Looking for Flavour with Barbara Santich

A leading food historian peers into our diets

By Graham Brown
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Looking for Flavour by Barbara Santich

Looking for Flavour by Barbara Santich [©Wakefield Press]

 

Looking for Flavour is the 2009 expanded edition of Barbara Santich’s 1996 work of the same name which won the 1997 Australian Food Writers’ Award for best soft-covered food-related book.

This edition adds a major new essay discussing changes in the food supply, not only in Australia but also globally, and their implications, notably the vastly increased variety of food available in markets, supermarkets, cafes and restaurants. At the same time Santich reflects on the themes introduced in the first edition: culture and tradition, continuity and change. Above all, she continues to encourage everyone to ‘taste, reflect and compare and change, alive to the rewards of flavour and sensible to its absence’.

The introductory essay is a lengthy enough piece but I find Santich’s academic voice, not surprisingly perhaps, much less engaging than her sensory and sensual, even impressionistic ruminations of the original chapters. These range in subject from “Looking for Flavour” of the first chapter to “The Fascination of Markets”, “Mediterranean Inspiration” and “Towards an Australian Cuisine” to a set under the group heading of “Food and Performance, Food in Performance” and the evocative last chapter “Sin and the Well-Considered Indulgence”.

It seems obligatory that writers on food cannot consider the evocative power of taste and scent without referring to Marcel Proust and his tea and cakes or the timeless Mediterranean sunset without invoking Homer to describe that vinous pond; these were good literary dishes once and I can see no reason not to serve them up again. Santich’s prose is sunny and quite dreamy as if conceived if not actually written in the reverie of an after lunch time reflection somewhere in the south of France.

In “The Fascination of Markets” Santich extols the virtue of markets in terms of their authenticity and immediacy. There is something about seeing, touching, smelling and tasting a panoply of honest produce that turns simple provisioning into an activity of wider cultural significance especially when the added dimension of talking about it is included in the mix. And the only way you can do these things is by visiting a market.

The language of food and eating is a regular theme in Looking for Flavour and Santich is quick to summon the French semioticians like Roland Barthes in the process of deconstructing the cultural signifiers waiting to be deciphered in markets, kitchens and tables all around the world.

Reading this chapter I did a bit of reflecting of my own. I remembered stopping to buy some nectarines at a market stall in Florence and picking up a likely candidate to feel and smell, in much the same way as Santich describes. All bonhomie (or its Italian equivalent) vanished as the store holder riled against my cultural faux pas: don’t touch the fruit!

There are some oddities to be found in Looking for Flavour that you might not expect from a writer of Santich’s standing. She’s not too concerned about contradicting herself nor about falling into some of her own traps, admitting that she, too, has the same idealised view of the Mediterranean that she scolds the wannabees and yuppies for naively holding. “What is the Mediterranean?”, she asks us in “Mediterranean Inspiration”. She answers that it is a “climatic unity, a linguistic, historical, gastronomic unity”. Well, maybe. My friends in Tuscany moved there from Rome twenty years ago and the locals still consider them foreigners. Earlier she states that it is a fact of physics that disorderly systems tend to organise themselves into more orderly ones. I wonder if it is my poor understanding of the second law of thermodynamics that is confused by this.

Despite these small lumps of gristle in an otherwise very tender collection I found myself being enticed back to Looking for Flavour as one is often enticed back to the table. The chapters are around ten pages each on average and make a very pleasant nightcap in bed.

 

Looking for Flavour by Barbara Santich is published by Wakefield Press (2009; pb) RRP $29.95.

VisitVineyards.com subscribers receive a 20% DISCOUNT when buying this book directly through Wakefield Press. Details and link here »

 

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