IF WE are what we eat, what about where we shop? Does it matter that local butchers and bakers, fishmongers and greengrocers are vanishing from our high streets, to be replaced by monolithic superstores on the outskirts of town? This issue is to be the subject of a public debate - outside contributions are welcome - on the evening of 9 February at the Butchers' Hall in London. Derek Cooper, president of the Guild of Food Writers, which has arranged the event, says the question of how we consume food in this country has become hopelessly polarised. 'On one side, the Marxist-Lentilist lobby tells us that our national diet is appalling and that the Government must intervene and develop a policy to change it. On the other side, the cohorts of free enterprise believe that the supermarkets should be free to do as they please and people should be allowed to eat what they want.' As chairman of the debate, he is looking forward to hearing speakers from the floor both for and against the motion, 'Food choice is too important to be left to market forces'. Tickets for the event, which cost pounds 10 and include a reception, are limited to two per applicant and can be obtained by sending a cheque (and sae) to Melodie Schuster; applications must reach her by Wednesday, at: The Guild of Food Writers, 125 Old Brompton Road, London SW7 3RP.

THE Gastropod's item on service charges a fortnight ago provoked a sharp response from Mrs V L Shipley of Croydon, Surrey. She says that she and her husband, who is a chef, have slogged away in West End restaurants and hotels for the past 30 years, and have 'never known the kitchen or waiting staff to get any of the service charge' levied on customers' bills. 'As for the tronque,' she writes, 'what a laugh. Usually the head waiters carve that up between them.' In the meantime, Michael Gottlieb, proprietor of Smollensky's restaurants in London and vice-chairman of the Restaurateurs' Association of Great Britain, reminds the Gastropod that the RAGB is backing the recommendation of a special committee which advised the Department of Trade and Industry last year that service charges should be outlawed and all restaurant prices be made fully inclusive.

WHILE they ponder how best to charge us, it is a good time for customers to think about the kind of service they would like. Gonzalez Byass is seeking nominations for its Customer Care award. Last year's winner was the Beetle & Wedge at Moulsford, Oxfordshire. Candidates for the award are required to describe, in a maximum of 50 words, the elements required to make a restaurant great. Last year Kate Smith, who runs the Beetle & Wedge, wrote: 'The essential qualities are diplomacy, knowledge of food and wine, friendship and hospitality and, perhaps most importantly, that the food service staff are acting as emissaries of the kitchen.' If your favourite restaurant conforms to these criteria, perhaps you would like to nominate it for the award. Official entry forms - available from Stephanie Hobbs on 071-835 1000 - to be returned by 1 March.

NOW for something you can really argue about. Are northern beers really best? Michael Jackson has emphasised in these pages such pleasures as Vaux Double Maxim from Sunderland and Black Sheep from Yorkshire, but where can one find them in the South? Well, today and all next week, about 30 beers from the North-east, including the products of new breweries in Berwick and York, will be available as cask- conditioned draught at a regional festival at the White Horse in Parson's Green, west London. Appetites thus whetted can be satiated by Alnwick pot roast, Yorkshire pudding and Barnsley chops.

THE Gastropod was aroused by a news item predicting that the price of truffles from Perigord was set to plummet following wet weather in the region, which has produced a bumper crop. Sadly, investigation reveals, the law of supply and demand doesn't apply to the arcane market governing the earth's most rare and pungent fungus. Pierre-Jean Pebeyre, a truffle dealer, explained that the conditions which produce an abundant harvest also improve the colour, texture and fragrance. Thus demand tends to rise with supply and prices this season are only fractionally down.

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