A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Obsessed With Food? What, Me?


Lately I've been writing a lot about food on this blog. I don't think I'm obsessed with it (though my wife may disagree!), but I do think it's an important and interesting subject. Much of the world can't get the food it wants and needs, but I find it miraculous that, given half a chance, people will still find a way to produce nutritious and tasty food from limited resources.

We in the indulgent West are spoilt for choice, of course. Yet it never fails to amaze me how we (I'm talking now of the UK) are prepared to put up with such a low gastronomic standard. Naturally, I'm generalising — but I think it's evident that good food here is a much more hit-and-miss affair than it is, say, in France, Spain or Italy. Although cuisine has improved in this country compared with 20 or 30 years ago, there's still a long way to go, and it's a fact that continental Europeans think that British food is a joke. And can you blame them?

Let's take pubs and restaurants. Pub food, despite a superficial, glossy makeover, is still irredeemably awful in the main. It's usually corporate chain fare: insipid steaks; inauthentic 'hand-cut' fries; sickly burgers; undressed, unimaginative salads; and a hundred and one other ready-prepared, microwaved nightmare items listed on laminated, greasy-fingered menus. No thanks.

Sadly, many of the old, traditional pubs are closing, which is a tragedy, as some of these did use to produce proper, homemade food: such as the White Hart in Northend, Bucks, set among the fabulous Chiltern hills and beech woods. I regularly visited this welcoming, old-fashioned, oak-beamed country inn once a fortnight when I worked as a mobile librarian. The landlord's wife used to produce a cracking steak and kidney pudding fresh out of the oven. (I've just tried to trace this pub on the internet and found it was turned into a private house long ago.) Next door to the pub lived the lonely and eccentric author Alan Hull Walton, translator of Baudelaire, who used to jump aboard the mobile library for a chat and to reserve some very weird books. He invited me into his house once, which stank of mildew and urine. But I digress...

Then you have the nationwide chain restaurants: your Nandos, your Bella Italias, your Wetherspoons, your Harvesters. The occasional one is very good (Wagamama), but most are dire (Frankie & Benny's).

You are left with the private, individually-run restaurants — some no-frills, others more up-market, fine-dining concerns — and even these vary enormously. Just read the late Michael Winner's columns in The Sunday Times to see how, even in some of London's supposedly top restaurants, the service, and the quality of the food, can't always be relied on. All you can rely on is the over-inflated price of the meal.

Of course, there are many exceptions. One exception not far from here is La Parisienne, a café-restaurant in Southwell, which specialises in French-Moroccan food. It's cramped; it's friendly; it serves brochettes and tagines and cassoulets and tartiflettes at very reasonable prices, and an incredibly drinkable house red. What more could one want? But my real point remains: eating out in Britain is an unreliable business at best, and pity the poor continental visitor who comes to these shores and takes pot luck. He or she will almost certainly be disappointed.

To set the seal on it, let's take fish and chips, our national staple. Yes, I've occasionally eaten takeaway fish and chips in places — Scotland and the East Anglian coast come to mind — where it's been a hugely memorable experience. But your average fish and chip shop in your average English town or village is just that — very average indeed, and I've stopped going to them.

Let's now compare with France, Spain, Italy. I'll give just one example. A couple of years ago I was walking the pilgrim route from Geneva to Le Puy, and slept one night in a dilapidated caravan on a camp site in Frangy, one of the less salubrious towns en route. By evening I was starving, but it was a Sunday, and there didn't seem to be many places open in the centre of town. The gap-toothed old crone of a campsite owner directed me to an industrial estate half a mile away. 'You can eat there,' she cackled. I followed a main road past rows and rows of prefab units and parked-up lorries. It didn't look very promising. Then, unexpectedly, right at the end of this edge-of-town development, a modest, unpretentious little restaurant came into view. And I ate and drank there like a king — some of the best food and wine I've ever had in my life — and was served with such exquisite friendliness, hospitality and expertise that the memory of it warms my heart still.    

Fish and chips

(All pictures courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)


Ruth said...

I loved reading this, Robert. I've been curious about the cuisines available in UK since Don and I couldn't find anything but pubs for eating out back in 1980 Edinburgh.

George said...

I agree with you that cuisine in the UK has improved enormously during the past thirty years, especially in the cities and some of the better country hotels. It's always a challenge, however, to find good food in the smaller villages and the more remote regions of the country. It's much the same, of course, in the U.S. Our bigger cities now offer some of the best cuisine in the world, but certain regions of the country are culinary wastelands. The great thing about France, Italy, and Spain is that you can venture into almost any small village and find wonderful food in an unexpected place.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks, Ruth... and George, I agree with you. On reflection, I was perhaps a little hard on the UK, but I think my main point is valid. As you say, one can rely on decent, often excellent food just about anywhere in France, Italy and Spain, even in remote provincial regions, and much of their food is still traditional, and family and regional-based, and made of fresh, quality ingredients. And it isn't just chips and fries with everything as it can be in many places here and in the US.

In Europe I've eaten wonderful meals in the least likely places: French motorway service stations, scruffy, ordinary Spanish bars in the middle of nowhere, where the owner had just two pots on the go which he invited me to taste in his tiny, two-ring kitchen — pork in a garlic sauce and pork in a tomato sauce he'd been simmering all day. It was simple, but the ingredients were stunningly fresh and local, and both dishes were delicious. And he was so proud of them.

In the UK there are many incredible producers now of speciality meats and cheeses — but, on the other hand, orchards of different apple varieties are dying out. Of course, there's much more choice now in the supermarkets, an amazing array of foodstuffs and excellent wines — and people are far more sophisticated about using these ingredients. However, it remains the case that some of the ordinary smaller shops and supermarkets have much lower standards, with poor fresh goods and outrageously expensive, gut-rot wine from South Africa or Australia. produced and marketed on an industrial scale. (Though, to be fair, there are also many small, suburban shops in Spanish cities selling sub-standard fruit and vegetables.) It's a mixed picture.

As a symbolic example, just take the humble salad. I find it embarrassing how, in this country, we've tended in the past to cram a salad onto the same plate as the rest of the main course, instead of giving it pride, and room to breathe in its own right — as a separate course, or at least on a plate of its own, as in Italy. At least we're using olive oil now.

A final thing: I like the more formal (I don't mean posh-formal, I mean relaxed-formal) etiquette about eating out in France, Spain. Italy. Every bar will generally have its own dining room/dining area; you just don't eat a proper meal sitting anywhere you like, as over here. It gives respect to the food, to the event, somehow. And payment's another thing that's more organised — here in the UK in some places you're never quite sure whether to pay at the beginning of a meal, at the end, whether to ask for the bill to come to your table, or pay at the till on your way out.

Sorry, I've gone on far too long..!

Goat said...

My God, you have Nandos over there too?!

When I eventually get around to walking through the British Isles, I suppose I'll be doing a lot of my own cooking! It used to be said that if you want to eat decent food cheaply while travelling in the UK (especially for vegetarians), you should look for a Indian place. Is that still the case?

That fish-and-chips picture looks so enticing to me. Right near my parents' place in Sandgate, Brisbane, is a seafront place called Doug's that's something of a landmark. Families flood the place on weekends; there are queues going down the street. I'd get my fish grilled rather than fried, and a Greek salad, and it was very, very good.

Over here in Korea I just had a take-away "shrimp burger" that was, as always, utterly unmemorable - and I'm already hungry again after my 15-mile day...

The Solitary Walker said...

Some very good Indian restaurants and takeaways in the UK, Goat... I suggest the best way to locate anything half-decent is to check the internet...

Last night, in Nottingham, our nearest city, we ate superbly well and not expensively in Petit Paris, a French restaurant we'd never been to before... Like you I like grilled (or poached, or steamed, or foil-wrapped oven-baked!) fish — we tend to have on overkill of battered and fried over here...