Taste, the final frontier

In 1984, Britain was a stodge-filled culinary wilderness. Then came The Official Foodie Handbook. Twenty years on, we've all been converted to the joys of air-dried polenta and Iberian ham, argues Stephen Bayley

Taste means a sense of style, as well as a sensation in the mouth. Perhaps no one, in the past 50 years, has had as much influence, that is to say "positive" influence, on English taste as Elizabeth David. To her series of beautiful, campaigning cookbooks we owe the seductive soft-focus Francophilia that addles the brains of everyone with discretionary income, driving about half a million of us to have second homes in France, and leaving about 10 million of us just yearning for one.

Even today, more than 50 years after her first book, Mediterranean Food, was published, you will not find a telly chef or restaurateur du jour, or, indeed, Surbiton ratatouille-maker, who doesn't pay homage to the Sabatier-sharp aristocrat who taught us to appreciate, even to love, oil and garlic. We are (almost) all foodies now.

Yet, when David reviewed 1984's The Official Foodie Handbook, she witheringly dismissed the perpetrators as "Psoodies". We have, in the past, had epicures, gourmets and gastronomes, but today's foodie is rather different. A foodie is someone whose interest in comestibles is not only ardent, but also exquisitely self-conscious. Foodies treat their asparagus kettles not as mere utensils, but as badges of honour in the nagging battle for self-identity.

The same goes for ingredients: while once we had only Sarson's non-brewed condiment to put on our chips, the foodie store cupboard now contains vinegars with genealogies, rare and costly vintages of balsamic, fruit vinegars made with herbs, herb vinegars infused with fruit to put on their pommes allumettes. A defining foodie product is verjuice, or what used to be known as filthy cooking wine. And foodies explore more than the palate: they hunt and collect restaurants, too. No wonder the foodie emerged in the design decade. No wonder that Terence Conran, one of our most influential designers, also became one of our most influential restaurateurs. It is rare for any artist, architect or designer to be uninterested in food, and for Conran, it was seamless progress.

Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the gourmet author of the 1825 Physiologie du goût, said: "Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are." To this, our modern foodie adds the codicil: "Tell me where you eat and I will tell you who you want to be."

Twenty years after the word "foodie" entered the language is a good time to consider how our attitudes to food have changed. A well-attended, groaning dining- table may be a universal symbol of conviviality, but it is also a battlefield of taste, where many of the contrary currents in English life collide. It was once considered bad manners even to notice what was on your plate, still less to comment on it. But now, to be ill-informed about food is a social handicap. If you do not appreciate a sweet Trockenbeerenauslese or Pineau des Charentes with your foie gras, there are parts of Chelsea where your meat will be as dead as the goose's liver. Once, a pineapple chunk and a knob of fridge-temperature Canadian cheddar was a token of sophistication. But now that "nibbles" have become "canapés", your cocktail-hour problem is how to get the Thai fishcakes' coriander out from between your teeth, not wondering where to lose the toothpick or the olive pit.

The "Psoodies" were Ann Barr and Paul Levy, the first an eccentric, brilliant and much-loved editor; the second a very well-fed bon viveur then doing time as The Observer's restaurant critic. The Foodie title has its own place in Eighties consciousness as a publishing phenomenon. Pop anthropology was started by Lisa Birnbach's The Official Preppy Handbook of 1980 - a jokey American book that treated college boys and girls in penny-loafers rather as Malinowski had treated the Trobriand Islanders. It was soon followed by me-too titles, including the 1981 Save an Alligator, Shoot a Preppy (a reference to the taste for accessories fashioned from reptilian leather among the caste).

Its reflection in London was The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook of 1982, a masterpiece of the genre. It was a collaboration between the smooth market-research genius Peter York, and the very same Ann Barr. York fed Barr erratic, often wonderful ideas, which she tightened and brightened into what became one of the defining books of a decade with lots of definitions. A clever sub-editor working for Barr suggested a witty change of title from the provisional "Connaught Rangers" (a reference to a society regiment and a Mayfair hotel), and the result was... a huge sales success.

The publishers wanted a follow-up, so Foodie followed. If not actually a very good book, it was a very propitious idea because, by the early Eighties, something had happened to English taste and we needed a word to describe it. A memory of childhood's "abominable vegetables and repulsive puddings" in a cold, damp country-house kitchen had been one of Elizabeth David's many complex motivations on her journey towards the gastronomic and philosophical south.

The pre-Foodie English tradition had been one of unmediated dreariness. David's immediate predecessor, Countess Morphy, wrote in her influential Recipes of All Nations in 1935 that "English food is apt to be monotonous, and the average woman is frightened of foreign cookery". As late as 1979, in her introduction to a revised edition of her English Food, Jane Grigson said that she wrote "in a spirit of pessimism".

Boorish, ugly, cynical conglomerates - Grand Met, Rank, Granada - still domi-nated the world of catering, and Charles Forte, inventor of "portion control" (a phenomenon doubly eloquent of the stinginess of management and avarice of the customer), was blithely claiming to be "giving the customers what they want". Which, in Forte's case, was acrid coffee, false piecrusts, grey meat and diluted, chemical salad cream.

Now, we have good coffee on every English street, Pret A Manger sells sandwiches whose ingredients humble many Paris restaurants for quality. There are children called Chardonnay. You can buy Cheval-Blanc in Sainsbury's; rocket is commonplace; pubs serve tomato-and-basil galettes (my local does a nice duck's heart risotto); we drink more champagne than any other country; and London competes with New York for global supremacy in the variety and inventiveness of its restaurant culture. The Foodie Revolution has successfully taken place, but how exactly did it happen?

Success has many fathers, and one of them was Raymond Postgate, a Fabian and co-author of The Common People (1938). A combination of shock reaction to the same wartime austerity that made Elizabeth David compare the word "lemon" to pornography, combined in Postgate with a sense of democratic world-improvement. He founded The Good Food Club in 1949 and, in 1951, published the first Good Food Guide, a co-operative, leftish venture designed to educate, evaluate and stimulate.

Another father was the more entrepreneurial Egon Ronay, who, under his own name, also became the publisher of an influential restaurant guide. More gourmet-hedonist than puritan critic, Ronay once said that what they do to food in Wales was like rape, except that in the sexual offence you assume that one party enjoys it. There was rarely, if ever, Ronay found, evidence of pleasure in a Welsh hotel dining-room.

Ronay's and Postgate's guides had the happy effect of stimulating small, independent restaurateurs in a competition for the public's attention. One of these was George Perry-Smith (1923-2003), whose Hole in the Wall restaurant in Bath became a place of pilgrimage for the growing foodie subculture in the Fifties. In the late Forties, Perry-Smith had taught at the Sorbonne, and learnt French food from first principles; he was delighted and astonished to find in Elizabeth David a scriptural source for his belief in honest food. So, too, was Terence Conran, whose Habitat stores (40 years old this year) confirmed an early moral link between food and design.

Elizabeth David was fond of quoting the chef Escoffier's principle of "Faites simple!" (keep it simple), which was exactly Conran's ethic in furniture and interior design. While Conran often cites David as an inspiration - it is a small step from reading a recipe for a daube provençale to wanting the kitchen and equipment to cook it in - it was his third wife, Caroline, who was at least as important an influence in the dissident cells that laid the foundations of the coming Foodie Revolution. While, in unguarded moments of great enthusiasm, Terence may claim to have invented soup and French bread, it was Caroline Conran who introduced nouvelle cuisine to the English, and thus the basis for foodie consciousness.

Nouvelle cuisine was one of those large ructions and reversals that French cooking periodically experiences. It was a term coined in the Sixties by two Parisian journalists, Henri Gault and Christian Millau (also publishers of a restaurant guide), but it gained special acceptance in the Seventies and Eighties since it was the gastronomic equivalent of the exercise and therapy fads that also characterised the age. As food editor of The Sunday Times and translator of Michel Guerard, a leading exponent, Caroline Conran introduced an increasingly interested public to the principles of keeping it simple.

The belief system of nouvelle cuisine required fresh, seasonal produce, and resisted frivolous complication and heavy sauces. Thus, buttery and floury gravy was translated into the notorious and vinous jus, symbol of a revolution. Nouvelle cuisine had many risible absurdities, now happily forgotten, but its invigorating principles have been absorbed into the generality of food consciousness. Even in Tesco.

Its strictures were not intended to limit pleasure, but to enhance it. And this is the larger significance of the Foodie Revolution: more choice, wider horizons, better experiences, pleasure in everyday things. You can go to Sainsbury's in Oswestry and find better produce than in the Carrefour near Périgueux in south-west France. When Ann Barr and Paul Levy wrote The Official Foodie Handbook, it was a dark and needy world, before Nigella, Rick and Jamie had come to save us. True, Alan Davidson and Theodore Zeldin had started the scholarly Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery in 1981, but at street level, 1984 was a world in which even Conran had only one restaurant. A friend once said: "The thing about Terence is that he wants everyone to have a better salad bowl."

Now, nearly everyone has, even if they did not buy it from Habitat. And it is full of rocket. As for the splendid Elizabeth David, I do not know quite why she was so snitty about the Psoodies. Maybe Barr's and Levy's gentle satire sat uneasily next to her Very High Purpose. Maybe it was because they mentioned garlic-crushers. David thought garlic-crushers were very low church indeed. Much better, she insisted, to use the flat of the knife: by definition, most machinery was common (although a Mouli was allowable). There is still an élite corps of foodies who can be recognised by their insistence on tearing (rather than cutting) basil leaves, another non-negotiable stricture of David's.

Every Saturday, there is now a farmers market right next to the Chelsea street where Elizabeth David lived. I am sure that she would have been secretly pleased. The vain connoisseurship of food snobbery may deserve rebuke, wherever its source, but sourdough bread from Staffordshire and Vale of Glamorgan goat's cheese are the happy realities of foodie culture. A £5 bottle of Chilean pinot noir that makes Gevrey- Chambertin seem thin is another. English taste has changed for the better. We may snigger at foodies, but they do eat better than their predecessors.

HOW FOODIE ARE YOU?

What do you understand by the phrase "batterie de cuisine"?

a) Assault with a frying-pan.

b) Two small cylindrical (AA) devices that go inside the electric breadknife.

c) The whole arsenal of things used to prepare and cook food.

What is the derivation of the dish named Rognons Turbigo?

a) It's an onion dish cooked in a turbo-charged oven.

b) It's a kidney dish that smells more than usually of wee.

c) It's a kidney dish named after the town in Lombardy where the French twice defeated the Austrians.

The most important utensil in your kitchen is:

a) Your steak griddle?

b) Your Magimix?

c) Your pestle and mortar?

What do you call the German wine made from grapes left to freeze on the vine in winter?

a) Vinegar

b) Hock

c) Eiswein

What did Brillat-Savarin consider to be "the king of cheeses"?

a) Pont l'Eveque

b) Roquefort

c) Epoisses

What is the difference between a bonne bouche and an amuse-gueule?

a) The former is sweet, the latter savoury.

b) The former is a canapé, the latter a tiny soup.

c) They mean the same, but gueule is a more vulgar word than bouche.

Reine de Reinettes, Belle de Boskoop, Orange Pippin and Granny Smith are names of:

a) Prostitutes at the court of Louis XIV?

b) Fruit smoothies?

c) Apples?

The important thing to remember about Vacherin is:

a) It stinks out the fridge.

b) Its rind is made from dried cows' udders marinated in pig semen.

c) You have to place a block of wood against the cut surface to stop it running all over the place.

On what occasion would you use a mandoline?

a) When serenading Italian girls.

b) When tenderising meat.

c) When slicing potatoes for pommes de terre Dauphinois.

What abomination is the greatest signifier of social death?

a) Oxo cubes

b) Dried herbs

c) Salad cream

Answers

Mostly A: Your knowledge of food preparation would shame a picky two-year-old, and you have the taste buds of a fence post. Buy The Official Foodie Handbook now.

Mostly B: You seem to know a thing or two about the subtleties of cuisine, but you lack sophistication. Buy the River Cafe Cookbook and study it.

Mostly C: Congratulations, you're a food snob. But have a care that this doesn't blind you to the basics. There's no point in being able to make lobster ravioli if you can't scramble an egg.

John Walsh

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