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London - It’s a long weekend, friends coming to stay, aliens have invaded my kitchen. Aliens in the form of my guy, who has installed himself as head cook for the duration. Of course he has. Get out of his way. Pass him his favourite chopping board and scram.
Yes, it might be alright for little moi to scrub the eggs from the bottom of the saucepan, to do the shopping, to peel the vegetables (removing all the potato eyes, or else) and make sure the debris that collects in the sink tidy is regularly removed.
But when it comes to Cooking with a capital C for guests with a capital H (as in How Long Are You Staying?), then the provision of meals and treats is suddenly deemed too important to let me anywhere near the oven, let alone to interfere, advise, or even comment on what is going on.
On a quick sortie to the taps the other night (I’m still allowed to fill the kettle, but only if needed for hot drinks and not food preparation) I noted that he was making pesto, the classic Italian pasta sauce that incorporates basil, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil and cheese in a heavenly and fragrant blend. It’s so simple even I could do it - if I was ever allowed.
However, a furtive glance told me that his pesto seemed a little strange. Instead of the vibrant, slightly liquid mixture, it looked solid - like a green brick. It also smelled weird.
“I put anchovies in it,” he said.
“You put anchovies in it?”
“I also put in a bag of extra pine nuts.”
“You put in extra pine nuts?”
“I decided on more cheese.”
“Stop repeating what I am saying. You sound like a demented parrot,” he sighed, scraping down the side of the bowl with a power drill, adding: “I was just experimenting. I was pushing the envelope. I wanted to see how much the sauce could take.”
“How much the sauce could take?”
“You’re doing it again.”
So I am. So what? I’m allowed to be annoyed. Not just because basil is an expensive ingredient and it has all been wasted - this herby mess he has produced as a result of culinary envelope-pushing is exactly my beef, my carp, my number one grouse.
Because this is what happens when you let men in the kitchen. Anarchy. Chaos. Recipe rebellion. Experimentation for the sake of self-esteem.
Here’s the thing. There is a perfectly good reason why the proportion of ingredients in pesto has remained, basically, the same since it was first produced by Mrs P. Esto in Genoa, in the Ligurian region of Italy, all those years ago. It is because it works. Somebody has already done all the experimentation, thanks all the same, big guy.
Recipes are there for a reason. They map out the road to Yum Yum Land in simple language, with helpful hints and signposts along the way. Yes, a little tasteful detour is fine now and again, no one is quibbling about that.
What I ask, however, is the point of roaring off-piste and driving your taste-free truck straight into the nearest bog of dinner despair every time?
Men cannot meekly follow a recipe for the same reason they cannot stop the car and ask a stranger for directions. It is too subordinate. They think it shows vulnerability. They think they know best.
In the kitchen, they like mucking about instead of getting on with it. Scrambled egos instead of scrambled eggs.
The coddled, self-hug notion that when cooking, it is more important for le chef to enjoy the task than his guests to enjoy the food he produces. Notice the use of gender specific pronouns. It’s deliberate.
I just don’t think women are as bad. We’re all about nurturing. Give a woman a chicken and she will stuff it full of garlic and good things, roast it, baste it and love it until its skin crisps and turns the same golden shade as J-Lo’s thigh.
Then she will serve it to her friends and family with affection and gravy and maybe a nice dish of potatoes on the side.
Give a man a chicken and he will chop it, smash the bird to bits, dictate to it, beat it up, fricassee it with avocado or chopped jelly babies, do something wildly inappropriate with its joints and, if you are in my house, quite possibly turn it into some eye-wateringly macho vinegar curry that no one wants to eat and then say: “I don’t know why you buy chicken anyway, I don’t really like it.”
Well nobody likes it now!
Yes, I know there are lots of blokes who are absolutely excellent cooks. At home, and in restaurants, there are millions of men who don’t come over all despotic when handed a leek and a stick of celery.
But I also know that there are far too many men out there who cannot control their basic instincts. Show them a bag of mince and their eyes will glaze over as their grip tightens on the mince cleaver and their gaze turns towards the silliest ingredient they can find in the kitchen to go with said mince. Usually, but not always, some papery but lethal, tongue-slaying dried chillies. And maybe a walnut or two to “jazz it up”.
Timidly proffer a bit of basil and cheese and you will end up with an indigestible, malodorous fish-based sludge that even a seagull might turn its beak up at.
My theory is that men, unlike women, come to grief in the kitchen because they have a weird, caveman tendency to dominate food, to conquer ingredients, to triumph over the helpless tuna come whatmay.
Take that, you lily-livered liver! No wonder you are trembling, Missus Strawberry Jelly. Here comes chef with a blowtorch and a batch of daffodil-flavoured meringues he’s just baked. Prepare to die a very unsavoury death.
The tendency to mess with ingredients until they bear no resemblance to their original natural and wonderful state is, I would suggest, a very male one.
Like dogs marking out their territory, men have to leave some kind of imprint to show that Chef Woz Here. They have to park their flag in the custard of their ambition.
Look at the list of the world’s Top 50 Best Restaurants, released this week. Once again, it is dominated by the kind of molecular gastronomy, final frontier cooking that only food anoraks could love and could only be cooked by men.
Yes, Elena Arzak and her Arzak restaurant in San Sebastian in Spain is number eight on the list.
Elena does rather let down my beloved if half-baked theory. But, in mitigation, I have to point out the restaurant has been in her family for more than 100 years.
She’s probably been taken kitchen prisoner by a wicked uncle and forced to use a foam frother against her will! And her avant garde Basque cooking is reputed to be sensational.
So I forgive her for her huevo con temblor de tierrah (egg with earthquake), ham and tomato smoke, beef with red wine foam, anchovy with strawberry combos and pigeon with “sweet pellets” - hold the pellets, if you don’t mind.
Elsewhere the Top 50 list is dominated by the usual suspects. Rene Redzepi and his Noma restaurant in Copenhagen is at number one for the third year running.
His ‘New Nordic’ cuisine includes dishes such as shallow fried reindeer moss, vintage carrots with camomile and techniques such as sea water gradually frozen on plates to add taste. Or ‘ice’ as I like to call it.
Heston Blumenthal’s new Dinner restaurant in London is straight in at number nine, while his Fat Duck slips down to an unlucky 13.
Elsewhere, there are the usual macho purveyors of squid bonbons, liquorice lentils, deep-fried cubes of mayonnaise, of meat gluing techniques, of foam and powder towers of gunk, of egg cooked in hay oil, of lavender oysters on the half-shell, of caramelised olives served hanging from bonsai trees.
All cooked by men for men. Anyway, all I am saying is if you want a slice of brick pesto with your sugared steak, you know where to go. - Daily Mail