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Upton-on-line - Diaspora Edition 30 Aug 2001

Upton-on-line -Diaspora Edition


30th August 2001

Summer lethargy

It is the end of the summer holiday season in France. Holidays have been going on more or less since May when a rash of public holidays prepare people for the tidal wave of closures and reduced services that finally bring life to a standstill in August. Having battled the indolence manfully through to mid-month, upton-on-line finally succumbed and slunk off to the Celtic extremities of Finisterre.

Apart from finally seeing off Ian Kershaw’s vast two volume, 2000 page exegesis on the life of Hitler, weighty thought has been suspended. Hence this brief edition – a summer ‘filler’ for those with time to waste.

Busy people with important thoughts are advised to hit the delete button forthwith. Others may care to dawdle over some thoughts prompted by the arrival of Cuisine magazine.


New Zealand through the eyes of Cuisine

After two weeks in Normandy and Brittany without access to e-mail editions of Colin James in The Herald, Brian Harmer’s news summaries or various unsolicited scooplets from friends convinced that he can’t bear to be without the very latest twist in the People’s Bank saga, upton-on-line returned to his Paris sauna to be greeted by the September edition of Cuisine Magazine.

Two weeks without the dross made Cuisine’s portrait more alluring than normal. It is one of the most sumptuous magazines in the world (to which upton-on-line’s off-line other half has subscribed almost from day one). The visual presentation of feature articles is always impeccable. The recipes ensure that gluttony remains to the forefront in the lexicon of deadly sins. Sometimes even the advertising is consumable.

Read at home, it always provided a touch of glamour to ward off dismal growth statistics or relentless murder enquiries. But read from afar by diasporans, distanced from the violence and the backbiting, its glossy pages conjure up a charmed world of fragrant flavours and whispering visions (mixed metaphors fully intended: this after all is what hedonism is all about).

New Zealand, refracted through the gourmandising prism of Cuisine, finds itself deconstructed and reassembled as an eclectic archipelago of taste sensations and olfactory orgasms located in a parallel universe of cafés, cliff-top retreats and sun-drenched vineyards. People are still searching for the turn-off somewhere near Mangere that leads directly to St Moritz via the temperate Kenyan highlands, sun-drenched Corfu and the vineyards of Napa Valley…

Gosh they must be smart – and affluent!

After all, it’s a land where (just about) everyone seems to do a business degree, become a wine-maker on the side, build a five star mountain aerie for rich reclusive clients and run an importing business specialising in artisanal foodstuffs produced only in the most beautiful settings. And recreationally, it’s positively late-Roman with whole communities dedicating their lives to their tummies through wine evaluations, culinary challenges and kitchens modelled on the Bilbao Guggenheim. Lurking amidst the foodie promotions lies a discrete smattering of expensive motor car, travel and furniture advertisments that ensures a serious balance of payments deficit.

This New Zealand of our dreams

…is exactly what we’ve been persuading foreign lenders to finance for decades now. If foreign investors want to check out kiwi priorities, they needn’t do penance trawling through officially published statistics. A quick indulgent dip in Cuisine magazine provides pleasurable confirmation of a national penchant for fine wines, overseas travel, eating out and generally living for the present. Who’s worrying about knowledge waves when the latest issue invites us to wallow in such priorities as virgin olive oil, ancient Japanese tea rituals in Wanganui (that did startle!), thinking about wintering over on Naxos and using a little limoncello in our risotto.

But what about the service?

Despite the dizzy array of goodies sprouting from North Canterbury hillsides and harbourside tables, Cuisine still finds time to agonise in its latest issue about the quality of service likely to be encountered in kiwi establishments. It made interesting reading for upton-on-line whose own experiences of service in Europe have often been less than stellar. Here’s what Lauraine Jacobs has to say in the September number (Issue 88, page 139):

“We’re all very familiar with the keen initial approach at table: ‘Hi, I’m Kylie and I’m here to look after you tonight’.

“But then, when asked about the wine or the menu, Kylie is likely to say, ‘I don’t know much about the wine,’ or ‘I haven’t tried the food at all but the chicken looks good.’ Or, as I have heard on more than one occasion, ‘Sorry, but this is my first night here’.

“We’re also familiar with slow service. We may be seated for at least 10 minutes before menus appear, we may wait an indecent length of time for our food and then wait again for our plates to be cleared. And then, more often than not, we wait at the end of the night for the bill, and then wait even longer for it to be processed.

“In New Zealand we don’t have the tradition, found in many European countries, where waiting staff see their job as a career and have a very dedicated approach…”

Now it’s true, as Jacobs says, that on any given night in New Zealand there are a disturbing number of young people making their waitering debuts – (and a truly astonishing percentage do seem to be called Kylie…). But the European tradition Jacobs hankers for has so far evaded upton-on-line. It must be lurking somewhere on that undiscovered turn-off for St Moritz.

There may not be so many self-announcing Kylies. But slow service is (at least in France) an art. Upton-on-line’s little brood fully expects to wait 10 minutes for a menu and up to twice that for orders to be taken. Getting l’addition can be an even more Herculean effort. Books for Geoffrey and a discreet pad and felts for Laura have become a mandatory inoculation kit to while away the time.

European formality precludes first name exchanges but the young Kylie look-alikes don’t seem much better informed about the wines. Unlike their kiwi counterparts, French waiters profess opinions but they are frequently couched in terms of such generality that one is none the wiser. (And in any case, how can one verify the claim that the not-to-be-tasted alternative was more full-bodied or less savoureux.)

It is true that upton-on-line is instantly identified as foreign – even before his vowel-mangling tonsils are engaged, French waiters can intuit his anglophone propensities. (Little Laura’s extravagantly Gallic vowels usually neutralise this fatal first impression although in one epic 55 minute wait for initial service a neighbouring (French) diner speculated that we were the victims of French racisme.) But herein lies a deeper message. If you know that your customer is from out of town – and that there are millions more waiting to course through your culinary fastness – what does it matter? Indifferent service yields just the same customers night after night.

Now some might be tempted to suggest that there are tourist joints and real restaurants. And that anyone taking children out to eat should be headed for McDonalds rather than the local café. The trouble is that there’s no clear dividing line. And impeccably behaved children can be less trouble than self-important middle-aged business people on expense accounts.

To upton-on-line’s reasonably practiced eye the problem in France looks to be all too familiar – and it’s universal. In the first place, tourism de-localises restaurants and provides a (relatively) bottomless source of clients who will never be able to visit the sanction of future boycott on offending establishments. This tendency must strengthen as foreign tourist numbers in New Zealand grow.

Secondly, there’s good old cost/benefit analysis. It’s all very well to call for passion (and there are passionate people in the trade everywhere). But you get what you pay for. And if you want fabulously well-informed staff who are happy to retire happy after 40 years of dancing attendance on diners feeling that their lives could not have been more rewarding, then you have to pay them commensurately – (via tips or wages: that’s a separate debate).

At the end of the plat du jour there will always be a trade-off between expensively trained professionals and well-intentioned Kylies trying to get their student loans behind them so they too can indulge an ice-cold limoncello as a post-prandial digestive somewhere in the Canterbury foothills or in the wilds of pinot noir growing Martinborough.

Meanwhile

Upton-on-line is not a little nostalgic for New Zealand cuisine and wine as it had developed six months ago. Dining in France is either a needle-in-a-haystack affair or a serious exercise of cross-checking recommendations in Gault Millau (the Standard & Poors of eating) with advice from friends and acquaintances. A similar nostalgia relates to wine. One in a hundred wine waiters seems interested in the grape varieties that their wines contain and how particular wines diverge from typical characteristics. Wine is sold by Appelation, frequently with little elaboration about Domaine or grape selection. Again, one is left to struggle with the impressionistic verdicts of Bettane & Desseauve – the local Moody’s of wine which can’t, of course, be pulled out at the table without causing a major affront to custom all of its own.

Upton-on-line can hear a rising growl from Wellington’s Peter Rumble, laying into ignorant New World wine lovers. But this unrepentant exile finds the interest kiwi wine-makers and traders have in varietal distinctiveness – and their willingness to talk about it in terms of the growing and processing of the grapes – refreshingly honest.

No doubt, lurking amidst the coups de coeur with which Gault Millau confers its Triple AAA ratings there are gastronomic jewels attended by seraphic stewards. (Upton-on-line can confirm that judgement in at least two cases). But it would be a mistake to add a further “must be better abroad” verdict to the veritable syndrome of national insecurity under which we trade.

The ingenuity of many New Zealand chefs and what they do with their raw materials is legendary. The flair with which it is served tends to be broadly in line with a national character that winces in the face of a fuss. And, of course, the other side of that coin is an ability to be laconically direct when faced with awesomely bad service. Naturally, it’s much easier to do that in your own home town and in your own vernacular!


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