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 or 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 careful instructions. 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.