Comment: The Weasel

An invitation arrives to try some of the peaks of Austrian cuisine and the household's appreciation of foreign films is under threat
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YOU KNOW me, ever keen to explore a gastronomic terra nova. So when an invitation to a preview of an Austrian food festival burped out of the fax machine, I whizzed along hotfoot. Temptingly entitled "The Glory of Paprika, Pancakes and Pastries", this Habsburgian blow-out is taking place at London's Langham Hilton from 12 to 21 March. To be honest, I have never previously given much thought to the cuisine of that mountainous land, though I was impressed by the equally mountainous dimensions of Landburger Gessler (played by Willoughby Goddard), the Austrian oppressor of William Tell in a long-forgotten television series of the same name.

Another native of Tyrol, the Langham's executive chef Georg Fuchs, assured me that he would be serving up the real thing. "I have been very serious and honest about the dishes, so people can be 100 per cent sure it is how food is served in Austria." Since chef Fuchs's severest critic could not accuse him of excessive levity, you can rest assured that this will be the case.

When I saw an Austrian version of truite au bleu on the menu, I wondered how far his pursuit of authenticity went. In AJ Liebling's classic culinary memoir, Between Meals, the preparation of this dish is described as follows: "a live trout simply done to death in hot water, like a Roman emperor in his bath". Chef Fuchs was shocked when I asked whether he used this technique. "I would never allow a creature to suffer. We keep the fish in a tank, then kill them immediately before boiling. But we tend not to talk about such things when eating."

Following this reassurance, I settled down to a sampling of Austrian fare irrigated by a few glasses of the country's excellent wine. No cracks about anti-freeze, please. That was two decades ago and we've all completely forgotten about it. (Though I might remark that the scam was discovered when some lunkhead tried to claim the VAT back on the additive.) My guides to the nosh were two expat guests at the launch, part of the 20,000-strong Austrian contingent in London. They insisted that I should kick off with a small plate of beef stew and dumplings, which proved to be deliciously piquant but with an unexpected texture. "It's called Beuschel," they explained while I chomped. "Lungs, heart and - how you say - zer tubing, preferably from a young cow. Have zis with dumplings and you have a perfect dish."

Next, my new friends directed me towards a dish called Groestl. "It's a mixture of potato and whatever you have in the fridge," they chorused. "A poor farmer's Sunday lunch." Fortunately, chef Fuchs was not within earshot. Then followed a jellied meat called Sulze, a cream-cheese-stuffed ravioli called Schlutzkrapferl ("It is, of course, a small Schlutzkrapferl," my chums helpfully explained), a mini Weiner schnitzel, cabbage stuffed with veal, and another plateful of Beuschel tubing. Finally, a tremendous tranche of Apfelstrudel in a lake of vanilla sauce. Staggering down the steps of the Langham, I was Gessler to a T.

I WAS delighted to discover that the Weasel family are patrons of the arts, if only by proxy. Thanks in part to the gigantic sums which Mrs W has handed over to Habitat over the years (most recently for a chandelier apparently made of wire coat-hangers), the furniture shop has been able to sponsor the Patrick Caulfield exhibition now on at the Hayward Gallery. If you haven't done so already, I urge you to pop along. The familiar reproductions of Caulfield's oeuvre scarcely convey the scale of the artist's work.

His main subjects are restaurants, bars, food (don't miss the boiled egg and toast soldiers in Interior with a Picture, 1985-86) and furniture. Hence the involvement of Habitat. But I wonder if the chain was wise to announce: "Habitat empathises with Patrick Caulfield's vision of contemporary interiors. One can almost imagine these scenes being furnished by Habitat."

The company may wish to be associated with the moulded plastic chairs and table of Dining Recess, 1972, but the uncomfortable bamboo bar stools of Paradise Bar, 1974, are scarcely at the cutting edge of modern design.

In many of his works, Caulfield displays an infatuation with painting things he actively dislikes. The catalogue notes that in Green Drink, 1984, "he patiently duplicated some William Morris wallpaper that he found particularly vile". The same applies to a nightmarish oil lamp that he painted with mind-boggling verisimilitude in Trou Normand, 1997: "When he remarks that the lamp `was hell to paint', he is referring as much to the emotional as to the technical difficulty of the challenge."

I very much hope that Habitat's "empathy" for the artist does not mean that its shops will start filling with examples of le style Caulfield. It's one thing when Mrs W fills the house with a tangle of coat-hangers, but it would be quite another having to live with flock wallpaper, Bavarian beer steins, buttoned leather banquettes...

WHEN YOU think of the enormous numbers who live there, the suburbs of London must be among the most artistically deprived places in Britain. Consider the recent closure of the Greenwich Theatre, virtually in the shadow of the Millennium dustbin lid. However, for the past six years we in Beckenham have benefited from an arts centre called The Studio. The first such venture in the area since a chap called David Bowie ran the Beckenham Arts Lab in the Sixties, it has become a popular venue for theatre shows, concerts, exhibitions and such like.

Mrs W and I are regulars at the film shows. I have a fondness for Continental classics, which end with an abrupt FIN at a random point in the narrative, but we have also chortled at the stylish ironies of the Coen bothers and (last night, as it happens) cudgelled our brains over David Mamet's ingenious thriller The Spanish Prisoner.

All this is now under threat because Bromley Council proposes to end its pounds 150,000 annual grant to The Studio. Ironically, the council is opening a pounds 6.25m Olympic-size swimming-pool bang next door to The Studio on 1 April, though there is a similar facility about a mile away at Crystal Palace. This amount would keep The Studio going for the next 41 years. Brawn has triumphed over brains yet again. The odd thing is that The Studio flourished under Bromley's previous Tory-controlled council. Its closure has been proposed by our current overlords, who are, ironically enough, the lovable Lib Dems. A final decision is to be made at a council meeting next Thursday night. In this case, a sudden FIN would not be welcome.