Even before my grandmother’s eyesight went, she wasn’t the cleanest of cooks. Her teacups were always grimy and stained the colour of David Dickinson’s face. The plates she served sandwiches and crisps on were often greasy from some previous opened tin of ham. And the vegetables she pulled from the garden were given a cursory swish under the tap, and were gritty and tasted of soil. “You eat a peck of dirt before you die,” she would always say, dismissing any concerns about hygiene.
I may not have fully appreciated her boil-in-the-bag cod in parsley sauce, and cold platters of crisps and Spam always with an opened tin of sweetcorn on the side, but how ahead of her time she was when it came to garnishing her boiled-to-blithereens vegetables with soil.
Like comedy, they say timing is everything in cooking, and I can only think of the money she could have made if she’d only moved to Japan and opened a fancy French restaurant selling dishes caked in dirt for £70 a pop, like Tokyo’s Ne Quittez Pas.
Of course, this isn’t just any common or garden soil. It’s special black compost from Kanuma and is apparently safe to eat just like fugu. According to Japanese news website Rocketnews24, Ne Quittez Pas’ chef Toshio Tanabe once won a TV cooking competition with his dirt sauce, and from there his soil-infused tasting menu took roots.
The first course is a shot glass of potato starch and dirt soup, dusted with salt around the rim, and topped with a slice of black truffle. “It was divine! There wasn’t a dirty flavour at all. Instead, this simple soup went down smoothly with just a hint of potato flavour,” gushed the reviewer.
Then comes a salad of grilled eggplant, tomato, and turnips with a dressing made from dirt and ground popcorn, followed by “minerals of the sea and minerals of the land” - an aspic jelly made with clams and a top layer of sediment, with dirt risotto, fried sea bass and burdock root.
“With these dishes too, there wasn’t a dirt flavour. I had to wonder what had happened to the characteristic yeasty smell of soil,” said the reviewer, which does beg the question why add the stuff in the first place? But then in a nonsensical, PR-savvy age, where freshly-foraged ants in Kilner jars are all the rage, what the hell do I know?
For pudding, there is dirt ice cream and a dirt gratin, washed down with dirt mint tea which “looked like muddy water (sorry, but it’s true), but the minty taste was bracing.”
“As to why the meal didn’t taste at all of dirt, that is likely due to the dirt itself, which is supplied by a company called Protoleaf. Using coffee grinds and palm fibre, which were previously just thrown away, the company has created a novel and eco-friendly compost,” added the reviewer.
I’m not convinced it will catch on. But if it does, it will bring a certain authenticity to the many “dirty” burgers and other gourmet fast foods doing the rounds in London.