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In celebration of simplicity

01 December 2005

I was in Sicily for a week recently. Not a culinary tour, just a break with some random eating out. Pesce spade, pasta con sarde, spaghetti vongole, those kind of things. Nothing complex, almost invariably delicious, sure to make you smile.

It wasn't a revelation in any way, just more of a reminder that this is the beating heart of good food, two or three things on a plate, classic combinations, deep respect for the ingredients - surely this is what it's all about.

I used to think I was on the side of the angels on this point, but increasingly I look at my time at the AA and realise I was part of the problem. Guidebooks, for all their claims of being champions of simplicity, still struggle not to send out the opposite message.

Take the 2006 Good Food Guide (GFG) for instance. The Fat Duck rightly scores nine, but Heston Blumenthal's other operation, the Hinds Head, with its sublime oxtail and kidney pudding, scores just three. Is it scoring three because that's all that this style of food can merit? Or is there a suggestion that it might score higher if the food was vastly improved in some way? I find it hard to imagine quite how.

Similarly, Fergus Henderson at St John in London with its GFG score of five. And I'm ashamed to recall that while I was at the AA, Shaun Hill only ever achieved three rosettes.

It can only be because we put an artificial ceiling on how much you could celebrate that kind of apparently simple food. I'm not singling out the GFG here; all of the inspected guides reflect much the same pattern. I don't think it's so much a case of the places at the top being overrated, more a reluctance to give enough credit to the less-fiddled-about-with cooking that, when done well, is surely just as deserving of celebration.

It kind of reminds me of the music scene in 1977. Until then, it seemed that if you wanted to be taken seriously you had to noodle away at 12-minute guitar solos and spew forth lyrics that suggested you'd first swallowed Lord of the Rings whole.

Some of our best kitchens are run by people who've taught themselves, love what they're doing and have improved through long-term engagement with the food they produce.

We need more of the equivalent of the three-chord merchants of 1977, armed with an understanding of the basics, and fuelled by passion rather than pretension.

Never mind the bollocks, bring me the steak and kidney pudding.

Over to you

Do guidebooks champion simple food?

Craig Bancroft, joint MD, Northcote Manor, Lancashire "Some concentrate on too high a style of dining, and often that's not necessarily what you want. Some champion quality delivery at any point in the system, recognising that great fish and chips can be just as good as a quality piece of foie gras. Simple food can be brilliantly executed, but it's a subjective thing. It depends what you're looking for."

Anthony Rosser, general manager, Lake Vyrnwy hotel, Llanwyddyn, Powys "Some do and some don't. Guides like the Good Pub Guide recognise good, well-cooked, simple food, whereas a Michelin star comes with complicated culinary excellence. That's the nature of that type of assessment. It largely depends on what you're offering and what your marketplace is."

Philip Camble, senior manager, Travel, Leisure and Tourism Advisory Services, KPMG "Perhaps it's inevitable, but it seems that traditional guidebooks, with in-house inspectors, are champions of haute cuisine, while more interesting and rewarding experiences are more often to be found in guides and websites which seek feedback from consumers."

Hilary Finlay, managing director, Ireland's Blue Book, Dublin "It really depends on the guidebook. Predominantly food guidebooks tend to promote middle-range cuisine, although a few guides have a very broad reach and feature simple food and high-end cuisine. But it does vary. I believe guidebooks recognise both simple and complicated offerings."

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