In the annals of world gastronomy, the southern German town of Singen doesn't usually get a mention. You won't find pictures of its drab postwar apartment blocks featured in glossy lifestyle magazines, and the nearest Michelin-starred restaurants are around Stuttgart, 150 km away. If people come through here at all, it's either because they're visiting the ruined 10th century castle that's perched on a volcanic hilltop outside town, or because they're on their way to Switzerland, a few miles to the south.
Yet what Singen lacks in hedonistic allure, it more than makes up for in tomato soup. Not to mention bouillon cubes, pea pottage, dried broccoli, instant-noodle dishes and literally hundreds of sauces, flavorings and other prepared foods, particularly those that are dehydrated and sold around the globe in packets. Ever since a Swiss miller named Julius Maggi set up a factory here in 1887 to produce his eponymous Maggi's Suppenwürze, a liquid condiment used in soups and sauces, Singen has been a sizable but overlooked landmark on the culinary map, a sort of world capital of desiccated vegetables. It's also a great place to come for a crash course in the intricacies of global taste and national preferences. For it is here, in an unremarkable three-story building just up the road from the police station and the Maggi plant, that you can discover why Chinese noodles are different from Italian ones, why Austrians turn up their noses at German soups (and vice versa), and why chicken broth is different the world over even if it carries the same brand name and comes in more or less the same packaging. (To find answers to the equally complex question of which ice cream flavors most appeal to consumers in Finland requires a three-hour car ride across Switzerland, but more on that later.)
The Singen building in question is part of a global network of research-and-development establishments run by Nestlé, the world's largest food company. Nestlé is headquartered in Switzerland and sells its products in 130 countries. It has owned Maggi since 1947. In an age of rampant globalization, when consumers across the world increasingly seem to crave the same sort of products, from Coca-Cola and Harry Potter novels to Starbucks coffee and Louis Vuitton handbags, you might think that a food company with annual sales of $80 billion would be eager to join this push towards standardization and sameness. Wouldn't it be easier, and more profitable, for a company like Nestlé to ignore national nuances and come up with a single type of, say, bean soup, ice cream or noodle that would have universal appeal?
Well, no. Thomas Hauser, who runs the Singen center, smiles patiently at the question before repeating the company mantra. "In food," he says, "you have to be very local."
It's an insight born of 140 years of experience, and it's one that Nestlé takes very, very seriously. One of its biggest worldwide brands is Nescafé instant coffee. But there is Nescafé and Nescafé: the one you buy in Singapore is quite different from the one you'll find in Spain or Swaziland or São Paulo. In fact, the company makes about 200 different types of Nescafé, ranging from the "three-in-one" sachets on sale in parts of Asia which contain the supposedly perfect mix of coffee, milk and sugar for local taste to the considerably more expensive jars of freeze-dried Colombian Nescafé aimed at French coffee snobs. And it's not just the brand variants that are different: the 800-or-so components that go into Nescafé are subtly tweaked to fit national preferences.
The same thing goes for chocolate. A KitKat bar is the same the world over, right? Wrong. Leave aside the Japanese variant, where strawberry, banana or other fillings change seasonally; even the more commonly found chocolate-covered wafer bars can look and taste different depending on where you buy them. A Russian KitKat is slightly smaller than a Bulgarian one, for example, and the chocolate isn't as sweet as in a German one. It's the job of a Nestlé confectionary factory in York, England, to juggle these small nuances in taste by adding or subtracting key ingredients like sugar or cocoa during the production process, depending on where the finished bars are slated to go on sale.
Nestlé researchers like Hauser are the ones who have to figure out what the stuff should actually taste like in any given place. Once they've done that, they need to come up with a cost-efficient way of manufacturing it. That's no small undertaking: the company boasts the biggest research-and-development operation in the food industry, with 3,700 staffers and an annual budget of $1.4 billion. Some of the Singen center's greatest triumphs are featured on the shelves that line the walls of the ground floor of the research center: among them "granulated seasoning" (don't ask), which has proved to be a huge hit in Poland and other East European countries and some parts of Asia. Its researchers have even discovered how to preserve dried broccoli in such a way that it stays chunky and retains its natural, healthy green color rather than turning puce and crumbling to dust during shipping.
My guided tour of national palates is about to start. We adjourn to the kitchen devoted to dehydrated products. On the menu today is Maggi tomato soup. Chef Fred Enggist greets me with a tray of glass jars filled with some essential powdered ingredients, including onion, corn starch and beetroot (for the color). I sniff politely, and watch his two assistants heating and stirring six pans of soup. We'll be tasting the Turkish and Indian versions and four European varieties one for Switzerland, one for Austria and two German offerings, the traditional "classic master" offering and a newly developed one that claims to be "naturally pure."
Aside from the language, the packets all look about the same, with the Maggi brand written in bright yellow letters on a red background. But the differences already start with the cooking time, which ranges from three minutes to 10. Chef Enggist explains that the Turkish one takes longer to prepare because Turkish flour is less refined and thus needs to be heated longer. For some other countries, even though the soup is ready in three minutes, the packet advises longer. "Some people think it can't be good if you only need to cook it for three minutes," Enggist confesses.
Once the soup was ladled into white china bowls, the differences are immediately apparent even to my untrained eye. Tiny specks of green basil float conspicuously in the Swiss one. The German classic master is a darker, creamier red than the pure, natural new version; the Indian one is almost orange. As for the Turkish variety, it looks pale and watery, which is just how it tastes. Why? Because you only get the ingredients you pay for, and at the retail price it's sold at in Turkey, that means a basic minimum. Enggist assures me that Turks cut their own tomatoes into the soup anyway, which more than compensates for the limitations of what they get in their packets. I dip a spoon into the new German version. "What do you think?" asks Henri-Pierre Lenoble. "Much less salty than the other one. A bit sweet, maybe, but definitely lighter," I mumble. He nods. He's in charge of "sensory testing" at the lab. That's a two-step process: asking consumers whether and what they like (and dislike) about products, at the same time as using expert, trained palates to test more rigorously and scientifically, including testing for the ideal proportions of the various ingredients. The experts are the ones who need to figure out what I mean by "lighter," so that it can be translated into instructions for the cooks. Lenoble gives me an example: when your ordinary consumer says something tastes "medical," it means you've overdone the cloves.
Enggist and Noble are eager to know which one I like best. I don't want to disappoint them, but the truth is I'm not particularly partial to any of the six. The Indian one has a cumin taste that's appealing but too strong. The classic German one tastes stodgy, while the new version is too sweet. The Swiss one has too much basil. I suggest mixing it with the Indian one. From the reaction, I doubt that this blend will be on supermarket shelves anytime soon.
Which brings me to the question that has been nagging me throughout this process: how come national preferences are still relevant to taste, at a time when people and different types of cuisine are increasingly crossing borders? Pizza and sushi are everywhere and you can now even find Thai food in Siberia. I see India might be a special case, but Austria? Nestlé's answer is that it all goes back to childhood. "The taste profile is fixed very early in people's minds," says company spokesman François-Xavier Perroud. In other words, you'll gravitate to the tomato soup, or the ice cream, or the chocolate that tastes closest to the one you grew up eating. "Our reference today is the best prepared homemade soup," Hauser tells me. "Before, the benchmark was our competitors. Now it's what we can produce with the freshest ingredients."
The implications of this idea are both vast and alarming. It gives me a handy excuse for not loving any of the soups, since I didn't grow up in Switzerland, Austria, German, India or Turkey. But it also means that if Marcel Proust had dunked a madeleine from, say, Belgium, into his coffee, rather than one from the French village of Illiers-Combray where he spent much of his childhood, he would never have had the flashback that led him to write A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. He would have just bitten into a piece of sponge cake and left it at that.
Perroud comforts me. Distilling the essence of childhood into a consumer product is an imperfect art, rather than a science, and there's a high failure rate. The rule of thumb in the food industry, he says, is that 8 out of 10 new products are no longer to be found on shelves two to three years after they are launched. There's also a huge conundrum here for a company like Nestlé: how local should you really go? When Hauser first started working at the company more than a decade ago, he says it made four different types of bouillon for Switzerland alone, individually aimed at the French, Swiss, Italian or tiny Romansh community. That's the opposite of economy of scale.
Back at Nestlé headquarters in Vevey, on the shores of Lake Geneva, Jean-Marie Gurné provides an answer of sorts. He's a senior vice president who heads the firm's ice-cream business unit, and we've just spent half an hour exploring the very substantial differences between the vanilla ice cream Nestlé sells in Germany and the one it sells in France. (Short version: The French one is yellow and beany in taste, almost like a frozen crème anglaise, while the German one is much whiter and more buttery. It also leaves a warm feeling in the mouth, whereas the French one is more refreshing.) It is definitely in Nestlé's interest to make different ice creams for these two markedly different national markets, Gurné tells me, but there's a balance to be struck. What's important is to avoid "hyper-complexity." Two years ago, the firm introduced small squares of chocolate-coated vanilla ice cream in the U.S., where they're called Dibs. They were a smash hit, so this year Nestlé is rolling out the same product in much of Europe under the brand Pops. The chocolate coating is different everywhere, since the French like theirs dark and the Spaniards like it a bit milkier, but and it's a big but the vanilla inside will be the same.
And then there are truly global products, the ones that really are the same everywhere: to wit, the super premium ice cream Häagen-Dazs. It's more expensive than most Nestlé ice creams, but there are no national variations for consumers to contend with. That makes it easier to make and market worldwide. Some other food companies, including McDonald's, have similar aspirations for some of their products. A Big Mac hamburger, for example, is designed to taste the same in Moscow, Russia, as it does in Moscow, Idaho, though McDonald's ingredients can differ slightly, and the firm varies its menus from country to country.
If for every Dibs/Pops there is a Häagen-Dazs, then for every Häagen-Dazs there is also an Aino. That's a brand of ice cream Nestlé developed for Finland. The Finns happen to be among the biggest consumers of ice cream per capita in Europe, along with their Scandinavian neighbors. Nestlé decided to make a direct appeal to local taste, so it came up with two flavors associated with Finnish childhood: blueberry pie and cranberry and caramel. "It's been a colossal success," Gurné says, beaming. Proust, for one, would probably approve, and so do Nestlé's shareholders: the key to prosperity in the food business, it turns out, is being local (but not too local) at the same time as being global (but not only global). As in the kitchen, it's all about finding the perfect balance.