Saturday, July 25, 2009

Cross-country differences in food (milk and bread)

Since I'm currently in Australia, I've been put in the position of noticing differences between this country and the US - and explaining them to my kids. For example, last night I had to explain to my son that the reason he didn't like the glass of milk they brought him was because every country's milk tastes slightly different, depending on how they process it post-cow. And in fact it appears that the higher the fat content of the milk, the more distinct the taste difference is.

My least favorite milk is the UHT super-pasteurized milk they carry in boxes in Europe. I can hardly stand to drink it. My favorite is the one I'm used to, US milk - but I definitely prefer either 1% or 2% milk fat rather than whole or skim. The other one I remember is having milk fresh out of a cow in England when I was fifteen. That was quite an eye-opener as well.

The day we arrived here in Australia we went to the grocery store, and I went looking for bread. In fact, I'm very proud of the bread that I found - a sort of whole-grain bread, not too thickly sliced, which has been lovely for the purposes of toast in the mornings. The final measure of its success? My kids will eat it. They're actually a bit wary of white bread, which makes me proud.

A few years ago when we were here, we decided to make French Toast for my sister-in-law's family and I asked her and my husband to buy ciabatta for the purpose. Interestingly, though my sister-in-law was skeptical about their chances of finding any, it was easily available. So Italian-style breads are available in Australia (focaccia most definitely is, too).

Bread is one of the foods that I've noticed varies most widely, both in the way it's prepared (its flavor) and the way it's perceived.

The most remarkable bread I've ever eaten I had in Germany. My mother bought it, so I couldn't tell you what kind it was. It was dark, pungently flavorful and very toothy. I wouldn't say it was the most delicious, precisely, but I will tell you I've never eaten another bread like it.

My favorite breads come from France. But a baguette in the US is not the same is a baguette from the country of its origin. My husband and I visited France in 1998, and I remember saying to my him before we left that he was going to love the bread.

"Bread is bread," he said.

"No it's not. The bread in France is different. It's just so good."

"I'm sure it's good," he said. "But bread is bread."

Then we actually got there and his eyes went wide on a first bite of baguette. He actually went so far is to apologize to me for arguing - which is quite a concession, believe me! Bread in France, well, really matches my idea of what delicious bread should be.

I say "matches my idea" because not everyone has the same idea about bread. Take Japan, for example. Not only is bread not a primary staple there in the way it is in the US, but perceptions of what bread should be like are totally unlike what I'm used to.

I saw an advertisement there for bread - generally a great way to get a basic read on what is considered ideal. In this advertisement, there was a close-up shot of a slice of bread: the bread was white and perfectly square, and the slice was about one inch thick. Then a pair of attractive female fingers appeared from the lower right-hand corner of the screen and pinched the corner of the slice. When they released it, the ad remarked on the wonderful way the bread sprung back into shape.

My own response? "Please don't buy me any of that." I've actually eaten it, mind you. If you pinch the bread hard enough, you can compress it down to about 1/4 of its original thickness, which is just appalling. It's Wonder bread taken to an extreme.

Compare that reaction to my lovely Japanese host mother's reaction when my husband and I bought a lovely round crusty loaf of rye-raisin-walnut bread in the specialty area of a department store. We brought it home to her place, but she was reluctant to try it. Finally we managed to convince her and her two kids to try some, and they actually liked it quite a bit - but some hours later my host mother told us she was very surprised that it tasted good, because the loaf "looked dirty."

That was a piquant little cultural difference that fascinated me. It's worth thinking about.