Carnal knowledge

<strong>Heat: an amateur's adventures as kitchen slave, line cook, pasta-maker and apprentice to a b

Until four years ago, Bill Buford was the fiction editor of the New Yorker - in which capacity, I presume, he spent his days reading work by Lorrie Moore, William Trevor and John Updike. Such writers probably do not require much editing; I'm only guessing, but I imagine that all he had to do was give their prose a quick dusting, in the manner of a pastry chef who finishes a tart with a farewell kiss of icing sugar.

Before that, Buford was editor of the British literary magazine Granta. There, his job seems to have been more onerous. The manuscripts that landed on his desk required, at least in his opinion, hacking and sawing and stitching. In those days, he was more butcher than patissier; give him a fatty literary carcass and he would turn it into finest fillet.

Ignore my culinary analogies. What I'm trying to say is: he was a Words Man. Then something happened. He threw a dinner party, to celebrate the birthday of the novelist Jay McInerney. Among the friends of Jay's who were invited was the chef Mario Batali. In this country, Batali is not well known. But in America he is very famous indeed. He is the owner of Babbo, New York's best Italian restaurant. What is he like? Well, picture Gordon Ramsay high on grappa and Viagra, and swollen to the shape of a giant Edam, and you're halfway there. On the night in question, he turned up bearing a hunk of lardo, "the raw, lardy back of a very fat pig, one he'd cured himself with herbs and salt". This lardo changed Buford's life. Forget words. Where's the sauté pan?

A few weeks later, Buford gave up the day job and began working in the kitchen at Babbo. He was not a commis, nor was he a porter. He was a "kitchen bitch" - a rubbish chopper of vegetables, an even worse boner of ducks, and a wholly terrible griller of meat (it takes him what feels like months to become a "grill guy", and no sooner has he made it than he is temporarily fired for overcooking a rabbit). But he sticks with the heat, the bullying, the terrible pressure, and he learns - plenty. He is, though, on an odyssey now. His new skills, considerable as they are, are not enough. He decides to seek out some of Batali's mentors. First, to England, where he talks game with Marco Pierre White. Then, to Italy, where he learns the secrets of ravioli from a Tuscan cook called Betta Valdiserri, and the mystery of soppressata (this is like salami, only "meatier, fatter, bigger") from a crazed Panzano butcher called Dario Cecchini.

Summing up the book like this makes it sound as succulent as rare beef. But never trust a flowery menu. The truth is that a lot of the dishes served up here require an awful lot of chewing. The result of an obsession, Heat is too long by far; its author has been unable to leave anything out (and if an editor did set about it with a sharp knife, as I've heard, then he or she was far too timid). An account of making polenta - "it was shiny and cakey and coming off the sides" - goes on for pages; a description of the way carrots are chopped for a broth is on the lengthy side, too. Staff changes at Babbo, of which there are lots, are recorded in labyrinthine detail, and so seriously. You find yourself thinking: is this a Manhattan restaurant, or the White House?

There's some good earthy kitchen detail. For instance, Batali is a total rat when it comes to the restaurant's bins - always rooting for bits of food that his dumbo staff have wastefully chucked out. ("You're throwing away the best part of the celery! Writer guy - busted!") But, of course, thanks to Anthony Bourdain, the chef who revealed the stinky truth about Monday fish in Kitchen Confidential, this territory is not half so unfamiliar as it once was. Bourdain has a lot to answer for. Even as his book set out to demystify the commercial kitchen, it built it up as a place where only the most macho, most loony men could work - and Buford can't help but follow the same path. Heat, for all its learning and careful irony, is really only interested in one thing. This might be summed up, not very politely, as: look at the size of our dicks.

Whatever happened to the outsider scepticism of the journalist? Is he scared they won't let him join the gang? He has a veritable love-in with Marco Pierre White, a man most people tend to take with a hearty pinch of best sea salt (and yes, it is grouse - that most testosteronic of birds - that they eat together). As for the Dante-quoting Cecchini, he is treated like Moses just down from the mountain. A true butcher is a "disciple of carnality"; he "works in meat during the day and plays in flesh at night". Buford asks him what Tuscan food is. "The smell of the dirt, here, after a rain," he says.

Good grief. No one loves a properly made ragu more than me, but is all this Eric Cantona stuff absolutely necessary? Buford, like so many men, obviously thinks that it is. For him, I guess, the kitchen would be charmless without it: too domestic, too quotidian, too feminine. Don't misunderstand. I'm all for men cooking. I just wonder why they always have to make such a fuss about it.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.