The Weasel

Mrs W marks her birthday by purchasing a truffle at huge expense, but unaccountably the delicacy fails to appear...
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SORRY TO harp on about grub on St Dyspepsia's Day, but at least the following vignette does not concern Christmas. As I remarked last week, Mrs Weasel has just notched up a significant birthday.

By way of celebration, she decided to hold a small brunch. This American invention has long held an almost mystical appeal for my wife. She has never quite forgiven me for spoiling Sunday brunch in a fancy Miami hotel a few years ago, when severe gastric problems prompted my rapid departure before we'd had a single bite. Last Sunday, I managed to avoid an repetition of this mishap by taking stringent efforts not to consume any uncooked Mexican sausage beforehand.

Shopping for this wing-ding commenced in an Italian cornucopia in Soho. After buying a ruinous quantity of prosciutto and a Dolomite-sized chunk of Parmesan, Mrs W's restless eye alighted on a hand-written notice announcing the arrival of a consignment of white truffles. "Now, that would be something different," she announced. The deli went all swimmy before me as Mrs W commenced negotiations over the stratospherically-priced fungi.

The transaction took on an engagingly illicit quality when an assistant produced a box filled with small tissue-wrapped packages. She disinterred a few smallish, gnarled, grey lumps. Though Elizabeth David writes of seeing "white truffles as large as tennis balls" in Turin shops, the examples presented to us looked exactly like well-worn rubber erasers. After being approvingly sniffed by the manager, our selected fungus was put in a tiny tub and surrounded by rice for protection. "Have it on scrambled eggs. Use a small grater," yelled the manager, as we scooted off clutching our 10-quid deal.

On the day of the brunch, our patch of south-east London was transformed into a corner of New York's Upper West Side. I prepared a precarious mound of smoked salmon and cream cheese bagels, while Mrs W began a production line of eggs Benedict, that most quintessentially American of breakfast dishes. There were also potato latkes, hash browns, blini with lumpfish roe, fresh fruit kebabs and a huge bowl of blueberries.

The consumption of this Mount Rushmore of stateside provender was irrigated by vats of Buck's fizz and bloody Mary. It was only when the last of our guests had burped their farewell, that Mrs W suddenly clapped a hand to her forehead: "The truffle! I forgot all about it." Now there's a pity, isn't it?

ODD THINGS are happening at Time. This week, the magazine gained much attention by its somewhat self-contradictory choice of Bill Clinton and Kenneth Starr as joint "men of the year". Bizarre as this schizophrenic split is, it is not nearly as off-the-wall as an opinion expressed in Time the week before.

This appeared in an essay by someone called Rod Usher. Under the cringe- making headline "The Hair of the Dogma", he expounded the proposition that "Tyrants tend to facial hair". In support of his view that "face hair is camouflage, and despots are typically men of disguise", Usher supplied a long list of unpleasant generalissimos who had sported a variety of moustaches: Hitler, Stalin, Franco, Saddam, not to mention our Christmas guest Augusto Pinochet.

Adding the even more barbarous examples of Ho Chi Minh, Lenin and Khomeini, Usher concluded: "the ultimate proof of this theory is Fidel Castro."

By the hairs on my chinny-chin-chin, I mused, the blighter's on to something. I bet you anything you like that the phizogs of Attila the Hun, Tamerlane and Ozymandias were all strangers to the razor. On the side of beardies, Abe Lincoln, WE Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli were all pillars of enlightenment, while the virtually hairless Mussolini might be regarded as the dictator's dictator. But surely the most significant example to disprove Usher's case is still very much with us. The last Tory prime minister but one was the most dogmatic leader we've had since the war, and she had no beard to speak of.


HEAVEN KNOWS, I'm no nit-picker - but when you spot a glaring anachronism in a display mounted by a learned body, there is an obligation to engage in a spot of whistle-blowing. A couple of years ago, I gave a smallish warble after visiting the Geffrye Museum in Dalston, London E2. Now it's time to give a full-breathed blast. Dedicated to English domestic interiors, this excellent institution re-creates the appearance of living-rooms through the centuries in a series of converted almshouses. Each Christmas, the museum decks out its displays with decorations and foodstuffs appropriate to the various periods.

My particular gripe concerns a tableau devoted to the 18th century, which at this time of year is augmented by the aftermath of a Christmas feast, including a number of empty oyster shells. Nothing wrong with oysters being part of an 18th-century meal, of course. As everyone knows, they were a favourite snack of the time. Dr Johnson even bought them for his cat, Hodge. Except that, as I pointed out in an ostreo-historical aside two years ago, the shells on display come from the wrong kind of oysters. They are deep-shelled rock oysters from the Pacific, which would surely have been a bit whiffy by the time they arrived on a London dinner plate. The type eaten by Dr Johnson and his pals was the flat-shelled native oyster.

For the first time in two years, I happened to be passing the Geffrye the other day, so I popped in to see its festive displays. Now I don't want to give the impression that I'm some sort of obsessive nutcase - perish the thought - but I couldn't resist stealing a glance at the 18th- century section. Guess what? The erroneous Pacific oysters were still there. As far as I could tell, they were exactly the same shells as last time. Since the Geffrye is not a million miles from the New Billingsgate Market, it shouldn't be too hard to get hold of a few dozen historically correct shellfish. And if the museum requires any help with consuming the bivalves prior to display, it knows whom to call.


AS IS so often the case, PG Wodehouse was there first. Geoffrey Robinson's role in the Blair government was uncannily reminiscent of Alexander "Oofy" Prosser, official moneyed man of the Drones Club. Though deeply attached to the folding stuff, Oofy could be persuaded to disgorge in the right circles. The following exchange with Bingo Little from Eggs, Beans and Crumpets is one example. "Bingo, old chap, don't I seem to recall hearing you ask for a fiver or something?"

"A tenner."

Oofy shook his head. "It's not enough," he said. "Would you mind if I made it fifty?"

"Not a bit," replied Peter; er, Bingo.