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It would be easy to join the teeth-gnashers and write something about the inability of any government at this moment in time to do anything constructive about the important and very pressing matters that are threatening this nation and others at this time, so this time I won't.
This also is not the first time I have commented on this matter and so have others, but still it persists and apparently is spreading: my original item was called The Decorated Plate and the jibe still stands as more and more restaurants present what is in many cases laughingly called food in a manner that confounds many of us who expect something to actually eat.
I like food, but the advent of "nouvelle cuisine" some 35 years ago has meant that the intervening years have seen a push back against it, yet in fact it never went away: it was too good a wheeze to discard. It has managed with almost total success to convince the patrons of said restaurants and the majority of food critics, who should be an endangered species, that elaborate confections for the eyes not the stomach are the way forward. The recent additions of foamed sauces and the use of liquid nitrogen for the effects they give rather than any actual enhancement to the food does nothing to dissuade me that nouvelle cuisine is alive and doing rather well.
The cynic in me thought many years ago that what a very grounded chef said at the time was not far from the truth: the bottom line is all that matters. Much of that thinking stemmed from the rightful cutting back of lengthy menus to shorter ones to include a lot more fresh produce, as it is impossible to cater that way with a huge menu; fine, but cutting the portions down to minimalist levels is not a justifiable extension of that route.
You could call it great British Take On, but sadly it is almost universal in most of Europe these days. I am going away in a few weeks to the Basque country and the Rioja region, where else? you cry, and as usual I like to have a few good meals in the area I am staying in. The Basque country has a reputation for good restaurants similar to the Lyon area in France, many of the restaurants have Michelin stars and chefs to match. My digging did not go well: restaurant web sites showed that ever more suffered from the big plate, small portion syndrome; this in an area renowned for its culinary skills. The city centre restaurants seemingly all fall into line. I have found some good bets but the overall feeling from the initial digging was one of sadness if that is what has happened.
In the provinces as in France it is better. Luckily, unlike here in UK, those unassuming local restaurants are still serving delicious three course meals cooked with pride from local produce. The good local trattoria in Italy will also do the same thing. In England, especially outside the centre of London, it is extremely difficult, nay almost impossible to find English food offered this way; often the local pub is a better bet.
But why is all this happening? Not forgetting what I have said above, are we to be condemned to a land of fast food and everything contaminated with chilli? We do wonderful cheese in this country but the majority of supermarkets show strange coloured “cheeses” impregnated with lumps of foreign objects and looking like nougat.
Sauces, garlic, salt, pepper and chilli were all originally put in or on food to preserve or disguise the meat, fish and whatever that had a very limited shelf life in pre-refrigerated days, not as a food source on their own merit. Yet in this country even the humble crisp is pre-salted to such a degree the crisp might as well not exist.
I think it is in those upper echelons of fine dining that Michelin has a lot to answer to. I used Michelin a lot in the past for eating out in Europe and found it to be reliable, but the goalposts have moved. The prestige and consequently the clientele that a Michelin star brings makes more restaurants follow what is after all just fashion, so the decorated concoctions and the slavish following of trends is applied across the board, which while the word is fresh brings me to another pet hate: food served on a board slate or anything else without the means to stop your food ending on the floor; eating with that fear in mind is not pleasant dining.
The Michelin requisites for awarding stars are supposedly a secret known only to them. Apart from those gastronomic extravaganzas such as the George Cinq, it was for the most part quite rightly based on the food offered. With increasing demand for stars it has changed: the “dining experience” is now as important as the food and all struggle to attain the required ambience, room service decor and of course the latest culinary trend; the latter of course does not involve much actual food - food has become, as for people who buy fast cars and never drive them, something to look at, not eat. It’s nonsense and I no longer play.
I will finish with something that irks me even more because I do still “play”; again it’s an item I have mentioned before. A recent meeting with someone like myself who takes more than a small interest in wine asked me to taste a wine he had purchased that had recently been given a “gold” award at one of our major wine events. I did not know this wine so had no preconceived standard to go to in the memory banks to find, but it was fine, nothing special and not something I would go out of my way for to buy.
He then told me of its award and said the same as me, so how did it get such a high award? Granted that our opinion is no more valid than anyone else's, nevertheless this is apparently happening on a regular basis, - what is going on? The two big wine tasting events in this country are the Wine Challenge and the Decanter wine awards, now I believe the biggest of their type in the world; the awards, like Michelin stars, bring kudos and sales to the makers.
The wine tasting is done blind by experts in their field who judge in groups so no one person's taste will dominate. So how come, I ask, does the same wine entered in both competitions come out with a gold award from one and as I have actually seen - with both stickers on the bottle - a recommended from the other. Even allowing for some discretion that is bonkers. With individual wine experts' ratings on wine (the figures can be seen in magazines etc) some judges always give higher marks than others and vice versa; in the same way that some experts can be seen to favour certain styles and even individual Chateau, that is individual taste and can be factored out as applicable, but not the big events.
Within this there is still the suspicion that in some cases - and I use the word "some" for discretion - what is in the consumer's bottle may not be the same as that put forward for competition. I can hear the howls of protest at that suggestion, yet the often-quoted case of the Sainsbury's own label gold-winning Champagne years ago comes back to haunt them, or should: it turned out after complaints to have been a substituted wine, as the supplier simply could not cope with the demand and sourced an inferior wine . The case went to trading standards and the product was for reasons unknown to man or beast allowed to stay, as were the award-winning labels on the bottle.
Having got away with that once there is no reason to doubt that others may well have followed that route knowing there is little consequence for their actions. An obvious rebuff would be to claim that these award winning wines are then tasted randomly after they go on sale in retailers; I have yet to see that proven - the logistics with so many wines winning awards today is probably not on - but of course, again that makes it much easier to commit what is fraud.
Wine still likes to try and have a mystique about it. The way it is presented to the public suits the whole wine-making ethos: the hugely expensive “grand crus” are like Ferraris to the general public - out of reach but much talked about. It gives wine an edge. With so many grape varieties, so many countries vying for your purchase money, so many different aspects of wine can never be fully understood even by the experts as it is constantly shifting in style, taste and the variance of climate both regional and seasonal, so that it is impossible to know if what is in the bottle is that which you assumed you were buying.
After all even the experts have been fooled - as in the art world experts have said this was that when it was a fake, so it is in wine, as fraudsters get ever more resourceful. The auction houses are now employing experts who can determine which labels are the real thing and not facsimiles.
Naturally what I have said applies to a relatively small section of wines but an important one. Many people use the awards as a buying tool: if you know little of wine, a gold award should be a safe bet for a good wine. Sadly again, those with little knowledge will purchase on the strength of the award and still be pleased even if they have been duped.
In all perhaps the slavish adherence to Michelin Guides and wine awards should be watered down. Perhaps the best days for both are behind them; maybe we should go back to the old word of mouth, the trial and error method when sampling food and wine, and forget fashion. Fashion is there for one reason: to make whoever can change fashion very rich.