Curious Cook: Autumn tales from rural France

  • Food News
  • Sunday, 11 Nov 2018

A good mushroom. It's safe to eat. Photos: Chris Chan

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 this story.

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 content label on a bag of rice.

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-dimercapto-1-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.

Rouge (left) and cèpe des pins de montagne are two mushrooms that are safe to eat.

A poisonous mushroom.

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.

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

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