Okay, not tripe itself, but rather what it seems to represent in British Cookery today. By which I mean an almost dementedly determined return to “old fashioned school dinners” and all that entails. I may not be able to follow the height or shape of this season’s hemlines, but I do try to keep an eye on food trends as they wash over these shores, and I have to say the news ain’t good.
Now I’ve never tried tripe itself, but would probably quite like it as I enjoy most offal. I have, however, tried Lancashire Hotpot, Chicken Pot Pie, Ham Terrine, Confit Duck, and just about every cheap cut of steak one could imagine. Whilst I have in various forms enjoyed all of the above, I have never enjoyed them when faced with a hefty price tag as a side order. And herein lies my gripe. Home – or school – cooked dinners of yore appear to have become the latest craze amongst the chefs and proprietors of the UK restaurant and TV cookery scene. Where once were featured “fresh” and “light” and “innovative” dishes, now we are faced with the old staples of either a penurious home, or an equally penurious school canteen. And it strikes me as a terrible sham.
Let me give you a couple of examples. Recently I was taken to dinner at one of Gordon Ramsay’s new restaurants — The Warrington in Maida Vale. I was very excited to find that we were not eating from the downstairs “pub” menu, but were in fact eating upstairs in the glam dining room. And what did I find on the menu? Well, for starters (and I do mean that literally) “potted duck” and a special of “ham hock terrine.” I was forced to opt for the English asparagus with home-made mayonnaise because it was the only option that didn’t arrive smothered in some form of aspic or in a novelty jar of some sort. (More on novelty jars later.) The asparagus – being in season here for its brief yearly fling – was gorgeous, as was the mayonnaise, but I had hoped for some fresh seafood other than the dreaded whitebait, or at least a dish that would deliver a crisp start to my meal and that didn’t require bread on which to be slathered.
The mains, from “hangar steak” to “chicken and wild mushroom pie” and “pork belly” all smacked horribly of a faux “credit crunch and back to tradition” aesthetic, by which I mean “famously cheap ingredients sold at outrageous prices in the name of nostalgia”. I opted for the pork belly and my companion the chicken pie. And how were they? Well, they were pork belly and chicken pot pie. Not awful (though the crackling on my pork belly was leathery and therefore rendered the meat a tad too salty for even my tastes), but not extraordinary either. Neither dish justified either its billing or its price, not only in execution but more importantly, in conception. They were quite simply simple food that could be easily reproduced at home, and probably with better results. They attempted to suggest home-cooked meals, but the point of home cooked meals is that you cook them at home, or they’re cooked for you at home by somebody who loves you. Which really is what makes them taste so good. Serve them in an environment with damask napkins and glam tableware and they become culinary fakes. A bit like the girl in the war years who could actually get silk stockings but drew a line on her legs so the other girls wouldn’t think she was a tramp.
My second example – and this is the one that really churns my gut – is this season of “The Great British Menu” on BBC2. This cookery (I should say Cheffery show, really) is an annual event that features chefs from various restaurants around the country competing in regional heats to have their dishes presented in a celebrative banquet. The first year it was the Queen’s Jubilee Luncheon, the next a luncheon banquet for the great and the good of France, and this year it’s the turn of returning service men (and women) from UK campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. And what has been the prevailing theme this year? “Home,” or if the starters are anything to go by, “Rationing, And How We Preserved For It Last Time.” No less than eight contestants have presented as their first course some sort of ham hock terrine or deep fried ham hock ball, confident that this dish will fill returning soldiers with a warm glow of recognition. Well of course they’ll bloody recognise it. The poor brave folk have probably been eating some sort of processed ham for months on end, and therefore deserve much better. Worse yet, these “ham hock terrines” or “duck shepherd’s pies” are presented in exactly the same sort of jars our real or imaginary grandmothers used to preserve jams and jellies and chutneys, and probably ham hocks too. It’s nothing more than an insincere form of nostalgia presented in a re-sealable jar. We viewers (though hopefully not the returning forces) then get “witty” versions of fish and chips, rabbit, and perhaps worst of all, a “Lancashire Hotpot” to share. What perhaps galls me most about this is not only that the chefs in question do not find these dishes in any way patronising, but that the judges (including Mathew Fort and Prue Leith) don’t either. Almost every time a dish with “high end” ingredients or a more esoteric approach goes before them, the judges ponder whether those who are “un-ranked” would appreciate said dish, as if just about anybody at a swanky banquet wouldn’t appreciate something a tad glam or out of the ordinary, what with it being a swanky banquet and all. They are in fact invited as guests to a feast, not a BBC Costume Drama. Which leaves the question of whether any of these soldiers don’t have homes to visit, and hotpots cooked by their actual families to savour. Of course, not all of them do, and certainly not all of them who do, have families who would cook said hotpot as a home welcome, but they’re not represented by these dishes either. Where then is a good curry, or a roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, or- cookery style heaven forfend – a good spag bol? Or, really, just egg and chips?
To finish, what galls me about the latest cheffie trend is just how dishonest it actually is. To be sure there have always been high-end restaurants that have prided themselves on serving the old standards (I’ll note the Shepherd’s Pie at the Ivy, for a start), but that’s because these eateries don’t slavishly follow trends to little end. But to pretend that because chefs have (in this more financially difficult age) glommed onto cheaper ingredients out of a sense of cultural and traditional home-coming is a bit like pretending that Messrs Galliano, Lagerfeld, Armani and the like have decided in the interest of cloth preservation that we should all be wearing corduroy and sensible shoes. At the same prices.
So go to a high-end eaterie for “trad” food if you must, but I pray you, go on a Sunday lunchtime, when most restaurants and gastropubs will serve you that all-time British classic, the Sunday roast. And best of these for me? The Pantechnicon Rooms, on Marbury Street in London’s Belgravia. A tad pricey, yes, but utterly delicious food, sides like you wouldn’t believe, and the most swoonsomely intoxicating choice of novelty martinis with which to wash down your meal.