BY AMANDA CUMMINS
The Sabatier knives were sharpened and brandished like cyber sabres. All because of Nigella Lawson’s tomato salad with salad cream which was posted as her Recipe of the Day. Twitter outrage ensued, which was picked up by mainstream media.
There were a few who got the point of the recipe, in that they actually clicked on the link and saw the recipe for salad cream which is splendidly retro and couldn’t be bettered on a plate of home-grown tomatoes.
To me, it was a joyous reminder of summer lunches with my grandmother. These were essentially plunder from her tiny kitchen garden at the back of her cottage. With salad cream. Never mayonnaise, which was only made if there was cold poached salmon.
Nigella’s recipe for salad cream – and do not for a moment think it’s the same as the “squirty stuff” of the 57 Variet y one gets out of a bottle – is related to but not exactly the same as Granny’s, in fact it’s a bit more exercising than the version my grandmother made. But, I’m sure, equally as good.
Granny would hard boil eggs and then remove the yolks (the free-est range hens who lived next door produced the most gloriously sunny yolks). The yolks were put into a bowl and mashed with a pinch of mustard powder, a pinch of sugar, a splash of vinegar, salt and pepper and a bit of cold water and cream. There followed brisk whisking. The mashing and whisking was quite physical as one needed to achieve a mixture with the consistency of single cream: no electric implement to help. The quantities of any element were subject to Look, Taste & Correct.
The salad cream done, it was time to assemble what we had garnered from the kitchen garden. Tomatoes, of course, with that summertime scent of sun and vine. The hearts of Little Gem lettuces plucked from the soil. Perhaps some radishes. And freshly dug new potatoes.
My grandmother never put mint into the saucepan when cooking new potatoes. She said the taste of a new potato straight out of the ground didn’t need embellishment while cooking. She just added some salt to the water, cooked until tender, drained, then adding quite a lot of butter and some snipped chives.
Lunch would appear. A few slices of home-cooked ham, a simple salad of lettuce with tomatoes cut into quarters, the discarded white of the hard boiled eggs crumbled over the top, a few radishes, perhaps some sliced beetroot and a dish of hot new potatoes in their buttery bath. A jar of the finest chutney in Gloucestershire. And, last but not least, a bowl of salad cream to drizzle over the components of your plate. Simple, uncomplicated fare but, goodness, so delicious.
In the same week that the Tomato Salad Dragons, silly creatures, were huffing and puffing there was a moment of Nigella apparently traducing an inviolate Italian treasure by adding vermouth and, heaven forfend, cream to her – and one must not forget that this is HER take on something which is open to interpretation – delicious-sounding spaghetti carbonara. Outrage from Italians all over the world.
I despair. Spaghetti carbonara is not part of Italian culinary history going back hundreds of years. It’s been ambushed, I suppose, by a sort of Carbonara Mafia.
In a similar way, Mary Berry – Saint Mary of the Aga – was taken to task for her Bolognese recipe which involved white wine and cream. It made complete sense to me, because an Italian friend told me years ago that one should add milk or cream as a tenderising agent to the slow cooking process of the meat and the sauce. And that a slug of wine (red OR white: wine is wine), with the long cooking, helped develop flavour. Maybe call it should be called Ragu because Bolognese is, of course, specific to Bologna but even that comes with modifications from cook to cook, family to family. Spaghetti , as in spag bol as we know it, is not necessarily the best pasta to use but, hey ho, does it really matter? A big bowl of pasta with a great dollop of ragu/whatever you want to call it, a grating of parmesan cheese and a glass of wine: pretty darn good, even if the purists roar.
Then, and it became quite exhausting keeping up with the squeals of outrage, there was a reminder about Mary Berry’s chicken pie which, apparently, wasn’t a pie because it only had a pastry top.
It’s strange, because I know of lots of things which are called “a pie” without being encased in pastry, just a lid of pastry or a layer of creamy mashed potatoes. In fact, Mary Berry does a wonderful fish pie with what she calls a soufflé crouton topping: odd…no squawks about that.
All cooking is an interpretation of how to put ingredients together. If there were no personal take on a recipe, the cookery programmes on television, not to mention the plethora of accompanying recipe books, would be repetitive and simply a showcase for presentation.
I’m not assuming everyone likes cooking, nor that they are instinctive about flavours or take to the stove with unbridled enthusiasm. Far from it. If one is not confident in the kitchen, step-by-step instructions are not just helpful but also reassuring, especially recipes which tell you not to panic if it all looks vile at one particular point. Perseverance and patience and, suddenly, the Rubicon is crossed, confidence has been built and you’ve got the foundation upon which to build your own culinary histoire.
There are recipes which would not stand amajor rethink about their making. Hollandaise sauce with raspberry jam would be the splendid Vicar of Dibley character (she of Marmite and gooseberry sandwiches, with a bit of English mustard “for flavour”) meeting Escoffier in a new form of Hell’s Kitchen.