Food: Pesto control

It's a perfect recipe that has stood the test of time. So just why do certain chefs seem intent on messing with the formula? Photograph by Kevin Summers
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Question one: why are we not content to continue making pesto from its five simple and perfect ingredients? (Basil leaves, pine nuts, olive oil, Parmesan and garlic.) Answer: we are New British, never happy with something simply perfect, we feel obliged to mess it up at every opportunity.

Question two: why have a bunch of cooks suddenly decided that making "pesto" from parsley, rocket, coriander or even watercress - along with other quite pointless bits of greenery (yes, it is mostly because they are "green") - is in any way palatable? Answer: too many recipes to write; not enough ingredients left to plunder - and blunder.

I mean, can you imagine a pesto being made from a Savoy cabbage? Well, it's probably being whizzed up somewhere outside Dunfermline as I write - so you lot watch out up there. But I regard pesto made with something such as watercress quite as bizarre as a Lancashire hot-pot made using venison and dried apricots, with a parsnip "crust".

The redoubtable Jennifer Paterson was recently bemoaning the fact that the fifth series of Two Fat Ladies (which, with Clarissa Dickson Wright, she is about to start work on) yet again requests another cookery book to accompany the show. To paraphrase her comments: "I imagine it's going to have to be a few jolly receipts from Mrs Beeton, with a few stalks of lemongrass thrown in. I mean, that's what everyone else is doing now."

Well, I am sure that won't quite be the case, but I admire her despair of the situation. How many more recipes can one possibly need? I suppose it may sound as though I am very accurately shooting myself in the foot here, but I think you get the gist.

What possible affinity do raw watercress leaves have with pine kernels, garlic, olive oil and Parmesan? It is quite clear that they just don't work. "Hmmm ... " says the worryingly bewildered Genoese pesto cook one day on the sunny Riviera ... "I'm just so bored with this basil nonsense. Luigi, let's throw a few bunches of watercress into the mortar for a change. And while we're about it, let's use some of that fancy French walnut oil instead of our very own olive oil, of which we have plenty just up the road but it is so boring ... and perhaps we could throw in some grated Roquefort too ... " As if.

Of all cooks in the world just now, it seems that it is the British-speaking ones - and particularly some large number of Australian loonies - who feel most at ease when blithely experimenting with the great traditions of fine cookery. (I have exactly the same sentiments when contemplating the update of a Shakespearean play into the present day, using modern dress: the language does not fit the double-breasted, pinstripe suit. You may find this a curious analogy, but I don't think so. Is it clever or just another new recipe?)

It appears that no ingredient is safe from an onslaught of punishing mismatch. A first-course soup on the menu of a brand-new London City restaurant was recently offering up truffled potato soup, creme fraiche and Beluga caviare. Mmmm, yum, caviare and truffles ... so chic.

Here is another example of modish modification. I remember eating a dish of beef last year, served up in a fine Northern dining room. The premise promised, as an adjunct to the beef (I think it was some fillet with sauce), a miniature steak and kidney pudding. Well, I thought, it sounds a dinkily fitting idea, but so long as it works, fine. It did not. Now it could have, had the idea been thoroughly thought through. I mean, if you are going to fabricate a miniature meat pudding as a garnish, it stands to reason that the ingredients (the filling) will be similarly reduced in size, given the novel dimensions of suet pastry now employed to enwrap them.

So I let forth a deep sigh as I cut into the (delicious) suet crust, revealing, as I forked about, one lump of far-too-grown-up beef and a couple of bits of kidney, almost fully developed. It seems absurd that Fray Bentos just knows that a single serving of steak and kidney pudding in a tin must use a tiny dice of meat and offal within the suet crust, yet, a highly professional, intelligent chef simply cannot see this. I mean, when the pudding's the size of an egg-cup, you should practically have to mince the ingredients for it to be a success.

Let's be assured of one very important pointer when using the kitchen as playroom: the cook must know what works with what. It is as simple as that, but it needs to be learnt and experienced. Good dishes have stood the test of time because when we eat them we like them very much indeed, and if offered up to us once again we say "Yes please".

I recall wrapping scallops in slices of salami instead of bacon once, grilling them, and presenting them to my parents on my day off from work in a local restaurant. "Interesting," said my mum, "but I'm not sure bacon isn't best dear." Hmmm ...