Taste and Place

I’m sitting at my kitchen counter right now, eating some bread and buffalo camembert. It’s delicious. Really quite tasty, a particularly unique cheese I first discovered at the Bra Cheese Festival nearly two years ago. It has the tang and light funk that you find in a proper mozzarella, but housed in that toothsomely buttery texture of a brie or camembert. It is made at La Casera, in Piemonte, whose cheesemaker Eros is, as far as I know, the only person producing this particular type of lactic wonder.

This cheese is delightful to eat on its own merits, as briefly described above, but, for me at least, has the added bonus of being a sensorial callback to a fond memory. Again, as briefly described above, I first encountered it at Cheese, the international dairy festival that sprung up outside my Italian window one September morning. Sponsored by Slow Food International, Cheese is a biennial gathering of cheesemakers, cheesemongers, cheese enthusiasts, and a rather sizable contingent of beers and wines. So really, fermentation festival might be a better description. Still, it is a chance to honor and discuss the miracle of dairy, paying homage to one of the oldest forms of food preservation. Is is also a chance to eat your weight in cheese, attend lectures by Cheddar makers that are treated like rockstars in this world, and spend hours in a tented portico that has been converted into a 2,000-bottle strong enoteca, sampling wines and drawing maps of Europe. Well, that’s what we did at least.

This is the type of event where you wander through one piazza, snacking your way toward lactose intolerance, when two friends accost you, high on penicillium roqueforti or something of the like, and start gesticulating wildly in the direction of the post office saying something about buffaloes and camemberts and life-altering experiences. So naturally, we go there. And we eat it, that very same cheese that I’m eating right here, right now in my kitchen in Napa.

And like I said, this cheese is delightful to eat on its own merits. It is even more delightful to eat when the cheesemaker offers you samples, but declares he has run out of wheels to sell you and feels absolutely terrible about it, so won’t you please sit down at this table he’s fashioned out of a wine barrel while he brings you a sampling of his other cheeses, some salumi procured from who knows where, and a bottle of gringolino. 

And now, two years later, here I am in Napa. Since the moment I first tasted his cheese, Eros has continued to make it, landed an international importer, and, likely, made some modifications to his recipe that allow it to conform to absurd US food regulations, and, less absurdly, survive the intercontinental journey. So no, it’s not the exact same cheese I first ate, but it is pretty damn close. Still, while this cheese will always remind of that moment, it will never recapture it. But really, it shouldn’t. I love the memory, a memory I can call up from photos, from conversations, simply from the back of my mind, or from a taste. But this cheese was perfect in that moment because of the moment. Because of the spontaneity, the company, the location, the serendipitous joining of forces that elevated a bite of a truly exceptional cheese to a memory that brings a smile to my face whenever it happens to jump to the forefront of my mind.

And this is important because context is transformative. Two months after the Cheese festival, I went on a farewell Italy road trip to the east. We drank our way through amphorae and orange wines, filled ourselves with the heavier mountain fare that virtually no American would ever identify as “Italian”, and, one afternoon, found ourselves on the far side of a blue and yellow spangled sign denoting we had crossed the border into Slovenia. We also found ourselves quite hungry, and pulled over at the first hilltop roadside bar we could find. The offerings were limited, at best, but a few minutes later and barely a couple euro lighter, we found ourselves on a picnic table sipping pilsners and awaiting our “flatbread”. We really didn’t have to wait long, since one of the miracles of microwaves is how quickly they can turn a frozen disc of dough and protein into something resembling lunch.

Someday I’ll get through one of these blog posts without mentioning pizza. Today is not that day. Because yes, that Slovenian microwaved flatbread was, in fact, a pizza. With part-skim mozzarella, diced ham, red onions, and green peppers, all of which had been dozing in a frozen slumber until just minutes before they arrived steaming on our table. With my thoughts on pizza well-documented here, I think it goes without saying that this particular meal was not destined to impress. And yet, I can still recall the meal and the moment with perfect, positive clarity. The pizza was, for lack of a better descriptor, good. Not because its ingredients were good, or its history or its story or anything, it was good because it served the moment.

Taste and context influence one another and are completely inseparable. I think this is important to remember now, particularly with the rise of gastronomic tourism. People travel just to eat, which, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. It is, without a doubt, the best way to fully experience a new culture. But checking restaurants and dishes off a list is not fully experiencing them. Rushing to squeeze everything in and say you’ve been there or eaten that is not the point. Even as I write this, I struggle with it. Always wanting to do my research and make my list and eat as much as I possibly can when I go somewhere new. But then I remember that trip to Friuli and Slovenia, and while I remember that there were two wonderful dinners, full of frico and canederli and gnocchi di susine, the moment I best recall is when we sat in the sun, gazing at the valleys of Slovenia, eating microwaved pizza, and I looked down and found a fly in my beer.

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5 comments

  1. Yoey Bindle · · Reply

    I love the contrasts and that they both seem accessible…I like that both were equally wonderful experience. I aim interested in how the expression of place (say, the cheese) is translocated (in particular in the US) and brought into a space (restaurants) that is antagonistic to the access and everyday quality that the food has in it’s home place.

    1. By expression of place do you mean how the cheese itself expresses its place of origin? And therefore how a cheese can properly express itself in a location that is not its home place? I addressed that a little in The Terroir of Pizza, but headline foods could always take another stab at it…

  2. Yoey Bindle · · Reply

    yes and that origin may be the most mundane, the most down to earth, the most farmyard… in the best of ways (and why it is amazing)…and perhaps the consumption too is part of the everyday…but that place based identity of the food/consumption may be revamped perhaps when placed in … say… a fine dining context somewhere else. I love the Terroir of Pizza post!

  3. […] to England to speak English and Denmark to go bicycling, back to Italy to work on my thesis and consume absurd quantities of cheese, to New York to see friends, Chicago to relive college, and Charleston to corral chefs and fall in […]

  4. […] I’ve talked a lot about context before. About how the details of a situation can render a dining experience extraordinary or less than ordinary, independent of the actual quality of the food. But what about when the context and the quality are supposed to be intertwined? When you go to a restaurant with the understanding that the experience of being there and the food you consume will only serve to heighten the actual enjoyment of both? […]

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