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Tasting Club
Gathering Together to Share and Savor Your Favorite Tastes
Dina Cheney
DK Publishing, 2006
ISBN 0756620597
Review By William I. Lengeman III

While we tend to taste most anything that enters our mouth, tasting, in the more formal sense of the word, used to have a rather limited usage. Once upon a time the term was pretty much synonymous with wine tasting and that was about the extent of it. But if Dina Cheney, author of Tasting Club, has her way, that's about to change.

With the increased interest in artisinal products over the past decade or so, it's probably not surprising that tastings are becoming more popular events. As Cheney tells us, "at-home tastings are a new, fun low-hassle way to entertain."

Tasting Club kicks off with a look at some of the basics of tasting, including the fundamentals of how we taste, how and where to conduct tastings, and the basics of tasting clubs. According to Cheney, the ideal size for a tasting for those of you who were wondering - is eight participants.

Chapter two looks at - you guessed it - wine. There's a crash course on wine, a novice-friendly varietals chart, practical suggestions on shopping for wine, suggested accompaniments, including recipes and sample menus, a tasting grid, and a glossary.

The rest of the chapters follow pretty much the same pattern. The next one covers chocolate and recipes here include Dates Stuffed with Gorgonzola, Bacon and Chives. There's also a section called Learn Your Palate, which gives instruction on how to actually taste.

The cheese chapter has a good sidebar on storing cheese and menus for a Varied Cheese Tasting and a French Cheese Tasting. One of the accompaniments here is for Addictive Caramelized Nuts and, fittingly, there are suggestions for some wines to go with your cheese.

Perhaps it wouldn't have occurred to many of us to have a honey tasting, but Cheney thought of it and devotes a chapter to it. She claims there are more than 300 varieties of honey just in the United States.

Speaking of varieties, there's the vast and quite varied subject of tea. Cheney tackles this one in the following chapter, where she estimates that there might be as many as 15,000 varieties of the stuff. Menus here include a Varied Tea Tasting and a Green Tea Tasting and there's a recipe for Almond-Scented Green Tea Shortbread with Cardamom Sugar.

The Extra Virgin Olive Oil chapter includes a description of just exactly what that term means. From there it's on to cured meats, "the oldest convenience foods," featuring a recipe for Ribbola Toasts with Fresh Oregano.

Cheney admits that balsamic vinegar "might be an odd choice" for a tasting. Yeah, I thought so too, now that you mention it. It can also be a pricey choice, with some 25-year-old vintages of genuine balsamic going for as much as $180 a bottle.

Apples are another offbeat choice, but, as the author notes, there are as many as 10,000 varieties of the fruit making the rounds. Not that you'd know it from checking in with your local supermarket. Cheney (wisely) suggests doing your apple shopping at a farmstand or farmer's market. That's great advice, given the spotty quality of grocery store apples, which tend to range from rock-hard and tasteless to downright abominable.

Last up is the beer chapter, another very wide-ranging area. Among the recipes here are a Homemade Port and Cheddar Ball with Toasted Pecans and a Homemade Gorgonzola Ball with Pistachios and Dried Cherries. Also, Chocolate-covered Pretzels and Strawberries.

If you're looking to expand upon your knowledge of specialty foods or if you've simply found that dinner parties and the like have begun to lose their lustre, Tasting Club should be a very useful resource.

William I. Lengeman III is a food writer, book reviewer and publisher of Tea Guy Speaks and Weird Eats.

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