Interviewed by Midlands What’s On magazine ahead of his upcoming appearance at next month’s Coventry Food and Drink Festival, Michelin-starred chef and restaurateur Jean-Christophe Novelli observed that ‘a good variety of local cuisines will undoubtedly encourage more people to spend more time in the city. Good city-centre restaurants act as great ambassadors for the city and its local producers – they really put it on the map!’.
I wonder if he realises just how little attention our own city centre has paid to this sensible – not to say obvious – advice from someone who knows the industry inside out? Where food is concerned, the council’s biggest enthusiasm has always been for chain restaurants, with their uniformity and ability to assure nervous diners that they’ll know exactly what they’re getting even before they step through the door.
One independent that is bucking the trend – albeit rather feebly – is Godiva’s in St Mary’s Guildhall, which stocks one of the city’s few authentic traditional delicacies, the Coventry God Cake. Positioned somewhere between an apple turnover and a mince pie, the God Cake is thought to have been around in one form or another since the fourteenth century; so it’s entirely appropriate to find it on sale at the Guildhall – which, dating as it does from about 1340, is of approximately the same vintage.
On the day I visited Godiva’s, a selection of tempting pastry triangles was displayed (I’d hesitate to say ‘proudly’) under a cake dome near the entrance. Though prominently labelled ‘Coventry God Cakes’, a bit more flag-waving for their history and provenance would have been nice. (They’re actually made by Nuneaton-based Heritage Cake Company, who have also revived a number of other local sweet-treats including the even less well-known Coventry Corporation Custard.) Why is Coventry practically the patron saint of keeping your head down?
And the same criticism could be applied to the café itself. Located in the vaulted undercroft or basement area immediately beneath of one of England’s finest surviving medieval guildhalls, this is a unique seven-hundred year-old gem of a space with enormous potential. So why is it (God Cakes excepted) dishing up the same dull old fare I could get anywhere?
In a continuation of this spring’s flavourless soup theme, the weary tomato and red pepper offering I had at Godiva’s was was a poor tribute to a vegetable which, when its essential tomato-iness is allowed to condense and intensify, can produce some of the most show-stopping soups of all. The specks of red pepper submerged in its depths were too tidgy to add anything, while the paradoxically enormous croutons jostled for room like icebergs in a pond. Weirdly, they appeared to have been browned on one side only, which also made them disarmingly soft. (Fool that I am, I thought the whole point of them was to contrast with the texture of the soup.)
My fusilli pasta in some ways suffered from the opposite problem: the ‘tomato, mushroom and basil sauce’ was gratifyingly thick and rich, but had gone so heavy on the basil that it was difficult to taste much else. Meanwhile the thick layer of melted cheese topping the oblong serving dish put me in mind of a sardine tin, and almost had me reaching for a key to peel it back; and the sense in which my perennial – and perennially uninspiring – iceberg lettuce and cucumber side-salad was ‘seasonal’ remains a mystery.
Jean-Christophe Novelli’s point is that local farmers, growers, artisan makers and the like should ideally work hand-in-hand with independent restaurants to showcase each other, attracting consumers and other businesses alike and acting as an economic stimulus for the entire region.
None of this can happen, however, when almost all restaurants and cafés are clones that prize predictability (and price) above all else and purchase centrally in order to maintain them. Independents in great locations like Godiva’s need to wake up and seize to the opportunity that this obsession with conformity is gifting them – the opportunity to offer something different and to support other local businesses. But a half-hearted display of pastries is not enough. It’s a whole philosophy and it deserves vociferous, passionate champions who are ready and willing to get excited about it – for God’s Cake!
Godiva’s, Bayley Lane, Coventry CV1 5RN. Home made soup of the day with a warmed crusty roll, 3.65; Fusilli pasta in a tomato, mushroom and basil sauce with garlic bread and seasonal salad, 5.95.