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"Details make perfection, and perfection is not a detail." Leonardo da Vinci

A week or so ago now we went to the current Lume exhibition in the city. The subject this time, as you probably know was Leonardo da Vinci. David took this particular photo of A Woman's Head - a drawing which in reality is a mere 28.2 x19.9cm in size. You can see the real thing in the Uffizi if you are prepared to queue for a few hours. And as you can see the real thing is a different colour - I assume the Lume people changed the colour to fit in with the overall colour scheme of this particular section of the show. For show it is. Every major painting is represented, and many of the drawings, but not as they are in real life. Sometimes you have the whole painting, sometimes just part of it. Detail - how fine those details are are make the whole thing. Wonder is what you are left with and perhaps an urge to learn more.

I also took some photos and sent them to some friends, one of whom commented - because he noticed the included figures of the exhibition audience, to show the scale - that the technology of mounting such huge close-ups of the drawings, without losing any clarity was pretty amazing. Tiny details enlarged hundreds, in some cases thousands of times, and yet still so clear and still maintaining the overall sense of the painting. Below my two efforts - the ribs are not Leonardo's - the Lume people have cleverly inserted them:

Amazing - both in the sense of the artistry of Leonardo and also of the technical artistry of the Lume creators. But nothing to do with food of course. So why begin this post with the pictorial arts?

Well because a couple of things have grabbed my attention of late in the foodie aspects of my life - related to detail.

The first was a tiny detail in the recipe for this dish from Delia - Pepper-crusted fillet of beef with roasted balsamic vinegar and thyme. It was pretty good by the way although I overcooked the beef slightly. But I was struck by this tiny piece of information in the recipe:

"crush the peppercorns coarsely with a pestle and mortar. Tip them into a fine sieve, which will sift out the really hot inner bits and leave you with the fragrant outer bits."

Skim the recipe - as we often do - and you would miss it. Now I didn't know that the inner bits of peppercorns were hotter - did you? Although I also recalled Curtis Stone in a throwaway line in a video I once saw saying the finely ground pepper was hotter than coarser and that you adjusted how tightly you screwed the top of your pepper grinder to get the desired result. Now that detail I cannot remember but imagine that the tighter the screw the finer the pepper.

It was a nudge to remind me to read recipes properly - several times over because sometimes you miss a step, or a detail that turns out to be crucial. Like not realising that there was an extra heating or resting time in the recipe that you had not accounted for in your timing. Hardly a detail I suppose, just careless reading. Nevertheless the general message is that you might miss something if you don't respect the detail of the recipe.

On the other hand some recipes are so detailed that you are tempted to skim, or are so put off that you don't even try to attempt it. Like the faint feeling of inertia I described about the Desi Kitchen cookbook the other day. Many of the recipes cover more than one page - does that mean it's difficult? - the immediate reaction we have - or does it just mean the author has been particularly helpful in describing every step very carefully, with little instructive tips along the way?

"Our life is frittered away by detail ... simplify, simplify." says Henry David Thoreau but simple is not always that simple as Julian Barnes discovered in his hilarious analysis of Elizabeth David's recipe for tomato soup in Italian Food, in which she orders us to 'melt the tomatoes'.

"Melt? Melt a tomato ? Even a chopped one? The implausibility of the verb froze me. Perhaps if you are south of Naples, and beneath the intense noonday sun your fingers have just at that moment eased from the plant something that is less a tomato than a warm scarlet deliquescence waiting to happen; then, perhaps the thing might melt under your spatula. But would these muscular cubettes I was now easing into the oil ever do such a thing? I found myself, as the anxious pedant frequently does, caught between two incompatibilities. On the one hand, I believed, or wanted to believe, that with a few encouraging prods the tomatoes would, by a culinary process hitherto unknown to me but promised by my trustworthy tutress, suddenly melt; at the same time I was pursued by the sane fear that cooking the surly chunks any longer in the oil and thus adding to the over-all ten- minute time limit would make them lose their freshness and vitiate the whole point of the recipe.

For several stressful minutes I waited for the miracle “melt”.

Then with a cookish oath I seized the potato masher and mashed the shit out of them…"

And in ancient times they were just as brief as Elizabeth David as this medieval recipe for Aquapatys (braised garlic) shows:

"Pyle garlek and cast hit in a pot with water & oyle & seeth hit; do therto safroun, salt, poudour fort, & dresse it forth hote."

Then there's haute cuisine which is the ultimate in attention to detail from the tweezers that are used to place every tiny piece of herb, caviar and gold on the plate, to the design and the detail of the finished plated dish. Every bit as perfect, and beautiful as the works of Leonardo in a kind of way. And in the case of food, it's not just beauty, emotion, story that is satisfied in dishes such as these but taste, touch, and smell as well and sometimes sound.

And that's just the final plating. Haute cuisine also involves an attention to detail in the creation of the dish itself - the experiments that sometimes take years to get the taste just right, the research into sourcing the right ingredients, the daily cooking techniques that produce that food. And yes we can scoff or indeed excoriate the whole thing, the Michelin stars, the precious language of the menu, the over the top settings - the expense. But it teeters on the edge of art.

"It's the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen." John Wooden

And they are big things. Well maybe not for the ultra rich who dine in such places every day, but for we mere mortals a meal at a top restaurant will probably be remembered for many, many years. These occasions are magical - if you ignore how much it all costs and it wouldn't be possible without an attention to detail:

"There is no magic in magic, it's all in the details." Walt Disney

Which isn't to say that the other end of the food market - the Macdonald's of this world don't also rely on detail to make their well-oiled machine function as successfully as it does. Every little detail of getting a Big Mac to you in the shortest possible time has been worked out and formalised in a list of instructions and rules.

Cooking is full of detail in all manner of ways. The detail - or not - of recipes, the detail of the processes, the detail of the planning, all the tiny things you do and see - if you use your eyes - and taste. Try looking close up at the things you use every day in your kitchen. You might surprise yourself.

It's late and I should go and cook - I'm going to try Pinch of Yum's spaghetti with crispy zucchini - and here's a detail I did not pay attention to. The recipe required mozzarella so on our shopping expedition yesterday I swear I bought a tub of bocconcini. However today it cannot be found anywhere. I can only assume that somehow or other the checkout chick - because we actually went through a manned checkout missed it. Oh well - I'll just have to use something else.

However the lateness of the hour means I am dwindling in inspiration so I shall just leave you with this quote and a picture of my now 14 year old granddaughter when she was about two.

"The beauty of life is in small details, not in big events." Jim Jarmusch

And that does apply to food as well.


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From da Vinci at the Lume to Julian Barnes on "melting your tomato" it's all in the detail as you say, with great wit and then end with a lovely photo of our then 2 year old grand daughter's food covered face - which summarises it all.

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