Monday 28 January 2008

Authenticity: A Monday Rant!

There was a time when the gastronomic canon, at least the French version, was immutable. Sole Colbert was a precise dish, prepared in a precise way - and any budding chef had to learn how to make it. The general idea was that customers, having seen the dish on the menu, could order it, and would be pretty confident in their expectation of what would be served. Restaurants hired trained chefs who knew the ropes and could turn out the required dish without breaking a sweat.

Well, all that seems to have gone well-and-truly by the board! Chefs have decided en masse that they don't want to be bound by these rules. Some invent either new - or slightly new, dishes - and give them brand new names; others keep the old name .......and change the recipe slightly; or else they apply the well-known name to a completely different dish, apparently either by mistake or presumably just for the sheer hell of it.

I have just read Robert Courtine - the late great food writer for Le Monde - railing against French chefs who no longer know that Crêpes Suzette is made with mandarin orange juice, and not with ordinary orange juice: and this particular bastration was something he was already up in arms about as early as 1970!

I have to confess, I had no idea about the mandarins either.........but, then, neither actually did Jane Grigson, or Delia Smith, or Nigella Lawson, Ann Willan, or Gordon Ramsay, not to mention Alan Davidson and Alain Ducasse. Even Escoffier (in the English edition) gets in a muddle: his version starts off using mandarins, and inexplicably switches to oranges half way through. Didn't he know? Or did the translator or editor make a mistake? It is correct in Larousse Gastronomique..... but then Robert Courtine was LG's editor, so this is hardly surprising. When this particular baton was dropped, history does not relate, and gastronomically seems inexplicable. Mandarin juice (hardly ever specified in recipes for anything that I can think of) is delicious........... and as a bonus in Crêpes Suzette, one could use glorious Mandarine Napoleon Brandy as the alcohol. Having now learned the error of my ways, I can't wait to make the real thing for the first time.......

In a similar vein, the Technical Dept has been grumbling for years (and I mean grumbling and years) about Parisian restaurants which advertise Île Flottante (Floating Island) but actually serve Oeufs à la Neige. Rather unhelpfully, Oeufs à la Neige is soft meringue floating in custard, and Île Flottante is a sort of Crème Caramel which sits up to its ankles in the stuff. The one that isn't floating is properly called floating and the one that is, isn't. Confused? Well I can tell you from long spectatorial experience that the Technical Dept has yet to come across a waiter anywhere who isn't, too.

Does it matter? After all, these days, so often, either the ingredients are exhaustively listed on the menu, or else the waiter will, if asked - and very often if not asked - tell you, at interminable length, his idea of the precise recipe.

Well, it matters, if truly great recipes get changed so much they get forgotten or in some cases - Duck à l'orange is an example - positively shunned.
It matters if the menu promises innovation and the only innovation is the description. I was pretty irritated several years ago when the Sugar Club grandiloquently promised Oeuf Mollet, and Smoked-Ham-cooked Redonda Beans on a Garlic Crouton and what actually arrived was Egg & Beans on Toast!
It also matters if you have to sit through a long description of something you know quite well being excitedly - and completely inaccurately - garbled by a waiter who heard about it for the first time that morning.
And it
definitely matters if, as happened the other day, I came across mention on the internet of a 'newly-discovered and wonderful' dish: Pommes Anna..... except that this one had been 'improved' with the addition of butternut squash, parmesan cheese and nutmeg! The 'improved' version may possibly have been good (although I have my doubts), but it sure as hell isn't Pommes Anna! Poor Robert Courtine; poor Adolphe Dugléré (who's dish it is); poor, beautiful, sexy Anna Deslions, for whom the dish was named......and probably, most of all, poor US!!

However...... not to end on an entirely pessimistic note, this weekend's major discovery was the combination of Mango Soufflé Glacé with Wild Strawberries which have been macerated in Cointreau. It isn't a bastration of something old and venerable, and nor does it have a long and complicated title....but believe me, it
is seriously, show-stoppingly wonderful!

Tonight's Dinner:

Squid, braised with Peas & Tomatoes.

Calves Liver, in Cream & Mushroom Sauce; Sweet-&-Sour Courgettes.

Tuscan Pear Cake

1 comment:

The Passionate Palate said...

I am sure your points are well supported out there in blogland! They are from me for certain. Admittedly, I don't have much experience with French food, but I get up in arms about the authenticity of so many "Italian" dishes when in fact they are nothing like their originals. I'm sure we all have a story like that. Good rant!