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When it comes to food, authentic doesn’t always mean good

Can only native Italians bake real pizza and must they hail from Naples for it to be authentic?

Hogging the myth: an “authentic pizza” stall at a village fair in Somma Vesuviana, near Naples. Photo: Antonio Zambardino/Contrasto/Redux
Hogging the myth: an “authentic pizza” stall at a village fair in Somma Vesuviana, near Naples. Photo: Antonio Zambardino/Contrasto/Redux

With hindsight, I can see I was asking for it. Fancy a southerner having the brass neck to publish a recipe for the perfect Lancashire hotpot – it was “cultural appropriation at its worst”, as one reader thundered on the Guardian website. Another objected that I was clearly not an impoverished Victorian millworker: “Yet another upmarket recipe posing as the original ‘working-class’ dish!” Apparently, my version, based on extensive research and experimentation, lacked that vital ingredient: authenticity.

Such complaints are nothing new. They have surfaced time and again in the four years I’ve dared to put my name to the Guardian’s How to Cook the Perfect . . . column. I’m not Italian enough to make proper pizza, too middle class to know owt about a bacon butty, too omnivorous to have a valid opinion on bean burgers . . . You get the picture.

I take comfort in the knowledge that I’m in good company. A couple of years ago, when Nigella took on pizza, the Daily Mail published the disapproving reactions of some Umbrian nonnas – “It is an insult to Italy!” – and I recently read a review tearing into Elizabeth David for her peasant food aimed at the “upper middle class”. And if David, who spent years travelling across the Continent collecting recipes, doesn’t make the grade, then who does? Can only native Italians bake real pizza and must they hail from Naples for it to be authentic?

Indeed, does a margherita made in Naples by a tenth-generation pizzaiolo lose its integrity when inauthentic old me takes a bite? I have certainly heard it argued that the second someone who isn’t a local eats it, it’s no longer authentic because the outlander can’t know the full social and cultural history of the food. This makes “authentic” consumption sound like a pretty joyless business, frankly.

If the same bona fide Neapolitan travels to the United States, does American flour suddenly render the product a dirty fake? And what if, on returning home, this maverick is inspired to put jalapeños, or ketchup, or (the horror!) pineapple on a pizza, just for the hell of it? Exactly how far back do you have to go to find an authentic recipe?

The more I ponder the idea of culinary authenticity, the sillier it seems. Food, like every other aspect of our culture, is constantly evolving and the word “purity” should be regarded with the same suspicion here as it is in any other context. (It is telling, I think, that most efforts to set a particular recipe in stone seem to be motivated largely by commercial interests.)

Moreover, authentic doesn’t always mean good. Poor cooking has no respect for borders and there’s no guarantee that a samosa from a street vendor in Lucknow will be superior to the ones served at your local Bangladeshi restaurant.

Above all, I suspect that the so-called authentic peasant cooks of the past revered by modern foodies would laugh themselves silly at such posturing. Many dishes now worshipped as classics of cucina povera were born of necessity rather than gourmandism – your average Tuscan peasant would have leapt at the opportunity to liven up a stale bread salad with anchovies, whatever these self-appointed guardians of culinary purity may claim.

That is not to say there is no value in understanding where a dish came from. I’d argue that it’s vital you understand its history before you begin to play about with it. If you know that Lancashire is prime sheep country, for instance, then you’d better have a damn good reason for making its hotpot with duck, Goosnargh or not. But if you do decide to have a go, then I wish you luck. Just don’t expect everyone to thank you for it.

Felicity Cloake’s “Perfect Too” is published on 3 April by Fig Tree (£18.99)

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