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Book review: Signature Dishes That Matter

31 October 2019 by
Book review: Signature Dishes That Matter

Signature Dishes That Matter by Christine Muhlke et al

Phaidon, £35

Modern gastronomy is often about looking forward: to the next Instagrammable dish, the next fashionable cuisine, the next tasting menu to tempt the jaded palates of jet-setting foodies. It’s timely then, that Bon Appetit magazine editor at large and food writer Christine Muhlke, along with a panel of six other experts (including London-based Richard Vines, chief food critic at Bloomberg) have curated a collection of 240 restaurant dishes that span six centuries and illustrate how a good idea can endure.

From the first ever gelato created in 1686 by Procopio Cutò at Le Procope in Paris to Tomos Parry’s whole turbot, first served at his London restaurant Brat in 2018, this is an idiosyncratic collection that will raise an eyebrow or two (Big Mac anyone?) and spark debate, rather than stand as “the definitive canon of cuisine”, as claimed in the introduction.

But it is a fascinating read, with Muhlke’s concise, well-written and researched narratives (all illustrated with hand-painted watercolours by artist and trained chef Adriano Rampazzo) providing descriptions and histories of the dishes that are full of fascinating detail.

Did you know, for example, that Baked Alaska was first served at Delmonico’s in New York in 1867 in honour of the treaty with Russia that signed Alaska over to the US?

The book falls down slightly when it comes to recipes, with rather too many listed as unavailable. Josef Keller’s 1915 recipe for Black Forest cake may be “a closely guarded secret”, but an alternative, if less authentic, version would have been better than the rough description provided.

Signature Dishes That Matter is an invaluable resource for chefs who want to learn more about the history of world cuisine and is perfect for dipping into between or after services. It could also provide inspiration for some retro specials or help inform the creation of new signature dishes that might one day take their own place between the covers of a cookbook.

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