Another bit of ancient history – 9th September 2008
“Pasta the way it should be”, a recent feature in the Guardian was a superb example of the stuffed and drizzled whelk’s testicle school of writing. From the first sentence – “I first tasted Franca Barberi’s cooking more than a decade ago when I was visiting the medieval town of Lucca in Tuscany”; to the last “What does she think of English cuisine? She shakes her head firmly. ‘I only like Italian.” – we get the picture. Good food is foreign and very, very difficult. The ingredients are rare and expensive. Only experts should even try. You need to be well travelled, well educated. In fact it’s a private party and we, the food writers, are the bouncers whose job is both to lure you in and to keep you out. And so the desperate diner, like a supplicant for the guest list, is prepared to endure almost any level of humiliation just to be able to say that they let them in.
The difference between a food tourist and a cook is covered in a question that Henry Hammond, once head of the ceramics course at Farnham Art School, apparently got into trouble for asking a female interviewee. He asked her if she was strong enough to lift a 25Kg bag of clay. It would, of course, have been an outrageously sexist remark had he neglected to ask the same question of the male candidates and I don’t know whether he did or not. But we know that the food tourist is never going to have to pick up the 25Kg bag. And notice that I’m talking here about cooks and not chefs. Chefs are too often like dancing dogs and premiership footballers; their principal audience, that’s to say the consumer, has not the slightest intention of practising any skills whatever. Just to have been there, to have bathed in the ambience is all that’s needed.
So where’s the Henry Hammond question that never gets asked in the Pasta the way it should be article? It’s this. Have you got a big enough kitchen table? Because if you haven’t got a big enough kitchen table – and most of us only have work-tops fit for opening tins – you’re stuffed before you start. A pound of pasta dough rolled thin takes up a lot of space. The rest, assuming that you’re even remotely serious about making some pasta, is pretty irrelevant. The feature is about the writer and not the subject. And so we lean that Julie Bindel has been to Tuscany and knows enough about Italian culture to slag off those punters who might be taken in by “almost a parody of the Tuscan Trattoria.” She thoughtfully provides a translation of “Molto stanco”. Very tired. This is of course to establish her credentials as a cognoscente, to let us know that she knows. Our subject and mentor “Barbieri” is an artiste of the pasta. We know this because she speaks Italian and doesn’t have a Christian name. ‘Oh My God’ we cry as we inhale the perfume of fresh sage, the wild garlic, the roast meats, tomato and of course basil. Our digestive juices are storming at this point but we’ve as much chance of actually eating this stuff as I have of making love to Circe because we, poor sad souls that we are, are reading a newspaper not eating a meal. In fact, if we rely on the feature to tell us how to cook the meal then we are in real trouble.
Because catch number two is this. None of the ingredients are easy to obtain. In fact it would be quicker to seek enlightenment in a Carmelite monastery than to buy the particular ingredients we need. The eggs, we are told in hushed and breathless tones, have unbelievably yellow yolks and so they have to be imported from Italy.
OK so here’s a quick excursus on eggs. Organic eggs aren’t all they are cracked up to be if they are mass produced. Almost all the free-range organic units I’ve ever seen are surrounded by bare earth. Chickens very soon scratch up all the grass in the paddock, and grass is important because hens like it a lot and it makes the egg yolks very yellow. So if you want unbelievably yellow yolks you don’t import eggs from Italy because then they will either be stale, or they will carry a carbon footprint the size of an industrial estate. What you need to do is find a small local producer of organic eggs and buy them fresh. There is no mystery about this, and food writers who pretend there is some kind of magic about stale imported eggs because they come from the south slope of a sun drenched olive grove in glorious Tuscany have got their hand in your wallet.
Here then is the recipe. 100g of “00” flour and two eggs. The Italian flour is probably worth the effort of obtaining, ‘though if I was really stuck I’d give any high protein bread flour a try. What you need when you’re rolling out pasta is a very strong paste. That means lots of gluten. Mix it, rest it, roll it, stuff it and cook it. Now you try.
The giveaway line in the article is this ‘“we had just been to a nearby restaurant for a mediocre lunch,” says Caldesi [the owner of the cookery school where this demonstration is taking place] “when we noticed La Buca. Two hours later we were eating again but this time it was the real thing.”’
What exactly is the real thing? Could that line be translated to say ‘we had a meal in one place that we didn’t enjoy very much, and then we found another place where the food tasted better.’ Authenticity is the delusion that keeps a thousand foodies tumescent. I had a Portuguese friend called Denis. His family owned an olive grove and he told me once that the family especially treasured the oil that ran spontaneously from the olives when they were picked and ripened in barrels but before they were pressed. It was, he said, grass green and tasted heavenly. It’s a lovely story, and I wish I could have tasted it too, but spending £100 or even £1000 on a bottle isn’t going to replicate Denis’s experience. Some things can’t be bought and sold. We can treasure those personal experiences of food that make us well up with joy but we can’t buy other peoples’ experiences. There’s a name for that kind of thing, and it suggests that the food writers and restaurateurs who trade in spurious authenticity are respectively panderers and brothel keepers to the over inflamed greed of their customers. And if that sounds like moralizing, well and good!
Regional cuisines work well because they use fresh local ingredients. If you take those selfsame ingredients and bottle/freeze or envelop them in nitrogen gas so you can drive them halfway across the world then they are no longer local or fresh. What they have become is rare and expensive. They don’t taste very good but your fellow diners can only look up to you in awestruck admiration because you’re getting it tonight ….. dusted with aged parmgiano; drizzled with an exquisite dressing of oil from a single variety Tibetan mountaintop olive, squeezed between a beautiful woman’s thighs and stirred into a 65 year old drop of balsamic vinegar.
Regional cuisines work well because their cooking and eating practises are embedded within a whole culture. The truth is, it’s not pasta that isn’t “the way it should be” it’s life. This is invalid food for a spiritually and culturally aetiolated people.
The subeditor has added the line to the title – “In the hands of an expert, pasta can be sublime” Sublime is the big idea. It trespasses into the non-material realm. There’s a proverb that says Better a dish of herbs where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it. (Proverbs 15:17).
So get a big table, cook on it, invite your friends and eat around it; even make love on it if you can get away with it, because it will have to have strong legs anyway if you’re going to knead pasta or bread dough. And remember, you cook with your heart not with your ingredients.