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 write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

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

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide