50 Foods
An Excerpt From
50 Foods

 

Preface

 

This is a book about taste — a guide to deliciousness. I’ve tried to tell the things that will turn the reader into an instant connoisseur, which is a contradiction in terms, of course. It can’t be done. But I hope to give a good head start.

My choices may provoke arguments over which are the top fifty foods, but I don’t claim that mine are the absolute best and most delicious. The world has too many great foods for anyone to settle on a mere fifty. I chose these partly because they provide a broad sensory range. Most are raw materials, but some have been fermented or otherwise transformed — into bread, ham, cheese. In fact, six of the fifty are cheeses, and you may wonder: why so many? The answer is that cheese is probably the best food, just as wine is the best drink, and even six doesn’t cover all the wonderful basic kinds.

I’ve tried to present clear, simple, practical information about buying, using, preparing, and enjoying. I focus on aroma, appearance, flavor, and texture. For each food, I tell what the “best” means, when that’s clear — often there’s more than “best.” I tell where the foods come from and the methods that make them. I give the signs of top quality — indications of freshness and ripeness, best season, top varieties, proper aging. I tell things to avoid and provide questions to ask. If the food can be stored, I tell how, even how to mature certain soft cheeses. This isn’t a cookbook, but if the way to prepare, serve, or eat something isn’t well-known, I explain it — how to open an oyster, why the best way to cook green beans is boiling, how to clean a whole salted anchovy, when to eat and when to discard the rind of a cheese. I name the complementary flavors.

50 Foods has plenty of advice and opinion, but most of my conclusions are dictated by facts. During the more than twenty-five years I’ve been writing about food, I’ve often made wrong assumptions, and I’ve learned to be skeptical of both received wisdom and my own notions. I try to be clear when I offer pure prejudice — in favor of tart apples over sweet, green asparagus over white, classic baguettes over modern sorts, young skinny French-style green beans over fatter kinds, dry-aged beef over meat sealed in plastic.

I strongly believe that food tastes more delicious when it’s closer to nature, something that after years of careful tasting seems to me obvious. By closer to nature, I mean made using simpler processes, generally lower technology, and without deceptive additions.

Yes, some MSG or a trace of artificial flavoring may possibly improve the taste of something in an absolute sense. But even if that’s true, how can we fully enjoy a food if we don’t know where the flavor comes from and understand just how good nature can be on its own?

Industrial processing tends to simplify flavor. Advanced technology creates vast quantities of low-cost food for a mass market, while its cost-cutting and controls eliminate the extremes of both bad and good. Skilled traditional methods are almost always superior. Generally they’re simpler and less powerful, and they leave more flavor intact. The catch, if there is one, is that low-technology food is more varied and seasonal and comes in wider range of quality from high to low. Traditions evolve, of course; sometimes we can improve them. With scientific insight, artisans can understand what really works, refine old methods, and achieve more consistent high quality.

I’ve included notes on wine because there’s no better drink with food. Wine provides counterpoint, refreshment, and relaxation. Almost any simple wine without defects will do that, assuming it’s somewhat light— light in body and flavor, low to moderate in alcohol, and low in tannin. It helps if the wine also has a pleasing acidity. Lighter wines tend to go with a wider range of foods, and with them it matters less whether the color is white, pink, or red. If you want, stick to light, simple everyday wines and ignore my sometimes expensive recommendations. They’re not essential, although their more particular flavors go better with the food in question, and a few combinations really soar.

You can’t always have the best food, but with the information in this book you will eat better every day. Knowing good food is part of a complete understanding of the world — part of a full enjoyment of nature, a full experience of the senses.

50 Foods

50 Foods

The Essentials of Good Taste