Pizza and spotlit terracotta; crepes suzettes and burgundy velour; ratatouille and check tablecloths. A food moment, writes Stephen Bayley, is always a design moment
Stephen Bayley is an author, critic, columnist, consultant, broadcaster, debater and curator. With Terence Conran he created the influential Boilerhouse Project in the Victoria & Albert Museum, which evolved into the Design Museum. Stephen writes a regular column for The Independent on Sunday’s Travel section, and contributes features that have previously covered anything from travelling through Japan via the iconic Shinkansen, to the artisans of Florence and driving a vintage Fiat 500 around Sicily.
Sunday 25 April 1999
You can forget that 12-month window during which, Philip Larkin said, sexual intercourse began: Sixties style will be as much remembered for the introduction of south European peasant food. Significantly, Habitat opened in the same year as Pizza Express. For Terence Conran and his customers, it was a short step from wanting to eat Provencal ratatouille to wanting to buy and use the implements - or even the entire kitchen - for making it. It is not too simplistic to see in Habitat an expression in furniture and hardware of Elizabeth David's revolution in taste which began with John Lehmann's publication of Mediterranean Food in 1950. The illustrations were by John Minton, and their fishermen's balls, check tablecloths and rough implements predicted (or perhaps, more accurately, directed) bistro style. There is always a clear link between the food we eat and the place in which we eat it.
The march of modern sensibility throughout Britain can be charted by the spread of margaritas and butcher's blocks. Habitat Manchester open- ed in 1967; Findus started selling deep-frozen lasagne in 1972 (43 years after Heinz first offered spaghetti in tins). My own first memories of pizza are themselves forever associated with abstract art. It was in the house of Jules Lubbock, a generous and outgoing young teacher at Manchester University, that I was first served pizza (pronounced the Italian way with a very short "i") in 1971, in an environment stuffed with bright Josef Albers prints. Thus, for me, the loop between pizza and modernism was confirmed.
On a larger stage, this relationship endures. Italian food seems inseparable from social and cultural progress. As a child, I was a regular at a theatreland restaurant called Topo Gigio, then in Great Windmill Street, long since removed, in diminished style, to Great Pulteney Street. Here I would eat avocado (always in those days erroneously known in a gesture of suburban refinement and redundant amplification as avocado "pear") with prawn cocktail, followed by the sempiternal cotoletta milanese, in its fire-blanket version. But just as the repertoire of Italian cooking has advanced, so has interior design. The old Topo Gigio had lots of velour and dark wood and neon. It would be as unthinkable to be served an avocado "pear" in the harsh environment of Richard Rogers' industrial River Cafe as it would be to eat a Ruth Rogers signature dish of, say, barely transformed butterfield lamb with charred rosmarino in surroundings of pompous luxury.
Not only dishes but basic ingredients continuously evolve. Consider, for instance, the curious history of the kiwi fruit or Chinese gooseberry. Twenty-five years ago it was a genuine exotic, a tropical rarity revered - perhaps - by Polynesians in fertility rituals, but an anomaly in a suburban fruit basket, whose familiar residents were unripe bananas and a Golden Delicious which tasted like sweetened carpet underlay. Moved by government subsidies rather than any elevated gastronomic initiative, New Zealand farmers started cultivating the kiwi fruit and successfully promoted it as a valuable source of vitamin C. Slowly, the hideous kiwi infiltrated fruit salads at just the time when the fruity salad was itself becoming an area for adventurous experimentation by chefs both domestic and professional.
At about the same time, French cooking - or at least professional French cooking - was undergoing one of its frequent revolutions. Cuisine minceur sought to radicalise both the substance and the appearance of what was on the plate. In place of heartily satisfying starch, the eater had to take his pleasure from daring combinations of flavours (rhubarb and venison, kippers and kumquats; that sort of thing), and here the kiwi found its true role ... as decoration. Being firm-fleshed, the kiwi was easy to slice in the approved fashion and, being a sort of fluorescent swamp green, it animated the plate. Suddenly, slices of kiwi were everywhere: a sloppy shorthand for "sophistication". Kiwi became garni, assuming the role that previous generations had reserved for a sprig of cress, or a hemisphere of tomato cut to resemble a rose.
In matters of fashion things soon pass from being outrageous to familiar to old hat. This has happened to the kiwi. Its presence in the limelight was a very brief one indeed, and it is now in fashionable decline, a process that will be confirmed as soon as we see kiwi-flavoured crisps. To serve a kiwi fruit today in any form would be brazenly to declare one's naivete or gullibility, one's complete ignorance of fashion - or, you might say, to declare one's resistance to fashion and one's brave and independent spirit. It is at this point that the kiwi may be ready for an ironic revival. The same wholesale fruit merchant who introduced the kiwi fruit to Britain had, a generation before, presided at the coming out of that other useless middle-class green thing, the courgette.
Fashions in food tend to follow this pattern, a familiar curve that could easily be demonstrated graphically. Take garlic. Garlic had political origins. The post-Revolutionary National Assembly influenced the import into Paris of a wide variety of regional dishes. The influence of Provence was the strongest, and the Deputies arriving in the capital from the south not only brought with them Rouget de l'Isle's inspiring anthem, but also the Marseillaise taste for cooking in oil and with garlic. When garlic had been established in Paris for nearly a century, it was still causing trouble to English visitors. In 1875 Thomas King Chambers published his Manual of Diet in Health and Disease. He wrote of a favourite member of the genus Allium:
"Another article of cuisine that offends the bowels of unused Britons is garlic. Not uncommonly in southern climes an egg with the shell on is the only procurable animal food without garlic in it. Flatulence and looseness are the frequent results. Bouilli, with its accompaniments of mustard sauce and water melon, is the safest resource and not an unpleasant one ... after a little education."
Yet a mere 70 years later, Elizabeth David was composing Mediterranean Food and garlic had achieved almost mystical status. To invoke it and other southern ingredients was a form of pornography (since it stimulated what at the time were considered unwholesome cravings). Referring to the drab days after the Second World War, Mrs David wrote (and you can imagine the heavy breathing):
"I sat down and ... started to work out an agonised craving for the sun and a furious revolt against that terrible, cheerless, heartless food, by writing down descriptions of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking. Even to write words like apricot, olives and butter, rice and lemons, oil and almonds, produced assuagement. Later I came to realise that in the England of 1947, those were dirty words."
At my children's school, just yesterday, there was an overwhelming smell of garlic. My daughter explained to me that they have garlic bread for lunch every day. And taramasalata and lasagne. My own memories of childhood salads include hatchet-cut grey eggs and depressed lettuce leaves, both limp and dry and quite undressed. My son and daughter can make their own vinaigrette (using Elizabeth David's recipe) and are at least as familiar with arugula as I was with cucumber segments.
Wine is another example of the astonishing changes in sophistication in the consumer. In 1948 Marcel Boulestin (the first television chef) told a story about having dinner in the house of a Member of Parliament. He said that the "white wine was so incredibly bad that, pretending to be interested in it, I asked its name. My hostess did not know it, nor did the parlour maid, who went to the pantry to look at the bottle."
Today, I would say the ordinary English consumer has a better general knowledge of wine than anyone else on earth, especially the French (who are quite exceptionally ignorant in this area). Recently a policeman came to visit us at home after one of the break-ins that are a ritual in the area where we live. I offered him a glass of wine, which he accepted. He held it up to the light, smelt the volatiles and then swirled the glass to nose the secondaries. He tasted it cautiously, rushing it in and out of his teeth and over the tongue to excite the taste buds. "Cotes du Rhone?" he asked, and he was absolutely right. In a Blur song, "Beaujolais" is used to rhyme with "way". Gazza may enjoy a Flaming Lamborghini (which the Sun explains is a hellish mixture of Kahlua, Curacao, Baileys, Tequila, Premium Lead Free and Vimto), but everyone else prefers a pleasant glass of lightly chilled Sauvignon.
And, of course, appetites change with fashions, or maybe it is the other way around. For certain, the "design" of meals has changed. In his Ramble Through Normandy of 1855, George Musgrave described a picnic lunch for two. It consisted of soup, fried mackerel, beefsteak, French beans, fried potatoes, omelette fines herbes, a fricandeau of veal with sorrel, a roast chicken garnished with mushrooms, a hock of pork served on spinach, an apricot tart, three custards, an endive salad, a small roast leg of lamb with chopped onion and nutmeg, coffee, absinthe, eau doree, a Mignon cheese, pears, plums, grapes, cakes and two bottles of red Burgundy, one of white. The same couple today would probably eat a rocket salad with a shaving of parmesan and a little grilled fish, perhaps with a spritzer.
Taste is not universal. It is culturally and socially conditioned. There is no known group of humans who eat everything available to them. A comestible greatly admired by one group is often detested by another. Mrs Beeton, the Delia Smith of her day, had a recipe for "Fishklosh", roast wallaby and parrot pie. The natives of Brunei prize rotten eggs as a delicacy, just as the English sportsman enjoys having his game putrefy before cooking it. Navajo Indians believe fresh fish is poisonous, and a number of important dishes in classical Arab cookery depend on a dough made of rotten barley, known to contain aflatoxins, among the deadliest carcinogens.
Historians know that taste tends to move from a general preference for "sweet" to "dry". We are now in a dry phase. If you don't believe me, ask a wine merchant about sales of amontillado in comparison with brut champagne. Yet at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens (1661-1859), while Champagne was available for eight shillings a bottle, most visitors preferred "Vauxhall Nectar", an emetic concoction of rum, syrup and petals of benjamin flowers. German wines were sold with added sugar.
Patterns in cooking are just as cyclical, a period of excess being followed by a period of austerity. Elizabeth David's glorious cycle of books began when she started longing for exotic ingredients during the drab days of rationing - you were lucky then to get beige soup or a rubbery rissole, never mind pissaladiere or ratatouille. Mrs David's instruction (adapted from Escoffier) to "Faites simple!" was a moral and aesthetic instruction as much as a culinary one. And here we are approaching a definition. To understand food and fashion, you have to appreciate that cooking and design have a lot in common. A good design must have a sound concept, fine ingredients, be well made. It should be functional and it should, if at all possible, be pleasant to look at. Similarly, good cooking must also have excellent ingredients and preparation and should follow a reliable recipe. The result should be both nutritious and flavoursome. That's fine, but within those rules there's huge room for variety.
In any society evolved beyond (a) rationing or (b) subsistence, food is a matter for social competition, for cultural modelling. Brillat-Savarin said, "Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you what you are." He was right, but should have added: "and what you want to be".
It is in formal French cooking that the expression "good taste" first appears, originally as a means of putting down the peasantry and their coarse preferences. Social competition was intense in 18th-century France. The Marquis d'Uxelles gave his name to a dish of quails in mushroom sauce, still in the classical repertoire as cailles a la duxelles. Another famous dish, Filet de volailles a la Bellevue, was named by Madame De Pompadour after one of her favourite houses. Louis XV made his own omelettes. Boeuf Stroganoff was named for a Russian prince. These were dishes that were "designed"; deliberate gestures of taste with a "brand" attached.
Thanks to a large degree to Elizabeth David, food became a matter of fashion in post-war Britain. Just as during the Fifties the Council of Industrial Design wanted to save English taste through Scandinavian furniture, so Elizabeth David and her followers sought to do the same with robust southern European peasant food. There is a curious precedent to this politicisation of ingredients. The word "restaurant" first appears in the stories of Marguerite de Navarre, where it means a restorative soup. By 1771 it had entered the Dictionnaire de Trevoux, where it was explained thus: "Certain traiteurs in Paris who sell nothing but restaurants are called restaurateurs." In pre-Revolutionary Paris, you had to expect to eat in a private house. The restaurant became established as an institution when, after the French Revolution, cooks left the great houses and set up independently. At just the same time, they were able to become celebrities. (It was the same in music: while Haydn had been a tradesman/ servant, Beethoven was an artistic genius.) The original restaurant was, if you like, the very first "consumer" experience, in that it was a service offered for sale to complete strangers (whereas hitherto food had been the subject of master-servant or family relationships).
People learn about interior design from the experience of going to restaurants where the style of the food served is always in some sort of relationship to the environment. If you had a bit of a hankering for tournedos Rossini or escalope de veau Holstein, or for a crepe suzette, you would want to satisfy it in an environment defined by burgundy velour banquettes, pink napery and copper chafing dishes. Your tournedos Rossini would look very odd in a galvanised angle- iron neo-Modern environment lit by low-voltage dichroic lamps. Equally, a chaste modern dish - say grilled sardines - would be best appreciated in a very particular environment. Food and interior design are both expressions of taste ... and of fashion.
It was Michel Guerard's La Grande Cuisine Minceur of 1976 that codified nouvelle cuisine and offers us perhaps the most complete example of fashion in food, a business of supreme artifice. Fashion is, by definition, unnecessary, which is what makes it so fascinating. It is necessary for fashion to create demand. Hence the absurd novelties of cuisine minceur. Conceptual inversions were de rigueur. Starters had to be given the names of puddings and vice versa. Thus sorbet de fromage detete. Main courses confused appellations of meat and fish: rumsteck de sole. The same with vegetables: gateau de carottes. Entrees were given the names of starters: soupe de figues. In Un Festinen Paroles (1979), Jean- Francois Revel sighed of an 18th-century dish: "Faut-il considerer ... Le canard aux huitres comme une survivance medievale ou un anticipation moderne ... on ne sait."
But Guerard also furnishes me with one anecdote that explains precisely the absurd relationship between food and fashion. Eugenie-les-Bains is Guerard's flagship restaurant, a splendid Empire-style building in rural Gascony. Here Monsieur Guerard practised his artifice to the delight of Michelin inspectors, who gave him three rosettes to demonstrate their respect. A year or so ago, I booked a family lunch there, preceded by an exchange of letters, phone calls and faxes. We arrived at the due time, only to find there had been a mistake. Madame was flustered as she explained the problem. We watched fat Belgian millionaires and their thin mistresses shuffle in for a 300-calorie lunch. Madame wanted to know if we realised that Monsieur Guerard had opened another restaurant around the back? La Ferme aux Grives was a revelation. Napoleonic splendour gave way to peasant style. Three hundred calories gave way to a very grande buffet. No menu. No minceur. A jug of wine, a tub of pate, an omelette, a daube, a salad, a rich pudding, cheese, more wine. A roaring fire and tables groaning with produce. No fat Belgian millionaires.
There is more choice and meaning in the selection, preparation and consumption of food than in any other activity. Brillat-Savarin was correct: tell him what you eat and he will tell you what you are. Tell him where you eat and the conclusion will be the same. Fashion and food are expressions of the continuous human search for quality and variety. But one word of warning, Pierre Gagnaire recently ran a remarkable restaurant in St-Etienne where the modern art and architecture were as impressive as the dizzily sophisticated food which won him three rosettes. The American gourmet magazines found him and turned him into a destination restaurant for rich Texan dentists. Michelin gave him three rosettes. And then he closed down. It was the first time this had ever happened to a three-rosette establishment. Gagnaire said people did not want that kind of food any more. Well, he was wrong. He was just not in the right place. And now he has opened again in Paris, to just as much acclaim.
Everyone knows that there has been a revolution in British restaurants in the past 10 years. But I wonder whether there is not another revolution in preparation. Conran's first shops were inspired by Design Research in Boston. His restaurants were inspired by the old established brasseries of Paris, where there was a bright democracy of taste. Thus Pierre Andrieu in Fine Bouche (1956):
"La Coupole ... is open day and night; one enters or leaves at pleasure, untroubled by obsequious flunkeys ... The immense room ... is blazing with lights, the walls are decorated with paintings by loyal Montparnassians, and the whole affords a sense of ease and comfort, a feeling of being at liberty to do exactly as one likes. All languages are to be heard, people of every race to be met, the place is a world in miniature that eats and drinks, reads and talks, dreams or makes love, just as it wants."
But Conran's London restaurants, like Habitat, had their precedents in the United States, where a rash of noisy, busy, top-quality mega-restaurants, including Cafe des Artistes, Luxembourg and Odeon, opened on New York's Upper East Side in the late Seventies and early Eighties. Now they are in London, but there may be early signs that the public is becoming fatigued by their formulaic brightness. Peter Murray, the distinguished architectural publisher, and I had a recent exchange about a rendez- vous for lunch. With all of London available, we thought for a moment and agreed that we didn't want to go anywhere large and noisy. We wanted to go somewhere quiet and intimate. "Not," Peter said, "anywhere modern." I thought at the time that I was very glad no one had overheard our conversation, but then I realised how significant it was. Don't ask me how it happened, but at least as far as restaurants are concerned, "modern" is no longer sophisticated. There has been another change in taste. But the Ford Transit is still going strong.
From 'Food: Design & Culture' (Laurence King, pounds 19.95), a catalogue to accompany the exhibition at Glasgow's Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum from 8 May to 22 August
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