A Serious Table

Christopher Driver

  • Simple French Food by Richard Olney
    Jill Norman and Hobhouse, 339 pp, £7.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 906908 22 1
  • Living off nature by Judy Urquhart
    Penguin, 396 pp, £5.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 14 005107 4
  • The Food and Cooking of Russia by Lesley Chamberlain
    Allen Lane, 330 pp, £9.95, June 1982, ISBN 0 7139 1468 8
  • Food, Wine and Friends by Robert Carrier
    Sphere, 197 pp, £6.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 7221 2295 0
  • The Colour Book of Fast Food edited by Alison Kerr
    Octopus, 77 pp, £1.99, June 1981, ISBN 0 7064 1510 8

Drake postponed sailing against the Spanish Armada till his game of bowls was over, Nero preferred his lyre to ARP duty, Belshazzar’s feast was rudely interrupted. In that appealing branch of mythology which counterpoints the trivial with the catastrophic, the cooks on HMS Sheffield deserve a place, killed while preparing lunch. Few men seem as innocent and apolitical as a chef who is preoccupied with his craft – though an exception might have to be made for the trusty employed by the Borgias. Frenchmen, perhaps, are too realistic, or live too closely to their chefs, to subscribe to this view: it was a Frenchman who reminded the world that an army marches upon its stomach, and another Frenchman who proved it for the English. As Punch wrote after Alexis Soyer’s self-imposed slavery in the Crimea on behalf of his adopted country:

The Cordon Bleu to the War is gone,
    In the ranks of death you’ll find him.
His snow-white apron is girded on
    And his magic stove behind him.
‘Army beef,’ says the Cordon Bleu,
    ‘Though a stupid bungler slays thee,
One skilful hand thy steaks shall stew,
    One artist’s pan shall braise thee.’

(That field stove, incidentally, remained standard British Army equipment for a century.) Soyer confronted, and by a force of personality equal to Florence Nightingale’s temporarily quelled, traditional British scorn of the most necessary of all crafts. The scorn, tinged with envy, is nowhere better caught than in Kipling’s boys’ story ‘His Gift’, where the useless youth whose middle name is Glasse discovers his métier by the camp fire and is assured by his mentor that ‘a good cook, even on Board of Trade allowance, has brought many a ship to port that ‘ud otherwise ’ave mut’nied on the’igh seas.’

For a hundred and fifty years, ever since the best jobs in London kitchens began going to Frenchmen and later Italians, the British branch of the culinary trade has suffered from a strong sense of its own unimportance. Twenty miles across the Channel, the hand that dipped the ladle might be allowed to rule the world. But not here, and if there has been a more dispiriting task than cooking for the ordinary run of British prime ministers, it must have been cooking for the British royal family (excepting the joyous interlude of Edward VII). All that would now change, no doubt, if William Rodgers and Prince Charles simultaneously arrived at supreme power: the one wrote for, the other confessedly followed, The Good Food Guide. Even gossip fragments like these are clues to the altered sensibility that has put cooks in front of the cameras almost as often as crooks and cricketers, and that counts the world well lost for a smooth liaison: une mousse vaut bien les Malouines. The post-colonial temper of Britain over the past generation or two was not the least significant of the forces that propelled the dames and even the commanders of the Empire out of their reception rooms and into their kitchens. Their lives needed a new focus: they relaxed as though with the relieved expulsion of breath that in a family follows the departure of a particularly tiresome and exacting house guest. Elizabeth David herself – a veteran by marriage of wartime Cairo and pre-Independence Delhi – advised her readers thirty years ago: ‘Devote all the time and resources at your disposal to the building up of a fine kitchen. It will be, as it should be, the most comforting and comfortable room in the house.’

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