Most of the preserved foods discussed in my book, Can It! The Perils and Pleasures of Preserving Food, are quirky, often intensely-flavored foods and condiments produced by salting, drying, and especially fermenting. They’re foods that define moments in our collective past, or recreate the taste of exotic places. We treasure them because they are not like the bland mass-productions of the latest technologies.
All too easily, our favorite flavours can disappear, doomed to exist only as regret-filled nostalgia. Here are two accounts of such products we may never taste again.
Leiderkrantz was an early example of what we might call an “artisanal cheese” today. Soft-ripened and aromatic, with a firm crust, it was nothing like modern mass-produced processed cheeses. It was invented in response to a contest sponsored by a New York City delicatessen owner—Adolphe Tode—who wanted to replace imported Bismarck Schlosskâse with a lower-priced domestic imitation. It was named for a German singing society in New York, and its popularity grew quickly.
Eventually, its tiny dairy barn factory was replaced by larger quarters. At first the cheese could not be made at the modern plant. Legend has it that the original boards from the old plant were nailed up inside the sterile facility, and as much of the cheese as could be found on store shelves was smeared on the boards to recreate the proper biological environment for the cheese. Whatever actually occurred, they were able to restart the cultures and this wonderful cheese was saved.
For a while.
Borden’s bought the rights to the cheese, adding their logo to the little boxes. However, the stinky cheese market was too small for the corporate giant. They discontinued production in the early 1980s—ironically, just as Americans were beginning to develop a taste for something more sophisticated than bland industrially-produced “cheesefood.”
Borden’s sold the rights, and the all-essential cultures, to a firm in Australia. Rumours circulate, every few years, that production of Leiderkrantz will begin again, but those of us who hold fond memories of this wonderfully smelly cheese have been disappointed every time.
Somewhat closer to home, an iconic New York State product has also been lost—again to the requirements of an industry that is more concerned with the demands of a mass market than with the unique and defining properties of that signature product.
Back in the 1970s and early 80s, I became fond of Saratoga Vichy Water. It was naturally carbonated, had a distinctive mineral taste, and just a suggestion of sulphur in its bouquet. It amused me to think that I was getting a foretaste of how I was likely to spend eternity—albeit in a somewhat more refreshing form. I also liked the look of the old-fashioned bottle. It suggested continuity with our region’s past, and the ocher, red and black label, with a logo of interlocked letters, suited perfectly its green glass bottle.
Sometime later in the 1980s, I was served a bottle of Saratoga water in a restaurant. It came in a modern blue glass bottle, with no suggestion of its former appearance, other than the words “Since 1872.” The word “Vichy” was nowhere to be seen. I assumed that the packaging merely reflected the usual rebranding that companies are wont to do.
I was disabused of that notion with the first sip.
No mineral taste. No suggestion of demonic possession. Just the innocuous taste of ordinary tap water, with bubbles. It tasted like generic store-bought seltzer, not even the time-honoured stuff I used to have delivered—by the wooden case, in antique siphons—from Gimme Seltzer. when I lived on the Upper West Side. I was disappointed and confused. Why would they do such a thing?
Of course, we know why.
To make more money.
The company needed to expand to secure a larger market than culinary throwbacks, like me, could provide. Their marketing people, no doubt, said something along the lines of, “Nobody really likes this smelly stuff anymore. People want something that seems clean and fresh. Let’s filter the hell out of it and put it in blue glass, because that’ll make them think it’s cool and pure.”
Naturally, there was another profit-making aspect to the switch. According to Adam C. Madkour, the CEO of Saratoga Spring Water Company, the new version has very low levels of dissolved minerals like calcium, iron, and sodium—the very things that gave the old version its distinctive taste. Apparently, those minerals reduced the shelf life of the Saratoga Vichy, which “made it unsuitable for bottling.” He added, “The way we think as consumers today is very different than the way we used to. Too much sodium is not good for you.”
So, once again, progress has eliminated a bit of our past. It’s a reflection of the same sort of mentality that believes beautiful old buildings can, indeed should, be torn down so that modern—and intentionally short-lived—replacements can go up in their stead.
As with Leiderkrantz, the old product was abandoned just before American consumers developed a passion for terroir (and aversion to ennui-inducing blandness). Today, at least in Los Angeles, a water sommelier is serving and informing his clientele about the virtues of, and differences between, dozens of expensive waters from around the world. It may sound pretentious, here, but Europe has had water sommeliers for some time. There’s some hope that such refinement may take root beyond LA.
On another front, since its springs are what once made Saratoga a famous destination, the city has maintained twenty-one of them available to the public. Many of them are in Saratoga Spa State Park, but some are right in town. Each one has a different mineral profile, and therefore has a unique taste. I’ll never get one of those lovely old bottles again, but I can still taste a bit of history—for free.