The four most overrated things in life are Champagne, lobster, anal sex and picnics.
I can’t find the original source for this but I’ve added a link at the end to a wonderful portrait of Christopher Hitchens from the New Yorker. Mr Hitchens was often controversial, always seemed to know what he thought about any important subject, had read everything and remembered it all, too. He was great friends with great writers – Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwen, Martin Amis – the only blond I’ve ever truly loved. Mr Hitchens could turn a phrase. Still, Siberia mostly concerns itself with matters of the palette, so I decided to test his assertion about the overestimation of things that many people hold in high regard.
• Champagne gives me heartburn. Doesn’t matter if it’s cheap or £96 a bottle, it burns. I don’t care if I never drink Champagne again. In the lunatic 1980s we all stood in champagne bars making a lot of noise wearing worse clothes than we did when we stood in woody pubs drinking real ale in the 1970s. As for cava, it tastes like a heart attack. English monks discovered the method years before Dom Perignon, but English Champenois always tastes rough to me. Now it looks like we’ve seen sense and Prosecco is the celebratory booze for Britain. It’s piled high in Aldis and Lidls across the country. It’s soft and easy, mellifluous, even.
Two of the great food memories of my life involve Prosecco. None of my great food memories involve Champagne. The first is of sitting at a table in the Campo de Fiori, in Rome, on a wintry evening, 7pm, listening to people flirting, smiling at the street jugglers, kept warm by the outdoor heaters, cold glass of Prosecco in front of me. Oh my word. The other was sitting on the balcony at my smart hotel in Naples, halfway up the hill. I’d bought half a kilo of cherries and a bottle of Prosecco and contemplated the view. The view included Vesuvius and the isle of Capri. Oh my other word.
• Lobster. It’s not true to say I’ve never eaten lobster but the one time I did was so long ago I can remember little about it. I was twenty-one, still at college, and on a date with a man named Paul, who was lovely. He was only a few years older than me. He had a moustache and wore round glasses and had beautiful, sloe eyes. He built harpsichords from kits and painted religious pictures badly in the style of the Pre-Raphaelites. He was a technician at a tv company and earned a fortune. He took me to Fredericks* in Islington and ordered lobster thermidor. If his aim was to impress he succeeded. I remember the evening and how thrilling it was to be on a date with handsome, clever, lovely Paul at a smart restaurant. I can remember the sight of the crustacean, cut in half lengthways, it’s antenna stiff and sculptural. I remember it arriving and I remember being happy and saying how much I’d liked it, but I don’t remember eating it. I don’t think restaurants in London serve it anymore, even ironically. Sometimes, the worst thing about London is the irony. You may find it, without irony, on the north-east coast of the US. Should I tell you that Paul broke my heart? Well, he did. He died before the end of the eighties, which broke my heart again. Oh, it makes me weep, my lost generation.
I’m slightly wary of all seafood. I’m Jewish and, although we weren’t strictly kosher, I’d never even seen a prawn in real life before I was twenty. And in the seventies everyone except me ate scampi in a basket. It’s not much of an excuse as I’m eager for bacon, which I also didn’t eat for the first twenty years of my life. It was all hypocrisy, of course, on my family’s part. We’d happily eat in non-kosher restaurants and we never obeyed any other rules of kashrut. Milk after meat was almost a rule. So we were kosher-ish and a vestige of that is that I’m wary of seafood.**
I often look at a prawn and am put off by its closeness to the insect kingdom. But lobster is fashionable: Waitrose has started selling Canadian lobster tails, cleaned and ready to cook. It is being sold for lunch from vans around Liverpool Street. Time, I think, to go to Burger and Lobster.
It’s big and dark inside. I think it was an All Bar One a few years ago. There’s an American retro-type thing going on. Rock and roll is playing. I sit at the counter, which is my favourite place to sit. There were a lot of Japanese people there, disproportionate to the numbers of Japanese people I imagine there are in London, either living or visiting. The friendly waiter, James, knew I wanted to take photos and brought a live lobster for me to look at. Pretty, it wasn’t. In a couple of minutes it warmed up and started to make a break for it. Maybe it didn’t know how far from the sea we were. Another waiter unlocked a door to show me the tanks where doomed lobsters live.
The menu was short and delivered by mouth; lobster, lobster roll or a burger, each £20. I ordered the roll and an iced watermelon tea. (Future historians! In the Summer of 2015 the two things Londoners were most likely to put in their mouths were watermelon and vapes). It arrived quickly. There was a small sauce-boat filled with too garlicky butter sauce, a miniature ice bucket filled with nicely salty, hot, thin-cut chips, a tiny salad and the lobster roll. The waiter had placed a squeezy bottle of Hellman’s and another of Heinz in front of me. The roll wasn’t a roll it was a thick slice of toasted brioche with a pocket cut into it. I don’t much like when restaurants call things by names they aren’t and I don’t much like the briocheification of mass-produced food. Maybe not every day, but life is sweet enough. I took a bite, naked, for my first taste of lobster in thirty-five years. It was nice. Prawn-y, but dryer than that. You’d know it was a prawn’s relative. I tried it with butter sauce, with mayo and with ketchup. I tried it with combinations of all three of those and then it was gone, as quickly as it had arrived. I left feeling over-carbed.
I didn’t dislike Burger and Lobster at all. It would be a great place for an office group or for an adventurous thirteen year old’s birthday. The bill was over £24 including service. I’ve told you everything I ate there. It was nice but I wasn’t overwhelmed. Lobster is overrated by a good £10, I’d say.
• Anal sex. Underrated, if anything.
• Picnics. Nigella doesn’t like them and that should settle it but here’s my two penny’orth. If you lived upstairs in Downton Abbey and one day, while out on a peasant shoot, Carswell, with a staff of twenty, set the table in the summer-house for lunch, it might be different. It’s November and Thomas has lit enough braziers to keep the chill off. Besides, your peasant-shooting jacket is lined with ermine and your underwear with mink. Carswell takes slices from the enormous game pie that took Daisy all night to make and hands them to you and your fellow shooters on Sèvres plates while draping an alpaca blanket over your aristocratic knees. Joseph pours you a glass of fine claret and conversation is better than at the Algonquin. Then I’d like a picnic. But sitting on the hard ground, or worse! soft ground, never getting comfortable, always scratching at something, tearing the plastic wrapping from a scotch egg bought at the garage, sticky from the warm champagne that sprayed you when you opened it, children shrieking in your ear for more something, anything… STOP!!! That’s how picnics are usually and I agree with Mr Hitchens on this matter. Picnics are horrible.
Maybe all luxury foods are overrated. Maybe all luxury is. I should probably put that ‘luxury’ in inverted commas, ‘luxury’. What is more luxurious than a ripe peach on a hot day in July? Still, if I could eat a lobster roll and drink champagne, outdoors, on a tartan blanket, while enjoying anal sex… nope, still not persuaded.
* Fredericks is still open for business after nearly fifty years. There’s a lovely room at the back that is filled with light. It is an excellent place to take your parents for lunch.
** When I was in Israel in my teens it was quite rare to see unkosher food. If you wanted pork you had to know your butcher very well indeed and whisper white meat to him to get some. But when I was there last year every restaurant served calamari, every plate had a garnish of prawns.