The Emperor’s New Menu

When I was on holiday this year, I cooked for myself in my own kitchen for the majority of the time, but spent a couple of nights at the beginning and end of the trip in hotels, meaning that I had to go out for dinner.

One night, in Pisa, I decided just to have pizza, which was delicious, but I did notice that the restaurant next door was much more up-market, and what was more, it was packed with people who seemed to be having a great time.

The next night was my last in Pisa, so I thought I’d try the expensive place. This turned out to be a plan with negative as well as positive points.

roastI’ll just mention that I’m not a vegetarian. Sometimes I’m mistaken for one, because I don’t eat much meat — maybe once or twice a week at most — and sometimes have a vegetarian dish in a restaurant. I suppose that puts me in the class “I don’t know much about meat, but I know what I like”, but bear with me.

With the menu, I got a “complimentary” glass of sparking wine and little pot of mushroom soup, a probable sign that they were going to skin me with the price of the meal, but hey, I was treating myself. My starter, a goat’s cheese salad with rucola, was excellent, as was the restaurant’s own-label chianti.

For my main course, I’d ordered something that translated roughly as “pieces of steak” on a bed of vegetables. In restaurants all over the world, if you order a steak, they’ll ask how you want it cooked, or rather how much you want it cooked, and I always say “medium”. This time, I was not asked, so I assumed that the dish was something like a stew, where the meat would be fully braised.

Incidentally, when I tell them “medium”, I’m fully aware that the word can mean anything, but I don’t really mind. Although I’d prefer the meat in a state that you and I would call “medium”, I can eat it even if it’s a little bit bloody. (In fact, I have tried carpaccio, where the meat is (intentionally) raw.)

Nobody is entirely sure when cooking was invented, but archeological evidence of control of fire goes a long, long way back, to our Homo erectus ancestors at least, but possibly even earlier. Ancient hearths in Swartkrans in Africa have remains of burnt bone a million years old, a pretty clear sign that meat was being cooked. One theory of human development suggests that cooking had a strong impact on human evolution, because it greatly improves the usable energy value of food, and growing brains need food energy.

Be that as it may, the real reason for cooking food is that it makes it taste so much better. It was a French scientist, Louis-Camille Maillard, who worked out why, in 1912. The Maillard reaction occurs in a number of different foods and cooking methods, including coffee roasting, toasting bread, frying onions, and of course, roasting meat. What happens is that sugars and amino acids in the food react with each other to produce different flavour compounds, hundreds of them, to give the spectrum of flavours which characterize the cooked food. (An additional reaction can occur, mainly at higher temperatures: carmelization of sugars. This adds a nutty taste.)

Raw meat, on its own, is very tasteless compared to its cooked state. But the products of the Maillard reaction are brown in colour, which means that you can tell by sight alone whether the meat is cooked or not. And that leads me to the primary point of this article: the more pretentious the restaurant, the less they’ll cook your meat.

I think there are two factors at work. One is that meat can be spoiled by over-cooking. No doubt about it: an expensive and exquisitely tender sirloin can be turned into a piece of blackened, chewy leather by an over-enthusiastic cook. So I’m sure that professional cooks are taught to hold back. But some of them seem to get the idea that if over-cooking is bad, under-cooking must be better.

The second thing is pure snobbery, and that applies both to the chefs and the customers: we are sophisticated, we recognize delicacy, we appreciate the subtle flavour of meat before the fire ruins it. Which is bollocks, in my opinion. Cooked meat is a far more tasty and complex substance than raw meat. It has far, far more flavour compounds. Ask M. Maillard and the Homo erectus.

You’ve guessed the end of my story about Pisa, haven’t you? The “steak pieces” had been sliced from a thick steak and laid artfully on the bed of vegetables. The outer meat was cooked, more or less, the inner raw and barely warm. And it wasn’t even that the steak was so tender that it could be eaten easily, even uncooked. Believe me, I tried.

Being sliced and laid out, it would have been absurd to try to send it back. Anyway, I blamed myself for falling into the trap of the pretentious restaurant. I’ll be avoiding that in future.

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