Good Food Blog
Goodbye to all thatPosted at 12:02PM, 05 February 2009 by Stuart Walton - Food and wine writer
A friend took me out to eat in London in January. You might think that in itself is news enough in the present grisly financial climate, and I half-expected we'd have the place to ourselves. It's an old-fashioned French bistro in Primrose Hill. Admittedly, it had had some rave notices in the press just before Christmas, but nothing could have prepared me for the crush of business the place was dealing with.
People without bookings kept coming hopefully to the door, and were being apologetically turned away, all evening. You wouldn't think a Wednesday night in January would be a hot night to eat, especially when your pension funds are going up in smoke and the lending institutions are on strike, but there it is. The place was rammed solid.
The old theory, first proposed in the 1920s, that hemlines go up in a boom but down in a recession, is surely reflected in our eating habits. There is no surer sign of desperate times than rising food prices. Worrying about whether you can afford to buy your normal groceries is an even more fundamental anxiety than whether you can turn on the heating. Some things - eggs, milk, much fresh produce - feel as though they've gone up again every time you go to the shops.
What we want to eat when times are bad is sustaining, recognisable, simple fare
Anybody eating out at all at the moment is likely to be looking for cheaper food and bargain set-price menus, logically enough. But there is a more complex psychology involved too. What we want to eat when times are bad is sustaining, recognisable, simple fare, cooking that reminds us of a more secure era, rather than fusion food, exotic minimalism and wild experimentation.
The top restaurants will never lack for custom, although even they are feeling the pinch. But if you were being taken out to eat tonight, how does pickled herring and crushed potato, followed by duck confit with cabbage, sound - as against, say, roast foie gras benzaldehyde with almond fluid gel, cherry and chamomile, or venison with cocoa reduction and rhubarb?
The move away from molecular gastronomy and high pretension was already in evidence in the spate of new restaurant openings last autumn, in which time-hallowed British, French and Italian food was being reinterpreted for the times, even before the phrase 'credit crunch' had become a dismally regular part of the news vocabulary. What these places shared was a recognition that the time for ultra-refined cooking was passing, like the last of summer's leaves.
Not only do these, and countless other, recessionary deals help keep spirits up by reminding us that it is still possible to dine out once in a while, and dine out well into the bargain, but what you eat when you do is a whole lot more cheering to the soul than some hyper-processed lump of fattened goose liver whose air fare you're paying.