International cuisine

Travel Talk

I don’t know how it was in your house, but we had to ban Monopoly, when the kids were young, because of the screaming tantrums it caused. When they were older, Trivial Pursuit was considered “educational”, so they rejected it on principle.

Nowadays, I play the occasional game of Scrabble with Carole, who usually beats me, but that, too, can be a bit of a minefield.

I mean, who in the real world knows that an “acai” is a South American palm tree, or tries to get away with “hadst” as an acceptable past tense of “have”? And as for “qi”, well, don’t get me started.

This contemplation of what the Victorians christened “Parlour Games”, in an era when only folk with parlours played games, has been brought on because, when you have time on your hands, a game is a good way of passing it.

Tusker beer by The Voice of Hassocks / Public domain For your interest and possible amusement – and to encourage you to create your own version – here’s a game we played occasionally, usually in a hotel bar at the end of a long day on location, travelling and filming for the BBC’s “Holiday” programmes.

It’s called “International Cuisine”, and simply requires you to create an unforgettable meal by trawling through your holiday memories.

You begin, naturally, with a drink before dinner.   

For me the drink is a Tusker beer, and the location is the verandah of Kilaguni Lodge in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park. The view is of the animals coming to the salt licks and the waterhole. 

You get two coasters with your beer, by the way. You stand the glass on one, and the other goes on top to stop insects flying into it. They put coasters on top of the bowls of peanuts, too, because some of the flying insects are the size and shape of peanuts, and the bar is dimly lit to improve the view of the waterhole.

A notice above the bar at the Kilaguni Lodge said: “Guests are requested not to disturb the animals when they are drinking. And vice versa”.

Tsavo National Park, Kenya Kilaguni was the first lodge I experienced, just as Tsavo was the first Game Park. Divided into East and West by the road from Nairobi to Mombasa (beside which, at night, the elephants stand, mesmerised by passing headlights), Tsavo is slightly larger than Wales – which means there’s ample space for animals and people.

So, that’s the pre-dinner drink sorted out. Now we can move to another location for our “starter” course.  

No question, it has to be the restaurant close to the Hanbury Botanical Garden at La Mortola di Ventimiglia, Italy – if it is still there, because I visited it more years ago than you can shake a stick at. 

I have, sadly, mislaid the notes I made at the time, so can’t even come up with the name. But I remember it and its location as if it was yesterday.

We’d driven over the border from France and went there because a friend had said it would provide us with a unique meal. He refused to elaborate, but was grinning when he said it.

Antipasti We sat down and a waiter wheeled over a trolley laden with antipasti – little bits of this and that to whet the appetite. We chose several and had more or less demolished them when a second trolley arrived with even more tempting “starters”.   

And so it continued. Trolley after trolley, until our appetites were sated.

Then we had coffees and called for the bill. Nobody eats a main course at La Mortola de Ventimiglia.

For the fish course, you need to join me in the Fishermen’s Bar at Praia da Oura on Portugal’s Algarve coast.

Today the bar is very posh, pricey, and part of the extensive development of villas and apartments that has made Praia da Oura so much smarter – at the expense of its character, and, some would say, of its soul.

Cliff top above Praia da Oura by Kolforn / CC BY-SA Wikimedia Commons Back in the 1960s, the bar was just a large hut on the beach, where  fishermen gathered at the end of the day, with their bottles of Sagres and strong cigarettes, to argue about current events, to grumble about the lack of fish, the vagaries of the weather, the state of the world.

In this, they were like working blokes the world over. And, like working blokes the world over, they viewed strangers as interlopers and were suspicious of them until it proved otherwise. Back then, you see, foreigners were as rare as hen’s teeth.

We turned up one evening, with the kids in tow. We were renting one of the handful of villas located at the top of the hill, by the little shop – a villa owned by Douglas Bader, as it happens. We were clearly foreigners, clearly objects of suspicion, but they thawed out when they saw the toddlers, and even laughed when my missus chose to drink beer from the bottle, like the rest of us, instead of a ladylike glass of wine.

They fell in love with the kids, of course. And they helped us choose our meal. Sardines, caught that day and grilled over the ramshackle barbecue set up on the sand by the front door.   

Portuguese sardines We ate there a lot during that long-ago holiday. And, as the days passed, it was interesting to note that the wives of the fishermen took to joining their menfolk – so they could spoil the small children of the strangers in their midst – just like older folk do the world over.

Enough of that. The main course beckons.  

Nostalgia inclines me to choose a mutton chop, with all the traditional trimmings. You don’t see many mutton chops about nowadays, and some consider them to be positively Dickensian. But, when I first came to London, I would regularly have an evening meal in a Chop House (I think it might have been called Stone’s), opposite St. Pancras Station, before getting the train to my digs in Mill Hill. The memory, indeed the taste, of those mutton chops is as fresh as if it were yesterday.

However, a more recent memory is of another Chop House. This time, Hall’s in King Street, Charleston, South Carolina. I was attending the AGM of the British Guild of Travel Writers, almost exactly a year ago, and went, with friends to the highly-recommended Hall’s.

No mutton chops, but a selection of steaks, most of which were huge – too big for me, frankly. I chose the smallest on display (the waiter brought them to the table on a large tray, explaining which was which). The smallest turned out to be Bison. I recommend Bison, should you ever find it on a menu.   

But though the memory of chop houses, and mutton chops in particular  is strong, the meat I best remember was served al fresco, several thousand feet above sea level, in the Himalayas.

Himalayas trekking It was a trekking holiday, of course. My first in that part of the world, among scenery that left me mentally gasping. Literally gasping, too, for most of the time.  

Half-way through the day, the Sherpas would overtake us, having struck the previous night’s camp and going on ahead to set up the tents at our next designated stop. How they did it, I shall never know, for their loads were huge and they trotted – yes, actually trotted – along with a grin and a wave in passing.  

As well as all the paraphernalia of camping and cooking, the food and the drink, they had a pig in tow. Literally in tow – trotting along at the end of a rope. The ladies of our group thought he was cute. Somebody named him “Gregory Peccary”.

A welcome break for tea on the Himalayan trail That was not wise, for Gregory was destined to be the main course of our final dinner on the trail. When that moment came, many of the ladies cried and lost their appetites.

I’m afraid we blokes simply shrugged our shoulders and tucked in. Gregory was not only delicious, but the most memorable main course of my travelling life.

And so to pudding. Oh yes, we must have pudding because, though the meal so far has been excellent, all this travelling has put an edge on my appetite. And, anyway, the decision is easy.

It has to be bread and butter pudding, with custard.

It’s a long time since I ate at The Belfry, a converted Presbyterian church in Halkin Street, London. Halkin Street is in a very posh part of the capital, and the Belfry is a very posh place, founded by the legendary Anton Mossiman. I had the best bread and butter pudding I have ever tasted at the Belfry. But, though it was equally splendid, the custard did not quite live up to my expectations.

Bread and butter pudding by DuncanHarris / CC BY-SA Wikimedia Commons This is because I am a “thick custard” person. Not “thick” as in “thick enough for the spoon to stand up in”, but far thicker than the weak and watery stuff you usually get in restaurants (some of which are inclined to cheat and use vanilla sauce, to their eternal shame).

For a really good bread and butter pudding, with custard of an acceptable consistency, the Naval and Military Club, when it was in Piccadilly, could not be faulted.

However, having moved to St. James’s Square, and transformed the quality of its food, the “In and Out”, as it is usually called, seems to have retreated a little on the custard front. 

True, the food is a huge improvement on that in the old club, which was aimed at the palates of chaps who enjoyed nursery teas and boarding school meals, but I can see no harm in that. 

But, there again, I can see no harm in the fact that, back then, if one was hosting a lady to lunch, which I often did, one had to explain to her that she had to use the side entrance and, on no account, should she wear trousers.   

Those were delicate conversations, I can tell you, for those ladies were a formidable lot, more than capable of holding their own in the cut and thrust world of the travel trade, not to mention that of public relations. 

Anyway, when our present travails are past, I might have a word on the subject of custard consistency with the excellent people who manage the “In and Out”.  

Meanwhile, I’ll leave you to sort out your own International Cuisine.

First, where are you going to have that drink before dinner…?

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John Carter

Long-time presenter of TV’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ and BBC holiday programmes

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