A perplexed Charles de Gaulle once asked “How can one govern a nation that has 246 varieties of cheese?”. That was in 1962. Since then the position for French presidents has worsened. An estimate by their minister of agriculture suggests that the number of cheeses now exceeds 3500, and in late June, on a visit to our local market, there was evidence that the number had just increased yet again. The qualities of this new recruit tell us a lot about food politics.
There is always a queue in front of our cheese-monger’s stall. When we arrived he was serving a middle-aged woman who obviously knew her cheeses. She had already chosen some French favourites – Roquefort, Brie, Comté and Morbier – when the stall holder lent forward and, in a hushed tone, started the oddest of sales pitches. Pointing to a cheese at the front of the counter he asked, “’Have you tried this new cheese?” It is most special. It is made from sheep’s milk and has absolutely no taste so you just add the flavours you like; salt, pepper, herbs, spices, as you will. In its texture and in how it cuts it is a bit like a flaky feta. And it’s cheap too. Would you like to buy some?’ She was persuaded, paid him and left. When we got to the front of the queue I congratulated him on his salesmanship saying how anyone who can sell a tasteless cheese by making its blandness a virtue deserves an award. He laughed, though his eyes twinkled his shoulders took on the air of slight embarrassment.
What I had witnessed confirmed once again that it is no longer essential for food to offer taste. Indeed, increasingly, food has become a commodity primarily for covering the plate or filling the mouth. For many, the importance of its intrinsic taste and goodness has been all but forgotten. For fruit and vegetables for instance, the key requirement is their shape and their looks; a tomato that is perfectly shaped and coloured but tasteless will do nicely.
A reminder of taste difference and particularly taste deficit regularly occurs when I switch between foods bought in London and those bought in France, in Brittany to be precise, and all this despite the fact that in both countries we buy with great care and with taste uppermost in our minds. The Bretons, like the French generally, love their food and are special devotees of food from the sea. Near us, there are many who would expect the fish on the counter to have been caught the day before, and that crayfish, crab and lobster for instance are still alive when bought.
Like others, I shop around, and to get the best when staying in Tréguennec, I go to a local ‘bio’ farm for cooked hams; to a cheese-maker who has her own herd of buffalo for mozzarella, to a small Casino supermarket for black pudding; and to the giant Leclerc supermarket for most cuts of meat, all seafood and most fruit. And, for the best, in-season, fruit and vegetable tastes, no local shop can beat the flavour of freshly harvested strawberries, raspberries, currants, cherries, potatoes, radishes, onions and leeks from our own garden (moles, aphids and caterpillars permitting!) or the wild blackberries from the lane behind our cottage.
However, to be fair, there are still some foods that I find tastier in west London than in France, for example, lamb chops, smoked undyed haddock, kippers, tuna fish steaks, most cuts of chicken and Seville oranges for marmalade.
But variations like these are nothing new. It was eating abroad years ago that originally allowed me discover the extent to which taste had been leached out of the foodstuffs in the first place. I was staying in a hotel in Johannesburg in the early 2000s. At my first breakfast I was reminded that egg yolk actually had flavour. What’s more, as I ate the egg I had memories of the taste I used to experience when eating soldiers dipped in soft-boiled eggs as a boy. Then, later that same week, I tasted carrots like the carrots of old. Taste deprivation had crept up on us in London, albeit unnoticed, and rediscovering these ‘old-fashioned’ foods made a lasting impression.
However, despite all my searching, I seem unable to find tomatoes that taste decent in, or out of, season on either side of the channel. It’s almost worth starting an international campaign to ‘bring back the tasty tomato’; although I suspect that the notion of any such Anglo-French collaboration would have de Gaulle turning in his grave.