Lead book review

Food for thought

9 July 2016

9:00 AM

9 July 2016

9:00 AM

Elisabeth Luard has a fascinating and rich subject in the relationship between food and place. Humans eat differently according to where they live. Their diets both in daily life and in feast-day magnificence are influenced by seasonal and regional availability, sumptuary laws, convention, history and even political diktat. I was in Norway last week, and was repeatedly tempted by the offer of grilled whale, though less so by the pseudo-cheese Brunost or Gjetost. (When a lorry carrying Gjetost crashed and burst into flames in a tunnel in 2013, the load of sugar in the ‘cheese’ fuelled an inferno that the firefighters could not approach for four days.) I’m writing this in Geneva, where there is still a bucherie chevaline within walking distance, and where the ordinary supermarket shelves hold horse steaks, usefully indicated with a silhouette of Black Beauty, as well as the most recherché offal, such as rabbit kidneys. Despite many historic attempts, however, the Swiss have never succeeded in eating their largest rodent, the Alpine marmot. We eat different things, and in that difference lies a good deal of what interests us in other people, making us gawp and stare.

It’s worth admitting that a lot of what other people eat is going to strike us as disgusting, either because of unarticulated taboos or because it just doesn’t fall within our experience of taste. A lot of anthropological work has gone into trying to discern why we eat some meat and not others. Domestication seems to have something to do with it, and distance, so we eat cows, sheep and (most of us) pigs and goats, but not cats or dogs; horse is a disputed case, and donkey is made into sausages. You can buy the latter in Clapham, I discover. The exotic is an articulator of disgust, too: kangaroo and crocodile are delicious, but not familiar to us, so many people regard them as disgusting in prospect. Interestingly, as urban life grows more remote from country life, many British people start to find the idea of game, even venison, actively rather revolting.

There must, too, be some element of taboo involved in the size of an animal; birds become less comestible once they shrink below the size of a woodcock or thereabouts, and François Mitterrand’s successful request on his deathbed for a dish of the now illegal ortolan, eaten bones, beak and all, was the triumph of a gourmet who was sophisticated to the point of debauchery. Things that would be regarded as forbidden insects in the upper world become perfectly delicious if plucked from the sea. There is no logic to permitting the eating of prawns but not of grasshoppers. An interesting case is snails, which Elisabeth Luard discusses in this book in a Cretan context. During the current remodelling of Brick Lane away from Bengali restaurateurs towards all things hipster, a French restaurant serving, among other things, escargots, opened in the lower half. A Bengali friend observed with amusement that they might have suffered famine and starvation in the past, but Bengalis had never, even in their worst desperation, had to sink as low as snails. Indeed, in Satyajit Ray’s great famine movie Distant Thunder, the act of eating snails is used as a terrible indicator of the depths to which the peasants have had to sink, and I doubt garlic, butter and parsley would have much improved matters.

Anyone who wants to journey into the fascinating culinary worlds of the utterly forbidden may be recommended a trip to Taiwan, where I had an interestingly taxing week: ‘stinky tofu’, smelling like ripe Gorgonzola, boiled snake (not worth it), a corner of a market selling ducks’ blood congealed into lollipops as well as the familiar ducks’ tongues. As a pièce de résistance, a jolly-looking matron had set up outside (I was told) a brothel with a small pile of wan turtles. She reached out, sliced a turtle’s head off and poured a quarter of a bottle of vodka into the poor beast’s shell while its legs were still flailing around. She swilled it around and then poured the whole mess of vodka, turtle innards and blood into a large glass before placing the still living, but headless and semaphoring turtle in a pile of similar recent victims. The repulsive confection was said to be good for virility. I declined the offer. Japan is also an interesting supplier of the challenging dish; it uncovered a taboo I didn’t know I possessed against food in motion by producing a hot dish covered with those tuna flakes that flutter in heat like dying moths. The single most disgusting thing I ever put in my mouth was Japanese, too: natto beans. I cannot think how anyone could eat them.

Elisabeth Luard has written quite an interesting book about aspects of local food across the world. She likes to be thought of as daring, and almost all the foodstuffs she comes across are put forward as astonishingly delicious. Squirrel is not a new one, though I was pleased to be informed that you have to remove the pungent scent gland underneath the little beast’s armpit before cooking; it has appeared, I think, on the menu of St. John. Other daring cooks have gone still further into game territory, and Patience Gray’s Honey from a Weed contains recipes for stews made out of both fox and badger.

Luard explores the production of acorn-fed pata negra ham and truffles, snails in Crete and a sort of sushi in Hawaii, where some delicious-sounding fish comes bang up against the most horrible excesses of American catering: ‘The full Hawaiian — mango muffins with bacon, syrup and cream — is available on the breakfast loggia.’ She is utterly ripped off by some suppliers of bottarga to the tourist industry in Sardinia, without seeming to be aware of it, goes to Tasmania and up the Rhône to Lyon (familiar territory). On the Danube, she is encouraged by tourist guides to take an interest in what sound like some truly spectacularly drab little soups. After a rapturous account of one such soup — ‘The flavour of lovage is stronger and ranker than celery… but the sharpness of the broth and the delicate flavour of the meatballs suit it to perfection’ — we are surprised to hear that her hostess was in a hurry, and in fact the soup she’s just had was made from a soup-cube. Trips to India and Ethiopia round off the book.

It would be a more rewarding book if it were more focused on food, but a good deal of space is wasted on Luard explaining to all and sundry that she is here to write about the experience, on her interactions with some obviously rather cynical tour guides, and on her mentioning about every other page that she is an artist with a paint box. Perhaps some people will find this rambling manner entrancing, but I found it a great bore. She shares, too, a lot of irrelevant information about the history and society she is writing about, apparently straight from the tour guides’ mouths and sometimes astonishingly inaccurate; in Gujurat, for instance:

‘These people are tribals,’ Devidas announces with confidence. ‘Tribal is what we in India call people who live traditionally because the other word is not polite.’ … We both know that the other word is ‘untouchables’, an outdated caste to which no one belongs.

There are so many euphemisms for the lowest Hindu castes — scheduled castes and Dalit the most familiar — that it would be surprising to start using ‘tribal’ in this way. Tribal people are tribal people, and Dalits are Dalits; some of the latter, such as the former Indian president R.K. Narayanan, are very proud of their status. She just hasn’t understood an explanation from a tour guide who saw no reason to make himself clear. Wikipedia would have put her right.

It’s an interesting subject and the book supplies some intriguing nuggets of information amid some wincingly patronising flights. Luard is being billed as a writer of marvellous prose, but more sophisticated readers may find her painfully voluble, and firmly within the magazine supplement tradition of present-tense maunderings — ‘Today in the last of the summer sunshine, the cumin is ready for harvesting. Brightly dressed women and children working in pairs are tossing forkfuls of golden seed-heads high in the air…’

Personally I would always try what the locals are eating, disgusting or delicious, up to Roald Dahl’s Oompa-Loompas, who dined each night on mashed caterpillars, combined with eucalyptus leaves, beetles and the bark of the bong-bong tree in a futile attempt to make them taste less revolting.

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