Jonathan Meades: 'I have saucisson issues'

He is a former restaurant critic who was fed up with 'tosser' TV chefs and the 'ersatz' food culture of Britain. So Jonathan Meades fled to the belly of France to eat himself silly...
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Jonathan Meades' view has changed. Two years ago the writer, gastronome and TV auteur lived on London's Bermondsey Street, between Zandra Rhodes' textile museum and the deep grey Thames. Now he looks out over his own tranche of south-western France, as the oaks turn perceptibly to orange ("It's not every day the colours change, so much as every hour"), the mists condense over the lake and the giant guinea pigs shuffle down the banks to drink... Giant what? "Coypu or ragondin. They were introduced here in the 1920s when there was a rather recondite craze for them as pets. They're sweet creatures" – Meades reaches for the pair of binoculars he keeps by his armchair – "and served locally as rillettes, although that is a dish we have yet to try."

Jonathan and Mrs Meades III, a lovely, welcoming Englishwoman named Colette, live in that part of France where the map reads like a menu. North of Bordeaux, west of Cognac and east of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, they are slap-bang in the belly of France. It's tempting to see Meades as a gastronomic exile, on the run from British abominations such as fusion sausages, from the "tosser" telly chefs and the "ersatz" British food revolution he damned so magnificently over 15 years of restaurant reviewing for The Times (he stepped down from the table in 2001). No, he says. "We're just here because we fell in love with this house" (a restored farmhouse with a modern wing). He scoffs at the naff English myth of "the art of French living" and the "dreadful tradition" that brought us Peter Mayle – but clearly he loves it here, where his vegetable patch grows three types of asparagus (green, white and sprue), where his woodland is full of ceps; where there are fresh lampreys and oysters from the Gironde, and wild boar from L'Aveyron...

I ask if he wants me to bring anything from Britain – a Proustian McVitie? Perhaps a hydrogenated pork pie? – but he misses nothing except, occasionally, real ale.

It's nightfall when I arrive and Meades is slicing saucisson. Two are hanging from the doorframe of their cosy kitchen. "This is a crisis," says his wife. "He needs five or six to feel secure." Meades pouts. "I got saucisson issues."

"You're not vegetarian?" Colette asks me anxiously. He shudders: "I had forgotten about vegetarians!" Meades is rumoured to live exclusively on meat, although this is not quite true; I saw him have some bread and potatoes too. I even saw him think about having some spinach, but then change his mind. He eats with a nice audible relish. "It's hard when you're a hog," he tells me. "My mother's name was Hogge. I'm very Scottish, really." He is a great connoisseur of offal, though local sources here have proved disappointing.

French cooking separates into very particular regions, and Bordelaise cuisine doesn't include chitterlings; the butcher had never even heard the word. He finally procured some for Meades, ominously free of charge. They were unwashed, straight from the abattoir. "He came back to the car looking very disconsolate," says Colette. "And washed them in the kitchen under the tap for hours and then in vinegar. The smell was dreadful, and they kept blowing up into comedy balloons – because of course they used to be made into footballs." "Or condoms," interjects Meades. The resulting dish was revolting, and there wasn't even much of it.

"In Rome I went all the time to this restaurant Checchino dal 1887 where they served just wonderful pajata – veal intestines with milk still curdled inside." "Gross!" I shout involuntarily. "Not gross; lovely!" he booms back. Another glass of wine.

We plan to visit the local market the next day – does he go to different markets on different days? "I spend most of my time writing! I'm not a slow-food fetishist. It's so pious, that movement." Meades does not suffer fools. There is a French TV chef, Cyril Lignac, of whom he says, "I know it sounds impossible, but he's an even greater prat than Jamie Oliver." What does he think of Giles Coren, the current restaurant critic of The Times? "I didn't hear that question." Meades can be magnificently brusque, but when he loves, it is with great passion and tenderness. His wide and various interests – from architecture to the fens – are demonstrated in a new DVD collection of his glorious TV work since 1990. He gets British ' telly here in France, but loathes most of it. "It's a wonderful medium, traduced by morons. Ross? Brand? Simon Cowell? Shoot them all. The only reason I'm still making intelligent programmes is that I'm so bloody-minded. It started to become a struggle from the time of [John] Birt and then particularly – have you got your Dictaphone on? Good – Jane Root [former controller of BBC2]. God, she was appalling. Une vache."

Restaurant reviewing also had its pitfalls. In 2000 Meades was diagnosed morbidly obese, having reached over 19 stone. "My knees gave out. A doctor said to me, 'You have a professional footballer's injury, but I can see you are not a professional footballer, ha ha.'" He was referred to Dr Jeffrey Fine. "An amazing man. A magician. A Jewish psychiatrist from Cardiff, very dapper, very good-looking. He can make you do anything. There's just something about him that's very persuasive." Meades lost about a third of his bodyweight. Was it basically the Atkins diet avant la lettre? "No, it was Jeff Fine's diet. He's a Harley Street doctor. Atkins died obese. Jeff Fine has a very... bella figura. For about a year I ate only meat, but never beef, or dairy. Occasionally fish, and also citrus fruit." To stop the scurvy? His face lights up. "Ha! There was a really good case of scurvy in Kilburn in the 1980s when they found this guy whose diet was just Guinness and potato crisps..."

Chat flows, as does claret, and Meades shows me a tin of goose fat he's had since 1974. In Borough Market it's daylight robbery for goose fat; here it's €2 a jar. He cooks with little else, except butter. The local AOC Charentes-Poitou butter is fantastically good, and bash, bash, in it goes to the potatoes Meades is pounding for supper. We're having duck Parmentier; basically the world's poshest shepherd's pie. There is some debate about the potatoes, from the nearby Île de Ré. Are they similar to Jersey Royals, or just marketed the same? "Pah. They simply both come from islands full of collaborators. Les Patates Collabores." He is cooking the Parmentier in the manner of his second-favourite chef in France, Yves Camdeborde, who puts the potato under as well as over the meat, to seal in the moisture. He is not, however, following a recipe. "I don't look at recipe books! I'm beyond them. I'm old enough to have known Elizabeth David. Extraordinary woman. Her main aim in life, by the time I met her, was to meet Jeffrey Bernard."

At a push, Meades might consult the Larousse Gastronomique (his copy has lost its spine), The Silver Spoon for Italian cookery, or Paul Bocuse. Claudia Roden is a genius too. That's it. His shelves, however, groan with old Michelin guides, annotated by his parents. "My mother was an obsessive Franco-phile." Her marginalia includes notes about presents for Jonathan, the much-loved only child: a seagull, a crab. Real? Or only models? She does not record. The small Meades' first encounter with the glories of French food was in Saint-Malo, aged eight. He bunked off from the beach and shared lunch with the hotel staff (horse and chips).

Instead of pudding, he serves a bowl of veiny blue slop he has made called Rebarbe, a type of fromage fort he discovered at a restaurant in Rodez, composed of Roquefort, butter, a little garlic, a lot of liqueur. It practically stirs itself, pungent and malicious, like fondue gone to the bad. Why eat if you aren't hungry? "Why did Borges buy books after he was blind?"

As the music of his beloved Fabrizio De André soars ("M'innamoravo di tutto...") it seems a good idea to test one of Meades' home-made eaux de vie, a delicious and potent poteen made from acacia flowers. My notes start to dissolve... Tomorrow we will go early to the market... Eichmann lived in a house in Buenos Aires right beside a railway line... Why does he write? Mostly to work out why he's writing and why he is what he is. The wonderment of death. You can't be James Joyce and you can't be Nabokov but you can try! The tape recorder runs dry. Goodnight, kind hosts! I stagger upstairs thinking that there is such a thing as the art of French living, and this is it.

In the early morning sunshine the ragondins are out again, nibbling. "We don't tend to tell people we've seen them, otherwise it's bang, bang, no more ragondin," says Colette, serving coffee. La chasse is relentless in October; huntsmen in luminous jackets are out shooting anything that moves: robins, deer, each other. "In the local paper there is a whole column devoted to injuries from la chasse – usually fatal."

Songbirds are not to the couple's fundamentally Protestant taste. "Thrushes garlanded with the grapes they fed on? Awful. What's the point? There's no meat on them, no particular flavour. One can see the point of woodcock, but not the very little birds..." None of us mentions last night. I have woken feeling surprisingly good. It must be the quality of what was consumed. Has he ever tried ortolan, the barbaric – and illegal – delicacy of bunting force-fed, drowned in Armagnac, and consumed under a white sheet (either to hide the act from God or preserve the rich aroma, depending on your outlook)? "No. I've been offered them. Someone near here in the Landes was arrested for having over 100 in their freezer. They charge €100 each. I could make a phone call and that would be it, but I'm not terribly interested. I don't like the fetishism of it, the Ku Klux Klan element."

He doesn't buy into truffle mania, either. Perigord is close by, but he'd rather have delicacies such as baby eel or shad roe from the "estuary to end all estuaries, La Gironde". Perch and pike are abundant in his own lake, but he can't be doing with the preparation. "They have bones which are completely unattached. You have to spend about four hours picking them out with tweezers." His great love is his mushrooms, the ceps, and puffballs, which the locals – who call them vesses-de-loup, literally "wolf-farts" – don't eat but leave for British expats. Impromptu fungi-gathering expeditions (almost) justify the pearlescent penknife he always keeps in his pocket. "He comes back from the woods beaming like a four-year-old," says Colette.

Off we head to market, at Boisbreteau. The couple's favourite stall is Le Jardin de Katia, where they used to buy "delicious" sanguette – omelette thickened with chicken blood. Always covert, the supply has now, since health and safety stepped in, stopped completely. Today Katia is selling coal-black, sticky, oven-roasted beetroot, as well as skinned rabbits and dead ducks, eyes black, beaks twisted round coquettishly. "If I come back with a duck carcass, it's better than bringing home a Hermès bag," Colette tells me. "He's never truly happy unless he has a good stock on the go."

At our photographer's behest, Meades poses beautifully with the pumpkins and Swiss chard. It delights the stallholders, who whoop and laugh. Meades, after all, is a graduate of Rada. "I realised very quickly that I was a turn, a fall-guy. The others in my year were truly great actors. I wanted to act. I wanted to be Timothy Spall! Or Delon. Alain Delon. But I knew I wasn't in that league, so I had to learn to write."

Thank goodness for that. Meades is a gift to the nation. A gourmand-king in exile, an intimidating but warm host. Is there any chance he'll return from France? "I'd love to live in Hamburg. Now, German breakfast is really something..."

The Jonathan Meades Collection is out on DVD at £34.99