Magazine article The Spectator

Food for Thought

Magazine article The Spectator

Food for Thought

Article excerpt

My favourite programme last week was France on a Plate (BBC4, Sunday) in which Dr Andrew Hussey investigated the link between gastronomy and la gloire; French glory and destiny. He began with a recreation of François Mitterrand's last meal, which climaxed with the illegal consumption of ortolans, an endangered songbird which is blinded then boiled in Armagnac. Yum! As you crunch the creature whole, its tiny head dangling from your lips, you wear a napkin over your head which keeps the flavour in, and emphasises the sacerdotal significance of the act. Just as pre-revolutionary kings ate vast banquets while the peasants starved largely to prove they could, so Mitterrand feasted on a protected species because he too was the chef de l'état, and did as he pleased, especially when days from death.

Years ago I ate at a famous restaurant owned by a chef de cuisine, Paul Bocuse.

Everywhere you turned there were pictures of Bocuse: a different portrait in every room, his face on books, plates and napkin rings. When the man himself appeared the French diners rose as if in the presence of the Sun King, reverentially murmuring, 'Maître!' The temptation to say, 'This isn't bad scoff, but it could use some ketchup' was considerable, but resisted. Dr Hussey ended by pointing out that the grandest of grand cuisine was still vital to France's sense of self-esteem, yet it is the second-best market in the world for McDonald's. You could get several doctoral theses out of that conundrum. The programme was too short; it should have been a series.

Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll (Five, Monday) was disappointing, which was sad.

In the Sixties, Bernard Braden -- a great broadcaster -- had the idea of interviewing the stars of the day, then repeatedly at three-year intervals. He did the first set of interviews but nobody wanted to show them. (He had more bad luck. He tried to persuade the BBC to make a Canadian equivalent of Alistair Cooke's America, to be called God's Frozen People, but nobody wanted that either. ) 'This incredible time capsule from the Sixties remained unseen. Until now!' boomed the voice-over. But you could see why it remained unseen, for the recordings were rather dull. All those stars -- Cilla Black, Lulu, Tom and Davy Jones (not relations) -- were under the thumb of their managers then and had little to say beyond what fun they were having and how their parents didn't let them get above themselves. …

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