It’s that time again. I’m just about to start filming for the Great British Menu – the seventh series is coming up. I think Ladbrokes should start taking bets on how long the BBC will keep me as their pet Oldie, the one they can point to when accused of not employing older women. But I am looking forward to it. You’d have thought, with all the glorious food I have eaten in a long life, I’d be sick to death of Michelin star gastronomy. But every year new top chefs bring their imagination, creativity and taste buds to the challenge and do simply amazing things.
People often ask me what my favourite dish is, or what style of cooking I like, and the truth is, it depends on what I have just eaten. If I am going out for a very smart celebration dinner in an expensive restaurant then I won’t want any of it if I have been foolish enough to have a big lunch. But if I’ve skipped lunch and had a fruit-only breakfast I will be ready for anything the chef puts before me – even a tasting menu of 30 tastes from Heston Blumenthal.
The other thing that influences me, beside the fullness of my tum, is the company I’m in. I would never have gone to Heston’s Fat Duck or the famous, now no more, El Bulli inSpain with someone not interested in food. My beloved husband could not stand all the foodie talk and the constant interruptions by the waiters as they poured liquid nitrogen into a bowl to freeze tequila sorbet at the table, or explained that the pearl size blob green blob on the salt spoon was concentrated tarragon and had to be left to melt on the tongue immediately after a mouthful of pomelo granitè, or some such gastronomic instruction. But to go to these places with other people, like my daughter (as obsessed with food as me) or a restaurant chef or manager is a fantastic experience.
I have been thinking a lot about food styles of late, because I am a director of the hotel company, Orient-Express Hotels, just declared the best in the world by the Leading Quality Assurance organisation which goes about testing everything from the quality of the bath bubbles to the smile on the waiter’s face. And food is central to customer perception of course, so we are always keen to know what our customers want.
Since we are unashamedly expensive, our customers are pretty well of, ranging from an elderly couple celebrating their golden wedding with a once-in-a-life-time-treat at the Cipriani in Venice or Mount Nelson in Cape Town, to seriously rich young business people who eat too much good food in too many luxury hotels. It is not a circle very easy to square: older couples tend to want peace and quiet, no children, very sophisticated food, room service and plenty of spa treatments. Young couples want a great spa too, but also a terrific modern gym, a kid’s club, things for children to do, and other things for themselves to do, and very simple, fashionable, delicious meals that don’t take too long. They also want the best chefs in the world, but they want light, healthy, modern food, not French gastronomy.
I’m 71, but I find myself agreeing with both sides of this discussion. I do love classic haute cuisine with its reliance on reduced wine sauces, cream, butter, confit of this and confit of that, rich slow cooking, plenty of protein. But since I am a lot less active than I was when I worked ten hour days in the kitchen, I would be positively mountainous if I ate like that now. As it is I am two stone heavier than I was when I opened my first restaurant and at least a stone heavier than I should be. I am still working hard and very very busy (though not on my feet all day) so light, quick, healthy food is what I mostly prefer. And years worrying about the way children eat (I was Chair of the School Food Trust) has made me very aware that the perfect diet consists of almost no fat, very little protein, rather more (healthy) carbohydrate, and plenty of veg and fruit.
But I am such a sybarite I refuse to give up completely on the lamb shanks and ox cheeks, the butter-fried kidneys in a mustard cream sauce, the terrines and pates of my belovedFrance. So my solution (which I don’t always stick to) is to eat these things, in very small portions with a lot of brilliant veg.
The chef who knows absolutely how to marry the needs of both types of customer, is Raymond Blanc, the gastronomic genius behind our famous Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons in Oxfordshire. His restaurant is packed, lunch and dinner, day after day. And the customers are of every age and nationality and the food is astonishing. The portions are small - hungry rugby players can have it all again if they like – and sensational. The veg and salads taste (and often are) picked that day, the colours are electric-bright, the combinations original or classic but never over-contrived. Only one problem. Resisting puds is impossible.
When I fixed up the ancient barn as my “old age home” I thought I would live in it for years. But my children objected to my proposed sale of their childhood home so we’ve now decided to let the barn, and I will move back into the house and hope to see my grandchildren run about the place as their Dad did. The truth is the barn is beautiful for one, but hopeless for babies and children.
So it back to upheaval. The builders, who are re-wiring, re-plumbing and re-roofing the house at the moment, will I hope, be out for Christmas and we will have a massive party with both barn and house to shelter extended family and friends.
Bats permitting, that is. I discover that my house belongs to ten bats. I am not allowed to carefully re-house them in the outbuildings with the hundreds of their cousins already there. I have to wait until they are good and ready to go off for six weeks in early October to find mates or whatever they do. Until then we cannot even look into the attic. And then, when they come back, everything in the attic must be as they left it, presumably with a welcome mat saying, Milk in the fridge, Heating turned on.
I finally delivered the first draft of Relish, my Memoir last month, and it came winging back from my editor with instructions to chop out thirty thousand words (it is too long, I agree) and lose a lot of the business stuff and the charity stuff. I am not so sure. Do readers only want food and love? Tell me, please!