Well, Here’s Another Nice Mess…

Were you as shocked as I to read of the recent death of Aldo Campeol owner of Le Beccherie in Treviso in northern Italy? Shock at the passing of a 93 year old man? Hardly, but it was the news that he was credited as the father of tiramisu, which had me shaking my head in disbelief. If the story is to be believed, this famous dessert will have celebrated just its fiftieth birthday this year.

I suspect that you, like me, imagined it to have evolved over the centuries, each generation arguing fiercely over whose nonna made the best version. Apparently not. What is less surprising is that it was the male owner who was credited, even though his wife Alba recalls creating it in conjunction with their chef Roberto Linguanotto. Men! I'd be willing to bet that the Marquis of Béchamel had never set foot in his kitchen (supposing he knew where it was), yet the sauce was named after him.

But perhaps the most interesting discovery was the fact that it was created by accident, not to say downright cockup. Alba and Roberto were making ice cream. They had the mix of sugar and egg yolks. It is not recorded which of them was short sighted/hungover/distracted. All we do know is that instead of cream being added, someone put in mascarpone instead. Add a few layers of a sweetened bread and some cocoa. Ecco! (that's the Italian for voilà!) Triumph snatched from the jaws of disaster.

History records a few such instances, though the haziness of memory can result in their stories being mistold. Take Kendal Mint Cake, for example. The tale I heard (and have oft repeated over the years) was of a batch of mint flavoured fondant accidentally dropped on to a cold stone flour and going hard. Nothing of the kind. In the mid 19th century the Thompson family were well known confectioners in Kendal in the Lake District. Most sweetie shop owners would manufacture their own. When Joseph Wiper married into the family they probably felt that they had to find something for the son-in-law to do. Boiled sweets, more particularly glacier mints. The good for nothing left the mixture overnight. It turned cloudy and solidified. Fortunately someone had the wit to have a nibble before it was chucked out, and Kendal Mint Cake was born.

If you knew about that, you're probably familiar with sisters, Stéphanie and Caroline, unmarried siblings who co-ran an eponymous hotel in Lamotte-Bevron in France. Somebody over cooked the apples intended for a pie. One sister had the genius idea of covering them with a disc of pastry and baking in the oven. Guests loved it: the Hôtel Tatin was on the map, and the sisters in the history books.

A similar, though less reliable, tale surrounds the Bakewell Pudding. According to legend, it was made by accident in the kitchen of the White Horse in Bakewell, run by a Mrs Greaves. Her cook, it is claimed, misunderstood a recipe for a strawberry tart. Instead of incorporating the egg mixture in the pastry, she spread it on top of a layer of jam, thus creating a pudding like confection. This is almost certainly spurious, as some claim to have found reference to the recipe some 300 years earlier. What is clear is that the pudding predates the tart. Indeed, when I spent time with friends in Bakewell, purists held the tart in very low esteem.

There must be many more instances, and I'd be happy to hear from you. But don't confuse cockup with inspired improvisation born out of necessity. Caesar Salad, for example, came about because the 4th of July business in Cardini's Restaurant in Tijuana was so brisk that they were left with very few supplies.

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  1. Robert. MrC on 12th November 2021 at 5:48 am

    Lea and Perrins is a good example of a failure turned good.

    • Tom Johnston on 12th November 2021 at 10:12 am

      Indeed – excellent example.

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