Those of us who took our cue from the Mother of Modern Cooking, the prescriptive Elizabeth David, now make it an article of faith to reject out of hand every new, improving, inventive kitchen gadget.
None of us who read her words on the garlic press ever dared use one afterwards. Lethal, she called it. "I say lethal," she wrote, "because, to me, the extraction of the potent and acrid juices so ably performed by this instrument spells death to any dish into which garlic is thus introduced." So what did she do with her garlic instead? She crushed each clove with a little salt under the back of a heavy knife.
Now the most interesting kitchen gadget since the Screwpull has been created by a Canadian television producer called Penny Grey. The Screwpull was the hi-tech corkscrew which came out 20 years ago and took advantage of the then latest Nasa technology. Its central coil was made of a thin toughened metal alloy enhanced with a non-stick coating.
Grey's all-purpose grater is called the Microplane. Its cutting edges glide rather than rip and tear through food. Unlike other graters, which are pieces of metal with holes punched in them, the Microplane grater has 300 miniature blades. These are cut using a system evolved from computer circuitry. A pattern chemically etched from a photographic image is pressed into a die to create the tiny blades which run in rows parallel to the base.
What would Mrs David have made of the Microplane? When she died, her executors found every room in her four-storey Chelsea home full of kitchen equipment she had acquired on her journeys around the Mediterranean or had thrust upon her by admirers. Two years later, in March 1994, Phillips put her belongings up for auction, raising an astonishing pounds 49,000. I know because I was there, paying a fortune for Lot 65. This included a rolling pin fashioned from some dense tropical wood, some well-worn wooden bowls, as well as salt cellars, pepper grinders, and wooden spoons. In among these pieces, in mint condition and labelled "made in China", was a sharp saw-toothed ginger grater made of bamboo.
There was no indication that Mrs David had ever used it and in fact, she disliked Chinese food. But just think: the Chinese have probably been grating ginger for thousands of years with this simple tool, which is unlikely to rasp your knuckles like the modern metal grater does.
I've been using the Microplane to reduce tough and resistant materials to little heaps: pieces of hard Parmesan and pecorino cheese, blocks of bitter chocolate, whole nutmegs. It dissolves carrots, fresh chillies, ginger stems and bulbs of garlic to a fine tilth. And it shreds the peel of limes, lemons and oranges to release aromatic oils.
This month Grey came to Birmingham's Spring Fair at the NEC to promote her gadget. I caught up with her just before she flew back to Toronto. She is 56, married with a grown-up daughter and son, and has spent most of her life working in films and television with her husband and his twin brother.
She told me all about her invention or, to be precise, her adaptation. In her husband's woodworking catalogue she had noticed a tough wood-rasp. It had rows of small plane-sharp teeth set into a frame some 10in long and 2in wide. She realised that something designed to last a lifetime dealing with wood would reduce cheese and hard vegetables to shreds in no time at all.
So she started using it, to great effect. Eighteen months later it struck her that she could champion its use in the kitchen. She sought out the patent holders and inspired them with her enthusiasm. After an intense programme of development and design the compact, user-friendly Microplane emerged.
"We did a lot of market research," she said. "We discovered that many people didn't use graters at all because of the physical force needed. And a lot of people found them messy to clean up. The Microplane is effortless to use, and can be cleaned with a quick wipe of a cloth."
The Microplane goes on sale tomorrow. It is available from John Lewis, or phone the distributors ICTC (01603 488 019) for stockists. It comes in two versions, fine and coarse (actually, medium-fine), at pounds 17.50 each. The finer of the two seems to be the more useful, and deals with small amounts of such tough items as hard cheese. Grey recommends the coarse one to reduce a hardboiled egg to a fluffy mound of "mimosa" as a garnish, or to grate frozen butter to mix into flour for pastry.
Neither the fine nor coarse grater will produce mounds of vegetables for summer salads, so they augment rather than replace the trusty knuckle- grazing box grater. But it is ideal for grater-dependent dishes such as carrot cake.
NEXT WEEK: STAR CHEF GERMAIN SCHWAB
110g/4oz finely grated carrot
75g/3oz chopped dates
2cm/1in ginger stem, finely grated
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
12 teaspoon ground cloves
225g/8oz wholewheat pastry (or fine-ground) flour
pinch of salt
2 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda
110g/4oz chopped walnuts
Mix the honey, carrot, raisins, dates, ginger, spices, butter and water in a pan over a gentle heat. Boil for five minutes. Remove pan from heat and leave to cool for 30 minutes, or until lukewarm.
Stir the flour and salt together in a large mixing bowl. Rub the bicarbonate of soda in your palm to rid it of lumps and add it to the flour. Add the walnuts.
Make a well in the middle and pour in the carrot mixture. Mix well. Pour into a deep, well-buttered and lightly floured 23cm/9in square cake tin, or 25cm/10in round cake tin. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 350F/180C/Gas Mark 4 for around one hour. The cake is ready when it feels firm at the centre and when a skewer inserted in it comes out clean. Cool in the tin for 10 minutes before turning out on to a rack. Top each slice with thick cream whipped with honey and vanilla.
Best eaten warm.Reuse content