In a world of food that’s ruled by the chilli and the tomato, AA Gill sees changes in the way we eat as being governed by our search for security.
Coincidentally, attending a white-tie event the previous night had given AA Gill cause to reflect on the changing nature of the dining experience. The menu had been designed to recreate the sort of grand dinner served in France a century ago.
‘It was very well done, and it was funny seeing what had gone and what had lasted,’ says Gill. ‘At the turn of the 19th century, this stuff would have been incredibly modern.’
The Belle Epoque saw one of the great shifts in food, the invention of haute cuisine, when professional chefs such as Escoffier and Careme created the creamy, butter-rich dishes we now associate with France.
‘What they thought they were doing was simplifying food. One of the dishes we were served was Tournedos Rossini, which you still see on a lot of menus because it’s steak, and huge amounts of fois are now made in France.
‘But then there was a marmite, a clear consomm’ with a little mirapois of vegetables. You would never see that on a menu now, nor the mousse of lobster made in a timbale. The nougat ice cream would have seemed terribly modern, because the idea of being able to manufacture ice cream in such quantities was quite a new thing. Now we consume millions of gallons a year.
‘I thought, would I like to eat like this every day and do I miss this style of dining, and I really don’t. People at the table were saying: ‘Is there no end to this meal’ Seven courses ‘ I can’t bear it.’ Yet during the Belle Epoque, serving courses ‘ la Russe was incredibly new and the height of sophistication. Before that everything would have been laid out at once, and you ate from this huge, very elaborate sideboard of food.’
Belle non plus
The style of eating Gill notes today is the antithesis of the Belle Epoque banquet ‘ the dismantling of courses. ‘Young people in particular want to eat in an unstructured fashion. They want to eat breakfast all day, to mix sweet and savoury, something with syrup on it, then maybe chicken, and enormous varieties of sandwich.
‘A generation of Americans has grown up rarely using a knife and fork. A lot of US food is made specifically to eat with your fingers. You could say that’s very original, hunter-gatherer grazing, not having to take great wodges of food on board at three set times of day.
‘Children, mine included, want to sit in caf’s and eat both healthily and unhealthily ‘ they’ll have chips, and salad, and a cake, and a coffee that’s more of a milkshake or a glass of wine. It’s the non-meal meal.’
Neither seven-course blow-outs nor teenage grazing is necessarily a healthy option. ‘Half the world doesn’t have enough food, and what it has is adulterated, poisonous and intermittent in supply,’ says Gill. ‘The other half is eating itself to death.
‘Food is a metaphor for the big questions in our lives,’ he continues. ‘We eat on our feelings, and in the West we’re eating morbidly and getting hugely fatter because we have a vast range of insecurities and worries about what’s going to happen to the world and to our children, from global warming through bird flu to international terrorism.’
Overeating and lack of exercise then become part of the problem. ‘We now have a very unhealthy relationship with food, not in the sense of eating too much processed food and sugar and refined fat, but because we don’t really know food’s proper value.’ The tendency to see food essentially as medicine is not one he welcomes.
‘The pleasure is being leached out as food becomes all about guilt and dosing yourself. It’s about preventing or curing yourself of cancer or lumbago or bad eyesight.’
Whether we’re gorging to comfort or dosing to cure, what food increasingly is not about in the West is the shared experience. ‘I’m very non-prescriptive about how I eat, but I do like old-fashioned conviviality and hospitality. I like having lots of people around the table and spending a lot of time there.
‘Nowadays we tend to eat solitarily, or in pairs, in silence. We eat very processed food and we eat it very fast.
‘One of the qualities of comfort eating is that you don’t savour your food ‘ you eat for texture. People eating on their feelings tend to wolf their food, because what’s comforting is that sense of your mouth being full, of swallowing, of having this stuff inside you, and it’s often stuff that’s sweet and unctuous and fat.’
Counting the coat
‘Coatability’ is a quality prized by food manufacturers. ‘It’s one of the earliest sensations of life ‘ the coating of the mouth with fat ‘ because that’s what breastmilk does,’ says Gill. ‘These trends are very depressing. Equally depressing is the alternative ‘ the waves of oppressive and varyingly disgusting diets that follow on behind as a sort of collective purgative to eating for comfort.’
Before you get too depressed and have4 to break off reading for a peanut-butter sandwich, let’s look for signs of encouragement.
One glimmer AA Gill sees in the struggle between comfort eating and health consciousness is the beginning of the end of the ‘infantile multinational chain restaurants’ ‘ the hamburger and fried-chicken outlets.
‘Their profits are down and they’re having to sell food that at least has the appearance of being healthier and less childish,’ he says. ‘It might be stretching it to call the new flavours sophisticated, but they’re less banal. There’s a definite reaction against the Big Mac world, so that’s a very good thing.’
He is also pleased to note the demise of ‘fusion’ food. ‘In Australia, they don’t talk about fusion or Pacific Rim food any more because in a sense, gastronomically, it’s very politically incorrect. It’s like colonising somebody else’s food, overlaying it with your own.
‘And it didn’t really make sense. If you eat curry in Birmingham, you’re eating Birmingham food, not food from India. In Australia they now talk about Modern Asian food. They have some incredibly good new Chinese and Thai restaurants that are cooking very robust, really delicious food. So that fad for joining hands across the world and ending up with one pungent, spicy all-in-one United Nations of food was nonsense.
‘The two cuisines that have made enormous inroads around the world are Asian and Italian. The mixture of chilli and tomatoes, both originally from America, of course, are available everywhere. I doubt if there’s a city in the world where you can’t get pizza or some approximation of spaghetti Neapolitan.
‘Yet there’s no such thing as ‘Italian food’ in Italy. It is still the most culturally fragmented European country, and it’s a great joy that eating food in Sicily is nothing like eating food in Milan, which would not be true of eating in Southampton and Birmingham.
‘I’ve never come across a people as finicky and fanatically partisan about what they eat as the Italians. That’s one of the things that has kept Italian food as good as it is in Italy and has passed it around the world.
Italians have no doubt that it is far and away the greatest food on Earth.’
So what’s next in international dining’ ‘I’m the worst person to pick out up-and-coming cuisines. For years I’ve been saying that South African food is the next big thing. It never is.’
And what of ingredients ‘ should organics give us cause to celebrate’ ‘As a global trend, I think the organic movement is not as pernicious as American style coffee shops, but it’s close. It’s now pretty much entirely a marketing ploy to add value to food.
‘I’m all for farmers adding value, because they’ve had a rough deal from supermarkets, but now that we have cheap and plentiful food ‘ maybe too cheap and maybe too plentiful ‘ we’ve divided it into two tiers: tower-block food and nice, Georgian house food.
‘Gastronomically and medically there’s precious little difference. It’s probably a good thing that pigs aren’t kept in very close farrowing pens any more, but that doesn’t necessarily make them organic pigs; just well looked-after pigs.
‘The organic movement is boil-in the-bag politics. What we should have, and what we’re getting, is much better labelling. You can walk into caf’s in motorway services or airports, look at a pie or a sandwich and it’s like refugee food ‘ you have no idea what language it originally spoke. We should know much more about what’s in our food and where it came from.’
Gill would like to see the effort that goes into organics being diverted to promote variety in produce. ‘I would rather people sold identifiable breeds of chicken, bred for different things ‘ a Scots Dumpy rather than an E57.
‘With the internationalisation of food comes a shrinking variety of flavours, textures and tastes.
Everything has to be grown fast and for shelf life. We eat an unbelievably tiny percentage of flora and fauna available in the world, something like 0.0006 per cent of it.
The same varieties of corn, tomatoes, wheat and potatoes are now grown everywhere.’
Don’t even get AA Gill started on the decline of the world’s fish stocks, which he sees as the most insoluble threat to the way our children will eat ‘ we’re running out of space. Let’s end instead with one international dining trend for which he reserves a little place in hell, the concep restaurant.
‘The concept always involves mucking about with the way food comes, usually in a way that suits the kitchen,’ says Gill. ‘I go into a place I’m reviewing, and the first thing a waiter will say is: ‘Have you eaten with us before” Then he’ll say: ‘Let me explain our concept.’
‘And I want to say: ‘No no, let me explain my concept ‘ you bring me food, I pay you, then you give me my coat back.”