1 Mar 2009

In Good Taste

THIS STICKY pipette drop of balsamic vinegar is 100 years-old. Gently woken on warm skin, the gel gradually gave aromas of wood smoke, chestnut, hazelnut and sweet Madeira. A dab on the tongue echoed these. Even at 71 years older than me, it was lifted, driven by dark cherry fruit. A cliché, but the aftertaste fanned like a peacock’s tale. I barely wanted to wash my hand afterwards. (La Vecchia Dispensa, Modena) I encountered this as finale to a dinner at Harvey Nichols Café. As if in anticipation, guests wore black and white – the colours of the brand. I went with colleague Enrica Rocca, who recently toured vinegar producers throughout Italy. Our dining companions included an argumentative Telegraph reporter and her placid husband (also a hack). He lost four stone but was starting to gain some back.
Apart from the writer's weight, I learnt that balsamic has been produced since the Middle Ages and was once considered a medicinal balsam. Taste can be very good for you.Unfortunately it seemed that the kitchen had misunderstood the special matching menu, burying focaccia with in a thicket of wiry rosemary, evoking that au naturel look. More leaves distracted from a Carpaccio made from beautifully marbled beef. Earthy cep (or porcini) risotto was again overpowered by green matter. The dried ceps were meaty and woodsy although when separated from sauce, rice was floury and gluttonous. Perhaps chef should send his C.V. to Notcutts? Or maybe not just yet. There was saving grace in the semi sweet/slightly savoury Crème Brûlée which crazed like glass. It was masterfully infused with perhaps the most versatile olive oil (Donna Marina Colonna, Molise) and offered with a ball of La Vecchia balsamic ice cream. A provocative and rewarding relationship.
I also tasted a fine oil from Marqués de Valdueza, Extremadura. It was good enough to sip from a glass - grease free with a crisp, green apple/cucumber freshness. An olive oil with soul for sole... The estate are also applying their agricultural sensitivity to wine. Their inaugural ’06 Cabernet/Syrah was perfumed: mineral, lithe and like the memory of that burnt cream, long-lived.
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