Posh restaurants – stop hijacking our food

Yesterday was number two son’s 19th birthday and as a result the Charman family went out for a meal in a local pub.

Now I like the occasional pub grub, partly I suspect because being on the car launch circuit I get to eat an unhealthy amount of posh food in very posh hotels. But in a pub, well unless you are dining in one of these ghastly pubs that think they are posh hotels you open the menu and it simply describes what you are getting.

1403MenuAll of which had me casting my memories back to the turn of the millennium, when I was editing a local newspaper. The best part of the week was compiling my column ‘Sideways Glance’ – it was the one bit of the paper that gave me the opportunity to write about whatever was exercising my mind – long before blogs such as this one.

Doing some filing the other day I found a disc with several of my old Glances on, including the one reproduced below, all about posh grub. I have no qualms about reproducing it here, because it seems to be that over a decade on, not a lot has changed…

“SO there I was last week, sitting in a plane on the way to Scotland to drive yet another car, and taking a look at the British Airways in-flight magazine. This was not my first choice for reading material you understand but made necessary by the plane I was on not being the one I was meant to be on – that had broken and during the ensuing 2.5-hour wait for a new plane in Gatwick’s North Terminal I had read both the magazine I had brought for the flight and the extra one I bought when I discovered the delay.

Anyway, my gaze fell on a feature interview with Bono, lead singer with the Irish rock band U2, which I do like. Bono starts off this interview by painting a picture of the atypical rock star – he doesn’t have to live in posh hotels, he’s quite happy bedding on the floor at a student’s digs, being one of the ‘ordinary people.’

1403SmashHe then describes his childhood, how his mother died when he was 14 and he became unofficial cook to a house full of males, describing to the interviewer how he used to throw everything in one pot and then saying “do you remember Smash?”

Umm – yes Bono, we do, coz if you go in any supermarket on an ordinary shopping trip the instant mashed potato made famous by a load of chortling metal aliens is still there, large as life on the shelves – not quite so ordinary a person then eh?

But the way things are going with food, the likes of Bono may soon be rediscovering the pleasures of eating what we the ‘ordinary population’ tuck into each evening. Because it seems posh restaurants are hijacking our nosh!

As I’ve mentioned before my motoring work requires me to attend several car launches each year, normally involving posh hotels and equally posh restaurants – it’s a tough job but someone’s etc etc. Over the years I’ve become used to studying menus written in a language all their own. Firstly they use words that most normal dictionaries are not likely to offer much clue to – Pomfret of this, Terrine of that, and then they translate it all into French, or Italian, when you’re dining in a hotel in the middle of Manchester…

Imagine my surprise then, when I attended a launch in Sussex and at said posh hotel was offered as a lunch choice ‘Traditional Sausage and Mashed Potato in an Onion Gravy’. Yes – bangers and mash! It was delicious, but it was still bangers and mash.

Then a matter of weeks later, and this time the venue was sunny Bagshot – again, hotel with several stars, and we return from our morning drive to find our lunch is ‘Traditional Fish and Chips.’ Note that word traditional again – you get the impression that stick the T word on the front and you can put anything on a posh menu.

1403SuetPudAnd they are – neatly hijacking all the foods from my childhood. One of my fondest memories from my formative years is my mum’s Spotty Dick and Custard, wrapped in a big sheet and cooked in a massive pot. Now I can go in a restaurant and order it for pudding – except they now call it Spotted Dick – sounds better than spotty. It’s on the Traditional Menu alongside Jam Roly Poly.

I have a theory that to blame for all this are cooking programmes on the TV. They’ve multiplied over the last few years, because we cannot seem to get enough of them, and I reckon all those TV chefs are running out of ideas, so they’re nicking ordinary food and tarting it up. My fish and chips for example was served with strange curly chips, made to be very springy, on which was placed the fish – “Battered fillet of fresh cod, served on a warm bed of sliced saute potatoes.” Yeah – fish n’ chips!

So rest assured as you tuck into your greasy spoon breakfast in Dorking High Street (Mind you if you can find a greasy spoon among the wide variety of eateries in Dorking High Street you’re doing well). You’re eating the kind of food they really want to serve up in the Hilton and Ritz.  I’m off for tea now – beans on toast tonight with some grated cheese on top, or should that be freshly picked beans over warmed pain slices served with a sauce tomate au gratin?…”

The Daytona 500 – NASCAR’s biggest, but least relevant, race?

To what many would consider a surprisingly large number of UK motor sport fans, this weekend is special. It marks the true start of the motor sport year, because it is the true start of the NASCAR season.

Excuse me? I hear you say, convinced I’m a week behind? After all NASCAR’s biggest race, by far, is the first of the year, the Daytona 500, and that was held last week. We know that even here in Blighty, because it even made our daily papers – probably because of who won it, but more of that momentarily.

Yes the Daytona 500 is huge, the one race win every driver wants on their CV, and more than a week of excess that kicks off the season in unmatchable style and always produces a stack of stories. But in terms of the NASCAR season, the Daytona 500 doesn’t mean that much.

The carnage started early - Jimmie Johnson was one of many front-runners who wrecked their car on the last lap of the qualifying Duels race on Thursday... (Photo courtesy NASCAR)

The Daytona carnage started early – Jimmie Johnson was one of many front-runners who wrecked their car on the last lap of their qualifying Duels race on Thursday… (Photo courtesy NASCAR)

For starters it’s a restrictor-plate race, meaning that to keep speeds manageable, all the cars have air-strangling plates placed in their inlet manifolds, slicing the engine’s horsepower from more than 750 to nearer 400bhp. So every car – from position one to position 43 on the grid – is even more evenly matched than usual and they run in huge packs; “first to 25th place are covered by one second,” said the commentator at one point last Sunday. Without trying too hard a car can go from the front to the back and to the front of the pack again in the space of a lap, so this race is not really much of a guide to who’s hot and who’s not at the start of a new season.

Clearly demonstrating this is the list of winners. Last year, the 500 was won by Jimmie Johnson, and he went on to win the Sprint Cup title. But before that the last time the 500 winner also became champion was Johnson again, back in 2006. The time before that was Jeff Gordon, way back in 1997, yup, 18 years ago. The 2012 winner was a rookie called Trevor Bayne, who only competed in less than half of the season that year…

...as was Clint Bowyer, who went for a wild ride but landed on his wheels and crossed the line - through the pits... (Photo courtesy NASCAR)

…as was Clint Bowyer, who went for a wild ride but landed on his wheels and crossed the line – through the pits… (Photo courtesy NASCAR)

So the real season begins this weekend, on the one-mile oval of Phoenix, with the cars racing for the first time with the hopefully action-improving body modifications that NASCAR came up with after miles of late-season testing – modifications that the cars will wear all season, except on the restrictor-plate tracks. Come Sunday night we will have a better idea of who might be the ones to watch in 2014.

Still, we’d never do without the 500, and it lived up to its billing – we had loads to talk about right through the biggest of Daytona’s Speedweeks.

We started with conspiracy theories. Last year, Danica Patrick stormed to pole position, and some fans simply couldn’t believe the Sprint Cup’s only woman driver could achieve such a feat without some ‘help’. It was a preposterous suggestion, as basically the woman can drive, and anyway at Daytona the gap between the sport’s fastest and slowest is so compressed that qualifying is a pointer to – not a lot really.

No matter, the conspiracy theorists were in action again for this year’s 500. Dominating the news cycle was the return of the fabled number 3, not seen on a Sprint Cup track since 2001. It was back then that Dale Earnhardt – the ‘Intimidator’, revered by many as NASCAR’s greatest, and thought by probably just as many to own the number three, was killed. It was at Daytona, on the last turn of the 500 and after that there were calls for the number to be retired.

Rookie Austin Dillon made the early headlines, mainly because of his car number. (Photo courtesy NASCAR)

Rookie Austin Dillon made the early headlines, mainly because of the fabled number on his car. (Photo courtesy NASCAR)

Earnhardt’s team boss Richard Childress didn’t agree with that view. Instead he kept the three back, waiting for the right time for a return. And this year, Childress decided, was the right time, the number placed on a car to be piloted by his grandson, Austin Dillon, starting his Sprint Cup rookie season. And of course Dillon duly went out and took pole position for the 500…

There was no conspiracy, of course – in the race Dillon produced a less than stellar performance, his major contribution being to initiate two of the big accidents. He became just one of the many stories, others including Denny Hamlin winning everything except when it really mattered, top drivers doing their best to wreck their best cars and teams that really shouldn’t blowing engines.

All paled into insignificance, however, alongside the biggest headline, written by the driver many feel should be in the three, the man that provided the NASCAR hierarchy with a result few foresaw, but which was probably, alongside Danica winning, the result they would have asked for.

Dale Earnhardt Jnr is the son of the Intimidator, and has assumed the mantle amongst the fans – he’s been voted NASCAR’s most popular driver for the last 11 years running. Only when Junior takes the lead in a race are the cheers from the stands audible over the cars, and late on a Sunday night, in a Daytona 500 that had started at lunchtime, been delayed six hours by rain and was finishing in prime time darkness, the cheers were longer, and louder than ever, and no-one talking conspiracy theories.

Dale Jnr - his second 500 win, a decade after the first. (Photo courtesy NASCAR)

Dale Jnr – his second 500 win, a decade after the first. (Photo courtesy NASCAR)

And after all that, in the days following the 500 what was the most discussed aspect of Junior’s victory? That it finally persuaded him to join Twitter – by midweek he had 506,000 followers…

So that was just a couple of highlights of the Daytona 500 – the race that seldom fails to live up to its billing. But now, this weekend, the real trawl gets underway. In 35 races, and eight and a half months’ time, we’ll have a new Sprint Cup champion. And should Junior, like team-mate Johnson, manage to turn Daytona 500 success into his first title, we will probably hear the cheers over here…