Thursday, 17 April 2008

Time for a change...

Discovering new foodstuffs is a constant source of delight for me. I remember the first time I tasted Manchego cheese, the salty, almost fudge like quality of it balanced by a tiny square of quince jelly. My introduction to the soft, fluffy cumulo nimbus like qualities of sweetbreads, sweetly caramelised on the outside proved to be equally enlightening and I remember the slight frisson of trepidation the first time I sucked a brackish oyster past my lips and straight down my throat, the hefty shake of Tabasco sauce catching the inside of my lips and the sharpness of the fresh lemon juice heightening the whole experience with a raw, but expected, sourness. Incidentally, I still think that this is the best way to eat oysters, a supreme combination that offers a surge of heat, the salty hit of the oyster itself and the finishing notes of sharp citrus which leaves the eater with a delicious mixture of flavours and sensations rolling around the palate and lips. There is certainly an excitement about tasting things for the very first time.

Equally satisfying though is the realisation that one’s tastes have changed and a flavour that once provoked face-pulling and potentially even feelings of nausea ensuring animated and enthusiastic raptures of derision for the coming years has become not just palatable but pleasurable. Whilst tasting new and exotic items of food for the first time might provoke slight fear, being offered something that you know you do not like is entirely different. At least with unknown quantities there is a chance that it may taste good but with tastes one has experienced already this chance is removed. Which merely serves to heighten the pleasure on learning that it now tastes good.

I vividly remember the first time I tasted coffee. We had come to the end of a family holiday in a converted barn in northern France and were invited to enjoy a final drink with the aging proprietors who remain etched in my memory as the most French people I have ever met. I think the male half of the couple may have even worn a beret without displaying even the merest speck of irony. A small outhouse on the sprawling and mismatched property contained little more than a minimally fitted out kitchen and a mottled oak table large enough to comfortably seat 12. We sat there, talking in pigeon French and English about how much we had enjoyed the fortnight and nodded promises that we would return the following year, whilst the unmistakable aroma of freshly brewed coffee began to dominate the air. I accepted the offer of a steaming cup of mirrored black liquid and waited for the steam to subside before raising it to my lips and taking a tentative sip. I was astounded that anyone in a semi-sensible state of mind could actively enjoy the harsh acridity of such a drink but tried my best to make encouraging noises and not let my distaste register on my young face. Taking leaf from the others sat round the table, I reached for the two ceramic containers in front of me, thankful that I had only been given half a cup full and could fill the remaining space with a mixture of white sugar and rich, creamy milk. It turned the drink from something utterly unpalatable to one that I could taste without pulling my lips in and breathing in sharply with shock. But things change and since then I’ve graduated onto pungent ristretto style espresso, an intense coffee hit with a taste that lingers in the mouth long after the drink has been drained. Having said that, I am something of a coffee purist and I cannot abide the synthetic taste of instant coffee. There are some tastes that will never change.

I’ve had similar experiences with tomato juice and cheese. Though not together. Far from being the over-powering flavour I remember from my youth, tomato juice, liberally sluiced with Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco, a squeeze of lime, topped off with a generous grind from the pepper mill and perhaps even a splash of vodka is a great way to start the day, especially if is a Sunday. And despite my love of all things cheese-related, it is only recently that I have graduated from the milder varieties and been able to see the delicious appeal of those tasty examples studded throughout with a delectable and salty mould. Tastes change. Palates develop and the experience of eating is much more pleasurable because of it.

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