Food for Thought
by Simone Sekers
FASHIONS in food change as fast as those in clothes, at least in this country they do. We were discussing two new cheeses only the other day. Friends visiting from Cheltenham had been to their local farmers' market first, knowing our all-consuming appetite for local flavours. In food terms Cheltenham might be a million miles from Somerset, so varied was the bag of goodies they brought. We particularly liked the powerful Harefield cheese, a rare treat usually only available to farmers' market customers in the area. It's a traditional Single Gloucester, matured for more than a year to a rich flavour, subtle but powerful. It is likened to a parmesan, but seemed to have an even wider range of flavours than most parmesans available in this country, to my mind. Anyway, we decided it was our new favourite. Last week it had been Mayfield – made in Sussex to a gruyère-ish recipe. Again, it was rich and distinctive, again it appealed to our fickle taste for fashion.
You can't keep up, really. No sooner has a cheese appeared on the counters of the best delis than another takes it's place, to be rootled out only by persistent seekers after local foods. The same happens with fashion, too. Once a particular style has become ubiquitous, those who most vaunted it are off on a search for something more recherché. This doesn't happen so much in France – they are still stuck with their bries and camemberts, their crottins and vacherins. Delicious, but unchanging. There's precious little innovation going on, and for some this might be a good idea. I tend to agree if innovation consists simply of adding a weird ingredient to an existing cheese or sausage, but if there is a genuine variation then how exciting is that? One cheesemonger I spoke to recently said he was trying to introduce the idea of cheese trolleys to local restaurants, rather than a tame plateful of meek little fridge chilled mouthfuls of so called local cheeses, which don't go very far in their search for the rare and the special. A cheese trolley wheeled round by a knowledgeable waiter is a treat as great as the almost defunct sweet trolley.
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The latest fashion – at least round here – in dining out seems to be the no-choice menu. We have eaten in two such over the past month and both have been wonderfully enjoyable, an absence of responsibility of trying to pick the perfect starter, the irresistible main, then looking round at your friends' platesful and feeling you'd made a mistake by picking the asparagus and soft-boiled duck egg when you should have had the seafood tapas with its tiny cupful of perfect fish broth and the crab bonbon. At Matt's Kitchen in Bruton, Matt himself comes and tells you what you are having. Of course, if you've done your homework you'll know what the main course is by checking the website – then you'll have an idea of what wine to bring with you. There's no fancy wine list – in you come with your own bottle and Matt charges £3 to take the cork out. Sensible and simple. The starters did come from a choice of three – St George's mushrooms on toast, a pigs' cheek terrine and something fishy on the night we went, and there were two puddings to haver over. But that's it. You put yourself in Matt's hands - capable and very able they are too. His palate is pretty well faultless to my mind, the tapenade that accompanied our pan-fried whiting was garlicky and tomatoey and black olivey and really well –balanced. We can't wait to go again, but we'll have to, as the two front rooms that constitute this restaurant are booked solid, because they only hold a few at a time and because it's only open three nights a week.
Rather more generous in area and capacity, but even more limited in choice and time is the Pythouse Kitchen Garden, near Tisbury. Here, Mitch also encourages you to bring your own wine, and the Thursday evening set menu – no choices at all – is £20 a head for two courses, so slightly more expensive than Matt's, where you can get away with £15 if you only have a starter or pudding with your main. Pythouse is open for lunch, coffee, whatever, during the day but that really special experience of trusting your meal to an expert who knows just what to feed you only happens on that one evening a week. Both places have the relaxed atmosphere that you get when you go to friends for supper – you know the food will be good, and that whatever is put in front of you is going to be delicious. That's all you have to do. Relax and eat – and chat and drink your own wine – and no washing up, of course. This is very different from fashionable eating in London, which is now so stratospherically expensive and complicated that it becomes a marathon rather than dinner.
What is the next fashion trend going to be? At the moment it is hard to tell as all food seems to be offered in shades of red, white and blue (and the results do show that blue is an impossible colour to get right in anything edible, except cake icing). Once the celebrations are over, and as the summer drifts on, we shall be looking at Olympian foods. That is a theme still to be tackled I think. I await the first signs with interest.