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  • Written by Madelaine Bullwinkel

"Touchez! Sentez! Goûtez!" Learning How to Taste

 

Ten-year-old Katie smelled the bread sample, thought for a moment, and wrote a number on the printed sheet. She could have been in science lab, except for the fact that her teacher Mme. Clivaz was speaking French. “Sentez! Touchez! Goutez!,“ These students were using their senses to test the quality of the French baguette.

Earlier that week the fifth graders at Avery Coonley School in suburban Downers Grove had watched a YouTube video interview with Djibril Bodian, the Montmartre baker who has won The Best Baguette in Paris competition twice in the last decade (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K7N.)  They watched as he handled each loaf and listened as he described how attention to detail, patience and sheer repetition made his baguette better than more than 100 others. How can there be that much variety in bread that consists simply of flour, water, salt and yeast?

 

 

 

To prepare for a baguette tasting the students learned the French terms for their five senses as well as key words to describe each sense. By the time I arrived they were ready to judge four examples Mme. Clivaz and I had purchased. Together they observed the bread crusts for color and thickness (thin is better than thick). They listened for a cracking sound when the bread was broken. They all sniffed their samples for aroma, prodded, squeezed and tasted for texture and flavor. One loaf of each sample was halved lengthwise so they could examine its trous, the complex web of holes that indicates a perfectly risen loaf.

 

 

The students’ favorite baguette was one from Labrea Bakery (sold at Jewel/Osco) followed by La Fournette (1547 N. Wells, Chicago), Whole Foods and the Jewel bakery brand. Spoiler alert: The Labrea and La Fournette baguettes were made with a starter which gave them a flavor edge over those with dried yeast. The La Fournette baguette had a discernable tang which was less appealing to the young palates, although it had won a Best Baguette of Chicago competition at Hotel Sofitel in 2017.  Taste aside, the crusts and interiors of the Whole Foods and Jewel’s loaves did not measure up in quality to the other two.

 

 

 

With their mission completed, the class relaxed and watched as classmate, Genvieve, demonstrated a dessert of colored grapes and dried fruits strung on a skewer (brochette de fruits). They quickly assembled colorful batons and carried the remaining baguette samples to lunch with them. Mme. Clivaz and I swept up the crumbs.

The Back Story: This novel experiment for fifth graders in suburban Chicaog is modeled on an annual event in France called La Semaine du Goût.. During a specified week in October, food and health professionals visit elementary classrooms to demonstrate their skills and speak of their passion for their calling. In this way the French reinforce their cultural values at a time when more industrial food products are available to tempt busy parents to take shortcuts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Written by Madelaine Bullwinkel

THE TALE OF TWO DINERS (IN PARIS)

It’s a familiar story.  An American comes to Paris, falls in love with the city and looks for a way to stay permanently.  What are the job opportunities?  Teach water skiing on the Seine?  Open a miniature golf course in the Bois de Boulogne?   While it’s true that American and French cultures mix about as well as oil and water, on one subject they are in total agreement: they both love to eat.

Craig Carlson was caught in just such a dilemma when he finish a television directing job in Paris a couple of decades ago.  He had spent a year in Paris as a student before becoming a Hollywood screenwriter, and he wasn't ready to return to the States.   Craig had his epiphany when he was served a plate of bacon, eggs and pancakes back in LA. He realized that a big American breakfast was the one thing he had missed when he was living in Paris.  He vowed to open a diner in Paris that served his favorite meal.

 Craig then began a process of searching for investors,negotiating with French contractors and sourcing the key ingredients that would make his diner credible: real New York Bagels, rasher bacon and Vermont Maple Syrup.  He describes the torturous process of creating Breakfast in America in his bestselling book Pancakes for Breakfast.   BIA opened in 2003, and there is now a second location across the river in Marais neighborhood.  

I met Craig and his French partner when they visited Chicago’s Read It And Eat bookstore on a promotional book tour in the Spring and made a note to stop by the diner when I was in Paris in September.  To my great surprise, the  studio apartment I rented in the Latin Quarter facing the rue des Ecoles was directly across the street from the original BIA.  I'm not  making this up!

 Both Breakfast in America locations have the look and feel of a 1950’s road diner with red leatherette seating upholstery, formica tabletops, black and white tile floors and weak coffee served in a  mug with a spoon in it.  (Excellent espresso is also available.) The waitstaff of young bilingual Americans is midwestern friendly.  The food is what you would be served at a rural diner.  The eggs I ordered were runny in the center, the bacon slices were crisp and the pancakes were fluffy.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that BIA is just a breakfast place or a refuge for homesick Americans.  Both locations are open all day long.  I remember seeing the lights on across the rue des Ecoles after 10pm. The menu includes every dish you’ve ever ordered in a diner, and then some.

At both BIAs there appeared to be a close to even mix of Americans and French. How could I tell the difference at a distance?  The Americans picked up their burgers in their hands to eat while the French carefully cut theirs with knife and fork.  In other words, everyone ate as if they were at home.  

  • Written by Madelaine Bullwinkel

STRIKING GOLD WITH TURMERIC

Spiced Crème Brulée

Successive bottles of golden turmeric powder have graced my spice rack over the years. Each was used only on occasions when a curry recipe called for its earthy aroma and brilliant color. Every year or so the old bottle was replaced by a new one. I have faithfully waited and hoped for the day when this intriguing plant would enter my white bread world.

Turmeric is a thickened underground stem that looks like a bloated caterpillar, much like its cousin ginger root. Under a brown paper-thin skin is copper colored flesh that surprises the uninitiated by staining everything it touches with a brilliant yellow dye. Turmeric has also been a home remedy, like aspirin, in the Asian subcontinent for centuries.

 

A chance encounter with turmeric's healing properties finally drew me into its orbit. I sampled a tincture of turmeric mixed with a little water at a farmers' market while vacationing in Scottsdale last year. To my surprise, the nagging pains in my joints disappeared in minutes. I have since learned that the curcumin compound in turmeric was responsible for my amazingly rapid relief. In a concentrated form, turmeric enters the bloodstream immediately, acts to repair damaged cells, blocks inflammation and, in effect, slows the aging process.

Since the 1920's, Americans have been sold enriched foods like Wonder bread with the promise that it would "build strong bodies 12 ways". Only in the past two decades have we finally proven that large scale food production destroys more nutrients than it replaces with manufactured vitamins. Our current mantra to consume fresh "superfoods" reflects our awareness of the micronutrients in natural foods. What's stopping Big Pharma from making these new micronutrients their next drug frontier? Nothing, they already have.

Nonetheless, it came as a shock to see a bottle of cinnamon pills in the vitamin section of my local supermarket the other day. Cassia cinnamon and turmeric are now being sold together as well as separately as antioxidants and anti-inflammatories.  I mixed them in equal parts and was amazed by the aromatic harmony of  warm, sweet cinnamon and cool, earthy turmeric.  Why not use them together in cooking?

Braised Baby Potatoes with Coconut Kale and Seared Sea Scallops 

Freshly ground black pepper makes this combo work more effectively as a seasoning and nutrient. Much of the nutritional benefit of turmeric is lost because it metabolizes quickly in the gut. It isn’t easily absorbable either. Peperine acts to slow the body's metabolism allowing curcumin to remain available longer and improving absorption. Again, almost as if by design, peperine's heat on the tongue and its fresh pine aroma complements the combined aroma of turmeric and cinnamon. Voila!

 

So, why do I prefer to cook with these spices when popping them in pill form is so much easier and avoids having to wash dishes?  Aside from the sensuous pleasure of inhaling their intoxicating scent, I have the satisfaction of knowing they are real.  The dietary supplement business has been unregulated since the enactment of the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act,  A study this year found that 80% of the turmeric supplements were within 20% of their stated amounts.  The less expensive brands probably contain a new cheaper petroleum-based synthetic curcumin that lacks helper compounds.   In summary, there is no assurance you are getting what you see on the bottle label.

This spice mix - 2 parts each turmeric and cinnamon powder; 1 part ground black pepper; 1/2 part sea salt -  is my “wellness” grade seasoning. I’ve stirred it into olive oil and brushed it on eggplant slices and carrots before roasting; beaten it into eggs for an omelette, blended it into coconut milk to braise baby white potatoes and replaced vanilla with it in crème caramel. Am I afraid of an overdose? When dealing in teaspoons with spices whose active ingredients constitute at most 7% of their weight, it’s hard to consume too much.

One nagging question remains.  Why has it taken Western medicine so long to appreciate the 5000 year old healing traditions of India, China and our own native Americans?  That is a subject for another blog.