French revolution

FOOD: Why British brasseries can't quite match their Continental counterparts

The fabulous French brasserie has its roots in the beer cellars of Germany, where beer and cider were made and sold (brasserie actually means "brewery") - and, possibly, still are - and consumed in vast quantities, along with dishes of sausage and cabbage.

Alsace, across the border, soon latched on to the mass drink-and-dine affair around the middle of the 19th century, with the trend proliferating through to the major French cities, particularly the capital. The most famous of the Parisian institutions are the brasseries Bofinger, Flo, Lipp, Le Boeuf sur le Toit and - the grande dame of them all - La Coupole.

A visit to Paris is unthinkable, for me, without a meal in this vast dining room. The present owners did the place up a few years ago, and I think, if anything, it is now better then ever. It is still enormous, comfortable, stylish and gourmet-good without shouting.

Terence Conran (who, just possibly, loves La Coupole more than I do) and his big dining rooms have revolutionised dining in London, but his and the other similar halls have their roots in these great turn-of-the- century restaurants. That, however, is where the similarity stops.

What the British imitations miss are the clientele. Not, you understand, a lack of them (big restaurants have never been more full); it's to do with the type of person. This is not a slight against the calibre of our perception when it comes to sniffing out a good chop, but rather our concept of what going out is really for.

But our outings now are considerably more critical than they were 30 years ago. Take this worrying quote from Derek Cooper's marvellous Bad Food Guide (Routledge & Kegan Paul), written in 1967: "In Britain, what you eat is often the least important part of a meal. I was having a meal once with three other people in a hotel in Yorkshire. Halfway through the meal I realised that the person opposite, who in fact had ordered roast duck, was eating cold ham. 'I thought you asked for duck,' I said. 'Well, I did, but this is just as nice,' was the disarming reply.'"

At La Coupole, you might sit next to a lady of a certain age with an immaculate blue rinse and a small dog, quietly slipping down a dozen perfect belons. She maybe comes here once a week, probably on a Saturday. On the other side of the banquette you will find a student reading Liberation while tucking into a cheese-dribbled bowl of soupe a l'oignon; beyond him, a bourgeois family of four with a towering plateau de fruits de mer, and then a table of businessmen with their jackets off, constantly smoking and tucking into huge slabs of crusted cotes de boeuf. Then, again, there will be someone like me, marvelling and wondering why we don't feel the same way back home. I'm the one eating the curry d'agneau (a long-time speciality of La Coupole, for what bizarre reason I am unsure), while quietly reading his Independent at the table by the kitchen door.

Eating out has to be much more exciting for most British people. We want an event, to get drunk, to (often churlishly) celebrate an anniversary, , or just to see what's new. The blue-rinsed dame couldn't give a piece des deux centimes about the newest chic place (she is already very chic herself). This is not to say that there is anything wrong with new places: it's just that here, there's often too much choice, too much novelty, too much flash. Perhaps the nub of the problem lies in our need to be a tad grandiose (service and servility have always been a mixed bag here). Continentals, conversely, simply get on with it - and with confidence.

At the brasserie, I am invariably drawn to my favourite things: staples such as filets de harengs, pommes a I'huile (oil-soaked fillets of smoked herrings set upon slices of warm and waxy potatoes), oysters and langoustines, naturally (which can now be every bit as good in London), the cote de boeuf, salade de museau (pork or beef brawn, thinly sliced and dressed with a sharp vinaigrette, chopped parsley and shallots) and andouillette grillee (a sort of tripe sausage), pommes frites and steak tartare.

In winter, it would be soupe a l'oignon, rognons a la moutarde (veal kidneys in a smashing mustard cream sauce) and the parfait au cafe - but I don't think Coupole does that anymore, sadly. What is, finally, a pity for me is that I am none too keen on choucroute garni, that steaming pile of sausages, cabbage and salted belly pork loved by almost every Parisian. But then, possibly, I, too, still have a lot to learn when it comes to knowing how to eat out with style.

Filets de harengs, pommes a l'huile, serves 4-6

You can find these herrings (look for the names saur and doux on the packet, also fumes au fen de bois) in 200g/7oz packs in specialist fishmongers, or stock up with some the next time you take a trip to Bologne-sur-Mer, just across the Channel. They have a fairly long life, anyway, but can also be successfully frozen. Once submerged in oil, they will keep in the fridge for several weeks, improving as they mature.

2x200g/7oz packets filets de harengs

275ml/half pint plain oil, approx (such as peanut) and olive oil, mixed together

2 medium carrots, peeled and very thinly sliced

2 small onions, peeled and very thinly sliced

1 small bulb fennel, trimmed and thinly sliced

4-5 sprigs fresh thyme

4 (if possible) fresh bay leaves

1 tsp crushed peppercorns

half tsp dried chilli flakes (optional)

Cut the herring fillets (there are no bones) into 2" pieces and put on to a plate. Take a roomy preserving jar or lidded plastic box and pour in a layer of oil. Scatter in some of the vegetables, herbs and spices and add a layer of herring. Keep doing this until all the ingredients are exhausted. Make sure the herrings are covered in oil. Seal the container and allow to macerate for at least one week, in a cool dark place. After this time, if you have not used them, store in the fridge.

To serve: boil or steam 5-6 medium-sized, waxy potatoes in their skins. Once cool enough to handle (but still fairly hot), peel and thickly slice on to warm plates. Cover with several pieces of the herring and vegetables and spoon over some of the oil so that it soaks into the potatoes. Sprinkle with a little chopped parsley. I like to add a few drops of red wine vinegar to each serving for a touch of acidity, but this is not the established behaviour.

Rognons de veau a la moutarde, serves four

Veal kidneys can be difficult to come by, so substitute lambs' if you need to, but make sure both are fresh.

2 small veal kidneys or 12 lambs' kidneys, divested of all suet and excess sinew

1 tbsp olive oil

salt and pepper

25g/1oz butter

2 large shallots, thinly sliced

3 tbsp medium sherry

75ml/3 fl oz dry white wine

1 heaped tbsp best Dijon mustard

150ml/5 fl oz double cream

1 small clove garlic, crushed to a paste

a few leaves of fresh tarragon, chopped

squeeze of lemon juice

If using veal kidneys, separate the lobes with a small knife at their natural divisions and slice in half. If you are using lamb's then simply cut into 4-5 slices along their length.

Heat the olive oil until smoking in a roomy frying pan. Briskly fry the kidneys until lightly coloured all over and stiffened from the heat: do not crowd the pan and do it in two batches if necessary. Tip into a sieve suspended over a bowl. Melt the butter in the pan and gently stew the shallots until well softened and golden. Pour in the sherry and wine and reduce until syrupy. Add the mustard, double cream, garlic and tarragon. Simmer until rich and unctuous. Re-heat the kidneys in this for one to two minutes, check seasoning, stir in lemon juice and serve with plain boiled potatoes. Note: you will notice that some blood has dripped into the bowl that was under the kidneys. Do not add this to the dish or the sauce will coagulate

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