The first thing I look for on a restaurant table is the salt and pepper. I want to see that they’re there and what they are although I probably won’t be using them. You can tell an awful lot about a place from just these two condiments.
And the diners. Look at that chap over there. Almost as soon as his plate arrives he is reaching for the salt and sprinkling it everywhere. Now there’s someone who doesn’t know his food or care too much for the nuances of taste.
Seasoning is a skill you hope that every chef has. My edition of Larousse Gastronomique states that seasoning is “the addition of various ingredients (salt, pepper, spices, condiments, aromatics, oil and vinegar) in variable quantities to a culinary preparation, either to give it a particular taste or to increase its palatability without changing the nature of the food it contains.”
What’s more, this encyclopaedia of French culinary knowledge goes on to stress it is “a delicate art that requires a precise knowledge of basic substances to bring out the best in the different flavours by blending them.”
So, before we add salt and pepper let’s see how the chef does. We owe it to him (or her). If I don’t reach for either during a meal the kitchen has done its job. Mind you, seasoning is a subjective thing. No chef can put the right amount of salt for me on chips or roast potatoes although oddly he can for mash. But as seasoning is the chef’s stock in trade, let’s see how he does.
I had a night many years ago as a lowly commis chef in the Michelin-starred Old Vicarage at Ridgeway and my eyes were opened by the way salt and sugar were added to almost every dish, the European answer to MSG. But I now do it myself in my own kitchen, a little salt here, a pinch of sugar there.
Nowhere with any pride in its food will offer you table salt or ready ground pepper these days. That’s for the transport caffs. Sea salt or rock salt adds a piquancy to food and an elusive sweetness. You don’t believe me? Put a salt crystal on your tongue and concentrate. See. I can’t tell you the reason but it’s there.
There is nothing quite like freshly ground pepper, the king of spices. Just think what the South Indians do with this one spice. I remember being intrigued by chef Gary France’s pepper pots at the old Harley Hotel: a mixture of black, white, green and red peppercorns with the odd coriander berry thrown in for good measure and have copied it ever since.
Having said all this, I don’t really want to use them! I hope the chef has. But I do want to be given the option. I hate the sort of place where the condiments are not on the table so you have to ask. That’s just a touch of arrogance on the part of the restaurant.
There’s a well known place in Sheffield which brings open pots of salt without salt spoons. It would be uneconomical to fill them afresh each time and I am not going to trust the hygiene of the fingers and thumbs which went in before me.
And there’s Carluccio’s chain of Italian restaurants which makes a thing of giving its waiting staff the pepperpots and asking you if you want a grinding before you’ve even tasted the food. What are you supposed to do? Start eating, make a decision and flag down a passing pepperpot person? It betrays a lamentable lack of understanding about food for the sake of a gimmick.
Salt and pepper might seem like ordinary items but they can say quite a lot about a restaurant and its customers. It’s these little nuances that make food and eating out an ever-interesting topic. So next time, before you say pass the salt, ask yourself if it’s really needed.