Tim James: Analogue and digital food and wine inspiration

By , 26 February 2024

Today, social media is a key vector in driving trends.

In these days of curmudgeonly elderliness I seem to do more re-reading of old favourite books than trying to find new ones. I’ve recently been dipping with renewed pleasure into the collection of shorter food writings by Elizabeth David called (after one of the included articles) An omelette and a glass of wine. Much is pretty dated in various ways, but there’s also stuff of enduring relevance and freshness. The pieces are mostly from the decade after 1955, when David was already playing a sterling role in encouraging the revival of ghastly British cookery (still staggering under post-war restrictions), through insisting on high standards and food integrity, and also through through writing about the bourgeois and haute cuisines of Mediterranean countries, especially France.

While thus dipping, and idly thinking how much has changed since then in world food culture (and no doubt hugely in France itself – not much for the better, one gathers), a nicely serendipitous moment of contrast happened. A friend send me a “gift article” from the Financial Times (there’s a paywall, so I can’t link to it): an enthusiastic review by the excellent Tim Hayward of a “ramen and small plates” restaurant in Nottingham, England, called Everyday People.

He begins by suggesting that the décor etc of the place is virtually dictated by social media. “Design trends”, he suggests, “no longer spread organically, but spring up apparently spontaneously, the sole vector of connection being a proprietor cool enough to follow the right social media accounts.” What’s more, it’s arguably the same with food trends: “The ‘great wave’ of ramen is, I think, the first international food trend that’s happened via this mechanism.”

Meanwhile, Elizabeth David has been illustrating beautifully for me the older “analogue” spreading of a cuisine. French food gained its firm foothold in the richer countries of the West through peripatetic French restaurant chefs as well as through tourism and also the reporting of food-writers like David herself. Italian food spread more through tourism, I guess – and, in the USA, crucially by settlers bringing their cookery with them. An omelette and a glass of wine mentions Indian food just a little – more because of the British ruling and fine dining class’s experience of the Raj – and Chinese, Japanese, Thai, etc almost not at all (I daresay the great British traditions of Chinese and Indian takeaways had not yet started making their great contribution to every High Street there).

Frequently, David describes conservatism amongst self-styled standard-bearers of French haute cuisine, a limitation and reluctance to change that would be clearly suicidal in an internet-savvy world. Even then, though, the world of communication was opening up food trends, and “friendly cooperation, free exchange of ideas, and cordial relations between top-flight professional chefs and cookery journalists” was replacing bigotry and narrowness. At the time she was writing, “the professionals all collect cookery books. Some actually read them and adapt ancient recipes.”

A half-century later cookery books are an even huger industry, the professionals are all on social media, and the internet presence of great and lesser chefs as well as great and (much) lesser commentators ensure that, as the Financial Times critic points out, global trends happen quickly and, perhaps, inevitably.

I was wondering how much of a parallel there might be in the world of wine – with winemakers in the place of chefs. The big difference in the two spheres is, I suppose, the comparatively easy spread of exemplary wine around the world, in bottles, an analogue to make even more meaningful the digital buzz.

Virtually until the 1980s, fine wine (in the great centres of consumption) was all about a few regions in France, along with Germany and fortified oddments like port, sherry and madeira, an occasional northern Italian. Little else. The great age of deepened “analogue” influence started in the 1980s, notably including the crucial roles of the rich American consumer and the great American dictator Robert Parker, and, I’m sure, the growth in international tourism. The world wine market opened up. Bottles proliferated, as did wine journalism; flying winemakers were another great embodiment of  how orthodoxies – old ones, but especially new ­– spread around the world.

Winemakers, and occasionally viticulturists, also traveled, to learn and teach. When South Africa rejoined the world market after 1994 and the deficiencies of much of its wine were revealed, more and more winemakers not only ravenously consumed international wines but also traveled to their sources. Thus was born the wine revolution here, largely by “analogue” inspiration.

In the age of the internet, it’s hard to believe that there could be another critic with the influence of Parker. The decline of authority and prestige in the sort of wines he tended to value (imposing, ultra-ripe reds, for example) has surely been sped up by the communication revolution, as have the development of new trends, including lighter wines and “natural” ones. The great international trade shows – like ProWein, Vinexpo – remain crucial, of course, and competitions, publications and restaurants are important, while the role of professional journalism seems, sadly, to have slumped somewhat.

But everything is in the context of the internet. And have there been vinous equivalents of ramen as perhaps, per Tim Hayward,  “the first internet-mediated global cuisine”? It’s a question I can’t begin to answer definitively, though I do hope that there is some serious, dour research going on. But I am at least pretty certain that the international spread of, say, orange wine and méthode ancestrale bubbly (“pet-nat”) would have taken a much smaller, slower and different route without it.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.


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