Chemistry in the kitchen

Permitidme esta semana un post en inglés, es la versión de mi entrada anterior Química en la cocina.

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This site, Cuaderno de Laboratorio (Lab book), is a Science-related blog within Cordopolis, an online newspaper from the region of Cordoba (Spain). Here, I publish my views and/or experiences on different topics related to Science. Although I always write in Spanish, this post is the English version of my last post, "Química en la cocina". It is my way to thank Christmas Pie Bed and Breakfast for his hospitality, warmth and generosity during our stay in August this year.

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Chemistry in the Kitchen

The Bed and Breakfast philosophy in the UK goes beyond getting a bed for the night and breakfast in the morning. Those who choose this form of travel often seek the hospitality and availability that can be offered by a local family in a friendly, welcoming and clean climate.

We are staying this weekend at Christmas Pie Bed and Breakfast in the City of Swamsea in Wales. Here, the breakfast offer is overwhelming, with some 15 options classified into several sections: British breakfast, Continental, American, Asian, vegetarian or vegan. Many of them sound so apetizing that it becomes rather hard to select a single option for the next day.

Our first morning in the B&B is an unusually bright and warm. It looks like a perfect day for a visit to the stunning Gower beaches. We go down to the breakfast room about 8:30 am. Two English couples are already having their breakfast around the large central table and greet us as we come in. The atmosphere is wellcoming and relaxed.

On the table, there is coffe, tea and a wide range of homemade or local products: juices, milk, muesli with honey, butter, strawberries, blueberries, yogurt, toasts, jams in beautiful pots and a lovely glass syrup pitcher, which I reckon has something to do with my pancakes, a special treat from the B&B for us today.

Soon, Dr. Trevor Martin comes in carrying a plate with a slice of bread generously covered with white beans in tomato sauce -the famous British "baked beans". "Good morning, please take your sit at the table and help yourselves to anything you want. I will soon bring your cooked breakfast". Then, he serves the baked beans to one of the ladies on the table.

Margaret and her husband, John, are English but they now live to Cyprus, since he retired. They come to Wales every summer to visit friends and stay in this B&B because "Trevor and Valerie are wonderful hosts and the breakfasts are the finest in the area". The other couple, Alex and Julia, are originally from Scotland and moved to the Midlands when they retired to be closer to their daughter. "Have you already tried the bacon?", John warns us it is going to be the best bacon we have ever tried, "Trevor has it cut one inch thick! Almost like a sirloin steak!" .

The pancakes come first. The smell is so nice I can hardly wait until they cool down and I just hope that the syrup can help me with that. And they do taste delicious. My 15 month old baby is inmediately excited by those "biscuits" and doesn´t want to eat anything else anymore.

My Welsh breakfast takes no long to arrive. A strangely delicious combination: pureed seaweed, eggs and cockles placed on a bed of bacon and on a Welsh bread roll, all covered with bread crumbs. Dr. Trevor Martin explains to me that he prepares it based on the traditional recipe, with some modification.

"Do you also make the bread yourself?" I ask him.

"Yes, sure".

"With your own baking yeast?"

"In fact, I do not use yeast. The reaction is too slow and you really want a fast, controlled chemical reaction. I use baking powder for the bread, for the pancakes and also for the muffins. Most people buy the baking powder ready-made in supermarkets but you find that they often come with unnecessary preservatives, so I prefer to make my own".

"That´s interesting, where do you get the products?"

"Well, Elena, you know, you need an acidic and an alkaline compound in order to produce the carbon dioxide necessary to rise the bread dough. You can use a non-toxic acid such as tartaric or citric acid, although the latter will leave some taste in your food, and a weak acid or base such as carbonate or bicarbonate. Here, you can find them both in supermarkets as cream of tartar and baking soda. You may also be able to find them elsewhere in relation with the wine industry. I can pass you the exact formula later on if you are interested".

A precise and didactic answer. Not that surprising coming from a Doctor in Chemistry who has also managed his own research group and trained young researchers as a senior scientist for more than 30 years. Indeed, Dr. Martin was leading a research group in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in a Scientific Agency of DEFRA, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in Surrey, for more than two decades.

Five years ago, he decided to change his life and come to Swamsea with her wife to start this new B&B project. For me, meeting again the person who was my first boss and mentor, after almost a decade, was very important and a real privilege. I worked with Dr. Martin for two years. It was my first job. And i can say that besides being a great scientist, he was always a supportive and encouraging boss, and what most important, a person of a great human nature.

Born in India, into an anglo-indian family, Dr. Trevor Martin came to England with his mother and brother when he was only 10, in the 60s. Soon, he was recruited by a Public British school after obtaining high grades in a compulsory examination for immigranting children.

"It was a good school but those were different times" – he recalls, "when the rumours spread that I wanted to be a carpenter, the Head of School made my mother come to the school and told her that I should inmediately remove that idea from my mind as no future carpenters were to come out of that school. And that was the end of the matter",  he lauhgs, "So I ended up studying chemistry and starting a career in research. And you know, that also has a lot of working with your hands, especially when I started... We used to invent and build our own devices in the lab..., I still keep an old distiller from those times…".

He does not regret anything. Neither his 32 years as a scientist nor the last five years at his B&B, where he has had a chance to learn a lot and meet interesting people from all over the world. In his last couple of years in research, he had been witnessing how the pressure to obtain positive results was pushing many scientists to mask their negative results in seminars at meetings and conferences.

But for him, you either have the results or you don´t hace them. That is how he had conducted his research for many years, guided by his trust in scientific honesty and integrity. He felt was loosing his faith in science so he knew it was time to leave.

When we finish our breakfast, Dr. Martin shows me his kitchen notebook. I open it with with great curosity. Recipes, dates, stock inventory, origin, processing and maintenance of all products, temperature recordings, annotation of equipment breakdowns and repairs. It is all there, everything he taught me about how to write a good Lab book.

Something calls my attention as I look through the pages:

"Baking powder: NaHCO3 + H + → Na + + CO2 + H2O"

"mix 2 tsp cream of tartar with 1 tsp baking soda"

Dr. Martin smiles at me: "You see, at the end of the day, what I do now is not so different from the laboratory when I started. I've returned to my roots: Chemistry in the kitchen. And without so much of the paperwork".

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Publicado el
3 de septiembre de 2013 - 01:38 h
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