As an early vegetarian, my trials did not stop there. You may remember a restaurant called Cranks, which was around in the eighties and the USP of which was allegedly that it was vegetarian. Its USP in fact was that it sold food so solid that you could cut it into bricks and build a house with it. The food tasted mainly of brown, also, coincidentally, its predominant colour. It eventually went out of business, which is not entirely surprising given its brand; calling a vegetarian restaurant Cranks is a bit like calling a wine bar Alcoholics.
Fortunately help was at hand in the shape of the furrin cuisine which was even then speeding its way to our shores. Tooting, to which I moved shortly after stopping eating meat, had, and still has, many wonderful South Indian restaurants, all serving a wide choice of fish and vegetable dishes. Asian cuisine of all sorts is excellent for a pescatarian such as me, and fortunately Chinese restaurants were fairly common and were soon joined by Thai and then by Japanese establishments. Now you can even get Korean and Vietnamese food easily in London.
Italian food too has improved immeasurably since the old veal escalope and spag bol days, and it’s a joy to eat in most Italian restaurants. It has to be said though that unless you go somewhere like Locando Locatelli, you are not really going to get Italian food the way it’s cooked in Italy. To be honest, this is something of a relief. On one business trip to Bari to meet an important shipowner, we were treated to lunch at “the best seafood restaurant in Bari, which is to say the best seafood restaurant in Italy”.
At these meals there is no question of ordering for yourself. The host will have a long conversation with the padrone, who will be a personal friend of his, and they will agree a menu which will then be served to everyone. The first course was a huge dish of sea-urchins. To serve a sea-urchin, you pull it out of the sea, pull out the middle, which constitutes the working parts, and then bung the shell, which now contains the black oozy remains of the sea-urchin, on a plate. To eat, tear off a piece of bread, use it to scoop up the ooze, and pop it into your mouth. It tastes exactly the way you would expect sea-urchin insides to taste.
Later at the same meal we were served huge dishes of shellfish which were opened and placed before us raw for us to help ourselves. They were, as with oysters, still alive. I had the place of honour opposite the host and watched as he picked the largest shellfish up and squeezed lemon juice lavishly over it. It heaved itself about miserably under the acid shower, and mistaking my look of horror for envy, he gallantly offered it to me. I demurred; I couldn’t possibly. No, no, he insisted! Given that this man was one of our most important clients, and that the broker was sitting next to me, vibrating with anxiety, I didn’t feel I had much choice. I ate it, taking care to chew very well. I have also, at different meals, eaten fish eyes, sucked langoustine’s heads and chewed down on crocodile, all at the insistence of hosts who were convinced they were offering a delicacy. All of them tasted exactly as you would expect, except the crocodile, which tasted like chicken.