Monthly Archives: October 2010

Taste the Difference

The church I attended throughout my childhood hosted various extra-curricular events. The best were youth nights where we dressed like WAGs, stuffed our faces with luminous sweets and hummed along nonchalantly to Oasis as we played pool. Less enticing were so-called hunger lunches, which befuddle me to this day.

For the non-Methodists among you, allow me to explain the concept of a hunger lunch. You (or, more accurately, your mum) makes a designated dish and pudding, usually shepherd’s pie followed by apple crumble. Everybody else cooks the same two dishes. After the morning service, the whole congregation files into the church hall and sits at fold-out tables to receive this offering.

So far, so innocuous: you’re going to be fed through the kindness of others rather than go hungry. We say grace – for what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful. But instead of feeling thankful I could never help but feel anything other than tense as, table by table, we stood in line at the serving hatch and participated in a nail-biting game of Russian roulette as we tried to gauge which – or whose – shepherd’s pie was likely to end up on our plate.

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The other French paradox

On Tuesday I spent the night with AA Gill talking about French food. OK, so it was him, me, and about 100 other people, and I didn’t utter a single word, but it was still an unmissable prospect – my favourite writer on one of my favourite subjects. Anyway, it’s only really his mind that I’m after (and of course his job).

The event was a debate staged as part of the London Restaurant Festival, with the motion that ‘French cuisine is a spent force’. I desperately wanted Le Gill and Jonathan Soames – who were valiantly tempting us to believe that French cuisine is as relevant and well-regarded as it ever has been – to transport me back to my rose-tinged experiences of France and remind me of the good times: finishing my breakfast with a flourish before turning excitedly to thoughts of lunch. However, despite their bullish good humour (“We know with absolute certainty”, Gill began archly, “that no one in France is sitting in a room debating whether English cuisine is a spent force… these are the preoccupations of a developing food nation”), I came out of the theatre in the same frame of mind as when I entered.

I’m surprised at myself for even typing this, but it’s true: this summer, on holiday in Provence, I didn’t really smack my lips after a single meal. It could be that, following a French degree, two spells as a British ex-pat in France, countless trips to L’Hexagone and a job spent immersed in food, my expectations are higher than they previously were. It might be that we were in a particularly touristy part of France (although the village of Tavel had never before crossed my radar). It could have been sheer bad lunch. Whatever it was, France does seem to have gone off the boil slightly – only to a rolling simmer, mind, but off the boil nonetheless.

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Beef jerky ice cream, anyone? The murkier side of harvest festival

Do you remember harvest festivals at school? Those uncomfortably half-pagan rituals that have been absorbed into the Christian calendar – a lesson in keeping your friends close but your foes closer? I don’t know whether things have changed these days, but when I was at junior school, harvest festival was one of those annual events that, despite being lauded as A Good Thing, made parents either groan or panic.

The week before, schools would give their young charges a brightly coloured piece of paper to take home to remind mum and/or dad of the happy event. This would immediately be stuffed to the bottom of each child’s bag, only to resurface months later. Savvy to this possibility, and taking no chances, teachers would remind the class again the night before that they should all bring something to donate to those less fortunate. And so it would begin: a parental sigh of exasperation, followed by the excavation of unwanted food for the greater good.

In essence, that’s what harvest festivals are: charity shops in edible – or semi-edible – form. The acceptable face of fly-tipping; a clever dance whereby the recipient shows more gratitude than he should and the benefactor less. Harvest festival is a dumping ground for things you wish you’d never bought or know you’ll never use again: the BOGOF bargains and ill-considered impulse buys that got out of hand; the tin of condensed milk you bought for a recipe and never used; the free sample of beef jerky that no one tried; a dented tin of plum tomatoes; a random box of stale ice cream cones. My mum once exhumed a vintage tub of strawberry milkshake powder and looked at me doubtfully for approval – upon closer inspection it had expired the year before I was born.

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Flying in the face of good food

We’d all agree that nothing beats getting away from it all. But these days nobody’s holiday can ever truly start until they’ve got through the familiar ordeal of flying Ryanair. Until then, the excitement of the holiday will inevitably be shot through with jagged shards of frustration and resentment. It’s like having to remove the skin and bones from your sea bass before you can really start to enjoy it.

So you found the cheapest possible flight and negotiated the cryptic set of tick boxes engineered to fool you into stumping up for the privilege of: a) standing in the (only marginally shorter) speedy boarding queue, b) sitting with your child, or c) seeing larger items of your luggage actually emerge at the other end.

At home you weighed and measured your hand luggage countless times, damned if you were going to spend even a penny more on extra bags or excess luggage fines.

And you spent the night in the draughty hall of some back-of-beyond airport waiting for the check-in desk to open for your 4am flight because you couldn’t face spending money on a hotel or taxi.

Inexplicably, though, once you’re airborne and the never-ending, spiraling assault on your instant gratification gland by the flight attendants begins – headphones for the film, charity collections, duty-free booze, scratch card sales – the wallets start to come out. Unfathomably, a group of people whose only motivation for flying Ryanair was the price and who’d all been cursing the airline only minutes beforehand are now handing over their hard-earned holiday savings to that very same company.

How do Ryanair do it? Do they pump some sort of magic potion out of the air conditioning ducts that makes you forget that you’ve spent the past few weeks boasting to colleagues about the wonderful food you’re going to eat while on holiday, and drooling over the pictures in the brochure of string bags full of local market produce? That you swished through the airport without a passing glance at the chain restaurants, tutting impatiently about how overpriced they all are? That at no time during your stint in the departure lounge did you profess a desire for a pot of Pringles? That last time you ordered something from the Ryanair on-board menu it was not only criminally underwhelming but also the same size as its picture? And that nothing on the menu has changed since then?

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