Wednesday 11 August 2010
Alex James: Chillis, cheese and matters of taste
The Scoville scale, for measuring the heat of chillis, has been in the news recently. Scoville has gone from being an obscurity, a pub quiz answer, to a word that everybody kind of knows. It is because chilli sauce is getting hotter all the time. No doubt that's true, but according to the Scoville system, it is now many, many thousands of times hotter than it used to be.
For this reason, I don't rate the system – it may be good for selling chilli sauce to Cro-Magnons, but little else. It's a shame, a missed opportunity. It is good to have frames of reference for things that we can taste. It probably increases our ability to taste and enjoy things, but I don't understand how something can be a thousand times hotter than it was. It might just be that vanilla ice-cream is a thousand times nicer than having a splinter, but I'm not sure how many shades of vindaloo we can distinguish.
The last thing the world needs now is more zeros. We bandy trillions and billions and millions like we know what they mean. We don't. Now we need to add them to everything, apparently. What we need to apply when it comes to food is the concept of a limit, a place where the laws of gastronomy cease to apply. There is a limit at which things are palatable. Anything over the limit isn't food.
I've been thinking this through because it's the cheese awards coming up and after the judging I'm going to be left with a couple of tons of cheese that I'm going to convert into the smelliest substance in the universe. At least, I think it is: fromage fort, or potted cheese. It's the cheese equivalent of moonshine, a sort of distilled essence of cheese.
You boil up a leek and keep the juice, grate hard old cheese mixed together with eau de vie into it. Then you bury it and leave it all to ferment for a couple of weeks. It's rarely seen these days. It's a health and safety inspector's nightmare. Forget chillis, this is properly edgy, so smelly and almost poisonous that if an elephant farted in the same room as a tiny piece, you just wouldn't be able to tell. Really mature specimens can measure up to around three-quarters of a Titchmarsh on the Westbrook scale.
There's more to a field of gold than money
I've been keeping my eye on what has happened in the top field and I'm certain no one has done anything particularly clever. The wheat has grown very well all on its own, 40 acres of it. There are one or two bald patches, but by and large that field looks just like all the other wheat fields around here. It would be hard to spot the new boy.
How beautiful it is to behold shimmering gold in the evening sun. How sugary the ears taste when rolled on the tongue. How complacent we are about this miracle. It's hard to believe that not long ago agricultural wealth was the only kind of wealth. Farming was what built every single one of the nice houses in this part of the world. Now farming means either subsistence or self-indulgence.
Of course, for me it's the latter. Once the wheat has been cropped, in the next week or two, I'll have my runway at last – the world's first biodynamic airport. But it has become apparent that what we really need here is a public car park. Cars are now parking all the way up the verge along one of the boundaries and it makes me furious. The verge is where the little animals live. There was a Jag parked in front of the farm gate yesterday, too – a low-spec one at that. There were so many cars that traffic had to pull out into the road on the summit of a blind hill to get round the cars.
It's a strange transmutation of the rural dream but I have been left with no choice. Park life.
Driven mad by rural landscapes
I spent last week by the sea. What a different proposition life is to the man who looks out of his window and beholds a seascape and not a landscape. The sea can't be bent into shape. It's just a huge beautiful abstraction. Look at the sea and it says "Play, relax, chill out, go fishing". The rural landscape is a tease. Look at that for a long time and it is soon promising it can be anything you want it to be. Before you know what has happened, you're inside a landscape of your own mad design with car parks, runways and cheese caves.
All the time we were away it was on my mind that I might miss the plums, one of the highlights of the year in the garden. It's surprising how short the shelf life of soft fruit is. A few sunny days and I might have missed the entire crop. Fortunately, our run was well timed and today I have eaten nothing except purple plums, nor wanted anything else. The yellow Victoria plums are next and then the peaches, the arrival of which spells the high tide of summer.
I've decided to plant more and more fruit trees. An orchard is the prettiest thing there is and requires very little maintenance, and if you get it right you can have something in fruit pretty much all year round. Soon I won't need a car at all.
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