It wouldn’t take much to make me a restauranteur. If I just had the money, the talent, the knowledge, the vision, the staying power and the business brain, I’d be off. I reckon what Britain lacks, Jamie, are the Greek establishments known as ψησταριές (psistaries) and μεζεδοπωλεία (mezedopoleia). The former serve grilled meats, bread, salad, beer and wine, the latter small dishes of mezedes: little salads, savoury pastries, dips and cleverly contrived piquant dishes of meat and fish, to be eaten with bread and sloshed down with beer, wine or ouzo. Every Greek town has them, and they are usually cheap, cheerful and convivial. The food is simple, honest, predictable and not terribly imaginative, but it is tasty and healthy and so priced, at least until recently, as to make dining out a weekly possibility – more, if you are single and reasonably well paid, as I was.
Last week I went with my sister and her bloke (my partner-in-law?) to a pub in their Suffolk village that had served them some choice eats in the last few weeks. It was not especially cheap, but it was nice to know that such an establishment existed within walking distance. I arrived on an icy night after six hours on the train, lugging a suitcase the size of a sarcophagus, from which the fucking wheels had fallen off. I was ready for a log fire, a vat of wine and lots of herby, garlic-perfumed scran. First, there was no log fire. There were candles on the tables, but none was lit. There was no herby, garlicky perfume in the air, and the air was arctic. Other people sat at other tables, guffawing inanely in the way people at other tables always do. Obviously the owner was feeling the pinch, and making no secret of it.
We decided the lack of a fire and candles on the coldest night of 2008 did not bode well, but we missed another obvious clue to the decline of the place. I ordered chicken pâté, which was delicious, and then a fish stew the waitress referred to as ‘booley-base’. It was spelled wrong on the menu as well. The booley-base turned out to be plasticky crustaceans in thin watery stock, like kiddie toys left floating in the bath. I mean, if the staff cannot spell or pronounce an item on their menu, it does not suggest great familiarity with it. So is it my fault for ordering it or theirs for offering it?
On the next table sat an elderly couple and the woman’s father. She was interpreting the menu to the old gentleman. ‘It’s called Perkhan’ she said. ‘Perkhan, look, here.’ I thought I’d missed something, maybe some Persian dish that would have been much more satisfying than the booley-base. But she was talking about the pecan pie on the dessert menu.
Doesn’t this sound snotty… You can’t think about food in England without moaning about how badly fed we are unless we pay trans-nasally, how little we care about this most wonderful of life’s consolations and how we manage to make food yet another aspect of class, rather than a daily sensual pleasure that everybody is entitled to. There are posh, snobby restaurants in Greece of course, but many more where people of all classes are to be found eating the same stuff. There’s a national cooking style that everyone can trust, not an insecure stealing and muddling of other people’s styles such as we have to put up with in the English provinces.
Kaissariani, Athens. Almost every Saturday evening in winter, I went to a taverna there with a friend. I usually had pork tenderloin and she almost always had grilled liver. The restaurant advertised ‘the best retsina in the Balkans’ and the stuff was… sui generis. It came out of huge barrels where it had been stewing for God knows how long. Forget your Semillons, Pinot Grigios and Merlots. This looked sometimes like dry sherry, sometimes like Benylin. Sniff it and you got Zal, Tio Pepe, Kleenopine and Mr Sheen. Taste it and there was varnish, gob-stoppers and liquorice with various ‘flu remedies on the finish. You’d be amazed how morish it was. You drank this with your grilled meat and various salads and tsatsiki, and departed full, pissed, not much worse off financially, and digesting fibre that would go through your alimentary canal like a flock of pigeons. This is my vision for the gastronomic future, Britain, although we can do far better on the wine.