Friday, November 22, 2013

What do cheese and tuna have in common?

When I visited Spain last fall I had lunch with the brothers who own Ortiz, the source for our amazing tuna. They represent the fifth generation of the family running the company and they both grew up in the business. We ate at a seafood restaurant (naturally) and I remember the hake cheeks (!) we're really good, cooked in olive oil, scattered on a wide platter. The restaurant edged up to a walled, brackish tidal inlet that snakes through the town of Ondarroa, along the Bay of Biscay. Fishing boats were parallel parked along it. Across the water we could see the back side of the plant we'd just visited. It's Ortiz's oldest fish factory (they now have seven) and it's still downtown, right in the village, squeezed on main street between cell phone shops and cafes and hanging laundry. The family still maintains an apartment on the top floor.

Lunch was a bit rushed because we had to get to La Mancha that evening. We were going to see the cheese making at Finca La Solana, the farm that Essex Street Cheese Co. gets its Manchego. We were also going to taste batches of cheese to select for export. Batch selection is a process that was pioneered in its modern form by Neal's Yard Dairy in England. The idea is that, since cheese is made every day, every day is like a different vintage of cheese. Every vintage tastes different so you want to pick the best days. There differences result from different weather conditions, different food for the animals, a different starter and so on. With farmhouse cheese that's made naturally, all the variations add up to enough of an impact on flavor so that anyone can taste the difference between batches. I'm not exaggerating; I could bring you two different days of Manchego and no matter how much experience you've had tasting cheese I guarantee you would be able to taste a big difference between them. Companies like Neal's Yard Diary and Essex taste many batches of cheese and select certain days (called "makes") for their customers. In doing so they catch the high peaks of flavor when they come once in a while and avoid the off-flavor wheels. The results are cheeses that are more consistently better tasting.

When I described the cheese selection we were going to do one of the brothers lifted an eyebrow. He spoke some Basque to his brother (totally incomprehensible) and then told me that what we were doing sounded a lot like what chefs used to do with their tuna. When he was a young man he remembered them visiting the Ortiz factory to taste with his father and select a particular batch of tinned tuna they liked most. All the following year, whenever the restaurant ordered, only tins from that batch of tuna were delivered.

I asked them, "Does anyone do this any longer?" "No." "Could we do it?" "Sure." 

I said, "See you next year!" as we bolted for the car. I've been excited about the trip ever since. Tomorrow I fly to Spain to taste this summer's and fall's tuna batches. More to come.

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