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I remember my first kitchen disaster with the clarity that comes with humiliation. It was one of the earliest dinner parties I’d summoned the courage to throw and I’d decided to keep it simple – just tagliatelle with cream and mushroom sauce. But like many an ambitious young foodie at the time, I’d suckered myself into buying a pasta machine. With great care I’d mixed, rolled and rested my dough, and with what now seems astonishing hubris, I was going to roll it casually in front of my guests.
To my amazement it worked. Men looked at me with respect, women with what I felt was something closer to lust. I dropped the silken strands into the pot of rapidly boiling water and waited for them to float back up. It was an open-plan kitchen, and my captive audience was primed for the big finish. No mimsy colander for me; I clamped the lid on to the pot, lifted it carefully over the sink and began to drain the water away using the lid to hold in the pasta. Steam rose in photogenic clouds, the weight of the pot reduced rapidly, and I prepared for a final flourishing shake … at which point my thumbs lost their grip on the hot pot lid and the whole of the evening’s meal flopped into the filthy waste disposal with a sound like a whale giving birth.
I believe recipe writers should avoid the word “perfect” because it’s a misrepresentation. Why, after all, should my version of a shepherd’s pie be any better than that of the next opinionated hack? There are lessons to be learnt from all of our culinary failures (that which does not poison us makes us stronger) and often the real joy of a new recipe is in the technique involved. It was probably with this in mind that I attempted a braised stuffed oxtail from the late Richard Olney’s Simple French Food.
I should explain from the beginning that I loathe Olney. I know he’s loved by many but I find his sneering, elitist Francophilia a positive turn-off. The recipes are fascinating but in my head the authorial voice sounds like Frasier’s Niles Crane complaining in a restaurant with honkingly bad pronunciation. That said, the oxtail recipe is a stunning coup occupying four whole pages. It involves a series of complex processes which make the ceremonial mummification of a pharaoh look like a minor outpatient procedure.
I began by boning an oxtail, a fact that I still toss into conversation occasionally, just to let people know that that’s how I roll. I kicked off at around six in the evening with the tail, a small boning knife and a scalpel, and at 1.30am I was still there.
It had taken a whole bottle of Côtes du Rhône, three breaks to relieve finger cramps, four scalpel blades, six sticking plasters and the remains of my sanity but there in front of me was a pile of waste bone and cartilage and an unbroken mat of meat. “A couple of hours,” Olney had haughtily intoned – I merely gibbered.
I marinated the meat overnight in oil and wine and the following day combined beef, bone marrow, truffle and breadcrumbs to create the aptly named farce. Once the boned tail had been wrapped around the stuffing and sutured into place it looked like something with which a particularly generous Dr Frankenstein might have endowed his monster. It was an act of modesty to wrap it tightly in a layer of clean muslin and lower it into the rich veal stock I’d been working on for a couple of days.
I could discourse at some length on the gentle poachings, the reductions, the additions of superfine brunoises of vegetables – God knows, Olney does – but it is enough to say, I bore the thing proudly to the table, napped it with the highly reduced sauce and sliced it in front of my audience.
As one, they plunged in and, as one, their faces fell. “Luncheon meat” was the kindest comment; “Like a tumour” rather less so.
So am I sorry I did it? No. I started that project as an amateurish butcher and ended as someone who might be called in by Madonna to realign her glutes. I had learnt, experienced, enjoyed … even if the conclusion was that “I will never attempt that again as long as I live”.
I’m sure that there’s some wonderful Zen koan that demonstrates why the journey is always more important than arriving at the destination and surely it must be as true of cooking as it is of any other craft. Preparing food for ourselves is something we need to do three times a day and if we concentrate only on the results of that work above the experience, then life will become a cheerless grind.
By promising perfection without the possibility of failure we remove the thrill of creativity, the joy of discovery and, ultimately, we rob ourselves of real pleasure on those occasions when we succeed.
Tim Hayward is an FT Weekend contributing writer