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July 19, 2012Food and DrinkNo comments

How many people like coffee art?

If you don’t know what I am talking about, it’s when a barista takes their time to pour an image in to the top of your milky coffee – a fan, a heart, a leaf etc.
How many of you think the experience adds to the, well, experience of drinking the coffee? Does a good barista, who can perform wonders with their wrists, actually make the coffee taste better?

Or do you sometimes wish they would just hurry up and pour so you can get out of there? What difference does it make if they’re putting a lid on it?

Coffee art is one of those things that if you go to a good coffee bar, you now expect as standard; but why? It’s not a traditional thing – in terms of tracing it back to Italy or beyond. I’d much rather, if a lid is going on, that the coffee tastes great and the foam head is blank – than the coffee taste crap but the barista can write my name in the foam.

I rarely see coffee art when holidaying in Italy. Maybe the length of the queue behind me in the morning dictates this, or possibly – it’s because coffee art is someone else’s twist on what they do. What they think they automatically do better.

In terms of tradition, a claim that something is better, can be nothing more than a blinkered view against an attempt to improve on what has come before?

Tradition in food is something Gino De Blasio has touched on in his most recent post on Spaghetti Bolognese. Whenever I read a post on SpagBol, especially a reasoned one like Gino’s, part of me agrees that spaghetti is indeed a daft choice of pasta to go with a meat sauce. How often do you end up with a plate of meat and no pasta or vice versa?

Another part of me just wants to scream: “Oh give it a rest!” Surely, in terms of the way we eat food – are there not better, more worthy arguments to have? Should we really criticise someone for using the wrong kind of pasta or ingredients in their sauce – if the pasta is good and the sauce homemade and healthy?

If my understanding is correct, Spaghetti Bolognese was popularised by the food writer, Elizabeth David. The guardian website provides her recipe, which sits amongst the writer Felicity Cloake’s attempt to make the perfect Bolognese. Politely putting words in to Gino’s mouth here, but can a guardian writer, based in London, really create the perfect Italian dish? Should pride and tradition always come before taste and preference when naming something, perfect? Even in the knowledge that he argues that SpagBol should be given a rethink by the Italians in terms of Italian food tradition?

From reading, you can see why David’s recipe has been adapted over the years. People of my generation appear almost reluctant to eat offal, so that knocks the chicken livers out. We will then latch on to a “Celebrity Chef” we like, and use their method – I make the “Ragù alla Bolognese” as per Giorgio Locatelli’s recipe; with lots of wine (the wrong colour) and passata. Strike me down, Mayor of Bologna.

As for the spaghetti – well, I just see it as being there. Being the main, dry pasta that is easy to get hold of – goes with other dishes – is quick and simple to cook; that has been around far longer than the Silver Spoon or Geometry of Pasta books. People have it in their cupboards, with no thought to it being right or wrong.

It’s not just the Italians that care about tradition. I went to a beer tasting session with John Keeling of Fuller’s brewery. He described the process of making their beer and how he had a team whose role was to maintain consistency of those beers, through the years. Explaining how hops, water and malt profiles change with each growing season so that tweaks have to be made to the recipe, to ensure a beer like London Pride tastes the same in every glass. That’s the key to being a successful brewery, but is it the key to making a great beer? What if the balance found in one growing season, actually improves on the beer? The characteristics might have changed but does that produce a negative result? I doubt Fuller’s could afford to take the risk. Their drinkers know what they like, want what they like – and could turn away in their droves if they get something different.

New Coke taste could have killed Coca-Cola were they a smaller company, with better rivals. They bucked tradition and traditional fans hit back. But should that always be the case?

I’m all for tradition as a reference point – so that’s why I disagree with Gino on his assertion of origin. People who make Spaghetti Bolognese, even those that make it with a jar of sauce advertise by puppets, do so with a view that they are making – not something wholly traditional – but a dish that makes them think of Italian food. In the same way that people who put pineapple on top of their pizzas are not spitting in the eyes of the Neapolitans. They’re just picking up on a twist first used by someone else, adapting what they picked up from another person – no different from a friend of Elizabeth David substituting, say red wine for white, as that’s all they had in the cellar at the time.

I think Italians, even the most traditional of Italians, should be proud of the fact that – even if we do get their dishes wrong from time to time – we’re still far happier making those mistakes on a regular basis, than we are, say, desperate to keep our own traditions alive.

Anyone for a faggot?

If this post has contradicted anything I have said or written in the past, don’t view it as being a contradiction – more an adaptation of the traditional view held on this blog.

Note: I’ve made a couple of changes as there was a bit of a mix up of what I thought I read on twitter against Gino’s original post. Gino is definitely advocating a rethink on SpagBol, but views other dishes – such as chicken parmigiana – as not considered of Italian origin. We can debate those dishes at another time


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