Precious - in what sense?
A Simple Dish of Potato Cooked in the Earth In Which It Was Grown
The photograph is of a dish devised by Ben Shewry in his Attica restaurant - and I will come to it, but first some definitions of 'precious':
"of great value because of being rare, expensive, or important"
"behaving in a very formal and unnatural way by giving too much attention to details that are not important and trying too hard to be perfect"
"used to express dislike and/or anger" Cambridge English Dictionary
The last is perhaps less clear than the other two - it's when you say something like "You and your precious car - it's all you are interested in" - well that's the example the Cambridge Dictionary gave. In a way it's the same as the first definition but used in a negative sense. And isn't it fascinating that there are not only two very different meanings for the word itself, but then yet one more meaning that negates one of the others. Language is a fascinating thing.
So where did this vaguely philosophical - well I hope it will be - post come from? Well indirectly it came from this week's Melbourne Food and Wine Festival newsletter (a very niche publication not really aimed at me) which announced the winner of the World's Fifty Best Restaurants.
And the winner is - Geranium - a Danish restaurant that has knocked its neighbouring restaurant Noma from the top spot. The photograph is of Chicken and morels, green cabbage sprouts, smoked chicken fat and hops - which to my mind looked like a collection of tiny scraps of things retrieved from the fridge and various spice jars. Where's the chicken I asked myself? One or possibly two mouthfuls anyway. And I wonder how much it costs? It's hard to imagine it tasting good - too many tiny things.
Anyway at the bottom of this article there was a link to a different article on Ben Shewry and the dish at the top of the page which has been included in a book called Signature Dishes That Matter. You can tell it's a posh book by the very plain cover. Like those expensive bottles of French wine - or Grange. The book is not, however, just about modern celebrity chef dishes it goes back to the first gelato of 1686 and includes things like the omelette, club sandwiches, Caesar salad, Pommes Anna, and Margherita pizza. So I guess it's quite an honour to be included. I see there are a few other Australian entries including Bill Granger's Avocado toast and Phillip Searle's chequerboard ice-cream - which I have actually tasted. That was when he was cooking in Adelaide and we lived there, and he was relatively unknown. Suffice to say it was divine. I can still remember the taste. Alas I cannot find a photograph of it.
The book contains recipes and is illustrated with drawings rather than photographs. Which I find rather odd. They may be world famous artists, but it's hardly Van Gogh, and reminds one more of the modern trend to illustrate hip cookbooks with cartoons and jokey kind of drawings, which I wouldn't have thought fits with the target audience. This is the illustration of Ben Shewry's dish which he describes as ''a bit of a monkey on my back'' and which he stopped making back in 2014, after five years of it featuring on the Attica menu. I sympathise. It must be a bit like a pop singer singing the same song over and over again because it was a hit. But I guess it's what made you famous, and it attracts the customers and therefore the money.
Shewry took months to come up with the dish that was inspired by the New Zealand haki way of cooking in the ground, and also apparently a traumatic childhood memory of seeing some geese slaughtered. How on earth that comes into it I do not know but he says "I used that memory to create something positive." Moving on from the article about the signature dishes book I found an interview with Shewry in The Vancouver Sun, in which I found this:
"Shewry tested about 45 varieties of potatoes until he found what he wanted in the Virginia Rose. It is peeled then layered in cotton and baked in the soil it was picked from over eight hours at varying temperatures. It is served atop a cushion of house-made cold-smoked soft cheeses and seasoned with chicken breast “floss”, coconut husk ash and ground coffee. It sits on leaves of deep-fried native Australian saltbush."
and this, about another dish, also inspired by a memory of a daydream memory of childhood, called The Plight of Bees:
"I immediately wanted to create a honey dessert inside a miniature beehive. It took 18 months to perfect and I brought in an artisan carpenter,” Ben Shewry
which was followed by this description:
"The dessert comes in a Tasmanian oak box with a lid of freeze-dried apple shaving made to look like a honeycomb. The next layer is a gelled poached pumpkin that can be lifted to reveal a creamy curd flavoured with artisan honeys. Fennel ice, cracked meringue and mango add more flavours and texture." Mia Stainsby - The Vancouver Sun
How pretentious- indeed how precious - is one's immediate reaction. But then you read this about the potato dish - in the same article, but a quote from Bon Appétit:
“A couple at the table next to me had taken simultaneous bites of the potato, locked eyes and emitted a wordless purring that seemed to speak of both deep satisfaction and the awakening sorrow that the rest of their young lives would be a long succession of mealy potato imperfection. Normally, I’d want to punch the both of them but I’d just taken a bite of the potato myself and instead, felt like hugging them, the potato, Shewry, the air, the earth and everyone in it.”
So maybe one should not scoff. For perhaps it is food like this - elsewhere described as 'poetry you can eat' - that creates precious memories for those that consume it.
Can food ever be precious - in the sense of being 'of great value, rare, important' ? It's such an ephemeral thing isn't it. The chef may have laboured for months, years even to produce what he or she considers to be perfection, but once consumed it's gone isn't it? Just the memory remains. And sometimes not even the memory of the taste - rather the memory of the occasion and all the emotional baggage surrounding that. For the chef it would have to be the satisfaction of creating something so great, of giving joy to the customer. And yet for he or she too, it's ephemeral. There is no actual physical object to retain. Just photographs and descriptions - even a drawing as with the potato. Memories.
But then when you consider the premise of the Signature Dishes That Matter book you have to admit that even though that original gelato is long, long gone, the concept of gelato lives on from complicated concoctions devised by top chefs to the simple lemon gelato you can buy in Lygon Street - no in Eltham. We have our own gelateria here.
You have to admit though that A Simple Dish of Potato Cooked in the Earth In Which It Was Grown is somewhat precious in the negative sense. So easily mocked as well. 'A simple dish' - which it so obviously isn't. And so loaded with symbolism, not just in the name. I mean it looks like an egg in a nest doesn't it? Or a precious gemstone. And what do the spikes of green stuff signify? It's a dish that invites those questions doesn't it? And yet it's just food - the stuff that keeps us alive and healthy - or unhealthy depending on our choices. So can it be considered positively precious? Yes I think so. It's a demonstration of human imagination and creativity, possibly the only thing that distinguishes us from animals.
Precious in an ultimate life enhancing sense though? What are the precious things in your life? Your family, your memories, the beauty of the world around you? Here is a picture of some of my most precious things - David's first love letters to me. The first just a few lines from a poem, found in my Union pigeon-hole at university. I can still feel the glow that it gave me. And yes the blue paper was just a tiny bit precious. Maybe the poem too - but so, very precious to me. As you can see - I have them still.