They could make out the lentils and even the freshly chopped onions. They could probably even smell the viniagrette dressing tossed in. But the 'worms' stumped them.
We explained that it's an ancient grain from South America and that it's gluten-free and naturally rich in protein.
"Oh. Never heard of it."
When we tell our gracious (courageous?) dinner hosts that we're vegetarian (always in advance), the burning question everyone, without fail, asks is: how do you get enough protein?
It's an honest question. Maybe even justified since the number of vegetarians in France hovers at a low 2%.
But the question is asked as if protein is the single most important element in any diet, and that massive amounts of it are needed in order to be healthy. If it doesn't come from an animal, it must not be sufficient.
So how do we get enough protein?
Easy...quinoa, along with lentils and beans and nuts and peas and soy products and spinach and dairy and chick peas and the occasional fish and egg. In fact, the number of high-protein combinations with these few foods alone is enough to keep us cooking creatively for up to six months.
Most everyone in
Didier Perreol, an ardent supporter of bringing organic products to the French market, has written a book called Le Quinoa: A la découverte de la graine sacrée. In the book he talks about the history of this little-known grain, gives it's nutritional value and devotes several pages to original recipes. He also recounts his first journey to Bolivia where he discovered that the builders of the great Incan empire themselves thrived on quinoa centuries ago.
To illustrate why quinona has been so revered by the Indians of South America, Mr. Perreol compares the protein content (per 100g) of quinoa with five other commonly consumed grains.
Quinoa - 13g
Wheat - 11.5g
Barley - 10.6g
Corn - 9.2g
Rye - 8.7g
Rice - 7.4g
Quinoa is also rich in calcium, vitamin E and several B vitamins.
But in France, vegetarians and supporters of indigenous cultures aren't the only ones to know about quinoa. At least one 3-star chef has jumped on the wagon and serves it in his restaurant.
Last summer when my wife and I were trekking along the St. Régis trail (a 200-kilometer loop that begins and ends in Le Puy-en-Velay), we stopped one night in St. Bonnet le Froid, a small village of 230 inhabitants in the Haute-Loire Department.
After settling into our backpackers' hostel, we walked up the hill that leads out of the village to have a look around. To our surprise we stumbled across the 3-star Restaurant Régis et Jacques Marcon. We were travelling simply, staying in communal hostels and cooking our own dinners of pasta and rice and had no intention of eating here.
But we couldn't help ourselves from at least looking at the menu. And what we saw surprised us: quinoa. I don't remember exactly how it was prepared or what accompanied it, but I found it amusing that a grain, first cultivated thousands of years ago in the Andes mountains, had found its way to a 3-star restaurant in France. And that some people are shelling out big bucks to eat it.
We usually just cook it with water and eat it plain with olive oil and tamari. If we're feeling inspired, we'll dress it up with peas and lentils, or sometimes make a pilaf with roasted red peppers, zuccini and eggplant. By itself, quinoa has a slightly nutty flavor. Cooked properly, it fluffs up and mixes well with a variety of other foods.
So what were those little 'worms' that Eric and Cathy saw?
As quinoa cooks, the outer shell of each kernel pops out and forms a little tail that curves around the grain. Mixed into a salad with lentils, fresh onions and green peas, any quinoa-virgin could make the mistake of seeing 'worms'.
But that didn't stop Cathy from asking us if we could teach her to cook like we do.