Philip Hensher: Polite guests always eat the weirdest meat

Monday 08 February 2010 01:00

What a nightmare. You're asked out to dinner by some new friends. You really want to be a good guest – they're nice people, you want the evening to be a cheerful one. They take your coat, sit you down, give you a drink and a peanut. And then you notice that there's a slightly strange smell permeating everything. You don't say anything just yet, but they must have noticed something. "We're cooking you our favourite dish," they say. "It's a family favourite." "How lovely. What is it?" you say. "Boiled seal," they reply. "The kiddies clamour for it."

This unfortunate scenario happened the other day to our own Chancellor, Alistair Darling. He was at a G7 summit of finance ministers. It was Canada's turn to host, and in the interests of supporting minorities, they were holding it in the far North, in Iqaluit on Baffin Island. The waitresses at the dinner wore sealskin hairpieces; the chairs were covered with sealskin; the goodie bags were made out of seals; and the main course of the dinner... "I'll have the Arctic Char instead," Mr Darling said, going for a bland but blameless fish.

Me, I'd have leapt at the chance of eating seal. I mean, when else are you going to be offered it? I've read that seal blubber tastes like hazelnut ice cream, which sounds unlikely, but at the very least worth a try. Given that his Inuit hosts were offering their national dish, it might have been only polite for Mr Darling to accept it, even if he had to push it round the plate and hide it under the accompanying seaweed.

But the world is divided into people who say: "I'll have the chicken, thanks", and those, like me, to whom an unknown word or a frankly unlikely meat on a menu are irresistible temptations. Kangaroo, ostrich and crocodile – yum. Having run out of new game birds some time ago, it's a great regret to me that ortolan is now so illegal. The last person publicly recorded as eating it is François Mitterrand, on his deathbed, so I guess I've missed my chance. Similarly endangered are dolphins, but I've often wondered about that Ligurian speciality, mosciamme, formerly made out of dried and reconstituted dolphin meat but nowadays out of tuna. On the other hand, I did yield to the temptation, in Norway, of eating whale – I know, but it was just the once, it was very interestingly nasty, and I don't see it catching on.

Fussy eaters are clearly winning, and running the world. It may be sensible for the Queen to refuse anything with garlic in it if she's going to meet people after lunch. On the other hand, the reported refusal of President Obama to eat asparagus at a Downing Street dinner seems not just rude, but very childish. It used to be dinned into children that you eat what your hosts give you, without complaint. I draw the line only at desiccated coconut. Once, I even managed to eat dinner after my host had remarked: "Do you know, I've been boiling this spaghetti for half an hour, but it doesn't seem to be getting any softer". And memories of enjoyable past atrocities on the plate are happy ones: in the south of France, I've eaten not only horse, but donkey, turned into a "saucisson d'âne". Delicious.

I don't think Mr Darling thought this through. He may wish to host a G7 dinner in Scotland, and we all know what their national dishes are made of. When the Inuit delegates turn their noses up at haggis, we can only say he asked for it.

Why don't gay actors play serious gay characters?

Colin Firth has been nominated for an Oscar for his star turn in Tom Ford's debut feature film A Single Man. I don't doubt the quality of Firth's performance, but isn't it slightly amazing that Hollywood, so newly keen on serious dramas of gay life, is so keen on exclusively casting straight actors in the roles? Sean Penn in Milk; Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain, and so on. Gay actors, like Rupert Everett, are OK for comic gay roles. But for anything serious, an actor needs to produce a wife and children before he gets through the door. To his credit, Firth has publicly regretted this. No one wants to say an actor cannot exercise his craft; acting is about turning yourself into a different person. But the industry's tendency to allow a gay person to direct a film on a gay subject but not to cast gay people in key roles is very marked. As is its tendency to heap rewards on any straight actor who makes this step, as if it demanded more than usual bravery. After all, gay people play straight roles all the time. But that, it appears, is the normal state of affairs, in life and on screen.

Dare to declare your love of Deutschland

Simon Winder has written a very entertaining and informative book about his long love affair and fascination with Germany, Germania. It's a challenging subject. Like the delightful Mr Winder, I love Germany – whenever he and I happen to meet at a London party, we pass fraternal, cheerful greetings and anecdotes of Berlin life. Because, nowadays, being a Germanophile can be a beleaguered and rather a lonely condition.

To admit to preferring Leipzig to Naples; Schweinshaxe to bouillabaisse; Beuys and Thomas Mann to Jackson Pollock and Andre Gide; these label you, it seems, as eccentric at best and beyond the reach of civilised behaviour at worst.

Yet a generation ago, we did go very happily to this big, varied country, sometimes even speaking to them in their own language, and enjoying it. Teachers of German report that their students are mocked for being interested in an obviously boring place. But, like Mr Winder, I've had some of the best times in my life in Germany, from Sylt to Garmisch-Partenkirchen.

I don't suppose his book will shift many prejudices. But it does capture the excitement of crossing the Röstigraben into German-speaking lands which some of us have become shy about admitting.

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