‘Was everything alright, madam?’ the head waiter asked as we were leaving.
‘Lovely, darling, thank you,’ Loraine said, because she is much nicer to people that I am. And because, as Brits will, we had simply left stuff we thought was crap rather than asking for it to be replaced. No point in complaining after we had paid. But I’m going to anyway, and to the wrong people.
I do a fair bit of moaning about British restaurant and supermarket food, and making unfavourable comparisons between Britain and Greece in these areas. Greece is certainly no gastronomic paradise, but predictable as taverna food usually is, it is at least fresh and simple and honest. What you see is what you get, and the English half of the menus, for squeamish Brits, are often too brutally honest. There was a restaurant in Piraeus that offered ‘spleen bowels’, which was exactly what it said. I don’t imagine they got many British tourists in there. (I remember I once bought a spleen for my pernickety cat. It was a large, flat, greyish affair which you were supposed to boil. I boiled it for ages. I pricked it with a knife and it bled like a shaving nick. It stank of abattoirs and dissections and dead things. The cat wouldn’t touch it and I don’t blame him.) Other English from Greek menus, while I’m at it: ‘head cheese’ is a direct translation of ‘kefalotyri’. It is delicious served fried, but for a Brit the mistranslation might possibly call to mind foreskin cheddar and that’s something of a turn-off. How do you fancy ‘boiled nonsense’? This is in fact steamed courgettes, and misuse of a pocket dictionary.
In provincial Indian restaurants in Britain you get the impression that every evening they must brew up a vat each of red, yellow and brown gloop, then chuck in odds and sods of this and that and serve them under a variety of aliases. Last night I had a dhansak, here red gloop with some lentils and a tinned pineapple ring. Loraine had a lamb something or other, lumps of chewy meat rolled in brown gloop and grilled. She had me try some. I imagine a roughly diced, grilled loofah would taste very similar. Years ago I shared a house with a Pakistani bloke who was doing a PhD. He went with friends to the ‘Curry House’ in Cambridge (which is no more) and asked the waiter, in Urdu, if the food was good or merely trash for whiteys. The waiter assured him of its quality, so Bobby persisted: the food here, was it good stuff, or just spiced-up carbs for slooed lager louts? ‘Yeah, OK,’ said the waiter, ‘it’s trash for whiteys’. I think this is still the case with many restaurants where the clientele is predominantly non-Asian. The place last night was stylish of décor but the food was just… trash for whiteys, like the pissed-up hen party at the adjacent table. (Who? Me, a snob?) I don’t imagine any of the Asian lads who serve there is used to eating this sort of slop at home.
Greek taverna food is fresh and simple and honest, I said. Well, usually. I once worked for ten days on Crete, doing oral tests for the British Council. In the evenings our small group of examiners would go out to eat. In Rethymnon, handsome young waiters in immaculate white shirts and pressed black trousers stood at the gates of outdoor tavernas to lure you in. ‘Good evening. Engliss? Deutss? Come in!’ If we accepted, they would show us to our table and hand out menus, and their ingratiating manner would change immediately when we started asking about the food in Greek. ‘Don’t order the moussaka, it’s yesterday’s. The koukouvaya [meaning ‘owl’, rusk re-hydrated with olive oil and chopped tomato] is lousy, been sitting there ages. The barrelled wine is iffy, go for a bottle.’ At one place, a member of our party offered to peel the potatoes herself if the owner would agree not to serve us frozen chips. We learned that the staff of local eateries divided food into two categories: ‘Ε’ for ‘Elliniko’, meaning Greek, and ‘Ξ’ (ksou) for ‘Xeno’, meaning foreign. Those foreigners in the know specify ‘a moussaka E’ if they want something ‘tis prokopis’, meaning ‘of acceptable standard’. Those foreigners not so fortunate eat sub-standard stuff, which they often do not recognise as sub-standard because its novelty value overrides their critical faculties. The perceived quality of food is, after all, often dependent on suggestion, and in an open-air taverna by the Aegean on a balmy evening you can easily overlook and forgive all sorts of rip-offs. Given the right location, environment and piquant dipping sauce, you could probably make a mint selling extortionately priced Tesco fish fingers as an appetiser.
I think for a while I might just live on bread, cheese, olives, fruit and wine, because I am so tired of being ripped off in restaurants here. I’d be happy with a menu that had only four or five starters, main and side dishes, but I’m out of touch, obviously. Quantity trumps quality every time.