Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The madness of a £200 pud – and thoughts of the '80s

There is madness – and then there is madness. It might not be the apotheosis of madness in these generally rather crazy times, but you could be forgiven for feeling that everything gone a bit surreal when you read of puddings that cost £200.

Yes, you did read that figure correctly. Heston Blumenthal's Christmas pudding for Waitrose – the one with the whole orange in the middle – sells for £13.99. But with the retailer apparently running out (according to the Telegraph), people are taking the opportunity to put them on sale on eBay.

And with seven days, five hours and 54 minutes left before the auction ends, one of 129 such puds on the auction site had a single bid of £200 beside it (plus a fiver for postage and packing).

£200? Two people could, I am reliably informed, each feast on the tasting menu at Blumenthal's Fat Duck restaurant for that money.

Okay, the basic appeal of the pud isn’t too difficult to understand. But just make a traditional one of your own and add (unwaxed) orange rind and some juice. You'll be left with a load of change out of £200 – or even the £77 that has been bid on another of the puddings.

It's all a bit déjà vu: next thing you know, we'll have Harry Enfield waving a load of notes at us and, while it's meant to ironic, there'll be City boys and girls taking up its message literally as they collect their bonuses.

Goodness – we've got a government that's slashing public services, we've got students rioting and there's a royal wedding booked for next year: it's 1980-81 all over again. I've even seen adverts for compilations of '80s pop. Okay, I like '80s pop, so it isn't all bad.

But please, please ... somebody promise me that we won't have to do padded shoulders – and I won't have to go through that decade in a food sense again!

It's actually interesting to look at the core philosophy of nouvelle cuisine and see how we now accept many of its tenets as an orthodoxy: freshness of ingredients, simplification of preparation, and regional influences. But, as with the hype of the Beaujolais nouveau run, the idea seemed to be stretched almost out of recognition in the UK during the 1980s and '90s.

Even now, when you mention nouvelle cuisine, many people think of tiny portions of food that still seemed overly fiddly.

My own culinary memories of that decade centre around egg dishes made from whites only, tinned tuna, cottage cheese, rice cakes and plates piled high with boiled cabbage, heavily salted. There was also TVP – textured vegetable protein – a meat substitute that was a bit like minced cardboard and the edibility of which could be improved by having Bovril or Marmite added to it. The former rather decreased TVP's vegetarian credentials, though.

I suppose there are two other distinct food memories from that time (or three, in a way, but two of them have a common link).

The first was being taken by a male friend who had just seduced me to what was supposed to be a rather posh steak house in the town we lived in: it was my first experience of steak and I wasn't impressed: it was tough. And something of an anti-climax. I couldn't fathom why people raved about steak. It wasn't until around 15 years later, visiting Amsterdam, that I bothered to try it again (in one of that city's Argentinian steak houses) – and finally had the proper moment of revelation.

The other foodie memories both involve trout. An earlier boyfriend used to go fishing and occasionally he'd drop me off a freshly-caught trout. The only way I knew how to cook it successfully was via one of the very few cookbooks I had at the time, Floyd on Fish (how very 1980s), and involved wrapping it newspaper, soaking that under the tap and then sticking it the oven until the paper had dried out. When you carefully lifted the paper off, the skin would be carried away with it.

As the decade neared its end, I did as Norman Tebbit instructed and 'got on my bike' (well, my parents picked me up in the car, to be more precise) and left the north west to find work in London. I stayed with them in Reading for 18 months, commuting every day to a string of sales jobs that sometimes barely paid for my travel.

My mother decided that it was a good eight years since I'd had a holiday, so I was going with them to Torquay for a fortnight. Not 'would you like to go', but 'you're going'. It was meant kindly and I acquiesced. Which was, in general, a mistake, for a whole host of reasons that can pretty readily be guessed at, even though I was nobody's idea of a raver (at the time).

But we stayed on full board in a small hotel run by a nephew of JRR Tolkien. He cooked and, each week, trout with almonds would be on the menu one night. Passé it might have been, but this individual, who at the time loved so little else concerning food, loved it, and revelled in ordering it with a "glass of dry white wine", which I had taken to, for some reason.

It seems that somewhere in that mad decade of personal culinary deprivation, an embryonic foodie was making the first tentative efforts to get out.

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