Teach them to eat the world
Insects, brains, 'freedom fries' - food can prove just too foreign for kids. Adrian Mourby has a solution in a bottle...
Sunday 11 December 2005
As a child I never travelled abroad. My father had been fortunate enough to miss the D-Day landings and I think he didn't want to push his luck by crossing the Channel a second time. Confined to Aberystwyth for 18 years of rain-soaked family holidays, I was determined my children would travel as soon as they were on our passports. Consequently, as a family we've taken tea in Sinai, eaten grits on the Florida panhandle, and moose- burgers in Finland. It would be nice to think that this exposure to international cuisine has made my three true citizens of the world. But, in fact, food is still the single biggest headache.
The girls are not too bad, although it is not easy to take a vegetarian around carnivorous middle Europe. After a week in Hungary, existing on nothing but side-order salads and the occasional omelette, my eldest spotted "marrow" on the menu and duly ordered it. What arrived was bone marrow - complete with bone. Exit daughter, rapidly, with handkerchief stuffed in mouth.
Food can be such an issue abroad that I've been known to sigh with relief when we've spotted a bright yellow "M" on the way in from the airport. If all else fails there'll be fast food and an unbreakable toy available there. But travelling abroad is not about seeking out home comforts as soon as you land. I have eaten wonderfully on the road: Macedonian veal overlooking Sofia, mixed mezze on the Bosphorus, and genuine unagi in front of a Japanese temple. I'm damned if I'm going to order chips with everything just because this time the kids have come along. In any case no one does English chips abroad. It's all these stick-insect American French fries (except in Texas where we actually found "Freedom fries").
But keeping your family well fed is essential. In my experience, so long as they are enjoying what they eat, and the fizzy drink comes in a can with red-and-white lettering, children are less likely to get freaked by street signs in Cyrillic, bizarre insects the size of hamsters and the fact that there's no Simpsons on the hotel TV.
Over the years I've worked on various techniques for making sure that they enjoy "foreign muck", which, as every child knows, is what you're obliged to eat once you leave the confines of your hotel and its pizza parlour.
First try to find food that they actually like in Britain. This ought to be easy given that our youngsters exist on a diet of kebabs, pizza and tandoori. Nevertheless, it has proved problematic at times. In Bulgaria our kebabs came in a pot and no one in Agra had heard of balti (which was invented in Birmingham). Even in America food is deceptive. At breakfast in Apalachicola we were offered "biscuits" which turned out to be scones and "pancakes" that were half an inch thick.
Second, when eating with your children don't let it be too obvious what you yourself are munching on. I'm thinking of my daughters' reaction to the deep-fried tentacles of baby octopus, or the coda di rospo, an Italian dish that seeks to maximise the sheer ugliness of monkfish. And not forgetting the lamb's brains I had in France which looked exactly like four small brains on a plate. Best send the kids to bed first.
Third, always carry a small bottle of tomato ketchup. I learnt this on the Cayman Islands many years ago. Despite the luxury of our surroundings, all the food was flown in frozen and tasted of nothing. My son, John, was getting fractious until the maître d' found a miniature bottle of ketchup and placed it on our table. I now keep it topped up and it travels with us everywhere. You never know when it might prevent a nasty incident between boy and bistro.
Finally, I long ago memorised the scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom when Kate Capshaw is freaking out at the cuisine in a poor Indian village. "You're insulting them," says Harrison Ford from behind a forced smile. "And embarrassing me." With John that has always worked, so far. When we sat under a rock in the Sinai Desert with Sheikh Hamid, and the gap-toothed headman asked us to take tea with him, I could feel my boy tense.
"I'm not eating iced monkey brains," he muttered.
After quoting Indiana under my breath a few times, I settled John down cross-legged on the carpet, and we drank glasses of extremely sweet tea followed by some bread that the sheikh baked himself in the coals in front of us.
"Dad, we forgot the ketchup!"
"Shut up," I hissed. "And if you're very good, next year I'll take you to Aberystwyth."
Our top food shopping
For a gentle introduction to foreign fare, take the children to the Lille Christmas market www.lilletourism.com/uk, the largest of its kind in northern France. They'll be so dazzled by the twinkling lights and colourful decorations that you'll get few complaints about incorporating a bit of festive food-shopping along the way. As well as stocking up on traditional French delicacies, explore the quaint chalet-style stalls around the Place Rihour. Or there's ice skating, carol singing and lantern processions to enjoy. Eurostar (08705 186 186; eurostar.com) will whisk you away to the French city from £55 per adult and £44 per child.
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