The terminally indecisive, like me, spend rather more of their life examining menus than they might like. Yet we’re so often busy caught up in the delightful dilemma of what to eat that we rarely have time to think about how that menu has been phrased.
Menus are the haikus of food writing, communicating a weight of ideas in just a few words. A menu is so much more than a simple list of what you might be about to eat. It’s the window onto a restaurant, or a meal – perhaps the single most important piece of marketing collateral a restaurant can produce. A menu can serve to heighten your anticipation, or your trepidation; it should also, if the restaurateur has any sense, direct you subtlety to their most profitable and prestigious dishes.
Like everything else in food, the language that menus are written in is subject to the whims and whimsies of fashion. The simplest of dishes can be described in a multitude of ways, and the language of menus has evolved down the years. Would you prefer ‘poulet rôti, pommes frites, petits pois à l’anglaise’, ‘roast chicken with chips and peas’, ‘oven-roast organic Bresse chicken with triple-fried chips and garden peas’ – or even just ‘chicken’?
The changing language of menus reflect not only the different kind of dining styles popular during each period, but the kind of meals that people aspire to eat, and the kind of experience they want eating to be – a grand, formal, etiquette-governed affair, a casual coming-together, or an expression of just how supremely fashionable and on-trend they are.
Once upon a time, menus really did have their own language – French. When classical French food reigned supreme in Europe’s royal courts and aristocratic houses, Britain’s finest restaurant menus reflected this by being written entirely in French – even when the dishes in question were really very un-French.
Here’s Queen Victoria’s Christmas Dinner menu at Osbourne House, from 1896, which contains a great example of a regular phenomenon whenever wholesome English food was described in French: the pompous description of a prosaic dish. Dinde à la chipolata? So much more exciting than turkey with chipolatas.
And here’s a menu from the Savoy, from 1895 (when the great French chef Escoffier was king of its kitchen).
Both these examples are from the very highest echelons of society. But, of course, the aspirational middle classes were at it, too.
The first edition of Beeton’s Book of Household Management, published in 1861, gives an extended glossary of French terms ‘used in modern household cookery’. Some are terms that we’d still use today (bain-marie; béchamel) and others are now so much part of standard English that it seems peculiar even to need to define them – (menu; mayonnaise).
French terms on menus also describe specific sauces or preparations – and diners were expected to know these. If something was à l’anglaise it was simply boiled in water; a dish served à la maître d’hôtel meant that it was served with maître d’hôtel sauce (staggering quantities of butter, with parsley, shallots and lemon juice). Dozens of similar examples were once the norm on British menus, until relatively recently. If you didn’t know the lingo, you’d have very little clue as to what you would be eating.
These days, with the exception of those dishes and preparations for which no common English equivalent exists, even the poshest French restaurants tend towards a much simpler culinary French, and most restaurants wouldn’t use French at all – it looks haughty and pretentious.
Yet even now that English-language menus are the norm, each era subsequent has had its own language of menus, with the changes in the way the bill of fare is listed reflective of broader culinary trends. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, while specific culinary terms still appeared in French, there was a move towards simpler and simpler descriptions of the dishes on offer.
In the 1990s, hyphenated adjectives began to proliferate, as cooking techniques were increasingly highlighted. ‘Pan-fried’, ‘oven-roasted’ and their ilk abounded.
The 2000s saw an almost-obsessive focus on sourcing and provenance – not a bad thing in itself, and a necessary corrective when first introduced. Yet, by the time you’d read the name of the farmer, the farm’s precise location, the animal’s pedigree and its favourite band, you sometimes felt that you knew more about the creature you were about to eat than you ever had about most of your exes.
The less up-market the restaurant, the longer the language of its menu will take to catch up. Whereas once ‘flame-grilled’ or ‘over-roasted’ ticked all the right boxes, they’re now warning signs that a restaurant might be stuck in the culinary dark ages.
Similarly, while good provenance remains crucially important to good cooking, it can, to a certain extent, be taken as read – the same goes for ‘fresh’ or ‘seasonal’. I’ll assume those qualities, thank you – if I can’t, then perhaps I don’t want to eat your food.
Today we’re seeing a move back to utter simplicity.
Quo Vadis’ menu includes classic dishes that would have been familiar to diners throughout the last 100 years at least – ‘skate, tartare sauce and lemon’, or ‘ginger steamed pudding and custard’ – but the simple, bare-bones descriptions are very much of the moment.
Going even further are the terribly cool John Salt in Islington, and Kitchen Table in Fitzrovia, where the menus are little more than simple lists of one principle ingredient per course – ‘shrimp’, ‘chicken’, ‘scallop’, ‘truffle’, ‘fennel in absinthe’, ‘shin of beef’… It’s no surprise to discover that seminal restaurants such as NYC’s Brooklyn Fare and Copenhagen’s Noma do likewise – such is their current influence on London’s leading young chefs.
Sometimes, you’re in all likelihood able to make an educated guess as to how these principle ingredients will be prepared. Generally, though, you’re expected both to be happy to sit back, trust the chef and enjoy the suspense and relative surprise.
What’s more, boldly minimalist menus also recognise that a strong commitment to the very finest ingredients means that nothing should distract from a focus on those. Just as a dish should serve only to highlight the quality and flavours of a beautiful vegetable, piece of meat, or fish, a menu should do the same – and let the core ingredient stand in elegant simplicity.
What these super-simple menus all have in common is that they’re tasting menus: situations in which diners have decided they’d prefer to trust themselves to the chef than to choose from a traditional menu and its range of options. Where selections need to be made, such basic descriptions of dishes might be less welcome. In many ways, we’ve come full circle – these tasting menus offer even less of a clue to what you’ll be eating than Queen Victoria’s fussy French, with the same absence of choice as at a banquet or private dinner – and they have even more courses. Plus ça change – or as we probably should say these days, ‘the more things change…’
Oliver Thring’s piece over on The Guardian is a good place to find out more about the hidden messages in menus.
NYC’s Public Library project to catalogue historic menus is a brilliant place to while away time – and you can even repay them by helping to transcribe a few yourself.