“It’s not a concept – it’s common sense” (Part One)

I haven’t posted anything here for a while, partly because I’ve been going through a fairly major life upheaval, and partly because of a couple of holidays I’ve been on. Both gave me quite a lot to think about in terms of food and culture, and it’s taken me this long to sift through my impressions of the two.

First up was a trip around Europe with two of my brothers, taking in France, Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg, not a place I ever thought I’d have occasion to visit. This wasn’t a particularly food-based trip – the reason or excuse for it was a journey round various WWI and WWII (and some Napoleonic) battlefields and monuments, some with a family connection, most not – but obviously we had to eat every day, and I was put in charge of finding places to do this.

I don’t really know what place French food has in the popular imagination any more – obviously it will always have a certain cachet, but I think the rash of bad or indifferent restaurants, serving 3-course set menus to tourists, have long since damaged France’s (or at least Paris’) reputation as a place where it is impossible to eat badly. Away from the denser tourist areas, though, and across the border into Belgium and Luxembourg (both places that suffer less from the weight of reputation), the general standard of restaurant food is still very high. Aside from the endless and ever-changing parade of continental breakfasts, which were ever bad so much as peculiar, and fascinating in their minor regional variations, I think we barely had a disappointing meal. There was one, I think in Cambrai, where I had a serviceable andouillette, my offal-sceptic older brother accidentally ordered veal kidneys, and my other brother an indifferent carpaccio.

That was a blip, though, and at any rate somewhat our fault. In the main, guided partly by recommendation, and partly by a mix of instinct and slightly mystical criteria – the only restaurant that had no English reviews on tripadvisor, a green rather than a red frontage – we managed to eat very well in a succession of small towns about which we knew nothing. Granted, I think our best meal was in Luxembourg City, at a place which came recommended by the Guardian – a wood- and leather-lined place called Mousel’s Cantine, where we ate pig feet in a rich and sharp mustard sauce, roast hock, salt-pork shoulder, with choucroute and beans and potatoes, swilled down with stone mugs of beer overflowing with foam – but we dined almost as well in Verdun, where the first place we happened to walk past (away from the main tourist strip) turned out to be a tiny, slightly hipsterised bistro with excellent pastis and beer, and a great set menu featuring an outstanding salad of confit gizzards and a lovely plate of guineafowl. Even the one obviously touristy restaurant we went to, on the main touristy square in Metz, had, on an illustrated and laminated menu of ‘local specialities’, an impressive dish of whole veal head, boned and rolled, with a punchy sauce gribiche and something else, garlicky and sharp, that I couldn’t quite place.

Fergus Henderson likes to declaim that the idea of nose-to-tail eating is not a “concept” but merely “common sense”, which I think is slightly disingenuous on his part. Over here, it is a concept, and one which he has done extremely well out of. But it really is in France, on the Continent, along with the idea that food should be good, and affordable, and the entire process of eating it pleasurable and satisfying. Many of the places we went to were small, boring, provincial towns, famous because Verlaine had been born there and never come back, or Rimbaud had grown up there and hated it, or for their proximity to heroism, some glorious act that had little to do with the sleepy bourgeois town it is commemorated in. Imagine going on a tour of Civil War battle sites in the Home Counties and the MIdlands, and finding, in every village and commuter-belt ghost town, a cuisine that was rooted in tradition and place yet alive, moving with tastes and times and fashions, animated by quality of ingredient and pride in technique. Imagine that was common sense.

I think that’s enough for now. More on Spain soon.