‘I normally don’t like Italian food.’ The line jumped from the page and slapped me around the ‘lightly seasoned’ chops.

I just don’t get people who make trawler-net statements about a country’s cuisine. How can anyone say I don’t like Italian, Thai, Greek, Indian (add the country of your choice here) food? Any country’s cuisine is far too diverse to write it off with a line like that (some pedant will no doubt come up with a place where everything consists of  things made out of a yak). What it suggests to me is that the person making the statement is a) possibly a fussy eater and b) certainly not a foodie. A person who doesn’t like a country’s cuisine has more than likely not sampled very much of it. Maybe they ate one dish as a child that they didn’t enjoy.

It’s amazing how many of our culinary likes and dislikes stretch back to a childhood experience…or how many people don’t like food that their parents didn’t like. Try this test out. Think about something you don’t enjoy eating and then ask yourself why (brussel sprouts are exempt from this test for obvious reasons). Then try it out with friends. Nearly all of mine can trace personal culinary quirks back to childhood and family.

What particularly surprised me in this case was that the statement was made in a restaurant review in a local paper. Whether it’s a local rag or respected broadsheet I expect the food critic to be a wee bit open minded when it comes to dining. I don’t expect ‘I don’t normally like Italian food.’ Everybody likes Italian food; what is there not to like? If a restaurant reviewer doesn’t like Italian food, what else don’t they like? With that line their credibility as a reviewer flew right out of the window.

Similarly, a couple of weeks ago I followed some tweets from a travel writer complaining about the food in a Spanish hotel. Complaining is too mellow a word, they were slating the food to the high heavens and above. When I read on I saw that the travel writer was vegetarian.

Being vegetarian in Spain isn’t always easy (understatement). When we moved to Tenerife we didn’t eat meat but we did eat fish, so not too much of a problem. However, we have a number of friends who are full blown, card carrying veggies so know exactly how difficult it is to find restaurants where the choice isn’t confined to tortilla, tortilla or tortilla. In Spain even vegetable sandwiches sometimes have ham, so Iberia can be a testing destination for vegetarians.

Subsequently when the writer ranted about the appalling quality of the food, I empathised…but it did raise a question. Surely she could only pass judgement on the food when it came to the choice and quality of what was available for vegetarians? There was no way she could pass judgement on how good the meat or fish dishes were in the hotel she was slating. As a critique of that place it was subjective in the extreme. Many who saw her complaints may understandably write the hotel off as having crap food. But would that be fair? In this case we simply don’t know.

And that begged the question can, or should, a writer who is vegetarian write a review or even a guidebook listing that recommends, or not, restaurants unless it’s clear that what they are writing relates solely to a vegetarian perspective?

When Andy and I started writing about restaurants we made the decision to start eating meat again because we felt we couldn’t honestly review a restaurant otherwise.

Which takes me back to the reviewer who didn’t normally like Italian food. As a travel writer, restaurant reviewer, whatever, shouldn’t the author be willing to try just about anything that’s on the menu…if not how valid or useful is their review?

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  1. […] Can A Vegetarian Write Objective Restaurant Reviews? (via Living beneath the volcano) Filed under: Uncategorized by visitingthecape — Leave a comment September 5, 2011 'I normally don't like Italian food.' The line jumped from the page and slapped me around the 'lightly seasoned' chops. I just don't get people who make trawler-net statements about a country's cuisine. How can anyone say I don't like Italian, Thai, Greek, Indian (add the country of your choice here) food? Any country's cuisine is far too diverse to write it off with a line like that (some pedant will no doubt come up with a place where everythin … Read More […]

  2. “Normally” I find restaurant reviews in local rags amusing. No professional writer would begin a sentence that way. The knowledge of food or wine on display is usually matched only by the lack of education in basic English. There, I’ve made a sweeping statement too. I’m sure there must be some worthy scribes among the local wannabes. Other than your good selves, I’ve simply never had the good fortune to read one.

    • dragojac says:

      I love reading the restaurant reviews in the local papers, there are some classic lines in them. I think it was in the same review that the reviewer commented on an odd dish…fondue. As they didn’t elaborate I wasn’t sure whether it was odd because it was a fondue (???) or whether the chef had done something particularly imaginative with a fondue. My money’s on the former.
      Sweeping statements…HA. I’m the general of generalisations. Just before I hit published I re-read and spotted a huge sweeping statement immediately after having a go at the reviewer for making one. But our sweeping statements are considered ones though aren’t they 😉

  3. Sonja Kennington says:

    The argument that a vegetarian can´t write a restaurant review would only be valid if in order to review a restaurant, the reviewer was required to try every dish on the menu. When somebody goes to review a restaurant they don´t try every dish, but rather choose what they fancy from the dishes available, so every review is based on a limited selection. Whether the reviewer chooses meat or vegetarian food, they can still evaluate how well it is thought out, cooked and presented, as well as commenting on the service, atmosphere, décor, etc.

    • dragojac says:

      Some good points and I suspect you’re right that some reviewers in the local papers simply choose what they fancy from the menu.

      On the other hand when eating in a restaurant that I’m going to review, I’ll usually ask the waiter what the chef’s signature dish is, or what the restaurant’s specialities are and opt for one of them. It’s only fair to judge a restaurant on what it considers it is best at and not just on my personal preferences which, if I have restrictions on what I will eat, is going to be very subjective.

      If I go to an asadero or a fish restaurant and order the vegetarian option, it’s a pretty sure bet that I’m not going to get to sample the restaurant at its best and therefore my experience would not be representative of the majority of people who eat there. However, if dishes that are their speciality aren’t great then it’s probably safe to assume that neither is anything else.

      This especially applies in Spain where the majority of restaurants simply do not offer good vegetarian dishes. Most of the meals we prepare at home are imaginative vegetarian dishes. I can count on the fingers of one hand how many times I’ve seen one in a traditional Spanish restaurant that compares favourably.

      But it doesn’t just apply to vegetarians which is why I used the example of a vegetarian and someone who doesn’t normally like Italian – you can replace vegetarian with someone who doesn’t eat fish, seafood or whatever and I feel the same. Someone reviewing a restaurant in Los Abrigos say and not trying the fish just wouldn’t make sense…or be fair to the restaurant.

  4. Richard says:

    I always enjoy reading your blog rants … always entertaining, even when I disagree (probably more so when I disagree in fact). I find myself agreeing 100% with this one (shock horror smiley required ? 🙂 As you say: what’s not to like about pasta, pizza etc ? – my life would be considerably worse without Italian food.

    And thank goodness you’ve given up that veggie malarky … I can imagine it must be hell being one in Spain … ¿ a bit like not liking vino, ceveza y fiestas no?

    I don’t like generalising about a whole nation’s cuisine either, but what-the-hell … that there MSG in Chinese food does my stomach no favours !

    • dragojac says:

      Mein gott – wonders will never cease. We”re a perverse pair you and I. You enjoy it when you disagree…and so do I 🙂

      Yup a difficult deal. My veggie friend Jo on La Gomera is constantly declaring that there’s nowhere she can eat. Although she has Valle Gran Rey and that’s above average when it comes to more sophisticated dining, but apart from that you’re in hearty peasant fare land over there.

      MSG intolerance is an acceptable reason for avoiding a nation’s food 🙂

      .

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