Love at first bite

I WAS A VERY FUSSY eater when I was a child. Because the first few weeks of my life were fraught with medical problems and then later I was a poor eater, my mother was extremely anxious about me, She allowed me to eat only what I liked and not what might have been good for me, but which I did not even want to try. In short, I was a spoilt child when it came to being fed. As I grew, I remained unadventurous gastronomically. We travelled to places like France and Italy where food is exciting and varied, but instead of exploring the wonderful foods that my parents ate in those places, I stuck to a boring diet of steak or ham (or, occasionally, Dover sole) and chips. Looking back, I regret turning down the undoubtedly delicious alternatives to these mundane foods.

FOOD Pizza Etna_800 BLOG

My parents were not keen on pizza. At least, I never saw them eat it even though we had holidays in Italy every year. They ate pasta and many other delicious Italian dishes. Naturally, given my unadventurous approach to food, I never ate it, at least not until I was about 17 years old. When I reached that age, I decided to spend a few days travelling alone in Italy whilst my parents stayed elsewhere. I used local transport to visit Volterra, Grossetto, and then reached the city of Orvieto. Believe it or not, I was extremely shy at that time and minimised speaking to anyone. Consequently, by the time I arrived in Orvieto, I was feeling miserably lonely. I felt to shy to enter restaurants and wandered around Orvieto from one eatery to the next, becoming ever hungrier.  Finally, I reached a shop that sold squares of hot pizza at a counter. The aroma coming from the pizza ovens was irresistible. I bought a square, took a bite of it, and … it was love at first bite.

Although she died forty years ago, people still fondly remember my mother’s cold rice salad, which was cooked white rice mixed with small specks of red and green peppers. Whether it was in my mother’s much praised salad or in the school rice pudding, I refused to eat rice when I was a child. This situation changed just before my 19th birthday. I was travelling around France with a friend who was studying at Cambridge University and four of his friends. One of these was Matthew Parris, who would later become a Member of Parliament and is now a frequently read columnist in the London “Times” newspaper. He was our driver. He drove us around France in an old car, which he had driven from Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) across Africa and Europe to England. One day we camped near Cerbère on the Mediterranean. As we were close to the Franco-Spanish border, we crossed it one evening to eat a meal in Port Bou (in Catalonia). Everyone wanted paella, which is a rice dish. For some inexplicable reason, I decided to try some. It was the first time that I ate rice. It was love at first bite.

During that trip around France, we used to eat our midday meals ‘al fresco’ at scenic spots. The money we saved by having picnics was spent eating more lavish meals at restaurants. Usually, everyone ordered meat (often beefsteak). One evening at a restaurant in Provence, I decided, unusually for me given my history of conservative eating tastes, to order something different. Without knowing what would arrive, I ordered an andouillette. I regretted my choice as soon as I cut what looked like a sausage. As I incised the skin covering the andouillette, little bits of what looked like rubbery material leapt out on to my plate. The thing was filled with chopped-up innards, and I was filled with disgust. Winding the clock forward a few decades, I now enjoy various kinds of innards (e.g. liver, sweetbreads, and tripe, but not kidneys) if they are prepared tastily.

My parents favoured Mediterranean cuisine. My mother was a keen follower of Elizabeth David, whose recipe books help bring the dishes of France and Italy onto British dinner tables. There were often bowls of olives available, especially on the many occasions that my parents entertained guests at our home. Having smelled these olives a few times, I decided that I was not even going to taste them. In 1975, I travelled across Europe to northern Greece with my friends Robert and Margaret. Every summer, they spent about six weeks camping by the seaside just south of the village of Platamon. Every evening while camping, as the sun began setting, we used to sit outdoors on folding camping chairs around a rickety table. Robert mixed himself gin and tonic and I joined Margaret with a glass of red (sweet) Martini. There was always a bowl of Greek olives on the table. On the first evening that I enjoyed an aperitif with my two friends, something inside me made me lean forward and pick up an olive. I popped it into my mouth … it was love at first bite. Since then, I cannot resist eating what I had avoided for a quarter of a century. My favourite olives are, just in case you are interested, the black Amfissa variety. They are plumper and juicier than Kalamatas, and at least as tasty.

In 1976, I began studying dentistry at University College London. My year had 50 students. We were a friendly bunch. One year, Jayne S, invited us all to her home in north London to celebrate her birthday. It was an afternoon event. The only food on offer was fried chicken from KFC (then, known as ‘Kentucky Fried Chicken’). There were large buckets of it, filled with legs, breast pieces, and wings: an ‘embarass de richesse’ of fried poultry.   As with so many foods, I had fought shy of trying this popular product. By then I was about 27 years old. I had eaten chicken, but never the crumb coated deep-fried variety. That afternoon at Jayne’s party, I do not know what over came me, but as soon as I saw the buckets, I seized a piece of chicken, bit into it, and …it was love at first bite. I would not go as far to say that KFC is my favourite chicken dish, but every few months I yearn for it.

Time passed, and my enthusiasm for trying new dishes and ingredients has grown exponentially. So much so, that once I was in a Chinese restaurant in London’s Chinatown when I spotted duck’s feet on the menu. I felt that I had to try them. I ordered a portion, and the Chinese waiter snapped:

“You won’t like them”

Defiantly, I responded:

“Bring me a plate of duck’s feet, please.”

“You will not like them.”

“Never mind,” I answered, “I want to try them.”

“You won’t like them”

“Look,” I said, “I want to try them. Even if I don’t like them, I promise to pay for them.”

The webbed feet arrived. They tasted quite nice, but I did not like their slimy texture.”

The waiter was right. I am glad I tried them, but was not … love at first bite.  

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