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Gastro-nomics: a foodie’s guide to a changing world

18 December 2021

9:00 AM

18 December 2021

9:00 AM

Twice recently I’ve been asked my opinion of ‘Doughnut Economics’. The first time, I was tempted to cover my ignorance with a Johnsonian impromptu riff on supply-chain issues in the deep-fried batter sector. But sensing seriousness I steered off and googled the phrase later, so I was ready the second time to discuss Kate Raworth’s 2018 book of that title, about why we should abandon pursuit of GDP growth in favour of a gentler model in which we take better care of nature and each other — illustrated by her ‘doughnut of social and planetary boundaries’.

That’s a debate for another day, but what I really admire is the title itself, inviting readers to think about the changing world by way of sweetmeats: very much what this column tries to do in parables disguised as restaurant tips. Hoping to match Kate’s catchiness, I’ve decided to call my version ‘gastro-nomics’ and (with readers’ help) offer a global Christmas tour of good tables that highlight social change and entrepreneurial trends — starting, close to home, with optimism and resilience.

After I wrote in August about moving to the central-London enclave of Seven Dials, many of you assumed I’d left Yorkshire for good. But I still spend time in the small town of Helmsley, whose hospitality trade has attracted a tide of investment as the pandemic recedes. Our best hotel, the Black Swan, once a chintzy outpost of the Forte empire, has been restyled as a shooters’ and hikers’ inn. New restaurants — Bantam, The Log Room, Market Grill — have won praise from local eaters.

The only black spot, literally, is the ruin of the historic Star Inn at nearby Harome, which burned down a month ago but will be back, I hear, by next Christmas. ‘Life goes on,’ chef Andrew Pern declared. ‘You pick yourself up and get on with it.’

Another local hero is multiple restaurateur Francois Strydom. I interrupted him plating pasta at La Trattoria and asked what he thought of the town’s sudden increase in eating choices and covers. ‘More competition is good,’ he said, ‘and I like to be busy.’ A useful point: post-furlough labour shortages are partly due to people (egged on by Prince Harry) who just don’t want to be busy again. I predict they’ll regret that choice. Busyness — the origin of ‘business’ — boosts morale as much as prosperity.

I’ll have the camel

Then there’s brand strength derived from longevity, of which The Spectator itself is such a fine example. In Seven Dials, the Punjab counts 70 years under four generations of the Maan dynasty. Mon Plaisir, founded in the 1940s, has been kept by the Lhermitte family since 1972. Capping both, a reader who celebrated his ruby wedding in Paris praises the grand old Tour d’Argent — famed for its pressed duckling served in three courses — which claims 16th-century ancestry. It’s another model of resilience too, having survived the siege of Paris in the winter of 1870 by serving camel from the zoo.

Off the menu

The sugary, fatty, factory-made doughnut is an odd image to attach to a virtuous school of economics — and a reminder that today’s chefs need to cater for diners’ sensibilities well beyond healthiness of ingredients. My Meghan-watcher in Montecito, California, tells me that ladies who lunch there favour ‘minimally processed plant-based cuisine’ at Oliver’s, alias ‘vegan without the cruelty to vegetables’.

Crustaceans have feelings too, we’re told — which must spell doom for the giant lobster salads popular with yachties at Duryea’s on the north fork of Long Island. As for the six courses of grilled meats offered by Italy’s most famous butcher, Dario Cecchini, at Panzano in Tuscany, better get there before Brussels makes it illegal. Likewise foie gras, of which one French-resident reader claims to have tracked down the world’s best, made by the chef’s mother at Le Petit Moulin in Martel (Lot). ‘I’m sorry for the ducks,’ my correspondent writes, ‘but the score is evened by the fact I had two heart attacks in the course of my research.’

Food miles

Then there’s the issue of diners’ air miles. Spectator folk are tireless travellers — but for how long? Recent suggestions in my inbox include Cuz’s Fish Stand at Bridgetown, Barbados, for flying fish sandwiches; Les Teresas in Seville for tapas; Tortuga Mexican street food in Boca Grande, Florida; Sublime Comporta Beach Club in Portugal if you just want to meet a groovy crowd; and Sunrise Bandas for the best seafood in Zanzibar. But if long-distance gastronomy will soon be off the menu too, I’m safer passing on this tip from our wine editor Jonathan Ray: the tiny Bottega Caruso is ‘a complete and utter gem’ in Margate.

Cocktail of sin

Speaking of catchy names, a friend once dragged me into a low dive and bought me a Porn Star Martini — derived, she claimed, from the anatomical appearance of the passion fruit slice that floats on the flesh–coloured mix of fruit purée, Passoã liqueur and vanilla vodka. London barman Douglas Ankrah, who invented it in 2002, claimed more coyly that the name came to him ‘because I thought it was something a porn star would drink’. Whatever, it was reported by 2018 to be the UK’s most popular cocktail.

And that’s a problem — a source in the trade tells me — for a listed company that operates dozens of glitzy urban venues. Eager to polish their ‘ESG’ credentials, its directors commissioned a carbon audit which revealed its worst sin to be consumption of air-flown passion fruits from South America. Worse, says my mole, ‘no one actually eats the slice. At best it flops on to your nose when you knock back the drink’. So the fresh produce has been replaced by a paper lookalike. They could rename it the COP26 Martini, but it’ll never catch on.

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