A Restaurant Digest

Once upon a time in a previous life I dreamed of luxuries. These luxuries included such things as unaccompanied expeditions to shoe shops and/or clothes shops, attending the cinema and the theatre, stopping for coffee in cafés, having holidays, spending nights in hotels, visiting salons and, above all, eating out. [This was a life in which any journey must be prepared for by making sandwiches to eat in a lay-by].

In subsequent lives of course I have done all of these luxurious things. The clothes shopping is commonplace as is the coffee stopping. A salon visit is a regular part of life. Hotel stays are occasionally taken.

Despite all this, dining in a good restaurant remains the Holy Grail of luxuries to me.

I’ve posted my feelings about the fare in fast food chains before [Muckdonalds and Yucky Fried Chicken]. Macdonalds does at the least provide free internet and their coffee is acceptable, but their dining experience has to be one of the most impoverished and unsatisfying that exists.

Restaurant meals are about more than the food. Plastic trays with pouches of nasty, salty, fatty little chip sticks and polystyrene boxes containing polystyrene buns sandwiching rubbery, chewy little circles of something grey and burger-ish, the remains of which are to be taken by the consumer and dumped in a bin themselves; to view this activity in a place designed for ‘eating’ presents a vision of Hell. And yet Macdonalds is crammed with customers every day-in Gothenburg, where we stopped to get internet and a coffee, the place was thrusting with hordes of punters of every nationality-those who prefer this ghastly encounter to eating a sandwich on a park bench.

Some of the most enjoyable meals you can have are in modest, unknown, unadvertised cafes, cooked by untrained heros of the culinary world; like the meals we’ve eaten in Portugal, where you are plied with gorgeous nibbly things like olives and dips to sustain you while you peruse the menu and then a big box of fish is brought to the table for you to select your fancy. It will be simply cooked and presented with home-made chips, a salad and some bread.

Or a beach café in Thailand which serves up Tempura vegetables as a starter and the freshest, most appetising vegetables and seafood you can imagine, besides producing an addictive mango smoothie from nothing more than mango and ice.

So don’t serve me anything in a poly-box, or on a shovel, or on a dirty piece of wood or in a tangle of barbed wire [all of these methods of serving meals are being used as I write-including pork loin chops in a urinal]. Give me a plain, clean china plate and simple, beautifully cooked food served in a friendly, un-smarmy, unobtrusive way. OK?

Eating Lessons

We are approaching the end of another extended trip, meandering around the South of France but this time, with somewhat more sophisticated facilities we have taken advantage of what the French call ‘aires’. The French have taken to motor-homes more than any other nation. The vehicles are becoming larger, more equipped and more elaborate. One result is that an industry has sprung up to address the needs of ‘camping car’ owners with numerous, vast areas set aside for, and only for campervans. Tent campers and caravanners can eat their hearts out. They are not invited.
An ‘aire’ will typically have a services point consisting of clean water, electricity, waste water disposal and a ‘vidange’ [for emptying toilet cassettes]. These facilities are more than enough to satisfy the needs of your average motor-homer. Increasingly aires are unmanned, with entry via a machine like a parking meter. Some are little more than vast car parks with electric points and waste disposal. Others are beautiful, landscaped spaces with attractive planting.
Getting sandwiched in our modest van between two gargantuan motor-homes allows plenty of opportunity to study the dining habits of others. In fact, anyone who is thinking of swapping their regime of TV dinners for something a little more formal, sociologically developed and a more gratifying gastronomic experience should look no further than the French model of dining, which can, it seems take up almost all of each day.
Take the three elderly folk sharing an equally elderly motor-home in an aire at Hourtan Port [for 10€ per night-a lovely, spacious, shady, tree-lined area]. They ambled out together mid morning-two mature monsieurs and a madame-returning at midday laden with bulging plastic bags plus several, substantial ‘artisan’ loaves. The bags turned out to contain dozens of fat, glistening oysters. Lunch was sorted! Later in the afternoon they wandered off again and reappeared with more bags, this time containing kilos of mussels. The next day’s catch was a batch of enormous fish, one of which filled an entire plate. Each meal, of course was accompanied by a bottomless bottle of wine.
At an unashamedly seaside aire in Gruissan a couple nearby would take their breakfast [plucked from the nearest ‘artisan’ boulangerie] of croissants, orange juice and coffee, then cycle off together purposefully. By lunch time their bike baskets would be laden with all the goodies they’d acquired. Lunch was prepared together-a serious and painstaking task of cleaning, chopping, table laying and cooking [no quick sandwich job for them!] There would be three courses and of course, wine. Later they would disappear again to seek out the components of the evening meal, when the procedures would be repeated.
In the small town of Gruissan, market day clogs the streets as everyone turns out to fill their basket with cheeses, charcuterie, fruit and vegetables, olives and preserves. Everything can be sampled before purchase, making the shopping excursion a gastronomic pleasure in itself. We joined the crowds, queuing for tasty lunch items and bearing home the spoils in anticipatory glee.
In contrast, the weekly supermarket drudge seems an impoverished experience, as does the regular ‘what can we have tonight?’ conundrum. Ho hum!

Part 2…Grace’s Guide to Happy Old Age

                …So much for the experts’ guide to ageing. I am no expert, but I may be moving towards knowing what makes for a happy, healthy old age. For the majority it must be a desirable state. Who would plump for the alternative? You would have to be in a miserable condition to choose to be either unhealthy or the ultimate in ill health.

Exercise

                Some of the experts’ ideas are on the right track, but to me they seem too narrow, too prescriptive. For instance, why weight lifting, particularly? There can be few people left on the planet who don’t realise by now that exercise is good for you, but any kind of activity will surely suffice? I’d opt for something you enjoy-swimming, walking, dancing, gardening, cycling-even housework [perhaps not so enjoyable]. Experience has demonstrated to me that activities which are not fun or enjoyable will not be sustained. I never got any fun from weight machines. On the other hand I love Zumba.

Eating

                Again, you would have to have lived on a desert island not to know that overweight is bad [in which case-you would be unlikely to have become fat, due to having to hunt for food]. Food intake is closely linked to the above [exercise]. It’s not difficult. Fuel in-expend fuel. Too much fuel without enough expenditure=surplus. I can’t see the need to fast, and in any case it is unpleasant.

Brain

                I agree it is best to keep the grey matter in good order. If learning a language is what you enjoy, go ahead and learn one. Learn lots of languages! But I’d say there are plenty of ways to maintain the cells. Reading, discussing, learning, writing [of course!], observing, crosswords [if difficult enough], those number things with a Japanese name. In the future I’d guess more old people will be accustomed to computer game playing. I confess ignorance as to the value of these.

Others

                This is a tricky one. According to the ‘expert’ marriage and/or a strong social network were crucial to staying healthy. But I’d place the emphasis on the ‘happy’ part where marriage is concerned. For some, once the world of work and bringing up children comes to an end there is little left in a marriage and it could be more stressful to continue as a couple than as individuals. In retirement you spend much more time together as a couple. Similarly, the company of friends can sometimes provide more problems than it solves. But I do agree that loneliness can be a stressful emotion.

                The experts were all agreed that stress should be avoided in order to live into advanced years. I’m with them on that. This is not to say a little excitement should be avoided however. But how you do it, I reckon is not rocket science at all. Enjoy life and live it to the full!