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Gina Mallet Interview

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By Malcolm Jolley

Malcolm Jolley interviews Gina Mallet, author of Last Chance to Eat.

Gremolata: McDonald's and some of the other big food corporations don't get as hard a time in your book, as I would of thought. In fact sometimes (like when they promise to get rid of trans-fats) they come out on the side of angels. Are we too mean to big food business?

Gina Mallet: Yes, McDonald's is a white knight!

Gremolata: But they have such a horrible reputation. Explain.

Gina Mallet: Food biz is just that. If the public buys what the food biz sells, then food biz's like McDonald's will happily continue to sell. If however, the consumer starts to protest and stops buying, the food biz reacts positively by trying to adjust its practices. The supermarkets would never have themselves included organic produce in their stores unless the public had asked for it. McDonald's would never have stopped buying battery hens' eggs unless it was convinced that the hen-huggers, animal activists, were affecting their business. In the matter of ADR, the technology that strips cow carcasses so thoroughly that chips of bone were showing up in pizza toppings, McDonald's reacted quite swiftly to consumer protests and banned it. McDonald's is always trying to stay one step ahead of the consumer: when criticized for the fat content of burgers, it brought in chicken burgers, etc. It now offers wraps with veggies.

People hate McDonald's because it represents American imperialism. And they hate McDonald's because they hate themselves - or their lack of control. Fast food is insidious and overeating is easy. McDonald's is still a bargain and lots of poor people get their meals there, even Chinese people! So critics, notably those on the left, sometimes like to make out that McDonald's is exploiting the poor. But isn't this patronizing the poor and saying they can't tell the difference between good and bad food? The reason everyone, or almost everyone eats fast food is that it tastes good.

Gremolata: Last Chance to Eat chronicles the decline of so many delicious foods: fresh eggs, dry-aged beef, farmhouse cheeses. Are there any foods that are getting better, or are at least reverting back to a higher quality?

Gina Mallet: Yes there are. Tomatoes to start with. The commercial tomato is probably the most despised vegetable. We in Toronto only get good tomatoes out of market gardens in the summer and even then the quality is uneven because field tomatoes, the bulk of the crop, are grown from cheap and thus inferior seeds and picked unripe. The field tomatoes imported from California through the winter are worse. But hydroponic growing is improving tomatoes and lengthening their availability - even in Canada. The small citrussy-smelling tomato from the Netherlands, they're called Holland tomatoes, are the nearest thing I've tasted to the truly great tomato: the one grown in someone's garden. Hydroponics has been criticized as producing perfect but tasteless produce - but the Dutch have developed great seeds, expensive ones I should add, and a technique for growing tomatoes slowly in water and under glass. These Holland tomatoes are available in Toronto from March through November. Canada is also beginning to produce good hydroponic tomatoes - as Northern countries get more light, hydroponic growing is very promising for the future of fresh vegetables in Canada. And consumers love the way Holland tomatoes come on a string. In fact, lots of tomatoes are now coming on the vine. The whole thing was an accident. Back in the early nineties there was a glut of round red tomatoes in the world and the Dutch tomato growers were hurting. One was so fed up he just chopped up his vines and took the tomatoes to market prepared to dump them. Instead, consumers rushed to buy them

I also see a future in genetically engineered fruit and vegetables. Researchers have worked for a long time to improve the taste of tomatoes generally - they're trying to transfer the intense flavour of the small tomato to larger tomatoes. (Incidentally, I don't agree with those who claim that the old giant heritage tomatoes taste best. I think their size is against it. Smaller is always better.) So far the only GE tomato has been a disaster - the Flavr Savr was withdrawn quickly. It was tasteless. But GE has the potential of making tomatoes taste better by transferring genes easily among varieties. Ditto strawberries. Again, researchers have tried for hundreds of years to breed strawberries to taste as various as wild strawberries. A handful of wild strawberries will taste of oranges, plums, pineapple, you name it. But the cultivated European strawberry, the common eating strawberry now, is chromosomally incompatible with wild strawberries. Gene splicing however could transfer wild strawberry taste to cultivated strawberries.

I Have to add, as well, that farmed salmon can be not only as good as wild salmon - but it is more reliably good. I'm talking here of the very good farmed salmon, say the organic Atlantic salmon from Ireland. New Brunswick salmon is good too. Restauranteurs welcomed the first farmed Atlantic salmon from Norway because it was reliably good. It's sometimes forgotten that wild food is naturally variable. Before the days of uniform standards, eaters had little choice but to accept what was available. But now a lot of food tastes the same in a reliable way. It may not, as critics charge, taste as good as it did, but remember, our memory of food is always selective because we don't eat in isolation but in a context - what the meal represented, when it was presented, with whom and so on....and food often tastes best when the circumstances are just right.

Used responsibly, i think genetic engineering may produce more tasty food.

Gremolata: What are you eating or buying these days, in the midst of a grey Toronto winter?

Gina Mallet: Oroblanco grapefruits - pale volleyball fruits, very sweet and the peel is tart when candied. Seville oranges - here for just a month and sour, wonderful for candying and saving, wonderful for any orange dessert when mixed with a sweet orange like tangelo/mandarin in Claudia Roden's wonderful middle eastern orange cake. Purple beets for borscht. Brussels sprouts for sweet and sour Brussels sprout salad created by chef Andy Little at Evermay Inn on the Delaware. C'est Bon, 15% fat fresh goat cheese from St. Mary's, Ontario. Beenleigh Blue, an absolutely wonderful blue cheese from England with a sweetish paste. Mashed celeriac to go with Tuscan roast chicken where the stuffing of bread, mushrooms, pancetta, chicken livers goes under the skin (I always buy kosher chickens). Canned Marzano tomatoes from Italy for sauce...

And I'm on a diet!

Gremolata: Speaking of Claudia Roden, do you have a list of favourite cookbooks or food writers?

Gina Mallet: Yes, I use Jacques Pepin's Complete Techniques, Bonnie Stern's Essentials of Home Cooking, Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking Vol. 1, The New American Chefs, Edouard de Pomiane's French Cooking in Ten Minutes, The River Cottage Book of Meat by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Nigel Slater's Real Food.

Gremolata: Some wine writers are bemoaning the loss wine diversity as indigenous vines are ripped up to plant varietals more appealing to modern palates. On the other hand, there is also a widespread feeling that new techniques are producing better wines, consistently for a wider audience. What's your take on the wine market and what are you drinking these days?

Gina Mallet: I'm not a wine expert so this is just a light take on subject. Yes I suspect that techniques are lots better now, and there is lots of good wine out there and I like the different and "new" varieties: Malbec from
Argentina and Carmeniere from Chile. I look forward to screwtop bottles, too.

But I live in Ontario and get a very poor selection of good reasonably priced wines. The general list of the LCBO is pop, mostly. The biggest conglomerates are over-represented and lots of bottles in cute shapes. Vintages is horrendously expensive. If I go to Century Liquors in Rochester, I can buy much better wine at better prices - notably reasonably priced and drinkable whites, and ditto Bordeaux. I literally can't find a red Graves in Toronto that isn't far too expensive or not very good. I read the Washington Post wine writer [Ben Giliberti] each week because I find his selections interesting - but too often it's academic as I can't get the wines here. When I go on the Sherry-Lehmann website, I see all kinds of deals for goodish wine. It's frustrating.

Gremolata: If you could plan the perfect meal, what would it be?

Gina Mallet: Champagne. Taittinger, I think. Home cured anchovies. Terrine de foie gras and curly toast. Grilled Dover sole, steamed potatoes, tiny green beans (served with Montrachet or Chablis). Cheese: tommes au raisin, fresh goat cheese, comte (Red Graves, Clos Fourtet). Oeufs a la neige, beaten egg whites floating on glass of Rayne Vigneau Sauternes. Turkish coffee. Chartreuse.

Gremolata: Yum! One very last question: how do you home cure anchovies?

Gina Mallet: Judy Rodgers' Zuni Cafe Cookbook has a good recipe. Use fresh anchovies no more than 4 inches long. Expect about 20 fish per pound and allow about two pounds of rock salt per pound of fish. Gut fish by hand, pinching and twisting off the heads which should tug the viscera from the belly at the same time. Then use your index finger to pry open the belly, sliding it under the vertebrae to wipe the cavity clean. Rinse each fish under cold running water. Loosely layer fish in a colander, scattering with about one quarter of the rock salt as you go. Let the anchovies drain in colander overnight in the fridge. Next day, carefully repack fish, layering with remaining rock salt in wide jars or earthenware crocks. Cover tightly and refrigerate. Thus preserved, anchovies will keep for nine months.

To serve, rinse fish, then soak in cool water until pliable (about five minutes). Next, use your fingers to ease the fillets free of the central bone. Rinse each fillet, rubbing gently to remove scales, collarbone, remaining fins. Taste and keep rinsing until fish is only mildly salty. Dry them between absorbent towels, then place them in extra virgin olive oil to just cover and serve with flakes of parmigianno reggiano and sliced celery, Ni├žoise olives and a squeeze of lemon.


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