“Getting authentic”

10 October 2018, 16:01 pm
Fine Food by Charles Campion

As the world shrinks, thousands of traditional foreign recipes are out there begging to be adapted and improved.

Keep the name; keep the cheaper ingredients; filch the presentation. So far so good, but in the autumn a war broke out between a couple of unlikely combatants – no less an eminence than the shadow equalities minister accused Jamie Oliver of “cultural appropriation”. In Jamie’s Italy, Jamie and his long time mentor Gennaro Contaldo buzz round Italy on a Vespa, stopping only to eat dishes prepared by a succession of grandmas – the octogenarian Italians cooked the same dishes that their family had always cooked, with recipes that have been unchanged for decades. After much lipsmacking Jamie would gush about authenticity and offer up similar dishes with his twist.

Meanwhile, back in Blighty, the “cultural appropriation” charge revolved around the authenticity of jerk. In the Caribbean “jerk” tends to mean a spicy marinade for chicken, so it was a surprise to find it changed into a vegetarian dish tailored for the microwave. Heavily branded Jamie Oliver Punchy Jerk Rice sold into the supermarkets despite such un-jerk ingredients as ginger, aubergines, beans and jalapeno chillies… but no chicken. All of which goaded the shadow equalities minister into her righteous anger. In the immortal words of a nameless advertising copywriter, “A good idea doesn’t care who has it”, and chefs and cooks happily add extra exotic pizzazz to their dishes. Nigella Lawson doses her spaghetti carbonara with nutmeg, wine and cream. Mary Berry advocates adding a dollop of double cream and some white wine (or red, “whichever is handy”) when creating ragu Bolognese. All is anathema to the authenticity hard core.

The problem is that most recipes evolve rather than arrive fully fledged. Look through Elizabeth David’s books or Escoffier’s mighty tome and you’ll find lots of recipes that have been “improved”; it’s the same when it comes to traditional ingredients. We should be encouraging chefs to try non-authentic flights of fancy – make a risotto, but make it with pearl barley rather than rice; make that dressing with verjus rather than vinegar; use cep powder for a bosky note on the plate. While the culinary world is reeling from the inevitable shortages following the summer of 2018 – the potato crops were hit hardest by lack of water – perhaps it makes sense to take another look at traditional dishes and add unauthentic ingredients – rice, spelt, pasta, cous cous. Surely taste and texture are what matters?

What’s a little cultural appropriation amongst cooks? So what if the telly chefs like to add a splodge of double cream, it’s indulgent and delicious. How dare anyone stand up and say that the only true path is the one they have personally sketched out. In many ways the public are ahead of the celebs, and a recent survey saw potato sales down 5.4% while sales of rice have soared by 30% over the last four years. Does this mean that chips are on the way out? Does this mean that rice is on its way to a stranglehold in the kitchen? It’s strangely comforting to think that maybe Jamie Oliver Punchy Jerk Rice is slap ontrend. Perhaps what we need now is a bit more cultural appropriation? And for politicians to get over their prejudices.

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