Tag Archives: fish

What the foc…?

I don’t pretend to be a food expert (much). But I’d like to think that, as my career progresses, I’ll be well on my way there, and I’m certainly no novice now. That’s why during dinner last night, I died inside just a little.

My would-be in-laws had descended on us with a few others in tow. The Incident happened just after we’d settled in at the restaurant I’d booked to their specifications – those specifications being, ‘Somewhere in Mayfair, nowhere pricey, but a place that does excellent quality seafood’ (gulp). Perhaps they didn’t realise that a modicum of expertise is needed to book anywhere decent at all at short notice for 8pm on a Saturday night, and were unaware of the foodie feat I’d already performed smoothly behind the scenes.

In any case, the Spanish conversation was flowing. Let me just reiterate an important part of that last sentence: the Spanish conversation. There I was, holding my own as we discussed, among other things, books we’d read, the meaning of the word ‘synergy’, prime number theories – none subjects I would list as within my realm of specialist knowledge…

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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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It’s a tough job, but…

As an antidote to London Fashion Week, I thought I’d take you behind the scenes of a food photoshoot, where bellies are rubbed, not sucked in, and where mouths salivate rather than pout.

The rules

Rule one: food can be photogenic or otherwise, much like people. A ripe, rosy plum will be a natural in front of the camera, requiring only a bowl to sit in, some fellow plums for company, and favourable lighting. Life’s plainer ingredients, however, need tarting and gussying up like the mother of the bride in order to shine. The difference, of course, is that food will never writhe, smile more widely, or respond to calls of ‘lovely, that’s great, keep it going, you’re a confident, fierce bratwurst!’ It’s up to the team to sex up those pesky German sausages.

The team

The Photographer: usually a surprisingly skinny man.

How to spot him: the only one not making primitive ‘mmm’ and ‘aah’ noises – he’s not gazing longingly at the food; he’s looking at the light. Like a ripening pear whose flesh melts to mush in the time it takes for you to run to the kitchen and grab a knife, the light will tease your photographer, changing by the minute, every passing cloud or sunbeam frustrating his efforts. The only person in the room who understands the challenge he faces is…

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