Food and Drink: Chinese rabbit, floppy lettuce
Saturday 28 August 1993
While, overall, our food standards continue to improve, in the sense that we are much less insular and more adventurous, I am not sure this renaissance has gone much beyond restaurants. It has certainly been surprising to find that, despite a global depression (which we persist in calling a recession), there is still money enough about for some to enjoy rather more lavish eating styles than other countries do.
There is a new parsimony about eating out in France and Italy, not reflected here. Restaurant prices in France have adjusted to the fall-off in demand. The same is only partly true of Italy: their business has dried up, but outrageous prices still prevail, which is why France is full of Italians. If people are eating less in restaurants on the Continent, that means they are eating more at home. That is not the impression I have of London. I see crowded and expensive restaurants.
For one who eats in restaurants only when strictly necessary, the most striking change has been the increasing difficulty of shopping locally and well. The family butcher (like the baker on the premises) has all but disappeared; and more alarming still, those who survive lay out pre- packaged, supermarket-type meats, styrofoam, soggy paper and all. Yesterday I was offered Chinese rabbit, though the butcher averred that it had no taste at all] I have been startled, too, by the poverty of the greengrocers among whom I sought to shop, which leads me to a second point: the surprisingly minor influence of the European Community on produce. While the presence in grocers of French and Italian cheeses, of better oils, of fresh herbs are all good signs, the poverty of choice in vegetables - I am talking of ordinary within-walking-distance shopping - is truly striking. Why do I have to put up with unripe and tasteless tomatoes from Jersey and Holland when there is a glut of splendid, juicy, varied, richly flavoured tomatoes on the Continent? Why are the salad greens so limited in variety? Why are some greengrocers so sloppy that they do not even change their produce day to day? Why are they not out front at their stands tossing out their rotted spinach and wilted lettuce? Have they no pride, or is the distribution system at fault? Here is one area where the local shop is committing slow suicide, for the choice and the quality are both superior in the local giant Tesco.
Third, there is the matter of display. Display on the realm of food has to do with enticing the customer because the ingredients look good. Thus it is that a charcuterie in France will lay out its sausages and pates, its salads and quiches, in such a way that choice becomes difficult. Compare that with the half-dozen delicatessens I tried: nasty white enamel trays containing brownish pates open to the air and corruption, leftover slices of last week's cheese and yesterday's quiche, all of them in refrigerated counters (over- refrigeration is a sure sign of a too-long shelf life) at the wrong level for inspection, islands of mediocrity in a sea of glass.
What applies to delicatessens applies equally to greengrocers and butchers - there are ways of arranging kidneys or turnips to look delicious and artistic; it is not necessary simply to tumble them out into a box or pan and wait for them to sell.
Fourth, if display is bad, what is there to be said for the service? Where is the pleasure one has in discussing what one might eat, with a purveyor who knows his subject? The lank-haired school leavers in our local greengrocers don't know the difference between artichoke and asparagus much less between two kinds of artichoke; their new potatoes come encrusted with Irish bog, their spinach with weighty stalks. Our local grocer was out of olive oil for nine straight days in which I asked him for some; it apparently did not occur to him that if there were demand, he ought to reorder. Above all, no one tries to sell you anything (is that our great national diffidence?); no one says, so-and-so has just brought in the most wonderful, delicate cauliflowers; all is anon. There is little enthusiasm in the retail end of the trade.
Of course there are all the compensatory glories of our native food, and we have indeed gorged on those. Our meat remains generally of high, if diminishing, quality (I have a sick feeling that we are exporting the best cuts); our berries and certainly our cream cannot be matched on the Continent; there are the joys of the British pud, of currant buns, of the very good local fish-and-chippery; there are better ethnic restaurants than elsewhere, and this means that the more exotic spices are readily available.
I don't think the faults, or the virtues, are due to things right or wrong in our concept of food. I think the faults have a lot to do with changing social habits about eating, dual income families, it being easier to eat out than to cook, accepting rather than to complaining, the modern, tiny kitchen that is no longer the heart of the home. The virtues have to do with the countryside and are only reflected in big cities such as London in the choicest quarters. This is the opposite of the Continent, where the best, unfailingly, works its way to the capital, where the money is. Eheu Fugaces] Where is the fruit of yesteryear? Where the pink- cheeked butcher and his boy?
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