Why Her Ladyship calls a spud a spud

WOULD madam care for some purée of petit pois and hand-cut pomme frites to accompany her confit of ground lamb encased in a baked pastry shell?

If the diner concerned is the Scottish aristocrat and culinary expert Lady Claire Macdonald, the answer would be an emphatic No - though she would not object to peas and chips with her pie.

The award-winning cookery writer yesterday said pretentious restaurateurs who serve small portions and use fancy words on the menu should "be shot".

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The plain-speaking cook called for an end to ostentatious "menu speak".

"I like to cut to the chase. When people start getting too flowery and poetic I think it becomes farcical," she said.

Lady Claire, who is married to Lord Godfrey Macdonald of Macdonald, the high chief of the Clan Donald, claims that British cookery is immersed in snobbery and that the desire to be posh is strangling the production of good food.

She said: "To me, posh is a derisory term, and that epitomises it in the food world. Whoever thought of it should be shot, slowly - or hanged, drawn and quartered."

Lady Claire, who has published 16 best-selling cookery books, singled out the use of "enrobed" and "bathed" rather than "steeped" or "marinated" as two particular pet hates.

She added: "There is so much false pomp with menus and presentation. When you get 'lovingly slaughtered', what you really want to know is if the food is properly hung.

"If you have a smooth sauce, instead of saying velut, say velvety. It means the same."

The cook, who runs the Kinloch Lodge 4-star hotel on the Isle of Sky with her husband, also criticised restaurants for falling prey to the "vogue from hell" and presenting food in a tower.

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She said: "You haven't enough sauce to put on the prongs of a fork. It looks jolly pretty but you haven't got enough to taste. It is done more for the eye than the mouth. Food should look nice, but not at the expense of being able to get a really good forkful. It's infectious and it should be vaccinated against."

She continued: "We need plain speech. Facts are what is needed by people reading menus."

Fellow chef Antony Worrall Thompson applauded Lady Macdonald for her outspokenness and named Jean Christophe Novelli, the chef at Hell's Kitchen in London, as responsible for the revival of nouvelle cuisine.

He said: "I ate from his menu at Hell's Kitchen and I wished that I had stuck with Gary Rhodes's simpler menu. Each dish was at least three lines long and it was a complete load of rubbish. Perfume of this and puddle of that is a complete nonsense to me.

"Sadly, Jean-Christophe will have influenced other chefs with his menu harking back to nouvelle cuisine and style over substance. Michelin-star hotels are notorious for making things over-flowery. They believe description means they can add another ten quid to the dish.

"I for one will not be following that trend. Basic, honest description is what it's about, otherwise customers feel conned."

Thompson said Scots chefs, such as Nick Nairn, were previously guilty of producing very complex dishes, but are now increasingly retro in their approach. Nairn commented that using overly-descriptive terms was a 1990s trend.

He said: "This kind of language is just gastro-rubbish really. You normally find it in country house hotels where ambition overreaches and food doesn't live up to the menu.

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"The trend started in the 90s, when chefs started to enter competitions. The food got more complicated for the sake of it."

But Andrew Fairlie, chef at Gleneagles, defended the practice: "Some things aren't directly translatable. Why is an English description better than a French or Mexican term? People can always ask the waiter."

Lost in translation

"TURBOT and langoustine en papillotte with Perigord truffle butter" means fish and large prawns cooked in a paper bag with butter made from French truffles.

"Fillet of seabass, fennel caponata, tapenade, fennel veloute" means bass with an aubergine stew, mashed olives and a white sauce.

"Twice-cooked Anjou squab and ravioli of kohlrabi" means pigeon with pasta stuffed with a turnip-type cabbage.

"Pressed terrine of foie gras, monkfish and trompette de la mort, Madeira dressing" means liver, fish and mushrooms in a wine sauce.

Less is more when plain speaking describes fancy food

THERE'S no space for food fashion in the Highlands and Islands. Just sound, locally reared produce and a stern attitude to frippery.

Fortunately, it isn't too often that any of us is forced to grapple with "dawn-picked mushrooms" or "sun-ripened asparagus slaked with a butter-enriched, hand-beaten hollandaise"... or whatever purple prose might be applied to the most straightforward combinations of the kitchen.

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It was the 1980s which introduced this apex of absurdity. The daringly innovative break from cream-laden sauces and the classic French repertoire of Escoffier and Carme which sparked nouvelle cuisine - a new way of cooking intended to intensify flavour, and celebrate simplicity, was soon corrupted.

It translated into coin-sized towers of wafer-thin food, eternally surrounded by a raspberry jus or a kiwi coulis. Offering barely a decent bite per course, it was piled on to glossy black plates at maximum expense and with minimum impact on the appetite.

The edible world was suddenly "sun-drenched and freshly-plucked", it was "swathed, bathed and fragranced".

But now the biggest names in Scottish cooking - Andrew Fairlie, Jeff Bland, Geoffrey Smeddle - all favour straightforward menu descriptions. What happens in their kitchens is far from straightforward, but that's their secret. And the enticing mystery of fine cooking.

Today, the more succinct the description, the better the food is likely to be. Rosy-fingered dawn need not tamper with your chanterelles ever again.