I have a confession to make: I own three of Raymond Blanc's cookery books, along with the colourful tomes of many other celebrity chefs and culinary TV stars. I may draw the line at Anthony Worrall Thompson, whose patronising style is so irksome as to make any recipe sound faintly inedible, and lately at Gary Rhodes, whose continuing use of Weller hair gel somehow takes the edge off his crème anglaise. But when the weekend colour supplements arrive on my doormat, the first sections I turn to are those of Nigel Slater and his ilk who provide inspiration for the rather formulaic but otherwise tasty character of dinner parties in the homes of the chattering classes such as mine. I am an unreformed foodie – so much so that on a recent holiday in Italy a significant amount of my time was devoted to tracking down fresh Ligurian farina di castagne with which to make my own chestnut tagliatelle. Sit with me in the Angel and Greyhound pub next to our office when I am feeling hungry and I will bore you rigid with detailed suggestions for slow cooked pork in fennel seeds, garlic and white wine, and with lengthy, nostalgic accounts of pasta and white Alba truffles eaten in a Piedmonte trattoria.
Given all this it comes as a shock to the system, therefore, when my kitchen heroes turn out be not quite as I had always imagined. In the way that Monty Don's gardening column now reads more like a Zen treatise on nature and spirituality, chefs and cookery writers seem to be similarly turning away from their true vocation. Instead of continuing to share with us their manifest talents, developed over many years behind the ranges of professional kitchens, they are progressively turning into different kinds of gurus. In place of helpful suggestions for achieving exactly the right degree of texture in pommes dauphinoise we are now subjected to endless philosophical debates about what is or is not 'good' for us and to passionately expressed diatribes about the 'evils' of this or that food ingredient – items which, ironically, appear in liberal quantities in many of their own dishes.
M. Blanc's recent outburst in the Manchester Evening News (September 17, 2002) is typical of this new genre of culinary 'wisdom'. 'It's a Diet of Danger' claims the head to his column. And the target of his vitriol is sugar, echoing his view expressed less forcibly in the sadly unimpressive Food Junkies TV series a few months ago. Now, however, Raymond has turned from just declaring that all British food is crap to proposing theories of nutrition that some of my chums who know a bit about these things have described as quite barking. Hinting darkly at a conspiracy to prevent the real truth about sugar being known, he recounts a conversation over dinner with an unnamed 'doctor and scientist' who claimed:
". raised levels of sugar in the blood which come not just from sugary and obviously sweet foods but also quickly digested starchy foods such as white bread and breakfast cereals, act like sandpaper on our artery walls . A bit like when you rub walls down to create a surface to which the new paint can then cling, the bits that have been abrasively rubbed by this sugar make the perfect site for saturated fats and cholesterol to then attach themselves."
Even to a dim social psychologist like me there is something clearly wrong here. If sugar in the blood did, in fact, work like sandpaper (which everybody else claims that it does not) then wouldn't it also rub off the bits of saturated fat clinging to the artery walls, thereby keeping the tubes free from clots and the risk of cardiovascular disease? Surely this would be an as yet undiscovered life-saving quality of sugar that the industry would be quickly bringing to our attention.
M. Blanc's attack on sugar is, of course, just part of his tirade against processed foods – things that people eat instead of going to his restaurants – and anything that isn't obviously part of the French culinary heritage – which people do go to his restaurants to eat. But this, again, is perplexing, for much of what passes for that culinary heritage is itself founded on the use of sugar, and fat and cream and many of the other things that Raymond now seems to have turned his back against. Take, for example, his recipe for Iles Flottantes, drawn from one of his books (1) that I confessed to owning at the beginning. In a recipe for four people we need 250g of caster sugar for the meringue, 75g for the vanilla custard and 100g for the caramel. That's a total of 425g or one whole pound of sugar, or 4 ounces per person just for a single portion of dessert.
This dish which, incidentally, is quite delicious and on the menu of the Petit Blanc in Oxford, is not just any Isles Flottantes but Isles Flottantes Façon Maman Blanc – cooked his mother's way – and very much in keeping with the traditions of good eating that he rightly wishes to uphold. But, if we are to believe what Blanc now says, he has been trying to kill all off of his diners with just one pudding for many years.
At the end of his article in the Manchester Evening News (yes, he does just happen to have a brasserie in Manchester and gets good plugs from the MEN) Raymond Blanc announces bravely: "Within the next year all my recipes both at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons and Le Petit Blanc will ban sugar and replace it with natural alternatives." But what is a 'natural' alternative to the natural foodstuff of sugar? Glucose, fructose, lactose, etc. that are found in many plants and fruits are still sugars, and the body responds to them in exactly the same way. Using 'alternatives' would be nothing more than a sham, or perhaps a marketing ploy, capitalising on the unfounded worries generated by his novel rewriting of the human nutrition and biology textbooks. But I doubt that even then his customers would be prepared to put a dollop of honey into their after dinner pure arabica coffees.
Far be it for SIRC to offer advice about the restaurant trade to someone as experienced as Raymond Blanc. But it seems to me that the reason why people spend not inconsiderable sums of money visiting his restaurants, myself included, is that they expect to eat well, and at Le Manoir, to eat exceptionally well. They tend not to be the timid, food-fearing victims of nutritional propaganda but people who take delight in good ingredients cooked with skill and imagination – all of the things for which, prior to his recent detours away from joined-up thinking, Blanc has had an enviable reputation. And what would Maman Blanc say about this new-found 'modernisation' of cuisine that is so much at odds with the façon with which she helped form his genius?
Cooking for Friends Headline Books. Back to text.
Peter Marsh, September 29, 2002