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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
musicBand's first new record for 20 years has some tough acts to follow
News
peopleAt least it's for a worthwhile cause
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
News
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Life and Style
healthFor Pure-O OCD sufferers this is a reality they live in
Life and Style
Sexual health charities have campaigned for the kits to be regulated
healthAmerican woman who did tells parents there is 'nothing to be afraid of'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Manager

    £50 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Mana...

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Day In a Page

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments