Friday, 23 November 2012

TV dinners

Bad cop, inheritor of Escoffier, and a teddy bear gourmand.
In the dim and distant past, when TV really was the centre of my childhood home's entertainment, I used to yearn for the lowering evenings that brought with them the autumn season.

But for most of my adulthood, television has played a considerably less important role.

There have been exceptions: Babylon 5, West Wing and a few more. But the advent of ‘reality TV’ was enough to make me glad I wasn’t addicted to the box in the corner.

But this autumn, there has been a glut of food scheduling that’s had me glued to my seat – and thankfully it’s not all been Nigella flirting with the camera and wearing white denim to cook beetroot.

Last year, entirely by accident, I happened on a reality show that I was utterly transfixed by – and this time, I was back right at the start: Masterchef: The Professionals.

Now I dislike the version of Masterchef that involves John Torode and Gregg Wallace. First, it isn’t the Masterchef I remember with a certain fondness from years gone by, where Lloyd Grossman hosted, in calming, mid-Atlantic tones, as three amateur cooks competed in a very gentle manner.

It’s odd that I remember that with such fondness, since it was on during a time before I had any real interest in or love of food myself.

But it’s also exactly the sort of thing that I don’t like about reality TV, with its tone of shouty aggression.

This version sees Wallace transformed into a sort of teddy bear gourmand, with Monica Galetti, the senior sous chef at Michel Roux Jr’s Le Gavroche, playing a bad cop role alongside him in the early stages of the competition.

And then, of course, there is Roux Jr himself, for whom all the contestants want to cook.

It’s grown-up telly that doesn’t feel the need to pander to sensationalism.

Criticism is dished out properly and fairly, while Roux Jr can also be seen coaching young chefs, giving tips and being encouraging.

Okay, there’s a bit of gurning from all three presenters, but this is ultimately about real, serious skills.

Which also means that it’s downright educative – and it’s inspirational too. Indeed, last year’s series was exactly what made me want to learn to lay out a plate of food better than a dollop here, a dollop there.

Only last week, I picked up a method of cooking pheasant, sautéing breast very gently in lots of butter. And as I found out last night, it works.

This is top telly, and something that I look forward to for the four nights a week that it currently occupies a slot on the goggle box.

But Masterchef: The Professionals has not been the only foodie programming in recent weeks.

There was also Escoffier: Britain’s first master chef, which was introduced – appropriately – by Michel Roux Jr.

It proved an interesting look at the great man – perhaps particularly in terms of his creation of the brigade system of service in restaurants.

And it was also a reminder of just how much the style of Roux Jr – and his father and uncle – is influenced by that kind of classic French cuisine.

How do you eat your jelly babies?
Nigel Slater’s Life is Sweets was a bittersweet trip down a sticky memory lane for England’s answer to Proust. There is simply nobody else on these shores who so wonderfully writes about food and memory.

Seeing old packets and wrappers brought an instant shot of nostalgia, even though I don’t personally have the same sense of sweets as having been at the heart of my own childhood as Slater clearly does.

But I do have childhood memories around visits to the sweet shop (or primarily the newsagent), and as usual with Slater, it had an emotional power that rang completely true even if you cannot identify 100% with his own experiences.

Calf's Head & Coffee: The Golden Age of English Food, gave Stefan Gates the chance to actually cook a calf’s head – which was interesting, although I won’t be trying it myself any time soon.

But this followed his rather astonishing claim that we are in the midst of a British food renaissance – a claim made, without any hint of his tongue being in his cheek, while standing in a supermarket.

‘Ah,” I thought. ‘Here we go again, with the sort of wild delusions that Joanna Blythman lambasts in Bad Food Britain.’

While it is most certainly true that the restaurant scene – particularly in cities – has improved massively in recent years, it’s difficult to believe in any sort of wholesale improvement when the UK consumes more ready meals than the whole of the rest of Europe put together.

Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner gave Clarissa Dickson Wright the chance to explore the history of our three main meals across three episodes.

Presumably filmed before she decided that Leicester was frightening and not ‘her’ England, there’s a certain irony then in her discussion of the origins of the cooked breakfast going back to religious rules, given that her beloved Catholic church has, in many parts of the UK, been saved by the arrival of migrants.

A couple of particularly fascinating aspects of this trio of programmes was learning that eggs were, a long time ago, roasted in the shell in the ashes of a fire – and also that the first reference to a soft-boiled egg anywhere in literature is in Jane Austen’s Emma, while Northanger Abbery actually references brioche.

It’s also well worth noting that our habit of drinking beer with breakfast had changed iby the 1620s – replaced by the arrival of coffee. In other words, contrary to what some may imagine, Starbucks did not introduce coffee to these shores.

So, for once, it’s been a delight to sit in front of the television and lap up a mixed menu of foodie treats.

And with iPlayer around, there's still time to watch some of these gems.

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