Cultural celebrations: cheese and chocolate tasting

Full confession – while there is no actual holiday during which everyone gets together and celebrates cheese and chocolate (although… wouldn’t that be amazing?), planning a classroom experience like this is an opportunity to showcase certain aspects of French culture that are fun, interesting, easy to compare to others, and very popular with my high school students!

I’ve done a little research to see how cheese and chocolate tastings are supposed to be done, and found that there is a progression in flavours that should be followed so as not to overwhelm the senses. The general rule is to go from mild to strong, and so I’ve set up my classroom tastings that way. With the cheese, I also plan a progression of bread flavours to pair with the strength or texture of a given cheese. I’m always revisiting lesson plans, looking for ways to improve them. Although this one already incorporates vocabulary and curricular skills such as description and comparison, I’m building in more of the core language skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing.

Cheese tasting basics

I live and work in a very multicultural community, and cheese is one of those foods that crosses cultural boundaries easily. It’s a basic food that exists in every culture, along with bread, and all cultures have favourite types of cheese and traditions around how they are consumed. This gives a great basis for comparison and cross cultural exploration.

Almost all of my students have tried a few types of cheese, and have likes and dislikes already formed. I always acknowledge that they may not like everything I give them to sample, but I ask them to be willing to try. We work on expressing likes and dislikes with specific vocabulary. I generally plan for 7-8 different types of cheese, but I ask students to be willing to try 5. This allows me to buy smaller blocks of cheese, set them up at several tables around the room, and encourages a wider range of vocabulary when they talk about it. It also allows students the choice to skip a cheese if they know they won’t like it.

The selection varies from year to year, depending on what’s available when I go shopping, but the table below shows examples of what I have used in the past:

Bread Cheese
Baguette Chèvre, Belle-mère
Whole wheat bread or cracker Brie, Cheddar doux, Camembert
12 grain Raclette, Gouda, Havarti
Raisin or other fruit and nut bread Oka, Jura montagne
Pumpernickel Cheddar fort, Bleu, Roquefort

I ask students to make observations based on the texture, taste, and aroma of the cheese, and then to combine those observations to express an opinion, using the worksheet below. Whether they like the cheese or dislike it, I want them to be able to express their opinion using specific vocabulary that goes beyond saying that something is good or bad.

Screen Shot 2018-07-05 at 10.35.05 PM

Click here to download the PDF. Dégustation de fromage

Chocolate tasting basics

Getting students to try varieties of chocolate is usually easier than getting them to try cheese, but I try to throw a few things in there that they may not have encountered before. Most students are very familiar with regular milk chocolate, but most haven’t ventured far beyond it. The idea here is you start with the most bitter, and work towards sweet. Here again, I plan for at least 5 flavours of chocolate, but ask students to taste at least 3. If you are including strong flavours (and I do) then place those at the end so students can savour them. Here’s a sample list of flavours all of which I have included at some point in the past:

  • 80% cacao dark chocolate
  • 70% cacao dark chocolate
  • roasted almond
  • fruit and nut
  • salted caramel
  • milk chocolate
  • mint, orange, cinnamon, coffee or chili flavoured chocolate (best with dark chocolate for a strong flavour)

In between chocolate flavours, it’s traditional to cleanse the palate with a small piece of bread or a mild flavoured cracker, along with some water. It’s important that students taste the chocolate slowly – the recommendation is to break it first, smell it, then eat a square in 2-3 bites. At each step, they need to note their impressions to use in their description, using the worksheet pictured below.

Screen Shot 2018-07-05 at 10.34.19 PM

Click here to download the PDF. Dégustation du chocolat

Serving drinks at a cheese or chocolate tasting

Obviously, teens are not going to be able to partake of the same drinks that adults do at an event like this. However, this is a great opportunity to introduce students to some Perrier water, Orangina, or any of these soft drinks popular in France if they are available in your area.

Turning tasting into learning

There are many ways to turn this experience into a learning opportunity. One of the first things I would do is ask my students to have a conversation with a partner about their preferences in the taste tests. Following that, I don’t want to miss the opportunity to explore the cultural importance of the foods they tried.

  • Here’s an article on the cultural importance of cheese in France. Students can read this article, and then explain how one would organize a typical French meal, as well as similarities and differences between the elements of a French meal and a meal at their house.
  • Using this brochure from the Musée gourmand du chocolat in Paris, students can decide which attraction they think is best, and why. Working with a partner who chose a different aspect, they can discuss the reasons for their choices.
  • Using the name of a cheese they enjoyed from the cheese tasting, they can use the map of cheeses on this website to find out more about it. Typing the name of a cheese into the search box below the map will give search results in picture form. Clicking on a picture that looks similar to what they ate, students can find brief historical information on the cheese, nutritional information, and recipes for using it. They can compare a recipe to something they typically eat with their family, say whether they would try the recipe or not (giving reasons), and explore similarities and differences between how a dish like the one they chose would be eaten in France and how it might be eaten here.
  • After watching their choice of commercials for Fromages d’ici (Québec cheeses), students can explain at least three elements of French culture they notice in the commercials. They can explain how they know these are important, using examples, and then compare them to one of these Canadian cheese commercials, noting similarities and differences.
  • A similar comparison can be done using these French chocolate commercials and these Canadian chocolate commercials.
  • This video from the Hachette series “Adomania” is presented by TV5 and features a group of boys in a school cafeteria talking about their preferences and choices at lunch. It can be used as a much longer exploration if desired, and comes complete with a range of teacher resources.
  • Students can compare the Guide alimentaire pour tous (from France) and the Guide alimentaire canadien. The food guide from France is organized according to personality (according to consumer habits) type, listed on page 8, and the user reads a personalized portrait that fits their lifestyle. The document is a total of 127 pages long. The Canadian food guide is 2 pages long, and is mostly a one-size-fits-all document. Students can find what advice is given to them by each document, and make a judgment about which they think is better.
    • Taking this a step further, students can use page 5 of the World Obesity Update (2017) and compare the obesity statistics for adults in France (15.3%) and Canada (25.8%). Using the guides alimentaires, ask students to hypothesize why this might be, and back up their opinion with examples from these documents, as well as any other information they have learned from the other exercises listed here. If desired, other countries can be added to the comparison. For example, the United States has the highest obesity rate listed, at 38.2%, and other countries within la Francophonie include Belgium at 18.6%, Luxembourg at 22.6%.

All of the above suggestions can be structured to use speaking, listening, reading and writing as students work through the process, and I would ask students to integrate aspects of description, comparison, and explanation that they have learned in class. Students can also follow up with an independent self-guided inquiry, and do a similar exploration of Perrier, Orangina, Nutella, macarons, or other food of their choice.

My end goal is to build cultural understanding through food. Before doing exercises like this in my classes, I frequently had students react negatively to foods from other places, thinking they were weird or disgusting. They will not like everything that they try here, but through trying something new and building skills for description and opinion, my hope is that they will be more open to new experiences. By exploring ways of understanding cultural values from other regions around the world, they will be more able to compare them to their own, and gain a greater understanding of their own culture through exploring another.

 

 

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