…Francis Marre, that is. Marre was an expert chemist at the Appellate Court of Paris, and in 1911 wrote the encyclopedic, amusing, and at times scary book Défendez Votre Estomac Contre les Fraudes Alimentaires (Defend your Stomach from Food Fraud!), because (and pardon my clumsy translation)
Acheter des aliments devient un art de plus en plus difficile à notre époque où l’habileté des falsificateurs est si grande qu’il a fallu, pour la combattre, créer toute une formidable organisation de surveillance et de répression… • Buying food is becoming an increasingly difficult art in our time, where the scam artists are so skilled that we have had to create a powerful organization to monitor them and crack down …
The 600-page book details the signs of quality in every type of food imaginable, with tips on how to avoid a frightening array of unappetizing, cheap, or even downright unhealthy scams, from cats passed off as rabbits (“..but in the case when the cat and the rabbit are mixed in a common ragoût, pieces of different colors are the first suspect detail. The flesh of the rabbit is uniformly white, while that of the cat is reddish or dark in places…”) to three pages on why escargots are best purchased live (among other tricks, the unscrupulous merchant puts undersized escargots into the voluminous shells of larger, previously eaten ones), to how to tell if oxblood has been used to dye a fish’s gills red, thus making it appear fresh. On a more sinister note, Marre details how to avoid fatal mushrooms and avoid mytilotoxine poisoning from suspect mussels (apparently baking soda is an antidote? Don’t try this at home, folks). And of course, there is an ample chapter on how to taste and purchase wine.
Though the history of food and wine fraud is as old as the hills, this book was written at an important historic moment, when the hole left in the supply chain from the devastation of phylloxera pushed wine fraud to unprecedented levels. To combat it, a system of controls evolved, starting with the 1905 creation of the Service des Repressions des Fraudes — the “powerful organization” mentioned in the book’s foreword — and culminating in the modern European appellation system, which designates, for the protection of both producers and consumers, exactly what certain wine labels must mean.
Odd that I should have opened this book up by accident the other day.
Things are better now than they were in 1911, but some things never change. I’ve been following with some fascination the scandal and investigations in Tuscany, though it’s taken so many twists and turns that all but the most ardent Thomas Pynchon scholars were likely lost some time ago. For those of you who have been asleep at the glass, may I recommend some good blogs with which to catch up. One of the best is Franco Ziliani‘s impassioned and erudite blog Vino al Vino (in italian; the name is a reference to the expression pane al pane e vino al vino; roughly, “to call a spade a spade” — an apt name since Franco does not mince words). Ziliani and American journalist Jeremy Parzen have teamed up to create VinoWire, an English-language “wire service” which has frequent, useful news updates on the world of Italian wine. Parzen’s own blog, Do Bianchi, is a more eclectic romp through food, wine, music, and travel, weaving in the odd Italian wine update. Also in English, the prolific Terry Hughes‘s Mondosapore is an amusing and informative take on italian wine and life in New York (read his hilarious send-up written months before the scandal broke). And finally, might I recommend the blogs of two other Italian friends, Giampiero Nadali‘s Aristide and Elisabetta Tosi‘s Vino Pigro (“Lazy Wine”); both have focused less on the Brunello scandal but have excellent information on the Italian wine world in general, including the best updates on the other recent wine scandal (the one whose story broke at Vinitaly with L’Espresso’s lurid and irresponsible cover “Velenitaly.” The question of which scandal is more, uh, scandalous, has generated some heated discussions).