“No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true today may turn out to be a falsehood tomorrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilising rain on their fields”. Henry David Thoreau

In1986, our late, but highly entertaining Duke of Edinburgh, determined that the epitome of one of the world’s oldest civilisations: China – and the exploits of its peoples across thousands of years of cultural history, encapsulating ceramics, theatre, architecture, graphic arts, dance, literature, philosophy, along with one of the greatest cuisines ever created – could best be summarised for the west as “slitty-eyed”. In the short term, this reductive summary, unsuccessfully disguised as humour, was simply absurd. In the long term, playing to negative stereotyping of random individuals, it served to obfuscate the originality and authenticity of its rich cultural wealth and thus potentially misdirect any objective affinity for its attendant wonders.

Hello Brexit.

But are originality and authenticity subject to the mercy of prevailing sociological whims?

Lest we forget, iconoclasm – which includes the misappropriation of an authentic culture, its artifacts or its traditions – is not only undertaken by marauding armies and oppressive governments, it can be just as equally caused by the mindless or the insensitive…sometimes the princely. The less crass impediments strewn before us, the brighter the illumination of other carefully curated cultures. And when we drift into semiotics, recipes can provide a sound yardstick.

You have to know the past to understand the present.” Carl Sagan

Let us go back to a specific culinary example from 1962.  A young Greek chef named Sam Panopoulos, who was born in Athens but was working in his restaurant in Ontario, Canada, decided that the Naples-style Italian pizza he had concocted for his predominately British customer base, required the immediate addition of ham from Tennessee and pineapple slices from Hawaii, USA.

You couldn’t make it up, although that mischievous scamp Panopoulos clearly did.

I hate to think what virtual litreage of Middle Eastern aviation fuel might be required to establish that tableau, but the sum-total of this global mash-up was not just a Frankenstein pizza-in-exile. It effortlessly managed to cast adrift a range of significant culinary and social traditions in the space of one course, serving only to burnish someone’s ego rather than nurture respect for another’s cultural anchor. Progress, fusion, assimilation or the disregard for authenticity – entirely your call – but if tradition is deemed an experiment that has manifestly succeeded, allow me to follow in the earlier consumptive footsteps of Shelley and Keats and take the ferry back to Naples for an authentic Pizza Margherita. And hold the pineapple.

Authenticity, when applied to the origination of food, is a word that tends to unsettle diners and cooks alike. From afar it’s a nebulous term that’s intended to define the root of a specific cuisine, the treasured gastronomic core of perhaps an unfamiliar cultural dynamic: how and what one eats has long been an inherent aspect of one’s societal identity. Up close it has become a word appropriated by insufferable ‘foodies’ in an attempt to ingratiate themselves and their gastronomic classlessness across historic cultures and indigenous peasant traditions. It is also a term used and abused, by and for, modern culinary colonisers.

And although most of us are at last beginning to understand the far-reaching dangers of the white, mainstream perception of distant populations as primitive savages or tradeable merchandise, the dangers persist in the frequent masking of true cultural expression – be it painted, sung, carved, woven, built or in this case, cooked. In the smug terminology of modern political advisers, we are unintentionally subject to ‘message creep’. The origin and lustre of traditional culinary inventiveness is regularly elbowed aside in the pursuit  of modern gastronomic novelty catering solely for an unsurprisingly confused Western palate.

In the assertive words of Stephen Fry – “How can we understand our present or glimpse our future if we cannot understand our past? How can we know who we are if we don’t know who we were? … History is not the story of strangers, aliens from another realm; it is the story of us had we been born a little earlier.”

One can only imagine what widespread recasting and appropriation has occurred in the diaspora of recent gastronomic history. So why the concern?

All cuisines were born of their respective peoples and will have originally conjured an authoritative and lucid tale. But much of the content of these tales, originally held precious and fundamental to successive civilisations, have so often been needlessly diluted, some cynically appropriated, and many are all but forgotten, frequently the targets of low-level colonial aimlessness. And colonialism is not only confined to earlier centuries. In the pursuit of convenient, pan-global, homogenized gastronomy, some ersatz cuisines have become national icons – although rarely in the country of their presumed origin.

You are unlikely to find Chop Suey or Sweet and Sour Pork on any supper table in China any more than you would be presented with a fortune cookie at the end of the meal. And there is no such recipe for a Curry in India, or Jerk Rice in Jamaica. Closer to home, during your grand tour, you will find that Spaghetti Bolognese is completely unknown in Italy and Chorizo in a Paella will send a Spaniard back to the Inquisition for summary justice. And which culturally challenged society could possibly come up with Burrito-Sushi do you think?  The 21st century list is almost endless. Meanwhile every one of the above dishes, cast adrift but parading as ‘foreign’ or ‘exotic’, can be readily accessed via Uber Eats both here and the USA, all at the drop of a diffident hat.

And let’s not forget that had the Americans understood which country they were occupying whilst scoffing local fried chips during the latter part of WWII, it would be Belgium – not France – that could add Fries to its list of famous exports, along with Chocolates, Magritte, Waffles, and Tin Tin.

A more modest example of appropriation popped up during a trawl through my cookbooks for an egg custard tart. With flagrant disregard for the vérité, I found a chirpy little story by a well-known chef, about Maids of Honour Cakes, said to have originated at the court of Henry VIII. It asserts that one day Henry came across his future bride, Ann Boleyn, and her merry ladies-in-waiting, all eating custard tarts. So taken was he by these cakes, he apparently bestowed them with their present title. Difficult to believe that any Maids within tart-consuming distance of our salacious Henry would have managed to maintain their Honour, but for now we go along with the story. What stopped me dead in my tracks was the presumption that this was the origin of all successive custard tarts and somehow Ms Boleyn had sent the recipe to an abbey of (Catholic) Iberian monks for safekeeping. A pinch of salt surely needed for this culinary tale.

Returning to some semblance of verity around the subject, I undertook a wine tour of Portugal some years ago, with a stop-off in Lisbon for R & R. Wandering along a back street and sidling into a bakery, I fell for a traditional custard tart made and sold there called Pastéis de Nata (or Belém).

The egg-yolk tart was originally the proven creation of 17th/18th century monks billeted at the Jeronimous Monastry of Belém, a parish of Lisbon. It was common practice for monks to use egg white as a starching agent in their busy laundries – cleanliness being close to Godliness, as any good catholic will tell you – which left a considerable volume of forsaken yolks. The monks, demonstrating something of a parsimonious nature, found good use in their kitchens, specifically the cake department, and began the domestic production of Pastiés. Given the obliteration of their religious orders in the early 19th century and the withdrawal of state funding, the monks chose to cover the rent by selling cakes to the general public, later selling the recipe to their sugar supplier in the Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém. Here, on the Rue de Belém, they are still sold by the thousand each and every day, albeit a totally different recipe to that presumably nibbled by assorted Boleyn maids at Hampton Court or indeed the present-day examples proffered to eager royalists in the genteel tea-rooms of Royal Windsor.

I can promise you, on this occasion, authentic is way beyond best.

Pastéis de Nata.  Portugese Egg Tart

Butter for greasing

500ml whole milk

Pared zest from 1 lemon

1 cinnamon stick

70g plain flour

485g caster sugar

6 large free-range egg yolks

2 x 320g packs ready-rolled, all-butter puff pastry (or make your own if you wish)

Icing sugar

Ground cinnamon

  1. Grease 22 holes of 2 standard 12-hole muffin tins generously with butter, then chill in the fridge. Put the milk in a pan with the strips of lemon zest and cinnamon. Heat to just simmering, let it cool a little, then remove the zest and cinnamon. Whisk a third of the milk into the flour in a small bowl to form a thin paste. Heat the remaining milk until boiling, then stir in the flour paste and cook, stirring constantly with a balloon whisk, for 2-3 minutes until thick.
  2. Put the sugar in a pan with 200ml water. Heat gently to melt the sugar, then turn up the heat and boil for 4-5 minutes until the syrup reaches the short thread stage. Gradually whisk it into the milk mixture to give a white liquid with a similar thickness to double cream. Don’t worry if it’s lumpy.
  3. Put the egg yolks in a large bowl and strain over the milk mixture, stirring all the time with the balloon whisk until combined. Set aside with cling film touching the surface.
  4. Heat the oven to 250°C/ 230°C fan/Gas 9. Unroll the pastry, remove the plastic lining sheet, then roll it back up. Cut each roll into 11 discs, then put one disc into each greased muffin hole swirl-side up. Carefully press the pastry up the sides with your fingers, working from the centre out, until the pastry just pokes over the top.
  5. Pour the custard into the pastry cases to 1cm below the top, then bake in the upper third of the oven for 15 minutes or until the pastry is golden and crisp.
  6. Cool in the tin for 5 minutes, then gently lever out the tarts with a spoon and cool on a wire rack. Sprinkle with icing sugar then ground cinnamon.

Wine Thoughts

Under earlier circumstances, I would have raised a glass of Piat d’Or to authenticity, a wine that the French apparently “adore” – except they’ve never heard of it either.