At a workshop I was running the other weekend on ‘Creative Dining, Cooking and Technology’ we were treated to the culinary delights of hot chef Ben Spalding. One of the dishes that he brought to the table was a small bowl containing a delicate salad that was beautifully plated. The pieces were tiny – a wisp of fennel, a sliver of radish, a shard of celeriac. The dish came with a paper print-out listing the ingredients – all 30 of them. Rather than place forkfuls of the assembled leaves, seeds and other tasty morsels into our mouths to munch – as one typically does when confronted with a mixed salad – the brightly-coloured list encouraged us to deconstruct its contents, identifying and matching up each ingredient to those on the list. I managed about 20. My neighbour slightly more. It was very much a shared experience as we compared notes; firstly, describing the visible dimensions, of colour, shape and form and secondly, articulating the taste, crunchiness and lingering flavours. Talking about the leaves transformed the usually talked over salad experience for me.
I asked Ben’s sous-chef, Nathan, what next and he said their new challenge was to come up with 50 ingredients that they could forage and which would go together. Upping the ante or what. Usually, a salad has between 1 and 15 ingredients with a dressing of 4 or 5. It is often regarded as a dish to freshen the taste buds or whet the appetite. Of course, there have always been main salads, where the leaves are accompanied with tuna, chicken, salmon, egg, nuts or cheese, often with grandiose names, such as Caesar, Waldorf, Caprese or Nicoise. But for a side salad to take centre stage and become the talking point was a stroke of creativity.
It made be think of the word salad and my childhood memories of being served it at school. Not nice. Always cold, off-putting and uninspiring: limp soggy-tissue lettuce, insipid thistle-threaded tomato quarters and ugly-tasting beetroot slabs. Then I switched to fonder memories: the first time I really understood what mouth-watering meant: tasting a bunch of ultra-fresh radishes served up by themselves on a plate with salt crystals and a slaver of creamy butter on the side. I could not get enough of the combination.
One memory led to another. Food is great for letting the mind wander. From salad to salad days. A lovely turn of phrase from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra – referring to the period when one was young, inexperienced, and carefree. From carefree to listening to ‘Lazy Sunday Afternoon’ being played on Radio One. To baking a different cake each week – chocolate, banana, lemon, cherry, walnut…to the delight of my family at Sunday tea. Stringing together poignant memories is a joy as anyone who has read or seen the film of Nigel Slater’s book Toast will know.
It was lovely to be able to pick at Ben’s salad and discover new ingredients rather than act all grown-up, trying to balance the delicate pieces on a fork. The secret to creative cooking is choreographing surprise that lets the diner deconstruct the dish and discover what’s hidden.