The long answer:
An acquaintance of mine recently raved about a Mediterranean-style octopus dish she had at Talula. It was called "cork-braised" octopus, so her natural question to me, Mr. Restaurant Reviewer, was what effect the cork had. I answered confidently and forthrightly, as reviewers are supposed to do. "I don't know", I said. "Never heard of that one."
I could see she felt let down, so I tried to at least impress with some dazzling deductions. "There's not enough wine on the cork to impart any wine flavor," I started, then paused for a Sherlock Holmes-like effect. "I guess maybe it gives it a cork flavor." She didn't say anything, but I have a feeling I won't be fielding any more questions from her for awhile.
My curiosity was stimulated. I went online and found numerous notices about how cork had natural enzymes that helped tenderize octopus. But nobody knew why. Somebody wrote in to say that contestants on Iron Chef had agreed that cork acted as a tenderizer, but they didn't know why either. Lidia Bastianich uses cork in her recipes, but states no rationale. Mario Batali also swears by cork on his Babbo website: "When preparing octopus, we found that the best and most efficient way to tenderize it is simmering it with an everyday wine cork. This way, the octopus becomes tender, yet still retain the essential leathery mouth-feel associated with eating it in the Mediterranean countries."
Firstly, he doesn't say how the cork works. And secondly: Isn't "leathery mouth-feel" just a fancy way of saying "gives it a cork flavor"?
I thought of calling Andrea Curto and Frank Randazzo of Talula, but in
my octopus research I came across Frank discussing his use of cork on
a Campbell's Soup site disclosing the secret tricks of professional
chefs. "I read about using corks to braise short ribs, so I decided to
try it with octopus," wrote Randazzo, who was described as being a
"firm believer". "I was never able to get my octopus tender before."
To which all I could think was: Short ribs?
If Batali, Randazzo, and the Iron Chefs didn't know the answer, I figured it might be better to check with a guy who
knows about wine and corks instead. Chip Cassidy is that guy -- Wine
Director at Crown Wine & Spirits and Director of the Beverage
Program at F.I.U. School of Hospitality. Plus he inherited a cork
collection years ago; he's got somewhere around 20,000 I think.
"I have no idea about that," he told me over the phone in response to the octopus question. He said he'd consult "To Cork or Not to Cork" by James Taber, "the most in depth book ever written about corks," and get back to me if he came across enzyme information.
But if one cork in a stock pot is potent enough to tenderize a giant
octopus or bulky slab of short ribs, what exactly is it doing to our
wine? Chip told me not to worry -- the corks are "boiled and
chlorinated" before use, so there are no living enzymes in them.
"Did you know that an average cork has 200 million air cells in it?" he asked as conversation was winding down.
"No," I answered confidently and forthrightly. "Never heard that one."
Short answer to the question as to how cork tenderizes
Nobody knows -- except, I have a feeling, for a couple of old