Sun 17 Jun 2007
This was mentioned in The New York Times food section last week, a “carpaccio of tomatoes.”
Now friends, you may slice a tomato thick or you may slice it thin, but no matter how thin you slice it, it’s still just a sliced tomato. And a sliced grapefruit — not an easy matter anyway — is not a “carpaccio of grapefruit,” which I have seen on menus; it’s just a sliced grapefruit.
Most people who love food, especially Italian food, know that beef Carpaccio is a dish that consists of paper-thin slices of raw beef served with olive oil, arugula and Parmesan cheese. It was invented by Giuseppe Cipriani of Harry’s Bar in Venice and named after the great Venetian artist Vittori Carpaccio (1460?-1525/6). The point is, I mean my point is, that “carpaccio” is not a technique; it’s a dish, which could (one grants) have some acceptable range of variation — one pictured here has truffles, which seems like over-kill — but still must necessarily operate within its proper sphere. I could see lamb Carpaccio, for example, treated in the regular manner, but I have also been served shrimp Carpaccio and octopus Carpaccio, and I would say that those concepts are beyond the pale.
Today, you see, carpaccio has become the new napoleon. What I mean is that 10 to 15 or more years ago, witty (or desperate) chefs expanded the notion of the luxurious dessert called a napoleon — layers of puff pastry alternating with pastry cream, whipped cream or jam and topped with fondant icing, traditionally with combed brown and white stripes — to mean any group of ingredients stacked in layers. Hence, lobster napoleons, hence sweetbread and foie gras napoleons. The limit, for me, was reached at La Maison Blanche, in Paris, in March 1990, where I was served a “napoleon” that stacked, carefully, eel with eggplant and zucchini. Sorry, but that sounds like vertical ratatouille to me.
(What I chiefly remember about the restaurant is that a large white German shepherd-like dog was sleeping right inside the front door, blocking the way in or out. Nobody paid attention; they just stepped over the dog. The French are sort of lovable after all.)
The connection between the dessert and the short Corsican conqueror seems to be the remarkable resemblance that the pastry napoleon bears to Napoleon’s Tomb at Les Invalides. Ha-ha, no, I made that up, it’s probably an association with napolitain, the French adjective for Naples.
All right, F.K., you’re saying, you’re on one of your tears again.
Well, hell, yes, of course, because words have meanings and they matter, and the names of things, the names by which we know them — napoleons and carpaccio — have meanings and they matter. When those words and names are blurred and forgotten, we have lost something irreplaceable. When some master chef of the “Slicing and Dicing” class at the Culinary Institute of America blithely says, “O.K., apprentices, carpaccio those tomatoes for me and napoleon them on the plates,” we have doomed ourselves a little.
I’m just trying to keep that from happening quite so soon.
The image of the beef carpaccio at top is from abc.net.au; the second carpaccio (with truffles) is from atmospherebistro.com. The napoleon is from grahamdavies.net; Napoelon’s tomb is from sagarmatha.com. Thanks to all.