Food and Drink: Make mine the deep-fried locusts

LATELY I was reading, in that desultory summer way, an article that had absolutely nothing to do with food but just dropped in, for good measure, the name of some savant of the past who had set out to eat at least one of everything. As I cannot remember where I read it, I cannot tell you his name, but I thought the notion a quaint one. I assume in his quest for completeness, besides haunch of marmoset he also sampled bees, leeches (bats were mentioned), pine bark and not a few poisons (nightshade, certain mushrooms). The wonder is, he survived.

More recently, in our own pages, there appeared a sympathetic obituary of Paul Corcellet by the estimable Paul Levy. Corcellet, to remind readers foolish enough not to make a deep study of the obituary pages, was a grocer of note and a cook of remarkable curiosity. The photograph accompanying the article shows him, knife in hand, slicing up a medallion of python, and he is likewise reputed to have served up chocolate-coated termites, rattlesnake meat (relatively common in the American south-west, as is armadillo - excellent) and cocktail sticks bearing cubes of elephant trunk.

These two men are fine examples of dedicated omnivores and should not be treated as simply exotic or slightly barmy. One man's delight is another man's 'yukh'. Freshly trepanned monkey brains are listed (despite the fact that no one has been known to have eaten one) as a Chinese speciality. Legend or fact? One would be foolish to dismiss the possibility that this once was a dish relished by those who could afford it; or by those who lived where monkeys were the only game readily available. In my view, there is almost nothing so exotic that someone will not have tried eating it. Were this not so, how would we know that certain mushrooms are poisonous, or that it would be unwise to go to work in the morning on a nice, hot cup of curare?

Take termites, locusts, crickets, grasshoppers. All are as substantial as shrimps; nay, even as prawns. They are also plentiful and not noxious. Except in large quantities, they will not fill you up, but deep-fried, crisp and crunchy, blended with chilli peppers, do they not make an acceptable appetiser? I have eaten far weirder and nastier things, and have no prejudices about omnivorousness. This does not mean I am eager to chew on blubber, revert to the gelatinous tapioca of my childhood or face a daily diet of tofu.

The world's edibles are widely dispersed. In no country was I ever so forced to experiment with new foods as in Brazil, where the bar around the corner, in which I would take my very early morning cafezinho, served more fruit juices than I had ever conceived possible: fruits pulpy, fruits fibrous, fruits fleshy, fruits slimy, fruits sweet and fruits sour, fruits so protected by misshapened husks you did not know how to approach them. To the locals, they were common.

When Corcellet (as he claims) introduced avocados (and later kiwi fruit) to Paris, they were as unknown as the tomato or potato when they first arrived on our shores, as exotic as sweetcorn still is to the French or Italians. I have watched timid folk from America's Midwest become big producers, and Hollywood executives carefully study an artichoke on their plate and wonder how to eat it. Not two weeks ago I served a dish of pureed sorrel (to accompany baked pigeon) to two couples who had travelled the world but never eaten that leaf.

The truth is, we carry our habits and our timidities about new foods with us, which is a sorry state of things. I generally do not like to eat in restaurants (nine times out of 10, one eats far better at home), but I do have a rule about eating out: I order only what I do not often eat at home. So it is that, faced with a menu in a language I do not read, I tend to point my finger at the most unrecognisable item, on the basis that experiments in omnivorousness are at least going to teach me something.

This is far from the self-appointed tasks of my 18th-century savant, or even Corcellet. These men's curiosity was partly scientific. They wished to extend the range of taste. They were taxonomical in nature. I merely acquiesce to the world's enormous variety. Nor am I ashamed of ignorance. I recall sitting in the now-disappeared but quite wonderful seafood restaurant adjacent to the old Fronton in Madrid, and having a choir of garrulous waiters about me explaining the hows and wherefores of eating pesebres, or sea- barnacles, which are utterly delicious. Someone had to tell the first diner how to get into a lobster.

I admire my savant's and Corcellet's curiosity, and I do not admire the attitude displayed by my Australian summer house-sitter in Boston, whose job it is to look after our herb garden. When shown the two bushy basil plants and pointed in the direction of the tarragon, the thyme or the orange mint, he looked extremely dubious. When I returned briefly, the plants had survived, but the refrigerator was filled with bottled salad dressings, the refrigerator with half-empty pizza boxes.

He said he supposed he ate what he knew best. Reprehensible] He who does not try new things is condemned to monotony. So you know Jilly Cooper and like her books, but would you read only one book of hers over and over again? I would be delighted to hear from readers what they most feared to eat but found good.