The white way to recover

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Indy Lifestyle Online

I had been throwing up for three days. All my longed-for dreams of La Grande Bouffe in Lyons were going down the drain. It had taken me years to get there, and many hours spent planning meals in the local bouchons, bistros, and three-star Michelin restaurants. I had entertained visions of buckets of Beaujolais and tables groaning with firemen's aprons (crumbed and grilled tripe), hams cooked in hay and sausages wrapped in brioche.

I had been throwing up for three days. All my longed-for dreams of La Grande Bouffe in Lyons were going down the drain. It had taken me years to get there, and many hours spent planning meals in the local bouchons, bistros, and three-star Michelin restaurants. I had entertained visions of buckets of Beaujolais and tables groaning with firemen's aprons (crumbed and grilled tripe), hams cooked in hay and sausages wrapped in brioche.

To set the tone for this gastronomic odyssey, I kicked things off with a visit to a local eatery that served a particularly fine andouillette, an earthy, foul-smelling, divine-tasting sausage made of pig's intestines. I wined, I dined, I laughed, I caroused. Then, at about 3am, back in bed at my hotel, I writhed, I winced, I convulsed, I groaned. No buckets of Beaujolais and fireman's aprons for me anymore. Just buckets.

Then, miraculously, on the third day, I rose again, struck by an unfamiliar pang. Could it be? Yes, it was! Hunger. I went into the first restaurant I could find, an unassuming lunch-time spot called Guillaume Tell. The menu swam before my eyes. Everything was too rich, too creamy, too this or too that. Then my eyes fixed on the one thing on the menu that I could swallow. Oeuf en gelée.

There it was, a single egg encased in a glistening, savoury jelly. It's not a good thing to do to an egg, really. A week earlier, I would have called it bland, boring and a waste of good eating-time. But my first tentative mouthful was full of flavour, depth and complexity. I missed not a single nuance of the smooth egg white, the lusciousness of the yolk, the hint of tarragon.

There are some foods that you can only fully appreciate when you are in a weakened state. Something happens to your taste buds when you get sick that makes them ultra-sensitive and ultra-receptive to barely-there flavour compounds. Hitherto undetectable flavours loom at you like 3D characters in a pop-up book.It's almost as if the palate returns to a natural childhood state, before it became jaded with sophisticated, spiced, adult fare.

The taste buds can also become quirky and irritable when the host body gets sick. Mine want lemonade, slightly flat and at room temperature. It's not something I would drink, if it were left to me, but they demand it. A higher fever and a soaring pulse, and they put in an order for chicken soup. If they can handle carrots and celery in it, then I know I'm not that ill.

The Italians have a wonderful term for invalid cooking - in bianco, or white cooking - referring to the easily digestible, understated dishes that we instinctively return to whenever we're feeling unwell, unloved, or just unsure. A plain risotto, for instance, or spaghetti with a little butter and cheese. Japan has chawan mushi, a pale, delicate, subtle egg custard. China has poached chicken, and bowls of congee, thick white rice soup. The Ukraine has vareneki, fluffy white hospital-pillows of boiled dough filled with mashed potato. Greece has scented rice pudding. I'm sure the French have more than oeuf en gelée, but I owe my life to that shivery little thing. I have since tried to eat another in an effort to relive that therapeutic moment, only to wind up deciding it was bland, boring and a waste of good eating-time.

Our own culture is rich in white food for invalids. Think mashed potatoes, poached eggs, tapioca, sago pudding, junket, milk jelly. Which reminds me: feel my forehead. Does that seem hotter than normal to you?

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