An article in yesterday's newspaper interested me enough to open an old topic that I planned to write about.
It is about Massimo Francesco Marcone, an assistant professor at the University of Guelph. He traveled the world in search of some bizarre delicacies.
He even wrote a book on that. It is called In Bad Taste? The science and adventures behind food delicacies. An article is also on the Campus News.
Here is a transcript of the article, courtesy of The Record.
Not before breakfast!
Not into exotic foods? These bizarre 'delicacies' are definitely not for you
MATHEW McCARTHY, RECORD STAFF
(Jun 16, 2007)
How far would you travel to sink your teeth into an exotic cheese seething with maggots?
Would you go further for coffee brewed from beans that had passed through the rear-end of a rainforest beastie?
How about tasting a golden oil made from a nut excreted by a tree-climbing goat?
If you'd asked Massimo Marcone those questions a while ago, he might have hesitated, too.
But that was then and this is now.
Marcone, 43, a friendly, energetic food scientist at University of Guelph, has made it his specialty investigating -- and eating -- some of the world's most bizarre food delicacies.
He wants to know if they're really what devotees believe them to be.
Or, to put it more crassly, why don't we get sick testing some of these drinks and foods?
"In many cases, the research that I do is research that first makes you laugh and then makes you think," Marcone said.
"These are all common foods with an uncommon twist."
Granted, most of us will never risk illness from Indonesia's Kopi Luwak coffee.
Also known as "scat coffee," it's reputed, at $600 a pound, to be the most expensive beverage in the world.
Italy's Casu Frazigu Cheese, a.k.a. rotten or maggot cheese, is $100 a pound.
Perhaps a little edible bird's nest from Malaysia, made from the saliva of a swiftlet bird, would be more to your liking. It's $80 a bowl.
Marcone relates his edible adventures in a new book called In Bad Taste? The Adventures and Science Behind Food Delicacies.
It's a journal and a travelogue, seasoned heavily with scientific exploration.
The scientist was introduced to the gastronomic dark side a few years ago when a TV producer asked him to research Kopi Luwak coffee.
He thought it was an urban myth when he heard how the coffee was made. A nocturnal, catlike creature called a palm civet in Indonesia eats only the sweetest and ripest red coffee cherries, he was told.
The fruit is ingested, leaving the coffee beans to travel through the gastrointestinal tract and end up in a pile of poop under the trees.
People collect the beans, and wash, roast and brew them into a coffee that is in such high demand that there's a waiting list to pay big bucks for even a little.
Taking no chances, Marcone wore a bio-containment hood to test the beans. He used a high-powered scanning electron microscope and other state-of-the-art equipment in his lab.
The results whetted his curiosity, if not his appetite.
The beans were less contaminated than normal beans, despite the fact that they'd been found in feces.
Marcone brewed himself a cup. It tasted like dark chocolate; it was earthy and musty, he wrote.
But he still didn't know why the beans were so clean or what possessed people 200 years ago to start poking through poo to get them.
For those answers, he'd have to go to the Indonesian island of Sumatra and see for himself.
"To me, food was not merely sustenance, but something more: it was a vibrant, evolving piece of history, and my job was to unlock its secrets," wrote Marcone.
His career as exotic food myth-buster was launched.
The role has taken the assistant food science professor on a roller-coaster ride to Indonesia, Ethiopia, Morocco, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Italy, Thailand and Mexico.
He has joined the hunt for the elusive morel in Canada and the U.S. Now he has his own patch. He won't tell you where.
Outside North America, Marcone encountered gangsters, smugglers and a tribe with a headhunting history. He boated on a crocodile-infested river, met marauding rats, and escaped becoming an Ethiopian lion's lunch.
He visited secret locations surrounded by perimeter walls and guard dogs; and he fought claustrophobia to float in a leaky boat through a dark cave filled with water.
"Would I do it again? Never. It was the longest hour of my life."
He felt the risks. The tsunami took friends in Indonesia, two days after he'd left the country. Eight United Nations workers were murdered a few kilometres away from him, a couple of hours before he reached their location, along the Sudanese border.
He also experienced the beauty of rainforests, and hospitality in unexpected places from unexpected people.
Media have called Marcone the Indiana Jones of the food world.
But Marcone, who grew up in Guelph, feels nothing like a raider of the lost ark.
He admits he's as nervous as anyone around rats that aren't caged, and he misses his daily showers and clean clothes when he's in the jungle.
He says he's more like Mr. Magoo.
"I'm an extremely shy person," said Marcone, an articulate, soft-spoken man with a sense of humour, a strong faith in God and a passion for collecting authentic Edison lamps.
"I'm very careful. I don't take high risks. I'm a slow driver," he said. "I drive a Honda Civic."
He is also intensely curious. He's a collector of sorts.
"Just wait until you see my office," he laughs.
Open the door to Marcone's office in the university's food science building, and you'll see a large display case of Edison lamps dating back as far as 1880.
More glass cabinets contain exotic foods he has tested, and two stuffed civet cats (road kill and death by natural causes) peer at a visitor, while a huge whale tooth leans against the wall.
There are dozens of photographs and teaching awards; and a large neon sign, given to him by admiring students, flashes: "Ask Massimo."
The university values Marcone's gift for teaching and his ability to communicate interesting research to the public.
"He is an award-winning teacher who delights and inspires students in the classroom," said Maureen Mancuso, vice-president academic at University of Guelph.
He's a "a dedicated, hard-working researcher whose work has broad appeal in Canada and around the world."
Marcone prodded civet feces in Indonesia, pried empty nests off cliff walls in Malaysia and watched goats climb argan trees in Morocco.
In Italy, he chomped down on the famous Casu Frazigu cheese whose sale is outlawed by the Italian government, but which can be found at local celebrations.
While Marcone knew the cheese might smell, he was unprepared for the noise it made.
The cheese woke him one night. Thinking he heard the
clatter of rain, Marcone dashed out on the balcony, where he had placed it, to rescue the smelly specimen.
It wasn't raining. What he'd heard was the sound of maggots jumping and hitting the inside of the cheese container.
"Believe it or not, they go like this, tuk, tuk, tuk," he said, imitating the sound. "You know when they're going to jump. They curl up and spring."
Marcone needed a little help eating the hyperactive cheese after his tests showed it was safe.
"They refrigerated them so they kind of fall asleep," he said. "It actually tasted almost like Asiago cheese. It had a bite to it.''
Through his adventures and painstaking lab analysis, Marcone was able to get to the bottom of each delicacy and touch on its cultural significance.
What's next? Marcone is interested in testing foods that have been eaten by indigenous peoples in Canada and Australia -- perhaps roasted beaver tail, whale oil or honey ants.
He'll go almost anywhere a new food delicacy takes him.
"This is the best time of my life."
Here are some links to things he wrote about, and some more too.
Bird Nest soup
The bird nest soup is made from the nests of a species of Swifts that lives in caves in south east Asia. The nest is made out of the dried saliva of the bird.
Kopi Luwak (Civet Coffee)
Kopi Luwak is made from coffee beans that are eaten by the civet cat, which is not really a feline, but rather a viverrid. The beans are passed in the feces of the animal and then collected and sold for a huge amount of money.
Argan oil comes from the nut of the Argan tree in south west Morocco. The tree only occurs in a limited area and the production of the oil is a manual labor intensive process, and hence the oil is expensive.
The production of the oil from the nuts does not depend on them being ingested, and that is indeed an urban legend.
Dabb (spiny tailed lizard)
The totally vegetarian spiny tailed lizard is hunted and eaten in central and eastern Arabia, where it is considered a delicacy. Here is a series of photos of preparing it and the dish made from its meat (another set of photos). Here you can find the recipe, in Arabic.
Casu Marzu, maggot cheese
The article mentions Casu Farzigu, which is also known as Casu Marzu. This is cheese that has live maggots in them. They are officially banned by the government, but sold to those who ask for it. Also on Everything2.
Milbenkäse is a German cheese that has been exposed to mite causing fermentation to give it its flavor.
Mimolette is a French cheese that is also infested intentionally with cheese mites.
Meshsh is an Egyptian delicacy. It is made from white cheese similar to feta. It is aged in earthenware jars (ballas بلاص), with hot chilli peppers added and salt. It sometimes gets infested by maggots of the cheese fly, and although this is not intentional nor desired, it is still consumed by many with the maggots put aside.
Molokheya is one of the national dishes in Egypt. It is not a yucky dishy per se, but the fact that is has a lot of mucilage (and hence slimy) in it and it is green colored is often a put off for many Westerners.
Pigeons, Doves and birds
Eating pigeons is very common in Egypt as they are considered a delicacy, and not cheap. For many in the West, this is disgusting. More so for smaller birds that
The same goes for rabbits in some places in Europe. In Egypt, France, and parts of the USA and Canada, they are considered a delicacy. In others, they are not eaten at all.
While shellfish from the sea are prohibited in the Old Testament, not many apart from Jews follow this prohibition. Snails living on the land are not eaten readily in many places of the world. However, the escargot of the French has made its way to many other places, including Quebec and other places in North America.
Termites are consumed in many places in Africa, either raw or roasted.
Caterpillars and grubs
Caterpillars are a source of protein around the world. Huge ones several inches long and few inches wide live in tropical Africa (e.g. Congo) and is collected and sold in markets for consumption. In Australia, grubs are also consumed.
From another article I wrote a few years ago.
Many people do not know that locusts are edible in many parts of the world. The book of Leviticus permits eating them, in contrast with other insects, which are forbidden. The gospel of Matthew and of Mark says that John the Baptist's food was locusts and wild honey. Similary, nomadic Arabs are known to eat locusts, as prophet Muhammad demonstrated, and this practice has been made acceptable in Islam. Two creative Australians have rebranded locusts as 'Sky Prawns' and published a book with more than 20 recipes for eating them. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has a frequently asked questions on locusts, that includes some recipes for cooking locusts. If you have a recipe, send it to them, and they will publish it. In Saudi Arabia, it is considered a delicacy, and fetches up to 200 US Dollars per kilogram! However, because of heavy use of pesticides to spray the swarms, eating them may be unsafe in such areas. While the government in Yemen is preparing to fight the swarms, the Yemenis are welcoming the locusts in order to eat them! Whether roasted, salted or boiled, they are an eagerly awaited delicacy over there.
The eyes of a sheep is considered a delicacy in some parts. In some parts of Arabia, they are given to the guest of honor on the table. There are stories of Westerners presented with this honor only to get shocked, or even fainting!
Cattle and sheep testicles
Testicles of bulls and sheep are eaten in some places. In Egypt, sheep's testicles are cooked in the "great feast" where sheep are slaughtered. I have eaten them a long time ago and they are similar to liver and kidney although softer.
Dogs are eaten in the Philippines, China and Thailand, and considered a delicacy.
In England, the fox is hunted as a sport for the high society. Little known is that it is eaten too. Here is a fox recipe.
In Arctic Canada, Ian Wright, host of the TV show Globe Trekker, was invited to eat seal feces. He declined.
Well, I am about to go eat now. Hope your stomach is not upset.