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Curious Cook: Observations about food in France in May – Part 1

Curious Cook: Observations about food in France in May – Part 1

I probably like my dog too much – he is now beside me providing inspiration as I write. His inspiration is mostly a bunch of snores – but I know that if I lock him and my wife in the cellar overnight, only he will be happy to see me again when I open the door.

Anyway, here are some observations from May 2018.

Real cheese

In France, foodies are up in arms about the imminent “murder” of a famous cheese from Normandy. Traditionally, real Camembert cheese carries the label “Camembert de Normandie” which has the protected AOP (l’Appellation d’Origine Protégée) status, as opposed to “Fabriqué en Normandie” which means that cheese made elsewhere is just “finished” in Normandy and then labelled as “Camembert”. The production of real Camembert is only 5,500 tonnes a year compared to 60,000 tonnes of the other cheese.

But from 2021, cheese from outside Normandy can be labelled as “Camembert de Normandie” using the prized AOP designation, provided it meets some new production criteria – and the original real cheese will be confusingly relabelled as “Véritable Camembert de Normandie” (or REAL Camembert from Normandy). Why is it a big deal? Just try the two cheeses side by side and you will see. This move was likely instigated by cynical industrial producers wishing to hijack a famous global appellation to sell more inferior cheeses to the rest of the world.

As to the interesting question why real Camembert differs in taste to its facsimiles, the answers are unclear. One hypothesis is unspecified differences in the nutrition of cows in the region of real Camembert production, for example, types of grass eaten or the underlying mineral nature of the land itself. More relevant is probably the use of unpasteurised milk for producing real Camembert, and maturation via the introduction of a particular assortment of bacteria which includes Penicillium camemberti, Geotrichum candidum, Debaryomyces hansenii, and Kluyveromyces lactis. How bacteria confer flavours into milk solids during cheese production is briefly covered in the two-part series, “A quorum of flavour” although Camembert is somewhat unusual in that the bacterium Kluyveromyces lactis only survives the first 11 days of maturation before it is destroyed by Debaryomyces hansenii. Cheeses initiated outside Camembert normally use pasteurised milk – and transportation to Normandy (to qualify for using the name “Camembert”) may also interfere with the affinage (maturation) of the cheese.

Fake truffles

One simple fail-safe dish to make is cream and fresh cooked flat pasta with shavings of truffles on top. If you feel adventurous, then add a dusting of grated parmesan and ground pepper. But this dish failed spectacularly at home the last two times – and annoyed, I investigated the problem.

I found that, despite the “Fabriqué en France” (Made in France) label on the jar, the truffles inside were denoted as Tuber indicum – the same truffles traditionally used by Chinese farmers to feed pigs (as the fungi tastes like sawdust and is generally unfit for human consumption). Further research revealed that for a jar of truffles to qualify for a “Made in France” label, the sole requirement is simply to package any truffles in a factory located on French soil. Personally, I am outraged as people are being deliberately (yet legally) misled by deceitful labelling into overpaying for a fake premium product. The real French (and Italian) black truffles are Tuber melanosporum and the genuine white truffles are Tuber magnatum – and both varieties are sensually, profoundly and uniquely aromatic. Proper black truffles can sell for over €800 a kilo, the white truffles are even more expensive – and in case you are curious, rubbish tasteless Chinese truffles usually fetch less than €40-50 a kilo.

So the sad lesson is, with both cheeses and truffles, one cannot assume the labelled origin is any indication of true quality – and I am certain this applies to many other foods as well. We are probably aware of “Italian” olive oil which actually originates from other countries, but I had not expected that a premium iconic European delicacy could be debased so blatantly in its home country by imported Chinese pig food. Even in the EU (and other countries), one cannot rely on governments to uphold quality of food above the interests of industrial food producers.

Fat Mediterranean kids

The home of the Mediterranean diet is now awash with fat children, according to the WHO’s Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative, which claimed that over 40% of children aged nine are now overweight or obese in Greece, Spain, Italy and Cyprus – exceeding even the 31% rate in the US. This jarring spike in childhood obesity has little to do with the Mediterranean diet as children in these countries are ignoring the diet and instead are eating more junk food and sugar, combined with less exercise. The statistic is actually a sobering reminder how quickly public health can deteriorate with unbalanced modern eating habits, and it is just ironic that it is happening in the region credited with one of the world’s healthiest diets.

Curiously, France still has relatively low child obesity rates (less than 9%), which may be attributable to the general French preference for good local produce over foreign fast food.

Cockroach milk as a superfood

This is a revival of an old story, based on a 2016 paper on insect proteins titled “Structure of a heterogeneous, glycosylated, lipid-bound, in vivo-grown protein crystal at atomic resolution from the viviparous cockroach Diploptera punctate”. The “milk” referred to is a soup of curious crystals secreted by pregnant females to nourish embryos in the uterus of an unusual cockroach species (Diploptera punctuate) which gives birth to live young.

Research revealed these crystals contain fats, sugars and proteins, are densely calorific (four to five times the calories of cow milk) and the crystal nutrients are released based on the rate of digestion. This may be useful for endurance sportspersons or people requiring constant nutrition– though I still think it preferable to eat snacks periodically than suck on cockroach milk crystals. The superfood angle is posited on developing genetically-modified yeast to duplicate these crystals in commercial quantities – if successful it may become a rich source of nutrition if other types of food become unavailable in the future. However, there is no detailed research to confirm impact of these proteins after human ingestion, so calling cockroach milk a superfood now is fanciful unfounded hype.

Trans-fats (again)

The WHO has announced a major initiative to eliminate trans-fats from human diets globally by 2023. It is about time, as trans-fats may be the cause of up to 10 million deaths around the world annually. Most developed countries have already instigated bans or restrictions on the use of trans-fats in food production by now, so the WHO drive is mainly targeted at poorer countries. Eliminating trans-fats globally by 2023 is a very tall order, especially as trans-fats are regularly used to preserve and extend the life of common cooking oils in many tropical countries. If you want to know why trans-fats are so problematic, please read the two-part series “A fat lot of good”.

Obese cancers

A recent presentation at the European Congress on Obesity in Vienna stated that obesity is now linked to 12 forms of cancers, up five from the seven associated cancers 10 years ago listed by the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF). They are cancers of the liver, ovary, prostate, stomach, mouth and throat, bowel, breast, gall bladder, kidney, oesophagus, pancreas and womb.

Also sobering is the WCRF estimation that obesity will overtake smoking as the biggest cause of cancer in several developed countries within two decades. Excessive consumption of processed meats, junk foods, red meat, sugar, combined with sedentary lifestyles and/or alcohol is likely to lead to obesity and an enhanced risk of cancer. The confirmed link between junk food and cancer is noted in this article on processed food.

As to why obesity is linked to cancers, only a few items are summarised here due to subject complexity. For example, excess adipose (fat) tissue perturbs the balance and expression of sex hormones, and also insulin and IGF1 (Insulin-like Growth Factor 1) – these imbalances are likely to provoke cell damage/mutation. Additionally, obesity causes production of fat-derived cell-signalling proteins/hormones known as adipokines, particularly Interleukin 6 (IL-6) and Tumour Necrosis Factor (TNF), both associated with chronic inflammation, subsequent immune system abnormalities and tissue damage. Obesity also messes with leptin, a hormone linked in several puzzling ways to cancers in various organs. And so on.

Then there is the confirmed link between obesity and diabetes, a disease also known to aggravate the onset of cancers. As such, the only tangible social benefit of an obese population is to enhance the wealth of the food industry, probably followed by medical professionals and pharmaceutical companies. This sounds harsh, but facts sometimes are.

The rest of the month’s observations follow in the next part.

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