The advertising campaign that wouldn’t die

Posted by in July's Magazine

The billboards and TV ads have, I think, been mercifully retired – though I’ve had moments of false hope on this before. But on the Sainsbury’s website, you can still find all manner of ‘Little Twists’ inviting you to wax not-all-that-experimental with otherwise familiar meals by adding mustard to risotto, horseradish to macaroni cheese or pickled herring to banoffee pie. (I may have made one of those up.)

For those fortunate enough to have missed it, this is the campaign that started a couple of years ago with an entirely manufactured [adopts best Chris Morris voice] FURORE over the suggestion of adding instant coffee to Bolognese sauce. Countless column inches were devoted to this perceived travesty (how dare Sainsbury’s meddle with our Great British Bolognese?) and inevitably sales of mince, pasta sauce and instant coffee skyrocketed – job done, as far as Sainsbury’s ‘creatives’ were concerned.


And was the coffee Bolognese any good? I’ve absolutely no idea. I imagine it would be palatable enough – though as I’ll come to shortly, that’s no reason to try it. But it did cause me to have the same irritating conversation time and again, which would always begin like this: “Ah, that coffee Bolognese thing – that’ll be right up your street, won’t it, what with your make-it-up-as-you-go-along no-recipe whatnot?”

Well, it’s not up my street. It’s not even in my council ward, postal district or school catchment area. This isn’t creative cooking, it’s just babble – reminiscent of a concussed Manny in Black Books spouting jumbled-up entries from the Little Book of Calm. Not all the suggested combinations are necessarily awful – but that’s not the point. The problem with the Sainsbury’s campaign is that it represents the worst of all cooking worlds: miserable conformity, dressed up as innovation.

There’s nothing revolutionary about putting coffee in a Bolognese sauce. People have been cooking with coffee for generations. It’s vaguely rich and vaguely savoury, and in small quantities, makes a vaguely OK addition to dark, meaty dishes – though a decent stock cube will do an equivalent but better job. Be it coffee, Irn Bru or blue WKD, if you can drink it – and in this, blue WKD finds itself on the borderline – you can probably bung it into a casserole. As long as its predominant characteristics correspond roughly with the effect you’re after – coffee for savour, Irn Bru for sweetness or blue WKD for, er, blueness – you won’t go far wrong.

When it comes to adding the weird and (potentially) wonderful to your food, the relevant question isn’t whether it’s right or wrong, possible or impossible: it’s why you’d want to. Without a coherent answer to that question, you’d be well advised not to bother, pending further investigation. The Sainsbury’s campaign, however, relies on us employing the opposite logic: asking not the pertinent question “why?” but the blindly optimistic “why not?”. And its apparent success just goes to illustrate one thing: we really are a bunch of pliant, unthinking, head-nodding numpties.

Why else would we go through the joyless exercise of making the same handful of boring meals again and again, to exactly the same prescription, then suddenly decide to stir utterly random things into them because an advert has planted the idea in our heads? Why else would an ingredient used by a TV chef one day become virtually unobtainable the next, as thousands of us rush to replicate what we’ve watched? How wonderful it is to live in a society in which we can think and do largely as we please; and how depressing to discover that, given the opportunity, we generally elect not to bother.

Is there a better way? Of course there is – and long-standing readers of this column, should such people exist, may well remember it. Just use the same skills you employ whenever you choose the toppings for your takeaway pizza, or decide which components of your fry-up should form the next forkful. In other words, pick the flavour and texture combinations that seem right to you. Add something if it fits with what’s there already and the effect you’d like to achieve. If it doesn’t, don’t. Develop your meal as you would a painting, pausing for thought before you add to it, and it will make sense in its final form, because every decision in its development will have been the product of your own critical analysis and taste. You won’t need to ‘twist’ anything, because it’s been your original creation from the outset.

And if, by that process, you end up adding coffee to your Bolognese, Monster Munch to your burger or Kia Ora to your duck, that’s absolutely fine. You might just happen upon something surprising and wonderful. At worst, you’ll end up with something unusual but edible.

And don’t worry at all about whether your DIY sauce still qualifies as a Bolognese. If something tastes good, who cares what you call it? Anyway, in the unlikely event that you get a visit from the authenticity police, you’ll have an irrefutable defence: “At least I didn’t put instant fucking coffee in it.” n

Twitter: @norecipeman

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