The combination of Brexit and an imminent second Scottish independence referendum is profoundly depressing. Better to think of other things—food, for example. That offers comfort, even the possibility of jokes that aren’t sour. I find myself fondly remembering a distinguished poet who was amazed—and amused—to discover in his 60s that hamburgers were made of beef. He had till then associated them with the pig rather than the great Hanseatic city at the mouth of the Elbe. Actually, I’ve no idea—no doubt someone can tell me—whether burgers did indeed originate in Hamburg. Perhaps not. As a boy I was often taken to lunch at a hotel in Aberdeen where the menu offered “Vienna Steak,” in reality a bun-free hamburger. Perhaps Vienna was thought more classy than Hamburg. These Vienna steaks were anyway rather good, as I remember.
Here in Britain, as a welcome distraction from Brexit, there has been fierce argument about spaghetti Bolognese. It started when the cookery writer Mary Berry, who became a celebrity as the presenter of The Great British Bake Off on TV, published her recipe for it. “All wrong,” was the indignant cry, “scandalous.” She had committed what, in the eyes of some, was the cardinal sin of putting cream and white wine, rather than red, in her sauce. The rumpus was such that you might have thought she had insulted the Queen.
Well, of course, we all have strong views about food, about the correct, or at least the best, way of cooking or eating this or that. Take porridge, for instance. Some like brown sugar or golden syrup on it. Raw oatmeal sprinkled on top is better. Why? Because that’s how I ate it as a child. Some say porridge should always be eaten standing up and walking around, which is fine, but in the northeast of Scotland the practice used to be to have your milk or cream in a separate bowl, so that you enjoy the contrast of the cold milk and the hot porridge. All a matter of taste, but it’s certainly not easy to manipulate two bowls and a spoon while on your feet.
As for the Bolognese that has stirred people up, in Bologna itself, a city where you eat, or used to eat, better than anywhere else in Italy, it is simply known as “ragu,” which is the word that appears on menus, except in tourist restaurants, and means simply “sauce” or even “stew,” being the same word as the French “ragout.” It is made with chopped or minced beef, and yes, if wine is added, which isn’t always the case, the wine will probably be red.
Elsewhere in Italy the ingredients for a ragu may be different. In Naples, for instance, lamb is sometimes used instead of beef, and in Calabria, I’ve known it made with kid or goat. As for the wine, whatever was local, drawn from a barrel, would be used. In the Castelli outside Rome, that would usually be the white wine of Frascati or Marino. So to pretend that there is a fixed, immutable rule for the making of a ragu is daft.
Dishes devised by famous chefs may take a standard form if only because their inventor will probably at some point have printed the recipe, and then, clearly, if you choose to depart from this, you are not offering precisely the same dish. This doesn’t mean that you can’t quite reasonably offer variations on it. I would guess that most cooks who aren’t slaves to the authority of a cookbook do just that, on occasion anyway. It’s true that if you make too many changes, or use inadequate substitutes, you shouldn’t claim it’s the same dish. But if the result is pleasing, who cares? There’s always scope for invention, scope too for disagreement. This isn’t surprising.
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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