Monday, June 30, 2008

Sites to Bookmark

National Geographic has a fantastic roundup of stories covering what they term as the world's worst food crisis in decades.

Leading the pack of stories today is a video about whether allowing misshapen fruits and vegetables into supermarkets can ease the world food-price crisis, as the European Union's farm chief has said.

Another excellent focus on this subject is being produced by the CBC radio show "The Current." The segment - called Diet for a Hungry Planet - looks at India in particular, a country where huge and rapid economic growth is contrasted against an acute food security situation.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Ask the Cheesehead: What is a controlled designation of origin and what can it guarantee about a cheese?

Controlled designations of origin are a series of systems in place in Europe to protect food products and wine. France was the first country to initiate such a program, with a law passed in 1919 that was a predecessor to its current Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC). Italy instituted a similar system, known as the DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta), in 1963, followed by Spain, Portugal, Austria, Germany and Switzerland.

Excessive demand for popular products has led to a profusion of poor imitations. For producers, the designations protect their products from impostors who may use a product or geographical area's name to promote lesser quality goods. For the consumer, the labels are an assurance that products are exactly as specified on the label.

Camembert is a perfect case in point, and an example of how complex controlled designations can be. 'Camembert de Normandie' is a genuine camembert, covered by an AOC obtained in 1983. The cheese must be made in its terroir of origin (Normandy, in northwestern France) from the unpasteurized milk of the Normande breed of cows, hand-ladled into molds and drained naturally. It should be soft, but not runny, and is best when it is young – before it overferments. It is made by only 11 producers in the region. A cheese labeled 'Camembert fabriqué en Normandie' may be made with raw or pasteurized milk and only the cheese dairy needs to be located in Normandy. The milk can originate elsewhere. A label that simply reads 'Camembert' is not controlled by AOC designations so its authenticity cannot be verified, making it a far cry from the real deal.

Purchasing a cheese with a label such as AOC or DOP is not a guarantee of taste. But a consumer can be sure of several factors, including: 1) that the milk and the cheese originated from a specific geographic region; 2) that, in certain cases, the cheese is produced using a traditional recipe or method that may date back thousands of years; 3) that specific characteristics of the cheese (size, shape, texture) must be met; and 4) that the producer has been approved by the governing body of the country, which guarantees authenticity and quality.

Monday, June 16, 2008

What is Canadian Cuisine?

Fifty years ago Harland Sanders, Kentucky's king of fried chicken, visited Canada. When asked by a reporter if he had discovered anything distinctive or characteristic about Canadian food, he had this to say:

"Well, I would say no. Not any outstanding characteristic ... I found here a lot of good and a lot of bad. Perhaps a little more bad than you do good."

I suspect that even now, 50 years later, the words 'canadian cuisine' aren't bandied about often at culinary events. It's not fare that makes headlines around the world.

I was catching up on some podcasts this weekend and heard an interview from the CBC with Gordon Ramsay. The host, Jian Ghomeshi, asked the chef how Canada can become a presence on the international stage and Ramsay had an interesting perspective. He said that Britain had been asking itself the same question for years

"The kind of crap I had to go through in Paris with the arrogance of the French and Roast Beef and Fish and Chips and Steak and Kidney pudding and 'O-la-la, your food is terrible.' So you're going through exactly what we went through. I think you are evolving, there's no two ways about that, but your exit is going to be in 10 or 15 years time when you can really implement a proper Canadian cuisine rather than a fragmented cuisine."

With all the fish, game and unique produce that we have in Canada, there really is no reason why we can't be forging a name for ourselves on the global culinary scene. Part of the challenge is overcoming our vast regional disparities and widening out our specialized ethnic cuisines to put a uniquely Canadian mark on them.

The CBC has produced a very interesting interactive map of Canadian regional foods which is a handy starting point for a discussion of what makes Canada's food distinctive. From French-inspired Pâté à la viande in the east to caribou stew in the northwest, not to mention poutine and butter tarts, we're off to a pretty good start!

Why You Should Care About Honeybees

Because bees pollinate about one-third of crop species in the U.S.

Because without this pollination we'd be left with only plants that can be wind-pollinated - things like wheat. Imagine a diet of only bread and meat. Fun for a week, maybe.

Because the loss of more than a quarter of the country's 2.4 million bee colonies - tens of billions of bees - due to Colony Collapse Disorder is projected have an $8-$12 billion effect on America's agricultural economy.

Because without the bees to pollinate our plants, we would be left with little choice except to pollinate them ourselves - BY HAND.

There was a documentary on PBS last night that described hand-pollination, which is currently taking place in a part of southern Sichuan province in China where the bee population was killed off because of overuse of pesticides. They now have to painstakingly remove the pollen off each flower, allow it to dry for two days and then crush it to a powder. Then, using a brush made of chicken feathers to replicate the bushy body of a bee, a farmer lightly dusts each blossom of a tree. One person can do about 30 trees in a day. A bee can do about 3 million blossoms.

Ten things to do to help honeybees (, May 2008)
Silence of the Bees (PBS, June 2008)

Monday, June 02, 2008

Eating the Big Easy

A few of the things I ate during the past week in New Orleans:

A fried seafood platter from Deanie's, a touristy restaurant in the French Quarter. It was a heaping mound of fried stuff - you couldn't tell what was what by looking, or even by tasting it. It was all fried in the same oil so it came out tasting the same. Not recommended.

Barbecued shrimp from Emeril's place in the Warehouse District. In New Orleans, this dish consists of shrimp cooked stovetop with cajun spices and lots of pepper and then coated with a spicy brown sauce. No barbecue enters the picture. These were served with a small rosemary biscuit, which to me was tastier than the shrimp.

Crawfish cheesecake, an intriguing and delicious appetizer at an Uptown restaurant called Dick & Jenny's, which serves upscale versions of creole classics. We were worried at first by the menu, which seemed a bit too ambitious, but we were not disappointed by what we were served, including a yummy gumbo and a fantastic lemon meringue pie.

Red beans and rice, at the Dillard University dining hall. This was NOT what they served me when I was in school! Considering the location, it was not half bad! And the server was a gem... a real Southern charmer who announced "Order in the window" as she passed your styrofoam plate to you across the heat lamps.

Ribs, brisket and a pulled pork sandwich at The Joint in the Bywater. This little place was amazing. You could smell the smoke for blocks. Inside there was nothing but an old Wurlitzer and some picnic tables, which was essentially all you needed. The barbecue was awesome and was served with optional vinegar-based or tomato-based sauce.

A muffaletta sandwich from Central Grocery on Decatur Street. Salty and yummy and stuffed with huge cerignolas. You have to have one of these when you're in New Orleans. I bet a better, less hyped version, exists but you still have to have one from here.

Eggs and grits with black ham from Mother's Restaurant on the corner of Poydras and Tchoupitoulas. This place is packed on weekend mornings and is famous for its baked ham. The restaurant has created its own vocabulary - Black Ham = the crisp, caramelized crust from the baked ham. Debris = the roast beef that falls into the gravy while baking in the oven.