Book review: Taste buds and Molecules by Francois Chartier

Chartier deciphers the magical molecular alchemy of food and wine pairing

V25N3 (reduced).inddI’ve been a lover of cooking and more importantly, eating, since I was a young lad helping my grandmother “punch down” the dough for her weekly bread. I was always amazed when it would swell back up under the tea towels that she tucked around the pan. The smell of baking bread is like no other for transporting me back to my childhood. This, the power of the olfactory system to influence taste, is where Francis Chartier begins his amazing exploration of the molecular structure of what makes things taste the way they do, and the complementary nature of foods and wine that share similar molecular profiles and compounds.

It’s evident that Chartier has conducted exhaustive theoretical research into this subject, research he implemented into practical application in the kitchens of elBulli. Before it closed in 2011, this restaurant was described as “the most imaginative generator of haute cuisine on the planet.”

This advanced scientific approach could easily have produced a book that was out of touch with the ordinary food and wine aficionado, but in Francois Chartier’s careful hands, we are delivered a text of wondrous discovery and learning. That said, some of the recipes are terrifying to contemplate and we do get a few tongue-twisting flavour compounds thrown our way (“acetaldehydes, dimethylketol, or 1, 1-diethoxyethane,” anyone?). Still, when you learn that it’s those volatile compounds that make cherries, apricots and apples share aromas with fine sherry … now that’s an a-ha moment!

This is a beautifully designed book featuring over-sized pages, glossy photography and excellent (often quirky) illustrations and charts. It is packed with information. So much so that it sometimes assumes quite a bit of knowledge on the part of the reader. For that reason I would not give this book to neophyte cooks or wine drinkers. Perhaps to the uncle with the wine cellar in hopes he will let you pop a cork in search of greater wisdom of molecular gastronomy. Yes, that might work.

Canada, as you’ve never read it before: raw, violent, epic, authentic

The Orenda by Joseph BoydenThis is Joseph Boyden’s third novel and since its release it has garnered much critical acclaim and one critical snub. It was not shortlisted for the Giller prize, the grail for Canadian novelists. It did however just win the CBC’s Canada Reads competition, so a small measure of comeuppance for Mr. Boyden. Its success is well deserved for this is a wonderful book – a very graphically violent book, but wonderful nonetheless.

The story is told through the intertwining voices of Snow Falls (a young Iroquois woman), Bird (a leader of the Huron) and Père Christophe (the Jesuit missionary sent from France). The Wyandot (Huron) are at war with the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), with each intent on the annihilation of the other. Within the first 20 pages, we witness the killing of Snow Falls’ family, her capture by Bird and first contact with the Jesuit and the people of the Huron Village. It is through the discoveries of the new arrivals that we get a glimpse of everyday native life that has seldom been introduced in Canadian literature. The overlapping perspectives of the same events add depth and intimacy to the story, and the view of the outsider gives us a sense of discovery as we watch, through the eyes of Snow Falls or Christophe, the rites and rituals of the Huron as they go about planting, hunting and honouring the dead. We look through unflinching eyes as the Huron torture a party of captured Iroquois. These are epic characters. Mythic in scale. Heroic fables are often blood soaked but they present us with glimpses of universal truth.

Every Canadian should read this book. It tells a story we think we know in a way that has not been imagined before. An awareness of nature and a sense of belonging to it runs like a sinew through this book. Powerful. Magical. Illuminating. Harrowing. A brilliant work by a gifted writer.

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