For most of us, the River is another country

Click to follow
The Independent Online
"You're probably sick of this by now," said our hostess as she served up soup to us one day in London last year.

"On the contrary," we said. "We don't eat soup that often. We're not at all sick of it. We quite like soup."

"Not soup," she said. "Not soup generally. This particular soup. This soup of Delia's."


"Yes - it's from her new book. We've had it all over the place at other people's houses this summer. I just thought you might be sick of it by now."

The soup was very good and we had never had it before, but then we live beyond the Delia Smith belt. Perhaps I should say that we live beyond the cook-book belt. But it happened to us again the other day, and outside London too.

"I hope you haven't had this too often before," said our host, as he served up a very strange concoction which looked like a model of a rutted ski slope but which turned out to be sea bass cooked under a crust of sea salt. "It's from The River Cafe Cook Book." For some reason this stuck in my craw more than Delia Smith did. Well, Delia Smith is on television and therefore a national phenomenon, but the River Cafe is somewhere in London and therefore of no immediate interest to me. I live on the edge of the West Country, which makes me a provincial, but people who live in London, and are therefore also provincials, never see themselves as being parochial. When people in London talk about the famous River Cafe (as even this paper did when serialising their rather cumbersome recipes) they assume we all know where it is. I can't think why. If I were to refer to one of the many splendid restaurants in Bath or Bristol, I would have the decency to tend to explain its location, so why can't ...?

Well, you get the point, and anyway time passes and no doubt the famous River Cafe Cook Book is moving out of fashion and some other book is moving in and London hosts and hostesses are apologising about some new repertoire of flavours and fads. Did I read somewhere that cooking with wood-fired ovens is the new thing? Or is Moroccan cooking the flavour of the month? Something equally far-fetched. Poor old folk in London. They are so provincial they have no identity and have to clasp on to something to keep them afloat. They are more sensible in Morocco, I hope. I doubt that in the depths of Tangiers the smart housewives are saying to each other, "I hope you're not tired of this English soup ...?" It's easy to be a snob, I realise that. I found myself doing a very snobbish thing the other day. I was standing in New York looking at an airline poster - American Airlines, I think - which was urging people to fly to Birmingham, in England. And what do you think was the inducement they were using to get people in America to flock to Birmingham? It was contained in this couplet:

"Fly to the Castles

Without the Hassles!"

As an Englishman I found this instantly and doubly funny because a) "castles" and "hassles" don't rhyme in my part of England, b) I have never seen any castles in Birmingham. And yet I had no right to laugh, because it wasn't aimed at me. It was aimed at Americans, who would not only think it a good and proper rhyme but could easily find Birmingham a convenient jumping-off point to get to Ludlow Castle, Warwick Castle, Powis Castle, etc, etc. (Mark you, I still think I was right to laugh at another American slogan, coined by a mineral water firm in Texas. The Texans were trying to counter the threat of smart imported European waters. They came up with the fighting slogan: "Kick Perrier/In The Derriere!")

But it all depends where you stand. I heard an Irish comedian on Loose Ends the other day say that she had come to the Edinburgh Festival directly from Ireland - "Over from the mainland," she said. There was a split-second pause, then a lot of laughter from the Scottish audience. I think that joke would not have got such a laugh in London. In Scotland they share a perception with the Irish that things look different depending on where you are. In Scotland they know that a thunderstorm in London is headline material but a hurricane in Scotland will be lucky to be mentioned low down in the news. Of course, a hurricane in Ireland wouldn't be mentioned at all. Have you noticed on the British weather maps that Ireland doesn't exist? Look at Ceefax weather maps. Opposite Liverpool there is a small rag of a place called Northern Ireland which is not attached to any other piece of land. It looks odd to us out here in the sticks. We provincials are willing to bet that the British weather map on Ceefax was probably designed by some people down in London. Probably during a long lunch at the River Cafe. Wherever that is.