Jay Rayner

In praise of food cliches

The Observer Food Monthly - - CONTENTS - jay.rayner@ob­server.co.uk

Iam, by na­ture, sus­pi­cious of food cliches. I don’t think Grandma’s cook­ing was al­ways bet­ter. Cer­tainly, my grand­mother’s wasn’t. She hadn’t met a packet she couldn’t open and re­garded the no­tion that she should cook from scratch as a cal­cu­lated in­sult. Like­wise, the good old days were nowhere near as good as now: choice was lim­ited, qual­ity was poor and “abun­dance” was a word for spell­ing com­pe­ti­tions, not a de­scrip­tive term to be ap­plied to food stocks.

I have long bri­dled at the in­sis­tence that the food cul­tures of our Euro­pean neigh­bours are so much bet­ter than ours. It ig­nores the re­al­i­ties of his­tory. Yes, try­ing to find a good meal in Bri­tain out­side the home (and in­side it, for that mat­ter) im­me­di­ately af­ter the sec­ond world war was as tricky as find­ing an hon­est banker in Lon­don’s Square Mile. Then again, dur­ing that war we in­dus­tri­alised food pro­duc­tion to help fight a war of na­tional sur­vival, los­ing pur­chase on both cook­ery tra­di­tions and kitchen skills.

And what’s so good about those ro­bust food cul­tures any­way? They tend to be in­ward-look­ing and small- minded. Two weeks in Tus­cany sounds like a fab­u­lous idea. Then the re­al­ity slides in, like ink seep­ing slowly across blot­ting pa­per: day af­ter day of the same bloody pasta dishes, the same rus­tic sal­ads and any­thing for dessert as long as it’s tira-sod­ding-misu or some­thing “in­ven­tive” in­volv­ing pears and al­monds. By day five, what you wouldn’t do for a bit of Thai food doesn’t bear think­ing about. We eat more widely and thrillingly in Bri­tain specif­i­cally be­cause of the weak­ness of our indige­nous food cul­ture.

And yet, here I sit on a sun­dap­pled ter­race in south-west France, for, as I write, it is Au­gust and I am noth­ing if not a fully paid-up mem­ber of the Main­stream Me­dia Lib­eral Elite. I have just re­turned from a run to the lo­cal boulan­gerie for arm­fuls of crois­sant baked this morn­ing.

In the kitchen, we have bas­kets of plump, mis­shapen toma­toes from the fields just be­low the house we are stay­ing in, a board full of stinky French cheeses mak­ing a bid for free­dom and slabs of paté that smell of all the best bits of ground an­i­mal. We have wan­dered the lo­cal mar­ket, buy­ing up boxes of golden girolles from the lo­cal hill­sides at prices that would make the mort­gage pay­ers of Is­ling­ton weep, and loaves of a sweet, sticky pas­try half­way be­tween bread and cake, soaked in syrup and just enough fra­grant flower wa­ter. We are de­bat­ing whether it is rose or or­ange blos­som, be­cause here, on our sun-dap­pled ter­race, we have noth­ing more im­por­tant to de­tain us.

Oh god. I have be­come the liv­ing, breath­ing em­bod­i­ment of ev­ery damn filthy food cliche of which I claim to be sus­pi­cious; I am the heir to snooty Elizabeth David made soft, wob­bling, French-cheese-boosted flesh. But the thing is, I am lov­ing ev­ery mo­ment of it. We are of­ten told that rage and anger are spe­cialisms of the young. I try to sub­vert this by get­ting an­gry and stay­ing that way. But it seems I am un­equal to the task; that all it takes to soothe me is a good se­lec­tion of cheeses and a re­cently picked fig on the turn. It turns out that food cliches are cliches for a rea­son: be­cause they are just so damn lovely.

We have bas­kets of toma­toes, a board full of stinky French cheeses

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