“The Costa Del Shop 2019”

20 August 2019, 10:46 am
Expert Eye by John Shepherd

Ever since I started working in food shops – some 16,790 moons ago – it has always been impressed upon me that the three most important aspects of a successful enterprise are location, location, location.

To a greater or lesser extent this is undoubtedly true despite the fact that many other factors play a significant part. However, I was wondering to what extent location in terms of atmosphere plays a part in our assessment of food quality. Do the pleasant memories attached to particular occasions affect our judgements? Location surely cannot just be about footfall and shop fronts but the creation of internal atmospheres and environments. Get that right and a higher perception of food quality will follow.

The thought was prompted by my recent, and extremely enjoyable, experience as a judge on the Great Taste Awards. This iconic and highly regarded event features a large number of high quality foods that are sampled and discussed in an attempt to find the Supreme Champion in terms of Great Taste. The awards themselves are brilliantly organised, superbly curated and meticulously detailed. The whole atmosphere generates a feeling of good will in a delightful environment reinforced by the notion that it is all based on a simple but hugely important fact – the importance of taste. However, assessing one’s own definition of taste in terms of values and judgements is a challenging experience. Individual preferences need to be balanced with a sense of perspective. I personally have a distinct inclination towards meat and ice cream at tasting events, to be brutally frank. There is an instant gratification factor (IGF) in freshly grilled bacon or a creamy pistachio ice cream on a summer’s day that is hard to ignore. Cheese also provides the same effect for me and many of my colleagues. However, other products fail to overcome this apparent lack of IGF. For example, teas, mustards, olive oils or Himalayan Salt – however exquisite – may always struggle to win acclaims for taste outside the field of the cognoscenti.

Fortunately I am not alone in my vague musings and ramblings on this subject. In an excellent book called Gastrophysics by Charles Spence, musings and ramblings are replaced by a touch of scientific application in a chapter called the Atmospheric Meal. In this chapter Professor Spence poses the question: “Does the same food actually taste different when the atmosphere, or environment, in which it is served changes?” He concludes that the answer is very often yes. Food shops need to offer positive multisensory experiences which in their basic forms can range from a welcoming smile to a functioning air conditioning system to an in-store tasting to appropriate music in the background. A leaking fridge, an untidy shop floor, a grumpy member of staff or inappropriate music will all detract from the speciality experience. I appreciate this is blindingly obvious but it is so often overlooked – not least by ourselves.

On 20th July this year, myself and two friends fired up the old forno in our garden in Campania at sunset assisted by my grandson of two and a half years. The Pizza Margarita emerged crisply toasted and dripping with local cheese and tomatoes, aided by a dash of anchovies. The cost of it all was negligible. Surrounded by family, twilight birdsong, crickets and music drifting up from the piazza and copious amounts of Aglianico it was a multi-sensory experience and a half. In fact, I concluded it was the best pizza I have ever had – to coin a phrase!

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