MENU MALARKEY

STUDYING THE “BILL OF FARE”  the other day in a country pub restaurant that had no conceivable right to the airs it so egregiously gave itself, I found roast pheasant with all the trimmings offered under the heading “From the Game Keeper’s Larder” and grilled Dover sole listed under “Catch of the Day”.  I rarely eat in restaurants these days and afterwards wondered gloomily if the transatlantic style of menu writing might already be an Americanism as widely established over here as the deplorable use of “like” instead of “as if” or “as though”.

“Ah, the menu poetry of America”, exclaimed the late and much lamented Kenneth Allsop.

Ah, indeed: how colourful it is, how lyrical. Trawling through an archive of half a lifetime’s experience of American hotels and restaurants I am rewarded with a rich haul of reminders.“From the rivers and the seas”, says the menu from Dallas. “Succulent dawn catch…Pride of the Gulf Coast shrimps”. Under the heading “Sea fare” (deep in the heart of Texas) there are “Broiled rainbow trout from the icy mountain streams”.

Ah, the teasing of the appetite. The “tendersweet clams”, the “bountiful selection of fried fish, shrimp, scallops, crab and baked oyster” offered in the Mariner’s Seafood Platter, the temptation in Seafood Newburg, a “rare combination of shrimp and lobster baked in Newburg Sauce”. How the mouth waters! How the taste buds dilate!  Here, “skillet style” in downtown Detroit is tender young chicken, “prepared according to an old Arkansas farm recipe, fried to a delicious golden brown with all natural flavours retained”. Here in Manhattan the “baked, sugar-cured ham, served with a delightful blending of wines and herbs”, the broiled lobster with “tangy lemon butter”, the “delicately aged rib of open-range beef ”.

In The Admiral’s Cabin of the Holiday Inn, Nashville, Tennessee (its logo a man-of-war in full sail), guests could dine off  “choice-cut sirloin, broiled to order, served for two on a platter, garnished with chopped carrots and fresh-picked green peas”. Did the flagship of the fleet go to sea with beef on the hoof and grow bags on the deck?

Prime, choice, select, rare, fine, perfect: the dictionary is scoured for superlatives. From coast to coast, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Florida, in The Arrow Head, The Angry Bear, The Brand H, The Golden Shovel, The Lucky Strike no literary holds are barred.   From the lowly wayside diner to the city’s most fashionable restaurant where the walls are covered in raw silk and the wine lists in imitation red velvet, American menus proclaim the unsurpassed and illimitable virtues of the materials and cooks employed. And in order to ensure a proper appreciation on the customer’s part such predicatory extras as “You will delight in”, “You will be enchanted by”, “You will thoroughly enjoy” may well preface the description of the “Dish of the Day”.

It is the inevitable disillusion that is the real killer in so immoderate and unscrupulous a way with words. Take the simple word “fresh”. In the modern American catering vocabulary it may reasonably be taken to convey not old, not tinned, not reconstituted. It does not mean recently grown and gathered, or recently caught and conveyed to the dining table, or lately prepared from normally perishable ingredients in their natural, not artificially preserved, state. Or consider the claim “home cooking”. Night and day, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the Colorado to the Rio Grande there are super-efficient, impeccably hygienic, computer-controlled installations turning out admirable confections nationally advertised as Ma This or That’s authentic, home-baked cakes and pies.

Is it all happening with us, too? Has it all already happened while I’ve not been looking? Though it was only lunchtime the other day, the Dover sole was lamentably tired after what must have been a long journey and the roast pheasant desiccated far beyond whatever the “gamey port wine sauce” might have been able to do for it. But for my companion’s restraining hand I might have gone looking for the keeper’s gun.

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A WAY WITH CAMEMBERT

 
 
 
 An invitation to visit Isigny-Sainte-Mère in Normandy had me reaching for a map. I had long been familiar with beurre d’Isigny and crème fraîche d’Isigny on leading supermarket shelves;  but until now, if you had asked me where exactly the place was I could no more have been sure of my answer than of telling you the subjunctive pluperfect of être. By contrast, even today many a U.S army veteran would be able to pinpoint the spot unerringly. In June 1944, Isigny was a few murderous miles from the key D-Day American objectives of the Pointe-du-Hoc and Omaha Beach. That summer, dairy cows, innocent victims of the allied invasion, lay dead and bloated in the lush meadows bordering the present great white Coopérative Laitière (dairy cooperative)  d’Isigny  on the outskirts of town.
 
 
 
 Some dairy! As a child in Sussex I frequently had the task of fetching the milk from the nearby farm. There, often huddled in my outdoor clothes, I would sometimes watch Ted Gumbril milking the Jersey cows by hand. In memory I can still hear the milk jetting into the pail. Today, it would be virtually impossible to witness so potentially an insalubrious procedure on any of the 250 farms which, depending on the time of year, supply the Isigny cooperative with anything from 30,000 to 45,000 litres of milk a day. “Our producers undertake to rigorously  comply with the Agri Confiance manual”, says the press handout. ” This covers feedstuffs, animal welfare, the levels of hygiene on the premises and milk collection. In addition to all the audits carried out by an independent certifying body, our own quality control teams pay routine visits and carry out checks on all our producers. This way we can guarantee complete and audited traceability”. 
 
 
 
 So no  “Shove over there my beauty!” as Ted Gumbril butts a tan and white Jersey flank with his head (which is covered by a handkerchief, knotted at the corners) and draws his stool closer to the good natured animal that is supplying the essential accompaniment for tomorrow’s porridge. Here in Normandy only gleaming stainless steel and snaking plastic tubes. Only impeccable white wellies and long white coats and disposable caps imperative for all visitors. No sparrows chirping in the rafters. Only the hiss of air filters and hydraulics. Only the low, background gossip of machinery that never sleeps. And yet: “ On the farms in the old days they used to fill cheese moulds by degrees, ladle by ladle, giving time for the milk to settle between each.” explains my guide. “Now, we replicate the process automatically with that apparatus you see there”. Up and down go the stainless steel cups, in and out of the milk, opening and closing above the moulds passing on the conveyor belt below. In the control room a man surveys a battery of computer monitors. One of them, I suppose, is keeping track on the production of the “Traditionally churned” butter, another on the Crème Fraîche d‘Isigny  (Médaille d’Or Paris 2004). No dipping one’s finger in the cream churn when Ted Gumbrill isn’t looking.  No swinging my quart can round and round at arm’s length, vertically, in an elementary demonstration of centrifugal force as I go homeward up the hill.
 
 
 
 Centrifugal force is key in this state-of-the-art transmutation of some of the most nutritious grass in the world (the area of supply is strictly Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) into some of the most internationally famous food products of France. At scientifically calculated speeds, fat and buttermilk are spun apart, the one to be metamorphosed into umpteen varieties of cheese (Camembert, Brie, Livarot, Pont L’Évêque, Saint-Paulin, Saint-Jouvin, Mimolette…………) cream, and several of distinctive Beurre d’Isigny, the other into instant skimmed milk powder. A far cry from waiting 24 hours for the raw cream to rise to the top of the milk, then skimming it off by hand. An age away from strong arms labouring at wooden churns. And the cows: where are they? For three or four months of the year as likely as not “au chaud”: happily indoors; munching away at a varied menu of hay, root vegetables and maize and whatever else constitutes the bovine plat du jour. Twenty per cent of the A.O.C. production area is constituted by the marries — land long-since reclaimed from the sea but seasonally inundated by the rivers Douve and Taute and Vire and Aure and Merderet— which cannot be grazed until it emerges from the winter floods. When it does, the grass is especially rich in nutrients and grows so fast (the locals like to tell visitors) that anything inadvertently dropped in the morning will be irretrievably overgrown by the afternoon. Then, the native Normandy breed and the Holsteins take to the meadows again. 
 
 
 
I round off a morning’s tour of the great dairy cooperative of Isigny in the tiny kitchen of the restaurant Chez Roger at le Grand Vey, near Carentan, just across the bay. Joël, the chef patron, is showing me how to produce something I have never heard of before — a baked camembert. First blanching some slivers of fresh garlic, he then pushes them into half a dozen incisions he has made with the point of a knife in the surface of a beautifully ripe specimen of the famous cheese. That done, he scatters chopped basil, thyme and parsley on top, adds a twist or two of black pepper from the grinder, sprinkles a little red wine overall, puts the camembert, still in its box, into a small casserole without the lid on and consigns it to a very hot oven. Ten minutes later, after another glass of Moët et Chandon Brut, we eat the melted cheese as though it were a fondue, using pieces of very crisp baguette as dippers. Sensational!  Truly, a revelation!  Joël says that almost any fresh herbs will do but that the cheese must be in a box, which has been stapled together; not glued. 
 
 
 
Neither Chez Roger, nor Joël’s way with camembert, nor Isigny, will be news to a host of serious gourmands. For myself, all three were happy discoveries. Off the beaten tourist track, the restaurant owes much of its repute to word of mouth among the Anglo-Norman cognoscenti. If only every source of restaurant intelligence were as reliable!
 
 
 ‘A Way with Camembert’ was commissioned 6 years ago by a magazine that then went out of business, so to the best of my knowledge the piece was never published. (And  was I ever paid?). The superb Coopérative Laitière d’Isigny is still alive and well, though I dare say some of my numbers might need revision. But what of Chez Roger? If any of my readers can update me it will be a great kindness.www.west175productions.com/Great_Food/recipes/recipe031.
www.isigny-ste-mere.com

 

 


LITERARY LEANINGS

IT IS TEN DAYS SINCE WE CROSSED THE RHINE. Logically, it would make sense to carry on to the Elbe, but I judge that would be a river too far: neither the circumstance then, nor those in which many of us find ourselves today, are conducive to yet more such reminiscence. We have had quite enough of  furious winter for a while.

Anyway, here’s a change, provoked by a friend who has sent me copies of two fairly recent Booker Prize titles that she hopes I will like. A kindly but forlorn hope: I have rarely come across a Booker novel that I have been able effortlessly to finish, let alone enjoy

It happens that these two have arrived at the worst of times for engendering anything but formal gratitude. A few days ago I finished reading Jan Morris’s Farewell the Trumpets, the third in her Pax Britannica Trilogy, and am still a little bereft. For more than a week it had been my close companion; there at my bedside when I awoke and could not get to sleep again; there after lunch and for a few minutes before my siesta; there again last thing at night as I calculated whether or not 4 hours had yet passed since, cravenly, I might again reach for the paracetamol to counter that acute discomfort in the left thigh.

If I have read Farewell the Trumpets once I must have read it half a dozen times. Its story is the decline and disintegration of the British Empire from Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897 to the death of Churchill in 1965. But I read it not so much for the story, none of which is any longer news to me, but for the author’s telling of it; the scholarship masterly but ostentatious, the style exquisite, the ‘voice’ melifluous. This is history raised to the level of literature,  more engaging than any novel that is ever likely to come my way.

Though once in a blue moon I do return to an old favourite (early Tom Wolfe or John Le Carré, for instance.) the truth is that I can seldom be bothered with a modern novel, do not read the reviews of new fiction, would take a bet that in not one of a hundred new titles would I find a story that seemed to me worth the telling or a ‘voice’ that I would find more companionable in the small hours than the  weather forecast for the inshore waters of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. If I believed what the literati told me I suppose that Julian Barnes would be nudging Ian McEwan for space on my shelves, but they long ago lost my respect with—to take random but egregious examples— their ravings about Salmon Rushdie and Martin Amis. (I imagine that to a man and a woman the literati approve of the sort of  thing that wins the Turner Prize).

How to account, if account I must, for so Philistine a lacuna in intelligent existence?Almost certainly, whatever part of the explanation is not attributable to intellectual idleness or incapacity is down to immense age. I am not entertained by accounts of the behaviour, thoughts and emotions of fictional characters acting out notional parts in which it has pleased an author  to  create for them. There is more than enough going on in the realities lived by my nearest and dearest for me to be interested in the agonies and ecstasies— no matter how faithfully reported or skilfully contrived— offered for my diversion by a Carol Birch or a Sebastian Faulkes.

So what shall I do on this bleak, bitter day in darkest Sussex? Who will distract me from intimations of a failing boiler, considerations concerning the chemistry of multiple medications and whether or not I shall need spike for my next walk along the promenade?  ‘Heaven’s Command’, the first of the Jan Morris trilogy, perhaps. Or Elizabeth Longford on Wellington; her subject so richly colourful a character so admirably served by the author as to come alive from the page. Almost anything by Alan Morehead, but especially his titles on the River Nile and The African Trilogy? Chester Wilmot’s classic The Struggle for Europe? The incomparable R.V.Jones’s Most Secret War? With any of them I shall be spending time with an old and dependable friend. Or dare I treat myself yet again to Peter Fleming’s News from Tartary, than which no better book of travel was ever written, or to Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts?  Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey-Maturin titles are held in reserve for dire situations such as waiting on a trolley in A & E.

If there is a reprise of these harsh February days a year from now, and I am privileged to be around to whinge about them, I shall have  Max Hastings’s magisterial Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, his Nemesis: The Battle for Japan, as well as his Finest Years: Churchill as Warlord  to see me through to spring. And if Siberia at its most unspeakable comes to Sussex there will be John Colville’s The Fringes of Power to turn to. Colville was a private secretary at No: 10 Downing Street from 1939 to 1955, kept a diary, became a personal friend of Churchill and has given the world one of the most enthralling and historically significant portraits of the great man that can ever be written. It is some time since my last reading of it, so, as with all my old faithfuls, coming to it again will be like being reunited with an old and dear friend. I shall expect nothing new but shall delight in what I already know so well.

But enough of this dithering.  Exchanging the sight of the Dieppe ferry moving slowly out of harbour for that of my chaotic bookshelves, my eye falls immediately upon one of my most dependable friends of all  Joyfully, I reach yet again for Winston Churchill’s masterpiece, My Early Life.