Friday, 31 July 2009

A glorious celebration of gay life

Victor/Victoria (Blake Edwards UK/US 1982)

On the way out to Paris at the beginning of this month, I whiled away the train journey watching a film on my iPod. On the last two occasions we've travelled to that city, I've been quietly humming a song from it to myself as the taxi took us from the railway station to the hotel.

The film in question was Victor/Victoria, and it struck me that I’ve now owned more copies of it than any other film.

First there was the video. Then that was upgraded to DVD and now I’ve added this digital copy.

It was 1982 when Blake Edwards’s picture – based the film on Reinhold Schüzel 1933 German picture, Viktor und Viktoria – was released. I first saw it on a rented video – and fell instantly in love with it. My mother bought me a copy – although when she saw it, she sniggered, but commented that it was “very naughty”. My father couldn’t watch more than the opening 20 minutes or so and left the room.

So what on Earth was the fuss?

A quick précis for any of you who haven’t seen it.

Victoria Grant is a singer with the Bath Light Opera Company, touring in Paris in the early 1930s. Stranded in the city and broke after the company collapses, she hasn’t eaten for days.

Desperately trying to put a cockroach from her dismal hotel room into a salad at a restaurant, in order not to pay for her much-needed meal, she runs into Carole ‘Toddy’ Todd, who had heard her earlier in the day, auditioning at a nightclub.

After eating their fill and escaping into the pouring rain, they return to Toddy’s flat, since Victoria can’t go back to her hotel unless she has some money for the overdue rent.

But a series of circumstances convince the gay Toddy – a nightclub entertainer himself – of a daring scheme: to pass Victoria off as Count Victor Grezinski, his gay Polish lover, who is a top-notch female impersonator.

Within six weeks, Victor is a smash hit. But then a new problem occurs, with the arrival of King Marchand, a Chicago gangster and nightclub owner, and his brassy moll Norma Cassady. Marchand is interested in booking Victor to play his own club, but he’s also shocked to find that he’s ‘strangely’ attracted to the gay performer.

Marchand’s bodyguard Squash feels safe enough to come out, Norma hits the roof and things get really complicated.

1981. It was the start of the HIV/Aids pandemic. In the UK, James Anderton, the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester – known as ‘God’s Copper’ – had declared that homosexuality should be illegal and said that homosexuals and those with AIDS were "swirling in a cesspit of their own making.”

Nurses were terrified that even touching someone with HIV/Aids would infect them (hence the importance of Princess Diana being seen to touch an Aids patient).

In 1999, a paper published by American Behavioural Scientist, AIDS Stigma and Sexual Prejudice by Gregory M Herek and John P Captianio, both of the University of California, showed that, while people of all sexualities could contract the virus, the perception was of it as a ‘gay disease.’ Blame was always firmly levied at the door of one group.

The Aids epidemic is said to have begun in June 1981 – a boon to homophobes everywhere.

And then a year later Edwards’s film emerged, challenging ideas of sexuality, gender and morality.

What better time than to hear Toddy’s comment to Victoria: “Shame is an unhappy emotion invented by pietists in order to exploit the human race.”

But the film is never po-faced. It’s a celebration, and possibly the first really joyous mainstream screen representation of gay life. Absolutely unapologetic, as the following quotes illustrate.

Norma: I think the right woman could reform you.
Toddy: You know, I think that the right woman could reform you too.
Norma: Me? Give up men? Forget it!
Toddy: You took the words right out of my mouth.

And it’s humane as well as hilariously funny, while it treats the musical format in a different way from many other film musicals; the songs by Leslie Bricusee (lyrics) and Henry Mancini (music) sitting in a remarkably naturalistic way, as songs that are being performed in performance settings (a little like Chicago).

The cast is uniformally excellent, from Lesley Anne Warren as Norma Cassady, Graham Stark as a put-upon waiter and Alex Karras as Squash.

But the leading trio all turned in absolute gems of performances. James Garner was a great King Marchand and Julie Andrews a wonderful Victoria. But for me at least, the real star has always been the late, great Robert Preston as Toddy.

Preston, who was himself straight, took on the role and brought it to wonderful life. He was thrilled, after the film’s release, when he received huge amounts of mail from gay viewers who thanked him for his portrayal. It’s difficult to know how his nomination for a best supporting actor Oscar at the following year’s Academy Awards wasn’t turned into the statuette itself (The award went to Lou Gossett Jnr for An Officer and a Gentleman). Perhaps rewarding such an openly – and celebratory – gay role would have been a step too far at that time.

But when we think that the next big Hollywood gay movie was Aids epic Philadelphia, the difference is clear. One celebratory, one seeing gays as victims.

In the introduction to his 2002 book, Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives From Wilde to Almodovar, Colm Tóibín discusses the fascination of some gay men for the tragic, the victim. From the point of view of the more liberal elements of society in the dark days of the 1980s, it was also tempting to see gay men as victims.

Victor/Victoria refused to bow down to such a limiting idea and it remains, 17 years on, a rousing, ribald, glorious hymn to life and love and sex.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Desperate for a new life

The Container by Clare Bayley

The Young Vic, London

For five people, England represents hope: of safety and a new life.

For Fatima and her daughter Asha, they are trying to escape war and refugee camps in Somalia.

Jemal, a middle-aged businessman, is trying to get away from Afghanistan.

Ahmed, a Kurd who grew up and was educated in the UK, before being deported to Turkey after the government decided it was safe for Kurds, is trying to get back to his partner and child.

And teacher Mariam is fleeing Afghanistan after threats from the Taliban, who have already murdered her husband, a fellow teacher who dared to teach girls.

All of them are now together, locked into a shipping container as it makes its way west to the English Channel and a new life. And all of them have put their faith – and their hopes – in The Agent, a human traffiker.

Clare Bayley’s play, which premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 2007, winning a Fringe First and the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression award, never descends to mawkishness or tries to score cheap, sentimental points.

The writing is straightforward and the characters utterly believable and flawed.

Many of those who will see the play at its run at the Young Vic will already be familiar with the sort of stories that her refugee characters tell, but two things stop The Container merely repeating what might be familiar.

Staging the play in a real shipping container, with pallets and packing cases to seat an audience of just 28, is an inspired approach. Once seated, the door is locked and the container descends into total darkness. The container itself vibrates slightly and sound effects add to the suggestion that we’re travelling along a road. It’s a very, very effective way of concentrating the mind on what people really put themselves through in order to gain safety and a better life.

Once the door has been locked and we’ve had a taste of the silence, the actors emerge from packing cases and boxes, and use small, hand-held torches to cast some illumination on proceedings.

The acting space is concomitantly tiny and the action as in-your-face as it’s possible to be. It is with great relief that vomiting, peeing and defecation are only represented by sound effects, but the ramifications of such bodily functions having to be carried out in such a space is brought home loud and clear.

What one is left with is the desperation: the bleakness of human existence that drives people to put themselves in such a situation, with such high risks. That people, damaged appallingly by horrendous experiences fight so hard to lift themselves out of those situations.

The performances are good, the direction tight and the plot never panders to easy answers.

A thought-provoking and very moving play.

Watch out for Bayley – she's got more work on the way and, if this is anything to go by, it will be worth seeing.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Bitten by the Underworld bug

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans

It was back in November last year. A Sunday, with the rain absolutely teeming down, and I was taking the train through the gloom from Manchester to London after watching City lose 2-1 to Tottenham (with Fernandes and Dunne sent off), and I decided to bury myself in a magazine. Elle, if memory serves.

One of the main features was an interview with actor Kate Beckinsale. Now usually I don’t read celebrity interviews, but in a desire to put the match firmly out of my mind, I ploughed through every word in the magazine.

And, of course, it mentioned her role as the vampire Selena in Underworld and Underworld Evolution, as well as pointing out that a third installment was due – even though she was not in it.

I thought little more of it until, about a week or so later, I happened to notice in the TV guide that the first of those films was showing. Curiosity got the better of me and I decided to see what it looked like.

Well, it looked blue (ideal for a City fan). Very blue. A sort of monochrome blue. Even Beckinsale’s black leather outfit looked blue on screen. And it was sexy and stylish and violent and huge fun.

And Bill Nighy’s Viktor, the leading vampire, is one of those fabulous OTT screen villains in the style of Alan Rickman in both Die Hard and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, which make me want the baddies to win.

Indeed, is it just me that finds such characters, played in such a way, really very sexy indeed?

I know that, with Rise of the Lycans, I should be rooting for the enslaved hirsute ones, but honestly, how much more fun would Viktor be?

Mind, it should probably be pointed out at this stage, that I am the same person who had a very erotic dream about Hannibal Lecter, as played by Anthony Hopkins, after seeing Silence of the Lambs for the first time. No, nothing as such happened in my dream, but I was left with a distinct frisson for most of the following day.

Nighy is deliciously arch – and it’s a nice contrast with Michael Sheen as Lycan top dog Lucian. Rhona Mitra does a good turn as Sonja, Viktor’s daughter, a vampire warrior in her own right and Lucian’s love interest – she looks amazingly like Beckinsale.

I rarely get to the cinema, but wait for DVD releases. This one is now available in a very decently priced boxed set with its two predecessors. It was worth the wait.

Good CGI. Good, moody feel. No, it’s not ‘high art’. But it is fun. And it’s well done fun.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Fiction to get your teeth into

Interview With a Vampire by Anne Rice

Earlier this year, I switched on the TV to find that one channel was just about to screen Interview With a Vampire. Five minutes in, I wrenched myself away and switched off. The book was sitting on the shelf, ready for the moment when I felt in the mood for that specific literary experience – and I wanted the book to come first.

It eventually ‘came first’ this month – and provided an intriguing read.

The story is told in the first person by Louis, the oldest son of a rich, eighteenth-century French émigré family in New Orleans that owns an indigo plantation. Mourning the death of his younger brother, Louis simply wants to die – until the vampire Lestat, having already nearly drained him of blood, takes him into a very different life.

And there begins a journey, only part of which is revealed in this first volume of Anne Rice’s vampire series. We know, for instance, that the book is actually set in the present – at least, a time when cars and tape recorders exist, since the basic premise for telling the story is that of a young man conducting an interview with Louis.

Vampire fiction is hardly a new phenomenon and is rooted in the vampire hysteria of the early 18th century, which reached extraordinary heights with the official exhumations of suspected vampires Peter Plogojowitz and Arnold Paole in Serbia.

Poems and stories followed – some of them including a sexual aspect to the idea of vampirism and some of them concentrating on an idea of Christianity v paganism. Then, in 1897, Bram Stoker’s Dracula took the genre to new heights.

Stoker’s work centres on Victorian fears of female sexuality – particularly in Britain, where syphilis was rampant, including amongst the middle class. ‘Respectable’ middle-class women didn’t ‘like’ sex. It was something to be done only to produce heirs. Thus men found themselves lacking any regular conjugal pleasure. Prostitution offered an outlet, but with syphilis widespread, the dangers were obvious. The solution, it seemed, was to find virgins. And the search for virginal prostitutes achieved something unintended but arguably inevitable – a lowering of the age of the prostitutes. In the late 19th century, London was the child prostitution capital of the world.

In Dracula, Stoker portrayed unrestrained female sexuality and sensuality as the threat. Women’s sexual natures would, if allowed free rein, leave them vulnerable to the fatal foreign disease that would make them mad and very, very dangerous. That Stoker portrayed the ‘disease’ as foreign was not surprising – many countries referred to sexual diseases as being linked to a rival nation. Of course it also allowed for a racist element. But the issue of the dangers of unrestrained female sexuality is paramount in the text. And that, inevitably, has a religious component going back to the myth of Adam and Eve, the serpent and The Fall.

The vampire novel remained around in the coming years – Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend in 1954 was an example of a decently written take on the genre, penned with the Cold War at its background. But writers and readers next really got their fangs back into vampire fiction in the 1970s, when Rice produced Interview With a Vampire and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro began her Saint-Germain series.

During the near 80 years between Dracula and Interview With a Vampire, even though there hadn’t been a vast amount of quality vampire literature, a lot had changed.

Vampires had ceased to be simple, straightforward personifications of evil. Matheson, for instance, throws conventional morality on its head by asking the awkward question of just why his central protagonist deserves to triumph over the vampires – indeed, to survive.

And Rice’s first entry into the genre is stuffed with a philosophical struggle that is centred on ideas of good and evil.

Louis’s curse is that having once become a vampire, he cannot accept his own nature. His inherent being demands food. That food can just about be animals such as rats, but for a good and properly sustaining diet (if you will) he needs to feed from humans.

But he considers that – and therefore himself – to be evil.

And Louis is searching for answers on a wider scale – trying to work out how the God that he has grown up to believe in could make such a creature as himself.

In other words, much of the book takes on the sense of a debate between a conventional Christian view of morality and a more Nietzschean perspective.

Rice herself was born in a Catholic family and, after several years as an atheist, returned to Catholicism in 1998, saying that she would now dedicate her writing to glorifying her religion. So it seems possible that the moral questions at the core of Interview With a Vampire had been questions at the heart of the author’s own life for some time.

What is clear about the novel is the idea of alternative – or transgressive – sexuality amongst the vampires. While they don’t actually have sex, there is a strong sense of homoeroticism and paedophilia – the latter, which reveals itself through various vampires’ obsessive desire to possess/kill a child, is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the novel. And some of the scenes where children are involved are described in a particularly sensual/sexual way, heightening any discomfort that the reader might feel.

If such labels can be applied, then it seems that both Louis and Lestat are bisexual: there are lesbian overtones to the relationship between the female vampires Claudia and Madeline later in the novel (and paedophilic ones, since Claudia is – physically at least – a child).

Where Stoker’s vampire was fairly one-dimensional and simply ‘evil’, there is far more complexity here. Although it’s difficult to see what conclusion – if any – Rice reaches. And the apparent linking of homosexuality/bisexuality and pederasty is itself disturbing. Since none of what happens to the vampires would appear to make them ‘happy’, it could be read that Rice is implying that all ‘alternative’ sexualities are ‘wrong’, and that paedophilia is on a par with homosexuality and bisexuality.

But Interview With a Vampire is an interesting and well-written novel – and certainly a valuable contribution to a fascinating and developing genre.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Getting down in Maigret's Paris

The Friend of Madame Maigret by Georges Simenon

While Maigret is becoming increasingly frustrated at his attempts to prove that a brutal murder has been committed at a local bookbinder prove fruitless Madame Maigret has a strange encounter with a woman and a child while she waits for a dental appointment.

Surely they couldn’t be connected?

I love the Maigret novels. Pithily written with a wonderful central character – Maigret lives in a twilight world, somewhere between the law and crime. He has more empathy with the men (and women) he hunts down than with the stiff suits who fill high offices in the judicial system; he’s happier in the seedier streets of Paris than in any smart and glamorous settings.

And then, of course, there is that second major character in the novels – Paris itself. A city that has been Baron Haussmanned, certainly, but not sanitised out of all recognition. Les Halles, for instance, appears as the ‘stomach of Paris’, before it was turned into a pretty dismal underground shopping centre.

And Maigret guides us through that colourful underbelly, sitting in little cafés, where he knows most of the prostitutes by name, mulling over cases as he stokes his pipe and sips a little cider.

When in that city, I find myself recognising names from Simenon’s books – and looking for areas that are mentioned. When I first tried calvados for the first time, it was in large part because it is featured in the novels.

And this volume, from 1949, is no exception. What it does also do, is give us a few more scenes with Madame Maigret, throwing a few stray hints our way about their relationship and her life.

Otherwise, this is as thickly plotted as ever – and just as much of a delight to read as one expects.

I’m now trawling ebay to build my collection – since most of his novels are shamefully out of print in English.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Pasta disaster

That's it. I am not going to attempt to make pasta again. Well, not for some considerable time.

On a pleasant Friday evening, home early from work, I took Leith's Fish Bible into the garden with a glass of iced water, and started browsing for salmon dishes. The logic was simple: The Other Half hasn't eaten fish all week and, therefore, he needs a portion of oily fish tomorrow, which is market day.

However, I was painfully aware that I tend to cook salmon very simply – no, you're right: there's nothing inherently wrong with that, but I sense a need for occasional variety.

So I was reading out recipes to The Other Half, when his expression suggested particular interest. I had hit upon a dish of salmon and plaice ravioli with a basil sauce. Given the response, I decided to give it a whirl.

The first question, however, was the amount. The recipe was clearly only for a starter – it only called for 55g each of salmon and plaice. So the next morning, when shopping, I increased the amount. This was to be for a main course.

Later in the day, I started my preparation. First, I mixed the pasta doug: easy stuff – especially as my mini food processor was just big enough to do an initial blitz on the flour, eggs and oil. Kneed for a bit and then ball up and leave in clingfilm, on the work surface, for at least half an hour.

Next up – the filling. Skinning the fish went well and all the pinboning, then that got blitzed too. Now came the slightly more delicate task of whipping in some egg white and then some cream – to be done, by the book, in a bowl that was standing in a tray of ice. I then added cream and seasoning of salt, pepper, mace and a squeeze of lemon juice, and whacked it in the fridge. All seemed to be fine and dandy.

After a break, I started rolling out the pasta. It's no wonder that people invest in pasta machines – or that (according to pictures in Jamie's Italy, older Italian women look stroppy and very dangerous with their huge rolling pins. I had sweat pouring down me as I tried to get the dough as thin as possible with my standard wooden pin. Eventually, believing that I'd gone as far as I could, I started cutting out circles of pasta, popping a dollop of filling in the middle and then sealing it with another circle on top. Hard work – but all seemed fine.

The sauce was not difficult: sliced garlic, very gently cooked in some olive oil, before tomatoes (skinned, de-seeded and chopped) and torn basil leaves, seasoning and a squeeze of lemon juice are added. Then leave on a gentle heat while you cook the pasta.

Well, everything seemed to cook okay. And served up, it looked alright, and I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. But then came the tasting.

The Other Half was exceptionally well behaved. He made not a murmur and kept eating away. It was left to me to point out, with a certain gloom to the tone, that it was a bit of a disaster. The pasta was way to thick, even after my sweaty efforts, while the filling, which should have been light – a mousseline – was solid and not particularly flavoursome. The sauce was the one compensation.

Oh well, we learn by our mistakes. And perhaps my readiness to admit such a scale of error is progress. I didn't feel defensive about it for once.

And Sunday's fodder was the other side of the same coin. Meatballs in a sherry sauce: 200g each of beef and pork mince, mixed in a bowl with a couple of slices of bread that has been crumbed, plus crushed garlic (the recipe says two cloves – I used considerably more, but perhaps that was a subliminal response to having been reading a vampire story) and paprika.

Using damp hands, shape them into walnut-sized balls. Heat some olive oil and butter and fry the meatballs until browned. Remove to a plate. Fry and chopped onion. Then add a tablespoon of plain flour, stir in and cook. Add a teaspoon more paprika, then around a cup of sherry, plus some beef stock. Mix it till smooth. Pop the meatballs back in, plus around 10 small new potatoes (par-boiled), bring to the boil, pop a lid on, turn the heat right down and simmer for around 20 minutes.

Serve with freshly chopped flat leaf parsley on. I also served some fine beans.

It's at the point that I can remember that recipe without having to check it up. So if the pasta was a disaster – at least the meatballs show that my culinary confidence is generally a lot higher than it used to be and with some reason.

And a big thank you to George for the meatballs recipe.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Simplicity and sensuality: a Paris match

You could be forgiven for thinking that French cuisine is a complicated beast – there are all those sauces, for starters.

But while some Gallic food might be on the complex side, a lot of it is pure simplicity. And simplicity demands quality.

A long weekend in Paris was the perfect opportunity to muse on this matter – and to follow up on my culinary experiences in Berlin in May.

There’s something quite special about boarding a train in the revamped St Pancras and being in Paris two and a quarter hours later. This is travel in a quite old-fashioned way; travel that’s enjoyable in itself – none of that soul-destroying sitting around in airports for hours. And when your train departs at 4.25pm, you journey in the knowledge that you’ll be able to dine in the French capital.

Which we did. At Septième Vin, a charming restaurant in the seventh arrondissement, which has become our place to stay when we’re visiting.

As we walked down the road toward the restaurant, the joint owner and maître d', recognised and welcomed us. If we had to wait a few minutes for a table, he made sure it was an easy wait, with glasses of kir on the house, plus a small plate of very good saucisson.

We’ve been very partial to rosé for the last year or so, and the choice of one from Provence or from the Languedoc was met with an: “Oh, the Languedoc!” that must have instantly revealed us as visitors to that region of the country too.

I had scallops with salad, which was very pleasant, followed by sautéd veal kidney with a mustard sauce – which was also very pleasant, although it could perhaps have done with being cooked slightly less. On the upside, it was served – surprisingly, given the season – with root vegetables, but very nice they were too. My appetite failed me at that point and I settled for a cognac (on the house) but no dessert.

And so to a little cultural diversion. It has crossed my mind, more than once, to wonder why scallops are known as Saint Jacques in France. But there we were, wandering around the Louvre’s section of early northern European painting on Sunday morning, when we noticed a scallop shell on the cap of a figure standing to the right of Jesus in a rather old picture. Sure enough, the figure, so the accompanying text explained, was Saint Jacques. The Other Half pointed out the link and I remembered that Jacques – or James – had been one of the fishermen who became disciples.

Now, I have no idea why a connection was made at some time between that particular disciple and the gorgeous little shellfish in question, but clearly it’s been around for years, and it’s probably fairly safe to assume that it’s behind the naming of the delicacy in France.

Satuday was an anniversary, so we ate at the rather smart Café de l’esplanade in the evening, outside and under a canopy, with a view across the road to Invalides, where Napoléon is entombed. It might have been al fresco (we didn’t eat inside during the entire trip), but that didn’t mean anything less than perfectly ironed tablecloth and napkins.

We had Kir Royals to start, and ordered a rather nice (if very pale) rosé from the Campaux vineyard in Provence.

I opted for haricot vert as a starter, and my plate duly arrived piled high with the fine beans, dressed delightfully in virgin oil and Balsamic vinegar. It was an object lesson in cooking vegetables – crisp yet perfectly cooked. And as with anything so strikingly simple, it’s absolutely crucial that the ingredients are top quality.

A chateau-briand followed, ordered au point, thus ensuring it was seared and little else. The knife might as well have been a hot one, slicing through butter, it was so tender. Again, you’ve got to have top-notch meat for this. And the sauce – a classic béarnaise, served in a tiny ramekin on the side – was a sensation, with fabulous tarragon coming through wonderfully (that was the most complex bit).

Both our meals were served with puréed potato on the side, creamed with oil and arriving in a bowl with a teaspoon of virgin oil in the centre. ‘Mere mashed potatoes’, I hear you cry. But honestly, it was gorgeous.

And we finished with a plate of tiny wild straw-berries, each hardly bigger than a finger tip but absolutely bursting with flavour. It seemed almost sacrilegious to dip them in the pot of Chantilly cream, but such reservations are there to be overcome.

Not that everything was as good. On the Sunday, we thought we’d amble down to a rather good restaurant called Le Bosquet, only to find it closed. Instead of sensibly turning back, we carried on walking in the direction of the Seine in a languorous manner.

Eventually, we found ourselves opposite a rather old-looking restaurant. Deciding that we should try somewhere new, we went and got ourselves a table.

I ordered foie gras and toast, followed by a brandade of salt cod. The Other Half ordered a French onion soup – rather forgetting that it is classically served with cheesy croutons. And he doesn’t like cheese.

We opted for a carafe of house rosé.

The foie gras was reasonable, the toast very basic. And so to the brandade. Okay, it’s not a local Paris dish, but salt cod is used all over the country. This is salt cod, pureed with olive oil and milk. Or it should be. Sometimes, it has potato added too.

This had flaked cod, potato and, err, lots of salt. I wouldn’t swear that any olive oil had been seen dead near it. An unexpected bone came away as I ate and actually pierced the roof of my mouth: there was blood on it when I managed to pull it clear. The salad, served on the side, was fresh but utterly lacking in flavour. And that’s what you get when you don’t use the best ingredients. And when you eat at tourist venues with nary a local in sight.

We didn’t bother with dessert, but walked back to La Terrasse du 7eme, at Place d’École Militaire, where we tend to start Paris days (with a croissant, coffee and glass of water) and end them (with something rather more alcoholic). That night, we washed away the flavour of culinary disappointment with several drinks.

There is, of course, an argument that the occasional disappointing (or poor) meal is a good thing – if only to sharpen up one’s culinary critical faculties.

But one such experience per trip is quite enough. And fortunately, on the Monday night (our last), the previously mentioned Le Bosquet was open.

After mediocre (at best) foie gras the night before, I decided to have rather better stuff. And much better it was. Just a slight complaint – the toast was perhaps a tad overdone.

Then on to Bar grille au thym – or sea bass, grilled with thyme. Never mind ‘with thyme’, it was stuffed with the delicate herb, giving off a beautiful aroma as it arrived on the table, accompanied by a nice selection of well-cooked vegetables in a bowl. And jolly good it was too, washed down with a carafe of Chateau puech haut rosé from the Languedoc.

Next to us was seated a couple, barely acquainted. A young man from New Zealand, entertaining a young woman, freshly arrived in Europe from the US, on behalf of a friend. He gabbled away – possibly nervously – about his achievements and ambitions. She, stick thin as it was, munched her way through half a bowl of leaves, although she did wash them down with a couple of mojitos. It reminded me of Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous; barely able to remember how to masticate, and living off Champagne and vodka, the antithesis of sensuality. And her we were in this most sensual of cities.

And I remembered all my own dieting, and thought again, just how wonderful it is to really enjoy good food – to enjoy life.

It was, therefore, a perfect, celebratory end to the meal to order crème brûlée, with a fine, vanilla custard and a wafer thin crust of caramelised sugar on top.

So in terms of a ranking, Café de l’esplanade came just ahead of Le Bosquet, with Septième Vin just behind that. And the tourist venue a very long way behind. And it worked out at as reflective of cost. So there are two lessons to remember: you really do get what you pay for, and avoid tourist haunts like the plague.

Oh, and simplicity – with the best ingredients – beats everything else into a cocked hat.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Fingers crossed for an end to superstition

I am not a superstitious person by nature. Let’s make that quite clear. Indeed, I’ve been known to walk under ladders deliberately just to wind people up (although always after a quick check that nobody’s actually atop the thing, with a pot of paint just about to overbalance).

If I worried every time a few grains of salt were spilt in the kitchen, I’d be in a perpetual fret about the ensuing bad luck – although the importance and, therefore, value of salt throughout history might be the rational reason behind that particular superstition.

But what’s the point in having such a rule if there isn’t an exception to it?

And my exception, throwing rational thought out on its ear – with a quick boot up the backside for good measure – is football. And in particular, Manchester City.

Anyone who has read Nick Hornby’s wonderful Fever Pitch will know the syndrome.

There’s a lovely story in there about how, when he was studying at Cambridge, Arsenal fan Hornby and various friends used to watch Cambridge United. And they usually watched them lose. Until, that is, one day one of them bought a pink sugar mouse from a shop on the way to a match. As he was walking out of the shop door, he dropped the mouse on the ground and it broke apart.

That afternoon, United broke their losing sequence. So thereafter, the friends would stop at the same shop before every game, buy a sugar mouse and then let it smash on the ground outside. A winning streak began.

I used to have a pair of ‘lucky’ socks – brown and white stripes, I’d worn them while playing the Wicked Witch of the West in a production of The Wizard of Oz years ago. I don’t know why they remained my ‘lucky’ socks, because they never managed to start a winning streak of more than one game. Perhaps I convinced myself that, if I hadn’t worn them, we’d have lost even more badly than we did?

At one time, I developed a routine of having pasta and baked beans as my pre-match grub. I can’t recall how it started, but it became a habit. Such a flatulence-inducing diet might have contributed to global warming, but it didn’t improve results any more than the ‘lucky’ socks.

Anyway, can you imagine – all the little superstitious routines going on before games, amongst thousands of fans: do some of them contradict others? Who was it who contradicted mine?!

In a fit of close-season enthusiasm, I ordered my new home shirt on Wednesday. And decided, for the first time in three seasons, that I will not get a name on it.

Two years ago, at the start of our bright, shiny new era, I had ‘Sven’ on the back of my away shirt: the first time I’d ever had a named football shirt. The Swede was criminally sacked at the end of the term – despite making vast improvements and seeing us victories over Manchester United twice in a season for the first time since the 1960-70 season.

Last year, in a fit of enthusiasm (and ignoring such a howlingly obvious omen), I bought all three outfield shirts and proudly had the names ‘Wright-Phillips’, ‘Robinho’ and ‘Hamman’ emblazoned on the backs.

Sean went off the boil after his great return. Robinho didn’t seem to like the winter, was accused of sexual assault (and later completely cleared), went walkabout and lost his form, while Didi – in his final season with the club – spent the last few months of the season recovering from a broken toe.

I am not having any more names on my shirts. I jinx those whom I attempt to so ‘honour’.

The Other Half sneakily tried to suggest I should have tried reverse psychology and ordered this new one with Samuel Eto’o’s name on the back, in the sneaky belief that, just as a move to City has become less likely, it might turn things the other way. Sorry. But I’m not falling for that. There are limits to quite how much I want to spend a season’s worth of home games looking a right prat.

So there. No names this season. And I’m going to bring the age of reason into my football experience. No more superstitious nonsense for me.

Although I’ll still remember to wear both of my City rings to matches (the 1970s enamel one on the left hand and the plain silver one on the right), and the Elano t-shirt under my colours when it’s cold enough and a very specific baseball cap with a very specific collection of badges over it …

Thursday, 2 July 2009

A taste of history

Taste: the story of Britain through its cooking by Kate Colquhoun

If ever you thought that celebrity chefs were a modern phenomenon or that spicy food was a recent introduction to British food, then Kate Colquhoun’s Taste: the story of Britain through its cooking, will set you right.

Starting as far back as she can, it’s a fascinating exploration of British food. But not just of food itself – there is social context here too.

So for instance, she explores how we have deskilled as a nation over the centuries, with so many people now lacking basic cookery skills – something that exercises commentators today.

One major contributor to that process was enclosure and the industrial revolution, which drove families into chronically inadequate accommodation, where they often didn’t even have the room to keep even a single cooking pot.

And inevitably, the diet of the poor suffered as they were driven off land where they could at least grow and/or gather some food. In addition, appallingly low wages also meant that the diet of the new urban poor retracted from what it had been before mass industrialisation.

Deskilling also occurred with the growing middle class, as families became able to afford a cook and the woman of the family needed to cook themselves less and less.

Other things stand out in Colquhoun’s book, including the use of sugar in British cooking from its first introduction to these islands. It was used in every sort of dish. Little wonder that Britons have an international reputation for poor teeth.

The spiciness of early British food is made clear too – it later died away as fashions changed, only to re-emerge gradually in more recent years.

For those who imagine that curry is a modern arrival on British dining tables, the first ready-made curry pastes were on sale in 1780. And then there’s the constant love-hate relationship between the British and their attitudes toward French cooking.

And the sheer scale of the meals eaten by the well-to-do is staggering, in terms both of the amount that people seem to have actually eaten and also the amount that must have been wasted.

There is plenty here too on the development and impact of food technologies such as canning and freezing, but of which have had positive and negative impacts on British food: on the one hand, as an aspect of the liberation of women from the kitchen, but on the other, contributing to the decline in the national diet and the loss of a great deal of the national culinary heritage.

In terms of the latter, what one misses, is an exploration of why that has happened in the UK and why not on the Continent (at least to nowhere near the same extent). But that, to be fair, would probably be the remit for another book and not this one.

It’s a fascinating read – and a very easy one too, crammed full of intriguing glimpses into Britain’s history. And it’s always heartening to find good notes and list of sources – this even divides them into primary and secondary ones.

Great stuff – and really provocative in terms of the questions that it raises.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

From crabby heights to frozen lows

If childhood memories of food seemed to be only fleeting – not something that ever really connected me to particular times and places and people, then the years that followed were to be a little different.

Not much – but a little.

With no cooking skills and possibly even less interest in food, I was packed off to college – well, polytechnic in Leicester, my first experience of even a single night away from relatives. I stayed in a hall of residence, sharing a communal kitchen with a number of other female students.

For some reason, I remember having an unillustrated general Penguin cookbook (possibly my mother’s idea of how to compensate for no skills and little interest). It got lost somewhere in the intervening years, but it included a recipe for “hot buttered crab”.

I decided I liked crab. So more than once, bought a whole cooked one from the market in the centre of the city and would cart it back to the campus. I had a little hammer that had been given to me by my father – oh, the practicality of it – and would take an age, standing in that communal kitchen at weekends, when most of the other students had gone home or to friends, bashing at the shell to get the meat out, before heating it with melted butter and popping it on toast – usually eating it on my own.

It was a peculiar year (injury saw to it that my tertiary education finished after just 12 months). Gauche and clueless in so many ways, I hadn’t a idea how to socialise with my peers. I kept well away from any parties, having had quite enough experience to tell me that I’d end up as the laughing stock. One particular occasion that stands out clearly in my mind had occurred during the three years at my final school. I’d been surprised to be invited to a fellow pupil’s bash. It turned out, though, that I was merely present to be teased by the other girls, after being so gullible as to respond when asked which boy I fancied of those from the local boys’ school who were present.

Not that that was the first time that my ‘not-of-this-worldliness’ saw me made the butt of jokes. At my previous school, a discussion of comics (my parents bought me one a week) had led me to say that I wanted to read something more grown up than June and Schoolfriends (or whatever it was at the time).

One girl recommended Playgirl. Not having a clue as to its content, I walked into a shop and picked up a copy. I was standing there, in my school uniform, with my jaw cemented to the floor, when the shop assistant came around from the counter and lambasted me for picking up something for which I was clearly not legally old enough. I fled and never went into that shop again.

So no parties. And no boys. And bugger all socialising. I’d sit in the common room in hall and watch the telly, sometimes joined by the master of hall, who lived in. A maths tutor, if memory serves, he was the sort of academic who couldn’t alter his digital watch when the hour changed. I sorted it out for him at least once.

He was gorgeous. Probably in his forties; a full head of white hair and the sort of physique that could wear crumbled white suits and look fabulous.

His room was down a corridor from mine. We walked upstairs one night after finishing watching some programme together. The place was deserted. There was an odd moment as I said goodnight at my door – nothing happened, but I’ve wondered in retrospect whether I didn’t miss a chance; whether an invitation to ‘coffee’ might not have produced an interesting result.

Later, I went had a couple of nights out in Leicester itself at nightclubs, drinking Malibu and pineapple, and eating scampi and chips out of a basket with a sex-mad mature student from Northern Ireland who took pity on me.

Once that was over, and I was living on my own in Morecambe, trying to find a job and keep my head above metaphorical water, a friend would occasionally give me a whole trout that he’d caught while fishing. This time, I resorted to one of the other few-and-far-between cookbooks I had: Floyd on Fish, from which I learned to wrap the whole thing in newspaper, wet it under a cold tap and then pop it into the oven. Once the newspaper was dry, you could remove it and, when you unwrapped it, the skin would peel away neatly. It worked too, and was very tasty.

And it was in Morecambe that I managed to find rather informal work in catering. With no job, I’d spend part of my days in a local coffee shop, lingering over a coffee, while chatting with the owner, a woman I knew through one of the myriad local drama groups. It happened without ever planning that, at times when she was busy, I’d help clear tables. That turned into helping with the washing up and even preparing food. Which should tell you something about the level of catering in that particular little shop. Vast jacket potatoes, baked in a microwave and filled with a bit of margarine and some grated cheese, with a garnish of salad on the side, was fine dining.

That job died out because she started paying me a little – just enough so that it would not legally impact on the dole rules. She couldn’t afford to employ me properly. But the unemployment people decided to start haranguing her because I’d declared the money, as one was honestly supposed to do (more naivety). They were determined to pester her into employing me full-time. Instead, they pestered her out of employing me at all.

I had discovered garlic by this stage, in a covert way, via Marks and Spencer’s garlic sausage, which various people in the main drama group that I was involved in liked to bring along to ‘Jacob’s joins’ – parties where we’d all bring food to share.

And shortly before Leicester, I’d had my first curry, courtesy of a trip to the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, with a gay male friend of advanced years, who had taken me under his wing rather.

As an aside, my mother didn’t realise he was gay and was convinced we were having an affair, finding and reading my diary to see if it revealed any salacious proof.

The play was Greek (I can’t remember what) with Robert Lindsay. And the curry, from the theatre restaurant, was so hot that I could taste it for days. It put me off spicy and hot food for years.

And oddly enough, a couple of times I did something quite advanced, under the circumstances – having tasted them in pubs, I pickled my own eggs.

But back to my coffee shop days. At around the same time. I had my first steak. And it came about as a direct result of sex.

I was helping out with another of those myriad drama groups – front of house, on this occasion. One of the senior front-of-house staff, all dolled up in his evening suit, complete with bow tie, asked me to check something or other in the upper reaches of the theatre. There we were – me, resplendent in a bottle green cord jumpsuit (yes, it was the 1980s), in the little locked room at the foot of the rickety staircase that led to wardrobe, when he caught me up in his arms (I’m trying to find the appropriate language here) and planted his lips on mine in a long kiss. By the time I’d got over the shock and realised that he was holding me really rather strongly, I was finding myself interested.

It should be pointed out that between rickety stairs, a dress suit and a corduroy jumpsuit, things were not easy. But, heroically, we managed.

Since this little episode took place during a matinee, he asked me out to dinner between shows and took me to the town’s only (as far as I knew) steakhouse for my very first steak. It was like old leather, and I was left wondering why people made such a fuss of steak. It wasn’t until a trip to Amsterdam, almost 20 years later, that I found out.

That was actually the start of a nine-month relationship – if you can call it that. He was probably about my age now when we were together – and makes me look totally ‘sane’ and ‘normal’. On the other hand, we had some good times and he managed to teach me to get over one very large barrier and say ‘fuck’.

There’s almost another food story in here: we went to visit a friend of his once, who had a house right on the beach, just up the coast. We had a barbeque on the beach – although I can’t remember anything beyond that. Possibly because I’d just tried vodka for the first time. The house had a jacuzzi in the spacious bathroom and offered the chance, we decided to give it a whirl. A Some time later, our host popped into the bathroom to see how we were, finding me very happily straddling my partner. My beau invited him to join us, but he politely declined. Drat! My first chance of a threesome come to nothing.

Some time later, I got increasingly into bodybuilding and heavy exercise. Food finally became simply fuel. It didn’t have far to go to reach that point in my mind, to be fair. Eggs with the yolks abandoned, protein drinks and piles of boiled vegetables are what stand out for me thinking back. An appalling thought.

It was a downward spiral. What with constant dieting, and probably unhelped by lack of money, by the time I cooked a meal for The Other Half for the first time, I thought that reformed lamb ‘steaks’, grilled from frozen and accompanied by tinned potatoes and carrots, was gourmet cuisine.

And that feels as though it was a million years ago.