By Lucy Madden.
What is good food? There is no consensus on this – far from it – and unlike the universal acknowledgement of what, say, constitutes good scenery, ideas of what contributes to a good meal differ widely. This is strange in some ways because you might assume that human bodies everywhere have the same nutritional needs, rather like cows and chickens.
Of course nutritional needs and gastronomic pleasure can be very conflicting, as is evidenced by the burgeoning numbers of the obese. National cuisines, too, are influenced by many factors, cultural and climatic, but why do different countries have such very differing tastes? One might have assumed that eating would be more of a universal experience, whereas the reverse is true.
Interested in sampling what is to me a previously unknown cuisine, and since we now have a Lithuanian supermarket in our local town, I decided recently to invite a few friends to a Lithuanian lunch. At first sight the goods on display in the supermarket looked promising: a wide variety of cooked meats and fish were enticing but, unable to communicate with the girl behind the counter I randomly picked out several to make up a meat platter, then chose a salted herring and an unidentifiable smoked fish. So far, so good. There appeared to be no fresh vegetables on sale, save a single cucumber, but a bewildering array of bottled vegetables beckoned from the shelves. I picked out a couple of jars, then a curd cheese, a loaf of rye bread and some sausages. The bill came to under €20 so, feeling smug, I returned home to lay out the feast.
The table was generously laden but, I’m sad to report, and at the risk of offending any Lithuanian readers, my guests gave the food a resounding thumbs down. The fish was inedible, salty with mushy flesh, the sausages were wrapped individually in plastic, the rye bread resembled a killing instrument and there was not one item that could be deemed to be either nutritious or flavoursome.
At the risk of causing further offence (and who was it who said there is no point in writing if you can’t offend someone?) a friend who worked for some months in Prague said the worst sentence she could hear was “We are going to have a traditional Czech dinner tonight”. Somerset Maugham said of English food that it was all right if you didn’t mind eating breakfast three times a day and I have to agree with Fran Lebowitz who advised “If you are going to America, bring your own food.” Argentine food is not for the faint-hearted, nor for vegetarians. Even the cuisines we most admire like the French and the Italian have their flaws. Why in France do fresh vegetables not appear on the menus? Why do the Italians cook their vegetables to death? My sister, who lives in Tuscany and loves most things Tuscan, says that the traditional food there is far from our idealised concept of the Mediterranean diet and that much of it is stodgy and repetitious.
Never having been to China, I cannot comment on the widely voiced comment that the best Chinese food is to be found outside China – and it is said that some of the most popular ‘Indian’ dishes were created in the north of England. (If the apparent well-being and health of a people can be largely attributed to their diet, as I believe it can be, then the Indians are a good example of the principle.) My own preference is for the food of Morocco, but I’m not sure I would want to eat it exclusively.
Earlier this summer I had the pleasure of dining at Noma in Copenhagen, voted the world’s best restaurant for the third year running. I say ‘the pleasure’ but this was more as an appreciation of the restaurant as theatre, and few of the 22 courses I would ever wish to eat again. The success of Noma has much to do with its ingenuity using foraged food, and this was inspirational because on our little island we have so many opportunities for using wild food.
We may not as yet have a universally admired food culture, but we do have the opportunity to create one with a cornucopia of some of the best ingredients of land and sea in the world. Then why is it that our towns have seen such a proliferation of Eastern take-aways when on our doorsteps we have such wonderful ingredients? Pasta, pizza and noodles, pah! Bring on the spuds, the fish of our waters, the meat of our green fields and the fruits of our hedgerows. Isn’t it time we all started taking our own good food more seriously?