Fine art of simple pleasure
FOOD tourists are wrecking my weekends. It seems I rarely step into a shop to replenish the pantry without struggling through a school of earnest foodies listening to learned disquisitions on the virtues of cold-pressed virgin olive oil, buffalo mozzarella or egg pasta. The food professor of the moment is normally the shop owner, whose absence from the counter slows service to a virtual halt. I blame it all on Maeve O’Meara, star of the SBS Food Safari series.
Someone should roll her up in a kimono and offer her a seat among the Iron Chef critics. Following on from the giggling Mayuko Takata and the scholarly Shinichiro Kurimoto (‘‘ the texture of the camembert souffle blends delightfully with the crispy carapace of the deep-fried baleen’’), she might conclude proceedings with her earthy appreciative monosyllable: ‘‘ Yum’’.
O’Meara’s series doubtless has given a boost to traffic on the many food tours of the same name that thread their way through the inner burbs of a Saturday morning. Shopping in Sydney’s former migrant quarters used to be a rare pleasure: it’s now about as restoring as a visit to the Easter Show.
That said, I took a break from the crowd last Saturday, sat for a while over a coffee and thought, as sports people like to say, about the positives. Of which there are many. After all, skips of my generation grew up enduring meat and three veg, Friday fondue nights until we tired of them, and some kind of stir fry for the limp leftovers at the bottom of the fridge generically referred to as oriental surprise. Outside Australian migrant communities there is little inherited knowledge about the kinds of dishes and ingredients we now covet so keenly, and anything that deepens our knowledge and expands our horizons has to be a good thing. The food safari craze is doing some work for the culture.
For myself, I’m not sure that I really know how to pick a great olive oil from a good one; I swear that the best I’ve tasted came in an old Coke bottle. It just happened to have been handpressed during the harvest in the uplands around Kalamata on a farm owned by a gentle Greek woman named Anastasia, and was consumed at her pension with corn bread, tomato, fetta and olives, and a view of a shimmering Ionian Sea. Was it the ambience or the taste, the expansive mood or the freshness of the fruit? I really can’t tell.
The term connoisseur, according to my Oxford Dictionary, refers to an ‘‘ expert judge in matters of taste’’. Wikipedia maintains a much more definite relationship with the aesthetic: ‘‘ On the basis of empirical evidence, refinement of perception about technique and form, and a disciplined method of analysis, the responsibility of the connoisseur is to attribute authorship, validate authenticity and appraise quality. These findings can be collected and organised into a catalogue raisonne of the work of a single artist or a school.’’
I’d like to reclaim connoisseurship from its association with expertise in the arts, the passions of the aristocratic collector, the cultural OW’S the time to think back on the year almost gone and contemplate the one around the corner. I hope, for one, fewer friends die or are diagnosed with something unpleasant. I still expect to see Paddy McGuinness, an atheist friend who loved priests, walking through the restaurant door and saying, ‘‘ Hello comrades’’; I should think he’s very busy now having an argument with God over lunch.
As far as new year resolutions are concerned, I haven’t a clue, but the feeling is that I’ll persevere with what has become dogged perversity.
I had thought for a time, for example, that I would rid the world of young people occupying train carriages, which have become towers of Babel thanks to the
Nregister of refinement, and give it an altogether more democratic temper. Just as the true aristos in Marcel Proust are those who appreciate the virtues of simplicity, and the real genius of P. G. Wodehouse’s world is the cerebral manservant Jeeves, connoisseurship is found at all social strata. The word’s etymological root, in the French connaitre , bonds it to the notion of knowledge. And while we struggle to conceptualise a response to the global meltdown — both the economic and climatic versions — there’s much to be said for the virtues of the knowing consumer .
This Christmas, more than any other, we have been exhorted to buy; to separate ourselves from those hard-earned dollars to fulfil our patriotic duty. In the pocket of the average consumer resides the fate of the global economic order, no less. Never mind the national debt: we’re being urged to spend our way out of recession. ubiquitous mobile phone. I have honed my glaring powers but to no avail; it has got me absolutely nowhere and if there’s one place I do not want to be, that one place is nowhere.
Health-wise, so far so good, touch wood. I’ve spent a while with the skin doctor, being zapped, because I spent my youth smothered with burning unguents lying in the sun.
The highlight of my year was the reunion with my brothers and nephews and nieces in
Connoisseurship, understood as a popular rather than an elite virtue, can be a way to use that purchasing power wisely and sensitively. It doesn’t have to be about choosing the best burgundy from the best year at $ 800 a bottle. It can be a matter of discerning a good wine, from a producer of integrity, at a good price, no simple matter. Or, at the very least, knowing how to detect a bad wine irrespective of the price tag.
I recall the story, retailed in one of the leisure supplements, of the chap who at a French restaurant ordered a $ 500-plus red to impress his friends. Decanting the wine, the sommelier noticed it was corked and smelled like a wet dog but said not a word. The wine victims at the table sniffed and slurped ostentatiously, and pronounced it good.
The kind of thing I have in mind is discernment divorced from snobbery, which in another way of thinking is simply a knowledge of, or instinct for, the craft involved in the making of things: it can extend to one’s choice of a business shirt, a bike, a pair of shoes, an umbrella. Where, while I’m on the subject, can you get a decent, sturdy, good quality umbrella that’s not some awful posh number with an ivory handle? England. In fact it has been a year of seeing people with whom I’d almost lost contact, the latest being a cousin I haven’t seen for a hundred years who is to visit her son in Sydney and would like to get in touch. It will be interesting to see how much her face has lined and, of course, she’ll look at me and say: ‘‘ She’s her mother reincarnated.’’ I get a fright every day if I accidentally pass a mirror.
I can’t let the year pass without one more mention of World Youth Day, now that the hayburners are back home and all is right with the world. Sydney’s Cardinal George Pell has recently been in Rome for a synod of bishops and all those who had been in Sydney for the event were there, too. Without exception they approached him with praise, especially a cardinal from South Africa who
This kind of attitude doesn’t come easily to Australians because we have neither a tradition nor a culture of making. The Italians had it once but seem to have lost it. The Japanese economy, on the other hand, is a machine that grows out of a living craft tradition. Kyoto is a shrine to the art of making: even the brooms are beautiful. Our national economy still relies on the stuff we find below ground or grow in bulk above it. We make almost nothing of distinction.
True connoisseurship is about delight and pleasure in simple things and is closer to real life than you may think. There is a less-is-more aspect to it, which responds to the times, and a sense of seeking value outside the received categories of prestige.
It can be about knowing where to get the best ox-heart tomatoes for a late summer salad; how to purchase, or better still to grow, tender leaves of basil; or where on a weekend to buy mafruka, an Arabic dish of caramelised semolina topped with roasted almonds, thickened cream and sugar syrup, then dusted with finely ground pistachios.
As Maeve would say: ‘‘ Yum’’.
review@ theaustralian. com. au was particularly pleased at the participation of so many indigenous youngsters. The Pope said that the moment he would never forget was at Randwick for the closing mass when he asked the pilgrims to pray for a few minutes in silence. The only sound he heard, he said, was the singing of the birds.
I do have one thing to which I am greatly looking forward. When I was being zapped at the skin doctor I told him my hairdresser had had all his freckles zapped and he said he would do mine after the equinox ( they don’t like to zap in summer); I’ve been praying for them to disappear overnight since I was born, and now, aged 66, these prayers have been answered. So 2009 will not only be a year of fecklessness but also of frecklelessness.
fraserj@ theaustralian. com. au