Flavour or presentation?

Recalling an event, years later, some people remember the event and the people while others remember the food. I am one of the latter.

Do you remember that last meal in Elounda, Crete, with Wendy and John? We made friends with the café owner, and told him how much we wanted to pay. He chose the menu and prepared a magnificent meal, just for the four of us with squid and fish and souvlaki and bottles of dark Boutari wine.

You cannot ask for more than good food, a few bottles of wine and some good company. The food doesn't have to be fancy, or expensive, but it does have to be good. Good food means food that tastes good. Food that is fresh. Not pumped full of sugar and preservatives and chemicals.

One of the best was the restaurant on a beach in Penang. Not knowing any better, we stayed at the E&O. The Chinese trader arrived, expecting to meet a stuffy old English colonel, but he took us to a Chinese-run place, where you could walk on to the sand. We all ate chilli crabs with our fingers and sucked the red sauce and the meat out of the legs. He said he thought the English didn't do that kind of thing. We gave him broad grins full with seafood and good company. He walked onto the beach, picked up a huge conch shell and presented it to my wife.

Better to have some good, dried pasta properly cooked in boiling water and then drenched with olive oil used to lightly fry a few cloves of freshly sliced garlic, than a ready-made meal packed full of salt and saturated fats. The pasta is quicker to prepare, quicker to cook and above all, tastes better. If you can add some cracked pepper and some fresh-grated parmigiano, you have a meal fit for a king.

You weren't there, but on a trade mission some colleagues and I went to a local café in Yaoundé where we had the choice of antelope or pangolin. I chose the pangolin, because I knew what antelope was. We waited four hours while it cooked, drinking beer and talking. They say it's a delicacy, but I know one thing: I'll never eat pangolin again.

It's not about paying exorbitant prices for the best ingredients. It's about eating what is in season and fresh. And that is the cheapest food you can buy. I know it's convenient to buy pineapples in December from the supermarket, but did you ever taste fresh pineapple straight from a tropical tree? Or peaches, or watermelon, or any fruit? To get that pineapple in your bowl on a snowy winter day, it is picked two months before it should ever be separated from its tree, and left to ripen in the dark, iron-clad cargo hold of a steamer as it churns the ocean. It ripens without ever seeing the sun, without ever feeling its warmth or feeling the wingbeats of butterflies and songbirds. If you were left without sun for two months you’d be pretty sour, just like that fresh pineapple. Pineapples left on trees for two months amid the birdsong and the sunshine and the warmth are warm and sweet and leave no hint of harshness. Perfect for breakfast. Better than chocolate éclairs for a mid-afternoon snack.

That breakfast in Yosemite. We stayed in the cheapest canvas tents, just as summer was ending. It was good to snuggle together for warmth, but even better to have eggs and bacon in the huge, over-warm breakfast room at the smart hotel in the middle of the valley.

You want sweetness in winter? Try onion jam. Try frying up leeks and onions in butter. Try roasting some parsnips, or carrots. Root vegetables cost next to nothing and they contain so much sugar they are literally sweet to the tongue, unless they have been force-grown in record time, to achieve regulation length and colour.

It was my birthday in Kennebunkport and the smart restaurant sold us a take-away of scallops in vodka sauce in a polystyrene tray. We took them back to our hotel and ate them warm in the garden with nearly-cold champagne. The midges bit us, but scallops are still your favourite.

So that’s the problem. Supermarkets insist their carrots are straight and all exactly 15cm long and coloured to match pantone 164. Real carrots; tasty, sweet carrots are bent and pale, and some of them, (shock, horror) are shaped like human body parts. Supermarkets insist their tomatoes are all exactly spherical and match some other pantone colour. The same with mushrooms, onions and every other vegetable. These are the catwalk supermodels of the vegetable world, genetically engineered for perfection. They have no taste.

It had been a long walk and you were tired. The blackberries were growing fat and juicy in the hedgerow. They stained your lips and dribbled down my shirt. We walked home, satisfied.

Italian plum tomatoes sold from a market stall in Milano do not look pretty. They are bruised and blotchy and pale, but chop them up, add some herbs, garlic and a bit of oil to make a sugo and you discover that nothing makes a better sugo than those blotchy, nasty red lumps. Sweet, luscious, firm flesh give body to a rich meaty sauce.

We left Mike's house in the Correze and got to the Hotel de ville, just in time for lunch. The ville was only 100 houses; mostly farmers, so the hotel was cheap and cheerful in that rural French way. We ate with the owner and his family and talked all afternoon about mushrooms and mothers-in-law, drinking too much of his house wine along with the rich stew and fragrant cheeses.

And that's the trade-off. Vegetables, meat and everything else grown for selling to the global food retail giants has to meet criteria for size, shape, colour and appearance. The growers find the varieties that meet those requirements. They choose what we eat, based on appearance. So we end up buying those beautiful tomatoes because they look good.

Not only that, but the growers have to do it as quickly as possible, growing three, four or five crops of tomatoes in one season. And making sure that each plant yields as many fruit as possible.

The Adriatic beach was crowded, so we took the bus to the end of the strip and found a river beach where the waves lapped the shore and the crowds were a mile away. The restaurant grew olive trees and herb bushes next to the tables and we could stroll down to the river between courses. We ate raviolini stuffed with porcini followed by squid rings and sea bass. The wine was cold, the sun was hot and the afternoon lasted forever.

Anyone who ever grew fruit or vegetables knows that a plant can put only so much effort into either fruit or seeds or flowers or growth. A fruit or vegetable that grows and matures quickly among a large crop of others will not have any flavour. Good fruit farmers know that they have to thin the crop if they are to get the best flavour. Once the buds start forming into fruit, the farmer will go through and pinch out half or more of the crop. You can have quantity or quality, but not both.

The supermarkets give us quantity, and they will claim to give us quality, with their 'best-before' dates and their high polish and wonderful palette. But what about our palates?

Pizzas in some anonymous town in California, with a fine bottle of pinot noir. We watched the sun set and felt the cold drain out of the air. The last hummingbird of the season emptied nectar from the sweet flowers.

As a nation we are eating more and more processed food. Our lives are so busy that we prefer someone else to prepare the food for us. They get to choose which tomatoes they use; they get to choose how much salt and fat to put into the meal. They get to choose the menu. It's fast food, and the way to sell more fast food is to add lots of fat, because that improves the texture, and then add lots of salt, because people have grown to like salty flavours. Never mind that excess salt is a known factor in premature heart attacks.

We stopped off overnight and stayed above a pizza restaurant in Vouvray. There was only one restaurant in town and we ate the tenderest, pinkest lamb cutlets, delicately flavoured with garlic with crunchy vegetables and creamy potatoes. There were other choices on the menu, but no-one was choosing them. This place was full of locals and the locals know good food.

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