Tuesday, 23 November 2004

What might have been...

I have just, if you keep tabs on the book reading list on the right, finished Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. This is a fascinating book and well worth a read, so please consider it recommended reading and get hold of a copy if you haven't done so already. It is full of good stories about his life in the kitchen, lots of ego trips and self aggrandizement (hope that's the correct spelling) but very amusing as well - and now I know where the 'never order the fish on a Monday' refrain comes from.

Anyway, one story that really struck a chord was how he got into the whole cooking thing in the first place. When he was about 9 his folks took him and his brother to France for a summer - his father was French and a cook and they went on a gastronomic extravaganza that only a 9 year old can fail to appreciate. Somewhere along the line he realised that there might be a little more to food than just sustenance and so he started trying everything put in front of him. All going along okay until an episode in the town of Arcachon, near Bordeaux. A friend of his Aunt's down there took the whole family out on his boat to his oyster beds, waited until the tide went out and then started a-harvesting the ripe crustaceans. On offering the whole family the chance to sample a freshly plucked oyster, raw from the shell, all declined except the youngster, who, basically trying to gross out his parents, tried the biggest of the bunch and had his epiphany. Suddenly food was where he was at and a culinary star was born.

I recount this as almost exactly the same thing happened to me...

We had a few holidays in France as a family when I was just a slip of a lad, with father parental driving the family down to the south of the country. Most of these were in a place called Annecy near the Alps and a few, like Bourdain, where in Arcachon. (Writing this now I have realised why - Annecy = Cotes du Rhone, Arcachon = Bordeaux - our family holidays were extended boose cruises. Fair enough I suppose). Anyway yes, when I was about 9, perhaps, we had a holiday down Arcachon way, which for a little kid at the time was great. Very hot, sunny, fantastic Atlantic coast with big rolling waves coming in to Cap Ferrat to keep you interested in the sea, the world renowned Dune of Pilay (or something), which is the biggest sand dune in Europe and is, well, a great big pile of sand (you had to humour the parentals at times).

And there were oysters everywhere. Father parental, the big p of comment fame, had, no, still probably has, a thing about fresh oysters - can't get enough of them. Won't eat them in the UK, as far as I know, as they are too expensive, but down there they were two a penny so every meal, for him, was oysters. Lunch? A dozen oysters and a couple of Kronenbourgs (for 10 francs I suspect). Pre-dinner apertisers? Half a dozen and a carafe of local red. Dinner? More oysters and mother's driving back to the campsite. (Can't remember breakfast but I am sure oysters were involved somewhere).

But no one else would join him in his gastromonic gratification. Not surprising really, considering what fresh oysters look and smell like, but in the end I, like Bourdain, thought I'd give it a go. It must have been toward the end of the holiday and we were in some quite nice restaurant in Arcachon. Big p had ordered the Plateau de Fruits de Mer (lit. trans. Plate of that which is left at the bottom of the drag net and which we can sell to the English). This was a big plate of anything and everything from the sea , most of it raw and, of course, had a good number of oysters arranged artfully at the centre.

"Go on, you'll love it"


"It's an experience, you'll never get another chance"


"Otherwise I'm not buying you another steak frites"

"Er...ok then"

In my memory the selected shell was about a foot across and 6 inches deep, the oyster inside a monster of the deep. I took up the sample, added a bit of lemon juice and, my life playing across my eyes, knocked it back. It was, if I recall, like swallowing the end product of a mucus heavy head cold.

I felt its cold, sea watery-ness slide ever so slowly down the back of my throat as father looked on, beaming.

It got to the bottom of my throat. Stayed for a few seconds to admire the view. The decided it liked the outside world far more and began its ascent. As it came slowly higher up my throat a green tinge to my skin apparently shadowed its progress.

I managed to keep the bugger down, just, but my epiphany at that moment included the word 'projectile'. Indeed it took me quite a while after coming to Japan to pluck up the courage to have a crack at sushi and sashimi, both of which I now love. But even today oysters cause me a bit of bother, even the deep fried variety.

But I was that close to a life as a chef.

A bit about Japan...

It was a national holiday today, labour thanksgiving day to be precise, which apparently is nothing to do with the socialist labour movement but is to give thanks to people that work. Think you way through that one. So the Guru and I wandered off to Ikebukuro for the afternoon to nose, buy some bits and pieces, that sort of thing. Now the Guru is not a fan of Ikebukuro, too messy she says. I am not really sure what she means by messy, but I think it is the reason I quite like the place, in that it isn't sterile of too planned, shiny, new or false. In fact it feels like a higgledy-piggledy place with alleys, short cuts and side streets. As I said, I quite like it.

Today was meant to be pre-christmas shopping but we managed, somehow, not to buy a sngle thing except for lunch. As we were in Ikebukuro we had ramen as it is the most competitive ramen place in Japan, apparently, and the place we went to had quite a long queue outside. But the problem was that the shop was on 'ramen street', where a televised 'ramen battle' was held last new year and so, I felt, it was all a bit hyped. The ramen was ok, but not great and not really worth waiting 15 minutes for in a queue. The place I usually go to in Kawaguchi is just as good, if not better, and is more authentic as the walls are greasy and the staff are rude.

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