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Will Self's Real Meals: Petrol station chicken at Pain Quotidien

The shtick at LPQ is a cod-rustic vibe cultivated with cold-hearted commercialism.

‘‘Which,” I asked the nice young man in Le Pain Quotidien, “is the most daily of your breads – by which I mean the most popular?” To his credit he wasn’t fazed: “The baguette,” he replied, “absolutely – we sell many more of the baguette than any of the others.” This seemed a shame to me, because the other loaves had a pleasingly rustic air about them – great cartwheels of golden pain ancien, reposing on equally golden wooden shelves, the whole reminding me not so much of a boulangerie in La France profonde, as of a BBC television adaptation of a Marcel Pagnol novel.

Because that’s the shtick with LPQ: a cod-rustic vibe cultivated with cold-hearted commercialism. There are 175 of these fakeries in 17 countries – and 22 in London. If you’re reading this out in the sticks and thinking: Well, that’s just the sort of bollocks those dumb metropolitan pseuds fall for. . . then I concur. But should a branch of LPQ open up on your clone high street, it’s high time to slather a heel of stale Hovis with dripping and head up t’cobbled hill or down t’decommissioned pit.

I lacked such foresight and so found myself being ushered into the woody interior. I eschewed la table communale and sat next to a couple of ad man types. Once the waiter had taken my order for a smoked chicken salad (which came, he assured me, with compli mentary bread), and a fresh lime and mint drink – I had plenty of time to examine the decor. Walter Benjamin said of art nouveau that it “represented the last attempt at a sortie on the part of art imprisoned by technical advance within her ivory tower”. For the late, great Frankfurter, such a sortie “mobilised all the reserve forces of interiority”, forces that “found their expression in the mediumistic language of line, in the flower as the symbol of the naked, vegetable Nature that confronted the technologically armed environment”.

Frankly, if Benjamin could’ve seen the branch of LPQ I was sitting in, he would have found it more terrifying than the Gestapo: up on the ceiling duff track lighting was boxed in by rag-rolled boards, while above this frottage squatted metal ventilation ducts. Meanwhile, nailed to the lemonscumbled wall was a collection of Arts & Crafts windows – frames and all – their flowery stained-glass motifs winking complicity at the bourgeois diners.

My salad had some leaves, a few tomatoes, quite a lot of pinkish strips of what appeared to be meat and some croutons. Is there anything more useless than a crouton? I sometimes wake up in the small hours with a start and realise that what’s roused me is an overpowering urge to visit violence on its originator. I often buy ready-made Caesar salads from supermarkets, because they come with the croutons in a separate little bag and I can then experience the delight of throwing them straight in the bin. What was worse was that complithese LPQ croutons were extra-large – an ordinary sized crouton is merely a crunchy impediment but a big crouton is a piece of stalefucking- bread. If I wanted bread I had plenty to hand – and it was complimentary! I turned my attention to the smoked chicken: it had the plastic texture and slightly tangy, chemical sweetness of smoked ham bought in an all-night petrol station.

I was so appalled that I turned to the ad man on my right and asked him to try a piece. He obliged and I tried not to prejudice my tiny focus group by grimacing as he chewed. “It’s not very nice,” he said, after a short length, “it rather reminds me of the sort of ham you get in petrol stations.” I almost kissed him. The waiter reappeared: “Is your food all right?” he asked. “Um, well,” I chose my words judiciously, “no – it’s not really, I mean this food is quite . . . unpleasant.” The waiter was suitably nonplussed, so I expanded: “This chicken is . . . grim – where do you get your chickens from? I mean, is this organic . . . ? Free range?” The ad man chipped in: “It doesn’t taste organic.”

Perhaps fearing that the Bastille was about to be stormed, the waiter hurriedly offered to replace the dish or refund me – but I wasn’t having any of it: I didn’t want the social conditions obtaining in Le Pain Quotidien to be smoothed over, I lusted for the antagonism that leads to revolution! £15.81 was way too much of my daily bread to pay for this daily bread – there will be blood!

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The A-Z of Israel

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis