02 September 2019, 09:46 am
Fine Food by Charles Campion

The thoughtful diner’s watchword is that “you cannot have anything better than exactly what you want.”

If your heart is set on a Dover sole then the finest sirloin steak in the land will not ring the bell. It’s the same when food shopping: if you setout to buy asparagus you will get little sympathy for returning with Hispi cabbage. We are what we eat and increasingly Britons are up for eating adventures. At some point in the past decade or so, trying novel, exotic and often expensive foods has become the rule, not the exception.

Cast your mind back to the Noughties. Foodies had moved on from the mantra of prawn cocktail, steak and Black Forest gâteaux that dogged the Seventies… but only just. The time for trying new food and drink – rather than sticking to the over-cooked veggies and relentlessly cooked meat of “Granny knows best” – has arrived. This year, as you’ll have spotted, a handful of respected middleweight restaurant chains have gone bust. Intriguingly, this may be linked to dullness. Food has got more exciting and some of the failures may be linked to lack of ambition – certainly rents, rates and uncertainty will have played their part, but some restaurants are failing because they are not exciting or interesting enough. The food businesses that are winning are those offering something new and interesting. It has been a long time coming but anyone in, or around, the food business will be encountering a new kind of consumer. These folk query prices, sustainability, value and convenience – but they have an open mind when it comes to the unfamiliar.

This summer there are signs that even the most obscure delicacies are starting to get a fair trial. For the average, often old-established, restaurant chains there were a few developments that set the alarm bells ringing. Typical is Jeow Jeow – until September a pop-up restaurant in a Soho pub The Sun and 13 Cantons. The head chef is Tania Knott, ably assisted by her food writer husband Bill. And what is the cuisine making headlines at Jeow Jeow? Lao food, plus dishes from the length of the Mekong river. The menu lurches from larb with pork and crabmeat and a battered trout dish to kaipen (dried cured river algae) and padaek (a fermented fish sauce). And what are two (admittedly well-travelled) Brits doing running a kitchen like this? Isn’t it encouraging to see that Brit diners can be broad-minded enough to try the food of the Mekong?

Naturally the big supermarkets make it their business to spot these trends and started looking for something… anything… new. The increasing interest in what’s new and obscure has been driven by a series of articles in the broadsheets. Grasshopper pasta, anybody? Or the spotlight may be thrown onto cultivating jellyfish as a source of protein. Do not fear, the jellyfish prediction has a timeline of “2169” so it’s unlikely that the boffin who made the prediction will be around to see who was right. Meanwhile, in the real world, food businesses should embrace this new generation of adventurous shoppers. We are all in for a lively ride and can finally move on from that Black Forest gâteaux.

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