All of a sudden, being a sensible gourmet makes sense

The coronavirus has taken our world by storm. There has been little time to react and it will take more time to adapt. In a matter of days, our economy and societies have undergone an acid test like they had not in a long time. Important questions, many of them existential, have had to be asked. Perhaps, the most personal and intrusive one is to decide what is essential and what is non-essential, and by what, the question really has come down to who is and is not essential. This one is rather traumatic, because for many it has meant that they lost their jobs, part or all of their income, with all the implications about their livelihoods, security, sense of purpose and future.

Those who know me know that I look at many things through Maslow’s pyramid of needs. To me, the current troubled times that we are going through and how people cope -or not- with it, is very much the same as revisiting Maslow’s pyramid. Until a few months ago, the world economy seemed to run on all cylinders and although a recession seemed to be overdue, as one tends to happen every decade or so, there was very little that indicated that the economy would slow down drastically. The stock markets where like a fun fair. Then, everything freezes over. The topic of essential vs. non-essential sent us right back to the pyramid. All of a sudden, the lower layers of the pyramid took precedence. Physical security and security of food and shelter became obvious again, and the more superficial matters had to step back a bit.

Not only did many household budgets take a painful hit, store shelves were often scarcely filled. This pandemic has shown that our economic model is really built around quantitative growth and abundance, but should conditions change drastically, it is not as agile and resilient as we may have liked to think all this time, especially when nobody really wants to have inventories. Empty shelves did not remain empty for just a couple of days but it took more like a couple of weeks for some products to reappear in satisfactory quantities, and some items have hardly reappeared at all even a couple of months into this crisis. Shelves were empty, and yet farmers dumped their products, in particular dairy farmers literally pouring milk down the drain. An outrageous food waste has been taking place, in a time where food banks are overwhelmed and can get enough to help the ones in need. There is some thinking to do about connecting the links of the value chains, because it shows very little value and does not behave like a chain, either.

The small pop-and mom shops actually did rather well in this mayhem. They adapted quickly to ensure social distancing. They took orders for pick up and for delivery, and actually prepared them without errors. Most of all, they showed no disruption of supplies. The small meat store had meat and the baker had bread. They may be a bit more expensive than supermarkets, but the value of not wasting time and risking contamination to find only half of what is on your shopping list outweighs the slight price uptick. Grocery chains did not perform anywhere this level of service. At least, here I am talking about the part of the world where I live. Online ordering, pick and delivery have been subpar, and that is for those who actually were able to set up something. Orders were incorrectly filled and even after so many weeks, it is rather cumbersome.

A look at what flew off the shelves is quite revealing and a confirmation of our revisiting Maslow’s pyramid. Remember the trendy times from before the Corona Wars? Yes, it feels like an eternity but in fact it was not that long ago. When it came to food, many of us had been convinced that the good old-fashioned foods that previous generations, all the way back to the early times of agriculture, had become about irrelevant, that farming was going to be revolutionized, mostly by people without any background in agriculture. Cows were farting and that was unacceptable to some billionaires, as clearly the debonair ruminants were up to kill us with their gasses. I wrote my thought about that in previous articles. We had to give up animal products altogether. Sure. Then, the virus came and we stopped flying around in planes, we have to work from home and forget about morning and evening commute, our factories had to shut down and our energy use dropped dramatically. Then, all climate monitoring showed the same thing: greenhouse gasses emissions dropped significantly and the quality of our air improved, and all of that with the same numbers of cows and farm animals. Understand me well, some animal farming systems will need to change dramatically to adapt to a climate friendly approach of agriculture. We were supposed to all become vegetarians and vegans, and yet the most striking thing I could see in grocery stores was that meat, dairy and eggs were about all gone. People hoarded the recently forbidden fruit and apparently were proud to do so. With most of the staple animal products gone, what was left in the stores, then? Well, the sections with plant-based animal products surrogates were still aplenty even though the shelf space for those is usually rather small. No shortage of soy- and pea protein burgers, but no ground beef. No butter except the fancy expensive more “natural” ones, but plenty of margarine on the shelves. No milk today, but lots of soy and almond milk. No regular eggs, but no shortage of the expensive ones produced with special feed, supposedly healthier for us. On the protein side, consumers left massively the higher layers of Maslow’s pyramid, forgot the trendy products and hypes of all sorts to rush back to the basics.

Other categories that showed an amazing comeback are flour and pasta. What a change of heart! Here, too, consumers went back to the basics. Baking and cooking have been among the most popular activities during the pandemic lockdown. What happened to carbs and gluten? Weren’t they supposed to be the incarnation of all evils? Weren’t they supposed to make us fat and sick, to a point where self-proclaimed sometimes questionable dieticians and marketers worked really hard to convince us to not buy any of those staple products but instead choose for the much more expensive gluten-free alternatives that would fill their pockets? Well, not only the pasta, flour and baking sections in the stores were desperately empty because the staples products were back in favour, but the amazing part was that the shelves with gluten-free and other carb-alternative diet products were left about untouched. Flour is back, and so is bread and baked goods because 1) they are fun to make, 2) they are cheap to make and 3) they are good for you, of course with moderation that is. That is the stuff I am advocating in this blog. It seems that the pandemic has made many people see the many advantages of preparing food yourself. Baking and cooking are so much more than just that. They are an act of love and they are a unique way of connecting people and generations. This is what we are witnessing here. The need for social contact and love, the second layer from the bottom in Maslow’s pyramid is as popular as the bottom layer about basic physical needs. Baking is just a trip back to grandma’s kitchen. It is a reminder of our childhood and the atmosphere of grandma’s kitchen and the complicity that it brought around the stove. It is a reminder of the happy moments of tasting warm dough and making a mess with chocolate cream. In the current uncertain times, it is a safe haven where love and comfort bring us a badly needed protection from a harsh reality.

But the journey into nostalgia is not only limited in the kitchen. The poorly agile supply chain to large grocery stores and empty shelves showed that food supply is not a given. This has not gone unnoticed and if baking and cooking are popular right now, so is gardening. People transform their lawns into veggie gardens and those living in apartments buy and grow herbs, tomatoes or strawberries in pots on balconies to find some sense of food security. Empty shelves and long distances bring a reflection of where food should be coming from. There is a renewed attention for local food production, this time not some much as a trendy phenomenon, but for food security reasons, which in turn is becoming trendy. As usual with such issues, the conversation is more about a philosophical “we-should” approach but nobody really addresses the important part, which is how to make it work financially and for the local producers to be competitive, especially when many consumers are going through a violent financial crunch. Other questions would be to figure out who the farmers would have to be and where they should farm, as there used to be a lot of farming around cities, but the farms got bought, paved and developed in the past, so they will never come back. Urban farming could be a possibility, but so far, except some fancy expensive greens or massive subsidies, urban farms hardly survive. As someone who has a garden, I can tell you that growing your own food has advantages. I do not have to worry about residues, as I do not spray any chemicals. I also can tell you that the cost of a seed is much lower than buying produce from a store, but the untold reality about gardening is that to have a garden, you need to buy one and that if you look at it from an economic point of view and were to calculate your cost as if it were a commercial operation, you will have to include the price of the land on which you have your garden. Nonetheless, gardening is a great hobby. Personally, I find it very soothing to work the ground and take care of the plants with nobody around. It probably feels like a bubble or a cocoon and I can imagine that this is also part of the renewed interest about gardening.

Join me and so many others and become a sensible gourmet yourself. It makes life so much more enjoyable!

Copyright 2020 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


My next book will be a little different

Over the past few weeks, I have been avidly writing a book of poems around the theme of food and farming. It is now rather advanced and I should be publishing it late Spring 2020. There will be about 70-75 poems. It is a refreshing diversion from my regular activities of food futurist, which tend to revolve around technologies and consumer trends, although I have managed to find some poetry about the future of food and agriculture and those topics. Surprisingly, there is poetry with drones, sensors, data and artificial intelligence. I have been experimenting with different poetry formats such as haiku, villanelles and limericks. It is a lot of fun to do and it good to use both brain hemispheres in harmonious balance and have them fully connected rather than grow one at the expense of the other, which would be like having one huge biceps and the other one all skinny.

Some poems treat of serious matters such as hunger, suicide among farmers, food waste or environmental matters, but most are rather cheerful, like the villanelles and humorous like the haiku and the limericks. It is full of bees, birds, fertile fields, winemaking, gardening, calves, little lambs and piglets. There is also a section that I call “Destinations” that focus on some countries and their food cultures that I particularly like. I am thinking of making a French version of the book when I am finished, as the poems are in English.

I came up with poetry in an unexpected manner. A former member of my team in my time in aquaculture here in Canada, recently died suddenly at a much too young age. Of course, I was stunned as his passing away was the last thing I had expected. He was a great professional and very instrumental in the turn around that I led here, but most of all he was a gentleman with great human qualities whom I held in very high esteem. After hearing the sad news, I started to write my thoughts in the form of a poem about him. Why did I use poetry? I have no idea but it came naturally. “His” poem will be in the book. But after writing that poem, I felt the urge of keeping writing poems, this time around one of my passions, which is food and farming.

That is the story. I will keep you posted with the next steps.

The joy of making bread

Although it seems like a major hassle at first, making bread is actually quite easy and incredibly fun. All it takes is flour, yeast, a bit of salt and some water. There is no need for additives, the list of which you can find on the packaging of industrial bread.

Bread seems to have been created some 10,000 years ago. It would not be surprising is the first bread happened by accident, as most tasty foods have. Perhaps, someone left a mix of flour and water to close to the fire and found a delicious surprise later on. Who knows? It does not matter. Clearly, it does not need high-tech tools to make bread, just a bit of elbow grease. About every region of the world has its own particular type of bread, and they all follow the same basic recipe. Everyone who has baked bread at home will tell you the pleasure of the smell of warm freshly baked bread around the house. There is something about the smell of fresh bread that makes you hungry, or at least gourmand. And anyone who has eaten fresh bread from the oven will tell you: none of the breads you can find in supermarkets matches the taste and aroma of the real thing.

The fun begins quite a bit before breaking the crust of the finished warm bread. Although I have a bread machine, I really prefer making the bread by hand myself. I like the bread machine and it is convenient, as it does everything and I can use the timer to have fresh bread early in the morning, but it is not quite the same as hand-made (the bakeries that charge an obscene amount of money for this very basic food will call it “hand-crafted”, but hand-made is the same). Letting the yeast rise and kneading the dough are already tantalizing the senses. Personally, I find that using a mix of regular flour with whole wheat flour makes bread with a stronger flavor, a bit of old-fashioned bread type. I also like to make a “levain” and let it evolve overnight. It seems to enhance the aromas of the dough and of the bread. By the reactions I get at home when the bread is ready, I clearly am not the only one thinking this way. And that is the other joy of making bread: the sharing of the bread with others. It is amazing how something this simple can generate such happiness, conviviality and smiles. You should try it and, as I said before, it is really easy to make. The only thing that took me some time to quite do right was how to fog the oven by saturating it with water steam, which helps make the nicest crunchy and golden bread you can think of. All the pictures included in this article are from my kitchen. As you can see, home-made breads look good, and they taste good, too.

Just give it a try. It does not take all that much time and it is a better use of time than being glued on a smartphone waiting for God knows what.

Copyright 2020 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

A few interesting things about lipids

In the course of the past few decades, fats have gotten a negative reputation. Even though reason seems to make a timid comeback, as carbohydrates have taken over the role of the bogeyman, there still is a stigma on fats. The real culprit is not fat as much as it is overconsumption beyond our actual nutritional and physiological needs of fats, of food, of calories, well… of pretty much everything in our great consumption society. I will not spend time on the overconsumption of fats, as it is mostly a case of gluttony and ignorance about nutrition. I will write the following lines to show why fats are important and contribute to make life fun.

First of all, fats do belong is a healthy balanced diet. Fats, which are part of the lipids as they are called in biology, are building blocks of cell walls of living organisms. Lipids play very important roles in our metabolism and biochemistry. They store calories, which is convenient when food is scarce, but they have many more roles. Cholesterol, a lipid with a terrible reputation, plays an essential role in the synthesis of steroid hormones, which in turn play a role in sexual hormones. Cholesterol also plays a role in the synthesis of vitamin D. Other lipids include mono-, di- and tri-glycerides and fatty acids, and their cohort of saturated, mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated types. We all have heard about essential fatty acids, in particular omega-3 type is quite a popular one, and about their importance for good health. Just take the time to do some research on those terms and you will see how important lipids are. It is not particularly difficult, although it can be sometimes tedious, so just take your time to browse information.

Just any other thing in life, too much is exactly that: too much. Excesses always bring problems. It is true for fats. It is also true for the popular protein group. Health and nutrition are about balance and proper amounts.

Butter or margarine?There are some interesting consequences of the fatty acid composition of edible fats. First what is meant by saturated or unsaturated relates to the presence (unsaturated) or absence (saturated) of double bonds in the molecule of a fatty acid. An unsaturated fatty acid molecule has the ability to combine with oxygen or other atoms. When a fat combines with oxygen, it becomes oxidized, which is commonly known as rancid, with the bad taste that goes with it. Saturated fats do not have bonds that can open and combine with other elements. They are more stable. And that was the whole idea of margarine as a substitute for butter. Butter, as you probably know, can get rancid, especially if it is not refrigerated. A way to avoid that is to add ß-carotene, an orange pigment and precursor of vitamin A, to the butter, which is common in the dairy industry. The purpose of margarine was to have a butter substitute that would not get rancid and to do that, the process consists of hydrogenating (adding hydrogen to) the fat. The double bonds open and attach hydrogen atoms, thus leaving no space to oxygen to attach and make the fat rancid. Basically, the original margarine was fully saturated fat. It is ironic to know that when in the same time the margarine industry did all it could to discredit butter, which is a rather complex mix of long and short fatty acids, although mostly saturated. And it is also interesting to see that over time, margarine producers actually produced vegetable fat spreads that mimic butter much more than the original margarine ever would. Since I am addressing the processing of fats, unsaturated fats can turn into two different types called Trans and Cis. We have all heard about the risks of Trans fats and they are banned about everywhere nowadays. Trans and Cis are two spatial molecular configurations of a same fatty acid molecule, depending on which side of the molecule the radical is. This tiny difference has serious implications for metabolism and health, though.

Another characteristic of fatty acids is their physical property. In particular, saturated fats are usually harder at room temperature than mono-unsaturated and even more so than poly-unsaturated, because they have a lower melting point. The more double bonds there are in the fatty acid chain, the softer, even the more liquid the fat/oil is. Also, the longer the chain, the harder the fat is, as their melting point is lower. To sum up and simplify a bit, the softer or more liquid a fat/oil is at room temperature, the healthier it probably is.

Another characteristic of fats is that the fat profile in the food will influence the profile in the body fat. This is important to understand in regard with animal farming. If farm animals eat a diet that contains more unsaturated fats, their body fat will also be more unsaturated. This means that their meat will have a more unsaturated profile, which is a rather positive thing for you as the consumer. Of course, here the rule is always the same: the diet must be balanced.

Animal products and fat is quite an interesting topic, and a rather complex one, too. Fatty meat used to be the preference (think bacon). Why? Simply because I am talking about times when people did not live in overheated houses and had physically demanding jobs. Animal fat was rich in calories, which were quite useful both to do hard work and to live in cool homes. As comfort improved and mechanization made many jobs physically less demanding, the need for these calories decreased. If they are not being burnt, they accumulate in the body. That is why a comfortable life requires fewer calories than a demanding life. Yet, different cultures, because of culinary tradition, deal differently with the fattiness of farm animals destined to produce meat. In the EU, production shifted towards leaner breeds of animals, as consumers did not want fatty meat. In North America, the approach has been a bit different. They like fatty meat but cut off the meat on the plate, or eat quite a bit of it. A disadvantage of producing fat animals is that it requires more energy for their body to produce a pound of fat than it does to produce a pound of muscle. Males (I am talking farm animals here) generally produce leaner meat than females, but castrated males tend to produce a fattier meat than females. Using hormones in animal farming has an effect, too. Since the hormones used are female hormones, animals tend to fatten more. From the producer’s perspective, it is a matter of what the market pays for what quality of meat. In the EU, leaner animals receive a better price, but it is not everywhere the same around the world. Hormones also help reduce the cost as fattening goes faster. Fast is nice, but the age of an animal influences how much fat it gets in its tissues. Just like humans, farm animals have mostly water in their body tissues when they are young. When they age, fat gradually replaces the water, and we all know that losing the love handles gets more difficult with age. It is the same thing with animals. It is complex but fun, isn’t it?

What we have on our plate is all about economics. Depending on what consumers buy, the economic differ, and so do farming systems. Depending on production systems and consumer demand, fattiness of animal products varies. Although most people will tell you that meat is protein, this is far from always true. There different grades of fattiness between regular, lean and extra lean ground meat, for instance. Fat percentages vary greatly, from 10% to 30% of total weight, to simplify. Protein will be around 20% for most meats, regardless of the species. Keep in mind the main ingredient of meat is water. Animal bodies consist of roughly 60% water. If you remove the water and take the dry matter equivalent, fat percentages on dry matter will vary between 25% and 75%, while the number for protein will be around 50%. In the end, meat may contain more fat than protein, sometimes substantially more. Meat and protein are not the same. Just imagine what happens when you deep-fry meat, then!

Does fatty meat taste better? Meat lovers will tell you that they like their meat marbled. Here are a few interesting facts. The flesh of young animals contains more water than older animals, from an intra-species point of view. Of course, there is no point in comparing chickens and cows about this. But within the species, the rule applies, and so does the feeding program. An interesting detail about taste is that aromatic molecules are soluble in fat, but they are not soluble in water. Those aromatic compounds come from the food the animals eat. Therefore a fattier animal will contain more aromatic compounds than a leaner one, all things being equal further. Of course, the kind of feed they eat also contribute greatly. An animal that eats lots of bland feed will not have much of these compounds, even if it is rather fatty. And a less fatty animal that would eat lots of aromatic feed might taste better. When it comes to the marbling, aromatic compounds are not the only thing that plays a role. Marbled meat will keep its juiciness better and will have a softer texture than a lean meat. Lean meat contains relatively more water that will evaporate to some extent during the cooking and  as water leaves the meat fibers, the meat might end up a bit stringy, especially if it is cooked through and though.

Related imageDo you see now why a Pata Negra pig’s ham tastes so good? It is a pig that is kept in semi-wilderness in Spain and feeds for several years eating chestnuts and other shrubs in a region where vegetation is sparse. It is quite different from a pig that is fed intensively and slaughtered at 6 months of age or so. The price is not the same, either.

So there you have it, fat is good but you must make sure it is good fat and that you eat with moderation. In the end what you have on your plate is a compromise between many contradictory requirements such as taste, quality, cost and price.

Copyright 2020 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.