Sunday, 29 January 2012

Table for one, please.

Do you ever sit back and take stock of the things you really, truly love doing? The situations you love finding yourself in? The moments of pure celestial harmony where you achieve nirvana without actually seeking it out? I had one yesterday lunchtime, a little slice of heaven born out of adversity but showing itself to be the place where any right-thinking person should be. Stunningly ordinary, it was bliss: sitting on my own for an hour in a good japanese restaurant, eating an enormous bamboo tray of sushi and reading Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Angel Game. OK, it's not getting down and dirty with selected female members of Chile's ruling élite, but for a faithful, forty-something father of two it takes a lot of beating, not least for the fact that neither Mrs. F nor the Fingernails like raw asian fish preparations, so it's always going to be something I enjoy alone. Nothing else blocks out everyday detritus as well as a good read, so yesterday's lunch was a defining moment in solo pleasure. To be honest, if I can't eat with my family, I'd rather eat alone, preferably with something to read. Meals are too important to be dealt out like a cheap hand of cards and I'm extremely fussy about who shares my table, particularly if I'm paying my way. Having said that, I've turned down an awful lot of invitations to dine for the simple reason I'd rather pay and enjoy the food on my terms than get a freeby and have to make inane conversation with someone I don't find interesting. I don't know anyone else who is quite as maniacal about shared dining, but, for me, eating alone is sheer bliss.

I got into this habit way back in the early 1990's when I was conducting The Phantom of the Opera in Hamburg. I had a large flat in the Blankenese neighbourhood which backed on to a fine Italian restaurant called Casa Mastroianni. Every now and then they served up fegato con salvia, liver with sage with succulent dressings and side dishes. Fegato had been my favourite meat since the early 1970's when I discovered it in a tiny Italian restaurant in Brighton; seeing the word again in Northern Germany decades later, written in chalk on a specials' board shot me back to my youth and the dingy little café by the sea we discovered purely by chance one day. The lovely old lady who ran the tiny place had about four mismatched tables, a fabulous , toothless grin and one item on the menu that she announced proudly as THE dish of the day: "Oggi abbiamo fegato!" It was fantastic; served in a thick rich gravy and accompanied by chopped Italian bread, it was the first foreign food I ever tasted, and this in a little café-cum-restaurant which predated any Pizzaland or other monstrosity in the area by years. From that time on, fegato would always hold a place in my heart. Even now, when just about everything else Italian gets on my tits, I still refer to liver as fegato, regardless of where we are or what language we're speaking.

Anyway, back to Hamburg. Whenever that magic word appeared on the blackboard outside the main entrance I'd pluck a good book from my collection and trot off around the corner to Casa Mastroianni just as they were opening. Fegato con salvia was no trivial matter so I'd always set aside at least two hours for the pleasure. I'd start off with a Martini or two, a couple of smokes and a few pages of my book. Then I'd order a wine to go with the fegato. We'd talk about the side dishes, then Franco would leave a little while before my meal appeared, fresh and succulent, the sage mingling beautifully with the fresh lamb's liver. The potatoes were sautéd, the green beans parboiled and lightly fried to perfection. The pepperpot sat on the side of the book that needed keeping open and the story and the contents of my plate communed discreetly and divinely while I consumed both simultaneously. I hardly ever had a pudding but took time over my grappa, cigarette and coffee. By the time I was ready to go home I always felt this was the only way to eat, a feeling that has not changed one iota in nearly twenty years. Since discovering sushi about a year ago I can't get it out of my head. For someone who couldn't stand fish, that's quite an admission. Sushi is made by cherubim in paradise; I could quite easily eat it every day. The point is, something this good requires the fegato treatment, anything less would be disrespectful of the chef's art and the meal's taste. The only food you should eat in a group is cheap pizza or MacDonald's; everything else deserves your full attention.

Writing this, I now realise things I didn't understand before. Firstly, that people or things I consider important need my full presence, and that spreading my attention too thinly would be disrespectful to them. Big dinner parties and the like are a no-no; I prefer a small, intimate group where the chances of having worthwhile conversations are higher. If the food is good, it's either with my family or on my own; I'm not prepared to compromise something that important. We now live in a world where everyone has to listen to everyone else's inane conversations, so it's nice to get intimate and discreet again, even if it is only with a plate of raw fish or the internal organs of a young sheep.

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