Madame was sitting in bed this morning reading recipes aloud. She does it quite often and every now and again she’ll mention something that makes me really sit up. On this occasion it was the mention of a recipe for making a cold tomato soup which ended with the suggestion that it should be served with slivers of Serrano ham. I immediately set to wondering about such weighty issues as authenticity in cooking. Regional cooking is all the rage, and in many ways the slow cooking movement and so-called cucina povera might be an ideal resource in a time of constriction and shortages, but there’s a big proviso.
When I first started learning to cook I was quite obsessive about getting the “correct” ingredients – I was an absolute slave to the recipe. It was wilfully stupid. I once visited half dozen greengrocers in Tunstall Market trying to buy twenty small onions of exactly the same size – so forty odd years ago I would have thought it impossible to cook any dish containing Serrano ham because no-one in Stoke on Trent would have even known what it was.
So if we’re to explore what local and sustainable really means for cooks we might take notice of the best fish soup I’ve ever tasted. It was a constant menu item at Culinaria; Stephen and Judy Markwick’s small restaurant in Bristol. Let’s be clear, we wouldn’t normally have anything to do with such luminaries but one of our sons was lucky enough to train under him and someone else also paid for an eye opening meal at their previous restaurant in Corn Street. Stephen’s cooking was absolutely simple but his obsessive attention to detail meant that when he finally took to writing he even offered a recipe for mushrooms on toast. Typically, of course, the recipe demands field mushrooms. Wild, field mushrooms freshly harvested and cooked as simply as possible are food for the gods. Knowing where to find them is a closely guarded secret – in our previous house there was a school playing field, just the other side of the fence, where they grew abundantly but rather erratically. The only other person who knew was the retired local milkman who became school caretaker and so for years we competed silently and entirely without rancour to get there first in order to harvest as many as we needed. Over time I’ve found a number of places, not least a clifftop on the Lleyn Peninsula where – at this time of the year – they can often be found, and they are completely irreplaceable. Nothing you can buy could ever, possibly be as good. The very definition of cucina povera would involve cooking what is to hand – that’s to say not Serrano ham when you live in the Disunited Kingdom. There’s often a local substitute and if there isn’t you could maybe set up a small business to fit into the niche.
The purpose of this excursus on field mushrooms and Stephen Markwick was to lead back to fish soup and a kind of culinary dynasty. Fifty odd years ago, here in Bath, George Perry Smith (much inspired by Elizabeth David) ran a restaurant called The Hole In the Wall. It was one of the best in the country and completely innovative in its references to Mediterranean dishes. However, George learned to cook in times of rationing and shortages and evolved a way of doing things where, for instance, nothing was ever wasted. George Perry Smith taught Joyce Molyneux to cook and she in turn taught Stephen Markwick who taught our son. If I were writing about Tai Chi or Buddhism, the question of who taught the teacher would be the most natural thing in the world because it really matters. In cooking it’s rarely if ever asked.
So George Perry Smith, confronted by food shortages took a very different path with ingredients; a path which ultimately led to the best fish soup I’ve ever tasted. I should confess immediately that I absolutely love fish soup and whenever we get the chance to eat it I’ll order it. We’ve eaten it in France, Corsica and all over the place but nothing comes close to fish soup that has passed through the dynastic hands of Elizabeth David, George Perry Smith, Joyce Molyneux and Stephen Markwick. The recipe – published in his brilliant self published book “A very Honest Cook” is almost bafflingly simple. The takeaway point is that there’s no mention of any exotic fish such as might feature in a grander and more ‘authentic’ recipe. For goodness sake it even includes smoked haddock and refuses to specify the other fish except to say it would include white fish and any other fish scraps from the kitchen. No more unobtainable Rascasse or any other bony monsters. This Provencal soup is the most “at hand” soup you’ve ever seen.
The so-called secret is of course using superb and locally available ingredients in the most thoughtful way possible. Truly great cooking is most creative and thoughtful when it asks of an unavailable recipe item – “what does this ingredient bring to the dish? and how could I achieve the same authentic balance and flavour using something else?”
And if you ask how, in this time of shortage of both ingredients and the money to buy them, we would do well to follow George Perry Smith’s doctrine of waste not want not. There’s an abundance of locally produced food here in the UK. What’s lacking are the skills to make the most of them. Today at the Saturday Farmers’ Market I overheard a wonderfully instructive conversation between the stallholder and what must have been an extremely wealthy customer. She was insisting on buying a hideously expensive rib of beef joint (organic grass fed etc) to barbecue. He didn’t think this was a good idea at all and I overheard him say to her “I’m a farmer not butcher” as he discouraged a profitable sale in favour of making sure she wouldn’t be disappointed with her expensive purchase. When I read how we should all give up eating meat because it’s so impactful on climate change, I wonder if it wouldn’t be much better to less meat, but eat much more of the animals rather than insist on the most expensive cuts.
A lifetime of Potwell Inn finances has taught us that sometimes the cheapest cuts are much better flavoured. Pork fillet, for instance is much more expensive than shoulder, which is more expensive than belly or any of the offal cuts. Even a humble pig’s trotter can add a marvellous silky texture to slow cooked beans. There’s no need at all for cucina povera or slow cooking to feel like second best. We should maybe get over our obsessive compulsion to buy the rarest, most expensive and showy ingredients. Perhaps we should address the problem of food security by stopping being so precious and insecure about impressing other diners with our wealthy and cosmopolitan tastes; and if we’re vegetarians maybe we could seek out the best and freshest vegetables or – even better – grow them ourselves.