The Restaurant on BBC2 promised to plumb further depths of the stupidity of the deluded members of the British middle-class who convince themselves that running a restaurant is some sort of decadent leisure activity for the indolent celebrity class rather than be a very hard way of making a living. (Beware: spoiler alert below).
There was some shocking ineptness from the start when the contestants were asked to cook a ‘signature’ dish — some of them tried something they’d never even attempted before. They knew that their dish would be served to Raymond Blanc (with his two Michelin stars), although they might not have been aware that he’d be wandering round the kitchen looking at the packaging on their food. Even so, it was staggering that three of the couples went shopping for their food in Asda (‘voted Britain’s cheapest supermarket). Now Asda can do a few foodie things that even M&S and Waitrose don’t do (chopped up organic carrot batons for one) but its customer base cannot be said to be the most discerning smoked salmon connoisseurs. (I’m not being a food snob. I go there myself sometimes where it’s fine for basic things but a smoked salmon specialist it’s definitely not.). It was no surprise that they failed to find gravadlax there — this is probably only reliably found at Christmas in places like M&S, though Waitrose has plenty of types of smoked salmon and may do it all year round. The thought of going to a specialist smoked fish supplier probably never crossed their minds. Even so, this pair did nothing with their plain Asda smoked salmon except put it on a plate with a load of chopped up beetroot or something and a few crusts of bread. They then stood around looking pleased with themselves while the other contestants busted a gut to finish their dishes in an hour. Even so, they survived until next week.
One of the most intriguing things about this reality show is the mismatched abilities of the couples. One has to deal with front of house while the other is the chef. Often one of the two is reasonably competent with the other being completely useless and a persistent cause of failure — this leads to fascinating strains in the partnership, particularly when the two are related. There was a team of dominating mother and henpecked son. She was a decent cook but lost out because her son told the lovely Sarah (who has one of the most comically expressive faces on television) that it was impossible to describe his mother’s restaurant concept — completely clueless.
The most amazing part of the show came when another parent-child couple tried to open a coconut — which they eventually manage to bludgeon into a pulp — and then were stumped by a tin of evaporated milk. The daughter of the couple didn’t look so young she’d never have encountered old style tins (without the handy ring on the top) but she seemed to have no concept of what a tin opener was. Perhaps using a tin opener will need to be taught and assessed in schools (maybe it’s on the A-level syllabus for domestic science, which explains youngsters’ ignorance) or perhaps the sharp edges to the tins break health and safety regulations? However, what health and safety types wilfully fail to
recognise is the incredibly dangerous methods people dream up to achieve their objectives left to their own devices. In the case of the can of condensed milk, the opening method attempted was to hold a butcher’s cleaver vertically against the can lid (its point downwards) and to then hammer the knife handle with a rolling pin. The film crew must have been waiting hopefully for an accidental disembowelment if the extra sharp Raymond Blanc knife slipped into the woman’s stomach when she attempted to smash down on the knife to gain access to the tin. Fortunately, Raymond spotted her in time and showed her a helpful gadget that has no doubt saved many lives in similar circumstances in about 150 years of canned food — a tin opener. It would have been fascinating to see the education in other kitchen utensils that this couple may have gained in later episodes — oven gloves, corkscrews, bottle openers, perhaps — but Raymond sadly sent them home for their own safety.
It makes quite a serious point about health and safety as almost everyone has enough in their kitchen to do horrendous damage to both themselves and others — sharp knives, roasting hot ovens, boiling water, naked flames. Yet many people happily cook complex meals involving these and many other dangers while lubricating themselves with alcohol at well over the legal drink drive limit. Watch out for the government to go into cahoots with ready meal makers and supermarkets and bring in the kitchen breathalyser built into appliances which will lock all drawers and turn off all appliances except the microwave (to be used for M&S ready meals) if a cook is found to be over the limit.
The Financial Services Authority has come up with a novel idea — banks should make sure that people who take out loans and mortgages should be able to pay them back! We have to hope that sanity breaks out and these proposals are rejected as it would mean turning off the principal means of growth in the economy for the past several years — people being able to borrow money they can’t pay back all based on an unsustainable inflationary rise in house prices that is purely speculative.
Some idiot estate agent type was on the radio bemoaning the FSA’s extinguishing the green shoots in the housing market by these proposals as he’d been cautiously optimistic that things were returning to normal. Doesn’t he realise that ‘normal’ got us (or, more precisely, people who haven’t received massive bonuses underwritten by Gordon Brown this year) into this mess in the first place.
Why is it that every idiot journalist who presents a radio or TV story on house prices starts from the presumption that rising house prices are an indisputably good thing? Don’t they realise that people buy as well as sell houses and that, strangely enough, people who sell their houses tend to need to buy another to move into. Rapidly rising prices make things more expensive in absolute terms for anyone who isn’t downsizing into a smaller property — as well as destroying the market as a whole by barring new entrants. The only people who gain unreservedly are people who stand to inherit some massive house in an expensive area — and who can’t wait for the occupants to die. Funnily enough, this sounds like the sort of demographic group (ageing spoiled rich brats) who tend to write these ‘good news, house price inflation is rampant’ stories in the media so maybe they’re acting in their best interests after all?
Frank Lampard lambasted former FA chief Adam Crozier recently for uttering a completely fatuous and premature soundbite about England’s supposed ‘golden generation’ when he made the disastrous appointment of Sven Goran Eriksson as England manager. Whereas Sven has now moved to the heights of Director of Football at Notts County, Crozier has found another national institution to wreck. As Lampard says of Crozier ‘Look what happened to him’. Typical of our political culture where competence is thought far inferior to spin and appearances, Crozier is chief executive of the Royal Mail — whose appalling industrial relations seem to have nosedived further after he took charge. Not that you’d know he’s in charge as, like his ultimate boss, Gordon Brown he’s suddenly turned invisible when the going has got tough and sends his minions like an operations director out to face the media.
Today I drove through Southcourt in Aylesbury: a large, 1930s-60s housing estate which was originally almost all council housing. Such estates used to be bastions of working-class ale drinking but the smoking ban and the credit crunch have finished off two of the three pubs and the closest pub in the direction of the two centre is also shut. A pub that tried valiantly to keep going in the face of cheap supermarket beer and home-based entertainment like videos and Sky TV was the Steeplechase, which did some decent real ale at times. It has been boarded up for a year now and is a sad sight.
However, on the bright side, a report partly supported by CAMRA and publicised on the BBC website reported that cask ale was the only type of beer now with growing sales and partly because twice as many women enjoyed drinking it in the past couple of years. There was also a very interesting report on the Radio Four Food Programme about hops and their use in real ale — which gave an opportunity for Roger Protz to yet again claim that beer is far more interesting than wine. The brewer at Brewdog commented on his Punk IPA, which the female presenter found very tasty. (I love this beer and its weaker sister — Trashy Blonde — Brewdog are so non-pc they even make an 18% beer.) The programme noted that the trend towards using more (and more assertive) hops started by US craft breweries and is now being adopted by ale brewers here. Such beers have to either have a high alcohol content to balance the bitterness or need to be drunk in much smaller quantities (such as thirds of pints) to be palatable.
The two themes above suggest that there’s a trend for both beer and pubs to lose their long-time association with the working man and instead to become the preserve of the middle-classes. A valid criticism of CAMRA is that while it has spectacularly succeeded in preserving real ale and increased the variety available, it has done so mainly for the benefit of a minority of beer snobs and tickers. Real ale is not the drink of the working man any more — that accolade was lost to lager a long time ago — the fact that real ale quality is dire in a large number of workaday, non-CAMRA-Good-Beer-Guide pubs might have a lot to do with this. However, it seems that these sort of workaday, average, unremarkable pubs are the ones that are suffering most at the moment and, as the cask report says, it’s the affluent real ale drinkers who are able to afford £3 a pint in the pub and don’t go for the £10 24 can Stella pack at Tesco as an alternative.
So perhaps the saviours of the English pub as we know it are the middle-classes, much as that might be an anathema to some of the more revolutionary founders of the real ale movement. The middle-class seem to have saved real ale and pubcos should perhaps target these high-spending, but demanding customers more. Another factor in the pub’s favour is brought to mind by having forty-something politicians paraded at the party conferences over the past couple of weeks: it seems the annoying, social-skills free nerds that inhabited student politics in the 80s are now making their bids to be the annoying, power-crazed nerds that run the country. But if that’s reflected in other walks of life there may be a silver lining in that the middle-class, especially Generation X who are entering middle-age, have very fond memories of the pub from their student days (mostly rose-tinted in terms of the amount they drank and time the spent there). Yet this almost sentimental attachment to the pub as a hub of student life might yet save the great British institution. The middle-classes might not be propping the bars up swilling ten pints of mild a night but they might be pretty solid campaigners to ensure that pubs are still there for people that do.
To illustrate the point there are a number of examples of local pubs being saved from closure by being bought by (presumably relatively wealthy) members of the local community and re-opened and run on a community basis. The Unicorn at Cublington and Crown at Sydenham, Oxon are good examples. I went tonight to a pub, the King William IV at Speen, that’s not owned by the community but run in a way that is designed to be community minded — to the extent of having a small room of a perfect sized for committee meetings. It also has an ice-cream parlour selling locally sourced ice-cream. A group of local charity volunteers were also enjoying the evening in the pub. These pubs aren’t, of course, exclusively full of middle-class people but they’ve benefited from the sort of activism that the middle-classes (and, dare I say it, CAMRA) have shown to be very successful.