We saw the year in on the streets of Cuenca, high in the Ecuadorean Andes. God knows what we ate that night, but I do remember dancing in the streets and knocking back beakers of hot canelazo, the local hooch warmed through with steaming cinnamon syrup.
I can't say that the food in Ecuador was noticeably good, but it had its moments. Maize, in a multitude of guises, potatoes and rice (often all on the same plate) appeared with monotonous regularity; more interesting were theoka that I bought from an Indian market. These small, pinky-white tubers, related to sorrel, have a unique flavour, like a cross between a superb potato and a cooking apple.
I was convinced that I had found something no one back home knew about. Fat chance. 'Oh yes,' said Joy Larkom, gardening ace, 'I grew some of those last year. I've just been writing about them.' Since then, I've come across numerous other references in print. One day they might even make it into the supermarkets.
Two other Ecuadorean specialities stand out. The first is the strange black concha, a meaty, succulent type of shellfish, utterly delicious as a ceviche, marinated in lime juice, coriander and - believe it or not - tomato ketchup. The other - and this may upset the tender-hearted - was guinea-pig, which, again, I'm afraid, is utterly delicious.
Guinea-pig was the first culinary outrage we indulged in, but not the last. October took us to Gascony, and here we broke the law in one brief and costly mouthful. It is illegal to catch, sell and cook ortolans (buntings), tiny birds that migrate over this region annually. Prohibition has bestowed upon them a cachet of unnatural proportion. Those in the know are prepared to pay about pounds 30 per bird.
You don't just eat them any old how, either. We were given strict tuition. The whole bird goes into the mouth, startlingly hot from the oven. Initially, only the tongue comes into action, pressing the body against the roof of one's mouth, squeezing out the savoury fat. Only then can one start to masticate, very slowly, crunching the brittle bones and making the most of every iota of flavour. At least 15 minutes should elapse before the final morsel is swallowed.
Was it all worth it? Well, they were very nice but hardly sensational. I'm glad - if a trifle shamefaced - that I have tried one once: but I won't be asking to have my name added to the secret list of individuals who make an annual ortolan pilgrimage.
Our stay in Gascony was one of eight trips we made courtesy of Channel 4. We've been filming all around Europe for a series of programmes about traditional foods, many of which are increasingly threatened by the supermarket culture. We interpreted Europe in the widest sense, beginning with a lurching flight up into the Arctic Circle. I'm not much given to cold weather, but I was smitten by the snowy mountains of the Lofoten Islands, half-way up Norway's long, straggling coastline.
On our first night there, we ate boiled cod with cod's liver sauce. Now that may not sound any great shakes, but it was remarkable. Caught early that morning, and exactly cooked, it was firm, juicy, sweet and almost creamy. In this state, it ranks high in fishy perfection, putting to shame what is sold in our fishmongers. Nor does fresh cod's liver bear any resemblance to cod liver oil. It softens and melts down to a wickedly rich, buttery sauce.
By the time we left a week or so later, I'd had enough of cod, even perfect cod. We'd eaten every part - roe, cheeks, throat, stomach, lips and heaven knows what else - boiled, fried, sauced, au gratin, dried, etc. The straw that broke the camel's back was lutefisk. Norwegians love it, but it is not an instantly acquired taste.
Lutefisk is made from a plank of dried cod, first soaked for several days in water, then in a lye solution (water animated with caustic soda), then for a few more days in running water to wash out the caustic soda. Finally, it is boiled. This odd, jellyish concoction, with its terminal blandness, was much enjoyed by our hosts, who look forward to it as a highlight of their Christmas feast. Not what we will be tucking in to tomorrow.
William, who co-presents the series with me, is first and foremost a fish fanatic. He imports fish for a living, and eats fish in preference to all else (though even he found endless cod a little trying). He thought he'd died and gone to heaven when we filmed in Sesimbra, a small port just south of Lisbon. As well as the long, lissome silver streaks of scabbard fish and hake, all glittering and gleaming, there were fish that even he had never seen before, such as the brooding Portuguese shark, as ugly a fish as you'll find. Normally, I'd have been almost as enthusiastic, but by then three months pregnant, I'd developed an aversion to the smell of most cooked fish, particularly sardines, squid and red mullet, a trio that made Portugal distinctly hard going.
Pregancy notwithstanding, there are three seafood dishes that I recall with unadulterated pleasure, all eaten in London: Pierre Koffman's salmon poached in goose fat at Tante Claire, Simon Hopkinson's mussels with oriental spices at Bibendum, and, least glitzy but most unexpected, the raw skate salad at Min Sok Chon, a Korean restaurant in Camden.
Until recently, the salad was hidden away in the Korean-only section of the menu, with no English translation to guide you towards it. Evidently, the owner considered it too outre for the European palate. New owners have put it on the main menu, without condescending to reduce the scalding chilli-heat of the sauce.
The most perfect meal of the television series, to my taste, was one that we didn't film. We had spent two days on the estate of Regaleali, set in the rolling wheatfields of Sicily's interior. It was our last meal there, in the shade of the palm tree in the courtyard. We began with a plate of pasta cooked with broad beans (from the garden), pancetta, and Parmesan, followed by fried calf's liver and a salad (again from the garden), finishing with cherries picked that morning in the orchard. Honest, simple, and unbeatable.
Back on home territory, my own piece de resistance was the triumph of a tarte Tatin made in testing circumstances for Easter lunch. The 'stove' I inherited along with my parents' house in France is little more than a jumped-up camping gas ring with a thin metal box attached, but by some marvellous fluke I managed to turn out the best TT I've ever made, with brilliantly, meltingly caramelised apples, crowning a base of nutty, crisp, buttery pastry, slightly chewy here and there where the caramel had bubbled over.
Some people may get their TT right every time, but I think it's a very tricky pudding to pull off successfully. Did I carefully record my every step? No] And I shall probably never make one as good again.
Over the next few days, I face two major challenges. For the first time in my life - as a cookery writer, I hesitate to admit this - I shall be orchestrating the cooking of the entire Christmas lunch. Before you lose faith in me completely, let me assure you that I have helped in past years, but it was always my mother or my aunt in charge of the kitchen. For the past three Christmases, since my mother died, we've escaped to foreign climes, enjoying the novelty of celebration in strange places. But this year, happily, we have no choice but to stay at home. Our baby, already well travelled before birth, is due on Boxing Day. It'll probably be late, an inherited Grigson trait. But who knows? If it turns up early, I may yet remain a culinary Christmas virgin.
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