Fine art of sim­ple plea­sure

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View -

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

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jon Kudelka

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