Untwist the Food Classics

Rose Prince calls time on restaurant dishes served, supposedly, ‘with a twist’ – particularly when their true objective is to please the smartphone camera, rather than our tastebuds

By Rose Prince

July 25 2019

“You’d never get away with this in London.” My friend and I are sitting in a tiny restaurant in Old Nice, amazed by what we have just eaten. La Merenda is a thirty-year-old restaurant, seating no more than twenty at its small tables, serving a short menu of local Niçoise dishes: Tarte aux oignons de Menton – a thin, yeast-based crust spread with sweet, cooked onion; a dark and glossy daube de boeuf; and panisse – a pillow of fried polenta. It may not sound remarkable, but the restaurant – as I discover on repeated visits – is packed for every sitting.

La Merenda does not take credit cards, and several diners simply sign for their food on account. They come, if not every day, then many times each week.

It is closed at weekends, because the chef likes to enjoy his own time. To book you have to put your head round the door and ask – and this ties in with my friend’s point: Would such a place in one of the great dining capitals survive even for a week? Serving mainly brown food in a not-too-comfortable setting, and not taking phone calls? I love it, not because it is a French provocation for tourists, but because of the purity of the food; the truth in the taste of it. The dishes are as close to their roots as they can be, loved by generations, on a menu that only changes with the seasons.

I fear that such food has become irrelevant, or shortly will be; because while a chef or restaurant’s reputation was once spread through a critic’s word of mouth, now the process happens word of eye, so to speak. To be relevant, a plate of food must be photogenic or Instagrammable. Worse, the instinct is to alter or ‘twist’ a recipe just to make it interesting. I challenge you to watch any TV cooking show, with the possible exception of Rick Stein’s, and not hear the dreaded words, “This is my twist on…”

From shepherd’s pie to tarte tatin, osso buco to Eton mess, authentic recipes are twisted every which way, though very rarely made better. As a technical art, cooking is rarely improved by redesign. If a new model of a motorcar did not work, no one would want to drive it. But with food, it seems interest is only sustained by novelty.

By now anyone who loves the heady visualisation of food on social media or television would be forgiven for judging me a Luddite. Yet I have no problem with the millions of food photographs circulating on Instagram or Twitter. But if you come, as I do, from a generation who read about food, rather than just looked at it, then protecting prototypical food traditions – the roots of cooking the world over – is important. The cookbooks on my mother’s shelves rarely had images. She cooked as told to by writers whose research in the Fifties and Sixties brought authentic European
provincial cooking to British readers.

Praise for Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson, Marcella Hazan and Claudia Roden might have become clichéd, but it cannot be underestimated what a revolution these cookery writers led. As a writer two generations on, I relied on these books, too, and took more guidance from their followers: Alice Waters, Anna del Conte, and even the great Eighties TV star, Keith Floyd.

It may bring followers by the bucketload, but does that mean it tastes good?
It may bring followers by the bucketload, but does that mean it tastes good?

Del Conte is the ideal example of a recipe writer who can make you see the food in your mind without any illustrations at all. She proves that you can look back to find novelty, not just invent for the hell of it.

Without her we would not have lemon risotto, or pork cooked in milk; so innovative then, but with roots in real Italian food history. Her recipes were essential to Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers’ River Café and a resurgence of rustic regional Italian cooking. Jamie Oliver, once a chef at the River Café, often referred to the same influences and so it went on. So when did ‘twisting’ begin?

When chefs and cooks stop reading the classics, or at least admitting to it, their recipes become about them. “This is ‘my’ paella with a twist – of tiger prawns [they’ve never been near the Spanish coast] and sweet potato [likewise].” You’ll find ‘my focaccia’ ludicrously made with Yorkshire rhubarb and sesame seeds; ‘my banana latte crème brulée’, and on and on into a black hole of reinvention riding on a stream of likes.

Novelty is good, but it has to evolve with some form of improvement. Nigel Slater and Yotam Ottolenghi do this; hoards of Bake Off winners can’t.

Truly honest chefs will tell you they struggle to create more than one successful dish that is in all senses their own, in their entire career.

In many ways La Merenda, with items on a menu you can count on one hand and pitch-perfect cooking, is also an innovation, and not because it is novel. Its difference lies in its naked simplicity. No image is more dazzling.