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Food and Drink

Food and Drink: I'll have the rosbif without the verbiage

Of course I keep old menus. I wish I had done so all my life. The Ritz in Paris in 1936; that extraordinary meal in Laon in 1939 (after which I deliberately flushed my teeth braces down a primitive WC, and my mother drove back 100 kilometres to insist that the proprietor recover them); whatever it was we ate after three days of flooding at the Simplon and the Italian sun came out; the daily marvels of the France, the America and the Bremen.

But you have to be systematic for that; and you have to know, even as a pre-adolescent, that one day you are going to need all that stuff because, like everything that is good, it is going to disappear.

Unfortunately, however, food is in the mouth of the partaker. No two palates are alike, much less so two memories. And a menu, after all, is but a suggestion: it tells you hardly anything about what you have eaten, unless you have the right kind of recall.

My quibble today is that it also tells you very little about what you are going to eat. I have before me a scattering of menus (some of them elephant-folio size, which I never find reassuring), and I am trying to recall what I ate, what it was like and whether, if I encountered it again, I would choose to reorder it. Was the Magret de canard aux deux poires notable because it had two pears, or because the two pears were distinguishably different?

I know what an Agneau de lait is - something you're likely to be offered often - but what the devil is, or was, its Mounjetade de haricots? Green beans, of course - but mounjetade? Don't bother looking it up: Harraps lists not a single French word beginning with moun-, so you can safely assume that this was a local Pyrenean word.

Just as local, Civet de ris et rognons de veau Commingeois sounds a whole lot better than veal kidney and sweetbreads; but Comminges was the neighbouring town, so the name merely tells you that the meat is home produced.

The more upmarket the restaurant the more horrors its menus perpetrate. What I mean by 'horrors' are simply mystifications: those items, written in fine italic, that are there not to suggest what to eat but to place you in the position of an inferior, a paying guest lucky enough to have been admitted to such a splendid place - so chic, so expensive, so frequented by people of real quality.

Who first suggested (it is a recent phenomenon) that the diner wants to know everything that goes into a dish - every dish from soup to Les meringues d'oeufs de perdrix flambes dans leur coulis de myrtilles d'Agen avec son bouquet de menthes aromatiques Vizcayines? Sounds good, eh? 'I'll 'ave two of them, Miss.'

This is just the pretentious form of the American mania for explaining everything. A menu should contain no more than basic information: this kind of meat, cooked that way. After all, having dined with friends, the most you're likely to murmur to the chef is: 'That was delicious, what was in it?' You don't expect your host to stand up and announce: 'Le rosbif Anglais avec son jus, son pudding de York et sa garniture de petits rotis.'

The point about straight descriptions is that they retain some marvellous mystery. A breast is breast: an ovoid mammary is something I'm not interested in. When I was younger, but already employed, I ate my way through a dozen or more forms of sole at Wheeler's. Despite my classy upbringing, I was as unsure as any young gentleman of my age of the difference between a Colbert and a Veronique.

I learnt. Those are dishes forever, and part of their charm lies in their origins. They were, and I'm sure remain, a part of a repertory. Today much of what a cook does is calculated only to give him a name, and distinguish him from another cook. And menus are part of this flim- flam and hucksterism.

Like a modern score in which the strings are divided into 24, all playing to a different tempo and thus ensuring that neither musicians nor audience hear much more than a hum, an overlong and self-indulgent menu is simply a lot of buzz in the culinary ether.

Come to think of it, I know what I ate at the Ritz in 1936: Noix de veau. And I'd swear they had a flavour of foie gras. In Laon it was a leg of lamb braised, with white beans. And in Italy I ate my first sun-ripened tomato. One need know no more. This column is not a ramassis de pensees fines au gout d'amertume. It is slightly bitter thoughts.