It all began with ciabatta. In the mid-1980s, quite suddenly, ciabatta became the bread of choice for all smart, gastronomically aware households. You couldn’t go out for dinner without finding loaves of ciabatta sitting pertly on the bread board, torn up for dunking into small bowls of olive oil, sliced and piled high with chopped tomato and basil. A ciabatta loaf was elongated but plump, but not thin like a baguette. It was vaguely artisanal. It was sexy. Ciabatta signaled the dominance of Italian food and cooking in Britain. Oddly, ciabatta was unknown in Italy, certainly in the form with which we became familiar in the UK. It was devised by an ingenious American lady, Peggy Dannenbaum, aka La Fornaia, when she was asked to develop a number of Continental breads for Marks & Spencer in 1985. The irony is, of course, that so successful was the invention, that you can find ciabattas all over Italy. Talk about coals to Newcastle. But ciabatta was only the beginning. It heralded our fascination with, and dependence on, certain ingredients, usually Italian in origin, to pep up our domestic cooking. You could argue that this had already begun with garlic and olive oil, and while the whole culture of olive oil (extra virgin; regional; single estate; stone pressed; specific varietals or single-estate-specific-varietal-stone-pressed-extra-virgin) has taken on its own momentum) it was with ciabatta that the food-as-fashion-accessory movement got really underway.
After ciabatta, of course, came rocket. There was a time when you practically couldn’t find a plate of anything that wasn’t also heaped or strewn with those peppery green leaves. Quickly there developed two sub-classes, wild rocket, with its sharply pointed, sharply indented, lanceolate leaves and fiercer flavour, and the milder cultivated rocket with its rounded lobes. In recent years mizuna, mustard leaves and red-veined sorrel have all threatened rocket’s primacy, without ever really replacing it. However, rocket established a secondary theme to the foreign-ingredient worship in both professional and domestic fashion-conscious kitchens. Ciabatta charmed with its crunchy crust and airy, resilient crumb. Rocket provided a sharp injection of flavour that has become a defining characteristic of the fashionable flavourings subsequently.
Sun-dried tomatoes enjoyed a few years as the socially defining ingredient. It was easy to use, colourful, and punched above its weight. In other words, you didn’t need many sun-dried tomatoes to add oomph to dull dishes.
Balsamic vinegar cut short the reign of sun-dried tomatoes. In its proper, traditional form it is the essence of 18 years of slow evaporation, which I don’t think I have ever come across in this country. Each distilling barrel gets smaller and smaller, using different wood (oak, chestnut, cherry, ash, mulberry, juniper). This process results in elegant syrup of almost divine purity, intensity, balance and length. What we have got used to is an industrially produced liquid with a crude, but potent, sweet and sour force that is used indiscriminately to jolly up vinaigrettes, boiled down to viscous fluids for blobbing on plates or added to sauces to give them some kind of vigour and definition. Balsamic vinegar, incidentally, fits neatly with our long-held native passion for pungent and/or sweet and sour condiments (18th and 19th century ketchups, relishes, Worcestershire Sauce, HP Sauce, chutneys, piccalilli).
I fear that the dominion of balsamic vinegar is on the wane. It has become so ubiquitous that it is now deemed common. Its place has been taken by chorizo. Chorizo, with its porky sweetness and differing, but polite, levels of chilli, is used in precisely the same way. It provides a bracing jolt of flavour to dishes that otherwise might seem dull. It’s splendidly versatile, with the added advantage of bringing a bright colour to the proceedings, be it bunged into fishcakes, stews, salads, pizzas, chopped and fried and scattered over veg. There have been plenty of other flavorings that have played minor roles along the way – chilli sauces, nam pla, the Vietnamese fish sauce, caperberries, onion jam, harissa, gremolata, dukkah to name a few, but none have really gained the wider following of ciabatta, rocket, sun-dried tomatoes, balsamic vinegar and chorizo. And what will come after chorizo? What will be the new ciabatta? Animal, vegetable or condiment? Heaven only knows. If I could divine that, I might be less poor than I am. With all thanks to Matthew Fort for this blog.