An Air OF complacency has crept into the nation's collective culinary conscience of late. Restaurateurs and their PRs tell us that London is now the most exciting gastronomic centre in the world. Cookery books are selling at a rate that makes hot cakes look like tinned snails. And such is the appetite for food on television, there is even a series the entire point of which is to mock those foolish enough to confess their lack of talent in the kitchen. Are we really expected to believe that half the nation now cooks like Delia Smith, while the other half can choose, at a whim, whether to be Gordon Ramsay, Rose Gray, or Alastair Little?
I am, of course, a contributor to the general hype around food, and have done my fair share of flag-waving for this culinary cultural revolution. But I have to admit, I don't get through many weeks without at least one eating experience that reminds me why the very concept of British cuisine remains, among a fair proportion of foreigners, a subject ripe for mockery. (I just have to say the word "gravy" to my French girlfriend's mother, who lived here for a short time in the Sixties, and she falls about laughing.)
Some of the most appalling acts of professional cooking in this country occur, in my experience, when a provincial pub or hotel bullies its chef to embrace the Modern European (as some have called it) menu, while the kitchen brigade remains firmly entrenched in the gammon-and-pineapple tradition of the Seventies. I had a meal in Dorset recently which illustrates just how horrendous the fallout can be when these two distant worlds collide. I won't name the establishment - it seems unfair to single it out when hundreds of others are committing similar atrocities all over the country.
As so often in nightmares, things began happily. A country pub, all stone, beams and inglenook; a roaring fire in the grate; a decent pint of bitter for me and a vodka and tonic for Marie. We'd only planned to pop in for a drink, but as we cast our eye down the blackboard menu, certain key words - "crostini ... local crab ... balsamic ... Dorset lamb ... puy lentils" - suggested the chef had a roving eye for recipes but stayed reassuringly close to home for his produce.
In hindsight, there were other key words and phrases that should perhaps have rung alarm bells: "a bed of crisp salad ... lightly toasted ... rich creamy white wine sauce". The pathological need to qualify menu descriptions with a liberal sprinkling of adverbs and adjectives is a pretty reliable indicator of a chef who promises more than he delivers. But we were optimistic, hungry and blind to such subtle clues. Marie ordered "fresh local scallops cooked with bacon on a bed of crisp salad with balsamic vinegar dressing". I ordered "crostini with grilled Mediterranean vegetables and a crisp salad garnish". And as a main course, we decided to share "prime fillet of fresh local lemon sole, lightly grilled and served with a simple prawn and wine sauce, and fresh garden vegetables."
It's tragic to think that Marie's scallops might actually have arrived fresh, even alive, in the restaurant kitchen; that all the terrible damage was inflicted on the premises. But by the time they got to our table they were shrivelled little balls of nothing, indifferent in taste, rubbery in texture. The salad leaves, far from being crisp, were practically stewed in their dressing, to which the only added ingredient, besides the advertised balsamic vinegar, seemed to be salt - and far too much of it. Marie picked out the bacon and made a sandwich with her bread roll.
I could do nothing with my "crostini" which was, in fact, an 8 inch length of baguette, sliced in half, and deep-fried in chip fat. Of the "grilled" vegetables, the aubergine and courgette were quite raw, while the red peppers and onions had been cremated. I don't suppose any of them had been anywhere near the Mediterranean, even on a cheap package tour.
The problem - not so much lack of talent in the kitchen as lack of ability - was apparent the moment our first courses arrived, and I did something I have never done in a restaurant before: cancelled the main course. I simply couldn't bear to see what indignity had been inflicted on the poor, defenceless lemon sole.
But I did order a pudding, asking myself the intriguing question, how bad can a creme brulee be? And here the chef had a little surprise for me. It wasn't bad in the way I had imagined it might be: the custard wasn't curdled, and the brulee, though too burnt and bitter, wasn't completely bungled. Here was a taste crime truly from left field: my creme brulee was sweetened not with sugar, but with aspartame. This most indulgent of English desserts had been laced with artificial sweetener. How do I know? Because I am practically allergic to the stuff, and would recognise its vile, insipid taste anywhere.
As an antidote to this poisonous picture of provincial cuisine, I offer you, in brief, another Dorset pub which gets the food formula absolutely right. The Fox Inn at Corscombe, near Beaminster, has a reassuringly short menu, with a good showing of local fish and seafood. The devilled crab is excellent, spikey from the chilli, but still juicy and not at all overcooked. The Szechuan salt and pepper squid is as good as in my favourite Chinese restaurant in Shaftesbury Avenue, and the rack of Dorset lamb, served pink with a nice rosemary jus, is as fine a bit of baa as you'll find. The fish pie, made with cod, brill and prawns, is dependable and comforting, and a simple blackcurrant mousse, creamy, fresh and tangy, makes a lovely seasonal end to a simple meal cooked with care and competence. There is hope.
We do have some justly applauded stars cooking in Britain today. But if food really is the new rock 'n' roll, it's worth remembering that for every chef who gets teenage girls' knickers thrown at his stove, before choking to death on his own meat glaze, there are still a lot of hopeless dreamers and deluded wannabes out there.