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A Recipe For Disaster

Mark Twain memorably wrote that man was the only creature that could blush. Or needed to.

A professional gaffe certainly reddens the cheeks. A customer who once insisted that ‘Graves is sweet, dear’ got the flippant rejoinder, ‘on the contrary, Graves is dear, sweetie’ before I realised that the bottle he was waving in defence of his claim was from the fairly obscure, but definitely sweetish appellation of Graves-Supérieur.

I can’t recall when I last saw a Graves- Supérieur in captivity, but it’s better to be gracious than defensive. People do revel in the twin pleasures of being right and knocking a so-called expert off her perch.

Sadly, the perpetrators of the non sequiturs I come across when trying a new recipe are never around to give me that satisfaction. Good cookery writers know full well that even a slight mistake can be disastrous, but there’s many a slip twixt cook and book, from cut-and-shut sub-editing to printer's devilry. Errors in weight and measure aside, there is often a baffling lack of consistency between the list of ingredients and how to process them. In my time, I have scoured the aisles for ingredients which failed to materialise in the method, just as I have reached the critical point where I must ‘now add the ras-el-hanout’ not previously mentioned and unheard of at the all-night corner shop unless it happens to be in Marrakesh.

By far the worst atrocity in the bad recipe canon is a lack of respect for the critical path. ‘Preheat your oven to Gas Mark 6’ begins one absurd instruction I saw recently. Even my elderly appliance can get there in a matter of 15 minutes. How useful, then, that the next step should be to ‘defrost your lamb’. Even a microwave would struggle to keep up, were I willing to entrust such a gadget with blasting the icicles out of a lamb’s backside. I have seen, halfway down a list of ingredients for an ‘instant’ supper ‘500ml stock, made by roasting 1kg veal bones for two hours in a medium oven’. Chefs who command a brigade of several dozen by day and write cookbooks by night are particularly prone to such presumption.

I spent much of the 1980s trapped in the kitchen with the collected works of a new breed of hot chefs, creating glamorous dinners I was too tired to eat. A friend and I once prepared a dish of staggering complexity involving several different instructions, one of which was to simmer half a pound of button mushrooms for exactly 20 minutes, and then, bafflingly, throw them away. Unbalanced by fatigue and too many cooks’ nips, we were laughing too hard to supply the missing link and retain the mushroom cooking water for the stock.In the event, we obediently sent it down the plughole!

This was the work of a very eminent chef. I like his food so I’ll spare his blushes.

Janet Wynne Evans
Fine Wine Editor

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