* by Naomi Powell
How very reassuring it is that the basic humble foods of childhood and indeed often of economic necessity have been making a comeback onto the dining menus even into top society restaurants, though often at not too humble a price. And how refreshing it is that the humble and recognisable cauliflower cheese, shepherd’s pie and macaroni cheese, to name but a few, are making a comeback as quality sophisticated dishes with simple accompaniments, and hopefully, described plainly on menus by their original specific names. They appear to be indicators perhaps, of a move away from the elaborate, competitive cuisine of the celebrity-chef schools.
It is thanks in part to the street food markets that these newly exploited food trends are now making a come-back and the simple comfort foods of yester year have now again become an acceptable and healthy food option in many and varied food outlets.
I for one am delighted with this change of direction, since I grew-up with the comforts of uncomplicated food, instantly recognisable by its humble appearance. It needed no fancy title, or gentrification to make it appetising and memorable. Oh for the simple meal which is what it claims to be; cauliflower cheese needs little introduction. A pie was always a joy, as the contents were lovingly revealed. The new ‘deconstructed’ creation fails to hold the mystery of its predecessor, although it offers an attractive, flavoursome and satisfying menu option.
The food outlets advertising ‘Home Cooked Food’, tend to invite the expectation and assumption that British food forms the basis of the menu and many potential diners would, like me, seek out such an option. The best of British food is to be applauded and is for me ‘The Best.’ It recognises the quality of British meat, poultry, and fish, the vast selection of home grown vegetables and the specific value of individual herbs and flavourings. If prepared to traditional British recipes, our national food is exceptional and reinforces the value of tried and tested flavours and accompaniments.
horse-radish and mustard with beef.
apple sauce and red currant with pork, and
mint with lamb. Etc.
The modern and growing trend to add strong and often quite inappropriate flavours to simple food/dishes is not only unnecessary, but in my opinion, a sin. Garlic is the worst culprit and much over used in so many restaurants.
I was utterly frustrated and not a little critical of this lack of subtlety when, having selected what appeared to be a really well thought through and appealing main dish – built around rack of lamb – arrived and I could instantly detect a heavy waft of garlic; and was horrified to realise that it came from the lamb on my plate. There had been no mention of garlic on the menu. The chefs had taken the liberty of disguising the lovely delicate flavour of English lamb with an over powerful dose of continental flavour. I complained and sent it back, only to have to re-order, but the waft of garlic still hung in the air and completely ruined what had started out as a promising evening meal.
Another striking food fad, but much more worrying, is the annoying present tendency to serve very undercooked meat. Not only is it mostly unpalatable, but looks distinctly unappetising, with uncooked white fat and oozing blood. Undercooked egg look equally unpleasant, and without any apology I add these culinary crimes to my list of frustrations. British food can be the best when properly cooked, but can be dreadful when not.
I can’t clearly define when food and menus began to be ‘gentrified’ and often unrecognisable, but the trend has gradually crept into our modern food-obsessed lifestyle and become well established.
Complex food technology and artful preparation have possibly encouraged some of the more elaborate and often misleading meal descriptions.
Very often unsuitable and over-fussy vegetable accompaniments produce unnecessary and confusing flavour combinations. This of course can encourage disappointment and dissatisfaction with the meal however well presented. Understanding the menu therefore, can present a challenge and for me, total frustration – which was the very starting point of my book ‘Taking the Mystery out of the Menu.’
One only has to watch Master Chef to realise that until the finished meal is actually presented, it is often difficult to perceive what is being cooked-up, or indeed what it will look like on the plate. Even then the complexity of presentation often needs masterful explanation. I applaud quality cuisine, artistic presentation and superior flavours, but I am exasperated when something quite simple is described beyond its merits.
So, listen up chiefs: There are plenty of people out there like me, who love eating out. They enjoy personal service and exciting menus, but also need a clear idea of what you are offering, what the main ingredients are and the flavours to be expected. Be creative and adventurous but simplicity very often steals the show, and leads to greater satisfaction!
The post above is a guest post by Naomi Powell, author of Taking the Mystery out of the Menu, as a part of her week-long book tour.