Food & Drink: Eating a Matisse for lunch

The art of presenting (or disguising) food is as old as cooking, though in its most spectacular forms it survives mainly in the monumental (generally tasteless), many-tiered wedding cake, one of which I recall as having been an exact reproduction of the bride's father's turreted and crenellated chateau. (To this day, I add, Number One daughter makes her children's birthday cakes in the shape and colour of a London bus, Victoria Station, the Roman Forum . . .)

There is, of course, a great difference between decoration, which is the art of adding something to a dish - the wretched slice of tomato, the desiccated sprig of parsley - and the works of art in which all the parts are subordinated to the whole: the splendid galantine, the boned and reconstructed turkey. Decoration is a way of telling the guest that due attention has been paid to the cuisine; he is not being served slops. Not for nothing is the roast suckling pig presented with an apple in his mouth; it is a tribute to the diner, a gesture akin to a toast.

Indeed, you could raise a whole gastronomical theory on the basis that eaters come in two kinds: the fastidious and picky, who deplore the murky depths of a plate of soup or the moil of ingredients that might be present in a stew (for they want to know what they are eating), and the oral and extroverted who look with disappointment on the perfection of an isolated fish on a plate.

The late Harold Acton related a dinner served by Cardinal Francesco Maria, the brother of the penultimate Medici, on the basis of a single ass's foal. Its various parts having been served, unidentified, boiled, as a stew, as a pie, a fricandeau, tongue and roast, the mischievous cardinal then placed the head and hoofs on a dish and urged his guests to set to: which none did. This was considered wit on the cardinal's part, one of his guests beseeching him for the ears. Here we have the true contrast between the thing that is, the naked fact (you have eaten a baby donkey), and the disguised (you gobbled up all that meat with relish).

It is little different from the frolicsome friend who once served me unidentified hash brownies: the hashish was stronger than he knew (or he was more inured to it) and, having passed out, we were not around to praise his wit. You may say that is pure deception, but there is a lot of deception involved in cooking and in its nomenclature. Lamb that is not lamb but sheep is common enough, as is veal that is not veal but baby beef.

How many can identify, even in gastronomically respectable countries, the ingredients that go to make up sausages, salamis, pates, head-cheese (brawn), meatballs? These are all disguises of a sort, products of the grinder: but grinding what? Making something out of nothing, or out of several nothings, is an honourable tradition: in frugal households a single piece of meat may undergo many transformations.

But pure appearance is something else. I have been trying to remember when I first became aware of a dish as something to look at - that is to say, something intrinsically so beautiful that it seems almost a shame to demolish it. I think, but am not certain, that it probably was a pure white meringue, its two halves separated by a mountain of whipped cream; or it may have been a souffle, risen to perfection, a delicate golden brown.

I know, however, when I first felt a conscious hand working at the appearance of the food before me. That was in a country hotel set among hot springs in Japan where, kneeling awkwardly before a lacquer table a foot off the ground, I was served endless little bowls of totally insubstantial and utterly beautiful edibles: a carrot made into a chrysanthemum, spring turnips that floated like boats, carp wrapped in leaves to represent the different seasons. Nothing that could be identified as what it was.

In due course, this orientalising illusionism found its way into nouvelle cuisine, and eating became the equivalent of visiting an artist's studio: this cook thinking himself a Matisse, working in primary colours; that one, a Klee operating on the borders of surrealism; the whole lot of them satisfying the eye, not the gut.

These are extremes. In the middle lie sets of rules that have to do with the eye as much as with the nose and the palate. A dirty glass is no incentive to drinking; a plate on which food is splattered is uninviting. The preparation of a sole, like the carving of meat, is, when properly done, a contribution to appetite. So is the proper, even breading of a cutlet, to which refrigeration is a great help. I do not think one has to be as fancy as the pictures in glossy cookbooks (the best cookbooks are wonderfully unglossy) but, yes, a certain amount of thought has to be devoted to what the eye first sees, the object of one's appetite.

Bad caffs have greasy spoons, chips dropped any which way, mash that drags its sodden way over the edge of the plate, gravy that floats. Cleanliness, presentation, an eye for colour and arrangement, these are positive qualities in a cook; deception and disguise are part of the trade. But the beautifully useless, the purely decorative, the ostentatiously fantastic, should be eschewed. The dish is for eating, please.

News
The author PD James, who died on 27 November 2014
people

Detective novelist who wrote Death comes to Pemberley passed away peacefully at her home, aged 94

News
news

Lincoln MP Karl McCartney 'denied all knowledge' of the Twitter activity

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
filmDirector said film would 'never have been financed' with ethnic minority actors in key roles
Life and Style
View of champagne glasses at a beach bar set up along the Croisette during the 66th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes on May 17, 2013
food + drink(and for now, there's a clear winner)
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
News
Irradiated turkey and freeze dried mash potato will be on the menu this thanksgiving
video
News
Andy Murray with his girlfriend of nine years, Kim Sears who he has got engaged to
peopleWimbledon champion announces engagement to girlfriend Kim Sears
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
News
Ed Miliband visiting the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. The Labour leader has spoken more openly of his heritage recently
newsAttacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But are the barbs more sinister?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Investigo: Finance Manager - Global Leisure Business

    £55000 - £65000 per annum: Investigo: My client, a global leader in their fiel...

    Investigo: Senior Finance Analyst - Global Leisure Business

    £45000 - £52000 per annum + bonus+bens : Investigo: My client, a global leader...

    Investigo: Financial reporting Accountant

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits : Investigo: One of the fastest growing g...

    Sphere Digital Recruitment: CRM Executive – Global Travel Brand – Luton – £25k

    25,000: Sphere Digital Recruitment: CRM Executive – Global Travel Brand – Luto...

    Day In a Page

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?