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A-Z of Scoff an by Hattie Ellis

S is for Sugar Fat used to be considered Public Food Enemy Number One, but now sugar is being fingered instead by some health campaigners. It’s not just the sugar stirred into tea and eaten in cakes and biscuits but the large quantity in drinks and processed foods. Even savoury packaged foods have a surprising amount of sugar. Look for the words ending in ‘-ose’ on the label and beware!

‘Sugar: The Bitter Truth’, a lecture on the evils of sugar by Robert Lustig, an expert on childhood obesity at the University of California, San Francisco, has become a surprise hit on YouTube. He argues that sweet stuff may be a cornerstone of the obesity epidemic, and therefore also the related problems of diabetes, heart disease and so on. The argument is that obesity is essentially a hormonal issue. In particular, when you have a sugary drink, or sugary foods that lack fibre, your blood sugar goes up and insulin kicks in. Do this too much and a metabolic disorder occurs which means you store more energy as fat.

Others say that there is nothing intrinsically evil in sugar — you just shouldn’t eat too much of it, as with any high-calorie food. Ideally, no more than 10 per cent of your calories should be from sugar, but it is currently more like 13-15 per cent.

One of the main ways we have increased our consumption of sugar is through fizzy drinks. But now the majority of such drinks sold in the UK are low-sugar or use artificial sweeteners. Pragmatists say such products should be used more in food. But are such invented ingredients necessarily good for you? Furthermore, sugar is used by food manufacturers to increase shelf-life and add cheap bulk, not just for taste. For all sorts of reasons, our sugar craze looks set to continue and with it the debates about its possible dangers.

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T is for Traditional Foods

Traditional foods, eaten for generations, nourish our sense of national identity and increase the pleasure of what’s on the plate. They matter. But do we pay enough attention to them? And what exactly is traditional?

Slow Food UK has now put 44 British foods into an ‘Ark of Taste’, from South Downs sheep to Yorkshire forced rhubarb and Shetland cabbage. This international Slow Food project seeks to protect traditional foods and its website goes into detail about each one. The aim is to keep biodiversity on the menu and eat such produce into a secure future. More UK foods are heading toward the Ark and a logo will be used to draw attention to their special status. The initiative feeds into a debate about what a ‘true’ tradition is and how you protect them. The EU has legal categories of ‘Protected Designation of Origin’ (PDO) and ‘Protected Geographical Indication’ (PGI) which seek to keep produce distinctive to its place and traditions.

But critics say the definitions spread the net too wide.

A PGI Cornish pasty can be mass-produced, for example, which could make it very different from a proper pasty.

An interesting case is the Stilton and Stichelton discussion. The PDO for Stilton doesn’t allow unpasteurised milk to be used. Stichelton is a delicious blue cheese made like a Stilton, but not allowed to use this name because it is made from raw milk. Slow Food’s Ark of Taste entry on traditionally made farmhouse ‘stilton’ (with a small s and inverted commas to show the difference) says the cheese was originally made from unpasteurised milk and is distinctive from creamery Stiltons. Such definitions may sound like a storm on a cheeseboard, yet they are an important part of keeping real traditions alive.

slowfoodark.com stichelton.co.uk spectator scoff | Summer 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk/scoff Success problem Another great Bordeaux vintage on the cards? Peter Grogan examines the unexpected problems created by never-ending success

The art of assessing the likely future quality of very young red wines by sniffing away at what are known as ‘barrel samples’ is a decidedly arcane one. I’m no good at it and I haven’t even been within spitting distance of Bordeaux during the current en primeur campaign for the 2010 vintage. This is where the leading châteaux effectively sell their wines as ‘futures’, long before they’re bottled, let alone ready to be shipped to customers. Nonetheless, even from here, I detect among the positive early reports something ineffable playing around the edges that seems suspiciously like the smell of fear.

For most tillers of the sod, a great harvest is a cause for joy unconfined. But wine is very different from wheat or water-chestnuts. The ‘problem’ for the Bordelais is that, having already hyped to the skies three ‘vintages of the century’ in the space of its first decade — 2000, 2005 and 2009 — they find themselves with another good one on their hands. And it’s looking like it may be the best of the lot. The big question in this strange, reverse boy-who-cried-wolf scenario is, will we believe them, again?

Good vintages have often come in little clusters, and two consecutive top vintages is by no means unusual. The jury is still out regarding any influence of climate change on the current proliferation of goodies. One thing is indisputable, though: with so much money slooshing about, winemakers have invested heavily in the research and technology to enable them to make the best possible wine from the quality of fruit that Mother Nature bestows on them.

And Bordeaux is big money. In London, the leading players among the merchants, old-established Berry Bros. & Rudd, and upstarts Farr Vintners, Bordeaux Index and Fine and Rare Wines, count their sales of en primeur wine in the tens of millions of pounds and they are on tenterhooks to learn where the top châteaux are going to pitch this year’s prices.

It’s all about demand, of course. US buyers are expected to be more active as the the financial crash wears

The leading châteaux effectively sell their wines as ‘futures’

off, although Japan will be weak in the wake of the tsunami. But the big question these days is whether the apparently insatiable demand in China for the five ‘first-growths’ — the real biggies: Latour, Haut-Brion, Margaux, Mouton-Rothschild and, above all Lafite-Rothschild — will continue unabated. The market for Lafite saw the outrage at last year’s release price of a grand a bottle subside somewhat after a subsequent 50 per cent rise to the current price. (Small beer compared with the 2000 vintage, though — that has by now sprouted an extra zero on its release price of £2,500 for a case of 12.) Lafite’s average annual production is around 20,000 cases of the grand vin – as the saying goes, you do the math.

spectator scoff | Summer 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk/scoff

Potential buyers should be aware that en primeur is no get-rich-quick scheme (and remember that duty, VAT and shipping are payable at the time of delivery). The rich are particularly attracted to it as there is no tax on profits — wine is a ‘wasting asset’ — and it should be noted that, as with so many markets these days, it is only at the very top that there is a fever. The price of most 2009s has resolutely stayed put since release.

For we ordinary mortals, there is profit to be had but it will be felt on the palate rather than in the pocket. A little research reveals that at every level but the very top, there are less fashionable wines that are often every bit as good as the lower rungs of the ‘classed growths’ which can be bought for a fraction of the price. There’s a real sweet spot buying in the £80-£120 per case range at which it is not profitable for producers or retailers to store the wines until they reach their peak. However, if you cellar Cru Bourgeois (the level below the ‘classed growths’) and petits châteaux wines for a few years yourself, you’ll end up drinking them at around half what they cost at maturity. I’ve just started tucking into some of my 2005s with a relish that suggests that they won’t see me through until the 2009s come on stream.

There’s always trouble for some folk, though — there’s a long way to go but out in the vineyards, the 2011 vintage looks as though it’s shaping up to be a total stonker.

Keep schtum, but Pete’s buying Chx. Tour St. Bonnet, Fourcas-Hosten, Tour de By and, if he can afford it, Phélan Ségur.

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