Sunday, 1 January 2017

5. Are Potatoes A First Course Or Just An Accompanying Vegetable?

Van Gogh's "The Potato Eaters"

  I had a home for many years in Sheffield and whilst finding Yorkshiremen friendly and straightforward I did manage to get a feeling of how cautious many of them could be when it came to spending money. Thus when you visit them and they are kind enough to serve you a roast beef dinner, they can't resist feeding you with a starter of a large plate of Yorkshire pudding thus rendering you considerably full before you get to the main course and resulting in there being no need to serve you quite as much expensive beef as would have otherwise been the case had you not been laden down with a stomach full of batter.

  Recently I have set about wondering whether Brummies are turning into Yorkshiremen by following a similar strategy - that of filling you with potatoes in the place of a batter pudding as a starter thus reducing the amount of meat or fish that is needed to be served resulting in a lower cost of ingredients used in a main course dish.

  Take Carter's Of Moseley for instance where the cooking is fine enough to earn Brad Carter a Michelin star but where, after a couple of delightful appetisers, a dish of Mayan Gold potatoes, perfectly mashed but perhaps a little less buttery than I should like, is served as the first course of the lunchtime menu with a light bone marrow gravy. The dish is generously sized and its contents not surprisingly filling so that to wish for large dishes of meat to follow would result in abdominal discomfort were those wishes brought to realisation.
Mayan Gold potato

  Then there was Glynn Purnell's splendid special Christmas dinner which was tied to the launch of his new book, Rib Ticklers & Choux-Ins, which got off to a fabulous start with champagne and delicious appetisers but then moved on to a potato-based starter - tiny baked potatoes with a slightly underwhelming chorizo mayonnaise - which was, to be honest, not really all that nice. The problem with baked potatoes is that they really are at their best when served with butter and salt and not a lot else - of course nowadays we have the ubiquitous "jackets" filled with cheese, baked beans, chilli and so on but there is nothing like a fair-sized perfectly baked potato stuffed with with a big melting lump of butter sprinkled with salt to one's taste. These mini-potatoes might have looked good to the standard one might have expected from a Michelin chef but they were more style than substance. Still the meal improved considerably after that.

  Chefs! - potatoes are wonderful things. They rank among the highest placed of God's gifts to Man but they are not a basis for a first course. Potatoes are an accompaniment not a starter. 

  Just look at Van Gogh's painting shown above which is called "The Potato Eaters" - the subjects do not really look as though they're enjoying their meal. Now if they had been served with a bit of meat at the same time, perhaps a little gravy as well, think how much more cheerful they might have looked. Of course they are French peasants so that may also explain their facial expressions to some degree. 

  I hope the "Potato starter" is not going to be a trend in 2017. Otherwise I might end up looking like Van Gogh's French peasants. That would be a pity. Brummie chefs - please do not turn into honorary Yorkshiremen.