Saturday, August 28, 2010


I am currently in central France jettisoning, according to volume and mass, any and all objects that do not pertain to my immediate survival. Pants? I have two, I don’t need three… Why the hell did I bring this 101 tips to better water color book!? Items also on the list include one shirt with pockets ala “Indiana Jones meets Gary Larson entomologist”, and possibly all three pairs of shoes.

It has been five weeks since first arriving in Paris, and a lot has happened in that time, so I am going to make this blog-post a greatest hits of sorts.

Bordeaux: Meryl and I Attended the Ecole du Vin for a class on tasting wine. We educated our palates using fifty or so little bottles of purified aromatic chemicals – including those for fruits, spices, leathery tannins, etc- each of which is present to a greater or lesser degree in Bordeaux wines. This was a fascinating class, not only because it was informative and nose-opening, but also as an example of how taste is cultivated. There is definitely something interesting going on with neuroscience of taste-perception and the socio-economic implications of a school for wine tasting run by the industry itself (our teacher was a vineyard owner), but that will have to wait for a dissertation or two. We also had a guided tour of two vineyards in Blaye, on the east bank of the river Gironde. These were fun introduction to the area and I hope I get to go back to explore it a little more.

St.Emilion: This is a small town just outside of Bordeaux where Meryl and I rented bikes for the day and rode around the countryside stopping to talk with vintners and taste their wines. One winery even had soil samples on display from the several different vineyards they owned. This added a convincing visual element to the notion of Terroir which is so essential to the economic and sensorial qualities of Bordeaux wines. I left my card in hopes of returning for the harvest. Talking with an older vintner, I was surprised to hear him say that if he were young again, he would learn English.

Pau: At the foot of the Pyrenees, this town is a great starting point for exploring the ferments of the Basque region. Along with Biarritz and Bayonne, Pau is a major center for the history and commemoration of craft-produced chocolate in France, and there is even a Route du Fromage which highlights farms and fromageries producing a range of cheeses in the protected Ossau-Iraty region. However, at the time I was unaware of the significance of the town for chocolate and lacked a car (necessary to follow the route du fromage), so I went up into the mountains for a day and vowed to come back to this area better prepared.

I returned to Paris, and after saying goodbye to my girlfriend, I used up my last day of Eurail pass to travel to a small town in the Correze region. I have been living here for three weeks, practicing my French, reading up on the history of French ferments, and even visiting a Boulanger to bake bread with him for a day or two (my next post will go into this in more detail). I am leaving here in a few days, probably headed to Dijon, but we’ll see!


My girlfriend joined me for a few days in Paris, whereupon my ability to communicate with the French people was enhanced ten-fold. Here’s how it worked. I would walk in to a boulangerie with purpose and charm, greeting the proprietor with a hearty ‘Bonjour!’ Naturally, the good mannered Boulanger would ask me something completely incomprehensible in French, at which point I would smile and look over at Meryl nervously. After a significantly awkward pause, Meryl would explain that I was a complete idiot and that she would take a baguette. This began to happen less and less as time went on (I’m pretty sure) and one morning I even completed the entire transaction myself, in flawless French. As I strolled out onto the Champs D’elyse, radiant with my Boulanger-etiquette victory, I looked back at the waving baker with a big smile and shouted ‘Bonjour!’…so close…

On the cheese front, my friend and host, Anne Horowitz was adamant that we have a taste-off between a decent industrial Camembert and a raw milk artisanal version. While the pasteurized version curled my nose hairs with its delightful stench, I have to admit that the raw-milk version was earthier, more putrid, and had more distinct flavors. The putridity was really emphasized when, three days later, Meryl and I stuck the raw milk Camembert in my backpack for a picnic. The cheese settled in my pack right up against my back, and after a sweaty morning of trekking through hot and humid paris streets, what we had left at lunch was liquid toe-jam. Pidgeons dropped from the sky when we opened the bag. The aroma of toe is not an original sentiment and neither is it unsubstantiated biologically. The poet Leon-Paul Fargue called it “les pieds de Dieu” or “Gods feet”. This heavenly heady aroma is attributed biologically to S-methyl thiopropionate, a product of the metabolic breakdown of protein by Brevibacterium linens, a relative of Brevibacterium epidermis which breaks down protein between your toes to produce that foot smell (Dyer, 2004; Paxson, 2008).

At this point you may be thinking, “ewe, I hope he stops there”, but guess what, it gets better. Not only do we have bacteria in our digestive system, on our skin and in our sebaceous glands (yeast in these glands is a cause of dandruff), our cells are actually outnumbered ten to one by the microbes we carry around with us. An average person has 1013 human cells and 1014 microbial cells, in other words, 90% of our cells are microbial! Worse than that, our DNA is outnumbered by the DNA of our “friends” by 100 to 1 (Gill et al. 2006). Taking into account more and more of these findings over the last year has made me sympathetic to what professor Heather Paxson has dubbed the post-Pasteurian ethos (Pasteur, the French guy responsible for germ theory of disease and pasteurization). In her article Microbiopolitics, Paxon describes the outlook as moving “beyond an antiseptic attitude to embrace mold and bacteria as allies” (18). While recognizing that a consensus on this anti-antiseptic nutritional outlook has not yet been achieved in the scientific/medical community, this is what gave me the courage to try a bite of the soupy mess before ditching it for a delicious Roquefort from a fromager in the mouffetard. It was a good choice…

Sources cited:

Paxson, Heather (2008). Post-Pasteurian Cultures: The Microbiopolitics of Raw-Milk Cheese in the United States. Cultural Anthropology, (23)1, pp. 15–47.

Dyer, Betsy D. A Field Guide to Bacteria. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Brussels II

While in Brussels I had the opportunity to visit the last brewery in the city which still produced spontaneously fermented Lambics. The Cantillon Brewery is not in the heart of town. It doesn’t have a steel and glass façade with a commemorative walkway or a landscaped entrance. It is south of the old city, in a mixed commercial/industrial/residential neighborhood. The building is entirely unremarkable and the entrance is an almost unmarked garage door across from a large open area overgrown with tall grass. But once inside, I found an idyllic scene. The family that owns and operates the brewery was gathered around several open wooden crates filled with apricots. They were de-pitting the fruit which would later be blended with lambic to create their “Fou’foune”. I even got to taste an apricot right off the knife. The woman who offered it to me is the last living direct descendent of Paul Cantillon, the brewery's founder.

The self acclaimed “last traditional brewery in Brussels” started nearly 100 years ago and still brews over a 1000 hectolitres of beer in equipment from the 19th century (figures from brewery pamphlet). What makes Cantillon interesting for me, is that all of their beer is spontaneously fermented. This type of fermentation is a window into the past, as before the rise of modern carefully controlled brewing techniques, all beer was spontaneously fermented. Thus these brews may be the closest thing we can currently taste as to what the ancient Egyptians and Sumerians drank thousands of years ago (sans hops which are a more recent ingredient).

In a small loft above the top floor of the brewery, lies an enormous copper cooling tun where the beer is exposed to the unique microflaural ecosystem which has developed on the walls and in the spider webs of the Cantillon brewery for the last century. The beer is inoculated with wild yeasts which give it the complex sour flavors that lambic beers are famous for. After the tour I worked up the courage to ask a pressing question:

Me: “Because your product relies so much on the local bacterial and fungal ecosystem, I was wondering if you have noticed any change in the last half century or so as more and more international travelers make their way to Brussels, bringing with them their own bacterial and fungal ecosystems.”

Brewer: “Nope”, “wait, did you bring in bacteria with you!” (I’m pretty sure the second bit was a joke. Answering this question in the positive could be bad for business, so I assumed that the brewer was avoiding the subject. Looking back though, I wonder if he was being earnest with me? Perhaps the changes are too subtle, or maybe indigenous species have evolved to fit the geographical/biological niche so well that they crowd out any foreign competitors. Brewing only happens between October and April, when the climate is cold enough to cool the beer quickly and this might effect microbial competition as well. As I am just speculating, I will leave this an open question, and if a microbiologist or a brewer out there has any explanation please don’t hesitate to leave a comment!

Whether or not the beer at Cantillon has changed, it is still mind-bendingly fun to taste. A product of hundreds of different fermenting agents, the tart acidic flavors are so different from the tastes in commercial ales and lagers (these almost always have carefully controlled inoculations and fermentations by only a single species of brewers yeast).

Friday, August 20, 2010


Crammed into a bench behind a long wooden table, I sat among a few other brave sweaty Belgians and squinted at my Lambic, focusing on the intricate patterns of light refracted through this bubbling beverage. The oppressive afternoon rays drenching the inside of La Morte Subite were reflected and amplified by the bar’s enormous mirrors that frame its hallowed hall. Like so many before me, I came to Brussels for the beer. The olives were a surprise.

Home to both NATO and the EU, Brussels has a reputation as an international city, and this cosmopolitanism is supposedly reflected in the many cuisines that mix and mingle on the streets and in the markets. Thus, one blustery Thursday morning, I set out to see if I could find some kind of fermented food in the Moroccan market suggested by my guidebook. Making my way past raw meats, dried fruits, and fresh fish, I finally spotted gold. Well… green really, and black and red and various other hues. Piles upon piles of olives…Olives with garlic, olives with lemon, olives drenched in chili sauce and olives from Yemen (I don’t think that’s accurate, but it completes the suess-ambic meter) and you could try every…single…style… I went for the mixed green (young) and black (ripe), with garlic, oil and cilantro. So into the backpack went a handful and a half, to be enjoyed later in the company of Belgium’s other special ferments: bread, cheese, chocolate and beer.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, the olives, and the chocolate in my backpack were not such an odd couple. Reviewing my favorite FAO report of all time (you don’t have one?) I found that both products require proper fermentation to achieve a palatable taste, and both are spontaneously fermented. Raw olives contain Oleuropein, a glucoside compound –sugar and something else- which has a bitter taste and is toxic to bacteria. In order to remove this compound, raw olives are put in a lye solution which removes the offending compound, but also pierces the skin, allowing easier access for bacteria to get in there and do their thing. Olives also share with cocoa the wicked sweet factor of being spontaneously fermented, a class shared by such awe inspiring products as kimchi, lambic beers, and pretty much every ferment before the eighteenth century. Thus, the party in both cocoa and olives is, shall we say, a mixed crowd. Lactic acid producing bacteria compete with acetic acid bacteria and yeasts galore. Who knows how many different species are invited. Though well attended, these parties usually don’t end well for the party-goers, coming to a sudden and violent finish either in roasting (all cocoa) or pasteurizing (most olives). However, this party, like many others, isn’t over, its only ever postponed. As soon as you take that olive out into the fresh air, there is a whole sea of anxious opportunists ready to rage.

I didn’t want my own personal quadruple wrapped microbial get-together to be crashed by any unsavory characters. So I moved the whole thing into my micro-floral "living room", combining the event with an ongoing affair in the form of a raw milk cheese. The party went well.

Next up, a visit to the cantal brewery, where spiders rule and they have realized my domestic dream: a beer swimming pool in the attic.

Reference note: My favorite FAO report of all time, and source for the informative portion of this post, is: Fermented Fruits and Vegetables. A Global Perspective, Mr. Mike Battcock and Dr. Sue Azam-Ali. FAO United Nations, 1998.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


I am currently in Pau, a French town within the Pays Basque region sitting at the edge of the Pyrenees. I clearly have some work to do updating this blog, and so here is the first installment. More to come soon... Antwerp/Mid July: In Antwerp I had an incredible host, whose brother took me out for Mussels and Frites on the river Scheldt. After lunch, we attempted to visit the Brewershuis museum, but it was closed for repair. This museum is housed in a building that, while never a brewery itself, used to provide the many breweries on “Brewers Street” with water (the most important ingredient in Beer!). At one time there were over fifty brewers in the city of Antwerp, but due to the crushing effect of two world wars, strict permit regulations, the declining popularity of top fermenting ales, this number slowly dwindled over the years until presently there is only one. Luckily, the DeKoninck brewery is still going strong. Started in 1827, this brewery was originally known as “The Brewery of the Hand” and its label still retains the image of a left hand. The hand is an icon in Antwerp, according to local lore, a giant who used to live on the river would charge people a toll and if they didn’t pay he would cut off their hand and throw it into the river. However, the hero Brabo, having slayed the giant, cut off the giants hand and threw it into the river (hooray), thus the fantastic statue across from the town hall and the severed hand that graces the glass of every delicious De Koninck brew.
If this isn’t appetizing enough, according to the local custom, before you drink a De Koninck it is a tradition to knock back a double shot of cheesy yeast water, drained off the barrels at the end of the fermentation. This shot has the consistency similar to sour milk with
a metallic aftertaste that wafts up the back of your nasal cavity heralding the possibility of lunch’s triumphant resurrection. In other words, not something I would have with my beer every day. Despite the taste, I must admit that the yeast shot brought out earthier and more malty flavors in my next sip of beer, and this taste experience was so unique that I would rate it a “worth the effort” with a probable “try it again in a year”. Legend has it that this shot is also good for fertility, though the number of rituals in Antwerp (including walking under a well endowed statue, etc…) to increase fertility lead one to believe that perhaps the level of alcohol consumed in the past has not been all that helpful on this front… In fact, my generous host, a lawyer, explained that at one time it was illegal to pay workers in cash due to their propensity to spend it all at the pub before getting home.
Among the numerous anecdotes told by my host, two stories surrounding bread stood out. The first story is about bread and the law. Apparently at one point the wise city fathers of Antwerp decided that there were too many different kinds of bread in Antwerp, thus the city needed an Official Bread to reduce the confusion. Having decreed that such-and-such was the Official Bread of Antwerp they
decided, naturally, to tax it. Of course, as soon as it was taxed, none of the bread bakers made the Official Bread of Antwerp anymore. Instead, each baker added their own twist to the bread, thereby multiplying the perfusion of bread styles exponentially. Though there is still many styles of bread in the city, our host suggested that today there is one bread that may be the most popular, and its name, translated literally, is “Rye, Damn it”. The second story is about bread and men. According to our friend, every Sunday hundreds of men saunter in to the village squares to get a paper and a loaf of bread. Our host jokingly described how dutiful patriarchs in this great migration of men, making extended pit-stops in café’s, are not motivated by such worldly desires as learning the local gossip, but are instead inspired by the noble thought that they are fulfilling their fatherly duties, obtaining news of the world and sustenance for their family!

After a few days in Antwerp, it was on to Brussels...