Food for thought | Monocle

thumbnail text


Against the grain: traditional producers flaunt their heritage to the detriment of newer territories. And nowhere does authenticity carry more underserved cachet than in the world of whiskey.

By Andrew Mueller

The hyping of a product’s provenance is now all but universal; it would barely be surprising if dishwasher detergent appeared wrapped in packaging that made fantastical claims about the properties endowed by its particular terroir. Few producers have done this as consistently, ruthlessly and successfully as distillers of whiskey.

What might be thought of as the establishment whiskey-producingregions – Scotland, Ireland and the corn-rich corners of the US – trade on an instantly recognisable palette of clichés. Scotch whisky is authentic and austere; it is a drink to be consumed in leather chairs in front of roaring fires in the kind of rooms that are largely decorated with the stuffed heads of unfortunate ruminants.

Irish whiskey sells itself as equal parts raffish and rugged, whereas the American version is presented as homely and rustic. This latter pitch is a strange one, especially from Jack Daniel’s. You’d never know from its bill-poster reveries about rural Tennessee that Old No 7 is so familiar in backstage dressing rooms and on tour buses that it has become colloquially known as “rock’n’roll mouthwash”, or that when David Allan Coe sang “Jack Daniel’s if you Please” he was not praising its qualities as a catalyst of gentle contemplation.

Thus Scotland, Ireland and the US have dictated what we’re supposed to think about whiskey (Japan, by now, more or less also counts as an establishment producer, although its branding is lighter on antlers and/or trilbies). One of the main reasons that Scotland, Ireland and the US do this, of course, is so that these are the places that we’ll think about when we think about whiskey. Implicit in their advertising is the suggestion that anything from less orthodox territories is somehow ersatz. They want us to flinch the moment our curiosity compels us to lift from the shelf a bottle from Wales, India, Sweden, Belgium, New Zealand, South Africa or Australia, in much the same way that we might recoil instinctively from a compilation album of Finnish funk, on the grounds that it cannot possibly be as good as the real thing (no disrespect intended to the members of Finland’s vibrant funk community).

I know it works because it works on me. Partly out of curiosity, partly out of contrarian irritation with the marketing tropes outlined above, I’ve tried a few whiskies by off-piste manufacturers. Some have been really good, especially Rampur from Uttar Pradesh, Penderyn from Wales and Heartwood from Tasmania. Yet however alluring their bouquet or satisfying their finish, I have never been able to altogether vanquish a nagging feeling that what I am drinking – and indeed enjoying – is not “proper” whiskey. Which is, of course, precisely the discomfort that the producers of “proper” whiskey wish to inculcate.

If this is annoying to the whiskey consumer it must be infuriating for those labouring diligently over their stills and barrels in places not generally associated with such industry. It is to be hoped that these people hold their nerve and that the modern-world whiskey trade does not descend, as gin did, into a pile-on of gimmicky ingredients and whimsical branding. Quality does have a way of cutting through eventually; people used to joke about Australian wine.

About the writer: Andrew Mueller, fan of a dram, is a journalist and author who’s a contributing editor at monocle.


A long shelf life: rumours of the humble cookbook’s death at the hands of online recipe channels have been greatly exaggerated. Our kitchens remain well stocked with print titles – for good reason.

By Michael Booth

Some years ago I gave away almost all of my cookery books, burned the hundreds of recipes I had lovingly torn out of magazines and newspapers over the previous decade and moved to Paris to spend a year at cooking school.

I don’t advise this. It was a stupid thing to do, especially because “baking from memory”, it turns out, isn’t a thing. But I told myself that I wanted to learn how to cook without recipes; to understand the whys of the kitchen rather than just cooking by numbers.

Since then, in realisation of my error, I have built up a smaller collection of cookbooks, which is fortunate as I was recently asked to submit a list of my 10 favourite titles to a website called 1000 Cookbooks.

This got me thinking about the role of cookbooks in the digital age. A few years ago it was predicted that online recipes were about to wipe out the physical cookbook. Suddenly we had access to hundreds of thousands of variations on pot roasts and cup cakes at the click of a mouse. Why would we fill our homes with sizeable chunks of dead wood instead?

There are many reasons, of course: the tactile pleasure of a book in one’s hands, the quality of the photos, the satisfaction of ownership; and also the fact that we use cookbooks as much for inspiration, for casual grazing and memory-jogging, as for instruction. Above all, printed books have generally been rigorously edited. They are more reliable than online recipes.

As a result, the cookbook market is booming. Last year sales in the US rose by 8 per cent on 2016, and in the UK cookery books regularly sell more than half a million copies. The best-selling book of 2017, across all genres? Jamie Oliver’s 5 Ingredients – 716,071 copies bought.

So, what of my top 10? The most practical book on the list has a surprising author. The Family Meal features idiot-proof recipes you can cook daily at home. It is written by Ferran Adrià, the godfather of technical, modernist, so-called molecular cuisine. But it is brilliant, clear and simple.

My list led me to other conclusions. Firstly, food photography might get a bad press for setting impossible goals but I like to know what I should be aiming for. Similarly, recipe-writing acquaintances complain that editors pressurise them to keep their recipes to a single page. For me, the more detailed the instructions, the better. I’m not paying for vague directions scrawled on the back of a cigarette packet; I want GPS co-ordinates. I don’t worry about long lists of ingredients either. The best recipes can survive the odd substitute or omission.

A word of caution, though. I suggest from time to time you summon the ruthless spirit of Marie Kondo, famed Japanese de-cluttering guru. If you haven’t cooked from one of your books in 18 months, get rid of it. And then buy a new one instead.

About the writer: Michael Booth is Copenhagen correspondent for monocle and the author of several books including Sushi & Beyond and The Meaning of Rice.


The pleasure principle: in search of the answer to what really makes a restaurant worth visiting our author travelled far and wide – before chancing upon a happy conclusion.

By Christine Muhlke

I’ve been writing about food and travel for... let’s just say decades. It’s been my job to find the restaurants, cafés and bakeries that aren’t in any guide, either because they’re too new or too out-there. Today, of course, it’s much easier to triangulate via friends’ and chefs’ recommendations, food sites and social media.

However, we have all learned the hard way that just because that matcha croissant looked amazing on a slew of posts, or because a city’s top food site included it in that month’s round-up of hot spots, it doesn’t mean it’s actually any good or that it will be served in the kind of place that you will be in a rush to return to. Come to think of it, it’s not unlike the phenomenon by which the more incredible a person’s life looks in self-selected images on Instagram, the more he or she is dying inside and is desperately trying to put a filtered face on things before jumping off a beautifully landscaped cliff.

Ten years ago I was taught the secret of finding a good restaurant without the assistance of guides or friends or even a phone. I was writing a story on the food of Corsica. I had heard from trusted sources that the island was incredible but there were no guides or reliable pointers to steer me beyond their suggestions. Luckily a chain of recommendations led me off the guidebook grid: a New York restaurateur sent me to her friend’s restaurant in Paris en route to Corsica. That chef, raised on the island, directed me to her childhood friend Jean-Thomas Campinchi’s restaurant, A Stonda, in the unassuming waterfront town of Sagone.

There I wept tears of joy and gratitude over fresh langoustines, overflowing bowls of mussels and pizza topped with local sheep’s cheese and mint. Jean-Thomas, curious about this overexcited New Yorker who knew his old friend, patiently answered my questions about Corsican food and where else to eat on the island.

One of my questions was how to tell if a place was worth visiting – were there any local awards or designations of quality to look out for? (If you’ve been to Corsica you’ll know how silly this question is.) Jean-Thomas looked at me as if I’d just landed from a planet more distant than New York and said, “How can you tell if a restaurant is good? You just look for the happy people.”

Happy people? Huh.
A few days later, deep in the mountains, I opened the door to an approved restaurant where I had a reservation, took half a step in, then turned and jogged away. The room was empty. The vibe was bleak. It didn’t smell like any food had been cooked in an age. “Happy people. Where are the happy people?” I wondered, as I power-walked the pavements. I stood in the street and listened for a minute. Then I heard it: glasses clinking, silverware hitting ceramic, laughter. I followed the sounds down a hilly side street until I came upon a tiny, seemingly unremarkable place. The decor and crowd would never get it into a guide on their own merits. But the meal? It made me happy too.

Until this day, whether I’m in the West Village or Sydney, I still follow my sources but I will always leave time for those places that catch my eye, whether it’s spotting a queue forming outside a tamale truck or a brief glimpse of joyous tables seen while buzzing past in a cab. Because let’s be honest: you can buy critics, “likes” and awards. But you can’t buy happiness.

About the writer: Christine Muhlke is editor at large at Bon Appétit, founder of the Bureau X food consultancy and the co-author of several cookbooks.


Mass marketing: we’ve all heard of Trappist beer but what about monastic mustard or Benedictine honey? Behold the rise of natural foods produced in abbeys and convents.

By Sophie Grove

Across Europe there are cloistered communities of monks and nuns cultivating plants, rearing animals and producing food and drink, often using secretive production methods unchanged for centuries. Wearing traditional habits, scapulars and robes, they are cadres of vintners, bakers and feather-duvet makers. Though the branding is often pious – think Christian cross variants – their market appeal is changing as an audience of savvy, often secular consumers see the merit of their work.

“They are natural heritage products with authentic craft values and they are spiritual,” says Marie-Catherine Paquier, marketing researcher at Paris’s European Business School, who wrote her phd on monastic production in France. “All these things meet the expectations of the modern market.”

From the olive oil, wine and honey produced by Benedictine monks of Le Barroux in the Provençal Alps to the galettes and chocolates made by Cistercian nuns in Campénéac, Brittany, monasteries are turning out products to have buyers in food halls swooning. Yet for many years monastic enterprise has been not for profit and off the radar. With the exception of a few giants (the Chartreuse Carthusian monks invested €8m in a new distillery), little attention has been given to the 230 monastic communities making some 3,000 products in France alone.

That’s changing. Though they tend to shun the limelight, many monastic producers are gaining cult status in France. When the g20 met in Cannes in 2011, delegates were served wine made at l’Abbaye de Lérins, a Cistercian monastery on the Mediterranean island of Saint Honorat. Its ancient fortified abbey is a branding dream. “Lérins has a lot of visibility – it was on the wine menu at the Paris Hôtel De Crillon – but it’s the exception,” says Paquier. “[Most religious producers] are discreet. They sell their products in their own shops. They don’t want to produce more.”

These small production values reflect a way of life. “They are following the contemplative rule of Saint Benedict from the 6th century,” says Paquier. “They have to balance work and prayer. They only work for four or five hours a day, cut by prayer breaks.”

In France, monastic products from syrups to cheese are gaining a higher profile. Last year 24-year-old Côme Besse founded Divine Box with his siblings. His brother had been living in Barcelona and missed French food so much that the family sent him hampers, including a pâté from a monastery that piqued his interest. “As apéro lovers we thought about creating a ‘Monastery’s Apéro’, which could include pâté, beer, cheese and crackers. We decided to propose a subscription to a box of products made in abbeys.”

Though only 10 per cent of French monastic products are officially organic, Besse insists that they are implicitly ecological. He cites the Abbaye of Tamié, which uses surplus milk to produce energy, and the Orthodox monastery of Solan’s dried tomatoes. “Consumers want a return to the roots,” he says. “They don’t want industrial food. These products are mostly natural, made from fresh fruit grown in healthy gardens.”

Besse wants the gastronomic world to take more notice of religious producers. “Our ambition is to make the world discover these wonderful monastic products. Young and old, believers or not, it doesn’t matter. Our concept is accessible to all.”

About the writer: Based in Paris, Sophie Grove is MOncole's senior correspondent


La dolce vista: a gaudy gallery of celebrity patrons is an essential feature of any down-to-earth Italian diner. Here’s one London establishment that raises the photo wall to new heights.

By Robert Bound

There are genres of restaurants, just as there are genres of films, and I love thrillers and red-sauce Italians. You know the places: lasagne, spag bol and cannelloni, all served on red-checked tablecloths by old waiters dressed in black and white who say, “A very good choice, signore,” when you order “a bottle of each”. Tip Giuseppe properly and you’ll have a corner table for life, as well as a deep but unintended knowledge of Lazio football club thanks to the TV above the bar playing classic matches from Serie A. Most crucially, of course, there’s the wall of photos showing the owner with various celebrities mostly, but not exclusively, from the 1980s.

There are photo walls and there are photo walls. Whether you live in Toronto or Tokyo, your neighbourhood red-saucer will probably have a few snaps of Russell Crowe posing with Alfonso after enjoying a risotto, or maybe Roger Taylor from Queen reminding you that people really liked jazzy waistcoats in the early 1990s.

There are some places where the photo wall is the main attraction, the sine qua non without which the restaurant would be far less potent (and funny). My favourite is Ciro’s Pomodoro in London. It is a unique hybrid between a classic red-saucer, a high-turnover pizza parlour and a live music joint, made more amazing by the most formidable photo wall in the universe. As Ciro himself might say, you can likely see the bank of snaps of him with Pamela Anderson, Al Pacino and Rod Stewart from space.

Pomodoro is in Beauchamp Place in Knightsbridge, which is the tale of two versions of sw3: alongside dusty shops trading in antique maps and old-money wives having their hair done in dated salons are double-parked Lamborghinis and discreet shops selling racy underwear to abaya-clad ladies. But here’s the red circular sign and down into the fame bunker we go, with dreams of Axl Rose tucking into a puttanesca with a glass of soave.

Ciro’s photo wall is not just a wall but every possible surface of a large basement premises starring every single famous person I can think of. Endless pics of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dustin Hoffman, Bruce Willis, Goldie Hawn, Barbra Streisand and Cher. Madonna’s been in, and there’s Axl Rose (and quite a few of Slash from Guns N’ Roses too). Jacko, Sting, Phil Collins, Whitney Houston: wow! Chefs, racing drivers, film directors, models, tennis players (hi, Boris!), astronauts, boxers, politicians (oh, hi other Boris), royalty, aristocracy, socialites, industrialists, optimists, pessimists, spiritual leaders and world leaders – hello, President Reagan!

The decor, then, is fame itself. The menu also nods to celebrity as a way of recommending the cuisine. I like a Neptune – tuna, anchovies, capers etc – and that’s “Tom Cruise’s favourite”. My wife had a Napoli, as savoured by Sophia Loren. One of our friends had “Al Pacino’s favourite” (or was it Dustin Hoffman’s?); another had a salad beloved by Naomi Campbell.

The atmosphere is fun, with endless birthdays celebrated and sung about, and the band play covers of Al Green and Stevie Wonder. The wine list is reasonable enough to ensure a nap in the cab home and the waitresses are fun and attentive. Oh, the pizza? The actual things that you came to eat? Well, if you admire the work of Dr Oetker then you’re in luck. You can’t have it all.

My favourite restaurant is the one from The Lady and the Tramp, the king of red-sauce perfection. But Ciro’s, that blast from the past, is top 10. Go for the vibes, order a pizza and enjoy the place as a bar with live music; go for your birthday, book a table for 20 and they’ll let you dance on it. It’s good for the soul, this craven but honest desire to bask in the glory of others. And whatever’s good for David Hasselhoff is just fine by me.

About the writer: Robert Bound, Monocle’s Culture editor, is not (yet) on the wall.


Under the influence: the effects of another night on the sauce might have more to do with your cultural and individual assumptions than the booze itself, whatever your poison.

By Mark Forsyth

Alcohol is a drug but a very strange one. It’s like a Rorschach test: the piece of paper with the symmetrical pattern remains the same but each observer finds something different. Alcohol is a simple chemical but ultimately it acts on your brain and behaviour in the way that you believe it will act.

This is a point that can actually be tested but it’s also a point that comes out clearly when you look back over the long, hazy history of drunkenness. For example, I’ve never been so drunk that I’ve seen God. This may not surprise you, but an Ancient Egyptian would wonder what I had been doing wrong. Their annual Festival of Drunkenness was entirely geared towards getting so utterly trolleyed that they could, albeit fleetingly, become better acquainted with Tenenet, goddess of beer.

How did the Egyptians glimpse their beloved goddess? They drank an awful lot. They drank until they threw up and then they drank more, had an orgy and then, at dawn, found God. They believed that they would see a divine apparition – so they did. And they weren’t alone. The Ancient Greeks were adamant that you could hallucinate from drinking wine and they weren’t adding anything funny to it. They actually watered it down by modern standards.

Alcohol is a way of channelling a culture into a bottle and it seems every culture has something different to channel. In the UK, for instance, alcohol is widely blamed for violence. However, this is not universal. Students can volunteer for an understandably popular psychological experiment involving free booze. It involves assembling said students, handing out the drinks and neglecting to tell them that half are getting full strength beer, half of them alcohol-free. The results? For the most part students act out the cultural stereotypes that they’ve inherited.

A current hip tipple in Mexico is pulque, which is a revival of an Aztec take on beer. Mind you, if you really want to recreate Aztec drinking in a pulqueria you should, properly speaking, revive the Aztec punishment for being drunk, which was to be strangled in public. (Unless you were of finer stock: noblemen were granted the privilege of being strangled in private. Which was much better, you would think.)

There is yet another drink-related myth that needs to be dispelled: that the type of alcohol you imbibe has some effect on the manner of drunkenness that results. Alcohol never changes. It’s the same ingredient in beer, wine or whiskey. Instead the drink, and manner in which it’s served, can change your expectations and perception.

So why do we hanker after new drinks? With what do we associate mead? What will that craft gin do for us? Perhaps it is the fact that they are drinks without associations, a blank sheet onto which we can project a new kind of drunkenness. Because you always put as much into the bottle as the bottle puts into you. You, and your expectations, are the master of your own drunkenness. Because when push comes to sozzled shove, though it’s the alcohol that makes you drunk, being pissed is what you make it.

About the writer: Mark Forsyth is the author of A Short History of Drunkenness: How, Why, When and Where Humankind Has Got Merry From the Stone Age to the Present.

Share on:






Go back: Contents


sign in to monocle

new to monocle?

Subscriptions start from £120.

Subscribe now





Monocle Radio


  • Monocle on Design