Thursday, 13 August 2009

On holiday...a gastronomic childhood

I've been brought up to eat well. We travelled through France, Italy and Spain every summer stopping at Relais Routiers and family-run restaurants en route. Every winter we went skiing, eating fondu, raclette and drinking gluwein in Austria and Switzerland.
Once my father insisted on taking us to a very expensive restaurant in Spain, near Malaga. This restaurant had a great reputation. We drove through winding mountain roads for hours to get there. My father ordered the best Rioja wine and the seafood platter, the speciality of the house. When it came there was a large sprawling langoustine in the middle, it's eyes on stalks waggling around. My mum and us kids recoiled. We refused to eat anything at all. It didn't help that we were all sunburnt and tired. My dad was very angry.
My father eats anything. He'll suck the bone marrow out of bones...on your plate, not just on his. He's the one that made us eat frog's legs and snails...
The snail incident was traumatic; we stayed in a farmhouse in France, family friends. The back room was dedicated to keeping snails, mostly kept in buckets, being 'cleaned' by being fed on bread for three days. Some of the snails escaped, they were everywhere, shiny trails on the chalky walls and stone floor. We went to a restaurant nearby which served them stuffed with garlic, butter and parsley. My dad exhorted us to try one "go on, just one".
Us three kids spent the next couple of days in bed with terrible diarrhea. Our bedroom was upstairs in this farmhouse, thankfully far from the snail room, but there was no inside toilet. We spent two days shitting in a communal bucket as we were too ill to make it to the outside toilet. I never tried snails again.
On this same trip, same farmhouse, my dad woke us early.
"We are going mushroom hunting" he whispered.
Sleepy eyed, we stepped out into the dark and walked what seemed like forever, down the poplar lined French country roads, to the forest. On this holiday, my dad read us chapters, with all the voices, from 'Lord of the Rings' every night, by the huge fireplace. The forest, when we arrived, seemed to me to be populated by elves, trolls and hobbits. The trees were Ents and I imagined Aragorn sweeping me up in his arms. After hours of searching, dawn came up, we found three orange chanterelle mushrooms and a few ceps.
We carried them back to the farmhouse where they were fried in butter and garlic. Nothing has tasted better since, although we found the texture of the ceps a little slimy.
In London, special occasions were marked with dinner at Robert Carrier's restaurant in Islington. I remember my first meal there; every course was tiny and perfectly arranged on the plate. Sights that are common now in terms of plate styling, like French beans all lined up in a neat pile, exactly the same size, were objects of wonder. You felt you wouldn't get enough to eat, but of course you did.
One night my dad brought home an entire octopus. He laid this huge tentacled creature, with it's large body full of ink, out on the kitchen table. Us kids came down to stare at this Jules Verne monster. My dad was excited, my mum left the room muttering "I'll leave you to it".
In those days Google didn't exist. My mother's cookbooks didn't explain how to deal with octopus either. So my dad, a journalist, dealt with this crisis just as he would a story: call an expert, a good 'source', and ask them. He phoned Robert Carrier, who he didn't know, who was at that time probably the most famous chef in Britain, at his restaurant. In the middle of service. Robert Carrier, a very helpful gentleman, came to the phone and patiently explained to my father how to remove the ink sac, how to prepare and cook this octopus.
He followed the instructions, amazed, despite his habitual cheek (something I seem to have inherited) at getting this help.
Of course, none of us would touch it.


  1. What a shame; octopus is one of my favourites. The snail story made me laugh out loud. Poor you!

  2. Lovely stories! And lucky you. I was brought up to eat nutritiously and economically. Every couple of years though we'd visit the family in New York, where we'd be wined and dined and I'd get to try so many different kinds of new food.

  3. A charming post, I really enjoyed it, and giggled too!

  4. That's great! What a brilliant dad.

  5. Lovely entry - we can see where you get your inspiration hey? Love the mushroom and snail story - a pity it wasn't such a great experience with the snails. I find they upset my tummy too so you aren't alone although I do like dad used to read me the hobit too... xxx

  6. I have similar dad and a different story that involves whale. Your dad is a hoot.


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