brainfood: Mine's a steak, no glop

The Italians have got it dead right. You order a lamb chop, you get a lamb chop. You want something with it, you get a contorno, that is, an accompaniment which, like a well-behaved child, is meant to be discreet

Tea-cooked noodles, ginger-and-cardamom flavoured collard greens, shitake mushrooms and all that stuff. Our plates are being filled, these days, with glop: delicious ingredients, yes, but glop. Glop is all the extras that are added to whatever you have ordered as your main course. Order a sirloin of venison and you get glop with it; love nor money will get you a tuna steak sans glop. It's the rage of the day.

As you will have noted from the start, most of this glopperei is expensive and exotic. I mean, you're not going to find them at your local corner shop. But restaurants, flossy restaurants, can order this sort of thing up by the bag. They have the time to seek it out and the money to afford buying it in reasonable quantities; above all, they deal with specialists.

What is this supposed to achieve for restaurateurs? Well, the answer is not a simple one, but I can think of several reasons for this new fashion. First, a steak is just a steak, and as all cooks will tell you, there's nothing very difficult about cooking a good steak. Here, glop is the equivalent of gilding a lily; it satisfies the creator, whose vanity is such that unless he's added his own "creative touch" to something as banal as a beef or a tuna steak feels himself conventional and stifled. Second, there are literally hundreds of places where you can buy a good steak or a good slice of tuna, but in the minds of these restaurateurs, there is only one place, theirs, where you can get a steak with glop: that particular glop, I hasten to add. And third, if you think you're going to pay the same for a steak-with-glop as you would for a steak sans, you're wrong. Fourthly, glop is, paradoxically, a form of catering economy: more glop means less of what you ordered - there is, after all, only limited space on even the most pretentiously large modern plate. Fifthly, glop contributes to a form of contemporary political correctness, which holds that, when it comes to eating, anything that was once a vegetable is preferable to anything that once swam in the sea or walked about on four legs or two. Sixthly, and finally, such is our new taste for exoticism, for new and rare flavours, for the admixture of ingredients, for fiddling with this and experimenting with that, that a plain steak, or a plain anything, has become the mark of some terribly old-fashioned and not at all gastronomical purism: people who serve whatever without glop simply lack creativity - they will never turn up in Good Food Guides.

In short, the Glop Factor is yet another sign, if such were needed, of the kind of snobbery that's invaded the food world. That this is current I can attest to from a half-dozen recent meals, and in a number of places. Snobbish codswallop, I call it. Nothing to do with fish but as in "God's ire".

The truth is that in food there are things that go with things, so to speak taste in taste. These are traditional associations, such as lamb and haricot verts, or French beans, defined to set each other off: as flavours, as textures. Then there is a whole category of tastes that accompany. They are not bound to each other, but they suit: chicken and fennel, for one, but also all those subtle combinations of vegetables that go into stews and ragouts, and the basis of so many sauces, carrot, onion and celery.

On the whole, however, one is better off keeping different flavours distinct, and this is why I object to glop. Glop is like listening to a conversation in which everyone is speaking a different language or discussing a different subject. The glop-factor in conversation results in intellectual and auditory indigestion; in food, in a sense of confusion.

By now, you will have gathered I'm against the whole idea of the brim- full plate heaped up with exotica that I can neither recognise nor taste. And you are right. It is one of the fundamental maxims of good cooking that the taste of each and every ingredient must be exploited to the fullest possible extent; that they may be blended to create a new taste (that, for instance, is what good sauces do); but that on no account must they be turned into glop, a hodge-podge. I mean, if I ordered tuna to taste tuna, I don't mind its being accompanied by a veg or two, rice or a potato; but whatever accompanies it should not be in a pitched battle with the tuna; much less should it be in a state of civil war, a dozen spices and textures competing for attention. So noodles cooked in green tea are no doubt as good as or better than any other noodles, but can I really taste the green tea and shitake mushrooms and the tuna and the ginger and... the rest of the glop? No.

In this regard, the Italians, always a sensible race when it comes to food or love, though hardly in politics, have got it dead right. You order a lamb chop, you get a lamb chop. You want something with it, you get a contorno, that is, an accompaniment. That gives you, the diner, the opportunity of composing your own meal. Contorni are kept simple, on the sound theory that an accompaniment, like a well-behaved child, is meant to be discreet; it is to be eaten and not observed.

When the chef forces glop on you, you know he is making a Statement. Cooking is not about statements, but about imperceptibles; it should be like a good marriage, so acceptable that it need not be questioned. The best marriages I know are based on a certain separateness, as is the best food. Glop is fatal to both

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