Age can make the food.
From balsamic vinegars to cheeses, for me, it's the older the better
They say youth is wasted on the young. And there's nothing like a dated photo album to drive home that tired idiom to this embittered soul. Last week, I cringed my way through a stack of Polaroids that shall remain under lock and key and forever be known as "the bad eyebrows hall of shame", in which a delinquent history of under-plucking was rounded out by the unique offences of my high-school years. Enabled by a tendency to obsession and enslaved by tweezers, I plucked out every last hair, then penciled a couple of arches using navy blue eyeliner, a remnant from the previous Halloween and the only make-up I owned. At 14, I was stupid enough to think that anyone who noticed my eyebrows would be noticing how awesome they were.
Even in a cultural era that's so phobic about ageing, all the anti-ageing miracles in the world couldn't get me to relive my awkward youth. Despite how much we proclaim to mourn the ageing process, we hardly resist mocking those who appear to deny its inevitability: cosmetic surgery that's anything but subtle, senior citizens with adolescent arm candy, age-inappropriate swimwear. If allowed, the grace and finesse that can develop with age can be very compelling - particularly when it comes to food. A helping hand along the way to moderate environmental factors is a crucial nudge in the right direction. There's a big difference between a blue-veined cheese and a piece of good aged cheese that's been left to moulder in the cheese drawer.
I turned 30 this year, which is half the age of the oldest – and the most expensive – item in my pantry: a 60-year-old Condimento Balsamico made from the cooked, fermenting must of Modenese grapes matured in a succession of barrels made from costly woods and coaxed along by bacteria colonies known as "mothers".
Balsamic of this quality needs to be tasted in order to be believed, and although some might enjoy it on a slice of good aged Parmigiano Reggiano cheese or some especially nice strawberries or vanilla ice cream, I enjoy sipping it straight as a digestif. A few heady drops of the stuff, dripped parsimoniously and molasses-slow into a glass, and a comfortable place to sit and breathe in its gorgeous scent is heaven.
Like a human being, the characteristics of balsamic vinegar vary constantly with the passage of time. It condenses, acquiring real richness and depth, eventually becoming something that inspires genuine devotion. Not all things mellow with age, though, and certainly not all things improve with it. Unlike, say, the small percentage of wines that were made for ageing, the overwhelming majority of bottled products were not made to continue ageing once bottled. A bottle of 30-year-old balsamic vinegar doesn't become a 40-year-old vinegar after you've had it in a cupboard for 10 years; it just becomes a 10-year-old bottle of 30-year-old vinegar. Sometimes we romanticise holding on to certain things for years longer than we should.
Foods that do improve with age include some of the very best things in this world to eat. There are those that improve overnight, such as stews, and those that are aged to make a product that is not wildly dissimilar in structure and application from its original, un-aged state, such as a dry-aged steak.
Tyramine is a natural substance that results from the breakdown of protein. It is generally found in foods that are aged - whether preserved, fermented, or just plain spoilt - and it's a process that begins in leftovers when they're just a day or two old.
It is thought that tyramine may cause the release of histamines, which result in food allergies, and that it may also trigger migraines, and it is contraindicated in the use of certain prescription medications. The older food is, the higher the tyramine content, and those sensitive to it may want to consider a tyramine-free lifestyle.
My favourite foods are high in tyramine: foods that are aged, dried, fermented, salted, smoked and pickled. Olives; corned beef; salty, fermented soy products such as miso; the list of addictive, high-impact umami foods is endless. Necessity is the mother of invention; most of these foods came about for functional reasons related to longevity and food storage, then stuck around because people grew attached to them. And many of them bear little resemblance to their raw materials. Cabbage's makeover into glorious, tangy sauerkraut was devised on ships where there was no refrigeration available, but I can think of few things I'd rather do with a head of fresh cabbage than turn it into sauerkraut. Aged cheeses have especially high levels of tyramine - alternatives for the sensitive can include fresh cheeses, such as ricotta, mozzarella, farmers cheese, cottage cheese and cream cheese.
Proper and controlled ageing can take something that is not meant to be consumed past its prime and turn it into something safe to eat - sublime even. Not everything was made to be aged, though. Nuts, olive oil, chocolate and coffee are irreversible once they make it over the hill. The same is the case with tea - with one exception. Pu-erh tea, from China's Yunnan Province, is processed, then fermented and aged. Rare, pricey pu-erhs can be as old as I am. This is the only tea that is intentionally aged for drinking - as a general rule with tea, the fresher, the better.
Leave it to the Chinese to figure out how to age tea – and even more ingeniously, eggs – without pickling them. Century egg, also known as hundred-year egg, thousand-year egg, and millennium egg, is made by preserving eggs in a mixture of clay, wood ash, salt, quicklime, black tea and rice straw.
It takes about 100 days to create a 1,000-year-old egg, although the first time I saw one, it would not have been hard to convince me that they were, in fact, edible Jurassic relics.
The egg whites morph into a resinous amber jelly, while the yolks become a sulfurous, Frankenstein necrotic green with a syrupy grey centre. Though strongly flavoured, they make a pleasant addition to rice porridge (congee), the Chinese breakfast staple, although I like them added sparingly.