Au­tumn food tales from ru­ral France

Of Chi­nese and French food, lead in rice and for­ag­ing for mush­rooms.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Taste - Cu­ri­ous Cook Chris Chan star2@thes­

The Hid­den France tour

A few weeks ago, I was walk­ing my dog in the evening when a coach stopped out­side the ho­tel in the vil­lage cen­tre and started dis­gorg­ing a gag­gle of Chi­nese tourists. They saw us and started talk­ing to me ex­cit­edly in Man­darin, a di­alect which I do not un­der­stand – so I re­sponded in Can­tonese which ag­i­tated them even more. Even­tu­ally I found out from their tour guide that the group was do­ing a tour of “Hid­den France” (or some­thing like that), vis­it­ing places which are way off the usual tourist routes. Hence their sur­prise at meet­ing a Chi­nese man walk­ing a pug in a re­mote French vil­lage at one of their first stops.

From a de­scrip­tion of their itin­er­ary around the vil­lage the next day, I doubt they will ever come back. The plan was a visit to some lo­cal mi­nor his­tor­i­cal sites, then a cheese farm which I know to be ex­traor­di­nar­ily odor­ous, so much so even French peo­ple gag when vis­it­ing. That was then to be fol­lowed by a typ­i­cal lo­cal lunch at the farm restau­rant – this would usu­ally be a starter plate of var­i­ous pates and ter­rines, then a dish called “truf­fade” com­pris­ing of cooked cheeses with po­ta­toes, ba­con and lo­cally-cured dark ham, fol­lowed by a se­lec­tion of re­gional cheeses and a cream-based dessert.

Con­sid­er­ing that statis­tics show around 90% of Chi­nese are ge­net­i­cally lac­tose-in­tol­er­ant, this does not bode well for their “Hid­den France” plans for the rest of the day af­ter lunch. Pre­sum­ably, the group would also be plied with strong wines as per the lo­cal cus­tom for lunches – this again would not help the sta­tis­ti­cal 30+% of the group un­able to digest al­co­hol ef­fi­ciently. If you are cu­ri­ous why, please read, “The night be­fore and morn­ing af­ter” (Star2, Dec 27, 2015).*

Chi­nese dairy in­dus­try

For fun, I looked into China’s statis­tics for dairy pro­duc­tion, and found some sur­pris­ing facts. The coun­try is now the world’s largest im­porter of fresh/liq­uid milk – and on top of that, China is also the third largest pro­ducer of milk glob­ally at around 36 mil­lion tonnes a year. By com­par­i­son, France pro­duces less than 24 mil­lion tonnes, and is ranked sev­enth. How­ever, the tol­er­ance of lac­tose within the coun­try has not in­creased, so 90% of China’s pop­u­la­tion will feel some neg­a­tive ef­fects when con­sum­ing dairy prod­ucts past their bod­ies’ suf­fer­ance lev­els. This anoma­lous be­hav­iour ap­pears to be linked to dairy foods be­ing per­ceived as a sign of affluence and “fash­ion­able” as it is very much a West­ern tra­di­tion. And cu­ri­ously, in­creas­ing na­tion­wide dairy con­sump­tion has been part of Chi­nese gov­ern­ment pol­icy since 2007.

And in case you are won­der­ing, no, I do not un­der­stand it ei­ther – maybe the Chi­nese re­ally like ice cream, pizza or some­thing like that.

Is this even worse?

How­ever, de­spite the likely dis­com­fort that would be suf­fered by some of the in­trepid Chi­nese tourists in the vil­lage, their woes might pale com­pared to peo­ple eat­ing an­other type of food.

The nu­tri­tional la­bel pic­tured above is from a packet of bas­mati rice bought in Kuala Lumpur by a friend and sent to me here. If the la­bel is cor­rect, then it is cu­ri­ous and alarm­ing to see both potas­sium and lead paired to­gether as an item in the nu­tri­tional list. For one, the potas­sium con­tent of bas­mati rice hov­ers at around a max­i­mum of 55mg per 100g, which means that the lead con­tent can­not be much less than 96.5mg per 100g. For an­other, lead is not a nu­tri­tional metal by any def­i­ni­tion: it is in fact a toxic metal linked to sev­eral dan­ger­ous con­di­tions, in­clud­ing brain dam­age in young chil­dren, car­dio­vas­cu­lar prob­lems and kid­ney dam­age in adults.

Fi­nally, 96.5mg of lead per 100g is a stag­ger­ing amount, con­sid­er­ing that the EU Food Safety Au­thor­ity and the Codex Ali­men­ta­r­ius Com­mis­sion (jointly run by the UN Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­ga­ni­za­tion and the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion) both es­tab­lished a max­i­mum of 0.02mg per 100g of rice. This rice would be banned in the EU, and should not be con­sumed any­where else.

Af­ter dou­ble-check­ing the data, I im­me­di­ately ad­vised my friend to throw away the rice, prefer­ably with­out touch­ing the grains.


Out of cu­rios­ity, I did some re­search on the avail­able op­tions to treat lead poi­son­ing, and the main tech­nique is the use of var­i­ous com­pounds to re­move the lead from body tis­sues, par­tic­u­larly blood. This in­volves a chem­i­cal process called “che­la­tion”, which is de­fined as the bind­ing of chelat­ing com­pounds to var­i­ous metal ions, form­ing less harm­ful chelates which can then be ex­creted from the body. Che­la­tion can only re­move from the body a pro­por­tion of the tar­geted metal – it does not re­pair any dam­age that had al­ready been done. An in­ter­est­ing 2016 pa­per from the Amer­i­can Col­lege of Car­di­ol­ogy on the re­sults of the TACT (Trial to As­sess Che­la­tion Ther­apy) study on 1,708 peo­ple found that test sub­jects ex­posed to lead in­creased the ex­cre­tion of body lead up to 3,830% us­ing the chelat­ing agent ede­tate dis­odium. Per­haps more sig­nif­i­cantly, the TACT study in­di­cated that ma­jor car­diac events were re­duced by 18% in nor­mal sub­jects and a re­mark­able 52% in sub­jects with di­a­betes (a dis­ease as­so­ci­ated with a higher risk of car­diac prob­lems) by che­la­tion ther­apy us­ing ede­tate dis­odium.

Other claimed chelat­ing agents are 2,3 Dimer­cap­to­suc­cinic Acid (DMSA), Racemic-2,3-dimer­capto1-propane­sul­fonic acid (DMPS) and B-dimethyl­cys­teine (peni­cil­lamine) though there is not much data about their ef­fec­tive­ness and some of them have no­table ad­verse side ef­fects. There is also a quack in­dus­try based around che­la­tion ther­apy which tries to ob­scure the facts be­hind var­i­ous che­la­tion agents. I hope you are care­ful about what you in­gest and never have to un­dergo che­la­tion ther­apy.


Au­tumn is the sea­son for gath­er­ing wild mush­rooms in the French coun­try­side, a fun hobby for me but prob­a­bly very dan­ger­ous if it is not done with ex­pert knowl­edge as it can lead to a fa­tal dose of mycetism (mush­room poi­son­ing). In any case, I try not to overdo it due to the com­plex na­ture of tox­ins found even in edi­ble wild mush­rooms – more on this later.

Mush­room hunt­ing is known as “la chasse aux champignons” or “la cueil­lette de champignons” and is one of the na­tional hob­bies of France, with peo­ple grin­ning with an­tic­i­pa­tion when em­bark­ing on early morn­ing trips to their se­cret lo­ca­tions. De­spite their en­thu­si­asm (or prob­a­bly be­cause of it), over a thou­sand cases of wild mush­room poi­son­ing are treated each year with sev­eral deaths re­ported. Some se­vere cases also re­quire liver trans­plants, so it is a hobby fraught with sig­nif­i­cant risks – there are sev­eral thou­sand species of mush­rooms but only a hand­ful are edi­ble. In many ways, wild mush­rooms are to the French what fugu fish is to the Ja­panese.

In the forests, I very of­ten come across the se­ri­ously toxic amanita phal­loides (com­monly called “death caps”), hal­lu­cino­genic amanita mus­caria, blood co­ag­u­lat­ing clavulinop­sis fusiformis, stom­ach cramp-in­duc­ing en­toloma sin­u­a­tum, etc. But I only for­age for two types spe­cific to the re­gion: a species known lo­cally as “rouges” even though it is not red in colour (cli­to­cybe nuda), and “cèpe des pins de mon­tagne” (bo­le­tus pini­cola).

Even though I of­ten gather the two types of mush­rooms to­gether, I do not mix them when cook­ing – and they usu­ally do need long cook­ing to de­na­ture some of the com­pounds in­her­ent within them. There is no sci­en­tific rea­son why I do not mix them – it is a per­sonal pref­er­ence as each mush­room will have a group of de­na­tured com­pounds af­ter cook­ing and I feel it is not nec­es­sary to mix the two groups to­gether.

The poi­sons found in deadly mush­rooms are known as my­co­tox­ins and no amount of cook­ing will de­stroy th­ese com­pounds. The most dan­ger­ous my­co­toxin is prob­a­bly al­pha-amadin which is found in death caps. This toxin will de­stroy the liver within three days of in­ges­tion, of­ten sooner.

Other deadly my­co­tox­ins are orel­la­nine (kid­ney fail­ure), mus­carine (neu­ro­mus­cu­lar dis­or­der), monomethyl­hy­drazine (brain dam­age), ibotenic acid (nerve cell dam­age) and er­go­tamine (car­dio­vas­cu­lar fail­ure).

De­spite the sober­ing dan­gers of my­co­tox­ins, good wild mush­rooms are still de­li­cious cooked with but­ter, onions, gar­lic, eggs and sprin­kled over with chopped chives. Just do not ever pick up wild mush­rooms if you are not sure.

*The link to this story is pro­vided at

Cu­ri­ous Cook ap­pears on the sec­ond and fourth Sun­day of the month.

‘Rouges’ are mush­rooms that are safe to eat. — Pho­tos: CHRIS CHAN The nu­tri­tional con­tent la­bel on a bag of rice.

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