Friday, November 21, 2008

Food glorious food

'The discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a new star.' Like all food lovers I can only agree with this famous remark by French epicure Brillat-Savarin - but if there is anything that does nearly as much for my personal happiness as tasting glorious food, it is the discovery of a glorious new book about food.

For the past week I've been wallowing in 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die, edited by Frances Case, with lyrical descriptions and lovely pictures of the best fruit and vegetables, cheese and bread, meat and sweetmeats and other culinary delights available all over the world. Part of the bestselling 1001 series (1001 Books You Must Read, Movies You Must See, Albums You Must Hear... Before You Die), it can serve as practical encyclopedia, attractive coffee table book, everyday kitchen guide, or a combination of all this and more.

Fortunately most foodies are adventurous souls - or have adventurous taste buds, at the very least - because a few of these foods might make the faint-hearted shudder. For the true food-lover it will be a pleasurable shudder, as when you watch a classic horror movie like Kubrick's The Shining. My favourite from these pages, when it comes to shuddering potential, is not the deep-fried giant water beetle of Thailand ('tastes like whitefish that stayed out all night', the book helpfully tells us; adding that 'beetles laden with eggs are a particular delicacy), nor the roasted leaf-cutter ant of Brazil (nutty and 'intensely crunchy in the mouth'; actually sounds rather tempting to me). No, I draw the line much closer to home, at a product from the food paradise of Italy, believe it or not. I don't think I'm brave enough to try casu marzu before I die. The name of this Sardinian treat means, quite simply, 'rotten cheese', and it has to be eaten riddled with live maggots.

The translucent maggots are 1/3 inch (8 mm) long and can jump distances almost twice their length - diners might like to consider wearing eye protection. (This description had me in stitches, probably some kind of shock effect, trying to picture myself eating rotten cheese while wearing diving goggles.) Some people prefer to remove the larvae before eating; others throw caution to the wind and devour the lot.

Well, to each his own.Thank goodness.

Other foods might shock other readers - bull's testicle, lamb's brain, pig's trotter, blood sausages - but they won't scare me. I might not like them, but I will try them. Still, the vast majority of ingredients in this book would be delightful to any more or less sophisticated palate. It is not a mere list of exotic tastes; most of the foods we've all heard of or tried before, and would love to try again - or even better, eat regularly. The origins and often ancient history of each food is described, as well as the legends and folklore surrounding many, and the literary references to mythic foods such as Proust's madeleine, the scallop-shaped little sponge cake in A la recherche du temps perdu.

I was surprised to learn, for instance, that the humble blood sausage (also known as black pudding), which my French partner loves but for which I haven't yet 'acquired the taste', was praised in Homer's Odyssey: As when a man besides a great fire has filled a sausage with fat and blood, and turns it this way and that, and is very eager to get it quickly roasted... My partner smirked when I told him this. Just goes to show that Homer had good taste, according to him.

Yet perhaps the most pleasant surprise of all was to find a colloquial phrase in my mother tongue tucked away between the covers. Under the entry for smoked snoek, 'considered a South African national treasure in much the same way as Parma ham is for Italians', we are informed that this cousin of the mackerel is so popular that it has even made its own contribution to Cape slang: 'Slat my dood met 'n pap snoek', which literally translates to 'kill me with a soggy snoek'.

The phrase is often used to express surprise, wonder, astonishment - all feelings I experienced while reading this book - so what the heck: Slat my dood met 'n pap snoek. There must be worse ways, for a food lover, to die.