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The first cooler days of autumn have begun, evenings are shortening and there’s a dangerous possibility that at any minute I’m going to mention mists or mellow fruitfulness. As the summer draws to a close, the food lover’s mind turns to braises, stews and the heavier dishes of the cold months, but mostly the cook’s mind says: “Thank God the holidays are over.”
In our imaginations, holidays are all about long lunches under a loggia draped in fragrant bougainvillea, or toasting marshmallows over a driftwood fire on a Cornish beach. But be honest – was it really like that? Unless you’re one of the lucky few who don’t have kids and can afford luxurious, fully catered accommodation, holidays for the food lover will involve one or another of the following in deadly combination.
1. The wrong shops
Yes, it is brilliant that you can get Ocado to drop off at your weekend place in Suffolk and it’s lovely that there’s a local farm that has an honesty box for eggs, but that’s not going to help when it’s 4.30pm on a Tuesday, you’ve driven the 15 miles into the nearest town for garlic and the shop’s bloody closed because it’s run by a volunteer lifeboatman who’s off rescuing three teenagers on an inflatable shark from the busiest shipping lane in Europe.
2. The stuff in the shop when it finally reopens
It can go one of two ways. Tinned steak mince, butterscotch Angel Delight and dusty bottles of Ukrainian Liebfraumilch or tiny hand-decorated jars of fudge and terrifying “tracklements”: either unreconstructed 1970s retro-horror or stultifying tweeness. Whichever way it pans out it still costs an arm and a leg. And the garlic? “Afraid not, sir. No call for it round here.”
3. The wrong coffee
There are three estate agents in the main street and a shop selling curtains more expensive than those found on the King’s Road, but can you get a decent coffee? I’ve met a couple of the local boys and I reckon they could get me anything from scrumpy to veterinary-grade ketamine in a flat minute – one of them said I could download his app to order. But coffee? It appears not. There are service stations en route offering progressively worse boiling slurry in a cardboard drum the size of your head, but if you need a half-decent cup to start your engines in the morning, pack an Aeropress.
4. Other people’s kitchens
I often wonder if there’s a special shop for the stuff you find in the kitchens of holiday accommodation – a kind of anti-Divertimenti where everything is carefully chosen not to be seemly, efficient, appropriate or functional. This year I have encountered, inter alia, a corkscrew with the screw snapped off and half a chicken brick. There must also, apparently by law, be at least two non-functioning tin openers. That must be a rule because it’s the only possible reason why every single knife looks as if it’s been used to stab open a tin of beans.
I wonder about the owners. Do they save up their broken stuff? Ask their friends to contribute? Are they sitting at home in their own sumptuously appointed kitchens and laughing at us?
5. Other people in general
Relatives, family, friends – we love them and getting away with them is what holidays are all about, but a fortnight puts odd stresses on relationships. They don’t know how to pack the dishwasher and they do odd things with the food. You buy eggs at the farm gate, leave them at home and go into town to find a decent cup of coffee, and by the time you get back somebody has decided to “hard boil them in case we need them later in the week for salad”.
It’s all for the kids, of course, and thank goodness they seem to have a wonderful time. Watching them playing happily can make you forget the complex web of dietary preferences that, on paper at least, makes it impossible to feed anyone anything at any time.
By the end of the fortnight you’re working hard to stay civil to the spouse, who, you’d somehow never noticed, holds her knife oddly; and the in-laws, who, in 2013, after it’s been damn near a national staple since 1950, still insist on referring to “pit-zah” with a questioning uplift, as if pizza is something dangerously subversive.
Holidays are a vital relief, for food lovers as much as anyone else. But in truth, when it’s all over, I could do with a real break. Maybe a fortnight or so … alone … at home in my own kitchen.