Yesterday social media seethed with anger and contempt over a tomato salad. Yes, Nigella Lawson had posted a picture of her “old-fashioned tomato salad” on Instagram, and many responded like this Facebook user: “I REALLY hope this is a joke!? This is a dish of cherry tomatoes cut in half, with a squirt of salad cream . . . get over youself for goodness sake!!!”
Lawson has form for outraging the public with her salad recipes — remember her deconstructed caesar one made of burnt lettuce with a fried egg on top? — but frankly the criticism seemed deeply unfair. Weren’t tomatoes and salad cream a British summer classic — albeit more Essex than Knightsbridge — ripe for celebration?
I’ve always loved salad cream, although when I opened my fridge to make the recipe myself I can’t say that I was surprised to find no bottle of Heinz waiting inside. I don’t think I have bought a bottle of it for years, and Lawson may have anticipated as much, since she provided a link to her recipe for making the stuff yourself.
The recipe reads like a 1950s store-cupboard classic. Begin by mixing a tablespoon of flour, a teaspoon of sugar, a quarter of a teaspoon of mustard powder, a pinch of salt and 250ml of milk. Mix the dry ingredients with a splash of the milk, and once you have a paste, heat gently, whisking in the rest of the milk until it thickens. Once off the heat add four tablespoons of tarragon vinegar (or just vinegar) and a couple of egg yolks, then beat with a whisk.
Having made it, I have to admit to being a tad disappointed. Instead of yanking me back in time to a barbecue in 1980s Ilford, I remained mired in the present by a bowl of floury yellow gloop that oozed austerity. Even when combined with the acidity of halved cherry tomatoes, I was not getting the sweet, vinegary hit that I remembered from my childhood.
I felt compelled to head to the nearest shop and buy a bottle of the sleazy, factory-made stuff and, once home, I shook an unctuous slug of it across a roughly chopped pile of cherry tomatoes. Sadly I still didn’t experience a Proustian rush. Had my north London palate been ruined by cooking one too many Ottolenghi recipes, or did someone drastically change the formula of the salad cream of my dreams? It tasted over-sweetened and under-seasoned and had the unforgivable overwhelming hum of boiled UHT milk. Was it always this bad? What did we do in Britain before Heston Blumenthal “invented” umami? Lick envelopes?
Returning to my Nigella mixture, I increased the salt and doubled the amount of mustard and vinegar. The result was a dressing fit to grace any tomato — although preferably some nice heirloom ones from the local farmers’ market rather than the supermarket ones that taste like antiseptic if you store them in the fridge.
While it may not equal my memory of salad cream, it is certainly better than anything that you might buy in the shops. If Lawson could find a way to ditch the flour — perhaps a sabayon? — we might just have a classic worth reviving.