Have you ever experienced a tea craving so powerful it actually wakes you up? The kind of hankering for a brew so extreme that you plead with a waitress to satisfy it before you’ve even been handed the menu and parked your bum in the booth? So it was on bank holiday Monday, when, in the throes of a hangover following a friend’s 40th, I tumbled into a Leeds brunch spot, tongue practically scraping the floor, claw ready outstretched to receive a cuppa, and was handed a… glass science-lab beaker containing bits of solid carbon dioxide that caused my “tea” to smoke, bubble and roll like a witch’s cauldron. It looked deranged and tasted foul. In my weakened emotional and physical state, I came very close to tears.
In debasing the flawlessly simple cuppa, the poncey-restaurant movement had finally found my limit. I've endured bits of serrano ham pegged to a washing line pitched in astroturf at a hip and truly terrible London restaurant with a three-month Saturday waiting list. I’ve somehow managed to scoop up and eat the “edible soil” from a wooden chopping board, even paying for the privilege of having what was probably a perfectly nice cake pre-destroyed by professionals. I’ve merely tutted when served my dinner on slabs of grey slate, reclaimed 2x2 or naff square plates 15 times bigger than the food. I’ve quietly removed the cork stoppers from test tubes containing table salt, picked the skinny fries from tiny galvanised buckets and chased my peas off the side of yet another lipless plate, being careful not to over-vinegar my fish in case it flooded the sides and ruined my skirt (you don't miss a ceramic incline until you've lost one). I’ve even asked for “smashed potatoes” when everyone involved knows full well I’m ordering mash. But stand for nothing and you fall for anything. When basic tea rights are being infringed, then it’s time to say, “Enough.”
As with many things, I blame Gregg Wallace. It was MasterChef, I think, who first made Britain believe that placing some perfectly cooked scallops on a plate was no longer sufficient. They now had to be glued to the china with little blobs of pea purée (not mushy peas. We must never admit they’re mushy peas), like shoe heel on discarded Hubba Bubba. Everything had to come with black pudding and no savoury dishes were to go untarnished by fruit (now try and find me a decent shop salad or Pret sandwich without raisins, apricot, watermelon or pomegranate. You could be there all day). So desperate were contestants to stand out from the competition that they did ever madder things to their food. They kept tempura in frying baskets, plonked pastries up makeshift wooden staircases, placed “bone broth” (yes, that’s stock to me and you) into little jugs on the side of a piece of old skirting board. Seemingly inspired by our love of culinary telly, the restaurant industry stole the tricks employed by the amateurs in their bid to be professionals, in a wholly unnecessary case of the tail wagging the dog.
I thought drinks were safe from this dickery. Then they discovered jam jars. Drinking from glasses designed for purpose was suddenly passé. Now, you had to drink cocktails à la inbred farmhand swigging moonshine on their grandma's porch in 1950s Tennessee, while spilling half down your front because the jutting cap thread sent the fluid off-course. Lemonade was no longer clear, fizzy, pleasantly hurty on the throat; it was thick, sour, syrupy yellow stuff, like something sold at the side of the road by American boy scouts. Wine came in Moroccan tea glasses, beer came in wine glasses, coffee was no longer judged on its taste, but on the artistic merits of the barista, who couldn’t fairly expect a tip until he’d recreated an Andy Warhol in the foam. Failing that, then pour it in a scooped-out avocado for the Insta-ready smartphones of the clean-eating generation (no, I’m not exaggerating. This is happening now, in the civilised city of Melbourne. See the marvellous WeWantPlates.com for proof).
Wine came in Moroccan tea glasses, beer came in wine glasses, coffee was no longer judged on its taste, but on the artistic merits of the barista, who couldn’t fairly expect a tip until he’d recreated an Andy Warhol in the foam
Does anyone really want this? Does anyone really believe that chips can be improved by their insertion into a Jenga tower, or that an apple crumble (surely the greatest of all puds) tastes better when dumped like bonfire embers into a pickling jar (that, of course, is almost entirely inaccessible by a normal dessert spoon). Does anyone want a gourmet burger so laden down with ingredients that, even if one could safely lift it from its blackboard, could never fit in a mouth smaller than that of an adult pelican? I sincerely doubt it. Furthermore, no paying customer actually wants their pudding “deconstructed” and placed in little mounds of disparate ingredients, like piles of clothes left bleakly at the seashore. Call me cosseted, but it’s the construction I’m paying for. Honestly. That trifle? Construct the hell out of it! Even the waiting staff look faintly embarrassed as they plonk down the mini chemistry set or similarly absurd monstrosity, as if to say, “Please don't withhold a tip – it wasn't my idea to serve kippers in a plimsoll, I promise.”
It’s bad enough that poncey restaurants are engaging in this madness, but it somehow seems more of a betrayal from a pub or caff. When a Michelin-starred establishment serves me John Dory on a papier mâché seascape complete with saltwater atomiser, then I might laugh. But a boozer serving a full English on a shovel will send me postal. It is the exact opposite of why I’m there. The unchanging crockery. The prosaic approach to presentation. There are simple things with which we do not fuck: the bacon sandwich on white sliced, the baked bean as nature intended (ie from a tin) and, in the face of a withering, force-nine hangover, the mothering embrace of strong, life-force-restoring Tetley’s in a simple, sturdy mug. A drop of milk, no sugar, hold the carbon dioxide.