Chalk ‘n’ Cheese

02 Jul 2013

About four months into my year at the University of Gastronomic Sciences, where I am currently studying for a Masters in Food Culture and Communications, I was chatting with some friends visiting from back home in the U.S. As many of my fellow classmates have experienced, we first had to wade through the perfunctory “well, I’m not actually learning to cook” conversation, before I began to explain my classes in a bit more detail. I explained that the focus is on gastronomy as a whole, not specifically, or even including, cooking, and that our coursework is organized as a series of modules, where we have an intensive session of one class over the course of one week, and then we never have it again. That week, for example, we had split our time between a survey course on the world food economy, and cheese tasting.

As I explained my coursework for that week, I was struck by this bizarre juxtaposition. What kind of field was I studying in where we spent the morning discussing the residual effects of the US Food Aid program from the 1950s on the current state of the world food economy and its consequential hindrance to building agricultural infrastructure in developing countries, and spent the afternoon arguing over whether or not we detected aromas of fresh butter or rendered butter in a wedge of rare Brie?

Each seemed to render the other trivial. If we are focusing on “serious” economic issues, then what place does cheese have at the table? And if we are studying to become true connoisseurs of taste, then what right do we have to play at understanding the complexities of trade laws, tariffs, and Doha Rounds?

And so, as I began to explain this both to myself and to my bemused and now cheese-craving friends, I thought about how each of these classes, each of these disparate realms of gastronomy, actually helps to explain the other.

Knowing how to identify the complex tastes, aromas, appearances, and mouthfeels of cheese gives us a set of parameters and standards to identify its quality, to discuss its origins and production methods, and to understand its value. For example “saltiness” in food is not in and of itself a bad thing, but we learned early on that “saltiness” as a very present taste in a Taleggio cheese is a noticeable defect. Taleggio has certain characteristics, and an overabundance of salt would render those out of balance, would make the cheese unrecognizable as a Taleggio, and very likely make it taste unpleasant to most consumers.

This ability to identify whether a cheese or wine or preserve or other food product has defects, or is not up to the established standards, translates directly to food needs and trade around the world. To follow the cheesy example, just as the consumption of grain in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing, the over-availability and the over-consumption of grain – and not in an appropriate proportion to other food products – can be harmful to both health and economy.

All food is about balance and harmony and different elements coming together. When we understand a cheese, we understand which factors make a particular cheese great. And when we try and understand the economy, we can take that example of the cheese, take that understanding that certain presences work better in different proportions and different environments, and begin to comprehend the different food-based needs of different cultures and different nations, those trade laws, and tariffs, and protectionist impulses, and needs for regulation. Just as we cannot identify the three universal indicators of a quality food, we cannot identify three universal necessities of a healthy food economy – in each situation, context and intent must be taken into account.

Some of my classmates will be (or are already) experts of taste, of identifying those hidden aromas in cheese, of knowing the production standards of a slice of cured meat at first glance, of sniffing out the provenance of a glass of wine. Others might delve further into the economy and politics, taking on research projects or careers to fix what we can all agree is a broken system. But through these seemingly contradictory classes, focusing on highly polarized ends of the spectrum of “food”, what we are really doing is understanding the quality of food in its particular context – learning that quality can be both a rubric to judge the value of an expensive cheese, and a measure of human needs in a nation struggling to maintain its own food security.

And so, in the fledgling academic field of gastronomy, it can be just as important to understand the balance (or lack thereof) of power when it comes to regulating international agricultural trade, as it is to identify notes of cauliflower and cow shed in a well-made cheese.

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