Beyond the binary

10.February 2021

Food is delicious, and we also like to look at pictures of it. We eat for biological reasons, and we are also fascinated by the craft and chemistry of cooking. Food is interwoven with family and conviviality, and also a solitary emotional balm.

The development of palate is also a profoundly solitary activity. Although we surely learn from and with others, the attraction to turn nourishment into an avocation is to choose an interior commune with food, to go deeper into the sensations in ways that language always struggles to serve.

Indeed language struggles to serve any intense experience, although for some we can rely on evocative cultural tropes that go beyond the inadequate words themselves.

For me, writing flows like water. So much so that my friends may wish writer's block upon me. I've written academic journal articles about democracy, introductory texts about agricultural systems and global trade, blog posts about emotions and biomechanics, manuals for using software. So I am thoroughly vexed by my inability to write about flavor. And my passion for food has therefore remained a rather private affair.

The lack of words for food limits not only my capacity to share my thoughts with anyone who will listen, but my ability to ask for what I want. Pursuing a new cheese, I can only point, smile, and wrinkle my nose. On my favorite topic, I am mute.

Surely there is something useful about approaching in an unfamiliar way, working without your usual tools. I appreciate that this disability has protected my passion from extrinsic forces. I cannot compare myself with other food writers. I cannot turn it into another of my many enterprises, I cannot in any way subject it to the court of public opinion. It is one thing that is mine alone.

In overdue fealty to my greatest pleasure, I recently moved to Italy. On the way, I spent months Bali and Hawai'i. Lacking wine and cheese, their weather and beauty failed to capture my heart. When people ask me why I have moved to Italy they seem to think it's an evasive joke when I answer "for the food". Communicating that it's serious in a way that doesn't insult the nice places where my friends live has forced me to articulate why the food of Wellington, Sydney, Berlin, Bali, and Maui was not enough for me. While all of these places have some delicious food, along with earnest and charming bioregional and gourmet food scenes where I experienced many pleasures, they each go lacking in at least one of the following two crucial dimensions of what I want:

  • Food with Context. I've written a whole post about this. The short version is that each of the items in my kitchen needs to have some meaning: a tradition, an encounter, a place, a person, a memory, a story. That's why many of those items has been procured from a location where I buy only that one thing. These trips and the relationships that grow from my commitments are a social dimension of food that goes beyond the conviviality of the table.
  • Treasures to Discover. As my passionate private hobby, I want a sense that there is a lot to discover. I call it "foraging", going places where there is a chance to discover something new. Now sometimes this could be one shop, like Formaggio Kitchen, that had staff searching Europe for unknown products and constantly offered something new, as well as scattering the shop with sampling stations. In Berlin, the Markthalle IX created an institution about discovery, Street Food Thursday, designed to encourage and facilitate aspiring food entrepreneurs to offer something new to the community. But here in Italy, every time you drive 50 kilometers, the food changes. They put butter instead of olive oil on pasta. They put eggs or not in the pasta dough. The cheeses and wines change. (Also the architecture, language, and social culture.)

Having made the no-longer exciting decision to begin anew again in a country where I'm illiterate and have no friends, this time not for work or art or love, but for food, I realize I needed to upgrade my methods. As a food tourist my plan was just to try lots of things and keep track of the names of the ones I like. Faced now with time to explore the diversity of Italy at leisure, I suddenly felt that I should be doing more than trawling for things I like. I should know why I like them. I should keep track of the things I try that I don't like, enjoying the context even when I can't enjoy the taste, and I should understand the gastronomic dimensions of why I like and don't like.

Why do I tend to like cheeses that are very white? Cheeses that are crumbly? Cheeses that are either very fresh or over 18 months old?

What causes the flavor profile that causes me to say in the polite German way "he's not mine".

Once I started to consider this, the first thing I thought was that in addition to my muteness I have a second problem, a sharp line between "like it" and "don't like it".

In reading about food, that seems not only amateur, but immature.  Professional foodies will describe flavor profiles as "unbalanced" or "lacking depth", but they rarely speak about personal taste or what influences it. They appreciate things objectively, and keep their personal dislike to themselves. I have had that experience. At Neil's Yard Dairy, I tasted some very fine blue cheeses. Like quite a lot of art, actually, I wouldn't take it home, but I can recognize and value the qualities.

But taste does certainly apply to pro cheese. There are shops where the taste of the owner is such that there is not one cheese I will take home, and other shops whose owner's taste overlaps with mine, where I can find many cheeses I like.

Deciding that it's time to change my approach, I sent off emails to a cheese blogger and a wine blogger asking for help. The revered Janet Fletcher wrote back promptly and sweetly, but could only recommend I enroll in her tasting classes. It didn't make a lot of sense to me to watch professionals tasting different cheeses than the ones I have here. I pressed her to explain to me what causes the "bad taste" I don't like in cheese, but she wasn't able to.

As surprised as I was to receive one nice response to one fledgling email, I was flabbergasted to receive a second, from a wine person! I had sent off the most vulnerable newbie admission –"I don't like tannins" (at least I have a word to use here)– to a proper wine afficionado, and he wrote back telling me that I happen to have landed in the highest tannin wine region of Italy, and referred me to 4 lesser-known grapes that I might like. I have been more intimidated by wine than food people, but it's true that unlike food people, they continually dismiss price and professional ratings with the affirmation "the only thing that matters is what you like." Intrigued by Alder Yarrow's kindness, I started reading his wine blog, Vinography. I assumed it would be over my head, but it wasn't. In fact he too is pointing to context as an aspect of pleasure.

Yarrow is also a charming writer, piping I will follow to places I would never go otherwise. So I clicked on a post that seemed both useless in my current global position and likely over my head – his "tasting notes" from a trip to Argentina. I'm sure that all of us who've watched the delightful film Somm have taken up flavor improv as a parlor game. If you haven't seen the film, the game goes like this: As rapidly and ridiculously as possible name flavors that come to you when tasting this wine. Somm teaches us that "garden hose" is a flavor, as is "crushed limestone", "unripe apples", "leather". "wet cement", "hay". and "peach pits". One does have to wonder if the afficionados can discern limestone from marble in a blind taste test, but it's fun nevertheless.

Yarrow's Argentine reviews read thus like landscape poetry of "wet steel", "cut grass", and "night blooming jasmine" until he whips out a set of descriptors not mentioned in Somm and far more interesting than parts of the garden in different weather: "butter", "pastry cream", "brioche" ... Of course I'm terribly curious about pastries and their ingredients, and finding out they could be in my wine motivated me to start my nights with pen and paper next to the goblet.

I still receive the newsletter from Formaggio Kitchen, in which they have repeatedly entreated wine drinkers not to finish bottles on the first night, but let them oxidize so you have the chance to experience "another" wine on the second evening. This is not over my head.  I lost track of a bottle of the Barbera from the local "vino sfuso" (place you buy wine from a tap for €3/litre) and tried it again after a good 6 days of oxygen. Low and behold all of its aggressive tongue-stinging tannic action had mellowed and been replaced with blueberry-plum compote.

But another wine, Daniele Sandri's 2017 Nebbiolo d'Alba was beautiful on day 1, slightly more beautiful on day 2, and spent on day 3.

Flowers, when cut, have different lifespans.

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