The Devil's Picnic by Taras Grescoe

Why you shouldn't eat M&S poppy-seed biscuits in Singapore
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The Independent Culture

Displaying considerable energy and a varying amount of relish, Canadian journalist Taras Grescoe has chomped his way through a long menu of comestibles banned by governments around the world. Items on this gastronomic index include Norwegian poteen, Burgundian époisses (a cheese that's banned in the US), Cuban cigars (likewise), Spanish beef testicles, criadillas (likewise), Swiss absinthe, Bolivian coca leaves and the unlikely demonic snack of Marks & Spencer's savoury biscuits - banned in Singapore for their poppy-seed topping.

The book is packed with fascinating detail, both about the weird ways of legislators and the ingenuity of humanity in circumventing their interdicts. In Norway, where a bottle of Smirnoff costs US$50, supermarkets sell "suspiciously capacious drums of sugar and bags of yeast" and "airplane-sized bottles labelled Scotch Whiskey, Ouzo and Strand's English Dry Gin". These do not contain alcohol but are flavourings for moonshine. Grescoe notes the flipside of Norwegian puritanism. In 2001, "338 people died of drug overdoses, making Norway the drug death capital of Europe".

In the chapter on coca, he reveals the sole exception to a 1962 UN convention banning cocaine is when the leaves are used as a flavouring agent. This loophole "allows Coca-Cola to import 175,000 kilograms of the highest-quality South American coca every year".

Unfortunately, Grescoe appears to have overdosed on a legal, but dangerous intoxicant - the works of Hunter S Thompson. His overheated prose betrays the effects of too much gonzo. He describes Spanish goose neck barnacles as looking like "the phalluses of an alien in some low-budget, sci-fi-themed porn film". Lamb chitterlings resemble "the spidery-knuckled fingers of some malevolent alien". He claims that the notorious Japanese delicacy of puffer fish kills "up to 100 people per year" when improperly prepared. In fact, the number of fatalities was six in 2002 and three in 2003.

Grescoe cuts a swathe through Singapore as he reads porn, nibbles M&S biscuits and pours Lucozade on the floor of the subway. But he is not quite the wild man he appears. During his hunt for Spanish beef testicles, our hero reveals that "for the last 10 years I've limited my flesh intake to the occasional fish or seafood meal". This possibly explains his reaction when, after enjoying 10 criadillas, he discovered they came from pigs rather than bulls: "I suddenly felt quite ill."

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