Thursday, 8 October 2009
Is style ever more important than substance?
It is Sunday morning. Early autumn and bright. You are sitting in a little cafe in Soho, a stack of papers beside you. You wallow in the false agony of which section to begin with, knowing full well that you are going to read the whole lot before you heave yourself away (and also knowing full well that you are going to read all the extraneous matter first, before finally making it to the actual news). Your eggs benedict arrives, and as if some higher being wished to emphasise the majesty of its creation, the sunlight falls onto the table at the very moment the plate is nudged in front of you. It's quite a thing to behold - a delicate poached egg, its mattress a golden toasted muffin, the bedsheets the crispest bacon you have ever seen. And hugging this aesthetic wonder is the most glistening, unctuous hollandaise sauce man has ever conceived. Trembling with lusty hunger, you cut into the egg, your entire mouth awash with saliva at the very anticipation of that joyous moment when the yolk, emancipated from its albumen chamber, trickles out to dress the bacon.
Except it doesn't. The yolk inside is overcooked and dry. Further investigation reveals bacon that is not so much crisp as burnt. The muffin, that bread so redolent of comfort and warmth, is cold and hard. To cap it all, the hollandaise is so lemony that with a little sugar you could stick a biscotti in it and call it a posset. How had a breakfast that promised so much, that looked so perfect and absolute, turned into a repeat of Christmas 1990 (when that box that you thought was a Superman costume sent from your aunt in the States was actually a box of cosmetics intended for your cousin in Nebraska)? How dare a chef promise so much to the eye and deliver so little to the palate?
Everybody judges a book by its cover. We look at people and decide subconsciously whether we like them or not, whether we fancy them or not. It's a reflex. This isn't to say it's always accurate. In fact, I love being proved wrong - when my initial opinion of a person, book, film, turns out to be miles off-radar. It's nice to be surprised. Food is no different. To drift into the realms of cliche, we eat with our eyes before eating with our mouths, and if our eyes are unmoved, our palate is less likely to be. But is it that simple? Certain 'ugly' dishes are cantilevered into the lofty realms of bewitching perfection through their very ruggedness. The pork pie, the cassoulet, bread and butter pudding - they are the Alan Rickmans of the food world, the dishes so full of surprises that every time you pile into them it's just like the first time.
Then we have the Victoria Beckhams. The plate itself is a study in aesthetic precision; the sauce so artfully skidded in with the back of a spoon (recreating the oft sought-after 'trod-in dog turd' effect), the roasted sea urchin whimsically dressed to look like an otter's ballsack, and pretty but utterly redundant microleaves scattered with an air of fancy (when we know full well that the little blighters were placed on with tweezers). Visually it is mighty impressive. But beneath the polished exterior is a dish that is completely lacking in personality, in good taste, and in intrigue. What's more, your brief foray into this one-dimensional plate has already destroyed its only raison d'etre. No wonder certain 'celebrities' have plastic surgery. If your only significant characteristic is your looks, what on earth are you going to do when you look like a weathered old muffin?
So is it possible that certain things can get away with vacuity when stunning to behold? My opinions on art certainly allow for this. I don't care if a painting represents the most intense of political struggles amongst the indigenous population of Siberia during the early 15th century - if it looks like a child has vomited on the canvas then it's not for me. Equally if I find a painting visually attractive, but discover that it represents the anguish of an early autumn mushroom, then fine. Paintings are for looking at.
Food, on the other hand, is not. Food is for eating. Yet, on Tuesday night I was forced to reconsider my standpoint on the subject. I was catering for a drinks party and, amongst other things, served blinis with smoked salmon, sour cream and wasabi caviar. Wasabi caviar, as caviar goes, is not expensive. They're hardly going to adulterate the expensive stuff with horseradish. A 100g jar was £8.45. The same sized jar of Beluga caviar £950 (yeah, I know). It looked stunning perched atop the blini, a bright, luminescent green on the crisp whiteness of the sour cream. The merest tip of a teaspoon was all that was needed for its visual effect to work, and after fashioning a tester I duly popped it in my mouth. Not a hint of wasabi. Odd. I tested another, this time with considerably more of the roes. Still nothing - not even the salty marine tang that are part of why you eat the stuff. I checked the label. Was this just plain old caviar that had the misfortune of being harvested in the waters of Chernobyl? Seemingly not.
I pushed the blinis, smoked salmon and sour cream to the side, and went at it with the teaspoon. This time I could just about taste the wasabi, but it was ever so faint, and certainly didn't have the nose-clearing bite of horseradish - a bite that goes so well with smoked fish. Now I was in a quandary. The stuff tasted of nothing, and the (flying fish) eggs were so small that you hardly got that delightful pop when you bit down on them. But it looked fantastic. Following the rule of 'only add it if it contributes to the flavour or texture' I should have dropped it altogether. But I didn't, I kept it in. And the guests were wide-eyed and exhilarated. And I didn't feel like a charlatan.
Should I have? I would suggest that when it comes to canapes, the visual effect is particularly important. It's not like sitting down to a main dish, when you have to eat mouthful after mouthful of the same thing. I have a hazy memory of a chef (whose name escapes me right now) once saying that anyone can make the first mouthful taste good - a great cook will make the last one taste good too. But with canapes your first mouthful is also your last mouthful, and as such the two senses of sight and taste are on a par. This isn't to say that an abhorrent tasting canape is kosher if it looks good, but in this context I believe a whimsical, if cosmetic, flourish is entirely acceptable, if its effect is at once mouth-watering, eye-catching, and amusing.
It seems I'm starting to rewrite my own rulebook. Next week, is pineapple and ham pizza always wrong?
Smoked salmon, sour cream and wasabi caviar blinis
It's very easy to make your own blinis or pikelets - they're essentially pancakes but instead of using a ladle use a teaspoon. I, however, do not have a recipe to hand, so will give you the version I did.
36 miniature blinis (easily found in shops)
150g smoked salmon
50g sour cream
Wasabi caviar (otherwise use the black lumpfish which is cheap but adequate)
Cook the blinis in the oven, remove and leave to cool.
When ready to serve (not too long before as they tend to go soggy) pop a little strip of salmon on each blini, curling it both to fit on top and to give it some height. On top of that add the merest quarter tea spoon of sour cream, followed by an even more restrained dab of caviar. Squeeze over a drop of lemon juice, a twist of pepper, and serve.