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Posts Tagged ‘l’enclume

Menuese And Proper Burgers

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Steven Poole is a non-fiction reviewer for the Guardian and author of Unspeak. His latest book, You Aren’t What You Eat: Fed Up With Gastroculture, was reviewed by Jonathan Meades in the Guardian at the weekend. Obviously Meades loves it – it is hard to imagine a more sympathetic reviewer since his own rants on the subject of ‘fine dining’ could easily have inspired Poole. I’ve not read the book but I have read the long extract the Guardian published a couple of weeks ago titled ‘Let’s Start The Foodie Backlash’. On that basis, it is wide-ranging, ill-focused and lacking in any central thesis beyond the idea that people are fools to be interested in food. The opening paragraph is nothing but substance-less hipster sneering with dashes of proud ignorance (arancini are hardly obscure) and irrelevant pet hates (oh no, social smokers!) and doesn’t make me want to read the whole book. But I do want to address some specific comments he makes about the language used to describe food later in the article.

The first takes the form of a strange experiment:

For some examples of the modern state of the art in gastrolinguistic engineering, let us consider L’Enclume, the Michelin-starred restaurant in the English Lake District, and its bill of fare as advertised on its website in November 2011. As a literary-gustatory experiment, I’m going simply to read the menu without investigating further, so attempting empathetically to recreate the literary experience of the diner who has just sat down and read the dish descriptions, and is thereby set off on a pleasurable trail of wondering what exactly it is that he might end up eating.

This reference caught my eye because, as it happens, I went to L’Enclume in November 2011 and had one of the best meals of my life there. So I have done for real what Poole is attempting to do “empathetically”. I do wonder if he read the menu with champagne cocktail, exquisite canapés and best beloved close to hand though. I doubt it and context is important. He complains that “there is no clue to how any of this was cooked” on the menu (as if this was of over-whelming importance) but, of course, the waiter will talk you through the detail of the dish as it is served (and later he quotes an example of a waiter doing just this). L’Enclume doesn’t have an a la carte menu, it isn’t there to help you decided between mains; instead, the tasting menu is meant to be a tease, to “set off on a pleasurable trail of wondering” as Poole puts it. But he has approached his task with pre-conceptions and hence pedantically rather than empathetically.

The first dish on the menu is “carrot sacks with brawn and juniper, fried cake and cress”. Poole complains he has no idea what a carrot sack is. Neither did I. I could have asked but I didn’t see any need since I could use my imagination. He continues: “This dish also features “fried cake”, which has me pondering the dubious desirability of frying a chocolate or sponge cake, but that cannot be it. Could it be a fishcake? Who knows?” Um, carrot cake, perhaps? He then describes the mention of brawn as an “example of menu euphemism” as if it wasn’t simply the brilliantly evocative name of the terrine. (Our American cousins, on the other hand, call it ‘head cheese’ – now that is a euphemism.) Presumably if you invited Poole round for dinner he wouldn’t be happy unless sausage and mash was described as pig skin stuffed with minced pork and served with mashed potato. And even then he’d be grumpy that you hadn’t said whether you were going to grill or fry the sausages.

The rest of the section then veers sharply away from his notional target of Michelin pretension. He takes issue with a couple of commonplace words: “resting” and “bed”. These aren’t high-falluting terms; you rest your Sunday roast to make it taste better, a bed is a pleasingly descriptive term whether it is on your plate or down the allotment. He spins a whole paragraph out of another commonplace word – “baby” – but in the end can’t find any reason to criticise this. He pretends not to understand what a “rare breed” is. It is tedious stuff and it is hard to see who – apart from Meades – is the audience for this gastrolinguistic masturbation. Bizarrely, Poole has written a book that exists to simultaneously allow him to indulge himself with the English language whilst censuring anyone else who has the temerity to do anything even slightly similar.

He then moves from swinging and missing at the highbrow to swinging and missing at the middlebrow:

Lest all the artifice of breed descriptions, chemistry-set jargon and ingredient rebranding in the posher kind of restaurant make a certain kind of diner suspicious, a parallel recent trend is the reassuring adjective “proper”. It appears everywhere on gastropub menus (“proper pork pie”, “proper mash”), in one-up-from-McDonald’s burger joints (“proper hamburgers”, promises the London chain Byron), and in the mellifluously matey warbling of Jamie Oliver munching a Vietnamese banh minh in an East End market (“That is a proper, proper sandwich”), and his own dish names: “Proper Bloke’s Sausage Fusilli”, “Roast of Incredible Game Birds with Proper Polenta”. The use of “proper” anticipates and indulges (even implants) a suspicion of fanciness, whether it is owed to dubious foreign practices or modern industrial adulteration.

“Proper” is certainly a cliché but clichés are pretty low hanging fruit, a feeling reinforced by the mention of the ultimate soft target Jamie Oliver. But look at what passes for analysis: modern industrial adulteration is fanciness? This is barking. “Proper” certainly indulges a suspicion of processed food but that is the exact opposite of indulging a fear of fancy foreign muck. His description of Byron is equally eyebrow-raising and I would love Poole’s hierarchy of burgers where they are one rung from the bottom. It is impossible to escape the feeling he simply has no idea what he is talking about, that this is all one sustained blag.

Let me instead quote someone who does know what he is talking about. This is my favourite food blogger on his return to London and the changes he has seen since he has been away (“My impression is that London’s food scene at the moment is without parallel”):

London has always been a pretty desperate place when it came to Americana food but around three to four years ago restaurants like Hawksmoor and Goodman and mini-chains like Byron burgers started to change this. Finally, amazingly, you could get a halfway edible burger.

This is the idea that “proper” seeks to signal – that food can be better than the utter rubbish served up to paying punters in the recent past. Poole has it exactly backwards. A handy comparison can be made at this point to the opening paragraphs Grace Dent’s review of Honest Burger in Brixton:

Until last week, I firmly believed I was bored with the bespoke burger trend. All those hipster patty-purists, gangs of bearded Tarquins in their skinny-fit trousers with their pop-up burger truck/speakeasies, their ‘today’s burger’ Tweet updates, scribbled menus containing a fulsome biography of this week’s unlucky cow, their no reservation policy and their brash names like ‘Spank Slider’ and ‘Burger Bang-Bang’. Enough!

But then I returned to the North for a week and was reminded how spoiled we capital-dwellers are. I had good intentions to seek out fresh, fibrous, flavoursome dinners, but 30 miles past the Watford Gap and I was living on microwaved pub food, Wild Bean Café muffins and those mini-bar hotel chocolates worth £3.60 that wouldn’t keep Wee Jimmy Krankie going. Ordering a burger outside of the M25 will remind you why you crucify yourself rent-wise and sacrifice your sanity to live here.

Dent is exaggerating for effect too – that is, after all, what she is paid for – but this is much more acceptable in a comic columnist than a notionally serious essayist. There is also the question of the review’s length; Poole’s wit is already spread thin across 4,000 words, I can’t imagine what it would be like at over a dozen times that length. Most importantly though, Dent’s piece is lacking an agenda, something which strangles any decent point Poole might have. So although Dent takes a pop at the same targets that he disdains in his introduction, she isn’t ideologically blinded. The result is that her description rings more true than Poole’s; it is easy to sneer at gastropubs but, as I found when I walked the Cumbria Way, it is less easy to get a decent meal in pubs that have escaped such modernisation.

Immediately after mentioning Jamie Oliver talking about a banh minh, Poole shifts gear:

It is also one of the favourite epithets employed by David Cameron: “proper politics”, “proper punishment”, “proper immigration control”. “Proper” here works as a strategy to avoid seeming privileged, while at the same time tuning in cunningly to anti-intellectual prejudice (what is “proper” is not over-thought) – all as Cameron conducts, like some kind of over-moisturised Visigoth, his philistine economic campaign against the BBC, universities (“proper education”), and the National Health Service (“proper healthcare”). Just as one ought to be suspicious of the word “proper” when hoarsely brayed from the glistening lips of Cameron, one ought to be suspicious of it on a menu: is it anything more than a vatic invocation of old-school purity?

I think this passage finally tips his hand and reveals what I suspect is the fundamental problem with the book: that he has tried to apply the formula of Unspeak to an unsuitable subject. Unspeak “represents an attempt to say something without saying it, without getting into an argument and so having to justify itself. At the same time, it tries to unspeak – in the sense of erasing, or silencing – any possible opposing point of view, by laying a claim right at the start to only one way of looking at a problem.” But there is a category error here; the word “proper” is a cliche but it isn’t language abuse, it isn’t harmful or dangerous.

It is absurd that we move directly from political ad hominems to an unsupported direction that we “ought” to be equally as suspicious of the words on pub menus as we are of those that issue from the mouths of our elected representatives. There are a lot of missing steps here. How on Earth has he dragged Visigoths into a discussion of the percentage meat content of a pork pie? I mean, I’m not sure it is even linguistically possible to have a vatic invocation of the past but that is by the by when the old school purity is abundantly clear to the palette.

In his review, Meades describes Poole’s targets thus: “They are nonetheless bound together by their extremism and their hyperbole. There is no place in these milieux for balance, for doubt, for self-questioning – let alone for the self-knowledge that might provide a bulwark against loopy mendacity.” The irony is that this description could equally be applied to Poole himself. It is, after all, entirely possible to want to eat a proper burger or dine from an minimalist tasting menu just because you like good food and not, as he would have it, because you are an insufferable twat.


Written by Martin

24 October 2012 at 14:35

Posted in food

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Michelin Stars And Science Fiction

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Sad-faced iconoclast and retired restaurant critic Jonathan Meades reckons Michelin stars are over-rated:

Whatever claims it may make to the contrary, these awards are based on Michelin’s idea of probity, which has less to do with an establishment’s standard of cooking than with its cutlery, glassware and the dimensions of the vats of starch in which its napkins have been steeped. The guide’s ill-paid inspectors, callow graduates of hotel schools, are at an even greater loss when faced with casual, informal restaurants which audaciously allow customers to pour their own wine and which serve excellent cooking without “fine dining’s” presentational fuss, where a dozen spotty sous-chefs have touched the multipartite components as they sought to create a Mondrian on the plate.

He thinks the only people interested in Michelin stars are chefs, journalists and devotees of fine dining, “a branch of restauration characterised by smarmily sycophantic service, grotesquely over-elaborate cooking, fussiness, pretension, absurdly high prices and moron chefs who appear to think they are philosophers.” I guess I fall into that last category. Well, it is balls; I take an interest in Michelin-starred restaurants because they tend to serve bloody good food. As I’ve mentioned in passing, the best meal I’ve ever had was at Pied A Terre which had two stars at the time. The reason it was the best meal I’ve ever had was not because I’m a pretentious twat (that is unrelated) but because Shane Osborn’s cooking was simply breathtaking. None of Meades’s criticisms even register. The only place I’ve been to that has even approached his fine dining stereotype was Le Manoir – where the bogs are nicer than any hotel room I’ve ever stayed in – but then Raymond Blanc is deliberately working in a classic French tradition. Elsewhere, modernity prevails.

The week before Christmas I went up to Morecambe for a short break with my wife to open our stockings and spend a bit of time together before the onslaught of family festivities. Whilst up there I had the second best meal I’ve ever had at the one star L’Enclume. Tucked away in the little village of Cartmel (birthplace of sticky toffee pudding), it is about as far from the London restaurant scene as you can get; we had to drive down windy roads round Morecambe Bay for an hour to reach it. There are two menus, nine or thirteen courses, and once safely ensconced with a kir royale we opted for the latter. It was appropriate for the season since the tasting menu is like a culinary stocking: lots of little delicious surprises to be unwrapped one at a time. One of the early courses that has lodged in my mind was a sort of deconstructed fish and chips, a cod ‘yolk’ with salt and vinegar rice. The concept is exciting, it looks exciting and it tastes exciting. For me, this balance of skill, innovation and flavour is what Michelin-starred cooking is all about. Even better and the stand out of a very good meal was deceptively simple sounding dish of Jerusalem artichokes, Ragstone cream, tarragon and malt. The presentation is very a clever, a sort of terrarium in a bowl with the vegetable and herb rising plant-like from the malt soil which conceals the cheese that binds it all together, and the beauty to eye is matched on the tongue. Hats off to Simon Rogan.

Nuno Mendes gained a Michelin star last year for attempting something similar in the much more conviently located Bethnal Green. Viajante specialises in innovative cooking but on our visit in February innovative pushed over into challenging. As it happened, Jay Rayner had visited the week before and his review a similar experience:

Modern techniques are great. They’re brilliant. If you want to cook my steak by banging it round the Large Hadron Collider, be my guest. Dehydrate my pig cheeks. Spherify my nuts. But only do so if the result tastes nicer. At Viajante deliciousness is too often forced to give way to cleverness.

It was not a bad meal but it over-promised and under-delivered and that isn’t something you want to say when the bill for two was a shade over £400. None of the courses stayed with me in the same way Rogan’s did. Sometimes by palatte was utterly confused, sometimes textures were actively unpleasant and, as we discovered previously at Corner Room (Mendes’s casual restaurant at the back of the building), sous vide is not a magic spell that you can simply cast over a carrot. A wonderful, simple dish of roasted snow crown, parsley and English cultivated mushrooms at L’Enclume knocked this faffery into a cocked hat. So the Michelin guide isn’t infallible. To hammer this home, a couple of days latter we had a far better and much more fun meal at Morito. This is exactly the sort of informal restaurant that Meades talks about stealing a march on the dinosaurs of fine dining. But it isn’t all or nothing and I’m very glad both exist.

Elsewhere Patrick Wolohan proposes a Michelin star system for SF. The driver for this is his disatisfaction with demarcation within numerical ratings and the fact that “with such a wide range of subgenres and styles in the genre, I found it increasingly impossible to compare books on a numeric basis.” The Michelin-style ratings he intends to use instead are:

No stars: bad or nothing special. (“No longer do I need to worry about slotting a mediocre high fantasy above or below a fun, if flawed steampunk adventure.”)

One star: a great example of its subgenre and one that is highly recommended for those who enjoy that specific subgenre or are looking to break into the subgenre.

Two star: a standout novel that demonstrates a unique approach or exceptional execution, likely to be one of the year’s best and definitely worth reading, regardless of subgenre or preference. Strengths outweigh the weakness by a large margin.

Three stars: an instant classic in my mind, a soul crushing work of such brilliance that it annihilates any hope of every writing a novel as good, and an absolute must read. Virtually flawless.

Now, I have never given a review a grade or a score. When others have attempted to apply a numerical rating to my reviews, I’ve found the whole thing a bit baffling. So perhaps I’m not the best person to comment on such a system but, whilst I think the concept is sound, I do wonder about the application. The criteria Wolohan is using are already watered down from the actual Michelin descriptions and it is hard not to see him succumbing to grade inflation in the same way he complains happens with other systems. For example, there are currently only 106 three-star restaurants in the whole world of which only ten in US (there are 4 in the UK). It is a tiny, tiny proportion and that is through active searching rather than lone happenstance. Wolohan does set out his likely limits – “I could see myself giving out 10-15 starred reviews a year (if the books are good enough), 5 or fewer two star reviews, and no more than 2 (probably 0) three star reviews.” – but, although these seem like modest numbers, I still think they are too high. Even leaving aside our radically different ideas about what consitutes good literature, the vast majority of books will fall under the no star category. I’d have thought having a ratings system without being able to actually use would be too strong a temptation.

I’ll be interested in the experiment though, because he is surely right that there is much too much over-inflated angels-on-a-pinhead rating of books within the SF community. I still think that words matter more than number (and I wish people took a bit more care over their words) but focussing on the truly exceptional, whether literature or food, is a positive thing and encourages both producers and consumers to want the best. And wanting the best is never pretentious.

Written by Martin

23 March 2012 at 17:05

Posted in food, sf

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