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Food – Are we in danger of losing the plot?
Food is on the agenda this week. I love food, both eating and preparing it, but over recent years, with endless food programmes on the telly (several of which I watch avidly) the ‘foodies’ are getting way too overheated and it rubs off on the restaurants in the increasingly ridiculous way their menus entice us with their offerings.
The name of the offending restaurant has been withheld to protect the guilty, but how about this for a pretentious starter item (@ £28 if you please!): ‘Carpaccio of long-line-caught Maldivian yellow fin tuna, fanning an island of Rio Grande Valley avocado crème fraiche, topped with young coconut with a splash of Goan lime, coriander and sprinkled with toasted organic sesame seeds’? Now I, as you may know, like to use the English language to its full potential, and I have to admit this description does get one salivating, but did it live up to its pretentions? – Err, no. For nigh on £30 I want the best and it didn’t deliver; it was diminutive, unattractive, short on sauce and moisture and most disappointing. Carpaccio of tuna is of course raw slices of the fish, but turned out to be four almost transparent slivers, fanned around a dollop of greenish gloop where the acidic crème fraiche virtually overpowered the avocado, and all with a gritty shower of desiccated coconut and slightly bitter (burnt?) sesame seeds. Of the Goan lime there was no trace. Cost price of the ingredients - at a generous guess £2, triple it to cover prep, labour, overhead, etc. = £6 and double it again for 100% profit = £12. £28 and you’re having a laugh!
Would the main course offer a chance for this exalted establishment to redeem itself? I was either going for fish or beef and the selection which caught my eye was either: ‘Sumptuous organic pearl barley risotto walking hand in hand with a delightful English courgette flower beignet with, miraculously balanced thereon, a Pacific Ocean black cod fillet’, or ‘Roasted fillet of Australian Kobe beef nestling in a Kent garden pea puree, temptingly accompanied by a succulent spinach and onion compote and ‘to-die-for’ triple-cooked Maris Piper chips’. I was dribbling again, but being a pedantic SOB I couldn’t get my head around a barley risotto. Surely the clue’s in the name; RISotto, = Rice. If it’s barley we’re cooking it should be called; (and here I’m just showing off), ORZOtto…! But I hope it’s not - 'cos barley needs to be boiled for several weeks before becoming edible to an advanced mammal, and the idea of adding such a resilient grain to the delicate 40-minute technique of risotto is pretty ludicrous. I’d be picking bits of uncooked grain from my teeth all night, there’s no way it can be properly cooked in the time; great for hearty soups, but risotto (orzotto), no way! Then, with a zillion food miles behind it, the Pacific Black Cod (What’s up with good British Cod?)? So the decision fell to the beef.
Never, in the field of human gastronomy, has steak and chips been elevated to such peerless heights of expectation and dribbling anticipation. ‘Rare’, I’d said to the waiter, whose impossibly tight trousers were such that one might determine his religion, as he wafted and flourished around our table, creating ‘catspaws*’ in the wine and threatening to dislodge my dinner partner’s fascinator. Another zillion miles into our food miles tally and pudding’s not even been considered. The chef seems to be discounting British local produce in both fish and beef; our north sea cod is universally acclaimed, as is British beef; Hereford and Angus cattle from these islands were largely the seedbed for the English speaking world’s beef breeds, and stand comparison with any Japanese ‘Johnny-come-lately’ turning up via the Antipodes to turn our heads. So by dint of some elementary sleuthing I’ve established the chef is either a disgruntled Aussie with a down on the Poms, or French.
* A light breeze that ruffles small areas of a water surface (old sailing term – haven’t heard it for years, but I thought it needed an airing)
Anyway, steak and chips: the beef arrived, tender, succulent, but not rare – medium rare, edging toward well, if you’d asked me, but with a texture and grain which was comparable to liver and a flavour of abject beefiness which was memorable. “It’s beef Jim, but not as we know it”. The compote was a sort of onion purée with dark green strips upon which I glanced with some trepidation in the knowledge of what such a preparation might later do to my personal methane output. However, the ‘Kent garden pea purée’ was very pea-ey, but little more than a smear beneath the modestly sized steak - could have done with a scoop of marrowfats myself. The chips, which numbered four, shared proportions with railway sleepers. Triple-cooked or not they were not cooked through unless one likes one’s ‘taters ‘al denté’.
What is this fetish with chips being enormous and few? Are the fat police so concerned for our arteries, lest they fur-up there and then? I assume the theory goes that a few big chips have less surface area, and therefore less fat, than a handful of conventional chips. But let me inform you that the British Standard chip, according to BS3628 (1938), should have a mean cross-section of 3/8th of an inch square, not exceed 4 inches in length or be less than 2 inches long. So next time you’re presented with any of this pretentious nonsense in an eatery, remember the British Standard and invoke your rights.
Be still my beating heart, what’s for pud? Deep breath: ‘Hereford organic blackcurrant soufflé snuggled up with a swirl of Kentish apple and sorrel sorbet, Kentish apple blossoms perched on top, with a crunchy Turkish hazelnut crumble’. OMG! Shropshire, Kent (again – remember the pea puree) and crumbling remains of the Ottoman empire sharing a plate – surreal. It was a lovely soufflé, arriving nicely inflated and rich in blackcurrant, apple and slightly superfluous blossom. The crumble was just a step too far, ‘gilding the lilly’ we used to say.
So with a feeling of a show not really living up to its billing I asked for the bill…….
I was OK after a whiff or two of ‘Entenox’. The paramedic said it wasn’t a real cardiac arrest, just a sort of panic attack, after seeing the bill, and I’d be OK once I got out in the fresh air. As my senses returned I considered using the commotion as a diversion and ‘do a runner’, but, at the end of the day I’m a fairly honourable old git and paid up fairly ungraciously with muttered comments about being an equal partner in the restaurant and could I have that nice table by the window next time I sought a return on my investment.
There are dozens, nay hundreds, of excellent, unpretentious little restaurants, pubs, cafés, tearooms and even a few roadside vans purveying the most excellent fare at reasonable prices all over the UK. They deserve our support, as do the amazing panoply of producers who have risen to the challenge of producing the very finest livestock, fish, vegetables, fruit, cheeses and cooked fare right HERE in these islands. Remember these people when your acquiring the indifferent, flavourless and expensive offerings of your local Tesco. Seek them out in your area and you will not be disappointed. This country, in little more than 25 years, has turned itself round from being a culinary laughing-stock into a centre for gastronomic excellence to rival France and Italy. We now have an innovative reputation for ‘fusion’ cooking, drawing inspiration and indeed ingredients, from the diverse cultures and nationalities of our former empire, that now call Britain home, and we should be immensely proud of that heritage.
But please, let’s not lose the plot – if the menu items exceed a 10-word sentence - beware. If the menu has a list of main courses in excess of 10 - beware, and if the prices seem high – they are! This is food we’re talking about, not jewellery. We have to eat three times a day and I don’t care what they’ve done to that chicken, it ain’t never gonna be worth £50!
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A bientot, The CA Blogmeister