Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Word of the Day: Ex Gratia

ex gratia - adv. as a favour; not from (esp. legal) obligation - . granted on this basis (ex gratia payment) (Latin = from favour).

So, for example, a tip (or gratuity) is an ex gratia payment from a customer to a staff member of a bar or restaurant in recognition of services rendered - unlike the cost of the meal, or the bar tab.

That's worth keeping in mind when you read statements like this:
The carer bonus was paid ex gratia by the previous federal government over the past four years, to families caring for people with disabilities, chronic illness or age frailty, in recognition of the unpaid care provided by those families eligible for the carer payment and/or carer allowance. (Jean Tops at On-Line Opinion)

Tops' OLO article is yet another contribution to the confected public outrage over the "Rudd razor gang's" threat to "axe" the Howard government's carer's bonus, one of several ex gratia payments made by the previous Government over its term of office.

I've no argument with the rest of Tops' article (I haven't read it through yet), nonetheless I've a small suggestion. Let's drop the confected outrage, and look at the question of what the Rudd government - and any government that follows it - should be doing to assist carers. That's a debate worth having.

As for the question "Is it proper for a democratically elected government to dish out ex gratia payments to particular sectors of the voting population?" I think that's pretty much a case of asked and answered.

Note: this post was written ex gratia. I don't have to do this you know.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

You, Me, Car Park

Jonathon Holmes has been warned:

I will for now forgive the utterly gratuitous insults Holmes gave as a backhander in conceding I was in fact, ahem, right. I’ll consider that the one get-square he’s entitled to this year for this reasoned criticism - even though it was a get-square a fairer man might regret. A second will be a declaration of war.

Vanilla, and Other Essences

According to Harold McGee, true vanilla comes from the pod fruit of a South American orchid - the so-called bean. Predictably, there are several different varieties of vanilla bean, and different vanilla producing areas produce beans with different flavours. In that regard, vanilla is like coffee, or grapes.

The characteristic aroma of vanilla comes from vanillin; the smell of pure vanillin is sufficient to suggest vanilla. Which is why, on your supermarket shelves you'll find the following products in the cookery needs or spices section:
  • whole vanilla beans, packaged singly in small plastic bags;

  • vanilla extract - a thick brown syrup in small, expensive, bottles;

  • natural vanilla essence - more dilute than the extract, and therefore less expensive;

  • imitation or artificial vanilla essence - a mixture of brown food colouring (for example caramelized sugar) and vanillin in water and alcohol;

  • vanillin sugar - a mixture of sugar and vanillin.
McGee notes that the demand for vanilla flavouring far outstrips the available vanilla bean crop, so most of the vanilla flavouring that is consumed is synthetic vanillin.

How you get the vanilla flavour into your prize-winning sponge cakes is, literally, a matter of taste. In my own cooking I use the extract - pricey but worth it for the more vanilla than vanilla essence flavour you get in the end product. But that's just me - you might be happy with the imitation stuff, or the vanillin sugar. After all, it's vanillin that gives vanilla its characteristic aroma and taste and on that basis, we could argue that, essentially, vanilla is the phenolic compound vanillin.

Forget that we - I wouldn't argue any such thing. Vanillin is what you have left when you take away all the other compounds that contribute to the taste of vanilla bean. Natural vanilla essence is a solution of some, but not necessarily all, the flavouring compounds in the vanilla bean in water and alcohol. My preferred vanilla flavouring, the extract, has maybe a few more of those compounds but again, not all of them. To get the lot - to get the fullest flavour - you need the bean. Beyond my budget most of the time, alas.

You can, nonetheless, argue the diametric opposite of everything I've just written, and insist that what actually matters about vanilla - or any other essence you care to extract - is not to get the fullest flavour, but the purest flavour - that is, its dominant flavour of vanillin. If you're that sort of person, I wouldn't want you sitting across the table while I was tucking into a creme brulee - the conversation would be unbearable:

"What's that?"

"Creme brulee?"

"What are those dark bits?"

"Vanilla bean. Want to try a little?"

"Oh, yuck! What's wrong with a plain simple vanilla custard? Why do they have to spoil it with all this self-indulgent over-flavouring?"

There are worse possibilities, depending on how dogmatic you are about the purity of flavours. Vanillin is often found in wines and spirits that have been treated in wood and the presence of vanilla overtones in these wines - particularly dessert wines - is noted and often approved by wine buffs. But is it proper for wine to taste, even a little, like vanilla? Surely not, if foods are to remain true to their proper essences - wine shall taste only of Wine, while vanilla reverts to its proper place as a flavouring for ice-cream. Not a lesser flavour - an equal but different flavour to accompany and complement the stronger ones - like chocolate.

On second thoughts, maybe not chocolate - its sensuality is beyond redemption.