Timo Laine’s Journal

Taking life philosophically.

Unnatural complexity of flavor

13 September 2010

Complexity of flavor is perhaps the most important thing that distinguishes an excellent food item or drink from a merely good one. However, complexity is only valuable if it is achieved seemingly without effort. Yet appearances deceive.

Two kinds of coffees

Imagine two kinds of coffees, A and B, both of which have (say) a particular fruity flavor component.

The flavor component is valuable only in Coffee B: in Coffee A, if anything, it is thought to decrease the value of the coffee, masking its character or even disguising its flaws. It might be said that the complexity has to be natural to be valuable. This would enable us to apply my fallback principle: other things being equal, what is more natural is better.

However, there are many non-natural processes even behind things that seem natural. It might still be that Coffee B is better than Coffee A because it is indeed slightly more natural, but if in the end both are highly unnatural, it might be more rational to think that any advantage one of the products may have is insignificant. A bad apple is still bad despite there being even worse apples.

Wine and nature

Take wine as another example. There is sharp divide between the category of “wine” and the dubious category of “aromatized wine”. The wines that fall in the latter category may not be all bad—personally I will not turn down an offer of a glass of Barolo Chinato—but they suffer from bad company. They are not considered to be wine in the strict sense of the word, but “wine products” in which wine is only one of the ingredients. Meanwhile what is wine according to the strictest definition is seen as a natural, authentic product that has not been tampered with.

Unsurprisingly, this is not the whole truth. Throughout history, winemakers have selected places where to grow vines based on what kind of wine they expect to get from the vines they grow. They have also selected the kind of vines based on what produces the best results. They did not arrive to find the vines already planted. Another thing is that wine is also doctored with afterwards, even if no actual flavorings are added. It is only a question of how many and in what quantities different chemicals are added to make the final product.

However, in this case the non-natural processes actually add value to the end product, excepting perhaps some of the manipulation that takes place in the winery. The whole idea of the concept of terroir is that the wine produced in a certain region has a long history, and that such wine reflects the whole gastronomic culture of that region.

Yet in both cases human effort is directed into making something that tastes good. No matter what differences there may be, everyone making wine and coffee is doing conceptually the same thing. Apart from all considerations of what is ethical or natural, their business is to make something that tastes good.

Complicated complexity

Still, the centuries of work the winemakers have put into developing a balanced, complex wine are surely important. It is not easy to deny that there is something valuable in a product made in the same place by the same family for hundreds of years. In the case of Coffee A, the effort seems less important. The decision to add the flavoring may be just the result of market research. The difference is that the winemaker is more likely also to be concerned about the way his product is, while the coffee manufacturer mostly cares about how much money he can make.

But it cannot be simply a matter of what takes more effort or time. Effort and time surely add romance to the product. However, we do not want to believe that the difference between a classic wine and an industrial flavored coffee is simply that of romantic imagery, even if such imagery is based on facts about the differences in the amount of effort between the two modes of production. If the coffee manufacturer making Coffee A in my first example sincerely and (at least to some extent) justifiably believes that what he is doing improves his product, how can we distinguish what he does from what the artisan winemaker is doing?

I believe many things are problematic in ways similar to complexity. However, complexity may be quite unique in that it is often very difficult to achieve without using shortcuts while being very easy to achieve with the use of such shortcuts. Appealing to nature does not help, since both methods are artificial.

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The journal of Timo Laine (contact information). Cultural commentary from the perspective of a philosophy student in Helsinki.

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