On Saturday I dragged my husband to an all day foodie event organised by Budding Chefs. The inspiration for Budding Chefs, a culinary exchange programme, comes from Fred Berkmiller and the Institut Francais d’Ecosse; Berkmiller is a Frenchman living in Edinburgh running two successful restaurants, l’escargot bleu and l’escargot blanc. The programme gives French chefs in training an opportunity to come to Scotland and cook using Scottish ingredients and in exchange sends Scottish trainee chefs to France. This exchange has been running for 4 years and by the turnout to both the talks and the meal – it should continue to be a success for years to come. The trainee chefs from both countries get to sample new foods and to ‘broaden their gastronomic horizons’, and for one afternoon I was hoping I could do the same.
I’m a bit wary of any ‘diet’ or ‘eating plan’ that comes with labels and sets of rules, but if I had to pick a few words to describe the way I try and eat it would be ‘Conscious Eating’. I want to be conscious of what is in my food (especially if i don’t make it myself) which means:
- Being aware of how I store and prepare it so that it maintains its nutritional content, tastes good and brings pleasure to those that eat it
- Being aware of how much I eat and of the effects the food will have on my body’s cells and tissues once I eat it.
- Being conscious of what happened to the food before I got a hold of it. How was it grown (organic, sustainable, eco friendly), where, how did it get to the place where I found it?
- Considering what happens to the money I spend on my food – does it help local people and businesses, did the original produces get a fair share, or did it go to a big corporation and their shareholders?
It was for all these reasons that I was so excited to find out about the Budding Chef event taking place right here in Edinburgh on the 22 of March 2014. So excited, that I immediately bought tickets for the Talks AND the meal. I wanted to find out about the food, the producers and the chefs and of course I wanted to taste it too!
Our day of Gastronomy, hosted by Edinburgh food write Alex Renton, started well with:
‘What it takes to make a Good Cheese’ by Hervé Mons
This talk certainly helped deepen my concept of conscious eating. Herve Mons spoke to us (through his very funny interpreter) about his role as a ‘Cheese Monger’ and Affineur.
I always assumed a cheese was aged and carefully watched over by the producer, then sold to cheese shops. Although this is often the case, the food loving French have special helpers – in the form of trained Affineur’s or cheese enhancers. Herve explained that his job was to purchase cheeses with great potential from the carefully selected suppliers (he visits each to review their animal husbandry practices and cheese making skills). His family receives the cheese at an early stage and they carry out the maturing process themselves. This is done in caves and cellars where they can control the temperature and humidity and air turnover. The affineurs also nurture the cheeses by turning them and washing them with brine solution. The ‘optimal’ process will be dependent on the personal tastes and training of the affineur so the same cheese in the hands of different experts may turn out very different. The length of time the cheese is allowed to mature will also affect the flavour and texture. It was for these reasons that Herve implored that we need to taste cheese – or any food – before buying (more possible at a market or specialty shop than a grocery store) and be conscious of all our senses (well maybe not hearing :D) when we make our selections.
As Herve was speaking I couldn’t help but wonder if we would get to taste some cheese. I had a quick peek round for clues:
- There was a wooden crate set up between each group of chairs, like a makeshift table – for eating off perhaps….
- We were each gifted a small notebook designed for taking notes when cheese tasting (a big incentive to go out and try more cheese!)
- The Biggest Clue: a group of chefs were stacking row after row of small wooden cheese boxes at the back of the room!!!
Sure enough we were soon each given a small wooden box full of CHEESE!
We were told to taste the cheese in order of least mature to most mature. The results were surprising! There was a HUGE difference in flavour between the 11 month Beaufort and the 16 month. The young cheese was rubbery and had a mild, nondescript flavour and smell. By 16 months, the texture was smooth and creamy (which Herve described as ‘mouth feel’) and the taste was sweet and nutty. By 28 months the sweetness and nuttiness was replaced with a stronger more pungent taste and flavour – indicating ‘older’ wasn’t always better! Understanding the optimal time to eat a cheese is a key to being a successful Affineur. Similar results were observed with the goat’s cheese.
Overall this was an excellent talk which really helped us to understand the importance of quality and of knowing your supplier. Your local cheese monger may not be an ‘affineur’ but you can ask if they purchase their cheeses direct from a producer or do they use the services of an affineur (most likely only for a few cheeses). They’ll probably be impressed that you know what that is!!!
The next talks also reinforced the foundations of eating with awareness and without going into too much detail, I can hopefully give you the ‘flavour’ (hee hee) of each.
‘The Making of a Successful Restaurateur’ by Nicholas Lander
Next Nick Lander, author of ‘The Art of the Restaurateur’ spoke to us about the 10 principles of running a successful restaurant. Actually I thought these were applicable to any business so worth summarising all of them for you. I was particularly drawn to number 3 – I love the idea of how restaurants can build a ‘healthy’ community – a little ‘food for thought’ (sorry :D) when choosing which ones you want to support.
- Good sense of humour. This will allow you to deal with customers and handle things that go wrong without too much stress.
- 3 loves: Food, Wine and Fellow Humans (many business forget about the humans)
- Location. Be brave. Bringing a quality, affordable restaurant to an ‘up and coming’ area can bring new life to an area. Shops close early and leave a street feeling deserted; restaurants with their late hours, can keep an area feeling alive, vibrant and safe. In other words, a good restaurant can be the spark to create a thriving community!!
- Financial Nous. Understand finance and law and pay your small suppliers early so they can stay in business.
- Lead from the front. Don’t think your business can run itself. Be present and ‘loiter with intent’.
- The most valuable assets are your lease and alcohol license, not your menu and wine list.
- Have Determination with Vision
- Be Rigorous, yet flexible. Hold on to your vision but realise you will need to be flexible in order to achieve it.
- Have a thick skin. Don’t let your ego get in the way; learn to swallow your pride.
- The hardest 3:
- Consider the Environment (sustainability, organic, waste reduction)
- Work with the local community
- Remember you have the power to do good (work with charities, create jobs)
‘Inventorying the (French) Larder’ by Loïc Bienassis
Although interesting, this wasn’t what I was expecting. I thought we would learn about all the different regional specialties of France – the recipes, the unique raw ingredients and how they were developed and were protected. Instead it was more of a discussion on how the French put together the process for creating the Culinary Heritage Inventory. Apparently it was quite difficult for the French to agree on the defining parameters for selection the items, the age, the uniqueness, the regionality and whether a region was ‘famous’ for a particular food. But, in the end, 24 of the 27 regions were completed and over 2500 items were added to the inventory. I would also have liked to learn what the purpose of this study was:
- was it to preserve the local food heritage for future generations or
- was it to protect the suppliers and stop them losing business to outside competition and protect consumers from inaccurate labelling and misleading product, as is the case with protected status in the UK for items such as Stilton cheese and Melton Mowbray pork pies?
‘Haute Cuisine, the French Legacy’ by Tom Kitchin, Craig Sandle and Fred Berkmiller
This panel discussion with top Edinburgh Chefs Tom Kitchin (The Kitchin, Castle Terrace and The Scran and Scallie), Craig Sandle (Chef at Pompadour by Galvin and Galvin Brasserie De Luxe) and Fred Berkmiller was my highlight of the afternoon.
All chefs had some classical French training and have used this to create award winning dishes based on traditional French methods but using the best Scottish produce. There were excellent questions from the audience and very insightful, honest responses from the chefs. What came across for me was that all 3 chefs are passionate about what they do and put quality above profit. Their advice to the trainee chefs (2 were invited to be on the panel) was to travel and start at the bottom, working with and learning from the best chefs all over the world. The years of low pay should be considered an investment in their future; if they learn their craft, be true to their own style, use quality ingredients, eventually the economic success will follow. Although they quite sadly and honestly admitted that sometimes quality was inversely proportional to profit; a true chef values integrity and the art of cooking. Just look at some of the fast food chains they make money hand over fist by using the lowest quality ingredients that can hardly be referred to as food. Although this realisation was a bit disheartening it did make me more resolved to put quality over quantity and when possible and to try to support the restaurants that share this same ethos; I love going to a restaurant that lists their suppliers right on the menu, explains their sustainability policies and uses organic produce when possible. But there was also a message of hope as each chef spoke of their joy of eating, of shopping, of visiting the suppliers and they hoped they could help spread that joy by educating their clientele on the Value of food (as opposed to just the cost); attending events like Budding Chef is definitely a good place to start.
As the discussions were running late, we had to leave before the last 3 talks. I was very disappointed to miss the next lecture by Erica Randall ‘Gardening for Restaurants’. But as Erica is the head gardener for the Scottish Garden, which supplies produce to local restaurants The Scottish Cafe (at the National Gallery) and Centotre, I’m sure more opportunities to hear her speak will come up.
After a quick break at home we dashed back for the evening meal; a 5 course menu designed by Craig Sandle and Fred Berkmiller using mostly Scottish produce and prepared by the French Budding Chefs. The place was mobbed when we arrived – I love to see so many people supporting real food. After a complementary drink,
we all headed upstairs where we joined other foodies at communal tables for a banquet style meal. We were brave and headed to table 13 and introduced ourselves to the other couple already seated. Eventually the table filled up and we ended up sitting opposite a fun, friendly couple who lived just at the end of our street!!! Turns out table 13 was lucky!!!
The aim of the event was to introduce the French trainee chefs to a variety of Scottish produce and to educate us, the foodies, on all that Scotland has to offer which meant some unusual dishes with not so common ingredients. Our Amuse bouche was Barley and Winkle Risotto.
When the small bowl was expertly placed in front of us (the waiting staff were also trainees from France – over there restaurant service is a respected career that requires training – we have a lot to learn from the French!) we all thought the little black shiny balls were black olives, but no they were winkles. I suppose the other clue was the long toothpick that we used to dig about the shells to see if there was a winkle lurking inside – I had just one, while some at the table managed to find little rubbery ‘prizes’ inside all their shells. But it didn’t matter if you didn’t score with the shell and pick – the risotto was full of chewy, garlicky winkle bits. I loved that they put a Scottish twist on the risotto – especially with the using barley instead of Aborio Rice – but I don’t think I’ll be rushing out to my fish monger for bags of winkles which apparently years ago were all the rage, being sold door to door.
After that plate was cleared we had another glance at our menu – there was a list of starters and we were all wondering if we got all of them or if we had to choose. We got our answer when the waiting crew swarmed around each table with big platters of food – placed in front of us to share family style – a nice touch as it made us feel like a group of friends enjoying a meal. I like to think I’m pretty open to trying new foods but have to admit I didn’t really care for the Whelks Mayonnaise or Beef Cheeks and Tongue Pot-au-Feu (maybe because they were served cold?) and the Pollock Fish Quenelle, Squat Lobster à l’Armoricaine was cold, bland and mushy but the smoked salmon and the Julienne of Seasonal Root Vegetables tossed in a Vinaigrette dressing were outstanding: flavourful, fresh and delightful. I definitely must try making the vegetable salad – super thin strips of carrots, radish, and rainbow beetroot – so crunchy and yummy – I wish I could have kept the bowl to myself.
The main course truly exemplified the merits of conscious eating. The lamb was local and fresh presented in 3 different ways, showing that if prepared the right way you can use the whole lamb, not just the prime cuts. There was a slice of roast lamb, a ‘column’ of pulled lamb that was succulent and tender and a little ‘lamb cake’ – made of cooked, chopped lamb with exotic spices, breaded and fried; crispy on the outside, soft and spicy on the inside. Once again I had veggie envy – I definitely need to learn to cook veg like a pro – these roots were roasted just enough to concentrate the flavours but not to the point of turning black or mushy. And of course they were tossed in lots of creamy butter!
I was a bit surprised that they didn’t use Scottish cheeses for the cheese course, but since they invited a French Cheese Affineur to speak, I suppose it was only fair to use his cheeses. Of course they were delicious and included Camembert, Roquefort, Selles-sur-Cher (a goat’s cheese, which my husband hates so more for me!!).
The dessert was a chocolate and coffee Gateau Opéra which came a close second to the amazing lamb dish for best of show!
All in all we ate some amazing food, tried some new things and met some great people, not bad for a few hours of our day. However, there was one disappointment from the meal; I was hoping to LEARN something as well. The afternoon sessions were really interesting and brought up great issues about valuing food, eating with awareness, concerns with current eating habits of the general public and hopes that education and travel will help bring about changes so that people become more engaged with the food they eat. I thought the evening would carry on in the same vein. There were loads more people at night so they didn’t benefit from the lectures; they didn’t know what time and effort went into maturing the cheese to the point of perfection before it was served to us, they didn’t hear the joy in the chefs voice as they talked about food. Seeing that there was a stage and a projector (still set up from the afternoon), I thought there really should have been someone introducing each course as it was served. I wanted to know where the produce came from, what connection it had to Scotland (or France) and why they chose to prepare it in the way presented. At the very least, they could have listed the supplier details on the menu. Despite the lack of detail surrounding the meal, this was a fantastic learning experience and a showcase of both Scottish produce and French Culinary Skills; sign me up for next year!!
If you’ve been inspired to find sources of great local produce or to try out a restaurant with a conscious – you’ll find lots of choices on my Edinburgh Healthy Food Map.
p.s. A big congratualtions to the French students who earned their white chef jackets at the end of the successful night.