Feature While 2008 was all about super-pricey superfoods and the culinary quest for the exotic, this year could not be more different. Lydia Slater looks forward to a feast of tradition and nutrition.
While 2008 was all about super-pricey superfoods and the culinary quest for the exotic, this year could not be more different. Lydia Slater looks forward to a feast of tradition and nutrition.
If one dish can be said to encapsulate the direction our culinary tastes are taking, it's a brimming bowl of? custard. Scorned by generations for its lumpy, school-dinner associations, custard has experienced an extraordinary revival in recent months. It's hardly surprising. As the economic markets crumble around consumers and food scares succeed each other apparently seamlessly, from bird flu to chemically adulterated Chinese milk and cancer-causing Irish pork, who could blame diners for returning to the consoling dishes of their rose-tinted childhoods? Nourishing but naughty, inexpensive but indulgent, home-made rather than haute cuisine, custard ticks all the boxes of the current gastronomic zeitgeist. The proof of the pudding: at Marks & Spencer, sales have rocketed by an astonishing 140 per cent, a rise that's echoed industry-wide.
This sudden appetite for custard is the tip of a strange gastronomic iceberg. Where the past few years have been characterised by an endless search for the new and exciting, with new Amazonian super-berries hitting the market in an apparently endless stream, the grim economic realities of the current time have seen us scurrying back to the warm embrace of the traditional foods and brands of childhood.
Dishes that seemed consigned to extinction have suddenly re-emerged triumphant. Spotted dick and junket reign supreme on the dessert menus of some of the world's smartest restaurants; Great British school dinners will also be popular for their consoling qualities - "bangers and mash and onion gravy, but with really good quality sausages, for instance," says Ewan Venters, director of food and restaurants at the luxury department store Selfridges. The best-selling product at M&S's Dubai store is the ultimate mash, but pies, sticky toffee pudding and apple crumble are all also flying off the shelves. Hominy grits and cupcakes delight Manhattan's sophisticates and globally the humble chickpea has never been so popular, while the mashed potato has been reinvented as almost a meal in itself, studded with cheese, cabbage or slivers of meat.
Meanwhile, stressed-out bankers are learning long-forgotten culinary skills, working off their angst slapping their own bread doughs at home or heading for after-work butchery classes to stab carcasses under the guise of preparing breast of lamb. Of course, it's not just traditional British cuisine that's coming to the fore this year. In our multicultural society, comfort foods are just as likely to hail from Korea, China, Thailand and India (where people have for centuries been conjuring up tasty and filling food from limited resources), as well as good old Italian staples.
Fabien Martinez, the executive head chef of the Sheraton Dubai Creek Hotel & Towers, predicts a resurgence of interest in Emirati cuisine in Dubai: "It's strange that you can't really get it here at the moment." He predicts that Spanish food will also find favour - unsurprising, as it's highly spiced, flavoursome, inexpensive and often served in small, affordable portions. But you have to feel sorry for the cultivators of micro-veg, who are likely to be having a thinner time of it. Early last year, no plate was complete without a helping of mini carrots, baby cauliflower or finger-sized aubergine. Now, we want our vegetables huge and as gnarly as tree roots - all the better to survive being simmered for hours.
And don't mention nouvelle cuisine (I'm sure nobody did). Comfort food is what it's all about these days. Waistlines are certainly due to take a hit this year, since nobody can survive on an unremitting diet of economic doom and gloom. A splurge on the latest designer handbag may now be out of the question, but a similarly uplifting effect can be achieved by splashing out on a little sweet treat. Across the globe, chocolatiers and confectioners are sitting pretty.
If they've been clever enough to package their product to reflect the current retreat into nostalgia, they are doubly blessed. One such company is Hope & Greenwood, defiantly old-fashioned "purveyors of splendid confectionery", including such favourites as dolly mixtures, acid drops and raspberry ruffles, all in Fifties-style packaging. "That brand is particularly popular with visitors from the Middle East," says Venters. "And we don't sell it, but I'd expect Angel Delight to start selling really well again."
Meanwhile, for lovers of American candy, It'Sugar is the place to go for classic favourites, from gumball machines to Reese's Pieces. "The chocolate market has boomed," says Venters. "It's a pick-me-up, it's fun, indulgent, relatively inexpensive and you can share it, so it ticks all the boxes." Time to buy shares in Nutella? recent food scares have proved once again that very cheap food comes at a price that may well be ethically unacceptable to us.
"In fact, we're seeing people trading up for their basics," insists the food expert Rachel de Thample, who advises the British organic delivery company Abel & Cole. "People might be buying chicken drumsticks rather than chicken breasts, or bigger joints that will last for the week. They're focusing on nourishing staples - bread, milk, veg and meat - which are all healthy." "People aren't ditching their food credentials for price," agrees Venters. "If they bought organic or fair trade before, they are still doing so. What they are cutting down on is waste, which is a good thing."
He's also seen an increase in sales of less fashionable, cheaper meats - "we've had quite strong sales in boiling chickens for stocks and soups, and at the butchery counter people have started asking for shin of beef to use in pies." Meanwhile, sales of luxurious ingredients are also holding up well, as people rediscover that the lavish dinner party costs the same as a single meal in a restaurant.
Although we might like to imagine ourselves as latter-day Mrs Beetons, or present-day Jamie Olivers, arms floury to the elbow, the fact remains that few of us will have the time to cook everything from scratch at home. But because of the new fashion for domesticity, products that cut corners (as opposed to pre-prepared ready meals) will become increasingly popular. "You'd be amazed by how much pre-prepared gravy we sell," says Fiona Moore, Marks & Spencer's head of product development. "Later on, we'd be looking to do things like hollandaise sauces for asparagus." As long as the cook has actually boiled the water for the asparagus, honour is satisfied.
People who regularly go out for a fix of Chinese, Thai or Indian food won't want to give it up merely because they can't afford to eat out any more. Expect dishes like pad Thai to join spaghetti bolognese as domestic staples - with a little help from the supermarkets. "We're very used to cooking pastas in sauce," points out Moore, "but now we see big opportunities to offer noodles in sauce for this year. These sorts of cuisines can be innovative without being expensive. And they're also quite difficult to cook at home, so we can make that easier."
At the very top end, Martinez predicts that it will be more common for private chefs to come and cook dinner parties at home. Restaurants are always slow to reflect current economic trends because they take years to design, finance and build. Hence the rather odd fact that a record number of new restaurants have opened in London in the past three months, despite the appalling economic outlook. How many of these will survive into next year is debatable.
Undoubtedly, the UAE's restaurant scene appears fantastically buoyant. The upcoming Taste of Dubai festival has a third more restaurants participating (21, as compared with last year's 14) and a much bigger marketplace of gourmet food and equipment retailers, as well as promised appearances from the likes of Gary Rhodes, James Martin and Vineet Bhatia. But neither this, nor the recent rush of high-profile Michelin-starred chefs opening up grand restaurants in luxury hotels, is a guarantee of future success, since they were conceived at a time when the boom seemed unstoppable. Although the UAE's dining-out scene is unlikely to be hit as severely as that in the UK, it won't be unaffected.
We can expect to see chefs turning their backs on top-end dining in favour of more casual, bistro-style openings - such as the new openings planned by the Caprice group in Dubai, exporting the relaxed hip of the Ivy, the Rivington and the Caprice from London to warmer climes. Wagamama, with its on-trend offering of comforting noodles in broth, served in simple surroundings, should also do well. "What with the value of the euro against the dollar and the cost of oil, food prices have become a real issue," says Martinez. "We will have to rethink menus to be less expensive, and go into high-yield products where we can. For instance, you'll see less fashionable cuts on menus. Things like beef cheek, tripe, chicken livers are all very good, but people aren't used to eating them."
Of course, the foie gras and caviar will still be available for people that can afford them "but ordering it will look a bit tacky and ignorant", says the Michelin-starred chef Anthony Demetre of the London restaurants Arbutus and Wild Honey. "These days, foodies pride themselves on ordering unfashionable meat and fish, which paradoxically has made them much more expensive. Pollock, which you used not to be able to give away, is now fetching more than cod."
Stuart Gillies, at Gordon Ramsay's popular Boxwood Café, offers screamingly unfashionable skirt steak on his menu, but re-labels it "Hanger steak à l'Americaine", and says his customers can't get enough of it. "I've had to lose our lobster with chips," he says, "because I simply can't justify the price. I've replaced it with a really fantastic New Caledonian prawn." And it's not just about ingredients, but portion control. As part of the same drive to cut costs, tapas-style smaller plates will also become increasingly popular, as a way of offering consumers taste and choice at a miniature price.
Chains that are likely to suffer include coffee shops and snack bars that offer nothing particularly special but have simply become a habit for consumers. For those who can still afford to eat out, the benefits are mixed. The pool of restaurants is likely to shrink, as some abandon unprofitable lunch services (an increasing trend, especially in New York) and other restaurants are likely to lose the struggle for survival altogether. But there are some things to look forward to. Overbooked restaurants will probably give you a table at a normal dining hour rather than insisting you arrive at 6.00pm; waiters will be sweet rather than snooty.
"For a long time, it's been a fairly easy run," says Gillies. "Restaurants were just opening up with any old menu and filling up. Now, people are going to have to offer something really good to survive."
Dining in: Time to get in touch with your inner Mrs Beeton, as staying in becomes the new going out. It is no longer socially acceptable not to know how to boil an egg - especially as brunch will become more popular than ever. Slow-cooked stews and traditional British steamed puddings, swimming in lashings of custard, are making a comeback. If you don't have time to make these, the new ready meals will do them for you - but remember to hide the packets and dust your apron with flour before dishing up. Dining out: Formality will give way to bonhomie and linen tablecloths to paper placemats, and over-flouncy interiors will be toned down to give an air of rustic simplicity. Expect to see restaurants diversifying with areas for more informal eating within the dining area (ie robata grills or paratha bars).
The robust flavours of Spanish and Asian street food will be preferred over the daintiness of highly worked cuisine. Soups, stews, simple curries and hot puddings will make it on to the smartest menus. Traditional culinary skills that once seemed to have died out with the country housewife will be revived - pickled veg (in homely jars) will be appearing on smart tables to accompany the hearty pâtés and home-cured charcuterie. There may be food "happy hours" as restaurants seek to lure in cash-strapped punters with cheap deals or tapas-style plates.
Winners: Spanish cuisine, traditional British favourites, Asian comfort food. Losers: Haute cuisine. Ingredients: Chickpeas, pimentos, root veg - cheap, flavoursome, earthy and essential for the new modern cooking. Unfashionable, less expensive cuts of meat will necessitate a return to slow cooking. "Nose to tail" eating - it'll suddenly seem offally good, while fillet steak becomes the choice of the ill-educated. And it's a welcome return to childhood favourites, from Tate & Lyle's golden syrup (delicious trickled on to white bread and butter) to Angel Delight and Nutella. Expensive chocolate will replace designer accessories as the smart woman's pick-me-up of choice, with retro-look brands coming out on top.