Chop pseudery

Food - Bee Wilson cuts through the nonsensical names on restaurant menus

Confit of grapes, millefeuille of aubergines, marmelade of leeks, soup of mango, pan-fried brulee of peppers. Many are the nonsensical and neologistic names to which the restaurant trade has subjected us. Sometimes it all gets too much and one yearns for a simpler, less pretentious age when people called a chop a chop (as opposed to a pan-glazed noisette). It is interesting, then, to learn that, at least as far as restaurants are concerned, such innocence never existed. Over-the-top names for dishes are as old as the menu itself.

The use of a printed carte or menu probably began in France in the 1770s. Previously, diners out had been stuck with the offerings of table d'hote, which meant consuming whatever stale fish and stringy old piece of meat your "host" happened to offer you, in whatever order he happened to offer it. The radical innovation offered by service a la carte was customer choice. For the first time, the eater could study an alluring brochure of numerous unseen dishes and construct a meal at his or her pleasure. It didn't even have to be the same meal as the rest of the table. The dieter's two-starters lunch was not far off.

There was a cost to such freedom, however. Mutton would be offered in 17 different styles, none of them comprehensible to the layperson. "Epicurus himself would stand bewildered at the sight of Very's bill of fare," gasped a traveller to Paris's grandest restaurant. Proprietors used the carte as a vehicle for their own self-aggrandisement to the awed bafflement of their clientele. A wordy menu gave the impression of abundance - an impression that must have often been false. As Rebecca Spang explains in her fascinating new book, The Invention of the Restaurant (Harvard University Press), the menu's "variety was far greater than the kitchen's". What was advertised as "'veal, amplified into 22 distinct articles' was, in the kitchen, a few cutlets, a steak, two kidneys and three ears".

Today's menus, written by consultants, often show a confusion about basic kitchen techniques (to "roast" standing in for to "bake", and to "confit" standing in for pretty well anything). It was the same with the first menus, which were written by restaurant patrons who didn't know their frying pan from their stockpot. Flamboyant proper nouns were a sneaky way to cover up any gaps in knowledge. Poulet saute Parmentier, poulet saute a la Marengo, poulet a l'Austerlitz, poulet saute Richelieu . . . countless near-identical dishes of fried chicken could be paraded as novelties through reference to great men or great battles.

Some menu writers were inventive to the point of being surreal. Spang mentions pigeon a la crapaudine, a dish of golden grilled flattened pigeon, decorated with gherkins. Its etymological origins are mysterious. "Crapaud" means a toad (or in a diamond, a flaw), while "crapaudine" is a disease of sheep. Neither association is exactly mouthwatering, yet the overall effect is so baffling as to cancel out disgust and whet the appetite.

By comparison, the vogue menu words of modern London are uninspired. Names are often derived by transferring a word that is appropriate to one dish to another where it isn't. Thus you get chilli jam (a savoury thing) or quince chutney (a puddingy thing). Anything cold and indeterminate can be referred to as "sushi". Anything hot and indeterminate can be called "open lasagne".

If in doubt, use the words "trio", "tagine" or "cake" (as in "couscous cake" rather than "fairy cake"). In Paris, meanwhile, the cliche is to use possessive adjectives, as in "lotte et son jus de basilic" (monkfish with her basil sauce).

This is really rather dull. Where is the imagination that fired those early restaurateurs? Where is the "epigram of lamb" or the "Financier's sauce"? Where is the diseased-sheep pigeon?

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The tiny group that controls us all