Xavier Denamur, top French chef and rightfully angry gourmand, has launched a campaign against the processed food which is doing such damage to France's international culinary reputation. It seems that naughty restaurant chains are having such French essentials as confit de canard preprepared in factories and passing them off as the real thing. This, says Denamur, is the Outside of Enough and Cannot Be Tolerated. The French are getting fat. With this diet - alors; horreur! - they are turning into their continental cousins: obese and with little appreciation of decent food.
I'm entirely with Denamur. No matter how prettily packaged the ready meal is, it's like an elegant socialite with her front teeth knocked out. Like learning to be human by correspondence course. Incongruous. All that 'inspired by ancient Goan traditions' and 'hand-prepared in our artisan kitchens' is merely shorthand for 'cranked out of a giant vat by Doris, our furious and unfulfilled assembly line worker, into a plastic tub which is then sprayed with enough chemical preservatives to murder a million bees and shoved into cold storage for eighteen years'.
I once tried to buy a ready meal. In Marks & Spencer, which is a byword for such things. I approached the package from every angle. It sat squatly on the shelf, mocking me. I picked it up gingerly and read the ingredients. And quickly flung it back. I believe I even wiped my hand on my coat afterwards, to remove the taint of contamination. I don't want to eat something that's '26% chicken pieces minimum'. Nor do I want to ingest something that has a great big traffic light on its label, indicating just how much quicker I'm going to die from the transfat overload. I don't want to have to ovenbake something which looks eerily Stepford and perfect, only to have it taste like minced mouse in a pig slurry gravy, wrapped in a pastry made from bathmats and tweed. Food shouldn't look as though it's been botoxed. When a label says 'free range', I want to know it's as freely ranging as the ducks, geese, chickens and deer that roam around our nearby fields and lanes, not some poor shivering hen crammed into a basket with a number of other shivering hens because the producer's found a loophole that means he can treat animals like dirt yet seem ethical. Which I am sure will be a staple in Denamur's campaign.
However, Denamur may also have an issue with my cooking. My food will make you fat. This is because I have a love affair with butter. We get through three blocks a week, minimum, and very little goes on my (obviously) homemade bread. How could you marry the perfections that are spinach, purple-veined garlic, alpine gruyere, heavy cream, beef stock, nutmeg and cracked pepper with some oily spread that promises to lower your cholesterol? What would a beef pie be if you'd sauteed your beef and chestnut mushrooms - the mere act of slicing which feels like cutting through cashmere - in cooking spray? And as for roasted potatoes: if they are not seared in goose fat and the best French butter with enough salt to demand an angioplasty, they're just not worth it.
The Dude is becoming rather complacent about my cooking. He pootles off each day with a full lunchbox of homemade comestibles, is occasionally fed a pigwich (bacon sandwich) for breakfast when the cricket is on, and comes home to a house warmly scented with whatever delectableness I've prepared him that day. On the list this week is coq au vin, curry prepared with my own curry base that took three hours to make, stroganoff impregnated with enough brandy to put you over the limit and a smoked salmon and gruyere souffle. Sometimes he has the audacity to ask whether I need to use every pan in the house, but I soon quell him with threats of withdrawing food favours.
While the Dude sits hunched over his laptop drooling over brass pencil sharpeners, titanium bike frames and tan leather goods, I can be found cooking three to four meals at once. Preparing stocks and sauces. Fending him off with a carving knife when he starts cheeping at me, mouth open like a baby cuckoo, pointing at his maw frantically to indicate the fact that he is hungry. Contemplating the latest development in the three novels I'm writing - or is that four? I have so many ideas buzzing around in my bonnet that I forget which world I'm actually living in - whilst marrying flavours that make my mouth water to think of them. So, to all eaters out there: throw away the ready meals and get into the kitchen. Ditch the Diet Chef and spend your Saturday baking. Xavier Denamur will hunt you down if you don't.