A matter of taste

Your surroundings are as important to enjoyment as the ingredients.

Why do things taste different in different places? I first became aware of this truth during the long, hot summer of 1976, when I hopped among the Greek islands. On a budget of £1.50 a day, I smoked a brand of cigarette called Proto. They were not the cheapest available, but they cost only nine drachmas - worth about 14 pence then, if memory serves - for 20. They had a pleasing abrasiveness, complementing the dusty, bright heat. In September, I left Greece by bus; as we travelled north through what was then Yugoslavia, the sky darkened and the temperature dropped. The Protos started to taste like burnt pencil sharpenings. Many people have had similar disappointments with exported ouzo and retsina.

Differences in the tastes of food are most obviously a matter of varying ingredients. The olive oil in France is not as highly prized as that of Italy or Spain; but I find that the widely available Puget brand has a vibrant, fruity pepperiness that you rarely find in similarly priced Italian or Spanish varieties. French new potatoes are invariably waxy and firm - qualities that their counterparts on sale in Britain exhibit more sporadically. I have a supper standby: sliced potatoes, chopped onions, chopped garlic, lardons and olive oil, stirred up and baked in a covered casserole for an hour or so. This dish has a golden, creamy savour that it never attains at home.

Another simple treat specific to our holidays is tomato and cucumber salad, dressed only with salt and olive oil. We fight to appropriate the most juice to mop up with crusty bread. The bread, with a distinctively coarser texture than you find in British reproductions of the baguette, is an essential part of the experience.

The ingredients, though, are not solely responsible for how people enjoy food. I might transport the olive oil, potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers and bread across the Channel, but I would fail to re-create the experience of them that we get in France.

I have written here before about the part that environment plays in the pleasures of eating. I much preferred, I wrote, to eat unassuming food in a restaurant where I felt comfortable than to eat outstanding food in more forbidding surroundings. You might complain that this is like saying that it is better to read The Da Vinci Code in a comfortable armchair than to read Herzog while strap-hanging on the Tube.

I am all for maintaining standards, in food and in literature. But while I think that one should be able to separate the qualities of a Saul Bellow novel from the circumstances of the person reading it, I do not want to make this distinction in assessing the qualities of a meal. A meal should make you feel good. Holiday meals are the best of all.

Nicholas Clee's food blog is at http://nicholasclee.blogspot.com

Nicholas Clee, the NS food columnist, is the author of Don’t Sweat the Aubergine: What Works in the Kitchen and Why (Short Books). He is a former editor of The Bookseller, and writes about books for papers including the Times, Guardian, and Times Literary Supplement.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Bush: Is the president imploding?