Do you know the worst thing you can say to someone who’s worrying or has something on their mind? Telling them to forget about whatever it is and focus their attention elsewhere. Our brains don’t work like that. What happens is we tend to focus even more acutely on the thing that bothered us in the first place.
Try this little experiment. Shut your eyes. Think very hard about three yellow giraffes. Go on, see them walking serenely around, nibbling leaves from the tops of some yellowing trees. Now replace those giraffes with any other animal in a colour of your choice. Not easy, is it? And I don’t want any smart answers that the animals you chose couldn’t reach the trees anyway. I covered that when I tried it.
Since the discovery I made and revealed last week about my appalling surprise with the bathroom scales I’ve been thinking of food; it has occupied a large portion of my waking hours, and a fair slice of my sleeping ones, come to that. My mind has been consumed by visions of past memorable meals. Memorable meals don’t even have to be enjoyable. Think of school dinners for instance.
I can remember suffering the most ghastly food at primary school. Plates of mince in runny, watery gravy served with solid peas and barely boiled potatoes; plum suet pudding drowned in lumpy custard – it was the stuff of the Dickensian workhouse. We were made to sit through playtime until we had swallowed every last morsel – our sadistic dinner ladies made sure of that by forcing us to feel grateful that we weren’t like the starving children in Africa.
So, food is a very good way to evoke memories of places we have been. I’ve been time travelling quite a lot this week, in a gastronomic sense. When I worked just off Oxford Street in Central London, we would often go out for meals to celebrate a birthday or Christmas, or find some other excuse. We were a pretty sociable lot. One of our favourite haunts was Jimmy’s in Frith Street, Soho: a dark basement where the food was cheap, the wine on the rough side – but the kleftikon (slow cooked lamb) was to die for. Sadly, the establishment is no more, but for anyone seeking to reminisce over evenings of typical Greek fare, you can do so here.
Over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to visit some pretty high end restaurants; some presided over by one celebrity chef or other: the sort of place that you visit once, for a treat. (Or on expenses). However, as there are now so many of them, I think that the exclusivity of these places has been eroded, and while the experience is always an indulgence, I can’t honestly remember individual dishes or one specific meal with a particular wow factor. We recently tried a Japanese restaurant in town that has received excellent reviews. As suggested, we tried their signature dish, the bento box, which gives the diner a taste of many of their dishes. I loved it and scoffed the lot. Time will tell if this will be an unforgettable outing.
Foreign travel provides the opportunity to try different local fare, some of which has become memorable and can be recalled in an instant at the mere sniff of garlic or unmistakeable aroma of Mediterranean tomatoes. I had the most wonderful salad one lunch time in a café in Grau de Roi, Languedoc – thinly sliced and layered Provencal tomatoes, a drizzle of olive oil and a few anchovies, washed down with a glass or two of chilled dry rose – heaven!
Other experiences are not quite so heavenly. On a short trip to Denmark, we seemed to be followed from meal to meal by Frikadellers – they were on every menu and consist of a hamburger covered in breadcrumbs and deep fried. Now I’m sure that the Danes do have a more varied diet – indeed, I believe that one of the most expensive restaurants in the world is in Copenhagen, but to me, whenever anyone mentions Danish cuisine, I think of these unappetising balls of deep fried mince.
On a visit to Reykjavik, we had dried salt cod and avoided the pan roasted puffin on the specials board while trips to Italy have so far been largely disappointing: I’m not big on pizzas, there is only so much pasta one can eat and if I order salad I don’t expect to have to mix up the dressing myself.
Nothing I’ve eaten in Spain has been particularly memorable one way or the other, and I really don’t understand what all the fuss over Tapas is about. Give me a decent bowl of olives or nuts to have with an aperitif and I’m happy – I can’t be doing with bits of sausage or strips of peppers swimming around in herb scented oil.
Unsurprisingly France has been the venue for many memorable meals. One was in a roadside hostelry in southern Normandy, not far from the industrial outskirts of Evreux. We were on our way further south but had stopped off to take in Monet’s garden and needed somewhere to overnight. We pitched up late, secured a room for the night and went down to the bar for something to eat. Madame bustled around and provided a green salad (dressed), pan fried calves liver with pommes vapeur; a bowl of freshly picked cherries and some Camembert. My sort of food: delicious.
Another was inland from Biarritz. We’d driven all day to get to the coast then could find nowhere to stay so we back-tracked and found an ordinary looking little hotel on a crossroads to nowhere. Exhausted with the heat and frustration of looking for a room, we settled for their typical old French bedroom – mildewed floral wallpaper, red lino and a power shower in the corner of the room screened off by a plastic curtain. We accepted the meal that night might be a disaster but at that point, we were beyond caring. With the tables laid outside under a large canopy and the smell of rosemary and thyme in the evening air we ate a fabulous banquet of seafood, drank rather a lot of local wine and made friends with a table of elderly French men and women who talked about the Resistance all evening and were very entertaining. The entente had never been so cordiale and we ended up sharing brandies with them until midnight so consequently didn’t notice how uncomfortable our bed really was.
So do I have a favourite food? No, not really. I invariably choose fish when we’re out because I don’t often cook it at home. I prefer salad to cooked vegetables unless they are really al dente and I don’t favour stodgy puddings. I like unpretentious food, in ambient surroundings, preferably on some shady terrace where there are no mosquitoes. That’s not too much to ask, is it?
I must leave you with a little food related anecdote. Several years ago I was working with a new eleven-year-old pupil, helping him identify meanings of some science words we would be covering during his first half term. Mindful that this little chap was on the autistic spectrum and hoping to help him increase his social skills, I was doing my best to engage him in conversation while we tackled this task, so when the word ‘nutrition’ came up, I asked him what his favourite food was.
He put down his pen, turned to me and said scathingly, “Well, how would I know. I haven’t tried everything yet.”
Food for thought? I love my job.