Wispa it quietly: it’s all about the texture

AUTHOR’S NOTE: On the Guardian website today is a piece by Amy Fleming on the changing shape of the Dairy Milk bar. I admit that this particular furore had passed me by; but as it happened, I’d just finished a piece on a connected subject, but with the emphasis on what the shape and texture of our chocolate can teach us about cooking creatively. Here it is.

A couple of connected questions for you.

Firstly, how many dishes do you know how to cook? Five? Ten? Twenty? More? Enough to keep you and yours from staring sadly at your plates while thinking “oh, not spag bol again”?

Secondly, what’s your favourite chocolate bar?

The link between the two questions may not be immediately obvious, but bear with me. If you’re able to answer the first question with an exact figure, you might do well to spend some time thinking about the second.

Same old, same old

Recently, a report by Morrisons indicated that the average Briton remains stuck in a “repeat meal rut”, maintaining a rotation of as few as five different meals. And apparently, more than half of us are still eating exactly the same meals we were ten years ago.

These results aren’t exactly surprising. What is even less surprising is the fact that the supermarket is using the findings to promote its range of pre-prepared meals. The message is unambiguous: if you don’t want to eat the same thing over and over again, look no further than the ever-expanding ready meals section.

Well, here’s an alternative idea. If you’re about to cook the same meal for the 521st week running, don’t just admit defeat and reach for the convenience food. Instead, borrow a little trick from the chocolate-makers: take those familiar old ingredients, and look for a new way to put them together.

And if you doubt whether that will make any significant difference to your meal, may I refer you back to the chocolate question.

Wispa campaign

Do you remember the outcry when Cadbury withdrew the Wispa from sale in 2003? Attempts to rebrand it as a variant on Dairy Milk were unsuccessful, and the bar was finally restored permanently to our shelves in 2008, following a coordinated protest on social media – a Wispa campaign, if you will.

I can certainly recall being one of the outraged many when the Wispa disappeared; but why? Why didn’t I just shrug my shoulders and buy a Flake, a Twirl, a Spira – itself discontinued in 2005, prompting a Facebook campaign of its own – or any of the other milk chocolate bars made from exactly the same ingredients?

The answer, of course, is in the texture. The ingredients might be the same, but the eating experience is quite different in each case, solely as a result of the relative distribution of chocolate and air.

Whether we realise it or not, we have a pretty sophisticated understanding of the power of texture, at least as far as confectionery is concerned. As a nation of eaters, we know our Twirls from our Wispas. But when we cook, it tends to be the forgotten factor. We’re forever looking for new and exciting flavour combinations; but we’re oblivious to the textural possibilities of the ingredients we buy every week.

Where flavour meets texture

Writing in the Scotsman, Tom Kitchin discusses the years he spent as a trainee chef, learning different ways to chop and prepare ingredients to produce a range of effects. And he makes the crucial point that “cooking isn’t just about recipes. It’s about taking ingredients and making them taste as good as you possibly can.”

This is a sentiment I’d wholeheartedly endorse – to the extent that I’ve just written an entire book about the benefits of cooking without recipes – but I have a slight problem with the terminology. To return briefly to matters chocolatey, is there actually any difference in taste between a Dairy Milk and a Flake? I’d argue not; but their contrasting textures lead us to perceive them differently.

So why wouldn’t the same apply to savoury ingredients? Our eating experience is determined by the combination of flavour and texture. The two factors might not quite be equally weighted – in that no amount of textural magnificence can rescue a meal that tastes repulsive – but they are as fundamental as they are inseparable. A gelatinous, mouth-coating, lip-smacking sauce is a world away from a watery broth, even if they “taste” about the same. And the coleslaw in your sandwich would be an altogether cruder – and, let’s face it, weirder – experience, if the vegetables were roughly chopped rather than finely grated.

Safe experimentation

When I’m encouraging people to get creative with their home cooking, I invite them to think of their kitchens as their own personal research and development departments. The potential problem with this, of course, is that few of us can afford the time or expense of a failed experiment when we’ve got a family to feed.

But this is exactly where textural innovation comes into its own. Experimenting with flavour can be a fraught business. Attempt to pair lamb with banana, and you might just create something wonderful, but there’s every chance that it’ll be disgusting to the point of inedible. Focus on the texture, however, and you run none of the same risks. The ingredients are all familiar, you already know you like them, and you know they work well together. So you can get as creative as you like, secure in the knowledge that there’s not an awful lot that can go wrong.

So when you’re next faced with the ingredients for that over-familiar spag bol, why not try putting them together in a different way? Roll the minced beef into balls – you won’t need any additional binding agent, as the tackiness of the meat will be enough on its own – rather than using loose mince. Try putting the garlic in the meatball mix rather than the sauce, so that each morsel carries a distinct garlicky hit. If you’re in the habit of leaving the vegetables as chunky dice, try chopping them as finely as you can, then frying them gently so that they melt away into the sauce. Experiment with solid cuts of meat instead of mince, and with how finely you chop them.

Alternatively, why not play around with how the constituent parts (pasta and sauce) are divided? Leave the bacon out of the Bolognese and the Parmesan off the table, and instead, toss the spaghetti with Parmesan and fried pancetta before serving alongside the sauce. And feel free to take your pick from the dozens of shapes of pasta on the supermarket shelves, knowing that each will produce a slightly different effect.

It’s true that several of these examples would fail to meet any accepted definition of spaghetti Bolognese. But to put it bluntly: so what? If it turns out that I prefer it, then give me “bucatini al Tom” any day.

The fallacy of authenticity

Here’s one final question. If it’s so straightforward, why aren’t we all in the habit of experimenting with texture every time we cook?

In my view, there are two reasons. I’ve mentioned the first already: we tend to underestimate the significance of texture in our meals. The solution to this is straightforward: think back to the chocolate bar question, and remind yourself that the same principles apply to everything you cook and eat.

It’s not just that we underestimate the significance of texture when we cook (though most of us undoubtedly do). It’s also that we’re all too bloody obedient for our own good. We follow recipes dutifully, rarely bothering to ask why. And we have an unhealthy obsession with authenticity, as if there were some omniscient spaghetti God watching our every move, ready to strike us down at the first sign of non-compliance.

Well, I’ll risk an eternity of pasta damnation by saying to you now: there isn’t.

Food, like language, evolves constantly. Moreover, there are only two characteristics shared by all of the world’s most celebrated dishes, from paella to haggis. The first is they were invented not by design, but by happy quirks of necessity and circumstance. And the second is that no two cooks can agree on the “right” ways to make them. So our quest for authenticity is doomed to failure, because the holy grail we seek simply doesn’t exist.

So, with all that in mind, might I nudge you gently in the direction of a little textural experimentation? Take the meals you know only too well and reassemble them in a way you don’t. You never know: you might just stumble upon your own savoury equivalent of the Wispa bar.

And best of all, the next time anyone asks how many dishes you know how to cook, you’ll be able to answer honestly and with pride: “I have absolutely no idea.”

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Dogs 1, trolls 0: when social media goes good

The prodigal dog

The prodigal dog

Social media has had something of a bad name recently, with the dreadful abuse of high-profile women leading, among other things, to Sunday’s “Twitter silence” (which inevitably prompted its share of unnecessary bile as well).

By way of balance, here’s a little story to illustrate just how valuable social media can be – and by extension, how fundamentally kind and helpful the majority of people are.

Its beginnings aren’t exactly glamorous. Last Tuesday, I went to visit my sister Roz, partly to see her and my beautiful two-month-old nephew Joseph, and partly to do some washing, because our machine was goosed and I’d run out of clean pants.

The house was unusually quiet, even allowing for Joseph’s impressively powerful lungs, because Roz’s loopy but lovely labradoodle Wilbur was away being walked on Blackford Hill, on the other side of the city.

Exercising Wilbur is never the easiest task, because while he’s extremely fond of retrieving sticks, he’s less keen on giving them back. So it’s always necessary to carry more sticks than he can fit into his mouth. And when the time comes to go home, he generally indulges in his preferred pastime of evading the person trying to catch him.

I enjoyed a long lunch and a natter with Roz; but as the afternoon went on, she became increasingly concerned that the dog walker hadn’t returned with Wilbur. At 4pm, while she was out visiting a potential future nursery for Joseph, Roz received a call to say that Wilbur had run off and couldn’t be found.

She rushed back to the house and, in the space of 30 seconds, explained the situation, gave me a crash course in childminding and mixing formula milk, borrowed 20 quid for a taxi and headed for Blackford Hill.

A couple of hours passed as I attempted, with mixed success, to feed, change, entertain and placate a distinctly lively infant. Looking back, this was probably a useful distraction, because the mind has a tendency to play tricks at times such as these. For every practical, positive thought – Wilbur is microchipped, his details are on his collar, he’s not (quite) as daft as he appears – there’s at least another maudlin one, usually prompted by a glance at the half-finished bowl of dog food in the kitchen. Trying to persuade a two-month-old to sleep more and scream less was an effective (if unplanned) way to keep the dark thoughts at bay.

When I finally heard from Roz, there was still no sign of Wilbur, so I suggested sending out a tweet to ask people to look out for him. I didn’t think it would make any great difference, but we agreed it couldn’t do any harm. After several minutes spent wrestling with Roz’s iPad with one hand, while holding a frequently agitated Joseph in the other, I managed to do so. As I put the iPad down, I noticed that the background picture was of Wilbur jumping for a tennis ball and catching it in his mouth. Cue further unhelpful thoughts.

A few pieces of serendipity, along with countless acts of kindness, were responsible for what followed.

My friend Rhian runs a brilliant website called dugsnpubs.com, which showcases dog-friendly venues in Edinburgh and beyond. She saw my tweet, retweeted it and also posted Wilbur’s picture and details on the Dugs n Pubs Facebook page. But, fully occupied with fettling an increasingly voluble baby, I wasn’t to know this until several hours later.

At 10pm, Roz’s husband Callum returned home to introduce some much-needed competence to the baby-minding process, while Roz and friends continued the hunt on Blackford Hill. I made my frazzled way home and, enjoying the luxury of two free hands for the first time in six hours, opened up my PC and logged into Facebook and Twitter. What I saw astonished me.

My tweet had received over 150 retweets – later to rise to 290, including one, somewhat improbably, from former TV-am weather forecaster Wincey Willis – and the Dugs n Pubs Facebook post on Facebook was well on its way to an eventual 900+ shares.

Several local residents had seen the tweets or Facebook post and, unprompted, gone out to look for a dog they’d never met, on behalf of some people they didn’t know. Sightings were reported on Comiston Road – where Wilbur narrowly avoided a speeding ambulance on an emergency call – and, several hours later, outside Braid Hills golf course. Suggestions flooded into my Twitter feed of shelters and services we might contact, and I passed these on to my grateful but increasingly desperate sister.

By 3am, an incredible 27,552 people had seen the Facebook post. Wilbur was fast attaining the level of local celebrity status that would normally be enough to secure an annual panto gig at the King’s Theatre. Friends were texting me offering to join the search, and many more perfect strangers – “perfect” in more than one sense – were combing the hills and streets.

As Roz continued to search the area, she was asked more than once, “Are you out looking for Wilbur as well?” It took all her composure to hold herself together as she replied, “He’s my dog.”

Finally, at 9.34am on Wednesday – around eighteen hours after Wilbur had been lost – I received the message that he had been found near Midmar Gardens, scared and barking in a bush above a sheer drop. It was back in the direction of where he’d disappeared, but some distance from any of the previous day’s sightings. Evidently, he’d been roaming the area pretty extensively – which made the breadth of the social media-driven search all the more crucial.

I let out a loud, guttural “yesssssssssss”, of the kind I normally reserve for Brighton and Hove Albion scoring an injury time winner, then began the happy task of passing on the news to Wilbur’s newfound internet fan club.

Recently, there’s been a concerted (and ultimately successful) campaign for a “report abuse” button to be added to Twitter. I’m still not sure where I stand on that; but I do wish it were still possible to see a list of everyone who’s retweeted you, even (indeed especially) when that number is in the hundreds. As it stands, only the most recent few retweets are listed; so there are literally tons of people who helped find Wilbur who may not know of the happy ending. Nor have I been able to thank them all directly, which I’d love to do (though those I’ve been able to trace, I’ve thanked, including – somewhat improbably – former TV-am weather forecaster Wincey Willis).

But I suppose if I’ve learned anything this week, it’s that word travels pretty damn fast on social media. Hopefully some of the good Samaritans will read this, or glance back at my Twitter feed sometime, and find out the good news.

As for Facebook – which, I suspect, had a greater and more locally focussed impact in this case than Twitter’s more scattergun effect – here are a couple of the comments I read in response to the disappearance, and subsequent rediscovery, of Wilbur:

“I walked up Blackford this morning with a spare lead & biscuits, just in case I saw him.”

“Aw great news, my kids were so worried they wanted to go and look for him, but I had to explain Aberdeenshire is a long way from [Edinburgh]. They will be so pleased to hear he is safe and back home!”

Would we have found Wilbur if Facebook and Twitter didn’t exist? Perhaps. But I have my doubts.

We couldn’t have been sure that he was still in the area but for the sightings reported through social media, and would have had to spread out our search. The person who spotted Wilbur at Braid Hills would, I suspect, have hesitated to phone in the middle of the night without the confirmation from her son that this was indeed “the dog from Facebook”. And at some stage, Wilbur’s good fortune in navigating fast-moving traffic would inevitably have run out.

As a rather lovely postscript to the saga, Roz was in the supermarket on Friday to buy a bottle of champagne, to mark the end of a long week and Wilbur’s safe return. On reaching the checkout, the server asked her if she was celebrating something. When she explained that she was toasting the return of her lost dog, the reply came: “Is that Wilbur from Blackford Hill?”

If there’s a conclusion I can draw from last week’s contrasting examples of social media in action, it’s a fairly obvious one: that the medium can only ever be what we make of it. To be able to reach, in a matter of hours, more people than you’ll ever meet in person in your whole life, would only a few years ago have seemed utterly implausible.

It’s a remarkable privilege to have, and we’re only beginning to learn how to deal with it. But as we do, it’s worthwhile to remember that for every act of anonymised online cowardice, there are so many more gestures of support, selflessness and faith.

And for every hideous troll, there’s a gorgeous wee dog.

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