Is This Thing On?

Sometimes it feels as if I am the only person in the known world not listening to the mould-breaking podcast Serial. I’m not. In fact only about 1.5 million people downloaded the show each week, but that still broke all records for a podcast. One reason I didn’t subscribe is that I’m listening to so much else already that unheard episodes would just pile on the guilt, and one of those other shows I listen to gave me a peculiar, vicarious thrill this morning. Enough of a thrill to rouse me from my blogging torpor.

StartUp – “A series about what happens when someone who knows nothing about business starts one” – has captivated me from episode one. Alex Blumberg, a great broadcaster whom I’ve listened to for years on Planet Money, has been telling the story of how he left a secure gig to start a podcasting company. In the episode I’ve just heard, he introduced the first show signed to the company. It was a good moment, seeing his hard work, the interesting bits of which he has shared, result in something audible. And that something was a reincarnation of tl;dr, another fine show that I’ve listened to for a long time. A couple of episodes back StartUp credited tl;dr’s hosts, PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman, with editing help, or something, and I thought, “Ahah, I wonder whether …” And yes, they’ve jumped ship. Their new show is called Reply All and from the teaser I just heard on StartUp, I’ll be subscribing to that too.

This is not, by the way, about how my taste in podcasts is validated by the best brains in the business. Even though Criminal, another show I listen to, has been snapped up by Radiotopia, another podcast network, most of which I don’t currently listen to. It is a little bit about envy. I wish I had the time and the gumption to make more of my own podcasting, get it to pay its way, maybe get snapped up by some network or other. More, it is about how the world of podcasting is maturing and becoming a thing somewhat independent of actual radio, although one notable fact about almost all the shows I like is that the people making them cut their teeth in “proper” radio. I like this development because it gives me more choice in the things I want to listen to, even if it leaves me less time for mould-breaking wondershows.

Maple Syrup and Cheese

Amy Trubek, my guest on the latest Eat This Podcast, studies cheese and maple syrup, separately. This post suggests she bring them together.

When we spoke, Professor Trubek threw away a remark that first stopped me in my tracks and then sent me scurrying to the internet. Artificial maple flavour, she said, is made from fenugreek. Huh? I know fenugreek only as a somewhat pungent spice that I sometimes put in Indian food. To me, it smells of curries, not maple syrup.

Of course, she was right. A quick search confirmed that pretty comprehensively. “Fenugreek extract is the perfect raw material for formulating maple flavors with and it could also be useful in coffee, caramel, toffee, butterscotch, beef and nut flavors,” one flavour scientist wrote. The primary culprit is 4,5-Dimethyl-3-hydroxy-2(5H)-furanone (C6H8O3), which fortunately goes also by the name sotolon (or sotolone). It is powerful stuff, detectable in concentrations as low as one part per billion, equivalent to a drop of water in 50 cubic metres, or about 250 chemical drums. There’s another component of maple flavour, 5-Ethyl-3-hydroxy-4-methyl-2(5H)-furanone (C7H10O3), that is even more powerful, being detectable at one part per 100 trillion. This stuff, called maple furanone, is “one of the most powerful flavor chemicals known to man”.

So far, so interesting. Then a few other facts emerged. Fenugreek seeds are a traditional remedy to increase milk production in nursing mothers. And eating fenugreek can make you reek “of waffles”. There’s an unfortunate genetic disease called maple syrup urine disease that, untreated, results in severe neurological defects. It could also be called maple syrup ear wax disease, but that’s another story. The babies of nursing mothers who have eaten fenugreek to increase their milk flow sometimes have urine that smells of maple syrup, although they don’t have MSUD. And whoever first sniffed the urine of babies who do have MSUD and said “hey, this smells like maple syrup,” nailed it. The odour of MSUD is our old friend sotolon.

All of which proves only that I know my way around a search engine. I am, however, getting to the point. Along the way, I learned that there is a wine called Vin Jaune, which is “marked by the formation of sotolon from alpha-ketobutyric acid”. That’s roughly the same chemical process that creates the sotolon in MSUD, and Vin Jaune does indeed have a note of maple syrup. Furthermore, it is also typically served with Comté cheese.

If you’ve come all this way, thank you. Here’s the point: Amy Trubek studies both Vermont cheese and Vermont maple syrup. In our talk, I mentioned that in Italy, cheeses are often served with honey, and I asked whether anyone served maple syrup with cheese. She didn’t think so, and she thought it might be a good idea. Well, if the terroir-laden French traditionally serve Vin Jaune with Comté cheese, why shouldn’t mould-breaking Vermonters do the same with their alpine-inspired Comté lookalikes?

I’d Be Flattered if You Flattred This – and Other Stuff

Of course information wants to be free. But information (and entertainment) providers have to live too. And they want to be loved. Recognition is a powerful motivator, and with a little effort can also be a bit financially rewarding, which is why I signed up with Flattr.

More on the why in a moment. For now, an edited extract from one of the things I flattred. 1

Flattr has the possibility of enabling a reasonable podcast economy. If enough people use it, podcasters will be able to generate an income with minimal overhead. If I pointed you here from an email, it is because I want to give you money.

I’d seen Flattr, but never fully wrapped my head around it. Now I have started to do so, and I think it does indeed have great potential. In essence Flattr is a very low friction system for giving microdonations to people.

The brilliant thing they did was to separate out the cash decision from the payment decision.

In most other payment systems you have to decide whether to pay, say. 1¢ vs 10¢ or even $1.00. That decision takes thought. It has, according to Dave Slusher, “a mental transaction cost”. Flattr allows you to decide in advance on an amount of money to pay each month. You then flattr the things you like and your payment is spread equally across all of them, minus a little for Flattr.

Pretty smart.

Here’s more from Dave Slusher:

In a world where this was … common … there would be a reasonable amount of money flowing in a roughly meritocratic manner. The more listeners you have, in general the more money that should flow towards you. … If you are a podcast listener and a fan, sign up for an account. … If you are a podcaster, create a Flattr account and let people give you money. …

Be patient, don’t expect anything huge at first but I can guarantee nothing about this will suck money away from you. At worst, you wasted a few minutes. At best, you might find yourself paying your hosting or more with the money that flows in.

Not just podcasting either, but all kinds of content creation.

What prompted me to sign up was a heftier than usual bill for stuff; mixer and recorder both went belly-up within a matter of weeks and had to be replaced. I’m lucky, in that I could afford to replace them. Nevertheless, a little income wouldn’t hurt, and the additional recognition that comes with an actual financial transaction is rather nice too. 2

Last word from Dave Slusher:

Because this is a “boil the ocean” situation, the early going has been and is tough. It makes little sense to sign up as a listener when there is nothing to flattr. As a creator, it makes little sense to invest in a platform with few users. Let’s cut through that, and push on both fronts simultaneously with a mutual leap of faith. Neither group has much to lose, so let’s all just do it. I’m doing both ends myself, so I’m as invested as I can be. … As Rage Against the Machine sings: “It has to start somewhere, it has to start sometime. What better place than here? What better time than now?”

I urge everyone to give this a try. You click like, +1 and similar things all day every day. You understand the paradigm, let’s do it in a system where your money matches your attention.

There should be a little green button just below this for you to click. If there isn’t, you need to go here and there will be.

  1. The missing e thing is all very groovy, but seriously, what is the past participle of “to flattr”?

  2. There hasn’t actually been any, yet. I plan to report on progress as and when it happens.

Fighting Terroirism

What is terroir? I know what it is supposed to be – “the combination of factors, including soil, climate, and environment, that gives a wine its distinctive character” – but I don’t really buy that people can taste terroir. I don’t dispute that discriminating palates can distinguish this wine from that, or even this side of the river from that, although the evidence on that score is not overwhelming. I do dispute that terroir is an adequate explanation for either the differences between similar products or the unique characteristics of a particular product. And “product” by now has extended way beyond wine to encompass cheese, sausages, beer and, for all I know, much else besides.

So I was delighted to spend the weekend at the Umbra Institute in Perugia, at the second Food Conference Perugia: Of Places and Tastes: Terroir, Locality, and the Negotiation of Gastro-cultural Boundaries. People steeped in this sort of thing gave very erudite papers that differed somewhat in their interpretations and indeed definitions of the idea, possibly the result of the different academic terroirs in which their thoughts grew and were processed. Looking over my notes, some salient points were:

  • Terroir is necessary to connect consumers to producers. Once markets open and supply chains grow longer and more complex, the producer needs to distinguish their goods from competitors, while the consumer needs a reason both to make a specific choice and, usually, to pay more for it.
  • In making the connection between producer and consumer, the producer’s human story is possibly an even more important component of terroir than soil, microclimate, environment etc. What we know of a product’s human story can influence how much we appreciate its taste.
  • Odd, then, that for many people who write about terroir the human work of making the product is often considered “manipulation” and somehow to be avoided. That goes for the landscape, soil and environment too. There are few agricultural environments less influenced by human hands than a vineyard, and yet visitors find nothing odd about gushing over the naturalness of the scene.
  • While officialdom often uses terroir to encapsulate long-standing and historic approaches to food production, it also sets those approaches in aspic, preventing the kind of innovation that resulted in distinctive foods in the first place.

After the talk, the cheese

On Sunday, we visited Agrisolana, a working farm nearby, where they raise sheep and make wonderful cheeses. The operation is typical of many shepherding operations in Umbria and Tuscany, run by Sardinian families who came with their flocks in the 1970s to buy up land left derelict by local farmers. Antonio Virdis told us about his life as a shepherd, and his son Peter took us through the magic of turning milk into cheese and ricotta, the final bits of twice-cooked whey going to the free-range prick-eared pigs rumaging around in the walnut grove. I found it fascinating. No surprise there. Did it make the cheeses we ate taste better? Will the chunk I bought taste as good at home? I truly don’t know.

Some of these thoughts will be amplified in forthcoming episodes of Eat This Podcast, and making those recordings is the reason this week’s episode, on Bones and the Mongol diet is going to be late. Apologies.

Name Game Blame

What’s the name of that phenomenon where things with a perfectly good name have to have a new name or a modifier to distinguish them from more recent usurpers? Like once there were books and paperbacks, and now there are hardbacks and books. Or phones and mobile or cellphones turning into landlines and phones, and then perfectly good phones becoming dumb because all the other phones are now so smart.

Anyway, I was thinking of this all the way through a recent Food Programme on milk. Well, that’s how it was billed in my pod catcher. Really, though, as the Food Programme noted, it was about raw – that is unpasteurised – milk.

Or what we used to call milk.

Probably a lost cause by now, but couldn’t the people who want the freedom to drink themselves into an early grave by consuming the stuff have taken the high ground by calling the stuff the rest us drink cooked milk? Or would that lose them the halo that raw, untreated and all-natural confer?

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