10 NOVEMBER 1990, Page 31


The writers are off

Christopher Driver

AS FOOD is perishable, so are its com- mentators. There is a gaseous perishability about most present writing in English on food, cooking and eating in newspapers, magazines, television and books. Since in any civilisation food (and drink) not only fuels the body and delights the senses but engages a person's mind and priorities, expressed by time and money, it may b. e worth attempting a little biographical his- tory — putting names to generational trends. With food, like sex, early experi- ences are crucial.

When I started to think about the subject, and the 200-member 'Guild of Food Writers' which six of us launched in 1984, I read some of the English prose about the table written by three living women who grew up in the 1920s: M. F. K. Fisher, Sybille Bedford and Elizabeth David. They have much in common, in- cluding literary friendship and long mannation in European culture (Aldous Huxley, Norman Douglas, etc). They wrote of tables they knew intimately, in m. emoir, novel or cookery book, both before and after the decade of privation (the 1940s). Brief quotation hardly indicates their precise sensitivity to food, and happily Sybille Bedford (Jigsaw and As It Was) as well as Elizabeth David are in print this year. So let us go back 60 years to Mrs Fisher in Dijon, then young, poor, and newly married:

The cauliflowers were small and very succu- lent, grown in that ancient soil. I separated the flowerlets and dropped them in boiling water for just a few minutes. Then I drained them and put them in a wide shallow casserole, and covered them with heavy cream and a thick sprinkling of freshly grated Gruyere the nice rubbery kind that didn't Come from Switzerland at all, but from the

Jura. It was called rape in the market, and was grated while you watched, in a soft cloudy pile, onto your piece of paper.

I put some fresh pepper over the top, and the little tin oven heated the whole thing and melted the cheese and browned it. As soon as that had happened we ate it. The cream and cheese had come together into a perfect sauce, and the little flowerlets were tender and fresh. We cleaned our plates with bits of crisp bread crust and drank the wine, and Al and Lawrence planned to write books about Aristotle and Robinson Jeffers and probably themselves, and I planned a few things, too.

And as I say, once back in California, after so many of those casseroles, I found I could never make one. The vegetable was watery, and there was not cream thick enough or unpasteurised and fresh. The cheese was dry and oily, not soft and light. I could concoct a good dish, still . . . and then where was the crisp bread, where the honest wine?

(I am reminded of an affluent British colleague I knew in Paris who fired her children's mother's help for preparing cauliflower cheese too slowly. No doubt her children will grow up to be restaurant accountants.) Fisher, Bedford and David are survivors of a remarkable generation. From it, I think also of Raymond Postgate, who founded The Good Food Guide and wrote • prose with a broadsword, Sir Jack Drum- mond, the scientist-historian of The En- glishman's Food, and Dorothy Hartley who rescued for posterity so many of our rural crafts centred on food — and water.

Jane Grigson, though much younger, shared the same assumptions: immersed in the past of food and its literature, she also wrote of the cookery where she lived with Geoffrey: Wiltshire and the Loiret.

My own generation grew up in the war period of make-do-and-mend, from child- hood to adolescence. Food was a nagging preoccupation, demanding ingenuity and creating Dickens-like relish, from trouvail- les and scantiness. Thereafter, very gra- dually, universal provision and culinary horizons beckoned with delight. The suc- cess of Elizabeth David (and Patience Gray, now just reprinted by Prospect Books) was not 'innovation' (heaven for- bid!); the point of such people was that they were old enough to conjure up the past for us to build a revival on. We ourselves were not 'food specialists', let alone French chefs (and when we have to suffer the follies of les Roux as professional barkers for their own pretentious taste, we can at least remember that their superiors at communication and food understanding were Marcel Boulestin, an interior decora- tor, and Edouard de Pomiane, a doctor). Our own curiosity fed us. From 1960 to 1980 we pushed and shoved an inert Fortefied mass of catering impertinence and consumer ignorance into food con- sciousness. Jill Norman started the Pen- guin cookery book list. Alan Davidson, the ex-ambassador, made fish into an educated passion and Derek Cooper finally got his own radio food programme against Beebocratic philistinism. When I suc- ceeded Postgate at The Good Food Guide (by then owned by the Consumers' Asso- ciation), doubling its frequency and quad- rupling its ethnic diversity, the credit was


not mine: by then 50,000 readers were backing us with hard cash, enthusiastic correspondence and their buying power countrywide.

Since that period, much has changed, some of it for the better. In the middle of the period (1940-80)) which I described in a book,. I could hardly have envisaged a generation of British-trained chefs out- Pointing Fernand Point, at British addres- ses, or people eating mangoes and mange- touts from suburban shops all the year round and drinking good wine daily, or an over-subscribed annual Oxford academic conference devoted to culinary studies, or the sellers' market for youth in the London food world. (When Marco-Pierre White cooks, Sophie Grigson writes, and a typical couple in a London restaurant eat their skill, so to speak, four people's combined ages may scarcely exceed a hundred.) But that is the peril. Metaphorically, in the writing niche of the food trades, we are back in the smear of margarine on the bread. The constantly enlarging media have to be fuelled, and there is not enough time or talent except to follow fashion (how many interviews have you read or watched with Raymond Blanc in 15 years?) or to recycle the hopeful wheedling of some PR restaurant release from Alan Compton-Batt Associates. The loss of Jeremy Round at 32 was felt the more keenly: he was one of the few of his generation who understood food but had more to say about the world. There is also a more insidious development: the ex- ploitation of rent-a-bite talents, who in a less hectic culture would be reading Flaubert or Arnold Bennett or Anita Brookner and looking at pictures or travelling on the hoof, by entrepreneurs for whom money is the main course and accuracy or incorruptibility is the throw- away.

Even the Consumers' Association is infected, having spent £170,000 on pub- lishing a domestic hotel guide whose .uncri- tical blandness has all the utility of an outdated Egon Ronay; and when their Reader's Digestive marketing machine was told that the 40th anniversary of the GFG fell with the 1991 edition last month, the suggestion was made, 'Let's pretend that it started in 1952 and make something of it next year.'

But CA's publishing has nothing on the recent buyer and operator of the Egon Ronay name, who are now teaching a new generation of young chefs and food writers how to run with both hare and hounds in an atmosphere of mutual back-slapping. For the restaurant-guide title fight this autumn, here is the GFG's Tom Jaine, archivist and ex-restaurateur, in one corner and, in the other, 40-year-old Drew Smith, his immediate predecessor, the current chairman of the Guild of Food Writers. Behind him, holding the towel, is Roy Ackerman, chairman of the Restaurants Association, owner of more food 'interests' than any but Rocco Forte, including Taste magazine which Drew Smith edits.

British and consumerist proprieties have changed, I know — just as we have accustomed ourselves to the spectacle of Cecil Parkinson flogging the family electro- plate to the City. But who edits Drew cru, I wonder? Clearly not his backer, and clear ly not his editor at Sidgwick & Jackson, who has allowed such sentences as these from his forthcoming book Modern Cook- ing [on hollandaise]:

English melted butter sauces were invariably thickened with flour, as part of a wider investment in baking. The French took the cockerel as their national symbol, and eggs were part of the cooking because they were central to a way of life . . . Being so much a part of the community perhaps mitigated against the pig becoming too much of a restaurant or tavern food. Rediscovery fills the first Elizabeth David books . . . an intellectual movement, a migration of thought south, after years of hibernation in the northern cities.

(Mrs David's long residence in Italy, the Aegean, Cairo and India, before, during and after the war, is familiar. Even Jancis Robinson the wine writer, who had so little sensible to say about food civilisation while interviewing her on television last Christ- mas, knew that much. . . .) Meanwhile, Roy Ackerman's PR outfit has introduced Adam Faith, the former singer, and Drew Smith at 'Alfresco Lei- sure Publications PLC' as 'the men who will guide your knife in the Nineties'. I look forward to Drew's deeper delving and Adam's spin-offing with more dread than faith. As for Mr Ackerman's own criticism in his admittedly well photographed maga- zine, it is, well, indulgent. On Oakley Court Hotel, 'Prices on the extensive wine list are softened by the amusing quotes at the bottom of each page.' The views of Sybille Bedford on being invited to drink funny money instead of sound wine would be worth hearing.

Christopher Driver, editor of The Good Food Guide, 1970-82, is the author of The British At Table 1940-80.