Magazine article The Spectator

Food: Taking on the New Portion-Controllers

Magazine article The Spectator

Food: Taking on the New Portion-Controllers

Article excerpt

HOW do you thank your host for a very good dinner? Or put it round the other way: what is the most valued expression a host giving a dinner can receive from a guest? It is one word and a word rarely heard nowadays. I heard it the other day when Toby came to dinner. Gazing at a dish of hare stewed in red wine and a serving plate piled high with bread fried crisp in goose fat, he asked, `Old thing, is a chap allowed seconds?'

The reason, of course, that it is the highest praise is that the word is matched, immediately, by the deed. Unlike so many guests with their gushing compliments, `Lovely dinner, such good food', Toby immediately proves the genuineness of his pleasure by helping himself to more. He had thirds as well. And, conversely, if no one has seconds, you know you've cooked a lousy meal - or that you've invited lousy guests with no taste. Seconds are a very useful way of gauging pleasure.

In Toby's particular case there may be complicating factors. Fried bread is a littleknown and not often served first-class accompaniment to stewed meats. It may not sound exciting and it does not appear in many books, but I have certainly been given it all over the Midi. And not just with meat. It goes well with some fish 'stews' too, especially ones using salt cod and, surprisingly, bourride. You'd have thought that with a half-pint of olive oil in the aioli mixed with the stock from the poached fish, the last thing you'd want would be more fat, but it just isn't so. Fried bread, this time fried in olive oil, is just right. And it's good with fish soups as well.

So surprise may have provoked Toby's demand for seconds. So might Mrs Toby who, I'm willing to bet, keeps the poor boy on a short leash. I can't see her having any goose fat, let alone being willing to use enough of it to cook the bread properly. Actually, it's interesting how much is left in the pan and how little is taken up by the bread, especially if the bread is, as it should be, stale. The same is true of many fried dishes, notably eggs and waxy rather than floury potatoes: to be good they need to be fried in lots of fat or oil but they do not necessarily take up much of the cooking medium. …

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