In The Blood

My leisure reading tonight was about Toxoplasma gondii, a unicellular parasite which infects mammals. It can replicate asexually in any mammal, but can only mate and reproduce sexually inside a cat.

Cats usually become infected by eating a prey animal in which T. gondii has spread into muscle tissue and formed dormant tissue cysts. The parasite then reproduces in the cat and is shed in its feces in the form of oocysts. If another mammal ingests the oocysts, the cycle starts again.

Alternately, non-feline carnivores can become infected directly by eating the tissue cysts.

Humans can acquire the parasite from exposure to cat feces. (Oocytes are shed mainly when the cat has first become infected, for about the first week or two, so kitten poop is more dangerous.) As omnivores, humans can also ingest tissue cysts in the muscle of another infected animal. Pork and lamb have the worst safety record.

But it was the story of an experiment which astounded me. In a Paris orphanage, 10% of the children had detectable T. gondii. After being fed rare steak and horsemeat for a year, the infection rate went up to 50%. Then rare lamb was added to the diet, which brought the infection rate up to 100%. The old, dark days of experimenting on orphans. It was 1965.

In most cases, there are no obvious symptoms of an infection, but sometimes people can have a severe reaction, called toxoplasmosis, which can be like a bad dose of the flu lasting four months.

Heating to 65 celsius will fairly reliably kill the parasites in their tissue cyst state, but cooking a steak “medium rare” or less usually means that the centre stays below 60 celsius. You might as well rub your steak with cat shit.

It has been found that rats with the parasite behave differently to non-infected rats. They have less fear and less aversion to the smell of cat urine. T. gondii achieves this by manipulating the epigenetics of their neurons, obviously an evolutionary adaption which makes the rat more likely to be eaten and the parasite passed on. It hasn’t been shown definitively yet, but some studies indicate that there are psychological effects in humans as well.


Badly Bred

For some years now, I’ve holidayed, self-catering, in Italy. The first time, in 2002, I was in the centre of Florence for ten days, and mostly ate out and only bought a few basics for home-cooking. But as time has gone on I’ve become more self-reliant.

Although I confess that I usually use self-service supermarkets rather than shops where you have to ask for what you want. Somehow, my Italian seems to evaporate under pressure. So I tour the shelves and fill a trolley or a basket, and when I get to the checkout, all I have to do is hand over the money or card.

I do always have the nagging feeling that my choice of goods marks me out as a foreigner, but then I have that same feeling in a supermarket at home.

Italian supermarkets, as you might expect, tend to have a different and better range of goods than your Tesco or Sainsbury’s. More, higher-quality fruit and vegetables, for example. Lots of cheeses. Premium olive oil. Local wines.

But they also sell a lot of crap. It’s Italy’s guilty secret perhaps; they’re famed for love of good food, but they also have big industries making mass-produced, “convenience” foods.

That’s what’s mostly promoted in television advertising as well, and one of the prominent names is ‘Mulino Bianco’ — White Mill — part of the huge Barilla group. There’s a large range of Mulino Bianco products: cakes, biscuits, bread and crackers; that sort of thing. I hadn’t seen any outside Italy until recently, when I came upon “Focaccelle” on the bargain shelf of Tesco in Craigavon.
Mulino Bianco
They were reduced to a fraction of their former price because they were approaching their “best-before” date, but here’s the thing: I know that Mulino Bianco products don’t go off or get mouldy because they aren’t real food. All artificial. And anyway, “focaccelle” isn’t even a real word. It’s supposed to make you think of “focaccia” and that’s what the product vaguely resembles.

Yes, I did try them. It was only a few pence, and I was certain that they wouldn’t be disgusting, just doughy and bland. And so they were.

But I had forgotten that I should not have bought anything made by a Barilla company. In 2013, Guido Barilla, chairman of the company, made some stupid, prejudiced and offensive remarks about gay families. And then issued a “clairification” which simply dug himself deeper into the hole. Some people in Italy advocated a boycott, and Barilla’s competitor Bertolli began to advertise “Bertolli welcomes everyone, especially those with an empty stomach”.

The Emperor’s New Menu

When I was on holiday this year, I cooked for myself in my own kitchen for the majority of the time, but spent a couple of nights at the beginning and end of the trip in hotels, meaning that I had to go out for dinner.

One night, in Pisa, I decided just to have pizza, which was delicious, but I did notice that the restaurant next door was much more up-market, and what was more, it was packed with people who seemed to be having a great time.

The next night was my last in Pisa, so I thought I’d try the expensive place. This turned out to be a plan with negative as well as positive points.

roastI’ll just mention that I’m not a vegetarian. Sometimes I’m mistaken for one, because I don’t eat much meat — maybe once or twice a week at most — and sometimes have a vegetarian dish in a restaurant. I suppose that puts me in the class “I don’t know much about meat, but I know what I like”, but bear with me.

With the menu, I got a “complimentary” glass of sparking wine and little pot of mushroom soup, a probable sign that they were going to skin me with the price of the meal, but hey, I was treating myself. My starter, a goat’s cheese salad with rucola, was excellent, as was the restaurant’s own-label chianti.

For my main course, I’d ordered something that translated roughly as “pieces of steak” on a bed of vegetables. In restaurants all over the world, if you order a steak, they’ll ask how you want it cooked, or rather how much you want it cooked, and I always say “medium”. This time, I was not asked, so I assumed that the dish was something like a stew, where the meat would be fully braised.

Incidentally, when I tell them “medium”, I’m fully aware that the word can mean anything, but I don’t really mind. Although I’d prefer the meat in a state that you and I would call “medium”, I can eat it even if it’s a little bit bloody. (In fact, I have tried carpaccio, where the meat is (intentionally) raw.)

Nobody is entirely sure when cooking was invented, but archeological evidence of control of fire goes a long, long way back, to our Homo erectus ancestors at least, but possibly even earlier. Ancient hearths in Swartkrans in Africa have remains of burnt bone a million years old, a pretty clear sign that meat was being cooked. One theory of human development suggests that cooking had a strong impact on human evolution, because it greatly improves the usable energy value of food, and growing brains need food energy.

Be that as it may, the real reason for cooking food is that it makes it taste so much better. It was a French scientist, Louis-Camille Maillard, who worked out why, in 1912. The Maillard reaction occurs in a number of different foods and cooking methods, including coffee roasting, toasting bread, frying onions, and of course, roasting meat. What happens is that sugars and amino acids in the food react with each other to produce different flavour compounds, hundreds of them, to give the spectrum of flavours which characterize the cooked food. (An additional reaction can occur, mainly at higher temperatures: carmelization of sugars. This adds a nutty taste.)

Raw meat, on its own, is very tasteless compared to its cooked state. But the products of the Maillard reaction are brown in colour, which means that you can tell by sight alone whether the meat is cooked or not. And that leads me to the primary point of this article: the more pretentious the restaurant, the less they’ll cook your meat.

I think there are two factors at work. One is that meat can be spoiled by over-cooking. No doubt about it: an expensive and exquisitely tender sirloin can be turned into a piece of blackened, chewy leather by an over-enthusiastic cook. So I’m sure that professional cooks are taught to hold back. But some of them seem to get the idea that if over-cooking is bad, under-cooking must be better.

The second thing is pure snobbery, and that applies both to the chefs and the customers: we are sophisticated, we recognize delicacy, we appreciate the subtle flavour of meat before the fire ruins it. Which is bollocks, in my opinion. Cooked meat is a far more tasty and complex substance than raw meat. It has far, far more flavour compounds. Ask M. Maillard and the Homo erectus.

You’ve guessed the end of my story about Pisa, haven’t you? The “steak pieces” had been sliced from a thick steak and laid artfully on the bed of vegetables. The outer meat was cooked, more or less, the inner raw and barely warm. And it wasn’t even that the steak was so tender that it could be eaten easily, even uncooked. Believe me, I tried.

Being sliced and laid out, it would have been absurd to try to send it back. Anyway, I blamed myself for falling into the trap of the pretentious restaurant. I’ll be avoiding that in future.

Cheer and Great Welcome Makes a Merry Feast

“The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.”

So begins President Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation of 1863, which established Thanksgiving as a national American holiday. That was right in the middle of the Civil War, but Lincoln still seemed to see the bright side.

Of course, popular belief would have it that Thanksgiving is a tradition dating to the first English colony and the Pilgrim Fathers, but there was no practice at that time of an annual feast or holiday. The religious Harvest services which they’d brought across the Atlantic were occasionally known as Thanksgiving, but weren’t associated with the big turkey meals, family gatherings, and watching the football which are the theme today.

Or, at least, not always. In 1621, the settlers and their native Wampanoag neighbours did celebrate the plenty of the wild harvest with a joint feast. The English had gone out and shot a number of turkeys and waterfowl, while the Americans brought fresh deer. The traditional Thanksgiving meal still incorporates turkey, (although not usually venison), along with specifically American foods, such as pumpkin and squash. Oh, and potatoes. (Las patatas son de América.)

Thanksgiving fell during the time I was doing my first flying training in rural Georgia, and the mother of one of the instructors, hearing that there were three foreign students, far from their families, invited us to their Thanksgiving meal. That was a poor, Southern family, opening their home to strangers, purely out of grace and kindness. I found it a very touching gesture, and a strong reminder of the basic goodness of American folk. I also discovered that I will never understand football.

I may not be having turkey this year, having removed meat almost entirely from my diet. Perhaps I could buy one of those frozen, stuffed things from Iceland — there’s not likely to be much meat in it. Or perhaps I might have an other traditional American food: pizza. (It’s a vegetable.)

Home To Thanksgiving

Exceedingly Vile Cakes

My parents visited the other day, and, as people do, brought an offering of cakes to accompany the inevitable tea.

Apparently, Dad chose them. A “big name” brand. Mum would have been more likely to select something handmade from a local bakery.

Industrial Baking OvenAll the preceeding is by way of explaining why I have come to have such items in my house. I’m not a fanatic about it, but I tend to avoid what are likely to be “industrially produced” foods. What do I mean by that? Well, these cakes have thirty-four ingredients. Basic sponge, with icing and a jam filling. Thirty-four ingredients.

Now, I can’t imagine any human being deciding that a cake recipe needs thirty-four ingredients. I mean, sponge cake is just flour, eggs and a little sugar, right? Maybe a touch of butter if you wanted. Icing is basically sugar. And jam is, well, jam.

Why would you want to use three different kinds of flour, as these ones have, for example? (Wheat, soya and rice). Plus vegetable fat, skimmed milk powder, salt, citric acid, and all the others. The only explanation is that this complex formula is the only way they can (cheaply) produce something vaguely resembling a cake from their factories.

Oh, and the packaging proudly claims “no artificial colours or flavours”. That’s becase the artificial ingredients (they’re on the list) are classified as “emulsifiers”, “raising agents”, “acidity regulator”, and “humectant”. Can’t make a good cake without some of that ol’ humectant. Yum.

The jam is “raspberry flavoured plum jam”. You couldn’t make it up.