Saturday, March 6, 2010

On Acquiring Tastes

Olive Boot Camp

During the months preceding my 2008 trip to Greece, I had one major apprehension about travelling. It had nothing to do with passports or language or money: it was about food. I was going to spend five weeks in southern Greece, and I despised olives.

This was a problem.

I would not be able to appreciate a fruit that has been central to the country's history, culture, and cuisine for thousands of years. It would be like going to Athens without visiting the Parthenon.

So, being of a logical bent, I decided to systematically train myself to enjoy olives. I would eat one olive every day, until I left for Greece, and thereby force myself to acquire a taste for the briny fruit. This is essentially the way that I
acquired most "adult" tastes. When I was younger I had a revulsion for coffee, tea, wine, beer, and blue cheese, but through gradual exposure I came to love them all. This was to be a controlled and intensified version of that natural acclimatization.

I bought two jars of olives: one green and one kalamata. The first week was rough. Each olive brought a grimace, a wince, occasionally a gag. The second week was smoother, but not enjoyable. I started to worry that the experiment wasn't going to work, so I intensified the process further and started eating a few olives every night before I went to bed.

At this rate I exhausted my two jars quickly. This is when I came upon Olive Me, a specialty shop on 109th Street that sells house-marinated olives.
I didn't realize that there was such a difference between grocery store canned olives (rubbery, one-note wonders) and these "fresh" olives (better texture, a fuller, fruitier taste). I put "fresh" in quotation marks because all olives are hydrated in water, then a brine, before being eaten. The fruits at Olive Me are only fresh in that they haven't been canned.

In time the experiment was a success. I was able to enjoy the small bowl of olives that preceded most Greek meals, and even the olive paste that filled some pastries.


One taste that I never developed naturally, despite several sporadic attempts, was that for scotch. I have a few
friends who wax eloquent about the smoky, peaty, campfire tastes of a good scotch, but the drink has always made me gag. This is troublesome because of my partial Scottish heritage, and because I'll never be a worldly film noir private eye until I can drink a stiff glass of scotch.

A bottle of nineteen year-old Bruichladdich ScotchAnd so I have decided to apply the system once more. By providence I was recently given a bottle of nineteen year old Bruichladdich (said "Brook-laddie"), which I plan to drink regularly in the evenings. Yes, it sounds like I'm ritualizing my descent into alcoholism, but this is really just a small step in refining my palate.

I had my first taste tonight. While I did shudder after the first sip, the scotch was much smoother than I anticipated . Maybe it's that this bottle is about three times more expensive than anything else I've tried. Surprisingly there was a fruit note. I don't know what kind of fruit, exactly: something complex and lingering. Grapefruit, maybe. And of course there was smoke. I don't know how to reconcile all these different tastes.

I can see that there's a long road ahead of me. Somehow I'll manage.


  1. 1. Have you folks tried the Italian Shop's house Olive tapenade? Do it -- I could eat my weight in it. All the right things mixed together.

    2. You're an impressive man Allan, when I smell scotch, I want to heave.

  2. 1. I've learned to tolerate olive oil in moderation but I don't know if I can learn to like olives.
    2. My first experience with Scotch was when I went to Europe in 1976. We ordered rye and the bartender had no idea what we were talking about. We told him whiskey and what he brought out was scotch,neat. (I think we asked for whiskey and gingerale and the bartender insisted that we could not mix it.) I actually didn't mind it that much so it may have been a good Scotch. Are you drinking yours straight up or with a bit of water?
    I have a wee bit of McCallum's cask strength left that I brought back from Scotland about three years ago. McCallum's has just a touch of peat so is easier to get used to.
    We toured the McCallum's distillery. I loved the smell, so did David (My dad's cousins son) but his wife Vera didn't care for the smell.
    If I had read this before Lisa left I could have sent it with her.

  3. PS. Have any of you noticed that alchoholic beverages are so much easier to consume without after effects when you are at sea level?

  4. I had assumed that Allan was drinking it with a bit of water. Allan, I hope you're drinking it with a bit of water.

  5. Judy - I haven't noticed that. In fact, I've had pretty severe hangovers on the Greek islands that suggest otherwise.

    Michelle - I add a few drops of water to each ounce to mellow the flavour.