FOOD / The gourmand conquests: Unlike the French, we have never been into the art of eating. But the new junior minister for food, Nicholas Soames, is a true gastronome. Michael Bateman asked him whether British attitudes are changing

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The Independent Culture
HE IS the size of a Gulliver. Like Lilliputians, his subjects who prepare food for him gasp at his monumental appetite. He may not weigh a ton, but he certainly weighs two or three hundredweight.

The new junior minister for food, Nicholas Soames, loves eating. He is thus the first gastronome to administer matters pertaining to the British stomach since his father, Christopher Soames, was Minister of Agriculture in the early 1960s - a man whose penchant for feasting later made him in French eyes our most credible ambassador to Paris. Nicholas is built in his father's mould.

Anglo-Saxon attitudes to gastronomy are rather negative. The word was coined from Greek roots over 160 years ago by Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, a French appeal court judge. He wrote the most famous study of the art of eating, La Physiologie du Gout, and gave the world the most famous quote on the subject: 'Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you who you are.'

He is celebrated in France as the patron saint of French food, though as Giles MacDonogh points out in his newly published biography (John Murray pounds 25), the honour should go to Grimod de la Reyniere. This former aristocrat wrote after the Revolution, initiating a new class of people into the secrets of the aristocratic kitchen.

Until the Revolution, chefs were encouraged to invent dishes which would almost literally seduce the palate of a king, so the lady of the house might well end up as a mistress - to the great social advancement of her husband. It was on such a basis that gastronomy was founded, and Grimod's food writing was the style passport for the middle classes.

Brillat's book, by comparison, is a stodgy account of the emergent science of nutrition. But later gastronomic writers needed a Father of the French Table, and Brillat fitted the bill - an immensely civilised man who had devoted his life to law, to the ladies, to literature (erotic) and to a profound love of his belly.

Gastronomy does not seem to come naturally to the British. We do have the Wine and Food Society, but this was founded by a Frenchman, the wine writer Andre Simon. He shared Brillat's philosophy, and once put it to me as follows: 'I know wellmeaning people for whom the very phrase joie de vivre is immoral, who look upon the slightest gratification of the senses as sinful. They merely eat to live and are sorry for the poor brutes like myself who know no better and live to eat. I have no patience with them, because I look upon them as heretics who do not accept the orthodox ruling that God's gifts are all good gifts as long as we make good use of them. To shut one's eyes to beauty or one's nostrils to truffles is sheer puritanical heresy.'

French influence is central to the British arm of the Academie Culinaire de France, drawn mostly from chefs, and it is the Hungarian-born Egon Ronay (of the famous restaurant guide) who started the 60-strong British Academy of Gastronomes nine years ago. 'The British,' Ronay says, 'seem to have a terror of being seen to enjoy food. They don't accept that they have a right to the sensual pleasure they were born with - and I believe it's something to do with religion.'

It's certainly true that many British public figures shrink from being associated with a love of food and drink, particularly politicians. Roy Jenkins was coy about his love of claret, Roy Hattersley was uncomfortable about Private Eye's investigations into his alleged love of lunch. Harold Wilson wished it to be known that he poured HP Sauce over his food. Tories are usually pretty serious lunchers, but their leaders back off. Margaret Thatcher claimed her favourite meal at home was deepfrozen lasagne cooked in the microwave. And, as we all know, John Major was only too eager to grasp a photo opportunity breakfasting in a Happy Eater.

Nor does the Royal Family give a lead; you have to go back to the Prince Regent - who hired the greatest French chef of all, Antoine Careme - to find a gastronome among them. Those who do not have eating disorders (among the younger generation) display a public preference for plain food. In fact, few gourmets spring to mind from the post- war era. Some actors, such as Michael Caine, Robert Morley and Derek Nimmo. Among businessmen, Sir Terence Conran. And then there was the most single-minded of all gourmets, Nubar Gulbenkian, who had inherited an oil fortune from his Armenian father.

Nicholas Soames remembers him with pleasure. 'Gulbenkian rode with Lord Derby's hunt,' he says. 'I can recall him sitting astride his steaming horse while servants brought him lamb cutlets in jelly. When he'd eaten all he wanted, he tossed the rest to the hounds and Lord Derby complained that he'd never seen such a thing. 'And I don't expect you've ever seen an Armenian Jew on a horse,' he replied.'

Soames, a grandson of Sir Winston Churchill, inherited a love of good food from his father. 'I never met anyone who knew more about food,' he says. As a boy, Nicholas Soames (who is now 44) served a rare apprenticeship eating dinners cooked by Britain's premier chef Albert Roux - before he opened Le Gavroche, Roux worked as chef for racehorse owner Peter Cazalet, a friend of the Soames family.

'I am an unashamed lover of very good food. The French take it for granted and the French housewife shops every day in the market. It's quite difficult to produce very bad food. In fact, it's so difficult you have to work very hard at it.' He adds sarcastically, 'You should congratulate people who manage to do it.'

Soames has a high opinion of modern British cooking, which is now recovering, he believes, from the tyrannical regime of nouvelle cuisine. Not so long ago, prices increased in direct proportion to the diminishing size of the portions. 'I remember taking a girlfriend to one place - I won't tell you where - and what we were given was four first courses. I had to go out to the Connaught Grill afterwards to have a proper meal.'

Food often reached a phenomenally high standard of presentation, he says, but now people are beginning to concentrate more on what it tastes like. 'In fact, I believe that we are reaching the dawn of a Golden Age of Food.'

Nicholas Soames is a practised luncher and can be sighted at the Savoy Grill, the Connaught Grill, Christopher's in Covent Garden (renowned for its large portions), Wilton's, White's, Green's, The Greenhouse, The Ivy and San Lorenzo (the Chelsea set's favourite). Unfortunately, he says his ministerial salary will not stretch to dining in expensive three-star French restaurants ('I have taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience').

The new junior food minister is only the second to hold this post. The first, David Maclean, was appointed to assist John Gummer at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. It was Maclean's task to handle the Food Safety Act, and clean up the Augean stables in the wake of disclosures about food poisoning - from salmonella and listeria, to BSE in cattle and concerns about toxic pesticides.

Soames reckons food scares are things of the past; it is time to move on. He sees it as his role to encourage farmers to exploit a 'golden and glitzy' future in Europe. 'The Food Safety Act,' he argues, 'will help them enforce a strict and rigorous code of practice under which our food can be sold at premium prices in Europe. To my mind there are two things we've never exploited in Britain: our language and our food.'

And what superb foods, he says. His eyes glaze in memory of a meeting he had with the Farmfresh Turkey Association, who are marketing the tasty older breeds. 'I had lunch with them and I damn near ate a whole bird myself.'

His new job takes him to the heart of Britain's foodlands, not only the lunch table, but the farms, even the abattoirs. He has been greatly impressed to learn that humane killing yields better meat. When the farmer is present at the slaughter it calms the animals, minimising the stress which contributes to bad flavour and tough meat. 'As my mother says, there can't be a cow in the country whose hand I haven't held while its head is being smashed in.'

We can safely assume that for the duration of his term in office, healthy eating will be an issue he'll leave to the Department of Health. Indeed, it would be no surprise if they slammed a government health warning on the calorie-rich savoury bread and butter pudding which is one of his most recent discoveries. If ever there was a recipe for heart disease this delightful dish is it:

'Line a pudding dish with slices of buttered bread. Sprinkle with parmesan cheese, cover with thick cream. Then add a second layer of bread and butter, parmesan cheese and cream. Bake in very hot oven until bubbling and crisped.'

I said we would be cheering him on in his bid to put fine food on the nation's menu, but warned that he could so easily be undone by a single indiscretion. The minister knew exactly what I meant. 'Like being photographed eating a bag of prawnflavoured crisps?'

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