critique what is currently going on, and that both conveniently overlook the less savoury parts of their ideologies, what follows is a deep exploration of the development of the American diet. Showing that the decline of American food health being linked to white bread and sugar discounts the upturn in life expectancy that has occurred in the same period, Chou settles on a simple conclusion: years down the line, some eaters will be nostalgic for the food of 2017; just as some eaters of 2017 are nostalgic for the food of yesteryear.

Thom Eagle, whose forthcoming debut First, Catch we await with great eagerness, briefly ruminates on tinkering at In Search of Lost Thyme. The delicate additions and takings away – of taste, of flavour, of heat from a stove – that come together to make a recipe, “(or to put it another way) cooking dinner”, are contrasted with the moment when the process “opens up like a flower”. This, Eagle attributes to a careful paucity of ingredients, rather than a sudden fit of culinary skill. Wise to spot that “it can require more craft and skill to fix something already broken than to make it properly in the first place”, the piece alights on reinvigoration: the power of a handful of something here, or a squeeze of something there.

Ligaya Mishan charts the rise and triumph of Asian-American cuisine at The New York Times. The piece heralds foods, ingredients, and people that have been eating, cooking, and living in America since the 1850s. Up to the last decade, they have been restricted to thriving fringes by the machine of ‘American Cuisine’: “These chefs’ cooking, born of shame, rebellion and reconciliation, is not some wistful ode to an imperfectly remembered or never-known, idealized country. It’s a mixture of nostalgia and resilience”. In rejecting the calcifying, race-to-the-bottom notion of historical authenticity and the idea that cooks from Vietnam, China or Malaysia (for example) must cook only their own food, while allowing chefs from all over the globe to take influence from them, Mishan flips these issues on their head. With a century egg served at the top of a Michelin tasting-menu in San Francisco, or a piece of pork with “the crunch that you can hear at the back of your head” sounding an answering throb of delight in the mouth, “it’s food … that declares: This is what I like to eat. What about you? Do you dare?” An aside: her paragraph on flavour, the fourth in the piece, is transcendent.


Posted 18th November 2017

In The Digest


Words: James Hansen

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