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Eating: Cold war

WHEN I was 15, the headmaster called the entire school to assembly to make a special announcement. In a measured and serious tone he informed us that he had spotted a rat within the school grounds.

"When you see one rat, you know there are going to be dozens of rats," he thundered, as if he was on the deck of a schooner instead of in a bare school yard. "When you see two, then there are probably hundreds of rats." He went on, filling us all with his fear and loathing, but mainly his fear. We all went back to our classes, confused, and somewhat terrified.

But I now know how he felt, and why he had to warn the world, no matter what the cost. Because that is how I feel about the between-course sorbet. They were everywhere in the Eighties, when you least expected and wanted them. They would come totally without warning; with no menu listings, and no staff cautions. Even today, you are never entirely safe.

So there you are, having just polished off a perfectly nice crab ravioli with tomato, sage and lemon olive oil, enjoying the last of your Domaine Laroche Petit Chablis '96 while looking forward to your salt-crusted squab with Indian spiced potatoes, shallot and sherry stock, when it lands in front of you.

"The sorbet tonight" (or worse, "the palate-refresher") "is Champagne" (or lemon verbena, or vodka, basil and tomato or crushed angel's wings), intones the waiter, then scampers before you can say "melt in hell". Politely you sigh, and pick up your dinky, stupid little spoon. It is as if someone has just thrown an entire bucket of ice all over the table.

A sorbet doesn't refresh the palate, it freezes it, destroying any lingering flavours and aromas that may still be wafting around from the entree. It also kills the wine you were enjoying so much, suddenly leaving it with an alluring hint of aged aluminium on the back palate.

All that mellowing of mood and setting up of appetite suddenly counts for nothing, as the carefully structured timing and balance and magic of the meal is reduced to that of scoffing a sandwich in the car. You try re-starting a warm, sexy pre-sorbet conversation, when you are sitting there with a lump of ice in your mouth. You're history. If you must refresh your palate (whatever that may mean) then I suggest you gargle with the last few drops of Petit Chablis. It is so much more romantic.

And don't try to tell me that chefs love to offer sorbets as cryonic incarnations of their creativity. Let's not forget they happen to make money out of them. Not bad money either. Think about it - a little left- over Champagne and some sugar syrup churned together by the fourth-removed apprentice, and there you have it; two quid in the pocket for every tablespoon of the stuff.

They have also very neatly begged a bit more time in the kitchen, pacing the bulk of the high-pressure main courses until later in the evening. In other words, dragging out your meal.

That's the other thing I hate about them. If I go out for a one-, two- or three-course meal, then that's what I want. I don't want huge, hearty appetisers that ruin my entree, and intra-course icy-poles that ruin my main course, and pre-dessert desserts that ruin my dessert. I want what I have come for, in the time I have allotted for it. Rather than a palate refresher, I suggest the sorbet be listed as a profit refresher, or a pace enhancer.

But it's all in the timing. Give me a delicate, fresh fruit sorbet at the end of the meal, and I'm a puppy. Scoop me a scoop of gelato or sorbetto flavoured with pomegranate, mint or pistachio, and stroll with me along the beachfront promenade of a southern Italian seaside village, and life is beautiful. Surprise me with icy glasses of coffee granita after fish and chips on the sand, and I'm yours forever.

Perhaps when the Florentines started putting freshly fallen snow into their wine glasses as a favourite dinner party trick a few hundred years ago, it was all terribly exciting. These days, however, the sorbet should leave us cold.