Tag Archives: pizza

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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Fondue or die

I can remember with cut-glass clarity the most extreme consumption I’ve ever subjected my body to. Early contenders include the 13 slices of pizza I ate as a child and the all-you-can-eat buffets in vast hotel dining rooms that I hungrily re-re- and re-visited nightly as a teenager. Close runners-up comprise the six-month homesickness-induced binge that was my gap-year work experience placement, and almost every Christmas of my life. America, the continent, I remember as a blur of physically exhausting confrontations with mega-meals – I emerged from the other end of that trip a changed woman, mechanically topping up my stomach to the very brim every time my body contrived to create a little bit of room in there. But things never really got beyond uncomfortable in the States. No: it was in France that I went a forkful too far and where stomach rupture loomed as a near-inevitable end to my evening. And the perpetrator? Fondue.

The thing about melted cheese is that it’s the stealth plane of food. It slides into the gut undetected and lurks behind your stomach walls, trying to pass unnoticed. It’s saltily and oozily moreish, and cunningly surrounds itself with an array of tempting tart and tangy crudité accomplices, the better to disguise its richness. So you dip into the cheese, mix things up with a juicy gherkin, return cravenly to the cheese, try a crisp radish, dip another radish into the cheese… and before you know it, you’ve slumped to the floor drenched in sweat and are clawing at your distended belly, while your red-faced friend asks, ‘Excusez-moi, est-ce qu’il y a un hôpital près d’ici?’.

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Visions of the last supper

Have you ever choked on a piece of food so violently that halfway through your struggle for air a panicky thought enters your crowded head suggesting with increasing horror the idea that what you have just eaten might be (or have been…) your last meal? And, as you splutter, you think, ‘No, not this way, please God. Not over an M&S egg and cress sandwich or a slice of takeaway pizza. I’ve got my last meal covered, I’ve talked about it in depth, and this definitely isn’t it.’

I’ve witnessed similar thoughts cross the minds of people I know. Aged nine, I was at a stately home on a family day out when my grandad caused a stir in the cafeteria. One minute he was chomping on the limp lettuce that was bringing up the rear of a joy-stripped, cling-wrapped Ploughman’s; the next he was desperately rocking and wheezing, and a clamour of strangers was trying to expel said salad leaf from his grasping windpipe. Even as he coughed and gasped, you could see that he was thinking wildly, ‘Lettuce? A world war under my belt and in the end it comes down to vegetation? I don’t even rate lettuce.’ He was fine in the end, but his consciousness absolutely whispered those words during his fight for breath.

The same thing has happened to me. I don’t think that it’s because I eat too fast or in too much of a slovenly manner: I think it’s probably a hazard of eating as many things as I do – being over-familiar with the mechanics of eating probably makes me less alert to its menace. My two nearest-death experiences were not with overtly risky food – none of your Japanese blowfish or hand-picked wild mushrooms – but instead with the innocent-looking and innocuous stick of cheap confectionery that is the Twix.

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Beware of derring dough

It’s official: London’s best pizza is a teeny tiny establishment hidden away in the ’burbs – and I helped bring it to the masses.

To help find London’s best pizza, I worked my way through Naples’ finest export for six days in a row, as part of a team of reviewers eating their way across the city. I don’t know about the other participants, but my behind still resembles an enthusiastic pizzaiolo’s mound of dough as a result of my endeavours. But my greed was all for the greater good, so I consider my new freeform posterior an act of physical altruism.

This wasn’t the first time I’ve taken on a pizza-related challenge. When I was an angular-limbed, stick-thin 12-year-old, I beat a grown man in a pizza-eating contest. (Come to think of it, he could well have been grooming me for future gluttony, though it all seemed quite innocent at the time.)

I was at his daughter’s birthday party and we were going down the All You Can Eat route at one of those places that serve pizzas whose deep-fried bases can double as yoga mats. He asked me which of us – him or I – could eat the most slices, and I answered truthfully. He raised an eyebrow and upped the stakes by telling me he’d give me a fiver if I did manage to beat him. Whereupon I coolly proceeded to match him slice for slice…

…Thirteen slices later, I ordered a cheeky dessert while my opponent collapsed face-down on the table, banging his hand on it repeatedly to signify surrender. I sauntered out, crisp fiver in hand; he staggered home a changed – and more cautious – man. It has been ever thus.

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The poignancy of pizza

We’re obsessed with True Blood here at Tastebud Towers. And the latest episode got me thinking about the plight of vampires. Imagine (since vampires are imaginary) spending years in active service beyond the grave – years and years of extra time – but without a morsel of food ever passing your lips again. It would be life, of a sort, but not as we know it, and a less than perfect life in most people’s eyes.

But the absolute tragedy would be to exist for centuries, meal-less, until you’d lived so long that you encountered new dishes you couldn’t try or whose pleasure you couldn’t even begin to imagine. That, for me, would be torture. 

Bill, the main character, has been alive 173 years. More than 150 years from now, what would I most want to try? I suppose the list would be long, but how would I know how to sort the wheat from the chaff sans tastebuds? For Bill, it was pizza: ‘I’ve heard its nice’, he smiled, tightly.

I already regret not having been born in the age when travelling was still a novelty with which the independently wealthy killed their time. Coming across new ingredients and new cuisines and describing them to others upon my return, for want of a camera or any common frame of reference, would have been beyond brilliant.

For me the premise of True Blood’s characters is a mirror of the experience of those first travellers. 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