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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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...