Friday, 31 July 2015


If, in a restaurant, there is a vital ingredient missing from an item on the menu, it is incumbent on the waiter to warn the diner in advance of bringing the dish to the table. I once shocked my aunt by cross-examining a waiter about the absence of chorizo in the starter at a pub in Hemmingford Grey.

The opposite once occurred in Leamington Spa when I was staying with my old headmaster who was taking me out for dinner in a French restaurant. I felt awkward; I forgot that a la carte meant the opposite of a set menu and my polite attempt to opt for the less expensive option - "I prefer a la carte" merely sounded greedy. I saw something that I had not heard of - a salad involving chicken "julienne". But the waiter, trying to put me at my ease, heard "salad" only and when my starter arrived, there was no chicken to be found. I did not dare complain.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Cold meat

It was unusual to be asked what we would like on the cold meat platter which we ordered to go with a glass of Ouzo next to the Aegean. Katie said "Not too spicy and not too salty". We ended up with German green peppercorn salami, smoked turkey from Kos, pastrami and calves' tongue. Together with an interesting selection of cheeses which were of no interest to me. The waiter neither sounded nor looked Greek. Dutch, we wondered. Towards the end, he brought us a little plate of tiny green apples which had been soaked in Calvados. Katie said they went beautifully with the cheese. I ate mine whole.

Greek barbecue

The whine of the engine lessened but this time it was not due to the dolphins which had put on a display for us about an hour before. We slipped into a picture perfect cove and some of us jumped off the boat into the Aegean below. It is a clichĂ© but it was aqua clear.

The crew were doing nothing as frivolous as swimming or snorkelling. They had scrambled up the hillside where a barbecue waited. The smell of smoke soon pervaded followed by the words "Food is ready!"

On the table were: meatballs, pork kebabs, chicken pieces, roasted peppers, aubergine and courgettes, grilled sardines, Tatziki, potato salad with red onion, green salad with dill and tomato salad. There was also garlic bread. And pasta salad, which I rarely touch but which I am usually glad to see among other things because it fills others' stomachs. After we had helped ourselves and sat around eating, the proprietor sent round his crew to fill our plates with more and yet more. Protestations were ignored. The tomato salad was reduced to a large pool of juice but even that did not go to waste. The boatman dipped the remains of the garlic bread in the juice and offered it as "Bruschetta". And we discovered a post-meal entertainment: throwing the fish heads into the sea whereupon a swarm of furious thrashing tails would swarm towards and cannibalise it. It was the closest thing I have seen in real life to that piranha scene in "You Only Live Twice".

Nothing to be improved upon: just a reminder of how on a rocky hilltop with nothing more than a barbecue and good ingredients a better meal can be produced than the (presumably) fully equipped kitchen from the day before.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

The signs

As we left, we mused on two things. First, that one is allowed to have one appallingly bad meal on holiday. Secondly, that all the warning signs had been there when we wandered in.

A woman dressed in pink lured us in. There were some other holidaymakers attacking a plate of bacon and eggs on a table near to us. The menu had lurid photographs of all the food. The waiter brought me a coke - not diet coke as I had requested - but denied that I had done so, then said he would bring me a diet coke "anyway": what a concession. When I asked the woman in pink for the wifi password, she said, "The waiter hasn't given it to you? He must still be asleep."

Perhaps not. To do him credit, he was good enough to tell us that there were chips with the meatballs so we didn't need to order an extra portion. He looked doubtful when we asked for potato salad but came back to say it was available.

Then it all arrived. From the moment he put down the meatballs, we knew it had all been a terrible mistake. They had a dry crust, resembling hollow husks. The chips, too, were dry. So was the Greek salad. It looked as though its components had been around all morning, waiting for an unsuspecting customer. The taramasalata was as pink as our hostess's dress, and woody-tasting. Katie had a mushroom which was frozen in the middle. Mine was merely rubbery. The Tatziki was just yoghurt with cucumber, tasting of nothing. Katie said it all looked as though it had emerged from the freezer twenty minutes before and added that the chips tasted of the stale oil in which they had been cooked. We toyed with our platefuls, reluctant to cause a diplomatic incident or to waste what had been brought. But in the end, Katie used diplomatic 'flu as the excuse and went and paid the bill, saying I felt unwell. It was not altogether a lie.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Sea bream

Buried under cubes of ice in a polystyrene box, looking mournful, he was about to be my lunch. "Dorade", the waiter told us. The disappointing taramasalata beforehand was fortunately not a precursor. Crispy skin, white meaty flesh and boiled potatoes, beans and carrots which I dressed with olive oil, lemon juice and salt. I ate him peering at faint mountains across the Aegean. The little black cat that came to join our table was treated to a little chopped Calamari and the remains of the Taramasalata.

Tea party

There is an Enid Blyton story - possibly one of the Faraway Tree series or the Wishing Chair series - in which the children go to a land called "The Land of Take What you Want". This is a theme which Enid Blyton returns to repeatedly in her fiction, appealing to children's greed. In a splendid moment, each of the children can choose whichever flavour of ice cream they want. One of the more inventive selects sardine, which comes with the tails sticking out like Stargazy pie...but then doesn't like the thought of eating it. In the days when Heston Blumenthal is quite happy to serve bacon and egg ice cream, it doesn't sound too appalling. I once had foie gras ice cream in Spain.

But the point of this is to reminisce about when my old headmistress, Philippa Hartley, retired. She was one of the old school, with one of the most intelligent voices I have ever heard. When Mrs Hartley was about to retire, she held an afternoon tea for all the pupils in her class. A short time before the day arrived, her colleague, Mrs Hancock, soon to take over as Head, asked us each to choose something we wanted to eat at the tea party.

In keeping with the spirit of Enid Blyton, I decided to choose something I had never been given before but had clearly struck a chord: cherry buns. Where had I read about them? Had they been packed by Aunt Fanny into a Famous Five picnic? Or eaten in the shed by the Secret Seven? I do not remember but they were what I chose.

We sat around a long table in the garden of Mrs Hartley's house in Coventry. Among many other things were the cherry buns, which one of the two ladies pointed out to me and encouraged me to eat: glacé cherries studded into little sponge cakes. Inevitably they were a disappointment but I hope I didn't show it.

That was not the only celebration for Mrs Hartley's retirement. The parents, I seem to recall, clubbed together to take her out for dinner. Somehow I discovered where they were all going and I could not resist revealing what I knew to the guest of honour: "Guess where you're going", I said triumphantly to Mrs Hartley one morning. "The Old Mill!" She looked bemused. Much later, I recall being mildly admonished for betraying the surprise - although the lady herself only realised when she arrived at her destination: "So that's what he meant!"

And what a long retirement she ended up having: about thirty years later I saw her, at a school anniversary celebration. Physically but not mentally diminished, she sat in a chair throughout, holding court to her former pupils. It turned out to be the last time I saw her, and the school: five years later, she had died and the school had been sold.

Friday, 24 July 2015

The dining companion

This story comes from a girl with whom I was having dinner. Like me, she was fond of her food. She told me of another experience she had had in a restaurant when she had quickly realised that not only did her dining companion have no interest in food but she had no interest in him.

She told me that when the waiter had come to take their order, he had said, "I'll have the soup and the chicken". Something, she pointed out to me, that did not require one even to read the menu, which she strongly suspected he had been reading upside down. Ever since hearing her tale, I have been looking without success for a restaurant menu where such a request would lead to a baffled look from the waiter and blushes from the orderer.