The Restaurant – A History of Eating Out
Simon & Schuster UK
pp 268 £20
When William Sitwell laid down his pen (sounds so much better than hit the last keystroke and pressed Ctrl-S) at the end of this book, he little imagined that just as it came to market all restaurants would shut. For those of us who are suffering withdrawal systems, it’s a great panacea for what we are missing.
Many of you may be familiar with Mr Sitwell. He is a regular judge on Masterchef, where his quizzical and quirky (but always scrupulously fair) comments are a standout. He was editor of Waitrose magazine for many years until shamefully ousted as a result of the leaking, by a so called friend, of a slightly injudicious email concerning vegans. His excellent restaurant reviews for The Telegraph are, surprisingly, quite well hidden in its little magazine, as opposed to featuring in the food section on a Saturday. His writing credentials are, therefore, in no doubt. He has done a copious amount of research, which he wears lightly. (Far too many such books want to rub your nose in every arcane fact which the author has uncovered.) And, miraculously, he attracts praise from Marco Pierre White, a tribute even more fulsome than the latter bestows on a certain brand of stock cube.
Each of the 18 chapters is a satisfying plate in its own right. The book is written in chronological order beginning in AD 79 and bringing us right up to date, plus some thoughts on the future – though sadly the crystal ball will be showing rather different images just now. The historians among you will recognise the date as the destruction of Pompeii. Quoting Professor Mary Beard, the book tells us that the town was a place in which hospitality was the cornerstone, the social scene a cross between Las Vegas and Brighton.
The stories of the next two millennia are equally fascinating. Mr Sitwell warns us against writing off the importance of the Ottoman Empire (it did last 600 years, for Allah’s sake). Food on the move and small sharing plates, he reminds us, are not a modern invention, but the creations of the likes of the Seljuks, the Mongols, the Ilkhanids and the Memluks.
I could happily take a kernel from each and every chapter to share. Some of the history is familiar to the average foodie, but much is new. What of the 14th century “restaurant reviewer” Ibn Battuta, who visited 40 countries in 30 years, eating out everywhere he went? Or the first recorded sighting of a table cloth – in England in 1410. The rise of the coffee house is well enough known: but not, I would suggest, the fact that in London in 1700 there was one for every 1000 inhabitants – 40 times the proportion in New York today. Charles II, incidentally, tried to suppress coffee houses to restrain the spreading of false news.
The word for the modern eating place takes its name from the French restauration. Restaurants as we know them today are an unintended by-product of the French Revolution. With their masters headless, a vast number of talented chefs and waiting staff found themselves unemployed. They set up establishments to support themselves in the only way they knew. Paris continued its importance in the rise and development of the industry. In the 19th century another Frenchman, Marie-Antoine Carême, codified French cuisine and turned it into gastronomy. His organisational systems for grand kitchens exist to this day.
Writing of 20th century Britain, it is impossible to disguise how far our food standards had fallen. (Interestingly, many travellers to our shores in the 17th and 18th century wrote good things about how well they ate. Sadly, this seems to have been the case more in England than here in Scotland.) The rise in the last half century has been equally impressive. I was much impressed by a comment made by Sir Charles Forte in the 1960s. Being attacked by Bernard Levin on the quality of his establishments Sir Charles replied, I think we shall soon find that people will be coming to Britain for cooks, instead of British people going to the Continent to find them. Oh, my prophetic soul.
From there, standards rise. (Food, that is – the book is of uniform quality throughout). The Roux brothers are given their place, not just as chefs who raised the culinary bar to unimagined heights, but who trained a generation of British apostles who would venture out and spread the word. Other major milestones and missionaries are marked and given their place, bringing us up to date. The influence of guides, whether those which in some cases have literally had the power of life and death, such as Michelin, is commented on. Egon Ronay, The Good Food Guide, newspaper critics and, firmly below the salt, the food blogger, all receive their place, whatever your own view of them may be.
This book is an 18 course feast, one which you will devour far too quickly. Unlike a culinary equivalent, neither dyspepsia nor a dietary requirement will follow. Instead you will be tempted to go back to course one and gorge all over again.
In a laudable move to support food businesses, The Scotsman newspaper has issued a list of local and not so local companies still walking on through the storm. You can find the list at www.foodanddrink.scot/support-local/