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Jonathan Day

Sophie Grigson demonstrates...

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We returned from France on Saturday, sad to have gone from blue skies to cold, dark and rain. I was cheered to see Vanessa’s notice of the Food Lovers’ Fair in Covent Garden and went there on Sunday afternoon.

It was one of those beautiful London afternoons, sunny and clear. Covent Garden was abuzz with mimes and Chinese musicians. The Food Lovers’ Fair was in full swing. I wished that I had brought the children.

As I arrived at the demonstration theatre, Henrietta Green was introducing the next ‘chef’ to demonstrate: Sophie Grigson. I have always had a soft spot for Sophie Grigson, first because she has followed in the footsteps of her marvellous mother, Jane, and second because I had long enjoyed the simplicity and variety of her newspaper columns, later collected in Sophie’s Table.

Sadly, the demonstration proved that you can be an interesting writer and a warm public personality, yet not be a very good improvisational cook. Sophie swung onto the stage, full of energy, trying to warm up the crowd with jokes and questions. “I don’t really know what I am doing here,” she said – and I had taken this ironically, only to realise that it was true. She had searched the market for interesting, seasonal ingredients and was improvising a meal based on these. A wonderful idea, if only it hadn’t failed in the execution. Sophie Grigson’s skills with the knife and the pan were lacking from the start; it took forever to get things cut up, and she was afraid to shift ingredients in the pan with anything other than a fish-slice (rubber spatula) – she was certainly not about to grab the handle and give it a good shake. Professional skills can be optional if the cook’s ideas are good. But, for the most part, these weren’t.

The first dish was a sort of warm salad of scallops, wild boar pancetta, garlic, red peppers, Moroccan harissa, Moroccan preserved lemons and lettuces. The pancetta and garlic were fried in olive oil, then the peppers added, then the harissa, then the whole thing was doused in vinegar. “Oh,” said Sophie, “too much vinegar.” But the contents of the pan were “tipped” onto the leaves, with slices of preserved lemon, and the scallops placed on top. Because it was so vinegary, she poured more oil on top. It looked (and smelled) a ghastly mess.

Then another scallop dish: “surf and turf”. This time she fried red onions in olive oil. In went more vinegar, then a big sprinkling of Demerara sugar to caramelise the onions. Venison sausages were extracted from their skins, shaped into patties about the diameter of a 50p piece, and fried. Scallops were fried. Sophie then called to Henrietta, who was waiting backstage: “Do you have a lovely sort of sauce back there, a kind of wonderful tomato chutney, that sort of thing?” Henrietta quickly emerged with a jar labelled “Thai Jelly”. “That looks just right”, said Sophie, who was busily slicing focaccia into small squares.

“Surf and turf”, as finally assembled, consisted of a square of focaccia, a “tangle” of those sweet-and-sour onions, a sausage patty (which looked, by then, to have been thoroughly burnt), a dash of “Thai Jelly”, a scallop, and half of a cherry tomato. “Oh dear,” said Sophie, “now we can’t fit the top piece of bread on. Oh well, we’ll just leave it like that.” Quite.

The final dish was the one that looked best, and it was the one that wasn’t improvised. Apples (Jonagolds, said Sophie) were cored but not peeled and divided into segments. These were fried in oil and butter, Demerara sugar was added, and then a splash of apple brandy poured in and set aflame. (She should have warned people, by the way, never to pour spirits straight from a bottle into a hot pan.) “Don’t you just love flambéeing?” trilled Sophie, “it’s so dramatic!” Finally, a large portion of cream was poured into the pan and cooked a bit more. Sophie chose a dish to serve the apples in: “How about this one? It has a big squid on it.” She couldn’t figure out why her sauce (“a lovely brandy butterscotch sort of thing”) wasn’t coming along with the apples, then realised that she was using a spoon with holes in it. Finally a lump of vanilla ice cream was put onto the dish.

I suspect that the problem – apart from a simple lack of technical skill – was that Sophie was improvising. Had she been able to work through the dishes in her kitchen, she would have seen that, essentially, the same sweet-acrid-sour flavours were appearing in all three dishes, and that the first two, especially, were combinations that didn’t blend. Hodge-podges. I think this explains how she can be a very effective writer, despite having delivered a poor demonstration.

After the demonstration I wandered the market. It wasn’t bad, but it was heavily biased toward prepared foods. The “fresh, local, seasonal ingredients” that Henrietta and Sophie had praised were scarce. But there were numerous stalls selling sugared, spiced and vinegared preparations: preserves, chutneys, bottled sauces, relishes. So perhaps the first two dishes that Sophie had prepared were not so bad, just reflective of the national love of this sort of sweet-sour taste.

Still and all, it was good to see so many people there, following the demonstration with interest. A French family standing behind me watched the apple preparation carefully, interspersing comments (“You could use Calvados there”, etc.). Men, women and children were milling around the market, tasting and commenting. Even a brief downpour didn’t really spoil the mood: the clouds departed as quickly as they had gathered, and the fun went on. Henrietta Green deserves praise for this venture.

I hasten to add that all of the above judgements are personal and subjective and are not evaluative of the relative merits of different national cuisines. No Plotnickiism here.


Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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I think you struck the nail on the head! Too many prepared foods, (how many chutney stalls do we need) and not enough fresh produce, I really don't see what the fuss is about with this fair, apart from the demonstrations, Borough market has far more to offer.

Sucker that I am, I come along every year, only to be disappointed.


"Why would we want Children? What do they know about food?"

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As I put on the other thread, it was a bit "blah" there were a couple of interesting stalls but nothing to really excite

What also was surprising was, even though it was early in the morning and they were not busy, how disinterested in talking about their produce they were. The guy I bought the Swaledale cheese from might as well have looked as if I was offering him poison on a bap for all the good will he gave out.

S

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how many chutney stalls do we need

At one point I had though that the doctrinal aspects of the Church of England had been replaced by home-baking. Now I am sure this has been passed over in favour of chutney preparation.

These are, for the most part, nothing other than HP sauce in Laura Ashley lingerie. There is a small place for these jars of terror but they hold a totally disproportionate hold over a part of the english culinary psyche.


Wilma squawks no more

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Borough is a life-affirming experience. I always come away feeling better in myself. Not the case for the Covent Garden thing, although I have enjoyed it in the past. Something just didn't feel right. There are many reasons as to why this could be, all probably not unconnected with Henrietta Green.

v

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These [chutneys] are, for the most part, nothing other than HP sauce in Laura Ashley lingerie. There is a small place for these jars of terror but they hold a totally disproportionate hold over a part of the english culinary psyche.

In several years of attending Good Food shows and the like, my wife and I have somehow managed to accumulate an astonishing number of jars of chutneys, pickles, rubs, spices and the like. Friends who know that we like to cook send us ‘gourmet’ products – flavoured vinegars, mustards of all descriptions, spice rubs, pepper mixtures, argan oil, you name it. (I forgot to recount that, late in the game, Sophie discovered a little bottle of argan oil which she had intended to pour onto her scallop-pancetta-harissa-preserved lemon-garlic salad, but it had escaped her attention, hence the salad.)

Most of these flavouring ingredients go on the shelf, with full intention of using them on chicken, or fish, or whatever. Most of them stay on the shelf. Then, about once a year, we have a clean-out, and toss away several bags of stuff.

The reality is that you can do an enormous amount with very few pre-mixed seasonings. Sugar, salt, lemon, garlic and pepper would be high on my list; then the variations: a few different vinegars (red, white, balsamic, but not herb flavoured), shallots in addition to garlic, ginger, shoyu. A few dried mushrooms. Mustard. What almost never gets used are compounds: honey mustard, garlic vinegar, chilli-flavoured olive oil.

Yet the ‘jars of terror’ have a strong attraction. And I’m sure that (until we downshift and move to a kitchen with one shelf and no room for anything but the essentials) we will continue to accumulate them and throw them away.


Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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Too many prepared foods, too many useless variations on the same preparations? You all sound like culinary Luddites. I have before my eyes a little review, or more properly--promo fluff, (in French unfortunately and thus my account of this account will be unreliable) of Le Salon International de l'Alimentation that took place in or near Paris last month.

Product number one is packaged purée de pommes de terre aux truffes from Fauchon. You just know this has to be gourmet in spades. It is listed in the Plaisir-sophistication paragraph.

Another amusing "local" product is Breizh Cola a bottled cola from Brittany (Breizh is breton for Brittany). In all seriousness this is listed as Terroir-tradition. Finally, I'll have an native alternative to cidre on my next visit to Brittany.

In the Sécurité column we have viandes label Rouge, or some pur boeuf as if the agribusiness industry hasn't always fed us pure bull.

May I also note for your health there is margarine with fiber. Oddly no one has ever made the obvious claim that ice creams loaded with guar gum stabilizer so they never freeze rock hard or melt in your mouth, could be touted as high fiber foods.

I suppose this belongs in the France or Media board, but it seemed so appropriate to JD's thread.


Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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I was there on Saturday. There were several bakers, a number of butchers stalls selling fresh beef, lamb, pork, game and sausgaes, several cheese stalls, a chocolate stall, a couple selling turkeys for Christmas along with all the prepared goods already mentioned.

It was raining and I stayed for a minute or so to watch Jeremy Lee, but he had lost his voice and Henrietta was doing the talking for him and it was all a bit odd so I left. I came back a little later to see Henry Harris only to find hed been replaced by someone from Rascasse of Mayfair, so we headed home.

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I was there on Saturday. There were several bakers, a number of butchers stalls selling fresh beef, lamb, pork, game and sausgaes, several cheese stalls, a chocolate stall, a couple selling turkeys for Christmas along with all the prepared goods already mentioned.

Did you try the turkey Andy? I did and came away thinking that it was probably the best it was ever going to get and it was still a pointless food! :biggrin:


"Why would we want Children? What do they know about food?"

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I went on Sunday.

I thought the Villandry bakery stall was excellent. Their carrot cake is the best.

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