11/6/14

Crazy Cats and Brain Parasites


Brain parasitesIt reads like a script for a scary movie: an alien parasite invading our brains, taking control of our minds, changing our behaviour silently, secretly; making us do what it wants. And it’s happening now, in homes across Canada and the USA. Alien puppet masters over-running the nation, one household at a time.

But it’s not fiction, although my scenario is a trifle exaggerated.

They’re not some right-wing aliens from outer space subverting our natural goodness and compassion; not some cyber-bullying bloggers dripping political poison into the gullible minds of their readers.They are microscopic, found worldwide, on land and in water – including saltwater – and may be infecting people you know this very minute. Or even you. They’re Toxoplasma gondii; an amoebic parasite pretty much capable of infecting any warm-blooded creature.

Where they breed, however, is in your cat, and are then excreted in their feces:

Although T. gondii can infect, be transmitted by, and asexually reproduce within humans and virtually all other warm-blooded animals, the parasite can sexually reproduce only within the intestines of members of the cat family (felids). Felids are therefore defined as the definitive hosts of T. gondii, with all other hosts defined as intermediate hosts.

As an owner of four cats and having had cats most of my life, this is troubling. But not entirely new. Back in 2012, in an article in The Atlantic, titled, “How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy,” Kathleen MacAuliffe wrote:

The parasite, which is excreted by cats in their feces, is called Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii or Toxo for short) and is the microbe that causes toxoplasmosis—the reason pregnant women are told to avoid cats’ litter boxes. Since the 1920s, doctors have recognized that a woman who becomes infected during pregnancy can transmit the disease to the fetus, in some cases resulting in severe brain damage or death. T. gondii is also a major threat to people with weakened immunity: in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, before good antiretroviral drugs were developed, it was to blame for the dementia that afflicted many patients at the disease’s end stage. Healthy children and adults, however, usually experience nothing worse than brief flu-like symptoms before quickly fighting off the protozoan, which thereafter lies dormant inside brain cells—or at least that’s the standard medical wisdom.

But if Flegr is right, the “latent” parasite may be quietly tweaking the connections between our neurons, changing our response to frightening situations, our trust in others, how outgoing we are, and even our preference for certain scents. And that’s not all. He also believes that the organism contributes to car crashes, suicides, and mental disorders such as schizophrenia. When you add up all the different ways it can harm us, says Flegr, “Toxoplasma might even kill as many people as malaria, or at least a million people a year.”

To be fair to cats, the parasites live in soil, too, so they’re hard to avoid. Plus they’re also found in undercooked meat. You like your steak blue? Or bloody rare? You may be inviting this parasite into your brain. And also if you drink contaminated water or eat uncooked or undercooked shellfish. Those raw oysters you love? Parasite havens. Yum.
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10/5/14

The Perfect Cuppa


teaI was incited to blog about the “perfect” cuppa by an article in The Guardian titled, “How to make tea correctly (according to science): milk first.”

As a user of many tea bags – a single bag per cup – I must protest. You cannot possibly get a decent cup of tea that way. The milk cools the water too much for the tea to steep properly. It comes out like that stuff they serve in fast food places: greyish, diluted warm milk with a dreary tea bag floating in it like a dead fish.

Sorry, but there’s gotta be a better cuppa.

First let’s get something straight: a cup of tea is something with actual tea in it. Calling herbal drinks without leaves of the camellia sinensis plant “tea” is an aberration. They are merely herbal infusions. Calling them a “tea” is like calling a cup of Bovril a “coffee.” Or calling a glass of Coke a “brandy.” Companies may combine herbs with real tea, and in which case they may be called a “tea” (albeit grudgingly in some cases). I will brook no exceptions. Ginger-sleepy-zinger-sunshine is not tea.

George Orwell took a stand on tea (the real stuff, not some New Age infusion), calling it one of the “main stays of civilization in this country.” With that statement, I would agree. But we part ways shortly after. The devil is in the details.

He wrote about tea in his 1946 essay, A Nice Cup of Tea. He turned the whole thing into a rather authoritarian manifesto with 11 stuffy rules, paraphrased below:

  1. Only use Indian or Ceylonese (Assam) tea.
  2. Make it in small quantities in a teapot.
  3. Warm the pot beforehand.
  4. Tea should be strong.
  5. Put the tea straight into the pot: don’t use strainers, muslin bags or other devices to “imprison” the tea.
  6. Take the teapot to the kettle and not the other way around
  7. Stir the tea after pouring the water, or better, give the pot a good shake.
  8. Drink out of a good mug not a shallow cup.
  9. Pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea.
  10. Pour tea into the cup first before the milk.
  11. Drink tea without sugar.

Let’s start by taking rule nine out of the mix. No one gets milk with cream on the top any more. I’m old enough to remember those glass milk bottles with the funny necks where the cream rose. But today it’s an anachronism. Technology has advanced.

The rest of the rules? Well after a few days searching online and through my books, I can find no consensus on exactly what process makes the perfect cuppa. There are many pages of rules and suggestions, some that contradict what others say. Times and temperatures differ. But let’s look at Orwell’s rules in more detail.
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09/24/14

Extra Virginity


Extra VirginityFor some time before I got this book, I’ve been aware that there is more to olive oil than meets the eye. Or tongue. How much more really was startling. When I started reading Tom Mueller’s 2012 book, Extra Virginity: the Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, I was simply amazed at how little I really knew about the stuff (and of course you already know how much I love learning new things).

Recently, the good folks at the Collingwood Olive Oil Company (on St. Marie St) gave us a brief introduction and tasting of real extra-virgin olive oils (and continue to educate my palette every time I encounter them)*.

That’s a key step: tasting the good stuff. Once you do, tasting the usual supermarket oil seems like drinking 10W-40. You can’t go back.

When you sample real, fresh extra virgin olive oil, you wake up to an entirely new taste sensation. It’s not just a lubricant: there are flavours here, a multitude of them: rich, delicate, earthy, vegetal, crisp, citrus, peppery… That’s when you realize that, like you discovered with good wine and premium tequila, there are finer oil products than you’ve been buying at the supermarket and it’s time to learn about them. Thus begins your journey into this new world.

That journey, by the way, isn’t inexpensive. Quality comes with a price. Be prepared to pay premium prices for premium, authentic products. But, like premium 100% agave tequila, it’s worth it.

My relationship with olive oil started like yours probably did: buying olive oil in supermarkets, not really knowing what the various terms meant (what exactly does “extra virgin” mean?) or how to judge the difference between mediocre and quality oils. Picking brands by labels or familiarity or price. Not appreciating that olive oil is not the same as canola or sunflower or corn oil. Not really noticing a difference in flavour or aroma between them.

Muller writes on his website that what we expect from an oil’s taste may not be telling us which is best:

Bitterness and pungency are usually indicators of an oil’s healthfulness. Sweetness and butteriness are often not… Don’t be put off by bitterness or pungency – remember that these are usually indicators of the presence of healthful antioxidants, anti-inflammatories and other healthful “minor components” of top-quality olive oil – unless one of these characteristics is overwhelming and disproportionate to the others.

(His website is mirrored at Truth in Olive Oil)
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08/8/14

Another fad bites the dust


Bread!The gluten-free fad took another major hit to its already weakened credibility this week when researchers who had first diagnosed “non-celiac gluten sensitivity” found out that, oops, they were wrong. It doesn’t exist.

A story in Business Insider tells the tale.

In one of the best examples of science working, a researcher who provided key evidence of (non-celiac disease) gluten sensitivity recently published follow-up papers that show the opposite…It seems to be a “nocebo” effect — the self-diagnosed gluten sensitive patients expected to feel worse on the study diets, so they did. They were also likely more attentive to their intestinal distress, since they had to monitor it for the study.

So as the article ends, “…go ahead and smell your bread and eat it too. Science. It works.” Love that term “nocebo…”

the bottom line: bread, and gluten: okay to eat. The wheat-belly, gluten-free, bread-is-the-devil diet fad? Snake oil.

I hope to see the end of the anti-gluten pseudoscience fad very, very soon. And I can get back to baking bread without the nonsense of fads and faux science interfering with my enjoyment.

07/13/14

The Lore of Tea


4 World-Famous Chinese Green TeasWhoa! Down the rabbit hole I tumbled this week. I started reading about tea in several books I recently purchased. What a story. What a delight! Many hours spent between the pages absorbing culture, history, types, classifications, production, terroirs and marketing.*

I’ve read bits and pieces about tea before; mostly history and cultural notes; some tidbits about specific types and specific bits I’ve gleaned from online sources. I never read any significantly detailled work about picking, grading and production previously. Nor was I fully aware of the range and depth of teas, the complex terroir of tea and the variations in (and recommendations for) making and drinking tea.**

I had a vague notion, of course. My kitchen shelves stock several boxes and packages of tea in both leaf and bag form. I know the rough difference between white, green and black teas (black which the Chinese call red tea…). I know that tea from China and tea from India and tea from Sri Lanka are different, but exactly how and why, or how they got their names and manners, I could only hypothesize.

Now I am replete with information and wide-eyed in wonder, albeit I still have a lot to learn – and I puzzle over some concepts. Perhaps not enough bookshelf space left, mind you, to be fully educated in tea, because clearly I need to buy more of these publications. (Can one ever own too many books? Yes, but only if you run out of living space.)

I am also informed about how to make a good cup of tea – temperature, container, infusor and more. I don’t have a simple method of determining water temperature (mayhap I need another kettle, one with a digital temperature setting?) but it appears the correct temperature matters a great deal to the resulting drink.

Tea History Terroirs VarietyLike most folks, I suppose, until recently tea was mostly a drink that came in a box full of bags you plunked into a cup, added boiling water, and let steep. Then came some milk.*** Maybe a touch of honey or sugar, too.

Voila: a cuppa. And several more to follow during the day.

That is, I’m learning, to tea culture what a bottle of my homemade plonk is to viniculture. Crass. Pedestrian.
Tea – real tea –  offers so much more than a bag of grocery store tea dust. And I ache to learn more about it.

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07/5/14

A Cup of Dragon Well


TempleLegend has it that, in the Qing Dynasty, Qianlong (1711-1799 CE), the grandson of the Emperor Kangxi, went on a holiday to the West Lake district, in the Hangzhou area of Zhejiang province, China. He stopped at the Hu Gong Temple, nestled under the Lion Peak Mountain (Shi Feng Shan). There, he was presented by the monks with a cup of green tea made from the temple’s own tea bushes.

He was so impressed with the tea that, when he became Emperor himself, Qianlong gave these 18 tea bushes special imperial status and the tea became “Gong Cha,” or Imperial tea. Those trees are still living and, according to Wikipedia, “the tea they produce is auctioned annually for more money per gram than gold.”

The green tea he sipped is known as Longjing or Lung Ching – “Dragon Well” in English, named after an eponymous well located in the nearby village, itself with an interesting story to tell.

There are other parts to this legend:

Since the first cup of tea served, he was very impressed with its beautiful appearance, elegant fragrance and mellow taste. The monk who served the tea, brought him to the tea garden, where 18 tea bushes were planted. Being enamored with the work of women picking the tea, Emperor even decided to try it by himself.

When the Emperor was enjoying gathering the tea leaves, urgent news came saying that his mother, the Empress Dowager fell sick and asked for his immediate return to the palace. When the Emperor came to see his sick Queen Mother, the aroma of tea leaves, which he kept in his pocket, attracted her attention. At once, he served the tea to her, and the Queen Mother fell in love with its amazing taste and flavor. After drinking tea for a few days, the Queen Mother was cured. The Emperor was so grateful to the tea that he granted the 18 tea trees under the Lion Peak Mountain the name of the Imperial Tea Tree. Since then, Dragon Well tea became a tribute tea to Chinese emperors.

Tea SommelierGabriella Lombardi, writing in The Tea Sommelier, says it is the “most famous of all Chinese teas.” (I found this wonderful, beautifully illustrated book on sale at Indigo, Eaton Centre, last weekend; a real steal for anyone interested in tea.)

But the tea from that region was known long before Qianlong. It was mentioned by Lu Yu (733-804 CE) in his famous “The Classic of Tea.”

There were other books about tea produced in China after Lu Yu, such as Zhu Quan’s Manual of Tea from the late 14th century CE. Tea drinking in China is itself at least 2,000 years old, and the oldest tea trees are about 1,700 years old.

Another legend says the tea plants are “watered by rain from a local dragon.”

Tibettour.org tells us:

Dragon Well Tea flourishes in the mountainous area where mild climate and plentiful rainfall are plentiful year-round. Around West Lake, Shifeng Peak, Longjing Village, Yunxi Mountain, Hupao and Meijiawu Region offer such prime conditions. The history of planting tea trees is rather long in these areas, as the tea sage Lu Yu mentioned in his Book of Tea. The teas grown in these areas were called Shi, Long, Yun, Hu and Mei respectively in the past. Now, with an increase in production, it is generally classified into Xihu (West Lake) Longjing Tea, Qiantang Longjing Tea and Yuezhou Longjing Tea, among which the Xihu Longjing Tea is the best.

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07/2/14

May and June Breads


June bread
The past month I haven’t done as much baking as usual – just been too busy to do much, plus I was away for a long weekend holiday in Toronto. So June saw a mere two loaves baked. I made a few others in late May, however.

June breadThe two most recent loaves were a poolish-levain combination done in the oven, and a jalapeño-cheese bread done in the machine. The former was a typical bread for me: nicely solid for sandwiches and toast, but the levain added the sourdourgh flavour and a hint of acidity. Both crust and crumb were acceptable.

Nice, simple bread to make. pretty much my fall-back recipe nowadays (although my levain suffered a mishap and I may need to restart one…).

The only problem with this loaf was the shape – slightly lopsided. No big deal, of course, in the eating thereof. I suspect it had rather exuberant oven spring on that side.

Cheese & jalapeno bread bread
June breadThe jalapeño-cheese bread was based on a recipe from my favourite bread machine cookbook, but as I have often found in other of this book’s recipes, the amount of cheese and jalapeño pepper was too little for my taste.

If it has hot peppers, it should taste like it has hot peppers – even the mild ones like the modest jalapeño.

I fried the peppers in a bit of olive oil and some minced onion, first. The cheese was from a shredded cheddar package.

The loaf turned out well physically, with the sort of fluffy crumb one gets in commercial breads, albeit a somewhat thicker crust. It was quite symmetrical (not all of my machine-baked breads have been) and rather tall.

However, both the cheese and the peppers tended to get thoroughly blended into the crumb, so there was no particular taste of either. It was okay for sandwiches and passable for toast. Nothing I’d want to repeat without some significant changes.

Well, the first loaf has been eaten and the c-j bread is down to its last slice or two, so it’s time to start a new loaf. I began a poolish this morning with a mix of unbleached white and red fife flours. We’ll see what else I add tomorrow. Basil? Garlic? Hmmm…

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