June 8th, 2005


Shopping Basket

It is a good cup of coffee.

I could leave it at that, but I'm sufficiently fascinated and pedantic about food to say more. Strolling the aisles of Waitrose this evening I noticed that there was a new variety of Illy coffee. It was distinguished from the regular brand only by having a black band, rather than a red one, with the words Tostatura Scura - Dark Roasted - Torréfaction Foncée around the top. Whereas green is the Illy colour of safety indicating decaffeinated, I wasn't sure what black meant at first. It seemed dangerous. This coffee kills. Of course, I bought it. I'm a sucker for some forms of marketing, especially ones that invoke the death instinct.

Basically, it's a darker roast that it is intended for ristretto, an espresso shot with less water. It's the first cup I've had today, which might be a bit of a mistake at 11pm, but I was unable to wait until morning. Slurp...

This pedantry about food was also aroused by an article in yesterday's Independent concerning Cherie Blair adjusting various menu and seating details for the forthcoming G8 banquet. This is as close as I might get to looking into her basket at the supermarket. It was the final paragraph that both perplexed and annoyed me:

Another item was also taken off the menu, but for diplomatic reasons. Originally, caviar from Iran was to be served. It is not as good but considerably cheaper than the Russian variety. But diplomats said having anything from a state described by Mr Bush as part of the "axis of evil" might make it hard for the President to swallow. Instead, the finest caviar from Belarus is being served.

I dashed off a letter to the Editor:

Sir: I read with interest of Cherie Blair's adjustments to the forthcoming G8 banquet menu, but I must question Colin Brown's highly contentious comment that Iranian caviar is inferior in quality to the Russian. That's fighting talk on the Caspian shores. Might the Independent be willing to organise a tasting for its staff so they are better equipped to pass gastronomic judgement on such matters? After all, the Iranian is apparently "considerably cheaper", although your accounts department might question the validity of that assertion upon receipt of the invoice.

I am nevertheless fascinated by the idea of "the finest caviar from Belarus" and wonder whether this may prove be a Downing Street euphemism for a serving of (admittedly delicious) herring roe.

I do look forward to further banquet announcements over the coming weeks.

This isn't really the letter I wanted to write. I always thought that newspapers had those sections (I think I'm actually remembering some film with James Spader or somebody about three people who work in such a department at an American newspaper) where such things were checked before publication. Would the Independent write "Originally cheese from Scotland was to be served. It is not as good but considerably cheaper than the French variety"? No, for Scottish producers would be up in arms about it. This sort of writing might just be passable in the Features section but not in the main body of the paper.

I've done some checking and have found no evidence that Iranian caviar is considerably cheaper than Russian if you compare the three main types (beluga, asetra, sevruga. More sturgeon background here). The Iranian does, however, seem to be of a more consistent standard and far less in the control of the black market. The vast majority of Russian caviar sold abroad is of uncertain provenance and frequently fake. That's not so common for the Iranian, although I know it does happen from time to time. As to the question of quality, I suspect the journalist is taking some caterer at his word and not bothering to check the facts. After all, who cares? Unfortunately, I do.

I'm even more curious about the phrase "the finest caviar from Belarus". Okay, Belarus is not bordering the Caspian, but might it just have some caviar industry for some bizarre reason or another? It would seem odd indeed, but I'm required to spend an hour looking over international fishery websites to find out whether it is true or not. They might be using some breed of sturgeon indigenous to the area. Given that I find zero information on caviar from Belarus, I'm doubtful unless it's a real gastronomic secret ("Only 1 kilogram is produced each year and it is sold at secret auction to Russian oligarchs and members of the Bilderberg Group..." Nope.). Why should I be looking this up, doesn't the journalist consider that the concept of caviar from Belarus sounds more than suspect or at least needs some further clarification for picky readers?

So, I have to conclude that caviar in question isn't sturgeon but from another fish. Tasty though that is, it should be described as lumpfish or herring caviar. Belarus, despite being landlocked, actually does have a reasonably large fish processing industry (might this be the ikra in question?) with catches originating from Baltic fleets. So, what's the truth of this story? What is Cherie actually serving? Are the caterers trying to pull a fast one? Will Vladimir Putin be happy to be served something described as caviar only to find it's processed herring or lumpfish roe from a Belarus factory? What has happened to investigative journalism in this country?

I intend to adopt the phrase "the finest caviar from Belarus" as something of a curate's egg type statement. Although I must admit I always thought the curate's egg meant that something was bad, since an egg that is partly good and partly bad is something to avoid ingesting altogether. This seems not to be the case according to some. (GK Chesterton, who mentions the curate's egg in his sketch of St Francis of Assisi, wrote that "There is more simplicity in the man who eats caviar on impulse than in the man who eats grape-nuts on principle". ) Perhaps The Professor might be able to sort this out. His wonderful recent entry on the etymology and politics of marmalade puts my own ruminations on caviar to shame as much as it also helps me believe that I am not entirely insane. As yet...

C'est la mer allée avec le soleil...

It's not often I'm prompted to think about French "superstar" philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy (BHL), but I was amused by a story I read early this morning which claimed that he had once developed stigmata following a meeting with the new French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. This was confirmed by his wife, actress and singer (are French actresses required by law to be singers?), Arielle Dombasle. However I'm not that interested in BHL and I'm not especially interested in his wife either, but it was the sight of her in the photograph that prompted me to start wondering about film very early this morning as my upstairs neighbour resurrected the all-night furniture moving vigil.

(Incidentally, although I don't want to bang on about contemporary standards of journalism again, in that second piece Gaby Wood claims that Lévy is wearing "a deliberately unrecognisable brand". Well, I think BHL is smart enough to realise that your average Brit journalist won't have heard of Charvet but that doesn't mean he's dressing in knock off. I admit I hadn't heard of it either, but it took me all of two seconds to find out that it's at 28 Place Vendôme, so Primark it ain't. Past customers include Manet, Proust, Gary Cooper, de Gaulle and Sebastian Flyte. And Edward VII, natch. BHL - 1, Royaume-Uni - nul point)

According to that article, Arielle Dombasle is regularly voted one of the most beautiful women in the world by French men. Each to their own. Whereas I imagine an hour trapped in a lift with Isabelle Adjani or Sophie Marceau, say, would pass quite pleasantly, a few hands of baccarat perhaps, I don't really quite get any frisson about Mrs Lévy and certainly nothing close to jouissance. Quite the opposite. I only really noticed her not long ago when I was watching the risible, but enjoyably of its time, Fruits of Passion where she stars as Klaus Kinski's other lover.

She turned up the other day in Pauline À La Plage. I'm not aware of being a huge fan of Eric Rohmer, but it was going cheap and I always enjoy French films about summer holidays at the beach and I enjoyed this one. I'm sure there must be a word or phrase for these sort of films. Even Pierrot Le Fou, one of my favourite films, is about going on holiday at the the beach (ish!) and I suppose Weekend would be if they weren't all stuck in traffic (well, not really). The stories are always much the same: parents cheat on each other (or think about it) and the children discover sexuality. A loves B but B fancies C (A's 16 year old daughter. Oh dear!) whereas C tries to strike up as relationship with an ice-cream seller who fancies nobody but still ends up sleeping with A and B (what the hell!). There's a fair amount of pouting and, depending on the director, varying amounts of flesh are revealed to keep the audience interested. At the end, everyone gets in the car and goes back to Paris. In fact, in Catherine Breillat's À Ma Soeur (called Fat Girl in the US...), this ending gets slight turned on its head because, rather out of the blue, this return journey turns into a very grim rape and murder scene rather than just recriminating looks and a new school term. Let's not get started on Michael Haneke...

I watched Pauline together with Breillat's first film as a director Une Vraie Jeune Fille. I'm still a bit unconvinced by Breillat, but I liked this one. It doesn't quite fit into the family-at-the-beach framework, for in this one young Alice comes back from boarding school to the family home in les Landes, but it is about her sexuality and there's a beach scene or two. The film was apparently shelved on release for being strongly vaginal, for whilst it does feature young Alice pouting about the place in and out of swimwear, the other scenes were evidently considered a bit off for 1976. It's not a great film, but it was rather reminiscent of Georges Bataille's Histoire de l'oeil which impressed me at a similar age. I looked up some background on the film when I'd watched it and saw that IMDB said "If you like this title, we also recommend... Bilitis". Oh please, I thought, just because they're both films about young girls. Actually, Breillat wrote the script for this adaptation of Pierre Louÿs original work. As I also discovered that she starred in Last Tango in Paris as Mouchette alongside her actual sister Marie-Hélène who played Monique (hence À Ma Soeur, one might think, and not Fat Girl), but I haven't seen that in ages. IMDB is great for this seven/six/however many degrees of Kevin Bacon or whatever the French equivalent is. Arielle Dombasle would do.

Whereas the lens in Bilitis is barely-legal-click-here voyeurism, Breillat is hardly erotica. I find it very uncomfortable to watch on the whole. There's a long scene in À Ma Soeur where Roxane Mesquida's character is "talked" into having anal sex by her holiday boyfriend (I don't think he sells ice cream or hires out pedalos) because all girls do it if they're not prepared to lose their virginity and if she loves him... So he says. I watched this through fingers Doctor Who style, rather like the other sister in the film who pretends to be asleep in the bed on the other side of the room. This scene is then replayed a second time in the film Sex Is Comedy (Scènes Intimes) by the same two actors in a fictional film about the process of making "Breillat" films (La Bitte Américaine? Sorry...).

Of course, given the movement of furniture, I didn't really come to any conclusion about anything but that's what I was thinking over the sound of bang-and-scrape. That's sort of what Breillat is about anyway.

Against my better judgement ("It has, erm, cultural value" I bleated when I ran into Gianluca outside Waitrose as he guffawed back. WWBHLD?), I saw Revenge Of The Sith yesterday. I can't be bothered now after writing the previous paragraphs and I'd suggest you don't either.