Like Jeanette Winterson, I fight a prolonged and bitter battle with rabbits. Earlier this week, the novelist had tweeted a photo she’d taken of a dead and half-skinned rabbit that had been eating its way through her parsley patch.
Rabbits aren’t furry and cute, but pests, voraciously eating anything green in front of their stupid little noses. Rabbits are uninvited guests – along with grey squirrels, pheasants, slugs, deer and wood pigeons. My vegetable plot has more security than a Madonna dinner party. A dense wire fence has been dug deep into the soil. A thick stone wall runs around the perimeter, and finally a thick, prickly hawthorn hedge. Triple protection.
Any rabbits that penetrate that lot are condemned to death. If I thought I’d be any good with a gun, I’d shoot them myself.
On MasterChef last year, I described how I regularly skinned and cooked pheasants I found dead in the road, cutting off the breasts and beating the meat flat into escalopes. Coated with toasted breadcrumbs and fried, they are delicious.
Funnily enough, the word “roadkill” didn’t make the final programme, probably for fear of offending BBC1 viewers. Years ago, I made a film showing a butcher skinning and chopping up a rabbit, and Channel 4 received more than 50 complaints. Most of us don’t want reality when it comes to meat. We want ditsy cuts, nothing that looks like a carcass. My attitude is similar to Jeanette’s. I want my meat to have had a good life, to roam freely and, when slaughtered, every bit should be eaten or used.
Meat is not an everyday essential but a special treat. One of the reasons people squirm at the thought of eating a furry animal is because they divorce what they eat from reality. It is basically chunky slurry they slurp down without much thought.
Food has turned into cleverly packaged fuel. Ironically, most chefs now list the provenance of everything on their menus – from butter, to bread, to salt. They tell us who landed the fish, and where the meat was bred. But most of us don’t like food that looks too realistic, unless we are fans of chef Fergus Henderson at London’s St John restaurants – 90 per cent of whose clientele will be male, usually architects.
Top chefs create dishes that look like artworks – dibs and dabs surrounding a carefully constructed little picture on the plate, and as far removed from the pulsating living creature as you could possibly imagine. Meat is filleted, trimmed, stacked and cut down to size. All the potentially unsettling aspects are cosmeticised into something playful and welcoming.
I once wrote off Mark Zuckerberg as a bit of a nerd, but in 2011 he did something that made me respect him immensely. Each year, the Facebook billionaire sets himself a new task. Previously he’s learnt Chinese. In 2011, he announced that he was setting out on a “new personal challenge”, and would be eating meat only “from animals I’ve killed myself”.
He learnt the best way to rear livestock, and soon revealed that he had killed a chicken, a pig and a goat. He cut the throat of the goat with a knife, claiming it “was the most kind way to do it”. He ate most of the animals he dispatched, including chicken hearts and livers, using the feet to make stock, and he posted the recipes he cooked on Facebook.
He then moved on to seafood, boiling a live lobster, and said he planned to go hunting. Apart from eating the meat he slaughtered, Zuckerberg claims to be a vegetarian. Like Winterson, he has attracted considerable adverse comment, but let’s be clear – Zuckerberg’s the one with the healthy attitude, not the feeble bunny lovers.
Trial and terror: 10 of the strangest foods in the world
Trial and terror: 10 of the strangest foods in the world
1/10 Tepa (Stinkheads) - Alaska
Also called ‘Stinkheads’, Tepas are fermented whitefish heads, and if you haven’t quite grasped the clues given already, they don’t exactly smell like roses. Traditionally, preparation includes placing fish heads and guts into a wooden barrel, covering them with burlap and burying them in the ground, allowing them to ferment over a week. Once complete, they can be 'enjoyed' immediately.
2/10 Rocky Mountain Oysters - USA
Thinking of the seafood that apparently provides an aphrodisiac? Think again. This American dish, usually an appetiser served with a cocktail sauce dip, is something more out of I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here than the Deep South, as it consists of bull testicles - how delightful - being deep fried to present a crispy finish. An old-time favourite with cowboys back in the Wild West, it is more likely these days to be found at festivals and carnivals in the United States.
3/10 Cockcombs - France
Ever wondered what the red, fleshy Mohican-like feature on top of a rooster’s head tastes like? Perhaps not. In which case, you may be interested to learn that it can be used in a variety of dishes. Cockcombs are predominantly used in France as part of a famous garnish, but the biggest surprise is that they can also be used either as a main dish or even as a desert, with one food website Offalgood.com comparing them to “warm gummy bears in your pocket.”
4/10 Sannakji - Korea
There’s nothing strange about eating octopus, as millions around the world do every year. But how about eating live octopus tentacles which could potentially kill you? Sannakji, a raw Korean dish, is formed by bits of chopped octopus usually seasoned with sesame seeds and oil. It represents a health hazard because the suction cups on the tentacles still function even when cut off – as do the wriggling tentacles – and there is a possibility that they could stick to your throat as you swallow them. Sounds terrific.
5/10 Witchetty Grub - Australia
It sounds like something you might find in an East London café, although it certainly doesn’t look it. This large, wood-eating larvae of several moths is actually found in central Australia, and despite its unattractive exterior, it’s quite a healthy and delicious treat. It can be eaten raw or lightly cooked in hot ashes, and they are sought out as a high-protein food by Indigenous Australians. When raw, the witchetty grub tastes like almonds, but when cooked, the skin becomes crisp like roast chicken while the inside becomes light yellow, like a fried egg.
6/10 Fugu (Puffer fish) - Japan
One of the most dangerous foods in the world, it takes specially-trained chefs to ensure that the toxic parts of the fish are not included in the meal. Since 2000, there have been 20 deaths in Japan related to this. Containing highly poisonous tetrodotoxin, it can be fatal if the liver - the most poisonous part of the fish banned from sale in 1984 - is consumed. Fugu is available to buy in a package in supermarkets but due to its lack of availability, can cost up to £130 in some restaurants. People brave enough to try it claim fugu is definitely worth the risk, and it remains one of the most popular aspects of Japanese cuisine, but is the seafood delicacy worth risking your life for?
7/10 Fried Bat - Asia
On a warm summer’s evening in Britain, you may notice bats flying around as the sun goes down. Travellers in parts of China, Thailand, Guam and even Australia, however, might stumble across bats being sold in food markets and even restaurants. Varieties of fruit bats, including the sizable flying fox bat, are the most popular to eat. The main way of cooking is to roast the bats after skinning them, and other cultures might toss bits of bat into soups and stir-fry, claiming that tastes similar to chicken.
8/10 Durian Fruit - Asia
When you mention foods with a somewhat odorous scent, the usual suspects such as garlic and onion spring to mind. But a type of fruit, called durian fruit, is an unexpected addition to that list. If you’re planning on eating durian fruit in a public place in Asia, you can’t. The smell that it produces has been likened to sewage and rotten onions, which hardly gives it the most appetising description. In fact, it’s so bad that in some areas in Asia, people are banned from eating them in public. But don’t let that put you off, as durian fruit’s flesh is rumoured to be quite pleasant to consume. We’re not promising anything, though.
9/10 Fried Tarantula - Cambodia
A regional delicacy in the Cambodian town of Skuan, it’s a cheap and popular snack for the increased number of tourists passing through the South East Asian country. Costing the equivalent just five pence, the taste of the tarantula is said to be slightly bland, with a mix between cod and chicken. Fried in oil for a crispy finish, the popular choice is to eat the head, which has a good amount of meat inside. Those who take a bite into the abdomen might get a nasty surprise, however, with a brown taste containing organs and excrement remaining inside.
10/10 Haggis - Scotland
With all the odd foods in the world, who could forget the strangest of them all? The Scottish trademark dish of Haggis - made from sheep heart, liver and lungs - has been around for hundreds of years and is usually accompanied by a glass of Scotch whisky. Even in spite of its ingredients and appearance, the dish is said to have a nutty texture and a real savoury flavour. There is even a sport called ‘Haggis Hurling’ where competitors throw the meat as far as possible, with the record standing at 217ft.
I’m with Alan Bennett: get rid of fee-paying schools
I don’t agree with Alan Bennett very often, but he is right about private education. It is disgusting – the single thing that holds our society back and reinforces an unpleasant mindset. Well done, Alan, for pulling no punches in a speech in Cambridge last week, when he launched into a full-bodied attack on fee-paying schools.
He said that “to educate not according to ability but according to the social situation of parents is both wrong and a waste… private education is not fair”. Then he chucked in for good measure: “And it’s not Christian either… souls are equal in the sight of God and thus deserving of a level playing field.”
Of course Alan is 100 per cent right, and no government has the guts or the balls to tackle this gross injustice, whereby the people who get the best education and have the greatest chance of rising up through the ranks nearly always come from the homes where their parents can pay up. There’s no other way of putting it.
If I were in charge of Britain plc, I would immediately close all public schools and reintroduce grammar schools with entrance exams, open to all. I would redistribute all the swanky playing fields so that ordinary kids had somewhere to perfect their sporting prowess. As long as privately educated people dominate our professional and managerial classes, this country will never tap into its potential.
What about creative architecture for our homes?
The longlist of 56 buildings for this year’s Stirling Prize has been announced, and ranges from the macho – the Shard – to the inspiring – Zaha Hadid’s extraordinary Olympics Aquatics Centre, now open to the public. Other public buildings include a library in Birmingham and the redevelopment of King’s Cross Station, which I regularly use. (My only beef is the ugly kiosk marooned on the piazza at the front of the building which still seems to be surrounded by cones and tape.)
Other contenders include a civic centre, a theatre, an art gallery and a youth centre, but the more you peruse this list, the more you realise there’s one glaring omission. Ordinary houses for ordinary people. The one thing we are crying out for in Britain.
New statistics reveal that most of the population is living in tiny boxes with four-fifths of the poorest households living in cramped conditions, and new homes average only 76sq m of floor space, the smallest in Europe. Isn’t it about time architects confronted the most pressing problem of our time – decent housing that allows people a humane amount of space? Designing a big showpiece station or sports centre is far more attractive a proposition, it seems.
Reggae legend who provided the soundtrack to my youth
I was sorry to read of the death of the Jamaican DJ Count Suckle. His clubs were a big part of my youth growing up in west London in the 1960s. My love affair with Desmond Dekker, the haunting voice of Gregory Isaacs, chirpy Prince Buster and the irrepressible sounds of ska and bluebeat started when I was a 15-year-old mod growing up in Fulham.
Count Suckle was one of the first DJs to play the music in clubs, introducing it to a hip white audience, which included the Rolling Stones, Long John Baldry and the Yardbirds. In the late 1960s, we would head to his Roaring Twenties in a basement off Carnaby Street, where jolly middle-aged women wearing tight frocks used to sell spliffs out of their handbags, and a mirror ball spun over the centre of the dancefloor.
Suckle’s Cue Club on Praed Street in Paddington was bigger and flashier and featured live acts such as Edwin Starr and Ben E King. Suckle was an important part of the London music scene and will be missed. Perhaps it’s time for a BBC documentary. They’ve done plenty about less deserving musicians.