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UK food needs English menus

29 September 2005

It is, as everybody involved in the restaurant business knows, a golden age for British cooking. Never before have so many talented chefs been working in this country; never has the standard of ingredients been so high; and never have so many people spent their hard-earned money eating out in restaurants.

So why do we still feel the need to write menus in a foreign language? The average menu, even in restaurants proudly describing themselves as "modern British", is written in a curious mixture of French, Italian, Spanish and just about any other language that doesn't involve hieroglyphs.

Even worse, many of the foreign terms used are thoroughly inaccurate and deeply misleading. Millefeuille of aubergine, carpaccio of courgette, cappuccino of white beans, chicory tarte tatin… the game of gastronomic Chinese whispers, in which a modish, foreign-sounding dish goes through so many incarnations that it becomes completely meaningless, is all the rage. Toast becomes bruschetta or crostini, a toasted sandwich is now a panini, a sauce is a jus or a coulis, and a stew is a daube or a tagine.

The shame is that many chefs seem to think that food sounds better if it's not written in English. I find this culinary inferiority complex bewildering: the French, for example, would not dream of pinching English words to describe a dish (apart from "le crumble", which they now think they invented). Dishes I have seen offered on smart menus recently range from the faintly absurd - gteau of grilled vegetables - to the distinctly fraudulent: bouillabaisse of sardines, anyone?

The model of plain-speaking English is the menu at St John in London EC1, which has an unrivalled simple starkness to it. You may not want to eat "rolled pig's spleen and bacon" - although I thoroughly recommend it - but at least you know what you're getting. You will not find a galantine, a feuillantine, a ballottine, a pav, a tian or a pithivier on the menu, not because Fergus Henderson doesn't cook them, but because, as an English speaker cooking in England, he thinks his menu should also be in English.

Dressing up food in a foreign language seems to me almost the last relic of the old-school snobby restaurant, where ladies got menus without prices and a haughty waiter strutted about in a frock coat pretending his name wasn't Eric and he didn't come from Romford. Until British chefs learn not just to cook in English, but to write their menus in it as well, we will not be taken seriously as a culinary force.

Over to you

Should restaurants use more English on menus?

Dave Smith, Plain English Campaign

Yes - although it depends on the restaurant. In a French restaurant the food names will be in French, but often you don't get a description. High-class language will give the impression of a high-class place, but if someone doesn't understand something, it can alienate them. It's all about feeling informed. If you must use jargon, explain it.

Tom Kerridge, owner and chef, the Hand and Flowers, Marlow, Bucks

I don't think we should dumb down, but it depends on your environment. As a pub, our menu reads relatively simply, because that is what we're about. Of course that doesn't mean we don't use the correct culinary terms for dishes - I have no problem with that.

Jeremy Lee, head chef, Blueprint Café, London

Of course menus should be written more simply. There's nothing more confusing than reading a range of different languages, although there are some exceptions. We get accused of being abrupt, but that's because people think things should be phrased gently. However, it would be dull if everything was the same.

Mourad Mazouz, owner, Sketch, London

I make my menu mainly in English but we do use French words. At the beginning customers didn't understand some things, so we now make it simpler. Ingredients are listed so that someone can know whether they'll like it or are allergic. We train our staff to explain how a dish is made. A dream for a restaurateur is for customers to ask.

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