The terroir of missing out (on a key ingredient)

See Kewpie? Eventually.

See Kewpie? Eventually.

MY PATIENCE began to be tested on the third go-round.

Walking the same aisles, seeing the same products, labelled with the same descriptions that I still couldn’t understand, I began to ask myself: is this really worth it?

How far was I prepared to go to get the right kitchen condiment?

The time was last Friday afternoon, the place Asia Market on Dublin’s Drury Street, and the task? Finding Kewpie mayonnaise.

I was sure I could do it unassisted but I was also certain that I needed to get home before midnight. Eventually I cracked and asked an assistant.
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Why Kewpie? Why not Hellmann’s or another brand of mayo?

The Japanese product tastes the part but how much time was I prepared to devote to finding it in Dublin (where it’s stocked in a just a couple of specialty stores)?

My trip last Friday had taken me a couple of kilometres across the city from one Asian grocery store to another, and had cost me the best part of the hour.

Three stores and one day later: crab.

Three stores and one day later: crab.

For context: when it comes to regular shopping I usually lose the will to live after about ten minutes. Why is my attitude different when it comes to certain foods?

I recall wading through a storm-struck Dublin last year to seek out just 100g of bresaola.

Likewise my last trip for live crab saw me spend the best part of a day calling to fish shops in Marino, Howth and Abbey Street.

I will drive for 15 minutes, and run up another ten parking and walking, to get the right kind of bread.

Despite my usual shopping impatience none of these tasks bothers me in the slightest.
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I was thinking this over earlier last weekend when I received an email from my sister-in-law.

Anne had just bought David Lebovitz’s new book and sent my wife and I a pic of a paragraph therein on cheese.

Lebovitz explains the importance of the foodstuff to the French, citing the concept of terroir – “the concept that a product takes on certain attributes of the climate, soil, weather and terrain where it is produced”.

Lebowitz: he's a terroir for the cheese.... Pic: Anne Alderete

Lebowitz: he’s a terroir for the cheese….
Pic: Anne Alderete

Some argue this is solely a metaphysical concept, others (the French in particular) believe it’s in there, in the food on the plate.

On foot of my wanderings I’ve come to believe it’s a bit of both.

Was the bresaola more meltingly pungent because I’d battled storm-lashed streets to get it (rather than ordering it in restaurant)?

Was the crab sauce softer and sweeter because of a three store trek (compared to getting it in one gourmet sandwich place)?

Did the Kewpie on last weekend’s pancakes taste more vinegary than the last time I’ve had in an Asian eatery?

Yes, yes and yes. Perhaps this is my version of terroir, a mixture of effort and taste, a physical and metaphysical culinary concept.

The attention to detail needed to scope out hard-to-find ingredients, combined with their sensations on the tongue. It’s a sense of place, but also a way of eating, a method of appreciating.

If you’re looking for it, it’s in Asia Market, halfway down the second aisle, second shelf.

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5 thoughts on “The terroir of missing out (on a key ingredient)

  1. Walt says:

    Terroir! A new word, a great definition. Very amusing post!!

  2. Brad says:

    Regularly drive 80km for special Japanese groceries, including Kewpie which has been a staple in our home for more than 30 years. Large weird plastic container in the fridge right now. Kids can’t live without it. Enjoy the blog, keep up the great writing. Best to C.

    • Large weird plastic containers in the fridge Brad? I know that feeling! I don’t think I can go back to ‘Western’ mayo after having Kewpie. Hope all is well with yourself and the family – we plan to visit later this year, will see you then!

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