Jonathan Meades: ‘If I’d been in England, I’d be dead’

The critic and author, recovering from heart surgery in France, discusses architecture, Jeremy Hunt and life in Marseille while cooking dishes from his new book of recipes, A Plagiarist in the Kitchen

Jonathan Meades has spent an adult lifetime on unlikely pilgrimages of one kind or another, partly to test his contention that “there is no such thing as a boring place”. For the BBC he has gone in search of the architectural essence of Birmingham, and the discrete joys of Essex; he has found magic in the garden city and the Victorian terrace, and offered despairing deconstructions of post-Thatcher planning. No one observes house and home with a more acute eye. Meades is Pevsner in shades; Betjeman with attitude. It is with a broad smile, therefore, that you stand outside his own current billet, and take in its brutal geometries.

For most of the past decade Meades, now 70, has lived in France, having wanted a change from London, but drawing a blank as to anywhere else in England he could confidently exist. For the last five of those exiled years he has lived in an apartment in Marseille in the most influential of all postwar buildings: Le Corbusier’s visionary “machine for living”, the Unité d’habitation, an 18-storey concrete slab, tricked up with Mondrian primary colours, a couple of miles south of the old port. Le Corbusier planned 18 of these blocks, a fanfare to the working man, stretching all the way to sea. Because of a hole in the city finances, only one was built, and it stands marooned, a World Heritage site beside a dual carriageway. Meades lives on the second floor, with his third wife.

Meeting me at the lift, he leads me along the gloomy and functional internal street of the building’s corridor, quickly explaining how he is in recovery from a year of grim health – pleurisy and embolism and heart surgery – before opening the apartment door on a double-height window of brilliant Provençal light, and a table set invitingly for lunch. Meades was for 15 years from 1986 the restaurant critic of the Times, a calling he approached with polymathic wit, much copied, rarely bettered. He wrote a book about being on the road in the shires in search of a decent dinner – Incest and Morris Dancing. Fifteen years later he has produced another personal food odyssey, a book of recipes, each with a story of how he came by it, and why exactly he is passing it off as his own: The Plagiarist in the Kitchen. We had planned to go out in Marseille to mark its publication, but as he says, since it’s a cookbook it makes sense to eat in.

He gives me the tour of his apartment, the neat downstairs kitchen with its original modernist cupboards painted in the colours of his “disliked uncle’s Sunbeam Rapier”. The kitchen gives way up an open stair to a flow of sitting rooms, one corner for sunrise, one for sunset. Meades is not naturally given to unguarded joy, but he says he wakes up each morning thrilled that he lives here, the more so since his recent brush with mortality, which ended in the autumn with his being rushed into hospital for five hours of cardiac surgery. “If I had been in England, with Jeremy Hunt’s current blood lust, I’ve not a doubt I would be dead,” he says.

His treatment in France has had another bonus. His recovery has been given impetus by daily stints on an exercise bike, looking out at the mountains, but no dietary advice. Food is such a primary pleasure here, he assumes such strictures might be beyond the pale. Lunch is therefore a creamy feast. As a critic, Meades has a near pathological aversion to the faux, or the muddled. He likes his buildings and his food to declare their intent robustly. His cookbook contains no “serving suggestions” on the basis that “most foods are not improved by being wedded or civil partnered with others”.

Bread aside, each of three lunch courses occupies a single earthenware dish. We begin with a salt cod – brandade de morue – the delicate flavour of the minced fish cut with generous wild garlic. This is followed by a parmentier, an upscale shepherd’s pie, with pureed potato (“very definitely not mash”) made with creme fraiche, more garlic and a lot of butter, based on the best version he’s tasted, made by chef Yves Camdeborde in Paris’s Odéon. The puree encases a duck confit with Agen prunes. It is followed by a rebarbe, made with old Roquefort cheese and a flask of “tramp’s brandy” mixed to a paste, left for a day or two, and eaten with a baguette. This combination Meades nicked from a friend with a restaurant in the red sandstone landscape of the Aveyron. It does not seem a dish for the faint-hearted; indeed, it feels like a pudding you might well taste for the rest of your born days. I wash it down happily with a white cassis, from a vineyard 20 minutes away. Meades isn’t drinking. I’ve met him a few times before, but never wholly sober; happily, the change doesn’t affect his talk.

While we eat, conversation ranges over the doomed artisanal dreams of a generation of French architects, the boyhood inevitabilities of watching his local team Southampton FC lose, the reasons why Otto Dix will eclipse Picasso as the great painter of the 20th century, and the dire state of political culture on both sides of the Channel.

He has an interest in heroic failure, not least his own. He quit print journalism, he says, after he got fed up being sacked. His career as a novelist – which began with the scabrous Rabelaisian satire Pompey in 1992 – has not run smoothly. Though he has written a great deal of fiction since, only one further novel has followed. He is currently midway through a Borgesian “book of the undead in 10 very long chapters” which his publisher professes to love, but is finding a hard sell with marketing. He is also at work on two TV shows, one on jargon, one on the buildings of Franco (in a series that has included Mussolini and Hitler, and may yet, he imagines, take him to Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago). Budgets are not what they were: “We used to be a convoy, now we are a smart car,” he says of his crew.

In France, you can’t help feeling, Meades’s range of misanthropic brilliance, his love of the scatological (one reviewer described him as a “dandy filth hound”) and the sublime, would have seen him embraced as a cultural hero. In Britain he tends to be kept at arm’s length on BBC4 and on the “experimental” fiction pile. He has accepted this fate as penance for determinedly not being his father, a biscuit salesman from Salisbury with an ardent love of fishing (and, incidentally, a memorable line in shepherd’s pies).

Family are still in the UK – Meades has four daughters – but he has been back less often since his illness. He misses a few things, most recently the regular lunches with AA Gill at Daquise, the Polish silver service restaurant in Kensington, still his favourite place to eat in London. Other than that, he’s nostalgic mostly for landscape. “I love English riverscapes,” he says, “chalk streams. The waterscape round Salisbury, the floated meadows. Other than that there is very little about the culture I can’t get on the internet.”

Lunch with Jonathan Meades
They ate: Brandade de morue, parmentier, rebarbe.
The Table Cité Radieuse Le Corbusier, Marseille, France.
Photograph: France Keyser/The Observer

Having fled little England when he left home aged 17, Meades now finds it returning to haunt him in the form of Brexit. Marseille is a city on which, if you like the possibility of cities at all, you feel desperately sad we are closing the door. It has a reputation as a tough place, but Meades finds it mostly relaxed and integrated. He likens it to Liverpool, big-hearted, hard-edged. “You might get a kicking on a Friday night, but they will embrace you and apologise after.”

I wonder if he fears he will have to return to Blighty after Theresa May’s red, white and blue negotiation?

He thinks it unlikely but he has thought of getting citizenship. “The process is pretty easy, though they do ask you a few questions about French culture and so on.” As our lunch extends into the afternoon and the rebarbe disappears, I can’t help feeling that’s an exam Meades might rather enjoy.

He didn’t move for the food, but it would be hard to leave behind. “The produce is vastly superior still in terms of taste,” he says. “I don’t think chefs in France are any better than those in Britain, but they have such a huge advantage. It’s a very agricultural country. The fruit and veg down here are just sensational …”

I take his word on that because our fine lunch, in Le Corbusier’s functional masterpiece, is complicated by no such frippery.

The Plagiarist in the Kitchen is published on 6 April (Unbound, £20). To order a copy for £17, go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders minimum p&p of £1.99


Tim Adams

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Paul Whitehouse and Bob Mortimer: ‘There was the chance one of us might drop dead on the riverbank’
Over suet pudding at London’s oldest restaurant, the comedians discuss fishing, heart surgery, and staying in touch with their inner child

Tim Adams

15, Jul, 2018 @11:00 AM

Article image
Grayson Perry: ‘As an artist I find Brexit exciting. No doubt it will be a disaster’
Britain’s finest transvestite potter is hard at work exploring the nature of masculinity. Over a game platter near his London home, he discusses motorbikes, body image and more

Tim Adams

23, Apr, 2017 @11:00 AM

Article image
Martin Parr: ‘Brexit infects every other story in Britain’
The pioneering photographer has been documenting Britain for 40 years. He talks about his gallery and his collection of space dog ephemera

Interview by Tim Adams

17, Dec, 2017 @12:00 PM

Article image
Sir Peter Blake: ‘All a country has is its culture; the rest is infrastructure’
On the eve of Sgt Pepper’s half-century, the pop artist shares stories of his classic album sleeve, snubbing Warhol and why he hasn’t paid a bill in Mr Chow for 50 years

Tim Adams

21, May, 2017 @11:00 AM

Article image
Jeremy Deller: ‘Cafes and pubs are endangered species. They should be listed’
In his favourite London cafe, Jeremy Deller discusses political art, gentrification – and his mum’s steak and kidney pie

Rachel Cooke

19, Aug, 2018 @11:00 AM

Article image
Olafur Eliasson: ‘I brought a frozen chicken into art school’
The Danish artist has taken over the Tate Modern restaurant as well as its gallery. He talks student food and his dad’s life as a ship’s cook

Rachel Cooke

19, Aug, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
Damien Hirst and Mark Hix: ‘We could do Viagra oysters at the restaurant’
The artist and the restaurateur behind Pharmacy 2 form a comic double act with tales of magic mushrooms, mortuaries, and why ‘food is like art without the evidence’

Interview by Tim Adams

17, Apr, 2016 @11:30 AM

Article image
Jonathan Safran Foer: ‘Why don’t Extinction Rebellion issue specific ideas? They are awfully vague’
The bestselling author explains why simple changes to our diet are a good way to address the climate crisis

Tim Adams

19, Jan, 2020 @12:00 PM

Article image
Maggi Hambling: ‘There are always goody goody people telling you you’ve done the wrong thing’
The artist discusses statue rage, tennis tips from Andy Murray – and teeth

Tim Adams

15, Aug, 2021 @11:00 AM

Article image
Gilbert & George: ‘We’re art’s outsiders. We never wanted to eat lasagne at other people’s houses’
The artists, who never keep food at home, walk through the East End with Observer Food Monthly before lunch at their regular cafe

Tim Adams

17, Oct, 2021 @11:00 AM