Don’t you just love the French? I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve used that phrase in my lifetime. I know I’ve started four food-related articles with it in the last six and a half years. So today makes it a fifth then.
And I do. I love the ways they do things I’d never dare. I once, as an engineer, spent a year with a director of a well known French conglomerate, negotiating the finer legal points of a contract for a multi-million pound project. Oh how the two of us celebrated its signing with Champagne and canapés. Fresh from the party, we met the next day to have our first official project meeting – where he basically tore up the contract. I went puce and nearly exploded. “But . . but . . but we made an agreement, we shook on it, we discussed this over a year ago,” I spluttered. “Ah yes,” he charmingly replied, “but zat was zen and zis is now”. I went home and kicked the cat rather than my wife, but it was a close-run thing. I mean, how could he?
But perversely, I admired him. There was no way I could have shown such bare-faced cheek. But, in reality, over a year things had changed and, in his mind at least, he was merely being pragmatic. Hmmm.
Then there’s their language. Only the French could have an official body to protect the rules of something which, if you think about it, can have no “official” rules. Language is something that develops. It’s not as if a group of people sat down one day and, using a series of grunts and gestures – because this would have to have been immediately before the rules of communication were invented – wrote down said set of rules and proclaimed: “That’s it. That’s how we’ll all speak from this day forth and pray mercy on the sole of anyone transgressing our laws”.
Language is something that is developed by the people for the people. Its rules are acceptances rather than imperatives. Of course, it’s essential that we all speak within some sort of framework or we’d never get anywhere. But while for years I blamed those pesky Americans for changing “got” to “gotten”, it was only recently that I realised that it was we English who’d dropped the second syllable sometime after the Pilgrim Fathers had set sail for the colonies. We never got around to dropping it from begotten and forgotten; at least we haven’t yet.
So we all understand each other because we adhere to some linguistic basics which, obviously, over the centuries, have to change as fashion, technology and circumstance encourage and demand. And so it is with food.
It’s rare, almost unheard of for a new food to be developed from nothing (apart from possibly the invention of Pop-Tarts). Everything we cook at home and in restaurants is a development of something that’s gone before. And it’ll almost certainly be based on something of substance, that’s tried and tested.
It’s what we like to do at the restaurant. We take a dish that we’ve heard of from somewhere within the proximity and history of the British Isles and give it our own twist. And if we can’t think of a new or better way of doing it, we cook it the way the “rules” say it should be cooked. If it’s a famous or well-established dish, it’s probably a pretty good one. It’s poor practices that give dishes a bad name. Prawn cocktail? Wonderful when done properly. Boiled beef and carrots? Nectar when done with love, care, understanding and the best ingredients.
I’ve learnt a basic rule over the years: we should embrace change but base it on our past. After all, if our language can develop, then so can our food. Well that’s alright then, init?
Previously published in The Northern Echo