After years of fiddling with serried ranks of flavoured oils and spice jars to recreate a special taste of the kind enjoyed in a very good restaurant, I have finally seen the light. The two ingredients that really matter in the kitchen are good old-fashioned butter and salt, the least posh spice of the lot.
This is bad news for the obese, the hypertensive and those anxious to be neither, but it can’t be denied. Nutritionists who exhort us to use ‘creative spicing’ as a salt substitute ignore the fact that a good steak, for instance, depends on those glistening crystals of sodium chloride which give it a wonderful edge that paprika never could. In his gripping book Kitchen Confidential, restaurateur Anthony Bourdain recalls his days at chef school, already with a fair amount of work experience under his belt, and freely admits that his winning chicken stock owed much to a sachet of proprietary seasoning he had smuggled in!
Similarly, learning that a basic beurre blanc recipe absorbs half a pound of butter (albeit unsalted) comes as a shock to those of us who have been wolfing it down for years in restaurants without a moment’s thought other than ‘mmm’. This quantity is no more negotiable than any thought of substituting butter with low-fat spread or cholesterol-busting marge. Clearly, this is a dish which should only ever be eaten in a controlled environment, where fancy prices and stringent portion management reduce the damage to our arteries.
It’s harder to be in denial about wine. Its alcoholic level is on the label for all to see, increasingly accompanied by the number of units it provides. The country of origin proclaims its nationality, in case a personal boycott be in place, and in the absence of a grape variety on the label, its designation should tell you something about its contents. Nowhere is this more topical than in the Languedoc, currently in the process of relaunching its appellation system, to round up the hotspots we have been shining a light on for many years now. However, the terms of the new deal include no amnesty for cabernet sauvignon, still regarded as an interloper, despite the fact that it has been grown successfully there for decades. Unlike Antipodean rugby players, who can become honorary Brits or Frenchmen after an indecently short period of residence on this side of the equator, a number of truly exciting bottles, like The Society’s Exhibition French Cabernet for example, seem destined to be vin de pays for ever.
Allergies and food intolerances apart, there is a great deal to be said, when it comes to eating and drinking, for enjoying it first and wondering what it is, or what’s in it, later, if at all.
After all, the best things in life tend to be either illegal, immoral or just plain fattening.
Janet Wynne Evans
Specialist wine manager