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January 7, 2019updated 07 Jun 2023 10:46am

Book Review: Making Taste Public: Ethnographies of Food and the Senses edited by Carole Counihan and Susanne Højlund

By Stuart Walton

An important vade mecum in the territory of taste

The investigation of taste, in the context of aesthetic judgment as much as of the preferences we develop for certain foods and culinary systems, has to contend sooner or later with the latent paradox at its heart. In one sense, taste is famously subjective, immune to the prescriptions of external authority, one of the elements of human experience for which there is, proverbially, no accounting. On the other hand, however, the formation of communities of taste has been a constant throughout history and very often a way of sealing group solidarities and identities, whether for reasons of unbridled chauvinism or through the cultivation of discernment. The European Enlightenment traditions already knew that if there is no disputing questions of taste, it was nonetheless possible to discuss them, arriving at one reasonable consensus after another about the relative merits of this or that artistic production.

Once physical taste—the flavors, textures, and other characteristics of food and drink—was added to the canons of aesthetics, a process that has only begun to come to full fruition over the past 30 or 40 years, the way was open for another avenue of exploration. If taste can come to be indicative of social and cultural identity, by what processes is it transformed from a mere matter of internal preference into an agent of continuity between generations, and of social relations in general? How does the much-celebrated taste of terroir outside its various regions of origin become assimilated, and possibly homogenized, by consumers who hold no natural allegiance to it? These are the questions that the contributors to this thought-provoking collection of essays on the ethnography of taste set out to decide.

Terroir as community of taste

There is an impressive diversity of reference here. Topics covered include the development of food preferences in earliest infancy; the changing diet of Solomon Islanders over a period of 40 years; food education in schools and culinary academies; the construction of expertise in a Danish restaurant kitchen; and political food activism among the Sámi people, the residents of urban Sardinia, and denizens of the international Slow Food movement. On more familiar territory, there are contributions on the evolving viticultural scene in Italy’s Carema denomination and the work of a tasting panel in the Comté cheese-producing region of the Jura.

With regard to those last two, the respective pictures present a telling contrast. While the Comté tasters deliberate with exquisite courtesy over their tasting wheels—“mushroom, curdled acidic milk, lemon, chocolate” —in Carema there is much worrying over what the gradual break-up of the old pattern of artisanal wine production means for the future. Private cellars in the region were traditionally seen as social settings where people gathered after each vintage to discuss each other’s wine—“critical spaces for the collective production of taste,” as anthropologist Rachel Black puts it. The Nebbiolo grapes were traditionally grown in stone-pillared pergolas, which lent a distinctive physical aspect to the region’s vinous landscape, now giving way to classic Guyot training as older growers abandon their vineyards. Huge old barrels are being replaced by barrique aging at the cooperative. Carema’s fortunes have only recently been stabilized after a period of vertiginous decline, but the classic dilemma of whether it can be made economically viable, given its average retail price, has arisen.

While a generation—and the contents of its cellars—still exists that can remember it, the old Carema is in contention with the new. The vanillin softness of French oak maturation is a far cry from the hard tannins in which production in repeatedly used giant botti resulted, and the wine was very often characterized, as red wines from many another Italian region were, by unabashed levels of volatility. Bushes of wild calamint growing in the vineyards were held to pass on a specific taste to the wine, and then there is an even more intangible quality: “Some wine growers described the wine as having the same characters as the mountain people who grow it, austere and rigid.” At what point must local tradition begin to yield to the exigencies of the market? And what happens to the self-image of the producers when it does?

When one of the older growers invites Black to share a bottle of his 1968, the occasion is nothing like a standard analytical tasting session but becomes a true journey into local memory. Very few tasting descriptors are used. Instead, the proprietor recalls helping his father make the wine, which becomes a way of connecting him to his own past. The professional tasting note, useful enough as it is as a tool of communication and assessment, cannot possibly replicate the social history of any individual wine, and Black concludes with an important point about terroir being as much about the social production of taste as it is about physical characteristics.

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Cultural assets under threat

The same conflict between tradition and general accessibility arises in the context of Greg de St Maurice’s visit to the Japanese Culinary Academy in Kyoto. Recipes in the Academy’s handbook, Complete Japanese Cuisine, emphasize the presentational intricacy of the dishes, which may well be one of the reasons for the declining popularity of traditional Japanese food among Western students. Along with an appreciation of the five flavor categories and their harmonious combinations, the academy’s pupils are taught that certain social attitudes are nurtured through different aspects of the cuisine. Ikiru chikara is the all-important “zest for life” that is facilitated through comparing high- and low-quality ingredients. An exquisite dish inculcates kansha suru chikara (ability to be thankful, gratitude), and the right degree of dedication when cooking helps students cultivate omoiyari no kokoro (considerate hearts, thoughtfulness).

Over in Copenhagen, considerate hearts appear to be in shortish supply in the case of a young trainee chef who is reduced to tears when told that he has prepared his celeriac parcels filled with mackerel rillettes and cream cheese, garnished with lemon gel and dill, too slowly, so that the ingredients fail to blend well and the result is overly fishy and lacking the tang of true freshness. Unwisely he argues, and then flees in distress. Two weeks later, the reporter of this fracas, Jens Sejer Østergaard Rasmussen, is told that the chef has tendered his resignation. This is as much about the building of an interactive work community as it is about personal aptitude. “I just felt like I didn’t fit in,” he tells Rasmussen.

Meanwhile, in northern Sweden, the Sámi people’s traditional predilection for reindeer fat is yet another cultural asset under threat from climate change. When reindeer cannot break through the snow layer to find the natural pasturage on which they nourish themselves in the winter months, they must be sustained on feed pellets, lichens, and hay. This results in less healthy meat and poorer fat that lacks the true taste of place. Settling of the land by ethnic Swedes has contributed to the dismantling of established food systems, and exercised undue interference in the Sámi people’s own responses to changing climatic conditions. You can still buy gurpi (cold-smoked reindeer sausage wrapped in caul fat) in the butcher shops, but in a poor winter it doesn’t taste the same.

The urgent importance of taste

Perhaps the most eye-opening chapter here is Valeria Siniscalchi’s analysis of the rituals of inclusion and exclusion to be observed in proceedings of the Slow Food movement. Born out of leftist distaste for the machinations of the industrialized food economy and the kinds of mindless consumption it breeds, Slow Food aims officially to restore a democratic respect for singular traditions, and yet at its headquarters at Bra in Piedmont, an atmosphere of male-dominated pomposity reigns. Following a ceremonial dinner, guests are asked without explanation to cough up €20 each, which buys participants a small tasting share of a bottle of Giacomo Conterno’s 2001 Barolo Riserva Monfortino. The wine is tasted with awed reverence and humility. “Do you realize what just happened?” Siniscalchi is tremulously asked by the provider of the bottle. “This evening you tasted a bottle of Monfortino!” This is not just about tasting, though, she notes. “[I]t was also an example of the means and activities used to delimit this inner group of leaders.” At some level, connoisseurship and its opulence are quite as alienating as the dehumanized mass production of the processed food industry.

Given that most of the contributors to this volume are not specialist food writers but anthropologists and sociologists, there is a sure grasp in evidence through most of the collection of the issues—cultural, ethical, and gustatory—that food ethnography raises. The mis-definition of Pecorino as a goat cheese at one point is a rare slip-up. If taste can be as urgently important as is suggested by its role as a mobilizing factor in the assertion of indigenous people’s rights, and as pivotal in empowering consumers as is enabled by public tutored tastings of specialty food ingredients, we will need to attend sharply to its social constructions and definitions in the embattled years to come. Making Taste Public will make an important vade mecum to the territory.

Published by Bloomsbury Academic; 232 pages; $114 / £85

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