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

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)

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

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Recess confidential: Labour's liquid party

Sniffing out the best stories from Westminster, including Showsec, soames, and Smith-side splits.

If you are celebrating in a brewery, don’t ask Labour to provide the drinks. Because of the party’s continuing failure to secure a security contractor for its Liverpool conference, it is still uncertain whether the gathering will take place at all. Since boycotting G4S, the usual supplier, over its links with Israeli prisons, Labour has struggled to find an alternative. Of the five firms approached, only one – Showsec – offered its services. But the company’s non-union-recognition policy is inhibiting an agreement. The GMB, the firm’s antagonist, has threatened to picket the conference if Showsec is awarded the contract. In lieu of a breakthrough, sources suggest two alternatives: the police (at a cost of £59.65 per constable per hour), or the suspension of the G4S boycott. “We’ll soon find out which the Corbynites dislike the least,” an MP jested. Another feared that the Tories’ attack lines will write themselves: “How can Labour be trusted with national security if it can’t organise its own?”

Farewell, then, to Respect. The left-wing party founded in 2004 and joined by George Galloway after his expulsion from Labour has officially deregistered itself.

“We support Corbyn’s Labour Party,” the former MP explained, urging his 522,000 Facebook followers to sign up. “The Labour Party does not belong to one man,” replied Jess Phillips MP, who also pointed out in the same tweet that Respect had “massively failed”. Galloway, who won 1.4 per cent of the vote in this year’s London mayoral election, insists that he is not seeking to return to Labour. But he would surely be welcomed by Jeremy Corbyn’s director of communications, Seumas Milne, whom he once described as his “closest friend”. “We have spoken almost daily for 30 years,” Galloway boasted.

After Young Labour’s national committee voted to endorse Corbyn, its members were aggrieved to learn that they would not be permitted to promote his candidacy unless Owen Smith was given equal treatment. The leader’s supporters curse more “dirty tricks” from the Smith-sympathetic party machine.

Word reaches your mole of a Smith-side split between the ex-shadow cabinet ministers Lisa Nandy and Lucy Powell. The former is said to be encouraging the challenger’s left-wing platform, while the latter believes that he should make a more centrist pitch. If, as expected, Smith is beaten by Corbyn, it’s not only the divisions between the leader and his opponents that will be worth watching.

Nicholas Soames, the Tory grandee, has been slimming down – so much so, that he was congratulated by Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, on his weight loss. “Soon I’ll be able to give you my old suits!” Soames told the similarly rotund Watson. 

Kevin Maguire is away

I'm a mole, innit.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser