ESSAY : Authentic, Shmauthentic! : Life Belongs to Those Who Can Adapt

By definition, authenticity resists accessibility. . . .

--John Thorne, Matt Lewis Thorne, Simple Cooking, January/February, 1993

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Authenticity in cuisine is a will-o'-the-wisp, elusive and impossible to define--or, rather, all too easy to define, except that everybody defines it differently.

If there were a single, canonical recipe for every dish in a given culture's culinary repertoire, then any variation on that recipe--especially one that introduces new ingredients or techniques or that simplifies or lightens the result--would be, by definition, inauthentic.

But traditional cuisine isn't made from recipes; it is born out of necessity, availability and intuition, and it is codified not in books but in individual recollection or in common wisdom. Traditional cuisine is folklore, inspired by the world in which its creators live, imbued with lessons about that world and passed down by a people among themselves, with infinite variation and frequent adaptation.

At a gastronomic conference in Spain a few years ago, I incurred the wrath of several champions of traditional Spanish cooking (among them a Cuban-American and a couple of Englishwomen) by daring to suggest that contemporary French and Italian influences perhaps had a place in modern Spanish kitchens. That I would approve such culinary pollution made her blood boil, one of the women told me. Yet earlier, these same defenders of the purity and integrity of Spanish cuisine had been talking about how it had been shaped in the first place by Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Moors and Goths.

With the best esprit de l'escalier , it later occurred to me that what I should have asked them was when, exactly, food in Spain had died and become fossilized. At what point did some authority say, "All right, that's enough foreign stuff; we're on our own from here on out"?

But it doesn't work like that, of course. Cuisine, like language, changes as long as it's alive and admits as potential influences anything it comes across. Academics may attempt to "protect" both language and cuisine, but in the long run, both language and cuisine do what they want to do or, to be more precise, what the people who use them want them to do. The best we can do in both cases is to record, remember and, if appropriate, appreciate the way they used to be.

In asking how authentic the rendering of a traditional dish is, I think it's important to consider three other things as well.

First, not all traditional dishes are terribly old. To take three examples from the cooking of Liguria and Nice, where my recent gastronomic researches have been concentrated: Pesto, the emblematic sauce of Genoese cuisine, probably didn't assume its present form until the late 19th Century. Salade Nicoise , as it is codified today, almost certainly doesn't predate the turn of the century, since one of its key ingredients, raw tomato, wasn't eaten in Nice until around that time. Focaccia col formaggio (a specialty of the town of Recco, on the eastern Ligurian coast), although it is undeniably antique in origin, was revived as a popular dish around World War I.

When people say a certain dish has "always" been made in a certain way, they might just mean that that's how their mothers or grandmothers made it. If a dish is "traditionally" that recent, who can gainsay an honest change made in it today or tomorrow?

Second, even if we are able to convincingly reproduce food that seems genuinely ancient--for instance, the western Ligurian mountain dish called gran pistau , made of crushed, long-cooked wheat berries seasoned with leeks, pork, oil and cheese (probably very close to the kind of thing the Romans ate)--we can't possibly eat it as the ancients did.

The signal dishes of Nicoise and Ligurian cuisine were born out of the imperatives of poverty and rigorous seasons, religious regulation and social attitudes. If we want to, we can make a torta pasqualina or Eastertide torte (filled with artichokes and clabbered milk, among other ingredients, and originally made with 33 layers of pastry dough--one for each year of Christ's life), and if we make it well, it will taste delicious. But it isn't likely that we'll make it, or enjoy it, for the same reasons its inventors did--as an exultation, a celebration of a vital religious and cultural event, a symbolic (and sometimes literal) expenditure of precious resources.

By the same token, we can eat a soup of reconstituted dried chestnuts in hot milk--a common winter meal in the poverty-stricken Ligurian interior--if we want to, but it would be sort of silly, except as a lark or an academic experiment. People didn't eat food like that for pleasure; they ate it to survive. Why would we eat it when we could almost as easily have the torta pasqualin a--or, for that matter, just heat up some Lean Cuisine?

And third, the truth is that, for a variety of reasons, we can probably never really duplicate "authentic" traditional cuisine, from the Riviera or anywhere else, unless we're part of the tradition to which it is authentic. Even if we have the same raw materials and understand all the appropriate techniques, we aren't the same people. We're dilettantes by definition. We'll always be cooking someone else's food.

Take, for instance, ravioli, a dish reputed to have been invented in Genoa. The "authentic" Genoese recipe for this popular dish specifies a filling that includes lean veal, sweetbreads, calf's brains, calf's spinal marrow and cow's udder. Now, if we leave out these specific ingredients (the last of which is traditionally considered particularly important to the flavor and texture of the dish), we are obviously not being authentic.

But let's say, for the sake of argument, that we are somehow able to find calf's spinal marrow and cow's udder (and if these are sold commercially in America, I've never encountered them) and do include them in the dish. Sorry, but we're still not being authentic.

Why? Because these are, for us, specialty ingredients, difficult to come by and almost certainly expensive; the whole point of ravioli is that it uses bits and pieces of commonly available raw materials--which, to the Genoese of an earlier time, udder and spinal marrow were. For us to track them down and use them would change the whole spirit of the dish, however much it might echo the original flavor.

Does this mean we shouldn't try to make Genoese ravioli? Of course not. It just means that we have to adapt the recipe to our own circumstances--precisely what a Genoese would do if he or she were suddenly set down in a kitchen in Seattle or Des Moines and invited to prepare the dish. And adapting doesn't mean making it with ground turkey and low-fat ricotta, although it probably does mean leaving a few things out, or making a few educated substitutions. Knowing what to leave out or what to substitute, of course, is the trick.

Some measure of knowledge is the key. I think that we can approach at least a kind of culinary authenticity if we come at food from, as it were, the inside--trying to understand how and why the dishes we want to cook developed the way they did and who developed them. The more we know about the people who created a cuisine, in fact--the more we understand their motives and their personalities and the cultural and historical context in which they operated--the better our approximations of their cooking will be. It may never be authentic, but it will be an honest try--and all the more savory for that.

TOCCO

The early 19th-Century Genoese poet Martin Piaggio wrote a number of poems in praise of local dishes, among them not one but two about ravioli: a 179-line epic called simply "I Ravie^u" ("Ravioli," in Genoese dialect) and a shorter one called "Ricetta per Fa^ i Ravie^u," or "Recipe for Making Ravioli," which is just that. "Recipe u^n boello pesso de vitella," the latter begins; "da mette a rosto per fa^ u^n bon tocchetto"--"Take a lovely piece of veal, put it to roast to make a good little sauce."

Tocchetto, better known in Genoa as tocco, is widely cited in Ligurian culinary lore as a metaphor for patience. It was traditionally left to cook all day on a smoldering fire, in a terra cotta pot, for use at the evening meal. In their "La Tradizione Gastronomica Italiana: Liguria," Paola Arvo and Gabriella Viganego note: "Once it was not unusual for those who woke up late (around 8 or 8:30 a.m.) to enter the kitchen and sip their coffee in a cloud of aromas from a tocco." Tocco might also be seen as symbolic of Genoese culinary thrift because the meat that flavors the sauce does not ultimately become part of it but is reserved for another use, for instance as filling for the same ravioli the sauce will moisten.

2 tablespoons butter

Extra-virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped fine

1 stalk celery, chopped fine

1 carrot, chopped fine

Flour

1 pound boneless veal in 1 or 2 pieces

2 cups dry red wine

1/2 ounce dried porcini mushrooms

1 cup chopped fresh tomatoes or canned crushed tomatoes

Salt

Melt butter with 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil in large pan with cover. Cook onion, celery and carrot uncovered over low heat until soft, about 20 minutes. Remove with slotted spoon and reserve.

Add bit more oil to pan and increase heat to medium. Flour veal lightly and brown on all sides in oil. Reduce heat to low and return vegetables to pan. Add red wine and scrape browned bits from bottom of pan with wooden spoon. Continue to cook over low heat, uncovered.

Soak mushrooms in 3 changes of warm (not hot) water. Remove mushrooms from water, reserving liquid, and chop them.

When wine has almost evaporated from pan, add mushrooms with tomatoes and 1 cup strained soaking water. Season to taste with salt. Cover pan very tightly and cook at least 3 hours over low heat. Check pan every hour, adding more water if in danger of drying out.

Remove meat and serve sliced as main dish with pureed potatoes or use for stuffing vegetables or ravioli.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Each of 6 servings contains about:

235 mg sodium; 86 mg cholesterol; 15 grams fat; 10 grams carbohydrates; 19 grams protein;

RAVIOLI GENOESE

Piaggio's formula specifies a ravioli filling of cow's udder, calf's brains, sweetbreads, marrow and spinal marrow, among other ingredients. An elaboration of it in Emanuele Rossi's "La Vera Cuciniera Genovese" (1865) specifies both calf's brains and lamb's brains. For reasons discussed in the accompanying article, I'm going to leave out some of the more exotic (by our standards) ingredients; other than that, the following recipe is based largely on both Piaggio's and Rossi's, with adjustments made for the sake of clarity, consistency and the realities of the modern kitchen.

Notes on substitutions: Borage is an essential vegetable in Ligurian cooking. If you grow it or can find it at a specialty store, use it instead of escarole. Piaggio's recipe calls for something called prescinseua instead of ricotta. This is one of the great secret ingredients of Ligurian cuisine: clabbered cream. It is difficult to find even in Genoa today, but if your grandmother happens to know how to make clabber, ask her for some and use that in place of ricotta.

If you have made tocco, you'll have leftover cooked veal for the filling. If you haven't, you can use any cooked veal. In lieu of tocco, use olive oil or melted butter as the sauce and sprinkle the ravioli generously with Parmigiano-Reggiano before serving. In fact, tasters in The Times Test Kitchen found that although they loved the tocco, it overwhelmed the more delicate flavor of the ravioli, which worked best with a little oil or butter with Parmesan.

Flour

Salt

7 eggs and 2 egg yolks

Extra-virgin olive oil

1 pound borage or escarole leaves, trimmed

1/2 pound veal sweetbreads

1/2 pound calf's brains

1/2 cup beef marrow

1/2 pound long-cooked lean veal

3 ounces ricotta

Sauce from Tocco, optional

Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or pecorino Sardo

Mix 3 1/2 cups flour and 1 teaspoon salt in large bowl. In separate bowl, beat 5 eggs and 3 tablespoons oil together. Make well in center of flour and add egg mixture, stirring into flour with fork until it holds together but is very crumbly. Turn dough out onto lightly floured work surface, divide into 2 pieces, and knead each briefly in turn. Refrigerate dough at least 1 hour.

Meanwhile, cut borage or escarole into fine shreds and cook in boiling salted water until very tender, about 10 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Peel skin and membranes from sweetbreads, cut into 3 or 4 pieces and blanch in boiling salted water 10 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Blanch calf's brain in boiling salted water 10 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Coddle beef marrow in a small bowl of boiling water for 2 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Chop up borage or escarole, sweetbreads, calf's brains, marrow and veal. Mix together well in large bowl. Add remaining whole eggs and yolks and ricotta and incorporate well. Season generously with salt, then pass mixture through a food mill to form a coarse puree.

Remove dough from refrigerator and cut into even number of strips width of pasta machine roller. Roll each strip through machine to form thin dough sheets. As each strip is done, lay out on lightly floured work surface.

Place about 1/2 teaspoon of filling about 1 inch in from 1 corner of 1 dough sheet. Flatten it very slightly with back of spoon, then repeat process, leaving about 1 inch of dough on all sides of each bit of filling. When 1 sheet is filled, place second sheet over it and lightly but firmly crimp the edges and press down the dough between the bits of filling. Using long knife, cut dough between mounds of filling to make square ravioli.

Heat tocco. Meanwhile, cook ravioli in large pot of boiling salted water until they float to top and are done, 3 to 4 minutes. Gently drain, place in a large, wide bowl and pour tocco over them. Do not stir. Serve with Parmigiano-Reggiano on side.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Each of 6 servings contains about:

916 calories; 852 mg sodium; 1,407 mg cholesterol; 39 grams fat; 82 grams carbohydrates; 55 grams protein; 1.09 grams fiber.

CLAMS WITH BROCCOLI AND POTATOES

One way to avoid the vexing question of authenticity in trying to reproduce traditional dishes is to avoid traditional dishes altogether. This unusual preparation of clams (Palourdes Avec Broccoli et Pommes de Terre) is a specialty of chef Franck Cerutti at his excellent restaurant Don Camillo, near the Marchee aux Fleurs in Nice. It is convincingly Mediterranean in character but has no obvious ancient predecessors. As Cerutti says, "It's not traditional, but it could be."

3 to 4 dozen small clams

10 to 12 broccoli florets (1 to 2 stalks broccoli)

Salt

2 boiling potatoes

2 cloves garlic

Extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup dry white wine

2 sprigs Italian (flat-leaf) parsley

Juice of 1/2 lemon

Scrub clam shells with small brush under running water. Place clams in large bowl or stockpot and cover with cold water. Shake bowl or pot gently, then let clams stand at least 1 hour, shaking once or twice more during that time.

While clams are soaking, blanch broccoli florets in boiling salted water. Drain and set aside, but do not rinse.

Peel potatoes and cube. Cook potatoes in separate pot of boiling salted water 10 minutes. Drain and set aside, but do not rinse.

Cook whole garlic cloves slowly in 2 tablespoons olive oil in large pan 10 minutes. Discard garlic.

Add clams to oil, cover pan and cook over high heat 2 minutes, shaking pan gently. Add wine and cook until clams open, about 2 minutes. Uncover pan, remove clams with slotted spoon and transfer to bowl. Discard any clams that have not opened.

Mince parsley. Add to pan with 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil and lemon juice. Cook 1 to 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to medium, add broccoli, potatoes and clams and cook until sauce is emulsified, 2 to 3 minutes. Season with salt to taste.

Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

243 calories; 151 mg sodium; 31 mg cholesterol; 11 grams fat; 13 grams carbohydrates; 15 grams protein; 0.98 gram fiber.

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