February 09, 2005

At 12:55 We're Lookin at Some Freshly-Made Pasta

I find it interesting to note the difference in attitude to food that arises between my friends in Canada and my acquaintences in France. I have learned, since I moved to France, about the appreciation of food. This appreciation involves variety, and it involves comparison between different flavours.

Recently, I was quite humbled. Although I say that I have learned "about" the appreciation of food here, I can't say that I've actually learned "how" to do it. My colleagues, for example, recently startled me by comparing the flavours of different salt. I mean, it's salt. It tastes salty. Oh no.

I like searching for flavour. I like sounding a dish for its intricacies. Often food that is well-made, well-presented, appropriately-heated gives you a greater variety of pleasure than pizza pockets.

But I don't want to be simplistic. I actually miss pizza pockets... well, no; actually I miss Jamaican patties. There's nothing like those in France. If there's a food that Canada does well, it's Jamaican patties.

But the value of Canadian food is always so straightforward. This is good because it's spicy. Or this is good because it's crunchy. Canadian marketing can mislead us, by claiming some food is sophisticated just because it's "spicy AND crunchy". Well.

In France the attitude is simply deeper. Often, sophisticated food can differ from simple food in its simplicity. Something can be good because it has one flavour, but it's a flavour you really haven't tried before. There's much more intensity in making subtle distinctions, in hunting in every nook and cranny of flavour that exists.

So I was just reading a story by a Canadian friend of a friend, a wonderfully evocative writer, cynical as hell but in a way that makes you believe in something. Everything she imagines is both familiar and exotic. And mainly, when you read her, you get this awed sense of how much she actually knows to pretend so flippantly that she knows nothing at all.

So that's the vibe you're in while reading her stuff. But then you get to the food, and it flops (momentarily); it's just a bunch of fancy terms. Pass the food part, and we're in awe again.

I was disappointed, but I realise it's characteristic. And I can't offer constructive criticism either. I've had a friend use wine in a poem before, and I tried to explain that something didn't add up in the labels. But I failed to explain what really didn't add up, because, as I said, I don't really know "how" to do this, only that "it's done". In France, only a minority are wine connaisseurs, but even the non-connaisseurs know that drinking is accompanied by tasting, weighing, and comparing. And that's something that's not instinctive in Canada.

So if I really had to offer advice on how to taste food, or how to write about food, I'd have to say: it's not a matter of labels. Good food does is not a dish that you can name; it's a matter of tasting it, watching it, experiencing how it asks to be brought from the plate to your mouth. Where does it hit your palate? How long does it remain hot? To which parts are you eyes attracted first? ... And, can you tell what kind of salt it was salted with?

This is a big topic, and I'm unable to summarise it all. I can't even get my head around it; I just know it's out there. And all that said, I still miss the microwaved Jamaican patties.

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