WHEN I WAS a fat kid in the late 1950s, I was fascinated by the stuff astronauts ate while in space: three-course beef dinners with soup, Yorkshire pudding and a rhubarb crumble packed into a toothpaste type tube always seemed an ideal way to cram in a huge meal in as little time as possible. I was reminded of those meals when I saw on the news the substance with which NGOs have been feeding famine victims in Niger - a high-protein paste called "Plumpy Nut". Boy, I'd really like to get my hands on a few cartons of that!

I'm also quite partial to imitation meat. If you've had a meal of Linda McCartney's Deep Dish Country Pies, I always think after dinner you can put up a mental sign saying: "No animals were harmed in the making of this meal."

In London there's a string of Chinese, vegetarian, all-you-can-eat restaurants thatcater to the counterfeit meat aficionado. They specialise in a type of Buddhist cuisine in which artificial flesh is fashioned out of tofu, and you can have as much mock curried mince as you like for £5.

There's one near me, in Clerkenwell, that I generally drive to about once a week. The young Chinese staff seem to have little English but several of them have shown great interest in my car; partly it is the make - they have never heard of Alfa Romeo or, indeed, judging by their puzzled response, Italy.

But more than that, it is the colour of my car that attracts them: my 166 is painted in what's called Nuvola Blue, a deleted option, in which a dusting of the mineral mica is added to the paint, giving the surface of the car a coppery sheen which changes depending on how the light catches it.

One time, I turned up in a boring Citroën C5 estate which I was reviewing and explained to one of the waitresses who asked where my usual ride was that I also wrote about and reviewed cars for a newspaper, making what I thought was the universal wiggly hand gesture that indicates the process of writing.

I had clearly not been understood, because the next time I visited, another waitress asked if I could explain all about my business of "renting" cars. I suppose if you think about it the hand gesture for writing in a Chinese culture would be some kind of calligraphy mime involving brush-and-paint-pot gestures but I'm not up to that.

It also turned out that the concept of writing about cars, reviewing them and so on, is alien to Chinese culture. According to the staff, there are no car magazines in their country and the only writing about cars is in advertising, so I guess it's no surprise that they were confused about what I do.

In looking at what I've just written, I suddenly realise why the guy who won me last year in The Independent charity auction has not picked up his prize. Somebody paid, I think it was £1,200, for the privilege of going on a test drive with me and having lunch.

I know that the woman who won lunch with my friend Tracey MacLeod (food critic of our Saturday edition) got taken to the Restaurante El Bulli, which is just outside Barcelona.

Perhaps whoever won me was initially expecting something similar, and yet if he's been reading columns such as this over the intervening months, it has slowly dawned on him that, rather than taking a trip to an opulent haute-cuisine destination on the Costa Brava in a Lamborghini Gallardo or suchlike, he is more liable to be going down to the Chinese veg "all-you-can-eat for a fiver" in a seven-year-old Alfa 166 with a dodgy paint job; or if he's really unlucky, a ride in a Citroën C5 estate and a tube of Plumpy Nut for his dinner!

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