Monthly Archives: March 2010

By appointment to HM ER II…er, grazia

What would you expect to eat at an audience with Her Majesty the Queen? Dainty cucumber sandwiches sans crusts and tea sipped from bone china cups? A mini pork pie dabbed with Keen’s mustard and accompanied by a glass of sweet sherry? A full sit-down meal, each course requiring a different knife and presented under a silver cloche that’s unveiled by a suited waiter at the table? All of the above?

If so, you’d be disappointed. Apparently the Queen has moved with the times when it comes to grub. Either that or she too is feeling the pinch of the credit crunch. I say this having just read the would-be ‘society’ pages of my guilty pleasure, Grazia. The nibbles reportedly served at the palace for the British Clothing Industry Reception were, for me, just above roast Corgi on the list of Unexpected Things That The Queen Would Serve You. You won’t believe what the guests were treated to unless you secretly read Grazia too or you were at the reception yourself.

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It’s rude to stare

Do you ever forget your manners at home? All greedy gourmets will know what I’m talking about. Imagine that you’re coming to the end of a lipsmackingly good meal. In denial that it’s about to end, you start mining the last dribbles of sauce from the seams of your plate. Perhaps you’ll surreptitiously lick your knife clean. You might even brush a cheeky finger along the edge of the plate and bring it to your lips to capture any errant drops and make the pleasure linger. Suddenly, you’re snatched from your reverie by your mother, who slaps your hand sharply and gives you a dark look, or your partner, who grimaces at you pointedly and asks what’s for dessert. It’s happened to us all.

The same scene unfolds, for me at least, when I’m eating tricky foods alone and hidden away in my flat. Here, in privacy, received etiquette goes out the window and jars of peanut butter are treated as single servings to save on washing up, while visitors might find me hunched over the sink with peach juice dribbling down my chin and arm, or sitting in front of the TV with a plastic bag in my lap to catch the run-off from a particularly effusive orange.

All well and good, right? But I wouldn’t do this sort of thing in public – at least not sober. So why do other people?

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The breakfast of champions?

Recently I’ve become addicted to sitting with one fist in my mouth and the fingers of my other hand splayed over my eyes while I watch the childbirthing antics on Channel 4’s One Born Every Minute. This is part of a personal exercise in confronting the idea that one day I could be writhing helplessly on a hospital bed, lowing like cattle and waiting for an infant who will resemble a tiny, slime-covered version of myself to make a painful and dignity-stripping appearance.

This weekly shriek and sob-athon is compulsive viewing that never fails to leave me gibbering and rocking starry-eyed on the sofa. How do these women endure the marathon of birth? Most cling to the grim knowledge that there’s no choice: their baby has to come out somehow.

The teenage mother that starred this week was the exception to this rule. There she was with her mum and boyfriend, wailing and shaking and thoroughly petrified at her body’s revolt. ‘I can’t do this!’ she convinced herself over and over. ‘Yes you can,’ said her mum kindly. ‘When this is over, I’ll buy you a sausage and egg McMuffin – how does that sound?’

I’m not going to answer that question. OK, I am – I can’t help myself. It sounded so gross I had to cover my eyes again.

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A serious business

Ah, another week, another photoshoot. But before you get jealous, let me assure you that the good times aren’t going to last – sadly, this is my final shoot in a while.

This week the photographer put me onto this gem of a food vlogger spoof. 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Honestly – they were this big!

This weekend I caught a bit of must-see TV. On Saturday night I watched a weepie – or was it a horror story? Whatever it was, it didn’t seem like a happy ending to me, and the end of the line seemed far too close for comfort.

After backing into a brief intellectual cul-de-sac where I basked in the idea of lobster becoming the new cod (until it too was fished to oblivion), I started imagining having to describe the taste of extinct types of fish – or perhaps fish as a whole species – to my grandchildren. What a job that would be: to provide a first-hand account of an animal we did nothing to save without cringing with shame. ‘Well, they were about yea big (bigger if you believe some fishermen), with scales and googly eyes and flaky flesh that could sometimes be as pure white as coconut meat is. What did they smell of, you ask? Well, they smelt, erm… fishy. How did they taste? Well, I gobbled them down so quickly I didn’t pay much attention to the taste itself, but they were delicious, I can tell you that much. A very delicate flavour, went a treat with lemons, even more delicious stuffed with shellfish. Shellfish? Oh, shellfish were other creatures that used to live in the oceans. Yes, we would eat both at one sitting, why?’

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The tale of the squid and the mop

Let me tell you a little story about my teuthiphobia, how it started and how it led on to ichthyophobia. To do this I need to take you back in time to 2005…

In the autumn of 2005 I upped sticks to Spain to take a chance on my holiday romance. I spoke extreme beginners’ Spanish and took the first job I was offered in a tapas bar called La Factoria. In my ‘interview’ I smiled a lot and explained that I is been a mop many time at England pubs. The bar owner, who either took pity on me or saw that I represented an as yet undiscovered mine of hilarity, signed me up on the spot.

What I’d intended to convey in my interview was that I’d worked as a washer-upper for years. I love washing up in restaurants. For greedy people like me, the networking opportunities are second-to-none. You make friends with the chefs and you’re made: first dibs on all leftover trays of dauphinoise potatoes, the chance to try new concoctions as they’re being created, and the biggest portions when you stop for a lunch break. What’s more, you get all the insider gossip, a radio to listen to, zero contact with bossy paying customers, and you can wear whatever you want.

In the five years I worked as a kitchen porter, peeling buckets of spuds, making up oceans of stock, washing up towers of greasy plates, picking enough fish bones out of the drain to make entire skeletons, and working my way through vats of prawns and squid, I never once had a freak-out.

So I thought I could handle La Factoria. They came on strong – had me crawling into their huge, filthy oven to scrape out the grime with industrial-strength products on day one, insisted I chop a huge pile of parsley more and more finely until my spirit almost broke on day two, and made me clean the customer loos at two in the morning at the end of all of my shifts. But I could take it.

During the day, the owner (and head chef) would make small talk with the sous-chef and I’d scrape up any conversational crumbs I could decipher. Occasionally I’d take a deep breath and blunder through the odd sentence or two. At those times, everyone would stop and watch me intently – and disconcertingly – as I spoke. When I’d finished, they would address me as – well, as an English person would address a non-English speaker – like an old lady who’s as deaf as a post.

During the evening, I learnt to keep my head down and wow them with my productivity. I was routinely trotted out by the head chef as an overseas curiosity, where I would smile and introduce myself as the new mop, but aside from that I kept myself to myself.

Then, just as I thought I was settling in and gaining the respect of my team, it happened. I’d been asked to clean a huge metal tray full of squid and got straight down to it, one by one: pull out the quill, rummage around for the beak, poke out the eyes, done, onto the next.

Soon I’d got about halfway through the squid mountain and was on autopilot, consumed by the task in hand. Quill, beak, eyes, next. Quill, beak, eyes, next. Quiiiiii…… Suddenly, before I could process what was happening, I was making a low, disgusted noise that was somewhere between a roar and a moan, the audible equivalent of the air you expel furiously from your contaminated nostrils after tentatively sniffing the ‘mud’ on the sole of your shoe. Before I knew it, the squid I’d picked up was sailing in a high and graceful arc across the kitchen, watched curiously by the head and sous-chefs. It thudded onto the floor and skidded into a corner, while we all stared after it open-mouthed.

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