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 

 

Why do wine writers write only about wine?

There’s an article by Craig Brown (the humourist not the former Scotland football manager) about being present at the one and only meeting between Anthony Burgess and Benny Hill. Apparently it was not a great success. Though the two great artists admired each other’s work they could not find any common ground: Burgess wanted to talk about comedy and Hill wanted to talk about literature. Specialists often want to talk about almost anything else apart from their area of expertise. This is common in all walks of life except it would seem wine writing. Wine writers only talk about wine. Compare two writers for the Times for example: on the restaurant page Giles Coren pontificates about whatever he feels like with the actual food coming far down his list of priorities whereas Jane McQuitty sticks to recommending wine with not a mention of her hell-raising days at Studio 54*.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. There is a wonderful purity about reading someone who really knows their subject and writes about it to the exclusion of everything else. I like that Tim Atkin et al don’t blether on about their private lives (unless of course they were interestingly scandalous) or use their columns as a platform to opine Archbishop of Canterbury-like on the failures of the Coalition. And God forbid that wine should ever have the Observer Food Monthly treatment with its celebrity lifestyle nonsense. But it does seem odd how wine seems to exist in a bubble cut off from politics, culture and the minutia of everyday life. Occasionally it ventures out to look at global warming, tax rises or a black workers co-op in South Africa but mostly its nose is firmly planted in a glass.

This is fine if you are Jancis Robinson and have a large wine-literate audience to talk to. One of the joys of her website is feeling that you are part of a knowledgeable club. But other mainstream writers have the difficulty of not knowing quite how interested their readers are in what is a complicated subject. Inevitably many fall between two stools: one being too winey for the general reader; the other being not winey enough for the wine bore. Perhaps newspapers wouldn’t be cutting their wine pages if there was someone who wrote not to impart knowledge and recommend but merely to entertain. After all who reads AA Gill to decide where to eat?

* This is a joke. To my best knowledge Jane McQuitty never raised hell at Studio 54.

An impecunious amateur in the East

Victor Crabbe, World of Booze‘s man in Singapore, looks at what to drink in the former colony:

When I was young, I had a LEGO catalogue that described a perfect town, with just one of everything: one sandwich shop, one police station, one motorway maintenance vehicle, one railway station, one space rocket launch pad, and so on. On the face of it, Singapore has the same refreshing approach. There is one media provider, one airport, one coffee chain, one telephone company, one political party – and one beer, Tiger.

Tiger is everywhere in Singapore, all over buses, umbrellas, sporting events, television and of course bars. It’s something Singapore is very proud of, an international lager brand with more exotic chic than any equivalent mass-produced European brand. It’s a huge success, and like the other huge global lagers it tastes of dilute robot tears and marsh gas. A friend of mine says he feels as though he’s licked too many stamps after drinking a glass. We all drink it, but after a couple of months most people stop enjoying it. The brewery once offered Anthony Burgess free beer while he was in Singapore, after he used their slogan “Time for a Tiger” as the title of a novel, but he had tired of it and become “wholly a gin man”.

Lager came to Asia with the European empires and their hot and thirsty employees. A British man started brewing Kingfisher in India in 1857, the Spanish crown granted permission to brew San Miguel in the Phillipines in 1890, German colonists created Tsingtao inChinain 1857, and Seibei Nakagawa, trained by more Germans, started makingSapporoin the Kaitakushi Brewery in 1876. Tiger was a relatively late entrant, launched in 1932 by Malayan Breweries, a Heineken-backed venture. Lager, like port and gin, has been part of globalisation and international trade for a very long time, and I suppose in many ways this heritage of international commerce is older and more respectable than the supposed rural localism of the sorts of booze I prefer to drink. Many regional styles are distinctive and interesting, if you’re in the mood for that sort of thing: the honeyed embrace of Thailand’s Chang beer or the crisp salute of Beer Lao are each of them memorable and evocative. So not every local lager is as faceless as Tiger, though it’s hard to imagine a more appropriate national drink for a place created through mercantilism and unfettered consumerism.

In the last few years a second wave of colonisation and empire has crashed against Singapore’s shore from the New World, bringing its own ideas about drinking in the shape of the “microbrewery”, which here as elsewhere presents a standardised and reliable set of choices while pretending to treat its customers as connoisseurs who appreciate beer “crafted” by “artisans”. They are pleasant and expensive, and this is really the crux of the difficulty facing any impecunious amateur inSingapore. Alcohol is very expensive, partly because it’s taxed heavily, and partly because certain drinks appeal to the sort of aspirational drinkers who think that being seen in the company of European booze makes them look sophisticated. As a result, even mediocre booze is unpleasantly dear. A bottle of wine for which I would be happy to pay around seven English pounds might retail at about S$30, which today is about £15. I recently had a 2008 Yarra Ridge pinot noir, which turned out to be a well-structured wine with a cherry-cola appearance and tannins that suggested a sieve of tart summer fruit left over a plate of hot ribs, giving it a kind of barbecued strawberry aura that was less unpleasant than it sounds. It was nice enough for under a tenner, but the $S32 I paid for it left me keen to exaggerate its virtues and pass over the formulaic Australian focus on varietal character. An empty wallet and mid-range tastes are distorting my palate, and I suppose while I’m here I shall have to get used to it. The only hope lies with Carrefour, the French megamarket: they carry a wide range of French wine and make no effort to promote them, thinking, I suppose, that anyone who doesn’t already know where Vosne-Romaneé is can’t be worth selling wine to. I do, and I am, and I intend to set about their shelves with abandon.

Editor’s note: I think it is time for an Anthony Burgess revival. ‘The Malayan Trilogy’, of which ‘Time for a Tiger’ is the first novel, is one the great empire novels. It captures the dislocating effects of colonialism: there is a French priest who longs for China, a British sergeant more comfortable speaking Urdu then English and an Moslem Indian soldier who wishes his sergeant would be a bit more British. There’s also a lot of drinking.