A cultural croissant crisis

Standard

For the last week or so I have been in southern Africa for work. Yes, my job is awesome but trust me this is no jolly trip to another continent. I am working, working and then working some more, evenings and weekends are not exempt. Add to this some very temperamental internet connections and there’s my excuse for not having posted for a couple of weeks (for those of you who noticed my absence and thought my standards slipping).

I was in Swaziland for the first four days and have been in Johannesburg, South Africa since then and I’m out here for just over two weeks in total. In case you think I am exaggerating about the amount of work, it is true, I did fib a bit because I did have Sunday afternoon off and a colleague took me to the zoo and then to the cinema where we saw Women in Gold.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I picked the film on the basis that Meryl Streep was in it but other than that knew absolutely nothing about the film. Incidentally, it’s a very strange experience to sit down at the cinema with no idea what you are about to see. Anyway, it was about a famous Klimt painting of Adele Bloch-Bauer, also known as the woman in gold but I’m giving the full title too for reasons that are obvious if you watch the film, and the restitution of art stolen by Nazis from Jewish families during the Second World War. Meryl didn’t let me down, it’s a very good film and I’m happy to recommend it to all of you.

Anyway, back to the point I’m trying to make, which is, obviously, about croissants. I am currently staying in a very nice hotel in Johannesburg and, as in all hotels, you can tell if it’s a decent choice because of the breakfast. Whenever I stay anywhere with breakfast included, particularly where there’s a buffet, I try to eat as much as possible to, one, get my money’s worth and, two, potentially avoid the need for lunch enabling extra dosh for dinner time.

The buffet at the Capital Moloko is excellent and I have been approaching it in the strategic way that I approach all buffets. For starters I’ll go for a bowl of muesli, yoghurt and fresh fruit salad with pumpkin seeds scattered on top. Round two and I’m digging into the cooked breakfast items, particularly relishing the bacon which Switzerland deprives me of. Finally, I will conclude with some toast and jam, perhaps a Danish or both. Yes, I do have a three course breakfast and yes, I am aware that I am probably eating my entire daily recommended allowance of calories in one go but I’ve already explained my reasoning.

Yesterday, on my final round of breakfast I selected a lovely fresh looking croissant. I then spied a collection of breakfast accompaniments in little white dishes. One of these was obviously peanut butter, the other was something dark and red I didn’t recognize and the third was a dark brown syrupy liquid that my immersion in Swiss culture taught me must be chocolate.

I had a lightbulb moment and thought I could upgrade my normal croissant to a chocolate supreme version by thickly drizzling, but artistically you understand, the sticky brown liquid all over my croissant. I felt so smug that I’d combined the two in this genius manner and even caught a couple of my fellow diners giving me what I could only assume to be envious glances. I took my croissant creation back to my desk, sat down to bite into this sweet breakfast delight only to discover that the ‘chocolate’ was in fact marmite.

Now don’t get me wrong I like marmite but I also like it thinly spread over buttery toast not dripping in thick clumps off a croissant. Perhaps with full appreciation of what I was eating a croissant and marmite could be a nice savoury option on this French breakfast treat but I cannot begin to explain the shock as I chomped into the pastry expecting a sugary sensation only to be hit by the bitter saltiness of marmite. I understood my fellow diners glances had not been envy so much as incredulity.

I never would have imagined that marmite might actually be popular in some places outside of the UK, so much so that it is easily offered without labeling as though all diners will automatically know exactly what it is. Should I be ashamed that as a British person I didn’t automatically recognise marmite? Has my time in Geneva turned me into a real European?

Advertisements

The food shaming incident

Standard

Kids can be mean, we all know this and have probably all both been a) the subject of a kid’s meanness and b) one of the kids being mean at some point in our lives.

Let me tell you the sad tale of the day I was subject to the meanness of other kids and shamed for asking for a hula-hoop. For those of you that aren’t British or are otherwise unfamiliar with the snack, hula-hoops are a kind of crisp, they are little potato rings you can fit on your fingers, so both fun and edible!

First things first, you need to understand that I have always liked my food. I’ve also never been a fussy eater and like to try most things, there is perhaps a handful of foods I don’t really like but even those I can eat if the occasion calls for it and it would be rude to decline (if you are wondering these include: fruit cake, normal trifle, marzipan and horseradish).

I come from a family that likes food and would rush to eat our dinners first in the hopes of being first in line for second helpings of whatever was on offer. Trying to distract family members at dinner-time so that you could steal what was on their plates was quite routine. But woe and behold if you got caught stealing someone else’s grub!

Once when I came home late after some activity my parents were out, but my brothers were there to ‘look after’ me. As I sat down to eat my reheated dinner my brothers sat either side of me and the eldest would sneakily take a piece of pasta from one side and as I turned to him in a rage my middle-older brother took a piece from the other side. Doubly mad at the middle-older brother, for joining in the food theft game and for copying the eldest brother in doing so, I stuck a fork in his head. Don’t worry I didn’t commit fratricide at an early age, I didn’t even draw blood, I did teach both of my brothers a valuable lesson and neither has stolen food from me since, or at least not that I know of.

Please don’t take this as an indictment of my parents, we weren’t squabbling over food because there wasn’t enough to go round, or we only got fed once a week and were left to fend for ourselves from scraps elsewhere for the other 6 days of the week. We were just a family who liked to eat.

As I do with almost everything, I tend to assume that everyone else is just like me until confronted with evidence to the contrary. Therefore I assumed it was perfectly normal to show a healthy love of all things edible and to try to get as much as possible.

Capture d’écran 2015-04-09 à 15.02.33The Hula-hoop incident must have happened when I was about nine or ten. This was before, or perhaps the start of when, I became conscious of body image, a desire to look like girls in SmashHits! Magazine and a realization that being yourself can at times be dangerous.

We were eating lunch indoors and I went to the bathroom, when I returned one of the girls, let’s call her Tanya although that’s not her name, opened up a bag of salt and vinegar hula-hoops and one of the other girls around the able asked if they could have one, quickly followed by another girl and then another. When everyone else had asked for a hula-hoop I naïvely asked if I, too, could have a hula hoop? At which point all the other girls, I think there were eight of us around the table, burst out laughing!

It turned out people, or Tanya at any rate, had noticed that I had a habit of asking to try other people’s crisps and they thought it would be amusing to lure me into a false sense of security by following their lead in asking for a crisp, before cruelly pushing me into their devil pit of mockery!

There’s really nothing worse than having other people point out to you habits that you had, up until that point, been blissfully unaware of, but are now unable to forget. Since that day I never ask anyone, with very few exceptions, if I can try their food. If people voluntarily offer me their food I go into automatic child survival mode, sense a trap, and will usually decline at least once or wait to see how others respond before I judge whether or not I can indulge myself without fear of ridicule.

Probably none of those girls remember their lunchtime prank. It wasn’t exactly the worst thing kids have ever done, and undoubtedly I’ve indulged in worse to others, and they probably weren’t aware of the effect it had on me. But that was the first time I felt shamed for my eating habits and became conscious that certain behaviours, i.e. showing an appreciation of food, were not okay. Worst of all though I never even got to eat that bloody Hula Hoop!

Ten reasons I’m glad I’m not a zombie

Standard

(…even if I sometimes feel like one)

This is an Easter inspired post, no really, you know, the whole rising from the dead thing that Jesus had mastered, as reinterpreted through popular media into the whole living dead franchise! (Definitely less tenuous a link than comparing the eclipse and Bonnie Tyler)

1. It’s possible Zombies aren’t a real thing, and that if I were dead that would actually be it.

2. I’m not convinced that human flesh and braaiiinnnsss in particular are all that tasty. It seems sad to lose my carefully developed appreciation of fine culinary experiences like melted cheese and potatoes (here’s to you Swiss cuisine), fiancé-made ginger Mojitos and best of all warm salty popcorn and Galaxy Minstrels combined (do not knock it until you’ve tried it)!

3. It sounds pretty frustrating, we all know Zombies tend to lose much in the way of brain function when they come back to life. Some might say that’s a fair trade off, chance to live again versus decreased intelligence, and there’s definitely truth to the old saying ‘ignorance is bliss’. However, it’s got to be a bit annoying that when there is a nice tasty human hiding in a nearby room, you can’t get at them by just simply using the handle to open the door but instead are forced to smash a window and potentially hurt yourself just for a bite.

4. It seems a shame that rather than loved ones being all excited to see me again after my untimely demise, they instead rush to bash my head in with old records, cricket bats and tubes of metal piping (where do people find those anyway?).

5. If you were one of the first Zombies it’d be cool and novel and trendsetting but then as everyone starts copying you, you’d move from minority to majority and then be less unique and special and no-one would know whether you were one of the originals or a copycat and would continue to try to destroy your brains without giving you any credit for originality.

6. Communication will be so much more difficult when your vocabulary is limited to a range of moans and groans. Future blog posts would be limited to things like ‘grooaann GRRooaaaaaannnnnnn, groan, groANnnn’ and that’d probably be a bit tedious and lose me readers.

7. Personal hygiene really goes out the window. I’ll admit I like the odd day where I don’t have a shower and might bum around in PJs for an entire day every now and then but I really don’t want the whole rotten flesh stench following me around all the time. I’m not sure that even Febreeze could hide that.

8. It sounds quite exhausting, constantly on the move searching for food, having to tear open people to get at their yummy intestines. You never see Zombies sleeping or going out to a nice restaurant where people just bring the food to you, do you?

9. You are constantly being judged negatively. With very few exceptions (not discounting Nicholas Hoult winner ‘Warm Bodies’) zombies are generally cast as the bad guy and no-one living is prepared to give them the time of day (except psychopathic children in The Walking Dead but they aren’t the best endorsers).

10. I’m afraid I might try to eat my cats, which would make me feel bad. Eating the fiancé and other friends and family would be quite bad but trying to munch on the four-legged fluff monsters would be a travesty!

For more Zombie related blogging you can check out my post ‘The zombie wedding I wasn’t allowed to have‘, if you want to.

Ten Reasons Not to Diet

Standard

1. There is already so much misery in the world: starvation, poverty, disease, there’s no need to add to this by denying yourself your favourite snack.

2. You’ll be less productive. Dieting requires willpower to say no. Willpower requires determined brain power. Brain power spent on willpower is diverted from work/chores/finishing the novel/whatever.

3. You’ll have less energy. Yes eating two grapes and a rice-cracker might help you shape up for swimwear season. But calories, so often denounced in the dieting world are a measurement of energy, the less you have the less energy you have. If you get fired from work for falling asleep at your desk or collapsing from fatigue picking up a document from the photocopier you won’t be able to afford to go on holiday to show off your bikini-buff body anyway.

4. The three ‘C’s’ of Chocolate, Crisps and Coke (4 ‘C’s’ if you want to call it Coca-Cola) trump the three ‘L’s’ of Lettuce, -Lite (note also how your ability to spell deterioriates with dieting) and Longing (for anything more tase-bud inspiring).

5. Lunchtime loneliness. No-one is ever going to invite you to join them for lunch if you are going to spent 45 minutes taking 30 bites of every mouthful of the two sticks of celery you have carefully prepared.

6. There is a danger you will crack and eat something inappropriate. I was a bit hungry going round Geneva’s Natural History Museum on Saturday and I noticed this by considering every stuffed animal on the merit of whether or not it would be good to eat. All sympathy for the fake dodo was gone as I looked at it and understood why it was eaten to extinction in the first place. Imagine what would have happened if I was at the Museum after a diet of licking one spoonful of muesli and having one cup of hot water and lemon? Can you get deported from a country for eating cultural exhibits and scaring the children?

dodolicious - bp image7. You’ll lose friends. Anyone slightly bigger than you will feel that your decision to diet means you think you are fat and ergo that you think they are enormous. You will be so insanely jealous of these same friends when they walk past you with a sandwich, biscuit or cup of coffee with sugar you’ll avoid them to prevent food-envy from making you throw the sandwich to the ground and stamp on it so they can’t enjoy what you are denying yourself.

8. There are only so many vegetables in the world. How can you justify eating so many of them and by increasing demand inflating prices so that poor kids will be forced to eat chips at lunch because they can’t afford the salads they would really like. Their poor day-time diet will affect their ability to learn. Eating vegetables is ruining the health of children and destroying their future!

9. Time is precious. Yes, you could waste an hour or so preparing your vegetables for a nutritious bowl of broth or you could spend 5 minutes pricking the plastic on the ready-made-fare and letting the microwave do the work so that you can start your Netflix binge a whole hour earlier!

10. You are pretty awesome as you are, wobbly bits or right angles or whatever’s going on with you, you can work that and there are people out there that will love that about you.

An appetite to appreciate anomalies

Standard

I read with interest the news story of the three young students (two Dutch and one British) who on finding themselves stranded in Turkey for eight days, survived by eating insects. I thought the piece was interesting not for the regaling of the student’s survival plight but that the headline focus on insect-eating implied this was the real shocker of the incident.

One thing I’ve never been afraid of is trying new foods. I remember my parents being impressed enough to tell all their friends (one of whom’s children had spent several years only eating baked beans, smash and chocolate mousse) that I had eaten squid kebab whilst on a family holiday, when I must have been about eleven or twelve. To me it wasn’t that big a deal but after that I probably reveled in and strove to live up to my reputation as a gastronomic dare-devil.

Like most people I do judge edibles on how they look and allow appearances to affect what I think of certain questionable foodstuffs, but preconceptions wont stop me from trying these. So I’ve never really understood why people are squeamish about eating certain things.

Capture d’écran 2015-01-22 à 16.45.30When I was in Cambodia in the summer of 2013 (gosh, that sounds so much longer ago now that it’s 2015), the guidebook I read in advance informed me that fried tarantulas were a common snack and that insects were often on the menu. The though of eating creepy-crawlies was definitely a bit weird, and still is, but I’m not really sure why.

Yes, they are a bit gross to look at with sticky-out eyes, feelers and too many legs but prawns are just as disgusting and have you ever really looked as a mussel as you are eating it? Yet these sea-insects, if you will, are eaten by many who would be horrified by the thought of eating crispy noodles with red tree ants or a nice bowl of fried crickets.

Eating bugs is definitively a cultural thing and I suppose that because, unlike prawns and mussels, they are so readily available in the dirt around us this makes them less desirable in the way that caviar is probably valued more for its seeming rarity. Eating insects is also often associated with poverty and starvation and that might be where part of our preconceived distaste comes from.

Generally my food-philosophy is to try anything once and I wouldn’t automatically turn my nose up at any local cuisine whether that’s frog’s legs in France, black pudding (congealed pig’s blood) in England, paella with prawns and mussels in Spain, fried tarantulas and snake in Cambodia, Chicken’s feet in China or a Matcha Green Tea Latte in Geneva.

I’m not committing to liking these things but I’m definitely willing to have a go. Actually all of those items above I have tried (although not necessarily in stated country) and the only thing I thought truly vile was the Green Tea Latte I ordered this week but even that I still managed to slurp down, albeit shuddering with every mouthful. I wont order that one again.

Capture d’écran 2015-01-23 à 16.28.57I’m often motivated to try new things by the fear of missing out on great opportunities if I shut myself off to these. And from experience I know that whilst every activity is not necessarily for me there have been things I’ve tried without enthusiasm that have positively astonished me. If I’m honest I find snorkeling too scary to actually appreciate. But volunteering to run sessions of a legal programme for teenagers, that I thought I would struggle with, I really enjoyed.

In the same way I wouldn’t want to miss out on cultural culinary opportunities that might amaze me. I like green tea but thought the green tea latte revolting. I am pathetic around living specimens but found fried arachnid legs rather tasty.

I love travelling, and hope to do a lot more of this, but what I really enjoy is attempting to get under the skin of a different culture to find out what makes people from that part of the world  tick and to think about how they live the lives they do. I know you can’t generalize whole people from brief visits to a place but you can at least try to get an understanding of certain similarities these people may share.

When I went to Thailand about a decade ago I saw fried locusts for sale in busy tourist areas but declined to try them, partly because I was less brave than I am now but mostly because I wasn’t convinced that this was something real Thai people ate. I thought the eating of locusts might have just been a touristy gimmick with locals snickering from alleyways at the foolish farang.

However in Cambodia, at a local party celebrating the official opening of one of our favourite hostels/bars, we were enjoying the cheaper-than-water-beer when out came steaming dishes of crispy once-jumping hexapods. As the Cambodians there started tucking in I recognized the legitimacy of the dish and knew I would have to participate. The locals watched us expats with interest to see how we would respond to the unfamiliar platter and their curiosity was amply rewarded by the looks on our faces as we braved the many-legged snacks. But actually, once we got over the strangeness of eating a food so foreign to us, we enjoyed these little critters, which a friend accurately described as meaty crisps.

I wonder if those stranded students came to like their bug-based diet, once they allowed hunger to overcome initial misgivings? More likely their having to eat insects as necessity impaired their ability to truly appreciate these. I hope their ordeal will not indefinitely put these young adventurers off from future expeditions and perhaps they will even have the occasion to sample some intriguing local cuisines prepared in more favourable circumstances.