FOOD & DRINK / Starve a fever? Not likely

I have been felled by the flu, the plague that renders the throat raw, inflames the mucous membranes, takes the savour out of living, and drives one in true masculine fashion (men are appalling babies about being ill) to moans, to groans and finally to bed. In my house, where no one is ever ill, I get no sympathy. My wife, especially, is never ill. Which simply means that she soldiers on through illnesses which would knock me into a pathetic heap. 'Off to bed then,' she says severely, obviously thinking that for the next day or two I will not eat.

Nonsense. Eating is how I know I am still alive. Ask the nurses of the New England Baptist Hospital, where I had a hip replaced some years ago. Thirty-six hours off the table and, with the connivance of good friends, we and they (the nurses) went through 10 dozen oysters and a case of Moet.

My theory about the flu and food is quite simple: that it is no time for modesty. If you are under attack, counter-attack. True, your palate may be off, your nose stuffed, your throat raw, your knees aching; but oblivion can be at hand. You just have to choose food that will attack your jaded tastebuds, nay, will assault them: the most violent curries, the pepperiest of Thai dishes.

The same is true of wine. Forget the bouquet, get right to the effect, preferably at 13 degrees proof and up. And when you are full and ripe and floating a few inches off the ground (with the help of a bouquet of medicaments), wrap yourself in every warm garment you own, turn up your electric blanket, and go to Bolivia (what this house calls oblivion). You may wake up in wet sheets, but you will feel semi-human. If, that is, you are like me, and immune to any kind of hangover.

I doubt doctors will approve of this method. Doctors do not approve of any remedies that give pleasure. Indeed, doctors are against pleasure of any kind. But doctors have pussy feet; they are prudential; they worry about the long term. As any man who has had the flu will tell you, there is no such thing. There is not even a tomorrow, much less a next week. And we men may be weak in the flesh, and flinch before pain, and think we are going to die from the slightest twinge, imagining the worst from any dysfunction of our bodies, but we are heroic in our acceptance of illness of any kind. Unlike women, we know how to use it for our own benefit: to provide a welcome relief from our routines ('I'm sorry,' says my assistant in a mournful voice, 'but Mr B can't be reached.' Oh, savorous words: I don't have to teach, I don't have to write, I don't have to think.)

As it happens, I have a long acquaintance with sickness and pain - mostly from childhood, a period in which I spent six consecutive years in bed, for the first of them, I am told, daily on the brink of death. My mind meanders; it absorbs; it explores the imaginary. That was when I got into books and leading my life, since my body was clearly useless, in the mind. So that even with something so banal as the flu, I revert. It seems to me that I have stretches of time ahead of me in which real life goes on somewhere else.

As my imagination is at least partly gastronomical, I have had much pleasure catching up on the first three volumes of an admirable journal called Convivium, available four times a year from (the address itself is redolent of the not-quite-real) The Neuadd, Rhayader, Radnorshire LD6 5HH. It is an elegant, sober publication, but full of that sort of arcane information in which the British are truly expert.

I read the book reviews first. Good stuff. There was a reviewer 'disappointed' by a recent 'encyclopaedia' on herbs and spices. He could have called it scandalous, as I would. It has pre-empted a subject about which any number of writers could have contributed more informed knowledge.

But Convivium contains other pleasures, too, including a fascinating piece on cress by John Hargreaves. I had long been planning an article asking: whatever happened to the cresses of my youth, whose peppery flavour, on little wedges of white bread, was one of our greatest delicacies? Now I have some of the answers.

Apart from teatime cress, my early connections with cress are with the Orient, for in those long-gone days one went about country houses, many of which were populated by gentlemen who had retired from service in India. I remember particularly well a watercress curry (made with the more peppery, mature, late summer or winter cress), sweetened by cardamom and turmeric, served on a bed of rice with chopped egg (a variation of that splendid breakfast dish, the kedgeree).

Mr Hargreaves kindly gives a wonderful recipe, original to a lady called Rose Giles, for a great favourite of mine, a watercress soup. Coming across such recipes is more than a reason for subscribing to such 'specialist' magazines rather than the glossy products of the gourmet industry. Here, as everywhere, homely is best.

You need: a large bunch of cress, a carrot and a potato or two, an onion, a few leaves of turnip, celery and so on (whatever is about); a good ham stock; fresh herb stalks (sage, mint, fennel, rosemary, parsley). Chop the vegetables and fry lightly in a little oil for about 5 minutes; add chopped cress and stir over a low heat a bit longer; add stock, seasonings and simmer until vegetables are cooked; remove herb stalks, mash it all up and serve hot.

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