Jonathan Meades – the Plagiarist in the Kitchen

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The tributes to AA Gill who died earlier this year tended to focus on his humour, his famous rudeness, and his ability to write movingly about those on the margins of life. But for me what made him compulsively readable was the sheer certainty of his views. The thrill of his spat with Mary Beard wasn’t saying that he said she was ugly but the audacity of a hack like Gill with no formal education taking to task a Cambridge classics professor on the subject of the Roman Empire with such elan.

Gill’s schtick never really worked on television. He just came across as a bit of an arse. His counterpart as restaurant critic at the Times from 1986 to 2001, Jonathan Meades, however, is an auteur of the medium. In his idiosyncratic programmes, Meades made use of his seemingly bottomless well of opinions not just on food and architecture, his specialities, but also Mussolini, the fate of the Algerian pied-noirs and why Essex is unfairly maligned. Sometimes I struggled to keep up but they make such a refreshing change from the “join me on my journey” school of BBC documentaries.

Now Meades has written a cookbook, The Plagiarist in the Kitchen, the title a knowing rip off of Julian Barnes’ The Pedant in the Kitchen. Its premise is that all cookbooks are attempts to pass off borrowed or stolen recipes as your own work (I know having contributed to one.) “In the kitchen there is nothing new and nor can there be anything new. It’s all theft” as Meades puts it. Part of the joy of the book is the glee with which Meades tramples on foodie (a word I imagine he loathes) shibboleths:

“The olive oil trade is just as rackety and bent as the wine trade. Which is a boon to those who dislike the peppery throat-assault of the echt product. In olive oil, as in life, the impure is more satisfying than the pure.”

Or

“‘Homemade begs one question. Whose home? Have you ever actually seen people’s homes? Why should biscuits made at home be better than those baked in a factory, a factory that specialises in biscuits? I’m thinking of Nairn’s Oatcakes, Rakusen’s Matzo Crackers and Carr’s Water Biscuits. We don’t seek treatment from amataur surgeons.”

The short bibliography is telling because alongside the likes of Simon Hopkinson, Elizabeth David and Fergus Henderson, there’s Inside Mr Enderby by Anthony Burgess and the not to be missed Testicles: Balls in Cooking and Culture by Blandine Vie. As well as recipes there are strange unhelpful illustrations, anecdotes about Jane Grigson and some top pop trivia:

“Hardly surprisingly, Jacques Brel’s favourite dish was mussels and chips. However, he once claimed that the single best meal of his life was a ham sandwich he ate on the train from Paris to Brussels; he had just secured a recording contract.”

But asides aside, The Plagiarist in the Kitchen is actually a very thorough cookbook taking in classic French food as well as Italian, Spanish, North African, Scandinavian, German and British recipes. There’s perhaps more on eels and tripe than you might want but on the whole it’s surprisingly user friendly. His risotto milanese recipe is particularly good “the risotto will take about 30 minutes (many recipes state 20 minutes; they are wrong. . .” and “do not add grated cheese. It fights the flavour the saffron. . .” For all his humour, Meades is deadly serious about food. The books shows a deep understanding of cookery.

In an age of instant internet criticism this sort of rigour is bracing. You get the impression that he has thought everything through from first principles. He doesn’t take the easy option of contrarianism nor does he see things through a political filter ie. environmentalism, soft-left activism or post-colonial theory. With most writers you can guess their views on everything after reading a couple of articles, with Meades it’s not so easy.

Both Meades and Gill are/ were autodidacts. Meades’ writing displays his love of learning and the even greater love of showing off that learning. With food, he clearly know his onions but what about everything else? Does he really have a deeply-held original point of view on Charles de Gaulle or does he sit up all night honing opinions on the matters of the day? I suspect that as with Gill there’s a fair dose of prejudice in there but importantly, they’re his prejudices. The trick that both Meades and Gill mastered is never to explain. In prose and on television, Meades simply states his opinions and moves on. The Plagiarist in the Kitchen is full of gnomic statements such as:

“So far as I can recall I have not eaten guacamole.

or

“I can’t think of any circumstances in which I’d use oregano.”

Crucially he’s not on twitter to battle the outraged keyboard warriors. AA Gill too prided himself on not doing “the internet” as he put it.  In an age when even the President of America argues on twitter, this aloofness makes Meades one of the last of a breed.

The Plagiarist in the Kitchen by Jonathan Meades is published this month by Unbound

This article originally appeared in Spectator Life 

 

After Brexit will we go back to cooking with tinned mushroom soup?

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This is something I wrote for Food & Wine, an American magazine, just after the EU Referendum result. It’s entirely speculative but then most Brexit commentary is.

Much of the increasingly bitter arguments over the recent referendum boiled down not to matters of economics or democracy but to food. A friend of mine organised a campaign where Parisians came over to London bearing croissants as if to show us what we’d be missing if we left the European Union. The Sunday Times restaurant critic, A. A. Gill, wrote of how British bread used to be “brittle and gum-lacerating on the outside, hollow sawdust inside.” Now we have “wholemeal, wheat germ, rye, sourdough, poppy seed, caraway, brioche, sandwiches dunked, dipped, spread lasciviously, shared generously, communion.” In short, we’re now better fed, kinder and sexier thanks to the EU. Is this true?

There’s no doubt that food in Britain has improved immeasurably since we joined the European Economic Community (EEC), as it was then called, in 1973. My mother told me how olive oil used to come in tiny bottles at the chemist as a remedy against excessive earwax. Canned mushroom soup was a common ingredient in recipes (I hear this still persists in some parts of the States today.) I can remember a time when in most towns outside London the only decent food you could get after dark was Indian.

So what can we thank for Britain’s improved culinary standards? Immigration has played a big part. The British fell in love in particular with food brought by immigrants from the Indian subcontinent but our slumbering tastebuds were also awoken by cuisine from the West Indies, China, Lebanon, Vietnam, Turkey, Italy, Spain and Portugal. Later in the 00s, millions of Europeans especially east Europeans came to Britain lured by a booming economy. London is now a world city. Down the road from me there’s a row of shops containing two Turkish supermarkets, a pizzeria, a Polish and an Italian delicatessen.

The British began to travel more in the 60s and 70s thanks to cheaper air fares. This exploded in recent years because of airline deregulation. Suddenly a weekend in Barcelona wasn’t so expensive. There we discovered that tapas didn’t have to come out of a microwave. Improvements, however, also came from home-grown chefs such as Marco Pierre-White, Gordon Ramsay and Fergus Henderson who demonstrated that British food could be world class. Delia Smith, Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson showed the home cook how to make good simple food from scratch without a can of mushroom soup in sight. Britain became a much more affluent country in the 80s and 90s and people aspired to an Italian lifestyle.

We have the EU to thank for airline deregulation. Being a member also made it easier for people and goods from the continent to come to Britain though there was a sizeable European immigration before joining. It’s interesting to note though that it was Australian wine in the 80s and 90s that finally turned Britain into a wine drinking nation. Australia, a country about whose food even the British were sniffy about, has become a culinary destination without joining a bureaucratic superstate. The improvement in British coffee over the last 10 years is mainly down to baristas from the Antipodes. Food in America also improved drastically in the same period though you wouldn’t know from eating out in Harlan, Iowa.

So what’s going to happen when Britain leaves? There’s a lot of panicky articles being published at the moment but nobody really knows. Noone even knows when Britain will leave let alone what will happen afterwards. We hope that the politicians both British and EU can come to a sensible arrangement.  After all Britain is a massive market for European goods.

A big worry is the current uncertain status of EU nationals in Britain. Poles and Romanians in particular are vital for the functioning of the country’s food supply. They’re fruit and vegetable  pickers, drivers, butchers, waiters and bar staff. The country would grind to a halt without them. Worrying too is how the pound has fallen since the 23rd June making imported goods more expensive. Add that to the possibility of  tariffs on European food and I think though it’s safe to predict that the price of food and wine from the EU will go up.

The EU for all the benefits it has brought to members, is a protectionist trading bloc. Leaving should mean access to cheaper food from the rest of the world. Good for consumers but also good for Third World farmers. Also on an optimistic note, leaving the EU might end the current curry crisis in Britain. Due to targets imposed on non-EU immigration, there is a shortage of chefs from  the Indian subcontinent. Apparently east Europeans  just can’t be taught to make a good curry and British Asians (ie from the Indian sub-continents) don’t want to work long hours for low pay.  The other group looking forward to leaving are fisherman. The EU’s Common Fisheries Policy meant that every country in Europe had access to British waters, disastrous for fish stocks.

Don’t forget that home-grown food has improved hugely since 1973. Our daily bread, cheese, and sausages are so much better than they used to be. It’s a time of great worry and uncertainty, but whatever happens, I predict that we will still be able to buy good buttery croissants and there’s no chance in hell that we’re going back to cooking with canned mushroom soup.