Melanie McDonagh: Marco, Michelin and mum's roast

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The Independent Online

The publication of the Michelin guide to the restaurants of Britain and Ireland has produced the usual surge of self-congratulatory culinary introspection. Birmingham has two starred restaurants! Twin it with Lyon! Glutton as I am, I've never quite shared the obsession with Michelin stars. The Michelin grading system seems suspect - spuriously objective, butentirely dependent on the judges' personal judgement of what constitutes a decent dinner. In addition, three stars depend not only on good cooking, but on a changing menu and the restaurant's ambience, presentation and décor. Which means the linen, the silver, the tricksy arrangement of the petits fours.

The publication of the Michelin guide to the restaurants of Britain and Ireland has produced the usual surge of self-congratulatory culinary introspection. Birmingham has two starred restaurants! Twin it with Lyon! Glutton as I am, I've never quite shared the obsession with Michelin stars. The Michelin grading system seems suspect - spuriously objective, butentirely dependent on the judges' personal judgement of what constitutes a decent dinner. In addition, three stars depend not only on good cooking, but on a changing menu and the restaurant's ambience, presentation and décor. Which means the linen, the silver, the tricksy arrangement of the petits fours.

More worryingly, our obsession with Michelin stars is a distraction from what really matters about the way we eat. A sound eating-out culture rests on a sound eating-in culture. French eating habits may have changed radically, but French chefs such as the Roux brothers or Raymond Blanc have the judgement and instinct that they do because of the food they ate at home. They were reared in a culture that set store by painstaking shopping for good ingredients and the willingness, on the part of women mostly, to put in the effort to do the best by those ingredients. You could say the same for English chefs such as Simon Hopkinson, whose instincts are grounded on what his mum prepared - including toast and dripping and black pudding.

The constellation of Michelin stars in Britain gives the lie to what is happening in our kitchens: 80 per cent of our food shopping is in supermarkets and the time we spend preparing a meal has dropped from an hour, on average, in 1980 to 20 minutes. By 2010, it could be eight minutes. Our fixation with celebrity chefs, including the unappealing Marco Pierre White, and our obsession with starred restaurants disguises a rotten food culture.

The sultans of spin

It's not every exhibition at the Royal Academy that comes with a loaded political agenda, but Turks, which opened yesterday, does. Denis MacShane, the highly-strung minister for Europe, urged his audience at a meeting at Chatham House this week to do whatever it took to get tickets for the exhibition so that they could understand "just what culture and civilisation there was" in the Turkish imperial past.

Mr MacShane was talking at the time about Turkey's application for membership of the European Union and Mr Blair's tireless efforts to promote it. In this context, he was enthusiastic about Turks, which showed what riches this exciting, diverse culture would bring to that equally diverse but rather less exciting institution, the EU. The Times, more pragmatically, remarked that the exhibition was "modern Turkey's gesture of gratitude to Britain for its unwavering support of EU entry."

I went to Turks, but the lesson I drew from the exhibition was rather different. It is a dazzling reminder of the artistic splendour of what was to become the Ottoman Empire. It also shows the obviously Asiatic character of the Turks. Some of the most extraordinary pieces come from present-day Iran, others from China. These are the riches of an expansive, largely Islamic, Oriental, remarkably diverse culture, but not a European one. Only 3 per cent of modern Turkey is in Europe, the bit around Istanbul; 97 per cent of it is in Asia. Why are we admitting an almost entirely Asian country of some 80 million people into the European Union?

For Mr MacShane, geography is rather a vulgar way of deciding whether a country is or isn't European. "There is," he pronounced, "no definition of a European state." If Europe isn't defined by geography (if it is, it stops at the Bosphorus) I can't quite see where it can possibly end. With Iraq in the EU? Or Algeria?

Pray do visit Turks. It shows the artistic heritage of a remarkable empire but it fails as a propaganda exercise for Turkey's claim to be part of Europe.

Tell me, someone, what's the fuss about Peter Sutcliffe, the mass murderer, getting a day off prison hospital to visit the site where his father's ashes have been scattered? The relatives of the 13 women he murdered may be excused feeling sore at his day of liberty, but the same doesn't go for the politicians who have surfaced to condemn his sad little journey to the Lake District. Fabian Hamilton, the Labour MP for Leeds North, was "pretty upset about it". Tim Collins, the Tories' education spokesman, expressed his "shock and surprise". Yet what earthly good would it do anyone - the dead, the bereaved, the rest of us - if Peter Sutcliffe did not visit the place where the remains of his father (a profoundly unpleasant man by all accounts) rest? The real scandal is that he was barred from attending his father's funeral in June, lest his presence should cause a "media circus".

It's unpleasantly reminiscent of the hateful row about the Moors murderer, Myra Hindley, being given a Christian burial. Oscar Wilde reflected in The Ballad of Reading Gaol on the inhumanity of regulations which prevented flowers being sown on a killer's grave: "They think a murderer's heart would taint/ Each simple seed they sow./ It is not true! God's kindly earth/ Is kindlier than men know..." Judging from this episode, we haven't progressed much since.

Oh God. Ron Atkinson has surfaced again. This man could have gone down to posterity as a good, solid football manager. Instead, he's best known for disparaging a black Chelsea player as "a fucking lazy thick nigger". As penance, he was sent on a racism awareness course. Now he announces that Chinese women are "the ugliest in the world". Mmm. Funny how men such as Atkinson and John McCririck who make remarks about women's appearance are no oil paintings themselves. Mr Atkinson's racism awareness course may have taught him that it's rude to be beastly about black people; the next instalment could perhaps alert him to the notion that Chinese people have feelings too. He says of the current fuss, "I can't believe that anyone's complaining about it." A BBC documentary about him was called Am I a Racist? Is anyone still wondering?

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