Robespierre, the Duke of Westminster and me  (The Oldie, July 2021)

Robespierre, the Duke of Westminster and me (The Oldie, July 2021)

What do Maximilien Robespierre, the late Duke of Westminster and I have in common? Probably not much, I suppose, other than that none of us ever liked fancy food.

Robespierre sent hundreds of French aristocrats to the guillotine while reportedly living on a bowl of gruel a day; while the Duke of Westminster, despite his billions, never wanted much more than an omelette in the evening.

And me? I was a war baby, and a war baby’s tastes were and are mine.  Plain as plain is best. And only a child’s portion, please.

But, if I go out to eat, where will I find anything plain these days? The restaurant world is now flooded with funny foods. There I sit, balefully studying the menu, searching for something I might recognise. Yet whenever my eyes alight upon a dish I might fancy, I find that it comes with some kind of alien sauce.

I hate sauces. Sauces are disguises created by self-aggrandising establishments to hide what they are serving and what we are eating. I like to see, and know, what I’m eating.

What, for instance, is ‘tarnori chocolate with hazelnut voatsiperifery pepper’?   I didn’t know when I encountered it, so I looked up ‘tarnori chocolate’ on Google and learned that it comes from the Dominican Republic.

I expect lots of foodies know that, but my mum never served me tarnori chocolate at teatime. I suppose some foodies might also know that voatsiperifery is a close relative of black pepper, its berries being used in voatsiperifery spice, which comes from voa, the Madagascan word for fruit. Apparently tsiperifery is the local name of the plant.

But I didn’t know that either. And, to be honest, it doesn’t sound much like a dessert of chocolate mousse with a hazelnut on top that I could safely order and eat, because I hate anything peppery – Madagascan or otherwise. If ever I ate anything like that I’m sure I’d need a Gaviscon on the side.

The blessed time was when I could go into a restaurant and ask for meat and two veg and get meat and two veg. Simple and perfect. These days we’ve elevated cooks with big hats into chefs with French names and made them as famous as footballers. They are all superstars now, gastronomic maestros who are forever outdoing each other with their condiments and seasonings until we have no idea what we’re eating.

Even burger bars are at it, with their garnishings of ketchup or brown sauce, mortared together with cheese and onions and God knows what else, when all I want is a plain burger in a bun.

It wouldn’t be so bad if fancy food hadn’t become a status symbol, often to be served in the most humble of homes. There I go, looking forward to a good natter with my old mates, when something that looks unmentionable in polite society appears on a plate in front of me.

What should I do? Insult my dearest friends and thereby ruin everyone’s evening and at the same time risk killing our friendship for ever by simply refusing to eat whatever it is? Maybe I should suddenly groan, rub my tummy, claim a sudden attack of diverticulitis and say, ‘I’m terribly sorry, but I simply can’t eat tonight’? Or, just give in, close my eyes and open my mouth and pray to God that the disgusting thing on my plate doesn’t taste as horrible as it looks.

In truth, I blame foreign holidays and, of course, Fanny Cradock and poor husband, Johnnie, back in the black and white Fifties. She might only have been showing us how to make an omelette, but that hand on her whisk was bewitching. If just a sprinkling of parsley or thyme could completely change the taste of egg and cheese, what could a pinch of cayenne do to a welsh rarebit?

We shouldn’t have asked, because she showed us, and the dyke built on simple meat and potatoes burst. Quickly she and Johnnie, became stars as television found the most basic of ways to mesmerise the nation – food and eating. Nowadays TV cooks are as familiar to us as weather forecasters as ever more varied recipes are concocted on what seems like a nightly basis.

Is any evening on BBC-1 complete without a hold-your-breath, anxious, phoney wait at the end of a knock-out competition to find out which of the contestants has baked the best pie?

It’s that daft, but it’s even developed its own language – The Great British Bake Off which just goes on and on. Bake off sounds Russian, as in bakeov, doesn’t it? But it has millions of fans, some understandably still mooning about the lovely Nadiya, while others are still wondering why Mary Berry left the show and whether Matt and Noel are dating.

Who needs soap operas, or indeed local gossip, when we have bake-offs and celebrity chefs? Some viewers now probably spend more time watching programmes about cooking than actually cooking.

We might have thought that lockdown would have returned us all to the traditional tastes of old fashioned home cooking. But what chance does tradition have when commercial breaks wallow in floods of custard and orgies of eating…none of it more than a phone call away?

Because there they go, night and day, food couriers on motorbikes, zipping past our house with their cargos of curried, vegan, vegetarian, organic, ethically sourced pizzas, pastas and stir-fried everything..

Come on, it’s only and food, we might say, the stuff that every living organism shovels into itself on a daily basis in order to survive. But, in its ever more diversified forms, it’s become a national obsession. And I just don’t get it.

How did food ever get so exalted?  How did eating, healthy or not, become such an obsession with so many? And how do restaurant critics manage to write a thousand words a week without repeating themselves?

Ray Connolly’s latest novel, The Last Interview, is now on sale from Amazon.