© 2009-2011 Quality Eating and Drinking London Ltd

 

© 2009-2011 Quality Eating and Drinking London Ltd

Last tang in Paris

Barbery, Muriel (2000; tr. Alison Anderson, 2009). The Gourmet.
Gallic, £9.99

France's most famous food critic (arrogant, egotistical and thoroughly enjoying being feared — mais, bien sûr) is about to die, and as he lies in eternity's antechamber, he is desperately trying to renew mental contact with a flavour from long ago, from the era before he bestrode Paris and the world as a colossus of coruscating culinary criticism. Yes, the language is catching.

This little novel of just 111 pages alternates in 29 miniature chapters between the voice of the critic and those of his retinues, past and present, presenting a flashback biography — as contrasting tapas, one might say. Well, the dust-jacket quote from Paris-Match claims that the book is 'an ode to the pleasure of good food', but I'm not so sure. The good food is there, certainly, and there are generous descriptions of it throughout. But what is the underlying theme? Is it really as celebratory as the magazine makes out, or is it a Floydian (Keith or Pink, doesn't really matter) exhortation to enjoy before death pulls the rug from under you. Or are we right back in the marriage of Vanity of vanities and All flesh is grass? It is by no means obvious, up to (and possibly even beyond) the final page. As I read the short chapters, the analogy wasn't tapas, far less amuse-bouches, but musical fragments. And like the critic, I grasped at the matching throughout. Gershwin piano pieces? No, too upbeat. Sardonic Satie? Nearly, but not quite. The Enigma Variations? Good shot, for they are variations on an unstated theme (and indeed, Auld Lang Syne is part of the undertow), but even Elgar is insufficiently brazen. As we edge towards Sousa, or even Harvey and the Wallbangers, though, old Brahms comes back with All flesh is grass.

Yes, it's an infuriating little book in some ways, but it is tenacious. Messy in its own way, but life — and life's end — is like that. There is no answer here, because there are no answers there. It is not serene.

Plus ça change, plus ç'est la même ch...

No, mustn't give anything away. Read it. It's worth it.

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled musakkas

Panayi, Panikos (2008). Spicing up Britain.
Reaktion, £19.95

This is a fascinating book on an important subject: the subtitle is The Multiculturalism of British Food, and deals mainly with the impact of immigrants (whether individuals or en masse) on British food. Panayi starts with an overview of food from beyond these shores before 1945, and probes the concept of ethnicity and identity from the standpoint of food (drink gets virtually no mention whatsoever), going on to look in more detail at the sixty years from 1945. To that end, we seem to be playing with three sides at a time: the Irish, Jewish and German communities of London in the century from 1840, and the Italian, Chinese and South Asian groups since the Second World War. But there's an extra group that keeps popping up: the Greek Cypriots — more about them later.

It's an academic book — more obviously so than, say, Feeding London, though it is not too dry for the more casually interested reader. It touts its academic exclusivity (and pre-wordprocessor outdatedness), for example, by gathering all notes as endnotes at the back of the book, so that they are too time-consuming for the reader to find, and it has all the right seasonings of university-speak to ensure that it qualifies as a research publication. But it is still written with enough panache that the general reader will happily keep reading and page-turning.

At each turn in the nationality of food or cooks in Britain, Panayi looks piercingly at the impact on that national community (usually in London or Leicester, Panayi's formative and current homes), and on the wider population: there is an occasional cross-check with immigrant food communities in North America., pointing up the similarities and differences. Some of the conclusions fall into the obvious-with-hindsight category: for 150 years, there was no recognisable Irish cuisine in London (no, Guinness doesn't count) because it was so similar to native British cuisine of the time, while over the same period, the religious imperatives created and maintained a Jewish-British cuisine. But telling these tales is important as we look at the relative impacts of other cuisines which have arrived on these shores through immigration and importation.

Some of this ground has been covered before —  the birth of fish and chips, for instance — but this does not detract from Spicing up Britain, especially given the scrupulous acknowledgement of prior work. There is really only one small niggle, and that is where the Greek Cypriots come in. And come in they do, most regularly, so that occasionally it seems like 'special pleading'. It is, of course, an extremely difficult balance to maintain, and is a natural risk when a member of one community is generalising in this way. It's a bit like having a stallholder choose the balance of all stallholders in a market, rather than have a Board of Trustees: no matter how hard one strives to be fair and balanced, there will always be a whiff of bias, or rather of perceivable bias. In Panayi's case, a more interventionist editor could have polished away that slightest of shadows (I'm certain it is only a shadow, a mere trick of the light — the generous description of the Turkish community is powerful evidence of that).

This isn't a light and fluffy read, but equally, it isn't solemn. It's a good read and a positive read, thoughtfully constructed and thought-provoking. And the best of it is, there are still many questions in this area for Panayi and others to revisit: Britons' eating habits continue to evolve, and the story of Spicing up Britain has more chapters to be written.

Is it dinner in Pinner or gluttony in Putney?

Tames, Richard (2003). Feeding London.
Historical Publications, £16.95

Having to pronounce on London food at various events a few years ago, I added Feeding London, by Richard Tames, to my library. It served its purpose well by teaching me lots that I didn't know about Londoners' fare through the ages, and my audiences stayed mainly awake during my talks. Since then, there have been many other books in the same general area (though on a UK-wide scale). Feeding London is still to be found in the shops, so six years after its publication, it seems worthwhile to give it another test-drive. A lot of water has been flowing under London Bridge since then (carrying some salmon): does the book stand up to the change?

The book is in the same vein (and from the same stable) as the histories of our districts and towns, such as Covent Garden or Ruislip and Ickenham, and this makes for accessible history. As well as a general sweep of Londoners' diets over the past two millennia, there are concise histories of cookbooks, food shops, and other topics, plus a review of the evolution of dining in and dining out in the Capital. The timeline at the end of the book runs through to Tesco's "breaching the billion" in profits. There are jewels on nearly every page, such as diarist John Evelyn's plea in 1699 that a light touch of a clove of garlic on a serving-bowl would be all that is necessary (though Tames misses the counter that it took over 250 years for Elizabeth David to retort that it all depends whether one plans to eat the bowl or its contents). Now that I have read through the book without a lecturing deadline, I can confirm that it is worth a read by anyone who eats in London.

And yet ...

I was surprised to find some of the text had dated rather quickly, especially in the patterns of buying, cooking and eating out — this is not aided by the somewhat jaded look of the typography, which reminds me of early brochures for a stereo unit or a Robbins university. The subject cries out for a second edition for the era of farmers' markets, foodie TV, Ocado ... and — dare we say? — of groups like QED.