Monday, 3 January 2011

Food for thought on the telly

Before Christmas, BBC4 advertised a burst of nostalgia TV, with episodes of Fanny Craddock cooking Christmas food.

One review suggested that it offered a ‘nightmare before Christmas’ – although after watching just a few minutes, I prefer the Tim Burton version of that title.

She used cornflour in Christmas cakes, for goodness sake. Cornflour …

In a cold sweat, I scurried into the kitchen and leafed through various volumes in need of reassurance that cornflour was not a normal substitute for ‘proper’ flour.

And that’s without discussing her hyper-bossy persona (or the way she treated a host of people, including her husband Johnny).

Fortunately, this wasn’t the only foody offering on TV over the Christmas holiday. And nor was it the only culinary nostalgia.

Nigel Slater’s Toast, an autobiography of his first 18 years, was dramatised by the BBC and shown over Christmas.

Now I’m intending to read the book first, so didn’t watch it all. But there was enough to make an impression – and enough to produce a sense of horror not dissimilar to that created by Craddock and cornflour.

His mother apparently popped unopened cans into a pan to heat through. The toast of the title was often the only thing available after another culinary failure. Not that those were the only things that could do your head in.

And in a rare interview, published when the book was first published in 2003, Slater discussed his childhood.

“We were very second generation middle class,” Slater told the interviewer. “I had been brought up with all these things you did and did not do. You don’t talk at mealtimes, you don’t put your elbows on the table and so on.”


Can you hear the bells ringing too? Decades before I made my first soup, I knew how to tip the bowl away from me and elegantly scoop up a little of the liquid, moving the spoon from front to back and then sipping. Quietly.

And what is it with elbows? Is that a peculiarly British thing or something more universal?

I wouldn’t say we had a rule of no talking at mealtimes, but I cannot currently dredge up memories of family conversations. What I do remember are paternal sermons. Or descriptions of my father’s day – including one where he’d seen a particularly gruesome traffic accident on the way home (thus dinner was late) and proceeded to describe it in bloody detail, even as my mother hissed at him to shut up as my sister got increasingly upset.

Decapitation didn’t seem to have affected his appetite and it didn’t seem that he could comprehend why it would affect anyone else’s. Either that or he simply didn’t care.

But thinking of those things, an idea emerges of a world where a whole raft of measures were deliberately deployed to stop food being a pleasure by making the process of eating such a fuss, dominated by rules about this, that and the other.

At one of my primary schools I remember a peculiar obsession with stopping children stirring their dollop of jam into pretty patterns in their sago/semolina/rice pudding. Why? What difference did it make? Surely the important thing was to eat it?

Slater has more interesting observations.

“It’s still not part of our heart and soul,” he suggests. Hardly surprising if such joyless rules have been widespread.

“We still over-compensate for the fact that our food has always been a joke. The French or Italians think nothing of going to a patisserie and buying a pudding for a dinner party or a ready-made salad, but here we have to make every thing ourselves, every last sodding cake. I still think we are using food as a class thing, to put on a show, rather than because we love it.”

That old Protestant work ethic again, anyone?

Well, to a point, perhaps. But Slater’s example also brings to mind a recent survey of home cooks in both Britain and France, which focused on how many bake their own bread.

Far more Brits bake bread than did their French counterparts, which was then held up as some sort of national victory to boast about. But the only thing that I think that it indicates is that the overwhelming majority of British people do not have a proper baker two minutes away where they can buy a beautiful, freshly-baked baguette twice a day.

Similarly, I’ve been inside French shops – I’ve shopped inside French shops – and most foodies here don’t have access to somewhere that sells a salad or a dessert that you’d be happy to serve at a party.

The last few weeks have seen the commercial TV channels absolutely heaving with adverts for party food, from the working-class Iceland to the middle-class Marks and Sparks. And honestly, it all looks dire. Otto would narrow her eyes and give me such a look of disdain if I tried to serve that sort of fodder to the cats.

What appears to pass for perfection in supermarket eyes increasingly appears to mine like anemia. The little pies that have been advertised, for instance, look awful – utterly bland. Only last week, when shopping down at Borough Market, I found myself marveling at the pies on sale at the Ginger Pig butcher – no two alike, with gravy having dripped out between the seams of the handmade pastry. Just the thought makes me salivate.

And around the corner is the stall that sells Mrs King’s legendary Melton Mowbray pork pies – a business that was started in 1853 and producing food that is still prepared from traditional recipes.

Proper pies, in other words. Pie has come to mean something cheap and substandard. And good pies can be so, so much more than that.

So I don’t think that making everything and not buying it ready-made is about class – well, not in the way that Slater means the word in that interview.

He also says that: “The British are not passionate cooks. We are a nation of recipe followers.”

Well, I guess there’s some truth in that. Maybe it’s not just me who is wedded to recipes. But then you have to learn from somewhere. And slowly – very slowly – I am reaching a point where I have a few dishes that I can now cook without recourse to a written text. Tonight’s risotto will not require reference to anything. And sometimes, when I’m cooking like that, I can be found in the sort of humour that has me singing out loud: it might not be cooking with ‘passion’, but it is cooking with pleasure and not as a mind-numbing chore or as a sweat-inducing chellenge.

That no TV cook (I hope!) would any longer suggest cornflour for a Christmas cake is a sign that we have progressed, I think. It could be argued that the sheer number of cookery programmes (and books and magazines) is another indicator of the same thing – although perhaps that merely illustrates the reliance on recipes that Slater mentions?

At this point, I find myself asking myself why it matters what the rest of the country is doing in the kitchen – surely it’s enough to know what I do in my kitchen?

The problem is that you can’t separate the general from the individual. If local shops have been wiped out by the rise and rise of the supermarket, then that impacts on me too; on the choice of foods that I have available.

There are rumours that Borough Market is under threat, with rumblings of discontent from stall holders who are being constantly shunted around the place, never sure from one week to the next where they will be doing business on market days.

They fear that the people who own the land want to force many of the small businesses out, to be replaced by trendy coffee shops etc. Does that impact on me? Yes – and on anyone else who already has to make an extra effort to travel to Borough Market for the choice that is available there and which is not available in supermarkets.

It happened at Leadenhall Market in the City, where all the old businesses, including a poulterer and a butcher and a miracle of a wet fish stall were driven out by a landlord that only wanted richer chains and franchises in place, and ratcheted up the rents, again and again, until those small, independent businesses had no option but to close.

I was talking to Stephane from La Bouche a few weeks ago. He was explaining how he used to have a business in Stoke Newington – before it was trendy in the way it is now. It used to be full of independent businesses, all thriving. And then the landlords got an idea and started whacking up the rents and driving them all out, to be replaced by endless franchises of coffee shops and chain eateries. He thinks that, give it 10 years or so, the same thing will happen to Broadway Market. It’s a depressing view.

Anyway, that’s why all this matters to me, personally. Because what happens generally has a direct affect on me and on the choices that I am able to make.

But let’s get back to Toast. By way of a complete contrast to that stultifying attitude to food and eating, there was a short but nonetheless interesting piece in today’s Guardian about the Roux restaurant dynasty.

Apparently, the only family arguments that Michel Roux Jnr can remember from his childhood were about how to make omelettes.

How French is that? And I wonder whether Nigel Slater breathed a sigh of envy on reading such a piece. I know I did.

Which gives us a rather nice link to Cinémoi, a new French film channel on cable (Virgin 445 and Sky 343, and currently free to view until 31 January), which screened an intriguing 2006 documentary, Cinema Goes to Dinner, by Anne Andreu.

I’m hoping it’ll be on again, because there was so much to take in and it was intriguing – although I found myself disagreeing deeply with the interpretation of Babette’s Feast, which saw the response of Babette’s guests as much more positive than I did.

But featuring interviews and clips from such films as Renoir’s La Grande Illusion, Luis Bunuel’s Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie and Ferreri’s La Grande Bouffe, it’s fascinating because it also illustrates food and eating as an essential, vital part of life.

Somehow, all that stuff about elbows on the table and not speaking during a meal seems to be an effort to minimise the impact of that reality.

For Nigel Slater it failed. It took rather longer, but it failed for me too. Thank goodness.

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