IT was rather like catching Arthur putting Excalibur away after a successful day about Camelot.
Or seeing Henry sheathing his steel after a decisive ploy at Agincourt.
“English cooking,” said Philip Harben, bristling and bustling as he lovingly laid his carving knife away, “is the best in the world. The only problem is convincing the English that it is.”
The tone quite obviously brooked no argument upon the subject. Mr. Harben had no time to spare for anyone who didn’t believe as passionately in English cooking as he did.
He amplified the point in short, sharp bursts of information as he buzzed around his kitchen, cleaning up after the elaborate meal he had just prepared.
“With French cooking, you can get away with so much. It’s complex. But if you stick by the book, you’re pretty safe.
“English cooking has classical simplicity. It calls for perfection of basic materials. And that means that everything you cook must be absolutely right.”
On Sunday afternoon Philip Harben will show us how to improve our cooking in another infectiously enthusiastic edition of ABC’s “The Grammar Of Cookery.”
It’s a crusade that began in the Twenties over the stove of his parents’ home in London.
His mother was Mary Jerrold, a well-known actress. “But she taught me nothing about cooking. I’m afraid,” he said. “She was an abominable cook.
“I remember she used to think she could make bread. It was dreadful. So all that I ever learned about cooking I found out for myself by trial and error.”
“I prefer not to remember them,” said Philip.
After leaving school he worked as assistant stage-manager in the theatre, as a cameraman and assistant director in a film studio, and as a commercial photographer. But the call of the kitchen became increasingly irresistible. So in 1938 he took up catering professionally.
Since then he has established himself as one of the country’s most popular television cookery experts. He has made several films.
He has published a number of books on the subject. And he now owns his own industrial catering firm.
But although cooking has proved to be a profitable commercial enterprise, he will always regard the preparation of good food as an art form.
“The French have one great advantage over us in this field.” said Philip. “As a nation they are passionately interested in cooking. And many English people still seem rather to despise it.
“When I go into a restaurant I react to the food I get. If I don’t like it, I say so. If I do like it I send the chef my compliments and invite him to have a glass of wine with me.
“It pays dividends.
“Standards of English restaurants are rising rapidly nowadays. And the standards of French restaurants are falling slightly.
“The day isn’t so far off when Frenchmen will be coming over here and going into ecstasies about the marvellous restaurant they have just discovered in Ashton-under-Lyne.”
Mr. Harben was struck by an afterthought.
“As a matter of fact,” he said, “I know two marvellous restaurants in Ashton-under-Lyne, already.”
About the author
Brian Finch (1963-2007) was a journalist on the Manchester Evening News, and then in the northern office of the TVTimes. He went on to be a scriptwriter and playwright, contributing 151 episodes of Coronation Street, and writing episodes of All Creatures Great and Small, Heartbeat, Juliet Bravo, Bergerac, The Bill and Hetty Wainthropp Investigates.