Monday, 24 November 2014

Coriander Induced Musings

Parmesan cheese smells of vomit. It actually does, and especially the ready-grated stuff. That's because the two things share some volatile chemicals that create aroma. However, even though smell and taste are inextricably linked, the human brain, a master of cognitive dissonance, is perfectly happy to focus on the delicious savoury umami taste and very few people dislike parmesan cheese. The British like it so much that the Italians can't believe how much they use -- more is consumed in Britain than in Italy. It's not the only cheese that has a pungent pong either, as anyone who has taken a Pont l'Eveque home in their suitcase after their holiday in Normandy will know (ahem...). Quite a few highly prized cheeses share volatiles with stinky feet. Whether you eat and enjoy them or not is a matter of exposure to them ie whether you are used to them or not.

About a fifth of people of northern European origin utterly loathe coriander leaf (known to you by its Spanish name cilantro if you are from the US). I remember being told years ago that the Vietnamese word for coriander was the same as their word for stink bug. I've been unable to verify that, but I have discovered that the word coriander itself comes from an ancient Greek word for stinking bug and that the ancient Greeks were very familiar with the herb (and, undoubtedly, stinking bugs...).

A Hawthorn Shield Bug Acanthosoma haemorrhoidale, an archetypal stink bug, ambling about in the Forest of Loches. 
Many smells come from a group of volatile organic chemicals called aldehydes. Many people, like me, will describe the smell of coriander as like that of stink bugs. It turns out that coriander shares an aldehyde called trans Decenal 2 with stink bugs. It's an aroma that occurs naturally in foods as diverse as milk, tea and caviar as well as coriander, carrots and pork, and has been synthesised or extracted for use in the food and cosmetics industries. It is described as a fatty orange rose aldehydic floral green and the taste is fatty fried citrus.

Some people who think coriander smells like stink bugs loathe the stuff. Others, like me, love it. The difference is how our smell receptors respond to certain aldehydes. For some people, some stinky aldehydes seem to overwhelm everything else. Simon appears to be one of these people. For him, lavender smells of  stale sweat, not a mix of lovely astringent herbal scents. Likewise he hates rosemary, sage, cloves, cinnamon, saffron and nutmeg. Neither of us are keen on mint of any sort.

Simon is one of a small group of people who say that coriander tastes metallic. He has the same reaction to parsley. This group of people seem to be very sensitive to bitter tastes. Simon will taste the bitter elements in many green vegetables that I don't even notice, or perhaps enjoy. I like a good combination of bitter and sweet, such as good honey has or intense dark chocolate. Endive doesn't have much to recommend it though, it has to be said.

A packet of coriander from the supermarket. 
Auchan in Chatellerault is one of the few places apart from the specialist Asian supermarket Paris Store in Tours Nord that  I can usually rely on getting coriander around here. Sometimes they even have big bunches.
The French for stink bug is punaise (='stinker'). A French person will often tell you that punaises smell like stale almonds. Frankly, I don't know what stale almonds smell like, but presumably that cyanidey odour that too much almond essence gives you.

These sorts of very intense differences in perception of  taste and smell appear to be genetic, involving two genes linked to bitter taste and one to pungent flavours. Nearly half of Europeans have two copies of one of these genes, some have none. A significant number of these people report that coriander tastes soapy. Describing coriander as tasting soapy seems to be the 21st century version of describing them as smelling of stink bugs. I guess fewer people are exposed to stink bugs these days. As usual though, genetics isn't the whole story. Cultural background makes a huge difference, and for coriander lovers or haters this is possibly more significant. If you come from an Hispanic, Near Eastern or South-east Asian background you are much more likely than not to love coriander despite any genetic indicators. Like the cheeses, it's a matter of exposure.


Sunday, 23 November 2014

Here and There: Butcheries

 Above, the butchers in the small Australian town I grew up in; 
below, its equivalent in Preuilly.
I've blogged about the Preuilly butcher before.
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A la cuisine hier: Sag Aloo, South Asian style spinach (sag) and potatoes (aloo) served with rice.

Salt pork and beans -- soak beans (I used local lingots, a type of white dried beans like cannellini) then cook. Cook the salt pork (I used a jambonneau demi-sel, a brined knuckle, weighing just under 2 kg) in 3 - 4 litres of water with a bouquet garni or several sprigs of thyme and a couple of bay leaves. The pork will take several hours of slow cooking and needs to be just about falling off the bone. Dice two onions and fry them. Dice two carrots and four sticks of celery (I used our homegrown). Break up the pork and discard the bone, skin, fat and herbs. Put the meat back in the cooking liquid, along with the drained beans and vegetables. Cook gently until the carrots are soft. Season to taste with chilli or pepper and serve in bowls as a soup.
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Au jardin hier: I planted a row each of garlic and onions yesterday. My usual varieties -- Thermador and Stuttgarter Reisen. I'll plant another row of onions soon. The aged orchard neighbours are most impressed with Tim's mowing and my 'hay' raking. Other oldies have gone past the orchard and noticed the cut grass piled high around all the trees and it meets with universal approval as something very good for the trees. I was also interested that today one of them informed me that cutting the way we did is much better than whizzing around on a ride-on mower. This same person asked me what I did with my orchids -- soup? (that was a joke). I got teased a bit because their garlic is already 10 cm high and I am running late as usual. I also got asked if I was going to sow broad beans and peas and if I saved my own seeds. The answer to the second question is no, which induced teeth sucking -- buying seeds is expensive! I said I might sow broad beans to overwinter, but was worried the rodents would eat them. The aged one has a cat, but agreed it was a problem down at the orchard.

Rummaging around in the compost I unearthed several rose chafer grubs, a violet ground beetle larva, two disposable razors and a box for keeping AA batteries in for the camera. Hmmm...

Just as I was packing up to leave the orchard at about 5.15 pm (sunset at this time of year) a flock of 35 cranes flew over. As usual I heard them first. They were coming from the north-westish and heading south-eastish, for an overnight stop in the Brenne I would guess. Another small flock had gone through an hour earlier, but those I only heard, didn't see.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Life in the Colonies

Recently my father sent me some geneology research he's been dabbling in for the last few decades. Perhaps the most interesting family document of all is a letter from my great great grandmother in Australia to her sister back in Devon, England. My paternal great great grandmother was born Elizabeth Wickett, on New Years Day 1801 in Cornwall, England. She died near Geelong, Victoria, in the south east of Australia in 1874. The letter is dated 15 May 1854. Here is an extract:

Dear and Loving Sister, I have had a great desire for a long time to hear from you. I thought you would have writen to me, or one of my brothers long ago, but I think you have almost forgotten me or you do not think it worth your while to write to your eldest sister who is now in a distant land from you, but I can assure you I have not forgotten you nor my dear brothers ethor how it would rejoice my heart to see you all once more in time that I might tell you what I have seen and past through since I saw you last and also hear you talk about home and what you have had to pas through I suppose you are all getting on well as touching this worlds goods for we are informed that times are very brisk in England now: But I should still be much more glad to hear from you that you all are walking in the way of heaven for then by the help of God we should soon meet again where we might listen to each other tell how Jesus hath Done all things well. I am happy that Samuel hath chosen the Lord for his portion, happy choice may the Lord keep him in the Slippery path of youth. I have also heard By Mary Luxmore that Sarah Ann hath left Mr Walkey on account of bad health I was very sorry for that, But I do hope By this time she is quite restored and that she and all the family are now enjoying good health. I now hasten to let you know a little about our family and this colony, their is no doubt But you have heard of the Death of Elizth Ann. She was ill only one weekof typhus fever before she left this world, we hope to be forever with the Lord. it was a great treil to me to part with her. Charlotte is married with Mr. Richard Hamm sone of Henery, he is a nice young man and hath bin very Sucksesful at the gold diggings above one thousand pounds worth of gold fell to his share. John is lately married with his uncle Rogers daughter Fanny Ann, the rest of our children are living with us and enjoying tolerable good health. the times are very good in this colony for all sorts of industrious people. wheat is woth one pound per Bushel 60lb. Barley 10/- and strange as it is Oats is 15/- per Bushel 40lb.potatoes 6 pence per pound hay is woth £25 per ton. We shall make this year at least £1500 of hay. labour horses are worth £150 each a pare of Oxen £50 and a good cow £15. Masons and carpenters 30/- per day, labour men from 15/- to £1 per day, Ducks are £1 cupple fowls 10/-, eggs 6 pence each, butter 5/- lb. Money is very plenty I can assure you we have more of it than we should if we had lived in England all our days. John says if we were to give up Bisnes now our incom would be above £700 a year. I hope Dear friends you will not think I name these Bostingly I can assure you I do not it is only to let you know what people can do for themselves and theire familys with the Blessing of heaven on them in this colony.
When Elizabeth left England she was married and living in a farmhouse in north Devon. The farmhouse is now a listed historic building I see, but unfortunately I don't have a photo of it. This is a drawing of it done by my sister [photo courtesy of my father]. It is a Devon longhouse with later additions.
 Neither do I have a picture of the farmhouse where she lived in Australia, and it no longer exists. This is a painting of the homestead commissioned by my uncle just before the building was demolished [photo courtesy of my father].

Friday, 21 November 2014

River Bank Management

The Indre River at Pont de Ruan.

From this (above) to this (below).
The Ash Fraxinus exelsior trees on one of the islands in the river at Pont de Ruan were coppiced earlier this year. The trees grow right on the edge of the island and their roots form a retaining structure preventing the island from being undermined by the flow of water. Ash is often used in this way in France. It likes a moist environment and takes well to being coppiced.

Coppicing is the practice of regularly cutting trees back to a stump known as a stool then allowing them to shoot again. The word is an anglicisation of couper the French word 'to cut'. The cutting part of coppicing is done every 5 to 30 years, depending on what diameter of regrowth is wanted. The regrowth tends to be straight and often has a commercial value. The straight dense but flexible wood of Ash has been used in France for thousands of years for tool handles -- everything from prehistoric spears to garden forks sold in the brico stores.

The reason for coppicing these trees is primarily to keep the landscape stable. It reduces their tops so wind rock is not a problem. The trees develop massive root systems compared to their tops, which is ideal for stabilising the banks of the island. Coppicing has the added benefit that it will triple the lifespan of the tree (or even more). Unmanaged Ash has a lifespan of about 200 years, but a coppiced Ash could live 1000 years.
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Loire Valley Nature: A new entry has been added for Variable Bluet Coenagrion pulchellum damselfly.
A new entry has been added for big rivers habitat.
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A la cuisine hier: Keema a South Asian curry using minced meat, served with rice. The leftovers will get made into Samosas at some stage.
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Honey Decline: Chris Luck has written a sobering post on his blog. Every year his honey yield goes down. It's not because he has less bees or because they are unhealthy or dying. It's because there is less and less for them to forage on every year. The bees aren't starving -- yet -- but they can't produce as much excess over and above what the hive needs to reproduce and survive that Chris can harvest.