Consider eggs, for example. I’ve seen a cookery book that listed seven different ways of boiling an egg, and there is often dispute about the best way of making something as simple—and delicious—as an omelet. How much should you beat the eggs? Very little and with a fork, I say. Quite thoroughly and with a whisk, according to my wife. Should you cook it in butter alone, or in olive oil? I heat a little oil before adding a knob of butter, because the oil prevents it from sticking to the pan. But there’s no golden inflexible rule, and in any case the result depends most on the quality and freshness of the eggs.
Traditionally, regional dishes used local ingredients, as available according to the season. This is why what was nominally the same dish—the ragu, for example—differed from place to place. Now, in Europe and America, global trade has abolished the seasons. So you can, for example, make a strawberry tart in January. It won’t be as good as one made with locally grown strawberries in June or July, but may nevertheless be agreeable enough. You may be old-fashioned and choose to eat only fruits and vegetables that are in season, but most of us don’t these days; we take what’s on offer in the supermarket. This is true even of French housewives, who used to be extremely conservative but are so no longer. Now many of them even buy ready-made dishes that require only to be heated up. Sad, you may say, but that’s the modern world, one in which farmed salmon is on sale in every supermarket, while wild salmon is rare, so rare indeed that most rivers in Scotland now adopt a catch-and-return code.
The truth is that while only people who don’t care about food pay no heed to the instructions laid down in cookbooks, it’s foolish to be a slave to the authority assumed by their authors. It is sensible to respect general principles, but it is also sensible to be free to adapt. You might, after all, be lucky enough to happen on an improvement. A burger made with ham rather than beef, perhaps? Why not?
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