A jug of wine, no loaf of bread

Bread has all but disappeared from restaurant tables and we should all lament its absence.

In mediaeval days, they served meals on trenchers instead of plates. The trencher was a thick slice of stale bread and the meat and gravy were ladled on to it. When the meat was finished, nobles and peasants alike gobbled up the gravy-enriched trencher as a second course.

Not so long ago, you always knew when you were in a good restaurant: there was always fresh warm bread on the table. It was free, as much a part of the table as the cutlery and the salt and pepper.

When you sat down the waiter would place a basket of the just-baked on the table, along with funny, hard to spread little scrolls of butter in a chilled saucer. It didn’t matter whether the bread selection included dinner rolls or small crusty loaves or sourdough slices, it was always a sight for hungry eyes.

The tantalising aroma whetted the appetite and the crunchy crust enlivened the palate as you sipped a beer or a glass of white. As the meal progressed, bread and butter complemented the flavours of savoury courses and, if you were not too snobby, you used the hunks to sop up gravies, sauces and salad dressings from your nearly empty plate. No pasta dish was complete without a few hunks from a rustic loaf dripping with tomatoey sauce.

Really good chefs baked their own bread and, like the French, were as proud of their rolls and loaves as they were of their other dishes – nor did they skrimt* with the servings. Some restaurateurs bought in. Sometimes there would be a small charge. I didn’t care. I loved the bread. (Excluding of course, the ‘Would you like (expensive, soggy) garlic bread to start with?’ rip-off.)

Nowadays restaurants are, as often as not, run by bean-counters rather than chefs. These hideous types, who wouldn’t know the difference between sauerkraut and sourdough, are portion-control freaks and wine up-sellers of the worst sort. They talk the jargon of the bottom line, and its concomitant outcome: industrialised kitchens distributing pre-chilled, boil in the bag ‘cuisine’.

Bread has no place on their Excel spreadsheets or their tables. They see the staple as an unnecessary expense and a filler that will deter guests from ordering another course.

Dining is the poorer for it.

*Skrimt – a cross between stint and scrimp and skimp.

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