Understanding great food is more than knowing how to cook

John Harris – food, knowledge, experience
A continuing blog on food, drink and London’s foodie trends

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In his latest blog John Harris argues we need to go beyond the headlines and latest trends to truly understand great food in today’s world. And it starts with family traditions

In 2013 what makes great food, opinion, family, the latest fad, or someone behind the stove is someone who really understands the produce and has more than just a passing familiarity with the food they are trying to cook.

My mother just before she started working in the family business

The colour supplements have laid down their prediction of where the hot restaurant tickets for 2013 are going to be. If you haven’t noticed yet, the conclusion of the Sunday pundits seems to be jumping all over Peruvian (the price of limes is set to rocket). Ceviche is great if made with really fresh fish and there are definitely some good places springing up. It’s always fascinating getting an insight into a different interpretation of raw materials available from one country to another. Peru in particular has a lot of different influences which then appear on plates coming from people who have passed through the country over the centuries. These include influences from Italy, Spain, China, West Africa and Japan so in this case that overused term eclectic is justified. I just want to say let’s not over do it – which is what we tend to do – jumping all over the wagon till before you know it, it’s as passé as the poor kiwi fruit.

I know I sound a bit jaded. Last year all they were talking about was street food like it was some sort of amazing new style of cooking, not some half decent hotdog, Japanese steamed bun, ‘dirty burger’ or piece of tuna served on the street. Yes the deal is that the ambience comes from eating with your fellow diners gathered round a battered old chip van parked up in some dodgy/cool space, most lightly in East London. Yes street food is cool, and yes a great burger is a thing of beauty, but it’s not some undiscovered style of cooking in itself. This is where I feel people lose their way a bit. A food stall, truck or tent doesn’t instantly make great food. My prediction – alright my hope – is that all the fuss will wane by the end of this year.

Where does really great food start? To me it’s family and it’s passed down from generation to generation, normally mother to daughter. In my case my sisters weren’t that interested so it kind of fell to me by default.

Family traditions – from Italy to Scotland

Every Christmas Eve at between 11 o’clock and midnight my mother and I would start producing the small ravioli which were the start to our Christmas lunch. There would be at least 12, or up to 16, sitting down each year. The ravioli were always served the same way in simple chicken broth made from what my mother referred to as an old boiler. This being a redundant laying hen from our local market gardener who once a week would turn up at the back door about 10 o’clock at night. He was given a list and would disappear into his old van to get what we needed including a few items for upsale. Half an hour later he’d be back with the order plus a couple of rabbits or half a dozen pigeons, which he maintained were shot from his bedroom window with him in his pyjamas and slippers. He argued that if they went past his window they were probably on their way to doing damage to one of his crops, so they were fair game – he always kept a loaded shot gun next to the bed for this purpose. Strange looking back on it, but it was the 70’s.

As I remember mum, either in the kitchen or as here, in the garden picking tomatoes

Regularly the gardener, Mr Frampton by name, would turn up with one of his old laying hens. He judged them fit for purpose by how many eggs a week they could be persuaded to part with. Once the eggs given dropped past a profitable level the poor bird would be considered no longer viable, and so was unceremoniously despatched with a confident quick flick of the wrist breaking its neck. They arrived at our back door plucked but not cleaned; the remains of the feathers would need burning off and they normally had a few half formed eggs in them. As a kid I got a biology lesson as well as learning how to remove the innards, not the most pleasant job, but educational. Mr Frampton standing on the threshold of our kitchen, smiling showing 1 or 2 of the remaining teeth left in his mouth- “want one of these Mrs?”, knowing my mother was one of the few customers he had who knew what to do with these old birds that nobody else was interested in.

Mr Frampton was very old school with the thickest Dorset accent, flat cap and a smile reminiscent of a Hitchcock character from The Lady Vanishes. My 12 year old self found his six foot countenance standing at our back door terrifying. Truth be told he was a kind old Dorset farmer, his proudest achievement being the Dominos pub champion of The New Forest area which he had held for a number of years beating of all comers. It was all taken very seriously. His wife held the record for being the fastest Turkey plucker in West Dorset.

Cooking one of his ‘ex-layers’ took a lot more than just sticking it in a hot oven with a few potatoes for Sunday lunch. It would go in a large pot with onions, leeks, carrots, celery, bay and a little garlic. The pot would sit on the top of the stove simmering away for the whole day. It was then left to go cold and the bird removed. The remaining stock had a flavour unlike anything that we make today, much more depth and darker in colour. The meat from one of these long lived fouls had a different quality from a normal roasting bird. Even after a whole day’s cooking it would still have enough bite in the flesh to hold up. I used to love it in a sandwich, cold with a bit of lettuce, garlic mayonnaise and loads of ground black pepper.

The broth would then be cleared, not clarified, just tidied up. The ravioli would be filled with one part minced chicken, one part minced chicken liver and one part minced veal. Then seasoned with parsley, a little lemon peel salt, pepper and a touch of garlic. Cooking them in the broth just before the whole thing was going to be served. A very simple dish, but as with a lot of the simplest dishes, in reality a lot of work. Depending on how many people were having lunch there would be at least 100 ravioli to make. The last job on Christmas Eve would finish in the small hours of Christmas day. As I wearily climbed the stairs realising I had to be up in a couple of hours to go to Christmas Day Mass I’d wonder why we never seemed to be able to start them any earlier? After a number of years it dawned on me that this was just the way it was, then I started to enjoy the ritual of it. In the end it was just one part of our family Christmas.

Food originates from family routines

Mum and I at the end of Christmas lunch, taken after the Zuppa Anglaise!

The finish to our Christmas dinner was always my mother’s version of a crossover dish (Zuppa Anglaise and Sherry trifle). This spoke of my mother’s Italian roots crossed with her life in the UK. Starting in the small mining town of Ayr where my grandfather had taken the family from the hills of Tuscany to the constant rain of Scotland. He did what all discriminating Italians did on arriving in pre-war Britain, he set up an ice-cream parlour; there was one flavour, vanilla. He took the recipe to his grave.

My mother’s hybrid trifle went into family folk lore, fantastic but deadly. One portion would be enough to put you over the limit, containing a combination of rum, Tia Maria and sherry. Sleeping through Christmas afternoon telly was kind of an excepted pass time in our house. Once, aged four, my sisters realised I’d had a bit too much trifle as I spent the entire afternoon rolling around on the floor giggling at anything anyone said to me. I was eventually taken upstairs to bed to sleep it off.

My Grandfather and Grandmother dressed up for this photo to be sent home to Tuscany to show the big success he was having with his ice-cream in Scotland

This to me is the start of understanding great food: not the latest thing but food that is more than just how to cook. It contains shared memories and knowing how to make it is more than just showing off your understanding of the latest technique. A hot water bath does not guarantee a great plate of food; liquid nitrogen doesn’t make great ice cream (no seriously, it doesn’t). My mother had a vast understanding of food, but she never really thought so, she was doing what she felt had to be done to look after her family, using the experience passed on to her from mother to daughter. Then adding it to her experience of running the kitchens that were needed for my grandfather’s expanding Scottish catering empire (well a cafe/tea shop and ice cream parlour in a small grey southern Scottish town). She grew up running the kitchen. It became her role in the family business. By the time she started her own family we had ended up down on the south coast of England. Another story, but those strong food values had been embedded in her memory and this is what she passed onto me, and so the knowledge carries on: shared memories means those things she showed me keep on.

Time to rethink ‘foodie’

If family is where great food starts, where does it go wrong? What makes us take a wrong turn? Sometimes it’s just how we choose to describe something. One desperately overrated and over used term, is ‘a foodie’. I always cringe when I hear someone use it to describe me, but more often it’s about themselves or reference to “oh old so and so he’s a real foodie”. What does it really mean? Great cook? Discriminating eater? I just don’t know, these days maybe we need to come up with something new, looking at what we all eat now. We do seem to love to bandy around that word, ‘a foodie’.

My Mum at 80: still had all the knowledge, but starting to slow a little in the kitchen

It started life in the States when it appeared in an article first sighted in the New York Times from 1980 celebrating the reputation of a woman who ran a renowned Parisian restaurant, and her ’devotees, serious foodies’. It was then cemented into the American psyche when in 1984 Harpers and Queen wrote the ‘Official Foodies Handbook’ which was kind of done tongue in cheek, but as with a lot of these things got taken seriously being used as a label to coincide with a new renaissance in the food culture of the States. Very quickly, as with most things from the other side of the pond, it picked up over here. Yet as I said what does it mean? I’ve had a life focused around food and still find all facets of its world fascinating. If I had the same passion for postage stamps old and new I’d probably be called an anorak. So if you see me around, please, please don’t say there goes that renowned foodie…. I think I might go and hang myself on my own apron cord.

So Peruvian seems to be the most talked about cuisine in that great discerning melting pot that is the London restaurant scene. But does it mean its great food? No not on its own, although we seem to have a never ending love affair with anything that is new. It’s got to be the latest to be the best. In France, Italy and Spain if a restaurant hasn’t been around for 100 years it’s viewed with suspicion as some new comer with aspirations. Why take a chance on something that’s only bean around for five minutes when you can put your faith in something that has seen the test of time and is still standing? Now they really know what there doing.

The alternatives to food trends

So is there any alternative to constantly looking for the new, the latest, and ever trying to track down food utopia? I like to think so. These places don’t tend to be that flash because the focus is the food, not whether the latest decor is this year’s blond wood furniture as opposed to last years dark. Names like St. John Bread and Wine, Chez Bruce, Brindisa, Beirut Express and East End institutions like Lahore all come in this category. They share a similar approach, where good food is just natural, not contrived. A plate of sourdough toast with greens and snails held together in a mustard velouté with small cubes of back fat running through isn’t flash, but the flavour it produces in this simple combination is truly memorable. It hasn’t taken hours of prep time, it hasn’t been passed ,stuffed and set up on a plate with a streak of balsamic glaze and a few pea shoots scattered around it.

If it ain’t broke don’t try to fix it.

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