BONE OF CONTENTION

Why can't today's young chefs treat fish and meat with more respect?
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Indy Lifestyle Online
For several years I have been a judge for the annual Roux Diners Club Scholarship, founded 14 years ago by the remarkable bruzzers, Albert and Michel. It is an event I greatly look forward to, with the anticipation of reading recipes sent in from all over the country by young and eager chefs.

The brief for the competition is simple. I quote: "Entrants must submit a recipe to serve four people, using a leg of lamb (weighing 1.5-2kg) cooked and served either on or off the bone, as portions or whole and accompanied by two garnishes." This is followed by a small paragraph of advice: "Please remember, the judges are looking for balance and simple combinations of flavours and textures. Try not to be over-ambitious and keep the flavours clean and uncomplicated."

I, myself, have never dared to enter a cookery competition, simply because I would be too damned nervous and have a real fear of failure (I was terrified of exams at school, hated revising, and ended up with five "O" levels, that did not, to my constant chagrin, include English Language). So I salute those who enter each year. They seem more confident than I ever was and still come up with inventive recipes.

But is invention necessarily the better part of the urge to compete? Or should the zealous chef look more to tradition and propriety, before jumping into contrivance and intricacy? With this thought in mind, it was interesting to note that none of the entrants wished to fashion the requested leg of lamb (this year's brief, but which changes annually) into, for instance, a gigot de sept heures. This classic of French cuisine a l'ancienne takes a leg of lamb, which is then very slowly roasted in its own juices, together with a bushel of garlic cloves and a favourite herb for... well, for seven hours. The meat cooks to such a state of fondancy that it can be "carved" with a spoon.

Now the entrants don't have seven hours at their disposal (they are only allowed a frenzied two and a half), but it was rare, this year, to see a recipe that simply allowed the meat to cook in its own right, slowly, ever so gently; stew in its own juice, if you like. I would also have enjoyed seeing a leg poached in a court bouillon, perhaps served with a richly creamed, slightly sharp, caper and parsley sauce, but then maybe I am an old fogey when it comes to these sorts of dishes, and, possibly, too set in my ways.

I also pondered over the amount of entries this year, compared to last; almost one third less. This is of no importance as regards the competition, as it is purely based upon the quality of each entry. But I have a sneaking feeling that it might have had something to do with the subject matter. Last year, it was cod.

In recent years, cod has been beloved of many chefs. It has been my darling - as is all fresh fish, with the exception of boring old monk - all my life, along with hake, its rarer, close cousin. Cod has been fishcaked, lentilled and in-house salted. It is now seen in many restaurants served with every conceivably flavoured mashed potato, endless Provencal accompaniments and has been battered and crumbed into submission. I think it is wonderful that we are eating more cod than ever before, but, as with any craze, the price goes up, the recipes become more complicated and, in the process, dignity is sacrificed.

So it is not surprising, in the racy world of the commercial kitchen, Bibendum included, that keen young cooks grasp ideas from books, restaurant menus (young chefs, finally, have learnt to spend part of their salary on going to good restaurants, instead of frittering it away on indifferent ale), magazines and newspapers. And it seems that recipes using tidy cod fillets are just that little bit more approachable and chef-friendly than the more homespun leg of lamb. Hence, I muse, the rush to invent a cod recipe was immediately more attractive - and, dare I say, fashionable?

I mean, look at the poor salmon. Once it was a seasonal treat to look forward to every spring, and through to late September. Oh, rapid farming is great: lots of dumb fish, lots of excess fat, lots of lurid orange flesh and... nil flavour. Apart from the wedding buffet, when did you last find salmon cooked on the bone? Will cod, too, end up being farmed, as has been the fate of sea bass and some disgustingly over-fatted halibut? The beautiful and ruddy red mullet is also rarely seen cooked on the bone, to which it relishes being tethered as it cooks. The same is true of sea bass - apart, typically, from every Chinese restaurant in the land. (Incidentally, why are so many of you quite content fiddling about with chopsticks in and around a steamed whole sea bass in Chinatown, but when you see the same thing, albeit rarely, in a European restaurant in Knightsbridge, you ask for the head to be removed, the skin stripped off and the delicate flesh mushed about with a Victorian fish knife?)

The attitude I am trying to encourage, nay campaign for, is a modicum of respect for the meat or fish that any of us might think about turning into a good dish. It does not necessarily need to be boned and stuffed, the lifted bones then automatically made into a "jus"; or half of a spanking fresh whole cod, only seen as neat rectangular fillets. I also wonder whether we will ever see a cookery competition entry - or good restaurant for that matter - offering up roast lamb with mint sauce and good gravy, excellent, properly made roast potatoes (not an easy task) and a dish of braised celery on the side? But there, perhaps, I may be getting a little too close to the bone.

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