I caught 30 seconds of the TV talent show Great British Menu the other day. A chef from a fancy restaurant was describing the preparation of his – for it was, as is too often the case in theses environments, a he – he was describing his dish. He talked of dehydrating this, sous-vide-ing that, ballotining and steaming some long-suffering piece of meat, then braising it overnight before glazing and roasting to serve. (I exaggerate for effect, but not much and the general tenor is accurate.) The plate was a throng of reductions, foams, tuilles, dots of jellies, smears of this and shards of that. Whilst it surely would have tasted terrific, I couldn’t help thinking that there was more ego on the plate than food.
Anyway, the chef was, predictably, lauded for his mastery. No one mentioned the quality of the ingredients. No one gave a thought to how the carrot would have tasted before all that fiddling with. No one considered that it might have tastiest just as lovely if the whole lot had been eaten fresh from the farm and simply steamed. It was all down to the wizardry of the chef. Such idolatry. Such frippery.
Now, I do understand that the fun of these shows is to find the extremes. And I realise I could come across as po-faced. But this little snippet of crappy tellie isn’t as harmless as we might think because it perpetuates the idea that to be good, cooking must be complicated and difficult. By this doctrine, lack of complexity implies lack of skill and therefore that simple food is not to be prized as much as intricate food.
Which is, of course, nonsense. A good plate of delicious food can be very simple. A perfect omelette. A plate of oysters. A corn on the cob boiled and slathered in butter. Or, as yesterday for supper, a pile of freshly picked asparagus with a perfectly boiled egg for dipping.
A plate of asparagus and a boiled egg may be simple but it isn’t without effort or, by implication, care. If you’ve grown your own asparagus you will know that it requires more than a little skill (see last week’s blog) and that simply steaming it and putting it on a plate is the last and most apt task in a long line of jobs required to make it so sweet and precious. The egg, from my neighbour’s hens, is rich, sunset orange and, boiled gently in just simmering water for exactly 5 minutes, unctuously dip-able. And the salt, Maldon salt, is crunchy, sweet and an absolute necessity to balance both flavours and textures.
To quote the famous slogan, this is not just asparagus and egg. This is perfectly conceived, skilfully grown and thoughtfully cooked asparagus and eggs. Simple, unadulterated and all the more perfect for it. You thought it was just a boiled egg and asparagus. In fact, it’s the front line of a quite delicious battle between two opposing ideologies. I know which side I’ll be fighting for.
(PS – no blog next week because it’s supper club week. And there will be asparagus on the menu. If you’d like to come, and that would obviously be very lovely, then you can find out more here)