In this essay, I put on my thinking beret, stroke my chin and delve into the vexed question of to what extent taste in food and wine is entirely arbitrary.
“Everybody thinks they have good taste and a sense of humor but they couldn’t possibly all have good taste.” When Harry Met Sally, Nora Ephron
At a local Chinese restaurant there are asterisks by certain dishes with an explanation underneath that reads simply: “not recommended.” The asterisks appear next to delicacies such as chicken feet or cold jellyfish salad so what I think they mean is not recommended for non-Chinese people. It made me realise that much of what we think of as good taste is cultural. The Chinese appreciate the chewy and the gelatinous, urrggh!, but isn’t it equally strange that we eat what is essentially rotten milk in the form of blue cheese?
Wine can be equally counter-intuitive. I remember my first glass of claret drunk at Christmas. I expected it to taste sweet and fruity but it was earthy, bitter and full of mouth-drying tannins. Why would anyone drink this? As a student I would grimace my way through French reds rather than the sweet jammy, and lets face it much more appealing, Hardy’s shiraz that everyone else was drinking. Later I drank bone dry fino sherry whilst thinking, is it really meant to taste like yeasty water? I taught myself to enjoy vermouth and Campari, olives and anchovies. But why?
As humans we naturally crave sugar and salt but bitterness warns us about poison and high acidity means something isn’t ripe. Our tastes, however, can be perverse perhaps because as omnivorous hunter gatherers we had to be adventurous in what we ate. We like spicy food because our bodies produce opiates to counteract the pain in chillies and some have suggested that eating bitter food gives us a frisson of danger.
Many people, however, don’t push their tastes. They don’t want bitterness or astringency and they couldn’t give a toss about a long finish. You can put this down to different palates, some people crave sugar in particular whilst others are abnormally sensitive to bitterness.
But if I’m being honest with myself there was more than a little snobbery in my acquired enjoyment of difficult flavours. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in his book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste wrote that good taste is about getting acceptance from our peers. I worked in the wine trade after university and based my tastes on people I admired, and, importantly, defined them in opposition to people I didn’t.
We think our tastes are timeless but look at pictures of 1970s food especially anything by Fanny Cradock (above with husband and sidekick, Johnny) and tell me they don’t look revolting. And today’s Jackson Pollock-esque splatters from Masterchef will look similarly inedible in ten years time. In the Middle Ages, luxury food would have been cooked with lots of sugar and expensive spices as a way of showing your wealth. Bottles of champagne opened recently from a ship that went down in the early nineteenth century contained a dentist-worrying 150 grams of sugar per litre, modern day champagne contains around eight grams. Sweet wines went out of fashion as sugar became the fuel of the masses. Food that we dismiss as well, a bit common like a plain white bap from Gregg’s would have been miraculous luxuries to our ancestors.
Luxury today is about being close to nature. The latest thing in wine is ‘natural’ wine, made without additives but more importantly difficult for the uninitiated to understand as much of it smells like scrumpy. Chefs too bang on about sustainability and seasonality, some even forage for food, but in the past haute cuisine was about breaking free of nature. Only the poor would have eaten seasonally. In an essay on taste in the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik cites the example of the poet Lucien in Balzac’s novel Lost Illusions who is forced by lack of funds to eat in a restaurant that “has only local and seasonal produce.” He goes on to describe: “the shame and suffering that the diners feel in having to eat in so peasant like a manner right in the middle of Paris.”
Whereas nowadays we pay through the nose at the River Cafe to eat authentic Italian peasant food but I am sorry to say that authenticity like good taste is largely made up. Most traditional foods and drinks are relatively recent creations. In The Discovery of France, the historian Graham Robb writes “the Dijon area was not particularly rich in blackcurrants until an enterprising cafe owner made an explanatory trip to Paris in 1841, noted the popularity of cassis and began to market his own liquor as a regional speciality”.
So is it all pointless then then? Should we just crack open a bottle of Blossom Hill and settle into a KFC mega bucket? Well if you want to go for it. But just because taste is cultural and changeable doesn’t make it pointless. Think of it as learning a language (a rapidly evolving one). You can appreciate the beauty once you have learned the rules, just don’t pretend there’s anything natural about them.
Developing ‘good taste’ can be enjoyable, it should be an adventure, and I find the awareness that it’s made up liberating. I can appreciate haut cuisine but I know that the cheap restaurant from the acclaimed chef will be more fun than the three star temple of gastronomy, that bottle of chilled red had on holiday in Sicily with my wife will always be more delicious than first growth claret drunk surrounded by hedge fund managers, and there’s nothing better with a cup of tea than a McVities Hobnob. Don’t worry about what others think. Go with whatever you fancy which means you don’t have to try those local delicacies, unless you’re dining with some Chinese businessmen who you want to impress.
A version of this essay appeared in Boat Magazine.