The crust is amber/gold, scales of overlapping slices of potato like those of a giant golden carp. Break through the crust and a small puff of fragrant steam rises into the air, carrying the fragrance of lamb and onion. Below are nuggets of sweet meat, full-flavoured and tender as the night, thin slices of translucent onion, a scattering of button mushrooms, rounds of scarlet carrot and the odd plump oyster, all languid in a clear, intense stock. This is Lancashire Hot Pot, a classic, 22-carat, dyed-in-the-wool, cloth-cap-and-whippets Lancashire Hot Pot.
And where do we find this paragon of the most traditional of regional English dishes? In the heart of the Red Rose county, in a kitchen in a terraced house in Bury, or an inn in Clitheroe or a hotel in Manchester? No.
This remarkable Lancashire Hot Pot — there is no such thing as the definitive Lancashire Hot Pot; there are as fierce debates on whether or not a hot pot should include oysters or kidneys or oysters and kidneys as there were between the schools of philosophy in Ancient Athens; and the inclusion of carrots is treated as if it were an extreme form of the the Albigensian Heresy in Wigan — can be eaten in the Hinds Head in Bray Berkshire, and it is the recipe of Heston Blumenthal.
What? That Heston Blumenthal, the molecular gastronomy man? The chef who brought the physics lab into the kitchen (or the kitchen in the physics lab, depending on your point of view)? The creator of nitro-poached foams, sardine ice cream, snail porridge and hot and cold fluid gel drinks? The man whose reputation rests on his innovatory approach to cooking? The very same.
But in the context of British food, serving up a traditional Lancashire Hot Pot is about as ground-breaking as you can get.
As it turns out, Mr Blumenthal has also turned to the high artifice of modern technology to achieve this. He cooks the potato scales sous vide, in a vacuum-sealed bag, along with stock and lamb fat so that they are impregnated with flavour before they get crisped up in the oven. It’s a fine case of innovation coming to the aid of tradition.
It is a curious paradox, but every traditional dish, every time-honoured cooking technique, every artisan product, every Presidium and every Ark project, started of life as an innovation. There was a time when Lancashire Hot Pot, Bollito misto, Boeuf bourguignonne and Corned Beef Hash represented the fierce cutting-edge of culinary technology or gastronomic novelty. Can you imagine the scene when the pioneer chef announces his brilliant new dish to a sceptical audience?
“Ok, so you fry the onion and then add the rice. And then you add the stock?”
“How much stock? A ladle at a time? Oh, come on. Why can’t you pour it all in at once and be done with it?”
“What do you mean, you stir the rice? For how long!? What? All the time!?!”
“And what happens next? This is soooooo exciting. You beat in grated cheese and butter. That’s it?”
“It sounds like a lot of trouble to me.”
“It sounds like a recipe for disaster to me.”
“Come on. Let’s just grill up a sausages and have them with a good stew of beans.”
“Do you know, I’ve just come across these fabulous new beans. From Zolfino…”
At what stage an innovation becomes a tradition has never been satisfactorily established. Is it marked simply the passing of time? Is it how common a product or a technique becomes? Or is it linked to particular social or geographical circumstances? After all, it is quite possible that one region’s tradition becomes another country’s innovation. Balsamic vinegar is a case in point.
This exquisite condiment had been produced in Modena for several hundred years before it was discovered by English chefs about ten years ago. Suddenly everything was dowsed in balsamic vinegar. Unconstrained by any sense of local culinary culture, as would happen in Emilia-Romagna, English cooks started using the stuff like tomato ketchup, on fish, on meat, to liven up sauces and salads and soups.
Not only that, but its popularity sparked off a slew of product innovation of its own. Suddenly the happy shopper could stock up with fig balsamic vinegar and apple balsamic vinegar and pear balsamic vinegar. Clearly, these innovations had more to do with marketing opportunities than they did to the naturally questing nature of the human spirit or the desire for a better vinegar.
The chilli — Capsicum annuum or Capsicum frutescens — is a perfect illustration of the process by which something new becomes something honoured by time and custom. Sometime in the 16th century, chillies were hot stuff, literally as well as figuratively. Along with potatoes, tomatoes, tobacco, maize, turkeys and chocolate, chilli became the smart new ingredient in the cooking of Spain, Italy, India, South East Asia, the Balkans and Hungary.
It was adopted with astonishing rapidity as the spice of choice in many diverse areas by many diverse cultures because it was easy to grow, providing you had enough water and sunlight, and cheap at a time when other spices were prohibitively expensive for the great mass of the population.
Some five hundred years on, of course, chillies are such an integral part of the traditions of the cooking of those countries that it is almost impossible to imagine the cooking of these regions without them.
Equally, each culture has adapted the heat of the chilli to its own particular tastes. I remember eating a dish of pork fillet in a sauce of honey and chilli — carne ‘ncantarata in salsa di miele e peperoncino — at the Locanda de Alia in Calabria, and being told that it was adapted from an Albanian dish. I was sceptical until I learned of the widespread use of chilli in the Balkans; and of course there are villages in Calabria in which Albanian is still the first language, in spite of the fact that the families have been there for several centuries. It is very much the case of a culture surviving through its food as well as its language.
In fact, a people’s food is a museum of their culture. You can read the history of a people or a place through what you eat, as long as you know enough to understand where and when this ingredient came from and why it is still used. Even eating a Big Mac in Delhi tells you something about the imperialist nature of American culture, about how its fundamental dynamic is commercial, not political or social. And it tells you something about the nature of Indian society that they will eat such rubbish, although it may be something we would rather not hear. For the Indians, possibly, a Big Mac represents something other than tradition, something different, new and exciting. Heaven help us.
Although the way in which ingredients and styles can be common to many peoples and countries, the interest in food cultures, any culture, lies in their differences, not their similarities. We do not go to India to eat McDonald’s (unless we are mad), but to eat shakoothi or masoor dal aur bad gobi any more than we go to Las Vegas to see a copy of the Taj Mahal (unless we are madder still). We need diversity, we need difference, we need variety, not simply to satisfy our curiosity, but to express out own identity.
Tradition represents that identity. Tradition is our past, and it is only by understanding our past and recognising the value of tradition that we can hope to forge our future. That is why we must fight to preserve our traditions. We cannot afford to lose products, dishes, because if we do, we lose our history, we lose our diversity and our sense of ourselves. Tradition is the preserver of diversity.
At the same time we need to innovate. The fact is that there is a symbiotic relationship between innovation and tradition. Every tradition was once an innovation. That is the first paradox. There is a second paradox: we need innovations to turn into traditions. A second helping of Lancashire Hot Pot, anybody?
Matthew Fort is a British food and wine writer and journalist