Bring on the Brotherhood of the Eccles Cake

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The Independent Culture
I DON'T know quite what it is about Mireille Johnston, the presenter of A Cook's Tour of France II (BBC 2), but you get the feeling that it wouldn't be a very good idea to cross her. It may be her delivery, which is projected as though she is trying to maintain order in a class of unruly seven year olds, or it may be the glacial elegance of her appearance, but there's something slightly forbidding about her, a sense that you will be in trouble if you don't enjoy what's put in front of you.

This connection between food and discipline is familiar in England but it isn't usually associated with the idea of pleasure. You can sense that The Food Programme wants to think of eating as one of the elemental enrichments of life but it can't really shake off a vestigial sense of guilt, including worthy items on food politics and dressing up some of its cookery items as gameshows - this week one of its resident cooks had to pounce on a family in the local supermarket and produce an edible meal out of what they had in their trolley and store cupboards.

The very title of Channel Four's current food series, Eat Up, carries a peremptory sense of obligation (they had to drop There's Starving Children in Ethiopia Who'd Love That because it wouldn't fit in Radio Times). Eat Up is grim actually, one of those programmes that doesn't talk about what we eat but about 'our diet', as though the whole process of sticking things in your mouth is fraught with social and medical hazard.

So despite Johnston's stern demeanour A Cook's Tour is rather refreshing. There's no less obligation here but it is at least directed towards enjoyment; the first episode included a filmed report from a French primary school in which children were being given practical lessons in La culture du gout, a lesson intended to preserve the French culinary patrimoine against the assaults of le burger. Such exercises will, Johnston noted, 'hopefully transmit a rich collective memory'. Certainly rich, if the recipes here were anything to go by. Butter, eggs and cream were the staples, used with a prodigality that made the mouth water.

And, just in case the taste alone is not enough to preserve a dish, a local support group will probably emerge. Johnston was enrolled as a member of a confrerie founded to defend the honour of Tarte Tatin, a group of men who dress as Smurfs and sing songs about apple pie.

This surely has possibilities for The Food Programme. Perhaps it's time for them to encourage the foundation of the Brotherhood of the Eccles Cake or the Sodality of Holy Hotpot.

People First, a new documentary series on Channel Four, really does seem to mean what it says. In last night's film, about asthma sufferers, you kept expecting an investigative payoff - evidence of the government's lamentable record on urban pollution control, perhaps, or a detailed arraignment of the local plastics factory, but it never came. This was simply an attempt to convey what it is like to be an asthmatic to those who aren't. The people came first.

Asthma is one of those diseases, like diabetes, that is a career for life. It offers the sufferer a title as well as a set of debilitating symptoms and that, most of the witnesses suggested, was part of the problem. When people thought of you as an asthmatic a whole set of associations came along too, about fragility and weakness and panic. One man talked with effective sharpness of 'the infamous 'calm down' ' which is what most lay-people offer as a treatment. 'It's like saying to someone with a plastic bag over his head, that can't breath - 'Just relax'.'

But if you wanted a larger message you had to construct it yourself. 'Breathing is something (the public) take for granted,' said one woman, 'and asthmatics can never take take their next breath for granted.' As pollution increases it may be that none of the rest of us should either. As another sufferer said later: 'If you're an asthmatic, you're like a canary bird down a mine.'