Choux swans for F. Scott Fitzgerald

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Before the first lockdown, I came across a collection of magazines, called A La Carte, in a charity shop. They appeared to have been published between the early and late 1980s.

As time passed, and the nation’s obsession with all things food orientated gathered pace, I dug them out of the garage, dusted them down, and set to with relish.

They were, as you might well imagine, indicative of that gaudy decade, absolute catnip for this inveterate cynic.

One recipe allows only for lemon with ‘good’ skins while another demands that French butter is simply a must (‘no skimping’). A third suggests ‘if you can’t get fresh Parmesan use dried up Cheddar’. Raspberry hollandaise is championed as ‘an unusual foil for salmon’ – I’ll bet it is.

Veal cutlet with kiwi fruit and Advocaat (whoof!) is delivered to table by ‘attractive staff’ at the Papillion restaurant. Which ‘is constructed around a swimming pool’ away from ‘traffic noise and fumes’. Of course it is… Good advert Holiday Inns!

Fussy garnishes abound; tomato roses, tomato petals with cucumber skin stems, fronds made from peppers, Van Dyked tomatoes…

Around this time my training had reached the level of entermetier – a chef in charge of vegetables, soups and farinaceous dishes.

I recall carving three-dimensional stars out of potatoes, tying up bunches of string beans in a bow made from slivers of malformed beans, and ‘turning’ mushrooms – the 80s foodie equivalent of shoulder pads and big hair, which brought nothing to the table except hours of useless toil. I doubt that job exists today.

My but A La Carte magazine had the big hitters: the irreducible Jonathan Meades on Italian restaurants in London, ‘…the décor is promising; in other words it’s fairly awful’.

Jane Grigson offers a thousand words on Dover sole, illustrated by the delightfully monikered Chloe Cheese.

Speaking of which, there is a fifteen hundred-word review of a single cheese, St Nectaire.

In fairness, A La Carte had faith in their readership’s attention span; a three page round up of cookbooks contains only one passport-sized photograph in an ocean of words.

And here comes Nigel Slater who must have been about two years old at the time. Precocious with it though: all kumquats, cape gooseberries, tamarillos and persimmons (or, as the 80s would have it, Sharon fruit).

However, even in nappies he still had it. Grilled goat’s cheese topped with grated Parmesan and crushed juniper berries is a trio of ingredients well worth revisiting.

I was in between seasonal hotel jobs in the early 80s, the decade of A La Carte magazine’s inception, wintering at the Braid Hills Hotel; then still mired in the culinary practices of the 1950s.

Just before every evening service, a curious ritual took place; at 5.30 precisely a table was dragged into the middle of the kitchen before being laid to the finest specifications.

Whereupon the head chef would cook whatever we, his brigade, requested. The equivalent if you like, before the mayhem of evening service ensued, of a condemned man’s final meal.

The table soon groaned with plates of veal Holstein and truites amandine but, ever the contrarian, I would order double egg & chips accompanied by diagonally sliced bread slathered with butter, every single night!

The German chef (touching 70) and Swiss pastry chef (a breath short of his 90s) would entrance me with stories of kitchens long gone and I would never get further than breaking the yolks of my eggs with my doughy triangles, awed mouth too agape for chewing. Waiting…

…For their stories of baking choux swans for F. Scott Fitzgerald in a Swiss mountain hotel (later to surface in Tender is the Night) or the horrors that passed for 5 star hotel cuisine in Berlin during and after the war.

Waiting still.

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And here comes Nigel Slater who must have been about two years old at the time

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