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The Secret Life of Recipes

Picasso said:

"Good artists borrow; great artist steal"

I think the same could be said of cooks.

It seems strange to me that if you plagiarise the written word, copy a work of art under a hundred years old or rip off a tune either consciously or unconsciously the law will seek you out but a recipe has no rights of intellectual property. You may argue that it would be impossible to enforce but is not a recipe or dish any more complex, say, than the line: ‘In Penny Lane there is a barber selling photographs’ with its accompanying melody.

The only reason I have been musing on this subject is that I recently spotted a recipe in a magazine that was close to being a blueprint of a recipe I have been using and teaching for over twenty years. There is, of course, nothing new in this area; recipes get handed down, passed along, forgotten then rediscovered; they get modernised, bastardised, rehashed, borrowed and stolen.

All professional or serious cooks collect recipe books and I have several shelves of them dating back to a time when there were very few – unlike today. It amuses me when I see in the latest gastronomic tome a recipe I recognise has come from a book I have from the sixties. OK, it’s been given a tweak but it is basically the same. Some I can even follow its journey through each decade as it gets ‘discovered’ by successive generations.

A toffee pudding recipe winds its way from the pages of a Phillip Harben recipe, reaches John Tovey’s book, takes a detour via Margaret Costa and turns right into the nineties and gets into a book by Delia Smith. There the trail goes cold but no doubt it will pop up again soon. And that is just a journey through the pages of books – they have another life just being handed from person to person.

There was signature dish of a restaurant in Bath, (now closed) which was ‘Salmon baked in pastry with ginger and currants’. This recipe can be traced back to Tudor times. There are two recipes in Mrs Beeton’s book for that old fashioned favourite – blancmange. One is made with milk and arrowroot, the other is set with gelatine. A little investigation reveals that the recipe is not a million miles removed from that modern restaurant favourite, Pannacotta – so this one has an alias as well as a history.

Every chef worth his salt and pepper will give his own twist on a recipe regardless of whether it is a French classic or an old English favourite. And now with the influence of world cuisine we are seeing a proliferation of ‘fusion’ cooking. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t – but hey, no new invention ever happened without a few failures behind it.

Probably the reason nobody is ever sued or prosecuted over plagiarised recipes is that there is not enough money involved and I hope that will always be the case. So yes; go ahead, steal my recipes because as likely as not I stole them from someone else in the first place.