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.)