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0 Compliments to myself-the Chef!

  • Thoughts
  • by Gavin Weightman
  • 09-07-2011
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I have just returned from Provence where one of the great pleasures for me is the range and quality of locally produced fish, meat, fruit and vegetables.I bought bundles of the large male courgette flowers from one of the ladies who has a morning stall in the main square in Vence and, with the help of others, stuffed them with farce from the local butchers and roasted them in olive oil in the oven. I fried slices of noix de veau with mushrooms and served them with fresh green beans and the litte rattes potatoes. I filleted 30 little Mediterranean sardines by hand, butterflied them, tossed them in seasoned flour and fried them. Another of our party poached wild scottish salmon one day and roasted on another day some loup de mer (not sea bass in this case but a filet of an Atlantic monster called the wolffish). We had stewed apricots, bowls of peaches, wonderful pates. I might have roasted a chicken: the butchers all have the pricey but very tasty poulet fermier.But nothing can quite compare with one of these wonderful birds cooked on a rotisserie.

Vence has a small, specialist chicken roasting shop from which I bought the largest available top quality bird at the eye watering price of €25. The chicken came with a jug of sauce from the rotisserie and no chicken ,however cooked, by whichever world renowned chef, could have tasted any better. I bought a good helping of diced potatoes roasted with girolles mushrooms to go with the chicken bringing the bill for five people to €40+. Not cheap but unbeatable. To balance the budget, 30 little sardines cost just €6.

One evening the conversation turned to the subject of cookery programmes. Surely, I was told, I must love them as I have such an interest in food. There was surprise when I said I hardly ever looked at them. In fact I found them very boring. Two of our party who cook very little themselves said how much they loved them and rattled off a long list of chefs and titles that they followed, chiefly on TV in North America. The fact that they never cooked any of the meals they saw being prepared did not strike them as odd. They were not out for instruction, they were simply watching a performance. I thought about this and it occurred to me that there is something quite surreal about a cookery programme. The appearance of food on a plate can be attractive. But to know if a dish is to your liking or not you have to be able to smell it and taste it. But you cannot taste or smell a meal prepared on your TV screen. The very essence of the experience is denied you. 

Back in London I noticed the former restaurant chef Simon Hopkinson had a new programme in which he demonstrates recipes that you can easily cook at home. My interest stimulated by our debate about cookery programmes I tuned in. He made a baked pasta dish with porcini mushrooms and pancetta. As he cooked Simon said what wonderful smells there were in his kitchen and how every ingredient, one or two of which he popped into his mouth, was delicious. But if you have never before cooked with porcini ( they have a very strong, almost meaty flavour ) you would have no idea what he was on about. So too with pancetta which looks like bacon but is much, much strong and saltier in flavour. Hopkinson also made a white butter sauce to go with scallops. It is basically melted butter flavoured with a reduction of white wine and white wine vinegar mixed with shallots. The scallops were simply singed on either side. I suppose you could guess what that would taste like if you have eaten scallops before. Another dish was the French traditional classic coq au vin.

Hopkinson made it with chicken legs bought from a supermarket. He used a whole bottle of red wine, but did not say which. The method was more or less the same as for boeuf bourgingnon: a rich sauce made with the wine and vegetables, pieces of meat floured and fried before adding to the sauce and mushrooms and little onions added later when the whole lot is cooked. I used to make coq au vin when you could by boiling fowl which were old egg-laying birds that were too tough and stringy to roast. I am sure Hopkinson's dish tasted fine but I would never cook chicken like this, without the carcass bones for flavour. There are so many better ways to bring out the flavours of a good chicken. 

It occurred to me that the real oddity of cookery programmes like this is that the chef continually compliments himself on his own creations. He pronounces everything he cooks as "deliciious" and we have to take his word for it. What other art form allows the creator to make such unverifiable judgements on their own work? It really is ridiculous. Imagine a pianist, say, at the end of a concert saying to the audience: " That was brilliant!". A musical programme equivalent to the tasteless, odourless cookery programme would be silent. On the screen you would have the pianist grinning and hitting the keys mutely with perhaps the score running along the bottom of frame. At the finish the performer could grin and give a big thumbs up.