Howard Jacobson: Boned shoulder of mouse? I must be a glutton for puritan punishment

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The Independent Online

We know from the character of Malvolio that if we scratch a puritan, we find a sensualist. More of a surprise is that when we scratch a sensualist, we find a puritan.

We know from the character of Malvolio that if we scratch a puritan, we find a sensualist. More of a surprise is that when we scratch a sensualist, we find a puritan.

It makes sense philosophically, of course, bearing in mind Coleridge's moral law of polarity – "a maximum of one tendency" in society no sooner being attained than there is "a direct transition to its minimum". As in society, so in the individual. Show me fire and I'll show you ice. But since most of us do not live on the qui vive philosophically, and would rather that opposites kept to their own side of the fence, hot when it's their job to be hot, cold when it's their job to be cold, our surprise when they assimilate is understandable.

I still marvel when I meet those responsible for disseminating our most mindless literature or our most trashy telly programmes. Mindless and trashy themselves? Not a bit of it. Highly educated publishers, women of unimpeachable personal probity, sit in steel cold offices pleading with Z-list celebrities to dish the dirt in words of no more, and preferably less, than two syllables. In the corridors of Channel X, men so austere you assume they must be Anabaptists and so fastidious they will not shake your hand without taking a shower immediately afterwards, pace up and down like undertakers, plotting topless quiz shows set in the sex-and-sweat palaces of Ibiza. It's an interesting fact of our times that the new hedonism is being masterminded by blue-stockings, reclusives, Calvinists and Plymouth Brethren.

And then there's food. Forgive me if I sound bitter, but I am only recently returned from a special treat, organised for me by someone who knows all my weaknesses, and who – erroneously, as it turned out – assumed she knew just the way to indulge them. The best restaurant in the country, I've heard it whispered. It goes without saying that I will not be naming it. Not for me the way of Fay, a product in every paragraph, a shilling a mention. ("All happy families are alike, but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion. Unless it drinks – Stolichniya Vodka!" – Count Leo "rent this space" Tolstoy.)

The restaurant was reputed to be up there with the best of them, anyway. A milky way of Michelin stars and as many chef's hats as will squeeze on to a page. Picture, then, our excitement as we drive into the grounds – have I mentioned there are grounds? – hand our luggage to the porter – have I mentioned that we are staying overnight? – and climb the antique staircase to our room. Champagne, ordered by considerate friends, awaits us in a bucket, and sherry, compliments of the restaurant, in a cut glass decanter. The bed is not quite a four-poster, but it is festooned enough for any commoner. The carpet sighs under our feet. The claw-footed Victorian bath is hand-painted – not depicting a bacchanalian scene, as I'd have hoped, but vines suggestive of Bacchus, which is something.

So far so good. Tea on the lawn impeccably served, the leaves squeaking as the pot refuses to release them. Lemon cake so light it floats unforked into your mouth. Not too much, though, given that we have tonight's appetite to think of.

Ha! Let's skip the preliminaries. My dinner is boned shoulder of mouse. It isn't called boned shoulder of mouse. It's called épaule de lapin and is braised in its own essence. There are many dishes on the menu rejoicing in their own essences. Among the hors d'oeuvres appears to be tomato sorbet'd in itself. There is something metaphysical about this. It bears on the mysteries of being. The last time I read about essences, about the inward nature of the outward, it was in the cabbala. As a general rule I am not averse to mysticism, but I am not sure it goes with the idea of a good time which has been planned for me.

Have I said that we have changed tables once, not wanting to be marooned in an annexe – the equivalent to downstairs in a Chinese restaurant – and that we are thinking of changing a second time, not wanting to sit behind a pillar? Have I said that no one is smiling? Not the guests at their gouged épaulettes of dwarf rabbit, not the French waitresses who tell you in detail, when it arrives, what you ordered in detail half an hour before. I look down at my plate with its little scars of tarragon and stains of mustard, its broken shoulder of mouse lying twisted like the corpse of Richard III, and I decide it resembles nothing so much as a miniature model of a killing-field. Vertical, it could go over your fireplace, like a plaque showing the battle of Borodino.

It tastes, of course, deliciously unlike anything we have ever tasted before. But then we have never before thought of eating the battle of Borodino. And, miraculously, it doesn't leave us hungry. What it does leave us, however, is sorrowing. Somehow, although we have been given, we have also been denied. Setting aside price, there is no inordinacy in the occasion. No munificence of taste or ceremony. Even having our wine poured feels sanctified and grievous, as though we're remembering the body of Christ. In the lounge afterwards, cigars are passed around by staff who appear to be about to tell us our entire families have been wiped out while we were eating. The price we pay in guilt for enjoying ourselves too much.

Nothing changes: hard times, wild times, we are always in the hands of abstemious men.

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