Essays

Food writers and “foodies”

Topsham, Devon, 2 May, 2003 Over the past years and decades, as food writers we have learned to distinguish the excellent from the merely good or downright indifferent. We have celebrated the artisan-made, the local, the authentic in any number of products from throughout the world. We have championed organic and lobbied for fair trade for growers in the developing world. We have derided 'fast' while canonising 'slow', campaigned for greater biodiversity and the preservation of endangered foods, species, recipes.
In large measure I’d like to think that through our collective efforts, consumers can now distinguish and appreciate a real espresso from an ersatz; enjoy the finer differences between extra virgin olive oils from Apulia, Tuscany or Liguria; seek out DOP lentils from Puy or Castelluccio; or know why it is worth paying more for a Camembert fermier 'moulé a la louche', or mozzarella di bufala made by hand as opposed to machine.
Even the most basic staples have not been immune to our enthusiasms. For cooks with taste and attitude, it is no longer sufficient simply to salt something: we must use Maldon sea salt, fleur de sel de Guérande, flor de sal from the Algarve. Do you remember when olive oil was sold in the chemist in tiny little bottles and when there was little else in supermarkets save Sarson's malt vinegar (alongside tins of Heinz baked beans, jars of Marmite)? To set out simply to buy a bottle of vinegar is now a major expedition: we can choose from 5, 10, 15 year old balsamics (not to mention genuine aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena), sherry vinegar made by the solera system, cider, rice, wine (Chianti, Bordeaux?), flavoured vinegars and much more...
In great measure we (and the magazine and book publishers through whom we communicate) have created awareness of, and in the process, a market for much of what consumers now demand. Specialist suppliers as well as the supermarkets themselves have responded to this market demand, and the brave new world of infinite choice is something that we all applaud.
But my goodness, aren't we paying a price for it...
In a sense, the foodie culture that we have helped to create has become something of a rod for our own backs. Knowing what we do, it is hard when shopping not to reach for the best, the artisan made, the purely local (I sometimes find myself, à la Peter Sellers, beating my right hand with my left to stop it from reaching out to fill an already bulging shopping trolley). In the process of learning about and championing such products we have conditioned ourselves to accept no less than the best. Which is fine if money is no object: choose Tesco's Finest, Sainsbury's 'special selection', organic fruit and vegetables (however far they may have travelled to get to us).
Such product awareness, I suggest, has furthermore led to a culture of food snobbery where the truly simple and unsophisticated can no longer be simply enjoyed for what it is. The names of dishes on restaurant menus parade the provenance of ingredients like a badge of honour -- yet as consumers do we need to know these minute details? More important than such intellectual knowledge, surely, is that the dish itself tastes, purely, intensely, deliciously. Sadly that is often not the case no matter how precisely wonderful the menu description reads.
Perhaps it is not surprising, as food writers, that our pleasure, our enjoyment of foods is driven in part by nomenclature. Words are our currency and appellations and denominazioni — the pinpointing of products to provenance and terroir — have long been considered valid means for distinguishing, indeed guaranteeing quality. However, such a word-driven, intellectual approach, if not backed by genuine understanding, may paradoxically mean that we sometimes come to accept the second best masquerading under a recognisable or desirable name. And the danger is that we come to taste the labels rather than the foods themselves, expecting, believing, already half accepting them to be all that they are meant to be. That which we call a rose by any other name may well no longer smell — and more to the point, taste — as sweet.
As a child, whenever we went shopping in supermarkets, my mother would always collect coupons from the free supermarket papers in order to economise; she'd select her vegetables carefully, and always be on the lookout for whatever was 'on special'. Hers after all was a thrifty generation. In the process we came to appreciate intuitively that chuck or brisket was not only cheaper, it was infinitely more flavourful for a pot roast than a more expensive or supposedly desirable lean cut.
True household economy is not just about collecting coupons, it is about knowing ingredients, how to make a little go a long way and taste delicious at the same time. Canny restaurant chefs who really know their onions manage not only to find the best in-season ingredients, they also buy wisely to help their profit margins. Similarly peasant housewives in deepest Calabria or knowledgeable shoppers in markets in Cavaillon or Arles or North London will be equally sniffy in choosing their tomatoes or melons. Why pay the same or more for something that tastes only half as good? Why indeed? Yet, by contrast, we ourselves, in learning to distinguish intellectually, by name, by label, risk losing (if we ever had it in the first place) that very capacity to distinguish by intuition, by smell, by feel, the excellent from the merely good or downright indifferent. The more expensive certainly is not always the best.
Of course, there is no going back. Or is there? Such plethora of choice can lead inevitably to physical (if not moral) indigestion. I predict a nostalgia for, indeed a return to simpler tastes. In fact, I've already glimpsed the future. We were in Cornwall over the weekend, walked around from Polzeath to Rock, and took the ferry to Padstow. Inevitably we made our way round to the Seafood Deli, on the waterfront where the boats come in. Here you can enjoy takeaway fish tacos or Goan fish curry (and very good they are too), or else purchase any number of excellent gourmet ingredients, sourced by our own Rick Stein, who as one of the nation's arbiters of taste, has helped undoubtedly to raise our knowledge and awareness. Yet what was there on the shelves of this undoubtedly chi-chi, high-end deli serving the yah-yahs and yuppies who inevitably make their way here almost as a sacred pilgrimage? There, taking pride of place on the shelves, displayed like culinary icons, were — wait for it — bottles of Sarson's malt vinegar, tins of Heinz baked beans, cute little jars of Marmite...

Copyright © Marc Millon 2003