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Food, ambience, the company - what is most important?

"I think the taste had more to do with the fact that it was a cool but sunny day; we ate with the doors wide open, so maybe that should also be a serving suggestion." Rachel Roddy

I think this is going to be a bit of a ramble - a meander in fact into memories and ponderings, and through my photograph album.

It began with two quotes - well one quote - see above - and one article which was, of course, in The Guardian. The article was one in a series called My last supper which is published occasionally in their newsletter and the one I had noticed was Felicity Cloake talking about what she would have as a last supper. The thing that struck me about her response to the question was how only part of the answer was the food. The rest of it was to do with the particular memories that the chosen foods evoked and the places she would like to eat them in.

Of course, the concept of a last supper - well a last meal - is completely hypothetical unless you are a condemned man/woman in a prison cell the night before your execution. So ambience would not come into that particular situation would it? And what about the food? Could you really have absolutely anything? Would they move heaven and earth to get you Beluga caviar if that was your ultimate desire? Or would they just give you some options? Would it be cooked by the usual prison cooks - which is probably not going to lead to a wonderful last meal? Or can you ask for some three Michelin starred chef to come in and cook for you? As I said, it's a hypothetical and probably somewhat tasteless - oh pardon the pun - as well.

In truth we will probably never know what is our last meal. Does anyone really know that this is the last thing they will eat? Besides if you are really ill you probably won't be able to eat much either. Again - tasteless - sorry.

So back to the real question here, if you could have anything, and I do mean anything, at all for a meal what would it be? And does it come with baggage - the baggage of memory, place, people, or as one of the cartoons I saw said - does it have to be gluten free, vegan, vegetarian or just mushy so that you can digest it ...

I have been thinking about this in the last few days as I started to think of this blog, and I really don't think I would be able to pinpoint one particular dish - or even a starter, a main and a dessert. Do I get a cheese course as well? Bread and cheese, after all could be the perfect last meal - if eaten in the right place with the right people. There are so many things that I like to eat, and they virtually all depend on my mood. What I feel like eating one day is not at all the same as what I would feel like eating the next. So I tried to come at an answer by thinking back on the best meals I have eaten in my life.

Which is where the ambience comes in doesn't it - and all the rest as well? which means memory and that trip down the rabbit hole. For memories are tricky. We distort them, and some are false anyway. Anyway let's take a brief trip through my food-associated life to see if I can come up with the ultimate last meal.

Childhood. An often absent father - he was in the merchant navy. A small table in a typical English semi-detached suburban house. In the fifties there was rationing and besides we were not wealthy. But I remember good food - and some of the favourites were cheap and cheerful and not very gourmet - roast potatoes - I always hoped that somebody would not want all of theirs and I could finish them. Chips - with fried eggs, or fish, rabbit stew was a favourite and, of course the Sunday treat - well sometimes - roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Plain food but well cooked. Yes - roast potatoes I think. I'm a bit of a potato freak.

There was a lot of talk around the table - sometimes, as we hit teenage, very argumentative, but lively anyway. Not always friendly or polite - well this is family and that's what families do around the table isn't it? Argue, trying out their ideas about life, the universe and everything and how to express them.

And then there was the culture shock of France in early teenage - in the very best sense of course, when it comes to the food. That first meal in a Paris bistro - the salade de tomates - a taste I remember still - and the huge platters of choucroute being born aloft by the waiters through the crowded room. I didn't eat the choucroute then - maybe steak and frites - which of course I remember from those years. I had never eaten steak before, and so to this day I eat steak cooked rare as the French do. Mealtimes there were different. There they talked about the food - had the cheese been chosen correctly, the peaches too? If it was a new dish - one of my hostesses in particular experimented now and then it's virtues or shortcomings were discussed at length.. The food was always discussed and everything else as well and they asked questions about England. The French are a nosy lot - well no, not nosy - curious about the world. So what could I take from all of the glorious food that I have eaten in France, and cooked myself as well from their cuisine? Steak? And definitely the Salade de Tomates. My first course.

Let's jump a few years to youth and love. A trip to Yugoslavia with our dear friends Mike and Sue - friends still and one to France as well. Another to Yugoslavia again with another university friend and his girlfriend of the time. Anyway to illustrate here we are in Yugoslavia eating lunch under a tree - I have a mouth full so look awful but photographs of this era are scarce. In Yugoslavia I learned to make do with limited ingredients - whatever cut the butcher decided to cut from the carcass hanging in his shop, plus peppers and tomatoes, onions and potatoes with a bountiful supply of eastern Mediterranean sausages. Maybe some rough red wine. We were outsiders here though. There was not much mixing with the natives. The memories from here are all to do with young love I guess. In this period too David occasionally cooked for me. I remember a wonderful Veal Marengo that he cooked from Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cookery. It was delicious and was served in his mother's tiny flat in Marylebone Road.

Marriage and my first experience of fine dining at Quo Vadis which was, sadly not appreciated as we had drunk too much at the reception for our families given by David's brother in his tiny flat near Saville Row. And Glyn is responsible too for introducing me to rare and expensive foods such as avocado and caviar and strawberries out of season. He it was who taught me to be joyfully extravagant whenever one felt like it.

At this time we dined out a lot at some now iconic places - Odin's was one I seem to remember and Bistro 52 - or was it 42? - where we dined on the 60s classics of chicken paprika and prawn cocktails. And, of course, Indian restaurants which were now staking their claim all over London. Dinners with friends - we took it in turns and I experimented with my small but growing collection of cookbooks. And every night for David I would cook something new - well mostly but even if I was only cooking sausages and baked beans I took trouble to try and make it look good. Oh young love.

Then came Australia and soon after children. A different kind of food experience. The barbecue loomed large, as did home-bottled wine. Space, a house beyond our wildest dreams, a wall oven and produce of exceptional quality and quantity. The cookbook collection grew and grew. We fell in love with our new home, and as we aged we dined in more exclusive restaurants - mostly because they were associated with David's job. The food was probably wonderful but they were sometimes stressful occasions - one had to be careful what one said and to be on one's best behaviour. But I do remember that for birthdays and anniversaries David would take me to a restaurant of my choice - Jacques Reymond I remember, Paul Bocuse when it was here in Daimaru, Mietta's, Tolarno and many more. And yet, you know I do not remember one thing from any of those meals, although I do remember the places, and the occasion and I do remember that the food was indeed delicious.

And I should mention here my last meal before motherhood - lunch at Fanny's across from the hospital where I would give birth to my first child the next day - he was induced so the lunch was possible. And this is one of the rare occasions when I actually remember what I ate - well the dessert anyway - which as you can see was strawberry soufflé. It was divine. I can taste it still. But I have never attempted it myself - so yes perhaps that should be dessert. Indeed the whole meal should be something I cannot cook - which is why steak is also a good choice. I am no good at steak.

Life passed in a dream and before we knew where we were we were retired oldies with grandchildren. And these were the years of travels to France and Italy, meeting with old friends and family and staying in unimaginably beautiful places. If ambience is the thing for the last meal then many of these places cannot be beaten.

The food we ate in the houses themselves, was, of course, home-made, from French and Italian goods, but we dined out too in exquisite places of all kinds - that beautiful village at the top here, cosy little local cafés, posher establishments for birthdays and anniversaries which neatly fell whilst we were there, amazing and haphazard discoveries, sometimes with a view sometimes not. And then there is my Home page photo as well - Fish and chips in Port Douglas - maybe I should have used that as the name for my blog! Of all of those meals only one was truly dreadful. I suppose there were a few that were just OK, but not many. And really with all of them the ambience is what I remember, not the food. The location, the view, the waiters, the people at the table, sometimes the people at the other tables. It was the experience not the food. So a last meal would very definitely have to be somewhere wonderful - maybe our own garden - and with people we love - friends, family.

Now that we are officially elderly but actually denying that, the meals we most enjoy perhaps are those with family - messy ones with just the sons and their families or more organised ones with the extended family that include the in-laws and the niece.

I will finish, however, with the meal at the top of the page, shown here from a different perspective. That meal was one of the best that I have had in France as a home-cooked meal. The sardines were freshly bought that day by Graham and his friend Reg - shown below on the left, and alas both now gone. The meal below is on the same table but is lunch on a different occasion. There was no view other than the lovely garden of the beautiful house created from an old farm by the lovely Olivier and his wife. It is just outside Narbonne and is stunning. I think I would like my last meal to be something like this one with the sardines - but larger perhaps so that the family and other dear friends can be included too. That poor condemned man would not only not have the food he wanted probably, or at least not cooked well, but he would also be eating it alone with death a certainty.

So my last meal? Salade de tomates, steak and chips with French cooked green beans - I didn't mention them - we almost lived on them in Meung-sur-Loire in my teenage years. The best possible bread and the best possible Caerphilly cheese with dessert of a strawberry soufflé. All washed down with a bottle of Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc.


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