Food historian Alan Davidson, 72, was born in Londonderry. A former British Ambassador to Laos, he has written 10 books, many on seafood. After 18 years, he is finally completing The Oxford Companion to Food. He lives with his wife in Chelsea; they have three daughters
PAUL LEVY: In 1978, my agent, Hilary Rubinstein, who was also Alan's agent, negotiated a large fee for me to write a profile of Alan for Quest, a wacky American magazine.
I happened to meet Alan in the car park of St Antony's College, Oxford. He was wearing a black velvet tunic, a medallion and bits of string around his sleeves. I thought the medallion looked very like General Eisenhower, but I was informed that the medallion was of the Chief Buddhist. The tunic was Alan's diplomatic uniform which he'd had adapted, and it was now his winter suit. The string festoons were from a religious ceremony, and Alan explained that it was forbidden to cut them off, so he had to wait until they disintegrated.
With such a compelling subject, my profile more or less wrote itself. As this was the first time I'd been given expenses, it was a wonderful opportunity to introduce him to Raymond Blanc's restaurant, Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons. I was delighted to have him to stay the night because we have an enormous house and, in those days, Penny and I didn't have any children.
Over the next couple of years we got to know each other properly. I'm more interested in the act of eating than Alan is, but even so, I thought we'd make excellent companions on a trip to China in 1980. Alan knows about the botanical detail of what we eat, so we would be two pedants eating many meals. Our group was made up of American nutritionists and anti-pollutionists. What I wanted to do was visit the 10 best restaurants in China, pre-1949, which had now re-opened since the Cultural Revolution. I dragged Alan around to them; and we found that although incredibly grotty, they served surprisingly good food.
When we left the Peking Hotel, I remember Alan looking wistfully at the Chinese medicines in the lobby. Later, in Nanking, Alan confessed that he'd purchased a Chinese tonic. He'd already had a teaspoon which seemed to have done him no end of good - the effect was instant. He showed me the box and from a label written in elementary Latin, I saw that the tonic was Three Penis Wine, which contained deer, seal and dog penis, ginseng and 65 per cent alcohol. As Alan doesn't drink, it was obvious why the tonic had worked so effectively.
The two of us flew on to Northern Thailand, where we'd arranged to have a meal by the Mekong river. We arrived at the huge restaurant and Alan was amazed to see, on the walls, framed photocopies of illustrations from his book, the Seafood of Southeast Asia. When Alan was a diplomat, he spent much of his time researching the giant catfish, named Pa Beuk, which was only found in the Mekong river - and in fact he's the world expert on the subject. As we were shown to a table, we could smell lemongrass and strong chilli fumes emanating from a Mongolian hot pot. Floating in the pot were bits of fish with blueish skin. "My God," Alan suddenly exclaimed, "Pa Beuk. I thought it was extinct." I thought our meal was awful, but Alan seemed transported to heaven.
The only time we came close to falling out was at the end of the tour, in Hong Kong, when Alan confessed that he was longing for an American ice-cream soda; he'd been dreaming about it every time we sat down to eat yet another Chinese meal - while I hadn't stopped rabbiting on about Chinese food. I've never exchanged a true cross word, though, with Alan. He's full of wisdom, and yet somehow innocent. There are times when I find myself dispensing advice, which is an unaccustomed role for me.
As a food and drink writer, Alan has long been my secret weapon. He's someone who's never been able to see the point of real restaurants, claiming you can never get a good meal in one with three Michelin stars. As a food writer he is wonderful, but he is totally academic. The sensual side of eating doesn't interest him - he has an objectivity that foodies lack. He's not a foodie. When we talk about food we're more likely to discuss things like species. I remember once when someone who had written an Indian cookbook needed a type of onion identifying. I got straight on to Alan and he identified it immediately.
We both have the same types of minds, but our appetites are different. It's 16 years since I wrote the profile on him, but I wouldn't change a word. Even then, after only one meeting, I think I captured the soul of the person.
ALAN DAVIDSON: At the age of 50, I quit the Diplomatic Service in order to write about food. In the winter of 1978, I was a recent arrival in Oxford as a visiting Fellow at St Antony's College. Paul and I shared the same agent, who suggested that Paul interview me for an American magazine. We'd never met before, and at the time I didn't have anywhere to stay in Oxford, so Paul suggested that we have dinner, and that I could spend the night with him and his wife Penny. Over the years I've come to know the family well. All four of them are eccentric and nicely dotty. Paul and Penny grow interesting vegetables. Last time he came to visit, he bought some of Penny's special dill pickle so that we could make the Levys' wonderful coleslaw.
We met in the car park of St Antony's, just as I stepped out of my old Bentley. When I mentioned that my daughter was doing postgraduate studies in Oxford, he said, "Bring her to dinner too." Paul took us to eat at Raymond Blanc's restaurant, the Quat' Saisons. Typically, Paul was the person who discovered Raymond Blanc. Although I don't remember what we ate, I recall that it was a very good meal with lots thought-provoking conversation.
I liked Paul's sense of humour combined with a serious amount of knowledge. Like me, Paul had had a complete career change. He'd been an academic at Oxford - a philosopher who'd taken up food writing. He's a very entertaining character, and although not everyone would agree with me, I think his faults are entirely forgivable. When he wrote the Foodie Handbook, I enjoyed the way he made fun of the food establishment.
Once Paul had done his interview it was taken for granted that we'd see each other again. Although he appreciates fine food, Paul's always willing to try bad food and has the ability to appreciate junk food. He's Catholic in his tastes.
Our friendship was cemented in 1980 when we joined a trip to China which had been organised by a group of nutritionists who were going to eat a lot of Chinese food and listen to lectures from Chinese nutritionists. Our trip was closely supervised by government officials but Paul outwitted them, which made me think he really ought to have been our Ambassador in Peking.
We were keen to visit a large publishing company but had been informed that everyone was away on holiday so it would be impossible. Paul wasn't having any of that. On a morning that was scheduled for sightseeing, we announced that we were tired and preferred to take it easy, reading at the hotel. The minute the bus was out of sight, Paul called a taxi and off we sprinted, through Shanghai, in search of the office. The publishing staff, who were obviously not on holiday, were delighted to see us.
We were away over a month, travelling in China, Thailand, San Francisco and New York. Most of the time we shared small bedrooms, which was a revelation to me because, apart from my with wife, I've never shared a room with anyone. I discovered Paul wore interesting night-shirts and was converted to them. Also, in San Francisco, Paul arranged for us to have a meal at the best restaurant, Chez Panisse.
Sharing a room meant I could look into Paul's travelling medicine cabinet. One morning he called me and said rather alarmingly, "Alan, my pulse rate is a little high, I'm going to take a small tranquilliser to tone it down a shade." Shortly afterwards, he popped back into the bedroom, explaining "That was a mistake. Now it's slowed down too much so I'm taking a caffeine tablet to get the balance right." He's very conscious of his health, but he's rather impish about it and not in the least solemn.
The meal which stands out in my memory was the one we had on the plane home from New York. Before we left I said, rather feebly, "I suppose they'll feed us on the flight?" "Yes," said, Paul, "But we're not eating that." He arrived for the journey, laden with delicacies from his favourite New York deli. While everyone else was eating off their humdrum trays, Paul was busy obtaining cutlery and crockery from the stewards. He has a very persuasive way about him. People are usually more than happy to do things for him. !Reuse content