Hamburgers didn’t appear on my scene until I was 20 and I was lucky in that it was a truly authentic American version. It could hardly have been otherwise: it happened at an American Air Force base near Edinburgh in the days when the Yanks were still over there.
A very thin layer of a large onion, done on a frying pan until it reached a pale caramel colour without disintegrating, occupied the ground floor of the bun which was smeared with ketchup. A well seared burger of medium thickness was placed atop the onion slice and then came a leaf of crisp lettuce with wafer-thin slices of dill-flavoured gherkins. The other half of the bun was toasted in a dry frying pan, dabbed with a scraping of mustard and finally anointed with four compass-placed drops of Tabasco. It was neat and it was scrummy and although it was a gastronomic experience for me I never got round to making one at home until a few years after arriving in Palma.
My second burger was eaten at a Wimpy Bar, born in London in 1954, and eventually a fast food giant with more than a thousand restaurants in 23 countries. There are still more than 60 in England. The Wimpy was a poor attempt at doing an American burger and I never had a second one. Some 30 years later I tried my first McDonalds at their Mallorcan launching pad in Palmanova. It also wasn’t in the same league as the two I had at the American Air Force base.
I didn’t eat burgers again until the late 1990s when a few Palma bars and restaurants started to produce upmarket versions, using top quality beef or pork minced on the premises. Some were extremely good and recommendable and I reviewed a couple of them.
Palma’s bars and restaurants scene is a ruthless place to be in, because just about all of them want to make a better mousetrap. The rest copied recipes and ideas and called it an ‘adaptation’. A better term would have been ‘blatant plagiarism’ because that’s what it was.
Some places made a better mousetrap (or thought they did) by introducing layer after layer of taste to the burger, usually in the form of crunchy veggies or sliced cheese that looked like plastic and added almost nothing in the way of flavour. There came a moment when burgers were made up of so many bits and pieces they were too tall to hold, even with both hands.
Biting into them became awkward and also rather messy: mustards, ketchups and mayos are an obligatory and squishy part of the modern burger experience. These modern (but baroque) burgers are turn-offs for me: when a patty made with Angus beef is pinkly grilled, very juicy and tasty, it doesn’t need other layers of flavours. A restaurant in the Es Baluard museum square had the best Angus patties I have come across and the cook also grilled them to a lovely pinkness when requested. He also did the best caramelised onions I’ve ever had.
Most burgers at that time were served in the Pisa Tower style: extra layers of ingredients that made them so tall they sometimes sagged to one side. No one has ever been able to do anything to make the Pisa Tower straight, but I found it easy enough to get myself the kind of burger I wanted. I told the cook his burger patties were the finest of any bar or restaurant I know and that they were so memorable they deserved a simple presentation to enjoy them to the fullest.
So I got him to put the beautiful soft and moist patty on the bottom half of the bun and top it with a good amount of caramelised onions. And nothing else, except the top half of the bun. The pulpy succulence of the onions paired nicely with the amazing juiciness and meaty taste of the patty. It was the simplest and by far the greatest burger I’ve ever had. And because I didn’t want it with all the trimmings, the cook took €2 off the price.
The tower-like presentation of burgers eventually spread to the ordinary restaurants and we soon saw it copied everywhere. The fish and meats in starters and main courses found themselves topping the other ingredients, or being smothered by them. In some Italian restaurants, even the long pasta was spun round a fork and placed on the plate like a Vesuvius.
It was a form of presentation I didn’t like one little bit, mainly because in order to get at the food on the plate, the tower had to be demolished. All of a sudden everything was all over the plate and looking like a mishmash. It’s not my idea of fine dining, yet it was presented as if it were. If a fillet of fish were on the top of the tower, you had to take it off, place it on the side and then dismantle the other parts. What was supposed to be an elegant dish quickly looked like culinary rubble.
This was mainly because the so-called creative cooks will do something different even when that variance makes for awkward eating. A Canadian friend who abhorred tower food, always sent it back and then ordered another dish, telling the waiter the component parts had to be presented in a single layer.
If you want to learn a few tips on good cooking and presentation you should watch the TV programmes of Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver, Rick Stein, Gordon Ramsay and James Martin and read the tie-in books. These five (and a few others) are real cooks, doing real food for real people, and they have a great deal to teach us about well made everyday dishes. Jamie is the best of these five at showing us little (and not so little) culinary tricks.
Sometimes these clever ways of doing something like an expert are part of the instructions about making a successful dish. But on other occasions he doesn’t announce them: you have to keep your eye on him to see what he’s doing and when.
I saw one of the programmes in which he’s working against the clock to get a dish finished in 15 minutes. As always you see and hear him handing out tips we can use in the making of that dish and also in other recipes. But the other day he did one of his unannounced little tricks that only the camera sees — and viewers as well if they’ve been watching closely.
Jamie was twirling round the kitchen, talking like a sten gun (which isn’t as fast as a kalashnikov automatic rifle, but fast enough) when he picked up a jar of olives and couldn’t open it. Without missing a beat, he nonchalantly picked a heavy kitchen knife and used the pointed heel of the blade to nick the jar lid and let air into the vacuum. The lid opened at the next try. I’ll remember that the next time I can’t open a jar of marmalade.
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