How do we keep coming up with new food? One way is to look at the past.

Looking at the food we eat now, much of it comes from our past. Distant, and relatively short. Like a lot of things, the food we eat sufferers from fashion fads. Have we really improved the quality? What and how we cooked, even 30 years ago has changed. Whether always for the best is debatable.
For example, the evolution of Spaghetti Carbonara.

This is not a dish I cooked with my Italian mamma. Not sure why, it just never came up. The first time I came across it was when I started cooking professionally back in the early ’80s.

It was then viewed as a classic Italian dish originating in Rome, like most food in Italy, it is regionally based.

The way the dish was produced would vary, from family to family. Whereas now most people access recipes from YouTube, Instagram and even TikTok. Back then, it would likely have come from the family archives from the women of the family; mamas, aunts, and grandmothers. Traditionally passed mother to daughter.

In the case of carbonara, its history appeared to date from the end of the second world war. There are some references to something similar in the 1890s from Tuscana, difficult to tell whether one came about because of the other. However, the dish we now know does seem to be relatively modern.

Like that wonderful Christmas fruit bread Panettone which only back dates to the 1960s and was the product of factory development, not from home cooking. They did try to create a backstory around it, but it was just a PR stunt to get the people to buy into the idea.

When I first came across carbonara it was a combination of ham, cream, spaghetti and sometimes eggs maybe some parsley curly leaf not flat. Most of the time it included, Parmesan, which was very dubious in origin. Coming to us in a plastic tube pre-grated, it was more like salty cheese dust than the freshly grated stuff we expect today.
Hey, I never said I worked in the best establishments back then.

It took time to develop into what we now recognise. In the 1980’s it was a sign of sophistication to have it on the menu. It quickly went from ham as one of the main ingredients to smoked bacon. By the 1990’s it morphed from bacon into Pancetta, the cream got ditched and eggs alone made the sauce. All the time whatever was being cooked, claimed to be the original. In the present day, we see the pancetta has been left behind for guanciale, the cured meat from the cheek or jawbone of a pig, with the addition of a cup of pasta cooking water to help emulsify the sauce. The cheese is split between 50-50 parmesan and its powerful cousin, pecorino. The thing I find intriguing, as the recipe changed everyone swore this is how they’d always cooked it. So, as with a lot of cooks’ memories -the truth is a little hazy.

The dish we have today is different from the one of the 1980s, and 1990s versions. It even changed again in the early 2000s. It’s certainly very different from what I was cooking back in the early 80’s. I think the version we cook now is probably the best. But then again, maybe I’m just as much a food fashion junky as everyone else.

There is a school of thought, that the dish originated in New York, and then made its way to Italy where Romans claimed it as their own. The whole history of this world-renowned pasta is I’m afraid, a bit suspect. Mind if you start digging into the back stories of what are considered the classics of a large part of world food culture, many are based on myth and magic. You can easily get your illusions shattered. Did pasta first come from China? Croissants are certainly not originally French. Even our own British staple Fish and Chips has a heritage combining Jewish, Irish, and Portuguese traditions. I know that might upset a few but does it make it any less British? Seeing us through our history, like the second world war. Churchill placed more importance on maintaining a steady supply of Cod than on munitions. He felt that Londoners would not have survived the Blitz without their staple dish. He kept the cost down for the same reason.

Is there one overarching influence on food in 2023? Not completely but there are some interesting strands within our present kitchen culture. It all starts with going back to the raw materials. Which I’ve always felt is the best place to start. Looking for not just ok quality, but outstanding. In the case of coffee also really looking at the right financial deal for the producer. Care must be taken to make sure everyone in the supply chain is getting a reasonable deal which reflects the care they are taking with the product. If not, eventually they’ll just stop growing what we love. If a family farm can’t make money, what’s the point? The same principles are used in the craft beer industry. It’s not a cheap process, so it does tend to push the sale price up. But you’ve only got to look at the success of brands like Brew Dog, to see that this can work as a powerful business model.

Winemaking has gone through a similar process. Less blending into classic wine varieties like Merlot, Pinot Noir and Malbac and more emphasis on growing the grapes with great care. After processing them into the wine, that is what goes into the bottle. Much less blending don’t think it’s taking over yet, but there is a developing market around the same ideals, removing all additives including sulphites, as well as growing organically.

The same concept is currently influencing food. You can see more restaurants and hospitality kitchens going in this direction. It’s been around on a small scale for a while. Think of places like the River Café, St John, Rochelle Canteen, and Manteca.

These places have one thing in common. Working with the best raw materials they can obtain coupled with simple cooking methods trying to celebrate the original flavour of dishes, and not losing it in overcomplicated methods. This is much harder to achieve than it sounds. By cooking like this it’s easy to understand why some old dishes that had previously faded away are being brought back into vogue – because if they are done well they can produce fantastic-tasting food.

I would like to set a challenge, let’s take some classics that we have lost because of fashion and bad cooking. We can re-establish their credentials once again.
Firstly, how about restoring, Bacon and Onion steamed roll with Parsley sauce? Get a butcher to send you the suet fat from around the kidney so you can break it down yourself to make the pastry. Obtain the best-smoked bacon, not a supermarket standard, but something created with love and care. The difference is outstanding. Relook at all the different parts of the dish. It will create something that will amaze, not just satisfy.

How about rethinking Shepard’s pie? I recently found a recipe in a book dating back to 1922. Soon as I read the first sentence from the description I was hooked.
‘Boil a sheep’s head, remove the bones, and cut them into pieces. Peel onion, chop some parsley, and fry in a saucepan with a little dripping. You’ve got to admit it’s intriguing, if a little challenging and I’m left to question, have we been getting it wrong all this time?

We have a great tradition of steamed puddings in this country. They have all but disappeared from restaurants over the years. Everything from Marmalade (one of my all-time favs) to Golden Syrup. Chocolate, and then Lemon, or apple and walnut. There are some that I have no idea what they could taste like ‘Ormidale’, in which you add raspberry or strawberry jam mixed with melted chocolate to a base sponge. Or how about Eastbourne pudding, which is a sponge, not made with butter, but dripping, what would it taste like? I have no idea, but wouldn’t it be interesting for somebody to find out?

If anyone has suggestions of similar reincarnations of the long-forgotten food from these Islands of ours that we need to reinstate, please get in contact. Maybe we could spark some creativity for an upcoming coronation menu. Isn’t it time to celebrate food creation with a bit of reorientation? We might realise it’s worth bringing them back into vogue.
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Written by John Harris, Lets-Confab partner