Fake News versus Real Food

Posted by in April's Magazine

Tom Wheeler The No Recipe Man

This morning, I heard the creak of the letterbox followed by the sound of something landing on the doormat. It was a familiar sound: not the soft nestle of a letter or the pleasing thunk of a parcel, but something in between. In other words, it sounded like junk mail – or possibly the new fun-sized Yellow Pages, each year’s edition a fraction tinier and sadder than the last, but still gamely carrying on just in case someone absent-mindedly deletes the Internet tomorrow. Either way, I concluded, this didn’t sound like anything that demanded my immediate attention. How wrong I was.

When I finally cast a cursory eye towards the front door, I realised the folly of judging one’s post by acoustics alone. This mid-weight mail turned out to be neither a miniaturised phone book nor an invitation to be turned down for a platinum Barclaycard, but something more exciting: a free full-colour magazine called Wetherspoon News. I opened it eagerly, anxious to learn what those zany Spoonsters had been up to recently. Perhaps they’d bought up and converted a few more live music venues, given Edinburgh’s well-known surfeit of these and contrasting dearth of Wetherspoon pubs. Sadly for me, the magazine contained rather less news than its title implied, comprising instead a series of plugs for NEW menu items (I was particularly entertained to read that their NEW half-size breakfast portions provide ‘a lighter choice with lower calories’), along with a bizarre centrepiece entitled Circle of Deceit.


Andrew Fairlie’s signature smoked lobster, warm lime and herb butter. welcometoscotland.com

According to Spoon Supremo Tim Martin – not, you suspect, a man prone to excessive self-doubt – the aforementioned circle is the creation of a handily non-specific “metropolitan elite”, whose sole aim is to hoodwink the Great British Public into believing that a cliff-edge Brexit might be something other than a marvellous idea. A cynic might view his piece as thinly veiled propaganda for no deal – extremely thinly veiled, in fact, to the extent that it makes an averagely thin veil look like Captain Scott’s balaclava. 

If you were feeling super-sceptical, you might also observe that the Wetherspoon business model of low margins, low prices and high volume, combined with its existing dominance of the market, might leave it ideally placed to benefit while everything else goes to shit. Granted, a few thousand smaller bars and restaurants might fall by the wayside, but as a Wetherspoon chef might say, you can’t make an omelette without pasteurised liquid egg (or something along those lines).

It was with a mind still uncomfortably full of Wetherspoon and Brexit that I heard the sad news that Andrew Fairlie, arguably Scotland’s greatest chef, had died aged just 55. Having neither met him nor sampled his cooking, that’s not an argument into which I feel qualified to wade. But in the light of what I’d just read, I did find myself wondering what post-Brexit belt-tightening (anticipated by just about everyone except Tim) will mean for high end cooking in general, and for independent restaurants in particular. This is a question especially pertinent to Leith, which has long punched above its weight when it comes to serious cooking and Michelin stars. But if Tim turns out to be wrong and Brexit does leave us all worse off, we may well conclude that fine dining is a luxury we simply can’t afford. Here’s why that would be entirely the wrong conclusion.

Granted, you’d have to sacrifice an awful lot of Wetherspoon burgers to cover the price of the Kitchin tasting menu, but that’s not exactly comparing like with like. So consider instead how much you spend on slightly more upmarket chain grub. I had dinner at an increasingly ubiquitous noodle chain the other evening. With the exception of an allegedly steamed, allegedly Korean bun, as cold and sterile as the fridge it had just emerged from, none of it was actively unpleasant – but it was barely eaten than forgotten. With one drink apiece, it was also fifty quid for two of us. 

It was with a mind still uncomfortably full of Wetherspoon and Brexit that I heard the sad news that Andrew Fairlie, arguably Scotland’s greatest chef, had died aged just 55

Now the comparison becomes more pertinent: if I forego just two meals of that type, I can comfortably afford the set lunch at Martin Wishart where I’m bound to try at least one thing that I’ll remember for years rather than seconds. And it’s entirely possible I’ll have a revelatory experience with an ingredient I never knew I liked, as happened to me recently at the Little Chartroom on Leith Walk. My fillet of cod was splendid, but the abiding memory is of the kale on which it sat: deftly seasoned, deep green and perfectly al dente, crisped at its edges by some combination of fire and fat, and utterly unlike any kale I’d ever eaten. 

The next day I found myself putting kale into my shopping basket for the first time in years, because now I know what it can taste like. With due respect to its various shiny franchises, that’s never happened to me at Ocean Terminal – which is why, if post-Brexit penury leaves me facing a choice between a little of one and a lot of the other, it’s really no contest at all.

Twitter: @norecipeman

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