A Matter of Taste, Letter from the Publisher
My food book club has just read Spoon Fed by Kim Severson, who until recently was a food writer for the New York Times. Early in her food writing career, she was advised to do as much comparative tasting as possible. One of my favorite passages is when she says “To know good chocolate you have to experience bad chocolate and you should experience them side by side. . . So if you haven’t eaten a Hershey bar next to a perfect Michel Cluizel chocolate that melts at a point just about the temperature of the roof of your mouth, and you haven’t been able to tease out the nuances of vanilla or tobacco or dried mango, then you might not believe me when I say that the Hershey bar tastes like sour, grainy earwax.”
I’m recently back from Italy and Slow Food International’s biennial Salon of Taste (Salone del Gusto) where, as the name suggests, taste was an important component of the event. And that was what I spent most of my time doing: Tasting a 16-year-old mountain cheese. Tasting rare shochu, a Japanese distilled spirit. Tasting boutique Belgian beers. Tasting peppers from a mild pickled pepper to the hottest ghost chile produced in the world. And tasting more pork products—from prosciutto to salami to lardo—than I ever knew existed.
Some of the tastes were challenging: They were too spicy or too slimy or too sharp or too bitter and it was easy to initially reject some foods because of that. But one of the presenters in my Belgian beer class noted that Americans, in particular, are quick to denounce a yeasty Belgian Lambic beer as too bitter and encouraged us to look beyond the bitterness to explore the full flavor profile.
Unfortunately, our palates have become accustomed to mass-produced flavors, like the Hershey bar. We think we prefer the mild flavor of conventional chicken vs. the bolder taste of free-range chicken or the soft texture of conventional beef vs. more toothsome grass-fed beef or the nonexistent smell of dull, hard fruit vs. the heady perfume of soft, slightly bruised fruit or the high-fructose-corn-syrup-sweetened taste of just about everything.
So I encourage you to undertake your own taste comparisons now and then and to occasionally challenge your palate with something outside of your taste comfort zone. Who knows? You might end up enjoying the slightly bitter taste of a well-made ale.