Herve This – “Note by Note” Lecture

Herve This, a founder of molecular gastronomy, recently spoke at Boston University as part of the Jacques Pepin lecture series promoted through the Metropolitan College Food and Wine Studies program. This was there to promote his new book, Note by Note Cooking. At 6’2” with his white hair, piercing blue eyes, lanky build, and ebullient French accent, This cuts quite the figure.

Monsieur This preparing a protein powder meal... reflected in the cooking demo mirror.

Monsieur This preparing a protein powder meal… reflected in the cooking demo mirror.

Despite his culinary associations, This is not a chef, but a chemist on staff at the Institut National de la recherché Agronomique in Paris. This is the author of several books, other than Note by Note, and holds the honor of discovering why a soufflé expands (in short, evaporating water). (hyperlink)

This’ lecture primarily consisted of a demonstration. Using a protein powder made from egg whites, water, oil, and pure flavor compounds This created everything from sauce to steak. To make a fake steak, you need egg white powder, water, oil, flavor compounds and either a comb or fork. Roughly 60 percent protein and 40 percent water – whisked with a drizzle of oil can compose the base of your “steak”. Adding flavors of black pepper and bacon will make this concoction taste pretty good. To give the “steak” texture, cool the liquid on some type of hard plastic before frying, and drag either a fork or (clean) comb across the concoction before frying in a non-stick pan. Voila! You have a steak?

Throughout This’ lecture, he reiterated the difference between molecular cooking and molecular gastronomy. Basically, cooking and gastronomy are different things. This believes that with our emphasis on celebrity chefs, society frequently elevates the chef to the rank of the scientist. Molecular gastronomy entails looking for the scientific reasons behind the phenomena of taste and understanding the chemistry involved. Cooking, molecular or otherwise, is exactly that: Cooking. While this distinction is a bit harsh to the chefs and cooks, it does raise interesting points about a lack of authority in the field of molecular gastronomy in the United States (France is ahead of us on this one).


Herve This examining his flavor compounds

Herve This examining his flavor compounds

While I have yet to read the book, Note by Note, This did come across as a bit… evangelical. He promotes modifying our diets to primarily subsist on protein powder based meals. True, you know exactly what you are eating; and with practice you may be able to create convincing flavor profiles. I’m not exactly sold on the idea though. I’ll get back to you guys after I’ve read the book, and maybe test driven a few recipes….

Microbiology and Artisan Cheeses

“Each cheese is its own planet.” This statement encapsulates the research approach of Dr. Benjamin Wolfe, a microbiologist currently working at Harvard’s FAS Center for Systems Biology. Dr. Wolfe is pioneering research on the microbial environments of artisan cheeses. One outcome of his work is the creation of the artisan cheese, Willoughby.

A Taste Of Place...

A Taste Of Place…


Willoughby is the result of a joint venture between Dr. Wolfe and The Cellars at Jasper Hill, an esteemed artisan cheese production and aging outfit located in northern Vermont. Wolfe identified a new strain of the yeast, Geotrichum Candidum, growing on the rind of one of Jasper Hill’s most famous cheeses, Balyhazen Blue. After isolating the strain of Geotrichum, Wolfe helped Jasper Hill create an entirely new starter culture which led to Willoughby.

Understanding the significance of Wolfe’s achievement requires a basic knowledge of cheese making:

  • Almost all cheeses are made with a starter culture which is added to the milk at the beginning of the cheese-making process.
  • This starter culture contains microbes such as yeast, mold, or bacteria which determine the type of cheese being made and contribute to flavor and texture.
  • All commercial starter cultures used by American cheese makers are derived from European cheeses – a Vermont cheddar is created with European microbes
  • Popular starter cultures include:

o   Penicillum Roqueforti

o   Penicillum Candidum

o   Geotrichum Candidum

  • Environmental microbes, derived from raw milk or the aging environment, are how we currently experience the terroir of most American artisan cheeses

At first glance, Willoughby looks like an ordinary artisan cheese.

One of the many reasons we love cows.....

One of the many reasons we love cows…..


This semi-soft, washed rind disc of cheese has a pungent but enticing aroma and a bloomy white mold covering the orange hued rind. The flavor of Willoughby is a study in opposites creamy and fresh, yet simultaneously savory and earthy with a hint of wild mushroom. Willoughby’s unique microbes provide consumers with a true taste of The Cellars at Jasper Hill, and make this a completely American cheese derived from a native strain of Geotrichum.

            Terroir, or taste of place, is a hotly debated concept in the world of food. Some purists believe terroir is influenced solely by environmental factors such as climate or animal diet. Others such as noted food anthropologist Dr. Rachel Black advocate a more balanced view. Dr. Black promotes an understanding of terroir that is reliant on the human touch. After all, cheese is a “… crafted product.” Agricultural products such as wine and cheese experience human intervention from the beginning, through careful cultivation of the environment in which these products are made. Dr. Black says that Wolfe’s research “cultivates a microbial environment… (through) human intervention. He is able to bring forth something that expresses and encourages biodiversity.”

Through identifying naturally occurring strains of Geotrichum native to either the raw milk or environment and creating starter cultures from these strains, Wolfe could revolutionize the world of American artisan cheese in the following ways:

  • Creating entirely new types of cheese and significantly broadening the flavors and varieties of cheese available in the U.S. market.
  • Replacing industrialized starter cultures with endemic ones, all aspects of a cheese would be impacted by the environmental microbes.
  • Altering the flavor profiles of these cheeses and making a cheese that is completely a product of its “American” environment.
  • Isolating strains of Geotrichum native to a cheeses environment can create a cheese that truly represents a taste of place and has its own unique terroir.

Throughout our phone conversation, Wolfe was hesitant to use the word terroir. He believes that the concept is more of a marketing term and not scientifically validated. Wolfe does advocate that “… microbes have their own unique signatures and can work with other environmental factors to collectively influence the flavors of products being made on farms.” Wolfe’s research may allow American cheese makers to broaden and diversify artisan cheeses, creating products that represent the natural environment in which they are made. With results like Willoughby, cheese enthusiasts are excited to imagine the future potential of American artisan cheese.




Medieval Arab Food


One of the best parts of going to graduate school for gastronomy is all the interesting and talented people that you get to meet through the program.  Case in point, I had the pleasure of meeting Nawal Nasrallah Monday night in my History of Food class.  Nasrallah is an intelligent, funny, and delightful lady who also happens to be an exceptional historian and cook.  She was speaking to our class about her work translating a medieval Baghdad manuscript from Arabic into English.  Dated at the 12th century, there are three surviving copies of Kitab al-Tabikh.  Nasrallah was able to access all three copies, which she used for clarification on finer points of her translation Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchens.  This work is very interesting, and describes preparation methods and hygienic standards as well as recipes from this time period.

We were lucky to have Nasrallah prepare several medieval dishes for us to sample in class.  This food was amazing!  Two dishes stood out as absolutely phenomenal though.  One was a dressed eggplant dish.  The eggplant was soft and mushy – in a pleasant way – with a topping composed of caramelized onion, pomegranate syrup, spices, and nuts.  The spiced topping paired very well with the taste of the eggplant and was symphony of unique and potent flavors.

Nasrallah’s chicken course was my next favorite menu item.  She served us shredded rotisserie chicken mixed with a sweet and sour sauce, black olives, and mint.  The chicken was tender and moist while the sauce was perfectly balanced – it’s mild sweetness offset by a pleasant tang.  Adding salty olives and fresh mint helped to round out all the flavors, complementing the sauce and adding another dimension to the dish.

Unfortunately, as this occurred during class, I do not have pictures.  However, I am planning to buy Nasrallah’s Delights from the Garden of Eden cookbook and will attempt to recreate the recipes had in class.  Once I have successfully done so, there will be a follow up post with pictures sharing my adventures recreating Arab foods.

One of the most interesting things about the food we ate is that it follows the Galenic theory of the humors and dietetics, prevalent throughout the world during the Middle Ages.  This humoral theory informed cooking during the Middle Ages and posited that the Universe (and human body) was divided into four elements which all had different properties.  Air was hot and moist, fire was hot and dry, water was cold and moist, and earth was cold and dry.  Different individuals may have a different bodily states attributed to them – cool and moist vs hot and dry.  The goal of the humors was to find a balance, often achieved through eating foods with certain supposed properties.  For example, if you had a cold, perhaps you were too cold and moist therefore you would eat a hot and dry food – like ground cinnamon – to balance yourself out.  The intersection between medicine and the humors was very common during the middle ages but fairly ineffective for treatment purposes.


 Image courtesy of contributor name  FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A touch of the plague, you say? Some nutmeg ought to fix that right up!

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic / FreeDigitalPhotos.net


All the foods served in our class were well balanced.  The spices used were meant to even out the properties of the meat or vegetable and vice versa.  While on paper the humoral system seems a little weird, in cooking it’s a great idea.  Balancing the flavors in a dish is something that all chefs strive for.  The medieval Arabic approach to cooking achieves that balance, but also introduces some very interesting flavor combinations due to Galenic beliefs.  The food was absolutely fantastic.  While I can see why belief in the humors died out as a primary medical practice, I have no idea why we do not still cook this way.



Digging In

The Taste Trekkers conference I attended last weekend offered three different session times on mini-topics. I stuck with a New England theme, and focused on Lamb Butchering, Rum, and Vermont Ice Cider. While all the sessions were super interesting, Vermont Ice Cider was by far the most exciting. This is because the session included discussions and info on a tourist resource called Dig In Vermont. This is a non-profit organization affiliated with Vermont Fresh, connecting tourists with local producers and the restaurants supporting them. This amazing organization is GETTING IT DONE, people!

As a culinary tourist, I frequently want to do fun things like go to local breweries, wineries, or dairies when traveling. Basically, I want to find the funky, out-of-the-way places which make products I can’t get at home, and will educate me about how and why they make what they make. Then I want to eat or drink it. This is not as easy as it sounds, though. Frequently, the more publicized an outfit is, the larger it is, and the more likely it is that I can find their products at home. Also, it’s less likely that the local foodies frequent or patronize the larger outfits, which makes it harder to get follow-up recommendations.

Dig In has solved this problem. You log on to their site and can browse by region, product, or event. You can use premade trails or create your own. It is a comprehensive online resource connecting people to small, local producers and restaurants. It is fantastic! I’m already planning multiple trips based off the Dig In website. Every state or region should have this! To be a member, 75% of a vendor’s inventory must be from Vermont. This ensures that you are receiving local products that are representative of the region.

Definitely check out this awesome resource if you’re thinking of going to Vermont. Also, keep an eye out for Eden Ice Cider. This stuff is amazing. Especially the barrel aged Northern Spy. Pair it with an aged-cheddar and smoked ham panini slathered with bourbon molasses mustard. A heavenly fall meal.

Local is good

In my opinion, the primary theme of the recent Taste Trekkers conference was the importance of eating local. Why eat local? Well, don’t you want to know where you food comes from? Consider that hilarious Portlandia episode with Colin the Chicken. Although this sketch takes it to extremes, local establishments buying from local producers really can provide tons of information about the food that you are putting into your body. Transparency and the ability to actually know what you’re eating is a good thing, people!

Also, I’ve found that the better an animal is treated, the better it tastes. Local, small batch organizations let you see animals’ living conditions and typically focus on quality over quantity, which makes for a better consumer experience. Furthermore, by buying local you support local economies and get to know a region through the food they are producing. You literally get to taste the culture and values of the place you’re visiting. This one of the ultimate tourist experiences – a deeper, richer understanding of communities through food.

Do I always eat local at home or on travel? No. I’m not a saint. I love my 5 Guys and Chipotle as much as the next girl. I do endeavor to find restaurants serving local food and buy from farmer’s markets though. In the end, your efforts can provide a unique food experience and, most importantly, taste pretty freakin’ good.