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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.