Hermione Eyre: Another helping of fried hamster? Yes please!

We British used to be stereotyped as cautious eaters when we went on holiday abroad. Not any more
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The Independent Online

Going on holiday is an art. It is not something we traditionally do very well. But the caricature of the Brit Abroad is changing. Certain of our qualities are timeless and set in stone, such as our facility for acquiring sunburn almost instantaneously, our gift of ineloquence in any language but our own, and our ability to fall off a camel before we have even got on.

But in other ways the Brit Abroad has evolved radically. We are now, according to a new survey (forgive me, folks, for those dread words, but it is almost August), rated as the holidaymakers who are the most adventurous eaters.

In Tokyo, we eat fugu fish. In Toulouse, tripe. In Laos, tarantula. In Chitzen Itza, we order seconds of hamster. In Indonesia, we cry for cobra blood. What do we think we are doing? Participating in a global edition of I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!, perhaps, with a small voice in our earpiece telling us swallow the kangaroo's private parts, or the rest of the camp goes hungry!

Hell, the British appetite is now so omnivorous that other countries are beginning to notice. In the aforementioned survey by Expedia, 1,000 French hoteliers ranked the British as the "most adventurous eaters" of all their clientele. (One does wonder if something has been lost in translation here. Could the French hoteliers possibly have been trying to say "they will eat anything"?)

Nevertheless the finding is enough to make the Brit Abroad choke on his chips. We used to be stereotyped as cautious eaters, suspicious of foreign cuisine. (My grandfather, who never travelled without his own supplies of All Bran, regarded every dish on the Continent as infected with a pungent and noxious substance. That substance was garlic.)

The Brit Abroad used to order scampi and express disappointment and incredulity when it hadn't been cooked by Captain Birdseye's own fair hand. Our stock response to seafood used to be "It's looking at me!", and as for snails, well, let's just say we were happy to leave them to the blackbirds.

Nevertheless, our eating habits appear genuinely to be changing. At home our cuisine grows ever more rich and varied. You can't buy a packet of crisps without being offered a gourmet experience, as their titles grow as baroque as Willy Wonka's chewing gum. Slow-cooked lamb shank with paprika, anyone? In a packet?

Restaurants too are becoming more adventurous: St John (the first to take squirrels from park to plate) is spawning imitators across the country. On television programmes such as Cooking in the Danger Zone are also encouraging a brand of adventure gastro-tourism. It is becoming a badge of honour to come home with an anecdote about extreme eating. (It's safer than bungee jumping, anyway, and you would rather encounter a jellyfish after it's been cooked than in the sea.)

It seems we are becoming, when it comes to food, rather game, and this attitude is showing itself in the kind of holidays we choose. Expedia has noted a rise in interest in gastroholidays and cooking courses; four out of five Britons questioned in their survey confirmed that it was important to them, when abroad, to sample "authentic local food and wine".

This is the kind of attitude that makes you a better traveller. Ruskin thought the best way to understand a new culture was to draw it; we might now have lost patience with that approach, the camera having replaced the sketchbook, but we now clearly think that the best way to understand a new culture quickly is to chew it. And why not? Food can be a sensory shortcut to the peculiarities of a place, from Mont Saint Michel's lamb "pré salé" that tastes of the salt meadows on which it grazes, to the hoem nanwe or the "dreamfish" of Pitcairn Island that is said to give you unusually vivid dreams at night.

So we are trying everything on the menu and still more that is off it. In the survey a surprising 8 per cent of respondents claimed to have killed their food themselves - either there is a surprising amount of game hunting going on, or people are describing pointing at lobsters in restaurant tanks in very bombastic terms.

And the caricature of the clueless Brit Abroad persists, his or her newfound gastronomic curiosity only making the spectacle more entertaining for the locals. A friend ate half a sea urchin in Morocco before noticing that the other half of the creature's legs were still moving gently across the plate. She didn't go back for seconds.

And in Berlin last year I spotted a kind of white sausage on the menu I'd never tried before, ordered it and consumed it with exaggerated relish. When I asked why it had such an unusual colour and spongy texture I was told that was because it was sausage meat composed only of the pig's lungs.

Going on holiday is all about finding out what you like, and sometimes, also, what you can't stomach.

h.eyre@independent.co.uk

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