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Everyday Philosophy: How it all comes down to taste

How much attention should we pay to food reviews and rankings? Philosopher NIGEL WARBURTON gives his take.

Copenhagen restaurants were ranked one and two in the 50 Best Restaurants in the World Awards. Photograph: PXFuel.com.

Copenhagen restaurants were ranked one and two in the 50 Best Restaurants in the World Awards recently with the famed Noma pipping Geranium for gold. A triumph for Danish cuisine. Spanish restaurants were at three and five, and a Swedish restaurant made sixth position. Lima’s Central at four was the only non-European establishment in the top six.

Shoreditch’s The Clove Club with its playful interpretation of ‘Modern British’, the highest-ranking UK dinery, came in at number 31. If you’re a foodie and rich, these are great times in Europe.

But how seriously should we take these rankings? Weren’t we always told de gustibus non est disputandum, that there’s no disputing about taste? Who’s to say that one dish tastes better than another? Isn’t it all subjective? Noma’s duck served with brains, and heart served with claw, feather and beak doesn’t appeal to me, and I know I would not enjoy eating reindeer penis (yes, that has been on the menu there).

From an ecological angle I might admire that the Noma team forages for the food they make and be impressed by the seasonal nature of what they cook, and by their creativity, but that doesn’t guarantee the food tastes any better. And how can you possibly compare a dish of reindeer schlong with ‘multi-spherical pesto’ (whatever that is) served with tender pistachios and eel, a combination on the menu at Barcelona’s Disfrutar (ranked fifth)?

Perhaps, though, the cliché about taste being subjective is misleading here. It conflates three different issues: what we happen to like, what we can discriminate between, and the question of whether one thing is better than another.

Let’s start with what we like. Unless you are particularly opaque to yourself, you probably know what you like. I like Thai green curry, and dislike lemon curd (and probably reindeer penis too). But liking something and thinking it is good of its kind aren’t necessarily the same thing. It’s possible to appreciate that JS Bach’s music is almost entirely wonderful and yet still prefer listening to Abba.

I know a wine tasting expert with a refined palette who loves the flavour of American processed cheese, although she can surely recognise better cheeses are available.

Then there is a further question of whether the taster can discriminate adequately between different flavours. In his essay Of the Standard of Taste, the 18th century philosopher David Hume relates an episode from Don Quixote.

Two wine experts are asked their opinion of a hogshead of a vintage wine. The first one takes a sip and pronounces that it is very good apart from a slight leathery tang. The second expert also declares the wine a good one, apart from an aftertaste of iron. They are ridiculed as poseurs but have the last laugh. Once the hogshead is emptied they discover at the bottom an iron key tied with a leather thong.

This is fiction, of course. But it’s true that with food and wine some people reliably make more accurate assessments than others. In blind testing, the best tasters reveal just how subtle their skills are. Some people go through extensive education and manage to hone their natural abilities to a very high level. In a wonderful book, Cork Dork, Bianca Bosker, a tech journalist with no great appreciation of wine at the outset, describes how she trained to become an expert sommelier, even using a special kit of 54 samples
of essences of aromas from musk to melon to refine her olfactory discrimination.

Deciding whether one meal is better than another can still be tough, and all our sensory impressions can be skewed by expectations, biases, and context; but we should rely on people with sophisticated palettes to attempt such a ranking rather than on those with less refined abilities. We can learn from informed disputes about taste too. Hume spelt out the qualities needed in a good critic, whether of literature, art, music, beauty, or anything else experienced with the senses: delicacy of taste, experience at making judgments, freedom from bias, and extensive knowledge of the type of thing he or she is assessing. That’s a good list.

Perhaps this is controversial, but it’s not just in judging food and art that experts with these qualities are useful. There’s a division of labour in society, and it’s a good rule of thumb to listen to those who demonstrably understand, appreciate, have wide experience of, and are unbiased about what they’re talking about.

They’re not always right, and confident amateurs are not always wrong. But experts’ judgments have firmer foundations.

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