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Frugal food hits the top table

A RESTAURATEUR who grew up in the South of France once told me that the reason that French cuisine is superior to English simply because the produce is better. In the Mediterranean world, he led me to believe, tomatoes as big as your hand grow effortlessly, exotic fish jump straight out of the sea and into your net and everything is magically ripened in the glorious, permanently-shining sunshine. In contrast, British food is lumpen and flavourless. &ldquo;There is only so much that you can do with a turnip,&rdquo; was the way he summed it up. If it was true that British food was all about root vegetables, then this should be a dismal time for London restaurants.<br /><br />But it is just the opposite. Rather than waiting until the economy picks up and they can afford foie gras and Japanese beer-fed Wagyu beef again, London&rsquo;s chefs are instead making more use of more humble ingredients. This trend has been going on for some years &ndash; think of the famous bone marrow and parsley salad at Fergus Henderson&rsquo;s Smithfield restaurant St John &ndash; but it has been accelerated by the downturn.<br /><br />Openings have been few and far between this year, but newbies such as the Restaurant in the crypt of St Paul&rsquo;s and Bjorn van der Horst&rsquo;s Eastside have tended to eschew the froths and goos of the boom-times, concentrating on simple, old-fashioned British food. Eastside serves a bowl of radishes as an appetiser. Pork scratchings feature at St Paul&rsquo;s, which will also have a different &ldquo;forgotten vegetable&rdquo; on the menu each month; chef Candice Webber will pick something that is in season but that nobody else is buying and serve it as a side: this month, it&rsquo;s runner beans. <br /><br />&ldquo;Out of frugality comes great invention,&rdquo; says Blueprint Cafe chef Jeremy Lee, who hails from Scotland and for whom abuse of turnips is tantamount to sacrilege. He agrees that our native vegetables are often given less respect than they deserve. &ldquo;There is still this snobbery in the northern hemisphere that carrots are for feeding donkeys,&rdquo; says Lee, who waxes lyrical about ways of using onions and roots, especially in braises with meat and points out that they are revered in African cuisines, where they are boiled with cumin, coriander, cinnamon and other goodies and boiled down into a paste.<br /><br />Great food is all about making dishes from unpromising beginnings, not picking and choosing the best bits. &ldquo;The foundation of most cooking is the cheap cuts of meat or the more obscure cuts,&rdquo; he says, adding that the boom-time love of adding delicacies such as foie gras to everything was &ldquo;ridiculous then and is ridiculous now.&rdquo; It comes from people who &ldquo;remember their grannies slaving over the swede and lentil soup and want to live in a more racy world,&rdquo; he says.<br /><br />A lot of this sort of thing is based on a false idea of what haute cuisine actually is. &ldquo;There is a misconception, gained from eating in French restaurants, that it&rsquo;s all about fillet of beef or lamb cutlets, but in fact French food was always about using the whole of the animal,&rdquo; he says. Cutlets and fillet steaks are &ldquo;a bonus&rdquo;, but the real chefs can&rsquo;t wait to get their hands on the belly and neck.<br /><br /><strong>NATIVE VEGETABLES</strong><br />People are becoming increasingly interested in the provenance of food, which is more of a sign of quality than the cut, Lee says. This has gone hand-in-hand with a recognition of &ldquo;how much we have lost&rdquo; in our food culture in just a couple of generations, and a new interest in just those things. <br /><br />Another chef who loves using ingredients that might be on the unsexy side is Adrian Jones, chef at the Salisbury gastropub in Fulham and who had worked with stars such as Gary Rhodes and Pierre Koffman. His menu of &ldquo;British tapas&rdquo; specialises in simple dishes done with a classy twist. &ldquo;I have always been one for using the less fashionable things,&rdquo; he says. &ldquo;We use lots of pickles and relishes. At the moment we are using a lot of runner beans and bobby beans. We just blanch them and serve them with a vinaigrette with whitebait or peppered mackerel.&rdquo; <br /><br />His Cornish pasties also sound like a thing of wonder. They are made with shoulder of lamb that has been braised for seven hours. Pies also feature heavily on the menu, and a similar amount of love goes into them.<br /><br />These days, using more humble ingredients is becoming de rigueur, he says. &ldquo;People used to turn their noses up at pigs&rsquo; trotters, and asparagus used to be a poor man&rsquo;s food, but now it&rsquo;s a rich man&rsquo;s food.&rdquo; Not that there is anything wrong with Dover sole and smoked salmon, but customers want something more unique and interesting these days and &ldquo;the more expensive the ingredient, the less you have to do to it.&rdquo; <br /><br />As much as the recession, what lies behind the trend to humbler ingredients is the boom in television cookery shows. &ldquo;They are more aware and more appreciative of food and how it is made. Plus they all see Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre-White saying: &lsquo;Make it simple&rsquo;, and that is what they want. These days, there are fewer places that you can get away with charging &pound;100 for three courses, because people know how much it costs to buy fillet steak.&rdquo; If it means cheaper and better food, then bring on those turnips.