October 04

Superb article by Malcolm Gladwell (originally published in The New Yorker) ostensibly about ketchup, but digging deep into what makes food products work.

The Ketchup Conundrum is a really good read, especially if you have any interest in how companies manipulate the food we eat. But this isn’t a scare story about Heinz using rotten tomatoes: it's about one guy trying to create the world’s best ketchup.

“If you were in Zabar's on Manhattan's Upper West Side a few months ago, you would have seen him at the front of the store, in a spot between the sushi and the gefilte fish. He was wearing a World's Best baseball cap, a white shirt, and a red-stained apron. In front of him, on a small table, was a silver tureen filled with miniature chicken and beef meatballs, a box of toothpicks, and a dozen or so open jars of his ketchup. "Try my ketchup!" Wigon said, over and over, to anyone who passed. "If you don't try it, you're doomed to eat Heinz the rest of your life.”

Been there, done that…

Peg (the amazingly charming truffle hound) had her last truffle-hunting gig of the year this morning - sniffing around a plantation of young trees infected with Tuber borchi, known in Italy as the bianchetto or marzuolo truffle.

She was good, too. I took two film canisters with some frozen black truffle inside for Carolyn to hide while I was putting my boots on, and despite the decoy holes Carolyn had dug, Peg stuck her nose in the air and hunted out the baits very quickly. If nothing else, it proves that she still knows what her job is. Hunting out truffle baits like this keeps her nose in, and gives me a chance to reward her - positive reinforcement even if there are no real truffles to find. And there weren’t.

Tuber borchi is a white truffle, similar in some respects to the famous Italian white truffle, Tuber magnatum. It doesn’t have the superb reputation (or high price) of magnatum, but Italian experts reckon that good borchi is close. Given that magnatum has never been successfully cultivated (though many have tried, and continue to try), borchi offers truffle growers a shot at growing something to fill that market niche. Borchi has been successfully produced in at least one truffère in Italy, and in NZ we’ve got several plantations, the oldest of which were planted four years ago. I have 35 trees at Limestone Hills, and half of them are from that first batch. No sign of truffles there, sadly, but I live in hope.

Borchi is interesting in a New Zealand context for a couple of reasons beyond the purely culinary. It is a winter to spring truffle. The season in Italy runs from January through to the end of April, which translates roughly to July to October down here, and so it offers a chance for growers to extend their season. Tuber uncinatum, the Burgundy truffle (aka the summer truffle that can be found in Britain) extends the season in the other direction, so that’s being experimented with as well - and I have some of those too. With three species in cultivation, we have the prospect of a truffle season that might extend from March to October.

The other interesting thing about borchi and uncinatum is that they are known to fruit over much of Western Europe - from Britain to Italy - and so they are more climatically tolerant than the finicky Perigord black truffle. Regions of New Zealand that are currently thought to be too cool or too wet for black truffle might be fine for the other two.

Neither truffle sells on world markets for anything like the prices commanded by melanosporum or magnatum, and until we have produced some in New Zealand and established a market, it’s very hard to estimate what they might be worth to growers. Even modest assumptions, however, suggest that they could be more lucrative than most other tree crops.

Crop & Food Research’s three year old 700 tree T borchi truffiere at Lincoln, near Christchurch

This is where Peg did her thing. The grass is being mown prior to a late spring soil tillage (it has to be done after fruiting has finished), and no chemicals are being used. Italian researchers have suggested that Roundup/glyphosate might affect the truffle mycorrhiza, so Crop & Food Research are doing all weeding manually - something I shall do on my block as well. The trees are a mixture of oaks, hazels and several pine species (radiata, pinea, picea). In the Italian trial, Pinus radiata infected with borchi produced after four years, so with good luck and following wind, one of our NZ truffières could begin production next year. I hope it’s mine…

My good lady wife does an enormous amount of travelling. She is addicted to Kiri Te Kanawa and exceptional tenors (this does not include Bocelli). Put the two things together and you have a prime candidate for an iPod. Much better than travelling with a Walkman and a bagful of tapes or CDs. Her 2002 Christmas present was one of the first generation 10GB models, and when she got her head round what it was for, and that it was easy to use, she fell in love with it. It became her constant companion.

Within a year the battery was showing signs of not holding a full charge. I tried a number of tricks to freshen the thing up - like always keeping the software up-to-date, and on several occasions following a sort of digital voodoo ceremony that involved running the thing down to flat, then doing to a complete reformat and re-install. It worked to some extent, but a couple of months ago it became obvious I was going to have to do something to sort the ’Pod out.

Apple have recognised that the batteries they use have a limited lifespan, and offer a sort of solution. Give them your iPod and a chunk of money, and you get a similar iPod back with a battery that works. The cost in NZ is somewhere north of $300 - or nearly half the cost of a new iPod. So I looked for another solution. There are plenty of places on the web that will sell you a replacement battery and a little tool which is supposed to make opening the iPod case possible without damage. Finding a company that will send one to NZ is a lot harder. Many of the companies I tried didn’t have the financial systems to take an NZ credit card (or wanted to charge a huge transaction fee), others wouldn’t ship overseas. An Australian site had exactly what I wanted, but didn't send stuff over the Tasman. In the end, I got a friend in Florida to buy the battery I wanted and then stick it an a courier bag to NZ. Worked perfectly, and he got a US$50 note in a cheeky card to cover his expenses.

The battery I wanted to get my hands on was the Newer Technology 2100mAh high capacity battery for first and second generation iPods, and I bought it from MegaMacs. This is a “bigger” battery than the original, and so should give longer listening time. It comes complete with two little plastic tools and several pages of instructions.

iPods are not designed to be taken to bits. When Apple pushes the top onto the shiny stainless steel bottom, it’s meant to stay there. But with some gentle force and a couple of softish plastic tools, you can crack the case open, and get at the battery. I did intend to take a few pix to demonstrate the process, but in the end, getting into the thing was nerve-wracking enough without recording a possible disaster for posterity, so the battery you see in the picture above is the old Apple battery. You start at the top, attacking the join near the Firewire plug (right in the picture). You're then supposed to work your way down the side of the case and round the bottom until you can just lift the top off. In fact, the headphone plug has a plastic centre that has to be eased out of the case. Pull too soon, and it sticks. And if you twist, you can strain the screen. The only evidence that the ’Pod has been hacked is a slight colour cast on the left of the screen where I strained a bit hard. That and one end of white plastic clip that broke off as I was "easing" the top clear.

That’s the hard bit. All you have to do then is lift a couple of sticky retaining tapes, unplug the battery, plug in the new one, replace the tapes, and push the bottom back on to the top. Simple. Opening the case took about 15 minutes because I was being careful. Replacing the battery took a minute, perhaps less. I charged the new battery over night, and though I can’t give you a battery life estimate (what - listen to hours of Kiri Te Canopener screeching? No way!) I can tell you that it’s held its charge well for over a week. When my wife gets back from her current overseas trip, she'll test the thing properly. Worth the money? Beyond a shadow of a doubt. Would I recommend other people do this? If your iPod is out of warranty, this is one effective way to save money. All but the terminally ham-fisted should cope well.

On Tuesday I called in to Radar Records in Christchurch. I left with the new Elvis Costello CD and the remarkable new Nick Cave double, but I didn't get my paws on Smile. Yesterday, as I passed the record store in our local mall I heard a faintly familiar fragment, and diverted rapidly inside. Smile was looking up at me from the “now playing” pile, so it was immediately purchased. It has been on various players ever since. In fact I’m ripping it to the iPod as I write.

The story of the great lost Beach Boys album is probably familiar enough to anyone who’s bothering to read this entry, so I'm not going to rehash that. Rather, I’d like to ruminate on my personal relationship with this music. It goes back a long way, and as the years have gone by seems to have got deeper and broader. Sloop John B was the first BB’s single I bought. Spring 1966. My Dansette could only play singles. That summer I really, really wanted to buy God Only Knows - the song struck the 12 year-old me as incredibly beautiful, it was evocative of things that I was too young to know about - but my mother was convinced I was spending too much money on records, and banned it. And Eleanor Rigby. By the time Good Vibrations came out (when fall breaks and turns to winter (October?) - odd timing for a record that’s so bloody summery) the ban was lifted. I couldn't buy Pet Sounds (or Revolver) because of my Dansette limitations, but by the time Sgt Pepper was out, I had something that could cope. Pepper was the third LP I bought. I very nearly bought Smiley Smile, the follow-up to Pet Sounds, but as I already had the two singles on it (I remember being faintly disappointed with Heroes & Villains when I brought it home from the shop - it was from the same mould as Good Vibrations, but not quite so immense) I didn’t bother. I did buy Wild Honey though, and remember feeling vaguely let down. I mean Vibrations and Villains were complex new sounds, pushing the boundaries, like The Fabs were doing, and suddenly the BB’s were doing Motown, going back to basics. It was OK, but what had happened? The mystery deepened with Friends. A lovely little album - but little is the operative word. It was very poor value for money. The whole thing runs for about 25 minutes, at a time when the Beatles were putting 90 minutes on two LPs - even if a chunk of that was Revolution #9. It was a testimony to the quality of the music that I kept coming back for more. The BB’s offering for 1969 was 20/20, and there was a track on there that made my jaw drop. Cabinessence had everything I’d heard in those 1966 singles, and more. I played it to death.

The story of Smile was around in the music press - the inkies, as NME and Melody Maker were known - but it hadn’t meant much to me until I began to realise just what we’d lost. I began to hope that Brian would get his head together and finish the damn thing.

I can’t remember why I didn’t buy Sunflower - probably something to do with money - but I did buy Surf's Up and the title track just made matters worse. It is one of the great popular songs of the last 100 years - not in the sense of being superbly catchy or chart fodder, but as a thing of beauty. The words have just enough relationship with meaning to be evocative (of what, you may ask - columnated ruins dominoing, obviously), and the performance is perfect. I used to turn the lights out and the volume up, and luxuriate. Every subsequent Beach Boys release suffered by comparison with the wonders of that track. I bought Holland and 15 Big Ones and then moved on to the likes of Mr Costello and The Clash. The Beach Boys turned themselves into an oldies band, America’s band or whatever, and became irrelevant. Meanwhile, in a sort of BB’s underworld, bits and bobs of Smile fragments were emerging as bootlegs. Three CDs worth, in all, but I didn’t notice, not being noted as a bootleg purchaser. Too mainstream and not obsessive enough.

We skip to the 1990s. In 1993, Capitol released a boxed set: Good Vibrations - 25 Years of the Beach Boys, a useful summation of the band’s career, but what made everybody take notice was the official release of some Smile stuff. The second CD finished with tracks from the original Smile sessions: an alternate take of Heroes & Villains, the original versions of Wonderful, Wind Chimes and Vegetables - they'd been re-recorded in stripped down versions for Smiley Smile - two obviously unfinished tracks, Do You Like Worms and I Love To Say Da Da, plus snippets of stuff that sounded like they belonged in H&V. Cabinessence was there, and Surf's Up. A stunning, if disjointed selection. The Smile versions of Smiley Smile tracks were much more polished, much more fully realised. These weren’t slight little throwaway songs, they were genius at work. Books have been written about how this stuff was going to be put together to create the final masterpiece. People have played around creating their own versions of the album from Brian's snippets and out-takes, but the only man who really knew how it was meant to work was BW, and he was struggling to get through life without having to go back and revisit music that had driven him to the edge of a drug-fuelled breakdown.

When I’d finally found the £50 to buy the Good Vibrations set, I found myself developing a modest little Smile obsession. Over the last ten years I’ve obtained the bootleg stuff, downloaded some fan assemblages, and passed more than a moment or two wondering which bit went where. If I’d been keeping count, iTunes style, those tracks would certainly be in my decade’s Top 20 most played list.

So with Brian’s return to touring, with his recreation of Pet Sounds, and the news that he was going to have a go at Smile, my interest was rather more than piqued. If I could have found a reasonable excuse to justify the airfare, I would have been in the Festival Hall in London last February when he premiered his new version. In the intervening months I have resisted the temptation to download a boot of the concert, holding out for the official version. I wanted to come to it fresh.

I’ll make the obvious points first. BW’s voice is not what it was, hardly surprising given that he’s 63, but beyond a few awkward moments, you barely notice that. His band, based around the very wonderful Wondermints, more than covers. They’re not the Beach Boys, the voices don’t have that unique blend, but they’re pretty damn fine singers in their own right. The sound is pretty “live” - they’ve recreated not just the sound but the feel of those fragments that we know so well. BW has not rewritten or rearranged the old stuff, just done some deft jigsaw puzzle fitting together, and added some tunes (and Van Dyke Parks words) to the obviously incomplete Worms (now called Roll Plymouth Rock) and Da Da (In Blue Hawaii) - though bits of both themes pop up in several places. For me, the “new” bits work better than the facsimiles of the originals, if only because they can’t suffer in any comparison. The “new” Wind Chimes, for example, is markedly less magical and more mechanical than the first version. Then there’s the question of the sequence. People have been speculating about that ever since Capitol printed some hopeful covers for the original. This Smile is a CD-era Smile. It would not work on an LP. The middle “children’s song” section would be broken in half, and Surf’s Up would start side two. I’d always assumed it would be the album closer, but Good Vibrations does that job here.

Is this the Smile we might have seen in 1967? Obviously not. Too much water under too many bridges for that. This is the work of an older, wiser, survivor, revisiting his youth, not a young man trying to realise his genius (when stoned out of his box). Being older and wiser myself, though not stoned, I love it. Does it work if you come to the whole thing without nearly 40 years of Beach Boys admiration behind you? God only knows.

I collected the repaired mower last night. A shiny new engine which sounds smooth and lusty and perky. I’m not a “petrolhead” (as motor enthusiasts are called down here), but I did notice a distinct difference to the old machine that can be summed up as “more oomph”, and it’s quieter. So I started mowing the 10 days growth off the top of the lawn. Did that, then started doing the orchard. Rain decided to fall in sufficient quantities to make the grass greasy, and the slopes unmowable, so I stuck the amazingly charming Peg in the car and tootled off to the office.

A marginally productive day, but the quince flowers looked rather lovely.