Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Great British Menu Cookbook

I will get to the cookbook presently, and my praise will be fulsome, but before that, some background.

Last year, 2006, BBC tv presented a series in which justly famous British chefs competed against each other to represent the regions that begat them for the honour of cooking a course at a banquet to celebrate the birthday of HM The Queen. This year a second series culminated in a banquet at our embassy in Paris, where the guests were our old culinary enemies, the French.

The theme of both series has been that British cooking should be throwing off the shackles of haute cuisine and finding its own personality and brilliance. For too long, goes the mantra, we have been subservient to a French authority in the kitchen, for too long we have been judged by Gallic standards, for FAR too long our cooking has been dismissed as inferior with a languid wave of a whisk by our neighbours across the Channel (that would be the English Channel). Time to put that right.

The climax of the affair took place last week in Paris. One of the notable facts was that each of the three chef finalists (Mark Hix cooked two courses) actually cooked all the dishes themselves. Imagine that! There were some disasters and some cliff hanging moments, which made for good viewing, but in the end it all turned out fine.

We had been promised that the guests would include the grandees of French cuisine. In the event I could spot only two grandees: Pierre Gagnaire and Raymond Blanc. Raymond Blanc hardly qualifies as a Frenchman any longer, having spent a quarter of a century in England. Pierre Gagnaire is universally worshipped in the UK, and is associated with a London restaurant described as the most expensive in the capital, Sketch.

You might find it instructive to read part of a review of Sketch by Matthew Fort, one of the judges in the tv competition. Fort writes for The Guardian and rates restaurants out of 20. His meal cost £143 for one person in 2003. He gave Sketch 0/20.

“Food horizons in the UK have broadened in the past few years: one of the advantages of not valuing highly our own cooking traditions is that our chefs do not, perhaps, feel constrained by them. So I'd say that our food culture is being reinvigorated in a way that the French food culture is not. This may seem irrelevant in the scheme of daily life, but in terms of how we will eat in 10 or 15 years, it is immeasurably significant. Gagnaire nobly celebrates a culinary tradition that is, in effect, imperceptibly but surely, withering. It is simply too strong for even the most creative chef to break out of.

If £143 worries you in any way, you should not go to Sketch. You will spend too much time wondering if you're getting £143-worth of pleasure. Anyway, at this level, the price is irrelevant. Consequently, I have given Sketch nought out of 20 because it defies any, even notional, value-for-money judgment.”

Rachel Cooke, in The Observer, was similarly aghast. “The Lecture Room, whose menu is overseen by the great French chef Pierre Gagnaire, is Britain's most expensive restaurant. A starter of spider crab, milk-fed veal and caviar will set you back £70; a main course of Angus beef, Béarnaise sausage and aubergine cannelloni with snails costs £65. The critics went for it like meat cleavers on a butcher's block.”

I’ve been to Sketch, for tea and cake, and very nice it is too. A slightly hallucinogenic take on décor in a warren of rooms. (And you must check out the loos!) At any rate, I thought I would find out what Chef Gagnaire is currently offering, so I could compare it to our own presentations. I looked up the Starter Menu.

Langoustines {Addressed in Five Ways}
Tartar with Jellyfied Citrus Juice and Baby Fennel
As a Cold Spicy Broth
Mousseline Flavoured with Cardamom, Cubes of Green Apple and Cucumber
Skewer Cooked Meunière Style, Green Pepper Accra
Pan-fried with Girolles Mushrooms

I thought at first this was the Starter menu, but it turns out to be one dish on the Starter Menu

I think what I’m getting it here is - how on earth did we think we were going to impress the French if this is what they are turning out?

But, to be fair, our chefs were asked to cook for a banquet, not to serve up individual dishes for individual guests.

Anyway, go back to the Langoustines and work out how long it will take you just to get a rough idea of what is going to be on the plate.

So, now we know what we’re up against, how did we do?

The Great British Menu Cookbook profiles the chefs and details every dish cooked in the competition. The ingredients are the stars of the show; it is a matter of regional pride that they are sourced locally and of the finest quality. Presentations are simple, in some cases deceptively so. The idea is that the taste and quality will shine through. Richard Corrigan’s great salmon dishes exemplify this. There is wit and humour, in Sat Bains’ Ham, Egg and Peas and in Mark Hix’s Stargazy Pie. There are a lot of clingfilm rolled things simmered slowly in water baths (gadget du jour, no doubt about it). And an example of clingfilm lined tart cases filled with beans for baking blind (test case to come). And crab is definitely the featured ingredient – yippee, I love crab.

It’s a really excellent book, filled with classy recipes, witty takes on classic dishes, and most of them we could even do ourselves. There is some star dinner party stuff here. I do find myself reading through and mentally crossing out some of the ridiculous cheffy stuff but I know that the finely sliced oysters gracing the poached salmon were probably what aced the dish.

I could have done with more photographs. Sat Bains’ Ham, Egg and Peas was a winning dish, but there’s no photograph of it. If you didn’t see the series you would never know that it is a stunning idea. There are some recipes for dishes that, as far as I remember, never made an appearance on screen, but no explanation. And, the main omission, there is no record of the judges’ remarks at the time. I know for a fact that there were a couple of things that the judges described as perfectly awful. It would be good to have had a rating system.

My British reticence also slightly wishes that the cover didn’t feature the Union Jack quite so prominently, but you can certainly see this book from half a mile away.

Meanwhile, back at the banquet, the French were polite, although I don’t think they are shaking in their three star boots. But they had never heard of elderflower… or perry. Two up to us I think.

The Great British Menu Cookbook

Published by Dorling Kindersley

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