May 3, 2013 6:45 pm

Beyond compare

The loquacious descriptions of food by producers and TV chefs have gone beyond parody. Are there any adjectives left for us food writers
An illustration by Richard Allen depicting wine descriptions©Richard Allen

Laithwaites, the wine merchant, has just released a survey of wine-drinking consumers revealing that more than half of them are confused by tasting notes. Fifty-five per cent of the 1,000 adults polled said that wine descriptions fail to help them understand the taste of wine: they were more “pompous” than “helpful”.

This is truly devastating stuff, which strikes at the heart of what it means to be an oenophile. It’s almost as if more than half of what’s said about wine – all that “crisp minerality; blowsy, farmyard typicity and fallen-over sassiness” – is, well, frankly rubbish. But before we food geeks get to pointing fingers at the wine nerds let’s pause for a second and take a good long look at ourselves.

Have you been to a supermarket recently? Have you read what they write on the packs? Once upon a time, a bag of lettuce was pretty much that – a bag with lettuce in it – and written on the front, in large letters would be one word: “lettuce”. This, it seems, is no longer sufficient.

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“Crisp, buttery lettuce” may be ontologically correct but it’s a criminal waste of words – and it becomes increasingly pointless when a full range of products is offered. Come with me for a moment to the frozen fish section. Next to the “Crisp & Golden” battered haddock fillets are “Crisp & Delicate” sole fillets and “Crunchy & Golden” breaded plaice. Is the plaice not delicate, the sole any less golden?

What must have seemed a great idea in a brainstorm a few years ago – to leverage the purple voice-overs of MasterChef to enhance our customers’ experience – has gone almost beyond parody and created, as such initiatives so often do, a job that threatens some poor bugger’s sanity.

How else can you explain red cabbage being sold as “Vibrant & Fruity”, fresh basil as “Majestic” or bunched rosemary as “Romantic Rosemary, Symbol of Love”? True, this last description may be – and even a diverting classical reference – but it’s of little use when you’re about to shove it up a “Golden” corn-fed, free-range chicken.

In quiet corners of the chilled section you can spot where wretchedness has set in; it’s like a large-font scream for help from a scribbler on the edge of madness. Pepperoni is “Air Dried then Simply Sliced” – the kind of searing honesty that bespeaks last-ditch desperation.

It was compassion, in the end, which kept me from looking at some of the simplest products. Finding a couple of appealing adjectives for a bunch of thyme can be a stretch, but what do you do with lard? “Fatty & White”? Reader, I lacked the courage to witness the despair of a brother writer.

I think I blame the telly chefs. Most of them are agreeable enough to watch when they’re cooking but there is an awful imperative to fill airtime and after a few programmes the adjectives begin to lose calibration.

The minute the word “indulgent” or “voluptuous” is used about a dessert, it’s an indication that they’re running on empty. I sympathise, of course. Food is an entirely sensual pleasure. Writers have attempted to express this type of joy in words – Huysmans, Wilde, Proust – but after a few chapters, it all starts to pall. If that sort of literary titan can’t adequately express the significance of a teacake in less than a volume, what hope the grinning puppet in front of the camera?

The very nadir of food descriptions comes from the “ordinary” members of public or audience who are given a slice of something the chef has just made, usually in a shopping centre, and then immediately comment on camera. The stock responses are usually: “The lemon really cuts through the richness” or “I love the way the flavours complement each other.”

It’s all very well, the supermarkets strewing pointless adjectives hither and yon like some kind of marketing confetti, but to some of us, that stuff is our livelihood. We’re burning through a natural resource here, using up a valuable stock. If every food mentioned in the public domain has to have at least two adjectives appended, we’re simply going to run out.

Can’t we agree a moratorium, that the “Sharp local sourced cheddar on fresh sourdough with a house-made chutney” is a cheese and pickle sandwich; save breath, ink and sanity and leave us poor striving hacks a few adjectives in the toolbox?

Tim Hayward is an FT Weekend contributing writer; tim.hayward@ft.com; Twitter @TimHayward

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