Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Food Legislation

Public health food regulations, and all other laws regarding food in Canada, are well-intentioned, and drafted to protect consumers. Most make perfect sense within the context of the industrialized food system, where people do not, and cannot, know everything about the food they eat.

When cooking, eating, and drinking outside the industrial system, food legislation often conflicts with food culture and individuals' rights. Here are some examples.

Alberta Public Health Food Regulations

The provincial public health food regulations apply to operations such as restaurants, food stands, farmers' markets, bake sales and the like. While I consider the restaurant scene only a peripheral component of our food culture,
some of the restrictions put on restaurants clearly reflect how we think of food. In fact, several of the most pleasurable ingredients and preparations are misunderstood and considered too dangerous to allow.

In our food regulations, temperature is the only wholly acceptable way to control bacterial growth. Temperatures below 4°C inhibit bacterial growth, while temperatures above 60°C kill most bacteria. Perishable food can be in the "danger zone" between these two temperatures for no longer than two hours before it is considered unsafe and unfit to serve.

In the food safety courses of Alberta Health Services, there is mention of the other ways to curb bacterial growth (such as controlling acidity, moisture, and sugar content), but none supersede the two hour danger zone rule.
Restaurants can't, for example, dry cure salami or saucisson sec by the traditional methods. For these sausages, ground meat is mixed with curing salt and a bacterial culture that produces acid, which inhibits the growth of pathogens. This is what gives salami its characteristic tang. Next the meat is hung in cellar conditions (between 8°C and 15°C) for a few weeks to dry. The removal of moisture further prevents the growth of pathogens. Even though bacterial growth is precisely controlled by salting, pH adjustments, and thorough drying, a health inspector would see that the meat is being held in the "danger zone" and document a critical violation of food safety.

Some of the greatest "low and slow" cooking methods, like confit and smoking, hold meat in the danger zone for more than the allotted two hours.

The health inspector's mantra is, "Hot food hot, cold food cold," meaning that food should be held and served with an internal temperature either above 60°C, or below 4°C. Serving food at these temperatures can be disagreeable, especially cold dishes. Several high-fat foods should be eaten at room temperature. Examples include pâtés, rillettes, the bacon on caesar salads, and cheese. The fat has to be at room temperature for two reasons. First is appearance: you want the bacon on your caesar salad to shine, not have globules of congealed white fat. Second is flavour and mouthfeel: the warm fat coats your tongue and helps distribute the bacon flavour. High quality cheeses should be taken out of the fridge hours before being served. I would make the same argument for hard-boiled eggs.

Which reminds me, raw eggs in all forms are discouraged: mayonnaise, and, incredibly, meringue. Even when meringue is baked, the mixture doesn't get hot enough to pasteurize the egg whites, and is therefore not safe to eat.

I agree that controlling temperature is the most effective way of controlling bacterial growth. I also admit that most of the restaurants in Edmonton have no desire to cure their own meat or smoke ribs for ten hours. Restrictive food regulations obviously don't cripple the restaurant scene. I just think they reflect our general lack of food knowledge and appreciation.

Unpasteurized Milk

This is probably the most publicized conflict between public health and individual rights: both provincial and federal legislation prohibit the distribution of unpasteurized milk. There is, however, a now-famous Ontario dairyman who sells shares in his cows, enabling him to legally distribute raw milk to the many "owners".

To me the most interesting discussion surrounds raw-milk cheese, as pasteurization kills naturally occurring bacteria and enzymes that help develop the flavour of ripened cheese.

It is legal to sell cheese made from unpasteurized milk, so long as the cheese has been aged for more than sixty days, as the salt and acid in the cheese make it impossible for pathogens to survive this period of time. The problem is that soft, ripened cheeses such as Brie and Camembert reach their peak flavour and texture after only thirty days of aging.

The sixty day minimum aging applies to all provinces except Quebec, which in 2008 passed a law allowing the sale of raw-milk cheese aged less than sixty days. My understanding is that this cheese could not be sold in Alberta, as food moving between provinces is regulated by the Food and Drugs Act, which upholds the sixty day aging minimum for raw-milk cheese.

The last time raw-milk cheese was in the Alberta news was in early 2003, when an E. coli outbreak was traced back to a cheesemaker in Leduc called Eyot Creek. There was a flurry of articles on the outbreak, and distribution was stopped immediately. The results of Capital Health's investigation were never thoroughly discussed in the media. To my knowledge, Eyot Creek didn't violate any regulations, and their cheese, while made from unpasteurized milk, was aged for at least sixty days. It seems to me that the E. coli would have been introduced after the aging process, and therefore didn't originate in the raw milk. This wasn't addressed in any article or press-release that I have come across. The media coverage enforced the public's mistrust of raw-milk cheese.

To quote Harold McGee: "It will be genuine progress when public health officials help ambitious cheesemakers to ensure the safety of raw-milk cheeses, rather than making rules that restrict consumer choice without significantly reducing risk."[1]

Game Meats

Selling game meat, or "trafficking in wildlife", is prohibited by the Alberta Wildlife Act Regulations.

Larousse's entry on Canada gives an idea of how important game could be in our cuisine. "Four-fifths of the country consist of stretches of water and forests, rich in ground game ... and game birds... However, the state forbids the sale of these delicious foods which are reserved for private consumption." This includes restaurants. If you have ever had venison, boar, pheasant, rabbit, or any other "game animal" in a restaurant in Canada, is has been farmed and slaughtered in an abattoir.

Game meat is flavourful because of the variety of plants on which the animal feeds. Farmed animals never have access to the same quality or variety of feed as wild animals. In farming, the robust, complex flavour of the animal is lost, and the meat becomes a simple novelty.

I don't mean to malign the many hunting regulations that ensure future generations of Canadians will be able to hunt and taste game meat: it's just strange that someone who lawfully kills wildlife can't sell me the meat.


Most food-related regulations only restrict the sale of potentially harmful goods. For instance, it's not illegal to drink raw milk, or to make unripened raw-milk cheese, it's only illegal to sell it.

The Alberta Gaming and Liquor Act, however, prohibits any manufacture of liquor without a license, even if in small quantities for private consumption. To obtain the Class E Liquor License required to distill alcohol you must be running a commercial operation that produces hundreds of thousands of litres of alcohol a year.

The dangers of home-distilling are completely exaggerated and misunderstood. Most ridiculous is the idea that the stills often explode. This myth is a vestige of the days when open flames were used to boil the mash and evaporate the alcohol. If home-distilling were practiced regularly in modern homes, I'm sure electric burners would be used. (Maybe don't smoke while you distill.) To convince you that ordinary people can practice alcohol distillation safely, we recently partook in homemade schnapps from Austria, to no ill effect (besides, obviously, the intended intoxication.)

Given our historic association with grain-growing, prairie home-distilling would be a boon for our food culture.

On a completely unrelated note, 83% of the price of liquor goes towards federal and provincial taxes.[2]


I have come across a few articles saying that provincial meat inspection regulations can be prohibitively expensive and sometimes result in the closure of small slaughterhouses. This is especially a concern for producers in isolated regions, such as coastal British Columbia, and producers of niche animals, like sheep, because there are fewer abattoirs they can use. The closure of local abattoirs means that these producers have to travel farther, sometimes much farther, to kill their animals. Travelling not only adds to the cost of the product, but stresses the animals and reduces the quality of their meat.

I recently spoke to an Albertan pork producer who was interested in selling blood sausage, but who couldn't procure his pigs' blood fresh enough, due to travelling time between his farm and the abattoir.

Conclusion: Underground Food Culture

The good news is that, with the exception of distillation, none of the above regulations dictate what you can do in the privacy of your own home. You can dry-cure meat, even though is stays in the danger zone for weeks. You can eat raw eggs and wild game and even ripen raw-milk cheese to perfection. In a weird way, if you take a few tentative steps outside of the industrial food system, the above legislation will force you into very close contact with your food. For instance, since I can't buy wild venison from a butcher shop, I need to learn to hunt, or at least befriend a hunter. Either way, I am being brought closer to my food than I would at a butcher shop.

That's my lame attempt at a silver lining.


1. McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking. ©2004 Scribner, New York. Page 56.
2. Kendall, Kay and Bokji, Sandi (Ed.). Distilling Industry from The Canadian Encyclopedia. ©2010 Historica-Dominion. Site accessed on Monday, July 19, 2010.

Also, all the above-mentioned legislation is available online.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Language and Food

The precision of the French language in describing the actions, equipment, and raw materials of the kitchen is unmatched, and it reflects their strong appreciation and understanding of food.

Consider the diagrams of pigs that show where the different cuts of pork come from on the animal.  The British, North Americans, and French all have traditional ways to divide the animal.  You'll notice that, on the French diagram, not only are more parts of the animal used, but where the British and North Americans discern only one cut of meat, the French often have many.  The part of the animal that we call the shoulder, or butt, forms at least three cuts in French cuisine, each with their own name: palette, épaul, and plat de côtes.  To the French gourmand, each section of the shoulder has distinct textures and flavours.  A discerning English-speaking diner might be able to detect these differences, and could probably come up with good descriptors as to their location ("the front part of the shoulder," "the back part," and so on), but the fact that we don't already have names for those unique parts shows that we don't consider it an important distinction.

The greatest showcase of the relationship between language and our appreciation of food is the word "fond".  It's a French word, so the "on" is nasal and the "d" is silent. Fond is the caramelized stuff that sticks to the bottom of a pan, especially when cooking meat.

Capturing fond is important to developing the flavour of a dish, especially when making stocks, sauces, and braised dishes.  When meat is seared in a stainless steel pan, fond will develop.  To reclaim the fond and its deep caramelized flavour, you must degalze your pan.  Simply add a liquid (wine, stock, even water) then scrape the bottom of the pan to release the fond, which will dissolve into the liquid.  This liquid is now gold, and almost as valuable as the meat itself.

Despite the transcending depth of flavour fond adds to a dish, there is no English word for this stuff.  Believe me, if there was, I would use it.  French words sound pretentious.  We should really invent a short, descriptive, Saxon word for fond.

The relationship between language and understanding is so intimate, it's hard to tell which is more accurate: we don't use fond in cooking, so we don't have a name for it; or we don't have a word for fond, and so we don't use it in our cooking.

To say that fond has been neglected in our culinary heritage is misleading, because there is actually an entire industry devoted to eliminating fond from our lives: the non-stick cookware racket.  The reason that we have non-stick cookware is that generations of housewives spent an appreciable part of their lives scrubbing fond from their pots when they could have simply deglazed, which would have made their food better and the dish-washing quicker.

And so when people ask, "What's so French about French onion soup?  It's just onions in beef stock.  It could just as easily be called English onion soup,"  I say that the answer is in the luxurious use of fond to develop the flavour of the onions.  If you caramelize onions over very low heat, a delicate fond will form .  If you shake or stir the pot so that the onions are pushed and pulled over the surface, the moisture from the onions will pick up the fond and clean the pot.  The secret to French onion soup is doing this again and again for several hours.  As English-speakers we owe our knowledge of the existence of fond to the French, so we should gracefully relinquish any claim to a decent onion soup.

Slow Food says that the primary way to preserve tradition and combat industrial food is taste education.  I propose that the foundation of "taste education" is giving people a precise, vivacious language with which to talk about food.  For instance, you don't need a sophisticated palette to detect tannins in wine, as they are a pronounced textural sensation.  The trouble is that people don't know that the granular mouthfeel of some red wines is a result of tannins, and end up using words that stifle conversation and understanding. (People often describe tannic wines as "dry," which is descriptive, but confusing, as in winespeak "dry" is the opposite of "sweet".)

It is almost never the case that someone lacks the faculties to detect a certain flavour, just a combination of their never having stopped to think about taste, and then not having an adequate arsenal of words to employ.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Austrian Dinner

But you know what the funniest thing about Europe is? It's the little differences. I mean, they got the same shit over there that we got here, but it's just there it's a little different.

-Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction

I am part of a culinary exchange between NAIT and a school in Semmering, Austria. This past month I hosted an Austrian student named Dominik, whom a lucky few met at Valerie's psychedelic taste-tripping party.

On Dominik's last full day in Canada, we coerced him and two of his Austrian colleagues, Mike and Lena, to cook us a classic Austrian dinner.

First Course: Frittatensuppe (Pancake Soup)

Domink requested that we make a good beef stock for the soup course. To make good stock you need good bones. A few vendors at the Strathcona market sell "soup bones," which I think are small sections of rib and chine. When I told the owner of Trowlesworthy Farms that I was interested in something more substantial, he opened a cooler containing whole femur bones, which he sells as dog bones. It just so happens that these shin bones, in particular the "knuckles" at the ends, are the best bones you can use for making stock, as they have a lot of cartilage that breaks down to form gelatin, giving the finished stock a rich mouthfeel. I asked if they could cut one of these bones, which are roughly two feet long, into three inch segments. They could. One shin bone, cut up, cost me about ten bucks.

The knuckle end of a beef shin bone
When Dominik told me they were going to serve "pancake soup," I thought I had a good idea of what he meant. In culinary school we have to memorize a collection of classical French terms for garnishes. For instance, any dish with the words "Du Barry" in the description will feature cauliflower. Dishes described as "à l'égyptienne" will usually have rice, eggplant, and tomato. Consomm
é "célestine" is garnished with julienned crêpes. This is what I had in mind: a bowl of broth with a few delicate strands of crêpe.

I was wrong. We were served a heaping mound of sliced pancakes with a cup of steaming stock ladled over top. It was the most satisfying soup I have had in a very long time. I love sopping up the last bits of soups and stews with bread. In fact, I have eaten entire bowls of soup by soaking them up, teaspoon by teaspoon, with pieces of bread. This was like a fetish soup, that gratified my perverse reliance on starch to consume soup.

Slicing the pancakes
Frittatensuppe (Pancake Soup)
Etiquette sidebar: Lena scolded me for trying to drink wine during the soup course. Canadians are barbarous.

Second Course: Wiener Schnitzel

I just found out, this week, that "wiener" means "from Wien (Vienna)". Wiener Schnitzel is often made with pork, but sticklers for authenticity will demand veal.

Large cuts of veal never make it to the display case, but most grocery stores that sell fresh veal cutlets will have made those cutlets in-house, meaning that they will have some kind of veal hip on hand. We bought 2kg of inside round from Andy's Valleyview IGA for about $35/kg. I have no idea why veal is so much more expensive than beef.

Mike cut the round into slices about 3/8" thick, then pounded them a little flatter than 1/4". "Pounding" is a pretty misleading description of what Mike did. There was a pronounced horizontal aspect to his strokes, which stretched the meat without tearing it.

The schnitzel was dredged in flour, egg wash, bread crumbs, and then fried. The meat was very nearly submerged in the oil. Apparently Austrian restaurants cook their schnitzel in the deep-fryer, not a pan.

The veal was served with potato salad. Waxy potatoes were boiled whole, then peeled and mashed with grainy mustard, white vinegar, sugar, salt, and pepper.

The monstrous hunk of veal from Andy's Valleyview IGA
Mike flattening the veal
Wiener schnitzel and potato salad

Dessert: Apfelstrudel (Apple Strudel)

Austrians love sweets.

North American cooks base a meal around the meat they will be serving. They say, "We're having steak for dinner", and they plan any vegetables, starches, and desserts around that meat. I once read that Austrians plan meals around the dessert. "We're having sachertorte for dinner", and they choose the meat and vegetables accordingly.

Strudel was another dish that I thought I understood quite well: puff pastry with a jam-like filling. Apparently that is a French-style strudel, a far cry from the Viennese strudel of Dominik's homeland. His was a long cylinder of apples, raisins, rum, sugar, and bread crumbs, rolled into pastry by an ingenious dish-towel method (see below). The log was then sliced and served with whipped cream.

The apple filling
The first fold
Rolling the strudel
The strudel, before baking
The strudel, after baking, dusted with icing sugar
Apple strudel and whipped cream

A pot of coffee accompanied dessert. Austrians are prodigious drinkers of coffee.


When Dominik first came to our home about one month ago, he presented us with a bottle of apple schnapps. If anything I consumed during the night represents Vincent Vega's "little differences" speech, it is schnapps. Do we have schnapps in Canada? Of course. It's that 15% peach liqueur that sixteen year old girls drink. Dominik's schnapps, which was made by his neighbour in Schwarzau im Gebirge, smelled of apple orchards and burned like whisky.

We finished our evening under the lilac tree in our backyard. It was grey, chilly, and mosquito-ridden. We made a serious dent in the schnapps.

I hope Dominik remembers his time with us fondly. (I know Lisa and I will.)

Mitterhofer Apfelschnapps

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Rillettes of Goose Confit

First some mise en place. The spice rub contains salt, black pepper, thyme, garlic, cloves, bay, and allspice. The full recipe is in (you guessed it!) Michael Ruhlman's landmark book Charcuterie. Pulverize the spices in a mill.

Seasonings for Greens, Eggs, and Ham goose confit
You'll also need one goose. This one is from Greens, Eggs, and Ham, and weighs about eleven pounds.

Greens, Eggs, and Ham goose
Only the breasts and thighs and legs are used for confit.

The breasts and thigh-legs
Rub the spices onto the goose pieces. Place the meat in a non-reactive container, cover, and refrigerate for two days.

Seasoning the meat
Interlude: Rendering the Fat

Confit requires a lot of fat. The exact amount depends on the size of your cooking vessel and how tightly you can place the meat within. Expect to use about three quarts.

Even though the choice fat around the breasts and legs is going into our confit, there is still lots of fat to be rendered from the goose. Look for fatty trim around the neck and the opening of the cavity. There will not be enough fat from this one bird to make the confit; you'll have to supplement with fat from another source.

The fatty trim pulled from the goose
Put this trim in a stainless steel pot with a quarter cup of water. The water helps to evenly distribute the heat. It will slowly evaporate, but by the time it's gone there will be sufficient liquid fat to take over the role of heat distribution.

Set the pot over very low heat. After several hours there should be clear liquid fat, and crispy pieces of skin called cracklings that can be reserved to flavour stocks and braises. Strain the liquid, which will settle into two distinct layers. The top is the fat, and the bottom is essentially a highly reduced stock. The stock can be used, but lacking the support of mirepoix and herbs, it won't have much depth of flavour. If you leave the mixture at room temperature, the stock, being high in gelatin, will solidify, while the fat will stay liquid. At this point you can simply decant the fat.

The rendered goose fat and the solidified jelly

After two days, rinse all the spices from the goose pieces. Dry the meat thoroughly with paper towels.

Heat the goose, duck, or pork fat (or some combination thereof...) until just liquid. Pour over the meat. Again, the meat must be completely submerged.

Covering the seasoned meat with fat
Cover the cooking vessel and place in a 180F oven. This can be tricky in home kitchens, becuase even though the lowest setting on the dial might be 150F, ovens routinely lie to their owners. Our oven, for example, usually runs 50F-100F hotter than the dial setting. This doesn't affect the outcome of most home-cooking, but it can most certainly taint a batch of confit.

Water boils at 212F. By making confit at 180F, we coagulate the proteins and break down connective tissue without boiling off any of the moisture. The result is an impossibly moist piece of meat. Invest $20 in a good oven thermometer to ensure your cooking temperature stays below 212F.

Cooking times for confit are long, usually eight to ten hours. I leave mine overnight (hence the dismal lighting in some of these pictures).

After cooking, the meat will be tender and the fat will be clear. If your meat is bubbling under the fat, then your oven was too hot. You can still use the meat, it just won't be as moist as it should be.

The finished confit
Let the meat cool in its cooking vessel, still submerged in the fat. It can be stored in the fridge for up to a month.

To use the confit, let the vessel come to room temperature, then dig out the meat and wipe off the excess fat.

Goose Rillettes

Remove the skin from the goose pieces. Pull the flesh apart with two forks.

The pulled goose confit
Mix the pulled meat, slowly adding some of the cooking fat. The pieces of meat will start to come together and form a coarse paste.

Mixing the pulled confit, adding some of the cooking fat

The coarse paste
Pack the paste into ramekins so that there are no air pockets. Refrigerate to set. Pour some of the cooking fat over the surface. This sealing process was traditionally done to help preserve the rillette. The meat should be submerged by about 1/8" of fat.

The finished rillette
Eat with toast. I don't know why, but plain bread doesn't work. It must be toast.