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Tale of Two Meals
January/February 2010

Recently, I was lucky enough to spend a week in Avignon. The hotel was excellent, the weather cold but clear and dry with an invigorating mistral, and the opportunities for cultural improvement as always tempting and prolific. But in respect of one of the pleasures of the trip to which I had been looking forward with some keenness, I came away with mixed and puzzled feelings. The food had been less good than I had hoped.

What had gone wrong? It is best captured by contrasting two meals. The first was a cheap lunch eaten outside at a modest restaurant directly opposite the Palais des Papes. It cost €25 for three courses. The main course was wonderful: braised pig cheek served on a bed of wet polenta. That cheap cut had been apotheosised in the kitchen, transformed into something full of flavour, and tender while still holding its shape. The comparative blandness of the polenta (perfectly cooked) offset the richness of the meat, and testified to the Northern Italian influence on Provençal cooking. It was impossible to imagine anything better of its kind. As I looked around me, every one was eating it, and every plate went back to the kitchen almost licked clean.

The second was an elaborate dinner at a restaurant with Michelin ambitions. It cost €70, and it was badly conceived. We were given a series of elaborate, small dishes, all of which seemed somehow to be a prelude to a main event which never arrived. The experience was like that of moving through a series of antechambers and then suddenly finding yourself back on the street holding a cup of coffee. The defining moment came when we were served what looked like a large triangular wafer in a cocktail glass. What could it be, we thought as it approached. It was a slice of cheese. Our French friends questioned the waiter.  Why was the cheese being served like that and why was there no bread with it? The waiter was indignant. It was important to encourage the chef's creativity, and unsympathetic comments such as ours would only wound him.

To which the right reply is, no, it's not important to encourage the chef's creativity, if encouragement leads him to confuse putting slices of cheese in Martini glasses with being creative. I had hoped that France might have resisted one of the absurdities of contemporary England, namely the elevation of the chef to the status of an auteur. I had thought that the long traditions of that country would have prevented the modern English style of cooking, in which unconventional presentation and perverse combinations of ingredients substitute for deep understanding, from taking root. But I was wrong. 

As we left, our friends ruefully remarked that such experiences were becoming more common. Gastronomic illiteracy was as often to be found labouring mistakenly at the stoves of fashionable restaurants as in the fast-food outlets of the banlieue

We have managed, it seems, to infect France with a modern English malady: that of conferring the wrong kind of importance on food, and on those who produce it.

 
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