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.

Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
people70-year-old was most famous for 'You are So Beautiful'
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballLatest score and Twitter updates
Arts and Entertainment
David Hasselhof in Peter Pan
The US stars who've taken to UK panto, from Hasselhoff to Hall
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
newsIt was due to be auctioned off for charity
Life and Style
A still from a scene cut from The Interview showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's death.
Sir David Attenborough
environment... as well as a plant and a spider
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'