'Who, me?' she asked. She obviously hadn't been congratulated on anything recently. I said nothing, but prepared to listen with relish. Accompanying my friend Barlow on one of his unpredictable, free-fall conversations is the nearest I shall ever get to bungee-jumping.
'Yes - I'd like to congratulate you on the superior quality of the horseradish sauce.'
The waitress's face cleared. She had obviously been expecting a complaint. Instead, all she had to deal with was a madman.
At the time of this exchange we were sitting together at dinner in London in one of the many Halls or Temples or Livery Companies littering those postal districts that used to begin with EC - and may still do for all I know. It was during a lull in the main course that he made his strike.
'I have to say that this horseradish sauce is as good as any I have ever tasted - and I speak as a man who grows his own horseradish and makes his own sauce from it.'
The waitress had vanished by this time, but the attention of all his neighbours had been caught by Barlow's speech, which, of course, was the intention. (Barlow later confided to me that if you want to make something known at a meal, you tell the waiter loudly, not the guests. Furthermore, if you want to impress the guests with your culinary knowledge, you draw attention to the smallest item on the menu, not the largest.)
'Do your own horseradish do you, old boy?' someone asked, and my friend Barlow was away. I had not heard his lecture on growing horseradish before. It was full of arcane details of mulching, digging, scraping and wearing strong gloves to withstand the heat of the root.
'Does horseradish have hot roots?' someone asked.
'Good Lord, yes,' said Barlow. 'There are many spices hot enough to irritate the skin, as you'll know if you have ever handled hot little fresh chillies.'
'Grow your own chillies, old boy?' asked a voice. Barlow ignored it.
'That's why I always wear gloves when I am making a Bloody Mary. No fun making a perfect Bloody Mary if you've got fingers itching like mad from the horseradish.'
'You don't put put horseradish in Bloody Marys, do you?'
'A really good Bloody Mary is no good without a soupcon of horseradish sprinkled in,' my friend Barlow said firmly. 'Ideally, a Bloody Mary should have 27 ingredients . . .'
And he was away on his Bloody Mary lecture. This I had heard before, but the last time it had only had 24 ingredients. Now he had added horseradish and two others. I think the dash of sherry was new as well.
'. . . and the celery stick is very important,' he concluded. 'It should be so near to the shape of a tube that you could suck the drink up through it.'
'Grow your own celery, do you?' we all asked. Barlow ignored us.
'But the best way to do it is to bore a hole right down through the celery.'
I am afraid that one or two people guffawed at this. He quelled them with a glance.
'You may mock if you like, but I am currently working on the frontier of the last unexplored area of haute cuisine: stuffed vegetables.'
We all leant forward.
'Everything else has been stuffed. Meat, fish, fruit. But I have worked out that if you core a carrot, or a swede, or a parsnip, and then stuff it with other food, you obtain something quite new in cooking. Imagine stuffing, say, parsnips with baby carrots. Not only would the taste combination be quite novel, but you would get the most wonderful patterns as you cut the parsnip into little multicoloured discs on the plate. But my research is not yet complete . . .'
The conversation grew more general at this point, as my friend Barlow allowed other people into it. But I thought of him again the other night when I woke up with a start in front of the television to find myself watching a late-night programme on Chinese cookery.
'And when the carrot has been stuffed with the fish mixture,' said the voice, 'you get a wonderful pattern as you cut across it. It is a visual delight known only to the top Chinese chefs.'
I suppose I shall have to break the news to my friend Barlow. I am not quite sure how to do it, though. Perhaps, the next time we dine together, I shall mention it, casually, to the waitress.Reuse content