Broad palate


Do artists eat the food they paint? Maybe not literally. The grapes in the average still life must be half-rotten by the time the painter has captured their glassy bloom. Claude Monet once did a picture of two mullet, pinkly glistening on a white cloth. The fish in the picture are firm and slippy, straight from the sea. One longs to frizzle them in a pan of olive oil and gobble them down. But you can just imagine how whiffy the actual mullet must have been once their pretty scales were all painted and they remained, sweating, in the hot studio.

Then again, food paintings are not a bad indication of an artist's general partialities. Cezanne, whose name is for ever associated with apples and pears, was indeed fond of the lustrous fruit of his native Provence. Nor is it hard to recognise Renoir's personal gluttony in his pictures of fleshy women eating sauced-up Parisian brasserie food. As for the greatest impressionist gourmand of them all, Claude Monet - the subject of a new exhibition at the Royal Academy (see page 36) - his paintings of mealtimes reveal an ebullient appetite for the niceties of cuisine bourgeoise.

Monet's appetite was gargantuan; it was said he ate enough for four. He found the penury of his early years in Paris in the 1860s - living on lentils and beans in a bedsit shared with Renoir - a real torment. He aspired to the Norman good life of the cooking he had been raised on, ripe with sweet butter and cream, delectable seafood and soft, supple fruits.

During his early career, Monet often depicted such delights on canvas. Nature morte was a good bet for a penniless artist: cheap to paint, needing no expensive model, and easy to sell. But, paradoxically, Monet couldn't afford to eat much of what he painted. There is a strong aspirational element in his work at this time. See, for example, his Dejeuner sur l'Herbe of 1866, inspired by Manet's work of the same title. Monet's well-dressed picnickers lounge before a linen tablecloth laid with burnished roast chicken, good bread, a pile of inviting fruits and an elaborate raised pie.

In the last phase of his long life, Monet was able to eat like this for real. His second wife, Alice, was a brilliant cook who made him treats such as vert vert, a green cake flavoured with pistachio and coloured with spinach. At their house in Giverny, Normandy, Monet ate all the lobster and truffles his heart desired. He and Alice also grew fine vegetables. Yet, as the current exhibition demonstrates, old Monet's cataract-impaired eyes were fixed mainly on the non-edible portion of the garden.

The Monet who painted these 20th-century, light-dappled landscapes is a man whose hunger is sated at last. He can afford all the sole a la normande his heart desires; so he no longer needs to paint it.

Monet's Sole a la normande
Preheat the oven to 220oC. For each person, put one skinned Dover sole on a piece of oiled foil. Cover with a knob of Normandy butter, a little lemon juice, dry cider and salt. Parcel the foil up tightly. Cook for 17 minutes or until just done. Meanwhile, reduce some fish stock with more cider. Whisk in unsalted butter, bit by bit, then some cream. Finish with the juices from the sole, a handful of prawns and some chopped dill. Check seasoning and serve. Precede with watercress soup, follow with a bitter salad, Camembert and a tarte tatin. Then calvados. Pretend you are eating this in a tranquil garden of mauve pointillist trees and the odd water lily.

This article first appeared in the 22 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Goodbye to all that boiled cabbage

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.