One of those morning writing practice prompts recently brought a particular food-related experience to mind (the topic was Eating Out). I’ve written a lot of food into my first novel, so I embraced this exercise. What came out as I kept my pen moving was not fiction, but a happy childhood memory:
I was accustomed as a child to eating out in restaurants for Sunday lunch – we did this perhaps two weeks out of four. This was more than a little unusual in 1960’s and 70’s Britain. But my parents had what were then considered to be exotic tastes, for garlic, herbs and spices, wines and dishes with names nobody could pronounce – all alien to the typical suburban dining table.
I remember the delights of Luigis, Trattoria Valeria, La Primavera and other regular haunts in North and West London, in the days when prawn cocktail and minestrone soup were the height of sophistication; when pollo sorpresa (or chicken kiev as we know it today), wasn’t something you could bring home from the supermarket in a plastic dish; when grissini sticks were a novelty.
A favourite of mine, and something you were guaranteed never to get at home – even in a home as gastronomically adventurous as ours – was l’escargots a l’ail, yes, snails in garlic butter. I loved those half-dozen gummy grey blobs concealed within their shells and nesting in their dimpled tin dish. I became adept at handling the special toolkit that arrived in place of a knife and fork; the intriguing tongs you had to squeeze to open in order to clutch the shell, allowing you to hook out its inhabitant with the tiny two-pronged pick. I would empty every dribble of melted garlic butter from the shell into a puddle on the dish, then sweep my impaled snail round and around, harvesting as much of the glossy dressing on to my prize as I could. Then the trick was to get it to my mouth before warm butter drizzled on to my Sunday best, then chew it hard, like a lump of bubble gum, until it surrendered. Five more unctuous mouthfuls followed the first; then there was the basket on the table, crammed with chunks of crusty French bread to scrape and dip and mop with, until every last dribble of melted garlic butter had been soaked up.
My father, who is no longer alive, is central to my memories of Sunday lunches out. His craving for a mighty Chateauneuf du Pape, when Liebfraumilch, Blue Nun and Black Tower were the order of the day; his delight in anything – anything at all – that came laced with garlic; his all-consuming sweet-tooth; the way he would engage with the proprietors who, when they realised his passion for their food, would produce special this, and extra that, and little treats, and even occasionally not charge for the flaming zambucas or brandies that always rounded off the feast (for the adults, only for the adults). And their generosity was rewarded, for we would always come again, on another Sunday.