Thursday, January 24, 2008

A Bit of Local Flavor

The term “local delicacy” always seems to refer to something that is an acquired taste. In some cases the taste of the “local delicacy” is so objectively unpleasant that enjoying it requires some form of mass delusion on the part of the locals. The first time I went to French Polynesia, I was lucky enough to attend a traditional feast thrown by some locals on the island of Moorea where I got to sample several traditional Tahitian dishes. These included pit roasted pig, long-cooked taro greens, and the local delicacy fafaru. At the time, I had no idea that fafaru would later be featured on Survivor: Marquesas as a challenge food that contestants had to keep down to win the contest. What’s fafaru? Here is a sample recipe: (1) Place shrimp or fish in a jar and cover with sea water; (2) allow to sit for 3-5 days until fish is mostly decomposed and disintegrating; (3) strain fish bits out and retain the fermented fish water for making fafaru; (4) pour fermented fish water over beautiful fresh sushi-grade tuna and marinate for 10-15 minutes; (5) pull fish out of fermented fish water and serve immediately with a splash of fermented coconut milk. The only way I can describe the smell is “dumpstery” (or, for the British audience, “rubbish-binny”). The taste, well, if you can get it past your nose, isn’t as bad as you might expect. I didn’t have seconds. Why I ate fafaru but can’t bring myself to sample jellied eels is an open question. Perhaps I've learned my lesson.

The site of my fafaru experience. I liked the view better.

Most local delicacies aren’t nearly as hardcore as fafaru. Some of the truly smelly cheeses of the world get close, Limburger for example, which smells like pure ammonia with an overwhelming footy note. In the San Francisco Bay Area, we don’t have anything quite so bad, unless you count the Hangtown Fry (anyone for a bacon and oyster omelet?). San Francisco’s sourdough bread, a major source of local pride and something that makes my stomach rumble in appreciation just thinking about it, while not in the same league as rotting fish bits, is definitely an acquired taste. Maggie and I were once eating breakfast at a hotel in the California Gold Country next to a table with an Irish family at it. One of them exclaimed, “I think this bread is spoiled!” And another said, “Oh, that must be the sour dough!” in this charmingly exaggerated Irish accent. We giggled to ourselves, much as the Tahitians giggled at me as I tried to swallow fafaru, although without the pointing and knee slapping.

The funny thing, and something that most San Franciscans may not want to hear, is that sourdough is not a San Francisco invention. In fact, sourdough is one of the oldest forms of leavened bread. All it takes to make sourdough is grain flour, yeasts, and the ubiquitous Lactobacillus bacteria to convert sugars to acids to make the sour flavor. Archaeologists have examined loaves of bread found in Egyptian tombs and have found evidence that they were leavened using a fairly typical sourdough method with wild yeasts and emmer wheat. And yes, there are indeed archaeologists that study ancient bread; imagine explaining that one at cocktail parties. Before the rise in popularity (pardon the pun) of cultured yeasts in the early 1900s, which are more predictable to bake with and easily produced in large quantities, sourdough leavening made with local wild yeasts was essentially the only may to make yeast-leavened bread, the level of sourness varying according to how much Lactobacillus was naturally present or intentionally added to the leavening.

Further proof of the cultural importance of Egyptian sourdough

In San Francisco the folklore goes as such: sourdough can only be made in the Bay Area because of the presence of a particular local bacterium Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis, attempts to ship this bacterium to other parts of the world have ended in failure, and there is some mystical power to San Francisco fog that makes the bacterium especially happy and the bread especially sour. The first part is true: Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis is very real and clearly named after where it was first found. The second part is totally not true. The third bit about the fog I’ll leave alone because I like it. The truth is that San Francisco sourdough is often notably sourer than other sourdoughs around the world, but I’ve now had sourdough in Maine and, just this last week, here in London. It may not have quite the same tang as the super-sours of San Francisco, but it is close enough for me.

Real sourdough in London


Phil said...

Hey Mag and Andy!

I've been following your posts, and it's been really fun knowing what's been going on with you two lately. I miss the aquarium fish, too (and I don't even own any...)! And Andy, that half-baked attempt to get a rise out of me with your bread references was not altogether unsuccessful. Your puns are truly a staple of good humor.


Andy M. said...

Just trying butter you up by giving you a slice of life here in crusty old London, Phil. We can't of course tell you everything, just a few bits and crumbs.

cabby said...

I have nothing to add to the ongoing rise of bacteria in my favorite starch, Just thought I'd add "skip" to synonyms for "dumpster" spoken on your side of the pond!

Andy M. said...

True, "skip" is a better British synonym for dumpster, but somehow "skippy" doesn't sound as gross as "dumpstery". Unfortunately, dumpster is only used in the US and a bit in Australia somehow. Although with all of the CSI they show here, I bet people now know the word dumpster.

Margaret said...

Andy - that loaf look suspiciously like the amazing bread from a Nov. 2006 NYT article... it makes fantastic bread and you can try to capture your own London yeast to make UK sourdough. (I can send the recipe if you need it!) Alice told me about your blog - glad you guys have met up in the UK and hope to keep in touch! -Margaret M.