Steven, a dear friend and mentor, asked me about carpaccio over the weekend. He’d had some vegetables sliced finely, dressed and listed as a ’carpaccio’. Nothing too wrong with that, asuming they tasted good and the dish was well executed, but it does raise a bigger point and one worth a post.
More than ever today, there are chefs in the habit of using culinary descriptors which have only the loosest connection to the original dish. Any grain resembling rice can become a ‘risotto’, a dish where meat or anything much else is long cooked in white beans is a ‘cassoulet’, a ‘pilaff’ becomes a ‘paella’ - and the most tasteless of intensively reared chicken, stewed off in some indifferent red wine is graced with the title ‘Coq au Vin’.
Cockerels are impossible to find in English supermarkets. They are standard fare in French – they’re usually cut into portions and the meat is pinkish in colour – not too attractive. The closest you can get is boiling fowl in the street markets in England - this is a ‘spent’ laying bird, but it’s a poor cousin to a pure bred, proud cockerel who’s spent a lifetime playing out his role as Chanticleer.
At little more than one month old, a broiler chicken hasn’t reached puberty and, to save money, won’t have been sexed anyway – what’s the point because they’ll be breaded and fried before they ever get to do what Nature intended to continue the line.
Without labouring the point – ‘Coq’ means cockerel. He’s a spent male and tough as they come. The dish originates in Burgundy where the red wine is made only from the Pinot Noir grape. Long cooking of the brute makes for a fine, old fashioned farmhouse dish – better to eat him than give him a decent burial for all his efforts around the farmyard over the past 2-3 years.
Cooking – and haute cuisine – must evolve. To take a technique and give it a smart twist can be good for that evolutionary process. My beef is that the original is first not forgotten and second not besmerched by some aspiring catering college leaver who wouldn’t their know canoli from their canaroli from their cassoulet.
Carpaccio – painter first, dish second
Back to carpaccio – the dish has an inventive start. It was created – for ‘created’ it was – by Arrigo Cipriani’s father in 1950 for a titled Harry’s Bar regular whose doctor had forbade her to eat cooked meat. Sirloin of aged beef was sliced as thin as airmail paper, arranged on a plate and artfully criss-crossed with a special off-white dressing. Jackson Pollock’s wonderful paint drizzling technique comes to mind – and to think Jackson himself was across the Grand Canal at this very time hanging out with Peggy Guggenheim and her cronies, too poor to drink at Harry’s. What a collaboration that could have been.
The big art show on in Venice at the time was of Vittore Carpaccio, the Italian Renaissance painter who is famous for his vivid reds and whites. Cipriani Senior called his creation Carpaccio for just that reason.
So, our carpaccio is rooted in a bar-room snack. New wave Italian chefs love to use it for raw fish – we ate some of the best in Portovenere on my partner Joy’s birthday – it was February, the sky was blue and the sun was shining. We had the restaurant to ourselves, meaning we had the kitchen to ourselves so asked chef for a long, slow degustation – dish upon dish of exquisite carpacccio’s of fish came to the table, mostly finely sliced, some escabeche, followed by ‘carpaccio’d’ vegetables and meat. Nothing was cooked. The only hot food was the ristretto.
So evolution is a good thing. Coarse cut sausages cooked in canned white beans does not a cassoulet make however. The BBC’s tedious Saturday Kitchen has an endless list of faux-recettes. They’d be sort of funny if the chefs weren’t so serious about their inventions. Faites-bien attention mes Cols Bleu’s.