writers and “foodies”
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.
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.
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
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.
my goodness, aren't we paying a price for it...
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...
© Marc Millon 2003