There's brass in brasseries

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The regularity of our eating habits, our chronological obsession, is a peculiarity limited to Europe. Americans, as we know, graze like cattle. The customs of Asia are immensely variable; as in Africa or Latin America, food is available at all hours. Restaurant, cafe, roadside-stand eating is a common, uncomplicated, all-day procedure. It is we who have made a fetish of eating at roughly the same hour every day.

This is a nuisance. There are the late-risers who would happily, if lunch were available, have it at four in the afternoon, and supper near midnight; there are all those who work so-called "unsocial" hours, including all sorts of professionals who cannot get away from their work at the appointed hour; there are those on night shifts or who rise early - for all these people, and for those who don't want a full meal or the tra-la-la of a restaurant, was the brasserie created.

The word "brasserie" derives from brasseur, meaning a brewer. Indeed, it was the Germans who hit upon the excellent idea - if you like beer - of offering food as an incentive to quaff beer, and the prototypical brasserie remains the Hofbrauhaus in Munich, still in existence after (I believe) some five centuries.

Naturally, bar meals are neither gastronomical nor inventive. They are designed to sop up drink and fill the belly. The demands of customers are reasonably simple, and limited to those dishes which form an adequate accompaniment to beer. To my taste, sauerkraut is acidulous and indigestible; the various German (and French) sausages are a step up, but hardly anything more than humble fare.

As you might expect, however, when the French took to the brasserie idea, they slowly wrought mighty changes. The first French brasseries were staffed by Alsatians (the people not the dogs), after the loss of Alsace, known to the French as the provinces perdues or "lost" provinces, in the Franco- Prussian war of 1870. They quickly became a feature of Parisian life. Open, as they still are, from roughly ten in the morning to one the next day, their menus became first Alsatianised (hence the choucroute) and then Gallicised, expanding to include petit-sale, or pork-belly (lovely stuff), various sausages, such as the saveloy, marinated herring and, of course, shellfish of all kinds.

Because of their simplicity and their hours, they became sort of all- day (and in some brasseries, all-night) meeting-places, where all classes could come and eat and drink at will.

Architecturally, brasseries were the forerunners of the movie palaces of the Twenties: usually elaborate, often with a specific theme, high- ceilinged to absorb the noise (and the smell of beer): they were indiscriminate in a positive way, encouraging the mixing of both classes and sexes. Their menus expanded, the food was copious and reasonable, and soon restaurants were forced to follow suit as best they could.

The older ones, which I can still remember - the Mollard at the Gare Saint-Lazare, the Vaudeville, the Weber (beloved of Marcel Proust) - have either disappeared or been re-invented, and it is this latter development that is particularly interesting. With a high turnover, relatively cheap ingredients and cash flowing in from drink (always about four-fifths of a restaurant's income), they were, in their day, goldmines. Small wonder that they are undergoing a revival and that London and a few provincial cities have sought to cash in on an idea now nearly 150 years old.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with the brasseries I have tried in London; the only wonder is that there are not more of them. The secret of a good brasserie is a simple menu and good cheap drink. They should be large (hence discreet), accommodating (allowing the customer to dawdle) and companionable. I worry that Parisian ones are now seeking to extend their repertoire to the "finer" things of life, for above all a brasserie should be popular, engaging, natural and unpretentious. But the Blanc brothers, who own five of them in Paris, know their business; they remain genuine and traditional in most respects: wonderful fried eggs (in real butter) for breakfast, good bread, good cheap drink, and good company