Tasting Club 101

I received overwhelming enthusiasm generated from my weekly "Culinary View" radio program on KPFZ 88.1 FM. My co-host, Richard Adams and I were covering the fun concept of getting a group of "foodies" together and tasting specific culinary ingredients while debating and discussing them as an activity. The benefit of coordinating this exercise, (we do it in our professional kitchen all the time), is to get input, share the expense and have fun all at the same time.

The basic idea is to get 8 to 10 people together for a couple of hours and taste 5 to 6 different brands or varietals of a like ingredient such as cheese, or olive oil, or whatever strikes your fancy. What makes it a nice entertainment event is using tasting grids to evaluate each item and accompaniments. An example might be fruit or nuts, with say a cheese tasting. Of course a nice libation such as wine or beer pairs nicely, unless that is the tasting ingredient.

If at all possible having the same core of folks together from month to month and ingredient to ingredient helps to make the experience interesting. The discussion and observations of each tasting event keeps everyone involved and engaged. You can make it a monthly occasion and there is a lot less work for a host or hostess and more time to preplan. The tasting club can decide the best way to rotate places for tasting and economics (a $40 bottle of olive oil is best split amongst 8 people). Also certain months are suited for particular ingredients; such as apples in the fall, chocolate in February and cold beer in July. Well, you get the idea.

To set up once you decide on guests, economics, day of week and time is to make a tasting grid. It should include space for name and brand or vintage of your focus ingredients. The categories for rating should be color, intensity, aroma, flavor (acidity vs. sweetness). You also may wish to rate the tannins, body as well as finish and complexity. Most important is: "do you like it?" It works best if the host or hostess gets the set-upon monetary contribution to purchase the ingredients, accompaniments and beverages. That way everything can be set up in advance. Plain sparkling water is a must for palate cleansing between items. Guests should research any trivia or background on the tasting ingredients for conversation.

Here are some suggestions for tasting club focus ingredients as well as accompaniments:

                                          Wine       With plain unflavored crackers, crudités,
                                                          dried fruit and cured sausages.

                                        Cheese      With crackers, fresh and dried fruit.

                                     Chocolate     With nuts, fresh and dried fruit, cheese and crackers,
                                                         dessert wines. 

                                             Tea       Asian dim sum, tea sandwiches, butter cookies,
                                                          almond cookies.                       

                                            Beer     Sausages, cheese, salty, crunchy items such as pretzels
                                                         and chips, mustards.    

                                  Extra Virgin    Antipasto platter of roasted peppers, olives,
                                       Olive Oil    Cheese, salami and baguettes.

You can also match the theme of ingredients to get-togethers, such as:

                                                    Chocolate             Tasting For bridal showers, team building.

                                                  Tea Tasting             Book discussion, women's spa day, travel group.

                                                 Beer Tasting            Football party or poker night. New Year's Eve
                                                                                Cheese or Wine.                 

A nice welcome beverage of prosecco or sparkling wine is good as it prepares one's palate. Tastings involving alcohol should always include substantial appetizers for obvious reasons. As for ingredient choice, it's fun and educational to pick a sub-group. So, perhaps all French cheeses or all sheep's milk for comparison's sake. Chocolate could be all 70% cocoa or all German beers. No matter what, have fun with it. This could be the new "Trivial Pursuit" night!

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