THE MISSING INGREDIENT:

The Curious Role of Time in Food and Flavour

 

by Jenny Linford, Particular Books, £18.99

Long ago, I stumbled upon Jenny Linford’s Food Lover’s London and found it an essential companion in my attempts to navigate the gastronomic geography of that great city. I came to her latest book, The Missing Ingredient, somewhat tired and having over-read other things. This is not a good way to approach any book and I have to confess that my first encounter with it was not a great success.

The irony, of course, is that I was impatient to get to the nub of the work and I was not prepared to give it the time that it deserves. A few weeks later, I returned to it and was rapidly enchanted by its structured yet eclectic, discursive style. Examining the role of time in food, from seconds, through minutes and hours and, ultimately, years, this book provides us with an enjoyable and chatty ramble through all manner of cooking and food production, larded – so to speak – with conversations with chefs, cooks and producers, some famous, some yet obscure.

A conversation with Richard Turner of Hawksmoor threw up some nuggets, such as his belief that over-ageing of beef is often done to impart a gamey flavour to mediocre meat. And he has strong views on the cooking of steaks. “I think rare is a travesty and so is well done, extremes are just wrong for beef,” he says. I am grateful to him, and to Jenny Linford, for making me feel completely comfortable, now, in my preference for medium-rare juiciness.

The timing of risotto is dealt with by consulting the great Anna Del Conte who is splendidly firm. “It takes around 14 to 18 minutes to cook a risotto,” she declares. “You have to be careful. The better the variety, the longer it takes to cook a risotto. Arborio is NOT the best. Carnaroli is better.” And she cautions against adding too much stock at one time. “It shouldn’t be bubbling too hard, nor should it be bubbling too low. It’s only experience that will tell you,” she says.

This is what cookbooks won’t tell you: that experience counts for so much. For a novice cook, it could become a bit depressing. At this point we need to reassure ourselves, in the words of GK Chesterton, that if a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.

Wanting to make a stew using tough cuts, the sort that break down with slow cooking, Linford went to several supermarkets only to find that such meat is in no demand amongst the commuting home cooks who want stuff that cooks in minutes rather than hours. As a result, she says, slow-cooked dishes are being increasingly fetishized, with fashionable restaurants offering the likes of “6 hour braised beef short ribs”. “Time is now so precious,” she writes, that it confers distinction and demands to be brought to our attention”.

This is a book that demands time. It’s not a page turner but one to be browsed at leisure perhaps, not necessarily to be read in order. For a food lover with a genuine interest in the quirks, mysteries and occasional secrets of cooking and food production, the concept of time and timing provides a useful and happily vague hook for a series of entertaining and informative essays.