Smell, close your eyes, remember: chefs teach kids to taste

Chef Frederic Simonin dangles a fragrant green bunch of dill in front of a classroom of schoolkids in a multi-ethnic corner of Paris: "And what about this? Any idea what it is?"


 

"Parsley! Rosemary! Basil! Thyme! I know - it's coriander," yell the excited eight and nine year olds who were treated to a sensory masterclass from the young chef as part of the annual French culinary festival, the "Week of Taste".

Lesson one: learning to taste is hard work.

Leo and Gabriel pull faces as they take turns sniffing at a handful of fresh rosemary: "Ooh, that one smells strong," is one verdict. "I know that - but what is it called?" is another.

A broad smile creases the corners of Simonin's eyes as he coaxes out the answers: "What does it remind you of," he asks. "Bread, perhaps?"

"Of my house in Spain," quips back Gabriel.

"Then smell again and close your eyes," Simonin tells the little boy. "And remember that it is rosemary."

Slowly he spells out the unfamiliar name for the kids to scribble it down.

Simonin, who worked with star chef Joel Robuchon before setting up his own restaurant in Paris, takes an obvious delight in escorting his young wards on a culinary journey on a crisp, sunny October morning.

"Look what I've made for you - to educate your palate," he says, explaining that children of their age have far more developed taste buds than their parents do.

For starters he whipped together four little tasting glasses to represent sweet, salt, acidity and bitterness.

Dressed in jeans and a black apron, Simonin hands out chicory to the class - to illustrate bitterness.

Then the first glass: grapefruit jelly sprinkled with little translucent dice. "Turnip," rules Gabriel. "Radish," counters Leo. Correct. The black radish is passed around the tables: bitter is not a hit in this classroom.

Acidity fares a little better: redcurrants on an apple compote, flavoured with lemon and vanilla.

"It's nice - but it's still pretty weird," sums up Alyssia. "Can I have yours then?" nips in Gwenaelle.

Salt - cubes of raw salmon - sparks a fierce debate between partisans of raw and cooked foods, before the winner of the day emerges, without great surprise, in the form of a moreish sweet caramel mousse.

Despite the well-anchored French habit of shopping for fresh produce, few of these children go to market with their parents, a straw poll suggests. The chef encourages them to do so - and to ask all the questions they like.

A basket of fresh vegetables is handed around - with instructions to handle it carefully, out of respect for the farmers.

Exotic flavours were on the list too, like pineapple sage - an intriguing Latin American herb with a subtly sweet aroma - or from Asia, lemongrass and galangal.

"We have less and less time to share this kind of thing. Chefs have a role to play - we have to give back some of what we received, so traditions can survive," Simonin explained to AFP afterwards.

"You have to educate kids when they're little, so they can grow up with these memories and hand them down in turn."

"There was a real game between the kids and I. They were wide awake," he said, and the fact the school had a mix of ethnic backgrounds made the experience "all the more beautiful."

"Cuisine breaks down boundaries," Simonin said. "It taps into our global, universal identity."

French food critic Jean-Luc Petitrenaud also turned up - along with the ministers for farming and education - for the classroom tasting session, part of the two-decade-old foodie festival.

A herb laid on a plate by a chef just before serving up "is like the last kiss your parents plant on your forehead before you leave for school," Petitrenaud told his spellbound young audience.

"It's a way of catching a food-lover's attention. Because to be a real 'gourmand' you must learn to pay attention to how taste makes you feel."

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