UK: MASTERCLASS - FOIE GRAS FOR THE FOOD PROCESSOR. - Eric Nicoli, chief executive of United Biscuits, and Jonathan Meades, restaurant critic for The Times, share a gastronomic experience at Marco Pierre White's in London.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Eric Nicoli, chief executive of United Biscuits, and Jonathan Meades, restaurant critic for The Times, share a gastronomic experience at Marco Pierre White's in London.

We do not expect the chief executive of the London Rubber Company to prove his products' worth by offering to use them at every opportunity.

And we would reckon it odd if Bamfords were to drive JCBs as their every-day mode of transport, or the male management of Gossard to wear their most celebrated product. But there are areas where reason is abandoned with loud cries of 'double standards ... hypocrisy'.

One is architecture where practitioners build high-rise blocks but live, like other middle-class professionals, in Georgian houses. And the food industry doesn't fare much better. How can Eric Nicoli admit to a fondness for fine restaurants when he presides over United Biscuits, manufacturer of biscuits, snacks, sandwiches, frozen 'this' and processed 'that'?

Very easily is the answer. Nicoli is interested in quality, not in comparing unlikes. 'There is a difference between a McVities digestive biscuit and, well, some other digestive biscuits.' He is an enthusiast for all sorts of food provided it's good food. His angle seems unexceptional - if you freeze foods which are susceptible to the process, they will not be damaged.

He demeans the snobbery about processed food by audaciously pointing to Marco Pierre White's kitchen and suggesting that what the brigade in it is doing is nothing more nor less than processing ingredients ... You may or may not buy this analogy in print but face to face he makes a sale, not least because of his unhectoring and easy manner.

Nicoli is not an establishment figure and does not suffer the gastronomic Philistinism which the British upper classes wear with such pride. Though he doesn't say so explicitly, he has evidently eaten better all his life than his more 'privileged' coevals. His Italian immigrant parents worked on a Norfolk farm before saving enough to buy their own smallholding.

They reared ducks, pigs, chickens and rabbits: they grew all their own veg. His mother fed the family on north Italian staples - risotto, polenta with rabbit, stews of beef shin or pork, with pasta used as an unsauced accompaniment the way it is in, say, Austria and Alsace. Small wonder that his school friends used to turn up out of the blue at meal times.

No wonder he found school food inedible, as a massively-framed teenage shot-putter, used every day to eating a chicken for supper.

Nicoli is still a good eater. He eats with unabashed enthusiasm. He clears his plate without inhibition. He is not embarrassed to talk about food the way so many Brits - as gastrophobic as they are xenophobic - tend to be. Despite our being in the anomalous surroundings of one of Britain's greatest, most luxurious restaurants, he emphasises that proper food should be quotidian not a rare luxury. He believes that however long they are given, 'two million years or more', the British will never develop a ubiquitous food culture of the sort that characterises France, Italy, or Spain, And given that inability, Nicoli is convinced of the merits of the high-quality pre-prepared dishes which UB provides. This, of course, is food for people who can't cook but have participated in that demographic shift which has brought them into contact with food superior to that which their parents (but not Nicoli's) put up with.

Nicoli is proud that the dishes UB manufactures are as much the work of chefs as they are of food technologists - this is often not the case, as is all too obvious to the tongue. It's difficult, watching him eat scallop and mussel soup with fried squid followed by foie gras terrine and pig's trotter with heavenly mash, to imagine that this is a man who would ever dream of foisting on the public the sort of pap that is developed in the interests of the manufacturer rather than the consumer.

But Nicoli insists that he does not allow his personal taste to influence product development. Indeed the most telling difference between the food he eats in restaurants and that which he disseminates all over the world is that the latter is flavoured according to the dictates of taste panels and committees. That cannot be said of the cooking in his favourite restaurants which, when he is pinned down, he reckons are Michel Roux's Waterside Inn at Bray and A Beauvilliers in Montmartre - to which he appreciatively adds Marco Pierre White as he tucks into the second course of puddings.

Then he remembers an Indian restaurant, and goes on to recall a bollito his mother used to cook and wonders whether that wasn't the best of all.

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