Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Deux Dégustations : Le Chocolat et Le Camembert

At its core, gastronomy can be (and has been) simplified to mean one of two things (and I summarise): "the art or science of good eating" and/or "the food of a specified area." In my world of food, I translate it generally as "the study of food and culture" (given that I see food as culture) and as such find that the term "gastronomy" is as diverse as it is holistically interdisciplinary and adaptable. Now, if gastronomy is essentially the theory (and in the case of academic programs, blog sites, catering groups, it's an essential foundation), I would consider the dégustation (apparently the cognate "degustation" is true in English, though I've often simplified the term to mean "tasting" for lack of a more familiar word) to be gastronomy's true practicum, i.e., the manner of "applying gastronomy," of appreciating the very food you would otherwise spend the time studying. Indeed, just taking a look at these websites (1, 2, 3 and 4) should give you an idea of on the relationship that exists between food consumption and your environment during consumption. Perhaps you've taken part in a wine tasting, or have been fortunate enough to enjoy a seat at one of the most difficult restaurants to get a reservation? In either case, you'll have experienced a true degustation, one which typically engages your perception of the experience; in either case, you'll be encouraged to pick out flavour profiles and take in notes of the geography of an ingredient's source or you'll be presented with a piece of artwork masterfully matched and appreciated by all five of your senses. Wherever your foodie experiences may fall in that range, it is within this aforementioned spirit of experiencing food that I would argue that any moment taken to slow down, to truly appreciate each component of the food in front of you, and to understand each part as a components of a greater picture, such as our class dinner at The Refectory, is a moment given to degusting (and a triumph for the Slow Food movement). Having said all this, and as befits a course on French gastronomy, two of our final class sessions for the semester included practical dégustations of our own, following readings in advance on chocolate and Camembert.

In any given tasting, I would claim that "describing" food speaks to the senses, whereas "understanding" food refers to the context and explanation of the experience, i.e., the "how" and "W" questions ("what", "when," etc.) And a full degustation gets at both components, as the answers to one side of dialogue informs the other. Here, I specifically want to briefly mention the importance of "where": this wine comes from this vineyard, this beef came from this farm. Yet, how do we know this is actually true? In contrast to American food labels which tend to focus on the "what" (what is it that's really inside this box? what are the nutritional facts?), European labels tend to focus on the place, particularly as a means of not only ensuring the highest quality of production, but of protecting the identity and heritage of the very foods that are labelled. First begun in 1935 for wine and further developed to include a "qualification stair-step" in 1937, for example, the AOC (appellation d'origine contrôlée) distinction was created to assure consumers (and producers) that wines claimed to come from a certain region were indeed from that region, or even better yet a clearly delimited space. As is seen manifested today, even earlier uses of labeling "place" were seen as necessary to maintain so as to prevent the misrepresentation of an object's origin (which in the food world would be seen as a fraudulent act). One clear example is the distinction between Champagne and champagne; and take also the camembert we tried which did not come from Camembert, Normandy, as "true Camembert" would, but rather from Canada as is clearly labeled. (For this latter example, the process used in Camembert was used to create the camembert as presented to us.) With even greater restrictions being placed on quality, newer terms (AOP, IGP, etc.) have more recently been created to reflect the realities of mass production and origin assurance, with organizations such as the INAO in existence to enforce such policies. It's important to note that though such terminology was initially created for wine, their importance and usage extend well beyond it, e.g., butter, salt, and melon (as most recently noted on INAO's website). So, what does this mean, and why even bother mentioning this? Locked into the importance of labeling and the terminology is the protection of prestige and culture to, using an academic example, prevent plagiarism. Bringing then food, place and identtiy together, I find that the appreciation for these facets is rooted also in one of my favourite food concepts, terroir, which I've most easily explained in reference to the relatively recent farm to table movement. Nevertheless, knowing where our food comes from tends to make us (and I generalise here) happy consumers, relating our choice of what we eat (equipped with the knowledge of where we came from) to confidence and perhaps even pride in the food we are about to consume.

Again, when embarking on a degustation, knowledge and confirmation of where the food comes from are essential to the experience and integrity of the food being analysed. This was especially true in our chocolate degustation, as made possible by chocolatier Michel Cluizel's "single estate" chocolates (bars of which Christine purchased during our group trip to the French Film Festival). In contrast to "single origin"/Grand Cru chocolate that could come from a single location but could also (and more likely) come from multiple locations but within a single region, chocolates labeled as being of the "1er Cru de Plantation" come only from a specified area of land, or estate, and as such are prized at being of a higher level of quality in the world of chocolate than chocolate mixed together from multiple sources. The differences between these distinctions are, in many respects, similar to describing an American car that has parts from all over a single state or the entire country (or perhaps even from outside of it) versus a car of which its parts are completely made, manufactured and put together in Detroit, or if even fathomable, a single production plant. Knowledge of where the car came from and how it was put together informs our emotional and physical reactions to the car itself. Before I finally begin the degustation, another component to the degustation experience worth noting is being able to translate said experience into words. For those who read French, I would highly suggest Pierre Hermé's Larousse du chocolat to help explain the key terminology in describing and talking chocolate. (The text also includes the ideal conditions for tasting chocolate, etc.) I would also suggest checking out the video above, too, if you haven't already done so.


So as we apply this to food, our first chocolate came from the single origin of Papua New Guinea; should we stop in our description there, the chocolate going into the final product could have come from any number of locations from within Papua New Guinea's territory, and its taste--though unique--would have been influenced by a variety of diverse geographic factors. However, we also know it came specifically from the Maralumi estate, and thus its character is defined and informed solely by the soil composition, climate, etc., of that single locale. (N.B.: The links to each of the estates explain, in French, the influence of the geography of each estate on the estate's chocolate; access to an English version of the site may be found on its left navigation bar.) Immediately upon tasting it, it's easy to tell by its smooth consistence that this has a milk chocolate texture which in this case is of 47% cacao ratio. With an initial sweet taste reminiscent of strawberries, the flavour profile transfers to banana before leaving behind a salted caramel finish. It's important to note here that none of the aforementioned ingredients actually exist in the chocolate; rather the character of the chocolate coming from its place in Papua New Guinea brings forth this specific and consistent flavour profile for any chocolate bearing this particular estate's name. In a similar way, this could be viewed in terms of having a secret recipe for which you are the sole owner. No one else can claim whatever it is you make unless they follow your recipe's process and standard, thus "my take on X's dish." Similarly, someone else can't take the recipe, alter it, and still use your name to represent the end product (i.e., relying on your name for personal economic gain).

For our second chocolate, we travelled to the Mangaro estate located on the north west region of Madagascar. The first of Cluizel's 1er Cru chocolates, this 50% cacao chocolate is of course also considered milk chocolate and starts off with a slight burn on the tip of your tongue. Due to the creamy texture, it's consistency is rather smooth but almost sticky yet sweet. As it turns out, the particular flavour profile of this chocolate is claimed to bring forth notes of caramel, "exotic" fruits (whatever that means), spice cake (the notable ingredient being ginger and which explains the slight burn), and honey. I'll emphasize again here that none of the aforementioned ingredients exist in the chocolate but are rather indicative of the chocolate and nature's influence on its composition.

As you can see in each of the photos, we each had two squares of chocolate for our degustation. The first square was consumed without prior knowledge of the supposed flavour notes. Following our discussion of what one "should" find when paying close attention to the chocolate, we tried the second square to see if we could pick up on the said flavours. I would highly suggest having a few cups of water lying around to cleanse your palate, and to take your time with the process. Otherwise, the flavours will get too muddled making it more difficult to taste the nuances of the chocolate. Moving onward and upward, our third chocolate, coming from the Concepcion estate in the valleys of Barlovento and just east of Caracas, Venezuela, contains 66% cocoa solids. While there is no hard standard in the U.S. when it comes to the point at which chocolate is deemed "milk chocolate" or "dark chocolate," E.U. regulations state that the term "chocolate" (their distinction is between chocolate--i.e., dark--and milk chocolate): "(a) designates the product obtained from cocoa products and sugars which, subject to (b), contains not less than 35 % total dry cocoa solids, including not less than 18 % cocoa butter and not less than 14 % of dry non-fat cocoa solids." I typically consider both the look and cacao ratio (I go for anything with at least 60% cacao to be "dark"), but  another classification, though, would label all of our chocolate as "dark" but further labels chocolates based on taste above composition; ergo, our first two chocolates would be sweet dark chocolate, whereas our third one is semi-sweet. In any case, this third chocolate is clearly different than the first two when using our sense of hearing; as is shown in the demonstration video above, this chocolate has a tougher snap and bite in comparison to the first two, softer chocolates. The flavour profile for the Concepcion estate characterises a progression in taste from vanilla to spice cake (more so here, clove rather than ginger) to caramel for a smooth finish, with mixed accents of dried and dark fruits.

Our fourth chocolate, with a 77% cocoa solid ratio, comes from central Africa and the Vila Gracinda estate of the island state of São Tomé, where the first African cacao trees were planted in the 19th century. With a marked bitter and almost burnt taste upon an initial trial, the notion of terroir is perhaps most evidenced in this chocolate, as the cacao is grown in a particular landscape of volcanic earth situated in a marine climate, and its corresponding flavour profile is characterised by grilled and spicy notes with an herbaceous mix of ripe tropical fruits and licorice.

And with four down, our final chocolate tasting comes from the fifth Cluizel-affiliated estate located in the heart of the Caribbean, in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic (not to be confused with the former French colony of Saint Domingue which has since then been folded into the fabric of Haiti). Since 1903, the Rizek family has owned the Los Anconès estate from where the cacao is produced. Of the five chocolates, this particular one is perhaps the smoothest in terms of composition, and carries forth a progression of acidity notes, beginning with licorice, red berries, and finally green olives (of course, one's sensibilities could pick up on a stronger flavour right off the bat). But what especially makes this chocolate important rests imprinted on its packaging, with the French quality certification "AB" (agriculture biologique), distinguishing this chocolate as having been organically-produced. Moreover, in 2010, the Los Anconès palate received an award from the Soil Association of Great Britain for its excellence as an organic chocolate.

Throughout our French gastronomy course, we talked about the importance and relevance of such items as wine, bread, and just now chocolate, within the context of French gastronomic history and identity. But seriously, how could we possibly go an entire semester without talking about one of its major staples, cheese? Of all the French cheeses out there, and as alluded to above, one stands out (both in consistency and smell) as a quintessential, everyday French experience: Camembert. Before I continue, I should note that in the context of a degustation, it's particularly important to enjoy the rich taste of cheese--especially Camembert--at room temperature. "Good" camembert is marked by a creamy, or moelleux, core; and though not the kindest and considerate way of testing it, pressing ever so gently onto the top of the camembert wheel can give you a sense of just how ripe it is. Slight give, especially without your finger going through the cheese, is perfect; tougher, and its probably a bit too dry, and if its overly ripe, well it just pretty much oozes everywhere). Alternatively, I suppose you could carry an infrared spectroscope whenever you go camembert shopping, if you don't trust your fromagière or your gut reaction. The "ripeness" of the cheese also translates to an almost unbearable (or very unbearable for most) smell. And with smell comes the direct link to taste. Quite honestly, I'm not sure how folks can write (or even sing) about Camembert like its the most elegant dinner addition in the world but it's at the heart of French gastronomy, so I'll go with it. But let's load up on the accompaniments. For the small collection of photos in this album, click here.

[Post completed 5/26/12]

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