Good, Better, Best

A friend and I were out to dinner last week at the lovely neighbourhood bistro, La Piola.  The food was quite good, the service was well-meaning if not exactly efficient, and a good time was had by all.  But it got me thinking (again) about the exotification (I’ve decided it is a word 🙂 ) of food; how some foods begin to have reputation for being the best, however that might be defined, and a premium is charged, paid, and an elite fetishism begins.

Victoria has a pretty significant foodie scene for a city of it’s size.  It’s a city with a lot of money and wealth circulating (look at the average house prices!) , and that gets combined with the environmentalist vibe that pays attention to carbon footprint and food security issues (especially given that we live on an island).  This has led to a strong local food movement, something I am all in favour of.  There are a growing number of small restaurants that are focusing on fresh, local ingredients, and there are also a growing number of local food growers and food processors that are making those ingredients available to the public.  Some of those foods have gathered that foodie following that makes them highly prized status items.

A couple of cases in point: Fairburn Farm Mozzerella di Bufala and Venturi-Schulze Balsamic Vinegar. Incidentally, both of these producers are located just down the road from us–do we live in the best place or what?!

The mozzarella from Fairburn is legendary.  The family who runs the farm was trying to import Canada’s only herd of water buffalo when the “mad cow” crisis hit.  They got lots of publicity for their challenges as they struggled to hold on to their dream and business.  They were successful in overcoming the obstacles, and now they produce water buffalo milk that a highly regarded small cheesemaker in Courtenay turns into reputably beautiful–certainly hard to come by–cheese.

The balsamic vinegar is even more prized.  Venturi-Schulze is one of the original winemaking families on the island, and their reputation for attention to detail, craft, and hygiene is well-deserved.  Their wines have long been available by subscription in small amounts, and much of the wine and vinegar has never really made it to the public–it was bought up too quickly by restaurants and others in the know.  They are evidently producing enough vinegar now that I have seen a few bottles for sale here and there in stores.  Prices start at $49 for 750 mls.

I have made it a habit to try these and other hard-to-find delicacies whenever the opportunity arises.  Though I’ve been a vegetarian (ok, a “pescaterian”) for almost 20 years, I’ve been known to taste rabbit, duck, pate, foie gras, and other rare treats when out with others, simply to see if I’m missing anything amazing!  Most of the time, though, I find that I’m not.

So out for dinner the other night, my friend and I decided to share the Caprese Salad.  It advertised fresh heritage tomatoes (hothouse, of course, right now), Mozzarella di Bufala, and Venturi-Shulze balsamic vinegar.  How divine!  But what I found was that in fact, the taste didn’t live up to the hype.  I don’t know if it’s because hot house tomatoes just really don’t have anything on fresh tomatoes in the middle of summer, or because the whole thing really needed a sprinkle of salt, or because I’m getting so used to the freshest ingredients that we pull out of the garden and ocean ourselves that I’m getting spoiled, but I found the whole salad good, but not great.  The bread from the bakery next door was fine too–a cut above the supermarket for sure–but it has nothing on our daily bread from True Grain where the reputation and product do match well.

I don’t really know where I’m going with this; I’m passionate about food precisely because I have amazing foodie experiences that leave me desperate for more–moments of transcendance create visceral, lasting memories.  A meal with duck at the TinWis in Tofino, A beautiful spinach salad with grilled portabella mushrooms and balsamic vinegar at the uber-romantic Il Terrazzo in Victoria, my first raw oyster at Brasserie L’Ecole (or was it Pescatore‘s?), that made me go, “I can’t believe I’ve been missing this all these years!” (I love oysters, but the big local Fanny Bay ones aren’t so appetizing to consider raw…I was stunned at how good these were)

So I keep trying.  But more often than not these days, I seem to realize that beyond any claims of “authenticity” “tradition” “care” price or other kind of hype, the only criteria that seems to really make the difference between good, better, and best, is quality technique (skill?) and freshness.  And that, fortunately for us on Vancouver Island, is becoming less and less elite and inaccessible.

And I think that’s also the issue that keeps bringing me back: good food should not be an elite, high-class, expensive option.  Here in North America, these prized foods are fetishized, but in European traditional culture (more on the nostalgia for that here another time!) these are the foods of the people–the least commodified products of all.  The Skipper grew up with little money in a hamlet on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore; what did they eat? Lobster, of course. 🙂  But I guess, as much as I have a sense of mission to make the best available to all, I also recognize that it is human nature to create status symbols to differentiate power levels, and that anything rare will continue to be used in that way.  Somehow I suspect I’m not done exploring these issues!

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