First of all, I want to state that I am not a health professional, but after being involved in the food industry for 40 years, including involvement in farms, processing plants, restaurants and distribution, I have developed a reasonable amount of knowledge regarding the farm-to-plate food cycle.
As Michel Pollan discussed in his book, In Defense of Food, many things that are sold today as food, really have very little in common with what has sustained humanity before the advent of the 20th century. (Pollan, 2008)
Today’s “processed foods” serves the interest of the manufacturer first and the consumer’s convenience second. Health benefits are only a marketing tool in response to the latest fad. It is my belief that nutritional value is inversely proportional to the amount of processing of a food product.
The extraordinary supply, and variety of additives, colorings and conditioners, allows for radical transformation of raw materials into strange things. These strange things then become unattractive microbial life, microbial life is a form of life and if it is unattractive to bacteria on shelves, it may also be unattractive to our guts.
Although the flour-less torte, made by GateauOChocolate, wasn’t the first chocolate creation, it’s still a historic mark in the history of chocolate. And, the history of chocolate isn’t brief, it spans many centuries and cultures.
Used extensively in Central America by the Mayans and Aztecs, the seeds of the Theobroma cocoa tree (Theo translates to God, and Broma to food, in classical Greek) were consumed as a bitter-spiced beverage for religious and social events. To attest to their value, the seeds were also used as a currency. Following the discovery of the new world, Spanish conquistadors brought the cocoa back home.
It did not take long for Europe to discover its pleasures and virtues.
The rapid rise of interest in cocoa made this exotic product a luxury that swept many royal courts. Spain tried to maintain cocoa trade as a state monopoly, however it failed due to piracy. For two centuries after its introduction in Europe, chocolate was virtually reserved to high nobility and royalty.
I was raised in the fifties, between France and Tunisia, where my parents had a wheat farm 25 miles west of Tunis. In this bucolic setting, I learned that some of the best things in life are simple and pure.
Our bread was baked at the farm in a wood fired oven. The flour, ground by the worker’s wives, came from the wheat stored in giant concrete bins, holding the year’s crop.
It was milled with a rudimentary mill, composed of two 10-inch diameter, gray grinding stones. The bottom one, fixed, had a vertical metal shaft in the middle. The top one had an oversized center hole to accommodate the shaft, and to allow the grains to be fed between the grinding stones.
The women, in large, flowing, local dresses and traditional silver jewelry, would sit down against a wall with their legs spread open and the mill in between them. On each side of the women sits a bag of wheat, within hand’s reach.
The universal appeal of chocolate has turned what was a luxury, into what is now an industrial commodity. Which will cause, as usual, processors to apply severe pressure on the growers to gain market share. This pressure has resulted in a heavy environmental (and human) cost that many people are not aware of.
Originally growing in the shades of tropical forests, chocolate now comes from vast cocoa plantations that are fully exposed to the sun. Cocoa grown in these monoculture environments creates problems with pests and disease, and so requires large amounts of pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers.
Runoff from these open-fields causes ground water pollution, and reduces soil fertility, while negatively impacting the worker’s health.
Often, the laborers are young children working in terrible conditions. Typically, these children are located in West Africa, where a large part of the world’s cocoa originates.
It is not surprising that most of the people who harvest the cocoa have never tasted the finished product, made from the beans they produce. Many who grow and harvest cocoa receive little, if any, wages, and live in substandard conditions.
Gluten intolerance and celiac disease get plenty of press, but, what are these maladies and what are their symptoms?
Celiac disease (which is also called celiac sprue) and gluten intolerance are not the same. They are successfully treated with the same diet, and both are caused by gluten intake, which can lead to confusion.
With celiac disease, the body is unable to tolerate certain proteins present in wheat, barley, rye, and to a much lesser degree, oats. These proteins cause a sufferer’s body to have an autoimmune response, triggering the immune system to attack healthy tissue in the intestines. These reactions cause inflammation and degradation of the villi, which are small projections in the intestines that help absorb nutrition.
Celiac disease causes the villi to flatten, and the body to become challenged at absorbing enough nutrition from foods. Symptoms of Celiac include anemia, short stature and lactose intolerance.
Often, people suffering from one autoimmune disorder, will unfortunately be found to have more than one disorder. As a result, prudent doctors will frequently choose to test people having diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia, for Celiac.
Sometime during December of 1974, on my way home from Switzerland to Toulouse, France, I was driving through a northern Provence with a college friend from Chile. Wanting to show him the area, I offered to take him to a small Country Inn that was located in the mountains that I was familiar with. Yvette, the owner, and a former “concierge” from Paris, had set up shop in a charming, old stone farm house, where she served meals to visitors and local lumberjacks.
When horseback riding in the area, I used to stop by the Country Inn with friends for lunch. The food was always simple, delicious and based on the resources of neighboring farms. These lunches were superbly interpreted, while served with humor and genuine warmth. Yvette’s omelets were made with eggs from her hens and freshly picked herbs, while her hams, pates, and goat cheeses were made on site and were legendary.
As we walked into the courtyard, she recognized me. I asked if we could have something to eat and was promptly dismissed with “I am not cooking today, I don’t have anything.” Not taking no for an answer, and knowing that a little cajoling might help her remember secret resources, I insisted. Asking for a simple goat cheese or “une assiette de charcuterie?”
“Do you like roasted pheasant,” she asked. “Bien sur” was the quick answer. “Alright, go take a walk and come back in an hour and a half,” she said.