I was in our local library the other day and stopped to check out their recommended list of "summer travel reads." (Yes, for younger readers, I was in a library, that place that has books that feel so real you'd swear you were actually holding them in your hands.)
In the travel section I came across a great small-press book, To Burgundy and Back Again--A Tale of Wine, France, and Brotherhood by Roy Cloud, a wine seller here in the states.
A few pages into the book I was hooked--understanding why it has gotten such good reviews. Here is a summary of the book from the back cover:
"Roy Cloud had worked in the wine business for years, watching it transform from a retail backwater to a mainstream fixation, with a huge influx of consumers looking for wine with terroir. By a twist of fate, he found himself on a hurriedly arranged trip to France to persuade small-scale winemaking farms that he should represent their interests in the growing U.S. import market. While Roy’s palate would be challenged in finding the hidden gems of the Loire Valley and Burgundy, his real dilemma was this: He didn’t speak a word of French. Enter Joe, Roy’s older brother. Different from Roy in every respect, Joe had studied in France and was fluent in the language—and, most importantly, he was free to join Roy in his search. It was simple: Roy would do the tasting, and Joe would do the talking. What could go wrong? In To Burgundy and Back Again, Roy presents a richly evocative account of their journey—one replete with discovery, adventure, and poignant surprises. Written in the tradition of A Year in Provence and Sideways, this elegantly penned book will delight wine lovers and armchair travelers alike."
Here is why I enjoy this book so much. First, there is the obvious: it is about travel. Second, it's about France, one of my most favorite countries in the world. Third, it is about wine and food--duh! Fourth, it is full of historical and geographical insights into the Burgundy region. And, fifth, it has elements, as the back-cover states, of one of my favorite movies, Sideways.
However, while great, these are not, ultimately, the reasons that drew me to this book. The real draw, for me, is Cloud's journey.
I can summarize it simply: Cloud's journey is one of the most difficult and yet one of the most important, for all of us. It's about taking the time and making the effort (no matter how scared or insecure or unsure we might be) to re-educate ourselves about what we cannot see that we do not know. I will say that again: teaching ourselves about the things we cannot see we need to know. What? Yes.
And, how does one get at that? Sideways, of course. You have to leave where you are and put yourself somewhere else, physically or emotionally or mentally.
Get it? Learning this way is the nuanced act of realizing--especially in the contemporary, globalized, hyper capitalistic world in which we are now living--that we might need to slow down and learn what was not taught to us (or what we no longer think necessary to learn) about food, about wine, about taste, about knowing what makes something good or not, and about living a life of quality.
In terms of Roy Cloud, here is a guy, living in the states, formally educated, who knows his wine and is living an enjoyable life as a wine distributor; and yet, he has this sense that there is so much more to learn about wine and food and about living life, so much more to discover that he has not been told. So, off to France he goes. Why France? Because that is the "someplace different" that will do the job for him. That is the someplace where, instead of finding how they are doing things now, he can find out, how they are not doing things now.
Let me explain:
To me, when I think of mainstream states (note: I said, mainstream), I think of the new, of innovation, of technology, of exceptionalism, and of all such related ideas. If I were to put this in a phrase, the states (particularly along the east and west coasts) is where one goes to find out how they are doing things now---iPods, iPads, smart phones, blockbuster movies, pop music, Facebook, Amazon.com, globalization, the latest fashions, global capitalism, fast food restaurants, cranberries and grapes in February, and so forth.
In turn, if I were to coin a phrase for France and such places as Paris or Burgundy (and other such similar places throughout the world), it would be this: these are the places one goes to find out how they are not doing things now--cultural traditions handed down, generation after generation, on how to eat, drink and live well; an emphasis on making distinctions between what is good and bad; an emphasis on taste; and a resistance, at least initially, to changing something that is already, well, as good as it is most likely to get.
Again, let me explain.
In Adam Gopnik's excellent book, Paris to the Moon, he takes great pains to clarify for his readers what such phrases as "how not to do it" mean. He states, quite clearly that, for the French (and for any such similar place, be it Kerala India or your local grocery store that refuses to give up on excellence!) taste is less about embracing any one particular culture--say, French culture--and more about embracing a level of expected excellence. This distinction makes sense, as France, like any country, is a complex and nuanced collection of cultural negotiation and assimilation--from the confluence of Basque, French and Spanish culture in the Pyrenees to the intersection of Celtic-Briton, Roman and French culture in Brittany.
Taste, then, is less about highlighting a particular culture and more about knowing differences. For example, if you put a piece of food in your mouth it should be good and you should know what makes it good; if you drink a glass of water, is should be clean and cold; if you eat a grape, it should burst with flavor; if you buy a cheese, you should know where it came from and how it was made; and, if you made that cheese, you should care about who will eat it and the effect it will have on them. Or, at least, that is the ideal; as we all know full well, as realists, that life is not a work of art; instead, no matter where one lives, life is often broken and corrupt, full of shortcuts and conflict and compromise. Everywhere life has its problems, its political, economic and cultural issues. Still, no matter how subtle, differences do matter. And such differences do exist, depending upon where one lives or what one has learned to see, amounting to differences in ways of living.
For example, one need not go to France to find such differences. In Cleveland, we have community supported agriculture; we have small local restaurants trying to keep things real; we have the West Side Market; we have little Italy; we have the Asian district; we have Michael Simon's restaurants; we have Melt; we have Taste of Kerala in Mayfield Heights; we have the newly revised Gordon Park district; we have the World Market; we have Heinen's grocery store; we have mom and pop diners everywhere! I can keep going.... Stop always going to the food chains and put your money where you mouth is!
One of my favorite chefs, Eric Ripert, puts it this way: if you do not know how things actually taste, be it a leaf of lettuce or a peach, how can you cook or eat with confidence?
Or, perhaps more apropos, we can turn to a famous scene in one of my favorite movies, the Matrix. The human characters (protagonists), now freed from the matrix (a simulated world created by the machines) are living in the real world, and they are wondering if their simulated notion of how things taste is even close to reality. The question, then, now that they are free, is, "Does their simulated sense of things 'square' with the way things actually are in the real world?"
Tank: Here you go, buddy; "Breakfast of Champions."
Mouse: If you close your eyes, it almost feels like you're eating runny eggs.
Apoc: Yeah, or a bowl of snot.
Mouse: Do you know what it really reminds me of? Tasty Wheat. Did you ever eat Tasty Wheat?
Switch: No, but technically, neither did you.
Mouse: That's exactly my point. Exactly. Because you have to wonder: how do the machines know what Tasty Wheat tasted like? Maybe they got it wrong. Maybe what I think Tasty Wheat tasted like actually tasted like oatmeal, or tuna fish. That makes you wonder about a lot of things. You take chicken, for example: maybe they (the machines) couldn't figure out what to make chicken taste like, which is why chicken tastes like everything.
Apoc: Shut up, Mouse.