Browsing on the web, something I don’t do often, I came across an interview with Harold McGee, that peerless explorer of the science of food. In it he said apropos of sauvignon blanc ‘ it is so difficult to connect particular flavours with their sources, it’s hard to really define what minerality is, or what the expression of a place in a product could actually be. And you have to ask yourself, how many times have people actually tasted minerals, like the flint from which Loire white wines are said to get their flavor? How often do you put a rock in your mouth and suck on it?’
On reflection, it seems a pretty obvious observation, but like a lot of obvious observations, it only seems obvious after you’ve read it. Prof McGee goes on ‘flavours are generated by chemical compounds impinging on our receptors, and the way we know how to describe them to one another, the way we know how to recognize them, is by having encountered them before.’
It’s the describing that seems peculiarly difficult. Words are the bridge between the initial experience and our expression of experience, sense and savour. And yet the vocabulary we use is impressionistic, allusive, imprecise. And limited. If you want to criticize food, you can turn to the vocabulary or Chaucer, Milton and Jame Joyce. When you want to accurately describe what it’s like to eat something, you’re supposed to use the vocabulary of Enid Blyton, or you risk public censure.
In one of my early excursions into food writing, I managed to get the Financial Times into Pseud’s Corner in Private Eye. The piece on carpaccio with white truffle, began ‘The beef was cut as thin as Brussel’s lace. Buried beneath a blizzard of white truffle, it was nearest I expect to get to paradise on this earth.’ I still feel rather proud of it.
Science can tell us that there may be 36 volatile organic compounds, including alkanes, alcohols, esters, aldehydes, ketones, terpenes in a white truffle, but somehow that doesn’t convey the magic of individual experience we have when we eat one. It’s not just a travesty to reduce the sly, exotic perfume of almonds to benzaldahyde or hydrogen cyanide, it’s meaningless to the average bod in the street (ie me).
One of the reasons, I suspect, the world took so long to accept the concept of umami , the fifth taste, was that the word meant nothing to most people. We understood sweet, sour, bitter and salt because these words are loaded with cultural meaning and tradition, but what the hell is umami? And saying it’s a flavour enhancer doesn’t help much, either. With savoury, or meaty I feel happier, but it still seems a bit imprecise to me.
It’s one of the perennial challenges for any food writer to convey the precise nature of a particular food or drink, to someone who has not consumed it so that they can experience has a similar sensation. When Nigel Slater describes duck fat as ‘Snow white and with the pleasing texture of ice-cold butter’ I can feel the firm, cool sensation of that duck fat on my teeth.
And then there’s the description of the ‘towering macaroni pie’ in The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa (Archibald Colquhoun’s magisterial translation) – ‘The burnished gold of the crusts, the fragrance of sugar and the cinnamon they exuded, were but preludes of the delights released from the interior when the knife broke the crust; first came a spice-laden haze, then chicken livers, hard boiled eggs, sliced ham, chicken and truffles is masses of piping hot, glistening macaroni, to which the meat juice have an exquisite hue of suede.’
I wish I had written that. I wish I could write it.
PS. The photo at the top of this blog was taken in the Russian Market in Phnom Penh. It has nothing to do with the theme of the blog, but I like it.