I’ve been in Québec for a little over one month now, and my schedule means I get a choice between spending all my money eating not-very-healthy meals from cafeterias, or get a very frugal lifestyle. My current systems involves cooking a giant casseroles of vegetables, cereals and bits of eggs or cheese and make it last for the week. It’s a good system. I feel healthy. I’m not putting on weight in spite of having shifted from a semi-mobile job (teachers, after all, have to stand up and walk around a lot) to a completely sedentary one. It also has the unfortunate side effect of giving virtual foods on Second Life the capacity to make me drool on my socks. The problem is not too hard to solve on weekends, when I have a little time to cook. Canadian food is perfectly fine; there’s just one thing I miss–strong tastes.
Now, I can get spices, and a little bit of garlic, and foreign foodstuffs are reasonably easy to find if often toned down compared to what I’m used to. I think I’m just rediscovering something I’d had to adjust to during my year in Wales: a rather different philosophy when it comes to how strong and peculiar food should taste. On traditional South French markets, ‘strong’ equates ‘flavourful’. The best cheese could give the most hygiene-obsessed European politicians a heart attack; it’s mouldy, it’s dubiously coloured, it occasionally can’t keep its shape or grows fungi like hair, it’s crumbly or uneven, and for God’s sake don’t leave it in your bag for too long or you’ll regret it. Pasteurised milk is an heresy (I don’t know about the putative safety benefits; I haven’t heard of anyone getting diseases from unpasteurised cheese, but I do recall quite a few cases of food-poisoning due to unsanitary treatment of industrial foods). One particularly delicious, if somewhat marginal, type is made from old cheese leftovers, crusts and unsold bits, that are seeped in strong wine or spirits until they dissolve and form a paste. It smells obnoxious. It has the colour of gravel. And no, it’s not one of those miracle foods like durian, that supposedly smell like old socks and taste like raspberry custard or something. It tastes just like what you’d expect: old cheese crusts marinated in booze. It’s not recommended before eating anything delicate, but it’s absolutely delicious.
That’s the thing, really. That’s why I start to feel a bit forlorn when I walk into a supermarket, and the general philosophy for food seems to be “milder, softer, sweeter and as consensual as possible”. That’s why I can’t help rolling my eyes a little when people refer to an ‘acquired taste’. Of course strong foods are an acquired taste; everything is, aside from baby food. Even Oreos and peanut butter are an acquired taste, believe me; I know this, because I haven’t got any occasion to acquire it in my childhood, and now they barely taste edible to me. But industrial foods have a problem: they usually taste very much like baby food, with lots of added sugar ad salt, that is to say, the most consensual tastes you can find. Of course, if you grow used to thinking that ‘sweet’ and ‘salty’ equate ‘tasty’, more and more new flavours will fall in the category of foods you call ‘interesting’ and never try again. I never give up on food when it doesn’t taste immediately pleasant. I try again, I try to understand it, to make it fit into my standards of what a pleasant flavour is. It doesn’t always work, but it’s exciting. It’s like reading a new book with an open mind: it makes you discover new things. A diet of industrial food encourages you to behave like that particularly annoying brand of reader, who make a practice of loudly giving up on a book if it doesn’t hook them within the first three pages. It may guarantee some rather pleasant experiences if you stick to what you know, but you’ll miss out on a whole world of discovery, and that’s a huge shame. And that’s why I’m sometimes pissed off at supermarkets: I understand that there are parts of the world where some people don’t really get a choice between eating industrial or market foods (traditional markets are cheaper in France, but it’s not the case everywhere, I’m told). When industrial brands systematically go for the most consensual foods they can imagine, they also rob people of many possibilities of discovery. I know they’re trying to make money, but that has never been an excuse.
That being said, that pizza topped with dried duck meak, smoked chicken, tangerines and green onions I tried in the restaurant near the lab was a great discovery. Québec does have lots of things to offer.