“Not of this earth”*

*Jay Rayner’s restaurant review for The Guardian of 30.08.09

“I was wandering through London’s Borough Market, as you do when you’re greedy, comfortably off, status-obsessed and middle class (the latter being a synonym for the other three) when it struck me that it provided an answer to what it meant to be British. Here was lamb from the Lake District and fish from Cornwall, asparagus from the Midlands and game from Scotland. You could forge an entire national identity through this food. This would be cobblers, of course – an exercise in mythology. It would only work if these ingredients genuinely did hark back to some great tradition, but they don’t. Our great-grandparents never got their hands on produce this good.

Still, forging a national identity through food can work. The French did it brilliantly, via the notion of terroir, the idea that it was the very earth which defined the uniqueness of their great produce that sustained the French nation. That, too, was a load of cobblers. As the food writer and historian John Whiting explained in a paper to the Oxford Symposium on Food a few years ago, terroir was merely a beezer marketing spin, created by winemakers reacting to the devastation caused to the vines by phylloxera in the 1860s. The entire vine stock had to be replaced from that which had originally gone from France to the Americas. The French could no longer trumpet the uniqueness of their vines. What could they big up instead? Why, the earth.

On to this was grafted a whole bunch of dishes – coq au vin, cassoulet, and so on – which came to be intrinsically linked with notions of the horny-handed peasantry tilling the ancient land. This, too, was rubbish. According to Theodore Zeldin’s History of French Passions, the peasants mostly lived on watery soup and millet and the dishes we think of as paysanne were perfected by bourgeois chefs up in Paris.

I love all this stuff, because it plays to my massive distrust of petty nationalism, the idea that mine is better than yours. It is only fear, rage and jealousy that leads someone to bang on about the specialness of their few acres…

…So I am suspicious of terroir, but I do very much like a restaurant off London’s Strand called Terroirs. Mostly I like it because they don’t take the whole thing too seriously…”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s