Eat, Drink and be Merry!
Tom Sutcliffe on good food and the not so good Good Food Guide
The poet Wystan Auden listed characteristics of his personal Eden in ‘The Dyer’s Hand’ because, he said, critics should come clean about their prejudices. His Eden would have a British climate, and – an amuse gueule this – all public statues would be ‘confined to famous defunct chefs’. No one has yet proposed Gordon Ramsay for Trafalgar Square: he’s not dead yet. But compared with the early Sixties, when Auden was writing, cooks these days in Britain are big game, preserved in their own fat conceit, confit de chef. I would argue they are the native species most like the Italian prima donna of yore.
A national obsession
Twenty-first-century man does not live by bread alone – though breads are an important, even pretentious, item now on many menus. Eating, unavoidable in this life, is of great interest to the public – a major public entertainment. ‘Eat, drink and be merry’ is the national British motto – and the Church is not any longer much good at following up on the words which come next. It is not the sin of gluttony to want to make tasty use of carefully sourced, well-grown materials, though many of us have had to mortify the flesh enough in institutions where food preparation was neither an art nor a craft – more like a foretaste of purgatory. But the national obsession with eating drinking and laughing is, we should admit, in one of its periods of excess.
I still have the first Good Food Guide I bought, when I graduated from Oxford, edited and compiled by Raymond Postgate, father of Oliver Postgate, creator of that delightful infants’ programme Bagpuss. I cannot say I had either the leisure or the money to try out many of the eating places listed, though it still amazes me that I could afford an occasional bottle of Yquem in 1969/70 but never since. I sold my Aussie neighbours’ Putney flat for them in 1971 and was rewarded with two bottles of 1966 La Mission Haut Brion (which would now cost £328 each). A memorable educative experience at Oxford was eating at the Restaurant Elizabeth in St Aldate’s and noticing George Malcolm at another table enjoying his food but not drinking any wine (he was a reformed alcoholic). ‘Restaurants in Oxford rise and fall like South American dictators,’ the GFG proclaimed, drums rolling, but the infrequent absences of Kenneth Bell who owned the place and cooked could be ‘very clamantly noticeable’. I had my first gazpacho there.
My mother made both her sons learn how to cook, sew and knit – as our dad was in the Royal Navy where sailors saw nothing as ‘women’s work’ in their totally masculine world. Once living and working in London, I tackled dishes like soufflé de poisson au sauce mousseline, and boeuf à la mode, the latter requiring a larding pin I still possess and have rarely used – my wife the better cook as well as half. Later through the Listener and then at the Guardian I worked with and got to know Christopher Driver (a URC man) who succeeded Postgate with missionary zeal and edited the GFG brilliantly for 13 years, never mincing criticisms. Christopher wrote blithely, memorably about food and drink and got the job through a link with the Consumers’ Association.
With a restaurant’s name you can find plenty of comments on the web. Tripadvisor and Toptable are two sites that seemauthentic – the writing obviously by real people. But similar public response sites used with caution are very helpful as with hotels too (Booking.com for instance). I am sad to be rude about the new GFG. It is hideously designed, and often not well written, and it makes too much fuss about lists of the best and prizes (a besetting vice of the times), while generally avoiding any comment whether the wine is ‘good value’. Take Ondine, ‘readers’ restaurant of the year in Scotland’. We learn ‘Its telling mix of suave vibes, classy service and informality extends to the cooking which promises sophistication as well as fish and chips.’ This is feel-good writing at length, and a waste of space compared with what Driver or Postgate would have published.
The current consultant editor Elizabeth Carter, in an interview on the web with Simon Carter, rhapsodises alarmingly about how this is her dream job. Worst of all, the GFG is no longer straightforwardly alphabetical in terms of place. In 1963 and indeed in 2006 you could easily locate what you were seeking by turning the pages to the town you wanted. Now it is all impenetrably complicated. London comes first and dominates with six different sections, in each one there being a muddle between places recommended by the guide and the possibles and hopefuls ‘also recommended’ by readers. The guide uses a team of inspectors to check out readers’ responses. Away from London the entries are grouped by country of the UK and then by county, where finally they are sorted alphabetically into towns. This is frustrating and inconvenient. Also the £5 vouchers you get in the back of the book when you buy it, usable only at a few places, are a joke considering so many GFG listings are now £50 or more a head. The value of the vouchers has remained the same for decades.