Last Night's TV: Clarissa and the King's Cookbook, BBC4
Great British Menu, BBC2
The Apprentice BBC2
Thursday 08 May 2008
Clarissa Dickson Wright has gone further than most television cooks in acknowledging the truth of Nietzsche's remark that there is no feast without cruelty.
Where her colleagues tend to pull a neatly trimmed fillet out of the fridge to prepare their dishes, Clarissa has been known to go out and hunt her raw ingredients down before putting them in the pot, and there's something self-consciously defiant about her refusal to blur the connection between meat and animal, in deference to contemporary squeamishness.
So I couldn't help but feel that she rather ducked a challenge in Clarissa and the King's Cookbook, in which she prepared a meal from the oldest British cookbook, a scroll from the court of Richard II called The Forme of Cury ("cury" being a way of saying cooking, rather than a chicken tikka with a side of aloo gobi).
There was an opportunity here to really test our sometimes arbitrary demarcations between protected species and edible ones. The scroll includes a recipe for heron, for example, and a recipe for beaver, helpfully categorised as a fish by the clerical authorities to get round the 242 days of the year on which meat was forbidden. Clarissa could even have cooked porpoise in broth, though it's true that the scroll doesn't go into a great deal of detail about technique. You wouldn't forget that in a hurry, would you – a group of medievalists tucking into grilled porpoise.
Instead, Clarissa opted for a goose recipe. "Take sage, parsley, hyssop and savory, quinces and pears, garlic and grapes and fill the geese therewith and sew up the hole that no grease come out and roast them well." The result, she declared, was "elegant, expensive and sophisticated cuisine", and I don't doubt that it was to a medieval diner. Apparently, one of Richard's feasts cost the equivalent of £58,000 for food and £10,000 for table linen, which might even make a non-dom blink a bit. But in terms of contemporary cuisine, it looked like goose-studded porridge, without any Heston Blumenthal finesse. I wasn't entirely sure about the aigre-doux of fish either, topped with a kind of mulled vinegar and provoking from Clarissa's assembled guests the kind of polite murmuring that all cooks dread.
If you want to see what Richard II might be serving up now you have to watch Great British Menu, which this week reached the South-west England heats. Curiously, the recipes have been getting quite medieval: slices of beef served on a jelly of white wine with chervil and sultanas, and wild pigeon cured in birch-sap wine. But when it comes to plating up, the modern chef can do a lot better than a mess of pottage plopped on to a big slice of stale bread. Chris Horridge – who seems to believe that haute cuisine can cure cancer – serves his food on a roofing slate, while his opponent, Elisha Carter, opts for weirdly morphed bowls. As food programmes go, Great British Menu isn't bad, breaking away from the kitchen to look at small food suppliers. But it's hard to imagine watching it every day without being driven mad by the redundancy of the format, the way it repeats the fundamental information again and again and again, not to mention coating everything in a gummy sauce of chef rivalry. "They're always arguing, those two!" chuckled Jenny Bond in her infuriatingly mumsy voice-over. Yes, but only because the producers kept telling them to, I suspect, so they could sprinkle more finely chopped banter into the mix.
Format fatigue is also a problem with The Apprentice, which mysteriously insists on an interminable opening sequence telling us what we already know and then showing us a shortened version of what we saw last week. Devoted viewers have learnt that every series will also contain a predictable "unpredictable" moment, which this week took the form of a double firing. But we shouldn't grumble, because Surallen was on terrific form, restoring faith in his omniscience after the wrongful smiting of Simon a couple of weeks ago.
The teams had been sent to Morocco to haggle for 10 specific items, including kosher poultry. Modelling their approach on their shopping list, Jennifer's team ran around like decapitated chickens: wild flapping, some blood-spilling and no evidence of higher brain function. Nobody seemed to know what kosher meant, including Michael, who had described himself on his application form as "a good Jewish boy" (a shameless bit of special pleading that did not escape Surallen's attention). Jenny, having confessed that she didn't know there were any Jewish connections to the term, then insisted she had ceded to Michael's greater knowledge because of his "Jewish roots", a sly bit of blame-dodging that earned her the Order of the Stubby Finger. And then Surallen fired Jennifer as well, his appetite for condign retribution not yet sated. Happily, Jennifer claims to be "the best salesperson in Europe", so we don't need to worry about her future too much.
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