July 26. I have long wondered whether there is an easier way of earning a living with my pen than writing history. Anything will do that does not involve footnotes (as even these diary entries must have from time to time).
So I have decided to explore a career as a food critic. Doesn’t seem difficult. I have to eat every day. There is a common experience (more or less), a common language (ditto), and to judge from the persistence of food columns in the lockdown even when their writers were unable to get to restaurants, an inexhaustible demand for such prose.
And I have a specialist topic. Restaurant meals at home. Last week it was Elite Bistros, this time it is the Côte brasserie chain which has recently expanded across the country. It opened a branch in my local town just before the coronavirus struck. I’m not sure whether it’s still there, but I can now buy Côte’s meals online.
For Saturday dinner we ordered: starter (for two) marinated heritage beetroot with crème fraiche £4 50; mains: chicken and walnut salad £ 6 95, poulet breton with chips £ 7 95; desserts: lemon and armagnac posset £ 3 50, crème caramel £ 3 50. The service also has a bakery and a cheese counter, so we added a sourdough seeded batard and two croissants, a St Nectaire fermier and a chèvre buchette frais cendrés. The was a £4 95 delivery, charge, waived if the bill exceeds £80.
The website was easy to use, with every dish and product illustrated. The box arrived within the specified hour on Saturday morning.
Unlike the serious misadventure last week, cooking was straightforward. I wrote then that it was nothing like a Marks and Spencer meal. This, by contrast, was exactly such a product, better quality, not much more expensive, and requiring only time in the oven. Or rather several different time slots in two ovens at different temperatures, but not too great a sweat. Five minutes unwrapping, half an hour watching the timer, and we sit down to eat.
What else to say? How do these food writers spin out a meal into a thousand words or more? There is no service to describe. You don’t want to know about my kitchen, before or after cooking. Or my kitchen table (though if you do it was made by a friend out of elm blown down in the great gale of 1987). The beetroot was a surprisingly attractive reworking of a familiar vegetable. The mains were huge. I had ordered mine largely because I hadn’t eaten chips since before I can remember, and these oven products were not great. The desserts were fine, the crème caramel leaving us with a little earthenware pot.
The real gain was the bread and cheese. On Saturday, had the year turned out as planned, we would have begun our family holiday in a gite on the shores of the Mediterranean south of Montpellier and west of the Camargue. There we would have enjoyed one of the basic pleasures in life, visiting the boulangerie every day for croissants and cakes, exploring the cheese stalls in the weekly markets. Now we could do it online, with a fine array of bakery products and regional cheeses (Côte advertises itself as a ‘Parisian brasserie’, but I have rarely stepped inside one, except in the pages of a Maigret novel where the alcohol-dependent policeman is forever visiting them during the course of his working day, or in the case of the ‘Brasserie Dauphine’ next to the Quai des Orfèvres, inventing the modern office takeaway by having beer and sandwiches sent up in the midst of a long case.)
The one demerit, as with Elite Bistro, is the pile of packaging left behind, although it is all supposed to be recyclable. The washable ceramic plate is one of those inventions that once made, is unimprovable. As also the metal pot. Food packed in, or still worse eaten out of, paper, plastic and cardboard, is an offence against civilisation and will be the death of this planet.