Friday, 19 February 2010

Chuckie Cheese

Journalista, Publicista and I are sitting on a bench by the front door of La Ubertrendeecheeserie (whose name I don't want to mention so that the Google search doesn't pick it up, less I sound ungrateful) surrounded by crates of the world's most expensive lemons and neat little parcels of spices wrapped up in muslin and tape, held in place with what looks like sealing wax.  I have that feeling in my chest that I get when I'm in love in the midst of all this food - it's a sort of tight, fluttery, tension that I can barely contain - excitement and longing and - best of all - the ability to indulge it.  Sad, isn't it - when walking into - say Green Valley (the Lebanese store next to Marble Arch Synagogue) or Selfridges Food Hall, or Ottolenghi, or Fifth Floor at Harvey Nichols, or any supermarket in any city anywhere outside the United Kingdom (or even Waitrose at a pinch) fills you with the trembling joy other women feel for Manolo's or Johnny Depp - which probably accounts both for the size of my thighs and my dreary love life.

But I do love food, not just eating it, but buying it, owning it, having it in the cupboard waiting patiently to be consumed, or even more likely, never actually opened but kept there in perpetuity looking fabulous and seductive for long after its sell-by date - like the pickled lemons I bought so many years ago that they are, by  now, probably fossilised .  I do cook with pickled lemons, but these ones are in such a pretty jar.  This brings me to my other love - packaging.  I'm a sucker for packaging and therefore I'm a total walkover for beautifully packaged, aspirational food.  I want crates of leafy lemons in my kitchen, and ropes of smoked garlic, and necklaces of chilis, and fist sized jars of cinnamon sticks.  I want iced cupcakes under a bell jar, and artisan cheese on a marble slab.  I want a jug of violet flavoured lollies and everything with French or Italian labels, preferably with hand-painted watercolour illustrations.   In essence, I want to live in a food shop and in La Ubertrendeecheeserie where I've come for a freebie dinner with Journalista, I just want to fill my pockets, my handbag, my life with pretty comestibles.

A waitress passes by with tiny cocktails which my menu cribsheet tells me are rhubarb infused gin with maraschino and pink grapefruit.  I have a second, and attempt to spear a friable bread cube to dip it into the welsh rarebit fondue.  Cheese drips all over my skirt.  This is why it's better to dream about food and place it artfully on the shelves of your kitchen than it is to attempt to eat it.

Journalista is looking a little pale and is unusually quiet, but Publicista and I make up for it, until we are shepherded to the long communal tables for supper. La Ubertrendeecheeserie run these supper evenings, usually producing a meal based around - wouldn't you have guessed it - cheese but they are, for my modest wallet, rather expensive and so it was wonderful to be invited along as Journalista's guest.  I am starving.  I haven't eaten all day. I've held back on the tiny croutons coated with unctious melted cheese, but it has been a struggle.

At the table there are speeches.  Oh god, there are speeches.  There is no such thing as a free lunch, or supper, because the food has to be explained to us course by course, and then the overly complicated drinks which have more ingredients than shampoo, and smell not dissimilar, because the theme of the night is matching food with cocktails.  Yep, you heard right.  We are going to knock back a cocktail with every course.  This is what you mean by a mixed drink.

Wait staff stand behind us holding a plate in each hand while the ancient mariner tells us the story of blending tequila with pink lady apple and serving it with smoked salmon - you could probably smoke it faster than the explanation - and Richard Corrigan's soda bread.  I'm almost fainting by the time it is set before us.  It's a small piece of bread the size of a credit card - okay, well, go on then - a large credit card, covered in fat, sliced, salmon.  I have eaten it before the speech giver has drawn his chair underneath him.  I knock back the tequila in one shot.  As you're supposed to.  No?

Journalista, in the meantime, has disappeared.  I mean, I know that talking about food is a bit like listening to ballroom dancing, but the speech wasn't that bad - nevertheless she has gone, and remains gone for most of the first course.  I eye her plate longingly, but refrain from touching it.  It's too close to Publicista who has struck up a conversation with Fay Weldon's nephew, aghast because she had just had lunch with Fay the other day.  Darling.  We luvvies, huh...  I just had lunch with a cup-a-soup (tomato and vegetable - with twenty two ingredients, most of which are chemical in flavour) but you don't hear me name dropping.

The evening flowed on.  I stopped drinking at cocktail number three - Honey vodka, which was a mistake, because cocktail number four, five and six were whisky based and made shampoo sound appealing, and that's before we get to the port flip with egg yolk.  The food however - sigh...  Despite the fact that it took longer to arrive than a third world train and had the portion control of Cucina Lilliput, it was delicious - more assemblage than cooking, but gorgeous nonetheless.  Black pudding, potato and apple mash, Dublin Bay prawns, roasted beets, goats cheese and, my favourite, wood pigeon on toast where the juices had seeped into the crunchy bread and infused it with earthy, caramel loveliness.  If only I had the appetite of a bird, I would not have been quite so pecked off.  Rich people just don't have appetites and there is no sum too great that they will pay for food which they do not actually eat.

Journalista didn't touch most of hers.  She is a vegetarian, but still... I was a tad envious of her ability not-to-scoff which, as you know, is a trait prized amongst women to their faces, and talked about in a derisory fashion behind their scrawny backs.  But Journalista is not rich. She's not skinny.  She's not in lust, love or languishing in heartbreak as far as I know.  What's wrong with her?

I saved myself for the final course.  We are, remember, in a cheese shop.  Surely there will be some wonderful cheese.  I can't wait.  I'm also going to have the final drink.  I'm fantasising about a glass of red wine which I notice the proprietor of the shop is quaffing with Mark Hix, our joint host for the evening, but no - instead another teeny glass is set before me.  Eagerly I go to lift it to my lips and - phoar - stop when the antiseptic smell assails me.

Oh for for peat's sake, if bloody whisky - Ardbeg malt whisky - where I spent all my childhood holiday's living in my uncle's corrugated iron house next to the distillery in Islay, and whose charred, bonfire aroma reminds me of hospitals and rusty nails.  It tastes like TCP and I don't know whether to drink it or gargle with it.  I chose to do neither.  It also contains creme de peche and old fashioned bitters.  Don't these people know that the point of a cocktail is to disguise the taste of the alcohol, not to enhance it - why else did I spend my adolescence drinking this stuff, decanted into lemonade bottles and watered down with everything from Irn Bru (ah it's the girders, that's where the rusty connotation comes from) to Limeade, and it still tasted like the most disgusting way to get drunk ever invented.

One word.  Yuck.  But with an F.

But there was still the cheese.  And unfortunately the introductory speech - honestly, I spent less time introducing myself to the person on either side of me than they did on the food:

This is a Montgomery cheddar, matured for 12 months and we've chosen this because the cheesemaker had had a little problem with his cheese mites, and cheese mites, as you know,

(Did you?)

...are little parasites that all cheese makers have

(They do?)

...and which grow on the rind of the cheese and help to develop the flavours

(Really, they do?)

...but in this case the mites had got out of control
(They did? - Journalista and I both look at the huge hunk of unadorned cheese lying on our plates for evidence of swarming mites.)

...which improved the texture and depth of flavour enormously.

Journalista excused herself again.

Turns out she had food poisoning and was going next door to the pub to throw up.

Funnily enough I didn't fancy the cheese after that either.