Friday, 20 December 2013

Christmas highlights a strange relationship with food

Dining out in style?
It struck me yesterday, as I was mulling – not wine, but yet another poor Christmas lunch out – that I have never, on Christmas visits to Paris or Lille, seen (let alone eaten in) restaurants offering a ‘festive menu’.

As I said last week, Eyre Brothers was so good – partly precisely because it sticks to what it knows and what it does best, instead of trying to do something different for just a few weeks of the year.

Yesterday’s lunch was at a rather old and pleasant pub near Croydon, with my parents. In this case, I’m not going to name it, because the issue is wider.

We’d lunched there about six weeks ago – and it was really very pleasant. I’d enjoyed a pint of ale with an entirely edible steak and kidney pie. Proper pub grub – done, if not to the calibre of Tom Kerridge, then decently.

However, since they couldn’t get in to their favoured place this week, we returned, with optimism in our hearts.

It was sadly misplaced.

To be fair, it should have been obvious. They were doing a ‘festive’ menu alongside the normal one.

To start with, I opted for chicken and apricot terrine with pear chutney and sourdough. What can go wrong?

The terrine was pretty bland and so dry that it crumbled. The pear chutney was overly sweet and the sourdough was just a doorstep that had been cut off a loaf – I mean, come on: the least you do in these situations is toast it!

My father had a butternut squash soup that he enjoyed. My mother had the smoked salmon that came with a clumsy garnish of a few small leaves and more of the same bread.

They then both had the roasted duck leg, which was overcooked to the point of toughness.

I had a venison suet pudding, which wasn’t bad: the suet pastry was pleasantly thin; the meat was passable, but the gravy had the taste of being out of a bottle.

All were served with a celeriac mash that was lumpy and unseasoned, cabbage that was so tepid and ‘al dente’ that it was inedible, and a ‘garnish’ of a sprig of raw rosemary shoved in wherever seemed most possible.

That rosemary was perhaps the biggest indicator of there being something seriously wrong. Why would you stab in an inedible garnish like that, on a plate of food that hardly looks scintillating to start with? It’s the culinary equivalent of giving someone the finger.

All dishes were advertised as including chestnuts. In the event, these were noticeable only by their absence.

My father didn’t bother with a dessert: my mother had sticky toffee pudding that lacked on the sticky toffee bit – almost no sauce on the sponge and a couple of drizzles on the plate, plus a scoop of salted caramel ice cream.

I stuck with the ice cream alone, which was pleasant if overly rich.

My father was so peeved by the whole business that he didn’t finish his pint of cider, while my mother and I left a third of a bottle of wine. I say ‘left’, but I screwed the top on firmly, wiped down the glass with a paper napkin, walked out with it and popped in the fridge back in their kitchen.

It’s saying something when my parents – and my father in particular – are so annoyed by a meal. Neither are them are remotely ‘foodies’ and will see greater quality in meals than I can.

The root of the problems?

Putting on a seasonal menu when it’s not what you’re used to doing, and catering for far more people than you’re used to catering for.

However, on the basis not simply of yesterday, but of a number of experiences over the years, I suspect also that, in some cases, there is a feeling that people won’t really notice – not least because they’re knocking back the booze.

The increasingly shrill laughter in the room next door to us seemed to illustrate that this was probable.

And the equation works two ways.

Anecdotally, but also on the basis of comments from other people, many do not particularly expect good food – or are not looking for it – but simply want the ‘ambiance’.

As I touched on last week, you can end up paying as much for poor quality as you do for good. Yesterday’s meal was far from cheap.

But this seems to be part of the same syndrome that has Brits insisting on having sprouts with their Christmas dinner even when they dislike them.

There is also, of course, the legendary reluctance to complain, thus allowing places to get away with below-par food.

I didn’t complain yesterday simply because I had no desire to make my parents feel more awkward than they already were. And frankly, I too just wanted to get out of the place.

Just to note, the service yesterday was attentive and pleasant: the quality of the food and of the cooking was not our waitresss fault.

So, in large numbers, we go out to dine at Christmas, apparently expecting or looking for ‘festive’ meals.

We put up with poor food and say that the ‘ambiance’ is more important, and then pay over the odds for what is put in front of us.

Businesses are thus allowed to get away with providing a below-standard product.

As I said at the top of this post: when I’ve been in France at this time of year, I have not seen ‘festive menus’ – seasonal menus, yes, but that’s something different.

Various people have claimed that the state of food in the UK has never been better.

At the top end of dining, this is absolutely true. But there’s an awful lot below that, and Christmas seems not only to emphasise the shortcomings, but also to illustrate the rather perverse relationship that Britons seem still to have with their food.

At this time of year, you might assume that people would expect the best. The reality seems to be opposite – and it seems to be acceptable.

Mind, since campaigners are still struggling to have accepted the idea of basic, national standards for hospital food, as though government doesn’t understand the link between health and what we eat, is any of this really surprising?

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