Julie Bindel

The great posh food con

Scarcity doesn’t mean tasty

  • From Spectator Life

I had taken a friend out for a significant birthday, to a high-end French joint in London. We ordered the tasting menu, an eight course extravaganza with wine pairings. It was not a cheap date, but a special occasion. The third course was a tiny bowl of herb risotto, and as it was served, a waiter appeared holding a large white truffle and a tiny grater, asking if we would like some shavings from the magnificent looking beast. I politely declined, but my friend answered, ‘Of course, why not?’

Please do not confuse me with the likes of Jack Monroe

Why had I turned down this luxurious offering? Not only because of the £30 supplement on the already monumental price of the meal, which of course the waiter didn’t mention to my dining companion (only my menu contained prices). The main reason was because I can’t stand the stuff – it smells and tastes a bit like wet dog. As the waiter shaved off a few translucent slithers with great aplomb, I caught a whiff of exhaust fumes and old leather.

The market price for white truffle is up to £600 for 100g. Extraordinary. Does anyone actually like the taste of truffle? Perhaps what they are impressed with is the cost and the rarity. But it’s not just this ingredient, it’s also, for example, gold leaf. At approaching £100 for a gramme of the ‘good stuff’, and often found on poncy desserts, such as cupcakes and chocolate mousse, edible gold leaf is supposed to bring glamour to a dish. The type of restaurant filled with perma-tans and Gucci would serve it on an overcooked steak, or add it to cocktails. 

Basically, it is a very expensive decoration, and fairy tricky to use. The leaves are delicate, so they tear and wrinkle and can be blown away into oblivion. In other words, they are the biggest fuss known to humanity, and have absolutely no taste at all.

Which brings me to saffron, one of the most expensive spices in the world. It has a pungent, metallic flavour, and for me, it’s only value is the strong yellow colour that’s immediately noticeable in food such as pilau rice. But in any dish where there are strong flavours, it simply gets lost. It is a bit like food colouring with a nasty aftertaste. Sargol saffron market rate is £9.00 per gramme. 

And now the biggest cliche in luxury ingredients: caviar. I tried it once when on a story in Russia, expecting to be hugely impressed. It was served with frozen vodka, on a thin cracker, and it tasted a little bit like the stuff that comes in a jar in Waitrose for about three quid, but not nearly as nice.  The prices for black caviar range from £50 to £300 per 100g. This caviar is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the most expensive in the world. Trout caviar is £6.50 for the same amount. I defy you to tell me the difference. 

But please do not confuse me with the likes of Jack Monroe. I am not about to start cooking from cheap, out of date tins and setting fire to myself to keep warm. Anyone that reads my columns here will perhaps have worked out that much of my expendable income goes on good quality food and booze.

So, what is it worth splurging out on? Really good quality tomatoes for example, the best cheese from a proper outlet rather than supermarket, olive oil, coffee beans, and sea salt. Cheap coconut milk always diminishes a dish, and vinegar is far better if you go high-end. Cheap tinned tomatoes are horrible, bitter and watery, so I always buy the most expensive. Same with butter: the best Guernsey is far superior to the cheap variety. I have a rule that any wine I use in cooking has to be good enough to drink.

But gold leaf, caviar and truffles tend to remind me of the rather crude, sexist phrase popular in the north of England, ‘all fur coat and no knickers’, meaning a posh appearance and no substance. That £30 supplement for the few shavings of truffle at my friend’s birthday meal was left off the bill, by accident. It restored my believe in natural justice.