extremely flash in the pan

Sundried tomatoes? Where have you been? Pacific fusion is flavour of the month. Hester Lacey reports on the tyranny of kitchen cred

n the salad drawer of the fridge, a bag of withered rocket is sulking miserably, all too conscious of being Yesterday's Leaf. On the dinner table, a huge bowl of more exotic greens - feathery mizuna, long- stemmed tatsai, and oval-leaved jaba - is being anointed with a light and fragrant vinaigrette. These leaves are so fashionable they have been the subject of a photo-spread in Tatler magazine. Rocket, phooey! The truly trendy would as soon dream of serving wet and clammy iceberg lettuce.

Also chilling are a brace of fresh tuna steaks, and a bottle of white Viognier wine. The tuna is steeped in a citrus and coriander marinade; it is waiting to be chargrilled, and daubed with a roasted-chilli relish. As for the wine, it is tipped as the Next Big Thing. Traditionally, Viognier grapes were only grown in a small corner of France; now, dozens of French and American vineyards are being replanted with them - so the time for the cognoscenti to start quaffing is right now. In the freezer are home- made ice-creams, flavoured with crushed pink peppercorns and Earl Grey tea.

The Chilean red wine is breathing happily in its decanter: not cheap plonk, but a richly perfumed, floral nectar. An upmarket Chilean red such as a Valdivieso Merlot Reserva can be world-ranking, though not a lot of people know that.

And such ignorance is something the fashionable foodie would prefer to preserve, because exclusivity is all. A new delicacy starts its career on the porcelain platters of London's top restaurants. It becomes the star of innumerable snooty food writers' columns, illustrated with luscious photos. It may cost an arm and a leg and may be available only in one obscure, but authentic foreign delicatessen; yet it makes its way into home kitchens, for the kind of dinner party that requires hours of anguished toil over the Magimix and costs as much as eating out.

And then things are likely to start going downhill. Supermarkets notice it and develop a ready-made version.Suddenly everyone is eating it; except for the foodies who have long since moved on to the next taste sensation. And by the time some enterprising food scientist comes up with a synthetic flavouring for crisps based on it, it has usually fallen from favour entirely, among anyone with the slightest pretensions towards kitchen cred. Well, who now would serve crostini of sun-dried tomatoes (snicker)?

So what is bubbling under? Hot tips for the kiwi fruit of 1996 include sea kale (obscure vegetable, available by mail order from darkest Tayside at pounds 4 per lb); sweet dishes such as ice-cream and creme brulee flavoured with herbs and peppers; coriander (though getting dangerously over-used, and now often spotted in supermarkets, the leaves have been reincarnated as a salad ingredient; while using the roots in hot dishes is now considered de rigueur); Swiss chard (yet another leaf you won't find on the Asda veg counter); cheeses, the more obscurely regional the better; and citrus marinades and flavourings - lime, lemon and grapefruit. A blossoming of middle Eastern cuisine has long been on the cards; perfumed, scented, aromatic foods, couscous, lamb and unusual fruits such as pomegranates, figs, rambutans and flavourings such as cardamom, saffron, rosewater.

The food hall staff at Harvey Nichols, the zenith of chic grocery shopping, report that lamb is indeed big at the moment, as are ready-made Woodland Chicken in Lime Vinaigrette from the deli counter, handmilled Carnaroli risotto rice, Ticklemore and Tornegus cheeses (Ticklemore is a medium-strong goat, while Tornegus has been washed in wine and herbs), tuna steaks and Sri Lankan tiger prawns (pounds 14.99 per lb). These last two are harbingers of a whole new school of fashionable food - Pacific Rim, tipped for greatness by numerous experts, including food stylist Clare Ferguson.

"It should really be called Pacific Fusion," she says. "Pacific Rim is the old term. It comes from Australia and New Zealand, with a touch of Japan, the Philippines, Korea, Indonesia, all those Asian countries. It involves a lot of raw food, a lot of fish, a lot of aromatics, and chargrilling. Pacific Fusion is taking over from Mediterranean - we're bored with that now." She points out that the trendiest kitchens in London are all employing young Australians and Kiwis. "It's their relaxed but anarchic approach that is making them so popular. Pacific Fusion involves a lot of experimentation."

A typical meal at the Collection, the new and achingly stylish restaurant in London's Brompton Road, and part of the vanguard of the PF movement, might be seared tuna sashimi with soy, mooli and shiitake mushrooms, served with the merest dab of wasabi (Japanese horseradish), pickled ginger, and a lime segment.

So how is the dinner-party cook to react to this? Basic PF is ideal for the barbecue; posh PF takes an army of chefs. But the easiest option is simply to leave it to the professionals. Nigella Lawson, Vogue's food writer, is writing her own cookbook - one that eschews fancy fads. "Hospitality isn't just about food - the idea is not to have everyone clapping and saying 'Oh, how clever' about what you've cooked. In France, there is home cooking and restaurant food, and they are quite separate, but here, everything's the wrong way round - people cook terribly elaborately at home, but in restaurants you might get a simple hot-pot and bread-and- butter pudding. To a certain extent you can't avoid it, but there are so many fads that no one ever really gets to grips with one kind of cooking. It's a great pity that we are so prone to them."

And, she points out, trying to recreate restaurant food with only a reluctant partner or friend to act as sous-chef, is a harrowing experience. "Chefs have 30 staff to chop their carrots; it takes a lot of underpaid people to make a meal with restaurant panache." She adds, hearteningly: "Alastair Little once told me that when he has friends round, he will do something like a prawn starter, then roast chicken, and follow it with a Sara Lee danish pastry bars."

Caroline Waldegrave, principal of Leith's School of Food and Wine, also advises caution. "It's a sudden braveness on the part of the British - people now have the confidence to mix and match. But there is always the danger of getting too interesting. Look back at nouvelle cuisine - it was fine to start with, then everyone just went mad." Students on Leith's year-long course spend their first and third terms learning classic techniques, while the second term is devoted to the exotic - perhaps Japanese or Latin American. Authentic Mexican food is also tipped for a revival (but forget Tex-Mex, which has always been vulgar, vulgar, vulgar).

So have current trends hit the home kitchen yet? It seems the dedicated follower of food fashion is well on top of the latest ones. "Exotic fish," says Joanna, aged 26, "cooked en papillote for extra swank value. And lovely cheeses, such as delicious Yarg - obscure enough that my guests would have to ask what they were, thus displaying their cheesy ignorance and giving me the upper cheese hand."

"I'd serve fresh tuna, baked in foil with lemon wedges and fresh herbs, baby clams, tomatoes and creme fraiche," says Clare, 29. "But I don't specially look out for trendy foods. I still serve things such as baked Alaska, though I do feel a bit embarrassed about it, because it's so Seventies."

But she can take heart, because the naff revival is also on the way. Crepes suzette, Black Forest gateau, scampi with tartare sauce and gammon and pineapple are being championed by such luminaries as Delia Smith, in her Winter Collection, and former Bibendum chef Simon Hopkinson, who is co-writing an English cookbook - working title: The Prawn Cocktail Years.

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