Brian Viner: The tedious bias of restaurant reviewers

Country Life: 'There's something rather wholesome about having to wait three days for a consignment of parsley to turn up'
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The Independent Online

For her birthday a couple of weeks ago, Jane was given the Ottolenghi cookbook by some friends. It is written by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, the culinary powers behind a small chain of Middle Eastern-style restaurants in London called, in case you hadn't guessed, Ottolenghi.

A marvellous book, it's packed with excellent recipes and sumptuous photographs, but to those of us who live in the sticks, it's also decidedly, uncompromisingly urban. I have ranted before about the tedious metropolitan bias of restaurant reviewers in the national press, several of whom are too lazy and unimaginative to venture anywhere that is more than a £10 ride home in a black cab, but I never expected to feel disenfranchised by a cookbook.

Leafing through this Ottolenghi volume, however, I find roast chicken with sumac, za'atar and lemon, as well as barbecued quail with mograbiah salad, and buttered prawns with tomato, olives and arak. These are not recipes that have much currency in rural north Herefordshire. As Jane says, if she went into Somerfield in Leominster, or the Co-op in Bromyard and asked for sumac and za'atar, she could confidently expect to be directed to the aisle containing household cleaning products. "Sumac? I think you'll find it next to the Mr Sheen, dear."

Never mind. There's always the internet, not to mention Waitrose in Malvern, although I cleave to the old-fashioned belief that a recipe's not worth pursuing if you can't find your ingredients within a 10-mile radius. In fairness, though, there is a great deal in the Ottolenghi cookbook that is perfectly Herefordshire-friendly, and I suppose it could be said that if we wanted sumac and za'atar to feature in our cooking repertoire, we should have stayed in London. Or moved 2,000 miles south and east six years ago, rather than 157 miles north and west.

Besides, I realised ages ago that there is no point in bemoaning the differences between the city and the country; you have to embrace them. Our friend Derek, who lives in north London, was staying here once, and said he was going into Leominster and was there anything we needed? Jane said we could do with some parsley, but Derek came back from the greengrocers looking slightly dazed, and reported what he'd been told: there wouldn't be any parsley in Leominster until Friday.

No wonder he looked dazed. It was a Tuesday. And Derek is a man who lives in a part of the world where, if the desire strikes, you can buy yams round the clock. Anyway, I tried to convince him that there is something rather wholesome, in this world of instant gratification, about having to wait three days for a consignment of parsley to roll into town. And I truly think there is. It breeds patience, and appreciation. It also made me resolve to grow my own parsley, but that's beside the point.

Whatever, six years after moving here from Crouch End, we can hardly refer to this as our new life, yet we are still struck, from time to time, by the contrasts with our old one. We went to a dinner party last week at which there was a half-hour conversation about tractors. That never happened in N8, and frankly, dinner parties there were the poorer for it. Given the choice between secondary schooling, property prices, the internal politics of the BBC and tractors as topics of conversation, give me tractors every time. The topic arose because our friend Ian has just bought himself a Massey Ferguson 575, trading it for his motorbike and a full set of leathers. Round here, middle-aged men resist the ageing process not by buying sports cars and motorbikes but by swapping the sports cars and motorbikes for tractors and ride-on mowers. In a sports car, invariably stuck in a country lane behind a tractor, you just feel like a sad old git. But on a ride-on mower you can feel young again, like a kid on a go-kart.

That might be why ride-on mowers featured so heavily in the 50th-birthday celebrations last month of another friend, Robin. The guests stood under an open-sided tent, with medieval-type banners fluttering in the wind, while Robin and his two teenage sons had a jousting competition sitting on their mowers. It offered excellent, if eccentric, entertainment, after which we all wandered off and availed ourselves of the splendid buffet, at which sumac, za'atar, mograbiah and arak were conspicuous by their absence.

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